So this is it, I’m done for, Neal thought as he watered the bigger than expected, menacing cactus on his balcony.
It rarely wanted watering from what he could tell. It grew as if infused with super growth hormone. Long spiny leaves reached to pierce his legs if he didn’t take extra care moving around them. It occurred to him it could be a guard cactus. He’d place it at his door to discourage marauders and thieves. He paused to survey its prickliness, one eyebrow raised. It could use a shaping up and perhaps an accessory like a bow on the terra-cotta planter. Or a discreet sign: BEWARE. Why couldn’t it just blend in with all the other friendly plants and flowers he nurtured?
Neal wasn’t sure why he bothered with it, but it was a gift from his niece. The one who seldom showed up on time for family gatherings, then always had some ill-considered remark about his work or meal offerings or the choice of music played for dinner’s pleasure. Cara the Critic. Well, she was still young, what did she know? She’d gloat over this new development in his life, despite the fact that she lacked a true artistic bone in her flamboyant street performer body. If she couldn’t sing he might be tempted to dismiss her at times but the fact was, she made a lot more than spare change as a busker.
And she was beloved family, face it, his ill sister’s only child. Isabel’s. Izzy to only Neal. He had two younger nephews but Cara was his only niece. And she got him better than some, to be honest.
But the news was: they wouldn’t be taking his fine photographs, anymore, after August. There were now deemed archaic, out of step with societal mores and/or themes, lacked a passionate edginess. Neal wanted to march down to Carven and Carven Photographic Arts to demand more information of Renee. But it was money, after all, everything was. Nothing she might say to cushion the fact that they needed a wider profit margin could soften the blow. Why should Neal feel betrayed when it was business? She and Harry, her brother, had to do what they had to do despite having shown his work for four and a half years with success. And it wasn’t the only gallery, just the largest and most respected in the state. There were four more plus gift shops where his photos did so-so. Lately not all that well, it was true.
He sat down on a creaky wicker chair and put his head in his hands, wishing to fall sleep and not wake up for a few years.
“You have to be relevant, Uncle Nealio,” Cara said. She’d dropped by a couple of days later to return an Eartha Kitt CD she’d borrowed. “I’ve been telling you that a long time.”
“Don’t keep calling me that.” He plopped down her iced tea with extra sweetener and opened his sparkling water. To his surprise and her credit, she hadn’t sneered nor laughed. “Relevancy is a matter of taste or intellectual inclination so often, don’t you think? I mean, look at you. Who decided this was relevant today?”
She looked down at her long orange skirt paired with a loose green tank top bearing gold spangles. Held up her hands. “It’s eye-catching, right? People see the bright flash out of the corner of their eyes about when they hear my voice and bam! See, that’s what you need–something that grabs attention in moment by moment living! Maybe you should come down and take pictures of the streets. That sells well, I’m sure. We’re unique, a city where trends are started, nutty ideas make good, people can be whoever they want to be. Yeah, here’s to our town!” She gulped the tea as if dying of thirst.
“You know how it is with Carven and Carven–their very reputation gets my work sold! Without them I may as well hang it up, think about doing greeting cards.”
“Well, that wouldn’t be so bad, either. But you can’t just take pictures of historic buildings. Well, wait, you do have prints in two museum gift shops so you could add a series of cards…but it still won’t make for a very decent living.”
Neal stifled a snicker. Cara shared a tiny loft above Pioneer Square, the heart of downtown among historic edifices galore. What would she know about more than just getting by? On the other hand, maybe something since she was paying sky high rent for a killer location. Well, he had his own worries, lots of real bills, the sort that weighted his mail box every day. They’d seemed to increase twofold since he was given the boot by C and C.
“I like architecture. It’s my love, my fascination. Do you have any idea how many incredible buildings Portland has? I will never run out of subject matter.”
“Sure, but maybe you already have if no one wants to buy the photographs. How many people want to hang a portrait of a nineteenth century mansion or business building on the wall of their house? They want color, they want unique, they want relevancy.”
“Good grief, you should be doing marketing for the gallery, Cara–where is this zeal coming from?”
She shrugged her narrow shoulders. “I had a triple shot of espresso this morning. But you cannot ignore the fact that at twenty, I likely have some insight into what’s hot and sells.”
He snorted. “A minute subset of buyers. Not the collecting sort or business people who want to add the right touch of class.”
“Alrighty then, Uncle Nealio. I have got to run. Do you have a travel cup? Good tea this time, what did you do different?”
“Nothing and yes, on the kitchen counter–if you bring it back.”
He watched her as she flitted about singing, her textured alto voice rearranging the air in the rooms. He noticed she had a new tattoo on her forearm, a dragon of sorts, right next to a moon surrounded by stars. Innovation, he thought, she’s good at that but sooner or later even that goes stale, right?
She opened the front door. “Think about it. You should try my demographic. Lots of action down there. Just don’t get too close to me, we don’t have to be that friendly when I’m trying to make a living, right?”
“Not likely, but thanks. By the way, why don’t you take back that cactus one of these days? It still doesn’t like my petunias and geraniums much–or me, for that matter.”
“I just checked on it as I came in. It’s doing great, you have a knack! You just need to see it in a friendlier light. Take it for a walk, talk to it. It’ll look less like the enemy.”
“Hey, Cara…how is Izzy doing this week?”
She looked away and for an instant he thought she might tell him how scared she really was. Then she locked her sheer blue gaze on his and held steady. “You know. Lung cancer chemo, round three. She manages, I guess. Call her. I need to see her more… Later.”
Neal stood at yard’s edge of one of the mansions Cara had mentioned. There was a drifting swath of fog and fog was good in this opalescent morning light. It was open to the public but few arrived as early as did he, and not when the view of the city was obscured. The ticket seller/taker had barely nodded at first, as if she’d hoped to remain in bed. But when she saw his cameras, her grey head had popped up.
“Oh, taking pictures? That’s a fine camera. Good luck this morning.”
Neal had then introduced himself, pressed a business card into her palm. Shameless. He had to keep selling himself any way he could– and she’d read it aloud, then tucked it in her handbag with a pat. Maybe she’d tell the outfit who ran the place.
It was a formidable stone home, monumental at 16,000 square feet, imposing in its extravagance for the year 1914 . Built in the French Renaissance château style, it sat on a bluff with a ranging area of 46 acres. Neal had admired it many times over the years; it garnered high regard of thousands of photographers and visitors. But this time he had come to walk and meditate as well as take photographs. The fog embraced him with is damp chill, sunlight permeating spots here and there. He checked the house in his viewfinder, framed and took a few uninspired pictures. Its beautiful monstrosity was softened by voluminous haze. Its impressive solidity, its historical significance enthralled him no matter how often he visited.
Maybe he was too attracted to the past. The places imprinted with it via design and their materials and a lingering of memorable events felt dependable–as the mutable present was not. He felt that way even as a child, perhaps because all he had of his mother were a handful of memories. Photos in a scrapbook. She, too, had had cancer, leaving them when he was six. He thought of Izzy, her frailty and strong will at odds and shuddered. He wondered how many pictures he had taken of her, if they had shown the truth of her life, after all, and if that was all he would have left. Alarm shot through him, a lightning bolt of pain. That he could begin to imagine her gone was too much.
The fog seemed to swallow him the closer he moved toward the mansion, so he stepped away. Looked out over the city as swaths of thickened air began to fray, then dissipate more. It was an expansive sight the original owners had enjoyed each day. Thrilling, even, he was sure, as they sipped coffee or tea from china cups at a table on the veranda. Neal thought of his own vistas: vehicles jockeying with people for space on narrow streets, the colorful garden courtyard of his building, a rectangular and variable view from the skylight above his bed. He sometimes thought of his beckoning skylight as another camera lens where visions morphed throughout seasons. Hours, even. How much easier life appeared through that imagined gateway into the cosmos. A life lived beyond illness and endings, beyond fumbling failure, beyond mercenary means and ends.
As he looked back at toward the humongous house, there was a flash of red on the stone terrace, what seemed a billowing edge of a long dress. He raised his camera and took a shot, then more rapidly as a nebulous figure paused at a pillar, gazing to the east. His position was covert and gave him more time to move through thinning fog, dodging shafts of light striping the green expanse and rows of flowers. Who was she, a volunteer? Another visitor? Her face was porcelain white, her hair piled up in a bright mass, her body a kin to a fantasy firebird’s that had slipped amid shadows cast by aged oaks.
He had to find her, ask her for more photographs. Neal rushed to the entrance and showed his ticket to the volunteer–Betty, her tag informed–now alert at her station. Walked quickly past a group of college age boys, toward an area of the mansion where the woman should be. Opened the door onto a terrace. Glanced right and left and beyond. Nothing, nothing but tails of fog. He followed the terrace around as far as he could and tried all doors but none opened. Neal was left to himself. Laughter followed him, then came a group of women. He examined their clothing. No pinks or corals or reds, nothing close to the dress the elusive woman wore.
He moved through the rest of the museum house, every room he knew so well after years of enjoyment. A straggling pair here, a lone visitor there. No red anything. No one with pale hair swept up. He was oddly desperate.
“Betty, can you help me?”
She smiled. “Of course.”
“Have you noticed a tall woman wearing a flowing, floor length red dress–as if on her way to a party? Light hair up in a hairdo like a…I’m not sure what it is.”
“A bun? Chignon?”
“Yes! Have you?”
“No, sorry, no one like that. Sounds lovely. Perhaps, though…a trick of the eye? The fog is a magician, you know.”
He frowned though she still smiled up at him. “No, of course not. Thanks, anyway.”
“Come back soon,” she called to his departing back. “Some say someone from the long ago past turns up during the odd hour here and there; you may see her ghost again.”
“Right,” he said. “Bye.”
After a thorough search of accessible grounds he gave up, he took a final look from the bluff’s edge. The fog was receding early, before noon. The whole of the city opened up before him. He saw trains rumbling to the historically important station and a huge grid of skyscrapers, sunshine gleaming across mirror-like spareness. Snail-slow cars and buses making their way to and fro. The meandering dusky river with newer steel and stone sturctures, even orange or yellow painted buildings rising alongside it. Blue-green mountain foothills to the west undulating like rolling backs of mythic creatures. This city was rich with life. Incandescent.
He suddenly wanted to be down there, too.
“Really? You had to take me that literally?”
Cara was between songs and leaning against a building he liked, one constructed in 1912. Neal admired the beveled windows of its front doors as he stepped from the flow of walkers. People were heading to restaurants on lunch hours; she made plenty then. Her worn acoustic guitar was slung over her shoulder; she drank tepid water as indicated by distaste.
“You could get me a cold drink if you want to be helpful, but when I start singing you need to back away more.”
“I’ll donate more than that to your cause if you let me photograph you awhile. You’ll look pretty interesting on film, I think.”
“What? You must be a crackpot, Uncle Nealio. I’m no model and I’m not posing.” Her face was rosy from the gathering heat of the day. Her dark hair stuck up around her head like a spiky halo and hazel eyes glowed nearly green in slanting light. Circles of sparkly gemstones swayed at her cheeks. Not to mention the blue and yellow tie dyed dress she wore and her young skin glowing. She was a vision of individualism, a quirky beauty that had barely tapped into its good genes. And it was wrapped up with signature Portland, its creativity and brash confidence.
“Of course not! Just sing! I realize I’ve never gotten pictures of you doing your art here. You and other street performers. Something you’ve suggested I document, remember? To be more au courant?”
She rolled her eyes, looked away. “Well, fine, just be discreet about it. Somehow. I do not want you blocking foot traffic or distracting my attention…please, Uncle Neal?”
Cara stepped forward, started strumming rich chords so they rang out above din of traffic and loud conversationalists, her forearm’s fierce dragon tattoo swaying. Then her voice joined, rich and throaty, strong and gorgeous. Of course he knew she could sing like this. He had offered once to foot the bill for voice lessons but she’d refused. She sang on occasion with bands but preferred going it alone, she’d said. The creative license she had, leeway with time and place, the money all to herself–well, she was making her own way. Despite her mother’s worries and her father’s embarrassment at her lack of college degree so far. But she was now notably more than good and a natural performer.
So he began to shoot, rapidly, from every angle, as far and near as possible. Her singing but also: strangers tossing money in the guitar case without slowing; the homeless kids circled up with arms propped on each other’s shoulders, their scrawny dogs sniffing and barking. Men in snappy suits and women in fancy high heels who flashed grins and money that counted; the old ones who shuffled up, paused, nodded dreamily and donating a dollar. And Cara’s personality unfurled like a series of bright flags, an far braver person with easy banter and seemingly endless repertoire. Gratitude for every cent and word of praise. She filled up his lenses with magic.
Neal got her two cold drinks and a hearty snack and set all by her feet as she geared up for another set. She was working so hard and even the ones who tried to avoid her were startled by that adamant, far-ranging voice. He’d had no idea it had come to this. He wondered if Izzy had heard her perform here or if she and that brother-in-law of his, Dan, thought it beneath them, beneath her perceived capabilities. If they only knew.
He’d missed so much down here. He had missed it while painstakingly photographing all that glorious architecture yet none of the inhabitants or passersby. He’d cataloged formidable and stodgy and famous and useless buildings. But the actual people who now lived within or around them hadn’t even been given basic acknowledgment.
“Yes, this is Neal Harding. Sure, I know who you are, Mr. Tilton–excellent competition for Carven and Carven, for starters.”
The man on the other end tittered quietly. “Well said.” He cleared his throat.”To the point: I saw your small grouping of photographs down at the market last week. The ones of a street singer and company. And an intriguing couple taken, I suspect, at the esteemed Pittock Mansion.”
“Yes, I threw together a few pieces, sold several. But I usually show at–”
“C and C, among several other places. Yes, you are a fairly well known fact. And now you need to come up with a great selection for my Portland Premier Photographers gallery, if you would. I suspect you even deserve an exhibit of your own. And from there who knows what could happen. We’ll strategize.”
“You mean that I…really, a headlining exhibit?”
“Can you handle that sort of demand?” George Tilton laughed in delight.”Of course you can. I would want lots more of street scenes, any others that showcase your interpretation of people, you have such an eye. Less architectural studies but they are so good, a smattering would be fine. Why don’t you come down next week, discuss terms with me, and we’ll sign a contract.”
They chatted a few more moments and hung up. The silence was unbroken save for the screaming throngs cheering him on inside his blindsided brain. Then he turned around and looked himself full in the face in the broad wall mirror, a sight he generally avoided. The receding hairline and scruffy mustache, the hint of a double chin, eyes bleary from restless sleep. But there he was, looking happy again.
“Imagine that,” he said to himself.
Neal walked through the French doors onto the balcony. He gathered a deep breath and let it go slowly, savoring a lightening of all the anxiety-laden worry. He picked up his phone and called his sister. He looked at the cactus. Flourishing despite his distrust and dislike. It did have its own kind of appeal, he admitted.
“Izzy? Hello, my dear. I’ll swing by this week-end to hang out but I wanted you to be the first to know. I am going to help make your daughter famous. Yes, I’m serious–her visage will soon adorn many nooks and crannies, whole walls, I hope! I’m on my way up again, sis–thanks to her.”
After they caught up and further congratulated each other–she, for having a talented and smart daughter like Cara in the first place; he, for being a can-and-will-do rather than a has-been sort–he went to his bedroom. Removed a heavy vase of yellow lilies from an antique plant stand that he’d painted a deep lacquer red. He set the piece in the little foyer, across from his front door. Neal then put on leather gardening gloves, went to the balcony, picked up the burgeoning, perhaps misunderstood cactus, carried it gingerly across his living room and placed it on the elegant stand. Right where all could note its strange grandeur. Especially that bold and adored Cara who had, it seemed, set in motion many excellent things.
(Note: The real Pittock Mansion is in Portland, OR. and the above foggy view is a 2011 photo, one of many I have taken. The 16,000 sq. ft. manse built in 1914 was a progressive construction with a number of innovations including a central vacuum system. single room thermostats and intercoms. Built in 1914 by Henry Pittock, an important businessman and owner of our city newspaper The Oregonian, it is on The National Register of Historic Places. Some people say it may be haunted but I have not felt a ghostly presence there yet.)