Fourteen

 

“It’s all about truth! I mean….” Thick fog drips off wires fizzing overhead. Cones of bright mist beneath each street lamp. An ivory glow. “If you put down the big notes as you see ‘em.” Fog alternates with a fine drizzle, swirling around enameled reflectors capping clear, blown-glass bulbs. “Doesn’t matter about the rest.” Two men walk down the middle of the street. “You’ve got something.” Shoulders hunched. “Clutter it up.” Worn, corduroy jackets belted tight. “Get the big notes wrong.” Scarves about their necks. Brimmed-caps coated in a tracery of fine droplets that catch the light. Walking fast in a sinuous zigzag, “Y’a got nothin’.”

Peter gestures as he speaks, making sharp angular cuts with the edge of his left hand. His right shoved deep in a jacket pocket. Albert turns his head, leaning down to hear.

Winded by their pace, Peter pushes on, marching fast through soft, rutted sand, “Drawing’s fine… Course it is! But, if the color’s not right? It… it’s not painting!” He looks up at Albert for emphasis, squinting behind round, wire-frame glasses.

“What’s paint? Color! First and foremost! Gesture? Calligraphy? Brush strokes? Whatever you want to call the marks you make. Y’a choose the color first! Choose the wrong color? Wrong value? Wrong tone? No amount of squirming around with a brush ’ll save you!” He swings his free hand, stabbing the air. “’S what’s so great here! The light! It’s strong! Color’s insistent. Like Venice for Christ’s sake!” He spreads his arms to take in the shadowy, deserted street.
“Ignore color here and you lose it all!” He stops short. His hand shoots out, banging across Albert’s chest. Albert can’t help but run into it. They tangle. Swing to the side, coming to a halt, Rail-cars clanging on a siding.

“Ignore color here. You lose it all!” Peter repeats his creed. Huffing, he turns to face his taller, younger companion. Eyes shining, “Ignore color here. You lose it all!” He tugs at his collar, breathing harder now that they’ve stopped. Pulls a leather pouch from his shirt pocket, tugging at its drawstrings, rolling a cigarette one-handed, licking the paper. He puts the tobacco away. Strikes a match across the back of his thigh. Its glow reflects off both their faces as the paper catches with a flare. With a short down-flick he fans the match dead before tossing it away.

“What about a drawing? How about a charcoal sketch?” Speaking between deep drags, exhaling his words, smoke catching in his larynx, “I’ll tell you.” Spitting out a curl of tobacco, “It’s the same. What’s color? Light! White’s all color. Black? Absence.”

He walks on quietly. They follow a bend in the street around a looming cold-storage plant. The dim glow of its front windows splashes light across a deep front porch, spilling onto the sand-street. Dim fanlights pierce a heavily pedimented gable. Inside, an unseen graveyard shift keeps its furnaces stoked and monitors the machinery. Sulfurous coal-smoke, tinged with the odor of fish waste, tangles with the fragrance of sharp Turkish tobacco in the damp air.

Albert takes a hitch in his step, half skipping to adjust to his friend’s stride. He works to maintain his body half-turned towards his friend. Peter goes on, “Drawing’s about light! Drawing’s about light! Just like painting! Hell, what’s a piece of charcoal? Pigment! White paper? Light! And Light’s Color!” Answering his own questions before Albert can respond, “What’d I say before? Get the big notes against each other and you’ve got it! Same in a drawing. Watercolor? Etching? Whatever Goddamn thing! Course it’s simpler with only light and dark, but it’s subtle….” He lowers and then raises his voice to make his point, “Don’t think that makes it any EASIER!”

Reaching across Albert, he tugs at his friend’s sleeve, bringing them to another abrupt halt. Albert, Ready this time, No collision, “Look at this!” Squinting his eyes, legs apart, arms thrust ahead. He embraces the scene, “See the light filtering through those branches? The shadow of that roof line?” Pointing up and to his right, “The way the boardwalk looms out of the mist?” Swinging his arm, “That fence? The mass of that rose bush?” Pointing, “The trunk of that big maple? These ruts!” Stabbing his arm as he talks, “All fog and darkness! Like a Goddamn Whistler! Hell! You know Stieglitz? A damn photographer for Christ’s sake! You can’t help but see the big notes when it looks like this!” Gesticulating, “To Hell with perspective! That won’t help you here! The fog closes everything in.” He blocks out planes of space with his hands, stacking them one ahead of the other. Squinting his eyes, “Set up planes of color. Value’s color. Don’t forget! Tune ’em so they’re right and you’ve got something!” Reaching under the flap of his coat he pulls out a hip-flask. Pops its cork and takes a deep drag. Its silver neck gleams. Its dark leather cover buried in his fist.

“So basic!” Swallowing, “But, it’s always that way… When you start getting fancy?” Another pull at his flask, “Forget the basics? Run off after some will-o-the whisp? Fall flat on your ass!” Alcohol burns his vocal cords, “Ah…” Reversing his motions, he puts the flask away. Eyes locked on Albert’s. A grim set to his lips, swallowing to clear his throat. “Why do we do it, eh?” He coughs, blinking. Raising his voice, “What’s the point of being a Goddamn Painter anyway!”

His exclamation echoes down the late-night street. Albert cringes. Looks around. Concerned to see who might be bothered by their passage. They walk on. Peter’s question follows, This time he might actually want an answer! Albert shifts gears mentally, getting ready to speak, Do I want to try out some theory for the first time? Out here on the street? In the middle of the night? With him?

Most of what he’s spouting’s straight from Hawthorne. Studied with him for a few years…. So what? I know all that! As well as he does! Glancing at his companion out of the corner of his eye, walking too fast, head down. Left arm pumping.

“TRUTH! The same thing! No matter! It’s how we do it. And why…”

There he goes…. Relieved, Albert nods his agreement in advance, Heard it all before.

“What’s so great about this place! Real people, honest labor, the SEA!” Peter spreads his arms wide. “You know? Sure, it’s subject matter… But, beyond that, it’s…” He hesitates, “It’s a way of life, a PRACTICE!”

A smile spread across his friend’s face, “Looking at the world this way. Looking for visual relationships, sticking to the basics. SEEING! Recognizing what you see! Learning how to recognize truth in the middle of all the prevarication and lazy approximations!” Peter relaxes. Slows down.

He picks up his pace, walking and talking. Each statement punctuated by sharp footfalls, the staccato of his labored breath, “Practice – recognizing – truth. – Know – when – you’ve been able – to capture it! – THAT’S – a way – to live!”

*

Railroad crossing. Tracks run out onto the wharf to their right, Do I keep on with Peter? Hear him out to the end? Or take my leave and head home?

Looking to the left past the depot, It’s late. Not wanting to check his watch, gauging the time in his head, Must’ve been after two when we left Morton’s…. That second bottle! Thought the night air would’ clear my head by now. Hell with it! Enough’s enough! He slows as they come to the tracks. Peter walks on another few steps. Stops talking. Sees Albert holding back, “What? Oh. I suppose you’re tired.”

Touching sincerity after all his bluster.

Looking over at the depot, “Heading home, eh? Suppose it’s late enough. See you tomorrow then!” Asked and answered his own questions! Same as always!

Striding back, Peter shakes Albert’s hand, “Yes, Off to bed. Good talking to you Peter! Good night!” First words I’ve said out loud in over a mile! “Don’t know if I’ll make it down too early tomorrow. It’s late… This weather….” Make my break. Intent to prolong his reprieve into the next day.

Peter grins, “Well, you know where I’ll be! See you tomorrow!” Moving on across the level crossing in a scissored, sideways step, waving his left arm, his right stuck deep in his pocket. He trips over the crossing’s wooden ramp. Turns his back on Albert, concentrating on his footing, navigating the deep sand. He marches off into the East End. Off to the fish-house he rents as a live-in studio.

Albert stands on a moment, watching this juggernaut push off into the fog: sand kicking off his heels, arm pumping, shoulders hunched.

A drop of condensation off the overhead wires lands with a, Plop on his shoulder. He looks up at the tangle of cross-trees, power and telegraph wires that converge over this intersection. Sparks. Electrical shorts fizz on salt-crusted, green-glass insulators, buzzing. Twisting vapors rush off into the blackness beyond the streetlight’s halo. He hunches his shoulders and pulls his lapels tight around his neck. Peter disappears into the darkness and fog.
Albert takes a deep breath, exhaling between his teeth, He always does this. I feel…. Still, exhilarating…, a chance to talk, well, listen to Peter’s views on art. S’why I came to Provincetown! Mix with people, ideas.

Experiment. Think about things. Just because I’m quiet….

Peter…. His damned egotism! Never a thought for anybody….

Never takes offense…. Doesn’t care what anyone thinks!

“Sheesh!” Albert starts up a side-street paralleling the tracks. Light floods across from the depot, blinding him to the ground beneath his feet. Walking slowly, sidestepping a jumble of horse-plops in deeply rutted sand, Can’t stay angry. If I ever put my own grandiose musings into words…. Put them out-there…. Fall flat. What have I got to say that’s not just another trite restatement of the obvious?

My own doing. My Tragic Condition! Fear…. When will I ever get past wishing and get to doing?

The problem with my paintings…. Sure, Peter’s work’s rough. Hasty, unfinished. Stacks of barely begun canvases. Bare patches, thin washes. His most over-worked paintings still show bare-canvas. Mangy, mongrel things!

Better than my prissy, tight, overworked crap. Thinking of the canvases waiting for him in his room, Peter just finds it! In their awkwardness truth shines… I’m so caught up with appearances. Even when I do get something right. I lose it. Make it presentable. Miss something…. I know it. About life? Everything. Try so hard. Stuck in habits. Afraid. Don’t let what I really want happen…. Fabrications. Sneaking around. Trying to hide my difficulties. Affecting virtuosity….

Peter… He’s not ashamed when his stuff looks awkward. Lets his effort show. No apologies. Doesn’t hide his weaknesses. Revels in them. Is that an approach? A touch of true eloquence? Who knows? But, so far?  He blurts out, “I had shows In Cleveland!” A boast? A complaint? Don’t know how I mean it.

Speaking quietly to himself, “I’m glad I’ve come here.” Part cheerleader, part preacher, “Stay the winter. Peter’s staying. New York can wait!” Blushing as he says this, “Bullshit! Why can’t I be clear? Even to myself?” Lowering his head, “Peter talks about truth. I believe in it. It’s what I want more than anything! Why can’t I manage it at least a little bit?”

Peter would say, “I’m staying the winter! To hell with Washington Square! It’ll be there next year! Can’t drag myself away from her! Why should I? Probably love her! Might as well find out! Hell, she might love ME!”

“Oh, forget it. Can’t even kid about it.” Passing the depot. The diagonals forced onto this part of town by the railroad tracks still confuse him, Everything else is so parallel. He shakes his head.

A squat locomotive puffs away on a siding. Its acetylene headlamp illuminates limestone headstones arranged in ragged rows. He turns down a little alleyway, slowing his pace, quieting his footfalls, Don’t want to wake that old guard-dog. Sleeps on a patch of bare ground by some sheds. Damned dog! Half a lion! Hate to meet him out loose some night! Reaching in his pocket for his key, embarrassed by the heat in his trousers, Just the thought of her….

His own entrance at the back of an ell. Congratulating himself on not waking the dog, he carefully works the latch, tugging and lifting the door clear of its rough, stone sill, Scrap from building the Monument? Some old crypt? He turns. Over his shoulder stands an obelisk. Tall rectangular stones and cast-bronze crosses range away as far as he can see into the mist.

Climbing steep, narrow stairs in pitch darkness. Inches his toes up each step, testing, rising. His breathing echoes off rough plaster. Sand on the soles of his shoes grinds into the worn, dry wood, Too loud. Don’t want to wake the house. Shit! Who cares! Worried about my reputation? “Here? What a joke!”

Grimacing, “No, it’s not.” He blushes in the dark, She’s sleeping off in the front of the house, in that little room under the eaves. Never been up there; but I can picture it. Walking by, her lamp lit, her window, her shade open to the night air….

Kicking the corner of a stretched canvas against the wall behind the door, “Shit!” He reaches for it. Desperate to keep it from falling flat with a, Slam!
Noisily breathing through his mouth, Flustered by a flight of stairs! He adopts a short-gait-ed shuffle for the last few steps across the room to his bed, No more collisions. His head is thick, The pillow so close. Kicking off his shoes without untying them, he loosens his necktie with short, jerky tugs. Leans forward to lay his jacket across the chair he knows is there by the little table. His fingers trace its bent wood back.

Left the window open. The room’s freezing! A warm afternoon, “Autumn out here!” He shakes his head.

Dew hangs in droplets, reflecting the streetlight through a crewel-work curtain. He steps in wet. His bare foot jumps, “Damn!”

Peering out into the gloom, he tugs at a stick propping up the sash. Gently takes its weight, lowering, Screech!

Not loud? Too loud now.

Woof! Woof, Woof! “Damned dog!” Won’t know it was me at least. Sinking into his mattress, pulling a stiff linen sheet over himself. A heavy, wool blanket presses on his feet, “What if I do love her?…”

 

 

Continue…

 

 

 

 

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