“…But the Kabbalah also knows of a more esoteric possibility…, no doubt heretical, that there shall come a day when…[w]ords will rebel against man. They will shake off the servitude of meaning…’become themselves, and dead as stones in our mouths’.”
— After Babel, by George Steiner
Maud remembers at first fearing the stump of Julian’s arm. He must sense this in people: the fear of mutilation. Natural enough. He keeps the stump covered, even on hot summer days like these, the flap of his shirt sleeve tucked under and secured with a pin. Maud thinks, perversely: wrapped like a gift begging to be opened.
Julian runs the produce stand where Maud buys the fruits and vegetables for her still-lifes. In the beginning Julian doesn’t realize Maud is a painter. But after she shops at his stand several times, deliberating hard about her purchases, about their shapes and colors and sizes and textures rather than their freshness or ripeness, the idea seeds itself. Assuming he is right, making a game of it, Julian sequesters several mangoes, variegated gourds, a lacy purple cabbage, and presents them to Maud when she next comes to buy. Before she is out of the car he hands her the boxed assortment like a beau bringing candy.
You paint, don’t you. He states it as a fact.
Maud nods and smiles at this acute observer who is the produce man.
But the painter who is the customer also is an acute observer. When Julian volunteers once day, for no obvious reason (Maud has never asked, never broached the subject), that he lost the arm in an accident, Maud notices his eyes wash the color of eggplant. Cradling avocados in the crook of her arm, the right one, the one Julian doesn’t have, she mumbles acknowledgment. What can you say to someone talking about his lost arm? That, for one thing, you don’t believe in accidents? Besides, she suspects his story. Like one of her still-lifes, it’s deceptively simple. What lies on the surface is only where the truth begins. Maud wonders if the diamond stud Julian wears in his right ear cost him the arm. She can’t help thinking a man wearing a diamond earring wouldn’t be running a produce stand.
She drops two avocados while thinking this.
Julian bends down to pick them up. And as he does, another car drives up. Three elderly women get out and move with one mind toward the bushels of peaches. They buzz like bees.
Julian, returning the avocados, jokes with Maud: You don’t need two arms to sell produce.
Maud: Or paint.
The bees: Oh young man…
Maud, glad for the diversion, pays for her purchases, the avocados and some papayas. Well, you’ve got other company. See you next week.
He watches her retreat. His diamond chip winks in the sun.
◊ ◊ ◊
Maud sets up to paint. This particular painting is No. 5 in the series “Second Glance,” intended to shock observers into re-viewing what they think they see.
It is early afternoon, and the studio, a converted garage, is still cool. She clusters avocados and papayas around a cut-glass pitcher, rearranging the fruit several times before she is satisfied with the composition. She mixes colors. She lays out an array of brushes and palette knives, several pans of water. She places clean rags within easy reach.
Today the fruit yields to paint and brush like wax melting in the hot sun. But the pitcher is defiant. Maud scrapes the image off the canvas and tries again. She repaints and scrapes several times. The heat, piled up from sunrise, has drawn tiny flies that hover especially around the papayas: customers at her produce stand. Maud stabs the halo of flies with her brush; reflexively they scatter only to return. She stabs again, this time upsetting the pitcher, which crashes to the floor. She launches the brush. It misses the flies but hits the wall where it snaps in two. Splintered wood protrudes like broken bone.
The flies cheer. They converge on her, Lilliputians to her Gulliver, drag her to the canvas where they stake her three dimension to two. The papayas and avocados would like to wait for Maud to ripen but know there isn’t time; they rotate her bundled form to catch the light just so. The ill-fated brush, down but not out, hobbles over to dap-dap-daub, to stroke curves not unlike the fruits’ with the once tapered sable, elegant instrument now a crude probe. Self-righteous, it invites the other brushes to join in. In their zeal, they don’t miss a spot. The palette knives hoot on the sidelines. The pitcher’s shards reconvene like Humpty Dumpty couldn’t. They cleanse themselves in the pans of water, towel off with the rags, armor in paint, ring Maud’s perimeter like deadly jewels. Their work done, the rebels consider it, the statement it makes. They know what they like, but is it ART?
Maud’s thoughts, fish patrolling an ancient sea, crawl up on land. Art — like evolution, like revolution — takes its toll but also transfigures. She picks up the shards, what-was-the-pitcher, an accident (but she doesn’t believe in accidents), and deposits the lot on a red velvet drape. She throws the papayas and avocados, the fractured brush, in the trash. Most of the flies, fortunately for them, have vacated the premises. Though the water is unsullied, she empties the pans. She cleans the untouched brushes in the utility sink; the other paraphernalia she ignores. Before shutting down for the day — delivering the coup de grâce — she scours the canvas clean.
◊ ◊ ◊
First thing next morning, Maud reads the classifieds in the paper, circling the garage sales with bold blue marker, checking the addresses on an old map from the local chamber of commerce to plot the most efficient course. With newspaper, map, and thermos of iced tea, she drives the course, stopping to browse at every blue circle. She finds what she’s after once she sees it: a myrtlewood burl, maybe once someone’s hobby project, polished to silky nut-brown perfection. She has never painted wooden objects, but the burl beckons like an exotic fruit. The sellers want twenty dollars. When Maud gets them down to sixteen-fifty, she snaps it up.
In her studio, Maud makes a space among the pitcher’s shards and sets the burl in their midst. Some dead flies have collected in the shards; Maud lets them rest in peace. She steps back to examine the setup but doesn’t change a thing.
◊ ◊ ◊
When Maud next arrives at the produce stand, Julian is nowhere in sight. It is nearly five pm. Maud thinks maybe he’s already closed up shop and, on that impulse, walks to the shed where the produce is stored overnight. There are sounds inside. The door is ajar. Maud peeks through the crack into the dim interior and sees, standing in the narrow lane that bisects the jumble of boxes, Julian misting the fruits and vegetables to keep them fresh. He is bare to the waist. It takes Maud a moment, her eyes are adjusting, to realize she is looking at the stump. A fleshy burl. She sucks in her breath, loud enough that he hears and turns. She moves inside so he can see it’s not a stranger, not someone about to beat him up and rob him of the day’s take. But when recognition dawns, he moans and shuts his eyes.
Maud walks down the lane. She is close now and reaches for him, for the stump. Her fingers probe its contours like a woman selecting fruit while he paints the picture.
We robbed a store, some buddies and me. It was a long time ago. Didn’t intend to… One thing led to another. We were young and stupid. We didn’t know how to back down. I ran through a plate glass window trying to get away.
Evolution again takes its toll.
Maud grabs Julian’s shirt, hanging nearby, and slips it around his shoulders. She is tender, careful, knowing the wound is still gaping. She too is sore, from being bound. She takes him by the hand — you don’t need two — and moves them toward the door. He doesn’t argue. He wants to be led out of his pain. In the late-afternoon sun Maud sees the earring isn’t a diamond after all.
◊ ◊ ◊
In her studio, the light falls softly on No. 5, finished now for several days. Julian looks alternately at the painting and the setup which has not yet been dismantled; the burl amidst the shards, the dead flies, the red velvet drape.
Maud: You don’t have to hide behind your fruits and vegetables any more.
She realizes, neither does she.
copyright 2011 Carol Rosenblum Perry