Loving an Artist

Chapter 10

The red numerals on the digital clock read 11:30. John couldn’t believe that he slept that late. He heard a soft knock at the door, got up and timidly open the door a crack to find the room attendant outside. He inquired if John was ready to have his room cleaned. John asked him to come back in half an hour. The attendant smiled as John closed the door before realizing the attendant could clearly see his pasty white naked body reflected in the floor to ceiling mirror by the door. John didn’t care since he wasn’t much to look at with saggy arms and scruffy face. As he walked into the bathroom he realized how hard he had slept. He felt like he was carrying a bag of concrete on his back.

That was the first morning of the seven days and nights he spent at the Conrad. John spent hours sitting and watching people at a small, noisy coffee shop on Clark Quay. His first challenge was notifying someone in Richard’s family that he had died. He remembered meeting Richard’s sister, Jenny, at their first Christmas at the Michigan house. After she, her boyfriend and his sons left Richard never mentioned her again. John assumed Richard didn’t approve of the guy. John hoped they still lived in the Bloomington, Illinois area. John felt an obligation to let someone in his family know this private, wonderful artistic man was dead. John had Richard’s camera bag and hoped his wallet was in there rather than having been washed down the river.

When John got back to the hotel he opened the bag and found cameras and a small tripod. In the zipper pocket was Richard’s wallet. Mildew had begun to grow. He wiped the mildew off and opened it. Richard’s driver’s license had their Chicago address on it. There were no pictures but a significant amount of Singapore currency. Richard had three credit cards which were the same three John had. Slipped between the folds of the wallet John found a business card with bent edges and brown moisture stains. The name on the card was Jennifer Johnson, Esq with an address in Bloomington, Illinois. There was an email address.

He carefully composed an email so as not to shock her if she was his sister. He wrote, “I am John Jeffery, a friend of Richard Johnson. Sadly, I have to inform you that Mr. Johnson passed away in a tragic accident in Malaysia. I am attempting to locate his relatives. Your business card was among his belongings. His body was cremated in Singapore. If you or one or someone in his family would like to receive his ashes I will send them. I’m sorry to have to bring this bad news to you. Thank you.” He hit the send button. No response came immediately because it was the middle of the night in Illinois. John didn’t hear anything and assumed the email address was bad or the woman he addressed wasn’t interested.

In the middle of the night three days later John heard a ping that an email had arrived. He got up hoping that Jenny Johnson had responded. The message said, “Mr. Jeffery, I am sorry to inform you that Ms. Johnson is deceased. After some checking in her files we found the last will and testament of Mr. Richard Johnson of Chicago, who we assume is your Mr. Johnson. You are the sole beneficiary of his worldly assets. We will be happy to FedEx the will to you if you could give us your address. We were able to contact Ms. Johnson’s stepson who told us she didn’t have a relative named Richard Johnson. We are sorry we are unable to help you further. C. Abrams”

St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Singapore

St. Andrew's Cathedral

Even though it wasn’t the answer John wanted he returned to bed knowing he tried. Alone he had to decide what to do with Richard’s ashes. He fell asleep. The next morning was Sunday and John surprised himself and got ready to go to church. He wasn’t religious but felt he needed to go to church. He went to stately, white St. Andrew’s Cathedral near City Hall MRT Station. The building from the British colonial time was filled with people singing and reciting verses which in a strange way gave John comfort. The priest warmly greeted him as the congregation processed out into the hot, muggy afternoon. He walked along the Singapore River toward his favorite coffee shop. He ordered coffee with warm milk. The priest from St. Andrew’s came walking by and stopped. He stepped toward John. In a distinctively British accent he addressed John, “Good morning, Sir. I’m Father Mark Ambrose. We’re happy you joined us at St. Andrew’s. Are you visiting Singapore?”

“I came to Singapore with my partner and some friends. Unfortunately, my partner was killed in an accident in Malaysia. I’m dealing with the details relating to his death before I return to the US.”

“I’m so sorry. I think I read about the accident. Was it close to Mulu Cave?”

“Yes, it happened almost two weeks ago. My young friends were also involved but they survived bruised, scared but alive.”

“Are they still with you, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“No, they left Singapore shortly after the accident to return to Chicago where we’re from. Could I invite you to have tea or coffee?”

“I would like to but my partner has lunch waiting. Can we get together another time?”

Somewhat smartly I answered, “All I have is time waiting for Richard’s ashes to be delivered to me.” He firmly gripped my right hand and placed his calling card in it.

“Call me tomorrow. We will arrange a time.” He turned and walked away.

For the first time since the accident John felt someone cared about him. As he sat in the cafe he was having a harder and harder time seeing himself back in Chicago or Michigan without Richard. He decided, probably to hastily, to stay in Singapore for a while even though he didn’t know anyone except Rev. Ambrose. John did as he was requested and called Reverend Ambrose at the church the following day. He invited John to have lunch with him and his partner. The priest suggested the same coffee shop on Clark Quay where they met. John was there in plenty of time when Rev. Ambrose and a handsome, young Asian man walked toward him. He introduced his partner as Vincent and said, “May I call you John?”

“Yes, of course.”

“And please call me Mark. I was telling Vincent about you and the accident. He read about it in the Malaysian language newspaper which gave more details than were reported in The Straits Times.”

Vincent spoke for the first time, “The Malaysian newspaper reported two deaths and two survivors, is that correct?”

“You are answering a question that the boys and I had when we were in Miri. We didn’t know what happened to the boatman. His body must have been found later.”

“I understand from Mark that the boys you referred to have left Singapore?” At this point in the conversation John told them the entire story of the trip to India, Thailand and Singapore. Vincent inquired about Alex and Raj as well as Archie and Luuk. Rev. Mark sat quietly as Vincent quizzed John. He asked, “Were Mr. Johnson’s camera’s recovered?”

“Yes, I have them but have not looked at the pictures. It is too hard for me.”

Mark interjected, “Vincent is quite a photographer. Perhaps he can print a few good ones for you.”

“I would like that. You will find exotic photos on the chip in the camera if it isn’t spoiled. Richard planned a coffee table book of photographs of our travels in Asia.”

Vincent said, “I admire the male body and would be happy to look at what is on the camera chip.” Our lunch concluded with Rev. Mark inviting John to a group grief counseling session at the church. Vincent insisted John come to their condo for dinner Friday night. Vincent asked again if John was comfortable sharing Richard’s cameras with him. John said that he was.

In a strange way John was happy someone wanted the cameras since he didn’t know what to do with them. At the appointed time John arrived at their condo further down Clark Quay and found a Spartan but efficient two bedroom space with one small bathroom. In one room was Mark’s cluttered desk. There was no obvious place for Vincent to do his photography. John handed him the camera bag. Vincent stepped toward a closet door. When opened it revealed a large monitor screen and several computers. He set the bag on his rolling chair and closed the door. Vincent left to buy lunch at the local hacker center off the quay.

At the conclusion of their conversation Mark said, “What are your plans? How long will you stay in the Conrad?

“I have been renting on a week-to-week basis but had decided I’m not in a hurry to return to winter in the Midwest.” What John didn’t say was he really didn’t want to think of the Midwest without Richard.

Mark said, “We don’t want you to make a hasty decision but if you would like you can stay in Mark’s office on the day bed until you decide what you are going to do. You are welcome. I am sure we will be more friendly than a lonely hotel room.”

John thanked him for the kind offer but didn’t accept immediately. He saw Mark at church Sunday and didn’t say anything further as Mark warmly greeted John after service ended.

On Wednesday after the grief group meeting attended mainly by older Asian women John arranged a private counseling session with Mark. John told him that he wasn’t going back to Chicago. He told Mark that he had already contacted John and Kevin, their neighbors, and asked them to list their furnished condo. John preferred to sell as wass and insisted that his neighbors be compensated for their trouble. He sent a Fedex letter authorizing them to hire a moving company to pack and store Richard’s art. In the case of the Michigan house he sent a Whatsup message to Seth, Miriam’s son, telling him they needed to speak. The call was scheduled because of the twelve hour time difference. When John reached Seth he explained what had happened in uncomfortable detail. Seth acknowledged that he had heard from Archie. John told Seth he didn’t want to come back to Miriam’s house without Richard. Seth understood. John proposed to Seth that he and his husband buy the house. He quoted the same low price they bought the house for originally. Seth immediately agreed because the house had doubled in value. Seth insisted that John use the house when he returned to the USA. John felt much better that he had made some decisions.

Mark and Vincent were having breakfast with John several weeks later when John told them he had decided to buy a condo. Mark calmly suggested that he rent before buying. He suggested that finding a private flat was difficult and maybe he was moving too quickly. Vincent said, “If you’re serious I know a trustworthy estate agent who can help you locate a reasonably priced furnished apartment. With Vincent’s friend, John looked at three small units. He made an offer on a one bedroom flat with one bedroom and one small bathroom next to the tiny kitchen. The place was affordable and only a few blocks from Mark and Vincent’s condo. Even when converting Sing dollars to US dollars the price was expensive. When John informed Vincent and Mark about his purchase. They seemed happy for him. With the sale of both properties in the USA and the proceeds of a company life insurance policy that Richard had there were sufficient assets to allow John to be granted a permanent resident visa from the Singapore government. John asked Mark to be executor of his estate.

After John moved in he asked Mark if he knew someone from the congregation who would be willing to come in to cook and clean for him. John thought Mark would recommend an older woman but instead he suggested that John meet a young Chinese fellow who might be able to do what he needed to have done. John met Chu Ling the next day and again several days later. Chu Ling’s English was heavily accented but if John listened closely he could understand what he was saying.

Mark told him the boy had been orphaned in China and had no idea who his parents were. When he was ten years old the orphanage sent him to Singapore to live with an elderly aunty. Unfortunately, shortly after he arrived she was diagnosed with lung cancer and died three years ago. Before she became too ill she was able to convince the Singapore government to grant Chu Ling a permanent resident IC. After her death her family forced Chu Ling to leave her HDB flat. Mark told John Chu was currently living in a church’s member’s spare bedroom which the church was paying for. The arrangement was not comfortable for Chu since the older man and woman went to bed early turning off all the lights. He told John Chu Ling was in school and had finished his “A” levels but didn’t have the money to continue school.

Somewhat hesitantly, John hired him. He moved in the following day with his meager belongings. John bought a futon so he could sleep next to John’s bed. After stumbling over him several times as John went to the bathroom at night John invited Chu to sleep in his bed. Without hesitation he accepted. A couple of nights later John felt Chu stroking his hairy butt. John didn’t stop him because he missed the little intimacy he had with Richard. John decided not to let the physical intimacy go further.

Young nude man on beach

Chu Ling

As it turned out Chu was no better cook than John but he was tidy and kept the flat clean. Chu was comfortable dressed or undressed in front of John. Soon he was naked more than John was.

They took long walks in the botanical gardens or along the river discussing questions Chu had. After one walk on a particularly steamy day Chu Ling uninhibitedly posed for John and before returning to the flat of shower. Boldly John pulled Chu Ling into him and kissed him solidly on the lips. Chu didn’t hesitate and kissed him passionately. John’s intention of limiting their intimacy was abandoned as they snuggled and kissed regularly. Chu’s hard little dick never seems to subside when he is in bed. He had to work to get John hard. Chu was patient and John was happy when nature let him perform.

One matter of concern to John was what would Chu do when he was gone. He insisted that Chu learn a skill. With John’s encouragement Chu decided to learn to cook better. John agreed and helped Chu enroll in a government sponsored program to train chefs for the burgeoning Singapore restaurant scene.

John in later years


In late October on the occasion of John’s 70th birthday Mark and Vincent rented a private room in one of Singapore’s fanciest Chinese restaurants. They invited not only Chu Ling and John but several other white-Asian couples who John had met through Mark and Vincent. A delicious eight course dinner was served before Vincent stood to congratulate John. Automatically a screen came down from the ceiling. Vincent flashed two of Richard’s pictures onto the screen. Archie and Luuk were smartly dressed in the orchid garden in Bangkok. He stopped, “John, I want you to see these spectacular pictures from Richard’s cameras. The images are warm and loving.” John couldn’t keep the tears from filling his eyes. Vincent projected twenty more pictures to audible murmurs from the group.

He lifted a package from the table near his seat and handed it to John. As the others watched John tore off the packaging to find a beautiful, bond notebook of Richard’s photos which included more provocative, erotic shots which Vincent didn’t show in the restaurant. The notebook was passed around the table. Chu Ling tightly held John’s hand as they watched the possitive reactions on the faces of those who viewed the pictures. As John and Chu prepared to leave Vincent said, “Can we meet soon? I have an idea to discuss with you.” John shook his head affirmatively but couldn’t talk because he trying not to cry.

When Chu Ling and John got home Chu said, “John, you mention Richard before. He, your partner, right? You never tell me he a photographer. Who the boys?” John realized that in all the talking he and Chu had done the subject of Richard, Archie and Luuk had only come up indirectly. Chu Ling wanted to know all the details which they discussed late into the night. The next morning they were still in bed when Vincent texted that he was on his way over. With John in his underwear and Chu naked making tea the buzzer sounded. Vincent came into the flat and seemed unconcerned about the casual nature of either John or Chu. They sat at the small eating table where John had placed his birthday notebook. After Chu Ling served tea Vincent said as he flipped through the notebook, “John, I hope you liked the book.” John smiled knowing Vincent had more on his mind. “I feel Richard’s pictures should be shared.”

“Vincent, that was his intention but with his death I don’t have the will or the energy to pursue the project.”

He continued, “Richard’s eye captured the essence of the boy’s love. The photos reveal that the boys really cared about each other and weren’t just models.”

“Where did the Thai boys come from? There were only a few pictures.” John explained the Thai photographer’s helped secure the photo sites in Bangkok and the boys were his helpers.

Vincent continued, “Would you consider having me submit your book to a publisher? The photos are too beautiful to be left in Richard’s camera. The project will cost money that Mark and I don’t have.”

Without agreeing John said, “I do have an idea where we could get the money. When I put our condo on the market I put all of Richard’s framed art work and photographs in storage. I suspect there are twenty-five to thirty original art pieces. Several spectacular pieces are in our Michigan house. An auction of his art might generate the needed funds. How much do you think an agent or publisher will require?”

“I don’t know but let me do some investigating.”

“In the meantime I’ll contact a gallery in Chicago.” After some small talk Vincent left as Chu Ling washed the cups. John opened his computer and sent an email to Richard Clarke. Richard emailed the contact information for a woman, Norma Goldberg, who was the owner of his former gallery. John emailed her asking if she would be willing to serve as a consultant to determine if Richard’s art work was marketable. She wrote that she would and proposed an unusually high commission if the works were to go to auction. John contacted Seth and explained that he would like to sell several of Richard’s painting that hung in Miriam’s house. His message back suggested Seth was reluctant and asked if he could keep the one of he and Max which was the last painting Richard had completed. John couldn’t say ‘no’ since was sold the house as is. Seth agreed to drive the other four or five painting to the gallery but said he would attend the auction in hopes of buying a couple of the lake scenes Richard did.

John was constantly tired dealing with so many details. Several days later John emailed John and Kevin and offered to hire them to manage the details of the auction since he didn’t want to fly back to Chicago. Kevin, a fabric artist, agreed to oversee the process. Kevin said he would keep track of his hours. John emailed Norma’s contact information to Kevin so he could have Richard’s art delivered to an offsite location where she could evaluate them. Kevin emailed John daily telling him how difficult and bitchy Norma was to work with. Weeks passed before Norma got back to Kevin with her evaluation of the art. She didn’t offer her opinion of Richard’s art but she emailed that she thought his works were saleable. Kevin emailed John informing him that she had hired him to design an email flyer to advertise the auction. Since Richard was a graduate of the School of the Art Institute they assumed they could secure the third floor lobby of the school for the auction.

Chu Ling was loving and warm and didn’t demand attention. When John was particularly tired and stressed Chu insisted that John lie on the bed. Chu would get naked and sit on John’s butt and massage his shoulders and back. John loved the massages which rejuvenated him. Vincent found a reputable publisher who required a 20,000SD deposit to print 1000 books of approximately 100 pages each. John was concerned that the shipping cost to the states would be high. John didn’t know that the publisher’s estimate included shipping to Chicago. As curator of the book Vincent selected the photos and did a preliminary layout which he shared with John. John was pleased until Vincent informed him that an introductory essay needed to be written, implying that John needed to write it. John told him he didn’t know what to write. Vincent insisted.

Even with Norma and Kevin’s involvement there were a myriad of daily decisions John had to make. If there wasn’t an email from one of them there was a Whatsup call in the middle of the night that needed responding to. John thought it might have been easier to fly to Chicago. Chu Ling and he took long walks in the botanical gardens often not saying too much as John tried to relax. John talked to Chu about what he should write in the essay. He started over and over trying to capture in words the wonderful experience loving and working with Richard. He wanted to express his genuine feelings for Richard as a lover without getting sappy or sweet. John asked the Thai photographer for his thoughts who wrote a beautiful tribute in English that John thought was too flowery. Finally, after multiple editings by Rev. Mark, Vincent sent the essay to the book publisher.

When John reviewed the proof he didn’t feel the essay did the beautiful photos justice. He left it alone. In email consultation with Norma the decision was made to hold the auction when the book was ready for sale. The occasion of the auction would be the preview party for the book. That decision delayed the auction until late March or early April the following year. As things came together Kevin and Norma secured the school’s lobby for Friday, April 4. Kevin’s flyer was emailed to Norma’s patrons list plus a list provided by the school’s alumni office. Kevin and John emailed the flyer to their friends and placed an ad in Gay Chicago.

The week before the auction John got a cold. Fortunately, most of the important decisions had been made. As John lay in bed sipping hot tea he was apprehensive that the auction wouldn’t generate enough income to offset the publishers required guarantee and Norma’s 25% commission plus her consulting fee. He stayed in the condo for three days. Chu Ling understood but was busy with culinary school and not home very much. The night of the auction which was mid-morning in Singapore John waited for someone to send him a message. Finally, at 10 am a Whatsup message arrived. It said, “I’ll call in ten minutes when final tally is available. You’ll be pleased, Kevin.”

John paced as he waited for the call which came thirty minutes later. Kevin started, “John, sorry, I wanted correct figures for you. You’ll be pleased.” There was a delay as Kevin apparently handed the phone to his partner, John who said, “As a result of a positive review of the book in the Chicago Tribune the auction was not only a tremendous success but we sold out all the advance copies of Richard’s book. The framed paintings and photos netted close to $50,000 before Norma’s commission. The better news is the presale of the book. With the advance sales of the thirty books $3000 was collected and there are orders for three hundred more books from a major distributor of art books. With the negotiated price you should collect another $10,000.”

“John, that’s fantastic news. How did the boys do?” remembering John had texted Luuk and Archie asking if they could attend the auction.

“They were great ambassadors for the book. They signed autographs in as many books as we had.”

“John, you and Kevin, have done so much. I want you to take $10,000 for your effort. I have decided to set up a painting scholarship at the school with the profits from the auction and the book sale. I would appreciate it if you could handle the details of establishing the scholarship in Richard’s name. Finally, I would like you to give Luuk and Archie $1000 each. Would you can ask Norma to draw checks from her gallery. That would be great?”

John said, “You mentioned the scholarship idea to Kevin earlier and I investigated what needed to be done. Since we had to get the dean’s approval we think we got the auction venue because she hoped a scholarship would follow. We have papers for you to sign which I’ll email to you. You don’t have to send the originals back. The school’s lawyer said your electronic signature was sufficient. I will talk to Norma about drawing the checks for the boys. Also, we have an autographed copy of the book for you.”

“Thank you so much. John, I’m tired but so happy. I can’t thank Kevin and you enough.” The emailed documents arrived within thirty minutes and John signed them. He told Chu Ling the good news and in the afternoon he walked with Chu Ling to the DHL office to transmit the documents back to the dean. They stopped at a Thai restaurant before returning home. John mentioned that he was going to church the following morning.

When John got home he was sleepy and got ready for bed. Chu Ling got in bed with him and held him tightly. When John woke up later Chu Ling wasn’t next to him but he felt Chu crawl into bed but didn’t know what time it was. After having his morning tea John left for church. He wrote Chu a quick note suggesting where they might go for lunch. He walked several blocks to the MRT station. Every step was an effort on a particularly hot day. Trudging up the stairs he walked out of the City Hall MRT station, through the iron gates, across the lawn and into the church. He dropped into one of the wicker bottom chairs and admired the stained glass windows framed by the stark while walls of the sanctuary. John’s eyes were heavy and his arms seemed to be trembling. He caught himself falling asleep during Mark’s homily. He wasn’t able get up to take communion.

Epilogue written by The Right Reverend Mark Ambrose, St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Singapore

At the end of service last Sunday May 1 I was processing to the back door to receive parishioners. I noticed John was slumped asleep in his chair. I planned to wake him when the sanctuary was empty. I didn’t want to embarrass him. Before I could get to him an usher motioned for me to come to where John was sitting. Immediately I knew he wasn’t asleep but wasn’t sure if he had passed away. The usher felt for a pulse and there was none. I immediately thought of Chu Ling. I pulled my cell phone from under my cassock and dialed his number. He answered and I told him to come to the church as soon as he could. He didn’t ask “Why?” I sat next to John and rested his head on my shoulder and held his cold hands. I thought about how we would celebrate his warm heart. I dreaded having to tell Chu Ling.

As I expected Chu Ling cried when he heard that John had passed away. After John’s body was removed by the rescue squad Chu and I sat holding each other for a long time. He told me about his intimacy with John which pleased me for John’s sake. His grief was genuine.

In John’s handwritten will he left Chu Ling the flat which was fully paid for plus a million Sing Dollars. The remainder of the estate was to pay expenses to have John’s body cremated. In a note accompanying the will he asked Vincent and me to host a small remembrance dinner after his ashes and those of Richard were entombed in St. Mark’s Columbarium located under the main alter of the church. After all expenses were paid an amount of approximately one hundred thousand SD was left to the church’s endowment.

Shortly before the remembrance dinner two autographed copies of Richard’s new book arrived. Chu Ling brought one to the dinner and asked if I Vincent and I would like to have it. We were more than happy to receive it. The autographed copy of Richard’s book is prominent on our table for anyone interested in seeing Richard’s art. John’s final project to preserve Richard’s photos of loving young men will be special forever. When I look at the book I celebrate John’s love for his artist.

Author’s note:

I loved writing this story because I love and have visited most of the places I wrote about. My travel experiences appear on my blog, LLOYDCHENGTRIP.

I invite your comments about the story to rawlingbros@gmail.com. I hope you enjoy reading the story as much as I did writing it. The original art is the work of my friend from Palm Springs, CA, Guy Krantz. I used the water colors and sketches with his permission. I want to thank Don W for proofreading the story. The photos I used came from the internet where there were no photographer credits. If any photographer wants credit let me know. Several pictures were purchased from Depositstock.com.