This is the incomplete story of Paints, grandson of Paints No More. It begins in shadow. Like this:
As far as reincarnation goes, I became a believer on the day that I found a dead mole in my Gran’s stuffy one-car garage. The old Volvo had obviously run the mole over, or at least its back half; the head and forearms still looked ready to rise and crawl away.
I resolved to pitch the carcass into the garden where it could do some good. Even at the age of eight, I knew not to handle dead things with my bare hands, so I strapped on a pair of Grandpa’s over-large gardening gloves—stiff with years of dirt and flowerbed filth—and I reached out to grasp the mole’s tail. It took a few tries, my fingers newly clumsy and gigantic in the gloves, but at last I got a decent grip.
I lifted, and the mole disintegrated in a shower of bunchy, crawling maggots.
I raced out of the garage as fast as my legs would carry me. Twenty yards down the driveway, I realized I still had what was left of the mole in my left hand, and I flung it into the daylilies, spikes of green topped with flaming bursts of peach-yellow, and then, after a lengthy, panting minute, I settled myself, forced down my gag reflex, and ventured back up the drive to the garage.
Where the mole had been was a damp, colorless stain. It looked like a two-dimensional bomb blast, a flat crater, and all the victims were crawling pell-mell away in an ever-spreading ring, blindly seeking for shelter and a fresh supply of food.
That was it: Proof positive of reincarnation, demonstrated by a common mole turned suddenly to an army of larvae. I was appalled—and fascinated. I stared despite myself and then, suddenly skittish, I ran inside to find Gran and beg her to read me a story, the longest, most involving sort, the kind that would transport me so utterly that I wouldn’t have to cope with the image of those hurrying maggots—their voracious, hungry circle—and how the largest had been crawling, as if they could scent my warmth from afar, directly toward me.
• • • •
“Must have been the rat poison,” said Grandpa, over dinner that night. “I hate to put the stuff out, but if I have to kill a mole or two to keep the rats out of the basement, then that’s their tough luck. You know Boston’s crawling with rats.”
Gran allowed her fork to clink hard against her chinaware plate. “Can we find a topic more suitable to the table?”
She painted, my Gran. She painted well and often, concentrating on flowers and birch trees, with occasional forays into brick-walled alleys, mud-red and choked with vines. Other departures included a series of looming stone portals that led only into darkness, and she’d won an award for a flight of freed balloons racing past a skyscraper. She won another for a great blue heron winging its way home across a lake lit only by a wash of green-hued Northern Lights.
Her busy, cramped studio could hold me transfixed for hours at a time. I would simply stand there, gazing at image after image, half of them painted only on cheap cardboard or featherweight construction paper. These preliminary pieces sat in piles on the floor, they hung from string on tiny rusting clips, they huddled together in heaps and clumps. The most recent scratch-work and sketches always rested on two black metal music stands, awaiting judgment.
“Studies,” she called them. “Beginnings.”
To me, they were masterpieces one and all, but the obvious quality of her work was almost beside the point. For me, each of her paintings was like a window, more inferred than seen, a glimpse or an echo of the mysterious and independent adult lurking inside my cheerful, worldly-wise grandmother.
Gran’s studio was an afterthought, an addition built directly behind Grandpa’s study. From the outside, the studio looked as it had been tacked to the house like a secondary appendage, cheap and boxy. From the inside, it always felt like a comfortable part of the whole, perhaps because it boasted windows on three sides that afforded easy views of the shady, fenced back yard. Gardens bloomed in front of the fences, uncomplicated affairs that relied heavily on hosta, daffodils, and innumerable impatiens: purple, red, white, and the occasional white and red mix.
Gran had Grandpa plant impatiens because she adored painting them. No subject held her more rapt, and when housework or church business or visiting friends didn’t demand otherwise, warm weather usually found her perched on a stool with a sketchbook on her knee, selecting yet another perfect grouping of the tiny upturned flowers. Painted and framed, her myriad impatiens had migrated to every relative and neighbor; they were given—and received—as cherished Christmas gifts. To unwrap one of Gran’s impatiens was to be accepted, blessed and acknowledged. To have one hanging from your wall connoted status, and arrival.
I was too young that summer to have been given a proper painting of my own—despite my presence in the house, I had not yet arrived—but Gran had kindly worked up a rough version of several blotchy purple impatiens on a strip of cardboard.
“A bookmark,” she said. “For a grandson gifted with a keen imagination.”
I kept that bookmark jammed in the pages of my Illustrated Knights of the Round Table, a measure of the value I attached to both. My father had given me that amazing book as a gift for my recent birthday, and I hardly ever closed its cover, leaving it always open to one page or another, each more full than the last of steely blades and unfurled standards, mighty jousts and grim-walled castles. With both of my parents looking for work in far-away Bangor (where distant relatives had promised lucrative seasonal highway jobs), I dreamed my way daily through that book, not just because of its own implicit wonder, but also to keep better track of my family, and myself. The stories inside told me more than mere tales of Arthur’s long-dead retainers, they sang to me that my parents would one day return, like knights from a quest, for me. We’d settle in one place and there’d be good and steady work, and all would again be right with the world.
Not that I objected to spending a Belmont summer with Grandpa and Gran. They were wonderful people, by a child’s or any other standard, and they made it easy to slip into their routines while still allowing me the freedom to strike out on my blue banana-seat Huffy and pedal my way to new, mettle-testing friendships with all the neighborhood children. Pirates, bombardment, sandlot baseball: It was summer, and we played them all. It should have been as idyllic a summer as any I ever experienced.
“We have,” Grandpa told me, on the day I arrived for my extended stay, “only one house rule.”
My parents sat across from him at the enormous oval dinner table in the slightly grimy kitchen. The tablecloth was corn-yellow, the walls pistachio green; I never understood, until owning a time-consuming home of my own, how anyone as artistic as Gran could put up with such a horrid-looking room. Not that the color scheme was on my mind at that moment. I stood at Grandpa’s elbow, nervous as all get out, waiting for the axe to fall. A rule, one rule! It would surely be a terror.
Grandpa grinned and showed his gums. “My one rule is: Listen to your Gran.”
Gran confided her single rule after my parents had driven away, a departure that had taken an hour or more thanks to the endless admonitions they’d only at the last minute remembered. Wear clean socks, use soap in the bath, listen to your grandparents, help out around the house, don’t track mud all over the place, leave insects and snakes and toads outside . . .
. . . and above all, listen to your grandparents. We know you’ll be a good boy.
Gran’s one rule wasn’t a rule. It was an injunction.
“Nathan,” she said, “you will ignore the portfolio behind the piano. Do not pick it up, do not take it out, do not venture any little peeks. Do you understand me?”
I did, of course, but I already knew perfectly well that if I was told not to investigate something, then it stood to reason that I would have to do so, and that at the earliest opportunity.
To my surprise, I tried to explain this, and Gran’s response I remember still, as clearly as any statement she ever made.
“You are not the first child to enter this house, and you are not the first to take a liking to my work. But you are the first that I have warned away. Of course I know that you will eventually break this rule, and I look forward to the day that you do. I only ask that you put it off as long as possible. Some paths cannot be retraced.”
What that meant, I had no idea, so I got on with the business of being eight, eight in the summer. Eight: The age when time ran fast enough that I could look to my future with a certain expectation, and yet it still crawled with sufficient slowness that I could pause and look behind with a feverish, leaden accuracy.
That combination made for a summer of powerful, indelible memories. I remember a mosquito bite behind my left ear that itched for a week. I remember devouring a coconut cake at a neighbor’s house. I cannot recall the neighbor’s name or the names of her children, my playmates, but I remember the cake, not only its flavor but its texture, the roughness of the coconut shavings blended with the sumptuous plaster-white icing. I remember bicycling all the way to Beaver Brook, shooting straight through the lethal five-way intersection at Belmont Square with hardly a glance for crossing traffic, and I vividly remember somehow making it home both alive and in time for supper. I remember slipping one day when I stepped out of the tub and catapulting head-first into the bathroom wall’s indigo tile. Grandpa had to drive me to a wizened, lisping doctor who gave me nine stitches, black and thick, on my forehead. I was the hit of the neighborhood for a month, and all the kids called me Frankenstein.
Grandpa had been a jeweler, and while he had retired from his shop, he had never stepped back from his craft. He spent long hours at it still, a green-tinted visor over his eyes to block any glare as he poked and prodded tiny strands of metal into clasping shards of brilliant jewels. He made metal and stone meet and match, he bent them to his bidding. He did private work, for friends of the family, long-time customers, relatives. Had his projects been on a larger scale, I’m sure his rings and bracelets and pendants would have fascinated me just as much as Gran’s canvases, but there were times when the work he held was all but obscured by his heavily knuckled hands or the fingers of his vise, and it was all I could do to see. For the most part, I left him alone.
And, on a day when he and Gran left me alone while they ventured out to the supermarket, I decided to do as Gran had said I must, and break her single law.
The forbidden portfolio wasn’t hidden or even locked up. Just as she’d said, she kept it tucked along the side of the old upright piano, black and mostly in key, an instrument that Grandpa still played daily in a mournful, offhand way as he waited for his morning coffee to percolate. As if the piano itself were a sentinel and I a thief, I avoided looking at it as I hauled the portfolio, stuffed and heavy, to the living room. I spread the canvases and boards across the furniture until they ringed and surrounded me. Only then did I allow myself to fully survey what I had exhumed.
Impatiens, one after another. All colors and stripes. More and more impatiens, on every single panel.
Was this a trick? Gran’s way of setting me up? No, it couldn’t be. I narrowed my gaze, I stared harder. And I saw beneath those cheerful blooms.
They were impatiens, yes, but this time rendered with a sickening attention to what lay below the gaps in the dark, orderly tangle of leaves. These were not mere flowers, a homey portraiture of petals and sepals. No, in these paintings, Gran had used the blossoms to guard and highlight what crawled and twisted beneath, host after host of hideous, snaking worms, many of them deformed into multi-tentacled, many-headed monstrosities that nature surely never meant to allow.
I peered closer. I reached out a finger to touch the surface of the nearest painting, and there is a part of me that will swear to this day that those writhing worms turned toward me and reached, up and out, to meet my offered finger.
I jerked my hand away and backed up until I stood in the very center of the artwork circle. Perky impatiens blossomed on every sofa, chair and ottoman; they leaned against the bookshelves, they stood beneath the tarnished brass lamps, they sidled up to the cobwebbed legs of the stereo cabinet. From a distance of even a couple of feet, it was impossible to see the wormlike things beneath the leaves—but I knew, without even checking, that they infected every canvas, the perfect marriage of macabre and mundane.
So there I stood, encircled by that hellish floral gallery, spinning awkwardly this way and that, and wondering if I even dared ask my fingers and hands to make contact, to do the simple but suddenly dangerous work of replacing them back in the portfolio.
I might well have remained stranded there all afternoon, transfixed by those grisly flowerbeds, but then, their approach entirely unheard, Grandpa and Gran walked in, laden with grocery bags. Time did what it so often is accused of doing, and stopped.
Grandpa spoke first. “Nathan,” he said. “Why don’t you help me unload the rest of the car?”
I don’t believe I said a word, but I followed him outside and allowed Grandpa to fill my arms with the stiff paper grocery sacks. I trudged them into the house and avoided looking into the living room as I passed it, kitchen-bound. Grandpa brought in the remainder of the food and joined Gran in the living room. I put away what I could, leaving only the items that lived on upper shelves beyond my reach. And then I stood by the sink, still mute, awaiting what I assumed would be a whipping or worse. One never knew with grandparents, no matter how kindly; they were of a different generation, and my imagination insisted that their punishments would tend toward the corporal.
Not long after, they called me in. The paintings were gone, back in their portfolio.
“Sit down,” Grandpa said. “I want to play you something.”
I sat on the sofa, maroon to match my mood, and I hugged my knees to my chin. Grandpa bent to the turntable atop the stereo cabinet and set the stylus on the edge of one of his faceless vinyl albums. I heard the faintest popping and hissing from the walnut speakers, and then a spray of sparkling piano. A violin joined in, and something deeper—a cello, perhaps. Grandpa closed the turntable’s lid and stood up straight, head listing sideways. An admiring smile played across his face.
“Schubert,” he announced, very softly. “I think of it as sun chasing shadow, one after the other in endless succession, sweeps of light and dark playing across green and distant hills. Listen. Picture that, and let those other pictures fall away.”
I listened. I imagined soft pastures, scattered flocks of sheep roaming verdant emerald moors. The music drifted from light to dark, just as Grandpa had said it would; it fled over my imagined landscape as if the notes themselves were scudding clouds and bolts of brilliant, rain-swept sun.
All of that was surprising enough, for like most eight-year-olds, I had no particular patience for classical music, much less Romantic chamber music, but then, as the shifting light continued, I felt a shift within myself, a visual transference, and as I watched, the hillsides ceased to rely on photographic verisimilitude and became instead a wash of subtle paints, an impressionistic sweep of gorgeous, blended oils. Most astonishing of all, I could see—no, I could feel—precisely which strokes were required to make each vision form. It was as if each image were already finished and drying on some unrealized easel deep inside my person.
The music ended. The stylus lifted. The record ceased to spin. I realized that I had closed my eyes only by opening them.
Gran and Grandpa stood together, studying me. Grandpa held one arm lightly around Gran’s shoulders. The gesture surprised me, for while I understood perfectly well that Gran and Grandpa were married, I had never considered that romance was in the least involved. They rarely touched, they could go for hours without speaking to one another, and they slept in separate beds. At that age, had anyone asked, I would have said that they were married simply because they were my grandparents.
“Tomorrow,” said Gran, in the sort of voice that, for all its serenity, brooked no argument, “I will give you your first lesson. After breakfast. We will work until lunch. We will continue the pattern every day of the week, breaking only for church on Sunday. Do you have any questions?”
“No,” I whispered.
Grandpa burst out laughing. “So serious, the two of you,” he said, shaking his head. “If you think painting’s hard work, just wait until you try full-time gardening. Because that’s what you’ll be doing all afternoon. Digging and weeding and mulching and endless watering and snipping. Your Gran likes her gardens just so.”
He paused and sucked on his lower lip. “You’re not afraid of a little hard work, are you? Of roots and soil and dirt?”
• • • •
That night, after I’d brushed my teeth and spat twice into the rust-stained sink and kissed both Grandpa and Gran good night, I found a sheaf of papers lying next to King Arthur on my pillow. It was a sort of story, typed on crinkled, smelly carbon paper, and laced with dabs of Wite-Out and penned-in corrections. I recognized the author’s name as my Great-Aunt Gertrude, long dead. She was Gran’s older sister, and a prolific diarist. This, however, was another beast entirely.
• • • •
Outside the Sun Room
by Gertrude J. Molland
The story of Joy ought to be a simple one. Once she was an artist, a painter, and of course it is tempting to speculate about why she stopped. For now, suffice it to say that one morning, after breakfast, with the children bundled off to school, Joy did not shut herself away in her studio as she had for so many, many years. Instead, she reached inside just enough to grasp the small round door handles, and then she pulled the doors closed.
She spent a full hour carefully covering over the doors’ French windows with wood-grained contact paper. That evening, she asked her husband to install a lock and hide the key. Lonnie consented to her request, but only after subjecting her to a barrage of numbing questions. Like you, he could not accept that the why did not matter. Only the stopping. Only that.
To the general public, the world at large, she knows she will always be Joy, but in her private life, she now thinks of herself as Paints No More. She enjoys this self-conscious appellation, full of movie-Indian directness, and she wonders why more people do not rename themselves. Partly to make up for this, she has taken pains to rename all of her neighbors, each as correctly as possible. Across the street lives Banker With Paunch, also his wife, Limps With Groceries, and their single, pale child, Eats Nothing. Next door, by the row of white roses—called Peace, a fitting name, except for the thorns—live Mr. and Mrs. Weed-Be-Gone. They spend all of their free time manicuring the lawn, often sitting down and trimming one errant blade at a time, as if Japanese blood ran thick in their veins.
Yells At Baby lives on the opposite side, to the east. Yells At Baby stays at home and lives up to her name three times a day, often more; her sometime boyfriend, Up Early Drinks Much, does his share of the yelling whenever he makes an appearance.
Joy tunes them out by wearing headphones around the house; the headphones connect to a Discman clipped to her belt. She listens primarily to chamber music, the more meandering the better, one instrument intertwined with the next like vines. She believes that classical music shrugs off easy identifications, that it resists being named, and so she does not care about which piece she chooses. She knows she ought to abandon composers as well—just another naming—but Lonnie has a fondness for Schubert, and so, of course, does she.
Even so, what matters most is the fog of silence that the music provides. Silence helps her lose herself in time. Certain markers, such as Lonnie’s comings and goings—departing for work at eight, returning by six—they upset her sense of stasis, although not, to be sure, as much as they once did. The diurnal cycles of the world fall away from her a little more each day, and she thinks she would forget them entirely were it not for her two remaining devotions: her children, whom she deals with almost as an afterthought, and gardening.
Paints No More gardens so dutifully and for such long hours—she has not worked at a paying job in years—that sometimes she wonders if it is she and not her neighbors who should bear the name Weed-Be-Gone. The yard is big, a quarter-acre, and she has six separate plots, all of which she knows by name: The Big One, Under the Rose of Sharon, Birdbath Circle, the Briar Patch, Tomato Road, Sunset Point.
Innumerable other plantings surround the bases of the trees, edge the sidewalks, and hang in baskets from the hooks on the porch. Gardening feeds her as once the painting did, by reminding her of process, of change, and her own place within a larger frame. Tending a plant, starting a seed, watching the seasons. These are the only activities that keep her sufficiently grounded to know time at all. Without them, she would atrophy completely, just as her husband already thinks she has.
The years pass. Her children have grown and flown, and with them, her remaining sense of schedule.
Joy is a large woman, not fat, but big-boned, strong. Once she was forty, but lately, birthdays have been hard to pin down. Her eyes can be piercing, or so others have told her. They are certainly almond, very light, and match the freckles on her skin. Her fingernails are perpetually chipped and dirty from the endless days spent in the soil, and she forgets to wash her hair until Lonnie demands that she remember. Chores of any kind, even basic hygiene, depress her; they smack of repetition, a tacit acknowledgment of the future. So great is her disdain for time that she no longer gets her period. Mind over matter, she used to tell herself. She could stop if she wanted to. And she did.
Lonnie—whom she now calls Man of Great Patience or, sometimes, Annoying Old Goat—has stood by her from the beginning. He is sympathetic and performs little niceties that he hopes will reconnect her, like a plug, to life. When work allows, he makes tea and bakes bread. He joins her in the garden. He claims that he especially likes raking, and his efforts always bring a smile to her face. She takes pleasure in the fact that he has learned to cope, to continue his own life despite the implosion of hers. He continues to design and build the jewelry that keeps the both of them clothed and housed. He goes out, he sees friends. He never invites them over.
Sometimes Joy sketches in the dirt with her finger, making crude little tracings of Art with a capital A, copies of the Great Masters and, sometimes, originals of her own. Then she smoothes them over or digs them up and goes back to picking aphids off the peaches. When the mailman—Afraid of Dogs—delivers the mail, she waves happily and throws the entire pile away, knowing that Lonnie will rescue the bills and maybe a letter or two. If there’s something of interest, he’ll read it out loud once they’re in bed. She will pretend to listen, but she will really be mulling over pigments and hues, the perfection of tone she could never quite achieve.
She knows that the studio pines for her. It’s hiding just downstairs. Lonnie says that when the previous owners had it built, they always called it their sunroom. In the winter, when the house contracts and the air grows chill and there’s almost nothing to do in the garden, she can hear the sunroom call for her, sighing through the heating vents, moaning for her hand.
And that is the incomplete story of Joy, a woman lost in the outskirts of life, marooned by a tangle of stubborn old weeds. Her painting awaits her. So does her family. Paints No More wishes that she could explain—she wishes this with all her heart—but she has yet to trap her problem with the arrow of a name.
• • • •
After finishing the story, I waited until I was certain that both of my grandparents were asleep, and then I stole downstairs and approached the studio doorway, ajar as usual. I did not know then what French windows were, but I did know contact paper, and it took only seconds of inspection under the light of Grandpa’s swiveling desk lamp to detect what I was certain would be there: a sticky, stubborn fringe of wood-grained contact paper still clinging to the inside rim of virtually every glass pane the old door had to offer.
Upstairs, Paints No More shifted in her sleep, as if searching out the proper path to go back to being Gran.
• • • •
My morning lesson was, as promised, daily. She was traditional, my Gran, and she forced me first to sketch out objects, to rough in the shape and textures of an apple, a green wine-bottle, a lady’s hat hung from a hook. We moved on to copying, mostly horses.
“The form of the horse contains everything that is human,” she stated. “If you doubt me, you will find your proof in the centaur.”
I asked her why she never painted people herself, and she smiled, thin-lipped.
“I’m no good with centaurs,” she said. “To paint the human form is to indulge in a particular kind of fantasy. A kind I don’t appreciate. But that is no reason,” she went on, “that you should not out-do me. Stretch the limitations of your teacher. Challenge yourself.”
We moved on, first to single plants and trees, and then to landscapes, still working only with pencils or charcoal. And then, one morning some five weeks into my punishment, we shifted into paint: oils, right out of the gate.
“What will you do?” Gran asked. “What story will you tell?”
Were paintings stories? I didn’t need to ask to know what Gran’s answer would be. She talked almost constantly while she painted, narrating the legend of whatever it was she was working on, giving it both background and foreground, a verbal and sometimes dramatic history. All art, she claimed, was the art of story. The history of story was the history of art itself.
“Gran,” I said, “why did you stop painting?”
Gran set down her brush—she’d been working on a red-walled barn and a set of sunny haystacks—and she peered at me over her shoulder. She said, “I stopped because I was afraid of what I was starting to see.”
“What did you see?”
“What do you think I saw?”
I shrugged. “But those things aren’t real.”
I knew I was right. No matter how many afternoon weeds I ripped from the garden, I had never seen anything more shocking than a slug.
“Ah,” said Gran, and she peered at her haystacks. “The important thing is, I started again. I picked up right where I left off. Now. Let’s return to you, and your blank canvas. What will you paint?”
“A cabin,” I said. “In the snow.”
“No. A cabin, a safe one, lost in the snow.”
Gran thought for a moment, then stood up and pulled a jacketed book from a small case wedged into the corner of the room.
“Snow,” she said, “requires careful handling. What color is it?”
“In shadow, it is blue. Or cerulean or chimney black. In low light, it can turn yellow. Does that mean that snow is really yellow, or cerulean? Be careful how you answer.”
She opened the book she’d chosen and showed me snowscape after snowscape, in all styles and periods. Delicate brushwork seemed to make certain sunlit snow banks almost shimmer, while the blunt approach of the twentieth century turned the snow to chunks, like soot-laced ice blocks. I knew I didn’t have the skill yet for the former, but the choppy swatches of snow in the book’s last few pages—those I decided I could manage.
I chose a page for inspiration and placed the open book on a music stand off to my left. I reached for a brush.
It took days, of course. Many days. But, with the deliberate slowness of a spreading, seeping stain, my painting shaped itself and grew from a paltry child’s-hand sketch into something considered and designed, more statement than picture. I practiced the art of mixing pigments and oil; I learned to keep my brushes slick and wet. I memorized the different tips and widths, and I came to know firsthand the gentle ache that comes from holding your arm bent at the elbow, adding stroke after not-so-delicate stroke. The drifts billowed and grew, and the skies drew together with threats of more snowfall to come. I was in Heaven.
Of course, by any objective standard, the results were far from good. And, because I was just old enough to see my work’s deficiencies, I was violently dissatisfied. Still, I refused to put aside this first attempt and start fresh. The paints and I were in a battle to the finish, and I was determined to end with something better than outright retreat.
Gran clearly approved of my stubbornness, and when I began to rough in the cabin, relying on umber and a half-dozen rotten-looking brownish blends, she paid ever closer attention.
“I know you, Nathan,” she said, on a morning when an early thunderhead had left the studio so dark that we had the overhead lamps switched on a half-hour before noon. “I know you better than you know yourself. There is something about this cabin that frightens you.”
“Maybe,” I said, needlessly churlish, “but you’re afraid of the garden.”
“I was once, yes.” Perhaps in tacit sympathy for my own poor technique, she was doing knife-work, a rarity for her, and she’d been making disgruntled noises for an hour. “The fact is, I am old, Nathan, an old woman. The garden tells me what’s coming next.”
I thought about the mole, the desperate circle of maggots, and the way the daylight faded a little sooner each day as August headed toward September.
My parents called the next afternoon and said they’d be coming on Saturday. They’d stay for a few days, if that was all right, and then it would be time for all of us to go. What, they asked Grandpa, had I been up to lately?
“He’s been a great help in the garden,” Grandpa chuckled. “Aren’t many boys his age who can spell ‘variegated hosta’ in English and in Latin.”
A great help I may have been, but that was the last day I worked in the garden. Gran had a whispered conversation with Grandpa while I was washing up the lunch dishes, and just as I was heading for the garage to strap on my work gloves, she caught me by the shoulders and faced me toward the front door instead.
“Enough,” she said. “Go find your friends. Have some fun. Be eight again.”
I bicycled away, too thrilled to even look back. I found my half-forgotten gang and off we went, in and out of their homes, up and down the hills, into low-limbed maple trees and tunneled-out forsythia. Pirates, bombardment, sandlot baseball: We played them all. We must have, because it was summer.
Gran and Grandpa tended to eat late, so it didn’t matter much that I only got home at dusk. I could see a light on in the kitchen and I heard water running in the sink. The smell of curried something-or-other wafted out of the house, probably lamb. I skidded to a stop and hopped off my bike and almost jammed my foot through the top of my second dead mole of the season.
Grandpa had put out more rat poison two days before, so the mole’s presence shouldn’t have been any sort of surprise. Even so, I wondered how long it had lain there unnoticed at the edge of the drive, tucked under an invading arch of crab grass. Gran had not ventured out in about two days, of that I was almost sure, and Grandpa had probably confined himself to perfecting the back yard. The intervening days had been hot and muggy, and the mole was likely just a shell, as the first had been. Under the skin, it would be literally seething.
In the moment, I’m sure I didn’t come up with such precise vocabulary, but I did realize that I had a choice. I could either deal with the mole, or at least tell Grandpa about it, or I could pretend I hadn’t noticed it at all. In another day or two, it would surely be cooked to leather by the sun, and the surviving maggots would have winged away as flies.
As I hesitated, debating, the mole’s carcass shifted ever so slightly, and out from underneath crawled the single largest maggot that I have ever to this day beheld or heard of. It wrenched itself free from the mole’s underbelly, it raised its faceless face, it got its bearings—and then, with an awful clarity of purpose, it sped directly toward my foot.
It didn’t matter that I was several thousand times bigger than that sightless, pallid grub. I panicked. I jumped backward, knocked the Huffy sideways—the bike toppled over with a clatter of spokes and pedals—and I sprinted for the open garage. I grabbed the first shovel I found—a flat-backed spade, almost my height—and I ran to the mole and I slammed the flat of the blade down on that maggot as if my life depended on it.
Crazed and frenzied, I moved on, raining blows on that poor husk of a mole. I hammered and whacked at it until every last maggot was crushed to an unholy jelly. Then I staggered backward to the lawn and collapsed in a heap, bawling to wake the dead.
Neighbors came out of their houses, curious about the fuss. Gran followed Grandpa as they hurried down the steps to the walk, probably thinking I’d wrecked my bike. Six feet away from me, across an ocean of crumbling tarmac, a splatter of flesh and ooze judged in silence, as the guiltless always do.
• • • •
The next morning, more or less recovered, I was back with Gran in the confines of the studio, mixing white and yellow and sepia into a warm but waning light, the sort of light I wanted to have glowing from my cabin’s single window. I did my best work on that glass, there and on the snow beneath, where I allowed the light from the cabin to spill out onto a midwinter drift, a cruel echo of the cozy air inside.
“Does anyone visit this cabin?” Gran asked.
“Who lives there?” Gran asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Well.” I squirmed. “Maybe me, sometimes.”
“Maybe you. Sometimes.”
She paused long enough to inspect my brushes, still damp with thinner and laid across a paper towel like bodies, victims of some nameless disaster. An earthquake, perhaps. A devastation of plague.
When next she spoke, it was in a different voice, the kind that required that she clear her throat. Whether it was lecture or sermon, I’m still not sure. Perhaps she was speaking to herself.
“Unless you’re a hack, Nathan—and I trust that you are not—then painting is a trade that leaves scars. Wounds, even. Some stay open, they bleed. They bleed over into real life, into friendships and family. May God forgive me for both.”
Had the room grown darker, or was that my imagination? I suspect a trick of memory, the danger of looking back from where I stand today, forty-three and growing older by the second. My mind’s eye has that painterly impulse to shift and smudge, so while I know it may not be a literal truth, I emboss her words with an image equally dark and unruly.
Regardless, I am sure of what she said next, and of how she said it. She patted my head, she ran her dry-skinned fingers through my hair. She laughed!
“Oh, my poor sweet Nathan. The paint is in your blood, like it or not. Now I will always know what to send you for your birthdays.”
• • • •
But Gran died in November, and I have spent the last thirty-five years procuring everything I need—paints, brushes, frames, and an endless supply of time—for myself.
My first painting doesn’t hang from a prominent spot on my wall. Its place of honor is a box in the attic. I have told myself for years now that the only reason it isn’t up where family and friends can see it is because it simply isn’t very good. The fact is, I keep it hidden because the honesty of that first image frightens me. A simple cabin, lit from within, engulfed by lonely winter twilight. I included a copse of trees on the crest of a low hill, but other than that, the landscape shows nothing but storm-gray clouds and snow.
And on the cabin, not even a door.
It took me years to notice that, but apparently it never occurred to my eight-year-old sense of design to add a means of exit or entrance. I don’t count the window. It’s the old fashioned kind, primitive and sealed. And so I am tormented by a question: Were I to transform into Alice Liddell and enter a looking-glass world, would I discover a door on one of those two unseen walls? Or did I paint myself a prison?
• • • •
There we have it, the incomplete story of Paints, grandson of Paints No More. It began in shadow. It ends, for now, like this:
Grandpa died a year after Gran, and the house was sold. In general, the estate was left in equal portions to the three children, for them to divvy up among themselves and the nine grandchildren as best they could. I, however, thanks to a special codicil, received the entire contents of one particular portfolio. I have it still, of course. I keep it locked in a steamer trunk bought especially to house those lost, dangerous paintings.
Not so dangerous, perhaps. I dig them out now and again and show them to my wife, to my children. I want to share with them my version of life’s myriad possibilities. I want my cabin to have a door.
And so we put on Schubert for safety, and we spread Gran’s images across the floor, and we try to tear our eyes from the strange clumps of flowers. We hardly know what to make of what we see, but we are born again in the viewing, reincarnated a thousand times over. To exorcise the demons of sight and premonition, we tell fresh stories to explain each canvas, and I, like Arthur’s Taliesin, relate the life-threads that Gran herself attached so many years ago. We peer through the greenery toward what huddles and clusters beneath, and then we shiver, we cling together, and we swear the damned things aren’t moving.