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Monday, September 10, 2001
It was mid-afternoon when I drove out to visit my friend, Ed Cain, on his five-acre parcel of land near Port Townsend, Washington. In a clearing of Douglas fir and white cedar, he’d built a modest two-room house and studio, a sizable vegetable garden, and several large pens in which he kept his prized chickens.
Ed had been married twice, with children from both marriages and even though his second family lived on the opposite corner of the acreage in a house he’d built for them, he preferred his solitude. He lived alone.
He greeted me at the door with his usual good-nature. “Get on in here,” he said, sweeping his right arm down and out into the room as if to say, “OK, you found me.” Ten feet into the room, we stopped and stood before one of his newest paintings, a large silver and black abstraction that nearly filled one wall. I smiled and nodded appreciatively. Then he led me across the room, around an old platen press, through his kitchen, and out the back door to a small porch where we settled down to a lengthy conversation. Trees towered above us on all sides.
We hadn’t seen each other in several weeks and, as usual, were soon discussing our inescapable, irresistible tether to art, the joy we found in making it, and the various ways in which it entered and affected our lives. Our newest topic, however, was Ed’s participation in several of my film projects.
Some months earlier, I had interviewed him for “Cadmium Red Light,” a documentary profile of Lennie Kesl, an eccentric painter and jazz singer and who had been my friend and mentor for nearly forty years. In the mid-1980s, I’d introduced both men and they too were quickly bonded by their creative worlds; it seemed fitting that Ed should add his two cents to the project’s already rich collection of interviews.
Ed was happy to do so. But what he ultimately offered surprised me. A different person emerged-not the gentle Ed I’d expected but an off-the-wall, slightly cantankerous character with sharp-edged humor. I was fascinated with what whirled out of his imagination and I immediately sensed another project blossoming. I asked him if he would be willing to let me continue the interviews, not about Lennie, but about himself or whichever “self” happened to appear.
What developed in this new project was a delightful fable. Ed, or Edward, split himself into fictitious identical twins: Edward and Edwin. In the reeling out of his enchanting yarn, Edward was serious and artistic, Edwin cranky and countrified, a man who loved his chickens.
Being interviewed first, Edward explained that family tradition dictated the first-born son be named Edward. When twin boys arrived, their parents decided to call one Edward and the other Edwin. Until they were older, they were simply known as the little ‘Eddys.’
“OK,” I said, smiling, “I’m game. Let’s see where the story drifts.”
Edward continued. He explained that Edwin had fallen off a horse while trying to jump over a feed trough, landing on his head. He was a bit slow. After their mother died, Edward took his brother in, allowing him to help around the yard; he tended the chickens and weeded the garden, just to keep him busy and out of trouble.
When I interviewed Edwin, however, the story changed. In this slant, it was Edwin who took care of Edward.
“Edward,” Edwin complained, “ain’t good for much. He can’t make a living. He don’t do nothing but write poetry. He never did. And those pictures? Hell, nobody can understand them things. If he’d get himself a decent job, he might do OK. I’ve been taking care of him since Mom passed.”
On the surface, this unfolding invention seemed like a delightful comedy, but there was also something unsettling in its ‘believability.’ I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
After four or five interviews, the title of the film, conjured up by Edwin, asserted itself. It would be called “Ed and Ed.”
The Ed Cain I had known for eighteen years, of course, had no twin. He had grown up in the American West, part cowboy, part farmer, and eventually he tried his hand as a chef, a landscaper, and at general construction. He was a competent plumber and electrician-a true jack-of-all-trades. He even dug his own well with body and shovel.
He also was a remarkable poet and painter. He designed and handset the type for his own limited edition books, and printed them on that old printing press he had dragged around for years. His poetry is spare and elegant. His paintings are figurative abstractions of birds-mostly loons and crows-or the human female, often expressed in bold, child-like strokes of black and white.
A big, tall man, Ed was quiet spoken and possessed of a gentle, generous heart. He loved to tease his way through conversations. He made you feel comfortable.
Our conversation migrated from art in general to the specifics of setting up our next interview session.
As the afternoon passed, the sun had moved beyond the clearing and the air grew colder. Ed’s light bantering slowed, his usual bright disposition darkened. He seemed to slowly collapse in on himself as he leaned both arms on the table, clearing his throat as one might do when wanting to change the subject. He paused, looked over the table at me, and softly asked, “What do you think I should do with my work… with my paintings?”
“What do you mean?” I replied.
“Well, I don’t think anyone much cares about them one way or the other,” he said, looking down at his large hands clasped together, fingers twisting in fingers as if in agitated prayer. “I thought you might have some ideas.”
I looked at my friend, still unsure of what he was asking. I didn’t take his question too seriously, however, because, while generous to a fault with his friends, Ed was perhaps the most independent, self-reliant person I’d ever met. Returning a favor always required subtle ingenuity. I stuttered for an appropriate response until my awkwardness left a lengthy gap in our conversation. He felt my discomfort and quickly lightened the mood.
We stood and wandered back inside, through the kitchen, back around the press, toward the front door.
I explained that I would be leaving within a week for Thailand, to resume work on my elephant documentary. I told him I would think about his question and offer the best advice I could before leaving the country. I suggested I come back in a few days to get more material for “Ed and Ed.” I was excited by what we had, but we both agreed it wasn’t nearly enough.
He smiled broadly beneath his thick mustache and walked me to the door, switching on his ‘Edwinesque’ humor. We laughed and shook hands. I got into my car and drove home.
* * * * *
On Wednesday, like most every other person in the world, I was still staggering from Tuesday’s unimaginable destruction: planes crashing into the World Trade Center, bodies burning or falling from those iconic buildings, another plane crashing into the Pentagon, and yet another plunging into the wooded fields near ‘Shanksville,’ Pennsylvania.
No one had ever witnessed anything like it on American soil since the bombing of Pearl Harbor. 9/11 was a catastrophic event that irrevocably changed the way we think and feel and act as a culture; it spawned a completely new matrix of fear-technology, governmental invasion of privacy, unreasonable wars, and systemic hatred.
That early evening, I received a phone call from Ed’s estranged wife. She was in Oregon, traveling up to Port Townsend. She had been trying to reach Ed but without success. When she returned the next morning, having to go directly to her office, she phoned me again, still concerned, and asked if I would go check on him.
“OK,” I told her, “I’ll drive out.”
I tried his phone. No answer. So I drove the five miles back out Hastings Avenue, down Jolie Way onto his long, unpaved driveway through the trees, until I reached his house.
On the way out, I found myself crafting a rather dark what-if scenario. I don’t believe my turn of thoughts came from any feeling I left with after seeing him on Monday, but rather from being emotionally troubled from the disaster of 9/11.
If Ed were planning to do something to himself, he would first destroy all of his chickens. It was an odd thing to imagine but that’s the direction in which my mind was turning. If I heard his chickens as I approached the house, everything would be fine. If I heard nothing, I should worry.
When I arrived, his van was parked in its usual place. The front door to his house was open. I rolled down my window and listened. Silence. My heart raced a bit. Then I heard a few hens and the squabble of a rooster. I felt reassured. I got out, stood by my car, and called his name several times. No response. I called a bit louder. Still nothing. It was a lovely September morning, clear and sunny, with a slight breeze.
I walked up and stood at the bottom of his front porch. “Hey, Ed, are you there… are you inside?” The chickens started fussing the way they do when hungry.
I heard a voice coming from the interior. But it wasn’t Ed’s. It sounded as if it were coming from a TV. Then it hit me. I suddenly realized what I was about to walk into.
Though reluctant to step inside, I entered because I had no choice. “Just go in,” I said to myself, praying I wouldn’t find what I was afraid I might.
Entering, I could see dead leaves had blown into the room and were scattered about in small drifts across the floor. Between his front door and kitchen, the printing press stood in quiet obstinacy, waiting for the next book project to begin.
Little clay sculptures of diving birds lined the shelf beneath the windows. The large painting I’d seen on Monday loomed more intensely, its black and silver piercing the room’s dark interior from sunlight flooding through the open door.
I turned slowly to the right. Ed’s body lay on what seemed too small of a bed, his shoulders propped up on several pillows. He was wearing only a white undershirt that had gathered and risen above his stomach. A rifle lay near his side, his right hand curled over the stock.
A small portable TV sat on a crate next to his bed; it seemed like some strange intensive care device noisily attending the body that lay before it. The bullet had entered through his mouth, exiting the upper back of his head. The force of the projectile had exploded the skull’s parietal bone and left a large, irregular pattern of blood and flesh against the wall. Yet his face was strangely tranquil, as if he were merely in repose, eyes shut, calmly listening to the newscast. I stood transfixed in the aftermath of mayhem-the strange juxtaposition between Ed’s lifeless body and the television’s low droning, its constant spooling out of tragedy into the world.
I had entered into a wholly new kind of experience and seemed to be operating, almost autonomously, as if by script. I found his phone. It was on a table beneath the window that looked out into the yard. I knew I needed to dial 911, but first I called a friend, another artist. It seemed crucial I speak to someone I knew. I asked her to call a friend.
“Call Stephen,” I said. “Please ask him to come over.”
Then I dialed the emergency operator. I looked out of the window into the yard. I remember thinking how beautiful and green was his vegetable garden. I could hear the clucking and crooning of chickens. “I need to report a suicide.” I said to the operator.
“Are you certain he’s dead?”
“Yes, I’m sure of it. He’s dead.”
“How far are you from the body?”
“I’m close… maybe fifteen feet. It’s… it’s a small room.”
“Can you take the phone into another room?”
“No, I can’t.”
“OK. But I need you to stay on the line. Keep talking to me. Stay on the line. The sheriff is on his way. He should be there momentarily.”
“This is very difficult.”
“I know it is, sir, but I need you to stay on the line.”
After the initial shock-the mind’s processing of death, a friend’s death, of seeing what the force of a bullet does to flesh and bone, and of seeing his nearly naked body slumped against the wall on which his last creative expression was painted in blood-I turned away.
I suppose my being overwhelmed released some chemical that helped me defy my own frailty. The body mercifully does that. In fact, I felt somewhat emotionally disconnected to what lay before me. As I waited for the sheriff to arrive, I held the phone to my ear, my eyes wandering everywhere but to the bed.
“Yes, I’m still here,” I kept repeating, assuring the voice on the other end of the line.
On the windowsills and tables, lottery tickets had been scratched and tossed. Bills lay unopened. On a bedside table, a large wine bottle stood empty. Between the bed and a nearby closet, a dark-red upholstered chair lay on its side. Just beyond the chair, a closet door stood open.
I doubt an autopsy was ever performed on Ed’s body. There is no way to be sure exactly when he pulled the trigger. But during my wait and to help me refrain from bolting, which I literally had thought I might, I began to imagine his final moments.
I set the scene: A man is lying on a small bed, trying to swim out of his own darkness, desperate to ease a sorrow he cannot name. His entire world is sinking and a voice on TV confirms it. He makes a final decision. End it all. He must do it. No hesitating. He rises, stumbles toward the closet where he keeps his gun. He trips and, in his wobbling, drunken haste, knocks over the chair. He reaches into the closet, grabs the rifle, returns to his bed. Don’t think. He pulls the trigger.
“Are you still with me?”
“Yes, I’m still here.”
“The sheriff is heading up to the house now.”
“OK, now listen very carefully… what I need you to do, sir, is slowly put the phone down. Just place it on the table, OK? Then I want you to calmly and slowly walk outside with your hands-both hands-above your head. Do you understand?”
I did. I got it. Completely. Instantly. There was never a moment of indignant disbelief. I knew uncertainty surrounded me. I could have been the shooter.
I walked out calmly with arms raised. The sheriff approached warily, quite obviously trying to get a read on any possible and unpredictable move I might make. I thought I heard him say, “It’s OK.” I relaxed and let my hands down. Quickly he reached for his holstered weapon. Back up went my arms.
A moment later the county prosecuting attorney arrived; we’d known each for a few years. “He’s OK,” she said, moving between the sheriff and me, on into the house. The sheriff followed her inside and after a few more minutes, an emergency vehicle arrived. Two paramedics rolled out a gurney and they too went inside.
Ed’s wife and son suddenly appeared from behind me. I turned to see utter horror and disbelief on their faces.
They wanted to see Ed. I knew this could have devastating consequences, especially for the boy, so I absolutely forbade them.
“Go home,” I said. “You do not want to see this. You must not.”
Reluctantly they turned and left.
After a few minutes, the sheriff and county prosecutor reappeared, got into their cars and drove off. The medics soon followed with Ed’s remains encased in a black body bag on the silver gurney. They placed him inside the emergency vehicle and slowly drove away.
No bright yellow tapes cordoned off the house. The sheriff had given me no instructions of what to do and what not to do, and I stood in the yard stunned from the unfolding scenario, wondering what to do next. I assumed the county officials considered Ed’s death self-inflicted and that I was expected to simply depart as everyone else had. But how could I? How could I simply leave the house open and unattended?
I went back inside. Ed was gone, the rifle gone, the television switched off, the house silent.
I knew I couldn’t leave this place of pain and loss for the family to discover, so I searched around Ed’s kitchen for rags and cleaning supplies and set about scrubbing the floor and the wall behind the bed. I drug the mattress out into yard, searched through Ed’s studio and found paint thinner to pour over it; I set it aflame.
Very soon Stephen arrived and we did our best to put the place back into some kind of order, as if Ed were merely out for the afternoon. Stephen washed the dishes. I put the empty wine bottle and the stained towels and bedding in plastic bags. We set the dark red chair upright, shut the closet, and swept the dead leaves back out into the yard. We closed the front door and left.
A week later, I headed back to Asia.
* * * * *
In November 2006, I had finished “Cadmium Red Light” and had nearly completed the elephant documentary. I began to think about the scant video footage I had for “Ed and Ed.”
The mini-tapes had lain undisturbed in their tiny, plastic box on a shelf in my office, gathering dust. I had not looked at any of the material since before Ed took his life.
But those three one-hour tapes never let me forget them.
As winter drove on, each time I went into my office, I began to feel like a six-penny nail orbiting Jupiter. I was rapidly being pulled in; it was time to edit the twins.
Admittedly, I had somewhat helped define the two characters by shaping my interviews to accommodate either Edward or Edwin.
Nonetheless, as I began to study the raw material, I wondered to what extent I had actually participated. Ed had orchestrated the entire scenario. It was his invention, his fable. “Ed and Ed” was his. I was simply shadowing his imagination.
I began to assemble what material I had. There wasn’t much. I wanted to stay close to Ed’s Ed but I needed to understand why. I needed to know how. My job was to make sure the story would ultimately pass the honesty test. It did, after all, happen.
There’s a scene in which Edward talks about bringing his brother to live with him after their parents died. He talks about going to ‘Cenex,’ a local garden store, to buy fertilizer for his vegetables, and he takes Edwin with him.
When they have finished shopping and are back in the van, Edwin has a box of baby chicks on his lap. Edward says, “What do you have there?”
“Baby ‘Bafarmingtons,'” answers Edwin.
Now, as far as I know, Ed never studied the art of acting, yet he tells this simple fabrication with such conviction, his voice breaking, tears welling up in his eyes, that one cannot help but feel his brotherly love. It’s a remarkable scene. Is he recalling some distant childhood memory?
As I struggled to develop a narrative, it soon became clear that Edwin represented, in the real world of Ed Cain, everyone who couldn’t understand him, his paintings, his poetry-his need to make art. Edward suffered, in an inseparable way, the world of Edwin.
The challenge for me was weaving together a story with such limited material, achieving the necessary balance. It needed a beginning and an ending, and I wanted to make sure the purpose was clearly felt. And it also needed to be collaborative, to be what I imagined Ed would have wanted. For the viewer and the integrity of documentary, I had to finally stitch the brothers back together as one person, as Ed Cain, to resolve it as history. Getting it there needed the right questions and the right answers.
After completing a first draft, I showed the film to several test groups. I needed feedback. I wanted to know not only whether I had created the illusion of actual twins but, more importantly, whether the fable transcended itself to become reality. Would the film offer some lesson the viewer could grasp-a parable’s gift?
Of the ten viewers, only one was uncertain while the others fully believed they were actually watching identical twins until the ending, when the two Ed’s were made one.
In the film’s beginning, before Edwin appears, Edward reads one of his poems:
In winter one loon stays
just short of the farthest old piers.
Perhaps it is not always the same loon
The light in this sun-diminished season
seems continual and it makes
little difference if its dawn or evening.
In reflection, the loon seems not so cold.
The window mirrors my eyes against haze.
The loon stills the air between us.
In the final scene, Edward is sitting on a metal stool in front of his platen press. As interviewer, I explain that his brother Edwin has completely dismissed his version of their life together. That Edwin, in fact, had been taking care of him. Edward quietly laughs and says, “That’s amazing. I’m surprised you got that much out of him. He usually doesn’t talk that much. I don’t know whether I want to dispute what he says or not.”
He slowly stands, walks toward the viewer and disappears. We are left alone in the room with the printing press and the little clay sculptures in the window. We see a message scrolling up and over the final scene. From these few words we learn there was only Ed. The viewer now understands the truth in the fable’s revelation and the tragedy that befell Ed Cain.
In all probability, I was the last person to have seen him alive and the first to find what he’d left us. I would later ask myself, “Was I not listening well enough on that Monday afternoon? Was I overly concerned with my own projects, or with my preparations for travel?” Whatever clues he might have given me on that Monday, I missed them.
Eight years later, however, going back through my last day of filming, I discovered in one sequence, Edwin talking about their life together, his and Edward’s. He says, “We don’t have a desire to get involved with one another now.” He adds, “It’s almost ‘door-shuttin’ time.'” Does this unusual colloquialism refer merely to getting old and dying, or does it reveal darker thoughts? Ed was only sixty-six.
And was it possible, as Ed lay crippled in hopelessness, the news spewing out of the little TV became the proverbial straw that broke him beyond repair, another victim of 9/11?
It’s been fourteen years since he asked me about his art-what should he do with it? The question continues to haunt me. What can such a question mean?
I think he understood that durability of art as artifact is determined only by human capriciousness and the passage of time. But naturally, and rightfully, he was concerned with what might become of his paintings and poems. Perhaps, for him, they tethered one world to another.
Ed and I often talked about the communion of art, and how it nourishes and sustains generosity. We felt that the vitality of art is indelible and processional: conceiving, doing, and giving. We believed it then and I believe it now.
When I think back on that Monday afternoon, as we sat across from one another, beneath those magnificent trees, Ed wasn’t asking me a question at all, but rather offering an awkward and oblique farewell.
In the end, Ed left this world, Edwin’s world, in solitude, and as he did so, like his beautiful loon, he stilled the air between us.Write by george t shirts