Abby couldn’t paint anymore. Every time she would set the canvas on her squeaking easel, every time she squeezed out some phthalo blue or cadium yellow from their tubes, every time she dipped the tip of her medium round brush into a paint, she reached for the canvas with the brush, ready to paint.
Nothing. Her hand like a frozen hummingbird, the brush twitching ever so slightly, the tips of the bristles awaiting Abby’s command. Yet, her mind, barren as the canvas before her. She could hear the mineral water in her cleaning cup.
She had stopped this ritual a year and a half ago. For six months before that, before the Edward incident, every day she tried to paint, and couldn’t. She wanted to. To paint anything. A still life with an apple, both of which she detested. She wanted the visions of the world as she saw it come out of her and transpose themselves onto the canvases.
Her brush kit wore a thick coat of dust somewhere in the basement, next to an unopened Monopoly box and a cookie jar filled with Christmas cards from friends long out of contact and family members who hadn’t sent a card in years. Her painting room had become a haven for disused clothes and boxes of stuff, and she hadn’t the remotest desire to clean out or throw away or know what was contained in those boxes.
“Abby…” The frail voice trailed off as it called her name.
Abby put her pencil down. The menu for Joe’s Diner was almost done. She passed the room where she used to paint and went twisting around the winding staircase she fell in love with when she first saw the house; past the bedroom where she pretended to sleep and feel comfortable in; and came to the guest room at the end of the hall.
The door was open. It was always open. She leaned against it, taking her usual deep breath before she looked in.
The old woman had managed to turn on her side; she even had propped her head up with an arm as frail as a bird leg. The white hair she had been proud of since turning 40 had long ago succumbed to the chemo. There were medical nonsense technology things all round her that Abby and Grammie stopped pretending to understand. If something broke, Abby would call the agency and they would send someone to fix it in ten minutes. No use understanding what kept her grandmother alive, since she couldn’t do anything anymore except provide a place for her grandmother to die. Grammie had her other arm laying across her body, the elongated fingers tapping rhythmically with the respirator’s inhales and exhales. “Are you okay?”
This was not the time to laugh at such a question. “Of course.”
“Because if you aren’t, then talk.”
“Grammie, I am more than fine. I am okay. I am well. I am–“
“Full of shit.”
Grammie coughed. “Don’t chastise my mouth.”
It was ten in the morning.
Abby leaned against the door jamb. “So? You called?”
Her Grammie shifted to where she was on her back. Despite the age and the cancer, she could move with such fluidity, never betraying that maybe, just maybe, moving like that caused her so much pain. “It’s the anniversary today, and–”
“I know. I know.”
Abby turned to leave. “I have to finish the menu and get it to Kinko’s by noon, or I might–”
“Again?” She coughed, once, a bit of phlegm coming up which Abby heard her promptly swallow. “You could go into business with just doing his menus. Kenny changes that mind of his more than–”
“Don’t finish my sentences.” Grammie shifted again to where she could reach for the night-table where a stack of books waited for her eyes. “It’s such a girl thing.”
Abby looked at the books. It scared her for a moment knowing her grandmother wouldn’t likely finsh that stack. “Grammie?”
Her Grammie looked up from studying where one of the three ports went into her veins along her left arm. “If you are going–”
“Stop being the too cool for the room old lady. I just want to say that I love you, and thank you for being concerned. I am okay. Really. My problems are not anything like yours.”
Grammie turned away from her. “Get out.”
She turned back around. “How dare you. You had such talent. You created something that made people wonder and go nuts for and–”
Abby waited. “I’m okay. Really.”
“Then what have you painted?”
Abby walked away. Grammie had the insight to not say anything or to call her back and let her stand there and talk some more.
Abby, now flirting with turning 30, went down the winding stairs and stopped in front of her painting room. She had painted all her life. Not once had anything seemed to make as much sense as putting brush to canvas. Always a round brush, with a touch of a Filbert brush for some diversity. She learned with pencil, acrylic, pastels, water colors. Oil and canvas woke her unconsciousness up, had exposed her to what was out there and what was in her. She painted for no one but herself. She painted what she wanted to see, what Abby thought things looked like, not what they looked like. Ms. Tuccilo in third grade had given her an F in art because Abby didn’t try to do what the teacher said. She knew what a teacher told her was bullshit. What went on the canvas was the right answer no matter what. She could paint the representation of how she felt that day, of what she thought depression or loneliness, or longing, or the happiness of being with the one you love looked like, and she could paint that and get the reaction than she thought people would have.
When you have such a devotion to something, you have to find someone who can accept it. Understanding an obsession is just a waste of time. There was only true happiness in the holding of a brush, in finding the right color, in finding the right way to paint a picture.
That all went away with Edward.
Three knocks on her front door. The back door had one locked path through the yard leading to it. She answered it, thinking it was Michelle, her gallery liaison (as Michelle loved to be called). Opening the door revealed a young man, maybe twenty (twenty-three, according to the death certificate) with many chains running from many parts of his face to many parts of his body. Leather encased his frail frame. His skin hadn’t seen sunlight since the Regan Administration.
“Oh, shit, you’re like her, aren’t you. I though the dude at the bar was like lying and shit, but…you gotta be Abby Binns, right? Like the Abby Binns.”
“Not sure there’s anyone else with that name. Can I help you?”
“Can you…oh man! You are! Your paintings are like the best, man, like the tits. You got so many people into your shit, you know?”
“Huh…I actually didn’t. I just get money for selling them and that’s it.”
“Really? That’s like a damn shame, man, because like you are great, like great great.”
Abby now put her hand on the doorknob to her old painting room. Just open the door and go in and pick up a brush and mix some colors and and think about what an apple should look like. Don’t reach for what once was. She could hear the beeps and the respirator from Grammie’s room above her.
“So can I like at least see what you’re working on?” The young man kept fidgeting with the cuffs of his leather jacket, eyes eyes shifting and darting and never landing on Abby’s own. She didn’t learn his name until after.
She had let him in. He wide-eyed the house. “Oh man, like this is the place.”
Abby sipped from her Merlot. “You can take a peek, but I have to get back to work.”
“Like totally understandable.” He waved his hands all around. “Can I like use the bathroom? I know I’m being a total pest, but this is kinda freaking me out right now.”
She pointed with her wine glass to where the bathroom was. He nodded over and over again as he backed toward the bathroom door, his hands sneaking into his pockets.
She took up her pallet, which she had left on the kitchen table. The painting room was next to the kitchen. She mixed up a color, cerulean blue. In the painting room was her next work, one she had been thinking over for a month now. Usually it would take a week of serious work to get a painting done. With the amount the galleries were paying for her work, for what fans were paying, her stature continued to grow.
Her current work featured a dead body that was in the process in being painted by an unseen hand. She had spoken of it in an interview in the Plathmore Gazette, how she had pondered over this work for so long, how the imagery had chased her every painting–
The banging from the bathroom made her almost drop her pallet.
The young Goth kid, who she later learned was named Edward, who had spent a month’s rent on a copy of her painting Blue Ruin, laid supine on the bathroom tiles, nude. His clothes, in a pile in the tub. Red rivulets streaming from his wrists. A razor blade stuck to his left palm.
His eyes were closed.
She had gazed on his body. How what little body hair he had made a line from between his chest to his waist.
She still had her pallet, a thin brush stuck to it.
On Edward’s closed eyelids, she painted the eyes of her last lover. She started with the irises. Black was easy to make. Then she did his coronas.
She opened the door into the studio.
The cold hit her first. It was deep into fall, and the only hint of summer was the open window, letting in chilly October air. A fresh canvas, its white expanse, waited for Abby. Called to her. The case beside the easel, filled with paint that she hoped might have gone bad, if paint did go bad. She wasn’t sure. She was never really sure about the particularities of painting, of paint, its constituents and whatnot. She would try brushes until she found the one that worked for what she was trying to do. That sloppy, unprofessional style garnered her so many praises: critics lauding her inadherance (a word she was sure was made up) to any type of style that could be taught in a school; viewers of her art finding any and all sort of reasons and interpretations. What used to warm her the most, besides the actual creations and the putting of brush to canvas and having the pictures she conjured in her head flow out into the world was the interpretations. One piece, called Last Night of Tomorrow was, to her, a mishmash of muted earth-tones with bright, almost neon colored shapes overlapping, and a depiction of her, limbs elongated and face like a half-melted candle. One viewer, a young Goth woman with seventeen piercings in her left ear and one in her right, said it was about a woman getting her first period. A man with a beard and bow tie said it was the personification the American Indian genocide.
The interpretations didn’t matter to her. What mattered was that people talked about her paintings. What mattered, to a point, was that she was getting paid for them.
She ran her fingertips across the blank canvas. She hadn’t painted in two years.
After she had finished the eyes, she shuffled back from his body and took it all in. How he still seemed to be alive. As she now sat down in front of the blank easel, she thought of how silly it had been to not think of anything to do except pick up those brushes and paint his body.
On the left arm she did a shadowed rendering of Ascourt Beach wreathed in a cleansing fire, their hands either just about to connect with each other, or they just let go. On his right arm, a star field on a blanket of red, the stars cerulean blue.
The floor creaked upstairs. Grammie’s room was right above this one. Good Lord, if that woman was getting out of bed–
“Abby, paint.” The voice of her grandmother told Abby that she was, yes, out of bed, but totally in control of what she was doing. Perhaps that meant that today was a better day than the last twenty.
Abby opened the paint case beside the door. This was different from the drawings and graphic art she was doing for businesses. To paint for herself and no one else was true creativity. She wondered if other creative people felt like that? Not once when she painted her paintings, and even with the Edward painting, did she think of the reaction, of what people would think and feel and interpret. To ever think about anyone else meant you were placating a fictional person, that you were not doing the art for yourself, but anyone else. That meant you thought about the quality of the work. The quality didn’t matter. As long as it felt right to put a bit of orange sunrise there, or outline the impression of bird there, if all that felt right, then nothing else mattered with the impressions the viewers would get.
Abby had almost collapsed into herself when she tried standing. The type of paint she used would harden but not run, would dry against dead skin. At least, she thought it would. As much as she didn’t know about paint and the wonders it unlocked in her, she certainly didn’t know what the best paint was to apply to human skin, let alone the skin of the dead.
The next two years went by so fast as she remembers it. Yes, she thinks on it less and less, but a turning point in one’s life such as that is hard to ignore, hard to let go, no matter what the advice is that people give you. It wasn’t that Edward killed himself. It wasn’t that Edward did it because she was so into her painting.
It was the recognition and scorn.
The paramedics finally called; the questioning looks as they stored the body on the gurney and brought it out the apartment, the questions from the police officers and just why did you paint his body; the morgue attendant, a minor fan of Abby’s work, sneaking people into the morgue for the next three days to show them the masterwork of an up-and-coming artist; the art galleries from all the way to Los Angeles who caught wind of this remarkable and unique piece of artwork and the bidding war that ensued; the lawsuit from Edward’s family, who never gave two fucks, let alone one, about him until he became a famous name in a newspaper; the pressure to top something so complete and original and daring.
All of it really was something she couldn’t quite grip onto. That time two years ago felt ephemeral, lost in a haze of maybes and what-ifs and the general sense of if it really happened or not. Even yesterday, she was asked by the Quick Stop clerk why did she do it. Why did she find a dead body and decide to paint it.
She chastised the clerk for asking such a question and stormed off with her milk and gum, but in her head, she answered the question, as she always did when asked, even if she never said it out loud.
How could she not? A canvas never visited upon; ideas and feelings and thoughts and images, a cacophony of a desire to paint, of creating the soul of one’s self and imprinting that on the body of another.
How do you say something like that out loud to a person? How do you put that into terms that no one would understand?
She tried, once. Before Grammie had her backsliding with her cancer, about a month and a half ago. Grammie wasn’t supposed to drink any sort of alcohol, but had demanded that Abby get the cheapest and worst bottle of Merlot that she could find and bring it back to her, so that two women could drink wine and just talk. Ignore their familiar relations, ignore all the bullshit that defined who they were and all that had brought each other to this point, and let’s just talk.
Abby tried, after their third glass together. “Imagine something that you can’t help but do, and something that you would rather not do over anything else. Imagine that there was something inside you, inside your head, that just had to get out, that you had to unleash. Now imagine that that same feeling wouldn’t want to come out, that you felt like you had to keep it all in, or you didn’t want to unleash those feelings, that you maybe you were just so lazy to let go of, that if you put these ideas into the world, they would face scrutiny, that people wouldn’t understand what the hell it was you were trying to express. That’s how it’s like to paint, Grammie. That’s what it is like. I don’t want to go back to it. And yet, sometimes, I want nothing more. I sometimes wish I could just pick up a brush and do it and make myself unleash what I think, because there’s been so many times that I’ve felt like that, where I want to paint something, even if it’s a fucking apple, but I just can’t. Not because of Edward, but because, is it worth what I went through before? I still get people who ask me to paint their bodies when they’re dead. I have to say to them that I can’t, because….how do you do that twice? How do you make yourself paint a dead body again? How can I capture that again, those feelings and thoughts and images again I can’t. It’s why I just can’t paint. To unleash something like that onto the world…haha, sorry, Grammie, I know this sounds so silly.”
“It doesn’t, sweetie, it’s good to know that this is who you are. Do you know how many people I have seen in my life that run away from who they are?”
“I’m not running away from who I am.”
“Maybe not running away, but you are avoiding it. You are an artist, Abby. You’re not a painter, you’re not a…oh, I can’t think of other examples. You are who you are. I was a nurse. Sometimes, a lot of times, I wanted to escape that and go do something else. You know something, Abby, when I thought that, I couldn’t think of anything else to do. You haven’t done anything now artist related since you stopped, right?”
“Well then there. There’s your proof that you are nothing but who you are. There’s nothing else that can be added to that.”
Abby dipped a brush into the yellow paint. She kept changing how to hold the brush.
More thumps from upstairs. How did that woman get to the bathroom? Abby stood on the stool, careful to keep what little balance she could muster and tap-tap-tapped on the ceiling. A drop of paint fell from the brush and landed on her right cheekbone. “Grammie?”
“I’m fine,” came the muffled reply. “Bring your things up when you come back.”
Abby was about to ask ‘what things’ when she understood. The paint kit.
A loud thump from upstairs, enough to rattle the cobwebs mottling the ceiling.
Abby nearly tumbled leaping off the stool, the paint brush clutched tightly. She took the stairs two at a time and nearly crashed into Grammie’s bedroom. To the right, her empty bed. To the left, the door with the knit message of ‘be a sweetie and wipe the seatie.’ She stopped just before entering the bathroom. She knew what would be inside. She fell against the patch of wall between the bathroom door and the closet and slid slowly like a slug down until she sat upon the dusty floor. The beep of the machines kept a constant reminder of what wasn’t there.
“Grammie.” She said the name knowing there wouldn’t be a response.
The beeping continued. A car drove by outside. Maybe there was a phone ringing downstairs.
After blinking back stupid tears and getting herself up, she went into the bathroom.
The sight didn’t bother her. She had long ago steeled herself to either finding Grammie gone or having to take her to the hospital where she would wait for eons until a shamefaced doctor informed her of the obvious.
On the sink, by a gaggle of pill bottles all for Grammie leaned a piece of white paper, with Abigail scrawled across it. Only when serious did Grammie ever refer to her by her full name.
Abigail opened the paper.
Even at her worst of her health, Grammie could still produce seductive handwriting. Hers was the only cursive Abby could ever read without trouble.
“Dear Abby (ha),
You are my love, my wonder, and the joy that I had to see you achieve so much. My only hope is that you achieve again all that you had worked for, and all that you work for. Live and paint again, dearie.”
The letter was unsigned. She sat on Grammie’s bed and read the note again and again. Beside her she had Grammie’s will, unopened. She already knew what it said. She already knew the legal steps that Grammie had to have taken with her lawyer. She knew that everything would have to be all right now. She had let Grammie down, even if Grammie would never admit, for so long. Abby had herself down and she admitted that to herself every day for the last two years.
So she left Grammie’s last letter on the bed and, with the paint brush still in hand, went downstairs to get her paint kit.
Danny Brophy has been writing for nearly ten years. He has finished less than that number of stories and books. He has had one short story published, but that was six years ago and the name of the now-defunct publication escapes him. Born with a thirst for words and stories, Daniel owns enough books to open a small library, or to re-enact the ending of the Twilight Zone episode where the bookworm breaks his glasses at the end (spoiler alert). Thankfully, Daniel has eyes like baseball legend Ted Williams, so broken glasses are not a problem. It should also be noted that his pop culture acumen borders on worrisome, due to a Tarentino-level of knowledge. Dream projects for Daniel include: writing a book set in the Alien universe; building a life-sized replica of the TARDIS and setting it into a wall to act as a door to a room, giving off a ‘bigger on the inside’ illusion; and making a low-budget horror movie about a graveyard.
- Lifetime 6 – 4
- 2015 Season 4 – 2
- 2014 Season 2 – 2