The One Who Gave Lights

The One Who Gave Lights – Pencil/paper – 5 x 7 in.

In English we say, “She gives birth.” I prefer the expression in Spanish: Ella da a luz.“She gives a light.” The woman in this drawing gave ten lights.

I’m not fond of this image because I drew her fingers too long. At that time, she could not tell the difference between what we call “past,” “present” and “future.” So perhaps in the drawing she was only counting the number of lights she had given.

One night, after drawing her, I traveled by train far into the North. The rocking motion of the cars slowly eased and we came to a stop. The engines panted, out of breath. We were alone in the middle of desolation: no trees, no animals, no hills, not even a star. Only a desert without end, the color of cement.

A conductor appeared, dressed like an admiral with epaulets and medals that glittered on his uniform. “This is the last stop,” he explained to a young woman with a baby in her arms, the only other passenger. “We have no tickets,” she pleaded. “On this train,” he assured her, “no one needs tickets.” She and the baby followed the glow of his flashlight to the end of the coach.

They disappeared into a dark house. At first I thought it was my brother Tim’s home on an island in the North, and so I began to look for him. In one room someone was asleep, but it wasn’t him nor anyone else I knew. I wandered around in the dark, then opened another door into a room full of light.

Abruptly, a figure wearing a fedora and a long coat brushed past me. Its face was metallic, like pewter, but erased: no eyes, no mouth, no nose, no gender. Beyond its shoulder a bed appeared. A woman was sleeping. She woke up and smiled at me, then went back to sleep.

A telephone was ringing. I stumbled through the house searching for it. Then half-asleep, I found it next to me. It was my sister Jane, crying. She told me that our giver of light was still with us, but now only in our memories.

Chicago, My Brother

Chicago, My Brother – Watercolor – 7.5 x 11 inches.

His name is Daniel. It’s the name he was christened with, the name known by all of our sisters and brothers, cousins, aunts and uncles, family and friends. However, during the years he worked as a deckhand on towboats that transport thousands of tons of cargo up and down the Mississippi River, his name was “Chicago.”

I drew this portrait of him when we were on board the Twain Marengo, a twin-engine 5,600 horsepower vessel on its way upriver from Baton Rouge, Louisiana to St. Paul, Minnesota. I was a guest passenger; he was working as part of a crew of nine bargemen. (By the way, the vessels are called ”towboats” even though they push the barges ahead of them rather than pull them behind.) On this voyage, the Twain Marengo was towing/pushing 15 barges loaded with 22,000 tons of coal, road salt, wheat, paper, corn and tinplate. Each barge measured 33 ft. wide and 200 ft. in length. When they were all yoked together with steel cables and cabled to the Twain Marengo, the whole lot measured nearly a ¼ mile in length, longer than the length of the Queen Mary. And all of this tonnage of boat and cargo was pushing against the flow of one of the most relentless forces on Earth, the Mississippi River.

In spite of the massive sizes of the boat and the barges, a malfunction of one of the smallest components can shut down everything. In this watercolor, my brother is repairing a small part of one of the diesel engines. The painting is only a small memory of our time together on the River. I intend to write a longer story of that voyage. The first part, of course, will be an answer to the question: Dan, how in the world did you get the name, “Chicago?”