Diagrams of the Moon

HELEN CHAPPELL

May 05, 1993|By HELEN CHAPPELL

OYSTERBACK, MARYLAND — Oysterback, Maryland. -- In the full moon, the flowering peach trees look like luminous ghosts. Behind the wheel of the battered van, Duc Tran Swann sits beside the Blue Crab Tavern, surveying the sleeping village by the river. Freshly hatched from a fashionable New York art school, she has a silver stud in her nose and a wild nest of dark hair. Quickly, she shifts into gear and rolls into town, following the map on the --board until she comes to the yellow Nanticoke where her father lives; his name is on the mailbox and he is asleep inside, oblivious of a daughter he has never seen, doesn't even know he has, with a woman he thinks has been dead since the fall of Saigon.

Right now, this is what Tran wants.

Quietly, she stops the van and surveys the house in the moonlight. The whole north wall in windowless; this is good. She stares at the blank wall in the moonlight, seeing not vinyl siding, but the vision she has created in her mind.

Quiet as the zephyr in the flowering peach, Tran goes to work. She can only paint by moonlight, she has recently decided. There is a silver quality to the light that enhances her palette of luminous colors. Tran is not given to words; her art says everything she needs to say. Round spheres, whole floating worlds take shape from her quick broad strokes. A blank wall is becoming a work of art. She calls it ''Diagrams of the Moon,'' pleased with the way in which it is turning out, just the way she saw it in her head. Since she is not a big woman, she has to stand on her ladder to reach the high parts, but the Swanns inside the house, Hudson, Jeanne and their twin daughters, sleep on, as if under a spell.

Perhaps they are; this is a magic night, when the flowering peach trees bloom and the eels swim into the Devanau River, coming home from the Sargasso Sea, all beneath a silver globe in a starry heaven.

Tran paints on. Like all the young, she believes she will live forever. Like all artists, she believes her work is her immortality. This mural is her message to her father, her way of letting him know she exists. It is a beautiful painting. Even a man whose idea of fine art is a duckscape over the living-room couch will see what a great mural Tran is painting; these diagrams of the moon speak to the soul. It is genetically impossible for him not to get the message.

As she paints, she listens to the Lemonheads through her Walkman. When the tape is finished, it turns it over and plays it again. When she finishes (for now) the false wolf dawn is just peering over the trees on the other side of the river. She stands back to admire her mural. It is good because it says what she wants it to say. She signs it down by the foundation in Viet, using a Magic Marker. She prints the title in English.

Quickly, she caps her cans and folds up her ladder, pushing them into the back of her van. She lets the van roll a little before she starts the engine.

On her way out of town, she sees the kid again, waiting by the softball field at the Blue Crab. He's carrying a nylon backpack and a catcher's mitt, and he looks like he's from Oysterback. She stops for him.

Michael Ruarke climbs into the van. ''You do it?'' he asks.

Tran nods. ''It looks pretty good,'' she says modestly.

''You think you could pierce my nose like yours?'' Michael asks.

''Sure,'' Tran says. Maybe he's not as big a hick as she first thought when she picked him up coming into town.

''Cool,'' Michael says. He pushes an MC 900 Foot Jesus tape into the deck.

As the van heads toward Ocean City, Hudson Swann, yawning, comes out of his house, on his way to work. As he is getting into his truck, he sees the painting that has appeared on the wall of his house. He studies the moon diagrams and feels something for which he can find no words, only a yearning for something he did not know until now that he has been missing.

Helen Chappell is sole proprietress of Oysterback.

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