you're reading...
Kimberly Nichols, NewLiteratureLab

NewLiteratureLab: Painter of Hearts


Editor’s Note: This piece was published in my early 2000’s collection of short stories Mad Anatomy, a book of literary short stories of which has recently been reissued in both print and Kindle editions.

IMG_7185They were destined to be together for just one night.

That morning Malena woke up in incredible pain. She was familiar with it and in the past three years since her diagnosis, had formed an interesting relationship with it. Instead of masking it or running away from it, she became rather intimate with it. It was a powerful ally that needed consistent attention. There was room in her life for nothing else.

Her pain followed her into the shower. She sat down on the hard tile beneath the scalding water. The extreme temperature soothed the intense temporal illusions that were currently popping within her brain. She knew today was the day. All night she had shifted in her sleep.

After toweling off it took her fifteen minutes to walk the one hundred feet through her bedroom towards the closet. She stopped to sit every so often on the stacks of blue blankets that stood placed around her space, doubling as panic chairs, to support the fall that would inevitably come.

When she finished getting ready the pain had subsided. It was a bad wave but a relatively short one. She stepped outside into a biting cold San Francisco morning and threw the newspaper that lay on her doormat away in the communal dumpster. There was nothing of interest to her in there. As she walked down the street, the sunlight peeked through the clouds and danced softly amongst the jagged edges of her shortly cropped pink hair.

At a stoplight she caught her reflection in a square of dirty glass patched onto a lamppost. One of her eyes was absent of eye shadow and she wore only one earring. She started to laugh, her wide mouth flattening into a sideways crescent, her lime green eyes washed with a dull sparkle, her hands covered in kid gloves, her body inwardly eating itself away.

Slipper had visions. Bad ones and good ones. They came out of nowhere and were tinged with an underbelly of woe. Even the good ones pointed at something underneath the surface, a small hint of blue. He would see a strange man in his bedroom only a few days before actually running into him on the streets. He would see the sick and the dying, their bodies outlined in x-ray monochromes while riding the bus. If he looked at someone for too long, he would see their heart, beating right through their skin, sitting tight in a transparent chest. Once in a while he would spot patches of gray on a person and he came to identify the grays with corruption. Spots of gray would pepper the liver, the lungs, the flesh, and the brain.

Like anything that starts out horrifying and surreal, the visions had scared Slipper once. But now he found himself slightly amused by them and strangely fortified by their presence.

His unique insights into the breathing human heart had earned him acclaim as an artist. For each heart he witnessed, he created a painting. A six-foot by six foot piece of canvas containing nothing but that elusive organ looming in black and white. His trademark stamp had become an iodine pink line that traced one route on each heart, cutting the canvas down the center into two conflicting and bisected parts.

On the previous night Slipper had dreamed about Malena. He didn’t know her but he knew she would die soon. Her pink hair lingered around his thoughts over morning coffee on his way to the studio.

And when the visions moved on from the sicknesses of humanity and evolved into the sicknesses of anatomy, Slipper would turn to drink to help drown out the pain within them.

. . . . .

Malena was an art critic and spent her days sitting in galleries getting to know an artist’s body of work. Art was her only source of true joy. She was passionate for the multitude of perspectives she encountered while studying the creative mind. She was aroused by the ever-existing potential to be blindingly touched. The absence of life in her personal realm left a large hollow bowl waiting for the continual fulfillment that came from the ever-changing cast of characters and colors she encountered in her work.

She spent all day in a gallery critiquing an old Indian artist’s work. He painted voluptuous beige figures that embraced and merged. She meticulously studied each, wrote down the titles, listed her emotions alphabetically and began to fill in the blanks with her questions.

The gallery owner was graying, silent and kind. He didn’t distract her with small talk. He shuffled paper, whispered through phone calls and the shut the gallery door quietly each time he stepped out for a smoke.

Each time he arose to the kitchen for water he would say, “Need something to drink doll face?”

Nothing you have could possibly sate me, she would think.

At the end of the day, Malena gathered up her things. She took a deep breath as she walked outside and felt the strings of fall pulling the city together for the holidays. Lights were beginning to twinkle. Her insides felt warm.

She took a detour on the way home and walked down by the pier. The bay seemed to call her as she approached on concrete, heading towards the fat moorings that stood solid in the wind like history’s adamant sculptures. She turned back to see San Francisco packed tight onto a chubby thumb in the ocean.

She stood near the edge of the pier and the swish of cold hit the back of her arm first. Her flesh froze in a thin streak of pain. It chilled her and she stood still for a moment, not recognizing it and trying to define it. The cold followed her home and by the time she reached the top of the iron staircase to her flat, she was panting and winded. She stopped for a moment in the impending night and noticed the city was remarkably beautiful. Everything seemed to be constructed of origami thinness, an inner translucence. The trees, the leaves, and the people in the streets were composed of paper-mache fragility.

She stood there content to dwell in that back rub for an instant. It was a small moment in clarity’s minefield. It was booms, explosions and bliss.

. . . . .

At that moment, in the Mission District, Slipper walked into a convenience store with five dollars left to his name.

His head felt soggy. He stood in line at the counter and read the cover of a newsmagazine in front of him. It read: “Two Sides Are Showing Their Faces In America.” It was obviously a piece of social commentary on the last presidential election. He picked it up and turned to the feature article. Skimming over the paragraphs, he could tell it was another opinionated essay on the chasm between the peoples that the last election had illuminated. The article was authored by one of the new breed of political writers who frequented the media soapbox circuit. “One side booms out tradition, while the other strives for erase and renew. There are hypocrites in the cupboards and thieves in the pew.”

Same old bullshit and all Slipper wanted to do was close his eyes. He had been feeling foggy and disconnected and tonight it was worse. He had spent too many nights with cigarettes and sangria and little sleep. He was burnt out on 24-hour restaurants and late night banter about conspiracy theories and the latest fashionable isms.

After purchasing the cigs he decided to stop off at a small artsy meat market; a perfect place for waiting when one needed the price to be just right. He had an hour before he was expected to attend a party at the home of one of his collectors.

He slid his fingers through his wavy black hair and headed into the club. Before long he was drunk. He slurred his words as the waitress approached the table.

“What are YOU doing in my gift shop soliciting candy?” he mumbled.

She had long vinyl nails, every week a different color, and she poked him in the ribs with her middle finger. A nice gentle fuck you. “What are you talking about,” she asked before jotting down his order for a fourth gin and tonic.

“Hmmm.” He groaned. “Sometimes I wonder.”

His head began to pound. As she sidled away, Slipper closed his eyes. He sank down farther in the white plastic chair and held his cigarette down near the ground, long enough for it to burn down to the butt.

The waitress was back shortly with a drink in her hand.

Slipper leaned in toward her, bucked himself up in his seat, and stopped himself from murmuring that he could see a gray line, right now, right on her brow, through her skin, on the brain, that signified she was mortally terrified of herself. He could spit at her but it would do no good. Humans were happiest when afraid of themselves. When they could predict the experience before the outcome, all encapsulated and tight, dream the dream without living a smidgeon of it.

“You better just get on home now Slipper,” the waitress said. “That painting of yours on the wall over there and your tab are just about even.”

“I don’t need your condescension,” he mumbled.

He asked her for a glass of water.

“Fuck,” he sighed, finally ashing his cigarette into the full glass of gin.

Before long Slipper sat on a concrete bench waiting for a cab. He wondered why it was so hard for him to be a drunk in these parts. The waitresses always looked at him as if he were too young for misery. He found that insane.

He believed that the creation of a chronological age was one of humankind’s greatest mistakes. He believed that age gave one a false sense of security, a confidence that should be gained through wisdom. People spent way too much time living in terms of a number, following a predetermined order of when and where they should be.  It was a philosophy doomed to failure and fear. It was a cold gray cell that contained society.

Slipper shook his head. What the fuck was he thinking about this for anyway? Nobody studied philosophy anymore. He was tired of getting his ego kicked to the curb every time he tried to disappear into drink. He was tired of running into people who no longer believed in true intimacy, conversation, and bloodletting.

. . . . .

When Malena arrived at the party it was already bustling. She came to these things quite often. They were full of people with PhDs in energetic psychology that promised both one hell of a time and a nice healing space.

As she walked in the door her host danced before her wearing a silver dress on her six-foot tall frame. Strawberry curls did the tango with the rest of her face as she bent down to Malena’s ear to whisper “Someone you love is going to be here tonight.”

Malena never knew what to expect at these parties but they were the perfect place to disappear. No one would judge her tonight for drinking massive doses to cover the pain. No one would blame her for taking a small space in the corner alone.

The place was filled with the usual hodgepodge of seekers. There were the tall and tan beautiful people whose sole focus was to bring the mind temple in line with the body temple. There were the ones who regularly did X and ended up talking for hours in the Jacuzzis and showers, naked from the waist up or waist down. There were the new intellectuals, or pseudo scientists who talked about the new flexibility in quantum physics and the exciting horizons where spirit and fact would soon meet. There were the dancers in the energy rooms, acting as human generators, who would boogie all night to produce enough white light to feed everyone. There were the drummers on the dance floor’s periphery, all new to each other but working in perfect synchronization.

Then there were the stragglers, the eccentric strangers, the artists, the pharmacists, the street bums, the freaks, the ancient healers, retired hippies, advertising executives, trust fund babies and band geeks. The people who came expecting an orgy were never included if it were ever to naturally occur and the ones who just wanted to get high were never invited. Anyone who came seeking anything other than a common higher power left sadly disappointed.

The spaces at these parties were constructed, built and provided for the purpose of homogeny. Hosts of these throbbing gatherings hoped to create one human organism out of many. They wanted to create sparks that would snake out into society and reach.

Malena enjoyed that stark environment. She liked being naked and free of inhibition. Her sickness glared less bright in places like these.

She went to place her coat in the spare bedroom and was hit through the stomach with a wave of pain. She sank to the floor in the hallway from whence she’d come. In the past few years she had been prepared for this. Her doctor had told her that it would happen in a short period of time. The body would grow progressively tired from the battle and it would just shut down. Just like an engine, it would rust and dilapidate and after one last short circuit, give entirely in to the loss. She had always imagined that she would have time to go somewhere quiet and alone, that she would curl up gracefully somewhere on a couch and be released from life; that she would have a chance to create space for her passing.

She looked up from her place on the floor and saw Slipper emerge from the bathroom. One dim red light bulb hung midway down the hall and threw shadows across their faces. As he got closer she saw that he was Slipper and she thought she was dreaming.

He stopped and stooped in front of her with a glass of water in his hand. As their eyes met, his hands lost muscular control and the water spilled across Malena’s lap.

“You are dying,” he said.

“Yeah,” she nodded. “I mean, yes.”

Her thought process was jumbled. She was losing control of her thinking. Nothing was making sense. Slipper sat down before her and told her about his vision.

“It was just last night that I dreamt of you,” he said.

People walking less than a few hundred yards away on the beach looked up mysteriously in the dark as the house that held the party reverberated in the night, surrounded by a yellow mane of light.

. . . . .

He could see that she was tired and asked her if she would like to go for a walk near the shoreline. His heart felt heavy and he didn’t want to leave her. In the stringy moonlight the shore was littered with debris: shells, cigarette ash and various resins, seagull shit and discarded zigzag wrappers. The horizon seemed close enough to touch and the air smelled of soap and rain. The crabs walked ashore, stretching their legs like wise old men. Crackling limbs and bones, knuckles crawling over years of erosion. Newspaper obituaries flew around their feet.

“The first time I heard the word cancer I became uninterested with perfection. Uninterested with medication.  I wanted to feel the virus move through my body. I wanted to relinquish myself to the disease that had chosen me. In return, my senses sharpened.”

Sometimes other art critics would speculate about the iodine pink lines in Slipper’s paintings. They wondered if each line signified a different emotion. Some of them were convinced that the lines surely represented Slipper’s personal scars. But Malena had always imagined that the pink pathways were like electrical wires and that in his paintings he would highlight the particular wire being sparked at a given moment. She liked to imagine that if he put all of his heart portraits together, the lines would connect to each other and cause a sudden burst of life. Of juice.

The intimate setting was making both their hearts flutter. They felt the same exact emotions simultaneously. Malena’s body was full of ache. She was halfway in love and halfway ill.

“It’s like an orgasm mixed with a laugh, a sneeze, an ear ache.” Slipper said.

He pulled a small bottle of tequila from his pocket. He had pilfered it earlier from a cabinet inside the party. He figured it would help her cope. They slugged straight from the bottle and it helped blur her eminent demise and their attraction to each other.

“I’m starting to feel weird, “ Malena said.

They sat down together on the sand and Malena took off her shoes. Slipper opened his legs wide and pulled her backwards so that she was lying in between them. Her toes touched the water and the coolness sedated her. She felt dizzy and she started to feel it happening. It happened in spurts. She would be perfectly fine and then her body would shut down. Each time she faded out of consciousness, even if only for a second, she would experience a wave of nausea as her mind returned.

Slipper watched her go away each time.

“Let’s just sit here without sound,” he suggested.

Malena looked around. Her thoughts stopped making sense. She let her body fall backwards into Slipper and stifled the urge to puke.

“I have to tell you something,” she uttered.

“One last thing,” he shushed. He started to rub the back of her neck and the tops of her shoulders. He could see her heart now, vivid and bright, beating and pulsing imperceptibly. It was all he could see. The shore had disappeared and the moon was gone.

“The hearts that you paint contain nearly desperate pleas,” she announced. “They remind me of things that are dying. They remind me of how it feels to live with only a small pulse of life that keeps trying to join with another to cause a fire. You can cause an eruption.”

He closed his eyes and felt his head fill with the picture of her heart. He felt inflated and drugged. It was there and so tiny and beating inside the darkest red. He could feel the stars burning into his closed eyelids. He could feel Malena as she gave up control. He felt the warm pleasure of her urine running down his pants leg. It was hardly catastrophic.

It happened with a whisper.

Story written by Kimberly Nichols

IMG_7208Newtopia managing editor KIMBERLY NICHOLS is author of the book of literary short fiction Mad Anatomy, a contributing editor to 3AM Magazine and has exhibited as a conceptual artist throughout California for the past decade. Her non-fiction articles have appeared in magazines and media internationally. She was a founding editor of Newtopia in its former incarnation where she was also a member of the NewPoetry Collective. She is currently at work on her novel King Neptune’s Journey and an art work titled The Fool. She has recently embarked on a journey of study in shamanic and medicine lore and wisdom under a series of respected teachers. Follow her daily beat poetry on Twitter @LITGFOA or her arts and literature blog.


No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: