THE LUNCH DATE, by Charles Carreon
Joe added the last touches to the halo of sunset behind the hills, highlighting the silhouettes with a subdued yellow backlight. His eyes squinted; his brush flicked lightly, smoothing, blending tones. He looked over the canvas at the wall clock. Ten after eleven. He tipped his head, regarded the picture momentarily, then removed it from the easel, leaning it against the wall beside another picture, an unfinished seascape with dark, hulking rocks, crashing waves and wheeling gulls.
Joe stood up and pulled a desert scene from the rack. He smiled ruefully as he set it into place on the easel and began adding the heavier pigments over the oil wash. On these desert pictures it was his job to do the sky, the mountains, and all the foreground rocks and saguaro cacti. The rest: highlights, shadows, clouds, delicate cacti like ocotillo and joshua trees, and in this case, the small figure of a crusty prospector leading his mule toward the distant cliffs, were not part of his work. He left them for other artists to complete, and at the end of the process, someone would add the final touch--a fictitious signature.
Was he learning or destroying art? 'The question asked itself as he daubed on the uniform purple-grey of a familiar cliff. Did it matter? In theory and in practice, the people who bought these works scrutinized them no more closely than they would the background detail in a snapshot. As Brent was fond of saying: "They wouldn't like 'The Man In the Golden Helmet' any better. These people deserve art, and this is the art they deserve." True, thought Joe, shrugging inwardly--they would never notice that their lagoon was a mere spoonful of unmodulated blue, that their trees were only collections of skewed lines spattered with green or orange, depending on the season depicted, or that their cliffs were just purple shapes with suggestive vertical shadows--and yet, something in him balked at selling people short in this way--after all, they'd never even seen the lovely gleaming curve of that golden helmet. When he looked at what he was working on, the comparison chilled him. Paintings like this gave new meaning to the word "original."
Peering over the top of the canvas, he could see Brent perched on his stool, cigarette smoke curling up next to him, hunched toward his work, shirt-tail showing. The first thing Brent had said to him when they were introduced, with Jack, the owner of Syndicated Artists not even out of hearing range, was this--"you can't smoke pot on this job. You just can't. Colors have got to be mixed right--it's the most important thing, and you can't do it consistently if you're stoned."
Joe had tried to laugh at first, but finally settled on a shaky "Sure--I don't smoke much anyway, really."
Brent didn't bother with a response, went on talking about colors. "Uniformity is basic, like in this seascape here." He pointed to a painting above the water fountain. What we're shooting for is this steely charcoal sky, with just faint streaks of misty white. Check the waves. We use light blue with a touch of pthalo. A creamy white spatter takes care of the crests. It dries and we lay it all over with linseed oil and a few drops of sienna. It's quick, duplicatable, and has a bit of class. Come on into the work area."
In a large room with a concrete floor , a number of people were working on canvases in various degrees of completion. The air was rich with the smell of linseed oil and turpentine. Work-spaces were marked out with masking tape on the paint-spattered floor. Light came in from large square windows near the high ceiling. Brent was saying, "We try to do a good job on every product. We have con- tracts with Sears, Penneys, and more furniture stores than you can count. And we sell a lot of custom work through our Roadrunner Gallery downtown at very respectable prices. We can design a highbrow product if there's a market." Comfortable with this statement, he lit up a cigarette and started across the room toward a young woman who was working intently with fast strokes. Joe followed him, and Brent introduced him to Sally.
"She'll give you the basic dope--the color combinations, the strokes--won' t you, Sally'?"
"Absolutely, Brent. I will show him the strokes in all their subtle modulations." She gave Joe a wry, familiar smile.
Brent concluded their conversation encouragingly. "Okay then, Jose, we'll give you a week. By then you should be turning out four or five canvases a day. Sally does eight, but that takes a little practice."
Sally rolled her eyes. Joe nodded dumbly. He averaged one oil a month in his studio--and besides, he had already smoked a little that morning. He hoped he could mix his colors right.
After Brent had left them, Joe stood waiting for his training to begin. Sally looked to be about thirty-two, fine lines at the corners of the eyes, curling blond hair cut short--had that single-mother look. Her frayed smock, stained with colors, exuded the scent of linseed oil. She was working intently, putting the last touches on a picture of an old buckboard falling apart in a wheatfield. She'd given it some life; it looked fast, but not crappy. She exhaled softly between her teeth. "Definitely be ready for a lunchtime number after another one of these," she said, then turned to smile at Joe, who was looking in Brent's direction.
"Oh, him," she said, "did he tell you that about the colors, that you can't mix colors when you're high?"
"He said we have to be consistent."
"Here," she said, "I'll show you how hard it is to mix these vibrant hues, to create this dazzling pallette..." She started squeezing tubes and talking faster as she did so. "This is your basic desert mountain purple--we call it Mountain Muck--about an inch of this, a blop of this, and a dab of this, mix it together--you got it, Mountain Muck. Can you do that?"
"I think so," he said, "you made it look easy."
"It is easy," she responded. "Now just get a desert scene out of that rack over there next to the little guy with the blond hair, his name's Ricky, and you'll be all set to start painting by the numbers with the best of them." As an afterthought she added, "And don't worry about Brent , he doesn't care. He just says that stuff for Jack to hear."
It hadn't been as easy as Sally made it sound, but eight weeks later Joe was doing a steady five paintings a day--his part of them at least, and had mastered the art of mixing colors consistently. Hypnosunset, horrible wheatfield, and rolling nausea (for ocean waves) had become dreadfully familiar to him. He got a fifteen-cent-an-hour raise and smoked regularly at lunch with Sally, who had a regular supplier for some marvelous Oaxacan leaf that was perfect working grade. Only a cannabinized brain could enjoy creating these ridiculous daubs, he thought, and giggled conspiratorially to himself as he imagined these great communal masterpieces finding their way into the living rooms of America, bearing those ghost-signatures-- "Atkins," "Jason," the always illegible "Peters," master of barns and buckboards, and "Lindo," whose evocative seascapes are the pride of many a motel-manager's living room. He started to guffaw and choked it off. On his right, Sally gave him a look of mock-censure.
Some people were heading out to have lunch, he noticed. He glanced at the clock. Quarter to twelve. He finished the foreground, then quickly slashed out three saguaros, careful to suggest the ribbed surface of the cactus with a few wiggly lines of lighter green. He laid down one brush and picked up another, thinking to himself, now I'll shade these pinkish boulders here in the foreground, and it'll be out of my hands. Just at that moment, Brent appeared at his side.
"Hey Joe, it's time for lunch."
Joe didn't look up, merely answered, "Yeah, I'm almost done; just a little bit more here ..."
"No, you've still got time yet, but why don't you drop that? One of our customers wants to have lunch with you. Actually she wants to have lunch with Lindo; she's bought about a half-dozen of his things at Sears back in Iowa someplace. She's on vacation here and wanted to meet him. Of course ..." Brent looked about with an expression that was a parody of innocence. "Of course Lindo isn't here, so we thought you could stand in for him and give the lady her thrill. Whaddaya' say?"
The idea had a surrealistic flavor that was tempting.
"You'll get a free lunch," suggested Brent, redundantly.
"Sure, why not?" said Joe.
"Great!" said Brent. "I really didn't want to do it. I've been Atkins twice already."
Joe laughed. "Really? You mean this happens often?"
You'd be surprised," answered Brent. "At any rate, go on up front to see Jack and he'll give you the specifics."
Jack was in his office, doing figures with a mechanical pencil. Joe stood in the doorway and knocked. Jack gestured him in, smiling and telling Joe what a great thing this was for public relations. His fervor for the charade, even down to forcing Joe to take along a beret "for the artistic look" was slightly ridiculous.
"You have the Latin look that goes with that name," said Jack. "Lindo!" He gestured brightly with his hands. "Be sure and tell her all about the years in Big Sur and Carmel. And I should tell you that Lindo does sailing ships and harbor scenes too, though we don't do as many of them as we used to--they dropped off in popularity."' His voice trailed off as his eyes wandered toward the books, and returned as he regained control of his thoughts. "As I was saying , the lady's name is Mrs. Jenny Pease, and you' re supposed to meet her at twelve-thirty at Paul Shank's. Try to get back by two--don't let her talk your arm off. She's staying at the Sahara, and you want to give this note to the desk clerk. You know the restaurant's right there in the hotel, don't you?" Joe nodded. Jack twisted his round face as he looked at Joe's clothes, then let go of the worry, "Yeah, they'll let you in--they're informal at lunch- time."
Joe put the beret on the dashboard, decided against finishing the stub of Oaxacan, and instead swigged some papaya juice cold from the thermos on the seat. The Oldsmobile died at the first stop sign, and blew out a cloud of black smoke as it restarted. Finally, the eight cylinders overcame their own inertia, picked up speed going north down Scottsdale Road, and was sliding down the street like a true bomb. The FM radio gave forth the sounds of the Dead moseying through a long, abstract concert riff. Almost unconsciously, Joe reached into the ashtray to get the roach. His new clip worked marvelously. By the time he got to Camelback Road only a shred of charred paper remained. Rather than using the hotel parking lot and risking a snub from the carhop, Joe parked in the shopping center across the way. Twisting the rear-view mirror, he tried on the beret, which actually looked pretty good on top of his pile of dark, wiry hair. He smiled at himself, that boyish smile which emanated innocence--as if to say that life was, after all, meant to be enjoyed, wasn't it?
Outside the car a warm spring breeze was blowing, the sun was shining brightly, just like the brochures promise it will. In front of the hotel, tourists were getting in and out of cars, taxis, and airport vans. Inside, the lobby was lined with showcases full of moccasins, windbells, and turquoise jewelry. Girls in bikinis, carryng bright towels, wandered through occasionally on their way to the pool or the elevators. Doctors' wives in tennis outfits went striding through, carrying sports bags and rackets. Men in business suits made for the lounge. Sun-dried retirees stood about in little groups waiting for tourist vans to arrive, comparing notes about room service and arthritis remedies.
Joe was standing in front of the hotel desk, about to ask a question, when he realized he'd lost the note. And just right then, with the initial onset of the Oaxacan affecting him, he couldn't remember the name of the lady he was supposed to be meeting. The lady desk clerk seemed annoyed before he started, so he was about to retreat for a moment to collect himself when he felt a light touch on his elbow. He turned, and there stood a little lady in an old-fashioned hat with a white veil on the brim. She had a crinkly smile and bright eyes. Her dry voice spoke up. "Are you Mr. Lindo?"
Joe was jolted by this unexpected beginning. He had hoped to approach the meeting on his own terms, to walk up and introduce himself, in command of the situation, ready with a few good lines. Instead he had been taken by surprise, caught being his ordinary self without a shred of forewarning, not even in full control of his own mind.
"Oh, yeah. That's me. How did you know?"
She smiled knowingly. "I could tell by the beret. I figured you'd have one, being an artist."
Joe had forgotten all about the beret. For a moment he looked puzzled and reached up to touch the little hat. "Oh yes, the beret, of course. Well, you're very observant, Mrs. ..."
"Mrs. Pease," she supplied, "Jenny Pease, Mr. Lindo," and extended her small, white-gloved hand, smiling all the while.
It was a delicate hand, but not frail or weak. It had strength that yet contained a hint of ladylike reserve. And strangely, the touch seemed to set Joe at ease, allowing him to relax into his assumed role, as if its contact had trans- formed him into what he was supposed to be.
In the restaurant, they took a table by the window, with a view of the pool, of the bikinis and the young men, of the children dripping and shivering in the occasional breeze, of the suntanners, stretched out, baking, gleaming with oil, straps untied to bare the back. When the waitress came around they both ordered baked halibut, and after she had left, Mrs. Pease looked fixedly at Joe for a moment before she said, "Really, I'm so glad to be able to meet you. Your agent said it's unusual for you to be here, that you're usually in California, painting at the beach."
"Oh yes," answered Joe, "I like to do all my work from life. It's really no fun to be cooped in a studio all the time. I like to feel the wind and smell the ocean."
"Oh yes, your work shows it," she responded "it's so full of life." Then, knitting her brows in an expression of slight puzzlement, she ventured a question. "But aren't you a little bit young to have painted all these works? You can t be more than twenty-five, and I began my collection of your paintings over fifteen years ago."
"My agent," Joe responded with an indulgent smile, "is a good man, but he sometimes conceals things which should be revealed. You see, I am the second Lindo; "my uncle was the first one. You must have purchased one of his works. We work in much the same style, because of course I learned from him."
"Oh, really?" She seemed delighted. "So you come from a family of artists! That's why you do it so well. Was your father a painter too?"
Joe felt his mind loosening up, getting into the improvisational flow of invention. "No, my father was a sculptor and a stonecarver. He did gravestones for a living, and his work still adorns some of the finest memorial parks in California. And yet," here his eyes became distant, "he asked that only a simple marker be placed on his own grave. He was a very humble man." Joe's father was actually a CPA, but that ancestry had never inspired him.
"Well, I'm glad you explained that to me. I just couldn't imagine you doing oil paintings as a ten-year-old."
"Actually, I did start painting even before that age; I never sold a work until I was twelve. But my uncle always encouraged me to try my hand. He and I would go out walking together; I would carry his folding stool. He bought me my first sketchbook, and taught me how to use charcoal. I was very fortunate to have such a teacher."
Mrs. Pease seemed immensely impressed. "Well, I would have never known," she said.
The waitress brought the food, which looked very good, and the wine Joe had ordered, more to fill out the role than for any other purpose. But Blue Nun does go very nicely at lunchtime, and Mrs. Pease was evidently not a teetotaler. She filled their glasses to the brim with a hand that seemed accustomed to dishing out large portions of home-cooked food. When they were empty, she filled them again. As they ate, they could hear the muted sounds of splashing and pool- side play as children chased each other into the blue water. The sunbathers didn't move at all except to order drinks.
"Do you have any children, Mrs. Pease?" Joe ventured.
The lady seemed relaxed, waved her wrist with an easy gesture. "My two daughters are married. My son's got his family; they run the farm now and my affairs since Ed died two years ago. I get tired of being a bother and so my son suggested maybe I should take a trip to Sacramento and see my sister Edna. That was when the idea started bubbling in my head. You see, I've never seen the ocean. Not even once. Ed had been in the navy and it was no great shakes for him, and until I saw your paintings, or your uncle's, I never thought I cared to. But now, before I pass on, I think I'd like to."
The two continued talking in this way for some time, and it was Jenny who ordered the second bottle of wine. Joe forgot that he was supposed to be Lindo, and Mrs. Pease didn't care to notice, because she was so interested in what Joe was saying about Big Sur, a place he dearly loved. He told her about staying overnight in a cave, tending a small fire for warmth, about hitching up and down the coast, just looking for what he could find, and if it all didn't jive with his previous fabrications no one seemed to mind.
After the waitress eased them out of the empty dining room, where busboys were cleaning and setting up for the dinner shift, Joe escorted a slightly loose Mrs. Pease to a chair by the pool. She said she wanted to smell the water. It was quiet there, too. Shadows had driven off the sunbathers, and the last of the children were being led away, shivering in their damp towels.
"Thank you, Mr. Lindo," she said, "for a very nice time. It's been a long time since I had a chance to talk to anyone. I'll be flying back from Sacramento, or I'd say we'd have lunch again on my way back through. I like the bus, but my daughter-in-law doesn't think I should ride."
"That's okay, Mrs. Pease, but could I have your address? Maybe I can write to you sometime. I'm not a good writer, but I'll try."
"Oh, sure, I'd love that," she said, and began rummaging through her purse loosely. "Here's a utility bill with our address on it. You just write to that address, and I'll get it."
Joe took the old envelope and stuffed it in his pocket. As he took her hand to shake it for the last time, he kneeled down to see her eyes. They were happy. "You make sure and get to the ocean, now, okay?" There was no pretense of Lindo in his voice as he squeezed her hand and looked into her eyes. She nodded in response, gently smiling.
"I will," she said. "And thanks again son, for the time."
As he passed through the lobby, the desk-clerk looked serious. Outside, afternoon traffic was picking up. Though he didn't wear a watch, he was sure he was plenty late. Skimming south in the Oldsmobile down Scottsdale Road, past the false-front Western-style architecture, he thought about the painting he would like to send Mrs. Pease.
Copyright 1982, Charles Carreon