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Authors: Peter Selgin

Tags: #Fiction, #Short Stories (Single Author)

Drowning Lessons (10 page)

BOOK: Drowning Lessons
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I toss what's left of my orange into desert shrubs.

“Are we going to find this saint, or what?” I say.

“You mean Sister —” He says the name again, and again I forget it. “We will get there, Maestro. Patience!”

“I'm in no hurry,” I say. “I thought you might be, that's all.”

“Why? She is an exiled nun living in an abbey with one or both of her legs missing. She will wait.”

“What will you do when you find her?”

“I've been waiting for you to ask just that. I'm going to paint her portrait. She is said to be the most beautiful of all women. She makes the Mona Lisa look like a pig. And yet she has never had her portrait painted. Can you believe it? Only from memory and imagination, since she refuses all requests to sit for her likeness. Many artists have tried; none have succeeded. Picasso will succeed. He has painted the ugliest woman in the world, and now he will paint the most beautiful. It is destined.”

Zooming (if forty-five miles per hour qualifies as “zooming”) down the Central American coast, blue mountains to our left,
blue ocean to our right. I white-knuckle the steering wheel, chewing on my silence, seeing my father's face as he climbs up the stairs of the storage room in my shoe store. His eyes go blurry, then blank. He stares at me, his irises twin polished buttons of lapis lazuli. The stack of shoe boxes teeters. For three months he's been working for me, doing his best while draining the dregs of dignity. He's only fifty-five. The shoe boxes fall, but not before my father, back-first down the stairs. I cry out,
At the bottom of the stairs I find him crumpled and covered in shoes, kicked to death, clobbered by brown, size-12 wingtips. Dark blood trickles from his right ear — or is that (I hope against hope) shoe polish? From here on (I don't say or think, but
as I kneel close by him) life will be different. I'll have to take care of him, to dress and feed him, to walk him to the bathroom and back, to change the bedsheets when he soils himself. I'll read to him from books that he may or may not understand; I'll draw pictures, search for signs, see nothing. The shoe store will go on the block. At first I'll try to keep running it, but then I've got to find a nurse for my father, and deal with managers who screw me and can't keep inventory worth shit, and soon it's all too much. I don't sleep. I'm short tempered with customers, who stop coming. The store loses money. My creditors write, telephone, knock. I find that I can no longer tolerate people's feet. I put the store up for sale and get one offer, from Cheswick. I let the bank foreclose: a mistake; Cheswick buys it from the bank, and at tremendous savings. I find work as a counterman at Schwab's Drugstore, the job Lana Turner supposedly held when Mervyn LeRoy discovered her. No one discovers me, the sweatiest soda jerk in Hollywood. My new vocation lasts exactly as long as my father: three and a half months.

“He died in his sleep,” I say to no one, Picasso himself having fallen asleep in the passenger seat. He murmurs: “The universe has no edge and no center.”

My “other” life recedes, a giant seaborne Brannock device that looks, for all the tea in England, like the deck of a calibrated aircraft carrier. The sky turns the scumbled red of ground beef; the earth below is bruised to grape skins. Fingers entwined over his belly, nostrils flaring, Picasso snores, bull-like in his dreams, though he looks like a baby, that soccer ball head, those overstuffed eyes. I feel protective of him, a mother pushing her pram. The farther we drive, the younger he looks: the older I feel.

A Panamanian lagoon. Picasso slathers ointment on my burned shoulders. Against my skin his fingers are bear claws. The beach is a frying pan. I'd go indoors and read, but our cottage is too depressing, with the ratty rattan shades, squeaky ceiling fan, and cockroaches skittering. Instead I cool myself in the lagoon, hoping Picasso won't join me.

No such luck. “Attendez!” he cries, splashing after me.

We swim out past the barrier reef, me doing my Aussie crawl, smashing through elephant waves. In his competitive fervor the instigator of
The Pipes of Pan
swims into my kicking foot; my heel collides with his face. When I look back, he's treading water, holding his nose. Part of me thinks, “Serves him right.” Another part is horrified, beside myself.

“You okay?” I say, treading.

He doesn't hear. Or does he? He starts back to shore, doing a sidestroke while holding his nose, a thin ribbon of blood trailing him, reminding me for some reason of my father, who fell for me.
As I wobble out of the surf, he's toweling himself, his back a giant scallop.

“Pablo? Mr. Ruiz?”

With the towel flung over his shoulder he walks up the path to our dreary digs. I shout, “It's your own fault! You swam too close to me!” The cottage door slams. It's painted the same blue as the lagoon, the same blue as the Topolino. I see a brush mixing that color, the bristles picking dabs of lead white, cerulean, and cobalt off the palette. When the mental camera pulls back, the hand belongs not to Picasso but to my father.

I pace in front of the blue door, a swimmer afraid to dive. What else can I do? No prolific master of twentieth-century art has ever been sore at me before.

I knock. The door opens. Picasso wears a white terry-cloth robe. With a nod he motions me into the cool, rattan-shaded space. On the desk: papers spread out under scattered crayons. He's been sketching. On the topmost sheet figures float in a sea of childish waves, blood arrows wheeling like gulls around them. He has mapped our collision, charted its course, latitude, longitude, vector. Annotations filigree the margins, state's evidence: the geometry of disaster. A heavy
marks the point of impact. I recognize my foot. Where it strikes Picasso's Minotaur head the sketch is animated with a series of pulsing slashes. For the rest of me Picasso has drawn not man but whale: precisely, he has drawn Monstro, the grinning leviathan that swallowed Pinocchio and his toy-maker father, Gepetto. He's signed the goddamn thing.

“What's all this about?” I say, picking it up.

He seizes and crumples the sketch into a ball, then lies back in
his bed with a wad of tissue pressed to his nose. The ceiling fan squeaks.

The road narrows; the lines of perspective converge. Peripheries are nullified as the geometry of death reasserts itself. We plunge into a funnel. I've grown suspicious of our destination, wondering if we'll ever get where we're going, supposedly.

“Don't you have to be dead to be a saint?” I ask.

“It helps,” says Picasso. “But unless one has the goods, one may drop dead forever and it will get one nowhere.”

“It would be a shame to drive all this way for nothing,” I say.

“You are a skeptic. And anyway can you not simply enjoy the ride? Why does a journey need a purpose anyway?” says Picasso. “For the same reason a picture needs a subject: merely as an excuse for the paint, to have something to hang shapes, colors, and textures on.”

“Are you sure you didn't make her up?”


“Sister Whatsherface, the saint.”

“The saint, the saint!” Picasso throws his hands in the air. “Is that all you can think about? Such a hopelessly narrow mind for such a broad body! With that sort of mentality how do you expect to get anywhere?”

“She doesn't exist, does she?”

“You will never be an artist, that's for sure!”

“It's all a bunch of bullshit, isn't it?”

“You will be one of the countless poor sods who dream of painting but end up only making pictures of things.”

“Does it occur to you, Mr. Picasso, that I don't
to be a painter?”

Picasso says nothing. He sits with arms folded, bottom lip pugnaciously pursed, steaming like an espresso pot. We ride in silence for a mile or two. Then he blurts:

“You want a purpose? Fine! Pick one! Whatever strikes your fancy. Say you want to go mushroom hunting, or mountain climbing, or spelunking with those big, fat, flat feet. Maybe you and I will track down Bigfoot or the Abominable Snowman — the South American one! Don't like my suggestions? Come up with your own. Whatever you pick, I will happily accept. And if you can't come up with a purpose, come up with a texture, or a color. Call it a brown journey, or a blue one. Whatever you say, Maestro, Picasso will back you 100 percent!”

We reach the Andes, which shed their cool color and their charm as we transgress them. The Topolino struggles. Now I know why Picasso calls it the goat. Wishful thinking! A goat would chew up these hills! But our little mouse quakes in fear. Halfway up a near-vertical grade, with a gouge of smoke the engine dies. Soon we're side by side, backs to the bumper, pushing.

“Fucking Fiat,” I say, forgetting myself.

“It was just so with me and Monsieur Braque,” says Picasso. “Two mountaineers roped together, scaling the heights!”

“I told you it was underpowered, but
you had to have it. You and your goddamn
choices!” It must be the altitude; I can barely breathe.

“That said, were it not for your being more than a little
pasado de peso

“Fuck you, you Spanish ape! If you think I'm too fat, then why didn't you pick some pretty little girl to chauffeur you around? Why me? I'll tell you why: because you need someone you can
dominate, someone who'll put up with all your Spanish bullcrap, that's why! Well, I'm not taking it anymore. All my life people have pushed me around, making me kiss their fucking feet! Well, I'm goddamn sick of it!”

It's official: I have broken boundaries, infringed, encroached, gone over the line. I have lost my place because I never knew it. Picasso burns me with his Mussolini stare; for a moment I think he might even spit on me, strike me with his draftsman's fist. But then a Disney twinkle lights those Andalusian eyes, and there's that tight little mischievous grin, the same grin that swallows his face when he does something naughty with a brush or pen. All this time we've been pushing the car uphill. Were I to let go now, it would roll backward, flattening the greatest of all living painters.

We reach the crest. Breathless, Picasso bows to me.

“Very well, Maestro.” He snatches the chauffeur cap off my head and puts it on his. “What is your wish?”

That's when I see the brown car pulled over to the curve. A man in dress slacks and undershirt works a jack under a rear tire. She's in the backseat. I must act now or forever know my place. This is for you, Father, this breaching of the rules while bowing to them. For once art will serve us.

I sketch out the rough plan; Picasso, with his brain like a brush full of paint, fills in the details. By what we are about to do my boss is so greatly amused he smothers his titters with his hand. Our collaboration has about it all the wit, charm, and spontaneous simplicity of the best animations. Now I see why I love cartoons: they give us the world minus gravity and suffering, a world of primary hues, unambiguous outlines, unbridled possibilities,
without weight, subtext, or sophistication. For all his worldly fame I realize now that Picasso is really a cartoonist at heart, a child with his Crayola box, as naive as he is diabolical, prepared to do his bidding for me, his Walt Disney/Antichrist.

“Ready?” I say.

“Rescatar la Virgen de los Andes!” he says, with steely enthusiasm.

Sticking to the plan, I ask the man if he can use some assistance. He seems suspicious and relieved as he hands me the tire iron, wiping his hands on his shirt and saying, as I bend to the task, “I've always marveled at the curious conceit that keeps men floating down freeways on bladders of air.” For appearance' sake I give a few turns to a lug before braining him — not quite hard enough to send his gray matter showering down the mountainside, but no love tap, either. He falls into Picasso's arms. As the girl looks on with indolent curiosity, we stuff our scoundrel into the Topolino's passenger seat, but not before relieving Mr. Humbert of his wallet, passport, and other forms of identification. Before sending the blue goat to its final pasture, we grab our luggage — including two dozen tightly rolled canvases — from its trunk. With a series of grunts and our damsel still watching (her sleepy eyes only slightly aroused), we heave the Topolino over the side. When on the sixteenth roll it bursts into flames, Picasso clasps his hands and notes with glee how the colors match perfectly those of the sunset that has meanwhile spread itself, like a knife loaded with Skippy, across the horizon.

You would think our rescued nymph would show some gratitude to her saviors. You'd be wrong. She chomps her chewing gum, her frown as fixed as the stars that begin to appear just then
in the sky. We drive through the night with no words from her. In our cut-rate motel room the next morning we force her to sit for us next to a bowl of bananas: the least she can do, the gumpopping twit. Picasso titles his portrait
Still Life with Virgin
. Though I daresay mine is the better likeness, our subject is equally untaken with both our efforts. “They don't look a thing like me!” she squawks.

“Don't worry,” Picasso and I chime. “They will.”

Touched with an artist's brute fearlessness, I guide our considerably more powerful vehicle to Bogotá, where we drop Dolores off with the proper authorities, who assure us that they know just what to do with her.

From there all roads lead to glory, or close enough. We are a brush loaded with pigment, sweeping across a primed, gessoed landscape, the world our blank canvas. All boundaries have been erased, all outlines eradicated. Wherever we go we spill color; we spew, splatter, and scumble it, improvising subject and form as we please — improvising but also obscuring, demolishing them. Is there a Virgin of the Andes? Who
. If we put her on paper, there she is. If not, not.

BOOK: Drowning Lessons
5.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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