FRED, THEIR BETTA FISH, IS DEAD. Christopher tips scummy water into the wilted tomato on the fire escape and gazes at the red body in his hand. He thinks about tossing Fred into the alley for the neighbor’s tabby before Damien wakes up from his nap, but decides against it. Ruth always strolls up the alley from the bus stop when she comes home for lunch, and she’d likely see the fish and freak.
And that he does not need after this morning’s fight.
The rusty mailbox lids on the front porch creak, and he thinks of the teaching job he applied for in Iowa. He tells himself there’s no letter, no point in checking, but he always checks, every day. He saunters down the wooden fire escape with Fred in the empty bowl. Maybe that Burlington collector has finally sent him a check. He remembers the taste of the gin and tonic he drank in the guy’s apartment. The gin, minty with juniper berries, reminded him of that long-ago run, the morning sun shivering on the lake and Ruth’s flushed cheeks when he got back to his parents’ porch and found her cocooned in his sleeping bag. He’d nicked the bottle and hid it in his tool kit. Maybe that’s why the guy hasn’t paid him yet.
He jumps over the last, half-rotted step, cracked like the sole of an old running shoe from when he slipped and fell two nights ago, hauling his Twitter collage down to piss on it again, shitfaced in a three a.m. artistic rage.
Bartholomew, the neighbor’s cat, purrs and rubs up against his leg. Christopher’s pretty sure the old tabby’s been marking their tomato plant since he started pissing on that collage of Joe’s prophetic tweets in the alley—his conceptual homage to Andre Serrano. Sealed with varnish after each anointing, the collage is starting to glow ancient gold-leaf amber. He hasn’t shown Ruth, since she still goes to Joe’s church on occasion.
All three mailbox lids are propped open with pizza fliers. He wipes a fishy hand on his jeans and withdraws a hydro bill, a newsletter from Joe’s church, and a letter from Siouxland College. Holding the fishbowl between his knees, he tears open the letter, recalling the Skype interview and how the one sleepy-eyed faculty member, an emaciated guy in a teal V-neck, asked if he saw himself as a post-post-formalist or as more or less abstract.
He scans the letter too quickly and has to reread it.
We’re happy to inform you…. He’s suspended in thick water. They want him to start in the fall. He has his dream job.
“More pizza fliers.” Joan, their second-story neighbor, is standing in her doorway, her white hair wild and bed-matted, crisped nicotine yellow in places like a Holy Ghost smoker’s flame, her face plastered with white clay cream.
“They don’t seem to realize we all have their number memorized,” he says, smiling. But she doesn’t smile back—as if grinning might crack her cheeks. She holds her housecoat closed in a quivery, blue-veined fist. Sponge spacers fan out her bony toes: her nails newly polished an angry red—the color of Fred’s flared fins, the color of blood. She has modeled for him before, and he thinks of her naked and looks away.
“Someone send you a dirty fish tank?” she asks, nodding at the bowl.
He crinkles the letter. “Our fish died,” he says.
He knows Joan can hear everything that goes on in their apartment. On rare quiet afternoons in his studio, when Damien naps, he can hear her daytime soaps below.
“Do you mind?” Joan nods at her mailbox. “Don’t want to scuff the polish.”
He hands over her mail and steals another glance at her toenails and liver-spotted ankles. He pictures her on a stool in his studio, legs crossed, crouched forward as if straining to hear his thoughts. She scans the pizza flier, holding it at arm’s length.
He grabs her door to stop it closing. “You free this afternoon?”
“The painting’s done,” he says, thinking of the last brushstroke on her left breast’s mastectomy scar.
“When did you say the show was?”
“Haven’t heard,” he says, letting go of the door. “Still waiting on funding from the Breast Cancer Society.”
“Could be forever, then.” She turns to go.
“Can you look after Damien this afternoon? For an hour…while I nip out?”
“Told you I hate kids.”
“But you’re so good with him.”
She scowls again.
“I’ll get you cigarettes,” he says.
She raises her eyebrows.
“After lunch I’ll bang on the floor.” He steps back. “Just come up—the hallway door’s unlocked.”
“You clean up those liquor bottles yet?”
“It’s on my list.”
She sniffs, and Christopher grips the Siouxland letter tighter. Ruth doesn’t know of their little arrangement, though sometimes after Joan has been in the apartment Ruth asks if he’s been smoking. She always hated the smell on him, which cut into their sex life, so he quit. Their sex life didn’t change, but it did put more coin in his pocket for liquor. Small blessings.
He wonders what she’ll say about the job in Iowa.
If he tells her.
He learned during his interview that most Sioux County hospitals didn’t allow midwives to practice on-site—they could do home births, but they had to be state-certified. Ruth wouldn’t be able to work as a midwife unless she managed to get a green card. And that was eight thousand dollars they didn’t have. He’d worked all this out in a panic after the interview and then put it out of his mind because he was pretty certain he wouldn’t get the job.
Now he wonders if this is his chance to make a clean break, to leave it all behind—Ruth and Damien and the mess their lives have become.
He stops on the second step of the fire escape, thinking he’ll nip out to see Kenny’s new mural on Locke when Joan’s watching Damien. He knows telling Ruth is the only decent thing to do, but he wants Kenny’s take first. Conversations with Kenny are like studies for arguments with his wife.
He could’ve used a dry-run with Kenny this morning, actually. He’d come out of the bathroom, swampy-eyed and hungover, to find Ruth blocking the entrance to the kitchenette, holding his coffee hostage. She said he needed to man-up and start taking better care of their son—and he lost it.
“I’m a painter, Ruth! I didn’t ask for this. I need to be in my studio—”
“Which should be the baby’s room.”
“I can’t close the door, and I can’t have him getting into my paints again.”
“If I could give up my job, Chris, I would.” Their student loans had come due four months ago, and the job had been offered her, so she took it.
“I sell enough abstracts to designers to keep us fed.”
“Only when they pay up.”
“Midwifery is your thing. And you get to do it. Every day you get to do what you trained to do. Is it that you can’t give it up—or you don’t want to?”
“How can you even ask me that?”
“I just opened my mouth, Ruth, and there it was—the big fucking question.”
“You don’t think it kills me?”
“To do what you love?”
“To deliver other women’s babies while mine learns to toddle, and I’m not there, and my husband’s too busy sketching to take a goddamn picture!”
“So I should add that to the list: take more pictures?”
“I’m saying you don’t communicate with me!”
He tiptoes across the living room and looks in on Damien, still asleep, flush-cheeked and breathing deeply. The smell of urine rises warmly from the pack ’n play. He turns away, wondering what day of the month it is, and how many more until Damien’s first birthday. Ruth hasn’t mentioned it and he wonders if she’s waiting to see if he’ll forget. As if that’ll prove something. He retreats to his studio in the front room and checks the calendar on the wall, but it’s last year’s. He thunks the fishbowl on a stool and smooths the Siouxland letter in his hands, his back against the door—suddenly wishing he could lock himself out of his own life.
He knows he could just up and go. He’s that cold. That numb. That in need of a stiff drink. He looks at his tool kit and thinks of the taste of the gin stashed there. He’s sketched such fantasies already, all the resentment building like the pressure in a blood blister beneath a hammer-struck thumbnail. Every unfiltered thought he’s never shared with Ruth.
He’s sure she will figure things out if he leaves. She’s resourceful. Maybe she’ll even be grateful he’s gone.
His eyes follow his son’s cobalt blue handprints up the wall behind the door. Damien had gotten into his oil paints one day while Christopher was lost in a project, and had smeared the studio and kitchen. He’d lost that whole day cleaning up. But he’d left the handprints behind the door in his studio.
He folds the letter.
Ruth doesn’t understand his art and doesn’t seem to want to. The morning after that incident, when Ruth had seen Damien’s dark blue tongue, she’d forbidden Christopher to ever use oils again.
But how do you paint without oils?
He still uses them, just on the sly.
Come to think of it, he’s low on cobalt blue. Maybe he’ll stop by the paint shop before he visits Kenny’s mural.
He closes his eyes, sees Joan’s weathered old face—how he imagines Ruth looking someday. He wants to see his wife as an old woman, wants to make it that far with her, to paint her again as he did that one time back in collage.
“Your gift is the body,” his old art prof had murmured over a glass of wine at his senior exhibition, looking at that painting of Ruth. “Those eyes. Too bad the money’s in abstracts.”
He’d veered away from conceptual shit as an undergrad. No talent required, he’d thought. But that’s what he does now. Abstracts. To make ends meet. To find a visual language for his mind-numbing frustrations.
The collage of Joe’s Pentecostal tweets sits yellowing against the wall, half-hiding the portrait of Ruth. Joe—his charismatic old college roommate, pastor of Deep Springs Revivalist Church, and class-A Twitter twit.
Ruth stares at him from his own canvas—the one his art prof had admired—her face moonlit and chiaroscuroed. A woman crass and God-filled. Who knows me, he thinks, yet loves me still.
He tries to concentrate on the letter, the job offer in his hands—the decision he feels himself making—but all he can picture is Joan sitting on the stool next to him, her bathrobe in a pile on the floor and her legs crossed at her knees, the way he’d asked her to sit that one time—her pubic hair shockingly red.
A way of falling in love, he thinks, catching Ruth’s eye in the portrait. He almost broke up with her before their wedding, after they slept together for the first time. He felt guilty, being the sexually frustrated young evangelical he was back then. Instead of breaking things off, though, he’d taken a long run. Later, he’d asked her to model for him—a last look, he’d thought. He’d sketched her staring over her shoulder at him, as if she was going somewhere and wanting him to follow.
And he did.
That first sketch is pinned to the back of the portrait that’s staring at him now, seeing through him.
But that painting was a while ago. He hasn’t painted her since her pregnancy first started to show. They’ve both changed. Marriage has changed them. Being poor and unemployed has changed them. And Damien of course. He no longer wears a watch, just measures the hours by Damien’s cries for food and how many bags of frozen breast milk he’s thawed. Five, sometimes six in a day: depending on how many solids his son’s had or when Ruth gets home. Sometimes she drops in for lunch.
He hears her at the fire escape now, calling him. And he jams the letter in the fishbowl and ducks into the kitchenette.
“Thought you’d given up sketching,” she says, eyeing the pen in his hand. She drops her purse and kicks off her sandals.
“Damien’s just waking up now,” he says, noting the charcoal-smudge shadow on her bare ankle, above the heel.
“Then you got some work done?” Her tone is hopeful.
“Yes,” he says.
And she looks at the stack of liquor bottles at the base of the stairs, the subject of this morning’s fight.
“Did you want me to get him up,” he asks, “or make lunch?”
Ruth goes to get Damien, and he makes tomato sandwiches—they are out of everything else, which is also his fault since he is supposed to shop. He cuts hers diagonally the way she likes, dices crusts into a plastic bowl for Damien to pick at, and busses their lunch out to the table.
“Saw you watered the tomato plant,” she says.
Damien is meowing at Bartholomew through the glass—the boy’s curls frizzy from sleep. Ruth scoops him up and places him in his chair, asking him what sound a cat makes.
He meows softly and reaches for his crusts, his hazel eyes wide.
“Did you just teach him that?” Christopher asks.
“I do the animal sounds when I read Brown Bear, Brown Bear.”
Christopher wonders how long it’s been since he’s read to Damien, or noticed him doing something new. Ruth touches Damien’s downy hair, her hand cupping his perfect head, and asks him if he likes daddy’s cooking. There’s no sarcasm in her voice.
Christopher swallows, knowing it’s all him—all in his head.
She’s happy, he can see that. And their son is content, and the pink in her cheeks makes him realize she’s apologized for her part in this morning’s fight by not saying anything about it. That’s how she says she’s sorry: by moving on. He craves more resolution, though—a grander gesture.
She asks about the mail. “Did that guy pay you for the glow-in-the-dark piece?”
“Not yet,” he says.
“You should call him.”
He taps the table with his pen, thinks of the gin in his studio.
“I know you hate talking on the phone, but you need to call him.”
“You off early today?”
“Yes. I should be getting back, though.”
He doesn’t want to interrupt this moment in which everything seems fine, placid as those pictures of flooded rice paddies that Joe posted after his mission trip to Laos.
Ruth had wanted to go on that trip and had tried to raise money for it, money Christopher had burned through on a two-day bender with Kenny. Another fight. Later she’d told him how betta fish can survive in the stagnant floodplains of southeast Asia and how she felt trapped in their apartment. A smoggy August day, and she’d been looking at Facebook and crying, and he hadn’t understood her tears. So he’d gone out and bought her Fred.
She gives Damien a hug and sets him on the floor to crawl over to his books and toys—his little green tractor. Christopher spies a wet spot on his son’s shorts, along the crease of diaper. When was he last changed? Ruth says something, but he misses it.
Then he kisses her goodbye, and feels her lips tighten.
His studio smells of dead fish and urethane. He slips the gin into a paper bag before banging on the floor with a roller handle. In a few minutes Joan is at the door, clanking aside a box of liquor bottles, still in her housecoat. He opens the baby gate for her.
She flicks the creased lid of a cigarette pack. “Only got three left, so don’t forget.”
“Want to try another brand?” he asks, kicking into his runners. “Or cigars maybe?”
“Don’t mess with my habit, kid.”
“You really are his favorite, you know.” He steps onto the fire escape, then pokes his head back in. “Think you can change his diaper?”
Joan snorts, heading to the kitchen.
“If you come out for a smoke, be sure to jimmy the door shut. Damien’s a big fan of stairs now—and our neighbor’s cat.”
“Do you have coffee on?” she asks, rummaging a cupboard.
Damien is crawling toward him. “Filters are above the sink and coffee’s in the freezer,” he says quickly, shutting the glass door just as Damien staggers upright and flings himself against it, crying, as he always does when Christopher leaves him with Joan.
He taps the doorknob. Hesitates. Crouches down and looks at his son’s eyes.
He knows he could paint them like that—wet and full of longing. Hazel rimmed with green. Only visible in certain lights. Lake water at sunrise. He sees it now. Ruth’s look in that long-ago portrait.
But he can’t face them now—his son staring through the glass—can’t look a moment more. He halfheartedly waves, squeezing the neck of the paper-bagged bottle as he slinks down the stairs, testing the rotten step and hearing it crack a little more beneath his heel.
On his way to Locke Street, he passes the soccer fields where kids are playing. He edges between the field house and a flowering lilac hedge, where he used to double-knot his shoes before running the track in the early mornings. Sunrise laps. He uncaps the bottle and takes a swig, evergreen scents bristling in his nose—thoughts of the lake house, the porch, Ruth naked in his arms and the infinite stars glowing above them that first night. All of it some green belief now gone.
He stopped going to Joe’s church after Joe prophesied repeatedly on Twitter that Ruth would have a son and she didn’t. Not for over three years, anyway—long enough for Christopher to come to resent Joe’s name-it-and-claim-it gospel, the peppy music and purple lighting.
A desire to run this track pulses in him: muscle memory. He’d sketch Ruth in that familiar pose if he had pen and paper now, her head turned to look back at him, the deep shadow between her neck and chin, her face moonlit and happy. Damien was born twelve months after Ruth’s diagnosis with polycystic ovarian syndrome.
He takes another swig, wanting to smell pine trees and spruce gum again, the junipers around his parents’ porch. That’s why he stole the gin in the first place. He takes another drink and wanders onto Locke Street to an old, whitewashed bungalow between Tuckett and Pine—the site of Kenny’s new mural, a close-up of a woman’s face. Her eyes are sandy green—the color of shoreline, Christopher thinks.
“Did you fleck her eyes with gold?” he asks.
“To catch the light—make ’em sparkle.”
“You’re a romantic.”
Kenny shrugs. “You coming from a fight or going to one?” He sets a small roller in a tray of rose paint—the blush on the woman’s cheeks.
“Going, I think.”
Kenny squints at Christopher, cups a half-smoked cigarette to relight it, then rubs his smoking hand over his buzz-cut head. “You’re a regular raging bull, eh?”
Christopher offers his friend the bottle and Kenny sniffs it. “Is this real or pine gum?” He hands it back without taking a sip, fishes in his pocket, then flicks Christopher a red plastic chip. “One month now, thanks to these,” he says, fluttering the cigarette’s nib between rose-flecked knuckles.
Christopher squints down the bottle’s neck. “This is two-hundred dollar gin,” he says, passing Kenny back his AA chip.
“You rob someone?” Kenny asks.
“It fell in my bag at a collector’s house.”
Kenny laughs. A woman in pink Spanx cycles past, and Kenny takes a quick pull of his cigarette, watching her go. “What I wouldn’t give to be that bicycle seat.”
Christopher takes another sip. “You still with Maryelle?”
“She took my kid.”
Kenny shrugs and spits. “Get my blue chip and I get to see my boy again.” He takes a last draw of his smoke and flicks away the butt. “You still painting that old hag?”
“Told you that’s for a breast cancer gig.”
“I feel you, bro.”
Christopher takes several searing swigs. His toes are numbing. He can hardly feel them. He tells Kenny about the Siouxland letter, how he wants to accept the job and just take off, leave Ruth and Damien behind.
Kenny shakes his head. “Your wife’s too hot, man.”
“You’re a pervert, you know that?”
“You see those eyes?” Kenny points to the woman in his mural. Her gold-flecked eyes stare past them into the street. “I think of her like a…like a mom watching her two boys scrap—the one building, the other messing things up.”
Christopher shakes his head. “I killed Ruth’s fish,” he whispers. The woman in the mural is unblinking—glaring, he thinks.
In his portrait of Ruth, Christopher painted the eyes so they’d find you wherever you were in the room, a trick he’d learned by studying religious icons.
Kenny watches him closely. “Know who my study was?”
“That girl on the bicycle?”
“Fuck no. That’s Ruth looking at you when you were playing with your boy.” He taps his temple. “I store shit like that. Like that one painting of Ruth, the one you never sold. That shit’s real, man—that’s what you should be doing. Not those fuckin’ abstracts. Maryelle,” he says, pointing at the mural, “she never looked at me like that.”
Kenny draws deeply and lets smoke slip out his nose. “Want my advice? Tell her about the job. Tell her you feel choked and have it out with her.” He waits for Christopher to take another drink. “And then apologize for that nasty saggy-tit porn you’re painting.”
Christopher spits gin on Kenny’s paint-spattered boots.
“Fuck boy!” Kenny laughs. “Go home.”
“I’m going.” He hands Kenny the near-empty bottle and staggers out of the alley.
“If you take off,” Kenny calls after him, smashing the bottle, “then I’m moving in!”
Locke Street keeps leaning to the left as Christopher heads for home, his stomach sloshing. That day in the park, Kenny had dropped by and had eaten Ruth’s tuna sandwich while Christopher rolled with Damien in the grass. He’d thought Kenny was flirting with Ruth, but he hadn’t been—he’d been studying her.
“I love her,” he breathes, whispering it to his son, knowing Ruth will be furious when she gets home and sees him drunk.
He crosses over Queen and almost gets hit by a bus, thinking he’ll try to paint Damien’s eyes, those big, wet hazel eyes staring at him through the glass door. With a fine-tipped brush he’ll enliven them with gold so they’ll shine and find him—find Ruth—even in the farthest corner of the room. He starts to cry at how stupid he’s been, seeing in his mind his son’s tear-flushed face pressed against the glass.
He finds it hard to breathe, like running the Escarpment stairs on a smoggy afternoon—“climbing out of the fishbowl,” he’d heard an old guy say on one such run. He remembers his son leaning into the wet shower curtain yesterday or the day before, wanting into the bath with him, his features vague and damp, that cackling laugh. He hears his son wailing, his face pressed against the window, wanting out to see the cat.
He rounds the corner to their house, realizing as he steps onto the white gravel path that he didn’t get Joan her cigarettes.
And Christopher looks up.
His son is there, halfway down the fire escape, toddling after Bartholomew, who brushes past Christopher’s leg. Their porch door clanks against the tomato pot in the light breeze. Bartholomew mews—and he blinks, trying to steady everything.
Stop the alley spinning.
He yells for Joan.
Damien hears his voice and turns: smiles, waves, and totters on that cracked step, and then it breaks and he falls through it, his foot catching the broken board, swinging him mid-air so his face smacks the stone path.
Christopher is suddenly submerged, unable to move.
Then he’s gathering up his son, cradling Damien’s bloody head—the white gravel livid and his boy’s body limp in his arms. Damien’s eyes are open and he’s too stunned to cry.
Above him Joan shrieks, then disappears inside, yanking the door shut. He doesn’t know what to do except run the six blocks to Saint Joseph’s, and so he starts down the alley, shushing his whimpering son, who has begun kicking his chest. A phone wails from an open window high above, but it’s not his phone. It’s not Ruth calling. His loose shoes are tripping him up and he kicks them off.
He can hear Ruth’s voice now, screaming, “Is that Damien, Chris? Is he all right?” His lungs are burning and his boy’s blood is dampening his shirt.
At the next street, he staggers. Ruth is running up the alley behind him, and he’s terrified. Of her. Of what’s happened. Cars flash past—his fears flaring—and she yells, asking what the hell he’s doing. “What’s happened?” she screams.
Damien’s leg trembles under his hand and he kisses his son’s wet eyes, closes his own, and dashes into the street.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.