by Michael Onofrey
Coming in the front door, screen door, he led her through a sparsely furnished living room, windows open, mini blinds bunched up at the top, sunlight without hindrance from two windows as well as the screen door that was behind her. They were in route to the kitchen/dining area, he having offered coffee and she having assented. He rounded a counter that separated the kitchen/dining area from the living room and she was about to follow, but then stopped, for there was a framed print of an Edward Hopper painting, Chop Suey, on the backside of a cabinet that faced the kitchen, cabinet above the counter, Hopper print facing the living room and declaring the kitchen, perhaps. It was so eye-grabbing for its colors that she found herself stalled, which allowed her cognizance time to catch up with her perceptions and reactions. It took a moment, but then she understood that everything up until this framed print had been dull in color—washed-out grays, weak browns, morbid greens that she had been viewing for the last forty-five minutes while driving, and then, as if this weren’t enough, the same wearisome color scheme had followed her inside, for his living room was of those same languid tints as the desert outside that she had been traveling through to reach his diminutive abode, exterior of which was weather-beaten blue siding that had diverged into a milky gray, a singlewide suffering the effects of relentless sunshine and abrasion; not that Hopper’s colors were Van Gogh, but compared to what she had been looking at, Chop Suey was an oasis.
Her view came down to look over the countertop to where she saw Wayne Hampton, her taciturn host whose trailer she was in, busy in the kitchen with the makings of coffee, Melitta setup, kettle of water atop a flaming gas ring. Her eyes returned to the Hopper, whose work she liked, but for reasons she had never been able to figure out, yet that issue wasn’t what had her stopped. It was more that she had never seen Hopper’s work in such a setting. But of course anyone’s work might have garnered her attention given the immediate surroundings. Nevertheless, it was Hopper she now confronted, which was strategically hung—end of living room, beginning of kitchen—no other adornments in sight.
She rounded the counter/partition and Wayne gestured toward a table that was to her right, three straight-back chairs, two on one side of the table, one on the other, simple cushions on the seat of each chair. The table’s surface was Formica, yellow with blue speckles, but that coloration only remained where crockery traffic had been light. For the most part, the tabletop was a diluted cream.
She sat down on one of the two chairs that were on one side of the table, which left the lone chair on the opposite side of the table, empty chair next to her serving as a receptacle for her sketchpad and shoulder bag. Where the table abutted the wall there was a window, opened and screened, mini blinds gathered at the top, light from this window a tad weaker than the living room openings. Peering out, she saw an awning-shaded brick patio. Beyond that there was the desert, scrub in variety, no structures of any sort in view. Craggy mountains, a mile or so away, rose suddenly, eastern slopes of the San Gabriels, Los Angeles on the other side of those mountains.
“End of October,” Wayne said, while turning. “Gorgeous weather here, providing a Santa Ana doesn’t blow.”
She looked at him, a man in his early sixties who had slimmed down from rangy, but who still brought rangy to mind. He had poured water into the filter for the one cup and had set the kettle back on the stove, flame extinguished. Indeed it was a beautiful day, no wind, scene outside, as well as inside, like a postcard. Wayne smiled, but it was a crooked expression on a long face, bifocals part of it, visible line between lower and upper prescriptions of those lenses. He was clean-shaven and his thinning russet hair was combed straight back. When Carol arrived, Wayne had come out the front door to greet her, and she was pleased to see that he was in a pair of khaki shorts and faded a green T-shirt with the sleeves cut off at the shoulders, for she wanted those long limbs, particularly the arms, in her sketches. Sport shoes were on his feet, no socks. Job-wise, Wayne was a housepainter/handyman. “Yes,” she responded. “It is a beautiful day.”
Wayne moved the Melitta cone to the other cup and poured water into the filter, and it was then that the aroma of coffee went up Carol’s nose like sparkler—so strong, so distinct, so poignant that it was like a new experience. She sat, purposely thinking about this, for she couldn’t understand why the aroma was so vivid. After all, she had been around coffee ever since she could remember.
Wayne took a plastic bag out of the refrigerator and unclipped a clothespin from the bag and extracted a flour tortilla. He went to the stove and ignited a burner. Adjusting the flame to medium-low, he set the tortilla on the burner and then watched as the tortilla swelled, which prompted him to flip it over by pinching an edge with his fingers and turning the thing quickly.
Coffee aroma was still rooting about in Carol’s head like a mystic tumbleweed, but now she anticipated a tortilla smell, which wasn’t long in reaching her nostrils, a combination of white flour with a hint of moisture that carried an edgy burnt smell. This, too, was familiar, as it would have been for anyone having grown up in southern California, but, as with the coffee’s aroma, it struck her as unique, impact fervent. Oddly, the tortilla did not supersede the coffee. Rather, they mingled in a complementary play, neither giving ground, each independent while cohabitating.
Wayne’s kitchen was like his living room, and beyond that somehow like the desert outside, dryly furnished. It didn’t take Carol long to notice that there were no foodstuffs in sight aside from a plate with a few bananas, spices and other additives absent, not even a saltshaker.
When Wayne asked about milk and sugar for the coffee, and when Carol said, “Both,” Wayne took a lidded sugar bowl from a cabinet and a carton of milk from the refrigerator and added those condiments to both cups. To call it a spare kitchen, as in humbly furnished, do-dads of any sort truant, would not only have been accurate but would have bordered on understatement, and what is it about a kitchen that tells so much about the person, or people, who utilize it? More so than a bookcase, a kitchen is revealing, and in this way Carol assumed Wayne to be a man with a past who was now careful about the present, for the conclusions he had reached were those of simplicity. Perhaps it was age that required this. Carol was younger, forty-two years old.
He brought two heated tortillas on a plate to the table after having set the cups of coffee down, pungency of bouquet now immediate, yet remaining distinct, one an the other, coffee and tortilla in a fragrant dance. When Wayne sat down opposite Carol, she couldn’t smell anything of his body, be it sweat or aftershave or cologne. He was odorless and dry. Carol hoped for the same, and in this regard she was thankful that she hadn’t doused herself with perfume or any other fragrance before leaving home. Perspiration? No, not enough humidity and not hot enough. It was still only ten in the morning, and as she and Wayne sipped their coffees she started to relax, dark French roast, strong and deep as if endless.
Her eyes rose to above Wayne’s head, a view she had neglected because of the window and then because of Wayne’s presence, and, as if shocking, she found another Hopper print. This one was mounted on a short partition jutting out from the wall just on the other side of a backdoor, partition designating an open doorway through which a utility room seemed to dwell. Again, as with the other Hopper, it was framed, non-reflective glass included, and it was strategically located, eyes of anyone sitting where Carol was sitting sure to find it. It took but a moment for its title to appear in her mind: Automat. This piece, perhaps even more so than the other, was pure Hopper—expressionless woman alone at a table with a cup of coffee, no other people in the picture.
Wayne was saying something, but she was missing it because her eyes and thoughts were on this second Hopper. She said, “I’m sorry, what did you say?” and lowered her view to Wayne’s vertical face.
“I was asking, where do you want to do the sketching?” Wayne seemed to have something in his mouth, which made Carol notice that a piece of the one tortilla had been torn off and was obviously in his mouth now.
“Oh,” she said. “I guess right here.”
“You mean at the table here?”
She reached and tore off a piece of tortilla and put it in her mouth and instantly everything was ‘tortilla.’ It couldn’t have been any stronger, even in fantasy. In response she looked down at the tortillas on the plate as if searching for reasons but only found regular, store-bought flour tortillas. At least she thought they were store-bought. To check on this, she asked, “Did you make these tortillas yourself?”
“No, I bought them at the store.” He smiled hesitantly.
“Well, they’re delicious,” she said, in an attempt to ease his concern, but of course the tortilla was delicious.
Wayne picked up his cup and sipped and so did Carol, coffee coming to bear, and now the tastes in her mouth were like the odors in her nose, coffee and tortilla agreeing while remaining separate.
She brought her sketchpad up and opened it and got out a standard graphite pencil and started sketching. Wayne sat with one arm out, forearm resting on the table, long muscles with raised veins like purple vines along that erotic appendage. It was her friend’s sketches of Wayne that had prompted Carol to call him and ask him if she could do some sketches of him, upon which he had invited her out to his place, whereas her friend, Ruth, had sketched him on the deck of her house after he had finished painting the exterior of Ruth’s house, which was in Studio City, a pleasant section of the San Fernando Valley.
Going out to Wayne’s place in the desert—Pearblossom Highway, graded dirt road, followed by a lesser dirt road—would give Carol more information, which would help her in working up some watercolors based on some quick sketches, but what she hadn’t imagined was that she would come to understand why she like Hopper’s work.
“Why the Hoppers ?” Carol asked, as if intrigued by the incongruity of finding two of Hopper’s best pieces hung in Wayne’s mobile home. But—people are often more than what is assumed.
“They’re so lean, you can’t miss the details. They make everything that comes within their perimeters vivid—the light, the lines, the colors—the solitude.”
Sketching, sipping coffee, gnawing on tortilla, and glancing out the window, where the desert dwelled with shadows that brought out the landscape simply and directly, which added force to what was presented.
Wayne’s kitchen—simple food, simple beverage—vivid and memorable, tastes and aromas that she hoped to incorporate onto paper via a stark palette. Already she had the image, but unlike Hopper she would add tortillas.
|Michael Onofrey was born and raised in Los Angeles. Currently he lives in Japan. In addition to having previously appeared in Alimentum, his stories have been published in Arroyo, Cottonwood, The Evansville Review, Imagination & Place (anthology), and Natural Bridge, as well as in other literary journals and anthologies.|