With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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The house smells of age. I walk up the sidewalk. The cement is split with cracks, yawning, ripe with yellow Bermuda, and the years hang heavy on the wooden frame. Shingles sag, paint peels, weeds reach out. The door is ajar. Father never believed in locks. The doorknob is cool in my hand. Inside, the cramped air, bottled up too long like stagnating water in a wooden vat, rushes and bursts upon me. It reeks of death: rotting vegetables, a squirrel carcass decaying under the porch, mildew creeping up basement walls, dead crickets lying stiff inside a wooden cabinet. But it is just the air, heavy and musty. Father, I call, reaching for the light switch. Father, Father.
My father was an artist.
His fingers pulled across the canvas, ripping furrows, bleeding rainbows, wetness, tears. Flecks ran up his arms as he painted, shaping with fingers and palms and brushes. His hands piled colors in thick ridges, the mass slowly finding definition and breadth. And the pictures were beautiful. Men crumpled, contorted in pain under the heavy wood of wagon wheels. Faces crying, lost in thick mazes of concrete walls and steel girders, eyes oozing blood. A crucifixion, nails driven deep into wrists. A child sitting alone in a field of asphalt, black tar sloping over the horizon. Women without teeth, infants at their breasts, scars like strips of dough down their cheeks.
Father painted each night — a scene, a moment, a memory — his face always set in stone, eyes softening into powder gray, like ash in the fireplace. While the paint dried, he slept.
Father never sold a single painting. He gave them away. He walked the streets in the early morning haze, avoiding crowds and lighted avenues, and handed his work to a face he admired. He never gave his work to anyone he knew, only strangers. Moving steadily, sometimes for hours, he finally clasped a hand, gazed into the eyes, tucking the rolled-up canvas under their arms, then disappeared as quickly as he had come. I would watch him return, hands empty, a glow on his cheeks, and he would sit in his chair, watch the sun burning, the children playing in the park, the breeze rustling birds off the telephone wires. Sometimes his hands dragged him back to the easel. But usually he just sat and listened and glowed.
Father could fix nearly anything. His fingers moved with tender grace over the hot bulk of engines, nimbly picking and tightening valves, pipes, bolts. After school, I would stop at the garage and wait for him to close up, to pull down the heavy sliding doors, always with a crash, to lock up the bathrooms, to switch off the pumps.
Together we walked home, stopping at the market, and Father would reach into the chest pocket of his tattered flannel, his stained fingers, lathered in scars and burns and grease, fishing out crumpled and moist dollar bills. Grocery bags full, moving slowly down the street, we would smell the air, Father listening while I told him of my day, of the lessons and tests, of girls, of fights in the corridor, of those I had talked to and why. What did you learn, he would ask. And I told him. His smile would be there, small but gentle, as if he wanted only to lie down. Sometimes he hugged me tight with just one arm, and I felt the power in his hands, his grip.
Out in front of the house, we would throw the baseball amid the loud knocks on the asphalt and the slap of leather, as the sun drifted into the rooftops, pulling the clouds pink and twisted. Father smiled in the hazy dusk, gray powder in the sky, and the baseball grew darker with each toss. At dinner, in the kitchen, Father would tell me stories about today and days long ago: stories of his own, stories of others, stories from his mind, stories from his past, from our past. After cleaning the kitchen, washing the dishes, he would paint and I would read my books for school and scribble my homework, finish quick, and then watch him paint.
Father painted long into the night.
I flip the light switch, and the living room explodes in a sudden churn of color and faces and images. The walls are alive. Every inch, each blank space of flatness, of white surface, of wall, leaps and sprawls and screams in a flood of paint. Hell. So much fire everywhere. On trees and metal and tangled vines of rubber. Burning. Naked figures tear at their throats. Broken bodies under coils of heavy chain. Men beat shrieking women with shovels and pickaxes, blood spurting, and children drool, ragged fingers sifting through the gravel beneath, hunting. Enormous piles of shattered black rock. Like pyramids. People, scrawny and hairy, hide in thorn bushes, crouching and trembling under trees laden with rotten fruit. Apples shriveled and brown like miniature skulls. A screaming woman is setting fire to a man in a wheelchair. Rows of buildings stand tall, circling, rows of empty rooms, rows of empty windows, glowing like yellow eyes. No one lives there. Cranes pull infant buildings into shape as arms and legs squirm under heavy steel treads. There are men and women and children sitting alone, in shallow graves and on mud-encrusted islands and under crumbling cactuses; they stare and pick at the scabs on their bodies. Eyes without pupils. Clouds rain ash.
The walls swirl and turn. Father has been painting.
Father, I yell, Father.
Mother came to Father because of the paint under his fingernails. On a day of warm rain sprinkling soft in the morning heat, he stopped her on the street and handed her a painting. Small boy hunched over, reaching a tiny finger toward a bloated, dead cow. Crows perched on the fence.
Then he walked on, gently gliding down the sidewalk, heavy boots clicking on the cement. She followed him. For weeks she trailed and watched him, sitting nearby in the dingy coffeehouses, sidling up beside him in the market, eyeing him from the opposite side of the street, focusing on his thick shoulders as they eased through crowds. Father never noticed her, she told me. His eyes were always elsewhere.
But her legs grew exhausted, blisters raw on her heels, so finally she confronted him, blocking his path, and then slipped a scroll of canvas into his hands. The canvas was blank. After gazing at the unblemished surface, white and smooth and waiting, he reached to her, a light touch on her cheek with a calloused finger. He smiled and spoke. He talked and talked. He brought her down to the beach, to the clean air, to the tide pools, pointing out sea anemones and floating arms of kelp and clusters of mussels. He pointed and she watched his fingers.
She was the first woman Father had brought home since my mother died during my birth. I was on the porch, prying the mud from my baseball spikes with a stick, when they approached. Her hands clung tightly to his upper arm, as if he were dragging her against the wind. Father cooked dinner and pulled an extra chair into the kitchen. Her eyes followed his hands, the graceful motions his huge, tarnished hands made, the way they shaped scenes when he talked, the delicate use of the knife, the control and knowledge of each finger.
After cleaning up, Father sang and danced with her in the living room while I laughed, and then she grabbed me and moved with me as Father picked at his old banjo, fingers running up and down the fret board. Father laughed loud and often, and chased me when I ran, forcing me to dance with him as she clapped and whistled, until I was too tired to move and pretended to die on the floor at Father’s feet. Then, with the lamp glowing, pushing light over the shadows, we sat quietly and watched Father paint. I fell asleep in the chair, Father still painting, mumbling good night Father good night Mother, my head soft and lolling on my neck, waking only to feel Father’s arms scooping me up, carrying me upstairs to my bed.
Mother stayed for a long time. She sat next to me at breakfast as Father cooked. She helped in the garden, always wearing gloves while Father pointed to what was a weed and what was not; she took me window-shopping in town, and tossed the ball to me when Father worked late. I would see them sitting together behind the backstop at my baseball games. She cheered and whistled while Father watched and clapped softly. Afterward, we stopped at a deli for sandwiches and then the beach or the park, Father tackling Mother into the sand, yelling and laughing at me to hide my eyes. When Father painted, closing the door behind him, she sat with me on the sofa and talked and listened. And I always smiled for her.
Father kept painting. Often alone, the door locked, silence, just the slow whisper of his hands. Darkness thickening on the canvas. Walking the streets, searching and giving. But sometimes he sat at the kitchen table and drew pictures with a pencil: plain and clean sketches of a single river flowing smooth, a windmill turning as the yellow weeds of summer rustled in the breeze, waves crashing and spraying frost upon the rocks, a trickle of light breaking through a canopy of heavy branches, catching the antlers of a deer hidden in a thicket. He gave these pictures to me. Or to Mother. I pinned them on my wall, and a smile broadened his face when he saw them there.
The stairway wall is immersed in crimson, split and ravaged by twisted veins of black, branching like scorched fingers of bone. Under my feet, each stair creaks, buckles, moans. Father, I shout. The upstairs hallway shrieks spirals of color. Sheets of fire and mounds of ash and bone crumble into yellow dust and severed heads stare at the sky.
The photographs that hung on the walls have been curtained with paint; I can see only the rectangular bulge of picture frames that hide beneath the faces. Father’s room drips dried tears, crooked streaks that distort the faces on the four walls. Woman with her stomach ripped open, a gaping mouth. Man and infant watch the blood well up from the ragged wound. Woman pulled into a manhole, raped by construction workers in yellow hard hats and heavy gloves. Lidless eyes, awash in thick mucus, stare blank, no life at all. Limbs, torn off bloody at joints, scatter arid ground, organs like dripping litter strung about, decapitated head, mouth distorted into a scream. It is father’s head. Broken hands, useless, fingers twisted off, bone jutting from the wrists.
But my room is untouched. A light film of dust cradles my desk and dresser. My bed is made. And there is no paint. No pictures. Nothing. Just a photograph on my desk of Father and me, fishing; I am holding a huge bass on a chain and Father is next to me, broad chest, smiling, his large hand on my shoulder. I return to the hall and climb the stairs to the attic.
But Mother was scared.
A slow trickle of fear crawled in her eyes when Father walked the streets. She sat by the window, watching and waiting, tracing smudged circles on the glass with her fingertips. Often, he was gone for hours. Father would just get up and leave, out through the front door without a single word or glance, just that aimless twist on his face, wandering on and on with paintings snug under his arm, not returning until late, the floorboards already cold with nightfall. Silent, he walked a worn path to his studio and began to paint. And Mother sat quietly, sinking into the sofa, hands picking at loose threads, her face empty and drooping. She stared at the door of his studio. I would sit with her and give her my hand.
Wild fear bloomed in her eyes when Father sat out on the porch with the ragged men — men with tattered clothes, stale breaths, tangled beards, eyes swimming on red glass. Men from the streets. Father would invite them to sit on the back porch, sharing loaves of bread and drinking from a heavy jug of wine. If it was a cold night, he brought them blankets. The black shadows outside the window frightened Mother, and she would wait on the sofa for Father, trembling, curled up in a ball. Late into the night, Father would drink with the men, listening and talking and chuckling, low murmurs, secretive, long drags of silence, the breeze rustling hidden branches. When he finally returned, Father found Mother asleep, her mouth open and face smooth and her wheat-colored hair disheveled, and he would hold her and watch her, touching her lightly, before he carried her to bed, careful not to wake her.
A sluggish cloud of fear drifted into her eyes when Father would lapse into his chair while painting, head in his arms, fists writhing, not speaking or seeing anything. Many days, silence consumed him as he sat at the window, gazing out at the games of children, at the creeping trail of traffic, at the bag lady pushing her cart, at the birds fighting the wind. His chair was an island he refused to leave until he was ready. She would whisper to him, and when he didn’t answer or look up, she would fall back into the sofa.
Later, Father would laugh and tell stories and sing and swing Mother around and draw soft pictures and take us to the beach or concerts in the park and ask us questions and plead with us to tell him a story this time. Mother’s eyes would swell and shimmer, and she smiled, but I could see the fear etched on her face, as if she were waiting for Father to slip away again. Her hands fidgeted, grabbing Father by the arms, trying to slow him down. Trying to hold him back.
Sometimes, when Father worked late at the garage, Mother would wander the house, lost, searching drawers and cabinets and rooms for things that were not there. I told her, no, we don’t have that, and confusion would splash her face, her mouth pulled tight with frustration. After we washed our clothes in the basin or scrubbed dishes in the sink or planted seeds in the moist dirt of the garden, she doused her hands in cream, soaking her fingers. When she complained, when she said she felt like some kind of Neanderthal, Father said nothing; he worked the chores by himself, his hands leather gloves tanned and cracked, wringing clothes tight, polishing glass, shaping mounds for the melon seeds.
Father refused to ride in her car. I like to walk, he said, to breathe and smell. Her car rippled in the sunlight and seemed alien in our driveway. At dusk, walking through town, the streets starting to glow and hum, I would see her driving alone, car top down, watching the crowd from behind sunglasses, her face held high, blank and unmoving. But she always seemed too small and too young, as if she were sitting on phone books.
When Father was gone, out in the streets, huddled by the window, hidden in his studio, I walked with Mother. She said little. Hours would stretch as we walked and stopped and walked. Mother would stand outside crowded pubs and restaurants, and stare in through the glass at the hordes of people: silk dripping over legs; jewelry glittering on ivory fingers; hundreds of faces swirling and smiling; the noise coiling and blooming out onto the street; couples milling about, joined at the wrists. She stared at them, her face sagging, almost collapsing. We sat in outdoor cafes, sipping drinks, and as an orange glow settled in Mother’s glass, she would watch the lights flicker, burn on and off and out. Her eyes were always distant, searching. Often, Mother went out without me, as I sat home and watched Father paint or listened to him read.
The attic door is awash in paint, layer upon layer of black. The knob turns smoothly and easily. Father never believed in locks. But the door doesn’t open; a tight barrier beyond the wood keeps it closed. I can feel the heavy force behind it and when I lean, my shoulder strong against it, the door remains sturdy and shut. So I kick the door, high up near the knob, my feet lashing with the fear that rides and burns inside me. I kick and kick, over and over, again and again — Father, Father — the wood cracking, splintering, and I hear the sharp scream of metal wrenched from wood. The door bursts open, and I see the boards fall, the nails bent and loose. Father had nailed the door shut. From inside. Light streams in through the attic window. The attic is beautiful.
And Mother would dream.
In the waning afternoon heat, I would open the front door and see her kneeling on the living room floor, magazines slashed open, dismembered, surrounding her. Scissors flashed, her hands moved and arranged the pictures on the floor in front of her in neat rows and columns. Colorful, glossy photos of foreign worlds and crowds of people, all perfect and beautiful and beaming. She would pull me down next to her and tell me about them. Her face grew excited, her dark skin absorbed a crisp sheen of sunlight and sparkled.
Once she brought her pictures to Father, a wide smile smooth on her face, and she showed him with sudden vigor. Father looked at them and grinned, but his eyes were gentle and confused, his face slowly growing blank. He didn’t understand. I saw this and so did Mother. When he hugged her, his face seemed lost, and she stood clumsy, silent.
So she bought a dress. A silk evening gown, powder blue falling in soft folds. She sold the painting he had first given her and she bought a dress.
That night he trudged through the door, face weary, and found her sitting on the sofa, wearing the gown. His face widened in a great smile, exhaustion slipping quickly away, a smile of someone so young and startled.
You look beautiful, he said, so beautiful. The dress is wonderful. You look very happy.
Really? I look beautiful, she said.
You are beautiful, he said. The dress . . . where . . . how did you find it?
I took your painting to the gallery . . . They loved it . . . It is wonderful, they said. Exquisite, they called it. You should have seen their faces. Their eyes. They want to buy others. Your work is amazing, they told me.
You did what? You sold it . . . You sold it?
Yes, she exclaimed, and they loved it. The paintings are worth a great deal.
Sold it? For money? My painting . . .
It is worth a great deal. That’s what they told me.
Worth? I . . . don’t you understand . . . no you . . . no one . . . I . . .
And then Father was backing up against the wall, staring at his fists, eyes like powder, like dust sifting away with the wind. He walked silently to his studio. Mother dropped into the sofa, and she sat there, her fingers caressing the softness of the gown. She kept looking about the room, her face caught in a fog of bewilderment.
When Father returned from his studio, his face stone, he had a painting in his hands, and his arms were splashed in dark colors. He set the painting on the floor. Spiders gnawing on a cocoon, blood spilling from their jaws, eyes wild and hating and dark. The strands of web are heavy chain. Inside the half-eaten cocoon something struggles and twitches against the chain. Something still alive. The spiders have human faces.
He lit the canvas on fire, flames creeping across the painting. Slow snakes of black smoke curled into the air. When the fire finished its task, he kicked at the black ashes and scattered them, glowing flakes, across the floor. A dark burn scarred the rug. He looked at her. The stone of his face seemed ready to crumble, and his eyes trembled, struggled. His voice was a whisper.
Don’t you understand . . . please . . . don’t you . . . Please.
His hands were caked black. He went back into his studio. He didn’t return until the next morning. Mother still sat on the sofa, wearing her gown.
Mother grew quiet.
Father would bring Mother things. A fallen nest he had found in the park, a fragile house of twigs and twine and leaves. White pearls of shell, cuffed in pink, worn smooth from the ocean. Coming home from the garage, he would grab my arm and pull me fast alongside him; we would jump fences and pick apples and oranges and peaches, and then run away laughing. He took off his shirt and used it like a sack for the fruit, and he brought them home to Mother. His hands drew pictures and he gave them to her. But she didn’t understand. He tried harder and harder, hugging her and dancing and mailing her letters from the gas station. But it didn’t work; she inched into silence, she slept constantly. She bought a television, falling asleep on the sofa enveloped in the blue glow. Mother was scared of his hands.
Father kept painting.
The attic is beautiful. No walls, no ceiling, no floor, all is gone, just a lovely world, bright and alive. I am in a garden. Thin fingers of green creep against smooth rock and up the soft bark of trees, grapevines and tomato plants and the feathery arms of ivy. Rolling sheets of lush grass, free and undisturbed, a blanket beneath my feet. A brittle creek splashes between stones, a light path of crystal, and along the sandy bank grow nests of asparagus and stalks of cattail and the twisted roots of willows. And fruit trees. Heavy arms are laden with bulbous fruit swaying beneath the weight, all ripe and sweet. Cottontails scamper. A raccoon washes at the water’s edge. A cardinal perched above. Deer tracks in the sand. Golden sun slides above, white flakes of cloud shift on the blue, and leaves, dipped in fire, flutter with the breeze.
But there is poison in the air. A biting, choking fog hangs dense, a mist of chemicals, of toxins. The suffocating fumes of paint, trapped too long, cloud this attic, this world. I can barely breathe.
Mother left Father because of the grease under his fingernails. We would approach the gas station, and I could hear her suck in air, face tight, as she saw Father pump gas, wipe windows, lie beneath dirty cars, taking dollar tips with a smile. He would return at dusk, his fingers mashed and smeared. She stared at his hands, at the filth, and her eyes remained fixed on the thick dirt, the hard reality, the punishment that his hands accepted each day.
The shrill wind of late autumn was billowing off the ocean and against the house when she found Father. He had spent the night talking to the ragged men, his strong voice soothing them. Mother woke from the sofa and hunted for Father. He had slept outside with the others, in the cold, wrapped tight in a blanket, the dew clinging to him like scattered tears. And she couldn’t tell which huddled form was his.
After he left for the garage that morning, kissing her on the forehead and smiling, the fresh sunlight brown on his cheeks, she left as well. She worked quickly, packing her car high with clothes and boxes. The day was clear and sunny, yet a cool breeze seemed to leap suddenly from the branches, off the roof. Her arms were thin but tight around me, holding on long, longer, and then her car was roaring. Mist drifted down her face, her eyes running and dissolving. Goodbye, I said. She smiled a broken smile, and drove away.
Father was home early, arms sagging with the weight of groceries. He saw me waiting on the sofa and he smiled. But the coldness of the house, the barren skeleton reached him quick with fingers of ice, pulling him to the empty closet and dresser. The bed was made. She is gone, he said. I watched his face collapse, looking young and shattered, but his eyes remained ancient and gray. His mouth was ajar and there was spittle drying on his lips. I took his hand, feeling the scars and the grease and the strength, and I nodded.
That night Father began to paint self-portraits.
The winter brought more men to our porch, and Father often invited them inside, offering the floor and blankets. He painted more and more, sometimes all night, and without sleeping headed straight to the streets with his paintings. But he was much more careful. His painting had become known. His one picture hung on the wall at the gallery, and people constantly called Father, offering and pricing and pleading. I heard people talk of him at smoke-filled cafes and diners, and a few followed him home. He would talk to none of them. He roamed the streets still, and he gave his work only to certain people: elderly couples who sat on park benches, children with muddy elbows by the swing sets, bums who huddled around a fire by the tracks, burly men who worked on the docks in the early morning.
At night, he still read to me in the living room; I was certainly old enough to read for myself, but his voice gave the stories fire and life and meaning. We would fish together off the rocks and take long hikes in the mountains, his hands tireless in tying hooks or kindling the fire, but Father rarely talked; he asked short questions, grinned softly, and listened hard with his eyes.
When I left home for the university that next autumn, he gave me a simple drawing of a father and son, sitting on the dock, watching the waves roll in. The bus pulled away from the depot, coughing and lurching, and Father grew small in the distance, until all I could see was his hand waving to me above the heads of others.
Father wrote every other day. I tried to imagine his huge hands holding and controlling that tiny pencil. He could describe a bird, or a child with a ball, for pages, but his words never mentioned people he knew or people to whom he talked.
But late in November, Father stopped writing. I waited, watching the bare skeletons of trees outside, their black arms frail and gnarled, and more than a week passed without a single letter in my mailbox. So I called Mother.
The operator found her number, and when her phone rang, the fright running to the tips of my fingers, I prayed for a moment that she wasn’t home. But she was. Her voice broke through the static, sounding so warm and smooth, running with excitement, and then I saw the waves lap onto the shore, the wind blowing her dress wet against her legs, kicking her sandy hair off her shoulders, and Father on the beach, propped on his elbows, smiling at her. Sandpipers ran in fragile groups, chirping and picking at the moist sand. Salt clung to my shoulders, the scent clean and fresh.
Where is Father, I asked, where is he.
She paused and then began to mumble quickly, her voice escalating and cracking. She told me about Father.
Mother had waited at the garage for him, and when he finally closed up and saw her sitting by the cash register, Father approached her slowly and finally clasped her to him. After the silence settled, he spoke to her, carefully, like a young child. How are you, he asked, your life, how is it. Mother smiled and said, I am fine, everything is wonderful. Please come, she said, please. She pulled him along, up the street to the gallery. He said nothing; he just gazed at her and grinned. At first, Father refused to enter the gallery, but she pleaded with him, and finally he shrugged and followed her inside. There Father saw his paintings.
It was a party; there were trays of bread and cheese and olives, and fingers held glasses of wine with delicate caution. Everyone was dressed in fine suits and dresses, speaking words that hung crisp and light above the red shag rug. People were milling about, laughing faces and grave faces and blank faces. Father recognized many of these faces.
Mother began to weave in and out of the crowd, whispering hello and tugging lightly on sleeves. Everyone knew her. She turned back to Father, he stood alone in the crowd, his face stone, eyes sharp, and she rushed back to him. Mother smiled and kissed him on the cheek. The mass of people recognized him then and began to clap and smile and congratulate him and clasp his shoulder. And all about him, hanging on the wall, Father saw his paintings.
So many paintings. Dating back days and weeks and months and years, the paintings were his own, laid in ornate wooden frames and shining glass with inscriptions and price tags. Father had known these people for a moment before; most of them he had confronted at some point with a scroll of canvas under his arm — women from lonely streets, old men from the park, bums from his porch. Now these people grinned and talked and opened their wallets and studied the paintings, looking for details and symbols.
Mother was still at his side, affectionately grasping his upper arm. Her face was turned to him, radiant. Father approached a painting. He reached to touch its surface, to feel the rough texture, the colors fused together. But the glass stopped him; warm glass like plastic under the hardened tip of his finger. An alarm sounded. Laughing, the manager had the security guard switch off the shrill siren.
Father turned and gazed at the people. They talked and giggled and wrote in their checkbooks. He said nothing. And then Father turned and moved through the crowd toward the exit. Mother called to him and started to follow, but she was caught up in the crowd, and the last she saw of him was his broad shoulders easing out the door, his hands crammed into his pockets.
I caught the first bus. The night crept by, a blur of bony trees and barbed-wire fences. All around me, cigarettes burned, specks of orange glowing in the dark. Dawn was gradually giving way when I reached the house.
Father is here.
He lies on the attic floor, in the wet paint. A fantastic network of color hugs his naked body, splashed across his arms and legs and torso and back. Dried flakes in his hair. Paint coats him, leaks from him, dries on him.
Father has been painting.
I kneel next to him, I touch him. I can’t believe the skin that has stolen away from his arms and his face. His ribs press against the stretch of splattered skin, muscle gone from his face, as if his cheeks are being sucked into his mouth. But worse than his starvation, worse than the shriveled limbs and gaunt face, is the blood he vomits. It shimmers like a glob of oil in the sun. I can smell the paint, the fumes trapped inside him, burning raw at his lungs, poison in his veins. He chokes, retches, and explodes into a strangled cough.
I hold Father. He is so light and flimsy. I rock him and hug him, the haze of paint biting at my eyes and nose.
Oh Father, I say, oh Father.
He sees me for the first time, and a spark blooms for a moment in his eyes, a tiny fire hidden deep in the black. Father smiles.
I’m done, he whispers, I just finished.
It is beautiful, I tell him, so beautiful. It is a wonderful world here.
A wonderful world, he says, yes, wonderful.
Let me take you somewhere, I ask, let me get someone for you.
He shakes his head, a bemused grin gentle on his face. I know it doesn’t matter where I take him or to whom or when. It won’t matter. He is looking at me now, breathing steadily, his face happy. Here, he says, and father reaches down and comes up with a handful of brushes. They are all worn free of whiskers, drenched in paint. I can see the empty cans of paint, disguised as rocks and tree roots.
Father gives me a new brush. It feels heavy but smooth in my hand. He lets the others fall like scraps of bone. Thank you, I tell him, and I pull his head to my chest and kiss his hair. I smell paint. I can feel my face shifting, wetness, and a ripping pain in my chest. I take his hand and feel the strength still there, riding up into my arm, flowing from his fingers.
I’m tired, he whispers.
I hold his hand for a moment longer, and feel the calloused pads and the scars and the wear and the punishment. Father breathes lightly, his head tilted, eyes resting. I lay him down gently, watch him sleep, his body drenched in a whirlwind of color, and then I leave the attic and his world, closing the door behind me.
In his studio, cans of paint line the closet like bricks. My hands are shaking, but I find the white, buckets and buckets of white. I carry them, struggling under their weight, into the living room. With a knife, I pry off the lids, inhaling the vital scent of fresh paint, and dip my clean brush into the thick swirling mass. And then, with smooth strokes, my arms strong, I paint white over the hell that covers the living room walls.