From this Distance, At this Speed
Early morning. Beside the Interstate, westbound, on the way to my father’s house, two men stand on a wooden scaffold before a blank white billboard. The billboard is new: the bottom a green enamel trellis, the sign-space perfect white, not painted over and with two floodlamps on long pipes that hook over the top. One of the men is quite fat so that the other appears to be tall and very thin. A motorist at this early hour passing a mile a minute, might be put in mind of Laurel and Hardy. The acres again of young corn. It is June.
The heavy man, the elder, wears a V-neck white T-shirt and soiled plaid pants. The T-shirt rides up, and nowhere do his shirt and trousers meet. When he bends to pick up a chart, the cleavage of his substantial rump is visible. He smokes a cigar and from time to time white ash falls and remains on the sill of his ponderous belly until he brushes it off. Now he blows smoke at the chart in his hand, tips back his Braves baseball cap, and slowly shakes his head.
Okay, we’ll call him Ollie.
Therefore it is Stan who is now on one knee, stirring paint and staring at the multilayered spatterings of who knows how many previous jobs, the boards of the scaffold itself more beautiful than any sign he can remember. He would like to paint one billboard like this, no lines, no shapes, no words: colors, numberless rosettes of color upon color, suggesting depth, approaching without the facile trick of perspective – the truly three-dimensional; a profusion of color that beckons to be entered, the illusion of infinite joy.
No matter what Stan’s story is it must be as grave and unjust, as fearfully aware of its own unwanted end, as anyone’s; therefore, because it is morning and he is there, wearing bleached white overalls and a paper cap, he must be thinking this, regardless of what else is on his mind, as he stirs the paint and loses himself to the past’s alluring opalescence.
Ollie is different. He has disguised himself in fat, preferring to suggest that he is unacquainted with the fabulous. Behind his chart, behind his smoke, behind his flesh, what he is thinking would be obvious even to the passing motorists if they were not struggling to awaken or rehearsing conversations in their heads at 60 mph. Ollie’s thought springs lightly, full of grace, freer than Stan’s because he keeps it well protected. He has a vision. Like Stan’s, it is made of remembered and longed-for paint. Ollie believes in a painting in which every line is true. He has had more years to watch the scaffold thicken with chromatic history, and it doesn’t gladden him as it once did. Let Stan believe there’s something to be learned from beauty that merely happens by itself. That’s what a young man is supposed to think. Old men know better, or at least know different, and are monstrous when they don’t.
Ollie flicks a broken cylinder of white ash from his belly too late again, another hole burnt in his T-shirt, the price of concentration. The chart in his hand is the billboard in miniature, to scale, and colorless. The colors are named: Blue 3-1, Red 6-1-2, Yellow 2-1-4, etc. He knows what all these numbers mean, but the mixing is Stan’s department.
Stan is a young man passing a familiar way so Stan is, in a way, his son. There are just two of them, and it is early in the day. Okay then, Stan is Ollie’s son.
Now it is just the beginning of morning rush hour. A trooper stations his car across the highway behind a billboard. LET THE SUN SHINE, it says. WNOW, it says. Stan and Ollie painted it a short time ago. The sun is a smudge through dark gray clouds. As the traffic increases a helicopter clatters overhead. More people paying no attention pass. Each car says WISH.
Stan has always liked to paint, but the assignments neither please nor challenge him. There is no green like this young corn in the sun, no blue like the distant mountains, no paint the color of his flesh. Though no one notices, he modifies the prescribed colors, heightening or deepening so that he must take extra care to keep his color scheme harmonious throughout; it is the only way he can maintain his interest. Ollie he cannot understand and wishes he sometimes had another partner, someone less trouble, lighter, not his father. The background color, a shade of yellow, is ready.
Ollie hums to himself as he blocks the space, enlarging the sketch on the chart and writing in the numbers for Stan. For Ollie this is a fallback career, not what he wanted at all. He wanted to paint white lines. Growing up, he had wanted to be one of those unselfish, unacknowledged legislators, and he practiced day and night so that not a wave, not a ripple, not a wiggle ever marred the sureness of his beautiful boundaries. He painted parking lots and football fields, tennis courts and polo grounds, but he was never assigned a highway, not even a two-lane road. Those were the men whom he respected most — entrusted with people’s lives, they were an elite corps, champions of humanitarian accuracy. The examiners, however, had found him insufficiently concerned with where the roads were going, and it was true that he could not have told you where a single road originated, what it passed, or where it ended. What made Ollie bitter, what seemed most unfair, was that no one had ever told him he needed to know that, and although his greatest pleasure had been to lay down the razor-edged lines of a parking plaza or the boxes within boxes of a tennis court, his pride demanded he resign. So for twenty-five years he has been painting billboards.
Stan is worried. Stirring an extra splash of white into Green 11-7-2 with a narrow wooden paddle, he sees no future for himself in this. More and more billboards, owned by advertising firms are given over to the lithographed campaigns of cigarette and soft-drink companies. Guy dunks a broom in paste and slaps it up there, three rolls for a twelve footer, four for a sixteen. Done. A quarter of an hour for a cowboy and his cigarette, a coed and her cola. His father says that there will always be a market for the best and puts his hand, holding both a chart and an acrid dead cigar, on his shoulder. Stan knows it’s hopeless, but it’s Ollie’s dream and Ollie is his father and he loves him. In other words, he has come to feel that if he doesn’t make the same mistakes his father made he’s guilty of betrayal. When Stan is angry he decides his father makes him feel this way deliberately, or at least halfway so, intending to make him feel guilty but convincing himself he is trying to be encouraging. At other times he knows full well his father is only Ollie, fat and aging, doing the best he can, and Stan feels better then, more patient with the few years they have left upon the scaffolding together, executing one sign or another, following instructions.
Traffic begins to thin to mid-morning numbers. The trooper leaves his post across the highway, tires crunching gravel, a cloud of dust and exhaust blowing north. The wind is up, flapping Ollie’s trousers and blowing Stan’s paper cap far off into the matchless green and regular rows of corn.
No different from other people, these two have to be imagined or ignored. What are their aims, their shames, their hopes? Where, among the possible relations of fathers and sons, is the truth of their connection? A traveler, from this distance, at this speed, is allowed, encouraged, perhaps enjoined by charity to consider them and speculate. They are, after all, on a kind of stage:
These few precepts in thy memory look
Thou character (they are not from a book
But from my life are most hard wrung
As from a handkerchief of tears). Along
Your voyage may they stead thee well
For they are all is given me to tell:
Eschew false choices, ever find the third
Thing left withheld, occult, unoffered.
Judge not other persons by your wants;
They may have had the same dreams once
But changed them, tempered by necessity.
Neither a worrier nor a pretender be
For worrying oft fogs the view of port
And a pretender is an empty craft. In short,
Give what thou hast; take only when in need;
Strive to be genuine in thought and deed.
Most humbly do I thank thee, good my lord.
Was e’er a son so well provided? One word
Of thy loving admonitions for estate
Would leave me boundless rich; oh happy fate
To have this tender hand upon my shoulder!
Inspirited am I, assured, made bolder.
The morning is ideal and the work goes well. By noon, much of the background is finished, delineating half an open Bible and half a message in hollow, stenciled letters. The traffic swells again and moves a little faster. The trooper returns to his post.
Stan and Ollie change places so that Stan can begin, after lunch, to flesh out Ollie’s sketched enlargement of the right side of the chart. They pass each other carefully, the scaffold narrow and precarious.
Stan pours hot water from his thermos into a styrofoam cup of Oriental noodles. The rest of his lunch is an apple. When he finishes, the empty cup gets away from him; he hates litter and tries to follow it so he can retrieve it later. In the wind, the cup seems to move like a small animal, scurrying from stalk to stalk, stopping, darting, finally disappearing. Stan imagines it coming to rest right next to his paper cap.
Ollie opens his black lunch pail and takes out two sandwiches he wrapped in foil the night before. He hesitates a moment to play a game with himself: one of the sandwiches is ham and swiss, the other olive loaf and white American — he asks himself which one he would prefer to eat first and decides on the olive loaf; then he tries to guess which one is which. He opens the ham and swiss. He will have to eat it first — rules of the game. “Story of my life,” he says to himself. He folds down the wire retainer that holds a 16-ounce can of beer in the lid of his lunch pail — warm but it can’t be helped — and expertly lifts tab to open: FIT, it says. Between sandwiches he will eat a bag of pretzels. For dessert, a cinnamon bun.
Ollie insists on taking the full hour for lunch. Stan is annoyed; he can remember several jobs they could have finished earlier.
Okay; but if Stan and Ollie are no different from sons and fathers elsewhere, they have quarrels rooted in frustrations more important. The love between sons and fathers must continually be renegotiated.
Stan is working to suggest the silken sheen on a purple ribbon lying across what are meant to be columns of text but are not meant to be legible. He sees that Ollie has finished his lunch, glanced at his watch, and settled back to nurse the last few swallows of his beer. He trespasses on his father’s peace. “It’s not as if you need me, Dad,” he says. He has rehearsed a hundred ways to begin this conversation, and now he believes he is jumping right in; in fact, he is appealing to his father’s fear and pride at the same time to throw him off guard.
Stan should know better. By now he ought to understand that his father’s love is sentimental: he is capable of astounding gentleness, but only when things are simple. Ollie interprets emotional confusion as the result of an attack and counters at once with invective.
“It’s not as if you neeeeed me, Dad,” Ollie whines. “You little pissant! Need you? Only thing I need you for is to balance the friggin’ scaffold.”
Stan, despite his umbrage at being mocked, cannot stanch the chuckle rising at the notion that his hundred forty pounds offsets his father’s jumbo counterpoise. “You always were a quitter,” Ollie barks from around the cigar in his teeth. “I’m tryin’ to see you set up nice, line up your ducks. Then I’m out of your way. You think I couldn’t leave tomorrow? Today? Right now? That’s what I said — right now — you heard me right.” He has got himself up on one knee and is pushing hard with both hands on his thigh to stand. The scaffold sways, and Stan’s brush whacks a purple splotch on the empty Bible’s binding.
“Just once!” Stan shouts, “just once I’d like to talk to you without you blowing up and mocking me and giving me that martyr stuff. Look what you made me do.” And then he mutters, not sure in his anger if he means for his father to hear, “Fat old stupid fool.” Trying to remove the purple stain, he knows he has the momentum to keep on going, to shout now that there are no ducks…face facts…a life of his own…the shrinking future…the endless possibilities of color…but he looks at Ollie.
Ollie’s leaning forward, fists on hips, legs spread, face red, but Stan sees his eyes for an instant, wet and stricken, spiritless, before his father once again impersonates his simple-hearted self. He heard.
Though Ollie tears his cigar from his mouth and flings it away; though he bellows curses at his son and sneers and shakes his fist; though he says, “Go head and quit, you smartass. I got other fish to fry too, hot shot. Arizona! Arizona’s where I’d be right now if it weren’t for you”; though an ugliness that looks a lot like hate distorts his features, Stan is sorry. He believes he never meant to hurt his father. He tells himself he doesn’t really think his father is stupid, or a fool; he feels that he has somehow cheated, the way his father has always cheated, by stooping to abuse.
Ollie has always wanted Stan to venerate him, to extol his virtues in anecdotes beginning, “Once my father…” or, “my father used to say…”; he believes, so deeply that he doesn’t know it, that a father, any father is a saint, a tyrant, or a fool. To be called a “fat old stupid fool” by his son is a kind of mortal wound: both saints and tyrants are remembered, fools are not. What’s more, he wasn’t meant to hear it, or so he believes, which means to him that this is what he comes to, finally, in the eyes of his son. Ollie can feel himself bleeding: dreams, pride, purpose, hope.
“You little scum!” he screams, and his voice squeaks. “I give you everything I have and it isn’t good enough for you, eh, hotshot? Fine. We finish this friggin’ holy-roller sign I’m out o’ here and I don’t give a Flying Wallenda’s jockstrap what you do!”
Stan wants to say “I’m sorry, Dad,” but that’s what he says when he rocks the scaffold. He is aware of what his words have done and his transgression looms, bloated, like the incomplete, illegible Bible he’s been trying to make appear three-dimensional. He has never called Ollie “father,” and for a moment he hopes that by saying something like, “Forgive me, Father, I was wrong,” the words might resonate enough to assuage his father’s pain, but he knows it would be lost on Ollie. He has never called his father anything but Dad, so “I’m sorry, Ollie,” is impossible and insulting. Because he has cried for Ollie before, in secret, often, and then resigned himself to patronizing him; because he has tried to canonize him, as Ollie wants, to make things simpler; because he has sworn to leave a hundred times and has not been able to, he says “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry? Not as sorry as you’re gonna be. You think I’m kiddin’.”
“No. I know I hurt you, Dad. Father. Ollie. I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry.”
“Argh, you’re a waste o’ good sperm. Hand me that brush. Forget it. It was nothing, the weather, the worries, those damn Chink noodles you insist on eating.”
While the work in silence, layers of smoky clouds shift, allowing the sun to brighten now this green patch of corn, now that; nevertheless, a sparse rain falls, the fat drops splatting like accelerated snowflakes on the billboard and scaffold. A big drop splashes on Ollie’s nose. “Sunshower,” he says, “look for a rainbow.” Stan wipes his brush on the fluted rim of the paintcan and looks; since he’s been old enough to understand he’s heard this every summer, every time it rains, “Sunshower — look for a rainbow.” Together they attend to the horizon but there is no rainbow this time.
The evening rush hour begins. Traffic moves even faster than in the morning; people are speeding home to relax. The trooper pulls onto the Interstate, his blue lights flashing, heading east.
Stan and Ollie work slowly; although the days are getting longer and the sky has cleared, neither wants to finish the job today.
“The light’s no good from this angle,” says Stan, “can’t get the colors right.”
Ollie wonders what the light has got to do with it; the colors are predetermined, coded, fixed, but he’s afraid to ask. Stan’s awful touchy these days. Besides, it’ll take a while to seal the cans, clean the brushes, pack up the gear. Ollie doesn’t have another sign, another job, lined up yet. “May as well knock off,” he says.
“Soon as I get this letter done,” says Stan. He is working on the message now, what he and Ollie call the “pitch.” A gnat finds the light in his eye. “Damn bugs,” he says, blinking and rubbing his eye with his wrist.
“Gnats,” says Ollie, watching their extemporary reel, “good day tomorrow. Sunny.”
When gnats come out to dance and play,
The next will be a sunny day,
recites Stan to himself — another of his father’s predictable small wisdoms. Near tears, stanching them by flaring his nostrils and breathing rapidly, he wonders how to efface that moment when he saw, in his father’s eyes, that naked plea for mercy. Gnats dive at his shining eyes. There is nothing worse, he thinks, than to see one’s father as — no, not a fool, not a fool exactly – as a sort of sad clown, beaten, lovable, but with only a sentimental, selfish, indulgent love, to see him as an old vaudevillian parroting the same one-liners every day. A Flying Wallenda’s jockstrap? The quasi-wicked snigger of a waste o’ good sperm? Can I unsee what I saw today? Unthink my thought, ununderstand? Will time splash other colors over this, restain it, paint it out? He wonders, sadly. “Look for a rainbow. Sunny day tomorrow.”
Stan puts the finishing serif on the letter N. He has changed the typeface called for by their customer, Hope Second Reformed, because he feels more comfortable with the Old Style Roman than with Gothic. IT IS WRITTEN it will say until tomorrow.
Ollie’s hungry. “Gotta take care of the corporation,”he says, slapping his belly. By now, the sky to the west is tinged with coral and a cool translucent orange. For Ollie, sundown is a demarcation, and his dinner is a sacrament whose object is renewal; his heavy dinner starts the ritual release from consciousness of all that happened since the morning, a vespers of fullness and forgetfulness, an evening of relinquished worries and sleepy peace. For Ollie this is wisdom — to emerge from the day like a dog from a ditch and shake it off. “Shake it off,” he’s always told his son when Stan was hurt. Hit your thumb with a hammer? Disappointed? Frightened? Grieving? Shake it off, man shake it off. Though he professes no religion, Ollie is a man of faith. Tomorrow will be new.
Carefully, hand over hand on the heavy ropes, rhythmically, habitually compensating for each other, balancing, they lower themselves and the scaffold to the ground. Ollie places the paint cans, soaking brushes, rags, plumb line, and chalk beneath a tarp at the foot of the billboard. The mercury lamps, on photosensors, come on silently and flatten and distort the colors and perspective of the uncompleted sign with lunar light. Stan looks down the waist-high rows of young corn, thinking, for a moment, of his cap; when he turns, the regular rows disappear and he faces a solid green that looks dusty and blue and dull in the vaporous light. He is afraid. Tonight he will look at all his heavy lap-sized books of reproductions, hoping to find his aspirations still alive, and he knows already that he will not sleep.
In their battered pickup, Ollie driving, they bounce along the unpaved road to the nearest ramp and pull onto the highway eastbound. It is almost dark and there is hardly any traffic now. Most people are home, finishing their evening meal. Many will read, or watch television, or nap. Some few will begin to do what they have wanted to do all day. One or two, in a troubled solitude, will step outside to look at the sky, naming to themselves those few constellations they recognize.