Photos by Meera Subramanian
Lord God, it’s good to be home. The sky over Cape Cod is slack and grey, coughing up sleety rain that crunches and slides underfoot, but still there is a surge of delight, leaving the comfortable wood fire after wrapping too many gifts for too many Christmas revelers and heading out to meet Edie Vonnegut at the underpass (underpants! I think every single time I pass under it…and giggle). I was responding to her text:
I need a turpentine helper. Hold my ladder? 20 minutes max.
I finish my coffee, I finish reading Emily Raboteau’s new piece about a climate refugee from Sandy who now lives a Thoreauvian life, nomadic and content in her van, and I go to meet Edie under the railroad bridge, green and rusting overhead. She’d brought a gaggle of girls a couple days earlier, students from the painting class she’d led in the fall, to redo the fisherwoman mural that has been there since she first painted it in the middle of the night in 1975, when Edie was 25. That she redid again in 2007. The graffiti that has always surrounded it was threatening to take it over and the town was going to paint over all of it. (Across the street, the fisherwoman’s gaze falls on a freshly painted FUCK TRUMP, and an even more freshly painted trio of big black hearts that had been painted to mask over the word FUCK, scribbles over TRUMP).
So she took the girls in the cold of a Sunday and they’d painted the water, refreshing the turquoise blue, and they made suggestions that Edie heeded but had returned, now, to unheed. The one big fish was wrong, and Edie recreates three small fish instead, leaping – into? out of? – the net that the fisherwoman holds in her outstretched hands. Edie’s hands are swathed in multicolored fingerless wool gloves. Her fingers curl around a paintbrush in one hand and an old photograph of the mural for reference in the other. My gloved hand holds a mason jar of turpentine as she dips her brush into ancient tubes of paint that she’s “filleted” open to get at the paint that remains viable within, though the tube nozzle has long clogged up. She finds the hidden life within, dabbing at blue, dipping into white. She practically begs me for the burnt sienna (There has to be burnt sienna), and I reach into a plastic bucket to find it. The names and the smells evoke a life with an old boyfriend who was an artist, who created grand 6′ x 6′ oil paintings as good as Basquiat’s, and my own half dozen years going to art classes in the back of Evelyn Leaven’s house in Red Bank, from sixth grade to twelfth, though I never worked with oils. They were just around me, with those rich colors and intoxicating smells.
Edie climbs the aluminum ladder and is fixing the banner that floats over the fisherwoman’s head as her husband John comes trotting down 6A in a red woolen hat and his newly clean-shaved face. He becomes “turp boy” as I continue to hold the ladder and pass her the right brushes. She uses a white rag saturated with the turpentine to erase the constraining edge of the banner as she struggles to squeeze in the words: PRESERVE…. She keeps running out of room. PRESERVE WHAT’S…. She’s at the end the banner, writes another word, runs out of room, erases the end of the banner, tries again. John suggests she write the words first, and paint the banner around them, and I laugh but I’m not sure she heard him. She paints on, the fugue state of an artist unconcerned with efficiency.
She tosses the rag down into the pile of leaves below her, a crunchy damp mess of burnt sienna, burnt umber, and paints on. The banner takes shape. She consults the photograph, finishes with a declarative That’s good. It all fits.
PRESERVE WHAT’S LEFT
How much more there was 45 years ago when she first wrote those words in the middle of the night. We were at 4 billion then. Almost half of the human lives we are now. There were no trucks bursting with cardboard boxes emblazoned with the swoop dick sign of Amazon pulling into every driveway on Sunday afternoons. I was a child. My stepchildren didn’t exist. My husband was a teenager with an afro of golden hair. There were more old-growth forests, more ice at the poles, more frozen permafrost, more species of mammal-bird-reptile-amphibian. There was more to preserve. More stretches of prairies, more hillsides unencroached, more fish in the sea. Are the fish leaping in or out? They’re embryonic, her three fish. She turns her attention to them. John says they look like tadpoles. I suggest fins to make them more fishlike, but the sharp brown additions she makes look like violent teeth. With one swipe, the rag vanishes the jagged fins, all wrong. But she adds two dots which become eyes, and they transform the image, and I see we’re looking at the fish from above, not beside. And it is subtle and perfect.
Cars rush past us on this dangerous curve with no visibility, but we’re safe on the sidewalk. Avery Revere, our own local fisherwoman, passes in her truck and practically stops, whooping and smiling. Another man goes by, makes a U-turn, passes hollering, The mermaid is back! The mermaid is back! Edie grins, elated, then turns to John, Who was that? He shrugs. She could be a mermaid. No telling, only her torso revealed above the blue of the water. The light is fading. Our fingers are numbing. I could stay here forever, she says but we start to pack up. A neighbor woman comes down with a bag of Milano cookies for us, apologizing that they’re not homemade. She thanks Edie for the work. We eat cookies, and head to our cars. They are parked on a road that didn’t exist in 1975 nor 2007. A road that was once woods, that now leads to a newly framed house among a half dozen other ready-to-build lots on this cul-de-sac where there might have recently been a hidden fox den, or, earlier, when the waters reached higher, perhaps a mermaid’s lair.