Anyone who understands the work of art owns it. We all own the Mona Lisa.
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Richard’s face twisted up and he screamed: “Violence is love and sex is death.”—which didn’t make sense to Elsie, but then, nothing he said ever did. She noticed the veins of his neck sticking out as he raised his fist and rammed it through the storefront window. Glass went everywhere. Richard started crying, blood streaked down the sides of his hand and a shard of glass stuck up between his knuckles.
“Oh, Richard, what the fuck,” Elsie said softly. She wanted to turn and walk away. Get on a train, travel at incredible speeds in the clang and the thunder as towns and factories slipped by the train windows. End up in a place where no one was.
She had it all painted out, the landscape of the place, the long flat field where she’d grow tobacco … She’d have a house with a slanting white porch. She’d smoke a lot, watch the smoke curl up then spread towards the sky.
Only he’d done it again. He sensed every time she was ready to go and he’d do something, something like this.
He stared at his fist then began to laugh. His laughter rang through the empty street.
“I feel something,” he said then, “I feel, Elsie, I feel.” His hands scissored the air, causing the blood to rush out and spray the broken glass. The sky appeared flat as Richard’s hands fell to his sides and his face relaxed. “Let’s get to the hospital,” he said, smiling slightly, proudly surveying the fragments of glass that punctuated the sidewalk.
Elsie nodded and sighed. This time it had started the same as always. She would deliberate for a long time then say: “I don’t feel anymore.” To which Richard, invariably would reply: “I don’t either.” He would pace the living room then and Elsie would remain silent as he began expounding a theory of political strategy, diving into his patented rant about fascists and cops. Violence was the only means, he would say.
Elsie’s wanting to leave invariably triggered off his political paranoia. He’d get so wound up that he’d have to go out and pull a job. Afterwards, he’d come back to their place, dump his loot on the floor and sit with his head in his hands. Look up, notice Elsie, and start to rant again. If she didn’t react the way he needed her to, he’d take out a knife, cut himself up. Maybe get in the bathtub. Watch the bath water go pink and wait for her to talk him out of it. When the pain thoroughly registered, he’d scream out: “I feel,” then ask if she could feel his pain. She’d nod her head: “Yes,” and push the hair back from her eyes. Richard would solemnly put his hands on her shoulders and say there was no reason to leave each other if she could feel him feeling. His eyes were cold blue with gold circles around the irises. Would turn black sometimes, the iris swallowing the pupil.
Elsie was 17 now, 13 when she had met Richard. She’d been standing at a phone booth, receiver in hand. Her face was bruised and a thin line of blood marked her forehead. She’d just called Bobby to see if Pops was done throwing things. Bobby had whispered: “Call the cops, Elsie, he’ll kill me,” then the phone had clicked off. Elsie did call the cops, then stared at the receiver for a long beat after they’d hung up. She slowly replaced the phone in its cradle and looked around. A man was walking towards her. He moved slowly, making eye contact with Elsie. He smiled. She did also. She moved into Richard’s place that night.
Richard had a face like a map on which Elsie could never find her destination. He liked to paint violent nudes of her. Their third night together, he put a big canvas of her on the floor, the paint was still wet. He fucked her on top of it. Paint stained their skin. There was some on his cock. Sometimes he sensed that she wanted to leave. So he’d cut himself.
He never talked about the large collection of guns and knives that he kept beneath a floorboard—although she’d occasionally come home to find him sitting on the floor with the whole collection spread before him. Sometimes he’d disappear for a week or so and Elsie would sit around the apartment, reading comic books and smoking cigarettes.
Once, when he’d been gone nearly a week, he came home and told her he’d smuggled arms into Central America. This frightened and exhilarated her. He liked that, fucked her standing up, pushing her against the wall while keeping his eyes on the new guns that he’d religiously laid out on a piece of black fabric.
Now, Richard stopped the blood’s flow by elevating his hand. They hailed a cab to Bellevue. He was very quiet.
The emergency room was the usual display of mangled humanity. People shuffling and eating and crying. Eyes like wounds on all their faces.
They didn’t make Richard wait this time, his blood was staining the floor. Eventually, they let Elsie walk back to see him. He was on a stretcher. An IV pumped liquid into his arm. It was worse than usual and they were keeping him overnight. He pulled Elsie to him and said: “Don’t leave me, I need you.”
He’d never said that. And maybe she’d been sticking around to hear it. Her chest constricted at the words though. “I need you,” it’s what Pops used to say after he hit her.
She went back to the apartment and pried open the floorboard. Took out a pair of .22s and a .38. Tucked one of the .22s into her bag and went next door to Pedro’s. Pedro gave her money and put the guns under his own floorboard.
Elsie walked the 30-odd blocks to the train station. She watched her face reflected in the glass of the ticket booth as the clerk asked her destination.
“Name some places,” she told him.
The clerk looked her up and down then began reading off Amtrak’s more interesting destinations. She picked Baton Rouge, Louisiana, paid for the ticket, and got on the train.
She stood between cars for a while, listened to the train gathering speed. Took off the jacket Richard had given her, let it fall to the floor. She thought of Louisiana. She’d wear long white dresses and walk through her field.
She started walking from car to car, watching people. No one seemed to see her. She noticed a business man sprawled over two seats and snoring loudly. His legs were spread wide and his belly stuck out from a striped shirt. Elsie sat down opposite him and listened to his breathing. She took the wallet from his jacket pocket then stood up and smiled at his sleeping form. She moved on to the next car.
She worked the whole train and had an impressive wad of bills when they pulled into the next stop, Wilmington, Delaware. Deciding to play it safe, she got off to wait for the next train. She went into the clean, well-lit station. She could hear her own pulse as she sat on a bench and opened a comic book. There was a magazine store and a man was just closing shop. He kept looking over at Elsie. She gave him the finger and walked back to the platform. He followed. Came up behind her and asked could he buy her dinner. She turned to him, “Okay,” she said, “Okay.”
They went to his apartment, a seedy little place above a meat store. She had had a notion that outside of Brooklyn everything was green and sweet. The neon sign of the meat store flashed into the man’s living room. He took her shirt off as she lay back, letting him trace shapes on her and spreading the sweat from his palms on her belly.
She did not sleep. As dawn broke, she put on her clothes and walked to the door. On impulse she looked back and saw that the man was awake and staring at her in the half light that filled the room. “Don’t leave, I need you,” he whispered then. Elsie’s chest constricted and her vision became blurred. She fished for the .22 in her bag and shot him. He looked so surprised. A breath escaped his lips as she pointed the barrel at his head and fired. She walked back to the station. She got on the train and sat down. Her whole body shook.
The train gathered speed.
She stopped off in New Orleans where she skillfully pickpocketed and stole cameras from tourists. She was unable to sleep though. Would think of the dead man. His face would define itself in the peeling plaster of the hotel room wall. She’d get up then, flip on the light. Leave her room and walk the streets.
After a week, she left the city and walked for days through the countryside. At night she would sleep in fields. Stars would puncture the sky and she’d feel a deep silence. But then the constellations would begin winking, turning into the dead man’s face. A peculiar sensation would knot up her belly and she’d have to get up and move on, walking slowly beneath the sky.
She came one day to a farm that closely resembled what she had always imagined a farm should look like. She persuaded the farmer to hire her. He put her up in an attic room with white washed walls. She learned to eat big meals. She seldom spoke, just worked and at night went walking. It was so quiet.
When Elsie was 27, the farmer died, leaving her the farm. She kept the two farm hands on. They speculated she had a lover no one knew about. But she did not.
One evening she sat on the porch, smoking and watching the sun go down. The sunset was particularly violent that night, painted the sky a deep red. A tight sensation came into the small of Elsie’s back. When the sun had buried itself at the edge of the field, the dead man’s face came into the sky. The stars were his eyes and winked.
The next day, she packed a small bag and went to New Orleans.
She sat in a bar drinking seltzer and watching people. She began to shake all over. They were looking at her, men whose faces distorted and froze. A big redneck started talking to her softly. She told him to fuck off. He became enraged, brought his face very close to her own and hissed: “Bitch.” Elsie pulled out the .22 and shot him in the stomach three times.
Silence fell in the bar. Elsie waited for the cops to come.
She was in the nuthouse 12 years. She slept in a light blue room. Doctors came and went, all told her she did not shoot anyone, it was just a cap gun. She did not believe them. One day, Elsie’s roommate Bitty—a diminutive black woman who smoked cigars and whispered, “I love you” over and over to herself—had a visit from her brother whose name was Bobby. For the first time in years, Elsie remembered her own brother Bobby and it all came rushing back, Pops and the night she’d left, Richard and the guns. She walked to the nurses station. Told them her real name and where she came from in Brooklyn.
After a few months, the hospital had located her brother Bobby and he came down for a visit.
The first thing Elsie noticed was that Bobby’s hand was gone, there was just a stub at the end of his arm. Bobby told her about it then, about the night 28 years ago when Pops was going nuts and she’d left the house for good. Pops had shot Bobby in the hand that night. Shot him then put down the gun and turned to get a beer from the refrigerator. Bobby had taken the gun and killed Pops. His bones were laid beneath an unmarked headstone in Brooklyn.
A clarity came when Elsie heard that Pops was dead. Her hands stopped shaking and she realised that it was true, she had not shot those two men.
It was just like that, something snapped.
Maggie Estep is a writer living in New York. She has performed at various venues in New York and on PBS’s Alive From Off Center.
Anyone who understands the work of art owns it. We all own the Mona Lisa.