The Artist


Sleep recedes like waves washing down a beach, and slowly I begin to wake from the deep fathoms of slumber. 3am. I rise in my nightly ritual of stumbling to the bathroom, arms extended like curb feelers, and make my way through the obstacle course that is our bedroom. I worry that I’ll wake the dogs, but they snore on. It’s even too early for them to want to patrol their yard. Returning to bed, I roll over and sigh. My mind is playing back the scenes of my dreams like a flickering home movie reel and I know there will be no more going back to sleep…

Limbs outstretched like arms, the maples reach into the velvet darkness. It is late on a summer evening, and all of Prospect Avenue is dark. People murmur quietly on the front porches in the late summer swelter. In this pre air conditioned world, the only sound is the quiet breath of the wind and the whirr of window fans. I walk my bike down the gravel driveway towards the yawning mouth of the old barn, wondering as always what might be lurking inside its musty bulk. That’s when I hear it. A sound as natural to our street, as a mother’s heartbeat is to an infant. From 3 houses down, Mr. Carmichael clears his throat.

I look across the back yard and see a single square of yellow burning in the shadow; the light from his den.  In all the known world of my 10 year old experience, the Carmichael’s is the only house with a den. The exoticness of a room dedicated only to a father always intrigues me. A haven from floral prints, and doilies, it is a world of hard carved decoys, and cast metal soldiers; books line the shelves, and a walnut stained writing desk holds the tools of his trade. We know that the den is off limits when we play at Peter and Danny’s, but the gravity of the room always pulls us into it.

While most Dad’s carry lunch boxes to work, and wear work clothes when they leave in the morning, Mr. Carmichael wear a coat and tie. He is older than the other Dad’s, and has lived here all his life. His history on our street is measured not in years but in geologic time. The resident historian of Prospect Ave., he knew the little old ladies when they were still young.

While we run and play through their yard like any other, we somehow know that his property is different. A tall man, with a deep voice, and a stern look, fear is the wrong word to describe how the little kids feel about him. It is more like respect and deference we would give to someone from another world.

He sits beneath the light of his desk lamp in his den working through the dark hours of a summer night. Pen and pencil in his hand, he is drawing. A newspaperman by trade, his real profession is that of an artist. Stand in the red, sandstone edifice of the Richmond Library, and you will see his drawings on the walls. They record the history that urban renewal has worked so hard to erase.

In my mind’s eye he is always drawing in his den, pausing to clear his throat, a reassuring sound, like the chirping of crickets in the night. Families have come and gone from Prospect Avenue, our own clan arriving in the late 60’s, and leaving by the early 00’s, but I cannot imagine the street without his presence. The last tie to the original residents, once he was gone, the oral history of the neighborhood was gone with him. If only I had had the courage, and the foresight to sit with him, and ask him to share his stories.

A barn owl hoots in the darkness, and I drop my bike inside the door of the barn, and run back to the safety of the porch. It seems like the world I know is solid, and permanent, but in only a few years it will all begin to fade away. Piece by piece, and person by person, the neighborhood will be renewed. The stately maples will slowly succumb to age, and the City’s chain saws, until what is left is a shadow of the place I knew. The houses still stand, and a new history is being written with each passing day, but the world that I knew lives only in the quiet of the night. The images flicker across the canvas of my mind, and are recorded here like drawings of a city that is all but forgotten.

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9 thoughts on “The Artist

  1. This makes me sad.
    I still have the most vivid dreams about the house where I grew up. Granted a majority of them involve a Running Man style game where I only have a matter of hours to escape before the new owners come home and find me there.
    And then there are the hedge mazes and dark minotaur infested labyrinths that never really exsisted – BUT STILl!

      • Nah, it’s not you. I harbor all sorts of weird negative feelings toward the homes new owner and STILL resent the hell out my parents for selling it.
        I was living in Atlanta GA when I heard about the whole thing and never got a chance to say a proper goodbye to that big drafty tinderbox.
        Dude, I bet you’re awesome at parties!

        • The current occupants of 20 Prospect actually read this blog. He’s commented on here before, so in a way, I feel better knowing the place is in good hands. When Mom sold it, there was just no other option. She couldn’t afford the upkeep after Dad passed away, and there was so much work that needed to be done. It sold for an obscenely low amount of money (as do all the big old houses in my town). It was a bitter pill to swallow, but I just remind myself that there’s a new little kid growing up in that back bedroom, making all sorts of memories that he’ll someday treasure. As for me, I blog for therapy.

          Also, we’ll be in D.C. in 3 weeks, so if you know of any good parties let me know.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this. You conjured up a very true place with your words. I especially like the reference to the clearing of the throat being as familiar as the sound of crickets. Sort of bitter-sweet to also know that a successful businessman is an artist at heart. Artists and writers who stop time and emotion to preserve them are so under-appreciated. Keep on writing!

  3. I grew up on Charles St, and spent many days at the Carmichael’s house hanging out with Pete & Dan. Mr. C was always held in high regard and was a great influence on my life. He will always be remembered and dearly missed. The sound of him clearing his throat was his trademark and a sound I will never forget. I always liked when he would address us boys by calling us “men”.

    Thanks for the great stories of our old stomping ground.

    • Dave, thanks for stopping by. I remember going over to your house on Charles a few times with Peter by taking the little gate in the back of “Marie’s” house, to get to Charles Ave. I can’t remember her name, but she was one of the many “little old ladies” that lived on Prospect at the time, and always let us play in her big paved driveway. One of the many yards on the street that was considered “in bounds”.

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