The South |

Portrait #37, in Red

by Christine Fadden

“You should have forgotten their names by now,” Mike said.

He sat in the driver’s seat like it was a living room chair, his left leg jackknifed under his right.

“You mean I shouldn’t mention them,” Kat said.

“I mean they should be ghosts.”

Browning stalks of corn stood motionless awaiting harvest. Every now and then, a piece of farm equipment, a rusting red thresher against the plain blue sky, merited pulling over for a photograph. But they were doing eighty, and Kat could tell that the ease of the past few months they’d spent getting to know each other in Mexico was fading.

“My step-dad’s ex-wife always came for Thanksgiving,” Kat said. “Sometimes Christmas. It’s no big deal.”

“Nineties psychology,” Mike said. “You set ex-boyfriends into this place and time like they’re my contemporaries.”

“I haven’t had a serious relationship for three years.”

“It’s like this boyfriend mural.”

Kat turned her head so Mike wouldn’t see her smile and take it the wrong way.

She loved the way he could set two words together, though she had fallen swimming-pool-sized canvases.

They’d met in the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. She was on a six-month restoration project of Diego Rivera’s “Man, Controller of the Universe,” when he showed up to study, as he put it, color chunks. Browns, maize, the black of the proletariats’ hair. If Kat had to pick her favorite chunk, she’d choose the pure white blankness of Rivera’s cancer cell and moon. If Mike had to name objects of interest, he’d say he was drawn to Mars and to the veins pumping the fetus.

“Red is the color of protest,” he’d said.

Now, they were driving, already far from Mexico, up through Missouri.

“I question whether or not you have room for me,” he said.

Kat wanted to go back to the mural. The real mural, the one that had brought them together. She’d had her nose pressed to that masterpiece for so long, she would turn from it at 3:30 in the afternoon and be shocked by the real light, which shone though the large oval windows under the great dome. Separated from the crowds that rambled in Spanish, fluid and echoing, Kat worked like an insect. The movement of her wrist was a flicker. This kind of work had broken her lifelong habit of talking to herself, for every time she felt her own breath on her fingers as she was pulling a dull spot back to life, she would think about moisture. It was, Kat knew, possible to restore something and damage it at the same time.

She set up each morning, propping open her laptop, loaded with extreme close-ups of the corner of the mural she was working on. The naked eye could not be trusted. Before settling herself between the wall, the computer, and a hard square column, she stretched. To anyone watching, Kat appeared to be in worship, with her freckled arms reaching up and out before the black-gloved man who held the universe in balance.

She was only stretching against the gravity of her own aching muscles, but she sometimes felt she was fighting the weight of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, a building so massive it was sinking an inch each year into the city’s soft soil.

Mike had stood as far back as he could for as long as he could. Before they spoke, she felt him inhabiting the space behind her as if he were the man Rivera had originally named this mural after: Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future. He’d watched Kat at the base of the mural, crouched over her hot air pencil, shifting from kneepad to elbow pad to belly on her small blue gymnast’s mat. She worked with steady hands on Darwin, a monkey, a baby, a dog—her body angled away from Rivera’s painted crowds with their faces in awe at the wonders of nature and science.

He first said “Hello” after she finished retouching the baby’s nape. The word had echoed; he hadn’t moved any closer. He stood where he’d stood and asked her to coffee. By the time their work at the palace museum was done, they were sleeping together and making plans, the first of which was a road trip from Veracruz straight up the North American heartland, to Chicago.

All through Missouri, the sky had been one long ribbon of Tiffany blue over corn. There was this sameness, but complete contrast also, and wasn’t that why Mike was bringing up the ex-boyfriends? In a mural, how did one saint, one genius, one tortured soul stick out amongst the others?

Size. Value. Red, white, or gold. Chop off the hands to expose the bone, or give the man black gloves.

“You’re not in any boyfriend mural,” Kat said, twisting the dark hairs on Mike’s arm, kissing the right side of his reddening face up and down until he turned to her, taking his eyes off the straight flat road.

“You’re a portrait,” she said. “Above my bed watching me undress, in the kitchen watching me burn the toast.”

“Great,” Mike said, “I’m the creepy portrait.”