Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Ghost Artist in the Basement

Rock Island, November 1980

I didn't like going down to the basement in our house in Rock Island, not by myself, especially at night.  The rec room was ok -- we used to invite our friends over to play pingpong or foosball or watch tv.  But off to the side there was a laundry room, and beyond an artist's studio belonging to Mr. Kint, the previous owner of the house.  He was an engineer, but his hobby was painting.

No one had touched it since the day he died, except to empty the file cabinets.  There was a calendar from 1966 on the wall, jarsful of pens, pencils, and paint brushes, and a slanted desk with a slide rule and a t-square. It looked like he was just upstairs getting a drink of water, and he would be back any minute. Sometimes I imagined his footsteps on the creaking wooden stairs.

One Saturday in early November 1980, my junior year at Augustana,  I invited Haldor from the dating competition to dinner.  I planned to cook roast beef at my parents' house, and then serve it in the dorm kitchen.

I let myself into the house around 2:00 pm.  It was deserted.

After awhile I needed an onion to slice atop the potatoes, and the only onions in the house were in a big bag in the laundry room.  I planned to rush down and up again in less than ten seconds.  But then I heard a noise coming from Mr. Kint’s studio. A chair scraping across a bare concrete floor.

My first thought was that my brother Ken had come home unexpectedly and hid in the basement to scare me.  I said “Ha-ha, big joke!” and walked briskly to the doorway.

Someone was sitting in the old swivel chair, bending over Mr. Kint’s desk, drawing furiously on an oversized pad of art paper. Pale light streamed through the basement window above him.

It must be Ken.  He liked to draw.

“Hey, Bro, what you working on?” I took two or three steps closer to him and peered over his shoulder. It was a drawing of a row of men of various ages and races, facing forward. All were naked. They seemed to be arranged by penis size, from tiny to absurdly enormous.

"Big fan of naked men, huh?  Me, too."  Ken was the family member I was out to.

I saw that the hand was trembling a bit. It was very pale, sprinkled with brown spots. The fingers had long crusty nails. The hand of a monster.

Was it Mr. Kint, returning to complete the drawing he’d been working on when he died?  Suddenly terrified, I screamed.

He swung around. It was Brian!

You remember Brian, the seventh grader who was trying to scrub the mysterious graffiti "Brian gives free LBJs" from the school wall in 1974?  Who I kissed under the mistletoe at Christmastime in 1977, and then asked him to call, but he didn't call?  I hadn't heard anything about him for almost three years.

"Are you from East Moline, Dork?" he said angrily.  "You almost made me ruin my drawing!"

"Well, you scared me to death!  What...what are you doing here?"  His hand was perfectly normal.

“Visiting Ken -- what do you think?  He went out to pick up a half-gallon of ice cream.  He should be back any minute.”

“I mean. . .what are you doing here in Mr. Kint's studio?"

“I have a sketch due Monday for art class, and Ken said I could work down here.  The light is perfect."

 "Why are the men all naked?"

He began to blush.  "Oh...I was just fooling around.  I'll fix it before I turn it in."  He paused.  "So what did you mean by 'me, too'?"

Now it was my turn to blush.  Struggling for a way to change the subject, I said "Hey, I'm making roast beef for my friend Haldor at Augustana.  You and Ken want to come?  Bring the ice cream."

I climbed slowly back up the stairs.  Now I was certain that Brian was gay.


  1. I'm really enjoying your blog- we're the same age, and your insights about figuring it out, coming out in the 80s really resonate. And, my best high school friend started Augustana in the Fall of 1980.

    1. Thanks! It's a small world -- I was at Augie until 1982. Maybe I knew your friend.

  2. Sure, and thanks for the response- Actually, that was my thought too, and if you didn't know him you may have crossed paths there. I think quite likely you would have noticed him: blond body builder/tennis/soccer jock, but that probably describes dozens of guys. Your description of the place then is pretty interesting...



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