He comes home and beats me, like my father once did. "How many do you want?" He uses a thick leather belt, black like obsidian; he keeps it under the sink with the whiskey and the fix. Like John Wayne, he drinks a quart a day.
"As many as you think." I find the will to submit. It's come to that. My voices have deserted me, my ears ring.
He smiles, afterwards takes me to the mattress, does me nasty, fixes me good, puts me asleep, the sleep of the dead. He paints. In the morning as I wake he covers his easel with cloth.
After breakfast he leaves, canvas still covered. With his paints and brushes and a dark hooded jacket he's gone all day. He returns at dusk, the wind sweeping the shore, the canvas shrouded.
"Why can't I see? Wasn't that the vow we made?"
"Keep off my back." Mud's caked on his shoes. "They're always on your back." He takes them off. As I buff the leather, losing myself in its creases, he paces, comes close, leans over and grunts, then stalks to the wood-burning stove. He stares into the grate. "You're getting lost," he says. "There's only the strap. Nothing else can do."
* * *
"My name's Pablo," he said the first time we met. "Painting's my game. Want to see my etchings?"
"Do you really have etchings?" He was a rugged man with gray curly hair, blue eyes that strayed to my cleavage.
"Yes," he said, taking a slug from his flask. "They're very good." He moved close. I could see corrugations of thought under the brim of his sailor's cap, tilted at a rakish angle. "Everyone says so."
He grinned. "My former wives, at least. You can't get more critical than that."
His rage started in the war. On the boat his comrades celebrated respite. "The waves," he shouted. "The way they move. Make them stop!" He ran the upper deck whipping his mates with his belt, sailor's knife lashed to his leg. He broke a jaw, ruptured a spleen. They cracked him upside the skull, left a forehead indentation, got him in restraints, gagged him, tossed him in the brig.
"Let me out," he screamed. "I did it for your good, it's not over. None of it's over. Let me out!" They let him scream. Exhausted, he made promises. "Adrenal exhaustion," he told me. "My whole endocrine system got fucked up." They threatened court-martial, then discharged him. "Back-in-the-world deserves me." He moved to the Village, grew a beard, lived in a garret, alternated between orgies and monk solitude.
One night he screamed so ferociously his neighbors called the cops. When they arrived he pulled off his belt. "Back off," he said. "I'm no man to tangle."
* * *
On the island I cook eggs. He likes them done easy. "Isn't this better than that city hustle, all that crap? Aren't we better here?" He likes his coffee hot and black.
I stare across the water at the skyline of the city. It's where I came to myself. Abuse on the Farm, child-waitress at the Cafeback home, the only thing that made any sense was Poe: "Over the mountains of the moon/ Down the valley of the shadow/ Ride, boldly ride, the shade replied/ If you seek for Eldorado."
He gulps coffee like a drunk, cup after cup. "Listen. You're mine, I'm yours. Repeat it." He walks to the sink, pausing twice to stare at my legs, then bends over, rises, stretches, shakes his head. "Sometimes my hands do more."
"What am I learning?" My head cloudy, my city voices haunt me like the dunes. "What's the point?"
"Pleasure," he says. "Nothing's like anything." He pauses when the foghorn bleeps across the island. "Listen. You hear? The monster!" His eyes wide as saucers, he reaches for a pair of shades. "Put on your dark glasses. This could be the end. Let's go stand on the beach and watch for the cloud. You hear that siren?"
* * *
"Your etchings, they don't make sense," I said that first night.
He raised his chin and looked away, face dark like raw meat. "Not everyone knows how to see what's there." His face, sunburned, frowned its network of lines. On his forehead a large vein pulsed. He moved close, the force of his presence beating me dizzy. "What's the matter, you think I'm new? I've had four wives. Four, and they all loved me. That was a long time ago."
He dreamed me into his life in a way we couldn't control. He pulled a magic marker from his jacket pocket and scrawled a wide scar across one etching. "All my paintings have predicted this evening," he said, and led me to the sofa, where he fixed me up and did me for the first time. A week later I moved in, safe, hidden from all the eyes. He was going to be my Poe, I his muse, my voice the voice in our heads. "I'll take you to the island. You can be my woman. I've got acres. No electricity, no phone," he said, sailor's cap awry, a dog-killing grin on his face. "Electricity supports the monsters. We'll live like Robert and Elizabeth Browning, like John and Yoko, like Kurt and Courtney, by candlelight. We'll have one another, in the custody of the cosmos."
* * *
On Saturday, when he lets me leave the camp, we picnic. I bring chicken, deviled eggs, buttered bread. He takes me where the waves lap a shore. We walk sandy pockets of trees colored like cinnamon; far away a beach umbrella stretches people out, Giacometti stick figures. They get up, spasticate to the beach, lie at the water's edge. "It's a robot convention," I say.
He laughs so hard he can't get back his breath. "You know I stabbed one of my wives? With a Bic pen," he adds pleasantly. "She didn't even need surgery." He turns and opens his mouth several times like a fish, as though clearing his ears of static. "But that was then. This is now."
He gives me my fix; new blood courses like melted plastic in a rubber hose. He coos, pulls me into scrub oak and sand, does me good and nasty. Afterwards, civil, he slings an arm around me. "To hell with the sexual slave. I want the child. Where's the child?"
In stop-and-step gestures I climb out my dress and dance us home, twirling in leprechaun fashion.
"Get the rattle." He bites his lip, drawing blood. "God, that's beautiful. Now shake it. Shake it."
"Don't question the cosmos!" He roughs me up a little. "Feel how things are." I start coughing, can't stop. "That's what counts." He cracks his neck. Shadows play on his face, alive in the light of the lantern. His eyes settle on the world inside his head. "Be who you are." He stands his canvas. "Outside, though. I need myself."
No electricity, no running water, only the stove, the well, some kerosene, the lantern's shifting light. A big steak knife. His canvas is life: he paces, glowers in the light, cracks his knuckles. Agitated, the lines of his face on fire, he crunches to my side. "What have you done? Can't you see the stars, how they break? Tell me what you've done to the waves! Can't you see?" He heaves a stone into the water. "How many?" he asks, rage twisting his face.
I cringe, wrapped in a sheet, and bow my head. It's the way things are. His hands move in brush-like delicate gestures and he stumbles to the canvas. "Let me be. Can't you ever let me be?"
Outside on a damp rock I notice the moon change the tide into a new world. The eyes of animals think under the sea. I smooth wrinkles in the rocks but they vanish, slippery-green. The surf clings to my sheet like the green wrinkles inside his whiskey. The moon stitches stars together and I stroke the rocks asleep.
* * *
Wind, scissors, paper. One breaks, one cuts, one covers.
"What do you want?" the wind says.
"Let me be! Let me be! Let me be!"
One sound, the one a sentence makes, rises and falls with the life of his paint.
In the day he takes nothing, never returns, but the timbre of his voice fills the camp. He's everywhereon the mattress, in the food, under the sink, in the cracks between the planks. His cape gestures about me. "You see yourself in everyone's face. They still live inside you." He takes out the strap. "It's the genes," he says. "It's all in the genes. Let's clean out those genes." Fix me, I shout, fix me good.
* * *
The motor launch snuggles into the harbor with his buddies, who bring food, alcohol, drugs, a woman. He puts me in the closet.
"Why? Can't I see other faces?"
"No. You've got to get away from eyes."
In the closet roaches and mice glow in the dark. Voices from another planet tell him the city: its shouts, jokes, angers. "Where's the whore?" he calls out. "Where's the whore? Don't tell me, let me see! Give me the whore!" They bring in the woman and he unstacks canvases for her. "Wow," she says. "You're an ace. How do you do that stuff? Where does it come from?"
"It's all where you focus your eyes."
"Your eyes are as bad as the rest," I manage to mumble in the closet. He's no better, no worse. It's their eyes he wants to keep me from, not the one with the fix, the others, the old ones, stored in the dusty crates, stretched thin. Tokens of my life, maps of moments. Every creator breeds dissent, my voices tell me. Avatars approach our graves. Only drifters escape respite: he's a drifter! Not an exile, a drifter! I listen, taking it all in, turning cryptic advice into code, and when he opens the closet I stay. He cajoles, subdued, apologetic, sensing something has changed. He walks the room, then sprawls on the bed.
"Let me be," he mutters in sleep, and wakes a month later, smiling, brow drawn. "Be the child. I want the child." He puts the bonnet in my hands. Don't take it out, your soul. I drop the bonnet. "Be the child, let me have the child!" He looks at the sink. "Don't you want your fix?"
"My voices tell me it's too much you, not enough me." My hand brushes the table.
"Bury your voices. I'm the cosmos." He slaps me. "You feel the cosmos? You feel how things are?"
I walk to the shrouded canvas. "You don't spend your days with paint."
"Don't you want your fix, sweetheart?" He's playful, dog face lowdown sly. "You shaky?" He turns to the stove, hands clenched, face like a piece of meat. "I'll take it straight out your flesh." He bends over and I imagine my entire weight where his heart should be, listen for the sound it makes, like gristle trying to speak.
"The monster!" Fixed good, strap in hand, veins abulge, breathing hard, eyes a puzzle, he falls at my feet and hacks across the floor, one hand caressing the vision before him. "Let me be. You let me be." His eyes disappear.
Figures in robes spattered with paint climb into boxes of wood. "How many do you want?" they shout. I wake to the moon, an addict longing for its fix. Hours, days, weeks? In the patterns and cycles of sleep, with wind and water an echo, his voice is like the sound of a sentence, emerging only to fade.
* * *
copyright 2001 by Alan Davis
Alan Davis's most recent book is Alone with the Owl, a collection of stories. For a dozen years he co-edited American Fiction, an annual anthology chosen by Writer's Digest as one of the top fifteen short story publications in the country. He now coordinates the MFA program at Minnesota State University-Moorhead and can be reached via his web page there: http://www.mnstate.edu/davis