The Long Vietnam of My Soul, Part 3

Does the world really need another Spanish painter?

Unlike Basilio, Nieves made a formal request to stay with the old Spaniard on Macon Street, her grandfather’s brother. She had written perfect Spanish in beautiful script on onion paper, the correo aereo envelope affixed not with a stamp bearing the image of Franco but a blazing yellow sun on a field of red.

Basilio read the letter aloud to Grandpop the afternoon it arrived, a loaf of bread from the Greeks between them on the checkered oil cloth table.

“She says she wants to paint,” said Basilio, breaking off the heel of the bread. “She wants to learn to paint.”

Grandpop shrugged his shoulders, shook his head—what do I know of painting?

“Tell her to come,” he said.

Basilio didn’t tell him that she was probably en route the moment the letter was mailed and when she walked in—she just don’t affect me, good God, this chick upsets me—he bit his tongue from saying that hard work might deliver you to competence, but you had to be born an artist.

And sat her down on the marble steps in front of Grandpop’s house early the next morning—the sun hit the front of the houses across the street as it rose—with pad and pencil and a sharpener in the shape of a bullet.

[Nieves wanted to do a portrait of Grandpop right away and the old man was willing and patient with her. It amazed Basilio what the hard-headed gallego would do for this strange young woman that he wouldn’t even consider doing for his grandson.]

For the first week, Nieves dutifully sat on the steps and did as she was told: be still (something he’d been incapable of doing since she’d landed); be still and sketch the rowhouses across the street.

Calistenia, he said in crappy Spanish: do your push-ups, practice your chords, carry water as he had instinctively done Sunday after Sunday on visits to Macon Street from the time he was in elementary school.

Virtually identical, the houses were built in 1910 and like hundreds of thousands like them, a constant of the city.

The residents had changed—from German to Italian and Polish to Greek, Middle Eastern and now the first trickle of Hispanics—but the houses had not.

Basilio gave Nieves a tackle box of old art supplies and added a few new things whenever he went to the store. But she spent most of her time talking to Grandpop, sleeping in the middle of the day and—this is what Basilio did not find out for more than a month—shooting dope with a downtown crowd that didn’t know La Movida from Muggsy Bogues.

Does the world really need another Spanish painter?


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