The Saturday farmers market in Little Italy lines 6 or 7 blocks intersecting India Street with fruit and vegetable stalls, fresh fish and flowers, Burritos and tamales, flavoured salts, garlic presses and shimmering kitchen knife displays. It is a trajectory from the old world crossing into the new. It is here that I find myself wandering up and down the pedestrian road hunting supplies for tonight’s evening meal.
I am back in San Diego after half a lifetime at sea, sailing past foreign shores, exploring jagged islands and visiting shining cities. I have returned to San Diego because my mother no longer cares for herself and her needs are such, (fluctuating, altering day by day), that I must be on hand to administer the correct exact dosage of TLC. Tonight is my respite, a meal with friends, one old, two new. There will be wine and food and laughter. But most of all there will be the familiar comfort of intelligent conversation in American accents.
I woke up this morning not feeling well, something in my lungs was not right as if I had never bothered abandoning cigars; and my joints were aching from fights I couldn’t remember. I was out of the house under an azure sky, the brightness of the San Diego sun smiling down on me, the toy boats in the bay gliding over the silver surface of a perfect day. A Mexican girl sits with my mother, making her meals, helping her reach her walking frame. 95 is an ambition to reach and my mother has surpassed herself. She is old and blind and wandering near the exit door. As it should be, as life has meant it to be, as everything leads up to be.
There’s a chicken in my bag and some asparagus, Parmesan, olive oil, smoked paprika; all the ingredients I have gathered from my travels I have brought back to my port of origin to cook a meal in a present gathered with two hands, from the past.
My foot falters, the bag weighs down; my hand reaches my wet face covered in sweat. I wipe my brow. I am feeling worse. I must find some soup, a stall ahead has soup and I zigzag across the market looking for soup. I am on a quest for soup.
It’s 2 o’clock and the stalls are packing up, I look down from the top of the market and see the entire world receding from me as it folds up for another day and I’ve only finished half my shopping.
I’m walking down the incline now, rolling up the market like a colorfull rug. The soup stand is gone, it’s disappeared into tomorrow. I stop and stagger onto India Street, all hope of soup abandoned. My head is boiling hot, my ears tingling. The road is swimming with Italian fishermen. I turn on India and giggle. There’s only home to get to now. Home and a bed and a duvet to sweat under. My private lodge. There went my dinner plans, I must call my friends and cancel. Cancel my respite.
And then I remember the clay. The clay I had promised my mother.
Yesterday, she had complained to me of boredom.
Day after day of waking, coffee, lunch, dinner and bed with no easel to set up. No tubes to squeeze, no palate to mix, no brushes to wash, no canvass to stretch. No image to dredge from her mind to the surface of the world. Her boredom was her prison and I suggested I might bring her some modelling clay, something she could use to fashion toy figures for her grandchildren. My mother approved the idea and my mission was set. Somewhere on India Street is an arts supply store filled with paints and canvasses, watercolours, pastels, charcoals and erasers and of course modelling clay. The right mix of magic I needed. But not just any modelling clay would suffice. What I needed was red clay; clay, the colour of blood and earth. Not dark earth, not rich, fertile mulch but paler, redder, coarser mixed with ash and sand. The colour of flesh covering tendon and muscle. It was this clay that when fired adorned the kitchen tables of a thousand homes; terra cotta—-the colour of the earth’s flesh.
Now my legs are shore leave sailors propping me up the avenue, as I look for a bar to lean on. My head is on fire and my ears are singed by the flames of hell. I’ve lost my way on India Street. But my mission is clay and missions are the source of all courage and strength. I see the word ‘Art’ painted garrishly on the large front window of a store: The Art of the Masquerade. Surely, if they know Art they will know where the source of art lies! I push in the glass door that tinkles the silver bells that hang down the other side, the other side of the door I am opening. My entrance is immediately met by the face of an angel. The girl behind the counter by the door is a vision of Italian beauty, poised pale arms, a waterfall of chestnut curls overflows her shoulders. She is wearing a Comedia del Arte Masque across her eyes. I imagine, to amuse her customers. But she fixes me with her eyes and her blood swollen lips smile carnivorously at me. I know now that I have passed into the other world. But as I said before, my mission makes me bold. “Do you know of an Art supply store, somewhere along this street”?
The masked creature curls her red lips even more and sucks the air in sharply as if I had just suggested a seditious seduction. Strange Love and her eyes dance behind her masque. She speaks with Sophia Loren’s voice and says: “Just two more blocks down on your left; not too much further to go.”
I must look like I’ve already come a long ways. I turn away from her eyes and her red lips, thanking her and push open the door to hear her voice following my back : “Of course, you are always most welcome”.
Now India street has become a river, the breeze blows ripples in my field of vision. The other pedestrians lean in and bend to the wind, Lowry-like stick figures passing on my left and my right. This is a street like any street, a path paved by the footsteps that preceded mine. An every street, in every city, in every country, everywhere. India street in a Little Italy swollen so large that I am just a speck , a buoy bouncing on the surface of its whimsy. And then I find my port.
I push the glass double doors of the art store open and walk into the early 1960’s.
The floor is a speckled, yellowed linoleum, the wooden counters, the walls, the shelves stretching beyond my horizon, cemented in another time and place. I walk past the sales counter where a silver haired man smilingly takes change from a customer; he moves in a subtle way that I notice, he lives in another world. I walk into the belly of the store. I see a young, dark haired man arranging items on a shelf who looks passably human. My ears are burning, hellfire licks my cheeks and I see little, twinkling twists of light hovering around my periphial sight. Faery lights, angels or tiny floating demons; they are chattering to each other as they bob and bounce around. I ignore them. “Excuse me, can you tell me where you keep your modelling clay?”
The human boy nods and points “Follow the green aisle down all the way to the end, then take the final flight of stairs to the next level”. I say ‘Thank you’ while wondering if his instruction might double as a cheat to some computer game.
I follow the green aisle and reach the stairs. My legs have now been transformed into lead by the dark magic of this place. But my mission pulls me up the steps and I reach the aisle and the shelf with the clay, just where I had been told it would be. Just a little further. I look for red clay and find a 4 pound box and then I stop. Next to the box of red clay I have been hunting is another 4 pound box of red clay, in a different box, for one dollar more. I hesitate, I read the labels on both boxes. They are identical, so why is one box one dollar more? I take the cheaper box, but what if I’m overlooking the value of the one dollar more? Which box should I choose? And then the light comes on and I am enlightened: this choice is not more freedom, this is merely more confusion. I pick up both boxes, grab a handful of palate knives and descend to the sales counter in triumph.
The silver haired devil is older than me, with close cropped hair, a stud in one ear and a well groomed demeanour. He smiles at me and I think that he seems pleasant enough for a demon of the underworld. I speak to him directly although his details are by now, bleeding into the background and my periphial is intruding into my focus. “Can you tell me please, what is the difference between these two boxes of red clay? They seem identical to me but one is a buck more than the other…am I missing something…?”
I steady myself with my hand on the counter and I wonder if I appear drunk. The demon doesn’t seem to notice, conscientiously leans over both boxes and unbegrudgedly begins reading the packaging. Just a little bit further and then I am gone. The store, the silver haired demon, the floor have vanished.
I am in my grandfather’s workshop. The heat is coming from the wood fire heating the cauldron of bubbling beeswax he uses for casting molds. I breath in the familiar sickly sweet smell of bubbling bees wax. I’m standing on the concrete floor covered with plaster of Paris dust ‘Jesso’ he calls it. My grandfather stands behind a giant slab of granite, chisel and hammer in hand. His pale horn-rimmed glasses cover his concentrated squint and he taps the chisel carefully with his hammer. Chink-chink-chink. The music of the universe toiling. My mother, my young, beautiful mother stands beside him and when I see her, she sees me; she looks and smiles her seeing smile at me. She leaves her father’s side and comes closer. In one hand she carries a stool she places in front of me. Her eyes so bright, burning like a million suns set in the midnight firmament, smiling down on my upturned face, the pure unconditional love of an eternal mother for her child; the love that moves the earth, that spins galaxies; the love so immense, so encompassing that the universe must keep expanding just to accomodate it. She touches my cheek with one hand and places a mound of red clay on the stool in front of me with the other. She takes my tiny hands in both hers and pushes them into the cool, wet clay. I am mesmerised. She is Prometheus and she has come to make me a man. She lets me feel the clay squeeze between my fingers and I am kneading, I am squeezing, I am kneading the flesh colour earth in the rhythm that she shows me. And her eyes, a million suns are shining on me.
I am back in the art store and the silver haired demon is speaking to me. “There really isn’t any difference I can see, just different companies. Although this…” , he gestures to my first choice, “doesn’t set until the clay is fired”.
I think of my mother’s increasing dementia, a stone rolling down a hill and her forgetfulness. She’ll forget to wrap the clay back in plastic, letting it dry out, wrinkle and crack before it’s finally formed. I choose my first choice. “Thank you”
I say. The demon smiles benignly and tallies the clay and the palate knives onto the 60’s cash register. “I appreciate your help”‘
I continue. “It’s not for me, it’s kind of art therapy for an elderly artist”.
The silver hair smiles “That’s nice”.
“Yes, well she 95 now and she can’t really see”.
Shut up Igor. Shut up . It’s too late, I’m a runaway train. “She used to paint allot, and sculpt and make stained glass windows. Her whole life she’s worked.”
Shut up! shut up! shut up! “But she can’t see anymore because of the Glaucoma she didn’t treat in time and see, I wasn’t around, I was in England and I couldn’t take her to the eye doctor and now she’s half blind because they didn’t treat it in time. I mean, I didn’t know and she always does things her way…”
And now the runaway train crashes in the middle of the art store sending everything flying. And I am melting as the tears stream down my face and form droplets on the wooden counter and I can’t stop talking, please stop talking! “She’s bored now because she has no work to do and she can’t see to paint so I thought if I got her this clay that she could see with her fingers and make something to keep her busy, to keep her alive, like some toys for her grandchildren, little red clay toys I could fire for her”.
And I can’t stop crying but I do stop talking and I stare at the silver haired man and I know everyone is looking at me and then I just say “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry”.
The demon who is really a man looks at me and leans forward and quietly puts his arms around me and just holds me. And I sob and I sob and I keep saying “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry”. And the man holds me until I stop sobbing and I straighten up and rub my eyes and the demon hands me a tissue with my change with which I wipe my eyes and blow my nose. He catches my flitting, avoiding eyes and says. “There’s nothing more you need to say”.
I grasp my bag of red clay and walk back out into the clear, azure day.