Big Two-Fisted Introvert

A recently found story by Ernest P. Hemmingway.

Nick rolled out of bed.  Midmorning light bleached the pattern on his rug.  He tucked in the sheets and plumped the pillow.  It was a good pillow.

Nick brushed his teeth and whizzed, put on a clean white shirt and cargo shorts, and sat down at his computer.  He booted the computer, and it loaded quickly.  His screen saver glowed green, silver and blue.  A trout leaped out of a stream.

Nick wrote a short story about fishing.  He liked to write; he liked to fish.  He never got lonely when he fished.  Nick waved when fishermen passed by in boats, but it was good when they turned a bend.  It was good when they disappeared. The quiet of the river swallowed them.

Nick’s phone rang.  The phone was in the kitchen.  Nick waited until the ringing stopped, and then walked to the kitchen: time to make coffee.  His receiver blinked.  He picked it up.  He checked for messages:  one from mother.  Nick deleted his mother’s message.  He had heard her talk before.  He’d heard enough.

Nick drank the coffee hot and black.  It burned his tongue.  The burn stung.  He wanted to swear, but didn’t.  The phone rang again.  Caller ID said that his mother had dialed his number.  He saw her holding her receiver like a fishing rod.  She would pull him in if he took her bait.  She would ask about last night.  Nick did not answer the phone.

Last night Mother made a meal for him.  She served it on china plates.  The silverware was silver.  Candles lit the room.  They ate roast beef, boiled potatoes and green peas.  The roast beef was dry.

Nick drank too much whiskey.  He often drank too much at Mother’s.  Mother talked.  Mother invited women to dinner, women she wanted him to marry.  Nick did not want to marry.

Nick was not gay.  He liked women when they were quiet.  He liked women who fished.  He liked lying with women on sun baked pine needles on paths in high mountains.  He liked to “make the earth move”.

Last night Miriam talked more than Mother.  She talked about dresses, her hair, an article in a woman’s magazine.  Nick’s finger itched as he ate his food and listened to her talk.  He wanted to kill himself with his shotgun.

He knew that Miriam was not talking about fashion and cosmetics.  She was talking about babies, houses, insurance policies and retirement plans.

Nick did not have a retirement plan.  He did not like babies when they cried.  A man did not need insurance, and died before he retired.  If he grew too old to be a man, he went deep sea fishing in a leaking, rickety boat, he ran with the bulls at Pamplona and let the bulls catch him.

Right now Nick had hunting, fishing, and writing.  He had what he wanted.  He did not want Miriam.

The phone rang again.  Nick went to the case in his study and pulled out his 12 aught shot gun.  He rubbed the steel barrel with an oily rag.  It glistened cold and deadly.  He slotted a shell into the breech.  He walked twenty five steps to his kitchen.  Nick shot his phone.

Nick sat down at his computer.  He poured two shots of whiskey into his coffee mug.  It tasted better that way.  He reread his story.  It was good.  Nick smiled.  He was alone.

 

R-nnn-Argh

DSC_0184 (2)R-nnnn-Argh, oil/canvas,  30×40″

I completed this painting last week after putting in some intensive work this summer.  I completed the first stage in 2012 (monochrome underpainting), but had no time or will to consistently work on it the last four years.

I used a fairly painstaking method in the second and third stages:   glazing and scumbling colors over the monochrome underpainting (like tinting a black and white photo).  At times I put off painting because it seemed too daunting to finish, and I regretted trying something new (an old master technique applied to photo-collage subject matter) on such a large scale.  I realize a few years back that it would have been a lot smarter for me to do this as portrait on a smaller canvas in partial homage to Jim Nutt’s latest series.

I abandoned R-nnnn-Argh for a year after finishing the background figures and landscapes.  I felt exhausted just looking at it.  The central man’s face seemed like an endless terrain when I first began to work on it, and I remember the tedium of painting waves and the folds in the fisherman’s shirt.

I recently began to work on it again, and to actually enjoy the process.  The only thing that slowed down the final stages was the heat in my studio.  In the summer, my air conditioner fails to keep the temperature under ninety degrees after 1 p.m., and I have to quit when I start to feel the symptoms of heat exhaustion.

If you’re trying to decipher the imagery, try reading Edgar Allen Poe’s, “The Man Who Was Used Up”.

Last night I pulled out another long term project:  “Higgins Didn’t Make It”, a faux science fiction painting.  I hope it won’t take me as long to finish this one, but I believe that I started it in 2013.  Time to get it done.

Higgins Didn't Make ItHiggins Didn’t Make It

That’s My Daddy

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I shared my first bedroom with my brother Tony.  The walls were painted a cheerful shade of buttercup yellow, and sun streamed in on a Sunday morning and lit up a pile of clothes resting on a Danish modern scoop chair in the corner next to my bed.  My parents bustled in and out of the bathroom across the hall, and I could smell my Dad’s shaving cream.  I lay on my bed, hands under my head and relaxed.  Today was going to be a good day even if we had to go to church.

Dad hits the brakes of our old Dodge, the one with the oxidizing purple/blue paint that shimmers with rainbow iridescence in strong light.  He’s found a side path that leads from the top of the levee down to a strip of concrete and gravel on the shores of the Great Miami River.  We gingerly descend the narrow track and park.  I can see a dam farther upstream and tall buildings across the river.  Dad, Tony and I empty the trunk and carry a minnow bucket and two seine nets to the river edge.  We’ve changed into old tennis shoes and wade into the water with a seine.  The river bed is rocky, slimy with moss, treacherous.  We make several passes, water up to our knees, and snare some crawdads.  I fall twice and twist my ankle. When we have a bucket full we stow our gear and change our shoes.  My shorts are wet, but Dad doesn’t care about the car seats.  One of the blessings of driving old cars is that they become more useful the less they’re babied.

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Dad and I go fishing at Caesar’s Creek a few days later with the crawdads.  We’re not getting any bites until we set our bait at a lower depth.  Catfish are bottom feeders, and soon my line bends over double and jerks in tight circles.  I haul a ten inch catfish out of the muddy water, and Dad snares it in a net.  I’m afraid of the spiked whiskers even though I’ve never been stung, and Dad obliges me by taking a pair of plyers out of his fishing tackle box to extract the hook.  The catfish looks up at me from the bottom of the boat and croaks.  He seems to be saying, “Hey, buddy, what did I ever do to you?”

My sister Carla and I are scraping paint off the side of a wood paneled house across the street from the Delco battery plant in Kettering.  The paint comes off easily in the blistered sections, but some flecks stay embedded in the ruts and crevices of the pitted wood.  We use a wire brush on the stubborn spots and worry whether we’re doing a good enough job.  Dad’s warned us that the new paint won’t stick to the side of the house if applied over a loose layer of old.  Carla and I talk as we work to pass the time as the job is boring and nasty.  Our shoulders ache, and scraped paint sticks in speckles on our sweaty arms.  We’re grateful when Dad shows up and appears to be satisfied with our progress.  He doesn’t say anything, but carefully scans the walls, points out a few patches that need work, and nods.  We hope that he’s brought some soda–it’s a high and dry summer day with feathery clouds floating in the powdery blue sky–and he tells us to look in a cooler in the trunk.  He’s bought a cheap brand of grape, but we don’t care.

I get off work at  three a.m. from a restaurant shift that should have ended at twelve.  A late rush pillaged a practically spotless kitchen and dining room, and it took two hours to restore order after we ushered the last customer out at 1.  We’re exhausted but hungry, and five of us go to an all night coffee shop to get breakfast.  We talk, smoke cigarettes and tell a few jokes, and it’s dawn when we walk out to the parking lot.  I pull up to the house just as the front door opens.  Dad trudges out carrying his lunch pail.  He stares at me for a minute, shakes his head, and gets into his car without saying a word.  He no longer thinks that a lecture would do any good, and it’s too early for a shouting match.

I shoot a photograph of my Dad for a class at Wright State University.  He’s wearing a t-shirt and work pants, and glowers at me.  Art classes are a waste of time.  I develop the 35 mm. film and make a large print.  A class mate asks me if I took the shot in a prison yard.  I said, “No, that brick wall behind the man is the neighbor’s garage, and that’s my daddy.”

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The Cursed Vacation

We went up to Lake Thornapple near Hastings, Michigan from the time I was ten until my sophomore year in college. The lake was small, muddy and stocked mostly with pan fish, and the nearby town was simple and plain. Who knows what strange forces of fate and unnatural attraction kept drawing us back there year after year?

The Hoelschers, my six cousins and Aunt Mary and Uncle Louie, rented a cabin beside ours, and we shared meals together. We spent most of our time fishing, swimming and playing softball in a clearing in the pines near the shore. Dad and Uncle Louie also drank heavily and went through a several cases of beer in a week’s time. My Mom read books by the water and relaxed, and gossiped with Aunt Mary when the itch struck them to tell tales about family members not present. We usually came back home feeling happy and content with our break from our normal routines, and looked forward to our next vacation in Michigan. But we didn’t know what was in store for us the year I turned eleven.

Mom and Dad were known for showing up barely in time for church and family events, or arriving just a bit late. We pulled out of the driveway on a morning in August running an hour later than our planned departure time. That was about average. My parents had partially packed the night before and were somewhat organized about planning the trip. Mom had a to-do list and checked off items in an orderly fashion. But she always found additional things (food, medicine and clothing) to pack and jobs around the house that had to be done before she felt safe leaving home. Dad had to pack and unpack the trunk several times as the pile of goods kept growing in the driveway.

Dad bought a new trailer that year to haul fishing gear and an outboard motor. I believe that it had once been used to move remains from an Indian burial ground. When we turned the corner onto Doris Dr. to leave our neighborhood the hitch broke and the trailer skidded to a halt behind us. Dad cursed and backed up our Dodge. He managed to wire the hitch back together with a coat hanger and drove us and the trailer back home. He called a man he knew from NCR who lived a mile away. He did welding jobs for extra cash after retiring, and Dad hired him to fix the trailer. I drove over with Dad and watched him as he worked. He was a grizzled, burly man gone to fat, and had a giant black tumor on his lower lip. It looked like a small blackberry had taken root there. He wore goggles and sucked on a cigar as he worked. Dad told me to look away from the light of the torch.

It was noon by the time the job was finished, and we decided to get lunch several blocks away from home at the Parkmoor Restaurant on Woodman Drive. It was a drive-in/diner that served country fried steak, Dixie Golden Fried Chicken and burgers. We got a booth, and Dad and I put our baseball caps and sunglasses on a window ledge behind the cushioned seats. We ate a good meal and laughed off our trouble from earlier in the day, and then headed north. Just beyond the city limit in North Dayton we discovered that we had left the hats and glasses at the diner, and Dad insisted on turning around to retrieve them. It seemed that a mysterious force wouldn’t let us leave, that we kept getting pulled back to our point of departure. Our anticipated starting time of 9:30 a.m. lapsed to 2:00 p.m. I began to suspect that my family was living in a Twilight Zone episode.

It took five hours for us to escape the dark hills of the Miami Valley and hurry, never looking back, through western Ohio and into Michigan. The Hoelschers’s were eating supper outside at picnic tables when we arrived. Uncle Louie walked up to our car with a grin on his face and said, “Right on time, Tom! What’s the rush?” Dad told him to go to hell. We unpacked the car and trailer while Mom made cold sandwiches. I could still smell my cousins’ grilled hamburgers as I ate peanut butter and jelly and drank cherry Kool-Aid. The red powder combined with well water tasted like sugary poison.

The next day both fathers took six kids out in two overcrowded rowboats. Dad’s practice was to head to the upper end of the lake and let the wind push us down the length of Thornapple. We drifted over schools of fish and sometimes caught twenty or thirty in one pass. Our outboard motor made things a lot easier for the Schmalstig boat: we made more trips up and down the lake and caught more fish than the Hoelscher’s. We also passed our home dock more often and were hailed at mid morning by Aunt Mary. She wanted Uncle Louie’s car keys so that she could go on a grocery run into Hastings.

Dad headed over to the Hoelscher’s boat to deliver the message. Uncle Louie told us that his gas tank was just about empty and asked Dad if Aunt Mary could borrow our car. Dad agreed if Louie was willing to row in with our car’s keys: Dad was catching fish and didn’t want to waste time heading back to the dock. We maneuvered the boats so that they were about five feet apart, but came no closer. A stiff breeze kicked up waves that rocked the boats and made a closer approach dangerous. Dad leaned out over the water and said, “Catch!” to my cousin Johnny. Our boat rocked up as Dad released the keys, and the Hoelscher’s boat rocked down and drifted away. Dad’s throw was a little short, and Johnny had to lunge out to try to catch them. They glanced off his fingers and slowly drifted down in the murky water to the bottom of the lake. We all stared in stunned disbelief into the depths. No one dared jump in after them: the muck on the bottom was known to catch hold of and never release its victims.

When we docked at noon Dad called a mobile locksmith out to the cabin and got a car key made. Johnny skulked around like a child waiting for a whipping whenever he came near Dad, but Dad was magnanimous, chalked the whole thing up to chance and took some of the blame for making a poor throw. Johnny was smart enough to not trust in my father’s apparent good favor. It was eerily unlike Dad to accept responsibility for a mishap and to be cheerful in the face of an unexpected loss of cash. I began to wonder if Dad had been replaced by a simulated version of my father. Who had inserted him into our lives? Were we being studied by aliens?

Things went smoothly for the next few days, and our parents decided to take a boat ride at sunset. They needed a break from the combined demands made by nine children. The kids went down to the dock to do a little fishing before the mosquitoes came out and ate us alive. Joe and Johnny were at the far end, and when Joe swung his arm back at the beginning of a cast he had a long length of line dangling from the tip of the rod. He managed somehow to hook Johnny in the middle of his back, and hurt him worse as he slung the line forward and planted the barbs deeper. Johnny immediately began to bellow and swear at Joe, who prudently dropped his fishing pole and ran. Carla and cousin Joanie took a look at the hook and saw that it was deeply embedded, and no one wanted to try to pull it out.

Our cousins began to shout and wave to our parents. Their rowboat made slow circles in the middle of the lake just out of earshot. They smiled and waved back, but failed to notice that we were in distress. The lake didn’t want them to come in. But when the kids on the dock persisted in jumping around and screaming, our caterwauling dance penetrated the lake’s invisible barrier of unknowing, and our parents realized that something was wrong. Dad took the oars and began to pull hard.

Dad took Johnny into our cabin, laid him out on his stomach on the kitchen table, and told him that the hook could be pulled out with one, quick jerk. But Johnny wouldn’t hold still. His eyes were wide open and rolled from side to side, and he was starting to get hysterical. He thrashed around and cried out like a boy possessed. Dad and Uncle Louie drove him into town and found a small hospital with an emergency room.

Johnny returned a few hours later with a bandage on his back and a sore arm. The doctor had given him a tetanus shot after removing the hook. Joe made himself scarce for a day to avoid getting pounded by his brother. Johnny was sure that he had gigged him on purpose, and he may have been partly right. The spirit of a dead fisherman in the lake may have suggested to Joe a means of humbling his older brother, may have influenced the trajectory of his cast.

When that bit of excitement died down our parents decided to take us on an outing to Dearborn, just outside of Detroit, to visit Deerfield Village. We walked through the historical buildings and saw the Wright Cycle Shop where the Wright Brothers designed and built their first gliders and flyers. A chill went through me when I saw the chair in which Lincoln had sat at the Ford Theater. There was a rusty stain on the back cushion where his head must have rested after Booth’s shot.

On the way back to Hastings we traveled down a four lane highway, and our car led the way. A hole in our muffler had opened up on the way to Dearborn. We had the windows open to catch a breeze and the noise was deafening. We somehow heard a siren behind us and Dad looked up at the rear view mirror. He swore and said, “Dammit, they’re going to ticket me for the muffler.” We drifted over to the edge of the road and saw Uncle Louie pull in behind us. Dad cut off the motor before the cop got out, and was surprised when the officer walked up to Uncle Louie’s car. The trooper talked to Louie intently for a few minutes while patting the night stick hung from his belt. We were Ohioans, supporters of Woody Hayes and the Ohio State Buckeyes, and might be subject to officially sponsored violence in the home state of Bo Schembechler and the Michigan Wolverines. Mom began to say the rosary, and the cop eventually took his hand away from his night stick. He handed Louie a ticket. Dad sighed with relief, but waited until the police man pulled away before starting his engine.

When we got to the cabins Dad found out that the cop had given Louie a warning for a burned out tail light. Divine intervention had saved us, but we didn’t know how long our period of grace would last. Our string of mishaps had been the defining feature of the vacation trip, and we decided not to invite further troubles on the drive back to Dayton. The day before we left for home Dad went into town and had the muffler replaced, and Uncle Louie got a new tail light. I sprinkled lake water over the hitch, made the sign of the cross and said a few Hail Marys. The hook that had torn Johnny’s flesh was buried by the lake as a blood offering to the spirits of the waters. The new keys were rubbed with a St. Christopher medal to ensure a safe trip, and we put a piece of brown wool that the church said had come from the robe of St. Jude in the glove compartment. Catholics appealed to Jude when faced with a lost cause.

We made it home in one piece. Dad sold the trailer, but never told us to whom. He may have been worried that one day we would read in the newspaper about a neighbor who had wrapped his pick up and a haunted trailer around a tree. Or about a second cousin hauling a load of firewood who mysteriously disappeared into a dark void when he crossed the line into Indiana and never returned. (We usually thought of Indiana as a dark void, but folks traveling without hex upon them were generally able to return to Ohio, the land of goodness.)

Subsequent trips to Lake Thornapple were less eventful and the curse was broken. We knew for sure that we were safe from the influence of malevolent forces two years later when Dad kept Carla and me out on the lake during a lightning storm. The waves madly rocked the boat, squalls of rain lashed at us, and bolts of lightning flashed directly overhead. We pleaded with Dad to take us in before we all got electrocuted, but the fish were biting and he wasn’t willing to lose the opportunity.  Carla and I huddled down as low as we could go on our seats. When we had caught five more fish and thunder boomed in my ears so loudly that they ached, Dad pulled the cord on the motor and headed for our dock. We made it safely ashore and ran to the cabin. My Dad’s only punishment for tempting fate was a tongue lashing by my mother, a fairly regular occurrence, and we knew that all was well.

First Vacation (Camp Marydale)

When my brother Tony turned three my parents decided that it was time for our first family vacation. I was six and had just finished kindergarten, and my sister Carla was nine. We crowded into our Plymouth Valiant and drove south on I75 past Cincinnati and into Kentucky. We arrived at Camp Marydale, a spiritual retreat center for Catholic families. We must have left after my Dad got off work because it was dark when we pulled up in a gravel parking lot. We stowed our bags in a log cabin we would share with another family and walked along a dirt path to the community lodge. The tables in the cafeteria were filled with our fellow campers and they had already started to eat. We went through the food line, and I got chili served in a robin’s egg blue bowl. I remember staring at the contrasting red, brown and blue colors and found them disturbing in some odd way. To my surprise the chili tasted good.

When we went back to the cabin my Mom told me that we were going to a communal restroom to get ready for bed. We carried our toothbrushes, toothpaste, wash rags and hand towels along a dark path. Shadowy figures from other cabins joined us en route, and my mother carried a flash light to light our way. It felt awkward to stand at a sink and wash up with lots of strange men and boys around me, but my Dad was there beside me and acted like everything was all right. I was safe.

We got up early the next morning and got a good look at the grounds. There were clusters of log cabins scattered across an open area between a long hillside and a wood. Paths led in all directions: some to the main lodge; some down into the wood to a pond; some to a grotto in the face of a cliff where Mass was held each morning.

My brother played with his collection of plastic cars on the porch of our cabin before we went to breakfast. He ran them over the wooden planks and said “vrrrrrooomm” as he pushed them back and forth. He still looked fragile to me after coming out of two years spent in the hospital. He had trouble with his kidneys from nearly the day of his birth and had barely survived a painful series of surgeries and infections. My sister Carla and I had been told, when he finally came home at Christmas a few months after his second birthday, that our doctor predicted he wouldn’t live past the age of ten.

My Mom disappeared every morning after breakfast. I once saw her kneeling and praying before a statue of the Virgin Mary when my Dad took us for a walk through the campground. She had an expression of deep devotion on her face, and I knew that she was either thanking God that my brother had been spared, at least for now, or was pleading her case for Tony’s continued survival.

My Dad left us in the afternoon and fished, played golf or shot skeet. I remember walking across a wide pasture with my mother to meet him one day while he was shooting. There were enormous piles of horse dung scattered all along our path. I could see traces of undigested hay in the droppings, and the smell made me want to gag. I was afraid of stepping in a stray turd. My Dad seemed pleased to see us when we arrived, and he looked very strong and powerful as he held his shotgun across his thick forearms with the muzzle pointed toward the ground.

Toward the end of the trip my Dad took me and Carla down to a big lake with a beach. I couldn’t swim, but played in the water near the shore. I had a little, toy motor boat that ran on batteries, and I enjoyed watching it putter along in the shallows. Dad relaxed and didn’t keep a close eye on me, and didn’t notice when I fell in the water. I lay on my back with the water over my head and watched bubbles rise to the surface. The sun shining through the water turned the underwater world a light green. I could hear the muffled commotion of the bathers around me. I wasn’t afraid and didn’t feel a need to struggle back to the surface. It was very peaceful and I felt like I could lie there forever.

I was surprised when desperate hands pulled me up abruptly and set me back on my feet. I don’t think that I coughed or gasped or sputtered, but I grew frightened when I saw the look of concern on the faces of the strangers around me. I looked around for my Dad, and he was still sitting on the shore and had just noticed all the commotion. He looked embarrassed when he came up to me and heard that I had been pulled out of the water. Someone spoke to him with a serious tone of voice and used the word, “drowned”.

I don’t think that he told my mother about the incident when we got back to the cabin. There would have been a sharp argument if he had. I sensed that it would be better for me, in the long run, to keep my mouth shut about it.  My instincts for survival were much more keenly developed on land.

I was both sad and relieved when we got into our car and left the next day. My parents had been happier and more relaxed while we were at Camp Marydale, and some of the heavy concern that seemed to dog them at home had lifted. But I was ready to get back to my toys and the bedroom that I shared with Tony, back to familiar things that brought me comfort, back to some privacy when I used the bathroom.

We three kids sat in the back seat and didn’t wear seat belts on the trip back. (No one bothered in the sixties, and many cars didn’t have them.) I stared out the window at the trees and houses rushing past, and Carla read a book. Tony took a plastic fire truck out of his grocery bag full of toys and ran it across the seat beside him. He said, “vrroom, vrrrrooooom.”