By Mary Zelinka
When I look at the watercolor that for over 40 years has lived every place I have, I don’t necessarily see greenish-brown fields, a line of scraggly trees, overlapping mountains in shades of blue and grey – the same scene I witness nearly every day. I see the apprehension and exhilaration of starting a new life in Oregon.
After James, the artist, cooked me dinner (cheap chow yuk – which was basically the same thing my mother had called grocery store special), he wrote Fall light, afternoon / Coast hills from Willamette Valley / October ’81 in pencil on the painting’s back and sent it home with me.
That may have been the last time I saw him. I had known him barely two years.
Gabrielle said if it was a cold rainy day, you could warm your hands over James. That he was like a crackling fireplace. I thought he was more of a wood stove, the kind you would imagine in a farmhouse kitchen.
Say you met James for a sack lunch in his office at the college and you mention how you wake up in a cold sweat every single night and can’t get back to sleep because your heart pounds so hard and you’re afraid but you don’t know why and you’re just so damn sad all the time. He listens until you run out of words. Then you take a walk together, a short walk because you have to get back to work and he has a class to teach. Before you leave, he says, “I have a book I think you might find interesting,” and pulls from his jumbled desk drawer a ratty old copy of some weird mythology book. As you take it, you think, I will never read this. But you do read it that night because he suggested it. And all the while you read, you are thinking I have no idea what this is even about. When you finally finish in the first light of the morning, you realize this book, which you still don’t understand or remember much of even though you just read it, has everything to do with what you talked about the afternoon before and everything you didn’t because you don’t have enough words for it yet.
There were five of us: James, Gabrielle who was a sculptor, Joan an artists’ model, Gin a graphic artist. I was the only “ordinary” person. Gin and I met when I moved to Oregon after I left my husband and she introduced me to the others. Gabrielle said I had the heart of an artist which made me feel special even though I didn’t know what that meant exactly.
James, quite a bit older than any of us, taught art history and watercolor at the college. When he wasn’t teaching, he was off in his beat-up VW bus loaded down with paints and brushes and canvasses and easels and bee sting kit to plein-air paint. He exhibited his work at a number of galleries.
None of us were in love with him, and he wasn’t in love with any of us. (Although now I think we had all been a little infatuated with Gabrielle.) I did make love with James once, a few months after I met him. I would have again – it had been such a nice way to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon. It just never seemed as pressing as checking out a new art exhibit, discussing a book, collecting leaves, hunting for oddly-shaped pinecones, or throwing rocks in the river rushing under the bridge.
Gabrielle said when James’s teenage son, his only child, had been killed in an automobile accident, James, a devout Catholic, turned his back on God. He left his wife of over twenty years, though he didn’t divorce.
I knew lots of people who didn’t believe in God, but turning your back on God was a whole other thing. It meant you had a deep personal relationship that you were now rejecting. It was Biblical. Absolute. I believed in God, but had never expected much, so when I was left on my own to deal with my husband’s cruelty, I didn’t feel forsaken.
After James turned his back on God, he moved into a two-room basement apartment, shared bathroom down the hall, in a run-down blue three-story building in the run-down section of town. He had been living there for seven years when I met him.
Whenever James sold a painting, which was often, he seemed ashamed – like he didn’t deserve it.
Frequently when I came out to my van after work, I would find one of James’s cartoons taped to my side mirror. A man with crazy hair waving his hand saying, “Howdy!” A man covering his ears shouting, “Turn down that Janis Joplin, Lady!” Or an invitation: “Walk after work?”
Once James said my voice went deeper when I talked about something close to the bone. I had just started alluding to my ex-husband’s violence. Though a few more years would pass before I spoke about it outright.
James said his real art was his poetry. Whenever he read his work to me, his voice went deeper.
Gabrielle discovered our favorite picnic place – an old cemetery on top of a hill in rural Linn County. Weeds covered the graves. Wind stirred the pines. Birds, caterpillars. Our blanket spread in the midst of the tombstones. We liked Dead Mary’s best: tall and narrow, a hand with the index finger pointed skyward beneath the words, “Gone Home.” Wife of Uriah Blanchet – died August 20, 1884. Age 31. My age, my name. Not even “beloved wife.” Just wife. Property.
We stabbed James’s pocketknife into blocks of cheese. Tore off hunks of baguette. Drank wine. Smoked pot. Watched fuzzy caterpillars inch over our fingers. Asked: What is art? Is it still art if no one other than the artist ever sees it? Debated quotes like Marilyn French’s from The Women’s Room: “Our important decisions are made instantly, and all the talk is simply later rationalization.”
Once I fell asleep on top of Dead Mary and when I woke up, my friends had covered me with flowers.
The dominant color in all James’s paintings was grey. Like he was sinking into the same abyss I was clawing my way out of.
Now I can see that he must have been trying to make sense of a world without God. After all the violence of my marriage I was searching for something I could depend on and trust – which may have been the same thing as the God James turned his back on.
Not long before the night James and I ate Cheap Chow Yuk together and he gave me my watercolor, Gabrielle moved to an artists’ community in Santa Fe. She bequeathed her hilltop cemetery to me. Gin had joined Corporate America, designing packaging or something for a software company. Joan left for Portland. I had already begun advocacy work with domestic violence survivors.
It’s possible that when our little group scattered, James decided it was time for him to move on too. Or maybe he would have anyway, and we had nothing to do with his leaving. Gin was the one who told me. He had left the college and his two-room basement apartment. I was never able to learn where he went.
Recently, I took James’s painting to Allen’s Frame Shop downtown to get reframed. Allen tenderly removed the painting and left it on the counter while he went to the back room for his mat color samples.
Alone with the painting, now naked and vulnerable without its frame, I noticed for the first time the faint pencil line outlining the coastal range.
For a moment I forgot to breathe.
I hadn’t been much more than a pencil line myself when I met James, I realized. My ex-husband’s violence had erased me somehow. I had been filling myself back in, not unlike the way James created landscapes with watercolors. Maybe he recognized something in me the way he saw a painting in a blank canvas.
And I wondered how it was that someone who had given up on hope had helped me resurrect my own.
* * *
Mary Zelinka lives in Albany, Oregon and has worked at the Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence for over thirty years. Her writing has appeared in The Sun Magazine, Brevity, Eclectica, Memoir Magazine and others.