Mom told me, "Your dad never wanted to paint teepees. He hated painting teepees. He did it because that's what all the art dealers wanted, because that's what would sell. He called them 'tricky little paintings'. He decided he'd paint the landscapes for himself and put the tricks in to make them sell."
I have a few of his paintings, including a few with teepees, hanging on my wall. I had to fight to get them. In some cases, I had to pay. An artist never thinks he's going to die at 49 in his bed in the summer heat with the TV still on, be found when the single mom upstairs has a spider in her bathtub and sends her eight-year-old boy down to get the nice artist in the first-floor apartment to come squash it. Still and dead in bed for three days. That poor kid, just looking for somebody to kill the spider. Dad didn't plan to die young, so he left nothing to my sister or to me. We had to salvage what we could find in his filthy apartment when we came to cart his things away. She got the best of the paintings that were in his closet, but they weren't much anyway. All his best had been sold years and years ago, before the heroin, before the crazy. And I didn't argue with her. She shut me out of the apartment in the end, set bags of my father's life outside his door for me to haul to the dumpsters. I remember the dumpsters were school-bus yellow and patched with rust. I remember how the lid clanged every time I'd throw in another bag.
So I had to find them where I could, the bits and pieces of his life, the small legacy he left for me. I used eBay and I sent emails to art dealers with my sob story. I gathered a few here and there. I found some in relatives' attics and under beds, forgotten, and took them when nobody was home. I read up on how to strip and restore varnish so I could restore them to the way they were supposed to look, but I haven't had the guts to try it yet, and I don't have the money to hire somebody to restore them for me. Most of them are unframed. I won't put them in anything less than a Ricks frame, carved and gilded. That's the legacy I have, and I will tend it.
A few paintings, and some with teepees, on my wall. I look at them and it's hard to believe he hated to paint the tricks. They fit so well into his world, the structures grouped in twos or threes, the tiny figures of men in Hudson's Bay blankets standing near smoldering morning fires. And in the background, the part he loved, the Idaho sky, the flat dun-scented sagelands, the foothills rising pale and blue and distant. Birch trees and herds of elk. And in nearly all of them, the tiny angular specks of blackbirds crossing. The tricks blend in. And all my life I've been proud of his reputation as one of the finest painters of teepees, and all my life I never knew how he hated it, or the concessions he made to make it bearable.
I tell my mom all this, and I also tell her, "But a painting takes a few days to make. This book took me two years. I worked on nothing else for two years of my life. How can I put tricks into something that takes so much out of me? If I hate writing it, and I spend two years hating it, how can I live with myself?"
She got that, at least. "That's true. And also a painting doesn't take much to appreciate, for most people. You just look at it. A book has to be read."
"A book has to be read by agents first, and then editors, and then more editors, and then readers. It's such a lengthy process. I wish I could force myself to go through it with something tricky, but I'm not sure I can."
"You got this all from your dad. I've never felt this conflicted about anything. You're so high-strung. But I always wished for creative kids. I hoped you'd both be like your dad that way."
"Crippled by my own desires? Thanks; you cursed me."
"You won't be able to stop. You're just like him."
I was crying now. "I want to stop. I want to turn it off. It's making me miserable."
"But you won't be able to. He never could. You just have to find the tricks."
How do I make this tricky, then? Zombies? Baptism for the Undead? Fuck. The idea has about as much appeal as cutting up all his canvasses. I don't think there are tricks. Not for this stuff. Too much time invested per image. Too many people to please to get it sold. Too many tricks to pull. Not even Houdini could be so tricky.
I recalled the stuff we found way at the back of his closet, the one that had the angled wall, that ran under the stairs. They were painted with scenes of farmers in blue overalls, close up, bending over plows, old men with bent backs in broken fields. Thick impasto paint, and bright, impressionistic, on tall canvasses. Nothing like what he was known for. Most of them had been slashed with a razor. One big angry rent through the middle.
I don't see an answer here. I know how to paint the landscapes but I don't see a way to work the teepees in. I can't even fathom the teepees, what form they may take. Outside my window a blackbird is clinging to a swaying fir branch and singing, singing in the sun.