When I was seven, I met a very old man who gifted me with a most remarkable life. That was almost eighty years ago.
Late spring in Rochester, the crisp weather begins to warm. Children leave for school in a jacket, only to shed it by noon, burdened with carrying it or wearing it with sleeves tied around the waist.
Each morning, I walked with my older sister to Francis Parker School No. 23. Hilary was eleven then, and she wore her strawberry blonde, shoulder-length hair feathered out and back on the sides. After school, we walked a few blocks to the YMCA as part of the Latchkey program for children of working parents. The 5-story, aged brick building offered much to do: reading, games, a pool table, sports, homework help, and a different daily project, like masks, statues, paper flowers, or puppets.
Our professorial father had left the previous year, citing the unbearable frigidness of both the New York weather and our mother. He’d moved to Tucson, staying warm with the blistering summers and the plump graduate student he’d felt the need to bring. So, Mom worked, leaving the house in the morning and picking us up from the Y around 6:00.
We usually walked to the Y down Westminster Rd. Hilary was normally kind to me, but this particular Tuesday, she was angry because I’d dropped one of her plastic horses out the window, to see it shatter with the light bulbs I’d been testing in similar fashion. So, she improvised little tortures, like walking behind me and kicking one foot across the other, so I’d trip. After the third fall, I got up and ran ahead, as she hurled small stones and large threats.
I turned down Dartmouth, looking at the ivy-covered, brick houses shadowed by looming elm and maple trees. Their recent growth made the street cool, emerald, beautiful.
Halfway down the street, I saw him in the high, open window of a green and white house, a tan, white-haired man painting a canvas that rested on an easel. I couldn’t tell what he was painting, but I could see it shimmering like sunlight on water. Little reflective dots danced upon the old man’s face. He noticed me and smiled kindly, raising his hand in salutation. I lowered my head and quickly walked on.
Hilary was waiting for me in the lobby. She flashed a foul look but let me walk by. I could tell she was glad I made it. That night, she didn’t mention the event (she’d have been in just as much trouble for letting me walk alone).
The next day, she walked with her friends, and I wandered away with little confrontation. When they turned on Westminster, I jogged down Dartmouth directly to the old man’s house but stayed across the street. Again, he was painting in the open window. This time, when he saw me, I waved. He waved back and beckoned me over. Hesitantly, I crossed the street and stood in his yard.
“What’s your name, young man?” he called down in a rich, cheerful, South American accent.
“Ah, To-mas, a wonderful name. Mine’s Ernesto.”
“What are you painting?”
“Today, it’s the Sonoran Desert. Do you paint?”
“Yeah, I painted a boat, and…” I stopped short.
The old man asked if I wanted to talk about my painting and to see some of his. Uncomfortable, I shrugged and told him maybe another day. He agreed that was wise but insisted on loaning me a painting, providing I’d promise to not show anyone and to bring it back the next day. I promised.
He left the window and soon returned holding a light-blue cloth bag with a maroon tie. He tossed it into the air, where it hovered a moment in a flat spin, then spiraled slowly down, falling gently at my feet. I slid it between two notebooks in my backpack and ran off waving good-bye.
That night, I wolfed down my dinner and ran up to my room. I tried to imagine why the very old man wanted me to be alone when looking at it. I knew artists painted people naked. But that wouldn’t have shocked me; even at that age, I’d found those magazines in the alley near our house.
I locked my door, fetched the soft bag, and sat cross-legged on my bed. Loosening the braided string, I eased out the painting, image side down and slowly, turned it over. My mouth and eyes widened slightly as my face lit up. It was the most remarkable painting I’d ever seen, quite literally alive.
It presented a quiet, green forest landscape clearing within a faint blue, haze that wandered over a flowing brook, through the full pine trees, and near an aging windmill powered by a rotating water wheel. Rich with activity and imagery, it was more lifelike than any painting, photograph, or movie I’d ever seen, because it was real, active, breathing, with motion and scents. The brook’s cool water flowed audibly, slowly rotating the windmill. The trees swayed lightly in the breeze and emitted a pine odor both spicy and sweet. I could even make out schools of minnows darting in the still pools near the brook.
Suddenly, Hilary tried to open my door. I pushed the painting under my pillow, grabbed a comic book, and ran to unlock it. As I did, she kicked it open and barged in, looking around for evidence of wrongdoing, as she told me Mom said it was time for bed.
I went and brushed my teeth. When I returned, she was gone. I donned my faded Spiderman pajamas with the worn, plastic bunny feet and climbed into bed. Checking under the pillow, I was relieved the painting was still there, alive as ever, but the sheets were unaffected. While I could see the running water, it didn’t moisten my sheets. However, I still smelled faint pine when I pressed my face into my pillow.
I slid the picture back when I heard my mom coming down the hall. She came in to say good night and asked why it smelled like Pine Sol. I shrugged and pulled the sheets up to my neck, as she kissed my forehead, turned out the lights, and left the room.
By the light of both my moon and that shining through the painting’s forest, I gazed into the scene for at least an hour, watching the water and imagining walking among the trees atop fallen pine needles. Oddly, there were no animals in the forest. I’d not even seen any fish except the minnows. When my eyes grew heavy, I returned the painting to the bag and pushed it under my bed.
In the morning, I was ready for school in less than half an hour. All day, I thought only of getting to the old man’s house. Finally, the afternoon bell rang, and I shot out of class, waving to my sister as I jet passed. When he saw me running up the street, the old man motioned for me to come up. I made him promise it was safe. He warmly chuckled and promised, directing me to a staircase on the left side of the house, which I followed up and through the door he held open.
The room took up the entire level, with a kitchenette to the left, a sofa, made up as a bed, directly ahead, and an open area to the right, where the daylight shone across many canvases, mostly on the floor.
The old man wore gray, wool slacks that looked like they once fit him but now hung loosely and extended over his worn slippers. He wore his thick, wavy white hair back and almost to the collar of his white button-up shirt, which also appeared a bit oversized, was adorned with a variety of paint splatter, and had the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. His arms were the color of our fireplace and had the same ashy cover. His face shown map-like creases where his smile resided and hinted at just how old he might be. My grandfather lived to be 91 years old; this very old man appeared no less than that.
He walked slowly to a stool and sat down, placing one foot on the footrest and asked what I thought of the loaned painting. I beamed and shared how marvelous and incredible it was. I handed him the cloth bag from my backpack and thanked him for trusting me with it. I still didn’t understand how he’d created it. And he was, at this point, not willing to let me know. “Well, that’s the secret isn’t it?” he said.
As I nodded, he again pressed me on my own secret of the boat I painted, a blue ship with smoke on green water and a pink sky. My smile faded as I looked down at the floor, explaining how I’d cheated, since it wasn’t my own design, but rather one I copied from Billy Schnepelsky, who had painted a blue ship with smoke on green water and a pink sky.
The old man assured me it was not such a horrible transgression, that artists often needed a little push to get an idea. He went on to reveal he’d sometimes get ideas out of magazines and even from other paintings. But what’s important is to put you, the artist into your art. He suggested that if I wanted to paint a ship like someone else, then I should do that, but to make it my own with different colors or to make it a plane.
“Start with a bit of inspiration, and soon you’ll be painting things from your head and all around you. Everyone must start somewhere.” he counseled. “Think of something you really want to paint and then just do it. If you think too hard, nothing will come. It’s when you’re not looking for it that you find the most wonderful things.”
I felt better and asked to see the desert painting. He led me past many paintings along the floor, small tables, and wooden milk crates, each covered with cloth or facing the wall. He lifted the desert painting from the floor and set it on the easel, facing out the window. The sun he’d painted was so bright, I had to squint, and I felt its warmth. The wind was light, but gently stirred the loose, khaki sand. Various green cacti scattered the landscape as well as many dead, dried bushes and trees.
Bewildered and entranced, I insisted he share how he made his wonderfully realistic scenes. He whispered his secret, “Tomas, I have a magic brush and extraordinary paints.” He explained that when he was quite young, he was gifted them from a very old man who had been given them from another very old man. I lit up in wonder.
Near the kitchenette, he showed me an aged wooden table made from a door whose cracking, bluish-white paint was peeling away. It still had the tarnished brass knob attached. Atop the table—along with a single place setting, a vase of wilting wildflowers, and a stack of five books–was a large wooden box with the lid open, that held rows of small jars. He lifted a few, showing me the colors within.
“This is one of the waters.” An iridescent, silvery blue shimmered and undulated.
“This is a spring breeze.” The clean jar looked empty.
“This one is the sun.” It was wrapped in black paper.
He opened a glistening light grey and silver jar and asked me to close my eyes and tell him what I smelled. It smelled rank and a bit sickening, like fish. He told me it was for ocean scenes and then opened another, a jar of white with blue speckles. It was worse and smelled like feet. I pulled away, covering my mouth and nose. He laughed loudly and said that it was a special cheese he’d used only once… for an outdoor Parisian cafe.
“Have you been to Paris, Ernesto?”
“Oh, years ago, when I was much younger. But I’m a very old man now. The years have gotten the best of me.”
I suddenly noticed the time and that I was late. I told him I’d come by the next day if he’d paint a beach scene. He agreed, and I ran off.
The next day was Friday. I got out of school early and walked to the very old man’s house. There was a beach painting in the open window, but I couldn’t make out much detail. I called to him from the yard. After some time, he came to the window and waved me up, where I found him sitting on the large, plush sofa.
“Guess what? Today, in art, I painted a blue lizard on a rock in the sun. Mrs. Morabito said it looked like a crocodile. She doesn’t know; her flowers look like elbows.”
“Excellent, Tomas. Since I’ve shared my paintings, I’d love to see this blue lizard.”
“Sure! I’ll get it on Monday. Can I see the beach?”
It was dazzling. The pale sun rose on the blue-green horizon, as foam-tipped waves came rolling in, bringing seaweed and shells to the dark, empty beach, doubling over each other and drifting back out to meet the next group coming in. Chalky green and crimson cliffs stood to the left, the beach to the right extended all the way around to a distant jetty. The calm sand shown dunes from where there must have been high winds earlier. Its realistic beauty was striking, like my trip to Big Sur the previous year where I caught a starfish.
“Hey, why are never people in your paintings?”
“Well Tomas, if I added them, they’d always be there. People like change and to see different places. They might love to visit a spot but not to live there forever. Also, I like that anyone looking into one of my paintings can experience being right there, without navigating other people. An ideal place might exist for a particular person, but for my paintings, I’d rather just create places to visit.”
“When I’m older, you could take me to visit such places, where we could both get ideas to paint.”
He smiled and reminisced of being a younger man, when he loved such adventures. But now, a very old man, his body didn’t enjoy travel; only through the paintings could he transport there. He pointed out I had many years to travel and see the world. I could tell he was tired and left him to nap.
On Monday, I visited again and called to him from the yard. He appeared at the window, smiling weakly and apologizing that he was too tired to entertain. He asked me to come back Tuesday. I felt sad, dejected.
“But I brought the blue lizard painting. Don’t you want to see it?”
“Throw it to me,” he said, softly.
“I can’t throw it that high.”
“Just throw it in my direction.”
I tossed it toward the window, but the wind caught it and started to take it back toward the street. Then, it began to spiral clockwise up in smaller and smaller rings right to his window, where it spun a moment, seeming to float before him until he reached out and grabbed it. He stared at it a while.
“It’s wonderful, Tomas. The finest iguana ever. You are truly talented; keep to it, and soon you’ll be a master.”
“Thank you. Hold on to it; I’ll pick it up tomorrow.”
The next day, the neighborhood seemed calmer, quieter. When I reached his house, his window was closed, but a new painting sat on the easel. A few calls from the yard and subsequent knocking on his door brought no answer. The door was unlocked, and I looked around the room; the old man wasn’t there. I started to leave but saw the large art box. Under its black handle, an envelope displayed my name. I sat on the floor and opened the letter.
I’ve had to leave, unexpectedly. Unfortunately, I don’t intend to return. However, I assure you I’ll be happy in all I do. I urge you to do the same. Remain happy and true in all your endeavors. Keep painting, it’s one of the truest forms, one for which you have great talent. To help shape that talent, I’ve left you my supplies. Use these materials often; you’ll find the jars to always be full. Remember, and this is essential, don’t ever stop creating landscapes. The world will be barren without them. Be very careful with the paints and brushes, and guard them closely. They should remain always and only in your possession until a day comes when you pass them on. It has been the greatest pleasure knowing you.
Standing up, I took my last look around the room, gazing at the paintings, uncovering those that were covered, and turning around those that faced away. Each painting was alive with a different scene: flowing water, wind, trees, rain, fog, snow, even a hailstorm. Gazing into each piece was like peering through an open window over some glorious beach, forest, desert, lake, or mountain landscape.
On the sofa, I saw my lizard painting and beneath it, another one, all too similar to my own. The colors were different, and not too surprisingly, the iguana blinked at me and then looked around. I put my hand over the rock feeling its warmth as the iguana flinched. I propped it up on the sofa and looked at all the living art.
I left them with the intention to return to hide them. But I first covered them. So many different atmospheres and environments in one room was confusing and overbearing. I started toward the door but remembered the new one I’d seen facing out the window.
In the middle of a mountain forest, a calm, glimmering lake extended a great distance on either side, surrounded by tall, dark green pines whose redolent odor filled my head. Faintly, birds warbled in the trees across the lake and an occasional rainbow trout jump from the water, breaking the wind’s light ripples to make one of its own. The fading sun was just setting atop the blue sky lining the horizon with a wide trim of merging purple, yellow, red, and pink. Off in the distance, on the right side of the lake, floated a small rowboat with a white-haired fisherman in a loose white shirt.
I threw open the window wide and turned out all the lights. Collecting the art box, both iguana pieces, and the painting in the light blue cloth bag, I walked down the stairs.
I never saw the old man, again. But from that evening to this, I’ve never stopped painting. I’ve captured the most obscure, as well as obvious, places of the world. My collection of remarkable paintings is vast. And, through all my years, I’ve managed to remain much like a young man by keeping a youthful mind and an active spirit. But now, I’m a very old man.
Time Barrow, PhD is a writer, educator, poet, humorist, doctor, and dreamer living in Bellevue, WA. He does words much of the time, as the brand writing manager for an internet juggernaut and a college web authoring instructor but prefers making his own words when the moon is up. Time digs 1920s-60s blues, bourbon, ink, classic British motorbikes, running, and antique typewriters. He’s about to join a curling league. You can follow his publication progress and prowess at timewrites.com.
© 2019, Time Barrow