Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Contemporary Literature
 

ISSN 1931-3888

Volume 9, Number 1
(Spring 2014)

Copyright © 2014
by Leah Browning, Editor.

All future rights to
material published
in the
Apple Valley
Review
are retained by
the individual authors
and artists.

www.applevalleyreview.com
A Return to Rothko
                  Fiction by Dave Patterson

                                                      I

      My mother catches me playing with our dead dog when I’m eight.  The
dog is a mutt.  Part Lab, part collie, part everything.  She’s black with tufts
of white hair on her underbelly and her nose.  She’s older than I am, and
I’ve never known life without her.  We’ve been preparing for her death for
months.  
      Her hind legs stick out from behind the couch.  It’s afternoon.  Summer.  
Doves call from the power lines in the yard.  I push the couch away from the
wall, and Maggie’s limp body shifts.  Her eyes are open.  They’re blue,
clouded, like shots of earth from outer space.  I squat over her, mesmerized
by the way her body isn’t alive.  
This is death, I think.  And the thought
causes me to lift her paw and drop it.  Over and over.  Lift.  Drop.  Lift.  
Drop.  Each time the paw falls with no resistance.  I try all of them.
      Prying open her mouth, I place my hand on her tongue.  I’m delighted
by the danger of having my fragile child’s hand inside the mouth of a beast.  
With my index finger, I press the jagged edge of each tooth.  The gums are
black and pink, and I run my finger along the smooth surface.  I squeeze her
rubber tongue in my hand.  The roof of her mouth is ridged and gives me
goose bumps when I scrape it with my fingernail.
      Outside, my friends shout as they play football, but I remain inside,
drunk on the dead dog.
      I fear she might come back to life and bite me like she once did when I
jerked her tail.  This thrills me.  I jerk her tail again and again now.  Harder
and harder.  Each tug satisfies.
      It’s in the midst of this action that my mother yells, “Sebastian!”  
      Shocked, I turn to see her standing in the doorway of the kitchen.  Her
hand over her mouth.  Crying, she repeats my name.  Not knowing what to
do, I cry and drop Maggie’s tail.  
      The football bangs against the side of our house.  My friend Ben sprints
into our yard and picks up the ball.  He waves to me through the window,
but when he sees I’m crying, he runs back to the game in the street and
points at our house.

      My mother tells the therapist she watched me play with the dead dog
for twenty minutes.  “Maybe thirty,” she says.  I’m revolted by how long that
sounds.  Could it really have been that long?  My mother wears one of the
floral print dresses she always wears in the summer.  She holds her hands
together on her lap to keep them from shaking.  She crosses and uncrosses
her legs.  Her eyes never look down at me while she speaks to the therapist.
      “I thought it was a child’s curiosity, but he didn’t stop.  I was afraid
where it might go if I didn’t say something.  He looked violent.  I was afraid
it might get—you know.”  She whispers the last words like she’s saying
something filthy against her will.
      The therapist takes notes on a yellow legal pad.  Here’s what I
remember about him: he’s younger than my parents, the leather on his brown
boat shoes is cracked with age, and he dresses in a bow tie.  I find his bow
tie funny, but I understand the grave nature of the situation enough not to
laugh.
      When my mother finishes describing the way I groped our dead dog,
the therapist looks at me over the wire rim of his glasses and asks, “So.  
Why’d you do it?”
      “That’s just it, he won’t tell me or his father,” my mother says.  “We sat
him down at the dinner table and demanded he tell us what he was doing to
poor Maggie, and he refused to speak.”
      This is true.  I didn’t have an answer, so I sat in silence while they
yelled, cried, and begged for me to explain myself each night at dinner until
my mother made this appointment.
      I study the therapist’s shoes.  Why are they so tattered?
      “Would you feel more comfortable if your mother was out of the room?”
he asks me.  I remember that his voice is even, never rising or falling with
any semblance of emotion.
      It feels like a trick, so I don’t answer.  My mother looks at me for the
first time since we entered the office.  “See,” she says.  
      I want to say the right combination of confessions and apologies to
relinquish my mother from the horror she feels about me.
      “Why don’t you sit out in the waiting room,” he says to my mother.  “It
might help.”
      She tightens her lips and makes a grunting sound in protest, but finally
nods and leaves the room when the therapist gives her a wide-eyed look.
      “It’s just us now,” he says when my mother closes the door.  
      This doesn’t help me know how to talk.  Then, I wasn’t able to say what
I was feeling.  I didn’t have the words.  Now I understand that at eight, I was
horrified that my actions could be something to be ashamed of.  That there
were parts of me my parents wanted kept secret.  Up until that point, I moved
through the world unmasked.  But the way my mother reacted to the incident
with Maggie told me there were pieces of myself I needed to bury away.  I
can see this with clarity now, but then, I was a frightened boy with no words.
      “Why don’t you tell me what you felt when you were touching your dog,”
he says.  
      On the wall of his office is a framed print of a Rothko painting.  Two red
rectangles surrounded by a brilliant yellow.  The shading of the yellow at the
edges makes the painting appear to be alive.  
      “Your mother’s not here now.  You can talk.  Perhaps she’s
exaggerating the situation.”
      I don’t answer.  He turns to see that I’m staring at the Rothko.  “What
does it make you think?” he asks.  He’s persistent that way.
      We stare at the painting in the silence he wants me to fill with words I
don’t have.  
      “Ok,” he finally says.  “Why don’t you and I observe the painting, and if
you feel like talking about the incident, just start talking.”
      This is how we fill that first hour.  And every hour after that in our once-
a-week sessions.  Me, the boy on his couch, and him, the grown man in a
bow tie, both staring at a Rothko print until at the end of the hour he says,
“That’s it for this week.”   
      My mother cancels the sessions after two months and demands a refund
from the therapist.  I’m not sure if she ever got it.


                                                      II

      One hand reaches out through the translucent shower curtain.  The sound
of water from the showerhead is morbidly loud.  I grope for the knob without
pulling back the curtain.  Steam rises around me.  When I step back from the
tub, my knee brushes his fingertips.  His hand is bloated.  Through the curtain,
I make out the sallow outline of his naked body.  I’ve never seen my father
naked.  I pull back the curtain.  The hair on his chest and thighs is matted.  
Water rolls off his skin in endless rivulets.  His legs are crossed in an almost
formal posture.  There’s no blood.  Winter sunlight through the window glints
off the grey irises of his eyes.  
      I kneel next to the tub and take his hand in both of mine.  I squeeze and
squeeze hoping he’ll squeeze back.  I’m not crying.  
      From the doorway, my mother gasps.  I look up, and she recoils.  I’ve
seen this look before.  Her eyes stay on me, never moving to my father’s
lifeless body.

      It’s Maggie all over again.  I’m fifteen.  In the seven years since Maggie,
my mother eventually stopped looking at me out of the corner of her eye, and
I stopped feeling like some kind of pervert and went back to being a child.  
Then I find my father dead in the shower from a heart attack.  
      After the funeral, my mother tells me I’m going to talk with our priest
once a week.  “The way you were holding his hand,” she says.  “And you
didn’t even cry at the funeral.”  She’s right.  I want to cry.  In my head, I beg
myself to cry.  I’m sad.  Horribly so.  Sitting next to my weeping mother at
the funeral, though, I’m tearless.
      Now it’s just the two of us at dinner.  Having to deal with me seems like
a sweet relief for my mother in the wake of my father’s death.  She interrupts
the silences of our meals to comment on the scene she witnessed between me
and my dead father.  “You pulled back the curtain,” she says.  Or, “You
didn’t even look scared.”
      I don’t fight with her about going to see Father Francis.  I give her that.
      Father Francis’s black priest clothes are starched.  I remember that
about our meetings.  That and the fact that he eats jellybeans as we talk and
doesn’t offer me any.  He removes his collar; it sits in an oval on his office
desk.  The office is small.  No windows.  He leans back in his chair and folds
his hands over his large stomach.  He’s in his sixties.  His hair is perfect white,
like his collar.
      I sit in a wooden chair on the other side of his desk.  While he eats
jellybeans, I think of the Rothko painting from the therapist’s office when I
was eight.  Two red rectangles with a living yellow border.  
      I don’t remember everything that’s said, but I do remember that he’s
cocksure.  Mostly he wants me to know that my mother is worried about me.  
      “She told me about the incident with your dog,” he says.
      “I was eight,” I say.  “Her name was Maggie.”
      “What were you doing with the dog?”
     “I don’t know.  I was eight.  There was an excitement to being around
death.  To get to experience it without looking away,” I say.  I’m trying.
      “And your father?”
      “I was in the kitchen when I heard the crashing sound from the
bathroom.  I think I knew before I entered the room.  But I wasn’t scared.  
What happened is just what happened.  Isn’t that part of grief?”
      He’s fond of the red jellybeans.  His plump fingers push around the other
candies until he exposes a red one.  He places a red jellybean on his tongue
and chews slowly. “Should your mother be frightened about all of this?” he
asks.  
      “Frightened about all of
this,” I say, “or frightened of me?”
      He exposes another red jellybean and inspects it between his thumb and
forefinger.  “Is there a difference?” he asks and places the candy on his
tongue.

      Unlike the incident with Maggie, my mother never stops eyeing me.  
There’s a hesitancy that lasts through all my years in high school: after a
hockey game where I score a hat trick, she greets me in the parking lot
wordlessly; on the night of my prom, she nearly cuts me out of the
photograph with my date.  It’s not until I go to college a thousand miles away
that the trepidation leaves her.  I graduate and she begs me to return to
Maine.  I’m so thrilled she wants me to come home that I cry on the phone.  
Before making the trip, I go to a church and mourn my father.  I sob in the
sanctuary until I hyperventilate and a deacon has to calm me down.
      My twenties pass.  I marry Harper, my longtime college girlfriend.  The
two of us have career crises like adults do.  We have our daughter, Jolie, and
our son, Mark.  My mother’s hair fades from black to white.  Lines appear at
the edges of her mouth and eyes when she smiles, playing with her
grandchildren.  Maggie and my father happened in another lifetime we never
revisit.


                                                      III

      The man down the street disappears two weeks before Christmas.  His
name is Jim Adams.  He’s in his sixties and seems friendly enough, but I
don’t know him well.  Cops search the neighborhood with dogs.  They knock
on doors and ask if anyone’s seen him.
      “He went out for a walk,” a female officer tells me, “and he never came
home.”  We’re standing in my driveway.  Mark and Jolie pack snow on the
base of the snowman we’re building.
      “I’ll keep my eyes open and contact you if I see anything,” I say.  I don’t
want to talk about this in front of my children.
      When the officer leaves, I go back to helping my kids with the snowman.

      It’s a Saturday.  Zero degrees outside.  I’m loading my truck to take a
run to the dump.  The kids and Harper are inside with my mother making
Christmas cookies.  
      I load the trash barrels from the shed and remember the two bags of
leaves from the fall that I left in the back yard.  I walk through knee-deep
snow.  I left the black bags against the stone wall.  Spotting the tops sticking
out of the snow, I cross the yard.  They’ve frozen to the ground, so I have to
dig them out with my gloved hands.  When they’re free, I lift them out of the
snow.  Beyond the stone wall, in my neighbor’s yard, I see what I think is
another bag.  Maybe I forgot that there were three bags instead of two.  
Maybe one bag blew out of my yard and into my neighbor’s.  I step over the
wall.  When I’m within ten feet, I see that what I’m looking at is a man’s
body.  His skin has turned black from rot and cold.  I nearly vomit.  Covering
my nose with my glove, I take a few steps closer to be sure.  His white
goatee contrasts the blackened skin, and a Boston Red Sox hat rests on his
head.  It’s Jim Adams.  He’s dressed in pajamas.  It looks like an animal
chewed at his cheek.  
      Using my cell phone, I call the police and describe what I’ve found.  I
hang up and run to the house, trudging through the snow.  When I reach the
back porch, I stop and breathe deeply.  I don’t want to startle Harper and the
kids.  Or my mother.
      Inside, I pull Harper into the hallway.  “I found him,” I say.
      “Mr. Adams?” she asks.  
      I nod.  “The police are on their way.  I’ll deal with them.  You keep the
kids occupied.”  I go outside and stand at the end of the driveway.
      A cop car, an ambulance, and a fire truck arrive with their sirens
sounding and lights flashing.  I look at the house.  Mark and Jolie’s faces are
pressed against the window.
      “Follow my tracks to the backyard,” I say to a fireman.  “He’s beyond
the stone wall.”
      In the house I tell the kids to go back to the kitchen and finish making the
cookies.  Mark protests, but his older sister takes his hand and leads him out
of the room.
      “Is it him?” my mother asks.  We’re alone in the living room. She gives
me a look I haven’t seen in twenty years.  Colored lights blink on and off on
our Christmas tree.
      “Yes,” I say.  “He’s bad.”
      “You found him out there?” she asks.  “It was
you who found him.”
      It’s happening again.  But I’m thirty-five now.  I have words.  “What do
you think I did?  What do you think I ever did?”
      “The dog.  Your father.  Now this man.”  She’s going to cry.  “I thought
you were better.”
      “I don’t think I ever
did anything.  I think I was always better.”  The
words feel like they’ll come now.  All of them want to push out of my body
at once.
      “You looked just like him—”
      “Who?”
      She’s crying now.  
      Harper comes into the room.  “Is everything all right?” she asks.  
      My mother leaves the room.  The bathroom door slams.
      “What’s this all about?” Harper asks.  
      “My mother’s upset,” I say.  “She’ll calm down.”  I don’t tell Harper
anything else.  I’ve never told her about the therapist with the bow tie or the
priest who ate red jellybeans or why I went to college in Michigan.  Soon, I’ll
have to tell her everything.
      I help the kids finish cutting out the cookies with a Santa-shaped cookie
cutter.  The paramedics carry the body across the back yard on a stretcher.  
It’s in a black body bag.  
      I distract the children by taking a bite of raw cookie dough.  “Daddy,”
Jolie scolds.
      “I’m sorry, honey,” I say.  
      Police officers and firefighters scour the yard.  
      My mother comes into the room.  She smiles at the children.  “The oven
needs to be preheated,” she says.  “Three hundred and fifty degrees.”  She
gives me a look, and I know we’re back in the past.  

      I order the print off the internet.  When it arrives I take it to my office in
the basement.  I roll out the poster and pin it to the wall with four yellow
tacks.  I position my rolling chair across the room and sit with my feet
propped up on a small filing cabinet.  It takes a moment, but the Rothko
painting flickers to life just as it did when I was eight.  Colors float.  The red
and yellow cling to each other one moment, but push each other away the
next.  The painting throbs and breathes on the wall.  The two red rectangles
boiling against the smoldering yellow edges, threatening to burn down this
entire house.           





                         ____________________________


Dave Patterson attended the Bread Loaf School of English, where he
won first place in the Freeman Fiction Writing Contest.  He is also a
graduate of the Stonecoast MFA program in Creative Writing.  Patterson’s
work has appeared in
The Onion River Review, Hot Metal Bridge, The
Drunken Odyssey
, and Storyacious.  He lives in Portland, Maine.  For
more information, please visit his website at davidrpatterson.wordpress.com.


On “A Return to Rothko”:
     “A Return to Rothko” began in two pieces.  Piece one: my friend’s
dad finds the body of a missing man in his backyard.  The way he
describes the discovery is vivid and haunting—skin black, clothes torn,
limbs half-covered in snow.  I can’t shake the image.  
     The second piece arose from my new obsession to come to terms with
the art of Philip Rothko.  After years of proclaiming it artistic foolery,
I begin sitting with his pieces and letting them affect me as they will.  
What I find are pieces of art that appear to breathe on the canvas.  
They are alive and electric and brimming with the mystery of meaning.  
These two pieces kindled the flames of the complicated lives of
Sebastian and his mother.  As I wrote, it became clear that the most
complex character in the story was Sebastian’s mother.  For me, it’s
a story about the meanings we impose upon others, and the way
those imposed meanings become internalized and part of one’s
understanding of self.  The slippery meaning of Rothko’s paintings
mirrored the fractured understanding of identity Sebastian
experiences.      


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