What garlic is to salad, insanity is to art
What caught my eye was this painting of a sand castle slowly being consumed by the tide. I didn’t have to check the signature to know it was by Daryl Peters. In 1976 hardly anyone knew who he was, but I’d been following his career since his exhibition three years ago at the Sleeping Gypsy Café in Cambridge. Resisting an impulse to touch the canvas, I admired the bold, playful strokes, and then noticed a tiny maiden waving frantically from one of the turrets. All around me people spoke in subdued, appreciative tones, or called out greetings. Waiters circulated with glasses of wine and trays of hors d’oeuvres. Artists humbly accepted compliments, and hugged with exaggerated animation people they had probably never hugged before. I tried to figure out which one was Daryl Peters. I’d been to a couple of his openings but had never met him. Rumor had it he was shy; the epitome of the dirt-poor, struggling artist, despite excellent reviews in The Boston Globe calling his work “vivid, adventurous, and just plain fun.”
I looked back at the painting and saw a crab scaling the castle wall, wielding a sword in one claw, hoping to rescue the maiden. Boisterous seagulls circled above, anticipating disaster. I could almost hear their calls.
“I put sand in the paint,” said a voice behind me. “That’s what gives it the grainy texture.”
I turned and there he was, regarding me with gentle brown eyes. Dark hair and beard streaked with gray belied a young face. I guessed him to be about thirty. His navy blue blazer was outdated with narrow lapels, and instead of the unbuttoned polyester shirt dictated by prevailing fashion, he wore a black turtleneck. “I think it’s great,” I said.
“No one else does.” He indicated the other guests with a dismissive gesture, and it was true, they seemed more interested in other artists’ pictures of mystical unicorns and scenes of the galaxy.
“What do they know? You’re the best one here. By far.”
“That means a lot, coming from such a famous author.” He held out his hand and we shook. “All my friends’ kids love The Baboon Who Ate with a Spoon. And you did a great job with the illustrations—the muted colors worked really well with the story line.”
“Thanks.” A local celebrity, I was used to being recognized, but I hadn't expected him, a real artist, to know me. Given his circumstances, it didn’t seem polite to mention that plans were underway to turn The Baboon Who Ate with a Spoon into a movie.
Although we didn’t exchange contact information then, I guess we were destined to be friends, because we kept running into each other. I’d be exiting some store after a shopping spree and see him waiting for the bus. Or as I headed into the bank he’d be coming out of an art supplies store. Once I walked out of a hair salon and heard him shout my name from the doorway of a convenience store. Joking that we had to “stop meeting like this,” I hailed a cab, and we rode together and talked about art.
Of course there was no comparison between us. His work was extraordinary, while my drawings, like my life, were pleasant and uncomplicated.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” he said.
“I’m not being hard on myself. I love what I do. I won't go down in history, but to me, that’s not as important as being happy now.”
He sighed. I knew right away it was the wrong thing to say. I had no idea why this enormous talent had to battle obscurity, while I, though considerably less gifted, was the recipient of several impressive awards. One of those things that made no sense; an administrative slip up in the Divine Head Office. I opened my mouth to say more, but he held up his hand.
“Do me a favor and don’t remind me that Van Gogh never sold a painting in his life, and now even his sketches sell for thousands of dollars.”
For the first time there was silence between us. I’d specifically instructed the driver to take the scenic route past the Public Gardens, where flowers bloomed with breathtaking brilliance. Tourists crowded the city, and I envied them seeing Boston for the first time; walking the Freedom Trail past historic landmarks like Paul Revere’s House, Old North Church, and the Granary Burying Ground, final resting place of Mother Goose. Or visiting Faneuil Hall, site of greasy pizza, lobster, and Italian pastries, and host to street jugglers, magicians, and musicians. And this year Boston was the focus of the most gala bicentennial festivities in the country.
Daryl cleared his throat. “Were you going to say the thing about Van Gogh?”
My apologetic smile made him shake his head. “Why do people always think that will make me feel better?”
“Because Van Gogh was finally hailed as a great artist. It could happen to you, too.”
“Yeah, in a hundred years.”
“Your great grandchildren will be rich.”
Our cab stopped at an intersection, granting the right of way to a horse-drawn carriage. As it crossed in front of us, I leaned against the window and anxiously tried to gage the horse’s expression. Was he unhappy, was he overworked or hungry? Blinders prevented me from seeing much of his face, but there was something peppy about his trot, like maybe he didn’t mind. I imagined his eyes, soft and brown, with long lashes. “You ever come to the city to sketch?” I asked Daryl.
“I used to when I was a student. I’d sit in coffee shops and draw the customers. But not anymore. Too many people looking over my shoulder. I’m better off staying at home. My place is full of paintings.” He glanced at me. “Want to see them?”
“I’d love to.”
So the cab dropped both of us at Daryl’s apartment in Brighton. The building was dingy, obviously populated by poor college students, and as we walked inside, I saw that the grey carpet in the lobby was worn right through to the floor.
“Sorry it’s so gross here,” he said.
“Don’t be silly.” I hated that he was embarrassed; that he had to live like this! Following him up the stairs, I tried not to notice stained, cracked walls and stale cooking odors. He opened the door and stepped aside so I could go in first.
Paintings were everywhere—on walls, on the floor, leaning against a ratty-looking sofa. The aggressive, confident colors hit me first, and as I looked more closely, I was amazed by the array of emotions he was able to capture. A yellow, black, and red Abstract was threatening like a poisonous snake, but next to it an Impressionistic pastoral scene conjured up tranquility. An old man dying in bed. A beautiful woman applying lipstick. Carefree ivy climbing a chimney. A skunk rotting by the side of the road. The Trompe l'oeil of keys on a hook looked so true to life that I had to stand close and squint before I could detect brush strokes.
“Wow!” I said. “These are unbelievable!”
I had to admit I was jealous. A competent artist, I rarely ventured beyond baby animals with mirth-filled eyes, over-sized ears, bushy tails, and everything pleasingly chubby. Death and despair didn’t happen in my world. “You use models?”
“Not usually.” He pointed to a still life propped on an easel. “I did for this one.” An alley drenched in sunlight allowed courageous weeds to sprout between bricks. “It’s the view from my side window.”
“I bet everyone who comes here says it’s like a museum.”
“Not really. I mean, I don’t get much company.”
“Oh.” I gave him a minute, hoping he’d elaborate. People either let you in, or they don’t. I’d always been the open type. I knew my mailman, UPS man, and paperboy by name (Gerry, Joe, and Danny) and when I went into the market at the corner of my street, the owners always asked about my writing, then insisted on showing me recent photos of their grandchildren (Amanda and Sally.) Even Eddie the plumber who installed my hot water heater earlier in the year left with the information that I had just gotten out of a long-term relationship with a guy who owned a farm in Concord. “Not even your friends?” I probed without grace.
“Nah. They’re all married. Boooring.” He went over to the refrigerator, pulled out two beers, and handed me one. “They were so different in college. We were going to change the world.”
“Yeah, I remember those days.”
“We protested the Vietnam War and said we’d move to Canada if we were drafted after graduation. Ronald and his girlfriend Sharon were going to join the Peace Corps. Ronald used to say, We can’t change the whole world by ourselves, but we can do what we can do.”
“So what happened?”
“We graduated and no one got drafted, so no one moved to Canada. But no one joined the Peace Corps either. Ronald and Sharon got married and moved to Brookline. He works at his father’s toy factory—he's head of personnel.” Daryl said this with disdain, the way one might explain that an old friend was now employed by the circus to clean up elephant shit after each show. “Sharon stays home with the kids. My ex-girlfriend Belinda was going to be a great actress. She loved all those pretentious avant garde films. You know the kind that don’t make sense, but everyone pretends they’re amazing and brilliant?”
“I hate those.”
“What does she do now?”
“Partners in a consulting firm. And my best friend Timothy wanted to be a novelist. Now he works in a book store. He says it’s the next best thing to selling your own books.”
I sipped my beer. “I guess not everyone winds up doing what they thought they’d do.”
“I know. But that’s not the point. It’s the way they don’t care. They sold out their dreams and they don’t care at all.”
“They probably do,” I said, “but it’s easier for them not to think about it.”
“But they’ll have to think about it someday, right? Wouldn’t it be better to do it now, instead of thirty years from now?”
“Some people go their whole lives without questioning anything. And they’re fine.”
“But my friends had such dreams!”
“I guess it happens.” Hanging on the wall was a pastel of a pen, a pair of glasses, and a leather-bound book. With a little effort I could make out the words on the cover: The Journal of Elliot Simms, 1932-1948. Near the book, an amber glass ashtray was so stuffed with stinking cigarette butts that I almost felt a headache coming on. His talent was obscene. I looked back at him. “Maybe you shouldn’t hang out with them anymore.”
“I don't want to. When they call I tell them I’m busy. But they keep calling. Christmas and New Year’s and whenever one of us has a birthday. Eventually they wear me down.”
“You can’t just be honest and tell them?”
“It wouldn’t do any good. They wouldn’t have any idea what I was talking about. They don’t see the difference between how they were then and how they are now.”
He went on to tell me that Ronald and Sharon only had sex about once every three months because Ronald had trouble staying hard, and Sharon thought it was because she’d put on weight, so she went on a crash diet, lost twenty-one pounds, and when that didn’t help, started seeing a shrink. Timothy had been cheating on his wife for years with a woman he’d met on the subway who was also married. Belinda had already had three abortions and her doctor said that she could no longer expect to deliver a child to full term, which was fine, because she hated kids. Still beautiful and capable of winning and then disposing of many lovers, she liked to announce, No one can put a saddle on this pony!
“I thought you told me they don’t mind the way their lives have turned out,” I said. “They don’t sound happy to me. Not happily married, that’s for sure.”
“When you meet them, you’ll see what I mean.”
I laughed. “No thanks.”
And yet less than a month later, I found myself driving us to Belinda’s townhouse in the North End for her birthday. Daryl told me he’d been instructed not to bring a present, but when we arrived I saw evidence of recently-unwrapped items, including what looked like an expensive sweater. His friends had obviously participated in gift giving before his arrival; a gracious concession for his penury.
He introduced me as his “friend,” which bothered me a little, because it sounded like a disclaimer; like, making sure they knew we weren’t dating. On the other hand, we weren’t dating. I smiled at everyone, sat, and accepted a glass of wine.
Daryl picked up a copy of The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty from the coffee table. “You’re reading this?” he asked Belinda.
“Timothy gave it to me as a joke,” she said. “Remember in college we made that vow to read every book that won the Pulitzer?”
Daryl nodded and turned to me. “Starting with 1955, because it was the year Faulkner won the first time.”
“Timothy wanted to go farther back,” Sharon reminded them. “He kept shouting that we should start with Arrowsmith by what’s-his-name.”
“Sinclair Lewis,” Timothy said. “The greatest American writer ever.”
When no one agreed or disagreed or made further comment I said, “So did you?”
“Until we graduated in 1968,” said Daryl. “The last thing we read was something by Styron.”
“The Confessions of Nat Turner.” Timothy said. “Shit. We should go back to doing that.”
“Who’s got the time?” Sharon groaned.
“I can’t even remember what it’s like to just sit down and read,” Timothy’s wife said. “There’s always too much housework. By the time I go to bed, I’m lucky if I got half of it done.” As if we were morons who didn’t understand what “housework” meant, she clarified, “Vacuuming, laundry, cooking, defrosting the freezer.”
“Not to mention taking care of two kids,” Sharon added.
Daryl said, “I bet we could do it. Just set aside some time at night.”
Belinda flipped her hand. “Easy for you to say, you don’t have a job!”
“Or a house to run.”
However, as busy as they all were, they seemed knowledgeable about the season’s most popular sit-coms: All in the Family, Chico and the Man, Mary Tyler Moore, and The Bob Newhart Show. Like Daryl said, it was hard to believe these were the same people who used to go full speed for days without food or sleep because life was too exciting to miss a single moment.
On the way home he said, “You see what I mean about them?”
“I didn't think they were so bad. Timothy’s wife has all my books. And Belinda said she’s read them, too. She said that if she ever had kids she would have wanted them to...” I looked over at him and amended, “I mean, she’s nothing special. It’s weird to think you dated her. I can’t picture you together at all.”
“That’s because she used to be different. She was great. They all were. And then they got married.” He shook his head. “So middle-aged and sensible with their station wagons and their PTA meetings.”
“I don’t think it’s because they got married. I think it’s because they’re—”
“No, it’s marriage. When you get married you change. You become ordinary. I will never get married. I’ll kill myself first.”
“Come on, Daryl.”
“It’s like having a lobotomy. It destroys your passion for everything but making money. I’d rather be dead.”
“Does not getting married mean not having sex, too??
“No, sex is fine. With women you don't care about. But if it's someone you care about, then it's not a good idea. For me, anyway.”
“Oh my God. Are you serious? You sound like such a male chauvinist.”
He shrugged. “It's how I feel. After college I was in a relationship, and everything was fine and then all of a sudden she wanted to know Where is this going? And even though I told her up front that I never wanted to get married, it came as a huge shock, and she cried and said I led her on. Twice that happened. Huge breakup scenes and I never saw either of them again, and I wound up feeling so guilty.”
“So what do you do, have sex with total strangers?”
“Not total strangers. Just women who don't want to get married.”
It never failed to amaze me, the emotional chasm between men and women. Under the picture of every girl in my high school year book was the goal “To get married;” meanwhile, the boys planned to be sports heroes, rock stars, or own their own business. Probably most men felt the way Daryl felt—the difference was, Daryl admitted it. I could imagine that a lot of women would get angry and leave. “Do you meet a lot of women who just want to have sex?”
“When I was in my early to mid-twenties I did okay. But as I got older it wasn't so easy. Most women my age want to settle down. Ever notice that's the word everyone uses? Settle. I always think of hens sitting on eggs, and that's their whole existence, sitting on eggs.”
“I've heard that as you get older sex is better when you love someone and you're committed to them. It's more intimate. It's not as much about the act as it is about the, I don't know, tenderness or security or whatever.”
“Have you ever loved someone like that?”
Without consulting him, I pulled into a liquor store and shut off the engine. “Let's get something to drink and go back to your place.”
“Make mine weak,” he said, watching me mix vodka with orange juice. “And I like plenty of ice.”
After three or four we achieved mild, pensive inebriation. Sitting on the floor of his cramped apartment listening to his tinny little radio, we’d just concurred that “Tuesday Afternoon” by the Moody Blues was a masterpiece when he said, “I want to create something like this, too. Something that people I don’t know will sit around and talk about, the way we are now.”
He leaned forward, suddenly intense. “All my life I've wanted to do a full-length animated motion picture.”
“What do you mean, like a cartoon?”
“Not like The Baboon Who Ate with a Spoon,” he said. “No offense.”
“None taken,” I said, but it wasn’t completely true. One of the things I’d had to accept since meeting Daryl was that some people are blessed with greatness, while others will never be more than mediocre, no matter how hard they work, study, practice, or pray. The gift of talent, like wealth, distributed unfairly by an inattentive universe. I had so much money and owned my expensive house outright and never had to write again and could still retire rich. But rich isn’t the same as great. “My movie is aimed at kids,” I reminded him.
“I know. I didn’t mean anything by it. I told you, I love the story. The pictures too.” His smile was brief but kind.
“What would your movie be about?”
“Ever heard of Hermann Hesse?”
I almost choked. “Are you kidding? He was my favorite writer for years!”
“Mine, too!” With his finger Daryl touched his forehead, then my own, “Great minds think alike!” We laughed and marveled the way you do when you’re really drunk and something banal, such as liking the same author, takes on a magical quality.
My thoughts spun back to the mid-sixties. As a literature major, I spent four years reading all the classics. I never admitted it to anyone, but Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, Schiller... yuck. Only Hesse spoke to me, with his tales of inner turmoil and hard-earned wisdom. I could still picture the professor, a tall, thin woman with a masculine chin and a long Hungarian last name, saying that while Hesse was certainly a stylish writer, wasn’t it possible that most of what he said sounded good but in the end didn’t have any meaning whatsoever? I was outraged, but didn’t dare speak up as the rest of the class laughed in agreement. Hesse was for a select few. Let others call him flowery, but...
“I’m still talking,” Daryl said.
“What? Oh. Sorry. What did you say?”
“I said, so you must be familiar with ‘Klingsor’s Last Summer.’”
“Hmm.” I drew a blank. “I guess I’m more familiar with his novels than his stories. I’m sure I read it, but remind me what it’s about?”
“Klingsor is an artist spending a carefree summer in Italy. Drinking, chasing women, staying up all night, painting until his eyes ache, living a vagabond life. But when he’s alone at night, he’s visited by despair and anxiety. That’s what makes him a great painter. In the end he completes his masterpiece, a self-portrait. Soon after, news of his death reaches friends. No one can say for sure that it was suicide, but there were rumors of madness in his final days.”
“I remember it now,” I said, and improvised poetically, “Seizing every midnight dance and every sunrise kiss.” God, I was drunk. I blinked at him. “Right?”
“So your movie will be based on that story?”
“Yeah. It has to be animated because it could never be done with live actors. It’s too much like a painting. The writing is so colorful and evocative. Mythology and fantasy blending with reality. Thoughts swirling and women with long hair flowing.”
“Swirling and flowing,” I repeated. I finished my screwdriver and filled the glass again. “Done any sketches?”
“Yeah. Now I need to find a musician. I wish I could write the score, but I can’t even read music. You know anyone?”
I didn’t think I did, but I tapped my lips with one finger the way people do when they’re concentrating. “Hmm.” My brain seemed not to be working that well. “No. But Boston is full of musicians. I’m sure you’ll be able to find someone.”
“It has to be someone who understands what the story is about. All the symbolism and foreshadowing and deeper meanings. And it would help if he had a lot of money. You have any idea how much it costs to make a movie?”
“Hundreds of thousands of dollars. At the rate I’m going, I won’t have that much saved up for, let’s see, oh, a hundred thousand years or so.”
“You won’t have to foot the bill, silly. You pitch the idea to some movie executive, and his company pays.”
“If everyone had to pay for their movie to be made, no one could do it,” I said. I thought about the company that was making The Baboon Who Ate with a Spoon, but they only did cartoons. And Daryl’s movie wasn’t a cartoon.
One of my favorite songs, “Too Late to Turn Back Now,” came on the radio. Briefly I swayed in energetic rhythm, then felt dizzy and stopped. “Whoa,” I said.
“You’re in no condition to drive,” Daryl said. “I don’t have a bed, but I can make up the couch.”
“Where will you sleep?”
The air in his apartment was hot and wet and still. “Can we open a window?”
“They’re all painted shut.”
“None of them open?”
He went to the window above the kitchen table, took a deep breath, and positioned himself. “This... one... does...” The window inched up. “It’s pretty loud, though.”
We listened, and sure enough, just about every car in the city was honking its horn. A frail breeze drifted in.
He grinned. “Just you.”
Was he flirting? Or did I already fall into the category of women he cared too much about to sleep with? But he looked so sexy—the brilliant artist with a drowsy half-drunk smile—that I said, “I can’t stand the thought of you sleeping on the floor. Is the couch big enough for two?”
“It’s not even big enough for one.”
He held up his hand. “I’ll take the floor. I don’t mind.”
“Okay.” I wiped my forehead with the back of my wrist. Too hot to have sex anyway.
The next morning, sipping tepid ginger ale and trying to ignore a thunderous headache, I watched as Daryl moved with ease, filling the tea kettle, turning on the burner, selecting a tea bag from a box, rinsing out a mug. Mysteriously not hung over.
“Remember how we talked about Van Gogh a few weeks ago,” he said, “about how no one appreciated him during his lifetime?”
“I think no one liked him because his art was so different from what was popular. He took risks.”
The ginger ale fizzed merrily down my throat but faced hostile resistance as it attempted to battle the storm of angry acid in my stomach. I wanted to track down the person who told me ginger ale is good for a hangover and kill him. “Maybe the reason Van Gogh is so famous isn’t because he was talented,” I said, “but because he committed suicide. It was glamorous and romantic, the way he cut his ear off for some girl who didn’t love him. But what did he think she would do when she got it in the mail? Realize that she couldn’t live without him?”
“He was a genius. He was too sensitive to survive in such a harsh, shallow society.”
“And suicide was the answer?”
“You don’t think so?”
“No.” I put my hand over my eyes. “I think suicide is a cop out.” I couldn’t wait to go home. I was going to set the air conditioning so high I’d need to nap under my down comforter. “So what are you working on now?”
“Come on, I’ll show you.”
“You can’t bring it over here?”
I stood. The room spun sickeningly for a second, then slowed and stopped. I followed him over to a large easel in the far corner of the room. When he lifted the oil cloth I saw three fancy old ladies dressed in lace and ribbons and curls, nibbling dainty petits fours and sipping tea from tiny cups decorated with an elegant floral pattern. What a frivolous scene in shades of lavender and pink! My headache vanished as I moved closer to inspect the strokes, and that’s when I noticed cobwebs spanning the space between the women.
“It’s called Eterni-tea,” he said. “These women have died and gone to heaven, which for them, has turned out to be this never-ending tea party.”
“It’s fantastic!” I stood staring with my mouth open, taking in all the details. That softly-powdered wrinkled skin! Those old-fashioned hair styles! And three pairs of twinkling eyes, delighting in the latest scandal. Absolutely the most wonderful painting I had ever seen. “How much?”
He hesitated. “Three hundred?”
“You’d get twice that at the gallery, I’ll give you six hundred,” I said. “Where’s my purse?”
He modestly attempted further objection but I just shook my head and wrote him a check. Not to sound corny or anything, but seeing that painting was like falling in love and knowing it would last forever. How many times does that happen to a person?