An Afternoon of Art and Conversation

Kresge Court, Detroit Institute of Arts-photo by Bill Rauhauser
Kresge Court, Detroit Institute of Arts-photo by Bill Rauhauser

I know what they think, the two of us gliding through the art institute, his hand on my elbow, my eyes a bit dreamy, pearls swaying with each confident step. He is bulky and tall, his hair streaked with silver and wavy, and his heavy coat which he wore as though it’s a royal cloak, well, it’s cashmere, isn’t it? Of course they think those thoughts. I am too young for him. We’re not even friendly in a way one would expect family. I wear, I suspect, a look of slightly tarnished yet studied elegance. Do they think I don’t know what effect I can create? It’s in my blood. An actress mother; a composer father. We design everything.

I call him Samuel and he calls me Galinda, our ruse in case someone should hear or spot him and then proceed to detain us with an intrusive chat. He is well-known. I am nobody despite my attempt to appear cosmopolitan. Bored, perhaps above it all. Samuel bends over from time to time to inquire after me, to offer knowledge or astute criticism. I try to enjoy this tomb full of artistic endeavors. The places they put art! I have never visited the Detroit Institute of Arts. Why would I? I’m not ignorant. I just live in Kansas City. Or, I guess, did.

After we fill ourselves with a smorgasboard of classical works and outrageously modern pieces that make him squirm and me giggle, we sit in the courtyard. It’s chilly so he offers me his suede sport coat across my legs, considerate, a rather intimate act. I need a smoke. He offers me one of his, and the gold-plated lighter makes the barest flicking sound, not like my blue plastic Bic. I nearly choke; they’re French cigarettes. I suppress a cough while he looks away politely. He doesn’t really want to be here on a Saturday afternoon. I am his wife’s niece. He just married Portia a year ago. He wants to please her while she’s at her office.

Everyone said it was for her glamour but really, it was for her wit. I have seen them together enough to know how much he admires her. And she him. Portia is much like my mother, Eleanora, but absolutely intact. Her cosmetics business thrives.

My mother is in a place no one wants to mention. My father, Abe, distracts himself by playing piano all hours of the day and night. He won’t eat my cooking. He doesn’t like to sleep alone in their satin-covered, sway-backed bed.

This is how it was, act 1, scene 4:

“Why do you bring me chicken and peas at eight o’clock at night? Can’t you see I’m working? No, no food. Remove the tea, as well. Coffee. Please.”

I stand in the doorway, holding the too-hot china plate, then pick up bright green peas one by one and pop them in my mouth. The chicken is enveloped in mushroom sauce that even I loathe.

“Must you eat that way? Don’t we have a dining room table, silverware? Let me work now. I have to get this completed for the publisher.”

How can I blame Abe? Eleanora is the only one who has mastered him. Coddled him. I am the result of idealistic passion that has begun to erode from the sharp edges of life.

“I’m sorry, so sorry, darling. Come and sit.”

He swivels on the piano bench and holds out his hands to me. But I am already finished with the peas and my fingers are slippery with the last tablespoon of butter. I leave the music room. The silence soon iss stuffed with allegretto and appassionata and a moan of misery as he stops again and again. He huddles over his score. I feet his loneliness like an arctic wind. I can’t evade it no matter how hard I try.

Eleanora has always been absorbed by acting–live theater–and has done well enough to have her name on a half-dozen major Midwest marquees many times. But things change. She is now not the type they seek. Age creeps in and her flirtatious nature becomes a little sad. Or she stumbles over her lines more often. Prestige can’t be easily bargained for or bought. I’ve watched her slip away, into odd reveries, into sleep and finally into a dark corner of her mind but cannot tell you exactly why. My mother still can hush every room she enters. She has such flair and is so quick one has to work to keep up with her. But we are helpless. Well, I haven’t been home for four years but I saw it coming even before I left.

Fade to black, scene change. My own dubious future.

I think sometimes creativity can contort things. It can turn you inside out and then where is the refuge? I’ve noticed that everyone I know who adores creating risks adoration of their own feelings. It’s like a mirror they fall into if there are not enough other images to divert their attention and energy. Or simply not enough spark to illuminate something greater.

Eleanora and Abe would scoff at this. I am just a twenty-two year old college graduate with a new job. No matter that I pay attention. I am nothing if not a neophyte. I have not become absolutely amazing, something they desire with all their hearts.

So, Aunt Portia. She found a place for mother to recuperate from life. She offered me a room in their suburban Detroit home that could accommodate three families so here I am. I work at Metropolitan Estates for now, crunching numbers, attending to people’s wills and all. That’s right, as glamorous as all that, but when I tell people I’m quite interested in wills and inheritance taxes, they act as if I’m somewhat a genius, at the very least clever. But the word I most often hear? “Spunky.” How spunky of me to move here and take this job right out of college in nineteen sixty-seven. I think, how crucial to survival now that I am on my own.

“You enjoyed the art?” Samuel asks with interest.

His name is really Arthur Minhausen III. He owns so much commercial property in this city you about trip over it just walking down the street.

I exhale as he stubs his own cigarette out.

“Some beautiful paintings, of course. But I like living art, not entombed, untouchable.”

Samuel smiles, a crooked front tooth adding a certain flair. He brings his coffee cup to his lips, hesitates before drinking. “Example?”

“How about gardens? Aunt Portia’s is outstanding. Or public sculptures that seem in short supply here but abound in Europe, I hear. People can touch them, enjoy a summer breeze as they sit and gaze at them with serious intent. Or not. Art for the masses, all sorts. Or art you can wear, we certainly need that, too!”

“Ah, now you sound like Portia,” he says. “You should travel more and then tell me what you think. Explore different cultures, enjoy other visions.”

I look away to hide the fact that I don’t believe that will ever happen. My life doesn’t include windfalls. But I see a couple staring at us, the woman whispering to her companion. Arthur is high-profile, a local celebrity. He fundraises. He is a toastmaster about town, a gad-about that everyone likes to rub shoulders with. He looks as good as he talks and his wife is even better.

“Well, I made it to Detroit. That’s a start.”

He leans toward me. “A bold move, I must say.” He inclines his head. “Lizzie, you share your mother’s and aunt’s gifts, you know.”

My actual name spoken is a disappointment–shhouldn’t I go by Elizabeth now?–but I flush. Too often I’ve heard I have my mother’s and aunt’s looks and it gets tiring. I have known this new uncle for about a month. “Meaning?”

“You’re a creative thinker, practical. Smart, personable. Independent. You will do well. It won’t always be Detroit. It may be New York or Los Angeles. Public relations, as you hope. You’ll make your way.”

It seems extravagant to me, all this praise. Arthur/Samuel is lighting another cigarette and handing me a second, which I refuse. His smallish eyes are clear and steady. I open my mouth and close it. He nods to encourage my response.

“You forget I might have gotten a serious genetic load of melancholia. I may be doomed to swooning too much or crying over how unfair life is. Worse, collapsing under my own emotional weight. My own mother finds her life less than she desires and what happens? She dives deep into the cave of her bedroom until we have to search for her and send her away for reconstruction. I’m sometimes fearful if I stub my toe I might decide I can’t even walk!”

I’m embarrassed by my frankness, how easy it is. And my anger. Surely I can be kinder. But there it is. Meanness where there should be tenderness. She is my mother, after all. My father could do with more goodness from me, too. He wept as he told me it was best I go.

“It happens. We think we know how to manage and then find out we have a deficit that needs addressing. Or there’s a change in the weather, whatever! We might need help. Everyone does, sooner or later.”

“Not you, I’m sure.”

Arthur inhales and holds it too long, as if the smothered smoke keeps his thoughts in place. I imagine a boat coming to port, the thoughts ready to disembark, waiting for a signal. The he exhales and words tumble out.

“Why not me? Is my ambition separate from the rest of my living? It all comes from the same source: ourselves. Dreams and failures, achievements and losses. But there are our plans and life’s plans. We make ourselves who we need to be, and it works or it doesn’t. I tell you, I haven’t always had it this good, and I don’t mean just materially.”

I sipped my Coke, then held it with both hands to cool myself. “Okay, wait, so my mother chose to be nuts? And I can choose not to be? Just like that.”

He shook his head slowly. “It’s the luck of the draw, sometimes, but it’s also how we deal with what is dealt. Everything we do is a risk. Like my business. Like you coming to stay with us. Even your mother’s choices, Lizzie.” He reaches for my wrist and his hand is dry, firm. “She will rebound, Portia believes, don’t you? People start over. And you are not to feel guilty about any of it, if I may say so. Just live your own life and see what happens.”

I am about to tell him he has a lot to say and I’m glad he took me here. But someone is fast approaching us. There is a camera held high. Arthur takes my hand–“Galinda? Shall we?”–and we stand up, turn, walk briskly away.

He leans and whispers. “Let’s call Portia and meet her for a Greek dinner. This way, my dear.”

We leave a gallery of eyes behind us. I know how we seem. An older man taking charge, his arm about me to shield me from the press, a man who knows what he wants and gets it. Me, a stranger to Detroit, too young to know what she is doing, full of high-spiritedness. A certain sophistication she only copies from her mother, aunt and many others she admires.

But as we walk into the brashness of afternoon sunshine I feel strength of my own. He has let go of me. I can manage just fine. I only have to step forward. Tomorrow I’ll call my parents. Let them know I do love and miss them though I’m glad–delirious, really!–to be here. Cue the curtain. I have much more to actually live, darlings.

Photo courtesy of DIA
Photo courtesy of DIA

The Night the City Flamed


                                      (Photo by Helen Levitt)

I remember the library was shadowy and spacious, with books towering above us that could only be reached by a ladder. We had gone there with my parents. It was soon to be Halloween, and Aunt Iris told them the streets of Detroit were more unsafe than most in the world. Devils’ Night was an occurrence we must avoid, she told us with a warning frown. Mother was convinced after only two days in the city, having heard and seen things she didn’t relay to us.

Father had to fly there for work, mother said, a most important trip, so he’d brought her and us two kids. Everything he did was important, I thought, but the trip was a surprise, an exciting event for Mallory, barely five and me, six-going-on-seven. I liked planes and she didn’t, but we both loved Aunt Iris and Uncle Henry, our cousin Susan, a baby at four, and the big brick house they lived in. It was a whole other world. The thing I didn’t like was that we wouldn’t be trick or treating out in our small town neighborhood. I had planned on being a monster, a hairy one.

The lace curtains in their library intrigued me. Our living room had heavy green curtains; we didn’t have a real library. When I touched the white material it felt frail; I was afraid it might crush or crumble in my hands. I had been waiting for Susan and Mal. They were playing dress up and called to me a few times from the stairway but I wanted to touch the leather spines of the books and twirl the big globe by Uncle Henry’s desk. The world was so big I couldn’t believe it all fit on that smooth, glossy ball. Glass and brass objects–a small tray, a swan, a horse and a fancy box–sat on stacks of magazines and letters. There were plants bigger than me in the deep corners. I thought they would be happier outdoors with the huge old trees.

“Lucas, come on! Upstairs!” Mal yelled again, then laughed with our cousin.

I heard my mother tell her to keep it down. I left the library with a backward glance, seeing dust spin in streams of light and each book waiting for me to be a better reader. A lot better.

Aunt Iris met me in the hallway. “Go on, Lucas. They’re trying on costumes. You won’t go trick or treating but you can have fun playing. We’ll have candies and a roaring fire and spooky stories later.”

I was disappointed as it was the first I’d heard that we had to stay in all night. But she was my favorite aunt and I knew she told good stories at bedtime. Mother said she had been an actress on stage.

Up the many stairs–I quit counting at twenty–and down the narrow hall and around the corner, to the third large bedroom where the door was open. There they were. They had Aunt Iris’ scarves out, using them like skirts or long hair. But they also had hats, ties, vests, feathers, dresses, capes and jackets, jewelry and more. Some things were fancy, probably from my aunt’s plays. There were animal heads made of cloth, a donkey, raccoon and pig. The raccoon was especially good so I put it on and liked how it looked. I could see pretty well, and scampered around a bit.

Susan had gone into the adjoining bathroom to try on make up. My sister watched me, eyebrows raised, as she refashioned a silky gold and blue scarf into a dress. She was happy, humming to herself; she knew what I was about to do. I hid behind the free-standing, full-length mirror. When Susan came out and admired her reflection I jumped out with hands raised high, fingers crooked like claws, and roared my best. I didn’t know what sounds raccoons made but it was effective, anyway. She screamed long enough that my eardrums hurt and mother and Aunt Iris came up. I had to take it off and remind her who I was while our mothers stood laughing in the hallway. Mal looked a mess with ruby-red color smeared on her lips and cheeks but I gave her a hug so she’d stop sniffling.

We had dinner in the long, chilly dining room, father back again and happy, everyone chatting except for us bored kids.  The rolls and roast beef were good. Afterwards as the adults left for the living room, we asked to go out on the porch, or stoop as they called it there. Since they would be close by it was decided we could for ten minutes if the door was left open a crack.

It was a lot longer than ten minutes and it was good to be in open air, pollution and all. Good ole Mal had stuffed little masks in her coast pocket, so we put them on and stood watching passersby and cars. Some people waved at us or smiled. We weren’t very impressive, I’m sure. A few called out a “Happy Halloween” which made me miss my best friend and costumes left at home. I leaned against the bannister while the girls fidgeted with their masks and chattered about who knows what. The sun was going down a little, the blue sky brushed soft pink and orange above the skyline. Detroit was enormous, big enough to make its own wall map. It made me a little nervous thinking about that but going inside did not seem interesting yet.

I was just staring out at the city’s lights like specks in the landscape, when I thought I saw a sudden brightness, a flare above a bunch of buildings. I called the girls over and pointed to the area I had seen it. They hung on to me. Something brilliant flashed again and then, a few buildings over, again. And then the brightness grew and grew, and another area brightened and pulsed. Gradually I figured out what it was, dread creeping up inside me.

The city was catching fire, just as the sun–a huge ball of exploding, flammable stuff, hotter than heck, I knew that much–was putting itself away for the night. The sky glowed fierce orange.

We stood riveted, waiting for grown ups to notice, too. A man  running past stopped and stared in the same direction, then told us we should get inside and where were our parents, anyway? Susan whimpered a little as Mal and I wondered where all the firemen were and what might happen next. Mal took my hand.

Father and Uncle Henry flung the door wide and my uncle shepherded us in, but Dad hung back a few seconds surveying the city. His face looked stern. I swear there was firelight on his skin.

W gathered in the living room where a fireplace harbored another fire, a cheery glow that danced and threw off warmth. I went to a big window and looked out, absorbed by the twilight being slashed by red, orange and yellow, a terrible and beautiful light show taking over parts of the city. I could hear the adults talk about Devils’ Night, damage done, craziness stirred up. Who would do such things? What did those fires really mean? I wondered who was out there right then, on the streets with danger on their minds and was grateful for the big door with all the locks, our grown ups sipping coffee and eating cookies nearby.

But it was still a sight to remember, a wild night like none other even from the window of my aunt’s and uncle’s house by one of the Great Lakes. I had something fantastic to tell my friends. And that was before treats and ghost stories Aunt Iris told us, making the hairs stand up on the backs of our necks. After I finally fell asleep my dreams were haunted by little beasties slinking from the library walls and fire eating up the fancy curtains. It was a relief to wake up to fresh cinnamon buns and eggs, my cousin and sister ready for more mischief of a minor sort.

I found out years later that during that trip our father was given the opportunity for a great job in Detroit and he’d decided against it. I was caught off guard; it wasn’t often he talked so openly.

He leaned forward and spoke confidentially. “That night it all changed, seeing things from the stoop with you kids. I had been offered a big job in a big town, Lucas. But I realized what I wanted for us in the end was something more steady and quiet, something that wouldn’t burst into flames so easily. Life would throw enough surprises and shocks at you. I wanted to buy a little more time.”

I thought about how much he loved us and what I would have done if it had been me. I might have taken the job; I’m a risk taker. But I had to tell him it was the most peculiar and memorable Halloween of my childhood. I thanked him for that, and our safe return home.

(The photo prompt is from Patricia Ann McNair’s blog. Thanks as always, Patricia.)