The house was an old Victorian, well past its prime. Once the home of some turn-of-the-century aristocrat, or maybe an industrialist tycoon, it was now just a beat, weathered old palace with dozens and dozens of antiquated rooms, sitting tucked away, rotting amongst the crumbling hills of Berkeley.
It fronted a tight street with many trees and overgrown bushes and shrubs. I walked up a path of broken stones, ducking branches and spider webs. The muffled sound of music from inside the house filtered through the bushes. After a short walk I came to a pair of huge front doors with ancient paint peeling from the weathered years, and on one of the doors was a huge brass knocker, like something you’d see in an old haunted house movie. The other door once had a knocker too, I could see evidence of such, but it was gone now, looted long ago. “Come In” was scratched into the wood on the door at about eye level.
I opened the door in time to hear the drum and piano intro at the very beginning of Joe Cocker’s “Feelin Alright”. The room opened to an immense foyer with steps leading down to a sunken living room, framed by huge windows with stained glass inserts and large potted plants. There were people all over, milling around in small intent groups, standing in pairs, leaning against walls, deep into conversation, and others sitting by themselves with content smiles moving to the music. Nobody noticed my entrance, if they did, they didn’t care.
The music sounded incredibly clear, ultra high-fidelity for sure, filling the room, and in such a way that I felt like everything was tied to the beat. In fact the whole room and everything in it was on time with the song. It fit perfectly. There may be starving artists living here, but somebody spent some serious money on a kick ass sound system.
The unmistakable odor of skunky pot sat like LA smog over everything as I found my way to the bottom of a huge spiral staircase. A pair of cute, young hippie girls came walking down past me with dopey grins cut beneath painted sunflowers on their cheeks. They looked at me and I looked at them and at that moment I loved the world again.
I walked up this great ancient stairway with a beautiful hand-carved dark wood banister lined with griffins and gargoyles peering out from the intricate grain. Oh the stories they could tell. If they could speak they’d probably tell of great rumbling earthquakes that creaked and cracked the very foundation of the old home. Maybe they'd tell of the opulence of the golden twenties, of huge prohibition gangster parties, or maybe of the silent suffering in a depression-era rooming house; and possibly I thought, of the time the house was home to an asylum full of broken minds that screamed private agony through the night.
OK, so I was all over the place, but I was in the moment and that’s what went through my head. I’m sure I wasn’t too far from the truth.
The top of the stairs spilled into a long hallway with doors lining both sides. There were paintings covering almost every inch of wall space all the way down the hall. I stared at them at them as I slowly wondered. People bumped into me as they laughed and partied on their merry way through their merry lives. I was looking at everything from beautifully rich and detailed portraits, to nondescript splashes of color, messes that could have been done by a chimpanzee. Art is art, I thought, who am I to say what’s what?
Suddenly I saw the portrait of the sad woman from the sidewalk sale. I stopped dead in my tracks. Maybe it was the light, maybe it was the wall, whatever it was, the painting was different than earlier in the day. The woman’s eyes were alive. They were so real, so full of grief, of trial, of pain, that I felt I knew everything she ever went through. I stood and stared for I don’t know how long before a voice interrupted my trance.
“What do you see now?” It was Leanne, the artist.
“Oh, hey…um, I see everything!” I shook my head.
“Yes, I mean, she's sad. She is hurt. I feel her pain.”
“How do you know?”
“Her eyes, they tell so much, I can see right into her.”
“You didn’t see that earlier today?”
“Well, I could tell she was miserable, and I saw it in her eyes. But now I feel it. Now I know. God, who is she?”
“Just a girl,” she said, “come, let’s go sit down somewhere. You want a drink or something?”
We walked downstairs and through the living room which was now jammed with people. Leanne grabbed a couple of beers from the kitchen and we made our way to the backyard through huge open French doors. The yard was vast, with patios and detailed stonework, tiered gardens and trellises with vines climbing every which way. Impressive as it was, it also appeared to be largely ignored, with uncut grass and overgrown foliage. The people who lived here had other priorities and keeping up appearances looked to be down on the list.
The backyard grounds were scattered with people, music escaped nicely from inside, while a couple of dogs romped around chasing one another in a frenzy, one a big happy black lab with a red bandanna tied around it’s neck, the other some sort of menacing pit bull. The dogs whipped by our feet and I reeled back when the pit bull came close.
“Oh don’t mind him, he’s harmless” said a smiling Leanne.
“Is that so? OK then.” The bastard still made me nervous. We sat down on a couple of Chaise Lounges that faced out to the yard and a setting sun. I sipped my beer.
“So who is that woman, that girl, in the painting?” I asked.
Leanne looked off into the distance, paused, and then took a hit off her beer.
“I knew her a long time ago,” she said, “she was once a nice little girl, then she grew up too fast. She took some shots. Sometimes the road is a long road, with all sorts of shitty stops along the way. She was robbed.”
“That happens to a lot of people.”
What Leanne was saying I understood. It made me remember how I hate people. She was speaking of evil, the evil of men, the failures of man. I knew it.
“Do you still know her?”
“I don't know where she is. I don’t remember much about her, just little snippets. If it wasn’t for that painting, I’d have probably forgotten all about her.”
There was a lull in the conversation. Leanne was thinking. There was pain in her face as she looked away. There was stoicism in her eyes that belied the furrowing on her forehead. She had strength in her I could tell, but also a vulnerability that she did her best to hide. We both took sips from our bottles and looked out at the sunset, which was settling through a maze of violet streaks that splashed across the treetops.
“When did you paint it?” I asked.
“About ten years ago. I tried to paint it to show her she was beautiful. But that’s how it came out in the end.”
“Her eyes are so telling. Did you mean for that to happen? I mean did you paint it knowing the eyes would tell a story?”
“No, not at all. I was going to make her smile, that’s all I remember actually planning. I wanted to make her happy. I thought by painting her I would be able to do that. But it didn’t work.”
“She didn’t like it when she saw it?”
“No, she didn’t.”
Once again we looked silently off into the distance. The sunset was now a massive web of pink and purple and orange all gleaming across the darkening sky. It was a beautiful and impressive display.
(c) AC James