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Erich R. Sysak

I t is impossible to escape the heat of the French Quarter. It is searing and ubiquitous, cruel from early June until late September. The few, full-time residents of Toulouse and Decatur and St. Peter near City Park stay indoors living lives surrounded by plaster walls and chugging, window air conditioners. The insides of things stare back at you. It is hot. This part of the Quarter sits in the soggy apex of an old, geographical spoon. It is where artists live. The rent is cheap.

I had come to my father’s studio that afternoon to tell him good news, and to ask of him a favor he would not want to fulfill. My girlfriend, Megumi Kido, of one year, had just agreed to marry me. An American would say, Mey-gumi. Two syllables and a half-silent g. But this is not her name. Her name is Me-gu-mi. Three syllables, each one rising softly in your mouth until the last e flutters out like a small bird. It is her secret name. Her real name; her bedroom name.

 Since I met her along the bayou at the New Orleans Museum of Art (she sat alone on a plaid blanket to watch mullet jump) she has been the center of my every thought. For her, I exercise an uncontainable desire to improve, to read prospectuses late at night, to depreciate the adjusted basis of gifts and fair market values ranging as far back as 1946. It is the only way to understand the future. She understands my craving for things to remain unchanged in our briar, Covington home- the furniture and books, the Kabuki mask and ceramic vase above the fireplace, the silk throw rugs beyond the sofa. She also understands my need to pace, and then to sit quietly and think, sometimes for hours, about the puzzle of numbers a financial accountant must learn the shape of. I am the youngest to make junior partner at Connick, Castellano, Warwick & O’ Connor since the Great War. It is a firm with history.

The double shotgun where my parents live needs more than paint. The neighborhood turns pretty around it. It’s an old plan to keep thieves away. Vines of bougainvillea breed in the wrought iron porch rails, and pose against the darkened windows. The old planks, not wide, but delicate and old-fashioned, gingerbread, look powdered with white dust and dry.  I parallel park behind the Volkswagen van, once my mother’s shuttle for doctor’s appointments, late-to-school rides, dance recitals and classes, now with its guts hanging loose below it, reminds the three of us of the Chaos of motherhood. Promises have been made to repair it. I step over the stacks of yellow coffee cans, mostly from the Café DuMonde, filled with muddy, mineral spirits and colors, and knock on the studio door before I enter.

It is alleged that Van Gogh’s insanity was more than biological. The invisible vapors of mineral spirits inhaled, even swallowed from wet brushes, over time caused his intellect to fail. Inside the studio, these same vapors radiate from the wood floors, the high ceilings where the heat rests, the wet canvas and the dry stacked arm deep against the walls. All of us have inhaled it over the years.

He sits on a three- legged stool in a cave of paintings. I’m used to the colors, but a stranger is assaulted by it. Your sense of proportion and the familiar, muted tones of the earth, the colors of school buses and buildings, trees and bridges, water, televisions and furniture explode, disappear. His paintings are large, intimidating, colorful, violent, busy, involved. You cannot glance. It takes a while to see them.

He does not turn, but half sits, half stands, juggling the legs of the stool slightly off the ground. He wears no shirt or shoes. There are streaks of red paint on his right arm. His skin is pale. His hair is brown and white-gray, tossed up from thinking with his fingers. A box fan twirls near the window where an air conditioner hums. My mother said we look exactly alike. Me at 29. My father once at 29. The same. I have seen sketches. It is almost true.

I fall into a vinyl chair near the desk just inside the door, and forget my age.

“I have very good news,” I say and cross my hands.

“That would be welcome.” His voice is distant. Thinking. Contrary to all logic, it is the best time to speak to him.

“I asked her.”

“It’s about time.”

“She said yes, Dad.”

“Congratulations,” he says, and offers to shake.

I pull him toward me and gently slap my hand against his soft, sticky back. “I have a favor to ask,” I say.

He nods knowingly, but cannot know, and picks through the day’s mail at his desk.

“A favor,” he repeats to the letters and papers. I look at the painting he’s working on and see, through the vastness of time spread out, through the valleys and mountains and creatures within it, a woman, in the distance, on some kind of colorful ledge, a rainbow ledge, and she is dancing. Her hands are posed, fingers snap. She will stomp her right foot in a moment and send catastrophic fissures from her heel.

“Will you paint her,” I ask. The box fan whirs. The air conditioner putters and clicks. From the other side of the shotgun, where my mother lives, I hear her steps on the wooden floor.

“She’ll have to sit,” he replies.

“Of course,” I breathe. “She’s so patient, Dad.”

Then, from somewhere close, but beyond the universe of my father’s studio, a voice materializes. The voice is close. In it there is what can only be called yearning, a friction between the sound, the note and the ear. It creeps through the windows of the studio: oh-yeh, oh ya-ya-ya-yaya-u-ya, and breaks the closure of our deal.

“What is it,” I ask.

“What do you think? He sings. His name is Paco.”

“But where?”

“Where? Can’t you tell? It’s this Jimayna De Alba shit all over again.”

The singing stops for a moment, and then continues, just as loudly as before. Jimayna De Alba is my mother’s stage name. It is a name that represents her absence from our home. It is time I spent with my father alone. It is how I grew.

My father turns from the painting and points at me with an ox hair, fan brush. “He is singing to her.”

“To mom,” I say, knowing already.

He nods and drops the brush into the turpentine. “Yes, for a week now.” He looks at the floor, then at me. His blue eyes surprise me. “She quit the studio. I wanted more time with her. It takes her away, not just physically.” He cocks his head and considers something quietly.

He has asked my mother to quit. He has asked before. There is nothing I can say to him, though I wish to. It is not the idea, but the words coming out of him. My father does not speak of these things. He does not speak of my mother as the private woman, ever. He does not speak of things inside him, of love, of pain of remembering. Something has changed between us.

“What will you do?” I ask.

“I will paint,” he says and points to the canvas.

Then she begins. I feel the vibrations in the floor before I hear it. My mother dances in the next house, where I learned to crawl and speak and run and think. I listen to the clacking, as fast as a card in a bicycle wheel, at times, then hard and final. A thunder in the floor.

From my mother, I learned this: Flamenco borrows from Arabic and Eastern Indian musical rhythms, Spanish and African spirituals, and the Gypsy. It is a guitarist, a singer, and a dancer. They weave a song between them. The guitar is the bridge and the background. The dancer is sung to the floor. Sympathetic, she is held in grief by the voice. The singer kneels to sounds, trills the pieces of the song that call for it. I saw them through the windows of the car, from the back rooms of the dance studio where my mother worked. I heard them do this.

I imagine Paco with his hands, Christ-like, palms up, an offering from his chest to my mother where something brews to come out as voice. His eyes are closed. He sits in a wooden chair in an empty room near the windows. His boots tap the floor. The wood shutters are dark, unpainted. And sunlight there, full of dust, touches his white teeth. He sits on the edge of the chair and calls out to who will hear. His singing is devout.

When my parents were younger than I am now, and I was not yet born, people followed my mother to a little club below studio apartments at the corners of Poydras and Decatur, at the fringe of the old Quarter. Ciro’s, a small club with doors wide open at night, spilled music and light into the half-darkened streets. You would walk past and see the crowds- penultimate, staggering groups, cold drinks, laughter. Later, you would also hear the masculine strumming of a flamenco guitar, and then the hard clapping of my mother’s shoes on a parquet floor. When the dancer is called, she rises and taps the floor like a drum. She gesticulates. The movements are an expression of temperament. This I know.

My mother learned Flamenco at Tulane where she also studied the art of making paper, restoring archival documents, preservation. This is where she met my father, a visiting artist, a devoted painter. She danced weekends and Tuesday nights at Ciro’s. But now, Ciro’s is boarded over, the studio apartment where she lived above, where my father leaned and watched the crowd adore her, and where it was revealed that she was the most desired woman in all the Quarter at that moment, is empty.

Three days later, we arrive. A boy darts into the street ahead of me, and chases a soccer ball beneath my mother’s van. I see his legs V’d beneath the frame, and slow my car to a crawl. I hear my wheels crunching gravel. Megumi smiles and purses her lips in the way she does. Her dark hair is pinned off her neck, and swirls at the crown. We are having children. Her long fingers trace the line of bangs curling above her eyebrows.

“He’ll be fine,” I say. “I’ll be there.”

She nods. Her chin gently rises. “I know,” she says.

On the porch, at the stoop of my father’s door, I see red carnations and white roses draped in paper. When Megumi sees them she captures my hand, thinking that I’ve put them there for her. I have not. I know they are for my mother, but someone, Paco I assume, has calculated wrong and courted the wrong door.

“They’re so fresh,” Megumi says, and spreads the flowers beneath her nose.

“There he is,” I say and watch my father’s silhouette move toward us. I smile. I can’t take away her happiness.

The studio floor is swept. The clutter has been stacked into meaningful piles. My father wears a white, Oxford button down, khaki shorts and tennis shoes.

“Welcome,” he says warmly, and holds the door for us.

Megumi’s yellow dress overwhelms the colors of the paintings. She walks through the rooms toward the kitchen. Suddenly, I look at my father and know he is thinking the same thing.

“My god, I’ve forgotten how beautiful she is,” he says.

“I’ve never been happier, Dad,” I say, watching her appear briefly in the kitchen doorway. “I’m sorry about the flowers.”

“What?” He sits at his stool and arranges his colors in little blobs near a large, primed canvas smeared with muted tan and brown.

“They were outside the door,” I say.

“Again? He won’t give up.”

I watch Megumi at the other end of the house, in the kitchen, pulling the flowers from the white sheet, then slicing the stems. She drops aspirin in the water of a large bowl, and then pours in a little 7 Up. Her long fingers pluck at the flower buds and move them like the heads of children for a photograph. Suddenly, she looks up and smiles. I think: these flowers are for my mother.

My father moves the canvas closer to the stool, pulls at his shirt and strokes his chin. I see the wooden, window screens open behind him, and through them the close walls of the house next door. Only a narrow alley separates us from Paco. Is Paco her lover? Or does he want her to dance, to return to the studio where a small group of aging musicians gather and recollect?

“Where should she sit,” I ask.

 He looks up, surprised and glances around the studio. “I forgot,” he says. “I’ve never done this.”

“Not even for her?” He knows exactly whom I mean.

We pull the vinyl chair from between the two tables. Megumi appears with the bowl and the flowers. “Should I put these on the desk, Mr. Bonnard,” she asks and puts them there before he can answer.

The vinyl chair is arranged near his stool and canvas. Lights are directed toward the coffee-soft cloth. Megumi slips out of her elaborate heels, sits, tucks her legs beneath her and straightens her dress. She smiles and blinks. The light hits her small shoulders. In the light, little quilts in the fabric around her breasts reveal their intricate stitching. I am standing next to my father, next to the blank canvas and staring with him. We both stare. The old and the new. She is there. Her presence, to me, is suddenly profound, surreal. There is a blue glow in her black hair. I think of turning to my father; this is something he will also know. She is beautiful. But instead, Paco appears between us.

His voice seems louder now. The anguish in his trilling tongue is severe, cracked: yah-yo-yah-yahahahah-o. We both turn to the window.

“Sketching a Rose,” my father says.

“Sketching what? Maybe he’s practicing,” I say.

“Impossible. She will dance soon.”

“Have you talked to her about it,” I ask in a quiet voice. “What does she say?”

As a Marine, my father survived 9 months in Tu Cung, Vietnam. He was never wounded, nor did he receive any commendations. The pattern is hard to follow. He talked about rivers like the sound of rain. And when it rained he felt as if a river was being dropped on him. His stories are told in chunks. The images aren’t clear. I can’t picture him in fatigues and boots, holding a rifle and humping a rucksack. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he served in some other capacity.

After the war, and college, and graduate school and teaching he sold work in the Tate Mitchum gallery.  He was collected and appraised. I have found his name in serious books of art criticism. At times, he visited universities by invitation to speak and to teach. But years have since passed. The Tate Mitchum is closed. The collectors are obscure.

 But he still paints. His work has stretched beyond the days of Tate Mitchum. He says he has invented a wholly original process more compatible with human brain chemistry than seratonin. I am not sure what he means, and do not ask. It is not what matters. It does matter that Paco disrupts an already shaky marriage. But one that has lasted through its shakiness, and perhaps because of it, a long time.

“I married a restoration expert. A practical woman who wanted a kid for Chrissake.” He tries to sit at the stool calmly. He sketches the shape of a face and intersects the face with lines.

I move closer to the window, and hear across the alley, the tink of glass against glass. Paco’s singing slows and moves farther away. I try to imagine what would happen if we simply knocked on the door, confronted him. But it won’t happen.

I watch my father filling in Megumi’s left eye. I know that eye, its smallness, its Asian teardrop, its engaging brown. He will not confront Paco. He will not confront his wife. They must decide for themselves. I understand. If I discover Megumi watching a man in the Indian restaurant where we often eat lunch, or the little playhouse on a warm night, it hurts. A little knife stabs me in the side. But I will not speak. She must love me in the face of other men.

The singing is louder, comes close. My father cracks the pencil against the floor, then stands and paces. He pushes his fingers through his hair and shakes his head. I grab the stool before it falls, and look at my fiancé.

“We should go,” Megumi whispers.

“No, I can’t leave him now.” I go to the window where he kneels, and peer over the sill with him. I see nothing. The song has stopped. I wonder if we are the only ones who hear it.

“I think she’s there,” he whispers.

“Impossible,” I say and kneel too.

“Help me push this,” he says and unlatches the window.

The windows of the studio have not been opened in years. I pry my fingers into the paint and dirt between window and wood and push as the seal cracks, the window slowly opens and warm, wet air flows in and settles against our faces.

“You watch. I’ll be right back,” he says and rises.

I watch the alley and the darkness of Paco’s windows. A white curtain floats up and settles, floats up again. I imagine an entire life beyond the alley and that apartment. A life my father makes in his paintings. I could have chosen to be a painter. Maybe I am. He taught me to draw. He encouraged me. I drew sneakers and the toaster oven and her, even her, when she dressed in long skirts and shawl, the chopsticks in her hair, to teach at the studio or to dance. I didn’t know. I fixed her. He was proud. He taught me to draw without looking at the paper. I remember the first time. The old shoes tangled together, the laces, the perspective of one shoe atop another.

No singing. No sound at all. Not even cars on the roads outside, doors, children, music. Nothing. My knee starts to ache, but do not move. This is important. Not to see Paco or my mother, but to carry this through for him.

He returns, and between his legs, pointing straight up, a rifle. It has a thin barrel and a metal sight at the tip. “I didn’t know you had that,” I say.

“Pellet gun. She’s gone, son.”

“Gone,” I repeat. Not my mother, I realize. The chair where Megumi sat is empty. The light brightens and burns the empty chair. The canvas where he started to paint her looks like it’s smoldering in the intense light.

My father pumps the pellet gun angrily. He claps the stock shut, then pumps it again.

“It needs ten pumps to get through that window,” he says between breaths.

He sticks the rusty barrel through the window and rests it against the windowsill. He snuggles the stock against his shoulder and cheek, cocks his head, watches. “Tell me if you see them,” he says.

“You won’t shoot her?” I ask.

He looks at me like he can’t believe I would ask the question. He will not shoot her. He is sane. He will shoot Paco.

“I can’t see anything,” I say.

My father takes deep, heavy breaths, then blows air slowly from his pursed lips. Some practiced routine for shooting, I guess. But the alley is silent. The windows are empty of movement. I’m not sure if anyone is there anymore.

“I’ll check around back,” he says. Before I can ask him what this means, he’s gone, slipping from the room like a young man, agile, on a grave mission.

I watch the alley for a few seconds and wonder if my father will appear wearing fatigues and a mask of black and green. I hear the screen door slam, but no one appears. I stand and try a few numb steps, but my legs are chunks of wood. I walk like Frankenstein, grab the stool and lean on it. I stretch my legs and feel the size of the canvas in front of me. My legs run beneath it when I’m this close. I see all the grains and imperfections of the undercoating. I see the spaces in the charcoal lines where he’s drawn Megumi’s faint outline. It’s only a human shape. I don’t see her yet.

I take a pencil and press the tip into the line of her left eye. I imagine her face close to mine. We are in bed and she’s laughing. I smell her; feel her breath on my chin. Her soft eyes widen, and she looks at me; I count three freckles.

When I finally look, I’m surprised to see I’ve ruined what little there was to start. It looks nothing like her. It seems ridiculous to realize I don’t know her well. Maybe I never will. I drop the pencil into the tray. I look toward the front windows of the studio to see if the car is still there. Maybe she waited. I realize that one day she will know some furtive craving I will be unable to satisfy. I open the front door, smell turpentine baking in the heat, the vegetable smell of hot vines, dirt and grass. The car is not there.

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