a short story by Liam Grabowski
About the Author
Liam Grabowski is a journalist, fiction writer and poet. He is originally from upstate New York where previous stories and fiction of his were published in The Source and the Albany Review. He’s a regular non-fiction contributor to the Willamette Week, Portland’s alternative weekly. Liam has studied fiction writing with Craig Lesley and Hollis Seamon and was a student in William Kennedy’s New York State Writer’s Program at SUNY Albany. He has an M.A. in English from the College of St. Rose in Albany.
It was red, though remembering this was like looking back into the sun. Most often, he could whiten out memory, or blacken it as the case may be. Back and forth his mind would go: red, white; white, red. But most often, it went black.
He’d been like this for years. Years of quiet forgetting. Outwardly quiet, yes. He said little: not to his children and certainly not to the woman to whom he was married. But inwardly, far from it. Internally, there was always the steady flow of thoughts and considerations and decisions and above all, color. What sound does color make? He didn’t know to speak of it, but in his mind he knew. He recognized the sounds of color, of clamorous red, of vacuous white, the moan of desperate black, flowing through and into each other, a river of splashing cacophonous color that he held back and controlled with the choices that he made.
He’d first begun to paint when only seven. Seven. Good: swans a’ swimming. Bad: deadly sins. Silly: dwarfs. That’s when he started painting and first watched color grow on paper. He had been fascinated by how paper absorbed the wet shining paint, dulling the bright colors with the dryness of time. Color dulling time. Where does brightness go?
For years painting absorbed him. He marveled at color and how colors spoke to each other. Almost beyond his control, his mind would decide and signal his hands to choose the color, and before he knew it, he was applying the color to the paper. Black, white: good. Black, yellow: better. Black, red: yes! Kaleidoscopic bands of rolling depths of color – burgundy, scarlet, crimson, red. These words he now understands – he learned them himself because everyone else told him only of red. When young, it was only color. But it never mattered what others said, for he could always paint what was in his mind. Smart boy, said Mrs. Newman, his third grade teacher. Precocious was the word he heard from others. It didn’t sound as good as smart or rather it sounded like no good could come of it, as if the mere speaking of the word was an ominous promise of failure. And now he knew why. For what does precocious get you at sixty? Scattered. Dull old man.
He had loved to paint her. Her brightness never dulled and the colors spilled naturally from his mind to the canvas without him having to control them. Her smile, her eyes, her skin brought the colors from him. So bright that it was hard to look at now, from the distance of his darkness into the truth of her memory – all of her brightness and its inexorable clarity. She was always good, true, without the clouding of his darkness, her mind clear, concise, true.
She had loved to tell others that he was a painter. He’s a painter, she’d say, and when she said it, all those listening felt that it must be a wonderful thing to be a painter, and they’d turn and look at him with benevolence in their eyes. (He knew what they really meant was it must be a wonderful thing to be loved by her). Her thoughts came whole in sonorous comprehensive sentences with which all could empathize and smile in unanimous appreciation. Not like the fumbling of words that tumbled forth from his mouth. He was never much good with words which is why, since she’d gone, he had stopped using them.
Yet she would have never allowed this. She had always encouraged him. In a crowd, she would stop her speech when she noticed him attempting to join the conversation. She’d apply the verbal breaks though all others were rapt by her sound and with a flash of her gray eyes, smile and turn to him in anticipation, forcing all to listen to him instead. Why, he thought. She was the bright and colorful one, not him. Nonsense, she always said. You’re colorful, she always said. And, like a painting, he always felt so in her presence.
All dulled by the red of time. How can a moment drain the color from an entire life?
Sometimes he knew the answer to this and could remember beyond the red. Sometimes he could remember it like one of his paintings: him driving in the beautiful winter white and she beside him laughing and singing her a song. Like the sound of snowflakes, he’d thought as he listened to her tell him of her day as he drove through the tunnel of whiteness. He was thinking as he stared in utter contentment through the windshield before him: how would you paint such beauty, such layered whiteness. He watched the falling snow dissolve into the bleached gray sky. There was no way to know what time of day it was – morning, noon, dusk. There was no time, only the empty canvas that stretched before them.
The color came too late. The white lifted like a bandage to reveal the sudden red that startled him so that his mind would not work. His foot understood the red first as it found the brake and roused his hands. They swerved the wheel first right, to avoid the bright yellow of the cab, then left, as the rich red truck exploded the passenger door and silenced her song, and suddenly, thirty years were gone, and he was an old, old man. There were questions as the red lights circled, and he watched himself exhale white to blot out the red. But as a painter, he knew white could not rule red, and he glanced to the ground. As the policeman talked on, he studied the spot of red atop his white tennis shoe with the white ground beyond it. (Or was that the whiteness of the sky?) As the ambulance took his wife away, he recognized the sound of red.
His paintings now have no color. The woman he lives with now has no color. The white house is large and empty of color, on a colorless street, in a dull town in colorless Maine. The house has black shutters like eyelids that clench shut to ward off the bright sun. He has told his children where he lives, describing the house’s whiteness as a blanket of snow. They are not allowed to visit his new world. The woman he lives with now – is married to now – will not allow the color of children or grandchildren to shock their dull, calm world with the brightness of love. He agrees. He can no longer be trusted with color. With love.
The painting he works on now is black and white. Not true. It is mostly gray. But he uses black and white together to create the gray. In the painting, there are two women. The first, to the right, is large and bold with dark, jagged features on a background of gray. She shadows the rest of the painting, her darkness enveloping all but the uppermost left-hand corner of the canvas. There, a small delicate figure of almost total white can be seen with even brighter eyes. White on white. And though small, one’s eyes are drawn to her amid the darkness. He was unsure as he painted whether she was coming forward or receding and he worked furiously, with the hope that in finishing, he would know.
This is my mind now, he says. Where brightness has failed to take hold, he says, aloud in the attic filled with the white dust of aging. He’s come here every day for the past year though the woman in black forbids it and hides the key. But he knows where she hides it, finds it, enters, and lifts the floorboard where he hides his paints. And he sets them up, throws open the shutters, and lets in the brightness of day. Then he works on the painting, over and over.
And when he hears her in the distance coming down the lane, he finishes his brush’s stroke – a thick, dark stroke – and sets his brush in the can of water. The black bleeds gray. He returns the paints to the box and returns the box to the spot beneath the floorboards. He returns to the canvas. The brilliant eyes. He bends slowly and reaches behind the old, musty desk and pulls out the blood red, scarlet cloth. With it, he covers the canvas gently. He walks to the window and, shading his eyes, closes the black shutters and whispers goodbye, for now, to brightness.
“Brightness” Copyright ©2000 by Liam Grabowski.
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations for the purposes of critical reviews or articles. Educators who wish to print or photocopy in part or whole this story for classroom use, or publishers who wish to include this story in an anthology should send inquiries by email to the author.