Take Rothko, for instance. At twenty years old, he’s a Yale dropout, humiliated by his failures, uncertain about the future. It’s the spring of 1924, and he has yet to pick up a brush or touch paint to canvas. He goes by Marcus Rothkowitz still, a name that made him stand out in New Haven, even among his own kind. The Jews who thrived there came from established families of German descent. Recent immigrants like him, those from Eastern Europe on scholarships that covered only tuition and books, lived in packed boarding houses a mile from campus. Locals and fellow students shunned them equally. The few who worked hard enough to hide their accents were rewarded with occasional invitations to parties where no one spoke to them.
Miserable for a year, struggling in classes, demoralized, he left without saying goodbye to anyone. After spending a few months with friends in New York, he made his way west, hitchhiking, hopping trains, sleeping in fields. A traveling salesman agreed to take him over the Rockies all the way to Oregon, so long as Marcus drove the overnight stretch. Now, exhausted, he has arrived back in Portland, where he spent his late childhood and adolescence after emigrating from Dvinsk, a provincial city at the western edge of the Russian Empire. He hopes to find sanctuary here, in the neighborhood to the south of downtown, known by inhabitants as Little Odessa. In a dozen blocks crammed with identical row houses live Jews from Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, the Ukraine, all of them equally shabby and loud and comfortable with their coarseness, proud of whatever small achievements they can claim in their new home. As Marcus once was, too, until realizing the rest of the world didn’t care that he’d established his own debate club at Neighborhood House, published essays and stories in the community newspaper, ingratiated himself with gentile teachers at Lincoln High School.
But now even here he’s no less lost than before. He sees only his neighbors’ bad teeth and awkward clothes, cringing whenever they attempt colloquial phrases in English. At the same time, he can no longer listen to Yiddish without looking around to see who else has heard. Above all, he can’t bear when people ask what he will do with his life. What should he do? His father, dead ten years, might have given useful advice, but his mother tells him only that he ought to go into business, like his older brother Mish who opened a drugstore some years earlier, or learn a trade like a cousin who’d become a carpenter. It doesn’t matter to her that until now his only successes have been intellectual ones, that his big clumsy body has never been much use for practical tasks: his sister jokes that he can’t walk down a hallway without bumping against both sides. As a boy he was gifted at Talmud study, believed briefly he might one day become a rabbi, but he has not set foot in a synagogue since the months following his father’s funeral, when he decided that devotion to God led only to disappointment.
So what drives him to try acting, of all things? Perhaps he misses speaking in front of an audience, as he did during his debate days, along with the accolades that followed. Or else he has simply run out of other ideas. In either case, he joins a local company that performs at the Little Theatre on Northwest 23rd Avenue. Little Odessa, Little Theatre. Why is everything in Portland little? Maybe because the towering trees diminish everything else, or the colossal mountains that appear when the clouds finally lift in June or July. Or maybe because those who live here are humble about their place in the world, so far from the center of culture and commerce, accepting their insignificance.
Except that the company’s manager, who doubles as acting teacher, believes her pupils are capable of greatness. So she says at the beginning of each rehearsal. Her name is Josephine Dillon, a stout, round-faced woman of forty, whose voice carries effortlessly across the small auditorium, even when she speaks to someone standing beside her. She coaches Marcus on his stage presence, his stride, encouraging him to swing his arms whenever he takes a step, though he feels more comfortable with them stiff at his sides. She spends a good bit of time arranging his body, pulling his shoulders, jabbing a small fist into his lower back, kicking at his feet to broaden his stance. When he reads his lines—Falstaff courting Mistress Page with somber Russian intonations—she smiles without blinking and says nothing.
With her hands on him so often, he might believe Miss Dillon takes a special interest in him, except that she pays even more attention to a young necktie salesman named Will Gable. Gable, too, she harangues about his posture, prodding and bending and lifting his chin. She tells him he is too thin, brings him sandwiches to devour between scenes, and forces him to lower his naturally high-pitched voice. Marcus believes he is a better actor than Gable, or could become one, though Gable, he concedes, has a finer jawline. He learns from another company member that Miss Dillon paid to have Gable’s crooked teeth fixed, his hair styled. Now she convinces him to go by his middle name, Clark, which, she says, makes him sound more distinguished.
And yet Marcus can hardly believe what he glimpses one afternoon in late May, two months after coming home. Before rehearsal, he steps backstage to find Gable and Miss Dillon mid-embrace, his tall slender body bent over her squat one, her pudgy fingers tight on his buttocks. Miss Dillon is seventeen years Gable’s senior, but that isn’t what disgusts Marcus or fills him with shame. Rather, it’s the instant bloom of his own envy, along with a stirring in his trousers he can’t control. Must he always be someone who wants what others have?
He slips out of the theatre and hurries away, knowing he’ll never return. But instead of heading back to Little Odessa, perhaps he wanders past the grand Victorian mansions of Nob Hill, up into the wooded canyon that will later become part of Forest Park. He walks without seeing. Despondency blinds him to wildflowers and deafens him to birdsong. He wants his life to matter. He has long believed he can become something special, that he can overcome the terror and dislocation and profound sense of smallness he first experienced as a boy on the journey from New York to Portland, rocked from side to side on the shuddering train, wearing an ill-fitting Russian suit and a handwritten sign around his neck that read, I do not speak English.
But he is still on that train, he thinks, riding to join his father who will die of colon cancer six months after he arrives, and the same tears spill from his eyes as those that blurred his view out the window of a Pullman car. He stumbles past tree trunks, pushes branches out of his way, stomps ferns and the prickly leaves of Oregon grape. He is sobbing now, breathless, his whole body gripped by a sadness he doesn’t understand. His nose fills with smells of sap and loam and mold, sweetness and decay. And when he looks up—couldn’t this be the moment when confusion and chaos open into mystery, into possibility?—he can make out nothing distinctly, only a strip of gray sky over a dark blotch of green that must be the boughs of Douglas firs. And this green in turn shimmers above trunks and earth that blend together into a complicated but unified field of brown.
These colors don’t just reflect his sadness, they are his sadness, both a product of feeling and a container for it. He is inside of them now; they surround him, caress him, suffocate him. They are the face of God he turned away from in the synagogue, a God he hates for taking his father from him when he needed him most. But he can no longer run from hatred and heartbreak. Maybe he no longer wants to. Instead, he’ll embrace them, the way Miss Dillon embraced Gable, passion barely masking her desperation. His eyes are opened wide even as he weeps. Because now he understands: they’re the only things that are all his, these feelings, these colors, at once reuniting him with his departed father, bringing him closer to the death that calls for him louder with every passing day, and making him feel more alive than anything else ever has.
Couldn’t it be a moment as simple as this?
Scott Nadelson is the author of seven books, most recently the story collection One of Us. His work has recently appeared in Ploughshares, New England Review, and Best American Short Stories 2020. He teaches at Willamette University and in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA Program at Pacific Lutheran University.