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A Deconstruction of Beauty

by Danny Adams

Copyright 2004 Danny Adams


Originally appeared in Not One of Us

The reward for a hero was dumping the body in the Don’s front yard under his bedroom
window. The Don overlorded operations on the boulevard and for a few streets up and down in
and direction. I shot one of his pushers in hero fashion, apparently, so was honored with corpse
duty for three or four minutes.
That was the deal and the way the game was played, so nobody gave me trouble through
his compound. If his pushers were stupid enough to get shot, we escorted the dead back home. If
one of our guys was, same deal.
The Don lived a few blocks away from headquarters. I kept lookout for the afternoon
shift on the street corner at the bridge over the silver stream that attracted the clouds to its water.
There wasn’t much light; clouds and sky and drizzle’s pallor were just a little weaker than the
streets. Sometimes rain drops so hard you can’t hear gunshots or eye out the shooter. I saw him
this time, though, when he opened up into the stoned crowd.
He didn’t see me bolt behind him and duck behind a concrete busbench before he started
shooting. Just beyond him I caught the wet rat-haired faces huddled in the rain together waiting
their turns. I couldn’t see why he stopped firing, perched there on the edge of the bridge above
the murky quicksilver cutting the city in two, so I took aim.
Killing him wouldn’t make me a hero, just landed another check to carry my bills.
Normally I’d shoot him in the back and watch him fall into river shattering the stormcloud ghosts
between its banks, but I halted because I couldn’t figure out why he stopped.
She stood a few yards in front of him, but her brown eyes were too clear and sharp to be
drugged like the rest of the dripping bodies around her. Her curly hair was a bright aura of red,
the color of new pennies before they were minted out of steel, and her coat was warm green as
the forests when there were forests. She rose from the other side of the bridge holding an earthy-
brown satchel under her left arm and waiting impatiently like the gunman was just another
deadminded lostuser blocking her way.
I yelled at the gunman before I shot. Normally you can’t waste time. Too many grams in
their systems and they might not fall down before they can return fire. Sometimes their weapon
goes off in the crowd when they’re hit but it’s expected. This time I yelled first and he swung his
gun away from the people and then I took him down. On the other end, gazing brown eyes
framed by wet shining copper hair turned the bridge into a stage.
Yelling first to save civilians made me a hero even if I didn’t know why. The Don’s villa
was marble like everything else on the boulevard and gone gray with the haze, and outside its
front gate my bosses told me –You’ve earned it, Max. Go dump the pusher under his bedroom
window. Burn the drugs in his front yard.-
I dragged the body by his coat collar while one of my shift stopped traffic. I waited for
someone to look out and see me. All I saw was faceless leaden glass. And of course drugs don’t
burn in the rain, so I turned up my collar and walked back to headquarters still holding my gun.
An instant of lightning, hardly noticed out of a million remembered flashes of no
consequence and then forgotten in cloudy darkness. No one ever looked at the sky much. A
moment later there was the keening of a firetruck rushing into the city to take up the good fight
against another one of the fires that always seem to take in a wet city of stone.
Hero, what’s a hero? I stopped in the mud across the street from headquarters in front of
the old paintless clapboard church (nobody there anymore) where rain rotted a cross atop a
steeple empty except for bird dirt, where entrants in the rusty gate were met by a marble statue
defaced in the weather so bad you couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman wearing a robe or a
dress. It raised two fingers (worn into one finger with two heads) to bless the ghosts of
parishioners past, the only ones who ever attended anymore, until someday somebody realizes
the church is still there and razes it to the heavens.
My father went there once on the last day I saw him when I was a small boy. He came
out crying because the priest was already long gone and the pews and the altar torn out for
firewood and all the hymnals burned to keep warm for the long winter and the stained glass
windows smashed and buried and salted. I remember him reciting the first words of a poem from
the days when people still wrote poems—

There is no rage in fire


anger in lightning
regret in rain,
where then our fire within?

—Before he blew off his skullcap with a shotgun. He’d been called a hero once a long
time before but nobody remembered him now.
I didn’t see the woman with the satchel following me a few steps behind until I was up
the headquarters steps and passing through the columns that led to the front door. A few loose
stones on top made me stumble and drop my gun, losing the clatter of its downstep fall in the
wash of the drizzle.
It landed at the woman’s feet and she kneeled gracefully. She was tall and slender inside
the warm mass of green buttoned around her. Her face disappeared behind her copper curls, then
she rose again and offered me my issue with a smile. Something made me sick inside when I
retrieved it; I hardly kept my feet. She also had an easel on the ground next to her earthbrown
satchel and I wondered why I hadn’t noticed her carrying it before.
I went inside to paperwork. The next time I looked out she was sitting on our marble
veranda facing the street, just under the columns to keep dry, painting pigeons scooping up
breadcrumbs and gravel on the opposite edge of the road.
-What is she doing?- I heard myself ask the window. Civilians weren’t allowed. I blinded
the window when she glanced up and me and smiled and I forgot to answer myself.

II
Adams / Beauty /3

The picture was all wrong and even four floors up I could see that. She was nestled
between two columns that rose to greet me and kept rising. She painted things that didn’t exist.
Pigeons first, dabbling them in oils across the bottom of her canvas and then a few more
at various points above the first flock like they were sitting on the steps. They were, since she
painted steps next, and the marble columns and the doors and windows. The windows were dark
and shapeless except for a single one burning a yellow lamp.
She stuck all the birds on our headquarters steps, what I meant by saying she painted
things that weren’t there. I never saw birds out front. Not allowed.
When her hair was dry bright curls filled out and spilled down her neck and shoulders,
except for one single rogue that laid stubbornly against her forehead even when a gale blew off
the water. –You aren’t supposed to be here- I told her.
-Don’t you even want to see what I’m painting?-
I looked away when she smiled at me. –It doesn’t matter.-
-Of course it does. Will you arrest me for painting?-
It was a small painting really, maybe a foot tall and half that much wide, but it hurt to
look at. It squeezed my chest until I couldn’t breathe. I turned around while I loosened my coat
and went back inside where the wind wouldn’t blow so hard.
I watched her from across the street after shift’s end, wondering why I hadn’t already
started home. Her profile was turned streetward with a copper curl resting on her forehead, and
she still painted ridiculous things like birds and bright windows. A few cloudbursts later she
finally put the small canvas away in her satchel, folded the easel under one arm, and floated
easily down the stairs through the drizzle.
-Which way are you going?- she asked me.
I pointed to the right and east toward the city center where I kept an apartment a few
floors above State Street. –Oh- she told me like it was something to be sad about. Her smile was
as little as if she’d painted it in her minipicture, then she turned and walked off to the left.
She buttoned her green coat that I could still see two blocks gone and was still walking as
if she wanted to walk right out of the city. An east breeze kicked up and whistled through the
marble columns; somewhere lightning hit a building in the city center and firetrucks wailed away
in the near-distance to water down a burning building in the city drowning under more than rain.
On the way home I thought about images in color that I couldn’t remember later when the moon
came out; I couldn’t even remember getting home and the water on my cheeks seemed too warm.

III

Somebody called me a hero the next morning but I forgot who a few minutes later.
The painter planted an oil-based tree in front of the painting-headquarters, not real of
course. Her hair was dry and full when I scaled the front steps.
The tree had brown bark and green leaves, which I supposed was right though I’d never
seen one for myself. She smiled and wished me good morning.
-Good morning- I said back without really knowing why; it was such an odd thing to say.
One building away a few puddles of red remained from an early morning sniper and writhed
under the rainfall.
She started painting a second tree while I stood there and knotted my stomach. Not real!,
not real! Why paint a tree into a cityscene? A breath against my leg, and I stepped back to find a
dog snuffing at my shoe through his big hound snout on the opposite end of a wagging tail.
(He was colored brown and white as if she’d painted him in the rain, splotches melting
and blending until they covered his fur. He had one white rounded square on his back like a
pushbutton. Later he tried following me into headquarters until I shooed him away with my foot.
Now, though, he was still watching me.)
It seemed to smile even though hounds don’t smile, even though he was in the city and
the city doesn’t…but she smiled, every time she talked to me looked at me painted gazed out ran
her fingers through her hair. She leaned gracefully over her canvas and painted impossible
things, including more color in my window, the one she gave a bright yellow lamp.
She stared at something on her canvas I couldn’t see. –Beatus Lux, ora pro nobis- she
whispered and I didn’t know the language, though in school I’d heard it once after it was dead
but resurrected and sanctified with a breath of life. How does a language die?
-Beatus Lux, ora pro nobis- She watched the pigeons and marble buildings and the rain
and the bridge. –Ego amo te.-
My chest ached until I coughed out the pain. When there were more gunshots a few
blocks away, she looked up toward the noise expressionless and gazed into the rain long after a
single (heavier) caliber ended the rapidfire procession. When she finally returned to her canvas
she mixed a blue on her palette that was the same blue as the turtleneck under her green coat, the
blue I think might have been a cloudless sky once before I was born. She formed her blue into
the sky.
-My name is Max- I told her.
Breathing ached, a coming illness I thought. She told me her name though I didn’t hear
her outside of my coughing. Somewhere in my mind I gave the dog a name but realized a few
minutes later it had slipped from my memory.
More gunshots and I went inside to start my shit, stumbling on the loose stones at the
very top of the steps. My office was small. Walls shadowed by rainstreams down the windows
where I stared down and saw the painted yellow window surrounded by trees and a blue sky and
when I cried I left colorless splotches across the top of my crisp stack of bureaucracy.

IV

-There is no rage in fire, no anger in lightning, no regret in rain.- I heard that in a poem
once. –Ego amo te.- I remembered those words from somewhere too, but they were meaningless
when I’d known what they meant. Now I wasn’t so sure they were meaningless because her
saying them to things made them sacred. Blessing them (-Beatus Lux- I think) and finishing each
blessing with the charm –Ego amo te-.
Lightning must have started the fires downtown; flashes in the sky woke me too early,
bursts of gray-white that silhouetted the cloudbulges, tops of pointed ceilings, marble friezes that
forever locked their prisoners in unmoving glory. Sirens met me out the door and the rain was
saturated with smoke. Shooting in the distance, return fire; more of both. This user must have
been too stoned for the first bullets to matter. There was rising orange light in the east from
something other than the sun, which I remembered once being orange, not the anemic white disk
Adams / Beauty /5

always hiding, by the time I reached headquarters.


I stopped short of the steps, where she was not painting. The easel was there but her seat
empty. She stood in front of me, back turned, curls wet-straightened, hands and shoes and knees
dripping with rich mud where they’d made contact with the earth. Something stuck out of her
bag and she was planting it.
-What is that thing?- I asked her.
She shook her head and my chest hurt. Even wet, the rogue curl bounced on her forehead.
Her dog happily sniffed the hole in the ground in search of loamy jewels.
She placed into the dirt the thing she held and then I realized it was a smaller version of
the trees in her painting. Not real, not real.
My knees liquefied. Somebody would find her, blow off a round in her face for what
she’d done. No trees in the city; why hadn’t she been told to leave yet? How could she be
allowed to paint trees on the very border of the front where the war was waged?
-Isn’t it beautiful?-
I wasn’t sure who asked or who answered (Beautiful, whether that was an answer or a
question of uncomprehension) but the thing was there—things, two of them, one beside the
other, pointed up at the clouds, soaking, real.
No place for trees, I thought. How could she expect them to survive? Somebody would
rip them up or kick them over or cut them down or the rain would rot their roots or anything else
that trees meant to the city.
-Beatus Lux- she told it, -ora pro nobis. Ego amo te.-
She touched the limp dripping creatures lightly, made them sacred.
Ache…a knife below the neck blessed notreal, nothingreal but the dark window waiting
for me four floors above with small room small metal desk banging bruised knees
She took my hand and led me up the steps, not stumbling on the loose stones and
showing me her painting again. Almost too bright to look at, blue sky and yellow window and
pigeons glowing white eating something I didn’t recognize but tastier-looking than bread crumbs
and gravel. They still pecked on the front steps glowing under my office light, and something
else there too small for me to see, or I too small for it.
-I haven’t been arrested yet- she told me.
Smoke. Behind me tips of fire were moving closer and sirens wailed past. Lightning
probably, I thought (no anger in lightning) and not rain enough to put it out before it spread
through the blocks. Close up it may have been orange; through haze I couldn’t tell.
-Max- she said, and I’d forgotten she still held my hand. (Chest hurts.) She put my hand
on the painting and my fingers covered the trees. –Do you want this?-
-Want what? I’m late. I have to go inside.-
-Want this. The painting.-
-Painting? Why?-
-I don’t really need it, I just wanted to see what it would look like. I can paint another
one, and I thought you might like to have it.-
The (noiseless) made light in the gray-white flashes through the marble canyons, and her
warm living fingers were on top of mine, separated from the smoke, painful as soft. She said
something I couldn’t hear, thoughts not understood. I couldn’t see her eyes from where I stood or
the rogue curl, just visions of gunshots though no one was shooting anyone at that moment—the
same rapidfire I remembered somewhere that I heard from time to time especially when I was
asleep.
The fingers left my hand and laid gently across my forehead, tracing lines
water against a flooded city trucks racing hydroplaning before another roof collapsed
onto a glaze-eyed onlooker. They were the ones who never got out of the city (or me us we) or
the clouds out of their brains (can’t remember). Did they even know what happened to them?
Know they were about to die?
(there is no rage in fire
anger in lightning
regret in rain bang ),
anything postdeath?
peace no peace nothing at all except perhaps Beatus Lux…do we always create Heaven
in the Image of the one thing we never have on Earth?
I remembered fire, child of the morning, paintings of lost eternity in the church with the
melt-faced deity (bestowing blessings with a two whole uplifted fingers then) before the tithes
ran out and the oils grew gray with dirt because someone forgot to clean the canvas, then burned
the fakefires for warmth. Her long freckled hand still rested on my forehead.
-Beatus Lux- she said again, -Ego amo te.-
For a flash, the lifespan of a raindrop, a vision: myself on unbruised knees blessed by her
above, surrounded by light crowned by the less-and-less distant cityburning, glory of salvation in
the end of ends. I was tired then and tireder still; I almost sank to my knees with exhaustion and
let her touch my crown and let her bless me and take away my sins, forgiveness from a world no
rage and anger but Ego amo te.
(Max is a hero, did you hear what he did?)
-I see the light inside you- she told me. –Why won’t you let it out, Max?-
What light? I squeezed my eyes shut and threw my neck back to see the colors that
sometimes flash in your eyes when against the black of that self-imposed blindness but only saw
the white disk of the sun always hiding behind clouds, always hiding behind my blindness. I took
her hands and clenched them tight in sudden rage at something I didn’t know but from inside
myself, not her, something she made me face for an instant before it vanished in the storm again.
-Where is it?- I shouted at her. –Where is it?-
I recognized emotions rarely so it was difficult to tell if hers was terror or exultation,
brown eyes bright and wide with horror at my nails digging into her fingers or gaping on the
edge of discovery? Of what? Light?
-Where?- I demanded again, and her eyes rounded with something I had never seen
before on another human being from the city. But if she wasn’t from the city, then where?
Her voice was not a whisper of pain or fright but something too deep within myself to
recognize. –Do you want the painting, Max?-
(Max is a hero, did you hear what he did?)
wails of the trucks men and women burned in the rescues gunned down from formless
shapes of blank minds no more water fire with fire
I threw her hands away to save her because I knew she would die if I didn’t. Burned in
the downtown lightning strikes, or the self-set fires just to see some color, or the users who carry
guns and can’t get enough or become—become—one of the glaze-eyed lostusers who watch a
gun point at their heads and wait their turns. Pools of blood running below the bridge into the
silver stream artery that cuts the city in two. Notreal, notreal, and she had to be spared the fire in
Adams / Beauty /7

her own blood.


(where then is the fire within?)
I ripped up the trees first because they’d be seen before the painting, then grabbed the
canvas with the bright lights and blue skies and white birds and browngreen trees, crushing the
sides and throwing it face down into a mud puddle.
There! I told her without speaking. Now you will live! Now they won’t be able to find
you!
Across the street the old paintless clapboard church with the faceless welcoming deity
burned but I didn’t remember later whether I was the one who started the fire or not. Didn’t
matter, headquarters could use the space when they remembered it was there for more offices or
parking and we were desperate for both. I awoke again looking at her and watching the fire
glowing in her eyes, odd since she wasn’t facing the burning downtown or even the church now.
Her mouth twisted down and trembled and she seared my cheek with her hand, stepping
back when I pulled away and lowering her head slightly for an instant before taking me in again.
I wouldn’t let her finish blessing me in her dead-resurrected language because they’d find her
that way too if they heard her.
-Live- I told her and desperately wished it so.
She shook her head. –I already was.-
Her little smile forced my gaze away and I felt like pulling down the faceless statue in a
heartbeat of rage. I didn’t though because it started speaking to me again through my haze of
illness, thin blood carrying disease from my saturated lungs to my brain. I looked not quite as
high as the sky half-expecting to see a yellow lamp burning inside my window, but of course
there wasn’t. I didn’t own one after all. I wondered if I’d hoped to find the sun instead, full and
yellow and ready to blind in glory.
She didn’t pick up her painting when she turned down the west road away from
downtown (to where? nothing really was there outside the city) and even left her satchel under
the mostly-dry of the front columns. I was in my office and knees banged my desk before I
realized I’d carried the satchel up with me.
(Max is a hero do you know what he did
when there is the fire within?)
Outside, the church burned. Maybe I would get a bigger office now.
Four floors below a brown-and-white hound with a little white square button of fur on his
backside stared up at me, without smile. Beatus Lux ex nihilo, noli me tangere.

I saw an old man in the street watching as they pulled down the rainsodden deity so
headquarters could finish surveying boundaries for the new parking lot. The old man was crying,
easy to tell that since there was more mist than rain today. Strange to see, so few of the old being
left anymore.
Next shift the fellow in the office beside me remembered he’d been stoning himself on a
few grams a day and couldn’t anymore, took out his own issue into the rain and started firing
into the crowds that all stood by waiting their turns. Except the old man, who gazed over the
tumbled statue and where the hand with the two-in-one fingered hand had broken off and rolled
into the mud. He was slammed with lead in the back before he knew anything about it.
When the statue disintegrated from my window’s view it reconstructed in my mind and
wouldn’t leave. Faceless neither man nor woman, fingers, robe or dress, smoothed out lines from
the cloud-filled years. That wasn’t right; not the way it was supposed to be but I couldn’t get it
out of my vision no matter how long I stared at paperwork or how many pushers and lostusers I
took down.
I saw flowers that weren’t there and trees too, and a blue sky and white birds on the steps
even though they never got close. Things less real outside, more real inside where I could see but
couldn’t touch.
My foot bumped into her satchel at the same moment I realized that to rid my mind of the
delusions they had to be made real outside, drawing the images out of my brain forever. Painting
by the front door under the columns wasn’t good enough, too close to where the images were
born. I wanted to take them far away and leave them.
I went to the bridge and pulled out a canvas umbrella in front of the Don’s house where
I’d been a hero once and painted things there. I painted the bridge and the silver stream except I
made the stream blue as I supposed streams had been once, and painted the statue beside it.
Not good enough. I crossed over to the other side and added some flowers of every color
I could remember from the paints she had inside the satchel, a splattering of oils since I’d never
seen what a flower really looked like.
I looked up into the gray stretch of the west road leading out of downtown and it didn’t
look quite good enough, but I had to stop there because it was getting dark. I accidentally looked
at the sky when I pulled down my umbrella and saw a star hovering between the clouds for just a
moment, a single star, off in the west above the road.
I moved a little farther out the next day, painting, still not quite right, not quite the colors
her painting had, forgot to take my grams that morning. A few blocks farther still wasn’t enough;
another street, another street, until the bridge and headquarters were out of sight. I painted two
trees the way I thought they’d look if someone let them grow in front of the steps.
I saw the star again over the road when I took the umbrella down, and painted still not far
enough out. The next day downtown was out of sight with all the tips of its lightningborn and
grayborn firestrikes. I painted the single star over the road and saw it again when I took down the
umbrella for the night.
Tomorrow, I thought, desperate to be at peace with my visions. Tomorrow I need to go
farther away.

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