Volume II, Issue I Spring 2003

Degas' Last Model

Illustrated by Charlene Baldridge

She liked it here, this small, respectable restaurant in San Diego. The owner had once been a bullfighter – that gave him standing in her view. Made him Old Woman at Dobson's, by Charlene Baldridgeless American. Reminded him of her second husband. The Spaniard. The owner wasn't Spanish – he was ruddy and blonde. But he'd fought in the corrida, and that was all that mattered.

He'd hired a good chef, too. One of the best on the West Coast. The food in his restaurant reminded her of Paris and Rome.

And he was kind to her. Always gave her the booth by the door. Once he even moved a couple already sitting there when she came on a night he didn't expect her. Ignored their protests and threats. It was, he explained once their angry voices had moved upstairs, her table, after all.

Alone. Always alone. Several times, she had overheard other patrons on their way out ask who was the stern old lady eating by herself. "My best and dearest customer" was his answer.

But who would understand? She had outlived all the family she knew, all her husbands and friends, all the girls from the corps de ballet.

She would be 103 in the summer – although who counted such things at her age? – and she was sure she was the last living model who had posed for Degas.

Perhaps "model" wasn't the right word. Degas was an old man when he came by the école de ballet in Paris where her mother had enrolled her before she even enrolled in school. He was nearly blind by then, and not as famous as he became after he died.

And all he did was ask her teacher for permission to watch the class for a half-hour or so. He made a few sketches, but never asked them to pose a certain way or do certain exercises. He just wanted to watch.

She was not yet twelve at the time, and might not even have remembered the funny old man who drew while they practiced if a few years later madame hadn't told her that his last picture had been of her.

It had been his death that had prompted madame to tell her of this. Madame never spoke to any of the girls about personal matters – class was for ballet, not socializing.

But madame had been friends with Degas, and his passing had saddened her. He had painted madame in her youth, she said, and selecting one of her students for his last work had been his final gift to her.

She was many years older now than Degas had been then, but she didn't feel old except when she remembered her friends. A ballet school. Yes. That would be just the thing. In the morning, after her coffee.

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