The Cloud Painter’s Lover

Terese Svoboda

The orange car the sixteen-year-old has been eyeing ever since he strapped himself in is taking up the aircan’t they feel it? The boy lunges at the windshield, he smacks the windshield so hard with his fist, with his Open the window! that it shatters. She grabs the wheel from the backseat so his father can calm the kid down, then it’s hell while the father wrenches the car off the freeway, chunks of bloodied windshield, the roar of traffic after the big Pow of explosion.

She takes over driving, she weeps at Emergency while the father hauls out the kid who won’t go, won’t go, and then the kid bolts inside, six feet of mania. He’s his father’s size, he’s got his big frame, his big hands, but his father’s are shaking, he can’t get open the door as fast as his son. He gallops after him toward the Emergency entrance where orderlies or whatever the hell you call them come out the door toward him in squadron formation, the boy caught in their arms, struggling.

I don’t bite! his son screams, and his father nods while they jab the needle into the boy’s arm, the cold drug flowing, he nods with big cartoon eyes.

 

On the way home, she says he was right about the windshield. The air feels great.

Ha. His father isn’t steady yet so his Ha is barked but he agrees, he too likes the air rushing at them as if they had a convertible instead of this wreck, but not the gravelly feel of the broken glass bits on the seat, whatever they couldn’t get brushed out.

She puts her hand on his arm, the one on the wheel. We could eat, she says, nodding sharp at the drugged kid in the back. He’s not going to wake up for a while.

I can’t figure out what time of night it is, he says. I think it’s yesterday. Isn’t it yesterday? The other boy’s still out? When did he say he was coming home?

The window screen rips.

I fixed that, his father gasps straight from sleep. He sits up.

Count backwards, she says.

A kitchen thing falls.

He heaves his legs over the side of the bed, head still bowed.

At least he’s home, she says. At least the other one’s asleep.

Fuck, says the boy in the hall, says in his not-at-all-tired voice, the wired one.

His father whacks the door into the wall, grips the kid vomiting on his feet, just grips him.

She’s afraid to look, afraid this one’s sick too. Are you sick? she calls from the bed.

Saliva trailing, the kid smiles big at the door. I tried crack, he says.

 

Give her a man in a ripped T-shirt with a loud motorcycle or matted hair to the shoulders, a flip way with a cigarette—her lover has all those traits and more. Of course, in her day, when bad boys were bad boys, they never had parents—or anyway, none you ever saw. Ten years after they met, he turned parent by proxy by adopting his dead brother’s two boys, because their mother was too much of a drunk to manage them. The little boys called him Daddy right away—so endearing. He surprised her by taking on the role so easily, calling time out, reading them stories, buying the boys squirt guns and ice cream.

He surprised her again when, two years later, she saw a document she shouldn’t have, two whole years later. At the time they were 10,000 miles out of LA, on an island that was building a huge casino that needed clouds, his kind of big-money, low-art job. They had been dressing for its opening at the time, a tux for him, a formal hand-sewn from Singapore for her, when she found the document searching for a pair of pearls in the last drawer of the house. Read fast, unreadable, she tucked it into her clutch. She was in shock already from the boys asking her about cunnilingus an hour before, no—told her how it was done, courtesy of the last summer spent with their mother.

His wife.

It was an accident, he told her at the end of the party. He was helping his brother build a house a state away, you remember? and she was hanging around. His brother was just helping him out, living with her.

Two accidents? she said.

He bowed, on bended tux knee, asking her to forgive him. Other partygoers assumed he was proposing and clapped.

She didn’t have the money to fly home so they worked it out beneath the fake sky full of his clouds, over the slot machines and a fountain of alcohol neither of them much cared for. Was she going to bear children at the age that they had met? No. He had wanted a family.

 

Wanted. She brushes her teeth, turning the word over in her brain like a ball you could throw and hit someone with. Past tense.

Now he’s asleep where he landed after locking the crack-tester into his room. The gray couch sets off his paleness, his white hair punk-straight off his head, his still handsome face pinched even in sleep.  He has heart problems, Mr. Gruff Sex and Long Kisses, Mr. That’s Art with a Capital A, and eyebrows that stay peaked. Heart problems! He hasn’t slept through the night since the boys were “adopted” so long ago, with those fake papers he waved at her while saying how much he loved her. Society is artificial, after all, he said in defense, its rules dreamed up just for order. If you fall out of step, is it a crime? Children, per se, are not inherently bad; they come, and here they are.

Though she could no longer make those cheerful art videos like How to Fry a Grapefruit that museums appreciated and collected, she had given up on being angry. She had taken a job subbing at the boys’ school so she could keep a cheerful eye on them, but her job soon became more about the money. Fewer clouds on the horizon. Last month the administration required her class to write a thank you note to a much-hated principal. They refused. She suggested they write about their real feelings and then put that paper aside and write something phony. One child complained to his mother.

Without the subbing job, she had no idea that the younger one, as blonde and thin as a Pop-Tart, had skateboarded into the wrong crowd. These guys are all about the exercise, he smoke-screened; they don’t even like computer games. What they liked, apparently, was crack. So bright he tested out of his grade and so bad he flunked it twice and had to be homeschooled; he was so damaged he couldn’t talk for the first six sessions of therapy.

He worries when his father skips a meal, he gives him his share.

Now he’s banging something loud against his bedroom wall.

She planned to visit a graffiti show today that she would never take the boys to, too much glorification of the “writers,” as these destroyers of public surfaces are called by the adoring newspapers. The show is supposed to be so hip, so totally gang-positive. Adolescents—black and white—have it tough enough here without gang influence, positive or negative. Last week six neighborhood boys hung around the park ten minutes after the movie let out, and a police helicopter and sixteen patrol cars descended, weapons first. Curfew, they bull-horned. The boys scattered. Big mistake. One of the boys was heat-sensed out of a compost bin. On the day of the hearing, all the fathers had to take off work, but the cops didn’t bother to show; the judge just collected the fines.

The older boy slugs his father Good Morning, right where he fell off a ladder at work. The old man yelps. The boy responds by belching, his head inside the fridge. They sometimes work together and he’s good—he wears himself out. Sloe-eyed like his father, his chest broadening, Cute is his tag. He tells girls he and his dad paint clouds. Lie down, he tells them. I’ll show you how—and forgets to go back to class. His hooky-playing is supposed to be made up this week but he’s staying home to get over the drugs the hospital put into him the night before, making his moves zombie and tired, a little like his dad’s. His younger brother’s not going anywhere either, today he’s utterly useless, cracked, unable to stand upright. She has to keep them both home and good luck, says her lover, taking the keys of the car that still has a windshield.

So much for the graffiti exhibit.

She is tired. They aren’t her kids. She sits on the couch and pets her dog. When the dog howls at a passing car, she determines he hasn’t been fed. Someone would’ve had to open a new bag of food. She opens it. Half the wet food in the can inside the fridge is gone. The younger boy likes it, desperate from their new routine of locking the cupboards so the boys won’t sell food for drugs. Of course neither has an allowance. The very word.

Put us in a foster home, they insist. Just not with Mom.

Mom keeps boyfriends who shoot and boyfriends who shoot up. She used to be a nanny until she and her employer got drunk while the boys and her charge set fire to the backyard. Now she is born again in a huge church not far from where she cooks for a living, a church the boys are required to attend. They roam the church grounds with other kids, doing “youth activities,” activities that girls fear, that girls tell on, that girls cooperate with.

Stop says the sign, their father says. Nobody’s going to make you, but you’d better think about it.

There are good boys. The school has examples, boys who blush and boys who save up for Mother’s Day. She has talked to scout leaders and not the preying type her boys insist they are, and she has even seen actual altar boys at work. Forget that, the boys say, that’s really dangerous. Their friends invade their place every few days, crash the keys of the piano and then set up beer pong on its lid, telling her it’s urine in the paper cups, not to worry.

Mental illness, she tells the younger one about his brother’s problems, but last week when the older one came home with cigarette burns up his arm, the younger picked out a face on the flesh between his forefinger and thumb and kept it raw by rubbing it with an eraser.

Something’s still crashing in the bedroom. Over and over, a percussion recital just for her. No—she looks at herself in the mirror, mouth twisting—not for her, it’s not personal. She pries open the lock to the door with a knife. The skateboard is attached to a spring to make it bounce forever against the very battered wall, and the boy has escaped through another ripped screen.

She puts the leash on the dog who needs walking anyway, she will find that boy and set him straight, now and not later. At the door, she tells the older one Yes, he can use her computer—for history, not pornography.

What’s the difference? he yells.

She passes the geranium pots of the complex as she walks toward the beach a mile away. All the ozone will perk her up and the smog is moot, the dog at least amenable. She walks and tries not to think.

She fails. He says he doesn’t want to trap her in marriage, or she’ll be legally responsible for them too.

And if you were carted off to the hospital, she says, I wouldn’t be allowed to see you, and your sons will tell them not to resuscitate you.

He laughs. Don’t give them any ideas. Just think—you’ll get more social security from your first husband if we don’t get married.

True, but not much of a reason for him to stay married to that—

No—she isn’t angry, she’s furious. His head’s in the clouds, she says to the shrink, even to the social worker you get when the rules get out of control, even the rules. Her lover is an airhead. But she knows he sees over the clouds to some clear space she wants to be in, and she doesn’t leave.

The suburbs stretch as far as the eye can see, hill and dale. She spent a good fifteen years single in it, she knows it well. A dog park lies south, a closer goal than the beach. She shoots the curve of the subdivision she’s passing with her iPhone, all the camera she has for her cheerful art that they haven’t stolen and hocked. She keeps the phone under her pillow at night. It’s in our house, they say. Whatever’s in it is ours.

House, not home.

She walks on, creating a suite of stills: red blooms against the blue-painted patio, the face of a vendor asleep beside his Hot Tamales, and every license plate she can find at every angle, a series that ends on the face of the younger boy standing on top of the hill, his board under his feet, his hands empty, such a long face.

She can’t see past him over the hill, and then she does: she sees blood streaming from the head of another boy lying on the curb next to a splintered skateboard. A car is stopped mid-street and a bald guy is standing beside it, not walking toward the boy but holding out his phone. Sirens scream faint in the distance.

A friend? she says.

The younger one gets off his board and puts it under his arm. Fuck, he says.

She takes his hand as if he were a kid.

 

The party’s on a lawn where the houses all around it shout Deco-Deco, and tiny protein on planes of starch are passed by college students dressed very much like caterers. He shakes the hands of the art-illustrious, the ones covered in lustre he tells her later, and lustre, she guesses, is a finish hard to wash off. They all know him, she is proud to see; he has a place among them that makes him want to leave early before they can get him into compromising positions is what he says after, but she makes him stay longer and grovel, he says, until he shuts them all up by showing him pictures of his boys. Now she says Look at the sun, which is showing up already at the very edge of the ocean you seldom notice here even though it is so close, the ocean snapping at the sand where they sit, two pebbles from clearing the beach.

Another dawn but a good dawn. No clouds.

 

Crickets call from the boys’ lizard’s cage inside, the calls fewer and fewer, more and more panicked. She’s crocheting squares, white patch, brown, in a chair in the yard among the few wisps of grass she’s plucked dandelion-free. Two windowless sheds stay empty and locked behind her, extra space for the boys to do what in? Too hard to monitor. It’s good the older boy kicked out the door to his bedroom, she doesn’t even have to go in to see what he’s up to. At least all the writing he’s encircled the room with is painted over. They had to take him to Emergency again, and at last his mother admitted that her mother went out of control, too. Not her, of course. The younger boy’s door is gaffer-taped together. He wants a door no matter what. He’s afraid of his brother now, he cries at therapy. Both boys now recline in their rooms with their devices, silent, so silent she goes outside to worry and crochet squares in this small square of grass.

The boys’ father appears and stations himself at the threshold of the backyard, neither in nor out, holding a bowl of cereal. Someone left teeth marks in the butter, he says.

Cut the teeth part off, she says. She watches her fingers keep to the crochet pattern. Butter is expensive.

I didn’t do it, says the older boy who pushes at his father from behind and shows him his teeth. He holds two chicks in his hands, one black, one yellow.

Are you going to feed them to the dog? she asks.

Dogs don’t like chickens, cats do. He bought them, he says about his father.

Two-fifty apiece, his father says. They’re soft.

They like to eat gravel, says the boy. He sets them down and leaves them to peck at the little grass at her feet. The dog sniffs them, sits on his haunches in boredom.

His father spoons into his cereal. I’m going to take the boys on a hike, he says at the bottom of the bowl. Want to come?

They’ll wear shoes?

He laughs as if he’s not sure.

She whips a finished square off the needles. I’ll bring the water.

 

They are standing in the shade of a rock with the dog, the younger boy jumping up and down in the distance, the older one spread out on top of the rock lighting matches and dropping them onto the desert floor.

See that cloud, says the father. Turner painted it with yellow, blue, ivory and pink. That’s how you get a good cloud.

The dog barks at one of the matches falling too close. The boy squints at another flame in his hand.

I’ll bet you don’t know he used to be head of the art department at the university, she says, stepping into the sun to avoid a match.

You went to school? says the boy.

Vietnam made you want to go to school. His father puts out the match with his foot.

The younger brother hops toward them. She squats to look at the cactus spine in his shin. He does not cry, he just sticks his leg out at her.

You’re a failure, says his older brother to his father.

Seriously? asks his father, so calm it’s as if the heat of the desert has baked his emotions solid.

She pulls out the spine and the younger one doesn’t scream, he wrenches the spine out of her hand and threatens his brother with it. His brother leans over the edge of the rock with a new burning match. Money, money, money, he says to his dad. That’s the point. Not art.

Let’s go, the younger one says, swiveling away. He pretends to skateboard over the rough sand, his leg wound forgotten. Let’s get out of here.

If we go now, she says, we’ll be stuck in school traffic.

Stuck in school, stuck in school, chants the younger boy, hopping away. That would be the worst.

His father throws a rock into the distant desert horizon. What would make you a success? he asks the older boy.

He’s gained weight since he’s been on medication. A lot of girls, he says.

I had that, says his father.

She’s about to say something—isn’t she supposed to?—when the dog pulls hard on his leash. She wants to let him go and find whatever jackrabbit he thinks is out there; she doesn’t want to be tethered to him, too. But after she says Don’t pull, he doesn’t, he listens to her.

The younger one says the car is too far away, couldn’t somebody drive over here and pick them up?

She remembers then she left the iPhone with the bottle of water no one wanted, she walks the ten feet back to the car and locates it. Commemorative moment, she announces, on her return to the rock. I want all three of you to jump as high as you can together. When I say Jump.

No, says the older boy but he slides off the rock anyway, breaking his fall with his cigarette-burned arm, landing at their feet.

Jump! she says. To her surprise, all three of them—the heavy white-headed lover, the filled-out older boy, the lanky younger one—throw themselves into the air, each of them with a smile jerked onto their face by the falling part of the motion, all their six feet each an inch off the desert floor, and down.

The younger one keeps on jumping all the way to the car.

Money is the point? she says, getting behind the driver’s seat, behind its new windshield. Say that when you’re standing there, rich and unhappy and alone.

You believe all that stuff the media tells you? says the older boy, throwing himself into the back seat.

Yeah, you’re so gullible, says the younger one, and manufactures a loud noise with his armpit and hand.

Apropos of a look between her and his father, the older one says: You think I’m stupid? You’ll see—I’m going to college.

The younger one stops his noise, he stops and stares out the window. In the rearview mirror she sees his face go cold and set.

You’re smart too, she says and doesn’t regret it.

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