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Chapter One

     Before our group formed, before we fell in love with the wrong people, and before success ruined everything, it was just me admiring this painting of a sand castle slowly being consumed by the tide. I didn’t have to check the signature to know it was by Daryl Peters. In 1976 hardly anyone knew who he was, but I’d been following his career since his first exhibition three years ago at the Sleeping Gypsy Café in Cambridge. Resisting an impulse to touch the canvas, I marveled at the bold, playful strokes, and then noticed a tiny maiden waving frantically from one of the turrets.
     All around me people spoke in subdued, appreciative tones, or called out greetings. Waiters circulated with glasses of wine and trays of hors d’oeuvres. Artists humbly accepted compliments, and hugged with exaggerated animation people they had probably never hugged before. I tried to figure out which one was Daryl Peters. Rumor had it he was shy, the epitome of the dirt-poor, struggling artist, despite excellent reviews in The Boston Globe calling his work “vivid, adventurous, and just plain fun.” I looked back at the painting and saw a crab scaling the castle wall, wielding a sword in one claw, hoping to rescue the maiden. Boisterous seagulls circled above, anticipating disaster. I could almost hear their calls.
     “I put sand in the paint,” said a voice behind me. “That’s what gives it the grainy texture.”
I turned and there he stood, regarding me with gentle brown eyes. Dark hair and beard streaked with gray belied a young face. I guessed him to be about thirty. His navy blue blazer was outdated with narrow lapels, and instead of the unbuttoned polyester shirt dictated by prevailing fashion, he wore a black turtleneck. “I think it’s great,” I said.
     “No one else does.” He indicated the other guests with a dismissive gesture, and it was true, they seemed more interested in other artists’ pictures of mystical unicorns and scenes of the galaxy.
     “What do they know? You’re the best one here. By far.”
     “That means a lot, coming from such a famous author.” He held out his hand and we shook. “All my friends’ kids love The Baboon Who Ate with a Spoon. And you did a terrific job with the illustrations—the muted colors worked really well with the story line.”
     “Thanks.” A local celebrity, I was used to being recognized, but I hadn’t expected him, a real artist, to know me. Given his circumstances, it didn’t seem polite to mention that plans were underway to turn The Baboon Who Ate with a Spoon into a movie. I bought the sand castle painting, told him it was great to meet him and that I hoped we’d see each other again—and assumed that was that.

     But I guess we were destined to be friends, because we kept running into each other. I’d be exiting some store after a shopping spree and see him waiting for the bus. Or as I headed into the bank he’d be coming out of an art supplies store. Once I walked out of a hair salon and heard him shout my name from the doorway of a convenience store. Joking that we had to “stop meeting like this,” I hailed a cab, and we rode together and talked about art.
     Of course there was no comparison between us. His work was extraordinary, while my drawings, like my life, were pleasant and uncomplicated.
     “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” he said.
     “I’m not being hard on myself. I love what I do. I won’t go down in history, but to me, that’s not as important as being happy now.”
     From the look on his face I knew it was the wrong thing to say. I had no idea why this enormous talent had to battle obscurity, while I, though considerably less gifted, was the recipient of several impressive awards. One of those things that made no sense; an administrative slip up in the Divine Head Office. I opened my mouth to say more, but he held up his hand.
     “Do me a favor and don’t remind me that Van Gogh never sold a painting in his life, and now even his sketches sell for thousands.”
     For the first time there was silence between us. I’d specifically instructed the driver to take the scenic route past the Public Gardens, where flowers bloomed with breathtaking brilliance. Tourists crowded the city, and I envied them seeing Boston for the first time; walking the Freedom Trail past historic landmarks like Paul Revere’s House, Old North Church, and the Granary Burying Ground, final resting place of Mother Goose. Or visiting Faneuil Hall, site of greasy pizza, lobster, and Italian pastries, and host to street jugglers, magicians, and musicians. And this year Boston was the focus of the most gala bicentennial festivities in the country.
     Daryl cleared his throat. “Were you going to say the thing about Van Gogh?”
     My apologetic smile made him shake his head. “Why do people always think that will make me feel better?”
     “Because Van Gogh was finally hailed as a great artist. It could happen to you, too.”
     “I’d rather be alive when it happens. I could really use the bread.”
     Our cab stopped at an intersection, granting the right of way to a horse-drawn carriage. As it crossed in front of us, I leaned against the window and anxiously tried to gauge the horse’s expression. Was he sad, was he overworked or hungry? Blinders prevented me from seeing much of his face, but there was something peppy about his trot, like maybe he didn’t mind. I imagined his eyes, soft and dark and wet, with long lashes. “You ever come to the city to sketch?” I asked Daryl.
     “I used to when I was a student. I’d sit in coffee shops and draw the customers. But not anymore. Too many people looking over my shoulder. I’m better off staying at home. My place is full of paintings.” He glanced at me. “Want to see them?”
     Go to Daryl Peters’ apartment? “Sure!”
     So the cab dropped us off at his dingy building in Brighton. Inside, the lobby’s carpet was worn right through to the floor, and the wallpaper was stained, frayed, and peeling.
     “Sorry it’s so gross here,” he said.
     “Don’t be silly.” I hated that he was embarrassed; that he had to live like this! Following him up the stairs, I tried not to inhale stale cooking odors. He opened the door and stepped aside so I could go in first.
     Paintings were everywhere–on walls, on the floor, leaning against a ratty-looking couch. The aggressive, confident colors hit me first, and as I looked more closely, I was amazed by the array of emotions he was able to capture. A yellow, black, and red abstract was threatening like a poisonous snake, but next to it an impressionistic pastoral scene conjured up tranquility. An old man dying in bed. A beautiful woman applying lipstick. Carefree ivy climbing a chimney. A skunk rotting by the side of the road. The trompe l’oeil of keys on a hook looked so true to life that I had to stand close and squint before I could detect brush strokes.
     “Wow!” I said. “These are unbelievable!”
     I couldn’t deny that I was jealous. A competent artist, I rarely ventured beyond baby animals with over-sized ears, bushy tails, and everything pleasingly chubby. Death and despair didn’t happen in my world.

Robin Stratton © 2016-2020