The Day the Painter Died
For some reason today I started thinking about a long-dead uncle and can’t seem to stop. It’s like today is his day to occupy my thinking. He just showed up this am and won’t leave. He was an uncle I didn’t know too well. One that was a man of few words and many, many beers. A northerner from Timins and/or Sudbury Ontario. He worked as a miner and later for the Hydro when alive in Ajax, Ontario. A father of three children, husband to my mother’s sister Shirley.
Buddy Fors was his name and he had what I would call today an Easterners’ accent. A lanky large-handed pillar of a man that usually carried a brown stubby beer bottle in one hand, a pack of Navy-Cut Players in the other, and a lit cigarette swung to the left side of his face angled down, as if heavy on the tip. Buddy was a stranger to me as a child and is still one to me today. Long dead, and mostly forgotten due to the circumstances of his death and the stigma surrounding it. Stigma is most likely the wrong word – scandal more fitting.
I first knew Buddy as a painter. What I would call now a folk-art painter. As a child his works were received by myself as masterful treasures full of colour, character and skill. I remember aspiring to be as adept at him with a brush one day when I was older. He mostly painted lighthouses, boats and seagulls from what I remember. All works are lost now, either in behind boxes in strangers garages, landfill sites, or occupying the store rooms of flea-markets and second-hand stores. At one time there was a painting at the the foot of my bed and each night I would ponder it the way a child ponders things, somewhat like a dog might ponder a wind carried scent. I would be in bed far earlier than the summer sunset and would look at it waiting for sleep to come and rescue me from the solitude and prison of my bed.
It was a single seagull locked in a stiff wing-stretch, hovering off to one side of a distant cliff with an unlit lighthouse on it. There was no ship to ward, no person or tree. Just broken ocean, blue sky and speared white clouds overworked and forced into place. The frame was as light as balsa and the picture hung a little askew on a slowly stretching knit of wires.
My mother was a fan of his art and from what I remember a fan of Buddy in general. She affirmed his talents to me by telling me about his paintings and art. She told me he was a wonderful artist and how one day he could teach me how to paint. I waited for years to be taught but Buddy never offered or even carried a brush at any time I had met him. It was always the Players and the stubby brown bottle.
The night Buddy died was just before the morning my mother cried.
I remember an early phone call on a Thursday morning. I was in grade nine and the painting still hung in my room on the wall at the foot of my bed. I was still sleeping when the call came, and my mother scrambled from the master bedroom down the stairs to the kitchen to answer the phone. I slowly awoke blinking and blurry wondering what the fuss was, and devastated I had woken up again, to have to experience another day of my so called life. The painting came into focus the way it always did and my mother released an unnamable wail of the likes I have not heard since. It was all wrong sounding and I froze solid in bed like an icicle broken from its root and lain on it’s side in powdery snow.
The parallelizing stiffness of my reaction held for longer than expected as I listened to her wail his name over and over again. The phone receiver swinging loose and strangling out whomever was the bearer of bad news.
I imagined her wild and red-faced on the kitchen floor, cigarette burning with too long an ash, her nightgown thin and lifeless enveloping her wire-frame. I saw her at her worst as I lay immobilized and wishing I could simply evaporate into thin air, never to return.
My first inclination was to conclude he had been in an industrial accident. Fallen off of a high rooftop to his death. Crushed by an overturned steam shovel, or buried in the ooze of primordial concrete flowing hard and fast in the bowels of a skyscraper. He grandstanded often about the perils of his lively-hood and swung cigarette and brown bottle in dramatic gestures that enhanced the anecdotes of his bravery on the job.
After a good session of Oh Buddy, Oh Buddy, Oh Buddy. Mother changed her song to Why Shirley? Why? Why? Why?
At this point I got up out of bed, my eyes locked on the painting even to the extent that I had to look back at it as I left my room.
The scene was as expected. I had witnessed my mother in all variables and levels of trauma, stress and un-assembly, so I knew what to expect.
She had fallen apart on the floor a few feet away from the dangling phone. My father was looking down at her in what I like to call his superhero outfit. He was wearing a loose-fitting pair of tighty-whiteys that were not so white anymore. They were also not that tight and had become so relaxed with age they almost looked wet and weighted with water, gaping at the legs and crotch.
As I stood there rubbing my face he tried to speak to her in between her wailing chant.
“Bernice what’s going on?” Bernice calm down, tell me what’s wrong.”
He was too consumed by her trauma to simply pick up the strangling phone receiver and solve the mystery.
Another day in paradise and me, the eternal optimist lit the idea up in my head that maybe I could miss high school today. Sure, buddy was dead. It didn’t really effect me. Mom had been like this before. I hate my life.
Then she looked up at my dad with the face of a banshee and screeched like tires on pavement:
“Shirley killed him! She killed him! Buddy is dead and Shirley killed him!.”
Jaw-dropping even for a self- involved angst-filled teen.
This drove my father to the telephone and I took a few steps back to try and process what was going on. I looked around our living room to see if anything had changed. The word murder entered my consciousness and I had a opportunity to say it in a sentence that related to us. It wasn’t the movies and it wasn’t news. It was family. So I said it.
“Mom. Shirley murdered Buddy? Mom She murdered him?”
She began to wail more and I realized I was not helping. I had racing emotions and was somewhat excited about it all not knowing how to process what was happening. It was a new level for our family it put our disfunction on a whole new level.
In a few minutes it all became somewhat anti-climactic. the phone was hung up and my father cleared my mother up off of the kitchen floor and put her back together on the living room sofa. I sat with her for a while, hoping to be able to eat into my high school schedule and default the day to consoling her.
Looking back on it I was callous and indifferent. It shames me to think of how I felt at the time, but I was far from who I am now. It turned out Buddy was murdered in cold blood at 12 minutes after 12 the night before. He was murdered by his wife Shirley while he painted. She came after him from behind and put a pile of jabs into his chest with a long thin fillet knife; while he was painting Jesus figurines for the Catholic church. If I remember correctly he bled out there in the apartment amongst the army of half painted Jesus’ figurines, standing stately and righteously on guard for those in need.
Shirley was touted off to Kingston pen and after a series of months was released on account of a mental cruelty plea. I reserve judgement on this and I don’t know all the details. But she is free and very much alive.
One of my cousins professed that there was significance in the fact that their father died at 12 minutes after 12 and that 12+12=24 which is how many beers there are in a large case. I didn’t get the connection then or now, but again I reserve judgement.
The funeral was a dark and strange day. It was one of my first experiences with real death and it still resonates today. Buddy’s corpse was a blue-grey pallor, and he looked about as angry as he did dead. It was as if in death he was able to express more than he ever had in life – at least to me. He was terrifying to look at. He was not your average cadaver.
Luckily I don’t remember him this way or much of any way beyond the brown bottles and cigarettes. In most instances it is the paintings I see when he or his kids come to mind. I never see any of the surviving relatives. They all disappeared.
My Mom never really got over it, it just piled on top of everything else she had suffocating her.
Now it all seems like a strange fable or the works of a short story that might pay lowly homage to Raymond Carver (in subject not prose).
I think my father may still have the painting that was in my room. I need to find out. It was because of Buddy I picked up a paintbrush I think. Mind you, I always had an affinity for art – but he was the first person I knew that had created something beautiful out of nothing. It was like magic. And when you saw him, or at least as I see him in my memory he was the furthest thing from what one might perceive as an artist.
It’s odd that from that side of the family the one I knew the least is the one I will remember the most.
The first painter I ever met and the one with a most tragic end.