ALMOST EVERY MORNING Tom packed up his painting gear and a little left-over food from last nights dinner and headed down to the beach. Sometimes he set up at the edge of the cliff in the little grove of pines overlooking the cove, or if it were a windy day he went down into the cove itself and painted on the beach near two large rocks.
And almost always between eleven and twelve oclock Michael showed up with two steaming-hot cups of coffee, and Tom quit working for awhile as the two sat and talked.
Some days it was sunny and Tom had to work faster as the paint dried more quickly. But on the days that it was foggy he could take his time with all the little details, and he liked that. Thus foggy days were good painting days. He had learned to become very economical with his paints because he was running in short supply of certain colors and they were expensive. True, they had never seemed expensive before when he had worked at the agency. In fact he had never given it a thought then. So, also, was the paper expensive. And so he had begun to plan in advance--to visualize just a little more ahead of time what he was going to paint. That way he had fewer failures, and less paint and paper went to waste. He was also learning to be a little more careful with his food. Visualizing, however, did him no good with the food; it just made him hungrier. But you could be careful that no food spoiled and went to waste in that way.
His clothes were becoming a bit ragged, but he did nothing about that. They felt comfortable--comfortable as the small growth of beard that had appeared on his face when he quit shaving.
On a day that had started out windy he was down on the beach trying to go easy on the yellow--he was critically in short supply of that color--and if he ran out of yellow, that meant no more orange as well. He was pretty much down to working with primary pigments. He was munching on a carrot that had begun to go limp--a bad sign in carrots, one indicating that mold was next--and he was wondering how much longer he could go on. He needed more green if he were going to mix yellow. He need more red if he were going to mix orange. And he needed more paper if he were going to do anything at all. And then there was the matter of his son. He needed more money if he were to continue to support young Tom. Already he had sent his ex-wife almost everything he had for that purpose. And surely he meant to support him. And he needed more money if he were going to go down south for a visit, which he badly wanted to do; or maybe bring his son up for a weekend. The boy would enjoy that. They could paint together and explore the woods and walk on the beach. He would love to show him the stillness of ferns along a creek bank. There were wonders here that he would love to share with the boy. He had talked to young Tom a couple of times on the phone, but that had left him feeling sick and lonely. It was not like being with him. And, oh, how he longed to be with him.
It was a grey wet day on which he was contemplating these things, when Michael showed up with the coffee.
"Hey, Mr. Yellow," shouted Michael as he came shuffling up through the sand--he had come to call Tom "Mr. Yellow" because of the predominance of that color in his paintings--"took awhile to get this stuff today." Tom accepted the steaming cup gladly--he needed it--a cup he now knew Michael stole every day from the little cafe down the road. Michael had explained one time that "getting" the coffee was a little trickier when there were more people around, and it was now the height of the tourist season.
"I see Mr. Yellow needs paint," said Michael, "or is this Mr. Yellows blue period?"
"Yes, Mr. Yellow needs paint," replied Tom. "Mr. Yellow needs a lot of things," said Tom sullenly as he sat down on a log he had rolled up to one of the rocks so as to have a back rest. "Peace, Bro, have a seat," he said to Michael, sighing and easing his back against the hard rock.
The matter sounded serious, so Michael sat down and began to roll a cigarette.
"I cant go on like this," said Tom at last. "I need paint; I can go without food, but I do need paint."
"Okay," said Michael, "so you get some paint. What stops you from getting the paint that you need so much?"
"The same thing that stops you from getting coffee when you want it," said Tom.
"You mean the tourists?" asked Michael.
"No, not the tourists. Money. Stinky, nasty, rotten money. The color green!"
"Oh, well, there are ways to get around that. Just because Mr. Blue lacks the green stuff doesnt mean Mr. Blue cant have yellow. Where would Mr. Blue go to get yellow?"
"San Francisco," sighed Tom, as though speaking of a hopelessly far away place.
"I like San Francisco," said Michael, "lets plan a trip. A little change would do us some good. And Maria too. What else ails Mr. Blue?"
"Your son?" asked Michael. "Why that little devil--wait till I get my hands on him!"
Tom finally smiled. "Want a carrot? Theyre going bad."
"No thanks, Bro, Im smoking. Shouldnt be but I am. Your problems make me nervous." Tom laughed and Michael, taking a drag on the cigarette, felt pleased that he had broken through Toms mood.
"I want to paint," said Tom. "I really, really want to paint. But I keep running into this obstacle called money."
"Ah, the Green Wall," said Michael. "Well, what about selling some paintings?" he asked Tom seriously.
"I dont know if Im ready yet," said Tom. "I used to sell art work--advertising, if you call that art--but I dont want to do that anymore. I cant!"
"Well, dont, by all means dont. But this stuff is good. Just keep doing it and someday youll be rich."
"Of course, you wont be smiling when I borrow your money," added Michael.
"If I get famous," Tom said, "it will probably be for painting barns. Seems like everyone wants me to paint their barn now."
"Nothing wrong with that," said Michael, "if it keeps you going. How'd you ever talk Miller into purple?"
"I ain't tellin'," Tom said, and laughed. "And what about you," he asked Michael. "What do you want to do?"
"Me? Oh, well, I wouldnt mind doing what I was doing before," said Michael, "that is, if there were any jobs. I was driving a bus, LA to Eureka, hell to heaven and back."
"And you liked that?"
"Yeah," said Michael, "I did. Did a bit of reading too."
"Oh, what did you read?" asked Michael.
"Tolstoy, Dostoevski, Gogol . . . the Russians. I like reading old books. They seem more real to me."
"More real than what?" asked Tom.
"Well, more real than what is happening in the world right now," said Michael. "Maybe that is why I liked driving a bus. That seemed real too."
"You mean the bus seemed real, or what?" asked Tom, looking a little embarrassed for his prying.
"I mean the people on the bus. They were all different and they all needed to get some place. Sounds simple but I enjoyed helping them get there. Simple pleasures for simple people," said Michael as though he had just given up the mystery of his being.
"Well, Bro, if I need to go somewhere," said Tom, "I would ride your bus for sure. Ever read Dead Souls? . . . ."
After discussing the book by Nikolai Gogol, they sat in silence for a little while. Then Michael said, "Come on over tonight, well cook something up. Ive got a little wine Ive been saving. Well have a party."
"Thanks but I cant," said Tom. "Ive got to go out and . . . and dump shit tonight."
"Youve got to what?" said Michael.
"Dump shit. Im practically floating in it, and Im running out of places to dump it."
"Oh," said Michael recollecting a previous conversation they had had about the location of the springs on the ranch--all downhill--and the fact that Tom had to haul away sewage to avoid contaminating the water. Finding a place to dump his stuff that did not contaminate someone elses water, or carting it off to a restroom at night and flushing it down a toilet was not his favorite chore. Only when the future of a bite of an apple or a sip of a cup of coffee appeared limited and grim did he act.
"Well, bring it with you," said Michael, picturing Toms dilemma. "Its a little tricky in the park right now with all the tourists, but we can dump it there. Well pull our first job together. Hows that sound?"
"Will you teach me how to steal coffee, too?" asked Tom smilingly.
"Sure, no problem, Bro."
Michael crushed his cigarette out against the rock, buried the butt in the sand, and left Tom to work. In the late afternoon the sun broke through the cloud cover far out to sea, making a glimmering patch of silver light on the water while the sun itself remained shrouded from vision.
Tom painted for awhile--first in blue, then in violet which he concocted by mixing in a small amount of red. He still had plenty of red and blue but was beginning to worry about his supplies of stand oil and white for tinting. He painted shapes, shapes of things at night. Some were friendly, some were not. He left space for the moon. That would come later when he had more paint. For now he thought of the moon as hidden, concealed in back of one of the larger shapes--just as the sun was now shrouded in the fog. Nevertheless, though unseen, the moon illumined the shapes and forms of the objects around it. So it was there--most definitely there--though it went unseen. Maybe, Tom thought, he would leave the moon out even when he had more paint. Because as long as you pictured it there somewhere as the hidden source of light it was okay; the picture made sense. Was there any such thing as a moonless night or a sunless day? Not really. Now what about two hidden sources of light, he wondered. Or three? Or four? Though it would scramble the reality of this world, it would open up other worlds that were just as possible. He had plenty of black for shading. He would shade as well as tint.
At last he grew tired of painting and his thoughts. He put his brushes aside, lay down in the sand, and closed his eyes, listening to the periodic crashing of the waves on the sand. He pictured the waves, silent until they reached the shore. Only then was some of their energy converted into sound as water rose up and crashed on the beach, turning, tumbling, and shooting up the sand, then rushing back out to form another wave while little birds combed the churned-up sand.
Toms limbs grew heavy and he found himself buried in the wet sand like a crab. He could hear the crash of waves up above him and the rushing of waters. Vaguely he wondered what was happening. He struggled but he was buried too deep in the sand to move, and there was no light down below where he was, only wet and cold and heaviness and the pounding of waves above. Then, as he heard water receding above, he felt two sharp pincers poke down through the sand and pluck him out, and he could see himself now dangling from the long beak of some enormous bird. He struggled, then fell into the cool wet sand as another wave rushed in and the bird retreated up the beach to escape the wave, shrieking angrily at him. He gasped for air, began burrowing back into the sand, but found himself tumbling backwards down the beach in the foamy wash of the receding wave. He was sure he was going to drown, but then, as he was washed out into the deeper waters, he discovered that he no longer needed to breath, at least not as he was accustomed to. Suddenly he found himself in deep, still waters of dazzling colors--reds, yellows, blues, violets, oranges--with all shapes, sizes, and forms of fish that he had ever known swimming by his side, though taking no notice of his presence. He flexed a muscle somewhere in his body and began to move slowly, joyfully through the waters that teamed with life, more life then he had even known or imagined and that contained everything he had ever wanted or needed . . .
Tom woke up. It was late in the afternoon. The bright spot in the fog had moved towards the horizon. A small flock of sandpipers darted in and out, in and out, with the waves.
Tom finally packed up his gear and climbed the narrow trail that zig-zagged up the north side of the ravine to the bluffs above. He came out close to the little pine grove where he liked to work when the weather was warm, but he walked around it. A man and a woman stood where he usually worked on the cliff side of the grove. The man wore a bright green visor, the woman a slick windbreaker with a yellow stripe. The woman had a long nose that reminded Tom of a beak, and she kept putting her forehead on the mans shoulder and rubbing it, as though trying to get his attention. The man stared out to sea. Tom looked toward the road and saw the camper parked there.
Tom walked across a little field of wild radishes and tangled blackberries to the highway. He pulled up the hood on his sweat shirt but was still cold. He walked south on the highway to the market and bought a three-litter jug of wine to add to the dinner. Then he headed east, back into the woods, on a road that passed first through the state park where Michael and Maria were "camped," then by the ranch where he, Tom, had his shack and a chore awaiting him.
Along the little road that wound up and inland, there were mostly redwoods and Douglas Fir, with ferns, nettles, bear grass, salal, and vetch along the base of the tress at the edge of the road. It amazed Tom how many flowers grew right along the edge of the road--some of them so small, like the redwood violet, that you would not see them driving by in a car or a camper. The yellow flowers you might spot if you drove slowly, but surely from a vehicle you would never see the purple veins in the interior of the petals. Or the redwood sorrel with its purple-pink flowers and clover-like leaves that hugged the ground. And if you walked into the forest, well, then a whole other world of flowers revealed their lurid shapes and colors to you.
Tom stopped for a moment at the sight of a flower he hadn't seen before. It was a tiny, mottled, white and purple flower that looked like an orchid. Only one leaf grew at the base of the short stem. As Tom got out a book on flowers that he had begun to carry around with him, he heard the sound of wheels on asphalt coming up the grade. It sounded like a truck. He moved off the road and watched as a camper, big as a house, came around the bend. Tom glanced at the couple who sat high up in the cab, remote, he thought, from the environment through which they passed; too far removed to even observe differences between trees, like the dark flat needles of the redwood and the pale, sharp needles, pointed in all directions, of the Douglas Fir. Through the tinted window of the cab they looked, he thought, as though they were viewing scenery on a television screen; it was a detached, unfeeling kind of look that Tom had known himself for a number of years. And there was a kind of detachment there, too, that he still utilized in himself at times when painting--when he needed to see a deeper level, when he needed to get below the "superficial appearance of reality," as he had begun to say to himself. But that kind of detachment was different, he thought; that had a purpose that went beyond amusement, recreation, or entertainment; and he felt embarrassed for the couple high up in the cab, or sorry for them, or maybe both embarrassed and sorry and a little bit ashamed. Both occupants of the cab looked straight ahead as they passed Tom, and as the vehicle passed, Tom noticed that it towed a smaller vehicle, a jeep, behind it. Suddenly, several rows of orange and red brake lights lit up as the jeep and camper slowed down and turned into the State Park entrance just up the road.
Tom put away the book, having found that the flower that charmed him was a Calypso orchid.
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