When he retired from the steel mill, B’s dad, a WWII veteran, played golf at an Army depot golf course. He was there two mornings every week, joined by other old mill friends. In the club’s Mess, a burger, beer, and fries cost you a $5 contribution to the VFW. The Mess was the home of a painting entitled, 1st hole – sunrise. The title had been painted onto the molding, which was the size of a small barracks window and was sticky to the touch. B saw the thing many times when he caddied for him or picked him up there. B’s sister, the youngest, who knew their father best in his old age, observed him closest. She said he would forget that he had asked her if she had ever seen anything like the thing, and he would insist she look again. At the same tee depicted in the thing, B’s father had a massive heart attack. The version of his death B heard is that he fell to his knees, got up. Fell. Came to as if in the haze of a seizure. During the speeding drive, the ambulance attendant, a parish friend, asked him about his handicap. “Hay fever – hay fever’s about it, I guess” was his answer. He loved that thing, the smeary dark version of a mist-smothered dawn. The fairways and greens were mostly painted in black too thickly applied, the trees full of neon-blue black leaves and the bleak sky resenting the sun. Is it raining or about to rain in the painting? Is it fall or spring or summer? Is the country going out to or coming back from war? You can stare for hours and only wildly speculate. There was probably a concentrating, bent-over veteran lining up a putt on one of the greens beyond the 1st hole green. There was probably a golf ball or bullet or comet flying out of frame at the upper right corner, and someone on a distant tee trying to follow the trajectory. Wasn’t there oily smoke coming from the Mess exhaust or, only a few miles away, the gigantic smokestacks of the steel mill, or, farther distant in time, the rain of exploding earth and mud? There was probably a bicycle or a starving dog leaning against a fairway fence. Or a statue set on its side. Or a groundskeeper napping. The badly painted inscrutable figure in that part of the painting might have been a shadow falling into the thing from outside the margins. A porkpie-wearing man adjusted his grip in the rough; a wolfish boy loped behind him; behind and a little above the boy was the boy’s thought-whorl (or canvas flaw), a simulacrum of the porkpie man in a wadded form. Trained in painting and writing but doing both terribly for the past five decades, B recognized that the painting, an almostness of a high and very low order, was not a shapely piece of art. Friends knew that his dad loved the prosaic thing because he said so: “The thing has character,” he would say, which was his highest compliment. He felt that to lose your character was to lose your perfect imperfectness: to build character, you did many regrettable things for the right reasons, including choosing the wrong profession or faith, keeping the peace with the wrong friends or family members or your own wrong nation. Soldiers who were braver than others but would not follow unjust orders had character, he said. He told B once, “No one knows the truth about Sacco and Vanzetti, no one ever will – but I tell you, their story had more character than everyone else’s.” The artist brought the painting to the funeral service, explaining he had to steal it from the clubhouse in order to bring it. The two men had, as the painter put it, “kinda served together.” Service members and work friends were there for B’s father, as he had been there for them. A dozen or more perfect flower arrangements surrounded the thing, which was on a flimsy homemade easel at the foot of the coffin. B’s sister and he could not agree who would have the thing. “I’m the youngest of us five,” she said, making her claim as illogically as she could. “I’m the middle child,” B said in order to answer absurdity with absurdity. Calculating, correctly, that B would cave, she kept the painting. His sister, who could not survive her decades of alcoholism, died at fifty-two. B understood that she had more character than he would ever have even if he should survive his own choices. For a time, no one knew where the painting was, though his sister’s husband thought she might have taken the thing, as usual, to her last rehab center – through many rehab attempts, too many to count, she always propped the thing up where she could look. When she and B would talk on the phone, often the conversation degenerated into differing opinions about the weather there – in the painting – about the sunrise – she said, “sunset” – about the trees – topped – no, “pruned,” she said – about that dog or bicycle or whatever that was leaning against the fence –about the river flowing through the soot-sky –“a symbol,” she said. B has the painting now. Though the thing has none of the mostallness you might think a thing should have, something like the thing’s almostness is what B would offer were he ever to write a tribute to his sister and father, were he ever to offer a thing they would value in the way they valued this thing, made by a painter with a low opinion of the sky, of the land, of the place of dying.
KEVIN MCILVOY, a retired teacher, had published eight books of fiction, most recently One Kind Favor (WTAW, 2021), At the Gate of All Wonder (Tupelo, 2017), and 57 Octaves Below Middle C (Four Way, 2017). “Thing” was from an in-progress story collection, Is it So? He passed away in September 2022.
Artwork by David Dodd Lee.
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