I helped clean out Uncle Al's house before the bank could change the locks. Big Larry, just beginning to stoop in his old age but still an intimidating tower of a man, informed me in his usual bellow that first priority was the old furniture from Germany and Austria. Second was the art. Third, the tools. And finally, whatever household items could fit into storage when the rest was safely put away.
For a moment I was excited that art was involved. Paul had mentioned something about Uncle Al being a skilled woodworker and that he painted, too, but I hadn't paid much mind. Who didn't have an aunt or an uncle who was an artist of unrivaled ability? Such family stories of the painter cousin or the sculptor auntie always fired up my internal smirk. The dabblings of these family members never impressed me much. It's hard to find even a little cozy affection for the amateur hour when you're part of a family whose skin and bones are soaked through with Idaho light, whose palms dragged casually across a wet canvas can bring a mountain range or a table loaded with fruit and flowers to brilliant, undeniable life. My dad joked about the difference between Us and Them all the time. "My aunt paints," he would famously scoff, and the rest of us all knew what he was talking about, and we'd smile and feel superior. Yes, we're art snobs in my family, every one of us. We're all the worst kind of assholes. But god damn, are we good artists, and those of us who have minimal skill with a brush or a sculpting loop or words on paper are at least discerning critics.
So I was not expecting much from Uncle Al's house, but the mention of art did give me a little chill. Maybe there would be something special here. Inside the dim house smelling of old, old cigarettes I was left, without discussion, in charge of Priority Two: Art. Because I am an artist's daughter, I suppose, the task naturally fell to me to determine what should be packed and sorted for the second haul to the storage unit. I walked through the house -- a large one -- mentally cataloging what I saw. What I saw immediately was that Uncle Al was not your average painting uncle. His work lacked refinement, maybe, but he had a good grasp of composition and color, and he could handle a brush with more skill than most.
His work even fell into two distinct genres.
One, particularly revolting to my taste but skillfully done all the same, involved bust after bust of nightmare hippie golems, first hacked roughly out of blocks of cedar (the roughs of several new sculptures stood in a row on the upstairs hearth), then finely detailed to bring out grotesquely emphasized lips, architectural ears, unnatural curvature of the neck, huge, unseeing, almond eyes. Watching them mistrustfully, I wondered what momentous event in the 1970s had lodged in Uncle Al's mind, given significance to these dated, distinctive faces, possessed him for decades so that he felt compelled to carve and carve and carve these weird distortions into perfectly lovely wood. The more I looked at them, and as I handled them, sorting them into boxes, the more I saw how they resembled the art of the Amarna period, Akhenaten and Nefertiti and their brood of six with their elongated skulls and sharp-edged lips, long eyes and thin necks, bent into strange postures of worship. Akhenaten was either mad or a visionary, depending on which Egyptologist you ask. He could have been both, couldn't he?
The other theme was portraits of Coast Natives, painted with a limited palette, luminous and accusatory and everywhere, everywhere; especially one particular sharp-eyed man, reproduced all over the house, staring out from closets, above windows, in Warhol brights repeated along the edge of the ceiling. I found The Staring Man etched on mirrors and sketched in charcoal, on canvas in acrylic and oil, in books of half-used pastel paper. I found the contours of his face cut out of flimsy copper sheets nailed to cedar shakes in the shop. He was everywhere, in every room, another significant flash of some meaningful moment of Uncle Al's life, the feedback loop in his brain, decaying now while his body still lives on as vital and strong as ever. I gathered up every iteration of The Staring Man I could find. I figured this might be the last fragment of his self Uncle Al may hold onto. And if he ever comes out of the nursing home, or if he doesn't, I'll open the box and sit with him, a stranger as everybody is, and watch something come back to life in his eyes. A memory that deep doesn't leave even the most degraded mind. I hope it's true.
When the boys drove the truck to the storage unit, loaded with the old European furniture, I sat on the floor with Su and looked through a box of family photographs while she practiced her English as a Second Language on me. She's getting good. Good enough to tell me to read the canister of Almond Roca. "Okay we eat? No expire?" I told her it was okay to eat. She dug in gratefully, "yummy yummy," and insisted I take a few. As I am now considered officially a part of the family, it is also assumed that I, like everybody else in the family, adore Almond Roca, even though (cliche) it has always reminded me of cat turds in a litter box, though the cat excrement would be more flavorful. Christmases are veritable orgy of Almond Roca consumption. I look with horror at the wrapped cylinders under Auntie Angie's tree and know that soon the foil wrappers will be flying and everybody will be stuffing cat turds into my mouth.
I love all the family ferociously, but there are some things about me they'll just have to accept. I am willing to become one of them only so far, I said to myself, chewing a morose mouthful of Roca. Part of that resistance will be, I decided, to maintain the asshole art critic inside me. I can look at boxes full of bizarre wood carvings and stacks of the same Staring Man and I can appreciate the level of skill that produced them, but I can still say that none of it is as good as Dad's. And I can savor the fact that of all the family, I am the only one, the newcomer, the one who's legitimately a stranger to Uncle Al and to everyone but Paul -- the only one who can read the story in the art, the two threads entangling between The Staring Man and the LSD Amarna busts. I am the only one who sees that here and here Al's mind caught and snagged, held and repeated. Here and here are the moments of greatest significance to one person we all call family. If only there was enough of him left to explain those moments to me. I would harness the smirking critic and rein her in and listen respectfully to the dual stories of a single life. If I could.
I found a picture of Al in the stack I flipped through. A whole series of pictures of him as a young man, sulky and intense in his Army uniform, a familiar blush of fierce feeling around the eyes, as dangerously attractive a man as I'd ever seen. That young man in the Army uniform had not yet seen The Staring Man, I was sure.
Every family has a painter or a sculptor or a writer. Usually none of them are any good. But every family loves its artists, because they are the conduits for the madness. They are the channels through which all the frightening energy, the keening voice, the imagination unleashed, may flow. Housewives and slowly degrading uncles going mad so no one else has to. Once, at the age of sixteen, dog-sitting for a weekend, I stumbled through the dark into a friend's basement and nearly fell down the last few stairs when an amateur painting on the wall of trees with their roots exposed suddenly spoke to me: HELP ME, the roots said. I flipped on the light and stared at the painting, its thick impasto pure-white delineating the aspens' trunks with a clumsy, unskilled hand. The words were still there, even more obvious than before, woven into the tangle of roots. HELP ME. When my friends came home from their vacation I asked them about the painting downstairs. "Grandma painted it," they said, and offered no more explanation. I nodded as if that explained everything and thought with a shiver, My aunt paints.
If I can call myself an artist at all -- and that is certainly debatable -- what am I to make of being a conduit for madness? And what must I admit about my own heritage, my family loaded with artists? We have no gentle flow of insanity moving through one generous grandma. We are a great genetic rush of wonderful, terrible energy, a hundred canyons scoured by flash floods. Understanding this, I am braced now, prepared to meet my own Staring Man, unsure how to fight against him when he implants into my mind and sends me spinning in circles until I have finally gone to ashes. I imagine one day my nieces and nephews will come to my home and find the trail markers of my own madness, the same telltale pennant waving. A repeated phrase on paper, the same outline over and over, some image peering out from every closet and cupboard, a ghost walking my halls. I wonder whether any of them will recognize the repetition for what it is. At least one or two of them must. We are of the same blood, after all.