Dispatches | October 05, 2007

A couple of weeks ago, while my husband and I were in Conway, Arkansas, visiting his mother, we stopped by our friend Gene Hatfield’s house.  Gene is a retired professor of art at the University of Central Arkansas.  He is also known around town for his salvaged-art sculptures that fill his yard.  He retrieves children’s toys and mannequins and mirrors and picture frames and lamp shades from curbside trash heaps and fashions them into whimsical creations.  Open umbrellas, Big Wheels, kites and rocking horses are installed in trees while sunken bowling balls, overturned jugs, and an assortment of glass and metallic vessels mark the perimeter of his yard.  Upright rakes and shovels sporting bowler hats set at a rakish angle populate shaded corners.    

Years ago the city threatened to force him to remove his wonderland of aesthetically arranged junk, claiming it was a mosquito breeding ground.  The citizens heartily protested in his honor, and his work was spared.

Gene is a talented, unique man who has an old-fashioned gentility, a sort of Arkansas version of Peter O’Toole or Christopher Plummer.  When we knocked on his front door, he greeted us dressed in a sport coat and slacks even though it was Saturday and he’d been on the roof, dealing with a leak and a water-damaged ceiling.  His house is a gallery of his paintings, some cubist, others expressionistic, all in a bright, vivid palette of blue and purple and pink.  Many hung on the walls, most leaned in upright stacks against the walls.  The room shone bright with gilded frames.

Two years ago, before he’d turned 80, Gene’s wife Nicole died from pancreatic cancer.  They met while he was a serviceman in France during World War II.  He brought his beautiful war bride home with him.  The couple conjures for me the 1945 LIFE photograph of a sailor stamping a masterly kiss on a nurse in the middle of Times Square.

Gene and Nicole were married for more than fifty years.

After settling into creaky antique chairs squeezed in amidst the art, my husband who is known to ask serious questions, said to Gene, “Tell us about your marriage.”

(Gene and Speer travelled through Europe together, even sleeping in the same bed once, a fact that grants permission to ask such things.)

Gene recalled that he and his wife had had their differences.  Sometimes his taste just wasn’t “Frenchified” enough for her.  But they had made it work because they enjoyed each other and shared several interests aside from their children.  He was glad that they had spent their life together.

“I talk to her all the time,” he said.  “The spirit world is with us.”

Gene said that every day he goes for a stroll around his neighborhood.  When he spots a penny on the ground he picks it up.

“I know it’s from Nicole.  She’s still with me, you see.”

He had gone for a walk with his daughter Matilda a few weeks earlier.  When he stopped to pick up a penny, he said that his daughter looked at him as if to say, “Where are my pennies from Mom.”

They walked on, Matilda several steps ahead of him.  She stopped, kneeled down, and picked up something Gene couldn’t make out at a distance, though it glinted silver in the sun.  Matilda held a tiny charm of the Eiffel Tower between her fingers.

Vladimir Nabokov said, “Life is a great surprise.  I do not see why death should not be an even greater one” and I believe he’s right.

As we got in the car, I imagined a young Nicole.  For some reason she resembled one of the Andrews sisters, dressed in a square-shouldered suit, her hair worn up in a victory roll.  As she danced to swing music, she tossed pennies that fell down through the clouds and found Gene on the streets of Conway. 

Before we drove away, I rolled down the window and tossed a few pennies onto the sidewalk across the street from his house.  My husband smiled and told me how much he liked me.  I told him that I liked him too.