Friday, October 12, 2012

Combustible-Chapter 7- Century Lines

Century Lines

Part I

I've realized that I've brought Donny, quite a long way, on his journey, of reawakening without really relating who he is. And as I've tried to describe before; one can tell a lot about a man by looking at his shoes - but one can also tell much more about a man by looking into his home. It is there I take you now as he is continuing his walk past Bunker Hill - with a big goofy grin greeting all those he passes by. We still have a few moments before he turns the corner, labors up the hill, and then recites his mantra - "Red Door, Red Key...Grey Door, Grey Key"

It was bought by the Mackey's in the early 1989. It was a two story Georgian structure, red brick, black shutters, and a ubiquitous red door with brass knocker. It had been divided into four rental apartments, two on each floor and positioned to either side of the central stair case. It had been stripped of all character and painted rental home egg-shell white. Pictures were removed, cheap fixtures in the apartment kitchens and baths were installed, outlets were sloppily painted over in the landlord's haste to fill a vacancy. The multi level chimneys, at either end of the house, with stacked hearths along the outside walls, were capped off and gas heaters, the cheapest they could find, were installed, the richly colored, if not tattered and worn, window dressings were removed and given to a local charity or thrown in the garbage, and replaced by inexpensive plastic blinds. Chandeliers and sconces were replaced by two dollar light fixtures - those devoid of globes and operated by pull strings. Paint chips and cracks caused by the old house settling during winter freezes and spring thaws were not repaired, they were just plastered over and painted with a fresh coat of egg-shell white - and only the plaster was painted so that each apartment appeared to have zig-zagging stripes up and down the walls and across the ceilings. To enter the home, visitors, when visitors still used to come, walked up four broad steps to the landing, decorated, by Clara, according to the season from the day they moved in. Upon entering the door, the visitor, found himself in a small ante-room or foyer that was in varying degrees of renovation, depending on the time of the year. The house, beginning with this entrance that looked upon a wide stair case in the middle of the hall and slightly curving on its ascent to the second floor, had been stripped of its personality, its character, and its historicity. In this cloistered North Boston neighborhood, just blocks from the famous North Church, could have been, upon first look, any other two story apartment building conversion in any town. Clara changed that, room by room, hall by hall, project by project.

Clara was ill by this time and she didn't know that Donny knew it. In the renovation of this, their first owned home, she found energy, enthusiasm, and a modicum of health. Donny let her have free reign. He had started with a new research firm and once the paychecks started arriving, he gave Clara the severance settlement he had received to do what she wanted. And, lo, did she do just that.

The foyer was her first project - it being the most important as the first thing visitors would see. She sanded and primed the walls, stripped the moulding, sills, and door down to the original wood. She sanded the floor, almost single-handedly, with a second, or third hand, floor buffer equipped with a sanding pad. New paint, a sage green, eventually covered the walls, the trim re stained with a light stain allowing the grain of the cherry wood to shine through. The windows were scraped and cleaned, re glazed, the sills were stained like the rest of the trim and the floor refinished to a high gloss so that it looked as though it was covered in 3 inches of water. A large print of a stag, staring nobly across a valley, The Monarch of the Glen, was hung on one wall and a large mirror on the other. Under the stag, an umbrella holder and coat rack, both of cherry, stood to welcome them home, or wish a visitor well. Under the mirror, a long narrow table, also of cherry ran the length of the wall. Upon the table, a reed basket for storing keys, gloves, and other sundries, and a collection of boxes of assorted size and grain surrounding a large vase of painted pottery to hold Clara's regular purchases of cut flowers from a local market.

The room to the left, if one were standing in this foyer facing the staircase, had been gutted and renovated into a large kitchen and informal dining room. It now had new light fixtures in keeping with the early 19th century aesthetic. The fire places in what used to be two rooms, were uncapped, the gas fixtures removed, and put back into use. The wall separating the two rooms was removed to create a long hall with the kitchen along the back wall of the house - a modern kitchen - with a huge island in the center - a fire place to one side, a bar to the other, and then a huge bank of cabinetry and counter tops to the rear. The rest of the hall included a large dark grained dining room table, handed down from her parents when they passed on. Upon the table a modest linen table cloth. A large Turkish carpet, colors of cream, deep ruby red, and dark and light blues covered the floor and eight matching chair, with tan cushions surrounded the table. A large front window offered a view of the slightly sloping front lawn and the street. The fire places kept the massive hall warm in spite of its 10ft ceilings. The now smoothed and repainted walls were decorated with a series of paintings from an artist in Corinth Mississippi, and acquaintance made when the artist and Clara were filling an internship with a Catholic Mission in Ecuador. Positioned symmetrically in this "new" long hall now comprising the kitchen and dining rooms were prints and originals, in water color and oils, pencil sketches, charcoal and other media depicting the artists blossoming faith. The first, the right of the fireplace mantle, was a dark charcoal work in an equally dark, yet austere, coiled frame and grey matte. The scene is a large oaken table, the grain of the wood looks rough and gouged with age. A young woman, bearing a striking resemblance to the artist herself, is seated at the table, her head tilted slightly and resting upon her palm. One can almost feel the splinters from the table digging into her elbow. Behind her a great stone wall, drawn in intricate detail, a window opening out into a barren field.

The woman's hair is pulled back into a ponytail and she is reading a book which is laid open, without being held, on the table. And in that magnificent ability of art, one can almost read the words on the open pages at first glance. But a second look shows the artist's ability to make the viewer think there are actual words on the page. At any rate, there is no doubt, that the book she is reading is an open Bible. The two equally spaced columns divided by a vertical line on each page, the page numbers and chapter and verse headings give it away. This dark work was entitled "Time to Reconsider" and was one of Clara's favorites - she loved them all, but this one spoke to her, perhaps because she had bought it during her own spiritual re-awakening.

Equally spaced around the hall were others, to the right of "Time to Reconsider" was a much happier watercolor. A scene of six small blue and grey sailboats tied to a pier, some with mast and sail up some stowed away. Each was equipped with what looks like an oriental paper lantern at each stern. The contrast between the deep blues and shallow grays, the slightly accented ripples upon the water, that isn't really there, leads the viewer to believe in the existence of the smooth lake on a bright sunny day.

To it's right and now on the opposite wall from the first were two prints, again, equally spaced, both in colors of maroon and white contrasted in black. Both were in rosewood frames, tastefully turned. The first of these, untitled, was of what is believed to be the artists hand right hand, grasping an over sized black and silver, No. 8 paint brush which had been dipped in crimson. Though static in the painting, the artist was able to give it the slightest indication of moving forward as if to apply paint to the canvas, or perhaps moving back away after applying the pigment to the stark white background. In the center of the canvas was an outstretched hand, palm up. It was impossible to tell, if it were the hand of a man or a woman, certainly not a child's. The perspective supplied by the artist was such that the palm seemed to curve outward toward the viewer. In the center of the canvas and thus, in the center of this outstretched mystery palm was a large crimson wound. An obvious conclusion to make is that the artist herself had caused the wound. There is no indication of who was wounded. There was no title. There was no other identifying mark. But Clara thought she knew and Donny, would have to admit, that he shed a tear upon seeing the work for the first time. Donny actually convinced Clara to pay the asking price.

The companion to this untitled and powerful work was another untitled painting, dressed in maroon, white, and black. A small girl - the artist had 5 girls of her own - was seated on a floor that was not there upon a stark white canvas. She was drawn in crisp black outlines. Many times artists can achieve the most intricate details with very little by using the viewers imagination. This minimalist approach was effective in that one could "see" the girl was absolutely beautiful and absolutely innocent. She had a large book - again a recurring theme! - on her lap open. She was reading it. The heading at the top of the page read "Galatians 5:6".  The referenced text runs thus:

"For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love."

And again, when viewing this painting, one gets the impression that one can actually read the words off of the page, when a second look, shows otherwise.

A series of other works by this artist continued around the room. Some depicting Ecuadorians - the artist eventually become full time missionaries in Quito. Some were more fanciful. There was a charcoal work of a woman, seated in a window, playing a lute, an oil of women from differing cultures a departure from the charcoal and black and red contrasts of earlier works, this one was full of colors delicately but boldly used. There was a charcoal depiction of the inside of Noah's Ark, from the inside looking out through the door, presumably, after the floods had abated. Other smaller works filled wall space along the remainder of the hall until one arrived back to the fireplace mantle and the coup de grace of the entire experience. Just to the left of the mantle, painted on Egyptian reed papyrus was a depiction of the life of Christ as seen through the Old and New Testaments.  At each corner an angel, head bowed, and wings displayed in a posture of reverence, knelt as if in prayer, all turned in at a 45 degree angle towards the center - of which I will arrive to presently. Between each corner vertically and horizontally, between the bowing angels were painted scenes, made to look antique with the colors the artist chose, as if the scenes were lifted from middle eastern stone. The scenes were placed around the perimeter of the painting creating a scenic frame depicting the rebuilding of Jerusalem, Solomon's Temple, The Birth of Christ, His Baptism, and His Triumphal Entry seated on an ass. Within this border was a rich royal blue field, rectangular on the vertical. In corners of this field, in Greek, were

the four designations or symbols for the Christian God. The Alpha and Omega in the upper left. The Anchor/Cross in the top right. Then on the bottom right, the traditional Christian Cross and finally on the bottom left the Icthus - the fish - standing upright.

The center of this painting, within the scenic border, upon the blue field, nestled in an around the four symbols was the image of a very middle eastern looking young woman her dark black hair and olive skin enshrouded in a tan and brown cloak. Her head was cocked to her right shoulder and in her arms she was cuddling a small infant. The scene is tender and powerful, modern and historical, peaceful and shocking - to North American sensibilities. It is called The Unknown God an obvious reference to the Apostle Paul's sermon on Mars Hill as described in Acts 17:23 and possibly a more subtle reference to other words Christ had used about how even though we've been told over and again - we humans would not believe him if God came down himself. The painting had a history of its own. A local church in Corinth Mississippi decided to get into the art game, ostensibly to help attract new members. They committed to display, and sell when they could, art made by local artists. The artist of The Unknown God submitted this painting to the church leadership. They denied her request,  stating, "If that's Mary - she looks too middle eastern. It would offend some of our members."

Upon hearing the story, Clara paid the price for this original work. It was the crown jewel of the main hall.

As we continue through the bottom floor of the house, we now move into the utility area adjoining the kitchen through a communicating swinging door. This area, though out of sight to most visitors, was also tastefully done in the blue and yellow of French Provincial, and housed a utility room and renovated bath in two smaller rooms separated by a thin wall that Donny and Clara built on their own one weekend. In the utility closet were the washer and dryer and a small pantry with hooks hanging down supporting wire baskets of potatoes, onions, beets, winter squash, and garlic.

We now move upstairs where an additional bath was installed, a larger one communicating directly with the master bedroom in the south east corner of the home. There was another room adjacent to the bath but there was no door between. One had to leave this spare bedroom and walk into the master bedroom to access it. "Not ideal", Clara had said to herself, "but one works with what one has." She really talked that way. The other two rooms were another spare bedroom decorated in blues and greens and a larger family room with the television set and the sofa on which Donny had watched the Miracle on Markham last weekend.

I've saved the best for last. And, much shortened the description of the rest of the house, because we are just now getting to the room that provides a glimpse into the soul of our hero. Leave the family room, turn off the TV and the lights, we're not going to be in there for a while, walk with me down the staircase to the entrance of this magnificent home. Facing the door, now, turn left ninety degrees. There is a door, kept closed, open it and walk in. This is Donny's study. This room is a part of Donny. This is where he napped, where he read, where he wrote, where he sat and thought and stared up and the ceiling. This is where he smoked, when he used to smoke, this is where he dreamed, this is where he hid, this is where he exorcised his demons, wrung out his periodic depressions. This is where he talked to Clara now that she was gone. This is where he mourned her death. This is where he relaxed. This is where he was home.

The room was darkened - dimly lit- to be precise. The walls were painted a deep red. A darkly stained wainscoting surrounded the room, its circumference punctuated by book cases along the eastern wall, windows in front, leather chairs, the door, more book cases.  A large desk sat in the center facing a small leather divan, both resting on thick deep red carpet. The desk was extraordinarily organized, unlike his office downtown, he protected this room as a priest protects a sanctuary. Everything reverentially in its place. A large heavy blotter pad sat centered on the highly polished surface. A phone, land-line, to the right, a banker's lamp, one of the few light sources in the room, was centered along the front edge of the desk. A small cup, fashioned out of a piece of cedar, hollowed out and darkly varnished held an assortment of Cross pens and mechanical pencils. In the center drawer, a small stack of notepads to the left and the right, held in place refills for the pens and pencils, paper clips, staples, and other office supplies. The only other light in the room, other than the natural light from the front window, when the blinds were opened, was a floor lamp, brushed bronze with a red shade marked the point in the northwest corner of the room where the book cases started. Short one, tall ones, long ones zig-zagged up and down like the Boston skyline all the way around the room. Along the eastern wall sandwiched in by the book cases to either side was the last fireplace to be described in the house. The mantle was of an ornate work carved out of a dark heavy wood. Clara always thought it was mahogany. The deep colors represented in the grain of this dense wood, ranging from red to brown to purple and black depending on the light, made her think it so. It had been hand carved, it appeared, with ornate leaf work around the top edge, punctuated by two cherubim at opposite corners along the front edge, both kneeling reverently, wings stretched forward in submission, covering their unseen faces. Above the mantle hung a poster Clara had bought for him framed in a black plastic poster frame. It was bright red with large white letters. At the top of the poster was a representation of the crown jewels, also in white. The text read "Keep Calm and Carry On". This poster was the only frivolity inhabiting Donny's study. Everything else was serious, comfortable, but serious. Serious books lined serious book shelves. Serious furniture was scattered across the serious floor. Even the lighting was serious - mysterious really. Who doesn't feel a certain sense of gravity fall upon them when entering an orderly, ancient looking, darkened room? Donny felt a sense of comfort in this darkened hideaway. One might say it was his attempt to return to the comfort of his mother's womb. Clara had free reign in redecorating their home and she did a masterful job. It was bright, crisp, and comfortable to a degree. The study was Donny's and she followed his lead in this room. And while she could never bring herself to completely shut down - sitting and doing nothing was a physical impossibility for her - she understood that inactivity was one of Donny's particular talents. Donny could sit in this room, depending on the day or the stresses of the day, and work feverishly or sit and stare and do and think absolutely nothing.

It is now time to rejoin our hero on his hurried walk back to his home, his study. He left his office as we have seen deciding to forego his stop at the coffee shop. He had been walking for 30 minutes or so when he realized that instead of turning right on Boyston Street for HayMarket and then the 3 mile walk across the Charlestown Bridge home, he had turned left onto Hemenway past the Boston Fens and Fenway Park complex and veered to the right on Huntington Avenue. When he awoke from this excited daze he was in he was standing in front of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He remembered Clara's obsession with "What, Whence, Whither", Gauguin's philosophical work that always brought her to tears. They had made good use of their annual membership to the museum and perhaps Donny's arrival at this spot could best be described like this.

Analytical minds function best when strict compartments are constructed in their brains. This helps them cope with stresses, traumas, boredom, all ranges of emotions. Even epochs in the lives of these analysts are compartmentalized and assigned value based on the pleasantries, dullnesses, or traumas associated with those periods in time. For Donny, perhaps, the walk through downtown Boston with Clara, a walk they made together many times over the years, had been labelled "Pleasant", stored in the Clara compartment and the stowed away after she had died. Donny then entered a new period of his life that was, in its turn, compartmentalized, labelled and stowed - maybe "Depression" or "Sadness" is the label he placed on this current box or file drawer he was now living in. Perhaps, just perhaps, when he awoke in his office just a little over half an hour ago, he had unconsciously closed the Depression Box, stowed it under his emotional bed, and pulled out the Clara Pleasant box for nostalgia's sake and immediately reverted to the habit of turning left on Hemenway, with Clara on his arm, walking through Fenway Park to the Museum. At any rate, here he was. His annual membership expired. There was nothing for it but to turn around and now walk in the right direction the four miles home.

What awaited him there is yet to be seen. We do know, that Ms. Davis had just arrived, as Donny was realizing his directional snafu, and was preparing a small dinner for him. He changed his mind when he reached Haymarket -Finally! and ordered a iced Americano complete with dysfunctional straw to help him get home.

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