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March 16, 2018 Nonfiction

Portrait Hall Palimpsest: Storied Houses

Kierstin Bridger

Portrait Hall Palimpsest: Storied Houses photo

Canvas after canvas I see my life in scenes the artist cannot know. I cannot isolate the precise chord that resounds when I study these layers of multi-colored paint but it sounds like doom and it sounds like heart thrum. Each work spins me, reminds me of home. Home, the spot, which refuses to be contained within a specific house or point on a map, rather, it is the place where childhood rose out of cocoa-clotted dirt and squat pinion.

Abstract blurs and muddled memories compound in these narrow walls of life-sized paintings. It is a whiplash of cadmium blues and oxide reds. The colors rush like the slap my father once delivered. Call it a parallel universe, call it a memory, but something in the paint strokes ricochet into my father’s once swift gesture.

It’s 1982. My parents have come to collect us from my grandmother’s house. I tattle-tell too fast, it must have felt like an ambush to my father. The air chills with dismissal. I can smell the camphor of his lip balm, how the winter made his cinnamon gum seem the only thing warm in the snap.  Cold December, hot cheek. His excuse rattles loud from the archive imbedded in my brain, Jesus Christ, I just walked in the door.

I glance to my left. In the blue canvas over my shoulder I’m reminded of the pale blue background on an oil painting my father never finished. It was meant to be a clown for my baby brother’s room; an upturned mouth and one sad eye with its segmented regard traced in pencil lead. I wonder if that painting haunts me because its state of incompletion haunted him first. We dragged that sad face from one house to the next as he swapped jobs or was laid off by the molybdenum mine.

That clown must have watched the day my father came home early to play hide and seek.  He taught me to hide under the pillows of a made bed, to remain quiet as a mime. When it’s my turn to seek I spot his shoes peeking from behind the living room drapes. I swipe the curtain back fast. But they are empty. He’d left his work boots behind then climbed in his truck and roared down the road, left me staring at what should have been him, left me dumfounded and hurt. I ran to the screen door only to see his red pickup disappear in the horizon of dust tracks.

This was the same red truck which held the first dead body I had ever witnessed; my dog Christy at rest in a heap beside my father’s worn shovel, her mouth and neck were pink, flattened and marked by tire track. I don’t remember a particular story about why he decided to walk me out to the truck bed and lift me up to peer inside. I don’t know if he wanted to show me, a four-year-old girl, to prove my pup was truly gone, or to shame me and my crime; letting Christy outside our unfenced lawn.  Perhaps he meant it as a talisman to warn against playing in the street. I only know that that lifeless pet is tattooed in my mind’s eye, an image amid faded reds and chalky whites, a story in dark fur and stark conclusion.

***

I think of the house where we later moved, the view of Mt. Princeton, how my father’s clown canvas was relocated there and stored in the basement on a ledge near the ironing board above my mother’s plastic wrapped palette and linseed oil. My mother began leaving the house on Wednesday nights to study the mystique of oil painting; landscapes of brush tricks; rustic cabins with water wheels built with palette knife techniques and stippled pines decorated with snow. I know I dreaded her going. Is it fair to say she abandoned us to the storms of our father, hoping perhaps the weather might have broken in her absence, gambling our bones and spirits would stay intact? Sometimes survival looks like a woman with titanium white streaked in her hair.

***

I walk further down the hall of paintings. Beneath the mirage of what seems sagebrush and barbed wire, our fence still stands and my brother leans like a narrow cowboy for all time. He is half remembered photograph, half outlaw, eternally five years old in Wranglers and matching shirt, burnished belt buckle and scuffed boots, brown eyes deep as any Palomino.  It seems the artist has rendered some sun shadow of him when he was green-gold, clean as a yucca bloom.

***

130 Raymond Lee Drive, the place my mother tried new answers to the question of discipline. The whippings my Dad meted out with thick leather belts never sat quite right with her. I can still taste soap in my teeth from an orange bar of Dial, punishment for cursing or calling my brother a name. Sometimes Mom fell back on old routines. We only snickered when she tried a thin synthetic number from her navy-blue dress. We bent over the polyester bedspread, inhaled the chemical aftertaste: fitful sleep and the stagnancy of sour nightmares then braced ourselves for naught.

***

The first time I witnessed my father cry we lived inside those walls. In the early rose of morning he sat on the stairs in his thin flannel robe, cold coffee at his side, weeping into the robin’s egg blue phone. His sister was on the line to relay the news; her husband was killed the night before in a car wreck.

This newly widowed aunt was the child my grandmother hid from her sons during the whole of their childhood. She sent her only girl, an infant, to live with a cousin across state lines, across Kansas wheat fields and our Colorado mountains. For years she’d make what may have been yearly pilgrimages to see her girl. With her boys safe at home she drove for hours stopping in brusque and clanging diners to butter pancakes and sop stacked bites in maple-flavored syrup.

She was a woman fueled by the notion she could catch a glimpse of her little girl through a classroom’s narrow window. Maybe her daughter would be poking a boy with a pencil as he sat listening to the teacher, a daughter like her. A daughter now not her daughter and of course her daughter— same chin, same pluck but registered under a new surname, living under someone else’s roof. 

As adults my aunt and my father reconnected but they could share only the present and future, their past was too fraught. She had not grown up in the same raucous house: boys fighting over the last slice of burnt ham or clean socks, boys who were never spared the rod.

Within the depths of saltwater pooling on my father’s cheek, somewhere in the jolt of phone lines, the air pulsed with secrets and half-lies, the sting of concealment and lost time. My aunt was now left to raise 4 boys of her own. Perhaps it was the weight of parallel that hit my father.

***

My grandmother kept her thermostat on 80 and fed her fire cord after cord until we all sang like pie birds, it’s too hot. We were ragged, half-dressed cousins, high on butterscotch hard candy, playing twister on big dots. My little brother hid behind the couch with his pile of dinosaur books. He emerged, finally, to show us his penis, tiny and erect.  We knew to keep it to ourselves. My older cousin had seen it before—not his—but the general condition. She told me it was nothing to worry about, that he’d be fine so I took her word and his grin that he would. Under a canvas of burnt umber and forest green I recall the color scheme of crazy quilts and sculpted carpet, crushed velvet, and the haze of dusty nylon window sheers as he slips back both behind the furniture and in my memory.

***

As I scan from canvas to canvas I’m overwhelmed with all the secrets that seemed elemental then. They have accumulated in mass while I wasn’t looking. The babysitter that held him like a limp babe when he was five, begged him to suckle her breast while I watched . . . How can breath weigh this much, how can silence compound until it fissures, what we decide to keep quiet crumbles like drywall flexed by a fault line, expanding a little each day until the rooms break into each other, until our common shelter becomes our hazard.

My brother the cowboy, the fisherman, the stuntman, boy who let me dress him up as a girl. Beneath the creosote mount of his pain, under the bruise and the black, I wonder if it is only me who longs to unearth this early version of him—underneath his premature age, below the miasma of alcohol and methamphetamine, the smoke of cocaine. I see his silhouette in the misty bands of sunset, conjure him behind the spun white-gold of tumbleweed dervish rolling across canvas. The stoic boy, the boy I sent out again and again--long after our bedtime--to ask for more milk or TV time, to fly in a pillow-padded football shaped toy box down double flights of stairs, to steal shards of taffy from a broken bar of candy at the dime store while our mother shopped for yarn. Again and again I dared him to face any danger and, always looming, our parent’s uncertain wrath.

The hallway leads to a home of fire. This house reminds me of an orange vase and the day I called the deputy to report I’d seen someone signal for help. I stood at the picture window and clutched a tapered vase like a torch. I held it between my one eye closed and the window. I stare hard at the alpine peak waiting for the next flash from the mirror, convinced I alone have spotted a damsel in distress. I stay home; purposely miss the school bus to conjure a rescue operation from a far-flung glint and my scepter of colored glass. This was my cry. I see it clearly now.  A house seen in snapshots and still frames won’t tell you about the daughter inside, the belt marks on soft flesh, the scorn and rage that echoed in the hallways. 

This was before the house where I had to lay with him in bed, before he pinched the underside of my ass again and again, before my friend’s mother banned her from our home--my father tore her shirt, wrestling with a thirteen-year-old girl. Paint my face hot red, smother me in flames. I was a girl with breast buds stripped of her nightgown. Splatter me in streaks of chartreuse bile, humiliation green; drip the blue and purple of finger fracture, chipped bone from a flying phone.  I was a canvas he never finished either. I hung in the house like a thrift store pearl until I could at last run out the door.

This is a hall of mirrors and familiar abstracts. At the very least there is an undercoat, something alive beneath the paintings. I cannot actually detect a hint of the wood smoke, which circled in my grandmother’s house yet–-those houses are here and I am there.

Our bi-level still stands, as does my grandmother’s ranch. Perhaps in the late autumn sunlight, behind the stalwart wallboards, some of our Sundays still leach into the lives of those who came after. Ghosts of us seep from the steam of stews, like a phantom sister whose name was whimpered only in dreams then introduced, years later, to a new generation like an excavated time capsule; a blossom of tin and rust.

I think our voices still rasp and cackle under the burnt scrapes of toast and crack of leather. Fact and fiction continue to pepper the houses with seasons of our time there. Fragments and torn roots reside in our abandon, footstep traces of who we were and all we longed to escape.

image: Aaron Burch


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