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Something For Over The Couch
Well I remember my first commission painting. It was to be “Something for over the couch.” I was in high school and had only just started painting. My brother had graduated and was only just married. It was my brother, two years older than myself, who wanted me to do a painting for over his couch. My brother’s interest in my paintings was something new. Perhaps since he was now married, he had started to take things more seriously because in the past my interest in painting was an object of his ridicule.
Once, standing behind me as I labored over a small watercolor abstraction in my sketchbook he made this suggestion, “It needs some black. Take black and cover it all over, top to bottom.”
He would introduce me to his friends saying, “This is my brother Dicky. He paints pictures.”
I asked my brother what kind of picture he wanted for over his couch and by way of an answer he waved his arms back and forth and said, “You know, horizontal, abstract and horizontal.”
There was the question of payment, always a sensitive subject when dealing with relatives, and I suggested thirty-five dollars, assuming that it would cover the expenses of the project. But he had other complicated ideas he thought would help me in my art career. He suggested that after the painting was hung over the couch he would move his Friday night poker game with his friends into the living room from the kitchen. He planned to set up the card table next to the couch and under the painting. This arrangement he was sure, would lead to my getting new commissions for paintings for his friends’ mothers couches.
I did not see any way this idea would not succeed, and I was surprised I had not thought of it myself. Looking back on it now I am struck by how one’s ability to picture in the mind the perfect outcome of some situation leads almost immediately to the expectation of its easy accomplishment.
First, however, I had to produce the painting, it was to be a painting for a particular destination, and large, and not simply some 8 x 10 inch watercolor in a sketchbook, which was almost all that I had ever done so far. What shapes was this abstract painting going to contain, and what colors? I had no idea, but I set to work using the only method I had confidence in which consisted of numerous accumulated accidents, scrubbed out in frustration with rags and turpentine. The biggest problem with the completion of the painting was an army green color that kept showing up whenever I tried to mix two colors together.
I finally solved the problem of the army green tint by using up almost an entire tube of dark blue which was the only color I could find in my paint box willing to do battle with the grey green soup I was trying to get rid of. I was not happy with some geometric shapes I included because they looked too mechanical but I blended their edges with my turpentine rag rubbing procedure, a procedure I felt I had invented and intended at some point to name, although I had not thought of anything yet.
Once my painting was done I took it down from my easel and hung it on the wall of my studio. Although I was just beginning to paint I was fortunate to have my own studio far from the sarcastic prying eyes and belittling remarks of my family. My studio was a small room in the attic of our house complete with a sloping ceiling, faded depression era wallpaper, and various holes in the walls, an army cot, an ashtray and an AM radio.
Many was the afternoon when I would open the door to the attic stairs, and go up into the privacy of my little studio room, and set to work on my future masterpieces, but this studio room of mine has an unfortunate defect that interfered with all my plans. On the wall just outside of the door to this studio hung an ancient dartboard, and three darts and it became my regular custom to keep these darts on the landing of the stairs to the attic, and then, from that maximum distance, throw each of those darts at the dart board as a kind of ritual, a ritual that would proceed my entrance into the meditative solitude of my art studio.
I think at this point I would like to break off here and say something about the history of, not art, but the history of Christianity. When I think of Christianity, I think mostly of the simple and touching things that Jesus said to his followers, and for the life of me I can’t seem to understand how all of the other strange things came into existence like the censers, the holy water, the saints, the statues, the calendars with hearts and blood dripping down like my grandfather and grandmother had in their kitchen by the sink. Apparently they did not think that a picture of a heart with blood dripping down was at all strange, since they hung it in their kitchen, but then they were Catholic, and I was not. Why my family was not Catholic, and all my four grandparents were, is not something I want to have to explain to you at the moment, and perhaps not ever.
Although my family was of a Protestant faith, nevertheless every Christmas Eve the entire large family with all the aunts and uncles and the children would get together for a strictly Catholic feast. We would feast on fish dishes from five in the afternoon till midnight, and then at the end of the fast the meat dishes were brought out from the kitchen. This once yearly event was the only time in my childhood when I would for a few hours be a ‘Catholic.’ What did this mean? It meant that, although I might be only seven years old, for several hours I was allowed to surreptitiously drink wine. I was allowed, unobserved, to become completely drunk on sips of wine stolen from the various wine glasses profusely left all over the assorted card tables, end tables, and even on the arms of chairs, and next to the kitchen sink.
I certainly had no idea I had become drunk. It was just that I could not speak properly, and kept slipping off my chair onto the floor. I tried my best to conceal my condition but around midnight a most extraordinary event would take place. My Catholic cousins would insist that I be allowed to go with them to attend Midnight Mass. My mother’s horrified and fearful objections were shouted down by twenty or thirty of my drunken but devout relatives, and so I staggered out into the night and got into the back seat of my Uncle Frank’s DeSoto, next to six other cousins, and we went to Saint Mary’s of the I-do-not-know-what for the midnight mass. All those years I attended I never knew that my cousins insisted I be there to provide a strange entertainment for them.
The entire reason my cousins took such an interest in my attending mass was very simple, they only wanted to secretly watch me cross myself with my left hand, because first, I was left handed, and second, I had so little knowledge of the religion the it would never even cross my mind that one must cross oneself with the right hand. These cousins, who I rarely saw, and whose names I often had to be reminded of, never let on about this sin I was committing once every year. They kept silent about it because they were in church and you never laugh in church, especially at those moments when you might be expected to genuflect. But more importantly, they never wanted me to know, so that their ritual of my damnation could be repeated year after year. And it was repeated even after I went to college, and returned a man of the world, a New Yorker almost, and driving a car.
Finally they told me one Christmas, that for my entire childhood I had a moniker, and did not even know it, I was the “Left Handed Catholic.”
I no longer remember the time, the place, or the words of the moment when I was informed of this fact about myself, but it filled me with a strange pride, as if I had my own religion and my own personal idea of devotion.
Though I do not remember being told about my incorrect gesture, I clearly remember my first impression of the mass itself. My very first thought as the procedure began was something like, “Why is that man in a white dress, and why are the boys dressed like girls? Why do they keep ringing that little bell? Every aspect but one looked to me like a sort of comical one-act play created by teenagers in order to ridicule religion.
Only one element stood out from the absurd spectacle and that was the sound of the Latin, intoned by the priest. The Latin trumped all, and lent inexplicable knowledge, truth and wisdom to an otherwise absurd affair. One cannot argue with Latin, not in the church, not in the courtroom, and not in the doctor’s office. It lends its authority to anything it touches. All of this was observed by a drunken seven year old devoutly crossing himself with his left hand.
I was not completely oblivious; I was not certain how one should cross oneself. I asked myself this question. “After touching the forehead and then the belly button, do you go for the right shoulder first, or the left?” Years later I answered this question for myself. You go to the right first. I know this because it is what I decided to do, and that can be the only final answer to any questions concerning religious observances.
But why have I dredged up this curious memory? I was trying to explain how the game of darts, indulged in on my way to the studio in the attic, had become a meaningless ritual that consumed the content of my purpose. Painting paintings was the Latin of life, the place of some glimpsed but misunderstood truth. And darts was the ritual that destroyed it. Darts took up half my time, but that was just the half of it. The rest of my creative life was consumed by a large painting I had abandoned a year before. This painting was parked against the outer wall of my studio entirely blocking a small window. In the middle of this painting a hole had been punched, and through that hole could be glimpsed one of the second floor windows of a neighbors house.
Something For Over The Couch
The Substitutes Book Report
My first commissioned painting, for over my brother’s couch in his new apartment, was finished. I was confident he would like it, but taking it down from my easel and hanging it on the wall, I encountered an unexpected problem.
My painting was not flat. The bottom right corner stuck out from the wall a full three inches. If I pushed the offending corner against the wall, the top left corner would become the problem corner. What could one do in such a situation? This is what I did. I took the canvas off the wall, propped it against my foot, and began twisting the stretchers, stopping just short of cracking them. This made no perceptible difference.
I could think of no solution for this problem, but there was a solution living in a nearby town. The solution was a middle-aged woman, the wife of a brain surgeon, who had become bored with her life. I did not know this woman and had never met her, but one day about a month previous to the completion of the couch painting, she showed up as the substitute teacher for art class in my high school.
I have not mentioned that I was taking art in my junior year. I did not mention it because up until that time it did not matter to me at all. No art was being created in the art class. The teacher who taught art had been in the position perhaps as long as the school had been in existence, and over the years she had lost interest in art altogether. She did not even say anything to the students and she did not take attendance, but spent the day looking at magazines as if she were at home in her living room.
On the tables there were cigar boxes full of the stubs of old crayons, and the forty minutes of art class consisted of crayon wars. Everyone in the room, armed with handfuls of crayons, would throw them singly or in handfuls at each other. I said ‘everyone,’ but I was not involved in the crayon wars, because I would be seated in the back of the room doing homework. Later in the year, going through the storage in the back of the art room I came across some watercolor paper and paint sets, and so I set to work on my little watercolor abstraction activities. No one bothered me as I sat absorbed in doing art in the art room, and hardly ever was I struck by any crayons.
This happy state of anarchy came to a halt one day when our teacher did not appear, and ten minutes into the war of the crayons the principal himself entered the classroom. Ignoring the chaos in the room he solemnly announced, “Mrs. H. is not going to be here today, and she is likely to be absent for a considerable time.” He said the words ‘considerable time,’ in a peculiarly soft tone. To this information he added that a substitute would be coming for us later in the week and until then we should continue on our projects, gesturing to the crayon boxes.
The following day, a substitute did arrive, but we took no notice of her because she seemed to be some random person who was walking around the art room as if she had become lost. Finally, after several minutes she summoned the classroom to attention, introduced herself and then said, “I will be your substitute, as Mrs. H. will be absent for… a considerable time.”
This substitute pronounced the words ‘considerable time,’ in the same subdued tone the principal had used, and so it became evident that it was death they were talking about. A little-known, strange, old woman’s death. A person the students had been tormenting for years was going to die, and her death would usher in certain life-altering possibilities.
Hanna was the first name of the substitute art teacher, and the class, having no idea what she was going to be like, was hesitant about launching into any crayon activities all at once. She suggested that we resume whatever art project we were working on, and so everyone began to doodle on some available pieces of manila paper with the crayons and I resumed work on my watercolor abstractions.
The new art teacher did not copy her predecessor’s behavior. She did not begin looking at magazines but instead she would stand behind each student for some period of time, and then ask obscure questions and wait for an answer. These questions were very upsetting for my classmates, who had no idea how to respond to interrogations about their crayon drawings.
“Is it a car or a truck you are drawing?”
“It’s a truck,” someone would say, as if it could be the wrong answer.
“Why a truck?”
“I like trucks?”
“Why do you like trucks?”
These innocent and obvious inquiries seemed somehow to be probing for something personal, and after some of these questions my classmates became obstinately silent.
The class ended and she asked everyone to remain seated, although the bell had rung. Then, in a very serious tone, she gave us a homework assignment. This was her assignment. “Read a book about an artist and write a book report and submit it for a grade in one week.”
I do not know if it was the times we found ourselves living in, or simply the strangeness of the weather that week, but the homework assignment created an effect like a bomb going off somewhere in the distance. The effect was felt after the first few seconds of shocked silence, when someone named Anthony said, “Substitutes are not allowed to give assignments.” He said this with an air of certainty, as if you might find it on a plaque in the hall somewhere.
This was followed by his friend Raymond who said, “Assignments are not allowed in art class,” using the same tone as Anthony.
I would like to note here that Raymond and Anthony always sat next to each other in the art room. It was Raymond’s habit to rephrase and repeat anything Anthony said. Perhaps you know the type. They were certainly the type to protest any imagined injustices, but they did not have the imagination or the energy to take any action, so organizers sprang up as if out of nowhere. Opposition to art assignments spread throughout the school, and students who had never signed up for the class were moved to say things like, “What next, final exams for recess? Term papers for the study hall?”
It was felt that something had to be done, and several of my classmates organized a protest and picketed the school the following morning with signs.
It was a small protest, carried out almost as a joke, and involved only a few boys, the ones who created the greatest amount of disruption in the art class. They were not serious about their protest and were probably just looking for an opportunity to march around carrying signs like we kept seeing in the news so often at that time.
I remember one sign that I thought was very smart. It said, “We draw the line, No art class assignments!”
I said to the boy with the sign, “That’s a smart pun.”
“What’s a pun?” he replied.
“You know, when you say two things at once, like ‘artists draw lines,’ and ‘draw the line…’ ”
“Artists don’t draw lines, they paint pictures with paints,” he said.
Have you ever tried to compliment someone, and it turns into an argument unexpectedly? I guess one should never compliment strangers, regardless of one’s good intentions.
I felt sorry for the art substitute, and I imagined that the principal, becoming aware of the mistake she had made, would probably have one of those little talks with her that people have to listen to, which contain three apologies followed by a reprimand. But I was mistaken. That morning when we arrived at the art class the substitute was not in the room, and the vice principal, not the principal, was lounging in a chair behind the desk. He was rapping a pen on the desk and looking down. It was one of those pens that you click to make the point retract. Every three taps of his pen, he would do a harder tap, which made a click sound as the point retracted. Then after a pause he would repeat the tapping pattern.
Why is it possible to recall such a trifle, which happened so many years ago? It’s because what happened next was an unexpected penultimate moment in my life at that point, and so in retrospect I often recalled the scene and its prologue.
The substitute entered the room and the principal walked to the door and greeted her and then, turning to the class, said, “This is your teacher, so do what she says.” Of course the significance of the moment had to do with it being the vice principal, whose job consisted of discipline, reprimands, and expulsions, and so it was obvious that his presence was intended as a warning.
All of this surprised me, but it was the substitute herself that shocked me the most because she was filled with such rage that she couldn’t speak, and had to attempt a few times to calm herself down before she managed to utter a word. Finally she said, “Art… art is the most important subject you will ever have the good fortune to study.” This statement, which at the time seemed to be completely out of proportion and some sort of a reaction to a perceived insult, turned out to be absolutely correct.
She seemed to be a person who was very serious about art, and so I thought perhaps she would know what to do with warped paintings.
Something For Over The Couch
Why would some substitute art teacher in my high school think that art was “the most important subject we would ever be fortunate enough to study?” I had no idea, but it occurred to me that perhaps she might be able to tell me how to flatten my hopelessly warped painting. I hope that you remember that I had completed a commission painting for my newly married older brother, to go over his couch, but I was reluctant to even show him the painting because it was so hopelessly warped.
When class ended I waited until everyone had filed out of the room, and then approached her desk. She was turned away from me and was pushing a number of items into her bag. I waited at the desk, but without turning around she asked me a question.
“Why are you painting watercolors? Why not use the crayons like everybody else?”
I had no idea how to answer this slightly insulting question so I had to ignore it and just stood there waiting for her to turn around. When she did, I told her about my warped painting.
“What are the dimensions?”
“Fifty-four or about that by eighteen or twenty.”
“So, you are talking about a real painting,” she said, as if to herself. “And it’s vertical.”
This statement I did not understand, and I began to think I was entering some confusing maze, but I answered that it was “a horizontal painting, a commission painting for over my brother’s couch, because my brother is married, and living in an apartment on Oneida Square over the bookstore, the triangle bookstore on the corner… across from the monument, near the museum.”
I was nervous, and became more and more nervous standing there, but couldn’t think of any explanation for my anxiety, which increased every second.
“Your painting is a commissioned painting, not a commission painting, and its measurements are eighteen or twenty by fifty-four, because with paintings you always put the vertical dimension first.”
Suddenly I lost my temper and my face began to feel strangely hot. I said, “No, my painting is a commission painting and it is horizontal and measures fifty-four by eighteen, and you can…”
She stood up, leaned toward me and said, “And I can what?” And then she started to laugh, right in my face.
Still laughing, she sat back down at the desk, took out a slip of paper from her bag and wrote something on it, then handing it to me she said, “This is my address. It’s in New Hartford. Bring the painting to my house Saturday morning, and we will see about how to fix the warp of your commission painting.
I left the art room, walked down the hall and through the double doors into the stairwell, then went down to the first landing and stopped, unable to go on. I held the slip of paper in my hand with the substitute’s address. Nothing in my life to that moment prepared me for what this appointment might suggest. The prospect of going to this unknown woman’s house on a Saturday morning seemed more like a plan to commit a crime than anything else. No students went to teachers’ houses, ever. I think it happened one time, and it was in the paper. Someone was arrested for something and had to go to jail. But I simply refused to think about the significance of the invitation, and a simpler quandary arose. How was I going to get there?
The substitute lived in the village of New Hartford, where all the rich families lived. New Hartford had its own high school, and the kids from N.H.H. had nothing to do with the students in my high school. My city had two high schools, one for those going to college, and another for those going to prison or reform school. The reform school boys always beat my school at football, but my school always beat New Hartford. That’s how it was, and that’s how it had always been.
I had to go to New Hartford with my painting on Saturday morning. I could take the bus, but it seemed impossible, carrying a big painting onto a bus. I wanted to drive my mother’s car, because I had my learner’s permit. I was allowed to drive her car for a few hours on Saturday afternoon, but only after finishing an endless series of chores which she planned out in advance. Over time, this list of chores had expanded until it was almost impossible to complete it before late in the afternoon. Nevertheless, I put up with my mother’s exploitation of my desire to drive because of the discovery of a curious fear that tormented her, and limited her tyranny over me.
At a certain point, unable to stand doing endless chores, I took the learner’s permit out of my wallet and said, “I’m going to tear this thing up, because I don’t want to learn to drive, if you want to know the truth.”
“That would not be normal,” she said.
Not normal? This question of what was normal had been bothering my mom ever since I started doing paintings in the attic. She would say to me, “Are you still doing those paintings?
“Are you still going up into the attic to do those paintings?
This was a wonderful discovery; my mother’s fear of my not being normal could be manipulated to marvelous effect, and I did manipulate her. The learner’s permit could be taken out of the pocket and placed on the table like the ace of spades, if ever force became necessary in dealing with her.
The question of why driving or painting pictures had anything to do with what was considered ‘normal’ did not even cross my mind at the time. It was just a lucky curiosity, and not an albatross suddenly discovered attached to my neck and destined to accompany me through life.
But you have to forgive me for confessing this to you, because I had no idea it was manipulation. I wouldn’t even realize for another twenty years that I was being manipulative, and what fears of hers were being exploited, for that matter.
So when Saturday morning rolled around I simply refused to do any chores at all and told my mother about going to see the substitute art teacher because she was going to show me how to flatten the painting I had done for my brother.
My mother did not understand a word of my statement. Nothing about it seemed even possible. For a while she sat across from me at the kitchen table, silent and wondering, and then slowly something began to flicker in the back part of her left eye and she said, “Is it that substitute?”
“The art and music substitute that got Rocky Malatesta expelled from Proctor.” Proctor was the high school for the juvenile delinquents.
I admitted that the art teacher who had volunteered to flatten the painting was a substitute, but about Rocky Malatesta I knew nothing. This Rocky was one of my distant supposed cousins, one of my Italian Catholic relatives who went to Proctor High and had been arrested for something.
Then my Mother started telling me a story, becoming more and more inflamed as she spoke. “This woman, this substitute, I heard about her from someone who works at Proctor. She went to teach the music class and the kids there would not sing. She gave them, ‘Saints Go Marching In.’ Some of the girls sang, but the boys laughed at them so the girls shut up. So the substitute called the principal and the whole class was expelled.”
“That’s a lot of phony baloney, Mom,” I said. “Nobody but Rocky was expelled, and it was for giving the finger to the substitute.” As I said this, my mother’s face assumed that expression people have when they know they are lying and get caught. I can’t describe it, but perhaps you know what I mean.
Since I was determined to drive the car to New Hartford, I took the car keys from their hook by the phone and said, “She’s going to fix Jimmy’s painting for me, and I’ll be back in a few hours and do all the chores if it takes till tomorrow.”
And so it came to pass that I drove my mom’s old 1955 Pontiac up to New Hartford, and parked in front of what I now know to be a Tudor style mansion. It was set back from the street about half a football field. The walk up to the door was an incline, and so when I reached the portico of the entrance I was a little out of breath. I didn’t want to ring the doorbell trying to catch my breath, so I stood there for a few seconds trying to calm down. All along, up to the point of standing on the porch, I had been trying to imagine what the substitute would be like in her house on a Saturday morning. Would she be in a dress like at school, sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee? The thing I did not consider was, what might her husband be like? This question asserted itself before I could ring the doorbell, because I heard a man’s voice on the other side of the door. He was giving instructions to someone in another room in an impatient tone, and from somewhere in the distance came a faint sarcastic reply.
I became physically unable to ring the bell. I tried but my arm seemed to be having a stroke. Finally I managed to ring it as the door opened.
It was opened by a tall thin man with a freeze-dried face, in an expensive suit, who looked at me, turned and shouted, “The boy who cuts the lawn is here.”
Something For Over The Couch
“Jerking off the Crabgrass”
The substitute art teacher who was going to help me fix my warped painting that Saturday morning was sitting at the table in her kitchen. My being in a teacher’s kitchen on a Saturday morning was so strange that the only thing I was thinking about was how to get the painting fixed and get out of her house in the shortest possible time, but the substitute was in no hurry.
“My husband thinks you are the boy to mow the lawn. Did you see how he didn’t notice you had an oil painting?”
To this I made no reply. Then she went on saying, “He never notices my paintings either. Sometimes he says, ‘Very nice, very nice.’”
To this also I made no reply, but still she continued. “Have you ever noticed how people who don’t believe what they are saying will repeat it twice?”
Apparently, the prologue to the repair of the painting was going to be some complaints about her spouse, but I ignored all her comments and started talking about my warped painting. “All I can think is that I pulled the canvas too tight, or the stretchers are too thin. Are there braces you can use, or something you can add to the corners?”
“Why don’t you sit down?” she replied. And then she asked me, “Do you mow lawns?”
To this question I answered yes. It was a yes driven by an involuntary honesty. I would have preferred to have said no, but that would have been a lie. I was an expert gardener, having acquired the skills years ago, in a child’s life, under the expert eye of eighty-year-old widows, the elderly matriarchs of my mother’s church.
I was so expert a gardener that I had observed that the substitute’s lawn and gardens had been carefully tended a few years ago, but were now going to seed, with creepers attacking the un-edged walk, flower beds unprotected by mulch lying naked in the sun and crabgrass too numerous to count.
To the untrained eye, crabgrass looks like any other grass, sitting there innocently in the sun, while it drives it’s tap root deep into the ground, and prepares its ‘Operation Barbarossa’ for the surrounding innocent tender shoots of grass.
The question about mowing lawns caused a scene to flash across the movie screen of my memory. I am thirteen, kneeling in the grass with a weeding tool in my hand. Next to me, knee to knee, almost but not quite touching me, is an eighty-year-old woman, dressed nearly naked for the hot summer afternoon. We are finishing up work for the day. I have been digging out the crabgrass. “By the root. If a little bit remains it regenerates,” she is telling me. But now there is no time left and so, as to the remaining crabgrass she directs me, “Jerk it off, just jerk it off. We’ll take out the roots next week.”
My art teacher continued with her monologue. “I told him I would get a lawn boy a week ago, and then I forgot all about it. So, a few days ago I told him a new boy was coming, but I didn’t know anybody to call, so now he thinks you are going to mow the lawn.”
Then a door opened in another room, and I reacted to the noise by jerking around in my chair, as if I expected to defend myself against an irate husband. Seeing my alarm, she said, “It’s just my husband’s sons going out.” She must have sensed that I was one of those boys who knew nothing of divorce, or second wives or stepchildren, so she felt I needed to be enlightened about a part of her biography.
“I married the doctor three years ago and …” but I didn’t want to know about when she married the doctor. I wanted to know how to fix my painting, so in desperation I began to get up, thought better of it, and sat back down again. Finally she stopped speaking and began to look at my painting. She picked it up, placed it on a chair, leaned forward and began to carefully examine it. Then a minute, which seemed to me to be an hour, went by. She looked at me very seriously and asked me this question: “Have you suffered some kind of traumatic experience at some time?”
This was just the sort of thing I mentioned earlier about her looking at some crayon drawing by one of the students and asking these personal questions that had nothing to do with anything. There was no justification for asking me such a personal question, so I did not answer her. Finally she said, “Well then, let’s go down to the workroom and straighten out your painting.”
It turned out that the painting was warped because I did not use actual stretchers, and the corners were held together just with staples, and nails, three in each of the corners. There was nothing to do but to remove the painting from the ‘sticks’ it was attached to and put it on real stretchers, of which there were hundreds on shelves in her basement art studio. She did this herself while I watched, all the while making remarks like, “It’s more like a kite structure than a painting.”
“All this stuff was down here when we bought the house, so that is why I decided to take up painting,” she said. “And you,” she continued, “when did you start painting?”
“Three years ago, just after…”
“Just after what?”
“Just after my father died,” I said.
“So, now you have answered my question.”
“Answered what question?” I said, pretending to not understand the conversation.
The doctor’s wife then began to methodically pry out all the tacks holding my canvas to its sticks. After that she put together a stretcher of the correct size and began to tack the canvas to it. Then there was the sound of someone coming down the stairs, and the doctor appeared. Hanna continued to work on my painting, and the husband and wife engaged in a conversation about various household concerns, as if I did not exist. There was a problem with the twins taking the car. The doctor apparently had twin boys. The question of who was going to mow the lawn came up. When the lawn issue came up, the substitute put down the tack hammer she had in her hand, and said very emphatically, “Have the boys do it, and don’t let them take the car till it is finished. They can take turns.”
This was apparently a sore point between the two of them, because he got irritated and changed the subject. Then the doctor took a long look at my painting, shrugged his shoulders and said, “Jesus.” After that, having resolved nothing, he went back up the stairs.
As he went back up the stairs, Hanna explained that the doctor did not like abstract paintings, and further, she also was not interested in that sort of thing, and all of her own paintings were still lifes, and sometimes a landscape. She felt that abstract paintings and modern art in general were self indulgent and really solipsistic, but the doctor was much more specific, and felt that abstract painting was fine for therapy in an insane asylum, or in a grade school, but for the things to be hanging in museums was a dangerous travesty somebody needed to do something about, and reflected the decline of western civilization.
“What does solipsistic mean?” I asked.
She proceeded to define the strange word and I can’t say even now that I can explain it. She used my painting as an example saying, “What this thing really means can only be truly known by you, and nobody else, because a solipsism is something that has meaning to just one person. A portrait painting is the opposite, because the painter knows what it is, and the sitter knows what it is, but many abstract paintings are said to be solipsistic.”
“Well I guess my whole life is solipsistic then.” As soon as I made this remark I was struck by how true it was, so true that I was suddenly ashamed to have said it to a stranger, and wished I could take it back. But it was too late.
My teacher reacted like a fisherman who feels a tug on their line, and yet said nothing and changed the subject.
“Now then,” she said, “your painting is finished. Take it to your brother’s house and hang it over his couch, and then, in school, report back to me how it goes.”
So she dismissed me with my painting and I went back to my mom’s car, put it in the back seat and drove home. At the dinner table that evening I tried to give my mother some explanation of what the art teacher was like, but in the middle of the conversation the phone rang. My mother answered, and said to me, “It’s for you Dicky. It’s a Doctor Wasserman.” I took the phone and immediately recognized Hanna’s husband’s voice. He said to me, “Richard, how much do you want for the painting my wife fixed for you? I want it for over our couch.”
‘“It’s not for sale because it is for my brother.”
“Paint him another one for Chriz sake. Are you never going to do any more paintings?”
“I want thirty-five dollars for it”
“Thirty-five,” he repeated, a little incredulously.
Then, in the background, I heard my substitute shout, “No, no, a hundred and thirty-five, two-hundred really.”
“Look, two-hundred,” the doctor said, “but you have to come here next Saturday and mow my lawn.”
Something For Over The Couch
“My Mother Didn’t know Who Rothko Was”
The doctor did purchase my brother’s couch painting, and he did hang it over his couch. The previous painting that had occupied the space was left for many months leaning against the wall behind the couch. It was easy to see why my picture was preferred, because the previous object on the wall was a sentimental print in a Mexican baroque frame, depicting a knight returning to a dining room in a palace. It had been selected by the doctor’s former wife, whose taste in art, furniture, literature, cinema and anything else was apparently so bad that it provided an endless stream of cruel remarks from Hanna, the doctor’s present wife, my adopted art teacher. Hanna’s ridicule of the tastes of the former wife was harmless, except as fuel for the hatred the doctor’s sons felt for their new mother.
They especially resented being forced to agree with remarks such as, “Who would be able to live with that rug she put in your room?” I can say these things because two months had now elapsed since the doctor had purchased my painting. Two months during which, if you had been watching these occurrences from the outside, you would have witnessed a near total transformation of one person into a different one, like when the scene shifts in a movie and a new character, somewhat older, steps in to play the main character. I, however, did not realize what had happened to me. I had become the favorite of my new household. The doctor loved me because I mowed the lawn and was interested in his model train collection, which filled half the basement. The twin boys liked me because I had the outrageous motivation to criticize their stepmom, when I thought her criticism of their mother went too far. And Hanna loved me because I was an artist, and so was a connection to her past life.
My criticism of Hanna came about in this way. She was saying, “The woman didn’t even know who Rothko was.” She had been explaining how the former wife knew nothing about modern art.
As I was listening to her, I was thinking about how I did not know who Rothko was and neither did my mother. I was sure my brother, who knew everything, could tell me. But absentmindedly I said, “I don’t know who Rothko is, and neither does my mom.” This created a sudden silent, awkward moment at the dinner table, and affected ever after my relationship to “the twins.” They now loved me because I had come to the defense of their mother, although that was hardly what I had intended.
That happened at the dinner table. I had taken to eating almost all my meals with the doctor’s family. It was like an adoption. I had been taken in, like a stray, like a mongrel, who is the favorite of every family member but yet remains a dog. At first I kept finding excuses to be at their house when the maid made dinner, but later it became an accepted fact, and my place was set at the far end of the table facing the doctor, with Hanna on my left, and the twins to my right, and I might have been taken as the head of the family, even though I was the least of them.
But my relationship with my adopted art teacher was more complicated. I grew angry with her and argued with her, and so at times felt alienated from her, when the truth was the opposite.
I asked my brother about Rothko, and my brother treated me like Hanna treated the twin’s mother, as if such ignorance was not even possible to believe, and as an answer to my question he sent me to the bookstore, which was on the ground floor under his apartment. He told me to read a book on modern art, and said, “Don’t come back here till you know who Rothko is, and Pollock also.”
The wall over his couch still did not have the painting I had promised, but only a poster of an abstracted face by an artist named Klee. The owner of the bookstore was an art lover whose tastes often changed, and so furnished various rejected posters my brother retrieved from the trash and hung over his couch.
I read a book titled, “Introduction to Modern Art.” I kept my opinions to myself, but the book gave me a new understanding of my art teacher. I said nothing to her about my newfound knowledge, fearful of appearing stupid.
I began to participate in the dinner conversation in the home of my new family almost as an equal, but I could tell they thought my ideas and opinions to be of no account. This I knew, because if I ventured to say anything, they all became silent and turned to me to listen to what I might have to say, the way parents pay attention to a five year old, whose mispronunciations and naivety are cherished long after as tender family heirlooms.
They all had precise and even angry opinions about everything, and frequently argued about political things I knew nothing about. I never attempted to enter these conversations, because of ignorance. They argued about civil rights and Martin Luther King, and in one conversation they began to suspect that my silence might possibly indicate some contrary opinion. At one point, Hanna turned to me and asked me point blank, “What do you think of what Martin Luther King is doing?” It was like a question on an important exam, and I could see that for all they cared about me, their ignorant, amusing family pet, the wrong answer would have surely resulted in an expulsion from my new family. When I took too long to answer my position became tenuous, but finally I blurted out, “I like Malcolm X, and I like the Black Panthers and wish I could be one, and I would never fight and risk my life to join a club that did not want me as a member.” After that they began to call me “The Radical,” and they began to treat me with a grudging comical respect.
I did not know if I had opinions of my own. I was aware that many things I thought were extensions of my older brother’s ideas and opinions. My ideas were often my brother’s thoughts, exaggerated and magnified and made nearly absurd, so that my brother’s explanations of how it was impossible to determine whether God existed might be transformed in my mind into my saying in argument, “If God exists then he needs to be killed.” It was reasoning and argument driven by an intense anger, so that I usually had the good sense to stay silent so as not to alarm anyone.
My position in my art teacher’s family was established, and I often had dinner with them, but Saturday was quite different. My mother tolerated my constant absence from the dinner table all week, but she made a rule that on Saturday and Sunday I had to respect dinner with the family. Saturdays were different in the doctor’s house also. I was not allowed to have dinner on the weekends, apparently for some religious reason. On Saturday I mowed the lawn in the morning and then had lunch with my art teacher. Hanna spent a lot of time and thought on these lunches we had together, and often I had to be reminded to express my appreciation for her cooking skills, because I suppose if she had put out dog food on a plate I might not have noticed.
On Saturdays at lunch it was just my teacher and myself. The doctor was in his office, and the boys were out driving around in the family convertible getting speeding tickets. The conversation after lunch usually began when Hanna pushed her chair back from the table and lit a cigarette. Then she might say, “Now Richard tell me something…” My answers to her questions and her replies at first would take just a few minutes, but as the Saturdays went by the conversations got longer and longer, until it became difficult for me to leave even when the cook started Saturday dinner.
And what did we talk about? Her former husband and why she left him. Her life in New York, married to an art dealer. What I thought about the “Catcher in the Rye,” and why I had to read “The Idiot.”
She told me about how she hated her husband, the doctor, and his children, and why divorce was out of the question. Then one day, after lighting a cigarette she said, “Now Richard, I know that you smoke, but you pretend that you do not. Why is that?” By way of an answer I took a cigarette from her pack, lit it and said, “Want to hear a funny story?”
“I Start To Smoke”
Sitting at the kitchen table that Saturday afternoon I began telling my substitute art teacher about the first time I smoked a cigarette. I had already told my brother about it and it made him laugh. He was drinking a glass of milk when I told him, and he laughed so hard milk ran down his face from his nose. The milk on his face was funnier than my story, but we could always make each other laugh till we cried. So now I began to tell this “funny story” to my art teacher.
I tapped my cigarette into the Cinzano ashtray on the table and began. “About three years ago, just about the time I began doing the watercolor abstraction paintings in a sketchbook, I woke up about one in the morning and went downstairs to the kitchen. Everyone was asleep. I stood on a chair and from the top shelf of a cupboard took a pack of cigarettes from my father’s carton. He was dead, but his carton was still in the same place as always. I went out for a walk in the dark. I had decided to start smoking.”
Hanna interrupted me at that point asking, “How long was it after your father died that this happened?” but I continued without answering her question.
“That night it was violently windy. The wind came in gusts that made me walk like I was drunk. It would blow so hard, and so suddenly that you would be pushed right off the sidewalk into the street, and you could stretch out your arms and just lay on the wind, as if it was a mattress, and it kept you from falling onto your face.
At the corner of Sunset and Mildred I turned left, and went over to Rose Place. I walked to the corner to the Shell Station, and went to the men’s room at the back of the building. The door was unlocked, it was unlocked because I had jammed a piece of bubble gum cigar into the latch the week before, and it had not been fixed yet.”
Suddenly I stopped speaking as I became aware that I had told an adult, and a teacher about my act of vandalism, but she seemed unconcerned so I continued.
“That Shell station is new,” I continued. “It was built about two years ago, but the bathroom is a ruin, and looks like a bathroom in an abandoned building. You would have thought a bomb had gone off in the stall. I’m the only person in the world who knows how that bathroom got into such a sorry state because I did it myself, a little bit at a time.”
Then again I looked up at my listener, but seeing only a sympathetic expression on her face, I continued.
“I was hiding in that bathroom, because I didn’t want anyone to see me and tell my Mother what I was doing. I don’t think my Dad would have minded so much, even if he had been alive, but my Mother would have given me the silent wounded treatment.
I took the pack out of my coat pocket and banged it on my fist, like everyone does, and then I banged the pack again on my hand so that three cigarettes peaked out, like you see in advertisements. I lit a cigarette and blew out some smoke, but I didn’t inhale.
I kept puffing and blowing out the smoke without breathing it in and I only felt a little light headed at first. The taste and smell were very strange, I can’t describe it. Later, when I had really started to smoke it never again tasted or smelled like the first time. Suddenly, without intending to, I inhaled a mouthful of smoke down into my lungs, and then all hell broke loose in my body. I felt like I had breathed in a mouthful of molasses, and thought I would die before I could breathe again. Then I threw up all over the door of the stall, and broke out in a cold sweat all over my whole body, even my feet.
I put out the cigarette without taking any more drags from it. I tried to stand up but I couldn’t because the stall was spinning around too much. My heart was pounding bam, bam bam, and then it would suddenly stop like it was going to take a rest, and then it would start up even faster like it was late for work.
All that was nothing compared to how frightened I suddenly became. My mind was racing and I wanted to do a lot of things all at once. Right then and there, I wanted to get some things, some very important things, settled once and for all.
The first thing I wanted to do was to tell the gas station attendant that it was me that had vandalized the bathroom. I was going to go straight to the office and tell them but if I let go of the walls of the stall the walls would speed up, and I would need to sit down again. I soon realized how to get the walls to slow down. I threw the pack of cigarettes into the toilet, and flushed them down. That did the trick, and I started to calm down.
I decided to go home, wake up my Mother and tell her about the gas station, and about smoking cigarettes. I was sure this was the best thing to do. I ran almost all the way home, but I stopped at that mailbox at the corner. I was going to make a vow to never smoke any more cigarettes again when my mind started to play a funny trick on me, and I thought I was seeing things.
In the light of the street lamp I noticed the letters U.S. Mail on the side of the mailbox. These letters were raised up and the edges of them were lit up by a street light. It was as if the letters had never been there before, and had now appeared out of nowhere, just because I was looking at them. I ran my fingers over the letters, and I can’t find the words to describe how interesting their shapes were. Across the street was an apartment complex where I had the job of taking out the trash cans on Monday and Wednesday nights, and I realized, as if for the first time, that there were people I would never know living there. It sounds stupid, but I never realized it before, in that way. It was two in the morning. On the second floor a light was on, someone was watching television. It was so clear to me, as if it was stretching itself out to me, and pressing itself onto my eyeballs.
At the same time I began to feel wonderful. I felt strong and good. I felt like I understood everything, I felt like I even understood the sidewalk, in a way I had never realized before.
But, most of all, I decided to smoke another cigarette. So I went into the house and stole another pack. I went up to the corner and stood by the mailbox and lit up. I was careful not to inhale too much at one time, and, sure enough, I felt dizzy and sick again, but it didn’t bother me so much, since I was expecting it.
I looked at the sidewalk, and thought about how, like a continuous ribbon, it wandered about and connected all the different sections of the city, and I set out in the night to follow it. I would walk to a corner, and not decide which direction to go until the very last instant, either to go straight, to the left or to the right. I walked for two hours, with my collar up and my head down while the wind blew first into my face, then against my back, and then again into my face again, for, as I said before, it was the edge of a hurricane that night.
After that, somehow, I became a different person. I have been smoking for two years already, and nobody knows about it. I am not a heavy smoker however, half a pack a week is my limit.”
My substitute art teacher found nothing to laugh about that afternoon as we sat talking in her kitchen. I could see myself that it was not exactly a funny story, and fell more into the category of the confession of a crime. Like a confession to a person who might only not find fault, but even absolve you of guilt, and even go further and cheer you on in your aberrant behavior.
But Hanna was after something darker, and once I had finished my funny story, she again asked me about the death of my Dad. Again I refused, and to change the subject said I wanted to tell her about the art collection in my house, but it would have to wait for the following Saturday, after the lawn was done.
Something For Over The Couch
After re-reading the first six chapters of this biography of mine, it has dawned on me that perhaps I owe my readers, if I have any, some explanations. One might ask, when was the manuscript written, and when does it take place? How old is this character, and how old might the author be? Is the story happening in the present? Or is it a sentimental remembrance of some important time in the narrator’s youth? Perhaps this narrator is a person advanced in years who hopes to entertain us with colorful recollections of youth, like an overheard fragment of conversation narrated to any passing stranger in the quiet corner of a nursing home.
So, in an attempt to answer these questions I offer the following. The story takes place in 1962, and the narrator is 16 years old. He is describing conversations that happened between him and his art teacher when he was a sophomore in high school. The incidents were documented in a diary written four years later, while the author was recovering from a long illness. Therefore, it is a reminiscence of things that happened four years previous, and yet the narration of individual episodes shifts back and forth between the present and the recently remembered past.
Coincidentally, one might forgive this clumsy explanation by recalling that it is the same structure as The Catcher in the Rye, where the character, Holden Caulfield, gives us a first-person account in real time, but at the end we discover that it was all written down when the author was recuperating from an illness which overcame him at a somewhat later date.
So I beg the readers’ indulgence if I have created a narrative confused in time and place, and I offer as my excuse: If Salinger could do it, why can’t I?
And now to return to our story. I did intend to tell my substitute art teacher about the art in my mother’s house on the following Saturday, when we would be talking after lunch, but I would like to point out the two reasons I wanted to do this. First, I wanted to avoid speaking about my father. And second, I wanted to talk about the unbelievable difference in our two households. The doctor’s home was full of art and artifacts, and in some ways could have been considered as a private museum. The doctor himself had no interest in his art collection, but was interested in the art as a social marker and an indication of his wealth and status in society. Hanna, on the other hand, considered the art in the house equal to the very reasons we exist and inhabit this earth. Every painting, all the drawings, and the artifacts in various cases and on the mantles over the many fireplaces each had important stories, and those stories were the substance of the meaning of life, not just her life, but existence in general. She had no doubt whatsoever that the bone spear tip engraved with prehistoric graffiti was just as important to its creator, 10,000 years ago, as the animal he might have been fortunate enough to kill with that spear. According to Hanna, the markings on the bone were perhaps even more important than the purpose, because of the powerful magic those marks most certainly were thought to possess.
How ridiculously paltry was my family’s art collection, consisting of one single porcelain figurine set on a windowsill at the bottom of a staircase. There had been two of these figurines at one time, but I had destroyed one – fully half of our home’s art collection. This is the story of those figurines, the one that survived, and the one that I destroyed, as I told Hanna the following Saturday afternoon.
There were two figures cast in plaster, one was a shepherd and the other was a shepherdess. The shepherd was on the left of the windowsill, and from that position he gazed longingly at the shepherdess, who was two feet away and looked at him coyly over her shoulder.
They were poly-chrome sculptures, glazed in multiple colors, but mostly pastel tints. These two figures were the only sculptures I ever came across in my childhood, except for those bronze, full-sized figures of Civil War heroes in the park, and a life-sized image of General Lafayette, down on Lafayette Street. I never gave any of those figures a thought, or even looked at them in passing, until one day I tripped as I was running down the stairs with my hands in my pockets.
After I tripped, I began to fall head first down the stairs and I can remember distinctly how preoccupied I was with the problem of getting my two hands out of my pockets, but to no avail. In my mid-air struggle, I managed to tip one of the figures from the windowsill, and so I found myself on the floor at the bottom of the stairs, surrounded by shards of plaster.
The shepherd was now dead; never again would he look longingly at the shepherdess eighteen inches away. Fortunately, my mother was not at home when this disaster befell our home. Although I had never looked at or thought about the figurines on the staircase, nevertheless, in the back of my mind was a basic assumption that the objects in question were valuable and prized possessions of my family, which I had stupidly half-destroyed.
The remaining half of the pair was probably less than useless, but a solution jumped into my head, a childish solution, but the only thing a ten-year-old in a dire predicament might hit upon. My solution did not include any attempt to put the figure back together – quite the contrary. I cleaned up all the pieces and threw them into the garbage can at the back of the house where they would not be discovered, even by an accident.
Then I took the remaining figure and placed it in the center of the windowsill. After positioning the figure as one would any single object in such a situation, I went across the room and viewed the arrangement from a distance, and wondered to myself if this simple trick, so obvious and yet subtle in its own way, would suffice to deceive my mother that nothing had changed in the house.
My solution was a complete success. The lonely shepherdess remained on the windowsill while I finished grade school and started high school, but one day, consumed with curiosity, I finally asked my mother why she never mentioned the disappearance of the shepherd.
She told me that after I broke the plaster shepherd, she did not know what to do. She wanted to throw the shepherdess out but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. The two figures were a wedding gift from my Aunt Lucille, and she had always hated them. Aunt Lucille and Uncle Carmen’s living room was full of hundreds of those things on little stands, shelves and tables, and she could hardly stand to go over to their house because of it.
“But your father insisted,” she said, “and so I put them on the window ledge near the front door, where if they stopped by unexpectedly, like they always did, they would see them.”
Once my mother said that she hated the figurines she had lived with all that time, I began to remember my visits to Aunt Lucille’s house in a new light. From the shower curtain in the bathroom to the silver Christmas tree in December, nothing in their rooms could have ever found a place in my mother’s house, so I understood that my mother had a kind of taste in things that extended beyond any simple restraints of cost.
Having finished my story about the figurines, my art teacher said something mostly to herself that I did not understand. She said, “Beauty is truth and truth beauty; that is all we know on earth and all we need to know.”
Seeing my look of incomprehension, she said, “Those are the last lines of a poem by John Keats, a poem about some figures on a Grecian urn, figures like the ones on your window’s ledge.”
“But that statement about truth being just beauty can’t be true.”
“That is correct, it can’t be true of you or I, but it can be true of those figures on the urn who, according to Keats, will love each other till the end of time.”
“Or till the urn is smashed into a million pieces,” I said, beginning to grow restive, but she replied.
“The fact of the matter is that even the most ordinary art object sitting someplace in a house will slowly over time absorb all the meaning and significance of one’s life, unawares, and in time takes on more and more symbolic significance. This is how it was with that shepherd, which in symbolic form became an effigy of your father. Did your Mother really love your father then, to your recollection?” To this bizarre remark I replied with stony angry silence, but she went on.
“So, you do see the relationship between your smashing of the shepherd when you were 10, and the obvious foreshadowing of the death of your father three years later don’t you?”
“Foreshadowing is a literary device, and the death of my father happened, not in any story, but in the real world,” I replied.
So, my teacher continued to dig and probe into the stony ground around the death of my father, and I continued to ignore and resist her.
Something For Over The Couch
“Judith and the Head of Holofernes”
The following Saturday’s conversation seemed to begin where the previous conversation had ended, with the story of the figurine I had accidentally broken, and the realization that the one art object in our house was something my mother hated but displayed out of a desire not to hurt my aunt’s feelings, since it had been a gift. Hanna, my art teacher, moved by this story, began to expound on the idea that many lives are ruined by the desire to do things one hates for the satisfaction of others.
“Keeping some art object on a shelf to please your aunt is just a small example of this tendency people have to take some job, marry some person, go to college or even have children, to please some other person. People will often do things that they absolutely hate just to please others, even others they also hate, just out of this stupid feeling of obligation.”
As she said all of this, her voice kept rising and getting more animated, so that finally I interrupted her and said right out loud, “Hanna, are you talking about yourself?”
My question calls for some explanation. For the first time, I addressed my teacher by her first name, and even now I can remember the strange sensation as the sound of it hung in the air. More importantly however, was that I had suddenly turned the tables on her, and rather than constantly avoiding the questions about my dead father, I challenged her to talk for once about her own life.
Emboldened by the ensuing awkward silence, I ventured further and asked, “Why did you leave your first husband, and do you still love him?” This question was deliberate revenge for her having had the audacity to ask me if my mother had loved my father. That was such a strange, unacceptable question that I couldn’t stop feeling upset about it.
“It’s a thing impossible to explain. I don’t even know how to begin,” she began. “I can’t tell you the entire story, but I will just tell you the end of it. My first husband… there was a waitress in the bar where he and his friends would sit for hours and talk about art. There was a girl who tended bar, and she spoke with an attractive Irish accent. She was eighteen, but looked like she was fourteen. This is what she was like. Harold, the owner, had hired her one night, and by the end of two weeks his bar had become an important place, with twice the clientele.
“Harold, I am sure, never saw any connection between his new waitress and his sudden prosperity, and probably just attributed it to the change in the season or some other meaningless cause, but it was Judith, his new employee, who was the reason. First of all, she was simply a child, a beautiful child, who for some unknown reason was consumed with some sort of burning anger at the world. This anger expressed itself in caustic remarks and outright insults to the customers, but the customers, far from feeling abused and insulted, were positively overjoyed by her abuse, and felt it was a badge of honor.
“Overhearing some person’s name, she would adroitly mispronounce it to them on purpose while serving them, twisting the sounds into something demeaning, and even obscene. But it was impossible to be angry with her, especially because of her large, dark eyes, which reflected a kind of loving tenderness, like the eyes of a wolf.
“And so it happened, and I was there at the beginning of it, that some of the patrons created a game of inventing little stories about the source of this demon’s anger, and the game required that the last words of the little stories had to be, ‘and then she cut his head off.’
“It was actually my husband Max who started this game. Max was the name he gave himself when he became an art dealer, and I didn’t object. He said it sounded the part. His actual name was Anthony, which he thought would never do. Anyway, he was the first to invent a story to explain little Judith’s anger, and she was little, not quite five feet tall, just under. He was very proud of the literary skill displayed by his invention. He likened it to the Decameron and its hundred stories told during the plague in Florence, and he took credit for the whole idea. His story involved Judith being abused by her drunken Irish father until, moved to rage, she cuts off her father’s head with a kitchen knife.
“Many of the stories they made up usually revolved around the same theme, and it was amazing how the punch line not only produced loud laughter, but seemed to increase with each retelling of the tale, until all they had to say was ‘and then,’ to get a laugh, especially when talking about some irate female’s indignation about some affront.
“The entire thing made me so incredibly angry that I finally could not contain myself, and at one point I suddenly and unexpectedly burst out crying, threw something, I don’t even remember what it was, down on the table and shouted out, ‘Stop it for Christ’s sake!’
“The bar, the table, the conversations, were strictly a man’s world, and I was hardly ever there at all, only one night a week, so what happened was that the men didn’t even know what I was talking about, and one man, Erik, the brother of… it doesn’t matter of who, even looked around the room in confusion as if I must be objecting to something somewhere else in the bar. But when it dawned on them all that it was their funny stories I was so upset about, they began to reason with me, trying to calm me down and saying things like, ‘It’s just fiction, only stories, just a literary thing.’ Someone else insisted that it was an art form, a creative endeavor. Then Max said, ‘But really, what’s the problem? Doesn’t she take her revenge in the end? So, you know, a happy ending.’
“ ‘Happy ending? Abuse turns a child into a murderer and that is supposed to be a happy ending?’ That’s what I shouted at him, and then I left. I didn’t even slam the door as I went out, that’s how certain I was of the morality of my position, and the correctness of what I had said.
“That night, obviously, we had a tremendous argument, our first and our last, and we had been married for ten years. I was angry back then because I wanted to do something creative with my life. I no longer was content to be in the audience and cheer other people’s accomplishments, so to speak, but I wanted to be up on some stage for once. And poor Max, he was consumed with jealousy because his blue chip gallery sold only the established, boring, washed-up old dead artists, and all around us unknown crazy people were becoming famous for outrageous, gigantic paintings which were just one big mess after another. How many times did I have to hear him rage about Rothko and Kline, and how great everyone thought those canvases were, and then there was Max in his gallery on 57th, selling Grant Wood drawings, and Ashcan School.
“So, things were said, bridges were burned, foundations were blown up, words were spoken that can never be unsaid or forgotten, even up to and including words about sex and its disappointments. But it was not the end. Rome wasn’t destroyed in an afternoon; it took a few days.
“I remember at that time Max had decided to read some classics, and Crime and Punishment was on the bedside table. He picked it up, waved it in my face and said, ‘Look, when Dostoevsky wrote that passage where the main character murders the old lady with the ax, what do you think his wife’s reaction would have been, to walk out on him, make him burn the manuscript?’
‘Perhaps, if he laughed about it after he finished the page,’ I said.
‘It’s fiction. It’s art, you moron!’ he screamed at me, and suddenly I wondered if he might not be right.
“But then I discovered that the whole thing was much more serious than I could have ever imagined, becuse he announced, ‘I intend to get that young woman, one way or another, to paint ten or twelve huge abstract paintings, and I am going to do a show of them, but before it opens, I am going to pass around the story that she murdered her father and fled from Belfast with her aunt, as a boy, and is wanted for murder in Ireland. This will make us rich and her famous, there can be no doubt about it.’
‘But Max,’ I said, ‘the girl probably knows nothing about art, not a thing.’
‘Really Hanna, do you think that matters at all? Just look around you.’ he said.”
That was all she told me that Saturday afternoon, and when the cook came into the kitchen, I stood up to leave. As I was going out the door, I asked her if that is when she left him, and she said, “No, he left me a year later.”On the following Monday morning, I went to the library and took out Crime and Punishment, and also The Decameron. I looked up Ashcan School and Grant Wood in the encyclopedia. I was unable to find out what “blue chip,” meant, but I was able to figure it out from the context. But 57th remained a mystery.
Something For Over The Couch
“The Naked Lady Bath Mat”
That week I was in a fever to find out about Judith, and what happened to her, and was anxious for it to be Saturday, so I could mow my art teachers lawn, and then again sit down in her kitchen with her and hear the rest of the story of why she separated from her art dealer husband, but especially what happened to the interesting waitress who insulted everyone that her husband Max intended to make into a famous artist somehow.
I did not have a girlfriend at the time Hanna told me the story of Judith, and the fact is, I had never had a girlfriend, ever. I had a close friend that I would talk to for hours, but this is not the place to tell you about her. I had not seen her in many months, she was in a mental hospital because she happened to discover her mother dead, hanging in a broom closet in their apartment over on Rose place. That happened before I met her, but because of it sometimes she would be in the hospital for a month at a time. She showed me the closet in the kitchen one time, it was the most unforgettable closet you might ever see in your lifetime, and I still to this day can’t get it out of my mind.
But I will tell you about Ruth at another time. I think Ruth might have been in love with me, I am not certain, but one day she said to me, “You look like one of those Greek Gods sometimes when you talk, but skinnier.
She lived with her father in a messy rundown apartment, he had finished mortician school, but had not been able to find a job.
If you look in an art history book and come across paintings by Rubins, you will see what Ruth looked like, blond hair on top of a bunch of circles, like a bowl of fruit. I loved to sit on her second floor front porch and talk with her and smoke cigarettes till the sun went down. We always understood what was said and what was meant, but she wasn’t my type, so that was why she was not my girlfriend.
I did not know what my type was, I was positive of one thing, if I was ever to have a girlfriend in my life it would have to be someone like Judith, someone full of anger and unable to contain it, even with an effort and Ruth was as gentle and kind as a girl could be. The boys used to persecute her because she was a little fat, but I didn’t mind it. The last time I had seen her had been months ago just after she was expelled from school, I don’t know for what. Ruth was much smarter than I was, and would alway say, “Oh I read that,” if I ever mentioned a book.
So, it was with out of actual romantic curiosity that I wanted to her the conclusion of the story of how Hanna separated from her husband, but also, more about the angry waitress, who I wanted to hear more about, but a stupid thing happened in the meantime that interfered. The thing that interfered was that I had to get a haircut.
All my life, as long as I could remember I was sent to the barbershop once a month, to get a haircut, but somehow I had managed to avoid this ritual for almost six months and so my mother finally had a fit about it saying, “You look like a girl, do you want to look like a girl now, is that it?” My mother was especially touchy about this question of my being like a girl, and perhaps you recall that she, for some reason I couldn’t figure out, connected my painting pictures with the danger of girlness, I had no idea why. In order to get her off my back, I promised to get a haircut that very afternoon, and it was Wednesday.
The truth of it was, I did not want to get a haircut because of Hanna. One day I was waiting for her at the kitchen table, as she was making lunch, and for no reason at all came up behind me and for just a moment grabbed my head in her hands and said , “Promise me Richard, that you will never ever again get a haircut.” Then, just as suddenly, she shoved my head away, and went back to the stove.
I didn’t think much about what she did, because I would often see her do the same kinds of things with her stepsons, she would grab them suddenly by the ears or the hair and say something idiotic to them like, “No more speeding tickets,” and so I thought it was just like she was momentailily mistaking me for a child, and as a matter of fact she often talked to me like I was 10 and not 16.
But because of that request to not cut my hair, a silly request impossible to comply with, I made up my mind to grow my hair as long as possible, and looking in the mirror, I actually liked that I looked like a girl, but a masculine girl, if that is possible.
So I went to the barber shop, the same barbershop I had my haircut in since before I could speak in sentences, and Savi cut my hair. Savi, smoked cigarettes, one to a hair cut. He would light a cigarette, take a drag, cut hair, finish up, take another drag and put it out. Having my hair cut consisted of sitting in the chair and looking at the cigarette smoke wind up into the air, blue from paper and brown from the tobacco I guess.
Savi also cut my Dad’s hair until he died, and he cut my Grandfather’s hair also. Sometimes he would say, out of the blue, “I cut his Pop’s hair, you know, I drive over to his house once a month, never tips me either.” Why he thought other strangers in the place wanted to know about Pops was a mystery to me, but he often felt moved to mention it, he was a family institution.
“You paint pictures now don’t you Dickie?” Savi said to me, using the name everyone used with me except Hanna. Savi had what I now know is called a ‘pencil’ mustache, just a thin line in the middle of his upper lip, that made him look like a man you could never trust.
I always wanted a long wait to be next in the chair, because next to the chairs you wait in was a table with ancient magazines missing their covers, that often had pictures of interest to a young man who has never seen a woman with no clothes on. These magazines did not satisfy that curiosity, but often came close.
When I didn’t answer his question right away he said, “How would you like to do a picture for me, I’ll pay you ten dollars for it? Not exactly a painting,” he said, “What I want is for you to cut out a shape from a rubber bath mat, so that it looks like a woman.”
“Alright, “ I said, not really thinking. Then Savi disappeared into the bathroom of the barbershop, and came out with a rubber bath mat, rolled up with a rubberband around it. It was not a new bath mat but an old one, it was white but brown stains around the edges.
I took the bathmat and started to leave with it, and he came up close to me and whispered in my ear, “Naked you know.” I nodded but did not say anything.
That very evening I set to work on the bathmat. I drew the rectangle on a big piece of wrapping paper the right size, and drew the shape of a woman on it, but it would not ever do as a bathmat, because it was too long and thin. It was obvious that the head and the legs had to be left out, but then the question came up, should it be a head on view, or in profile. My sketch of a woman’s body head on looked like nothing at all but perhaps a puddle in the street, because with no detail, you couldn’t tell what it was. Then I drew the figure in profile and I discovered that I actually did not know what a woman’s breasts look like from the side, having almost never seen a picture, let alone the real thing.
Finally, after a million tries I managed to draw a naked woman from the side and it looked exactly like those drawings you see on the walls of public bathrooms, but it was the best I could do.
I did not cut the figure out of the bathmat, but simply drew it in with a magic marker, and decided to see if Hanna could help me with it, before I dared to make the final cut.
I was embarrassed to show her such a thing, but I thought back to our first meeting and how she had helped me with my commission for over the couch in my brother’s living room. That commission had led to my friendship with her, a friendship that has become very important to me, and so I was sure she would be glad to help me with my naked lady bath mat.
Something For Over The Couch
“The First Argument”
That Saturday morning when I headed for my art teacher’s house I had an anxious feeling of uncertainty, and when I tell you of the disaster that befell me that day you will be sure to think that a lot of what I have said about my teacher, myself and her family was probably not true. My entire connection to their household was based on the excuse that I was the boy who cut the lawn, and now, for several weeks, I had been mowing grass on Saturday morning that did not need mowing. I was cutting grass only so that after it was done I could sit in the kitchen in the afternoon and talk to my teacher, who had become, simply a close friend, and a mentor.
But now what, was I going to be mowing the snow in December? But my connection to that family was more precarious than I realized as I walked up to their house with my bath mat naked lady art project under my arm.
When I finished with the lawn I put the machine back in the garage and noticed three unfamiliar cars in the driveway, and then found some woman similar to Hanna in her kitchen involved in a conversation. For a second I felt deep resentment to find these women in what I considered my kitchen in my accustomed spot, but the absurdity of my indignation was so obvious that I just settled into a sudden despondency.
Hanna introduced me as the lawn boy, who is, “A marvelous artist who is doing wonderful paintings for such a young boy.” This remark made me so angry I thought I would cry out in frustration, and then one of the women walked right up to me, and said to the others, “So, this is him.” Their plan I soon discovered was that they were going to play bridge on Saturday afternoons, and so, in conclusion, my charmed upper class life suddenly came to an end as if it had never happened.
I excused myself and started to leave, but Hanna, seeing something rolled up under my arm, asked to see it. When I hesitated, the other visitors, seeing my confusion, excused themselves and went into the living room, where a card table had already been set up. I rolled the naked lady bath mat out on the kitchen table. There was a long, terrible silence. “Richard, what disgusting obscenity is this, why would you do such a thing?”
“It’s a commission,” I said.
“Are you going to put this over somebody’s couch?” She said, with no humor in her voice. Then she continued. “Who is it that is paying you to do this commission?”
“The barber that cuts my hair wants me to cut out this woman’s shape from the mat,” I answered, but seeing her revulsion, I too began to see that there was something not right about the idea. Now, however, having a clear picture of what I was doing and why, Hanna went into her dictatorial mode, a mode of behavior I now dimly remembered from her second day as our art teacher, when the class refused to do her homework assignment, because she was a substitute.
“Take this monstrosity back to your barber and tell him that what he is doing borders on a crime, paying a minor to create an obscene image, is…what’s his name, where is his shop?” She went on in anger and said other things I can’t remember but suddenly and unexpectedly I began to defend myself. The fact that I spoke without even knowing what I was going to say may sound unlikely, even impossible, but the words were already in my head, the exact words Max her former husband had said to her, “It’s art, just art, a fiction, you…” but I could not bring myself to utter the word ‘moron.’
The Greek Chorus of the bridge players in the living room were, I imagine, listening to every word of that conversation, and though there was a tragic epiphany going on in the kitchen, they made no comment. I rolled up my obscene crime of a bath mat slowly and deliberately, and silently left the house by the kitchen door, and in parting closed the door carefully so as not to make the latch click. I closed the door silently, as an expression of the injury I had received. Perhaps you have received such an injury in your life; the kind that makes you think that all that went on before in your life was not only wrong, but also stupid.
It’s a long downhill from the Wasserman house to the bus stop on Oneida Street, and from the house to the stop my mind was mute as I walked along. It was the sight of the bus in the distance that triggered the monologue in my mind that now began with the statement, “I’ve never seen any of those phonies on the bus, and I never will.”
But my teacher and her family were not phonies and I knew it, it was just that the word ‘phony’ was often in my head at that time because I had recently finished reading Ruth’s copy of “The Catcher in the Rye.” This remark, in my mind, was followed, out loud by the reverse, “It is you yourself, that is the phony, thinking you are going to be some famous artist, sitting and talking with people where you have to pretend to understand what they are saying, pretending you know the names they mention. You should be ashamed of yourself, thinking because you mow some rich woman’s lawn you are part of her family. And now you treat your own Mother with contempt, because she happened to not know who Rothko is. And what would Dad have said about it? He would have said nothing at all. He would have rapped his knuckles on the top of his head and called me a hardhead, a knucklehead.”
What happened next I am ashamed to tell you, but I cried for a long period of time, quieted down, and then cried again even louder till someone blew their horn, because I was standing in the street. I had decided to walk home and avoid the bus because it is embarrassing to get on a bus when you are in hysterics.
Then came that moment of quiet resolve after a long and terrible cry, that calm moment, between suppressed sobs when you swear to yourself to never do something ever again, a promise ready to be broken at the first possible opportunity.
I started walking home, and only got two blocks when out of the corner of my eye I saw the familiar shape of the red fender of the Thunderbird belonging to my teacher’s twin sons. Which son was driving I couldn’t tell, because they always looked like the same person to me. He gestured for me to get in, and I did, throwing the bath mat into the back seat. “My mother sent me to fetch you, I was on the way to your house.” I said nothing but did not particularly like the word ‘fetch.’
Hanna’s son seemed anxious to explain something to me, but had difficulty saying anything more than a few words, and then he would fall silent. As for me, I said nothing. I felt like an escaped convict. I was afraid I had triggered some nervous reaction in my teacher that might lead to a confrontation with Savi, my barber. How could anyone ever criticize Savi? He was just a simpleton of a barber, and an institution in my family. I cared nothing for Savi, but the truth was, I would have had to give up art and my art teacher if it came down to having some argument with Savi.
We pulled into the driveway, and there was an apparition, the Good Doctor himself was standing at the end of the driveway, next to the kitchen door. As soon as he saw the car he went into the house. He was sitting at the kitchen table when his son and I entered the house. The doctor also wanted to explain something to me, but thought better of it. Then he got up to leave, only saying, “She’ll be down in a minute.” Strangely there were no other cars in the drive, and the bridge players had departed.
After a few minutes Hanna entered the kitchen and I could see that she had been crying about something, but what it was I had no idea, and had no interest in finding out.
“Where’s the bath mat?” she inquired.
“It’s in the back seat of the convertible.” I answered.
“Go get it and bring it in here, we will need to figure out how to do the drawing head on, and not profile, profile is never going to work. Think about this, if you were going to be standing on a woman’s body, which would you prefer, to stand on her front, or on her side? On the front, obviously. Have you ever seen a naked woman’s body Richard?” she asked
“Well, wait a minute, and I will get the Janson Art history book and we will use a Greek marble torso, they are perfect, and are always minus the head, arms, and legs, just like we need.”
I thought to myself, “I wonder what Ruth will have to say about this, perhaps she can make sense out of it for me?”
Something For Over The Couch
I couldn’t take credit for the bath mat woman’s torso I created as a commission for my barber, Savi. My art teacher was so disgusted by the thing that I assumed it would look stupidly pornographic, but with her help and an art history book, we ended up with a thing that was beautiful in a way that was impossible to explain. We used an outline from a Greek sculpture for the shape. The lines were just the left and right contour of the shape, nothing else, but there was a very slight curve of the breast, “which breaks through the line of the form,” my teacher explained, and it gave it a strange realness.
Savi pretended he liked it and was happy to pay me the ten dollars for it, but he was obviously disappointed in the result, I suppose because there was absolutely nothing sexy about it, even though it was obviously the shape of a naked woman, as he had asked for. It’s obvious that there is nothing sexy about Greek sculpture. It’s somehow too perfect and too elevated for any sordid reaction.
As I left, the old barber again mentioned how he went to my grandfather’s house once a month to cut his hair, a remark I had heard so many times before that suddenly I felt sorry for him, and I saw in my mind’s eye the window of his shop with a For Rent sign in the window, the culmination of his fifty years in the business.
Savi’s barber shop was located at 222 Genesee Street, and after leaving I crossed the street because I wanted to visit the new modern art museum that had opened recently. In the museum there was a Jackson Pollock, and a painting by Rothko that I wanted to look at again. But I ran into Ruth, whom I’ve mentioned before, my friend who discovered her mother hung in the kitchen broom closet, and who suffered from bouts of illness that kept her in the hospital part-time. She was in a good mood however, so as always we headed for some spot to sit and talk. We had been friends for a year and we had an unspoken agreement: whatever appointments or commitments either of us had would be suspended and forgotten if we happened to run into each other, except for possibly an abscessed tooth, which might have been an exception. This was partly because her phone had been disconnected, and so we never had what might be called a date.
“Have you been in the museum?” I asked.
“Did you look at the painting there by Rothko? It’s big, and it’s just two big color shapes, one on top of the other.”
“I know, I saw it. Do you know what the title of it is?”
“The title of his painting is, ‘This painting has been painted to guarantee voting rights to all previously enslaved people.’ ”
“Ruth, that is not the title,” was my reaction to her remark.
Ruth loved to make absurdist remarks, and then search her mind for proof, justifications and arguments to back up these absurdities. She did this with a straight face, and often would become angry and argumentative if you disagreed with her. Like me, she respected no one and nobody, but her lack of respect would push the limits of acceptable behavior into hatred, and get her into difficulties.
I did not want to argue with her about art however, so I asked her, “Why did U.F.A. expel you?” U.F.A. was our high school, where I was a sophomore and she was a freshman.
“Because of this,” she replied. With that she reached into her canvas satchel, and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper, on which was written, ‘Help me before I hurt myself.’ At the bottom was her signature, printed in very large, childish lettering. At first I did not say anything. I turned the paper over and saw clearly that all the words could be read clearly on the back side, and some letters tore through the paper. It was a paper of desperation.
“You didn’t write this,” I said.
“How do you know I didn’t?”
I took her canvas bag, opened it and took out her journal. Ruth kept a journal, it was the fourth in a series, and I was granted the right to read it whenever I wanted. I opened it at random and put my finger on a line of her ball point pen script.
“See?” I said. “Your writing alway looks like a series of balloon shapes, and I always print my signature, but you never do.”
“You’re very observant, and it’s true I didn’t write it, but there were dozens of these pieces of paper all over the school. And one was put under the door of the vice principal’s office.”
“In the middle of geometry there was a call, and I was sent down to the vice principal’s office. I just assumed it was because of what had happened in social studies the day before, because Mrs. Pease said that everyone had the right to vote, but for some it might take three generations for them to be ready. So I raised my hand and I said, ‘If somebody stole your car and the police told you you could have it back but it might take three generations, would you be happy with that?’
“Then Raymond said, ‘Go back to the insane asylum, Fatso.’ So I turned to him and enunciated, ‘You go home and crawl up inside your mom.’ But I used a word Mrs. Pease considered an obscenity, so she said, ‘No obscenities in this class room.’
“ ‘Obscenity! It’s not an obscenity. You have one. Is yours an obscenity? Mine isn’t.’ That’s what I said, but right away I apologized because the old bag, I was afraid she was going to have a stroke and it would be my fault, so I apologized profusely and begged her not to be offended. She accepted my apology, and so I asked for permission to sharpen a pencil, and she gave me permission.
“So I went to the pencil sharpener but I couldn’t get it to sharpen. It was jammed. I took the cover off and the shavings were solid, so I had to dig it out. Then it would grind but I couldn’t get any point on my pencil. So, I took the cover off again and, sure enough, there was crayon in the thing, jammed up in the teeth. I managed to fish out the bits of crayon and then, after about ten minutes, I finally got a good point on my pencil.
“When I returned to my seat, Mrs. Pease was just giving out the assignment and the bell was ringing. Everyone got up to leave, and in the commotion I accidentally drove my pencil into Raymond’s arm. It went in so far that it just stuck there. My God, you should have seen the expression on his face when he realized there was a pencil sticking out of his arm. His amazement was so comical, every time I think of it I start laughing.”
“Is that why they expelled you?”
“No, that happened the next day.”
“You’ll get into serious trouble now. They’ll commit you for this.”
“Shut up and listen. In the morning I was called down to the vice principal’s office, and unlike every other time, he called me in at once. He seemed very worried and began to question me about how I was feeling, and if I was upset about anything. That was all so strange, because never before did anyone show any concern for my wellbeing. It was always: expulsion is next, we’ll get you committed. When I insisted that I was fine, it was obvious he did not believe me. Then, out of his desk he produces the note, proof positive that I am seriously sick in the head. I asked him who wrote the note, and he pointed to my name at the bottom. Well yes, that’s my name all right but I didn’t write it.
“Nevertheless, he would not believe me, and then the school nurse and another man came in so I could see it was a set-up. It would be their signatures and involuntary commitment. The door of the office was still not closed.
“Then I had a stroke of genius. I put my hand on my head like I was coming down with a migraine, I stood up and staggered around a little like I was going to faint. I muttered some pathetic words and backed up toward the door, and then, the way I lit out and shinned for the road in the dark there ain’t nobody can tell.”
“Is that Tom Sawyer?”
“No, Huckleberry, the night they dug up the corpse.”
“I’m going to read it after I’m finished with The Stranger, but really, you can’t just stab people, even if…”
“I did him a favor. It was an affectionate stab, because I meant him no harm. If I was really angry I wouldn’t have gone for the arm. Besides, when he gets old, he’ll tell people about it, and it will be his favorite story from high school.”
“Then what happened?”
“I didn’t dare go home, but I walked close enough to see a police car parked at the bowling alley. I didn’t think they would be looking for me, but to be safe I went to my grandma’s house. I cut through the yards and went in the back door. She was talking to a policeman at the door, and when she heard me she waved me away with her hand. She was saying, ‘I haven’t seen her in weeks, but the girl will keep getting in trouble unless they punish those boys who persecute her down there.’ She takes my side, but my dad and his girlfriend would be glad to turn me in.”
“So now what?’
“Let’s read Lord of the Flies,” she suggested.
Something For Over The Couch
“The Insane Asylum and the Car Wash”
In the previous chapter you have been introduced to Ruth, and I hope you like her as much as I do. As you know things had happened to her, discovering her dead mom in the closet, the persecution of the boys at school, a persecution that I knew included things she would not mention to me.
Whenever we were together she was happy and ironically sarcastic about everything. I never saw the other side of her personality, the side that put her into the hospital for months at a time. This made me wonder if her mood with me was an act, but an act did not seem possible. She joked about electro shock, saying that not being able to think for a few weeks was a relief.
“Really Ruth, what was it like?” I asked her.
“You put your soup spoon into your pea soup, and you bring it to your lips. When it gets up to your lips it is empty. Some is back in the soup, some is on your shirt, and the rest is on the table. You put your shaking hand and your spoon back into the soup and try again. An hour later you have finished the pea soup, but it doesn’t matter because what is time after all, I mean in the grand scheme of things? When I am finished with my soup I try to have a bite of bread, and then take a nap till the next day.”
“All I do is read all day. Last time I shared a room with a woman who didn’t say a word to anyone for a month. One time she asked me what I was reading, so I started to tell her, but she walked out of the room while I was speaking. It didn’t hurt my feelings though, because she was walking so slowly.”
The things she described could not have been made up, because they were so bizarre, and inexplicable. I wanted to tell her about Hanna, the substitute art teacher, but something prevented me from bringing up the subject, even though I had been planning on asking her opinion of the episode with the bathmat. Then unexpectedly she started talking about her, as if she had read my mind.
“They fired the crazy art substitute that was causing such a commotion, you know.”
I did not know about Hanna being fired, but Ruth said it in such a way that it seemed to me she expected me to know all about it.
“Apparently she became involved with one of her students, so she got fired.”
I knew for an absolute fact that Hanna was not involved with any of her students, and I think if anyone had been aware of something like that it would have been me. But I had seen no evidence of anything of the sort. Perhaps there might have been some student who imagined there was something serious about my acquaintance with her, because she kept bring to class various art supplies she wanted me to use, but otherwise there was nothing. In class we never talked about the things that were said on Saturday, things like her marriage, or if she still loved her first husband. Anyone looking on, would have thought there was no connection at all between us, except probably somebody might have mentioned that I mowed her lawn every Saturday.
One time, during lunch in the cafeteria I heard some upperclassman say, “He mows her lawn once a week,” but he didn’t know me. I didn’t know anything about him, except he was in the fraternity my brother had been in.
My brother insisted I pledge his fraternity, telling me that, because he was my brother, I would be sure to be accepted, but I was rejected. I was very relieved about being rejected simply because of the things they said about girls, especially Ruth.
How my brother had been comfortable with his fraternity friends when he was a senior often troubled me. I thought of him as an intellectual, a person absorbed in the study of literature and the arts, but there was another side of him I knew about, a side that involved late night drunkenness, and reckless driving, accidents, and even gambling. Here is a snatch of his conversation one night, as we talked late into the night in twin beds next to each other.
“We were doing almost a hundred, I was in the back seat but It was my turn to steer the car so I was leaning over the seat with my hands on the wheel, Mike was on the floor working the pedals, he was getting instruction from Paul, who was the only one looking out the windshield. We were all smashed, we flipped the car, but we all got out of it unscathed.”
Jimmy was eighteen and about to get married, with a child just a few months in the future, when he and his friends wrecked the DeSoto. He was planning to move to Florida to find a job, and then send for his future wife to join him. She was checking groceries part time at the Uptown Market.
I often thought that the things he described to me late at night, might never have really happened. He might say, “The baker at the Henstruaght’s bakery makes donuts late at night, and so we put a cherry bomb between the screen door and the inner door, and when it exploded, he throws a tray of donuts in the air. After that we went into the White Tower and put one in the coin return of the pay phone, and it exploded across the room.”
In those first years after our dad died we were very destructive. If there had been a switch somewhere that could have shut down the entire world, it would have been pulled, but all I could do was jam bubblegum in the gas station bathroom door lock.
Hanna was not fired from her substitute teaching position but soon after the completion of the poronographic bathmat project she announced to our art class that she was leaving. The reason; because the regular teacher had finally died, and she had to decline a full time position, and so we could expect a new permanent teacher.
A few weeks had elapsed since my last Saturday visit to her house, and now, with her disappearance from the school it seemed to me that our story was over, it was like an unexpected ending in a movie and you think “That can’t be the end can it?”
But sure enough the credits start to roll leaving no doubt.
Everything became shrouded in shadow. My acquaintance with Hanna had given me the feeling that I had discovered who I actually was and what kind of person I was destined to be. And now, suddenly, I was a someone who mistakes games for reality, and daydreams for intentions, and no longer knows their own mind. Even our last encounter that took place in her kitchen, was a confusing memory. She was talking to her husband as I left, and I pointed out that I was not coming the following week, because the lawn “Certainly will not need cutting.” I waited a long moment for a reply, and getting none, I went out the door and shut it so as not to make the latch click.
The lawn was my only income and so now I applied for a job at the car wash. I knew other boys who had worked there, and for some reason they would often quit after a short time, I didn’t know why. The job consisted of thoroughly drying the cars when they came out of the machine. Six boys altogether would dry the cars with rags the moment they came out of the machine, three to a side. This had to be done as swiftly as possible inorder to get the car out of the way of the oncoming cars. The car would be running, and driven very slowly by the forman, and we had to walk alongside, drying and rubbing the thing down, even the inside edges of the doors which were all open. It was now winter, and sometimes below zero out, so the idea was to keep the car doors from freezing shut.
Everyone who worked at the car wash would become sick with various illnesses, and why I thought I might be an exception, I don’t know, but perhaps it was just indifference.
I was drying the doors of an expensive Lincoln when I felt a slight tug on my sleeve. It was the Good Doctor, Hanna’s husband. He said something to me but I couldn’t hear him because of the roar of the machines.
When his car was dry he got in and rolled down the window and gestured to me to come to him. He looked me strangely right in the eye and said. “Do you have a headache?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“It’s carbon monoxide, it won’t kill you, at least not right away. Come to my house on Saturday at noon, because I have odd jobs around the house I want you to do for me, and quit this job right now, I had to report them to the health department; I hope they will be shut down before the end of the week.”
Something For Over The Couch
“Is complete Ignorance an Asset?”
The next Saturday I journeyed up to my art teacher’s house fully expecting to find a list of household chores for me to do, and for which I would be paid. I imagined that my pay would be the same as for mowing the lawn, and would be left on the kitchen counter in an envelope. I was very comfortable with this arrangement because it was so similar to how my Mother would make lists for me to do on Saturdays. But I was amazed to find that Hanna did not expect me that morning, and knew nothing about her husband’s conversation with me at the car wash, or his insistence that I quit my poisonous job, and do chores for him instead.
What possible explanation was there for this development? I could not think of any. The doctor, Hanna explained, had gone to Cincinnati, or perhaps it was Chicago, to do an emergency procedure for which he was internationally famous. Hanna told me this in the kitchen in a bored and exaggerated way, dragging out the words ‘internationally famous,’ in a sarcastic way. This put me in a strange predicament, even a moral dilemma, actually a personal crisis, but all I said was, “I like your husband.”
This comment did not elicit any reaction from my teacher, but she was silent for a moment and then completely changed the subject.
“Well then let’s get down to business,” she said, and sat down at the kitchen table, pushing the ashtray over to my accustomed chair, as if this was a procedure established long ago. A few weeks had passed, a time when I thought the business of our conversations had come to an end, but even so, we fell to talking in our usual way, as if no time had elapsed.
“Tell me about Judith,” I said. Then a long moment passed while she tried to fathom who I could possibly be asking about. Seeing that she could not remember what Judith I was referring to, I prompted her by saying, “Tell me how your marriage to Max ended, and about the insulting waitress named Judith, who was to do some paintings. The girl who killed her father.”
“Supposed to have killed; rumored to have killed…”
“Yes, did she do the paintings, and did she become famous as a result?”
“Well, where did I leave off?” and with that she began telling me this story.
“Judith did the 12 paintings with the help of Francisco, an artist my husband was friendly with at the time. He was an Italian immigrant house painter about 32 years old who began doing abstract paintings by a strange accident. He just happened to see some large abstract paintings in an apartment he was painting on the Upper West Side, and he took it into his head to do one himself with some leftover paint from the job he was doing.
I believe it was a Franz Kline painting that fascinated him, and he simply could not get over the idea that, not only would a person pay money for a thing like that, but actually put it in the living room over a couch. He did his painting on a hollow core door that he found in the trash in front of his apartment.
I never saw that painting, but it was done with seven shades of house paint, the very colors that had been used in the apartment he had been working on, simply the leftover paint. The colors were all pastel tints. In a way it was a radical departure, by accident, from the art being done right then, because it was so bland and innocent looking. In short, it was a kind of interior decoration, and not anything serious.
The painting was hung up in a space over a cooler in the convenience store under his apartment in the Bronx. He put a price of fifty dollars on his painting and it was gone the very next day.
It was not long before Francisco discovered that this bizarre occurrence could be repeated, but with specific limitations.He found that his paintings would sell if they were 250 dollars, even 280, but there was an upper limit of 300 beyond which he was unable to go. He also discovered that the hollow core door was the perfect size for his paintings. But 300 dollar paintings became part of the permanent collection of the convenience store, along with all the small paintings he created on various cabinet doors he retrieved whenever kitchens in his neighborhood were being remodeled.
Now this Francisco never took any of his paintings seriously. He had never been to any museum or art gallery, and as a matter of fact did not even know about things like the Guggenheim, or the Modern. But in the fine arts there are forms of ignorance that are a positive asset for an artist. It is sort of like the jazz musician, you never would find a jazz musician embarrassed about not being able to read music. I mean, if some old bass player did not know who Beethoven was, do you think it might hurt his reputation as a musician? So this Francisco had never been to the Met, did not know where it was, or even what it was.”
It was at this point that I interrupted my art teacher to ask this question. “Is my complete ignorance an asset for me then, considering that I want to go to art school some day?”
“You, you consider yourself an ignorant artist?”
“Yes, obviously, because I do not know what the Guggenheim is, and I have never been to the Met, and I don’t know where, or what it is, and…”
At this point she raised her hand to silence me, and said, “Let me finish my story about Francisco, and we will have to talk about this matter on another day.”
“One day an art dealer’s car broke down in the Bronx, and he went into Francisco’s convenience store gallery, called for a tow truck, and came out with all of Francisco’s smaller paintings under his arm and threw them into his trunk. He left his card, and asked, “Whatever nitwit is doing this stuff, tell him to come see me.”
Francisco”s paintings now began to sell in the Corelli Gallery, a tiny storefront in the village. The hollow core door paintings now sold for five hundred dollars, and since Francisco got half, he had no advantage from his new situation. Corelli introduced his new artist to the use of canvas and stretchers, and after about a year Francisco settled into his new identity, quit his house painting job and embarked on the life of an artist, a life consisting of spending the entire day in cafes talking about art, and about an hour in the evening brushing some house paint onto a canvas.”
“You think those people are stupid, and their paintings are insincere don’t you.”
To this belligerent remark of mine, Hanna did not reply, but just looked at me quizzically.
“And you think your husband , who is a great doctor, is just some nobody that you can mock and be sarcastic about.”
“Like a knight , you throw down a gauntlet, and come to the defense of my doctor husband,” she said half questioningly.
Not knowing why I interrupted her I apologized, and after a minute she continued.
“Francisco’s art dealer, this Corelli fellow was Italian, and so was Francisco, but although they were both from the same country, they could not have been more different. Corelli was a short, fat, older man with a dry and colorless manor, a typical northern Italian, practically a German you might say. Francisco was just the opposite, your typical southerner, a Calabrian, tall, well built like a narrow waisted bull, like a minator, and with a fiery colorful temperament, given to extremes of expression, violent even.”
For some reason Hanna’s story about Francisco was more and more upsetting to me. Hanna chattered along unaware of how upset I was becoming and finally I couldn’t control myself any longer and talking almost to myself and looking down at the table top I said.
“I am Italian you know, and all my four grandparents were from Calabria, and I am ignorant as well, just like Francisco. I know nothing about art either for that matter, but am I…am I violent, do you think me a violent person,” I said, and I felt tears fill my eyes.
“Do you think I could put a person up against a wall and put a knife in them while looking them in the eyes? Could I do that?”
This final outburst, so irrational and out of character, frightened her so much she reached to grasp my hand, thought better of it, but then seized my wrist firmly and shook me. Then she let go of me, pushed herself away from the table and said.
“Alright now, out with it, what is going on with you.”
“I don’t know, really I don’t.”
“Well Richard, I know and I have known for a while now, because my husband told me all about it.”
“About the death of your father.”
“He died of a heart attack at work.”
“Your father died of stab wounds he received in a second floor apartment, over a bar down on Elizabeth Street, and he was still alive when he was brought into St. Lukes.”
“How would you know that, nobody knows about that.”
“One person does know, my husband the Good Doctor himself knows, because he closed your father’s eyes for him.”
“A metamorphosis, inadvertently beautiful.” I said.
“And what is that supposed to mean?” she asked.
“I have no idea.” I replied.
The tutor’s story: When I was a child my father worked for the great composer and violinist Antonio Vivaldi in Venice. It was his job to copy out manuscripts and prepare them for the engravers. He was an adequate violinist, and sometimes he had the pleasure of performing in Vivaldi’s works if one of the regular musicians was absent.
In Venice at that time there was an institution called the Conservatorio dell’Ospedale della Pieta. It was an orphanage, but unlike its usual counterparts for the destitute, it was opulent and extravagant. It was an orphanage for the female offspring of the aristocracy.
Who the parents of these girls were was not known; they were delivered to the institution in secret, in the dead of night. In a darkened street, in a wall there was an opening large enough for an infant, the child was placed in the niche, the door was closed, and a turntable rotated bringing the child inside.
Even though the parents of these children never saw or acknowledged them, they nevertheless provided than with an institution suitable to their origin. But it was an orphanage run by nuns and priests and their manner when it comes to the bringing up of children was repressive to say the least.
Vivaldi was priest, but a priest of a very unusual sort. In Venice at that time there were ambitious artists, composers and musicians who knew that their only possible patron was the Roman Catholic Church, so they took their vows and became priests in clothing and name only. These priests often became wealthy and successful, lived like lords and enjoyed the best food and wine. When it came to the fair sex they indulged themselves to the full. One such priest was Antonio Vivaldi.
Since he was an employee of the church he was given the assignment of composing music for a girls choir, a choir consisting of the occupants of the Conservatorio dell’Ospedale della Pieta orphanage. If you listen to the compositions Vivaldi wrote for this girl’s choir you realized that he must have composed them with a feeling of frustration because he was already a famous composer.
But here he was, since he was also a priest, condemned to compose simple scale and arpeggio exercises for young girls, music of no consequence to anyone. Added to that, since they were all young girls, and Vivaldi was very similar to myself, (here the music tutor tapped himself on the chest), those girls started to torment Antonio in that special way music teachers are always tormented.
“They put oil into his flute, they put lard on the pegs of his violin, they touched the strings of the harpsichord when he tried to tune it, in short they did all the things you girls have been doing to me all these weeks.” Now the music tutor stopped speaking and gave his students a look. It was certainly a shock and a surprise to discover he knew all along what they had been doing, but then he continued.
The reason I know all the things you have been doing to me is because they are the exact same things I did to my music teacher when I was young, and the same as my father did to his teacher. You girls think you have made all of this naughty behavior up yourselves, but the truth is all of these things have been going on for years and years. And if you have the misfortune to have to teach music when you are older it will happen to you also.
The persecution of the music teacher is a grand tradition that goes back thousands of years, and you may wonder why it is that the bad children engaged in these pranks are not caught and punished. The answer is very simple. The music teacher looks on with a blind eye because he is kind, because an unkind person can not master the discipline of music, and secondly, because when one sees children playing the same pranks we played as children it gives one great pleasure.
But now back to my story of Vivaldi. Since it was a choir he had to compose and conduct for, it was when the girls were singing that they gave him the most trouble. I say, ‘singing’, but the word really should be mumbling. No matter how he encouraged the girls, they were too shy and awkward to try to really sing.
If Vivaldi resorted to having them sing the common tunes of the street, which they were familiar with he, had better luck, and those tunes, since the girls sang in unison, went very well. But as soon as he tried to get them to sing more complicated works, works involving part-singing, they resorted to near silence. Just like myself, he resorted to threats and reproaches and it sometimes happened that all the girls would manage to sing some work of his with adequate feeling.
But then fate took an hand in the affairs of Vivaldi. As I said before, the orphan girls were all the offspring of aristocratic parents, and so it often happened that expensive gifts were received anonymously at the orphanage, one of those gifts included tickets to the opera for all of the girls.
The girls went to the opera, and they were not impressed. The opera that night was not good, and the singing was not up to par, but what impressed the girls the most was the forced ridiculousness of the entire production. The garish badly painted sets, the dramatic gestures, the overuse of stage make-up all combined to create a comic impression, and when everyone died at the end do to innumerable stabbings it was all they could do to keep from dying of laughter.
In the days that followed two of the orphanage girls began to entertain the other girls with mock presentations of the opera they had seen. These two girls, named Netochka and Simmona procured the music for the opera from the music library, memorized several of the duets, and then, late at night preformed these works for the other girls in their dormitory. The purpose of these performances was to reduce all the other girls to hysterical fits of laughter.
But Netochka and Simona were playing with fire. The better they got at doing mock presentations of the opera they gradually began to develop real singing voices. All of the girls were affected, and little by little this prank evolved into complete childish productions of operas, with costumes contrived from bed sheets, carried out in the middle of the night.
Meanwhile, back in the music classroom with Vivaldi, none of this was in evidence. All the girls would do was look down at the floor, mumble instead of sing, and watch out for opportunities to irritate their teacher.
Netochka said to Simona, “Since he is always complaining that we won’t sing at all, lets shock him tomorrow and sing the stonmitz out of whatever he gives us to sing. Apparently Netochka was from Austria originally, hence the use of the word ‘stonmitz’.
The music Vivaldi picked out for the days lesson was one of his own works, it began with a solo by one of the girls, and was followed by a chorus in unison. About half way through the chorus Netochka and Simona began to sing with more intensity, and toward the end of the piece the girls were singing with as much passion as they could muster.
The effect of the girls singing like that was contagious and all the other girls joined in. The music room echoed with the intensity of their singing, Vivaldi thought they were going to blow his powered wig from his head.
When the lesson was over Vivaldi asked the two girls who had started the commotion to remain after class. Since what they had done was intended as a prank, and to them amounted to ridicule of Vivaldi’s music and of opera in general, what they were expecting was some sort of punishment. Vivaldi was not one to inflict punishment but they expected to be reported to the head mistress, who would then confine them to their dorm room for a week or two.
The girls stood at his desk, he looked at them with his baton in his hand, “Thank you girls, thank you for this glorious day, do the same tomorrow, and the day after”, he said to them. The girls left the music room, suffering from a confusion of mixed emotions.
Vivaldi went immediately to the music library to find a piece of music that now stirred in his head, something he had heard years ago, a work by Monteverdi with a title like “Agamemnon”. He was all day in the music library but he could find no trace of it. He remembered a solo by Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon, in which she pleads for her life, and begs not to be sacrificed. This solo was followed by a chorus of young girls of the town reproaching the king for his plan to sacrifice his daughter to the gods.
After the chorus of young girls reproaching Agamemnon, Agamemnon’s wife in a solo, calls all the women of Argos to witness the crime Agamemnon is about to commit with the words, “We mothers of Argos, we recoil in horror, your plan we abhor, your war should not destroy the child we adore.”
But search as he might, he could find not a single page of this piece by Monteverdi, and even today Music scholars only know of it because it was mentioned in a letter that Pope Clement XI sent to Cardinal Riveria in Spain asking about a certain sort of grapes.
Vivaldi gave up the search but he did not give up on the idea of a work for young girls in which they plead for the life of one of their own. For some reason he felt that such a subject would appeal emotionally to them. What he hoped to do was to mine their deep feeling of resentment since they were orphans, added to the fact they were all aware of the social standing of their unknown parents.
Vivaldi was a very prolific composer, and after many hours in the music library trying to find the composition by Monteverdi, it struck him that he could compose a work himself on the same theme, and it would take him less time than his search for the manuscript had taken.
Vivaldi composed an oratorio rather than on opera. An oratorio was more appropriate to his resources. It was a short work consisting of a solo by Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter in which she pleads for her life. The solo was followed by a chorus of the girls of the town singing in unison. After that came a quartet of mothers, reproaching Agamemnon for his plan to sacrifice his daughter in order to make possible his war on Troy.
Antonio had to restrict himself to simple passages, and he had to stay within the narrow vocal range of the girls. The work he produced is in many ways very similar to that prelude Marie Antoinette was trying to learn by Bach in that even though it was basically simple, it was relentless in its pathos. It was, as you know, baroque music, and so its pathos was logical, it was the logical pathos of the baroque period.
My father told me that he copied this work out in parts for the girls but Vivaldi said it would not be necessary to prepare it for the engravers. He did not consider it a thing of any importance. For this reason no copy of the work exists, and if my father had not told me about what happened concerning this work, this entire episode in Vivaldi’s life would be unknown. Vivaldi presented the work for the first time to his girl students and they sang it in their usual way, with no interest or emotion, mumbling the words, looking at the floor, fidgeting, anxious for the lesson to end so they could leave to do something else. It was a typical choir lesson.
The ideas in Vivaldi’s oratorio acted on the girls in the choir exactly the same way as yeast in bread dough, but it was an unconscious sort of fermentation, they were not really aware of it. In their usual way, late at night they preformed parts of the work again for each other. Since they were alone they sang with gusto, subjecting the various lines to their usual ridicule.
The ideas Vivaldi implanted in their heads took root, bore fruit, and they sang the piece with interest. He asked them to go through it again and they sang it with passion, then a third time in anger and desperation. Vivaldi was able to stop conducting, the work took over, and the girls sang it on their own way. In the performance there was not a hint of mockery. When they were done in some girl’s eyes tears glistened, but in others he saw that angry proud look of injured innocence.
Vivaldi realized he had stumbled on to a masterpiece; it was a combination of perfect material, circumstance, and ability. He was so impressed with what he heard that he thought he should give a presentation of the work to a larger audience. It was not his habit to involve his work at the orphanage in his larger work in his professional career, but this was an exception. But before he could proceed he needed to get permission of the Father Superior and the elders of the orphanage.
But the girls, and especially Netochka and Simmona did not realize how important the performance was to Vivaldi. They continued to make fun of him and the oratorio, even though at the same time, they were moved by the work when they were singing it. There is only one word to describe the feelings of the girls in the choir, and that word was ambivalent.
Simmona now came up with another trick to further torment Vivaldi and they tried it out in their evening mock performances and it worked perfectly. Meanwhile Vivaldi arranged for the orphanage elders to be present at his next rehearsal. He wanted to surprise them. He was sure they would be as impressed as he was. He did not want to inhibit the girls or make them nervous so he had his audience file into the choir room at the back entrance, and take seats where the girls would not see them.
The first two movements went off without any difficulty, but in the third section, the section involving the quartet of the mothers, Simona and Netochka began to sing slightly out of tune. Simmona sang slightly sharp, and Netochka sang a little flat. They did this very skilfully so that at first it seemed accidental, but in the slower sections it became more pronounced.
It is easy to describe what Simmona and Netochka sounded like in the quartet. Have you ever been awakened in the middle of the night by cats confronting each other and preparing for a fight? If you have heard that sound then you know exactly what the girls sounded like, and just like with cats out in the yard at night, it would not stop, but went on an on getting louder and louder.
Poor Vivaldi. He knew he was being made a fool of by the girls, but what could he do? He was used to sitting back and letting the girls direct themselves because they had been doing the piece with such inspiration, so when the caterwauling began he was not even paying attention to what was going on.
But things were even worse that that. The orphanage fathers believed that it was intentional, and that what they had heard is what Vivaldi had intended for them to hear, and so they were livid. Poor Vivaldi, if the orphanage fathers had not been in the choir room he would have found the caterwauling of the girls just as funny as the girls did even if he would have pretended to be angry, but under the circumstances he had to demand their punishment.
As usually happens in these situations it was decided to punish the ‘ringleaders’, that is Netochka, and Simmona. Even though all the girls had joined in, it was those two who were singled out for punishment. The girls were beaten with a leather strap, a punishment administered by a nun, and witnessed by a committee of six elders. I know you are expecting to hear details of a severe punishment but that was not the case. The fact was, many of the nuns of the orphanage had been inmates of the same institution when they were young. The old leather strap about to be used on Netochka and Simmona was the same strap that had been used on them as children.
Over the years an elaborate scheme had been worked out between the elder nuns and the young girls about how to deal with these punishments. The girls to be punished first had to be locked up in a small room where they were to pray for forgiveness for a full hour on their knees.
In the room the girls found several pairs of cotton tights, as well as gauze pads to be placed in vulnerable places. Once the layers of stockings and padding were in place the girls were taken one at a time to be whipped. They felt nothing but knew they were supposed to scream bloody murder. The leather strap was wielded with terrible cruelty, but did no harm. Everyone was happy with the outcome except for Vivaldi, who, completely taken in by the charade, suffered pangs of guilt.
Some months went by before the girls were allowed returned to choir practice again. When they returned they seemed to Vivaldi to have completely grown up, and their voices had matured, especially Netochka, and Vivaldi was able to give her difficult solo parts that she executed with confidence.
During this time Vivaldi had also changed. He no longer felt that the teaching of the orphan girls was a pointless chore. The memory of their rendering of his little oratorio about Agamemnon remained in his mind, and he began to compose vocal works, especially for the girl’s choir.
He was especially motivated to create works featuring Netochka. What was Netochka’s voice like? Sometimes one hears a huge choir singing in some concert hall and among those voices in the crowd of singers one detects one individual voice that has a strangeness about it, perhaps it is a reedy quality, or an inexplicable darkness.
One’s eye searches the faces to combine the sound with the features amidst the crowd. Finally the eye and the ear make the connection, and the face somehow explains everything. After the music is over many people will search out that singer and ask for an autograph, but they really just want a closer look, because they are recognizing some future Prima Donna.
Such was Netochka’s voice, and she did go on to become a Prima Donna. When she was older her performances were in demand all over Europe, and even after she married and raised five children, still she continued her successful singing career.
The nuns of the orphanage were not surprised about Netochka’s success and they suspected it would happen. It was not just all the attention Vivaldi lavished on the girl; it was something else. It was her flaming red hair and her freckles, which were exactly like Vivaldi’s. They were quite certain that Netochka was Vivaldi’s daughter.
The music tutor did not know how Marie Antoinette and Gloria would react to his little story about Vivaldi, but their reaction took him completely by surprise. What interested them the most was the business of Vivaldi’s composing a piece of music especially for the orphan girls. “Please compose an opera for us dear music tutor”, pleaded the girls, “please oh please”
“I am just a simple teacher of music, and my father was only a viola player and transcriber of manuscripts. I have never composed any music, and as for opera, why I would not have any idea where to begin,” said the tutor.
But the girls were not to be dissuaded, if the tutor was not going to write an opera for them, they would write an opera themselves, and he would just have to help them do it. He would be the transcriber and the copyist, and they would do all the composing.
“But girls,”, said the tutor, “You can’t even start on an opera unless you have some idea to plan the entire thing around. What would your opera be about, who would be its heroes, who the villains, where would it take place? And even more than that, what would be the purpose of the opera, what would be its message?” With such questions he sought to discourage the girls from such a difficult project.
Marie Antoinette was ready for the question and said, “The opera will take place in the royal kitchens, and a feast will be the setting. The royals will eat a huge meal in the dining room and retire to the ballroom; poor people who will eat up the leftovers will invade the dining room. The poor people will become drunk and shout insults at the king and the queen. Then the cooks and servants will return to clean up the dining room, and drive the poor out of the dining room and into the night.
Camus Crosses The Street
When the Duck finished narrating his story, Buboni made some interesting observations. “Duck”, he said, “I suppose the real point of the story about Vivaldi and the choir of orphans is this interesting fact that Vivaldi turns out to be Netochka’s father. We may have suspected this conclusion to the story if we were paying attention at the beginning when you said that Vivaldi was a priest in name only who enjoyed the fair sex.”
But I for one did not see the conclusion coming, and I have to commend you on your storytelling skills in that you suspended the most important point until the last word, since the last word of your story is indeed ‘daughter’. And not only that but you didn’t bother to foreshadow the conclusion like so many storytellers would do.
We did not know how that story would end till the last word, and it is interesting to compare the Vivaldi story with the earlier one about Marie Antoinette. In the story of Marie Antoinette the Duck gives us all sorts of details about when she is just ten years old, but we know already how the story of Marie Antoinette is going to end, when she is 37 years old and a young mother she will have her head chopped off.
Does the knowledge of the conclusion of Marie Antoinette’s story affect our reaction? Does the thought run through your mind, ‘what difference does it make if Marie learns a piece of music in time for Mozart’s visit since no matter what she does she is doomed to tragedy in the end. Do the hanging storm clouds which will bring inevitable tragedy render all the little tender details of her young life superfluous. To the scaffold, let’s be done with it, who cares about her childish pranks.
“For shame Buboni,” said the Duck. “Do you mean to tell me that you think that just because Marie Antoinette dies on the guillotine this means that her life was pointless? That would be the attitude of a self-centered person who thinks that other lives are just a story with a plot, and if you know the end there is no point to watching the movie.”
“That is not my attitude at all”, said Buboni “I am drawing a distinction between two types of lives. Consider Michelangelo, he worked at his art his entire life, was always successful, beloved by everyone, and in old age died happy with what he had done. But then think of Marie, she wanted to be a great queen of France, beloved by the people, and instead she was hated and killed. So you could say her life was a failure and a waste.”
That reversal of purpose, when your life’s work produces the exact opposite of all that you intended is what inspired the existentialists to write about life as being absurd and pointless.
Buboni could not convince the Duck with his existential argument, his idea that life might be looked at as a long sequence of meaningless events culminating in the crowning indignity of death? The idea was of no use to him, he rejected it utterly.
“You know”, said the Duck to Buboni, “I have read all of those existential writers who try to convince everyone that life has no meaning, their writings are quite elegant, and there arguments very convincing but there is not a one of them who would not look both ways before crossing a busy Paris street, because actually they were phonies.”
Smoking their pipes and drinking fine wine, sitting in their well appointed living rooms with a view of Paris, the Seine and the Pont Neuf, they set down their wine glass, lay aside their pipes and type a few lines about the meaninglessness of existence, and then go out for a few drinks at a cafe with their intellectual friends. And they all agree that the marvelous lives they are leading, are actually without any purpose at all.
Outside around a corner a blind beggar asks for alms. He is old and sick and lately has come to the conclusion that he has not long to live and yet he still asks for a copper from a passing stranger, because he intends to savor the dregs of the wine of his life, even to the last swallow.
Because he knows, as Dostoevsky knew, that life forever poised on a narrow ledge on the edge of a cliff can be enjoyed, and is infinitely superior to eternal nothingness. Here are Fyodor Mikhailovich’s words about it:
Dostoevsky: “Where is it I’ve read that someone condemned to death says or thinks, an hour before his death, that if he had to live on some high rock, on such a narrow ledge that he’d only room to stand, and the ocean, everlasting darkness, everlasting solitude, everlasting tempest around him, if he had to remain standing on a square yard of space all his life, a thousand years, eternity, it were better to live so than to die at once! Only to live, to live and live! Life, whatever it may be!”
And what did Dostoevsky and Marie Antoinette have in common? Everything, everything that mattered. Because both of them were placed in a cart, and driven by others through crowds to their execution. Marie to be executed, and Dostoevsky to be pardoned at the last moment.
“Now Buboni”, concluded the Duck, “are you really going to suggest that those fifteen minutes in the cart had no significance? The simple truth is that every segment of fifteen minutes in a life is either equally significant, or on the other hand equally pointless. Take your choice, and as a Duck I chose the former, and you as a worn out old frustrated professor, will probably chose the latter.”
But what of me, I thought to myself. How many times did I look up at the back wall of the post office and note the time, fifteen minutes more till the morning break, or thirty minutes more till lunch. How many times did I mark on a scrap of paper a line to represent a minute gone by on the way to five o’clock? My life was exactly like that famous poem with the line; “I measure out my life with coffee spoons.”
And in the same way that I marked time each day in intervals of five minutes, so also I marked out the years to pass until my retirement, my retirement when I could turn my attention to all those things that really mattered to me, the only problem being that nothing really mattered to me. It was just wishful thinking. I suppose I felt that once I reached the magic age of 65 some purpose for life would pop up as if out of the ground, and I would turn my attention to it.
So I began to take classes at the museum, that was my new purpose once I retired, but it was always with a nagging feeling that casting things into plaster had to also be entirely pointless, if indeed all the years leading up to the making of those casts was pointless. How many times did I sit back and look at the things I worked on, and in my mind would arise this image of the sun exploding, and a huge wall of flame coming to consume the earth and everything in it.
All my little plaster casts of hands and feet, and the big casts I had made and stored out in the garage where my wife could not see them, burnt to cinders, burnt to less than cinders, burnt to a vapor, along with all the great masterpieces of history, all the special museum collections. Even that old shoebox full of unusual stamps some old man has collected from World War I, at the back of the shelf in a closet where thieves will never find it, burnt to a crisp, destroyed for ever.
Those were the images passing through my mind, images all of which agreed with Buboni and his notion that a life could indeed be one long meaningless decent into nothingness. For him it was really worse than that, in that he had built up a career for himself, only to see it all disappear before his eyes in an instant and be replaced by humiliation.
But the Duck had to be right in the end, because it was an all or nothing equation, either everything matters for all time, or nothing matters, how can it be both and neither. One is faced in the end with a simple fact, some day none of this will exist, and so everything matters, or nothing matters, since that is so, the Duck thinks that an ant crawling across the edge of a table is just as important as Einstein’s theories.
Frost on a winter window matters just as much as all the works of Shakespeare, and a shoe by the side of the road, driven over and crushed by traffic and soaked with rain water is just as worthy to be in a glass vitrine in the Louvre as the paintings of either Da Vinci or Van Gogh.
I suppose the Duck would say: Let us stop Marie Antoinette’s cart in which she is being taken to the guillotine, have her step down and you, whomever you may be, shall get in her place. Now it is you that is on the way to your death, which will occur in fifteen minutes depending on the traffic.
Wouldn’t you want that tumbrel to go slowly, or perhaps stop all together for as long as possible, and can’t you see that a bee buzzing around near your ear is just as interesting as anything you have ever heard. In this situation it is obvious that the old wet shoe in the road is as interesting as any object in a museum you have paid money to stand in front of.
You may get down from Marie’s cart now, and she will get back in, and with a sigh of relief go back to thinking that some sights and some sounds are more worthy of your attention than others. But you will be deceiving yourself, because the fact is, you are in that cart, and you will never get out of it, so you must accept it.
When is a gum wrapper sticking momentarily to a lamppost the most interesting thing you ever saw, something you promise yourself you will remember till your dying day? It is that time you walked across a parking lot just after some doctor in a lab coat told you are not going to die after all. “No” the doctor said, “you are going to live, going to live for ever.”
To say that ones life had no meaning, and was a waste of time is treason against the self. One has to rise up against a thought like that and…, Just then, Aunt J noticed me and said, “Richard what is going on in that head of yours, you look like you are going to blow a fuse, are you all right.” Apparently she could see painted on my face all the disturbed things that were going on in my head.
Her question made me feel self conscious and I could not start talking about what was on my mind at that moment so to change the subject I asked Aunt J what she thought of the Duck’s stories about Marie Antoinette, and the tutor’s story about Vivaldi.
“I have no idea where this Duck gets his information”, she said,” I don’t doubt that he knows what he is talking about. One thing stands out for me however, and it is the detail about Netochka becoming an opera singer by accident. When Netochka first starts to sing with passion and conviction it is just to entertain her friends, and not because she is interested in the music she is singing.”
Do you notice the similarity of Coromo beginning to paint and Netochka beginning to sing. Coromo was not interested in painting pictures at first, he came about it by accident because he was trying to emulate children’s pictures to entertain his woman friends. So in both cases you see, people became involved in their art completely by accident.
The similarity in those stories makes me suspect that the Duck has invented the story of Netochka. He is transforming the details in my story about Coromo, changed it to fit a different circumstance, and trotted it out as some piece of discovered history only he can have knowledge of because of some Duck hocus pocus. But I have always thought it is very important to make a distinction between historical truth, and fiction made up by Ducks carried away by their own eloquence.
“Duck hocus pocus?” quacked the duck. “What are you talking about?” “I did not make up any story about Netochka, the story I told you was directly from the music tutor who heard it from his father the viola player and transcriber of Vivaldi’s manuscripts. I told you what I heard, I never make anything up, and as far as Netochka being similar to Coromo, it is an interesting observation, but it is only a coincidence.
As a matter of fact although I have a wonderful memory and the ability to weave those memories into stories intended to explain certain ideas, I have no ability to invent anything because I have no imagination. My head is so full of the images of all the things I know actually happened there is no room for fairy tales and fiction, I have no use for fiction anyway.
“But”, the Duck continued, “I think it is you Aunt J, that is embroidering your stories with pieces of fiction you have read in order to make the narration more interesting for your listeners. Perhaps long ago you happened to read Boccaccio’s Decameron and so you added to your story of Coromo and the youngest sister the detail of his being very religious, in order to drag out that time in the woods when he was so full of desire.”
“The difference is Mr. Duck”, said Aunt J, “I know Coromo and so I know he was very religious, but you did not know Marie Antoinette, so there. Coromo’s religious convictions had an interesting effect on his development as an artist as a matter of fact.” “How so?” asked Buboni, always one to want to hear the details of some artists career.
“Coromo had the idea to do paintings in his spare time and then try to find a way to have them get seen at the resort where he worked,” she said. “His biggest problem was always what to use for subject matter. He knew he wanted to paint pictures, he just did not know what those pictures should be about.
He finished six pictures, all of which were attempts to imitate children’s pictures, as you know, but after he sold those paintings to Tallulah he had no reason to imitate children’s pictures anymore. But if he was going to paint pictures, what sort of pictures should he paint, he wondered.”
Buboni listened to her with great interest and with each word began to squirm and twitch with all the thoughts swimming in his mind. Twice as she spoke he started to interrupt her, but held back trying to force himself for once to be polite, but when she finished a sentence he jumped in excitedly.
“This this…, is just exactly the crux of the problem of the modern artist,” he said. “Don’t you see, nobody is asking Coromo to paint pictures and nobody cares what he paints. He has to come up with the ideas all by himself, and on top of that, he has to provide the motivation.” Here Buboni paused, and waited for her to reply.
I want to take just a second and say something about this pause in Buboni’s speech. By now you know what our Buboni is like, he has no respect for any one’s opinions and will only listen to the Duck because the Duck is so intelligent, but here he was showing a subtitle deference to Aunt J, and actually waiting patiently to see what she would have to say in reply.
Yes, it was one of those unmistakable moments when you realize that one person is attracted to another person, and your eye flashes across the space between their eyes in order to ascertain if that attraction is reciprocated. I thought to myself, ‘Buboni likes this woman’, but I couldn’t tell if she liked him, or was oblivious to his behavior.
But I did not find out the answer to that question because the Duck started to talk about the idea Buboni had just brought up. “Buboni says,” he began, “that the artist is free to do what ever he would like to do in this day and age, and he has to bow and scrape to no Pope or Emperor. This is thought of as an advantage.
At this point in art history we often hear things like the artist is ‘unfettered’, he is encouraged to break the bonds of academic thinking and training and to ‘experiment’. But is this really such a wonderful thing.
The truth is that the artist only has such complete freedom, because hardly anyone cares what the artist is doing. The artist’s friends and relations all say wonderful things about everything the artist does, but it is really meaningless perfunctory encouragement out of politeness. The terrible truth is, most people just don’t care what artists are doing.
You may chose to disagree with me, and you may point out that our museums are overflowing now with visitors, and there is more traffic to shows than ever before. But I see it differently. The last time I was in a museum was six months ago, before I became involved with Richard and Buboni.
It was a big retrospective of the works of Cezanne. Cezanne, being one of the foremost pioneers of modern art, I expected big crowds and a long line to get in, but it was the usual thing, fifteen or twenty elderly couples with white hair in each of the rooms of the exhibit.
I went to a baseball game, there were ten thousand people in the stands screaming so loud I had a ringing in my ears for a week, and my poor little Duck body was almost crushed to death in the rush to get into the stadium. People are interested in baseball, and people are interested in cinema. People in general are not interested in art in any way. There behaviors make this abundantly clear. Art exhibits are social affairs where the rich go to visit with each other, they are not about art.
“Social affairs you think, Mr. Duck?”, said Buboni. “Are you saying that all of the billions of dollars that have been spent on new museums for modern art in the world, and all of the trillions of dollars that has been spent by collectors driving up the prices of modern works to unprecedented levels are simply the expression of a social phenomena, to be studied not as a part of art history, but studied as a branch of sociology.
“I am not going to get into that argument with you today said the Duck, and besides I know you have read Veblen’s book ‘The Theory Of The Leisure Class.’ That book was written in 1899 but it is still the best and only explanation for why someone would pay 40 million dollars for an object consisting of a piece of cloth with paint smeared on one side of it, which is all that on oil painting is in actuality.”
Here was this argument again between the Duck and Buboni about aspects of art that I knew nothing about. Was it true that someone had actually paid 40 million dollars for an oil painting once? I hardly believed it but perhaps it was so. And if they had, how could you explain it in a way that an ordinary person like myself could make sense out of it. Ten thousand perhaps but 40 million? I thought it was just an example of Buboni’s exaggerations.
But speaking of Buboni, I continued to wonder if I was correct about his being attracted to the Cleaning Lady and I watched for any indication that would confirm my suspicions.
You will remember all of the things we discovered about him when we looked him up on Google, about his academic history and the denouement of his career. We knew about his childhood and his color acuity and how he ‘by accident’ started to be interested in art history. But we knew nothing about the man’s emotional life. Did he even have a wife, for instance? Was he divorced?
Buboni In Love
“Tell me Buboni?” I said, “Have you ever been in love?”
Hearing the question he did not answer me directly, instead he look up at Aunt J and said, “There has never been a time in my life that I have not been deeply in love. It is, I suppose, part and parcel of an artistic temperament. Some of my earliest memories are of being in love, and of suffering over it beginning when I was five years old.
I was in love with a blond girl named Cynthia. Blond is the best description I can give you because I never saw her close up. She sat in a seat the farthest from me, diagonally across the room in kindergarten.
Once, at a great distance, I followed her home, but not all the way to her door. After getting several blocks away from my usual path home I began to feel a rising panic and gave it up, but I was only five.
That same night I had a vivid dream about my new love. I dreamt that we were married and that we lived in a tree fort in the back yard of my house. When I awoke it was with a distinctly absurd feeling of stupidity and I wondered to myself, “How could I think that people could be married and live in a tree fort?” I felt that the dream indicated a certain level of stupidity on my part. But the blissful feeling of contented marital bliss, as I now know it is called, would not leave me.
When I recall that dream I still can feel that delicious feeling of being in love with someone who I really do not yet know – set apart in some wild and strange place. We were like shipwrecked survivors on a deserted tropical island, for whom courtship, inquiry, fascination and consummation take place without the least possibility of interruption or competition and where even memory and fantasy are silent.
The very next morning I set about building a tree fort, with the restricted means of a five year old. Our backyard however presented a dismal prospect: a piece of dirt perhaps thirty feet square with a few strands of crab grass here and there. It was bordered with cinder block walls on three sides. One of these walls was the back part of a funeral parlor which had one window, its curtain always closed. Another wall was the back of an establishment that rented tuxedos.
In the corner of this yard grew a lone sumac tree about seven feet tall with spindly branches and those long leaves that look like the remaining unkempt hair of some balding old man like myself.
I spent a long time trying to nail a two-by-four into a branch in that sumac tree but with no success. I remember being stupefied by the problem of how to hold the hammer, the nail and the wood up in the air all at once and still, be able to strike with the hammer. Each time I would try the nails would fly off into the dirt of the yard someplace and I would have to hunt around for them.
In desperation I resorted to rope. I tied several two-by-fours to the branches of the tree with the rope, and then, standing on a chair, I jumped upon them like mounting a startled horse by surprise. The various branches of the sumac tree all broke at once and everything ended up on the ground. I had murdered the sumac tree even though I had not meant it any harm. I was just like Lenny, in Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”.
My crime did not go unnoticed. My mother confronted me and asked, “Albert, why did you destroy the sumac tree?” I explained, “I was trying to build a tree fort.” “But why would you try to build a tree fort in a sumac tree?” This second question she said more to herself than to me and did not expect me to answer. To me, it sounded more like, “Albert, why are you such a stupid little boy?” I couldn’t even face her apron but stared down at my shoes, the laces I still had not learned to tie.
Late in the afternoon I occupied myself with throwing stones at the mortuary wall until, as luck would have it, I broke their only window. After that I went inside, told my mother about it and said I would be in my room until the police came to take me away.
Just a few years after my love affair with Cynthia, I fell in love with Jane Russell. This was a love both tragic, and confusing for me. It was especially confusing as I was a child at the time and I had absolutely no idea that I had fallen in love with her. It came about unconsciously, just like an illness with an incubation period.
Apparently, when I was seven I saw one of her films by accident. Perhaps it was showing along with one of the westerns I would go to see back then. I can remember that there were two feature films showing together, and because of the Jane Russell film I sat through both movies twice.
I soon forgot all about those movies, but several weeks later I had a vivid dream about Ms. Russell. I can’t remember any details of that dream except that we were in love and then she rejected me for someone else.
For many days, even weeks after that dream I was terribly depressed. It was exactly as if it had actually happened, as if it was my own real life experience. This so upset me that I actually began to argue with, and ridicule myself. “Albert,” I would say, in a tone of indignant reproach, “You’re only seven years old and she has got to be at least twenty. Besides you’ve never even met her, never ever really seen her.
I mean you’ve seen her image but that’s just some dots of ink on some paper in a magazine. It would be one thing to fall in love with a movie star, very understandable to suffer the pangs of unrequited love in that situation. But to suffer from rejection? Well, this is just idiotic!” But I discovered at an early age that no amount of verbal logic or reasoning has any power over one’s emotional life. It just roars along under its own steam, and you just wait until it is over.
By the time he finished with these personal remembrances from his childhood love life he was talking to all of us rather than just to Aunt Jemima. He was nervous that he had said too much, and seemed to retract into himself as he finished, as if he wanted to avoid any questions.
“Have you ever been married Buboni?” asked Aunt Jemima. What sort of a question was this? Was it a question driven by a desire to know Buboni more intimately; was it a question that signaled that Jemima reciprocated his newfound interest in her?
Or was it a clinical question, like one of a series of questions a doctor will ask examining a person in the emergency room of a hospital, answers to be added to a list of other replies the sum total of which will be used to draw some conclusion.
Buboni knew the answer to the question, but he did not have any idea why the question had been asked of him. To Buboni the answer was irrelevant, but the reason for the question was, to him, very important. He began to answer, but found himself at a lost for words, and so said nothing.
One thing was obvious, whatever the answer to the question was; it was painful for him to even think about it. The muscles of his face tightened like a person about to have a sliver pulled. Aunt J, seeing his distress, changed the subject, she said, “I was going to tell you about what Coromo did about his paintings.” Buboni, looked down and did a careful inspection of his fingernails in reply.
Rose Van Dusenberg
Coromo knew he wanted to paint pictures, he just did not have any idea what his pictures were going to be about. There was one thing he was puzzled about. He knew that Tallulia liked his childish pictures done in an overly simplified way, but it seemed to him that this could only be a complete coincidence. The idea that there would be other tourists at the resort who would also be interested in such paintings did not even seem to be a remote possibility to him.
He was driven by two conflicting desires; first he very much wanted to simply repeat the experience of selling a group of pictures to some rich tourists, but on the other hand he also wanted to repeat the pleasant sensation of making an image using the mysterious materials of oil paint, canvas and brushes.
Another thing bothered him. ‘What if’ he wondered, ‘people actually liked his simplified childish pictures because they were simple and childish’. This thought gave him mixed emotions because he could see that if he was correct about this, it would be very easy to make money, but on the other hand there was something inherently demeaning about it. He was an adult; he didn’t want to be appreciated for childishness.
In the back of his mind were those strange Bouguereau paintings with their unbelievable accuracy and detail. Those were things he could never do if he had a hundred years of practice. He could never resolve these questions; there was only one thing to do, set to work on what ever came to mind, with no idea where it would lead him. He made only one decision; paint every single day, paint something even if in the end he smudged it all out later with a rag.
While Coromo was working on his new paintings the manager of the food service department received a fax from the owners of the resort somewhere in Nevada, informing him that he should expect a visit from an interior decorator whose job it would be to redecorate the dining room of the resort.
The visit of the new interior decorator and the restaurant manager was a very painful experience for the manager. Five years previously, when the restaurant had been constructed no thought was given to the furnishings of the dining room and the manager had a free hand in selecting everything. The result was a cross between a retirement home and a funeral parlor. It was not a question of a limited budget, it was simply bad taste.
The annual meeting of the principal investors had come and gone, and the result was a consensus that dinner in the resort dining room was an oppressive experience. No one could put their finger on exactly what was wrong, except for one gentleman who blamed it all on the very large fake gold frames around the prints on the walls.
“These pictures and these frames are just the sort of thing I see when I visit my Aunt that has dementia in her critical care facility. There is nothing more depressing that this sort of art. And why is it that every single thing in this room is some variation of tan or beige. As for these fine art reproductions, Rembrandt may have been a great painter but who wants to look at his sour self-portrait while trying to enjoy one’s vacation in the tropics.
“And look at this thing,” he said, pointing to one of the manager’s favorite Bouguereau prints, “Don’t people realize that this sort of art, this kind of smarmy image was out of date fifty years ago. The thing to do is to take all this stuff down and replace it with impressionist paintings, full of color and light. My suggestion would be to use the works of Van Gogh.
At this point in the meeting the only woman on the board spoke up. “Please God not Van Gogh, if you put up all Van Gogh’s the place will look like a psychiatric hospital, that is all you ever see in those places.
The woman who made this comment was named Rose VanDusenberg. After she made this comment there was a long silence and in that silence hung the question, ‘how do you happen to know about the interior decoration of mental hospitals.’
Rose did not attempt to answer that unasked question but feeling the need to offer something by way of explanation she said, “It seems that when prints are put up in mental hospitals the staff thinks that pictures by a psychotic who never sold any paintings, cut off his ear and shot himself in the chest is the sort of thing that will inspire the patients to try to do something creative.
The reason that Rose had opinions about interior decoration was because that was her profession. It was not that she went to college or had a degree in the field, but just like so many creative occupations it came about by accident.
Rose was married to a very rich man who made a living buying and selling space in trans-continental shipping containers. You shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that anyone selling space in shipping containers is bound to get rich. Rose’s husband could give you the names of several people he knew that lost their shirts and their pants buying and selling empty space; shirts and pants hanging in his closet in a manner or speaking.
One of the reasons Rose’s husband was so successful at selling empty space is because he had inhaled the skill from his father’s cigar smoke when only a child. His father made his living buying and selling abandoned lots in Yonkers, and was still a busy man of business well into his eighties.
Once Rose’s children were grown and out of the house her husband started buying houses in various desirable locations to serve as vacation homes depending on the season. Each of these houses was a blank slate in which Rose indulged a newfound desire to experiment with ever newer and more expensive interiors.
She became an avid reader of “Architectural Digest”, and “Art And Antiques”. She spent her days looking through books of fabric swatches, collecting paint color samples, and talking at length with the sales people in furniture stores.
She purchased so much furniture over a period of two years that the people she dealt with began to assume she was a professional, and so it was a natural step for her to have business cards printed up and get a tax exempt number. She was her only client, but by offering her services free to her friends and neighbors she soon had an office, employees, a fax machine, a web site, and so many projects that she seldom finished her workday before eleven at night.
As is so natural with very rich husbands, Mr. VanDusenberg, began to complain off and on about the steadily increasing costs of his wife’s hobby. She pointed out to him that every time they sold one of their investment properties the return was more than he expected. She wanted to take the credit for this, but he was skeptical. To him it was just a matter of the rising market.
Then one day the swivel chair Mr. VanDusenberg had been using for twenty years broke into three pieces and he asked his wife to purchase a replacement for him as soon as possible. Rose replaced the chair, but she also talked her husband into the purchase of a new larger more modern desk.
The desk he had been using for the past twenty years had been purchased in a second hand store and was made of oak. It had three drawers on the left, three on the right, and one in the middle. You would be familiar with this sort of desk if you like Film Noir movies. His new desk did not have any drawers at all.
Then Mr. VanDusenberg had his wife re-decorate his office, and at the same time she re-designed his stationary, his web site, his clothes, and his shoes, and also his haircut and even went so far as to begin to explain to him how to pronounce certain words. Soon after this Mr. VanDusenberg saw, to his great amazement, that his income suddenly more than doubled. He had never been to college, but his wife’s avid interest in magazines like ‘Metropolis’, made up the difference.
Rose said to Mr. VanDusenberg, “A real-estate agent I know has four cars, she has a Cadillac, a Lincoln, a Mercedes, and a Fiat 500, it is her ability to know which car to take to see a client that is the reason she is such a success. But it is not just the car; it is everything else, right down to the heels. Taste speaks louder than words. The husband could see that his wife was right.
In the morning, like a child getting ready for school, he presented himself to his wife for inspection, and never muttered a word of complaint, as she looked him over, changing a tie, or a belt. He sold space in containers, but she made it a success with skills he knew existed, but could never for a moment really comprehend.
It is men like Mr. VanDusenberg who never dare to get a divorce, dependent on those skills, which exist in a realm that to them is only magic, even though it’s exercise is infallible.
This occupation of Rose’s cost her husband around two hundred thousand dollars a year, but he did not mind it at all. Not only that, but he often tried to participate in her projects and could often be seen on a Sunday afternoon reading a copy of ‘Better Homes And Gardens’.
Since Rose was on the board of the resort, and since she had so much interior design experience, she was asked to redecorate the dining room, with the understanding that if she was successful she would also be give the task of re-decorating all of the time share rooms when the time came. The first step in this process was for her to meet with the dining room manager, whose job it would be to execute all of Roses ideas.
The meeting between Rose and the hotel manager took place over dinner in the resort dining room. It was Coromo himself who had the honor of waiting on them, and the pleasure of listening to bits and pieces of their long conversation about everything from what sort of chairs and tables to buy, to why reproductions of neo-classical paintings do not belong on restaurant walls.
A great many of the considerations touched on by Rose would never have crossed Coromo’s mind. For example, original oil paintings and copies on canvas were ruled out simply because you couldn’t wash gravy off of them without damaging the surface.
All of Rembrandt’s paintings were dismissed out of hand simply because they were brown. “When one puts up a work of art in an interior one is first of all putting up a spot of color,” said Rose. “One may want a spot of red, provided by Matisse, or a big patch of blue provided by Rothko. Monochrome works have their place also to provide balance, but splashes of brown all over the place never work.
This sort of talk was very upsetting to the hotel manager because he had never in his life imagined that anyone would write off the entire life’s work of a great artist, works were worth tens of millions of dollars, paintings any museum would die to have in their permanent collection just because they were all somehow too excremental.
It was not just Rembrandt and the other Baroque painters like Caravaggio that Rose wrote off as useless in the restaurant setting, all of the works of Andrew Wyeth went into the same brown excremental trash heap also.
Rose’s knowledge of art came from a class she took at the local community College, it was titled “Introduction To Art History”, and it used the well known text book, “History of Art”, by Janson. Rose read her copy of Janson’s book from cover to cover, and almost all of the text had been highlighted with yellow marker.
Coromo stood next to the table where Rose and the restaurant manager were discussing art, the Janson book was opened to a page on which was a color reproduction of David’s “Rape Of The Sabine Women.” Rose was saying, “Look at this painting, David knew nothing at all about the Romans and the Sabine Woman except some ideas he may have picked up from reading history texts.
David’s paintings of ancient Rome are like the movie ‘Ben Hur’, after a period of time they stop being considered seriously, and become something to laugh at. But consider his picture of the Death of Marat, David knew Marat, he could have trod in the man’s blood. Therefore some of his work is painfully truthful, and others just a sad joke.
Then she turned the pages until she came across David’s picture of the coronation of Napoleon. “And here we have the ultimate idiocy of historical painting,” she said, “this is a combination of all that is wrong with the Ben Hur style of historical pictures combined with an inability to understand his present predicament as a revolutionary who voted to decapitate the King, only a few years later to paint the glorification of an Emperor.
The sad thing is that the bad jokes he produced cost him years of toil. Still, the public loved his work up till the end when he had to flee to England to avoid the new King’s wrath during the restoration.
The poor restaurant manager listened to Rose in silence because he had nothing to say, and did not even have any idea what she was talking about. Rose went on and on taking about her favorite subject, and now and then the manager ventured a timid question, just to indicate that he was listening.
But for Coromo it was a different matter entirely, the conversation was causing an earthquake in his mind, a mind unacquainted with a single idea about what is and what is not art. And you must never forget, if you want to know what Coromo was like, that he was deeply religious, walking away from Rose and the manager to the kitchen he muttered to himself, ‘Having eyes I saw not.” casting in biblical terms, these confusing new ideas.
First of all Coromo had never considered a judgment about a picture in any other terms that its detail, its accuracy, and the amount of time it took someone to do it. According to this measure, he judged his own pictures to be the worst. On the other hand, he could see that Rose was dismissing those highly detailed works of some old masters for reasons he never would have considered, they were rejected by her because they were not ‘truthful’ some how.
He thought to himself, ‘What if someone were to make an eloquent speech full of brilliant words, and turns of phrase, and yet everything said was an outright lie. Then someone else who is practically illiterate, and furthermore has a speech impediment, states the truth of the matter in a blunt simpleminded way. Who is the great speaker then?
But, his pictures were not truthful, he thought, what is truthful about a striped bus full of tourists with dog’s heads in the windows, painted by someone who seems to have the palsy.
He decided it was confusing and impossible to figure out. He put it out of his mind, and decided to just take things as they came. He was having very good luck with his new occupation of painting. He was very popular with two strange old rich lades; who knew what the future held for him. Little did he know, or even suspect that the distant ephemeral art world of which he knew less that nothing was peopled with scores of strange rich old women.
To say the restaurant manager was uncomfortable while talking to Rose would be an understatement. First the work he had put into decorating the dining room had been dismissed with ridicule, and after that he had to listen to Rose’s long, self-indulgent lecture on art and design. Suddenly his irritation found an outlet and he turned his attention to Coromo, whom he began to ridicule with an outpouring of fake admiration.
“Coromo here”, said the manager to Rose, “is our local artist. He has done a series of paintings that are superb, and I was thinking about recommending him to be an artist in residence at the resort. He could give instruction in painting and drawing to our guests who are always looking for classes to sign up for. You should see his paintings, you would love them.”
Coromo knew that the manager hated his painting and thought he was a fake as well, so he understood that everything said about him was simply said in jest. Rose, however took the manager at his word and immediately asked him if he would show her his paintings. He refused this request with an outpouring of humble excuses saying, “The manager is just kidding about my paintings, they are nothing at all, just little things I do in my spare time.
But Rose was not to be put off, and Coromo had to promise to bring all the paintings he had at home for Rose to inspect the very next day. That night when he went home he took a copy of Janson’s ‘Art History’, with him, he found a copy of the book in the resort library. Although he expected no good to come from showing Rose his paintings, still, there was so much he did not understand, he though anything might happen.
That night he looked at every image in the art history book, giving special attention to the color plates. He looked at the artists Rose had mentioned with admiration, all of these were toward the end of the book in a chapter on post-impressionism. The artists she had criticized were in the earlier chapters. He could see clearly that the post-impressionist painters drew things out of proportion and used color in an arbitrary way just like he did.
But those post-impressionists managed to distort their figures, and employ odd colors in a way that was very different than the way he did. It was as if they could have done it all realistically, but chose not to because they had some different obscure purpose.
He finished looking at the art history book, set it aside and had a look at his pictures with a fresh eye. What he saw seemed utterly stupid to him. By comparing his own work to the pictures in an art history book, he was doing the worst thing a new artist can possible do, especially in this day and age.
A person might gain something by looking at Rembrandt’s paintings if one could go over to Rembrandt’s house and have a long talk with him about how he did what he did. But not only has Rembrandt been dead a long time, dead also are his patrons, the institutions and political systems of his day, as well as all the assorted trivial facts, procedures, opinions and ideas of that time.
And what is there to learn for new artists by looking at the pictures of Picasso too carefully. Does one ever hope to be considered a ‘follower of Picasso’? That would be a deadly title. There is a reason there were followers of Rembrandt and followers of Michelangelo, because they worked in a tradition the arc of which lasted a hundred years so there was something to follow.
All modern artists are one of a kind, if they are not one of a kind they are nothing at all, so to copy, to follow, to even ‘learn from’ others is a serious mistake. Coromo could only proceed when he decided to close the art history book and forget about it all together and fortunately that day was not far off.
But for the moment he had to decide what to do about the command from Rose VanDusenberg to bring all of his painting to her the next day. What would she make of his paintings? Would she ask him if they were done by some village idiot. Purple horses, pink bicycles, a black and red striped bus with dogs looking out of the windows, dogs with faces half yellow and half orange.
He had only one painting of which he was proud, and on which he placed all his hopes to be taken seriously, it was a religious picture, Christ being taken down from the cross. He was surprised to find this idea painted by many artists in the past, and he saw also that painters as modern as Gauguin painted religious images.
He knew Rose liked the paintings of Gauguin who was also a painter who used color in an arbitrary way. But what if it was not arbitrary, what if those real artists had access to theories and ideas which he could not understand, or even come across so as to be confounded by them. In short, he was tormented by a feeling of inadequacy. But he had no choice, he had to take has medicine, and subject himself to criticism from someone who obviously knew all about paintings.
As you might guess, Rose loved almost all of Coromo’s paintings. She set them on the floor against a wall of the restaurant all in a row and for about five minutes she said nothing at all. After those five minutes she picked up one of the pictures and set it apart from the others, it was the ‘Decent From The Cross’ painting. After that she rearranged the others into sets of two or three, like a person arranging their cards in a poker game.
All the time Rose looked at Coromo’s paintings she held her chin in her hand in a meditative pose, and with her other hand she held her elbow. Now and again Rose massaged her chin with her thumb and her forefinger. Coromo was on edge the entire time. Since he had no self-confidence, at least when it came to his pictures, he thought everything she did was an indication of her irritation and rejection of his little pictures.
Now it is a well known fact among people who buy and sell pictures frequently that when a person rubs their chin with their thumb and a knuckle of the forefinger it means that they are about to purchase the picture they are looking at. If perchance they ask a question about the picture they are contemplating while rubbing said chin, the dealer knows there will be no need to offer a discount, because the sale is as good as completed.
Perhaps you do not believe me about prospective purchasers of paintings rubbing their chins before they purchases pictures, but you can subject the theory to a test; go and buy a picture, and see if you can complete the transaction without rubbing your chin first, I assure you, you will not succeed, you will rub your chin despite yourself.
This chin rubbing is of no advantage to the art dealer because it indicates that the transaction has been completed without him or her having to exercise all of the subtle skills that go into prompting a client to buy a picture; it will have happened of itself. It is one of those sales where the salesman takes no part; the client makes the decision all on their own, and is positively annoyed if the dealer tries to interfere.
Rose however did not decide to purchase any of Coromo’s paintings, instead she invited him to chose a wall in the dining room and put up all of his pictures. She suggested he not put them all in a row, but to scatter them all over the place. The only painting she had misgivings about was his one religious picture, Coromo’s favorite. She did not reject the picture outright, she just questioned if it would work in the restaurant setting.
Rose explained to Coromo what she planned to do to the dining room, and her explanation gave him a little insight into why she wanted to utilize his paintings. “We will replace all of the chairs and tables with much more rustic items, no chrome, no Formica, and no plastic. Every section of wall will be a different color, and some walls will be two or three colors where patches of one color show through another as if by accident.”
Rose said “If you go down to the village just a mile from the resort you will see this color idea used on all of the buildings completely by accident. A wall is painted yellow one year, and then green at another time, later the wall is covered over with a rose red, and then one color breaks through another in the most sensuous way.
All of this color would be jarring to the eye except that the sun, the wind and the rain temper and age all of the colors so in the end all of the tints combine in a way that is entirely harmonious. This effect cannot be imitated by just taking a bunch of different colors and splashing them all over the place, if you do that the result is hideous.
The mixture of many random colors only works if time and the weather work on them. If one is to imitate this effect every color must be selected and adjusted with great care, only an artist’s eye such as you and I have can accomplish this task.”
Rose then applied her theory to Coromo’s paintings, pointing out how he may have painted the grass pink, and the lion’s face purple, but it was not any pink, and it was not just any purple. The delicate adjustment of these tints was what made Coromo’s paintings wonderful, because he was a natural born colorist.
“As far as your ideas and subject matter you chose for your paintings, about that I have nothing to say”, Rose pronounced.” You are like Magritte or even Salvatore Dali in that no one could guess where your ideas come from, but if you just keep on doing what you have been doing in time I expect you will make a name for yourself.”
Coromo did not believe any of this. What did, ‘make a name for yourself mean’ he wondered, and who were Dali and Magritte, he had no idea. Nothing Rose said to him was able to dislodge his sneaking suspicion that it was all a nasty trick being played on him by a malevolent force bent on leading him to an unforeseen destruction, probably as a justified punishment for his indiscretion with that third sister he still could not stop thinking about all the time.
He may have been in his mid-twenties but in many respects he was just a child. His childishness expressed itself in many ways, one of which was his desire to paint pictures, but also in his simple idea of right and wrong, truth and false-hood. To put it simply, Coromo believed that there was such a thing as truth and falsehood, and these two things were obvious and clear to anyone.
For example, let’s say it is raining outside. The truth is that it is raining outside, everyone can agree on the truth of this statement. Irrespective of shadowy areas such as ‘starting to rain’, or ‘was raining’, the truth of a present downpour was simple, obvious and incontrovertible, not subject to dispute or discussion.
To Coromo the same simplicity applied to his pictures, they were either good, or they were not good, it was as simple as that. Obviously there were people who knew about pictures and they would know the incontrovertible answer to the question, “Are Coromo’s pictures good, or are they bad?” His own opinion was of no account. If you have ever painted pictures yourself, and had the misfortune to have other people talk about them, you know what I mean.
Here was the difficulty, he had the opinions of three people about his pictures, Rose VanDusenberg thought that they were ‘good’ good enough to take responsibility for putting them up in the dining-room of the resort, and Tallulah thought they were good, good enough to actually purchase them. But the hotel manager though his pictures were bad, so bad that they were deserving of ridicule.
Rose’s observations about his use of color did not impress him either, the fact that there were walls down in the village painted all sorts of colors, and parts of these walls were crumbling and falling apart was in no way beautiful or picturesque to Coromo, on the contrary it was just decrepit. He was unable to see his surroundings with a stranger’s eye, it was too familiar to be interesting.
His real suspicion was that it all had nothing to do with his paintings, it was simply that old ladies like Rose and Tallulah always liked him, and as a result were sure to like his pictures no matter what they looked like. This was no comfort to him, because he felt his pictures were about to be thrust into the real world where the truth would immediately come out. The restaurant manager’s opinion would prevail, and he would end up being made a fool of to the manager’s delight.
He made up his mind to hang his pictures in the restaurant as Rose had commanded him to do, but under no circumstances was he going to take credit for them or tell anyone he had painted them. The manager knew, but he could do nothing about that.
A week later, after dinner, a crew of painters and decorators invaded the dining room and worked all night and through the following day. At dinnertime the room was ready for business. All the walls were transformed with various colors, and all the furniture was replaced with rustic chairs and tables, It was a shocking transformation, but what followed was even more shocking to Coromo.
What followed was…nothing! The guests of the resort had no reaction at all to the room’s transformation. They neither commented about the color, or remarked about the change of the furniture. No one took the least interest in the new pictures. Coromo’s paintings were not subjected to ridicule, on the contrary, it was as if his pictures were not there at all; nobody looked at them.
There was something strange and impossible to him about the reaction of the resort guests to the re-design of the dining-room. He was reminded again of that Bible verse, “Having eyes they see not.” In a way he was happy about the reaction because he expected to be in an embarrassing spotlight, but his things seemed to be simply invisible.
Coromo soon realized that the re-decoration was a success however, the patrons all stayed longer in the evening that they had before, and their liquor tabs increased significantly. The change was subtle, but one thing was noticeable, the color of the walls reflected in the guest’s faces and everyone looked more vibrant and lively. “Those tan and gray walls were deadly” he thought, Rose was correct, color transforms everyone emotionally, if only they are perfect colors.
He found himself in a peculiar situation. His pictures were all on one wall of the dining room, and along that wall were six tables all of which were in his section so he was the waiter for the patrons sitting next to his paintings. None of the resort guests had any idea that he was the artist who had painted the pictures, and he had no intention of informing anyone.
None of the clients paid any attention to the pictures in the dining room, at least at first, but after a few weeks He began to notice that there were exceptions to the aesthetic indifference of the resort clients. Every once in a while one of the guests, after a long expensive meal and several drinks, would totter up to one of his pictures and make an obscure comment. But Coromo was coming and going about his duties, what he heard was invariably just a half a sentence.
There were a lot of art works in the restaurant but it was Coromo’s pictures that were commented on, everything else was passed over in silence. What were these people thinking? What were they saying? He had no idea. The situation was nerve wracking for him.
Then one day he sold another painting to one of the tourists. This is how it happened. There was a family of five, a mother and father and three children two boys and a girl, the children all under ten years old. It was there last day at the resort and they were trying to decide what to purchase to take home as a keepsake of their vacation.
All of the children wanted to buy one of Coromo’s paintings, the one of the black and white striped tourist bus with the dog headed passengers. Since Coromo was waiting on their table, they asked him if it was possible to find out if the picture was for sale. He said he had no idea but he would find out from the manager. He was willing to sell his picture to the family, as long as he did not have to admit that he was the person who had painted it.
The manager agreed to let him sell the picture right off the restaurant wall, and so he had to decide on a price for it. All of his previous sales had been to Tallulah, and he had charged a dollar for each one. Now he was emboldened by the new interest in his work, and so he decided to double his price to two dollars. The tourist family did not haggle over the price and so they took the picture off the wall, wrapped it in a towel, and took it home with them the next day.
The other guests of the resort did not ignore this transaction, which took place in the dining room. What had happened was that the picture had been purchased as a memento for two dollars. The resort had a section of there store set aside for this sort of purchase, there were wood plaques with pictures of the resort laminated to them for twenty dollars, and miniature license-plates with the name of the resort in embossed letters, for twenty-five dollars.
The price range for gift items in the store was from fifteen to thirty dollars, and so the resort patrons gravitated to Coromo’s paintings, not just because of the price, but because they were somehow more representative of their tropical resort experience. Over time he began to see a pattern emerging in these sales, they happened always on a couple’s last day at the resort, when they were trying at the last minute to decide on gifts to take home.
He began to expect to be able to sell at least two paintings a week, and he immediately replaced the sold pictures with new ones he would paint in the evening. He had to involve himself in a little deception however; he changed his waiter nametag to read Koromo, instead of Coromo, and claimed that the painter was a friend from his village. “Coromo is an illiterate old man with no teeth who suffers from dementia,” he might say.
Little by little, without his really knowing it, Coromo developed the consummate skills of a picture salesman, skills impossible to learn except over a long time in the perfect conditions. They were not exactly skills so much as a flowering of dormant aspects of his personality. First of all was the most important attribute; a complete indifference to any possibility of a sale.
The second necessary attribute of the picture salesman was the actual love of the item being considered for sale and his real reluctance to part with it. The third attribute he developed over time was a playful disregard of the truth, and a propensity to make up on the spot, far fetched explanations to the client’s questions.
Meanwhile the situation necessitated a subtle change in his relationship with the restaurant manager. The manager had received an e-mail about a week after his meeting with Rose, suggesting that Coromo be allowed to sell his pictures himself, if the opportunity arose. In order for this to happen, the rule of the help not indulging in idle conversation with the resort clients had to be abrogated.
Allowing a simple waiter to indulge in conversation with the clients was galling to the manager, but he had to go along with it. It didn’t matter, he knew that Coromo was making a stupid mistake with his project of selling his pictures, a mistake so obvious that it proved beyond any doubt that Coromo was dumb, his pictures pointless, and Rose was just a simpleton who actually knew nothing about anything.
What was it that the manager knew? Just this, he was in charge of all purchases for the concession and gift shop for the resort and since he had to make all those purchases, he knew very nearly how much Coromo’s paintings cost to produce. This was not an artistic consideration, this was not a matter of art, it was simply a business consideration. Those pictures cost no less that fifteen dollars a piece for canvas, stretchers, and paint. How he was able to sell them for two dollars, he had no idea.
The manager did not know how his waiter managed to produce his paintings without the expense of the materials because he did not know about Tallulah’s sending him all of those canvases as well as lots of very expensive tubes of paint. But the manager knew that sooner or later the excrement would be hitting the air-conditioner, and he rubbed his hands in anticipation.
“Coromo, you have been framing and selling five dollar bills for a dollar each.” How the manager looked forward to saying this, and putting the dumb waiter turned artist in his place. But he would pretend to be sympathetic, and offer some good business advice.
The day the manager anticipated did come as Coromo was about to paint his last picture on the canvases sent to him by Tallulah. In the bottom of the cardboard UPS box he came across the packing slip with a list of the materials and their prices. He had looked at the price list long ago, but not being interested in it at the time he had forgotten all about it.
Now, when he had to consider replacing the canvases, he looked at both the invoice, and also the catalogue of art materials that was also enclosed in the crate. He intended to look up the price of the canvases but his attention was diverted by the price list just for the tubes of paint.
His favorite color was cadmium red light, and it cost over fifty dollars, fifty dollars for a tube like a small tube of toothpaste. He rummaged through his cigar box of oil paint and found that his cadmium red light was all used up, and his cadmium medium was almost gone also. Just these two tubes of paint amounted to nearly a hundred dollars.
There was no point to trying to add up the cost of the paintings he had produced, what would be the point? If he added up all the money he had made selling his pictures he would not have been able to buy even one tube of oil paint. How stupid! How idiotic! He thought.
He was a sad sight sitting there at his kitchen table with the catalogue in his hand. He felt like a person might feel who comes across his or her own obituary in the local paper. Here was this paper document covered with information written up by someone he did not know, in a place he had never been, and couldn’t imagine, but which seemed to put an end to this new idea of himself.
The next day the manager, seeing the dejected looks on Coromo’s face, and his depressed, lack-lusted demeanor on the job, called him aside and questioned him about what was wrong. He soon found out what was it was, just as he had suspected.
The biggest problem for Coromo was what to do about Tallulah, who would arrive in a few weeks expecting to buy all his paintings for a dollar each, having provided by her investment in him all the necessary materials – materials that actually never really belonged to him in the first place.
The manager explained to him some of the most basic considerations of a successful business venture. He went through the bother of adding up the costs of a painting, adding also a small amount for Coromo’s time and subtracting for the occasional failure. He arrived at a price of eighteen dollars for each painting; this was a price that would allow replacement of materials and a good two dollar profit per picture.
“So you see Coromo,” lectured the manager, “When the concession gift store prices its photo gift plaques at twenty-five dollars it is not an inflated price at all but simply a price that includes all of the necessary expenses involved in being able to sell something and yet make a modest return.”
Coromo did try selling his paintings for $19.95 each, instead of two dollars, but he was not surprised to find out that although everyone wanted paintings for a dollar or two, nobody wanted his pictures when they cost twenty dollars. Even lowering the price to fifteen dollars did no good. He had to repress a growing feeling of resentment as every day he saw that the resort guests would spend a hundred dollars for dinner, but not spend twenty for one of his original paintings.
The worst part was having to take the manager’s advice, advice he felt would never work out, not because the advice did not make sense, but because he knew that the man did not like him. He was forced to fall back on desperate means, he decided to take his Grandmother’s advice and pray to God for a solution to his problem.
As you know Coromo was very religious, but he was very reluctant to resort to prayer to solve a specific problem. It was all well and good for his dear Grandmother to be praying all the time, down on her knees, asking for anything from relief for her rheumatism, to some ripe pears. That was what she was like. For Grandma, God may as well have lived in a big house down the street; a very nice God, who granted all requests if only he happened to be at home.
But for Coromo resorting to prayer was an act of desperation. You very well remember the last time Coromo had to resort to praying; down on his hands and knees out in the woods, to save himself from falling into serious difficulties with that third sister he had to spend the night with. Back then his prayers had gone unanswered, and he still had mixed feelings about the result of that particular religious experience.
He got Grandmother’s Bible out, one of the ones she had given him after she had used it up. It was Grandma’s practice to note down her comments in the borders of the pages, and since all she ever did in her old age was read, underline passages, and write in the margins, those old Bibles soon became worn out with her endless notations. When Coromo found himself in difficulties he would open his bible at random and read one of Grandma’s underlined passages.
The passage he came across that night gave him deep confidence that he would find some answer to his art supply problem, here is the passage for your edification: Matthew 7: 9-11. Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!
Coromo was not asking for bread, he was asking for art supplies. Asking for bread had an obvious validity about it, but asking for art supplies struck him as actually sacrilegious in a way, but he pushed the thought from his mind, including the notion that millions of very devout people have starved to death asking God for bread. When he went to work in the morning he picked up a small stone in the road, and carried it in his pocket. “Perhaps He will give me the stone instead”, he thought.
Carrying a stone in your pocket, a stone you endow with special emotional significance can have a serious effect on the course of your life. If you want a good example of this just watch Fellini’s movie called La Strada, where the character Gelsomina clutches a little stone given to her by the “Fool”. That situation lead eventually to her death, but we will hope for a better outcome for our artist friend.
I have neglected to tell you an important thing that was happening outside of the resort facility, during the time Coromo was dealing with Rose and the manager, putting up his paintings and selling them. All this took about two months during the height of the tourist season, and outside of the resort, day by day a strange transformation was going on.
First let me describe the situation. The resort was on the coast, all by itself about half a mile from the nearest coastal village. In general the tourists stayed in the resort compound, hardly ever venturing outside, both because of an unjustified anxiety about the poverty-stricken natives, and also because there was nothing of interest outside the resort grounds.
On occasion the more adventurous resort guests would decide to walk to the village along the coastal dirt road, and then back to the resort, a trip of a mile, and when these brave souls were able to return to the compound over and over again unharmed, not held for ransom or otherwise attacked or molested, the other more timid patrons followed their example, and a constitutional to the village and back became an accepted daily event for many people.
The resort owned the beach front going almost the entire distance to the village, and in an attempt to keep the beach private, and to keep out the locals, an ugly cyclone fence had been build almost the entire length of the distance to the town. The fence was an eyesore, and more than that, it was an insult to the locals who had free access to their ocean for ages past, up until the resort purchased the beachfront and fenced off the beach.
The fence didn’t really matter however, because the local children, acting according to “The Children’s Unwritten Law of Universal Property Rights”, tore holes in the fence wherever access was needed. Over time the resort was forced to abandon the misguided attempt to segregate the beach, and what remained was nearly a half a mile of ugly, rusted cyclone fencing overgrown with weeds and saplings.
That ugly cyclone fence, of no use to anyone, built as an insult to the locals, rusted and overgrown with weeds now became the engine of a new economy for the local population. The word of Coromo’s success selling paintings to the tourists spread among the locals, and soon he had imitators. New artists were cropping up every day, and since they did not have access to the resort grounds, they naturally displayed their pictures in the most logical place, on the cyclone fence.
At first it was just two or three artists, but by the end of the season the entire mile from the resort to the village was crowded with exhibitors, and the more of them there were the more successful the trade became, since it became a necessity for every tourist to buy several pictures for themselves, and extras as gifts for friends and the family.
Trips to the village now became a necessary part of the resort experience, so much so that the resort management made plans to feature an article about it in its next annual brochure. Coromo’s village was in the interior, however, so he was not even aware of this explosion of art activity he had been the cause of. He did not know about those artists, but they knew about him, they did not know him by name. He was referred to as “Somgy.”
He was called Somgi, because of this oft-repeated phrase, “Some Guy is selling dumb pictures of blue cats and purple dogs to the tourists for a buck a piece.”
All of these new artists did not have the problem of the expense of art supplies because it never entered their heads to go looking for oil paint, linseed oil, turpentine, or stretched canvases, as they had never heard of such things. For materials they did not go to any art supply store, but instead headed to the local landfill, in search of old cans of roofing tar, or half filled-paint cans, scrap pieces of lumber and the like.
Dependent as they were on scavenged raw materials their paintings and drawings had a much more rustic and primitive look than did Coromo’s pictures and this was an advantage to them in the one to five dollar picture trade, because they had no costs to cover.
Coromo, on the other hand, had accidentally started out with expensive artists materials, he had developed his skills with real materials, and even though, when he eventually saw all of this other art which cost nothing to make he saw their advantage, it was too late for him to change direction. After all, he still had to replace Talullah’s art supplies as well as paint pictures for her before her anticipated yearly visit at the end of the season.
And don’t go getting the idea that any time natives start selling pictures to tourists it is going to be a big success, and everyone will be happy and the natives will make a lot of money. That would be as naive as thinking that anyone buying and selling space in shipping containers like Mr. VanDusenberg was doing, is bound to make money. Such assumptions about success belittle true accomplishments.
What Coromo had done was to create a new art market, a market that would sustain his community for years to come, and he did it the way all great deeds are accomplished, by accident, on an unseen wave of history that picks a person up in one place, and deposits them in another, along with their entire world. All truly great deeds are effortless, that is the simple truth.
But let’s not forget about his dilemma. Last night he was on his knees praying to God to give him the necessary art supplies so that he could complete his God given task of painting pictures for Tallulah, and replacing the five pictures he had sold in the past week to that Pontormo family that was visiting from Italy; the Pontormo family that claimed descent from the great Mannerist painter Jacopo Pontormo. Coromo pretended he knew about Pontormo, although it could have been a brand of Olive Oil for all he knew.
God answered Coromo’s prayers that morning. Don’t go asking me why God answered his prayers when there were so many other people in the world praying for things much more important that art supplies. God answered his prayers I suppose, because that is what God is like, full of mischief, delighting in a wry prank in one place while an entire continent is engulfed in a tidal wave in another place and millions drown or are buried in earthquakes. “God quacks in mysterious ways”, commented the Duck.
Here is the way God answered Coromo’s prayer, he caused the catalogue for the art supplies to fall out of the UPS box and open up to the page where the art supply company offered a low interest credit card to their customers, and at the same time as he read the ad for the credit card, God put it into his mind to apply for that card using the prestigious address of the resort as his billing address.
But you may object that there is a world of difference between God’s mysterious machinations and the machinations of the credit card companies. God, you may say, fulfills the desires of the soul in ways that, over time, we understand the beauty of, and the credit companies strive to exploit those exact same desires, charging us more than twice as much for their fulfillment as God might have charged us in the first place.
Not only that but God has a nice habit of canceling all debts accruing to Him every so many years, something the credit card companies never do. They pursue those debts with religious fervor.
Why would the credit card companies extend credit to Coromo, a person who had no assets, and almost no income to speak of? It was a simple matter of actuarial science. Those credit card companies knew that art supply purchases are risk free because only the rich ever buy the things and, even though the rich don’t always pay their bills, still you can squeeze it out of their families later with no trouble.
The only thing that troubled Coromo was the consideration that someday he was going to have to pay the loan back, or stop purchasing the supplies. That old fear that he was being slowly lured into a trap to be punished rather than having his prayers answered began to torment him again, and so he resumed praying, asking for God to send him some sign or message to tell him his prayers were truly being answered so he could proceed.
God, at that moment was busy making sure a man who had just been served by a lawyer with divorce papers was also going to get a ticket for parking in the handicapped space he had overlooked because he was so nervous about the lawyer’s appointment. We don’t really know at this point why God wanted the poor man to have that ticket, but it didn’t happen anyway, because God immediately turned his attention to Coromo when he heard the new request.
God had Rose write an e-mail to the restaurant manager, he dictated the e-mail quietly right into Rose’s ear, and for Rose it just seemed to be that she suddenly had a very good, generous idea she had to act upon that very moment. It was an entirely unselfish impulse and it took her by storm. After she wrote the e-mail, she had a wonderful feeling of well-being, and went for a long walk in some public gardens, and felt dreamy and light headed.
She came across some wonderful roses, stopped to admire them, and said to herself, “I am a Rose.” Years later she would remember that walk in the public gardens and wonder about it and ask herself, ‘Why was that such a wonderful walk, so much so that I keep measuring everything else that happens in my life by it, God, it was like I was in heaven that afternoon’.
The ground had been prepared for Rose to send the e-mail because of a sarcastic message she had received from the restaurant manager about Coromo’s paintings. Here is what the manager wrote to Rose. “Poor Coromo, he just found out his paintings cost twenty dollars to paint, and he had been selling them for two dollars apiece. He has decided to charge $19.95 for each picture, and now nobody is interested in his masterpieces anymore.”
This was a vindictive e-mail, full of spite, in which he was trying to point out how stupid Coromo was, and by default, implying that all of Rose’s ideas and decisions were probably just a stupid. This message had been rankling in the back of her mind, so God’s encouragement to her to write an e-mail to the manager about Coromo had been well prepared.
This is what God told Rose to write, I am copying it out just as he dictated it, mistakes and all. ‘Tell Coromo, It has come to my attention that you have raised the prices for your paintings up to 19.95, this is a serious mistake on your part. No one will even consider purchasing paintings for that price, have some common sense and put your prices back down to too dollars, just like all of the other artists out on the chain-link fence.”
“If you don’t was to sell for two dollars, than just make the price two hundred dollars, those tourists are just a bunch a stupid rich people who…those tourists are just well-meaning rich people who don’t distinguish between to dollars, and too hundred, but they think that things priced at 19.95 must be junk straight out of WalMart. A tourist is just as likely to pay two hundred, as two dollars, that is what they are like, take my word for it, I have know lots of them over the years.
That was God’s e-mail to Coromo, sent by way of Rose VanDusenberg, full of typing mistakes because he never re-read his notes being so busy all the time. I was happy to see that He mixed up to, too, and two, just like I do constantly.