The Taste of the Paint

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"Inspiration isn't a damn thing on its own. We've all got big piles of it inside our heads. We walk around like someday a spark will catch that pile and then... poof!"


My father, gesturing madly as he spoke, tipped the smoking contents of his pipe into his lap. After a short and profane dance he sat back down and resumed his train of thought.


"Everybody's got ideas, you know? They're like human waste," he said, shifting his weight to the side and forcing out a loud fart as if it made his point.


I laughed, squirting paint onto the paper laid out on the floor in front of me.


"You see?"


I nodded, though I didn't see, and he wasn't looking at me anyway.


"Everybody has to go to the can."


He was pointing in the general direction of the bathroom door.


"It takes something extra to drop your pants and shit on the floor in the middle of the food court!"


He stood up, beaming, and lit his pipe with a match.


"Even then," he continued, blowing the match out with smoke, "all you've got is a big pile of shit on the floor."


He took a few steps, rubbing his stubbly chin as if he was confused.


"The trick is figuring out how to make that shit appeal to the people around you more than the food on their plates. Essentially, you have to convince these people that what you have to say is more important than what they're thinking."


I was painting a muddy sunflower beneath a pink crescent moon.


"It doesn't come easily, you know. That's why almost no one can do it. It takes more dedication than most of us have."


He stood looking out the window for a minute before going on. I was clapping my hands and humming.


"You can't just sit down with a piece of paper and call yourself a writer. All you'll be doing is belching out the alphabet... throwing up on the page. You have to spend every waking minute as a writer. You need to be a writer when you're walking down the street or sitting in the dentist's office."


I made a face at him as he walked by and reached out to tousle my hair.


"How are you going to write about life if you aren't paying attention to it?" he asked, stumbling as he caught his toe on the edge of the carpet.


"Imagine turning your brain off and then stocking shelves all day! What a waste! Focus on your boredom! Focus on your dead-end job! How could anyone who claims to be a writer just let it all go by like a picture sho-"


He was interrupted by the realization that my mother, one floor below, was beating on the ceiling with a broom handle.


"I'm yelling, aren't I?" he asked me, waiting for a response this time.


I nodded, yawning.


"Oops."


He made a show of tip-toeing back to where his pipe sat, still smoking, on the windowsill.


"That's what separates the good from the bad, I think," he whispered. "Life's just one big experienceÖ late nights, missed payments, the sweat and the worry..."


He stared down at  his hands.


"We've got to experience everything around us instead of being perplexed by it. We've got to smell the breeze. We've got to feel the heartache."


He blew a puff of smoke and picked me up just as I was licking a glob of bright yellow from the tip of my finger. "We've got to taste the paint," he said, laughing. "We've got to taste the paint!" 


He whirled me around a few times, kissed my cheek, and then I was back on the ground, mashing yellow and green into the wood flooring while he sat at the typewriter in a cloud of white smoke. Eventually I fell asleep and dreamed about the clicking and crumpling.


 


My father picked up one of the balls of paper that littered the floor and opened it up to inspect what he had discarded.


"Pure crap," he said, dropping it to the floor without even bothering to crumple it back up.


"At least I know it's crap," he said after a moment, ice tinkling as he picked up his glass. "Some people never do, you know? Maybe there's still hope for me."


He nudged the paper with his toe.


"I've got the same problem most people have, I guess. I'm too damn blunt."


As he walked past where I sat scribbling on a notepad, I tried to read the word that was stamped across his left cheek backwards. He had apparently taken a nap on a newspaper headline.


"You can't just come out and explain yourself to your audience," he said, pointing down at my pad as if I was breaking this new rule of his. "You do that, and they see right through it."


"That's what's so special about art," he said hopefully.


I resumed my scribbling, barely listening to him.


"You have to lead them there."


He paused, looking out the window.


"But people don't want to feel like you're in charge, so if you want to affect them you have to be sharp. You have to make them feel like theyíre out walking with you instead of being led there like a stray dog."


He started pacing from wall to window.


"People love to feel smart. They love to think that what you wrote or painted inspired them to get their own idea. That's when you've got it just right, when the audience feels that same flash that you felt without even knowing it was you that gave it to them."


He sat down, lit a cigarette, and began typing excitedly.


Ten minutes later the room was quiet except for my pencil scratching softly on my paper. My father, looking older because of the glasses on his nose, was leaning forward over the keys of his typewriter with a white-out brush at the ready.


"Ah, hell," he muttered, suddenly ripping the page from the typewriter and crumpling it up, "I'm just stitching up wounds on a severed leg."


He got up, dropping the ball of paper to the floor, and walked across the room.


"It's stuck in there," he said, clawing demonstratively at his temples.


I looked up a minute later. He had closed the door behind him and was on his way downstairs.


 


  "How can I call myself an artist without any work?" my father asked through a mouth ringed by grey stubble. "Explain that one to me."


His speeches were getting more pessimistic with age. I sat on a stool, smoking quietly.


"They say that a man is what he leaves behind."


His eyes searched the room, glancing over unsold paintings and endless piles of paper.


"I've been an artist for all these years and what is there to show? Jesus Christ, you're only twenty years old and you've already left behind more than I have."


He flicked his cigarette in the general direction of the ashtray and wandered across the room.


"That's not to say that you're doing the work you should be doing, mind you," he said, looking self-righteously over his glasses at me. "Haven't you been listening to me all these years?"


I got up and scowled out the window. He had recently taken to focusing his criticism on me.


"You're getting published, sure, but you're writing like a bloody salesman."


I clenched my teeth and watched his reflection in the glass dragging slippered feet over the stained wood floor.


"It's not all about the audience, man. You've got to be in there too."


"This last thing you wrote..." he trailed off.


I turned to see him opening his desk drawer and removing a copy of the magazine that had just published my work. He flipped to my article and sat down to look it over.


Several minutes later, When he put the magazine down and began to speak, I interrupted him angrily. I called him a fraud and a faker, asked why I would ever take advice from a failure. I yelled for almost a full minute before he swung the back of his hand.


I still have a snapshot in my mind of my father's face when he saw the gash that his wedding ring had opened along my jaw line. Despite the wrinkles around his eyes and mouth, he looked like a scared little boy, red-faced, with tears in his eyes.


I knew instantly that he hadn't meant to damage me. In anger, of course, I treated him as if he had, hurling insults and curses.


I left with my hand pressed to my bleeding jaw, not letting him help me or even see what he had done.


Mutual apologies later repaired the emotional damage, but the gash left a scar, like my father's signature right there on my face.


Created: Mar 08, 2011

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Daventhal Document Media