Short story by George Wynn
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n the garage, standing before his easel, 70-year-old Zane, with a full head of blond hair, paints the spaces on the canvas as slowly as he can and with meticulous care. He prefers the reds and blacks of the German expressionists.
It’s important to him to get the sharp face just right. The portrait is almost finished, and reveals a black-skinned, lean, short man with big, bulging, penetrating eyes, a wide nose, big lips and sharply chiseled cheeks and chin — the kind of face that leads you to muse about what it would be to live inside his head.
The sharp face on the canvas stares back at him with a look as intense as Zane’s sense of loss.
Just before he is about to apply the finishing touches at midnight, Zane’s easel hits the ground and he falls asleep on his wide stool. He has visions of bats coming out of his skull, like the visionary Spanish painter Francisco Goya.
His medium-size garage has an almos t new, blue mattress, a stained pillow, two tattered crimson blankets and two old chairs, one stacked with art books from Titian to Pollack. The garage is equipped with an old furnace, water heater, rusty pipes, and a broken beam and cracks in the ground from the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, with a mouse or two (or three or four) for company.
Zane sometimes feels like the protagonist living underground in Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man.
Lasting images of the War
Upon waking, Zane, his cheeks and chin covered with stubble, rubs his eyes over and over. He’s tired from all the heavy dream images night after night. His thoughts return again and again to his friend Xavier: It seems like yesterday forever.
His platoon gets lost in no man’s land, walking the animal trails where the kids go to avoid the booby traps, but there are no kids around. Out of the blue come the N.V.R. (North Vietnamese Regulars). They’re not V.C. They don’t run. And it’s a force twice as large as Zane’s platoon of twelve.
Outnumbered, his platoon is on the defensive. In the first minutes as they exchange gunfire, Zane is shot in the chest. In a flash, Xavier shields Zane’s blood-streaked body with his own, only to have a bullet explode in his head.
Zane recovers in a hospital in the Philippines, but ever afterwards, the guilt never leaves him — as well as the recurring dream of the white-haired, bearded prophet denouncing him: “That bullet had your name on it.” His life is changed forever.
The Best of Friends
In the Army, he and Xavier became the best of friends. Ironically, both men were working-class guys from Milwaukee who’d never known each other back home. Xavier used to joke that people kept telling him he looked like the spitting image of the renowned novelist James Baldwin.
He recounted, “One day I was on a bus and it stopped in front of Marquette on Wisconsin Avenue and a student sat down next to me and asked me if I was James Baldwin. I said yes and he asked for my autograph. I signed ‘James Baldwin’ to his elation and firm handshake.”
Xavier laughed at the memory, then he pulled out a newspaper photo of Baldwin and Zane was amazed at the resemblance.
When Zane returned stateside he had planned to visit Xavier’s family on the North Side and relate the circumstances of their son’s death, but he couldn’t get himself to face them. He was ashamed to be alive instead of their son.
Stranger in a Strange Land
America was now distant to him. He lived in the Vietnam of his mind where he occupied a space akin to the title of one of James Baldwin’s novels: Another Country.
Everything had changed. He used to be close to his father, Peter, a printer. There were only the two of them. His mother, Irene, had died of tuberculosis when Zane was three. He had only vague memories of her. But it was she, his father told him, who named him Zane because of his father’s love since childhood for the western author Zane Grey, especially his Riders of the Purple Sage which Peter would still read over and over.
Seeing his father smack his Bazooka bubble gum while immersed in his reading inspired Zane to read, beginning with his love for fairy tales, then fiction and history. But he identified, not with the bookish types, but the shop guys, and shop classes were his favorites.
In high school, Zane sported a black leather jacket and a D.A. (Duck’s Ass) hair style and drove a used candy-apple-red ‘57 Chevy that he bought with the money he earned as a page at the Main Library on Wisconsin Avenue.
He’d lost the swagger and self confidence he had as a teen. He used to be the life of the party, playing rock and roll standards on acoustic guitar. Now that he was back from the war, there were still days when he liked to talk sports with his father or tune into a ballgame. The Brewers were the new baseball team in Beer Town but Zane longed for the old hometown Milwaukee Braves and his favorite player, “Hammering” Henry Aaron.
Dreams and Depression
There were also those gloomy days after work in the Miller Beer brewery when he went straight to his room, turned off the lights, threw himself on the bed and fell asleep till morning. Zane was depressed. He’d learned about death and nothingness. He’d become philosophical without ever reading a single book on philosophy.
There were nights he was consumed by memories and wanted to block the whole world out and find relief from the pressure in his head. One night, he had a dream of seeing his own name on the casualty list. Upon waking, he stared into the mirror, shouting, “What the hell am I doing here?” and slammed his fist repeatedly into the bloodied, cracked mirror.
Peter drove him to the emergency room. Zane required lots of stitches in his hand and would have permanent scarring. A week later he left for the West Coast. He’d toughed it out in Milwaukee for several years but the Wolfean phrase, “You can’t go home again” eventually proved true for Zane.
Upon arriving in San Francisco, he rented a cheap room in a hotel on Columbus Avenue in North Beach. He found himself with greased hands and overalls, working as a mechanic until the garage went under.
He learned he could earn money by taking jobs others didn’t want, like tearing tile off floors of rundown houses being remodeled with a sledgehammer and coming home with swollen and numb veins in his forearms. After that temporary job ended, he was the only Anglo on a Mexican roofing crew. Then he landed a job as a baggage handler at the airport.
He still took no pleasure in life, but slowly he became friendly with women. But each time the relationship became serious, he would say, “You don’t want to marry me.” He didn’t want to load his demons onto another human being.
When Zane suddenly got the news that his father had died of a coronary, he was crushed, and felt numb the entire flight back to Milwaukee for the funeral. When his father died, he felt lonely and vulnerable — no mother, no father, no siblings.
Zane missed the old man terribly. He remembered the good old days watching the Packers on T.V. with him on Sundays before he joined the service. He recalled their fishing trips up north on Saturdays.
Yet Zane had been like a stranger to Peter after he came home from the war. His father hadn’t deserved that. They were different. His father was a calm man who didn’t need to raise his voice to be firm, while Zane had changed from a happy-go-lucky kid to a temperamental ex-vet with on-and-off mood swings.
Locked up on a 5150
Now the corner bar became his refuge: a game of darts and then way too many whiskies. His spirits were low. Zane was tardy and absent once too often and finally got fired from his airport job.
One late night, the cops stopped Zane as he was walking and shaking his fist in the middle of heavy traffic on Broadway near City Lights Books. He started grumbling, saying he was tired of it all and would be better off doing himself in. They took him to a hospital where he was committed to a state hospital on a 5150, a 72-hour suicide hold, which turned out to be five days because weekends didn’t count.
A spectacled science-fiction buff in the next bed cautioned him on the first day: “A word to the wise. Don’t make trouble or they’ll give you shock treatment.”
Semi-zonked on 700 mg of Thorazine, Zane slept a lot and watched the black patients shoot pool and the white inmates sing along to British rock groups. There were 30 rows of beds horizontally lined up, five rows deep on each side of the men’s hall, as well as the women’s hall.
This is truly barracks living, thought Zane, except there were chains on the door. Peaches and franks without buns for lunch and dinner, and cereal and milk and two pieces of bread for breakfast. One night, the attendants rolled out a dolly with a big, big tray of liver. Only one fellow naked to the waist built like Hercules unchained beat Zane to the liver.
On Monday, just before midnight, he was awakened by the screams of a woman, “Let me go. Let me go!” She was being dragged through the men’s ward by two burly attendants.
Startled, Zane barked, “What are they doing to her?”
Science-fiction buff snapped, “Shut up or they’ll get us too,” as they pushed the screaming woman through a big door.
At noon the next day, the ward psychologist, satisfied that Zane was no longer a threat to himself, allowed him to check himself out. He stood on the side of the road and caught a bus to the Greyhound Station on 7th and Market.
Down and Out on the Street
Zane, now attired in Dickie workpants and boots, got jobs from a labor pool installing doors in high rises. But it wasn’t steady work and he was often unemployed throughout the next few years, unable to pay the rent and having to stay in shelters or camp out in parks or on the street. He’d applied for public housing but never heard back.
The older he got, the more he again felt the need for a drink, but he willed himself to resist the temptation to wallow in despair. Rather, he chose to use his time constructively. He spent hours upon hours in libraries studying art books and making pencil-and-pen sketches of street scenes. Soon he was doing portraits of tourists for donations of five or ten dollars, or even a twenty here and there.
Victoria, a friendly Latina lady and wharf artist who was forever knitting sweaters for the poor of Third World countries, gave Zane sweaters now and then, and introduced him to Gladys, a sickly, slender, bony lady who owned a small house on the edge of Chinatown/North Beach. The clinking of cable car bells could be heard in the distance.
Gladys needed someone to help her with shopping, do a little cooking and accompany her on her hospital visits in exchange for a space to stay in her garage. Zane jumped at the chance and immediately agreed to the barter.
Gladys was a quiet woman and not too demanding. She liked fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy, and so did Zane, so he cooked that dish several times a week. Gladys was happy with Zane who did everything asked of him.
He set up his art materials, and a strange feeling of confidence settled over him. Something now gripped him to portray his friend Xavier on the canvas. Zane became possessed with the painting. He was discovering the force of his passion and will.
The Loss of a Son
One evening, Gladys invited him up to her small living room to share a box of See’s chocolates she had received as a gift. After they delighted in their shared chocolates, Gladys stood up in front of her mantelpiece and stared at a black-and-white photograph in a gold frame.
She had told Zane how her son, a Marine, had perished in the Dominican Republic in 1964 from sniper fire on a street in Santo Domingo. She touched the photograph lightly. She held it tightly in her hands. She looked at the photo, repressing a smile, and he knew she had never stopped thinking of her son for even a solitary day — much like Xavier was in his mind always and forever.
He didn’t know how to comfort her. All he could manage to say was, “Thank you for the chocolates. They were delicious.”
“You’re welcome, Zane.” A tear or two welled up in the corner of her eye.
Meanwhile, something mysterious had happened with his portrait of Xavier. The paint had disappeared into the uniqueness of Xavier’s face. It was done. Xavier’s eyes, his nose — it was really him. He’d gotten it right after many a sleepless night in the basement. He was satisfied.
Zane showed his painting to Gladys. “It’s wonderful,” she said. “He must be a dear, dear friend.”
Zane nodded. “He certainly, certainly was!”
That evening, Gladys gave him the money to buy a cake saying, “Let’s celebrate the finishing of your painting.”
Zane smiled and said, “Sounds good.” He walked off briskly to a Stockton Street Italian bakery.
After they finished munching on cake and drinking the coffee Zane brewed, Gladys said, “I apologize for the mice downstairs.”
“No harm done,” said Zane. “I’ve had rats for company sleeping in more than one downtown alley.”
She gave a slight grin, “I bet you have.”
It was to be one of their last happy moments. Gladys grew weaker and weaker as the months passed. Once she received the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, the disease overwhelmed her frail body. She passed on soon afterwards.
Her relatives were greedy for her property and ice cold towards Zane, and asked him to leave right away. He put his painting of Xavier and his other stuff in a South of Market storage facility.
Zane was forced to hit the shelters and lower Nob Hill alleyways for another round, but he took it all in stride. He had learned to be realistic about these sort of things and to take the good with the bad.
Two months later, when he went to his P.O. Box on Pine Street, he opened an official city letter notifying him of his acceptance for housing for veterans. He’d have a studio apartment of his own in less than three weeks.
Zane was elated. He’d finally found what he’d wanted. The portrait of Xavier would hang proudly on the wall of his new home.