Paintings in the Rafters
by Dorothy Rice
Dad had given us labels when we were young—the funny one, the pretty one, and the smart one. We never really outgrew those labels, regardless of the changes life brought and all the other things we became.
My older sister, Roxanne, was the funny one, the ham. I thought she would grow up to be a stand-up comic, like the ones on the Ed Sullivan show. She was the class cut-up, pooping erasers out of her closed fist on the desk at school and telling endless knock-knock jokes. Juliet, the baby and Dad’s acknowledged favorite, was the pretty one, with her violet eyes and long, dark hair. She still is the prettiest, somehow defined by her beauty and the sadness it has sometimes brought. I was the middle child, the smart one, which I always presumed meant I was neither funny nor pretty, so of course, those were the things I most wanted to be.
I once overheard Dad say to Mother, “Dorothy has a mind like a steel trap. Not much makes it past her.” I knew from the way he said it, snide, with that mean-spirited chuckle of his, that it wasn’t a good thing. I was ashamed of my steel-trap mind. I have a knack for remembering things people wish I would and noticing things they prefer I wouldn’t. I imagined the clanking saw-toothed mouth of an excavator, the jagged metal teeth snapping shut.
Dad’s living room furnished with a leather couch, a crowded bookcase, end tables, and a massive coffee table fashioned from a carved wood door. The faded walls were covered with Dad’s paintings, dozens of them floor to ceiling–portraits of strangers, hard-edge geometric paintings on shaped frames he had built to fit his angular designs, and blurry, impressionistic landscapes. A seven foot tall, naked. purple knight hung by the front door. He had presided at the top of the stairs, just outside my bedroom door, when I was a girl. Back then, the purple knight, my guard and dungeon master, had inspired a tingling fear in my adolescent bones.
I once asked Dad if there was a head or face under the knight’s helmet or if he had painted the helmet on top of a bloody stump. He laughed until his eyes, filled with tears then offered a more plausible explanation. “Faces are hard to paint,” he said. “Faces and hands. Very difficult.”
My mother had a different theory. She always insisted that the faceless people, as well as dangling telephone receivers and disconnected pipes were manifestations of his general alienation and isolation and his more particular animosity towards women. These were generally hushed, whispered side-comments, not for my father’s ears, or things she said to us girls after the divorce.
Opposite the couch was the one I had dubbed the Aztec Pyramid. It was a bold geometric piece, in magenta, red and yellow, black and white. The canvas stuck out a foot or more from the wall. It had tiers, like a pyramid with an intricate ruler-straight maze that grew increasingly complex as it rose from its six-foot square base to the topmost, smallest tier. There was a period in the seventies when all his paintings were like this, hard edged geometric shapes in bright, contrasting colors, no people, places, or things, only squares, triangles, rectangles, and the like, some with optical illusions created by the juxtaposition of color and shape. According to my mother, this phase, when Dad turned away from anything figurative, was a further reflection of his withdrawal from life. I mentioned this to him once, fishing like I so often did, hoping he would confirm, clarify, or deny. He only harrumphed and said, “That sounds like something your mother would say.” Oddly, the Aztec Pyramid is now mother’s favorite and the one painting she specifically requested when he died.
* * *
For years, the paintings in the garage teased us like unopened gifts, those unknown canvasses wrapped neatly in brown butcher paper, sealed with yellowed masking tape, and stacked high in the rafters. We would glance up at them with furtive curiosity when we took out the garbage or put discarded newspapers in the recycle bin. I tried to peek at them. peeling back a corner of crinkly paper and those glimpses of vermilion, of pink, of a disembodied naked limb, only whetted my appetite.
We hadn’t dared ask about the rafters, not with our stepmother in the house. Yet we longed to see them, hoping to find more of our father in them, and on the drive home we would speculate. Which ones were they? It had been years since she let us have anything. No more parting with a lesser painting or a small clay frog at Christmas or our birthdays. Increasingly, she coveted Dad’s art and so did we. “He gave them all to me. They are all mine,” she said. bugging out her glassy blue eyes, like a greedy two-year-old. And he didn’t contradict her but only hunched his bony shoulders and stared ,sheepishly at his hands with their knobby misshapen knuckles and thick, yellowed fingernails.
None of it had any monetary value. In fact, he bragged that he’d never shown his work publicly, not after two paintings, an impressionistic view of the bay and a portrait of a young woman, were stolen from a student exhibit at the San Francisco Art Institute back in the early sixties. It seemed almost a point of pride back in the early sixties. It seemed almost a point of pride not to share. “Those were good ones,” he had said. “I miss them.”
* * *
After he suffered a bad stroke on his 80th birthday, Dad stopped painting. That day, as we celebrated the milestone, he slumped over, unconscious, at the fancy Italian restaurant in Sonoma. His face landed with a dull thud on the white porcelain plate. After that he was in and out of the hospital and nursing homes. “Don’t ever grow old,” he said, with a thin, wry smile from his hospital bed, “not if you can avoid it. It’s not a very pleasant experience.” I visited him in the hospital after the first stroke and the ones that followed. Talking to him had never come easy for me, his least favorite daughter—the one with a mind like a steel trap. I had come to realize that he was as uncomfortable with me as I was with him.
But he was sick, captive in a hospital bed, it was different somehow. And it was then that I began to talk to about his art, a monologue at first, as I reminded him of the paintings my sisters and I had acquired over the years. And after a while he stopped looking behind me for Juliet, for Roxanne. He stopped anxiously asking, “You didn’t come by yourself, did you?”
The first time I talked to him about the green self-portrait, I said, “It’s over the mantle at my house.” His eyes lit up. “That old thing. I haven’t seen it in over forty years. Oh, how your Mama hated that painting. I had to keep it in the basement. I was afraid she would toss it in the garbage.” He had laughed wryly, remembering, and that’s when I knew I was on to something, that we’d found common ground, something we both cared about. And once I had started the conversation, Dad began to ask about other paintings with fond, hopeful curiosity, the way another man might have asked about the children and grandchildren they hadn’t seen in a while. And, unlike my sisters, I knew exactly where they all were because that’s how my mind works, cataloging and storing things I could tell him about them, every last one, even those he himself had forgotten.
What he had said about Mother hating the one we called The Green Man was true. That was why he let me have it when I went away to college. No one else wanted it. In that painting, Dad’s skin is waxy green, the color of children’s modeling clay, his face stern and beady-eyed. When we were kids, we believed that he really did turn green because his skin was very sallow, with a cast that seemed to intensify when he was mad.
Mother, her face pinched and serious, would put a finger to her lips and say, “You mustn’t make a sound. Don’t disturb your father.” We obeyed. For though he rarely raised his voice and he never hit us, Dad ruled the house with his tight jaw, his thin lips, and the pallor of his skin, which, we were convinced, changed like a chameleon’s. I wonder now which came first, the green self-portrait or our firm belief as children, whispered to one another as we peered at him from the hallway, that our father really did turn green. In my mind, our father was The Green Man.
Growing up, he was rarely upstairs with us. When he wasn’t at work–Dad taught art and math in San Francisco public schools–he was in the gloomy basement under the house, tinkering, painting, building things, coming up for dinner, and then descending against until after we were in bed. And it was better when the green man stayed downstairs.
Mother once told me that he would sometimes go for weeks, and once as long as six months, without speaking a word. She didn’t always know what triggered them, the silent patches that stretched out thin and taut like a wire, the triggering incident irrelevant, forgotten, the tense quiet a habit that with each passing day to harder to break. As children, we didn’t question these things. They were facts of life, like the thick fog that green was the color of silence, deep, unfathomable, and the green self-portrait was its face.
At ninety years old. Dad didn’t turn green anymore, if he ever had, and we no longer feared Dad’s silent wrath. His jaw was still rigid, his lips still thin and set in a dissatisfied line, but the green had long gone out of him. Dad was in a wheelchair and a diaper, his eyes distant and rheumy. The green man of our childhood was a memory and the painting rested safely on my mantel.
* * *
And so we dared. Alone with him, finally, with his wife gone for two weeks, we asked if we could bring the wrapped canvasses down from the rafters where they had been stored for over twenty years—ever since he and his wife moved into the Sonoma house when they were married in 1985. Were they ones we would remember from our childhood, from the basement of the small row house in San Francisco’s Sunset District, where he had sat in his dingy workroom, under a stark hanging bulb, sketching, painting, out of sight?
We ate lunch with Dad that afternoon—Italian wedding soup and corn bread from the deli at the Sonoma Market, rice pudding with raisins for dessert—soft foods. Dad ate slowly, methodically, resting after each spoonful. After lunch, he was tired. “My favorite time of day—nap time,” he said, with a distracted, sleepy smile. We wheeled him down the hall and helped him into the electric bed in the spare bedroom he now used and we reminded him that we were going to take the paintings down from the rafters. He nodded absently.
I pushed the wood door up and hot summer sun flooded the dusty garage. It was a still, bright day on the quiet dead-end street. Across the shimmering asphalt, the skilled nursing facility on the other side of the road was eerily quiet.
The gnarled, old fig tree in the front yard drooped, weighed down by saggy purple fruit. A yellowed newspaper lay abandoned on the driveway. The mangy old dog from next door wandered over, sniffing with interest at the garbage cans alongside the house.
Roxanne opened the stepladder and positioned it under the rafters—slats of plywood laid atop a row of two-by-fours to form an open-sided shelf over the left quarter of the garage. Excited, she did her little dance, grinding her hips blues style, revving her engine, trying to lighten the mood and make us laugh. Always more serious, less spontaneous, I rolled my eyes at her antics. But inside I was the same, excited and a little bit frightened, like we were children again, back in the old house, snooping through father’s things he wasn’t home, listening for his steps on the stairs, fearing his green wrath.
Juliet, lithe and athletic, climbed the ladder. She handed the wrapped canvasses down to me, tipping them out of the rafters end over end like giant record albums. When they were all down, we looked at one another conspiratorially, collectively holding our breath for a moment before, in unison, we ripped into the brown, brittle paper, tearing at them like bewitched children on Christmas morning, anxious to get at our gifts.
When the last painting was uncovered, we leaned them up against the three walls. The oil-stained concrete floor was littered with paper debris and twisted strings of tape. The garage was transformed into a makeshift gallery, the walls lined with large canvasses. Single file, we moved wordlessly from painting to painting, taking in our private exhibit.
These were paintings from the 1960’s and 1970’s. Dad’s characteristic block-printed signature was on the back of-the canvasses. I had seen old Polaroid photos of a few of them in a cracked plastic binder in his workroom when I was a teenager. But most were strangers. It was like finding more pieces of-a puzzle we had struggled to complete all our lives. We didn’t have all the pieces, we would never have them all, but It something and it was huge.
The variety was startling—a geometric painting of what looked like a space ship floating over a stark hard-edged landscape and one of a woman in scallop-edged green underpants and bra with a thin shaft of bright blue light that pierced the canvas top to bottom. The three of us clustered in front of one that depicted a hillside, coated with green jungle growth and the whitewashed houses and churches of a small town under a pastel candy sky. Our eyes met, eager and shiny.
“It’s Mexico,” I said, stating what we had all instantly known.
We nodded. three girls again. Juliet had been seven. with a lustrous black braid down her back, I was eleven, and
Roxanne was fifteen, the year we lived in Guadalajara and went to the American School in our blue and white checked uniforms. There was no basement, no garage, no room to escape to in our small, rented house and Dad took long walks, disappearing for hours, while Mother waited anxiously and the sun went down on our street at the edge of town.
That afternoon in Sonoma I fantasized that we had just uncovered a hidden treasure trove, a cache of unsung masterpieces on a dead-end street where they had gathered rat droppings, insect nests, and spotty black mold. I composed imaginary notes for the gallery flier and pictured the amazed throngs of visitors who, like us, see these paintings for the first time.
While inside the house the enigmatic artist and reluctant father napped, oblivious, we scuttled around the garage, meddling in his memories, his creations. I wondered if he sensed us at all, our pawing hands, our emotions—the intrusion into his guarded, secret world.
Like those paintings in the garage, Dad was a wrapped secret. Up until the very end, my sisters and I waited, hoping that on the next visit, or the next, sometime, soon, he talk to us, he would tell us what we had waited a lifetime to hear, anything, a few simple words to let us know It had been worth it, life, art, perhaps, even, dared we hope, being a father, watching three girls grow into the adults had become with families of our own.
We held hands in the still warmth of the garage. Roxanne cleared her throat. Juliet squeezed my fingers. When I turned to her, there were tears in her lovely, light eyes. She nodded mutely. She had always been his favorite, or so we thought, so we always said, because he sometimes smiled indulgently at her and patted her glossy head. But I know, for she told me, that she always wondered if the special bond between them was real or if she only imagined it.
“Oh—my—God. They are amazing,” Roxanne said, breaking the spell, never at a loss for words. She rummaged in her purse for her camera and began to photograph the paintings, positioning each one against the unfinished sheetrock wall.
“Hey, I know. Juliet, get back up on the ladder with one of the paintings. Pretend to hand it down to Dorothy. We’ll reenact the historic moment,” Roxanne said, waving her hands busily at the ladder. Juliet climbed the ladder and gave the camera her best side. She stepped up a rung, cocked her hip and beamed, acting out anxious anticipation and the thrill of discovery as she passed me down the canvas. “Go on. Get in there,” Roxanne directed, waving me on set. “Take the painting.” I did as I was told knowing that the camera would add twenty pounds and that while Juliet would still look gorgeous, I wouldn’t. “Amazing!” Roxanne crowed. “It’s a moment in art history, as the artist’s daughters rediscover the paintings in the rafters.” We broke into excited, self-conscious laughter.
When Dad woke from his nap, we asked him if he wanted to see them. We wheeled him down the ramp the front door and around to the garage. He stared, squinting, his brow furrowed. “I don’t know. Do you think they’re any good?” he asked skeptically, his nose crinkled with confusion. “They seem so monochromatic. They must have faded.”
With surreptitious glances at one another, we offered to take the paintings with us so that we could clean the dirty ones, perhaps find a to repair the ones that had been damaged when other items were blindly shoved up alongside them, rolls of unwanted carpet, lawn chairs, the detritus of a lifetime. We wanted them. Badly. And we held our breath, wondering what he would say, waiting for him to take offense. “Yes, take them. Take them all,” he said. “What would we do with them? They are so big. Take them. Get them fixed.” He plucked at his sticky t-shirt. “It’s too hot out here.” he said, the paintings forgotten. We loaded the dozen unwieldy canvasses into the back of a borrowed pickup truck and secured them with twine under worn blankets and a green vinyl tablecloth. We said our goodbyes in the living room that afternoon before we drove the truckload of art up the highway. Like always, I told Dad that I loved him. I had no expectations. He grimaced like it hurt and offered me a taut, wizened cheek. “Likewise,” he said. “Likewise.”
As we drove with our precious cargo, I glanced over my shoulder every five minutes to make sure the load hadn’t shifted. I pictured the billowy woman in her green tap pants lifting from the truck bed and hurtling off the Yolo Bypass. I wondered if the three of us, sisters, so close in this moment of liberation, would someday be pitted against one another in a bitter custody battle over these paintings and others, our inheritance.
Later, we hauled the load up to our Mom’s house in Nevada City as a surprise. Our sharp-witted eighty-seven-year-old Mother didn’t recognize the paintings from the rafters either. “Well, I think perhaps I’ve seen one or two of them before,” she said. “You have to remember girls, your father was a very secretive man.” And though other said she didn’t remember them, she kept two and hung them in her bedroom.
Roxanne kept Green Underpants. We agreed that Juliet would have the first shift with Mexican Sunset. I chose one that my sisters didn’t want, a malevolent lavender-hued nude with heavy-lidded eyes, a pouty mouth, and yellow vinyl gloves to her elbows. I always liked the weird, surrealistic ones best.
* * *
In the years and months before he died, I often tried to turn the conversation to art, to painting, wanting to understand what it had meant to him, why he did it for so long and, seemingly, far so little in return. I did most of the talking he stared at me balefully through his thick lenses. I was like a dental hygienist who just won’t lease the tender gurus, alone. There so little time left. The door was shutting and I really wanted to know.
“A painting a week. I finished a painting a week,” he once said, in his careful, vaguely accented English, as though that were the sum total of the explanation. “Always. That’s it.” His gnarled hands rested in his lap. I asked him which was his favorite. “Her,” he said, gesturing at the large canvas that hung over the kitchen table. It was a painting of a young woman, seated on a green cane chair. With her back to the viewer she patiently stares into the
distance. Her plump ankles are tucked demurely to the side and one soft arm drapes over the chair back. The horizon is a muted spray of orange and turquoise.
“The professor said it was the best in the class. She died in a museum of an-ti-qui-ties, in Cairo.” He pronounced each syllable distinctly as though it were a strange in a strange tongue. “The professor, not the girl. She crashed through the rotted floor. The fall killed her. Can you imagine such a thing?” He smiled wistfully and chuckled at the memory of his teacher’s praise and the freakish accident, seeming to enjoy both equally.
* * *
Now that he’s gone, the paintings are all I have of him. I miss the dry snap of his morbid humor, his once keen eye, the rare compliment, and the rarer touch. It occurs to me now that the thin drawn line of his mouth–the way his lips curved ever so slightly at the corners, telegraphing cynical amusement or displeasure—was perhaps just the way his lips came together, nothing more sinister or meaningful than that. But I’ll never really know. My father remains, as he was in life, an unopened gift.