Chapter One of
Open Your Eyes, Jackson Ryder
by Rudy Castañeda López
I’ve looked at that faded print on my hospital wall for days now. In and out of consciousness, twisted blue and black trees reach desperately for the last rays of life. Branches, thin and bare as the fingers of starving children, beg for light. The distant sun reaches to them too, heavy, sprawling, like a father’s blind bear hug, like an abrazo.
I know the original painting well. It’s bright and intense and strange in its joyful sadness. This one is bruised and paper pallid but it still packs a punch.
It’s a van Gogh, Pollard Willows at Sunset, from 1888, and I knew it long before I was stuck between these four beige walls. I’m looking at it now and my head is clearing.
Van Gogh has a lot to answer for. I mean, really, he screwed us over big-time. If it weren’t for him, people’s ideas of how an artist is supposed to be would be totally different.
Because of Van Gogh everybody expects artists to be poor and more than a bit wacky. They expect them to be assholes to women, or men, in the cases of Francis Bacon and Caravaggio. They expect them to overindulge in all manner of substances: absinthe for the Impressionists, heroin for Jean-Michel Basquiat, and alcohol for everybody else including my namesake, the incomparable Jackson Pollock.
I ask you, if Van Gogh hadn’t cut off his ear, would he be the name he is today? I’m not trying to take anything from the guy. Believe me, I admire his work immensely. But can you think of a better PR stunt?
Everyone wants a big, dramatic story – some passion play to wrap around the work, like it isn’t valuable enough by itself. The reality is most artists trudge along, doing their day jobs, paying bills and simply working. You wouldn’t recognize the majority of artists if you passed them on the street. They’re just like you. The one thing they have in common is a flame that caught light in them sometime in the past, maybe even in the womb. For most it dies or is blown out. All kinds of crap can get in the way. It’s a fragile, tenuous thing. You never know which way it’s going to go.
I was raised in New York City, in Greenwich Village, not long after the war, near where realist painter Edward Hopper lived. My mother – Mutti to me pointed him out to me one spring morning as we were feeding pigeons in Washington Square. To me he looked like any other old man with his gaunt frame, praying mantis-like gait, and when he took off his brown fedora, that polished dome, like the Capital building in Washington DC.
Mutti was crazy about art and artists. Soon after we saw Hopper she took me to the Museum of Modern Art and pointed out his paintings. The one that stood out for me was a painting called New York Movie. I loved movies; everything about them – the stories and actors, sure, but even just going to the theatre: popcorn, the smell of rancid butter and cigarette smoke, being in the dark with a bunch of strangers – all seeing the same things at the same time. At the end you shared something. It was, I don’t know, comforting and exciting at the same time.
‘What do you think liebchen?’ she asked me – like she always did – before saying anything about the artwork itself.
I shrugged my shoulders. ‘I don’t know.’
She bit her lip. ‘What does it make you feel?’
The painting was set in a movie theatre but you could only see part of the screen. To the right there was an usherette in a blue uniform leaning against the wall. Her hand was on her cheek. She’s not even looking at the screen. Basically everything I knew and loved about going to the movies was missing from this painting. ‘She looks sad, lonely.’
‘Ja, that is true. It is not a pleasant painting but that is part of living too, is it not?’
‘I guess, but, I’d rather see happy things – you know, like cartoons.’
‘Ja, ja, cartoons are good – fun – but would you want to eat ice cream and nothing else all day?’ I grinned at the idea. ‘Perhaps that was not such a good example.’ She came down low and put her forehead to mine. I laughed, she giggled. She said, ‘Hopper shows us things about being human we wish to keep hidden, secret. It isn’t fashionable but he will always open people’s eyes.’
I looked closer. What was so important that the usherette was ignoring the movie? What’s going on with her? Why in the hell did Hopper paint it? I thought about that painting a lot. I still do.
The walls of our brownstone were covered in paintings, drawings and prints. New stuff popped up all the time. Tate – it rhymes with satay – is what I called my father. It’s Yiddish. Tate and Mutti would drag me to galleries, artist’s studios and neighbourhood markets on the weekends. They argued and laughed. I looked and ate doughnuts. One muggy summer morning I was playing in the lounge with my Lincoln Logs. My parents were in their bedroom, across the hallway, talking. Tate was in his undershirt and Mutti was in her slip.
‘But meine Liebe, how in the hell are we going to pay for this?’ Tate said in a strained voice. He was holding a small painting of an American flag.
Mutti drew lightly on her cigarette and tilted her head back. ‘It is an important change for Jasper Johns. I think we must have it.’
‘But, darling, I’m already driving double shifts as it is,’ he pleaded. Then he noticed me. He stopped talking, got off the bed, came over to the doorway, smiled and closed the door softly. I heard their voices, muffled behind the heavy door, rise and fall over and over. I kept building my log cabin but a piece was missing from the roof and I couldn’t finish it. I was going back to my room to look for the piece when the bedroom door was flung open. Tate stomped out, the buttons on his shirt not done up properly. He didn’t see me. He rushed for the front door and slammed it behind him. Mutti was still sitting on the bed in her slip, looking – for all the world – like a woman in a Edward Hopper painting: holding her cigarette between her thumb and forefinger the way I’d seen Conrad Veidt do in an old 1930s movie. She turned to me dreamily and raised one eyebrow. Her mouth turned down at the corners. ‘I think we need some apple strudel and ice cream, no?’
That winter I helped her to fill an album with photos from a shoe box under her bed. It started with a black and white shot of her and Tate – so young – in front of some church with onion domes. He’s in uniform and looks a lot like Tyrone Power – all dark eye lashes and a pencil-thin moustache. Her hair is lighter, almost white, and she’s holding a bunch of flowers. ‘Was this when you got married, Mutti?’
She glanced at the photo. ‘Nein, we had a wedding in front of a judge. That was at the Frauenkirche in Munich; the city where I was born.’ She puffed on her cigarette and ran her finger down the side of the photo. ‘If we had married in a church, that is the one I would have liked it to have been in.’
There was a photo of some guy and Tate sitting in a jeep pulling goofy faces. There was a picture of Mutti pregnant in a loose smock at a potter’s wheel and one of me, with a face like a withered plum, in Tate’s arms. One photo – my favourite – was a very small shot of Mutti in front of Niagara Falls. When I was a kid I saw the movie Niagara and I thought Marilyn Monroe was Mutti. A few photos, mostly landscapes of wooded mountains, she put back in the box. I picked up one of the discarded shots. It was of a teenage girl, obviously Mutti, with a white-haired man and a plump woman. She was in a flowered dress and he was in a German officer’s uniform.
She took the photo from me and put it back in the box. ‘That is from a long time ago, a different life; it is not going in the album. Do you understand?’
I didn’t, but I didn’t say anything.
Mutti used to bring home meat from the butcher wrapped in brown paper. I would steal the wrinkled waste paper, with its rusty brown and pink stains of blood, and draw things from the shapes of the stains: werewolves, Victorian gentlemen, pirates, Bugs Bunny. Mutti saw my butcher paper drawings and sat down next to me. She fingered the surface and said, ‘You know, Jacksonlein, this is like something Leonardo da Vinci said. He told artists to look at certain walls stained with damp, or at stones of uneven color. He said, “If you add some little lines you will be able to see in these the likeness of divine things.”’
The next day she brought home a whole roll of new, clean butcher’s paper. She was so excited, but I didn’t know what the hell to do with it. The paper had no personality, nothing to stir my imagination. The roll of paper sat in the dark of my closet for many years.
Mutti also bought me art books, mostly used but sometimes new ones. She insisted I treat every book like it was the Bible. I wasn’t allowed to put them on the ground, write in them or fold the corners of the pages. I had to have clean hands before I touched them –almost impossible at the best of times – but I tried. She gave me books on the Renaissance, the Impressionists, classical Greek and Roman art, African tribal art, medieval German church art and the Fauves. I liked Matisse instantly. I could see that he really liked to play. In his painting of dancers the figures moved light and free from care. It didn’t matter that the colours were unnatural and the anatomy was all off. It was totally about the feeling. I dug Miró and Dubuffet for the same reason. I copied from art books but also from comics. Batman, Captain America, and Thor were my favourites. I copied from magazine photos and things I saw around me, like my dad watching The Honeymooners on TV.
In my last year in New York I had more than a bit of interest in a girl named Desiree Rêveuse. She had the unnerving habit of staring with the most liquid, bright, amber brown eyes. It hurt to look at them. I got the impression that somehow she could see more; she could see into my soul and judge me wanting. She didn’t smile, didn’t say, ‘Boo’. She just stood there and looked at me. I was captured by her eyes. I hardly saw the rest of her. Later, I noticed that her skin was tanned a wonderful creamy gold and her black hair was curly – not Larry Fine of the Three Stooges crinkly – but a fine tight curl that bunched up on her head like foam on a wave.
On the first day of class, in the cloakroom, she had a tin lunchbox with Elvis Presley embossed on the front. I looked down at the box and saw an opportunity to talk to her. ‘So, you like Elvis?’ I asked her through a trembling larynx. She didn’t answer and when I finally dared to look into the face of that ethereal being she was smiling, but it wasn’t a friendly smile. How could I have been so stupid? Of course she liked Elvis. Why else would she have his smirking, pudgy mug plastered on her lunchbox?
I got up that Sunday, found a photo of Elvis in one of Mutti’s LIFE Magazines and decided to copy it. My plan was to give the drawing to Desiree and dazzle her with my skill and artistic power. I worked on it for hours and finally when it felt done I took a good look.
Well, I could tell it was human, but that was about all.
I got another piece of paper and tried again. This time it went faster and at the end it sort of looked like Dick Nixon puckering his lips, with one of my mother’s strudels placed firmly on his head. I was ready to give up, but I didn’t. The next one actually looked like the bastard – granted he looked worried or constipated – but it was him. When Tate saw it that evening he sang, ‘You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.’ and punched me lightly on the shoulder. I grinned but none of it meant anything compared to what I hoped would be sweet Desiree’s reaction.
But then everything in my body rebelled. I’d look in the mirror every morning and it just got worse. My nose and Adam’s apple started to swell, small volcanoes erupted all over my face and the downy hairs above my lip, and in front of my ears, started to show up in photographs. My copper hair, which had been straight all my life, started to spiral out in tight coils. My hands and feet looked like they had been stung by a dozen bees. I stunk and my voice refused to obey my commands. I couldn’t walk without tripping or reach out for a glass without dropping it. I was locked in someone else’s joke.
I hesitated to give Desiree the sketch and in the end it never happened. Her father pulled her out of school in early fall and spirited her off to Martinique, his home island in the Caribbean, with no explanation and little warning. I never heard from her again.
I had never lost anyone before. I didn’t think I could be in such agony again. So, with leaves falling all around and the biting wind coming out of Canada, what kept me awake at night were sad fantasies of what it could have been like to be married to Desiree, what our kids might have looked like and what it might have felt like to hug her and rub my hands all over her body continuously. I whispered her name over and over in the dark, ‘Desiree, Desiree, Desire, Desire.’ I was in rigid, torturous ecstasy like a pubescent version of Bernini’s St.Teresa.
But lost love, pubes, wet dreams and raging anger all took a back seat when it was just me, the pencil and the paper. All of the awkward, painful things were soothed by my ability to make a world where I was completely in control.
I drew a lot that year. I drew so much that the second finger on my left hand grew a callus next to the fingernail, where the pencil pressed against the skin. Time stopped, the noise of the city disappeared, and I wasn’t hungry, thirsty, sad or alone. It always felt like I was floating in a painting by Chagall.
By the second year of middle school, my folks let me take the subway by myself. One Saturday, in the Fall, the movie El Cid was playing at Radio City Music Hall starring my favourite actor, Charlton Heston.
‘Please Mutti, I need fifty cents.’ I pleaded, ‘I’ll do extra chores. I promise I won’t be late.’
‘What am I going to do with you, Jacksonlein? Your father never sees you anymore.’ Her eyes got big. ‘I hardly see you.
‘I can’t help it if he’s never around. Most of the time he doesn’t seem to be here, even when he is.’
‘Don’t be like that. You know how he works.’
‘Well, answer me this: is he going to be here today?’
‘He is at work until mid-day and then he is going to the jazz festival at the Bluetone Club.’
‘See? That figures.’ I held out my hand, palm up.
She stared at me without moving. ‘I was hoping you would come look at some drawings at the Allan Stone Gallery with me.’
I breathed out audibly and rolled my eyes. ‘Who is it?’
‘A young German woman, named Eva Hesse.’
‘But I’ve been looking forward to this movie all week.’
‘She is Jewish too. German and Jewish, like you.’
‘I’m an American.’
She appraised me calmly. Finally, the corners of her mouth curled up slightly.
‘Ja, ja, of course you are.’ She looked at her purse then turned back to me. ‘Come with me today and I will take you to the movies tomorrow. Maybe your father will come too.’
‘Mutti,’ my voice was a pitch higher now, ‘I’m going to meet some guys from school. It’s really important. I’m going to die if I don’t go. Just give me the money, pleeease,’ I squeezed out.
She went to the kitchen counter and picked up her purse, ‘Maybe we see Eva Hesse next week. Be home one half hour before dinnertime, ja?’ As I raced out the door, she called out, ‘Enjoy yourself but eyes open, liebchen.’
I waved without looking back.
The movie was spectacular – lots of sword fighting and Sophia Loren looking impossibly anguished with her big, pouty lips. It was more than three hours long and the last scene of the movie really got me. Poor old El Cid is stone dead, but they strap him into his saddle so he can lead his troops to victory. After they win, the horse tears along the seashore. The Spaniards are so damn happy that nobody bothers to catch the horse. Imagine – it’s the year 1099 and you’re sitting there on the Costa del Sol, making a sand castle, or some shit, not even aware there’s a battle going on up the coast, and along comes this dead guy on a prancing Andalusian stallion.
I got home later than I’d promised and I was worried, but I had my story all worked out to a tee. Mutti’s best friend, Helen, answered the door. She was wearing her usual beret, black sweater and a tight skirt. She liked to pepper her language with things like ‘in the groove’, ‘dig’, ‘hip’ and ‘solid’ – terms borrowed from the jazz musicians of the ’20s and ’30s. I guess she was a beatnik. I didn’t give it much thought because it was the Village and everybody talked like that.
‘Hi, Helen.’ I could see people in the living room and kitchen. ‘Is there a party?’
This was getting better by the second. Then I noticed her eyes were bloodshot and her mascara was smeared.
‘Honey, come upstairs.’
‘What’s going on?’
She took me to my room and closed the door. She sat in my desk chair and faced me, hunching forward with her hands clasped in front of her, ‘I have some…’ She started to cry.
‘Oh, honey.’ She came over and hugged me. ‘Your mother, baby, she’s gone.’