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Still Life

The room looks like no specific painting I’ve ever seen, but it’s still somehow idealized. If viewed from the street through the high arched windows, I suppose, the small pool of light from the single lamp might lend a Hopperish tone to the scene. But the blinds are drawn; no one’s looking in. It’s just me, sitting in that limited light, taking in the room, as if it were an installation titled Room With Two Chairs, Table, Lamp and Fan. It feels both perfect and unreal.

This is my new, freshly painted living room. I’ve just moved—or, rather, I am in the process of moving. Now that the paint is dry, I’ve started making weeknight runs of furniture—without much strategy, I confess—over to the new place. The first things in were basics: two matching leopard-print chairs (donated to me by my aunt and uncle, who reupholstered them after salvaging them from a mental institution that was closing its doors), a knock-off Eames coffee table/bench thing, a GE desk fan from the ’40s (my Dashiell Hammett fan), and a $20 Target lamp with a shade that looks like corrugated cardboard. There’s nothing at all else in the room—well, except me, a paint palette from Behr and a Budweiser tall boy. No magazines or newspapers, no shelves of books or CDs, no TV or related accessories, no computer, none of my daughter’s squeaking or digitally musical toys. Even the walls are bare, the semi-gloss shining like a still liquid in the low light. It’s peaceful and contemplative, and I’m almost dreading the impending, inevitable clutter of my real life.

I think of the space I’m vacating. The bedroom alone so packed with things—things that in a photograph would appear to anyone else just mundane and undifferentiated stuff, but to me represent Things I Should Be Doing—that it is at times overwhelming: an alarm clock, that miserable device; the crib, with all its wonderful and daunting connotations; the laundry spilling over the aromatic cedar-framed hamper; my laptop computer and its implicit reminder that I could always be writing more, that there are plays and movies and poems and novels—and what about a children’s book? or features on spec for national glossies?—waiting to be written; the two now-dusty guitars that point out tacitly that I never did finish, or even really begin, the satirical rock-opera set in a Mexican restaurant I joked about so long ago; there’s all the loose change that needs rolling, now stashed in the ceramic monk-shaped cookie jar emblazoned with the slogan “Thou Shalt Not Steal”; the digital camera, which I should have had with me the other night when the sunset over the city, viewed from a rise in the road across the river, was as vividly pink as a Callner landscape—a moment not to be recaptured, damn my lack of planning; and all those books, any one of which might contain the fact or observation or analysis that makes it all just suddenly click.

How can I not yet have finished The People’s History of the United States? Why haven’t I formed a comprehensive grasp of the information in The Oxford History of Western Art? I was convinced for a short time, I don’t remember why, that by understanding the presidency of Richard Nixon I would understand thoroughly America in the second half of the 20th century, but I haven’t read more than two chapters of Reeves’ doorstop President Nixon; please don’t even mention its shelfmates No Peace, No Honor and Reaching for Glory—and now there’s a whole new century to wrestle with. God, I’m such a slug.

And what about the fiction? What about the Nelson Algren, wouldn’t that help me become grittier—couldn’t I stand a little more grit? Or the Tobias Smollet? I was certain for a brief time that the picaresque novel was not only an informative antecedent of all those sprawling, critically acclaimed pomo tomes of the late ’90s, but had a compelling philosophical aspect in its amorality, its antipedagogical unwillingness to build toward a lesson. But I haven’t made it past the third chapter of The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker! It’s been on the shelf for a year! What the hell is wrong with me? And you know how much Fielding I’ve read? None. None at all! And Tom Jones is sitting right there, taunting me, next to The Goldbug Variations, which I’ve started three different times and never finished!

Off in one corner of the room, on a shelf, there’s a shrine of sorts. It’s a fat teak Buddha—arms upraised, laughing—a couple of those grocery store voodoo candles, and a weird framed and illustrated mantra: It depicts a stylized Asian youth (in Coolie attire, complete with pigtail) sitting on a hill. Above his head, in a incongruous Gothic font, it says, “I wish I was a little rock, a-sittin’ on a hill. Doin’ nothin’ all the day, just a-sittin’ still. I wouldn’t eat, I wouldn’t sleep, I wouldn’t even wash. I’d just sit still a thousand years, and rest myself, b’gosh.”

It’s an—admittedly confusing, really almost addled—invocation toward restfulness, meditative inactivity and peace (the spirit of which I myself have screwed up with the superstitious addition of a small, red lacquer box containing a fortune-cookie call to action that reads, “You are a great lover of words. Some day you will write a book.”). It’s a futile, though hopeful, gesture. It’s spitting in the wind. And, soon, all this mess will pour in from beyond the freshly painted boundaries of Room With Two Chairs, Table, Lamp and Fan, and it’ll be real life again.

But for now, for this moment, I’m thinking of cracking another tall boy, tacking up the palette on the wall like a mandala, and gazing at it across the grain of the bare hardwood floor, staring into it as a representation of a job completed, of a tidy, satisfying end to an action. Rolling the names of the paints around like a new mantra: Summer Tan, Green Tea, Bliss.

—John Rodat 


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