Still Life

Still Life
image_print

Lara says I wake up in the night crying. Just sobbing and weeping like a little girl, not that I ever remember it. Pull yourself together, she says. What if the twins hear you? Good thing they’re grown women, reared and married off. I shouldn’t be telling you any of this, Carl, but I know I can trust you. Anyway, Lara says the pressure’s getting to me. Can you believe that? But maybe she’s got something. I mean, my hair’s all white! I’m kidding, of course, we both know it was the presidency, happens to everyone. That’s why they call it the White House. But seriously, the show’s in less than a week. Can’t say why I ever agreed to it. I’ll be the first to admit I’m no great artiste. But I’m a driven person, as you well know. Like to set myself goals and keep fighting till I meet them, whether it’s business or baseball or politics. And now painting. I’ve shown you some of my pictures, Carl.

Not bad for an old man, huh?

Thing is, my style’s changing. I’m in a period of what they call transformation. What I mean is, my paintings look different now than when the fine folks at Dallas Christian decided I should put on a solo show. Granted, it’s my library. Always was. I can do what I want. But still, they’re not the same paintings we all selected to hang the walls. It wasn’t intentional, but my art teacher, Mrs. Henderson, who’s got to be one of the sweetest ladies to ever walk God’s green earth, behind Mama and Lara, of course, tells me that’s how this whole thing works sometimes. When you’re making art, you don’t always know what you’re doing. The subconscious mind’s running the show, almost like a dream, or, in my case, a nightmare. Sounds like a crock, Carl, I know. That’s what I used to think, too. A bunch of mystical malarkey. But it’s got to be true. What other explanation could there be for how my paintings look?

Course, I don’t recognize the changes until Lara points them out. I’m in my art studio down at the ranch – did I tell you how I turned a guest bedroom into my painting room? – and Lara pokes her head in the door. Her angelic face is all aglow.

’Bout ready for some lunch, Jorge?

Only she’s got to ask me three or four times, is what she tells me. I’m not just focused, I’m completely in the zone. I’ve got me these powers of concentration, Carl. But you know that, you’ve seen me at work. Maybe never at the easel, but I go about my art-making with the same purpose and determination I do everything, from waging war to drinking beer. Not that I can put them away like I used to, age catches up and it’s all you can do to keep yourself in shape. Don’t take it personal, Carl, you’ve got a gut, but it suits your personality. Anyway, she finally catches my attention.

You gonna paint all day or what?

Sorry, honeybunch, says I. I flat didn’t hear you calling.

Open a window, Georgie, she says. It’s fumy in here.

That’d be the paint thinner.

It’s not good for you.

It’s no big deal, sugar. Used to do worse to myself – and on purpose!

Lara shakes her head, pursing her lips so she won’t laugh.

Fact is, I say, I can’t even smell it anymore.

That’s what I’m afraid of, she says, grinning. Anyhow, lunch is ready. Maria made tacos al carbon.

Lara clears her throat, and I can guess what’s coming.

Con cebollas, uh, green peppers, y queso.

Darling, you’re mighty bonita when you’re talking español.

There’s plenty of arroz and frijoles, too.

See the kind of progress she’s making, Carl?

By now, Lara’s a couple-three steps into the studio. I’ve asked her not to gawk at my works-in-progress, but she can’t help herself. I don’t blame her. She’s just curious, is all. As she pads from one picture to the next – and I got them everywhere, on easels, leaning against the walls, propped up in the windowsills, everywhere – her eyes go wide and her face turns white. I hear her taking these little gulps of air, like she’s trying not to breathe but can only hold her breath so long. I’m just watching her, smiling, feeling the blood rush through my face and into the tops of my ears. I still got my apron on and a brush in hand. Lara lingers in front of a portrait I painted of her on the living room couch here at the ranch. (I painted Whiskers in there, too, though she was off lolling in the sun somewhere.) Lara just stands there, swaying and mumbling to herself.

Sugar-pie? I say. You alright?

What have you done?

What do you mean?

She spins around and glares at me. What in God’s name have you done? Then she sweeps her hand, like she means all my pictures, but she points at the portrait. She’s still glaring. Last time I remember seeing her this mad, I was waking up on the front lawn back in Odessa, Lone Star in one hand, Jack Daniels in the other, both empty.

Trust me, I say, you don’t have man-hands! I snicker, but Lara’s scowl deepens. I know I’m no Rembrandt, honey. I’m still learning. I’ll work on it.

You know that’s not what I mean.

She waits. I learned long ago to watch and listen and keep my mouth shut. She waves me over to where the portrait leans against the wall. I take a knee and gaze where she points. When I say nothing, she says:

A week ago, this was a good painting. Endearing, even. And now look what you’ve done to it.

I told you it wasn’t finished, I say. I told you I had some touching up to do.

Lara’s nostrils flare. But I’m wearing a hijab!

I think maybe her blood sugar’s getting low, but I take another look, and sure enough, Lara’s sporting one of those Arab head scarves. So is cute little ole Whiskers, though hers looks more like a bonnet.

I’m tempted to say, Not too bad, huh? But I know better. Lara’s on the warpath, make no mistake. So I bite my tongue, wondering when I did this. And why. See, Carl, I can’t remember a thing. But for better or worse, Lara refreshes my memory. Apparently, I’ve made some unexpected additions to all of my pictures, including the ones we’d decided I’d put on public display.

There’s a portrait of the twins in the porch swing, and they got on head wraps, too. They don’t look half-bad in them either. But you know how photogenic they both are, Carl. They look good in anything. In the background, right out there on the manicured Bermuda grass, you can see a pile of dead Arabs. Must be twenty of them. The whole thing’s horrifying, of course, but I made good use of space and light.

The portrait I painted of Bo – you remember Bo, Carl, my faithful Golden Retriever? – uses a similar Middle Eastern motif. It didn’t at first, of course. It was just a picture of man’s best friend on Bo’s favorite couch in the sun room. (I had to paint Whiskers out of that one.) When I finished it, that picture was one of my favorites, maybe the one I was proudest of. Only when I look again, Bo’s holding a dead Arab baby in his mouth like a duck he fished out of the lake on a hunting trip. But at least I got what they call the chiaroscuro right.

The worst might be the landscape. I’m no good at them, Carl, can’t get the perspective right, which is why I fudged this one. I painted it as if through the kitchen window at the ranch. It was nothing special. Grass and mesquites and cedars, dirt road and fence line and cloudless blue sky. Only it’s a different story now. I didn’t change the kitchen window perspective, that’s all the same. You can even see my apron embroidered with Mr. President hanging over a chair. But the ranch is a hellish nightmare. It’s all explosions and fire, screaming faces and burning bodies. Now where did all that come from, Carl? Why would I do that?

Now Lara’s asking me the same questions. Only just with her eyes. She gives me this weird look that says, What have you done with my husband? Once I’ve had a chance to take in this unexpected shift in my artistry, she grabs my hand and says, John 3:16, Georgie. Recite it with me.

For God so loved the world, we say in unison, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (We prefer the King James. It’s the real deal.)

Then she walks to the door. Before she slips down the hall toward the kitchen and Maria’s tacos al carbon, she says, La vida, Jorge. Siempre la vida.

I take Lara’s point, of course. But I still don’t know what’s going on. It’s like somebody else came into my studio while I was out clearing brush and doctored all my pictures. Maybe the Secret Service is getting sloppy, huh? Because these new motifs are out of character for me, Carl. And I’m the first to admit I’m no Michelangelo or Picasso. So I don’t see where the technical skill came from. Maybe I’m a better artiste than I give myself credit for?

After lunch, I pick up the phone and call Daddy.

Georgie Boy! he says. How’s the hunting?

That’s right, it’s turkey season. Flat slipped my mind, I guess.

Well, you been watching the baseball? Rangers are looking good. And what about Castro down in Houston?

Who let that commie in? I say.

Kid’s got a bazooka for an arm. Good luck stealing on him!

Haven’t really been following it, Daddy. I’ve been painting.

You’ve got to put a fresh coat on every year, Georgie Boy, especially in that Texas sun, or the wood will weather and rot and then where will you be? But can’t you hire somebody to take care of it?

Listen, Daddy, I say, scratching Bo behind the ears. You made a lot of tough calls when you were in office. Operation Sandstorm, for instance. You ever question your decisions?

What do you mean by that?

I pet Bo some more. His ears are about the softest thing you could imagine. He’s snoring in my lap.

Not regret, exactly, I say. But do you ever wonder if you knew then what you know now, would you have made a different choice?

You can’t second-guess, Georgie Boy. Ever. What good will it do you or anyone else? You make your decisions, you stick by them. That’s how this all works.

I know, Daddy.

He doesn’t say anything for a minute. I can hear a ballgame in background. The announcer’s making a ruckus.

Sorry, Gerogie Boy. Red Sox and Yankees. Big Papi just went yard.

He’s a slugger, alright.

Now what were you saying?

Don’t you ever remember things? About what you did? Or didn’t do?

So that’s what you meant by painting. Listen, Georgie Boy, you have a beautiful wife and two precious daughters. You’re a hero to the nation and the world. If you remember anything, remember that.

That makes me feel a whole lot better. You understand, Carl. Daddy went through all the same kinds of things I did when he was at the helm. Crucial decisions about when to go in and how. About air strikes and ground-troop deployments. About precision, laser-guided bunker buster bombs. Those are tough decisions, Carl. The American people won’t always understand them, which is why you need a silver-tongued press secretary. Anyhow, Daddy’s coped just fine. You don’t see him buckling under the strain of all those years calling the shots.

And hell, Carl, I’m twice as tough as him.

So it’s business as usual. I go back to my studio and set to work on my paintings. I’ve got a lot of touching up to do now, what with these new motifs and the show only two weeks away.

First things first, I concentrate on my portrait of Lara. She looks exotic in that head wrap, but she doesn’t like it one bit, and she’s right that folks won’t understand it. I’m not sure I get it myself, Carl. Thing is, the more I work at it, the worse it gets. I’m not fixing anything, just smearing paint around the canvas. Turn a good picture into a complete mess, remaking my blushing bride into a cone-head with a bad complexion. I slip the canvas behind a stack of blank ones and move on.

I try to reverse engineer a couple more, but they don’t work even as well as the first. Meaning I all but wreck them – even more than when I gave them that Arab look. Including the portrait of the twins and the one of Bo. (I don’t go anywhere near that ranch landscape.) It’s like I’ve lost my touch, Carl, if I ever had one. Only thing for it’s to start over from scratch.

So, the next morning, that’s what I do. I know time’s short, and the likelihood of finishing enough new pictures for the show’s not real high, but I’m not about to let that stop me. I’ve faced worse odds. So I kneel and say a little prayer, then tie my apron on and put my nose to the grindstone.

First thing I paint is a self-portrait. I know what you’re thinking, Carl, but that’s not it. It’s not about glorifying yours truly. I’m working on technique, exploiting what Mrs. Henderson’s been teaching me about the power of reflections. So I put myself in front of the mirror, shaving. The viewer’s watching Mr. President from behind (not in the buff, Carl: I’m wearing a green terrycloth bathrobe), so mostly you see my shoulders and the back of my head. You can also see I’ve got my right arm raised, razor in hand. Besides that, there’s the pedestal sink and the mirror, in which you see my whole face, half-covered in shaving cream, focused and determined to get the job done. That’s how I am, Carl.

Anyway, that was the intention. That’s what it was supposed to look like. That’s what I thought I painted. Only when I come back after lunch with Lara (BBQ sandwiches and Ruffles), that’s not what I see. Everything’s how it’s supposed to look, more or less. Approximately, I mean. I’ve given it my best shot, hoping to make Mrs. Henderson proud. Except my face in the mirror. Reflections are tough, Carl, no matter how cocksure the painter. Anybody’ll tell you that, Mrs. Henderson included. But they’re not that tough. I mean, I know what I look like. Except for a laugh line here and there, this mug hasn’t changed much in the sixty-odd years it’s been with me. Only my face isn’t the face staring out at the viewer. Nope, it’s this Arab kid’s, all dimples and scars, probably doesn’t even shave yet. He’s got a turban on and these flaming eyes, and he’s pointing – at me or the viewer, it’s not clear. It’s nicely rendered ambiguity, Carl. And make no mistake, the composition’s striking.

But what the hell?

I’m not about to let this whip me, so I try again. I glance out the window and notice my pickup. Ford F-250 King Ranch 4 x 4 with all the bells and whistles. I love that pickup like a son, Carl, so I figure I might as well paint it. Why not, right? It’s just a pickup. So I set my easel up by the window. I’d go outside, but it’s too dadblame hot. Then I paint that sucker in all his glory. The tires give me fits, same with the grill guard and diamond-steel toolbox. But I never back down from a fight. Maybe it’s a little flat and two-dimensional when I’m done, but I do a good job with the ranch. Meaning the landscape looks nice and natural, without any bombs or fire or screaming Arabs.

But I don’t stop there. I’m just getting warmed up. Fact is, I’m on fire.

Lara’s got a vase of flowers as a table centerpiece, so I grab it and bring it into the studio. Lara’s into her Reader’s Digest and doesn’t pay me no never mind. Anyhow, we’re not talking dahlias in Waterford crystal here, Carl. This is Crawdad Ranch. It’s a big ole Mason jar full of bluebonnets. I know they’re illegal to pick, but they grow on my land, and I’m the leader of the free world. Or I used to be. Anyway, I’m not worried. I paint those flowers in the vase on a table that isn’t even there, showing how the Texas sunlight pours through the window. Maybe it’s a little slapdash, not enough Alizarin crimson in the Prussian blue, the lines wobbly and the perspective whomperjawed, but it’s not as bad as all that. Flowers are tough, Carl.

Then I figure, why not a full-blown still life? I’ve never done one before. And what could be more benign than a bunch of fruit in a bowl on a table? Pretty near nothing, Carl. So I make a beeline for the kitchen. There’s plenty of fruit, since Lara and I like our healthy living, so I grab a big glass bowl and some apples, pears, and bananas. I’d love to do it Texas-style, with grapefruit and peaches and jalepeño peppers, but that’ll have to wait till next time. On my way back through the living room, Lara glances up from her reading and gives me this puzzled look.

Hold up there, Georgius Maximus. Where you going with all that fruit?

I love it when she calls me that, Carl. Have I ever told you that?

I’m grinning from ear to ear. I wrestle the fruit under one arm, then reach out and pinch her cheek. No time to jaw, dear, I say. I’m making art.

Back in my studio, I set the bowl down on the desk and put brush to canvas. It doesn’t take long. I already invented the table for the bluebonnet picture, so it’s easy to reproduce. The rest of it’s line and color, space and light. I give myself plenty of distance, taking in an imaginary kitchen (cabinets, sink, window, light fixture) so I don’t have to get up close and personal with the fruit. That level of detail’s simply beyond my powers, Carl. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’m no great artiste. I paint the whole thing in one go, knowing I’ll need to do touch-ups later if it’s a keeper.

But that’s the million-dollar question, right?

When I’m done, I take a deep breath, dip my brushes in thinner, and wander outside. It smells like honeysuckle and cut grass. Except for the heat, springtime’s lovely on the ranch. Anyhow, I’m not going anywhere in particular, just trying to get some air and clear my head. I amble over to the barn and climb up onto the John Deere. The key’s in the ignition, Carl, right where I like it to be. I backhand sweat off my brow, then crank that baby up. Sucker makes a helluva din, I’m here to tell you. For a second, teeth rattling and bones shaking, I wish I had me something to raze or demolish or destroy. What good’s all that power for if you don’t use it? But that’s not why I’m out here. I shut the thing off and swagger back up to the house.

How’s the pintura coming, Jorge?

See what I mean, Carl? You’d think she spent all day slaving over her Spanish books.  Not bad, I say.

No more death and destruction, right?

Siempre la vida, sweetums. That’s the way you told me.

Muy bueno, Jorge.

The woman’s practically fluent already, Carl.

I’m feeling good when I step back into my studio. The tractor still starts, Lara’s gorgeous as ever, and the sun’s smiling down on all of us. Thanks to a little ventilation, my studio doesn’t stink so bad, so maybe I won’t get all woozy and lightheaded. Not that I mind all that much, but still. Fact is, I might be a little high on fumes right now. Not this very second, Carl, it’s not like I hauled all my supplies up here to Big D and set up an easel in my hotel room so I could keep painting right up till the eleventh hour. I’m not huffing from a flask of paint thinner to keep the demons at bay. No, I mean right now, when the story’s happening, as I step over to my new paintings. I’m ready to look at them again, to see them with new eyes. That’s what Mrs. Henderson always says: You have to step away from them sometimes to see them at all.

I’m ready, so I take a look. And you know what, Carl? I almost wish I hadn’t. Because where there was just some bluebonnets in a Mason jar, now there’s also an arm. I mean it, a brown little arm but no body to go with it. Looks like it came off a baby. Limp little wrist hanging over the lip of the vase. Thing’s still bleeding, looks like, coloring the water translucent pink. And where there was just a pickup, my Ford F-250, now it’s full of Arabs in turbans and sunglasses and surplus military jackets. They’re in the cab and extra cab, in the truck bed and all over the diamond-steel toolbox. Where’d they all come from? They’re pointing AK-47s, Carl. Wielding RPGs and missile launchers. It’s a very threatening picture. But the worst is the still life. I know, it’s just a still life, what could go wrong? The apples and pears and bananas are still there, and they don’t look half-bad. Trouble is, mixed right in there with them, and in Lara’s good bowl, are several hand grenades. And some heads. Two with bearded faces, one clean-shaven, all of them bloody. It’s not easy to capture carnage in such detail. It takes patience and precision. So if I painted those heads – and I don’t think Whiskers did it! – I’ve got better technique than I realized.

What did I tell you, Carl? Mrs. Henderson’s a great teacher!

Believe it or not, there’s something else. In all three of the new paintings, there’s that Arab kid from the self-portrait. Remember him? With the turban and the flaming eyes? Well there he is, right in the foreground, eyes on fire. He’s pointing at yours truly, no doubt about it this time, and you know how I hate folks pointing at me, Carl. I don’t know who he is or how he got there. I can say with a clear conscience I’ve never seen that kid a day in my life. But he seems to know me, or knows who I am, at least. It’s eerie. And when I take a look at my other pictures, he’s in every one of them.

Now, I’m rattled, I’ll be the first to admit. For a minute there, I think I’m losing it. I storm out of my studio and make a beeline for the kitchen. Lara’s gone missing, but I don’t worry about it. She probably just took Bo out for a walk and didn’t want to disturb me. I tear open the fridge and grab a six-pack of Lone Star. I tear off a can, punch a hole in the side near the bottom with a paring knife, then shotgun that baby. It comes so natural, I don’t even realize what I’m doing until I’ve downed three cans in five minutes. Now I’ve got a good buzz going, Carl. The room’s spinning, my face feels flushed, and everything seems funny, from the shape of my hands to the fact I spent two terms in office, everything. I head back to my studio without even closing the refrigerator door.

I’m ready to take on the world.

Except maybe I’m not. Soon as I step back into the studio, I get this haunted feeling. It’s spooky, Carl, I’m here to tell you. Everywhere I turn, that Arab kid’s pointing at me. Plus, the Middle Eastern motif has gone too far. I can’t take the sight of all that gore, not even after I guzzle a couple more Lone Stars. All at once, nothing’s funny. Goes from hilarious to dismal faster than you can say I’m a war president. I’m down in the dumps, Carl, all because of one Arab kid. I mean it. I get all weepy, and I’m not usually a sloppy drunk. Not that I’m drunk, exactly, but I’ve been off the sauce for years, so it doesn’t take much. Let’s call it loopy. I slump down on the floor in the middle of my studio, gazing at all my ruined pictures through this wet stuff leaking from my eyes.

Then, all at once, I want to say I’m sorry. Don’t ask me why. We did what needed doing. Still, I want to say sorry to all of them, but mostly to the Arab kid that keeps pointing at me. And you know what, Carl? I think I even mean it.

So I say, I’m sorry. That’s what I say, right there in my studio. Nobody around but me, not even Bo or Whiskers. I’m sorry, I say again, and my voice cracks. Something weird about it, too, like somebody else is talking.

But the kid doesn’t move. He just goes right on staring, eyes in flames, staring and pointing. I can’t get rid of him. There’s nothing for it. Maybe I’ll have to cancel the show, I think. Maybe I’ll have to give up painting altogether, I don’t know.

Only maybe it’s too late for that. Turns out, waking up in the night crying wasn’t all that bad, because now I can’t hardly sleep at all. That Arab kid keeps me up nights, Carl. He’s got me wondering, Did we do the right thing? All that time, we followed the path of the righteous. That’s plain as day. We did what needed doing. It was the right thing to do. You know it and I know it and the American people know it. Hell, the entire world, Carl!

But, I don’t know, what if it wasn’t?

Jeremy Townley

J. T. Townley has published in Harvard Review, The Kenyon Review, The Threepenny Review, and other magazines and journals. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net award. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from the University of Oxford. To learn more, visit jttownley.com.

J. T. Townley has published in Harvard Review, The Kenyon Review, The Threepenny Review, and other magazines and journals. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net award. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from the University of Oxford. To learn more, visit jttownley.com.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *