Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Life-O-Meter

I’ve been making comfort food for Mary and Glen.
Lasagna, chili con carne, tamale pie, beef stew, macaroni and cheese.
I drop it off at their house, sometimes stay for a beer.
By the time you read this, their baby will have been born.
(Yes, indeed! His name is Rio Hunter Vieira Spears. I knew they would have a boy.)
In the ninth month, cooking for them means one less thing they have to do for themselves.

Brie is 87 or 88.
He can’t tell me which.
He can only remember the last thirty seconds of his life.
When I say, “Brie, its John Kotula, from your Sunday morning drawing group,” he remembers “…morning drawing group.” Then he forgets that.
A year ago he knew he knew me.
That level of recognition made him smile.
Now he doesn’t know who he doesn’t know.

Even without the pregnancy, Mary and Glen are full of life.
They are young, beautiful, physical.
You don’t have to know them long to learn that they first made love on the ground, in a vineyard, during a rainstorm.
Mary was keeping her distance when they met working for a landscaper.
Glen had faith in his motorcycle.
If he could get Mary to go for a ride, she would realize being with a tattooed, bow hunting, air force veteran was better than being with girls.
Mary got on behind.
The rains came.
Glen was right.
Who would have bet on that?

I met Brie when he was in his late sixties.
He was a great storyteller.
Even though he told the same stories, retold them and then told them again.
Brie joined the American army as soon as Germany invaded France, his mother’s homeland, the place of his birth.
He ended up in Texas.
He got stuck there because the army found out he could draw.
He stood at a blackboard on a drill field in front of illiterate recruits.
He drew each part of their rifles.
He drew how all the parts fit together.
What did they make of him in Texas with his French accent, his Harvard education and his Cary Grant looks?
He kept asking to fight.
Finally, the army agreed he could go.
They even asked if he wanted to go to Europe or the Pacific.
“Most certainly to Europe,” he replied. “I want to kill Germans.”
In France, Brie was again over qualified for killing or being killed.
Anybody could do that.
Few could read, write, and speak perfect French.
He spent the war as an aide-de-camp to a general.

Mary and Glen moved to Alaska, to a town you have to fly into, a town with no alcohol, but plenty of kids with fetal alcohol syndrome.
Mary was the town’s schoolteacher. Glen also worked for the town, in a training program for dropouts.
A year of isolation, of being the only white people, was a long time.
They almost stayed, but in the end they came home.

After the war Brie went to art school in New York City on the GI Bill.
He taught at several top tier art schools.
Andy Warhol once tried to give him a painting. He turned it down. He thought it was ugly and thought Warhol was trying to pay him for sex, making an already awkward situation worse.
He surprised Leonard Bernstein by refusing to sleep with him two nights in a row. He found Bernstein’s sense of entitlement unbearable.
He wrote an influential article about the “new plastic paints” before serious artists were using acrylics.
Brie’s book on the design principals of natural objects is still in use.
He moved to the Midwest to be the dean of art schools in Chicago and Indianapolis.
Eventually he retired to Rhode Island where he had kept a summerhouse for years, a short bicycle ride to the beach.

Mary wanted a cast of her pregnant torso.
She knew I could do that kind of thing, so she asked me to help.
I went over armed with a jar of Vaseline and plaster of Paris gauze strips.
Glen and I dipped the gauze in a bowl of warm water and smoothed them onto Mary’s body from neck to thigh.
I asked Glen for a beer.
He said, “So, you’re going to feel up my wife and drink my beer.”

Mary is worried about her students at the alternative high school where she works.
They are seniors and when the baby is born she will be on leave for several weeks.
There is no question that several of her students lean on her and won’t function as well without her daily support.
She is the teacher you wish you had when you were sixteen.

Brie lives in The Carriage House at The Elms in Westerly.
He used to have his own room. Now he’s in a double.
He used to have one of my drawings over his bed. Now there’s no decoration.
I don’t know how to decode these changes.
We sit together on a small sofa across the room from a big screen TV.
Several residents sit in front of the TV watching bowling.
I talk to Brie.
He occasionally mumbles polite phrases that don’t quite match what I said.
“Yes, yes… I’m sure,” “How nice… Thank you.” “Good… yes, good.”
Soon he closes his eyes and lets his head fall to his chest.

I have an image of myself teetering between Mary and Glen on one end of a seesaw and Brie on the other.
If the unit of measure is years, I’m closer to Brie.
If we use the Life-O-Meter, I’m closer to Mary and Glen.
In the wink on an eye, I could lose my grip, slide down to Brie’s end, hoist Mary and Glen up into the sky, full of life, laughing, all by themselves.

About the Portraits:
It took me awhile to find these. I had to go through a lot of old drawings, which is always a pleasant process for me. A couple of time Brie and I got together and took turns drawing each other. The top picture is one of my portraits of him and the next is one he drew of me. I think they are from about 2001. That is a guess, based in part on me looking pretty thin. I was skinny for a couple of years around that time.

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