PACKING HAD NOT been the hard part. He had gotten rid of a lot of stuff since the divorce; most of it had been hers, anyway. And he had gotten rid of even more stuff a year later when he broke up with Christina, his girl friend. The divorce and then breaking up with Christina--that had been the hard part.
The divorce had been like an accident, like running off a slick road and hitting a tree. At the time he hadnt really wanted it. But breaking up with Christina had been his idea. He had met her shortly after the divorce. She was a "wild woman" compared to his wife, or so he had felt at the time, ignoring such traits as her penchant for shopping centers and credit cards. Long curly blond hair and the body of a nature goddess had perhaps sped their relationship along too fast, so that breaking up wasnt easy.
But he knew that he had to do it if he were ever going to do anything that mattered. And he knew that with Christina he was piddling his time away, as much as he liked her, as attractive as he found her, and as comfortable as he was at times being with her. Comfort, he told himself, did not seem to matter so much anymore. Nor did pleasure. He would almost rather be uncomfortable and miserably in need than be--well, how could he say it without smiling at his own idealistic-sounding words?--stuck in one place, unable to fulfill his mission in life, whatever form that mission took.
But what was that mission, he began to wonder more and more.
One day, sitting in the small house in Los Gatos that he shared with Christina, things became clearer. Staring out the window at a plumb tree that was just beginning to blossom in the back yard, he spotted a humming bird. The house was on the west side of town at the base of the Santa Cruz mountains; the land had once been part of an orchard. He was an artist--a commercial artist now, it was true--but he had once gone to art school, and once he had aspired to create daringly with line, shape, shade, and color. Where has that aspiration gone, he wondered, as he watched the humming bird, its throat iridescent red and green, dart up to an opening blossom and hover there magically. Into a marriage? Into a child? Into the breaking up of a marriage? Into a girl friend who was not the same as the wife but who was, if you chose to examine the pattern of your own behavior carefully. And also into a job that paid the bills, brought some highs from the completion of projects devised by others to make money, but that brought no deeper level of satisfaction? All this was more or less true, he thought, staring out the window. His "mission"--and again he smiled at the word--was to be an artist and he had failed to live up to what that meant.
He watched the humming bird as it darted to another opening blossom, then disappeared out of the yard. He had opted for ease or comfort, and he had gone along too easily with the plans of others. That was his problem, he now openly admitted to himself.
Christina had been out shopping with a girl friend all day, and she arrived back home in the late afternoon with two new dresses, a hat, and a pair of high leather boots that she was eager to show Tom. Nevertheless, Tom insisted that he needed to talk, though he did admire some of her latest acquisitions. When Tom explained that the relationship had become a dead-end for him and that he needed out of it, Christina, wearing her new knit hat with gold pin, looked confused, then cried; and Tom cried too and, half jokingly, half seriously, apologized for ruining a perfectly good shopping day.
The next day he packed his van and moved out of the little house that he had grown to like for the plum tree and its view of the mountains; and, after a couple of days of camping in his van in the parking lots of industrial "parks" in Santa Clara, he headed north.
Outside of San Francisco he took the turnoff to Stinson Beach and the coast.
It was a Tuesday, about ten in the morning. He was already out of the haze of the Bay Area that dulled all color and reduced scenery to gauzy shapes. Most tourist traffic was gone, and Tom had the road nearly to himself. He hadnt been on an empty road for a long time. He was used to bumper-to-bumper traffic, jam-ups, and cars cutting in and out, as though in some sort of competition. And the emptiness of the country with its uninhabited or cow- or sheep-inhabited space was both eerie and delightful at the same time. Being alone made it even more intense. He had been up north a few times with his wife before the baby, and he had driven up once with Christina for a music festival and to go shopping in Mendocino. She had heard about the local crafts from her friends but had been disappointed by big-city prices and the crowded town. But it seemed like now he was seeing it for the first time: blue sky, green meadow grass, shape of hill, purple tinge of distant mountains.
A motorcyclist passed him at high speed, a Harley, low and hugging the road, and Tom increased his speed a little. Then he found himself in back of a poultry truck; and he used that as an excuse to pull back and drive more slowly. He looked at the truck up in front of him with the thousands of compartments, stacked one on top of another, with birds in them. It looked dirty, grimy-brown; all over little tufts of down appeared stuck to it. It was an ugly sight but a pleasant one at the same time, thought Tom--with the exception of the compartments, of course. He could do without compartments.
And now the poultry truck and Tom, following at a respectful distance, were over on the coast, headed up towards Stinson beach. The water was magnificently blue and calm and flat, and the sight dazzled Tom. He pulled over at the first turn-out and sat in the van staring at the water and the big beach. He felt the urge to get out his paints right there and start mixing colors. It had been a long time since he had painted anything that really moved him. In art school, yes, he had been inspired a few times--mostly then, he had to admit, by the naked female body, a few times by the grimier, drug-pedaling parts of Oakland, where he had gone to school. Then, when he took a job as a graphics artist with one of the larger advertising agencies in Santa Clara, he had felt inspiration die in himself. Only then was he moved by the colors themselves, or by abstract line and form.
As he sat watching the white foam of the surf on the beach under the cool morning fog that was just beginning to clear, suddenly he sensed a loneliness and fearfulness within himself. It was both beautiful to be here but it was eerie, awesome, and frightening. It was too beautiful and huge for someone who had been cooped up, well, like poultry in a cage, for so long, he thought. He wasnt quite ready for the full effect of nature resounding and reverberating with his new freedom. Wanting to shake the sensation, he got out of the van, walked a little ways up the road until he came to a narrow, dusty path bordered by wild radish with purple flowers and dull green ice plant leading down to the beach.
In the cool, damp sand he removed his old tennis shoes and rolled up the pants legs of his jeans. He walked down to the waters edge till his feet were covered in the foam and the receding wave was tugging at his ankles. As the water receded, he bent down and scooped into the wet, heavy sand, noticing all the little holes where crabs were burrowed in the area where he had dug. Another wave came rushing in, splashed up his ankles, wetting the cuffs of his trousers, and partially filled in the depression in the sand.
Cool, refreshing water, he thought. Alive water. Water teaming with life, with creatures. If only you could paint it--he laughed at the notion--the water, the water right at your ankles. Well, the sensation. Paint the goose bumps on your ankles and your calves and the little crab that had scuttled from the sand he had scooped up in his hands and that was now burrowing back down into the heavy, grey, wet sand of the long, empty beach.
Tom looked up as a big pelican flew slowly overhead, circled around and dove into the water. Another pelican, massive, huge-winged, primitive looking, circled then dropped with all its weight into the water, making a giant splash and emerging with a fish. He looked at the huge bill of the bird, the enormous neck and pouch as it came up through the water. Yes, he would try painting the bird, he thought--in some form, in some fashion, though he knew not how. Most of his own art work since he had graduated from the Oakland Art Institute six years ago had been abstract--or imitation abstract, he had joked to himself. It was modern-looking as in a text book of modern art, but it had lacked something and did not really satisfy him. It was too cool, too reserved. It did not have the feeling even of his old van, a vehicle that he had stubbornly refused to part with a few years back, even though he had the money for a newer vehicle and his wife had pleaded with him to go out and "just look at" a newer one. The newer one turned out to be a Toyota family van with plush carpeting and bubble-like, wrap-around windows.
"Id feel like a tourist right the driveway," Tom had teased her but to no avail. "We need a new car," she had insisted, as though he were ignorant of basic human needs. In fact she had insisted until he was nearly ready to go out and buy one, when suddenly she changed her tune. "We need a new house," was the new refrain. Art work, abstract or otherwise, was nearly a thing of the past by then.
It was during the purchase of a new house that their marriage had fallen apart. His lack of interest in the process of purchasing a house, combined with her meeting an old friend who was a successful architect and understood her "basic needs," jolted weak marital foundations; her affair with the architect preceded a divorce that caused Tom much soul-searching but left him intact.
Where was the "new woman" and daring feminist "thinker" he had married a few years back, Tom bitterly asked himself from time to time, but gradually learned to turn his mind in more positive directions.
Yes, he would try to paint this bird, he told himself as the cool water again receded from around his ankles. Maybe he would just paint the wings or the bill or the pouch. Maybe he would put them on a woman, a woman in a car going shopping. A woman in a car pulling out of the driveway of an enormous house. A woman with a wealthy lover who acts like he adores her, brings her flowers, but hardly knows her--could not describe her hands let alone sketch them.
Tom stopped himself. He was turning bitter. She had her house, he had his freedom. They were even.
He walked on down the beach until he came to a stream that opened out into the ocean. Only a trickle of water spilled through the opening now, though the banks were wide and cattails and nettles grew along the edges. He sat down on a log.
Tom watched the fog as it cleared in patches that were soon filled in by more fog. The beach was right on the edge of the fog bank now. Sometimes a little tongue of fog from the ocean drifted up the stream and the gorge down which the stream flowed; sometimes the tongue withdrew back towards the water in a slow, mysterious, in-and-out motion.
Tom had forgotten his fear now but he remembered the van up above on the cliff. He would spend more time with the ocean, he told himself. Maybe a whole lot more time. But right how he had better get back on the road and put more distance between himself and the place he had come from.
Two days later and one hundred and fifty miles up the coast from San Francisco, Tom stood by a small cabin in the woods with the tall, stern, grey-haired woman who had just showed it to him.
He didnt have to think about it, like he had other things. There was no water and no electricity in the cabin shaded by redwoods and pine, but the price was right--fifty dollars a month, or he could work it off, his potential landlord told him. He said hed take it.
"Youll have to haul sewage off," said the stern, grey-haired woman, who raised cattle and sheep on the ranch in the foothills of the coastal mountains. "Is that understood? Youre uphill of the springs out here, and I dont want to be drinkin anything youre gettin rid o unless its whiskey or wine and comes in a bottle." Tom laughed and said he understood, though he wasnt quite sure where he would haul his sewage off to. He didnt even have "facilities" yet.
But he liked the trees, the tall grass, the sight of the cows grazing on hillsides and sheep in meadows, and the old cabin with its wood stove, black and rusty with age. There was a promise of peace here that he had not known for some time. Certainly not since the divorce, nor since he had broken up Christina, nor since he had decided to pack up and head north. And with the promise of peace he could pursue his art passionately. The idea pleased him, though he smiled at his idealism.
"Know how to do anything?" his new landlord asked.
"Paint," Tom replied. "Im a painter."
"You mean pictures or houses?"
"Pictures," Tom replied, looking a little embarrassed.
"Well, dont need no pictures right now. You think you could paint a barn?"
Tom thought about it. "What color?" he asked.
"Red," said his landlord. "I like my barns red and my houses yellow."
"Reds a good color for a barn," said Tom. "Ill do it."
Thus Tom moved in with a months free rent. And he went out and bought two buckets: one for red paint, the other as "facilities."
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