I. Blank City
In the neighborhood the girls call her Our Lady of Trash. Our Lady of Birdshit. They leave spare change at her door, ask where she got her clothes, the dump? They pretend to cross themselves when they see her, sneer when she passes on the sidewalk:
How many foster parents shit no wonder they don’t want her.
That daddy of hers how long’s he been in jail?
And she was all I been here since I was one all proud and shit.
Hate ticks inside her, hate for their dollar-store nails and bargain-bin jewelry, the gold paint scabbing onto their collarbones, their rhinestones splashing light. She walks down the street, chin up, eyes angry. Men call at her from the houses, hey baby c’mere baby.
Seventeen years old. Carmen the Unapologetic.
Nights she sneaks away from the home, crawls through second-story windows into parties where no one knows her name. Days she walks from breakfast to dinner, sun draining the color from everything, the corrugated tin and construction sites, the Jersey barriers and rebar. Every afternoon, she watches the sky burn itself sick beneath orange crusts of clouds. She has six months till she’s emancipated and an emptiness she can’t name.
The fat bitch on the corner mouths off: Your mama put down the pipe yet chola?
On the sidewalk Carmen stops. Her whole life she’s been lacking crucial lessons. How to look ashamed. How not to fight back.
Fat Bitch sits on her porch, ashtray by her knee, a baby crying inside the house. She taunts: Miss Nada. Queen of Jack Shit.
So Carmen walks up and slaps her.
She isn’t quick enough to get away before Fat Bitch goes crazy, grabs Carmen — stink of cigarette, wet diaper – takes a handful of hair, yanks.
Then some kid running up the street, shouting, telling them to break it up. Some kid with a too-big nose and a too-flat ass, some kid she recognizes from school: flashbulb, firework, always making trouble.
Carmen pulls away and runs. A skein of black hair floats behind her.
Back at Our Lady of Madrugada she washes and washes her hands. She is disgusted by the feel of soft animal after the sting of the slap. She is disgusted by the linger of so much weakness on her skin.
A week after the run-in with Fat Bitch, Sister Ruth asks what she’s going to do with herself.
Have you given any thought to a marriage with Jesus my dear?
Carmen laughs so hard her gut shakes, leaves the holy orders brochures on the desk and wanders up to her dormitory. In a pillowcase under her bed she keeps makeup, nail polish, cigarettes, cough syrup, and she bends to retrieve a tube of lipstick she stole. She’s sneaking out tonight. She’s always sneaking out.
Here in this city she knows every place to run. The metal culvert where she crouches after the mother who can’t stand the sight of her foster children. The bus station where she eats vending machine food after the family who keeps a lock on their fridge. All the parties where she dances alone, hips like smoke, blue-red lights flashing past the window.
She has left only once, an unfindable half-year in a suburb with a woman named Diana who smoked weed and gardened and taught college kids how to throw pottery. In the mornings Carmen would sit and watch her make salves to cure broken hearts and heal marriages. Diana said it was nothing special, that people healed when they wanted to heal, she just knew how to help them along.
Certain people tune into things no one else can see, Diana used to say.
Carmen applies her lipstick, puckers in the mirror.
Certain people have nothing to tune in to. Certain people don’t get helped along.
At the party she sees the big-nosed boy who broke up the fight on the porch, skinny hips and sloppy Ashkenazi curls, leaning over a balcony and making someone laugh. Blue light dusts his skin, shadows the railing.
From the corner of the room Carmen watches. The boy moves through the party like a riptide, shooting compliments, hand at his hip, smashing a bottle on the back patio.
You’re so beautiful he tells a girl, his hands air-forming the shelf of a clavicle, scoop of her hipbones, ladder of her spine. Or maybe, get out my way flaca.
She sees him only once more in the next hour, waiting in line for the bathroom. Then again later, a spray can in his hand, the party winding down, him tagging the side of a fridge someone’s pushed away from the wall.
Hey she says hey remember me? She is leaning on the counter, drunk and high, and in the morning she’ll wake in her bed without knowing how she got there.
He flashes her a glance.
Yeah I remember you.
Carmen she says.
He keeps tagging and she watches the new loops, the cock of his wrist and the radioactive glow of orange, green, yellow, the slow emergence of letters she’s not too fucked up to recognize:
A few nights later, he’s at her door.
She expects him to have a car but he takes her through the neighborhood on foot, past his uncle’s house, past duplexes with peeling sides, Grand Ams on blocks. At school she’s seen him do backflips off the handicap ramp but tonight he keeps his hands in his pockets, doesn’t say much. It’s the height of July, and both of them are sweating even with the sun half set.
They round a corner and he points out the first one, a giant wing streaming feathers, five yards of bloodred across the back of the Salv A. There are other tags all around it, black spider nests overlapping the wing, q7XX, rcd, SLEEZ, but Javier’s is by far the biggest, the best. She notices some sloppiness around the edges, some shaky feeling to the feathers, but she likes it all the same.
Past the Qwik Fill he shows her another, a little black cartoon devil. Then more, a telephone pole with leering totem faces, an underpass striped in hot green aerosol.
Then they’re everywhere, graffiti branding the girders of the bridge on Court Street, graffiti tucked behind the 7-11 like a strand of hair behind an ear, graffiti glowing under the sodium lamps and across boxcars, whorl-slash q, chiasmic k, pigment lifting from metal, graffiti flung and flinging into the air, wild, premonitory, incandescent.
Carmen feels dizzy. Her feet are blistering and she’s in a neighborhood she’s never seen before. A neon sign glows. No vacancy. Open all night. Around them the hot city aches and whines.
A motorcycle roars by, noise gutting the night, and Javier screams I HEAR YOU and together they hear everything, energy bubbling up beneath their skin, energy lavishing their cells, him stretching his fingertip taut around the nozzle,
a fresh stretch of paint behind the laundromat, both stepping back to check the effect, shoulders bumping, awkward with the sudden closeness, a dark new future spilling out before them.
They devour the city. Run rampant through alleys. Preside over empty lots. Rule through dark nights and dirty sheets.
Carmen instructs Javier in the art of huffing glue, of drugs that stitch their way through skin and bone. They get high beneath warehouse windows, the floors diseased with glass and bugs. They wipe spunk from their stomachs with their T-shirts, lick the stickiness from their fingers like candy.
Light sluices through the city. In back of the All-Am, Javier paints her a series of shivering purple valentines. At home in his uncle’s house he unzips her spine, replaces it with electricity. He gets down on the floor, licks the hollows at the backs of her knees, teases her till she is liquid and longing.
He is not the god she needs but he is the god she finds.
The summer drags on. Sister Ruth finds Carmen a job behind the cosmetics counter at a drugstore ten blocks from the home. From her counter she glares at the shoppers, listens to girls ask if they look better in Spring Kiss or Carnation. Outside, summer heat ripples the air.
After the first week Carmen makes friends with the kid behind the pharmacy counter: Simon of the college internship, Simon of the glandular disorder. By Friday he’s skimming from the best prescriptions and giving them to her, a quick slip of his chubby hand into her back pocket while she giggles, the poor guy already hopelessly in love.
On her lunch break Javier comes into the drugstore, drapes his long limbs over the counter, flirts shamelessly. Trying all the eyeshadows, painting the backs of his hands till they shimmer like butterfly wings. Mornings he works at his uncle’s repair shop and afternoons he goes to the public library, positions his sweaty head under the stuttering fan, dozes.
Whenever he talks about graffiti Carmen sees need. It is a look that scares her, scares her more than she can say, so she shuts her eyes and bites his earlobe. Invents an altogether different need with her body.
Six months after she’d gone to live with Diana, a week before her thirteenth birthday, the doctor had called. Cancer. Metastasized. And just like that Carmen was back at Our Lady. Her last memory: Diana bald and waving from the back of the ambulance, holding out a clematis clipping that Carmen threw in the trash her first night back at the home.
This is how she knows to prepare herself. Knows nothing good lasts. Every night she climbs through Javier’s window and every night he sneaks out when he thinks she’s asleep. She smells the chemical dust on his hands when he holds her, knows he’s tagging cars, tagging walls, tagging street signs all across this bleached and tired city.
One Friday she stays after work, corners Simon in the back of the pharmacy. She slips her hand down the front of his khakis, asks for a month’s worth of sleeping pills. The air smells of vitamin dust, rubbing alcohol, toner.
Just in case she says. She calms his trembling with a steady hand. Just enough to get by.
One night she wakes to her name.
Javier’s voice shakes. All night they’ve been tonguing bright jewels, high on handfuls of unmarked pills.
Carmen I don’t know what’s happening the colors are leaving.
She sits up. Javier is staring at something she can’t see.
What do you mean.
The colors I don’t know they’re coming away from everything Jesus they’re flying away.
He talks faster: a scrap of color like a postage stamp peeling itself from the yellow wall, a single leaf of color plucked from her shirt and swept away in an invisible breeze. She doesn’t understand what he’s saying so she leans close, parts his lips with her tongue, begins to stitch him back together.
It feels like drowning, he whispers. It feels like blindness.
That week at the drugstore Carmen fills her pockets with eyeliner, lip gloss, blush. She imagines getting caught: the screaming manager, hot spit in her face. She imagines what Sister Ruth would say: you can’t hold on to something for ten minutes? you can’t do one thing right?
She slides another mascara into her jeans.
Carmen leaves work early and takes the long way home, past the brick and concrete, past the empty factory lots. She walks to an old warehouse, sits on the edge of the loading dock, lets her feet dangle. She and Javier come here all the time, smoke under skies sterile as operating rooms, suture the hours together with cigarettes and beer.
She takes out several compacts of blush, begins to chip at the powder with a fingernail. Small clouds of pink gather at her feet. She puffs her cheeks and blows them into the air. She dips a finger in and paints lines across her flat belly, all colors of flesh.
Alone in her room, she will count and recount days on her calendar. Two weeks late, then three. Something held inside her, something tight and unyielding.
Red, she wills, squatting over the steel toilet at the home. Red red red red.
In August the parties multiply, a last push before summer ends. Every night Carmen climbs out her window, fingers prised into the brickwork, and collects Javier from his uncle’s house. Every night they see the same people, the winos, the cokeheads, the car dealer Ramón, the skinny dreamer Willford, that dancer bitch Maribel and her lesbian cousin from Metro, everyone partying a little too hard, everyone’s eyes unfocused, everyone’s bones crackling with decibel madness.
Running wild, sucking down smoke, pulling through the throbbing city, Javier tells her about the colors. How they leave. How they float away. The two of them steal a bottle of cheap champagne and escape out the window at a party, send the cork flying over the sidewalk. Conversation pours down the fire escape.
Please he did not say that. Girl you don’t even know. And then I was all like.
In the bruised light Carmen lifts her arms in the air and sways. Javier, head tilted to the sky, says something she can’t hear. She feels weightless, the world dancing beneath her.
The last day of summer. A dog barking at dawn. There’s an uneasy stillness to the air, a humidity so high it’s practically rain.
All day long Carmen feels like her bones are coming apart. At work she begs Simon for a hydro, a benzo, anything to take the edge off. She has a low throbbing pain in her stomach and the whole city feels hungover. Javier does not come by.
On her way home, she stops at the abandoned warehouse. Stands at the edge of the loading dock, toes inching out over the air. The other girls at the home are asking where she’s going after she’s emancipated. What she’s going to do with herself.
Carmen? That puta ain’t goin’ nowhere.
Did you even see the way he looked at her did you see it?
And then I was all please you don’t got a dollar to your name and she was all.
Across the lot, light plates along the vacant windows.
In this heat it takes her an hour to walk home. Her shirt is plastered to her body, her shoelaces black with dirt. In the distance a dog is still barking, a flat, hopeless sound.
She sees them when she walks up the steps to Our Lady of Madrugada. Nine sharp words sprayed on the bricks outside her bedroom window. A goodbye letter.
I’M SORRY I HAD TO GO PLEASE FORGIVE ME
She rereads them. Knows the handwriting like her own.
I’M SORRY I HAD TO GO
The words wring through her.
II. The Invention of Color
In the beginning was Black and it was the tops and bottoms of things, the that-which-isn’t and that-which-will-be, bitter edge of laughter, bone before it becomes bone, shipwreck and salvage.
But Black was lonely and so it made White.
At first Black and White were content. Soon, though, White began to complain of a gnawing hunger, an ache behind the eyes, a shifting restlessness that crept and crawled beneath skin and sinew.
Black was saddened to see how White longed for something else. Black remembered how it felt to be searching constantly, to be governed by privation, and took pity on White, who was no longer eating or dreaming.
Is it more important to you than anything? Black asked.
Yes, White said.
He tags walls, stop signs, phone booths, buses. He tags billboards, houses, small piles of bones he finds beneath bushes along the road. He tags brickwork, stonework, the places he sleeps, his own shoes, anything that stands still long enough to be covered in paint. His version of breadcrumbs:
JAVI WAS HERE
SEPT 1990 J AGUILAR
JAVIER & ––––––
This last one he covers with a snarling dog’s head.
He follows the colors south. He hitchhikes when he can, backtracking when he loses the trail, the colors lifting like lost balloons into the southern sky. He walks along interstates and lonely back roads, through rustbound hamlets and grasses so sharp they draw blood. When he tries to change direction, the colors double, triple, overwhelm his sight till he follows them again.
After a week of walking through unfamiliar country he comes to an old pump house on the outskirts of a mill town. He is in a place of low hills, blink-and-miss towns, acres of slow-chewing cows, corn, alfalfa. Above the pump house the colors shimmer hot and urgent and auroral. Before his eyes they plunge from the sky and disappear through the tin roof.
He sits in the grass. He sprays a sentence on the ground.
JAVIER IS HERE.
On his knees inside the pump house he works a piece of concrete loose, pries at the edges until it comes up. He digs down and comes up with colors beneath his fingernails: grass green, sweet potato orange. He reaches in again and brings up whole handfuls, cranberry and olive and heliotrope.
In the air the colors were weightless, insubstantial, but when he digs them from the earth they are alloyed with the soil, they have texture and heft. Red is smooth and almost wet. Bice is light as dust.
He keeps digging until he has dozens of colors, some of them streaked with impurities, some gleaming like bright metals. He separates them into piles and they leach into the concrete, blending and shifting like water held under light. He doesn’t stop to wonder if he’s crazy. Crazy is old news, crazy is the portrait he drew on the side of a school two towns back, the way he shoplifted sixteen cans of Rust-Oleum yesterday.
Disturbed by the digging, tiny wafers of color hang in the air and he opens his mouth, allows them to dissolve on his tongue. He dips his finger in a lump of turquoise and smears it across his arm. He begins to paint himself, elbow-eyelid-shin.
He keeps going until every inch of him is painted. Until he forgets his skin. Until not an inch of him is his own color.
For three days he doesn’t sleep or eat. He stares at the colors, stares down so deep he falls into and through them, saturated, inhabited. They blanket and nourish him, the Tangiers red and sandarach and barium yellow, the celandine and violet, daffodil and giallorino, peach, plum, Naples yellow, canary, jasper and jacinth and amethyst and lavender, Indian yellow, orpiment, dandelion, blackberry, gamboge, mauve, cerise.
On the fourth day he sets out from the pump house. He makes it two miles towards the city before he begins to ache. What he wants—Carmen—what he needs—color.
Another mile and the colors begin lifting away again. Migraines of green, blue, black overtake him. On his knees in the road he imagines color choking him, clogging his windpipe, shooting through his veins, killing him now, now, now.
He doesn’t die. He goes back to the pump house and the pain subsides. He begins again.
All winter he carries thoughts of Carmen, his body nothing but pain receptors, the wiring shot to hell. Every night he dreams them together again and every morning it hurts like the day he left.
He moves into the pump house, sweeps out the dirt and dead bugs, buys a cot and a secondhand camp stove. When he is quiet the place hums with an otherworldly sound.
The nightmares are bladed and brimming with teeth. In them he sneaks into the room at Our Lady of Madrugada, turns on a light, and watches the colors jump up an octave while Carmen lies on the bed, naked, waiting for him. It is always blue: the curtains running with celeste and armenium, blueswept floor, ceiling stitched in coquelicot; blue at the deep core of her, Karner blue gathered in the crook of her elbow, Egyptian blue dusting her eyelids, indigo between her teeth when she smiles, the devil’s dye, all blue electric and undenied.
He dips his hands in the earth. The colors accumulate.
On a day in late winter he walks into a convenience store, feels a hand on his jacket.
Excuse me that paint where did you get it?
Javier looks down. The hem of his sleeve is smeared with a watery gray, a shade squirming with brook and cloudlight.
Is it from the city? The woman presses. Where I can buy it?
Javier has a headache from the cold. His body feels like a glass of muddy water and he doesn’t want to talk to anyone. He has tried no fewer than seventeen times to go back to the city and each time he makes it less than halfway before he has to turn around.
Fuck the colors, he thinks.
Aloud, he says two hundred for all the paint you want.
At first there are only a few customers, artists and friends of artists. He spoons the colors into empty bottles and labels them with names he pulls from paint catalogs: cadmium red, alizarin crimson, Mars black, dioxazine purple. He wraps the bottles in rags and mails them across the state, opens a checking account and begins to deposit money.
Chicory, thirty dollars.
Aqua with streaks of ginger, fifty-two-fifty.
At night he leaves the pump house. He walks miles across the snow and paints the sides of barns. He finds a way to suspend the pigments in aerosol, to mix his own propellant in clumsy homemade cans. He makes giant dark murals that frighten the farmers, faceless bodies licking up walls and monsters with black hearts. He makes the colors stopped, broken, shattered, leaving. Over and over, he paints himself.
People begin to seek out his colors, not painters but ordinary people, townies and vacationers. The days grow shorter and he renames the bottles: welfare, gridlock, carnival, flame.
People with head colds come in for a pinch of viridian. People in need of luck buy paper twists of gold and onyx, walk away with color in their pockets and handbags. A man with a blue-eyed daughter comes in weekly for iris, periwinkle, Carolina blue. Javier hears of people powdering the colors and eating them in yogurt, of scattering them like confetti at parties.
In March a woman comes to the pump house. Javier doesn’t notice her until she goes to pay and he sees the spray can sticking out of her purse. She buys a dozen different bottles and the can jostles against them in the bag.
That same week he comes across new graffiti behind the grocery store, beside a playground, slapped across the doors of a church. It’s a kind of tagging he’s never seen before: no recognizable words or pictures, just splashes, smears, darts of paint.
Summer assaults the country, a hot flat fist. Javier mixes new shades, wing-thin slivers of gray and apricot, and sells them to artists and friends of artists. People ask why he doesn’t open a shop somewhere better, but he enjoys the coolness of the pump house, the cricket noise in evenings, the way the customers have to duck to enter the door. The heartbeat of things is slower here.
Thursday, printer’s yellow, imperial yellow.
Friday, Payne’s gray, anthracite.
In June he turns nineteen. He trades a bottle of olivine for a twelve-pack and sits drinking them one after another in the pump house.
After the ninth or tenth beer, the world goes scattering and rippling away from him. He stumbles to a payphone and dials the operator, who connects him to the number he’s looking for.
His mouth fills with spit. The voice is stern, distant. He pictures the nun it belongs to, the brown habit, the beads at her hip.
He hangs up.
The graffiti keeps appearing. He takes his paint and answers it. A slash of teal — WHO ARE YOU? — a thin trail of byzantium — YOU KNOW WHO I AM. He stays up half the night tagging and in the morning he’s exhausted.
The woman comes in again the next week, asks for yellow-oranges the color of mango, marmalade, satsuma. She shapes the air with her hands as she describes what she’s looking for. A color like picking buttercups. A color like the sun two hours before dusk. He doesn’t mean to keep staring but it’s all he can do.
The night she catches him, he’s standing at the base of a silo, the air thick with barley dust. It’s past midnight and he’s painting an old-fashioned airplane. She rounds the corner with a flashlight and a bag of rattling cans, stops short.
I was wondering when we’d meet she says.
She looks up at the great curving wing of the plane. With her translucent skin and fragile wrists she reminds him of a pale wedding china, the kind a person might use for special occasions.
You’re doing the propeller wrong she says finally.
He shrugs and she walks forward and takes the paint from his hand.
Here let me show you.
Her name is Helene and she is the first woman he’s been with since Carmen. She is twenty-three, an artist, as perfectly contained as an insect in amber. Most days she is calm, but when she paints her body spits energy and she becomes a piece of electrical wire with the coating chewed away.
When they have sex for the first time they are outside the pump house, the dry grass needling their bodies in a hundred places. The moon climbs thickly through the clouds and she is wrong, she should not exist, but he is alone, and the things she paints scroll across his eyelids when he finally closes them and gives in.
Yellow is a light that has been dampened by darkness, she whispers after. Blue is a darkness weakened by light.
Over time he becomes used to her. Her scent and her mystery. The eyelets in her dresses like keyholes to something secret and immense. She has a grant to travel the country and she names each week after the city she’s supposed to be in: Madison, Milwaukee, San Antonio.
At night he anoints her body with colors, feels them slide across her skin like water, thumbprints of sun-yellow on her cheekbones, Tyrian purple cresting a nipple. All he knows can be gouged from the earth and held in glass.
Months pass. He wakes in the night. Another dream. Carmen to the end of him, to everything unreached. He feels suffocated in the pump house, feels like the roof is caving in on him.
On the cot beside him, Helene mumbles in her sleep. He stands up. He needs to move, take a walk, rest his eyes.
Colors run through his head, fundamental and alarming.
What Carmen would learn: That night in the back of the drugstore, after the sleepy, cross-eyed look on Simon’s face and the warm wetness in her hand, the pharmacy intern must have mixed in some harmless pills – a dose of amoxicillin, a half-dozen Vitamin D – with her sleeping pills.
The night Javier left the city, she swallowed her drugs and spun into darkness, hallucinating a girl who shed her body and existed as air. In a dark mirror she saw marrow streaming and dripping from her bones like liquid through a straw, skin lifting and lightening into feathers, into hollow wire, nothingness.
She woke with the nuns standing over her, a wail of sirens six blocks off. Something was different, but it wasn’t until the paramedics loaded her onto the stretcher that she realized why everything looked wrong.
In the ambulance they looked down with colorless eyes, hair, uniforms. The world was smoke, slate, rain, dust, owl, elephant, platinum. She had gone completely, utterly colorblind.
Javier steps off the bus and is home. This city that weeps rust and smells like rain, that clutches decay to itself, it looks exactly how he remembers it: vacant lots, shoeless kids, cars with the bass cranked too high, everything in sight breaking or broken.
Colors flit at the edges of his vision. He is dressed in black and white, in dark sunglasses, and he thinks he’ll be able to stand it. In his pocket, half a dozen pills skimmed from Helene’s prescription. A safety net.
As he makes his way down familiar streets, he has a strange sense that he can see his handiwork here, hundreds of miles away, in the colors that leak across the city, in the gray buildings splotched with poisonous reds and yellows, the billboards stitched up with fresh graffiti.
He shakes his head. Probably he’s imagining things.
For a month Carmen lay in her room at Our Lady. Did not get out of bed. Did not talk to the other girls. Stared at the ceiling. All through the long afternoons, light clung to the walls like burrs.
Sister Ruth offered to pull some strings, to get her into a home for unwed mothers: sunshine, fresh air, good care for the little one. Carmen walked the application to the post office, shoved the papers down a sewer grate. If he came back. If he came looking for her.
She quit school, where all the girls hissed and all the boys whispered cuera and the lessons were not from any life she knew. She went down to the office on Delancey Street, signed up for government benefits, signed up for a free ultrasound. When the technician came into the room she shrank against the wall. He rolled his eyes as he left, muttered idiot bitch.
Two months before she aged out, she left Our Lady for a room in a boarding house. Mold and water damage left irregular shapes on the walls, splotchy maps of worlds that did not invite her. She slept on a mattress on the floor, woke to the sound of the neighbors hitting their kids, dug her fingers into her skin to keep from coming apart. In the mornings, plaster dust made a halo on her pillow.
Javi is that you? No way cuate I don’t believe it.
He stands at his old friend Ramón’s door, gaze slung down to the doormat.
Man you just up and left. No phone call no email nothing. Where you been?
I had to go away long story you don’t want to know. How’s everyone how’s the old crew? What’s Carmen up to these days?
Ramón shakes his head, grins like he can’t believe what he’s hearing.
Javi you know those Madrugada putas they all end up the same. Last I heard she was selling for El Rey down on Columbus and Third.
Ramón shoots him a look.
She’s got a kid had it all quiet after you left. We asked if it was yours but she don’t tell no one her business.
Javier grabs the edge of the table, squeezes. He can’t think.
He hears himself asking if she’s happy.
Ramón gives him a long look.
Man did you even know her?
Then the child. Then the days without hours, the endless screams and tears, the warm milk dribbling from his lips, his tiny bones stretching and hardening, growing bigger by the day, his eyes following her around the kitchen, mouth babbling nonsense words, mama, dada, dada.
She named him Ernesto after her father’s brother and all that miserable spring, all that hot and ugly summer, she hated and loved and was bewildered by him. Some days, delirious with cough syrup or lack of sleep, she imagined her life was a waiting game she had to see to the end before the real one could begin.
She entered a holding pattern, living minute to minute, numb with motherhood and rent checks, with gain and loss. She learned she could want something so badly it ceased to be real. She learned she could want so fiercely that even the miraculous was not enough.
Javier brings colors for them both, malachite for the child and a drenching, shuddering blue for Carmen. He carries them in a duffel bag along with a change of clothes and a return ticket.
He stands on the sidewalk outside the address Ramón gave him, an apartment complex with broken windows. It’s April and the blue light falls over the building and inside the lights go on one at a time.
Through the windows of the apartments he sees indistinct figures – parents? cousins? lovers? – and they make him feel like a ghost. He remembers the times he stood on the overpass and threw bottles at passing cars, light arcing hot and sharp off the falling glass.
He has to knock twice before she answers. When the door opens, he blinks against the sudden light.
He stands at her door looking like he’s forgotten his own name. Still too skinny, still with that flashbulb smile, now flickering, now uncertain. Two years older. Loud without saying a word.
They don’t hug but he takes her hand and she waits for the familiar jolt of electricity to run up her fingers and scorch her brain.
I’m here. Like saying it erased the months she stared at her rounding belly, forged prescriptions on the pad she stole from work, worked double shifts to buy diapers, baby bottles, thought if this is love then I don’t want it.
Javier holds out his hands, something bright and glassy in each palm. Bare as blades, those hands that used to pinch a joint, draw on her stomach, close her finger over a nozzle while they flamed through the city.
Okay she says okay come in.
On the way to her place he’d worked through a hundred ways to ask it, but the minute he walks into the kitchen and sees him the questions disintegrate. He knows, the same way a person knows his own arm or leg.
He takes a seat at the table across from the toddler: quick-eyed, big-nosed, mashing his spoon against his plate. Carmen has him dressed in strange colors, clashing oranges and pale blues.
She follows his gaze.
Ernie she says.
Ernie he repeats.
Then in a blind moment he feels like he once did as a child on a swing set, a pair of invisible hands pushing him faster, higher, until his body described a perfect arc, until he rose above the rust, and from there he could see everything.
The next morning he’s back at Carmen’s door, wincing like he has a headache. Ernie is screaming, the apartment is stale and close, and when Javier suggests a walk it’s like she’s been let out on parole.
Outside the day is wet and straining to get off the ground. She takes two Xanax and washes them down with coffee from the gas station across the street. When she offers to let Javier push Ernie’s stroller, his face goes stiff with concentration.
A plastic bag swoons across their path, tangling in the damp wind. She watches Javier studying a splash of busy red graffiti, a frenzied sweep of paint across brick, and wants to ask if he still sees colors the way he used to.
There’s still some left she tells him. Some of your tags. The one down by the video place. The red wing. A few others.
He nods. Ernie babbles in the stroller. She digs a joint out of her purse and offers it to him. He hesitates then takes a long, long drag. A diver coming up for air.
It’s been a while he coughs then grins. Starting to look like his old self again.
She doesn’t mention the colorblindness, how she aches and craves color more than anything she’s ever smoked or snorted or crushed. She doesn’t mention the dreams she’s had since he left, dreams in which she owns the city, in which she taxes every acre, all the shuttered stores, back alleys, factory fires. Then she is crowned in rust, queen of everything that sweats and smokes and falls apart loudly. Then she is not alone.
At noon the sun is still struggling through the sky. Javier holds Ernie, feels him grasping his thumb with tiny ferocious fingers, watches a big drooling smile develop. Carmen is quiet, dreaming about something. Earlier today he promised to send money, lots of it, as soon as he gets back to the pump house. For a minute he tries to convert the sum to dime bags, pills, eighths, before he gives up. No one has even been able to keep Carmen from what she wants to do.
He blinks. The colors are back, tempting his vision again. He’ll have to return to the pump house in a few days, and in the meantime he keeps an eye out for a payphone. He wants to call and tell Helene where he’s come and what he’s seen, this life that’s no longer his.
They cross the street in front of a row of stores: junk food, posters, electronics. Someone has tried to scrub lettering off the bricks outside and left an angry black smear. Javier turns his head to look at Ernie and then, suddenly, the colors are everywhere, frenzied and screaming, atomic, devastating, azure, icterine, lemon, copper, cyan, so many he’s almost blind.
I need to rest, he blurts out. He’s shaking and without looking to see if they follow he goes into the nearest shop, a school supply store that smells of paper and cheap adhesive.
In the dim interior light his vision calms. Carmen follows him inside and stands, arms crossed. Ernie grasps for a plastic dinosaur and she stares at Javier like he’s lost his mind. In the corner of the store a plastic kaleidoscope sits on display, marked NOT FOR SALE.
Javier walks over and puts his eye to the kaleidoscope, watches the chips of light shift and swirl. There is no one color he can pull from the ground to change this, no way to rename things or put them back the way they were, but maybe in a hundred colors, maybe a thousand.
Carmen stands a few feet back. He lifts Ernie to the kaleidoscope.
Look, he says, and the child does.
Gabrielle Hovendon is a graduate of the MFA program at Bowling Green State University, where she taught creative writing and composition. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications including Redivider, Reunion: The Dallas Review, Ninth Letter, Tin House’s Open Bar, and Baltimore Review. She is currently at work on a novel about the lives of two nineteenth-century mathematicians.