Chapter 3

TOM WAS ALSO LISTENING to the morning revelry of the myriad little birds in the woods, but especially to the throaty trills of the warbler that rose above the general din, as he walked down Fish Rock Road towards the beach. The sounds of the birds cheered him up and distracted him from the thoughts that had kept him awake the night before in the cramped little cabin, so that he arose feeling exhausted.

First, he had thought about his three-year-old son as he blew out the lantern and crawled into the sleeping bag that lay tossed on the floor in front of the wood stove. As he listened to the night sounds of crickets and owls he thought about the small, delicate child. He had not seen him in over a month now. He missed everything about the child: the eyes that looked with such wonder when you showed him anything new--a flower, a seed, a bug on a leaf, a bird in the branch of a tree, the color of the sky, and the mixing of paint; the laugh that came so spontaneously in the bath or when you tickled him ever so slightly; the peacefulness of the sleeping form in the little bed; the instability of his rubbery legs and the little hand that grasped yours so needfully on a walk; the reciprocal love between the child and its mother, for whatever the differences between Tom and his ex-wife, he recognized and respected that love. All these visions tore at his heart, leaving him feeling troubled about the course of his life. He had purchased his freedom, perhaps, at the price of a broken heart, both his and the child’s. It troubled him greatly that the child was so far away and that he could not respond to his needs and that on any given day he did not know for sure that the child was even alive.

Wide-eyed, he had turned on his side towards the old wood stove, watching little sparks of light through the cracks--sparks of light that made dancing flickers on the bare wood walls of the cabin--and he had begun to think about Christina whom he had left a few weeks ago.

In the darkness he could see her face and the light in her eyes, and he could feel her warmth, as he remembered dancing with her at a country bar in Zayante in the mountains outside of Santa Cruz. When she danced, her body moved like the pattern of light on the cabin walls, in flashes, in little eruptions, in jerks. The funkier the music, the more alive she became. After the divorce she had made him feel alive again; she had restarted the emotional and physical parts of his being. And in the flickering light and darkness he thought, too, about his wife. He felt like he had harmed her, harmed her badly, even though she was the one who had directly caused the breakup of the marriage. He had not met her needs, he had ignored her, until another came along who was sensitive to those needs and was able to satisfy . . . Oh, shit, what was he thinking, Tom asked himself. That other guy was no more sensitive than a bowling ball or a baseball bat; probably less. He began to think about his own mother and father and a troubling incident that occurred at his twelfth birthday party . . . . Such was the pattern of his thoughts until darkness turned to light and the owls and the crickets were still and the old wood stove contained little more than grey ash.

He was exhausted but got up anyway, deciding he would pack his paints and go down to the cliffs and the beach. Maybe he could shake off his morbid thoughts there.

As he headed down the gentle grade of the narrow road that wove among redwoods, pines, and firs, he saw a small figure emerge from the trees about a thousand yards ahead.

"Hey, Bro, how you doin’," said Michael as Tom approached. "You livin’ in that little cabin up the hill, ain’t you?"

"Yeah," said Tom, who was somewhat skeptical of the small figure in the leather jacket and jeans who looked more like a member of a motorcycle gang than a camper or a woodsman.

"Well, welcome to the avenue," said Michael. "The digs ain’t fancy here but we get by--that is, if we don’t get caught." Michael paused, then added respectfully, "‘course you’re legal where you are."

Michael explained that he was camped out, "courtesy of the State of California," a little further down the road.

"You don’t get caught?" Tom asked.

"Not so far," said Michael grinning. "We keep moving around. Movin’s the name of the game out here." He paused, then asked, "Which way you headed, Bro?"

"To the cliffs or the cove on the beach, depending on the fog," said Tom. "Gonna paint, or try to. I don’t seem to have much energy today."

"I’ll walk ya down, Bro, I’m headed that way," said Michael. Then in a loud voice with great enthusiasm he added: "Michael’s the name, life’s the game, but, oh, Maria, Maria’s my flame."

Tom did not know whether he liked this little character or not. Tom did not like loud people. Still, he was feisty and seemingly full of good cheer--somewhere between a scoutmaster and a delinquent teenager who has just made a daring and successful heist--and it brought Tom’s spirits up a little hearing Michael sing, "Maria, Maria, I don’t deserve ya; Maria, Maria, I’m gonna preserve ya," then burst out laughing.

"But how do you preserve a woman, Bro, I ask you?" said Michael more thoughtfully now. "Anyway," he continued, "Maria is very beautiful, even though she is fat. Oh, she is like a mountain, a beautiful mountain with dark hairy forests. Maybe you should paint her, Bro."

"I don’t know her," said Tom jokingly. "She might be shy about her hairy forests."

"Well, I will introduce you. And if you tell me your name, I will quit calling you Bro, sound like a deal?"

"Tom, Tom’s the name," said Tom, extending his hand and laughing. "Tom’s the name and today regret’s my game," he added.

"No," said Michael, "no regret here. Here we go on living no matter what."

Tom smiled for the first time in two weeks.

Tom set up his easel on the edge of a cliff under some small pines, and he began to mix paint. As usual the morning was overcast, and far out to sea was a thick fog bank. Below the cliffs the rocks were grey-white with bird droppings, and about a thousand yards off shore was a big chunk of severed land. It still had vegetation--grass, a couple of small pines, and ceanothus tinging the little island blue.

Michael watched Tom mix paint for awhile.

"You do that very well," said Michael, impressed with the adept and serious manner with which Tom mixed his colors.

"I’ve had practice at this part of the process," said Tom. "Used to do it every day. The question is, can I get beyond the image of a dollar bill?"

"What?" asked Michael.

"I used to do this for money," said Tom. "But I want to go beyond that. I have to. But sometimes I don’t know if I can. Sometimes I’m afraid to even start."

Michael looked thoughtful. "Well, Bro," he said, "just get up your courage and do it, like you’re gonna ask a woman for a date or something. She can only tell ya to go to hell!"

Tom smiled at the notion that he was about to ask a woman for a date, then got out his brushes.

"You want coffee?" Michael asked as Tom began to look around. "I gotta go down the road and get cigarets for my mountain. My mountain smokes."

"Yeah," said Tom. "You need money?"

"No, it’s on me. How you take it?"

"Black," said Tom, picking up the jive, "black as a moonless night below the mountain, dark as an arm pit."

"You got it, Bro."

Michael took off and Tom, standing now by the easel, looked all around, breathing the cool, damp air from the ocean that was flat and grey under the clouds. He began to trace the horizon in heavy, wide strokes of grey as though he were painting the sides of a battleship. He stopped and looked at what he had produced: merely a broad band across the canvas. He felt uneasy about what he had done, yet the effect was right, as the horizon itself did not exist; or if it did, it was blurry, vague. Yes, a single band of grey would do it, lightening at the edges of course to suggest no exact boundaries or sharp delineation.

Standing to the side of the easel and staring hard from canvas to ocean horizon to canvas again, a sharp line, moving north to south, became visible against the grey blur of the horizon. As it grew closer the line turned into distinct, individual dark forms--a whole squadron of living forms whose pattern made a line. As the shape of birds--pelicans--approached even closer he could see the expanse of the wings of the huge birds, the enormous necks and bills, the primitiveness of the forms. He dipped his brush into the brown paint, then drew a single line that swept up on one side, then back own again on the other. He drew other like lines over the grey wash of the horizon, then dipped his brush in black and darkened some of the lines.

Now, for a moment, he tightly shut his eyes so that they almost ached; then he opened them quickly and looked back out over the horizon as he saw one of the shapes smack into the water. He grabbed his brush and made a streak from sky to water. But what water? He had painted no water. It streaked down into something. And what should that something look like? Did it have to look like water? No, not exactly. He began to paint a space, an expanse, a calm, smooth place below the horizon--a glassy, transparent region into which something had fallen, dropped, or even invaded, a minute portion of the world that was nevertheless changed by that incursion, a boundary-less territory whose substance flowed freely into other territories, a territory that was sucked up, that was now missing something. But what? What was it missing, Tom asked himself, trying to show by certain strokes and shades and colors just what it was missing. Did it need more upward motion, more lifting, more churning, stirring . . .

"Coffee, Bro?" Tom heard as though from far off. Oh, yes, coffee; coffee would be good now, coffee would be wonderful. Tom set down the brush and took the cup that Michael handed to him. His hands trembled.

"Not bad," said Michael. "I didn’t take you for an abstract type, an expressionist, whatever it’s called. Far out!"

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