The Lesser Half’s parents have come for a short visit. Today in the late afternoon, as I chopped vegetables, they sat in our kitchen area, sipping tea. Tired from the long flight, Ramona had sunk into the small sofa there, stocking feet folded under her. Lawrence was perched a few inches away on a wire chair. Paying no attention to us, he slowly turned the pages of Clive Cussler’s new Dirk Pitt thriller — The Odessa something. (It’s always The Odessa something.) Odessa Sea?
I wanted to snap their photo, since most shots we have of them — from recent years — show them playing blackjack or roulette in fantastically over-lit casinos. (I have nothing against gambling. Nor against casinos. It’s just that people in their nineties don’t really look that great under such garish illumination. Who does?) They seemed compliant. I set down my knife and wiped my hands.“Don’t worry, Ramona,” I said — I never call her mom; even my own mom I had trouble calling mom — “the painting hanging on the wall behind you, I can crop that out, or most of it. I know how you detest that thing.” Without quite forming a couplet, my words sounded like an inversion of — and at the same time complicity with — the nasty Duke of Browning’s great poem: “… for never read/ Strangers like you that pictured countenance,/ The depth and passion of its earnest glance …”
The work in question, untitled as far as I know, is one of two we own by Jesse Michaels. Michaels may be better known as the frontman of a great Berkeley-based 80s punk band called Operation Ivy. And looking at the painting without knowing this factoid, you’d still probably guess that its creator’s background had been similarly radical, noisy, self-destructive. The central figure in the painting, vaguely reminiscent of the Ska Man logo Michaels had designed decades earlier for his band’s LP covers and swag, is, I believe, an American infantryman — World War II era, possibly, to judge from the helmet shape. With one hand the soldier shields his eyes, as if from the bright flash of an exploding mortar, that side of the image incandescent with pale yellows, harsh whites. His other hand extends outward, a gesture of — apparently — futile self-protection. It might be a little weird to have the painting displayed near where we prepare food.
Ramona, whom normally I would expect to prefer pictures of flowers in vases or sailboats tilting across blustery horizons, said, “What are you talking about, I love that painting! I absolutely love that painting!”
“Really?” In my surprise my head jolted backwards. “The last time you guys were here, walking past it, you flicked your arm at it dismissively, with real revulsion. You made a shuddery face. You told me you didn’t even want to look at it.”
She thought for a moment. One penciled-on eyebrow toggled up, then down. “Well, I don’t remember saying that. Anyway, now I have looked at it.”