From the author: Amy slowly befriends Carl. Despite her struggles with her artwork, she adopts him--and his--as her own.
Amy worked in an art supply store. She'd had a different vision of her future when she started there. It was temporary--it wasn't a career, it was to pay the bills and get her a discount on supplies for her own work--but sometimes plans turn to water and settle to the lowest point, and so here she was. Years in. Years to go. The manager, Lucinda, didn't really need her full time, but she liked Amy and liked her painting and wanted to help. That was Lucinda’s weakness, Amy thought. Wanting to help. Most of Amy's friends had scrambled for teaching assistantships or graduate programs, anything to stay in the safety of school, or they'd gone into fulltime jobs completely removed from their art degrees, addicted to eating regularly and affording clothes, a home, nights out. Amy was instead prepared to fall flat on her face while working for minimum wage, proving her father right while desperately trying to fit painting into early mornings and late evenings.
She met Carl when he and Steven came to the store and bought paint and asked for a book on the basics of painting. "Something practical," Steven had said. Amy had laughed quietly at the idea of "practical" as applied to art. And then she'd felt guilty for laughing. If she was really an artist, shouldn't she see it as practical? She had given them a book, had wondered if Carl was who she thought he was, had asked only "Is he?" and been told that yes, he was. She'd known who he was as she asked the question, known before it even touched her lips. No one had all-white eyes, not on Earth. She felt certain of this despite keeping her head lowered and eyes down as she walked the piers of Sixth Avenue on her way home. When Carl came to the store the next day for more paint he sought her out. He had a note that said, "Buy more paint at the store we went to yesterday," and there he was. He came the next day as well. And the day after. He spent a small fortune on paint. He didn't explain. He was like a statue. After he left she sat and stared at the window on the far side of the sales floor, looking over the racks of sketchpads and jars of oil paints, seeking out a sliver of sky between the law offices and shoe store across the waterway, and she felt the day’s empty weight settle in around her.
After her day off, Lucinda said, "Your boyfriend was back again." Lucinda talked fast and had a gap between her front teeth that flashed the tip of her tongue as she spoke.
Amy suddenly couldn't breathe, and the empty spaces around her took on James' features. What did he want? "What? Why?"
"No," Lucinda said, suddenly aware that what was meant to tease was torture, "I'm sorry. Bad joke. Not James. I meant the pale king."
Amy's face flashed hot. "That's okay." She wanted to ask what he bought, if Lucinda had spoken to him, but swallowed her questions. They stuck in her throat.
Lucinda smiled. "He wouldn't buy anything."
"He couldn't find you. He asks me if you're here and I say it's your day off. He asks when you'll be back, I say today, and he leaves."
"He knew my name?"
Lucinda reached out a long finger and tapped the nametag pinned to her shirt. She smiled, the gap flashing her tongue.
Carl came into the store just after eleven. He wore a new blue shirt and jeans, paint splattered on both. Amy watched him find her.
"You weren't here yesterday."
"No, it was my day off."
"Lucinda told me."
He watched her. She pushed some strands of hair behind her left ear. "What can I get for you?"
"I need another book."
"You're already done with the other one you bought?" When she'd read it in school it had taken a semester.
She walked to the bookshelves but discovered Carl hadn't followed. He waited at the counter. He watched her. She lured him over with a wave.
"Do you want something on theory or practice?"
His pale eyes narrowed. He looked from the books to her and back.
She pointed to a group of books on techniques. "Do you want to read about how to do something, or why to do it?"
"Why." His expression hadn't really changed, but there was urgency in his voice.
She pulled the largest volume on art theory from the shelf. "What are you painting?" she asked.
She pulled a slim guide to figure drawing from another spot. "It's good to push yourself."
Carl carried the books to the counter. After he paid he turned to leave.
Amy called after him, "See you tomorrow?"
"Yes," he said, not breaking stride or looking back.
Carl arrived the next day carrying a bundle of canvases tied together. He approached her in an aisle stacked high with large blocks of gray clay wrapped in plastic.
"I brought these for you," he said.
She knelt by a box of clay, half unloaded, the ten-pound cubes building a wall. "I'm sorry?"
He placed the canvases on the floor in front of her and started to leave. She stopped him with a call.
"Hold on," she yelled.
She carried the boards to the counter, untied them and examined the first one. A rock covered landscape, almost photo-realistic. In the center, lost in the gloom of the black ground, stood a child. A twelve-year-old girl. She knelt beside the rocks. Waiting.
Amy looked at the painting for several minutes. "Is that the girl you rescued?" She knew it was. She'd seen photos of the girl in the news. The resemblance was remarkable and clear.
"Yes." Before Amy could ask why he'd painted her into the landscape he added, "She and her brother were the only others to live there with me."
A snake in Amy's heart escaped.
The child was lost in the dark.
Amy held the picture at arm's length and found her thumbs smudged the still tacky paint. She placed it on the counter, propped against the register, and stepped back ten feet. She smiled at it, as if it smiled at her, as if it were anything happy.
"It's beautiful," she said. Carl followed her to her viewing spot and regarded the painting as if for the first time, judging and suspicious, with his white in white eyes.
He said, "I don't know when it's finished."
"It's finished when you can't look at it anymore. When adding to it would mean taking away."
"When is that?"
"Well, it looks finished to me. How about we say it's done and you can work on others."
She lifted the painting. It was heavy with layers. She could see beneath the surface brush strokes to others below. How many paintings had he hidden beneath this one? Swirling water beneath a frozen pond. She held it up and to him, for him to take. He didn't.
He held up a hand. "No. We agreed. I'm done with that one."
She held it as if it might shatter, as if it were suddenly the thinnest ice. "You need to take it. Sell it, or give it to someone."
Carl looked at it as if he agreed it were delicate. "I'll give it to you."
"No," she reached for him with it. "It's too nice." Was it? Jealousy sometimes says gracious things. How fast had he done this? How long had she labored?
Lucinda walked over. She saw the painting and gasped. "Oh, my." She smiled at Carl. The gap in her teeth made her smile that much better. "This is yours?"
"No. I'm giving it to Amy."
Amy shook her head. "I can't take this. He should sell it."
Lucinda took the painting. "How about we compromise." She went to the front window and placed it on an easel that held a blank canvas. She took a store business card and wrote "For sale" on it. Her handwriting was remarkably neat. Lucinda held up the card and said, "We'll take offers. At the end of the week you can decide if you sell it or Amy keeps it."
Carl didn't reply. Amy watched him as he looked to the front window. It was, she thought, a look of guilt.
The next day Amy was at home when Lucinda called.
"Carl is here." The phone was silent for a moment, then, "He's standing outside, looking at his painting."
"Can you put him on the phone?" The snake returned to her chest.
She heard the silence of the store, the click of heels on old wood, the ring of the front door's chime and then street noise—ferries, shouting, water lapping. Then the sound of Carl. "Hello?" His voice creaked from hours of disuse. He sounded afraid. She reminded herself that he probably wasn't. He probably wasn't anything.
"What are you doing, Carl?" She felt exposed. She was lying in bed in her underwear. She pulled the blankets to her chin as if he might see.
"I'm thinking about my painting."
Amy looked across her room. Her own easel stood at the foot of her bed. When had she last used it? She had no other furniture, no other room. Her portfolio leaned against the wall. "I thought you were done with it?"
She could picture his eyes. His stare. She tasted copper and wondered when she'd bitten her lip hard enough to bleed.
"Were you there to see me? I'm not in today."
"Yes, I'd like to see you here."
She pulled jeans from a drawer and put them on, awkwardly, with one hand. "I'm not going to be there today."
"Where are you?"
"I'm at home."
"Where is that?"
Without thinking she told him the street.
"I can find that. I'll come there."
She stood in her room, examining the grain in her wooden floor, unfolded laundry in a yellow, plastic basket, unwashed clothes under the bed, a plate of last night's dinner on the nightstand. "Okay," she said. Her face felt tight. She told him her building number.
She hadn't had any visitors, men or women, since James had left. Not that he'd lived there. Not that he'd even been there all that often. The occasional night, a random weekend. And at one point she'd become very aware of his having a few shirts and pairs of underwear in her dresser's bottom drawer, items she'd found left behind and washed and placed there with a casual mention and which he did pull from on those mornings she woke to find him still there. At the same time she'd wondered about toothbrushes and favorite foods. Did she have anything that was definitely "his," as opposed to those items she had because of him, gifts and loaned books and items she'd purchased with him nearby or at least in mind? She couldn't think of anything, and that lack marked a space that made a statement. Not a statement—questions. Was she leaving him room? Was she waiting for what couldn't happen?
And while looking for additions and finding lacks she ignored that she missed first one and then two, or was it three, periods. When was her last? Why didn't she write these things down? Did anyone? And hadn't they been careful? Had she? Had he? In the week when she puzzled all this she questioned him about what his plans were, long term. She asked without those words, asked instead about leases and living situations, asked about his apartment—as if hers were on the verge of being turned into a condo—and in his silence and sudden departure she was sure she heard one more door than her apartment had close. Ten days later there was a tightening in her abdomen, a cramp like everything she had hidden from herself was digging its way through her, and it grew worse for a day and halfway into the next before her period arrived making up for lost time. She never knew if she was pregnant, never knew if she'd lost something, and never told James about anything other than bad cramps. A space between them had arrived or been recognized at last—a moat he carried with him, septic with his sarcasm and complaints and criticisms. And with the new space inside her and on every side there was simply too much that needed filling, something had to go, and so she'd made a point, the next time James had flatly stated that he was "going home," despite the lateness and the next day being Saturday and the evening having seemed so cozy, Amy said, "Hold on," and stepped quickly to the dresser and fished his three shirts and two pairs of boxers from the bottom drawer, placed them in a plastic grocery bag and held them out like so much unnecessary weight.
She ignored the puzzled expression on his face. "Don't forget these."
When he had said, stiffly, eyes peering into the space between them, "Thanks," she knew he might but probably wouldn't call, and decided it would be best if he didn't.
"Bye," she said. She hoped it sounded final. She needed it to sound final.
Then came three months of no visitors and no socializing. Between work and sleep she chose to be complete. Her painting struggled, despite the extra time. Only the empty space in her flourished. But empty spaces need filling as cluttered spaces need clearing, and so, despite her decision to be complete, the lie of it was made obvious by her saying to Carl, "Yes, come over," and him standing now at her door, his pale eyes examining the crack in her ceiling that ran east to west and looked ready to open and swallow the room despite being thin as paper.
He walked to the kitchen and looked into the sink. She was unable to close her front door. He continued to stare into the sink until she finally could shut the door and joined him.
"What are you doing?"
"You've got food in here. Where do you keep your brushes?"
She couldn't recall telling him she painted. Perhaps he assumed everyone did. She opened a cupboard. A line of jars held brushes with handles down. Upon seeing them Carl advanced. He pointed at the dirty dishes in the sink.
"You shouldn't keep food in there."
Amy nodded and he walked back into the other room, her bedroom. He stood at her easel. She had been working on the last of a series of self-portraits. She'd begun with enthusiasm for the project, a series of rotating color schemas and materials. She'd asked friends to put color chips and objects into a box. She pulled one object and one color, painted either with the object or about the object and how it affected her. Part of the issue would be not knowing who had brought what. She struggled with the project, each result feeling more forced than the last, and then she finally reached the last object. She had pulled it out and known it was a remnant of James. She had asked him to take part weeks before they broke up. Not knowing when he'd added anything, if he had, she'd let herself forget she'd asked. Until she pulled the small plastic ball from the box. A gag gift, something he'd bought as a joke, intending to get a plastic ring from the vending machine and getting a ping pong ball painted like a soccer ball instead. She'd stood before a blank canvas with the plastic ball not knowing what to do or why.
Carl stood before her latest attempt. He looked at it with his hands at his sides, his back straight. He looked ready to leap, she thought. Straight up. He wouldn't come down. His hair was getting longer, and she wondered if he washed it. He seemed made of paint.
"According to some of the theories in my books," he said, "this might be very good."
She stood in the doorway, leaned heavily against the frame. She was suddenly tired, suddenly angry, suddenly screaming on the inside. Suddenly everything she'd ever been. Why was he here?
"However, I don't like it. It doesn't seem like you."
She started to ask why, then stopped. Why indeed. Why care? Why the fuck was he here?
"It looks like you made yourself make this. You don't want this."
"It's a self-portrait that is hard to produce."
"No. That's not it. All art is self-portrait." He walked away from the easel. "According to one of my books."
She felt the wall move. She tripped over her feet and held onto the doorway. "What would you do with it?"
"I'm not you."
"Still. . . "
"I've done that. It's still difficult."
"You aren't to blame for problems, only solutions." He picked up her palette and examined the dried colors there. "According to training videos I've seen."
Her hands shook. She didn't know why his words cut so deep. She thought she might cry until she thought, "To hell with crying." Still, she could feel her face radiating, her eyes burning. She tasted copper again. She was eating herself alive.
Carl's phone rang. He turned the alarm off, didn't speak. He walked past her and out of the apartment. Why had he come? She stood for several seconds, unable to fathom why—or even that—he'd left. She finally pushed herself to the door and out to the top of the stairs. She shouted down to him.
"Where are you going?"
"I have to eat lunch."
She wondered if she'd heard him right. "Do you mind if I join you?" As much a mystery as his arrival. Why would she want to?
"No," he said with pause.
"Wait there." There was a silence, like a gap falling into her day, extra time with nothing in it. "Hello?"
"Wait there," she repeated. Another gap fell into place. She might never have to do anything ever again, if only the gaps would fill her day.