If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
This First Proof contains the short story “Dutch Boy 32-V.”
Soap Opera 32-V-1
If you ask him, her husband finds it strange that she paints and repaints so often the living room of their house. If you ask her, and he never does, she would not tell you the real reason she paints and repaints the living room of their house. She paints and repaints the living room when she believes she will, finally, break it off with her lover of long standing, a man she has slept with, off and on, for a dozen years now. Sometimes she paints after she has told him it is over, painting as a distraction or painting as a reward to herself, or painting as a dramatization that she has moved on, but, by the time she finishes, she has called him or he has called her. Inhaling the heady odor of the drying paint, she weeps into the phone to say she wants to meet again. At other times, she begins to paint in order to build up momentum to tell him it is over, the painting as a kind of mental conditioning, a signal for her to signal her lover that their affair must come to an end. It is perhaps the thick rich smell of the paint, the vapor of its evaporation, that is the trigger, canned inspiration. That perfume’s endnote is the endnote of the affair. Or, perhaps, it is now the visual stimuli of blur, the blur the paint mixer makes at the paint store, as it mixes the cans the cans vice-locked in place tight with the thumbscrews, plates, and springs. The electric motor whirs, the slurring glug of the liquid inside the cloud of can, that metallic blubbering blurring. Or there is the folding and the unfolding of the paint-splattered drop cloth with its sloppy archeological record of the past paintings, the drips and smears in stark contrast to the pristine walls whose color never really has had time to age or dull or even fade as the paint has always been so relatively recently applied. Sometime the paint hasn’t had the time to dry, has barely even dried before she begins to mask out the window sills and door jambs with the blue, blue masking tape whose sound, that long zipped ripping, also contributes to this ritual of change—the whole elaborate complex of her particular compulsion that the larger project, consciously and unconsciously, conspicuously represents. To mask. It is complicated. It has never been easy for her, the affair, and the energy expended in meeting, the anxiety of discovery, and the persistence of guilt—all of it goes into the walls regularly. Painting draws this thing to a close and painting promises a new beginning. Clean slate. Egg shell finish, of course. And painting, the sheer act of painting, there is in it a soothing contemplative repetitive exercise, an applied yoga of application, that allows her to meditate on the course of the affair, its ups and downs, her marriage, its lefts and rights. As she paints she eyes the various shades of aching grief, the tint of ecstatic pleasure. She paints with brush and roller. She stirs and stirs, watches the paint slide down the stick, drip, like paint, into the soup of this occasion’s color. The drips drip, disturb the surface tension on the surface of the paint in the can. She knows, now, these four walls intimately. Here the slight buckle of the load bearing, there a water stain that she never quite seals or covers. She’s spackled again, patched the holes made by the picture hanging. The wall opposite the picture window warms differently than the wall with the window. Painting again the four walls will bring her face to face with memories of when she painted these four walls before. In that corner she thought this, or along the floorboard, there, she thought that and when she gets to those places again with this new paint she will remember what she was thinking two or three coats ago and remember remembering, just a coat before, what she was thinking and remembering about her thinking now all mapped on the wall, a location that co-ordinates with the wiring in the gray matter of her brain. Here around this outlet she thought of her thinking, thinking about her gray brain. She loads the brush, it is always a new brush, to begin again to paint the living room. The furniture pushed to the center of the room covered over by the dappled drop cloths that form a kind of scale model of an idealized mountain range, its glacial folds falling to the floor covered by the new unspoiled ice blue tarp.
It will be a gray this time, another gray. She is thinking this, this gray, even while her lover is finishing behind her. Her hands are flat against the wall, pushing the wall to push back against him as he pushes into her. She has already come. The wall in front of her is a gray. She can’t be sure. There’s a trick of the light in the room as the late afternoon shadows break across the surface before her eyes. She senses an unevenness, what seems to be another kind of shadow, a shadow of the drywall in the space between her spread arms, flexing, springing back against him. No amount of paint can disguise it, a sloppy application of the mud, that lack of sanding. Tomorrow she will look through the paint chips for the right gray.
There are hundreds of chips, each tweaked to register the slight variation of brightness, intensity, saturation. After she has been with him, she likes to paint the living room of her house. She has lost count of the number of times she has painted the living room. She has been seeing him a dozen years. There must be a dozen dozens of layers of paint, a gross of layers. How many layers will it take to contract the volume of the room, to build up, to fill in the in of the room? She likes to stay with the neutral colors, the whites and all the off-whites, the grays, and the other grays. Other colors bleed through the new paint, taking too long to cover, needing too many extra coats to cover. The paint’s been rolled on here in this room or maybe sprayed. He is moving faster and his hands have left her breasts and moved to her hips. And in the mix, she thinks she sees, some sparkle, a mica fleck. At least it isn’t paper with its patterns and seams. Her husband never asks why she paints the living room over and over. He compliments her on the room once it is done as she washes the brushes in the sink, asks her if he can move back the furniture. Her lover likes to make love to her after she has made love to her husband. She doesn’t ask him why. The color of come, she thinks, is the color of this wall, the wall she is looking at as her lover finishes behind her, inside her. It lacks the pearlescence of semen though, cloudy nacreous mix of light and its reflection, the wet paint sheen that encapsulates the flat depthless milt beneath the shiny marble glass skin. She likes to watch it dry. The paint too. She sits for hours in the living room, after she’s finished painting it once again, to watch it take on its color, steep and deepen. Sand. Stone. Marble. Mountain. She imagines that a woman somewhere thinks of the names for all the grays, a kind of poetry. Now, he tells her when he is about to, stops, holds still, then does, waits, waits, waits then slides out of her. She lunges away, disconnects, no longer up on her toes, collapses forward, falls onto the wall as if the wall emits its own gravitational pull. She’s drawn in, adheres. She presses her whole body along the wall, flattens herself against it, wants to pass right through it into the next room. She turns her head to the side to feel its cool color, feel its pallor, the pigment rub off on her breasts, her belly and thighs, her flushed cheek.
At the first session of each new Congress the representative from President McKinley’s home district in Ohio rises to take the floor and introduces legislation to retain the mountain’s appellation, preventing it from being renamed Denali for another two years. The measure is accompanied by additional remarks concerning the mountain to be read into the record.
* * *
The mountain’s gray silhouette indicates two major summits, twin peaks, the southern one being the highest, and reveals a massif with a melodramatic ridgeline of lesser ascending and descending slopes out of which flow four major glaciers, variations of the same denouement.
* * *
On a ridge near the summit of Denali the Japan Alpine Club has established a meteorological observatory that was donated to the university. The weather station is one of only two such devices in the world located above 18,000 feet. Japanese newlyweds consummate their marriages at lodges in the shadow of Denali as the Northern Lights, the aurora borealis, unfold overhead, in the belief that such conditions are fortuitous for the resulting pregnancies as well as therapeutic for those who have been unable, until now, to conceive.
* * *
Meanwhile, it is the spring solstice in Alaska. Each succeeding 24-hour period sees an additional five minutes of sunlight added to the day. As the northern hemisphere begins to tip toward the sun in spring, shadows lengthen in the folds found on the distant mountain. The serrated ridge of Denali holds onto the increasing sunlight the longest, an incision of the lengthening shadow etched next to the crest line, rising up to the cloudless sky. The sharply defined horizon tilts south, soon to deny, by summer, the sun’s sunset.
The Edge of Night 32-V-4
She changes out of her painting clothes—a plaid flannel shirt and actual white—well once they were white—cut-off at the knees, painters pants—and catches herself in the mirror, pasted together in broad fields of skin. The parts of her body that were exposed as she painted, her hands and arms, her face and hair, her lower legs are splotched with gray paint. Dried, the paint has taken on the texture of the pores beneath it, scaled and creased and puckered where it has splashed on her elastic, sliding, scaling skin. Her skin is like the skin old paint generates when left in an old can, a pudding’s skin, the color and the medium separating beneath the rubbery suspended crust at the top, a fossil liquid. She rubs off what she can, the fine hair of her forearms snagging in the crumbs of erased paint. In the failing light, her body in the mirror reflects swathes of gray planes, swatches of gray strokes. A sheet of gray in her belly folds under at a jutting hipbone. The tops of her thighs race down her legs, V to the bright dollops of her knees. Her collarbones are cut-out scallops, sloughed epaulets of contracting light. She’s contracting too, flattening, an illusion. Over her shoulder, her shoulder blade fans out, ribbed with the weak pattern the window’s blind projects. The weakening available light seeps in in the dusk. Paint on her skin picks up what’s left of the light, lights up, what gloss there is, the speckled constellation along the arm, a milky way of milky paint along the shin. Her forehead is a fresco, a wall, a whitewashed wall. Her left cheek has been redrawn, is disconnected from her face, slides down her chin. It is a kind of careless camouflage, this sloppy paint splatter in the dark. She is becoming hard to see. She can’t even see herself. She is breaking up, broken up, in bits. She has left her lover again. In the shower, the paint dissolves, peels. It is water based. She scrubs, likes the feeling, the exfoliation, flaying the same paint that in the living room downstairs is shrinking microns as it dries, to fit a new thin skim on the walls. For a long time she had thought that the Dutch Boy of the paint was the same Dutch boy of legend who patches a dam with his finger and wondered what that had to do with paint. But she looked closely at Dutch Boy’s Dutch boy on the can. He sits there topped with the hat and bobbed haircut the blousy blouse and blousy pants and the wooden shoes holding up a loaded paintbrush like a torch. She supposes it is in a Flemish style, this Dutch Boy, all light and shadow. A brown study. In the shower, she imagines she is the girl on the saltbox in the rain, the salt girl running as the paint begins to run. With her finger, she draws through the beads of water adhering to the tiles of the shower stall. As the finger moves, the beads come together, streak and smear, follow the gesture she paints. She pictures a picture of a brushstroke made up of brushstrokes. The swipes of water shatter back into quivering beads. The shower steams. She is made of salt or she is made of the color of salt and she dissolves and is dissolving in the rain, drains down the drain. The Dutch Boy is painting, painting the long wall of the dike that divides the land from the Zuider Zee, the Zuider Zee that disappears in the Dutch distance. And now the thin layer of soap she has applied to her body the color of the color of—but in this light it is hard to tell its color. It begins to peel in sheets as well. It runs. And as it drains, it assumes the spiral habit it has as it disappears in the shadows at her feet. She thinks: it will be that thin layer of paint that holds back that wall of all that water waiting to find its own true straight level.
* * *
Michael Martone latest books are Racing in Place: Collages, Fragments, Postcards, Ruins, a book of essays; Double-Wide, his collected early fiction; and Michael Martone, a memoir done in 40 contributors notes originally published in the contributors’ notes sections of various magazines. He lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.