WILLIAM WHARTON Scumbler
Acquiescence, Wishes …
SCUMBLING: to modify the effect of a painting by overlaying parts of it with a thin application of opaque or semi-opaque color.
– American College Dictionary
Table of Contents
1 The Rats’ Nester
Right now, here in Paris, we have seven different nests. That’s not counting our old water mill, two hundred miles from Paris. I spend half my time rousting out, fixing up, furnishing these nesting places.
Rats’ nesting’s what it all is; can’t seem to keep myself from burrowing, digging in; always stuffing bits and pieces into one corner or another.
Even before we snuck away from California, we had four nests and forty acres; not a single one of those places there you’d call a real home: a trailer dug into the side of a hill, a tent nestled against a cave, then the shack on top of a hill we called home before it burned down. There was also that place I built with rock and cement at the edge of a streambed in a gully up on the forty.
We furnished all those nests complete to knives and forks; every one a hideout, places we could run to if things got too bad; holes where we could go to ground, wait it out, hide from the crazy ones, learn to like radioactive eggs, a purple sun over green skies, a stinking stagnating dead world.
A family man’s got to think ahead these days, especially someone like me, living on the outside, ex-con, a man who had his first nest – wife, two little ones, house, everything – snatched out from under him. I’m always looking for someplace for us to hide.
In California I cadged stuff from the Salvation Army, junk shops. Here in Paris I haunt flea markets; sometimes I can fix up a whole hideout for less than fifty bucks.
A MAN FOR A WOMAN. EACH TO EACH
OTHER: MOTHERING FATHER.
We’ve been living in Paris more than twenty years now; I’m not sure why anymore; maybe I’m a new kind of bum, rats’-nest bum. Every New Year’s morning, I check with the family, ask if they want to go back.
No, they like to stay, like being aliens.
I still think of myself as a serious artist, paint hard and heavy when I’m not caught up in nesting fevers, father juices.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about masterpieces, museums; used to dream that war; just don’t care so hard anymore. When the end gets closer, those kinds of crazy ideas don’t mean much; everything gets sucked into the painting itself.
ONE LEG OF A ZIGZAG, MY LIFE
TACKS WINDWARD WITHOUT A LUFF.
I like to rent out our Paris hideouts to last-ditch people: students and artist types, end-of-the-line people; they appreciate my hiding places, feel safe.
One of these nests is in a quarter behind the Bastille. This part was supposed to be torn down fifty years ago. I’m nibbling around over there one day, looking for something to paint, something to fix up, something, anything; helping me delude myself into believing life makes some kind of sense, any kind.
I’m on my Honda motorcycle. I traded a painting for this Honda seven years ago; it’s over ten years old now and has 160 cubic centimeters displacement with around 75 cubic centimeters of power left. About like me: plugging up, wearing thin, metal-mental fatigue, general sludgishness.
I have my box and canvas strapped on my back, they rest on the carrier. Sometimes I paint sitting ass-backwards, straddling the bike, with feet jammed on the foot pegs. At my age, the back can’t take much stand-up painting without stiffening. If the back goes, I can’t get out of bed in the mornings; need Kate, my wife, to give me a push up, just to get going, moving.
I’m scumbling, stippling around, in and out courtyards, all crowded with wooden sheds and shacks. They’re piled tight, holding each other up. I’m ass deep in broken windows, old wet mattresses, sacks and boxes of garbage – everything smelling of mold. Rats are playing in the garbage. I’m feeling at home, in my natural place, delayed decay, festering under gray Paris skies.
There’s a marble workshop in back of a court, beautiful pieces of cut marble, sliced like cheese for tabletops to make French-ugly-type furniture.
On top of the other smells is cut-wood smell, sawdust, greased tools. This is a furniture-making part of town, gradually going downhill, out of business. Factories are making modern, glue-together furniture – cheap, throwaway stuff, nobody gets bored. Change your furniture with your husbands, wives; hard come, easy go; the new life.
I stop and get talking with a great older guy – older than me, even. He’s wearing a gray denim cap and could pass for Khrushchev, the Soviet shoe banger. He’s built like a four-poster fire plug. I wrestle the motorcycle onto its stand and follow him into his shop. He has a mattress business, makes mattresses from the wire up. I love seeing this kind of thing, helps me enjoy sleeping in a bed.
He comes on with an exciting, long story. I can sit all day listening to a good storyteller.
Sixty years ago he jumped ship; was in the Russian Navy. He winds up in Paris alone, nineteen years old and a Jew. Fat chance.
He starts calling himself Sasha, can hardly remember his real name anymore. During WW II, he hid from the Nazi Jew hunters, French and German, in these very buildings. He grabs me by the arm and hustles me down a tunnel and hole he’s dug into the ground under his garage.
There’s a whole room carved out down there; stocked with food, rice, beans, canned food, even candles.
Sasha and I could be soul mates. He invites me to lunch with him in back of his shop: cold borscht, bread, runny cheese, warm wine.
We talk on and on for hours. He tells how he started his spring-and-mattress business, one-man operation, never hired anybody. He found himself a nice Jewish French girl, got married, had three kids; lived on top of this mattress shop thirty years.
Now the kids are grown up, have a furniture store on the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. They’re ashamed of Sasha, don’t want him around their fancy store; he’s too fat, too dirty, too old, smelly, too Russian, too Jewish.
WE OUTLIVE OURSELVES, BECOME TRASH,
OBSTACLES, UNWANTED, UNWANTED EVEN BY
THOSE WE LOVE, WHO LOVE US, TOO.
Last year Sasha’s wife died of cancer. His eyes fill up telling me about it, whips out a greasy blue handkerchief and wipes tears away without slowing down. He tucks the handkerchief in his back pocket, looks me in the eye and tells how he has a lady friend now.
He smiles, I smile back. He says when a man has lived with a woman for fifty years he can’t live without one. He’s telling me?
Men are only parking spaces for women to fill. A man without a woman is a house without windows. God, I hate to think what I’d do if Kate died. It’d sure take most of the fun out of life; not all, but a big part of my reasons for living.
TO SEE IN SOMEONE ELSE’S EYES
THE CENTER OF YOUR OWN AND FEEL
LIFTED, SHUTTERING FROM THE GROUND
The wild part is this woman friend is forty years younger than Sasha. He’s proud as a rooster. His kids are going crazy, afraid he’ll give her his money. His woman friend is an Arab widow; he keeps her in an apartment near the mattress shop; he’s thinking of moving in with her.
Sasha laughs; says he’s had everything else in life, so what if he has shit for kids.
No sense me explaining the regression to the mean, so I don’t; too complicated; nobody wants to admit it anyway.
I tell him he should have more kids with the new woman, Middle Eastern peace right here in Paris, handmade. To hell with the old kids; make new ones; maybe they’ll be more real, like him. He gives me a punch on the arm, a hard punch. You know, that’s about the closest men come to showing love for each other, giving and taking punches. That’s weird.
I LIE HERE WEEPING IN MY WIRE
SPIDER’S LAIR; DRY MOTES FLOAT
FREELY IN INSECTLESS AIR.
I ask Sasha if I can paint him. Sasha handles it in stride; wants to know how long it’ll take. I knock this painting out in an hour and a half; get a good one. I do it size 20F, about eighteen inches by two feet. I do head, shoulders, full face; great head, pig eyes, putty nose. When I’m finished, I try giving it to him.
‘Give it to your kids, make them suffer!’
Also I want to pay him back for his story, his life.
Sasha punches me again, tough, thick, ham hands. He hangs his painting on the wall between some brass springs, tells me to follow him.
He waddles along ahead of me and we go farther back up the alley. There’s a three-story wooden building there. It leans out in every direction, has a tar-paper roof. It’s half full of old furniture, mostly waterfall design, nineteen-twenties stuff. Everything’s dirty as hell, inch-thick dust, caked and oily. Sasha says I can have any furniture I want; all this taken in on trade years ago.
I’m excited by the building; ask if he’ll rent it to me. Sasha laughs. I tell him I’ll turn it into a studio, have naked women in to pose. Sasha laughs louder, says wind blows through, cats crap all over, holler and fuck at night; rats eat cats’ kittens, pigeons fly in through the roof. I tell him I’ll feed the pigeons, train my rats to fight his cats.
FLOATING, FALLING: NOTHING UP
PEERING BLINDLY THROUGH SNOW.
MY IGNORANCE, SKETCHING ARROGANCE.
THE FINAL SCOPE OF INNOCENCE.
We make a deal right there; no papers. I pay six hundred francs every three months; that’s about forty bucks a month. I promise I’ll paint a portrait of his wife from a tiny photo. It’s the only picture he has of her, one of those five-and-dime automat photos.
A FACE AS STILL LIFE
BUT STILL LIFE LEFT.
I get in there and clean things up. This is grim corruption. I haul most of the furniture up into the attic; chop the worst, stack it up for firewood.
First I put in big beams so the whole place won’t fall down on me with a strong wind; then I cut a hole through the roof to let in light. I put plastic panels in this hole and line underneath with thin-roll plastic for insulation. I cover all the walls and ceiling with Styrofoam panels and paint the floors white.
Sasha lets me tie in to his electric line; I’ll pay a set amount every month. Then I buy two potbelly stoves at the flea market, put in long pipes to radiate the heat. I haul back down some of the furniture and spread it around. The place is light, great, looks like something between a cheap whorehouse and a surgical theater.
ANOTHER NEST, NOT MY BEST
YET MEETS THE FINAL TEST.
The first thing I do there is paint the portrait of Sasha’s wife. I let myself drift, float into it, hardly looking at the photo. I’m painting her as Sasha described her to me, the way he felt about her, her soul.
A FACE I DON’T KNOW, A MIND ECHOING ME.
I’M INFUSED WITH ANOTHER. MOTHER, SISTER, BROTHER.
I do this in an afternoon. Sasha says the painting looks more like his wife than the photo. He cries.
I’m a bit psychic; it’s a nick of woman in me, I think. I might be part male witch. I’ve met two true witches in my life so far: exciting women.
A WOMAN LIVES INSIDE ME, CONTENT
TO PULL THE REINS OF MY CLUMSY CART.
Next, I rent out the ground floor to a sculptor. He’s a rich young French aristocrat, pays me six hundred francs per month, cash. Everything cash. French officials are very uptight about people like me.
I keep the middle floor for myself. The stairs come straight up from the door, so I wall off my stairs and put in another door for the sculptor.
To bring water in, I run a line from the street spigot across the alley – strictly illegal. I bootleg this in at night using a plastic hose going under the cobblestones.
I’m out there in the dark, working with a flashlight, digging up cobblestones, when the concierge catches me. I tell her I’m looking for some money I lost. She stares but isn’t willing to call me an outright liar. The French are nice that way.
I bring water into the downstairs and up to the first-floor studio, but can’t rig a drain system for the very top floor.
This third floor isn’t much; the ceiling’s low and it’s dark. I figure I’ll use it for storage. To get up there, you need to go through my studio, up a ladder and through a trapdoor.
A TRAP NEST, SPIDER NEST, PULL IT IN BEHIND YOU, HIDE AND ABIDE.
Just shows how you never know. Three months later, I have a Dutch woman in for some modeling. She has a nice body and is only charging me ten francs an hour. Great, beautiful, solid, rounded tits meant for having kids sucking on them, one kid on each tit. It gets me all hot and bothered for nothing just looking at her. I’d give anything to have big working tits like that; feel like the fountain of life. I’d rent myself out as a wet nurse and learn to eat grass – regular green grass, that is.
She starts telling how she doesn’t have a place to live; hints about staying in the studio, doing free modeling – that kind of business. To turn her off, I tell her I’ll rent the upstairs room for two hundred fifty francs a month.
She’s one of these new, rugged, live-on-a-sewer-cover kind of wonderful women; takes me right up, moves in, money on the barrel two months in advance.
I squirm three days hoarding enough nerve to tell Kate, my wife, about it. Kate is not enthusiastic; knows how vulnerable I am. We have a good working relationship, Kate and I, based on respect for the way each of us is. Still, despite all, sometimes it gets hard. No two people so close could be so different. I wouldn’t have it any other way myself, but easy it ain’t sometimes.
This Traude turns out to be a neat, clean hamster of a woman; no trouble at all. I don’t know she’s there most of the time.
She gets herself a Primus stove, cooks her meals; invites me for lunch once in a while – very domestic. She usually stays in bed mornings on cold days till I get the fires going. Some heat must move up to her place, but she comes down and dresses next to the glowing stove; has a nice, round, almost heavy body, wide hips, beautiful glutes. I get some fine drawings; good deal all around. But I’m not showing these drawings to Kate; no sense pushing the edges. I’ve fooled myself into thinking that sometimes honesty can be a cruel hypocrisy.
The big mistake was renting to the blue-blood sculptor. First, he has the most active social life I’ve ever seen. He’s a stone sculptor, cutting gigantic five-, six-ton blocks of marble or granite. He works hard when he gets the chance but that’s not often. Most times, there are French dukes driving up the alley in limousines, tooling over to watch Claude play at being sculptor. They can’t believe he’s trying to work; only peasants work. They’re titillated seeing Claude, sledge-hammer in hand, goggled, genuine stone dust whitening his face like a clown, staggering around in piles of stone chips.
Maybe the one thing worse than not having enough money is having too much. You get caught up with rich friends and relatives. Then how the hell can you get anything done?
But my big problem is stone dust. Joseph P. Baloney, it gets into everything. Thin, light, like soap powder, it rises from his studio into mine. I run around with pieces of glass wool, putty, plaster, trying to plug holes. Nothing stops this dust. Mornings, it looks as if it’s snowed; all day long there’s a haze. It gets into my paint and into the paintings.
My way of painting involves slow-drying varnish; this floating stone dust is deadly. Altogether – with what’s in the air, what settles on my eyeglasses and what’s getting ground into the varnish – I’m working in deep cream of wheat. My white beard gets so white it glows.
THE BLINDING LIGHT OF NO WHITENESS
DARK LOST IN MEMORY: A DULL CLUMPING
OF FRAGMENTED IDEA CLUTTER GROWS.
Finally I give up. I rent my studio to another painter, a friend of Claude’s. This guy works abstractly, sort of white bumps on white flats; sometimes light purple or green squiggles over these large white canvases, different shades of white, all very subtle. He says stone dust won’t matter.
He’s a social type, too, won’t mind dancing bear to the royalty. I sign him on at eight hundred francs a month. I tell Traude about it; she asks if he’s married. It’s OK with her. Traude’s money almost covers my outgo and the other fourteen hundred francs a month is pure gravy. We definitely have use for the extra money. Trying to paint truly personal paintings, make some kind of a living and be a good husband-father can be almost too much sometimes. All that’s beside living some kind of life for yourself.
So that’s the way we make it. We ourselves live in what used to be a carpenter’s shop. I bought the bail, that’s the lease, for five thousand, and pay eighty bucks a month rent.
It’s a great place for living, eighty-seven square meters, plus a grenier and a cave, that’s an attic and a cellar. When we moved in, I tore everything out except for one center support post. We redid all the windows to make the place weatherproof. Then I drew a plan on paper just as if we were building a house on a lot in Woodland Hills, California. I chalked my plan on the floor directly and started building up walls. The job took six months. Kate was a little worried at first but she likes it fine now.
We have our kids sleeping on platforms. It saves floor space and they don’t have to make beds. There’s a mezzanine-type balcony all around the living room. You can use it to get from one bed loft to the other. There’s a place up there for trains or slot cars when they’re young, stereo sets as they get older. We have a house rule, earphones only; these old nerves can’t take loud music of any kind. Kate agrees, thank God!
I built a fireplace where we can climb in and warm up around the flames on cold evenings. A nest inside a nest.
It’s a terrific place for us to raise a family. Every night, family dinners at a ten-foot-long table I knocked together from a single slab of three-inch-thick mahogany cut from the center of an African tree. The bark is still on the outside edges to remind us where wood comes from. I bought this piece of wood at a sawmill in the neighborhood: weighs over two hundred and fifty pounds; took four of us dragging it up our three flights of stairs. A big heavy table like that can help hold things together no matter what happens, gives some weight to life, keeps it from just flying away.
Evenings, after dishes, we do our sitting, reading, talking, homework, model building, drawing, around that table. This is one fine place to live, love. Our kitchen is smack in the center and open. When you’re in that kitchen, you’re in the command post, can see everything, control our family tree house. Swiss Family Robinson in the center of Paris.
There’s no television, never has been in our family; that’s one reason we ducked out of California. There’s just that big open room for living, eating, sharing; each person in the family has a private place for sleeping and working. Peapods inside peapods; five bedrooms. The plumbing’s tricky but it works most of the time.
I rent our apartment at five hundred bucks a summer to American university professors doing research in Paris. This almost pays the year’s rent. We’re down at our rugged, ragged stone water mill summers anyway.
That’s the way it goes. Christ, if you’re an artist with five kids, two already away at American universities, you have to figure something, somehow. It’s how I make my ratnesting instincts pay off; me the slum landlord of Paris.
I RAGTAG MY WAY THROUGH LIFE:
BORN-AGAIN CRIPPLE: CURSED WITH SOMETHING
EXTRA: A THIRD ARM GROWING BETWEEN
MY EYES: BLOCKING THE VIEW. MAKING
THE FEW SEEM MANY.
Now, in this crazy book it might be easy to get the wrong idea about how my life is lived.
I’m writing a lot about painting, about what happens out on the streets, but my real life, the one I live for, is home with Kate and our kids.
I hardly ever paint past five o’clock, even in summer, and I never paint on Sundays. Lots of Sundays we go to one of the zoos – we all love animals – or we row in the Bois de Bologne or, more often, the lake at the Parc de Vincennes.
I’m home for dinner almost every evening and while we eat we all share what we’re doing. I’m just not writing much about that part of my life here, maybe another book; no, I’ll never write another one, not enough time.
Remember, above all, I’m the nester and this is my home nest. Don’t get confused by the flickerings or you’ll never understand this book, what it’s all about.
Raining today: Paris has too damned much weather. I clean my box and set up for a self-portrait. I do one each year, usually in midwinter; good for winter glump, cheap emotion massage, gets the neurons hopping. I’m working in what used to be Tim’s bedroom before Annie went off to school and Tim took her room. It’s my mini-studio. Actually, I don’t need much space to paint.
Self-portraits are by far the most interesting paintings. Just look at Tintoretto, Chardin, Rembrandt, even David. Active and passive simultaneously, body with a brain seeing a brain through a body; the eye painting the eye seeing the eye. There you have it: what the painter is, what he’d like to be; the way he paints, the way he’d like to paint, all in the same place at the same time. Looking inside yourself must be the hardest – at the same time, the most rewarding – thing anyone can do.
Take Rembrandt. Cocky at first, full of feathers, bearing down, concentrating like a fool, believing in it all. Then, slowly backing off, starting to wonder, letting the brush paint for him; he begins staring in the black hole; keeps painting straight to the end, kisses the wall, falls in; emptiness, the emptiness of a full moon.
I’M SELF-UNSEEN; NEITHER HERE NOR
THERE; AN INVISIBLE BODY-SHAPED HOLE
IN SPACE; CONSTANTLY GETTING IN MY OWN WAY.
I set up my mirror and stare into it. The urge to paint is coming on like a blush, catching me up, pulling me down. I struggle to hold in there. It must be a little bit like going crazy, this urge to paint, to fall through a brush.
Actually, I love to paint anybody. The trouble is getting people to sit. When I ask, they act peculiar. Women think I have something else in mind. Nobody can believe somebody else might just really want to look at, listen to, talk with another person. Everybody’s alone, knowing they want something more, not knowing what it is, or how to have it. The overwhelming, final big mystery: joy.
Practically all men cross their legs, fold their arms, maybe expect me to rip at their flies.
After all, I am an artist. Men live such dumb lives anyway, continually defending their precious inviolability, their phony territory. Mostly they’re afraid somebody might just find out nobody’s home. They live in film sets like on Universal Studio lots, fancy façades, nothing behind, a front for the tourists.
Generally, people seem to be getting more and more invisible, slipping around inside their stories. Even some women are turning slightly translucent; I can see through them against certain kinds of light. Or maybe I’m going people-blind; there’s hardly anybody around for me anymore. Could be I only need new glasses: thick, rose-colored; multi-focal, with catalytic platinum frames.
HOW TO AVOID A VOID? FIRST THERE WAS
THE VOID, THEN THE WORD, THEN THE WORLD.
IT JUST CURLED BACK ON ITSELF!
Everything’s ready now. The box and a 25F canvas in front of me; palette set with earth colors, turp, varnish. The mirror’s on my left. I paint best over my left shoulder, probably because I’m right-handed.
THESE FIRST STROKES AGAINST WHITE:
LIGHT FIGHTING; A SEDUCTION TO WHAT’S GOING
TO BE. AN OVERWHELMING OF WHAT WAS.
In the mirror, I’m holding the brush in my left hand. I try to see myself as a left-handed painter, switch-painter, leadoff painter. No. That’s not me; ambidextrous I’m not. I never punch singles to the opposite field. I’m always swinging for fences and mostly striking out. Mirrors lie too. Lies reflecting lies into something we can almost believe. That is, if you’re a believer. We’re running out of believers: I believe.
I try scrunching back on my haunches and staring. I’m a Russian sitting down before leaving on a trip; say a few prayers. Got to let this happen to me, get into the magic passive-active mood.
I’m ready. I lean forward. I let go, fall into my private craziness, the insanity that keeps me sane.
When I paint anybody, even me, I go a tiny bit berserk. I want something that can never be, probably isn’t meant to be. My easel’s set so I can see the model or the canvas, not both at once. Everything close; no secrets; we’re involved in a birthing, for better or worse.
But this time the model’s the mirror, me. And I’m wanting the impossible, to get close to myself. It’s hard! I’m always twice the distance between my eye and the mirror. I know I’m there on the surface, but I seem to be in the distance. I lean close, closer, trying to see me, to crawl inside myself without touching.
In a mirror, eyes are static; they don’t move. The mind blanks it out, a minor hysterical blindness. It gives self-portraits a stare, that and the painful concentration.
HOW HARD CAN ONE LOOK? DOES LOOKING
MAKE US BLIND TO SEEING?
When I paint anybody else, we’re jammed close: model, me, easel; a triangle, knees touching, wrapped into each other around my paint box. We need to get close or it’s only looking. And just looking is like counting, or measuring or describing – or, worse yet, estimating.
There can be no sitting still. We’re not catching a moment; we’re trying to paint a lifetime, two lifetimes, all lifetimes, past, future, present. This isn’t a Polaroid instant camera click-whirrr-wait. We’re human beings making mistakes; jumping around in our loose, confining skins trying to make mistakes real, make them ours. Somehow, life must be caught in the paint, poured, forced, squeezed, seduced, transmuted into it; hard, hard, like labor-hard. Hard labor, over forty years of it now, and nothing’s really been born, only a series of miscarriages, abortions, anomalies.
IN DIVERTED LINES THOUGHTS DISGUISE
AND OPEN LANDED MINDS ARE PLOWED
BY CROWS. SOWN, EATEN, SEEDED GRAIN.
I’m drawing, trying to let it happen, at the same time doing it; establishing figure-ground relationships without thinking too much, not designing or composing. Part of what I am is how much space I take up, how and where, and I don’t know what the difference is anymore. It gets harder to sustain the illusion of importance in uniqueness, individuality.
It’s much easier having another human being close to me, talking, yawning, smoking, nose-picking, staring at space, smiling, frowning, lifting eyebrows, twitching, sniffing, belching, more or less hiding farts, sneaking peeks at me; or the painting. These things slip through me into the painting, give it life, life not mine. It isn’t true creation but it’s the best somebody with outside plumbing can manage.
It’s a kind of osmosis; people filter into me. I never look and paint at the same time; I paint in a dream, absorbing my models, being absorbed by them. They become the blood, cells, chemicals, electricity in my brain. They pass around in there, mix with me, my plus and minus ions, my personal hydrocarbon chains, chemical memory banks. There’s a wild churning; then it comes back down the nerves, along my arms into my fingertips and out through the brush. Out it pours, color and light being moved around by my brain, my body, my psyche, under my eyes; blurred by the model, somebody, not me, and feeding back, turning me on, symbiotic, back and forth; a bit cannibalistic, with Roman pagan feelings thrown in.
BECOME ME. COME WITH ME.
WE COME TOGETHER AND THEN
WE ARE APART; A PART OF EACH,
NEVER TO GO AGAIN.
Each portrait must be a new person. It’s a new being growing from the mixing of another human with me. It’s a temporary marriage consummated, and the portrait is our child, a birth, a rebirth, second mutual coming.
Compared to really having a baby, it’s like one of those old-time ‘radio re-creations’ of baseball games before television days. The announcer would thump his pencil against the mike to simulate a hit, turn up some canned crowd noise, do an excited description of slides, tags, putouts. But it’s better than nothing. I try to live with it; without this slim hope I’m dead.
SLOW-FOOTED, HEAVY-WINGED, LATE TO
STING, AUTUMN HARVEST BEE GATHERING
FOR THE WINTER COMB AND THE SUN PASSES
LOW ACROSS THE FADING SKY.
I paint very traditionally; grind my own paints, size the linen a special way so there’s a flexibility to help with the dance of my brush. For me, working on canvas board or wood is like dancing in ski boots.
I do a thin, double priming to attain just the right absorbent quality. I paint my underpainting with a personal medium, a combination of Lucite, varnish and linseed oil, then work with impasto wet-in-wet technique, followed by glazing and scumbling. I lean on all the usual tricks, plus some few I’ve invented myself.
OUT OF DARKENED SKIES, A BEAM CUTS
LIKE GLASS, DEFINING CLOUDS. I
CLOSE MY EYES: BETTER THE KNOWN
CONFINES OF AN EVEN DARKNESS.
In our days, it’s hard to find schools teaching these things. Nobody seems to care enough. Everything’s only instant gratification, a veneer of the immediate visible result, without concern for permanence or even what passes for permanence. Sometimes I seriously think we might be living in a dark age of painting.
The little I did learn as a painter I got by looking, reading or copying. Every morning for five years I went to the Louvre and climbed all over, inside, the good ones. I ate, drank Rubens, Titain, Rembrandt, Chardin, Velásquez. Goya, until they were a part of me, I was part of them. I’m closer to some of those long-dead people than I am to most of my today friends. These painters are very visible. Each was somehow desperate to be and struggling to become. They were part of their time but walked through it. They put themselves out into the future with everything they had. In them you find pain and joy blended into strength – real strength, not just muscle stuff. They tried to live in times not yet there.
I’m still drawing. I’ve got to draw through to the painting. Drawing is turning space into volume, not just making lines. There’s actually no such thing as a line. Good drawing for a painter is showing where the paint must go and what it should do. It’s easy to get caught in drawing for itself, then have nothing left to paint; romancing until there’s no room, no space, no place for making love, an isolated unpainted unpaintable corner.
DESCRIBING MAKES SLASHES, MINOR
SCRATCHES IN STEEL WALLS OF OUR
SEPARATENESS, WE ONLY MAKE THE
IMPOSSIBLE MORE SO.
Somebody watching me work can go mad. It’s like watching a tailor working carefully, with good material and fancy stitches, sewing up a coat with one arm longer than the other or with no neckhole.
The point is, there’s no sense in imitating life, or representing it; it must be invented, imagined. This does not necessarily mean abstract or nonobjective objects or theatrical distortions or strained efforts at intellectual composition either. Those are the easy ways, avoidance systems. One needs to show life the way one sees it personally, the way it is felt.
So, in the end, my own particular paintings come out a bit crooked in ten different directions. OK, so that’s the way I am. I struggle to show my personal reality, the only one I know. I try to paint it carefully with full attention and much love.
GETTING LOST IN THE SPACES BETWEEN,
A GENTLE LEANING TOWARD EACH OTHER.
When I’m actually painting somebody, they see me staring, poking at the canvas with my brush, leaning in, backing off; I’m trying not to jump up and down. Once in a while I remember to smile. I want them to stay with me, not run away or disappear. Most people think I’m painting them. Actually, I’m painting the taste, the smell, the space they’re taking up. I’m trying to paint them all the way from fetus to corpse, and all in one moment, all in one place.
They see me paint one ear too high or too red. The painting looks like Eisenhower or Uncle Jim in 1962, and they get nervous, restless. Sometimes they giggle, or laugh!
God in heaven, this is a serious business: it’s a painting; I’m digging inside both of us and trying to put it in one place. We’re damned close to communication, a serious effort to glue things together.
By the end of a painting I’m sweating down to my shoes, toes are squishing around in sweat pools. Did Rembrandt paint Hendrikje Stoffels the way she looked? Hell, in five different paintings she looks like five different people. She probably was, and he loved all of her. It’s the all of things that’s beautiful; a painter’s got to paint past the flickers, somehow. Or at least convince himself and a few other people that he has.
BLEND A HUSHED WHISPER, A SKITTERING
IN ONE CORNER; THE TASTE OF SMELL.
I stand; go to the toilet. I sit down again and stare into the mirror some more. Haven’t actually been looking at myself enough lately; been looking at a memory. I know I’m a vain bastard but I never really look close except when I paint me. It’s as if I’m only checking my watch, checking to see how long it is till something, not looking to see what time it actually is; how much time I’ve spent, how much I might have left.
I look at the old ‘visage’. It’s aging faster. There’s more sag in the eye sockets and dark purple-blue smudges, more veins breaking out in the cheeks. I look like a fatal terminal all right. It’s about time. God it’s hard to know when to give up and let yourself start dying.
There’s practically no hair on top and the beard’s almost pure white. I rub some yellow ochre and black into the beard; gives about the right color. That looks better. A beard hides most of the ordinary muscle sag; terrific advantage. I wonder why women don’t have beards. Probably men needed them to absorb hard punches; men’ve been living the physical dominance stupidity a long time, women have maybe learned to take those socks and keep on with it. No hairy hidings.
One thing, if women did grow beards, they sure as hell wouldn’t shave them off. They’d make something beautiful of them, the way they have with tits.
I’M TRUE, SO ARE YOU AND SO WE
LIE. BECAUSE, TO TELL THE
TRUTH, WE BOTH LIE. YOU AND I.
I get to work on the underpainting; transparents. I’m working fast with a big brush. It’s terrific doing self-portraits; only posing when I’m looking, nothing wasted. I’m into it.
He twists his head, stares out the corners of his eyes: suspicious-looking bastard; gazes out as if he doesn’t want to look anymore; getting harder all the time. Put that in there, Scum, get that. If you’re not honest here, you’re nothing. But remember, always distrust professed honesty. It’s the ultimate con job.
I’m laying me in down to the waist; maybe I’ll do the hands, put the brush in my right hand. I tone ground with burnt sienna, use a cloth for wiping in the main forms; work up shading and volume.
FIRST IN EARTH, THEN AERATED. WE’RE
CARELESSLY CREATED TO FIGHT THROUGH
TIME AND SPACE TO OUR PROPER PLACE,
It’s time to thicken the medium; build up my darks. I start brushing in cool colors, beginning movements from the light side; pushing colors in under where the impasto’s going to be.
Look at those stupid eyes; they’re staring back with such intensity, as if it matters. Get that, too, Scum! Work that in! Boar’s whiskers, you really love yourself you broken-down fart; what else, who else. All painters love themselves or they wouldn’t do it; writers too, probably; I think old Camus even said it once.
I start mucking in the background; moving out there some of what’s happening inside. Now grab that kink around the nose and make it show again up here in the right corner. I’m happy, juggling two, three dimensions simultaneously. It’s enough to make one want to stay alive. It’s all lies, one bigger than the other. OK, make the hard one truer; paint it louder.
I squeeze gobs of opaque paint on the palette: titanium white, all the cadmiums. STOP! Careful with those cadmiums, Scum; use burnt umber, more raw sienna, yellow ochre, our kind of colors, cheap colors. I’m the earth-color man; Scum of the earth. Let’s not forget!
CAN WE EVER BE FORGIVEN
THE MOMENTS OF OUR BLISS:
THE TINY CRACKS IN LIFE
THAT AREN’T JUST LIKE THIS?
Now we’re backing in. Picking out the highest points with light. Fan the white bleeding away into rolls of color and darkness across the forehead and into the penumbra. Make it live! I’m alive now, breathing through my brushes; color like blood, light like oxygen.
We need to keep my brush in close; laying it in carefully, deeply, with strong tenderness. Yellow next to orange and then together. Make it stand up. Light! Light it!
Goddamn Scum! Now drift back with the highs fading away. Gently scumble. Scumble, you scum; pearl away, fade back but still keep it close; help those sharp edges move together. Birth the lie into life; squeeze in that missing ‘f’. Only a word, but first was the word. No, first and last is the void.
I smell myself: part oil, part sweat, all horseshit. Here I am, laughing at me laughing at myself and crying at the laughing. I wasted valuable years trying to be a serious Dostoevski type, a latter-day van Gogh. Then I buttered myself deep with Middle European suffering, Sturm und Drang; after that, I experimented with nineteenth-century melodrama. Now I’m cried out, dried out. All I ask is something to make some reason – now, before it’s too late. How dumb can you get?
LISTLESS LISTENING, CRYING, SCREAMING,
ALL WATER ON WATER. AN ENDLESS FLOWING.
ANOTHER PROOF OF OUR NOT KNOWING?
I lean in tighter. Get the stinginess, the meanness, the fear, Scum. It’s in the lips; frothed with hair but it’s there; you know, you live with it.
Over sixty years with this same face, this same body. I’ve watched it grow bigger, harder, softer, sadder, hairier. Now I even grow tufts like foxtails inside my ears. I’m falling, failing from the effects of gravity, cell deterioration, laughter, weeping and plain boredom. Watch the cracks deepen, the flesh putty out, slowly turning into aged meat. Put that all in, Scum; make it visible. Death’s stalking just around one of these hours. Maybe yesterday.
I finish off the blue jacket; decide to leave out the hands, after all. Darkness is pushing me down, pinning me. I can’t believe it; here I’ve been painting over four hours; actually painting some of the time, blubbering, yammering the rest. The family will be home soon.
I lean back and look. It’s not a bad painting; still too much self-pity. I’m like one of those donors jammed into the bottom corner of a medieval painting. Only I’m all alone in the center of this canvas, begging to nobody, everybody; praying for everybody, nobody. Definitely obscene, in the deepest sense, unbearable, not to be seen.
I clean up; pack away the box. I need new pig’s bristles; the ivory black’s almost gone again, too. I use too much black in my painting. I can’t catch myself doing it, but the paint’s going somewhere; I’m not eating it. I’d better watch that.
EATING BLACK: CONCENTRATED SEARCH FOR COLOR,
OR, PERHAPS, THE LACK OF LIGHT IN WHICH TO
BURY THE NIGHT. BUT NIGHT IS ONLY A LACKEY;
COLD AS NO HEAT, SLOW MOLECULES. I FACE
BACK TO BLACK, NO ONE, NOWHERE.
3 Slum Landlord
I work outside today, Saint Valentine’s Day. It’s cold but I’ll take any sunshine I can get. I feel all cramped up painting inside, as if I’m cut off from life. I’m happiest out in streets, fighting crowds, cursing cars, yakking with people; it all gets into the work.
My painting’s got to be part of life, not just about it anyway. I’m OK inside for a while, sharpening up my personal carving knives, digging into myself, getting close, but then I’ve got to break out and muck around. In some strange way, I have the feeling I’m most alive when I’m painting, as if the other time is a kind of waiting. I don’t know what I’m waiting for but that’s the way it feels.
I’m working down on the Rue Princesse in the Latin Quarter. I’ve just started on a woodworker’s shop, menuiserie-ébéniste. The owner of the place comes out. We get into some standard everyday talk about ‘lost-artisanship-craftsmanship, world-going-to-hell’, all that tired jabbering. He asks me to put his name on his sign; it’s weathered off. I think he wants me to climb up over his door and do some actual, honest-to-God painting up there, but he means in the painting; that’s fine with me.
The painting’s going to be mostly browns and some dark blue-grays, with a light bulb hanging inside, lighting raw wood and sawdust; yellow-ochre hollow spaces. I’m doing the place almost face on, slight angle left. There’s a big old carved doorway on the left I want to finagle in somehow.
The door’s closed when I do the drawing. Halfway through my underpainting, the concierge comes out, jams this door open.
She’s an old gal, new face painted on. New face has nothing to do with her real face; hair cut gamine, bright red. She looks terrific, like a clown. There’s still a good body there too; moves easily, holds herself straight; thin freckled legs. Nobody with freckles is ever old. She’s maybe seventy and packing some fifty pounds of libido; comes on and chums me with ‘Oh-la-la’ old-fashioned-girl-style press; hands all over me. I love it.
I ask if she’ll stand in the doorway so I can paint her into my picture. She runs her fingers through the red straw hair; bony, bent fingers. She leans in the doorway, arm cocked against the wall. She’s wearing a blue-flowered dress. I paint it orange, need an orange accent. I gussy the dress up and make her about forty. Wish I could do that for myself, for everybody. No, there’s a time for each of us.
EACH TO A TIME A TIME FOR EACH—
WE WADE THROUGH OUR LIVES, THROUGH
MINUTES, HOURS, DAYS, MONTHS, YEARS
TILL WE GASP FOR AIR, DROWN IN TEARS.
She can’t believe it when I’m finished; a thing like this takes me maybe five minutes. One thing, I really can paint: good, fast, powerful. I might just not have enough aesthetic, or maybe too much – somewhere in there. I can spin around, fall down and begin painting anything in front of me, wouldn’t shift my eyes. I love it all, can paint everything; no damned discrimination. There are fifty paintings within a hundred yards of anywhere I’m standing. I know it. I could spend the rest of my life painting self-portraits, or stone walls: I might just do that.
Take my milk pots. I’ve painted sixteen milk-pot paintings already this winter. Who the hell wants paintings of milk pots? Thank the Good Lord our weather’s getting better; get me away from those pots. I’m beginning to smell sour milk on my nostril hairs all the time. It’s like when I was painting fish and they kept rotting on me. I get to be manic about these things, find myself falling into them, out of control. It’s unreasonable.
THE ONLY FINDING OF SELF
IS LOSING IT SOMEHOW.
This old gal’s looking at my painting and crying. Her face is beginning to run off into the street, makes me want to take my brush and touch her up. I’m also afraid she’s going to ask the price. I’ve sold more paintings for less than canvas cost because people want them and have no idea what’s involved. Rich people should pay me five thousand dollars apiece for paintings; make up for the ones I sold at ten. Only trouble is rich people don’t usually like my paintings, remind them of a whole bunch of things they want to forget. This gal slips a five-franc coin into the paint box; makes me feel like a real turd.
LACK OF TRUST
An American’s been standing behind me. He’s watching the whole show, smiling, very catlike, very dignified. He’s young but there’s much dignity there. His clothes are old: worn cuffs, bed-pressed pants, very neat; carries an umbrella on a sunny day.
The concierge goes away. I start painting seriously again, trying to forget those five francs.
‘That was really nice, man.’
I knew he was American all the way, even with the umbrella and all the dignity. He has swimmy blue blinking eyes; contact lenses. He tells me he likes my painting; stands in the sunshine watching me paint; not much talk.
I’m up on the sidewalk leaning against the Hôtel Princesse; painting’s coming along fine; beautiful shadows falling across the wall. I’m painting a GAZ box now; lovely things those GAZ boxes, especially in early, almost spring morning, clear light.
The American comes up beside my paint box, wants to get something with the five francs. What do I care? Five francs; if he wants them, OK. I nod, smile, trying not to break the magic; I’m deep in the middle of things; I’m lost, floating in light and air, thinking and dreaming at the same time. But I might have to wipe out the old gal after all, too sharp and the top right feels blank. I’ll work on it; try to save her. The American’s disappeared with the francs.
Then he goes past with flowers, yellow daisies; slinks into the concierge’s doorway; comes back without flowers, very catlike. He’s a cat all right – big one, has all the marks. I like cats, usually; dangerous, but something. Wolves and dogs like me can usually make it with cats. We’re different but we respect each other.
I SLINK THROUGH MY PRIVATE FOREST,
SNIFFING TRACES, SEARCHING PLACES
TO HIDE MY KNOWINGS, LUSTING FEAR.
Next, the concierge comes gliding out with the flowers in a vase. She perches them on the back of my box, next to the turpentine. She’s probably some kind of small cat, too; clean little feet, sure sign. Here I am, surrounded by cats, trying to paint. Holy God!
A FEINT AT DEATH:
LAST BREATH. I PAINT.
The American invites us both for coffee. What the hell; I hate losing light but it’s OK; this is what my painting’s about, being close with people. We go into a small café next to the hotel.
The bartender here used to be a bullfighter. Every tiny Spaniard I’ve ever met in Paris is an ex-bullfighter the way all big Americans are ex-football players or boxers. No, that’s not true anymore. Today they’re all black-belt judo or karate or kung fu experts. Times change, stories change, but men’s stupid lies about themselves don’t change much.
We have coffee, then a cognac. The concierge – her name is Blanche – is turned on. She’s about ready to lock both of us between those skinny thighs of hers. Probably be wonderful. Ben Franklin knew what he was talking about; one of my all-time heroes. He was seventy years old when the Revolutionary War started, and they couldn’t’ve won it without him. But he never fired a shot. I wonder what kind of pictures Ben’d’ve painted if he’d turned his fantastic mind that way?
LOST BODIES, LOVING SOULS:
WE SPRING FROM NOW TO WHERE
BELLS TOLL FOR THE LIVING.
The painting’s standing out there in the sunshine alone. There’s maybe an hour more before the light shifts. Light’s important when I’m leaning into impasto. This time of year I can’t afford to let any light get away; I’m running out of time no matter how fast I run.
I go out. My American and the concierge stay in the café and talk; his name is Matthew, calls himself Matt. I get by without telling my name.
I work madly. I want to paint in the rough impasto, then let it dry a few days. Afterward, I’ll work on glazes, scumbling and accent some lights. Painting has a rhythm of its own; I just follow it. I’m only a man chasing after a magic Pied Piper who’s playing haunting tunes, tunes I can just barely hear.
A TINGLING, CLANKING OF MULTICOLORED WHITE;
THE COWBELL RINGING OF MOURNING IN THE NIGHT.
An hour later I stop. The American’s standing behind me; he could’ve been there all the time; he invites me to lunch. I’m beat but I say OK. I’m beginning to think he’s one of those rich Americans playing hooky in Paris, checking out French language, French cooking, French living, French loving, French potatoes, French dry cleaning.
We eat in a little friterie around the corner. I’ve never tried this place before. It’s good, cheap. We feast on aubergines, pork, wine and tart for twenty-two francs. I find out he’s not rich; poor, living on less than a hundred and fifty bucks a month. He’s in a fifteen-franc-a-day hotel; does without heat to save a franc; that’s rock bottom. He’s studying at the Sorbonne; doing a master’s about some 1870 Socialist named Jean Jaurès. To live, he teaches English to French businessmen at IBM.
We begin talking motorcycles. He has a 1950 Ariel; now that’s a truly vintage bike. He takes me up onto the Place Saint-Sulpice to see it. It’s covered with a black tarp. We unwrap and this bike’s beautiful enough to bring on tears. A good well-cared-for thought-out machine like that is a delight. I’d love to paint just one painting as perfect as this machine. We check oil, set magneto and turn her over. Two kicks and a lovely deep sound.
He bought it from a woman in Versailles for only five hundred francs. It’d been sitting on blocks in a garage for twenty-five years. She’d talked her husband out of driving it thirty years ago because it was too dangerous. He died ten years later of diabetes.
It’s marked in miles and has a grand total of 6,021. There are saddlebags and two old-style helmets. I guess the old guy even thought he’d get his wife to ride with him sometimes. There’s a high-mounted back seat so a passenger can see over the driver’s head. In those days riding a motorcycle was supposed to be a pleasure.
He takes me for a nice, slow tour around the Place; I’m sitting up high with a great view, no helmet. Matt says he never goes over thirty; in no hurry at all. It’s rare to find a young person, especially a man, so smart about those things. If you go fast, you can’t see anything; if you can’t see anything, why go? We park the bike, carefully cover it again and shake hands.
A RACE THROUGH LIFE. QUICK
GATHERING OF FOOD, SHELTER,
WIFE, CHILDREN: ALL THE SPACES
CLUTTERED: SOME FACES, A BITE OF
SONG. ONE LONG LAST TRICK.
I’m late. I pack my paints and drop in at Lotte’s, just around the corner. I need to fix her heater. It’s an electric job, the kind that heats oil in a radiator; gives fine heat but expensive, big electric bills. I always keep a tool kit in my bike. I unpack it, go through the courtyard on Mabillon and into her place.
Lotte’s not happy. I was supposed to eat lunch with her today and forgot. I could kick myself. She’s an Austrian woman and can really cook. She gets great food from home, like weisswurst and stollen.
Lotte’s very quiet, wears mostly black; about thirty-five, teaches German at a French lycée. Smart woman, sensitive; loves paintings, one of those people you have in mind when you paint, someone to paint to, like my Kate.
I met her in the street; she stood behind me the way the American did today. She has quiet eyes, Egyptian eyes, green. She tells me, in French, how she likes my painting. I start playing ‘mad artist’. There’s something challenging in her old-maid look. She listens. I spread more crapola in my personal, fractured French. I’m romancing; definitely not seducing. Most people don’t understand the difference. One’s for fun, the other’s serious business, distinctly not for clowns like me. She nods and looks into my eyes.
‘You may speak in English.’
Not much accent. I’m painting in front of Chardin’s house on the Rue Princesse, just up from where I worked today, nearer Rue Canettes.
I enjoy feeling the lonely master Chardin peering over my shoulder while I’m painting in that street. He lived at number 13. It sort of kills time, talking to a lovely young woman and having him there too. It sort of kills time not in the meaning of wasting it but really killing it, making the seeming reality of it go away.
I invite her for a cup of coffee. She says no, leaves. I figure that’s the end of it; just as well, back to work: balancing light, space, the illusion of objects. I’m communing with Jean-Baptiste Chardin, an almost ignored master in his time.
LEVELING TIME, MY MENTAL SHOVEL
LABORS TIGHT BETWEEN GOD AND DEVIL.
I’m just packing up my box, dead tired, when she comes back, invites me for a cup of coffee at her place. I’m out of the painting enough now to catch the great overwhelming black waves of sadness she’s giving off. I follow. Am I being seduced? No, it’s mutual induction like electric current. Probably nobody’s ever really seduced or seduces anybody. Seduces are only excuses.
Her place is a little attic room on the Rue Buci, two streets away. The room is neat as a pin; clean, more Austrian than French. There are two beds and a small room cut off for a kitchen; john’s in the kitchen, curtained off. Old building, thick walls, sun coming in through a window, flowers in the window.
We eat some tasty home-baked cakes with coffee. She makes good coffee, not instant: filtered. We talk about Chardin, reincarnation, death, vibrations. This is a serious woman, nothing of sex here at all. I can relax, just enjoy.
Then we’re talking about something else – I don’t remember what – and she’s crying. Just like that, from talking to crying, no bridges.
TEARS BURIED IN EACH
OF US; WELLING UP UNBIDDEN.
TO TAP THIS SOURCE IS, FOR
ME, THE LAST RESOURCE.
My motherly juices begin flowing. I move my chair closer, take her in my arms. She fades into me, cries harder, sobbing now. Says she’s sorry, been walking around all day trying not to think, working on some painless way to kill herself. My maternal glands are in full operation, but I’m wary. I’ve been fooled by too many women with this ‘kill myself’ business, but this time it’s important; this woman wants tender, loving care: love, not sex. I hold on and let her cry. I’m running out of even simple ordinary love lately, and there’s hardly enough sex left to fill a hummingbird’s nest.
Finally, she pushes away. She goes into the kitchen and comes back with more cakes. She’s beginning to watch me as if I might jump up and rape her.
There’s not much experience with trust here. She sits down and begins telling how she has to get out of this place. The French guy she’s been living with is kicking her out; that’s why she’s going to kill herself; not so much losing her apartment but the Frenchman dumping her like that. She really cares, still thinks she loves him.
I start feeling sorry. Here’s a nice domestic mother type with no man and now no nest either. I feel like a pig with all my places, all my family. I tell her about one nest I’ve got. It’s not far from where she is now. I can let her have it for seven hundred francs a month; that’s less than she’s paying the Frenchman. This place has terrific potential; I’ve been using it as a studio sometimes, a place to store my box when I’m painting over here. It’s not quite finished, but I can whip it into shape in a week.
I found this space last fall when I was painting in a courtyard off the Rue Mabillon. It’s on a deep court; you actually go through almost like a tunnel and come out in the court, away from traffic noises. In back is an ébéniste, Monsieur Moro. I painted the inside of his shop on a large, 50P canvas. Painted it like a still life: all the saws and lathes and equipment quiet in the feeling of wood. I’d come home nights smelling almost as much of wood and sawdust as I did of turpentine. Kate asked if I’d given up painting and taken to carpenter work. Could be; my dad was a carpenter.
I talk a lot with Monsieur Moro. He’s a peculiar character; lives alone; part queer but doesn’t like it. His wife divorced him ten years ago. She’s remarried, has children. He goes Sundays to play with her kids; another natural mother with the wrong plumbing. I try to tell him about my good friend Ben Franklin who was such a fine mother, but he doesn’t understand.
Moro has a huge room where he stores wood; he hardly uses this space at all. I talk him into letting me build a mezzanine storage deal for his wood, then close off the underneath part. I tell him I’ll rent that bottom section from him for two hundred francs a month. After a lot of wiggling and niggling he agrees and I cut myself out that space, build him a staircase using his great tools.
The space I hack out has its own door and windows along one side. The building’s an old carriage house for the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. I get fifty square meters; it’s only two meters high but a great location, right on the rez-de-chaussée, opening directly onto the courtyard.
I find an old stove and fridge. I build in a toilet with one of those garbage-disposal units to grind the shit and paper so it can go out a water pipe. I put in a portable shower and buy a used chauffe-eau water heater. I find the oil-electric space heater at a flea market in Montreuil for eighty francs. My whole investment is under four hundred bucks. I could probably rent this hole for a thousand francs. I’m letting her have it at seven hundred. Lord, I need a keeper.
I’m a sucker for damsels in distress; I should learn to distrust distress. Getting involved in other people’s distress only leads to stress for me and stress is probably what’s going to kill me in the long run; or short.
I MUDDLE IN OTHER PEOPLE’s
PUDDLES, THEN FIND IT’S ALL
ONE BIG, LONESOME OCEAN.
Lotte moves in the next week. She does appreciate the place, a true homemaker. I begin going over once in a while for lunch. She loves to cook and is good at it. She plays a little harpsichord, plays it well, a real artist. There’s no sex or even vibrations. We’re like brother and sister or father and daughter.
That Frenchman made a big mistake; this is a natural wife. I think she’d make a great mother, too, only she doesn’t want to. Says she wouldn’t bring anybody into this mean, vicious world; people dangling nuclear bombs in the air, underground and in the oceans.
That’s the kind of talk breaks this old Scumbler heart. What the hell else is there except life? Sure we have to be afraid of the crazies with the bomb, fight them with all we’ve got; but we’ve also got to love and be loved, or we’ll get to be like them. They don’t know about love, so they don’t know how to fear; that’s the real trouble.
I fix the heater. Oil’s leaking out one of the elements. Lotte warms up the meal I missed. I don’t have the heart to tell her I’ve already eaten. I can always eat anyway; should probably be a fat guy, might be one yet if I live long enough. The painting knocks five pounds off me every day. I come home nights sweating as if I’ve been running a marathon. It takes two showers a day just for people to be able to live near me.
We finish off with Steinhager and Bauern shenken. Then I sit under the pale, struggling spring sun falling softly through her window while she plays and sings a few of those German lieder. It’s healing time for my beat-up, turpentine-shriveled, Y-chromosome-cursed soul.
PUTTING TOGETHER AGAIN WEATHERED
WOOD, RUSTED NAILS, PITTED STONE,
TO BUILD ANEW THIS DWELLING CALLED
ME. PERHAPS A CAVE – OR A TREE HOUSE?
4 Riding Easy
Today, still sunny, cold. I paint more on the Rue Princesse ébéniste painting. There’s good light in the morning but it starts falling off by noon. I get some glazing in, some scumbling on the walls and over the door. My American comes while I’m working. His last name is Sweik, better name, more a cat name. We have lunch at the same place, then go up to his room for a nip of Grand Marnier.
This is some room; falling-down, peeling-faced hotel: Hôtel Isis. There are long, dark halls, no lights. The steps used to have rugs but they’re all torn up; catch your feet in rug strings; smell of dust when you trip. Burlap bags are tacked on the walls and ceiling to catch falling plaster; these are hanging, sagging bulges full of broken plaster.
Sweik’s room’s on the second floor. And this is a great room: light; looks out on the street. His fireplace is blocked, plastered up. There’s a double bed on one side, sink in the corner, collapsible bidet under the sink. The green wallpaper has twisting, crawling flowers with stains running down; there’s a big beam across the center of the room, small light hanging from the beam. Terrific place, something to paint. I can definitely leave the planet through this room, free-fly in my mind.
The sun comes out again. I sit in the window, back to sun; sip Grand Marnier from a miniature bottle; tingling taste of oranges on a cold day in the sunshine. There are sounds of people walking below. I look out his window into Madame Boyer’s café-charbon across the street. Sun comes deep into Sweik’s room. I’ll paint it from the window looking in, inside, enclosed, with air at my back; then from the door looking out the window, a rabbit view from his burrow into free light.
His old-time motorcycle saddlebags, helmets are hanging by the door. They’re brown leather and well oiled. Sweik says he keeps his clothes in those saddlebags. There’s nothing of his spread around the room; all very neat, cat; says he only has enough stuff to fill those bags, nothing extra. Heavenly beans, so different from the way I live: my guts, my life spread all over the landscape.
The walls are covered with drawings, charts of French political history, some Goya bullfight prints. Sweik says he likes bullfights. I can’t make it myself, nerves won’t stand it; wind up feeling sorry for everybody, despising them at the same time; rips me up.
Sweik says it’ll be OK for me to paint his room. He’ll leave the key under his doormat, he’s gone most of the day. I make arrangements for tomorrow. I’m hot, bubbling to get into this; drink, suck this room into me; make it real, my real, stop it from changing. We also agree to get together with some friends of Sweik’s that night; go to the Bastille and look at motorcycles. Probably Kate won’t want to come but she won’t mind my going. Kate and I have a lot in common but our pleasures are different.
ON THE ALTAR FOR WHAT?
We meet at Sweik’s place around nine o’clock. Most of the motorcycles in Paris cruise to the Bastille on Friday nights; everybody checking everybody else out. Motorcycle cops are sitting around waiting for trouble. There are some old bikes; and even more crazy people. It’s the ultimate macho machine orgy.
I meet rare individuals at Sweik’s. One’s named Lubar, Brooklyn Jew married to and separated from a French lawyer; he runs English classes for the French at IBM. Sweik works with him. Another, Tompkins, is a physicist-poet; brings a woman friend named Donna along. He’s here on a grant from Berkeley, supposed to be working at the Sorbonne in solid-state physics but spends all his time writing poetry. Duncan, a tall, thin man, has a Triumph 500 and doesn’t say much. Lubar has a BMW 750. Tompkins is riding on the back of Lubar’s bike. Donna on Duncan’s.
Sweik gets his machine from up on the Place and we tune it in front of his hotel on the Rue Guisarde. This makes an awful racket with the close walls. A man throws water out his third-story window; can’t blame him. I turn off my bike. Lubar pees on the side of the wall; yells up in street French, no Brooklyn accent. The man throws out a pail of hot water this time. Lubar is drenched; laughing, he starts a jig in the street singing a song about a fucking machine – in English, thank God. More people come out, laugh at Lubar, who’s putting on a show.
Finally, we roar off, down to the river and over onto the Right Bank and along the quais. We’re not going fast, only riding easy on a coolish springlike night. Sweik and I bring up the rear; my tired 160 sounds like an organ grinder and I’m the monkey.
THE SWELLING OF DECAY, A SPONGY
POROUSNESS, FESTERING AS A BLIGHT;
BLISTERING INCANDESCENCE OUT OF SIGHT.
We hang around the Bastille an hour or so; there are some handsome machines. There’s a new Kawasaki, and more cross bikes every time. Some leather-covered character offers Sweik ten thousand francs for the Ariel. Sweik only smiles, says no, politely. We swing around the Bastille column a few times with the mob. Then head down Roquette to the Rue de Lappe.
We park and work our way into the Belajo, an old-time French dance hall. There are coveys of Algerians and black guys; some tired-looking middle-aged women; a fair sprinkling of whores, both sexes. We find a table under a balcony; the orchestra is up on the balcony.
Donna stops by the women’s room to pee; bike riding joggles kidneys some when you aren’t used to it. Lubar moves an Algerian or Tunisian guy’s coat to make a place for Donna when she comes back. This Arab gets all excited, slams his coat back on the seat. Lubar jumps up and throws the coat onto the floor.
Here we go, we’re off again. The bouncers begin drifting close. Lubar pushes up the sleeve of his jacket and shakes his fist in the Arab’s face. I’m slipping under the table, easing my helmet onto this old bald head. I’m ready to crawl out of there on my hands and knees.
Donna comes back, sits in the chair and smiles. The Arab smiles, backs off, apologizes to Donna as if Lubar doesn’t exist. Everybody settles down; bouncers drift away. Another little dumb male scenario has been worked out. It’s worse than watching belly dancers or bunnies at a Playboy club.
We order beers, start scanning the scene. There are more men than women, about two to one. Most are simple working stiffs, Arabs, other Africans, Spanish, Portuguese; mostly they don’t dance. They’re here in Paris with no women; they come hoping for a contact. Lonesome men, cut off from women, are dangerous.
The music starts again; everybody’s hustling. Lubar’s still looking for a fight. He keeps going up, tapping men on the shoulder, cutting in – that kind of dumbness. A little guy like him, failed athlete, is never finished. He’s liable to wind up growing a short-handled blade between his shoulder blades.
I dance with one woman, almost my age, wearing a wig; stiff-backed type, likes to dip and twirl but keeps pushing me away with her skinny, sinewy arms. There’s a big, oldtime crystal ball going around over the dance floor. It throws lights on the walls and floors in different colors. If you concentrate on the lights, you feel as if you’re turning upside down.
The next one I get pushes her sagging belly into mine. Her breath would burn if you struck a match; blend of booze, garlic and sewer gas. I stagger back to our table.
We stick through two beers. Lubar drags over a pale girl, wearing a tiny miniskirt, with incredibly thin legs; she starts quoting the price structure and we decide to skip the whole deal, too sad. We go out, charge up our bikes again and head for Contrescarpe.
There we check in at Cinq Billards. This is a little café with four good tables. Lubar, Duncan are sharks; they chalk up. Tompkins and Donna watch. Sweik and I play Ping-Pong in back behind a string net. He has a strong forehand, some good spins but an ordinary serve and nothing on the backhand. I keep playing to his bad side and picking up on his serve. I’ve got a sneaky drop serve but no backhand either. We come out even: good games, good fun. Sweik and I are both players, not sportsmen; we laugh too much. And God, I tire out fast; can you imagine, tiring out from Ping-Pong!
DEATH IS A CUP OF COFFEE, OR A DAWN,
OR ORGASM, ALL THE GOOD THAT COMES IN
LIFE, AND THE BAD. THAT’S LIFE, THAT’S
It’s getting late, time for this old man to go home. I drift downhill beside the Jardin des Plantes, past the morgue and Jussieu, the science part of the Sorbonne. It’s where the Halles aux Vins used to be; I think that represents progress. I cut over the bridge across the back of I’lle Saint-Louis and up Henri-IV to the Bastille again. The motorcycles are gone and it’s quiet.
I cruise down Rue Charenton, avoiding the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. I can’t take all the crappy furniture in the windows. It’s a long street pretending things that aren’t and never should be. Poor people walk up and down that street Sundays when the stores are closed; they stare into the windows practically genuflecting.
At the end of Charenton, I see a man lying in the street. He’s under a streetlight with his head propped on the curb. There’s thick blood. I stop. Nobody’s around; it’s quiet. The gutter is full of blood. I yell but nobody opens any windows. I get down; his hands and face are cold, white; there’s no breathing. I jump on my bike and speed up to the Marché Aligre where there’s a police station.
Two flics are standing spread-legged on the corner. I explain. I know I’m getting myself in trouble. One flic surprises me by jumping on back of my bike while the other phones in. We head back to Charenton. When we get there, my flic leans over the poor blood-drained bastard. People are looking out windows now. The flic asks my name and looks at my passport. I figure I’m set for a night in the pokey.
He takes off his cloak and covers the dead one, head and all. It’s a damned nice thing to do; it’s not exactly warm. He says I can take off. He’s written my name, address and passport number in his little notebook. I figure I’ll hear from the cops, but don’t; you never know in France.
I roll the few blocks home. The door’s locked but I have a key. I try to slip into bed quietly. No good. I wake up Kate and snuggle against her. It feels great, spoon tucking, warm body, warm bed feeling. There’s nothing better than sleeping wrapped up with a wife. It’s awful to be dead out there on a street like that, nobody even opening a window to peek out.
Kate rolls over, loks at me just as I’m drifting into sleep.
‘Dear, you really can’t stay up late like this and get your work done. It’s almost three o’clock and it doesn’t make sense. You’re not a kid anymore, you know.’
I don’t feel much like answering but Kate deserves to know.
‘Yeah, you’re right, I know; but sometimes a painter works without a brush in his hand, Kate.’
It’s quiet, I should leave it there. I’ve sworn I’ll never argue with anyone, especially with Kate. Everybody loses every argument. But I’m so upset by that dead man in the street I can’t keep my mouth shut. Mostly I want to tell her, to spread out my fear.
‘On the way home, I found a corpse stretched out in the Rue Charenton. I called the police, and that flic even got on my bike with me and rode back. I thought for a while there I might spend the night in the hoosegow. You know, Kate, I’d’ve called you if something like that happened.’
I leave it. This kind of thing unhooks me, maybe even more than dead people. I’m probably afraid of becoming one more of the living dead, living all my life’s time for some kind of postmortem postpartum expectation or justification; defensive living. Most people wear out their shoulders from looking over them.
TORRENTS TRIGGER ENDLESS FAULTS
WITHIN THIS AMPLITUDE OF WELL-FINGERED
FAILURE. IN PAINTED ILLUSION TRUST DECLINES.
5 The People’s Painter
Today I begin my painting of Sweik’s place. Sweik did leave his key under the doormat. It’s cold but sunny when I step into the room. There’s strong slanted sun pushing in through his window, but this place smells musty even with that window wide open.
I stop there in the doorway and set up my easel. I want it just this way; maybe later, I’ll get Sweik to sit under the sunshine, casting unpredictable shadows.
There’s not so much cat-look in the room. Books, pipe, wine bottle out; pants hanging over a chair; clock crooked on the mantel; little things. Sweik might be a bear or a bear cat; Himalayan bear; hibernating type. I’ll have to find out if he eats honey and berries. Bears tend to gorge on honey, berries, fruit and meat, almost as omnivorous as men.
This room desperately needs paintings to cover those water stains on the walls; I’ll bring over some sunny Spanish wall paintings. I did them two years ago, when we went down to southern Spain for Easter holidays; never managed to sell even one. Nobody believed them; that can be a problem with paintings or anything else. People don’t seem to want to believe the beautiful hard things.
I do a fine layout; stand-up view; looking across the table and over his bed; almost one-point perspective. The wall, fireplace, books, a mirror fill up my right side. The window’s dead center. Outside, across the street, there’s an old wall in the shade. The room’s so full of trapped sunlight you can almost wade in it.
It’d be terrific having Sweik in front reading; alone like a bear; definitely bear. How could I’ve thought cat? His hands, feet are too big. Big soft-moving mountain bear or bear cat; he even lifts his head up every once in a while, sniffs, looks around, the way all bears do – definitely bear.
RESTING DARKLY IN A MOLDERING CAVE
A SLAVE TO ALL SEASONS, YET BLESSED.
First, ultramarine blue, ochre, burnt sienna for the underpainting. No real drawing yet; I’ll get my drawing in the painting. I’m inside the forms and light now; splicing places where walls meet. I’ll use that sagging beam in the ceiling against the rug and light on floor tiles. Leitmotif: yellows, yellow-browns against dark green.
EATING AIR, RACING LIGHT, FLIGHT
THROUGH SPACE AND EYES THAT BITE.
I’m a kind of dog myself. I’d like to be a wolf. Kate’s a full-blooded wolf. Dogs need to be liked; bark a lot; whine. Dogs care. Wolves never give anything away; are very loyal, very uptight about the nest, kids, full of pride; possessive. My first wife was a wolf, too. She brought on the pack and they destroyed me. Sometimes I even think she enjoyed it; I keep trying to wipe that thought out of my mind but it won’t go away.
THE HOWLING OF AIR IN A CHIMNEY,
THE CALL OF A WOLVERINE FOR HER CUB:
I’M EMPTY WITHOUT FIRE.
I want as much room as I can get in the painting, so I blow out the perspective to a wide-angle-eye distortion. The problem with four major converging forces like walls is they can confuse the point of focus.
Now I’m drawing over my underpainting. The light’s moving across the room, falling left to right. I’m moving with it, tilted at an angle in my mind, leaning on photons.
I’ve just put on the first licks of impasto when Sweik comes. He agrees to sit in front of the window; has some studying to do. He sits in his chair, rocks back with a foot on the rail of his bed. It’s quiet. We’re both working hard. I can hear my brushes on the canvas.
I’m feeling and letting it happen. I’m out there and the room is flowing through me. I don’t even know how it’s happening. I’m watching the painting from far away, like watching God create the world. I drift on the brushes that way an hour or two, controlled falling, skiing on light.
But that light’s dropping off now. Sweik rocks down and stretches. We decide to eat here in his room. There’s a half bottle of wine; the wine’s in the foreground of my painting on the table. That wine can never be drunk completely; it’s there in the painting forever, or at least what passes as short time forever.
We chip in ten francs each. Sweik goes out to buy. I pack up my box feeling empty. I flop on his bed and listen. The painting’s on the mantel; another day pinned down. I turn it over, can’t look at it; more real than real; can’t get out of it. It’s so easy to get lost, to lose your bearings, not know what’s real anymore.
Sweik comes back. He has warm baguette, Camembert, some tomatoes. These’re the first good-looking tomatoes of the year, Moroccan. I cut the bread down its length, spread Camembert and hunks of tomato. We slice into the sandwich some sausage that’s hanging over the sink in my painting. Here we are in the waning sunshine eating immortal sausage washed down by immortal wine. Downright immortal.
THE TEMPORARY ARREST. THE OBJECT
OR PAPER TO ATTEST TO WHAT IS, OR
WAS, OR MIGHT HAVE BEEN.
I sit on the floor; Sweik’s on the bed. Now our sun’s bouncing against that wall across the street not fifteen feet away. The reflected light is warm. I pour wine into a glass, toothbrush glass; Sweik drinks out of the bottle. It’s blanc de blanc, cheap, dry, good with cheese.
We spend all afternoon shab-rapping. Sweik has no idea what he’s doing. Feels he has no big talents, no strong drives; refuses to live just an automatic life. He likes living around, traveling; likes women, sex, but has a hard time getting anyone up the front hall with the sagging burlap bags and rug strings. He’d like to find some important, serious woman he could live with for a while.
I tell him about Lotte’s place. I might be able to work out something there. That nest’s too big for only one person; holy heaven, fifty squares. That’s almost as much as I’ve got at home with five people. I’ll divide off a room for Sweik. It’ll be cheaper than the hotel. He can share john, kitchen, maybe bed, with Lotte. It’ll be good for her. A guy like Sweik’d be good for her soul: scrape it up a bit; loosen some of those icebergs left over from the disappearing Frenchman. Sweik’s soul’s so big she can’t put any hooks into it either; big bear soul. Lotte could sure use some careless loving.
Yes sir, Lotte needs a bumbling bear to muck around with her, smell things up. She’d be happier with Sweik; give some sense to things, put some surprises in her life. Sweik’d have something to fill his empty space, too. It’s a bad habit living only with things you already know.
AUTOMATIC LIVING, SPIRITUAL, PSYCHIC
OXYGEN TENTS, IV, CATHETER TUBES PUMPING.
WE KEEP ALIVE IN A KEEP, LUBRICATING
OUR PATH TO THE GRAVE, SAVING NOTHING.
Before leaving. I arrange to come paint some more next day. I go out, hop on my bike and ride over to the Marais. Marais’s the old Jewish quarter of Paris. There are good bakeries with bagels and pumpernickel; delicatessens with pastrami; Yiddish in the streets. You see kids with black hats and schoolbags going to the ‘shul’. Uplifting smells, beautiful small streets, all crooked.
I sit on my bike and start some sketches. I’m laying out an idea for a whole series: thirty or forty paintings at least. I’ve been working on this idea for a month and I’m almost ready to start.
The people here are great; ask all kinds of crazy questions. The first one is usually if I’m Jewish. Sometimes I say yes, sometimes no; see if it makes any difference. I can’t notice any.
CATHOLIC, PROTESTANT, HINDU,
MUSLIM, ORTHODOX JEW;
BUT who THE HELL ARE YOU?
I always try to paint in series, want to give the whole idea of a quarter. Any single painting is only like a man with a stiff neck: nice view so long as you don’t move. I pick good spots, then turn slowly, painting in all directions, one painting ending about where the other begins.
I’m sure the future for painting is video-cassette tapes. I’ll tell what I’m thinking about while I’m painting, tour all over my painting with a video camera, show it happening. People can see things the way I see: completely subjective; my Paris, nothing real to get in the way; just glorious, personal lies. Everybody’ll have video-cassette players soon; full-wall color cathode screens. That’s the future for paintings, all right; the only trouble is, I’ll be dead.
Museums are mummy shows, nobody goes. Private collections are money tombs, cut off from the world. Hell, I’m the people’s painter! I paint the way most people’d like to paint if they could. People in the streets like my paintings, like to watch me paint. They drift along with my mind through my eyes, and the more they know about what I’m painting the better they like my work. For me it’s a good part of what makes the whole thing worthwhile.
What bugs me is I always have to break up these series, sell them in bits and pieces. I can’t seem to find anybody rich enough to buy a whole set intact.
I try keeping track of the work, someday maybe put them together again; but it’s hard, probably impossible, definitely improbable.
OUR EFFORTS, DREAMS, IDEALS, IDEAS
DISSIPATE, DISPERSE, LEAVING US
LIKE CHILDREN. COULD BE WORSE.
I’m coming near the end of my Canettes series. I’ve been into the houses, up and down the streets. I’ve painted portraits, straight-on façades, peeped in windows, painting, sniffing around generally. I’ve got just about all of it. Now I’ll need to cut it up; like slicing salami or cheese.
My new series will be the Marais. Best way to forget paintings is to start new ones. I’d sure like to try living down there. I even found an apartment for rent; this Jew’s going to Israel for his kids’ sake. But I can’t move into every painting. Kate says she’ll never move again, anywhere; can’t blame her. We’ve really played a lot of gypsy in our lives, and without violin music either. She deserves a regular sit-down nest now for sure. Thank God we overlap some, both like being aliens, living outside; but my restlessness can be too much for her sometimes.
A HOME OF HER OWN.
WALLS, HALLS, A TOILET
AND A BED WITHOUT LUMPS.
IT CAN’T BE ALL BAD.
So I’m sitting on the bike, sketching away, creating space with a pencil, when a woman comes up to me. She’s about forty-five or fifty: nice face, hair cut short, bit dikey somehow, in a nice way. She speaks to me in English: reasonable English, French accent. She knows I’m American because I have California license plates; avoid French taxes, French tickets that way.
Says she’s a painter and looks into my eyes. She has the most amazingly dirty eyes I’ve ever seen. They make me want to reach up and wipe my own. She tilts her head and gets close; little alky smell there, too; bacteria shit, human vomit. She turns her soft, dirty eyes onto my drawing. Then she puts her hand on my hand while I’m trying to draw. She smiles at me; I can’t keep on drawing like that!
She asks me to join her for a drink. Sure, maybe she’ll go away if I buy her a drink. She takes me to a place around the corner, we sit in back. I’m tired; I don’t really even know how I got here.
We’ve just sat down when she reaches over and puts her hand in my crotch. Nothing serious, I think; only keeping her hand warm. She orders a marc for each of us. That’s the end of drawing for the day. She starts telling me her life story; some people think artists are priests. Maybe I should have a portable confessional, wear a stole. Maybe I can steal one.
THE SOFTEST BOULDER IS A
SHOULDER, BUT BE CAREFUL
IT DOESN’T BECOME A LANDSLIDE.
Turns out she’s the daughter of a famous artist. Her father and mother died when she was a baby. I think I can see him in her eyes; maybe only alcohol, maybe drugs; dried-skin look, more than age. She paints, sells father’s drawings, sells authentications.
She’s just back from Switzerland. Tears start filling her dirty eyes; I look for mud to run down her cheeks; story’s getting expensive. While she’s in Switzerland, her daughter runs away, gets pregnant. So what’s so awful about that? Wish I could get pregnant. Probably we all want what we can’t have; part of being human.
Now her head is down on the table next to her hand holding the drink. It’s all very Lautrec. She’s crying like a mad Russian; men around the bar turn their heads away.
I want to get out. This is developing into something too scary for me. She’s asking me to come visit her place, see her work and her father’s drawings. She’s getting lovey; insists on paying for the drinks; pulls a thick folded wad of hundred-franc bills from her purse. I should’ve packed up and driven away in the first place.
We leave the café; I have no desire to go with her but I don’t want to hurt her feelings either. I lie, tell her I’ll finish the drawing, come over later. She points, gives me directions; one street away. She wobbles off. I hustle back to my box, pack it up, jump on the bike and roll, drifting downhill a ways before kicking over the motor, sneaking away.
I can’t face a sad sex scene with a drunk. I can be an awful coward; I’m not strong enough to help when things are really bad; my nerves aren’t up to it. I only hope she bombs out and forgets she ever saw me.
I’m not ready to waste my time either: scarce stuff, coming to the bottom of the barrel. It’s terrible to feel you’re running down like an eight-day clock and you’ve lost the key. I don’t even keep correct time anymore, always slightly behind.
6 Notes From the Underground
Wednesday I finish the painting of Sweik’s room, the one looking in from the door. I also bring over some sunny paintings to take the curse off his walls.
Thursday I start a new painting, this time looking from his window toward the door. There’s a large French wardrobe with a mirror next to Sweik’s bed. In French hotels, you almost always find a mirror beside the bed. I paint Sweik’s motorcycle bags and helmet hanging against the back wall by the door. On the other side, I paint the sink and bidet, working up all the French plumbing details.
Sweik’s in bed. He hurt his back carrying a Danish woman up these stairs. He says they were both half looped and he was trying to make it sound like one pair of feet going past the concierge. He tripped on the rug strings, twisted his back and dropped the woman.
Sweik’s really racked; the Dane stayed overnight but he was useless to her. She left in the early morning: one set of feet going down.
THE JOY OF SEX,
OUR FAVORITE TOY.
THE PLOY OF SEX,
A SHARP KNIFE IN
A STEEL TRAP.
When I finish the drawing, I help Sweik struggle out of bed to wash up. His back’s so bad he can’t sit in a chair; just rolls out onto his knees on the floor. Kneeling there, he really looks like a shot-down old bear. I pull the sheets and blankets from the bed. I put the sheets back on upside down and the other way around; thin, gray, dirty sheets, no sex-juice marks.
Using his Primus stove, I warm some water. He’s in deep pain. I help him off the floor back to the edge of his bed. He sits there and lathers himself. A bear cat like Sweik suffers deeply when he can’t keep clean. I almost expect him to begin licking his paws and grooming. Beautiful as this room is for painting, it could be depressing as hell if you were sick and forced to stay in all day.
I try talking Sweik into cutting out for Lotte’s place. I’ll wall off a room, hunt up a flat board, a piece of foam rubber and make a bed. That’s the best thing for a back like his. This ditch he’s sleeping in has a permanent body dent in the center: worst thing possible.
WE SLEEP CURVED TO THE EARTH
AND FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH,
Meanwhile, my painting’s coming along fine. I paint my own paintings in the painting. I paint paintings reflected in the mirror in my painting. I even paint one painting reflected in a mirror reflecting in a mirror in my painting. Now that’s what I call outright, fourth-dimensional lying; good honest lying to tell the truth, whatever that might be. My mind is spinning again about time in paintings. I’m sure foreground is present and background is past. I’m beginning to think middle ground is future; it’s where we take what we know from the past and then, in the present, make guesses about what’s going to happen. Yep, future is probably middle ground.
After Sweik’s back in bed, we get talking. We start on how hard it is for men to be friends; how it all gets pissed away with ‘camaraderie’, buddy-buddy kinds of shit: softball leagues, bowling clubs and poker parties. I tell how I’m convinced men are afraid of each other, circling with hackles up all the time.
We both know we’re feeling each other out, trying to let down walls but feeling vulnerable. It’s so hard breaking through. Men’re forced into competing, fighting each other so young it’s almost impossible to make contact. Sweik arches, groans, talks through his teeth.
‘You know, a guy’s finally cornered so he’s allowed one close friend in the world; out of four billion, he gets one!’
I look at him, stop painting. He smiles, grits his teeth.
‘You know, I’m actually scared to get married. After a guy’s married, he’s only supposed to be close with that one woman. Since all men are already out, that leaves a total of one.’
He rolls and winces. He’d be better off sleeping on the floor than in this eggcup of a bed. I change brushes, add some turp to the varnish.
‘Same thing for women, though, right? If people are stupid enough to run their lives that way, then that’s what they get.’
Sweik stares at the ceiling, arches his back again. I think maybe he didn’t hear me. He looks over, almost in a wrestler’s bridge, his teeth clamped together.
‘I don’t know; it’s different. Women have each other; they’re closer.’
I keep my mouth shut but I don’t believe it. Sisterhood and brotherhood are for real sisters and brothers only – and even then, rarely.
WHEN YOU’RE ALL WET,
HOW CLOSE CAN YOU GET?
We gab away that afternoon. It’s good talking at this part of a painting. It’s nice having Sweik there in bed. We bullshit some more about what’s wrong with men’s lives. For a young guy he’s figured out a lot of things.
I even tell about World War II and me. Sweik had a student deferment from the Vietnam mess.
Sometimes I can get to feeling guilty, knowing everything we know now. If there ever was anybody worth fighting a war with, I guess it had to be those Nazis. My trouble was I just didn’t want to be a part of any killing – still don’t. Even killing people who are killing other people doesn’t make sense to me. How can it end? I hate being part of anything really stupid. But my own life sure got screwed up; I’ll say that.
A LINE OF EATERS, EATING
EACH OTHER TO THE END.
WHAT BEAUTIFUL FLOWER
IS THIS WE NOW DEVOUR?
Then, somehow. I don’t know how we get started, but we begin working on the idea of a fantasy motorcycle club here in Paris. We’re going to mock up a super-macho Warlock or Hell’s Angels Paris pack; only with practically no real bikes, a totally phony affair.
Sweik gets to laughing so hard tears slide down his cheeks from the back pain. We’ll write to the biggest motorcycle club in America and request a charter for our Paris-American Motorcycle Club. We’ll invent stories of way-out trips and races; send off reports of these hokey events; create a completely ersatz motor scene.
Sweik laughs and hurts; probably the best thing for his back, relax the muscles. I get some paper from his table and Sweik, propped up there in bed, writes out our letter. We get off a very good maniac missive, with baroque and arabesque flourishes.
THE LAST CURE (BEFORE CURARE)
A SURE, PURE UNCARING,
UNBARTERED BURST OF LAUGHTER.
Later, just as I’m finishing for the day, Lubar, Duncan and Tompkins stop by to see how Sweik’s doing. They can’t believe the letter. Lubar thinks it’s for real. Duncan goes out to buy wine. Lubar runs down and brings up some stolen IBM stationery from his saddlebag. We rewrite the letter with more embellishment yet. This letter’s turning into a narrative poem. We describe the kinds of motorcycles we’re supposed to have, developing the most outlandish rare bikes and combinations of machines anybody ever heard of. We’re having a real old-fashioned tribal male-
camaraderie scene. Kate would probably vomit if she could see us. No, she’d shift into her cool, above-it-all mode and make us feel like damned fools. Kate doesn’t have much tolerance for tomfoolery. But I think at the bottom of all art is some taint of foolery – Tom, Dick or Harriette. But she could be right; maybe all this nonsense uses up, wastes whatever creativity is. I don’t really know.
It takes two days to finish the painting. Sweik’s feeling better but he’s still in bed. I find a board, smuggle it up those stringy stairs, beneath sagging burlap, past the concierge, and put it under his mattress. The bed’s still not much good but it’s better. I also sneak out the sheets and run them through a laundromat around the corner. Poor Sweik’s deveoping bedsores; says he thinks he’ll never be up and walking around again.
IN THE BEGINNING THERE WAS AN
END AND THAT’S THE BEGINNING.
Meanwhile, over at Lotte’s, I’m building a partition to cut out a room for Sweik when he gets well enough to move. Lotte’s griping because I’m dividing her place; she doesn’t want to share. I tell her she can leave if she wants. She doesn’t want to leave, just wants all that space for herself; Lebensraum!
Lotte’s a true cat, little cat: minx, maybe, or a small leopard. She likes everything neat, carefully wiped. She actually listens to hear if I’ve washed my hands after I take a leak. Maybe old blunderpuss isn’t much anymore but it’s the cleanest thing I’ve got. He rarely even touches air, all swathed in elastic supports. It’s my hands get dirty handling money and crappy things like that. I should wash my hands before I pee. If I’m not careful, maybe I might even get paint on the master brush; give some unlikely, lucky woman a cobalt-blue clit. Ah, fantasy; takes some edge off the bitter dawn. I don’t even use cobalt blue: too expensive, not permanent enough.
So I’m drilling a hole to mount a baseplate for the partition, when I go through the floor! I pull up a flat stone like a paving block; it opens onto a big hole! I pull more blocks out. There’s a tremendous empty space. Lotte’s having catfits; raving about rats, then about graves. It smells like graves all right; black, wet, old; dead smell. I ask Lotte for a candle. I stare into the hole but a draft blows up and snuffs out my candle. I almost scream right there and then; expect Dracula to come swooping up out of the darkness.
I dash off for a flashlight and come back. Lotte’s spread a rug over the hole and she’s crying on the bed. I’m all excited; staring into that dank hole has me turned on. I’m confused about where I want to do my cave exploring. I think of somebody coming in and stepping on that rug. I start laughing. Lotte cries harder; I’m probably not doing Sweik any favor.
This hole is deep. I rig a ladder with the wood for my partition and lower it into the darkness. It’s about eight feet to some kind of surface. I climb down slowly. Lotte’s running around in circles. Maybe she’ll pull my ladder, slide her rug back over the hole; save herself paying rent.
I get to the bottom and look around with my flashlight. There’s a long tunnel. It goes off under Moro’s and is arched with cut-stone vaulting, high enough to walk up straight but just clearing my head.
I go in about a hundred feet, one careful step at a time; creepy, spooky and it gets darker. Then I look behind me. I can’t see the hole where I came in. She did it!
Panic strikes! I scamper back till I see the hole again; the tunnel curved and blocked my view. I climb out and up the ladder. I’ll go ask Sweik to help. I’ll get a rope, more flashlights; more nerve. It’s better I don’t mention anything about this to Kate; she’d be sure it was bad for my blood pressure, only another way for me to be wasting time when I should concentrate on painting. But. Holy God, think of it, tunnels under Paris, I feel like Jean Gabin-cum-Jean Valjean in Les Misérables.
GROUNDED AS WITH ELECTRICITY,
OR AS A PILOT. I’M STUCK TO THIS
EARTH, BURROWING BLINDLY THROUGH IT,
OUR ULTIMATE HOME NEST.
That afternoon, I tell Sweik about the tunnel. He’s moving around some; still being careful, dragging his feet like a prostate case, but moving. He says he’ll help but can’t go down any ladder. That’s OK. I buy some string, some rope, three flashlights, extra batteries, a compass and a detailed map of central Paris. I’m planning a big operation; figure tomorrow I’m into the Paris secret underground world.
WHEELER’S WORMHOLES, PASSPORTS
TO AN ETERNAL INFINITY. I PEEK
IN AND FEEL LIGHT RUSHING PAST
MY EARS – HEARING NOTHING!
I do finishing touches on both paintings of the room. Sweik and I get to drinking wine, so I’m slightly drunk when I leave. I shouldn’t drive that damned bike when I’ve been drinking. The trouble is, it’s hard as hell carrying my box and a wet canvas in the Métro or on a bus. I keep smearing people. It’s not good for paintings and very tough on people. An old lady hit me on the head with a book once. I’d given her a hand-painted back-of-coat. That coat will be worth a fortune someday but definitely not appreciated now. I really felt sorry, tried to give her twenty francs for dry cleaning. That’s when she hit me over the head.
I weave home on my bike. Kate is not happy. I’ve missed dinner and I’m drunk; how wrong can you get? I show her the paintings and it’s OK again. My wife knows what’s important.
She saved my life once when it counted, knows I’m hers. She kisses me, really looks at the paintings; kisses me again and warms up dinner. I eat and we go to bed. It’s hard trying to be an artist, a husband and a father all at the same time. Each one requires a full lifetime and I’ve only got one, probably a short one at that. I don’t know how much I can ask of Kate and still live with myself. She doesn’t want to ask any more of me than she has to, but sometimes I know it’s hard.
Sweik says the difference between a Dane and a Swede is you go down the hole with a Dane and leave the Swede to hold your rope up top. Nobody should ever leave me holding any rope, any time.
THE THIN LINE OF LIFE; A ROPE
OF WOVEN HOPES, RAVELED, WORN,
WE HANG BY IT TILL DEATH.
Next day, I take Sweik over to meet Lotte and help with the tunnel. Sweik goes into his very reserved, well-mannered role. Sweik is handsome in a nineteenth-century-sailor kind of way. He and Lotte will be in bed soon’s his back’s better. I can tell he’s surprised with the way she looks. Lotte looks as if she’s going to correct your grammar, straighten your tie or light a candle for your soul. I know he thinks I’m sleeping with her. Let him think, good for the imagination. I can’t say I’d really mind, but it’s too complicated; I need to conserve what little energy I have left. Besides, I don’t think Lotte’s exactly hot for this old man’s flabby body.
My idea is to map the tunnel, find out where it goes. We’ll use a string to make measurements and a compass to measure directions. I’ll mark it on the map as we go. I tape two flashlights onto my motorcycle helmet to keep my hands free. Sweik gives me a pellet gun to shoot rats. Where the hell did he get a pellet gun? I’m feeling like Tom Sawyer but I’m not shooting any rats if I can help it. After all, it’s their tunnel.
I climb down the ladder and start counting out on my string. I go in about two hundred feet and come to a cross-road. I see my first rat: big bastard, big as a cat; he stares at me, ruby-eyed, then scampers off.
I go back, mark measurements and compass reading on the map with Sweik. One arm of the crossroad goes toward the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés across the boulevard; the other arm toward Saint-Sulpice. I’ll try the one to Saint-Germain.
Lotte’s already leaning all over Sweik. Women are marvelous, have a nose for something valuable. She’ll have him in her sack soon enough, back or no back. She’ll get Sweik all fat with Salzburg cooking. Damn, I’m going to miss the weisswurst. Maybe I’ll raise the rent next month. No, I can’t do that. Maybe I can bargain something for a once-a-month meal. I have a hard time letting go. I’ve got so many strings hanging from me I’m like a three-year-old Christmas tree somebody forgot to take down.
HOLDING ON, HOLDING BACK, HOLDING UP;
ROBBERY, BREAKING IN, BRAKING.
THE PAST BECOMES HEAVY; THE FUTURE
FURTHER AWAY AND I CAN’T LET GO.
I inch along the tunnel toward Saint-Germain. It starts dropping sharply. Maybe I’ll get the bends; should’ve brought along my canary, like a coal miner, in case of gas. I can hear traffic rumbling overhead; a Metro goes by, rattling the stones.
Panic’s surging; I stop a minute to get my bearings. I take slow, deep breaths; whip out the old mantra for a couple of quick Kee Rings; try to think of something else except where I am. What’re they doing up there?
Sticky cobwebs keep brushing against my face; there can’t actually be spiders in all this dark; these must be left over from the Middle Ages. Maybe secret mystic masses were held down here: Ignatius Loyola and his fighting Jesuits.
I flash my light around; don’t see anything except more tunnel. There’s water running over the stones, and dirt’s caught in the spiderwebs. It’s warmer down here than outside. ‘OK, get on with it Scum, stop diddling.’ I reach the end of my string, a hundred meters. I check my compass, mark the spot and go back.
I sneak up the ladder. They’re sitting on her bed. Never trust a Swede at the hole! I climb out and we work over the map again. ‘I’m up to Boulevard Saint-Germain, now; be crossing under the church next.
I go back down and in. I find my mark, drive in a stake and tie the string to my stake. Maybe I should be dropping bread crumbs as I go along; feed the rats. I move on. The tunnel begins rising and turns to the left. There, at the turn, is a big wooden door with iron hinges and a bolt. I give the door a strong pull; it budges and dirt falls. I try two more tugs and the bolt snaps off. The door swings open on its own; the middle hinge is broken, but there are three hinges, so it holds.
I flash my light on four steps down. Now I’m into Ali Baba’s cave. I go down slowly into a big room with cut-stone paving. I flash my light around. There are tall boxes standing against the walls. I start pacing to get the size; this room must have two hundred squares, at least.
Holy mackerel! Those are coffins standing against the walls! Right then, one of my flashlights blinks out and I let myself sink slowly to the ground; time for a little more deep breathing; I need to take a leak, too – mostly just nervous, probably.
The rats’-nester-scumbler mind is spinning. What a great place I could make out of this, a real rat’s nest, burrows and all. Nobody could ever find me, not even the FBI. I turn my head slowly, the flashlight cutting through the dark. There’re maybe twenty coffins around the walls. There’s also something in one corner made of wooden poles and rotted cloth.
It might be tough renting with all the coffins; like one of those French apartments you buy already occupied – only occupied this time by a few dozen corpses.
There’s another door in the wall to my right. I get up, go over, try it. This one’s locked tight; probably leads up to the church, straight into the tabernacle. Hey, maybe I could rent this nest to a religious freak. He’d be the first one to early mass mornings; beat the sexton, the priest, maybe even God himself. I take my leak against the wall while I’m over there.
INSIDE, UNDER, BEHIND; I BURROW
OUT OF LIGHT, OUT OF MIND. I DRILL
INTO A CAST CORE OF CARBIDE HARDNESS.
I go around checking coffins. They’re nailed tight; square-headed nails; wood rotten but holding. Nobody’s going to get out from any of those boxes. I’m beginning to have a hard time breathing again; too much excitement for an old man; ticker’s pounding wildly, skipping beats like a Caribbean marimba player.
About halfway back along the string, I see something moving in the tunnel. I hit the floor without even knowing it.
It’s Sweik; he borrowed a flashlight from Lotte. He got to worrying what the hell happened; thought maybe the rats had wrestled me to the ground. I take him back and show him the room. He comes in behind me and keeps saying, ‘Jesus, man!’ ‘Shit, man!’ ‘Holy fuck.’ We both try that other door but it’s locked tight. I put my flash onto the ceiling. It’s a high-arched vault, no bats, no vampires. We check measurements and head back out to the map.
It feels wonderful being outside in light, clean air. We calculate that room to be directly under the altar of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, one of the oldest churches in Paris.
I’m covered with cobwebs and dirt, so I take a shower in Lotte’s little stall shower. She’s not making any noises at all about not wanting to share now.
DESIRE WASHES AWAY RELUCTANCE,
REFURBISHES TIRED, SWAYING BONES.
WE ATONE WITH ELECTRIC ATTENTION.
We spend the next day exploring. There are tunnels under the whole Left Bank. They go up to Montparnasse and down to the river. We don’t find any more big rooms like the first one but we do find ways to come up in different cellars all over the quarter.
We invade the cellar of a high-class restaurant and snitch a few bottles of wine. That’s a kind of wet dream, direct access to a wine cellar.
I think of getting a Velosolex, one of those little French bikes with a motor on the front wheel; use it to run around down in those tunnels, my own private Métro. But I don’t. I know I’ll use that tunnel somehow, someday, but now I only want to think about it; let my mind play with the idea of deep tunnels and nests under the city.
Sweik tells me he thinks he’ll stay on at the Isis; leave the place for Lotte. I don’t know whose idea this is but I think it’s Sweik’s. He’s no fool.
EGYPTIAN MUFFLED TUNNELS. NO SKY,
NOTHING OPEN, A CAREFUL PREPARATION
FOR AN UNENDING NOTHINGNESS.
It’s Saturday and one of those spring days we often get in Paris when there’s a constipated heavy sky trying to rain and thick hemorrhoidal clouds listlessly drifting.
I go down into the Marais, ready to start the first painting of my new series. I figure Sabbath’s the best day, not so much traffic. I don’t figure on old ladies.
I’m setting up my box when the first one comes over to me.
‘A nice boy like you shouldn’t work on the Sabbath,’ says she.
‘Not work, my pleasure,’ says I, smiling. Haven’t been called a boy in about thirty years or more.
‘All the same,’ says she, then hobbles on down the street, shaking her head.
I get the box set up. I’m painting the façade of a broken-down old kosher poultry store. It’s the kind of place where they bleed chickens live, old-style; makes me think of South Street in Philly. There they used to keep all the live pigeons and chickens in wooden cages right out in the windows. No birds in the window here, but the same smell.
This place is a terrific mess: smeared cracked windows, dirty white marble tables inside. There’s chicken shit, blood and guts all over; probably the chickens are out of the window for Sabbath.
I’m doing it straight on. I dig in with the underpainting; mostly dark browns and yellows, with some blue for inside. I’m concentrating and flying; this will be a good one. This whole series is going to be wonderful: interesting people, real places, trapped space, good twisting light.
CUTTING LIGHT DOWN AND STILL STAYING TRANSPARENT:
ANOTHER FACE OF REALITY, FUTILE FANTASY. I DRIFT
ON TRANSITIONS TILL WE TOUCH EARTH
IN DARK STILLNESS.
Another old lady comes up. Skinny hag; hair all whichway. No teeth; bottom lip almost touches her nose. The toes are cut out of her shoes; big bunions bulging out. She pushes me away from the box, good strong push.
‘You got permission to paint my store?’
Face right up to me.
‘No, lady, didn’t know I needed permission. May I paint your store?’
I look down at her, trying to figure if she’s only crazy.
‘I’m going to paint your store anyway, lady. Don’t need permission; street’s a public place. Artist’s got some rights.’
She stomps her bunioned foot.
‘I do not give permission!’
She stares at me wetly. Her eyes have Velásquez lower lids, red, watery. She stomps again and goes away.
I get to work; probably isn’t crazy, we’re just not communicating.
Five minutes later she’s back. She looks at the painting for a while. I smile at her, hoping for a convert.
‘I’ll let you paint my store for twenty francs.’
‘I’m sorry, lady; I’m not going to pay. Artist has rights.’
She watches me for a while. She’s not acting mad or pushing now, just watching.
‘There should be chickens in the window.’
‘Don’t need any chickens.’
‘For ten francs, I’ll put chickens in the window.’
‘Don’t need any chickens.’
I prove this by painting a few quick chicken strokes into the window. She still stands there watching me. I try to keep working. There’s a long pause; then she pushes between me and the painting.
‘Why are you painting my store? Why don’t you go paint Notre Dame or some church for the tourists?’
She’s beginning to bug me. I stare down at her. I can see her scalp through thin gray hair. She’d make a fine painting. When I’m mad or drunk, I speak my best French.
‘Look, lady! I’m a world-famous collector of ugliness. I have a terrible passion for ugly things. I paint pictures of ugly things I can’t buy and move to my castle in Texas. I have a whole museum filled with paintings of the most ugly places in the world. They’re from China, Timbuktu and Cucamonga.’
She’s paying attention now.
‘This chicken-shit place of yours is my greatest discovery. I’ve never, in twenty years’ searching, found anything more ugly than your store. I’m going to paint it and put this painting at the top of my collection!’
Her mouth is open. I can see bumpy, hardened ridge where her bottom teeth used to be. She’s staring at me through the whole speech. One eye is slowly dropping to half-mast, like a dead woman’s wink; her eyes are runny cataractal blue. I smile at her. She looks across the street at her store. It’s probably the first time in thirty years she’s actually looked at it. Practically nobody ever looks at anything.
Her place is truly beautiful, beautiful for a painter. It all runs together; the dirt makes everything fit. The old lady stares at me.
‘Maybe it’s dirty, sir; but it’s not ugly.’
She backs off, turns and walks up the street. You never know when and where you’ll meet a kindred soul.
WE TOUCH IN A CAULDRON, TWISTING
MISSES OF CONCURRENT THOUGHT IN A
MORASS, A BOILING SOUP. WE’RE ALL
BETROTHED IN THE SAME BROTH-BREATH.
Two men in black hats and beards are standing behind me. I’ve been listening with one corner of my mind and they’ve been discussing the painting like connoisseurs. They’re into a long discourse on my use of warm and cool colors to penetrate the plane and establish an illusion of space. They’ve got all the baloney together, very impressive. They both have rosy cheeks, bright eyes and a very healthy look. They look like grown-up altar boys. I reach down to get some more medium. One of these guys speaks in perfect English.
‘Pay no attention to her. She is a dir-ty woman.’
I look back at him. He has long curly sideburns and a fine fat-cat look.
‘She’s a dir-ty woman and her shop is not kosher. We tell our people never to buy here.’
I take a cloth and wipe the word ‘CASHER’ off the window in the painting. They laugh. I get to working again.
The other guy leans closer; maybe I’ll give him a quick dab.
‘Why do you paint pictures, sir? Do you paint them for money?’
‘It’s the way I try to feed my family.’
‘Yes, but do you get joy from it?’
What the hell, nobody ever asked me that. I do. I certainly do; boy, do I ever get joy out of it.
‘Yes, much joy!’
‘But, what is the joy in painting buildings?’
This creep’s right there.
‘Nothing much. Only the joy of making them mine, of having things pass through me; the joy of playing God, screwing some details and chewing up, spitting out others. I enjoy the joy in the great delusion of being alive.’
I’m into it. I go on and on, painting away, slashing and picking at the color, wet-in-wet. The world is forming under my hands. I’m taking things from out there, bringing them in and pushing them out again, like breathing, panting.
‘Painting’s the joy of kissing, sleeping, sunlight, breathing; and it’s all in this work. I get inside, the outside-inness of an exploding wish. It’s more than joy, more than ecstasy; it’s a soft gliding and turning in midair with complete control.’
Holy bloomers, I go on and on. I’m making a total ass of myself, bleeding emotion all over the street. I keep thinking they’ll get embarrassed and go away, or laugh, or maybe call the police. I’m not trying to put them on, just turned on myself. What a great question: ‘Is painting joy?’
Finally I run down, lean further into the painting. Maybe they’ve already gone; I don’t look back. Then one of them puts his hand on my shoulder.
‘You might well be a religious man, Monsieur le peintre.’
The two of them walk away up the street. What a wild thing to say; probably means I’m some kind of maniac. That’s for sure. I guess being a maniac and liking it has to be the greatest insult going for all the sane people in the world.
A WHITE CRY TO THE BRIGHT, SILVER-LINED
CAPE OF MEANING. A BLACK EDGING TO MAKE
IT VISIBLE. BUT IT’S BUTTONED TIGHT,
SMOTHERED BY BONE BUTTONS AGAINST COLD.
I work on. I want to get the impasto finished. It’s a perfect surface for dragging now. I drag to peel paint off the wood horizontally, then wipe it down with dirt, black, vertically. It’s the battle of man versus gravity, energy versus entropy. All art is basically anti-entropic, that is to say, foolhardy; it takes hardy fools.
The inside light’s getting brighter and brighter; pale bright like a morgue light. The chickens look like corpses. They are corpses. It’d scare hell out of some thinking, live chicken; Dachau of the chicken world.
ONE MAN’S FEAST, BANQUET.
ANOTHER’S GROSS INIQUITY.
NOTHING IS FOR NOTHING.
Later, a thin girl slinks up behind me. She squeezes into a doorway. This door is closed; only a very thin person could fit in that doorway. I keep working away. I can’t tell if she’s thirteen or thirty; blond stringy hair. She smiles; I smile back.
‘J’aime beaucoup votre tableau, Monsieur.’
That’s enough. I’ve the world’s strongest American accent in French. I can’t even say a simple ‘merci’ without giving myself away. She switches into English.
‘I also am an artist. I study at the school of decoration.’
I’m not too interested in womankind or any kind right at that moment. It’s no insult or anything; I’m not interested in anything else much when I’m deep in painting.
‘Would you like to drink some coffee with me?’
Oh, sure, here we go: coffee, cigarettes, eye wrestling. I stop, take a good look at her. She seems like a fine, sensitive young woman, maybe twenty-five. I would like to know her, talk about painting. What I can’t figure is why she wants to take time talking to a worn-out old bozo like me.
‘OK. Come back in half an hour; I’ll be finished then.’
She slides away, I figure I’m rid of her. I dig myself back into the work. What do young girls like that want? I know there’s no natural father love in humans, it’s something we have to learn, but it can’t be all that bad. God, if it’s only sex, pick on one of these young bucks stomping around, unbound dongs dangling loose against their knees.
There’s something about a picture painter turns a certain kind of woman roundheeled. But why should I knock it? Maybe I need a shot of vitamin E, need to eat more parsley, oysters, hot peppers. Then again, this young woman might really need or want to talk with another artist. I’m definitely getting too cynical in my old age. I’ll have to watch that. I think I’m mostly afraid, been hurt too often, love-punch drunk, can’t take it anymore.
I work another half hour and there she is. I’m still not quite finished. I squeeze off a little smile and work on. She lights a cigarette and offers me one already lit. I shake my head, tell her I don’t smoke. She takes both those cigarettes between the fingers of one hand and smokes them at once. I never saw that before. She smokes Greta Garbo-style, hollow-cheeked deep drag. There’s much of Garbo there: blond straight hair, thin; Garbo except for the part about wanting to be alone.
I stop painting. I’m finished enough so it needs drying for a while. I pack up, we walk down the street to a café. I’m shooting quick looks around to avoid the scary daughter-of-the-painter, woman. I order a beer. I’m still too excited from the work to take coffee. When I’m up, high with painting, coffee turns me into shatters.
I listen to her, feel myself unwinding. She tells how she’s living with an older married man. He has her put up in a room near here. He comes every afternoon to extract his pound of vaginal, not so virginal flesh. He gives her money so she can go to school; probably proud of her work like a father. Not much original there.
Halfway through the beer, she tells me she won’t take me to her room, very ethical. I didn’t ask! I sip the rest of my beer; I’m flattening out. Then, straight from the blue, no prelims, she volunteers to go to a hotel with me. Now she’s looking into my eyes, feeling for the tongue of my soul. This can usually give me a lift but I’ve nowhere to go. I’m going down fast, irreversible.
I try to stay with her, but it’s impossible. She must see me shrinking before her eyes. I feel any minute I might slip under the table and disappear into a small spot of emulsified linseed oil.
I tell her I’ll be painting around the quarter and I’ll see her another day. I’m fading. She sees it, smart, sensitive woman. There’s some little hurt, disappointment; but nothing world-shaking. She’s an artist, she must understand.
TRIAL, TRIBULATIONS AND LOST EXPECTATION,
NO TENDERNESS CAN SOFTEN SOME BLOWS.
THE TOUCH OF A FEATHER WITH THE STING
OF A WHIP; SOMETIMES TOUCH AND GO.
We need women like her for the bad times. They can crawl out from under atom bombs and start having new babies: two-headed, eight-armed babies with maybe no hair and yellow eyes – all kinds of exciting possibilities. Maybe we can even mutate ourselves out of males, put human beings back together again. It’s an ill wind that blows no good, even if it’s radioactive.
I say goodbye and leave her sitting in the café. I strap the box on my back, check to see the painting’s on tight and mount my bike. The traffic’s a horror and I don’t roll into the house until after five. There are visitors from the States, some spring-tide travelers. I’d like to flop dead but I need to play host, might sell a painting or two, souvenirs of Paris.
Sometimes I think there’s too much of the accidental in my life. Or maybe life is only an accident itself – sometimes just a fender bender, other times a ‘total’.
CHAOS, AN ABYSS OF INDELIBLE
NOTHING. WHY TELL OF IT? WHY LISTEN?
BUT WITHOUT, THERE IS NO MASS, NO
MOMENTUM, NO GRAVITY – NO LEVITY.
At our place, I’m the homekeeper. Every morning, Kate and the kids go off to school. Kate likes teaching kindergarten, hates housework; probably did it too long; anything gets boring sooner or later. I like everything to do with nesting; but I don’t much care for the words ‘homemaking’ or ‘housekeeping’. To me, you make
Конец ознакомительного фрагмента.