My dad liked to drive his tan Chevy truck on short trips away from the hotel where he lived. He owned a hotel in the magic mountains. That’s what we called the Sierras. He lived in the hotel after he divorced my mom. In the magic mountains there were bears and mountain lions, lizards whose tails came off when you grabbed them, and rattle snakes.
My dad fed the bears in the garbage area while customers watched from the bar windows. Once a big black bear came after him and he barely escaped up the side of the cliff. A good show for the customers but not a good time for him. He laughed after but he was shook. I could see that. He hunted and killed an aggressive mountain lion that had terrorized the community. He had it taxidermied with its threatening teeth exposed. He gave it to me. I donated it to the Boy Scouts. They used it as a cape in some silly spirit dances until it was worn out and ruined. I couldn’t tell my dad the truth. I told him they hung it on a wall in their troop headquarters with a plaque recognizing him.
I lived with my mom but I visited my dad from time to time. He’d drive us in his truck to visit friends. The truck was new and had that new truck smell, subtle and seductive. My dad was a stickler for keeping things clean and organized including his attire. Except for his ties. His ties all had food spots commemorating some past meal or other. His standard outfit included a wool fedora hat, a white dress shirt, a gray coat and slacks. His Nunn Bush shoes shined like the two cheeks of a fresh shaved face. He wore a tie when the occasion called for one.
Mountains with snow-capped peaks rise up from fields of pine and fir evergreens as we drive east along the Yuba river. Giant granite boulders populate the banks of the river. Emerald green water turns to white foam as it churns around boulders strewn in the river bed. We are heading out to a glass house built by an artist couple, Charles and Lois Fletcher.
Charles (he went by Fletcher) does large sprawling landscapes of the Sierras in a minimalist style. They are like Chinese landscape paintings but with Fletcher’s unique twist. He leaves large patches of white on the canvases and strategically places green red, yellow, orange, brown, black and gray to suggest the whisper of a mountain, valley, rock or tree. This makes up the scene. There are no people or animals, just eyes looking in, the eyes of a voyeur, my eyes.
Lois does mountain wildflowers lush and full of color, so real I want to reach out and grasp them with my hand and eat them. Multicolored green shrubs where imaginary animals lurk out of view—newts, frogs, chipmunks, pikas, a rabbit or a fox. Towering trees join into a thick impenetrable forest where the wood sprites conduct their secret affairs.
Fletcher the minimalist. Lois the bountiful. My father was a good customer. He used many of Fletcher’s and Lois’s paintings in the hotel. Not that he had an eye for art. He was blind in that respect. What he had an eye for was people. He liked the Fletchers and that’s all that mattered to him.
We parked on the river bank and hopped across rocks to the stairway leading up to the wooden deck that surrounded the house. Fletcher gave us a hand up.
“Welcome Marshall. Who’s that young man with you? Lee? My God son, you’ve grown a foot since I last saw you. Come on in. Lois has some hot apple cider for you. And for you Marshall? Your usual Early Times and soda?“
I turned red. I hated being greeted like that. Grown a foot, blah blah blah. But the apple cider sounded good.
“Thanks Fletcher. Whiskey and soda sounds swell. Lee is visiting for a couple of weeks. We’ve been making the rounds and today we’re in the market for some art.”
I saw Fletcher’s stoic smile. He was already calculating the profits. But I was more interested in Lois. She made me feel something. I was too young to understand love or passion or sex but some vague fantasy formed in my brain that I couldn’t explain. She kissed me on the cheek and I went lymph.
“Sit by me, Lee, and tell me all about your life. What have you been up to since I last saw you?” Her golden brown hair curved around her face and fell down her neck, a few loose strands flying about like naughty children. Her red lips parted just enough to reveal two perfect white incisors. Her brown eyes, half open, gave me a chill that the hot cider was powerless to dispel.
“I read a lot,” I said and sat frozen with confusion.
“What do you read? Which authors do you most enjoy?” I watched the tiny reflections of light off her high sharp cheekbones. Her mouth moved more on her ride side as she spoke.
“Well, I like Edgar Allen Poe and Robert Lewis Stevenson but right now I’m reading The Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne.”
“The Scarlet Letter? At your age? My goodness, Lee. You really are growing up fast.” The look on her face changed.
Not fast enough to catch you, Lois. That’s what I thought but I couldn’t say it. “Dad thinks it’s some kind of trashy pulp novel,” I laughed awkwardly.
Lois laughed with me. “Yes. He would but don’t tell him I said so. Keep reading, Lee. You can live as many lives as you want with good books. Books, like paintings, take you away to places you could never imagine without them.”
My dad and Fletcher were on their second drink when Lois went to join them. I walked around the house mesmerized by the paintings. Their house was their studio. Fletcher worked in one corner, Lois in the other. Large glass windows framed the river and woods outside. I moved from corner to corner surrounded by line and color and space. In the distance glasses clinked, old memories elicited laughter and bonds strange to me held the drinkers together like particles in an atomic nucleus.
By the end of the afternoon it was clear that my father was in no condition to drive home. I didn’t yet have my license but I knew how to drive. My father agreed to let me drive us home without an argument. Fletcher and I packed and secured the paintings selected for the hotel in the back of the truck. Lois hugged and kissed me as we left and whispered in my ear, “Take care of Marshall, Leland, and don’t be such a stranger. Come back and see us again soon.”
I didn’t realize she knew my full name until then. It thrilled me in a way I couldn’t fully comprehend. “I will,” I said, but I wondered if I would ever see her again.
The ride home was easier than I expected. After a few .white knuckle moments, I settled into a comfortable groove. My father did not fall asleep as I thought he would. Instead we talked about the Fletchers.
“Why don’t the Fletchers have any children?” It was a question I’d thought about while I walked through their house. It occurred to me that the difference in their painting styles might have something to do with the lack of children. I wondered if Fletcher’s stark landscapes were a subliminal reflection of his childless marriage while Lois’s warm pastorals were a substitute for the child she wished for.
My father grew serious when he responded. “You’re old enough to know about these things now, Lee, to understand what I’m about to tell you. You can’t speak of this to anyone. Promise me that you won’t.”
“Of course not, dad, if you say so,” my curiosity grew the more serious he became.
“Before Lois knew Charles she was engaged to another man. She and Charles had an affair soon after they met and she became pregnant. She called off the engagement. Embarrassed and ashamed, she decided to terminate her pregnancy.” My father glanced at me to see if I was following him.
“You mean … have an abortion,” I said.
“Yes,” said my father. “Pregnant single women and unmarried mothers were stigmatized in those days even more than they are now. Those who did not marry were often forced to leave home and to live in group homes that functioned like prisons. Women who had no other options used coat hangers, glass bottles, and sharpened sticks to try and end their pregnancies. I was not going to force Lois into that situation.”
“So, you helped her?” I asked.
“I hardly knew her. Charles asked for my help. He had just started his career as an artist. I knew his family. He made me swear to keep everything secret which I did, until now. This is meant to be a lesson for you, Lee. Decisions have consequences.” By now my father was quite sober. My hands griped the wheel tightly. My eyes were focused straight ahead but my mind was riveted to the words I heard.
“The abortion was performed under ideal conditions – sterile, dignified, by a doctor I trusted. I wanted only for Lois to resume her life without the stigma of an unwed mother. None of us foresaw the real risk. Lois survived but with one life-changing complication. After the operation she was unable to have children.”
My father was sweating. He’d held his guilt inside all these years. And now, here I was his confessor, proud that he trusted me but horrified at the words he spoke. Lois, beautiful Lois, someone I thought in some juvenile way I loved. I clearly had no conception of love. My feelings were small and vile in comparison to the emotion and empathy and feelings I saw in my father.
“You did the right thing, dad. It wasn’t your fault.” It didn’t seem enough but it was all I could think to say.
At the hotel the bartender helped me take the paintings to the downstairs bar and hang them in the empty spaces on the wall. My father went to the front desk to check on the day’s arrivals.
“You want a Coke, Lee?” asked the bartender after we finished hanging pictures.
“Sure, Tommy. And, how about a few quarters for the juke box?”
I selected some songs and sat at a window table to drink my Coke. The sunlight reflected off Lake Spaulding in the distance. Customers started to arrive and soon Tommy was busy making drinks.
I thought about all that happened earlier, about watching the river rushing over the rocks below the Fletcher’s house, about what my father told me, about Lois. One large Fletcher painting was on the wall across from me. I walked over to it to look closely. Somehow, suddenly, I became lost. I found myself totally lost. I couldn’t breathe. I had fallen somewhere into the blank white spaces, the absences, the gaps of the painting unable ever to emerge the same again.