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The Last Nude

by Ellis Avery

Hardcover, 320 pages, Penguin Group USA, List Price: $25.95 |


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Ellis Avery

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Excerpt: The Last Nude

I only met Tamara do Limpicka because I needed a hundred francs. This was sixteen years ago. I had just learned that if I had a black dress with a white collar, I could take over my flatmate's department store job. In 1927, you could get a bed or a bicycle for three hundred francs; one hundred was a fair price to pay for a ready-made dress, but I didn't have it.

I would try my friend Maggey first: I had given her money once when she needed to see a doctor. After my interview at the department store, I looked for her in the Bois de Boulogne.

Maggey went by the name of her place of employment, a magnolia tree on the southernmost lip of the bigger lake, close to the road. I could see a man turn as I walked by, and as I approached the magnolia tree (where was Maggey?) I could see another, a man in a fiacre, pointing me out to his driver.

For my part, I couldn't help noticing the jewel-green motorcar parked on the grass up ahead, out of which emerged a woman with a dog. They formed a triangle at the edge of the trees: greyhound, green Bugatti, slim stylish woman. Her bobbed hair gleamed pale beneath an exquisitely useless aviator's hood done in putty-colored kid. Her dog's whole body strained toward the trees, yet he stood as still as a hound in a medieval tapestry, quivering patiently until the woman unclipped his leash. He looked up at her, waiting. "Vas-y!" she cried, and the dog vanished into the green, a long-bodied blur.

I reached the neck of land between the two lakes, and saw neither Maggey nor the overdressed boyfriend she sometimes brought along. I would walk as far as the Chinese pavilion on the island, I decided, and if I didn't see Maggey when I came back, I'd give up and ask my flatmate, Gin, for the money. Unfortunately, I couldn't ask for her uniform: Gin had the boyish, birdlike looks that were in vogue then, while next to her I felt heavily, irredeemably, New York Italian. But if she could give me both of her uniforms, I thought, maybe I could use fabric from one to work gores into the other. That would take time, though, and I needed the dress first thing the next morning. The sunlight broke the lake into a thousand hard-edged mirrors, but the pines were cool overhead, their needles fragrant on the ground. One of the men on the path said something to me and I looked away. But then I heard footsteps behind me, and a woman's voice. "Where did you get your dress, Mademoiselle?"

I had chosen my lucky blue dress for the interview at Belle Jardinière precisely because it often drew comment. I looked back: it was the woman with the green car. She didn't speak French like a French person, but she spoke it better than I did. "I made it," I said, struck shy by her beauty and her obvious wealth.

In her twenties, the woman stood as tautly slender as her greyhound, yet her Eastern European features suggested a fleshy, languid ease. "Comme c'est jolie," she said.

I pointed at the Bugatti. "I was just admiring — " I said, or hoped I said. "It's not mine — should I speak Italian to you? English?"

"English, I guess," I said in English, embarrassed. But I switched back to French, explaining, "I try to practice — "

" — but I am thinking I might buy myself a car like this one," she said. Her English was like sandpaper, Slavic and pained. That's why her French sounded strange, I thought. Was she Russian? "Would you like to help me try it out?"

I laughed uncomfortably, and looked over at Maggey's tree. No Maggey, so I lingered with the woman as she called her dog. "Seffa!"

"Seffa?" I had to repeat the woman's explanation out loud to understand it. "Zee Vest Vind? Oh!" I said, catching on.

More gale than zephyr, Seffa suddenly burst out of the trees, carrying a bloodied rabbit. He tossed his prey to the ground and rolled around on the torn body, legs in the air. "No, Seffa! That's enough," the woman said in French, and the dog stood, trembling. He was slow to let her open his jaws and pry something out. When she leashed him, he stood close by her side near the car, but looked back, openmouthed.

The top of the car was down. The woman reached inside for a copy of Le Temps and opened a sheet of newsprint across her dog's back. She wiped the blood off him, and he whined when the corners of the paper nipped at his legs. "In," she said, and in two leaps the greyhound was helming the back-seat, eyes and nose trained on his relinquished prize. "See?" she said to me. "Now we can go anywhere you like."

"You're kidding," I said, laughing again.

The woman laughed, too, but her gloved hands wound together. Her red mouth moved before she spoke. She seemed afraid she might offend me. She looked down at my sad old shoes, and suddenly I knew we were thinking the same thing: she had money and I needed it. It was the Bois de Boulogne, after all. What was she doing here? "I ask because you are beautiful," she said, "and I am a painter. I paint nudes. Please, may I give you my card? May I paint you sometime?"

Was that all, then? I looked at her carefully. Whatever she had in mind, I figured, I could get out of it if I needed to.

The woman was named Tamara, she said. Her studio was in the Seventh, a quick ride. Her car shone bottle-green, a praying mantis, a cunning toy. As I stared at it, a man in a fedora addressed me in flat Chicago English: "Well, can I paint you too?"

I glanced over at him: a nattily dressed midwestern boy, standing too close, but smiling so hopefully I felt a spike of pity for him. I relished it. "Sorry, Charlie," I singsonged, and then someone called out to him in French.

I watched the American and his friend spar in greeting like boxers, glancing over at me from time to time. It felt good to harden my face against them the way Tamara did, to turn away. And toward a car that wasn't a taxicab, at that. I looked up at her. "Would you think about it?" she said.

"For a hundred francs, I would do it," I said. "I would do it right now." "A hundred francs for five hours, yes?"

I could have Gin's job and owe her nothing. I looked back again toward Maggey's tree: still no Maggey. "Let's go," I said.

Reprinted from The Last Nude by Ellis Avery by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright 2012 by Ellis Avery.