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Rating: PG-13

“Yeah,” Marco DiPalma said, and he felt okay, not so much for the painting but for being able to carry on a normal conversation.

“It does, it really does look just like the photo!”

Mrs. Greeley plucked the snapshot of her family stuck in the corner of the frame and compared it to the painting on the easel, her head bobbing back and forth between the photograph and the canvas.  As she prattled on about the meticulous recreation of her children’s adorable smirks and the intricate detail of the lace on her living room curtains, Marco did his best to ignore the chatter of other voices.  He knew they weren’t really there, the medication hadn’t yet kicked in, but they were too close to ignore, their hot breath right on his ears.

“She hates it,” said one.  “She’ll take the painting and piss on it.”

“Stop slouching,” said the other.  “Stand up straight.  Are you listening to her?  You’re not even listening.”

“Just a little one would do,” Mrs. Greeley said, “but who am I to tell you what to do?”

“Then she’ll burn it and tell everyone what a joke you are.  What a loser you are.”

“She knows everything about you, what you had for lunch, how many times you went to the bathroom today.  Are you listening?”

“Oh, don’t waste your time on him, he’s hopeless.”

“So you’ll do it?”  Mrs. Greeley asked.

“I’m sorry,” Marco said, raking his fingers through his hair, trying to keep his composure.  “I must’ve wandered off.”

“No problem, here, hold on,” Mrs. Greeley said as she dug into her purse.  She fished out her wallet and flipped it open to the clear plastic section, rifling through the photo album until she got to a dog, a German shepherd.  “This is Ralph.”

She gave Marco the picture and looked at him with the same needy smile as the one she wore in her family photograph, identical to the one on the painted portrait.  Three Mrs. Greeleys surrounded him, outnumbered him, all waiting and watching for his answer.

“And you want me to paint him?”

“Oh, it would mean so much to me, it really would.  He’s not getting any younger, and he’s just the best dog we’ve had, the best.”

“Can’t you see that she can’t stand you?” Ralph said.  “She’s just humoring you.”

“I don’t think so,” Marco said, and the dog barked at him once, twice, then continuously, each one sounding meaner than the one before.  “No no no, please no.”

“Why not?” Mrs. Greeley asked, and suddenly her face bloated, doubled in size.  Her eyes, which were blue a second ago, turned fire hydrant red.  Like the voices, Marco tried telling himself that none of this was real, but at the same time, he couldn’t dispute what his eyes and ears were plainly showing him.  Her fingernails were tinted with the blood of murdered babies and he could hear the whirring of the camera inside her head, recording his every move.

Just when Marco thought he couldn’t hold on for one more second, the voices retreated and so did his hallucinations.  He was late taking his Haldol this morning, though it’d been by design; this was his first visit to the booth in Peddlers Town and he hadn’t wanted to scare anyone away.  At best the drug got him drowsy and dried out his mouth, though usually it also caused his upper lip to twitch and his right leg to kick out involuntarily, as if attached to electrodes wired to a switch that somebody was throwing at random intervals.

“Are you okay?” Mrs. Greeley asked, whose face and eyes were back to normal.  She was a shy little lady wearing a red dress with matching purse and shoes, both in muddy shades of brown, but a moment ago she was satan himself.  This was real and the other was not, and it was almost embarrassing how easy it was to make this distinction now.

“I’m fine.”

“He’s a part of the family, you know, and gosh, I wish that stupid photographer had included him in this family photo but he and Ralph didn’t get along.  Is it because he’s a dog?  Do you just not do animals?”

There was no way she could’ve known that he hadn’t even been talking to her when she’d asked him that question, but before he could apologize, Luther returned.

“Mrs. Greeley, so nice to see you!”

“Hello, Luther.”

He walked up to the painting and buffed its silver frame with his sleeve.  “Did Marco do a fine job on this or what?”

“It’s just beautiful,” she said, and while she told him about the smirks and the lace, Luther glanced over.  When Marco gave him a thumbs-up, he relaxed and gave his full attention to Mrs. Greeley.

Marco returned to the back corner of the gallery and sat on the stool.  On the table in front of him was the store’s sign.  All the signs in Peddlers Town looked alike, with the logo of the mall at the top (a silhouette of a horse and carriage) and the number and name of the booth on the bottom, black letters against a canary yellow background.  It was atrocious, and Marco was in the process of sprucing it up.  Portraits by Luther and Co., said the sign.  This had been Bobby’s idea and at the time it seemed foolish and useless, but he had to admit, it was good to be painting again.

In the beginning, he thought he’d left his radio or TV on; that was how clear the voices were, coming into his ears in perfect high fidelity.  He heard it one morning, while eating a bowl of corn flakes.

“Nobody likes you,” the voice said.

“What?” Marco said, but there was no reply.

But it wasn’t long until there were replies.  It wasn’t long until a dozen voices talked at the same time, drowning him with their streaming, neverending commentary.

“And what do these voices say?”

By this time, Marco wasn’t sure if he was truly hearing what the man in front of him was saying.  His name was Dr. Beaumont, and he pumped him full of drugs until the volume of the chatter in his head faded to background white noise.

He spent three months at a rehab center in upstate New York, where he learned to cope with his disease.  As long as he was under medication, the symptoms were kept at bay, but not always.  Sometimes the pills weren’t strong enough to withstand a particularly bad attack.  A benign set of wall-mounted speakers that played classical music would tell him that all the women in the building were watching him, and sure enough, when he looked around, they were all staring at him with deadly calm eyes, each wearing the cold-hearted gaze of a zoologist before dissection.  Cameras were everywhere, even in the bathrooms.  That’s how the receptionist behind the counter was able to broadcast the size and color of his bowel movement that morning to the rest of the world.

“Seven inches, dark mustard brown with olive green stripes.”

They were all ridiculous thoughts like this, but when he was in the thick of them, the panic and dread were too intense to dismiss.

When he felt ready, Marco came home, and he wasn’t surprised of his utter lack of desire to pick up his brush again, the nastiest side effect of Haldol.  By suppressing all the voices in his head, it silenced the most important one of them all.  He asked Bobby to leave him alone, so he did.  And when Marco was ready to take that first tentative step back into the world, his partner was right there to support him.

“I have a friend who owns a little business,” Bobby said, and told him about Luther Ellison.  He operated fifteen paint-by-photo shops all over the Jersey coast and was looking to open up another one.  “Couldn’t hurt, right?”

It seemed a silly idea, but Marco couldn’t find a reason to refuse.

Two weeks after his initial visit, Marco felt comfortable enough to bring a spare set of his brushes and paints into his booth at Peddlers Town to set up shop.  While he wasn’t able to do significant work, touchups were easy and surprisingly satisfying.  Customers especially got a kick out of watching him make last-second adjustments to their portraits, marveling at the quick dabs that transformed a bush into a tree or brown-black smudges into houses when viewed from a distance.

Marco was adjusting the shadows of his current portrait, a huge Spanish family that spanned four generations, when a blob of blue appeared above the frame.  His first instinct was to suppress it, but unlike his other schizoid hallucinations, there was no menace to this one.  In fact, the more he stared at the color, the more curious and energetic he felt, and then he jumped up from his stool so fast that he almost toppled over the painting in front of him.


His outburst caught the attention of Luther, who’d been sitting at the counter flipping through a magazine.  “It’s okay,” Marco reassured him, then strode towards the source of the blueness.

Closer up, he saw the emotions that emanated underneath its skin: the sadness, the confusion, and passion, too, and things that could neither be quantified nor put into words.  Blue turned to red then back to blue, and now Marco was seeing shapes – oblongs, swirls, and slivers of black triangles.  He’d been terrified of never returning to this mysterious place that was his life, and now here he was, as if he’d never left.

“I’d like to paint you,” he said.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because you’re sad.”

As soon as the words had come out of his mouth, Marco wished he could take them back, but apparently they had been the right ones because her smile deepened.  When he asked her if she knew where Greenwich Village was, she shook her head.

He sent out Luther for a map of New York City and while they waited for him to return, he told her she would need to stay no more than an hour, two at the most.  When inspiration struck this hard, that’s all he needed to capture the essence.  He explained all this to her, but she didn’t seem to understand everything.  Marco didn’t care, as long as she knew where to show up.

“I’ll see you tomorrow?  At noon?”

“Twelve in afternoon.”

“I’m Marco DiPalma, by the way.  It’s very nice to meet you.”

“My name is Susan Kim.”

After she left, Luther asked him, “She looked kinda young, don’t you think?”

It hadn’t even occurred to him, and as he thought back to what Susan Kim had looked like, all he could recall were the glorious shades of blue and red that floated around her, colors he’d soon transfer onto canvas.

“What does that have to do with anything?”

Luther shrugged and went back to his magazine.  “Nothing, I guess.  It’s your business, anyway.”

He called his apartment and Bobby answered.  Marco didn’t want to get his hopes up, but he couldn’t help it.  Bobby shrieked with joy when he heard the good news, and Marco shrieked right back, then they were laughing, something they hadn’t done together in quite a while.

Aliens.  They were everywhere.  Out walking the dog, shopping for groceries, taking easy swings at the golf course.  Nobody could see them, except for this guy, this bearded guy in his sunglasses.

It was a movie from years ago, a black and white film, and Lana wasn’t really even watching it when her mother extended the receiver, her hand covering the mouthpiece.

“Oh baby, see, didn’t I say you’d make friends?”

“Yeah,” Lana said.  She hadn’t bothered to pick up the phone because it wouldn’t be for her.  It was never for her, but now it was, a voice on the other line waiting for her own voice to speak.  She walked toward her mother’s beaming face in the kitchen.

“I told you,” her mother continued, her overwhelming display of joy on the brink of embarrassment.  She held the phone out like an offering, and Lana snatched it out of her hand.

In the three months Lana had been attending Oak Ridge High, she’d given her number to only one person, so she was pretty sure who this was.  Still, her heart was beating so hard she felt faint.



It was strange hearing Sue over the phone, and difficult, too.  Lana had underestimated how much of what she understood from her Korean friend depended on gesticulations and expressions, but somehow she muddled through.  Sue was telling her how there was an artist at Peddlers Town who wanted to paint her.  Lana thought maybe she’d gotten mixed up with the language like she sometimes did, so she asked again.

“He paint,” Sue said.  “Man, woman, family.  And dogs.”

“Okay.  And he wants to paint you because you’re sad?  That’s what he said?  You’re sure?”

“Very sure.”  Then she told Lana how she had to be at New York City tomorrow at noon.

“Jeez, I don’t know, is he okay?”

“He’s artist,” Sue said.  “Very good person, I know.”

“But how’re you gonna get there?”

“You help?”

She’d called to ask her for help.  It made Lana blush.  “Of course.  You can take the bus, or even the train.  I have a schedule here somewhere.”

“You go, too?”

“You mean go with you?”

“Please?  Very please?”

Tomorrow she was supposed to go to mass with her mother and then ride over to some shelter afterwards to spread the word of God.  Her job would be to pass out pamphlets, hold them out to smelly, sleepy-eyed vagrants who’d take them and shove them in their pockets without even looking at the cover, the words “GOD LOVES YOU” stamped in gold-specked cursive over a glowing white-robed and opened-armed Jesus.  Then she’d ladle up bowl after bowl of chicken soup to the shuffling line of filthy people, none of them recognizing that she’d been the same girl who’d greeted them at the door with the stupid pamphlets, their empty eyes staring into space as they silently accepted their meals.

“Yes,” Lana said.  She couldn’t tell her mother where they were really going, but as long as she was back before dinnertime, everything would be all right.

After she hung up the phone, Lana wished she hadn’t agreed.  She’d been to Manhattan a couple of times but never without her mother, and the idea of going up to a stranger’s apartment seemed potentially dangerous.  She picked up the phone to dial Sue back, but then realized she still didn’t have her number.  Lana had blurted hers out after the school bus had dropped them off one day as they stood around the apartment complex, talking about their favorite television shows.

“Hey,” she’d said.  “Let me give you my number, okay?”

She had no idea how else to do this, and she was getting tired of lying to her mother, who was constantly asking if she’d met anyone nice, a nice girl she could be friends with.

Sue smiled, scribbled the number on the back cover of her notebook, and to Lana’s dismay, didn’t reciprocate.  The only explanation she came up with later was that maybe things worked differently in Korea.  Perhaps there was some strange custom where it was only proper for the phone number receiver to reveal her seven digits over a call, but apparently, that wasn’t the case, either.

She would go.  She would go to New York with Sue but not go inside the apartment.  She wanted to see the artist, though, find out what exactly about Sue that suggested sadness, because as far as Lana could tell, Sue wasn’t sad anymore.  While her own circle of friendship was stuck at a perimeter of one, Sue’s was continually increasing.  For the last two weeks, Lana ate lunch in the school cafeteria with not just Sue but many of her ESL classmates, and it made her feel like an outsider, especially when the conversation drifted to some funny thing that happened in their special class.  There was a Nigerian girl whose name Lana couldn’t even pronounce, something starting with the letter T, a Russian boy named Vladimir, and twin Chinese girls who never said anything.  On Friday, some boy who wasn’t even in Sue’s ESL class had stopped by their table and chatted with her for the last ten minutes.

Lana missed those first two months, when it’d been only the two of them at lunch.  That was when Sue told her about the suicide attempt, though even then Lana had her doubts.  Anybody serious about killing herself wouldn’t discuss her failed attempt the way she had, describing the knife and the pills with such transparent drama.  Lana was no expert at suicide, but she knew it wasn’t like that.

Still, they’d gotten along because they were both victims of displacement.  Granted, her move from Boston was less traumatic than the one from Seoul, Korea, but it wasn’t as if her life was especially worth living.  In fact, if anybody had a right to be mired in depression, it was her.  A year ago, she had a relatively happy life in Beantown, or at least a normal one.  Now her father and brother lay buried in their graves after their car slid across the median of the snowy road and plowed into a sixteen-wheeler head-on, and her mother was so fucked up that all she could talk about was the glory and the goodness of God.  What gave this artist the right to recognize and bestow sadness on someone who was anything but?

Once they exited the subway and climbed into the piercing brightness of the street, Sue spread open a colorful, accordion-folded map of Manhattan and pointed to a section labeled Greenwich Village, the two words printed in a friendly semicircle.  An inky blue dot, recessed and shiny from the repeated tight circling of a ball-point pen, marked the corner of Horatio and Hudson, and scribbled next to it was the street address of their destination.

“That way,” Lana said, pointing west.

“Thanks,” Sue said, and collapsed the map to its compact form and slid it into her backpack.  “I’m so good you came.”

“Happy.  I’m so happy you came.”

“I’m so happy you came,” she said, and Lana could hear her memorizing this phrase for future use, repeating it softly under her breath.  Sue had taken two years of English back in Korea, but they’d been a waste of time, probably as useful as her own two years of high school French.  Did she even know how to say “I’m so happy you came” en français?  Je suis la contente vous venus?  If she were in Sue’s shoes, she’d probably try to speak as little as possible.  Lana could hardly imagine what it must be like to never be sure of what you were saying, always encountering inscrutable words that made you feel hopeless.

It was a gusty day but a pleasant one, sudden bursts of wind carrying the warmth of early spring.  Lana wished she’d worn a dress like Sue had, the pleated skirt of her floral-print one-piece billowing prettily with every little puff, but she’d opted for her usual frayed black denim jacket and a pair of blue jeans.  Her friend seemed sure this Marco DiPalma was harmless, but Lana wasn’t taking any chances.  If she had to make a run for it, her sneakers would work far better than those red pumps Sue had on.

A family of six walked by her, the men decked out in suits and the women in ankle-length dresses.  Most likely they were going to or from church, and seeing them reminded Lana of her mother.  It was a quarter before noon, so she’d be at the shelter by now, standing in front of that homeless zombie army, trying her best to convince them that salvation was only a prayer away.  “God loves every single one of you,” she’d start out, at which point Lana tuned her out.  Her mother had always been a religious person, but after the accident, her penchant for volunteer work had transformed into an unsatiable hunger.  Lana knew it was the way she was dealing with grief, but how long was this going to go on?

“You don’t have to come,” her mother said.  “You should come only if your heart wants you to.”

Which wasn’t the point.  The point was that she wanted her old mother back, the sane one, the one that didn’t want to save every loser she saw on the street.  And the question she had really wanted to ask was if her mother was stupid enough to believe that her superhuman effort of goodness would somehow act as a talisman against further calamity, but she hadn’t, because she already knew the answer.

It was clear to Lana why she and her mother weren’t dead: because they didn’t like ice hockey.  Her father and brother had been devout Bruins fans, the team’s paraphernalia abundantly displayed all over their house, a signed black and white picture of Bobby Orr hanging with their family photographs as if he were a distant uncle.  That night, her father had come home with four tickets to the game, tickets he’d won at the office raffle.  They could’ve all gone, but Lana and her mother didn’t want to be bored for three hours, so in their attempt to dodge the tedium, they lived.  It was that simple, that stupid.  Weeks later, after her father and brother were sealed and buried in their satin-lined coffins and their house was becoming too big and too empty, Lana, flipping through the television channels, stumbled onto a game between the Bruins and some Canadian team.  She watched these wide-shouldered, hulking skaters ramming each other into the curved corners of the rink and gliding after a tiny black dot.  It was the first time she’d witnessed hockey since the accident, and she wanted to feel anger at hearing the fast-talking announcer and the roar of the fans as a player slapped a shot at the goal, but all she could muster was a vague sense of pointlessness.  She kept watching, watched it until the game ultimately ended in a 1-1 tie, and when it was over, Lana wondered if the players had wished they’d just stayed home instead of skating their asses off for no real reason at all.

According to the label on the wall of mailboxes in the lobby of the yellow-bricked building, M. DiPalma lived with B. Devine.

“Who’s B. Devine?” Lana asked.

Sue shrugged.  “Maybe friend, maybe girlfriend?”  She pressed the white square button next to the names and a crackly male voice came through the speaker.

“Are you the model?”

“My name is Susan Kim.”

“Good enough for me.  Come on up!  Take the stairs up to the third floor, 314.”

A metallic buzz filled the vestibule and Lana swung open the inner door.  The voice had sounded nice enough, somewhat effeminate, actually.  They climbed three flights and arrived in front of a gray metallic door with the apartment number glued onto its surface, the three a piece of a glazed pretzel, the one a pencil stump, the four a section of a wire hanger.  Sue knocked and footsteps approached from the other side.  Lana thrust her hands into the pockets of her jean jacket, her right hand gripping the bottle of pepper spray she’d brought with her.  It’d been a Christmas gift from her grandmother last year, who sent Lana and her mother a bottle each with a card that recounted the tale of a friend’s granddaughter, who was accosted one late night in Toledo by a hooligan outside a bar and was saved by her bottle of mace.  “She let the degenerate have it,” her grandmother wrote in her shaky penmanship, “so you let’em have it, too.”

The man who opened the door had one of those faces that would always be young.  His boyish look was further accentuated by his raggedy, haphazard haircut and his oversized overalls, and when a toothy, innocent smile bloomed on his face, he looked like a seven-year-old in a grownup body.

“Hi,” he said.  “I’m Bobby.  I didn’t know we were having a party.”

“What?” Lana asked.

“Mama used to say that three’s a crowd but four’s a party!”  Bobby stepped back and motioned them to come in, dramatically pointing both arms inside.  “Come on, girls, we ain’t got all day.  Chop-chop!”

If Bobby were any gayer, he’d be in flames.  He seemed as dangerous as a newborn puppy, and Lana felt foolish for holding so tightly to her pepper spray.  Her unease fell away completely as she followed the silly slap of his fluffy slippers across the linoleum.

The apartment was what Lana had expected an artist’s pad to look like: a wide-open room with warehouse-high ceilings, a spiral staircase in the center leading up to a loft, and a modest kitchen in one corner.  The only other door in the apartment led to the bathroom.  The smell of paint was inescapable, but something sugary and fatty – like donuts – also hung in the air.

Paintings were everywhere, a few mounted but most of them on the floor leaning against the walls, so many that some were stacked five layers deep.  Non-representational was the word that eventually came to her as she gazed at the splotchy, colorful canvases; that’s what the guide at the Boston museum had labeled the works of an artist who’d made himself famous by dripping and splattering paint.

“Marco,” Bobby yelled, “she’s here!”

The man who descended the stairs was tall and gaunt with black hair down to his shoulders.  His eyes were huge, and set inside his bony face, Lana felt as if she were looking at a living skull, a pair of pale green eyes shining out from their dark sockets.  On the bus ride to New York, Lana had envisioned her meeting with the artist, locking eyes with a man who would see her soul.  If he was sensitive enough to pick up on Sue’s slight sorrow, surely he’d be able to see the grief she carried.  All she’d have to do is let his invisible hand to reach out into her heart and trace its nicks and dents, let him read it like Braille and tell her what it says.

Reality was far less fascinating.  His swimmy eyes looked sleepy and uninterested.  He smiled at Sue and blinked twice when he saw Lana, trying to figure out if he should know her.

“She my friend,” Sue said.  “Lana.”

“Oh.  Okay.  Nice to meet you,” Marco said, extending his hand.  His knuckles were huge, like knots in a rope, and shaking his cold, wet palm was like gripping a dead fish.

Marco led Sue to the back corner of the room where a wooden easel stood next to a  metal stool.  The canvas he was working on was large, as tall as Marco and as wide as its height.  A three-tier wooden shelf sat against the wall, lined with tubes, cans, brushes, and an assortment of other painting-related paraphernalia.  Sue sat on the model’s stool and Marco went to work.  As his eyes shifted from the canvas to Sue and back again, he didn’t seem to be so much looking at her as through her.  He started slowly but then picked up speed, the sound of the brush dipping into the paint then smacking against the canvas getting faster and faster.  Lana sat on the black leather sofa in the center of the room and watched him.  Marco’s face was taut with concentration, and every so often, his right leg would jerk out, as if to shake off a phantom dog nipping at his ankle.

Bobby, now wearing a puffy chef’s hat, sat down next to her.  “He’s really into it, huh?”

“Is that the way he paints?”

“Yes and no,” he said, then paused until Lana turned to him.  “It’s the medication he’s on.  He hardly knows his leg’s doing that.”

It seemed a rather personal fact to reveal, and Lana felt honored that Bobby should share it with her.

“Is he sick?” Lana asked.

“He’s got it under control now, taking the right doses.  Schizophrenia, you know what that is?”

Lana thought she did, but after hearing Bobby’s explanation of it, she realized she’d been wrong.  She’d always associated that word with multiple personalities, but it was actually hearing and seeing things that weren’t there.

“Those voices tell him what a rotten person he is.  Can you imagine living that way, where after every little thing you do someone says you’re not doing it right, that you’re stupid, that you’re a failure?  Hell, right?”

Lana nodded, but she couldn’t imagine it.  Probably nobody could, except for those who were or had once been afflicted with the disease.

“That’s enough sulking for one day,” Bobby said, suddenly becoming energized.  “Let’s change the station and turn the dial over to bliss.  So, you wanna help me make some baklava?  Might as well do something while you’re here, right?”

She didn’t feel like doing anything.  “I’m not great in the kitchen,” Lana said, but Bobby wasn’t taking a no.  He grabbed her hand and they got up and walked over to the kitchen.

“You’ll do the easy stuff, so don’t worry your pretty little head about it.”

The first thing she noticed was a painting she hadn’t seen, propped against the bottom cabinets and hidden behind a stack of Coke cans.  It was roughly the size of a newspaper, a dog sitting in the summery grass and panting, its pale pink tongue hanging out like an offering.  Stuck on the right corner was a 4x6 photograph that the painting was replicating, and it was unbelievably accurate, right down to the two drops of dog slobber that hung down in strings from his chin.

“Did Marco do this, too?”

“In two days, if you can believe it.”

Up to this point, Lana had assumed that all Marco was able to paint was abstract bursts of meaningless color, but she hadn’t realized that he possessed the ability to do normal stuff.  What a waste, she thought as she looked around the apartment again.  He could paint like this, but instead he wants to be weird.

“I always wanted a dog,” Lana said.

“So why don’t you get one?”

“We live in an apartment now.  They don’t allow dogs.”

“Fascists,” Bobby said.  “That’s what these landlords are, every single one of them.”

“Maybe it’s a good thing we didn’t have one, because we would’ve had to give him away.”

And suddenly Lana found herself talking about all the shitty things that had happened in her life.  It was startlingly easy to tell her story to this stranger; it wasn’t in a way you talk with someone you’ve known a long time, but easy in a different, freer way.  Oh my God, Bobby said, you poor thing, oh my goodness, and when she’d said all she could, he gave her a hug so tight it cracked her back.

Bobby poured a bag of walnuts onto the cutting board and handed her a butcher knife.   “Chop the hell out of it,” he told her.  “It’ll make you feel better.  There are two more bags after that one, so let it all out, girl.”

While chopping her second bag, the first batch came out, the smell of cinnamon, honey, and walnuts just heavenly.  “When it cools, let’s each have one, huh?”

“Sure.”  It was turning out to be a strange but interesting day, one she might remember for the rest of her life.

By the time the second batch was done, Marco was finished, too.  He looked sweaty and spent and took the glass of water Bobby had already poured for him and downed it three big gulps.

“So?” Bobby asked.

“I don’t know,” Marco said, flopping down on the sofa.  “I did the best I could.”

“He always says that,” Bobby told her.  He washed his hands and dried them on his apron.  “Come on, Lana,” he said with sarcasm, “let’s take a look at the best Marco could do.”

Sue was already on the other side of the canvas.  Her face was all scrunched up and her arms were locked, as if she were trying to solve a complicated mathematical problem in her head.

“Wow,” Bobby said.

Lana said nothing.  All she could do was stare at the three vertical bands of color on the canvas, a lonely shade of blue that started on the left merging into a vibrant red in the center merging back into a frigid, hard blue.  There was something profoundly sad about the movement of these hues from left to right, and sadder yet was what lay at the bottom of the painting.  Black outlines of strong geometric shapes – oblongs, hexagons, and a hundred tiny slivers of triangles – lined the floor, as if they’d all fallen from above.

Why had they fallen?

Why was Sue stuck in a foreign country?

Why did she have no friends?

Why was Marco schizophrenic?

Why did her father and brother have to die?

Why was the world such an awful place, when it didn’t have to be?

She stepped closer to the painting, filling her vision with that heartbreaking red, wanting to live out the rest of her life in the sea of that safe, loving red, but no matter how close she got – at some point, her nose bumped the canvas – she could never get rid of the blue at the corners of her eyes.

Award-winning author, novelist of Deep Roots, acclaimed essays in NYT, and creator of Amazon-adapted Modern Love series.