Settings
Dead Sleep

Dead Sleep

Dead Sleep 40


  “Your feelings about women didn’t just come to you out of the blue. They must have been shaped by women you knew.” I have to be careful here. “Maybe the woman you knew best of all.”

  Wheaton’s brush pauses in midair, then returns to the canvas.

  “I know your mother disappeared when you were thirteen or fourteen.”

  He stops painting altogether.

  “I know what that’s like. My father disappeared when I was twelve. In Cambodia. Everyone said he was dead, but I never believed it.”

  He’s watching me now. He knows I’m telling the truth, and he can’t fight the compulsion to know more. “What did you think had happened?” he asks.

  “At first I created all sorts of scenarios. He’d been wounded and had amnesia. He was crippled and couldn’t get back to me. He was held prisoner by Asian warlords. But as I got older, I realized that probably none of that was true.”

  “You accepted that he was dead?”

  “No. I came to believe something even more terrible. That he hadn’t come back because he didn’t want to come back. He’d abandoned us. Maybe to be with another woman. Another family. Another little girl that he loved more than me.”

  Wheaton is nodding.

  “It almost killed me, thinking that. I racked my brain, trying to figure out what I’d done to make him angry enough to stop loving me.”

  “It wasn’t your fault. He was a man.”

  “I know, but last night, I was thinking—dreaming, really—about you. And I saw a woman. I thought she must be your mother. She was holding a boy and trying to explain why she had to go. I tried to ask her why she would leave you—”

  Red blotches have appeared on Wheaton’s face and neck, the way they used to on my sister’s face. He jabs his paintbrush at me like a knife. “She never left me! I was the only thing that kept her alive.”

  “What do you mean?”

  His face goes through tortured contractions, as though he’s reliving some horrible moment. Then he dips his brush in the paint and goes back to his canvas, almost as if no conversation ever took place.

  And then he begins talking.

  27

  “I WAS BORN during the war,” Wheaton says, painting with absolute assurance. “Nineteen forty-three. My father was in the Marine Corps. He came home on leave after basic training, and that’s when he fathered me. That’s what he thought, anyway. He was a hard man, merciless and cold. Mother couldn’t explain to me why she married him. She only said, ‘Things look different when you’re young.’”

  “My mother said the same thing more than once,” I tell him.

  “When my father was drafted, she was left alone for the first time since she’d been married. She had two sons, but they were only four and five. It was a liberation. She was free of the cutting voice, the brutal hand, the ruthless insistence of the nights when she protested in vain to the ceiling and the walls, begging God for some reprieve. God had finally answered her prayers. He had sent her the war.”

  Wheaton smiles with irony. “A month after my father shipped out for the Pacific, a stranger came to the door asking for water. He had a limp. Some injury or disease had crippled him, and the army wouldn’t take him. He worked for the government, one of the WPA artists’ projects. He was a painter. Mother fell in love with him the first day. She worshipped art. Her prize possession was a book a dead aunt had given her. A big color-plate thing called Masterpieces of Western Art. Anyway, the painter camped nearby for two weeks, and when he left, Mother was pregnant. She never knew where he went, but he said he was from New Orleans. He told her that much.”

  My God, I say silently.

  “I was born two weeks premature.” Wheaton twirls the tip of his brush on his palette. “That made the timing almost work out. It meant Mother could lie about my paternity and get away with it. At least for a while.

  “When my father came back from the war, he was different. He’d been captured by the Japanese, and they had done something to him. He rarely talked. He became a sort of religious fanatic. But he was just as brutal—with her and with us.

  “He saw immediately that Mother treated me differently from my brothers. She told him it was because I was premature, that I was fragile. He tried to force me to be like the others, but she resisted him. After a time, they came to an arrangement. She bought me a sheltered childhood with subservience. Anything he wanted, he got. His word was law. In daily life. In his bed. Only where I was concerned did her word count.

  “My brothers worked the farm and helped him trap when they weren’t in school. My life was different. Mother taught me things. Read to me. Pinched pennies to buy me paint and canvas. She encouraged me to imitate the paintings in her book. My brothers made fun of me, but secretly they were jealous. They beat me when they could get away with it, but that was a small thing. In the summers, Mother and I spent our days in an old barn in the woods. We escaped.”

  A look of transcendence comes over Wheaton’s face.

  “It stood in a small clearing, surrounded by ancient trees, with a stream flowing beside. Part of the roof had fallen in, but we didn’t mind. The sun fell through the hole in great yellow shafts, the way it does in Gothic cathedrals.”

  “What did you paint there?” I ask, even as the answer comes to me. “Did you paint your mother?”

  “Who else could I paint? After I outgrew copying from the book, she would bring different clothes from the house, or things she’d bought on a rare trip into town. Things she never showed my father. Gauzy gowns, robes like those the women wore in the classical paintings. Hour after hour I would paint, and we would talk, and laugh, until the shafts of light began to fade, and we began to whisper, putting off until the last second our walk back to the dark little house of rage.”

  “What happened? What ended all that?”

  Wheaton’s body freezes like a tape being stopped. His jaw moves, but no sound emerges. Then, slowly, his right hand extends the paintbrush to the canvas. “When I was thirteen, I became . . . curious about certain things. Many of the pictures in Mother’s book were nudes, and I wanted to paint like that. She understood the necessity, but we had to be careful. Sometimes my father took work at the mill in the town. My brothers would do his trapping then. That’s when she posed nude for me.”

  Though the bathwater is cold, my face feels hot. I sense that we’re heading into the unmapped territory of incest.

  “Did you become . . . intimate?”

  “Intimate?” His voice is an echo from a cave. “We were like the same person.”

  “I meant—”

  “You meant sex.” He lifts his brush, his face showing disgust. “It wasn’t like that. I touched her sometimes, of course. To pose her. And she told me things. About the way love was supposed to be, how somewhere in the world she hoped it really was. But mostly we made plans. She said I had a gift that would make me famous one day. I swore a thousand times that if I ever got away, I would succeed and come back for her.”

  A frightening vision comes to me. “Did someone catch you with her like that?”

  Wheaton closes his eyes. “One spring afternoon, instead of trapping, my brothers spied on us. They watched until Mother disrobed. Then they ran all the way to town and got my father. When he burst into the barn and saw her naked, he went crazy. Screaming gibberish about harlots and God-knows-what-else from the Bible. My mother shrieked at him to get out, but he had murder in his eyes. He told my brothers to hold me down, and he—he started to beat her. But instead of taking it, as she usually did, she fought back. She clawed his face, drew blood. When he saw that, he picked up an old scythe handle. . . .”

  Wheaton squints as though staring at a distant object. “I can still hear the whistle it made. And the impact, like the sound of an eggshell. The way she fell. She was dead before she hit the floor.”

  His voice sounds the way mine does when I speak of my father’s “death”—higher in pitch, tremulous. “Why isn’t there any record of this?”

>  “There was no one around for miles. She had no family left.”

  “Did your father bury her?”

  “No.”

  No? “What happened?”

  Wheaton looks at the floor, and his voice drops to a barely audible whisper. “He came over to where my brothers were holding me down and leaned over my face. He told me to bury her and go home. His breath stank. He said if I told anyone what had happened, he and my brothers would swear they’d caught me raping her in the barn, after she was dead. I’d never even heard of such a thing. It paralyzed me with fear. No one would believe me, he said. I’d be sent to a reform school in the city, where boys would beat me every day and sodomize me in the night. Then they left me with her.”

  “I’m so sorry,” I murmur, but Wheaton doesn’t hear me.

  “I couldn’t bury her.” His voice is almost a whine. “I couldn’t even look at her. The side of her head was broken. Her skin was like blue marble. I cried until my eyes were like sandpaper. Then I dragged her down to the stream. I fetched her gown and washed her from head to toe, cleaning away the blood and straightening her hair as best I could. The way I knew she’d want it. I knew they might come back at any moment, but I didn’t care. I’d realized something. Her agony was finally over. All her life was pain, and now it had ended. She was better off dead.” Wheaton lays down his brush and drives his fingers through his tangled hair. “I wasn’t better off. I couldn’t even imagine life without her. But she was. You see?”

  I do. I see how a shattered child made the mental journey to a state that allows him to kill women and believe he is doing a good thing.

  “I went back to the barn and painted over what I’d been doing. Then, in the dying light of the clearing, I painted Mother in her peace. It was the first time I’d seen her face completely relaxed. It was an epiphany for me. My birth as an artist. When I was finished, I took a shovel from the barn and buried her beside the stream. I didn’t mark the spot. I didn’t want them to know where she was. Only I knew.”

  “What happened when you went home?”

  My question seems to suck the humanity out of Wheaton’s face. “For four years, I lived like an animal. My father told the few people who asked that my mother had run away to New York. Then he began poking into her past. He became convinced that I was illegitimate. He talked to her doctor, studied the records at the courthouse. He was right, but he couldn’t prove it. He just knew. There was nothing in me of him—nothing—and I thank God for it. But after that, they did things to Roger that you simply can’t imagine. They starved him. Beat him. Worked him like a slave. The father gave the older brothers permission to do as they liked with him. They burned him. Cut him. Shoved things inside him. The father used him sexually, to punish him.” Wheaton shakes his head dismissively. “If it weren’t for me, he’d never have survived.”

  Severe sexual or physical abuse during childhood, Dr. Lenz told us. The kind of radical psychological break I’m talking about . . . “How did you protect Roger?”

  “I listened. I watched. My hearing grew frighteningly acute. I could hear them breathing in their sleep. If their breathing changed, I knew it. If they got out of bed, I knew Roger was in danger. I told him when to hide, when to run. When to hoard food. When to give in, and when to resist. After a while, it got where I could hear them thinking. I saw the morbid desire in their minds, pictures forming into intent, intent traveling from their brains down their sluggish nerves, moving their heavy limbs to action. That’s how Roger survived.”

  “Did you tell him to run away to New York?”

  Wheaton resumes painting, the brush moving quickly again. “Yes. But the city wasn’t how I thought it would be. Roger tried to paint, but he couldn’t make a go of it. People offered help, but they didn’t want to help him. They were helping themselves. They gave him food, a place to sleep, space to paint. But in exchange they wanted their pound of flesh. They wanted him. And he gave himself to them. What did it matter? They were so much gentler than his father and brothers. For four years he moved among them—soft, greedy, gray old men—painting derivative work, doing anything they asked of him. Things had to change.”

  An almost cruel smile touches Wheaton’s lips. “One day, walking down the street, I saw my opening. I darted into a recruiting office and joined the Marine Corps. One quick irrevocable act. There was nothing he could do. The war in Vietnam was heating up, and almost before Roger knew what had happened, he was on his way there.”

  Pride flashes like diamonds in the artist’s eyes. “That’s where I came into my own. Vietnam. He couldn’t make it without me. During the days he would poke along, joking and cursing and slapping backs, trying to fit in. But at night he made room for me. On patrol. On point. I could smell things he couldn’t even see. I could hear bare feet bending grass at fifty meters. I kept him alive. The others, too. They gave me medals for it.”

  “What about after?” I ask, a fraction of my mind still wondering how far John and Baxter and Lenz have come down the investigative trail to this house.

  “I went back to New York, didn’t I? I was a different man. I took my GI Bill money, went to NYU, and painted for four years. When I got out, I did portraits to keep myself in groceries. I was searching for my destiny. And it found me. My surviving brother died in the merchant marine, and the farm went up for sale. I decided to buy it. I thought of burning the place down, but I didn’t. Every day was a sweet revenge. Those rooms had witnessed all Mother’s pain, and Roger filled them with color and light. It was then that he began to paint the Clearing.”

  “When did you start painting? The Sleeping Women?”

  Wheaton purses his lips, like a man trying to recall the year he got married or joined the service. “Seventy-eight, I think. I was driving out of New York, and I saw a girl beside a bridge, hitchhiking north. She was young and pretty, and looked like a student. A waif, you know? A leftover hippie. I asked where she was going, and she said, ‘Anyplace warm, man.’” Wheaton smiles at the memory. “I knew exactly how she felt. I’d been there too.

  “I drove her back to the farm. On the way, she got high. She had pills with her, and they made her talkative. Her story was like others I’d heard from women. A father like mine. A mother who couldn’t protect her. Men who used her. At the farm, I fed her. She got sleepy. I asked if I could paint her, and she said yes. When I asked if I could paint her nude, she hesitated, but only a moment. ‘You wouldn’t do anything freaky,’ she said. ‘You’re too nice.’ And then she took off her clothes. I posed her in the tub.”

  Lulled into a trance by his story, I feel a sudden nausea as his last words sink in.

  “I painted as Roger never had. I was in control, you see? I had the brush. It worked under my will.”

  “But something happened,” I say hesitantly.

  Wheaton puts down his brush and vigorously massages his left hand. “Yes. Before I finished the painting, she woke up. I was naked. I’m not sure how I got that way, and what does it matter? I only know I was naked and painting, and I was aroused. The girl panicked.”

  “What did you do?”

  “I panicked too. She knew where she was. If she told people the way things had happened, it could cause trouble for Roger. I tried to calm her down, but she took it wrong. She fought. She gave me no choice. I pushed her under the water and held her there until she stopped fighting.”

  Jesus. . . . “What did you do then?”

  “I finished the painting.” Wheaton picks up his brush, dips it, and goes back to his work. “She looked so peaceful. Much happier than she had when I picked her up. She was the first Sleeping Woman.”

  Nineteen seventy-eight. The year I left high school, Roger Wheaton drowned a waif junkie in New England and started down a road that led ultimately to my sister.

  “What did you do with her body?”

  “I buried her in the clearing.”

  Of course he did.

  “I waited a year before I picked up another one. She was a runaway.
She made it so easy. And I knew what I wanted by then.”

  “What about Conrad Hoffman?”

  “That was 1980. Roger had a one-man show in New York, and Conrad showed up for that. He saw something in The Clearing paintings that no one else did. He saw me. The germ of me. He was charismatic, young, dangerous. He hung around after the show, and we went for coffee. He didn’t fawn over Roger, as some did. He sensed the power hidden in the paintings. The darkness. And I did something I never thought I would do.”

  “You showed him your Sleeping Women.”

  Wheaton nods cagily. “There were only two then. You should have seen his face when he saw them. He knew immediately that the women were dead. He knew because he’d seen women that way. And when he looked back at me from the paintings, I let him see my true face. I dropped the mask.”

  As you did with me, after tasing the FBI agent in the gallery. “What did Hoffman do?”

  “He reveled in it. When I saw that he understood, I felt some irresistible power well up within me. And I ravished him.”

  “What?”

  “I wasn’t like Roger—facedown and taking it in pain. I was the one in control. Conrad saw my genius, and he wanted to experience its totality. He was a vessel for my power.” Seeing shock in my face, Wheaton says, “Conrad was bisexual. He’d told me in the car. He picked it up in jail.”

  “And after that, he started helping you?”

  Wheaton is painting with almost mechanical speed now. “Conrad procured my subjects, mixed the drug cocktails, worked out what was best to keep them sedated while I worked. The insulin. He carried many burdens for me.”

  “And he raped the women as a reward.”

  Wheaton’s brush hardly stutters. “I suppose he did. I doubt they were conscious while it happened.”

  I pray they weren’t. “What made you stop? In New York, I mean?”

  “Conrad killed someone in an argument. He was sentenced to fifteen years. He told me not to take any more, but I . . . I couldn’t stop. I tried to pick up a girl in New York. She sensed something wrong, and she fought. Screamed. I barely escaped the police. That’s what made me stop. Conrad had told me about prison. I couldn’t go there. It would have been like being back in my father’s house.”