James Ross Kelly
I was there and your portrait hung in front of me, the 1886 one I’m sure it was, an exhibition at the Fogg Museum in Cambridge, Mass., late June early July 1973. I came once a day and sat there and looked at your art and I would generally smoke some pot before I did. There were many other paintings of yours—“Irises,” perhaps; I don’t remember the others. Your paintings now are as familiar as my heart.
I was apartment-sitting for my English professor and contemplating a move back to Oregon, where I thought I could work for a year and then return to school. I remember all of it too clearly, the Fogg and my own fog of swimming in the exciting oatmeal of the 1970s. You, however, are there. They say it is your last self-portrait. Auctioned in 1939 at Gallerie Fisher in Lucerne, Switzerland. It was one of the works branded as degenerate by the Nazis, confiscated and sold. The winning bid was $40,000 by a Dr. Frankfurter. You had given this painting to your brother as a birthday gift. I must tell you, if it is any consolation, my father killed Nazis for one year all through the landscape that you loved. There is a picture of your painting at the auction. Some asshole in a white coat is holding it up. It is better that it went to Switzerland I suppose, but it was bad that the Nazis profited.
So, Vincent, this is of course not about you but about me, perhaps a little bit about 1973, and me telling, among the things I tell, this horrible thing I did. Unlike you and the unfortunate incident with your ear, you could recollect none of it. I remember this all too well. At the same time, your painting of yourself seared me somehow. You clearly painted your aura. Blue shimmering pale blue through your coat and your red, red hair and beard, the air was on blue fire very clearly.
I broke up with Jane there in Cambridge, my lover my good coed girlfriend, my lovely woman companion paramour committing adultery we were, in my car, in motels, and eventually living together after I left my wife. And my wife divorced me a matter of weeks later. I walked around Cambridge, mildly hipped out, two years of college and the Army behind me. Literature, art, film slipped through me—I saw The King of Hearts a dozen times at the Central Square Cinemas with its then-novel two screens. Most every day while your exhibition was at the Fogg, I stopped by and sat on what I remember as a marble bench and looked at you. I knew the thin blue air was on fire all around me. I did not know if I was partially responsible, but there was an inkling inside me that I was.
I paid for Jane’s abortion in late March. She came to me, told me she was pregnant, said she wanted to have the child to carry on a part of me she thought she could not be a part of. Mildly, gently and in a seemingly caring manner I explained I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t ready. Then I did a despicable thing. In my college-boy English-literature assumption I closed the deal by reading her James Joyce’s “A Little Cloud” from his book of short stories, The Dubliners. The protagonist, a news writer in Dublin, meets in a bar with a friend back from his journalist job in England. The story ends with the protagonist coming home to his small child wailing an infant wail signifying the end of his opportunity as his friend was capitalizing upon his own. Domesticity stopping the pursuit of his art. This closed the deal for poor Jane. Scarcely sixty days after Roe v. Wade, an English professor’s husband who was a gynecologist set up an appointment in New York City, as abortion was still verboten in Massachusetts. This is how I, an agnostic college boy-man, sacrificed my first-born child on an altar of convenience and self-absorbed selfishness. My Celtic ancestors were required to crush the skull of their firstborn and bury the infant under a cornerstone of their first home, to achieve prosperity. I believe now, Vincent, that what I did was virtually the same thing, though I knew then of no practice and no such intent, thinking the child just optional protoplasm.
We, the hip, we the revolution against our material culture, all of us disgusted by modernism gone wrong in the 20th century, we thought the burning blue open sky around us then, a static insouciant deterministic notion driving all—what we were, was all we were. There seemed no possibilities of an inherent intellectual mistake about who we really were.
There was, of course, much more to it. I sat there daily in front of you, I suppose, knowing that was the closest thing I could get to greatness right then, and that it was tangible, and that, of course, did not work out so well for the either of us. I saw what you got in the end was a continuum, a colossal imprint.
Much later I knew it would have been more honest if I had cut off my own ear and wrapped it in sterile gauze and taken it to my first wife and apologized, and told her the truth of her IUD and the countless abortions we had together contrary to her own Catholic, go-to-Mass-every-week Catholicism, and I should have been regretful of that even if the IUD was her idea. She, a nurse looking a little like Jackie Kennedy, would never have divorced me had I not strayed. She met me by the Charles River to serve divorce papers because she now was in a love affair with a man who four months later would leave because he had impregnated another woman. Oh, we played loose and fast and listened to wild rock and roll, Vincent, and slept around and tried to out-bohemian any of your colleagues, but this is how we failed.
Ah, Jesus, Vincent, I’ve come to see this as my socially venial act of murder, unconscious of the reality and void of moral consequence. I premeditatedly pulled the switch as an out-of-touch warden in this prison we have outside of jail; pulled the switch without a sentence, without due process, pulled the switch by paying with my GI Bill check. As I watched some asshole in a white coat take lovely Jane away into a white sterile room in New York City, I and others began the phalanx that now totals sixty million for our nation. The necessary modern notion of family planning, unhinged from premodernity and the time of ancestral contiguity—a thinly veiled eugenic notion of choice preempting responsibility.
I stopped something that had a purpose that I was not actually unaware of. Yes, it took Jesus to forgive this in the near-death ether of spiritual expanse—it took thirty-three years for this to happen. It took me raising two sons and loving them above all else and reflecting on how could I have not loved this one as well. I wonder: Would I have thought differently had I read Ken Kesey’s take on this in 1971?
You are you from conception, and that never changes no matter what physical changes your body takes. And the virile sport in the Mustang driving to work with his muscular forearm tanned and ready for a day’s labor has not one microgram more right to his inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness than has the three months foetus riding in a sack of water…How can abortion be anything but fascism again, back as a fad in a new intellectual garb with a new, and more helpless, victim?*
This comes finger-pointing out of the past. Abortion had been challenged by Christendom since the Didache of the first century. Abortion was anathema to life. But we had captains in our revolution to give us a hand with abject morality. World War II made life and death arbitrary and relative; Vietnam continued this nightly in our living rooms. Life has become in America similar to what the Nazis thought, in the sense of an orderly deterministic march to and over the edge of humanity. A clean park was more important than a babe in the arms of its mother. The Liberal Fascism that has held sway was nailed by the father of hipsters. Sadly, then I was lock-step with this march the other way.
published in Rock & Sling Winter 2018
*Excerpt from an interview with Ken Kesey by Paul Krasner. The REALIST Issue Number 90 – May-June, 1971 pages 46-47
Memoir by James Ross Kelly
The old man’s house was falling down ten years after his death; twenty-years after, the whole south face of Lyman Mountain and Ernie’s place by the Rogue River, was divided up and there were expensive homes built at various river viewpoints and no notion of Ernest Lyman, who had lived there for almost a century—was in anyone’s mind. However, one year after he’d passed, on a hot August, dusk evening that was beginning to cool, I waited for the red glow down river and Vaux’s swifts darted through warm air and willows along the river. Swifts in the red day glow off in the west and evening light.
Go to Fiction Attic for the entire story:
by James Ross Kelly
At seventeen I was driving my
Newly restored & shiny red 1951 Henry J
I’d worked on for 3 years,
With its rebuilt, “Kaiser Supersonic 6”
Down Highway 62, it is 1967 &…
Go to Silver Birch Press:
From a little further up Pepper Creek Road the scenario would not have seemed much. Looking down at the road from the big rock above the road four turns up from Highway 140 you would have seen a beat up blue pickup stopping on a dirt road; the somewhat odd sight of a cowboy jumping up and down and waving his arms beside the pick-up for less than two minutes. Then, the truck slowly leaving the cowboy and driving up the road with more dust trailing behind as it picked up speed.
But what happened, was that Richard Long had been driving up Pepper Creek Road ten minutes after Andy Pearce had found one of his father’s registered Hereford cows, belly-up dead and heart shot in the middle of their lower pasture. Andy Pearce had seen Long’s truck coming and stepped over the leaning barbed wire fence, then leapt out into the road in front of Long’s pickup. Over time Richard Long had several confrontations with Andy’s family through the years they’d all lived along Pepper Creek, which was virtually all of everyone’s lives, their fathers and grandfathers lives–and each of these fully armed stressful encounters were regarding hunting rights.
Richard Long felt he had the right to hunt any where the deer and elk were, where his father and his father’s father had shown him where to hunt, and those places he’d found on his own. The game and nature did not acknowledge straight lines of fences, nor the common law definition of property lines, nor the legal penalty for trespass. This was how man had hunted this area for all but the most very recent, and thinly sliced segment of the great pie of time.
Andy’s family felt their property rights were sacred even though they’d over logged and overgrazed the 5000 acre ranch for fifty years. Andy’s grandfather had bought six different family farms, razed the homes and consolidated his holdings during the depression. The steelhead and Coho salmon no longer ran up Pepper Creek that Andy’s grandfather had dammed to irrigate their hay fields almost fifty years ago. It was also a fact that their family took a little more than their share of venison every year from the herds that migrated through their ranch in the late autumn.
They had tried to throw Richard off the steep and remote corners of their land which bordered federal land a half dozen times. Each time Richard would say something rotten about large parcels of land being locked up by private ownership and Richard would often as not call Andy’s father a son-of-a-bitch or something worse, and then he’d keep walking through their land. The younger Pearce a few years back, when he was in his early adolescence, had witnessed one of these incidents and secretly was ashamed at his father’s wise decision just to, just let it go with words. When Andy’s mother tried to throw Richard off their land Long had just kept walking.
There were five other large corporate ranches in the area; the Pearce’s Rocking C was the only family run operation left. All of the corporate ranches had the same problem with Long and had their company cowboys out looking for Richard every hunting season. Despite this, no one had ever successfully thrown Richard Long off of anywhere.
Richard Long, no one ever called him Dick, was six-foot eight and weighed 240 pounds and cut timber for a living. In 1974, Richard had written Mohammed Ali a letter, shortly after the heavy weight champion had beaten George Foreman to regain his title in Zaire. The letter allowed as to how Richard knew he would never get the chance, but none the less, Long wrote the boxer, how he was positive he could kick his ass.
“Respectfully Yours, Richard Long,” the letter had ended.
Richard did not kill the Pearce’s prize Hereford cow that was in the middle of the pasture with its feet sticking up in the air. The heinous deed had been done by the resident of a trailer park from twenty miles away, who had murdered the animal the night before, during a beer-drinking-spotlighting-Friday-night-killing spree the second week of deer season.
The initial dialog with Long, where the younger Pearce had alleged, to his face, that it was Richard Long who shot the beast, had been almost unintelligible. The words somewhat slurred, came from underneath Pearce’s $200 cowboy hat that sat atop his beet red face with the Copenhagen chewing tobacco uncontrollably flying out of the young man’s mouth between the syllables of the words from which he was trying to assert his family’s property rights and his genuine grief for the cow.
Richard had initially started to feel sorry for the young man who had just lost his cow. Perhaps he somehow sensed underneath the bravado, he had in reality been attached to the large animal as if it were a monstrous pet and its dead hulk was quite visible just off to their right. When the accusation had finally gotten around to sinking in, around the yelling and jumping, Richard Long hadn’t even gotten mad.
But when Pearce had turned around and ran to his pick up, fished around behind the seat and then ran back toward Long with a pistol in his hand–Richard’s stare became wrought iron and expressionless. Andy was out of breath by the time he’d stood again in front of the drivers’ door and held the .357 magnum out at arms length and pointed at Richard’s face.
“Long damn you!” Pearce shouted. “you son-of-a-bitch, you think you can get away with anything you want to because you’re such a big son-of-a-bitch! Now YOU ain’t going to anymore!”
Long continued his stare into the young man’s bulging eyes–then pulled the loaded, bolt action .300 Winchester Magnum rifle, sitting beside him on the pick-up seat, by the barrel and made it appear out the window–almost instantaneously, pointed at Andy’s chest.
“If that’s the way you want ‘er,” Richard said, having already calmly clicked the safety off with his right thumb, as the young man continued to tremble.
Andy’s shaking was initially not from fear, but from his own rage. Now they had become the same thing. Pearce made a series of whistling noises through his clenched teeth with saliva coming out with little specks of black with the tobacco chew, and he then let the hand gun down to his side. Immediately, as he did so Long clicked the rifle back on safe and pulled the weapon back through the window. The boy would not look at Long, but stared at the ground to the left of his own feet.
“Sorry ’bout your cow,” Richard Long said.
He looked at the young man for the last time, then made the blue pick-up clunk into second gear. The pickup started it’s wheels rolling up the winding dirt road past Pearce’s ranch and on up Pepper Creek toward higher elevation. There the deer were beginning to move and there was the crisp smell of fall in the air—mingled with that morning’s essence of oak, sugar pine and Douglas fir wafting through the open windows of the pick-up with a rawness of road dust on the not yet good and wet gravel road.
The deer and elk were gaining the last layer of fat with the good browse of black oak acorns, Idaho fescue, cyanothus, elk sedge, manzanita and willow before the coming snow would cover everything in frozen whiteness three weeks from that moment. Mercy was riding somewhere over the shoulders of the driver and the man left standing back down the road. Goodness surrounded them both.