A New Painting

Have we got any Twilight Zone freaks in the house?  I’m talking about the old black’n white episodes.  Why don’t they make shows like that any more?  My favorite had to be the episode about the girl who dreamt the world was spinning closer to the sun, only to wake up from a fever and realized the world was spinning farther away from the sun, or the episode about the homesick Nazi, who went back to visit a concentration camp, only to be trounced by ghosts.  I might add that everything happened inside his head—no blood and guts in sight.  But then it takes a talent writer to frighten you without a bucket of guts.

Most of Rod Serling’s stories  fall somewhere between fantasy and horror—nightmare stuff, with only thin treads of logic.  No matter, they were still great.  I always had the idea that his stories were about things that should happen, not things that could happen.  Not a very popular genre these days, sad to say.

Not that I’m comparing myself to Mr. Serling, but here’s a piece that I wrote that’s reminiscent of that style:

A New Painting

By

C. M. Marcum

Sunlight peeking through the window slats, as dust motes danced a slow parade from shadows to strips of early morning beams.  A promising day for some but not for her, it would be her last day of freedom.  The old woman held Charlie’s picture against her heart. Once her heart had beat like a sewing machine—strong, steady and unappreciated.  Now she could feel it skip and flutter.  It skipped with sadness; it flutter with despair.

“Come now, old gal,” she said.  “Pull it together.”  These were the last moments to save herself.  She waited, watching the clock with almost as much dread as a condemned man counting his last steps.  One deep breath and then another to calm herself, to think clearly.

How ironic was it to live her entire life, to be born, to grow, to learn, to work, to fight and win only to be reduced to the whims of some else’s directive?  How wasteful had it been to beat down the briary path for kith and kin only to have them dig a pit and throw her in?  How unfair.  How terribly unfair.  Sabotaged, waylaid and friendless at the end of the long, long road, that’s how it was.  Had she prognosticated the end, she would have painted an entirely different picture.  She borne her children, nursed them through infancy and illness, only to have them grow the claws of deception that would shred her golden years.  Why did her evil prodigy begrudge her the last few steps in life?

What was her son said to her on the phone?  Oh, yes, she remembered, nothing wrong with her memory.  ‘Now, Mother, you know this is the best way.  You’re not taking care of yourself.  You don’t eat well.  Your health is declining.  You can’t keep up with the bills.’ And this was his reasoning, his pretense to pilfer the vaults while she still lived.

Of course, her health was declining.  Everyday wore upon her.  Worry rattled her, and she’d eat what she pleased.  What did it matter?  She was old.  Was she to die in the pitch of health?

Was she eccentric?  Yes.  But wasn’t a bit of oddity the prize of attaining adulthood and independence?  Hadn’t she fought the good fight to indulge in her own beliefs, moods and idiosyncrasies?

No.  These thoughts would take her nowhere.  She was taking everything personally, and Charlie, her dear husband, had taught her to be more logical than that.  It wasn’t about her; it was about the money.  She should have given the money to SPCA years ago.  If she had, her children would have faded away into a sweet memory.  How much better that would have been?  Much, indeed much!  Loneliness was perhaps not the worst fate to ravage the old.  Greed made a relentless enemy out of the most cherished.

“Incompetent, my granny’s ass,” her words slithered out, neither whispered nor shouted.  A cigarette dangled from her fingertips, smoke drifting over the silver framed picture clutched in her hands.  The smell of menthol quickly filled the room.  She hadn’t smoked in over eight years.  She had given up tobacco so that she could live longer—so that she could live long enough to see her children, her precious children, turn against her.

She sighed, kissed the glass and blew smoke over it.  Charlie wouldn’t mind; he enjoyed a good cigar, now and then.  Once, after a particularly delightful romp on their marital sheets, he’d lit a fat cigar that smelt of cherries, inhaled deeply, and amused her with an old Cherokee ghost story from his childhood.  In the story a young lad lit a ceremonial pipe and through the swirling smoke he sought the advice of his dead grandfather.  According to Charlie, his ancestors loved a good smoking, loved it so much they would sometimes offer assistance to the living.  She had laughed at Charlie, those many years ago, but now…  Now, she wished she could believe as he did.

She missed Charlie, ached for him really, even after all these years.  How many years, now?  Fifteen?  So long, too long.  Poor Charlie, tragically and violently killed in an automobile accident, while teaching his young son how to drive.

“Charlie, Charlie.  Help me now, Charlie,” she said.  He would know what to do.  Charlie wouldn’t let his children push him around. Charlie knew how to look out for numero uno.   If Charlie was still alive, he would fix them.  Fix them good.  Charlie knew how to handle adversaries.  Charlie never wanted children, but she had insisted.  Yes, Charlie had been wise.

She studied the picture, looking for an answer in his eyes.  His foot rested on the bleached bones of a skiff and the wind pulled his long white hair back, revealing a dark and handsome face.  ‘Indy Man,’ that’s what she had called him.  Brooding, dark, mysterious.  When she had taken the photograph, she had been kneeling in front of him, between him and the sea.  Now it was as if he was still looking down on her, casting those hazel eyes over her again, judging her, smirking at her.  Charlie wouldn’t hesitate—not if he had to choose between himself and them, not if his kids had grown into enemies.  She needed his mojo, now.  Just a little bit of his magic would do.

“Charlie, if you ever loved me help me now,” she said.

Her children wanted to put her away, lock her up, exile her to an island of strangers.  They wanted to confine her to a nursing home—oh, a first rate joint to be sure—but just like the jailbirds sang, ‘A joint is a joint.’

They wanted to forget about her.  Oh, but they wouldn’t forget about her bank account, would they?  Millions of dollars and a big estate waited to be plundered with one frail old lady in their way.  Just one judge’s signature away and she would be in an old folk’s home, while her children bought new houses and cars and boats and diamond watches and anything else that titillated them.  Her son was busy about the dirty deed right now, completing it with lawyers and legalese.  When he got back to the house, all that would remain would be physically transporting his old Ma to the Home of the Forgotten.

She placed her husband’s picture back on the mantle.  “Look at your children, Charlie.  See the greed in their hearts.  Witness what they are doing.”

Above the mantel and Charlie’s picture, hung a sweeping landscape of the Atlantic Ocean and the beach in front of her house.  The ocean thundered against a grey shore.  To the left, a white cottage with the door flung wide waited for the family to return.  Two children, blonde and lithe, played in the sand with red buckets.  In the far right corner, her signature crawled over the gritty sand.

How things had changed.  She remembered standing in the sand with her skirt flipping around her legs.  How young and strong and very much in control, she had been.  The boss of all she surveyed; Charlie never wanted to wear-the-pants.  He’d had more important things to do, and he simply accepted whatever she desired.

She laid her hand, wrinkled and streaked with blue veins, on the wooden frame.  She hated the painting now, after years of adoring it, she hated it.  She wanted to jerk it down and burn it, but she only sighed and tossed her butt into the fireplace.  Everything changes, even a mother’s love for her children.  After Charlie died, she lost control of the little brats.  Eventually Carl’s blonde curls had fallen out, and Susan’s cheek bones had pillowed with fat.  Always they came with their hands stuck out, and she filled their palms with alms, but she didn’t even recognize them anymore.  Her gaze flitted back and forth between the small photograph of Charlie and the large landscape.  Had it always been that way?  Small, stingy pieces for her dear, dear husband and gross exaggerations for the children?

She looked back at her husband’s picture and gasped.  He was looking up.  He was looking up at the painting.  But that was wrong.  She had taken the picture herself; she had looked at it for years, and she knew—absolutely knew—that he had been looking down.

“What are you trying to tell me, Charlie?”  Her gaze darted between the photo and painting.

Her hand gripped the corner of the painting and pulled.  The portrait slipped from its anchor, teetered for a moment and then tumbled to the floor.  Odd bits of bric-a-brac fell with it.  From upstairs an agitated voice drifted down to her.  Susan, her daughter, toiled away up the staircase, packing some necessities for old Ma’s one-way ride to No Place.

“Mother, what was that noise?  Did you break something?”  The voice exasperated and scolding thundered down the stairwell.  Impertinent cow!

The old woman closed her eyes and lit another cigarette.  What if she did break everything in the house?  It was her stuff to break.  But she didn’t say that, instead she said, “Just a glass, dear.  Don’t worry.  I’ll clean it up.”

“Well, be more careful,” Susan yelled.  “Carl will be here any minute, and I don’t want any last minute messes to clean up.”

The old woman sat the painting down on the sofa and took a seat next to it.  She looked back at the photograph of her husband.  He was looking down again, but this time a little more to the right, almost directly at her.

Her fingers edged to the little girl playing in the sand.  She touched the chest, rubbing it, as if to seek a beating heart.  Over the blue bathing suite, her fingers felt the tiniest of cracks.  Beneath her nail a lip of paint and a sudden jolt of hope surged through her chest.  She peeled it up, until the blond girl disappeared, except for two arms and two legs.  Upstairs a horrendous scream startled the old woman.  The scream reverberated around the house and beneath her fingers came a smaller, fainter echo.

She scratched another chip and pulled until the arms and legs of the blond girl disappeared too.  The screaming stopped.  She moved to the foot of the stairs, dragging the old frame behind her.  Resting a shaking hand upon the newel, she place one foot on the bottom step, but she had no intention of going up the stairs.

“Sus-an?” Her voice cracked and she called again.  “Susan.”  But there was no answer. At the top of the stairs, a whirl of dust motes.

Outside a car turned in the driveway, tires displacing gravel.  Carl.  Her breath caught in her throat, as she grasped the painting between her hands.  The door opened and her son stood there, looking slightly bent—oddly twisted—in a way that no normal human being could or should fold their spine.  In the painting Carl fluttered, half adhered to the canvas and half freed from the fabric.

“Mother?” he called.  His voice filled with impatience. When had his voice changed, she wondered.  When he was little and he called for her, his voice had been filled with uncertainty—a timid and nervous boy, who jumped at lightening and wept in the dark.  So unlike his father.  Her fingers wiggled under the oil, sliding effortless over its slick consistency.  Carl rippled.  He staggered in the hallway and grabbed the same newel that she had held in her hands only moments ago.  Was the wooden post still warm with her touch?  Could he feel it?

“Are you feeling ill?” she asked.

“Mother,” he wheezed, slightly out of breath and confused.  She sighed.  There it was.  She remembered it clearly now.  That needy sound, that irritating whine.  Had she ever liked that effeminate squeak?  Why had she ever listened to it?   Why had she hurried to his side to comfort and aide him?  Why had she succored the enemy?  Her husband had foretold Carl’s coming deceit.  Of course, she’d only laughed, not believing.  Had she been a bad wife?  Had she really shucked her true love for motherhood?  Craziness.  Absurdity.

She pulled harder and the image of the little boy with the bouncing yellow curls separated from the canvas in one fluid movement.  Baby Carl folded.  The heat of her hand melted the paint.  Carl, real Carl, darkened to a blob.  In the living room there was a pop and the smell of sulfur, as if someone had struck a match.

And suddenly she couldn’t remember ever having had any children.  Couldn’t remember why she was holding a damaged canvas.  Couldn’t remember spilling paint at the front door, but there it was.  A little turpentine would clean it right up.

Tomorrow she would gather her paints and brushes.  She would fill in the hole.  Perhaps she would paint herself on the beach.  Yes, that would be good.  She would paint Carl, too.  She would paint him slightly older, but just as wise and mysterious as he had always been.

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