The Abstract Painter Can't Complete the Frame Border on a
Painting on the Early Morning of March 2
And then it was quiet. The tape of all that background noise, the
one where the voices swooped down into her view and then faded back,
girlís voices, menís voices, womenís voices, singsong voices,
stopped. Someone switched it off. All around her lately people did
things and she didnít see them do things and she wasnít sure what
they were doing, but it didnít matter. All that mattered was the
painting. It was a new idea, to create a thin frame of white,
cadmium white actually, all around the edges of the painting, and
keep the composition of squares inside that frame. But just recently
she had inexplicably found herself forgetting to respect the edge
above one square. Sheíd filled in one square all the way to the top
of the canvas. It threw everything off to have that one square
edgeless, reaching up with all its might, and now not even a square
anymore. It was a renegade, a wild horse, an outlaw, a storm of
blue. But now the painting monitor was saying that the class was
over. "So soon?" the painter said. "Only 73 years? I thought it
would go at least for another one or two." Sorry, the monitor said,
with not a trace of regret or understanding. But the painter had
come to realize, long ago, that most people did not even have the
capacity to understand anything. They just plodded through life,
waiting for something to change.
This room she was in, though. This was a tremendous room. The
light! It seemed to be getting lighter even though the day was
surely coming to its darkening end. Wasnít it late? Was there time
for an iced coffee? Apparently not. Something beeped. Someone was
calling her. All these people trying to interrupt. And in front of
her, this lopsided canvas, all off kilter because of that one
runaway edge atop that blue square.
"Just a second," she said.
Sheíd thought the white frame idea was so terrific, so novel. To
try to contain the painting inside a painted frame. There was
something in that, although it didnít really translate. These people
around her were crazy anyway, they wouldnít understand her idea if
you knocked them on the head with it. It was always better to keep
it to herself and not risk some silly know-it-allís blunder.
She could use a Pall Mall right about now, though she hadnít had
one in years. Because it was so unlike her to forget to finish that
thin white frame. Why had she? That deserved some thought. She sat
on the stool in her painting smock, years of oil paint, mostly blue,
spotting it here and there. She held her brush against the skin of
the canvas. The square was cerulean blue, the brush was dipped in
cerulean blue. It should have been dipped in white. She was supposed
to be filling in the border that cut off the square. Or did the
square cut off the border? Clearly she was just not thinking of that
idea of the white frame. All that tremendous color between the lines
was a challenge, to make the lines into structural, acceptable
boundaries, not like something glorious just rudely cut short.
But the monitor was saying this class was over and they could not
wait, and really this was such an annoying monitor, this woman with
the cats-eye glasses and the beehive hair, such a vain monitor with
her flashbulb smile and the canasta tiles she kept clicking at her
monitorís table, the scent of chicken soup and menthol and Nights of
Paris cologne rising off her bare arms. These women who exposed
their skin at the drop of a hat. Really. This monitor seemed quite
full of herself. Her dress was so overly cinched into her waist.
Showoff. And kind of familiar. But at this point she was someone the
painter was glad she didnít recognize, had she ever known who this
person was. At this point there was just no more time.
And so the painter put down her brush and sat back. All around
her was this wonderful light, a marvelous shade of perfect white,
the kind of light where you donít need to correct anything, neither
incandescent or flourescent, pure daylight, filling the room,
pouring in the windows. So the painter quietly took her last breath
and let the brush fall from her hands, and as light filled the
studio she kept her eye on that square. She looked at the unfinished
square, rising upwards to join the air. And she let the square be
unfinished, just this once, and she gave up on the idea of the thin,
neat frame.There was really no choice, anyway. But maybe it was all
right. Maybe it was all right to just be a blue square rising.
Someone was taking the brushes from her hand, and someone was
stroking her hair, and as they did she felt like she had to go to
the bathroom again, so she left them all there and walked out of
class. There was such a wonderful scent to the hall. Lavender and
soap, like the school sheíd once taught art in, and she heard music,
a melody with a certain lilt and conclusion, a certain swagger yet
restraint in the singerís voice, slight New Jersey accent, a little
rough at the edges, like red table wine at that little Italian joint
on Bleecker. She thought it would be nice to lie down for a while.
It really was tiring, thinking of all the work left to be done. So
she lay down. And someone was putting new brushes in her hand, and
she was suddenly in her straw hat, the navy blue one, and she was in
that mauve linen jacket, and was in her short beach pants, and
beside her was that old fashioned surrey from the mountain resort
pulled by a quiet brown pony, and so she climbed aboard. It was nice
not to have to strain or lean in order to climb up, for once. And
the surrey took her right out onto the peninsula that stuck out into
the deepest calmest ocean, just a long index finger of pale, sweet
beach pointing north, and she knew she was right outside of Paris,
in Provincetown-Alsaace-Quiche Lorraine.
The sun was setting and casting rosy light over everything. Her
painting was set up on the easel, vibrating like a toddler. Of
course, there he was. She thought he looked so wonderful in that
light. So young and strong, and not hunched over from working so
hard and worrying about her so much and not knowing what to do.
She got up out of the surrey and her back was strong and her legs
were firm and solid and she walked towards him, and he walked
towards her, so upright and honest and elegant in his uniform, the
officerís stripes and the blue tie. Between them was a flock of
birds, looking like squares with wings, ultramarine and prussian and
cerulean and cobalt, blue gulls.
"Wow," she said.
"Iíll be there soon," he said. "How are you feeling?"
"Iím fine," she said. "Are you coming to see me?"
"Soon," he said. "Why donít you paint a while and Iíll be there
"I think I will," she said.
And there was the white light wherever it was coming from and
there was the leg cramp from sleeping next to her on the stiff chair
and there was the odd settled feeling of the weight of a body
alongside so still and there was the mottled pink lines appearing on
unmoving forearms and there were the eyes rolled back and the smudge
of old iris, the leakage of something into the whites, now yellows
of the eye,
and there was the mother or more really the ex-mother or maybe
the always ever-present just now invisible mother and there was the
aide the young swing-hipped girl aide who sat there and sat there
and sat there five feet away, and there were the fluorescent
fixtures and the hiss and buzz of the drip, and there outside that
half-open door was the hallway just before dawn, the deep pocket of
time before dawn, and there were the pink beige walls and every
seven feet another cheerful framed panorama, the one nearest the
door being one white horse grazing an infinite field,
and there was the old man passing, rolling his metal cart of
brown bottles each filled with one pink carnation, now who the
hell thought of that she once said to me, dark eyes rolling, and
back here in the room on the windowsill were the stacks of unread
magazines, the former lullabies of a reader's life, there were the
blue flowers bound into the tight mouth of the transparent vase, the
old water drying out inside the belly of the vase, and there was the
view of the plane in the half-light outside crossing the span of the
window over the flowers, over the buildings, over the river, the
eastern edge of the city placidly quiet and dim,
and there were the clothes hanging in the patient closet unused
the past few hardly dressed weeks and never to be used again, the
coat and the two robes one with stripes one with extra pockets, the
pants made of yielding stretch cotton so as not to rub, the blouses,
silk and wrinkled and smudged here and there with cobalt, with
Prussian, with cadmium white, and the shoes unsqueezed into never to
be walked in again, the drawer filled with the bag of makeup never
to be used to again to make the exquisite face, the face of an
Indian, the face of a Mongol, the face of an ancient horsewoman
charging across the steppe, the face of her, sleeping, not sleeping,
just gone. The mirror not looked into, a blank retort.
There was the promise whispered to the unhearing, words spoken
like a daisy chain between forward and back, the mystery that they
might somehow be heard and then the insuck of breath the sound of a
post-insuck of breath and there was the question and there was the
answer. The pronouncement then made officially via a strangerís hand
on her heart and the eyes on the watch, a rheumy eyed first-year
welling up, in other words there was no inside ticker ticking away
the outside hands,
and right then there was the sudden smell of laundry, of freshly
washed blankets, snow-white, covering the arms, trunk, hips, legs.
White is the absence, not the presence of color, she always
taught. And so here was the uselessness of blankets. Here was the
direct abdication of hope, the I quit of hope, the fuck
off Iím tired of hope the forget it thereís nothing here for
me, the see what I care, the pure absence of hope.
The completely empty feeling in the room was a feeling of reason.
There was a reason the air was no longer necessary. Nothing in the
room, no tube, no machine, no bedsheet, no pillow, no swab, no
triple antibiotic, no gauze pad, no drainage tube, no shunt, no
vein, no artery, nothing was necessary. The brain no longer needed.
The heart no longer needed and therefore had stopped. The lungs
midway between in and out and nothing needed and air not needed and
someone was no longer someone, no longer needed to be someone, and
there was me, fate's giant shrug lifting love up and off the ground
and then dropping it down with a rude thud.
There were no last words. There was no need for words. There is
no need for words. Will never be another need for words.
Letís Say (for M)
Over instant decaf the news is a plane crash in Tehran. We gave
Iran a really old plane we didnít want anymore, then we didnít let
them buy the parts to fix it, then Iran flew the plane anyway. After
all, people have places to go. But this morning those people went
right into a building. Cries were recorded, chaos, apartment walls
cracking, buckling, fire smashing out windows, which now come over
the air in little bursts. Naturally they follow that international
story with a story about Beethoven, since someone has just
discovered that he actually died of lead poisoning, not from some
sexual thing as so many have said. Beethoven was pretty much nuts
and always in pain, and never bathed, prone to hiding and had few
friends, and was terrible at explaining himself. He went into
tirades when he should have just described something, he threw
things instead of showing how. Yet somehow he never stopped
channeling the angel clatter, despite the perpetual clench of his
jaw and the ache of all his joints as lead ate pits into them on a
cellular level. Those melodies called and so he answered. It was
everyone else he didnít want to answer to.
And then comes the weather call-in show where people pose
questions for the weathermen to discuss. Another cup of decaf. The
dog drools into her pool on the floor. A lady calls in as the
old-timers reminisce over those perfectly clear cold days of old.
She says, "Hello, hello?" She says, "Snow? You think this is snow? I
remember when three feet was normal. This is nothing. This is
This morning I took a bandaid off my fingertip and all that was
left from where the shard of glass cut is a thin slit, healing, the
skin thickening, layers building, cells vibrating and rejuvenating
and alive. The cut happened last week, when there really was some
snow: I was rooting barehanded through the white stuff, thinking Iíd
pack a snowball and hurl it back into winter. And there was some
glass: I mustíve broken a window or someone did, and it just lay
there in the snow, waiting to be found. Peeling off the bandaid I
thought of M, all the time spent carefully repairing the damage to
her extremities, as they called them, as if they remained in an
extreme state: always in hurt. Which was true.
M working that smooth white tape over a fingertip. M sitting very
still. M looking out the window. What is the feeling of watching
your skin betray you? Once I spied on her as she painted in her
studio. She thought she was alone. She was working blue into the
corner with a fan brush when her skin suddenly stuck to its birch
handle. She looked at the sudden red patch, put the brush down,
lowered her hand to her lap, looked around, picked up the brush with
the other hand, dabbed it back into the blue. Went on.
The hell with the radio, letís leave the dog drooling along with
her old dreams and go to town. Letís pretend there is not a cut,
there are not cuts, there is no time, letís pretend M is still here
and sheís working on some abstract something, something we canít
figure out, weíll just have to squint at all those squares bumping
into each other and see what we see. And letís pretend cells are
robots and skin is rubber and we are impervious and letís go to
town. M is still with us and weíre going to town. We switch off the
news, the dog goes to her bed, we bundle M into her coatóno, she
bundles herself. And she sits in the back seat of the car, letís
make it a Dodge, letís make it the Dodge she had, the green one, the
one that matched the trees. M is wrapped in her coat and holds her
purse in her lap and is wearing rubber boots over her shoes to avoid
any slush from last weekís snow. She is looking out the car window
at all that natural disorganization of Main Street. All those people
who wear lumpy clothes and lead lumpy lives. We park as close as
possible to the iced tea place, since she is always hot no matter
the season. As a plane makes a white line overhead in the gray sky
she says, "Iíd like an iced tea, anyone else?" The way she always
After iced tea we walk the block that has the galleries.
Galleries of landscapes and realism and blotchy portraits, but she
likes to look, sheís always game to find something interesting. And
in the window of the gallery at the end of the block, thereís a
painting, a painting of Irises. Itís a painting of irises and itís
stuck in a ridiculous gold frame that furls and scrolls heavily on
all sides and surrounds the canvas with the heavy, heavy wish to be
more important than the picture. Winter is everywhere and yet here
in this gallery window, where last summerís dead flies litter the
edge of the glass, here stands a summery iris painting. Three purple
and yellow irises rise out of some kind of shape that is supposed to
represent a jar. The painter was able to paint the irises but could
not even attempt the jar.
And M says, "Well, itís a simple painting. Clearly, the person
that made this was trying for something." What she means by
something is something greater, some magic equation, some
achievement, something. M tilts her intelligent head and narrows her
black eyes and raises an extremely plucked eyebrow and gives the
painting a final studying look, and in that look is the patient
scorn of someone who really knows what sheís doing. M wants to be
fair to everyone else, really, but sheís just so much better at it.
She just is. "Maybe next time," she says to the painting, her quiet
condemnation. Letís just say she gets to do that.
Jana Martin received an MFA from the University of
Arizona. Her story "Hope" won a Glimmer Train Short Story
Award for New Writers. Her book, Russian Lover and Other Stories,
is out on YetiBooks/Verse Chorus Press. It has received rave
reviews from such places as Bookslut.com, BUST
magazine, Chronogram magazine, TimeOutChicago, the
Boston Globe, and Emerging Writers Network. Her
nonfiction has been published by Chronicle Books and Abbeville
Press, and she has a daily column on design for Moli.com. Her
stories and nonfiction have appeared in such places as Five
Points, Spork, Yeti, The New York Times,
The Village Voice, Cosmopolitan, and Willow Springs.
She lives in Ulster County, New York.