A spray of blue across the low hanging maroon. I’d never seen a desert before, but I’d read about them, heard of them from my father. One star pierced the deep aqua color of the sky, a yellow-white knife which drew blood.
A shrub whistled in the breeze, molecules of red sand combing its hair, tickling its toes in the ground, grasping for veins. A boot, its heel dug into the softly laid blanket, the laces tied around the neck of the shrub. My fingers trembled, so I laid down my brush.
Noticeable splotches of disembodied white decorated my canvas. I ran my fingertips across, then continued on into the paint, blurring the lines between the land and the sky. The sky and the land. The last time I’d had something close to a wash was when I visited the hospital, where I was led to the restroom by a nurse, and given a soft, orange sponge, “You’re filthy, love,” she told me softly, “wash up, then you can speak to the men.”
I carried my canvas for that week into the recreational room, which was saturated with the spectral images of men. One missing three of his fingers, another without a hand. One who had no legs. I greeted each one as I walked toward a sickly television set across the room, where a pack of wheelchairs idly sat, like crows perched upon a single branch of a strong oak tree.
I set up my easel before the television set, to which the wheelchair men looked up at me from beneath long, scruffy hair. “What are we painting today, boys?”
“I think we agreed on the pub, the one in Paris, where the pretty girls sang songs to us while we drank, didn’t we agree on that one?” A man named Tanner addressed his fellows about him. They murmured a reply, some that could not speak tapped their feet against the floor. I nodded and set out my colors, washed my brush, prepared to begin. We started with the bar, then the high stools in front of it, and the bottles on the wall. A short, stocky bartender appeared, buffing the counter while each of the wheelchair men, whole in this universe, smiling, drinking, sat at the bar. The men behind me followed each stroke of my brush, searching for mistakes, things that needed to be touched up, inconsistencies. The dull golden glow of candles lit up their silhouettes, their thin arms and appendages comparable to those of a marionette, cast through the thick air of the pub to enjoy their spirits.
“Don’t forget my dog. Don’t forget my dog. Please. Please,” Tanner begged me, expelled the words from his lung like too long a drag from a cigarette, as he always spoke. I held up a finger to halt him, and stepped out of the way so he could see the entirety of the painting. “Bronson is right there. There he is,” I pointed to a dog, posed to bark in excitement, his golden-brown coat the same type of magical that the light brought to the soldiers’ hair. I traced a finger against the dog’s red collar. With a sigh, I washed my brush and sat down in the chair that the men reserved for me every Sunday morning, in the middle of them all so that they could get an equal amount of me.
“Why does it have holes?” Tanner asked, nodding his head toward the easel. Splotches of white ran across the canvas. The rest of the men agreed.
“My paintings always are unfinished. Finishing things isn’t exactly my specialty,” I replied, my head bobbing, my chin touching my chest. I stood up before anyone could ask me more questions I couldn’t answer, and wheeled Tanner to his room. A photo of him and his dog stood on the bedside table, yet otherwise the room was terribly empty. He sat in the corner and I sat on the edge of his bed, laid down more like, to stare at the endless white of the ceiling. “Please set the record, if you could. Please set my record.” Tanner asked me politely, so I stood and aligned the needle with his favorite song and set it down to play. He liked to think he was impenetrable, but I could see the giddy excitement in his eyes as the song began to play, a long drawl of a verse beginning, the slow ramble of a grand piano unraveling throughout his room. “The last time I heard this song, was in Paris, in that pub. In the pub. The girls sang it for me, I told them my wife liked it. They sang it for me.”
“I know they did, Tanner. Did you like my painting?”
“What painting?” We stared each other down for a moment before he moved on to something else. “Thank you for dinner, Jenny. It was very good.” I looked at my feet hanging from his bed, and stood up to touch him.
“You’re welcome,” I told him, although I never cooked him dinner in the years I’d known him, never given him his sponge bath, never had I cleaned his bedpan or any of the other things he’d thank me for. He asked me to take off his shirt and help him get in bed, which I did, and he laid still, then. His torso had never seemed empty to me, beside the lack of arms. “Will you draw me something, Jenny?” He asked me. I had never gotten used to him calling me Jenny. “Sure. What do you want?”
“A portrait of my wife, I bought some drafting papers and stencils. You can have them because I know you like art. I know you like art. So you can draw my wife.” I spotted the paper and pencils underneath his bed, and slid them out, holding them up for his confirmation, to which he nodded. I laid him on his side and turned so that he could see the drawing. Blond hair. Dark, dark brown eyes, like chocolate, he said. The type of dark chocolate they make in Belgium, Tanner told me. He said he’d buy me some of that, too. Next, high cheekbones which bit you like a mosquito, she had thick lips, she liked to wear cosmetics, dark eye shadow to complement her dark eyes. The more I drew the worse I felt, and left the sketch to Tanner so that he could enjoy it. The next day I knew I would come into the hospital and he wouldn’t remember who I’d drawn, or say that it’s me, and he would always call me Jenny.
Far behind the shrub there laid a man, who barely fit into his clothes, like a young girl wearing her father’s overcoat. He had all his arms, his toes, his feet and his elbows, the hair on his chin and the smooth shave of his army crew cut. His dog laid beside him, the warmth of his fur on the man’s neck and the thick feeling of blood creeping, soaking into his clothes.
“One time, a someone told me something that I don’t think I’ll ever forget,” the man said, lying in the grass and shivering, but not feeling it. The frost settled on the dog and him, freezing the dog’s body and torturing the man’s skin. He heard shells dropping in the distance, a menacing boom… boom… boom. Steadily growing closer and closer until it felt as if it were right upon him, almost like the repetitive slam of a finger on a doorbell. Tearing into his ears until he could feel the dirt falling right there upon him, some of it thrown from the heels of boots that ran right past him, others from the shells themselves. It felt as if someone was holding him down. Down, down, down. That was my father, who loved his dog, and who had no arms anymore, who listened to one song on a record all day long. Someone told him a long time ago that the empty spaces are just as important as the rest of the piece.