She had always smiled. Getting a smile out of his mother was no mean feat; not that she was dour or stern, exactly, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to call her “businesslike”, not unlike many other of the mothers whose husbands worked in the factories of Cohoes (his father worked second shift at a specialty steel mill down on Mohawk Street, and he didn’t see him much during the week, unless he got a bit too rambunctious at breakfast, at which time he saw all he wanted of him and then some), leaving their wives with most of the heavy-lifting in terms of child rearing. He would draw her pictures of flowers and trees and, later on, pictures of them walking hand-in-hand to the grocery store or a portrait of her hanging laundry on the clothesline. She smiled at his drawings—not just because they were his, but also because they were actually quite good, certainly better than the run-of-the-mill pictures posted on other refrigerators with a watermelon-slice-shaped magnet.
He’d maintained his love for drawing throughout his school years, though not at the exclusion of everything else in life, like many of the so-called artsy types (he’d played baseball through his sophomore year, and took one year of auto shop before dropping that in favor of an art class) and one or two of his teachers expressed that they thought he would become a well-known painter or cartoonist someday. He’d even nursed a dream of seeing Paris after he was drafted, but Ike, Truman, and the Enola Gay conspired to ensure he never made it out of Fort Dix. Still, the G.I. Bill allowed him to spend a year taking drawing and illustrating courses at Pratt Institute in New York (he had an aunt in White Plains who fed and sheltered him, making the whole experience more financially palatable, if not aesthetically so.) He left Pratt after the year—not because he lacked the talent to keep up, but for the simple reason that he had fallen in love with—literally–the girl next door, whom he returned to Cohoes to marry.
He’d never intended to give up his artwork–indeed, he’d hoped to take some painting courses at the community center–but he’d taken a job at The Record in Troy, ostensibly working in the advertising department, but sometimes he had to lend a hand in composing doing paste-up so they could get the paper to press on time, so his hours were too erratic to commit to any coursework, and after two children arrived in fairly short order, the dollars and cents didn’t allow it, either. After some time, he left the newspaper to take a job at a weekly shopper (the money wasn’t much better, but at least the hours were a bit more regular), and he eventually scrimped and saved enough to buy a modest ranch house in Latham. For years, he drifted along, producing perfectly good spec ads and business cards, his children moving along solid paths of their own–his daughter studying for her teacher’s certificate at Albany State, his son landing a county job, since they were solidly Democratic in their leanings and voting record–until one night he went out to pick up some milk and vanilla ice cream and, instead of stopping at the grocery store on Route 9, he headed up to Crescent, turned off onto Canal Road, and methodically, swerving only ever so slightly to avoid a ragged yellow barn cat, drove right into the Mohawk River.
The sheriff’s deputies that worked on the case said it was as much of a mystery as clear-cut suicide could be. The tire tracks indicated he’d neither sped up nor slowed down as he left the road, and the window on the driver’s side was wide open. He’d left no note, nor had anyone at home or work seen any indications that anything had been amiss. He’d lived a perfectly ordinary life, and had seemed perfectly content to do so. The county boys said they’d never seen anything like it.
Several months later his wife, as part of the slow, inexorable process of excising someone from the affairs of the living, came across a large portfolio at the bottom of a trunk in the corner of the garage. Inside were several drawings, many of them reproductions of Gilbert Stuart portraits or Matisse Fauvist pieces, while others were still-lifes or drawings made from family photos. They were very good–but, clearly, no more than that; faithful replicas of the originals, but none of them having that undefined quality that elevates something from the everyday into the rarified atmosphere of greatness. There was no doubt that he was aware of the strengths and weaknesses of his work. Some of the pieces were dated and had extensive notes written on them–highlighting lines that needed to be re-drawn, thoughts on shading, figures that needed to be a half-a-head larger–while many others had sharp scribbles in the margins saying simply “Shit!” or “Fucking draftsman!” She sat on an old turquoise chair that had been exiled from the kitchen, paging through the drawings again and again, until the light faded into the soft and slightly eerie early-evening glow of October. Her thoughts were jumbled and diffuse, and she was unable to put them into any coherent whole, save for the fact that she noticed that her husband’s spelling had remained atrocious until the end of his days.