Skip to main content

Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
Home
Contents
Biographies
Submissions
Archives
Editors
Contact Us
Publications
Policies

Painting Elephants

 

by Luke Hawley

 

 

 

The front page of the VarietySection had an article about elephants.  It read, “When logging was outlawed in Thailand, the elephants found themselves unemployed and homeless.  They were the ones that had helped cut down all the forests.”  It was further reported “They started doing tricks to pay rent at conservation centers; throwing darts, taking people’s hats off, and painting pictures.  Each elephant offered a unique style: a vase of flowers, a climbing vine―one had a self-portrait from what must have been the most self-aware of all the elephants.”

 

Margery spread the newspaper out across the table, stood up, and walked to the junk drawer next to the stove, pulling out a roll of masking tape.  She shuffled back to the table and taped down the paper along the sides and the corners.  When it was spread smooth, she walked into the living room and got a basket out from under one of the end tables, taking tins of paint, a sheet of paper, and a couple of brushes.  She always kept baskets full of art supplies, books, and music for her grandchildren.  In the kitchen, she grabbed an old plate from the cupboard, filled a plastic cup with water and sat back down at the table.

 

Margery had been an art major when she met Bill and spent long hours in front of an easel painting coniferous forests and fields of flowers and mountain-peaked horizons.  Bill had come to her burly, hirsute, and quiet―the wilderness she had been trying to paint all along.  They took a trip to Canada, her sitting next to him in the cab of his truck, camping along the border, cooking their meals over a fire, pitching a tent under the canopy of ancient trees.  When they arrived home, she had washed her brushes clean, turning her eye to sculpting home and family. 

 

She popped the lids off of the paints and poured them one by one onto the plate, dabbing the brush in the water and spreading the bristles out on the newspaper―twisting the handle of the brush in the fingers of her left hand.  Then, she undid the top three buttons of her shirt and placed her right hand over her left breast, kneading the flesh, searching for what she knew she would find―and began to paint, dipping into the water and twirling out one color, pushing the bristles of the brush into the newspaper, picking a new color.

 

The phone rang and Margery looked to the corner of the kitchen where the cordless sat on its stand and let the machine answer.  It was Bill:  Hi, honey.  Just checking in.  You’re probably gone to the store or something, so maybe it’s too late, but if not, would you remember to pick me up some beer?  And Cheerios.  I’m working late again tonight, but maybe you’ll manage to stay up long enough for me to see you.  I love you.

 

Margery smiled.  Almost thirty years since she had quit art school and he still ended every phone call the same way.

 

Looking down at the paper, the mix of colors was beginning to take form.  She rinsed out the brush and dipped it into the red paint, watching as her hand moved in graceful figure eights across the pages, back and forth and then in smooth arcs, wide to start with and ending in one sharp point.  She looked at the colors in front of her.  In the middle of an ocean of dark blues and purples and blacks and browns was the red of apples. 

 

She stood away from the table and walked to the phone, not remembering her paint-covered hands.  Lifting it, she dialed Bill at his office.

 

It was a week before she could get into the clinic and decided she would bring the painting.  She tried to explain it to the doctor.  He nodded along; she could see he was trying to understand, but the tight corners of his mouth gave him away.  Margery had admitted it herself: it did seem crazy.  Bill had been hesitant to even let her bring the painting.  But the doctor found the mass right where she said it would be.

 

 

 

 

“Bill?”  They were at the kitchen table eating.  It had been a week since her diagnosis and she had been swallowing up information in place of food and heard her stomach growl as she picked up her fork.

 

“Yes, dear.”

 

“Will you still … you know?”

 

“Will I still what?”

 

She looked down at her pork chop and summer squash.  When they met, Bill had never eaten summer squash.  She cooked it on their third date and when she set it in front of him, he made a face, now a familiar one, where his mouth smiled and his eyes frowned.  He wasn’t much for trying new things, but in the spirit of new love, he had eaten the squash and loved it.  And she learned not to ask, just to do.

 

“My boobs.  They’re gonna look weird.  Will you still – ”

 

“Don’t worry about it honey.”  He was focused on his plate, trying to spear a floppy slice of squash.  The middle had softened too much in the butter and it kept slipping off the end of his fork.

 

“The left one is going to be―” She trailed off.  Flat?  Smooth?  Barely able to picture a breast without a nipple.

 

“What?”

 

“It’s going to be nippleless.”

 

“Nippleless?”  He looked up from his plate, his mouth smiling, his eyes not.  He ran his forkless hand through his beard.  “Is that a word?”

 

She laughed.  “I suppose not.”  They had shared a bed for so long, shared this house.  She was afraid now, of the length of the table between them, of his distance, of his hesitation.

 

He set his fork down and shook his head.  “Nippleless.”  His smile spread to his eyes, then across the table at her.  “Listen, honey.  Let’s not worry about anything except getting you well.  One step at a time, okay?”

 

She nodded, “Okay.” 

 

“Okay.”

 

The house smelled like chili.  Monday night and the Packers were playing.  She checked it, switching the Crockpot to low.  The light on the answering machine blinked.

 

Hi, honey.  It’s me.  I was just wondering if you could pick up some beer.  A few of the guys from work are coming over.  Get some good stuff and some cheap stuff, it’s a mixed bag.  Thanks, babe.  I’ll see you tonight.  I love you.

 

She headed towards the mudroom to get her coat, but stopped at the mirror hanging in the hallway and looked down at her chest.  All the bravery that people told her about, all the courage they swore she had, to get through the chemo and the reconstruction―she still couldn’t bring herself to look.  Reaching up under the shirt, her breasts felt strange; they had never in all her life been this perky.  The doctor had lifted the old one to match the new one, but now she felt off-balance, youthful, and disfigured all at once.

 

She lifted her shirt over her head and stared.  The stitches had healed; a faint line ran through the center of her breast.  It should have intersected a nipple, but the skin on the front of her breast was bare.

 

“It’s not so bad, is it?”  Her voice broke the quiet.  She thought about Bill, his hands searching her body and finding something entirely different, but familiar. 

 

She dropped her hands and let her breasts hang naturally, cocking her head to the left, trying to find the right perspective.  Scrutinizing her face, the extra skin on it, the elasticity not what it once was, at her tummy, her once perfect navel, at her strange new breasts. Margery put her arms out in front of her, looking at the skin on the backs of her arms and moaned, Frankensteinian, crossing her eyes and twisting her face as she giggled.  She pulled her shirt back down.  Grabbing a plate from the kitchen and the paints from the living room, she brought them upstairs, and undressed in front of the mirror, still staring, still trying to resolve the dissonance of past and present.  The paints and brushes and paper were spread out in front of the mirror and she began to paint. 

 

The colors and the lines and the shapes came easier this time.  She was the madcap doctor, flipping switches and mixing paints, laughing at her flesh depicted in greens and browns, her hair yellow as it had been in her youth, her eyes big and blue.  For the center of her right breast she chose a deep purple.  Margery looked at the paper and back to the mirror and back at the paper.  It wasn’t quite right.  Watching the mirror, she filled the tip of the brush with more purple.  In the heart of the blank canvas of her left breast, she painted a small, purple circle.

 

 

The liquor store was busy with pre-game patrons.  She grabbed a couple cases of beer and a bottle of wine for herself and made her way to the front of the store. 

 

“Hey, you!”

 

She turned around.

 

“It’s so good to see you!”  It was her son’s mother-in-law, Shirley.  “How are you feeling?”  Shirley stuck her bottom lip out as far as it would go; a small, spunky woman, melodramatic woman whose face functioned as a mime, exaggerating everything for effect.  Margery found her energy exhausting and her volume almost unbearable, but she welcomed her sympathy.

 

“Pretty good for now.  The chemo’s all done.  Just the radiation left.”

“Oh.”  Shirley frowned.  “That was the toughest part for Charlie.  Of course, it would be tough for any man to get his you-know-what sun burnt.”  She spoke into the side of her hand for you-know-what, but her volume didn’t change.

 

Margery smiled: Bill’s mouth-smile.  “I’ve heard the burn can be bad.  I actually took to chemo pretty well, so I’m kind of just waiting for radiation to knock me out.”

 

Shirley frowned and nodded.  Then her eyes lit up.  “But hey!  Let me get a look at them.”  Shirley took Margery by the shoulders and pushed her out in front, locking her short arms at the elbow.  “This will never do!”  She unzipped Margery’s coat and spread it to each side of her body, as if she was looking to the back of a closet.  Margery gasped and looked over the racks of wine, hoping that no one was watching them.

 

“My my my my my.”  Shirley shook her head, putting an open hand over her mouth, and widened her eyes.

 

Margery closed her coat and zipped it all the way, not from shame, but surprise.

 

“Honey.  You shouldn’t cover those.  You should flaunt them.  I have got to get the name of this doctor from you.  Charlie has taken to his changes pretty hard, what with the little pills and all, and I thought maybe I’d get some work done and see if I could get his mind off himself and onto me.”

 

“You’re gonna get work done?”  It sounded so strange; it almost struck Margery as funny: where did that phrase come from?  And then: what if her son knew about this conversation?       

 

Shirley tossed her long, dyed hair back over her shoulder and laughed.  “Honey.  If he can do for me what he did for you, I’ll pay him anything he wants.”

 

Margery laughed.  “Well, it’s Dr. Duncan you want then.  In the city.  I don’t think anyone here even does it.”

 

“Not that well they don’t!”

“So you’re really gonna … for Charlie?”

 

Shirley spoke into the back of her hand again.  “Not just for Charlie, dear.  For me, too.  I get tired of looking at them just hanging there.”

 

Margery thought of Bill.  “You think he’ll like it then?”

 

Shirley laughed, shrill as a fire alarm.  “Charlie?  Of course he’ll like it.  What man wouldn’t?”

 

At home, Margery emptied the cases into the fridge and double-checked the chili before going back upstairs to their room.  She walked into her closet and thumbed through her clothes, searching, and found a v-necked sweater that hadn’t been worn in at least a decade.  Her hands went to her waist, her thumb and index finger spreading apart to measure her new size.  Chemo does come with some perks, she thought, smiling at perks and slipped the sweater over her head.  In the mirror, she shifted the sweater, pulling the collar down and back up again, until she heard the door.

 

“Bill?”  she called down the hall.  She had heard scuffling in the kitchen, the fridge door opening and the crack of a can.  At the sound of the television, she made her way down the stairs.  “Bill?”

 

“Hey, Margie.”  His baritone sounded slow and tired.  “I’m in here.”

 

She pulled down on the front of the sweater and walked through the kitchen to the living room.  He was sitting in his recliner, his back to her.  As she made her way around the chair, the doorbell rang.  She loosened the sweater and went to answer the door.

 

By the fourth quarter, Margery knew tonight would be the night.  The Packers were up by ten and Bill was laughing more than he was drinking.  The year before at Thanksgiving, they had been blown out and he’d put down a case by himself.  She stretched her arms over her head and let out an exaggerated sigh.  “Well, boys.  It looks like this one is in the bag.  I think I’ll head to bed.”  A chorus of grunts and goodnights sounded around the room.  Margery stood up from her chair, walked the long way around the couch to Bill’s recliner, and kissed him on the cheek.

 

When she reached the bedroom, she turned the television on and lowered the volume.  If the Packers found a way to blow a two score lead in five minutes, Bill would come to bed angry and everything would be ruined.

 

She found a lighter in the nightstand and lit every candle in the room.  Margery was used to setting the mood.  She could count on one hand the number of times in thirty years that Bill had gone above and beyond to be romantic.  When they were first married it had bothered her and she had let him know.  He responded with flowers and a shrug of his shoulders.  “Is this romantic?”  She laughed now, thinking about it, about the look on his face, the bewilderment. 

 

As she turned off the light, the room seemed to swell and shrink in the glow of candles and television.  She watched as the quarterback knelt to let the clock run down.  Finding the remote, she turned the television off.  The game would be over in seconds and the house would clear out fast.  She walked into her closet and pulled her sweater over her head.  The rest of her clothes followed and she tiptoed across the room and slid into bed, pulling the comforter up to her neck. 

 

The stairs creaked under Bill’s slow stagger.  She heard him reach the landing and turn left into the bathroom. Beneath the sheets, she felt the smooth skin across the front of her breast.  She thought again of Frankenstein’s monster, his translucent skin, his big, scared heart.

 

Margery reached across her body and turned on the lamp.  From the vanity, she took two small paintbrushes and the paint that she had forgotten to take downstairs and stood in front of the mirror―thinking about elephants and entertained audiences.   Carefully, she sketched the emblem in the air, making sure it would look backwards in the mirror, choosing a yellow-gold paint, and dipped the brush into the container.  At the center of her left breast, where the skin was smooth, she outlined an oval G.  The second brush was dipped in a bold green and filled in the outline.  Margery looked up from her work and into the mirror, taking in the full effect of her nakedness.  The door opened behind her and when she turned to face her husband, she laughed, feeling young and old, rebuilt and brand new.