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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

My View of an Edward Hopper Painting

New York Movie
Edward Hopper
One of my favorite artists is Edward Hopper.  I cannot always explain why.  His paintings just catch my eye.  I nearly always stop short and just stare.  Hopper has a way of showcasing what would usually be ignored.  I always have the feeling he has approached a location with an obvious focal point, then turned to the side to see what no one else has noticed.  I tend to do this at times, watching the people who are gazing at historical locations, looking around the corner from the front of a memorial.  I like to see what is off to the side and Hopper provides this so wonderfully.
Take, for instance, his New York Movie.  Here, we don't look at the screen.  It doesn't matter what film is being shown.  Like the usher, we have seen so many movies before, we are not interested.  Maybe the movie is not that good.  Or it feels like we've seen it before, since it is terribly unoriginal.  For the usher, she has obviously seen it, or ones like it, hundreds of times.  All she is really interested in is going home.  Or maybe she's unhappy at the prospect of going home.  At any rate, Hopper has noticed her, and he feels everyone else should too.

Hill and Houses Cape Elizabeth Maine
Edward Hopper
Even when Hopper sets his subject in the center of the canvas, he still highlights its isolation.  In one of his many paintings of houses, Hill and Houses Cape Elizabeth Maine, we see a house set up on a hill.  Yes, there is another house, and a lighthouse, but they are farther up the hill.  The house in the foreground is looking out over what must be a lonely hillside, or the ocean.  It doesn't matter which.  It just looks forlorn.  Alone.  Surrounded by a great expanse.  He manages to do the same thing even when things are crowded, like in the city, where a lone row house is just that, alone, despite being surrounded by the other houses, or the girl in Automat, alone in the diner, is surrounded by a city of millions, with not another soul in sight.
When I sat down to write a story one day, I had in mind that use of isolation and space that Hopper used to perfection.  And I wanted to try and convey something of what his paintings might have looked like if they had been short stories.  I can't say that I accomplished my mission to perfection, but when I was done, I did feel that I had portrayed something very close to what could have been a scene from one of his paintings.  It begins on a house set on the top of a hill. 

Boarding House Above Copeland 19—
by Jason Phillip Reeser

“You’re in a funk today, aren’tcha Tom?”  A grouchy woman named Ada asked a sour faced man in a blue flannel suit.  The woman was not old, though she appeared to be, like a child’s toy that’s been heavily used and left out in bad weather.  Tom was the same age as the woman, but his was a fresher aspect.  Life had been kinder to him.  He did not like her direct question, and kicked at the peeling grey paint on the floorboards of the porch.
            “You’ve got nerve—old witch.  Let me be.”
            They were alone on the porch.  It was a large porch, the gateway to an equally large boarding house.  On a hot night, every boarder in the house could sleep on its uneven surface with room to spare.  Tom stood leaning on a post that marked the end of the wrap-around rail and the beginning of the steps.  To his annoyance, Ada sat in a rocking chair just inches from him.  He wanted to move away from her but his pride kept him rooted in place.  He had been there first; she had come onto the porch after him, and moved the chair next to him.  He stared past the front walk examining the road below them, determined to ignore her.
            The road fell away from the hill upon which the house was built.  It was a dirt road.  There had been rock on it many years ago, but the rocks had either washed away during years of rainstorms, or had sunk below the surface in the resulting mud.  At any rate, the rocks were no longer visible, and the road, dry now in the hot summer, had an ochre sheen that reflected the sunlight harshly.  This effect drew the eyes to its winding path down the hillside into the shallow valley.  Tom traced this path from the house to the point at which it disappeared with an imperceptible move of his eyes.  Once finished, he worked his way back up the road and started all over again.
            “I got a mind to ask Grant to go to Copeland.  I don’t guess Mrs. Foster would mind.”  Ada talked aloud as if to herself, but she slipped a quick look in Tom’s direction to see how he would respond.  “Got no reason to mind.  Grant don’t do nothin’ round here.  Why do ya think she’d mind?  That shrew!”
            “Nervy witch.”  Tom muttered.  “She ain’t turned you down.  You ain’t even asked her yet.  Go bother her and leave me be.”
            “See that?  If you ain’t in a funk I’m Eleanor Roosevelt.”
            It was getting hot.  The morning was ageing rapidly.  The dew had evaporated by then and become a part of the humidity that closed over the porch.  There was only enough of a breeze to make Tom and Ada aware of the sweat that had begun to form on their faces and trickle down their necks.  Tom pushed his hat back off his forehead and took off his jacket.  He laid it carelessly across the railing and used this movement as cover to step an inch or two away from Ada.  He could smell mothballs and unfamiliar sweat and wanted to curse her.
            “Grant could go to town.  No reason he can’t.  They can’t expect me to go.  Not by myself.  Wouldn’t be proper.  I need an escort if I’m to go to town.”
            The screen door whined open and a young woman joined them.  She wore a thin cotton dress that hung loosely from her wire frame.
            “Somebody going to town?”  She walked straight up to Tom, crowding him from another direction.  “I thought the car was broke down.  Mrs. Foster said the car was broke down last night.”
            “I ain’t walkin’ to town, Mary.”  Ada bristled at the gentle Mary.  “That’s why Grant should go.  What else is he good for?”
            “I don’t think I could walk to town.”  Mary looked out at the road and trembled.  “It’s such a far piece of walking.”
            Ada watched the young woman and made a face at her dramatics.  She obviously wanted to say something but the heat was getting to the point that even catty remarks were an effort.
            “Mr. Talbot,” Mary petitioned Tom with a soft voice, “would you mind retrieving a chair for me?  I do believe I’ll have to sit.”
            Tom made a sound deep inside his throat that was meant to convey reluctant affirmation.  He pushed away from the post and walked across the expanse of the porch to where seven chairs sat against the house in a line.  He grabbed the nearest one by the armrests and carried it back to Mary.  She smiled gratefully as he set it down beside her.  As she sat down, she inched it closer to Ada.  Tom wanted to find somewhere else to stand but he was not going to give in to their invasion of his space.  With a firm step he took back his place at the post, setting his jaw to shore up his resolve.
            “Thank you, Mr. Talbot.”  Mary shamefully smoothed the thin lines of her dress over her legs.
            The same sound emanated from Tom as before; this time meant to signify ‘you’re welcome’ or ‘don’t mention it’ or even ‘to hell with you’.  It was difficult to tell which.
            “He’s in a funk; don’t let him upset you,” Ada pronounced with pleasure. 
            “Witch.”  Tom spit the word.
            “Do you smell the marigolds Ada?  I can smell the marigolds.”
            “I can’t,” Tom growled.  On top of mothballs and sweat he could now smell Mary’s sickly sweet perfume.  “I wish I could smell the marigolds.”
            A cat jumped onto the porch just into Mary’s peripheral vision.  She started and silently exclaimed.  The cat, a black shadow within the shadows, stared at them with no concern in its dull glowing eyes and then began to walk the length of the porch.  Its tail fell from one side to the other as if it were only a little too heavy to be held up straight.  Softly the cat paced, slowly gaining the middle of the porch.  Mary watched it warily until it finally reached the corner of the house and turned to follow the porch on the north side.  The last thing Mary saw was the tip of the tail then nothing.
            “I don’t like that cat,” Mary said in nearly a whisper.  “Something’s not right about her.”
            “Ain’t a her,” said Ada.  “That’s a no good Tom.”
            This time, Tom’s lips formed the words, but no sound came from him; witch, witch, witch.
            “I’ll bet Tom could fix the car.”  Ada calculated the possibility.  “Tom’s a clever fella.  You know about car’s, don’tcha Tom?”
            “Do you, Mr. Talbot?”
            “I know about cars like I know about rocket ships.”  Tom closed his eyes and tried to wish the women away.  When he opened his eyes, they were still irritatingly there.  If he could have, he would have fixed the car just to get away from them.
            “Imagine, a man not knowing about cars.  My Johnnie knew about cars.  Lord in the sky, every man knows about cars.”
            “I’m sure you know something about them, Mr. Talbot.”
            “I can drive them.  That’s something.  Why can’t Grant fix it?  That’s what he’s here for.”
            Neither Ada nor Mary seemed to be able to think of a reason Grant could not fix the car.  It was something Grant did; he fixed things.  He had fixed the torn screen door, had fixed the well water pump that stood just outside the back door, he had even fixed the radio the night it had gone silent in the middle of a news update on the war.  It was all one and the same to them; replace a screen, prime a pump, fix a car.  They put no thought into what needed fixing save that one simple act of fixing.  If a car was broken down, it was only logical that Grant would fix it.
            All three of them were of the same mind.  They were certain Grant must be in the barn at that moment fixing the car.  Although none of them had requested to use the car for days, they felt sure that Grant was actively fixing whatever parts of the car that required fixing.  Each of them had a vague image of Grant sticking his head under the hood or under the chassis with a rusted tool and swearing.  This would take some time; a good deal of the morning was most likely.
            It was a great shock to those on the porch when Grant finally did appear.  He walked around the corner of the house pushing a dilapidated wheelbarrow.  A spade and hand trowel lay in its stained basin.  Grant dropped the handles of the wheelbarrow at the base of the steps and knelt in the flowerbed that ringed the front of the porch.  It was evident he had no idea he should be fixing the car.
            “What is he doing?” asked Ada.
            “He’s weeding the day lilies.”  Mary was a great admirer of Mrs. Foster’s flowers and found solace in watching Grant care for them.
            “He should be fixing the car.”  Ada looked at Tom as if it were his fault.  “Ask him what he’s doing.”
            “He’s weeding the damned lilies,” Tom muttered under his breath.
            “What are you doing there, Grant?”
            Grant was a short thick man, made all the shorter and thicker by kneeling and hunching over the flowerbed.  His overalls were faded nearly to white, with only light stripes of blue running down the legs.  He wore no shirt, allowing the sun to bake his dark hairy body even more than it already had.  He sat back on his heels and looked up at Ada with a puzzled expression; the trowel held midway between the wheelbarrow and the soil.
            “I’m weeding the lilies.”  Having answered her, he continued digging at the unwanted growth.  Tom chuckled and almost smiled.
            “Such impudence!”  Ada snapped her fingers at the man.  “I can see you’re weeding the lilies.  Why aren’t you fixing the car?  I’m not stupid.”  The outburst had wearied her in the heat.  She moaned as she waved a hand to cool herself.
            “Ain’t nuthin’ to fix.”  Grant said, his attention on the trowel.
            “What’d he say?”  Ada appealed to Tom.  “What’s that mean?  What do you mean, Grant?”
            Grant said nothing in response. 
            “He must mean it’s already fixed,” Mary said hopefully.  “Don’t you think, Mr. Talbot?”
            “I never know what Grant’s saying.”  Tom had a great desire to get away from the women and thought he might go over to Grant to examine the weeds or the lilies.  If only it would not look like he was giving in to their senseless crowding of his place on the porch.
            “Grant, I want you to take me into town.”  Ada expected him to comply.
            “Can’t.”  The trowel was put back in the wheelbarrow and the spade was put into action.  Everyone watched its sharp edge dig into the dried soil, turning over the grey and exposing the rich black loam.
            “Take me to town, Tom.  This man refuses to take me to town.”
            For the moment, Tom wanted so badly to get away from the suffocating press of the two women on the porch that going to town seemed like a spacious and fresh idea.  Before he could give it serious thought, he heard himself agree.
            “I’ll get the car and bring it around.”
            “Would you mind if I came along, Mr. Talbot?”  Mary also thought it would be nice to get out and away from the house.
            He grunted again.  So indistinguishable was the noise that Mary simply hoped it meant he would not mind.  She did not want to be left behind.
            A large four-door, touring model rolled down the white gravel drive and stopped at the stone walk.  The engine idled ponderously; a primal drone that could be heard all across the hot summer hillside.  Grant held the spade in his grip and blinked at the black automobile stupidly, as if he had never seen one before; his mouth slightly open.  In this way, he watched Ada and Mary walk down the steps and cross to the car.  The women moved to the passenger side and Ada opened the front door.
            “Get in the back,” Tom ordered, his voice raised to be heard over the engine.
            “I ain’t sittin’ in the back.  I always sat up front when my Johnny drove.”  Ada dropped onto the seat and stared defiantly forward.
            “My I sit up front, Mr. Talbot?  I get awful sick in the back.”  Mary’s soft voice could hardly be heard, and she did not wait for Tom’s guttural response.  She smiled sweetly at Ada, who would not look back at her.
            “Why doesn’t she get in the back?” scowled Tom.
            “Said she gets sick in the back.”
            “Well let her in, you witch.”  Tom could not believe it.  Ada pushed herself towards the middle of the seat.  Mary climbed in and pulled the door shut.  He began to feel the same sickly closeness that had driven him crazy on the porch.  “A whole back seat empty,” he said to himself aloud.
            “Do you mind, Ada?  I don’t like to sit so close to the door.  I’m just so afraid it will fly open.  I’ve always felt like that.”
            Ada glared at the fearful Mary, but moved closer to Tom as requested.  Tom ground his teeth as he felt the heat of Ada’s thighs press on him.  He leaned an arm out the window and tried to get as much of his shoulder out as he could.  The heat of the idling engine added to his misery.
            “What’s he saying?”  Ada watched Grant wave a hand at them, his lips moving, though nothing he said could be heard.
Road in Maine
Edward Hopper
            “Hell if I know.  Let’s get this over with.”  Tom’s hand hesitated a moment before reaching over Ada and grasping the gearshift.  Ada tried to pull herself out of the way as he mashed the gears and started the car rolling.
            “Grant!”  A large grey-headed woman barreled out of the front door and onto the empty porch.  “What’s going on?  Who’s taken the car?”
            “Tom’s driving Miss Ada and Miss Mary to town, Mrs. Foster.”  Grant said with some confusion in his tone.
            “You told me the car was broke.”
            “No ma’am.  T’aint broke.”  Grant lifted the spade and rubbed at some dirt that had stuck to the edge.
            “Then what did you tell me?”  Mrs. Foster demanded.
            “I said I wouldn’t drive it.  The brake fluid’s low.  Too low.”  He spit on the spade and rubbed it with a red handkerchief.  “Bob Trachsell was bringing some fluid this afternoon.”  Satisfied with the spade, he set it back in the wheelbarrow and turned to watch the black sedan as it worked its way down the winding road.  Absentmindedly, he wiped his flushed forehead with the dirty handkerchief and stuffed it into a back pocket.  “They’ll have trouble stoppin’.  Never should have left the keys in it, I guess.”
            “Oh, for heaven’s sake.”  Mrs. Foster stood squarely at the top of the steps and glared angrily down at the car as it raised a tail of dust along the road.
            “You’re going too fast.”  Ada shouted above the noise of the engine.  The tires grated loudly on the road; bits of dirt and small rock peppered the undercarriage like machinegun fire.
            “You should have driven if you wanted to set the speed.”  Tom pumped the brake, angry at Ada’s bossiness and the brake’s slow response.  “I know what’s too fast and what’s not.”
            The car was not slowing down.  As it rolled over bumps, Tom could feel Ada’s sweaty body jostle against his own.  Annoyed at the ineffectiveness of the brake, he jammed his foot down on the clutch and crammed the gearshift into a lower gear.  The engine surged with a roar.
            “You’re speeding up!”  Ada turned and yell at him from only inches away; her breath a foul odor.
            “I’m downshifting, stupid witch.”  Tom leaned his head away from her breath, intent on hanging his head out the window if necessary.
            The driver and the two passengers sat silently after that.  They watched the road race under them with a gathering speed that alarmed even Tom.  Ada disliked the bumping and jerking and decided Tom was only trying to spite her.  Mary watched in great fear as the grass alongside blurred into a rush of green and brown fury.  She inched closer and closer to Ada, terrified the door would fly open at any moment.  As the car approached a turn, Tom jammed both feet on the brake.  Reluctantly, the brakes finally grabbed at the disks, and the car slowed down a little.  Tom pulled hard on the wheel, his elbow smashing down on Ada’s leg.  She let out a yell and pushed at him.  Tom fought back as the car threw them all against him, sliding around the turn.
            “Stop it, you crazy witch!”  Tom fought to keep the wheel turned.
            “Mr. Talbot!”  Mary shrieked in supplication.  She was nearly in Ada’s lap.
            The turn straightened out, and the road leveled off.  Knocking the car out of gear, Tom kept his feet jammed on the brake pedal.  In a cloud of dust, the black beast, so recently roaring with rage, came to an unwilling halt.  Tom’s legs ached, still locked hard against the brake.  He hung half out the window, with Ada smashed against him.  Mary was on top of her.  With a shudder of exhaustion, the engine died.
            Tom groped for the door handle with his arm that hung out the window.  Yanking at it, the door popped open and he tried to scramble out.  Ada and Mary fell out with him, knocking him to the ground.  Ada groaned in aggravation, Mary still trembled with fear.  Tom shook with anger and pushed them away, clawing at the dirt as he tried to stand.  With a last great effort, he stood clear of them.  He was free.
            He stood several steps from the car, a breeze on his face.  The dust was settling and he took in deep gulps of fresh air.  They were in the middle of the road; the road was on the edge of the valley floor.  Bean fields stretched endlessly out from the road.  There was no noise, no movement.  Tom felt as if he were on the edge of the wide world, surrounded with nothing but open space.
            “You said you knew how to drive.”  Ada beat at the dust that had settled on her dress.  She stood up and tried to steady her shaking body.  “You’d better not drive like that the rest of the way to town.”
            Tom breathed in the fresh smell of the bean fields and exhaled with pleasure.  The sour look he had worn all morning was draining away.  He began to smile.
            “Mr. Talbot, would you please assist me?”  Mary sat in the dirt, the skirt of her dress lay wrinkled about her, baring her white thin knees.  She looked at him pathetically, a child waiting to be fawned over.
            Tom stood straighter and felt stronger with every breath of fresh air.  He smelled honeysuckle and dandelion and it was like nothing he had ever felt before.  There was freedom in it.  It filled him with contentment, rest, and a sudden inability to hear anything the women said.  Ada’s reproaches, Mary’s entreaties; none of them reached his ears.  All he heard was the stir of the breeze in the grass and the fields, and his own full breaths.
            “Where is he going, Miss Ada?”
            “Get back here, Tom!  You come back right now.”
            Tom felt the grass tug playfully at his pant legs as he wandered across it towards the great expanse of fields.  A beetle buzzed briefly near him and he watched as it flew off across the field.  He followed it.  He had no wings, but he did not mind.  He would follow it at his own easy pace.  There was no hurry.
            A pheasant, its late morning nap disturbed by the passing of the man, broke the silence of the field and scrambled about until it gained enough speed and leapt into the air.  Rising gently above the land, it circled as it gained altitude.  Below, the black shroud of a car sat sullenly on a dusty road.  Two women stood immobile beside it.  A half a mile away, a figure hiked easily through the green rows of an enormous field.  The women were shouting at the figure in the field; their voices swallowed up by the vastness of the valley floor.

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