A Portrait Of the Artist
I looked up at the harsh, bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling and rubbed my brow heavily. The decision seemed impossible. Too final. Too heavy. A fork in the woods, I thought. But which was the path less traveled? Which would lead me down that coveted road Frost wrote about? I whispered into the unknowable, “Is this it?”
“What’s that hon?” Ally was flipping through a stack of poster prints, completely oblivious to my struggle. Typical.
“Is this the one? Is this my desk?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“'Why not?' Come on honey. This is important."
She went back to the posters. Cityscapes and birds on a wire. The same vapid crap all her friends stuffed in their apartments. People shuffled past with big yellow bags with “IKEA” printed in blue on the side. I watched her in profile. Was she really no different than these people with their golf shirts and their minivans and their let’s-put-the-kids-to-bed-and-watch-Netflix Friday nights? I was stunned. As if my decision wasn’t hard enough, now she was forcing me to question her commitment. Why couldn’t she support me? Did she understand me at all?
A mom loitered on the other side of Ally, interested in the prints, politely trying to push in. She wore a pink ribbed tank top, flower print skirt and flip-flops. The same outfit as Ally but in different colors. They were twins; clones in the asphalt and strip-mall factory of our existence. Something crashed two aisles over and the mom hustled away with a look of worry.
Is that where we were headed? Chasing kids through IKEA on Saturday afternoon in flip-flops and oversized mommy bag? I groaned. “Come on. We’re leaving.”
“You’re not getting the desk?”
“No Ally. I’m not getting the desk. I’m not buying my writing desk at IKEA.”
“Uh-oh. Something’s wrong. What happened?”
“Nothing. It’s just, this is important to me, you know?”
“I know hon,” starting to go back to the prints.
“No, I mean really. I think this is the last piece I’m missing. I think it will really help my writing.”
“I know hon,” not looking up this time. “We’ll find your desk."
“Not here we won’t. Let’s go check the thrift store again.”
“Oh, but Savannah is coming over this afternoon. I thought we could grill out by the pool? Have some fun with Leo?”
Leo was Ally’s nephew. Nice kid. Had polio or MS or something. Couldn’t walk but loved to swim. The pair of them were always using the pool in our apartment complex. Savannah said it was cheap therapy. The pool water always felt dirty to me, and the charcoal grills in the pool area were hard to use. I thought the whole scene was less than ideal.
“Well, I was really hoping to get some writing done this evening,” I said. “How about I cook the burgers and then run upstairs while you swim?”
“Hi, I’m Stacy.” She said it with a flip of her hair that created a gust of emotion in me. She was breezy and plain. No makeup, and her hair in a pony tail. “This is my first shift.”
“Oh. Hi. I’m Ryan,” I said, still struggling against the Monday morning mental muddle. “This is, like, my one-millionth shift.”
She laughed sweetly. “What do you do?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean what’s your other job? Doesn’t everybody who works here have another job? A real job?”
“Oh. Yeah. I’m a writer.”
She cooed and I felt weak.
“What do you write?”
"Oh, op-eds. I mean…I wrote an op-ed a while back...college newspaper. I’m shopping a manuscript now.”
“Oh? What’s your manuscript about?”
“Everything. I mean, all kinds of stuff. Murder, and betrayal, and coming of age. And love, of course.”
“Of course,” did she wink? “Any bites?”
“Takers? Anyone showing interest in your manuscript?”
“Oh, um, not yet. I mean, I got some letters back, but they were rejections. At least they replied, right? I mean they say that’s a good sign.”
“Form or personal?”
“Were they form letters or did you get a personal note? Did someone write, ‘Not for us, but keep working.’?”
"Oh. No. No one wrote that."
“Ok. Well…I mean, I’ve heard that’s a good sign. When they write a note.”
“Yeah,” I stammered. “Yeah, it totally is.”
“Hey, I blog too.”
“Yeah?” She was pouring a drip now, out of the wrong canister.
“No, like this. You’ve got to wait for the light to go off to know it’s done. You use up this canister before that one.”
“Oh thanks,” her smile was impossibly cute, in a natural kind of way that I thought I could describe in my book. “So what do you blog about?”
“Everything, you know? Life. And art. Sometimes music too. Literature. Last week I wrote a thousand words about my beard.”
“Wow, that’s a lot to cover!”
“Yeah, keeps me busy.”
She was talking with a customer now, her lashes fluttering while she laughed politely. Did she know she was doing that? Should I feel guilty about these feelings?
I had dinner with Dad on Tuesday. I wanted to meet at the cafe at the Museum of Modern Art. He could visit my turf. See me in my element. Start to get it about art. Plus, I like the tahini tuna there. But he said, “Let’s just meet at the Wing Flap.” That was the problem with Dad. No imagination. Always thinking inside the box.
The Wing Flap is where Ally works. She looks great in the cutoff T-shirt she has to wear, but I tell her it’s beneath her. Objectifies her body. She should get a different job for moral reasons. For her own dignity and self-esteem. She does look great in that T-shirt though.
The T-shirt was lost on Dad, and I’m grateful for that. It would be weird for him to ogle my girlfriend’s chest. Still, I’m not sure how he can ignore it. She looks great in that T-shirt. Maybe Dad is gay? Or maybe he’s too old to care? I wonder if he takes Viagra. I wonder if he ever looked at Mom’s T-shirt the way I look at Ally’s. But I don’t want to think about Mom’s boobs. That is not a topic a grown man should think about — his mother’s breasts. But I’m sure dad thought about them. Probably dreamed about them. Was probably distracted from many conversations by Mom’s boobs in the same way I missed most of what he was saying at Wing Flap because of Ally’s T-shirt. She looked good in that T-shirt.
He was saying something about Ally. About her hard work, putting herself through nursing school, and about my being a disgusting parasite and less than a man. I don’t think he used those terms, but it was implied. Dad sees no value in intangibles — in priceless gifts. He doesn’t get it about writing.
He told me he had recommended me for another position with his company. A technical writer somethingerother. It was always something like that. The writing equivalent of the mail room. Or the sweat shop. I tried to explain. “I’m a creative writer, Dad. Not a technical writer. I belong in a studio, not a cubicle.”
“But studios require rent; they don’t pay it,” he said. Again with the money. Always about money. If he was so worried about my spending, he wouldn’t have wasted the value of our dinner, I thought. I could already eat free at Wing Flap; Ally got free food. I ate a lot of wings already. If he was going to buy me dinner, he could have done it someplace I wasn’t already getting it.
At least Ally didn’t complain about money as much as Dad. She didn’t understand me — neither of them did — but she saw something in me more than a wage-earner. And she knew how to wear a T-shirt.
Stacy understood me. She introduced me to people as her “writer friend”. On the morning after my dinner with Dad, Stacy smiled at me while she slipped a green apron over her head. “How’s my writer friend?”
“Hey Stace.” I wondered if she liked it that I called her Stace. No one else called her that, I noticed. “Tired. I was up late working on my novel. I posted an excerpt on my blog. Did you see it?”
“Sorry, no. I was in bed early last night. But I’ll check it out. What’s your novel about again?”
“It’s about a writer writing a book about a writer.”
“Wasn’t it a murder mystery?”
“Yeah, it’s that too."
“Wow. Sounds deep. Or confusing.” She giggled.
“Yeah. I mean, thanks.”
“You know you can subscribe, so then you get an email every time there’s a new post.”
“Oh cool. I’ll look into that.”
Later, I would check the traffic stats on my blog to see if she had subscribed. I thought she would. Stacy got me in a way that Ally didn’t. I used to daydream about Ally seeing my potential some day. I used to imagine that she would find a treasure trove of notebooks and unpublished manuscripts after I died. I was never sure, in those dreams, how I died. Something heroic. And tragic. Once in a coffee shop, I overheard a conversation in which a woman said, “His tragic soul killed him. He just emoted himself to death.” I don’t know who she was talking about, but I imaged that was the way I would go. And after I was gone, Ally would find my writing, see the beauty in it for the first time, and send it to a publisher who would accept it immediately and I would become, posthumously, a best-selling author.
That was what it was all about. That was my calling — success and wealth from my craft. I didn’t choose my gift, but since God or the universe had given me this burden of creative soul, I figured, it would see to it that its expression was rewarded. I believed that so strongly, in fact, that I didn’t even mind if the reward came after my death.
Thursday, I made a connection with a chandelier. I had gone to a coffee shop I like called the Dangling Participle to get some writing done. Lots of writers hang out there. It’s an old house with creaky floors and lots of posters for charity concerts.
There’s this one light fixture I hadn’t noticed before. It’s a brass chandelier with lightly-tinted cut glass shades surrounding flame-shaped bulbs. Not tasteful. Probably a thrift store purchase. But beautiful in its own right. It drew me in and illuminated the words on my computer screen in a new way. I saw coffee and people differently Thursday, knowing I was seeing them in the light of a 1980s thrift store chandelier.
I didn’t commit any words to the page Thursday but I believed my writing took a leap forward. I sat down with my oversized coffee mug at four o'clock and didn’t seem to blink until a horn honked outside and I realized it was dark. I had stared at the light for four hours. I think something shifted in me; a deeper understanding of the world that makes chandeliers and hangs them in coffee shops.
I left realizing that that connection is a story I’ll tell to my grandkids. Or to the people who come to my readings.
Savannah and Leo came over to swim again Friday. That kid was always wanting to swim. And we grilled burgers again on the rusted grime-smeared grill by the pool. After dinner, Leo wanted more swim time and the girls wanted to go inside. Savannah had been shopping and needed to examine her trophies with Abby. I was left to babysit.
My desk was coming that evening too. Found it on Craigslist the day before — a standing desk, used but in good shape. The guy had a pickup and said he wouldn’t mind bringing it over.
Leo splashed in the shallow end and tried to sit on a foam noodle. He had been improving. When Savannah first discovered our apartments had a pool, and started bringing him over often, he had worn floaties on his arms, even though he was ten years old. But now he used no floatation device, except for the noodle.
“Hey Leo. I’m getting a new desk buddy. And I’m worried the guy won’t be able to find which building is ours. If I run out to the street to look for him, will you be okay?”
“Sure Mister Ryan. I’m a strong swimmer!” He drew out "strooooong” as wide as he drew up his grin.
“Yeah you are buddy. Very strong. I’ll just be a minute.”
I hustled out to the curb just out of sight of the pool. Leo would be fine. I didn’t want to let that desk get away. Hemingway wrote at a standing desk, the guy from Craigslist had told me. Hemingway.