The Black Dot Museum of Political Art – a novel

Collaborating with a political painter and a psychologist, a museum curator uses abstract expressionism to cure narcissism, a personality disorder associated with a profound lack of empathy.

Jean Smith is seeking a literary agent for “The Black Dot Museum of Political Art” (literary fiction, complete at 87,000 words).

Jean Smith is the singer in Mecca Normal, the highly acclaimed literary rock duo (thirteen CDs on Matador, Kill Rock Stars and K Records). The author of two published novels, Jean Smith is a two-time recipient of Canada Council for the Arts awards as a professional writer of creative fiction. She co-present a touring lecture called “How Art & Music Can Change the World”.

- Artist in residence (painting) at Fountainhead, Miami, February 2013.
– New Mecca Normal album recorded (48:00 minutes) produced by KRAMER, November 2012.
– Lyrics on the new Mecca Normal album are directly from two recently completed novels: “The Black Dot Museum of Political Art” and “Obliterating History – a guitar-making mystery, domination and submission in a small town garage“.

New Videos:
Mecca Normal – Odele’s Bath (live) from the novel “The Black Dot Museum of Political Art”

Mecca Normal – Wasn’t Said from the novel Obliterating History – a guitar-making mystery, domination and submission in a small town garage.

August 2012

Martin Lewis’ Paintings

AUGUST 2012

PRESS RELEASE: The Black Dot Museum of Political Art exhibition in Olympia, Washington. October tour on the west coast. Jean Smith reads at LitQuake and Vancouver’s Word on the Street. Mecca Normal performances. “How Art & Music Can Change the World” in university classrooms and libraries.

PROMOTIONAL PLANS

NEWSLETTER

Synopsis

The Black Dot Museum of Political Art
by Jean Smith

NADINE MacHILLTOP, the curator at a tiny political art museum, is fine-tuning a sound-based installation when MARTIN LEWIS barges in with a painting to submit to an upcoming exhibition. Nadine, frustrated by her inability to get rid of him, is aware of similarities between Martin and men she’s met through online dating, men she considers narcissists.

Martin’s painting clearly doesn’t belong in a graphic design exhibition, but Nadine is impressed with his abstract expressionist landscape, and she’s intrigued by the inclusion of a red tent that seems to be an afterthought, a gesture towards political content. Nadine asks Martin about its significance and he elaborates on the Red Tent campaign, which, during the 2010 Olympics, educated visitors about Vancouver’s homelessness population. Nadine, in a bit of a pinch to fill her exhibition schedule, offers Martin a solo show on very short notice.

Arriving at Martin’s Denman Island studio to select pieces for the show, Nadine is overwhelmed by the number of paintings that refer to a proposed coal mine on nearby Vancouver Island. As with the red tent painting, the political references – front-end loaders filling dump trucks and toxic run-off flowing into the sea – were obviously added after the paintings were complete.

Nadine meets with Martin’s psychologist, DWIGHT SHERBURNE, and learns that Martin changed his life’s work – traditional landscape paintings – to get more attention from a young political activist with whom he was having an affair. Martin, his behavior dovetailing with narcissist personality disorder, agreed to therapy where he spoke candidly only while painting abstract interpretations of the nine symptoms of the disorder. To Dwight, the meaning of the paintings wasn’t important. For Martin, self-expression was significant to his well-being.

Nadine casually matches the symptoms on the list with the individual paintings. Dwight is amazed by her uncanny ability, a skill she honed as a child, to deduce when the next emotional storm would surround her family. Her volatile parents were painters who embedded emotional worlds into their art work. Nadine, as a child, assumed everyone could understand the language of abstraction as easily as she could, as if it was written in plain English. To her, jazz was for joy, yelling was for anger, and more complex emotions – depression, shame and anxiety – were best dealt with in abstract paintings.

Nadine and Dwight collaborate on a lecture to stream live from the exhibition’s opening. It’s supposed to be limited to Martin’s paintings specifically and narcissism in general, but as videos of therapy session interactions are projected on the museum’s wall, Dwight entangles the personal and the professional, and patient confidentiality becomes an issue.

Nadine, close to revealing the cure for narcissism, has digressed into stories about the CIA funding of abstract expressionism, when the political activist Martin had been involved with speaks with news that Martin’s paintings have been used in a video that has halted the coal mine on Vancouver Island. The mine would have been environmentally disastrous to a nearby shellfish company that exports oysters to Japan. The activists made a fake video about a supposedly-famous Canadian painter, the evils of coal mining and the fate of oysters. They sent the video, with a Japanese voice-over, to TV stations in Japan and it went viral, generating pressure to prevent the mine from opening.

The audience turns to applaud Martin for his role in stopping the mine, but Nadine, wanting to get the lecture back on track, instructs them to react more appropriately. She informs them that the cure for narcissism is in ignoring the narcissist. Martin, empowered by his new found celebrity and success as a political artist, lashes out at Nadine and Dwight, accusing them of being the narcissists.

By the event’s end, Nadine is fielding phone calls at the front desk – an invitation to present her ‘performance art piece’ at the Whitney Museum in New York, and calls from Japanese journalists wanting to interview Martin. Nadine, believing it is her job to protect people from Martin, tells the media that Martin is too busy to talk to them, and in fact he is. Audience members have surrounded Martin wanting to congratulate him.

Ten Page Sample

The Black Dot Museum of Political Art
by Jean Smith

CHAPTER 1

Halfway up an aluminum ladder at the back of the museum with an eight-foot length of oak in both hands, Nadine MacHilltop was more annoyed than startled when someone started pounding on the front door of the museum. Certainly there was no hint of apology for arriving fifteen minutes before the museum even opened, and it definitely wasn’t the is anyone there who would be so kind as to assist me even though I’m a total jerk for bothering you knock of a colleague. No; either the person banging on the door – a man, no doubt – didn’t dabble in manners, or he was simply unaware of how his behavior impacted others. One or the other, thought Nadine as she came down off the ladder. Or both.

Nadine dusted off the knees of her dark blue coveralls and crossed the small, windowless room. “Coming, coming, coming,” she muttered as the pounding continued. Pushing open the heavy wooden door, a tall, disheveled man with a large painting under his arm grunted and rushed past her, anxious to get in out of the rain. Nadine leaned out into the cool air, took a deep breath and listened to a Yellow Cab pull away from the curb. The swish of tires on wet pavement soothed her. The museum door creaked as she pulled it closed, blocking out street sounds – cars, sirens and the rain.

“I’m glad you’re here,” the man said, pushing back the hood of his navy blue rain jacket.

Nadine, a scholarly-looking woman in her fifties, pointed at the clock on the wall, intending for him to take the hint – specifically, to leave – or at least acknowledge that the museum was closed. Nothing. He stood there dripping wet, water beading on his obviously well-waterproofed sage-colored Hush Puppies. Nadine was momentarily transfixed by the way drops grew until surface tension broke and rivulets rolled thievishly off the milky-green pigskin to pool on the gray cement floor of The Black Dot Museum of Political Art. Yes, Vancouver was a good place to live if water was fascinating on any level at all, and to Nadine, it was. Everything about it enthralled her, amazed and engrossed her.

“We don’t open for another fifteen minutes,” she said, wondering where he got the nerve to pound on the door of a museum before it was open. Who does that?

“I have a submission for the show,” the man said, looking around the tiny museum, wondering why there was nothing on the walls. He rested his painting on the tops of his shoes, its back to Nadine.

“We don’t accept submissions through the front door,” Nadine said, crossing her arms, still waiting for him to leave. Glancing down, she cringed at the title printed in black felt pen on the wood of the cheaply constructed auxiliary frame – Forever Jung. Nadine didn’t essentially trust artists who painted on ready-made store-bought canvases. In keeping with grand traditions, Nadine believed artists should stretch and prime their own canvases – not run down to an art supply store to put another batch of blank slates on credit cards they weren’t going to pay-off at the end of the month, if ever. She believed that painting – the actual art form as opposed to the decorative panels hobbyists generated to sell in commercial galleries – should retain its nature, including inherent tactile difficulties. Paintings were awkward in a way that books and LPs were not. Yet painting was safe from nasty states of egalitarian oblivion that the computer had thrust other art forms of into. E-books and mp3s allowed everyone to enter what had been formal industries, to ply their mostly-substandard wares, thus cluttering up trajectories of the truly talented – those who actually deserved to be discovered, those who now co-existed in the ever-broadening obscurity that the masses ran towards, hurtling themselves into, lemming-style. “Come on in, the abject hopelessness of the artist’s newly diminished place in society is fine!”

The man leaned the painting against the reception desk, walked back to the door, pushed it open and pointed at the hinges. “That’s one hell of a squeak,” he said, gently moving the door back and forth to demonstrate, as if Nadine hadn’t noticed.

“It’s more of a creak,” she said, irritated with herself for failing to get rid of the man and his painting. “I keep meaning to get a can of WD-40,” she added, attempting to absorb the risk of conflict by taking responsibility for the door and its creak.

“You can get tiny cans of WD-40,” he said, holding his thumb and forefinger three inches apart. Perhaps he wasn’t implying that being a woman – a small woman – she wouldn’t be able to operate a regular-sized can of WD-40. Regardless, her blood pressure started to rise.

“We only accept submissions as per the website,” she said, suppressing the urge to tell him that she didn’t need a man to fix a squeaky door – or anything else. In the ten years she’d been single, she hadn’t met a jar of olives, capers or tomato sauce that she couldn’t open. A couple of taps on the lid with the handle of her thirty-five-year-old Henckel knife – and voilà!

“I’m more of a face-to-face kind of guy,” he said assertively, yet he was actually quite surprised that he’d been let in before the museum was open.

“Well, we’re more of a follow-the-submission-guidelines kind of museum.” Nadine had hoped to never be in the position of evaluating an artist’s work while they stood there waiting. The wording on the website was supposed to prevent anything like this from happening.

“I figured that since this is an anarchist museum there’d be some leeway,” he said.

“It isn’t actually an anarchist museum,” Nadine said defensively. “Regardless, anarchy is not chaos.”

“I’m sorry, can we start again?” he said with a smile that clearly intended to charm her. A good-looking man about fifty-five with a square face and a cleft chin, Nadine thought he could be from a long line of potato farmers. “My name is Martin Lewis. I apologize for barging in like this, but I’d like to speak to the curator if she’s here.”

“I’m the curator. Nadine MacHilltop.”

“I thought you were the…” his voice trailed off as he looked around the room trying to figure out who he thought this middle-aged woman in bulky coveralls and work boots was. “I assumed you were putting up the picture rail.”

“I am,” Nadine said.

“Listen,” Martin said. “Let me give you a hand with that. I’m a carpenter and what you’re doing with that piece of oak is moderately offensive to me.”

Nadine looked at the badly bowed eight-foot strip of oak leaning against the ladder.

“How so?” she asked.

Martin took off his rain jacket and hung it on the coat rack. “You’re going to want to put the wood flat on the floor,” he said, heading across the room. “You don’t want to store wood with a big bend in it like that.”

“I’m not storing it,” Nadine said. “It’s been there about five…” Martin’s footsteps triggered the amplification system. He stopped and tapped his foot gingerly on the floor.

“What the hell is that?” he asked.

“It’s the audio for the current installation,” Nadine said proudly, pointing at a dozen small speakers on the floor around the room. “It’s an abstract subtext, if you will.”

“The floor is cement, but it sounds like I’m walking on wood.”

“It’s a gesture recognition program that I’m running with strategically placed contact mics. Different gestures control different…”

“What’s the name of the program?” Martin said, interrupting her.

“Mooges.”

“Pure genius.”

“I got the idea from The Young and the Restless,” Nadine said, not knowing if he thought Mooges was pure genius or her abstract subtext.

Martin frowned. “That’s a soap opera isn’t it?”

“They use the sound of the floor to exaggerate the mood. Mostly the mood of women clicking around in high heels, but it’s a viable tool within the limitations of a soap opera set.”

Not having any interest in soap operas, Martin changed the subject. “How come there’s nothing on the walls?” he asked. “Are you between exhibits?”

“The current exhibition is an installation piece.”

“Where is it?” Martin said, looking around the room. “What is it?”

“It’s a fable about crows and unicorns called Round One,” Nadine said, intending to speak at length about her debut installation.

“Yikes,” said Martin. “How exactly is that political?”

Nadine winced. “That’s up to the viewer,” she said flatly and declined to elaborate.

Martin stopped fooling around with the floor and walked towards the ladder. “What kind of mic are you using?” he asked.

“Unidirectional Boeing contact mics,” Nadine said. “They use them to hear cracks and stresses during construction.”

“Boeing?” Martin tilted his head. “As in the airplane maker?”

“That’s right,” said Nadine. “I was driving down I-5, just south of Seattle, and there was a sign for a public sale at the Boeing plant. It turned out to be a giant garage sale in one of the hangars. They were selling chunks of butchered aluminum and obsolete equipment. I found these beautiful aluminum cases that reminded me of Airstream trailers.” Nadine would have continued, but she could see that Martin wasn’t really listening.

Martin did a noisy little jig in the middle of the room. “It sounds like the floor of a barn.”

“Barns don’t typically have wooden floors,” Nadine said spontaneously, forgetting how much men dislike being corrected, but Martin didn’t hear her. He was happily tapping and thumping the floor. “The human brain focuses on sounds from intelligent sources,” she continued, regarding her explanation as a rehearsal for future visitors to the museum. “Sound from non-intelligent sources drops into the background. If I play the sound of a faucet dripping at the same volume as a recording of footsteps, the brain will focus on the sound of the footsteps.”

“Why do I get the feeling there’s a political philosophy attached to the floor?” Martin asked.

Nadine adjusted the two small sticks holding her hair in lop-sided French roll. “How do you mean?” she asked.

“Is it art or interior design?” Martin asked pointedly.

“Touché,” Nadine said, deciding not to defend her work.

Martin was the first person to comment on the sound system in the three weeks since she’d installed it. The museum only got a handful of visitors a day, and when they arrived, Nadine acted like a functionary – an administrator or an attendant. Not the artist.

“How many people work here?” he asked.

“Just me,” Nadine said. “The four guys who opened the museum had an unexpected brush with success. They moved to New York.”

“Success can be such a drag,” Martin said sarcastically. “I feel for them, man.”

The Black Dot Museum of Political Art had been a joke amongst the four painters who shared the space – a running joke – until one of them randomly applied for funding to open a very small museum. As a studio, the thirty by forty foot windowless room was loosely divided with easels and bookcases. Unsold paintings were used as partitions, affording each painter some privacy amongst his personal affects – books, magazines, jars of brushes, drawings scribbled on beer mats. None of them could be called tidy and in the three years since art school graduation, clutter had reached hoarder status.

There were definite advantages to working with other painters – shared expenses, critiques, bulk purchases of supplies and help lugging paintings – but there were drawbacks too. They endured the unselfconscious behaviors of other artists in the throes of creativity. Like paper-thin walls at a cheap motel when you want to get some shut-eye, noise in the studio was always an issue. The sound of another human doing normal human things was a great distraction.

Adam, Mark, Bruce and Jeff would have preferred to work in silence, but that was a luxury they couldn’t afford. They needed space to paint loose and large. They lived communally with writers, musicians, filmmakers and other painters, renting small rooms in the old family homes around Vancouver’s Commercial Drive where their housemates partied most nights and always slept as late as they could before going to their restaurants or retail jobs.

The four met as students at Emily Carr, the regional art school. More precisely, they met at Opus, the art supply store across the road from the school where they were employees snagging discounted and damaged merchandise, hatching plans for group shows, and scoping-out cheap studio space.

In their mid-twenties, they weren’t exactly young, but at their age it was something of a novelty that they’d left their parents’ homes. The New York Times used the terms post-adolescence and pre-adult to describe their generation’s tendency to stave off responsibility by staying at home well into their twenties, allowing parents to take care of them, prolonging their childhoods or as some asserted, denying them the opportunity to have rewarding lives as adults. Worse, the phenomenon seemed propelled by parental guilt.

They knew they were going to be painters – that or pirates, as Jeff liked to joke – and besides, they could always move back home if they wanted to. They shared one full time position at Opus, lived frugally and sold the odd painting. Taking on the extra rent of the studio was a risk, but $1000 divided four ways was an awesome deal. The room was small, but the high ceilings made it less boxy. Thirty by forty divided into four spaces provided each painter with enough room to take three steps back from his easel to assess how things were progressing.

Once they’d settled into routines at the small space on Railway Street, they realized that noise was the biggest problem. Not external noise, but the noise they made themselves. None of them were being noisy, per se. It was the relentless accumulation of sounds – paintbrushes swishing in jars of water, panels being set on the cement floor, a dropped tube of paint smacking the floor.

If Mark had his way, the radio would stay on CBC as it rolled through intellectually stimulating Canadian content, but Bruce wanted free jazz that was too abrasive for Adam’s need for a much smoother ambience. Jeff, the least fussed about specific genres, solved the problem by finding a radio station that none of them liked, thus developing an absorbent backdrop for daily life. It distracted them from what they all needed and couldn’t have. Peace and quiet. Once they found the sweet spot, the volume never changed. The painters adapted well enough to the self-violation of their individual tastes in the name of group sanity. Indonesian gamelan music streamed 24/7 and somehow it worked. In fact, it was the rocket-fuel they needed. Until then, none of them had realized how much sound impacted their ability to maintain creativity.

Mid-afternoon most days they took a vote to reconvene at the Japanese restaurant down the street. The vote itself was an absurdist tip of the hat to their mutual interest in anarchist social theory and surrealist art. The results of the vote were meaningless. Unless one of them was doing the evening shift at Opus, they’d all wandered down to Aikoko to talk about art with plenty of hot sake to refill their tiny cups and two hours later they’d vote again to decide whether they were going back to the studio or carry on to the bar. In actuality, each of them decided individually and went on about his personal business regardless of the results of the vote. Their daily ritual, happy hour at Aikoko, was an extravagance they probably couldn’t afford, but couldn’t resist. It became known as taking a vote.

Over plates of deeply discounted spicy negitoro rolls and octopus sunomono conversation invariably turned to Jeff’s idea of using part of the studio space as a gallery where they could invite potential buyers to see their work. Adam maintained this would destroy the purity of the creative environment. He didn’t want to overhear customers prattling about the price of a painting, asking how many hours it took. They were striving for importance in unstable economic times. Turning their work space into a gallery was the road to selling-out and becoming commercial painters of pretty pictures. They may as well march single file over to the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge and hurl themselves off one by one (or all together) to splatter against the surface of the icy grey waters that extend up into Indian Arm. That was Adam, though. Overly dramatic, but the others agreed; he had a point. This was how the idea of the museum came up. Adam suggested that a corner of the studio could be delegated a pop-up museum, not a gallery. Exhibitions in a museum would elevate their work to a higher degree of importance.

Bruce insisted that the museum should extend to the Japanese restaurant where they could informally present lectures-on-demand. He demonstrated his idea of venue flexibility by pretending to dump an imaginary envelope of imaginary paper dots onto the table.

“The individual dots represent topics,” Bruce explained. Jeff envisioned the project as pure whimsy, but Adam had a sense that it could actually be used to promote their paintings. To sell their paintings, which he wasn’t opposed to at all; he just didn’t want it to be happening while he was trying to paint them in the already too noisy studio.

They were all hoping that an imaginative art critic would attach a group moniker to their output, but nothing like that seemed even close to happening. The small shows they’d organized and promoted were ignored by the press. These were labor intensive events that involved transporting paintings to cafes and clothing stores onCommercial Driveor group shows in run-down rehearsal spaces with plugged toilets and leaky ceilings where musicians performed for friends. Their self-penned press releases tried to pass them off as a group of political artists with an appropriate amount of reverence for cultural associations that harked back to abstract expressionism in the fifties and sixties in New York, but they were clearly of no interest to local art critics. And really, painters should be painting, not lugging their work around town for stoned students to lean against while tripping out to the latest configuration of improvised free noise made with African hand drums, flutes and badly tuned electric guitars or pushing press releases under the noses of art critics writing for entertainment newspapers.

The very act of conniving to attract attention to their work made them unimportant. Musicians were expected to develop the cult of personality with rock ‘n roll affectations and bad behavior. Writers were obnoxious assholes who drunkenly pontificated in bars. Painters, if they were any damn good, would have been discovered already. Painters were supposed to paint quietly until someone noticed what they were up to. Clearly the four of them had no clout and if they continued to bleat about the political nature of their art and the association they made to important accomplishments in the middle of the previous century, they were in serious danger of never getting any press at all. At least they were aware of the existing prejudice, the dynamic they were flailing within.

The thought of bypassing reviews and shows to open a museum intrigued them, but at that point, sitting around the Japanese joint semi-smashed on sake, Jeff, Adam, Bruce and Mark had no idea that another avenue to success was opening up for them. Their names were sizzling like downed power lines during a midnight ice storm, jpegs of their paintings were being circulated and lauded as the next big thing – they were being taken very seriously by an art critic writing a piece for Artforum magazine, they were going to be offered exposure on the world’s most prestigious art stage – New York, New York.

Their big break was in motion while they discussed the museum as a way to feel better about their lack of progress with commercial galleries, the press and the development of a client base. They lacked customers. Adam joked that he’d apply for funding from the Canada Council for the Arts and they agreed that spending a few hundred bucks to hire a publicist and handle the event would be a good idea. Take a vote. Meeting adjourned.

The board of the semi-imaginary museum, a conceptual retreat, would convene the following day to deal with the details of the opening exhibit to take place on one wall of the studio. That’s where they were at. The ad for a publicist went up on Craigslist and while none of them had formulated an image of who exactly might reply, it became obvious that they’d all assumed they’d be hiring a beautiful girl around their age dressed head-to-toe in black. The obviousness surfaced after an intense looking woman old enough to be their mother came into the Railway Street studio. The door squeaked closed behind her and the four of them stopped painting to go and deal with the unexpected problem. They were polite, but they certainly didn’t invite her in to see the space or show her their work. Jeff quickly explained the drawbacks of the short term position and without making eye contact, Mark hastily told her that they had several other people to see and they’d get back to her if need be. Nadine handed Jeff her resume and then, feeling very old, but mostly angry, she was back on the street within four minutes of having pulled open the heavy door. She knew exactly what had happened. What irked her most was that they assumed she didn’t.

The painters returned to their easels and waited for more replies to their ad, but none came. Adam had in fact done a bit of research online and deduced that they were not eligible to apply for funding from the Canada Council for the Arts, but the toll free number and the rather lovely female name next to it emboldened him to phone Françoise Lacroix and ask if she had any ideas of where funding to open a small museum might come from. They were Canadian taxpayers after all – or at least at some point in their lives they might be.

Françoise asked Adam what kind of a museum it was and Adam realized they needed to be specific so he said they were opening a museum of political art.

“The Black Dot Museum of Political Art,” Adam said, thinking about the imaginary dots on the table at Aikoko. Françoise was intrigued enough to give him the number of a colleague at the Institute of Museums and Libraries in Washington, DC that connected Adam to Steve, a former skate punk from the all-ages club Françoise hung-out at as a student at Carleton University in Ottawa. Steve liked Adam’s story, the real story, not a fake story to secure funding; he liked the idea of a small museum set up by four guys who didn’t want to sell out. Three days later at the Japanese restaurant, Adam announced that he’d sent Steve a rough draft of a budget to operate a museum of political art for three years. Rent, general expenses and one full time employee.

Bruce dumped real paper dots out of a manila envelope and they all laughed at the absurdity of the situation. What if they actually got funding? What if they actually had to open a real museum?

With the dots – art movements through the ages – scattered across the table and no other responses to the ad on Craigslist, Adam unfolded Nadine’s resume and passed it around the table.

“What was the first show called?” Martin asked.

A Call to Action – that was the anarchist exhibit. It was their work. The four painters. It intended to inspire viewers to include political content in their own creative self-expression,” Nadine said, quoting the press release she’d worked on and memorized.

Martin chuckled. Nadine straightened her glasses.

“Sounds a bit dry,” he said. “Is that really what anarchists are up to these days?”

“I think anarchists typically want to inspire people,” Nadine said, trying not to seem defensive. “In general, I think they would like to see more political content everywhere, not just in art.”

The Black Dot Museum of Political Art (excerpt, chapter 8)

Rehearsal, March 7, 2012. First time through this section of Jean Smith’s novel The Black Dot Museum of Political Art . Guitar David Lester.

Maisy’s Death

In the summer of 1936, Maisy died and without missing a beat, Nestor turned and began hurling his high pitched railings at Odele, like javelin tips landing sideways in the tender field of her heart. Odele was fourteen when she took over the chores – the watering and weeding, the picking, trimming and slicing of green beans, making meals, just like before. It fell to her to tend the garden, carefully latching bean tendrils to the brittle netting that stayed out all year, weathered to grey. The beans were blind – reaching out into the vastness of her tiny universe – in the opposite direction, until Odele unfurled the coil of filigree and let it touch the net. The beans hung like slender green trout, green eggs plump in their green bellies. So much green – too much – and so much for the natural order her father talked about; the hopelessness of beans left to fend for themselves, on their own.

After her mother’s death, realizing that as a female she was interchangeable and therefore he’d be trying to fill her up and kill her too, Odele developed a penchant for very long baths with bubbles. Her father wouldn’t have dared to yell at her while she was naked, but she had her blanket of bubbles just in case. The tub was behind the woodshed where her two brothers’ bottoms had been paddled until they were old enough to endure a leather strap across the open palms of their pre-pubescent hands. The strap was for the boys and the soap was for Odele, the only girl, and it was appropriate. The boys were always in some kind of trouble that involved their quick fingers and plump hands – taking money, raiding fruit trees or fighting on the dusty shoulder of the road home from school. The strap across the hands was fitting for the boys and likewise, it was Odele’s mouth that got her into trouble – sassing back to her father, expressing her opinions unasked. The soap, it was for Odele.

Odele’s Bath

Their cast iron claw foot tub was raised up on bricks to make room for the fire beneath it. After supper, the bath regime began with Odele’s father climbing in first to soak for the better part of an hour, after which, when her mother was alive, she’d be next, but she tended to make it quick. After her – the boys, one at a time. Finally it was Odele’s turn. Frequently she had to chop more kindling to stoke the fire and wait until the water warmed up again. She pulled the sash of her pink chenille bathroom tight and swung the axe more accurately than either of her brothers, splitting wood like she was slicing bread. Truly alone, she sat on her thinking rock, poking the embers, vowing that one day she’d take baths twice as long as her father’s and soak in bubbles until the cows came home. When she had a child she’d spoil it. It could eat cake all day long for all she cared. Odele shifted the wood with a twisted iron rod so familiar in her right hand that it was invisible to her. All week it hung beside the leather strap in the shed, next to the soap, until bath night when, individually they held it like a mediaeval weapon, jabbing it into the heart of the fire as heat flushed their faces and alone, they allowed themselves to imagine episodes of liberation – and even retribution – as they prepared to bathe their scrawny hillbilly bodies in murky water beside an unnamed stone on which sat the soap. Unnamed by everyone except Odele. It was her thinking rock, although she’d never said it out loud to anyone except herself. It was here that the term run through with an awl played over and over in her head and she blamed the rock for making her think it. This was what happened when she sat on the thinking rock. It made her think awful things about her father. She blamed the rock for putting things into her head and she thought it best to say them, to let them out, rather than save them, in her head, fearing that she might blurt out run through with an awl instead of please pass the potatoes at dinner.

Odele kept her small bottle of bubble bath in the pocket of her chenille robe. As she dribbled it across the dirty water she repeated her mantra, run through with an awl. Naked, one foot on her thinking rock, she used the soot-blackened poker to agitate the water, to make bubbles, and she laughed at how she must look, the real Odele, and she added to her chant – if all eyes were on me now.

The saving grace of her otherwise woefully lacking existence was that her father was not a man of god. Unlike her schoolmates traipsing off the church, Sundays were her own. Not to run through fields of buttercups, but to catch up on chores. Odele sometimes found herself glancing skyward while she squeezed dirty water out of a mop, thanking god that her father was not religious, thus cracking herself up enough that she twigged onto how humour worked – it split apart the dark tendrils tightening in her gut and around her heart, soothing her like a slug of moonshine, but laughter didn’t burn and make her cough. Odele tried to find external sources to make herself laugh, to reduce the internal grumbling in what she knew was not her soul – nor was she hungry, unless what she felt could be called a hunger to express herself. If she laughed or cried her father got angry. He was a man who was staunchly confused about most things, but in his role as head of the household, he felt compelled to have strong opinions. Anger was the only emotion he let his family see. He pontificated wildly, combining nuances of opposing stances, putting on a show. All bluster. Odele tried to follow his logic, but when she was nine she heard the word irrational uttered by her mother while they were going through the remnant bin at Hester’s Dry Good Store.

By the time she left the farm at sixteen Odele had eaten enough green beans to last her a lifetime. Emancipation from what she regarded as emotional tyranny came by way of the SMT Eastern bus line and her overwhelming determination to never again eat anything green.

Chapter 8 excerpt

Odele Irwin and Griffin Lewis married in 1956 and they had Martin, their only child, within that first year. Truth be known, Odele and Griffin weren’t in love. They’d never been in love – not with each other, nor with anyone else. This lack of love, admitted, fortified the bond between them. It drew them together. Recognizing the destructive nature of being at odds, they maintained a façade of love and wondered how many other couples were doing the same thing. The mostly unspoken partnership suited their individual needs. Griffin wanted a wife and Odele needed a child.

Raised on a potato farm two hours north of Saint John, New Brunswick, Odele had moved to the city to attend secretarial school at sixteen, after which she secured a full time job at the Rexall Drug Store a block away from her one bedroom apartment in the Tobias Building on Prince Edward Street.

As her two brothers and high school friends settled into family life, Odele never ceased to enthuse about the joy she found in living alone. Her regular bragging about soda crackers and butter for supper, dollops of vanilla ice cream and maple syrup on her morning waffles and “the usual” – a club sandwich at the Crown Café at lunchtime – ruffled feathers at the drug store where customers insisted that she’d be filling out her petite figure in no time flat if she continued on her path of nutritional deprivation. Espousing the virtues of white rice, white bread and biscuits – everything white instead of anything green – got her into hot water with the pharmacist when he lost count of the pills he was counting to shush the flow of commentary as Odele pontificated about being fit as a fiddle and never gaining a pound. She went so far as to claim that the vanilla in the ice cream helped maintain her girlish.

Odele went farther still and made sure as many customers as possible saw her buying bottles of Andre Chenier New York Apple Blossom Bubble Bath, Motion Picture Magazine and more licorice whips than you could shake a stick at. If Odele Irwin had her druthers, food and movies would be black and white forever.

Propped up in her apple blossom bubbles, Odele flipped the pages of her magazine and sometimes warbled variations on popular tunes, bending notes like supple alder branches on a narrow trail into the woods on the western perimeter of their land. Pulling them aside and letting them snap back as she passed, dry twigs crackling under her feet, like the flower-scented bubbles popping around her. In this way she reminisced about her childhood adventures on the farm, but the smell of skunk cabbage in the marsh in spring and the crunch of snow underfoot in winter couldn’t block out the memory of her father’s ranting – it wasn’t what he said, but the total attention he demanded and the curious way her mother absorbed it until, full up, Odele supposed, she stopped darning her husband’s sock and slumped forward. Finished. So death was a full up thing and he’d filled her full, thought Odele. She’d had a bellyful of his suppertime rants, his hairy fist pounding the table, making the cutlery jump and water jiggle in the glass in front of her and that’s where her mother pinned her unblinking eyes until it was over.

Odele’s eyes darted back and forth between her parents. She tried to be still, pressing her lips together to keep her mouth shut. She nodded, wondering if this was how they did it in the movies, when movie stars were paid to behave different than how they really felt. In real life movie stars had fancy clothes and cars while in the movies they were plagued with problems not unlike her own. If he kept yelling, she used the food in front of her to keep her quiet, pushing fork-loads of green beans into her mouth, but as soon as she’d swallowed, she’d jump up to yell at Nestor for yelling at her mother and then she’d yell at her mother for just sitting there, taking it.

It came in waves, the father-daughter anger. They carried on like the tide in Bay of Fundy, rushing in and draining out, back and forth, with Odele glancing sideways to determine where her father was at with his bellowing. Odele’s mother sat, looking at the water in her glass, unable to speak or eat.

Nestor’s chewing reminded Odele of the cows. It wasn’t a civilized up and down action like her mother’s delicate mastication, but more of sideways grinding, a jutting of the jaw, left to right and her father was always right. He’d been right and no one had given him credit yet again.

If he’d been a drinker he could have stormed off to the Tap Room of the Centennial Hotel and bellowed at the barkeep until nightfall, but Nestor was death on drinking and after dinner he sat in front of the radio, shushing anyone who made a noise.

Maisy had fretted about the beans being bitter while she ironed pillow cases pulled in fresh-scented from the line. She’d worried about deer coming out of the woods at dusk to feast her crisp lettuce – even though she’d spent many hours lashing metal fencing to posts to keep them out. All the while her husband ranted, nearly frothing at the mouth about a vague injustice he’d barely endured, an utterance overheard and ignored in the moment, but brought back to the farm, to Maisy, like a proud barn cat with a mouse, to show Maisy the indignity of his suffering, a fate he brought on himself through the cowardice he preferred to think of as stoicism.

In the summer of 1936, Maisy died and without missing a beat, Nestor turned and began hurling his high pitched railings at Odele, like javelin tips landing sideways in the tender field of her heart. Odele was fourteen when she took over the chores – the watering and weeding, the picking, trimming and slicing of green beans, making meals, just like before. It fell to her to tend the garden, carefully latching bean tendrils to the brittle netting that stayed out all year, weathered to grey. The beans were blind – reaching out into the vastness of the universe – in the opposite direction, until Odele unfurled the coil of filigree and let it touch the net. The beans hung like slender green trout, green eggs plump in their green bean bellies. So much green – too much – and so much for the natural order her father talked about; the hopelessness of beans left to fend for themselves, on their own.

After her mother’s death, realizing that as a female she was interchangeable and therefore he’d be trying to fill her up and kill her too, Odele developed a penchant for very long baths with bubbles. Her father wouldn’t have dared to yell at her while she was naked, but she had her blanket of bubbles just in case. The tub was behind the woodshed where her two brothers’ bottoms had been paddled until they were old enough to endure a leather strap across the open palms of their pre-pubescent hands. The strap was for the boys and the soap was for Odele, the only girl, and it was appropriate. The boys were always in some kind of trouble that involved their quick fingers and plump hands – taking money, raiding fruit trees or fighting on the dusty shoulder of the road home from school. The strap across the hands was fitting for the boys and likewise, it was Odele’s mouth that got her into trouble – sassing back to her father, expressing her opinions unasked. For Odele, it was the soap.

The only light that entered the shed came though its open door. Odele could practically hear the sound of woodbugs in the alder stacked ready for the stove in the kitchen or the bathtub out back. The strap hung from a nail on an exposed stud and next to it, the soap on the four inch ledge. Lye soap on a slippery rectangle of burlap. When Odele’s father opened the door, the equipment for punishment was illuminated by the wedge of light. The soap was in the shed to keep it out of the weather, ready for the ritual of Saturday night baths.

Their cast iron claw foot tub was raised up on bricks to make room for the fire beneath it. Late Saturday afternoon in the pantry, Odele’s father allowed the boys a taste of what he called democracy. He held out two pieces of straw plucked from the kitchen broom and the boy who drew the long straw would get to choose which task he’d do. Odele watched democracy in action on Saturdays; her father looked proud to be giving his sons a real education, but to Odele the gesture was confusing, since neither task was preferred by either boy. The boys would have slobbered over the opportunity to wield real power and lumber the other with some god forsaken task, but that didn’t seem to be the point of the demonstration of what their father called natural order of democracy.

The loser would be sent to chop kindling and light the fire or to pump water from the well and carry it to the bathtub pail by pail. An hour later, after supper, the bath regime began with Odele’s father climbing in first to soak for the better part of an hour, after which, when her mother was alive, she’d be next, but she tended to make it quick. After her – the boys, one at a time. Finally it was Odele’s turn. Frequently she had to chop more kindling to stoke the fire and wait until the water warmed up again. She pulled the sash of her pink chenille bathroom tight and swung the axe more accurately than either of her brothers, splitting wood like she was slicing bread for sandwiches. Truly alone, she sat on her thinking rock, poking the embers, vowing that one day she’d take baths twice as long as her father’s and soak in bubbles until the cows came home. When she had a child she’d spoil it. It could eat cake all day long for all she cared, Odele thought, shifting the wood with a twisted iron rod so familiar in her right hand that it was invisible to her. All week it hung beside the leather strap in the shed, next to the soap, until bath night when, individually they held it like a mediaeval weapon, jabbing it into the heart of the fire as heat flushed their faces and alone, they allowed themselves to imagine episodes of liberation – and even retribution – as they prepared to bathe their scrawny hillbilly bodies in murky water beside an unnamed stone on which sat the soap. Unnamed by everyone except Odele. It was her thinking rock, although she’d never said it out loud to anyone except herself. It was here that the term run through with an awl played over and over in her head and she blamed the rock for making her think it. This was what happened when she sat on the thinking rock. It made her think awful things about her father. She blamed the rock for putting things into her head and she thought it best to say them, to let them out, rather than save them, in her head, fearing that she might blurt out run through with an awl instead of please pass the potatoes at dinner.

Odele kept her small bottle of bubble bath in the pocket of her chenille robe. As she dribbled it across the dirty water she repeated her mantra, run through with an awl. Naked, one foot on her thinking rock, she used the soot-blackened poker to agitate the water, to make bubbles, and she laughed at how she must look, the real Odele, and she added to her chant – if all eyes were on me now.

The saving grace of her otherwise woefully lacking existence was that her father was not a man of god. Unlike her schoolmates traipsing off the church, Sundays were her own. Not to run through fields of buttercups, but to catch up on chores. Odele sometimes found herself glancing skyward while she squeezed dirty water out of a mop, thanking god that her father was not religious, thus cracking herself up enough that she twigged onto how humour worked – it split apart the dark tendrils tightening in her gut and around her heart, soothing her like a slug of moonshine, but laughter didn’t burn and make her cough. Odele tried to find external sources to make herself laugh, to reduce the internal grumbling in what she knew was not her soul – nor was she hungry, unless what she felt could be called a hunger to express herself. If she laughed or cried her father got angry. He was a man who was staunchly confused about most things, but in his role as head of the household, he felt compelled to have strong opinions. Anger was the only emotion he let his family see. He pontificated wildly, combining nuances of opposing stances, putting on a show. All bluster. Odele tried to follow his logic, but when she was nine she heard the word irrational uttered by her mother while they were going through the remnant bin at Hester’s Dry Good Store.

By the time she left the farm at sixteen Odele had eaten enough green beans to last her a lifetime. Emancipation from what she regarded as emotional tyranny came by way of the SMT Eastern bus line and her overwhelming determination to never again eat anything green.

Mecca Normal — No Mind’s Eye

Mecca Normal “No Mind’s Eye” (The Family Swan, Kill Rock Stars, 2002). Video by Jean Smith.
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