“Dead,” or “Spring”
Imagine the artist at an art gallery party. Is she wearing a skirt, or pants?
She arrives alone. Does she first turn to the bar, or to the guests? Does she drink water, or wine? How does she look, inside the crowd?
Imagine the artist looking at the art at the party. What kind of expression does her face show? She looks at the first painting and sees colors beneath color. She feels the paint rub against her eyes, her shoulders, her sides, although she stands at a proper distance. She feels good about the feeling she has when looking at the art, although the feeling she has is not good; it’s something else. What is the feeling? Does she tell anyone about it? Has she felt this feeling before?
Imagine a man looking at the artist looking at the art at the party. He is struck by the art first, then the artist, who is now standing in front of the second painting, the smallest, about the size of an index card, and least notable of the collection. He waits for her to walk away from this, the second painting, but she doesn’t. Not for several minutes, and then another several minutes. This is more minutes than the man anticipated anyone to look at this second painting in the collection, the smallest and least notable. She keeps looking, and he keeps looking at her, until he is brusquely brought back into conversation with his wife, the woman draped over his arm, and the couple standing opposite, who own the art gallery.
Imagine the artist noticing the man looking at her while she looks at art at the party. She scratches her ear and sips from her glass while quietly stepping away from the well-lit corner of the display, toward the darker, less conspicuous side of the room. She recognizes the man as an important individual in this art world, a reputable entity whose attention and adulation could bolster an artist’s own reputation. And here he is, watching her. She sees that the man has one hand around the waist of a woman, an elegant woman, with fine, dainty jewelry catching light, with the light seemingly expanding in size. She watches the man lean over and whisper in the ear of the woman, but all the while, his eyes don’t unfix themselves from her, the artist. She recognizes a look in the man’s eyes, a hungry look, a look that looks like the man wants to eat the artist, savoringly, bite by bite, perhaps using only a salad fork and butter knife. She shivers. The woman with the man’s arm around her waist steps away, and the man turns more decisively toward the artist. He waits a moment, then walks over, until he is at her side. What does the artist do when he smiles and speaks to her? Does she spit and scream, or does she flirt and flit her eyes, adorably, back at him?
Imagine the artist, arriving at the final piece. She sees swabs swirling and swiping each other, copper clashing with teal on green. It is earth. It is not. It is called “Dead.” It is called “Spring.” She tilts her head. She does not know how both titles could apply to the same painting. She cannot decide what it means, or how she should proceed.
My mom and I put a pile of dirt in the backyard so my dad can rake it around. We watch out the window, from inside, by the kitchen table.
On the kitchen table, there’s a chocolate cake. It’s the first time we have ever had one in the house. We eat it with tiny forks.
Dainty, my mom says, not tiny.
She always makes sure I know the difference between these sorts of things.
Our backyard is tiny though, not dainty, which makes the dirt-pile look huge. It’s good that we put it out there. He really likes the rake. He’s good at it, too.
“Keep at it, Dad!” I open the door and call out, throwing him two thumbs up. “You’re doing great!”
He sticks his thumbs up too, smiles and laughs.
My mom laughs. We all laugh.
He stays out there, raking the day away until it’s dark. “Come on in, honey,” Mom says, with chocolate on the corners of her mouth and under her fingernails. “It’s time for dinner.”
He comes inside, and we sit at the table, which is still featuring the chocolate cake. Mom has scooted it over to make room for a casserole dish and vegetables.
Taro, she says, not vegetables.
Dad is complimentary of the casserole dish and the taro. He is not so complimentary usually, but today, he is very complimentary, which makes Mom happy.
She has been so happy in the past few days that there is even chocolate cake.
Overall, it has been a productive day. A great success, really. Dad has managed to move three-fourths of the dirt pile from one side of the yard to the other, and Mom and I ate half of the chocolate cake. Together, that’s one and one-fourths, which is a lot.
It’s almost perfect, really, because when you add that to the other one-fourth that’s in the garage, you almost have a whole. One-fourth in the garage is Dad’s car. He used to drive everywhere: to work, to watch football games, to buy beer at bars, to visit some pretty blond lady he said he’s known his whole life and told me not to mention to Mom. But now he doesn’t. He lost most of his car and bits of his brain because of driving, then crashing.
Really it was the crashing that made him lose his brain.
But it’s not such a bad loss because Dad can rake now, and he likes to rake. Plus he can stay in the backyard, and Mom likes him in the backyard. She and I want a dog, but Dad always got an angry face when she mentioned it, and we never got one.
I bet if we asked him now, he’d say yes, and his face would stay the same, or maybe he would smile.
He’s smiling now as he reaches for the chocolate cake, which Mom reels in like a piece of bait. “No, no,” she says, swatting his hand away. “You know that’s not good for you. It’s going to hurt your stomach,” she says, and then she laughs.
Dad laughs, and I laugh. We all laugh.
I wonder why Mom is so much happier after the crash, but it was an accident, she says. Not a crash. That’s only half as bad. And with that half, I tell her, as we finish off the chocolate cake, we have a whole.
Looking So Hard
Getting ready for work one day, Olivia noticed she was rubbing away, like words on paper being erased.
“Your coffee is on the counter,” she told her husband, checking her diminishing reflection in the back of a spoon.
A moment later, her husband called from another room. “Where’s my coffee?”
“It’s on the counter,” she responded.
He entered the kitchen, where Olivia was examining the spots that were appearing in her hand, through which she could see to the other side.
“And the honey?” He asked, opening cabinet doors and closing them with little slams. “Did we run out?” he frowned. “Or did it run away?”
“I don’t imagine it did,” Olivia said, hiding her hands behind her back. She left him stalking the shelves before walking away to collect her belongings for work.
What started as spots turned into smudges throughout the day. By lunch, the smudges became bigger gaps, bright and bald, like a trail tramped by too many feet. She shuddered, then uncharacteristically hid more of herself behind her desk, but still smiled at coworkers when they passed, despite her misgivings.
The smudges and gaps, she believed, must’ve developed because everyone looked so long and so hard at her, because she was always being seen. She was moderately attractive, yes, but beyond physical appearance she felt obliged to be overly kind, to approach everyone with a smile. She couldn’t locate the precise source of this feeling, whether it was survival or simply inheritance. Regardless, it resulted in exhaustion that seemed inevitable, like the way a glass of wine would be drunk, and a punching bag, punched.
In the car on the way home, Olivia avoided her own eyes in the rearview mirror. She didn’t let herself worry about the fact that she was fading, at least, not until she stepped inside the house, at which point the splotches in her skin had become sizable enough for her husband to tilt his head up off the couch, away from his phone, to ask, with concern rising up in his throat like heartburn, “Why do you look like that?”
“Like what?” she asked, swiping uselessly at a piece of hair that slipped from behind her ear with a hand that was all but gone, yet still managed to feel like dead weight at the end of her arm.
She, too, felt like dead weight, or like a bizarre absence of weight, and so she retreated to their bedroom. Her husband’s head returned to rest on the couch cushion where it had been, where it belonged. Her husband did the lying, and Olivia did the living.
She typically did lots of living after work: cleaning, shopping, walking the dog. But today, she was dissolving, like sugar in the warmest of waters. “Hey, when’s dinner?” her husband called. “I told Ben and James they could join us.” Olivia sat up in bed, about to answer, but before any words came out, her lips gave out, leaving another gap, leaving nothing useful by way of mouth.
If she could’ve, she would have frowned. She closed her eyes before they, too, burned like cigarette holes through what was left of her head, which was becoming less and less.
“And tomorrow we’ll go to your parents’, right?” her husband called, still a room away. “Or are they coming here? I can’t remember. Either way, I’m not excited.” He laughed bitterly and stretched his arms over his head, body lengthening to take up the whole couch. His thumbs stabbed at the phone screen. The unwalked dog nuzzled against his knee. “Olivia?” he called, then called again when he got no response. “You there?” he sighed. “I’m getting hungry.”
Her husband didn’t know that Olivia’s ears, and other features previously drawn onto the surface of her body, had been erased. He eventually lifted his limbs slowly, one at a time, and went to their bedroom. He pushed open the cracked door and his spine stiffened and his eyes sharpened, looking up and down and all around, until he finally saw his wife as he had always seen her.
Rumpus original art by Dara Herman Zierlein.