A Room in Valencia

 

 

 

 

 


I

 

Valencia is the kind of place you'd see in old movies but full of color. Sometimes it seems as though I took a wrong turn on my way to the office and ended up here, someplace unreal, somewhere tucked away in the Azores or the southern Antilles . Standing atop Mare's Point, you can see beyond Vero Bay and out to sea for miles. And if you follow the upstream course of Dakota Creek, you will see Valencia's ivy-lined houses, stone bridges, vineyards of young kiwi, furrows of carnations, purple avens and orchids, hedges and clumps of wild heather, bamboo and licorice; and if you continue beyond the statue of Saint Jerome, you will come to the church playground brimming with uniformed children at the old Mission of Saint J., as we call it, where I work within its library above the rectory.

A street map of Valencia looks more like the schematics of a computer chip but curvier. I'm still getting lost after living here for two and a half years. The population since then has grown to nearly nine hundred. Or has it dropped to eight hundred? No matter; the mission isn't even a mission anymore. It's a parochial school upstairs and a church and seminary downstairs. The property forms a "U" around a patico of statues, benches and flower beds that for some reason fails to retain visitors for more than a few minutes. I even avoid sitting there at times when I really want to, afraid of annoying people by violating a secret trust or something.

Now and then I can hear the chamber chorus in the chapel; hollow songs linger in the catacombs, stone walls tingle with voices. Even the bay breathes in iambic pentameter. Gales blow in from the sea; their landfalls soften by a coastline of pines rooted between giant rocks and domes of sand and clay. Sometimes at night, the smell of the sea creeps into my room, blending with the scent of paper and seasoned wood: pine, elm or oak perhaps, but more or less breedless now in retirement within their current compositions—props no longer pine, elm and oak, but chair, desk and floor.

My house is only a short walk from the church. A small stream runs behind it and passes through my neighbor's hayfield on its way to the town square. I've never followed it northward beyond the cemetery since it ducks below ground for nearly a mile or so, and where it wanders I do not know. Every morning, except for weekends, I accompany the tiny creek through the mission gardens and to the chapel where it again disappears beneath the earth and rambles southward before resurfacing past the school playground and to Valencia 's center square where it burbles through the halo of a porcelain cherub and into the fountain's pool cupped like a seashell.

Every excursion from my home to the mission library becomes an homage to peace and quiet, a benediction. In April, dogwood petals cover the trail along the creek; deer weed climbs an olive tree, and the fragrance takes me back to a place I'd been as a child—a creekbed, a treehouse, a hill, a fort—somewhere unclear, ambiguous to even imagine, nagging like pieces of a song, vague recollections of a first date, the tease of something more than just a dream.

On nights that are clear, I can walk beside the creek without a flashlight. Moons, stars, planets, orbs of fire and ice brighten the pathway and cast a bluish hue to the entire valley and illuminate the mountains nearly a mile away. One night while sitting against a dogwood, I watched an airplane drift by above me and remembered the day I arrived in Valencia on a twin- engine Beachcraft and swearing that the distant ground could be touched by merely extending a finger. At 15,000 feet parceled acres of barley and rice appeared as nothing more than patches of grass and clover: a soft and inviting bed. The distance between me and the earth seemed incomprehensible and I believed for an instant that stepping out of the plane at that moment was no less absurd than stepping off a curb and into a puddle.

When I first came to Valencia the mission's library was nothing more than a book rack in the corner of a room at the top of a spiral staircase. No other entrances to the library existed except for a sliding-glass door on the stone balcony. The balcony meets a sloping walkway that leads to the patico downstairs. The second floor is divided among the library, classrooms, a few school offices and a storage room which after a little dusting could qualify as a museum were it not for the fire codes prohibiting public assembly rooms without direct exits. It would cost too much I suppose to put in an outside door.

I spent my first day here surveying the landscape and scouting for a place to live. Housing didn't come with the job, but I was allowed to live in my office at the library until I had the cash and references to lease a house a few blocks west of the mission. Eventually I found a place in Valencia 's oldest neighborhood split in half by the small creek and dotted here and there with cafes, shops and parks.

There's not a single car dealership, shopping center or parking lot bigger than a tennis court within a hundred miles. We are a community of settlers, not commuters. No one mistakenly passes through. And only a few stray tourists come in the summer for gas and a few seaside souvenirs.More than likely, if you wake up one morning in Valencia , you'll end up settling in before the next bus leaves the gazebo or the grass is mowed at Memorial Park and the airstrip just east of St. J.'s non-denominational cemetery.

 

It is the last Sunday morning in May and Mangan's Sister is balled up in the center of her pillow like the calyx of a sunflower. The morning sun eventually reaches her. Stretching into the den like daybreak seen through time lapse photography, the sunlight spreads closer and touches her tail. She twitches. Another band of light elongates across the floor, past a pile of books, over a boot, and then toward her still asleep on her pillow. A hot, bright beam then touches an ear; she twitches again but to no avail. The sunlight envelops her. She's been swallowed. She wakes and stretches belligerently on her toes, arches her back and stiffens her tail. And for a moment, in the middle of a great yawn, she appears to be stuffed, embalmed by her master to serve as a doorstop. But then a foot twitches, shaken as though to dry it. She moves from her pillow and finds darker lodging beneath the telephone stand where the sunlight never comes. She balls up again like a wintered flower and sleeps in a time lapse unnoticed by even the most perceptive camera.

 

My weekday routines are no more or less eventful I suppose than are my weekends at home with the cat. My house is not far from the creek I follow almost every day to the mission just a few blocks away. It is a small house with many windows that remain uncovered throughout the year and opened for all but the coldest months. The exterior at one time was a brilliant crimson, like that of a ruby or garnet, but has faded since it was built nearly 80 years ago. The design of the house is simple, almost a perfect square if not for a couple of bay windows on the south and west walls. The north and east walls are cool most of the year, shaded by a few pines and tendrils of ivy and wisteria crawling along the bricks and shutters. One day, I will build a proper deck there, but for now, a comfortable lawn chair and pillow rest alone with the ivy, wisteria and pines in the cool, shadowy grass.

The previous owner was an artist who added a small upstairs studio with a window that swings open into the yard above my chair. From the window, I can almost see the creek itself behind patches of cattails and bamboo growing along the creekside. The artist was originally from Provence so most of her work exhibits a style inherent to the French masters. According to the agent who sold me the property, the French woman died in the upstairs studio the summer before I moved here. But sometimes while sitting in my chair beneath her studio window, I imagine her still here watching me, studying me, sketching my profile over a thick, hardbound book whenever the air is warm and the wind is brisk. But I have yet to see my portrait in any medium anywhere in the house. Yet much of her actual work still hangs on the walls; and her studio is still cluttered with artstuff abandoned just as she had arranged it ready to begin her last landscape of her last summer in Valencia 's countryside.

 

Antiquity, I have always felt, is a sensory word like coffee and christmas; and a perfect metaphor of Valencia . That is what I notice here. The antiquity of an old book with a handwritten note inside the cover, coffee on your lips after days without a sip, holiday lights blinking only in December. Maybe I am more attracted to Valencia 's charm than its history and to the artist's tastes more than her mysteriousness. But maybe it's just the artist's death or death in general that mysteriously engages me. I don't want her to go without her bed and desk, her curtains and paintings, her soaps and dishes, and the mail that comes still bearing her name.

The artist's effects linger throughout the house. Bits and pieces of her still linger as well, that's why I like it here, why I bought the house in the first place. Of course I'm alone here. But the artist has given the house a comfortability that certain homes get only after years of decorating, years of its owner marking her territory with bits and pieces of creativity and individuality. Her clutter was here when I took possession of the place: her bed, her coffee table, her desk placed strategically in the dining room and a few rugs and runners in the living room, bathroom and hallway.

Her room is a curious place still accessorized with easels, palettes and brushes, jars of pencils, frames empty and others stretched with muslin canvases, heavy blankets draped upon mysterious figures, chairs toppled over or stacked in strange postures and a small corner sink still dripping after all this time like a clock never unwinding.

Outside her window grows a large mimosa. Sometimes the branches knock it open and shake their fragrant fringes on the floor. Mangan's Sister brings them downstairs sticking to her paws and tail. Perhaps she's trying to tell me something, trying to lead me upstairs to the studio to show me something that I'm always failing to see?

I have never been successful at seeing. Concepts do not trouble me, but details always lose themselves within the big picture, the essence of the concept—my paradox. Machiavelli said that the ends justifies the means. He believed that a desired result was more important than the process by which that result is realized. Georges Seurat believed otherwise. In 1884 he created his most famous painting, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte. Dot by dot and point by point, Seurat's art evolved entirely upon the means by which it was conceptualized. His vision of detail is manifest within the message of his bigger picture. His technical style creates an art that is justified by his message. Seurat brings harmony to Machiavelli's dissonance—nature's paradox.

I regret I'm too impulsive and impatient to be an artist. I tend to buy the frame and pick out the wall space before wetting a single brush. The journey is lost to me. My desire to communicate, to give thanks, to apologize, to acknowledge is lost in its own form. I paint a thousand dots of color and smear out the sentiment with a single, wet stroke.

 

I am banished here in a pretended heaven—a twisted paradox forever twisting, spiraling deeper into paradise, deeper into delusion. My life in Valencia is an ellipses reconciled to nothing but its own passing.

 

The church/library/elementary school/storage room is the oldest structure in the valley. Missionaries came some time ago searching for a truth that was satisfying, inoffensive, forever pleasing, touchable. They found ideals here but their criteria for truth was never identified. And truth that occurred in nature was too raw, too ugly so they recreated landscapes—censored imaginations of only the sweetest things: gardens, creeks, streams and meadows.

As a blueprint, photographs would have been too multi-dimensional, contemporary, confrontational for the founders so they created Valencia as a painting, a representation of truth, a metaphor of Paradise. All things existed at the top of the food chain where survival of the fittest became nothing more than a pecking order of corpses. Even in Paradise there must be opposition. Balance and proportion demand it. But then again, Valencia is not Paradise; it is a painting, nothing more than a playground of reality. Truth according to history in Valencia has become equally unidentifiable. History has become a record of conveniences like a crossword puzzle of letters finely arranged but spelling nothing.

But a painting however, is a perception of a more evident truth, more dependable than superstition, more indulgent than even fantasy. This is what Valencia has become. People do not come here to live but to die, to belay immortality, to forget the resurrection, to avoid truth and history and to occupy that infinitesimal moment of convenience. That moment we all face when the life force blows out of us in our last exhalation perhaps, hopefully, forever.

 

 

II

 

Rain comes to Valencia like typhus: wind, thunder, rain—predictable and ruthless. And once it passes, recovery is slow and the entire valley, exhausted. Valencia , however, never floods—nothing drowns, nothing is fully immersed. The earth is marked just a little, scratched just a bit immediately after the fall. And from the runoff, the bleeding, the landscape is retissued as though a top layer of skin has molted: nature's facelift. Our little garden of Eden once again is as it was in the beginning before the fall, before Gethsemane, before the atonement when rain was nothing more than absorbed, when rain did nothing more than fall.

Delicate flora has washed away. Colors not diluted by the master artist now appear freshly painted, glossy in the aftermath. Ferns are now a deeper green, their jagged edges sharper than ever. Nature's confetti lies everywhere. Fallout consisting of anonymous blossoms, buds and leaves still hold their colors but have somehow lost in the storm their virtue. Pathways, fountains and ponds display a similar complexion, distinction muted by the storm. Nature celebrated a new year it seems, or maybe a wedding—a consummation by the look of things. The afterthoughts can be uncomfortably familiar, or unfamiliar. Is it worth the mess, one wonders?

Mangan's Sister weathered the storm, purchased on the piano bench. The sound of my playing, comparable to thunder, must transfix her, purring as usual, paws and chin resting upon my lap. Unfortunately, I practice only as often as it rains here. The piano, more than anything, simply serves as a reminder of music. Where the mission choir is an ensemble of cathedral acoustics, gothic accompaniment and the interplay of audience and angels; my piano, on the other hand, is the solo. It is only me. It is more sound than music, more clich´┐Ż than opus, more heart than voice. But Mangan's Sister lays still and listens; and maybe in the studio upstairs, my music is heard as well.

Although the rain dilutes the valley's colors, it enriches the air with earthy aromas as hearty as smoke. After the rain, the fertile air draws all life into the open, noses swelling upward, windward, townsfolk pondering the familiarity in the air that only comes after rain. Green cologne of the river, woods and sea and everything sweet that perished in the storm attacks the senses like a crusade of meadows. Topsoil smells up the air with that rich, gritty decay of earth. The air brings a spring-cleaned energy comparable to that of April's last layer of snow sinking into the piney soil, cleaning the earth's pores before trickling into pools and streams across the valley.

 

August is generally hot and dry here. So dry that in my bare feet I cannot crush the dirtclods in the flower bed around my mailbox. But there's nothing more therapeutic for the feet than standing in hot, dry clumpy dirt. On occasion, I've read every scrap of mail while standing in the dirt at the roadside, enjoying that special kind of pain. Sometimes it is too hot; but other times it is perfect—just hot enough to hurt, just a little, just enough. The climax of coughing too harshly or stretching too completely or scratching an itch too intently is the pleasure I'm after—just on the cusp of being truly painful. So I stand at the roadside until that peculiar satisfaction is realized and I return to my den and Mangan's Sister still sleeping, always sleeping.

After living here for nearly a year, I removed the door to the upstairs studio, an impulse I'd been initially ignoring. It always seemed that while passing the studio that someone or something was hiding there, trapped like an unwanted relative transformed by some hideous disease, mistake of nature or disfiguring addiction changing from Jekyll to Hyde without prediction or provocation. But the door is gone and the room is now a benevolent place in spite of my anxiety and suspicion.

Even in the afternoon, the upstairs studio is generally the darkest place in the house. I went up on a day I stayed home with the flu. Restlessness kept me from sleeping on the couch or reading in the back yard. The doldrums, depression's mildest genre, drew me to the old art room all but drenched in shade save for a stream of sunlight trailing from the window. The sunbeam hit the opposite wall illuminating particles of dust, the detritus of space sparkling like snow in the glow of a streetlight. The room itself resembled a chiaroscuro painting of nothing but itself; it was an empty display case presenting nothing but its own light. But the room was mesmerizing in spite of itself.

I haven't stayed home with the flu for some time, but on a sunny weekend, right around dusk, I sometimes watch from the middle of the stairway the light show begin and then gradually fade away. It lasts for only a minute or two before the sun falls behind Mare's Point and into the orange bay when the room again goes dark for another day and night's circling.

 

Mangan's Sister had a litter of kittens in the upstairs studio last winter. I found her and her cubs between a wall and a folded up card table. There's a particular curiosity that arises in me whenever significant change presents itself, and I knew that change was coming, for Mangan's Sister anyway. Before she found a suitable spot for bearing her cubs, she roamed throughout the house as though she had misplaced her wallet or keys. Maybe she was sensitive to secrets about the house where she was soon to become a mother. Maybe she was researching her own roots before setting out branches, before growing leaves, before dropping fruit.

She winced and mewed when I pulled away the card table and let in the sunlight. She looked anesthetized. Maybe she had that fuzzy feeling one gets upon waking from a nap in the middle of the day: that disorientation between day and night that keeps you off balance until the true morning comes to reassure you that another spell has weakened and that you have not been overtaken indefinitely.

I continued to feed Mangan's Sister in the kitchen downstairs, and soon after the kittens were weaned, they attempted in turn to manage the stairway themselves. I answered their distress calls from the second or third steps when their mother needed a break or was otherwise uninterested. But soon enough, all the cubs were discovering other rooms downstairs and the hedge rows and flower beds immediately around the house.

Sister recovered quickly from that initial shock of producing something substantive, something out of the everyday, and resumed her usual habits: napping and vying for my attention against her children or a note pad, a book or a bowl of ice cream. She was surprisingly jealous of her children's attention. She wanted me to do nothing but pet her and showed no resistance at all to my dolling out her kittens to the neighborhood children. I did it slowly, one kitten every odd day, letting Sister gradually adapt to being single, to being without responsibility, to shedding that motherness instinct.

Watching Sister confront parenthood made me question the type of parent I may have been, nurturing my child when she was in need of nothing, but imparting nothing when certain needs weighed heavily upon her. The prospect of fatherhood was terrifying. I'd be vulnerable to an isolation more threatening than Valencia could ever disseminate. I feared seeing in my child the person I had failed to become. I would see in her happiness, popularity, and direction my own isolation, failure, and aimlessness. I'd be tortured by my love for her and the selfish understanding that love, passion, recognition, and happiness skips a generation. I am a square peg in a round hole. But in Valencia , no one can see this error but me, and the shame of it is swallowed up by anonimity.

But as for Sister, I suspect, letting go of the cubs was easy. I, on the other hand, had wrestled with it for some time. I must have given them away in stages to convince myself that I was letting go of the same kitten seven separate times instead of each kitten one by one before the turning of the month. I wanted to make just one choice instead of seven, to suffer one loss instead of many.

 

All things are interesting and compelling to children, at least in the beginning. As fundamental as air, so too is play for children and Sister's kittens, especially if within reaching distance of one to the other. I have a sweet tooth for critters that are soft, warm and affectionate. It's a good thing that children have the tooth as well. Needless to say, finding homes for Mangan's litter was as easy as basic math. A more responsible owner, I've been told, would have sterilized her long ago, certainly before her oats were sown, so to speak.

 

Perhaps the largest chinkapin tree in the entire valley grows just outside my porch. Half of the tree is already dead however, and hangs its bony branches just above the front door. A few branches are too close to the roof. Too much heat is reflected or trapped that the closer branches burn up and in the spring they fail to rebud. The tree is so large that from the mailbox at the end of the drive, it's hard to tell that a second floor room is even there. One day I'll need to prune it. But for some odd reason, part of me wants it to go ahead and die. The struggle for the chinkapin to stay alive bears punishing consequences for us higher life forms caught up in the same struggle. Every time I see its burned up branches over the porch, I am reminded of a particular failure of my childhood. And each time I would remember, guilt would drive me further away from responsibility and further into denial and justification. So I've never lifted a finger to save it. Letting go of the tree however would be easy, as easy as aiding a kitten up a couple of stairs. I've often wondered if the artist would have handled it any differently. But for the most part I avoid the situation and the tree altogether by using the back door even when I walk to the front yard to get the paper or to fetch the mail.

One day I may have to kill the tree, remove its burdens from the house and me. Whenever I'm in the upstairs studio I feel so close to the dying tree as though I was climbing it; as though I am too close, breaching a trust like kissing on a first date. With the tree gone, perhaps I will be able to let go of my responsibility, my guilt and shame for not acting sooner, for not helping it, for constantly seeing in its spiny skeleton my own callousness and disaffection. Perhaps in the spring I will do it. Perhaps one day in the green, burgeoning, life-giving spring, nature will use me to kill. But today, nature ignores me and I wonder still, what would the artist do, I wonder...I wonder?