So…I don’t have a name for this story yet. I tried on a few different ideas, but none of them fit. So I’m calling it “Light and Line” until inspiration strikes. This reminds me of high school, when I hated titling my essays and would write snarky things like “I don’t believe in titles” on my papers and still manage to get an A. What a rebel.
I’m noting my interest in examining close interpersonal relationships, but I want to move beyond that a bit. It sounds plain wacky, but I thought of a book idea today. It was a little terrifying. But for now, here’s my naked morsel – title ideas welcome!
Flora wrapped herself in a knit blanket and rose from the armchair. She’d drifted to sleep for perhaps five minutes, and already warm spittle had dripped down her chin and left sticky Venn diagrams on her blouse. She noted as she began to walk that her back bent at a more acute angle than before. These things were all measured in degrees. When she found him, Julio was sitting in a folding chair in the garage with an elbow resting on each arm. His eyes did not move from the canvas as she entered.
“Do you think I need to add more copper before she arrives?”
“I can’t say one way or the other, but do you think the glue will dry in time?”
“I think so. I’ll add more copper.”
“Well, you had better do it now.”
He reached for a toolbox on wheels and pulled a copper triangle from the top drawer. He studied the canvas again, licked his lips, then brushed the triangle with industrial grade adhesive before securing it to the lower right corner of the painting.
“There. It’s finished now. I feel better.”
“Good. I’m going to finish my nap.”
Flora pitied the paintings because Julio did not honor them. He never prepared the canvas, instead choosing to lay the cheap acrylics raw. He never used an easel, but rather set the canvas on concrete blocks and leaned it against the back wall of the garage. The edges of each piece were gray and worn, some even torn. He stacked them face to face in haphazard rows, making them appear as ragged urchins huddled for warmth. Flora believed that your materials were an extension of yourself, and therefore must be protected as one would bandage wounded fingers.
The morning had been set aside for preparation, and in those hours Flora had resigned herself to perpetual weariness. She woke earlier than usual, and brewed strong coffee for breakfast that she cut with heavy cream. Both she and Julio had gradually lost their appetites, as if each year of their lives meant one less bite from their plates. She used dried mint from her garden to make a strong tea that she would later put over ice, filled a crystal pitcher with water and lemon, and assembled paired platters of meat and cheese and cookies and cakes. Mirasol had switched her cleaning schedule to assist her, and together their rags and brooms ate up every dust mote. Julio wanted the good silver and the porcelain serving set, all of which needed cleaning and polishing. By 11a.m., all the filth of the home had congregated on Flora’s cotton shift. She took a long, hot shower, changed into a pair of pressed lavender slacks and a cream silk blouse, and collapsed in the armchair.
Julio wandered in from the garage and stood tense in the middle of the living room, his arms behind his back like a private school bully overcompensating for his maliciousness. She had never seen him look so nervous, and it filled her with wicked glee. She put a hand to her mouth so that an upturned lip would not betray her.
Did you hear a car? I thought I heard a car brake in front of the house.”
“I’ll check anyway.”
Julio lumbered toward the bay window and peeked through the blinds. His arms were abnormally long even for his tall frame, and as he aged he began more and more to resemble a Yeti.
“She’s not here. Well, maybe she arrives in a few minutes. Maybe there is traffic.”
“She” was Connie Grundheim, one of the most well-known and respected gallery owners in Los Angeles. She would be examining Julio’s work for possible inclusion in her impressive roster of artists. The whole thing made Flora nauseated and thrilled and jealous all at once. She was grateful to the morning’s labor for distracting her mind and releasing some of the hot energy that roiled in her belly. What a moment for him. What a pleasure.
On a Sunday morning five years ago, Flora was standing in front of a fruit vendor at the farmer’s market, comparing the quality of two mangoes. The saleswoman had eagerly held one in each hand as she spoke through a smile.
“These are in peak season, you should just get both!”
She knew that she’d made a decision about the mangoes, she could see their oily red and yellow blush, she could still feel her mouth beginning to form words, but she could not recall her response. What she did remember was the woman’s face melting as the scene unfolded behind her – Julio, falling like a great tree in a teeming wood. His arms flailing and reaching like a toddler whose object of desire was just out of grasp. The market crowd opened into a wide circle around him, then closed as the young and capable rushed to assist. Flora thought they looked like pigeons scattered in a town square. She knelt beside him and slid her fingers between his, convinced this would be last time she would feel the warmth of his touch. She waited for the moment when a man’s devotion is demonstrated in his final words, but instead Julio stared at her without recognition as urine spread across his khakis and pooled on the asphalt.
The days following were slowed to a crawl, and again few details remained for her of this time. Doctors and family alike referred to Julio as a “bear,” a “lion,” a “bull.” All manner of beast. A miracle. He had suffered a massive heart attack, and through the determination of the doctors and a rough massage of his heart in its open chest, he had lived. No physician wanted to be known as the one who had let Dr. Vasquez slip from their mortal grasp. He was, after all, a renowned and long-retired surgeon. Visitors poured into his room, stroking his head and speaking to him while he was half conscious, like a modern memento mori.
During recovery, a small clot had adventured to his brain and caused a stroke that left his right side partially paralyzed and his speech impaired. Just days before, Julio had been a vital man, perhaps suffering from the bit of ennui that set in after retirement, but content overall. Now, Flora was left with a six-foot-two infant with 30 staples in his chest.
Julio was a terrible patient, as she expected. He threw tantrums during physical therapy and refused to eat hospital food. He had little respect for the doctors, though they had an endless supply of reverence for him. He embarrassed Flora at every turn with his piercing stares and condescension toward any white lab coat or orderly he met.
“He’ll get into a routine, and he’ll get over it. Dad used to have such a strict routine, remember? It drove us all insane!”
Her daughter Maria stirred hot water with a teabag as she spoke. Flora watched the brown plumes rise and spread in her mug.
“I remember. He never stopped. You moved away, but he never stopped.”
They soon exhausted the television programs and films that could keep Julio’s interest. Dr. Abramian recommended books and magazines, but ones that were easy to read, with lots of pictures.
Flora came home from the hospital just long enough to pack her own breakfast and lunch for the following day and bring Julio fresh clothes and missing toiletries. She passed their library as she left, and studied the titles. Years of attending gallery openings and museum galas had yielded an impressive collection of art books. At last she plucked a book from the shelf, examined its cover, and carried it out the door.
The book was about Hard Edge Abstraction, an art movement that embraced the power of sharp lines. Paintings that weren’t wishy-washy, but that made their intention known at once. The kind of work that would silence a party when it entered the room. Names like Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson, and Frederick Hammersley. She had chosen the book because of its adolescent appeal – big recognizable shapes and bold primary and secondary colors. She had a flash of memory in which her son, one year old at the time, had idly turned the its pages before teething on its thick cover.
“¿Qué es esto?”
Julio fingered the first few pages and sighed.
“The doctor said it will help with your therapy. It will also keep you from bothering me about changing the TV channel.”
Flora was a painter. This could not be denied. When the last of her children had moved out of the house, she sought to ease her boredom as she waited for grandchildren to bestow her well-curated knowledge. Her schoolhouse scribbles of youth were breadcrumbs leading her to weekend trips to the arts and crafts store, where she would buy three canvases – two tiny and one large. While teaching her children about basic principles of depth, color and line, she would daydream across her canvas. Landscapes that belonged nowhere on earth, but felt like home. Still-lifes of fruits and flowers that she had never seen. An alien world that lived inside her.
Once a month, she joined like-minded women in a country club ballroom, where the Los Angeles Art Society would meet, then work plein-air in a meadow 50 yards from a putting green. While most of those meetings were filled with gossip and white wine, she relished certain moments – when a soft breeze passed over her face, or when the wind sought to be taken seriously and blew her watercolors into fantastic Rorschach patterns. Each painting was the memory of her daughter’s sweet laugh, a childhood reminiscence of bottle-feeding newborn goats on the ranch, or the nights when Julio’s passion for his work was carried to their bed.
She could not have understood the consequences of giving Julio the book. The news that he was living on borrowed time had not diminished his ego, but fed it. He saw in the book an unfulfilled calling – a thrilling detour at the end of life’s path. He used his long-dormant laptop to research artists, and fixated upon Carlos Cruz Diez, a fellow Venezuelan and a master of light and line.
He asked her to drive him to the arts and crafts store, her sacred temple, and help him choose cheap supplies in large quantities. He worked well into most nights, when lying in bed she would hear a muffled “Ah-ha!” or “¡Madre de Dios!” from the garage.
She was no longer able to bear the humiliation of watching Julio walk with great bombast into galleries, paintings in hand. She had always been the one to drag him to the art world’s latest hot ticket, and now he held the unearned belief that he was better than all of them. Flora convinced him to hire a marketing and publicity firm to hustle the work. They camouflaged the paintings with good photographers and lighting and made him write an artist statement. Guests he met at gallery openings found him alternately naïve and honorable and pompous. For a man who had spent his life using his hands with great precision and skill, it was difficult to come to terms with their limitations. After months of hard luck, the firm received a call from Connie Grundheim, asking for an at-home appointment.
A late model Mercedes convertible announced itself half an hour late. Julio walked away from the window and shifted his weight while he waited for Connie to cross the walkway.
“Good afternoon, Ms. Grundheim, and welcome to my home. This is my wife, Flora.”
“Wonderful to meet you. I’m so sorry for being late! I don’t come to Palos Verdes that often and have a horrible sense of direction. So, I understand you were a surgeon. That must have been such rewarding work. Saving lives every day!”
“It was. It was very rewarding.”
“Well, it’s not uncommon for people to pursue art later in life, once they have time to focus on it. But you know, I do have a 3:00 in Manhattan Beach so I would love to see your work now. I don’t want to make it seem like I’m rushing you, but you understand.”
“Of course, let’s see it!” Julio clapped his hands together and set aside an untouched plate of cheese and ham.
Everything Connie did was clipped short – her voice, the clack of her heels, her knock at the door, the half glass of tea she poured, the wedge of cookie she ate. A story an author was satisfied to leave unfinished.
Her nose wrinkled as she entered the garage.
“So, is this where you store your paintings?”
“Yes, I store them here because it is the only place my wife will let them stay. She is the…she…you know…she wears the pants, you know?”
Flora thought the false self-deprecation was the largest insult. He had been the one to relegate her gentle watercolors to the laundry room that connected the kitchen and garage. For years they had remained, hung with cheap hooks – her tiny soldiers for truth and beauty. Each day when he left for the hospital or the golf course he had failed to give them a second glance. She presented each painting to him only once, which yielded a perfunctory nod and tight lip.
Yet he had given her this life, the children, the home, the porcelain serving set. The wind, water and earth of Palos Verdes Peninsula.
“Mmmmhmmm, mmmhmmm…okay, yes, I see.”
Julio flipped through the paintings, each one a blur of grotesque colors and tone-deaf configurations. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead and on the tip of his bulbous nose.
“…and this one I painted after I was given an honor by the city of Los Angeles…”
“Yes, oh, OH, yes.”
“This I painted when there was that terrible storm on the coast last year.”
“I see, OK. Yes, I remember. Can you show me your recent work?”
“Oh of course. It is a treat because I admit I finished this painting only one week ago!”
Julio reached for the canvas he had studied that morning. It was painted black, with triangles in assaulting shades of red. Copper pieces were arranged as sunbursts and pierced the darkness. In print that was outsized for the painting’s dimensions, were the initials J.D.M.V.
He held it with his fingertips curled around the painted edges. He craned his head and smiled over the canvas, waiting eagerly for a response. Flora balled her fists and practiced slow breaths. The room was silent except for the dull hum of central air conditioning.
The copper triangle, the shiny offender. Flora saw it in slow motion – a slight waver before gravity did its work and the metal fell to the ground. It flipped and tumbled into the shadow of a drafting table and out of sight.
Later, Flora would struggle to explain why this was the moment of failure. She asked him to imagine he were a mechanic who installed a part backwards, or a director who left a scene out of his first movie screening, or a surgeon who stitched half a wound.
“Well, this has been a pleasure, but I do need to get to my appointment. I will be in touch one way or the other.”
Connie marched down the hallway then braked abruptly. She gazed at one of Flora’s paintings – a bright morning scene in which thick clouds menaced beyond a series of hills.
“How lovely. These are really beautiful. Not something my gallery typically exhibits, but I’m really impressed. And so different from your work in the garage!”
Her voice faded as she walked to the door, not waiting for guest courtesies.
“Wonderful work, I’ll be in touch. Thank you for the lovely afternoon!”
They stood stunned and helpless in the airless living room.
“I’m going to take a nap.”
Flora believed that men were born with all of themselves, and that women were made to wander life in search of missing pieces. She thought this was a gift rather than a curse – for if one were born complete, how could you yearn? Where was curiosity and wonder?
As the afternoon sun sunk low, she unbraided her long gray hair and used a stepstool to climb into bed. She clung to his back and stroked his face.
He was just a child, frightened by a nightmare.
Just a man, heartened by a dream.
Just a piece, a shard of herself that she pushed painfully back into place.
She crept downstairs to her paintings, gave each one a long, loving gaze, and allowed herself to smile.