A Painting in Santa Fe
“Any luck?” Hub shouted above his rototiller. He hadn’t seen Jesse walk in the yard until he was almost standing next to him. Hub frowned at the machine, snugged the wire-rimmed glasses around his ears, switched off the engine. “I need a beer. You?” The blue overalls made Hub seem taller and thinner than he was. He and Jesse turned toward the back of the adobe house. “You find anything?”
Jesse wore blue jeans and a white T-shirt, washed and new, the same combination for years. If the high tops were laced up his feet, that meant work, while the rough-cut cowboy boots were for dress up. He’d been out looking for work.
It was weeks before official spring, and though snow topped the Sandias, the day’s sun was warm, and Hub wiped sweat off his face. He was cleaning up, getting ready for planting. Hub and Grace’s land, with a view of ancient valleys and volcanic mountains, was terraced over almost two acres, much of it in use: apple, cherry, apricot, and peach trees, raspberry and grape vines, flowers domestic and wild, herbs and cactus and even a small lawn. There were turkeys in a pen and chickens and three geese, two propped-up cars, one with wrenches and sockets under and around it.
Grace opened the backdoor screen, two cans of beer in her hand. The wide-brimmed straw hat she wore outdoors was on her head.
“You find one?” she asked Jesse.
“He’s back here, isn’t he?” Hub told her.
“That doesn’t mean he didn’t,” she said.
“I suppose that’s true,” Hub said.
That Jesse didn’t respond was the answer.
“You’ll get something,” Grace assured him. “We know what an artist you are.”
Hub and Jesse took swigs from the cans of discount beer.
“They’re making highrises that look like adobes up there,” Jesse finally told them.
“It upsets me to go to Santa Fe,” Hub said. “I never feel like I’m dressed right. I feel like wearing a cowboy hat and some long-frilled leather so I look more like part of the attraction than a tourist.”
“Gucci and turquoise blend in better,” said Grace. “Though I can’t complain. We shouldn’t.”
“On the California coast, it’s frothy waves hitting rocks, sea gulls floating above,” said Hub. “In Santa Fe, they paint those shadows on peeling adobe walls, the baby blue sky bursting through the thick windows.”
“There’s good work there too,” said Grace. “The Shidoni is a beautiful space and the work is honest and very strong. Those kind of places may even redeem all the commercial art in the community.” She paused there, once she caught Hub staring at her, and turned, apologetic, to Jesse. “Have you ever been there?” It was a question that didn’t need to be asked, but she didn’t know how else to move along.
Jesse shook his head.
“You should,” she said. “It’s really worth it.”
“I just remembered,” said Hub after some seconds passed. “Lupe called.”
“She didn’t say something?” Jesse asked.
“She was returning yours.” Hub looked at Grace, suddenly thinking there might have been more to it. “I think she was returning your call.” He dropped his empty can into a bag full of other aluminums. “You ready for another?”
“Did she say where she was?” Jesse was asking Hub, and Hub glanced at Grace.
“I got a phone number.”
“If you want some privacy,” Grace said, “use the phone in our bedroom.”
Hub and Grace continued to be fascinated by Jesse Molina. He listened carefully and seemed so interested in their world, as though everything he learned was a discovery. They liked this man, who was building their home, who worked too hard, who ran the men he hired equally hard but without loud words, who had to be told to slow it down, to take it easy, to enjoy the work more. Hub and Grace wanted their house, they would tell him back then, not so much that it be done fast but beautifully. Jesse had looked at them mysteriously, a muscular serenity, trying to translate the meaning. It was an expression they saw on him often: Jesse working hard to comprehend the abstract, a geometric puzzle. He would stare at the adobe bricks he was laying, or the wood he was cutting, the plaster on a hod – he did everything, seemed able to do every trade well, like a decathlete – and he stared to hear better. Around him they felt like Europeans, delicate and upper class, though Hub was from the Colorado suburbs and Grace was from urban New Jersey. Then there was the cliché Jesse: the Chicano who suddenly would drink too much, who would do too much of whatever drugs were around and who’d disappear for days at a time. Twice other women dropped in on him while he built their house. That didn’t matter until they got to know his wife, Guadalupe. It was Grace who began inviting her over for lunch with them all. Grace adored Lupe, talked about how gorgeous she was – a natural aura, she called it – so much so that Grace asked if Lupe would sit for her. Jesse did not approve. Jesse said no. Said no firmly. Grace kept asking Lupe anyway. He’s just being a macho Mexican, she told her, and Jesse will get over it, would understand later. She would paint her beside their daughter, she told Lupe. Lupe and the baby were so beautiful, radiant, he was so lucky, and when he saw the painting he would understand, it would be like the Madonna and child, she said. No, Jesse told Grace. He took Lupe aside and one day she left and she didn’t come back. Grace was so angry she had to compose herself. Hub told her she had to be practical and that they needed Jesse to finish the job. Look at the great work he was doing, Hub reminded her.
Months after the house was completed – the new couches and chairs and a dining room table set, curtains hung over new windows next to freshly painted walls, even towels and kitchen housewares – they had the party that Lupe came to. She had gotten there late, and she didn’t have the baby with her. She told Grace she’d seen Jesse drunk in the village, and there was a woman with him. Lupe got drunk too fast, and there was a man, a guy with long hair, a ponytail, a silver earring, leather sandals, and he told Lupe she was beautiful, “absolutely beautiful,” and when Jesse came, when he saw them, when he saw her that close to him, Jesse beat the man, pounded his face, swinging his skull by the ponytail. Hub and Grace let Jesse stay with them for almost two weeks after that. And later he came around now and then, friendly and grateful though he was as mute as ever, until, a few months after the incident, he dropped in to say goodbye, he and Lupe were together again and were leaving town again. She was pregnant, and they were going to California.
“Why shouldn’t I?” Jesse said. “Don’t I get to see how everything is? Don’t I get to know if everything’s okay?”
Lupe was remembering all the other conversations like this one. “So is it okay that you’re staying there?”
“They haven’t changed. And she’s even being nice to me. Like she always is to you, right?”
“Jesse.” Lupe took time as though that would make it easier for her to say, “Jesse, you have to stop. You have to not call me.”
“They’re my kids too.”
“Jesse, this is not about the kids.”
“Please don’t, Jesse.”
“Do you got a job right now? You wouldn’t have to work. Where’re you staying?”
She wasn’t going to tell him.
“Why can’t you tell me?”
“It’s not that I can’t.”
“Is she helping you? Is it her idea?”
“Jesse, I’m a grown woman. I can think.”
“And so you think you don’t gotta live with me. That we don’t gotta be together.”
She didn’t say.
“I want us to get back,” he said. “I’m trying. I want us both to.”
“I know what you want.”
“Come on,” he said.
She didn’t say.
“Fuck you then.”
He dialed her right back after she hung up. He had to let it ring until, finally, she picked up.
“Let me talk,” he said.
“What was so wrong with before?”
She didn’t say anything for a long time.
“I’ll call later, all right? I’m gonna find a job around here.”
He waited. “Okay? I might get a job in Santa Fe. I’ll let you know. Okay?”
Jesse took over the rototiller. Hub slaughtered and cleaned a turkey. Grace painted steadily in an overlit room – huge panes of glass, skylights – alongside the house. Soon Jesse began cleaning up the acreage of tree and vine trimmings. Grace had stepped outside with a torch and visor. Hub had plucked feathers. A burst of wind caused them all to look up: the mountains, the valleys, the sky. Jesse was the first to go back, piling the sticks and thorny clippings and carrying that pile over to another, larger one. Grace watched him. Watched how easily he seemed to work, effortlessly, the small piles becoming the one large one. Hub saw her watching Jesse and then he watched. It was so simple it was nothing. A pile of debris.
Jesse called it thanksgiving because it was a turkey. But it also was a salad of tomatoes and onions from their greenhouse, sweet potatoes and green beans from the garden. The food was passed, forks and knives and spoons and plates, wine and beer, paper napkins.
“I went to this one restaurant up there with Joe. We were walking, and we decided to have a beer. We get to this nice place, you know, real nice place, with a bar. Fixed up. Stained piñon vigas, Mexican tile floor, Spanish wood tables, Navajo blankets. The building was the real adobe. Joe said it was old, one of the oldest in the city. Well, they had paintings all over, and there was this one. Well, they got a few of indios, you know? So this one was of an Indian woman. It was a big painting, big as a window. She was good-looking, really good-looking, except she had short black hair, cut, you know, so she looked kind of modern. Well, she was wearing these beads, Indian beads, turquoise, but otherwise she don’t got nothing else on. No clothes. You could just see her. You know, now that I think about it, I don’t remember if it showed all of her. All I remember is her top. No, it was from her waist up. Well, you could see her nipples. I dunno, it just bothered me, you know? I mean I like naked girls, and she was looking good. But I said to Joe, that don’t seem right, that seems like bad taste to me. He thought the same thing. It was that it was this rich place, for rich white people. That’s who came in here, ate at the restaurant and bar. Not the poor people, not the indios. You know? It pisses me off. So then I remembered this friend I had years ago, dude I hung with. He was Mescalero. He had this temper, real bad. Like that, he goes. Used to surprise me. Scare me. I got used to him though. So I was telling Joe I almost wished I could have him come to this place. I imagined him having one of those expensive beers. That picture there. I thought, if it’s okay for them to hang that picture up there, it’s probably okay for him to rip this place up. You know? I told Joe, it’s like first they take their land, everything down to all their little trinkets, then as if that ain’t enough, as if they hadn’t done all the worse shit already, they even make naked paintings of their women. It’s like there’s no limits to what they can do.”
They were almost done eating. There were berries and bananas with cream.
“But the point is,” Grace said, “it’s art. Art can be anything, of anything, whether you like it or not.”
“It’s the same people who’ve been romanticizing the Indian since the west was the west,” Hub told him. “And it’s almost like you’re romanticizing them by protecting them. Since when is an art work, a nude of anyone, wrong?”
“It wouldn’t have been there if it weren’t an Indian woman.”
“It was probably bad,” said Hub. “Of course it was bad. It was stupid, tasteless because it was stupid, bad in that way.”
“I agree that a woman shouldn’t be used for her sexual anatomy,” said Grace, “but if it’s meant to be art it doesn’t deserve to be ripped up.”
“What if it was your women? Your tribe?”
“Art is art,” said Hub.
“There are people who don’t like what I do,” said Grace, “but they can’t stop me from doing it.”
Jesse wanted to say something else.
“Paint doesn’t hurt anybody,” said Grace. “It’s when someone does something that you can talk about right or wrong.”
“Morning,” Hub said to Jesse as he walked over to him. The sun had been full up for an hour, but the light was still fuzzy gray. “You going out today?”
Hub ground coffee beans.
“Wasn’t it cold out there last night? Sleeping bag or no, it was cold.”
Jesse had slept on a couch on the back porch, the same couch he slept on when he used to stay years before. He didn’t
like being inside their home at night, bothering them.
“It’s too cold!” said Grace, joining them in the kitchen.
“Let me get that rubbish going,” said Hub. Grace took over the coffee making.
Hub brought up a tin container, and he held it above the big pile as all the gas clucked out of it. He lit up a pack of paper matches, threw it on. The fire exploded, a black pastel cloud, hissing and sucking.
Jesse hadn’t slept well and felt uneasy. He wanted to tell them he was leaving today, wouldn’t be back, how he would probably just stay up there, in Santa Fe. But then again he wasn’t sure. He wanted to make plans, but he couldn’t think well. He couldn’t imagine making plans by himself. He wanted to talk to Grace but couldn’t see how. He wanted to leave, and he wanted to stay.
“I love this,” Grace said, carrying out the mugs of coffee.
Grace and Hub sat down far enough away from the fire to feel the heat but not to have to turn their faces away from it, bundled in down coats. Jesse was standing, his arms crossed and hugging his lined denim jacket.
“Relax, Jesse,” said Grace. “Come sit with us.”
He sat near and yet a couple of paces away.
“You look awful,” said Grace. “You should’ve slept inside. You’re so stubborn. We should’ve made you sleep inside.”
“He would’ve never listened,” Hub said.
“I thought about it last night,” Jesse started.
“You should’ve just come in,” Grace said. “You’re so stubborn.”
“Not that,” he said. He stood up, moved up and down on his toes.
“Well say it, Jesse,” Hub said after awkward seconds passed. “Say it.”
“You’re not right,” he said. “I don’t know how, but it ain’t right. It’s not. It’s wrong. What you say sounds right, but there’s something wrong. That painting was wrong.”
He was louder than the fire.
“I know what you’re saying,” Hub said. “I see what you’re saying.”
Jesse was stepping to the left and right, side to side.
“Okay, Jesse,” said Hub.
“Please,” said Grace. “Please, Jesse, sit down. Please, take it easy and sit with us.”
Jesse did, curling his arms around his knees, rocking like a pouting child, staring at the pile, the mountains and valleys in front of them all, the gold flames and black smoke bursting in the sky becoming blue.
Dagoberto Gilb is the author of The Magic of Blood and The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuña.