written/non-written things by me (from 2005-2008)

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Painter.

I cannot explain why I wrote this story. Tonight, I was walking home from the subway, about a 20 minute walk, and it or something similar to it, just mulled about in my head. I wanted to tell a story with the details and incomplete pictures that I was passing on the street: Salons, young women, old women, men crouched playing cards, a boy and girl fighting under a street lamp, casting shadows of themselves on the ground. Not quite a story about the details themselves, maybe more about how the details make one feel. I don't quite know, yet. Anyway, it is complete ficton:

The Painter

I stood in the rain underneath the flashing red salon on a quiet midnight corner. I wore a silk scarf around my hair. It was pouring rain. I used the pay phone at the newsstand. The owner insisted that he dial the number for me, but I begged him to do it myself. What if he recognized the number? He answered, drowsily like he had been napping before I called. In the background I heard the sound of a women with a deep voice singing. I told him I was here.

He arrived under a yellow umbrella and, softly without looking at my face, told me his name. He took my hand and wrapped my fingers around the handle, securing my grip. I could not tell if he was handsome. He was slender, but I could not tell his stature. He was hunched over as a man who knows how to serve-- a hotel man, a bathhouse man, a stick-stick man, a man who waits on another, whose business is to be polite. I said thank you. He stepped aside tucked his head under his jacket collar and ran bouncing ahead of me, over puddles. Eventually he stopped cold beneath a stoop of a grey concrete building. He straightened up and brushed the water from his shoulders and fixed his hair with his hands. He was not far.

He waited patiently until I arrived. Then he took the umbrella from my hands and briskly shook the water out. As I stood next to him I felt his true stature; tall with broad, but narrow shoulders. He made me feel like a bird. "Thank you", I said. “Please,” he said, motioning into a unlit stairwell. We walked up five floors in the dark. He unlocked the top bolt on his outer metal door and pushed in the wooden inner door. He had lit a sweet incense, it immediately warmed me. The music I had heard on the phone had lingered in the room, emanating from somewhere. I was disoriented in the smallness of his many little rooms, which seemed to flow into another.

He led me by the hand to his back sitting parlor, near the laundry-hanging porch. The lights were very low and cast a red glow. His walls were covered in colorful silk paintings. He had a printed landscape paper dressing screen, the kind my grandmother had when I was young. He picked it up and placed it in the middle of the room. In front of it he placed two small squatting stools. I stood against the threshold, half into the room, half unsure if I was ready. But his methodical, quiet, sensitive preparations about the room enlivened a faith and trust in men I had only felt once before, and but for only a momentary instant. I stood in the memory of this instant, incense heavy in my lungs, everything heavy and dissolving, like hands sinking into the sand beneath a tide.

It was my regular bus, not particularly crowded. I was reading a rolled up novel. Instead of holding the bar I straddled my legs to keep my balance. The bus, it lurched violently and unexpectedly. I felt nothing but a strong thick arm around my waist. I turned to find an older man standing behind me, holding me with one arm and grasping the overhead bar with another. He had stopped me from falling forward. This happened so so briefly, but I looked in his eyes and felt like he was my father, then I dropped my eyes and looked at his jaw and neck and thought he was my husband. I wanted to believe this forever. Then reality came into resolution as he released me. He said that he was sorry for touching me, but he thought I might have hurt myself. The bus began to roll again. Reality was that I had neither.

“How did you find about me?” He asked, as he continued to gather brushes, bowls and sat them around the stools. The deep voice of the foreign woman seemed louder than before.
“The girls in the salon shop. They always joke about you. Few people think you are real…”
“It‘s better if I am not.”
He came up to me and again took my hand with his two. He guided me to the center of the room, to the stools under which lay a papery drip cloth and on top scattered about were small ceramic bowls of oily paint.
“Stand here,” he said. I stood in front of the paper screen.

It was beautiful and bizarre music, such that I had never heard before with swelling violins and strange clanging cymbals.
“Who is this woman?”
“Far Oz…Fur Ou..I am sorry I cannot properly say her name.”
“What language is she speaking? It makes me quite sad, her voice. Like she is crying for a dead person.”
“It is the language they speak in Lebanon.”
Sometimes, like at that moment, it frightens me when someone says a thing that I have no idea about. My chest becomes cold, but my face is hot. I say nothing, but I laugh.

“What did I say? I thought you were sad?” He laughs.
He crouches in front of me arranging the stool and the bowls. Then he turns his head up and looks into my eyes for the first time. He has enormous grey eyes, with double eyelids.
I said “You are not from here, are you?”
“It is apparent, no?” He looks at my shoes. “I am from Turpan, Xinjiang.” I moved my foot slightly. “But, don’t let that fool you” He laughed and placed both of his hands gently on each toe of my dirty black dress shoes. “I lived all of my life in Hong Kong. Up until now of course.”
With his head bent I looked at the swirl of hair at the crown of his head. Flex of it were grey, but he couldn’t have been more than 35, but then again I can never tell a man’s age. What do I know about men, especially this one from the edges of the land?
“And that‘s where you learned how to do this?” I said.
The music fell quiet.
“I’m still learning,” he said while removing his hands and standing up and then he leaving the room.

He came back in with a cup of tea in one hand and a taro popsicle in the other. He asked if I wanted either and I said I suppose I will eat the ice cream. He placed the tea on a small table.
“Please, put your right foot here,” He patted the stool and crouched on the other in front of my foot. He guided my foot onto the stool and brushed off my shoe with a soft bristle brush. He did not touch my skin at all. He told me to relax. I tried, but this was closer than I typically come to a man. Or at least a man who was like this one, gentle. Those others were not men. Had I ever known a man? My back was ramrod straight. With my right leg propped up, knee bent slightly, my dress fell to the sides at the knee. He was crouched low, low enough to be impolite, but he kept his eyes and attention upon my right shoe. I licked the sweet cream popsicle

“Listen to the music” he said.
My shoulder’s began to fall slightly. I could not see what he was doing to my shoe, because my skirt fell in the way. He was hunkered over it as if he were building a fire and my foot was the smoking ember and he was shielding it from the wind.

The incense billowed from a thick lavender stick in a red bowl on the window sill. It was only lightly raining now. The drops pattering on his porch screen windows. I was relaxing, he was kind and delicate, all I could feel , with my toes, was a slight tickling of a brush on the outside of the leather. I had finished the popsicle. I had only the wooden stick left.

“That was delicious, thank you. Shall I throw this away?”
“I will take it. Please, just relax.” He took the stick from me and wiped it dry with a cloth then dipped it into a pot of purple paint. Then he brought it out and used the small dab of paint on the end as a tiny pallet for a fine tipped brush. A brush so small and thin, it looked as if for painting eyelids. I imagined the wailing women from Lebanon with thick dark lines painted upon her eyelids. He worked quietly for ten minutes, not a word, barely a breath.

I stood so still I felt somewhat asleep, at least in my mind. I was afraid to move my toes in my shoe, though I desperately wanted to. But I found myself wafting in and out of awareness of my toes ,which when I was aware, were crying out to wiggle in my shoe. Instead, I curled my big toe in my left shoe the one that was free. I clenched and released it repeatedly, as if trying to scratch beneath my toenail.

“What is wrong?” He asked.
“There is so much attention on my foot that I feel I must move it. I am sorry. I can’t help it. I am like this sometimes.”
“No,’ it‘s okay. Here I am done…But wait, do not look. Only put your right foot down and place your left here as before. There you go.”
I switched legs and did as he said .I didn’t look at my right shoe.
“Would you like another popsicle?” He laughed.
“No a girl like me shouldn‘t eat so much”

“You are not a girl,” he said.

It seized me, what he had said. The hot feeling came to my face. I felt embarrassed because it was true. I felt sad for a time that I was. When I was the carefree girl on the back of a bicycle clutching my classmates thin waist. I wanted it all back, when there was so much time ahead of me, when I could see a future as crisp and clear as the edges of a red New Year’s paper cut-out on a sunny window. Where was it, all that I had wanted?
Then he said while continuing to look down at my foot, the wailing woman crescendoing, “Like I am not a boy.”

The heat in my body grew. I wanted to move my legs, I wanted take off my shoes. To look at my shoes! But I couldn’t resist the resistance to do anything other than do as he asked: To not look until the end, To relax, To listen to the music. I was beginning to boil with anticipation. I wanted to look. I wanted him to finish. The minutes lurched. I managed to contain myself outwardly. I kept my toes still, but inside, the other women’s gossip and laughter echoed in my head. A salon howling with laughter. Who did you see? Who did this to you? That man who paints women’s shoes, a man who…There were rumors about him, that’s partly what brought me here in the rain, in the lonely summer rain. But these rumors scare me. Who is he in this dark little apartment, with music from another land, with beautiful smells and gentle, kind ways of touching my shoes as if they were eggs. I couldn’t bring myself to think it. Was I this women -- a women who needed this kind of attention, this level of detail? Painted shoes! What would I do with them? I couldn’t wear them. I’d put them under the bed with everything else I have carried around with me all my life, I thought. What is he doing with me?

“Here. They are done.” He placed my left foot gently back on the floor. I stood with my feet awkwardly splayed slightly in the position he placed them in. He stood up and collected the brushes and bowls.
“Can I look now?” I still looked ahead at the rained splattered window.
“Not yet” I could here him place the bowls on the table behind me.
“When can I look?” I was motionless. The music was but just a tremolo.
“When they are dry.” He moved behind me.
“When will that be?”
I could feel the warmth of his voice. My back fell soft. He was behind me. Then, he placed a strong thick arm around my waist. My toes unclenched. He lifted me up and out of my painted shoes and whispered, “In the morning.”

My name is Hannah Pierce-Carlson