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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 09/24/2001
Volume 2, Number 21
The Girl on the Olive Oil Can
by Alvin Schwartz
(Author's note: Sometime in the mid-1940s, Dan Miller, proprietor of the local general store in the rural village of Springs, Long Island, New York, acquired a painting from his new neighbor, the painter, Jackson Pollock. I knew them both in those days. But it took me many years to figure out how it might have happened. What follows is fiction, along with a previously promised special approach to art criticism )
The carton cutter hissed as Dan's hand guided it around the edges of the box. "Two dozen number two Primrose mixed juice," he called out, lifting the severed top from the carton.
Myra bent over the counter and made a notation in the little inventory pad. She glanced down the aisle and watched as Dan proceeded to transfer the cans to a middle shelf on the right.
"Seems to me the old label had a lot more real style than this one," he commented, scrutinizing the face of one of the cans as he set it on the shelf at eye level to his crouching figure.
"If Primrose finally decided to catch up with the times," Myra called back, "then it's all to the good. I think that's a very pretty blue on the new label."
Dan shook his head. "It's up-to-date," he admitted grudgingly. "Like everything else is getting to be."
"I like that shade of blue," Myra persisted. "Be nice in the kitchen. If I can ever find it in a curtain material, maybe," She broke off, aware of her husband's remoteness.
"Here, now this is more like it," she heard him announce. He was no longer in the center aisle. His voice seemed to be coming from the salads and oils over in the far corner. "Now what's so bad about this? And it's the exact same label they used twenty-five years ago."
Myra listened, idly trying to recall which of the salads and oils Dan might have been admiring. But no details emerged from her fuzzy images of bland rows of mayonnaise jars.
"And still a sight better to look at than all this new stuff on all the other old brands," Dan's voice rambled off into unintelligibility.
"Better finish the inventory," Myra called back. "You can have all evening to be an art critic."
After a pause, Dan's voice came back at her. "Exactly what that artist who rented the Osborne place last summer told me."
"What's that?" Myra asked, vaguely attentive. "Said what?" "Said I should've been an art critic." "Oh, did I tell you," said Myra, raising her voice toward the far corner where she could hear him scraping and puttering among the cartons still waiting to be unpacked," he bought that Osborne place. Did you know? He'll be back this summer to stay."
"The artist who bought it from Osaborne." "You mean Pollock."
"Pollock, that was his name."
"That's what he said, I should've been an art critic." "I'd no idea you'd gotten so friendly with him." "We talked about things a few times. Interesting man to talk to." "I would have thought," Myra said, after some reflection, "that he'd be a little too up-to-date for you." There was nuance of risibility in her voice.
"Up-to-date?" echoed Dan. He sounded puzzled. "Those pictures he paints. I saw them in his living room the morning I took the eggs over that time his wife was sick."
"You mean, because they're modernistic?" "What else would you call all those squiggles?" "It's not the same thing," Dan explained. "A man like Pollock is still thinking about beauty. I know. I've talked to him. But these new labels have something else in mind. They're just trying to catch your eye. That's all there is to them. Just take a second look and there's no more there than you saw the first time." His voice had gradually acquired a rapt private quality.
It struck Myra that at some point he had ceased speaking to her and was just thinking out loud although with characteristic absent-mindedness, he had neglected to lower his voice.
"Just the same," Myra insisted. "I don't see what's so beautiful about a lot of squiggles. But then, no one ever called me an art critic, either."
"Now this one," Dan went on as though he had not heard her. "This can stand a lot of looking at. Don't see many labels like this around anymore."
"I was talking about that artist," Myra persisted. "Or women either, for that matter," Dan continued. "What women?"
But now no answer came from the salads and oils section. It took another moment before Myra realized that Dan's shuffling movements among the unpacked cartons had also ceased. She slid from behind the counter and and made her way up the center aisle, her soft-soled shoes muffling her steps. Continuoing past the freezer chests at the rear of the store, she turned the corner of the farthest aisle and found Dan sitting on one of the unopened cartons and staring at a solitary gallon tin of olive oil standing in the otherwise empty lower bin.
"Now, wouldn't you say that was worth looking at?" he demanded, glancing up at Myra as he pointed to the tin. "Happens to be the last one in stock. I'm kind of glad we didn't sell it yet. These people probably aren't using the same design on their tins anymore either."
"I was wondering what happened to you," Myra said, considering the big rectangular tin with a bemused expression.
The brass-tinted face of the tin stared back at her with its baroque green and red border, and the lettering, somewhat faded by time and exposure, framing the rude old-fashioned sketch of an unsmiling black haired girl which managed to suggest a mysterious link between the girl's dark aquiline charms and the olive of whose golden nectar the lettering was the purveyor.
OLIO PURO D'OLIVA
contenuto netto un gallone
"If we don't get rid of it soon," Myra found herself saying, "I doubt anyone'll buy it. I mean, no one wants something that looks as if it's been on the shelf so long it's gone stale."
"We had half a dozen of them five years ago," Dan recalled. "I remember when the order came from Greene Brothers. This is the last one."
"What's more," Myra said, "there's still a lot of inventory to get through. We've only got a week till the season starts."
"Still," Dan persisted. "You've got to admit this has a lot more beauty than all the new labels they're coming out with."
"It's faded," Myra said.
"Well, of course. It's been standing around for five years. That's not what I mean."
"It's nice," she acknowledged. "But a little old-fashioned, I'd say." "What if it is? It's only the things that go stale right away that have to be fresh all the time. You can look at a label like this for a long time without getting tired of it. You know why? Because whoever the artist was that made it, he must have been thinking about that girl."
"What an odd thing to say."
"I don't know what you mean."
"I just mean that over in Italy, at any rate, they must've been allowed to make labels this way, at least, way back, when they first made the design for this tin, before the War. It's like something that was the artist's own idea, without anybody standing over his shoulder, like the man from the advertising agency, telling him how to do it."
"But how do you know he was thinking of that girl?" "It stands to reason. This isn't just a label to make people buy olive oil. You can tell that by looking at it. It's more as if the people that made this olive oil were proud of it and hired an artist to make it look as nice as they thought a good product deserved to look. That's why I'm willing to bet that's a girl the artist was in love with. Notice that she's not even smiling. Why? Because he wouldn't have had any other reason to put her there. So he painted her the way she really was. The way he remembers her, standing on a balcony somewhere, maybe in Naples, and there's a breeze blowing her hair amd the sun that warms the olive orchards shining on her skin. Makes me think of things I enjoyed when I was a boy."
"That was a long time ago," Myra suggested softly. "Yes, it was," Dan agreed. He looked down at the olive oil can with an oddly whimsical expression. "Well, let's get on with the inventory."
The summer season brought to Dan Miller's general store the usual run on such items as sun-glasses, playing-cards, straw hats, fishing tackle, beach slippers and suntan lotion. The season also brought Pollock.
He came into the store very early one morning at the beginning of July, it was only a few minutes past seven, the hour when Dan usually opened up to take in the milk delivery. The abrupt tinkling of the little bell over the door drew Dan's attention just as he was stowing the last of the milk cartons in the refrigerator. And then he saw the tall silhouette materializing through the sunlit doorframe to be reassembled by the diminished interior light into the somewhat alien and unfamiliar person of Pollock.
Still, Dan recognized the painter almost at once. Even as he was struck by the fact that Pollock did not quite conform to the image he had shaped from his recollections of last summer when he had seen the painter walk into his store from time to time.
"How do." It was Dan who spoke first, masking an unaccountable surge of anticipation behind the restrained greeting.
"You changed things around a bit," Pollock commented in his soft, hesitant drawl. The painter's eyes beneath the dirty white sailor's cap t hrust jauntily low on his forehead seemed to be still adjusting to the transition from the brightness of outdoors. He examined the store with the awkward myopic stare of a night bird. His finger toyed absently with a sheet of notepaper that Dan recognized as the familiar grocery list that would have been written out by Pollock's wife.
"Put in a few improvements," Dan explained, self-consciously trying to decipher some faded lettering on the white tee shirt that hung over the other's frayed and freshly laundered jeans on which strong bleach had dimmed even the polychrome accumulation of paint stains. "I hear you're going to be with us for good now," Dan went on.
"Yes, we bought the Osborne place," Pollock admitted. "We'll be staying through the winter this year, if we can keep up the mortgage payments and our credit at the grocery store."
Dan laughed politely. "You're not asking me to commit myself to that last part this early in the season, are you?"
"No, I was figuring on having to get you softened up a little first." Pollock grinned and thrust the grocery list across the counter. "Wife wants these things. If you can handle her writing without help, I'll go browse around to see what we might've forgot to put on the list.
As Pollock was passing through the turnstile alongside the counter, Dan looked up abruptly from the grocery list and caught his eye. "You still doing the same kind of painting I saw at your place last summer?"
Pollock paused, struck by a note of something more than curiosity in the query. "I'm still painting," he amended. "Why?"
"I didn't mean it that way," Dan explained hurriedly. "I believe in a man doing the way he feels." He hesitated and became awkward. "I mean, well, you just said something to me about credit."
"Well, just kind of joking," Pollock cut in quickly. "Why?" "Sure, I know you were joking. But just the same," Dan paused.
Pollock watched him quietly, waiting.
"I had this idea," Dan began again. After a moment, he added: "I was just thinking that maybe we could work out some kind of arrangement along those lines."
"You mean credit?"
"In return for, say, well, maybe you could do a commission for me?" Pollock's voice broke with a tremolo of surprise. "You want me to paint something for you? But..."
"That's what I said, didn't I?"
"No, you wouldn't care about my kind of painting. I mean, what would you do with it?"
"Hang it up, right here in the store." "But, what for?"
"Look here," Dan asserted with a vehemence that left him almost breathless. "Let's understand something. Maybe we should make it clear right now, seeing that you're going to be a neighbor anyway, that there's things that every man cares about that nobody else can see at all. Only sometimes, there's an opportunity for two such fellows to reach an understanding."
Pollock appraised Dan for what seemed a long time. Then he smiled. "You've been into a lot of thinking about things," he said.
"There comes a time," Dan said, "when you've got to stop thinking."
July rolled into August, the usual time for Myra Miller's sister, Helen. to come out and spend the two weeks of her annual vacation. Helen was ten years younger than Myra. But she had already been twice married and twice divorced. She worked at a bacteriological lab in the city, testing batches of yeast for small brewers.
Helen arrived on schedule, driving up one afternoon in the battered old car she kept in dead storage during the winter in order to maximize the amount of summer usage she could get from it. She had already had the car for six years which was six months longer than she had been able to keep either of her husbands.
"You see, Helen's a very sensible woman," Dan remarked. He was speaking to Myra in the privacy of the marital bedroom on the second evening following Helen's arrival. "Has a fine sense of order. Always knows what she and everybody else should do next. Maybe the men not sticking it out with her was nothing more than that."
"Then I suppose I should be glad you don't think I'm as sensible a woman as my sister."
"I didn't say that. Family traits are bound to show a little bit. Besides, I'm not the one to object to having a sensible woman around."
"Then Helen's real mistake was in not marrying a man like you." Dan smiled. "I wouldn't say that either. The right thing is often a lot harder to put up with. It takes a lot more than just being sensible to do it."
"Dan, that's one of the finest things you ever said to me." "I meant it to be. I'm hoping it'll stand to my credit one of these days."
It was a week later that Myra had reason to recall Ed's remark and realize it had not been idly made. He must have known in advance how put out she would be over the transaction with Pollock. It wasn't just the giving away of nearly three hundred dollars in groceries either. Nor was it even the fact that, by her standards, Dan got so little in return for it. What bothered Myra most was the very thing she could not bring herself to complain about. She had therefore refrained from mentioning amy details of the Pollock matter to her sister, but she had been loss successful in concealing the differences it had roused between herself and Dan. Helen couldn't help trying to ferret out the causes of the charged atmosphere that had suddenly clouded the Miller household.
"And now, why does Dan insist on sitting alone out on the porch in front of the store?" she demanded. "It's after closing. What's he sulking about?"
"It's not that bad," Myra explained. "He's expecting the salesman from Greene Brothers."
The two women were returning from a stroll to the inlet whose swampy fingers fringed the shore of oak and scrub pine at a point only a quarter mile back of the Miller place. They had set out immediately after dinner, following the narrow, sandy footpath that led from the macadam road that passed in front of the store. The footpath then continued in a wide circle to the water. The stroll had followed a hurried meal shared only by the two women in an atmosphere of troubled silence occasioned by Dan's unaccustomed absence from the table.
The reasons for that absence were not discussed during the meal since Dan, who remained in the store, might have overheard them through the open connecting door from the kitchen. The women simply listened to him puttering about among the shelves as they ate. But even on their walk, there was no mention of Ed's behavior until the sisters were already on the return circuit. It was then, where the arc formed by the sandy footpath fanned out far enough from the house to provide a tangential view of the front porch and of Dan, seated in a rocker before the store entrance, that Helen opened up with the questions she had been holding in reserve from the moment Myra suggested that they take a quick walk to the shore before starting on the dinner dishes.
"Well, what if the salesman from Greene Brothers is coming?" Helen pursued. "That doesn't explain Dan's not coming in for dinner." She looked toward the porch which seemed to nestle, along with the bay and the land and the white frame house, beneath the swollen grey breast of the sky from which a flight of rooks were suddenly descending like beads slipping down an invisible string. Then from the lead bird came a single cry whose echo seemed to Helen to rise up from that precise point on the gravel parking lot before the store where Ed's big retriever lay with muzzle stretched between its paws as though dreamily watching the encroaching twilight.
On the porch, just a few yards back, Dan sat with his hands clinging to the wicker arms of his chair as he swayed through the recurrent arc of the rockers with a sustained rhythmic violence, his serene detached face seeming less to participate in the motion than to lurk reflectively in its still center.
Helen renewed her questioning as they drew nearer the house. "Why can't you come out with it, Myra? What's going on between you and Ed?"
"There's nothing to come out with," Myra said emphatically. "Nothing?"
"Nothing that can be changed. Why don't you stop worrying about it? It'll pass."
The path had curved in closer to the side of the house whose corner now cut off their view of the porch and of Dan along with it. Helen seemed lost in thought for a moment. Suddenly she said: "I may be jumping to conclusions but, is there someone else involved in this besides you and Ed?"
Myra stopped, her face reddening as she confronted her sister. She seemed to struggle for the right words. "What makes you ask a thing like that?"
"So I was right," Helen said triumphantly. She lingered in the path, waiting for her sister to reply. But as Myra remained silent, she added: "After all, I've had some experience of my own. I can recognize the symptoms. Not from what you've said so much as from what you didn't say."
Myra lifted her hands in a sudden deprecatory gesture. "You can't use your experience to measure everything else," she retorted. "Certainly not Dan, or myself."
"Just exactly what is that supposed to mean?" Helen demanded. "That it's different when it happens to you?"
Myra was dourly thoughtful as she pulled open the side door and led the way into the kitchen. "It's very different," she said, as if to herself. "I really don't know how to tell you," she added, lifting her voice.
She bent over the sink where they had stacked the dinner dishes in rinse water before going on their stroll. "It's just that Ed," she began and then checked herself as she glanced toward the open connecting door to the shop. She listened intently for a moment until, satisfied that no one was inside the store to overhear her, she resumed: "I was starting to say, Ed's not an easy man to understand."
"Really?" Helen interrupted, unable to restrain her vexation. "I must say that you seem to be very understanding. How do you do it? I suppose I should envy you, but I don't."
"Maybe you should," Myra said unexpectedly. A faint note of risibility seemed to belie her literal meaning.
"Oh," said Helen coldly. "Apparently you don't find it a problem, anyway."
"It's not exactly your kind of problem," Myra explained acerbically. She shook the drops of rinse water from a plate and deposited it mechanically in the dry-rack.
Helen was about to reply when the nearby sound of an approaching car drew her attention to the kitchen window. She peered out and saw Ed's retriever lift its head to utter a single warning bark. But since the kitchen window was on a line with the porch where Dan sat, Helen was unable to see him. She drew back from the window, announcing to Myra: "I think it's the salesman Ed's expecting."
Out on the gravel plot, the retriever let his muzzle sag to rest on his forepaws again. As the oncoming car turned off the macadam to roll across the parking space, Dan ceased rocking. He watched the car come to a stop just before the porch.
"How've you been, Dan?" A man emerged from the car and reached his hand back toward the rear deck from which he lifted a small black book. His muffled voice contained vestiges of the local drawl.
The dog's tail wagged briefly, then subsided. Dan rose from the chair. "Can't complain," he said. He preceded the visitor to the screen door, holding it open for him. "Did you get those private label juices in yet?"
"That's just one more thing they're tightening up on. We can't do it anymore for less than sixteen cases."
Dan followed the salesman into the store. "Muller over in Amagansett got his on only six cases. What's coming off here, John?"
The salesman leaned against the counter and opened the little black book. "You go get yourself a chain store, or join the association, like Muller. You're a strange one, Dan. You know the advantages of a mutual buying set up. Yet you won't go near it. Why?"
"We've been through all that before, John. That's the way I am. Don't like things getting too far out of my hands."
"Yeah, don't I know." But the salesman was no longer looking at Dan. His attention had been drawn toward the chimney corner at the end of the plate-glass window where he had caught sight of something that was new and puzzling in this environment that was almost as well known to him as to its proprietor. At the same time, he became aware of the rapid waning of daylight that threw long obscuring shadows into the corner where he fixed his gaze.
He reached out and flicked the wall switch alongside the front door. The fluorescents blinked and the stacked aisles of packaged and canned and bottled goods bloomed bright and phosphorescently clean from the dimness. Even now he had to pause briefly to admire the slick refurbishing job that had been done some months ago on the once fly-blown shop, a job that he himself had played some part in persuading Miller to undertake. But then his attention darted back again to that chimney corner where he fixed a quizzical eye on the small painting that had been hung there since his last visit to the store. The interlacing of fine lines that wove their glittering colors through the picture surface brashly mocked his effort to elicit its cryptic meaning.
"Where'd you get that, that modern art?" he said. "Fellow that bought the Osborne place painted it," Dan replied. "What for?" The salesman was not expecting a reply. The comment was purely rhetorical.
"Same reason you sell groceries, I reckon. Painting's his business." The other drew his lips tightly together and then opened them to make a light popping sound. "You mean, doing stuff like that, it's a business?"
"What's wrong with 'Aostuff like that'?" "Well, look, Dan, you wouldn't want to call something like that art, would you?"
"Why wouldn't I? I hung it up there." "Sure, sure, if someone gave it to me, I might want to hang it up too, for the heck of it. But..."
"Gave it to me?" Dan snorted. "John, I bought that painting. Paid good money for it."
"You paid for it? How much?"
"Three hundred dollars in groceries." "How much?"
"Just what I told you, three hundred. Now that you know, you can go have a good look at it."
The salesman dropped the little black book noisily on the counter. "I sure will." He proceeded to within two feet of the painting, confronted it at eye level and squinted at it. "Three hundred," he murmured under his breath. He turned to the grocer. "You wouldn't fool me, would you, Dan?"
"Now why would I do that?"
The salesman shrugged and turned to examine the painting again. "What's it supposed to be?" he asked finally.
"Now don't ask me to explain it standing on one foot." "Come on. I got time. For all that money, it's got to be something. I never knew you to throw away money. And I've just got to know."
"It's a lot more than just something, John. I'd say it was a whole lot of things."
"Such as what?"
"Well," said the grocer with some embarrassment. "They're not exactly things you can itemize, like a grocery list."
"All right," the salesman agreed. "I can see that much for myself. It's not a ship or a scene or a portrait, or anything that I'd recognize right off. And I wouldn't say it's something my kid could do by playing with bunch of paints. I can see it's too smooth for that. But, it's got to be something."
"Well, if you must know, it's kind of a portrait," Dan confessed. "It is?" The salesman's eyes sought the painting once more. "I don't mean you're going to see a face there either," Dan went on. "I honestly don't see anything there that would resemble a portrait." "It's more a portrait of things a man feels." "Yeah, about feelings. I see. Go on." "Like sadness, like beauty," Dan hesitated, studying the salesman dubiously. Then he seemed to draw his shoulders together as though he needed to reorganize himself. ", and a certain way of remembering yourself," he finished softly.
The salesman sensed that he'd come up against something unfamiliar in Dan. He shook his head. "Fact is, I'm pretty dumb about art," he admitted.
"It's like this, John," Dan pursued with sudden determination. "Like when you catch a glimpse of a woman's face, maybe out of a crowd somewhere. Just for a moment. And the next moment you can't say exactly what she really looked like. But you feel a lot of different things. Hasn't that ever happened to you?"
The salesman's clouded features slowly reformed into a gentle smile. "The unknown woman," he asserted with an air of nostalgic comprehension. "Well, sure." But the smile faded as he turned again to the painting. "Only, it's a long way from this, isn't it?"
"That all depends," Dan replied.
"Not when it gets to three hundred dollars," John muttered. He looked at the grocer. "You know what the trouble with you is, Dan? You're too refined."
"I don't know. Is that supposed to be bad?" "Let's just say that most folks, if they want to warm themselves, they sit closer to the fire. But you, you'll settle for just watching the smoke. And think it was a privilege worth paying for, all of three hundred dollars."
"You and your unknown woman," Dan burst out scornfully. "Do I strike you as a man who's fretting over lost opportunities? Is that what you thought I meant?"
"I didn't say that. A man can fret over chances he never even had too. And don't tell me I don't read you right because that's the way every man feels."
"What's that to do with anything?" "Well, what were you trying to tell me?" "I don't know why I even tried. What do you know or care about beauty? How would you know the sadness of it, let alone the look of it. That's no unknown woman in that painting. That's a very definite and special woman."
"What? Now wait a minute. Let's assume, I mean, she's got to look like something, doesn't she?"
"She's got a thousand looks and a thousand faces. So how can you expect a portrait to show just one of them and still be true to the other nine hundred and ninety-nine? Tell me that."
"Hold it, Dan. Just you hold it. I only asked you about that painting. I didn't ask you about your private feelings about some woman, whoever she may be. I'm not butting into your private affairs."
"We were talking about what the painting was about," Dan said heatedly. "Then maybe I shouldn't have asked that either," the salesman said. "It seems that's a personal matter too. On the other hand, you can't blame someone for asking, since you've got it hung in a public place."
"It wasn't your asking, it was the way you seemed to have your mind made up in advance, about a whole lot of things."
"Like that woman, for instance? The one that isn't there? Well, I didn't bring that up at all. At least, not any definite woman. That was your doing, I'd like to remind you."
With an angry gesture, Dan abruptly turned his back on the salesman and flung open the screen door. "I'm going out for some air," he proclaimed. He stepped onto the porch and let the screen door slam behind him.
"Hey, wait a minute," the startled salesman called. "What did I say wrong this time?" He hurried onto the porch after Ed, letting the door slam a second time.
In the kitchen, near the connecting door, the two women eyed each other. "Well," exclaimed Helen, "that was the strangest thing I ever heard. So that's what's going on between you and Ed, that painting. You could have told me about it."
"I doubt that," said Myra. "What could I have said?" "You can tell me now, can't you? I'm a little confused. That woman, is she a real woman or not?"
"That's just the kind of question I can't answer. Because I've no way of knowing whether it makes any difference."
"Myra, you're positively exasperating." "Well, if it'll make you feel any better, she's not real in the way I am. That's why I can't feel about it the way you think I should."
"I'm not sure I follow you at all." "Don't you see, she means something to Dan. Something I don't understand at all. What's more, I don't see why I should have to understand it. Why must I?"
"You astonish me," Helen said, speaking thickly through compressed lips. Her voice rose. "How can you even begin to feel comfortable with a man you don't understand?"
Myra, her forehead creased in a frown, settled herself slowly into a chair alongside the kitchen table. Presently, the frown faded. She gazed up at her sister with an excited glow in her eyes. "Yes, of course it would bother you. I'm sure it would. Maybe that's the best explanation I can give you."
"What, ?" said Helen, looming over the other. "That I'd insist on understanding my own husband? You call that an explanation?"
Myra nodded her head in eager affirmation. "Of course. Don't you see? Just that difference between us, that you'd insist, and I wouldn't."
Helen continued to stand there, watching her sister. A variety of expressions seemed to work their way across her taut features. She appeared on the verge of saying something, then apparently changed her mind. Seizing the back of a chair, she too seated herself at the table. She suddenly looked tired.
"Really, Helen," Myra insisted with a faint secret smile of relief. "Wouldn't you say so?"
<< 09/17/2001 | 09/24/2001 | 10/01/2001 >>
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