Jason Bouganville was seventy-five when he had his first exhibition in his hometown. Fortunately he had been selling out of galleries far away on the east coast for forty years, earning a modest income, which, considering his frugality and the simplicity of his way of living, was more than enough. His works were expressionist, not a popular taste in his part of the country where gallery bread and butter were realist paintings of animals, grain elevators and nostalgic depictions of cowboys and Indians. In his selling city his name was well known among people concerning themselves with painting and the arts, but in his hometown, excepting for a handful of friends and fellow painters, he was unknown. He preferred it that way. Although he had been asked many times he never went to the big city he sold in. “They get the paintings,” he would tell his frustrated agent on the phone. “If they want a smoozer, hire an actor.”
When the owner of the gallery, a young man with more family money than artistic discernment, first approached him Jason said no but his friends ganged up on him, claiming he was paranoid, falsely modest, a revengeful egoist, ungrateful, unpatriotic, a big phony, lacking in the courage of his convictions and so on. This did not disturb him unduly for he was old enough to realize he was all of these things in some measure and also that the pull of fame is often stronger for its friends than for the central applicant. He gave in. He allowed one of his painter pals to negotiate a contract with the gallery owner and when he was handed the contract at a dinner party at his friend’s house, he gave it a cursory glance and signed. He was therefore unaware that he had signed a document committing him to attend the first full day of the ten day exhibition and did not find out until six months later. Included in the envelope the owner sent him three weeks before the opening was a copy of the contract and a personal note saying how much the owner was looking forward to making his acquaintance. Jason was horrified.
He knew not to complain to his friend who had negotiated the contract. After all, the personal appearance clause was standard and Jason was the one who signed the contract without reading it properly. If he complained to his friends in general they would simply reaccuse him of all the things they accused him of before which would be a ridiculous waste of time. If he complained to Evelyn, his wife, she would pour over his head buckets of sarcasm and drollery; if to his agent in the far away city, cynical snickers, a lecture for allowing an amateur to negotiate a contract and a powerful undercurrent of it serves you right. He had no one to turn to so he explained the whole thing to the dog who was very understanding and sympathetic. At the end of ten minutes of salty complaints the dog licked one of the bony shins sticking out of his baggy army surplus shorts. Jason patted him on the head, fed him two wieners and forgot about the whole thing for several days.
Sometimes with knotty problems the best thing is to ignore them for a while. Something just might happen so that the problem solves itself. This is what happened in Jason’s case. A week before the show was to open he was sitting on the front deck drinking a cup of tea when his brother drove up the driveway.
Robert, Jason’s brother, was a wanderer who had started wandering when he was sixteen and now, at the age of seventy, was still wandering. He was an industrial mechanic and had spent most of his work life up north in the mines. Since his retirement, at age sixty, he traveled the country, coast to coast, in an old quarter ton with a camper on the back. Sometimes he stayed with friends in the east who took him out on fishing boats. Sometimes he helped an old pal seed on his farm in the Peace River country. In the early spring he helped work a salmon weir in BC. Last summer, he and three friends made a raft and floated down the Saskatchewan. When he retired he built a straw bale cabin at the back of Jason’s land where he spent two months in the summer and three or four in the winter. When Robert was in residence for even a week there would be more visitors than Jason had in a whole year. He had twelve children by four different women, and these children all had children of their own. So numerous were they that Jason had a file of their names and birthdays. There were fifty-seven grandchildren and ten great grandchildren. It cost Jason several thousand dollars a year to give them birthday and Christmas presents, an expense he paid out gladly; he and his wife, Evelyn, looked with horror upon a child’s birthday passing without a substantial present. Evelyn bought the girl’s presents and he the boy’s. There were thirty boys and twenty-seven girls. Surrounding Robert’s cabin was a motley collection of old trailers with flattened tires and campers sitting atop poplar pole sawhorses. In the warm season when Robert was home they were filled with children aged three to eighteen.
Jason took two steaks from the freezer as he always did when Robert arrived and they had supper together. Later they had tea on the deck. When Jason had listened to the latest travel stories – Robert had been down in the Sierra Madre mountains in Mexico – he said, “Robbie your truck needs the engine rebuilt.”
“How much for the parts?”
“A thousand or so.”
“I have an easy way for you to make a thousand dollars. Actually fifteen hundred so you can replace your fenders.”
Robert looked at him suspiciously. He asked, “Doing what?”
“No,” said Robert.
“I wouldn’t know what to say. All that art lingo.”
“I could coach you with a foolproof system. You wouldn’t have to learn a single new word.”
Robert was watching the dog sneaking up on the cows munching grass on the other side of the barbed wire fence. “My lifters are bad and she’s starting to burn a lot of oil.”
“Do you want to hear my system?”
“You don’t say a word until someone says something to you. This is what they’ll say. ‘Jason, that painting with the yellow splotches, it’s just marvelous!’ You say, “Thank you. That’s very kind of you.’ They say, ‘I do think it’s the best thing you’ve ever done.’ You pause for a moment and then say, ‘You know I think you might just be right.’ That’s it.”
“ ‘Thank you.’ ‘That’s very kind of you.’ And ‘I think you just might be right’?”
“Yes. That’s all you need.”
“And what if they ask me some weird questions?”
“You pause, look out the window or at least off into the middle distance, and say, ‘What do you think?’ When they answer you say, ‘You know, I’ve never really looked at it that way but I believe you may just be right.’ “
“And what if someone asks personal questions?”
“They won’t because they don’t know me. I’ll let the ten or twelve friends who might show up in on the deal. They won’t bother you. If somebody wants to set up a meeting say you are going away for six months. If they insist on a phone number give them Evelyn’s. If you are in a quandary act confused and ask them to get you a coffee. Most people assume everyone with white hair and wrinkles is senile. Just smile in a vague way and they will go away figuring the show is a way to raise money for medical treatment or funeral expenses.”
“In two weeks.”
“Can I order the parts right away or do I have to wait until after the show?”
“OK. It’s a deal.” They shook hands.
The parts arrived in three days. Jason helped Robert with the overhaul. He handed him wrenches and held things in place. When it was finished they drove to the wreckers and bought two fenders. When they were installed Robert built a poplar pole structure over the truck and covered it with plastic. Then he filled a few spots, sanded, masked and gave it three coats of paint with the air gun. When it was dry he removed the structure and called Jason over to take a look.
“Like brand new,” said Jason.
“Yes. It turned out fine.”
“She’ll be on the road another ten years.”
The day before opening day Robert came over to Jason’s cabin for supper. “Nervous?” Jason asked.
“Don’t be, Robbie. Think of it as an adventure. There is no way you can mess it up. We look so much alike even if you just stand there and nod they will assume you are being my reputed obtuse and uncommunicative self. Which is fine. They will think you are concealing some marvelous enigma. Not only a terrible hermit but an enigmatic terrible hermit. It will increase sales by ten percent.”
When Robert arrived at the gallery the owner put him in a corner furnished with three armchairs and a coffee table. Robert tried all three chairs until he found the most comfortable. He was tired. The night before he stayed up late watching a movie. He took two throw cushions from the other chairs and made himself more comfortable. He snuggled down, laid his head on one of the cushions atop the arm and went to sleep.
An hour later the owner, very nervous and diffident, woke him by gently nudging his shoulder. When Robert opened his eyes the owner said, “Jason, I’m terribly sorry to wake you but there is a critic here from the paper.” Robert sat up, rubbed his eyes and looked around.
“Where is he?” he asked.
A middle aged man suddenly appeared from behind the owner’s shoulder.
“Jason, this is Triponious Fiddler. Triponious, Jason,” said the owner, turning on his heel and walking quickly away. Jason and Triponious shook hands and then sat down.
“The figures in Streamline No 6 remind me of the emotive projections of Klee,” said Triponious.
“Very nice of you to say so,” said Robert.
“I find the horizontal explorations fascinating. Could it be that they mark a new departure in your work?”
“What do you think?”
“What I mean is that up until now your work has always pivoted on the vertical distributing mass according to its stern, almost classical demands. If you are now morphing to a emotionally projective horizontality and twisting this into a kind of grasping for space in the middle ground, then this would be a radical departure similar to the spirally metrical hypertensions Gingle experimented with in his later career.”
Robert paused for a moment and then said, “You know I think you may just be right.”
“I find the apex distributions in number 10 spiritually illuminating.”
“Very kind of you.”
“Were you trying to give a signature to the dimensionalities in the foreground or did you see them as a deliberately non directional approach as in the Winter Garden series of your middle work.”
“What do you think?” said Robert.
“Well, if it is a non directional approach it creates a new role for the mass nexus in the left middle ground and throws into brilliant relief the motivating texture references which I think is a totally fascinating and completely radical solution to the troublesome problem of coordinating spectral tintinnabulations.”
Robert paused and then said, “You know I do believe you have hit it directly on the head.”
They went on for some time in this fashion, the critic pausing now and again to write furiously in a notebook balanced on the arm of his chair. When they were done Triponious and Robert rose from their chairs and shook hands. The critic was ecstatic. “Jason, you have a reputation for being difficult and deliberately obtuse but I have found you delightful, most helpful and wonderfully communicative. Thank you.”
“Very kind of you,” said Robert.
When the critic left two elderly ladies came forward. They each sat down in one of the armchairs.
“Do these paintings mean anything?” asked the older.
“O no,” said Robert.
“Are they simply ravings, then?” asked the other.
“What do you think?” asked Robert.
“Most likely. They seem to be the overflow of a diseased mind.”
“You are probably right,” said Robert.
“A type of farcical satire played upon the forces of order and discipline,” said the older.
“No doubt,” said Robert.
The ladies rose. They looked at him in the way nineteenth century missionaries might have looked at a tribesman who had just described his orgiastic sexual practices. Before going the older leaned towards him and asked in a voice filled with mild anguish, “Are you not even the least bit ashamed?”
“O yes,” said Robert, smiling foolishly. “Terribly, terribly ashamed.”
When the old ladies left four young persons stepped up, two male, two female. “You are Jason Bouganville?” asked one of the women.
“Today, yes.” replied Robert. The young people, very serious lovers of art, took this as a mystical utterance and nodded their heads in unison which reminded Robert of the German clock hanging above Jason’s work table. It was covered with tiny doors which opened at certain hours to reveal mechanical figures chopping wood, sawing boards and walking on the spot in a rolling, exaggerated gait while carrying a pail of water from the well. When the young people had finished nodding, a procedure which went on for some time past what Robert thought to be called for, or even normal, one of the men said,
“Mr. Bouganville, we find your work most stimulating.”
Robert, who associated the word stimulating exclusively with the naked images of women which he sometimes watched on the porno channel in the evening, guffawed loudly, then began a series of chokings and coughings which he brought to a close by withdrawing from his pocket a gigantic red mechanic’s rag into which he blew his nose in an unrestrained, trumpet like manner. This brought on more noddings from the young persons who seemed to be indicating that they were well versed in the habits of artists and knew well of the vigorous and sometimes socially unacceptable behavior which often accompanies those who immerse themselves in seminal creative activity.
“Do you show in your studio, Mr. Bouganville?”
Robert didn’t know what to say to this so he asked, “Do you think one of you guys could get me a coffee?”
“Certainly,” they all said in unison and went off, all four of them, coming back a few minutes later. The woman who was carrying the coffee put it on the table in front of him. “Very kind of you,” said Robert, who in their absence had decided that there was no way that hermit Jason would want these people in his ‘studio’ which meant his very messy cabin with paint splotches all over the walls and even on the windows. So he gave them Evelyn’s phone number. Evelyn, essentially a very kindly person, was, on Jason’s behalf, a tigress who would tell the President that Jason wasn’t available presently but that if he left his number he might call him back. Might. He stood to shake the hands of the departing young persons whose hands were very dry and who applied what he thought must be the correct minimum of polite pressure.
When Robert got back to the cabin, Jason was painting his front steps. Robert climbed out of the truck and walked up to where he was working. “Well, how did it go?” asked Jason.
“Good, I think. I even got in three hours sleep.” Jason thought this a nice touch. Aging artist, worn out by the vigours of art, taking an autumnal nap.
Evelyn came out the next Saturday for supper. When Jason came up to meet her as she was climbing out of the car, she said, “You naughty, naughty man.”
“Now, Evelyn. I’m an old man and claim the right to fill in the forms in the easiest way possible. And from what I hear Robert did a very good job.”
“Excellent,” said Evelyn. “Far better than you would have done. You would have insulted the critic, giving him one of your tedious lectures on the evils of jargon and gotten a very bad review. Whatever Robert said to him he gave you a glowing review, an entire Saturday Art’s page.”
“Well, there you go!” said Jason.
The sales from the show were far better than Jason expected. He gave Robert five hundred dollars to buy tires for the truck. When he tried to refuse it, Jason said, “I sold four times what I thought I would sell and that is due to you. This is just your cut. You are my brother and know well that I am a miserable old man and not into performing charitable acts.”
Robert took the five one hundred dollar bills and put them in his wallet. He was surrounded by a coterie of seven or eight grandchildren whose avid eyes had picked up the numbers off the bills before he could put them away. They began agitating for a special treat. After some negotiation with the children, Robert and Jason decided to split the cost of taking them into the little town nearby for Kentucky Fried Chicken and a movie. The movie, fortunately, was an mildly violent space opera, which even the six year old could watch having to place her hands over her eyes only three times during the whole performance.