This week I’ll pass on my usual short story post. I’m sharing instead a tiny scrap of memoir, inspired by Edward Hopper’s 1939 painting Bridle Path. I’ve long been a fan of Hopper’s art, yet I know little of his life or the extent of his work. I came across Bridle Path by accident on social media. Commentators say the painting depicts the Park at 72nd Street. For me it elicits memories further uptown in the 90s.
This painting came to life shortly before I did. I spent my first seven years on West 95th Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. For those years my life was the color and texture of brownstones. We lived in a fourth-floor walkup. By the time I reached seven, we were mom and dad and four boys in that apartment. Johnny’s Liquor Store occupied the ground floor.
Out on the street we roamed the sidewalks, climbing stoops, hanging out in lobbies and stairwells. W. 95th Street was a contiguous row of brownstones on both sides, parked cars lining the curbs bumper to bumper. We lived a cramped life. On a cramped street. In a cramped city.
Ah, but then there was the gem that Edward Hopper captured in his painting. Central Park. My mom would wrangle the four of us plus strollers and snacks, and we’d walk up to the Park. Stepping in from Central Park West was like entering a portal to a wide open world. Winding paths, open green fields, benches – space. And horses!
The bridle path circled the Park. For a little city kid it was a thrilling sight to see horses galloping along the trail and under the stone bridges. My brothers and I played cowboys on the rocks lining the path. We shot at each other with our cap guns, leaped and jumped over the rocks. And we always paused when the horses came by. I didn’t see horses running freely like that again until one college summer I worked at Aqueduct Race Track.
Hopper’s style of social realism brought all of that back for me. My earliest years – a cramped lifestyle broken by bursts of sunshine, horses and green fields.
In the last year and a half I’ve written a couple of short stories based on several of Hopper’s paintings. I posted Morning Sun on 5/11/22. And earlier, A Day on the Cape, posted 5/3/21. Enjoy!
I find Edward Hopper’s paintings thought- provoking. This week I used Morning Sun as inspiration for a short story. Lori Hines finds freedom in the warmth of a morning sun.
Back in May of 2021, I had used another Hopper painting, A Day on the Cape, for inspiration. Here’s the link.
Please enjoy my stories. And comments are always welcome.
The phone woke Lori Hines at just shy of two on a Sunday morning, the incoming number an Arizona area code she knew too well. “Ms. Hines, I regret to say that your mother passed a short time ago. She left us in her sleep. I’m so very sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you,” Lori replied.
The caller hesitated. “We will comply with your final wishes. An undertaker will cremate her remains…and dispose of the ashes as they deem appropriate.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“And we will donate her belongings to a local thrift shop.”
Lori’s nod went unseen.
“Is there anything else you wish us to do? If not, I am again very sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you.” Lori cut off the call.
She opened the window curtains, staring out at the city’s dark. Only a month before, in their last phone call, her mother had told Lori, ‘If you can’t find it in your heart to visit me, don’t bother coming to my funeral.’
Well, mom, you got your wish.
Lori sat on her bed, her legs drawn up, the sounds of the nighttime city drifting in the window. Voices rose from the street as drinkers spilled out of a bar at closing time.
Several hours later the dawn’s faint light illuminated blocks-long brownstone buildings, facades punctuated by rows and rows of windows.
The dawn offered light, a promise of warmth.
Lori continued to sit on the bed as the warm morning sun inched over her feet, her legs, her arms. Her face. Lori felt her body ease with the heat. The blond hairs on her arms stood out in the sun. She picked at her bare fingernails. Licked her lips, dry without lipstick or balm. Rubbed her unshaven legs. Specks of blue toenail polish glinted in the sun.
The stink of her own sweat wafted up in the flood of sunlight.
Lori closed her eyes. A memory rose, like a sea monster rising out of the water, dripping menace and slime. She saw herself sitting on a wooden dock, drenched in sunlight reflected up from a still lake. Her feet dangled in the cool water. A canoe sat tied to the dock. In the canoe a picnic basket and two paddles. Tied to the front of the canoe a silver balloon. Happy 10th Birthday, it read.
In the memory Lori’s mother padded up behind her. “Your father will not be coming up from the city for your picnic…today…or ever. When we return from our vacation he will be gone.”
Lori had continued to face out over the lake. Her mother reached for the picnic basket. “Let me put this back in the cottage. Come up when you’re hungry.”
Lori had sat on the dock till her legs, her arms, her face were sunburned. At the cottage her mother rubbed lotion on the burned skin…and never again mentioned her father.
For twenty years Lori and her mother had gone about their lives. Her father had not died. He simply had ceased to exist. Lori did not know if her parents had divorced. She had had no word about him. Living or dead, who knew?
And now, twenty years after her mother’s lakeside announcement, Lori sat again in the bright sun. Basked in it like a house cat that had prowled for hours seeking the one spot of sunlight on the carpet.
Outside, the city braced for another hot day. Noise slashed at her senses. Sirens, honking, yelling, grinding gears.
Come up when you’re hungry. Lori shifted off the bed, pulled on yesterday’s clothes, stepped into the kitchen. Her faithful French press charged her with fresh coffee.
At least a rut leads somewhere
Lori sipped the coffee, grabbed a Mason jar from the kitchen counter. Paper strips filled the jar, strips saved from fortune cookies after years of eating Chinese take-out. Every morning she pulled one to start her day. Today’s message, Only difference between a rut and a grave is depth.
She shrugged. At least a rut leads somewhere. The strip fluttered into the trash.
She went to the bedroom, returned with a bottle of red nail polish. She tugged her foot up onto the edge of the chair, began painting her toenails.
Her phone chirped with a spam call. She ignored it, then thumbed in a number.
“Hey, Maya. Just wanted to let you know my mother died last night…”
Lori listened to Maya’s response.
“Yeah, you’re right. It is a relief…Hey, are you up for a late lunch? My treat.”