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The Joy Menu #62: Looking
Somewhere, a dog barks. Another responds. Chickens, twenty yards to the right, shake and pluck and cluck in their open pen. Or maybe I’ve just added that for color.
Toward the very end, summer sets in. I think it was humid, though honestly, I have no idea.
I imagine, outside, the sultry air blows across the soy fields, whose wide green leaves don’t so much sway as ripple, vibrate, buck against each other like spiderwebs folding in a tree branch or shaking in the eaves of a drafty attic.
Or maybe the soy fields have been recently shorn and they sit skinned, and the air is wet but still, sagging and thick above the turned soil. Maybe the naked ground cups the heavy air the way the ground can hold itself like an open palm, a patient hand which never even thinks of closing.
I don’t know. I don’t remember.
I stand on the porch (now it’s “my mother’s porch” but at the time it was still just “the porch”) and look across at the neighbor’s horses, who are grazing. I would add a poetic flourish and say “I gaze” across at their grazing, but the repeated vowels of gaze and graze give the scene too much style, too much sway, too much beauty.
The horses are just eating. And I am not gazing. I am not even looking, really. Or I am, but blankly. Without seeing. The neighbor’s horses are just a place to rest my eyes, a towel rack where I can hang them to dry, a cubby where I can put them along with other things I don’t want to hold; the way we rest our eyes on our phones after hours of emails, documents, scrolling, scanning.
I am dissociating. From what is behind me. And what is behind me?
My father, still sitting on the loveseat across from piano in the family room (it’s a playroom now), or lying in the bed he shares with my mother (we’ve yet to wheel in the hospital bed).
The house next door is hosting Amish services and buggies and bicycles are parked in the driveway, alongside the house, on the cut-up road.
Somewhere, a dog barks. Another responds. Chickens, twenty yards to the right, shake and pluck and cluck in their open pen.
Somewhere else, a trucker pulls his air break.
Or maybe I’ve just added that for color.
Before this, when my father is still walking, we’ve driven in from Beachwood for the day. We are making our way across the gravel driveway toward the barn-turned-art-studio.
I’ve asked him for weeks to show me what he’s been working on, or to check it out himself, to do some work, but he’s been reluctant.
No. Not reluctant—completely disinterested. Resistant. As if the urge—the entire urge to make art—has passed out of him, lost, like his life in California, or his ability to read. (And it may well have physically; he hasn’t held a pencil in weeks, let alone tried to stand and draw with the focus and strength needed to make hard repeated lines with pastel on handmaid paper).
Now we walk slowly across the gravel. Our feet make the familiar crunch beneath us. We unlock the heavy wooden barn doon; the padlock is unwieldy but the key fits snug, releases with a satisfying click. I push the door, heavy and splintery, and it slides unevenly open, making soft knocks as it swings on its hinges.
We enter through the part of the barn which is still like a barn: dirt floor in parts, concrete in parts, a dissected truck mid-survey, a countertop piled with tools. And then we cross into the part of the barn which is no longer a barn, which my brother-in-law has turned into the studio: bare walls covered in white cork, a metal cabinet holding cans of paints and brushes, a table filled neatly with cups of colored pencils and pastels, a wall lined with shelving, stacked with cardboard files packed elegantly with finished works.
My father has kept his space in order. It bears the mark of his famously fastidious mind. (We have not registered that his may now be a quantifiably different mind.)
Now that we are here, I want my father to draw, or paint, or at least work on the plans for his next piece. His last piece, I think, morbidly, and then refuse the thought, cast it out.
Along the long wall, my father has pinned up twelve identical pieces of paper, parallel, spaced inches apart, in a straight line across. They are large, 22 by 30 inches each, broad and fibrous and shaded with the faintest tint of off-white.
I move toward the small window to turn on the iPod that lives out there (which used to live in our living room in California), plug it into the speakers, hit play on one of my father’s mixes (Jorge Drexler, perhaps, or John Prine). The music carries, lifts the mood.
My father sits on the camping chair he’s unfolded as a place to rest. I stand next to him. Together we look at the blank paper. We are still not gazing—but at least now we are looking. I think: he’s imagining the artwork he’s set to make. I am imagining he will still make it.
“What will they be?” I ask him.
He reaches for a small piece of paper nearby, and a pencil, and sketches his idea, explaining it to me in terms I do not understand: “I’ll do horizontal lines, some textures along here; notice how they’ll connect, be divided, like this…” His voice, cut-up, soft, has been changing, and now it’s almost entirely muffled, as if spoken from behind glass, or gauze. I think: the gauze they wrapped his head in after they cut open his skull.
“When will you work on it?” I ask. The question lands poorly, like a rock tossed into a pond which is too shallow. No ripples, no splash, just a hard thud and then silence.
We’re still hopeful then, though the realization—the reality—is already smoothly set underneath: an unmooring, a preparation for release, subtle, but thick, like a layer of butter spread between pie dish and crust.
Who am I talking to?
To him, of course.
But he’s already elsewhere; seeing paintings in his head which he knows his hands will never make. I am talking to myself. I am talking to my now self—to all future iterations of me which are in that present moment writing this.
“When I die,” he says. “You will go out and do things.”
He pauses, breathes. “All of you will go out and do things.”
He’s pleading. He’s stating a fact. He’s requesting it become.
Why is he thinking about this future? Because it is already not his?
Why, in this studio, in this airy, bright barn which has been made into his dream of an art-making space, why tell me to go out and do things? I refuse. I resist the thought. I cast it out.
“Of course,” I say. “Just like you’ve always wanted us to.”
And I am talking to you.
Onward, toward creative joy,