At 92, she had lived in the same house for 30 years. An art center, it said out front, on a plywood palette big enough for a giant. A few loyal students may still have seen it as a gallery, if only of their work and hers, but the locals knew it was just the house the old painter lived in, private, pealing an ancient white-washed coat of ordinary house-paint.
We stood on the porch. A public place, a business then, as the sign demanded? I opened the door slowly in and met a bag of garbage sagging into the lap of the old woman slumping into her chair, itself sagging into the uneven linoleum of the hallway like a mutual agreement of surrender. I asked could we enter.
The woman muttered deep and thick, “No one’s stopping you, are they?”
We moved forward cautiously into the dim light. I had come looking for watercolors and asked for them. She cocked her head like an irritated crow.
“Oils are better. They’re solid.”
The gallery slept, peacefully cluttered, there in her living room. Paintings, stretched canvases, easels and broken frames leaned against each other and against the leaning house, spilling into a second room of partly finished “student” work. A thick still-life bowl and three apples sat framed above the door, heavy with life and patient. A classic gray-toned portrait, nearly life-size, leaned against a dirty window. The light seemed unable to get in or out and the painting swallowed the room. Years later I heard someone sigh, deep inside that painting. If it was me, I didn’t know it yet.
When we left, she was still sitting in the hall, glaring, no one’s mother, no one’s idea of her age. And no one’s regret. So I left my pity in the paper sack she finally tossed in the garbage. And I left it in the still-life I may never paint, her dark lively eye staining it human and odd, substantial, “solid” as death at the door so many years he finally moves in and teaches you not to talk about him but to include him in everything, like the inevitable idiot relation who wants to know “How did you get to be so old?”
I imagine her answering him, “I died” and meaning it, in her own way. And meaning too, “I’ve never been more alive in my own world.” All my questions enter my unpainted painting and come back unreasonable, answered with more questions. Now I go on living in them, a bundle of sticks and skin assembled according to principals I have yet to fathom, a makeshift gallery, a house that falls slowly down as its tenant grows wilder and more alone and more complete among the sprung enduring shadows.