catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 23 :: 2009.11.27 — 2009.12.10


Clutching Dust and Stars

Chapter Three: Poverty is Violence

This is the third chapter of Laryn Kragt Bakker’s new novel, Clutching Dust and Stars (read chapters one and two), published by *culture is not optional and available for purchase now.  We’ll be serializing the first part of the novel on catapult for the next several weeks.

Tinker stood up and walked over to the cupboard. She pulled out a bag of potato chips and unrolled the top.

“Why did you break up with him in the first place?”

“Potato chips for breakfast?”

Tink nodded.


“I told you-we were drifting apart. Things weren’t comfortable anymore.”

“No, you said that’s what you told him. I mean, what caused the drift?”

She exhaled slowly. She didn’t like the feeling of being dug up and turned over like old compost, not even if it was by one of her best friends. “I don’t know, I think maybe some of the things that happened on the trip affected me differently than him. We started to seem like different people than we were at the beginning.”

“Like what? Why are you dodging it? All I’m saying is, if just seeing him for a second brings back all this emotion, maybe things weren’t as finished as you thought. Something’s bothering you-I could see it right away yesterday. I’ve never heard you so silent on a Thursday night.” She opened her mouth to capture another small handful of crumbled chips and looked over with one eyebrow raised, chewing. “Or, I’ve never not heard you so much. You know what I mean.”

Tink ran her tongue between her gums and lips to create enough suction to pull loose the remains of chips from the crevices of her teeth. Natalie watched her without saying anything. “Listen, I’ve got to run. I’m working Meghan’s early shift today. We’ll talk again later, okay?”


Natalie was still formulating a response to the question. Was she dodging? Maybe. If you avoid an issue long enough it becomes a habit. Then, sometimes, your friends come along and pry up your comfortable defenses like planks in an old house and you’ve nowhere to stand.

After she had graduated, she and Rob had gone traveling; backpacking “around the world” was how they described it then, though it was only technically that. They had flights into a handful of cities from a handful of others and by the end they had completed a jagged loop around the globe in five months, ending up in Central America. They made their way back up to Bellingham by bus and train. That was the longest stretch of land travel on the trip. Most of the distance had been covered in the air, so they hadn’t seen as much as they had expected to-although they had seen enough to discover that the world was more complex than the slogans they had spouted on campus. She had had this idea that somehow they’d change the world by traveling in it. It seemed instead that they had been changed themselves, or maybe revealed to each other more fully.


One night as they sprawled out in a muggy hotel room in Nicaragua near the end of the trip they had discussed what they could do in the face of so much need with so little to offer. The thing that pissed her off was how it all seemed to bounce off Rob. He saw the same poverty and pain as her but it didn’t affect him. They had just been talking with a lady in the street outside the hotel and had managed to interpret bits and pieces of her story. Her husband was unemployed and they had seven children, but he was never around. He had other women and other children as well. She was asking for money, like most of the people they came in contact with.

Rob lay on the bed with his shirt off, rubbing his Coke bottle on his forehead and saying all the wrong things.

“You shouldn’t have given her that much. We’ll probably have a zoo waiting outside our door in the morning, each telling us about how they have nineteen children and they all have diarrhea, and could we please spare some money?”

She stopped digging in her backpack. “Enough! I told you already, stop being so rational. Just try to feel with your heart instead of your mind, just once.”

“Oh, is money the universal love language now?” He laughed. “And from the excess of the heart floweth forth a river of cordobas.”

She shook her head and muttered to herself. “Bastard. Sometimes you are really annoying.”

And inconsistent. Not long after they had arrived in Managua, a filthy man had approached them and Rob tried to talk to him in Spanish while he replied in the little English he knew, trading shards of one language for those of another. As they were leaving, he asked Rob for money, and Rob searched his pockets, coming up with only cigarettes because they hadn’t had time to change money yet.

“If you’re so opposed to giving them anything, why’d you give that creepy guy those smokes in Managua?”

“Come on. We had just talked for ten minutes-it wasn’t like he just came up off the street and asked for money.”

“So he’s a little smoother than this lady. Is that a reason to punish her children?”

“Let’s drop it already. I didn’t think you were going to take a shit on me. All I’m saying is most of the personal interactions we’ll have here are an act and money isn’t going to solve it. People don’t see us, they see dollar signs.”

Rob stopped talking and she thought for a moment that the argument might be over. “Remember those two children and the gum?” he asked.

She pulled on a light shirt and a pair of shorts. She did remember. Yesterday just before they’d reached the beach, they had seen two children sitting in the dirt beside the path. They had the saddest looks on their grimy faces, like they’d been practicing for television commercials. They put out their hands timidly. She had given them each a stick of gum, and their faces had flickered briefly, but then returned to their sad state. About twenty feet down the road, Rob had turned back to look at them. He said they had huge smiles on their faces as they unwrapped their gum; as soon as they saw him looking, their smiles sagged and they looked close to tears again, hands out.

She didn’t want to talk about it anymore, so she went out to the lobby of the hotel. They were at one of those points in the trip where they were completely on their own-they had parted ways with a gay German couple a few days before and they hadn’t found anyone else to travel with yet, so the options seemed to be to talk to Rob or nobody.

She came up with an alternative, using her tattered Spanish to get directions to a phone and calling home for the first time in nearly two months, hoping for something to cheer her up. Her mother sounded like she had just woken up-her voice was thick and sounded unnatural at first.

“Hi, baby!”

“Hi, Mom. Me and Rob just had a fight and I needed to talk. How are you doing?”

“I’m okay…” Her voice betrayed her and Natalie sensed something trying to escape from underneath the words.

“Not very good, huh? What’s the matter?”

Her mother started to cry in great sobbing gasps, punctuated by sharp breaths as though she were trying to suck it all back in, but each time it was too much and it couldn’t be contained. Natalie was frozen with the receiver to her ear, completely off-guard and scared. She wasn’t very close to either of her parents, but the thought that something had happened to her father or that her mother might have cancer sparked fear inside her, unexpectedly.

“What is it, Mom?”

She fished broken words and phrases from the rush of emotion and laid them out into a rough storyline, eventually determining that her father had moved out-moved in with another woman. Things weren’t finalized yet, but he was physically gone and had been for a few days already. Her mother hadn’t told anyone yet. All of her friends were from the church, and she was scared to admit, in her words, “what a perfect fuck-up” her life had become. That was testimony in itself to what she was going through: Natalie had never once heard a foul word come from her mother’s mouth. She reminded herself that she was a major part of the problem, but she had been for so long that it felt like most of the burrs had worn off.

Her mother was still going to work and trying to pretend that everything was normal, coming home to an empty house which had been home to a son (now dead), a daughter (now reprobate), and a husband (soon to be ex). The only comfort Natalie could offer was the fact that she’d be home soon and would come to visit; she had the feeling that, reprobate or not, she would be welcome.

She brushed her teeth by the faint light of an old bulb and drank water from a dirty faucet despite the warnings in the guidebook. She didn’t sleep well that night, wondering who the hell had lived with them all those years of growing up, who was deep inside the shell that she had called “dad.”

She listened to Rob’s deep breathing and imagined that there was some kind of beast or creature nested inside him, underneath this skin, waiting for an opportunity to escape. She tried to find some strain of logic or love in a mind that would give a full pack of cigarettes to a shiftless man and then in the next breath deny a mother and her starving children a little bit of money for food. She unlatched the door and stepped out into the inner courtyard of the hotel again.

The roofed rooms were connected in a square, leaving a space in the center that was open to the sky, surrounded by cinder block walls on all sides, like a primitive solarium without the glass. The middle of the courtyard was an area full of small palm trees, lush vegetation and a few small walking paths. She wandered among them slowly. If it weren’t for a crate of empty Coke bottles beside the wall and the dark thoughts running through her mind, it could have been Eden before the Fall.

She had spent the first eleven years of her life faithfully growing up a Calvinist, and a handful more unfaithfully. At seventeen she and the church had decided-somewhat mutually, she thought-to stop seeing each other. She imagined her mom sitting there all alone next Sunday. What would she say? What would they say? It wasn’t a good sign if she had been keeping it secret for days already; she had no one to turn to besides her church friends.

There was a length of time as a teen when Natalie had wavered, going to church to satisfy her parents some weeks and staying home to satisfy herself on the others. When she did go, she sat in the back and left immediately after the benediction while everyone else was sitting and waiting for the minister to walk back down the aisle, leading the way. The organ music leading into one of those hymns never failed to make her yawn, and she was conditioned to wake up and stand up at the words “the Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face shine upon you, and give you peace.”

Until now, she had thought that she had done pretty well at counteracting the conditioning in all these years since she’d gone to church. But she was beginning to realize-and hate-the fact that despite everything she had done, certain aspects of this past had never vanished completely. They were only dormant, shriveled down to tight, tiny seeds, waiting for water like desert flowers.

Over the course of this trip, there had been trickles running down to these waiting seeds. An uncomfortable silence, like the space of time between a question and an unwanted answer, while they drove in a taxi with a small, bloodied Jesus being crucified on the rearview mirror, staring down at her. Something flopping like a fish inside her during the first Catholic Mass she’d ever seen. And now this onslaught of poverty, betrayal, and conflict, like a flash flood she hadn’t been prepared for. She wasn’t sure what was happening. Something was opening inside of her like a wound.

So people were depraved after all. As a kid all the emphasis on depravity that had been pounded into her made her feel like she’d been created in the image of the devil rather than in the image of God. She had come to terms with herself but was still seeing devils in some of the people around her.

The next weeks were awful. She was miserable and it seemed a shroud had been cast over the trip by the fight and the phone call. She thought about her mother often, living alone in the house, or her father, living in another house, with another woman. She blamed her moods on her stomach, which hadn’t been settled since the faucet in the hotel-although that was purely coincidental, she found out later. Rob had been no help at all, saying nothing about the divorce, as though ignoring it would be best for everyone involved. Luckily it had happened right near the tail-end, as they made their way up through Central America into Mexico and then back up the coast.

Once they had returned, she had begun the real process of sorting and processing the emotions and questions. Rob had come home with a bundle of flowers he had picked from neighbors’ yards and a short note that said he was sorry without specifying why. He was standing with his back to the door when she answered his knock, and he dripped some saline solution into his eyes and turned around, presenting her with the flowers as saline ran down his face to simulate tears and repentance. She laughed despite herself and tried to let it go.

The laughter didn’t last long. She remembered the day he came up to her with his big plan. She had started working part-time at the coffeehouse again and as she leaned over to pick up an empty mug, she felt hands around her waist and a face pressed up behind her ear.

“Let’s go to Seattle.”

She had misunderstood him at first, looking at her watch. “What, now? I’m not off for a few hours yet.”

“Right now. Let’s just go. Dave says he can get me in with an editor at the Times tomorrow.”

She hadn’t caught on yet. She turned her head so her mouth was directed toward him. “Listen, I can’t go right now. Why don’t you drive down, though, if you want to meet him.” She pulled out of his grip and turned around.

“Nat, I want us to move to Seattle. To live there.”

She looked at him, at the cup in her hands, at her apron.

He was smiling, searching her face like a man who thinks he has won the lotto and is waiting for the final ball to drop.

She was suddenly conscious of everything going on around her. They were standing between the guitarist and the audience, so it seemed that everyone was watching them. She felt flustered and pulled Rob, who was still grinning as though he were being dragged straight to Seattle even now, out of the main room, past the dog-eared posters and through the front door. It was dark out, lit only by dim streetlights and the cherries of cigarettes. Shadowy figures talking in low voices were clustered around the entrance and the piano could still be heard in the background, as though it had followed them like an aroma.

Rob’s grin looked like it was beginning to take effort, and she let go of his hand.

“What the hell was that?” she asked.

The grin slid from his face but he didn’t respond.

“Rob, I can’t go to Seattle. I’ve got enough on my plate trying to figure out my life as it is, and I don’t need the rug pulled out from under me. I don’t think I can deal with that right now.”

“Hey…it was just an idea.”

Every so often he had these impulse ideas which he pitched with such enthusiasm; she was trying to remember if she had ever shot one down so quickly and mercilessly before. Moving in together, getting a puppy, traveling the world. And none of them worked as well as he had promised they would.

He had gone to Seattle alone and met with the editor, but he came back. A few days after he returned, she found out for certain that she was pregnant. She hadn’t been sure. That next week all she could remember was alternately being annoyed with him for moping and struggling to decide how or if to tell him. He hung around the house, obviously heartbroken about his plan, as though he expected her to look at his sacrifice and suddenly change her mind.

One night she sat on their porch with the light off, wrapped in blankets against the cold. She watched cars go by, unconsciously counting them as they passed, the way she found herself counting her steps, or counting telephone poles during a car ride. She had decided that she was going to tell Rob tonight, but she was nervous and couldn’t concentrate on anything else, so she was waiting here for him to come home.

Finnegan, the one-time puppy, strained against his leash, which was tied around the trunk of the tree in the front yard. He had been named after a puppet on Mr. Dress-up, one of the only shows their television could pick up so close to the Canadian border.

She wondered if this child that was coming into existence here inside her would watch the same TV shows she had, if she would like the same things as her mother, or if her teeth would grow in with the same gap in front, if her mind would struggle with the same doubts and questions. She didn’t even know for sure that it would be a girl.

She almost gave in and let Finn loose, putting him back into the house, but the sight of the little pile of shit nestled in the shag carpet beneath the living room window was still fresh in her mind. Now was not the time for mercy. Rob gave the dog no discipline so it felt like she was fighting two fronts: first disciplining the dog, then trying to fix what Rob’s bad influence had undone.

It used to be that when she thought of something that annoyed her about Rob, two good things would also come to mind and overpower it. Lately that wasn’t happening as much. She had the sense that their paths were diverging while they each denied it, or simply failed to acknowledge it, and so a piece of themselves was silently being torn from inside them while they pretended it didn’t hurt. And now there was this little development down here, she thought, massaging her stomach gently.

She was sitting quietly, shrouded in blankets and shadows, when Rob staggered out of the taxi. He hadn’t worked much since they’d been back, writing a few freelance articles about their travels and applying for a job every now and then if it appealed to him. School was closing for Christmas and Rob had been spending a lot of time partying away the final days before break with those friends who hadn’t quite finished last year and were completing some extra classes.

Rob lurched toward the porch, then redirected himself as he noticed Finnegan by the tree. He dropped down beside the dog and took it in his arms, trying to be playful but landing on top of the dog. Finn took any amount of abuse from Rob without complaint. Natalie watched, wondering what he would do when he saw her there.

But Rob was oblivious to her presence. He scratched the dog’s head roughly and exhaled. “What’s a matter? What’s a matter with us, Finny? Are you a sinner like me? Did you sin again? Did Finnegan sin again?” He paused and began to chuckle at his rhyme. “Sinnegan Finnegan, are we in the doghouse? Let’s see if she’ll let me in.”

He fumbled with the leash until it was loosened and stepped cautiously toward the door, feeling out the pavement with his foot. Finnegan was up against the door already, but Rob was picking his steps more cautiously. She felt like crying. She couldn’t tell him when he was like this.

She swallowed the secret again. Funny how she felt lonelier now that he was home.

She didn’t speak until he was beside her, reaching for the doorknob.

“Finn shat on the carpet again.”

Rob jumped back from the door and leaned against the railing with both arms. “Holy shit!” After a brief pause, he added, “You just about killed me. What’re you doin’?”

She didn’t respond to his question. “Finn shat on the carpet again. I don’t want him in the house yet.”

Rob looked at the dog, who looked back from his place at the door and whimpered as though he knew they were talking about him.

“It wasn’t him, Nat. It was me. Don’t punish him for it.” He had his head hung in mock shame, a hopeful smile straining the edges of his frown.

She didn’t move from her cocoon of blankets, turning her head back to the street to wait for the next car to come by so she could count it. Quietly he whispered, just loud enough that she could hear, “Change my diaper?”

After the door had closed behind him, she sat there until she was cold. He was asleep when she came to bed.


Nights like that were probably why she still had so much emotion pent up inside even now, years later. It felt strange to be in the house this late in the morning. She sat in her pajamas beside the kitchen table, rocking the loose joints of the chair.

She had had a dream last night, but she hadn’t written it down immediately when she woke up. Now it eluded her-hanging in the void between her memory and her imagination. She tried to relax her mind but it didn’t come. She looked down at the page in front of her and read the scrawled sentence from the night before last.

Sunk down to waist in ground. Could feel tendrils of me growing, pushing through soil.

Remembering the dreams wasn’t the only problem. She also needed to find herself a Joseph or a Daniel to help her interpret them. And the faith to believe that they actually meant anything. The place she was trying to reach was always somewhere just beyond the wingspan of her faith.

The clock beeped once and she was startled to see that it was approaching 10 o’clock already and she was going to be late again. It didn’t matter what time she was scheduled to start, she always got there five or ten minutes later. She tossed her bagged lunch into her knapsack on her way to her room. The jeans she had worn yesterday were hanging over the chair by her desk, so she slipped out of her pajama’s and pulled them on. She scooped the pajamas into a pile on the bed and crawled into a white t-shirt and a sweater.

She unlocked her bike and wheeled it to the sidewalk before mounting it. She hadn’t met Tyler, the new volunteer who was coming in to help Dorrie early this morning. She had talked with him on the phone and she hoped he was still there when she arrived so she could meet him in person.

The store was just over seven blocks away, near the coffeehouse where she used to work. It was set up in an old house, shabby on the outside, but perfect for a second-hand store on the inside. She locked her bike to the back railing and unbolted the door into the dim, musty space of the back room, her dimly lit studio.

She had a section of floor cleared on the side near the window where she had managed to fight back the encroachment of used goods. An easel stood in the middle of the open space and she had some supplies on a small table beside her stool. The door to the back room was the only interior door in the store. The rest had been removed in an attempt to tie the rooms together and counteract the oppressive weight of the walls on all sides.

She could see someone who must be Tyler in the front room, kneeling down to zip his backpack shut in the front room behind the counter. He looked young. She tried to remember what they had talked about on the phone: he was a sophomore majoring in computer science. That’s about all.

She stopped a few feet in front of him.

“Hi, Tyler.”

His head jerked up, eyebrows arched, and she was no longer certain that this was Tyler.

“The other one, the old lady, went somewhere. I’ve got to go to class. It starts in about five minutes.”

“I’m sorry. I should have been here a little sooner. I hope you can still make it.”


 “What did you think of the place?”

He pursed his lips and nodded slightly, moving his face up and down as well as back and forth so that his head made tiny circles in the air. Was that a nod, or a shake?

“Great. There’s a lot of stuff to organize.” He glanced over his shoulder.

“Thanks for coming.”

He hefted his pack and trudged toward the front door.

“Call me and let me know when you want to come again. If you want to come again.”

“I’ll call.”

She watched him until he was out the door and then turned back to the front counter. Was he really going to just walk out and leave the store unattended? That was her fault. No wonder they didn’t get many volunteers. 

Tyler reminded her in some ways of Scott as he was just before he died. Talking in short phrases. Answering the question without volunteering anything or asking a question of his own.

She wandered into the room beside the front counter, which stored all the old electronic equipment people had donated. It was cleaner than she remembered: Tyler must have started in here this morning. She had always neglected that room purposely. Old technology made her sad. In the not-too-distant future, all the greatest technology of today would be in a room like this, too. By then probably even people would be machines.

She heard the front door open and slam shut again. She poked her head out and saw Dorrie standing there, her arms draped with clothes.

“We hit a jackpot this morning,” she said between short breaths. “A family over on Texas is moving and had a bunch of stuff ready for a garage sale-the forecast is rain, so they decided to just get rid of it and save the hassle. I’ve got most of it in the truck.”

“Dorrie! You could have waited until I got here.”

Dorrie was not the kind of person to go gently into that good night. She was going on 80 but had barely slowed down, even after the stroke. In fact, it might have been the opposite-she had given Natalie more of the organizational and paperwork responsibilities without saying much about it, while she continued her routine of physically gathering and moving things to and from the store, with a wide old pick-up truck that bore a hand-painted advertisement for the store on each door:

2nd Chances

Quality Used Goods

After they had unloaded the truck, Natalie spent most of the day upstairs with the books. There were so many of them that it was taking a small eternity to get them organized. She got frustrated after working with them for a few hours because it was so hard to feel as if she had accomplished anything.

Most of the upstairs was books. There were two small rooms which held miscellaneous items that didn’t fit into any of the main categories, and everything else was wall-to-wall shelves. She even had rows of bookcases in the middle of each room.

When she had started, the books had been completely random. She tried to sort them but it felt like a make-work project and she always ended up distracted by the books, flipping through the art books or skimming a novel.


“You awake up there?” Dorrie was still breathing harder than usual as she worked her way up the stairs.

“Yeah.” Natalie straightened her slouch and wiped away the beginnings of a drool from her mouth. She grabbed a few books, grateful for the bookshelf between them. “How’s it going down there?”

Dorrie shuffled through the doorway, holding an old book in her hands.

“Found this down in an old box from that garage sale.” She handed it to Natalie and leaned against the shelf. It was a paperback copy of Crime and Punishment from the days when they printed the price directly on the front cover: fifty cents. It had a woodcut illustration of a man on his knees, arms open, before a young girl who was sitting on the edge of a table. A lighted candle was beside her, casting sharp spikes of light in all directions.

Some of the pages were loose and the glue on the spine was yellow and brittle. The edge of the book was uneven where chunks of pages had come out and been pushed back in. The paper was orange at the outside, as though over time the pigment had been leaking toward the sides, settling toward the bottom of the page.

Dorrie ran her bony fingers through her hair and scratched the back of her skull. “Have you read it?”

“No, I never did.”

“It’s a classic.”

Natalie looked up after a moment of silence. Dorrie was staring at the book in Natalie’s hands, but it looked like she wasn’t seeing it.

“Dostoevsky was epileptic. And he gambled away most of his money and cheated on his wife repeatedly.”

Natalie looked back at the cover, at the man on his knees, maybe apologizing, or about to have a seizure.

“You can have it if you want, or put it on the ‘free’ shelf. It’s falling apart,” Dorrie said. “And I think I’ll head home a little early today.”

“No problem.” Natalie gave her a sideways grin as she leaned forward, slipping the book into her back pocket. “I’ll be here. I can lock up at the end of the day. Make sure you get your rest.”

“I’m not that old.”

She turned around and started back for the stairs.

“Have a good weekend, Dorrie.”

She didn’t turn, but raised a hand to show that she had heard.

Natalie was grateful for Dorrie. When she had first started here, she had been confused and unsure of what to do. She didn’t feel like she could trust anything around her, let alone herself, and the more she thought about it, the more depressed she became. She added up the negatives: her brother dead, her parents divorced, Rob gone. Depressing to say the least.

Dorrie didn’t know any of the details, and she didn’t try to fix anything with a cliché or a little punch on the shoulder. She just shared herself and her life with Natalie, in little bits and phrases, the bad and the good combined.

She was one of those people who is genuinely interested in your life, but who respect you enough to allow you your distance. There was never an agreement in which they traded bits of themselves ounce for ounce with the other. Dorrie just talked. Natalie just took, drinking it in, and rarely giving back. She found that as she learned more of Dorrie’s past, it was easier to dwell less on her own.

When she looked at the way Dorrie was now, she wondered how she had come through it all with the ability to smile. Her life had a higher body count and more collateral damage than a summer blockbuster. She was born not long after the first world war, lived through the Depression and married a few years before the US got involved in the next war, which promptly killed her husband. She gave birth to a daughter while the fighting continued and then married again several years after it ended. She had another daughter and a son. So things were looking up for a while, until the sixties, when her oldest daughter overdosed on LSD. Her son committed suicide in the early seventies, and her last remaining daughter married and moved to Kansas. About ten years ago, her husband had a stroke and died. When Dorrie had the stroke, it must have been hard not to just give up, but she was still flailing, refusing to go down and somehow still smiling.

It was overwhelming when it was all in one place, all in a row like that. Dorrie hadn’t told it that way, of course. She’d told one piece at a time, with weeks in between sometimes. But every time Natalie heard that girlish laughter spilling out of Dorrie’s throat, she knew that there was hope, somewhere.

It was Dorrie who had suggested the painting space in the back room first. Without that space, Natalie probably wouldn’t have been as quick to start again-just having a separate area that was meant for painting full-time allowed her to keep her art turned on in her mind. When she felt compelled to lay down newspaper before she started and then clean it up again when she was done, it really seemed that she packed it away in her mind as well. Somehow just knowing that the canvas was sitting there wide open and waiting for paint helped.

She enjoyed talking to Dorrie. During the first weeks here she had accidentally revealed more about the pregnancy than she had intended. Dorrie listened without seeming surprised at an awkward half-confession that she had shared with her mother alone. She remembered sitting over coffee with her mom a few weeks after it happened and quietly telling her about it, first revealing the fact that she had been pregnant and then the fact that she was no longer. It was strange, but the fact that her mom hadn’t gotten emotional made her feel more alone with it than before she had told her. She didn’t know what she wanted, but it wasn’t someone just telling her that she was okay and not to worry too much about it.

So it was still more or less a secret, and she had been prepared to pull back into her shell, expecting Dorrie to try to extract more information with blunt and unwieldy words. Instead, when Natalie’s mouth ran aground in the middle of her sentence, Dorrie didn’t say anything. She gave her just two seconds of silence, in case she was going to finish after all, and then hugged her. The wordless embrace lasted only a moment, and then she loosened her soft arms and Natalie hurried into another room, pretending to organize a rack of shirts.

She found it funny that they had grown so close. If she had been told when she started working there that one of her best friends in the world would be this 76-year old lady who drank a cup of warm milk every night and wore a diaper to bed, she would have laughed at the outrageousness of it.

But it seemed that outrageousness was the norm. Who would have guessed that Rob would blip back into existence on the floor of Casa Grande? Not her. But she also hadn’t guessed that her father would come back to Lynden with his new wife, or that he’d run off in the first place. Who would have guessed that Scott, not yet old enough to drive, would be out with friends and wind up dead later that night, washed up on shore with seaweed and sand, his lungs filled up with salted water?


She locked the doors and turned the sign to “Closed” a few minutes early and settled into the back room, slipping out of the jeans and sweater that she was wearing and into the paint-spattered sweatpants and t-shirt that were draped on the stool in front of the easel. The book in the back pocket of her jeans was hanging out, about to fall, so she pulled it out and set it on top, and the pages almost slipped out of the binding. Dostoevsky had cheated on his wife. Maybe he moved back to town with his new wife a few years later, too. She shuffled some old newsprint and squares of carpet samples with her foot to fill in the cracks and give the floor complete coverage. She wished that she had taken the time before Dorrie left to talk to her about her meeting with Rob.

She sat staring at the canvas for some time before picking up her brush. Something about one of Francis Bacon’s early popes, trapped in a wireframe box and silently, perpetually screaming, had sprouted a hybrid concept in her mind, and so she decided to run with it and see where it took her. It was hard to explain how or why the image held her, and she often remembered the Bacon quote that one of her professors had up above the door to the studio: “Painting is its own language and is not translatable into words.”

She was mimicking his technique and echoing some of his symbols, trying for a piece that spoke her words with Bacon’s accent. This one had been underway for a few weeks now. Whenever she could squeeze an hour or two from her schedule, she’d sit back here with it. She had started out painting on the back of a primed canvas with a piece of cloth torn from an old shirt that didn’t look saleable, crumpling it and dabbing it in the paint, then smearing and balling that on the canvas, adding dust and sand from the floor to her paint for added texture. She used anything that struck her at the moment as workable: fingers, cloth, cotton swabs, and sometimes even paint brushes.

Working impulsively, without sketching ideas or concepts first was new to her. To be so completely dependent on spontaneous inspiration was a leap of faith she had never had the courage to take before and it was exciting. She found that throughout the process, her original idea was evolving like a living organism. The other thing was that she had to use acrylics in this room and racing against fast-drying paint forced her to make spur of the moment decisions that she normally might have squelched.

It was much more abstract than the initial concept she had half-formed in her brain. The beginnings of the self-portrait which was seated off to one side in the barren scene was turning to look over her shoulder-a reference to looking back, to childhood and the past. The loose strokes that made up the face looked much too sad, almost tormented. She had started off exploring the way that a person was raised and the way she interacted with the world when she was grown.

The more she thought about it, the more intriguing was the idea that a person’s upbringing formed structures and patterns of thought into their mind, which can never be fully broken down. Somehow the attempt she was making to play with this idea in paint wasn’t coming to life. Part of it was the scream. She hadn’t intended to have such a pervasive mood of despair.

The only visual clue that this was bred from a Bacon image was the wire frame box around the self-portrait, which seemed to glow in the darkness like a neon sign. She wasn’t really happy with the cynical direction she was headed, but the theme seemed apt given the choice she needed to make for this piece: scrap it or work with it. Granted, choosing whether to add more paint to a botched painting was a little easier than choosing how to deal with the consequences of a botched life.

She silenced the scream with a smear of flesh-colored paint on the end of her index finger.

“Shhh,” she whispered.

Her mind and her heart disagreed often. It was a peaceful struggle, or a violent agreement that went on inside of her. She often felt caught wrestling with her past, locked in battle like Jacob with God, refusing to let it go until it blessed her. But in the midst of that struggle, when things are evenly matched and unmoving, it can be hard to believe, and afterwards, there is still a limp.

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