This is a short piece I wrote which will eventually form part of a much larger piece that I’m working on. I hope that you’ll enjoy it and as always I will love to hear your comments.
Happy quiet Sunday!
I had flown in only for the weekend. I wasn’t back here often, nor did I ever stay for long, but when I was I always made a trip to her grave. She was the reason I was who I had become. A single tulip and my memories were all that I brought.
We went to see the house before we had officially bought it. It was the day the rabbit bit my little finger.
I was fascinated by the long skinny room off the kitchen and behind the dining room. It was used as a pantry of sorts. It doubled as a telephone room, back when telephones were assigned to specific rooms with their cumbersome wires and restricting cords.
My parents had already begun referring to it as the den. They would make it the TV room, with plans to board up the doorway to the kitchen, leaving only a pass through. It would host a wine rack, which was rather avant garde, given that it was 1970’s small town Ontario. It would also feature a display wall for my father’s hunting rifles, and of course a locked cabinet for the ammunition. That part was kind of dumb I thought, as the cabinet, while locked, was made of thin pressboard. If a maniac broke into the house he could have bust through the cabinet with the butt of one of the rifles. That was right around the same time one of my uncles began referring to me as “the evil genius.”
I didn’t care one tiny bit what they planned to call it or fill it with. I only hoped that the pale yellow nicotine stained wall would be allowed to keep its current art display. It was the previous family’s note pad. The place where they jotted names and phone numbers of people who had called. The names were often accented by tiny drawings of the caller. Deidre was of particular fascination. It would seem that her boobs were considerably bigger than her head. The messages were recorded in everything from crayon to knife tip etching; one message even appeared to be written in blood. I could still see the smudged edge of a fingerprint.
My parents claimed to want something “unique” something “interesting” something “different.” Were they utterly blind to the unique, interesting and different existing wall?
“But it IS unusual.” I pleaded.
“That’s not the kind of unusual we’re looking for squirt.” My father said.
“But who else in the WHOLE WIDE WORLD would ever have anything at all like it?” I argued.
My mother wouldn’t even consider my position.
“Painting may prove difficult given the appalling state of the walls. We may have to consider papering.” She stated to no one.
The discussions continued; the odds between papering or painting weighed, including even my older sister’s opinion. I hated it when she stopped acting like a kid and chimed in on grown up conversation. Decisions were made and supplies were ordered.
“Everything should be here in a week.” My mother sang out after hanging up the phone. I couldn’t help but notice that she had made a few notes on the phone wall.
Action would have to be swift. I pushed away the notion of cutting away at the plaster and recreating the wall in its entirety in my bedroom – trouble was certain to follow such a destructive act. I considered recording each of the names and numbers, including the drawings of course, but then I would have merely a list and none of the character. Photography was the only option left to me.
I waited until the light was just right. It was rarely bright enough in that little north facing room and my mother was rather stingy with flash bulbs. I snapped several pictures of the wall. I planned to piece them together once the film was developed.
I trotted up the stairs to my bedroom considering which of the big city galleries would be vying for my work once I had the recreated the masterpiece. I imagined myself on the cover of Time Magazine as youngest artist ever to be featured at the Guggenheim.
I looked down at the tiny black number through the glass peek hole indicating how many images remained on the roll of film. I pulled out the crank on the bottom of the camera but slid it back into place remembering the last time I had rewound a roll of film before it was finished. My mother was equally as frugal with film as she was with flash bulbs.
The roll was brand new. I had taken image number two through eight. There would be trouble enough for taking so many. It would be forever before all twenty-four images were shot! What if some of them were blurred? The names and numbers would be lost forever. I needed a new plan and fast… only six days remained in the life of the message wall.
I had recently read an article about Andy Warhol in a magazine one of my uncle’s girlfriends had left at the house. Leslie was a “hippie” according to my grandmother.
I thought Leslie was the coolest person I had ever met… even cooler than my uncle, her boyfriend. She talked to me about art and the world, like I was a grown up with interesting thoughts of my own. She told me all about Andy Warhol and showed me pictures of him in the magazine. He looked both insane and fabulous to me. They had called him a performance artist. I would create the greatest piece of “performance art” ever, by taping with my black vinyl bound cassette recorder, as I called every one of the numbers.
I didn’t waste a moment. I gathered up paper and pencil, my black recorder with a fresh cassette, peeled from its impossibly clingy wrapper, a stack of graham wafers and a large glass of pink lemonade. I knew this project would be infinitely more successful and considerably less time consuming than my previous challenge of filling my lower dresser drawer to the brim with pennies – that was not going at all well.
I scanned the wall trying to decide where I should start. Tapping the eraser end of the pencil on my chin as I had seen many important people do.
It didn’t take me long to decide that Deidre with the enormous boobs should be the starting point. I wondered if she sounded like she had big boobs.
I pressed the record and play buttons together until they locked into place and held the mic close to the ear piece on the phone.
“Hello, is this Deidre?”
“Speaking. Who’s calling?”
“You don’t know me, but, well, errr, I have your phone number written on my wall.” I knew right then that I should have planned a script of sorts before making the call.
“DAMN IT! NOT AGAIN! YOU TELL THAT BOBBY TO STOP TELLING EVERYONE!” The sound of the phone being slammed into the cradle hurt my ear.
That did not turn out as I had planned.
I played back the recording and was pleased with the quality of sound. Mind you, Deidre had been screaming. I wasn’t too sure that I could count on that response from everyone.
Noting Deidre’s name with a little scary face next to it, I considered how to approach future calls. I was a little kid, regardless of how articulate all my teachers always said I was. Little kids voices over the phone weren’t generally taken seriously. I could tell them that I was working on a school project and that their name was suggested to me by…
“Mum! What was the family’s last name that used to live here?” I hollered from my work station in the corner beside my wall.
“Forrester. Why?” The “why” was too clipped. She was suspicious.
“I’m working on a school project.” May as well stick with the story right from the beginning. Nobody would take me seriously if I explained that I was creating what would become the greatest piece of performance art ever known to mankind.
Next call I decided to choose at random. Eyes closed finger extended and POKE. Elmer MacDonald. What a name! I’ll bet he got made fun of when he was a kid.
“May I speak with Elmer MacDonald please.” I asked of the woman who half barked, half coughed a hello into the receiver.
“Junior or Senior?” She hacked.
“Hm, well that’s a good question… I don’t know. I guess whichever one knew someone from the Forrester family on the East Front.” I suggested, feeling rather clever.
“That’d be JR. Hang on. JR!” I could hear her wheezing while we waited for JR to pick up the phone.
“J.R. Damn it boy pick up the phone!” She shrieked. I heard the sound of a match being struck. The smell of sulfur wafted its way through the phone and straight up my nose.
“Yeah?” He half yelled. He sounded just like my older cousin Tommy… cranky. I was a little afraid of Tommy. I think it had something to do with his eyebrows, and how he liked to dangle me by my ankles over the river off the end of his dock.
“Um hi. I’m working on a school project and your…” My shaking voice betrayed me.
“Yeah? So? What’s it gotta do wi’ me?” It was clear that he was not going to be helpful.
“Were you friends with someone with the last name Forrester?”
“Still am. Why?”
“Well, as I’ve said, I’m working on a school project. I’m trying to put together all the names listed on this wall and…”
“Ah fuck off kid. I ain’t got time for this shit.” Click.
Wow. Mean. I wondered if he knew my cousin Tommy. I worried a little about the swearing on the cassette but since it wasn’t me that was doing the cursing I decided I likely wouldn’t get into trouble. After all it wasn’t like I hadn’t heard those words about a million times already. Big brothers and older cousins have very foul mouths.
I looked over the names and chose a nicer sounding one this time. Flora Kirkpatrick. Someone with such a happy name just had to be friendly.
“Allo?” I didn’t expect Flora Kirkpatrick to be French.
“Is this Flora Kirkpatrick?”
“Mais non, Flora, she’s out.” Although disappointed I had not reached my intended target, I was at least relieved to hear a friendly voice on the other end of the line.
“I’ll try back later. When is she expected home?” Going for my most business like voice and hoping I didn’t sound like a grade schooler.
“She get home demain, tomorrow.” Brusque but informative and happily not yelling or cursing at me.
Graham wafers eaten and pink lemonade reduced to pulpy dregs, I decided that it might be time to call it quits for the day. I knew that my Mum would be calling me to set the table for dinner shortly and I didn’t want to be in the middle of a recording session (I liked how that made me sound so professional).
“What Daddy?” I asked, as I kissed him goodnight later that evening. His face was always giving him away.
“Nothin’ Squirt… just wonderin’ what’s goin’ on, that’s all.” My Mum hated it when he dropped his g’s and sounded like a kid.
“Yes Darling, we were just wondering why you were so quiet at the dinner table.” My mother said to me, even though she was glaring at my Dad.
“Just tired… volleyball started today… inside my wrists and elbows hurts… that’s all… night!” I called over my shoulder as I trotted up the stairs. I imagined Andy Warhol having to tell a few lies when he first started out too.
I couldn’t get off the bus and up the driveway quickly enough the next afternoon. If Flora still wasn’t home I would find more interesting, non swear-y, yell-y people to take part in my great artwork.
I dialed the phone with the eraser end of my pencil as I had seen the doctor’s secretary do. She looked like she got a lot done in a day.
“Hello?” A different voice than yesterday… older… shaky like my Aunt Rose’s voice… really old.
“May I please speak with Mrs. Flora Kirkpatrick?” I asked, although I was pretty sure this was her. I had the same feeling in my chest and throat that I had on my birthday.
“This is she. How may I help you?” Now that was what I called polite phone manners. She must have gone to the same private school as my Mum.
“Um, hello Mrs. Kirkpatrick. My name is Elizabeth.” I reserved my full name for when I wanted to impress people – Lizzie was not impressive. “I live in the house that the Forresters used to own. Did you know them?” I hoped her hearing wasn’t too good so she couldn’t hear my nerves.
“Oh my, yes dear! I did, of course. My husband looked after their animals for many years. He was a veterinarian. Did you know that?” I started to tell her that it made me feel a little better about the rabbit that had bitten me, but she just kept right on talking. “Oh yes, they had every type of animal, big and small… well not every type mind, just the smaller and the bigger of the smaller variety, although they did have a St. Bernard once, barely lived a year, poor dear stupid creature .” She said stupid like my Mum too – styoo-pid. “Hit by a car, such a busy road. I hope you’re careful on that road Elizabeth, are you?”
“Oh yes Ma’am, I’m terribly careful. I always check three or four times at least.” I assured her.
“Oh that’s good dear. Now what was I telling you? Oh yes, about the Forresters many animals. Now Neil, that’s my late husband, the veterinarian, God rest his soul, Neil never minded going out to the house to tend the animals, even though the new way of doing business isn’t to make house calls anymore, Neil always felt it was more stressful for the sick or injured animal to travel… better he should, he always said, and poor dear Mrs. Forrester had far too many children in my opinion, and her ghastly husband never left her with a car, so Neil always went to them.” Flora stopped talking for quite a while. I was starting to worry that she might have fallen asleep. My Aunt Rose was always falling asleep at the weirdest times.
“Mrs. Kirkpatrick? Are you okay? If you’re tired, I can call another time.”
“That would be simply lovely! Will you call again tomorrow and I’ll tell you a little more about the Forresters. That is why you’re calling aren’t you?”
“Yes ma’am it is… kinda… I just wanted to talk to everyone on their wall.” I felt as though she might be someone, besides my uncle’s girlfriend, who might understand what I was trying to do.
“Wonderful, dear. Call tomorrow and I’ll tell you some stories and you can tell me all about your wall. Goodbye Elizabeth, and remember, cross carefully!”
The next afternoon my whole family headed into the city for my youngest cousin’s first birthday. My aunt’s best in the WHOLE WIDE WORLD quadruple layer chocolate cake made up a little for the fact that I wouldn’t be able to call Flora as I had promised. I was also excited as birthdays were events which my mother felt picture worthy. Especially first birthdays. Kids and cakes were about the only thing my Mum thought to take pictures of. I was sure that Andy Warhol would not have approved.
All the next day I anticipated my call to Flora. I even got into trouble in social studies class. My teacher thought I was passing notes. What I was really doing was writing down ideas that Flora and I might discuss later that afternoon.
When my school day finally ended, I leapt off the bus and tore up the driveway, through the kitchen and into what was shortly to become “The Den”. I flung open the table drawer where I had stashed my note pad and tape recorder. Remembering the rambling conversation from a few days earlier, I decided that perhaps a spare cassette at the ready might be in order.
“Hello?” She sounded much more awake and a lot less shaky today.
“Hi! It’s me… Elizabeth. How are you Mrs. Kirkpatrick?”
“Oh hello dear! How are you today? Did you cross carefully? Ohahahahaha! Of course you did, or you wouldn’t be calling me again now would you? HAHAHAHA!” Boy that one really got her.
“Yup I sure did cross carefully! Sorry I didn’t call yesterday. I was at a birthday party.” I offered.
“Oh birthday parties are such fun. Was there a magician? My grandaddy was a magician… just an amateur of course. He was a doctor in real life, but he loved magic. I had the most wonderful parties when I was a little girl. He always let me be the assistant. I thought back then that I might like to be on the stage, but it turned out that I was far too shy.”
“So what did you wind up becoming when you grew up?” I hoped desperately that I wasn’t being rude. It seemed liked the kind of question you weren’t supposed to ask.
“Oh what a lovely question to be asked! I haven’t been asked that in, oh dear, well at least, oh my, maybe one hundred years or more HAHAHA! Obviously I’m not over a hundred, you do know that don’t you dear? Of course you do, you’re a clever young lady. Now what was the question? Oh yes, what did I become. Well, I’ll tell you what I did NOT become… a painter. I dearly wanted to become a painter. My father said that only the terribly wealthy and the terribly poor became artists. We were neither.”
“What sort of stuff did you paint?” I liked people who talked about art.
“I loved to paint in my mother’s garden. She was a splendid gardener. Sometimes I would paint landscapes but can you imagine what I enjoyed painting even more than that? I would pick a single bloom and I would paint it each day as it slowly died. My mother always thought that was rather peculiar. Do you think that’s peculiar Elizabeth?”
“Oh not at all! I think it sounds wonderful. I kept a tulip in my room once for three weeks. The water got pretty smelly, but the petals looked so cool, sort of like really old skin.” It popped right out. The heat spread up my neck and across my cheeks.
“Oh Elizabeth! You are absolutely right! How delightful!” She laughed for a long time about that so I knew that I hadn’t hurt her feelings.
“I know, I know, it seems silly that a young girl from the East Front could ever dream to become a great artist, but it was my only wish. Do you have a great wish for your future Elizabeth?” Besides Leslie, no one had ever asked me that before.
“Well yes, I do… you see there’s this wall in my new house… I mean that it’s an old house, but it’s new to me. Anyway, the Forresters used to live here and they wrote on the wall… that’s how I found your number. My parents are going to cover the wall. I tried to talk them out of it, but they just don’t get art. I’m going to create the greatest piece of performance art, so great that even Andy Warhol will want to talk to me about it. Have you heard of him Mrs. Kirkpatrick?”
“Oh my yes! I most certainly do know who he is dear! I was lucky enough to go to an exhibit in New York City in… oh now, what was it? 1962 or 1963? Hmm let’s see well I think it was… oh well it doesn’t really matter does it? But yes I do know who he is. He is a bit peculiar but terribly talented isn’t he? I think that you should continue to pursue this dream of becoming a great artist Elizabeth. Never stop striving for excellence in your creative pursuits. I wish that I could have done the same… tell me dear, what does your father do for a living?
“Um, well, he’s an insurance man… I’m not exactly sure what that means… I asked him once and he told me that he put his feet up on his desk and dreamt up flavours of Baskin Robbins Ice Cream! Have you ever had Baskin Robbins Ice Cream? I had some when I went to Cape Cod last summer… they have thirty-one flavours!”
“Ah, I see, so you are neither very wealthy nor very poor, but I think that times are different now.” Her speech was beginning to slow and I worried the she must be getting tired.
“Mrs.Kirkpatrick, are you tired? Should I call again another time?”
“Well, yes dear I think that might be best, but please remember, never, ever stop creating art. In whatever form that might take. Art is so terribly important in our world, and often overlooked as frivolous. Remember how important art truly is dear. Will you do that for me?” Her voice was shaking worse than ever.
“I will remember Mrs. Kirkpatrick, I promise. I’ll call again very soon.” I felt a little like crying and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why.
I must have been sitting for some time when my mother found me.
“What is it Darling? You look upset. Has something happened that you would like to talk about?” She was crouched down in front of me, her hand on my forehead, checking for the fever which would explain everything away.
“When is this room getting done Mum?”
“Oh Lizzie, let’s not have this conversation again please.” She stood up abruptly and turned on her heel.
“No Mum, it’s okay, I’m not gonna bug you about it anymore. I’m just wondering. That’s all. Really.” I had leapt up and followed her into the living room where she was already curled up into her wing chair, coffee cup and thick paperback in hand. Her smile was soft. The kind that made me wish I were still little enough to climb into the chair with her.
“I picked up the film this aft… the envelope is on the kitchen table.” I paused, trying to read her expression. Should I be excited or disappointed?
“Go on! They’re good, you’ll be quite pleased I expect!” I was too excited to marvel that she wasn’t cross with me about how many I had taken.
Tearing open the envelope it dawned on me that she may have been referring to the birthday pictures. I was pleased with the kids and cakes pictures, she was right, I thought as I flipped quickly through them. And then I had reached the wall pictures… all seven of them. At first glance they seemed to be a complete failure. Dirty yellow walls, stained with years of tobacco smoke and dust motes floating through the ribbons of late afternoon sunlight. Then I saw it, once my eyes had adjusted to focus beyond the obvious, initial impressions. The printing on the wall was perfectly clear.
I spread them out on the table recreating the wall in two dimensions. I didn’t look up as my mother came into the kitchen. She stood quietly behind me, then reached for the stack of “kids and cakes.”
“They’re really very good Darling. You have quite a way of looking at things from a completely different and peculiar perspective don’t you?” She said, not really looking for an answer.