Thirty years ago before Eleanora returned to California, she would sit on her paisley mediation pillow in the basement of my house where she was staying and chant for her husband. Apparently, it worked because six months later, while she was living in a studio apartment on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, I dreamt that a man was in her apartment. The wallpaper was of large, floppy, pink roses. When I called and told her that I had dreamt that she had met her husband, she denied that this was so, but soon enough I learned that she had in fact met Ludwig.
He lived in the same building as she, a large, old comfortable building on a street with many coffee shops, restaurants, bookstores and boutiques. Ludwig worked as a carpenter, but he was in fact a painter. His father had been an architect and his mother an artist so he had inherited his talent from both parents. In his apartment he painted finely constructed, geometric semi-abstracts of America’s vanishing old motels.
Eleanora was also an artist, a composer. The daughter of a Lutheran minister, she called upon her religious heritage to refashion hymns in a way that made me cry when I heard them. On the tape she gave me, she says that she used “the devil’s triad” when composing them.
Eleanora and Ludwig never married, nor did they ever live together. Because Ludwig was a man who eschews sexual contact, their relationship remained entirely chaste, but they quickly formed the kind of bond that can only be formed by fellow artists who talk to each other almost daily about their work.
My knowledge of them during the ensuing thirty years is scant. Adventurer that I am, I moved around the country before spending the last twenty-five years in New York City. But Eleanora and I always kept in touch—my late husband referred to her as my “soul sister.”
Periodically Eleanora would tell me that she was breaking off with Ludwig because he drank too much or because he was too immature or because he was too gloomy, but she could never make it stick and soon would resume seeing him several times a week.
Once when given the opportunity to rent a loft in a converted barn in the Dorchester section of Boston she left the Bay Area for a year. I thought surely this would spell the end of her relationship with Ludwig, but when she returned, having weathered through a cold winter and insular unfriendliness of New Englanders, they simply picked up where they had left off.
For a while Ludwig had an agent aptly named Theo. Theo sold some of his wonderful paintings before they parted company over some disagreement or another.
Eleanora moved to a tiny house in the flats of Berkeley, but after a man broke in and raped her, she moved back to the apartment house on Telegraph. Then she was evicted from her studio, the reason for which I cannot recall. She lived with a man for a while, left, took a room, and finally moved up the hill in San Leandro to the tiny house where she lives now. All these years she has supported herself by giving piano and violin lessons, playing the piano for a Pentecostal church, and living frugally.
Then Ludwig fell on hard times— when he lost his work and could not pay his rent, he lost his apartment in the house on Telegraph. After living with his sister, then Theo briefly, he was homeless until he got public housing in Oakland.
Ludwig had stopped drinking but would periodically become so depressed that he would threaten suicide. He got work again as a carpenter, but the job was off the books and he was paid little. When he came home, he was usually too tired to paint.
Meanwhile, Eleanora’s fortunes improved somewhat when she became of age to get Social Security and Medicare. Despite all the hardship she had endured, she affirmed her desire to live and complained that Ludwig was too depressing to be around.
One day about a month ago (Now I was living in a dilapidated mobile home in Amargosa Valley, Nevada) early one Saturday morning Eleanora called convinced that this time Ludwig really intended to kill himself.
Being fired from his job was enough to tip him over the edge. He had gone to the liquor store, bought a large bottle of vodka, and was plotting his demise. He shared his plan with Eleanora—he would go to Sears and buy several rolls of duct tape which he would use to tape his windows shut. Then he would turn on the gas stove and take several bottles of aspirin. “By Sunday, I’ll be gone,” he warned her darkly.
Eleanora was sad but philosophical. She would do nothing to stop him. She had carefully planned her day so that she would be sufficiently busy giving a student his piano lesson and walking with a friend who was a therapist. Her friend had already suggested 50/50ing Ludwig. If you don’t know what “50/50” means, it means calling 911 to report a pending suicide.
Eleanora rejected this because on another occasion when he had threatened and she had called, he was strapped onto a gurney by EMS workers and taken to a local hospital, where he lay untreated for hours but supervised by an armed guard. She could not bear to do this to him again. Neither would she call him—she was just sorry that she had not asked how he would like his remains disposed of.
Even if she would not interfere with Ludwig’s plan, she had called the Labor Department, from whom she got information on how to report employers who hire workers off the books, information which she had passed on to Ludwig. She had also called Theo and told his answering machine that when he got her message, Ludwig might already be dead.
She hoped that Theo knew where Ludwig had stored his paintings. Even though they were not selling, she was sure they were worth a great deal of money. At an earlier time, Theo had badgered Ludwig into making a will. When he did so, he left two-thirds of his work to Eleanora and one third to Theo. She didn’t know whether Theo had gotten her message or not.
“Will you go over to see what’s happened?” I asked her gingerly, knowing just how sensitive Eleanora can be even under the best of circumstances.
“No,” she said. “I’ll wait to see it on the evening news.”
“If I were you,” I said carefully so as not to impose my ways on her, “I would have to go and find out.”
“That’s because,” Eleanora said archly, “You’re more masculine than I am.”
We talked about what a fine person Ludwig is or was, a wonderful artist who had done his best against overwhelming odds in times when the work of very talented artists was ignored. His spirit would be fondly remembered. We all but buried dear Ludwig…
Weeping we rang off with my telling my dear friend that she could call me any time of the day or night.
During the day I thought frequently of Ludwig, remembering him as the handsome young man I had met thirty years ago. I recalled the time when he and Eleanora had come to Brooklyn when we took a fishing boat at Sheepshead Bay and returned with some flukes that we ate for dinner. I remembered how happy the experience had made Ludwig.
I fantasized his being guided into the heavenly kingdom by angels and welcomed by those who had gone before him…
When Eleanora called later that day I hardly recognized her voice. It sounded triumphant, like someone who had just won the lottery.
“I’ve just come back from seeing Ludwig!” she declared.
“What?” I said, not knowing whether she saw him dead or alive.
She explained that after we talked, she decided she would go his apartment, even though she did not know what she would find when she got there. When she got there the neighborhood was quiet, not as it might had been had there been an acknowledged suicide. She rang his bell and was buzzed in. She walked up the stairs and knocked on his door. A disheveled but still very much alive Ludwig opened it.
Pushing his hair from his eyes he smiled weakly and said, “Oh, hi Elly, Come on in.”
Ludwig was wearing a stained and dirty t-shirt, some wrinkled and baggy kakis, and flip flops. His feet were dirty and his toenails in need of trimming. He was stilling drinking vodka, but there was a Styrofoam container of half-eaten ribs and corn-on-cob on his coffee table…along with some unopened rolls of duct tape.
Sheepishly he admitted that his plan had simply been too complicated, too macabre, to carry out. He had decided to wait for another day—maybe a better idea would be to jump from the Golden Gate Bridge. It would require less preparation. Right now, he surely was hungry.
Ludwig was relishing his plate of ribs and corn-on-the-cob. Looking up with barbecue sauce smeared across his chin, he asked, “Oh, Elly, could you get me a beer from the fridge?”
Eleanora stood up dismayed and read Ludwig the riot act.
“You have deceived me for the last time!” she exclaimed. Now that she saw that he was still alive, she planned never to see him again. But rather than to walk out then and there, she sat back down on his couch.
“Oh,” said Ludwig, “Theo came by. When he got your message, he came over.”
“And what did he say?” Eleanora asked, knitting her brow.
“He told me to be a man. That was about it.”
For a minute there was silence. Then searching for a new topic of conversation, Ludwig said. “Thanks for the info from the Labor Department. I might go after Jim and Sarah—in defense of the little man, those of us who have no power.”
“That’s a good idea,” said Eleanora mildly.
When she left Ludwig, she went to Africadia, a new section of Oakland where a lady should not be walking at night. She was ravenous. At the restaurant she ordered a cabbage salad, which she ate with as much gusto as Ludwig had eaten his ribs.
She heartily maintained that after this deception she would never willingly see Ludwig again, except she had to return tomorrow to get an important paper which in her haste to leave she had forgotten. Her voice was firm but could scarcely contain its joy.
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