It was a good day: one of those summer days that come in a weeklong string like a muslin handkerchief laid over the calendar when the sky’s apple green and hot, damp, wet almost with life and the prospect of summer storm. Nick Brennan says the warm rain’s like a divine telegram; a telegram from Him reminding the receiver of Heavenly Gardens, of breath without any earthly intermediaries issuing rowing pin here and not there, of giving Ben Abrahams always a better time at quarter toss and the ability to pour more Carlo Water for himself than for Brennan, though Brennan has rheumatoid and needs it much as anybody.
Brennan says that’s the only way He makes himself known in the world, He makes things look mistake, look Providence; He does little favors regarding Carlo Rose Water some and does other the ability of cheating at stickball. Brennan knows He has to endear himself to others—knows God’s attention must be split like a school teacher’s—though, so he takes his three extra yards at the lip of the Washington sidewalk without complaint.
It was damp but not storming. Abrahams sat in front of me in the canoe his father took a semester off college to carve that’d started dark and had faded to a pleasant caramel. The sky was white with brown spots, like the soft pockets of an apple, in it.
“Think of it,” he was saying, “instead of you consuming the paintings, you taking them in through the hills and valleys and land of your face—” he paused. “Think of it. Pastorals and landscapes and everything done in watercolor and acrylic and haphazard stroke, consuming you, thinking you stupid in your house slippers and your wool coat and your sleep pants. You, Murphy, stupid to a pastoral—”
“I mean the painting looking you in the face, Murphy, the painting looking at the valleys of your face, at your nose and your brow and the way your mouth turns in. The way you look at art. How you try and find the strokes, the places where green and white become hill, become life ‘stead of paint—”
“Can’t you talk and crew together?” this I said with a pull of my two oars.
He began again to row.
The sidewalk was moist and gray. It was wet not just from rain but from various city outlet; the Carver’s faulty faucet, built into the base of their brownstone, the suds let out from a bath somewhere. We’d been out since the sun had risen yellow. It’d turned white and was clean sunlight as we rowed, like a cooked yolk. I could see our brownstone down the way, one over from the Carver’s, older and with mahogany doors. The mail slot was open. The rattan arm chair made wooden lace through it.
Abrahams slowed his arms. They were thin arms, with Alsatian brown like water color paint thin over the quarry of Irish skin. “Glad yet?” he said.
“Glad?” I continued.
“Okay to go inside and let off for crackers.”
“Two more and we’ll stop for lunch.”
“Fine. Turkey sandwiches? And Brennan coming?”
“He’s coming. He has a stupid notion about playing the piano. No one’s played it ten years so the seat’s worn from window light but they keys are new. He thinks it sin. You know him. He thinks everything sin.”
“Sin to leave the room quiet.” I continued. The oar handles were sturdy and wooden at my palms. Crew was dad’s before mine; his religion, his philosophy, but now my own, the abstraction inherited organically as his razor and his dressing robe and all the chairs. “Said something about it being sin to leave the carpet empty of percussion. Said it’s a thick grain carpet and that it’d mop the sound like water.”
“What’d you tell him?”
“That it’s shit. To think. Best RCA the length of Washington—Dutch Ave, too—and he wants a piano.”
“And who plays piano, anyway?” Abrahams put down the oars, this time standing afterward. “What a medieval thing—piano. A row of plastic keys and a foot press and a bench that begs for posture. Succumbing to posture when he’s a radio you can turn a dial on and have your own President talk in your own living room anytime—” He picked up the bottle of Carlo.
“Wanna know what I think? Think Brennan’s a nostalgic. Piano.” This last word he laughed. “We wouldn’t have an America with a hundred Brennan’s. Backward thinking type are the kind who prevent those things. Progress.” He tucked his oars in, the flat ends done in polished wood and shining in the gray morning.
“We couldn’t do another few?”
“Murphy.” He stood with his hands in his coat pockets, his thumbs turned in away from the boat, and with a look on his face as though the canoe were something separated from him by museum glass. “Williams isn’t for a week.”
“Two paces. Only two and then some Carlo. I’ll let you more than Brennan. A whole glassful.”
“You’re unreasonable,” he said, but in the voice he reserves for new suede house slippers the smell of the maple soap you can only get at Hamilton’s. He settled. “Brennan’s gonna get in before us. Bet you five dollars on that. Get in and help himself to a whole bottle from the ice box and sit down and play something bland at the piano.”
“Yeah. That’s it—exactly. Beethoven’s Third and a whole bottle from the ice box. Some ice with it, in one of the good glasses and his house slippers on the lip of the fireplace.”
I knew he’d talk until he completed the image. That’s how he talks, like he’s painting in a different medium; everything is composed of stroke to him, and he doesn’t set down a brush until he’s filled in the background and foreground and dabbed the finite hues.
“He’ll be playing and he’ll have taken down one of your haiku books from the shelf—I bet it. Five dollars on it. Got a cracker box with the tabs unfolded and one foil opened, waiting for him on the Regency.” He began to row with his talk. “Yeah—the Regency chair.”
Then he hummed a bit, hummed to himself with the picture done and made. He didn’t notice we went longer than two paces. He didn’t know we went four.
“Ready for lunch?” I said, “Brennan’ll be here at eleven.”
“Only four paces?”
He laughed because he knew. He tried to pull off sometimes, to stop and ask for breaks and to rub the heat from his shoulders, but he worked hard because he understood it was an equation.
“Can’t you see it,” he said, as he tucked the oars away, “As a pastoral? One of us and Brennan at Williams, tucking the boat away in the boathouse with the pins at our palms?”
We took the brownstone steps. I was quiet so he’d do it; put his hands out before him and fill in the colors of it, do the boathouse in flat strokes of slate, the canoe in browns, the lines of our chins and the strains of our shoulders, the color of the jackets a green as dark as to be black, a green like youth itself, moving with life and wind and hastened breath.
“Pour me that glass,” he said. “Pour me that glass and I’ll paint it for you. You pour it and make the sandwiches.”
“Sure.” I opened the front door, the front door worn wood and with the mail slot open perpetually, not in use but open always from the time Mom was heavy with amphetamines and took it off to prevent telegram from reaching us, to prevent grief in little neat print like that which had come in the form of ‘missing in action, likely dead, STOP, very sorry, all of us, at the base and overseas, STOP.”
“Still haven’t fixed it?” said Abrahams.
“Likely won’t.” As I pushed the door cold smell met my face; wet potato skins and leather and her orange iced tea darkening the pitcher on the counter. “Likely won’t ever. She keeps saying next week, next month, anytime, but—”
“Yeah, never mind. How about that water?”
Abrahams got out the glasses from the shelf. He got two of the gold rimmed kind and one for Nick, a plain one because the gold ones are a two set, those from mom to dad for his college graduation. It worked out we had only two, with dad gone. I felt a useless guilt for it, my using his glass, my taking his place in life, in his sweaters and with his rowing pins in my wallet, my using the desk pushed against the corner in the living room.
Sometimes I have a heaviness around my chest that says He took dad out of the world in some cruel arrangement, like one of those slider puzzles, to allow for me. I tried not and think of it. I took the glasses and filled them.
Abrahams sat in the Regency chair, the rattan chair from Florida we’d been given as part of someone’s inheritance, one of Dad’s cousins who used to wear vests with large, quilted pockets even in the humidity, because he was from New Hampshire. “We’ll have the race in the morning.” He leaned back, but not fully, not in that way one can dissolve into a chair, because he was waiting on his water. “It’ll be cool when we have it. Cool that isn’t cold enough to hurt but enough to make everything clean, to bring color about your face. That kind that makes you feel alive.”
“Should I pour Brennan’s or wait?”
“Sit. You’re ruining the canvas with this distance.”
I poured the second glass. “Think he’ll be here?”
“It’s Brennan. He will. Come sit.”
I brought two glasses and set the plain one on the piano, the least full of the three, for Brennan. I sat on the couch, a worn couch and a white couch bought years before, bought in whim and by someone then touched by neither chocolate milk nor children’s tendency to carry dirt at their calves. An indent took up the right side, an indent within reach of the side table, where he used to amuse me by taking strips from the evening paper and turning them shades of brown in his bourbon, laying them on the coffee table afterward to dry.
I sat on the left, where the cushion was raised like new.
“It’ll be green around the bay. Pine green.” He took a sip from his rose water, a long sip, and held his hands around the glass of the cup a minute, like he were was soaking brush in preparation for hue. “Yeah, pine. Maybe some jade and some British racing. And the boat house tawny and umber—”
“Umber?” said a voice. It was Brennan. He wore a smile on his line of a mouth and sheet music under his arm. “He doing a pastoral?”
“And rose water?” he said. “I see I’ve missed the rose water.”
“Yeah. But you haven’t missed it. We’ve a glass for you.”
Brennan sat on the piano bench. “Shouldn’t have.” He drank long, like an animal, gulping almost, as though the glass being filled more than halfway were a miracle to be consumed. “And not my communion date for another week, now.”
“Your communion date—hah,” said Abrahams.
Brennan unfolded the sheet music. “No occasion?”
“No occasion.” Abrahams gulped, too, his back fully dissolved into the chair, his shoulders surely picking up the pattern of it, though faintly, like the time he’d sat there bare chested. “Right. I’d gulp that before he tries and return it to the spring.”
“I let you half a glass every week,” I protested.
“Sure you do,” Abrahams said to me, like a lie spoken soft to a child. He turned to Brennan with his chin. “Go on and play something, Bren, you’re not interrupting. I was just telling how it’ll be at Williams—play one. Play a concerto. That one you do—Beethoven’s. His Third. Murph’ll get the sandwiches.”
“We doing paces after lunch?” said Brennan.
“Said Beethoven’s Third?”
Brennan began to play. The carpet absorbed the sound like water, as he said it would. He played two hours.
Abrahams made a pastoral of his hands playing it, later. He made it as much with the fiber of the afternoon s with paint, and with a holy attention. He failed only in conveying the hands’ exhaustion, which maybe couldn’t have been conveyed in oil, anyway.
He got all the little things, the calcium deposits of the nails in rice-cream 0798 and the right hand callous with rose 9104, the bones raised in peanut 7659, and the radiator spots in oyster 4652 with the dried blood of them in a mix of currant 4567 and brick 1763. Even the wax layer Brennan has on his finger pads from rubbing the maple soap shavings he keeps in his pockets was accounted for, in a film of oat 2304.
Mom liked it better than anything she’s seen since before the ‘missing in action, likely dead, STOP, very sorry, all of us, at the base and overseas, STOP’ telegram, and she breathed fully as she stared into it, filling the whole of her chest like sailcloth.