Not Climbing Mount Everest
The route to Rimsky was chipped into my vision; I had been mentally videotaping its confines all through my week at Spirit Mountain. I didn’t drive there so much as track my way in, like a homing pigeon following his radar. I had, however, forgotten the Koffeehouse’s unusual hours – they didn’t open until seven p.m., and it was just three-thirty when I arrived.
I didn’t want to sleep curbside like some homeless person, so I went for a walk. It’s a good thing I had my artist-mojo going, or I might have felt intimidated, a middle-aged white woman strolling through little groups of surly-looking ethnic teenagers in East Side Portland.
I ended up at the water, on a bridge overlooking the Willamette. Large towers rose up on either side, rigged with cables and gears so they could raise the entire middle section for passing boats. A slice of sunlight cut through Portland’s resident cloud cover to turn the water a gorgeous jade green, scribbled here and there with marble-like swirls of eddy and current. The park on the west bank looked lush and inviting, but I realized I hadn’t eaten since breakfast - and I was eating for two now, wasn’t I? I never imagined myself saying things like that.
I went back to my car to fetch my jacket, then headed south in search of food. It was a long walk, but I kept my focus until I found my treasure, an actual Mexican taqueria. I can’t remember the name but it translated as The Happy Skeleton. The walls were painted in bright colors only someone with Aztec blood could get away with, and there were also red-pepper Christmas lights, Pancho Villa news clippings and, of course, grinning skeletons. The surest sign of authenticity, though, was that the guy at the counter could barely speak English. He seemed pleased when I tried to order in my weak, high-school Spanish, and soon I was happily consuming a chicken tostada and tamarindo soda at a table of artfully scratched-up, bleached wood.
I got back to the Rimsky just after opening, but still I missed out on the hydraulic Brahms table - or the rotating Dvorak table. I settled for Puccini, tucked away by the kitchen door. The staff was evidently still setting up, as no one seemed in any hurry to take my order. I took out my holy Indian casino cards and laid them out in a seven-tiered pyramid, a brand of solitaire that was almost impossible to win. After my third failure, I was greeted by a slim waitress with short chestnut hair, large black-rimmed spectacles and the kind of resounding whiskey voice you might hear in a Jersey diner.
“Hi,” she said. “Sorry I took so long. We’re a little weird and erratic around here.”
“That’s fine.” I found myself a little shaky about conversing with a fellow being. I assembled the next sentence in my head, just to make sure.
“Is there any chance I might be able to talk to Hessie tonight?”
The waitress smiled; I had uttered the magic words. “Oh! Are you a friend of Hessie’s?”
I was pleased that my first foray had brought such a jackpot. “I’m sort of a… postulant… at the Convent Bel Canto.”
“Pauline,” she said, extending a hand.
“Sandy,” I said, shaking that hand.
“Any friend of Hessie’s is royalty around here. Although it’s a lesser kind of royalty, considering all the friends she’s got. Oh, and to answer your question – Hessie usually does swing by on Thursdays, so I’m guessing she’ll be around.”
“That’s very good news,” I said.
“So what would you like?” Pauline asked with a smile.
“Could I have a nasty double Mexican mocha with whipped cream and cinnamon on top?”
“Oh-hoh! A serious aficionado. And a dessert?”
“Frozen lemon cheesecake.”
“You’ve been thinking about that one for quite a while,” said Pauline, slipping me a wink. “I’ll be back in just a minute.”
I suppose it was the elation of imagining a talk with Hessie that made the subsequent drop such a rib-cruncher. Pauline pranced up to my table with a Mexican mocha and a newsflash.
“Hessie’s in London! She won’t be back for two weeks. She apparently picked up a copy of the London Times at Powell’s bookstore, saw some new play she just had to see, and headed straight for the airport. I love that about Hessie – she does the kind of things the rest of us only talk about.”
My face must have dropped a couple inches.
“Ah, man!” said Pauline. “You were really looking forward to seeing her, weren’t you? I’m sorry. I’ll be right back with your cheesecake - maybe that’ll help.”
I tried to take some focused pleasure in my mocha, but my taste buds refused to participate. What the hell was I going to do now? I hadn’t even thought of making this decision alone.
I played solitaire. I sipped my mocha. I ate my cheesecake, a delicacy I used to think was the next best thing to orgasm, but then it was orgasm that got me into this fix in the first place, wasn’t it? The coffeehouse filled up a little, but sadly there was no live music scheduled – just some Chopin over the P.A. What’s a girl to do?
I had just lost my pyramid game by one lousy stinking card when my table erupted with a kind of industrial raspberry, and shook so hard that my mocha staggered away like a drunk. Startled, I let out a shriek that sounded like a crow being run over by a tractor. Then I began laughing at my own reaction with great cackling Phyllis Diller peals. The rest of the coffeehouse, having processed the rude secret of the Puccini table, joined in, creating a crowd-size wave of merriment. All this excitement proved too much for my tattered nerves, however, and I found to my utter dismay that my laughter was turning into spasmodic coyote-like sobs. The more reasonable portions of my brain were signaling desperately for a time-out, but then my eyes welled up and I was gone for good. I dropped my face to the smooth, cool glass of the tabletop, fuzzing out Puccini’s fine-boned face.
The rest of the coffeehouse had gone utterly silent. I was shaking now, and I think that my left arm was sort of flailing, like a wounded seagull. I felt a hand on my back, the space between my shoulder blades, and opened my eyes to find Pauline’s concerned brown pupils.
“I am so sorry!” she said. “I thought maybe you could use a laugh, you looked so down, and this table’s sort of our new toy… Are you gonna be okay?”
I had no resource but absolute truth. “No,” I said. “I’m not.”
“Oh goodness.” She sucked on her teeth, thinking. “Tell you what… let’s get you upstairs. I’ve got a place you can rest for a while.”
She lifted me by the elbow and guided me up the steps, past the thousand-woman collage, and then we were in the hallway. The doors were posted with Alice-in-Wonderland signs like “Not this room,” “Certainly not this room!” “This room? Are you kidding me?” and “Now why the hell would you be wanting to look in this room?”
This last one, oddly enough, is exactly where we went. It was completely dark inside, and Pauline seemed to prefer it that way, mumbling something about not wanting to give me any further shocks. She guided me to a futon against the back wall, then scuffled around in a closet and brought back a crocheted blanket.
It seemed like an odd thing for a nearly complete stranger to do, but I was grateful when Pauline leaned over to touch my hair and kiss me on the forehead.
“Just stay here and sob it all out, Sandy. I’ve got to get back to work, but I’ll come back later to check up on you.”
I heard the scuff of Pauline’s footsteps, then the click of the door behind her as the shaft of light closed up. I found a big, soft pillow and pulled it toward me like the last good thing on God’s green earth. I intended to soak it with tears, but my old, pregnant body had had enough, sending me into a liquid indigo free-fall of sleep.
What I awoke to I can barely describe. It began with a thunk and clatter, and then the visuals kicked in. I blinked my eyes and made out a wiry hermit with a beard and dark hooded eyes. The walls behind him gave off a rainbow shimmer, crystal cockroaches that squiggled around the room when I moved my head. The hermit scratched his beard and put a hand on either hip.
“Who the fuck are you? Goddammit, I told Hessie to keep this room locked up.”
He knelt next to a plastic bag and sorted through its contents, lots of small objects that he clacked around with relish, no doubt enjoying their effect on his drowsy intruder. I raised myself on an elbow.
He gave me an annoyed look. “No shit, Shirley.” And went back to his work.
I reached under my quilt to make sure I at least had clothing on, then ran a hand along the wall behind me. The reflectors were lined up seven-deep, triangles, circles, squares, rectangles and ovals in orange, red, green, yellow, blue, even purple, coating the walls in a jungleburst of color. The whole room was done up this way, even the windows and doorjambs, which were trimmed in fire-engine red. The morning sun shot through a side window and lit up a swath of amped-out sparkle, like citric acid made visual.
Hermit-guy sat on his haunches, having sorted out a dozen orange triangles, and took a good long study of me.
“So what’s your story, futon-girl? Too many frozen lemon cheesecakes? Triple-mocha heart attack?”
“The Puccini Table.”
He let out a rough, squeaky laugh. “Ah-haha! I told them that fucking thing was trouble. Liabilities, man! Lie-uh-bilities.”
“So,” I said, sweeping a hand at the room. “Is this one of Hessie’s preposterous notions?”
“This,” he said, “is my preposterous life’s work. The canvas, yes, was provided by Madame Nygaard, as was a seriously sweet commission. Hessie is a goddamn artist’s wet dream, and although this setting does lack a certain mobility, it will get much more exposure than some fussy millionaire’s living room.”
I looked at his triangles. “So are those for the orange cross-hatches behind you?”
“Ah, futon-girl has an eye! Yes, although I intend to fade them out along the top, just to be a prick, and then I will weave some snaky yellow ovals to steal away the symmetry.”
“That’s good,” I said.
“Approval is nice,” he said. “But it’s not what I need. What I need is to not give a flying fuck about what anyone thinks until I’m done, which is why I wanted this room locked up. Nothing worse for clouding the vision than worthless fucking mid-work commentary. Afterward, you can love it, hate it, throw dog shit on it, so long as I’ve reached the point where there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.”
“Could I tell you it’s one of the most gorgeous things I’ve ever seen?”
Hermit-guy stood and clapped the dust from his hands. “Now that,” he said, “is the kind of generalized ass-kissing that a guy can deal with.”
“Oh, it’s not ass-kissing. I’m an artist myself.”
He delivered a theatrical slap to his forehead and looked to the ceiling. “And she was doing so well. So. How long have you been an artist?”
I was not about to actually speak the words “three weeks,” but my expression gave me away.
“How many apartments have you been kicked out of?” he said. “How many credit cards have you run into the ground? How many lovers dumped you after the three-month excitement of dating an artist wore off and she realized you were broke? How many times… have you purchased gas for your car… with the pennies rolled up from your coin jar?”
“You get the point, Gladys? You use that word ‘artist’ around some of my long-suffering friends, and we might have to glaze your white yuppie ass and stick you in a kiln.”
“Oh yes. No one ever thinks they’re a yuppie. Look at that perfect coiffure, sister. Check out that Sedona sweatshirt. You may as well be wearing a Three Tenors baseball cap, for Chrissake. And I’ll bet anything you drive some junior SUV with a CD player and removable seats.”
All true, of course. But I would have given anything if he could sense my sincerity, if he could understand the month-long rebirth of my eyeballs. He seemed to reconsider, scuffling a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair.
“Oh, I’m sorry already. I’m just a bitter old artist. Feel free to stick around and watch. Quietly. You like jazz?”
“Okay then! That’s a start. Name’s Jonathon.”
“Sandy,” I said.
Jonathon grunted and switched on a tape deck covered with smears of black and gray. Out came Sarah Vaughan, that funny pseudo-British lisp, a swingy version of “I Feel Pretty.” I loved watching the track of his thoughts, a little bullet that traveled from eyes to head to hands, then burst forth in matador sweeps as he dabbed a reflector with adhesive and fixed it to a perfect spot. After an hour, I had to let out a question or I would burst.
“So how long?”
“Isn’t that kind of personal?”
“How many years,” I scolded.
“Twenty-three torturous, impoverished, glo-ree-uss years.”
“Any big successes?”
“Every single thing I’ve ever made. Every time I ignored some flat-head who told me I should do something more practical. Including the painters, I might add. They hate this shit.”
“Sold a piece in Seattle last week… a ten-foot sunrise of yellow, orange, little flakes of red. Ten thousand dollars.”
“Wow!” I exclaimed, a bit too much like a cheerleader.
“And three years ago the Grand Ronde tribes commissioned a bunch of huge-ass geometric things.”
“Ohmigod! The Spirit Mountain Casino?”
That was the first thing I had said all morning that seemed to make an impression. He stopped and scratched his beard. “You’ve been there?”
“Yesterday morning I woke up there. I was sort of… working on my vision.”
“Oh, Jesus,” he sighed, and turned back to his triangles. “I’m sorry, but you forty-year-old women and this Native American thing…”
Okay, now he was pissing me off.
“Native American craps dice?” I asked. “Native American playing cards?”
“What about them?”
“I use them in mosaics.”
He thought about that. “Okay. What else?”
“I love sea glass,” he said. “It’s so…”
“Random? Organic? Fusion of man and nature?”
“Say! There may be an artist in there after all. Y’got any slides?”
Having passed through such fierce gauntlets, I took this as the highest of compliments. “I’ve got the actual mosaics,” I said. “They’re just outside, in my… SUV.”
“Oh-hoh!” he roared. “Yuppie girl! Yuppie girl!”
“Yeah, yeah, so I got money. All the more reason for you to kiss my ass, honey. Let’s see…” I counted the points on my fingers. “Loaded yuppie lady, crazy about art, crazy about your art, might want to pay ridiculous sums of money for your art…”
“Stop right there!” said Jonathon. He stepped down from his footstool and rubbed his hands on a rag. “What do you say we head outside for some fresh air?”
Jonathon had some blunt critiques – the pastels could have been manipulated more carefully, the six-section piece was much too anal-retentive – but when he got to my craps-dice, his eyes lit up. “If you’d really like to be an artist,” he said, “you can start right here. Such sly humor!”
We were both feeling like some exercise, so I took him to my raisable section of drawbridge, where we watched the Willamette’s glacier-like course. Jonathon evidently had a thing for bridges, because he gave me a pretty impressive rundown: Hawthorne Bridge, built in 1910, one of the oldest lift bridges in the world, both feared and beloved by the locals for its rickety steel-mesh roadways. I was almost disappointed when he brought up his wife, a painter who created real-life scenes populated with primitive, cartoon-like figures. She took the narratives from a childhood of incest and molestation.
“When I first saw her works, I was in such a state of awe – the sheer bluntness, the incredible courage it took to portray such ugliness. It made me feel like my own work was too… I don’t know, decorative, socially irrelevant. But then I took her to my studio, and she loved it! She said she was amazed by its imagination and humor – in fact, she saw in my work what was perhaps lacking in her own. Our personalities fit into a surprisingly common pattern: the intense artist who’s incredibly easy-going, the humorous artist who can be a real prick… as you found out this morning.”
He fell silent for a moment, lost in the river. I played a little game, testing my vision.
“I love the water here,” I said. “It reminds me of…”
“Green marble?” he said.
“Exactly.” I wrapped my hands around the railing, smooth and cool in my grip. “So do you and Marta have any kids?”
“No. Marta wanted to cut the string. Not that she was concerned about herself – she’s the gentlest person on the planet – but the very act of child-bearing would bring back too many shadows. It also gave her a chance to pull the drain on a very toxic gene pool. She was their last chance.”
“Do you ever feel like you’re missing out on something?”
He edged up to my shoulder. “There are a lot of things I’m not doing. I’m not climbing Mount Everest, I’m not swimming with dolphins in the Virgin Islands, and I’m not playing mid-striker for the Argentinean World Cup soccer team. If you think too much about the things you’re missing, you’re apt to miss out on the things you’re not missing. Look at that room I’m working on. I’m getting good solid American currency to revel in color and light on a daily basis.
“No.” he continued. “Rather than giving the earth more children it doesn’t need, I will leave behind lovely radiant works of art. That room at Rimsky’s? His name is going to be Jerry. He’s a terrific little kid… and once I’m gone, he’ll have all kinds of friends who come to visit and ooh and ahh at the very sight of him. Are you all right?”
I couldn’t help myself. That same slice of sun was knifing over Portland to sow Jonathon’s beard with a ring of sparks. I reached out to gather them in.
“Who are you, Jonathon, who do you work for, and how is it that you know all the answers without knowing the questions?”
Jonathon broke up his beard with a toothy grin. “I’m nothing all that much,” he said. “I’m just the reflector man.”
Photo by MJV