(This is the first of a four-part series)
I dried my hands on my pants.
Once a pair of overalls, now pants with the bib cut off, they are crusted with a year’s worth of paint. I wipe my hands and my brushes on them when I’m working. I figure it saves on rags and paper towels. After all, they’re always within reach.
The end result is almost modern art in its own right – a thousand colors meld into a mosaic across the tops of my thighs. A dealer offered to buy them from me once. I laughed it off because I thought she was kidding, but I’m still not certain she was.
I ran my mostly dry hands over my short, salt and pepper hair, then slipped out of my painting pants into a pair of jeans. I pulled on my boots and an old leather jacket with paint on the cuffs and headed out of the building and around the corner to grab some take-out coffee.
The iron gate on the building’s front door slammed behind me with a resonant clang. Even at two in the afternoon, the air outside was brisk. I blew clouds of steam as I headed up to the local politically correct bean roasters, my habitual hangout. A pang of hunger hit me and impulsively, I crossed the street and turned right at the corner. I don’t usually go this way, but last week, on an errand, I passed an old-fashioned diner about two blocks up. Just a hole in the wall, really. There was a sign outside that said “Really Good Pie”.
I headed off to find out just how good.
A bell on the door jangled as I went in. I found myself in a long, narrow little restaurant. Five red leatherette booths and a lunch counter ran parallel down the room. There was a tiny counter and cash register right inside the door. A little woman sat on a stool there, thumbing through Redbook. Lit cases clung to the wall behind the lunch counter. The shelves of the cases were filled with pies – chocolate pies, fruit pies, meringue pies, picture perfect Wayne Thiebaud pies. My eyes ran down the length of the case.
“Have you been helped?”
The waitress looked at me earnestly.
“Um. I’d like some pie. Some pie and a coffee, to go.”
“Do you know what kind of pie?”
“No.” I shook my head.
She pointed to a chalkboard at the end of the room, where all the day’s pies were listed.
“Strawberry-rhubarb,” I decided.
“Nice,” she said approvingly, drawing the word out.
For the first time I looked at her.
She looked like she just got off the bus from Kansas – as fresh and clear as a prairie morning. Her light brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail and further restrained by a stretchy black hair band. She was in one of those funky white waitress dresses – the kind that looks like it was built to resist any stain. Her face, dominated by big green eyes, was as wholesome as the piece of apple pie she was holding. Her small waist and wide hips weren’t wasted on me either, as I watched her walk away to fill my order.
Not that she was my type. I prefer my women bigger and butcher, a little rougher around the edges. Besides, she didn’t look a day over 18.
“Ok. Here you go. That’ll be $3.50. Madge will take your money at the register. Thanks for coming in.”
I reached for the bag.
“Oh,” she said. “You’ve got paint on your hands.”
I looked down at my stained hands and my short, grubby nails.
“Yeah, I do.”
Something in the way she looked at me made me feel sheepish, and I curled my fingers towards my palms, hiding my nails.
“Are you a painter?” she asked.
“I am.” I nodded, again reaching for the bag, but she didn’t hand it over, just set it on the counter. She put her hand on her cocked hip and looked me over, appraisingly.
“What do you paint?”
Oh, God. I hate this question. It always leads to some stupid remark that leaves me angry at the world. Last week in a bar a girl told me that she thought the best painter of the modern age was Thomas Kincaide. “I mean look at the windows,” she said breathlessly. “It looks like actual lights are on in there. His paintings are so romantic…blah, blah, blah…”
“Abstracts, mostly,” I answered.
She nodded, still looking at me, biting the inside of her lower lip.
“Mostly big,” I said. “Sometimes small.”
“Huh,” she said, contemplatively.
“Impressionism? Expressive…?” Her gesture emphasized the question.
Okay. Now she had taken me by surprise.
“Mostly expressive,” I said. “Some are drawn from impressions.”
“I see.” She nodded again.
“Big like Rothko?”
I looked at her and she returned my gaze directly.
“Not that big.”
I pushed my glasses up my nose, a habit when I’m feeling self-conscious.
“I mean, because the big Rothkos are big,” she continued. “Overwhelmingly big. You feel like you could walk right into them. Other painters paint big – like Diebenkorn and his amazing “Ocean Park” series, and Motherwell and Pollock… But the Rothkos are bottomless, they’re like portals, like huge clouds of color, they’re, they’re…” she was on a roll now.
“Big?” I asked.
“Absolutely unbelievable,” she said, sighing.
“I wasn’t prepared at all. A few years back there was a Rothko retrospective at the National Galley. I went there to see it.”
“You went to D.C. to see a Rothko show?” I asked.
“Yeah. I drove,” she said. “And swung through Texas on the way, so I could visit the Rothko Chapel.
“Yeah. I mean it was a road trip, right? The chapel was so beautiful I just sat there and cried and cried until one of the security guys brought me some Kleenex. I think it was my first existential crisis…”
She smiled and held out my bag.
As I turned to go, she said: “Can I ask you something?”
“I’ve always wanted to… you know… be painted,” she said. “I mean pose – pose nude for an artist. Are you ever looking for models?”
She raised her eyebrows slightly.
My stomach flipped.
“Wh… why” I stammered. “ I’m an abstractionist. I don’t really paint nudes.”
“But you could paint about nudes?” She emphasized “about,” her question teasing now.
“I suppose I could.”
She smiled the sweetest smile.
“Well, If you ever decide to switch sides, you know where to find me.”