donnie and the nesting dolls

by Susie Applegate

The gear chain artbuildings in Germaine are like nesting dolls. Open the door to the coffee shop and inside that you will find a bookstore, inside of that a travel agent, inside of her, a doorway to another dimension. Really. Behind the gate of Wicker’s Weld and Repair there is a sculpture garden and a yacht club. Really.
     I went over to Wicker’s because I’ve been thinking about putting up a little iron fencing around the family plot. Not anything fancy, just something about two feet high with pointed tips. I wanted to talk to Donnie about it because he is the welder and he’s the one would have to construct it. Wicker’s has a big iron gate and you have to get out of your car, open the gate, drive through –if you want to drop something off that you can’t carry from the street. I didn’t have anything to drop off so I parked on the street and went through the pedestrian gate.
     The first thing you see when you drive up to Wicker’s is the yacht in the yard. It’s been there as long as I can remember tucked between the house and the shop. Everyone calls it the Germaine Yacht Club. It used to be known as Evangeline. That was Donnie’s mother. But then she disappeared and a little while later, Donnie painted over her name. Donnie and a couple of his buddies came up with the GYC when the old man died. Troy Johnson, Ike Avery, Brad and Jasper Bradford brought the coffin over from the funeral home and hoisted it up on the bow of the yacht. I was there at the wake when Donnie came out of the shop with a can of gasoline. He meant to make a funeral pyre out of his dad’s folly. Several of the men at the wake being firefighters were quick to point out that the whole damn neighborhood would be cremated right along with old man Wicker.
     That summer after his dad died, Donnie welded a sign to the gate. It’s beautiful. Scrolling letters, ‘Germaine Yacht Club’, and if tumbleweeds weren’t stuck in the bars of the gate, and if the smell of juniper and sage weren’t so strong, and if the ocean or even a decent river were less than a hundred miles away, you might be taken in by that elegant iron lettering. Or if you are from somewhere east of Idaho, like Ohio, traveling through the wild west ready to drop and roll for any cowboy, you might imagine that the yacht, formerly known as Evangeline, was just resting in drydock waiting for the right shipmate to inspire a long intimate sea journey.
     It’s possible that Donnie dreams of the sea, too. I’ve seen him down at the pub fishing for touristas. If he manages to get one hooked after baiting her with Doug Fir Lager, he asks her if she wants to see his yacht. After dark, with the only light being the Japanese lanterns he’s strung from mast to stern, some of these women have been drunk enough to think they are climbing aboard a functioning yacht. I’m not making this up. I hear them chattering on their cell phones in the early morning as they pass under my window on the way from Wicker’s to the bed & breakfast.
     The sculpture garden is another thing altogether. It isn’t as obvious as the yacht. In fact it is hidden in the weeds on the half-acre behind the shop and you wouldn’t know it was there unless you went looking for it or you were looking for Donnie and stumbled across it. I don’t know if anyone besides Donnie and me have been back there or if anyone else who has seen it knew what they were looking at. I recognized it immediately. You see, I had been over to Joseph.
     It can take three hours to drive from Germaine to Joseph. The route is pretty much the way a crow actually flies –five miles one way, three miles back, ten to the right, fifty to the left, circle around, stop for some road-kill. . . Most Germainers don’t consider Joseph a big enough reward to make that journey.
     Before Joseph became the art mecca of Eastern Oregon, its main claim to fame was that Walter Brennan had a spread there. Back in the early half of the 20th century, Walter was considered the finest character actor. He appeared in over 200 films, but being Grandpa McCoy on The Real McCoys TV show pretty much overshadowed his previous work. I remember him from that show and because he cut the saddest record of all time, “Old Man Rivers” about an old farmer and his mule. The lyrics weren’t so touching, but Walter’s voice was devastating. Old Walter is gone now and buried in California, and the storefronts of Joseph have become art galleries and artist workshops.
     There is a lot of of western art, horses and cowboys. But there are other pieces among the sculptures of ropers and the paintings of barns, an occasional oddity of abstraction. I go to Joseph less to see the art than to be among strangers, to have friendly discourse with a grocery clerk who doesn’t know my father, whose friendliness is also not afflicted by some corporate model of customer service. It is a narrow window of genuine warmth, one human being to another, untainted by familiarity or greed.
     My most recent trip to Joseph was in September. The drive was uneventful except for the quarter-mile trip I took down a logging road looking for a place to pee. I didn’t end up relieving myself because almost as soon as the highway behind me was screened by trees and a bend in the gravel road, I saw four men in desert camouflage fatigues huddled over the hood of one of two black hummers blocking the road a couple hundred yards ahead.
     They all turned and faced me, their eyes hidden by identical wrap-around shades. The odd thing was that in spite of rifles and other obvious military paraphernalia, they were driving personal vehicles. The license plates were regular Oregon resident issue.
     Their stiff, unsmiling pose made me uneasy and I backed out of there quicker than it would take to read this. It puts a chill in me knowing that the military has infiltrated the hills of my home. It feels like a violation and that may be irrational. I know people who would say the military is welcome anytime. I’m sorry, like I said, it just makes me feel uneasy. It seems like there are armed soldiers everywhere–in the airport, even an installation in Christmas Valley. All this Homeland Security and I can’t help thinking about the Arlington’s and wondering what really happened at The Restin’ Easy that night.
     I found a proper toilet in Joseph and then I started wandering down the main street. I was making my way from window to window, the sun was warm, but not rude. It was peaceful. Not too much traffic, not too many tourists. My stomach was beginning to nudge me toward the sandwich back in the cooler in the trunk of my car, when I was struck by a most unusual nude. She stood there in the gallery window, brazen, naked, and rusted. Her mower blade breasts like triangles of doom, rigid, unwavering. I can’t say what I thought when I saw her. I felt a little afraid. She seemed like a prophecy, an ill omen. And I can’t say that I felt any better when I read the card propped on the teeth of a hay bale conveyor chain, which the sculptor saw fit to use to represent her legs. ‘Evengance’ metal sculpture by Donald Wicker, $2000. I’m pretty sure that Donnie will never get $2000 for this piece. Not because it isn’t good. It is too unsettling to be purchased for the home or business, which leaves museums and it is less likely that Donnie Wicker objet d’art will be sought by museum curators than that I will win the Pulitzer writing for The Germaine Truth.
     When I wandered out among the weeds behind Donnie’s shop, I was looking for him. I found piles of obsessively sorted broken machinery parts. Each pile with its own sculpture totem. Some are meant to represent humans, others could be animals, some are completely abstract, shapes, forms, strangely articulate.
     Donnie Wicker might be a genius. I think it’s best not to tell anyone. But I’m a journalist and silence just isn’t my modus operandi. If Donnie is going to heat up castoff bits of metal until they melt and stick them together and hold them until they cool, and then scatter them over his half-acre and display them in Joseph windows, then he’s got to expect that someone is going to notice. I just wish he wouldn’t name them after his mother.

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