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The Writing on the Wall
By Lynne Sharon Schwartz
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2005 Lynne Sharon Schwartz
All rights reserved.
It started with a pick-up. She'd had pick-ups before, a good number, but nothing that ever lasted more than a few nights, or weeks. The men wanted to know too much, they wanted to exchange life stories, and they lost patience with her. This one would be different. He would become part of her life story, step right into it, even though he didn't know the early chapters. That took nerve. And he was patient. He could wait for the story. He would wait a long time. A museum, a likely place for a pick-up, though neither of them had come for that. People do, it's well known, but Renata wanted to see what had so incensed the mayor that he threatened to cut off the museum's funds—an incident that became part of the urban folklore. The show, featuring young British artists with attitude, was called Sensation, and the offending painting, a Madonna, had dollops of elephant dung plastered here and there, elephant dung, in African tradition, being a semi-sacred object with spiritual overtones. The mayor was unaware of the symbolic significance of the dung. In fact if he hadn't been informed to begin with that the black dollops were dung, the whole brouhaha might never have taken place. So much for the information age, for every ingredient in drugs and food and paintings being labeled.
But that painting wasn't what she was looking at when Jack turned up. After a quarter of an hour she was hardly looking at the exhibits at all; she was mesmerized instead by the writing on the wall, those informative little cards that make going to a museum like heavy-duty research—so much reading and cross checking is involved. She was copying what was on the cards into a notebook and would later transfer it to one of her folders—Absurdities, Banalities, or Meaningless Words, she'd decide later. The card before her accompanied an exhibit of a shark in formaldehyde. "Perhaps the shark is a cruel reminder of how even the most ferocious spirits—animal or human—are eventually brought low," it said. "Whether we feel weak or strong, we are all headed for the same end."
The words brought to mind an obscure language spoken in a small area of Lapland which she had learned last year for her work in the library. Bliondan was a language rich in near-synonyms, with an abundance of terms in the category of prashmensti or "wrong words." The closest translation in English would be "lying," but prashmensti connoted a great deal more. The varieties of wrong words in Bliondan ranged from what we would call "white lies," told for convenience or to avoid hurt feelings, to words used imprecisely or insincerely in order to obfuscate (prashmenosi), to distract (prashimina), to mislead and thus avoid dangerous truths (prashmial), or used out of sheer stupidity, or to fill space when words were required—all derivatives of the root word, mentasi, speech. The words on the museum wall would probably be called prashmenilak, a combination of stupidity (prasbmenilis) and the need to fill space (prashmenala).
"Its interesting," a woman beside her said to her companion, regarding the shark, "but I wouldn't want to have it in my living room."
Renata felt him come up behind her. He radiated sex. She didn't have to turn around to know that he'd speak, that he wanted something of her, for he stood there longer than it took to read the words. But she did turn. A casual look, no come-on, mere curiosity. He was large and burly, blunt features like carved rock, marvelous thick straight salt-and-pepper hair, dressed in jeans and a shaggy gray sweater, the kind of man who doesn't bother shaving on weekends. He met her eyes briefly. "'Whether we feel weak or strong,'" he read aloud, "'we are all headed for the same end.'" So they burst out laughing.
She ambled on and he followed, to a series of small photographs of the artist's family, to all appearances a sorry lot. "'How are we to judge the way they live?'" Jack read. Renata giggled, though usually she was not much of a giggler. "'We see emotional turmoil: In one photo, his alcoholic father is passed out by the toilet. In another, his mother shakes her fist in anger. The apartment is filled with clutter and filth.' Disgusting isn't it?"
"The filth, yes. I don't mind a bit of clutter."
"It's a matter of degree, I guess. 'But there are also moments of ... joy. Do you think the artist is celebrating the people he loves, or is he asking us to pity or condemn them?' What do you think?"
"You're not supposed to think. That's the point. The answer is right here on the wall. 'The answer,'" she read, "'lies in our own sense of what constitutes a good life and family.'"
The next exhibit was a plaster cast of a child's bedroom turned inside out like a photographic negative: the spaces around the objects were made solid and the missing objects were represented by empty space. "The resemblance to a tomb is inescapable," the card read. "Could the artist be creating a monument to her childhood, perhaps mourning its loss? It's as though she has sealed off her memories. And we are locked out, left only with traces from which we might try to guess what once took place inside."
He glanced at Renata as if they'd known each other for some time. "Could she be doing that?" he asked. "What's your opinion?"
"My opinion is I've seen enough."
They were near the end of the show. He pointed to a final statement emblazoned on the wall. "'Do we let these artists offend us? Or do we just laugh and walk away?' Lets just laugh and walk away. And have coffee."
All right, but she had to copy some more cards first.
"Take your time. I wanted another look at the self-portrait in frozen blood anyway. Are you an art critic?"
"No, a librarian. It's for my...files."
"Whatever turns you on. I'll be in the vicinity. Find me when you're done?"
She nodded, then returned to the first item that had caught her eye, a painting of the notorious Myra Hindley, known as "the most hated woman in Britain," who, together with her lover, strangled at least five children and buried their bodies on the moors near Manchester. "The hundreds of children's handprints that define Hindley's face remind us of her victims, yet they almost seem to be stroking her face," she copied carefully and with repugnance into her notebook. "At the same time, the large scale of the piece implies a heroic status. But when we know Myra Hindley's history, the work suggests, and in a very powerful way, that the most banal face—the face of a friend or neighbor—can hide terrifying evil."
Twenty minutes later she found him in front of an exhibit illustrating the life cycle of maggots; the eggs, then the flies, were displayed on rotting cows' heads made of latex.
They got their coats and braved the January cold. The wind was bitter and they longed to cling together for warmth, but both were too discreet and too old for such impulsiveness, or maybe too young. Jack was thirty-nine but might be taken for older—a bit worn, a bit frayed, yet staunch and durable. Renata was five years younger but prematurely wary. Over coffee they discovered that they lived only a few blocks apart, in Brooklyn Heights. Kismet, he declared. But being careful people, they said good-bye at the subway exit and didn't go to bed until the following day.
At home, she curled up on the living-room couch with her Transformed Lives or Everyone Wants to Be Changed folder, her collection of metamorphoses—lives that took an unexpected turn. When she first began clipping those tales from the newspapers she wasn't sure why she wanted them. After a while she understood she was saving them as an act of faith, hoping the growing stack would prove that lives could indeed be transformed. By now she'd read them so often that their subjects had become her mind's companions. She liked to imagine herself leading their lives, owning their pluck and ingenuity. She wanted to change as they had changed. Like them, she wished to begin anew.
The one she chose for tonight was brown with age and shed tiny flakes when she unfolded it: "Shimmying Her Way Into a New Career." The photo showed a slim middle-aged woman with fuzzy auburn hair, dressed in a belly-dancing costume: beaded dark bra and long, flowing lavender skirt set low on her hips, rimmed by a broad cummerbund. Her finely muscled body arched sideways while her head remained erect. With her outstretched arms, the pose became a beckoning invitation. She was an inspiration: sexy, earthy, concentrated, serene. As she said in the interview, age was no handicap since belly dancing "is about the sexuality of a mature woman."
The caption below the photo identified Letitia Cole as a former composer of classical music, moderately successful but "swimming upstream" in the largely male world of classical composition, not getting the grants and attention she thought she deserved. In 1992, while working with Arabic rhythms for a sonata she was composing for a Palestinian violinist, she suddenly realized she would rather be dancing to the music than writing it.
There it was, the part of the story Renata liked best: "I suddenly realized." The certainty, the specificity. I won't be this any more, I'll be that. There's my future, in a flash. It wasn't that Renata wanted to leave the library and become a circus acrobat or a trainer of horses, the lives she'd dreamed of as a child, with her twin sister. It wasn't the future she wanted to transform so much as the past. She couldn't change the facts, but maybe she could change the way she told them to herself—different words, different emphases. Would that make a new story? Would it make her someone else?
Claudia and Renata loved their toy wooden farm, its buildings and figurines painted in bright primary colors, and played with it long past the time most children outgrow such things. They were eleven years old, they had formed an exclusive club with a half-dozen girls in their junior-high class who met every Friday night to gossip about boys and listen to Beatles tapes, they had their ears pierced in the mall and wore tight jeans and wished they needed bras, and still, in secret, they continued their saga of Farmer Blue and his family.
The farm had been sent to them from Montana one Christmas by their father's peripatetic younger brother. Peter was always trekking across the country on his motorcycle, from time to time phoning to ask for money, which their father always sent, over their mother's protests. The grandparents had died in a hotel fire in Atlantic City, and the older brother felt obliged to look out for the younger: after all, Peter had been orphaned at nineteen, barely grown up and still unsure about his path, while Dan had had a chance to finish college and business school, find work and start a family. Forever after he attributed Peter's waywardness to this bad luck, but his wife was unsympathetic. Nineteen was no baby, Grace snapped; Peter would have turned out a slacker no matter what. All the same, he never failed to send his nieces gifts on Christmas and birthdays, so that for Claudia and Renata he had the glamour of a fairy-tale benefactor, an eternally young knight on wheels. Then when the twins were ten years old, Peter and his girlfriend Cindy married and moved into a house just a few blocks away—the down payment supplied by Dan—in a doomed attempt at bourgeois suburban life.
The farm consisted of the house, the barn, the silo, the trucks, and the animals, and when spread out it covered sixteen square feet of the living-room floor. Farmer Blue and Mrs. Blue—named for the color of his hat and overalls and her apron—had three children, Sky Blue, Powder Blue, and Pastel Blue. There was also the hired hand, a deaf mute the girls named Hired Hand.
From the beginning, Claudia and Renata were entranced by their ongoing saga, a life proceeding alongside their own, and they remained entranced because the farm story unfolded in their private language, which their parents had banned. The language frightened Grace and Dan because they couldn't understand it. It was simple, really; it sounded alien only because the girls spoke it at top speed. They moved syllables around in patterns arrived at tacitly, but the patterns were consistent; mingled in were bits of the Sardinian dialect their mother's mother broke into every so often. Grace and Dan had loathed the language from the start, as do most parents of twins who devise a private language, which quite a few do. They tolerated it until Renata and Claudia were nearly eight, then demanded that they give it up. It was too weird, and if the girls persisted, they would become weird as well. Renata and Claudia obeyed when their parents were around, but they spoke it in the privacy of their room, and it flourished in their tales of Farmer Blue and his family, murmured in undertones, in breathy haste, with conspiratorial glee.
For years the Blue family had milked the cows, gathered eggs, planted and harvested in relative serenity. They had faced perils, naturally—drought, crop failure, the death of a favorite horse (lost in the backyard), and one fateful night the roof of the silo collapsed and had to be rebuilt. But things always turned out well in the end. Now, though, ever since they'd started junior high, Claudia had been pressing for something truly terrible to happen. She lusted for mayhem. She wanted strangers to ride in from the plains and steal the horses or kidnap the children. She got the notion that Hired Hand, who had served the family faithfully and mutely from time immemorial, was actually an ex-convict who was planning to destroy the farm and run away with the savings Mrs. Blue kept in a cookie jar. Maybe Farmer Blue would catch him and kill him in revenge. When Renata suggested an alternative—Hired Hand could turn out to be Farmer Blue's long-lost brother, Royal—Claudia just scoffed. Where was the fun in that?
She had always been the restless and impetuous one. This was only more restlessness, Renata thought; she didn't dream that Claudia wanted the game to come to an end. She herself would have been pleased to continue the lulling routine indefinitely, the family driving to town on market days, or watching the calves being born, or stacking up wood and bales of hay for winter—bundles of toothpicks tied with string, and the straw wrapping from Grace's new set of china. But at Claudia's urging, Renata had agreed a few weeks ago to a tractor accident in which Powder Blue lost two fingers of his left hand and had to be rushed to the hospital at the nearby county seat. Yet even that didn't satisfy Claudia for long. At last, to placate her, Renata consented to a lightning bolt that would set the barn on fire.
The roof of the barn erupted in flames—they hastily festooned it with strips of red crepe paper. Inside, the cows and horses set up a clamor and stampeded to the closed door of the burning barn. Renata banged a wooden block on the floor for the sound of the pounding, desperate hooves. "We have to hurry," she told Claudia in their secret language, "or they'll be trapped." Claudia was clutching Farmer Blue tightly in her fist. "Make him open the door. Where's Hired Hand?"
Asleep in the fields, Claudia reminded her. It was his afternoon break. With his deafness, he was capable of sleeping through it all.
"I'll wake him," Renata said, and began hunting for Hired Hand.
"No." Claudia grabbed her arm. "That's not right. He wouldn't hear it yet. We just have to see what happens."
Renata tried to pry Farmer Blue out of Claudia's fist but couldn't. Instead she grabbed Mrs. Blue and the children, who were in the house, clearing up after lunch. But when she brought them to the door of the barn, Claudia kneeled to block it so they couldn't get past. Renata set up an alarm, banging a spoon on the metal base of a floor lamp, to rouse the volunteer fire department. At the clamor, Fox came rushing in. He was a rust-colored Irish terrier their parents had given them when they were nine, but the girls had never warmed to him because he was too stupid to be much fun; he'd forget where he left things, then go sniffing around gloomily until someone took pity and found his plastic bone or his ball. Renata pushed him aside and ran to the kitchen to get the old whistle buried in a drawer full of junk. When she returned, Claudia still hadn't let the animals out of the barn.
Excerpted from The Writing on the Wall by Lynne Sharon Schwartz. Copyright © 2005 Lynne Sharon Schwartz. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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