Two-Person Show

 

 

On the left side of a 3’x4’ canvas—gessoed in smoky nectarine impasto—Hunt epoxied a 10”x12” family photograph. He’d asked a stranger at Redfish Lake Lodge in Idaho to take it. There they were: Sean and Todd, kneeling shirtless; Hunt and Leah, in the background—the boys, contorted and goofy; he and Leah, stiff with arms around one another.

To the photo’s right, Hunt painted the identical scene—same size. It was a bit Bonnard-Impressionist, but not bad. It captured his family’s mismatched, awkward longing to love one another. With his palette knife, he’d done the best he could to render them.

Finally, in a continuous stroke, he painted a vertical cobalt line—between the photograph and the rendering. The line was important, because—before he left tomorrow with Sean, on their roadtrip—what he most wanted to think about was what-it-was-that-demarcated-family-and-art, cleaved the space between a person’s needing to hold and that same person’s needing to imagine. The previous night, Leah had pulled Hunt aside. "I want you to remember, on this trip, that you’re Sean’s father," Leah had said.

"Who else would I be?" Hunt had asked.

"I just know you’ve got an active imagination," Leah’d said.

 

Certainly the trip was father-and-son. That was the way Hunt had broached it to Sean. Yes, it was professional: they’d end up in Santa Fe for Hunt’s upcoming two-person show. And, because it was, in part, a retrospective, they’d be retrieving paintings collectors had placed on loan. But father-and-son—of course—that was the heart of it. What had Leah meant:  remember, on this trip, that you’re Sean’s father? Was she worried that Hunt would treat Sean too much like an adult? Like an equal? Was she worried about Sean’s safety? Lord, the boy was leaving home in three weeks, heading off to Amherst. Maybe Leah was rehearsing separation anxiety.

 

It was just after six—a morning of magpies and lawn-sprinklers—when the two, backed from their Tucson driveway and headed north. Something in the air underscored the high desert. Their loop would first involve retrieving three loaned paintings—a blue-and-silver juggler in Boise, a four-foot-high kiwi in Portland, Oregon, and a self-portrait building-doorman in Las Vegas. Hunt had an eight-foot-long U-Haul storage box strapped to the roof of his Skylark.

"So you’re like—what—medium famous?" Sean asked during their lunch in Moab, Utah.

"More…low-marginally-medium famous," Hunt said.

 

They retrieved the juggler. The juggler's owners served double lattes to them on a deck where their house overhung the Middle Fork of the Boise River. "We're in love with air," the husband announced. He explained cantilevering.

Two hours later, driving I-84, angling north, now to Portland, Sean picked up the cantilevering idea. "So it’s, like—I’d like to understand this—balance and weight?" he asked.

"Balance and weight—good; right—but also weight and freedom," Hunt said.

For a while, Sean rode in silence, then asked, "So, those people—back there—the juggler people: how did they seem to you?"

"I don’t know: amicable," Hunt said.

Sean took the word in, thought about it, bobbed his head. "So how about you and Mom," he asked, finally. "Would you say you guys are amicable?"

Hunt took a breath, held it.

"Dad? Amicable?"

"Mostly. For the most part," Hunt said.

"I have to ask: what’s prompting this?"

They drove a minute or two more. The Gypsy Kings started a cut on a CD Hunt couldn’t remember hearing before.

 

The giant kiwi was waiting for them in Portland. They barely stopped. Hunt said thank you; the wife said please and good luck; the husband said we're honored.

"They're both doctors," Hunt said. "Physicians." The two were now heading south.

 

They drove south past Corvallis, then Ashland. The Cascades loomed in a dim alfalfa haze, always to their left. At Redding, in California, they angled west toward Spark and Reno. The Shasta National Forest was all around them—as were the names Whiskeytown...Trinity. "Beautiful country," Sean observed. "Great streams."

It was late afternoon. Hunt pulled the car over.

"What're you doing?" Sean asked.

"I have a plot, a scheme—be patient," Hunt said, and he slipped out his door, went back and rummaged the trunk. When he reappeared, his arms were draped with waders, vests, and boots. Two silvery fly rod cases were balanced on the top.

Hunt produced two day-licenses which he'd bought when they'd gassed up last in Weed. Sean was already in his waders, lacing up his boots. He was on the stream a full ten minutes before Hunt; he’d flyfished and was graceful and good. Hunt loved to watch him and stood doing so—all the way through the playing and netting and releasing of Sean's first fish. "Nice one," Hunt called over.

"Not bad," Sean said. "How're you doing?"

"I'm about to," Hunt said.

 

They fished for just over three hours, until it was fully dark. The Mill Creek River had a nice openness, great gravel beds, lots of holding rocks. Even Hunt caught and released his share. Breaking down their equipment, drinking a Rolling Rock afterwards, Sean proclaimed the interlude to have been great. "You don't usually think of things ahead like that," he said. And then: "Hey, I wasn't being critical."

 

They found a steak house in Chester then a motel in Crescent Mills. The next morning they crossed over into Nevada where they had a breakfast buffet at John Ascuaga's in Sparks then cut off south, down I-95—past Fallon, past Hawthorn—toward Las Vegas, leaving forests behind and entering much, much flatter land, land that reminded them of their own Arizona. There were signs everywhere noting bombing range. "Is this safe?" Sean asked.

"We can only hope," Hunt said. "So, I guess, while we can: count our blessings."

"Seven," Sean said. He smirked.

"Name them," Hunt challenged.

Sean blushed, embarrassed, waved him away.

"Want my list?" Hunt asked. But he didn’t wait. "You…your brother…Mom. I’m grateful for an hour, two hours of fishing. Cantilevering. Being able to paint."

Sean changed the CD—to Dedicated to You, Kurt Elling tipping his hat to John Coltrane.

"Did that embarrass you?" Hunt asked. "My list."

 

They were somewhere between Caliente and Elgin. In the northbound lane, magpies were deconstructing a former jackrabbit. To the west, a lone alpaca, abandoned perhaps by Basque sheepherders, stared into the sun. "Am I difficult to talk to?" Hunt asked. "Do I, sometimes, not make sense?"

Sean shrugged. "Don’t worry about it," he said.

Hunt said that a woman had once warned him that, when he ran out of metaphors and images, he’d disappear.

"So: what’d she mean?" Sean asked.

Hunt said it was a mystery.

Sean laughed and said he didn’t suspect that his father’s disappearance was exactly around the bend.

Hunt asked if Sean was excited about Amherst. "You’ll be missed," he said. "There’ll be a hole in the house. Big one."

Sean said he guessed Hunt would manage, then asked why it wasn’t Art, why it had been Chemistry he’d majored in at Middlebury. "I mean, you’d started painting already—right?" Sean said.

Hunt took his hands from the wheel, showed them to be empty, moved his fingers to generate an answer. "I’d, begun," he said. "Early—young." He laughed. "My mother used to say, ‘You’ll get over it.  But—I’d be in a chem. lab—testing for an unknown but thinking about a painting. I’d get some purply-green precipitate, and think: that would be a great color for a sea-marsh." He shook his head. "Your mother says: painting’s all I do. She says I’m obsessed with it."

"Are you?"

"I suppose. Here and there. Off and on," Hunt said. He didn’t really know how to answer.

Sean asked about work he’d seen, recently, in Hunt’s studio—a series on easels of nearly-transparent figures. "They’re a little spooky," Sean confessed. "Sort of like ghosts."

"They may be," Hunt said. He drew a breath. "Ghosts. I start things—I’m not always sure what I’m starting. What’s in my mind—the images there—can be pretty apparitional."

 

Las Vegas shimmered, loomed. But before they picked up Hunt's 4x7 doorman painting, they had lunch at Treasure Island. A Rastafarian in a long, valet maroon pirate's coat, black hat, opened their doors. There was less dust in the city than on the road, more water—or, possibly, it was the illusion of water.

Sean wanted his father to play some blackjack so he could watch. Hunt declined. "I’m not a good card-player," he said. "Either I’m too conservative…or I’m not conservative at all. Either I overthink the cards…or don’t even consider them."

"Still: maybe you could turn a hundred into a thousand," Sean suggested. "I’d like to watch that."

They had a late sushi lunch—dragon and spider and California rolls—and shared a plate of tempura vegetables.

"Is this a green bean or a piece of asparagus?" Sean asked.

"It’s hard to tell under the batter," Hunt said.

"Maybe it’s a green bean imitating asparagus," Sean joked. "Green bean imagining itself as asparagus." He asked Hunt to pass him the last spider roll.

Hunt slid the plate and said he sometimes had an undisciplined imagination.

"What?—seeing a spider roll as a chimichunga?"

Hunt drove through. "More like: sometimes what-I-imagine takes me past where I imagined it. Into some place I, maybe, shouldn’t be."

"You want any more of the wasabi?" Sean asked.

 

After their lunch, they toured the dolphins at The Mirage pool, the talking statues at Caesar's Forum Shops.

When they retrieved the doorman painting at a gated complex called The Lakes, Sean—lashing the final tie on the U-Haul box stashing the three paintings—asked, "So: was that guy right—guy who loaned this back to you for the show: it’s a self-portrait?"

"I don’t think of it that way," Hunt dismissed. "But it’s been said."

"Probably the nose and eyes. Chin."

"My story is: I don’t do self-portraits. Just ghosts."

 

Hunt’s plan had been to get to Santa Fe five days before the opening, so that Sean might be able to discover a bit of New Mexico. Now he worried that their various scattered stops had crowded them, so he proposed driving all night. "We get too bushed, we can always find a motel," he offered. "Trade the driving." It sounded reasonable. An image shimmered in Hunt’s head: a father and a son, slipping through the nightwaters of the Southwest in a Skylark—faces barely illuminated by a dashboard.

 

They drove I-93 across to Kingman and, on I-40, headed east. Over a late dinner in Flagstaff, Sean asked whether Hunt should be having a second glass of wine. Hunt pushed his half-finished second-glass aside. "Good thinking," he said.

The night got thick. Sean drove; Hunt dozed. The night got darker. Fewer cars passed. The guardian lights of Winslow disappeared. Holbrook. They entered the Petrified Forest. Hunt woke. "So…where are we?" he asked; "what time is it?"

They stopped, shifted. Outside, passing each other at the rear of the car, Hunt gave Sean a pat that wanted to be a hug. "Thanks for driving," he said.

"You awake enough?" Sean asked. It was two in the morning.

 

The signs for Navajo and Chambers and Lipton drifted by. They crossed at Gallup. Sean was asleep. Hunt's brain filtered all of the numbness of a yawn. He felt like the navigator of some dream, the ferryman—fording a phantom, murky river—a stack of paintings held above his head. In the sky above was a giant nectarine, and he was its juggler, its night watchman.

 

Then, just after 5:00 A.M.—driving past Casa Blanca and the dim edges of the Acoma Pueblo, Hunt drifted to sleep and the Skylark rolled—once, twice, three times—Hunt snapping awake into a wild, screaming consciousness drenched in the thick and spontaneous, raw, unstable stench of petroleum.

The car was rocking. It was on its side—its engine block hot. Hunt reached for Sean. Sean's face was bloody. Even belted, his head had snapped forward and struck the dash. He was gashed—gashed and out.

Hunt wrestled his door, but the door was folded and stuck. Holding the lock handle down, he braced his back on the seat, drew both feet back and kicked. The door creaked open.

In a movement, Hunt had unbelted Sean and had him, his weight. From the pit of Sean’s throat came body sounds that turned Hunt's own throat to paste. He could feel the coagulation of Sean's blood against his own skin. They were free of the Skylark; they were out!

Hunt found a smooth, grass-matted hollow behind a rock, lay Sean carefully, then stood and dropped the fleece vest he’d been wearing from his shoulders—placing it gently under Sean’s head. "Just a minute," he said. Was Sean aware? Could Sean hear him? Hunt turned and ran, hoping there was still time to unstrap his paintings.

If he could loosen the nylon belts on the one side…then he could lift the carrier lid and pull the paintings out. The car was rumbling; it was making sounds like digestion.

When he undid the first belt, the car growled, and he ran. The air around him felt thick and spongy, like cork. He stopped; the car stopped; he ran close again and began working the second belt. "Sean, I’m coming!" he yelled into the night. It seemed his voice only fed the sudden belly-rumbling of the Skylark. Again, he peeled from the car and ran—getting no more than fifteen strides, when the Skylark bloomed into a fireball. In the ensuing silence, Hunt realized: He was in flames.

Or—?! Someone was on fire? Maybe it was Sean. Was that—!? What if the car’s fireball had vaulted Hunt and descended on Sean?

Hunt dropped, rolled, rose, staggered, ran. He found Sean, drew him in. Someone, clearly, was burning—Sean? Himself? There was that sense and smell and texture—char and light and heat. Hunt rolled back and forth on the ground, holding his son. He needed to extinguish whatever it was that needed to be extinguished.

Hunt could smell his own burn and soiling—a kind of landfill of himself, ripe in the night. The car, he could see, was burning. He sucked in wide droughts of blue middle-of-the-night air that tasted faintly like beer.

Their skins clung, for a while, like mucilage. Hunt's clothing fell away in ashes. A car was pulling over at the highway. Then another. I'm on my cell phone! Hunt heard a man's voice say. Help's coming!

Stay there! Help's coming. They seemed such simple words. And the man, standing, holding something to his head, gesturing to the night, seemed a simple and benevolent man. Was there any more one could ask?

 

They were taken to Albuquerque's University Hospital’s burn unit. Sean was still unconscious. "Will he be okay?" Hunt asked.

"We're getting favorable signals," he was told.

 

Leah's insurance covered them. Sean was isolated; Hunt, placed on another ward, in a two-bed room. He was treated for burns. Sean was treated for burns and sutured. Hunt wouldn't stay in his bed. He left once and was asked to return. He left again and argued with the doctor, who allowed him, finally, to sit in a chair at Sean's bedside. Sean came to briefly, was groggy, saw his father, said, "Dad…?"—then slipped off again.

 

Hunt was advised that Sean's trauma was secondary, but that the staff needed to monitor constantly for pressure, for swelling: so far so good; wouldn't he, please, consider going back to his own room. No! Hunt shot back. Let me stay with my son!

Leah reached Hunt at the hospital. Her voice seemed to come from far-inside a refrigerated locker. "What’s the latest word?" she asked. "Should I come down?"

"I think we’ll be fine," Hunt said.

"Hunt you’re in a burn unit."

"Yes; I know."

"With your son."

"Yes. I know. We’re very lucky."

Now Leah’s words came faster. "Hunt: Jesus, driving all night? What were you thinking?!"

"I don’t know. I suppose I wasn’t."

"Well, you should. Think more. Not just do. Not just imagine."

Hunt told Leah he was sorry.

"Yes, I know. Sorry. Always. Sorry. Sorry man."

"Many people drive through all sorts of nights," Hunt tried.

"Hunt: I’m sorry; I’m sorry if I’m being short with you—but I’m angry."

"I understand."

"Do I need to come down?"

"If you want—sure. But, if I’m understanding the doctors, it’s not—"

"You said, before: Sean spoke?"

"Yeah; they’re saying 'alert' and 'responsive."

Leah began crying.

Hunt took a breath, hauling it in like a net at sea.

Leah asked that Hunt call her every couple of hours. He agreed. She asked after the paintings; he said they’d all burned.

"I’m sorry, Hunt."

"It’s all right; I’ll paint more. I never fall asleep in the middle of a painting."

They hung up.

 

Hunt slipped back into Sean's room, where there was a doctor whose name, when he introduced himself, sounded like Carnivore: Dr. Tio Cannivares. Sean was sleeping. "What's the smell?" Hunt asked.

"Flesh," Dr Tio Cannivares said.

"His?"

"Someone's. Ours. Who knows?" Like Hunt—moments before with Leah—Dr. Cannivares was trying to be funny. Like Hunt, he failed.

When the doctor asked Hunt to leave, Hunt begged off: "I'll just sit," he said.

"I would rather you didn’t," Dr. Cannivares said.

Hunt pressed his intention. "I won’t be a bother. I just need to be here, to say hello if he wakes."

Tio Cannivares combed the bristles of his short beard between his fingertips. "The more people, the more bacteria," he said. "Bacteria levels."

"Are you saying—?"

"I’m saying that it's a filthy world. And that there are hosts. I'm saying that you, I'm sure, need your time. He needs his. You're both alive. Be grateful. Go back to your own room."

"I’m sorry but…I need to be here when my boy wakes up." Hunt surprised even himself with his assertion.

Tio Cannivares took a single step backward then forward. "You need to do what I’ve asked that you do," he said.

"I know; I know. I’m sorry," Hunt said. And left.

 

Hunt called his gallery owner, Molly Lucerne, in Santa Fe. When he explained the accident, Molly said ohmygod then immediately asked, please, for names: were there other collectors nearby who might loan. "Otherwise I’ll have three holes in my wall," Molly said.

Hunt dredged up two possibilities. One was a painting of a high-wire lady in Las Cruces. The other was an enormous guava in Telluride. He gave the owners' names. He also said he’d throw together a new canvas—while Sean was coming around—and either send it or drive it down.

"Hunt: you're a dream," Molly Lucerne said; "You're an angel."

"I’m a ghost," Hunt said.

 

Hunt was told that the hospital needed his bed; he could be switched to outpatient. He said, "I need to talk to my son." They said: "This is a good time now. Try him."

Hunt did and Sean was awake. "Hey…!" Sean said.

"Hey. I'm really sorry," Hunt said.

"It's like a sunburn," Sean said.

"Right," Hunt said. "Sunburn. Fell asleep by the pool."

"Happens," Sean said.

Hunt wanted to touch his son. But there were burns everywhere. And sutures. It was a silly gesture, but Hunt reached out and sifted a few strands of his boy's hair between his fingers.

"I really stink," Sean said. "I hate that. Being in the smell of myself."

"Yeah; it's a problem," Hunt said. He tried to smile.

"So is this my graduation trip?" Sean asked.

"Yeah. Bummer—right?" Hunt said.

"I don't know. I got to fish," Sean said. "And I learned about cantilevering. And had some tempura bean…or asparagus spears…in Las Vegas. Cool."

Sean asked about the car and then about the paintings and then about Hunt's show. Hunt told him that the hospital was pushing for his bed and that he might get a motel nearby, maybe do at least one painting to replace the ashes.

"I couldn't talk the first day," Sean said. "I mean, very well. My lips." He smiled. "But it’s coming back."

"Fall off—get back on," Hunt said. "Muscle memory."

Dr. Tio Cannivares entered. "Family portrait!" he said.

 

Hunt called Enterprise for a car then found a framery where he bought supplies and had the man stretch a 5X7 canvas. By mid-afternoon, he was in a stand-alone adobe unit at a place called Kiva Kourt—roughing out ideas on a pad in charcoal.

It would be nice, Hunt thought, if he could salvage something. He jotted titles down: Child on Fire, Skin-on-Skin, Sifting Through Ashes. But what most filled the riverbed of his brain, like a late-afternoon hatch, were more smells-and-tastes than images—paraffin and blood. What were the fires in the Old Testament? Had Icarus fully ignited—or did his wings just melt.

Hunt had the notion of a kind of vaudeville stage lit by a row of blue lunar footlights. On the stage—an older and a younger man—each with a cruel minstrel grin and each with a top hat and cane. Each, independent of the other, would be on fire. And they should look to be more entertaining one another than the audience. And the background….what?....yes; right: the background would be brutal black—with a kind of crispness to it, a char.

He called Leah and told her he’d combed himself out of the doctor’s hair, said he’d gotten a room, gave her the number, said he’d seen Sean who seemed in good spirits. Considering.

"Interesting word choice. For you. Considering," Leah said. She said she supposed it was better than imagining.

After they hung up, Hunt roughed several sketches on the pad he’d bought then set the canvas up, did some outlining. He sketched the men in checkered suits, then in fishing gear. He liked the fishing gear—the awkwardness, on stage—vaudevillians in waders and boots. He checkered the fishing vests in prisma colors—red and black. He was onto something, he thought.

 

Just before ten in the evening, he broke and wandered across the highway to a kind of roadhouse called The Fat Burrito. He ordered Carnes and watched the bar action—sun-darkened men and women shopping for one another: laughing, touching, experimenting with possible opportunities.

He ate quickly, paid and wandered back to his Kiva, where he worked until almost nine. He washed his hands then drove across town to the hospital, where he was told that Sean was being bathed.

"That’s fine; I’ll wait," Hunt said.

"It could take some time," the burn-unit nurse said.

"To bathe?"

"With his burns—yes. Or longer."

Hunt returned to his Kiva Kourt and worked on his painting until well beyond midnight, then called Leah and had to apologize for waking her. "Go back to bed," he said. "Everything’s stable; Sean’s being bathed; everything’s fine."

When they hung up, he sat uncertainly on his motel bed, feeling himself in a cocoon of half-communication and after-phonecall-static. He ran his hand back and forth over the bedspread, sensing the cheaply crude weave of its threads.

Again, he drove the three miles to the hospital, hoping—though the hour was late—to spend time with his son. When he arrived, a new nurse told him that Sean had been sedated. "He won’t be available until eight or nine in the morning," the nurse said.

Hunt asked if he could just see him, "go into his room and just see him," Hunt asked. The new nurse told him that wasn’t possible.

 

The next morning he bolted out of a dream in which cars exploded, took a shower, made a motel pot of bad coffee and called Leah again. "Slept like a baby," he said. "Someone’s baby. Someone, I think, in Bosnia. I’m just being perverse," he said.

"Same-old, same-old," Leah said.

He told Leah he’d driven over twice to see Sean the night before. "I tried—but they stopped me at the gate," he said.

"What—? I’m sorry; I’m not tracking, I think. What…gate?"

"Just a bad metaphor," Hunt said.

"My Metaphor Man," Leah said. And they joked a little and hung up.

 

Hunt called the hospital and, this time, got connected to Sean’s room. "I’m having something…something rancheros," Sean said.

"Huevos," Hunt filled in.

"Whatever," Sean said. He told Hunt he’d had strange dreams, dreams that had made him feel tired and sad. Tired, he said, he understood, but why sad? Hunt said he’d be up before too many hours, and they could talk about it. Sean said it sounded like a plan.

 

Hunt went back to the painting. His pace was the pace he sometimes found when he was on. He’d meant to drive to the hospital in the later morning; instead he lost time and worked through it, worked beyond two, when, instead of driving over, he called again. When he reached Sean, Sean said that mostly-what-he’d-been-doing was sleeping and that it was all right. "Why don’t I come over after dinner?" Hunt said.

"Whenever. I’ll be glad to see you," Sean said. And they hung up.

 

Again, Hunt threw himself into and finished the painting—in which he liked everything except the black, the space he’d imagined as a world of absence curtained behind the older and the younger men as they lumbered through their steps. It was black certainly. In color. But the texture was wrong and needed something. Anselm Keifer, Hunt ruminated. Maybe the greatest thing about Keifer’s paintings was: they looked burned; they looked war-ravaged, incinerated. Keifer, Hunt thought, had to have actually torched them in some way to get that effect. It wasn’t just paint, just oil. Their dryness: he had to have set them, in some way, on fire. And it was the black-effect Hunt wanted.

 

It was midafternoon. Hunt called the hospital. The nurse on Sean’s ward told him Sean was asleep, but that—perhaps an hour before—he’d had a group of doctors and nurses in his room in stitches. Hunt wondered if they were talking about the same patient but asked the nurse to tell Sean, when he woke, that his father had called and would call again.

He called Leah and passed on the doctors-and-nurses-in-stitches story to her.

"Sean?" she mused.

"I’m just the messenger," Hunt said.

"Did you know Sean was funny?" Leah asked.

"No. No, I knew he could be strange—like me. But not funny."

"Live and learn," Leah said.

"It would seem," Hunt said.

They said they loved each other and hung up.

 

Hunt walked back and forth in front of his painting. He pulled open his Kiva Kourt cabin curtains, trying to maximize the light. He needed to burn the background; there was no question; he needed to set it on fire somehow. In the room’s yellow pages, he found a nearby store called Kitchen Universe, which he drove to and where he bought a Bonjour Extra-large cooking torch. He also bought a cheap bottle of cabernet.

He drove the torch back to his cabin, closed the curtains and—with a box of stick matches and in between slugs of cabernet—he experimented with the torch’s lighting. The Bonjour Extra-large had a pamphlet of instructions, but Hunt had always been more trial-and-error than instructions, so—hit-and-missing between hits of cab—he found his way to the flame. When he’d been not much older than Sean he’d welded once, thought he even might make metal sculpture, so there were, still tucked away, some residual memories of flame throwing.

When he thought, finally, that he had the technique, he studied the painting’s black background that he wanted to burn. And burn was wrong; char was closer. Incinerate. Hunt raised the now half-empty cabernet bottle and toasted incinerate.

This time, when he lit the Bonjour, the tongue of the flame was remarkably long. He watched it lick, leap—then moved it, slowly, toward the canvas, toward the black. At first he was pleased with himself because the ebony of the background began to bubble and boil. But then it burst into flame. And when it did, Hunt reached, instinctively, toward the painting with his hand to blot the fire out. But he’d forgotten to turn off the torch. So the flame struck his hand and, when the oilpaint on his hand caught fire, he dropped the Bonjour Extra-large on the rug, which, almost immediately, caught fire as well. Hunt grabbed a pillow from the bed and smothered his hand, then threw the pillow on the burning shag and stomped on it.

There was a lot of smoke in the room, now, but no flames. Hunt liked what the Bonjour had done to his painting. It now had the starkness he’d been hoping for. He went outside to the ice machine and filled a plastic bucket which he took back and immersed his hand in. He fell asleep on his bed, exhausted, with his hand in the ice. When he woke up, the bucket had tipped over and the rug beside his bed was soaked. It was after midnight.

 

He drove—humps and arroyos fishtailing by in the night's underwater—straight to the hospital. He bore a tar smell, like cigarettes and the stale stench of cabernet on his breath. The nurse on duty said Sean had been doing crosswords and been reading Milosz Kundara. "That's one young hombre with a plan!" she said.

Hunt smiled: one young hombre with a plan…. One young hombre with a plan…keeping the doctors and nurses in stitches. Leah would like that.

Hunt cracked the door to Sean's room. It was dark—no sound, no movement. He slipped in. A blue-milky, murky-lapis luminescence set off shapes and shadows. Hunt approached Sean's bed. Sean slept. His breathing moved: moved in, moved out, urged by the sea of himself falling on its own shore. Hombre with a plan. Sean looked so cadaverous; it was frightening; the place felt, briefly, like a rogue’s gallery. Hombre with a plan. It sounded, the phrase treading in his head, like the thud of car tires on a flat highway. Hombre with a plan.

Hunt touched the grainy sheet. It lay soft, like a draped statue: here was his son. First Hunt's throat filled up. Then his jaw shook. Then his teeth bit at and into his lips. So here they were! The journeyers, the road-warriors, the fishing companions—the two of them posed in such a murky light.

His painting, it seemed, had gotten it wrong. He had the impulse to dance.

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