At Home with Arthur Quick by Gary Ives

Julie's life takes an unexpected course when her father shelters a charismatic stranger; by Gary Ives.

Late one windy Nebraskan April afternoon in 1970, when I was 17, my father's tractor came slowly up our lane pulling an old Plymouth station wagon at the end of a muddy chain. Behind the steering wheel was a little old man with white hair wearing very thick glasses. The car had died at the bottom of the hill just where our lane meets County Road 12. My dad called me over to help push him alongside our barn, the old man steering at dad's directions. Dad helped him to gently slide out from the car seat then took an arm, walking him up to the house. I had not an inkling of the effect this old man would have on my future.

"Julie, put the tractor in the barn; there's heavy weather coming tonight. Sir, come on up to the house with me, please," my dad said.

In the kitchen my mother put a kettle on, then showed Mr. Quick to the bathroom. "Julie, go upstairs and make the bed in the dormer. Sheets are in the closet. Go on, now."

I was curious; I wanted to know about the old man, but I obeyed the instructions.

His thick glasses had a way of refracting light like the glasses of professors or evil doctors in the comics, but viewing him directly I saw slightly hooded, intelligent, blue eyes framed by smile lines that lit a time-worn face that I very much likened to how I imagined God's face, but God without glasses.

At the dinner table dad said, "I'll look to your car and see what we can do. So please don't worry and just feel at home." He was very tired, ate but little and asked to go to bed early. "Julie, help Mr. Quick upstairs."

That we took in Mr. Quick so easily did not surprise me. My parents are of the Society of Friends, Quakers. But Mr. Quick had a quiet magnetism, a charisma that soon affected all of us, even our two dogs which took to him. When dad announced that the old Plymouth's engine was shot, he offered to replace it with something compatible from my Uncle Bill's salvage yard. "I hope you're in no hurry as I've got to attend to spring planting before that. But please, feel welcome."

Mr. Quick glided easily into our family routines, assuming chores: watering and weeding the kitchen garden, and even milking our goats. His story unfolded over time in bits at the dinner table. He told us he had begun his trip in Indiana and had been bound for the Mexican border where winters were warm and needed medicines and doctors' care came cheap. His home? "Well for the nonce I guess it's been that old Plymouth." When dad asked if he had a trade or profession, he said that he was a portrait artist. When he saw my sketch book, he asked if I might like to learn portraiture and he began teaching me.

He would later confide to my father that he had only recently been released from a long imprisonment at the Fort Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas. As an orphan and had been in some trouble with the law in his youth. Later with a juvenile and no support for his defense he was accused and then convicted of a robbery, losing not only his freedom but his future. Dad said the poor man had spent his entire life in the small spaces of institutions: an orphanage, a brief stint in the army, then prison. Our family is likely the only real home he's known. Father never questioned Mr. Quick's guilt or innocence.

In June, Dad located a replacement engine for Mr. Quick's dead motor. But by then we had all been so drawn to this sweet old gentleman, that dad suggested he stay longer as Mexican summers were terribly hot.

My portrait painting lessons were extensive, sometimes lasting the entire day. In what had originally been a carriage house we constructed a miniature studio of hay bales and two easels with good north light from the exposed end. From photographs we painted simple portraits my father and my mother. These portraits were the principal models he used to show me technique. He was determined to imbue in me both his love and talent for portrait painting. Spending many hours together, I suppose it was inevitable that that we would grow close. He was the grandfather I had never known, warm and loving. It was natural to exchange confidences. He asked all sorts of questions about my growing up as the only child on the farm, what things did I like or dislike. Did I have boyfriends? What were my hopes for the future? One afternoon he asked quite candidly if I would be shocked were he to tell me that he had served time in prison. I answered that I would be very surprised as I knew him to be a kind and good man, but truly, I was shocked. But a twinkle in his eye had a disarming and rather soothing effect, and we drifted into silence for a time. After a while I spoke.

"Did you? Did you really go to prison?"

"Yes, my dear, I did. For a long time. I have told your father of this, so it's not quite a secret, but I'm terribly uncomfortable discussing it. I've told you because I care for you and withholding such an important element of my life seems unfair to our mutual trust. You're always forthright when I ask about your life. Let me say this then; I ask that we never speak of it again. I was accused of a robbery. I had a very poor defense and was convicted. This is all I wish to say, Julie." It was impossible to put this out of my mind, but I honored his request, and indeed we did not speak of it again until his last days.

He played violin and in evenings he often played Schubert and Mozart softly on the porch. How well I remember gently rocking in the porch swing batting moths and listening. Like portrait painting he had learned the violin in prison with plenty of time for practice. One day he asked dad's permission to paint my portrait. This he executed with my sitting in the swing, in the foreground a shock of white hair, his shoulder, violin, and bow in a heavily veined hand. My mother cried at the finished work.

All summer he taught me, at times very demanding, and he insisted that I call him Arthur rather than Mr. Quick. How ironic that his mastery of art had come from prison. I asked if I might photograph him to do his portrait in oil. In late August he developed a persistent cough and a loss of energy. He refused to see a doctor. His appetite all but disappeared, and he napped frequently. But he insisted on at least an hour-long painting lesson each morning. One Sunday, when my folks were at meeting house, we were painting in the carriage house. A cold front had come in and I was wearing a heavy sweatshirt. Arthur plainly asked that I remove the shirt for a sketch.

"Arthur, I'm not wearing a bra."

"I know that, Julie. Please. It's important," he said. Recovering from a coughing fit he said, I'll be quick about it, dear; I know it's cold."

During the sketch he did not look me in the eye or speak until finished, saying only, "Beautiful, beautiful. This will be our secret, girl. Thank you, now get that shirt back on." I wondered if such sketches had been his fare in prison. But his professional demeanor outweighed my salacious thoughts. "People usually look only at the face in a portrait, but to get it right you've got to consider the neck, the entire torso, arms and especially the hands. He told me he planned to do another portrait of me. But that did not happen.



By September he became too ill to leave his little bed in the dormer. I carried his soup and toast to him and walked him to the bathroom. During his last days I sat with him. When he could sit up, we talked he told me that the summer with us had been the best days of his life. Just before he died, he whispered to me that he wanted me to have his violin, paints, portraits and something special.

"Look inside the spare tire. There's money. Lots of it. You must stash it for at least two years because the government will look for it. Tell no one, not even your folks. It's for you. Just for you, love. Just let it sleep for at least two years."

I spoke of this to no one. $77,620 in well-used slightly damp $100, $50 and $20 bills, smelling earthy, probably buried during Arthur Quick's prison time. Two days following his death I buried the money in several three-pound coffee cans beneath the carriage house where we painted together. His sketch book contained a dozen detailed sketches of me, three of them nudes as if I had posed before an art class.

A week after the coroner had filed Arthur's death certificate, a federal agent drove into our yard. He asked many questions. Were there any of Mr. Quick's possessions remaining? Dad showed him the Plymouth and the little suitcase. The agent impounded the old car and had it towed away for intensive inspection. The government had suspected that upon his release Arthur Quick would recover the $80,000 taken in the robbery of betting windows at a Kansas dog track 20 years earlier. Agents had trailed him from prison but lost him in when he traded cars in Dodge City during a thunderstorm.

That winter I painted a three-quarter view of his lined face pressed against the violin on the porch, the screen door and an old dog in the background.

The next year my portrait At Home with Arthur Quick won first place at the State Fair competition in Lincoln, a prize which led to a scholarship, financial independence, and ultimately my own studio. Thank you, Arthur Quick.

4 comments:

  1. A gentle, slice-of-life story with a dark backstory. I think Arthur painted the nudes with genuine artistic intent, but Julie was only 17 so it’s still creepy.

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  2. At first, this seems to be a story about the kindness of strangers, although there is a hint of something darker under the surface. I love the way the character of Aurthur unfolds as we learn more about him through the story.

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  3. Convicts, both guilty and innocent, bear heavy crosses even after prison. Arthur drifted into this comfortable station and was eager to repay kindnesses. Your comments are appreciated.

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  4. I enjoyed how random events bring this story together - with the backstory revealed gradually. The characters come out through both action and description - and told from the perspective of Julie we get a lot of intelligence, a touch of naiveté and an implicit toughness. (At least I did.)

    Very much enjoyed this.

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