The spring came early that year. In open places the snow melted before the equinox. Spring came slow too. There were no flood warnings on the local radio. The frost heaved the sidewalks and tarmac and they subsided, were dusty and dry before the ditches ran off the meltwater and debris.
After a few warm days of painting with his workroom window open a crack, he found that the winter’s claustration, his sense of recent isolation, seemed moot, forgettable as winter’s banal Freudian dreams and he admitted that the narrative about his isolaton seemed contrived; he had romanticised. His loneliness of snow was not acute.
His past monthly datebook recorded more traffic through than he had recognized in the overriding echo chamber, the vault, of his partner’s day to day absence. There had been music on talkative nights, droppers by coming up the stairs from the chocolate air of the cafe. There had been secrets, intimacy, laughter and fretting in warm lamplight under ground diamond stars. It occurred to him that he had not been so much lonely as he’d been forgetful, even ungrateful. He said so to a friend at a dinner party.
He’d been absurdly desiring he thought to himself later, sad, alone in bed. He’d stayed in touch, electronically mostly with farflung contacts. A young student friend from long ago was in touch, had cut his hand badly. There was a photo of that boy with a hand bandaged, pawlike, sleeping after taking stitches. There was that artist’s fear of hurting the drawing hand bringing them together after distancing years and professional unpleasantness, laziness in affection and clumsiness in frustrated affection. That boy had the best drawing hand he’d ever known, drew like a dream.
His partner who he jokingly called the young lad, as men called their sons in these parts, went to California. Painting, life, continued as if there had not been a companion. he lived and slept in his coveralls. He became less sociably amusing and more hirsute, he saw less of family and more of his painting quarters. This occasioned the usual bloodline recriminations which disgusted him this year as they had never done before entirely. He was selfish. The boys who fixed computers downstairs in back of the cafe were bulldogs for his privacy, even with family when he requested protection. He had experienced limited success and his presence upstairs, his advertized hermitage up the back stairs lent something to the place. It was cold but cheap.
He wrote no personal, public account of himself for here. He could scarcely do so for the people he loved and saw daily in meat time.
This had been the story he’d told himself: He had lived and worked alone all winter. In fact there had been Facebook and the cafe. He would celebrate his spring with a friend in the city on the night before he caught a train . He would recall as a slight cabin fever, as a brief aberration, his antsy solitude, and watch his muttonchops caressed in a tavern mirror… the stories he told himself got him into trouble. He was his own worst enemy. He always missed something he couldn’t imagine. His stories tended to feed the wrong part of himself but he was a compulsive narrator. His lovers had been not cowboys always but fiction writers. His stories were wrong and self aggrandizing but some stories require not only telling, they ask to be made true. They inspire good and evil or merely action. They brand. He wanted to live without them though, to unidentify.
It is easier to represent a model from life, or a chair, or a flower, anything, if you don’ t identify it in your head.
He told himself while waiting for a night train “I had commissions to do. I had a small, boat roofed room above an Internet cafe in a rural town. That’s a life that suits me. Working in rough little flats above cafes. A window looking a story or two down to the street night and day. A few rooflines left over out of Edward hopper paintings and childhood, from before everything looked like a suburban strip mall.
The methadone clinic next door to the cafe was the only new constructon on the street. The street people fascinate me, their intensely told stories distracted me from my own intensities without tempering mine. They live one moment to the next, staying clean and on track. They are informed by difficult pasts and have defined their mistakes more clearly than I have my own. They are self absorbed in their recovery and their analysis, they know their triggers. They were my intense company. Some days I’d go down and the cafe was short staffed and I’d serve coffee. The regulars would tell me their addiction stories.
A painting for me has go be the only thing in the world in the works to acquire any gravity. So I aim for one intense mood all the time for the duraton of the image making. I drank a lot of coffee. Spring seemed sudden. You could crack the winow open for a smoke and forget about it, later find the window open in the chill when dark fell and smile ruefully. The town was without charm, offering no distraction. An abandoned supermarket, condemned, and too expensive to tear down in hard times, the parking lot potholed. I painted commissions, paintings of the town as it was before its desecration, its envious updating.”
Some of the stories we tell ourselves are hopes and plans, wise or no. He researched tickets out and argued about his passport with impatient public servants. He’d been declared dead years before when his father died and that checkmark against his validity persisted, locked into machinery, a ghost for which the partially spurious and partially crucial clerks wouldn’t apologize; rather they seemed to lay blame on him, and despite his decent suit and his best manner each office encounter left him feeling criminal and invalid.
This went on for more than a month until one minor clerk, willing to admit to some colleague’s error in the past rectified the error, unlocked his file and the ghost was exorcised. Papers needed to be filed again but he felt free, tentatively.
He’d pondered notions of validity, his own in particular and had seen in his own mind his father’s lanky stride, an indian on a trapline, often he’d seen his fathers disdain of papers during the course of this long wrangle over beurocratic validation. He also pondered the sense of self worth he gained from his lovers affections, the social and personal validation in the public or the private caress. He reserved a seat on a westbound train. The lad would meet him just this side of the border.
He closed up shop wistfully, sleeping there over the course of a weekend , rather sitting awake all night staring at the work he’d done during the lad’s holiday, conscious after one particular phonecall that the lad had truly, not only politely wanted his company in adventure. Still he felt time alone on the road would harm no one, was a chance not to be missed, to be imposed even. He’d done it himself in his youth and he wasn’t sure he was up to it .He was no swimsuit advertisement. he was no oil painting. he was no playroom hunk attractive from any angle.
He stared critically at the last two months work and at his often packed luggage, promising everything a little more elbow grease and polish. He glared at everything but the finished commissions which were gone and paid for midst the usual winces and eagerly taken impressions the pondering over suitable payment which the achievement of balanced sentimental and painterly vision in a commission implies, requires, or ignores entirely. He stared at a few portraits and at his luggage
One painting remained unfinished in perhaps overworked underdrawing. a young man in bed nursing a bandaged hand, careful of it in sleep. in a tangle of jewel like patchwork blankets and cushions. You never know, you rectfiy your worst mistakes in the underdrawing, you improve your perceptions and explore the tawny body as with a tongue, like the tip of a brush.
He pondered the parallel universes somehow interdependent of past and concurrent romantic affairs. Had he had a mirror hung in his painting quarters he’d have scowled at that with its vintage porn muttonchops, scruffy, grown for a friend who admired scruff, a gentleman to be visited before a midnight train’s all aboard.
Of course there are cafes everywhere, even on trains. An obsequious waitress is never far away… A lonely woman with a book, a baby taking a solitary amiable tour among tables. An ugly boor from first class wondering aloud to friends about first class concerns. a tall thin and deathly pale russian orthodox priest with a horsey mouth that smiled without self conciousness in quiet amazement, as if he’d never been out of a monastry, as if seeing for the first the things the scriptures urged and cautioned him to love,people. He sat with his ling straggle of unkempt beard, an icon face above his plate across from a short sqat elder with more luxury in his ankle length black garment, more food gone to his belly, more aquaintance with the barber in his clerical elegance. The old priest seemed to love, but oversee the taller asthete with the shy and snd bashful wonder across the table linen. The younger priest avoided my glances… he was the only greater oddity than myself in the breakfast car, I thought.
I wore the denim of an old porn magazine. I had on those slim french motorcycle boots, soft brown leather like pulling on a bedroom slipper. a saddlebag full of smoke and blackberry technology. I wore a piratical black bandanna with the standard pattern. I wore a ring in my ear. I bore the mark of the old belt I wore. My whiskers were shaggy. but I was not in a long black ankle length skirt. I noticed the tall priests boots, black military style but lighter, feminized, elegant, though he seemed unaware of their smart cobbling below his skirt. they were a little fey those boots, as were my own. slender feet.
I coveted the boots. I coveted the priests’clearly defined roles and authority, foreign, dismissable, shaky though it was for the likes of the girl across from me who did not see the prists seemingly. everyone was a cypher for her but those kooky guys and gals at work, their meems and things they said, full of shooters or no just hilarious . I watched the priests closely, longing for their lives and stories as I sat smiling manfully across from a young women who found the antics of her office mates hilarious in montreal. I thought their antics sad. There is the shelter of the message vibrating on one’s blackberry. The comfort of the phones. I tapped my jacket pocket. I felt my partners ring, a quick double vibration repeated on my left nipple. I drew forth the phone.
I peered into it, apologizing to those dear companions back in montreal. It was just a text. He was watching sea lions fucking in big sur. They weren’t that hugely hung. The medical terminology for surfing was vomitting sea water. love. I raised my head unseeingly to smile lascivously into the distance, just this side of muskeg, and caught the young priest’s eye and saw a sharp intellect rapidly processing my own reasons for pallor and eagerness in a man my age. There was a long instant , attenuated by being unexpectedly percieved by a stranger. There was not commonality, necessarily, but understanding, casual, even urbane, but gentle. He had those crowsfeet, crepey. that the fine and fair get under it all, for a moment too was a gangly string bean boy with buck teeth and a good heart under that frail accordian he had of ribs. I remember nodding and his nodding back like a mirror with our eyes for a second sternly locked in a mutual admonishment for me to behave myself. Then back to the poached eggs on toast. Truth is one falls in love with one’s self, as one is wth the beloved.
I put my phone away. things were still a laugh riot back in montreal.
A man with rough, ugly muttonchop whiskers peers into text on his illuminated tablet in the coffee bar on the smoke free night train. He sees his own ragged beard in the glass of his tablet and considers the men who caress his whiskers and he sees his own cavernous gaze against the prairies when he turns to the window. He sees himself in relation to outstretched fingers, to jerking thighs, to this back, that hopeful gaze of inquiry, this or that rebuttal. The prairie slides by, the lack of inflection becalming him as it always does. He writes a half chapter of fiction. In his saddlebag rest his identity papers.