Read Killing Commendatore: A novel Online

Authors: Haruki Murakami,Philip Gabriel,Ted Goossen

Killing Commendatore: A novel (8 page)

7

FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE, IT'S AN EASY NAME TO REMEMBER

My agent in Tokyo called a few more times, and we decided that I would meet our mystery client on Tuesday afternoon of the following week. (At that point the client's name was still not revealed.) I had them agree to my usual procedure, wherein, on the first day, we simply met and talked together for an hour or so, before we embarked upon a drawing.

As you might imagine, painting a portrait requires the ability to accurately grasp the special features of a person's face. But that's not all. If it were, you'd end up with a caricature. To paint a vibrant portrait you need the skill to discover what lies at the core of the person's face. A face is like reading a palm. More than the features you're born with, a face is gradually formed over the passage of time, through all the experiences a person goes through, and no two faces are alike.

On Tuesday morning I straightened up the house, picked some flowers from the garden and put them in vases, moved the
Killing Commendatore
painting out of the studio into the guest bedroom, and wrapped it up again in brown paper. I didn't want anyone else seeing it.

At five past one p.m. a car drove up the steep slope and parked in the covered driveway at the entrance. A heavy, brazen-sounding engine echoed, like some giant animal giving a satisfied purr from deep inside a cave. A high-powered engine. The engine shut off, and quiet again settled over the valley. The car was a silver Jaguar sports coupe. Sunlight from between the clouds reflected brightly off the long, brightly polished fenders. I'm not that into cars, so I don't know which model this was, but my guess was that it was the latest model, the mileage in the four digits, the price twenty times what I paid for my used Corolla station wagon. Not that this surprised me. The client was, after all, willing to pay such a huge fee to have a portrait done. If he'd appeared at my door in a massive yacht, it wouldn't have been surprising.

The person who got out of the car was a well-dressed middle-aged man. He had on dark-green sunglasses, a long-sleeved white cotton shirt (not simply white, but a pure white), and khaki chinos. His shoes were cream-colored deck shoes. He was probably a shade over five feet seven inches tall. His face had a nice, even tan. He gave off an overall fresh, clean feel. But what struck me most on this first encounter was his hair. Slightly curly and thick, it was white down to the last hair. Not gray or salt-and-pepper, but a pure white, like freshly fallen, virgin snow.

He got out of the car, closed the door (which made that special pleasant
thunk
expensive car doors make when you casually shut them), didn't lock it but put the key in his trouser pocket, and strode toward my front door—all of which I watched from a gap in the curtains. The way he walked was quite lovely. Back straight, the necessary muscles all equally in play. I figured he must work out regularly, and pretty hard training at that. I stepped away from the window, sat in a chair in the living room, and waited for the front doorbell to ring. Once it did, I slowly walked to the door and opened it.

When I opened the door the man took off his sunglasses, slipped them into the breast pocket of his shirt, and without a word held out his hand. Half reflexively I held out my hand, too. He shook it. It was a firm handshake, the way Americans do it. A little too firm for me, not that it hurt or anything.

“My name is Menshiki. It's very nice to meet you,” the man said in a clear voice. The sort of tone a lecturer would make at the beginning of his talk to test the microphone and introduce himself at the same time.

“The pleasure's mine,” I said. “Mr. Menshiki?”

“The
men
is written with the character in
menzeiten
—the one that means ‘avoidance'—and the
shiki
is the character
iro
, for ‘color.' ”

“Mr. Menshiki,” I repeated, lining the two characters up in my mind. A strange combination.

“ ‘Avoiding colors,' is what it means,” the man said. “An unusual name. Other than my relatives I rarely run across anyone who shares it.”

“But it's easy to remember.”

“Exactly. It's an easy name to remember. For better or for worse.” The man smiled. He had faint stubble from his cheeks to his chin, but I don't think he'd simply left off shaving. When he'd shaved he'd left an exact, calculated amount of stubble. Different from his hair, his beard was half black. I found it odd that only his hair was pure white.

“Please come in,” I said.

Menshiki gave a small nod, removed his shoes, and stepped inside. The way he carried himself was charming, though I could sense a bit of tension. Like some large cat taken to a new place, each movement was careful and light, his eyes darting quickly around to take in his surroundings.

“A comfortable-looking place,” he said after sitting down on the sofa. “Very relaxed and quiet.”

“Quiet it certainly is. But kind of inconvenient when you have to go shopping.”

“I would imagine for someone in your field it's an ideal environment.”

I sat down in the chair across from him.

“I heard that you live nearby, Mr. Menshiki?”

“Yes, that's right. It would take a while to walk here, though as the crow flies it's actually pretty near.”

“As the crow flies,”
I said, repeating his words. There was a somehow strange ring to the expression. “But how near is it, actually?”

“Close enough that if you wave your hand here you could see it.”

“You can see your house from here?”

“Exactly.”

I wasn't sure how to respond, and Menshiki asked, “Would you like to see my house?”

“If I could, yes,” I said.

“Do you mind if we go out on the terrace?”

“Please, go right ahead.”

Menshiki got up from the sofa and went straight from the living room to the terrace. He leaned out over the railing and pointed across the valley.

“You see that white concrete house over there? The one on top of the mountain, with the shiny windows?”

I was speechless. That was the house, that smart, elegant house I often looked at when I went out at sunset onto the terrace to enjoy a glass of wine. The large house that stood out from all the rest, diagonally to the right from mine.

“It's a little far, but if you made a big wave with your hand you could say hello,” Menshiki said.

“But how did you know I was living here?” I asked, resting my hands on the railing.

He looked puzzled. He wasn't really fazed, just displaying a puzzled look. Not that his expression seemed contrived. He'd simply wanted to throw in a pause before responding.

“One aspect of my job is gathering all kinds of information,” he said. “That's the sort of business I'm in.”

“Is it tech related?”

“That's right. Or more precisely, that's also one aspect of my work.”

“But hardly anyone knows yet that I'm living here.”

Menshiki smiled. “Saying hardly anyone knows means, paradoxically, that there are some who
do
.”

I looked over again at that exquisite white concrete building across the valley, and once more studied the man beside me. He was, most likely, the one who appeared almost every evening on the deck of that house. When I thought of it, his shape and movements all fit that silhouette perfectly…It was hard to figure out his age. That snow-white hair made me think he must be in his late fifties or early sixties, though his skin was lustrous and tight, and wrinkle free. His deep-looking eyes had the youthful twinkle of a man in his late thirties. All of which made guessing his age a tough call. I would have accepted anything between forty-five and sixty.

Menshiki went back to the sofa in the living room, and I sat down again across from him.

“Do you mind if I ask a question?” I finally ventured.

“Ask away,” he said, beaming.

“Is there some connection between the fact that I live near your house and your decision to ask me to paint your portrait?”

A slight look of confusion came over him. And when he looked confused, several tiny wrinkles appeared at the corners of his eyes. Charming wrinkles. His features, viewed individually, were all quite attractive—the eyes almond shaped and slightly deep set, the forehead noble and broad, the eyebrows thick and nicely defined, the nose thin and a nice size. Eyes, eyebrows, and nose that perfectly fit his smallish face. His face was a bit small, yet too broad in a way, and from a purely aesthetic viewpoint was a little imbalanced. The vertical and horizontal were out of sync, though this disparity wasn't necessarily a defect. It's what gave his face its distinctiveness, since it was this imbalance that conversely gave the viewer a sense of calm. If his features had been too perfectly symmetrical people might have felt a bit of antipathy, or wariness, toward him. But as it was, his ever-so-slightly unbalanced features had a calming effect on anyone meeting him for the first time. They broadcast, in a friendly way, “It's all good, not to worry. I'm not a bad person. I don't plan to do anything bad to you.”

The pointed, largish tips of his ears were slightly visible through his neatly trimmed hair. They conveyed a sense of freshness, of vigor, reminding me of spry little mushrooms in a forest, peeking out from among the fallen leaves on an autumn morning, just after it had rained. His mouth was broad, the thin lips neatly closed in a line, diligently prepared to, at any moment, break into a smile.

One could call him handsome. And he actually was. Yet his features rejected that sort of casual description, neatly circumventing it. His face was too lively, its movements too subtle to simply abide by that label. The expressions that rose on his features weren't calculated, but looked more like they'd arisen naturally, spontaneously. If they weren't, then he was quite the actor. But I got the impression that wasn't the case.

When I observe the face of a person I've met for the first time, from habit I sense all sorts of things. In most cases there's no tangible basis for how I feel. It's nothing more than intuition. But that's what helps me as a portrait artist—that
simple intuition
.

“The answer is yes, and no,” Menshiki said. His hands on his knees were wide open, palms up. He turned them over.

I said nothing, waiting for his next words.

“I do worry about who lives in the neighborhood,” Menshiki went on. “No, not worry, exactly. It's more like I'm
interested
. Especially when it's someone I see now and then across the valley.”

It's a little too great a distance to say we actually
see
each other, I thought, but didn't say anything. Maybe he had high-powered binoculars and had been secretly observing me? I kept that thought to myself. I mean, what possible reason could he have to observe a person like
me
?

“And I learned that you had moved in here,” Menshiki continued. “I found out you're a professional portrait artist, and that aroused my interest enough to seek out a few of your paintings. At first I saw them on the Internet. But I wasn't satisfied, so I went to see three actual paintings.”

That had me puzzled. “You saw the actual paintings?”

“I went to see the people who had modeled for you and asked them to let me see the portraits. They were happy to show me them. It seems like people who sit for portraits are really pleased to show them off. I got a strange sensation when I saw the actual paintings up close and compared them to the faces of the people. It's like I couldn't tell which one was real anymore. How should I put it? There's something about your paintings that strikes the viewer's heart from an unexpected angle. At first they seem like ordinary, typical portraits, but if you look carefully you see something hidden inside them.”

“Something hidden?” I asked.

“I'm not sure how to put it. Maybe the real personality?”

“Personality,” I mused. “
My
personality? Or the
subject's
?”

“Both, probably. They're mixed together, so elaborately intertwined they can't be separated. It's not something you can overlook. Even if you just glance at the paintings as you pass by, you feel like you've missed something, and you can't help but come back and study them carefully. It's that indefinable
something
that drew me to them.”

I was silent.

“And I had this thought: This is the person I want to paint my portrait. No matter what. I got in touch with your agent right away.”

“Through an intermediary.”

“Correct. I normally use an intermediary, a law office. It's not that I have a guilty conscience or anything. I just like to protect my anonymity.”

“And it's an easy name to remember.”

“Exactly,” he said, and smiled. His mouth spread wide, the tips of his ears quivered ever so slightly. “There are times when I don't want my name to be known.”

“Still, the fee is a little too much,” I said.

“Price is always relative, determined by supply and demand. Those are basic market principles. If I want to buy something and you don't want to sell it, the price goes up. And in the opposite case, the price goes down.”

“I understand market principles. But is it really necessary for you to go to all that length to have me paint your portrait? Maybe I shouldn't say this, but a portrait isn't something a person really
needs
.”

“True enough. It's not something you need. But I'm also curious about what sort of portrait you'd do if you painted me. I want to find that out. You could think of it another way, namely that I'm putting a price on my own curiosity.”

“And your curiosity doesn't come cheap.”

He smiled happily. “The purer the curiosity is, the stronger it is. And the more money it takes to satisfy it.”

“Would you care for some coffee?” I asked.