WATERCOLORS FOR ELVIS ©Christina Maile 2018
It was one of those days. Outside, raining. Inside, listless and so full of static electricity that I couldn’t keep my hair from frizzing, The door bell rang. Should I answer it? I looked like a dandelion but what else did I have going on. I opened the door. And there in my decrepit hallway with the broken Exit sign stood Elvis Presley. Now I have to admit that just a few days before, I had completed a 10 day silent meditation workshop. So I had to decide. Was Elvis a momentary distraction that I had to acknowledge and let go. Or an actual hallucination.
Apparently the indecision that crossed my face, Elvis read as welcome, and he strolled inside. Now I know I keep referring to him as Elvis. But at the time, I didn’t know for sure. All I could have told you back then was that the guy staring at my work on my studio walls looked a lot like Elvis. But he didn’t seem to have any make up, or plastic surgery. In fact he didn’t look like an impersonator at all. He looked just like a country boy , with a white short sleeve shirt with rolled up collar, pressed jeans cinched by a worn out brown belt, and brownish hair that curled like a surfer’s wave over his head.
As a New Yorker however, I wasn't going to be fooled by what could be a mistaken celebrity sighting in my apartment. As a test I asked him,, ”Who are you?”. "Oh I’m sorry, Ma’am,”, he said in that faintly arousing voice of his, , “my name is Elvis Presley and I saw your work on the internet and I really liked it." OK passed the first test with bonus points. “ Where is the internet?”I asked, thinking this would give me a clue to where he came from. . “ I don’t know” , he replied. Well that seemed honest , cause I don’t know where the internet is either.
He pulled out two crumpled one dollar bills. “Will you give me watercolor lessons?” Now this was a dilemma the meditation workshop had not prepared me for. How could I acknowledge, and then release a thought that was willing to pay me?
I became all business. “ Have you ever taken art lessons?”, I asked. Elvis gave me that half crooked smile that showed a bit of teeth so perfect that I resolved never to do cigarettes or candy ever again. “No Maám. But I always wanted to learn. I will work hard. You won’t be sorry” “You would be the least of my sorrows, I thought.
Smiling both to him and myself, I handed him a list of the art supplies he needed. He left and came back in a flash or a week (who knows)., apologizing,, “This is all I could find. “ From a small paper bag, he took out a yellow sassafras leaf, a grey pebble with a white line down the middle , and a peach .
I sighed, should I tell him these things were not on the list, but then I remembered what I had learned from the meditation workshop - Eat the peach while you can.
So we began. Our first lesson was colour washes. Standing beside him with his country boy smell of gasoline, sweat and sugar, I looked at his unlined hands, his long fingers ending in blunt clean nails, and his face which was furrowed in concentration, and I thought to myself, if this is really Elvis, maybe I should be charging more than $2 a lesson.
Elvis must have brought some kind of hyper reality to my life because I cannot tell you whether our lessons were weekly, hourly , or even minutely. But he was making a lot of progress.
Sometimes when a lesson ran long, we’d have lunch together. In time I really got to like macaroni with peanut butter, and mayonnaise and potato chip sandwiches.. Most of all though, Elvis loved to tell jokes. Like this one. “Why did the farmer die from drinking milk? “ I give up, Elvis” , I’d say, “why did the farmer die from drinking milk”. Elvis could barely choke back his laughter, “Because….because …the cow fell on him. “
One day having accidentally left some of my unfinished watercolours on the worktable, I found Elvis busily filling in colours and washes on top of one of them. He had turned the paper upside down and on top of my uncompleted colours, he had painted a group of people standing up to their waists in water. “That’s lovely” I told him. And it was lovely. Poignant. It spoke to me in that unconscious way that paintings sometimes do. “Let me get you a clean sheet of watercolor paper” “ No” , he quickly replied, “ I like having a background to back me up.” And then I realised, of course, Elvis , when he performed, always had somebody singing or playing an instrument behind him. Why would he be any different with painting?
So began our last days together. Every night before his lesson, I would meditatively breathe in the cosmos into my nostrils and expel the cosmos through my fingers and brush, painting colorful little dabs of the cosmos on my watercolor papers.
The next day, it was thrilling to watch Elvis’s brush move so expressively upon those same watercolor papers, painting in and around the background I had provided. He had his own style - a mix of John Singer Sargent and The Jetsons. . One especially productive day, I said to him “You should sign your work”. “I can’t”, he said, “I am not allowed to sign anything without permission.” “But Elvis,” I urged, “ when you sign your work, it’s like owning the farm, or the mansion. No one else can say it’s theirs. “ Without another word, he picked up a ballpoint and neatly printed his name, E Presley . And then in a gesture I will forever love him for, he handed me the pen and asked me to sign alongside his.
We began signing all his work. Gazing at the pile of finished watercolors, I said, “Elvis, you should have a show, a watercolour show.” His blue eyes lit up. We spent the rest of the day matting his work, figuring out titles, prices. I gathered everything into a portfolio case , and when I handed it to him, he cried a little. Then he pulled out a something from a paper bag he was carrying. It was a watercolor I had never seen before. The two of us, Elvis and I. Me sitting on a cow, and below, Elvis milking it. He had signed it To my Teacher, with Technicolor love, Elvis. Then he disappeared.
Some part of me knew he wouldn’t return. Weeks, hours, minutes passed. Then one grey, listless day, my hair as usual standing on end, I thought I heard a doorbell. I ran to the door. It must have been so fast that I thought I saw a moving finger still heading towards the doorbell. The moving finger belonged to a man dressed in a long gown and a turban carrying a loaf of bread and a jug of wine. He looked like someone who lived in my building “Who are you? “, I said., “Oh Hi,” the man replied rummaging in his pocket for a small ruby covered book of verse which he handed me, pointing to his name on the front. “ I hear you teach watercolor”, he said. I thought of the sphere we live upon and the bowl of heaven where under its starry sky we will never fathom what comes and goes, “Omar, “, I answered, you have come to the right place”