Short Fiction: Autumn's Dying Women
The only member of my family who ever believed in souls was my aunt. “Bless your soul,” she wrote every year in her sloppy and smudged cursive, directly under the pre-printed birthday message. She died late-summer, a lonely and childless death, colored like deep pink wildflowers and her un-beating heart. I don’t know how she died, I never asked. I just knew I had to start believing in souls.
This past autumn was desolate. My mother was depressed after her sister’s untimely death. I hadn’t reconnected with any friends I had fallen out of contact with in the summertime; their lives progressed without wondering about me. I spent most of my day sleeping and rarely attended class. I lived in my own two-room apartment and, with the supplies my aunt had willed to me, used one room as a studio. I slept in the kitchen, read in the empty bathtub and left the heater buzzing as days grew colder and colder.
I can’t pretend like I’ve ever known how to paint. I seldom used the studio for anything but sitting and staring, at blank canvas or out the small window. When I felt most alone I’d bring a boy to my apartment and we’d use the studio couch because my bed in the kitchen smelled like oil and cheese. Any time I’d try to paint I’d abandon the canvas for other pursuits. I’d stare at the unfinished work until it drove me mad and I hated each stitch of it, and then I’d dispose of it, burn it or throw it into the dumpster and watch it sink between bags of trash, soaking up the most disdainful smells.
I called home less and less because I couldn’t handle the long silences from my mother. She must’ve thought I was getting busier, if she thought of me at all. I wasn’t sad. I was feeling something new.
Now, the days are shorter like my prayers are being answered — I sleep more and time has the illusion of passing quickly. I’ve stopped bringing people home, I’ve stopped staring at unpainted canvases. I feel such hostility from the studio door that I won’t even enter.
My mother has filled the spaces my aunt and I held in her calculated life. I imagine the conversations she must have about me at her office parties or with our distant relatives. I imagine her thin smile and uniform responses, her insistence that everything is and has always been OK.
I failed half of my exams and have been wondering how ashamed she would be if I dropped out altogether; I could find someone to marry and live off love, or I could stay in this adamant apartment for the rest of time.
There are worse things I could do to her. I could die.
My aunt’s funeral was daunting. It was held in a wide wooden room, only four of 50 seats filled: one for me, one for my mother, one for her work colleague — an uncomfortable woman who sweated right through her tight black dress, who despite her grieving gestures and pious tongue was the first to rush out the door — and one for a man whom I had never seen before — who shed a single tear and spoke to the casket with a heavy foreign tongue, a one-sided conversation that whispered through the wooden room like poetry. My mother had thrown the funeral and invited plenty — none had shown except the woman. The man had not been invited. My mother said a few words. I said a few to the room and cried only because the empty chairs sang my speech back to me. The man shook my hand at the service, after the woman had left and while my mother spoke to those who worked at the home. We said nothing, but we meant a lot. I don’t think he was fluent in English, but he understood enough.
A week ago, I received a complaint that the stenches of my apartment have begun to seep through the walls and into my neighbor’s rooms. The smell must’ve come from my kitchen, where unwashed dishes rattled against one another in the sink. Old milk and crumbs from weeks of breakfasts, lunches and dinners formed a thin film at the bottom. When I heard that the landlord was coming to inspect the source of the apparently repugnant smell, I scrubbed the kitchen counters and threw out any expired food, spraying old perfumes my mother had given me three Christmases ago to stifle the scent. I’m not sure whether it worked.
My landlord is a thin, lanky man who wears navy leather shoes. His apartments are not high-end by any means, but he makes a steady living ripping off students desperate for a place to stay. He’s not a bad man. Sometimes I see him as he steps outside to smoke, and we have brief conversations. He barely remembers my name but often hands out advice, wheezing between drags.
“You paint?” he asks me, his long neck craned through the doorframe of my studio. I haven’t been in there for weeks. The smells of oil paint and sloppy sex have been brewing for months and now all hit at once.
“When I have the time.”
“Yeah, I’m sure this is the culprit.” He inhales deeply to prove a point. The wooden floorboards creak underneath his pacing.
The smell makes me nauseated and nostalgic and I want him to leave. He begins poking through the unpacked boxes I have stacked against the wall. Some are full of dirty palettes and brushes. Others hold unfinished canvases or sketches I find too raw and alive to attribute to my aunt. I can’t bring myself to look at them. He leafs through them with his skinny fingers, decorated with silver rings of varying thickness.
“You did these?”
He pulls one from the stack to examine. I’m uncomfortable that he’s looking through my aunt’s work — his prying eyes are capturing the single lifeline I still have to her. I start to say something, but the painting he chooses is one I’ve never seen before; it’s a deep and vibrant pink, abstract and unfinished. The colors are concentrated to the sides of the painting, but they lean toward the center, as if the intention was to move in. The first moment I see its riveting texture, under the impure light of the small studio window, with the uncovered stitches of off-white canvas shining through, stenciled with light pencil marks so crisp and intentional that I can picture the crease between my aunt’s thick, arched eyebrows as she made them, my eyes fill with tears. I have never seen my aunt as an artist — I’d never seen her studio or her work — but this painting evokes such a recognition of her, the little bits that I saw. I feel as though I’m looking at a portrait of the artist herself. In a quiet, persistent voice, I ask my landlord if he is ready to leave.
On his way out, he suggests washing the supplies or opening some more windows, but can’t reprimand me — I’m allowed to have my makeshift studio, and the smell, albeit greasy, isn’t particularly discerning.
My aunt was my mother’s only sibling. She rarely visited us though she lived nearby. My mother always told me she was a busy woman, between her jobs and hobbies and brief but invested relationships.
Though I seldom saw or heard from her directly, she was constantly a presence in our home. On any given day, my mother would spend hours on our landline, deep in discussion with my aunt as if some new event of great importance had occurred every 24 hours. I’d return home from school and shut the door quietly to not disturb their long, endless talks. My mother would press our chunky home phone to her ear as she cooked or cleaned or sat on the bottom step of our carpeted staircase. In our echoing house I would hear her laugh and curse; her tense shoulders would relax each time our home phone began to ring. I imagined my aunt on the other side of the line. I used the short, dashing details of her life my mother would recount to me; I understood that my aunt was an eccentric woman, picking up painting and sketching after a messy divorce with a man she had married far too quickly. She was attractive in her youth and carried her beauty as she aged. My mother had been jealous of her as a child.
I could picture my aunt’s manicured fingers clutching her steering wheel, a cigarette in one hand and her cellphone sandwiched between her shoulder and chin. Maybe she called from her apartment in the center of town, lounging on her plush sofa, flipping through a magazine. Or perhaps she called from different places every time, like the bathrooms of brief lovers or hotel lobbies as she traveled to art shows in small cities, attracting crowds of connoisseurs and eagle-eyed critics alike. But these were all fantasies. I didn’t know if she was a smoker or if her work was ever displayed in any shows, I just liked the thought of it.
I enter the studio. It’s evening. The end of sunset pours through the window. When I went to class this morning, for one of the first times this week, I let my apartment air out, following my landlord’s advice. It still smells foul, so foul.
Last night I laid my aunt’s unfinished pink painting on my studio couch before I went to bed. It’s still here. The colors are warmer under the evening sunlight, the white space is whiter than I remember it being yesterday. It’s a compelling painting. It has the color and texture of my mother’s voice as she spoke to my aunt on the phone. It has a wholesomeness that has been on my mind the whole day — it has a life so colorful that it can talk for hours and hours. It has stirred up a faint regret. I never heard those stories, even when I had the chance.
I pace the room. Autumn has ended. Winter is sharp outside my window. I miss my aunt and I miss my mother. They left my life together, I can feel them somewhere in this color.
My aunt’s oil paints are stacked in white cardboard boxes, torn and stamped and labeled by the U.S. Postal Service. The orange ones are on top. I reach for them. I don’t know how to compare brushes, so I just take a medium-sized one. There is masking tape around the handle. The bristles are glued together with purplish paint.
My floor is surprisingly cold when I press my thighs against it. I lay the canvas flat in front of me. I scrutinize the pencil marks, where they have been erased, where they are the darkest. I squeeze a pea-sized drop of paint onto a heavily used palette.
The painting before me is unfinished, but I know what it is. It has the character my mother forbade from our home — a provocative swing of the hips, a womanly tenderness. I begin to paint, adding more and more to my palette as I go, oranges then pinks then reds and blacks. I start cautious, within a dead woman’s lines. I want to do her justice. I am painting her soul.
I wasn’t sure what to say to my mother when I saw her the morning after the funeral. Her eyes were bloodshot and her cold, veiny hands clenched around our home phone. There was no one to call. She looked up at me. Her eyes dripped streams, reddish against her discolored skin.
Growing up, my mother never let me see her cry. Too many emotions were distracting, she taught me. I have vivid memories of her turning away, sheltering her aging face. She’d lock her bedroom door with a sharp, metallic click, and I’d stand in front of it, in anguish. She was on one side and I was on another. That’s how it would always be. It was like that when she separated from my father. It was like that when my father’s truck flipped over, his abusive neck cracked against the asphalt. It was like that at the end of any sad movie.
I dropped my eyes to the floor and retreated from the room, not one word of comfort or empathy from my chapped lips.
We didn’t speak that day or that week. She fixed me meals but rarely ate anything herself. Our home was dead silent, she would sob at the calls of telemarketers.
It was early autumn when my mother began to ship boxes to me. The will had been read a month before, but my mother was reluctant. My aunt’s paintings were masks for promiscuity, for unconventionality. I was promised my aunt had not always been that way — it was a turn in her life, one that I had not seen either side of. Could my mother damn me to that? After a cold month of debating, the boxes came in, one by one. My mother grew thinner.
The boxes lined the walls of my apartment, the empty room that would become my studio. Supplies littered the kitchen counter, unfinished artwork remained packed away. Caterpillars ate through stitches of blank canvas like leaves. I didn’t mind.
The end of September, I would call my mother daily, just to be silent with her. I could picture her curling up in her bedroom, her weak fingers holding a phone with no one to call or love. I would sometimes talk to her, about my life as it was, but would receive no response.
It was October when I realized how alone I was. My routines withered. My studio became a haven for sorrow and detachment, for boys from classes I didn’t attend and ugly portraits of women I used to admire. I was promiscuous, unconventional.
In November, my mother’s phone calls became unbearable. I shouted at her to respond to me but only received silence.
Winter began to roll in. I decided I couldn’t enter my studio anymore. Spite piled against the door. Caterpillars died in their brown cocoons. My mother disconnected our home phone.
I’ve spent most of the evenings this week in the studio.
I don’t always paint. Sometimes I look deep into the colors my aunt painted and think of her soft skin. Her heart-shaped face grew a pink-brown when she spoke. She wore lipstick the color of her natural lips. I look into the colors I’ve painted too — they’re darker, like the cold foreign eyes of the man at the funeral, like the heavy gray skin my mother wore those last days of summer.
When I do paint, time passes with ease. It never stutters. It is articulate. I feel more alive behind those studio doors than I have with any of those boys on my couch. My soul loosens in my body. The cold of the floor still stings my legs when I first sit, but by the time I’m done, there is warmth in the walls, warmth through the light fixtures, warmth in my fingertips. My arms and legs carry their own colors. I take long showers and watch the paints fuse together as they wash down the drain.
Souls have wants, souls have needs. I think about my aunt as an entity, somewhere wide and unreachable. I figure that’s how she’d want to be remembered. Deep pink, orange, tender. My aunt’s soul was never clear to me when she was alive but she’s here, in the studio lights and the dried paint that cakes the hair on my arms. I try to picture how my soul looks, how it accumulates in colors and textures.
My mother wouldn’t believe in things like these. In grief, she is certain not to pour herself into spirituality. She’s afraid of her own emotions, her vulnerability. I’m sure she knows the empty relationships my aunt left won’t be filled with new people, sharing wine at dinner parties or on dirty couches. She needs something else that will fill the gap my aunt has left in her — a storyteller, a friend, the subject of jealousy and discipline.
My mind is consumed with the painting and contemplations. I think about the oil paint as it glistens under different lights in my apartment. I don’t know much about the anatomy of souls, but in those colors, as they stack on one another, inside her pencil lines or deliberately outside, I know mine and my aunt’s are similar.
I’ve been in the car for five hours. I borrowed a GPS from my landlord because my car doesn’t have one built in. He charged me a couple of dollars for it, but I didn’t mind. My car is mostly empty. My backpack is in my trunk. I didn’t pack any clothes. The finished painting is in the passenger seat.
When I finished it, when it sat flat on the floor of a concrete studio, when the boxes of bug carcasses rattled with in the light breeze, my apartment had never felt so silent and empty. I sat with the soul of a woman echoing off my floor. Her flesh and blood were buried that summer but what was left was there, flat and rectangular. I knew I had to share my resurrection with the one woman who needed to feel my aunt again.
I drive down the street I was raised on. I turn into the driveway of my childhood home, I come to a gentle stop. I watch my mother stir behind the curtains of the living room. She’s not expecting me. I turn off the car. With the finished painting in one arm and an autumn of words on my lips, I approach the front door.