At 92, she had lived in the same house for 30 years. An art center, it said out front,
on a plywood palette big enough for a giant. A few loyal students may still have seen it as
a gallery, if only of their work and hers, but the locals knew it was just the house the old
painter lived in, private, pealing an ancient white-washed coat of ordinary house-paint.
We stood on the porch. A public place, a business then, as the sign demanded? I
opened the door slowly in and met a bag of garbage sagging into the lap of the old
woman slumping into her chair, itself sagging into the uneven linoleum of the hallway
like a mutual agreement of surrender. I asked could we enter.
The woman muttered deep and thick, “No one’s stopping you, are they?”
We moved forward cautiously into the dim light. I had come looking for
watercolors and asked for them. She cocked her head like an irritated crow.
“Oils are better. They’re solid.”
The gallery slept, peacefully cluttered, there in her living room. Paintings, stretched
canvases, easels and broken frames leaned against each other and against the leaning
house, spilling into a second room of partly finished “student” work. A thick still-life
bowl and three apples sat framed above the door, heavy with life and patient. A classic
gray-toned portrait, nearly life-size, leaned against a dirty window. The light seemed
unable to get in or out and the painting swallowed the room. Years later I heard someone
sigh, deep inside that painting. If it was me, I didn’t know it yet.
When we left, she was still sitting in the hall, glaring, no one’s mother, no one’s
idea of her age. And no one’s regret. So I left my pity in the paper sack she finally tossed
in the garbage. And I left it in the still-life I may never paint, her dark lively eye staining
it human and odd, substantial, “solid” as death at the door so many years he finally moves
in and teaches you not to talk about him but to include him in everything, like the
inevitable idiot relation who wants to know “How did you get to be so old?”
I imagine her answering him, “I died” and meaning it, in her own way. And
meaning too, “I’ve never been more alive in my own world.” All my questions enter my
unpainted painting and come back unreasonable, answered with more questions. Now I
go on living in them, a bundle of sticks and skin assembled according to principals I have
yet to fathom, a makeshift gallery, a house that falls slowly down as its tenant grows
wilder and more alone and more complete among the sprung enduring shadows.
Rich Ives is the author of Tunneling to the Moon: A Psychological Gardener’s Book of Days currently being published in serial @ Silenced Press everyday in 2014 and forthcoming in paperback. Begin from the beginning, catch up, read daily. Just refer to the Burrow Guide.