'Brushes' by Emmanuela Copal de León
Brushes, Emmanuela Copal de León, 1999.

 

 

Artichoke Heart
Carolyn Alessio

 

My brother Alex rarely travels, but his bathroom closet is filled with trial-size toiletries: vials of amber shampoo, waxy rectangles of pink soap, and tissue packets the size of one sheet folded over. Alex gestures toward his stash. “Help yourself, Mandy,” he says, “it’s all in there.”

I lean against the closet door frame. It is early evening, but I am weary from the flight. I have never been able to sleep on an airplane. Every time I begin to doze I am interrupted by a flight attendant offering me a pillow or snack—tiny wedges of cheese, bite-size candy bars. Now, staring into my brother’s bathroom closet, I wonder if his kitchen pantry is stocked with airline snacks.

“Alex,” I say, “where’d you get all this stuff?”

My brother shrugs “Here and there. They’re great for guests.”

Even unexpected guests, I want to ask, but for now, the subject seems to be taboo. When I called last week and told Alex I’d lost my teaching job in Chicago and broken up with my boyfriend, he was characteristically calm. When I asked him if I could come out and live with him for a while, he said, “Well, until you figure things out.”

It is dim in Alex’s bathroom, so I snap on the overhead light. Alex blinks rapidly. He is not just adjusting to the light: when he was thirteen, he was diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome. In the fifteen years since then, Alex’s blinking, twitching and grunting haven’t changed much or “waxed and waned,” as the doctors once predicted.

Sometimes I can’t even remember what he was like without the tics; they have become enmeshed in his personality, like a migrating limp or insistent birthmark.

“Let’s get you a towel, Mandy,” Alex says, shutting the closet door. His voice is modulated and even. It reminds me of when we were children and I would propose something absurd: jumping into the fountain at a shopping mall or scrawling “B.M.” on the laundry room wall.

“Thanks,” I lie, “but I brought a towel.” I’m embarrassed by my lack of planning. Later that night I will blot my clammy face on the thick, purple bathrobe I did remember to pack.

 

Two weeks later, I’m huddled inside my brother’s apartment, watching poorly colorized movies on a cable channel which only costs two dollars a month. This afternoon’s movies are all beach romances. I watch the shuddering lovers as they embrace on terry cloth towels, and I wonder, don’t they ever lie down accidentally on a child’s plastic bucket or shovel? There are no commercials, but every so often I aim the remote control at the screen and the lovers’ sallow faces. I flip through the array of channels just to feel the smooth rectangular buttons depressing under my thumb.

 

Around six I hear the short, diesel breaths of my brother’s mini-truck. I recognize the tone of Alex’s motor. I have only driven his truck once, and the stick shift was overwhelming. When I drive, I need to constantly survey the radio stations, twisting the striated knob under my thumb and forefinger. Even turn signals are secondary to my random sampling of music and news. My former boyfriend, Jay, used to tease me about this: sometimes, if I turned the knob quickly enough, a news snippet was spliced into a song: “Maryland authorities said...I shot the sheriff.”

The TV is still warm when the front door clicks open, and a damp, black umbrella is waved into the room. My brother follows. “Hola,” he says, pulling off his olive green poncho. I was with him when he bought it at the uniform supply outlet, where he purchases most of his eclectic wardrobe: postman shoes, hospital-orderly pants. My brother is an accountant, but I think he longs for a required uniform, some service-oriented garb. On weekends, he volunteers for the Red Cross as an Emergency Medical Technician. In his truck he always carries a blood pressure cuff or spygmomanometer (he’s been teaching me the terms). His license plate features the Star of Life, with its square edges and tiny caduceus.

“It’s clearing up outside,” Alex says, moving over to the window. “Did you check the weather channel?”

I shake my head, and hope he won’t ask for elaboration. Like my former boyfriend, Alex is a devotee of radar weather. Often during a movie or show, he’ll switch back to the weather channel, and ponder the veiny projections against the midnight-blue screen. I want to ask him why he needs to chart monsoons in Puerta Vallarta or snow flurries in Juneau.

“Any new job leads?” Alex says.

“Some,” I say, “I sent out a few cover letters and resumes this morning.” I sit up on the futon and fold my brother’s mint-green afghan. It was crocheted by our Italian grandmother, Nonna Regina. Last Christmas, when we were all at my parents’ house in Chicago, Nonna asked my brother what color he wanted for his birthday afghan. Alex said, “Beige.” Since I arrived at Alex’s three weeks ago, I’ve worn the afghan like swaddling. Mint green, woolly swaddling. Now I place it next to my pillow. This futon-couch doubles as my bed: at night, when I can’t sleep, I snap on the TV and everything’s almost the same as during the day, only I’m wearing my nightshirt, and occasionally headlights flash into the room, angling through the louvered shades.

Alex grunts softly; it sounds like a mild throat-clearing.

“Any puddles out there?” I watch the back of his head, his curly auburn hair.

“It was pretty slick driving home from the Metro station,” he says, “and this beat-up Camaro swerved out in front of me.”

Alex turns around and leans against the window sill, facing me. “I almost braked—hard—but then I remembered: no-fault insurance in goddamn D.C.” He blinks his green eyes. “So what do I do? I hydroplane over to the shoulder of the road. The Camaro passes me, and the driver, this kid, flicks me off.” He laughs in a series of quick sniffs, a mannerism acquired from our father.

I look down at Alex’s shoes, black with thick rubber soles, and try to imagine them hesitating over a brake pedal.

“Hydroplaning,” I say, “sounds like something that shouldn’t happen on the ground.”

 

An hour later we are installed in the narrow kitchen, bumping elbows and reaching into the same drawer for different utensils.

“This clean?” I hold up a paring knife by its smooth, dark handle.

Alex ignores me. He is a fastidious homemaker and he knows that I know this. He returns to the casserole he is preparing according to directions on the box of egg noodles. His friends in college dubbed him “The Label Gourmet.” This is how Alex prepares most of his dishes, following featured recipes on packets, cans and boxes. His dishes are palatable and precise; nourishing but not exotic.

“Tonight,” Alex says, “after your drawing class—” He pauses to lift a stick of margarine from its waxy paper, gingerly, like an infant from its snowsuit.

“What?” I begin slicing the carrots, which I’ve lined up like slim orange logs on the cutting board.

“…Some of us are meeting at a bar downtown.”

“Who’s some of us?” I begin to scallop the carrots. After they are cooked, I will sprinkle them with fresh parsley.

“Some friends from the Red Cross,” Alex says. “I think it’ll be a good time.” He shakes out egg noodles from the box.

I nod, but I’m concentrating on the carrots. Since I moved in with Alex, I’ve prepared the vegetables every night. I take my sole chore seriously; every morning around eleven I walk over to the corner store. Often I spend over twenty minutes in the green grocer’s section: comparing fresh mushrooms, green beans, chard, onions, green and red bell peppers. I am quite familiar with vegetables—Jay was a vegetarian, and he loved to stir-fry meals. Some nights, when I stayed late at school working with the sixth-graders, Jay would leave warm, stir-fried vegetables in the wok he had loaned me. Now, when I choose vegetables for Alex, I think of Jay preparing meals in our kitchen, his long fingers chopping peppers and pea pods in even increments. Some days I hesitate so long in the green grocer’s that the built-in sprinklers come on, spraying light mist over the fresh produce and me.

“Mandy,” Alex says, “You need to get out more often.”

“I get out every morning, and on Thursday night for that class.” The one, I want to add, you insisted I sign up for, but I don’t want to provoke more discussion. I move over to the stove to check my pot of water. The steam rises in my face.

“We’re meeting at a bar that’s only a few Metro stations away from your drawing class.”

“I’ll see,” I say, dropping the uniform orange circles of carrot into the rumbling water. “But I may be too tired.” Alex grunts. I can’t decide if it’s one of his tics.

“Concentrate on the negative space,” says Enrique, my drawing instructor. “Look between the hose and the canister.”

Tonight we are sketching an industrial vacuum, which is set up on a platform at the front of the classroom. The title of the course is “Drawing for Life,” but so far, we seem to be focusing on still lifes: last week’s featured object was a sunflower, and the week before that, any fruit or vegetable we chose. Most of my classmates drew apples, tomatoes or zucchini, but I drew an artichoke, with its pointy leaves peeled partway back. Just as I was drawing the heart, shading around the plump yellow nugget, Enrique said it was time to go.

Now I’m outlining the ridges of the vacuum hose. Enrique stops behind me. I continue drawing—using my 2B pencil for a finer line—but my hand feels wobbly.

“Amanda.” I finish a stroke then look up. Enrique is standing with his fleshy arms akimbo. He is portly and balding, but sometimes his deep-set eyes are so compelling. “Amanda,” he repeats, “have you ever used Conte crayons?”

I shake my head. Enrique has complimented my work before, but I am reticent about my background: I minored in art in college, and until last month, I taught art at an inner-city elementary school in Chicago.

Enrique moves on, and Deborah, the woman at the next easel, winks at me and whispers, “Hmmm.” I turn away and stare at my half-drawn vacuum hose. I remember the last project my fifth graders worked on: ancestry collages. I had encouraged them to use any medium: tiles, plaster, pasta. For weeks, we had prepared for the school’s annual art fair. We worked late after school, and often I would drive my students home. My steering wheel became smeared with modeling clay until Jay finally sprayed it with Windex, wiped it clean with one of his old t-shirts.

“Don’t shade in the negative space,” Enrique says. “We are outlining,” he says, “to give shape to the space.”

I look down and squeeze my gum eraser between my fingers. Enrique is still talking, but I am back at the school where I taught, the night of the annual art fair. Lakesha, one of my most zealous—and talented—students, was displaying her ancestry collage: a Calder-like mobile. The members of her family were represented with colored strips of paper, varying in shades of brown and umber, except for a manila strip that signified her great-great-grandfather, a plantation owner in Kentucky.

Enrique’s large, tanned hand is gesturing toward my easel, but I cannot focus on the vacuum hose. I see Lakesha standing in front of the audience, waiting for applause that did not materialize from the confused parents and teachers. As Lakesha scooped up her project and strode from the stage, her multiple dark braids brushed across her face. Out in the hallway, I tried to catch her, but she wouldn’t stop. Back onstage, first prize was being awarded to a student from another teacher’s class, for a lopsided clay vase. Second prize went to a popsicle stick-and-bead pot holder.

Later that night I received a phone call from the school’s principal, Heidi Carlson. “Ms. Scalini,” she said, “you’re pushing multiculturalism too far.”

Enrique is dismissing the class. “Next week,” he says, “we will work on crosshatching.”

Debbie looks confused but I nod; it’s just another shading technique, although it sounds like a gardening maneuver. I stand up and begin unclipping my paper from the easel. I look up once at Enrique, but he is bent over, dismantling the vacuum. As I take down my drawing, my thumbs leave moist oval prints along its edge.

 

Murphy’s Tavern reeks of spilled dark beer and potatoes fried in the same skillet with onions. I thread my way through crowded tables and booths, with my sketch pad clutched under my arm. Its spiral ring presses against my rib cage.

Alex waves to me from a table alongside the pinball machines. He is wearing an incandescent orange windbreaker—EMT gear—so he is easy to aim for. When I get to the table, though, I hesitate: there are only three chairs, and they are all occupied.

I turn to look for a chair, but a man with shoulder-length hair is already standing up: “Stay put. I’ll get one.”

“Thanks,” I say, but I’m not sure that anyone hears me over the blaring Irish folk music. I prop my sketch pad up against the end of the table and sit down.

“Manda.” Alex leans across the table, blinking. “That’s Carl,” he says, pointing, then turns to the woman next to him, “and Andrea.” He pronounces her name Ahn-drea. She has short, dark hair and is wearing dangling silver earrings shaped like airplanes. I’ve heard Alex mention her, but always in conjunction with a group of other names, perhaps to camouflage. Alex has always been clandestine about the women he dated. Whenever I’d ask him about his social life, he’d say, “Don’t worry about it.” Finally I stopped asking.

“Amanda,” Andrea says, “I hear you’re an artist.”

I look down at the sketch pad and wish that I hadn’t brought it with me. “Kind of.”

“Amanda cooks vegetables like a genius,” Alex says.

Andrea and Alex laugh, as Carl returns to the table with a chair. “Amanda,” he says, sitting down, “something to drink?”

I survey the beverages already on the table: margarita glasses in front of Andrea and Alex, and a pitcher of beer in front of the place where Carl had been sitting.

“Beer’s fine,” I say. As I watch Carl pour the dark liquid into an empty glass mug, I try to remember the last time I had a drink with a man. When Jay and I were still dating, he used to urge me to meet him for drinks or a movie after work, but I was too busy then with my students, preparing for the art fair. Finally, when I hadn’t returned his calls for four days, Jay began going places without me. We broke up via my answering machine. “I didn’t think anybody worked longer hours than lawyers,” he said in his last message. “Please keep the wok. You need to eat better.” I erased the tape, but I didn’t cry until two nights later, after the art fair, when I came home and stared at the unused wok, scoured and hanging from a rusty hook on my kitchen wall.

Carl hands me a foaming mug. I take a sip and promptly spill beer onto my vest, just above my right collarbone. My favorite embroidered vest that I bartered for in Mexico City.

“Good one,” Alex says. “I thought I was the klutz in the family.”

Carl reaches over and before I can protest, dabs at my vest with a paper napkin. “Here.” He presses gently.

I try not to stiffen. “Got me in the collarbone.”

“The clavicle,” Carl says. He finishes dabbing.

“Come on, tell Amanda the real term.” Andrea licks salt off the rim of her empty margarita glass.

Alex grunts.

“Well it’s sort of slang,” Carl says. “In EMT class we called that cleft just above the collarbone the Passion Pit.”

“They say,” Andrea said, “that it’s actually the most tender region of the body.”

“Contrary to popular belief.” Carl watches me with his light eyes.

I look at Alex. He blinks. “We’re just a bunch of trauma freaks, Mandy.”

Andrea laughs, and soon Carl and Alex begin to tell stories about previous “runs” they’ve been out on, using terms like cardiogenic shock and battle scars. For a moment I imagine joining the Red Cross or becoming an EMT. I stare at the dark paneling above Alex’s and Andrea’s heads and wonder, would taking blood pressures and pulses require too much urgency? I try to picture myself palpating the wrist or neck of someone who is unconscious, but I can only think of touching strips of gluey construction paper and cool, muted vegetables.

 

“So you had a lousy time,” Alex says when he and I get home. “But you know, Mandy, they’re cool people. Carl’s a flirt, but he’s a decent guy. And Andrea liked you. I know she did.”

I set down my sketchpad on the coffee table. “It was fine, Alex. They were all fine.”

“Then what was wrong with you? You were staring at the walls most of the time, spaced out worse than usual.”

I begin to unbutton my coat.

“You’ve been in quite a funk, Mandy.” Alex is standing in front of me, blinking faster than usual. “And don’t say I haven’t been patient.”<

The buttons on my coat are slick under my fingers. “Alex,” I say, “I’ll be all right.”

“You say that all the time now, Mandy, but you’re like a diluted form of what you used to be. I should’ve kept some Amanda Concentrate in the refrigerator so I could pour some out once in a while and remember you.”

I look up at Alex. I’ve never heard him speak so fervidly without blinking or grunting. A vein is bulging on his forehead, though, turning from blue to green. I think of Enrique asking me about my art experience, and his dark eyes rejecting my indifference.

I return to my coat. Just one more button to go, but Alex reaches forward and grabs the lapel, as though we’re lovers in a black-and-white movie. “So they didn’t appreciate you in Chicago, big deal. On my first job they didn’t ask me to conferences because I made people uneasy. Twitching and blinking were one thing, but weird noises…”

I look up at him. Alex has rarely discussed his Tourette’s with me. The only reason I know that he is taking medication—L-Dopa—is because I found it in his bathroom closet, a slim vial blending in smoothly with the trial-sized toiletries.

“Did you quit right away?”

“It took me a while. That’s when I started going to EMT classes at night.” Alex is still holding the lapel of my coat.

“I just want to live my life more cleanly,” I say. “Clear lines. Nothing messy.”

“So blowing off a boyfriend who loves you and watching TV all day is a clean, fulfilling existence?”

“I didn’t say fulfilling.” My throat is tight, thick with what feels like sediment or maybe just disappointment.

Alex loosens his grip on my coat. “If you weren’t crying,” he says, “I’d think you had no pulse anymore.”

 

Later, while Alex watches the weather channel, I take a shower. First I unwrap a trial-sized bar of pink soap, then step into the stall. As the water stream gathers force and heat, I rub the tiny soap bar across my face, then neck. When I reach my collarbones, I rub more slowly. The passion pit. I think of Carl dabbing my vest, then his face mutates into Jay’s. I imagine him holding out the slippery bar of soap for me. Still rubbing, I look around me, at the tiles on the sides of the stall. They seem new, as though the landlord had installed them recently as a surprise. The geometric porcelain patterns are delicate and distinct. I think of Lakesha’s mobile, and I imagine Enrique instructing her, telling her to forget about the audience and concentrate on shading. The water sluices around me, outlining my pale body in hot, translucent streams. Tomorrow, I decide, I will call Enrique and see if he needs a teaching assistant. Soon my soap bar is transformed into pink froth.

After my shower I head for the living room, my damp hair swinging and purple bathrobe wrapped around me. I retrieve my sketch pad from the coffee table and sit down next to Alex, who is blinking in front of the weather channel. With my 4B charcoal pencil, I begin to sketch the spiky radar patterns, shading in the negative space between the lines of forecasted storms.

 

 

 

Text © 1996, 1999 by Carolyn Alessio
"Artichoke Heart" first appeared in Many Mountains Moving, Volume II, Number 2. The work appears here by permission of the author.


Original Graphic Image "Brushes" © 1999 by Emmanuela Copal de León


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