Blood on Newspaper, 2014
By Shannon Slocum
I had a professor who mocked the way we all walked from painting to painting like ducklings, following the museum masses rather than choosing for ourselves.
“You should stand in the doorway and let the piece pick you,” Damien would say with a flourish, his white eyebrows rising almost as high as his hands. “Let yourselves be drawn to it.”
We usually let him down, the way we dressed alike and thought alike, copying each other’s ideas and colors until that strange day one of us found inspiration elsewhere and emerged on the other side. Damien would drag their easel across the studio – wheels screeching and scratching in defiance – and stick them in some drafty corner away from our prying eyes.
My moment didn’t come until the end of senior year. I was pinning my charcoal sketches onto a rolling cork board, trying to figure out their order, when Damien appeared behind me and told the class to gather.
“Look at this, the movement, the way the fingers dip and guide you to the next drawing. Brilliant, Letty, just brilliant…”
In Damien’s eyes, I was born. And then I graduated and had to be born again.
I’ll remember Damien at times when his advice doesn’t really apply, like when I’m washing my roommate’s dishes. “Just a dab of soap in your palm and then swirl the bristles around, under the water, like this, like this…Not too hard or you’ll bend them, mess the whole brush up…” His voice was deep and gravelly and nothing about him screamed art professor, not his ripped shirts or jeans or tendency to blast Metallica in his closet-office so loud that sometimes Professor Lee stuffed rags under the door crack. Damien was in his fifties or sixties, the smoking and lounging in the sun made it hard to tell, and I didn’t have a crush on him like some of the other girls in my class, girls who shivered when he stood behind them; I just wanted to jump ahead to the point of my life when I was as sure about things as he was.
“Are you washing my dishes again?” Sabrina asked as she opened the apartment door. I heard her struggle to pull the key out of the scratched lock, heard her drop her corduroy messenger bag and swear as everything tumbled out, like it usually did. She kept more stuff in her bag than anyone I’d ever met: hair spray, combs, Band-Aids, magazines, socks, scarves, lipsticks, trail mix, bruised bananas, all the things she could live without but felt she needed. The last time I convinced her to clean it we found a line of ants crawling through a soggy carton of Milk Duds, but even then, she wouldn’t throw out the bag, just washed it in the tub and flattened it over the radiator.
When she’d finally composed herself, she walked into the kitchen and sat at the table, blowing the curls out of her eyes with a tired “Pfffff.” I placed her oatmeal bowl on the drying rack and sat across from her. We looked at each with mock intensity.
“So,” Sabrina said.
“You’re coming with me…”
“Ian’s Ides of March party.”
I got up, the chair legs squeaking across the tile floor. “No, thanks though.”
Sabrina let out a different “Pfffff,” this one with more exasperation. “And what are you going to do instead?”
“I don’t know. Watch a movie. Read a book.”
Sabrina looked at me, her chin down and eyes rolling up like a puppet or a demon. “Letty. It’s Saturday.”
“Yes. It is.”
“And on Saturdays we – well we used to go out.”
“I still go out.”
“Caesar was stabbed, Letty. Stabbed.”
“Two thousand years ago.”
Sabrina eyed me. I busied myself with the refrigerator magnets, spelling out the words BREEZY and YOU SUCK.
“If you’ve turned into some kind of agoraphobe, you should probably let me know. Maybe our landlord would feel bad and cut the rent.”
“I don’t have agoraphobia. I go to the store. And the library. And – “
“Yes. My job.”
Sabrina stood beside me and we silently puzzled together:
MOON BEAM HOMIE WORKING
Under WORKING she put a Y and a N, waiting for me to point. I flipped the N upside down, which still looked like a normal N.
One of the reasons I’d been friends and roommates with Sabrina for so long was that she didn’t ask the dumb questions like “Why?” “What happened?” “What are you going to do now?” Instead, she tapped the magnet with thought, then said, “Well now we really should go out.” Despite myself and my slight agoraphobia, I gave in.
I didn’t mind letting Sabrina think I’d stopped leaving the house because I’d lost my job. The real reason was secreted away in a shoebox under my bed. I’d always hated the moments in movies when characters sat on their childhood beds and sorted through the trinkets they’d stored in a box when they were nine or eleven or twenty-seven, admiring the locks of hair or bloody shoelaces or whatever else they felt the need to save – but there I was with a box of my own. It was just an orange Nike shoebox and I was so paranoid about having it that I hid the newspaper clipping underneath the sole of an old shoe, put those shoes in a box, and put that box under my bed. I had twenty minutes until Sabrina barged into my room and assaulted my closet, so I slid the shoebox into the middle of my floor and stared at it, watching the way the dipping sunlight brightened the corners and then cast a long shadow across my heart.
“I think you should wear your hair up tonight,” Sabrina said as we stared at reflections in my vanity mirror. I was sitting on the stool and Sabrina was standing behind me, fluffing up my limp, blonde hair. Her crimson-colored lips puckered to the side, trying to decide if my hair would eventually look better up and flat or half-up and deflated. Even though I used to work behind a makeup counter, she was the more stylish one between us. She could pull off chin-length curls and stockings under shorts and stained corduroy messenger bags. One night she even wore a floral vest with dark purple and orange flowers, the type of material meant for heavy-hanging curtains but somehow flattering on her petite frame. She was in one of her femme fatale moods that night, pinning her dark hair into a deep side part and slinking around the room in a black slip dress. I’d been hoping the party was of the “just-stopping-by” variety, but Sabrina tossed my jeans-and-tank combo into the hamper and pulled one of her subtler dresses (subtle being a black velvet dress that went down to my shins and had a scissored-slit run up my thigh) over my pajamas. The hairs on my arms stood up when I brushed the velvet fabric back and I wished I could take the shoebox with me.
Before we left, Sabrina knocked back a shot of whiskey and encouraged me to do the same, maybe even two if I was feeling nervous about the night.
“I’m not nervous, I just don’t feel like going.”
Similarly to hearing the news about my job, she didn’t ask why. “I’m not going to drag you anywhere, Letty. If you don’t want to go, stay. But I want you to come.”
The alternative played out in my head: Sabrina would leave, the echoes of her platform shoes still audible as I face-planted onto the couch and inhaled the pillows until I felt foolish and inhaled a bag of chips instead. There would be a TV-marathon, the episodes blurring together until it was late enough to go to bed, which really meant staring at the shoebox until I heard Sabrina wrestle with the front door. That had been my weekend routine for the past month, and then most of my weekdays since I’d quit.
But I’d quit for a reason and it wasn’t to spend dejected hours on my daybed.
“All right. I’m coming.”
“Because you want to?”
Sabrina let her indifference slip and monkey-jumped onto my shoulders. “We’re going to have so much fucking fun!”
Ian lived closed enough for us to walk and I found my repetitive heel-toe-heel-toe chant to be calming next to Sabrina’s endless chatter.
“You haven’t seen Ian in a while. He’s changed his entire look. He’s gone from nerdy to woodsy. He cut off his long braid and nailed it above the doorway. Don’t touch it. He hates when people do that.”
Right before we left for Ian’s, I snuck back into my room while Sabrina was peeing out her glass of wine and three shots of whiskey. I couldn’t keep the newspaper clipping in my bag; Sabrina was a drunk-rummager and would find it and slur about it to the masses. My sweaty feet would smudge the In Memoriam and it felt wrong to hide it against my breast, so I quickly folded and pinned the rectangular article inside Sabrina’s dress, right next to my ribs. She wasn’t the type to notice a pin-hole or two, often coming home with her skirt ripped up to her waist or her tights worn to shreds with no recollection of tripping or falling or one night army-crawling behind a line of parked cars to avoid arrest for public urination. I felt safer knowing the newspaper was with me as we paraded down the sidewalk, sneaking one more shot from Sabrina’s bedazzled flask before she opened the door to Ian’s apartment without knocking.
Almost everyone we knew from college and still cared about was there: Charles, Rudy, Ronnie, Elizabeth, and Taylor, all wearing togas and all hammered. While I spent all my hours in the art studio, Sabrina and the rest studied English, inviting me to their medieval parties and one-act plays. I’d return the favor by securing tickets to all the art shows that provided room-temperature sangria.
“Letty, how the fuck are you?” Rudy murmured, his left arm magnetizing to my left shoulder. We’d spent part of junior year attached at the mouth. “Sabrina says you’re always working, yea? I never knew beauty stores needed so much help. When was the last time you fucking came out with us?”
There wasn’t any point in answering his questions so I hid my face in my cup. He kissed my cheek and then swirled around to ask Sabrina where she’d been hiding me for the last month. Sabrina uncurled herself and grabbed Rudy by the buttons to keep him from falling backwards. She could do that and pour herself another drink, rolling her eyes in the middle of it all.
“Letty has a life, you know,” Sabrina said.
“So she’s too good for us now? We graduate, she gets a job, and she wipes us off her hands?” Rudy asked. His toga sheet was tied at his shoulder and slipping.
“In the best way,” Sabrina said, releasing him. He fell back onto the couch and laughed, immediately forgetting the exchange and asking Elizabeth where the fuck she’d bed, oops, been.
Sabrina blocked him from my view. “Rudy hasn’t changed, obviously.”
We looked around the room: Elizabeth was giving in to Rudy’s slurred advances, Ian was swatting Charles’s hand away from his prized pigtail, and everyone else was starting to sway, or maybe I was; I hadn’t had anything to drink in weeks.
“I think I’m going to sit on the porch for a minute,” I said to Sabrina.
“More like claustrophobic. I’m fine. I just need some air.”
“Do you want company?”
“No, it’s okay.”
“And if Rudy asks?”
“I was never here.”
Sabrina smirked and parted the seas for me, making sure I made it to the sliding door without attachment or interruption.
From the porch, Ian’s apartment looked like a fishbowl, everyone’s bodies warping to the music and alcohol, bubbles of laughter rising to the ceiling. It looked like it might burst. I imagined the glass door shattering and a wave of water slamming into me, Sabrina’s dress clinging to my skin and the pinned newspaper sinking into my bloodstream. Would it be strange to get a tattoo of the paragraphs on my body? Of his last words on my skull? I don’t know what he breathed from the studio floor, if the easel wheels stopped rolling, but in that moment, I had an idea of what he would say.
There were feet hanging above me, sneakered feet that I hadn’t noticed when I first stepped outside. They pulled themselves up into the pin-holed sky and for an instant I waited to be swallowed up, too. I stared into my plastic cup in disbelief until the boards shivered and a crouching figure rose before me.
It was Mark Levers.
He hadn’t changed very much since senior painting, but then again, I hadn’t known him well, or even at all. I knew he was Ian’s freshman roommate and that they’d continued living together every semester. They were an odd pairing, tall Ian with his long braid and wolf shirts and medium Mark trailing a few breaths behind like a shadow, always in black and always painting ghouls with their mouths open mid-scream. In the seconds it took him to wipe off his jeans and brush his dark bangs out of his eyes, I draped him in one of his spirits, remembering the way he’d stand on a step ladder and drip watery paint down sheets of exam table paper.
“Hi,” was all I could say, tossing the rest of my cranberry and vodka in an impressive arc over the railing and onto the bushes. The porch started to vibrate with music. We could see Ian, Charles, and Rudy lifting Sabrina into the air, her head lolling back to reveal a fiendish smile as they paraded around the room.
“Have you ever been to an Ides of March party?” Mark asked. He leaned against the railing and crossed his arms.
“No. Is Sabrina supposed to be Caesar?” She wasn’t wearing a toga but she’d always had a way with commanding crowds.
“Last week she said she wanted to be Cleopatra. I don’t think anyone has a clear idea of the historic timeline but Rudy should get stabbed soon and Cleopatra’s going to avenge him.”
“Sounds about right.” Mark picked up an empty cup. “Cheers to our college education.”
We watched the boys lower Sabrina onto her feet in front of Rudy and Elizabeth. If Rudy was supposed to follow with a Caesarean gesture, he missed his cue, or was searching for it on Elizabeth’s splotching neck.
“You were here with Sabrina last week?” I asked.
“Yea. I moved in with Ian like a month ago. Sabrina always said you were drawing.”
“Well, she’d say working but I just assumed drawing. You still draw, right?”
I pressed my palm onto the railing and hoisted myself up. The velvet stuck to uneven edges and I was careful to cross my legs and pull the slit of the dress back over my thigh. It would have been easy to lie, like how Sabrina said she was still submitting poetry. Before I answered, I felt for the newspaper next to my skin. “Sort of. Not really. I got a job at The Beauty Counter painting people’s faces.”
I waited for his face to contort to hide his amusement or embarrassment or whatever else people felt when I told them what I was doing with my degree in studio art, but he just nodded.
“I’m in IT.”
The idea of him crouched in front of a computer all day almost made me cry, but I imagined his ghouls howled for him. Were they hidden in his closet like my millions of hands? Or were they pinned to the walls where they could watch him sleep, wait for him to wake up and dream?
“Did you ever visit him after graduation?”
He didn’t have to say his name and I didn’t have to ask.
“Just once. I think I disappointed him.”
I remembered walking around the perimeter of the studio until Damien found me while he was out for one of his smoke breaks. His hands were dusted with dried clay and he rolled one shirt sleeve over his shoulder as he angled his body towards the sun. He wouldn’t take my can’t’s or but’s, wouldn’t offer his name or guidance, just said to keep drawing.
“That’s all any of us are doing, Letty,” he exhaled, flicking his cigarette and walking back into the building.
Mark was still next to me, and Damien’s ghost was next to him, brushing the spilled liquor with his finger, using the wood as a canvas, using anything to make art.
“He always liked your stuff.”
I readjusted my position on the railing, wondered what it would feel like to fall backwards into the blackness. “You think so?”
“You don’t believe me?”
I tried to shrug with the same indifference Sabrina had mastered.
“One time he told me to watch your hands and try to imitate the way you held your paintbrush, like you were having tea.”
“He said that?”
Mark nodded, the night’s shadows making it hard to tell if he was smiling or grimacing with the memory. “He said you had it in your bones. I didn’t, but I could practice until it looked like I did.”
It was a compliment but I didn’t know how to take it, didn’t know how to return it and make it sound heartfelt. Mark filled the silence for me.
“Did you make it to his funeral?”
“No. I found out too late.”
We both stared at our feet, waiting for Damien’s ghost to leave but knowing he never would. Sabrina had strapped clunky heels to my feet and even though they weren’t hurting I whispered “Ow” and kicked them off. Their thuds coincided with the swooshing of the sliding door. Sabrina bumped against the frame, her cup of something spilling over.
“Mark, Ian’s passed out in his room and no one else wants to be Brutus. Will you?”
I couldn’t tell if she could see me, couldn’t tell if I was there at all, but before Mark could answer and before Damien could disappear again, I told her I’d do it.
They’d agreed the week earlier that a knife would be too serious, even a plastic knife, so Sabrina handed me a fork.
“Just get him in the shoulder, real quick. He’s drunk enough now. He won’t feel a thing.”
Rudy echoed her, “Won’t feel a thing, nope,” and gripped the counter as Sabrina pulled at his toga, loosening it off his shoulder and tying it around his waist.
His back was naked, pristine, ready.
Everyone stared at my hands, an artist’s hands, and they looked kind but with one sweeping motion pierced a bare shoulder and patted the drops of blood with Damien White, 58, departed earth peacefully on February 10, 2014, surrounded by people he loved…