P. S. Ehrlich
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.
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
"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
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
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...!
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
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
--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.
"'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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
"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]