On the Way to WorkRichard Soberpaintings

Blue Heron

Jim ate like a bird. We’d meet at Harry’s once in a while. He liked his chicken sandwich and a salad. He painted abstract paintings. The ladies at the art coop didn’t like the work or didn’t like him, but they refused to vote him into the gallery. I was the only person who voted him in. I didn’t think of him as a curmudgeon, but I suppose he could have been called that if one was into calling one names. Once we walked along the river in the autumn. All the leaves were off the cottonwoods and the red bark of the ponderosas really stood out, especially that day of gray sky. The face of the bluff across the water looked like layers that could easily be peeled off, like filo dough. They looked soft, flaky. A blue heron flew a few feet above the water and followed it downstream. I tried to follow it, but it disappeared quickly around a bend. Jim said he had known Conrad Aiken. Spaulding Gray had come up to his apartment in Manhattan a few times. By the time I met Jim he complained about the two landlords he had. He finally bought his own place. But, he kept complaining about living here and wondered why he had never left. He didn’t own a computer and the greasy phone on his kitchen wall was the only communication device he had to his name. He took on a running feud with a neighbor whose dog never stopped barking. His father was a surgeon in Toronto. He’d be in the operating room with him, remembering everything he did. That’s why he almost became a surgeon after going to medical school. He maintained a lifelong fascination with surgery. However, he opted for psychiatry instead. He thought all the new age medicine and therapies were a lot of hokum, bunk, baloney, crap. He had what seemed a valid theory that an anesthesiologist had screwed up during a friend of mine’s surgery to remove a tumor she had. The last time I spoke with him I was walking along Walnut Creek in Austin adjacent to a business park. The heat was intense and even in the bright sun of midday the world felt heavy and gloomy, not unlike the banks on either side of the Boise River. The same feeling of desolation overcame me in both places. Anyway, Jim hung up on me. I felt like he could not forgive me for something I had said, something I was in the middle of saying when he cut me off. Not long after that I tried calling him, but the number was disconnected. Two years went by when I found out through a short obituary that he had died, not long after our abbreviated phone conversation. What I remember most about him beside the fact that he won some kind of individual senior basketball award five years running, over at the community center, were his hands. They were extraordinarily long and thin and the skin was translucent. They were uniquely delicate. The kind of hands that would take the same deal of care skimming the latest medical journals as they did using a knife and fork to cut into a lunch that seemed to feed a man who profoundly knew the inner workings of life and could not bring himself to open up to anyone long enough to let himself feel his own sadness.