There's an old man in the attic, and he's painting a picture of a car wreck. He says the most powerful thing about God is He was smart enough to paint the world in color.
There's an old man in the attic, and he's painting a picture of a car wreck.
He says the most powerful thing about God is He was smart enough to paint the world in color. “Where there is war or rage, there will always be the color red,” he tells me. “And where there is love, there is a glimpse of Heaven with all of its golden splendor.” Everything, even a daydream or a fight with Mother’s Sister, is the consequence of its shade of green, he says, or blue or red or turquoise. Then he tells me a rainbow is God's promise that there are no mistakes, and that everything is painted perfectly the way it is.
Then he says people are ancient animals.
That’s what the Painter says.
My favorite dinosaur is a triceratops. And when I tell him, he smiles wide enough I can see some of his teeth are missing. Four or five of those suckers are gone, and I wonder if maybe he lost them in a brawl. Mother’s Sister is missing a tooth. A big one in the front. Came out some time ago from falling down a flight of stairs. You can’t tell, though. You can buy fake teeth at the dentist for cheap, she says, and they fit perfectly! If you ask her to, she can pull the tooth out of her gum and show you down that little hole where the tooth sits. It goes back in easy enough.
The Painter’s frilly whiskers fold beneath his lip as he says, Sometimes a person takes a bigger bite than he can handle.
I do that all the time. Take a bigger bite than I can handle. This summer Mother’s Sister caught me smoking one of her cigarettes from that shiny container she keeps in her purse. It was the kind with the minty blue ball inside the butt-end. And when I squeezed the ball, liquid peppermint leaked out into the cigarette part. Kinda like the ooze in those new Jolly Ranchers that leak out when you chomp down hard on them. I think those ones in her purse must have been really old because when I smoked it I started to cough really loud and then I got the worst hiccups I ever had. I coughed so loud she heard me from all the way in the basement, and then I had to stay in my room all night until dinner. She says I’m a problem a child, a real Curious George.
Are monkeys ancient animals, too?
Brilliant creatures, aren’t they? he tells me. They’re color is usually blue. The Painter smiles again and twists his neck back to the canvas painting of the car wreck.
How long until it’s finished? I think to ask, but I change my mind. For weeks the old man’s been up here working on this same sheet of canvas, and a part of me hopes he never finishes it. I like spending time with the Painter. He says happiness is the color yellow. Is that why it’s the only color he uses to paint with? Because he’s come to be my friend? When I found him up here in the attic, Mother’s Sister told me not to talk to him, to leave him be. She wanted to call the police but when I brought her up here and she saw the painting of the car wreck, she changed her mind about the Painter. She said she wasn’t going to call the police anymore, but that it wasn’t okay for me to see him. Children shouldn’t have adult friends, is what she really said. But I think she’s wrong about that. I think she only said that because she doesn’t have any friends.
She never leaves the house except to go to see the therapist-lady on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I wonder if the Painter wouldn’t mind inviting Mother’s Sister to be his friend.
Do you want me to be her friend? he asks, leaning close into the fender of the BMW at the tip of his crooked paintbrush, squinting as he dabs the tiniest detail.
She cries at night in her room, I tell him. She shuts the door and doesn’t come out until morning. I used to invite her to watch cartoons with me, but she always falls asleep just when it’s getting good. The Painter doesn’t say anything, so I keep talking. Uncle made her sad, probably. It must have happened when he left. He’s in the army, you know. They sent him to another country. I’d tell you where but I can’t really sound out the name of it. But he’s fighting in a war, and so I guess he must be seeing the color red all over the place — just like you said. Those places need more yellow, come to think of it. Yeah, if they saw more yellow, maybe they’d be happier and have less wars. And Uncle could come home to meet you.
Do you hear that? he asks me without looking away from his work. Mother’s Sister is calling for me. She says it’s dinner time and that I need to come downstairs now. I do something I’ve never done; I wrap my arms all the way around the Painter and say I’ll see him tomorrow. Before I completely leave the attic, though, I think of a question to ask the old man. But when I turn to find him, he’s already gone. I can only chuckle. It’s a neat trick the Painter does. I’ve always wondered how he can disappear like that so quickly.
# # #
Outside it has just started raining, and in the far corner of the attic, where Mother’s Sister keeps the old Christmas tree and ornaments all boxed up, is a leak with a slim strand of water running down the wall. The water’s soaking into the cardboard boxes over there, and now the entire attic smells like poop.
Painter, what about smells? Did God give colors certain smells?
That’s exactly right, he answers. I believe God designed color and smell to go hand-in-hand. He purses his hairy lips and sighs heavily. You’re starting to understand now.
The Painter says I’ll know the answer soon enough, and then he starts to paint the face of a woman lying on her back in the middle of the road. She must be the driver. I can see that very clearly. And now she’s broken somehow. Maybe she’s broken really bad. It’s a horrible part of the picture, I think. Not very friendly at all. The old man’s going to ruin his masterpiece! I think, worried.
His paintbrush is directing the shape of the woman’s bent legs on the canvas. All I can think about now is how he shouldn’t be painting her this way. What did she do to deserve this?
Why does Mother’s Sister go into her room to cry? the Painter asks. Why does she only cry at night?
She doesn’t like me to see her sad, I say, because it messes up her makeup. It makes her cheeks look black and powdery.
Is that really why she hides when she’s feeling sad, Boy?
Of course it is. I mean…What other reason might she have?
There are lots of reasons she has to grieve, he answers. A crack of thunder shakes the attic, and my shoulders leap from my body. A dribble of sweat races down my brow and then settles on my cheekbone. The old man’s brush comes to an abrupt stop. You’re breathing heavy, he says to me. Maybe you’re not ready.
Ready for what? I ask nervously, as if something is choking my voice box.
You’re not ready to remember, he answers. But you’re almost ready. Pay attention to the colors and their smells. A memory can’t hide from its color or smell. That’s God’s promise.
White lightning flanks the two of us from the outside window followed by a second shudder of thunder. And then another. And another without ceasing. Suddenly the power goes out and we’re left standing in black. Painter? I say, hovering my hands in front of me. Only silence echoes. A whistle finds its way into the attic. The storm’s getting worse. Grab my hand, Painter. We’ll go downstairs and find Mother’s Sister. She’ll know what to do.
A wooden creak comes from somewhere at my back. My spine straightens as a pencil. Painter? I ask again, waiving my hand somewhere in front of me. Are you there? I said grab my hand! But he doesn’t. He’s gone. He’s left me alone in the dark. I call out his name another time, if only because I don’t want to believe that he’d truly abandon me. Painter…Come downstairs with me…
A soft grip wraps itself around my hand and pulls me away. Beneath the storm is the sound of a car wreck and a boy weeping, trying to make some sort of sense out of chaos, as he clings to his favorite plastic dinosaur toy.
# # #
Painters are to blame. Painters are to blame for car wrecks. For wars. And for Mother’s Sister crying herself to sleep every night. The old man upstairs didn’t come to be my friend. He came to show me something terrible.
Mother’s Sister has brought us down to the dinning room table. We’re sitting beside each other in the dark. I can see the soaked porch glimmer beneath the lightning through the sliding glass door. Another painting behind a painter with a crooked paintbrush. She says, trailing off, I’m worried about you… And then she lights a candle and rests back in her chair. Beneath her eyes are globs of thick, damp makeup.
I can’t do this anymore, she says to no one in particular. The candlelight flickers and the blond of her hair has a golden sheen. This isn’t my responsibility. It isn’t fair. There’s the sound of a hiccup and then she’s crying in front of me.
It’s a new color. A dark, bitter black of a color. The type of color you’d see lurking in basement cobwebs or cluttered attics. A color you’d see mangled in the mess of a horrific car wreck. A color only the best of painters can mix together. Mother’s Sister says forcefully, What’s wrong with you?
The Painter says God painted everything perfectly. That’s true, I think. But He painted everything in a way that’s perfect for Him. Not me. And definitely not Mother’s Sister. If God’s painting is so perfect, why am I here? Miserable, like this. And why can’t I explain the way I’m feeling? The storm rages like a million dying brachiosauruses, and beneath the booming behemoths, I say shyly, I’m sorry Uncle is gone…
Mother’s Sister stops crying. She lifts her head from the comfort of her palms. Is that what you think this is about? Your Uncle? she asks, as if I’ve spoken a lie and the disappointment is killing her. You’re Uncle has been gone a very long time, Son, and I made amends with his absence long before you came to this house. Her eyes are sharpened teeth darting towards me. I sink into my shoulders and pretend to hide, but I know there’s no hiding from Mother’s Sister tonight. For the first time in a long time, I can’t escape her.
Brittle and desperate her voice quivers, and she continues, Doctor Hanson says you’ll remember in your own time. That a memory can never be lost entirely and that deep down it’s trying everything it can’t not to let you keep it forgotten. He says I should give you time. Time to remember on your own. But it’s been so long, and it’s killing me to see what you’ve become.
The bite filters slowly into my neck like an elongated papercut. The pain is in the fact that it was Mother’s Sister who struck, as if on purpose, like she meant to hurt me. I can see the paintbrush in her shaking hands. And suddenly I know she’s painting a wretched masterpiece of her own. I squeeze my shoulders around the rest of my neck and say, What happened to Mother and Father?
The Painter says God created color to mean more than we think it does. That through the years we’ve forgotten what He intended. And it’s hurting us not to remember. But, also, a memory is a funny thing. It’ll use whatever is in front of us to find it’s rightful place.
Mother’s Sister finds my hand just like she did in the attic. The rain stalls and there is a stillness that feels almost as if God himself is looking down at me, paintbrush in hand and a painting of a car wreck on a rickety easel sitting right in front of Him. The color yellow coats the tip of His brush.
Mother’s Sister opens her mouth.
This is what it’s like to remember.