An Artist And A Poet
She was an artist, and a poet, but she didn't talk about her art or poetry. I guess she was content to let it speak for itself, and I guess it did. Yes. It did.
I've just come from her. Her little store is just up the road from the truck stop where I'm still waiting for my next load, camped out here at Bruce's Truck Stop, in Bakersfield, or just outside the city limits but Bakersfield is how it shows up on our list of fuel stops. I've been here almost two days.
There's no restaurant at Bruce's, but next door is a pretty nice family style place, a little expensive but better food than one is accustomed to at truck stops, and I enjoyed a lovely supper there of roast beef and all the trimmings, and then went for a walk. I walked eastward, up the slope, and that is how I met her.
Bruce's sits on California 58, which is coming over the mountain from Barstow in the Mojave Desert. It's always a nice drive over here, to the Central Valley, from Barstow, if a bit tricky at times. First, straight across the desert past places like Boron, of the old television series fame, and at the town Mojave, there's a big airfield that is actually a used jetliner business, where used commercial passenger planes of all colors, sizes and shapes sit in rows baking in the sun, and in Mojave, someone once told me, it's not unusual to see a Saudi sheik step out of a long black limousine.
From Mojave CA 58 climbs up over the Tehachapi Mountains at the tail end of the Sierra Nevada chain, but first, partway up the slope, lurking back in a little flat spot, sits the most dreaded weigh station I know of, the weigh station of my discontent, ready to ruin any trip through there.
The first time I got pulled around back there, and walked inside with my paperwork, there on the wall were the dozens of Polaroids they have taken of trucks they have stopped, but not just any trucks, truck with flat bed loads half falling off the trailer, trucks with wheels about ready to fall off, and all kinds of things that the driver never noticed because there's 17 other wheels still doing fine or because you can't see the back of a flat bed load, and just things that happened since the last time you stopped and that just make truck drivers look bad and stupid and irresponsible and dumb.
That's the attitude you get from them, too, especially the guy who pulls you in and does the truck inspection.
"The drivers who drive for your company never take care of their trucks," he announced, as he began my inspection.
And sure enough, he found something, they always do if they want to, a crack in an air compressor mounting bracket that I never would have seen and that no mechanic had ever seen and the truck had more than 700,000 miles on it, but it kept me there, parked out behind the weigh station until the next morning, waiting for someone who was open who had that bracket and would come out there and replace it.
Another time I didn't have bales of hay tied down the way they're supposed to be tied down in California, which has its own set of rules, and I had to risk my life crawling up on top of a stack of hay bales to put two straps from the front of the trailer, all the way over the stack and down the back of it and fasten them to back of the trailer.
But if I do manage to get past the weigh station from hell without getting stopped there, it's free sailing, up to the top, through Tehachapi, and from there winding down for miles until finally, spread out before you like an undiscovered world emerging from the mist, or in this case from the haze of smog that always enshrouds it, is the Central, or San Joaquin Valley, agricultural capital of the world.
Bruce's is at the bottom, at the far east edge of the valley, the road is still slightly sloping upward, and when I went for my after dinner walk I went up the slope, so I'd be walking down hill on my return. It was getting into the evening, but still almost 100 degrees.
As I walked, I soon left the cluster of businesses near Bruces, an auto shop, a liquor store, a little trucking company, a few others, then started passing small houses that got farther apart as I walked.
There was one business there, in what was once an old gas station, the old style with the little canopy over what would have been one or two pumps, with a sign attached to the front, reading, "Art and Craft Supplies." I didn't think much of it going up, but on my way down, almost an hour later, it was becoming dusk and I could see lights on inside, and then I could see a woman standing behind a counter, and as I got opposite the place I could see a large painting on the wall, and I stopped to look at the painting.
And at her, too. She had unusually white skin, and straight dark hair that she wore shoulder length and with bangs, a classic, very appealing look. She almost immediately sensed me standing out there, and nervously, it seemed, shuffled through some papers on the counter before she looked up. She looked straight at me, stared, and then tilted her head a little as if she was trying to get a better look.
It was a look of curiosity, maybe, and it disarmed me, I was going to wave, but no, it was one of those situations, where anyone, especially a woman, alone, might have been startled, if not frightened, to see a stranger suddenly appear outside the big front window, staring at you, but I wanted to look at the painting, too, and the store looked to be open, so I went to the door and opened it. When I asked if she was open, my voice was nearly drowned out by the ringing of several strings of bells, and it all felt clumsy.
"Oh. Not really," she said. She had a slight smile on her lips, almost a Mona Lisa smile, an 'Is she or isn't she,' an "is a smile just now fading away or is one just beginning' kind of smile. "We don't do much retail business any more," she went on, "but when I'm up here in front working and someone stops by, I'm open," she said, and added, almost as an afterthought, "Come in."
I wasn't sure whether to take comfort from this, or from the smile. It might have been more a look of amusement, too. Some people are just amused by life. If she was amused by me I couldn't say.
I turned toward the painting. "Is that your work?"
"Oh. Yes," she said, not looking at the painting. "It's an earlier one but yes."
The painting was breathtaking. It was predominantly turquoise and a cobalt blue. I'm not normally attracted to cooler colors, but the turquoise and cobalt blue were actually applied over other paints, in a kind of wash technique, and underneath, the figures in the painting, were all darker.
I glanced over at her. Now that she knew, I suppose, why I was there, she had relaxed a little. When I had entered she came around and stood beside the counter, but had now moved back behind the counter, resting both hands on it. When I looked over at her, she looked down at the papers that were arranged on the counter, but the smile, or look of amusement, remained.
I continued studying the painting. The figures, underneath the cool, bright surface of the painting, I saw now, were not really black but were darker shades of blue and purples that were almost black. There were fish, and stars, and planets and a coral reef, and constellations of stars and schools of fish. Everything in the painting moved, swirled, rotating around an almost invisible center, layers further down, that was either somewhere in outer space or somewhere deep in the ocean.
"This is amazing," I said, sighing.
"Thanks," she said, and looked down.
"So, do you show your work in any galleries?"
"No... Well, I've done shows. Installations. Not for quite awhile. It's been kind of hectic. Well, since my husband died...running the business... getting the boys started in college."
"I'm sorry to hear about that, your husband" I said. I turned back to painting, with a rush of conflicting emotions swirling around in my mind. I felt sympathy for her, but my feelings weren't entirely sympathetic. It was that, but it was also desire, to be honest, desire coming from several directions, from knowing she was unattached, from her openness about things, and even, I think, from her vulnerability.
"Oh no," she said flatly. "It's been three years now. I'm past the bad parts but this business was his thing, yes, it was. He was the one who knew business, and had all the contacts and arranged the classes and brought in the business. A lot of it was wholesale, the school district and some art and craft stores downtown. He was good at business. There's not too many customers way out here, but some of the wholesale customers have been, have helped me keep going. But I don't know. This was his. Its was ours, but it was his, mainly."
"What about your art? Is there...."
"Oh... Yea, there's that," she said. "I've been painting again finally. But it takes time to get going, with that, to establish contacts, you know? I'm way out here in the valley now. I probably should just sell this place and move back to Chicago." She was staring at the middle of my chest now.
"Chicago?" I said, turning again to the painting. Nothing had put me in mind of Chicago.
She laughed, a short little laugh but a laugh, and then almost frowned before the somewhat smile returned. "My husband was from Trinidad. We spent a lot of time visiting his family down there." She finally looked up at the painting.
Sitting in the sleeper berth on my bunk now, with the laptop across my knees, I've been going over our conversation, trying to remember it and write it down and describe her paintings, trying to give a sense of who she was, but I don't know, and in my mind I've gone over the moment when she said her husband was from Trinidad, and the image came to mind of a handsome Black man, and of her very white skin, and of them dancing, sitting and holding hands, laughing, laughing with his Black family when they visited Trinidad. As I sit here, I wonder if she detected any reaction from me when I imagined her and a Black man as husband and wife.
I can't remember reacting, not outwardly, but I grew up in America, as a white person, in an America, that, despite a few steps in the right direction is still a racist country, and is a country built on white supremacy, where people, White people anyway, live with a high standard of living made possible by an economy based on the wealth, in land and resources, stolen from a Native population and developed in large part by slave labor, and maintained by exploitation of low wage labor here, with a huge unemployed pool of Black labor that keeps wages low, and with wealth extracted from those parts of the world inhabited by people with dark skin, with darker skin than mine.
And in the America I grew up in, from an early age there were the remarks, by aunts and uncles, and there were peers all the way through school who made remarks and told racist jokes, and then there were the times when I made remarks myself.
I had had the Liberal upbringing, with its patronizing attitude toward the less fortunate, the "minorities," and I grew up in the North. Blacks have a saying about that, a characterization of the differing attitudes White people have toward blacks, North and South, of what White folks think about Blacks that goes something like, 'In the South, we don't care how close you get, just don't get too big. In the North, we don't care how big you get, just don't get too close.'
And there is that inherent racism in identifying oneself by color. At one point in my childhood, I realized I was a person, and then at another point I realized I was not just a person, but a White person. Race is at the core of our identity, and the racism embedded deep inside me, hidden sometimes in dark chambers that have not been opened in years, pops up now and then, when a Black person offends me personally and it's not simply a person offending me but a Black person, and it pops up sometimes when I see a White woman with a Black man.
So I don't know if I reacted or not. Interracial couples have become so commonplace that it doesn't much affect me any more, but I had felt an attraction to her before I knew, before I imagined him, and she with him, and that made a difference. And it's only now that I think about it, about the little tearing feeling, just the tearing of a little piece of fabric, because we had gone on to talk about many things, and it is those I am left with, and with her curious little smile, and her paintings, because she showed me more of her work, and newer work.
There was a room in back, an addition on back of the old gas station, where she had been unwrapping some of them and had them propped up against a wall, and there were more hanging on the wall in a room further back that was her studio, where there were several rows of them leaning against the wall.
It was an amazing little trip, through those paintings. There were city scenes, downtowns and vacant lots, there were portraits,all very bright colors with darkness underneath, there were paintings that looked like collages painted onto the canvas, and some that were part drawing, that somehow became blue and red and green fields or buildings or people. She had an imagination, an amazing variety of ways of expressing herself but all somehow in keeping with her unique style. There was another painting that had the theme of the ocean and stars and sea creatures and the sun and schools of fishes and planets all overlapping somehow, and the was one of woman, surrounded by coils of razor wire, twirling in some mad dance of anger and resistance, trapped, but somehow free, too.
The thoughtful little smile almost never left her face, and if it did it was only when she frowned after I asked her a question about something in a painting, about what it might mean. The first time I asked she had frowned and said "That could be." The next time she frowned and subtly changed the subject, and after that I kept my questions to myself, and for awhile I felt what the woman surrounded by razor wire felt like.
"So what will you do?" I asked, when she let it be known, politely, through her body language and a long silence, that I would have to leave, and would not be invited back to the little brown house behind the old gas station that night.
"Oh, it just depends. I really like it here, and if I can figure out how to sell some of my work from here.... I really like it here."
"What about Chicago?"
"Oh, well..." She had talked about the Chicago years, a young, rebellious working girl living in a low income neighborhood, working in the glittering downtown, freedom in the big city. She had come from a small town out in the Midwestern prairie, a suffocating place to think about, she said. "The family... They were, they were... They were ministers and teachers, and..."
It's not often anymore that I encounter someone and don't know within a few minutes who, pretty much, they are. At least I think I do. I understand human nature, and the way I understand human nature, the only way we can understand human nature, is by understanding ourselves. I understand my nature. Most people live in their consciousness, floating far above their unconscious, which is where their actual self is located. They pass over that on a cloud of their own delusions. Their rationalizations, the various standard explanations we provide ourselves for the actions we take and the thoughts that we have. The "because I felt like it" explanations, the "because I loved him" explanations. The "it's for your own good" and the "I voted for him because he's the best man" explanations.
All of which have nothing to do with the mix of emotions, instincts, fears, prejudices, attractions, and forgotten memories that swirl around in our unconscious and are translated by our egos into something we can live with.
If we are lucky, and well adjusted, and normal, the ego finds a place to settle down, hovering over parts of the unconscious where pleasantness resides, and we feel that correspondence between conscious and unconscious, that peace of mind, we are contented. The ego even takes a break sometimes, when we're feeling nice, unbotherhed, unfearful, when most of the guards our ego usually has erected to protect us can come down.
After a certain point in my life, after a couple of things happened, my ego no longer stood in my way, no longer denied me access to the truth about why I do what I do and think what I think. It's a curse. I know myself, my motivations, and therefore I see people as they really are, see them for the selfish, self interested, fearful to the point of terror quivering blobs of protoplasm that they really are, and I see myself that way, too.
But I had not known her through my powers of perception or my understanding of human nature. While we were in her studio she had rummaged through a box and handed me a book. It was larger than a regular book, the size of a magazine or a coloring book, with a soft cover but printed on high quality, heavy, coated paper. It was reproductions of some of her paintings, one to a page, and on each facing page was a poem.
When I got back to the truck I began going through the book, looking at the paintings and stopping to read a poem here and there. The paintings are her glimpses into her inner self, and therefore, into yours, too. She's saying 'Look, look here. Look at this.' And, 'Look. This is you, too.' The poems are something else. They are pleas. They are another way of looking at what the paintings see. They are like the little girl who takes you by the hand and drags you off to look at some wonderful new discovery, or to show you the dead baby Robin she found laying behind a tree. Her poems are not innocent, but they speak in an innocent, almost naive, voice, and are without any bitterness at all. They are her requests, to please, look again, look this time with love and the reassurance that no matter what you see there, it's not the end. It's just what's there. It's her, saying, 'See, this is me, and I'm like you, too.'
I'm down in Carson now, on the north side of Long Beach, on the Southeast side of Los Angeles, waiting to pick up a load of conduit going east. It won't take me past Bakersfield, and I'm thankful for it, for not having to test myself. She was so attractive, in physical beauty but in spirit, in her soul, and I wanted to pursue her, wanted to have her, but I didn't ask for her number, her address. I didn't have the courage.
But then, at the end, she said, "How often do you come through here?" And in the same matter of fact way had said, "Stop by, when you can." She had said that, and I had begun thinking about the next time.
By the time I got down here to Carson I had changed my mind. I've had many relationships, many women, and most ended badly. Nearly all. I hurt them, they hurt me, rancor, and bitterness, the fighting. I don't keep in touch with any of them, in fact, I hardly see my family, and I don't have any close friends. Which is all OK by me because as I say, I see the sides of people they try to conceal, and conceal from themselves.
She's different. With her paintings and her poetry she has said to me, 'Here I am, look. Here it is.' And it is. I've been with her and never had an argument with her, she has never lied to me or smiled at another man behind my back or stopped doing the things she did when we first were together. She never stopped meeting me at the door, stopped calling when she was late, never cheated on me, and I've never cheated on her. I've never lied to her. Never hurt her. She's never hurt me.
This time, she'll remain as she was in the beginning, the way she is, with her little smile, her little 'Just about to never stop smiling' smile, perfect and beautiful. With her, it will be different. She has said, "Look, this is me, and it's you, and it's not too bad.'
And when I think about her, it's always pleasant, and as long as I'm thinking about her, things are OK, and I can think that it's not too bad, after all.