“Letter writing may be an exile’s main occupation” I read this morning. I haven’t written a letter in a long time now. I wrote too many long letters. The memory of them embarrasses me now. I have no need to personally address anyone near or on a far shore any more.
Like I said I’ve been doing the wrong thing all my life and it’s starting to pay off at last. I knew it would too. All along. I recall getting up in the morning and seeing the water frozen in the white enamel basin and the white of the snow in the yard behind the frost on the window. Then I’d watch adult hands poking at coals in the wood stove, roiling up a fire. This was when I was a child and this was me this winter in the new studio cabin. Everything lights up like a Vermeer when the room warms up at last. I can’t help it if I’m lucky.
I’ve felt disinclined to write here. I’ve been writing fiction (PIGTOWN) so my Jones to write has been satisfied.
I live on forty acres of bush, try to stick to the property. The lad and myself live in two small cabins side by side on a hilltop. We’ve got solar and a good key start generator, hot running water this winter. Nice old steam punk wood stove in the main cabin. Chainsaw sharpened on the kitchen table. Third polar world latrine until another year. We have our devices and desires lined up.
I generally take to the roads every little while but this year I’ve pretty much stayed by. Last time I took to the road I wrote “I’ve been a little testy lately, needed to get out. I needed to go to the city and put the finishing touches on a portrait of a friend. I sensed he was moving on, transcending a time. He seemed deeply happy. I too was happy. Neither of us quite approved of the other’s choice perhaps.
He had never crossed over into my day-to-day life but I knew his little neighbourhood well and could disappear into it. I think perhaps that we loved one another too calmly and comfortably to notice that the clarity and scope of our mutual regard was rare. It remains. But I needed to put the finishing touches on a portrait of him. He had the idea that the leash he held in his hand needed painting out.
So I travelled to him, arriving late for a concert to his mild-mannered fury. My country life seemed an absurdist corn pone tale at dinner.
I painted out the dog leash in his hand and the painting was better for it. Now the centre has no distraction.”
I did a round of the bars. Nothing changes much, these giggling ingenues, these café patios in spring, these alternative lifestyles stamped out like legal tender. That hippy girl schtick dreck never dies. No boy ever puts away the last straw jazz fedora. Now the Rolling Stones pound away fresh as a migraine, dreadfully familiar, sympathy for the devil running its course.
Sometimes I just need to get away.
It isn’t always pleasant or easy but I like to be alone in transit. I like to take an exit and test my own stamina for solitude be it public or private. I like to know I can still get around the transit systems and the rooms for one of solitude, manoeuvre the resistance to loneliness and the sense of unjustified defection, of wantonness, that creeps up on me in cafes.
I like to test my stamina for sociability too. I need to test my flexibility. I put myself through some twists and turns, a little bit of road trip yoga.
Sometimes I think it’s the Indian in me but I hate it when people want to know my whereabouts, like my daddy hated it before me, old Disappearing Joe. I piss people off because I don’t answer my phone. I fail to respond. I have no response ability. I write and I paint and I need to be alone to find my little visions. I do not sit outside in one place in the snow or black-flies with my open air kit. I’d rather listen to “The War on Drugs” in the windless studio. I like mowing the grass. Perhaps that is the white eyed small town boy in me.
I feel trapped, even pausing briefly, in transit but I stop in here, in this café, in this little city outside the metropolis where I have a connection to make.
And praise Jaysus nothing ever changes. On the café patio old friends stare a bit then recognise, wreathed in smiles, my thin face, aged a year, aged years. These are people who can quote my own words back at me with an ironic smile.
I am, we are, here, once more in the ghost café, in the tavern near the fountain of our youth, which ingenues newly inhabit, generations of them now these afternoons, these evenings and of course I think we had more style , were more focused on our visceral callings. We hadn’t had them gouged out of us by the new world order maybe. We had other collective memory, hopes and plans, other educations.
I talked to a white kid last night who couldn’t catch a biblical reference in the course of conversation. He’d never heard of Lot’s wife turning to salt, for looking backwards. He shuddered when I explained it to him, was sorry I had been raised in such darkness, shuddered as if at Christianity’s colonial criminality, at some personal memory of correction, censor, racism, church activity. So be it, long live Dr. Seus, who this kid could quote. Knee jerk adolescent life styles.
I was raised memorizing the good book and I can think about Christ’s parables without the rancour of the brutally colonized. I can separate Christ from Paul and his new church order.
I sometimes contemplate words attributed to Christ in my endeavours, crazy as they be, mere trinkets. Mere drug. Mere infection. Manifestations of the saviour archetype. His words have a certain koan like genius for me.
This kid was full of contradictions. He didn’t mind homophobia and sexism in battle rap but he took umbrage at the church for those things. He said ” You gotta put it in context dude. It isn’t the content dude, it’s the art.”
I thought “You’d eat a shit sandwich if it was hip.”
The bible begins “In the beginning was the word.” To tell the story. And later the word was made flesh and dwelt among us. That would be Jaysus. Anyway you can see the righteous secular lefty cultural critique running in these kids like ticker tape behind their eyes and mine too and some times I just have to get away for a bit.
Self important, we parse every sentence we hear for political shading, allegiance, taste. We are known, judged by what we consume. We remind me of the Baptists of my childhood. I duck out in the alley and look up at the stars. I grab a smoke.
I am just passing through. I have enjoyed limited success. As people do. I drank here, what, ten years ago with my friend the Polish symphony conductor in his tuxedo. I poured him into his swallow tails, loaded, across the street in my studio, dressing him before the small mirror which he, almost dwarf like, scarcely required, for I was a diligent dresser, a stern, detached ballast. We regarded one another, knowingly, me the half breed painter, coveting the western canon, him the Polish refugee running the Beethoven through his head, cursing the sawing provincial strings section, eye to eye with me, over his small, elegant burden of a shoulder in the mirror.
We could never resist some flourish to irritate the committee that wanted him to play the Beatles set to faux classical arrangements. Something to hum. Something good for tourism. He’d tell them to fuck their mothers. I’d ready him to take the stage, and he would take it. In the little dry fuck provincial Canadian concert hall here. It was a comfortable class tension between us.
He was kicked out of Poland because he wouldn’t cast as soprano ingenue some fat old broad contralto girlfriend of somebody important. He said this. I can imagine that last straw and whatever else he said and did. He found himself the other side of the Polish border with about a hundred pounds in his pocket. Young, charming.
He made his way to Canada where he got to live in a church basement in exchange for teaching the choir. He hot-wired himself some hydro down there in that cold -charity Anglican cellar and learned English from a junk store TV. He clawed his way out of charity and low Anglican chorales. My lover put him in a novel.
I am too tired ten years after he drew his last perfectly pitched breath to even tell his story. I miss my hearth and home. I’m travelling city to city on a trip I can ill afford, like Herzog, so I can come home.
I’ve been doing the wrong thing all my life. It is beginning to pay off. Still everyone is temporary. Stan died neatly, alone. He’d just finished a European tour. He thought he’d put his feet up. He sat down on his couch and gently keeled over. Home in triumph. He looked miscast, but beautiful like Nureyev in that awful movie playing Valentino. But shorter.
I’d take him fishing on a little northern lake, sometime in the off-season. We poached bass in tequila. We’d drink round a camp fire while his crazy, slanderous wife slept badly in the indignity of a tent. She fretted in her sleeping bag like a nagged heart attack waiting to happen.
They were both small and handsome. She was fussy for clothes and wrote romantic novels in which a figure like herself did very well indeed. He’d been a violinist in his youth but he broke a hand and turned to conducting.
On the night I remember now he’d just got back from touring his little youth orchestra around Europe. He’d been booted out once but he was home, playing the halls of his youth. Not playing orchestral arrangements of Beach Boy hits to up attendance in Butt-fuck Ontario Canada this time. No.
The little woman was upset that he’d ruined her European tour. He took her, he took his orchestra, to Auschwitz. She told me it was boring, that he needed to forget the past, to get over himself.
By the campfire he told me stories about his family carted off to genocide. Just unnecessary baggage. Just history. It was not as glamorous touring with an orchestra as she had expected. She was badly read, but to the bone. I’m being cruel but that litigious bitch was more so. She was once a friend. She had her charms and one would have to have them. She had to put up with him at home.
These were our stomping grounds. We came and went.
I live on the dirt road now, where my family came from. I was always an anomaly there but now I have approval for doing what folks once discouraged. I am an artist and I am good for tourism. My lover wraps me in a seersucker barber cloth and shaves me to go away to the cities. He would like for me to do better. I’ll miss the apple blossoms this year, The lilacs too. Running the roads.
I miss so much. When I shut my eyes just now to shelter them from the bar light and people for a moment the mental image reel I saw was one of those slow motion test houses in early nuclear test films, prefab, blowing apart. But it is all right I know. I’m overwhelmed by memory in a barroom I used to frequent. I am in the city for a concert.
There is a theatre upstairs. Old friends wave me near. They call my name, take flesh and step out of Facebook where we network and self advertise.
I sneak out in the alley for smoke and a muscle relaxant. I am more muscular now but I hurt all over from piling firewood. My t-shirt is old blue silk. I wear a new denim jacket, I have a twenty-eight inch waist in skinny jeans, low-rise, and Cuban heels. My silver and turquoise belt buckle is Navajo, a hand-made cluster of metal squash blossoms. Hipster shit.
My luggage is light, black, a pack sack and a soft leather brief case. My skin is a little crepey at the collar-bone. My hair is briskly shorn. My beard was shortly trimmed on the porch at home by large rough hands, kind mostly, holding a new clipper machine. The cloth was tight in a nice way around my throat. How lonely I am there where I was born, have always been, while at once so privy to details, and how sparing one is with ones own details, and how incurious we are.
Manoeuvring through one another’s’ prohibitions and allowances, filters, shortage of filters, insights and delusions, it isn’t easy. I crawl off exhausted and alone to the woods for days on end alone to escape human congress, to process the data, and they phone and warn me I’ll go mad for the lack of real engagement.
I heard myself lose my frayed wayfaring temper last night here in the bar. A little hipster nearest me down the plank didn’t like the word Indian. I said “It’s an ‘Indian’ thing” when I ordered a blue light. He came back from the john, leaned over and gently informed me, that the word offended him. He was taking a native studies course and had learned a lot lately about how language was used to further notions of racial inferiority.
“Or notions of hipster superiority”, says I. Sometimes these lads miss the irony they are rumoured live by. He thought I strayed into the wrong bar. I’ve been hauling firewood for a week and ran away from the fucking black flies.
I smiled my disarmingly dentured best.
As did the bartender.
I said “Don’t tell me what to call myself so you feel better about it all sir.”
I said to the bartender “This summer I’m getting outa the bush. I’m gonna sit right here drinking apricot flavored beer and explore my white heritage with this dude. Fuck this indigenous bullshit.
I’m gonna start an alternative band, dig out my old blues guitar. Yah. White guys with guitars, that’ll be new and exciting. Perfumed beer. Boot cut jeans. Trinkets of other cultures dude. Brand new signifiers. Blonde dreads.
I’ll quit sucking dick and hook up with a trust fund hippy chick named Ariel and we’ll transcend traditional heterosexual roles. Frida Callow panty liners, everything open source, wants to be a shaman. Finds Beyonce empowering. Workshops her feelings. I could watch her make out with a chick.”
He was quiet now and I felt foolish but I had an audience. People are sensitive but they aren’t fragile.
“Buck Owens by heart dude, welcome to the white side of town. It’s a rainbow world. Stick around you might learn something. Native friçking studies indeed. I am a fricken native study, tattoo boy. Fuck you. Stick to the trades dude. Tar sands are hiring.”
Sometimes I lose it. I try to be funny but fail. I could see the hipster kid adjust his preferences, condescend to an interesting eccentric to whom he would show indulgence. I might have some retro trappings he could absorb.
He explained in a folksy manner that he’d just been protecting the ambiance in the bar, wanted everyone to feel safe in self-expression but the word “Indian”. Man, it was a relic of colonialism didn’t I think. He started in again. And this bar was a nice little alternative place where queers and forward thinkers could feel safe.
“So you thought you’d just assume the missionary position and make sure we all spoke your language did ya? Totally excellent dude.”
We had a warm moment.
The bartender guy owns the place. Used to be a kid hung around my studio. He ordered a bottle of bourbon to his own table on the patio. He waved me out to join him. He said “Smooth rock, that was smooth. On the house. Yer now on the official indigenous aboriginal first nations list and that entitles you to free calming bevies just before the gender bending folk singer.” We sipped.
“Nice to see you still know how mind your p’s and q’s in the big city. Ya know when yer not in a two-story town anymore.” He gestured at the street of the café district. “Count em. three. That little hobbit is sensitive..”
We lit up his little electric cigarettes.
I tell him I believe I am suffering from an awful dose of acidie. He doesn’t know what that is and I explain that it is the unwillingness to do good. He says ‘Oh that. I was afraid for a minute there you were mixing drugs and alcohol.” I laugh. He says he was afraid I was holding back on him.
I say “I can’t keep up the simplest correspondence any more. I have no response ability.
“Not meeting your Facebook quotas?”
“Not approving my blog comments either. I don’t give a fuck about my stats.”
“Lot of bullshit really, isn’t it. Yer still painting? Billy said you were hanging a show. Some Indian thing.”
“Guy was curating a show of Metis art at some gallery in a bank. I sent him pics. He wanted all my stock. I pack it and deliver. Typical uber busy, Activist hashtag etc. So he hung the show. I Never heard a thing about date and time for an opening, never got a fucking invite to the damn thing. Now I know I’d look better in a suit than that chubby little swine in skinny pants, I had to wonder. Love the crime hate the criminal here or what? Or maybe I don’t look Injun enough to illustrate his thesis. And I had to write him twice after like three months to get him to etransfer the fucking piddley-ass honorarium. Not even data for my like Metis artist CV man, which I need to flesh out since we only got our status cards in 2013.”
“Jaysus, wasn’t that pretty much the plot of Bert’s novel?”
“Isn’t it just?”
“I can never deny Bert a certain prescience I think they call it.”
“He was an intelligent brute.”
“And he was tortured by his own cheap sentiment. Remember him saying that?”
“No but I only saw his so-called bad side.”
“The harsh side only came out when he was drinking. He was worse than me. The so-called good side was sentimental. But I think the writing came out of the two sides tempering one another. He got to unite them for a bit maybe. More than most people get to do.”
“It was grand to watch.”
“Yah I still have his papers. I put the novels up on-line. Here’s to the art hags.”
“Here’s to em. Bitches one and all.”
I sneak a real smoke and a piss in the back alley thinking how I hardly recognize my face in the graffiti ringed mirrors of this part of town. I’m back, passing through.
I don’t do anything too exotic for me on these little jaunts. I would, perhaps, should I be so lucky. I am to visit a friend tomorrow, make some changes to a painting on his wall. And sign the thing.
I’ve got a paintbrush or two that do what I want them to do. I’ve got my nexus tablet. I have a cheap little set of paints. I’ve got a change into dress clothes. Two good suits. The boots will go any place they have to go. Couple disposable razors and such. Smoke and fire. Pills. I wear a corduroy cowboy jacket with a sheepskin collar. Very bareback mountain. I carry sensibly recent compact technology. I packed my Japanese high tech long johns for the evenings.
A skinny man gets chilly, evenings walking around aimlessly. Damp gets to me. There’s some sort of chaos at the centre of my life essentially if you can call it that. I feel it in the chill.
I’ve been making a motif of this model off and on for a few years now. It’s a pattern now for me, him sitting, sometimes with his dog, on a park bench. The best of these paintings is somewhere in Japan. The second best is on his wall.
My model is a Japanophile so it was odd that a Japanese woman sat in a gallery contemplating all one afternoon before buying a little painting of a stern man calmly on the lookout with a dog leash held in his hands between his knees in his hands on a park bench and off she flew. On the park bench beside him was the single word life “life” sprayed large. Face I’ve studied.
Some people you remember the first time you saw them. She will remember likewise the first time she saw that little painting. That’s kind of nice. It’s what it is all about.
“Art is evidence” a friend said “I have always believed that.” She didn’t say what it evidenced, or incriminated but I know the good she meant. She is someone I know from the blog and then on Facebook. Some friends you never put a face on.
As near as I can tell.
While I’m thinking of a bar in the French quarter, my little nephew,in the parallel universe of family, will trudge up the icy hill on another outing, putting far more energy into walking than is required. He’ll be heading to the studio perhaps or just gone for a stroll. The little ugly town is such that it is safe for him to do so. He won’t be dressed warmly enough to satisfy his grandmother. She also lives on his street.
He may be making the sounds of cars or reciting catechism, or muttering the sounds of a scolding. He’ll be alone at age five or six and no one will ever know, soundly striking his floppy galoshes heels to the ice and the salted pavement and the sidewalk, taking those long exaggerated strides he learned from keeping up with me. He’ll mountain climb snowbanks. He is self amusing, able to play alone, to amuse himself. There are pop cans to kick and hard nuggets of ice, down the other side of the hill again into town and the tawdry, hopeful Christmas lights.
His memory impresses me. Nothing slips his mind it seems. Nothing.
“What will happen while I am away?” That is the question. “When what little control I imagine I have is gone? When I can no longer from immediacy try to make sense, to care, to scorn wisely?” The place will never love me enough in return, never accept me as I am, or know me, for it prefers no details, my privacy really. But it will be home, betraying me with change, outlasting me, moot and undocumented. Who will shovel snow from the old lady’s driveway at the top of the hill while I am away?
The little lad is passing it now, watching his own unbuckled boots. He doesn’t know that in the little aluminium shed behind the little house there is a giant turtle shell and on the shelf above it there is an eagle’s wing. I was waiting till he was old enough not to tell the world and then I’d show them to him. His cheeks and his nose and his fingertips are rosy with the cold. Mittens and hats will only keep you warm if you put them on properly.
Past the place we found the snake skin one hot summer afternoon. The gossamer look of a garter snake skin and the strength of it. The explanation for it being there on the scratch concrete sidewalk, dry in the heat. The allure of ditches. We kept that skin in a box in his dresser drawer. That year he became a talkative going concern. How it would scratch in the roughness to release the sheath of an old skin.
“I could have just disappeared.” That’s what one of my aunts would have said after describing in rapturous detail an embarrassing moment. I could have just fallen through the floor. Pride comes before a fall. Don’t be bold.
They left me with a love for country music and the Robert Lowell poem “Skunk Hour.” That old lonesome me. Countered by fantasies about just disappearing. Countered by or in tandem. I disappeared off to New Orleans last year. Part of me never came back to this snow and northern yard axe.
In the winter I like to putter around in the yard light and moon light on the snow. Split a little wood and stare into middle space. I’ll get an idea. I’ll disappear.
The fear inherent in the fresh apprehension, I feel that in my gut when I’m drawing fairly well.
Lately a few portraits of a studio kid from years ago, from photographs.
I wanted to paint him looking at the painter like he used to look at me – loving, amused, flattered and irritated by my affection. interested more in my technique than my talk.
I painted lovingly, his face, the back streets of New Orleans, the gathering snow piling up around the red wheelbarrow left out in the yard. I painted our winter coats hanging on nails. I painted the lad reading the paper at a diner table in Memphis. I’d look up from my fixation at the canvas and wonders for a split second what town or situation I was in.
I kept trying to write things down here . I worked at a long piece called “I Could Have Just Disappeared” but I never posted it. That’s comedy.
Those cafes, those embraces, those dismissals, those living or dead, those were my life, my friends. I always looked for deeper, greater friends, I always wanted a more sympathetic place. I craved isolation, detachment too. But those were my friends, my scenery, and this is my solitude, in public transit and I so loved them. I just couldn’t accept that this was my life yet, and undervalued everything until it was almost too late.
Often I saw crows like messengers or cryptograms flung up from passing forests and parking lots, from carrion, from garbage cans in the accursed snow
In Toronto fat little sparrows scuffled over a Mcfry outside the Pretty Tipsy Nail Salon in a blizzard in a cedar bonsai up at Winston’s on Saint Claire when I stepped out in the freezing sleet to smoke. I always make my way to see him when I’m in town but today he isn’t there and that hipster waiter’s no good for business.
People in Hogtown dress to be noticed but they go snooty if they catch you desiring or sizing them up. It’s a city of ice queens. They dress slutty like fashion models and walk like librarians. Especially the men.
But tonight ill see the full moon reflected in a Delta flight wing.
A day or two later and I’m in three-piece business suit drag by day, a little tweedy for Louisiana even when its cool in march. I don’t thaw out quickly. A suit keeps the hippies and anarchist freaks at bay.
He had a routine established, knew cafes with simple coffee and clean facilities, wireless feeds, and staff who were not too fashionable to forget his face, to exchange a few words of recognition, which he found he treasured. He’d had the word ‘expat’ flicker lately unbidden across his mind. Though he could not now describe his Canadian self as an expatriate in America, he was aware of the word flickering, as if on wings overhead occasionally, among others above the square. He felt he could stay, that he could internalize the descriptor. He felt that an understanding could be accepted, reached if not grasped by the remains of his family, his few immediately affectionate, presently snowbound attachments and himself.
They would confess to one another in time that they had always been surprised he’d stayed at home so long anyway.
I’m a freak magnet but in a suit I disappear to them. The alternative is a bore. Knee jerk lifestyles . self constructed ghettos for street cred, enclaves for retirement.
Lad likes em, he’s young, but I get stifled.
He and I kept a wood fire going five months in the snow up north, kept warm, but my arms still ache from swinging the axe. Now its warm night in black leather. I like wandering alone, no connection to make. He finds friends. Nobody knowing where I am. Looking. Palm fronds above my table, the sound of a night train. Walking home last night we got held up by a mile of still, wheezing iron and clambered up and through between the cars under this gibbous moon. I stepped on a possum last night, coming out of a late dive bar, almost went up my leg, kicked it aside. No lie. Ah the south.
Thought I’d write. Things are good. I’m thawed out, winter seems a long way off, a long flight away from New Orleans. It’s easy to slide into this amiable life here, easy to forget the snow, but the aches of winter persist, sore elbows from the axe and the woodpile, a sore knee from stepping too high to the porch, lugging lumber before they built steps for the new studio, just the stiffness of bearing that the ice and the icy people give me there persist into age and warm climes and the warm manners here.
Sometimes I’ll miss the wolf coloured grey silence of the woods, I sense the big city rumble under everything I do and I miss the visual simplicity of the leafless hills, the drift of snow, even the loneliness of the hilltop we call, half heartedly here almost, home. But Americans are generally incurious about the interior landscape I carry in memory and do not indulge my nostalgia. For that I am grateful, it is therapeutic and bracing.
Long trains hoot and grind and rumble through the Bywater neighbourhood here and take me back to childhood where and when trains still ran. I used to run out and wave and the men in the caboose would indulge me.
The spring morning is the day’s sweet spot. Flowers I can’t name, vines roiled up over the fence lines, the smell of seawater and buckled pavement, they do me good. That sense of being returned by New Orleans, on some essential if forgotten level, to childhood persists, especially keenly these mornings.
I’ve mentioned that here before. Always listen to repeated things people say. Watch for patterns, study the wallpaper .
You’re always looking for a triggering moment so a piece of writing or painting will come. You hope or know there’s a whole lot going on underground in the subconscious, something incessant taking notes like childhoods god, observant and usually saddened in the sky. This underground activity is stuff you have never fully realised. This is what you don’t know you do. According to the scriptures even the good lord forgave his crucifiers because they didn’t know what they were doing. So knowing what you are doing you may render you accountable. Ah the examined life.
Anyway I waited inspiration. I wanted to write one of those day in the life things like Virginia Woolf in “Mrs Dalloway,” about my street in my little home town where for the old families it feels like the vernacular is threatened by the outlandish. I wanted to write something understanding, with a social and environmental overview.
I looked for patterns in days and behaviour as if for clues, for a Matisse pattern background that would unite everything disparate in the figure in the foreground.
You don’t necessarily know why or what the thing triggers when it does. Maybe it is best not to know why you begin to paint or portray something. Not knowing why keeps the curiosity and the eye sharp. You understand what the impulse was to start with later on. You write a little narrative in your head and tell it maybe to an interested party, a shrink is best.
Since last spring I’ve wanted to portray for posterity a little day on my mother’s old small town street before days like them are grown up and old and gone from my life. Little particulars and peculiarities of place and people required affectionate note. My little grand nephew decided he was too old to take my hand crossing the street on our round of junk stores and indulgences. I never got around to writing the piece but I felt time ticking all year as I assiduously applied myself to other things
I wanted to write about my mother, who is a bit of a hoarder. A life spent sorting through accumulated items, trying to part, trying to understand attachment. Overwhelmed by things. Charmed. Time ruining slow, fast, out. Guilty about the abundance. Feeling the paucity. Longing to pare things down, for simplicity.
I’m not a shy person but my mother was shy and shyness coloured my world so I notice it. Instead of telling us to shut up my grandparents and aunts always told us when we spoke out-of-place or turn “Don’t be bold.” But maybe they were wise to chide our daring mouths, our lip. My mother, the shyest of the lot, laughed sweetest of us all when she dared point out an inconsistency in thought in the emotional maniacs in our clan.
The sweetness of the laughter in her and her sisters encouraged their kids to be entertaining. Their comic aims weren’t high, just getting through a meal without an argument was enough, or just getting things said without tragic drama, dispelling a little tension, pointing out a minor hypocrisy, an undue boldness on another’s’ part.
I’m running on airport mode to save power. Story of my life
“And what will happen while I am away?” When I’m gone. She wonders. Will my stuff just go into the garbage? Will they even bother having a yard sale?
While I’m in the city my aunt Betty will be up in the manor, still deftly covering her blunders as Alzheimer’s creeps in on her. On a warm day mom will go and get her and they’ll sun in the back yard like they always did, aimlessly analysing us all with their shoulder straps down. They will squint up into the old apple tree. They will bemoan their own thighs, the crepeyness of their skins. They will discuss the yard with its demands, nagging when you sit in the sun.
They will watch the glinting river and its spring height, noted as to flux.
They’ll talk about the small daily scandals, broadcast or concealed for the sakes of intimacy and strangerhood.
I find I miss my little nephew when I travel, our five years of walks, tugged along on a leash by one horrid dog or another, the worst of them the most loved.
He was early on a knowing little diplomat and he learned early to laugh knowingly about the ” Don’t ask, don’t tell” aspect of each of our lives in family and company.
Never the less each morning as I wake I swim up through waves of nostalgia, a sense of our helplessness against the ruthless give and take of time. I don’t seem to dream about that street. I wake in loving arms, often. I think of family awakening to the rooms I know, of the morning habits and the gazes into the coming day, days, and into the past. I think of how they do when I am away, and I am so often away. Selfish to a fault. I never got the ceiling tiles fixed in the basement apartment at my mother’s house. I could have walked up to the manor to visit my old aunt. I never…
How my grandmother grew such flowers people stopped their cars to see, and how her great grand daughter moves about a garden with the same gestures, the rough dead heading, the gentle slap more than a caress, the hips shaped the same, the walk, the right arm swinging gently as she/they walk, held a little out from the body.
And the same bluntness about the way you live your life, make your bed and lay in it or run from it in my case. To get away and try not to wonder how it is when you are away.
The little lad threw his arms around me and cried when I came home from new Orleans.
He’s learning how to spot a decadent lightweight early. It won’t make him a happier man, it might render him useless, make an outsider of him. He’s had a sharp critical faculty since day one. At seven he mixes my paint for me. He knows how to cool or warm a color. He hasn’t any use for realism yet, finds my method tedious. He picks up technical jargon in the studio and displays it for clients like he thought it all up on his own but as yet the notion of meaning in a painting is just beginning to dawn on him, emotional content. I wonder if he will ever read Proust or become equipped for life.
I remember how he told my mother he was going to church for his first concussion and she and I laughed. She didn’t correct him and next day when I asked him how his concussion went he gave me a quick dirty look, quickly changed subjects.
We were sitting watching the trees wave and he said oddly that he’d dreamed I’d gone up into the sky. I felt a chill and changed the subject.
He and his brother are a Cain and Abel of a pair, it worries us all.
I wonder if old aunt Betty ever learned to use her new cell phone, her forgetful mind and sharp, perfect manicure feigning a southern blonde’s languid surety and sense of entitlement on the large keys. The little lad flounced in his snow boots into mom’s kitchen one day, the gospel radio playing as ever and he asked her “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, why is it always Jesus around here?” I wouldn’t have had his nerve.
She said “Cause he’s the boss.
“Well he’s not the boss of me.”
I put on my oldest living male left in the family voice and told them “I would rather not listen to you two discussing theology this early in the morning, may I say?”
“He started it.” Said she.
I wonder what will happen while I’m gone, the curse and blessing in my abandoning. Whether my departure will overlay intimacy, joy, with resentment.
I know the kid will forget his own self, the self I remember clearly with sharp pangs of love, hope and foreboding.
I remember when I smell freshly mowed grass as the street car rumbles up Saint Charles, past mansions, how he and I walked up our humble street and I told him to keep his head down, I didn’t want Mrs. Maxwell to see me cause then I’d have to cut her fricken lawn. He exaggerated his stealth like some cartoon with skinny legs as we passed her little house and I thought “Jesus, she’ll see that”, and half laugh to herself, her Indian laugh, dry and knowing. I said “Cool it. I told her I’d do it yesterday but I had more profitable ways to spend an hour.”
“You could show me that surprise in the tool shed if you’d just do what you said you’d do. You should have told the truth right from the start.” He said, looking up at me.
“Thank you for that grandma”, said I.
I always keep a person I know in mind to address while I take these notes, it isn’t a general address, same with a painting. My cousin says my paintings are too personal, she likes a nice landscape. Others say I’m “too much about beauty” and I don’t enough address social concerns. I say otherwise a man’s just making posters, providing illustration for some curatorial thesis, painting the word and there’s enough dry fucks to fill those quotas.
Down the bar the girls are decorating potatoes to toss to the crowds on Saint Patrick’s day, orange and green, and outside the coloured beads dangle from fences and trees. It’s about ten in the sweet morning. I had coffee last couple mornings with a race car driver from Mississippi. The lad seems happy here too. I got a city in mind while I write and a lot of beauty to paint.
images and text by Rocky Green.