Laura Lynn Leffers
...and Enabling (the Arts)
Portrait of a Ghost
First Chapter, modified formatting
It was in the painting. All of it—these lives patched together by a short-sighted eye—if only I’d thought to look.
Artists, after all, are trained to see.
I could see just fine, but I didn’t think about what I saw. I just felt it and painted it, a pretty scene, with physical balance, color, movement....
The physical balance, as it turned out, was a total fabrication. These people’s lives were choked by the dregs and garbage of every gully-wash and stream for miles around.
It was long after I became involved with them that I began to think, to untangle their lives as if they were elements in an asymmetrical composition and needed setting straight.
It had all been there in the painting. I should have seen.
I remember, I was at Pier 39 in San Francisco, all set up on a sunshiny blessing of a day. My French easel’s legs were spread, daddy-long-legging over the decking. My palette was anchored onto the open drawer of the easel with a couple of c-clamps and my feet stretched out, guarding the spindly rear easel leg, just in case somebody’s foot happened to tangle with it.
“Hey, lady, you’d do better on drugs.”
I refused to look at him. He laughed at his own wit, and left me alone.
Most people restrained their comments to little clicking noises or guttural murmurs, which I’m sure were intended as appreciation, and then they moved on about their business.
There was that one time when a kid snickered over my shoulder, and said right out loud that I “sucked.” But that was back in Indiana, and my painting had improved since then. Plus, I’d learned the art of selective hearing. Chasing down hecklers takes time away from perfecting one’s plein air painting skills.
The fact that I received so few—well, in fact, no actual—offers of purchase was a testament to the fact that none of the gawkers could afford my work.
We all have our little dreams.
Anyway, I was busy that day on the wharf, trying to capture the sensation of the two-tiered merry-go-round and all the little faces going up and down, round and round. Happy, piercing squeals were as common as frightened shrieks, but I ignored the negative stuff. I wanted a joyful, upbeat painting. One that might sell.
My picture was having fun with itself, letting color dash and dribble off the edges of ponies’ tails and little girls’ tangles of hair, suggesting movement, excitement. A manganese blue, unusual for San Francisco’s spring skies, highlighted puddles on the painting’s wharf planking and reflected from the shiny, much-handled rumps of the ponies.
I’d gotten into a rhythm of dabbing paint and looking, dabbing and looking, and was in carousel sync with the same grinning toddler each time I glanced up. His daddy had a grip on him with one hand and was hanging onto the fiberglass pony with the other; both wore the grin but the kid’s was wider. From my vantage point, it was a toothless, all-gums kind of grin.
A woman who must have been the kid’s mother was there on the sidelines, doting. She was thin, her breasts too normal to have birthed this child in the past year. But what did I know? Lots of people couldn’t pump milk as easily as turning on a spigot, like my sister-in-law.
Her hair danced with red highlights, and I hurried to add her to the picture before the tune died and the whirling ponies slowed, thinking as I sketched her of my brother’s wife, whose hair looked as if it had drawn a last breath and was waiting to be laid out.
My brother’s baby had been born only two months ago. I was here in California, theoretically, to help with her care and give both parents a little sleep. The arrangement suited me because, during the many years I’d spent trying to get through college, I’d worked nights in the local college bar. Serving collected breast milk to an infant in the wee hours wasn’t much different from playing wet nurse to frat brats.
I did want to sell my paintings, though. And, thanks to my one and only trip to a gambling boat back in Indiana, I had enough of a bank account to feed my dream. But the dream had to begin to feed itself, and soon, because free room and board would cease when the baby no longer needed a wee-hours nanny.
And that’s why I had to believe I’d left all the hecklers back in Indiana. My financial condition required California onlookers to be potential patrons, art lovers, sensitive believers in dreams.
The woman’s likeness was coming along nicely. Later, I’d add her hair’s gold and red highlights into the background of the merry-go-round’s dark canopy. From my seated perspective it loomed overhead, well above the whirling ponies. I dabbed a slash of burnt sienna and one of Indian yellow over the top of the redhead’s sketched-in face so I wouldn’t forget, and made a few suggestive strokes with several different, color-loaded brushes, to indicate the tints and patterns in her breeze-rippled gauze skirt. She would draw the eye into the painting, to the slash of the little boy’s grin and the father’s rump gripping hand.
I flicked those same colors freely around the painting—more reminders of what needed doing later—and concentrated on catching the trio’s likenesses. This would be good, I thought, a painted dance of movement and light, a forever moment caught.
How banal, I thought, laughing at myself. I leaned back for a realistic assessment, and squinted. The picture as a whole seemed pretentious. A kind of voyeur’s glimpse of life when life itself, all around me, was brimming, ready to explode with itself but excluding me, mocking me. My dabbing and daubing made a peephole for a sneak peek at life’s bright grin.
But then, painting is life for me.
Okay, so I was getting moody, with a near-conscious resentment against all the cheery joy I was getting down on canvas, when the redheaded woman approached me. I looked up at her and I just knew that her baby had slept through the night from the moment he entered the world.
Then she spoke, and her accent grabbed my ear.
“How are you doing?”
Her version of small talk was upscale “stoney.” Upscale, because she actually enunciated the “are.” A stoney—a central Indiana, limestone producing local, with a distinctive and subtly hick variation on the Midwestern dialect known as the “pure” form of American English—is an obvious Hoosier. I frowned. I deserved my black mood if the hecklers back home had followed me to the coast.
She looked familiar, too. She might be somebody who’d frequented the bar I’d worked my way through school in, back home.
And then, suddenly, I knew exactly who she was.
I hated the visual image, but there it was—Sipper, my bartender ex-boyfriend, who never missed the chance to annoy me when he saw this woman walk in. He’d give her body a furtive, sliding kind of leer, and make a graphic gesture with his hands at sink level, one that only I, waiting for drinks, and the customers sitting at the bar could see. They would smirk, predictably, and rubberneck for a gawk bout.
She wouldn’t recognize me. People didn’t look closely at waitresses, and I’d worked in the bar for so many years, chipping away at my B.A. in Art, that I was practically a fixture anyway—ignored equally with the old photos on the walls and the hooks the mostly college-student clientele hung their coats on.
I must have been staring. She smiled, and repeated what I vaguely remembered hearing her mumble.
“Is it for sale?”
“Not yet,” I said, dragging myself back from the middle of the country to where I happened to be now, on the edge of it.
“You seem familiar,” she said. “Have we met?”
Not formally, I thought, and ignored her.
I kept on working despite the fact that her head, cocked over my painting, was blocking the light, and that she’d squeezed her body sideways into my corner of the railed-in pier. I heaved a grumpy sigh, breathing a chill into our shared air. Maybe I was being rude to a potential buyer, but who wanted this buyer? What would I tell Sipper—that I’d made my first sale to somebody from back home? To this somebody?
“I had to come over and see what you were doing,” she went on, smoothly chatty. “It seemed obvious that you were putting us in your painting. That must be me, there on the right. It looks as if you’ve already caught my skirt, and I was standing just about there. And that’s Bright. And there’s Paul, hanging on for dear life, bless his heart.”
“You’re in my light,” I said, and scowled at her.
She smiled back.
I peered around her for inspiration, and caught a glimpse of another subject to add to the painting, a figure hidden partially by the outcropping of gallery shops, signs, and Alcatraz merchandising. The figure was dressed in dark slacks and a black, long-sleeved shirt, and had an interesting, large-brimmed hat which would give my composition more reflected blue, arcing into the sunlit bay behind her. I nearly had her sketched in when the redheaded woman drew a delicately audible breath.
“You’ll mess it up!” she hissed.
I glared up at her.
“I liked it before,” she said, insistent. “Take that out, and I’ll buy it.”
I tried to be patient. After all, I was from Indiana, too. “Honey,” I said, “I’m a painter, not a short-order cook.”
“You’re also in business. Aren’t you?” She slid her shoulder bag around in front of her and patted it.
They’re nothing if not direct, these Hoosiers.
My dream stuck its cash sniffing nose in, and made the tone of my voice just a little more pleasant. “I need something against the water,” I told her as I quickly brushed the wide-brimmed hat in, “so all that reflected blue sits down. It’s out of balance with the rest of the picture, fighting....”
A buyer. The very thought tangled up my tongue. An actual buyer. All of a sudden, I didn’t care who she was, or what Sipper would think if I sold this canvas to her.
She must have sensed my capitulation. “Two hundred?” she asked.
“Well, I realize that oils are often sold for much more, but I’m on a fixed income. What do you want for it?”
“Two hundred?” I said again, still stunned.
“Wait, I might be able to get you a portrait job. Perhaps then you’ll consider the offer.”
She had slipped out of the cramped space beside me and had flitted away, before I could tell her I didn’t do portraits. I watched her run up to the man I’d added into the painting, the one with the grinning toddler, and begin gesturing towards me. She was talking a blue streak, but not pleading and not using any of the little tricks my sister-in-law used on my brother whenever she wanted something in particular.
Shortly, she was back. The baby and the man were with her, and she introduced them as Paul Theron Camden and his son, Paul Junior. “I’m Carmen Desolla. I didn’t catch your name, and I forgot to get the name of your gallery.”
“Yes, wherever it is that you show.”
I tried to get hold of myself. “I’m new to the area,” I began stiffly. “Not yet affiliated....”
“So you won’t mind moving around?”
“We can offer you room and board while you do his portrait. There’s a very nice studio apartment, built into a renovated barn on Paul’s property. The people Paul built it for—well, they won’t be needing it.”
Stumbling to catch up, I grasped at what I figured was the key element. “Whose portrait?”
“Why, Bright’s, of course.” She and the man, Paul, turned to smile down at the baby, who had one hand shoved into his mouth and the other stretched up and swallowed whole in his dad’s hand.
His feet were planted solidly apart on the pier planking. An early walker, I thought. The extent of my knowledge of children was gleaned from one recent trip to the pediatrician with my brother’s wife and my new niece, so I took a few more moments to consider this child as an actual subject for a serious painting. He wasn’t grinning now, and the hand shoved into his mouth gave him a distorted, lumpish, unlovely face. A slobbery face, with drool.
“Well? What do you say, will you paint Bright’s portrait?”
Their last names were different, but she had to be the child’s mother. She was obviously besotted by the baby. “Bright,” I said. “A nickname?”
They both smiled and nodded, as if they’d been caught in a clever act. They looked the picture of a perfect family. And they seemed to be opening a door, inviting me in to share their perfect, loving world.
“Come, let me buy you lunch,” the man said impatiently. He ran his free hand through his hair, and the wind whipped it right back to fall messily onto his forehead. “We’ll talk about the arrangements.”
He hadn’t even looked at the painting on my easel. Maybe he never questioned his wife’s judgment, and had no qualms at all about my talent and ability.
I shrugged. She was right. My talent and ability weren’t in question.
And so I said, “Sure.”
If I’d looked at the painting, really looked, I might have seen that the door to their perfect, loving world was really a floodgate. It would sluice open onto a seaweed tangle, snagging my ankles, yanking me along till vertigo made me think down was up. But I didn’t look. I would not have known anyway, couldn’t have seen what I now know.
And that’s why I stepped blithely across the threshold, and into their lives.
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