Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Dad, In Red

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My son Jordan held the metal paint can above his head. That was my father, his ashes in the paint.

"You're never going to finish this," Jordan said. "I know it. You're never even going to start." He brought his arm down. He leaned with his shoulder into the doorjamb and twisted away to face the living room.
I pulled off my jacket and threw it over a stool, dumped plastic bags on the floor near the fridge. I could feel my blood vessels constrict, half expecting him to throw the can against a wall. The Zoloft was supposed to help him with impulse control. Our squat house was covered with nicks and scuffs and patch jobs, which recorded Jordy's impulses over 14 years. Last summer he experimented with homelessness for two weeks, after a fight about whether he could take my car on a road trip. He lived in the park with the punks. I drove and drove the streets of Minneapolis, thinking about where his body would be found. Then he reappeared like he had been away at camp.

I heard him flip himself over the back of the couch and land on the cushions.

"Jordy," I said, "No." Two caseworkers had quit, my supervisor slammed doors all day, and at the end of it nobody had an Advil tucked away in their desk drawers, anywhere.

I leaned back to look into the front room. Jordy's dark eyes and eyebrows were all that I could see above the back of the couch.

"You say you're gonna do it but you always wimp out. It's been seven months. We're gonna get haunted. And it will be all your fault." He raised himself up on his elbows over the couch back like a jack-in-the-box. "Do it, or I'll do it for you." That sounded like one of my clean-your-room threats, coming back at me.

I slid the gallon of milk onto the metal rack and ripped open an envelope of instant-noodle-mix.

~

Seven months ago, I went to the lawyer's office to have the will read.

"It would honor me greatly if you would employ my remains in the creation of one or a series of painting." I could almost hear Dad in that sentence. The way he might say "honor" would make you think of something painful and ironic.

The men at the funeral home gave me a canister of ashes, and my friend Sarah mixed some of it in with red acrylic #42, but it wouldn't even all fit. A human leaves a lot behind, even cremated.

Maybe you've heard of my father, A.M. Franklin, photographer with a new book out every year in the eighties, black and white close-ups of everyday objects, transforming them into ghostly landscapes. A forest of pencil tips, stacks of magnifying glasses like blind eyes.

~

I tried to paint about three months ago, a late fall day off. The trees around Lake Calhoun and through Minneapolis turned yellow and orange and bright salmon-red. I wanted to put something on canvas and be done with it.

I put on my sneakers and grabbed my beeper and keys. The Department of Social Services made me carry the beeper so my supervisor could reach me whenever one of my 42 cases, kids in trouble, ran into a snag.

I walked from our stucco shoebox two blocks down Pleasant to Lyndale. We were supposed to have bad weather over the weekend, and all the vegans and hippies were stocking up at the Wedge Co-op on Lyndale when I crossed the parking lot full of old Volvos and VW vans.

News radio was on in the co-op, a story about a disease in Africa killing thousands of children. Fine, I thought. If kids are dying in Africa, what am I complaining about? One lousy painting.

The sun through the leaves and the beginning of a caffeine buzz made me see colors in my head, the beginning of an urge to sit and paint.

I pried off the circular lid and scooped up a bit of the grainy red paint. I added yellow, easing it into the color of warm brick. I wanted a black background and the orange color on top like flames in night. Working with the black, though, I thought of Dad, how relieved and pleased he would be to see me finishing one of his assignments. That soured it for me. It was the thing I hated about his work, too -- doing it to get it done, 12 hours a day, to get the next book of photos to the publisher.

I scraped the reddish-orange paint into the bathroom trashcan. I waited for that red fire to go down from behind my eyes, and then I called Sarah.

"I threw some of that paint with Dad in it into the trash. It's with some Kleenex and hair from the shower drain."

Sarah sighed and then laughed her high, whistling laugh. "I'm sorry -- It's not funny. I mean, it kind of is."

A flutter of panic rippled inside my chest. "What do I do with this -- bury it?"

"Throw it in a dumpster somewhere. Your Dad was an artist. He would understand that you'd make mistakes. Hey, at least you're doing something meaningful," she said. "I'm over here writing copy for Global Warming fashions." The managers of the clothing company where she worked told the designers to focus completely on summer fashions for the long-term. " 'But we won't call it global warming,' they'd said. 'We'll call it something cheerful like Endless Summer.' "

"You're not serious," I said.

"Do you want to trade? I'll make some godawful painting with your Dad, and you come over here and describe this sexy little miniskirt made out of mosquito netting."

Sarah kept talking with me until the layers of everyday bullshit started to fall off, like dirty papery skin of an onion, 'til it was down to the white wet heart. I flipped on my old paint-splattered radio to a classic rock station and sat there, almost by accident, listening to the Rolling Stones, that song that goes, "Send me dead flowers," which I always liked because young Mick sounded so cocky about putting roses on that woman's grave.

An hour later, after it had gotten completely dark and the wind started to hit the house and make it creak, I started to get into a groove. I turned the painting that was supposed to be all about flames into a mix of blues and yellows, like gas jets. An hour went by like a minute, staring into the canvas and working slowly. My head opened up.

I mixed some Dad with some yellow and was just sitting there, thinking about mixing up some more of that orange-red, when a small whirring made me sit back. There was a space of about seven seconds when I actually didn't know what it was. From deep within my purse, which hung over the banister of the stairs near the front door, sang my beeper. "Nee-nee-nee-nee-nee-nee," it wheedled. "Come to me."

I called in, and the woman at the switchboard told me with her clipped first few words that it was bad. "Teresa Czernowski's husband beat her up again. Broken eye socket. She's at the ER with her kid."

I dropped the brush, wiped off my hands, splashed water on my face, found shoes and a decent shirt, then a jacket, my purse and the car keys. I wanted to smash something. Teresa's son needed to be moved from the emergency room, and if somebody who didn't know her went to do the paperwork, the son would end up in some overnight respite center, the kind of place that held onto kids and didn't let them go.

I scrawled a note for Jordy, who was out at a club. Not drinking underage, of course. Would, of course, be home by curfew, not covered with hickeys, and no used condoms stuffed in his pocket for me to find on laundry day. At least he used condoms.

Driving was an utter headache, and everyone in Minneapolis who was insane or on drugs seemed to be on Route 35W toward downtown, swerving and speeding up and slowing down with no warning, flashes of taillights in the rain. I began to hate my job with a pure rage.

I ran past the gray partitions, grabbed an incident report form, and then drove over to the hospital to try and find Teresa Czernowski in the ER, praying her husband hadn't shown up, hoping they had a cop with her.

I stopped a young floor nurse, who directed me to the area where they were treating Teresa behind a blue drape. Arthur Czernowski, five years old, wearing a striped t-shirt, was sitting in a blue plastic chair. When I walked up, he turned to look at me, his eyes like hot coals. And I started to cry -- not a little, but full on, suddenly -- and I ducked to my right, into a supply closet near the nurses' station so I could pull myself together.

That night, I came home so tired that my muscles ached like I'd played pick-up basketball for hours. And I didn't touch paint again for weeks -- the days just flew by. So, no, Jordy was right. That effort didn't really count.

~

Jordy ran upstairs, making thunk-thunk-thunk sounds as his tennis shoe toes slammed all the way back against the risers. He ran back down and landed both-footed on the wood floor. He ran into the kitchen, laid a small board onto our red wood table. The board was covered with gesso and prepped for a painting, one of about ten that I'd stacked upstairs.

He threw a brush down next to the board. With some wrestling he pried off the lid of the can of Dad with a butter knife. He twisted the plastic kitchen timer shaped like a green pepper. It ticked unevenly like a weaving drunk.

"Go!" he yelled. "Do it!" His eyes were so wide that I noticed the curvature, the shine of his eyeballs. It was strange that although Jordy and Dad were nothing alike and hadn't spent much time together, they both thought they could make me do something by sitting me down with a time limit and a task. I wondered if Jordy had learned this from me.

I stuck the paintbrush into the paint and touched the board, making one tiny red dot.

When I was 16 or 17, in the summer, Dad sat me down in front of a canvas with the paints he'd bought, and said I could leave when I'd finished something. My mistake had been to let him catch me drawing. "Every problem, Anna, can be solved with concentration," he used to say. It made me so angry because I could think of a huge list of problems to which that didn't apply. If I had had guts, I would've painted "fuck off" in wide black letters. Then. Now I see what he was trying to do.

"I can't paint like this, honey," I said to Jordan, "but it's nice of you to try." I made a few more motions with the brush on the board. A little red house, a tree, with traces of Dad, flecks in the red.

Jordan looked at me, fury tightening his lips, and I saw Dad in his face, in the sharp edges of his nose and chin.

The kitchen timer pinged and we both held our breath for a second, startled. Then Jordan looked down and slowly stuck his finger deep into the paint. His eyebrows jumped in sudden excitement, and he drew out his finger slowly, thickly coated and bent into a hook shape. I held back the scolding on my tongue. This was art, I guessed, and he was trying to help. He smacked the full length of his finger onto the board like a fish, wiped down the center of the board, over the little red house, and left a mark like a murder scene.

~

When Jordy was six, and his hair was still coal-black and sticking up all over in a mommy-done bad haircut, he crept into the pantry off the kitchen in our old apartment, where I was painting, and looked around the edge of the canvas with serious eyes. I thought he was going to tell me war had broken out somewhere. Instead, with a voice as sure as a judge, he told me that he was going to be a clown when he grew up. I put down my coffee and swung sideways on my stool, barely missing my painting with my knees. The pantry shelves were lined with cans of beans and stale pasta and my paints. The pantry was the best place to paint because it had a door that could be shut and locked, and a window for ventilation.

"Honey, clowns don't make that much money, and it's probably hard, not as fun as it looks," I said. Obviously, I was qualified to give financial advice. I was a woman who sold a painting once every century and was paying the bills with catering jobs and a maxed-out credit card.

He squinted, lasering out a flash of hatred at me and at the world I represented. But his face stayed calm and grim, and his eyes flitted up to the left corner of the pantry ceiling, to a crack in the plaster. He was thinking a secret thought he would never tell me.

"Well, if it's so hard, then why does everyone want to be a clown?" he said, sharply, and walked away, up to his room where he played until dinner, without any further questions.

At the time I saw it as six-year-old willfulness, and saw myself as being reasonable, trying to get him to adjust to the real world. He was six. I wanted him to hurry up and be a man. Oh, mean mommy. What kind of grinch, what kind of soul-crusher, would tell her little boy at six not to be a clown? Whenever I want to remind myself how awful I am, I replay this scene in my head. What other brutal things had I said that I didn't remember? Was that why he was so weird now, to get back at me?

~

"I just want you to paint again. You're such a bitch when you don't paint," he said mournfully. He looked closely at his red finger, inspecting it for black bits.

"Am I? Even more than normal, huh?" I asked. I tried to deliver that somewhere between sarcasm and sympathy. I had thought I was bitchier when I was painting -- swearing when the phone rang, tripping down the stairs when we were late for hockey practice.

He scowled at me dismissively.

I opened the fridge, took out lettuce and a knobby cucumber, ran them under the faucet. "Jordan, don't you believe that I'll do this when I'm ready?"

Holding the open can, he scuffled across the linoleum toward the sink in his ragged Chuck Taylors.

"We don't have any other relatives besides Granddad and weird Gramma Lewis in St. Paul with her gross cocker spaniel. We're a dead-end of the human race. You don't seem like you give a shit. This is such a cool, special, rad thing, and you don't even care." The fluorescent light in the kitchen made his hair shine like a beaver pelt.

He leaned against the edge of the sink, scooped up some of the Dad paint with his left hand, and dribbled it in small plops into the sink. When the swirl of water hit the paint blobs, they fanned out in diluted red. The black bits came clean and dark, dragging on the sink bottom and reluctantly making circles down to the drain.

"Jordan, stop," I said. I pushed the words out firm and sharp, but behind my voice was the high catch of panic. I had wanted to get rid of this paint, but to actually have it gone opened up a lifetime possibility of a big item on the To Do list, never finished.

I reached into the sink for the can and he pulled it out of my reach. I hit the faucet to shut off the water. He looked up at me, his mouth twisted in sarcastically polite attention. I saw a resolute adult, the way the freckled skin around his squint seemed to hold his eyes hostage.

"No," he said. "I know Granddad would say enough is enough. Time's up. You snooze, you lose."

He dabbed a bit of red paint on his nose, looked at me seriously. I smelled burning and reached around behind him to turn off our burnt noodle casserole. This was how quickly a normal night could turn into war.

"Okay, okay," I said. I held out my hand for the half-empty can of paint. "You've made your point. I'll do it tonight." When he got manic like this, possessed with an idea, his fixation and intensity became scarier to me than whatever it was he wanted. I sometimes gave in. That's not recommended.

"No," he said. "It's always later, later, tomorrow, tomorrow. That's how people live and then you're dead."

He scooped a red handful out of the can and tossed it down into the open drain, flipped on the water and the switch to the disposal in two quick jabs.

I sucked in air. "Jordan, that was not yours. That was between me and my father and you were not supposed to just walk in and put your hands in that." My voice rose and rose like a whistle, and my joints seemed to get hot and liquefy. I'd given birth to someone who was throwing bits of his grandfather down the garbage disposal.

He squinted until I could barely see his eyes. He tossed the can on the floor. "Now you lose your shit. Great. You were supposed to do something, stop me. I was only trying to see what he would look like."

There were so many terrible things to be said right then, things about his Granddad sitting in Maine with his hands in photographic emulsion when I gave birth. Fill in the blank. Sometimes you get into heaven based on whether you can keep your mouth shut. I looked at Jordan significantly and sighed.

Jordan knew the general tenor of what I had been about to say, somehow read it in my face. That happened sometimes between us and it made the hair on my arms stand up.

"I know you thought he was an asshole. He probably was. But I bet his parents were assholes too," he said, his hand on the doorknob.

Here, he had the upper hand. After the way he left last summer, he knew that walking out of the house in a fury would make me melt. He slammed the door behind him.

~

I ran water into the skillet to soak off the burnt noodles. I slid down onto the pale yellow linoleum and looked up at my dirty kitchen. One of my old blue paintings hung near the ceiling above the cabinets, covered with orange flecks of grease and dust. How did food get so high up?

I wanted to call someone, but I nursed a secret resentment against all of my friends who had living parents, and separate resentments against all of my friends who were either married or in good relationships. Sarah had a boyfriend but had sort of a shitty relationship with her mother and could be relied on to have an interesting work crisis that made me feel less like a loser. Plus, she wanted kids and was never able to have them. So we balanced each other out.

I got pregnant at 25, after a few rounds of mediocre sex with Ryan, a carpet salesman from Portland, Maine, when I still lived near Dad. I think I had Jordy only because abortion seemed like something you did when a baby would get in the way of some grand life plan, which I did not have. Ryan and I did not last because Ryan was settled and dull even at 24. I didn't think I loved him even immediately after sex. I moved back in with Dad while I was pregnant. Dad treated me as though pregnancy were a virus, a communicable disease that caused sloth and exhaustion. It made me wonder how he had treated Mom when she was pregnant with me.

When I think of my mother there is only a watery smile rendered in washed-out '70s Kodak print, the smell of a cinnamon-y perfume, long dishwater blonde hair like mine that she wore up in a loose bun, a woman with my smile who worked as a paralegal to support Dad while he was getting started as a photographer. I did not know her, not enough to carry a sense of her past her death, and Dad refused to talk about her.

When I brought Jordy home, red-faced and squirmy, Dad held him and we had, I thought, some multigenerational moment where we looked each other in the eyes. "He'll be a screamer," said Dad dryly. "A time sink."

I picked at the curling edge of the linoleum. That memory had been an anchor for my rage, the images of me packing the car, his impotent silence standing in the driveway, me feeling noble and slighted and alone. I had run my mind over that story so many times that I couldn't get the same buzz of hate out of it that I usually got. Maybe I had just worn it out.

~

It was only after the first half-hour, after I'd calmed down and gotten up off the floor, that I started to feel really terrible. I washed the dishes, made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Then came the check-the-clock, check-the-door, edgy itchy panic of imagining where Jordan could be at ten p.m. Then 10:08. 10:09, each minute he was somewhere else.

When I called, Sarah listened and said, "Oh, Anna. Christ, and it's only Tuesday."

I brought up the paint in the sink for the third time. "I can't believe it's just washed down the drain. I had a wonderful weird job to do that I put off and now it's gone." I felt as though my ribcage was expanding to crack like knuckles. It felt empty. "He was an asshole with no redeeming qualities," I said, "Right?"

"Who, your father?"

"Yes," I said. "It was evil of him to make me paint with him, right?" I started to cry.

"Well, if you're so sad about it, mix up some more paint."

"I can't. There's about half a paintbrush worth in the can."

Sarah sighed and said, "Anna, a person leaves a lot of ash. There's a big urn of it still sitting next to that depressing painting in the front room."

I ran upstairs, clenching the cordless receiver between my shoulder and my sweaty ear. "Not like this is going to be any easier. Do you think that giving in to Jordy so often is screwing him up?" I dumped some of the ashes of Dad into a gesso can, turned the dirty mixture into an even lumpy white.

By midnight, Jordan had not come home. I made a deal with myself -- I would not start to drive or call the police until 1 a.m. I covered two large canvases and seven small pieces of scrap wood with the ashed gesso. I couldn't wait to cover him with delicate lines of orange, red and blue, to paint what he was not and still do what he wanted, but backwards. With him in the background, I could think.


Sonya Huber is the author of one textbook and two books of creative nonfiction, one which was shortlisted for the Saroyan Prize; the other which was a finalist for the ForeWord Book of the Year. She teaches at Fairfield University and lives in Stratford, CT.


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