The Muralist: Chapter 1

muralist boat_edited-1Here’s the first chapter of my novel The Muralist, which is available for download at Amazon. And no, you don’t need a Kindle to read a Kindle book; just the free app will do. Now ain’t that convenient? Enjoy.

He isn’t my son, but could be. Short hair the color of dead oak leaves, wide blue eyes, pinched lips, pudgy hands. He clutches a stone, a flat gray stone tapered and smoothed by the sea, and with a quick flick of the wrist skims it back to its maker. Six hops. Not bad. He runs his fingers through the bed of the gravel parking lot, but the pickings are slim, so he ambles off toward the breakwater.

I return my attention to Rip Ely, whose hand is wrong. It has four weathered fingers and an equally weathered thumb, a thin gold band given to him by the proper woman, and tiny hairs bleached by spending most summer high tides out on Cape Bishop Harbor clutching the tiller of a fourteen-foot Chickadee. But it belongs on a different arm. His left arm. So I ask about it.

“What’s with the left hand?”

Sully steps back from the outside wall of the bait shed and points his brush at me like it’s a dart, my face being the board. The furrows on his brow deepen.

“What do you know about art?” he asks, tapping out a rhythm with his brush in the air.

“Not much,” I say, looking down at my red shirt to see if any yellow paint has landed. “I’m just wondering what the hell Rip’s left hand is doing on his right arm, that’s all. Not criticizing you.”

“No, ‘course not,” he says quietly. “You wouldn’t.”

He turns to face the mural forming on the wooden gray wall. It’s good. His second piece for public consumption comes courtesy of Ferd Littlefield, the fisherman who owns the shed inside of which is Sully’s first mural, and who’s now brushing his dog on the dock nearby. Sully’s made sure that Ferd does his business downwind from the mural, because that dog’s hairier than the guy who runs the health food store on Temple Street. Ferd could work that dog all afternoon, get a pile of fur up to his knees, and still not be an inch closer to skin. The dog doesn’t mind the attention.

Rip’s Chickadee, called Celia even though it’s not on her transom, is heading toward Cape Bishop, where a couple is picnicking on the rocks under a solitary Scotch pine. I’ve never seen the couple before. Must be tourists. There are three other boats on the water, though Sully’s told me he’s going to paint one or two more tomorrow when he finishes up. He’s taken artistic license with his subjects, and he’s used that license to do more than just switch extremities.

Harry McNeal said his dinghy’s been washed up on Spoon Island with a plank missing because he broke up with Sully’s younger sister, Maggie. Sully holds that an eleven-foot tide pulled the dinghy out of its mooring and that he has no control over the seas, real or imaginary. Norman Sweete’s sloop is in drydock at Jellison’s yard, and its hull is covered with pink barnacles. Sweete’s pissed about that. He came in yesterday red-faced and crinkled, hollering that there’s never been a single goddamn barnacle on his boat, and if there had been one, it sure as hell wouldn’t have been pink. “For Chrissakes,” he said, wagging a freckled finger at his boat, “barnacles are gray. You some kind of fruitcake or what, Sullivan?” Sully didn’t argue. He took a bite out of his egg salad sandwich and gave Sweete a big yellow-and-white smile.

And halfway down the coast between Cape Bishop and Helen Legere’s house is a little cedar-shingled cottage with cranberry trim. The people who have come by to see Sully work on the mural, and there have been plenty, have been quick to point out that no such cottage exists. Sully’s just smirked and said, “Does now.”

An easterly gust off the harbor parts Sully’s black hair in the middle, ruffling a full beard I’ve seen in a Matthew Brady daguerreotype. Bertram Jewett’s pulling traps in the harbor, and with his stern aiming at shore, we can clearly hear Buck Owens from the radio. Then, “Rip’s a married man. Been happily married for what, forty years? Seems to me he gets more joy out of his marriage than his boat, so I figured I oughtta show the ring.”

“Why not have him holding the tiller with his left hand?”

“That’s what I did.”

“I mean, with his left arm, too.”

“Couldn’t. The wind’s blowing to starboard, and he’s heading toward the Cape. It’d make no sense to have him on the starboard side of the boat.”

“Where’s his right hand?”

“Frankly, I don’t know.”

“Are you going to add his sunglasses? You know, those aviator shades he always wears out on the water?”

“And hide those gems? Not me, man. Would you?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe. But I don’t paint.”

Sully draws a circle in the air in front of my face with his brush, smiling. “No, you don’t. But you’re an artist.”

“Hardly.”

“In your own way. But you don’t paint.” Aiming at my eyes and nose, he dots the inside of the imaginary circle three times, then flicks the brush sideways, mouthing me. “What else, Ted?”

“Rip’s wearing a yellow windbreaker here, but he doesn’t have one.”

Sully slowly nods his head in agreement, then says, “He needed one.”

“It’s a nice yellow,” I say, and it is, with a paleness about it, as if the paint had been mixed with glass. Not that Rip would ever wear a yellow windbreaker. He’s been wearing his Red Sox jacket out on the water since ‘75, and nobody expects him to retire it. “You mind?” I ask, taking out my cell phone and aiming it at the bait shed.

“Mind what?”

“Me taking a picture.”

“Oh, you got one of those things. Cool. Go ahead. Document my genius unfolding.”

Sully places his brush against the worn wooden plank surface, which he prepared with a liberal whitewash. The morning after the side of the bait shed turned white, Ferd’s mop couldn’t be found. It turned up a couple days later, all stiff and misshapen.

“Looks like you’re almost done.”

It’s White. For the past couple of weeks, he and his men from Bremen have been painting the exterior of the new town hall just up the street, across from Jellison’s yard. Most of them bring their lunches, but White and this skinny kid – I think it’s his son – walk down to Littlefield’s bait shed every day to see how Sully’s doing. They invariably bring lobster rolls from Frannie’s, lean against Sully’s crappy Volvo, and watch, usually not saying much but chewing with an occasional approving grunt. White’s a big man, built like John Wayne, barrel-chested and short-legged, with a graying butch cut, and all he wears, at least in our presence, is a paint-spattered Garth Brooks concert T-shirt and black Levi’s. His son — which is debatable, since White sometimes calls me and Sully ‘son’ — shares the same haircut, except it’s black, and the same black Levi’s, although he wears different colored pocket tees. In the pocket he’s stuffed a hardpack of unfiltered Camels. Never seen him smoke one.

From White and the skinny kid, Sully and I have kept up on progress at the town hall. When they’re done with the painting, all that’ll be left to do outside is the planting of shrubs, since the leggy old yews were yanked out last month by Bert Jewett, his Chevy flatbed, and a chain that could’ve anchored the Lusitania. Yesterday, White told us the interior finish work was going along real smooth, although it was his opinion that the wood trim was cheap grade. No surprise there. Sully’s told me that from the beginning, when Rebecca Kiley put her movie theater up for sale last summer, word circulated that it could be turned into a great town hall, and for very little money. She was asking half a million for it, which was a joke, because it wasn’t on the water and, more importantly to the person who might want to buy it and keep showing movies there, it didn’t draw audiences except in the summer, and meager ones at that. Even then, its most remarkable feature were the creaky old wooden chairs that numbed asses by the end of the opening credits. The best thing about the Lyric Theater was that it was the place where I first kissed Dru.

Kiley eventually became reasonable and offered the theater to the town at a reduced price with private financing. It’s been a longstanding tradition in town that those who don’t care about political matters have been considerate enough not to show up at the voting booths to muddy the waters, and it was in that spirit, or lack thereof, that about two hundred citizens, or five percent of Albemarle’s voting population, showed up at the April town meeting to approve the purchase. The five-member board of selectmen picked one of their own, our police chief, two local contractors, and a couple members of the chamber of commerce to become the Building Committee, and set about transforming the Lyric into something the town could actually use. Albemarle hasn’t been bursting its seams people-wise, at least not yet, but the old town hall wasn’t much bigger than Littlefield’s bait shed. The theater was huge, and it’d be handy, they said, if Boston ever came this far north. When Sully heard that, he had said, “I guess it’d be big enough to hold the bodies,” and the people who often misinterpret him took that in a bad way. “Something for the town to grow into,” said Linus Platt, one of the contractors, who seemed convinced that Sully meant to use it as a mausoleum.

The Building Committee saved Albemarle thousands of dollars by doing the job themselves, and by doing so, spared the town from witnessing truly professional results. They drew up the plans, had a crew of lobstermen tear out the innards of the theater (Sully saved me one of those godawful chairs as a memento), and subbed out all the work to locals who specialize in cutting corners. Half the doors can’t close, lights are not necessarily controlled by the nearest switches, and there are more paint drips and splatters than in a first grade art class, but there it is, with its new partitions and desks and bathrooms and conference room and public meeting room and even a lobby where people can sit and wait for Doreen to get back inside from having her smoke so they can pay for their clamming licenses.

“Tomorrow,” says Sully, applying a few white check marks he calls seagulls onto his mural. “I’ll be done tomorrow.”

“Then what?” asks White, just before stuffing what remains of his lobster roll – about half of it – into his maw.

“Then I’ll be done,” says Sully. White says a few words, but I don’t catch any of them until “shit,” which he sputters while wiping a fragment of claw meat off Garth Brooks’s face.

“You want a napkin?” asks the skinny kid.

“No, son,” says White. He licks his finger, then asks Sully, “What I mean is, you gonna paint something else?” Sully nods, while smashing his largest brush, about the size of a paperback, into the sky above Spoon Island. A cloud. “What’s it gonna be?” Sully cocks his head and lifts a shoulder. The cloud’s getting bigger. “You gonna expand beyond bait sheds?” Sully detects sarcasm. I can tell by the way he closes his eyes and moves his lips ever so slightly. “I got a garage. A two-car garage. Just built it. It’s primed and ready to go. You could spare me the hassle of painting it myself. How much?”

“Nine…ten.”

“When can you start?”

“He just counted to ten,” I say. “That’s not his price.”

“I’m just bustin’ his chops,” says White, crumpling up the cardboard lobster roll holder and dropping it on the ground. “Seriously, though,” he continues, walking over to the side of the shed and scratching his ribs, “this is good. Real folk art. Sturdy and simple. Where’d you study?”

“I don’t study,” says Sully. “I paint.”

“Well, then,” says White. “What you got is natural born talent. Man-o-man.”

“Man-o-man,” echoes the skinny kid, who bends down to pick up White’s trash.

Sully takes a step over to his work table and gently lowers his brush into a Maxwell House can of thinner. He swirls it around a bit, then says to White, “I’ll do your garage.”

White laughs. “I was just kiddin’, son. Bustin’ your chops.”

“You don’t have a garage?”

“Yeah, I got a garage. I was kiddin’ ‘bout you paintin’ it, that’s all.”

“You like my work.”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“So why can’t I paint your garage?”

White’s embarrassed. The skinny kid looks as though he wants to say something, then looks as though he’s reconsidered saying something. Just as well. Instead, he sidesteps his way over to the whisky barrel between the bait shed and the gravel parking lot by the road. It’s a trash can, and the skinny kid’s got the cardboard holders to get rid of. He looks grateful for something to do.

“I can’t pay you, that’s why,” blurts White. “I gotta get back to work.”

He turns to leave, and Sully says, “Ferd doesn’t pay me to do his shed. Why should you have to pay me to do your garage?”

White stops. “Now it’s your turn to bust my chops?”

“Sully doesn’t bust chops,” I say. “He’ll do it.”

“You shittin’ me?”

“No, he isn’t,” says Sully. “Ted doesn’t shit.” White laughs like a shotgun. The skinny kid starts giggling. “You’re up on 22, right?” asks Sully.

“Yeah,” says White. “Five miles out of town. If you come to your senses and change your mind, I’ll understand.”

“I don’t like changing my mind,” says Sully. White and the skinny kid, who’s still giggling over the shit joke, cross the parking lot and walk up the road toward the new town hall to spatter more paint.

The Muralist can be found at www.amazon.com/author/danapearson.

 

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Dana Pearson is a writer living in Kennebunk, Maine.
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