P. S. Ehrlich





Love And Other Sediments


The artist Heeltap was like Miniver Cheevy in that he coughed and scratched and kept on drinking.  There was also something Cheevyesque about his notion of courtliness: a tardy gallantry, which bobbed up in his painting toward the very end.

    He kept his distance from the rest of our Oregon coast town, having as little as possible to do with the semicelebrated artists's colony.  But I had done him a few favors over the years--stocking his favorite Italian brand of watercolor paper, letting him have it on credit during his drier spells--so Heeltap was rather more affable with me, especially when he needed art supplies.  On one such occasion he paid me the unique compliment of saying I was the only other person in Sinter Beach who could tell gesso from espresso.

    Our such-as-it-was chumminess evolved to the point where Heeltap, when preoccupied or feeling more seclusive than usual, would phone in his orders and I would hand-deliver them to his cluttery rummage hole of a studio.  He would offer me a Guinness (which is to say he would indicate a cupboard with a twitch of his head, mumbling "Drinkasump?") and wave a hand at his current studies-in-progress.  There were rarely less than a dozen of these and sometimes as many as fifty, scrawled into sketchbooks and propped up on easels, overlapping entire drawing boards: each a puzzlepiece in gouache or charcoal, a claim staked out in the jigsaw wilderness.

    All but the last of Heeltap's watercolors were built up in mind's eye before a brush was ever laid on them.  He would devote weeks, even months to mentally inventing his effects; then spend more weeks or months working out their nuances in study after study, experimenting with various mixtures of often unpaid-for paint.  Finally he would stretch out a sheet of that handmade Italian paper and slather away at it, scarcely giving his preliminary sketches an incidental glance.  In this manner Heeltap might produce seven or eight large-scale paintings at a single time, all in one nonstop burst.   

    I can still see him applying those immense washes of cerulean and cobalt blue.  He could execute a conventional seascape with starving-artist finesse, but his specialty was more of a multidimensional view as might be seen through a wide-angled scuba diver's eyes.  These submarine panoramas were especially popular with tourists from the inland, since Heeltap furnished each with a host of fish and mollusks and zoophytes and coral-encrustations and seaweedery--not unlike a baker sprinkling rainbow-bits on the tops of doughnuts.

    "Just like being inside an aquarium!" vacationers had a tendency to gush.

    Heeltap gave not a damn for that or for them, so long as they bought as well as burbled.  Fortunately he enjoyed frequent sales at local galleries and also in Portland, Seattle, and the Bay area, which enabled him to keep living in Sinter Beach and occasionally settle his tab at my store.


    Every sunset Heeltap would leave his studio and take a longish walk down the marina, heading for the seaside on starry evenings or a ramble through town when overcast.  In either case there was an ocean breeze to treat as aperitif, and always the sound of the gulls at dusk.

    Now and again I accompanied him on these reconstitutionals--a term of Heeltap's swaggering own, created to show the world that no one could outclever him, by God.  But he seemed glad enough of company in abbreviated helpings, and would sometimes agree to stop and sup at the Winery Dinery or have a bowl of bistro chowder--paid for by me, needless to harp upon.

    His conversation on such occasions was given over to crabbing about the knavishness of gallery dealers, or of rival artists, or the “fathom-happy yahoos" who purchased the greater but not the better part of his work.  After a few Guinnesses (or, as he'd be saying by then, "several stouts") Heeltap would be not only verbose but also diffuse, sounding like Sylvester the Cat as he went on about Philistine stoopnagels satisfying their artsy-fartsy sorry selves with the simplistic and superficial, not to say that the sophisticated Smart Set (so-called and self-styled!) wasn't worse yet with its snobby insistence on staying in the shallows and disregarding the depths...!

            Et shthetera, et shthetera, and shtho forth.

    What I found intriguing about this splattery hypothesis was that Heeltap, by his own boast, had taken bare-minimal interest in art before his final year of high school, when he'd gotten fouled during a basketball tournament in Terre Haute, Indiana.  In a way you could say it was Hoosier height that turned young Heeltap around: born the one, he swiftly acquired the other, and so became a parfit gentil knight pricking on a plain that could not be crossed in street shoes.

    Then into his life and solar plexus came an opposing forward's elbow.  Down to the dusty-scuffed court went his doubled-up body; and from that moment his mind's eye never refocused.  It started glimpsing things that were not there--wills-o'-the-wisp, fata morganas, "whatever the hell"--which alighted for transient whiles like moths upon lampshades, seemingly within reach.  So Heeltap tried to catch them, to capture their tangible likenesses, drawing and painting with awkward fingers trained to dribble, passing up a potential athletic scholarship to pursue art and so getting disowned by his high-bouncing father, who would have thrown Heeltap out in the snow if it hadn't been summertime.

    Thus expatriated, he compounded his apostasy by achieving early commercial success.  The original Heeltap palette was bright and vigorous à la Delacroix, and several resulting watercolors sold quite well in poster form during the early Seventies.  None got thumbtacked to more walls than the still life called Banquet: a tabletop of crumpled napkins, crumbly plates, drained-dry beerbottles and wineglasses, ashtrays heaped with butts and roaches, a discarded undergarment or two.  All your typical wild-party detritus, expiring like Greece on the ruins of Missolonghi.

    It was in Banquet's wake that Heeltap made his way west and beheld the Pacific for the first time.  That primal sight of sea and sand acted like a depth charge: its detonation toned down his vivid palette, diluting its graphic flamboyance.  He began instead to take after Turner, emulating that visionary's poached-eggs-and-spinach "tinted steam" technique--and aiming thereby for the Bottom of Things.

    Heeltap could be eloquent on the subject of Things and their Bottom; never more so than when strolling along the shoreline full of Guinness and clam chowder, picking up shells.  You have no choice (he would say between stoops and burps) but to dive down into Things if you want to understand them.  Plunge on in, immerse yourself, soak and saturate yourself, sink instead of swim!  Right to the Bottom!  Paying no-never-mind to those floaters who would dismiss this as the Virginia Woolf way out, or Natalie Wood's, or that of a dozen other woo-woos--better to sink with the woo-woos than be a goddam pontoon! an upwardly mobile crème-de-la-crèmist hellbent on rising to the top like scum, never daring to venture past the shallows into the depths--as in deeps--as in the briny deep--as along the briny beach did the Walrus and the Carpenter go roistering oysterwards, crying cockles and mussels alive alive oh!

    --by which point I, the Walrus, would be trying to steer Heeltap, the declamatory Carpenter, safely back to town.  I was always apprehensive as to what lengths he might go at seaside, spouting off about the Bottom of Things.

    Sobered up and studiobound, he could still (and less breathlessly) engulf himself in the ocean's depths (as in deeps) and, once down there with his own peculiar media-mixture of impasto and aquarelle, convey the effects on-and-in them of sunshine or moonlight.  The finest of these never appeared in Heeltap's aquarium interiors but were saved for those paintings where he imitated Mr. Miniver: assailing the seasons with orchestrated deluges, whole archipelagoes of impacted Atlantises, tremendous cataracts of flowing, swirling, liquescenting light.

     "Too abstract," according to your average gallerygoer.

     "Ersatz Albert Pinkham Ryder," sniffed a local postnasal critic.

       But I'd been known to buy one or two, or more often do swapsies for fresh supplies.  It was in such scenes and scapes that Heeltap, despite his unchivalrous scratching and hacking and crabbing, proved to be a tolerable magic-casemental case.  For he loved the sea, loved it with a Nemolike fervor, saying that as a marine painter it fed him and clothed him; he owed it his all.

      "'D'live and paint on a houseboat," he sometimes added, "if only the damn thing'd keep still."      


There was one study-in-progress that Heeltap kept secret for the longest time, going so far as to hide it under a dropcloth during my delivery-visits.  Not until it became by default the only s-i-p, all others having been abandoned, was this unveiled and introduced to me as Tillies Seawreath without an apostrophe. (I never asked if the title was in any way derived from J. Alfred Prufrock, knowing Heeltap would regard such a question as unnecessarily "clever.")

It looked larger than lifesize, and tall as Heeltap was he could only reach its top by climbing a stepladder.  At first glance the figure under study appeared to be a deflated pink balloon dropped in a puddle.  On closer observation it took on the semblance of a drowning victim still submerged, definitely female, evidently young.  Her features, though blurred by an intervening eddy, were attractive and seemed to be smiling, far too sprightly for any corpse.  A naiad then? And was she supposed to be floating on her back as seen from above--or on her front, from below?  Was that the ocean's sandy bed behind her, or a sundrenched sky?  Was she basking in direct light or reflections?

       Difficult to tell.

And as I watched Heeltap build up her image layer by layer, applying and stratifying his washes of transparent blue and green, working from light to dark in the traditional manner he usually disdained...I felt less and less able to guess.

At times I thought I could see right through "Tillie"; at others, that there were more than one of her.  Whether diaphanous or double-exposed, she/they had a palpable shimmering about her/them, not entirely unlike that of sister Kate who could shake it like jelly on a plate.

       All very uncharacteristic of Heeltap.  Never before had his depiction of the Bottom of Things been quite so callipygian.

       Were that not enough, this painting received none of his usual premeditated spontaneity.  No preliminary sketches to speak of; no tonal experiments in charcoal, pastel, or gouache; no lickety-splittery about the actual application of paint.  Heeltap, who could turn out half-a-dozen watercolors in a couple of uninterrupted days, actually seemed to be feeling his way around this one--brush hovering for long doubtful spells, dabbing a stipple here and there and getting almost pointillistic in places.

       But as the summer weeks went by, he produced some of the most curious, luminous, illusory effects of his entire oeuvre.

       Watching them emerge, I was gradually amazed.

       Everything about Tillies Seawreath was so extraordinary that I questioned Heeltap about its sources.  His replies never strayed from the opaque, but I was given to understand that all his earlier undertakings had been dry runs for this one attempt; it had taken him years of nerving himself up to risk making it.

       But why a figure study?  And what of the pretty undine? Had she been drawn from a living model, or a composite of several?  Or was she perhaps a passing fancy--a swimming figment?

       "Well," said the distracted Heeltap, "there once was a Circe named Wiggins who turned all the boys into piggins, or so it would seem.  She lived on in their dreams, but never lived on in their diggins."      

     And those were his last words on that particular subject.  Whether in fact there had ever been an actual Tillie (or an actual Wiggins) and, if so, what she had said or done or what Heeltap had said or done or what either had left unsaid or undone, so that there was no longer an in-the-flesh Tillie/Wiggins--I never found out.


      It may be that I asked too many questions; but as summer turned to autumn and autumn fell, Heeltap became less sociable than ever.  He no longer came by the store or called in orders for art supplies, and as I thought it best not to drop by uninvited, a considerable time passed before I saw him again.     

     By then his nights were spent drifting aimlessly up and down the streets for miles upon miles and hours at a stretch, like Degas in blind old age.  He was limping back from one such straggle at the end of October when he bumped into me.  I had only just left the store, having stayed late to take inventory, and Heeltap I hardly recognized; he might have been roadtesting a flophouse hobo costume for Halloween.      

     I suggested he be my guest for a nightcap-snack at The Cracker Dawn all-hours café, but "Jusht goin' home," he mumbled, or something to that effect.  He seemed unsettled as to where "home" was, so I thought it best to show him the way.      

     Once there, Heeltap offered me a stout with a ghost of his old head-twitch, and when I declined he got one anyway and drank it down in a single slovenly chug.      

     "’Guinnessh ish Good for You,’" he quoted, not without effervescence.      

     He uncapped another, gulped that down too, and proceeded to make some feint of washing out his socks.  While he was thus occupied I took a look around the studio and found it had managed to transcend rummage-holiness.  Had Heeltap in fact lived on a houseboat, and had that houseboat struck an iceberg, the resulting shambles could not have been much worse.  No mere shipwreck could have yielded debris with such a fungoid coat of mildew, or such unstable piles of discarded drawings and forgotten sketchbooks, or those bleared windows, or that leaking skylight, or the kitchenette stench so beyond belief.  The sink in which Heeltap was laundering his socks also played host to a broken coffee pot's glassy scalded grounds.      

     And all around the studio stepladder lay a thick new carpet cut from Banquet's cloth: squeezed-out watercolor tubes, unwashed brushes, petrifying breadcrusts, bits of the limbs of once-proud chickens, empty Guinness bottles, empty gum arabic bottles, empty cough syrup bottles; all dropped or let fall in the ongoing course of touching up Tillies Seawreath.      

     Need it be said that Miss Tillie looked better than ever?  She had been brought much closer to consummation, bathed (from below or above?) in the haziest vaporous light against a background (bed or sky?) of atmospheric volatility. Still starting off as a pinkish-pearly burst balloon, she blossomed before my eyes and became a Nereid with locks combed through by rippling white wavelets.      

     Heeltap was utterly unsatisfied.      

     "Nothin' ever goesh ash planned," he remarked.      

     And despite the lateness of the hour, the murkiness of the studio, and the siltiness in his eyes, Heeltap insisted on climbing that ladder barefoot and resuming work.  He disentangled a brush from the vast clot on his tabouret; touched it, with great care, to an empty-looking paint pan; and began adding foamflecks to his latter-day Lady of Shalott.      

     But while he launched her forth with courtly strokes, my Cheevyesque friend scratched and sighed for what was not--for what remained out of reach--cursing all his painstaking efforts as inadequate fallacies of hope.  He made no reply to my "Be seeing you."     


     No sooner did I arrive at the store that darkly-raining November day than the phone rang, and I was informed that the artist Heeltap had been found facedown in a gutter on Michelangelo Street.  He had apparently been deposited there by a hit-and-run driver.  My business card was in his pocket, and in lieu of next-of-kin would I mind identifying the remains?      

     Which turned out to be not so gruesome an ordeal as I'd dreaded.  The brittle, blankly-transfixed face in the opened drawer had much the same expression as it had in life.      

     Easy enough for us to piece together the sequence of events: Heeltap, besotted, meandering along the rainswept street, lurching toward misty impressionistic headlights and taking them right in the solar plexus.  So he drowned, out of his depth, in over his head, not in his beloved ocean nor on its shore but in a gutter, unable even to see the starry streetlamps wink out one by unfocused one.  In with a gutpunch, out with the same; et shthetera and shtho forth.      

     His salvageable effects were sold at a one-man exhibition that was not posthumous, strictly speaking, since Heeltap's funeral expenses were to be paid with the residue of his estate, and there could be no residue until his debts were settled, and his debts could not be settled until after the exhibition.      

     I went, of course, intending to come away with Tillies Seawreath.  As my luck would have it, Heeltap died owing me nearly nothing (for once) and the market value of all his paintings leapt the moment he coughed his last cough.  At the exhibition I was outbid for Tillies by the owner of a chain of tanning salons.      

     So I made do with Heeltap's collection of seashells, gathered from Sinter Beach and others up and down the Pacific coast, used as models for many an aquarium interior, and in not a one of which can the ocean's roar be heard.           


[Replica of this story's reprint online in Open Wide  Issue 8, March 2004]