OIL ON LINEN
40 x 50 INCHES
COLLECTION OF THE ARTIST
I never imagined I would shoot a man. Or be a father. Or live so far from the sea.
As a child, you imagine your life sometimes, how it will be.
I never thought I would be a painter. That I might make a world and walk into it and forget myself. That art would be something I would not have any way of not doing.
My own father was a logger, very gentle, who never fought with anyone.
I could not have imagined that my daughter would be beautiful and strong like my mother. Whom she would never meet. Or that one afternoon at the Boxcar in Taos I would be drinking Jim Beam with a beer back and Lauder Simms would be at the next stool nursing a vodka tonic, probably his fourth or fifth, slurping the drink in a way that made ants run over my neck, his wet eyes glancing over again and again. The fucker who had skated on a certain conviction for raping a twelve year old girl in his movie theater downtown, looking at me now, saying,
"Jim, your daughter is coming up nice, I like seeing her down at the theater."
"Long legged like her mom, I mean not too skinny."
"I don't mean too skinny, Jim. I mean just" His leer, lips wet with tonic. "She's real interested in movies. Everything movies. I'm gonna train her up to be my little projectionist"
I never imagined something like that could be reflex, without thought: pulling out the .41 magnum, raising it to the man half turned on the stool, pulling the trigger. Point blank. The concussion inside the windowless room. Or how everything explodes like the inside of a dream and how Johnny, my friend, came lunging over the bar, over my arm, to keep me from pulling the trigger again. Who saved my life in a sense because the man who should have died never did. How the shot echoed for hours inside the bar, inside my head. Echoed for years.
I painted that moment, the explosion of colors, the faces.
How regret is corrosive, but one of the things it does not touch is that afternoon, not ever.
An Ocean of Women
OIL ON CANVAS
52 x 48 INCHES
My house is three miles south of town. There are forty acres of wheatgrass and sage, a ditch with a hedgerow of cottonwoods and willows, a small pond with a dock. The back fence gives on to the West Elk Mountains. Right there. They are rugged and they rise up just past the back of my place, from sage into juniper woods, then oak brush, then steep slopes of black timber, spruce and fir, and outcrops of rock and swaths of aspen clinging to the shoulders of the ridges. If I walk a few miles south, up around the flank of Mount Lamborn, I am in the Wilderness, which runs all the way to the Curecanti above Gunnison, and across to Crested Butte.
From the little ramada I look south to all those mountains and east to the massif of Mount Gunnison. All rock and timber now in August. There's snow up there all but a few months a year. They tell me that some years the snow never vanishes. I'd like to see that.
If I step out in front of the small house and look west it is softer and drier that direction: the gently stepping uplift of Black Mesa where the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River cuts through; other desert mesas; the Uncompahgre Plateau out beyond it all, hazy and blue.
This is my new home. It's kind of overwhelming how beautiful. And little Paonia, funny name for a village out here, some old misspelling of Peony. Nestled down in all this high rough country like a train set. The North Fork of the Gunnison runs through it, a winding of giant leafy cottonwoods and orchards, farms, vineyards. A good place I guess to make a field of peace, to gather and breathe.
Thing is I don't feel like just breathing.
Excerpted from The Painter by Peter Heller. Copyright © 2014 by Peter Heller. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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