Art History

When Grandmother Gasse passed, Art got access to the trust account. The very next morning, he quit the radio station by calling his boss and suggesting he shove it. Dropping the phone, he tossed his head back, flung his arms high, and howled. The boy would devote himself to painting, hereafter, as he had dreamt of doing since a teenager. With his first draw on the account Art bought easels, brushes, palette boards, knives, a rainbow selection of mid-quality oils, two gallons of turpentine, a bolt of linen and a bucket of gesso. He tried his first painting in the living area of his apartment and ruined the coral shag carpet in under an hour. Besides, the light was wrong; the apartment was nothing like a garret; and his upstairs neighbor Gary, who worked the graveyard, whined about Art’s music blasting through midday. That busted it: Art needed a studio.

Art Gets a Studio

No one could see him here. No one would hear his music. The place was flooded with flickering green light, perfect for painting. And he could get it for a song.

Three buildings, deeply derelict, on half an acre of waist-high grass, inhabited by several species of urban wildlife, against a backdrop of towering firs, implacably black and busy with bird cry. “For Sale.” Art was smitten. He swerved the truck into the potholed dirt parking area, staggered out into the brush and sat, hidden from the street, in the shade of an overgrown black pine. No one could see him here. No one would hear his music. The place was flooded with flickering green light, perfect for painting. And he could get it for a song.

The house in back was charred by a latter-day fire and was sinking in a sea of blackberry; raccoons had made a palace of the pink shack on the property line, but up front, there was promise. The green-shingled garage, still sound, had operated variously in the service of auto repair, rock and roll, marijuana cultivation and, more lately, the manufacture of meth. Art hauled away three truckloads of accumulated dreck, repaired the roof, ran off a family of pit bull squatters, and moved in his easels.

So he painted, in feckless bliss. And he got fairly good, or, at any rate, better. His style would have to be characterized as dark: heavy impasto brushwork of olive nudes emerging out of a circumambient miasma of burnt sienna; distorted grey-green bottles on a brown table against a black wall. But Art felt a kind of bliss, deep down, notwithstanding. He was free of wage slavery, free of supervisors, transcendent even of the judgment to which he would otherwise have been subject by Grandma Gasse, as she was dead and safely buried in Connecticut.

He was a painter, by God. The painter rose each morning from his greasy sheets, never later than 11:00 am, took a shower under advisement, stopped at Kroger’s for a 1.5 liter bargain Chardonnay, and beat it to the beloved studio. At the door, possibly seven feral cats greeted him with hungry petulance; he called each its name and fed them with dry food and a dollop of wet Friskies. He pulled the filthy curtains from the limed windows, poured himself a beaker of wine, lit his first cigarette; cranked up flamenco on the obsolete stereo, grabbed a brush, and got to work. And, for the first time in forty-four years of onerous living, he felt upon his ass the whispery kiss of promise and spiritual fulfillment. Art, the artist.

But, as we know, into each Paradise there is likely to slither a viper.

Enter Lou

Art’s neighbor across the broken-down fence in the southeast corner, in a jerry-built pre-fab in a patch of vegetation only slightly better groomed, lived Lou. An ex-Marine, Lou had issues: with authority, with his mother, with cats.

Each winter, he shipped out into the Alaska fishery to catch king crab, king salmon and ling cod, risking his neck on the slippery deck to make his annual bankroll. He spent the rest of the year on his porch, sucking Jack Daniels out a mug of ice cubes and shooting cats in the grass with his pellet gun.

“Hey, hippy, I got a bone to pick with you.”

“Yeah, Lou, so what’s new?”

“I’ll tell you what’s new: Your fuckin’ cats are killin’ the birds at my feeder. What do you think you’re doing, spawning all these wild cats; they’re killin’ everything that moves around here.”

“No, Lou, that’s why I feed them. They aren’t hungry; I’m sure they aren’t killing the birds…”

“I’ll tell you what, you bleeding heart queer hippy motherfucker, you lay off the wild cats or I’ll shoot all of them! And then I’m comin’ for you!” Lou rose unsteadily from his vinyl chair, raising both thick arms in threat, and lurched off the porch.

Retreating, Art protested: “I’m not a violent asshole like you, Lou, but you better not hurt my cats…I’ll get the law on your ass, as much as I hate to involve the Gestapo, you fucking Nazi!”

Lou Gets a Woman

There were other encounters, but Lou seemed to mellow. Truth is the honest fisherman determined that he wanted a woman. At the age of fifty, the indelicacy of prostitutes had begun to weigh upon his virility. He wanted a real woman. With the help of a library computer and several thousand dollars, he sent for and received a lovely Ukrainian girl. And she was more than he could have prayed for: blond and zaftig, like a porcelain vase, thirty-three years old, short but strong as a heifer, stink with sex drive, and gifted in the braising of organ meats. She had simply gotten asphyxiated by Christian Socialist servitude. She wanted opportunity, fun, money, pretty clothes, a car…America. She got Lou.

…she was more than he could have prayed for: blond and zaftig, like a porcelain vase, thirty-three years old, short but strong as a heifer, stink with sex drive, and gifted in the braising of organ meats.

And, into the bargain, Lou got a son. In his frenzy over the arrival of Oksana, he had more or less forgotten that, in the immigration contract, she had quite explicitly required that her benefactor accept her fourteen-year-old son into his home, as well. And this was Fedir.

Fedir’s father had been an intellectual, in a sense only Europe understands. He had talked about the failure of socialism and the senescence of art, smoked black market cigarettes, impregnated luscious Oksana, and promptly died of cancer.

“Mama, was my father an educated man?”

“Yes, my Fedchuk, he was educated in idleness and the seduction of innocent farm girls. His education left me with a pretty baby and a bag on the street.”

The early going with Lou was not pretty. It was a honeymoon, nonetheless. At the airport, Lou’s unrelenting leering attention to Oksana embarrassed the entire facility, while Fedir was baggage. At their new home, frozen pizza got microwaved and served, standing; Fedir was shown his room; and the adults, dizzy for different reasons, staggered upstairs to Lou’s perfumed lair.

America

Within two weeks, unlicensed, Oksana was driving Lou’s ’98 Camaro. His brief tutelage had featured inarticulate pointing, panicky shouting, long sullen silences punctuated with slaps to her head or thighs, when he wasn’t grabbing the wheel to avert one kind of death to veer toward another. Like all immigrants, the Slavic girl was absolutely innocent of the American genetic mapping of car and driver instincts. But she was determined to pilot a car in the New World; let the more skilled natives take to the road at their own risk. In September, Mama drove Fedir to Eastside High School, dropped him off with a wet kiss and persistent misgivings about scholarly pursuits, and disappeared down 122nd Avenue to find another Ross’s Dress for Less.

Fedir got accustomed with English learned from TV, and was dispatched to home room with the other new arrivals under the guidance of Mr. Repin, the Russian Antichrist. Early on, it became clear that Fedir would do well in school, despite his language deficit: teachers liked his European manners and sensed his intelligence; he made instant friends of several Slavic immigrants like himself; and the cafeteria food suited him just fine, particularly the meatloaf.

Back in his new home, Fedir was witnessing altogether too much marital bliss. Between bouts of screaming and virtual fistfights, the newlyweds were upstairs banging away at several sessions of quotidian intimacy. For Lou it was a god-sent sexual renaissance in mid-life, with an honest-to-goodness centerfold straight out of the Kiev Playboy; for Oksana, it was a healthy outlet undeterred by her repugnant respondent, while all around her the new world percolated with near-future possibilities. For Fedir, it was torture. Jesus, he even had to smell their smells when they came downstairs to prepare and consume dinner in their dumb animal contentment between intercourse and the next imbroglio.

Fedir gets to know Art

One rainy summer Saturday, Fedir simply had to escape the house of horny people. Out on the porch, he heard familiar music pulsing out of the shack across the overgrown adjacent lot. He felt strangely compelled to investigate, stepped over the collapsed fence and stalked cautiously toward the percussive guitar and plaintive singing. Art startled up from his canvas when Fedir appeared in silhouette at the open door.

“Uh, yeah…Can I help you?”

“Oh, uh…sorry, Mister. I live at the next door. I am called Fedir.”

“OK. So what can I do for you?”

“No, you are not to do for me. Sorry, I am going.”

“No, wait, kid. Come on in. Do you live with those crazy people across the way? Pull up a chair.”

There, in Art’s studio, Fedir found refuge. With elaborate juvenile courtesy, he audited Art’s lectures on aesthetics, the profligate habits of the Surrealists, the evils of capitalism and its instrumental military-industrial hegemony. He was equally careful of Art’s long, sullen silences. He began to do his homework at a spare table most afternoons, as Art labored on his dark canvases. He texted friends on his newly acquired cell phone till late in the evening, as the gypsies of Art’s flamenco CD collection wailed away. He helped Art feed the cats, who adopted the boy instantly, slept in his lap or across his shoulder as he consummated the elegance of an algebraic equation or spun out English rhetoric with accelerating facility across the pages of his spiral notebook. At times, he would gaze across the studio in wonder at his pony-tailed, fortyish friend, a cigarette dangling from his lips, singing in corrupted Spanish as he slathered paint on his latest caliginous masterpiece.

So much had happened in such a short time in this new place, after the eternal tedium of Dnepropetrovsk. This was not the America he had imagined; it was fascinating and repellent at the same time; dynamic, electric with possibility, but always seeming to teeter at the edge of some unpredictable disaster. His high school colleagues were black, Asian, Hispanic, East Indian and European of every stripe: the boys were capable of capricious violence, they drove fast cars and experimented with drugs; the girls were bold, tough-minded, their beauty was exotic, wildly diverse—so unlike the insipid similitude of Ukrainian beauty, though he had no argument with the girls of his race. Fedir still felt vulnerable, but America was beginning to grow on him.

Lou threatens to strike Fedir, and nearly dies in the attempt

One sweltering afternoon at the tail end of summer, Lou stormed into the kitchen, where Fedir sat at the little breakfast table as Mama sang an old song over dinner preparations.

“What was my pellet gun doing in your room, boy? I’ve been looking for this goddam gun for weeks. What the hell you think you’re doin’, taking my personal shit and hiding it?”

“I was not hiding it, Mr. Lou…I wanted to shoot it.”

“Don’t you lie to me, you little fucker! You were hiding it so I couldn’t shoot those feral cats you and your queer hippy boyfriend are rounding up over there in that godforsaken shack! I’m gonna’ wrap this thing around your head, you little scheming liar!”

Before Lou could raise the gun fully overhead, Oksana flew at him from across the kitchen, berserk, got way up in his face with an eight-inch kitchen knife, pointing it sideways inches from his left eye. Her little red fist clamped his t-shirt and a harvest of chest hair in a death grip at his throat. His right hand braced against her shoulder, his left clutching her blouse beneath the upraised death-dealing arm, he held his breath and froze. He knew that in her rage she was capable of skewering his brain. Oksana hooted hoarse Slavic imprecations, her eyes round with hate as she jabbed the knife tip nearer, drawing blood at his temple. Her tirade dropped into a slightly lower arc as she saw a kind of animal admiration rising in his little pig eyes. She flipped the knife, slapped him hard with the flat of the blade above the eye, once, twice, and once more twice as hard with a final oath that he would die if it ever happened again.

Feeling safe enough to draw breath, Lou protested, “Alright, OK, you crazy bitch. I won’t touch the little bastard.”

Oksana released her grip, flung the knife onto the floor, and turned to the stove to do further violence upon her stew, still muttering in the Old Language.

Fedir stared at the erstwhile combatants from the hall doorway, stupefied by their monumental strength and commitment to impulse, the raw carnality of their engagement. His mother was magnificent, and absolutely alien. How could he be her son? Even Lou was inert for a while, still leaning against the cabinets across the kitchen, sweat and blood down his hairy thick neck, gazing at his wife’s furious backside. After a while, he stepped cautiously to the fridge, pulled out a cold beer, and, as he tossed the bottle cap at the trash and crossed the room to leave, clapped Oksana on her bountiful ass with his cupped right hand. She shook her head, continued muttering. Lou strutted across the living room to his recliner and the Blazers on TV, psychosis pretty much intact, horny and even boyishly hopeful about his prospects for later that evening.

Fedir wobbled out the back and down the stairs; the screen door slammed with a final violent punctuation.

Fedir tries his hand at painting

Leaning at the open door of the studio, the kid was clearly shaken, sobbing quietly. Art rose from his easel at the back of the room. “Hey, Fed, what sorry shit has happened over there, now?” He dragged an old back-up easel from the corner, stood it near the table strewn with paint tubes, and shooed a cat off a stool to pull it up to the makeshift painting station.

“Grab one of those smaller boards with that wretched still life and bring it over here. I want to see what you can do with oil paint.”

Fedir hesitated, heaved an emptying sigh, crossed queasy to the easel.

Art turned back to his corner of the studio, then stopped abruptly: “Oh, wait. What are you gonna’ paint?”

“I don’t know…what is there?”

“OK, we got black and white in these big tubes, every color ever imagined in these little ones… go easy, they’re expensive. No, I’m kidding…use lots of paint, throw paint on the board. Work with the big brushes. Fuck those little pointy ones. Work fast. Don’t be thinking. Use your eyes and your gut and your hands…leave your brain in the classroom. Now, get to work.”

Art turned back to his corner of the studio, then stopped abruptly: “Oh, wait. What are you gonna’ paint?”

“I don’t know…what is there?”

Art checked up, his bushy eyebrows arched high in amazement, then busted his best laugh, wrapping his arms around his broad shoulders, almost choking with existential glee, partly in honest amusement …“What is there?”…but also in full catharsis, fairly convulsed with laughter, emptying his soul of anguish and anger and abiding sadness. Fedir observed, shell-shocked.

Yet another psychotic adult…

“What IS there? What is there NOT? Oh, my friend, that question has stumped even the great ones, despite the argument otherwise of this teeming world. Tell you what: When a subject is hard to come by, you know what we all do?”

Fedir shrugged.

“Self-portrait, baby! Sadly, there is always You. Grab that mirror by the sink and go for it!” Still laughing, his heart lighter by tons, tears all down his bearded cheeks.

They worked in silence on their projects for nearly two hours, with the gypsies keening remorselessly through the big cheap speakers, alternated with Sam Cooke and Tom Waits and Baroque Italian theorbos. Art was strangely happy. He drank a great deal more white wine than usual, and that was a great deal, indeed. He glanced occasionally at Fedir; the kid was working assiduously. It was clearly a therapeutic exercise. Art was happy that he had been able to help the boy, at least momentarily. He was happy that the studio was a refuge for the child now as it had been for him for several years. Yes, while life was generally a bitter stew of disappointment, betrayal and failed revolution, it had its moments, after all.

Outside, the heat rose from the rotting pavement into the dusty pines. The cats retreated to the shadows, catatonic; the birds had long been silent, as the air dropped motionless among the weeds. Art stumbled to the short couch, draped with oddments of towels and torn linen, and fell into a sweaty sleep like death, troubled with dreams of childhood at the lake with his sister.

Fedir set aside his brush; shook his head. His mind gradually clambered up and out of the frenzied business of painting: brushing, wiping, scraping, arching back to see and understand, leaning in again to paint. He was tired of the subject, tired of the medium, its spastic gestures, tired of the ancillary vision. The act had become obsessive, distasteful. He was reminded of his Mama and the dirty base man across the lot. He turned to regard Art, snoring enormous on the little filthy couch in the punishing heat beneath the sliding glass doors that constituted the greater part of the east side of the studio. Trickles of sweat decorated Art; he twitched grotesquely.

“Adults are gross,” he could not help thinking.

Fedir rose, walked to the end of the studio, and pulled the stained curtain across the glass doors to shade his master.

Hours later, Art awoke with a painful snort. Fedir was gone. The artist stood over his protégé’s little paint-saturated board in astonished silence for the longest time.

“Jesus. Fucking. Christ.”

The kid was good. He had a natural gift, no doubt about it.

So they painted, between homework and cat chores and gypsy caterwauling, all through that fall, as the light declined with the temperatures, and the rain came long and steady, and Fedir’s artistic attention turned from an early fascination with light-filled landscape to dim still-life and imaginary female figure studies, stylized and generally innocent of anatomically explicit details, while Art’s repertoire remained relentlessly dark.

Lou goes fishing

Meanwhile, Lou prepared to fly north to his brief annual interlude in the Alaska fishery. The king crab season could hardly be called that; it was really just a matter of days of mad scrambling in the mountainous Aleutian seas to harvest several tons of the brute crustaceans, the big muscular boats awash with surf and hail raking sideways and gales that could lift a man off the deck, line bights that could snap him in half, and prostitutes ashore that could really do some damage. If you survived the crabbing, and found a place in Kenai to stash your profits, you were off to the king salmon season in Yakutat Bay, where the catches were equally munificent over long dark hours of gut-wrenching labor and punishing weather that descended precipitously into Arctic winter. Then, if all had gone reasonably well, you were back on the plane, pockets stuffed with cash as more than adequate compensation for a few months of misery and mortal peril.

As Lou threw his duffel bag into the trunk of the Camaro, he took a long hard look across the fence into the neighboring lot. Not sure what to think of what he was thinking. He drew a deep breath, farted robustly, turned to the door and bellowed for his bride. Oksana bounced out and down the step to the car. She kissed Lou square on the mouth and slapped him soundly on his demined butt, customary preliminaries to lifting her own white butt with a waggle and a moan; but this time, instead, she slid behind the wheel, fired up the 350, and hit reverse. Down I-5 to the airport, Lou drew a 9mm semi-automatic from the glove box, cradled half naked in its blue velour bag, and instructed her in its use with intruders.

“And, by the way, you sexy little Russky, if some asshole manages to get the jump on you, just go ahead and use this tool on yourself, afterwards. You understand me?”

Oksana comes knocking

Before Lou’s plane touched down on the runway in Anchorage, Oksana made a guest appearance at the door of Art’s studio. Precisely why she was wearing a raggedy little bathrobe over nothing but 130 pounds of alabaster pulchritude will never be known – ostensibly, she was seeking the whereabouts of her son, when she knew damn well he was starting his school day several miles across town. At any rate, the robe promptly got lost in the shuffle, as Art and Oksana got to know each other in a profoundly Biblical sense.

October marked the beginning of the artist’s Slavic Period. His palette was never so exuberant, just verging on joy. In the ensuing weeks, Art produced dozens of extravagant full nudes, busts, focused figure studies, and portraits. They all featured the same blowsy blond, arching across a scatter of pillows with a suggestion of silken hair beneath upraised arms, serenely aware of her feminine power and smirking in nicotine light. Despite their frequent breaks from posing and painting, for yet more fornication, Art was never so prolific.

The exercise, perhaps, was salubrious. He even had less time for cigarettes and wine.

One day the rain hammered so relentlessly on the corrugated steel roof that the lovers hunkered for hours, lights out, by the little electric heater under quilts and towels and lengths of linen. Art’s little man could not be roused, and Oksana, approaching her period, might have confessed, if pressed, her gratitude. They drowsed in each other’s arms; the music droned low, until the CDs finished their cycle and the only sound was the rain. At some vague hour in the afternoon, one of the cats cried to be let out, and Oksana rose to oblige him. She flung open the door, watched the cat flash along the floor and out, and then raised her eyes, to Fedir.

He had come because he was hungry; he was always hungry. And he knew where she would be, and he would be certain to knock, discreetly, and loud. And his knuckles were still raised to do just that. But suddenly, there, before him, in all her glory, was his Mama.

Workers’ Compensation

Lou limped from the cab, in a mood that was foul even by his standards. Beneath his overalls, his destroyed left knee was tightly wrapped to keep it rigid. Midway through the Chinook season on Yakutat Bay, our boy had slipped on some salmon guts and executed the splits that Olga Korbut might have envied. The orthopedic doc in Juneau said he suspected a ruptured ACL, whatever that was, and serious damage to the collateral ligaments. He wrapped the knee, told Lou to take the next flight home, and to ask the stewardess for ice –not for Scotch, but for his knee. He should arrange for surgical repair as soon as the swelling was more or less under control. Meanwhile, he signed off on a workers’ compensation claim that would pay Lou a small portion of his expected seasonal earnings, and cover the costs of surgery and rehab. On the flight home, Lou ruminated on his bad fortune. The crab catch had been a disappointment, too, so the cheated fisherman figured he was out over $50,000 for the season.

Lou needed a drink, bad. But nobody answered when he pounded on the door. He had not called ahead—why should he have to call ahead? How much shopping did that little broad need, anyway; she looked best without clothes. Well, all that was going to end right now. There was going to be a tight budget around here, the rest of this sorry-ass year. Furious, he shuffled to the bottom of the duffel bag, finally dug up his cell phone, pressed the only speed dial he had ever messed with and distinctly heard Oksana’s quirky ringtone –on the other side of the door! The little bitch had left without her phone. Where was she?

Lou knew there was wine over there. He could probably tap into that with the sad story of his destroyed knee and the fishing debacle. That would hold him till the good stuff wandered back home.

Across the lot, Art’s eternal music was yowling away. Maybe the hippie had seen her leave, and when. At any rate, Lou knew there was wine over there. He could probably tap into that with the sad story of his destroyed knee and the fishing debacle. That would hold him till the good stuff wandered back home. As he approached the studio, it began to dawn upon him that the music was not Art’s usual plaintive racket. In fact, it was somehow familiar, a woman’s low seductive voice accompanied by some kind of stringed instrument. He reached the door, stopped, and tilted his head to make out more clearly the tender crooning:

“Щедрик, щедрик, щедрівочка

Прилетіла ластівочка

Стала собі щебетати

Господаря…“

With a bellow of wrath, the doubly injured fisherman blasted open the door to reveal his bride in the arms of the artist. All across his peripheral vision, Lou witnessed the walls plastered with tributes to her beauty, surrounding the central image of her actual nakedness. Her innocent concupiscent form had once again betrayed her, and this time things were going to get truly ugly.

Lou pulled her by her dangled ankle from the mattress on the floor. She jumped up to implore him for mercy, or to fight, we will never know. He clubbed her to the slab with a massive right cross over her ear. Oksana was down for the count. He turned his attention to his rival.

“You’re gonna die, now, hippie. Then, I’m gonna take care of your whore.”

“No, listen, Lou…she doesn’t like you. Let’s discuss this like grownups.”

Lou swung with all his hefty might. Art took several howitzer shots to the head without raising his hands. He was no fighter. Still, his genes instructed his big vulnerable body to advance under assault. Lou retreated before Art’s greater stumbling mass—still firing hay-makers from the hip that bounced off Art’s bony head, his thick shoulders and chest—as they backed out the door and into the weeds. Finally, weeping frantically in pain and humiliation, Art reached out, grabbed Lou by his shoulders, and twisted his smaller assailant with relative ease into the rain-drenched grass. As Lou went down, his deconstructed knee went sideways, and he howled in agony.

“Stop, now, stop, you crazy asshole…stop, Lou! Let’s talk this out!”

But Lou had somehow laid his calloused hand on a broken steel fence post, wrested from its tangle of grass and blackberry. Eyes clouded with pain and fury, he rotated his shoulders to raise high his rusty weapon, set himself, and charged. From out of nowhere a pint-sized Brunhilde, buck naked, descended across his broad back, and with tits flopping and both chubby hands braced, blew “Bang, bang, bang” three rounds of 9mm copper-point projectiles through his skull and spine. Just as instructed.

Epilogue

The police and district attorney found it was self-defense. Oksana took a fancy to the real estate agent who helped her to dispose of Lou’s house and furniture and the old Camaro. She and Fedir moved into his spacious McMansion across town, and Fedir had to change schools. The cats recovered their composure and Art returned to his…well, art.

One fine Saturday morning in early spring, as the sun chased among the clouds and the blackbirds cheeped in the fir trees, Art filled the cats’ outdoor bowls with food and fresh water. Gypsy voices lamented through the open door of the little green studio. A fresh uncorked bottle of Pinot Grigio breathed on the counter. Art straightened up in time to watch a kid on a brand new bike pedaling tentatively toward him from across the road.

“Fed Ex! How the hell have you been?”

“Good, Art, good. Things are going well. Mama is going to have a new baby.”

“Whoa, that dude works fast! So, have you been painting?”

“No, no painting.”

“Well, what do you say, do you want to paint?”

“Uh, sure, yes, I would like that.”

“Well, get off that goddam bike and get in here, Picasso. We got work to do!”