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Dawn in Pennsylvania

(Edward Hopper’s “Dawn in Pennsylvania”)

“How to describe it all? My dad and his sweaty armpits and the black garbage bags with the slice of old-time America buried inside. This sadness I’ve become filled with, which doesn’t feel like the kind of sadness the artist intended, but the opposite…his sadness looks like happiness to me.”

It starts with someone pounding the door of my apartment. I go to answer in clothes that are damp from the thick August heat, thinking maybe it’s the neighbor who wants me to watch her cat again or maybe it’s the super, finally come to fix my wobbly toilet bowl. But when I peek through the peephole it’s him, this hulking, huffing guy whose hair is as black as shoe polish, exactly how I remember it. 

“Dad?” I’m shocked in a weary sort of way. Like, what is he doing here after all this time? What is he going to want? 

He’s dressed in a gray security guard suit, though it looks like a Halloween costume, something not fitting right, with giant pit stains oozing across the too-tight fabric, a sight so embarrassing it is kind of endearing. Though I remember all the things Mom used to say about him, and how he never called or even sent a letter, so it’s going to take more than big pit stains for me to love this man.

“Janey,” he says, huffing and reaching out to lean his hand on my door frame. God, he’s out of shape. Wherever he’s been these past twelve years, it obviously did not include the gym. I have to bite my tongue to keep myself from offering him water. Or to ask if he’s okay. All these ways I have of doing the opposite of what I truly want. You let the wrong people in and push the right people away, Laila tells me a lot. Which is her way of coming at the front door of my heart with a pounding fist of her own, only with a sweet heart-shaped mouth and lovely clear eyes, unlike this black-haired man and his sweaty jowls. 

“I wanted to give you something,” my dad says. He doesn’t make eye contact with me, like he’s ashamed. Which is fine, because he should be. 

“Okay,” I say, thinking how weird all this is. Like, how many millions of times, when he first left, did I picture this moment, Dad showing up, bowing his head before me, bearing some kind of gift? The answer is many. Many millions. 

Now I just wait. The neighbor’s cats are hissing at something and a TV is on way too loud down the hall. 

“It’s this,” he says, and that’s when I notice this large rectangular-shaped thing propped against the hallway wall, covered in black garbage bags. He picks it up, and I’m thinking, oh, perfect, my dad has shown up after over a decade to give me a big pile of trash. Like, perfect. 

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But it’s got a shape to it, with some kind of hard edges I can feel under the garbage bags. It maybe weighs five pounds, and is about the height and width of a card table. The garbage bags are all taped with masking tape, crisscrossing like some child’s idea of gift-wrapping. 

My guess is some kind of painting, which all of a sudden washes me over in sadness. That my dad maybe saved up some money, bought some terrible watercolor, wrapped it up in whatever was laying around in the trunk of his car, and showed up here in his sweaty gray uniform, thinking he could atone for years of absence with a thing that neither of us would actually want. I carry it to the kitchen table, shove over stacks of unopened mail, circulars stuck to the table’s surface and leaving gummy residue when I push them aside. I lay the object flat, staring down for a moment at the sad sight of all this pale yellow tape and shimmery black bag, and then I sigh, thinking fine, I’ll offer the guy a glass of water, I’ll invite him inside. At the very least it will be something good to tell Laila, who likes stories with happy endings. 

I pluck at my shirt, loosening it from my skin, glance down to check for pit stains of my own. Then finally I turn to face him. 

But he’s gone. 

When I stand at my doorway, all I see is an empty hall. I hear those cats, a laugh track to some show. And then I hear the building’s heavy glass door all the way downstairs, creaking open and slamming shut with a bang. 

Well now. You’d think I would run down the steps, chase after him. Or yank open my blinds, hunt for his car, catch his license plate. Call out into this sleepy Queens street, “Hey! Stop that man!” 

But I’m done with that sort of thing. When I was eleven, when he first left, I did a lot of hoping and hunting. A lot of following the shoe-polish-black heads of other men on the street in front of me, waiting for them to turn around and become my father. They never did. So I’m not about to become that child-self again. My life is a far cry from perfection, but at least I know one thing, and that is when to put the stopper into a drain that will suck everything out of you if you let it. 

There’s this thing though, this heap of painting-shaped trash on my kitchen table. This shimmery blob. This so-called gift. 

My hands are shaky when I open the bags, going at them first with a knife, which I soon realize is maybe cathartic but completely impractical, so switching to scissors, snip-snipping until the plastic falls away in sharp clean lines. 

To be honest, I’m curious, my heart thumping now like a peppy little drummer boy. I mean, even if it’s some crap watercolor, might it carry some kind of message? Maybe it’s even something my dad painted himself. Something he painted for me, after all this time. He took a class, learned all about the color wheel. This one’s for my kid, he told his teacher, who nodded and was pleased. 

But even as they rush to me I push those thoughts away. “Hope is the thing with feathers”—didn’t Emily Dickinson write that? Well anyone who’s been around chickens knows that too many feathers can clog up your mouth and eyes so much that your retinas burn and your throat feels stuffed too tight to breathe. 

I claw away the garbage bags, let them drift through the air and sink to the floor beneath my bare feet. I put my hands on my hips, then cross my arms, then lean forward, all trying to get comfortable while I look at this thing in front of me. This thing that, now revealed, makes absolutely no sense at all. 

It’s a painting. Not a watercolor but acrylic, maybe. And not done in some amatuer art class. It’s professional-looking. Actual artist-like. Lots of grays and browns and blue-black. Some apartment buildings. A train. A wagon. 

I look for a signature, which feels crass somehow, like I’m supposed to enjoy the artwork regardless of who made it. But that is a rule for museums. Not a rule for the time your missing dad shows up out of the blue bleeding sweat and hands you this thing with no explanation, then takes off. As always with my dad, regular rules need not apply. 

Edward Hopper. There it is. There is the name. In small capital letters in the lower right. Edward fucking Hopper. I do another scan across the painting, because it does change the thing, of course it does, to know that this is a Hopper, the guy of bleak diner scenes and…well, that’s all I know about Hopper. That one famous painting of a few people sitting in a diner. 

I don’t realize how much sweatier I’ve become until I step away to reach for my phone and feel the cool puddle gathered in the small of my back. The elastic band of my running shorts is soaked. I probably smell, though that hardly seems to matter right now. 

Hovering over the painting, I begin snapping pictures. I’m not sure why. Maybe, just like my dad, I feel like this thing could disappear from me at any moment. I need a record of it. But in another way, this is all so strange, so unimaginably bizarre. I need to do something to understand it, to make this moment a tangible thing I can hold and look at. Everybody knows that the best way to make your life feel real is to post about it online. 

Never thought I’d own a Hopper but…is the caption I’m thinking of. 

Better yet, Can anyone out there authenticate this for me? 

Laila would be the first to respond. She’s always the first to respond to my posts, which I used to think was sweet until I began to wonder if it was too much. Like, we literally just had sex. You don’t have to heart-emoji my dumb observation about some new toothpaste. Then again, why do I feel the need to post anything at all about toothpaste when she and I just had sex? 

Now she’d make a Wow face. Then there would be a phone call. You bought a painting? Her voice pitchy with disapproval. Jane, you were literally just complaining about never getting a raise. You were literally just talking about getting a part-time job on weekends. You were literally just saying how sick you are of paying off your student loans. 

She wouldn’t be wrong. I am always literally talking about these things because sometimes these things are literally all I can think about. Money, where it’s coming from, how to get more of it, why it never seems to grow but only slip away. Even when we’re kissing, sometimes I’m doing math in my head, thinking about how if I could just pick up an extra three hundred dollars on weekends, then I’d get my loans paid off in four years instead of five, and it’s not even the loans themselves that are so bad, but the damn interest rate, which is like a whole other loan piled onto the original one. 

Sorry, I always tell her, when she accuses me of not being present. Which is the truth. I am sorry. I’m sorry that no matter what I do, I never feel like I’m getting anywhere. I’m sorry that I’m nearly thirty years old and I still have no savings and no plan. I’m sorry that I think about these things so much, that I’m turning into exactly what I never wanted to become, which is a person like my father, distant and unreachable and completely incapable of providing for the people I love. 

Should I hang it in the bedroom or living room? is the post I settle on when I stop, actually considering this other possibility, which is that holy hell this painting might be real indeed. 

I mean, it’s highly unlikely. Edward Hopper. An original would be worth a million dollars. At least. Maybe five or ten or fifty million. Which, just thinking of that kind number makes my head swim. Something worth millions of dollars is sitting inside my apartment? My crappy little apartment with its wobbly toilet bowl and faux-granite countertops in the kitchen that bubble up to reveal the mold underneath? A rich thing, in here? 

I never got the impression my dad had money. When he was home he was always a floating security guard, working either in office buildings or department stores. The man at my door who still looks like he dyes his hair from a puddle of car grease certainly did not appear to be a man who could afford a multi-million-dollar painting, let alone six quarters for the basement washing machine. 

Stolen then? But how? Sketchy figure though he was, I’d be gobsmacked to learn he was some kind of criminal mastermind. Or that he had a network of such people. From my mom’s stories, I never had reason to believe he was anything more than a loser who just ran off. A guy who, as she put it, liked the idea of family more than he liked the work it took to be part of one. He was not the type to be involved with high-level criminals, art heisters, men who lived underground and traded Rembrandts for drugs or guns or whatever it was people traded Rembrandts for. My father was not a disciplined man. 

Or was he? 

My mom is the person I should call now. She’d have answers. She’d laugh, maybe, then get real quiet. She’d tell me what to do. 

But I don’t dial her number. Not yet. Not yet for Laila, not yet for my mom, not yet for anyone but me and this painting. This gazillion-dollar thing. This imitation of a gazillion-dollar thing. This window into my father’s house. 

I know I’m doing that dangerous feathery hope thing and that it will crush me in the end, but for the first time since it arrived here, I stop, just stop messing with my phone and stop fidgeting and stop thinking. I take a deep breath. Here we are. Me and it. It and me. I look. 

The painting is all muted colors, softened browns, grays, apartment buildings, smoke stacks in the distance against a darkened blue sky. Right up front is a swath of whitish sunlight, stretching across what appears to be some kind of cement enclosure. There’s a brown wagon with a flat wooden bed, its handle propped up, waiting for someone to use it.

It’s a painting of a town that’s sleeping, on the verge of waking up. A darkened train intersects the image, a train going somewhere, or coming, a train that is maybe the one which will carry the people to their jobs once the day arrives. There are different planes, geometric shapes you’re supposed to look at right in front of you and shapes you’re supposed to see out in the distance. But somehow it all feels flat, muted. No bright colors, no sharp contrasts. Soft.

I think of the other Edward Hopper, that famous diner painting, with the guy sitting alone, just a few other people in the diner with him, the rest of the place empty and the street outside them dark. I suppose it is not meant to be a happy painting. Alienation and all that. Which is what you can see here, the same kind of bleary quiet. Industrial and bleak. World-war doldrums. 

That’s what people say anyway. But looking at this now, that is not what I feel. A twenty-seven-year old white woman in a tiny Queens apartment in the year 2020, looking at this painting fills me with a strange and unexpected calm, like I’m gazing out into a lake. A quiet lake in the early morning, before the kids and parents arrive with their kool-aid and water wings, making noise and splashing everywhere, spilling potato chip crumbs into the clear cool water. 

There are these apartment buildings, this train, this wagon, this city on the verge of waking, and maybe Edward was trying to say something about bleariness and alienation but all I can think is that from where I stand, things look pretty good, pretty quiet, pretty chill. The people inside these buildings will soon get out of bed, will have their breakfast and head off to work, a steady job they can count on staying in their whole lives, a place where they clock in at nine, clock out at five, and once in a while get a raise and a Christmas bonus. Their jobs might be good or they might be terrible, but they only need to work one of them. No one is running around this town talking about a side hustle. No one here is working fifty hours a week and still thinking about driving for Uber on weekends. No one is posting incessantly on social media, because thinking about how many likes your posts get is easier and more fun than thinking about how far you are from ever actually being able to afford the life you’ve always wanted. 

This is a small town somewhere. And maybe Edward was feeling bleak and sad when he made this, but how much bleaker and sadder would he have felt if he’d known that by the time someone like me looked at this painting, this small town would be completely different? Like, the people slowly waking up to go to their jobs would not even have those jobs anymore, because whatever they were, people in other countries or robots were now doing them. And maybe instead of that apartment building there, there’d be a Target. Or a Walmart. Or a prison. And underneath all of these homes would be a gas pipeline, but everyone in charge would be telling these families not to worry, it’s all fine, the water’s still safe to drink. 

How could Edward know how much this country would change? 

How could my father leave us, when we all so desperately needed him? 

My phone is in my hand again without me even aware that I reached for it. Maybe it’s finally time for me to call Mom. Or my brother. Thomas would find this whole thing hilarious. Though he’d be a bit jealous too. Dad came to you

Yet I’m still not ready to open all this up to the world. To hear their opinions about Dad, to have Thomas tell me of course it’s a fake am I out of my mind and what I should do is throw the damn thing out the window, or to have Mom say for the trillionth time how the only good that ever came from her marriage was us kids, and there is no way this painting is worth anything more than the canvas scrap it was painted on. 

Instead of making phone calls, I do a Google search. I pull up a row of Hopper’s paintings, and I scan for the match. Here. This one. Dawn in Pennsylvania. 1942.

I set my phone aside and stare again. Of all the paintings, Dad brought me this one, this quiet picture of industrial America, this small slice of the past. A time when things were better in some ways and definitely worse in other ways but a time indisputably different from our time now. A message. Like those time capsules we made when we were kids, burying some note in the backyard to be found at a later date, except we would all forget to go digging them up again. 

I can’t forget now. I can’t turn away. 

The light at my bedroom window has crisped into a brimming golden shine and I’m still standing here, arms crossed over my now-dry tank top, staring at this thing, when my phone rings. I jump, and for a flashing instant I think oh god, it’s them, the police, the detectives, the people they will send. 

But it’s Laila, and when she says, “Hey babe,” the words are sharp, like I’ve done something to piss her off. 

“Hey?” I say, and wait to understand. 

“So did you forget or…?” 

I blink, trying to remember, and then say, “Oh shit!” Because yes, we were supposed to meet at a bar in the city and yes, I completely forgot. 

“What the hell, babe,” she says, and there are voices in the background, then an ambulance, and I picture her standing outside the bar, dressed in her sexy-casual work clothes, a white blouse open at the collar and black pinstripe slacks. Black strappy heels and her black hair hanging loose over her shoulders. She would look incredible. Laila always does. 

“I’m so sorry,” I tell her, which is true. Of all the social crimes in this world, I consider standing people up to be among the worst. 

“What happened?” 

I start to tell her but can’t get a single word out. How to describe it all? My dad and his sweaty armpits and the black garbage bags with the slice of old-time America buried inside. This sadness I’ve become filled with, which doesn’t feel like the kind of sadness the artist intended, but the opposite, which is to say that his sadness looks like happiness to me. These hours I’ve been standing here, thinking about all this, about this country that has changed so much and my father who hasn’t changed at all, and how maybe it is all connected or maybe none of it is. “I’ll tell you later,” I say. 

“Well can you get down here?” she says. “Jump in an Uber.” She’s quiet a minute, then adds, “I’ll pay.” 

“Um,” I say. “Thanks. But I actually sort of can’t right now?” 

“What? Why?” 

I look at this painting, so big now I can’t imagine looking at anything in my apartment ever again. Like, all I can see is this. Dawn in Pennsylvania, everywhere. 

“You’re being weird,” she says. 

“I know. I am.” I tug at my shirt again, newly slick with sweat. I need to cool off. I need to drink some water, take a shower. I need to change. 

“Is this about money?” she says. “Your loans? I know I don’t like talking about it, but it’s definitely been stressing you out. I’m trying to understand.” 

“I know,” I say. “But no. Not exactly. It’s just. This thing happened.” 

“What thing?” 

“It’s hard to explain.” So I don’t try. In our quiet I can hear laughter on the street around her, two separate cars honking at each other. 

“Jane?” she says, her voice low now, coming right from her gut.“Is there someone else?”

“What?” I almost laugh, a nervous laugh like a tickle in my throat. 

“Is that it? Is there someone else with you?” 

I say nothing, staring down at his name. And then I do something so terrible I gnash my teeth like a door slamming shut against myself. 

“How could you?” Laila says. “I mean, literally how fucking could you?”

Her voice is raw and I want nothing more than to fly out my window and be where she is, to fling my arms around her and say no, no, I said the wrong thing, it’s not true, there is no one else. I want to press my nose against the salty damp of her neck, close my eyes against her skin, saying No, no, never, I would never hurt you like that. 

Which is maybe something people feel all the time when they leave somebody behind, that they want to fly to them but can’t. That they would never hurt them like that, but that they do anyway. 

The phone goes dead. A thorny vine of grief wends its way through me, tightening around my ribs. Barbed threads it will take me days, weeks, months to unravel.

Is there someone else with you? Yes, I said. Which is not in any way true.

Which, also, is the singular truth of my entire life. 

Someone is with me. This shadow of a man I will never fully see. This ghost of a life I will never touch. A cloud, puffy and vast, nowhere and everywhere. Absence a presence I don’t know how to un-feel. 

Yes, someone is with me. Though if I’m really being honest, this fact is a burden that is its own muddy kind of relief. 

My living room has become dark without me realizing it, only the faintest purple strips of sunset now streaming through my blinds. In the darkness, the painting looks different, holding a kind of internal glow. I notice small streaks of silver in the paint I did not see before, the whitish tint of those sleepy buildings. 

Soon night will fall completely; the coned red light of car headlights will travel across my ceiling. I will be alone. Alone with this thing, Dawn in Pennsylvania, 1942. A picture of an America that no longer exists. A painting my father wanted me to have, or to sell, or maybe just to see. An image I will never for the life of me understand, except as a depiction of all the ways people make promises that turn into dreams, hazy and unreal, as undeliverable as a letter without an address, a package without stamps. 

What I know is that this country is a place that has broken its people. And those people have become hearts that break one another. 

I lean in, nearly close enough to sniff the canvas. With the light now all but gone from the windows, I do the one thing they tell you to never ever do when you see a work of art in the museums. I touch it. I touch the brown train and the gray buildings. The soft smooth paint under my skin, the tiny ridged brush strokes. I touch the darkened windows, these rooms where men and women are sleeping, waiting for their days to begin. 

I press my fingers down. I trace my thumb over the flat wooden bed of the wagon. I trace my finger over the round dark wheels of the train. 

I lay my hand flat, right across that long swatch of sunlight in the front area. I press down harder, into this pale strip of light where the sun is just beginning to rise. Almost as if I’m trying to keep this particular sun from coming up. 

Let them sleep a bit longer, these good people of Pennsylvania. Just one more hour before that alarm goes off, before the future calls to them, with all its bearing-down pressures and noisy demands. Let them sleep just a bit longer, these sweet dreamers, before they must rise and face themselves.

 

Becky Tuch is currently working on a story collection about art, artists, and museum workers. Her writing has appeared in dozens of publications and several anthologies, including Salon, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Best of the Net. She teaches online with Grub Street and Creative Nonfiction Magazine and currently lives with her family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She can be found on Twitter @BeckyLTuch and at BeckyTuch.com.

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