I don’t know why, but I was really nervous meeting Mark Cross (www.markcross.nu/). His gallery is just this tiny little office space next to Tavana’s Café in a small horseshoe of shops they call the Alofi Commerical Centre. Mark, dressed in ragged green shorts and an old dingy t-shirt, was sitting on a stool cleaning his paint brushes. We chatted a bit and he told me he was just about to close up and head home because he was hosting a little barbecue at his place in Liku. “Why don’t you join us if you like?” he said. I asked him what I could bring and he said maybe some beer, so I walked over to Swan-son Supermarket, the only real market on the island (which, just to be honest, would be called a Quickie-Mart if it were in Orlando or Santa Barbara) only to find the store closed.
A young boy was sitting in the shade of the store licking a popsicle and I asked him when the store would be open.
“Monday,” he said.
I’m not quite sure what the logic is here, but evidently the only market on the island closes at 5pm on Friday and doesn’t open back up until 10am on Monday. Because, heck, why would anybody need to buy something at the store over the weekend, right?
The kid asked me what I wanted to buy (like maybe he had an extra something or other in his baggy shorts) and I told him beer. He shook his head. “They don’t sell beer anyway,” he said.
Well then where do people buy beer on the weekend? I asked him. He told me to go to the Pacific Way Bar, across from the fish processing plant, just outside of town. So I drove out to Pacific Way, a blue-collar saloon with a couple of pool tables and an ancient TV hanging from the ceiling. I think there was a soccer game on, though the image was so washed out and buzzing with interference that they could have been televising a moon landing for all I could tell. I bought a six-pack of Lion Red, a cheap New Zealand beer, and then drove to Liku on the other side of the island.
It was raining a bit but it didn’t really matter since the temperature hardly ever fluctuates on Niue (whether it rains or not, it’s always about 85 and, because of the humidity, feels like a hundred; the same is true whether it’s day or night). I guess the best way to describe the setting is to say that it reminded me of something you might come across in the Louisiana countryside. There was an old rusted tractor, a coconut crowning the exhaust pipe, permanently residing out front of the house and dogs and chickens running around. Mark’s house was a small concrete structure, painted a pale blue, with a corrugated tin roof. A clothesline hung just outside the front door and some t-shirts and towels were getting a second rinse in the rain.
Mark gave me a cold beer and we stood sort of awkwardly out on his patio, me admiring the coconut and banana trees all around. “Don’t need to go far to get your fresh fruit, do you?” I said trying to make conversation.
“Nope,” Mark said. “Nor your protein.” And with that he used his beer can to point out a dark creature looming in the shadows of some jungle overgrowth. “There are more wild pigs than people on Niue,” he said, and then he picked up a small coconut off the ground and threw it in the direction of the pig, which snorted and casually lumbered off.
Shortly, about 5 or 6 people showed up, everyone bringing a salad or taro casserole or a plate of chicken. While Mark cooked up some sausages and pork chops on an old rusty charcoal grill, I wandered around his house looking at his paintings. There was this one painting that really shook me. It was a straight-on portrait of a young Polynesian woman holding a palm frond in front of her. Like it was a gift–which was the name of the painting. Or maybe the young girl was the gift.
Mark came in from the patio and stood behind me. Neither one of us said anything for awhile.
“Is that your daughter?” I said, still looking at the painting and not at him.
“Mishca,” he said. “The year before she died.”
He didn’t say anything else and I didn’t either. The rain had picked up. It was pounding on the corrugated roof like rubber mallets. The room lit up from a distant flash of lightning. A while later there was thunder. I turned around, smiled at Mark, and left him alone in the room with the painting of his daughter. Back on the patio, everyone was sitting on the stoop just watching the rain. No one said anything. After a few minutes, the storm stopped and the sky quickly cleared. Steam rose up off the glossy green leaves of the banana trees. A wild chicken and a couple of baby chicks came out from their hiding place in the jungle and started picking at the thick grass. After awhile, I got up and went inside to get another beer. When I did, I snuck a look in the room with the painting of Mishca. Mark was sitting in a chair next to the painting. Looking out the window much the way his daughter did in the painting. I left the two of them alone.