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.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The complete story is available in the Askance collection “Saltwater And Other Stories“.
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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