by Kent Nelson
My life intersects this painter’s — Ronan — who is he? His name is printed in the lower right-hand corner in right-leaning black letters – Ronan, or Roman – the middle letter is slightly obscured. He must have been in Maine that summer because the setting of the painting is what I, from Utah canyon country, imagine Maine looks like. Maine is the spirit of the place. The light is sharp, morning light. The colors are blue, green, red, beige, brown, rust. White is not a color, but the reflection of all colors. Black is not a color, but the absorption of all colors.
A white dinghy with a red keel, tilted sideways, dominates the foreground, the bow toward the viewer. The dinghy is well up on the beach near a weathered boathouse. A collar of sand curves between a line of pine trees on the right and a rocky promontory – an island, perhaps – on the left. The blue water in the cove reflects lacy white clouds. Beyond the cove is a narrow opening to the sea.
Ronan signed the painting thirty years ago.
My father believed there was one right answer, and he was blessed with its knowledge. Everyone else was entitled to his opinion. He did not accept my failures. In high school in St. George where I played basketball and was a pretty good rebounder and a scorer, but he went to the games so other parents could compliment him. He wanted me to go to Stanford, where my brother was on scholarship, so he could bask in the glory-light, but I disappointed him.Was it that he made me feel guilty for playing the piano? My mother had taught me from the time I was six until she died, and I loved it more than basketball, but my father never let me practice as I wanted to; he never listened to me play. Of course he heard me play, but what could come to him from that? Whenever my mother said I was talented, he said, “But who wants to listen to that noise?”
He was short and forever compensated for it. I was taller at fifteen than he was as an adult.
Besides the piano, I love the hawks and falcons that migrate through Zion and across the Colorado Plateau. In spring I sit in a cleft of stones and trained my binoculars on the birds approaching from the south. Even before I can see them well I know what they were from the patterns of their flight. The buteos, like Swainson’s Hawks and Red-tails, beat their wings languidly and soar; the accipiters – Northern Goshawks, Cooper’s and Sharp-shins – flap and glide; Peregrine Falcons, Merlins, and American Kestrels are the fleetest – rapid beats of wings that bend back at the elbow. Sometimes a bird flies so close I hear its wings or see the mottling of the tail feathers or a gleaming, angry eye.
I assume it is Ronan who signed the painting and not some other person. I believe the real year he painted it was 1973, and not 1969 or 1977. That’s what he wrote, and why would he lie? I’ve pondered this question. One can imagine possible motives. Maybe he needed to keep his private life separate; or he wanted his wife to think he was somewhere else. Later he could say, “See, I was in Maine that summer.”
I refer to Ronan as ‘he,’ but how would I know? The bold letters of the signature suggest a man’s blunt hand, and the vista is so stark I can’t help but think the painter masculine. The cove, the boat and the boathouse, the dark pine trees have a man’s voice.
I know Allison the way everyone in a small town knows everyone else. We both live in Washington, outside of St. George, and I see her in the market or driving past with her children in her Ford Explorer or at the county fair and rodeo. People talk about her. She’s thirty-three years old, educated in Illinois, and has a degree in business. She commutes to town with her boyfriend, Rick, who’s a photographer for the newspaper. When they married and had a child, they moved into a house on the road to Hurricane, out next to Cheryl Citino. Cheryl said Allison yells at the child and Rick all the time.
Allison’s way of getting along is damage control. She’s thin, short blond hair, a nose too small for her face, but eyes which make up for it – judgment eyes. She is beautiful and self-absorbed and treats everyone else with disdain. She isn’t innocent. She acts without regard for the consequences of her acts, and afterward, dealing with the rest of us, tries to fix what is broken.
In imagining the painting do you see summer sunlight illuminating the blue cove and the pine trees beyond and the pale, still more distant ocean? I think it’s summer because there’s an ash tree among the pines, and the grass is green. If you imagine sunlight, do you imagine shadows? A wedge of the keel is bright red and another part darker red where the line of the sun is drawn across it. The rope and life preserver hanging on the side of the boathouse are in full sun, but the far side of the boathouse and the part beneath the eave are in shadow.
What if I told you it was cloudy? The dinghy’s shrouded in gray fog, the water in the cove is misty blue, the pines so dark they’re black. The boathouse is dark brown, but neither visible plane is differentiated from the other. The rocky promontory hovers beyond the cove like a ghost.
But why would I deceive you anymore than Ronan? There are reasons for everything a person does. Can you imagine my motive? But no, I’m telling the truth: There’s sunlight. White clouds are edged with a brighter white where the sun strikes them. And the keel is red, bright red in the sun, darker red in the shadow. The pattern of shadows on the boathouse are lines where the eaves protrude, and curves behind the hanging rope and the white life preserver.
I want my voice to be accurate, a reflection of me. Isn’t a painting or a voice but a way to tell the truth?
It was an accident my father met my mother. Literally. She hit his truck in the parking lot of the Safeway in St. George. She thought he was kind not to be angry, but to him, the accident was simply what had happened. He couldn’t change it, so he didn’t protest.
After they married, he came home every night from the hospital where he was a lab technician, ate his dinner, and watched television. He didn’t know what else to do with himself. He wasn’t a reader. He had no hobbies and no close friends. He wasn’t alcoholic or abusive in the ways you see in the movies. He never ordered us around, do this and don’t do that; he didn’t raise his voice. But that someone else thought differently from him or that other worlds existed did not occur to him. He paid no attention to what he didn’t understand, including my mother.
My mother died at thirty-two, and my father went on as if she’d gone to visit her sister or was at the store. He pretended she’d never been there in that house, in those rooms. That’s what turned me against him. To feel pain, to grieve, there must be a spirit.
Raptors hunt and kill; they mate; they migrate. Not a single one ever acted outside its limitations. They flew on past me over the plateau, and I edged closer to a solitary life I never wanted.
One summer in the cliffs above Kolub Canyon I found the nest of a air of Golden Eagles. Everyday I drove up there, up Interstate 15, right into the foothills, and across a National Forest easement to the edge of the mesa. Rain or shine I spent every moment I could, hiding but not hiding in the cedars and junipers. I let the eagles accustom themselves to me. I was there when the female laid her eggs, when the two young birds hatched and were fed, when they fledged and learned to fly. I watched the parents push them out of the nest, and when the young birds were nudged off into nothing, I felt as if I were falling, too.
The painting is tiny, only 3 1/2 by 4 1/2 inches, and set in a black frame 6 1/4 by 8 inches. A gold-white band rims the raised, outer edge. Because it’s so small, the painting occupies only a niche in my living room on a pale green wall that juts two feet from the door before giving way to the bay window. The painting never gets direct sun. I hung it there because I pass it each time I go back and forth from the kitchen. From the table where I eat and from where I write at my desk, I can see it.
I can’t say whether Mr. Ronan painted what he saw. He might have made up the dinghy with the red keel and imagined the trees and rocks and their reflections, invested the clouds with sunlit edges. Or he could have painted from a photograph. But I like to think he observed the scene on a summer day and stood where he did by choice. He painted at that hour because the light was the perfect texture. He put no people in the painting because there were no people. In Maine on a sunny August day in 1973, he set up his easel and painted a white boat with a red keel drawn up on the beach beside a wooden boathouse.
What makes people do things out of the ordinary? What made Woody Allen make love with his step-daughter? Had Mia Farrow teased him about a few false notes on the clarinet? Was Jack Kennedy with Marilyn Monroe because he was sick with desire? Had Jackie been so cold to him? I read of a man in Spain who married his sister. Men create war. Women are blameless.
A word here and there. A gesture. Little by little, the small thinks accumulate and suddenly there is a great upheaval.
Allison calls and asks if I’d play the piano for her son’s birthday party, September 6. She wants sing-alongs, musical chairs, and “Happy Birthday.” I tell her I play classical music.
“You need the money,” Allison says.
“How did you know about me?” I ask.
“I’ll pay you fifty dollars,” she says. “Michael is six. Don’t play ragtime. Two o’clock on Saturday.”
That is how she is.
In a music store I find a songbook to learn a few new melodies. I have my hair done in a salon, and I buy a blue dress at the Main Paige and some new walking shoes at the REI on North Street.
Some raptors winter in Utah. Northern Harriers patrol the farmlands along the Wasatch Corridor, and Red-tails hunt the south-facing slopes of the plateau. Bald Eagles, come south from Canada and Alaska, scavenge in the cottonwoods along the rivers. I look for them sometimes at lakes and at Piute and Otter Creek Reservoirs where sometimes the wind leaves open water. When it’s really cold, the lakes freeze, but once I saw an eagle dive from the sky, break through the skin of ice, and grasp a trout in its outstretched talons. Imagine the vision of the eagle, the strength to break through the ice, the hunger to know to get what he needed.
My father objected to how I lived because it wasn’t the way he lived. I refused to live from nine-to-five and had no interest in a new car or a television set. I worked part-time teaching piano lessons, supplemented my income with construction work, and earned enough to buy binoculars, a used bird scope, and a Toyota Corolla with sixty-thousand miles on it.
I moved out when I finished high school and got a duplex in Washington. I didn’t want to go to college in Palo Alto, or Logan or Provo or Salt Lake City. I wanted to live alone in the canyon country.
One afternoon I dropped by his house after work and found him drinking iced tea on his porch. I was covered with sawdust, and my hair was pinned up under a Ranch-Way Feeds cap. “It’s not good, you working construction,” he said.
“When I get enough piano lessons, I’ll quit,” I said.
“You could play piano concerts,” he said. “You’re only thirty. Make a lot of money.”
I stared at him. “It’s too late,” I said. “I’d have had to go to a conservatory, practice hundreds of hours.”
“Why didn’t you?” he asked.
I didn’t say anything. After a while, he looked at me as if he didn’t understand my silence.
The trouble with Ronan’s painting is you know only what’s there. The dinghy is a little off-center and tilted so the darker brown boathouse to the left is balanced by the dark green trees on the right. Except for the tiny opening of the cove to the horizon, the perspective is limited by the rocks in the distance. I assume he planned this. There’s barely an illusion of motion – no pine branch bent in the wind, no kelp ebbing or flowing, no gull in the air. The brush strokes are crisp and efficient, but careful, cautious; the colors are basic. A woman would have put people in the painting – a fisherman in a lobster boat in the cove, a woman mending nets, the movement of the ocean. I’d have painted in an Osprey’s nest in the snag of the pine tree in the upper left corner and the bird hovering.
Small things accumulate — brush strokes, words, days of loneliness.
I arrive on time the Saturday afternoon of the birthday party. Allison’s house is a low ranch-style with stucco and exposed beams under the eaves. Junipers border the pebbled drive. At the door, I hear children shouting around in back. Allison lets me in, phone in hand. “Go see what they’re doing,” she says and turns away.
I go alone through the house to a terrace in back. Tops of other houses are visible against red sandstone above town, and trophy houses that should never have been built loom against the blue sky. Allison has set the children loose in the yard, and they are doing what six-year-olds do, even dressed up for a birthday party – creating havoc. In the background Allison is yelling into the phone about getting a refund for a blouse she ordered that was the wrong size.
The piano is near the sliding glass door, so I sit down and play a little R and B. It takes a minute or two, but gradually the children quiet and draw toward me. They come inside or to the doorway and listen, or if they do not listen exactly, they contemplate the notes and the tempo. They listen with their bodies.
A half hour later the children step around the circle of chairs. I play Beethoven. It’s our second game because Allison hasn’t planned any others. To start there were eleven chairs and twelve children, but now we’re down to five chairs and six children, including Michael, the birthday boy. I control everything.
In the middle of a rondo the door opens, and a man comes in – scraggly sweaty brown hair, a crooked nose, eyes shining. He’s wearing black shorts and has scrapes on his knees, and a smudged, sweaty green-and-orange striped soccer shirt. I stop playing, and the children scramble for their seats, laughing, except Michael, who is so glad to see his father he forgets to run for a chair.
“Why are you late?” Allison says to Rick. “Did you bring the ice cream? Where have you been?”
Rick kneels down and embraces Michael, and then he glances at me at the piano.
What does it mean, this little red-keeled boat in the sun? Whose dinghy is it? Does it belong to a summer resident who ferries out to the mooring of a yacht not in the field of vision? Or is it a local teenager’s? Maybe he rows his girlfriend to the island in the distance to gather mussels. Or is a lobsterman’s? Does Mr. Ronan know whose boat it is? (Is he a native or a summer visitor?) Perhaps it belonged to his father, who cared for it with sandpaper and paint, and left it to his son.
Before I saw the painting, Maine was a place I had rarely thought of, a foreign country with another language. But now the boat, the islands, the stirring tides, the humid air, the sea – these have given me a voice.
I dream of a woman who, in sunlight, pulls a white rowboat with a red keel down the beach to the water. She steps in and with an oar pushes away from the rocks. She sits upright on the seat and strokes the oars three times, then floats out over the water. To the left past the boathouse is a sunny rock where gulls and cormorants roost. To the right is the forest on an island where the Osprey nests.
Through the small opening from the cove is the vista to the sea. Even that, the infinite horizon, is reachable in the dinghy.
On a misty Saturday three Peregrine Falcons work their way north along the stone columns east of Zion. Fog swirls among the crags like smoke, and one after another the falcons materialize like blue-gray ghosts and swerve past me. They fly so fast I see them for only a few seconds, but eternity is created of instants. I am aware of myself in a preternatural way, afraid and thrilled and lonely, touched by a moment so pure I will never recover.
One evening a few months ago now I drove home from the construction site to see my father. I hadn’t been by in a few days. His new Buick was in the driveway. I knocked, but he didn’t answer, and I went in. The television was on, and he was sitting upright in his chair, eyes open toward a game show, dead as death. Our father who art in heaven – but I don’t think he is. He was a man who didn’t believe in a touch or a kind word. He never witnessed the joy of flight or heard music in his blood. He didn’t know the first thing about love.
And do I? Perhaps I have imagined the hours and the days – the conversations I have had with Rick, the interludes we shared naked on a blanket at the edge of the cliff above Kolub Canyon, the afternoons hiking the trails in Zion to reach the open sky. Perhaps I have invented this story with my voice, a woman lonely and alone. I know this: I felt the sandstone under me, the burn of his body, the wind that never stops in the sky.