That morning she was snow-blind. The whiteness of the hills sloping outside her frosted windows, the no-color of the sky that flattened behind the mounded snow cloudless and with an acidic undertone of gray, struck her as so sumptuous she could taste it. She fumbled along the kitchen counter for her coffee mug, the cobalt-blue one with gently drifting snowflakes on every side, filled it from the carafe with coffee gone bad, and the acid of those dregs merged with the acidic quality of the sky into a bitter perfection she savored. She closed her eyes: a burst of scarlet floaters, an afterimage of violently glowing snow, the colors of her oversized canvases–green, gold, violet, mauve–leaking into the space between her consciousness and her sight, so, for a second, she became the paintings themselves…and then the sensation passed.
Sitting on a folding chair in her kitchen, she pulled on two black rubber boots over her pajama legs then shrugged on her 20-below navy parka (smeared along the collar with her Cover Girl ivory foundation), strode out into the yard. The snow struck her retinas glittering, searing; the whiteness was a cruelty, an oppression she could scarcely bear though what choice did she have?
She sat down on a wooden bench that looked out over the snowy yard, the aggressive chill climbing up through her pajama pants; she shivered, twined her arms around her torso, drank from the mug she’d positioned on the bench. So strange that she’d rented this house. This rambling, white, run-down house in Nebraska, a house so ubiquitously Midwestern that she shuddered at the blandness of it all: the porch swing strung up by two strong cables, the discreet red geraniums that bloomed in the spring, the clipped-short lawn now buried in snow.
She moved from the wooden bench to the swing, pushed the swing into motion with her booted feet.
Flakes as opaque as iron wafted down from the sky, stinging her chin; she rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand until they burned then cleared; she gazed at the shovel she’d propped alongside the house, the blunted steel head, the gnarled wooden handle, wondering how she would manage with all this snow on the ground.
She knew she’d doted on him, and now she couldn’t bear it that he was dead, wrapped up in her best red towel on top of the washing machine, his forepaws stretched stiffly before him in a rigor mortis so irrefutable that–if she tugged on his legs–she knew the bones would snap.
All night she’d gone out to the service porch to check on him.
She didn’t know if she simply couldn’t accept that he was dead or if she’d become fascinated by death itself, a species of morbidity she’d finally succumbed to after all the deaths in her family.
But she couldn’t stop thinking about how he looked, how his luminous brown eyes had acquired an artificial glaze, how his muzzle appeared slightly damp where the last of his antibiotics had run out of his mouth, how his lips, nearly black, were furled back over his protruding and yellow incisors: he didn’t look like himself; no one who died ever looked like themselves; and, frankly, she resented it.
The vet said that Bruises had meningitis. But she’d refused to accept it. She brought home some hideous pink medicine that was reputed to be poisonous to humans if swallowed, spooned it into his mouth. Day after day she watched him crawl in circles on her living room rug, dragging his poor, paralyzed legs behind him, but she was greedy, selfish, couldn’t bear to let him go.
She sat at her kitchen table all morning long, drinking coffee, gazing out the front window. The snow just wouldn’t melt, and she couldn’t bury him yet, and he seemed to be decaying in her mind’s eye atop the washing machine. She stood up, pulled down the blinds, shucked off her pajamas, dressed in a tight red sweater and thigh-hugging blue jeans, went out to the truck.
Bruises kept drifting through her mind while she drove; she’d heard about various approaches to thought-control and willed herself to lift the negative image of him lying on the washer right out of her mind, red-X it, obliterate it. Finally, it worked, and an image of her newest painting drifted into the empty space her dead rabbit had left, a glorious splash of backdropped yellow on which gigantic purple irises seemed to float, flowers more ominous than O’Keeffe’s ever aspired to be, dark-green stems shaded delicately toward ebony that glimmered raw-looking beneath the violet.
She’d painted the irises in a moment of stasis she’d longed for for days, pacing her tiny Lincoln apartment until the beige carpet revealed subtle tread-marks from her sneakers, the flowers blossoming up from her brain stem and then accruing size, mass, proportion until the petals flooded out almost violently from the tip of her drenched brush and she’d had to stay up nearly thirty-six hours to complete the painting.
She pulled onto the concrete parking lot fronting Oakdale Mall, smiled as she put the truck into park. She lived for those moments of rapture, that intense communion with her painting an energy that buoyed her up on days otherwise so gray she’d lie in bed with the covers thrust down around her ankles, surveying her wadded nightgown, the socks bunched up around her ankles, her unshaven legs.
For her painting she’d refused anything else in life that might have been worthwhile: a husband, children, even the joy of certain possessions.
She’d never regretted the choice, not once: she knew it was who she was.
And yet, she’d allowed herself to become far too attached to the rabbit, which was a mistake, she realized, wandering through the mall: attachments, human or otherwise, only interfered with her work, and it seemed that she was born with a clearer sense of purpose than many others on the planet. She’d turned down three proposals before she turned thirty, and now, there were no more forthcoming, though she was a handsome woman, she knew, with a cap of glittering crimson hair just lightly threaded with gray, wide-spaced, near-blue eyes, and a very red mouth that could look, for no particular reason, either petulant or voluptuous.
But she wasn’t interested in romance anymore, not with her work, which she’d allowed, quite happily, to consume her entire existence. And children were a mystery to her: loud, unruly creatures; she couldn’t imagine ever wanting one.
Her paintings kept her company.
Oakdale Mall was ridiculously festive with the season. Five or six portly Santas in crushed red-velvet suits meandered the walkways, gazing at high-tech razors in the Sharper Image window or at green-satin teddies in Victoria’s Secret, kids gaping after them as they wandered. Elves in purple regalia, cap and bells jingling from Elizabethan-style tights, ate Reuben sandwiches at Le Sandwich Shoppe and shared paper cups of black coffee.
Garlands and green banners and silver tinsel were strung across the eaves, so much glitter that Ella felt overwhelmed, the pinprick of a migraine starting at the base of her skull; she massaged her neck muscles till they loosened, bought a steaming cup of Hazelnut Coffee to go at Gloria Jean’s, drifted into Victoria’s Secret though she knew no food or drink was allowed.
Inside, a veritable jewel-tone dazzle. Yellow sleepshirts, brilliant as a burst of winter-morning sun. Plush aubergine robes Ella could disappear inside. She put her coffee cup down on a display, touched, with just her fingertips, a dark-blue camisole, a rich burgundy pair of tap pants. It was a desire she’d confessed to no one: the lingering sexuality that had no further place in her life, which she’d struggled to excise like a splinter with a pair of tweezers. Every once in a while she wondered if she’d made the right decision: foregoing the husband and kids to paint. Some people believed that you could have it all. But Ella’s strength, she knew, was limited; when she wasn’t feeling strong, she was feeling fragile and knew that she couldn’t manage any other tasks in her life.
The salesgirl glided past her. Ella cast down her eyes; she felt too drab to be walking through a store like this, wondered if the salesgirl sensed she didn’t belong. She traced the outline of her dry, dull cheek with one finger, picked up a vial of perfume, took it to the counter to pay.
She was feeling so wretched, she believed, because Bruises had died.
She was uncrimping the wad of cash in her wallet when she saw him. Wrapped up in a greatcoat from neck to ankles, a camel’s hair coat so luxuriously soft that she longed to touch it, he was studying her, his blond hair waving elegantly off his forehead, his eyes penetrating, nearly azure. He lounged against a fleece sweatshirt display, his hands jammed into his coat pockets.
Ella glanced at him, glanced away.
He couldn’t possibly be looking at her. She felt his gaze travel along her neckline, trace her shoulder blades.
“Ma’am,” the salesclerk said. “Your perfume.”
Ella grabbed it off the glass countertop, hurried off into the crowd until she was positive she’d lost him.
But she hadn’t. She was eating a cheeseburger stuffed with pickles, onions, in the food court, a decadence she rarely allowed herself, meat tending to disagree with her stomach, when she felt a presence on the periphery of the crowd; she looked up mid-bite and there he was, hanging back a few feet from a utilitarian table crowded with giggling teenage girls, his posture so erect, his demeanor so contemplative that he might have been carved out of wax, but he was studying her, that much seemed plain; Ella bit into her cheeseburger, snatched off a large, white bite of bun, something inside her stomach loosening, turning gentle: she felt nearly ill.
When she looked up, he was standing there, right in front of her.
“Hello,” he said, his voice almost unnaturally soft.
Ella flushed, indicated, one-fingered, her mouth crammed with cheeseburger.
“Mind if I join you? I was just going to get some coffee.” He gazed at her steadily, waiting for her nod.
It came, and then he said, “Where’s the best place to buy coffee around here, anyway?”
Ella lifted her napkin, covered her mouth with it before she spoke. “Not the Chinese place,” she said. “They leave it sitting out for hours, you know. And not Arby’s, because–”
He was gazing at her quietly, as if he were enjoying a private joke.
“There’s a Starbuck’s on the end,” Ella said finally, and rubbed her lipstickless mouth dry with the napkin.
“Back in a flash,” the man said, shrugging off his beautiful coat, leaving it draped over the chair before he headed off in his brilliantly glittering oxfords toward the green-and-white Starbucks sign.
It occurred to her, when he was sitting across from her, peeling the lid off his coffee and blowing on it to cool it, that nobody ever looked directly at a human face. It was impossible to take in all at once, especially if you were sitting close. Some features tended to haze in and out of focus. Others tended to become part of a large, abstract design, almost amorphous, as if the facial features blended into each other then melted away.
She found it easier, less confounding, to concentrate on one part of his face at a time.
His lips, she thought, looked Italian: overfull, very pink, disconcertingly sensuous, perhaps.
His eyes shone such a clear lavish blue that she wondered if he weren’t prettying them up with contact lenses.
His forehead was broad and pale and smooth; his blond hair waved almost girlishly.
They sat at the little table in the corner of the mall and talked for hours. Once he reached over across the table and gripped her hand. Her first impulse was to tug it away, but she didn’t. She looked at her hand lying there on the table, his larger, lightly furred hand curled closed over it, and suddenly she couldn’t breathe.
She wanted to tell him about Bruises but couldn’t manage it.
She swilled some of her own coffee, which had grown tepid.
She watched his pink mouth move, forming words.
She gazed at his handsome, amiable face and saw the ghost of a rabbit skull floating behind it.
In the end, the mall closing, the whir of vacuum cleaners surrounding them, vacuum-pushers bumping up against their chairs, the clang of mesh gates folding down and locking into place, they each took a piece of scrap paper and jotted down the other’s name, address, phone number.
She drove home through a frosty night pinpricked with stars. Inside her truck, it was so cold that she breathed rhythmically in and out to watch clouds form before her face. The truck smelled sweet from the perfume she’d bought; at every stop light she uncapped the bottle, smelled it until the jasmine scent seemed to creep out and over her, until the petals settled in their infinite sweetness deep inside her lungs. When she got back to the house, she saw that she’d forgotten to turn any lights on. She sat in the truck, staring for a second at the closed, blind house, so like a furled eyelid, but washed yellow with moon.
She fingered the scrap in her pocket, making sure it was still there.
She stared at the front door of her ramshackle white house, some vague presentiment striking her that she didn’t want to go in. Not yet. Not yet.
The snow heaped everywhere, shining lovely against the baseboards, dripping down over the bushes, its smooth surface shimmering with moon.
She went inside, snapped on the lights, and poured herself a brandy from the minibar she had set up in her painting studio, downed it hard and fast. It was strange, she reflected, how silence could create its own kind of sound, its own thickness, so, standing there with her snifter in hand, gazing up at her enormous irises that glimmered a weird fluorescent purple in the moonlight streaming through a high-set window, she couldn’t stop listening to that silence, its low, monotonous buzz surrounding her on all sides, and it wouldn’t stop, it wouldn’t stop, not even when she changed into her soiled white nightgown and went to bed.
She slept deeply, dreamlessly–or at least there were no dreams that she could recall. When she woke the next morning, sweating beneath the piled-on blankets, she had an intense and dazzling sensation of whiteness infiltrating the room.
She sat up in bed, the covers falling away from her breasts.
It had snowed more last night.
The window was piled high with snow, dense pale dollops of it; snow layered the bare branches of the elm outside her window; there’d be no digging today, she thought, and fumbled on the floor for her slippers, feeling around on the dusty floorboards for her little pink scuffs.
When she stood up, she was dizzy, and she thought, I must be getting the flu.
She made herself some chamomile tea, the ultimate comfort drink, hoped she’d have the energy later that day to paint. While her tea steeped in a delicate china mug, she went to her coat, pulled out the scrap of paper, smoothed it across the tabletop.
5803 Sandhills Terrace, #14
Lincoln, NE 68505
She felt hazy, a little floaty, as she kept staring at the paper, though that could have been the flu, she thought. She unfurled all the blinds so the snow-whiteness could pour into her living room, kitchen, then sat down at the table in her nightgown, wrapping her palms around the mug to warm them.
His skin had been an unusual color, she reflected; an ivory with a healthy pink rising toward the tops of his cheeks; his skin struck her as delicate, unusual, for a man.
And his shoulders, beneath his pressed blue shirt, had seemed almost unnaturally broad–perhaps he worked out?
There was a gym down the street from where she lived, but she never used it. Something about all those glistening, sweat-drenched bodies behind the plate-glass windows, bodies in tank tops and skimpy shorts, running on treadmills or pumping the broad pedals of elliptical trainers, scared her.
People shouldn’t put themselves on display like that.
She drank her tea faster; it scalded her tongue; she watched the phone as if it might come alive any second and continue their conversation from last night.
What had he said?
“You have the look of a lonely woman. Are you sad?”
She’d hastened to reassure him that no, she wasn’t sad at all, that her life was very full, what with her painting and tending the rabbit before he’d died.
And before that, of course, there’d been her mother.
His eyes seemed to glisten at her remarks; he seemed genuinely interested in what she said, fascinated, even, and, remembering that, she put two fingers to her lips as if she wanted to shush herself; she rose, a little agitated, from the kitchen table, walked in her scuffs to the living room window, gazed out at the snow and the blue or brown houses beyond it.
She kept watching the paper scrap. She came to depend on it, in fact, for a certain level of unavoidable exhilaration. Even as one day passed, then two, the scrap seemed to hold out so much promise. She kept picking up the receiver and replacing it quickly in case he was trying to call. She’d spot the paper suddenly, while she was rubbing a Brillo pad over the caked-on spaghetti sauce in a pan, and then she’d move over to it and couldn’t believe that it was just lying there on the table, and then she’d finger the edges very delicately, the crispness of the paper starting to moisten due to all her handling, and she’d read his name and address over and over; sometimes she’d even whisper them out loud before glancing around the empty house, a flush rising in her cheeks, as if there were actually someone there to witness her silliness, though there was no one, ever.
She’d finished the irises painting and started on another, her new work a still life of a pineapple. O’Keeffe, of course, had been ridiculed for painting a pineapple for Dole, but O’Keeffe’s concerns had been monetary, commercial, whereas Ella was simply interested in the color and texture of the fruit. She propped it up in a pan in her studio, all spiky shell and overpoweringly greenish top until she knew, quite suddenly, that she had to paint it, hacked it open with her heaviest butcher knife, lay bare the glorious swell of intense yellow sweetness, as dazzling in that tiny room as trapped sun.
She kept herself away from the washing machine for several days, forced herself to hold back until the snow had melted. In the meantime, she tried to keep herself preoccupied. She’d paint from ten to four in her studio then take a coffee-and-cinnamon-bun break, watch TV. She had a particular fascination for the Dr. Phil show, mainly because she didn’t understand who this large, brutish man was nor why so many people seemed willing to subject themselves to his scorn. If she’d had a husband, she reflected, she probably would have ended up with someone like that: red-faced, cocky, bald, a man who really enjoyed pushing others around. She hated the faint sheen of sweat on his forehead, the way he positioned couples half-facing each other in chairs until their knees nearly touched.
He was a manipulator, she decided: nothing more, nothing less.
She pulled at strands of her sticky bun until it unraveled.
In between putting the ropelike sugar pieces into her mouth, in between watching a psychologist on TV heckle a gargantuan woman with a too short dress and a blonde wig that seemed to slide over her forehead when he yelled, she thought about the rabbit on the washing machine and how Bruises was changing, how her momma’d changed. She thought about the man in the mall, too, and wondered why he hadn’t called, if he’d lost her corresponding scrap of paper. Several times she picked up the receiver, started to punch in his number, but then she pictured him always, at that second, lying with a beautiful, dark-haired woman naked on his bed, holding her in his arms, his chance encounter with Ella long forgotten.
Some people said that death was a natural act. Ella’d never found it so. Bruises had circled around and around on the carpet, dragging his dead limbs behind him, a faint glaze covering his eyes so he became like a sealed-up house, and she couldn’t see in anymore.
Her mother had sweated and thrashed before she died; her tangle of black-gray hair had lain sticky on the pillow case; saliva streamed out the corners of her mouth as she mumbled and begged for water.
Ella was her caretaker before she died, so she got used to a certain routine: going in to change her mother’s urine-soaked sheets, stripping the bed, wiping up any excess fluid that had leaked through to the mattress (the mattress pad was ancient, riddled with holes).
She’d place her mother’s long, gaunt torso on the carpet before she changed the bed, and her mother would lie there on the carpet, breathing hard but otherwise quiet, her large gray eyes that seemed to grow ever-more-luminous as she drifted closer to death fixed upon the ceiling, which wasn’t anything interesting, to be sure, a cottage-cheese ceiling much like those found in apartments.
And, after she’d changed the bed, Ella would drag her up onto the fresh change of sheets, which was never actually all that difficult because her mother weighed less than eighty pounds toward the end of her life, and Ella was—then– quite strong.
Then, after her mother lay in bed, Ella would pull the sheets up under her chin, smooth and arrange her hair around her face, fold the blankets down over her flattened breasts, whispering to her, stroking her cheek, telling her how much she loved her.
One day Ella woke up and the snow had melted away, and it was time. Ella put on a battered pair of jeans, a worn flannel shirt she buttoned up to her neck.
She hadn’t opened the service-porch room in days, and she knew it would smell in there: death had an odor like no other, a combination of sickliness and sweetness and decay so rich that she realized, when it struck her, she’d be tempted to pass out.
But she wouldn’t, she knew, because life wasn’t like that, and people had to be strong.
It was all a matter of choice, she reflected, grabbing the shovel off the porch, hacking away with the blade at the hardened mud, thinking about Bruises wrapped up in her best red towel and how his face would have shriveled and turned black, how his eyes would have become so deeply glazed that they resembled fogged glass, how his body would have leaked onto the towel and the shape and imprint of him would lie in deep, dark stains upon the fabric.
But it had to be faced; she’d loved him, but one had to be a realist, after all, and there was always her painting, she thought, tossing up mud from the deepening hole, though she’d have to throw the scrap of paper away when she entered the house; she’d have to throw it away and promise herself to not ever think about it again.
Terri Brown-Davidson is a Pulitzer Prize nominee, who has also been recognized via thirteen Pushcart nominations, the AWP Intro Award, a Yaddo residency fellowship, the New Mexico Writer’s Scholarship, THE LEDGE Chapbook Award, and other prizes. Her work has appeared in more than 1,000 journals, including Los Angeles Review, Denver Quarterly, Puerto Del Sol, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Virginia Quartrerly Review, Triquarterly, the Literary Review, and Triquarterly New Writers.