Joyland

The Midwest |

The Itinerant Potraitist

by Theodore McDermott

In Indiana, the itinerant portraitist wears a sweater and smokes a cigarillo. Richard Hawkmeat is his name. From fourteen up until the age of eighteen — he is twenty-four now — he lived in Akron, where he apprenticed with an uncle who insisted, You will be my Mondrian, and swam twenty four laps each night in the over-chlorinated YMCA pool. The uncle is immaterial. What we need to know is this: that Richard Hawkmeat, like so many young men before and after him, fled Ohio for the idea of Indiana. The idea of Indiana is this: we can do better by insinuating ourselves into conditions that are seemingly worse. So Hawkmeat went west. He sought Indiana and he achieved it. He ended up in the last barstool of the Tippecanoe Valley Bar and Lounge wearing that sweater we spoke of and smoking those damn cigarillos. Can you blame his woman for leaving him? She had prospects across the border, in Danville, Illinois, and she meant to pursue them. She had prospects: she was a receptionist for someone in the medical field. That meant nursing school. That meant mobility. Our clouds, in this instance, are like used q-tips, wispy and dirty. There is rain in the twenty-four forecast and the West Lafayette meteorologist is deadly accurate. He once turned over in his suburban bed to tell his wife, Pickles — meaning their spaniel — will flee today. By evening they were flyering neighborhood utility polls with a photo of Pickles sprawled on Mrs. Meteorologist's lap and the promise of a reward. You know, Mr. Hawkmeat expounds to the man on the stool beside his, I could paint your child, per your request, but I am old-fashioned and would rather leave the ugly for the modernists. The year is 2007. A fight breaks out. Hawkmeat in a headlock. Pavel Yardley, metallurgist, holding him in said position. Take it back, Mr. Yardley demands. I do. I do. I do. I do. Good. Now, will you paint her? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. OK. Good. Now, back to drinks, to smoking, to the college football game being broadcast on the television in the corner. Then, the game is over, the bourbon and beer are drunk, the bartender is washing glasses in three separate sinks. Hawkmeat walks home, alone down a street without a sidewalk, past cars with fountain drinks flat in the cup holders, beyond a house where a couple discusses finances at a kitchen table, to the trailer he rents. The itinerant portraitist is home, but oh how he wishes he weren't. To be elsewhere, to be gone from here, that would be best. He would like to walk a thousand miles to his home in some other place. But when you have come to Indiana to find something worse and you do, dissatisfaction is not cause for departure. It is a reason to remain. It is a bad bind to be in, and Hawkmeat is bound. Hawkmeat is home. He painted a portrait of a local judge; it hangs in a hallway of the county courthouse. He painted the proprietor of an ice-cream shop in Indianapolis; it hangs behind the counter. He painted a Shetland Pony near Cincinnati; it hangs in the stable. He spent a few years with a fair that traveled throughout the nation under various guises. As the Georgia State Fair, the West Tennessee State Fair, the Columbus County Fair, the Idaho State Fair, etc., it assembled the terrifying Zipper and erected that game in which the contestants aim water guns at targets and win stuffed animals. Hawkmeat, for his part, did mimetic caricatures of people who were already parodies. He settled here with the woman he thought would be his wife. He remained in the home they co-financed when she went. He sits on the couch. He pauses on an infomercial that shows women older and thinner than him in spandex, at exercise machines. They touch their toes. He masturbates. He sits in damp boxers. He turns the channel and they, the women, disappear. He sleeps, dreaming of his homeland, of Interstates and State Police, of apple pie and grocery aisles, of his brother and his sister, of backyards and bad grass. He dreams and sleeps. And in the morning, it is morning.
A bit more about Hawkmeat's upbringing. We said earlier that he is from Akron. We said he apprenticed with an uncle. We said he had a woman who left him for the promise of Illinois. These things are true. What we have not said is why he became a portraitist, in the first place, and how he became an itinerant one, in particular. If you will allow, we can do so now. Hawkmeat, he had a mother. He had a father, as well. They lived together in an old house. When Rich, as Hawkmeat was called then, was eleven, his father died of a sudden heart attack. A common death for a men of his position, men who were middle-aged middle managers in late-twentieth-century America, men who smoked a pack of cigarillos per day and drank a nice, tall glass of bourbon each lunch hour. Anyhow, this death was standard enough, but Mrs. Hawkmeat's response was, to say the least, idiosyncratic. She became a shut-in. That's true, but not entirely. What happened is this: she went mad. For seven years she did not leave her room. She stayed in there and prophesied to her young son the end of the world. She prophesied a hackneyed apocalypse — the kind televangelists tell of with a plea for money as the punch line — and was convinced. She went into her bedroom and remained. The apocalypse, she said, was imminent. Over the course of one year, she filled eights notebooks with calculations she believed would add up to a precise date. She came up with one. She called her son into her room. Rich, she said, the world will end on the eighteenth of August in the year 1996. It will happen, and we must prepare now for this eventuality. That gave them two years, three months, nine days. And so they prepared: she by holding a rosary in her hands, he by attempting to reincarnate his father. In other words, in lieu of preparing, they distracted themselves. She prayed. He began to carve his father's visage in a block of wood. As a reference, he used a photograph that showed his father at fifty, young Hawkmeat on his knee. He consulted the photograph and whittled his father's visage into a block of a wood, a block of wood he planned to affix to the body of a mail-order dummy, a dummy he planned to place on his knee, reversing the picture's pose, a pose that is standard in ventriloquism. You see, young Hawkmeat needed someone to talk to and, as his mother could offer no comfort, he sought a means to revive his father. Anyhow, what happened was this: time passed, the appointed date approached, Mrs. Hawkmeat prayed, Richard Hawkmeat whittled. On the eve of the apocalypse, Richard finished his project. This face was his father's. Dad? he asked the dummy. Dad? Will the world really end tomorrow? What am I to do? What is this? Where did you go? Richard spoke to his father late into the night. He asked his father many questions. But Hawkmeat had not practiced his ventriloquism, and his father remained silent. Sometimes his father's mouth moved. When it did, Hawkmeat was silent, awaiting a response, but none ever came. In the morning, the world was still there. In the afternoon, the world was still there. In the evening, the world was still there. In the night, the world was still there. A mathematical error, Mrs. Hawkmeat said just after midnight, is not a metaphysical truth. The world will still end. Richard, of course, was relieved. He knew it never would. His mother, she still believed: she returned to her notebooks, combed through them for an error. Around noon the next day, on the nineteenth, she said, I found it. Richard, she called from her room, come up here. He put down his father, who had been sitting on his knee, and went up to see her. Look, she said, pointing to a certain equation scrawled on a napkin, I found my error. I'm sorry son. I'm sorry, honey. I was wrong. The world did not end yesterday. I was wrong. See? It was not yesterday; it will be the fourth of May, in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Seven. OK, Richard said, and went back downstairs, to stare at his father in silence. She died three days later, never to know whether or not she was right. Hawkmeat, orphaned just before his fourteenth birthday, moved in with his uncle, honed his obvious talent for reproduction by turning from sculpture to paint, and abandoned his attempt at ventriloquism. With an especial talent for the human face, he became a portraitist. Unmoored, he traveled, an itinerant.
Now, with that done, back to this morning. It is this morning and Hawkmeat descends down the few Astro-turf steps that lead from his home to Earth. Hello, he says. The girl nods, demures. She is tall, taller than he, nearly as tall as this year's wan crop of corn, six-foot-three in the pumps her mother insisted she wear for her portrait. She is thin and appears frail in the loose blouse and billowy knee-length skirt she wears for the same reason. Loose strands have escaped from her French braid, and she brushes them from her pimply forehead with a delicate left hand that is jeweled with an heirloom, the ring women in her family have worn at their weddings for five generations. She, Mabel, will be the sixth, next Sunday, when she will say I Do to a man fourteen years her senior, a dentist in a nearby city. You must be Mabel. Yes, she says. Yes, sir, she says. You are here for a portrait? Yes, she says. Did your father mention payment? he asks. No response. This, he motions his hand back to the doublewide behind him, may not be much, but it isn't free either. Yes, she says softly. You will be paid. I'm sorry, he says. I've had— Well, anyway, come in. She comes in and she sits on the red-velvet loveseat where his subjects always alight, each in a characteristic pose that ranges from intent to nearly asleep and includes all states between. Mabel, for one, has good posture and her hands on her knees. The itinerant portraitist is an itinerant portraitist. He is also a human. He is also a human and when humans have something to say and no one to tell, they sit down at their desks or stand at their easels and make pen marks that, not unlike the process by which clouds are made from water molecules, accumulate to tell stories. Hawkmeat sits down at his desk and watches the world disappear and makes marks with his pen. Hawkmeat makes a single mark with his pen, a line, slightly curved. Her clavicle. He makes one mark and then he sits, making no others. The outside, the weather, is not so indolent. It is today and, of course, the meteorologist is correct. The rain comes over from Illinois. No one else — no one but that infallible man in West Lafayette — had predicted it, but here it is, filling the Tippecanoe Valley the way a faucet does any American bathtub. It rains, it rains, but someone — an English professor, perhaps — must come up with another word for this. This is not drops of water pattering pleasantly on a window pain or an elderly woman's perm being ruined by weather. This is not good for the crops. This began as a drizzle, became a shower, intensified into a deluge. This is not rain. It is as though there are clouds are stacked atop each other, each one manufacturing its own enormous storm. Together, they build a hundred storms, all emptying themselves at once. This is water extending from ground to cloud without interruption. This is a record. This is a flood. This is a future episode of a television program about meteorological disaster. Harvey pantomimes a portrait without producing one. There is still that single line. There is still a girl of nineteen poised on the loveseat before him. Water comes in under the door, dampens the carpet, soaks Harvey's socks. The sky exchanges water with the earth for relief. Now ankle-deep. Now shin-deep. Now, the painter abandons his project — though perhaps it had already abandoned him — and sits beside his subject on the loveseat. Before we drown, he says, I have one last wish. He places his hand on hers. What do you say? The rain has reached the windows, sunk the television, when Mabel's fiance, the dentist, a Mr. Howard Zimmerman, arrives on a skiff and swims in the front door to find his future wife and only love sleeping with — fucking, rather — Mr. Hawkmeat on the mobile home's last strip of dry land: on an island made from the ironing board. Zimmerman pulls Hawkmeat from his refuge, drags him to the floor, to the wet carpet, to the bottom with his hands. He keeps him under by a simple method: he places his foot firmly on the itinerant portraitist's esophagus, applies pressure, and waits. And no, the waters do not recede. They continue to rise, and now they spread throughout the valley, the county, perhaps to the state line, maybe even beyond. And Hawkmeat, he who sought Indiana and achieved it, he who is almost breathless, he who is submerged on the trailer floor — the itinerant portraitist remembers today's date. It is the fourth of May, in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Seven. A mathematical truth is not necessarily a metaphysical one.