Life’s Work, by David J. Wright

I find the girl down one of the wide gallery halls, folded forward on a bench, elbows on sharp knees, the fingers of one hand at her lips. She’s long like a fishing pole, and her head is just about shaved except for a couple of curls pigtailing off the top, and her nose is long. I see five or six jangling earrings in her left ear, the ear facing me, and I can see a ring in her lower lip, and a ball-headed stud in her left eyebrow. She’s not beautiful – hey, she’s not even pretty, not from this angle, not in this light, probably no matter what.

“Hi,” I say, sitting down on the bench, a person and a half between us. I offer her a look but she doesn’t return it. I turn my head to see the painting she’s examining.

It’s a big one, a rectangle maybe two feet on the side, maybe four feet across the top. There are a lot of dark colors, blacks and browns and purples, stroked in wide, circular patterns around a pale yellow starburst in the center. The strokes are funny, since they don’t look like they were made by a brush. They’re irregular, fat to thin to fat again, smears almost, made by some semi-rounded surface. *Fingerpainting?* I wonder.

The card underneath the painting has the word *Capture* in calligraphy, and underneath that in block capitals is the word *Ami*.

“Do you like it?” the girl asks. She doesn’t turn toward me and she doesn’t move her fingers from her lips, so the question comes out a little blurred, a little self-conscious.

“Yeah, I do. There’s real energy in it,” I say. “It’s almost like you can see the darkness moving in on that light.”

She doesn’t say anything.

“I don’t usually get abstracts,” I say. “Give me hunters on horses or big fat naked women any day, and I know what I’m looking at. But this I like. It’s the movement. You know, the energy.”

She doesn’t say anything.

“I guess I’m not really much when it comes to art. I didn’t even know this place was here actually. I’ve driven by it, I don’t know, maybe a hundred times. You see the sign, *Temple D*, you think it’s another of those funky religions, the ones where they say you can only eat home-grown wheat and you have to wear black headbands and you can’t go out on rainy days.”

She doesn’t say anything.

“Friend of mine put me on to it. He’s not exactly an art type either, but he said the work in here just blew him away, that I had to check it out. That’s my buddy Bernie, always wanting to try new things. I wasn’t even sure if they’d be open on a Tuesday night.” I smile at her, but she doesn’t smile back. “My name’s Walter, by the way.”

She doesn’t say anything.

A real hottie, this one, a real firecracker. Getting a look at her closer up, under the wash of the 40-watters recessed in the ceiling, the harsher bulbs throwing funnels of lights along the walls, she looks like she might be cute, maybe even pretty, if she didn’t have those lines in her forehead, the sharp incision between her studded eyebrows–yes, there’s a twin stud on the other side–her narrow lips pulled down in a fart-smelling frown. She has a half-T on, silkscreened with pastels and spattered with dribbles of old paint, and she has black tights on. It doesn’t look like she’s wearing underwear.

“I see the paint,” I say. “Are you an artist?”

She nods. Her index finger, the one at her lips, straightens up briefly, and she says, “This is one of mine.”

I look at the painting again. “Really? Yours?” I look at the card. “So you’re… Ami?” I pronounce it *AY-mee*.

“Ah-MEE,” she corrects, making it sound like the word for “friend,” I think in French.

“Ami,” I say, pronouncing it her way, feeling foolish.

There are a few moments as we both enjoy the name, and then she says, “So you like it?”

“Oh, sure, absolutely,” I say. “Real… um… energy.”

She glances my way, but not at me, and she nods to another painting, this one smaller, square, about two feet at a side. “That’s one of mine too.”

I slide down the bench to take a look at it. This one’s almost all black, and I can see where the paint has been applied with four fingers and the side of a hand. There’s no sign of a brush stroke anywhere. Again, there’s movement in the work, starting at the left and right sides and arcing down toward the bottom and then joining and moving up in the middle. Near the top, a ragged area of white canvas was left blank like an ascending ghostly shape, riding that tide of motion.

The card underneath reads, *Release*.

“Wow,” I say. “That’s amazing. My eyes can’t help following it.”

“Do you know what it is?”

I can see she’s serious, so I lean forward and really give the painting a good looking at. I mean, I examine the hell out of that painting, assuming a pose similar to hers, elbows on knees, fingers at mouth. “Is it…” I say. “Uh… it looks like… is it somebody dying? That part right there, it looks like a ghost, that’s the first thing I thought of. A ghost going up to heaven.”

And for that, I get a smile. It’s not a pretty one. Her teeth overlap, point inward, and they are a few shades off of white. That might just be the lighting in here, but I don’t think so.

“You do see it, don’t you?” she says.

“I’m not sure what I’m seeing actually. I’m just telling you what it looks like.”

“No, you’re right. You’ve got it exactly. It’s my Gramma. She was sick. Real sick. She wasn’t getting better. And I thought it would be nice. Her dying. All the pain stopping. So I painted this. I let her go.”

“You… let her go?”

She makes a microscopic laugh–*heh*–and looks right at me. Nope, not pretty at all. Intense, yes, but not pretty.

“It took me a while to figure it out,” she says. “I was in third grade. I did a painting called *Autumn*. I didn’t know why. It had a lot of red in it. At the bottom. And there was… what did you call it? Movement? From top to bottom. At recess I fell off the Jungle Jim. Hit on my head, right on a big rock. I still have the scar.” She turns her head, rubs a webwork of matted skin behind her ear. Her hair’s a little thicker there, but I can still see the old wound.

“Really,” I say.

“I thought my work was just seeing. Back then. I painted one, *Displace*. It was boxes in a house. My father got a new job. We had to move. I painted one, *Shred*. It was books and papers. They were torn up. My parents got divorced.”

“Okay,” I say.

“I painted more like that. I thought I was seeing these things. Then I thought I might be causing these things. I started trying. It was hard. Really hard. I almost gave up. A lot of times. Then I painted one called *Through*. Bright colors, yellows and oranges, some pinks. I was painting my first show. My art teacher came to me. She said my paintings were going to be put up in school. That’s when I knew.”

“Huh,” I say.

“That’s where *Release* came from. My Gramma. I’ve done a few others. It’s how I got in here. It was one called *Faith*. When I needed money for rent, that’s when I painted *On Deck*. I got a check from my father. When my car was breaking down, I painted *Marathon*. It started working again. I don’t do it that much. It doesn’t seem right.”

“Wow,” I say.

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