Lauren Slaughter is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and author of the poetry collection, a lesson in smallness. Her poems, essays, and short stories appear or are forthcoming in Image, RHINO, Pleiades, Kenyon Review Online, New South, The Journal, and 32 Poems, among many other places. She is an assistant professor of English at The University of Alabama at Birmingham where she is also Editor-in-Chief of NELLE, a literary journal that publishes writing by women.
The Chemistry of Color
In this course, we discuss the underlying physical processes that are involved in the production of light and the ways in which its interaction with matter leads to the colors we see in the objects that make up the world around us. – Haverford University Syllabus
We all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American Flag. – Donald Trump
There’s always one natural sciences major
in the back of my lit class between the note-taking athletes
with fold-up legs and the dude who doesn’t read
but hurls opinions at the lectern where I don’t impress
anyone. My pit-stained blouse and marble-mouth, my joke
that never really finds a punch line, the stutter I reveal
in my favorite Bishop poem dazzle the science major
least. Who cares for my well-rehearsed musings honed
in the shower before silent, shampoo soldiers?
Before cracked windshields and mugs yawning?
Like keys, the remote. One lonely sock. Class, what else in your life
exits to be lost? Queue my fed-up pre-med’s eye-roll,
book spread baldly to work with a lab component.
I could dry erase something—my student’s eyes—
if the evidence wasn’t so clear: each morning a new child
face-down on the beach, a child we won’t hear
screaming from a cage. Across campus some maze mouse—
Mus musculus—on its backgrew a real human ear.
Might it one day replace the plugged, went ones?
Poor mouse, poor all of us. My student’s syllabus
for The Chemistry of Color pledges that glare
upon a thing will alter one’s view, proven with Chameleon
analysis and make-your-own Lava Lamp experiments.
A color-flipped pic of the American flag will exhibit
the trick of afterimages by making you stare real hard
first at black, blue, and yellow with black stars.
Then find the country you knew by closing your eyes.
Once upon a time it was the summer
of Serena’s pool—
amoeba-shaped and deep
behind her house with no parents
for miles, a place
we could chain-smoke
and drink beer until our mouths
as we cannonballed
into the too-chlorinated fog.
Ed arrived after football practice
sweaty and salt-smelling
with soaked blonde curls
because he wasn’t dead
the way he’d be at twenty-eight.
So, it was also the summer of Ed alive
or that’s what it has become
distanced from that August
of his slight lisp
when he said, Lauren.
His tongue got caught
upon another word: years
or maybe, please.
the diving board
I found beneath his bathing trunks
the thing I’d heard about
—a boner—seemingly simple
shape of want. Ed is and has been
bones by now, nothing
to taste and not at rest
with a cat or child,
books spread around
the favorite chair recalling
a kind of love or, more, everything
that fills a life
Balloons set free
over broccoli trees
for this birthday boy
with a name I squint for
but can’t quite pull
from his screams
or these fluttery decorations
bound to every bare limb.
One thing: he’s not mine.
Mine stoically stirs
orange fish into her ice cream
at the table wrecked by spilled cups
and cupcake crumbs
the paper cloth shred by claws
it seems—oh look
how that dirty plate lifts
with a wind gust and sails
through the bee-filled air
to land on that mommy’s face!
Her name also escapes.
Who has had their Lexapro today?
Not I. Not that mommy.
If I could escape
from behind these sunglasses
I might go to this woman
in workout gear
not so unlike mine
and ask if she, too, is a poet
in disguise. We’d compare our kids’
vaccinations and strategize
for when our wee ones—all
milked and tucked in tight—
gasp that this life
ends. Lullaby of choice?
Bye-Bye Baby? Too morose
but Hush Little Baby is broken
things. When music fails does she, too,
deflect the way good parents do
and ask her kid to count
each green and glowing star
above the bottom bunk
as if it won’t unstick?
The glob of icing in her hair—
what might this woman write
if I reach with these
similarly flawed instruments
and try to untangle it?
The summer following freshman year, Rachel’s friends rented a house at the shore where they got jobs at local restaurants or gift shops but Rachel was forced to move in with her grandmother and charged with cataloging the cache of amateur paintings inspired by Bob Ross’s PBS program, The Joy of Painting, that had accumulated over the years in her basement. Eventually, the paintings would go up for sale on Pinterest. In her hands and back, Rachel’s grandmother had developed severe arthritis and could no longer produce, let alone heave, haul, organize, and photograph her artworks. For the operation, Rachel’s mother—a named partner at a law firm downtown—would pay generously.
“I’ll double what you would make waiting tables at one of those crab places,” her mother said. “Plus, it’ll keep you out of trouble and look good on your resume.” Once, in elementary school, Rachel had been sent to the principal for giggling too much during homeroom—for some unknown reason, she just could not stop laughing. Another time, she forgot to call her mother to say she would be late coming home from field hockey practice. The small college Rachel attended was only an hour from her hometown which meant her mother could come up for the weekend or she could return home to do laundry and sleep in her own bed with her cat, Jasper, there to purr her sleep. “We’ll call you a…”
“Cataloging Specialist.” She handed Rachel a new iPad. “Use this.”
“What about my car?” On the long drive to the house, both women felt a distinct jolt followed by a scraping sound. Or, the sound came first?
“Use Nonnie’s,” her mother hesitated, “I’ll Amazon you a GPS.” Rachel noted the way her mother’s angular cheekbones held up her cheek skin like tent poles. She had always been thinner than the other moms and prided herself on going gluten-free before it was even a thing. She was always telling Rachel that humans were designed to eat like cavemen, that 10,000 years ago there was no such thing as diabetes. With each bite of bagel Rachel took she would watch her mother literally shudder.
“Hello down there?” Rachel and her mother were in the basement, surveying the project. A bright, nervous voice called from upstairs. The basement smelled of mold and Rachel felt sure her throat was closing a little. Her mother sneezed twice. It was genetic. In their family, sneezes came in twos. “Karen? Rachel? Yoo-hoo?”
A certain sad, camp-type feeling came over Rachel as she stood at the living room window and watched her mother zoom away in her red, high school graduation present. She thought of those bracelets made of embroidery thread her counselors showed her how to make, how they always turned out to be knotty disasters nobody wanted to trade for. Her mother saved them all, stuffed into an array of preschool-era clay thumb-pots. “There,” her mother said to each ropy flop as she jammed it into a pot instead of fastening it around her bony wrist. The other day Rachel took one of those online quizzes about what side brained you are and it confirmed that she was neither creative nor rational, intuitive nor systematic. Had she ever been so very lonely?
“Well,” her grandmother sighed. She used a rolling walker with a seat attachment that allowed her to take breaks. She slid herself onto it. Rachel fought the impulse to go to her—this tiny, ossified thing—for a hug. When she was little, and her grandmother younger and more abundant, her hugs were like being folded into a shortbread dough that smelled of butter and rosewater. But age had transformed them both. Now Rachel was the big and heavy one. “Now what?”
Rachel looked around. Everything was brown and shades of brown. Dull, wood paneling lined every wall. The worn carpet, and end tables, and corduroy sofa, and lamps, and lampshades, and picture frames varied only in their dimensions of coffee, khaki, wheat, and tan. Her grandmother asked a question but Rachel had forgotten.
“Is that me?” Rachel went to one of the framed photos and picked it up. A snow of velvet dust obscured the image. When she blew it away she found an old-timey looking baby in a white, smocked dress. The baby had her mother’s dimpled chin and hazel eyes.
“Hold it up,” her grandmother said, adjusting her position. Rachel held the photograph up. “Bring it closer.” As Rachel approached, her grandmother leaned on the handlebars of her contraption and stood, letting loose a slight pip of fart. “Oh!” she said, plopping back down. Rachel wasn’t sure of the etiquette. She felt a strong urge to laugh—just like that time in elementary school—but also somehow, mysteriously, to cry. They used to spend holidays, birthdays, and weekends together but it had been years since Rachel saw her grandmother on a regular basis—now, it was almost like they were strangers. “Oh dear,” her grandmother repeated, true anguish in her voice.
“Are you alright?” Rachel asked. But what was she supposed to do if she wasn’t? In the bathroom she noticed an army of medicine bottles arranged along the sink and also one of those pill containers ordered by days of the week.
“It’s this damn knee,” her grandmother said. “I should have had it replaced years ago, but now it’s too late. Nobody wants to put somebody my age under.”
“Oh,” Rachel said. Now she was wondering: had her grandmother even heard the fart?
“My neighbor, Louise Norris? She had the surgery as soon as she felt the very first sign of something. There’s the lesson. As I always told your mother, take heed at the very first sign.” If her grandmother had not heard the fart, maybe that meant that she was hard of hearing. If she was hard of hearing, maybe her other senses were likewise diminished? Smoke, for instance. Would Rachel need to be the one to smell a fire? “Now Louise jokes that she is the bionic woman—but I say, she still plays tennis! Runs circles around that blockhead Marty and his snobby wife, what’s-her-name.”
“Sometimes I play tennis on the courts at school,” Rachel offered.
“Well!” This brought her grandmother slowly back to standing. “There is a court at the club! I’ve maintained my membership. We might go!”
“On a break from all this work in the basement your mother claims you are going to do for me this summer. Getting all that junk onto a computer?”
“Pinterest, Nonnie, it’s this website…”
“And I imagine she is paying you—and well, at that. That you are not here just out of the goodness…” Rachel knew her mother and grandmother must love each other, but she was not sure that she had ever actually seen any tangible evidence of it. In past Christmases each would claim to like the present the other had given, then complain about it afterward. The stainless-steel roasting pan her mother received years ago still sat in its box under the kitchen sink. Likewise, the espresso maker given to her grandmother had never been used.
“All of my friends are at the beach.” Rachel had not meant to pitch the statement with such spite but, also, maybe she had. She watched her grandmother deflate back onto her perch.
“Oh.” She sighed. “They are?”
“But I needed a summer job,” Rachel rushed to remedy, “so this is sort of it—my job—and I’m happy…”
“Then we absolutely must play tennis. Something fun. We would need to stop by the front desk for your guest pass, but there is an elevator. I could not play, of course, but would very much like to watch you. I used to love to watch you run when you were little. You were fast! Like a comet! Just like your mother.” Rachel had only seen her mother exercise indoors on stationary, gyroscopic equipment. You are beautiful as you are, her mother had assured as she kissed Rachel on cheek before as they said their goodbyes, but excess belly fat increases your risk by two-thirds for cardiovascular disease. In exchange for a new iPhone Rachel promised to shed some of that freshman fifteen by summer’s end.
“And I could ask Louise Norris to join us. Or one of her grandchildren? She has some about your age. They visit regularly. Even for the little holidays people usually forget.” Rachel was suddenly, overwhelmingly, exhausted. That sad feeling had been replaced by the sensation that her legs would buckle beneath her and she would collapse, a marionette, into a heap on the tawny, carpeted floor. “Are you tired?” her grandmother asked, “I am worn out. There was your bed to make and my appointments yesterday. Maybe we should take one of our siestas?” Years ago, when her parents finally figured out that they wanted to kill each other, Rachel regularly spent weekends at her grandmother’s house. They would play Parcheesi, and Skip-Bo, and pour out a whole bowl of Lays potato chips which they would eat slowly, taking turns with the folded ones. Each afternoon came with a snooze on top of a perfectly threadbare quilt with The Joy of Painting or Guiding Light on low volume in the background. When she was sure her grandmother was asleep, Rachel would take her wrinkled hand and pinch the skin on its back until it stayed up like a dumpling’s pressed edge.
Maybe it would be nice to lie down with her Nonnie but, “You have Karen’s old room upstairs,” she said as she slowly rolled away.
Dust motes in the afternoon sunlight twitched with the ticks of an ancient clock.
Rachel looked down at the child in the photograph. It was hard to imagine that her mother—chiseled bob, designer suit—had ever been a baby at all.
Her mother’s former bedroom was as the rest of the house, but somehow stiller. Rachel lay on the single bed with white lambs stenciled upon the headboard and took turns staring at objects—the swimming trophies, the sewing machine, the enormous slouched clown—until they turned into something else. When these things began to turn mean—the ceiling lamp, a man’s scowling face—she took out her phone. There was a noisemaker app she liked to set to ocean sounds but she’d forgotten to ask her grandmother for the Wi-Fi password. But what if there wasn’t Wi-Fi? She gave up on the nap to stare at her Facebook feed, willing it to shift from the stalled pics of Brianna and Stacy poised in bikinis on the beach. They’d told Rachel that summer would totally and completely suck without her but she thought they appeared to be getting along just fine.
Afternoon shifted into evening. Her mother texted twice (Don’t forget to check out the produce at the local farmer’s market! Did you show Nonnie my grocery list yet?) but Rachel was not in the mood. Plus, she wanted to appear busy. She rose and padded downstairs to check on things, but her grandmother—a pile of laundry dumped on the bed—appeared to still be sleeping. Suddenly starving, Rachel went to the kitchen and guiltily lifted the lid on the jar labeled, “Cookies” but found only rolled and rubber-banded envelopes inside. The refrigerator was similarly barren: orange juice, thinly sliced Sara Lee white bread, two containers of cottage cheese, a moldy hunk of Parmesan. Was Rachel expected to shop and cook for her grandmother, too? So far, at college, Rachel had been surviving on the dining hall’s pasta and cereal bars, and microwave popcorn and ramen noodles nuked in her dorm room. And a lot of beer she didn’t much like but drank anyway. There was no microwave here.
She made herself a large glass of water, chugged it, then chugged another, hoping this would help her feel full, as her mother always claimed. It did not. She felt her insides slosh about as she began down the basement stairs to get a better idea of just what she was in for as a so-called, Cataloging Specialist. Flipping on the light gave the space strange, celestial glow. It was cooler down here than it had been this morning, and the crisp air settled the spore-smells from when she’d stood here with her mother barely able to breathe.
Labeled and unlabeled plastic tubs, boxes of Christmas ornaments, a rusty bicycle, a rusty tricycle, chains of ball jars, window fans, a ladder, a hobby horse, hammers plus saws plus other unknown metal equipment pegged to the wall or settled on the ground where, years ago, it fell. In most ways this was like any basement but taking up at least half of the ground space were those stacks of canvases Rachel and her mother looked upon hours ago. However, this morning, the towers were buildings in a miniature city—she and her mother a pair of Godzillas looming above it. Now, either the stacks had grown and multiplied or Rachel had become very small—like Alice when she shrinks small enough to join the caterpillar on his mushroom. Was the shrinking the result of eating a pastry of some kind? If only.
Her stomach grumbled.
She began by surveying the paintings the way one might thumb through a flip-book, taking a rushed estimation of the inventory. Each work seemed to differ only in the color and placement of its Bob Ross-prescribed particulars: smears of sky achieved with a large, square, brush. Spaz of fir trees massed one on top the next in thick, green oils. Mountain-in-the-distance, craggy and snow-peaked. The thick arm that appears at a traffic stop was the branch in the foreground, up-close. The droopy blue, or green, or white-foamed waterfall. The flat mirrored lake that shot back flicks of landscape shapes. On and on and on like this, with always the abandoned log cabin where no man could ever possibly survive.
After taking Contemporary Art Fall semester, Rachel understood how to pronounce the
word correctly. Like the sound that fills up space just before the right word comes to mind.
She knew how to use it, too. As in, Picasso’s career can be divided into three distinct oeuvres: the blue, the cubist, and the neo-classist. Greedily, she’d watched the PhD student with a head of dramatically gelled curls use his laser pointer to highlight the cubist figure’s hands mid-strum on a mandolin. She likewise followed that red light to the discrete, methodical brushstrokes that gave a Cezanne landscape the appearance of a world constructedrather than simply depicted. She followed the light onto Polluck’s flows and drips—a method called, “action painting.”
Her grandmother’s paintings? Depicted. No action at all.
Yet, the simplicity of them—their extreme quiet—stilled her. Though she knew it was unsophisticated, she couldn’t help but agree with the guy who’d blurted out during a Pollock lecture, Icould do that. To that, the PhD student challenged the class to consider their “pre-formed assumptions about what constitutes a work of art.” About, “the physical form, symmetry, the shapes our society accepts and deems valuable.”
And, yes. That would be on the test.
For the first few weeks—alone in that house with her grandmother—Rachel felt agitated and antsy without her friends and the constant pull of a Wi-Fi connection. However, there evolved a pleasing cadence to their days. In the mornings, they would share a pot of dense oatmeal and dark, strong tea as they watched the blue jays and cardinals dip their beaks into one of the many feeders outside the kitchen window. Her Nonnie only nodded with approval as Rachel went to the pot another scoop, stirred in a sweet spoonful of brown sugar, or piled in more walnuts, blueberries, or raisins. There was never any urgency to get started with that day’s cataloging and it was not unusual for each woman to retire to her bedroom directly after breakfast to read or, even, to go back to sleep. Though her grandmother seemed pleased enough that Rachel was organizing the chaos of the basement, she seemed much more interested in her company. A crossword puzzle, a game of cribbage, a tour of the family photo albums. “Look how bright you were,” her grandmother would say, pointing out a pig-tailed Rachel on the carousel, colossal lollipop in hand, “positively glowing!” In her weaker moments, Rachel might retreat to the one of the few corners of the house that picked up the neighbor’s Wi-Fi to scan social media for images of her friends. She would try to like them all, though was careful to be judicious with her loves. Sometimes, she would take a brisk walk around the neighborhood in the sneakers her mother had provided—sleek silver Adidas that made her feel like an imposter. Her grandmother did not own a scale—and Rachel had yet to try on the cute, target-weight ensembles her mother slid into her luggage—but she had to admit that she was starting to feel better. Her clothes felt good on her body. Not loose, just very, very, light.
There were a total of three-hundred and forty-two paintings to photograph and number, and without really trying Rachel was through more than half of them. She would have to make a keen effort to slow down. It was already June and her mother would be back for her before the end of the month.
“Hey, kiddo!” Rachel’s grandmother called down one early afternoon, “come up here for a minute, would you?” Rachel was just finishing up photographing and numbering what she had labeled the Snowy Cabin Series—a sequence of forty or so paintings that depicted alternating versions of a white-dusted log house dropped, mysteriously, in the midst of a grand and blizzardy wilderness.
“Good news!” her grandmother began, as Rachel surfaced from below, “Louise’s grandson, Jonathan, is going to join us for tennis this afternoon!” Boom. That cannonball-feeling in her gut—a sensation Rachel had not experienced all summer.
“I don’t think, I” Rachel paused, looking for an excuse.
“Oh, don’t worry about the damned paintings. You know they’re second-rate. Your mother just wants them out of her hair when I croak.” The cannonball swallowed a cannonball which swallowed another.
“When?” Rachel was not quite sure what she was asking: when was the tennis match or when was her grandmother going to die?
“Well,” her grandmother looked at her wrist where no watch lay. “I think about…now!” Until this moment, the most animated Rachel had ever seen her grandmother was when she’d solved the Saturday crossword with, ENTER for, “A butler’s request.”
“Just let me change,” Rachel said, hurrying to her room. If she held her hand out the window of the guest bathroom, she was sometimes able to find a signal. Jonathan Norris, she typed into a Google search. “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit.”
She rummaged through her luggage for the too-small athletic attire her mother had sent along. There was nothing to do but fit into it.
Jonathan and his grandmother were already on the court when they arrived.
“Hey,” he said, flipping back the fillets of golden hair that fell upon his eyes.
“Hi,” Rachel said, tugging at her turquoise skort. Razor sharp price tags dug into her waist
fat. As she tugged, her racket dropped onto the hot concrete.
“I think we only have to do this for an hour or whatever,” Jonathan said, reaching over to
Rachel’s side of the long, white net that extended between them to retrieve her racket. He handed it to her. “My grandmother thinks I need get out of the house. Do something not Xbox?” Rachel conjured an exaggerated eye-roll. “I know,” he commiserated. “But she got it for me, so it’s a…what’s the word?” Conundrum, Rachel did not say.
“I know what you mean,” Rachel said. A hard, little booger appeared and began to breathe inside one nostril.
“Take it easy on me, okay?” Jonathan said, tossing Rachel a neon ball and flashing his aureate grin. “Because I am high as fuuuuuuck right now.”
The two youngsters turned toward their two grandmothers who perched as identical vertical masts atop a bench in the shade of the country club’s striped awning.
Rachel pretended that the missed opportunities to volley using her backhand and also the bevels she kept serving into the net did not prove that she was both nervous and grotesquely out of shape. Rather, she was taking it easy on this beautiful boy as per his request.
Thank you, he mouthed.
At school, Rachel outshined her friends in sports—she was slow, but strong. However, playing against Jonathan she was relieved from any obligations regarding athleticism and for the first time and could slow down and concentrate on the aesthetics. She thought of the way Stacy was brave enough to fix her eyes onto a guy until he blushed. And Brianna always managed to wear a shirt that revealed a bit of boob as she leaned over. Likewise, Rachel found that she could flip her hair—long, glossy, almost obsidian in its darkness—in a seductive, cheerleader-y fashion. When she bent down for another missed ball she could do so Bettie Boop-style. “Brilliant!” she heard her Nonnie cheer, apropos of nothing.
“Nice game, sport.” Jonathan said after the match was over.
“Thanks.” Rachel said.
In unison, they gulped down their water bottles beneath the straightforward glare of the sun and their grandmothers.
“Anyway,” he continued, “I’ve got an idea.” He began some impromptu stretches. “Let’s chill tonight. Come on over to Louise’s after dinner or whatever.” A single bead of sweat formed on his nose and released, plummeting to the toe of her shimmery sneaker.
All of the houses in the Tellico Springs community had been constructed from identical blueprints. Thus, entering the Norris household felt familiar but uncanny, like when you meet the twin of a friend you never knew had a twin. “Welcome!” Louise Norris said, opening the door in powdery make-up. Rachel thought of her own grandmother at home, watching Jeopardy in sweatpants. “He’s down there,” the old lady continued, pointing Rachel through the living room to the basement door. How odd it was to descend identical stairs and find Jonathan there, instead of her grandmother’s paintings. He was reclining on a worn leather couch operating a black video game controller that resembled a miniature spy plane. He did not look up and clearly had not bathed since their match; a vinegar funk made its way to where she stood, tensed in the “aspirational jeans” her mother had bought.
“You mother fucker!” Jonathan yelled.
He reached for the liter of Mountain Dew sitting on the table before him, took a swig, then held it up in Rachel’s direction. She approached and took a sip. “Here,” he said, handing her an extra controller and also a glass pipe stuffed with pungent green bud. “But watch out for that fucker, Shao Kahn.”
She was unpracticed with a lighter and allowed Jonathan to hold it for her, igniting the weed. A spume of burning, caustic smoke filled her throat. There had been the occasional joint passed around at college parties, but she could tell that this stuff was much more potent. She coughed as she finished her hit, passed back the pipe and, compelled to try to impress Jonathan, took two more.
The blackest sky Rachel had ever seen diverged by stars laminated by stars laminated by stars. Inky sweeps of violet and blue. A pulsing red orb.
Light years—not blood—courses through our arteries
How did we arrive on this tiny, spinning planet?
The science of it, yes.
No, but, really. How?
It was well past midnight, so Rachel was surprised to see the lights on inside her grandmother’s house which she finally reached after a slow, meandering walk. Through the open kitchen windows, the scent of sweet, baked goods found their way to where she stood in the middle of the street. Rachel had failed at video games, of course. She had likewise failed at smoking pot with any grace or decorum. “You are high as fuuuuuuck right now,” Jonathan had snickered as she repeatedly propelled an avatar of herself off a bridge and into a moat. Her eyes: red, sealed envelopes. At first, Jonathan was amused by her incompetence but as the night wore on he got more and more annoyed until he finally ignored her completely to focus on beating his high score and all of the words Rachel ever had inside her pressed themselves into a ball that she gulped down with some more Mountain Dew. An alien war was white noise in the background as she rested her head against a pillow that smelled of bong water and went to sleep. It was hours—or minutes—of numb, blank slumber. When she woke it was to the smell of Jonathan’s hot breath above hers, sour and impenitent. He grabbed her hips and pulled her body down the slippery leather couch then began to try to slide off her jeans. But they were too tight and did not budge.
“Did you have a nice time, dear?” Rachel’s grandmother said as Rachel shuffled into the kitchen. “I don’t know what has come over me—maybe it’s this new medication?” she continued, “But I’m just feeling so good!” Her grandmother was hovering over the stove with rows of cooling cookies stationed around her. She massaged her arthritic hands as she said, “or, maybe it’s just you being here.” On the Formica table a bottle of sherry had been considerably depleted. She took hold of her wheeled walker and approached, “I just loved watching you play today.”
Rachel knew she should say something about her night—about being here now—but her head was a balloon hovering about three feet about her neck. “Those cookies look amazing,” she said.
“Go ahead,” her grandmother said, “they’re for you!” She presented Rachel with a glass of cold milk then sat down. The cookies had a slight crunch on the outside, but inside were doughy and warm. It seemed that no physical act that had ever occurred or would occur could give Rachel as much pleasure as eating these particular cookies with her grandmother sitting there, watching with delight. “I had an idea earlier,” Rachel’s grandmother said, “it might be too late now, but,”
“What is it?” Rachel said between bites. She was suddenly overwhelmed with gratitude. She would do anything her Nonnie wanted.
“I was feeling so good that I went down to the basement. I found some paints I never had the chance to use, a few brushes? I was wondering: would you let me paint you?” Rachel thought of all those mirrored lakes, smeary skies, and white-peaked mountaintops. She hadn’t come across a single human figure or portrait.
“Sure, Nonnie,” Rachel said, “we’re free all day tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow’s no good,” her grandmother said, “who knows how I’ll feel—if I’ll even be here—tomorrow. It has to be now.”
There was a ratty old couch in the basement on which her grandmother, directing her with a long brush, told Rachel to recline. “Think, Matisse, think, Rubens,” she said. Rachel dragged the couch to the center of the room and covered it with pillows and a blanket from her bedroom. She positioned her grandmother’s old easel before it, helping her gather her palate, brushes, and turpentine. After instructing Rachel to sample a number of positions, they settled on one which her grandmother called, “in repose.”
“Just lie here?” Rachel asked.
“That’s all you have to do,” her grandmother said, “but let’s try pulling off that shirt.”
“Your shirt,” her grandmother said, “and those jeans. I can hardly see you.” The moon, a single, white bulb, illuminated the room.
“Really, Nonnie? Is that necessary?”
“No,” her grandmother said, “but it will make for a closer likeness. Anyway, who cares?” In her mind, Rachel ticked through the inventory of her body’s defects that all women perpetually maintain. Her grandmother looked on expectantly. Rachel removed her jeans and shirt. “Bravo!” her grandmother cheered. “Look at all that beautiful, glowing, skin. Now, the rest, darling. Go on, go on.”
Normally, Rachel took great pains to obscure her naked form—even from herself. Even alone in her bedroom she would don a towel as she dried her hair, or make sure to wear a robe as she applied lotion. But something about her grandmother’s gaze made her feel like a star.
The walls, the bright bulb, her grandmother’s full, encouraging eyes.
There were no sounds save for Nonnie’s brushstrokes, interrupted from time to time with her vacant show-tune hum. Issuing through the basement’s slit windows a grey light suggested when the night began to release into day. Pink dawn shone as Rachel allowed her eyes to close.
She had a dream.
In the dream, she was somehow everywhere—a bare expanse looking down upon a field of silver-white snow. There was a wilderness of thick dark trees, a clean flat lake, the sound of moving water in the distance. Resting in the middle of a clearing, a log cabin with a fire going inside. Through the opaque window, Rachel watched the outlines of a woman—her mother? Her Nonnie?—as she moved around the interior, gathering materials to stoke it. Puffs of the fire’s sweet smoke rose to the night sky to join Rachel as she reached into and beyond everything.
It was a new day before the painting was finished.
“My God,” her grandmother whispered with one last, quick, brush stroke, “I’m done.”
Rachel rose from the couch and went to the easel to see. Grandmother steadied her weary body against granddaughter’s naked one as they stood regarding the canvas that was a slate of black, blue-black, and plum swirling with untold brilliance.