The Painting


It's a wonder that I didn't just throw it in the garbage. Hell we'd moved several times and I certainly had never used any of it. But I knew it would be in that storage shed, one of those itty bitty units all in a row. I don't know who, but someone had given me a key for it. But I bet Cat's responsible for all of it. Keeping the equipment and putting it into the shed. I sure needed help in getting it out of there.

The walls in this apartment aren't very thick. The single mother living next door is not a nice person. Nevertheless, she's trying hard; I'll have to give her that. Two kids in an apartment this small would drive anyone nuts. 90% of what I can hear them yelling about is money.

That guy that's supposed to help me, I haven't heard from in years. Plus I don't want to go through setting up another one.

So I wrote a note;


I'm the crippled guy who lives next door. I need some things brought out of a storage shed that I have rented. Being in this chair, I can't do that. Would you allow your two children to help me? I could do it in the early afternoon, after school. I would pay them each twenty dollars for their help. I have a van for transportation and I'm a good safe driver. They should be back before you get off work. Please consider my request and my assurance for their safety. Any day is fine with me.

Jake Davis.

It took quite a bit of knocking on the door before the girl would answer it. To say she was shy by the way she was hiding behind the door was easy to see. I later found out that they weren't supposed to answer the door unless there were the both of them there. I just gave her the note, and said to give it to their mother. She looked fifteen maybe sixteen, I knew from seeing them around that the boy was maybe a year or so younger. I hope that the art stuff isn't buried too deep in that shed. I don't know how much they could lift.

Mama came over later the same day. She had a white apron and a blue dress with a nametag on it. I think the expression would be 'rode hard and put away wet'. In one way, she looked to be about my age, the other way she looked about ten years older, with a hard edge to her. I gave her points for assessing me before she let her kids go in my care. Nevertheless, I knew that she would, they needed the money. Carol was the name on the nametag.

Two days later I found out the kids were Denise and John, and they had nothing against hard work. John thought that my van was really cool with all its hand controls. He had to ride in the front seat to watch how I did everything. I'd forgotten how many questions that kids could ask. Even this old bear had to get into answering them all.

At first, Denise was a little apprehensive of me. So much of that I thought might be due to not having a man around the home. A single mom probably taught her to distrust men. She stayed very quiet and shy on the way to the storage shed. I'd never been there, so John got a kick out of the GPS I had to use to find my way. All I had was the address, shed number, key, and the security code for the gate. The kids thought that it was funny that I had to drive around looking for the shed with the right number.

It took the three of us to get the door all the way up. I almost disgraced myself when the door came open. My eyes started to mist when a lot of my old life was just lying right there on that shed floor. If the kids hadn't been there I probably would have broke down and cried. All my rock climbing gear was on the floor right in front. Ropes, pinions, crampons, and ice axe, all just laying there, ready to use. Several pairs of skis leaned up in the one back corner, boots and poles, boxes of winter clothes. Hiking boots, all lined up in a row, pack frame, and boxes of rain gear. Camping equipment, pots and pans, lanterns, and different kinds of sleeping bags. All the boxes were labeled, running shoes, workout clothes.

Cat's a little OCD, so there were labels on everything. That and the handwriting told me that this shed was all her doing. But the major thing on my mind was...WHY? Why was all this stuff kept here? I'd never use any of this again, what good is it here? Cat can't use any of this; we didn't have any kids to pass it on to. The only thing in this shed is old memories and pain that I wanted to forget.

However, sitting there in front of it, with the kids, I realized that it didn't hurt as much as it had. As much as I thought that it would have. I also realized that I didn't want it to drive the anger again. It was just that when the door came up it was such a shock, the surprise of this stuff being still around, was a jolt. As I continued to look at it, I realized that it was just...junk. Junk that we'd have to move to get out the art stuff. The focus of my life had moved again.

I could see the easel buried in the opposite corner as the skis. I hoped that these kids were somewhat strong, because I'd forgotten how big that easel was. I wondered if between all of us, we could get one of the seats pulled out of the van. We'd have too, in order to get the easel inside the van. Like I said these kids weren't afraid of hard work.

All the art stuff proved to be in that back corner. We literally had to strip a lot of the shed out into the driveway before we could even get to the boxes that were labeled art stuff. It was hard and so sad to dig through the mementos of my old life, things that had been lost to my memory. I was very surprised to find tools, all of my old chisels and timber framing tools, the mortise cutter machine had to be a least a couple thousand dollar item.

I guess I'd have to find a way to hold a garage sale. Maybe you'd call it a shed sale. This stuff was too good to just leave lying around. Someone could use this stuff; maybe someone else could build their own dream home. Blast through that deep powder morning; map a path up the face of hard rock.

However, I had another thought. Maybe this stuff wasn't here for me. Maybe the memories were here for Cat. I know that this is my shed, at least I thought that's what they said when they gave me the key. I guess I'll have to hold off on that shed sale. But the art stuff is mine to use. Plus there's a lot more of it then I remembered.

The kids had a blast looking through all the boxes; John wore a pair of my ski goggles throughout most of the day. It turned into a treasure hunt for them, they never took anything, just had to see all the treasures they could find. I thought to give them some of the old clothes, but it was just much too big.

It was so bittersweet, but it turned into a treasure hunt for me too. Some of the stuff that came out of the boxes I had totally forgotten about. Different parts of Cat's and my lives. I kept waiting for the flash of anger, but it never came. Just the bittersweet sorrow of what was lost. But I guess that's what this is all about, the loss of Dennis.

We didn't get all the stuff in one load, and I didn't want to keep the kids out longer than I told their mom. So I told them to ask her for another afternoon. They still worked until almost suppertime hauling boxes into my apartment. I gave them each a twenty and then a five for each of them. I suggested that the five would be for them, pocket money. I went to the dealership and had the one seat removed from the van, to get the easel in.

I didn't know how I was going to get all of this into my tiny cubbyhole. When I got it, all set up I knew that my place would look like a studio. The easel would have to be in the middle of the room. My life and apartment were going to be taken over by this project until it was done. That was OK; it wasn't as if I had anything else to do.

In my art training I've always been fortunate to be able the paint or draw from memory. A lot of people, some very good artists, need a photograph or a model to work from. My mind seems to be able to hold on to an image well enough to study. After I nuked a small ready to eat meal, I sat down with a small sketchpad and pencil to start with ideas for Dennis. Fortunately, the house they build has a lot of wall space so I wasn't limited by size.

First, I had to settle on a format, canvas size, and such. Dennis and the three of us were all about six foot tall, slim and fit. I made the decision to focus on Dennis, the figure of him. Not a lot of background or an activity, just Dennis. That put me toward a narrow format, I thought about something like 60x30 or 28 inches. Probably 60x28 inches, then I had to decide on the medium.

Using a canvas eliminated pencil, pastel, or watercolor. I didn't want to deal with sheet paper or board in that size, so it was canvas. That meant either oil or acrylics. I prefer acrylics; you can control the drying time, and many other variables better than you can in oils. Plus here in this small apartment the vapors are easier to control, some of the ones for oils can be toxic.

I got online to see if I could find a canvas the right size. I wanted to get a canvas shipped to me, rather than buying it here in town. That way I would have the packing material I would need to ship it to Julie. I bought the best I could find, and it wasn't cheap.

I could tell that I'd have to make trips to the garbage. All of the tubes of paint I had, had been frozen and thawed, frozen and thawed throughout several years. I just didn't trust them to be stable anymore. Plus many of the brushes needed replaced, but all that stuff I could get in town.

I made a trip into the little art supply store here in the mall. I'd rather use the one at the university, but I wasn't so sure about getting into it. It was at a lower level of the building, being the university, I thought it would have handicap access, but I wasn't sure. I'd have to scope it out later. The little one here in the mall had enough to get started. Had a cute little bit of a cashier named Kathy too. It was good to be out and noticing things like people again.

I had enough money to not worry about getting what I wanted. Sitting in my cave for the last four years, I hadn't spent money on anything but food. Plus I wanted this to be a solid, permanent piece of work. Something that would leave a memory of Dennis to whoever looked at it...maybe forever.

Here at this little supply store they still had enough of the best quality paints, just in the basic colors. So I got the best, brushes too. I had a lot of the other stuff, drawing pads, charcoal, and drawing pencils, from the storage shed. Had all my old airbrush equipment, and it worked too. So I ordered a full set of airbrush colors, both transparent and opaque. To get most of the other colors in acrylic, beyond the basics, I had to go online.

The younger boy John had a friend in another apartment, and they played video games after school. I got Denise to help me in a lot of my running around. I always wrote her mom a note and paid money for her help. Between the two of us, I got into the university store that had all the art materials. That's where I got all the real specialty supplies. Denise became my unofficial assistant.

In the evenings and the nights when I couldn't sleep, I sat with one of my sketchpads and pencils. I'd let my mind wander back into the times that I'd been with Dennis. Sometimes just stick figure drawings, playing with poses, body positions. Coil drawings, muscle studies just blocking in ideas. Hands and feet, things to just get me drawing again.

But mostly I just let my mind wander with images of Dennis. I realized that we'd spend a lot of years together, just by the changes in his appearance. From a younger man to a little older more mature look. I had to decide which stage in his life that I wanted the painting to be in. I picked the older look, the time when we were all together.

I didn't want it to be an activity type of painting. Like a sport or something, I also decided that I didn't want it to be in the woods. I had to think about that a lot, why I didn't want that? We always did things, running, skiing, and climbing rock. Some of the best times we had were in the woods.

Then I realized that Dennis and I were always in the woods, Kevin too. But not everyone else, not Julie or Cat, Mary. Not his parents or the rest of his family. It had to be an image that everyone knew, that this was the Dennis that they all had known. A Dennis just relaxed being with the people that mattered to him.

Then the image was in my mind...I had it...the one I needed. It was a late autumn evening, the weekend after Julie's birthday. We were having a birthday dinner party for her. The three couples of us, what there was of Julie's family that was here. Dennis' folks and few of the people that Julie worked with. The three of us men had been up rock climbing, and had just barely made it back in time for dinner.

People had gathered into several little chat groups after dinner. Dennis and some of the men were in the kitchen talking about today's climb. Their kitchen had an open floor plan with an island counter separating it from the dining room.

I was leaning back against the island counter. Dennis was leaning back against the main counter, off to the right of me. His body is facing about a quarter turn away from me. He's talking to someone right next to me, so his face is almost straight on to me. Body bent in a kind of shallow arc, one hand on the counter edge, elbow bent up, hand close by his hip. The other holding a long neck beer bottle in front of himself, about waist high. His bare feet were crossed, a pair of 501 jeans, and a t-shirt. Just pure Dennis, relaxed, beer in his hand, friends all around him, talking about the fun he'd had that day.

I visualized the painting with a blurry background; just enough so you'd know that it was the kitchen in their home. No other person in view, just Dennis. The tall narrow canvas just barely big enough to show the whole of his body. The high contrast between the tones of his skin and the pitch black of the night in the window behind him. The dark cabinets and the bright white and blue t-shirt. The dark green glass of the beer bottle in his hand. The tan of the marble counter top, the stainless steel of the dishwasher by the blue of his jeans.

I let my head roll back, eyes closed. Let the image roll over me, fixing it in my mind. The way his hair lay over his ears, the tones and shades of it. The shape of it on his forehead. The colors and tone of his skin, the shadows in the folds of his forehead, hair. The colors and shape of his eyes, where the light reflected on the eyeball. The folds of his eyelids.

I grabbed my pencil and started on the small sketchpad in my lap. Drawing small pieces of Dennis, an ear and the way the hair lay over it. The rough shape of his head on one sheet of paper. Eye, nose, and part of his mouth on another. Sketching fast, some of the time with my eyes shut. Ripping sheets of paper off as soon as they had the thought of what I wanted down on them. The way his hand and fingers gripped the counter top.

As soon as I started to want to draw bigger pieces. I grabbed my largest sketchpad. His bare feet and the way they crossed, the way his jeans went all the way to the floor at the heel. Rip that sheet off and throw it to the floor. The lower legs and the folds in the jeans, the shadows, and the color changes. Rip it off, throw it to the floor. I just kept going, hand and arm, angle to the elbow, to shoulder. Next sheet, draw, rip it off, throw it on the floor. The muscle play in the arms and forearm, shoulder. I didn't notice when the window started getting light. Later I fell asleep in my chair, I hate that.

Denise knocking on the door was what woke me up. She had a key so I hollered for her to just come in. I didn't want to roll over all the sheets of paper on the floor. She just stood in the doorway with her mouth hanging open, looking at the storm of paper on the floor. We got to sorting out all the sheets, small ones in one stack. Larger sheets in two different piles, one for legs, jeans, and feet. Another for the upper body, then we started a third for face and head.

I had used up all the sheets in the small pad, then evidently got another one and used half of that. Two pads of large newsprint sheets and part of another. Sometime in the night I'd grabbed a 12x16 sketch pad, that had been empty in my lap when I woke up, must have been when I'd fallen asleep. Denise counted 187 sheets of drawings. Some with just a few lines showing position or angle. Some full drawings of muscles in arms or shoulders. Small ones of just an eye, or a finger.

I'd done this a couple of times before, it becomes something like a fever trance. Never like this though, maybe ten or fifteen drawings at the most. But it's always been when someone else has been around, never by myself like this time. Someone's always broken the trance before.

One thing about doing this trance is I get my head out of the way. I don't think about how to draw I just do it. I always said that I've done my very best drawing in this type of trance. An artist is never satisfied with his own work. You see all the imaginary faults in your own work. That one line that's not as curved as you pictured it in your mind. The smudge of shading that's just a little off. Drawing that I've done before in this trance, I don't see the flaws in. This batch is even better.

There is a drawing of his crossed bare feet and jeans. Denise asked me where I'd gotten the photograph from, even to me it looked almost that good. Just in black and white and on entirely the wrong kind of paper. Eyes and the part of his nose stared out at you from one sheet. I swear it was Dennis looking out a slot in a door, you felt him. Going through all the drawings, if I could have taken a piece from one, part from another and pasted them together. So I did, thumb tacks and scotch tape on one of the walls. I had a near photographic drawing of the whole of his body. Just the way I wanted it on the painting, now I just needed to get it onto the canvas. Too bad, I could never paint in a trance.

Denise and my relationship has grown quite a lot. The whole process of getting everything ready for this painting has taken quite awhile. She's helped me a lot, rode with me to the different art stores. She's helped me getting around, holding doors open and all that. At the university one time, after we picked up supplies, we went through the student's art exhibit.

That led to a trip through the museum down town, and a couple of the art galleries in malls and such. We'd even taken Kathy the check out girl from the store in the mall. Out to coffee in the bookstore a couple times. Kathy turned out to be kind of a kindred spirit. She was studying engineering and art at the university, just chemical engineering. In one of our talks, I suggested that she might look at art restoration as a specialty. It would be a good fit with her chemical training and art education.

With her brother John going over to his friends for video games, it's left Denise home alone a lot. She started coming over to 'just visit', she calls it. Before this, all I got at the store were microwave meals or TV dinners. Cans of soup or chili, I never felt like cooking. One of our afternoon visits ended talking about cooking. So I showed her my recipe for spaghetti and meat sauce. I could never cook just a little bit, so I sent the rest home with her.

After that, it was maybe two, three times a week that we'd cook. I'd always liked to cook, it was something that Cat and I did together. Denise and I'd always cook a big batch and sent the rest home with her. I'd get the clean dish back the next day. Sometimes we'd cook something different that day or the next. Mostly she'd just talk. God that kid could talk; you never knew ahead of time what she wanted to talk about. How can a sweet sixteen never been kissed girl talk to this grumpy old bear, about boys and boyfriends. So shy that first day she almost didn't answer the door, now boys and boyfriends.

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byJayDiver© 14 comments/ 9605 views/ 20 favorites

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