Monday, July 17, 2017

Jay and Jerome - Jay and the Americans

He was working on Fleetwood Mac's Rumours.  When I climbed the billboard, I didn’t know that it would be for the last time.  He’d do one more after that, just one: Talking Heads: 77.  There was nothing to it.  It was red-orange and said simply, "Talking Heads: 77." 

He was leaving Foster and Kleiser, he said. "They keep asking me to go to Vegas.  I'm not going to Vegas.  I don't want to go to Vegas."  We sat with our feet dangling over the side of the billboard.  It was a different perspective.  It didn't face out over the city, but up into the hills.  You could see up into the brush, into the chaparral, almost like there wasn't a city behind us.  He said, "I'm leaving at the end of the month." 

"What are you going to do?"

He kind of turned away, for what, I don't know.  He said under his breath – did he not want me to hear him? – "I think I'm leaving California."  He looked at me, finally.  "I mean, I'm leaving California."

"What do you mean you're leaving California?"

"When we went away, you and me, when we were in Jerome, I started talking to the fellas in the gallery.  I think I'm going to Jerome.  I mean, I am going to Jerome."  He was real fidgety.  "Now don’t take this the wrong way, but I got nothing here.  I got you, but I don't see you.  It’s my fault.  I know it’s my fault.  Things just haven’t been right.  Not since the fall.  Not since your mother.  I haven't been happy in a long, long time."  A convertible passed below us.  Some girls waved.  I waved back.

"So, Jerome is going to make you happy."  It was half a question and half an answer.

"You know, a long time ago, I kind of gave up my dreams and I took your mother away from hers."  He held up his hand to demonstrate.  "We let them slip away, you know?  We let the stars go free.  Things don’t turn out like you plan, pal."

"What did you plan?"

"I couldn’t tell you now.  Your mother was going to be a singer on Broadway.  I took her away from that.  She was good, you know?  Really good, and she came out here…"

"And she was good.  They liked her.  Burt Bacharach liked her."

"Yeah, but I can’t help thinking that if we'd never come here, things might have been different.  Maybe she would have been on Broadway.  I don't know, I keep thinking that maybe if we'd bought that little house in Fairlawn, things would have been different."

"I don't think things would have been different.  You've got to love her for what she was, instead of for what she wasn’t."  I hadn't given my father advice before.  I was 18 years old and I figured it was about time.

He said, "Well, it doesn't matter.  I'm going to Jerome.  Maybe get some of the stars back."

"But this was good, wasn't it?"  I swept my hand over the boulevard below.  "You know I have a picture of every single one."

"Yeah, well, it was all right.  It was good.  Yeah, it was good.  I do good work.  I know that.  I got to be up here…" 

I cut him off.  "You were like one of the lesser gods.  Up here above it all.  Prometheus gave humanity fire.  You gave them this."  Each of the lesser gods had responsibilities.  The billboards were my father's.

He had money saved and he was just going to go.  He was going to buy a little place in Jerome and put some money into the gallery, the old Woolworth's on the main drag.  "It's becoming quite the artist's colony.  I’m just gonna go paint.  And you'll come up and see me.  You liked it up there.  You know, where the sky's so big and blue?"

"Yeah.  I know, where the sky's so big and blue." 

It was still early when I started climbing the hill into Jerome.  Nothing much had changed.  It could have been yesterday when I was there last.  Still the same main street; still the same Chinese restaurant.  When I say that nothing changed, I mean nothing. 

The art gallery in the Woolworth's wasn't open.  I parked my car on the street.  I went into the hotel where my father and I stayed.  Same guy.  I said, "How’s it going?"

He said, "It's going."

I said, "Happen to know a fella named Bill?  Owns the old Woolworth’s."

He said, "Yeah, of course."

"You know where I’d find him?"

He said, "Who’s lookin’?"

"His son.  I'm his son."

"You're Jay?"

"Yeah, I'm Jay."

"Talks a lot about you."  Huh, that was something.  I had it all made out in my head how angry I was.  I practiced how angry I was going to be in the car on the way.  Maybe I wasn’t so angry after all.  Maybe I understood better than I thought.  At that point, I figured I'd just play it by ear.

It didn't seem like people in Jerome had addresses, just directions.  The guy from the hotel wrote the directions to my father's place on the back of an old paper bag.  He said, "Gallery’ll open around ten or so.  Comes in ever' day.  May as well hang around town."  I wandered along the main street.  Nothing had changed, but there was one new shop called Red Path.  It sold spiritual and paranormal things: smudge sticks and smudge pots, tarot cards and amulets to ward off evil spirits.  They weren't open either, but a woman was inside.  She smiled, and then she went back to what she was doing; probably some kind of spell or something.

I crossed the street and looked in the window of the Woolworth's.  There was a painting of a young boy.  It could have been me, but I had a feeling about it.  I think it was my brother.  I never thought about him much, if at all.  I hadn’t seen him since my dad moved out of the house.  I'd forgotten there was someone out there who shared my experiences with my father.  His name was William; when I used to spend time there, we just called him "the baby."  He seemed like a nice little boy. 

I peered as best I could around the store.  It was dark, but my father's work was unmistakable.  There was one looking down on the Sunset Strip at night.  The style was a bit different than I remembered, a little less abstract, but you could tell it was his work, and who else would paint the city from the point of view of a billboard?  I liked it.  It was as if Van Gogh painted L.A.; real bright and vibrant.

The gallery looked pretty nice in general, nicer than what you'd expect from a ghost town, but when you peered into the back you could tell where the soda fountain used to be.  I always liked the soda fountain at Woolworth's.  I remember they used to put the cola syrup in the bottom of a tall glass and add ice and soda water.  It was delicious; real refreshing.  My father called it the five and dime.  He'd say, "Want a hot dog from the five and dime?"  I was always up for that.

Along the wall under an old sign that said "NOTIONS" was a huge canvas, probably three feet by eight feet.  It was a family scene.  In my father's abstract way, it could have been my mother or it could have been Ellen; it could have been any woman in America.  She was sitting on the couch with her feet up.  There was a child on the floor playing a game.  It was real nostalgic. 

It's funny, I've always been sentimental.  I always found myself reading between the lines, even when the lines were really close together.  Seemed to me my father's paintings were like all the good parts of life, all the nice in-betweens.  Maybe if I were a painter I'd do that too.  If you painted the bad parts, you’d have a lot more paintings, but they wouldn't be as good. 

I think it's different when you write things down.  You're not just capturing a moment in time; you have to mix things up.  In painting you have what's called a still life.  In writing, life doesn't stand still.  I looked over at the door.  My father was putting a key in the lock.