Brian Wilson, Gone to Town

From “Brian Wilson, Gone to Town,” The Greensboro Review, Number 87, Spring

Thing is, Mother was a painter.  Or just, “She painted.”

She sold a few pieces here and there, smaller ones mostly, some as small as index cards, seascapes and the like.  Of course she found them distasteful—she had a creative mind and was then, I realize now, far ahead of her time—but she could still do these tiny sentimental pieces in her sleep and turn them around the next day for cash.  See them hung now in kitchens and bathrooms where their owners think windows should be.  She signed them all, cramped brush strokes standing in for her name, sequestered in the bottom right-hand corner, illegible, often mistaken for driftwood.  She even taught some too, working her way down the coastline one school at a time (community colleges, art centers, high schools) often changing her name from place to place.

I did the math once: twelve addresses in three years.  Wilmington, Myrtle Beach, and Charleston, a condo in each.  In Charleston we could even see the water.  In Savannah there were eight apartments in succession, until finally we found a yellow three-bedroom bungalow a block off Broad street, which is where all the blacks lived then, with us beside them.  I was fifteen.  My sister, Jamie, was eighteen and a freshman at Mt. Vernon.

Our street was lit at one end with a mercury vapor lamp from Georgia Power and at dusk and afterwards the street glowed green and white.  In summer, the trucks from the city would come and spray Malathion to knock down the mosquito population.  Shirtless black boys on bicycles would ride behind the trucks weaving in and out of each other’s paths, in and out of the green-gray light and between the trails of white fumes down to the darkened corners of the block, their voices carrying, muddled together over the ionized air.  At night, heat lightning filled the sky and the August breezes were saturated with echoes of thunderstorms already out to sea and also with the whistles from the Norfolk southern engines carrying kaolin up from below the Edisto river to the Garden City terminal.

Two live oaks draped with Spanish moss stood in the front yard, broad and sturdy and dark like a pair of andirons. The large, gray porch and the concrete steps leading up to it held ceramic planters of various sizes and shapes, and in the backyard was a chain link fence overrun with bamboo and bamboo grass. A long, thin driveway bordered by a dormant garden ended in a decayed garage, unusable, its roof covered in gray-green moss, its walls snaked with banks of wisteria and Virginia Creeper and thick ropes of poison ivy.

This was the house where Mother painted on great stretches of canvas distorted self-portraits drowned in deep washes of color and also blistering whites, so that the base of the paintings was darkness, like a tunnel, and the surface was light, like the heavens, and somewhere in the middle was my mother, toothless and grinning with mouth parted, legs opened, and large, blue-veined breasts exposed.

What she didn’t capture in these pieces but should have, were her hands, which were thin, frail composites of muscle and bone and tendon, with thin veins standing high up on top just beneath the surface of her skin. The tips of her fingers were ochre from paint and from cigarettes, her nails were bit to the quick, and next to each cuticle were great triangular tears of flesh where hangnails had been picked at and then pulled away.

Her hands were lost in the scale of these larger pieces as if she wrote only in short-hand and all that mattered to her was life on a grander scale, ignorant of the details, which made our life together intense and terrifying, like falling from some great height.

She knew these pieces would never sell, but she filled the house with them anyway. When they were finished and dry she took them down and she rolled them up like carpets and stacked them like cordwood against the wall, behind the door, and in the hallway. She would sleep sometimes for hours afterwards, and then when she was rested she started up again, the staple gun going against the backside of my bedroom wall, rapid-fire, while she stretched a new blank space on which to work.

This was the last house we lived in together, a house with an empty bedroom and two windows with eastern exposure, thick, white sills, and leaded panes. There was a fireplace where she threw her butts, and there was space enough to do such a thing as paint yourself very large into a life that wasn’t yours, in the beginning of time after our father left and Jamie stopped writing from school.