One mid-afternoon in July my house got pelted. I was unaware of the assault because I was in the garden. There the heat was slightly more bearable than in the studio where, even with two fans cranking, I get parboiled. I was inspecting the sticky trap hung to catch cucumber beetles. I do this more often than necessary, deriving morbid pleasure in finding the lure half-blackened by insect corpses.
I changed the chemical packet in the lure, speculating for the thirtieth time about why I was doing this, destined to end up with far more cucumbers than I knew what to do with. Not that it would take many to reach that number. Once upon a time we’d harvest wagon-loads. Isabel gave them away on an hourly basis. Who were all those people? Where were they now? No longer in my life. What had I done, or not done?
Before giving myself sunstroke, I went back in the house and turned on the swamp cooler in the living room, something I don’t do normally because it is a rackety contraption. Isabel wanted central air-conditioning, but I fended her off with some moral stance that, like everything but my joints, has gotten less rigid over time. I can’t say I recall what my quibbles were. Maybe it was simply the expense. I can afford it now but inaction is easier than action, to put it mildly. Racket on. I nap no matter.
Suppertime rolled around, the only time the blues can wreck me, when the ghost of Isabel follows me room to room, taunting me for my weakness. For a while after she died I tried to be a good cook, to make a conscious effort to take care of myself. I made some pretty good soups. Now the cupboard is empty even of beans. Supper is a slice of cheddar with a dab of mayonnaise on a cracker. I go to the store when one of these staples runs out. Sprawled in my recliner nibbling cracker and cheese I am reminded of a basic life lesson: never to take love for granted, a lesson arriving too late for relevancy.
By twilight the blues generally dissipate. Before the mosquitoes begin their bloodletting, I often move out onto the porch and if there isn’t a breeze I make one by rocking. That particular July evening stepping onto the porch I thought I was experiencing a neurological crisis, characterized by seeing red splotches. A cool ooze between my toes anchored perception. The front wall, the railing, the picture window and my rocker were plastered with oozing plums. An outrageous sight, not just the violation but the waste. Those plums were at the summit of succulence, sweet as Eden’s own. Each morning I picked and distributed them here and there. My neighbors accepted them with sighs of forbearance, as if the plums were another addition to the list of life’s afflictions. Attitude conversion, I presumed, would occur in one bite and gratitude gush forth.
I hadn’t brought any plums to the new family on the corner. The two boys zipped by on their bikes three or four times a day, never giving me more than a quick glance. I suspected they were trolling for some kind of excitement in this sleepy town. City boys. They’re Black. I couldn’t imagine them fitting in with the white kids in town, and there are only white kids and a family or two of Latinos. Often I saw their mother coming in and out in her bright pants and matching bright bandanas. They moved in not long after Isabel’s funeral, a time I was incapable of being sociable. The longer it went on the more it deepened into a rut, into avoidance. Was it racism? Maybe. Probably.
I took a sponge and cleaned the rocker. The moon came up. The juices of the plums bled into the boards. The blood of my neck poured into the proboscises of mosquitoes. I went to bed and rolled around. At dawn I hosed down the porch before word of sweet syrup got out to the flies. As the sun climbed over the treetops I picked almost all of the plums off the tree, including the greenish ones hard enough to break windows. That afflicted my heart, this disruption of the natural order.
I went to the studio and got to work. Noon came and went, the studio timbers crackling in the heat, sweat runnelling my ribs. The assault had unleashed something; perhaps it was rage. I’m lucky I had somewhere to put it. The painting was not typical of my mannerly landscapes. Slashed white diagonals evoked the porch railing, red blotches proliferated like open wounds. The energy lasted into evening. I knew that once I put the brush down it was over. And when I did, it was. The painting was done. It was hideous.
I was parched and starving. Plums were the only thing in the icebox. I ate at least twenty. Each cold one made its case for being the sweetest in creation. I slept like someone under a spell. The next day every movement was a negotiation with pain. It was all I could do to walk the ten steps to the studio. The painting drew me. Was it as hideous in the light of day as the night before? It was on the easel, in an attitude of defiance. Not caring whether it was awful or not. Which it was. Ugly as sin.
The next day, though I felt better, I stayed away from the studio. I gardened, I napped, I rocked on the porch. I picked the first three ripe tomatoes directly from the vine. It was a lovely day but as it went on I felt like I was calcifying into a total immobility which could be fended off only by moving instantly, that very minute.
I swaddled the painting in an old sheet. In the kitchen I filled one yogurt container with the ripest plums, another with the less ripe ones, and walked to the house on the corner. A dark-skinned whippet of a boy answered the door. He looked abashed, which I was glad to see.
“Mom,” he yelled and flitted away, “it’s for you.”
I stood on the porch so long I began to have doubts when I heard shuffling footsteps and felt her presence in the doorway. “What can I do for you?” she asked in honeyed tones of a sales clerk.
“I brought you some plums from my tree,” I said turning to look at her. Her tightly curled hair was platinum blonde. Her lipstick, ultra red, extended past the lines of her lips, as if hastily applied.
“Thank you anyway. We have more plums than we can handle. But we could use some tomatoes if you got any. I thought you were the phone man. I have been waiting for him for two days.What else have you got there?” she asked.
To have brought that filthy sheet into her house filled me with shame. “A housewarming party,” I said and blushed, “I mean housewarming gift.”
She laughed. “Show it to me.”
“It’s a painting. I paint.”
“So I heard. You kinda have a name for yourself. Well, let’s see it.”
I took it out of the sheet. She lifted it close to her face, as if she might be near-sighted. “Has it got a name?”
“Plums,” I said.
“Is it worth something?” she asked.
She laughed again, a pleasant laugh. “I could use that. But plums. Everybody’s giving them away. Never mind. I’ll take them. I can make jam.” She turned the painting sideways and looked at it. “I like it,” she said. “I like it a lot although I have to tell you, this style of of painting is generally not to my liking.”
“Okay, then, there’s no misunderstanding.”
“What do you like? In paintings?”
“Sunflowers. Any kind of flowers.”
“Van Gogh liked sunflowers.”
“Well I always said he had good taste.” She laughed again. “Hey, you should meet my boys. Justin, Rafe, come meet our neighbor,” she yelled toward the open door. “Get your skinny butts out here right now. I said right now.” They appeared in the hallway. The one who had answered the door, the one I thought was the small one, was actually taller, both faces a facade of nonchalance layered over vulnerability.
“The tall one’s Justin. For god’s sake, Rafe, shake the man’s hand. With a mother like me, how did I get kids so shy? Maybe I am answering my own question. Clarice is my name. I know yours. You’re famous. Hey, did you sign the painting?”
She got a pen and on the back I wrote “To Clarice, Rafe and Justin. Plums,” and appended an absurdly large signature. She turned the painting toward the boys. “See these red spots? They’re the plums, I’m guessing.”
The boys nodded. As a learning experience I could not have set it up better, but by then I was sure these boys had not done the deed. Already I had another suspect in mind, fat freckled Timmy from across the tracks.
I went home and ten minutes later I was back at her door. She looked at me skeptically. “One more thing. The ones in the bigger container are the ripe ones. They need to be eaten right away. The others may take some time to ripen.”
“I suppose I could have figured that out,” she said and laughed. She was somebody who laughed easily, it seemed. I felt like an idiot.
Over the next two days fifteen paintings erupted out of me with a kind of violence. I sent my agent photographs and she emailed, “Are you okay?” I knew what that meant. There would be no market for them. Too much a departure. Did it matter? Not one bit.
The hiatus in creative energy arrived, as it always does. The difference being the question, would it be the ultimate one? I stayed out of the studio all of August, all of September, most of October. The rays of autumn burnished the yellowing leaves of the plum tree until the leaves fluttered free in the wind.
I wouldn’t say we’ve gotten to be friends but over these months Clarice and I talked a few times. Her boys cleaned out my gutters. I’m not supposed to be on ladders. They did an excellent job, and I found myself getting fond of them, not something that I allow myself to nurture. What’s worse is I’ve been having dreams about Clarice. Is this really necessary, I ask no one in particular. At my age? I feel tinges of guilt, as if I’m betraying Isabel, but I have no control over what goes in the damp corners of my imagination. So I’ll just indulge my fantasies.
This is just to say, I know how to behave myself.
In December on the winter solstice, I finally cracked open the door of the studio again. The smells of paint embedded in the walls had acquired a musk like rotting leaves. I set up my easel. I was starting from zero. The first painting I did was of sunflowers.