Excerpt from The Fishfly . . .
This was 1974, a year that was to become a record summer for fishflies, which are sometimes referred to as shadflies, Canadian soldiers, June bugs or mayflies. The fishflies were just beginning to make their annual appearance, loitering on window screens and dancing around the streetlights. In later years they had nearly become an endangered species, with all the pollution in the lakes. Fortunately, fishflies have more recently made a dramatic comeback, a sign of improving environmental conditions. I’m glad, as I’ve always felt an unusual affinity with the little creatures. Loathed by most for their smell and overwhelming numbers, they were like little
shimmering beings to me. They seemed so patient and kind, not skittish and excitable like other bugs. I had a strange communion with them; they seemed so content on my finger.
On hot summer days like these most neighborhood boys my age were out hunting for pollywogs or playing kickball in the streets until the streetlights came on. I remember one typically hot, humid day in June when I got inspired to paint a knock-off of David’s, “Napoleon on Horseback.” I was working in acrylics, on canvas, down in the cool clamminess of my basement where the humidity slowed the drying of the paint long enough for me to work with it a little.
Even so, I found myself struggling. I couldn’t get the new paint I was applying to blend with the earlier layers. In mounting desperation, I began adding more and more water, hoping its cleansing properties might somehow make everything okay. But the water only made it worse. Napoleon was dripping off his horse, off my canvas, right onto the tray of my easel and there was nothing I could do to stop him. I began to panic.
Then, at the last possible moment, when I was about to lose forever what was to have been my all-time masterpiece, I caved in. With rueful reluctance, I called upstairs to my father, “Pa, would you help me, please. I’m having trouble with my
painting.” Down the stairs from his studio he rushed to my easel. It had been over a year since I’d last asked for his advice. He was very “old school” in his approach to teaching. But this time he seemed unusually happy, even eager to interrupt his
own work for me. Maybe he was hoping for another chance to bond creatively with his son.
He glanced at the dripping mess and without hesitation, hocked up an enormous loogie and gobbed it onto my masterpiece. Inside, I repressed a sustained, high-pitched scream, which shot directly up my spine and lodged into my brain stem. Outwardly, however, I fell into the same, automatic, semi-mongoloid posture.
I couldn’t believe it—not even he was capable of such an abominable crime against his own child. Oblivious to my agony, he grabbed the dripping brush from my hand. “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a hundred times,” he lectured,
“there’s the right way to do something and there’s the easy way.” I watched in horror and awe as he rubbed the gooey mucus into the paint, working it in. “There it is…that’s got it.”
The extra viscosity of his spit rescued my Napoleon from oblivion. “Now that’s the right way,” he declared as he flicked my brush masterfully on the canvas, easing my painting back into submission like a horse whisperer. He handed the brush
back to me and darted away. He hopped gleefully up the stairs to the kitchen where he turned his attention to preparing a delicious lentil soup, which was his specialty.
Faintly I could hear him singing “Invictus,” which I believe is the Latin root for the word, vindictive. I’m not sure. He sang it often, though. He had a way of turning his head to the right and tightening his throat to make his voice sound more “operatic,” at least to his ear. He sang, “I am the master of my ship. You have to stand up and fight for what is right,” something like that. He often boasted they were the only lyrics he never forgot. Him and Timothy McVeigh.
All other songs he sang in gibberish Italian. It didn’t matter what song it was. He always made up just the right Italian sounding lyric to sell it. He would close his eyes and grab his heart, bellowing quasi recitatives that went something like, “Noche, pia noche, pistaccio.” He was a ham all right. Actually, he was well known for his Italian gibberish AND his bad memory, just two more of the charming eccentricities for which he was so well liked.
Oh yes, the painting. I finished it. It came out pretty well. In fact, I sold it to Dr. Amberg down the street for five dollars. I’d asked for eight. I gave my father a dollar as a consulting fee. By fourteen, I was well on the way to acquiring my father’s gift
for commerce as well as his artistic methods and proclivities.