Fine Art and Benny Boy

Photo by Garry Winogrand
Photo by Garry Winogrand

Dear Henry James Harner,

I’m at the Everson Art Museum an hour earlier than we’d planned on meeting. I thought of leaving after a peek at the new exhibit which was baffling and wonderful. I hate to admit it, but it intimidates me being here without you. You’re the expert, right? I’m the neophyte artist; you’re the professor. The one who has guided me the past years, taught me the nuanced secrets of each skill I desperately needed to develop. Given me just barely enough encouragement, and thoughtful and expert if damaging criticism. I need to wait for you, should listen to your erudite exposition on Rothko, Haring, Rauschenberg, Johns, O’Keefe, Nevelson, and–well, you know.

You know it all. Or so it has seemed at moments.

Karin covered the page with her palm and sucked in her lower lip. She looked up as a lanky woman and dressy child walked by briskly, the little girl straining to free herself of the gripping adult hand. How she would have loved to be taken to art museums as a child. She had been to so many the past three years they were beginning to blur in her memory, along with the paintings, drawings and etchings she had completed and tossed.

But her parents had been consumed with working two jobs each, then critical sleep. Karin had cooked and tended to her younger brother. She had managed the household, in fact, from age eleven. The laundry, cleaning, cooking, tending to the mail and picking out bills due to give to her father at breakfast if she could catch him before he disappeared through the door. He’d give her a kiss on top of her auburn crown of hair and tell her to take care of it. She learned to forge her mother’s signature in time for all sorts of things, including the school days she had to stay home to take care of Benny with his chronic bronchitis. It was cold there, off the northern coast. The scattered homes huddled on a small island. In the winter, rain battered them as hard as wild winds and waves. As hard as their lives.

Benny moaned often those days. He was feverish and barked up gobs of phlegm and hobbled about for days on his skinny, bowed legs after each crisis. He liked to sit with her by the fire as he recuperated.

“You want to go to school every day, don’t ya? I don’t get it. Being sick is awful, but missing math and spelling is okay.”

Karin tucked nubby blankets closer around Benny and got up to tend the wood stove. “I can do my homework here. But I do like Mrs. Hilversum. The classroom. Just being there, the smell of the books and the fresh chalk and pencils nice and sharp. Talking about ideas.”

“Yeah, you like all that artsy stuff. Mom says you’re a born mainlander so will be leaving us.” He raised a sharp shoulder, let it fall again. “Easy come, easy go! You’ll be back.”

But he stared hard at her profile, then coughed enough that Karin refilled the kettle and put it atop the wood stove for more herbal tea with lemon and honey. She took the rocking chair and stared out the window at the sideways rain and wondered how her mother was doing at the alterations shop, her second job. The main on was the cannery where she worked with her dad, who was lucky to be a supervisor now.

“I can’t imagine living elsewhere, Benny. Where would I go?”

Karin closed her eyes and imagined everywhere else, China with its surging throngs and Norway with pristine fjords and even New York with Broadway shows and cabbies driving like maniacs and people rushing to fascinating places. She pulled her wool sweater close and crossed her arms.

“Who would take care of you?” she said then, voice going soft. She got a tea bag and clean mug, filled it, then sat beside him.

Benny sat up and turned to her. “I’m growing up, then I’m hightailin’ it for Seattle. Teddy said his uncle lives there and there’s a market so big you get lost in it, fish flying everywhere and gobs of flowers and all kinds of weird stuff for sale!”

Karin laughed and high-fived him. He settled down, legs and feet stretched close to the rotund iron-clad hearth that warmed the whole cabin.

“You should just draw, be famous,” he muttered and fell into a gentler sleep.

A sudden lump clogged her throat but she swallowed it, got up to finish the dishes and see if leftover pork roast could make a casserole. In two more years she would graduate. Mrs. Hilversum had talked of colleges and scholarships. It might happen, or it might not. Benny was twelve that winter and he got sicker before the spring. Karin missed school six weeks altogether and almost didn’t pull off needed As and two high Bs. Her mother was sorry it was like that, that they had to keep working to get just a little ahead but maybe next year the alterations job could be let go. Karin needed to keep at things the best she could and all would work out eventually. Her dad said little.

“Show me what you drew this week,” he said every Saturday morning.

And she showed him a sketch of Rudy, their bushy dog on the bed, and one of Benny asleep by the wood stove, blanket around him like a heavy robe, mouth hanging open. The final one was of their living room window with the radiance of a clear-skied sunset seen through lingering raindrops. It shone, Karin thought. It was made with colored pencils; she loved all those colors. She longed for paints but knew they were too expensive to use at home. And her time was limited, anyway.

He put on his wire-rimmed glasses and held the window drawing close, smiled and gave one nod, then handed them all back. Karin flushed with pleasure. He liked that one best, too. For one moment she thought how wonderful it would be to be this happy every day, making pictures and sharing them. Mrs. Hilversum thought it could happen if she would just get off that island.

If only. There was Kyle, her boyfriend, too. He didn’t want her to ever leave. He wanted her to work at his parents’ booming hotel with him and have their three children. Or four, he had amended with a wink when she looked at him dumbfounded. He said even numbers were better luck. Karin never thought in terms of luck. She thought about working like a dog toward a goal and making art and kept intact her long-guarded, though hard-to-keep hope of eventual success, whatever that might be. For her.

******

Karin looked at her watch. Henry would arrive in thirty-five minutes. She stood up, feet pinched in her one pair of high heels, and stretched discreetly, walked across the corridor for a drink of cold water, then sat again, notebook in hand as always. She wanted a coffee but didn’t want to leave. She needed to wait; they were to have lunch after the art museum.  She had put on her suit for the fine restaurant, wanting to look more than decent.

The art museum was chock full of fine work, of genius. Henry had informed her of so much, was a fine teacher, and his students gained appreciation for mediums and movements, even radical thinking over time. They learned how to discriminate, to re-tune their impulses into ones that unearthed different art than they’d believed possible. Karin was slower to latch on to things than some, he’d allowed, but when she let the Muse nudge her, she produced pieces that could astonish. She never liked what he liked quite as much. She missed a simpler format, the drawings that came from a meditative state, loose lines divining a kind of essence as her hand worked, transferring to the page energies that confounded but filled her as she went. Smaller paintings that whispered rather than shouted yet told more. Being away from home had released things. Being among a diversity of people helped her reimagine life. She came to even live differently. And Henry taught her requisite skill sets in class. Karin latched on to them, then carried them into another realm when alone in her dorm room.

Oh, she gave him what he asked for in class. She wanted to please him, he would brighten like the sun when she did. She wanted to do much more than commendably well, to graduate with honors. One day Karin would also teach well to pay bills. But her art would always win out in the end, at least in her innermost self.

They had met more times than she thought they would. Karin knew it was because he saw in her someone who should be loved by someone like him. Someone to shape her destiny and mold her ways. He was more like Kyle than Henry might think possible, a man with wants and needs and a deep determination to fulfill them. But so, too, did Karin have wants and needs and another vision that had begun to form and natter in sleep, then flutter in and out of her waking hours. She saw herself more alone than not. But he had eyes that gathered her to him with the force of an uneasy gravity, as if she had stepped into a place gone askew with enchantment. She had been warned by her roommate who knew someone courted by him. Had an affair and then was ruined.

She opened a clean page in her notebook.

Dear Henry James Harner,

I sit here and think of the times you held my hands and said, “Create something divine” as if it was your will that moved me to attempt something worthy. I would believe, feel your confidence in my abilities rush like new blood in my veins. You would buoy me when I faltered and then I would be certain you held the key somehow. It made things seem easier at first.

But you don’t hold any keys, not really. I do. I am the one who must and will do what I do, under my own steam. I see now that you feel powerful with me, not the other way around. I always feel just like myself, pretty comfortable, full of passion for a creative life, directed by an internal arrow of intention that must find its own mark. I may not be utterly fantastic but I’m alright with that. I’m working on it.

Your beautiful mind and body are distracting! I feel the brush of your lips on my cheek and it is like a heat that then freezes; I can’t think, can’t move, captive by your fascination and desire. Oh, don’t get me wrong, it’s not easy for me to resist. I am young and have my dreams of love, the real sort–but I’m older than many students. My life kept me home five years longer but that doesn’t mean I was protected. I just never had time for fairy tale longings or endings.

I had to face that life comes with abrupt changes and at times demands a high price–and we’d better be equipped to withstand it all or just figure it out fast. An artist like me has had to puzzle it out more often than not.

There is so much you don’t know because it doesn’t fit your idea of who I should be. And that is sad to me. Because I’ve had some experiences that matter, too.

She took off her hat and scratched her head. She studied the words, then rejected them with a giant “X.” There was too much yet so little to say.

 ******

Will it stop this time?”

His hand clutched hers as he lay on the narrow bed. She smoothed his forehead and wondered when on earth her mother or dad would finally get home. He had been breathing like his ribs could barely support his chest or the very air that entered and exited with short miserable wheezes. She had given him the medications, gotten a wet washcloth to cool him. She had called her mother twice, dad, too, and the doctor. The doc was coming.

“What, Benny, tell me?”

“…scraping inside, lung sickness…”

He squeezed her hand tighter but it still was a soft leaf of a hand even though he was eighteen, a smaller and bonier eighteen than his friends. They had gone kayaking as they often did. The storm swept up with a vengeance. He had come home soaked and shivering, gone bluish of lip with a shadowy red circling his eyes. Benny had collapsed and not gotten out of bed for four days, then was up and about for two days, then that morning had suddenly failed to breathe right again and was so weak she helped him into bed again. She shuddered to think what might have happened if she had gone off to work at the hotel but they knew by now how it was; Kyle had given up long ago.

His weary gaze clung to hers. She thought of all the times they  only looked at each other, no speaking–because he couldn’t talk without coughing or she could think of nothing to say, or they knew what the other was thinking, anyway. So they glanced into each other as long as necessary. Now his eyelids closed hard, locked shut as if they couldn’t bear to stay open. She felt their heaviness; it claimed her shoulders, then heart and mind. Nothing had worked well enough the past week. Now his breath seemed to be slipping away, she could feel it not wanting to stay.

“Draw.”

Karin looked up but his eyes were still sealed shut.

“Draw, draw,” he whispered.

“What should I draw, buggery ole Benny boy?”

“Karin, aw…” He seemed to grimace at her babying him. “Boat, sea, sunrise.”

So she got her pencils and sketchbook and began the drawing, talking to him as she drew. He’d nod or his face would twitch but he couldn’t really talk, he had to breathe. It hurt her to hear the rasping, each intake one more cut felt on her own chest, a tattoo of pain that made her love him more, beyond the looming fear.

“I’m shading the sea, pulling out all my blues, I should name every one for you, huh? But soon the perfect sunrise will change all that big expanse. What will the boat be or do out there? I’m making it a sailboat, Benny, a Lightning–you, me, Teddy on crew, you can see the glint of light on your ole big blond head…I’m not drawing me or Teddy, this is your sailing adventure, okay?”

Her hand worked faster, forming lines; she felt she was compelled to infuse it with a sense of the island way of life they knew, that landscape so loved and loathed, charging the the picture with humility yet a palpable glory, their island peeking from the foreground. The sunrise was starting to spill over the far horizon and it felt warm even to her hand and she wanted Benny to feel this pleasure, the life that was unfolding when she heard the front door open. She kept drawing, fervency overtaking her, her created sun releasing its vivid sheen on the bland paper.

“And here is that sunrise, Benny boy, it rises for you,” she said, laying down gradations of orange, red, yellow. Transparent, lush. “That boat is sailing, it sails with you, Benny! Oh, I do so want to come along as it finally rides those magnificent crests to–.”

“Karin.”

But she was busy drawing, the page awake with life’s colors and forms as Benny’s eyes stayed closed–she knew that without looking, he had gone silent inside and out–and her mother took her hand and stopped the pencil and her dad knelt beside the bed and the doc came in and moved them aside.

Karin felt her mother’s hand, then her dad’s, parents and daughter a tight trio of family as the doc pressed a stethoscope on Benny’s chest, withdrew it, placed his ear close to Benny’s lips. Looked up and shook his head.

“Oh my ole Benny boy!” she called out, eyes squeezed shut, too, against the day’s terribleness. Her sketchbook hit the floor with a thud.

******

Fifteen more minutes. If Henry James Harner was even on time–he often kept Karin waiting, kept everyone waiting. Perhaps this was to cause an effect, perhaps it gave more attention to his entrance, or it made women more anxious to see him or told other men he was important and they owed him respect. But Karin lately found it sloppy of him, a lapse of manners. Especially since he had indicated he hoped to take her with him to the luxe hotel he had rented for the week-end. From the start it had intrigued her, this whole charade. It was so indirect and yet aggressive and she found it thrilling and disappointing at once. She was of an age when she could make any choice and own it. But he was not, finally, that appealing. As she waited in the museum, she had concluded he was even lacking in creativity. How much more attractive if Henry had been careful, approached her with genuine ethics, acknowledged the premise that she would never accept such a proposal from her art professor. That would have impressed her.

As she quickly left the building, her high heels clicking on the tile floor, she thought of the year to come and all that was yet to be accomplished. There was independent work to do, and one thing was a showing of selected art work. Karin had begun to choose ten drawings and etchings. Benny, she thought, likely knew the ones. She took off heels and jacket, entered the sweet, aromatic heat of a California spring, joy surfacing from many deep-sea places.

 

15 thoughts on “Fine Art and Benny Boy

  1. Fabulous! If there’s one thing that inspires me it’s tales of strong women. Makes me realise I can go out there and do anything. Great, uplifting start to my day. You’re a powerful writer. 🐾

    1. Thank you for such generous words of praise. It takes an open human being to respond to stories we writers labor over…and I do try to mine the depths and share the realities of the human experience, but with love and hope. Blessings to you and yours.

  2. I honestly how to put this in a way that doesn’t make me look like an over-emotional fool, but I cried reading this. I too have a younger brother (knock-on-wood he’s not suffering from any illness) but I could relate more closely to this prose because of that fact.
    Amazingly written!!

    1. I’m glad you were open–this warms my heart…that you could connect so well. It says something about the depth of your own feeling for the brother you love. But I so appreciate your appreciation of my story. Thank you for reading and responding. Come by again!

      1. Thank you Cynthia. It means a lot that you, as a complete stranger, could understand that. Just goes to show that there are people out there that do connect with other peoples feeling. Thank you once again for writing such a beautiful piece. 🙂

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