My Wife Doesn’t Support the Arts

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It all started with her African violets.  Judy asked me to watch over them while she went away for a few days to a plant physiology conference.  I put them in my bedroom, admired the round forms of their leaves, and decided to do a series of charcoal drawings.  The series went well as I recorded the gradual descent of the stems, the drooping and dropping of the leaves.  When she returned I showed her the drawings before I returned her plants, and I waited for her to praise how closely I watched over them, how I put all my powers of observation into making a faithful record.  Instead she cried, “You didn’t water them!  They’re half dead!”  Her outburst shocked me.  How could she not understand that true art is about the cycle of life and death, the drama of mortality?  Her plants may have given up their lives, but they had made a worthy sacrifice for Art.

I decided to ignore her odd sense of priorities and married her, but the early days of cohabitation were fraught with tension.  Judy objected one day when she found me in the kitchen mixing painting solutions (varnish, stand oil, paint thinner) at the dining table.  She exclaimed, “We eat there!”  “Of course we do,” I replied.  “Are you saying that a table has only one function?”  She couldn’t find an adequate response to my query, but I agreed to mix my painting media on the back steps.  I thought, “This is how it starts.”

A few months later she asked me where the hammer was.  She’d rummaged through the tool chest and the drawers in the kitchen and couldn’t find it.  I said, “I’m using it in a still life.  Don’t touch it.  I’ll be done with it in a month or two.”  She shook her head in disbelief and failed to comment on my innovative use of nontraditional subject matter in a genre filled to overflowing with fruit ‘n flower paintings.  I began to wonder if I’d married badly.

DSC_0260 (2)Cat and Hammer, Oil/Canvas, 1985

Three years later she forced me to shut down my studio in a spare bedroom in our duplex apartment in State College.  I had to relocate to a cold and drafty basement and work wearing a coat during the winter months.  At the time of my banishment Judy was seven months pregnant and refused to listen to my objections.  She said, “We have to get the baby’s room ready now.”  I began to suspect that she placed more importance on family than on Culture. So bourgeois.

And then one day about six months later, she came down to the basement with a load of laundry on one arm and our daughter on the other.  I thoughtfully interrupted an intense painting session to warn her to not step on a tube of oil paint that I had left, for a no longer recalled strategic purpose, on the floor drain in front of the washer.  I gathered from the pained look she gave me that she thought that I should quit working and move the tube.  I gallantly ignored her unreasonable expectations and began to rework a difficult passage that I’d been struggling with for days.  (The demands my paintings made on me often left me exhausted and mentally battered, but I had become used to making sacrifices.)  I barely noticed when she slammed the lid to the washer and retreated with baby back up the basement stairs–stomp, stomp, stomp.  “Some people,” I thought, “have it so easy.”

This morning I set up my French folding easel in my bathroom and began a palette knife self-portrait.  I spent an hour or two.  Judy wondered what kept me out of sight for so long, and I asked her if she’d like to see how I had managed to turn yet another room into a studio.  She stared at my work arrangement and the newly begun painting, but instead of expressing wonder at my ingenuity she said, “I guess this means that you’ll be using my bathroom a lot.”

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My wife.  The muse.

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Adventures with Rats

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I saw my first rat at the head of a troop of four rodents galumphing along with a humpbacked, rhythmic lurch from a strip of woods toward a dumpster in back of a Red Lobster.  I felt some fear about opening the lid as I dragged some garbage bags to the same destination.  The rats could be mistaken for small raccoons in the dim light, and they looked very determined to get their teeth into the same kind of crud that I was hauling.  Trash duty, what the manager called “a cigarette break”, apparently came with the added bonus of risking rabies from a rat bite.

My second encounter happened 30 years later as I stood in the shade outside my warehouse studio near downtown Orlando.  This rat was sleeker and could have been mistaken for a squirrel except for his stripped down tail, laid back ears, and long, bounding gait.  He crossed a parking lot and the street in front of me and headed for a hole in the wall near the foundation.  He stopped when he saw me looking at him and froze for a second.  His eyes were wide with fear.  I was too stunned to do anything but let him pass.  A month later I noticed holes in the bottom of my plastic waste can and gnaw marks.  Inside the can were a few torn up baggies that had once held peanut butter sandwiches.

We began to see more signs of rat activity in the building.  One day a bold rat charged Rose, a fellow painter, while she sat and ate a sandwich.  I heard that she screamed and dropped the sandwich, and that the rat got away with the booty.  The artists held a meeting and decided to ban food in the building and to call Florida Hospital, our landlord, to ask for help.  A few maintenance men eventually came and sealed some of the holes around the foundation and put down glue traps at the base of the pipes and conduits on the inside walls.  Folks had seen rats using them to travel from an open storage loft down to the floor.

I found more gnaw marks and holes in my waste cans.  I set out spring traps baited with peanut butter in my studio.  I killed one rat, but then the rest of them got wise.  I’d find sprung traps stripped clean of bait several feet from their original position.  The little bastards had figured out that if they nudged the base of a trap the kill bar would spring harmlessly.  They chowed down in safety and then sharpened their teeth by gnawing on the wooden edges of the traps.  I went to Miller’s Hardware in Winter Park and bought something more newfangled.  It was a plastic box with one open end.  A small metal tray near the back wall could be baited.  A battery pack delivered an electric shock if a rat ventured far enough inside to eat the bait.  I killed three rats before the rest of the colony figured out that it was a death machine.  At that point I began to wonder which species was smarter, humans or rats.

I had two unfortunate rat disposal moments at the warehouse.  I made the mistake of leaving a baited trap in my studio during a three day absence.  When I returned I could smell rot and death from the moment I entered the front door of the building.  The aroma and the partially liquefied remains made me gag several times as I scraped my victim up and carried him out to a nearby dumpster.  I had to scrub the kill zone over and over and leave my windows open for the rest of the day.  A few weeks later I heard a woman scream.  I ran out of my studio and found Kathy and another woman by the bathroom.  They pointed to something odd on the floor.  It twisted and flopped.  I came closer and saw a rat caught on one of the glue traps.  The ladies nominated me to take care of the ugly mess, and I got a broom and a dust pan.  The little guy looked terrified as I picked him up on the pan and carried him out.  His chest bellowed in and out, and while he continued to try to break free his efforts were feeble.  I paused for a moment and tried to decide what to do.  I had seen my father kill a mouse caught in a trap by crushing its head with his heel, but couldn’t bring myself to do that.  Instead I laid him under a bush and left him to his fate.  I assumed a bird or cat would finish him off, and that he might have a few moments of peace in the open air before he met his fate.

Shortly after our rat problem became manageable at the studio I began to hear odd noises late at night in the walls of my home.  I could hear scrabbling, scratching and gnawing sounds.  Pink tufts of insulation fell from our air conditioning vents at odd intervals, and I  decided to call in a pro.  I didn’t want to crawl around in the dark of our attic in search of prey.  Crazy Eddy drove up our driveway in an old, dented pick up truck.  He was a wiry man of average height with three day old whiskers.  He wore dirty overalls, a long sleeved tee shirt with holes in the arms, and a sweat stained baseball cap.  He knew just what to do.  He put chicken wire over the ventilation vents on the roof and around the base of the hose that ran from the air conditioner up through a conduit and into the attic.  He checked all the ventilation holes around the bottom edge of the attic, but noted with approval that I had already chicken wired them shut.  Then he set spring traps in the attic near the trapdoor in the bedroom hall.  He said the sealed in rats couldn’t go out to forage and would take the bait when their hunger overcame their natural caution.  We heard a trap snap a few days later.  Crazy Eddy came by, cheerfully cleared the trap, wrapped the mangled body in a plastic bag, and reset.  We only had to call him once more.  Most of the rats must have been outside the house when Eddy sealed up all the entry points.

Last night I heard a scraping noise at 3 a.m.  Then I heard a thump and scrabbling sounds above my bed.  I got up and followed the noise out to the bedroom hall and heard something passing over the wooden trap door to the attic.  I tapped gently on the ceiling, but whatever was up there ignored me until I rattled the door hard.  Silence for a few minutes, and then the scrabbling noises began again.  I gave up and went back to bed, but couldn’t get to sleep until nearly dawn.

This afternoon I found chicken wire eaten through on three ventilation holes and a small gap in the eaves on the east side.  A vine grew up and into the half inch wide space between two boards.  I stripped the vine off, stapled new squares of chicken wire over the open ventilation holes and the gap in the boards, attached sticky glue traps to outside wires leading from the ground up to the attic, and set glue and spring traps in the attic.

My wife recalled how much Crazy Eddy had charged for his services and said that I had just saved us $750.  I disagreed and said, “That’ll come true when I clear a dead rat out of the attic.”

Fast Food Work is Fun: Part II–Christmas Party

In 1981 some friends and I rented a house in a neighborhood known as Slidertown near the southern edge of downtown Dayton.  We were a group of artists and students from the University of Dayton, and used the building as a collective studio.

That year I worked full time at Godfather’s Pizza to save up for a return to school to finish my B.F.A.  I decided to throw a party for my coworkers while the studio artists were away on Christmas vacation.  I tidied up the main room, hung some garland, made a huge pot of barbecue using my Mom’s recipe, set up a record player and bought a six pack of cheap beer.

Folks arrived in twos and threes and brought snack food, wine, beer and booze.  There was a keg outside of dubious origin that may have been lifted from the restaurant’s premises.  The party was subdued for the first hour or so, but picked up as more alcohol was consumed and inhibitions began to fall away.

I stepped outside to get away from the noise and burgeoning chaos and talked to a day manager and Debbie, a night shift manager from another store.  Snow was falling lightly in big, puffy flakes and started to accumulate.  Street lights sparkled on the surface of the snow and on the ice in the bare branched trees along the street, and the night became hushed and still.  We heard a jingling sound and muffled clop-clops, and when we turned to look up the street we saw a man wearing a buckskin coat and cowboy hat riding a large white mare.  The horse had a belled blanket on its back.  The man dismounted, tied his horse to a post in a bent chain link fence and helped himself to some beer.

I never learned the cowboy’s identity and never found out why he was riding a horse on Brown Street–the nearest stable was at least 10 miles away–as I was nominated to drive Billy home.  Billy was the son of a friend of the restaurant owner.  He had the eyes and lips of a young girl, seemed very thoughtful but was a little mentally slow.  He appeared to be sensitive, and while he could do the work at the store he often seemed on the verge of tears.  Now he was on the verge of passing out, and I had to help him into my Pinto station wagon.  He lived in Centerville, a wealthy suburb on the far south side, and I had to stop for gas.  Billy began to dry heave when I pulled up to the pump, and I ordered him to open his window and hang his head outside my car.  I was flustered as I filled my tank, and discovered the next day that I had forgotten to put the gas cap back on.

We made it a few miles down the road when Billy threw up on the side of the car. He was rendered speechless for another mile, but was able to give me slurred directions when we got nearer to his home and he began to recognize familiar landmarks. We eventually made it to his neighborhood.  The houses were mini-mansions set far back from the road amidst stands of maple and oak trees.  Billy got out of the car when I slowed to a stop as I tried to decipher his final directions, and he started to stagger through shallow drifts of snow beneath the trees.  I called out to him to try to get him back into the car, but he waved and shouted something unintelligible to me as he stumbled up a driveway that may have belonged to his father.  I waited to see if he got inside as I feared that he might freeze to death in the cold, but he waved me off as he pounded on the front door.

When I returned to the party three fourths of the booze, beer and wine was gone, nearly all the food had been eaten, and folks were scattered all over the house in small clusters.  I could smell spilled beer and pot and the delicate aroma of boozy vomit.  Dee sat in the upstairs hallway holding her stomach and moaning.  She told me that she was in a lot of pain and that she had drunk too much.  I offered to take her to a hospital, but she refused.  She was afraid that her abusive husband would find out that she had gotten sick on Jack Daniels again.  Megan, a dark haired beauty too young to be drinking anything stronger than root beer, told me again and again as she struggled to remain standing that Dee was all right.  Buford was lying on his back a few doors down, and he gurgled to me with a smile on his face when I checked up on him.  Downstairs someone cranked up Molly Hatchet on the stereo, and it was nearly loud enough to drown out the sound of a crash.  I ran downstairs and found an overturned trash can on the floor in the main room.  Beer cans, bottles, paper plates and plastic cups were spilled out in a nasty jumble, and there was broken glass nearby.  A couple rolled around on a sofa a few feet away, and the throes of their passion may have caused one of them to kick over the can.

I retreated outside again, lit a cigar and stared at the stars, and pondered my folly.  The snow stopped and the temperature dropped down to near zero, and the chill did wonders to clear my head and force me to reconsider nearly all my choices in life.

Around 2:00 I went back inside and told everyone to leave.  They staggered out in twos and threes, Dee among them having recovered as predicted by the raven haired Megan, and they wobbled and wavered their separate ways.  I got up at noon the next day and started to gather trash and sweep up party debris inside the house and out in the yard.  (Nothing calls the spirit of the holidays to mind like the sight of a crushed beer can next to a pile of cigarette butts in the snow.)

When I went back to work the next day Buford shook my hand and thanked me for throwing the best party ever.