Fiction Finalist: Untitled Portrait, (Brother and Sister, 2009)

In a town of drunks, his mother was the town drunk. As the old joke goes, what’s the difference between a drunk and an alcoholic? About fifty thousand dollars a year. His father, consort of the queen, was merely a common drunk, and he the only son, prince and heir apparent, merely a little boy free to dodge their drunken shadows. He roamed their small clapboard castle and the grounds of the dilapidated high-mountain Colorado mining town that clutched its frontier heritage in its dirty fingers for a couple months each summer in an effort to attract tourists.

On a sun-starved winter afternoon his mother threw open their front door and announced the birth of Cassandra, a blonde six year-old foster child, his sister, the tiny princess, dripping wet and feral, her forehead high and neck arched over her hunched shoulders as if trying to walk ahead and backward at the same time. She knew, as he knew, she was there for one reason, the few dollars a month the county paid. He was seven and he had been born into his life while she was being placed like a newly minted coin onto their indifferent track.

A month later, flush with the wealth of the first check, he was given a set of colored pencils for his eighth birthday. His first drawing was of Cassandra, sketched at night in a Big Chief ruled tablet as she slept on their shared bed. Her long white face was framed on either side by the detailed soles of her smooth bare feet and straight slender pink toes exactly as she appeared to him. They had agreed that the best way for them to each have their own bed was to sleep with their heads at opposite ends. It was easier to imagine away feet than an open mouth or running nose.

They grew alone, as the children of drunks do, in a world of corners, speaking in whispers. The pencils soon became nubs giving way to paints and canvas, charcoal, watercolors purchased with a little money from odd jobs and whatever he could pilfer from adult pockets. When art supplies dwindled he experimented with the mixed media of remnants, everything from which his art could be made. Eventually, in late winter when the firewood was nearly gone, nothing survived the undiscerning jaws of the woodstove.  Art’s final gift was always simple, transient warmth. In those darkest mountain nights, as his mother scavenged all that he had so carefully hidden, she would ask, “What about me?”  Wadding, breaking, stuffing, she demanded, “Do me.” But he never did —or his father. In fairness, and out of fear, he tried many times to lift them from their world into his, only to end up staring at a wash of tangled gray running toward the edges. But Cassie was always new, colors seemed to request her, variations of lashes and the first thrust of nipples, rumpled sleep hair, a complexion of sunrise snow with exotic birds nesting in her eyes.

Then she was gone, her presence truncated into an eternal ellipsis. She must have been ten or eleven. Her birthday, whatever its date, had never been celebrated; and after the age of ten or so, neither was his. Perhaps, he thought, a poison apple was involved, a cathedral tower hidden in the Rockies, somewhere she slept, endlessly and millions of safe miles from the shrugs of indifference acknowledging her abrupt absence. In the following months he turned in their bed always careful in his sleep to avoid disturbing the envelope that once contained her warm body.

*****

They moved. Things changed, their circumstances, the town, and, miraculously, though he barely noticed at the time, the drinking. In an unreliable peripheral vision he would occasionally think he saw what he used to see: there were always piles of beer cans and wine bottles, the incessant clinking of glass in the night, something rolling across the floor or discarded in a corner waiting to ambush his feet. But the drinking had left their life as abruptly as Cassie only to be replaced with other personal oddities that he chose to ignore just as he had the alcoholism.

His father got a steady job, then a well-paying steady job near Denver while his mother wandered larger and nicer homes and began buying things to fill up the larger and nicer spaces. Once he spotted two magnums of champagne and his heart leapt in fearful anticipation of the resurrection of a nightmare. What had disappeared so quickly might return just as if it had never gone. The magnums were only a set of tacky custom lamps bought at a crafts fair. Each was lit from inside with a small bulb that cast a dull greenish glow through the thick glass that for him functioned less for illumination than as a constant reminder, buoys adrift in their home, to warn him of the presence of shallow water and rocks always just beneath the calm.

His senior year of high school he began to notice an emerging trinity of objects, three cane chairs, three vacuum cleaners (same manufacturer and model, though in different colors), three Jack LaLane Juice Masters, three hardcover novels, same title and edition, each, as near as he could tell, unread, untouched. His sophomore year while he was away at college in a neighboring state, his father died in a work-related accident. The Greyhound bus home took forever crossing the icy-flat, wind-blown plains of Wyoming. When he arrived the funeral was over and he found his mother sitting at the kitchen table crying onto an open mail-order catalog, its corners anchored by identical cut-crystal ashtrays, the Tiffany and Company price tags still attached. Four. A lit cigarette sat balanced on a Coke can, a fragile snake of black ash extending precariously over the spotless white tablecloth. That night, unable to sleep, he filled a sketchpad with sixty-second gestures of ashtrays, four to a page.

In the morning a lawyer arrived to discuss the lawsuit. She introduced him as “our artist” and patted the cushion next to her on the sofa. When he sat down she took his hand in hers, sobbed once, and said, “His father was so proud of him, but artists are expensive.”

The lawyer agreed and with a wary smile added, “Most have to die before they’re worth much.” Saying this his fingers crept to the legal file that rested on the coffee table between them.

The settlement for the death of his father had been “significant.” He knew this only because he had once overheard his mother on the phone. She never volunteered anything. What amount might have constituted “significant” was unknown but he drew   conclusions that allowed him a freedom from worry about her financial circumstances. He was only expected to provide what a son should provide and even in that the expectations were his.

After college and a brief and childless marriage, he returned to her for a visit and never left.  He had no memory of making the decision to stay. What he once viewed as temporary was only his will to leave. There was the daylight basement in the large house and the slow north light nudging the hours and years ahead like a soft broom until he rarely heard her footsteps on the vast floors above him. He did not ask for money and she did not offer any.

Gradually he built a reputation for portraits, families usually, though local corporations and charities would sometimes seek him out to memorialize a founder or a benefactor. All of his clientele were wealthy and his gift, though subtle, seemed to be in removing the blemishes left by money and replacing them with a residue of ethereal compassion.  He worked long oblivious hours and he and his mother spoke infrequently and led lives apart, his studio and bed in the same room, a small oven and hot plate, the steps to the main floor dusty and cluttered from months of disuse. When they saw each other they would nod like neighbors passing on opposite sides of the street.

Advancing age fed into the tributaries of eccentricity and lingering disease until it seeped into a turbid river of death. In her last months she would invite him once a week for dinner, delivered from a restaurant or prepared by a caregiver. These meals were consumed quickly and mostly in silence, surrounded by meandering canyons of possessions whose walls seemed to grow higher with every visit. Gone were the eras of numbers and any semblance of order or design and yet she seemed to know when something, anything was out of place or missing.

One evening, after dinner, as he felt his way toward the basement along a particularly treacherous corridor of new rummage, he had noticed two unused horsehair brushes and several tubes of acrylic paint. They were angling outward from a crevice between an open box of ceramic oranges from Spain and a stack of plates all commemorating the same historical event in a small town in Ohio. He had never before taken anything from the canyons, but this time he did, thinking the paints and brushes had once been intended for him. He was wrong.

A few nights later, as he lay sleeping, the door opening at the top of the stairs awakened him.  From his bed he could see a bright yellow light tumbling into the basement.  There was the by-now familiar wheeze of her breath and the gentle scraping of her walker. “Bring them back!”

Half-asleep in his bed, he shouted, “Bring what back?”

“You know what. My paints. My brushes.”

Dressed only in his underwear, he gathered a handful of supplies in the dark from a box near his easel and carried them to the top of the stairs and handed them to her. She examined them and promptly handed them back to him. “These aren’t mine. I want mine.”

It took him several minutes to sort through the box and pick out the exact tubes and brushes and take them to her as she waited impatiently. She looked them over again and, satisfied, began to close the door.

He apologized. “I thought you bought them for me.”

She continued closing the door without replying and for the first time he heard the lock bolt turn. From the other side of the door she said, “For you? For you?” The air crackled from inside her chest like distant static. “I’m tired of waiting for you! I’m painting my own portrait someday. Maybe tonight. What do you think about that?”

He said nothing and returned to bed. The invitation to dinner skipped several weeks and when it was renewed, by a phone message, he entered the house by its front entrance. Both sides of the entry hall were lined with white banker’s boxes covered with a thin new plastic tarp, as was everything else through which he maneuvered, sometimes forced to turn his body sideways in order to squeeze through and maintain forward progress in the labyrinth. They dined on soup in her bedroom, his chair pointed in the direction of several canvases of various sizes; their unseen faces strategically aimed inward against a recently cleared expanse of tobacco-stained wall. She sipped her soup in bed and caught the errant drip with a quick tongue as it followed the random creases of a contemptuous smile. She asked him how his painting was going and he replied that it was going well with several new commissions that would keep him busy for months. When it became obvious that he would not ask her about the canvases, she put down her soup cup and said, “I’ve been busy myself, as you can see.”

Standing, he moved swiftly toward the canvases. “No, I don’t,” he said. “But let me take a look.”

Her soup cup hit him a glancing blow on his left shoulder before clattering and then bursting against the hardwood floor.  “No!” She cried then and he left, both of them knowing the canvases were blank, untouched by anything but her intention to prove a point with a ridiculous bluff. Still, he felt shame. Would it really have mattered to him to sit there and pretend she had actually created a gallery of self-portraits? Sit there and spoon his soup and act, for her sake, as if he believed it was possible and accept his punishment for stealing her supplies and years of ignoring her as a worthy model? Yes, he could have. He might have even enjoyed it a little if he could have known for certain that she knew there was no doubt in his mind that the canvases were blank. But he could never have been sure and he knew it.

Their weekly meals together continued as before. The canvases disappeared from the walls of her bedroom but the door to the basement remained locked. He had spent most of the day in Denver running errands and arrived at the front entrance for their usual dinner. A caregiver whose name was unfamiliar had left a scrawled note taped to the front door telling him his mother had died and that her body was in the town’s only funeral home. It was there, two days later, as he sat in a high-backed chair in the hushed lobby waiting for someone to deliver the urn, that the door opened and a slight blonde entered holding the hand of a miniature of herself. He knew it was Cassie even before the first greetings were exchanged.

An hour in the lobby became a long lunch and a leisurely walk through town after which they laughed and whispered again, this time about whether or not to return to the restaurant where he had left the urn containing his mother’s ashes. Was it beneath the table or on top like a baroque centerpiece? It was late in the afternoon when they returned to the house and stood in his studio looking out over the Rocky Mountains covered in heavy spring snow. They held hands as they once did and watched Cassie’s daughter Elsa play alone in the backyard.

“I have something for you.” Letting go of his hand she pulled a faded manila envelope from her purse. “Except for a change of clothes it was the only thing I left with.”

He opened the envelope and slid the carefully folded yellow piece of Big Chief ruled paper out and held it toward the sunlight. “I thought she burned this.”

Cassie explained how she had scribbled a bad copy and put it under their mattress with the rest of his drawings so his mother could find it. She laughed and rested her head against his shoulder. “God, I hope the smell is gone. I kept it hidden in my panties for months until I moved it to the lining of my coat. I was so scared she would find it and then into the stove it would go.”

He was vaguely troubled, a subtle nagging, about her version of her abrupt disappearance from their lives, from his life, as if, perhaps, she had known she was about to depart and yet said nothing to him, her brother. The order of events seemed to imply she had warning and a chance to prepare while he was left immersed in her sudden absence, forsaken in a loneliness from which he now sensed he never recovered. Or, tossed as she had been from foster home to foster home, was it simple prescience?

Together they stared at the nearly imperceptible pencil lines of the small feet and sleeping face until she said, “If it hadn’t been for you—”

The day had been spent exchanging their stories. Hers included adoption by an older couple who both died while she was a teenager. They had left her a little money for college and she had attended nursing school where she met her former husband. No hard feelings, though he lived back East now and hadn’t seen their daughter for a year. She briefly lamented the long hours and difficulty making ends meet. “Life,” she shrugged. She worked at a community hospital a few hours north where she had read in an employee newsletter of the prominent local artist responsible for the portrait of the rancher who had willed a large donation for the new pediatric wing. “I was so proud I knew you. My big brother. You’ve done well.”

“Don’t let this big house fool you,” he said. “This was all hers. And I have something for you, too,” he said.

They climbed the stairs to the main floor. Though it had only been a couple of day, he had worked nearly around the clock sorting and cleaning but he had barely made a dent in the piles and stacks and mounds of an indiscriminate lifetime. Cassie gasped at the sight of it all and followed him to a small back bedroom he had nearly cleared and was using as an office. It was here he had begun the tedious job of cataloging the major items in the estate. There had been no will, though a lawyer he had hired assured him that all of it, after taxes, would come to him. He was under strict orders not to dispose of anything of value until the estate had emerged from probate. Nonetheless, he tripped a hidden latch that revealed a small secret drawer in the desk from which he removed two tiny velvet jewelry cases stamped in gold with the names “Shreve, Crump and Low, Boston, 1796.” He opened them both and placed them on the desk in front of Cassie.  The diamond rings were identical, as were the price tags: Thirty-five Thousand Dollars. “She wanted you to have these.” He managed to say this with almost a straight face before they both began to laugh at the absurdity of such a transparent lie.

“I couldn’t,” she insisted, closing the boxes and putting them in her coat pocket. “But I will.” She hugged him and they made their way outside where she called Elsa for the drive home.

On the wide porch he asked her if she had seen anything inside she could use or wanted. “Furniture, small kitchen appliances? I’ve found seven television sets,” he said, “so far.”

“I don’t know. Maybe,” she answered. “I can come back again when we have more time, can’t I? Looks like you could use some help.”

He agreed that he needed all the help he could get. The sooner he could hold the world’s largest garage sale the better. They exchanged telephone numbers and addresses and, after more hugs between the three of them, he watched them still throwing good-byes and butterfly kisses over their shoulders as they bundled into a late model Audi sedan. He stared down the empty street long after the red taillights of their car had disappeared into the Colorado dusk.

She phoned early the next morning and together they decided she and Elsa would come and stay the weekend. When the weekend arrived she phoned to say she had been called into work at the hospital. Another date was set for the following weekend and again she was forced to cancel. He understood. “Don’t worry,” he assured her. “Anytime you can make it is fine.” In case he wasn’t home, he told her where to find a key. Remembering a brief trip to western Colorado for a friend’s gallery opening, he added, “Except next Tuesday. I’ll be gone all day and night.”

No, not on a weekday. The drive was way too long and she had to work. And then there was Elsa’s pre-school. Another weekend. Soon. No, it could never be a weekday.

And that’s when they came.

*****

Except for the basement where he lived, the house had been stripped bare to the walls leaving nothing but the smell of cigarettes, the dust unset as if in their haste they had accidentally left behind a memory of air. As he listened to his footsteps echo he marveled at their thoroughness. Even the dirty dishes he had left in the sink were gone, as were the light fixtures and the canned food from the cupboards, the toilet paper from the bathrooms and, he noted with a sigh, the antique desk with all the estate work he had so far completed. He did not immediately think of Cassie. Later, as he spoke to the neighbors, they mentioned the friendliness of the blonde woman and her little girl waving hello to everyone when their arms were not loaded. Oddly, though there must have been others, muscular men with dollies and ropes, no one remembered seeing anyone else.

For a short time he thought she had simply misunderstood. Perhaps she thought she had been helping him. Within hours of returning home he had learned the phone number she had given him was disconnected and the hospital had no one by that name working as a nurse, or in any other capacity. This had not been a misunderstanding. According to neighbors the truck arrived within minutes of his departure leading him to imagine Cassie and Elsa and the others waiting down the street for him to leave. When he checked all the locks and found its hiding place empty, he realized she had also taken the master key. He knew it must have taken a fleet of trucks. The neighbors assured him there had only been one large truck, but not a moving van, and it had left and returned several times backing over the curb and up the walkway to the porch. More confused than angry or tired, he sat on the steps and stared at the muddy tracks left by the heavy tires in the soggy lawn. He would have gladly given her everything and more.

He hadn’t filed a police report, choosing instead to meet with his attorney first, which he had not yet done, preferring to make certain he thought it all through before setting up an appointment. Perhaps the attorney would insist he file a police report, which if nothing else, he knew he would be unwilling to do, though he knew that laws had been broken and that somehow he would have to account for the missing items to the court-appointed estate trustee, most of them still a mystery.

Contemplating his next move, he sat hunched over his coffee at a little bakery he liked. He spun his cell phone in circles with his index finger on the table and watched a sheriff’s car cruise the street. The cruiser made a U-turn and stopped in front of the bakery and double-parked next to his car. The deputy was just sitting and appeared to be writing, maybe a ticket, though there had been plenty of time on the meter and as far as he knew county sheriffs usually didn’t hand out parking tickets. Taking his coffee and phone he wandered outside into the cold morning sunlight and slowly walked up to the deputy’s open window.

The deputy spoke first, greeting him by his full name. “You’re the artist, right?”

He acknowledged that he was “the artist.”

“Got time for a little ride?” he asked casually. “Bring your coffee.”

“What’s this about?”

“Just hop in. We’re not going far.”

He hesitated and the deputy said, “Front seat.” The deputy smiled. “If you want I’ll even let you play with the siren? Come on,” he insisted pleasantly. “It’s a beautiful Rocky Mountain morning.”

As they drove out of town, his uneasiness slowly turned to curiosity and curiosity eventually mixed with a sense of safe adventure. He had never been arrested. To his knowledge he had done nothing legally wrong, ever.  For a few miles as they sat in silence he reviewed his life for wrong-doing and kept coming to the same unshakable conclusion that he somewhat wistfully accepted: His life had always been lived on an irretrievable and consistently legal course.   He assured himself that whatever the deputy wanted from him was inconsequential and the mystery behind the ride owing largely to the eccentricity of certain mountain lawmen. Though not altogether pleased with his life of innocence, he nonetheless accepted the unexplained drive with the confident trust in law enforcement that was the only reasonable expectation of a life-long, solid law-abiding citizen. Besides, he was relieved to be provided with a tangible excuse for continuing to avoid seeing the attorney.

The deputy was unusual. Instead of a buzz cut he wore his graying hair combed straight back from a youthful hairline pulled into a tight ponytail. Though older, he appeared fit, tanned from wind more than sun, and slender enough to look deceptively small except for the angular jaw and the ropey muscles in his neck.

They took a right turn on a secondary blacktop and proceeded up a series of switchbacks while the deputy began to hum to himself. “You know that song?”

It sounded familiar but he couldn’t place it.

The deputy suddenly began to sing the chorus from “You Can Get Anything You Want at Alice’s Restaurant.”

Then he asked, “Recognize it now?”

He admitted he remembered the old Arlo Guthrie song from the late ‘60s or early ‘70s when he was a very young child. For a moment he thought of Cassie and wondered if they might have once heard the song together. He shook her loose from his thoughts and felt a smile fill their absence. No matter how long it had been since he had heard the song an undeniable connection had been made that explained the oddness of the deputy, his hair and behavior. Thirty or forty years ago, a sea of counter-culture types had made their way to the small Rocky Mountain towns fleeing large cities like New York and San Francisco for the idyllic peace and freedom of Colorado’s high country. Some never left. It was only natural that at least a few became a part of the establishment they wanted to escape. Among the artists and musicians, craftsman, writers, it made sense some drifted into a kind of relaxed form of law enforcement that better suited a then younger, less violent generation of residents.

“Sing with me,” said the deputy, and relaxing, though shy, he began to sing along as they made several more turns and dropped onto a deserted hard-packed dirt and gravel access road lined with tall pine trees and brush. It ended in a flat circular turnout with a view of the mountains above and the foothills below with glints from the sun rising reflections off the distant metal and glass skyscrapers of Denver far to the east.

The deputy turned off the engine and they sat in silence for a moment. “Here we are,” he said, almost with joy. “The Scene of the Crime.”

He told the deputy he didn’t understand.

“Maybe you do and maybe you don’t,” he replied. For the first time the deputy’s voice took on a harder edge.  “Maybe you need to sing a few more bars of Alice’s Restaurant until it refreshes your memory. And while you’re singing just step right over there to the lip of that little ravine and look down and up to your right. I’ll just stay right here and roll and smoke.” The deputy got out of his car and took a pouch of tobacco and cigarette papers from his shirt pocket and leaned against the hood. He turned and stared through the windshield. “Go on now,” he ordered.

There was another flat area about a hundred yards above them from which deep scars of red earth had been gouged by years of spring run-offs. From up there a truck, not a moving van, had disgorged a misspent life of possessions that had rolled and tumbled upon themselves in the dirt and mud, some finding their angle of repose along the steep slope while others, furniture mostly, had flown to pieces banging their way to the bottom.

Resurrecting the old song made sense now. The deputy had been teasing him, or amusing himself, by singing what had been meant as a hint to the reason for their morning drive.  In the song all the garbage from a Thanksgiving dinner at Alice’s Restaurant had been illegally dumped in the New England countryside.

The deputy came up behind him. “What a fuckin’ mess. Looks like the entire Salvation Army took a shit on that hillside.” He booted a rock off into the air. “And in case you’re wondering, under all that shit was a bunch of papers with your name and address. And in case I forget, sorry to hear about your mother. But that doesn’t change anything. The fine is ten thousand dollars plus the cost of clean up. Jail time can be arranged if you want to push it that far.”

“I’m not responsible for this.”

“Then tell me who is? I’ll get to work finding them and putting together all the eight-by-ten glossy photographs with the lines and arrows and the paragraph on the back of each one.”

He knew he would pay the fine and arrange for clean up.

*****

The drive back into town did not involve singing, or conversation. When they had parked in front of the bakery the deputy told him, for what is was worth, that in his opinion he didn’t think he did it. “You didn’t sing like a guilty man. But I think you know who did. Either way, you’ve got three days or the county will file formal charges. Get it done quick and I doubt there be any charges or a fine.”

His attorney listened patiently and advised him to file charges for theft. When he declined, the attorney recommended a couple of service companies that might be able to do the work. “I don’t know how this is all going to play out with taxes and the estate trustee.” The attorney’s final comment was,  “It’s going to be expensive.”

In the afternoon he drove to the dumpsite followed by two men in a pick-up truck who owned a commercial landscape company. They informed him that they would begin the next day and that it was all “back work.” Everything would have to be hand-carried up hill to the trucks. For an estimate, all they could do was echo his attorney. “It’s going to be expensive.”

When they had gone he side-stepped down the slope and mindlessly began kicking at the debris, turning over a box, holding a piece of this or that in hands, thinking not of his mother but of Cassie. Beneath a pile of broken crockery he found two new table-sized leather-bound family Bibles each with foldout genealogy charts.  On the top line of each his mother had had written her name in an affected cursive style in heavy black ink. Rows of empty intersecting branches followed, a denuded family tree waiting for spring in an eternal winter. In one of the Bibles there were ink scratches just below her name as if she might have once begun to think of someone else but changed her mind. Whomever she had once thought of was destined to survive in history as a kind of ancestral hesitation mark.

The painting was unplanned, but once he started he continued until it was completed. From the vantage point where he stood with the deputy he planted the legs of his easel and squinted into the red scars containing the broken and strewn pieces that resisted composition. When the men came with their trucks he stayed and painted and didn’t leave until it was too dark to see.

On the third day they finished early and he was left alone in a mid-morning hush of wind that shuddered the trees and stirred up eddies of dust dislodged by the workmen in their cyclic struggle up and down the hillside. He thought the painting was done. He twisted his head back and forth, his eyes on the canvas with its rutted slope littered with the wreckage of a lifetime of accumulation and then to the bare red hillside and the plateau above where Cassie’s truck had parked and surrendered its contents to gravity. He might have started where he put the final brush strokes, high on the crest of the ravine with their backs to the light, but then they would have had no place to stand. There, at the top, he added Cassie and then himself, as they were as children, not staring downward but slightly up, and out.

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