“Kansas Boys” by Becky Mandelbaum
When the girl he loves moves away, Peter will do anything to get to her, even if it means working for an arthritic one-handed Veteran artist with an obsession for a past-love. He met Deschutes years ago, but he never really knew him. The more he learns about the man, the more he learns of his late father and of himself, and that’s all the motivation he needs to change the path he’s taken before it’s too late.
Peter’s dad has passed away. He had many friends who went to war and returned to Kansas, “broken and restless.” One friend was Bob Deschutes, an artist, who lost his left hand in the war and his left testicle to a fireman’s hose. He now paints pictures of naked children in fields of poppies. Deschutes and Peter’s dad loved the same woman in San Fransisco, a dancer they called Slinky. To get an idea of Deschutes, imagine him at Peter’s dad’s funeral in a powder blue leisure suit and sunglasses singing Free Bird. He’d told Peter that his dad might have impregnated a girl in Vietnam in case she came looking for money after his death.
Peter works as a logo designer in a T-shirt store where Deschutes meets him and asks him to design a shirt with a black princess on it for a little girl. While sketching, Deschutes tells him he needs help around the house as his one good hand is becoming arthritic. He offers $50 an hour. Peter thinks about Rena, who’d left five days before for a wilderness conservation program in Yellowstone, breaking things off with Peter at the last minute. He accepts the offer.
Deschutes lives in Vinland, which is like a colony of “liberal army vets and became known as a sort of artist’s colony where everybody secretly smoked pot and celebrated the solstice.” Now imagine a mayor with feral cats, makes beaded handbags, and tried to elect a blind sheep as Sheriff. Deschutes house is a “squat structure, with low ceilings and windows so choked with ivy that the light inside was dim and dappled.” It’s filled with antique clocks, leather chairs, and plants. Upstairs is his studio, mostly windows, painted shut, white curtains, and charcoal drawings of Slinky with big lips and small breasts. Peter’s job is to choose the best one and paint it, so he chooses the one where she only wears pearls, where peacock feathers come up behind her.
All throughout this time, Peter thinks a lot about Rena and how close they were. He imagines her watching him. He thinks it’s interesting to bring to life the woman his father and Deschutes shared. While Peter paints, Deschutes reads letters from Slinky, claiming she loved him, but California was too expensive so he and Peter’s dad left. “‘You can’t take a girl from California and stick her in Kansas. It’d be like putting a fish in a tree.’” Peter calls Rena that night, but no answer. The money Deschutes pays will go to a plane ticket to Bozeman to surprise her.
While painting the next morning, he thinks of the best of Rena’s qualities and Deschutes tells him more about Slinky, then of Harmony, his current girlfriend, a black woman who he says is prettier than Slinky when he’s not looking at her. He decides to Peter to The Outhouse, a gentleman’s club, but when they arrive at 9 am, it is still closed. Deschutes makes a scene to the two dancers smoking outside, throwing money at them before they call for Big Rick who kicks them both out. Peter is embarrassed, Deschutes is feeling sorry for himself and acting very crude. As he drives Deschutes home he remembers a time he caught the man touching his mother inappropriately. He never got over, but never mentioned it.
Once back, angry at Deschutes, he refuses to work, afraid he might hit the man. Deschutes turns ugly, clearly drunk so early, and says he won’t pay until the painting is finished. Peter grabs the letters and the canvas and leaves the house. At home, he reads the letters to find in most of them Slinky talking about his dad, Donald, who she referred to as Donnie. In the letters it is clear she cared for both men, but she had a special place in her heart for Donnie. Peter realizes he could turn out like Deschutes, having believed this girl who left him only did it because of the distance that would be between them, when it truth she never really loved, and how could he have not seen it? He doesn’t want to be like Deschutes, cooped up in a small room drinking the day away. He decides to go back to work for him, get his money, and fly to Bozeman to win her back.
Originally published at Great Jones Street.