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Jana Martin

Painter

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 soon."

"I think I will," she said.

 

White

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 childís play."

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 did.

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.

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