Still Life
                Fiction by Lisa Robertson

      It was probably February, since there were blossoms on the leafless plum
tree, when fifty-two years ago, I attended the Sacramento John F. Marshall
School, which at the time was the oldest grammar school in California.  We
went to a separate room for art class.  They say that of all the senses, hearing is
the last to go, but smell hasn’t left me yet either, maybe tonight, maybe
tomorrow, but alive for now, and I still remember the aroma of all the various
glues and pastes, turpentine and solvent, that odd slimy firmness of real clay,
and then a bright flash: the miracle of perspective drawing.  One day, when we
were assigned to draw anything we wanted, I knew immediately what I wanted
to draw: in perspective, three two-by-fours converging at right angles in the
corner of our small back porch, where we put the garbage next to the water
heater, adjacent to the plum trees, by the door that led down the stairs to Mr.
Renzo’s winter garden.  In the corner, hanging from an impossibly stiff tangle
of web, was a black widow spider.
      I wasn’t an entomologist then, just a ten-year-old kid with an anemic
mother and an outlaw step-father, but I knew it was a black widow because
last year when we lived on Lockbrae Street, Eddie, my mother’s new husband,
had killed one with a sewing needle held in a pair of pliers.  When the needle
punctured the rigid black balloon of abdomen, a stream of creamy white guts,
which were actually egg oviducts, streamed out.
      “You see that,” Eddie said.  “That’s something to see.”  He had just lost
his ninth and final boxing match.  I didn’t say anything, and then I went to bed,
but I didn’t really sleep.  Not for a long time.
      If my drawing was any good, I don’t know.  I probably drew the spider
all right, segmented body, eight legs, your standard arthropod.  I knew how to
work with detail, and could really draw Bugs Bunny and Sylvester Stallone and
Tom and Jerry, complete with surprise exclamation marks and knock-out stars
and anger-black clouds, facial expressions that I later learned the Germans had
excellent words for, when all the other kids were drawing cars and ships and
ponies, and I could do perspective all right too: spider, garbage can, two-by-
four, winter garden.  The branches of the leafless plum tree were as red as
blood, and the blossoms pink as intact flesh.  Even now, I believe that what can
grow out of a single ambitious cell is the greatest miracle.  Of course, there
were other things, but I left them out.  I was just a kid, and it was perspective
drawing, after all.  But the teacher must not have thought it was so bad, because
he called me in after school and gave me a box of watercolors and a sketchpad
to take home and draw anything I wanted to.
      Of course that instantly turned into some kind of homework assignment,
no fault of his.  And I tried as hard as I could to draw what I thought he
wanted to see.  I sat on the railroad tracks and drew a distant train past the
metal bridge over the Sacramento River, with grassy fields sweeping up to the
borders of the willow thickets, which the hobos had vacated because of
flooding.  They’d moved to cardboard huts and campfire circles at the city
dump, where the older kids went to shoot rats.  In cerulean, I painted the curve
of the railroad tracks and the splatter of white clouds in the azure sky.  I went
down to McKinley Park and painted the red birch trees in front of the
restrooms, with the iris gardens in the background where I would sometimes
walk with an old guy who told stories about how when he retired he would go
marlin fishing.  He would fish all day long, and that was the only thing he
would do, and only for marlin.  He must have been upwards of eighty, but he
sure knew what he was going to do when he retired.   
      And I know what you’re thinking about
that picture, an old guy sitting on
a park bench or walking in the iris gardens next to the public restrooms, but I
swear there was never the slightest impropriety.  Not that I didn’t leave some
things out.  For instance, in the bottom left corner of my page the blue oval of
the duck pond protruded just the way it is supposed to in a perspective drawing,
but I couldn’t depict the holes that went into the banks under the green water
where we would reach our arms to catch crawdads, or how we tried to pinch
each other with them.  I painted the mulberry trees in burnt ochre, but there was
no color in the palette that was right for their strange and delightful taste, or for
how hungry I was when I ate them, or for the stomachache I had after.  Or the
veined leaves of trees in front of the library where nesting black birds would
swoop down and hit you on the back of the head.  And I swear that just as I
wrote this I remembered for the first time since then, that directly across the
street was a store with a candy machine which dispensed with a difficult turn
of the knob a piece of gum wrapped in a Famous Lamontine trading card,
which for reasons I still don’t understand, I hated.  Something made me so
uncomfortable about those cards but I bought them anyway, at five cents each,
and kept them in a stack that I never looked at.  Maybe it’s because I was
hungry and wanted to spend the nickel on a candy bar, but for some reason
felt compelled to buy the Famous Lamontine cards.  These were a few things
I couldn’t draw.  There were others.  For instance: what color then is heaven?  
What pigment with which to depict the hereafter?  You begin to understand
why I focused on what I could see in front of me.
      One afternoon, I painted from the vantage point of the back porch.
      There was some kind of meat company across the street from our house.  
Against the side of the building was a row of 55-gallon metal barrels that the
older kids said were full of bloody bones, and one time we ran fast across the
small parking lot and looked into the barrels and sure enough, they were
packed with gristle and blood and marrow.  Sometimes hobos would walk out
of the parking lot carrying bags of bones back to their camp in the willow
thickets on the other side of the levee.  Eddie said that if you let those hobos
catch you, they’d cut you up and eat you, just like they ate those bones.  So of
course we would run down to the railroad tracks and out to the levee and
throw rocks down on the willows until the hobos came out yelling, and then
we’d run away scared to death.
      My grandfather, Monk Massey, was sometimes one of those hobos.  He
rode the trains when he had to go anywhere, and when he came to see us on
C Street, he got off the freight not too far from our house.  He always wore a
shiny, smelly, ancient brown suit, and had shoes with big holes covered with
folded magazine covers and an old cardboard suitcase.  And one of those
bowler hats he had worn most of his life in Oklahoma.
      Mom had just told my grandfather to leave for stealing the spending money
she had collected, in nickels and dimes and sometimes, when the grocery bill
was light, in quarters, clandestinely, over the past year.  She knew she would
need it someday, and she was right.  It turned out that Eddie hadn’t really
jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, and he wanted to hide at our house, but he
couldn’t because it was in the papers and the next-door neighbors already
knew about the whole thing.  And she knew she wouldn’t get away from Eddie
this time and now she didn’t have any money and no job and the neighbors
wouldn’t talk to us and she was only twenty-six with two kids and there was
nothing to eat except corn chowder and the district attorney Mr. Jacobs hadn’t
gotten very far with things but Eddie still wanted to spend the night at our
house, and there was nothing she could do about anything.  She walked out the
back kitchen door, past the black widow, past the water heater, down the
stairs and out into Mr. Renzo’s winter garden, where she now stood at the
center of my picture.
      Plum trees were everywhere that season: tree, branch, and those absurd
blossoms that hint at what Nabokov might have been right about after all, that
life is, in fact, nothing but a joke.  Yet, jokes make us in the end, laugh, and so
maybe it’s Roethke who gets it right when he says that we end in joy.  Maybe
that’s what happens.  Who knows?  Not me, not yet.  If I find out later, I’ll try
to let you know.  The leafless plum tree with a distinct red accent to the
branches defined the diagonal through Mom’s head to the brussels sprouts in
the bottom left corner.  She stood there sobbing.  The porch window was open
and I could hear her, just standing there with her hands to her face.  And while
I was drawing, little Mr. Renzo came out of his basement flat and put his hand
on Mom’s shoulder and stood next to her and just kept saying while he patted
her arm, “Everybody got a sack a troubles.  Some people got a big sack, some
people got a little sack, but everybody got a sack a troubles.”
      And the unbelievable thing about the past is that it actually happened.  
And that day, I didn’t draw Mom or Mr. Renzo, just the plum tree with the
low-slung redness on its bark and rows of brussels sprouts and cabbages in the
bottom left corner.  Later, the art teacher put the painting up in our hallway and
everybody thought it was pretty good.  And of course there’s something more
that could be said about all of this, but really needn’t be.  I know, I left all the
really good stuff out of my picture.  But like I said before, I was just a kid.
      In the weeks that followed, we ate brussels sprouts with our chowder.  
The neighbors warmed up when Mom made a sudden friend after discovering
a shared affinity for early afternoon gin cocktails with Ellen Reilly, who had
four girls, no husband, and much laundry.  Eddie never was convicted of the
bank robbery, but his car was repossessed after he left it running on the Golden
Gate Bridge during that misbegotten suicide charade.  And that was just enough
of a hiccup to allow Mom to get away from him, this time for good, although
where she got away to was Las Vegas and ultimately not so much better.  But
all this would happen later.  And that was also the last time I saw my
grandfather.  He died two years later in a county work farm, supposedly of
cirrhosis, although fifty years later, present events and congenital predispositions
and relevant medical history considered, I suspect it was something closer to
cancer of the pancreas.  I taught the sixth grade for more than thirty-five years,
right up until my early and surprise retirement, courtesy of the rapid unexpected
and its web of metastasis that for some reason, these days especially, I can’t
seem to think about without being reminded of the black widow.  Not the one
in my painting, but that first spider, the one Eddie went at with the sewing
needle.  I’d forgotten about it for most of my life.  I guess when you learn to see
one thing, the trade-off is that you might not see another.  And by the time you
read this, I’ll probably be dead, certainly everyone else in this story is.  But
don’t feel bad for anybody here, especially not me.  I’ve lived a good life, a far
better life than anyone might have suspected at the get-go.  And there’s nothing
very special I want to say about it, just something about that afternoon and the
way the branches stretched out over all that had happened so long ago on that
lawn, the perfect bisect between the corporeal vision of Mom and the brussels
sprouts and the dead lawn, and the colorless sky of heaven.           


Lisa Robertson’s fiction and poetry have been published in The Salt River
, Ascent Aspirations, and Word Riot, and her short story “The Orbit
of Known Objects” will be published in the
Tahoe Blues anthology in Spring
of 2012.  She is the poetry editor for the
Tonopah Review and lives with her
family in Northern California.

On “Still Life”:   
      I wrote this during the year that I became both a mother and an
orphan.  During that time, I thought a lot about what it means to have
lived a good life.  I don’t know if life is always stranger than fiction, but it
certainly is stronger, and during those months I came to understand that
the way we live our life is what is transmitted to our children.
      This story belongs to my father, someone who lived by a granite
moral code, who overcame tremendous obstacles and created an
extraordinary life.  Because he died relatively young, I spent a lot of time
trying to make sense of his life.  I kept coming back to the stories I had
grown up with, stories that had become so much a part of my existence
that I could no more identify their origin than I could identify the first
time I understood language, or remember my life before I had ever seen
the color blue, or the first time I realized how grateful I was to have had
the father that I did.  

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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Contemporary Literature

ISSN 1931-3888

Volume 7, Number 1
(Spring 2012)

Copyright © 2012
by Leah Browning, Editor.

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