This happened in 1996. Today realized I wasn’t going to be able to find the pictures I took that night, so I looked for some images on the internet, and found this. It’s from 2008, and I have no idea if it’s the same woman. I don’t think I want to know.


The first time I saw her she was wearing hot pants. I knew that kind of pants had another name but that’s what popped into my mind. I let the name stay because they seemed sexy to me, those pants. I’m old enough to remember when women wore little tight shorts called hot pants, but I hadn’t liked those seventies hot pants at all, because they seemed contrived to me. So I figured I’d keep the name and dispense with its baggage.

These hot pants were like chaps, which called to mind cowgirl images, which worked because she was wearing boots, too, and underneath the hot pants, jeans, which I could see when she turned away from me. And I knew from an artist friend of mine that there was a whole cowgirl thing going on, in some women’s circles anyway, cowgirls as heroic figures, mythic women, not your homey Dale Evans types at all, but wild, free women on horseback. I thought that contrived too, but I didn’t say anything to my friend, who had been quite clearly pleased with her cowgirl tee shirt.

But this early summer evening there were no cows anywhere around, nor any horses either. No men sitting on corral rails, perched like birds, swaying back and forth, spitting and pointing at the horses, no pickup trucks, lariats, no paddocks, just a bunch of people in a back parking lot at an urban cow college, an unpaved lot tucked in behind an abandoned building, where iron was being melted and poured into molds, molds made by artists, presumably including the woman in hot pants. I guessed the hot pants were hers because they seemed to fit, but I wondered whether she did this work often enough to own a pair.

I began to think of her as beautiful and desirable even before I saw her face, which at first had been hidden by her visor and hardhat. And if she were well-formed I didn’t know about that, because of the big apron she wore.

Since nobody was with me and nobody was talking to me – nobody recognized me, even though I was a professor at that college – I felt like a tourist sitting uncomfortably on one of those rails, watching the cowpokes cut horses out for the dudes. I had time to think about what I was seeing and try to decide why the hot pants woman attracted me so much. There was no urgency.

Maybe it was her carriage, the way she strode back and forth, visor up, visor down, shovel in hand, swinging, shovel leaned against some buckets. She moved with economy and purpose, everything about her saying I belong here.

Her gait was stiff but not strutting. I could see a little straightness to her legs, the way they hit the ground without bending much at the knee, as if she were carrying a load and was bracing against it by instinct. At the same time she seemed relaxed, and I decided it was the combination of stiffness and relaxation that appealed to me. It wasn’t a busy, scuttling gait, though that would have been appropriate, because clearly this woman had things to do. Purposeful, I thought, it’s the purposeful sense of her gait that’s attracting me so.

Standing back in the shadows, as I’ll always do if I have a choice, I looked around at the crowd. She was the only woman who wasn’t a spectator. Around the edge of the parking lot there were other women, but they were wearing big loose shorts, tee shirts, tank tops, even a couple of them in summer dresses. Nobody in hot pants.

All the other people who belonged there were men. Some of them did scuttle busily around, places to go, things to do, but others just stood, seemingly in charge of some task yet to be performed, or perhaps only waiting around in case they were needed. Most were older, though some were pony-tailed. Some were balding. Two were up high on the furnaces, standing on platforms, seemingly the elite, the skilled. One tended two furnaces, the other, one. They dumped scrap metal from pails, they poured on coke, and each had a long rod, near-molten at the tip, which he used to prod, poke, move the scrap iron around in the furnaces.

They could have been branding irons, I thought, seeing if I could extend my ranching metaphor, but that didn’t work. The guys were only working their rods in and out of the furnaces, not raking them hissing over hide. Sparks showered over everything as they thrust and heaved, maybe more than they needed to, but I thought that if I were up there in front of everybody, stirring molten metal, I’d shower a few extra sparks too.

I walked over and stood next to a couple of older men, probably sixty or seventy, hoping to overhear them, curious as to what they might say. I was afraid they might be going on about crazy students, and if they were, I thought I’d say something. I’d tell a lie. I’d say some of them were my students, and that might shut them up.

But they weren’t making fun. They were interested. “What are they using?” one asked the other, who answered, “Looks like they’ve got scraps in those pails.” And then they laughed, and I couldn’t detect any condescension in their laughter. They seemed avuncular, grandfatherly even, certainly with an air of mastery about them, an air of knowledge.

I figured them for ex-steelworkers, maybe old Bethlehem guys, come down to Buffalo to be near molten metal again. It had probably been their lives. Now, it merely amuses them that the scrap iron this crew will melt clanks into the furnaces tipped from joint compound pails, the sort of thing everybody else saves for fishing or draining the furnace boiler. But that’s all right because what they’re doing, those people out there, the hot pants woman included, what they’re doing is melting iron and getting ready to pour it, and that’s what the two old guys know.

And they were probably remembering how they did it, although the scale was different, the scale here in the back parking lot with one large and two small furnaces cooking. The scale was not what they were used to, these two old men who remembered the big basic oxygen furnaces, livid cauldrons showering sparks, pouring, then dribbling steel. Tons of it. Here, it was at least molten metal, and they remembered how it was.

There was a human scale to this pour, the furnaces not much bigger than a big man, maybe two big men together. They were right about the scraps because when a pail was dumped I saw sash weights. I thought the students must have poked around in basements for the weights, pieces of black pipe, broken hinges, the tenant’s wrought iron bench, the old lady’s skillet. I liked the idea that they’d had to grub around in basements in order to get their iron, that they hadn’t put in an order someplace, hadn’t phoned or faxed in an order for five hundred pounds of art-grade iron, suitable for melting. And so something someone had loved, something someone had used and broken, something that had been dealt with in a human way, was being melted and would be poured into molds to make sculpture.

So who were the artists? I couldn’t tell; there seemed no way to know. I hoped that the hot pants woman was the only working artist, because that would have made her wholly complete and infinitely desirable. I knew it couldn’t be true, but as I watched her I decided to imagine it so.

Then she was standing in front of the larger furnace with wearing huge gloves and a holding a large mallet. The men positioned a ladle and she struck out the bung. Opened a vein, spilling molten iron out into the ladle. Smoke. Sparks. Energy. I could hardly breathe for it all. She hammered the bung back in.

“Coming through! Hot ladle!”

Her voice was low-pitched, resonant, but not sweet. She led the way, shovel in hand, processing between lines of molds, some decorated, some plain, all with names written on them. Behind her two men carried the ladle, heavy with molten iron, stepped hurriedly yet carefully, so as not to trip and spill what they were carrying. At each mold she motioned them to stop, used her shovel to flip away slag from the lip, clearing the way. Then she tipped the ladle with her shovel and poured molten iron into the mold.

As I watched this, still in the shadows, I started thinking of her as the foreman, the boss. An artist with authority. Thinking about it excited me. I’d known a few strong women, but never one who controlled dangerous material with this easy grace. I demoted the two guys up on the furnaces to lesser roles, technicians perhaps, or functionaries, toilers at the margin of power. Men who knew their place, men whose roles were to make the liquid she would then control.

When the ladle was empty I left, turning suddenly and walking away, not wanting to see any more, not wanting to see her do anything else, not wanting to see her talk to anyone, take off those hot pants, relax with a drink of some kind. I doubted that I’d ever see her again – how would I recognize her anyway? I wanted her to remain wholly as she had been, potent, in charge.

Walking home I thought of the old days when I used to drive from Cambridge to Chicago and back. I always seemed to hit Buffalo at night, and I thought the city was the stinking hellish area between the highway and the lake.

After I moved to Buffalo I realized that what I’d thought was Buffalo all those years was really Lackawanna, where the steel mills were. And I remembered what I’d said every time I drove by: Jesus, I could never live in this stinking place.

I’ve had the nude picture of me hanging in my back hall for years. It’s smaller than the one Willow had in the show, and it isn’t decorated. Even though it’s not obviously me, I never brought it into the living room, or even to my workroom. I wanted it up because I thought it was a great image, I was close to Willow, the photographer, and I didn’t want to insult her by not having any of her work up in my house. But I thought if I started talking about it I’d end up revealing that it was me. And then Willow, whose image it really was, would be pushed out of the frame and the whole thing would degenerate into my telling stories about what it was like being her model. And because that picture was more of a collaboration than any of our others, I didn’t want that to happen.

On a simpler level, I also didn’t want to be talked about as that guy who puts up pictures of himself naked.

Willow found me outside of her circle of artists and gallery people, and she kept me outside it. I was her secret. When she had images of me up she took me to the openings, but asked me not to tell.

“Someone else might want to use you,” she said, “but you’re all mine.”

That was fine with me, because I had no interest in having my Dean, or any of my ex-wives, learn that I was moonlighting as a model. I preferred keeping my freedom of spirit to myself, or at least inside and out of sight.

Willow liked to work at my house, which was a presentable Victorian, with a full complement of room styles. There was never any need to rush, unless it was late afternoon and we were worried about the light. We could always go down to the kitchen for more plastic wrap, catsup, Perrier, or tin foil. We sometimes used my video setup to check the posing. Willow turned the monitor so I could adjust myself.

She wasn’t an equipment freak. She did wonderful things with a Brownie Hawkeye; sometimes she used my old Nikon F instead of her new Canon, if I had a lens she didn’t. For Willow, the negative – and sometimes the print – was only the beginning.

The picture was done in my attic. We liked working there, because of the light, the interesting windows, and the floors. Willow chose the setting, and I chose the pose – head on arm, arm on headboard, all muscles strained. I tried for the most definition, even if it meant some awkwardness in wrist and foot. But my muscle sheaths and tendons cooperated, giving her good contrasts. Upper thigh and buttock were particularly effective, she thought. I tried for a man-in-agony pose, but Willow modulated me into a tense, perhaps worried or dejected one. The muscles worked either way. I still think I should have tipped my head down more, and looked more directly at the camera. But she said that might have made me recognizable.

Willow made a large print and painted a blue acrylic swirl in my lap, and laid a heavy black outline down my side. It went up in a gallery near my house.

I told my haircutter that I was on exhibit down the street, and she said she’d go over after work to check me out. When I stuck my head in the salon the next day all she said was “Nice.”

I was hoping for more. She’d been cutting my hair and listening to my secrets for fifteen years – why wasn’t she more interested? I let it drop, but I was disappointed. I think I was looking to push our intimacy further – not sexually, but into another mode of revealing. When we talked in the chair, she had only my words to go on. Meaning and implications fell away with the cut hair; when she swept up, she swept away what we’d talked about. I understood that. But my picture was another matter: physical, immutable, myself, at once presented by me and by Willow. I wanted her to understand, to acknowledge, the complexity of the collaboration that produced the image, and admire it for that.

And admire – hey, I can admit it now – my upper thighs and butt.

One February Willow took me across the Peace Bridge into Canada because she wanted to do me against the piled-up winter ice. She’d been waiting for a day with low, yellowish late afternoon light. Across Lake Erie, Buffalo’s lights would be coming on.

She’d already worked out how to keep me warm and functional: a sleeping bag, an overcoat, and a toboggan. I undressed in the car, laid the sleeping bag and the equipment on a toboggan, put on the overcoat and shoes, and pulled the whole works out onto the ice.

After each shot I got into the sleeping bag to warm up and wait for her to change lenses, move the tripod, or work with the light meter. Then I’d climb out, do the pose she wanted, and get back in. When she changed locations I stayed in the bag and she pulled me on the sled. Fortunately for my extremities the quality of light she wanted didn’t last very long.

Willow hoped to place some of those shots in a magazine. The prints were wonderful: a nude man lying on his side, a city in the background, across the lake. Long shadows. Long lens, so he’s jammed up against the city. Another, wide angle, camera high, man embracing column of jumbled ice. Man under outcrop of ice, egg pose. Man leaping – that one was tricky. Man, back to camera, legs spread, arms outstretched as if to embrace low clouds, city lights in his armpits.

“Come on,” Willow said, “Spread a little more. I want some scrotum in this one.”

I could only laugh, because my scrotum was about the size of a walnut and somewhere near my kidneys.

“If that’s what you wanted,” I told her, “you should have brought one of those hunter’s hand warmers.”