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by Jeff Sanger
I wasn’t sure if I should meet him outside the entrance to the train station or if I was supposed to go downstairs and find for him there. It was raining when the cab dropped me off and I didn’t have an umbrella so I figured I would just go straight downstairs. My dress shoes made a lonely clop-clack noise on the wet stone steps, made me think of some kind of lost traveler looking for shelter at Dracula’s castle. The steps led down past a row of ornate columns into a wide foyer with enormous polished marble stones, alternating irregularly between white and gray. The vaulted tin ceiling had been completely restored and outfitted with modern track lighting. Apparently he had decided to spare no expense in the renovations. Perhaps he wanted to create some uncertainty for his patrons: where does the artful design of the gallery end and the art for sale begin?
My father supposedly began painting professionally at the age of six when his first grade art teacher asked if she could display his first oil painting on the wall next to the blackboard. He insisted she pay him a dollar and that he retain rights to any future prints. Unlikely? Yes, perhaps, but not in the context of the many other strange and equally unlikely stories I extricated from my begrudging mother over the years. My only knowledge of him comes from her and other secondary sources since my father and I had never met.
The tale of his departure is one of the more anticlimactic ones in my recollection. He didn’t wait until the day of my birth to make a theatrical exit and he didn’t pack his bags after the first dirty diaper either. He didn’t run off with a mistress when I was in grade school and he certainly didn’t lose himself in a vain devotion to his 8-5 job since he never had one. According to my mother once she had made it clear he would not be able to talk her into an abortion, he left. It went something like this:
He’s standing in front of his canvas, poised in a shard of light cast through the only decent window in the whole apartment so he can make full use of whatever natural light filters down through the bushes and the cloudy basement window. A door opens and closes behind him but he doesn’t react, brush still moving steadily up and down.
“Hi love,” he says.
She says nothing but he doesn’t seem to notice her lack of an answer. Up and down he pushes and pulls the brush rhythmically across the texture of the canvas. Now short quick strokes to the right, smoothing something out. He takes a little more red from the palette now.
“You’re almost finished,” she says finally. She knows better than to interrupt him by now. She only does when she has something she considers important that usually isn’t and then she skirts around it for half an hour trying to make small talk. He considers asking her just what the hell the problem is now but reconsiders and says, “How can you tell?” in a tone carefully cultivated to hit an odd note somewhere between biting sarcasm and self-mocking.
She is silent, embarrassed perhaps, uncertain despite the frequency with which they had replayed this scene since Lawrence had first offered to display some of his work. His distraction and thus frustration mounting he places the brush and palette down in as subdued a fashion as he can and, to avoid shouting by accident or otherwise betraying his ire, he dials his voice down almost to a whisper and plasters a stiff but nicely composed smile on his face.
“What is it honey? Something you want to talk to me about?”
“Do you remember what today is?”
“Thursday of course.”
“No,” she says patiently, “Do you remember what was supposed to happen today?”
Then it dawns on him this is the one time she actually has grounds to interrupt him and he is thankful for not yelling. “Oh God. Of course. I’m so sorry.” He actually makes eye contact with her now. “How could I forget?”
She nods neutrally, not just patient anymore, something else he can’t place yet. She kicks her sandals off into the corner instead of putting them in the closet. He hates it when she does this but doesn’t say anything this time given that it has probably been a difficult day for her.
“How did it go? How do you feel?”
“I didn’t,” she says without emotion.
“What do you mean you didn’t?” he says hotly, brandishing the fat paintbrush at her like a knife. A glob of burnt sienna falls to the hardwood floor.
“We’ve talked about this!” More red paint spatters.
“I know!” She glares at him, betraying her emotion for the first time. “It’s not like I’ve got some kind of moral objection to it. I’m just telling you I couldn’t do it.”
He pauses, composes himself. He directs the brush back toward the canvas and resumes his work before he answers her.
“Well we’ve got another week before it’s too late, right? I’ll go with you, all right? Would that help?
“No, Michael.” It is quite possibly the first time she had ever refused him anything so directly.
“I’m not going to do it,” she goes on. “WE are not going to do it.”
He stops painting and then starts again without ever looking up from the canvas.
“You had it right the first time,” he says simply.
She sees it coming but still can’t help being surprised when she wakes the next morning to find his canvas and paints and half of their rent money gone.
All future interactions with him were conducted solely by mail. No child support checks of course, no birthday cards with the quintessential $20 inside, just his long-awaited signature on a divorce settlement. And then, a week ago, an invitation to the opening of “Gallery 28.” It was printed on thick, embossed paper that looked better suited for wedding invitations. At the bottom someone had written in careless blue script:
“Come the day before if you are able.” For all I knew he had written a similar post-script on 30 other invitations to this private pre-opening party. But still I came. Any son who has a father will tell you: when his light finally shines down on you it might as well be the Lord himself and even if you’ve been waiting 30 years faithfully somehow you’re confident it will be worthwhile. So the clouds parted when I opened the invite and here I was, ready to be blessed or cursed, whatever he decreed.
Most of the paintings had not been hung yet perhaps due to the challenge of finding the appropriate device to hang something from the thick masonry. They lined each side of the wall along the wide corridor that had presumably once led to the train platform. Beyond a gradual bend to the left I could hear drilling, the clatter of wood planks on scaffolding, and indistinct voices shouting directives at one another. I followed the corridor obediently, my hand trailing idly along the stones until I came to the first painting that had been hung. The fastener had already bent under the enormous weight of the elaborate metal frame. The canvas was at least 10 by 12 and covered in thick globs of purple and green shades, too bright for spring but too warm to be surreal. Somewhere in the middle of the myriad right angles and colors I thought I glimpsed the outline of a figure but it was difficult to tell. There was no title placard but even if there was I don’t think it would have helped me decipher it much.
“Do you like it?”
He had crept up behind me without my even knowing, emerged from the darkness and the construction sounds to stand right beside me.
“No,” I said flatly, pretending I didn’t know it was him.
“I can’t tell how I’m supposed to feel about it.”
“If you were sure about how you felt about it, you’d be tired of it before the end of the week.”
“People should be able to look at something and feel a little different each time they see it. That’s the difference between art and… pictures,” he said wiggling his fingers dismissively.
“Is it yours?” I asked.
“Yes. Everything in here is mine. Later we’ll add other painters, as pieces are sold of course.”
He looked different than I pictured him, but then again it wasn’t very realistic to expect him to resemble the amalgamation of Starsky and Hutch, Bo Duke, and Lee Majors I had created for him as a child. He actually looked more like Uncle Jesse than any of my other evening re-run heroes. He had the same grizzly white beard only he had curly salt and pepper hair on top instead of the stained red hat and a crisp Armani suit instead of the overalls. He looked like a daytime soap opera star that had let himself go.
“I’m glad you came,” he said, extending his hand.
I shook it, firm and formal like I was interviewing for a job I wanted but didn’t really need.
“I wanted you to be here to see it.”
“Why?” I asked more out of genuine curiosity than spite.
“This is what I worked my whole life for,” he said irritably, “and now it’s finally here. Your mother never understood the sacrifices, the devotion a real artist has to have to what he creates.”
“Follow me, I’ll show you what we’re working on.”
We walked further down the hall that eventually let out onto a wide, open train platform. My father had apparently opted to leave the railroad tracks intact though a short wrought iron railing had been erected to prevent anyone from falling off the platform. Workers manned pulleys in an elaborate effort to raise a twenty foot high canvas into position on the main wall facing the corridor. The painting depicted more of the vague, oddly bright colors, this time revolving around a figure of a nude woman in the middle, a kind of island of classicism in a post-modern maelstrom. Directly above a skylight opened up to the cloud-strewn sky, flecked with scattered raindrops on its surface.
“The things that are created in here…Once they’re sold and hung and loved…They become immortal you know. They are the only part of me that lives on forever.”
His eyebrows furrowed into a thick bridge over his eyes. “Art is forever. Art is what makes us human. What we create makes us who we are. That kind of nihilism won’t get you anywhere in the world.”
“Just saying it’s important to keep things in perspective.”
He shook his head and turned away from me. I looked down from my hands to his, sprinkled with paint speckles and the beginnings of liver spots that I would have too someday. Above us the clouds suddenly parted and the gallery filled to bursting with light. The dark voids in the painting above us became nascent beginnings outcropping from the nude instead of turbulent ends pulling it apart. The steel frame shimmered against the thick oil. He breathed in deeply next to me then exhaled in an abrupt exhortation as one of the workmen almost lost his hold on the large canvas. My father was too preoccupied with his efforts to help them aright the now clearly crooked painting to notice me making my way back to the surface where, despite the sun, the rain continued to fall.