by Jacob Russell
When Jessie and Little Owen Stucker passed him by Orville Qualls was out in the yard playing in the snow like a kid. Little Owen reminded himself to call Bobby Willis as soon as he got home, but otherwise they thought nothing of it. It was Orville's way. A little touched they said but forgivable as he was old and had never been known to harm a soul and half the population of West Sisters, Indiana had work by his hand on their walls or if they felt themselves of a more sophisticated nature, packed away in a basement, garage or attic—or maybe offered up as gift to one of the local collectors of Orville Qualls of which there were more than you might imagine, especially since that article in the Indianapolis Star calling him a genuine folk artist and a primitive genius on the order of Grandma Moses and Elias Hicks.
That morning he'd lingered at the kitchen table. Long after his coffee cup was empty, he sat there looking out the window, Ezekiel's muzzle warm on his knee. Seemed like years since there'd been snow fit for packing and shaping like this. In the corner by the stove, the dog's dish was still full; been three days now since he'd eaten.
It wasn't play to Orville whatever it looked like to those Wild Wolves. A duty owed is what it was. His way of saying goodbye.
Orville made his living, if you could call it that, turning out oil on plywood paintings, but the snow sculptures—they were something else again. They were portraits—tributes to the animals who'd kept him company through his life's journey. Over the years, there'd been dogs, cats, trained crows, and before the housing development went up around him, several generations of goats and an occasional pig which the new town laws had long since banished and forbidden. He knew they wouldn't last, the snow dogs and cats and such. If they survived the Wolves (as he called them), they'd melt away under the first warm rays of sun. But you see, this only made them the more precious in his mind, like the animals they represented. Companions for a time and gone. He let his fingers stroke Ezekiel's ears, looked down to meet his eyes, cloudy with age, almost blind. Ezekiel's time had come. There wouldn't be another chance.
* * *
Jessie and Little Owen barged in the back door, shook off the snow, pulled off their boots and ran with the toes of their socks flopping before them through the living room and up the stairs, passing in the hall (without stopping to look) a vintage Orville Qualls: a genre set piece from his late middle period, a wedding ensemble of their mother and father, Lora and Owen Stucker as bride and groom. Around them, bridesmaids and best man, parents, uncles and aunts, friends of the family and of course the Reverend Don Beuhler who administered their vows. Everyone in the painting was recognizable, the peculiarity of feature and character of each drawn to perfection, their identities captured beyond any doubting who was who—a truly amazing feat considering that Qualls rendered every last one in animal form: dog, cat, crow, goat, pig, fish...
Weddings were his specialty—but weddings hardly exhausted his repertoire: there was the laying of corner stones, Independence Day parades, Elks Club dinners, VFW Memorial Day picnics, homecomings, graduations, class reunions, PTA meetings... and funerals, which, not being in great demand, he painted only for his own pleasure.
For the children, Orville's paintings may have passed unnoticed, but not old Orville. And never these rare, ceremonial creations in snow. There's something to children you know –
closer to their angel natures both dark and light – that draws them more naturally to what is deep, and that which old Orville did not hold in high regard himself they paid no heed to, while one of his snow beasts, images sanctified in his imaginings, they would lock onto like so many smart bombs homing in on an enemy missile silo. In West Sisters, it was a tradition passed from generation to generation.
Little by little he coaxed from the snow he'd rolled together, animal forms – generic at first, and then you'd begin to see the kind, as goat or dog, and in course of time, from general doggishness there arose – up into his own once and forever mortal frame, the very image of the animal most recently lost. He worked long and hard all that afternoon, and when he climbed the porch steps and opened his door, cloth gloves soaked through, his feet wet, fingers and toes numb with cold, Ezekiel at his heels, it was already good and dark.
He couldn't hear them but they were there. The Wild Wolves have come, he thought. Just a matter of time. He stood a while at the open door, the light from the window stretching out over the yard of churned up snow where he'd rolled those big balls and tramped the snow to grass and the grass to mud—stood there observing his work in the shadows, the light from the window stretching across porch and yard, the street lights playing on its form: Ezekiel, as good as life.
Orville breathed deeply. "We did it," he said, looking down at his dog. It was with a heavy heart that he turned his back to the night and closed the door behind him.
Indoors, too tired for supper, he stared out one last time at the dog in the snow, pulled shut the blinds and sank back into the big over‑stuffed chair by the window and when Ezekiel laid his head on his knee, Orville looked down at him and understood. Too big for a lap dog, he pushed forward in the chair and let himself slip down to the floor so the dog could better rest his foreself on his legs. He could hear them now, circling in, drawing closer. He let his own head lay back on the bolstered arm of the chair and as he drifted into an easy sleep the wolves began their dance of destruction. That night, when all was quiet again, he was sure he saw the soul of his good dog Ezekiel, released from the broken clods of snow, rise up to heaven and the arms of Jesus there, friend of man and all God's creatures, open to receive him.
The next morning old Orville Qualls carefully wrapped the dog in a wool army blanket, carried him out to the back yard, cleared the snow from what looked to be a proper sized circle of earth and began to dig. That is, he tried—but with the ground frozen, made no progress and soon gave up. This left him to ponder what he was to do as he couldn't leave the body outside where other animals might find him – or worse – these two-footed wolves, and he couldn't leave it for long indoors. There was the porch roof which he could reach through a bedroom window with no trouble but a bundle that size would be easily spied from the street and he didn't cotton to the prospect of answering questions on the subject.
Such were the thoughts playing through his mind as he carried blanket and dog back to the house. Once in the kitchen, rather than bend over to lift that weight all the way from the floor again, he laid it on the chest freezer he used as a counter top, and as he did, a thought occurred to him. Only question was—did the thing still work?
Ezekiel's spirit seemed a tangible presence as he made his way to the basement, found the right breaker, pulled the switch: sure enough—there was the vibration above him as the motor come on. Upstairs again, Orville sat down to catch his breath. He'd have to wait to see if it was going to cool. The blanket had come undone and flopped open under Ezekiel's body. Like an alter cover, he thought, and Ezekiel laid out there on the freezer chest like an offering, his legs folded stiff against his body as he'd left him. A thought began to take hold in Orville's mind like a seed in warm earth.
* * *
Lora Stucker wrapped a napkin around the paper cup to insulate her hands from the heat; her glasses alternately fogged and cleared as she blew in little puffs over the surface of the steaming coffee. The meeting was called to order and the Friends of West Sisters Public Library stopped their chatter to hear Aileen Hinds read the minutes. When the floor was opened for new business, Lora raised her hand.
"As you know," she began (and of course, everyone did), "our own Orville Qualls has just returned from New York City where he has brought a great honor to West Sisters by his selection to be represented at the very prestigious Museum of Modern Art's exhibition: 'Folk Art from America's Heartland'. She looked up from the page she'd been reading, adjusted her reading glasses and smiled. "A famous artist in our midst, who would have thought it!" She shifted her glasses back in place, held up her notes and continued.
"It is especially noteworthy in this day and age when the self-appointed elite in high places deem it fit and right to promote – and no one needs to be reminded of what I speak – all manner of perversions and cynicism and unbelief prevail, that one of our own so ably demonstrates that art can still be wholesome for families to appreciate with no fear of compromising the innocence of youth or offending the faith of good Christians and other sincere believers of all colors and creeds, which even the simple can understand. Like the Fisher of Men, Orville Qualls does not fear to mold his message for the meek and humble among us, and for this reason, I would like to propose we return the honor he has brought our town by organizing our very own Orville Qualls exhibition in the West Sisters Public Library."
Lora Stucker's proposal was greeted with warm – even hearty – applause. When the few objections that arose had been addressed and resolved to satisfaction, committees were created, members nominated and approved, and in a matter of weeks a room had been selected, a date sent, publicity prepared. From all over town, from closets and attics, from over mantelpieces and rec-room walls, Orville Qualls paintings were volunteered—all that remained was a response from the artist himself who had not yet returned from New York.
It wasn't true, what Lora Stucker had said about the Museum of Modern Art, though that's how the West Sisters Hoosier Ledger had it so the misunderstanding was natural. What happened was a young man the name of Roland Earlvine, who as a kid was viewed with no little suspicion. He had reputation as a computer whiz and began taking on jobs building websites; in no time this kid was making more than he'd yet learned how to spend, which led to his investing in stocks and before he was of legal age to buy a glass of beer or a pack of cigarettes he had made a proverbial killing on the NASDAQ. This made his head way too big for life in West Sisters and at the age of twenty years ten months he moved to New York where he planned make himself richer than Donald Trump who he'd secretly admired from the day he first saw his picture in the paper with that Marlo woman.
None of this would be relevant, of course, if Roland hadn't discovered through the internet a deep and abiding interest in alternative comics. He'd started collecting old masters like Art Crumb and Aleksandar Zograf, and was soon adding younger artists the likes of Ben Katchor, Peter Bagge and Chris Lanier to his ever expanding list of hopefuls. On the day he was to leave for the big city he took some time to walk around his parents' house kind of taking things in for memory's sake. That morning he began to look at Qualls's quirky paintings with new eyes.
It was Roland got Orville Qualls his first showing in a Soho gallery, and Roland who made arrangements that ensured Qualls publicity and a good turnout of critics and prospective buyers at the opening. It took many phone calls and many hours to talk him into coming to New York for the occasion – at Roland's expense – but when he did, old Orville Qualls, in his suit of shiny blue, purple polka-dotted tie a hand’s breadth wide, black wingtips and white socks, was a hit for a fact.
Everyone loved him, and fortified with California chardonnay, which he took a great liking too, he played the part to the hilt, holding court, greeting everyone who came, making the rounds, pumping hands like a politician.
"Wonderful," said Solomon Kravitch, collector of 19th century Americana, and more recently, promoter and patron of folk art, of Navaho potters, Appalachian basket weavers, bottle cap sculptors and roadkill rug makers. "Visual fables —positively allegorical!"
"Indeed," his wife, Jessica replied. "Think of the greeting cards. Think of the calendars."
"Indeed," said Mr. Kravitch.
"Absolutely," his wife replied.
"Why don't you give us a call, said Mr. Kravitch, handing Orville a card as new admirers crowded in to take their turn at paying homage.
* * *
A few weeks later, back in Indiana, Orville got a phone call from Mr. Kravitch. It was about a show they were helping to organize, an exhibit of American folk art, the one Lora Stucker had thought had been held in the Museum of Modern Art, the one the Kravitch's intended to use to showcase Orville Qualls as their own find.
What did Orville have that would be out of the ordinary—especially so, even more than the animal paintings in the Soho gallery; was there something he'd perhaps set aside, something no one else knew about it?
Well, there was one piece like that, Orville told them. One that might fit their needs. He was, in fact, still working on it. "Yes, the animal theme—but something religious," he said. No, he didn't want to send them a slide. He didn't want to take a picture of it. That was sort of the idea, he explained, something about graven images and the real thing. "Not a painting this time," he told them. "Yes, a kind of sculpture, you could say that."
"Very realistic," he promised. If they were interested he'd drive it up for them to look at. "Take it or leave it, though," he said, when they explained about the jury. It wouldn't be right to put it up for judgment.
After some consultation they got back to him. They'd take it—an invitational work, by-pass the jury. Just this one piece.
The trip to New York was uneventful. With money from sales from the first show he had his ‘56 Ford pickup towed to Larry DeVault's who started doing work on stock cars and monster trucks on the side about twenty years back. When his son teamed up with him the ground had been laid to turn his father's old gasoline alley garage into one of the most successful businesses in all of southwestern Indiana and that old pick-up came out of there looking like something the governor of Minnesota himself would of been proud as punch to drive up ringside at a Grand Colossal Wrestling Federation of the Universe Campaign Rally.
Maybe it was the truck, the chrome silver dual exhausts, the iridescent midnight blue paint job, the vermilion racing stripes, but there was no mistaking the look of doubt that crossed Mr. Kravitch's face when he stood at the loading dock behind the gallery looking up at the four-by-ten foot wooden packing crate strapped to the bed of old Orville Qualls's made over pickup. And it didn't pass Orville's notice the way the room in the gallery, busy with workers and directors and partners installing the show, fell plumb silent when the boards were pried off and the two panels leaned against the wall on each side of the central case and the padded blankets pulled free and eddies of dry ice fog rolled out of the packing crate and across the gallery floor, lapping at their ankles like a pack of ghostly pups.
"Well... " said Mrs. Kravitch at last. "Well... "
"Well, indeed," said Mr. Kravitch.
* * *
On the eve of the opening of the show in the West Sisters Library, Orville Qualls slept fitful, waking several times with troubled dreams. At one point he thought he heard children in the yard. When he closed his eyes he began to imagine them, but not children anymore—circling the house with torches, their eyes glowing in the firelight. Startled by the sound of broken glass, he tried to rise but his legs and arms were welded to the mattress. Shadows roamed the darkened rooms. He knew what they were searching for – the piece he'd made – the one he'd told them he was going to bring to the show in his honor at the West Sisters Library the next day. They'd come to destroy it like the snowdogs, and this time they'd come for him. Shouts of outrage—they'd found it! They were searching for him now. Still, he could not move, only he was no longer in his bed but hiding in a stand of tall weeds along a fence by a field of corn, his feet, naked and white in the moonlight, protruded from the dry grass, giving him away. No matter how he maneuvered his body, he couldn't draw them out of sight. He was surrounded. They were pulling him out on the road. Trucks, dark, vast as mountains, thundered past but none paid them any mind and no one stopped to come to his aid. One of the shadow figures pulled him up by the armpits. He felt the nails, the thorns, felt the cold wind over his naked body as they raised him over the highway on an ancient Burma Shave sign, leaving him to die like a dog for his sins.
He woke of a start in the predawn dark, sprang to his feet on his bed to the sound of his breath rapid and deep as though he'd been running and the beating of his heart and the click of his tongue, dry on the roof of his mouth as he shed the aura of the dream.
When he got his bearings, realized where he was, he began to sway dangerously, to stagger, the unstable footing of the bedsprings beneath him threatened to topple him to the floor. He felt for the wall, slowly lowered himself, dropped back on the bed, waited for the springs to be still, slid his feet over the side of the bed and with relief, felt the solid planks of the hard wood floor beneath him. "They got it all wrong... " he whispered to the dark, his heart still beating hard in his breast. "But it don't matter. Let 'em do me how they want," he thought to himself, "I ain't gonna back out now for love nor money."
* * *
It was with fear way beyond stage fright when the big night came round and Orville Qualls stood there in the library reading room surrounded by the good citizens of West Sisters, Indiana, all attention on the closed cabinet at the center of the room—his masterpiece, the one they hung him for in his dream. And it wasn't for nothing, his fears. He knew for a fact that good old Charlie Baker's granddad right here in West Sisters had presided over a cross burning hidden under white sheets with the better of part of the Chamber of Commerce in attendance and not all that many years ago, he thought. And it was the good men and women of the West Sisters PTA had wrote a letter of sympathy for the banning of Ryan White upstate for no fault of his own but being a child and sick and in need. And he knew how the pious citizens of West Sisters would leave the Easter passion play they put on every five years feeling in their hearts how it was the Jews had killed their God and happy in their minds that soon there'd be no more Jews in the world, or Hindus or Unitarians or Eastern Democrats for that matter—cause when that time came they'd all see the light and the whole world would believe just like they did in West Sisters Indiana, to the dot and title else be damned to hell forever, praise the Lord. And how they passed an English-Only law in City Council even though the only folks who spoke anything but English around here were the migrant workers on their way north to pick fruit and cucumbers in Michigan. And how Phil Riverberg did not acknowledge the existence of his own son because he'd gone off and declared his love for a man of his own sex, and how year after year generations of the children of West Sisters would tease and torment him and wait for winter to destroy the fragile work of his hands and how most of those children were right here now waiting in this room, waiting to see what he had made, waiting to see what he had to show them.
All these things were going through his mind and it caused him no little agitation to think on them. The time of reckoning had come.
Orville Qualls stepped up to the cabinet: three antique armoires covered on the outside with false panels painted in Pennsylvania Dutch style, ingeniously joined and hinged. When he removed the false panels there was a stir, gasps. A couple of children were hushed and scooted out the door when they started in to giggle and point.
A few coughs.
A scowl fell over the face of Nash Colbert.
Charlie Baker and Phil Riverberg nodded in silent agreement.
"It's ... different," offered Lora Stucker in a weak voice.
"Yes it is that,” said Dale Lilly, trying to break the tension.
There on the closed doors of the armoire, rendered in exquisite and painful detail was the anguished, crucified body of a German Shepherd, huge rust covered barn nails driven through its paws, a crown of thorns on its brow, a rent in his side stanched with a sponge. Then Orville opened the cabinet. Inside, behind a glass that replaced the door of the old freezer, now set upright, the frozen body of the late Ezekiel was suspended mid-air against a painted crimson sunburst, forepaws raised in beneficent triumph, a crown of glory on his head, tongue lolling happily from his open, grinning jowls.
Something else Lora Stucker didn't know: the Heartland exhibition in New York had opened without Qualls's masterwork. There had been a lot of talk. A few artists expressed outrage by the decision but were, with a little effort, mollified when they were promised space for additional work. The president of the board was adamant and the director of the gallery had gone along. They had campaigned hard, strings had been pulled. A substantial challenge grant stood in the balance. Everything depended on the NEA grant, and this, they agreed, in an exhibit whose very purpose had been to win over enemies of public funding for the arts, with invitations already sent to politicians... no, this was too much. Everyone agreed. Orville Qualls was, without fanfare or protest, sent packing to Indiana.
"Well," said Reverend Beuhler, clearing his throat, running his hand through his white hair. He paused, took out a tissue and wiped the corners of his mouth, looked around the room, stern as an ancient prophet... looked at Orville Qualls beside his work, so small, so frail...
"Well..." he said at last, but his words stuck in his throat.
Phil Riverberg opened his mouth as though about to speak but Reverend Beuhler held up his hand and cut him off.
Orville Qualls stood resolute, facing his inquisitors, an autumn leaf clinging to its bough before a November wind.
At that moment, there was not a one of them in the room but remembered some winter day, that same face peering out his front window as they galloped through his yard, trampling images of the animals they knew he loved.
Orville Qualls cleared his throat. In a high nervous voice, he began to recite the little speech he'd made for the occasion.
"I want this to be," he said ... silence. He took another deep breath, looked around the room.
No use, the words he'd rehearsed deserted him.
"... well ... I don't quite know how to put it ... I guess I shouldn't take more of your time ... so. Let me just say this. This here... "
He kind of swiveled his body to the right, nodding toward the cabinet, Ed Sullivan style – back to the guests, around the room one face at a time, and when his eyes fell again on the Rev. Beuhler – and it came to him, just like that.
"I just want to dedicate this,” he said, renewed conviction in his voice, and just a hint of a smile. "... this alter piece ... to the church. Welp, it's yours." To their doubtful looks, he nodded his head in vigorous affirmation.
"Yours. My gift," he said. "My gift to you, the good people of West Sisters for all the good you done for me over the years." Orville smiled a little smile, openly now, scratched the side of his nose, looked down at his shoes, looked back at the Reverend, who, for maybe the first and last time in his life was left speechless.
It was Lora Stucker who broke the silence that followed. "What do you say we try some of those delicious cookies our ladies have prepared for the occasion?"
While I can't say anyone understood Orville Qualls the better for it, and though his offer to donate the altarpiece to the West Sisters Church of God was turned down by the Rev. Beuhler and his board of directors, they did so with many apologies and profuse thanks for his generosity, and the rest of the evening did pass without incident. With Qualls no longer in the news, things went back pretty much to how they'd always been, though people talked as they always will.
He lived a long time, Orville did, and there were yet a few more generations of little wolves came to prowl his yard on winter nights. Orville would hear them outside. The occasional snowball would thud harmlessly against a window and slide down the glass, and inside, Orville would sit to a candle's glow, that old freezer humming its sixty cycle hum, and before him in the case, Ezekiel—rising to heaven as though to show him the way.
Jacob, having survived pepper gas a tornado being hit by a car two marriages two sons pneumonia major depression asthma seven orthopedic surgeries & several arrests over fifty years of following his own dream, is very happy to be alive in good health living in a warehouse with eighteen people almost as crazy as himself. He’s written two novels, short fiction, hundreds of poems. At present, he's dedicated to primarily making visual art. Links to his published writing and photos can be found on his blog, Jacob Russell’s Barking Dog. http://jacobrussellsbarkingdog.blogspot.com/
John McGall is a professional photographer and filmmaker based in New Jersey, USA. His passion for photography was ignited when he found an old Polaroid camera in his basement at age six and spent hours roaming the neighborhood in search of scenes to capture. Learn more about his photography at http://www.johnmcgallphoto.com or browse his work at Flickr.