BOOK ONE Mayhem
OIL ON LINEN
40 x 50 INCHES
COLLECTION OF THE ARTIST
I never imagined I would shoot a man. Or be a father. Or live so far from the sea.
As a child, you imagine your life sometimes, how it will be.
I never thought I would be a painter. That I might make a world and walk into it and forget myself. That art would be something I would not have any way of not doing.
My own father was a logger, very gentle, who never fought with anyone.
I could not have imagined that my daughter would be beautiful and strong like my mother. Whom she would never meet. Or that one afternoon at the Boxcar in Taos I would be drinking Jim Beam with a beer back and Lauder Simms would be at the next stool nursing a vodka tonic, probably his fourth or fifth, slurping the drink in a way that made ants run over my neck, his wet eyes glancing over again and again. The fucker who had skated on a certain conviction for raping a twelve year old girl in his movie theater downtown, looking at me now, saying,
“Jim, your daughter is coming up nice, I like seeing her down at the theater.”
“Long legged like her mom, I mean not too skinny.”
“I don’t mean too skinny, Jim. I mean just—” His leer, lips wet with tonic. “She’s real interested in movies. Everything movies. I’m gonna train her up to be my little projectionist—”
I never imagined something like that could be reflex, without thought: pulling out the .41 magnum, raising it to the man half turned on the stool, pulling the trigger. Point blank. The concussion inside the windowless room. Or how everything explodes like the inside of a dream and how Johnny, my friend, came lunging over the bar, over my arm, to keep me from pulling the trigger again. Who saved my life in a sense because the man who should have died never did. How the shot echoed for hours inside the bar, inside my head. Echoed for years.
I painted that moment, the explosion of colors, the faces.
How regret is corrosive, but one of the things it does not touch is that afternoon, not ever.
I An Ocean of Women
OIL ON CANVAS
52 x 48 INCHES
My house is three miles south of town. There are forty acres of wheatgrass and sage, a ditch with a hedgerow of cottonwoods and willows, a small pond with a dock. The back fence gives on to the West Elk Mountains. Right there. They are rugged and they rise up just past the back of my place, from sage into juniper woods, then oak brush, then steep slopes of black timber, spruce and fir, and outcrops of rock and swaths of aspen clinging to the shoulders of the ridges. If I walk a few miles south, up around the flank of Mount Lamborn, I am in the Wilderness, which runs all the way to the Curecanti above Gunnison, and across to Crested Butte.
From the little ramada I look south to all those mountains and east to the massif of Mount Gunnison. All rock and timber now in August. There’s snow up there all but a few months a year. They tell me that some years the snow never vanishes. I’d like to see that.
If I step out in front of the small house and look west it is softer and drier that direction: the gently stepping uplift of Black Mesa where the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River cuts through; other desert mesas; the Uncompahgre Plateau out beyond it all, hazy and blue.
This is my new home. It’s kind of overwhelming how beautiful. And little Paonia, funny name for a village out here, some old misspelling of Peony. Nestled down in all this high rough country like a train set. The North Fork of the Gunnison runs through it, a winding of giant leafy cottonwoods and orchards, farms, vineyards. A good place I guess to make a field of peace, to gather and breathe.
Thing is I don’t feel like just breathing.
Sofia pulls up in the Subaru she calls Triceratops. It’s that old. I can hear the rusted out muffler up on the county road, caterwauling like a Harley, hear the drop in tone as it turns down the steep gravel driveway. The downshift in the dip and dinosaur roar as it climbs again to the house. Makes every entrance very dramatic, which she is.
She is twenty-eight. An age of drama. She reminds me of a chicken in the way she is top-heavy, looks like she should topple over. I mean her trim body is small enough to support breasts the size of tangerines and she is grapefruit. It is not that she is out of proportion, it’s exaggerated proportion which I guess fascinates me. I asked her to model for me five minutes after meeting her. That was about three months ago. We were standing in line in the tiny hippy coffee shop—Blue Moon, what else?—the only place in town with an espresso machine. She was wearing a short knit top and she had strong arms, scarred along the forearms the way someone who has worked outside is scarred, and a slightly crooked nose, somehow Latin. She looked like a fighter, like me. Sofia noticed the paint splattered on my cap, hands, khaki pants.
“Artist,” she said. It wasn’t a question.
Her brown eyes which were flecked with green roved over my head, clothes, and I realized she was cataloguing the colors in the spatters.
“Exuberant,” she said. “Primitive. Outsider—in quotes.”
“I went to RISD for a year but dropped out.”
Then her eyes went to the flies stuck in the cap.
“Artist fisherman,” she said. “Cool.”
She asked how long I’d been here, I said two weeks, she said, “Welcome. Sofia,” and stuck out her hand.
I said I needed models.
She cocked her head and measured me with one eye. Held it way past politeness.
Shrug. “Twenty bucks an hour?”
“I’m trying to decide if you are a creep. You’re not a violent felon are you?”
“Yes. I am.”
A smile trembled across her face. “Really?”
“Wow. What’d you do?”
“I shot a man in a bar. You’re not going to back out the door like in a horror movie are you?”
She laughed. “I was thinking about it.”
“My second wife did that when she found out.”
She was laughing uninhibited. People in line were smiling at her.
“Not anymore. She ran off down the road.”
“I’ll do it,” she said. “For twenty-five. Danger pay.”
Took her a while to rein in her mirth.
“Nude modeling for a violent killer convict. That is a first. Twenty-five, right?”
I nodded. “I didn’t kill the guy, I just shot him. I was a little high and to the left.”
She was laughing again and I knew that I had made a friend.
Now she shoved open the door like she always did, like she was doing some SWAT breach entry. Tumbled into the room.
“Your muffler is getting worse.”
“Really? Tops is balking at extinction. Poor guy.”
She sat on a stool at the long butcher block counter that separates the kitchen in this one big room. I pushed aside a bunch of sketch paper and charcoal and the fly-tying vise where I’d been tying up some Stegner Killers, invented by yours truly, which the trout couldn’t seem to resist the past couple of weeks. I set a mug of coffee on the counter between us, poured myself another.
“What are we doing today?”
“An Ocean of Women. Something I’ve been thinking about.”
“An ocean? Just me?”
“On my way up here from Santa Fe a good friend told me I can’t always swim in an ocean of women. I saw it. Me swimming, all the women, the fish. I thought we could give it a try.”
I set down my mug. “Really? No?”
“Just kidding. Fuck, Jim, you ask a lot of a girl.”
“Want an egg with chilies?”
Shook her head.
“You just have to make like an ocean. Just once.”
She cocked her head the way she does, fixed me with an eye. The light from the south windows brushed a peppering of faint acne pits on her temple and it somehow drew attention to the smoothness of her cheek and neck.
“Stormy or calm?” she said.
She leaned forward on the counter, her breasts roosting happily in her little button top.
“How about choppy and disturbed? Dugar told me yesterday he wants to move to Big Sur.” Dugar was her hippy boyfriend. “I’m like how fucking corny. Plus nobody lives there anymore, it’s so damn expensive. He read a bunch of Henry Miller. Are you a teenager? I said. You like read a novel and want to move there?”
She stuck out her mug and I refilled it.
“It wasn’t a novel it was a memoir, he says. Jeez. He says he is a poet but between you and me his poems are sophomoric. Lately, since he’s read up on Big Sur, they are all about sea elephants which he has never seen. I have and they are not prepossessing, know what I mean? They would never even move if they didn’t have to eat. I said there is no fucking way I’m moving to Big Sur with the sea elephants, or even the Castroville, which is like the closest place a normal person could afford to live. I mean, do you want to live in the artichoke capital of the world? Be grateful for what you’ve got right now, where you are right now. Then I unleash the twins.”
I am laughing now.
“That’s not fair, is it?”
“Not by a long shot.”
“I’m young,” she says. It’s a simple statement, incontrovertible, and it stabs me with something like pain in the middle of my laughter.
We begin. Sofia is a champ of an ocean, a natural. I paint fast. I paint her oceaning on her side, arched, facing and away from me, swimming down off a pile of pillows, breaststroke, on her back over the same pillows willowing backwards arms extended as if reaching after a brilliant fish. I paint the fish as big as she is, invoking him. More fish, a hungry dark shark swimming up from the gloom below with what looks like a dog’s pink boner. The shark has a blue human eye, not devoid of embarrassment. I am lost. In the sea. I don’t speak. Sofia has the rhythm of a dancer and she changes as she feels the mood change.
I love this. I paint myself swimming. A big bearded man, beard going white—I’m forty-five and it’s been salt and pepper since I was thirty. I’m clothed in denim shirt and khakis and boots, ungainly and hulking in this ocean of women, swimming for my life and somehow enjoying it. In my right hand is a fishing rod. It looks like the swimmer is doing too many things at once and this may be his downfall. Or maybe it’s the root of his joy. My palette is a piece of covered fiberboard and I am swiping, touching, shuttling between it and canvas, stowing the small brush with a cocked little finger and reaching for the knife, all in time to her slowly shifting poses. I am a fish myself, making small darting turns against the slower background rhythms and sway of the swell. No thought, not once. Nothing I can remember.
It is not a fugue state. I’ve heard artists talk about that like it’s some kind of religious thing. For me it’s the same as when I am having a good day fishing. I move up the creek, tie on flies, cast to the far bank, wade, throw into the edge of a pool, feel the hitch the tug of a strike bang!—all in a happy silence of mind. Quiet. The kind of quiet feeling that fills you all night as you ready the meal, steam the asparagus, pour the sparkling water and cut the limes. Fills you into the next day.
I wouldn’t call it divine. I think it’s just showing up for once. Paying attention. I have heard artists say they are channeling God. You have to have a really good gallery to say that. I am painting now without naming any of it, can name it only in memory, and I become aware of a tickling on my neck. Sofia is leaning into me, standing on her tiptoes and watching over my shoulder. I turn my head so that my bearded chin is against her curly head. She is wearing the terry cloth robe she leaves here. She doesn’t say a word. She is behind me, but I can feel her smile, a lifting and tautening of the pillow of her cheek against my chin. I was painting more fish, and women, and these crab-like things at the bottom that had men’s eyes and reaching claws, and had somehow lost the fact that my model had vanished in the tumult.
“It’s been three hours,” she whispers. “I’m gonna go.” I nod. She tugs my beard once and is gone. Somewhere in there among the ocean of women and the darting fish and a man happily lost at sea I hear wind over water and a heart breaking like crockery and the bleating roar of a retreating dinosaur.
I came to the valley to paint. That was four months ago and I am painting, finally. I came up from Taos which is getting more crowded and pretentious by the minute. I was looking to find a place that was drama free. I am pretty good, somewhat famous, which means it gets harder to be quiet. A quiet place. There are two books about me. One I admit was commissioned years ago by Steve, my dealer in Santa Fe, as a way to boost my cachet, and it worked: prices for the paintings almost doubled. That’s when I traded in my used van, the one with the satellite Off switch that the collection agency in Santa Fe could activate if I missed a payment. Leaving me stranded by the side of the empty desert highway.
The other book is a fine and true scholarly study of what the author calls a Great American Southwest Post-Expressionist Naïf. I’ve been called a lot of things, but naïve was never one of them. It must have been because I couldn’t stop painting chickens. Farmyard chickens in every frame: landscapes, adobe houses, coal trains, even nudes. There was a chicken. They make me laugh, their jaunty shape all out of balance—like a boat that was built by a savant boat maker, you know it shouldn’t float but the fucker does. That’s chickens. Naïf.
Excerpted from The Painter by Peter Heller. Copyright © 2014 by Peter Heller. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.