On Pretty Fruit Bowls

The first time I ran into Francisco de Goya was at the Museo del Prado in Madrid. When I saw the large bronze statue of him outside the entrance, I figured the bean company must have sent a big donation. It was my only awareness of the name. I had no business being there. I had never been in an art museum that I could recall. I was flat broke. I’d ditched out on two months’ rent to finance the trip when a friend sent a round trip ticket to Spain with plans to travel to Morocco and Gibraltar. I didn’t venture off on a whim because I had any great desire to visit cathedrals and museums, but I felt it was worth some adventure, even though I had to move in the middle of the night and left the landlord’s wallet light.

My idea of Spain was knife tricks in seedy bars after rounds of absinthe. It was finding the one Irish pub in Madrid and drinking beer while shuffling my feet through a thick carpet of wood shavings. It was flirting with lithe, sweaty drag queens in blue wigs. It was running into a bachelor party on passeo, and at their invitation, following them to what they said was a nice nightclub, but turned out to be a live sex performance theatre.

I would have gone in after discovering the deception, if I wasn’t traveling with two cowards and the friend who’d sent the ticket. My friend was less cowardly, but cautious and unwilling to offend the other two.

Their idea of Europe was architecture and art. We missed the sex show, because they were afraid. We also missed the eight-fingered sword maker in Toledo, whose hand I’d vowed to shake, in favor of El Greco’s anemic paintings of saints. I was cock-blocked from following the whiff of marijuana I smelled at the back of a tapas bar to its source for a toke and a talk.

We took a cab to the top of the Rock of Gibraltar, rather than climbing it, because my companions dressed in short skirts and four-inch heels. I was wearing hiking shoes and a fatigue jacket. They were scandalized when I climbed a monument of Cervantes and rubbed the round belly of Pancho Sanza for luck.

A wild plan I’d hatched to wander the streets of Tangiers, Morocco unguided in search of Burroughs’ opium den became a diluted tour-bus venture with a loud, short guide who held up a megaphone and yelled, “LADEEZ UND GENTMAN, THIS IS WHERE WILLIAM BURROUGHS LIVED,” as he pointed toward some obscure hovel I couldn’t discern clearly. I’d imagined lying down in the street in front of his doorstep, and smelling the ground the old bull once stumbled over. I’d imagined random encounters with street vendors at the soukh, a hookah for my mother, maybe a small clump of hash for a silver pipe I’d buy from an old Berber woman with rotten teeth and a secret stash of gypsy herbs she only pulled out for the kind travelers. Instead, Mohammed the carpet salesman locked me in his shop with the rest of the tour group and told me, “No hookah-bookah. Not safe for women.” Instead, I was given a glass of hot, sticky mint tea, because Moroccan custom dictates that even captives must drink tea.

When I wouldn’t pay thirty dollars for a pair of amber earrings I didn’t want, Mohammed told our tour guide in Arabic that I was a sharmoota. I don’t think he knew that I understood him, but I have some nasty Arabic in my lexicon. I knew only two Spanish phrases, “Where’s the bathroom?” and, “Can I have a beer?” All of my foreign phrases are practical. One never knows when profanity might beg to be wielded. The most important words, I figured, were the ugly ones. I’d even trained myself to say, “You smell like a goat” in Kiswahili (wewe harufu kama mbuzi).

I hate being called a bitch in any language, even angry-feline sounding Arabic. I told him to eat shit–in his own language (kol khara), so he’d understand the imperative clearly.

My understanding of what it means to be a living artist, and how I want to live as one, changed at the Prado, and it was Goya who altered me. We toured the upper galleries first, rooms and rooms of giant, bright paintings by famous artists I’d heard of, but only seen in coffee table books at the doctor’s office.

Goya was there, among the Reubens and Velasquez portraits, next to the pretty fruit bowls. In the upper galleries, his paintings were of picnic scenes and apple picking children with red, round, cheeks. He was the court portrait painter for much of his life, so there were plenty of unattractive nobles flanked by little people dressed in jester garb hanging on the walls. I enjoyed the upper galleries, but the pastoral scenes and still lifes made me want to take a siesta.

That changed quickly when we descended the stairs to the basement and entered Goya’s madness. The paintings in the basement were all created after Goya’s fortunes shifted. When Spain was invaded by the French, Goya painted a portrait of the French King and his family, a betrayal to his Spanish patrons who never took him back once they regained power. Then his wife died. He went mad. He caught a terrible infection. He went deaf and left Madrid for Manzanares, where he bought a small house named Quinta del Sordo (house of the deaf man). Somewhere in this maelstrom of misfortune, his paintings went wild.

When the children of Madrid began starving, Goya stopped painting picnics. Instead, he created a colossus wreaking destruction over the once fertile river plains of Madrid, stomping and squashing the citizenry. He painted Saturn Devouring His Sonon the walls of his dining room, blood-drooling, naked, filthy Saturn, who could not be bothered with the etiquette of employing a napkin — this was Goya’s dinner guest.

He captured the glint of terror in the wide-open eyes of a man executed by a French firing squad in The Third of May, 1808. Goya’s delicate brush strokes rendered pools of blood at the condemned man’s feet, leaking from the bodies of dead Madrillenos who’d already taken their bullets. The man stands, arms out, ready to accept the bullets about to rip through him.

Deaf and alone, perhaps missing his wife’s voice and the comfort of her soft body, the widowed Goya painted a harem of witches eager to fulfill the needs of an ancient randy goat-devil.

From the walls of the upper floor of Villa del Sordo, where Goya would have closed his eyes to dream, preservationists rescued Goya’s visual poem, El Perro. A black headed dog swimming in a sea of shit-colored paint, a wave of it building to drown him. The background color, a sky of sickly-colored urine, and at the horizon of piss and shit, a small head of hope. A dog who has been swimming through filth, but has not given up yet.

There is room on the walls of museums for pretty fruit bowls and pastoral scenes. Plenty of people appreciate traditional beauty, but there is also room on the walls for torment and loneliness, madness. Lucille Clifton once said, “There are many rooms in the house of poetry.” Art is shaded by what we experience and observe.

When she was first married and happy, Plath wrote about cantaloupes, in “Fiesta Melons” the fruit then was still “round and thumpable.” Life was full of possibilities, a wagonload of round melons, worlds she had yet to explore. Later, her poems became dark, strange creatures. We can be in many rooms in the house of poetry at once, or we can move from one room to another.

I have unusual preferences. I stray toward the alleyways, where the guttersnipes reside. I choose not to live a still life. What is ugly is truer to me than what many choose to avoid because of the risks. I would rather be dead than bored.

Goya suffered, but it’s part of a deal an artist brokers sometimes to ensure an extension of life span. It’s the same trip Robert Johnson took to the crossroad with his guitar. When I saw Goya’s black paintings, I could feel his anguish playing a mournful blues riff in my guts. It was beautiful.

And alive.

After the Prado, we had lunch at an expensive restaurant. We sat at an outdoor table with fine linen napkins, and a pitcher of sangria the waiters kept full. Our main course was an orgy; rice, steaming with the aroma of saffron, heaped with seafood and chicken, and threatening to spill out of the sides of the serving dish.

While we were eating, I felt a claw scratch at my leg and heard an anguished cry. I lifted the tablecloth to see what was the matter, and found a tiny, grey kitten whose eyes were crusted closed from infection. He was too young to be away from his mother, and hungry. The two stuffy cowards protested that it was unsanitary — I could catch an incurable infection. They waved for our waiter to put him in an alleyway, somewhere we wouldn’t be bothered. I lifted the kitten onto my lap, and used my fingerbowl to wet a napkin, and washed his eyes. I filled his compact body with paella, and felt his belly rumble as his hunger transmuted into a contented, grateful purr.

Jan Becker

Author’s note: Jan Becker was born in a coal-mining town in Northeastern PA. She didn’t stay there very long and has lived all over the United States. She is working on her MFA in creative nonfiction at Florida International University. Her writing has appeared in The Florida Book Review, WLRN/Miami Herald News, Sliver of Stone Magazine, and is forthcoming in Brevity Poetry Review, Emerge, and an anthology of Sliver of Stone Magazine’s non-fiction, All that Glitters, which will be released in June 2013. A contest judge once wrote that Jan Becker’s writing is ‘weird’. She likes that assessment.