He would work on the painting until the phone rang. And though he knew it would ring soon, at any moment, he knew not to rush it, not to fuck it up. Sure, with time and patience even a massive mistake could be corrected, but time was not an option. There was only patience, consideration, breathing, slowly. Purple was the main color now. Different shades and tones of course—violet, crimson—but to a child they’d all be purple. In a way maybe this was a painting for children. He let the streaks bleed, let the oil run, and each streak seemed to fall right where it needed to, a sort of controlled chaos, like Pollock’s splatters or Saint Phalle and her rifles, but less violent. The way the morning sunlight came in was nice, lighting up the dust particles in the air as well as the painting, softly. No music played—he couldn’t do it—and still no birds chirped. A cricket maybe somewhere outside, a frog, a lawnmower miles away. He dipped the brush again and pressed it to the canvas.
The phone upstairs rang.
He closed and opened his eyes, set the brush down, took a photo of with his cell-phone, and left the basement. The clock on the wall said five forty-five.
“You’re awake,” she said.
“Yeah, you too.”
And then he was driving over. It was cold outside and inside his truck, which needed to warm up first or it would die out but there was also no time, not enough time, and so after five minutes, after a cigarette and filling his thermos, he was on the dirt road that led to the highway, the moisture from last night running down the windshield in tiny little streams that caught the orange light and looked something like the painting. Her house was a guest-house of sorts and it sat behind a much larger house where an old and dying woman lived alone, a woman who’d devoted her life to her job and retired to a country home so she could die, an old woman who met Karen on the right day and so let her move into the guest-house and there she’d been for five years now. He turned off the highway onto another dirt road and, after drifting through a clenching of trees, circled around the large house that he called a mansion and into his parking spot. Well it wasn’t his his, but no one else ever parked there.
Karen sat on the porch drinking decaf. It seemed like it might rain that day. She had a cigarette, unlit, and as he stepped onto the wooden stairs she held out her hand and he placed the lighter in it and sat beside her. She wore her father’s jacket, leather with stains and smooth spots, old and brown and still smelling like either her father or the original animal. He wished she wouldn’t wear it and he’d told her so but it never ended well. “It’s my fucking jacket and it’s comfortable,” she’d say and then he’d let it go and feel like a fool for bringing it up, because it always turned moving forward into moving backward and there just wasn’t time for that.
“How’d you sleep?” she asked, smoke and warmth leaving her mouth and vanishing near the porch’s ceiling, shifting from white to invisible.
“Good,” he lied. “You?”
“Bad,” she told the truth.
He lit his own cigarette and asked why.
“You know why,” she said. “This fucking head.” She tilted her head back slightly and rolled her eyes back into her head, going all white.
“It takes time,” he said. “Remember? You can’t rush it. One day at a time.”
“Yeah,” she said quickly, her voice filled with disbelief and maybe a bit of annoyance. The kind of annoyance that meant “Are you gonna fill me with that bullshit too? Are you gonna sit here and fill me with that bullshit too? I know everyone else will but you too?”
They sat and smoked in silence and when their coffee was gone he had to go.
“Call in, Shane,” she said, forcing what she thought was a wicked smile onto her face.
“You know I can’t,” he said. He kissed her on the forehead and drove to town.
The shaker was acting up again and Steve was in a panic. “We’ve got a nine o’clock for fifteen cans of 342, dammit.”
“I’ll figure it out,” Shane said, bending onto one knee to look under the device, where it mounted into the wall.
“I know you will,” said Steve. “But you gotta hurry because otherwise I’m gonna lose my shit, man. It’s that fucking new kid. What’s his name?”
Shane inserted the tip of his knife into the wedge and, lifting slowly, extracted a massive clump of color 250, a paint he’d mixed the day before and had clearly spilled.
“I’m sure,” he said. “His name is David. I’ve been working with him for months.”
“Well it was him,” said Steve. “He doesn’t take care. He’s always in such a goddamn hurry, as if he only has a certain number to mix and then he’s just gonna waltz outta here and—”
“Steve,” Shane said. “It’s early. Shutup. I broke it, it’s fixed now, his name’s David, and at nine o’clock we’ll have fifteen cans of 342.”
Steve flipped the switch to the Axis Paint Shaker II and it jostled loudly, making the floor hum. He patted Shane on the back. “I knew you could do it.”
At lunch he got out his colored pencils and sketchbook and opened it and then took out his phone and pulled up the image he’d taken earlier. First he quickly and lightly copied the new strokes and streaks he’d completed this morning into the book. He’d only been at it fifteen minutes when she’d called, so it didn’t take long. David sat across from him, respecting his concentration. The young boy had his headphones in and though the volume was low, he invisibly hammered on the ghost drum-set before him, taking bites of ham and cheese and mustard pretzels in between fills. Shane liked David. He worked hard enough and didn’t care enough and that mattered to Shane. This job, mixing paint, was not suited for a kid like David, a kid with his kind of talent. Shane had seen their band at least four times now, and though he usually had to leave early, he could tell by the energy in the air, the increase of fans at each show, that they could be going somewhere. They were, actually, going somewhere, he remembered. This summer they’d somehow got booked at a couple festivals on the west coast. A major chance for them, thousands of people. Shane raised his hand and waved it until David pulled out an earbud.
“Where are you playing those shows again?”
“This summer? L.A. and San Fran. Why?”
“I keep forgetting.”
“Oh,” David kept drumming. “You gonna come?”
Shane laughed. “Nah.”
“You ever been to California, man? It’s beautiful. You’d love it.”
“I’ve been,” said Shane. “A long time ago.”
“Oh yeah, dude. I knew that. You did some gallery shows there right? In the eighties?”
“Early nineties but yeah,” said Shane.
He took out the remaining earbud and leaned over the table. He nodded at the sketchbook. “That the same one?”
David reached over and turned the pad around to face him. He was quiet, actually looking, watching it like it would start to move and bleed more right then. Nothing came from his mouth immediately. Shane liked this about him. He wouldn’t just speak to speak. He thought first. He didn’t rush off and make big decisions without thinking them through. He took his time.
“It’d make a cool album cover,” said David. “When you gonna finish it?”
“I don’t know,” said Shane.
His phone rang and David looked at him. Shane nodded and David stood up.
“Sit down,” said Shane. “I can leave. I need a cigarette anyway.” He gathered his supplies into a pile and carried the phone outside.
The clouds had thickened and it was definitely going to rain. It was a good thing.
“I like the rain,” she said.
“I know. Me too,” he lied.
“It calms me. I feel less… I don’t know, less something. Less everything. But it’s a good kind of less everything, you know?”
“Yeah,” he said. And he did. There was so much to do all the time. So much to be or try to be and so much to take care of and let go of.
“It’s like I can be less and more at the same time,” she said. “Less of a person and yet more part of everything else. Where the me goes away and I actually like it.”
“Is this what you want to talk about right now?” Shane asked. “I have to clock back in in about five minutes.”
“Can’t you just leave?” She asked. “I’ll make it worth it for you.”
He knew she couldn’t, not in the way she meant. But not because she didn’t want to or he didn’t want to but because she just couldn’t. And that was okay with him now. It used not to be. Years ago when he was still traveling and her problems had just begun. He blamed her then, for always having to answer the phone and always feeling guilty and nauseous the day after he’d been with someone else who actually would with him. He didn’t know what was different now, what had changed in him, but it didn’t matter why really. He’d been teaching himself to stop asking why so much. There was a philosopher whose name he forgot but he learned about in art school who basically said that the problem with questions like “What is the meaning of life?” was that by posing them as a question you made the mistake of thinking there even was an answer. That by asking something you created the necessity for and the possibility of an answer. That by asking “What is the” you’ve created the impression that there “is a.”
“I can’t. It’s barely one. Steve won’t let me. Plus,” he said, careful to use the correct word, “I need the money.”
“But will you come after?” she asked, pleading.
“Of course,” he said. “I’ll be there by five.”
“You want to grab a quick beer after work?” asked David.
Across the street from the hardware store was a small Mexican restaurant with a bar attached and a ridiculously long Happy Hour. He and David took a seat on the back patio, where the fading sunlight still leapt over the surrounding fence and warmed their skin. David ordered chips and salsa and a Corona; Shane asked for iced tea.
“Too early for beer?”
“I can’t drink anymore,” Shane said, lighting a cigarette. “It’s easier for Karen to stop if I’m not doing it either.”
“How is she?” David asked. There was sincerity in his voice, a sad and caring sincerity that tempted Shane to open up more than he could.
“The same? Better? I don’t know,” Shane exhaled a long stream of smoke. “I think better.”
“Good,” said David.
“Yeah, I actually can’t stay long. I’m supposed to meet her at five.”
“Any big plans?”
“Sit on the porch. Drink coffee. Smoke cigarettes.”
“Can I ask you something?” David asked. “Something personal.”
“What do you get out of it?” David asked. “I mean, not that she’s not a good person or anything but, you know, what about you?”
“What do you mean?”
“It just seems like everything you do is for her, you know? And I’m not saying that’s a problem or that you shouldn’t or anything like that but it kinda seems like you put yourself on the back burner all the time, for her sake, and that you could, I don’t know, maybe benefit from doing some things for yourself once in a while.”
“Like what! Like your art, man. Your paintings. I mean, how long you been working on that one, the one from today?”
“I don’t know. A year maybe.”
“It takes time,” Shane lit another.
“Look,” said David. “All I mean is that I think you’re really good. Like really good. And I know you can do it because you already have, in the nineties, and people liked it man. You have a Wikipedia page! And it just seems like you’ve given up, for her, and that you’re gonna miss out on so much. Like if you just moved away for a while you know, to like New York or L.A. or somewhere with a scene, not this fucking hole, then you could be something again. Something more than the manager of the paint department at fucking Steve’s Hardware. I mean, you’re not getting any younger, man.”
“She needs me,” Shane said, looking over the wall to where the sun set behind it, where the orange leapt out and hit the pink and blue. “Her mind isn’t well, you know. She has no one else.”
“But you need you too. You can’t be so selfless, man.”
“It’s harder when you get older.”
“I know, man, it’s just… I don’t know. I want you to be happy. I want you to do what you’re good at and fucking get out of here, you know. I’m not saying you have to just abandon her forever but, you know, she’ll be around. You can come back if you want but give it a chance is all I’m saying.”
Shane looked at his watch. “I’ve got to go.”
“Alright,” said David, finishing off his beer. “Look, I don’t mean to step on your toes or anything, I just—”
“Don’t worry,” said Shane. “I appreciate it. I really do. Thanks.”
He pulled the truck into his spot and she came outside with distress on her face.
“It’s five ten,” he said. “It’s only ten minutes.”
She groaned in annoyance. “It’s only ten minutes,” she repeated in the dumbest voice she could conjure. “It’s only ten minutes, it’s only ten minutes it’s only ten minutes. Fuck you!”
“Karen—” he began, but she was already back inside and the door had slammed behind her.
“Fuck,” he said, and lit a cigarette.
He let the tail-gate down and swung his legs from it. The stars were coming out, blinking into existence by the dozens. He practiced smoke rings and French inhales and thought about the color purple and all its variations. He thought about the painting at home and about Karen inside. He thought about streaks going down the canvas and down her face and he thought about her crying purple tears that stained her skin and dried like oil over years and years. He thought about purple smudges on her forearms and hands from where she wiped the tears away and then even her snot was purple as it slunk down from her nose in thick globs she brushed away violently. A light came on upstairs and he knew soon she’d be looking out and down on him. He imagined other fluids flowing from her purple. Not just blood, that was easy, but sweat and piss and shit and even the moist area between her legs that was never moist anymore, all of it streaking crimson and violet down her sides and legs and soaking into her feet.
He looked to the window in time to see her turn away and then said “Fuck it,” and got in the truck and drove home, stopping along the way to pick up a fifth of vodka and more cigarettes.
He took shots while mixing the paints. The moonlight hit the canvas like the sunlight and he turned on a single lamp in the corner. He remembered it was his weekend now and decided he’d finish the painting before it was over. He wouldn’t leave the room until it was done. He kept one burning in his mouth and took out his sketchbook and compared and stared and thought.
When the phone rang he took another shot and ignored it as best he could. When he finally put the brush to the canvas a minute later he heard the phone stop and a voice, his voice, came from upstairs. “This is Shane. Please leave a message, including your number, and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.” He’d forgotten he had an answering machine. Then came the beep and then came Karen.
“Shane, it’s me. I’m sorry. Just having a bad one, you know,” she laughed to herself and sighed. “Look, can you just come back please? I need you, okay? I’ll do whatever you want. Whatever. I didn’t mean to take it out on you. You know that. I know it’s not your fault. If it’s anyone’s fault it’s mine, or my fucking father’s. You know what he did to me, that fuck. That sick fuck.” She sighed again and waited. “I could use a fucking drink right now. I sure could. Something stiff. Whiskey neat. A martini. Remember those Sake Bombs that time in Chinatown? When you broke the table from slamming it too hard and the waiter got pissed? Remember we took the cab with that other couple back to our hotel? You’d just sold a piece and we used the money to do coke all night with them. Where were they from? France? Or was it Belgium? And the guy wanted to fuck me and he told you that the girl wanted to fuck you too. God, that was crazy. Remember that Shane?” She paused again and when her voice came back it was pleading. “Shane? Answer me, please. Don’t leave me like this. We can have kids. I’ll get off the pills for a bit and when they’re born I’ll get back on them. We can move in together when the old woman dies. I know she’s gonna leave me the house, she has no family. Wouldn’t that be nice, Shane? Wouldn’t—” and the machine cut her off.
He took another shot of vodka and that was when he noticed the streak. Had he done that? Fuck. Fuck, it was all wrong. It should have moved up from right to left not left to right. He took a shot. But he could fix it. He had all night. No, he had the whole fucking weekend. No. He had his whole fucking life to fix it and so he took another shot. There was no rush anymore, and the feeling of time slipping away was a rush of its own, like when in movies the camera zooms in while the cinematographer pulls it backward and that effect happens like nausea. But it happened within him and then he put the brush back to the canvas and when he pulled it away it was all wrong again. And now there were two lines to fix but it didn’t matter because there was so much time. And within an hour Shane was drunk and the painting was destroyed and then the phone rang.
He turned away from the canvas and walked upstairs.