Since our next Flash/Sudden Fiction Contest is next Wednesday (March 2, 11am in Kitteredge-512 – just show up if you want to participate), here’s a re-post of last semester’s winner. One of the prompts was the picture below (by HCC alum Aliea Wallace – from www.aliea.com), which figures prominently in Tess’ piece…
Jessie’s mother was an artist. She made art with her brushes and oil paints, and with her fingers and her long russet curls. She would twist her hair into sleek braids, wrap them in sensuous styles at the nape of her neck, and then tear them out again in fits of frustration, all tears and tangles and shattered palettes. She made art with red lipstick on her thin mouth, and the way it stained the filters of her Virginia Slims, and when pink butts began to collect in a paper cup, or a vase of dead flowers. She made art with just her smile, rare and fleeting, but so warm, like a crash of heat lightning in a cold winter rain. Jessie chased that warmth, coaxed it.
She sat at the window all day, the sun illuminating her features in the soaring sun of morning and leaving her in shadows as she skipped dinner again. She worked long into the night, making art with the chorus of her tears and the shredding of canvas, the lighting of cigarette after cigarette even though she told Grandma she quit. When she had no strength left, sometimes after days of non-stop working and nothing but caffeine and nicotine to sustain her, Jessie would find her mother asleep on the couch when she woke up for school. By afternoon she was painting again. Jessie would buy sweet rolls for her on the walk home, which she picked at, flicking pieces out the window to the birds. Jessie lived alone with not a mother but an artist, and she learned that everything can be art, and that art can be heartbreaking and horrific even as it is beautiful. Jessie’s mother was beautiful.
The summer that Jessie was eight years old, her mother worked on a self portrait with agonizing intensity. The summer of a million faces, all much the same, but none quite right.
She had taken a day off from painting on a breezy June day. They walked through the city together eating ice cream cones and perusing the shops. Jessie saw a peaceful summer ahead, felt inklings of the mother she could barely remember, dared to think that maybe the bad time had finally passed. But then, the antique shop.
Her mother saw the tall, golden mirror, with ornate floral carvings on the side, spots of rust in the corners of the reflection, lovely and tacky all at once, and appeared as if struck. Fifty dollars she didn’t have to give away, shoved into the owner’s hands, and she hurried Jessie home, skipping the promised visit to the zoo. With trembling limbs, she positioned the mirror next to her painting spot. She stared at a blank canvas with a horrifying determination. The usual listless sort of Jessie watched with an ache inside of her.
Jessie’s mother painted failed self portraits on all of the canvas they could afford, and then on more, bought with the checks grandma sent to help with rent, or stolen from the art studio at the college down the block. She painted on napkins, in Jessie’s old school books, on the table-tops, and then on the walls. Jessie spent a few days watching carefully, wanting to find some way to cure her mother’s restlessness, to ease the suffering, to help her with this somehow overwhelming project, but when it was clear that there was nothing to do, she began instead to spend all of her time away from home. Days wandering alone through the coastal sun in Salvation Army sundresses and sneakers one size too small. She came home after dark and her mother never asked where she had been.
She never finished the self portrait. The mirror became another casualty of her rages. As Jessie cleaned the mess away she pretended not to notice that the broken glass mingling with the spilled blood made its own sick sort of art.
(Note: the image is from www.aliea.com. Aliea Wallace is an HCC alum.)