The Painted Man
by Stevan Allred
|part 1 of 5|
Ray Volpe, actor, performance artist, and burrito seller, attends a dinner celebrating the return of his brother Michael from Iraq. The atmosphere at dinner is strained: Ray’s overbearing father gets along none too well with his family or his neighbors. And Ray’s father insists that even after a month of rain, the dam on his cattle pond will still hold.
God only knows how many times I’ve sat like this, elbow to knee and chin to fist, pondering the mystery of my father. Whenever he came upon me in this pose he would mutter “Mama’s little thinker” as he walked by, and sometimes drag his hand through my hair from front to back, likely as not catching a strand or two in his ring and pulling on it, hoping, I suppose, to startle me out of my reveries.
Me the thinker and Michael Jr. the do-er, and both of us the fruit of his same loins, both of us beloved of our mother but only Michael the object of our father’s affections. For Mumsy and me he had only scorn and the fierce critique of his cattle breeder’s gaze, those red-rimmed, china-blue eyes that were constantly fixing upon us, measuring and calculating and finding fault.
He was possessed of the idea that all the things that mattered about a cow, a wife, a son, or a melon were determined by breeding. Hard work was necessary to bring out the qualities that good breeding implied, but once the genetic throw of the dice has been made, no amount of hard work will cause a cow or a melon to raise above itself any farther than the limits set by one’s hereditary destiny.
He was a logger, a farmer, a trader, a schemer, and a loud-mouthed, cocksure, bourbon-swilling barnyard bully of a man used to getting his own way. He could out-work, out-think and out-fight damn near anybody he ever ran up against.
He scared the bejesus out of me, and so far as I can tell, the only thing I ever did to provoke his constant ire was to be born different from him, different from Michael Jr., different from the fore-ordained predisposition of his genetic imprint.
We put him in the ground this morning. I don’t know whether to bring flowers or wear dancing shoes when I visit his grave for neither fits the state of mind his death leaves me in. You cannot grieve for a puzzle nor celebrate the death of a cipher. You have to make some sense out of the man first.
The last time I saw him was the night of Michael Jr.’s welcome home dinner, a night that was already heavily freighted even without my father’s subsequent demise. Two tours in Iraq, and my brother comes back from the second one a captain, and this was the first time the four of us would be at table together in some years.
The dinner was a full-on catered showpiece, with prime rib and a decent claret to go with it, and waitrons in white shirts and black pants and vests, pouring champagne into tall flutes my father must have rented for the occasion. There were engraved invitations sent out and engraved place cards telling us all where to sit. I have some modest experience in the catering business, and the whole grand production had to’ve set my father back several thousand of his precious ducats.
It was not at all your typical potluck with the neighbors, and more than a little strange because Mumsy had left him some three years before, and now he’d gone out and added on a master suite in the back and remodeled the kitchen, at some quite considerable expense, even though he was living out there all alone.
It’s not like he needed more space, or that he was the kind of cook who needed a professional-grade, six-burner range top with a stainless steel hood. No, this was my father pulling out all the stops to show everybody how he was the biggest, swingingest dick in the county and still a man to be reckoned with, never mind that his wife had run off with another man.
I could’ve sworn dinner was at five, but I’ve never been good at keeping track of time. It’s one of my many flaws, as far as my father is concerned, and the sole reason I ended up at my father’s house an hour and a half before the party started. He had, God save us, a golf tournament on the TV in his living room, a TV the size of a Mini Cooper, and we stood there watching it with bottles of beer in our hands and the sound off, which was a mistake because it meant we had to talk to each other.
“You working?” he said. This is what he always asked me, and what he meant by it was have I gone out and found myself a real job.
“I’m in a production of The Outsiders at the Children’s Theater. I play Dally.”
“Kid’s show huh?” All of my brother’s sports trophies are lined up on the mantle, shiny statuettes in gleaming and inauthentic gold of boys swinging bats and throwing footballs. Somehow sports were never kids’ games in my father’s eyes, and theater is never a man’s work. I could pick up one of those trophies and oh, sweet drama, bash my brains out, putting an end to this conversation right now.
“More like young adult,” I said, with as much sangfroid as I could muster, but my father is possessed of a considerable talent for ignoring such nuances. A clatter of plates came from the kitchen. I could go in there and beg the caterers for a job. I could start right now.
“They made a film of it in the eighties,” I said. “Tom Cruise was in it.”
“Did he play Dally?”
“No. Matt Dillon played Dally in the movie.”
Someone missed a six-foot putt on the TV. My father took a sip of his beer and stared out the window. The rain had stopped. His cattle were slogging their way across the pasture to the barn, hungry for their evening’s ration of hay. My father would provide. There was water standing in the pasture in great puddles. His new pond was off in the distance, a magnet for the local mallards.
“What’s new with you Mike?” A twitch runs through my father’s jaw whenever I call him Mike. That little jolt gives me such pleasure. I started doing it when I dropped out of college after my junior year, and when I saw how much it tweaked him, I couldn’t bring myself to stop.
“You see my new pick-up?”
Trucks, tractors, TV’s. Mike was all about his stuff. Which exact model with which exact features which would allow you to do exactly what with all your most excellent stuff. He was the kind of guy who rented a bulldozer for a week and built himself a new pond and called that fun.
There wasn’t an ounce of fantasy in him. He didn’t go in much for art, didn’t like me being in the school plays with all those people he called fruitcakes, and he just about disowned me when I majored in theater. Thank God the cattle started bellowing loud enough to drag him out to the barn before he could show me his new truck.
And then Michael Jr. showed up, and I went out to the driveway to meet the warrior returned. What Michael Jr. and I have in common — a childhood together spent roaming the woods around this house, our genes, thousands of hours throwing a football back and forth and shooting baskets in the driveway — is barely enough to counterbalance how different we truly are. Michael Jr. is a golden boy, a quarterback, an Eagle Scout, a Marine. He believes in God and country and red meat, a man so much like Mike in all ways save arrogance as to make my own provenance a little suspect.
I am a performance artist, a burrito slinger, an actor, a barista, an atheist. I marched against this God-awful war. I’ve never asked myself why do they hate us so much, because I know why. We are a nation of arrogant assholes like my father, of men who think they have it all figured out so there’s no need to even wonder why anybody else might think differently, or God forbid, be different.
There is no sign of the war in Michael’s face. His face is lean and tanned-he has clearly been spending a lot of time in the sun-but he is as steady of gaze and as sure of grip as ever.
“I’m glad you’re safe.”
“It’s good to be home. Where’s Dad?”
“The barn, feeding his herd.”
He has his uniform, his dress whites, in a dry cleaner’s bag slung over his shoulder. Of course, Mike would want him to be decked out in his full regalia. Of course, those shiny new captain’s bars would be on full display, proof of the superior breeding that produced Captain Michael T. Volpe, Jr., sired by Mike T. Volpe of Renata through his dam, his breeding partner, the lovely Mary Sauerberg Volpe, also of Renata.
“You want to toss the old football around?”
And so we fell back on our childhood. As soon as Michael comes back out of the house, as soon as he tosses me the football that he still keeps in the closet of his old room, as soon as I bend over that football ready to hike it into the open clamshell of Michael’s hands spread as they are in that intimate space between my splayed-apart legs, as soon as Michael says “Hup one, hup two,” we are boys again, and there is no war between us. There is only me running down the length of the driveway, dodging mud puddles like they are defensive lineman, there is only Michael throwing me a perfect spiral pass, the ball slicing through the air like a rifled bullet, and the leathery sting in my hands as I make the catch.
And then it is my turn to throw, and Michael’s to receive. I am nothing if I am not a chameleon, and because I am the family clown, the funny man, the goofball, I make my voice sound like a cheap radio, and I drop into the hyperbolic schtick of a sports announcer. Anything to give the troops a laugh. “Third and eighteen, the clock’s running down, and the Melonheads are down by five. They need a touchdown to pull out what could be the greatest upset in the history of men playing with their balls.”
A chuckle from Michael, and he hikes me the ball and takes off. “Volpe takes the snap, he steps back into the pocket. The Neanderthals are blitzing, but Volpe has Knothead and Cajones blocking for him, he’s got plenty of time to find his receiver.”
Michael is a joy to watch, the way he leaps clear over the biggest mud puddle, the stutter of his steps when he fakes left, then right, then runs left down the county road, his knees high and his legs pounding.
“There’s Volpe in the end zone but he’s covered, he’s got Steroids and Testosteroni all over him, the two toughest defensive backs in the league. Here’s the throw, a perfect spiral, going long for the win, and this is it folks, the game is on the line. Steroids and Testosteroni are on him like stink on a jockstrap, and Volpe leaps up between the two defensive backs, and oh-my-god, how did he do it, he makes the catch for the touchdown. And that’s the game folks, the Melonheads win it on the amazing forty-yard pass from Volpe to Volpe.”
Michael throws me the ball and hustles back for the next play, a big grin on his face. We’re fine as long as I keep up with the patter, the ball sailing through the air between us, connecting us in the only way we know how to connect. I won’t ask him how it feels to lose two of his men to a roadside bomb, and he won’t ask me what in God’s name makes a performance a piece of art.
A shiny silver car pulled into the driveway and parked right next to my father’s brand new pick-up truck. Out stepped a woman in a clingy red dress, a dress that stopped halfway down her thighs while her legs kept on going and going, the kind of legs a dress like that was made to show off. Oh, the sweet drama of flesh brazenly bared, but all I can think when I see her is that she must be lost, for she was miles out in the country and looked nothing like the people my parents know. She was made up as theatrically as a New York runway model, and such a downtown sort of girl, with those candy apple red high heels-spikes of course-and silver hoop earrings the size of a dessert plate.
Michael, always Mr. Hustle, got to her first. “Can I help you, Miss?”
She put her hand out to him and said, “You must be the guest of honor. I’m Danielle, I’m a friend of your father’s.”
“Yes ma’am,” Michael said. Everybody was ma’am and sir after he went into the Marines, and by this time I was near enough to her to take in her long fingernails, done up to match her dress and her shiny little clutch purse. And gentlemen, we are talking serious cleavage here. The dress was long-sleeved, with one of those cut-out fronts where there’s a collar around the neck and then a big circle of white skin that’s all about the tops of her breasts.
I put my hand out to her. “I’m Ray,” I said, “and this is Michael.” Her touch was brief but firm, very professional. She had too much nose and not enough cheekbone to be a cover girl, but she was good with make-up. She’d made her lips look bigger without going overboard, and her eye make-up was in shades of brown that brought out the color in her eyes. Fierce eyebrows, and dyed black hair cut to frame her face like a centurion’s helmet. She was maybe half my father’s age.
“Ray,” she said, and oh-my-god her tongue is pierced, “yes, I’ve heard about you. You’re the Painted Man.” And right there she let her eyes soften, not a lot, but there was something there, an opening maybe, or some kind of recognition. She had seen me perform. Perhaps she had even dropped a ducat into my open cigar box.
“Is your father inside?” she said.
And the two of us, Michael the Marine captain who’s stared down the barrels of guns in Iraq, and me the actor who’s stared into the black hole of dozens of live audiences, we’re both so dumbfounded by this particular woman showing up for this particular dinner party that all we can do is point at the barn. Danielle let us know how much she enjoyed the effect she had on us with a post-modern version of the Mona Lisa smile, one corner of her mouth turned up an extra twitch for ironic distance, and just the slightest raise of an eyebrow.
“He’s in the barn?” she said, and the both of us nodded, dumb as puppies.
She said “But the party’s in the house, yes?”
“Right,” I said, “he’s feeding his cows. He’ll be right in.”
“I have a piece of luggage,” she said, “maybe one of you could help me?”
“Yes ma’am,” Michael said. She opened the door of her car and Michael pulled out the overnight bag that was hanging on a hook in the back seat. Her heels clicked down the walkway to the front door, and Michael, her obedient servant, followed her.
I sat down, elbow to knee and chin to fist, on the front steps to ponder. So this was Mike’s date. Mumsy and I didn’t even know that he was seeing someone, not that Mike was one to keep us informed of who was on his dance card. There was still a trace of her perfume in the air. I couldn’t name the scent, but I could tell it cost more than I made in a week working the burrito cart downtown.
It was the pierced tongue that really had me flummoxed. Mike had quite a wonderful little meltdown the time he saw me with my lip ring, and even though I’ve long since let the hole close up for reasons of my own, I know how much it tweaked him.
What a puzzle he was. And Danielle. She belonged with Mike the way cats belong on jet skis.
* * *
Copyright © 2008 by Stevan Allred