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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Love of a Stonemason, chapter 4

Chapter 4 of my novel Love of a Stonemason. It is available both as Kindle ebook and trade paperback at Amazon and in different ebook formats at Smashwords. Average customer reviews: 5 stars.

Blurb and Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3

Chapter 4

The day after her first exhibition, Karla got up earlier than usual, eager to paint. The opening had been a success. Several of her paintings had sold. To her pleasant surprise, Andreas had bought the aquarelle of Monte Sosto. In addition, Karla had an appointment with the person in charge of buying works of art for one of the major banks in the area. He liked her large colorful canvasses and he wanted to order some for his bank subsidiaries.
     Karla pulled on a pair of shorts and a work shirt, tied her long black hair into a pony tail, and stepped outside. A thin veil of early-morning mist hovered over the fields and the part of the river Maggia she could see from her house. The pines were a rich green and the leaves of the birches along the river quivered and sparkled in the sun. The colors seemed particularly vivid this morning.
     Aside from the mild climate, it was above all the quality of the light and the colors which drew Karla to the south of Switzerland. Each season had its own special coloration, ranging from the diffuse tones of winter with its elongated shadows to the lively hues of spring, the fiery reds and purples of a summer sunset and, finally, the shades of mist and the mellow light of fall.
     Karla sat down in front of her easel and squeezed globs of oil paints onto the palette. This was one of those moments when it became clear to her once again why she painted. The empty canvas, when everything was possible and nothing was decided yet. The excitement in the beginning, when her hand first felt the texture of the canvas or paper, the smells, the colors, the sensation of the brush gliding through the paint on the palette. Then the first creative impulse when the brush touched the canvas, the initial few brush strokes, perhaps hesitant at first, then more and more determined, taking control, then letting the painting guide her, taking control again, until she was so absorbed that she forgot time. When the doorbell or the phone rang, she looked up briefly, shook her head, and went right back to painting, ignoring the disturbance.
     At noon, Karla took a break. She showered and dressed and got ready to drive to Bellinzona to do some shopping. Bellinzona, the capital of the canton Ticino and a city with an interesting past dating back to Roman times, was about a thirty-minute drive from the Maggia Valley. Its three castles on the hill above the town dominated its skyline and gave the city a distinct medieval flavor.
     For Karla, the castles had a more personal significance. They reminded her of a happy time during her childhood, when her mother and grandmother were still alive and took her on outings to the castles. She had been fascinated by the thick stone walls, the narrow windows, the steep stairways. Her mother had told her stories of knights and damsels in distress, of ghosts haunting the castles, and Karla had spent hours drawing and painting those scenes. Now, she looked at the castles with a feeling of nostalgia.
     Just as she got ready to drive home, she remembered that Andreas’s studio was in Bellinzona. At the opening, he had told her he would call her to show her some of his sculptures and other stonework. Karla pulled out his business card. His workshop was in a former factory building in the industrial area of Bellinzona. On an impulse, she took the freeway exit toward the south of the city. It didn’t take her long to find the place. She parked the car nearby and walked toward the square, yellowish brick house. The door to Andreas’s part of the building was open and she heard the grinding sound of a machine. There was a sign above the door: Andreas O’Reilly – Scultura. A few stone and metal sculptures in different stages of completion stood outside.
     Karla stopped at the corner, suddenly feeling uncomfortable. She didn’t want to give Andreas the impression she was so eager to see him that she couldn’t wait for his phone call. She decided to just take a peek to find out what his workshop looked like. He probably wouldn’t even hear or see her with the machine running. She advanced to the open door and carefully looked inside. A light smell of stone dust and a whiff of exhaust drifted her way.
     Andreas was sitting on a low stool with his back toward her. He was wearing goggles and a mask and was holding some kind of power tool with which he polished the surface of a piece of rock in front of him. He was dressed in blue workpants and a yellow undershirt. Karla watched him for a while and couldn’t help but admire the play of muscles on his tanned arms and shoulders as he held on to the grinder which slightly vibrated in his hands. Suddenly, Andreas turned off the machine, removed his mask and goggles, and wiped his forehead. As Karla stepped back, she realized that she cast a shadow next to his chair.
     Andreas wheeled around on his stool and looked at her puzzled. “Hello. What a surprise. What are you doing here?” He got up and wiped his hands on a towel and dried his face. There were goggle marks around his eyes.
     “I . . . I was in the neighborhood and remembered your workshop, so I thought I just drop by.” Karla, caught in the act of snooping on him, felt the heat rise to her face. “And I wanted to thank you for buying a painting,” she quickly added.
     He gave her a wide smile. “Welcome. You’re actually the second woman who dropped by today. I didn’t know I was that popular with the ladies.”
     “Oh? Who else dropped by?” Gee, this isn’t really any of my business.
     “Your friend. The one who got tanked at your exhibition.”
     “Yeah, that’s her.”
     Karla was stunned. “Really? That’s odd. What did she want?”
     “She was probably just overwhelmed with me and couldn’t keep away.” He grinned. “Just kidding. She apologized for being a mess the other day. She said she wanted to see my workshop and invited me to check out her art work.”
     “Are you going to?” It was out before Karla could stop herself.
     “Don’t you want me to?” His grin widened. He obviously enjoyed her discomfort.
     “I don’t care.” Karla was getting irritated, not just because she was making a fool of herself but because she suspected that there were other reasons behind Sarah’s visit than a casual meeting between artists. It wouldn’t be the first time that Sarah stole one of my boyfriends. But he isn’t my boyfriend. So, why should I care?
     “You look upset. What’s the matter?” He peered at her with a serious face.
     “Nothing.” She tried to sound casual. “I guess I better go.”
     “You just got here. Come on, I’ll show you the studio. Want some coffee?”
     Karla nodded and forced a smile. “Coffee sounds great.”
     While Andreas washed two cups and turned on the small espresso machine next to his desk, Karla looked around. Along the walls were shelves with stone samples of different types of granite, gneiss, marble, serpentine, verrucano, and many more, in shades ranging from black to blue-gray, sea-green, orange, red, terra-cotta, and a muted gold. On the other side of the room was a shelf with all kinds of stone cutting tools as well as goggles and masks to protect from the dust and stone splinters. Another machine stood in the corner next to a half-finished tombstone.
     Karla touched some of the rocks, feeling their different textures, the smoothness of a piece of green alabaster, the rough surface of granite. “I didn’t even know there were that many kinds of stones. Where did you get them all?”
     “This is just a minute collection of what’s out there. Some of them I bought, some of the smaller ones I collected while hiking.” He picked up a piece of blue speckled marble and caressed it with his hand, then gave it to Karla to hold. It was polished and smooth on one side and left raw on the other.
     “How beautiful. I always thought of marble as being smooth. But it’s actually quite rough,” Karla said, brushing her hand over the unpolished side.
     “Yes, in its natural state. It takes some work to make it smooth and polished. Just like with us humans, huh?” He put the stone back on the shelf.
     “I think I like the unpolished side better,” Karla said.
     “Stones or humans?” Andreas winked at her, then walked over to the coffee machine.
     Karla shrugged her shoulder. “Both, I guess.”
     “Good, that gives me some encouragement. Not much polishing here.” He handed her a cup of espresso. “It’s quite strong, you might want some sugar.”
     “No, I like it strong, thanks.”
     “Well, that’s me. Strong and unpolished.” Andreas grinned.
     Karla laughed and felt herself blush. She took a sip of coffee and pointed at a group of small stone fountains, some plain, others with elaborate carvings. “These seem to be very popular these days.”
     “Yeah. That’s the kind of stuff that sells. Just like gnomes or frogs, which I refuse to make. Too kitschy.” Andreas lifted one of the heavy fountains seemingly without effort and moved it out of the way. “But let me show you some of my other stuff.” He led Karla into the second room which contained several stone and metal sculptures. There were a few stone mandalas of grey-black or greenish granite with fine carvings, green and purplish stone figurines, a rounded shape made of bronze, and several other delicate metal sculptures as well as a combination of wood and metal. Each work was unique. Form and material of the sculptures fit together perfectly. There was no doubt, Andreas was extremely talented.
     Karla walked around for a while looking at the different works of art. She gently touched one of the small stone mandalas. “How beautiful. . . . So delicate and yet so powerful.”
     Andreas smiled. “Thanks.”
     “Do you ever show your work?”
     “I’ve been in a couple of group shows. I’m going to be in one in August. It’s an exhibition in Ascona of students from the Scuola di Sculptura di Peccia.
     “You studied at the sculpture school in Peccia? That must be an excellent school. I heard they attract students from all over the world.”
     “Yeah, I took a few workshops there as well as in Carrera, Italy.”
     Something tickled Karla’s nose and she sneezed.
     “Bless you; it’s the stone dust,” Andreas said. “There’s always some around, after I use the grinding or polishing machine.”
     They stepped outside, where the late afternoon sun was just about to disappear behind the tall building on the other side of the street. The last sunrays bounced off the metal roof.
     Karla touched one of the granite slabs sitting next to the door outside, which felt warm, having absorbed the heat of the day. She looked at her watch. “I guess, I should get going, otherwise I’ll hit rush hour traffic.” She turned to face him. “Thanks for showing me your work. That was a real treat. I’d like to see more.”
     “Glad you liked it. Most of my work is in someone's garden or in a park. I can give you a guided tour of O'Reilly's art work, if you’re interested.” Andreas laughed his typical throaty laugh. “How about next Saturday?”
     Karla nodded. “Yes, that would work.”
     Andreas gave her a warm smile. “How about if I pick you up?”
     Karla handed him one of her business cards. “Okay, here is my address. I live just up the hill from Lena’s place. It’s called Casa di tre Angeli. You can’t miss it.”
     “Tre angeli? Three angels, huh. Any connection to you?” The humorous glint in his eyes was back.
     “None at all . . . though I could use one once in a while.” Karla smiled wistfully.
     Andreas followed her to the car. “Karla.” She turned around. He pulled her close and kissed her. His breath smelled of coffee, smoky and slightly bitter. “See you Saturday.”
     Before Karla could do or say anything, he turned and walked back to his workshop in his leisurely wide-legged swagger. Karla opened the door and got into the car. She waited for a while before starting the engine, then slapped the steering wheel.
     “Damn. I don’t want to fall in love.”

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Love of a Stonemason, chapter 3

Chapter 3 of my novel Love of a Stonemason. It is available both as Kindle ebook and trade paperback at Amazon and in different ebook formats at Smashwords. Average customer reviews: 5 stars.

Blurb and Chapter 1
Chapter 2

Chapter 3 

“How do you feel seeing all these people admire your work?” Silvia handed Karla a glass of white wine.
     “It’s exciting. A little scary . . . It makes me feel exposed.” Karla looked around the gallery where friends and strangers had gathered. Some of them were examining her paintings, others stood around and chatted, sipping their drinks and picking at the appetizers. A couple of Karla’s artist friends talked animatedly. A girl dressed in black, wearing high dress boots, with strands of purple in her short hair, waved at Karla, who went to join her.
     “Hey, great stuff.” The girl with purple hair, pierced nose and eyebrows motioned at the paintings. “How did you manage this? I mean getting this venue? I’m looking for a place for my own work.”
     “Geez, Sarah, don’t waste any time congratulating Karla on her success. Be your usual pushy self and only think about Number One.” A gangly young man with a pony tail shook his head and sneered.
     “Oh, Jason, don’t be such an ass. Karla knows I’m happy for her.” The girl gave Karla a hug. “I didn’t know you did that kind of thing.” She pointed at Karla’s more experimental paintings. “That’s cool. I love that one with the PC sticking out of the flower. I’ll get us some wine. Don’t go anywhere; I need to talk to you.” Sarah pointed her finger at Karla, then marched over to the table with the snacks.
     Karla wondered how Sarah managed to walk in her tight mini-skirt and the high-heeled boots. At that moment, she spotted Andreas, who was looking at her paintings. He must have come in as she was talking to her friends. At first, she barely recognized him. He was wearing slacks and a jacket and had evidently made an attempt to comb his unruly hair. “Listen, guys. I’m sorry but I have to say hello to someone.” Karla waved Sarah off, who returned with two glasses of wine. “Later, Sarah.”
     “You look distinguished tonight.” Karla said as she walked up to Andreas.
   Andreas appeared to feel uncomfortable dressed up. The outfit had seen its best days. The jacket seemed too tight for his muscular body, the sleeves were a little short, and the slacks bulged slightly at the knees. He gave the impression of a caged tiger.
     “I don’t feel distinguished at all. In fact, I feel rather foolish in this monkey suit, but I thought I couldn’t very well attend an opening in my torn jeans.” He grinned and pulled at his poorly knotted tie.
     “Oh, it suits you very well,” Karla tried to reassure him.
     “I love your art.” Andreas squinted his eyes as he studied one of Karla's oil paintings. “The luminosity in this picture . . . . It reminds me of an exhibition I saw not long ago, of paintings by Giovanni Segantini and others.”
     “Yeah,” Karla said, excited. “He is one of my favorite painters of that era. I love the Swiss and Italian divisionists. The way they created the illusion of light emanating from the canvas. They didn’t mix the paints but applied threads or dots or flecks of pure complementary colors next to each other. I kind of play with their technique sometimes.”
     Andreas motioned at Karla’s scrap metal landscapes. “Interesting. Very different from your other work.”
     “I’m still experimenting. I’m not sure yet where I’m going with those.”
     “What’s wrong with that? Why limit yourself? That would be boring.” Andreas peered at her. “I like painters or artists in general who have the guts to experiment. Art is a constant search for new ways of expressing yourself, isn’t it?”
     “I guess, you’re right.” Karla nodded.
     “Hey, Karla, aren’t you going to introduce me?” Sarah, who had come up behind Karla, poked her lightly in the back and gave Andreas a flirtatious look.
     Karla was getting annoyed at her friend. Sarah could be irritating sometimes, but today, she was outright obnoxious. Not wanting to create a scene, she introduced Andreas.
     “So what do you do, sexy?” Sarah winked at him.
     Andreas kept a straight face, folded his arms in front of his chest. “What do I do? That should be obvious. I’m here to look at Karla’s art.”
     Sarah gave a toss of the head. “I don’t mean that. What do you do for a living? Are you an artist or something?”
     “If you want to interview me, you have to make an appointment. But I warn you, I charge a lot.” Andreas still kept a straight face, but there was a gleam of amusement in his eyes.
     “Okay, you want to be that way. Knock yourself out.” Sarah turned around on her heel and marched to the other side of the gallery.
     “Your friend obviously doesn’t appreciate my kind of humor, either.” Andreas gave a quick throaty laugh.
     “I guess not.” Karla smiled.
     They walked over to where Karla’s watercolors hung. Andreas studied them quietly for a long time. “You really caught the effect of the light. They’re fascinating.”
     “Thanks.” Their eyes met and Karla felt a tingling sensation somewhere between her throat and stomach. I guess he can be sensitive.
     “That mountain.” He pointed at a painting of Monte Sosto, a mountain in the Blenio Valley, a side valley of the Leventina just south of Saint Gotthard. Karla had forced herself to get up early one morning so she could catch the special quality of the sunlight piercing through the mist at dawn. It was one of her favorite aquarelles.
     “I used to live in Olivone and looked at Monte Sosto almost every day,” Andreas continued. “I got so used to it that I didn’t even see it anymore. This painting brings out the mystical quality I noticed when I first saw it. I believe that art makes us see things we normally merely look at.”
     “Monte Sosto has always fascinated me, because the minute I saw it, it reminded me of Machu Picchu in Peru,” Karla said.
     “Really? You know, I think you have a point. I've seen pictures of Machu Picchu. Yes, there is a certain similarity. So, you’ve been to Peru? Fascinating. I’d love to go to Peru. They’re famous for their ruins and stonework—Uh-oh, here is your friend again. I think she’s in trouble.” Andreas motioned at someone behind Karla.
     When Karla turned around, Sarah was walking unsteadily toward them followed by Jason, who tried to hold her back. “I’m sorry guys, I’m plastered.” She stumbled and fell against Andreas, who caught her. Sarah threw her arms around him and started to cry. “My life is a mess. It’s going nowhere. Nobody loves my art. I’m going to kill myself.”
     Andreas tried to hold her away from him. “No, you’re not. It’d be a real pity if you did.”
     “Do you really . . . think so?” Sarah’s face was a mess. Her black eye-liner was running down her cheeks.
     Andreas, still holding her at a little distance, spoke vehemently. “Yes, you’re a very pretty woman, once you wash that stuff off your face. And don’t let anybody make you doubt your art work.”
     “Oh, you’re such a sweetheart.” Sarah tried to embrace Andreas again.
     Leave it up to Sarah to create a scene and steal the show. Karla was peeved.
     Jason pulled Sarah back. “We’re going home. Sorry, guys, this is really embarrassing.” He shook his head. “She’s had a rough time.”
     “I’m so sorry.” Sarah began to weep again and hugged Karla. The mixture of alcohol and a sweet-smelling perfume was overpowering.
     Karla patted her back, trying not to inhale. “It’s all right, Sarah. I understand. Let’s talk when you feel better.”
     Sarah nodded. She was still crying when Jason led her away. People were staring at them.
     “Poor girl. What’s her problem, anyway?” Andreas asked.
     Karla shrugged her shoulders. “She’s had all kinds of problems, mainly with money and trying to promote her art. She’s actually an interesting artist. She makes these huge paper mache sculptures, but so far she hasn’t been able to find anybody who would give her a chance to exhibit them.” Karla watched as Sarah stumbled outside with Jason holding her up.
     “Is Jason her boyfriend?” Andreas asked.
     “No.” Karla shook her head. “Jason is gay, but he’s Sarah’s closest friend. I’ll talk to Silvia. Perhaps she’ll be able to help. Silvia is the owner of the gallery,” Karla explained. “Just makes me realize how lucky I’ve been.”
     Andreas, who watched as Sarah left, shook his head. “It’s not just luck. It’s also hard work, talent, insistence, and patience and yes, I guess, lots of luck.” He motioned with his head toward Sarah. “She’s quite young and if she’s already that disillusioned, she is in the wrong field. Art is a tough business. And if she keeps drinking like this, she’ll end up ruining her life or killing herself.”
     “That sounds pretty negative,” Karla said.
     “It’s not negative, just realistic.” Andreas narrowed his eyes. “Believe me, I know what alcohol can do to a person.” He paused. “My father was an alcoholic.”
     “He doesn’t live with us anymore. I don’t know where he is or if he’s still alive. I have no contact with him.”
     “It’s all right. Let’s not talk about it.”
     Karla remembered Lena mentioning something about problems in his family.
     “Sorry, Karla, I’ve come to kidnap you. The press is here.” Karla smelled Silvia’s patchouli perfume before she felt her arm around her. “A man from the local newspaper wants to talk to you.”
     “Oh, no,” Karla said. “What am I supposed to say?”
     “Come on, Karla. You better get used to this.” Silvia chuckled. “You’re on your way to fame and glory.”

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Love of a Stonemason, chapter 2

Here is the second chapter of my novel Love of a Stonemason. It is available both as Kindle ebook and trade paperback at Amazon and in different ebook formats at Smashwords. Average customer reviews: 5 stars.

Blurb and Chapter 1

Chapter 2

The sky was a clear blue after the thunderstorm of the past night with only a few fleecy white clouds in the north and streaks of sulfur-yellow etched on the horizon in the south. The air felt fresh and clean. It promised to be a beautiful early-summer day.
      Karla stepped outside and inhaled the sweet scent of the wisteria bush in the courtyard. However, no matter how hard she tried to enjoy the day, she felt out-of-sorts and depressed. Her nightmare, her inability to finish the painting she struggled with, and the unsettling feelings after her near-accident the day before all seemed to have banded together and attacked her, full force, in her sleep.
     Painting didn’t help, either. She wanted to go back to her colorful landscapes, drown her dark mood with globs of fiery paints but the newly stretched canvas merely stared back at her. It was glaring in its whiteness, hostile. Finally, Karla gave up trying to work. She would pay a visit to Lena and get some roses for her mother’s grave.
     Lena cultivated and sold roses and was known all over the valley and the nearby cities for her beautiful rose fields. She had been one of Karla’s closest friends for many years. Having known her mother well, Lena had often babysat Karla when she was little. Karla had spent the first five years of her life in the Maggia Valley and had moved north to live with her aunt after her mother’s and grandmother’s death. After Karla’s aunt had passed, Lena had encouraged her to move back to the Vallemaggia and had invited her to stay with them until she found a place of her own. Lena and her husband Luigi and their four children had become like a family to her.
     On the way to Lena's, Karla passed by the rose fields which were in full bloom, although some damage from the thunderstorm was visible. A few of the bushes had been knocked to the ground and the field was strewn with rose petals, which looked like big confetti. But even so, the flowers were dazzling. Shades of red, from crimson to purple to mauve, different hues of orange, multicolored roses as well as the simple white and yellow ones sparkled in the sun and formed a pleasant contrast to the dark green of the pines in the background and the vineyards on both sides.
     Normally, Karla couldn't walk by the rose fields without stopping to admire the abundance of colors. Today, though, she barely glanced at the flowers, although their sweet fragrance was almost overpowering.
     Karla found Lena in the large shed next to her home, busy preparing for the upcoming market. She was putting roses on the conveyor belt of a machine that separated the flowers by length, so they could be arranged into bouquets more easily. Lena was a stout motherly woman in her late forties with lively blue eyes and thick brown hair streaked with grey.
     “Hi there.” Lena gave Karla a quick smile, then continued to watch the roses glide by. She occasionally picked one up and set it aside, then turned off the machine. “How are you?”
     "I don’t know. I got up on the wrong side of the bed.” Karla blinked as the tears rose to her eyes.
     "Oh?” Lena peered at her, then took her by the arm. “Come on, the coffee is still fresh. I need a break.”
     They went inside and Lena poured them each a cup. She sat down next to Karla and put her arm around her. “So, tell me, what's bugging you?”
     The motherly gesture broke the dam that held back Karla’s tears. All the pent-up emotions of the past couple of days flooded her. Lena waited patiently until Karla was able to stop crying. She hugged her and gently patted her back, as if to comfort a child. “What’s the matter, Karla?”
     “I just had one of those miserable dreams again and yesterday I almost got run over by a car,” Karla finally managed to say between sobs. She told Lena of her near-accident, her inability to deal with one of her paintings, the nightmare. “It all just brought it back again. I’m lonely; Anna died, I have no family left, and …” She burst into tears again.
     “Honey, I know, it’s hard. But why don't you come to us when you feel bad? You know, you always have family here. You're not alone.”
     “Thanks, Lena. I know. It’s just one of those days.”
     “Talk about family. Have you heard from your father lately?” Lena gently brushed a strand of hair out of Karla’s face.
     “Not in while. It’s my turn to write. I just haven’t been up to it. I’ve run out of things to write to him about. Problem is, we haven't seen each other in ten years and you start to lose track.”
     “I understand. Perhaps, you should plan a trip to see him.”
     “Yeah, I know. I should.” Karla wiped the tears from her face. “I’ve been busy saving my money for painting, but I guess I could stay with his family. He even offered to pay for my plane ticket. It would be great to visit Peru again.” Karla hugged Lena. “Thanks for listening to me. It does make me feel better.” She managed a weak smile and got up. “I actually came down here to get some roses for Mama’s grave.”
     “Pick as many as you want. And take one of the vases here.” Lena reached for a vase on the kitchen cabinet and handed it to Karla. “And if you’re up to it, come and help me bake this afternoon. Luigi is with the lambs and the kids are in school. I could use some help. I’m making a few loaves of braided bread. Unless you’ve painting to do?”
     “No. Baking sounds wonderful. Just what I need, to get my mind off my problems.”
     Karla walked the short distance to the cemetery. The sweet aroma of her bouquet of roses brought a smile to her face. It’s going to be a good day, she tried to convince herself.
     The river Maggia on the other side of the street roared with gusto, spilling its waters in swirls and rapids toward Lake Maggiore. The noble chestnut trees in front of the graveyard were in full bloom and their long yellowish catkins exuded a strong pungent scent. Scattered by the wind, the abundant pollen of the male blossoms covered the ground and graves with a film of fine golden dust.
     As Karla climbed the few steps to the graveyard, she brushed against an overhanging branch of a wet hazel bush that showered her with a rivulet of water. She spotted two men working on the plot next to her mother’s grave. One of them was in the process of leaving. He loaded a cart with tools and pushed it toward the exit. The man who stayed back was crouching before a freshly planted plot, wiping off what seemed to be a new gravestone. A shock of dark hair hung over his face. When Karla put down the vase with the roses on her mother’s grave, he stood up.
     They stared at each other.
     “You?” Karla asked.
     “Oh, my god, it’s the woman who jumps in front of moving cars.” A sarcastic smile teased his lips as he glared at her with his green cat eyes.
     “It’s the maniac who ignores pedestrian zones. What are you doing here?”
     “I’m your local stonemason. I put up one of those.” He brushed a strand of hair from his forehead and pointed at the newly planted stone.
     The gravestone stood out somewhat from the others. It was made of polished grey-green gneiss. The top edge, however, was left in its original unpolished shape, giving the tombstone an artistic flair. The text was carved in a simple italic font and the only decoration was a bunch of grapes chiseled into the stone.
     “That’s beautiful,” Karla said.
     “Thanks.” He pointed at the stone on her mother's grave. “Someone close to you?”
     “My mother.”
     “Oh, sorry.” He squinted his eyes and looked at the stone more closely. “That was a long time ago; you must have lost her early.”
     “Yes, I was five when she died. A car accident.”
     “A car accident? Jesus. Seems to run in the family.”
     Karla glared at him. “I don’t think that’s funny at all. You sure have a warped sense of humor.”
     “I’m sorry, that was stupid. I didn’t mean it that way. It just struck me as a strange coincidence. I almost ran you over and now … I apologize. And I’m sorry I yelled at you yesterday. I was wrong. I was driving too fast.” He stretched out his arm.
     Still angry, Karla hesitated. But seeing his imploring look, she gave in and shook his hand. It was large, but in spite of the rough work his palm felt soft. “It was my fault too. I should've been more careful,” she admitted.
     She was struck again by the unusual color of his intense green eyes. They changed from verdigris to shades of blue according to the way the sun touched his face. He was handsome, in a rough kind of way. I’d like to paint him. Realizing she was staring at him, she quickly averted her gaze. A breeze kicked up, buffeting the leaves in the trees and tugging at her hair.
     “Look, we started out all wrong. Can we just forget about yesterday? And go out for coffee or a movie or dinner or something? My treat.”
     “You sure move fast. Yesterday, you called me an airhead and now you ask me out?”
     He gave a guttural laugh. “Well, yesterday was yesterday. I’m glad I didn’t run you over, a beautiful girl like you. By the way, I’m Andreas.”
     “So, what do you say?”
     “I don’t know. I’m really busy this week. I’m preparing for an arts exhibition on Friday, but if you’re interested, here is an announcement.” Karla pulled a card out of her purse and handed it to him.
     “Oh, that’s right; you’re an artist. Great, I love paintings. Had to do quite a bit of drawing as part of my training.” He studied the card that showed a couple of Karla's paintings. “Interesting work.”
     Karla liked the sound of his voice, deep and throaty, even a little tender, now that he wasn’t yelling or making sarcastic remarks. “So what do you do aside from making tombstones?”
     “All kinds of stone work but also some metal sculptures. I just can't make enough money with that kind of stuff yet. So it’s mainly tombstones for a living. Talk about making a living, I better get back to work. I have to plant a few more of these at another cemetery.” He pointed at the gravestone. “Three people died the same week.”
     “Oh? Well, you should be pleased.” Karla chuckled.
     He raised an eyebrow. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
     “Good business for you. More tombstones.”
     “And I’m supposed to be the one with the warped sense of humor, huh?” He gave a snort and laughed, then picked up the rag with which he had wiped off the gravestone and stuffed it into the back pocket of his tattered jeans. As they walked toward the exit, Karla noticed his beat-up Fiat parked on the other side of the road.
     “Okay, see you Friday.” He lightly touched her arm.
     Karla nodded. “Drive carefully. Don't run over any pedestrians,” she called after him.
     He turned around and opened his mouth to say something, then changed his mind, shook his head and grinned. He waved at her as he got into the car. The engine started right away this time.
     Karla looked after him as he drove away. He must have had his muffler fixed.

Lena's rustic kitchen looked like a bakery. The heavy cherry wood table was covered with pans of dough and a thin layer of flour. On the walls hung black iron pots and the typical copper bowls and pots popular in the south of Switzerland. Lena was busy kneading the dough for braided bread.
     “It smells delicious.” Karla inhaled the warm yeasty scent.
     “Cut yourself some. I made this one earlier.” Lena pointed at one of the finished loaves. “There is butter and jam over there, and I just made fresh coffee.”
     “You don’t have to tell me twice.” Karla cut a thick slice of the freshly baked honey-colored loaf. The inside was buttery yellow and soft and Karla gave a sigh of pleasure as she bit into a piece slathered with Lena's homemade blackberry jam. “Heavenly.”
     Lena gave her a cursory glance while kneading the dough vigorously, occasionally slapping it onto the table to make it smooth and springy. “You seem to be feeling better.”
     “Yeah, I am.” Karla licked a drop of jam from her finger, then put on one of Lena's aprons. She picked up a slab of dough and began to knead it. “Guess what? I ran into the guy who almost hit me with his car yesterday."
     “You're kidding? Where?" Lena divided her piece of dough into three equal parts and began to braid them.
     “At the cemetery. He was putting up a gravestone. He's a stonemason. His name is Andreas.”
     “Andreas O’Reilly?” Lena looked up, then dipped her hands into the flour and continued to pull and punch the dough.
     “I don't know his last name. You know him?" Karla stopped kneading and stared at Lena.
     “Yes. He made a few gravestones for our cemetery. In fact, he carved my grandmother's stone a couple of years ago. He does beautiful work. So he is the guy who almost hit you? Strange. He doesn’t seem like the careless-driver type.”
     “I think we were both at fault. At first, I thought he was a real jerk, but today he seemed more pleasant. What do you know about him?”
     “Not that much, just the little bit he told me or I heard about him. Some problems with his family, I don’t know any details. He was raised by his aunt and uncle. He’s quite an accomplished sculptor, considering how young he is. He was hired to put up some stone sculptures in the area.”
     “He said he was coming to the opening on Friday. He asked me out,” Karla said.
     “You must have made quite an impression on him.” Lena chuckled.
     “I don’t know.” Karla stopped kneading again and glanced out the window. “I’ve had more than my share of questionable dates. I’m not too eager to get involved with anybody. I don’t have much luck with men. Anyway, we’ll see if he shows up on Friday.”
     “You’re not paying attention, Karla. Come on, let me finish.” Lena smiled and shook her head. She grabbed the hunk of dough that Karla had been working on. “Why don’t you apply the egg wash instead?”
     “Sorry, Lena, I’m not much help today.” Karla sighed. She removed the towels from the loaves, which had risen to full size. She gently poked one of the plump, smooth braids with her finger, then picked up a baking brush, dipped it into the mixture of water and egg, and glazed the tops of the breads with even generous strokes.
     “Nice job.” Lena pointed at the loaves Karla had just finished. “You definitely have more talent handling a brush than kneading dough.” There was a cracking sound outside. Lena looked up. “Another thunderstorm?”
     Karla watched through the window as the wind carried off a small branch of the apple tree behind the house. She felt the familiar pressure in her head. “No, not a thunderstorm. The wind is changing.”

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Love of a Stonemason

Here is the first chapter of my novel "Love of a Stonemason." It is available both as Kindle ebook and trade paperback at Amazon and in different ebook formats at Smashwords. Average customer reviews: 5 stars.

Blurb: The young painter, Karla Bocelli, is no stranger to loss. When she was five years old, her mother died in a car crash in the south of Switzerland. Her Peruvian father lives at the other end of the world, and a year ago, her aunt and guardian passed away. Now, at age twenty-four, Karla almost gets hit by a speeding car. As if this wasn't fateful enough, Andreas, the driver, turns out to be a sculptor and carver of tombstones. In spite of his profession, Andreas is anything but morbid. Quick-tempered and intense, he exudes a rough-and-tumble energy. After a tumultuous start of their relationship, Karla comes to see in Andreas the "rock in her life," the perfect antidote to her fears of abandonment and bouts of depression. Andreas, however, wrestles with his own ghosts: an alcoholic father who abused him as a child and his own fits of anger. Together, the two artists must confront the demons that haunt them.

Chapter One

Karla Bocelli hated the painting. She had worked at it off and on during the past year and never managed to finish it. But no matter how much she disliked it, she couldn’t convince herself to destroy it. It seemed to haunt her.
     It was warm and muggy in early June in the south of Switzerland. Patches of mist hugged the mountains behind Lago Maggiore. Karla clasped her artist’s portfolio under her arm and brushed a strand of hair from her damp forehead. She was on the way to the old part of Locarno, thinking, once again, of the troublesome picture.
     She saw the car just as she stepped into the crosswalk. An old beat-up Fiat screeched to a stop within a few inches away from her. Karla jumped back and dropped her portfolio, spilling its content onto the pavement. Her heart thudded and she took deep breaths, trying to calm the queasy feeling in her stomach. That smell. Burnt rubber.
     A young man got out of the car and stared at her, stunned. “Are you all right?”
     Karla, still dazed, nodded. She bent down and began to pick up her drawings. A few pedestrians stopped but when they realized that nothing major had happened, they walked on.
     The driver’s dark voice rose to an angry pitch. “Jesus Christ. What’s the matter with you? You practically threw yourself in front of my car. I could’ve killed you. Are you suicidal or something?”
     “I’m sorry, I wasn’t watching.” Karla slid the papers back into her portfolio.
     “Yeah, well, that’s obvious. Wake up, for heaven's sake.”
     His belligerent voice angered Karla, who was gradually regaining her composure. She stood up, flipped her long dark hair back over her shoulders, and faced him. “I said, I was sorry.”
     He was tall, broad-shouldered, and husky, with longish dark tousled hair and green eyes, which now glowered at her. He must have been her age or a little older, perhaps in his mid twenties. As Karla continued to pick up her drawings, he approached and bent down to help her.
     “You’re an artist?” he asked in a friendlier tone as he looked at one of the charcoal sketches.
     “Yes.” Karla snatched the paper out of his hand.
     “I hope your pictures aren’t ruined.”
     “What do you care? Why do you have to drive like a maniac?"
     “Great,” he shouted. “Now it’s my fault?”
     “This is a pedestrian zone, in case you haven’t noticed.” Karla grabbed her portfolio and stepped back onto the sidewalk. Her heartbeat had slowed to almost normal but her knees still felt wobbly.
     “Do you always jump in front of moving cars without looking?” He turned around and walked away. “Airhead,” he mumbled, shot her a last angry look, got into the car, and slammed the door. He revved the engine which died several times. The car finally started and he drove off, leaving a cloud of stinking smoke behind.
     “Jerk. Perhaps a new muffler would help. Never heard of air pollution?” Karla crossed the street after carefully checking the road for traffic. Still shaken, she made her way through the old part of Locarno toward the art store to drop off her drawings to be framed for the upcoming opening.
     Karla was a young artist whose first exhibition of her paintings and drawings opened the following Friday. The gallery belonged to a friend and patron of hers. Silvia and her husband were art lovers and devoted some of their time and money to help fledgling artists show their work.
     Having recovered somewhat, Karla was able to take in the sights of the old part of this city she loved: the boutiques and small shops along the narrow cobblestone streets, the quaint houses painted in ocher, orange, and pink, the piazzas with their pots of cornflowers and red and white geraniums, the small simple Romanesque and the more ornate Baroque churches. Karla inhaled the mixture of scents so familiar to her from her childhood when she came here often with her mother and grandmother: the smell of espresso, of grilled meat and fish as well as herbs and spices from the restaurants, stores, and coffee bars.
     When Karla arrived at the gallery after dropping off her drawings at the art store, she looked through the tall shop window at the row of paintings on the wall. It was only now that the momentous event began to sink in. She was overcome by a surge of pride and excitement. My first exhibition. She knocked on the window. Silvia, who was already in the gallery moving chairs and folding tables, turned around and waved at her.
     “So, what do you think?” Silvia stepped back and motioned at Karla’s paintings. She was a woman in her fifties with a wild mane of graying hair. Her outfit was a mixture of femme fatale and hippy--low-cut, tight black top and long flowery skirt.
     “Great. I like the way you arranged them.” Karla studied the row of pictures. There were a few watercolor and acrylic landscapes with a calm Zen-like feel while many of her oil paintings exploded in fiery reds, yellows, and browns with a volcanic intensity. In addition, Karla had chosen a few more experimental pictures: landscapes which clashed with foreign objects, such as scrap metal, a computer sticking out of a flower. She wanted to strike a balance between paintings that might appeal to regular visitors and those that would receive more attention from art collectors.
     “I hope somebody shows up.” Karla sighed. “I’ve been looking forward to this, but now I’m getting nervous. Do you really think I put the right paintings up?”
     “Sure you did, they’re great. Relax.”
     “The last few of my drawings should be framed and ready by Thursday,” Karla said.
     “Good. I left space on the back wall for them. I ordered the snacks and the wine. So we’re ready. Don’t forget the bios. And don’t worry, the opening will be fabulous.” Silvia gave Karla a hug, enveloping her in a cloud of patchouli perfume.

By the time Karla arrived at the stone cottage she rented in the small village at the beginning of the Maggia Valley, the air had thickened. In the direction of Saint Gotthard, the mountain that divided the south from the north of Switzerland, towering heaps of dark clouds were churning, first signs of a thunderstorm.
     Karla filled the espresso pot with water and finely ground coffee and set it on the stove, then went into her studio, a room with a skylight and a window facing south. The owner, an artist himself, had the skylight installed since the windows in this typical southern Swiss house were small and the lighting wasn’t good enough for painting. Sitting in front of her easel, Karla began to mix her paints. The picture she was working on was the one she had been thinking about earlier that morning when she almost got hit by the car.
     The half-finished oil painting was different from her normally intense colorful landscapes. It was a stark, somber picture, almost devoid of color. It showed the stylized outline of a woman in black, a dark, lonely figure standing at the edge of the canvas who covered her face with her hands. The rest was empty space, except for a glowing spot of color at the right upper corner.
     Karla had started the painting after the unexpected death of her aunt the year before. She had been Karla’s only remaining blood-relative, aside from her father, who lived in Peru and whom she barely knew. Her aunt had raised Karla since she was five years old after her mother and grandmother had been killed in a car crash. She and Karla had been very close and her death had been a devastating blow.
     Scanning the picture with half-closed eyes, Karla picked up a brush, dipped it in a mixture of grey and green paint, then stopped to examine the painting again. The slender, dark figure looked forlorn and lost. Not even the color in the back was comforting. It was orange-red, the sun of the evening, which had lost its warmth.
     Why do I even bother with this thing? Frustrated with the timid and self-effacing woman in the painting, Karla tossed a sheet over it and put the picture once again into the storage room next to her studio.
     The espresso pot hissed on the stove and the scent of fresh coffee filled the room and dispelled the smell of paint. Karla poured herself a cup and decided to drink it black; perhaps it would ease the tension in her head. The slight headache she had woken up with had intensified during the day, in part due to the change of air pressure before the storm and in part, perhaps, because of her tumultuous morning with the young man.
     Karla stood by the kitchen window, sipping her coffee, savoring its slightly bitter taste. She tried to picture the man again, his muscular figure, his longish dark hair and, particularly, his expressive green eyes. Too bad they hadn’t met under more pleasant circumstances. In spite of his angry outburst, she felt a certain curiosity about him.
     A breeze kicked up and shook the azaleas in front of the house. The large creamy-white and red flowers of the horse chestnut trees swayed back and forth. Karla stepped outside. It smelled of rain, damp and musty. The meadows in front of the house were filled with blue, purple, and yellow wildflowers and down the hill the birches, ashes, and tall hazels along the river Maggia leaned into the wind.
     Karla went back inside and began to prepare a canvas for a new painting. She pulled the cloth tightly across the stretcher bars with the help of canvas pliers and fastened it with staples. After covering the canvas with a base layer of gesso, she set it aside to dry. She turned on her computer and printed out a stack of bios for the exhibition.
     Outside, daylight was fading fast as smoky gray storm clouds were beginning to darken the sky. After a quick dinner of soup and bread topped with cheese, Karla tried to do some sketching but nothing came of it. She was tired and her head still ached. She took an aspirin and went to bed early. Listening to the wind whooshing through the trees, she fell asleep.

Later in the night, Karla woke up drenched in sweat. The bursting of broken glass and a woman’s desperate scream for help were interrupted by claps of thunder. At first, she was unable to distinguish between the noises in her dream and the sounds of reality. A whiff of burnt rubber and acid hung in the air.
     Karla peeled back her down comforter and sat up, pushed herself to the edge of the bed, and lowered her feet to the floor. She brushed a tangle of hair from her wet forehead and took a deep breath. It had been the same nightmare she had suffered from since childhood, but the thunder and lightning were real. The grandfather clock in the next room struck eleven times. She must have just fallen asleep when the thunder woke her.
     Karla got up and looked out the window. Lightning lit up the sky and the shadows of clouds swept across the meadows. The trees bent over and swayed in the gusts of wind. She went into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of water, then sat by the window. Sipping the cold liquid, she tried to squelch the shreds of troubling images her dream had left her with: the mangled bodies, the blood, the broken glass, the fire.
     “Mama?” Karla whispered into the dark. Her eyes filled with tears. “All I have of you is a scream for help. I barely even remember what you looked like.”
     There was no answer, only the thunder in the distance. Karla got up and opened the door to the patio. She stepped outside as it began to rain. First, large individual drops hit her arms and face, then the clouds burst. She bent her head back, closed her eyes, and let the rain pound on her face for a few seconds, enjoying the harsh cleansing sensation. The water soaked through her T-shirt. She began to shiver and went inside, pulled off her top and grabbed a towel to dry herself. Back in bed, she listened to the now steady and peaceful sounding rain and fell asleep again.