FICTION
July 2021

still life

Giorgio_Morandi_natura-morta-1955.jpg

paul skenazy

When his wife Edie died, Will Moran closed his front door and began to paint pictures of rocks. Rocks and bottles, plastic shovels and pails, driftwood and bunched-up rags. Drawings first: in pencil and charcoal. Then he moved to temperas, oils, and acrylics. He advanced from paper to cardboard, cardboard to canvas and Masonite. Day after day he devoted himself to painting, rocks, and his walks.

 

Edie and Will met in 1978 when Will got a job teaching History at Santa Cruz High. It wasn’t love at first sight so much as bored faces at the fall staff meeting, the two trading looks as they lamented the thirty-five minutes it took the principal to explain how to deal with attendance problems and late homework.

     “I think you checked your watch more times than I did, and I stopped counting my glances at twenty,” was the way Edie introduced herself.

     “I didn’t count, but I suspect you won. I’m new here, need to watch myself.”

     “You’re safe as long as you wear socks and show up at football games,” she said to him.

     “That I can handle. It’s the meetings that get me.”

     “Either they’re in their seats or they’re absent, they finish the assignment or don’t,” Edie said. “Is that so hard?”

     “Maybe it’s different in Santa Cruz? What with the auras and things?” he asked her.

     “You’ll stop joking once some Harmony or Rainbow explains that her mother’s Tarot reading warned her not to come to school for a week.”

     He laughed.

     “I’ve got two Willows, a Blossom and a Truth, no Rainbows or Harmonys. In Mendocino where I taught the favorites were Phoenix for boys and Heather for girls.”

     “I’m headed back to my classroom to have a heart-to-heart with Karma right now,” she said to him.

     “I’m so sorry.”

     “You’ll be sorrier when you hear the same speech next fall,” she answered, turning away down the hall.

     The next day he found chocolate chip cookies in his mailbox: “I’m Edie. I teach English, like jazz, art and foreign films, and have a seven-year-old daughter named Helen who helped me bake these. My husband died three years ago and I am not looking for a replacement. Helen says to tell you to invite me to lunch but I decided I’d rather ask you. I checked your schedule; you’re free. Today? Tomorrow?”

     He chose Today so he wouldn’t have time to get nervous. They repeated the meeting the next day. They left the teacher’s lounge after school, sat on the swings for half an hour before smiling goodbyes to each other. Then two more lunches the next week, the homecoming game that Friday night. She picked him up for a beginning-of-the-year faculty potluck on Saturday. He met Helen when he came to dinner the following Monday. Tuesday there were more cookies in his mailbox, this time oatmeal, with a note from Helen: “I made these myself. Thank you for coming to dinner. Mom says she likes you.”

     It was his turn to bake. He made brownies and left them for Edie: “Why are you and your daughter so shy? How about dinner instead of lunch? Today? Tomorrow?”

     Will had never been courted before. He thought of himself as a lone . . . not wolf, maybe raccoon, raiding the leftovers. He felt unsure of himself almost anywhere but in class, waiting to spill wine on a rug or show up with his shirt buttoned wrong. “Mr. Fumble,” Edie called him with a laugh when he had trouble undoing her bra and untangling his feet from his pants. She didn’t mind lending a hand.

 

 

Edie died in early July, 2005. At the memorial friends talked of her bravery, how she remained upbeat despite her pain. She lasted longer than many, they told Will by way of consolation. Will was not consoled.

     Helen was there for the last week. After the burial, she took control.

     “You look exhausted, Dad. Your vigil is over. It’s time to think about your own health. Rest. Let me take care of you for a while.”

     Will knew rest was impossible. He shuddered when he imagined Helen caring for him, figuring that was something that wouldn’t come for a dozen or so years. He was tired. But what tired him most was being the object of attention, sympathy, and kindness. Not that he wanted to be slapped around, he quickly said to himself. But ignored: that might be just the cure for whatever ailed him; whatever could be mended, without Edie in his life.

     To Will, Helen seemed to deal with grief as if it were a childhood earache or persistent cough best treated with an antibiotic, renewed vigor and impatience. She seemed to enjoy hectoring. He remembered months back, Edie staring at the phone after saying goodbye to her:

     “You know, Will, I never get off the phone without Helen leaving me with one nagging issue or another to brood over. Last week it was that the sofa cushions were too soft for my lower back.”

     “And today?”  Will asked.

     “It’s whether I am wasting sponges when I replace them every week the way I do.”

     “Important,” was all Will could say to that, though he knew the sponges were important. To Edie at least. Every Sunday night since the first week they lived together Will watched Edie throw one away and open its replacement. “Some things in this world don't deserve attention but require it anyway,” she used to say. “Memory needs props. Habit’s my crutch.”

     Will was fighting his own battle with habit those first months after Edie died, when he bought sponges by the dozen and opened one every Sunday night well into November. Or when he realized how he stumbled still over Edie’s slippers getting out of bed in the morning—the same pair, in the same spot where Edie used to place them, night after night. A spot where he invariably tripped going to the bathroom to pee, however many years it was they’d been married. Even in her last weeks Edie insisted the slippers remain where they always had been, though by then Edie could no longer rise by herself but would instead ring a tiny bell to wake Will, who would insert her dwindling feet into the worn shoes. And now, Edie gone, Will found himself carefully setting those tired slippers alongside the bed still, where they continued to get in his way.

     Will wanted to stop stumbling over the past. He wrote that in one of his first entries in the notebook he started, hoping to learn something from the wild and fitful thoughts that consumed him. “Not answering the phone causes more grief than what’s said, Helen insists. Goodbye’s become a sacred word, hello makes the sun come up. But lives go on, me or no me. Or don’t go on. No medicine in my flesh. Edie would be the first to confirm that.”

 

Will discovered that the only place he felt safe was on the roof. “Used to be afraid of heights, wonder why I'm not anymore,” he asked himself in his notebook. “The world is different up there. So am I.” He sat for hours on the rough asphalt shingles, looking off across block on block of TV antennas and through the telephone lines to the horizon, where ocean, air, and fog met. He took solace in the silence, the clouds, the pale greens, browns and reds of the rooftops. “No more calls on me,” he wrote to himself. “No one to care for, answer to, worry about. Nothing to do but what I want. And what is that, old fart?”

     When the roof lost its magic, Will walked. He left his house late each night and wandered down to the beach. He traced no set course, letting impulse direct him. Once on the sand, he would watch from the shadows. He saw people huddled near fires; noisy groups throwing Frisbees into the dark; couples folded into blankets or sleeping bags against the cold; dogs running back and forth with excitement. When he had his fill, he would trudge back home, empty his shoes of the sand, and head for bed. “Stare, wonder, walk. For hours, even days,” he wrote to himself. “Till the legs or heart give out. Or I find something better to do with my time.”

Will had never been very talkative; now he was quieter still. He kept the lights off and the blinds drawn, living in a perpetual twilight breakfast to bedtime. What he needed, he thought, was to be alone. What he needed, he soon discovered, was to collect rocks.

 

When Will lived in Mendocino that he fell in love with the winter storms. He would clamber down to whatever isolated beach he could find over rocks made slick by the rain. He’d strip off socks and shoes, roll up his jeans and spend afternoons walking slowly up and down the sand, collecting pebbles, glass or whatever else caught his eye. He loved the way each storm redesigned the landscape, depositing whole tree trunks, massive boulders.

     It was the same in Santa Cruz. He’d stalk the tide, picking up and discarding small stones with a random, unthinking impulse. He’d stick them in pants pockets, shirt pockets, coat pockets, plastic sandwich bags, and empty them into a basket on his dresser at night, or leave them in paper plates to dry.

Edie gone, Will took up his beach habits again. He collected as he went, then dropped the night’s accumulation in a heap alongside the mail that often sat, unopened, on his hall floor for days. Mornings he rinsed the pebbles in the kitchen sink, let them dry, and dropped the stones that remained onto the living room floor, next to the old sofa. He started carrying a backpack with him and began taking home larger and larger rocks and pieces of driftwood, adding these to his pile beside the couch.

     One afternoon Will picked up a pencil, rummaged around for paper, and tried to draw a few rocks that interested him. He tried on and off the rest of the day, and again the next. He found charcoal sticks in the storage shed but soon finished with those––“too flaky,” he wrote in his notebook: “Rubs off on hands, face, everywhere but the paper. Rubs me the wrong way.” He hunted through the shed for the temperas Helen used in high school to paint signs on cardboard. He found an old brush, and went to work with the red, navy blue and bright green that were the only colors that weren't dried out.

     Will arranged and rearranged the stones—bunched together, with space between, in rows, some leaning on others, larger behind or in front of smaller. He’d try to build the flatter pieces into towers, like the cairns that shaped his steps when he hiked. (“Stone watchtowers,” Edie called them.) But his souvenirs-turned-still-lifes defeated him. “Why defeated? What battle am I in?” he mocked himself. “Surface after surface, no whole. I remember too much: when I got them, where. I’m not painting a family album, just rocks. ('Just'--fucking hard word, demeans as it demands.)”

     A desire to find relationships––or what he wanted to imagine as relationships––kept Will drawing and writing notes to himself: “A stone fits another, or doesn’t. Accents, removes, maybe hints at something. Or so I pretend. Until rocks tell me otherwise, I need to assume that’s my illusion, not the earth’s.” It was late September when Will admitted he was stumped by what he called his “purposeless stones”: “Are they mine? Are they purposeless? Useless question. Add pencils, pens, paint, brushes, paper. Add color, shape, boundary, shadow: still purposeless?”

     9.25

There’s no 'with' with stones, maybe. Carry one in a pocket, years pass, the stone is worn down a bit by my thumb, it warms in my palm. Is it still only itself, no relation to me? Does art, or keys I carry in the same pocket, do anything to the rock’s rockiness?

 

When he wasn’t painting, Edie haunted him. He found her everywhere: in the photographs along the hallway; the creak of his bed; the slope of the sofa cushions. He went on a tear. He disconnected the answering machine and unplugged the phone. He got rid of his stereo, the coffee table, the armchair, and the sofa. He moved on to the dining room chairs, the dishes, pots and pans, Persian rugs, and the old radio he kept out in the storage shed. He stripped his house down to a dining room table, his bed and dresser, a mattress on the floor of Helen's old room, wooden packing crates he brought in from the shed to serve as bedside tables for the guests he didn’t expect, two benches along the kitchen counter, and a bunch of overstuffed pillows edging what used to be the living room.

     It was then (October 17 was the entry in his notebook) that he accepted the fact that this was as close as he could get to what he wanted to do: walk, collect stones and driftwood, stare at the rocks and disfigured branches that littered his living room floor, and try to paint them.

Figured I’d be done by now, back planting, reading, even traveling. Mourning Edie the rest of my life in my taciturn way. Turn into a granddad. Rejoin ACLU, go to City Council meetings, stump for Democrats, volunteer at the nursing home until I need to check myself in. But the rocks interest me. They are implacable, friendly. They never talk back.

 

By the new year, Will hoped, he'd be able to draw a rock or two with some confidence, as he knew he couldn't yet, his lines and proportions all askew, his colors mismatched. (“Though what is not mismatched? What matched to what? Art as outfit coordination? Marriage brokering?” he challenged himself, not expecting an answer.)

 

Will painted from the time he woke until well after sunset. By ten or eleven at night he was walking the streets, sometimes until four or five in the morning. One street led to the next, mile after mile, eventually ending up at a dark beach where he’d sit and watch traces of moonlight reflected in the water. He traveled the same routes for nights at a time until he could predict the domestic patterns: porch lights on at all hours, homes where dogs barked and thrust their jaws at windows or noses through fences; lights in kitchens or dimmer ones in what he guessed must be bathrooms. He could recognize the makes of cars and flatbed trucks alongside homes or in carports. He watched cats who loitered along a window ledge, others who sat on concrete stairways or nestled against a front door. He learned to recognize the occasional whimper or cry, barely audible, that instigated a sequence of lights as (he imagined) parents found their way from bed to child's side. The pale flickering blue TV glow, so alien against the dark, filled what looked like empty rooms. “Family habits my sundial, or darkdial” he wrote.

     “Why this new carnal love of matter in me,” he asked himself in a notebook entry:

Stones, streets, concrete, tar, bridges, lamps, moon, porch lights, water, metal fences, walls: my chemistry. The smell of air preparing for rain, the day's leftovers, gravel, the sidewalk in fog. Beaker of solitude.

 

There were more open shades and curtains than Will expected, more people who seemed to enjoy disrobing while staring out at the almost empty streets. But Will found their bodies didn't interest him as much as the play of room light, the way shadows shifted the spatial geometry of an archway into a kitchen, a curved window, ornamental stained glass. He sometimes imagined he was a prehistoric hunter, his eye drawn to movement and sound by shifts of the darkness. He would stop for ten or twenty minutes, stare long enough to distinguish someone eating a snack from someone else writing a note or setting up the coffee maker for the morning.

January 20

Nights: still, unknown. Or so I like to think. They are alive to me as days aren’t. No one to see, or see me. All quiet except me, alley cat, night prowler. When do I start to howl at the moon?

This is an excerpt from "Still Life," a novel to be published this month by Paper Angel Press. It is available from Paper Angel's store, Amazon, and through your local bookstore.

Paul's story Let's Call Her Barbara appeared in Issue #3 of The Signal House Edition.

PAUL SKENAZY grew up in Chicago and studied at the University of Chicago and Stanford University. He taught literature and writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His nonfiction works include a book on James M. Cain, a collection of essays on place in San Francisco literature, and a selection of interviews with Maxine Hong Kingston. He has twice nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award for reviewing. For a dozen years, he was a mystery review columnist for the Washington Post. His short novel 'Temper CA' (2019) won the Miami University Press Novella Contest. Stories and essays have recently appeared in Catamaran Literary Reader, Chicago Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Santa Cruz, California, with his wife, the poet Farnaz Fatemi.

(Image Credit: 'Natura Morta' by Giorgio Morandi, 1955. Image courtesy of WikiArt, all rights reserved)