The Painted Man
by Stevan Allred
|part 3 of 5|
Ray Volpe, actor, performance artist, and burrito seller, attends a dinner celebrating the return of his brother Michael from Iraq. The atmosphere at dinner is strained: Ray’s overbearing father gets along none too well with his family or his neighbors. And Ray’s father insists that even after a month of rain, the dam on his cattle pond will still hold.
After dinner there was coffee, which my father sweetened for those who wanted it with Kentucky bourbon, and a strawberry-rhubarb pie. The farmers and their wives got their coats and started saying their goodbyes. I found myself standing in a loose gaggle of people, next to Danielle, who had Kirk Kurmaskie all to herself while his wife glared at him from next to the front door.
We were all a little tipsy, and Kurmaskie was still holding Danielle’s hand, even though they’d stopped shaking hands a full minute before. Kurmaskie was telling her how his barn was built over a hundred years ago from trees they logged right on his farm, and how the big brass bell in the cupola had come around the Horn on a sailing ship with his great-grandfather.
Danielle kept smiling and nodding at him, and when he stopped for air, she said, “That is so fascinating, all that family history, but I think your wife is waiting for you.” She pulled her hand away from his and pointed at Joyce Kurmaskie. Kurmaskie had to turn all the way around to see his wife, who jerked her head toward the front door so hard that Kirk Kurmaskie almost tripped trying to get to her.
Danielle turned to me and deployed the world’s most ironic smile. “Your father has some interesting friends,” she said. I couldn’t tell if she included herself in that irony.
“So what,” I asked her, “do you do?”
“This and that. I’m going to art school,” she said. “I do some modeling on the side. Life modeling, like for the life drawing classes. A little foot modeling for local catalogues. I’m up for a Mountain Dew commercial right now. If I got that I’d have national exposure.”
Actress, model, whatever. She was a girl on the make. Why else would she waste her time with a farmer old enough to be her father? She did have nice ankles sticking out above the straps on her stilettos, but I couldn’t imagine her face being the one they’d want next to a bottle of Mountain Dew.
“How’d you meet Mike?”
“Mutual friends,” she said. “I know someone who grew up out here.”
Mutual friends, but not friends she was going to name. “You know,” I said, “I couldn’t help but notice your pierced tongue. I had the distinct impression that Mike doesn’t like piercings.”
“Well,” Danielle said, and she stepped in close enough to speak softly into my ear, “I haven’t heard any complaints. I think he likes mine.”
Her hand was on my shoulder, and I swear she raised her finger up and scraped her fingernail ever so lightly down my jawbone before she walked away. Such a tease, and I couldn’t help thinking that she might liven things up if Mike managed to keep her.
She went to my father, who was talking to Mumsy by the front door. Mumsy had her coat, and Viv was there with her. Danielle walked up to my father and slipped her arm through his, casually proprietary. She said how much she’d enjoyed meeting everyone here, and what a lovely dinner this was.
“It’s so quiet in the country,” she said, “I just love waking up out here.” She offered Mumsy her doe-y brown eyes and the smile she was no doubt hoping would land her that Mountain Dew commercial. Mumsy, trooper that she is, took it without flinching.
“Nice to’ve met you too,” she said, and they actually shook hands, as if they were at a business meeting. As if Danielle were not going to be the last woman to leave.
Michael changed out of his uniform, and he and I helped the caterers cart all their stuff out to their van. We said goodbye to Mike and Danielle on the front porch. My father had a cigar going, something else that was new for him, and Danielle took it from him and wrapped her lips around the end and puffed on it. She tilted her head back and blew a smoke ring, and she handed the cigar back to my father. It was pouring down rain, and close enough to midnight that it was clear we were going to have rain for the thirty-second straight day.
We got in our cars and drove away, Michael back to the condo he was staying in with a Marine buddy, and me to my dinky studio apartment on the edge of The Pearl.
* * *
The call from Mumsy came the next afternoon, after a night when I slept poorly. Several times as I lay on the cusp of sleep, on the very tipping point between wakefulness and sweet oblivion, I was visited by dark bovine creatures. On two legs and then sometimes on four they ambled through a pasture on the dark side of twilight, walking away from me and then sometimes walking directly towards me, and always when I saw them I was filled with trepidation, and startled out of sleep.
Mumsy told me to sit down. Her voice had a squashed sound to it, the sound of holding in tears.
“There’s been an accident,” she said. “It’s your father.” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She said, “He’s dead.”
I hadn’t bothered to sit down, but now I did. It was a Sunday afternoon, and I was still in my bathrobe, the Sunday New York Times spread out on the kitchen table, open to an article about the death of the American musical that left me wondering if I’d been born twenty years too late.
“Arnie found him. He must’ve gone out to check the pond. The dike gave way.” She was breathing hard into the phone now, a whole string of hard breaths like she was trying to empty her lungs and couldn’t. The words “he’s dead” were a big brass bell ringing over and over inside my head, a loud sound that made no sense.
“He was buried,” she said, her voice swamped but not yet drowned, “alive.” She let a sound out then, not a word, but a sound pitched high and edged sharp, like a bird coming home to a nest full of broken shells, her eggs robbed. Then she was quiet, even her breathing quiet, and I sat there waiting to feel something-grief, elation, overwhelming sobs, anything — but nothing came.
“When?” I said.
“Probably this morning,” Mumsy said. “Arnie went over there because the cattle were making a lot of noise, like they hadn’t been fed. Your father’s truck was in the driveway, and Arnie thought that was strange, your father home and the cattle hungry.”
“Mom,” I said, “this is awful.” He had his cigar in his mouth and his arm around Danielle’s waist when he waved goodbye. Last night, he was alive last night.
Mumsy was crying now, but I was too numb to force even a stage tear. There was something lumpy turning over underneath my sternum, something small and inchoate, something too easy to push away. It wasn’t how I wanted to feel. An absurd thought, given that it is the nature of emotions that they come upon us without consultation as to which of them we might choose. I was tossed aside, unable to find my bearings, a lumbering beast trying to find my way home.
“Mom?” I asked. “Are you still in love with him?”
She made a sound then, part hiccup and part sob, the inarticulate speech of her heart. I was envious. The instrument of her body was fully engaged, her emotions sharp and reactive, while mine were muffled and lethargic.
“Stop it,” she said. She was crying hard, her voice choked off and twisted around itself. “How can you ask me that now?” she said, “You can’t ask me that now.” Then her voice turned raspy and mean, a voice I had never heard from her before. “We have a funeral to plan, damn it, and I need you to help me. Pull yourself together.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. But I was not sorry. Sorry would have been something, and I was a big empty vacuum, a void where my heart should have been, and there was nothing whatever inside me that needed pulling together. She knew this. Mumsy always knew. I could never fool her. ‘Pull yourself together’ was merely a figure of speech, and what she meant by it was that I should fall apart, which was utterly beyond me.
“Does Michael know?”
“Do you want me to call him?”
“No. I’ll call him.”
“What do you want me to do?”
She blew her nose, long and hard, away from the phone.
“Come over here,” she said. “He’d want a big fuss made over this. I owe him that much.”
She was right of course. We had obligations that could not be ignored. My father, dead, was not yet done telling us what to do.
* * *
Copyright © 2008 by Stevan Allred