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Copyright 2005 Peder Hill, Dreaming Underwater. All rights reserved.

Warning: this section has been left especially untouched to give you a view of the rough narrative at its earliest inception.

Painting Owen

Even though school attendance had dipped far below stratosphere, there was still a slight bump of a beginning of the year rush, when the prospective and hopeful would flood the parking lots with their cars. Not having an early class this semester, Theresa had arrived after 9AM that morning. The faculty lot had already been full and she’d had to wander far out into the student lots to find a space.

So by the time she finally reached her white falcon she was completely soaked. Although the rain had subsided from its former crescendo, it still poured relentlessly. Not even her socks, protected by the red rubber of her boots, managed to escape. In spite of the soaking she jostled in the car as quickly as she could, leaving the long end of her jacket outside when she slammed the door. Opening it again she nearly knocked Regina’s flaccid desert bag off the bucket seat, only the foam palm of the rip in the seat saved it.

Finally in she tossed her purse over the dashboard then slumped into the seat, her knees nearly touching the white arc of the steering wheel. Her tears shocked her, hot drops running in broken trails with the cold rainwater down her face. She’d been too lost in thought and the loud sting outside to have felt them flowing. Now, sitting alone in the car, the steady metal drumming of the roof, wet through, she also felt a little embarrassed. And lost.

She took a deep breath to try to get grounded again and with a cold hand and brushed the teardrops across her face. Another breath and she fumbled the keys in the ignition, turned the wipers on, and started the short drive to her brother’s.

She wasn’t much in the mood to think over the dismal consequences of the Bishop’s coming. She already knew it could mean nothing. He could be coming solely in the interests of helping out with her father’s newest students.

But she also knew that, somehow, this wasn’t the case.

The Bishop always packed in as many things as possible when he came. As Regina would say, he liked to hit more than one ball.

She twisted the radio’s mushroom knob and pulled out of the lot. The slow rickrack of the wipers across the wide glass nearly matched the rhythm of the Patsy Cline song, and she sang along as she drove slowly up McClatchy Avenue.

Worry, why do I let myself worry? Wondering what in the world did I do? Crazy for thinking that my love could hold you. I'm crazy for trying and crazy for…

But she turned it off. Too sad to be good medicine. And the radio only picked up one station. Besides, she was almost there.

The property her brother lived on was less the College’s than the Church’s. On it were two building—one a beautiful two-story wooden A-frame with a wide porch strung along the length of the second floor. The church used it to house visiting professors and clergy. It faced the other building, which is where Owen lived.

It was long, narrow, strange building, a mixture somewhere between a military barracks and an old barn. The church used it as a kind of childcare Sunday school. Owen was the teacher. The building’s windows wrapped nearly all the way around, and anyone who might look in would see colorful hand painted pictures on the walls and neat rows of little desks.

Above the classroom was the long narrow loft that was her brother’s home. He’d been there for the past twelve years, living in exchange for his Sunday school services and for taking care of the grounds.

People never ceased to be astonished at how well he performed his maintenance tasks, being such a simple man.

The impeccable flat of the lawns, the trees, plucked below and above of old fruit, junipers carefully trimmed, snaking sidewalls lined with round corsets of roses—all so beautiful, and meticulously groomed.

Many at the church asked him if he might extend them his services, but Owen wasn’t in the least interested in spots of extra money, and, even if he were, he wouldn’t be able to as it meant leaving home—which, aside from walks along the nearby fields, he really never did.

Owen only taught Sunday school and watched the kids for three hours a week, nearly all the rest of the time, including Sundays and every other day of the week, with bare hands and a few simple gardening tools, he’d lose himself in the yard. His only other hobby was painting.

Theresa thought it was an amazing thing to watch him work. He’d huddle down for hours on end. She’d never ever seen anyone with so much focus. In those hours there was nothing but what before him—the soil in his fingers, the unwinding of the weeds. Outside the radius of that gaze the world was entirely blotted out.

Sometimes it even seemed spooky, it frightened her a bit. But then again, nothing made her brother more balanced and content. And anything that worked in that direction was just fine with Theresa, whatever it was, for without a pattern to keep him on track, bolting him down in a single direction, Owen became susceptible to reoccurring seizures that took a horrifying toll on the frail tailings of his psyche. But it had been years since such episodes—no doubt thanks to the pattern of existence by which he now lived. Without that and her regular visits, he could never survive alone.

It was around eight when she drove past the open entrance gate and into the clearing in the woods where the house and school stood. Brief light shown down from three windows that looked out from one side of Owen’s living room. That was the only light there was, nobody at the moment was staying in the guesthouse, and the solitary lamp above the crude parking lot’s pine needle floor was out. Another victim of the storm.

So it was very slow business walking in the darkness from car to house, with wanting to avoid tripping over garden tools or one of chunks of granite that circled the makeshift lot. And why hurry, she figured, already thoroughly wet, the rain could do her nothing more.

But caution doesn’t always receive its just award, and now was just such the case, for when she reached the supposed safety of the sidewalk her foot dropped down on the spidery legs of a gardening fork, the slide of her metal skate on the pavement nearly sent her plummeting off into the rose bushes with the friar and chocolate cake in tow. When her whisking legs steadied she was mildly shocked to find herself still standing, even more so looking down to find the game and Reg’s pie cake still safely in her arms.

Theresa smiled. The shocks and disappointments of the day seemed to be receding a bit, perhaps washed away a little by the storm. She was definitely in better spirits as she climbed the stairs to his apartment, looking very much forward to the goofy mug and sweet, tempestuous company of her little older brother.

The smell of the brick of chocolate pie rising through the wet paper made her mouth water as she knocked on the door. When her brother didn’t immediately come, she popped the handle and let herself in.

“Owen? Hellooo? It’s Theresa. I’ve got something for you.”

The kitchen lay directly to the right, she kicked her wet shoes off, and put her luggage on the counter. “Ryan?”

She then ripped and peeled the bag off the cake pan and opened the fridge to check for room.

Inside it was nice and clean, with several labeled plastic containers rimming the top two shelves topped with labels revealing their contents. They read things like Chicken (eat by Sunday), Potatoes (goes with pot pie, chicken or sandwiches—eat by Thurs.), Reg’s banana brownies—only one a day), and Asparagus—with chicken or sandwich (eat by Wed)—she pulled this last one out and slid it on the nearby counter.

Another sat with top ajar on a lower metal rack. She closed it—Fried rice (for Chicken or Sandwiches—eat by Friday), then moved a few things around to make a nice spot of room and, after giving the new cake another brief examination—was in pretty good shape considering its journey—she carefully placed it in.

With a mixture of giddy amazement and guarded anticipation (Reg had made real bad deserts too) she thought, God, this thing’s heavy.

The sink’s sloping white basin was beginning to fill with dirty dishes and a nearly completely full bottle of milk sat on its bordering counter. She also put it away, then turned to the room.

“Ryan—?”

A single blue plate, overlooked grains of rice on it, fork on top, lay on the short wooden coffee table in front of the plaid brownish couch. Across from the couch sat a television—a parishioner had been kind enough to give it to him—but in its neglect it had been pushed too far away to really see (its screen being so small).

Besides when it had arrived, about three years back, Theresa had never seen Ryan once turn it on. She rarely even saw it anymore. It had found new life—a bucket of potting soil sat crooked on its splayed antennas.

A small rectangular dining table sat midway into the room opposite the door. One half was covered in a dirt flecked array of gardening tools—shovels, picks and forks of varying sizes, two dirty buckets, one in the another, and lengthwise the stretch of a spade.

The other half of the table was reserved for its former occupation; it was where she and Owen would share their meals.

But it wasn’t the furniture or the odd abundance of gardening wares that dominated the room. For anyone who’d never been there before, the first thing they saw was the paintings.

Each was drawn and then painted on the same shoulder length sheets. They hung both length and widthwise, but whatever the choice, each row would hold the pattern from ceiling to floor. The loft’s ceiling ran down to the height of your hips around its two sides then at its center joist up to about twice the height of your head.

Ryan would paint them in a running series, placing the first one on the upper part of the wall right the entrance, the second below, moving around and filling the room, the short hall and his bedroom as he progressed. He avoided the bathroom, not liking how the moist air would curl their paper edges. Once he reached the last stretch of wall space that ended behind the television, he’d take them all down and start all over.

At the moment their vibrant watercolor scenes stretched nearly to the couch’s shambled left armrest, with only space for about ten paintings more. When all the space in the room was covered, a total of 123 paintings filled the collection. Each of them centered around a story from the bible, and, perhaps unsatisfied, he’d often paint the same scene several times in a row.

His hobby had grown into a perfect match for his Sunday School chores, and the kids loved to sit Indian style with him on the floor and, with lipstick brushes, fan watercolors into their own bright compositions.

Owen himself painted one every two or three days, and, as if it were some bizarre calendar, one filling of the walls was completed in strangely close to a year.

It was Dr. Byron Tully, the broad nosed psychologist with thoughtful eyes, who had originally given impulse to the painting. He’d come to see Owen from a parish north of the seven mountains at the request of Sue Tully, his niece, also a member of St. Mary’s choir and one of Theresa’s close friends.

At the time Owen had been suffering one of the really bad periods, his seizures coming in a series of blind raking bursts, they would wrap him for days, and in fear of their nightmares he’d fight against the unrelenting gravity of sleep until his body grew shaky and gaunt and reason left him. Then the body would finally give in.

Theresa had mainly been the one who’d stayed with him then, taking a leave of absence from school. It was a period of time she’d never forget; she discovered what most people don’t know—how far down the fallow of hopelessness can reach.

She’d found him once—her sweet, exuberant brother—on the floor of the apartment in the darkness. When she’d flipped the lights on he was lying sideward with his arms wrangling around a leg of the coffee table, searching hands clutching wildly—manically…into the blind space beneath. She could still remember his breathing—it had strangled out in a series of low shrieking pants, and his skin was so pale, filmed with sweat, and so cold. And as she fell beside him yelling, the eyes were lost in the face, his mind caught and trapped in some dark, lurid dream.

Totally. That’s how much she’d give up on him. It had been impossible to imagine that he might still be within their reach—he was too far removed from the waking world, his mind too splintered, too far gone for them to stop him from spinning down to his fate of some endless oblivion. Arrangements had already been made. There were places for such people.

But then Dr. Byron Tully had come. And the blue shimmer of miracles had floated along with him.

At first he’d gone through the regular rigmarole—checking the medical and pharmaceutical history, consulting previous doctors, exploring symptoms and roots. But he was at a loss, the common avenues of treatment had been covered, the competence of previous doctors unscathed. It was only then that he’d suggested the painting.

It was an innovative new alternative—delving into the subconscious using the expressive touchstone of art as a means of therapy.

The good doctor was never fully convinced that it was the therapy itself that had brought Owen back from the deep.

Dr. Tully had felt the circumstances surrounding the episode centered around what to Owen had been an overwhelming jolt of stress (a common trigger), one that he’d endured while amid the seemingly innocuous surroundings of the town’s tri-centennial celebration.

Too many people, he had explained, too much noise from the crowds and the rumble of Irish music, the fireworks. He probably never should have been there…although he couldn’t be sure this had instigated the problem—understanding the fluid wiring of the mind was a very hopeful and inexact science at best.

Owen could have just bounced back naturally, he’d said, back in his normal calming surroundings, time to heal, time for the delicate threads of his mind to reweave.

But, in any case—no more parties!

She would never nearly lose him again! That’s what she’d decided back then. It was a decision born of extreme—such was Theresa’s love for her brother. And, also, such was her own need. And her fear wasn’t just that of losing the deep native connection between siblings. It was something else.

She felt somehow that if she lost him she would lose herself, severing a delicate string that tied her to a fragile existence.

But mostly it was love.

“Helloooo? …Ryan?”

Maybe he was in the bedroom, she thought—snoring, wound in blankets, lulled to sleep by the rain.

But no luck when she turned the lights on, nothing but the sheet strewn bed. The bathroom was empty too—she picked his toothbrush off the floor, rinsed it and placed it back where it belonged as she went.

She walked back down the short hall that cut through into the center of the living room and walked to the nearest window that faced the back yard. He wouldn’t…

Not in the rain.

Owen was so drawn up in his yard work that sometimes she’d find him outside at night, a broken white patch of flashlight drifting across bush and greenery, the squat black hole of his kneeling outline moving steadily in mute concentration. Crazy kid.

You had to either love him or he’d drive you insane.

She huddled below the slanted ceiling and peered out in search for any bobbing, roaming circles of light, pressing her cheeks against the glass for viewing sideways. Although he could be out of sight around the building’s end.

At first the laughter sounded like the high resonant squeak of a cheap brass saxophone, a reedy run of syncopated rumble that slowly grew into great barking peels as her brother finally let it go.

“Owen!” She stood looking over the table down toward the couch and the source of the now hysterical unbolting.

“You want to give your sister a heart attack?” she said smiling, little gurgles of laughter reaching around the edges of her voice.

She walked over, kneeled down and tilted her head down to better look under the couch. “I’m going to kill you!” She ran her fingers across the bottoms of his dirty socks, which in response jerked madly about under the lip of the sofa.

“How did you fit in there?” she asked, bewildered.

There couldn’t, she figured, be more than half a foot of space under there.

“I got you! I got you Theresa! “I…” another burst of chortling momentarily stole his voice. “I got you good!”

“You know what they say about payback, don’t you?” She had another go at the jerking cotton heels.

“Ohhhh Owen, I’ve got something for you. Unless you don’t feel like coming out of there…which is okay.” His feet stopped wiggling for a moment.

“What? What?”

Theresa sat down, easing comfortably into the couch, “Oh, just a little something from Regina. Something that I guess weighs, ohhhh…about three pounds.”

Owen’s feet started shimmying again, but this time in an effort to slip and squeeze himself out from under.

“Reg! Reg! Reg!” he shouted in tickled exuberance. In response Theresa had to grin.

“So…if you don’t want any…”

“No, No! Wait Theresa…Wait!”

“Okay, okay. I will.” she said assuringly as she helped him pull himself out.

Then she glanced to the narrow passage below, “How long have you been under there, anyways?”

Looking slightly cross eyed, Owen swept some old cobwebs from his nose and his one unscarred cheek, spitting something foul (judging from his expression) out of his mouth as he did so, “I don’t know.” he said absently.

Theresa plucked webs he’d missed out of the shaggy bangs of his hair, and left it at that. Some things you don’t want to know.

“Why can’t Reg come?” Owen asked with disappointment as Theresa pulled the heavy brick of Reg’s choco surprise out of the fridge.

“She has a lot of work right now. She’ll come soon, I promise. But in addition to this wonderful treat, she sends you a kiss.

At this Owen pulled his hungry stare off the cake and his eyes flash in smile.

“Do it! …do it do it do it do it!” he begged as, bending slightly, he shuffled out a spontaneous dance of excitement. “Theresa….Oh, come on…Please…”

She put the knife down on the counter beside the pan, “Okay.”

She’d been prepared for this so fished the tube of ruby red lipstick from the pocket of her pants. On the side of her slender forefinger of her right hand she’d already carefully drawn eyes crested by a wave of lashes and the brief smudge of a nose. Not her best work. But she knew Owen wouldn’t care.

She swiveled off the tube’s top and twisted up the finger of vibrant red lipstick. In anticipation, Owen continued to dance. Then, with a practiced hand, she applied a thick layer of pigment over the crease between her forefinger and thumb. Clearing her throat, she prepared herself to get into character.

It was an extraordinary likeness to Regina’s grumbling vibrato—this she had to admit; and, combining the voice and the movement of the finger lips (in perfect sync with the voice and expressive), it was a magical impression to witness.

“Hey there, you little hamster,” the lips said. “ I really hate to miss a Wednesday visit, but I’m being held captive by a pack of your Sunday School students.”

Owen looked up at this, bellying, “Oh, Reg…No…”

“But just the same you know I love you. And would never leave you without your Wednesday kiss.”

With a shift of his head and a softness in his eyes Owen extended his one flawless cheek.

And, with a puckered, enthusiastic movement, Theresa’s hand gave him a kiss.

 

 

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