Upon first hearing the screen door, Dad stopped his guffawing at Sergeant Carter's incredulous expressions and stared at us with eyes wide and rapt as a newborn. When the knock finally sounded, he announced, "They've come," and hurriedly gulped down the remainder of his Jack in the Box taco, as excited as I'd ever seen him. My brother and I glanced over at our mother and saw her smile weakly. Her face, I'd lately noticed, was beginning to look haggard and apprehensive, reminiscent of women in photos from the Great Depression. Dad stood, patted my shoulder and grandly announced, "Son, you and I are going to become artists."
"What about Ike?" I asked, noticing sullenness wash over my older brother's face.
"Him too, Harry," Dad responded and laughed, opening the door.
Thus began his attempt to become the next Norman Rockwell, and me, I suppose, a supportive acolyte.
Dad had a thing for Rockwell. Prints of his paintings adorned nearly every wall of the apartment—over the protestations of Mom, who had a preference for peaceful landscape scenes she could gaze at to defuse a day of shrieking special ed students. "Saying Grace," an illustration showing a grandmother and grandchild bowing over a diner table with two young toughs looking on in wonderment, hung in the kitchen next to a window facing a yard overgrown in ragweed and cocklebur. Even at my tender age of thirteen, I sensed the irony in this: we never prayed as a family and we'd stopped going to North Central Baptist Church years before.
"Before the Shot," depicting a little boy with his bare butt exposed, his trousers halfway down, and the doctor off to one side readying a hypodermic, graced a living room wall buckled with water damage. Mom considered this image highly indiscreet and took steps to cover it when we had visitors, which hardly ever happened—we being, in my view, a neurotic island unto ourselves. "Girl at Mirror" had been placed next to the mirror in our parent's bedroom, the only bedroom—Ike and I slept on cots propped against the living room wall after use to open up precious space. Mom was actually a little jealous of this last print—she confided later—because it reminded her of better days when she herself was a bit of a coquette.
Ike and I thought these visual enhancements supremely corny. We were of the early rock generation and yearned for posters of The Who and The Byrds and secretly met with Butch, a rank-smelling hipster from down the road, to sample pot in the backyard. When Dad brought home yet another reproduction, "Walking to Church," the purchase annoyed me because of its redundancy and my conviction that our abode had been sufficiently saturated with sentimentality. I asked him why on earth he liked Rockwell so much.
He turned from perusing the want ads ubiquitously spread on our tiny kitchen table, removed the thick horn-rimmed glasses that made his eyes seem to peer from another dimension, and gazed at me like he shouldn't have to be explaining this.
"Because, he started from nothing and now he's recognized the world over. He showed you can do anything you put your mind to. That's something you should remember."
(I found out later, "starting from nothing" wasn't exactly the case with Rockwell. He'd had a relatively cushy upbringing and he'd certainly been raised in a home larger than our own.)
I think I responded with some smart-alecky comment, "Right. I'll just jump from the roof and put my mind to it that I can fly."
Dad chuckled at this, but then turned serious. "You're young. You don't get it yet."
He was fond of platitudes—sayings such as, "If you can dream it, you can do it," and, "What the mind can conceive, it can achieve." He was an innocent, my dad, despite having gone through a war. He delighted in silly sitcoms and could be mesmerized by the sappiest movies like "A Patch of Blue" and "The Unsinkable Molly Brown"—flicks that revolted me, and had my brother and I snickering together late into the night.
"Besides," my dad concluded, "the man's stuff is wholesome, not like some of the crap you and your brother are into."
After tipping the parcel delivery guy, Dad returned lugging three huge three-ring binders, each about the size of a cabinet drawer. Sweeping the remaining eats off to the side, he slapped them down onto the table. These were from FAS (the Famous Artists School)—the red binder for beginning lessons, the blue for intermediate, and the yellow for advanced.
Mom looked at them blankly. "We can't afford this, Jim," she said quietly. "You know we can't."
"They've already been afforded, honey. Already paid for." Dad smiled and surveyed our doubtful faces.
Mom shook her head and began to clear the table. Her face showed a balance of sympathy and anger. The slightest pursing of her lips, I knew, could throw her either way.
"And, besides," he said, "you know what they say, 'You have to spend money to make money.'"
Mom sighed and turned away, muttering, "How, dear, is this going to make any money?"
Dad winked at me and nodded toward Mom. "O ye of little faith," he whispered. Ike stared down at the floor.
The arrival of the correspondence course wasn't a complete surprise to my brother and me. We could trace its appearance to one night the previous week, when, during a commercial break as we squeezed together on our one sofa watching a rerun of "F-Troop," the ad came on. The camera zoomed in through the window of a suburban mansion to a man who sat at an easel sketching a full length portrait of a sexy woman in high heels, his face plastered with the smugness of one who has "made it." In mid-stroke, he turned to the camera and his face widened into a grin. Jazzy background music started up.
"Now you too could have a lucrative career in commercial art," began the crooning narrator.
Dad leaned forward.
"Work out of the convenience of your own home."
"Assuming you have a convenient home," scoffed Mom.
Dad hushed her and leaned farther.
"Be your own boss."
My brother and I glanced at each other, unsure what to think.
"Live the good life," dripped the narrator.
Mom watched Dad's reaction and shook her head. She'd seen this before.
"Call now the helpful folks at 1-800-love art."
Dad hurriedly jotted down the phone number.
It wasn't much later that my brother and I overheard a heated conversation between our parents in the bedroom (impossible not to overhear such conversations).
"Three hundred dollars! And twenty per month on top of that?" I could picture Mom's petite frame tensing, her lips pursing and forehead knotting in a way that would surely cause fear in her undisciplined charges at school.
"Sugar, it's only for three years."
A gagging cough. The sound of a chair scraping. A hissed, "Unbelievable!"
My dad's voice became plaintive. "I need something. Some kind of future. I can't drive laundry around the rest of my life."
Quiet reigned for a moment, Mom probably considering.
"This could be our ticket out," Dad added, pleading his case.
"But you have to buy all your own supplies."
"Some pencils, paper, charcoal, and... uh... watercolors. Not a big deal."
A drawn-out sigh. "We live like sardines and you have to do this."
Ike and I exchanged looks, thinking the same thing, that, while we sympathized with Dad, we heartily agreed with Mom—this was no place to raise teenagers. We were gangly and growing and even now lay wedged up against each other on the sofa, head to toe, leafing through our music albums. When the door clicked open we hurriedly replaced our headphones and continued inspecting inserts.
I'd often wonder why Mom was so hung up on money. Teachers, I assumed, made good salaries. I thought it might have to do with "the cove."
When Ike and I were about five and six, our parents purchased a waterfront lot in a place called Forest Cove off Lake Houston. Dad dreamed of building a house there and raising us in an artistic setting. We visited the lot several times, striding through the weeds, kicking pine cones, trying to avoid grass burrs, looking wistfully out at the motorboats pirouetting laughing skiers and sending waves sloshing against the shore. Dad had high ambitions as a salesman for the Fuller Brush company.
But, he left that company, because of personality differences, he said—the same reason, Mom confided to us, that we left church. The lot disappeared from our lives. After that, Mom started to look worried at every knock on the door, and we started receiving a lot of mail stamped, "Urgent! Open Immediately!" that Dad tossed in the trash without opening.
The thing about my father—he didn't have much talent. We'd known this for some time. He'd been dabbling in art over the years and always came to us for approval of his latest handiwork as if we represented the cream of The New York Times' critics.
For my tenth birthday he proudly handed me a picture of a whitetail deer lapping up water from a tree-lined brook, done in watercolor. The trees weren't bad and the stream adequately reflected the cloud-puffed sky but the animal itself proved a sight, with legs far too fat and oversized cartoonish eyes—Bambi eyes—complete with eyelashes. Possessed with a certain tact even at an early age, I murmured my appreciation for this "creation," all the while searching behind and around him for some sign of my "real" present.
One Sunday afternoon, he got Mom to sit for a portrait. How he accomplished this I don't know, because you could tell from her constantly shifting eyes and squirming posture that she'd rather be anywhere else. The result was... well... classic. Her hair, mouth, and forehead were commendable. But large ears sprouted from her head and gave the appearance they might at any time start flapping in the breeze. And her lips, the opposite of full, were compressed as if being drawn into her teeth and suggested a sinister smirk. It pained me to look at it, such a thing of unintentional mockery, no hint of the beauty I knew was there based on old Polaroids. Mom cleared her throat, stared down at the sketch, and finally allowed that it'd been quite well done, immediately grabbing for her apron in a desperate need to be busy.
When Dad suggested posting it on one of the walls, she vehemently objected. No need to take down any of the Rockwells, she said, because—well—she'd by now grown fond of them.
My mother's likeness went into one of the dresser drawers along with countless other sketches of greater or lesser quality. Some of these weren't bad at all, the ones that didn't involve living beings—landscapes, still lifes, and the like. His main problem seemed to be with proportion, or, I guessed, anatomy in general. I, of course, was no expert, but my brother and I agreed on this being an Achilles Heel.
Once, after being subjected to his latest monstrosity—a portrait of our grandmother based on an old photo and bearing a faint resemblance to Gollum topped by a hair bun—we asked him, "Why don't you draw something cool, like your battleship with guns blazing?" We had dug out his old USS Colorado serviceman's book from a pile of ancient paperbacks in the closet and laid it before him. The cover showed the ship's sixteen-inch guns blasting away at some Pacific island, the barrels' brilliant blasts starkly contrasting with the faded blue of the book itself.
He paused and said, "Oh—I don't know. Maybe someday. Go ahead and put that away, it's time to eat."
He was hesitant to talk about the war, and whatever we knew had to be pried out of him, mostly during commercial breaks watching John Wayne movies.
"I functioned as a very small cog in a very big wheel, not any kind of hero," he would say, deflecting the topic.
"But you must have been scared?" I once insisted.
"Some, but the only injury I ever got was a sprained ankle," he said, and turned back to the TV. "I'd been hurrying to mess hall, afraid I'd miss the hash."
Over time, we garnered additional tidbits.
We learned that he manned a five-inch gun. That he'd often be awakened by the battle-stations horn, and go from a snug bunk to facing swarms of kamikazes, his head still sleep-fogged.
"There was this one," he said, "that just kept coming and coming, through puffs of ack-ack thick as ink blots, and I remember thinking, Are we ever going to get him? Then that one slammed into the ocean and others swept in, and I thought, How are we ever going to survive this?" Outside Okinawa, Dad said he looked up at the contrails from P38s and Zeros dogfighting in the sunny sky and wondered how, in God's name, they managed it. And at nighttime off Tarawa, Dad gazed out at the flashes of light—agitated fireflies twinkling throughout the otherwise darkened island—and marveled that the marines could stomach it, how anyone could stomach it. He doubted that he could. He was no hero like those guys, he said, and thanked the Lord he'd directed his gawky seventeen-year-old body to the Navy.
Dad related his war experiences matter-of-factly and piecemeal during TV and dinner breaks, except when it came to the Tinian operation.
He sat back one day and told the story of how one uneventful sparkling summer afternoon the ship had been cruising by a tiny nondescript island in the Marianas when a Japanese shore battery opened up on them. "We were completely unprepared," he said, "and a lot of sailors got killed. Body parts littered the decks and we spent hours hosing down the blood and gore."
"There was this one fellow—his name was Matt Fowler, I remember," Dad continued, developing a thousand-yard stare, "He lay propped up against a wall by the forecastle—his leg hanging on by a little string, a tendon. You know what he said to me?"
"What?" my brother and I asked, spellbound.
"He asked me for a cigarette," Dad answered. "The guy just smiled and asked for a cigarette. Can you imagine? Found out later he didn't make it." Dad shook his head slowly at the memory. Then, after a pause, said, "Let's clear away these dishes."
Despite Dad's assertions otherwise, I think he had more of the hero in him than he imagined. I came to the conclusion years later, after my own battle to make it as a word painter—that nothing could be more heroic than determining to become an artist.
For Dad, this ambition was redlined by FAS itself.
After calling the toll-free number, he received an introductory letter congratulating him on taking the first step to gain a measure of independence most only dream about, describing the long roster of famous names acting as "personalized" instructors (including Rockwell), and directing him to submit an original sketch for evaluation of nascent talent. A determination would be made, by a band of experts, whether he was a match for the program and its incredible benefits.
Dad worked feverishly on the assignment for a couple of days, and, when finished, was in such a hurry to send it off that he didn't insist on the whole family viewing it. I was the only one around and he asked me to take a quick gander. I didn't want to. By now, I could hardly mask the spasm of embarrassment that came over my face when exposed to his productions. But I caught a glimpse—a self-portrait of him clamped down on a pipe (which he never smoked, but Rockwell did). The pipe drew my focus and kept me from adequately assessing the remainder of the face. I vaguely noticed the nose crooked a little off to the side. But, all in all, I'd seen worse from him.
"You think?" Dad asked.
"Yes," I said.
And sure enough, he soon received a glowing response praising his potential as a commercial artist and therewith admitting him into the program. He passed the acceptance letter around the dinner table, and again around the breakfast table, so pumped with thrill it hurt to see him. Later, he took me aside.
Explaining things to me as if I were an adult, which he tended to do when excited, he said, "I'd like to be a Van Gogh and do art merely for the joy of it. But, sometimes a man needs to make the money. Understand? I'm not selling out."
"I understand, Dad."
"And look," he lowered his voice, "in a few years, after high school, this might be something you can take advantage of as well."
"But Ike is more into drawing than me. I want to be a writer or a musician." Ike listened over in the corner of the room, as it was impossible for him not to.
Lowering his voice even further, Dad said, "I've seen the things you've come up with. That sketch of the guitar player—who was it?—Eric Clayton?—that was dynamite."
"But I want to be a writer, or, a musician."
"I've seen and heard that stuff too."
The evening of the binders' arrival, Dad cracked open the red one and began to read, blurting out a running commentary as he progressed, mostly lost on the rest of us as we attempted to watch Perry Mason at low volume.
"Look at all this. I mean, where to start?"
"They say I can take the lessons in whatever order I want."
"You've got anatomy, the head and hands, the human figure in motion, textures and surfaces, fashion and clothing, composition and pictorial design, the animal form, and on and on." His voice developed a note of concern. "So much stuff. How am I going to get through it all?"
"You can do it, Dad," I chipped in, all the while thinking, Where is that faith you keep talking about?
"Hey, you know what? I'm going to start with clothing. That sounds easy enough. Besides, I'm kind of in that line of work. Right?"
The thought flashed through my mind that he was stretching it. I personally thought he should start with anatomy or the human head, but didn't say anything. His relating the handling of soiled underwear bundles to portraying the creases and shading of elegant garments seemed an awfully weak gateway into that higher pursuit.
Ike and I got a taste of the lower pursuit one morning last summer when we rode around with Dad on his route. Even though we would be sweat-soaked by noon, Dad made sure we wore freshly ironed shirts and slacks. He, himself, went attired in his usual white short-sleeve shirt, tucked in, of course, and with an undershirt ever present even on the hottest days. He used to say, "If you want to be respected you have to look respectable."
Our first stop: Sanitary Laundry, his home base, located on Bissonnet in the southwest part of Houston, an avenue weaving through an attractive and upscale part of the city with pastel colored shops and numerous sidewalk cafes, though the street itself swarmed with unrelenting and urgent traffic that whisked around crepe myrtle islands and joined back up in thunderous opposition.
The establishment was set back in from the thoroughfare and shrouded by American elm and Texas ash, a homely building of whitewashed cinderblock latticed with trumpet creeper vines.
We took an alley around to the back, an area permeated by the sickly sweet smell of dry cleaning chemicals, and waited while Dad went in to get his tickets. He came back out trotting, despite the paunch he'd developed in the last couple of years, and seemed ebullient, smiling and calling out, "Saddle your horses, boys."
Our "horse" was a white 1960 Ford Econoline van rusted around the door hinges and emblazoned on the sides with the words, "Sanitary Laundry—We Suds Your Duds." It boasted one passenger seat, so my brother and I had to take turns sitting on the engine cover, placed mid-cab, which became uncomfortably warm after about twenty minutes of driving.
As we rolled away, a tub of a man with a spiky crew cut strode out and flagged us down. He leaned into Dad's window and said, "Now Jim, I've already told you about this twice." Then, seeing us, he said, "Oh, you got some help today, maybe that'll keep you lined out."
"What now, Bosley?" Dad said, his face hardening.
"You missed Mrs. Barber's pickup twice now. And I've told you before, you've got to go back around to her east door."
"This is the first I've heard of it."
"C'mon, Jim," the man said, trying to be pleasant. "You've got to focus. I hate getting chewed on. As I'm sure do you."
"Fine," Dad said and abruptly drove off, though the man apparently wanted to say more.
We stayed quiet for a long while. My brother and I noticed Dad chewing on his lips and his complexion darkening. It appeared to be a disproportionate response; his boss hadn't seemed all that rude. But we didn't want to say anything; we knew from past experience that chewing on his lips was a bad sign.
After a couple of miles, Dad finally murmured, "The things I have to put up with for two and a half measly dollars an hour," and shook his head.
The air rushing in through the open windows and the drone of the traffic eventually loosened him up and he began commenting on all the neighborhoods and which street led where. He took great pride in his driving skills and knew every nook and cranny of the city. Something about the freedom of movement and the thrill of being caught in the bustle enlivened Ike and me as well and we ended up enjoying ourselves, bumping along in this squeaky shuttle, though we felt a little sheepish, like we were too old to be riding around with our daddy—this especially true of Ike who had recently turned thirteen.
Corrections came back on an acetate overlay.
We all watched with hushed silence as Dad pulled it out, and we would have given a collective gasp if we were that kind of family. The overlay was marked up in red with curved lines and circles and comments so profuse we found it hard to make out the original drawing. The exercise Dad turned in had been to sketch the bottom half of a man wearing a baggy pair of slacks. To my untrained eye, it didn't look like Dad had done that bad, though the feet, sporting shiny Florsheims, may have been a bit on the small size. But the comments, several with exclamation marks, said otherwise—pointing out difficulties with the shading, the creases, the inseam, the hemline, and at least twenty other "helpful" criticisms.
Dad looked over his work long and hard. Then he sighed, placing it gently back in the oversized envelope.
"Well," he said, "looks like I have a ways to go." He said nothing more and his face displayed no obvious twitch or slackening, but we could tell he was bothered. He stayed sitting for several minutes gazing out the window. Mom looked over at him from the sink. A flick of concern crossed her face.
Ike moved forward and said, "I think you did okay, Dad."
Dad smiled and slowly shook his head. Then he turned to me, "Yes, well, what does my artist son make of it?"
I pointed over to Ike. "What he said." Then I added, "I don't think they know what they're talking about."
"Spoken like a true connoisseur," Dad said, patting my knee. Spoken like someone who's going to be giving up, I thought.
I smiled half-heartedly in return. The truth is, I loved my dad but I was slowly losing respect for him. I found myself suppressing the urge to utter biting sarcasms. Once, I sneered to Ike, "Dad's art is probably Forest Cove all over again," and chuckled. But Ike shot me a look that said, "How can you think that way?" It made me feel ashamed. I wished I could love Dad like Ike.
The next few days saw a slump in artistic activity and we thought maybe Dad had given up on the enterprise, a prospect that gave me mixed feelings and Mom a vast sense of relief.
But on a mid-week afternoon he entered the apartment full of renewed vigor, tossed his lunch box in the sink, and announced, "I can't wait for the day I tell Bosley he can keep his dirty laundry, and that I wash my hands of it. Get it? Wash my hands?"
We couldn't tell if he was angry or inspired or both.
He stared around at us, wild-eyed, as if he were welcoming any challenge to his pronouncement.
"It's going to happen you know?" he said.
"Sure, Pop," I said.
"God helps those who help themselves and, by gum, I'm going to help myself... ourselves. I'm going to skip to an easier lesson. I just need to get the ball rolling."
From that time Dad stopped cooking dinner and brought home carry-out every day so he could have more time for art. Mom, of course, complained that we couldn't afford carry out, but he admonished her with the slogan: "The only thing to fear is fear itself."
He also changed his work setup. Instead of honing his craft from a small chest of drawers next to the bed, he placed a garage sale desk in a corner of the living room, facing outward, giving him more surface area for his drawings and more elbow room, but radically impinging on Ike's and my already limited space. As a final touch, he strung up a sheet as a curtain to give him privacy.
"No peeking. You just get to see the final product," he told us.
For the next week we could hear him grunting from behind there, muttering, and, occasionally growling, "Dad-gum-it"—his patented curse of choice.
One evening as I passed close by to get a book from the corner crate, he startled me by calling out, "Give me a hand." Thinking he had some internal task for me, I began pulling aside the sheet, but he shouted, "No! I just need your hand. Scoot over a folding chair and stick your hand in here. Lay it on the desk, palm down."
I did as instructed, amused. "I'm going to be a hand model?"
"You realize how hard it is for me to draw my own hand? To get the angle right, the lighting correct?" Dad whistled quietly to convey the point. "Sit."
"For how long?"
No answer. The idea of staying motionless for hours with my arm swallowed into this pseudo-medical tent grew slowly less appealing. As if reading my thought, Dad said, "I've already asked Mother. She had to make an emergency run to the store for tomatoes."
"Oh stop the quivering, you have to be perfectly still."
A couple of weeks later, Dad returned from the mailbox with another FAS manila envelope in hand. "I don't want to look," he said. "Someone else open it." No one else volunteered, so I took the job. With only one-third of the drawing and overlay showing, I knew it wasn't good. But I continued pulling it out.
"Is there a lot of red?" Dad asked in trepidation.
"Um... some," I said.
I quickly scanned the notes, many of them surprisingly technical—"The FF and RF should not be as long as the MF." "Drag lines should point away from the MF. "The wrist line must curve into the palm base." I began to take the criticism personally, like they had a problem with my own hands since I was the source.
"I can tell plenty from your expression." Dad paused. "Those sons of bitches,"
"Sorry, Irene. It's just that—would it hurt for them to give a little encouragement?"
"Wait a minute," I interrupted. "There's a handwritten note inside."
"Saying what"? Dad asked, brightening.
I began to read, "This work appears to represent a young person's hands. You were assigned to draw an older adult's. It is imperative—to receive the full benefit of the course—that you follow the instructions. In fact, it is our opinion you should return to the beginning lesson in the red binder, and carefully proceed from there. And, as always, thanks for your business."
A somber silence prevailed. Mom said that he had given it his best effort. Nothing to feel bad about. Time to move on.
But Ike, having meanwhile poked through the packet, offered, "I think the hands are good, better than the work you sent in to get admitted to the program. Isn't that weird?"
"You're not helping, son," Dad remarked. He got up and moved toward the door. "I'll take a closer look later. Right now, I'm going to get some carry-out."
The beginning of the end, I thought.
Dad eventually tossed this latest mailing in the trash without giving it a second thought. Who needs the discouragement, he reasoned—and went back at it, though disregarding the "suggestion" to start at the beginning, thinking that backtracking would slow his progress.
He next tried his luck in the "Animal Forms" section. Drew a cat. Of sorts. A petite Persian possessing the paws of a lion and the ears of a sphynx. A creature of fantasy. The remarks, of course, were not kind. The page came back lacerated with red. We could tell this from a distance, which we carefully maintained, stepping gingerly around him as he sat stone-faced, fingering the edge of the table. By now, none of us knew what to say. We figured that was probably that, though I vaguely felt I should be encouraging him, because the genetics of quitting might poison my own future.
That wasn't quite that. Surprisingly, he did, as directed, go back to the beginning lesson. The Supplies and Techniques section. This relieved me, to some extent, because he wouldn't have to send anything in, at least anytime soon, and wouldn't need to have his artistic sense challenged, and that meant lower tension. This was a miscalculation on my part because, if anything, the running commentary from behind the curtain became more pronounced.
While my brother and I tried to focus on our separate entertainments, me lost in Rave Magazine and my music, and Ike constantly scribbling superheroes, Dad gave us a play-by-play of aggravations:
His handling of the brushes was all wrong.
His erasing technique was faulty.
His cross-hatching method left something to be desired.
He'd even purchased the wrong kind of pencils and needed, he groaned, to purchase a set of specialty charcoals that would run over a hundred dollars.
He came out from behind the curtain in between grumblings and paced the floor. I eyed him warily and adjusted my headphones more snugly around my ears, pretending everything was cool, though conscious that some of my devil music surely leaked out and, at any moment, he would shout, "Turn that crap down!" But his eyes were fixed on the distance and he was unnervingly quiet. Resignation, setting in, I guessed.
Once, as he passed by, I heard him humming with exaggerated zeal along with my music, "Help me, Rhonda. Help, help me Rhonda. Please help me, Rhonda." Later, he even chimed in with The Animals, "I got to get out of this place, if it's the last thing I ever do." Then he stopped, as if considering, before heading off to the bedroom.
Soon we heard a shout from within. "Absolutely not! Another set of charcoals? We're low on groceries as it is!" Dad came out a few minutes later and sat at the kitchen table for a half hour staring at his hands, and then got up and started cooking dinner, with a great clashing of pans.
The next day, the curtain was down.
A few evenings later, Ike woke me at two a.m., creeping stealthily up in the dark.
"I have to show you something," he whispered, flicking on the lamp, and laying the yellow FAS binder down on my cot. "I smuggled it out of the closet," he said. "Dad won't mind, he's done with it." Then he flipped the binder open to the human anatomy section and a portrait of a nude lady from the back side, sitting on a stool in front of a mirror.
I moved the lamp closer, admiring it. The hourglass figure churned something deep inside of me, awakening machinery I hadn't thought much about until then. I resisted when Ike tried to pull it away.
"Whew," I purred. "Now that's what I call art."
"Yeah. Hey, give it back now."
"Any other pictures like that? That's some sweet lady."
Ike concurred but didn't think there were any others and wanted to review the rest of the section, so I let him have the binder and cuddled back in my cot.
After a few minutes I heard Ike said, "You know, some of this stuff doesn't look so hard."
"Maybe you should try your hand at it. You're good at drawing."
"I think I might," he agreed.
And for the next couple of weeks he did just that, each night waiting until Dad's snoring reverberated throughout the house, then digging out the binder and bringing it back to his cot. I could hear the faint sound of his pencil scratching away, seemingly for hours, giving me fitful dreams of rats burrowing toward my brain as well as more lurid visions.
In the meantime, Dad never mentioned the course and even took down the Rockwells, grimly wadding them up and tossing them into the trash. Mom replaced them with Cézanne landscape prints she'd found at a flea market. I had to admit, these made the place feel roomier.
Every so often Dad would take out one of the binders, study it a few minutes as if searching for a sign from the artist gods. Then he'd stare off through the open window as if the cicadas were hypnotizing him. Finally, he'd slap it closed and toss it disdainfully into the closet. Ike was afraid Dad might chuck the binders altogether.
Mom, however, grew more encouraged, and even asked Dad to try for a refund. They sent the letter off, carefully worded by Mom, citing their financial difficulties and changed perspectives, but only received a threatening letter in response.
Looking the letter over, Dad's face grew alternately amused, abashed, and ashen. "Who knew," he said, "that the guy who painted the 'Golden Rule' would be the suing type."
A change settled in.
Dad started going in to work late and arriving home early. He started snapping at us for getting in his way, which was impossible not to do in our wormhole. No easy sayings rose to his lips, other than—when one of us complained about dinner being late—"Good things come to those who wait." He breathed this homily out slowly with a derisive laugh, like he didn't believe it himself. Sitcoms barely elicited a chuckle anymore; not even Jed—Dad's favorite from "The Beverly Hillbillies"—evinced more than a wan smile. We all felt an invisible uninvited guest sat at our table, stilting conversation.
On the evening of July third, Dad pushed me against the wall, face purple with rage and biting his tongue. I remember the weak yellow light of my parents' suffocating bedroom, Ike's record player droning out a tune in the next room, and my mother beseeching, "Jim, calm down." He and she had been arguing about how to spend the holiday. He wanted to go to K-Mart for some cleaning supplies; she wanted a picnic. In passing, I'd asked them to keep it down and that I needed to make a phone call. I made some comment about the triviality of it all. A mistake.
Ike determined to send his own work in secretly. After all, he figured, Dad had already paid for that month, so why let it go to waste?
He showed me what he planned to submit and I was impressed. I used to secretly agree with Dad that Ike had no talent, with his turning out sketches of Batman and The Hulk crudely traced out of comic books. In fact, I didn't expect much at all from my brother, he being a year older but smaller and less athletic than I, and considered "bookish" by our classmates. The way he combed his hair into a wave, helped by Mom, didn't help. But somewhere along the way he had blossomed. The assignment had been to draw a man's arm, bicep flexed, veins popping out, hand clinched into a fist, and Ike had gotten it down perfectly. Everything was in proportion and even the shading showed a masterful touch.
For the next couple of weeks, we were careful to check the mail before one of our parents did, but one afternoon Dad came in from work carrying a stack of junk mail and a clasp envelope from FAS.
"What's this?" Dad asked, puzzled. "I didn't send anything in."
He pulled out the contents and stared at an overlay that was remarkably free of red marks and which even exhibited some contents scrawled in green.
"You send this in, Harry?" he asked me.
I clammed up.
"Sorry, Dad, I just did it for fun. I didn't mean anything by it."
Mom, a look of dread on her face, said softly, "You shouldn't have done this, Ike."
After an uncomfortable silence, she spoke up, trying to sound firm, assuring Dad, "Now, Jim, we don't really know who's even grading these things. It might be some guy off the street."
"Irene, I—" he said, then stopped and raised his hand like a traffic cop trying to block her progress.
He removed the overlay and gazed at the original drawing, turning it over several times and holding it to the light.
"How about that," he said slowly.
Then he fished a small note out of the packet and read, "Congratulations, Mr. Stanton, on your exceptional improvement." Dad chuckled lightly at this and laid everything down, staring vacantly at the table, running his hand along the surface and rubbing a coffee stain as if it were glass he wished to see through. I could tell from his face he struggled with how to react.
"A fourteen-year-old beats me out," he said under his breath.
"It's not a competition, Dad," Ike said, reddening.
"A fourteen-year-old," Dad repeated and shook his head as if he still couldn't come to grips with it.
Late that evening, Dad sat alone at the kitchen table. I passed him on my way to the fridge and could feel him steadily watching me.
Suddenly, he burst out with, "I bet every one of you thinks I'm worthless."
I froze, stunned and surprised. Faltering, with the fridge door half-opened, I fought the response that first popped to mind, No, Dad, you're not worthless. You've certainly taught me what not to do when I grow up.
Instead I said something that seemed half-appropriate. "We would never feel that way, Dad. Are you kidding?"
He looked down, shook his head, and idly flexed his thumbs.
Again, I had to bat away a harsh thought, "You're supposed to be a role model. You should be happy for Ike, not wallowing in self-pity." Then I realized I'd only been looking to the future, aiming to get out of this insufferable microcosm, counting the days when I could enter the larger world. It suddenly crashed over me—the words I would say if I were in my Dad's place and my own ambitious son stood there oblivious to my desires. To hell with my precious future..
I reached for some appropriate note of encouragement, but could only come up with a ready, though cringeworthy, standby—one he would be sure to approve of and one which he himself had bandied about on several occasions—"It's always darkest, you know, Dad," I said slowly and meaningfully, "before the dawn."
Dad snorted, but looked at me with some interest.
Years ago, when times were better, my parents used to drag me and Ike to cafeterias after school. I grew sick of them and always worried one of my schoolmates would see us. On one occasion, I complained about how long it was taking my parents to finish eating. Dad looked at me and said, "Son, years from now you're going to look back on these moments, and you'll miss them."
This could be a moment.
I gave it another go. "Pop, remember, 'You should live each moment like it's your last.'"
This brought out a laugh, a jibe of sorts. I detected the barest hint of a smile.
He glanced at the clock, stood up, tucked in his undershirt, combed through his hair. "Hit the hay," he said, and walked off to bed.
Title image "Charred" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2020.