The cephalopod, specifically the octopus, is our mascot for this autumnal lament/salute to impermanence. (Thank Sy Montgomery’s marvelous The Soul of an Octopus for our current obsession.) I’m thinking not only of its amorphous shape and feats of disguise—It can escape from its tank and squeeze into cracks in the wall! It can camouflage itself to look like a cloud passing over sand!—but also of its vulnerability. It’s a nautilus without a shell, “a big packet of unprotected protein,” who received with the gift of shapeshifting the curse of perpetual defensiveness—and of hunting down the calories to maintain its constant flight and invention (Montgomery, 82).
Since it wouldn’t be Gloom Cupboard if we didn’t find some metaphor for human mortality and general fallibility, I would suggest that we’re in similar straits. We need just enough intelligence to communicate, and ingratiate ourselves, with one another; too much, and we’re melancholic, antisocial, and misanthropic (and read online literary journals with names like Gloom Cupboard). Too much, and we store our collective memory and cultural markers on external servers (like GloomCupboard.com) and keep little inside. Worst of all, it makes life too hard to give up. All of the shapeshifting and makeovers and striving and dragging our packets of protein through school or work or traffic or behind a lawn mower. We know how it will end, but we need to see the shadow pass over us. We need to escape our tanks.
~T.M. De Vos, Editor
A Winter’s Night by Prarthana Banikya
The Hard Part by Carl Boon
Surfacing by Heath Brougher
26 by Kara Daly
Hands and Tinnitus by Triin Paja
The Campers by Emmaline Silverman
Truck, Coyote, Gravel, Rabbit, and Mobile by Randi Ward
Please Take the Tablet by Fionn Shiner
The Artist’s Studio by Michael Pearce
With a grasp and a tilt, you drink the milk
like it’s a ritual of a kind.
You do it every night–
with the strike of nine on the mantel clock,
you clean the kitchen top, shove cookie jars
into cluttered cabinets and pour yourself
your doze of sleep.
The corridor leading to you room
is dark like a night swallowing dusk.
You climb the wooden staircase
while flickering flames from the fireplace
creates the only sound in the house.
Sleep wanders away from you.
You lie in bed reading Christina Rossetti
while the Armenian couple
living above you make subdued love.
You hear whispers and moans
while the cat you named Caesar
sits on your window sill
watching snow wash over the city.
An inscrutable gift to get just before Christmas,
considering my relative ignorance of astronomy.
The cardbacks were inaccurate. Far-fetched.
And not one of the constellation’s punchings
matched the right ascension and declination
or lined up. Not even Orion with Betelgeuse.
Ursa Major was “an astronomical bestiary.”
I had to look up the word bestiary to read
the definition aloud so that we, you and I,
could agree to disagree about the Universe
being a petting zoo. The problem with gifts
isn’t the nearly unpardonable Poor Choice
but that we forget the magnitude of effort.
I was ready to learn what spins overhead.
I read: Cassiopeia is seven stars of suffering
because she sometimes hangs upside down.
Next morning I was bagging night-leavings
in a run facing into Florida firstlight made
famous on postcards. I’d done this before
but stepped in giblet-ooze and excrement.
Corn nuggets glowed on a sandal sole.
In oleander, a cardinal and a crow sang
beneath a ceiling of leaves. The cardinal
startled and flew. Red and small and alive,
it cleared the oleander. Above a fountain
at dawn near a dog run by tamarind blooms.
That evening we were on the porch whispering.
A heron possesses a startle response like nothing
if not falling in love against your better judgment.
Whether the stars and these nervous night birds
define restless wandering—errance—the light,
like some remarkable door in the air, closed.
A Course in Grief
When I was a boy, my mother woke late every day.
Weekends, she would call out for coffee. A cigarette.
Her sort of mothering meant she nurtured herself first.
She was one pissed-off woman. Fail to produce a cup
of black coffee and an L & M and a working lighter—
see what that got you. Cuffed, most likely. Told off.
Once, a copy of Gone With the Wind for a desk,
she grinned at my grade card before she signed it.
Handing it back, she waved me away from a tv;
said, Let me watch Jeff Chandler. Go play, Roy.
After, she rose from her four poster bed of regret
to drown my Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes with milk—
I knew she would backhand me if I made a mess.
Possibly if I made the usual milk-slurping sounds.
Some mothers despise what we become; some
what they’ve passed along. Some fathers, too.
I suppose we might as well fly away as dream
the world gets better and we are happy at last.
She died. And I heard about a course in grief—
they register you with or without your consent.
First year or two, it meets daily. Less after that.
for Deni Naffziger
The hard part gets to be distinguishing
what happened from what you wanted to.
There she went in a green skirt,
and it was as if the purse she carried
were full of mangoes. We realized
only later there was medicine inside
for her dying father. But for the poem:
mangoes—she had to be carrying mangoes—
and was heading to a party
on a fine suburban lawn. Dogwoods
painted the landscape pink, and the myrtle
beds where the children played
were forgiving and soft. Her father’s bed
was not, and she sat beside him,
counting the blue and white pills
in paper cups, wishing he could breathe
and she were home reading a novel—
a novel in which ladies under parasols
stroll to parties in the mingling
evening light and boys in starched shirts
pour cold wine into long, narrow
glasses. A cough startles her. Her father
needs the blood wiped from his chin,
his pillow adjusted, his forehead cooled.
Suppose he’s dreaming, too. Suppose
he desires a glass of mango juice,
the kind he drank as a boy summer days
as he watched his father fish. He recalls
his father caught many fish, flounder,
but it was the Swede instead, the quiet Swede
who died many years before. He cannot tell
his daughter the truth because his daughter
must find a way to live past this dying,
this tragedy in an unlit room
where, outside, the dogwood leaves are falling.
However we were drowned we rose back to the surface
gorging ourselves on the oxygen
running rampant above our heads.
It was gluttony but it was okay.
We lived in sin for a few seconds
all the while eyeing Heaven as we came back to life.
Would it beckon us again?
We were full of breath, lungs bloated
in full consciousness, floating.
No longer afraid of the depths,
this airy resurrection injected life
into our spirits. We were born
for the second time, living high
on life, swimming and eating oxygen like candy.
Thoughts were not perished.
Thoughts were fully blown orchids blooming with breath.
You have an opinion on Taylor Swift.
You have dreams about your ex.
You have reached that age
where people need to know
if you want kids.
You have no opinion on the topic.
You have a little money saved
and a boyfriend. You have no interest
in a salary job.
You’ve made a promise to yourself
that if you do have kids you won’t cry
when they don’t want kids
or because you don’t like their boyfriend.
You have an opinion about police brutality
and disposal wells, the death penalty,
you’ve started meditating and you cried
when you saw the documentary about
the men in a maximum-security prison
who took up meditation, what happened to them.
You have a habit for gasping
when you read something current and horrible
on the train. You shake your head and close
You have a wrinkle across your forehead.
A cavity. Your left knee hurts. You have been
out of college for three years
but you’re just now recovering.
You have an opinion about the TVs
on the subway platform switching
between the weather and celebrity gossip.
You call your dad. He doesn’t agree.
a hand extended, like a branch heavy with rain:
you took it; you did not know
bodies live like abandoned buildings.
a fog of dandelion floss drifted into the streets
like flour from a Jewish bakery.
the mirror hummed your body;
a poor woman’s dress.
the pipes groaned. the oranges in the net bag,
the hands bruised by yarn and hard bread.
growing like the wet hair of moss.
an old woman stirs pots of strawberry jam
in the far distance, says
one must throw things (a self, a memory, a stone) into rivers,
you look to your unfilled hands; two unfilled cups
forgotten in a kitchen
the color of burnt pots.
you say, the ragged curtains the house wears
are there to map absences; this calligraphy of decay
is a kind of light
molded of dust and tarmac. a light that aches to see.
you say this in a voice that is an empty letter
on a tin platter
and I recall your language of Venetian floods, of thyme.
how our bones became cities.
how cities became hanging baskets of fuchsia
hovering like pendants in a seaside village.
the driftwood-ribcage. the herring soup.
the braid of onions. the sea washing out our names.
When we woke up in the camper in the backyard
and the grass was awash with delight
and the morning smelled like wheat and fog
and the rusty hinges on the chicken pen gate,
we did not remember how the stars made us feel
as new as baby chicks, as all-alike as crickets,
as tiny as a single kernel in the widest cornfield
the state has ever seen. But we remembered the stars.
We did not remember how the rustle of wind
outside the camper doors inspired in us thoughts
of eyeless ghouls with fingers like dead branches
clawing for our tender flesh. But we remembered the wind.
We did not remember fighting over who got
the new yellow sleeping bag with down feathers,
and who had to take the musty maroon.
We remembered finding constellations and playing Go Fish.
At daybreak in the camper in the backyard
the sun was peeping through the filmy sky.
I was eight and you were nine.
Our brains were new.
Mama said if we slept out there all night
and didn’t murder each other,
she’d make us
chocolate chip pancakes.
by the wrists,
begging for more
from delicate brick
out the loose
a caged rabbit
above my groaning
from the broken
Please Mum, just take the tablet. I’m sitting across from her as she trembles softly, grappling with the task of putting a tablet in her mouth and then swallowing some water. We are in the front room of my childhood home. It is bright, airy and homely. I love it: there are so many fond memories living in this room that when I’m here I gather them around me and we all have a group hug. Hello Christmas ’09! Hello 18th Birthday! Come here you big lovely bastards.
The curtains are open, and the large park opposite our home stretches out before me, as alluring now as it was as an eight-year-old boy. The terrain is varied, and it bumps and rises and plateaus. There is a play area and a skate park covered in what can only be described as dreadful graffiti as well as a fusillade of trees.
Adorning the walls of the front room are many photos of my sisters and me. They are happy pictures—we smile out of them, loving and close. Mum is often in the middle, grinning idiots either side of her, the warmth of our bond self-evident. I imagine we’d all give various body parts to have her now as she is there—smiling warmly, her intelligent eyes twinkling.
The tablet has crept back onto the table, stealthily sliding out of her weak hand. I don’t even know how it got there given that one second ago it was heading reassuringly to her tiny mouth. She is a tiny woman, particularly her head. One of my favourite things to do as a child was to cup my hand around its spherical back. We used to laugh at her little pea head, but as her hair grows thinner, greyer and falls out her increasingly visible skull is a little less funny.
“Mum, do you want to take your tablet?” I ask in a way I hope is patient.
”Sorry love. I will do.” She takes a drink of water minus the tablet. It still sits on the table: blue, leering and mocking. Ha! I’m still on the table you stupid prick.
”It’s just on the table there, Mum.”
I’ve handily pointed at the tablet. I don’t want to give it to her—it makes her feel like a burden when we do too much. Her hazel eyes alight on the tablet and she reaches over to grab it. An epoch of time passes. Her hand is bony, skeletal and shaking as it tentatively makes its way towards the tablet like a plastic bag blowing in the wind. It doesn’t make for particularly pleasant viewing. She picks up a knife and hands it to me.
”Oh, there we go,” she says, humming faintly under her breath. It’s a tuneless hum, the haunting soundtrack of her horrid fight with early onset Alzheimer’s.
”Oh Mum, thanks for that,” I say, as though I wanted that knife more than anything, ever. “Do you want to take your tablet now?”
“Oh yes, of course.”
I point at it again. The tablet is grinning up at me: I ent goin’ anywhere, mate.
Yes you fucking are. You’re going in her stomach you stupid blue cunt.
Her hand plucks the tablet off the table. It rests there as she observes it. The symbolism of the tablet is not lost on me and it’s not lost on her. This bright blue tablet says to us in intrusive, callous letters ‘you’re well ill, love’. It’s not ideal, really.
”Yeah, just pop it in.”
There are tears crouched behind her eyes, ready to trickle out. I tread carefully. Softly, softly, takey tablet. It is still residing in her hands, wobbling slightly from her jitters. PLEASE TAKE THE FUCKING TABLET. I have images of shaking her by hethisr feet in my mind. Probably best not to vocalise that.
Mum manages to get the tablet in her mouth, not least because I decided to stand over her and direct proceedings like a musical conductor.
”Nice one, Mum!”
After two microwavable meals, we have a cup of tea. The oven has been removed from the house for issues of safety. Two charcoaled, fossilised chicken breasts were found in the oven not long ago and the girls and I called a sibling summit, swiftly deciding it wasn’t worth it. None of us much fancied Mum burning to death.
We drink our tea, both gazing thoughtfully out at the park.
”Lovely cuppa. Thanks, love.”
”You’re welcome, Mum.”
God I miss you. Mum is deep in thought, but I have absolutely no idea what she is thinking about. It’s a genuine, bona-fide mystery.
”What are you thinking about, Mum?”
”Well, it’s just the clunk-clunk-clunk.”
”What?” I splutter, the strangely complementary emotions of grief and humour giving my voice a strained, laughing quality.
”I’m just thinking about the clunk-clunk-clunk.”
I peer at her, masking my confusion and amusement behind a neutral face.
”You know the Rover factory? Well, I can still hear it sometimes at night. I can hear the people working on it. Clunk-clunk-clunk.”
The Rover factory closed over ten years ago. Even when it was open it was several miles from where we lived. Ah the old clunk-clunk-clunk, I think. I feel conflicted because it is funny when she blindsides you with her accidental surrealism but also terribly poignant.
“Oh right, just ignore it Mum.”
She begins to laugh to herself, a lilting, pleasant sound, like a woodland stream on a summer’s day. “Ignore me, love. I think I’m going a bit mad.”
”You’re not going mad at all, Mum.” You’re ill, not bloody mad, I think protectively. She was always hard on herself.
”No, no. You’re probably right.”
”Shall we go for a walk?”
“Yeah” she enthuses, springing out of her chair like a squirrel.
Ten minutes later, we are storming around the luxuriant streets of Bournville, Mum absolutely steaming ahead. This is the cruel irony about early onset Alzheimer’s: she is still incredibly fit and active, but her mind is being devoured by a vindictive mould. She’ll get to a point where there will essentially be just a body. She will no longer occupy it. It will be like a great abandoned country house, empty and covered in vines. Seeing her storm around on her tiny legs, clearly enjoying the fresh air, always strikes me in the gut with the force of a steel gauntlet.
I am aware of the gifts and blessings I have been given. I hail from England, a beautiful, cultured, magnificent place to grow up. The wealth and affluence gives me an advantage that a large portion of the human race doesn’t have. I have never wanted for food or water and, to be perfectly honest, money has not been a great pervasive worry as it is for many people. I am writing this article and that tells you a lot: I have a laptop, for one, and a mind and education that have made it possible. Mum loved me unconditionally, which is the greatest gift a person can give.
I often feel sad about her illness but then I feel guilty about feeling sad. Does it make me cosseted and lacking in perspective to feel like this is a tragedy? Or do I need to get on with it and count myself lucky that I wasn’t born in the Congo?
Having said this, it’s still rather devastating. I love my Mum, and she is dying. Who likes someone they love dying? Who likes to watch it? Who likes a role reversal with their Mum as a teenager? All things considered, I don’t much want her to die. All things considered, I want to be able to talk to her like we used to. All things considered, I don’t want to hover around when she’s using the toilet to make sure she is OK, like she once hovered around me.
All things considered, I wish that tablet was a cure.
She hadn’t driven him anywhere in months and had forgotten how completely his presence filled her car. He had the passenger seat of the cramped MINI Cooper tilted as far back as it would go and was leaning on his left side with his long legs scrunched up in the only position that would ease the chronic pain of his lower back. The air stank of his sour lungs and his turbulent bowel, and a persistent, guttural noise eked from his chest as he compulsively, maybe even unconsciously, hummed old rockabilly and rhythm and blues songs. His eyes moved restlessly—from the people and buildings and cars they passed, to her face, to the scribbled-on index card in his hand—as they drove through the crummy west end neighborhood he’d lived in for as long as she’d known him.
“Mom wanted to come, but she’s having an especially bad week.” She spoke, in part, to assert her own presence in the car. When he didn’t respond, she went on. “We’re really proud of you.” Her right eye was nearly blind, and she had to swing her long brown hair back and turn her head to the straining point to give her left eye a clear view of him. She touched his knee, bony and cool under the worn navy cotton of his old pants. “Aren’t you excited, Uncle Sal?”
“Your pop,” he said without looking her way, “was childless with his first wife, Jessie. We all thought it was his fault. Next thing you know he dumps Jessie, meets your mom, and bingo, I have a niece. Good things often fell his way, and always with the best of timing.”
She ignored the tinge of resentment in his words, holding on to the part of them that implied praise and warm feelings for her. Though they rarely went anywhere together, she showed up at his place nearly every week to keep him company and help out with chores, and she knew he appreciated that. She looked him over again with her good eye and found herself amused, even charmed, by the studied insouciance of his appearance. He’d neglected to shave, and his tattered sport coat seemed to announce, with an almost adolescent defiance, his disregard for the formality and significance of the event they were about to attend.
They stopped at a light. A man, no older than forty, yet bald and frail and looking a little deranged, shuffled along the median divider of the boulevard holding a sign that said, “need $ for food.” When he came to Maggie’s car, he stopped. Maggie smiled and shook her head, but he just stood there, staring at her. She reached into a wallet sitting on the console between the seats and grabbed a dollar bill, opening the window at the same time. The light had turned green and a horn honked as she held out the dollar.
The man walked up to the window but didn’t take the money. “I need five,” he said in a stubborn monotone. There was another, longer honk from behind.
“Take it, please,” she said. The man slowly shook his head.
“Forget about him, let’s go,” her uncle said. He raised himself from his reclined and twisted position on the seat, leaned over her, and yelled through the open window, “Tough luck, my friend—you get too ambitious, you end up with nothing!”
The driver behind them now held his horn down mercilessly, and Maggie began moving ahead slowly, still holding out the dollar bill. The man stared for a moment, then leaped forward and snatched it with surprising speed and accuracy. As she drove off, she glanced at her uncle. “I’ve given him money before. He expects it.”
“You don’t owe him anything.”
“He’s a suffering soul, nonetheless,” she said. They didn’t speak for a while, though his cranky energy was palpable and seemed to pump up the air inside the little car to an uncomfortable pressure. As they drove into the so-called gourmet ghetto, just north of the civic center, he began to hum a tune that she recognized, a Clovers song from the fifties about money.
She pulled up in front of an elegant, glass-fronted gallery with the word “Galen” on a bronze and black sign above the door. “Why don’t you hop out here, Uncle Sal, and I’ll go park.”
“I can walk as well as you can,” he said, not budging. “Maybe better.”
The gallery had the familiar hum and mumble of a crowded art opening, though the ratio of business attire to black knit shirts and jeans was noticeably greater. Maggie and her uncle were hardly through the door when Michael Galen, wearing a tailored mustard suit with a brown shirt and burgundy tie, greeted them both with warm handshakes. He was a short man with a high-pitched voice and a bubbly, boyish exuberance that Maggie found a little disconcerting when she looked closely at his lined, droopy face. He led them past a dozen long rows of folding chairs and over to a group of people clustered near a walnut conference table at the front of the room. Maggie recognized the mayor, dressed in the same charcoal suit and silver tie he’d worn on TV when he’d announced the city’s acquisition of a minor league baseball team, and his young wife, a former Vogue model.
Michael did the introductions with gracious, relaxed formality, beginning with the mayor and his wife and followed by four members of the arts commission. He then nodded toward two women and a man sitting in the center seats of the front row, all wearing the woven earth tones and variously-textured blacks of middle-aged bohemians. He spoke louder and smiled broadly, directing his words and levity to both them and Uncle Sal. “I presume there is no need of an introduction here?” The three smiled back a little apprehensively. Maggie was pretty sure she recognized them as senior faculty in the art department at Harper College.
“Sure, we swim in the same grubby little pond,” Uncle Sal said, quickly turning away from them and toward the speaker’s podium next to the table. “Can I have a glass of water when I’m up there talking?”
“Certainly,” Michael said, “we’ll have a pitcher brought out.” He ushered Uncle Sal to his chair at the table and directed Maggie to a reserved seat in the front row next to one of the art teachers, a heavy man with a shaved head, gray eyebrows, and an exquisite teardrop of rose tourmaline hanging from his ear. Relieved that he was on her left, the side of her good eye, and feeling attractive in the maroon wool pantsuit she’d gotten for the occasion, she introduced herself.
“Oh yes, of course,” he said, squeezing her hand too hard. “Richard Greenhurst, head of the Harper art department.” He spoke with an amused look, as if there were a joke lurking behind his words.
The mayor and one of the arts commissioners sat down at the table, while the mayor’s wife and the other commissioners sat near Maggie and the art teachers in the front row. Michael Galen went to the podium and asked everybody to take a seat. Still exuding cordial energy, he welcomed the hundred and fifty or so guests and gave a brief background to the event—the history of the award about to be presented, the appropriateness of presenting the award in the gallery where Uncle Sal had shown his paintings for over twenty years, and his own appreciation of the power and craft of the paintings. He then introduced the mayor, who walked to the podium with a slow, operatic strut and looked out at the audience with a knowing smile. Cameras flashed.
“What a pleasure to see everybody here for the presentation of the forty-third Arts Commission Award of Excellence. We’re a city that supports its artists, right?” There were murmurs of assent. He unfolded a sheet of paper and began reading, his face taking on a more businesslike demeanor. “Salvador Feckleman, artist, teacher, and formerly an actor and musician”—he looked up with a surprised smile, as though he’d just read these words for the first time, then continued in his official tone—“is an important creative force in our community. He has been working diligently in his studio, year after year, for decades. He has shown his work in most major galleries on the west coast. He teaches at Harper College and is known as one of those tireless and selfless mentors cherished by the most talented students. Lenore Demont and Adam Gutman are among Mr. Feckleman’s many distinguished protégés. But it is in his quiet, meticulously crafted canvases, often contrasting”—he paused, seemed lost for a moment, then continued—“often contrasting urban anxiety with pastoral calm, that you can see the true vision and consummate craft of this important artist. I should add that it is fitting we should be presenting the award to this recipient at the opening of his show here at the Galen Gallery, which championed his work long before he became widely recognized. So we have the added treat of getting a preview of some of the artist’s most recent paintings. I will now call up Arts Commissioner Daniel Fulton to make the presentation.”
The commissioner, a plump man with a sad, red-bearded face, moved slowly to the podium. He spoke deliberately and sincerely and appeared to care genuinely about the importance of nurturing and recognizing artists. As he began enumerating Uncle Sal’s achievements, he seemed to realize he was repeating information already mentioned by Galen and the mayor; his words lulled to a rapid mumble, and he began skipping sentences until he arrived at the actual presentation. He reached down inside the podium and pulled out a hand-carved rosewood cup mounted on an engraved silver base. “It is an honor and a personal pleasure to give Sal Feckleman, who has enriched and enlivened our city for over three decades, the forty-third annual Arts Commission Award of Excellence.”
Uncle Sal clutched his note card as he walked to the podium, but he didn’t look at it and in fact didn’t seem to notice that it was still in his hand. He began speaking even before he reached the microphone and continued in his rapid-fire manner with few pauses. “I want to thank you all for having me, and the Arts Commission for giving me this award. Mayor Muldoon, you may not have my vote, but you have my gratitude. Commissioner Dan, thanks for the kind intro. I still remember those wonderful, crazy car sculptures you used to do, and I kinda wish you hadn’t traded in your studio work to be a big shot administrator. But hey, we all make our choices and eat the consequences. Mike Galen—always and forever, man.” He made a fist and thumped it against his heart. “I would also like to thank my niece, Maggie, who drove me here and who often, when she has the time in her busy life, helps me out in my studio, stretching the canvases and whatnot—sometimes even, now that my back is messed up, washing windows and tidying up for me. A fine young woman, my niece.
“So. It’s an eerie feeling—receiving this honor, this appreciation, at long last. So many luminaries in the art world, my contemporaries and more recently younger men and women, have been favored with this award. When Abraham Mosher, with whom I went to art school, received the same award twenty-six years ago, I felt my time must be soon. I showed up for the ceremony, I applauded, I shook Abe’s hand. I felt good for him, though I admit there was a pinch of envy buried under my congratulations. But as I said, I figured my time would come, and now here it is. A long time coming, and, if you went and counted the paintings and the exhibitions over these many years, it is not only overdue but due a couple times over. My turn has arrived and we gather to acknowledge that. Tradition says I should pass along some of the sense of what this award means to me.
“And so, here is most of what I have to say, in a nutshell. Four words, in fact: too little too late.” He held up the trophy. “What am I supposed to do with this thing? What good can it do me now? There’s no practical value at my age—it won’t get me a tenured gig at the university, like it did for Mosher—I’m too old. And who’s left to be impressed or have their spirits raised? My mother, who loved art museums and encouraged me to paint, never saw any real success come my way. She had a big heart and always made a fuss over whatever new work I showed her and would buy my paintings whenever she had some money—a true old-fashioned mom. But she went to her grave thinking I had achieved little. My father, who wanted me to be a lawyer like my brother, or at least take my place in the family business selling electronic supplies, thought I was a fool to take on part-time shit jobs and stay up late nights doing something so meaningless and unremunerative as making art. He’s dead too. Neither can be here to see this. And Abe Mosher, my old colleague? Well, he’s still alive, but his brain is Swiss cheese. Doesn’t even recognize my face when I visit him in that euphemistic ‘assisted living’ barn where he sits around like a rotting bale of hay. So he can’t be here to praise and envy me either.
“And how about my brother, Lou? I do wish Lou could be around for this one. How much pity and superiority can you take from one brother? And how much assistance? Well, I once took plenty, I am somewhat ashamed to admit now. I wish I could say it was his faith in me, his appreciation of my talent that sparked his generosity. But no, it was pity, and a brother’s sense of blood obligation. In any event, two years ago my usually fortunate younger brother was ambushed by a homicidal prostate that not only choked his pissing pecker to a painful dribble but, like any good terrorist, shipped out its cancerous assassins to his bladder, his liver, his bones, until he was slowly eaten alive. So I don’t even have Lou’s condescending face to throw this meager goblet of triumph into. Only his well-meaning, soft-hearted daughter could come. His widow, a kind enough person in her way, chose to stay home and not bear witness to my achievement.
“The art department at Harper College, the venerable third-rate institution of higher learning where I work, though they can’t deny that I am the only faculty member who consistently makes and shows serious work, has for the past eleven years refused my requests for a sabbatical or a lighter teaching load. Instead, they confer these privileges on the privileged among them, the bureaucratic sinecurists and sclerotic hacks who sit on committees handing out perks to themselves. Representing them here today is the worst of them, department chairman Rich Greenhurst, who has been parked front and center faking a smile since I got here. My dear departed brother Lou once met him and a couple cronies at a party; Lou joked about my ‘loser colleagues’ for the whole drive back in his Mercedes to his fancy house in the hills.
“It was, by the way, in the little room over the garage of that house that I stayed for two years after my first wife Gretchen threw me out and I became, for the first time, a truly starving artist. I can’t complain—I got some good work done there, and many a Sunday meal, and even managed to have my way with Lou’s wife Jessie on occasion. Yes, Maggie, your father’s first wife had a wandering eye and a mind of her own. If not for that, you would not be here, and I might still be living in that little garage garret, cranking out paintings and eating Sunday dinners. But when, in the same week, my beloved, pissed-off brother asked me to leave and my old friend and rival Abe Mosher told me about an opening in the Harper College art department, I considered it a matter of simple destiny. Or at least simple arithmetic.
“I got the teaching gig, I got my own place, and that’s what I have been, an artist with a decent day job, these past, what, thirty-two years? I have painted, I have shown, I’ve even sold a respectable number of my works, earning enough to buy more acrylic, more canvas, more wine, some long-term health care insurance. And now I receive this.” He held up the mounted cup. “It is no doubt an honor, of sorts. And my remarks have been an acceptance, of sorts. I should quit while I’m ahead—though, to look at some of your faces, and my niece’s in particular, I can see that I am not exactly ahead. I am, in fact, on one side of a raging river and ahead is standing on the other side, wiggling its middle finger at me. So let me just remind you that we give people awards for creating something worthwhile, not for making comfortable remarks. I have produced, I have earned this award, and I thank you for acknowledging that.”
The applause was, understandably, light. But nearly everyone there who knew Sal Feckleman gathered around him and conferred their warm congratulations. Only Maggie, upset and forlorn, and department chairman Greenhurst, who continued to smile blandly, hung back.
Driving home, they passed the same beggar at the same intersection, walking slowly up the line of cars coming in the opposite direction. Maggie feigned interest in the man’s entreaties to other drivers so that she could avoid engaging with her uncle, who had again turned his body to rest on his side on the reclined seat. For a while Uncle Sal hummed some monotonous, bluesy tune and looked dreamily at the road ahead. Suddenly he spoke up loudly.
“Safe to say somebody’s a little pissed off? The old man went a little too far in speaking his mind, did he?”
“That’s what you call speaking your mind?”
“Your dad and I had a hard time of it. There were resentments. He would have said so himself.”
“So you go and say every petty thing that pops into your head?”
“Hey, I held a lot back. Give me some credit.”
“My mother did not choose to stay at home today. Her depression is a mental illness. She’s on medication. She’s had four treatments of E.C.T.”
“Ah, your mother,” he sighed, “I suppose I should have left her out.”
“She’s never said an unkind word about you.”
“I said she’s a kind person—to God and all I said that. I actually used the word, ‘kind.’”
“She sits in front of the TV and cries. I worry that she might do something terrible.” Her eyes began to blur so much that she was having trouble seeing the traffic around her. She slowed the car to a crawl.
“I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.” He squeezed her shoulder. “You, the only one, after all. I apologize.”
He said it with a kind of gallantry, so that she wasn’t sure if he was being sincere or just doing damage control, and the ambiguity galled her. Why did she bother with him at all, this narcissistic windbag? He was as full of himself as her father ever was, and then some. He never seemed to give her a thought, except when she actually showed up at his place with a pizza, cleaned the kitchen or the floor or the windows, helped out with the canvases.
She pulled up to the curb in front of his apartment.
“Come in for a bit. I have something to show you.” He spoke in an appeasing tone, as though she were a young child.
She looked straight ahead. “I need to get back to Mom.”
He reached over to the steering column and turned off the ignition. “Just for a minute.”
He lived in a large, high-ceilinged loft. His workspace, the area he called his studio, took up about three-quarters of the room. Along the left side was a windowless wall of cracking plaster against which he had installed a countertop and cabinets that ran the full length of the room. Above the countertop, which was strewn with tools and mixing cups, sponges, tubes of pigment, sketches and photographs, was a complex of shelves and racks that held an enormous number of paintings and drawings, as well as stretchers, corner keys, and rolls of canvas. The right side of the room was all windows, tall ones with steel frames, fifteen panes in each, that extended from a couple feet above the floor nearly to the ceiling. At the back of the room was a small, crowded area containing a sofa bed, a table, and adjacent to the last window, a minimal kitchen.
Leaning against a windowsill about halfway back was a vertical stack of paintings. He fingered through them and pulled out a smaller one, bringing it over to a workbench in the center of the room where Maggie had often helped him stretch canvases, mix pigments, cut the miters for frames. He carelessly tossed the award trophy on the bench top, then set the painting down on its bottom edge and held it there for her to see. It was a portrait of her, from the knees up, standing in an oppressively close, vaguely sketched space. She wore a shapeless blue flannel shirt and held a bucket that seemed to pull her slumped shoulders even lower. The figure exaggerated the heaviness of her hips and the cross-eyed stare of her blind eye. Her face, which seemed to live on a slightly different plane from her body, looked tired. Her mouth had a kind of obligatory, social smile, but her eyes squinted with weary, bitter anger. Maggie was not yet thirty, yet the Maggie in the painting was on the brink of middle age.
Looking at it, she felt a deep sadness at the reality of what she was—a flawed and aging body—and at the fact that her uncle had made such unkind choices in depicting her form and the character embodied in it. She turned to face him. “It makes me ugly.”
“It doesn’t make you anything,” he said.
“It’s not flattering, Uncle Sal.”
“Well, I’m giving it to you.” He laughed softly. “You can keep it in the closet. But I predict that someday, perhaps years from now, you will take it out and like it, maybe even put it on the wall. And not just because I’ll be dead, but because you will be … I don’t know what, maybe more inside a life that belongs to you.”
Another insult, she thought, this one aimed not at her body but at her soul, her very personhood. A rage boiled up. She wanted to grab the paint-encrusted pallet knife that lay on the bench and stab it into the portrait. She wanted to leave and never come back. She wanted him dead and buried. The intensity of her anger, coupled with his oblivious calm and warmth, made her queasy, almost nauseated.
But her anger dissipated quickly, and this surprised her. It occurred to her that, since she’d stepped inside the room, she had felt a kind of safety, comfort even, that had persisted underneath her simmering emotions. It was as if there was somebody else there with them, someone whose presence could be counted on to raise her spirits. Now she knew that that other person was the room itself. She had liked being there since she was a little girl. The place smelled of garbage and paint and was always a mess, but it felt like an old friend. The smell and mess were the byproducts of work, Uncle Sal’s long hours of patient, even stubborn labor that paid little and that few people cared about.
She took the portrait from him and held it in front of her. What she saw in it now was, simply, the skill and care of its making—the discipline and patience, the training of hand and eye, the old man’s knowledge of his craft and the history of his craft. This room was, to her, all of these things, the locus of unwavering purpose and skilled toil. Yes, she came here to help a lonely man who had alienated most of his friends and colleagues. But she also liked just being around this, all of it, the cantankerous factory of tireless movement and vision and disappointment that was Uncle Sal in his studio. She laid the painting on its back.
“Want some wine?” he asked.
“I gotta get home, Uncle Sal.”
She hesitated. He went to the refrigerator in the back of the room and brought back a half-full bottle. He filled the wooden cup of the trophy, then put the bottle down next to it. “Take your pick,” he said.
She took several long gulps from the bottle, then set it down on top of the painting, directly over the face. “You sure you want to give me this thing? There’s a good chance nobody will ever see it again.”
His eyes betrayed a flash of surprise at the gesture with the bottle, but he shrugged and took a sip from his trophy cup. “It’s yours,” he said.