MARILYN JACKSON | Short Story | USA
The orange trolley clickety-clacked toward Dorchester Lower Mills, passing by modest three-deckers and the Neponset River salt marsh. Tall phragmites bobbed in the breeze and the water sparkled in the October sunlight. The sights and sounds soothed Tom’s sense of nervousness as he was about to meet Blake Watson, an up-and-coming artist who had graduated from his high school and had achieved some notoriety out West. Now he was home.
Tom was 18, a senior at Monroe High and editor of the school paper, The Watch. He aspired to be an artist or a journalist and, so far, had two stories published, one about the Monroe track team winning a state championship and a thin interview, a Q and A, with the new principal. His artwork was unremarkable, but a feature on Watson could add some heft to his college applications.
After seeing a splashy poster promoting December’s Open Studios with Watson and other artists, Tom had an idea. He rang up Watson after Googling his name and landed this appointment at Watson’s loft, a five-minute walk from the trolley stop. He was proud of the way he looked, 5 feet 11 and lanky, wearing his favorite jeans, blue Marathon jersey and black Nikes and toting a backpack.
Watson had agreed to the interview, rationalizing that he needed some positive press, especially after his troubles in Los Angeles. By chance he had found his living space in an airport magazine ad. “Roommate wanted: Responsible non-smoker to share two-bedroom apartment, near public transportation.” It was ideal, away from Downtown, in an historic brick building – site of America’s first chocolate mill. The best part? The owner, a trans-Atlantic pilot, was never there, especially since he had begun courting a woman in Amsterdam. Basically, Watson had free rein.
He had spread out on the floor an enormous canvas splashed with colors, and on a long wall facing the tall arched windows he had nailed several white-primed canvases. One boasted two wide, thickly slathered diagonal green strokes, a work in progress. Tom was due any moment, so Watson put aside his brushes on a nearby table, next to his paint cans, and pulled together two chairs. A few minutes later the creaky freight elevator began moving and would open directly into the loft. It was cavernous – exposed brick, hand-hewn yellow pine beams, wide plank flooring, a soaring ceiling.
“Mr. Watson?” Tom was wide-eyed.
“Hello, Tom. Call me Blake.”
“OK.” Blake Watson looked nothing like what Tom had imagined. He was scruffy, slightly taller than Tom but at least 50 pounds heavier and muscular. His denim shirt, pants and Doc Martens were spattered with paint. He seemed edgy.
“Well, come in, sit down,” said Watson.
“OK, said Tom. “I have …”
“I have some questions for you first,” said Watson, sizing him up. “What exactly are you looking for?”
“I want to write about someone who grew up here, you know, kind of a ‘where are they now’ story. It’s for the school paper, but I could try to shop it around.”
“Tell me a little about yourself. How old are you? Are you interested in art? Is old Mr. Kelly still at Monroe?”
Tom grew uncomfortable. He preferred being on the ‘asking side’ of an interview. “I like art well enough. Mr. Kelly has retired. I have an art history course about 20th century art. Now can we begin?”
Watson nodded. “How old are you?”
“Have you always wanted to be an artist?” Tom asked.
“Probably. I was interested in drawing when I was a kid and would get crayons and drawing paper at Christmas. As I got older, I began painting with watercolors, oils or acrylics.”
“Did you grow up in Monroe?” asked Tom.
Asking only yes-and-no questions, Tom wasn’t having the conversation that he had imagined. “Did you study art at Monroe High?”
“Not really, just with Mr. Kelly.”
Trying a different tact, Tom said, “When did you become serious about painting?”
“What do you mean?”
“I thought about sculpture, silversmithing, then went to an interesting modern art exhibit.”
Tom began to relax, thinking the interview was getting better. “Tell me about your experiences in California.” As soon as he spoke, he knew he should have asked a follow-up.
“I had one show,” Watson replied.
“Was it graffiti?”
“I’d rather not talk about that,” said Watson, visibly upset.
“Well, when you went to the museum, who inspired you?”
“Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, for two.”
“Didn’t Rothko just paint colored rectangles?”
“His work was much more than that. It’s almost spiritual,” said Watson. “His early paintings were more representational but abstract.”
“What about Pollock?”
“What about him?” Watson shook his head.
“Isn’t he overvalued?”
“No, I wouldn’t say so.” Watson scowled.
“Is that canvas on the floor going to be a Pollock knockoff?”
“What do you mean?” Watson resented being challenged.
“Why, almost anybody can drip paint on the floor,” Tom asserted.
“That’s not true.” He clenched his jaw.
“Mr. Watson, what are you working on right now?”
“I’m working on a series about the MBTA.”
“Is this one of them? Are those tracks?”
“My paintings mean whatever the viewer thinks or feels and hopefully generate a response. I’m trying to bring art into a public discussion of badly needed repairs on the T, its woes. It will be a series. I’m calling this one ‘Green Line.’”
“Well, art isn’t needed for that,” argued Tom.
“The trouble is people can look at everyday problems but not really SEE them. They will complain but take no action. They are too accepting. You don’t get it. No one gets it,” said Watson, raising his voice. “Tom, this interview is over.”
As Watson rose from his chair, he gripped a paint can and hurled it in a fury, splattering its fire-engine red contents on an empty canvas.
“Are you creating art now?” mocked Tom.
“Out!” bristled Watson.
“You’ve combined Rothko and Pollock! You can call it ‘Red Line’ or ‘Tantrum #3!’”
“Get out!” shouted Watson.
As the antiquated elevator slowly descended, Tom cooled his temper. Outside, a gust blew across the river, slapping him in the face as he stood on the bridge watching the receding tide rush over the rocks. Well, I fucked up, he said to himself. How the hell am I going to write a story? I have nothing, not even any artwork. I’m not such a hot shot after all. Taking a deep breath, he phoned Watson.
“Listen. I’m sorry I was such an asshole. Could we start this conversation over again?”
Watson was silent.
“Please,” he groveled. “I’m right outside. It won’t take too long.”
“Okay,” Watson sighed.
At the elevator he apologized to Tom. “We both got off to a bad start. This morning I found out the owner is returning from Amsterdam with his girlfriend and wants me out. I’m barely settled.”
Tom said nothing.
“Hey, do you want some coffee? I can heat it up, and we can talk.” Watson moved toward the cooktop. “Look around.”
Tom wandered, documenting everything with his iPhone and nearly bumped into Watson carrying two full mugs of black coffee to his art table. They laughed awkwardly.
“Let’s start over,” said Watson.
“O.K. How did you become interested in art? When?”
“In high school. My mother encouraged me to think about art school. She had modeled to pay for college. My practical father thought otherwise. They argued a lot about what I should do, but they were good to me and paid my tuition.”
“California Institute for the Arts, but I didn’t finish. After my parents divorced, I ran out of money.”
“So, what happened then?”
“I moved to L.A. I did odd jobs to make ends meet and painted little pieces at night that I could hawk to tourists. One night I saw a crew tagging a wall of a vacant building. It didn’t make sense, but I liked the idea of creating an identity in a bold, new way. Eventually, I joined. Some chose moving targets to get more visibility, but those knuckleheads bubble-wrote their own names and then were surprised when they were caught.”
“And subway cars?” Tom interjected. “Maybe you could explain what really happened in L.A.,” Tom suggested. “It’s not a secret; it’s on the Internet.”
“Yeah.” Watson initially stiffened. “It was the middle of a summer night and seven of us were caught by police spray-painting subway cars. But, because it was my first offense, I escaped with probation and 100 hours of community service, teaching underprivileged kids at a city playground. We made papier mâché piñatas and drew pictures of whatever we wanted. That’s not on the Internet.”
“Why did you come back home?”
“My record had been expunged, and I wanted a new start and better living arrangements. I had been squatting in an empty factory, a firetrap, like Ghost Ship. Do you know about that?”
Tom shook his head.
“Ghost Ship was an artists’ collective in Oakland. Rent was cheap, and building concerts helped pay the bills. One night a roaring fire erupted, killing 36.”
“That’s awful,” said Tom. “So, what are you doing now?”
“I have lots of ideas. I might volunteer. Right now, I’m working on ‘The Green Line’ T project and the ‘After Pollock’ painting. And I should be able to do something with the red splatters.”
“It’s hard to figure out Pollock,” said Tom.
“Pollock was tormented, to some degree, but I didn’t understand that until I saw the film and heard Ed Harris talk about how he got inside Pollock’s head to portray him.”
The two young men rambled for hours about art, philosophy, films, music, Tom’s future goals, the “old days at Monroe High,” Watson’s housing dilemma. Conversation seemed more personal and open. By now, the coffee was cold. It was about dusk. As Tom was about to leave, Watson asked him for his phone number, lightly brushing his hand along his collar. “I’d like to talk again, see you. And call me Blake.’
Tom’s mind was swirling, confused, wondering what Watson wanted. Aboard the trolley, Tom listened to the wheels, composing the story. A smile crossed his face.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Marilyn Jackson is a writer and amateur photographer and lives in Boston. She spent many years working as an editor and journalist.