We all called him Betze. Translated from Romanian, his nickname means ‘sticks’ or ‘twigs.’ He wasn’t skinny, so I don’t know why people called him that. In fact, he was a well-built, sturdy man, of medium height and he had a round beard, which was turning a little gray, the way gray appears in blond hair. He had a handsome face and bright, intelligent eyes and he was smart and kind and soft-spoken. I never heard him say a bad thing about anybody. His humor was gentle. He loved to tell jokes, taking his time and making us wait for the punch line.
In addition to calling him Betze, I also liked to call him Maestro. That was because he was a master artist, a talented painter and sculptor; and because he had golden hands. He could fix a broken piece of furniture, paint a room, troubleshoot a car engine, till the soil to plant flowers and vegetables, and cook. He was a good cook.
He wasn’t without shortcomings, or demons as some liked to call them. He smoked and he drank. He’d start his day with a hearty breakfast that took him a while to prepare, and a beer or two. By eleven, he would have his first glass of wine. He only drank white. He never got drunk, but as the day progressed, his movements slowed down. And he was stubborn. Once he made a decision, then that’s the way it had to be.
One summer in the Outer Banks, we were fishing from the beach, Betze, my son and I. We were trying for spot. Nothing was biting and behind us, the sun was ready to set. Suddenly, just past the first sand bank, where the water was calm, we saw a fin. It was moving slowly along the shore. Others had seen it, too. “Shark,” they yelled. People speculated that the shark was sick — that’s why it came so close. Agitated, they left the water and ran up the dunes. Betze started to run also, not away from the sea, not in a panic, but towards the shark, casting his bait at it. He didn’t seem to care how inadequate his fishing rod was, he had decided it was worth the fight. I asked him to stop. It didn’t help. We ran after him along the shore for maybe a mile. Luckily, at some point, the shark took a turn to the deep and disappeared. Boy, was my friend discontent.
Time had no meaning to him. He lived in a universe of his own where things took as long as they took, and if they took longer, so what? He disregarded time. In that sense, he was timeless. In that sense, he didn’t live by the rules. He was about ten years older than I am, and he died a premature death at age sixty-five. His cancer was in his throat. I guess, in the end, time had played one on him.
We have a lot of his art — beautiful art. The painting I like best hangs above the fireplace. It is the portrait of a young woman, her head tilted sideways, eyes shut in pain. Her hands are clasped by her chest. Her face is sad and inspiring at the same time. Light, feathery brushstrokes of brown, crimson, sea green, blue-gray and white fill the frame. A lot of white. If one looks carefully at her praying hands, one notices that the left hand seems to have six fingers, but one cannot be sure. Is this an intended imperfection or an accidental mistake?
There are a few other paintings by him in the house. They all display nebulous and unfinished human bodies and mythological figures, in a perfect balance of earthy and translucent hues. “You don’t have to finish the line,” he once said. “A true artist will only hint at the shape.” They all have a soul — his soul. And we have two of his clay sculptures, representing a queen and a rook. It’s what is left from a large chessboard with collapsed and incomplete pieces, a battlefield at the end of a fight. He had displayed it once at an exhibit in Newark, New Jersey. Both are twisted and elegant, the pressure of his fingers molding the clay into shape is clearly visible, as is the sense of human frailty hidden within.
His artwork is in good company in our house. Other walls are covered by paintings made by my talented daughter, mostly when she was in art school. We have etchings by an artist who happened to be a friend of my late father-in-law. We have delicate paintings on glass made by a dear friend who lives in Copenhagen and seeks her inspiration in Romanian art, and a painting by a friend who is an artist in DC, inspired by Velasquez’ Las Meninas, graceful and dark. A couple of abstract paintings by a Romanian artist who spent his last years in New York, trying to make ends meet, hang in the living room. There are costume sketches by an award winning stage designer, and pieces we have from our parents, brought ages ago from Romania, some by artists they knew.
By the front door stand the two cats, sculpted in Indonesia. My wife bought them when we visited Amelia Island, in Florida, over my objections, and which, I have to admit now, are very nice. They are wooden cats, tall, slim and stylized — one taller than the other, otherwise looking like cute, wide-eyed siblings.
A cigarette holder from my grandfather. A glass vase, sitting on the ledge, from our best friend. A clay pot, from a good friend and business partner. From him too, a little African sculpture, a small drawing by a Baltimore artist. A colored glass pitcher from our friend in Israel. And in a corner of the garage, we have our son’s fishing rods, of which one, a long time ago, was used to try and catch a shark.
Because of the pandemic we spend most of our time at home. We silently glide through the house, just the two of us — like ships in a fog. We are alone in the house, surrounded by family and friends.
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