Shadowboxing

SHADOWBOXING
Inkslinger Award Winner
Matthew Duffus
Issue No. 8 – June 2015

I learned of my sister’s death from the internet. Like so much of what was written about her, the post made up for a lack of facts with innuendo and attitude:

TROUBLED PAINTER SARA FRYE FOUND DEAD EARLIER TODAY. UNCONFIRMED REPORTS IMPLY SHE DIED AT OWN HAND. MIGHT THE ART WORLD’S ‘ELFE TERRIBLE’ HAVE SAVED HER MOST TERRIBLE FOR LAST? REGARDLESS, IT’S THE END OF A ONCE-PROMISING CAREER. SHE WAS 35.

I hadn’t spoken to her in two weeks, which wasn’t unusual, and I didn’t hear from her husband, Ravi, for several more hours. She had killed herself, he told me when he finally bothered to call. She’d done it in her studio, in Pennsylvania, with a gun neither of us had known she possessed. When he finished, I began to thank him for finding time to call me himself, but he cut me off. “Don’t make this about you, Anita. You don’t get to have some special claim on her. Not this time.” But he was wrong. I’d been through too much with her for it to be otherwise.

I remember when she got her first camera, a Polaroid. She took it everywhere. To school and to church, on Girl Scout outings and to the movies, where she’d sit up front and take photos of the unsuspecting audience, momentarily blinding them and getting herself banned from two Dallas multiplexes. She loved the shucking sound the machine made as it spit out each print, reveled in the brief moments before the image materialized, when it still lived only in its ideal state in her mind. She often made a series of attempts, laying them side-by-side and scrutinizing the differences — the changes in the light and the way this affected the texture and color, how different angles made it possible to de-familiarize the familiar, highlight ordinary aspects of the unusual.

She was a change-of-life baby, born sixteen years after our parents had given up hope and adopted me. That gap meant that while she was mastering her camera, I was weaning my first child. When my husband and I arrived home for Christmas that year, baby in tow, I was disappointed that she didn’t come out to greet us. She usually bounced up and down, so excited to see her nephew that she’d make smacking sounds with her lips until I handed him to her. But this time I had to seek her out. She didn’t answer when I knocked on her bedroom door, though I could hear muttering from within, so I called her name.

“Auntie?” She often mixed up the sounds in my name. Auntie had been the one to stick, especially apt on account of the age difference. She turned the lock and opened the door. “I’m so glad you’re here.” Everything was dramatic with her, ordinary phrases imbued with a breathless intensity that alarmed strangers.

Three of her bedroom walls were covered, floor to ceiling, with Polaroids. “Thumb tacks won’t work,” she said, “so I use nails.”

“How does Mother feel about this?”

“She made me promise not to hit my thumb.” She rolled her eyes. “Like I’d do that on purpose. That’s why they call them accidents!”

A coffee can filled with nails sat on her desk next to a hammer that looked too big for her to lift. She’d been born prematurely, so tiny that when Daddy first saw her he told the doctor, “Put her back in. She’s not done yet.” Even full grown, she would be a few inches under five feet and as sturdy as a street sign in a hurricane.

I studied the Polaroids, moving from wall to wall as though I were in a museum. No, more like a photographic hot house. It felt claustrophobic. Unless I focused on a specific image — a perfectly formed boot print in the mud, a defaced bus shelter ad for a needle-exchange program — my head started to spin.

“Doesn’t this give you a headache?”

“Dr. Ware give me pills.”

“What kind?”

“Yellow ones.”

“What are the pills for?”

“Look at these. They’re my new favorites.”

In a row on the wall next to her bed were three photos of her hair popping out of the top of a turtleneck, like flowers in a vase. The pictures had been taken in an angled mirror, each one coming a little closer to centering the image.

“Your hair’s green.”

“And blue and orange.”

She flashed me a familiar grin.

“No way Mother let you do that.”

“I used markers. Did it while they were in Galveston.”

“They left you alone?”

“Grammy Jeanette—” her godmother, giver of the camera and anything else she desired “—stayed with me. I washed it out before they got back.”

“I think I like the off-center ones best.”

“That’s what Jeanette said. ‘Off-center pictures for an off-kilter girl.’” She giggled and flopped onto the bed.

When I asked Mother about this later, while we were doing the dishes, she said they found it easier to give in. “She’s been spunky since she was born. Why else would she want to come out so early?” Before I could respond, she added, “Jeanette has more energy to keep up with her.” I had to remind myself that Mother was almost sixty, Daddy two years older, and that their Miracle Baby, as they’d called her before she’d been born, was more than most young parents could have handled.

As casually as I could, I said, “Something seems off, don’t you think?”

“Dr. Ware says she has Attention Deficit Disorder.” She said this slowly, as though the words alone had the power to conjure up more problems.

“Have you seen her room? Her attention seems fine to me.”

“I’m just telling you what he said. Jeanette’s making an appointment with a specialist. We’ll get to the bottom of it.” With that, Mother closed the door on the discussion. I knew better than to broach the subject with her again.

***

Like the rest of us, Sara went to A&M, where she majored in Art Education, a compromise with our parents, who found a studio degree too impractical. She even pledged the sorority that Mother and I had joined. She had a boyfriend, an Omega-Pi she brought home for Thanksgiving, where he played football with my oldest boy, feigned interest in the younger one’s Lego constructions, put up with Daddy’s jokes about being the Interloper. All in all a good sort, though a little bland. which is why it seemed so strange the following spring when the school blamed their break-up for Sara’s suicide attempt.

Daddy had recently had knee-replacement surgery, and because Mother had to stay with him, I made the ninety-minute drive from Houston to College Station to find out what had happened. By the time I arrived, no one who’d been on duty when Sara came into the ER was there, so I waited for the university’s Crisis Liaison, as the title on his business card read, to arrive.

“She’s fine now,” he said. “They stitched her up and sedated her for the night. She said she hadn’t been sleeping, which probably contributed—”

“She tried to kill herself because she was tired?”

“No one’s saying she meant to kill herself. A suicidal gesture, most likely.”

“She slashed both wrists.”

“In a dormitory bathroom stall. She wanted someone to find her.”

He paused to study me. I considered saying, You’ve never seen a Korean before? Heard of international adoption? Instead, I held my tongue and waited for him to continue.

“Our understanding is that your sister has become withdrawn. When she and her boyfriend broke up, she needed a way to make others notice her.”

“She’s in a sorority. How is that withdrawn?”

“She hasn’t been to a meeting or function since January, and she’s been missing most of her classes for almost as long.”

“And no one thought to look into this until now?”

“Her RA talked to her about becoming more involved, offered to help her find a student organization to join. She wasn’t interested.”

“After all this you think she made this gesture over a broken heart?”

“You teach high school. You know how emotional girls — all teens — can be.”

On campus, her RA let me into her room. We whistled at what we found. The room remained dark even after I flipped the light switch, and the smell of patchouli made my sinuses tingle. I stumbled toward the windows and reached for the curtains. They came off the rod when I pulled them, but still no light. Sara had covered the windows in tinfoil, covered the foil with trash bags, and tried to seal the curtains with masking tape. These layers came away one at a time, slowly illuminating the disaster area that was her room. She’d even put black tape over the tiny lights on her cordless phone charger and the smoke detector, and turned her alarm clock, my graduation gift to her, to the wall. Dust particles hung in the air like ash after a volcanic eruption.

Her RA pointed down and said, “She’ll have to pay for that.”

She’d tiled the entire floor in a mosaic of black, gray and blue, each one-inch square. A swirl of black threatened to envelop the blue like a massive wave, the gray outlining the places where the process was in mid-act.

“No wonder she hasn’t been going to class.”

“You didn’t find any of this worth reporting?” I said.

“I haven’t been in here since Alison moved out in February. But, you know, Sara’s not exactly normal.”

“It’s like you people want us to sue you.”

She backpedaled toward the door, reached behind her for the knob. “I don’t know anything about that. You’ll have to talk to the Hall Director.”

Alone, I walked around the room. Sara had painted the mirror and sink fixtures a flat black. She’d used rubber cement to affix charcoal-colored sheets to the white cinderblock walls. Even the electrical outlets had been covered. She’d draped a sheet over the computer. As hard as I searched, I couldn’t find the phone receiver.

Back at the hospital, she flapped her bandaged arms at me and called me Auntie, as though nothing unusual had transpired. Dark circles ringed her eyes like bruises, and her normally pale skin looked translucent. She’d lost weight: her collarbones and sternum stood out beneath her gown. Her blond hair, shoulder-length when she’d colored it with markers years earlier, had been hacked into a lopsided bowl cut that called attention to her pointy ears.

“What did you do to your room?”

“Isn’t it great! Jeanette gave me her credit card for the supplies.” The words ran together in her enthusiasm. “It took me two weeks. I might tile over it. There’s this de Kooning in my art history book, but maybe I should do something original. What do you think about—”

“And the rest of the room?”

“They tied me to the bed last night.” She gave me that grin again, the one that would lead a French critic to dub her the elfe terrible. “But the drugs…they were good. I haven’t slept like that—”

“Is that why you did that to your windows, because you couldn’t sleep? You weren’t blocking out transmissions from Neptune or anything?”

“Auntie… Do you think I can have more of those pills? Just the square one. The others, the capsules, are made with gelatin. That comes from animal skin.”

“I’ve been up all night. Can’t you say something that makes sense?”

“Poor Auntie.” She patted my hand. “Do you want to lie down? I can make room.”

“Who cut your hair?” I held the jagged ends between my fingers. They were already splitting. “You did it yourself, didn’t you? Did you at least use a mirror?”

“I can fix all of it, maybe not the floor, but I think it’s pretty. They could charge extra for it. Maybe they’ll pay me to do all the other rooms. I’ll be rich!”

I knew then what I had to do, though it took several days to complete the paperwork, officially withdraw her from school and pack up her room. Justin and Henry, my two oldest, agreed to share a room so that I had somewhere to put their kooky aunt, and my husband Joel knew enough to keep his views to himself.

Sara stayed with us through the summer and fall, volunteering during arts and crafts hour at a nearby nursing home, and all of us, even three-year-old Eli, looked after her. She put on weight, started sleeping through the night, and even tapered off most of the drugs. At Thanksgiving, which we hosted for the first time, Jeanette announced that she’d gotten her into Sarah Lawrence, her own alma mater. She would start in January.

“Wonderful,” Mother said. “That’s what she needs, to stay busy.” We’d all taken to discussing Sara as if she wasn’t present.

“She’s busy here,” I said. “I was going to enroll her at the community college. If that works out, she can transfer to the U of H and still live with us.”

Joel and Daddy exchanged a look, but Jeanette jumped in before I could say anything.

“Houston’s lovely, dear, but it’s no place for an artiste. Sarah Lawrence is the kind of place where she can blossom. And it’s so close to the city.”

“I know.”

Sara and Eli were making faces at each other, Sara flipping her eyelids inside out, snarling, while Eli tried and failed to touch his nose with his tongue, as she could.

“What do you think, Daddy?” I asked.

“Maybe Jeanette’s right. Texas might not be big enough for your sister.”

***

Though it took her five and one-half years to graduate, Sarah Lawrence turned out much as Jeanette predicted. Sara won awards in every category at the student art exhibitions and was even invited to be part of a group show in New York, after which Joel and I moved her into a closet-sized apartment in Brooklyn, while Jeanette helped her get a job at the Public Library and paid for studio space a few blocks away, in an old furniture store.

She lasted six weeks at the library before quitting to become a lackey for Arnaud Duval, the video artist. From her phone calls, it sounded like she and the other assistants were the real artists, the Frenchman simply the face that attended gallery and film openings and appeared in the Post and the Daily News, but Sara seemed happy.

One of her tasks was to find actors for Duval’s work, and that’s how she met Ravi. A fellow artist, he went from a walk-on role in one email to moving into Sara’s place three weeks later to being married in another month’s time. She brought him to Dallas soon after, both of them sporting matching gold bands, when we gathered for Mother’s seventieth birthday.

“When did this happen?” I asked once we’d been introduced.

“A month ago. We wanted to tell you in person.”

She asked me,” he said, the two of them laughing like idiots. “Three days later we were in front of a Justice of the Peace.”

“Christ,” Daddy said, “you two ever hear of a church wedding?”

“Watch your language,” Mother said, propriety keeping her from engaging in what was really going on.

Even once Mother and Daddy accepted the way they’d gotten married, other complications arose. Just because they had adopted a Korean baby didn’t mean they were the sort to absorb an African-American son-in-law into the family without the occasional rough patch. For the rest of their lives, they couldn’t understand that Ravi’s stuffy, conservative suits were an artist’s affectation, not a sign that he was a member of the Nation of Islam. And, not being from the South, Ravi took offense when Mother naively asked, “Where are your people from?”

Jeanette was so thrilled by what she called the Romance of Like Minds that she convinced Sarah Lawrence to host a joint show for them, though my sister almost managed to mess that up too. Instead of the urbanals — urban pastorals — she’d promised, her work arrived courtesy of an eighteen-wheeler and consisted of a series of eight-foot-tall replicas of famous dolls and stuffed animals, complete with anatomically correct, and often aroused, genitalia. Her enthusiasm for these creations was such that, in showing them to the gallery curator and the art department chair, she thrust the top half of her body into Raggedy Ann’s vagina.

The students loved the show, the school paper devoting all but one paragraph to Sara’s pornographic creations, but this did not keep the administration from shutting it down three days early on account of complaints from alumni and the community. The accompanying furor reached the city, where Sara’s answering machine was filled with offers from galleries. She recreated the show in Manhattan but refused to sell to anyone but museums. She wanted her work to remain public, not in the hands of a small coterie of wealthy admirers. This, even though she’d never been in a position to sell anything before. It worked. They sold to the MOMA and the Walker, in Minneapolis, which bought both Raggedy Ann and randy Andy, and to other museums in Cleveland and San Francisco. In her mind, however, none of these successes topped the excitement of the original show. As the years passed, the Sarah Lawrence opening took on a Woodstock-like quality in the art world’s imagination: more people claimed to have been there than lived in Bronxville altogether.

***

For a while, all was quiet on the Sara front. Over the next eight years, Daddy got Parkinson’s and practically moved into the VA, which led Mother to sell the house in favor of a condo. Justin and Harry graduated from college, and we packed Eli off to A&M as well. Then Ravi called from New York one July.

Sara had been behaving Erratically — his word, as though he were a therapist giving an official report — and hadn’t been in contact in the nine days since she’d gone to Pennsylvania, where Jeanette had bought them a farm house for an artists’ retreat.

“Why didn’t you go with her?”

“The show in LA really took something out of her. I need you to talk to her. We’ve been having… issues.”

“What sort of issues?”

One benefit of getting older, I’ve learned, is that you’re allowed to be nosy. It’s as though younger people naturally assume you’re interested in their lives, now that your own is practically over.

“A misunderstanding, that’s all.”

“Is this about a woman?”

“You know I wouldn’t cheat.”

I waited for him to explain.

“I’m not even sure, honestly. She was so upset when she left she didn’t make any sense. You have to talk to her. You’re the only one she listens to when she gets like this.”

When I arrived, the house was crowded with people, three different types of music blaring from three different stereos in three different rooms. It looked like a scene from another time: Chateau Marmont in the ‘60s, or Henry VIII’s court at its most decadent. A Senegalese performance artist my sister had introduced me to at least twice stared me up and down without a hint of recognition, then forgot about me when the woman to his left passed an art deco bong his way. A couple in their twenties sat in the bay window, staring into each other’s eyes while their hands, pressed together at the palm and fingertips, worked circles in the air between them. In the kitchen, a waist-high stack of pizza boxes teetered toward the countertop, a dented metal trash can, filled with empty wine bottles, blocked the back door and bubbles formed and popped on the surface of the gray water in the sink, like a witch’s cauldron. The house reeked of pot, body odor and what smelled like diapers, but turned out to be the Morning Meadow scent from the room spray someone had used to try to cover the stench. My sister’s groupies had descended like an Old Testament plague.

A glassy-eyed young man in nothing but jeans that hung so low I could see the dragon’s wings tattooed on his pelvis came out of the half-bath off the kitchen and flinched when he saw me. “Konichiwa,” he said.

“I’m not Japanese.”

An-nyung-ha-se-yo, then.”

“Where’s my sister?”

“Who?”

“Sara. The woman who owns this place you’ve turned into your own—” I almost said den of iniquity but stopped myself. I wasn’t as hip as my sister and her friends, but that didn’t mean I had to sound like Mother.

“Out back,” he said, mumbling as he fled the room.

I kicked the trash can out of the way and opened the back door, the rush of fresh air an immediate improvement, and followed the path to the barn my sister used for a studio. Even from fifty yards away I could hear the music coming from the house.

I pounded on the locked door with my fist, shaking it on its hinges, until my sister yelled, “Go the fuck away.”

“It’s me.”

“Auntie?” A minute later, the deadbolt flipped and the door opened. Sara was nowhere to be seen.

The door slammed shut after I walked in, the bolt thrown, and I turned around and saw my little sister pressed against it, as though her eighty-five-pound body might keep others from forcing their way in.

“Auntie, Auntie, Auntie,” she sang as she danced around me in oversized hiking boots, touching my wrist, elbow, hair, and face with her tiny, paint-flecked hands. When I reached out to her, she pirouetted away, sang something I couldn’t understand, and smiled her manic grin.

“It’s so wonderful to see you,” she said. She beckoned me toward her, and away from the door, with her curled index fingers. She had on a dingy men’s undershirt that covered her boney ass, her tiny breasts and pointy nipples showing through the cheap fabric, the v-neck stretched out of shape. A pair of baggy, green boxing shorts swished as she danced. The thick leather bracelets she wore to cover the scars on her wrists stood out against her pale skin.

I followed her past the curtain my husband had helped her put up, years ago, to separate her studio from the rest of the barn. He’d replaced the leaky roof and installed solar panels to make it self-sufficient like she’d wanted. Behind the curtain, sunlight flooded the room from the skylights in the ceiling.

“Who are all those people?”

“Friends,” she said. “Friends-of-friends. Friends-of-friends-of-friends. They keep coming. Every time the Amtrak arrives a few more appear.”

“They’ve turned it into a frat house.”

“Really?”

“You haven’t noticed?” I looked around. Dirty dishes sat on the kitchenette counter, a stool in the middle of the room, and her workbench, and a mound of pillows and blankets slumped in the hammock tied between two beams in the corner. “When was the last time you left this room?” As soon as I asked, I wanted to take it back. I wanted to call Ravi and tell him I was finished, that she was his wife and that the problem was between them. I wanted to get in my rental car and head to the airport, not look back until I was home, preferably in bed.

“Want to see what I’m working on?” she said, beginning her dance once again.

As a kid, she’d hummed to herself constantly, making up her own melodies, and I wondered if this same music played in her head now, thirty years later.

“Answer my question first.”

She fluttered her fingers in front of her. “I threw my assistants out three — no, four days ago. Is that a long time?”

“Do you think that’s a long time?” I said.

“I think I’m staying here until those people are gone.”

“That’s the first sane thing you’ve said.”

She giggled. “Oh, Auntie. Come see my piece.”

Piece. She’d trained me, years ago, to call them this. Even when they weren’t mixed-media — another of her terms — when they were strictly paintings, photographs, or sculptures, they were still pieces. Once, Daddy complimented her on a painting and she walked away, wouldn’t even look at him until I convinced him to apologize. “It’s acrylic on canvas,” he said, pointing to the card hanging next to it on the gallery wall. “What the hell else should I call it?”

“I’ll look at it later,” I said. “After we talk.”

She tried to pull me by the hand, then pouted when I wouldn’t yield. “No fun.”

“I’ll be fun after we take care of everyone inside.”

Now that she’d finally stopped moving, I could study her up close. Her face was puffy, the skin on her neck mottled and rashy, and her pupils had contracted to the size of the mole on her earlobe. She smelled as rank and feral as the inside of an animal shelter.

“When was the last time you bathed?”

She smiled, touched her tongue to her nose.

“How about sleep?”

“A couple of hours on Monday.”

This was Wednesday afternoon, almost evening.

***

It took two days, all of the taxis in a tri-county area, and my bullhorn of a mouth to clear the house so that we could get down to work. I began by confiscating all of Sara’s drugs, but coming down from her various highs made her incredibly irritable, and she was so stubborn about taking the prescription ones — the mood-stabilizers, the anti-depressants, the anti-anxieties, the anti-antis — that I had to check under her tongue to make sure she’d swallowed. To keep her distracted from the headaches and muscle spasms, and her general grumpiness, we cleaned the house, noting what her friends had broken or stolen as we went along.

“Jeanette always hires a cleaning crew from town,” she said after I handed her a bucket of soapy water and a sponge. The kitchen and bathrooms had to be scrubbed from floor to ceiling, three of the house’s four toilets unclogged.

“This happens often?”

Sara wiped at the wall with the sponge, more water dripping onto the countertop than reached the intended destination.

“Every time I come here,” she said, wringing out the sponge. She’d already spilled a quarter of the water on the dirty tile floor. “Ravi clears them out when they get too crazy.”

“Some retreat.” When this failed to get a response, I added, “Why isn’t he here now?”

“I might be on the verge of a breakthrough and you’ve got me scrubbing floors.”

“You’re not ready for floors. You don’t do walls properly.”

She didn’t respond.

“Tell me about your breakthrough.”

“I don’t talk about work-in-progress,” she said, miffed, as though she hadn’t been the one to bring it up, the one who’d offered me a preview only days earlier. “The sooner I get back, the sooner it will be finished. Then you won’t need me to explain.”

She was waiting for me to give in, to acknowledge what a lousy job she was doing and tell her I’d finish on my own, but even if I had to redo all her work, I wasn’t going to let her off easy. One of her friends had finger-painted with melted cheese and chocolate syrup on the wall opposite the refrigerator, and while I scraped at this with a fingernail, Sara dumped the dirty water in the sink, splashing the counter, floor, both of us.

“Nice friends you have. You’ll have to repaint the entire room.”

“This is idiotic. I’ll pay for cleaners.”

The cheese came off in long strips, taking a layer of seafoam paint with it, but the chocolate spread out even more, turning what had been a smiley face into a shit-colored meteor.

Sara flipped over the empty bucket and sat down. “You want to talk about why you’re here or keep impersonating Mother?”

“I don’t know what you mean.” I shifted the kitchen chairs out of the way to attack the wine spills on the floor, another of Sara’s tile-jobs. Not the de Kooning she’d talked of years earlier but a Jasper Johns that looked like a crime scene after a triple homicide.

“‘Where’s Ravi?’” she said in a whiny, needling voice. “He called you — of course he did. He always calls you. Tell him to fight his own battles.”

“That’s rich coming from you.”

“Don’t you get tired of being an errand girl?”

“Don’t you get tired of needing a babysitter?”

We were fifty and thirty-five, engaged in the kind of argument sisters should have had as teenagers.

“What did he tell you?”

“He’s worried. He hasn’t heard from you.”

“He knows why.”

“A disagreement.”

She snorted. “Try theft.”

“You didn’t care about anything your friends took when they left here.”

“Not that kind of theft. You’d have to be an artist to understand.”

I scrubbed the floor harder even though it made the stains worse. My frustration had to go somewhere, and it felt oddly therapeutic watching stray bits of yellow sponge adhere to the wine, adding texture to the mess.

“Don’t be mad,” she said, finally, her voice small. She waited for me to look up, but I kept attacking the stain. “Fine.”

She left and stomped upstairs. So help me, I thought, if she goes to her room to pout I really will leave. After a brief pause, she retraced her steps, thumping down the stairs and back into the kitchen, laptop in her tiny hands.

“You want to know why Ravi isn’t here?”

She flipped up the screen and hit the keys so hard the sound echoed against the dingy walls. If she’d worked like that when she was cleaning, we would have finished already.

“Put down the damn sponge,” she said.

I sat next to her and looked at the screen. “I read that article. It was a puff piece.”

Ravi had been in the Sunday Times Magazine recently for a show at a famous gallery. It had sold out — he didn’t share his wife’s qualms about private collectors — and led to rumors that he was being considered for a Genius grant.

“Look at the photo.” Sara clicked the magnifying glass icon and Ravi took over the screen. He slouched in a straight-backed chair, left leg draped over one of its wooden arms in a pose that couldn’t be comfortable. He stared impassively at the camera.

“Do they teach that look in art school?”

“Forget him. See that painting?” She touched the screen, static snapping in the air when she made contact. “It’s mine.”

“You share a studio. It was in the background.”

“I mean the composition. I did a whole series on this flyweight boxer — Hector Mireles — but I didn’t like them enough to show. Ravi said he liked them, told me not to paint over them. This—” she stabbed at the screen again “—is why. The fucker copied my work, just fuzzed out the details so you can’t tell what the guy’s doing. Inspired by Basquiat, my ass.”

“I thought you said you influenced each other. ‘Creative osmosis.’” I remembered this from an article in ARTnews years earlier, a pretentious dual profile of art’s new Power Couple.

“It’s not even as good as mine, but everyone’s falling all over themselves because of it. Oh, the lines, Ravi. They’re so primal, Ravi, so masculine.”

“All that pot’s making you paranoid.”

“That asshole at Paint who raves about him because he’s cerebral — like black people can’t go to art school — loves this now, too, because it’s so authentic.”

“Have you talked to him about this?”

“Of course, but he’s like you. ‘It’s all in your head.’ When that didn’t work he told me it was a goddamn homage. So I slashed every canvas in the studio. I tore them to pieces while he sat on the floor blubbering.”

“Doesn’t that suggest that he’s telling the truth?”

“He’s such a narcissist he’d show his used kleenexes if he could figure out what to call them. Phlegm on Cotton, Number Forty-Seven. Three thousand dollars.”

“Calm down.” Her face was red, the vein in the middle of her forehead so prominent it looked like she’d been branded. “Where are these canvases of yours?”

“Fuck you if you don’t believe me.”

I stood up, gathered my phone and purse and headed for the door. “No one talks to me like that,” I said.

“Please sit down.”

Her head was on her folded arms, resting on the table, and she watched me out of the corner of her eye, like she had as a kid when she didn’t want the adults to think she was paying attention.

“I moved everything to the warehouse before I left. He doesn’t even know about it.”

“Jeanette bought you a warehouse?”

I rent space in one. The studio isn’t big enough for storage. And it’s a firetrap. Just because I don’t want to sell everything doesn’t mean I want to lose it. We’ll see what he comes up with now that he can’t steal from me. A genius? He hasn’t done anything original in three years.”

The same had been said of her recently, down to the number of years, not that I’d ever mention it.

“So you’re leaving him?”

“The more upset I get at Ravi, the more I like those stupid paintings. I hadn’t looked at them in years before I moved them, but they’re not bad. Just a boxer throwing punches. No bag, no opponent.”

A phone rang, a digital chirruping coming from the kitchen cabinets.

“That’s mine. It wouldn’t fit in the disposal.”

It rang six times, then stopped.

“That was him.”

“You can’t know that.” By the time I finished speaking mine had begun to ring. Ravi.

“I told you,” she said before I’d even looked up.

***

I stayed another ten days, long enough to get the house in order and to get Sara back on her meds. She complained that they made her feel worse than the anti-malarial she took when she was in South America, but I couldn’t leave her in the state I’d found her in. She still wouldn’t speak to Ravi, though I convinced her to at least take her other calls, digging the cell phone out of the bread box she’d stuffed it in. We repainted the kitchen together, singing to the bad pop songs on her iPod. Finally, the last few days she locked herself in the barn and continued on her project. It’s therapeutic, she’d tell me, then call me Auntie in her saddest voice if I tried to object.

I was back in Houston in time for summer’s final heat wave. Running errands several days later, I heard the public radio host’s soothing voice announce the names of the grant recipients. Ravi’s was first, and though I knew they were ordered alphabetically, I couldn’t help seeing this as a portent. I pulled over and called my sister, but her cell rang and rang. She never used voicemail. Each of the so-called Genius Grant recipients will be awarded one hundred thousand dollars a year for the next five years. Once the foundation cut the first check, I figured Ravi would leave his crazy wife, so at least one problem would be resolved.

I tried her number a few more times that day, though I have to admit the situation seemed less grave as the afternoon cooled into evening. By the time Joel brought the steaks and corn in from the grill, I’d forgotten about it for a blissful half hour.

The phone rang while I was finishing the dishes, someone from Pennsylvania — I never got the name or position straight. An accident. Not over the phone. Next flight to Philadelphia. “We need you here in person,” she said. “Your sister left your number in case of emergency.”

Emergency didn’t do it justice. I knew by her tone that Sara had finally succeeded. If she’d been alive, the woman would have stressed this to keep me calm.

Sara and Ravi shared the same management, and late that afternoon, while I couldn’t reach Sara, her rep had. She’d discussed some business and mentioned the grant, then hung up. Based on the coroner’s report, Sara killed herself within two hours of that call. “It’s amazing she could handle such a large-caliber weapon,” a detective told me, as though I should be impressed.

She’d done it in her studio, standing in front of her now-finished piece. She’d even taped an X to the floor, like an actor’s mark, for optimum splatter.

When Mother announced that she wouldn’t attend the funeral — not blaming Daddy this time but the cause of death, which she refused to say aloud — I decided to have the ceremony in Houston, hoping to keep it small. No such luck. The Art World arrived en masse, as though they’d chartered a 747. But I didn’t see anyone who’d been at the farmhouse. Ravi, in all black, kept his sunglasses on the entire time and had such a retinue that I couldn’t get near him until he sat down next to me in the front pew of our church. Months later, he’d hint that Sara did it out of jealousy, which is bullshit. He’s just unhappy that no matter what he does, her shadow will always be cast over him.

In her eighties, Jeanette still held court, offering soundbytes to any reporter within shouting distance. She had shed weight as she’d gotten older, become nothing but bone and gristle, and after the service I held her elbow to steady her while she spoke to the man from the LA Times.

“Sara was so gifted, such a talent—” no one used the word genius “—but like so many artists, she was troubled. The line between inspiration and obsession can be very thin.”

“Being an artist had nothing to do with it,” I said. It took me a moment to compose myself. I hadn’t meant to say that aloud, but since I had, the assembled, even Jeanette, expected more. “Everyone wants to make this so much more noble than it is. She…” I tried to imagine her standing there, sticking such a huge gun into her mouth — one of the crime scene people told me the recoil snapped both of her front teeth — but I can’t. “It would be just as awful if she was an accountant, or a teacher.”

The reporter waited a respectful moment — a decade would have been better — before saying, “What about the rumor that the act was part of her work? I’ve heard that—”

“It wasn’t an act,” I said. “There’s no more work.”

Sara left everything to me, so after the probate I returned to Pennsylvania and hired three of the men lingering outside Home Depot to crate the painting. Only one of them spoke English, but even he kept his mouth shut, at first, when they came out of the barn only minutes after entering.

“You’ll have to find somebody else,” he said, without making eye contact. “We’re not going to touch that thing.”

I stood in the doorway and watched them leave, thinking about Jeanette, the reporter, all the gallery owners who would have been happy to barge into the studio to pour over every brush stroke, every blood splatter, and declare it a masterpiece, or grotesque sensationalism, I didn’t know which. I could have charged admission. Step right up and revel in human misery. For five bucks extra you can take your picture next to a skull fragment.

The canvas had to be eight feet tall by ten feet wide, large enough that it seemed like an integral part of the building. An exquisitely-detailed painting done in black and blue and gray geometric shapes, like enormous pixels, filled every available inch. The scale was so huge that it took a full minute before I realized what I was looking at. Off-center pictures for an off-kilter girl. She’d painted a triptych of those twenty-year-old Polaroids, blowing them up to fit the canvas, even though that cut off even more of the image, more of the hair sprouting from the top of her turtleneck. Much of the detail was hidden beneath the gore, the disgusting layer of dried brown gunk that thinned as it moved towards the edges, the skull fragments — smaller than I’d imagined but everywhere —and various other globs and masses in shades too foul to describe. Copies of the Polaroids, blown-up and subdivided into grids, were taped to the wall next to the canvas, and others, without the grids, sat on the stool to my left, beneath a pallet of dried blue, gray, and black paint, still her favorite colors.

I sat down on top of the stains from where Sara had fallen. Fallen. I hadn’t thought of that. The floor was concrete, unforgiving, but surely she couldn’t have felt anything by the time she hit it, and even if she had, it would have paled in comparison to the pain in what was left of her head. How long had she lain there, her still-warm body cooling, waiting for the police?

What could have pushed her to this point? I still had no idea. For too long, I’d viewed Sara as a problem that needed to be solved. Maybe that attitude had been the real problem. I’d failed her somehow, that’s all I could think. Not that Ravi had or our parents or even Jeanette. Me, Auntie.

I took the original Polaroids with me when I left the barn and haven’t been back since. Traces of blood have dried on them, though if I stare hard enough I can pretend they aren’t there. I keep them in the bottom of my jewelry box, the safest hiding place in a house full of men. My sons want to turn the farmhouse into a vacation spot for their families, a place where we can gather for holidays and reunions, but as long as I have a say, it will sit abandoned. With any luck it will cave in on itself. Enough time has passed that everyone thinks I should cheer up, go back to work, count my blessings — all that nonsense. But whenever I look at them, my sons, my husband, I see that painting. Well, not exactly. The final touches are the same, but it’s not Sara’s face they cover, it’s mine.


Matthew Duffus’s work has appeared in a number of journals, including the Cimarron Review, Natural Bridge and New Ohio Review. He received an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Minnesota and currently lives in rural North Carolina.

 

WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THIS ARTIST AND THEIR WORK? READ OUR “WOODSHOP TALK” WITH MATTHEW.





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