By Justice McPherson
Martin pauses at the doorway in his little rain boots and he’s frozen there on that spot like he may never leave it. I pull my coat closer. The sky above us is pallid, covered in thick clouds that flatten the light and erase the afternoon.
Martin’s face is flush with hesitation. His marble eyes reflect the cold day back at me, warped and distorted. He tucks his chin into his jacket where it’s warm. I feel it too.
“Baby boy, what are you doing?” I ask him.
He stubbornly shakes his head.
“I guess it’s a stay-inside rain-day, isn’t it?”
He traces his finger over a crack along the frame of the doorway. His little yellow rain boots are so bright that my stomach twists up.
“How about some grilled cheese for lunch?”
We go inside, strip out of our coats and scarves and boots, and I bring down the frying pan for some grilled cheese. It’s his chicken soup. The only thing he ever eats when he gets like this. Martin watches me from the kitchen table and when I look at him he smiles, so I smile back.
I set his plate down and stand there watching him. And I wonder what’s going on in that strange little noggin of his. So I ask him, “Baby boy, what’s life?”
His grilled cheese is nibbled down, like a mouse, he says. Semi-circle bites branch out down the middle, smaller and smaller until they disappear. He sets his Frankenstein creation down and smiles.
I pick a small crumb of burnt toast from his cheek.
“It’s like pictures,” he says.
“Life is like pictures?”
I poke his stomach hoping more nonsense flows out. He nods, licking his fingers.
“It’s like pictures that move all over the place.” And with his hands he shows me what all over the place looks like and I open my eyes wide to show him how impressed I am with that. “And it’s colors,” he tells me. “Colors that are all swishing around.” His head shakes, full of the energy of that thought.
He stops. He knows this word, but he’s never thought about it like this. I press my finger into the lukewarm globs of cheese and spread it around his plate. I draw a yellow mustache on the cartoon cat half-hidden under his lunch.
He sucks his cheeks in and raises his eyebrows, and he looks at me like I’ve cut the universe open just for him. Martin squeezes the cheese out of his sandwich and spreads it over the plate.
“Like this, Mommy.”
I laugh because I can already see my husband’s face when I tell him, but mostly because this is living. I would do anything for this boy.
We paint with cheese and when there’s nothing left to paint, he screams and he runs through all of the rooms, turning on every light in the house. I chase after him, turning them off right behind him, but Martin’s adamant that the light stays on.
“You’ll burn them out that way, baby boy.”
He sours at this idea, like he’s been betrayed, and I think to myself: what have I done?
The rain never comes.
Someone says: “He’s a regular Van Gogh, that one.” I can’t remember who, but now it’s stuck in my head and I’m proud of it.
Martin sits in the kitchen with his new easel and he paints everything he sees in the backyard. It’s his new weekend ritual.
I cook breakfast, and I keep hoping that he’ll turn around with paint all over his face and a smile that’s missing a tooth. I keep hoping I’ll have to fix him a bath and scrub the paint away with a damp towel, and he’ll laugh and blow bath bubbles at me. But the paint is never wasted. There’s never a mess. He’s meticulous for such a young boy. His paint is sacred to him.
“What’s he painting this time?” my husband asks.
My husband squints past Martin, out into our yard, where two birds are circling around each other and twisting in mid-air.
“Oh yeah, I think I can see it.”
I nudge him. “Don’t tease.”
“He’s going to go broke with a habit like that. We should at least teach him some financial responsibility. Maybe chores for paint. Something like that.”
“Do you think anyone ever told young Van Gogh that he was like such-and-such famous painter before him?”
My husband rubs his rough face and sips his coffee.
I say, “My, Vincent, you know, you’re a regular Caravaggio.”
“Did Van Gogh paint as a kid?” my husband says. “I don’t know; I never really got that whole thing.” He pulls his ear. It’s a reflex to the thought of severing such an important piece of you from your body. I pull mine. Are we trying to understand?
I picture a young boy with curly red hair, thick red bristles on his face, wrinkled, wax skin, and bandages wrapped around his head. Blood soaks through the white gauze.
It’s movie night and we huddle together on the couch under one blanket. We’re watching Forest Gump. Martin tenses up when our feet poke through the blanket and he gets up to pull it back over us. My husband and I make a game of it during the slow parts of the movie. We get a kick out of his concern for our warmth.
We arrive at the scene where Jenny strips out of her wet clothes. I punch my husband’s shoulder. Martin’s biting his thumb. He’s very intense. The scene’s over before either of us can muster up the energy to get up and fast forward the inappropriate parts.
When Jenny sneaks into Forest’s bed, I punch my husband harder. He gets out from under the blanket and jogs toward the television. But he’s too late. The scene’s already played out. The damage is done.
My husband looks back at Martin and me, huddled up on the couch. He’s an eerie silhouette against the ghost blue screen.
“You didn’t see that, did you?” he asks.“No,” Martin says.
Throughout the movie I notice this small detail: our husband and I lose interest in the movie from time to time, but not Martin. Whenever I think he’s fallen asleep, I look over and see the movie playing in his dewy eyes. The world moves at the perfect speed for him. He never misses a thing.
Of course he saw. That boy saw everything.
Elementary schools, by design, are disorienting for parents. I try to explain it to my husband, but he’s stuck in his own musings. We’re on our way to Martin’s school, to see the principal, and at Martin’s age, it always feels like the parents are the ones who are in trouble. I think about the miniature tables and desks and how dizzy they make me, how my thumbs feel round and clumsy, but I see how serious my husband looks, so I swallow the thought. I wonder if I should be like him: white-knuckled.
There’s a heavy black fence around the school. The door handle to the office is down near my hip and the bench in the waiting area is so low to the ground that my husband gives up and decides to stand. The receptionist eyes him carefully. I feel like we’re already messing up.
The principal is kind enough. She’s a tall, slender woman with short orange hair and a yellowing smile. To me, the smile says that she cares, that the children are more important than the teeth. I think this is good.
My husband sets the drawing down on her desk.
“I don’t understand,” he says.
“It was an arts and crafts project,” she explains. “The students were asked to draw something they dreamt about this week. This was what Martin drew.” She opens her hand to exhibit A. I admire the grace she has dealing with us.
I pick up the drawing. I think they’re supposed to be people, but I can’t be sure. I see two pairs of eyes, two smiles. I think I recognize Forest Gump’s signature square head, but who is this other person? Jenny, I suppose. It’s the sex scene, but somehow, not. Somehow different.
“Is this serious?” I ask.
“We have to treat it that way.”
She leans back in her chair with her hands clasped. Astounding, I think. She’s right out of a television drama. Her timing is otherworldly. It was one of those moments where you wonder if life imitates art or the other way around.
“This is my fault,” my husband says. His shoulders sag, everything else follows. “I knew that movie was too mature for him.”
“I see.” The principal nods.
I clap a hand to my face before I burst out laughing. I feel myself shrinking away from them. This whole thing seems so silly. I want to ask: so what? But I know we need to look united here.
Still, for some reason, I’m more worried about the thought that there’s a child out there who can’t complete the project because they don’t dream.
“He’s always had a weird way of drawing people,” I explain. “That’s his style.”
My husband clears his throat.
On the drive home, I imagine Martin drawing Forest and Jenny making love, and I wonder what goes through his mind. Did we do that by making such a fuss, or was that idea already there? I ask my husband when we get home, while he’s sitting on the bed peeling his sock down his shin.
All he can offer is, “I don’t know.”
A friend from college calls me over the phone for our quarterly report. She’s in Kansas City for business and we like to compare our lives. We talk about work, but she’s more interested in Martin. I think it’s funny how much my single friends love Martin and his paintings.
“He’s not sure what he wants to be for Halloween,” I tell her. “I think I’m still allowed to decide for him, aren’t I?”
“Well, what does he like?”
“He likes everything a boy should like. Cars, trains, dinosaurs, fighting robots.”
“What about painting?”
“What about it?”
“That’s what he should be for Halloween.”
“Someone specific. Someone famous.”
“We do say he’s like a young Van Gogh.”
“Well, there you have it. He should be Vincent Van Gogh.”
“Vincent Van Gogh,” I say. The words sound funny in my mouth. It’s really not a name at all, not really a word or a collection of letters. It’s hard and round and I struggle to keep it in my mouth. “Are you sure that’s something a little boy should be dressing up as?”
To my friends, he’s a game, a cute accessory to project ideas onto. Poke him and prod him and see what he does, but this is my little boy.
Martin shows me the werewolf he drew, but I tell him it’s too late. I’ve already bought the fabric and face paint for Van Gogh. He’s sad, but he won’t say it; he just holds the werewolf drawing in his hands.
“Baby boy, what’s wrong?”
His lower lip quivers and I choke up. He looks at me like I hate him, and sometimes I think he believes it. Whenever I ask him what’s wrong, he looks confused and wipes his mouth like there’s something there. I think, for Martin, being wrong is bad. Being wrong means we hate him and I can’t blame him for thinking that. Being wrong makes you feel cold.
I scoop him up in my arms and rock him gently. The words are hard to find. I want to say what I’m thinking, but I can’t. He’s just a boy and I’m his mother, and we’re so far apart. It’s the human curse. We’re pushed so close together, but we have no idea how to break through to each other.
It hurts dressing him. He stands attentive and doesn’t complain one bit, but it’s because he’s scared I won’t love him if he fights this. I paint his face impressionistic. I even wrap a gauze bandage around his head and drip fake blood on his ear. It’s adorable. I take pictures for my friends to hang on their refrigerators. It’s cute. The whole thing is cute, but I hate seeing him this way, my little werewolf.
I nudge Martin’s head so I can see his eyes and the beautiful world inside of them. I hope he knows how many more Halloweens he has in his life to be anything he wants to be.
No one really prepares you for the monsters they become when puberty sets in. It must be a satanic pact all parents make to keep the next generation from getting cold feet. You think the diapers and crying in the middle of the night are the hell, but that’s living. That’s throwing your own life away for that little ball of love.
The transformation into a teenager is more gruesome than any Hollywood effects could convey. Bodies contort, elongate, constrict. You fight with them, plead with them, beg them, but they’re not yours anymore. They don’t even belong to themselves. They’re victims of the debt we owe time. Growing up is a process of growing apart.
I hear him at night. My husband tells me I’m being paranoid, but I hear the window opening. I hear the footsteps disappearing down our side yard. I even hear him when he sneaks back in before dawn.
I notice the liquor cabinet more. The browns are not so brown, the clears no longer pure. It’s all muddled, mixed, and diluted. Lighter, whiter, buoyed up. I know the trick. Steal the booze and water down the bottle. We all did it growing up, but it hurts now that I’m the parent being tricked.
Teenagers are snakes shedding their skin in reverse. It’s a sea of emotions that builds up when they’re kids. It’s a horror movie that goes on just a little too long, and, really, for us, the transformation into a teenager is just a decade’s long grieving process. Once it’s all over, the sick joke is that nothing tethers them to you anymore. Just the memories. Your baby boy is dead and swallowed up by this hollow man, and no one seems to care.
On his way out, Martin throws on a black jacket. It’s cloudy outside and from the doorway a pale day spills over the floor. I ask my baby boy what life is, but he just stops and stares at me like I’m crazy. You can’t ask a man what life is. He doesn’t know.
Who is this stranger in my house? He slips further and further away until he’s gone. Now everything I love is shackled to the past tense. Martin is a collection of was’s and used-to-be’s. My life comes to a halt just as his begins.
I tell my husband we should have never compared him to Van Gogh.
We’re in the car, on our way to our lawyer’s office. That teenager is so far away now, lost in the rearview mirror. The sky is cold and grey. I feel it through the glass when I lean my head against the window. I see it when I sigh and my breath fogs up the world outside. All the while my husband is quiet.
“Martin hated going outside on cloudy days,” I say. “He always thought it would rain.”
Saying his name, the mmm sound when my lips press together, is too much. We both feel the nails sliding down the chalk board, in a slow, globule way. It cuts through fat like a steak knife, but that mmm stays rough and scratchy.
My husband tightens his grip on the steering wheel.
“He did,” I tell him, as if he doesn’t believe me.
I swallow the rocks down and take his hand at the stop light. I run my thumb along the bumps of his varicose veins. His hands are cold and coarse. The warmth of my grip is the only way I know how to talk to him.
We both have our Martin Memories. Mine is a display I walk through when the days drag on and the mornings are endless. The walls are white and the memories are fine pieces of art. My husband would never admit it, and our secrets grow through the years, but I know he has his own Martin Memories. I know that he only holds onto the worst ones, the ones that eat him alive from the inside. That’s his way of getting through.
Our lawyer’s office is nothing like that principal’s from so long ago.
The waiting room is dark and spacious. It takes a deep breath as I enter. A clock aches the seconds away in the background and when it’s our time, I shrink, growing smaller with each step.
By the time we enter the office and sit down, my legs dangle from our lawyer’s fancy leather chairs. He’s reading documents. He scans the pages matter-of-factly, and when he turns one over I wonder what he could possibly find so mundane about all of this.
Our lawyer is wearing thin reading glasses. He looks the part. “We’re here to discuss Martin’s finances,” he tells us. “Specifically with regards to the brokerage account he opened at 18.”
“I believe he mentioned it to me once or twice,” my husband says. My husband always sounds guilty talking about Martin. I take his hand.
“We tried to teach him to be careful with his money,” I explain.
“He took half of everything he made from his paintings and put it away.”
“Paintings?” the lawyers asks. “Did you want to discuss the paintings?”
Now my husband takes my hand. It’s a symphony – no – it’ a subtle waltz we do with our delicate fingers. He wants me to stop, but I lean forward.
“He was bohemian, you know. He lived with writers, DJs, sculptors, graffiti artists. They shared a studio.”
“We’d like to keep the paintings,” my husband says.
“He sold some paintings,” I say. “But most of his best work hasn’t found a market, not yet. He had a funny way of depicting people. I always said it was his style.”
Our lawyer looks to my husband for some kind of plunge back to normalcy.
“He did a lot of odd jobs,” my husband explains. “A lot of night owl stuff. You know, hotel concierge, dishwasher, that kind of thing. Of course, he also sold some paintings. We’d like to keep the ones that are left.”
“In either case.” Our lawyer clears his throat so we know we’re getting down to business. “I think we should deal with one thing at a time. Today, the brokerage account.”
My chin goes like a bobble head, and even though I’m aware of it, I can’t stop playing this part. The erratic mother. I’m trying, but I can’t. My husband tightens his grip on my hand and he leans forward to clear his own getting-down-to-business throat.
“How much is the account worth?”
My lawyer’s face is full of doughy flaps, and between those flaps are dark lines. I’m entranced by them. It’s an eerie, other-worldly feeling, looking into that darkness, one that you just never get used to. He leafs through the pages with the precision of a close-up shot.
Finally he says, “I’m afraid your son was not cut out for investing.”
I dig my nails into my husband’s skin. I’m doing it again. I’m playing the part of the unhinged woman, driven crazy by grief. I swallow the rocks even though they don’t go anywhere.
Our lawyer proceeds. “It appears Martin invested in some very risky companies. Took a lot of gambles. I wish I’d known. I have a friend who would have put it all into some safe, growth-oriented index funds.”
“So his account is worthless?” my husband asks.
“Very near that, yes.”
The ride home is slow, quiet, a gradual churning of ash. Above the clouds something is giving way. I begin talking and talking and talking, the words pouring out, bursting from a cracked pipe. They come so fast I can barely scoop them back up and shove them away.
I talk about Martin and his paintings, all of his paintings. I muse about his periods. Did he have periods? Impressionist, abstract, surreal. Sure, there isn’t a market for his stranger things, the ones that not even my single friends would hang up on their refrigerators. The ones Martin was most excited to share, but all we could ever do was stare, jaw-dropped, eyebrow-bent. That poor boy. He must have had periods.
“But who knows,” I say, “maybe one day it’ll finally click for people. Maybe one day we’ll see his exhibit at the MOMA.”
My husband’s sigh is so heavy I don’t think he’ll ever be able to breathe again.
“Maybe you were right,” he says. “Maybe we shouldn’t have compared him.”
I sit back, my mouth finally shut, the words exhausted and expended. I touch my stomach.
“At least he got to choose,” I say.
My husband’s jaw clenches. I’m not even sure I mean it. I don’t think it’s natural for humans to accept such an idea: that we can choose when we die. But I have to believe Martin wanted it this way. I have to believe he was sure even in those final moments.
I already regret saying it. My husband will never forgive me for it. His knuckles will be forever white.
“Do you think anyone would blame us for comparing him to Van Gogh?” I ask my husband.
I don’t think he remembers who said it first. He only remembers that I bring it up from time to time when I’m staring into space, wandering through my Martin Memories. But I’m sure, more and more every day, that it was me. I compared him to Van Gogh.
I think of waves rising up on a bright day. They’re old and far away, and as I get closer I see that the world is paint. A palette knife smooths the globs of blue that glisten in the sun as the waves approach the shore. Martin is on that shore.
My breath fogs up the window. I draw a circle into the moist surface and then blow until the circle disappears. It’s still there, though, under my spit.
I wonder if Martin knew I loved him, all the way through, dutifully. Even if, to him, we looked like some grotesquely contorted creatures in a carnival mirror. Even if he thought we were speaking different languages, he was always ours.
I can’t shake the guilt. I can’t lose the uncertainty. I’m full of wrong, of life being meaningless, empty, and people being selfish.
Is it worth being an artist?
I imagine some decades down the road where my husband and I are walking through a gallery of paintings on white walls. A whole exhibit dedicated to Martin. I wonder if we’ll be proud. Will my husband point to those misshapen blobs Martin called people and say, “Look, that’s my boy. Do you remember when he used to paint in the kitchen?” Do we deserve to be proud if we were the ones who gave birth to that scared, confused creature?
Or will we miss him too much?
I didn’t know my son when he took his life. I didn’t know that man at all. There were glimpses of the boy I raised, shades of that little artist, but I never really knew him. And I can’t even muster the courage to say I loved him. Because, for me, it was always that little boy I loved most. My little Van Gogh.
The rain starts to come.
I think back to that day when Martin stood frozen on the porch in his little yellow rain boots. I wonder if I should have dragged him out into that cold day kicking and screaming. Maybe things would have gone differently.
I see that boy, and I ask him, “Baby boy, what’s life?”
My little ball of love doesn’t answer, but that’s because we already know. Life, baby boy, was you.
Justice McPherson received his BA in Creative Writing from Syracuse University and also holds an AA in Psychology from the College of San Mateo. He has worked in Hollywood as a script consultant, a production assistant, and on set as a visual effects assistant.
Paint-box photo by Markus Spiske via Unsplash
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