"Daddy! Can I try?"
And your father will hand you one of his smaller brushes, its thick-feathery tip dipped in red paint, and a piece of scrap plywood, and on the plywood you will try conscientiously to "letter" as your father lettered—precisely and unhesitatingly, with deft twists of his wrist. But in your inexpert hand the paint brush wavers, and the lettering is wobbly—childish. The bright red flourish of Daddy's letters, the subtle curls and tucks of his brush strokes, will be impossible for you to imitate at any age.
This evening after supper in a season when the sky is still light. When you have left your room upstairs in the farmhouse and crossed to your father's sign shop in the old hay barn—not a "shop" but just a corner of the barn that has been converted to a two-vehicle garage with a sliding overhead metal door. The shop isn't heated of course. Your father seems virtually immune to cold (never wears a hat even in winter when icy winds lower the temperature to below zero, often doesn't wear an overcoat) though he has to briskly rub his hands sometimes when he's painting signs.
When he isn't working at Harrison Radiator in Lockport, forty-hour weeks plus "time-and-a-half" on Saturdays, Fred Oates is a free-lance sign painter whose distinctive style is immediately recognizable in the Lockport/ Getzville/ East Amherst area, particularly along the seven-mile stretch of rural Transit Road from Lockport to Millersport.
It is fascinating to you, to observe your father preparing his signs. Some are so large they
have to be propped up on a bench against a wall, smooth rectangular surfaces on which he has laid
two coats of shiny white paint. Then, bars straight-penciled with a yardstick, between which he will inscribe his flawless letters:
GARLOCK'S FAMILY RESTAURANT
EIMER ICE We Deliver
KOHL'S FARM PRODUCE
He'd begun as a sign painter for the Palace Theater in Lockport, when silent movies were shown there. In fact, he'd begun as an usher at the Palace, and a piano player. (Silent movies were not "silent" of course but required live music initially.) How, at age fourteen, had Fred Oates been hired for such responsibilities? Soon he was working at the Palace and painting signs for local businesses—"I don't remember how I got started. Just one thing led to another."
The lives of our parents, grandparents, ancestors—Just one thing led to another.
Vertiginous abyss between then and now.
After the Palace, Fred Oates went to work in the machine shop at Harrisons, a short block or two from the Palace Theater on Main Street, Lockport. There he would work for the next forty years until retiring at sixty-five, all the while painting signs in his spare time, to amplify his income.
Difficult not to feel unworthy of such parents, who'd come of age as young adults in the
Great Depression. Their lives were work. Their lives were deprivation. Their lives have led to you.
As he paints, Daddy hums. He has never complained of the circumstances in his life for possibly it has not occurred to him that there might be legitimate grounds for complaint. Work has been much of his life, and in this, his life is hardly uncommon for its time and place. Painting signs is work of a kind but it is also pleasurable, like playing the organ at the country church or, when he'd been a boy, playing the piano at the Palace Theater. Work to do is not, as some might think, a negative but rather a strong positive for work to do means purpose, and the pleasure of having completed something. In this case, something for which Fred Oates will be paid.
You must be quiet when Daddy is wielding the paint brush, and you must be still. A restless child isn't wanted here in Daddy's "sign shop." You are fascinated by your father's utter concentration as he paints. You can see that there is a distinct pleasure in precisely shaping the subtly curving letters and you will absorb this pleasure in precision, in "lettering," that might
translate into a pleasure in "writing"—for a writer is after all someone who writes words in succession, and words are shaped out of letters.
In the sign shop there is a strong smell of paints, turpentine. And a smell of damp earth— (the barn's floor is hard-packed dirt.) On Daddy's work bench are paint brushes of varying sizes, and all kept in good condition. For Daddy can't afford to use brushes carelessly; each brush is valuable. There is no excitement quite like taking a camel's-hair brush from your father's fingers and dipping it into paint to "letter" on a piece of plywood—Joyce Carol Oates.
Is it a magical name, that Daddy and Mommy have given you? That has often seemed a gift to you, out of the magnanimity of their love.
"Can I try?"—not once but many times.
As long as you can remember as a girl, the landscape within an approximate fifteen-mile radius has always contained your father's signs. Mommy will point as we drive past—"See? That's Daddy's new sign." In a vehicle with others, someone might say—"See? That's one of Fred's signs." To a neutral eye these signs are of no special distinction. One would not even know that they are hand-painted and not rather manufactured in some way. They are mere signs, distractions that interrupt the mostly rural landscape of Transit Road. Yet, to you, the sign-painter's daughter, these signs are beautiful. There is something bold and dramatic about a hand-painted sign nailed to a tree. On the side of a barn. You can pick out Fred Oates's signs anywhere—the curve of the S's and O's that suggest almost human figures. The way Daddy crosses his T's. Once you asked your father, "Why is there a dot over the 'i'?" and your father gave this childish question some thought before saying, "Maybe because without the dot the 'i' would look too small, like something was left out."
For many years after he'd ceased to paint them Fred Oates's signs remained on Transit
Road. Then, one by one, they were removed, or replaced, or faded into the oblivion of harsh
weather and time. And now, I have not driven along Transit Road in years in fear and dread of what
I will not see.
Excerpt from The Lost Landscape by Joyce Carol Oates. Copyright © 2015 by The Ontario Review, Inc. Reprinted courtesy of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.