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The Painted Man

by Stevan Allred

part 2 of 5

Before we sat down to eat there was a cocktail moment, so very civilized, a time to stand around and chit-chat and sip champagne. Waitrons circulated with trays of hors d’oeuvres, salmon mousse topped with caviar, tea-smoked hard boiled eggs sliced thin and topped with a bourbon remoulade, and petite smoked oysters sitting on a horseradish florette. All of it beautiful, and all of it selected from the I’ve-got-it-so-let’s-flaunt-it list.

Mike, ever the politician of his own life, steered Danielle around while he worked the room, showing off his trophy girl friend and reminding everyone why they needed to pay attention to him. They put on quite a show, a pair of well turned-out bees buzzing every flower in the flower patch, and you could tell from the way she looked at him with those big brown eyes of hers that they were going to make honey when the evening was over.

Michael took up a position in the dining room and held it with the perfection of his posture and the preternatural whiteness of his dress uniform. His shoes were shiny and black, and the bubbles in his champagne glass seemed, when I walked up to him, to be rising in formation, obedient to the captain’s wishes.

“What do you think of Mike’s date?” I said.

Michael rubbed his temple with the tips of his fingers, a gesture he makes when he’s trying to wrap his mind around a new idea, like the idea that there’s actually something called performance art that allows me to make money by painting myself silver from head to toe and then holding a pose for an hour at a time on a downtown street corner.

“I didn’t know Dad was seeing anybody,” he said. “She seems nice enough.”

“She’d be my date,” I said, “if Mike hadn’t seen her first.”

Michael gave me his you’re-such-a-melonhead-eye-roll. “She’s way out of your league, Ray.”

“What makes you think you know the first thing about my league and who’s in it? I suppose you think she’d go out with a Marine captain?”

“Stay away from her, Ray.” There it was, that my-turn-to-take-names-and-kick-ass Marine captain’s smile of his. We were at war again, and for all the wrong reasons, and now I had to sue for peace or face the consequences.

“I was kidding, Michael. I have no intention of asking her out.”

What is most unbearable about Michael Jr. at a time like this is the way he nods his head, as if he knew all along that I would back down.

“Did you see the pierced tongue?” I said. “What on God’s green earth is he doing? Next thing you know he’ll be buying a Corvette and taking up snowboarding.”

“Why do you hate him so much?” His gaze was as steady as ever, but he wasn’t trying to back me down. He really wanted to know. If there was no sign of the war in his face, this was the moment when he was different than the brother I knew, and absolutely direct with me. A moment, sadly, for which I was unprepared. A moment I let slip by because I thought he wouldn’t need to even ask that question if he’d been paying attention when we were growing up, and I would be damned before I would help him answer it now.

“Mom’s going to die when she sees her,” I said. “This is cruel. This dinner should’ve been family only.”

Michael shook his head. “Dad’s happier than I’ve seen him in years. It’s his house, he can invite anybody he wants. And Mom,” he said, and there it was again, that tight-lipped hard-ass Marine smile of his, “she shouldn’t have left Dad the way she did. You want cruel? That’s what was cruel.”

* * *

Mumsy came with her best friend Viv, and they were the last to arrive, my darling mother come back to the home she left because marriage to my father was a burden she could bear no longer. She came for Michael, whom she adores, which is one of the enduring mysteries of my life, how she could love both Michael and me, different as we are. How can one heart love both the raw and the cooked? The bent and the straight? The wayward and the driven? What does love mean if it is so promiscuous?

I went to her as soon as she came in and helped her off with her coat, the shoulders wet because the rain had started up again. She had on a pin-stripped business suit, a little severe for a dinner party, but she’d softened it with a blouse that was all feminine frills down the center. She had her hair done up in one those carefully casual buns with a couple of artfully loosened strands, and there were droplets of rain caught in her hair that reflected the light from the room. Such a beauty she is, and ever will she be. I took Viv’s coat too, both their coats laid over my arm, their faithful courtier, and I stood guard between my mother and the rest of the room.

“You up for this?” I said. “Any time you want to leave, you just say the word, and I’ll fake a seizure so you can take me to the hospital.”

Viv laughed and said, “I’ll have the seizure, Ray. You’re much too young and handsome.”

“Mom,” I said, “don’t turn your head, but there’s a woman in a red dress in the dining room, near the head of the table. You see her?”

My mother’s eyes left mine and then came back, “Yes, did she come with you?” She had that are-you-finally-getting-serious-about-someone smile on her face.

“I’m not that desperate. She’s Dad’s date.”

Viv turned her head and looked straight at Danielle then. My mother’s smile tightened a twitch, from in-on-something-delicious to I’ve-just-had-something-sharp-and-pointy-shoved-up-my-ass.

“What is that on the front of her dress?” Viv said. “A boob target?”

“I just wanted you to be prepared,” I said. “You know Dad. He’s going to find a way to flaunt it.”

Mumsy said “He already has.”

* * *

Sixteen of us at the table, with my father at the head and Michael in his dress whites seated at his right hand. Danielle was on his left. He’d invited the mayor of Renata and a county commissioner and their wives. I was banished to the foot of the table, flanked by Mumsy and Viv.

Between my father and me, on either side of the table lined as it was with the gleam of rented china and the shine of rented silver, sat the local Christmas tree mafia with their dumpy little wives. These are the farmers who raise the trees that Americans put in their living rooms every year with an angel on top and cheap tinsel hanging off the boughs.

I grew up surrounded by their plantations, Christmas trees in silent rows as far as the eye can see, watching how the Mexicans shear them every year with their machetes to make them into these perfect little gumdrops that bear the same resemblance to a real tree as a Hostess Twinkie does to an actual cake. Small wonder then, that the thought of a Christmas tree in my living room — if my studio apartment had a living room, which of course it does not — makes me break out in a rash.

Before we ate, Mike stood up at the head of the table and waited for everyone to quiet down. “I’d like to propose a toast,” he said, and he starts in about Michael, using words like honor and duty and sacrifice, talking about freedom and tyrants and spreading democracy, and generally making it clear what a hero his first-born son really is. He’d changed into a dark blue shirt when he came in from the barn, and there he was, with Michael in his dress whites on one side and Danielle in her bright red dress on the other, like they were the goddamned American flag waving proudly for all of us to salute.

“In the Marines,” my father said, “the tradition at a time like this is to say hoo-haw,” and the way he said hoo-haw was like a whole platoon stomping their combat boots boom-boom, “so I’d like for all of us to hoo-haw my son. You ready?”

Strange to hear all of this from my father, who never served in the military because, as I understand it, his lottery number never came up in the draft, but who spoke now as if he had been a Marine himself, and stranger still for me, because all this fuss over Michael was made all the brighter by my own invisibility, parked as I was at the far end of the table, the son whom my father has never made any fuss over whatsoever.

So we all of us, enlisted as we were in my father’s congratulatory platoon, hoo-hawed Michael, the warrior returned from battle, and we raised our glasses and clinked them with our table mates, and said not a word about the self-deluding foolishness, the dangerous naiveté, nor the horror of the enterprise in which he was engaged.

Mike maybe got a little teary after he sat down, and then the waitrons brought out the prime rib, the blanched and baked asparagus, and the wild mushroom risotto. Everybody fell to, and for a couple of minutes it was nothing but the sounds of serving and eating and people saying how good everything tastes.

But this is a table full of farmers, and we have had rain for thirty-one straight days, and it doesn’t take these farmers too long before they start in about the weather. Weather is their lives, and they’re going on about how high the river is, and how wet the soil is, and whether or not things are going to get as bad as the flood of ‘96.

Jimmy Ahlquist, whose farm is at the other end of Gossard Road from my father’s, was sitting midway up the table from us. He had, as always, that sweet smoky smell clinging to his clothes and his long gray pony tail. When I was a teen-ager I figured out that the way he puts up with Mike is he gets stoned before he has to talk to him. “Mike,” he said, “How’s that new pond of yours holding up?”

“Six foot of water at the deep end,” my father said. “It’s right up to the top of the dike.”

“You’ve been out again to check it then?” Jimmy said. “Your dike is holding?”

“I’m keeping an eye on it,” my father said.

“What about that crack on the back side you showed me?” Jimmy said.

“Crack?” Joe Scheele said. “What crack? How big a crack?” Joe was sitting across from Jimmy, and he’s one of those guys who talks way too loud and sprays spit when he does it. His farm is the next farm down the creek from Mike’s, and the pond sat right on the edge of his property.

Mike took the time to fork a piece of prime rib into his mouth and chew it up before he answered. Danielle watched him, her dress full of the cleavage of a femme fatale and her face full of the innocence of an ingénue, waiting for him to speak as if every word that fell from his lips were purest poesy.

“It isn’t any worse than it was the day you saw it.”

“How big is that crack?” Joe said. My father doesn’t like him much, but they have to work together because when it comes time to harvest the Christmas trees, all these guys share the work crews and the trucks and the balers.

“Don’t worry about it,” my father says. “I might lose a little slice off the back of the dike, but I got it under control.”

“Sixteen inches in thirty-one days, got to be some kind of record.” This from Kirk Kurmaskie, a man whose nose and ears grow larger with each passing year, lending his face a certain elephantine quality.

It is at this point that my patience with this banal talk of the weather is utterly depleted. “Don’t you think,” I said, “that global warming is the cause?”

Everyone save Mumsy and Viv turns to stare at me, as if my bowels had just uttered an enormous fart, or some steaming pile of filth had just spewed forth from my mouth. “The increase in category five hurricanes,” I said, “and the melting of the ice caps, don’t you all think global warming has something to do with it all?”

Jimmy Ahlquist and his wife Michelle are nodding their heads, yes they think global warming has something to do with this, and the mayor too, but I am at war with everyone else down that long table, and my father has fixed his china blue eyes on me as if I have just announced that meat is murder.

Mayor Weston said, “Most of the world’s scientists would say you’re right,” but Dickie Stubbs runs right over him. “Those scientists,” Dickie Stubbs says, “they just make stuff up to keep their research money coming. Bunch of parasites if you ask me.” You’d expect more from a county commissioner, except that if you knew Dickie Stubbs you’d know he was an anti-reproductive choice, immigrant-hating, evolution-denying son of a bitch from the flat-earth wing of the Grand Old Party.

“There’s no such thing as global warming,” my father says. “This is just a wet year. Hell, they had 19 inches of rain in a thirty day period here back in 1916.”

I can always trust Mike to put me in my place. Or try to.

“What I don’t understand,” Kurmaskie says, “is if there’s global warming, how come we’ve got more snow in the mountains than we’ve had in a decade?”

“So how big is that crack?” Joe Scheele says.

My father says “Can you pass the asparagus down? Has everybody had enough of that prime rib?” He holds his wine glass up and one of the waitrons hustles over and fills it for him.

“I’m on it, Joe,” my father says. “I’m checking it twice a day.”

“You should’ve waited till the spring to build that dike,” Joe says. “You built that thing so late in the fall it’s still all bare dirt.”

“Joe,” my father says, “you’re just mad because my water rights are older than yours. That dike isn’t going anywhere.”

The waitrons brought out little dishes of sorbet then. “The palate cleanser,” my father announced, as if he were some great gourmand. At least it put an end to his bickering with Joe Scheele.

Viv leaned in, her voice pitched for Mumsy and me, and she said, “Arnie thinks that pond is a big mistake. They built it right on the edge of the gully back there, right where the waterfall used to be. Remember how pretty that was?”

“Where is Arnie?” Mom said.

“Oh, you know,” Viv said. She tilted her head toward Mike’s end of the table. “They’re not speaking again.”

Arnie and Viv lived across the road from us all the years I was growing up. I used to play with their kids. Arnie’s still there, it’s Viv who moved out, and Arnie and my father have been pissing each other off and then making up again since before I was born. They only got along as well as they did when we were growing up because their wives made them.

* * *

To be continued...

Copyright © 2008 by Stevan Allred

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