/ Fiction /
Madi sits tall on her stool with her palette in one hand and brush in the other. In front of both of us are large easels. There’s been a lot of smiling from her today, and I think she may just have forgiven me.
“Have you got something in mind?” I ask her.
“I didn’t at first,” Madi says. She’s accidentally marked up the red hat she’s wearing with splotches of yellow and white from when she’s adjusted it.
“It looks like our garden.”
“Tulips,” she says. “That’s all I was trying to paint.”
Madi wanted therapy. She wanted a guy sitting down in a tufted leather chair with his legs up; and she wanted him to have a fountain pen and a yellow pad of paper that he’d flip over and over as he took too many notes of how to fix us. So, I signed us up for a painting workshop as we couldn’t afford art therapy, let alone real therapy. After the workshop, and with a big cup of coffee and a cigarette, I figured we could look at the acrylics bleeding over the page and try to figure out what was wrong with us.
“I’m surprised you can draw that from your head,” I say. “Don’t artists use references?”
“I think so,” Madi says.
“You’re doing real well.”
Madi has always wanted to be a painter. I’ve thought it was simply loving the idea of being an artist, as she’s never painted before, but now that she’s doing it, I can see that she’s got a natural talent. Her tulips, yellow and white, have got shadows and highlights that make them look real. There’s a background and a foreground, as the instructor talked about. Beyond that I can’t say much other than it looks great.
The instructor, a tall lady with glasses and a red flag tattoo on her wrist, comes to my station.
“You can’t make any mistakes,” she says.
“I just can’t decide what to paint.”
“That’s why I’ve put those fruit up on the counter,” she says. “Go ahead and try painting those.”
I shake my head.
“Try putting a wash down. A canvas that isn’t white helps the mind get started.”
The lady suggested to all of us that we drown out the white in a light brown or blue, something to take the blank canvas away. All the paints on my palette are nice and uniform now, gobs of all the generic colors spaced out to make a fun looking picture of their own. I’ve always thought the palette, once used by a master, is a piece of art itself. There’s so much there in that palette, all the colors, the creation of new ones, both accidental and purposeful.
I spread out a small amount of green and dip my brush in the water to thin it out. Then, with a larger brush, I begin to spread the green across the whole canvas.
“That’s better,” says the instructor. “Now let your mind roam free. There are no rules in painting.”
The only thing I can think of painting is my wife, but there’s no way I can make that happen. Cigarettes can’t be too hard though. I deepen the green wash so that the white of the cigarette can stick out. Once the green is down, I take out a cigarette from my pocket and set it on the easel where the painting rests.
I start with the brown base of the filter. Then I paint in the white end of it and add a little red tip like it’s burning. I add four more, replicating the cigarette at different angles. They are all crooked, of course, but it’s starting to look like something.
Over the next thirty minutes I get in another half dozen, layering them in like spaghetti.
“Tulips and cigarettes,” Madi says.
“Want to go out and take a break?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says, setting down her stuff.
The art center has the feel of a Midwest public-school building. The tiles in the hallway are a dilapidated white, tinged with yellow, and the wood that frames the doors and lines the floors is dark and scratched. Outside, the red bricks of the building are well worn, with obvious spots of graffiti painted over. We sit on the curb that circles the parking lot.
I take out two cigarettes and give one to Madi. “Are you enjoying it?”
She declines my offer and I put the smokes back in my pocket. I stretch out my legs over the asphalt.
“I was always terrible at art,” I say. “In first grade my mom bought me a new set of markers and I ruined them all on accident. I’d go over one color with another and soon they were all stained.”
“Painting is different,” she says. “You’re supposed to mix the stuff.”
“I know,” I say. “I still just like to keep each color by itself. Once the paints mix, they can’t go back to what they once were.”
“You’re over thinking it,” she says. “It’s just painting.”
Madi readjusts her hat and hair, pulling out the ponytail and redoing it. I wish she wouldn’t wear the hat. She’s barely got a scar anymore. The burn on her forehead has faded to just a shiny bump that is easily covered with makeup, and only I can really tell it is there. But Madi insists on the hat.
“We can do the therapy part at home tonight,” I tell her.
“I don’t think we really need therapy.”
“We’ve found some sort of meaning in that night. Let’s just work on getting pregnant again.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I guess we don’t need any help.”
“Let’s still look at the paintings later, okay?”
I nod my head.
I want to have a smoke but Madi declines another offer, so I decide to wait until we get back home. We head back into the painting room. Within the hour her tulip garden starts to take shape while I keep drawing my cigarettes. I’ve tried to add a smokey affect but it just looks like spatters of gray going up to the top of the canvas.
As my frustration grows, I begin to mix the paint on my palette. I start with the primary colors, mixing blue and yellow to make a lighter green, and then later with red and yellow for orange. Mixing the green and the orange gets me a wheat color between yellow and brown.
The clock shows just past twelve noon. An hour left.
I decide to go for my wife’s face after all. Above the cigarettes, I start sketching out the rounded shape of her face in wheat yellow, leaving marks for her nose and lips. I outline her eyes and then begin to fill in above them. Her forehead begins to take shape.
The eyes are easy. I know they’re a dark brown. With small flicks I add eyelashes. I lean back and squint.
“Honey,” I say. “I think it’s starting to look like you.”
“The nose and lips are always hard.”
“I’ll just cover those in the smoke,” I say. “Just need to see your eyes anyways.”
I spend the whole last hour on her eyes and forehead, trying my best for something realistic. There are still a few spots that look a bit whacky and so I ask the instructor for more grey paint. She gives me the bottle. I take my biggest brush, dip it straight into the bottle, and throw paint at the canvas. Splatters land on my jeans and wrist and up to my chin.
“Careful,” Madi says. “I can help with the smoke if you want.”
“I can handle it.”
I dip the brush back in the bottle.
Madi leans over and whispers, “She’s going to get mad if you make a huge mess.”
I throw some more paint on. One huge splatter lands below her left eye and the paint drips.
“That should be good,” I say. “What do you think?”
The painting must look like it’s from a man in psychosis.
Madi exhales. “I don’t know.”
I lay down my brush and palette on the floor and get up from my stool. “We can decide what we think when we get home.”
The instructor, before dismissing us, lets us know we can take our paints and palettes with us. Madi and I set our paintings in the back row of the truck, careful to not let the wet paint touch the seats.
“Did you ever call Brandon back after our day out fishing?”
“No,” I say. “He kept wanting to talk about stuff and I just don’t need that right now.”
“I think you ought to tell someone about it,” Madi says. She reaches over the center console and rests her hand on my thigh.
“A lot of people ought to do a lot of things.”
“Patrick, you really ought to get along with your brother.”
“We’ve done our painting and now you and I can go and talk about it,” I say.
“All right,” she says. “We’ve got the coffee at home.”
At the house, we take our paintings to the patio and lean them against the fence that surrounds the patio. We face two chairs towards them. Madi goes inside, leaving just the screen door closed, to brew the coffee while I sit in the camp chair and stare.
“Who should go first?” I ask from the patio.
“I’d like to look at mine first.”
She’s got three tulips painted, two larger ones with a smaller one in the middle of them. The backdrop is a lattice of wood with small plants woven into it. She’s done a much better job than I have.
Madi comes out with two mugs: my favorite that say’s “World’s Best Dad,” which Junior gave me when he was thirteen, two years before he passed, and her’s, a plain white with Brighton written in blue words. We got it on our last ski trip to Utah, nine years ago. She hands me my mug and puts the pack of cigarettes in my chair’s cup holder.
“Talk to me,” Madi says.
“I got nothing,” I say, leaning forward in my chair, elbows on my knees.
“There’s always something in a painting,” she says. “Look harder.”
“Did you have something in mind?” I ask her again.
She shakes her head. “I painted something that was simple and beautiful.”
“Maybe I should go buy an art therapy book and see if there are some instructions.”
“It’ll come,” she says. “Let’s just wait.”
I sit back and ask for the lighter. I get a cigarette going and sit with it. For some reason, watching the paintings feels like some sort of meditation. After a few minutes, I am starting to see the brush strokes of highlights on the petals and the stems.
I go to the painting and pick it up, holding it up close to my eyes.
“Careful with your smoke,” she says.
“I’ll set the painting on my lap, so I only need one hand to hold it.” I take it to my camp chair and set it in between us on my right knee.
“Maybe you should grab mine, too.”
Setting her mug down on the cement, she grabs my painting and holds it on her lap. Our heads swivel back and forth between the two.
“Cigarettes and tulips,” I say.
She lights a cigarette of her own.
“I think I know what yours is about,” she said. “You forgot my scar though.”
Realizing that I did, I ask her to hand me my painting and give Madi her own. When I drew my wife from memory, I never pictured her scar. I knew her eye color, how her hair had been recently colored, the necklace she always wore. But Madi was right, above her eyes was only a light and gentle brown.
“I suppose that’s how I still see you in my head,” I say.
“Maybe you’ve forgotten about it with me wearing my hat,” Madi says.
I nod and take a pull. “I did bring home my paints. But I kind of like it this way.”
“Here,” she says, reaching for my painting. I hand it to her, and she rests it flat on her lap. She takes another cigarette from her pack and lights it.
“Oh, I don’t need one,” I say.
“It isn’t for either of us,” she says. She takes a couple pulls from it to really get it going. She looks at the head of it. The smoke goes over her eyes and up around her hat, then up to the roof of the patio, trapped between the two-by-fours.
She takes another pull from it and then takes aim at the painting. I reach to grab her hand, but she swats me away. I make another move from my seat, but she grabs my wrist with her nails and digs them into the skin. I resist but she holds, tightening her grip.
“Let me,” Madi says.
“It’s going to ruin the painting,” I say.
She pushes my arm away and I relent.
Madi picks the painting up with her left hand and sits it vertical on her legs. She holds out the cigarette like a dart and moves slowly towards the canvas. Her painted nails, a deep blood red, pinch the butt of it. There’s a moment of hesitation as she inhales in through her nose. Madi takes a few more pulls to get it going again.
I stand above her, looking over her shoulder. I hold myself back.
She blinks twice and then sends the thing into my painting right where I should have painted her scar.
There’s a sizzle at first. The acrylic, heating up, begins to smoke. With some force the canvas begins to bend inward, and Madi holds the cigarette there with some conviction. She looks up at me and I cannot read her face.
Biting her bottom lip, I wonder if she’s about to growl. I can see her fingers pinching harder on the butt. “See how it burns?” she asks.
The canvas has begun to smolder, spreading out in an uneven circle.
I nod my head. I make a move with my hand, but she shakes her head.
Madi pushes the cigarette through the canvas, and it flips out on the other side and lands on the cement.
She hands me my painting. I hold it a few inches from my face until the smoldering circle finally dies out. What’s left is a hole a bit bigger than a quarter.
Madi takes a pull from her cigarette and then points with the it. Before speaking, she exhales.
“There’s your therapy.”