Eve Fisher

Up here in Laskin, we take our wildlife very seriously. Most of us plan our whole year around the hunting and fishing seasons, and the only real division is whether you go ice-fishing or not. My personal stand is toleration: just because a man chooses to sit hunched over a small hole in the ice out on the middle of Lake Howard in a blizzard, doesn’t mean he’s not a decent citizen. Maybe you wouldn’t want him in the family, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help him thaw out over a drink at the Norseman’s Bar. Especially if he’s buying.
And we’ve never had any of those animal-rights activists, other than the yearly crop of students protesting against that and everything else their elders do. There’s something that hits them in high school, makes them crazy. This year they’re piercing themselves something awful; you can’t even look at them down at the Tastee-Freeze without wondering how in the world they can stand to eat ice-cream with all that metal on their tongues… But they get over it, and the holes will close up and heal over, which is more than you can say for a tattoo.
Anyway, we all hunt and fish, and talk about hunting and fishing, and we buy pictures of hunting and fishing. Laskin’s the proud home of Earl Nelson, who as anybody can tell you is one of the top wildlife artists of all time. His “Snow Geese Over Lake Howard” has sold thousands of prints. And the original of his “Snow Geese Sunrise” hangs in the courthouse.
Or rather, it used to. See, what happened was, well, remember I was talking about high school students? Well, back a few years ago, one of them, boy named Dave Jacobsen, turned out to be a pretty good artist. Wouldn’t think it to look at him. Big, burly kind of guy, and half-cousin to the Davison clan, so you wouldn’t expect him to have any interest in any art other than maybe a little chainsaw carving on the side. My neighbor, Mr. Gustafson, did a real nice chainsaw carving of a squirrel on a stump. Course the squirrel’s kind of big, but when you’re working with a chainsaw, you can’t get much fine detail going.
Anyway, Dave did real well at art in high school, and he could draw wildlife like you wouldn’t believe. His mom, Mabel, took some of his work over to Earl to look at and Earl said he had promise. So Dave went on to art school, over in Minneapolis, but he came back home after a year. Said he didn’t like the city, he didn’t like the school, and he sure as heck didn’t like his professors. That all might have been true, but he also couldn’t afford it.
Dave came home and went to work down at the goose farm where, if nothing else, he could study goose anatomy in some detail. He painted at night. And come the State Fair, there was two paintings of Dave’s right in there with Earl Nelson’s, and you couldn’t rightly tell which was whose, Dave’s was so well done. Well, Earl got Best in Show and a couple of other prizes, as usual, but Dave won People’s Choice for his “Slippery Morning”, which showed a flock of geese flying over a frozen Lake Howard, coming in for a landing, three or four of them already down and one of them landing just slightly wrong and sliding on the ice. I’ll tell you what, you’ve never seen a goose look so embarrassed. I took one look at it and I started laughing fit to be tied. You betcha. I voted for it myself.
Now I’d always liked Earl, and I thought he was a nice enough guy, but you know, he didn’t take it kindly. The vote or the picture. Said the picture was nothing but a joke. Which it was, but that was the point, wasn’t it? And it was done real good. But Earl didn’t approve of it, not one bit, and he talked about it all over town.
“There’s some things you just don’t joke about,” Earl said. And a lot of people agreed with him or said they did.
The next dust-up was at the Geese Forever Club’s annual October Pancake Feed and Art Show. Earl had a new original he was going to make prints of, “Freedom of the Snows,” with snow geese and snow drifts and a sunrise and a line of bare cottonwoods to show where the lakeshore was. Real Christmasy, and people were signing up like crazy for a print. And Dave had an original that he said HE was going to make prints of, “Late Night, Early Hunt,” with snow geese and snow drifts and a sunrise and a line of bare cottonwoods, only different than Earl’s of course, and a small group of hunters, who all looked a little hung-over but happy and were banging away at the geese and getting them. And his prints cost only twenty-five dollars, not a hundred and fifty like Earl’s. So people were signing up for that one, too, though not when Earl could see.
But Earl knew. And he wasn’t happy at all. Oh, he talked good, about how there was room for both of them in the wildlife art world. But you could tell it galled him. I mean, here was this whipper-snapper half his age showing up at all the same shows and getting lots of attention. And he kept winning “People’s Choice.”
“Oh, sure,” Earl said, after Dave had won the popular vote at that winter’s Governor’s Awards, “people vote for his stuff. It’s humorous, if you like that kind of thing. But do they buy it? No. Can he make a living at it? No. He’s young, he’ll learn. A gimmick’ll attract attention, but if you want to stay in for the long haul, you’ve got to have more than that to make folks pay their hard-earned dollars for your work.”
After the Governors’ Awards, Dave kind of dropped out of sight and spent all his time working by day and painting by night. Then spring came, and he quit the goose farm and got himself booth space at every fair, festival, and art show in South Dakota. He had prints of “Slippery Morning” and “Late Night, Early Hunt” and about ten other paintings he’d done. Granted, they weren’t big prints, like Earl’s, done down in Sioux Falls on an off-set press or whatever they use these days. Dave was running them off his computer, so they were just eight and a half by eleven, and that’s why he was charging so little. But they were all on glossy paper and looked real good, and every one of them had a joke in it or at least a smile, and at twenty-five bucks a pop, almost everyone could afford one. He did real well.
In the fall, he headed down to New Mexico, which is chock-full of artists and art galleries and art shows. He did real well there, too, because when he came back to Laskin in February there was no talk about going back to the goose farm. Instead, Dave rented himself an apartment and said his plucking days were over. He was just going to paint and do shows, like an artist should.
And Earl was looking more and more like a man with an ulcer. That March at the big Hunters’ Exposition over in Mitchell, Earl still won top prize, but Dave once again won people’s choice. Dave was heard to say that he’d rather have the people rooting for him than the judges. Earl went over and took a long look at Dave’s painting and kind of sniffed. “Nice coloring,” he said. “But the boy can’t draw people worth a damn.”
And then it got nasty.
Dave had been painting like crazy down in New Mexico and he wanted to show everybody all of what he had done. So he decided to have an open house at his place, and he invited everybody in town. Especially Earl. Of course we went. Curiosity, interest, affection, free food.
But I’ll tell you what, we were all in for a shock when we walked in because right there, as you came in the living room, hanging over the couch was this big painting that was nothing else but Earl’s “Snow Geese Sunrise.” The same one hanging in the courthouse. Only standing by the big cottonwood was no hunter in a camouflage hat and flak jacket, but a tall, blond woman with nothing on but a pair of gum boots. She didn’t look a particularly cold, either. Dave called it “Nude With Snow Geese”.
Earl about blew a gasket when he saw that, you betcha. He stood and stared at that painting and you could about see the steam coming out of his ears. The rest of us were wandering around, looking at the other paintings. There were maybe a dozen regular pictures of geese and pheasants flying around, but there was also a bunch titled “Nude Hunting Pheasant”, “Nude With Brook Trout”, “Nude With…” well, you get the picture. We certainly did. Dave had taken every hunting and fishing scene you can imagine and redone them with naked women in them. Poor Mabel could hardly tell where to look.
Dave was standing with a drink and a smile in front of “Nude With Brook Trout”, when Earl walked up to him, thumbed back at “Nude With Snow Geese,” and said, “That’s my painting and you copied it.”
“So sue me,” Dave said.
Which is when Earl decked him. It barely rocked Dave, who was grinning from ear to ear, which, of course, just made Earl madder, so Joe Hegdahl got one side of him and I got the other, and wrestled him out of the place. Outside we let him go and he let loose with a string of obscenities that seemed to calm him down some.
“Yeah, sure,” Joe said. “Come on, Earl, let’s go get a beer.”
Over a pitcher of red beer, Earl suggested that Dave had done it on purpose to spite him, that Dave had it in for him, and that Dave was going to come to a bad end. We agreed with all of it. Eventually we got enough beer poured down him to take him home on, and when we deposited him at his place he seemed likely to sleep.
It was the next day that the storm broke. It seems that one of the county commissioners had seen Dave’s “Nude With Snow Geese,” and had instantly decided that Earl’s painting, “Snow Geese Sunrise” had to come down off the courthouse walls because what if someone came in that had seen Dave’s painting and started making fun? Or worse yet, got offended? Now if the logic of that escapes you, let me assure you it escaped all of us, but this particular county commissioner was known for escaping logic entirely, so that was nothing new. He was also known for a temper about as equable as that of a Rottweiler with a boil on its butt, so when he made a decision that didn’t cost money most people found it easier to do whatever he said. Down the painting came.
Earl, who had just gotten his mind made up to approach the matter with dignity and decorum, blew another gasket. He went to see Jim Barnes about suing Dave, the county commissioners, the courthouse, and the county. He was hopping mad. Jim, who’s honest as they come for a lawyer, told him he didn’t have a case. Now Earl was boiling mad. That night he went down to the Norseman’s Bar and, instead of holding forth to all and sundry and letting it all out, sat at the bar and brooded over boiler-makers, which never set well with him to begin with. Across the bar Dave was telling Ron, the bartender, what a great idea it was to mix nudes with wildlife.
“You get the best of both worlds. Every guy likes naked women, ever guy likes ducks. And geese and elk and everything else. So you put ‘em together, you got sure fire sales. I’m going to make a killing this summer in prints. You betcha.”
From across the bar, Earl’s growls built up into a long howl of outrage. “You --” well, I can’t print that. “You stole my painting! You stole my work!”
Dave looked across at him and said, “Mr. Nelson, the rules are that if you change something three ways, it’s yours. I made it bigger, I did it in acrylic, and I put a naked woman in it. Tell me, how do you like the way she’s drawn?”
Earl threw his glass across at Dave, who ducked, and glass and red beer went all over Ron’s back wall.
Dave looked at the mess, said, “Get a life,” and walked out of the bar.
Earl lunged across the bar, Ron grabbed Earl, and Dave was long gone. Ron worked on calming Earl down, and Earl claimed he was calmed down, but he was crazy mad. You could tell it the way he snarled and stumbled across the snow. And when he reached his truck, he wrenched the door open, pulled his thirty ought-six out of the gun rack, and laid it beside him as he drove off into the night.
Dave was shot that night in his studio, right in front of his new picture, “Nude Viewing Mount Rushmore.” (Dave was branching out a little.) He wasn’t killed, but the bullet went through his arm, nicked his chest, and nailed George Washington on the nose. His model, Melody Turner, went shrieking out into the night, which is why Dave didn’t bleed to death. A naked woman running down the street doesn’t need to be screaming to attract attention in a small town, and the cops and an ambulance were at Dave’s in fifteen minutes.
Once the shock had let up, the general feeling in Laskin was that Dave had it coming, especially since he hadn’t died and would still be able to paint. We all felt sorry for Earl, who’d been pushed to the breaking point, and only wished he’d managed to get a shot off at the county commissioner, too. Maybe one with more lasting impact. And we continued to feel the same way even after it was found out that all Earl had shot that night was a dead stump in his back yard.
You can’t have police and emergency technicians romping through your house without they find stuff that maybe you don’t want found. It seems that Dave, besides doing a fairly good business at selling prints at twenty-five dollars a pop, was also doing a very good business selling dope for considerably more. All those booths and shows were a real good excuse for a lot of traveling and a lot of cash in small bills. As it turned out, the shooter was Fred Davison, Dave’s second cousin twice removed, who hadn’t liked his latest purchase, and I’m not talking about a print.
Dave’s currently in the penitentiary in Sioux Falls doing five to ten. I took Mabel down to see him last Sunday. He was looking fit, and he swears he’s learned his lesson.
“Once I get out of here, I’m going legit all the way,” Dave said. “I figure I can make a living easy, selling prints over the Internet. You wouldn’t believe the interest I’ve generated already.”
“That’s right, honey,” Mabel said. “I shipped five orders of ‘Slippery Morning’ this week.”
“See?” Dave said proudly. “I know I can do it.” Later on, as we were leaving, he whispered to me, “I appreciate you bringing Mom down here to see me. If you’d like a print, say, one of the Nude series? Melody’s running those out for me. Mom, well, they kind of embarrass her. Just let me know, Mr. Stark, and I’ll be happy to let you have one for free.”
Well, I couldn’t do that. I’ll have you know I paid for my copy of “Nude With Snow Geese.” It’s in my bedroom right now. I’d have put it up in my study, but I don’t want it out somewhere that Earl might see it. He’s a touchy sort of guy and you never know what’ll set him off.