a north florida town

An excerpt from CONCRETE FEVER

My mother was raised in a north Florida town without so much as a stop sign. When her parents said beaches what they really meant were swamps. Sunshine meant the gray humidity that descended ninety percent of the year. Fog infected your shirt sleeves and her first paintings were speckled with sweat. After school she worked a bait shop counter and bought herself a rotating electric fan. She produced two paintings a night and hung all of them together on her walls. Soon there wasn’t a square inch left. Her family teased the circus must have come to town. It did nothing to stop her. She woke in their modular home with only one thought in her head. Her experiments grew in scope. She stole pamphlets from the guidance counselor’s office showing cool slate sidewalks and yankee architecture, high rise neighborhoods with galleries at the corners.

Originally she chose home ec over art class. Those were two of three electives offered. The other was woodshop. Barf. Not so deep down she blamed her mother’s ineptitude for everything wrong in her life. The cramped overheated trailer. The dead-end town. The dead-beat stepfather. She set out to make herself a better woman. It was only after a pastry exploded that she gave painting a second thought.

When she entered her first class she caught the boys clumsily drawing penises and the girls snorting acrylics from the tube. She wanted to leave but retreated to the back corner. It was this or building birdhouses, she reminded herself. She set down her bag. Grabbed brushes, paint and canvas. Took the stool and stared blank a while. The canvas was so goddamn white. It dared her to do something worthy. Her hands shook so bad she accidentally squeezed a full tube of burnt sienna on the table. She pushed as much as she could onto a palette but there remained a brown streak that looked like a botched dump in the center of the table. Her fingers were covered in it. The canvas laughed at her. She heard her classmates, her mother, stepfather, everyone laughing their stupid heads off. She couldn’t take it. She swung forward and knocked her canvas over. She didn’t anticipate the sound. The floor was slick masonite and the wood frame hit like a rock. The class lazily turned around. She couldn’t meet their eyes. She still hadn’t seen a teacher anywhere. She crouched behind her station to pick up the canvas. The glaring white was murdered. In its place were jagged streaks where her fingers hit. She saw her hand was still coated and pushed her full palm into it. Retracted and a story blossomed. She swiftly returned to her stool. Set it on an easel and grabbed for more colors. Someone chided but they were dead now. There was a buzz in her ears. Everything dead but this. Some colors she smudged with her fingertips, some she flicked with the end of a brush, others she swept over the thing with a chisel. It was desolation. It was the end of the world. It looked like nothing, a hideous mess, she overworked it so much the colors blurred into a dull purple brown and her forty-five minutes of concentration were lost. She swore the next one would be better.

One day a voice broke her concentration. You’re pretty messed up, huh?

Classmates had pulled this before. They left sooner if she didn’t turn around.

You continue these at home?

You know I don’t. Even among this set her family’s poverty was a joke.

How would I know that?

What do you care?

Come on.

She was pissed. She started with a symphony. Now there were only blotches and stripes. She spun around saying, What do you want, asshole? then stopped dead. The guy was thirty-five and tattooed.

To teach you, if you’ll let me.

I’m sorry, I didn’t –

Save it. No apologies here.

No problem. Sorry.

He smiled, a dimple in his left cheek. When you see a canvas, what goes through your head?

She hesitated.

It’s alright, you can tell me.

I get pissed.

Why?

Because it’s like – never mind.

What?

No, it’s stupid.

Tell me.

It seems superior. Or, untouchable. I want to destroy it. Rip it apart or something.

So why don’t you?

What, like, for real?

Why not? he asked.

Cause it’s an art class, she replied.

Let me get you a blade. He took a few minutes. By the time he got back she had fixed her hair. Here you go.

Thanks.

Can I ask you a favor?

Sure.

Don’t tell your classmates. I have enough trouble with them eating the art supplies. She laughed. I’m Mitch by the way. She started to introduce herself but forgot her name. After a moment he smiled gently, turned, and left her to it. She turned to the canvas and immediately began carving the hell out of it.

Gradually she learned to paint a picture rather than destroy a canvas. Some days the colors united in a delicate alliance, other times they fought full force. Mitch snuck her supplies to bring home. Canvases, sketch pads, brushes, and most importantly tubes of paint in more colors than she could fathom. Eventually she learned many items were from his own stash. She tried to return them but he insisted. Didn’t need them. Hadn’t painted a stroke in months. He left Austin when his mother got sick and returned to the swamps to care for her. In truth it was only a matter of time. Horrible as it sounded, he was just waiting until she kicked it so he could return to his own life.

The time came to submit her portfolio to colleges. Mitch owned a high-end Pentax. They developed shots themselves and burned proofs in his bathtub turned dark room. They spent hours together. All in service of her work. Of the future she could so clearly picture for herself. They talked. She had never had anyone she could talk to. Then suddenly there was a successful artist interested in her thoughts, from the letdown of Presence after Houses of the Holy to the hype surrounding Star Wars. With him she felt cultured. She dressed and talked how she imagined his girlfriends might have done. He drove her home nights and didn’t crack on her family’s trailer. She had always been petrified what people might say. She avoided the situation like the plague. But with him she felt at ease. She waved when he drove off. Thirty-five isn’t that much older, she reminded herself.

The envelope sat fat in her mother’s sweaty hand. Ripped open. A pinched scowl on her face. You know what this says?

I don’t know, that Ray didn’t pay the gas bill? The envelope landed heavy at her feet. She picked it up, slid out the acceptance letter, looked up with joy and got smacked. Pleas, threats, accusations of betrayal. Tried to reason with her mother but no use. Finally she couldn’t take anymore, burst through the door and ran out into the night. Only one direction.

Summer hit early. The air split open and a storm whipped at her sideways. Drops bruised like bullets. Debris like blunt knives. She was winded within a half-mile. Slowed to a walk. Swallowed deep breaths. Caught headlights. Got off the road and hid in sopping grass three feet high. She recognized the pickup when it passed. Waited a few minutes then sprinted up the road to the trailhead. The path cut through the swamp for a couple miles toward a service road by the interstate. She took it slow. Thought things through. She was heading to New York. Didn’t care how. Her first choice school wanted her and she’d make it happen.

Cheeks scratched, hair limp, clothes soaking and suddenly transparent, she climbed the four steps and knocked on Mitch’s door. Spill of light. Whiff of green smoke. A hand led inside. Long hot shower and a fresh bathrobe. She looked in the mirror for a long while and finally told herself not to chicken out.

He was sprawled on the couch smoking a J. She joined and shortly felt high. It was her first. There was Zeppelin on the turntable. Immigrant Song. She stomached her nerves and leaned in. A few mutters of how they shouldn’t, couldn’t, but soon enough they were. Robert Plant was wailing. Mitch was guiding her head downward. His fingers in her black curls. The drums were bursting her ears. He exhaled and his fingers tightened on her hair. Sharp pain pierced the back of her neck. She rose to steal a breath but he pushed her back down. The record was skipping. The bass was all wrong. The air was smoked and stuffy. Her chest contracted. She needed to breathe. She tried telling him but couldn’t manage words. Vowels only. He was shushing her. Her lungs went empty and the room caved in. Black air, green smoke, white flesh. She coughed and sputtered when he finished. The smell was overpowering. He tried holding her down there throughout but she pushed off him and hurried to the bathroom. He called after her that it wasn’t polite.

Mitch said there were sienna and umber freckles in her eyes. Looking in the mirror she thought they looked colorless. Flat and dead. She scrubbed until her flesh wore thin but no matter what she did she could still smell it on her. She remembered the safety of her bedroom. Her thick covers and her dozens of paintings on the walls. Then her stomach sank. She’d run away. She’d never see them again. Her family was livid, probably trashed them by now. There was no going back and nowhere left to run.

Since I’ve Been Loving You was playing. She emerged from the bathroom. Mitch was banging around the kitchen out of sight and asked if she wanted a grilled cheese. Her stomach turned over and she headed the opposite direction. She was suddenly filled with the urge to meet his mother. Perpetually asleep. A closed door. Off-limits. She turned the knob and the door creaked. She checked behind her, no sight of him. She pushed it open and slid inside. Now familiar black air. A faint smell of central air gone stale. And an vacant mattress stripped of its covers.

I got Gruyere and chili oil, he announced. It’s good, you should have one.

What. The fuck?

Huh?

You said you were taking care of your mother.

Swallow. You went in there, huh?

What’s going on?

She, um, kind of died already. About a year ago.

Why are you living here then?

She left it to me.

What about your career in Austin?

My career, that’s funny.

You said you were –

I wanted you to think high of me, okay? That’s not a crime.

Blank stare.

Look, you’re a sweet kid…

A sweet kid? I just blew you, for Chrissake!

You’re the one that wanted to, I told you we shouldn’t.

Right, you were really pushing me off… She choked back a sob. Silence.

Look. I’m sorry, alright? he said, not sounding sorry at all. Maybe you’d better just go.

It’s a hurricane out there.

Well I can’t drive you, I’m stoned.

She grabbed her clothes still wet on the top of the washer and rushed out the door. He called she was still wearing his robe. She tore it off and chucked it in the mud out front. It sank there defiled. She walked naked to the edge of the lawn. Sobbing but the tears got lost in the rain. The storm picked up and her bare skin got the brunt of it. She walked like that for a quarter mile before the shock wore off and it made sense to slip into her soaked clothing.

She started tripping harder. Mitch said it was only pot. It could have been a weird reaction. Still, there was little reason to trust him. Trees rose up like soldiers. The air pushed her down to her knees. More than once she cried out a prayer. She hadn’t been to church since grade school. She barely knew who she was praying to but she did it all the same. Colors sprung from the dark and begged her to stop and admire them. Another voice told her to keep moving. Music was in her head. She matched her steps to the beat. Her stomach convulsed. She fought to control it. Her body was lost. Her mind severed. One thing revived her. She pictured herself in New York. The apartment. The friends. The lofted studios and spankin’ new art supplies. A new life waited. She only had to survive the storm.

 

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Copyright © Nathaniel Kressen.

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