Friday, January 21, 2011

The Painting

Published in Crosscurrents, the annual literary magazine of the Washington Community College Humanities Association,The Painting received the best prose award for 2010. I hope you enjoy the story...

The room was cold: cement block walls, a high ceiling with exposed beams, cracked linoleum over a concrete floor. I was with a friend in a working class neighborhood in the industrial north of Mexico City. The earthquakes of 1985 had not yet leveled large areas of the city, many much like this one, a barrio that saw few young gringa faces.

I stood just inside the metal door, awestruck by the artwork that covered every inch, floor to ceiling, of the ten foot walls. Bold, powerful paintings. I didn’t know how to respond to the work that surrounded me: a Parisian salon in Mexican concrete, a room full of paintings in one of the poorest barrios in the capitol.

My friend had brought me to meet his uncle and aunt, Antonio and Domi, both political activists and talented artists. I tried to follow the conversation as we stood in the first of a string of connected rooms that formed the apartment, one room running into the next through a single door, no wasted space for hallways, no luxury of privacy. My Spanish was good, but still I struggled, comprehension floating just beyond my grasp.

La mesa,” Antonio said.  “The table is all that is needed.”

And, indeed, a large, rough hewn table and a scattering of chairs were the only furniture in the large, cold room. 

La mesa is used for all. For preparing and eating the food. For painting and making the clothes. For love making and sleeping. La mesa is the center of the proletariat life.”

Domi smiled, calm and silent. She excused herself with a nod to cook a simple meal of beans and tortillas in a dark, corner kitchen as I followed my friend and his uncle into the next room. This one was a clutter of books, drawings and political pamphlets. A mimeograph machine stood in the middle of the room. There were several easels and shelves lined with paints. Brushes stood, bristles up, in empty glass jars. I was unable to understand the stream of rapid-fire conversation between the two men and soon lost interest, impatient to return to the first room.

Like most old Mexican buildings, the apartment was dark with few windows.  How was it possible to create such vivid, powerful images in such darkness, I wondered as I slipped back through the open doorway. Intense, haunting paintings in deep, rich, dark oils hung from every wall.  Some in rustic wood frames, others only stretched canvases. Images of campesinos doing fieldwork and obreros in urban factories, street scenes that reached out and grabbed me. These paintings told the story of the life and struggles of the disenfranchised, the working poor, the campesinos who left their subsistence farms to seek a better life in the capitol only to find themselves struggling to survive. Daily life depicted in dark oil with thick, heavy brush strokes. These were the images, the contrasts of wealth and poverty, beauty and squalor, that I struggled to capture in my own black and white photography. I stood overwhelmed by a sense of guilt and dismay before the injustices that stared me in the face.

I moved around room like a sleepwalker, staring at the images, large and small, absorbing, smelling, savoring the world through Antonio’s brushstrokes. I knew nothing of art, only that I was in the presence of immense beauty and unrewarded talent. I lost sense of time until I felt someone at my side.

“Which you like?” Antonio asked.

“All of them,” I whispered.

His deep, hearty laugh startled me.  “Ahhh, but I cannot give you all,” he said. “But one, yes, you take one.”

“I can’t.”

“You must. I sad if you no take.”

These words, spoken in broken English, I understood with total clarity, and I was stunned silent. I knew I couldn’t pay him. I was earning pesos, but often paying tourist prices. More importantly, I knew that even the offer would be an insult.

“Which one?” he insisted.

“That one,” I said. I pointed to a painting I’d returned to several times as I wandered through the room. A campesina wrapped in a reboso, her body round, a cloth bag heavy in the crook of her bent arm. She walked along railroad tracks at the end of a long day. I knew before Antonio told me that Domi had posed for this painting, that Domi posed for many of his paintings.

“You like this one, yes?” Antonio said from behind me as I stared up at the painting.

“Yes,” I said.

I watched in disbelief as he took the painting from the wall where it was tacked to crumbling concrete and handed it to me.  “It is yours,” he said. “Now we eat.”

*          *          *

For almost thirty years that painting has been with me, moving from Mexico City back to Seattle, through divorce and remarriage, motherhood to middle age. For most of those years the painting remained unprotected in the rustic wooden frame that held it when Antonio removed it from the wall. 

Odd how we live many lives, how we bury the relics of our past lives when we begin new adventures. When I remarried in Seattle, most of the mementos and the associated memories of my years in Mexico were pushed aside, boxed and shoved out of sight. For over twenty years, Antonio’s painting hung in a dark corner of a basement bedroom. I suppose I wanted a new beginning, a new life, so I pushed aside the intense memories of that young woman who lived in Mexico City. But like all memories, they needed air and surfaced of their own accord.

It was a late morning Sunday in early autumn.  With coffee in hand, my husband and I stood in the living room of our small West Seattle home.

“We need to get some real artwork,” Tom muttered.

“Tired of the prints from Italy?” I asked.

“Tired of prints in general.”

“We could put up some of your work.  We have a few pieces in the attic.”

“Too big. All wrong,” he said.

My husband, the artist, spends his life doing murals and room designs for others.  Our home is a classic example of the proverbial shoemaker’s barefoot children. His years of art school and fine art are boxed in the attic, packed away along with my life in Mexico. Both of us buried large parts of ourselves and our personal histories as we ended first marriages and the pain that patterned their failures. I hesitated before speaking.

“What about that painting downstairs?” I asked.

“From Mexico?”


“I’ve always liked that piece.  It doesn’t belong in the basement.”

“You’re kidding,” I said.

He looked at me with that expression of his.  The one of shallow patience.

“I thought you didn’t like it,” I said.  I thought you didn’t want the reminder of my past life, my past husband, staring you in the face each day was what I was really saying.

“The only thing I ever said was that it needs a decent frame,” he said.

“I thought that was just an excuse,” I said.


“Yeah, I thought you didn’t want Mexico on these walls.”

“I want good art,” he said. “That piece is good art.”

Later that day, I removed the framed print from above the piano and replaced it with the painting Antonio gifted me in Mexico some thirty years earlier. The canvas hung loose from the rough frame.

“It can’t stay there without a decent frame and some protective glass,” Tom said when he walked into the room. “The sunlight will ruin it.”

Now, Antonio’s painting hangs in a hardwood frame, behind museum quality glass on our dining room wall. A peasant woman in a long skirt, dark reboso and huaraches walks home at twilight. A woman like so many I knew at a distance and respected without reserve during my years in their city. The women whose children could never attend the English classes I was hired to teach, could never afford the schools of the privileged class.  These were the women who sold me their fruits and vegetables in open air markets, who prepared my comida corrida in the cafes of the working class, who sold cobs of corn from iron grills or tamales from large kettles on every street corner.

The railroad crossing signs stand stark against a cobalt evening sky. In burnt sienna and brown ochre, Domi walks through my middle class, middle American life, reminding me each day of all I have and all I cherish.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Headline News – Christmas Eve 2010

The rains fall. The land shifts.
From under the mud and water, Earth reveals her secrets.
Memories shift. Only pain is constant.

“Anything interesting in the news this morning?” I asked as I do each morning. My husband is the newspaper reader, my source for daily headlines.

“Yeah, but you’re not going to like it.”

 “What is it?” I asked.

“He’s in the news. Again.”

It was early morning Christmas Eve. Maybe I was a bit slow, distracted by a sense of well-being. Our daughter was home for the holidays. The house comfortable, warm, fragrant. A beautiful tree, a tree we had selected and chopped down in the shifting mud of the Issaquah Valley on a bright sunny day only a week before, now stood regal in the corner window of our small living room. The lights on the tree, the mantle, the piano twinkled bright in the morning darkness, and I felt only joy in the early minutes of the day.

“What is it?” I asked again as I poured my first cup of rich dark coffee.

“Another victim,” he said.

“Let me see,” I said with more force than I intended.

He handed me the paper and there it was. Gary Ridgway’s face on the front page of the Seattle Times. The Green River Killer. The man who murdered my youngest sister. Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. The horrors of Christmases past overwhelmed me. The Christmas of the sentencing, December 18, 2003. The Christmas of the arrest, November 30, 2001. Here it was all over again smeared across the front page of the morning paper.

I scanned the article and then went back and read it slowly, carefully. The same paragraph that appeared in every article, almost the exact wording, was here again. The same paragraph about how Ridgway preyed on young women “most of whom were runaways, prostitutes and drug addicts.” Even now, even in today’s newspaper, that’s all they were. Even on Christmas Eve 2010 that’s all they remain. Have we learned nothing?

Rebecca Marrero was a friend of Marie Malvar. My sister’s story always comes back to Marie Malvar. The girl whose father tracked Ridgway back to his house, who called the police demanding that they come and question the man who was the last person seen with his daughter. The cops came, chatted with Ridgway and left. Twenty some years later Ridgway led those cops to the remains of that father’s daughter, remains only a short distance from where the cops chatted with the polite, white, Kenworth truck painter while the Filipino father with broken English waited for something to happen, waited for the cops to find his daughter. The cops failed.

They failed when my sister was still alive. Failed to catch Marie Malvar’s killer before he caught my sister.

Now the remains of Marie Malvar’s friend, Rebecca Marrero, have been found. Last seen in November 1982, Mother Earth waited almost 30 years to reveal her secret.  If DNA proves that Rebecca Marrero was a Green River victim, Gary Ridgway will be up for the death penalty. The case will remain front page news and we, the victims of his slaughter, will never be left in peace to mourn our losses and get on with our lives.

One of these victims is the daughter of Rebecca Marrero. I cannot imagine the horror of learning of your mother through the media, through articles like the one in the newspaper on Christmas Eve. The scars must run so very deep. Thick Grand Canyon scars. The Seattle Times stated that the family was unavailable for comment. Go figure. Give them some respect. Give them some peace. Back off and let them mourn this Christmas Eve. I screamed in silent despair. Will this nightmare never end?

Ghosts of Christmases past. Three other photographs were splashed across the front page on Christmas Eve. Photographs of three other girls, suspected Ridgway victims, victims who he did not name or claim, who DNA cannot confirm. Another public reminder to the families of loved ones lost. The article also mentioned three more sets of unidentified human remains, descriptions limited to estimates of age and race. Also probable Ridgway victims. Seven victims in one newspaper article.

I took the scissors from the kitchen knife rack and slowly, gently, respectfully cut the article from the newspaper.

“I’ll add this to my collection,” I told my husband as I folded the article. I saw the sadness in his eyes, that cloud of worry and concern I see whenever the case resurfaces in the news.

“How long have you known about this?”  I asked.
“Only a few days?”


“Really, just a few days. There was an article about the remains being found, but it hadn’t been tied to him yet.”

“Tell me,” I told him. “I’d rather know.” I’d rather learn about it in the safety of your arms was what I should have said. I’d rather be affronted by the horror of memory, the pain of a scab scrapped off, of stitches pulled taunt by festering inflammation, in the safe security of my peaceful kitchen in the company of my loving, supportive partner than anywhere else in the world. I can handle the horror in his embrace.