The Writers Voice
Three Different Ways to Tell a Lie
I hear my father, a painter, speaking in the background. My father only speaks on the telephone when he is making business phone calls or if there is trouble. He does not know this but today is my last day at home. I am afraid for my parents but I am more afraid of their reaction.
My mother is talking about leaving but that is just talk and my father believes that only preachers and church folks don’t tell the truth. I know that’s not true but I cannot argue with him. See, he’s from down South, way down South where sometimes my girl cousins molest me against my will and my grandmother fixes chitterlings and swears it is not pig meat but something else. Some say it tastes salty but I am the wrong person to ask, I am a vegetarian.
I am very excited about my quest. I am painting a portrait of this factory worker city. A paintbrush that guides my hands is under my full-size canopy bed. I plan to pull it out tonight after my parents are asleep.
I expect that they are going to want to see the portrait of her. I am prepared for that. My wrong address is going to lead them down the wrong street. The next time my parents see me, I am on television. The black woman news anchor with the Spanish name and the red freckles is interviewing me, and I am famous.
A painter. That is why my father is talking with my mother, telling her to get home. She is a muse, but especially for my father. My mother cries when I paint her, and I am proud of myself. I finally did something to get her attention. I understand my capabilities, even when others cannot.
She is sitting still while I read her letter. I paint over that image of my wife with my paintbrush. With the stroke of a bristle, she disappears and I am happy. I go into my son’s bedroom for the first time the other day to see what he paints, and all I see are gloves, a ski mask, a crow bar, and lots of purses. He says that it is all a part of his work.
My son claims to be a famous painter. I go into his bedroom to see his paintings, and I find my missing dames in a corner. His bedroom reminds others of a tree house filled with black dolls. They have painted smiles with upside down clay faces. He models them after the ones I have seen at Hudson’s. He calls them inspiring; they represent the familiar side of this city. Their breasts are shaped from his hands, and I am scared of him.
The purses’ owners were the models and he was the artist. Portraits of still life I like to call them pictures. I am not Picasso but I know they were intended for me. I am not upset. These are the words that I tell you will be my last today.
The very first time the father-husband learned how to paint across his wife’s face, the son was only two years old. He wept without tears and took his anger out on his mother’s breasts. He bit into her purple-brown chest with his baby yellow teeth and grabbed tufts of her blue-black hair with his fists. She responded by giving him sips of red wine.
The son crumpled like paper when she weaned him off her breasts with sips of liquid that came from her mouth as he watched her eyes. She responded to him by encouraging the wearing of long nightgowns; his teeth bit down on leftover baby dolls. As a child, he learned to take this allegiance thus becoming a gatekeeper of secrets between painters, a muse and dolls. His first drawing was twelve dead babies, ten for each Christmas he had been on Earth, and two for those he had not; he failed his mother.
Ten years later . . .
The father loved to study his son, who loved to study his mother dressing up in beautiful gowns. He painted makeup on her cheeks and listened with her to the vulnerable black diva with the collapsing eyes, the promiscuous voice and the malignant boyfriend jealous of her spellbinding beauty on the record player. So one night he awoke to hearing his father painting across his mother’s body, and he decided to learn how to paint. Only his colors were a mix of reds, browns, and yellows. The son whispered to the mother, “I will paint your canvas; you’ll never suffer again.”
The mother encouraged her son to smoke cigarettes like a man, and was even proud of his interest in her breasts. The hired one, a painter, liked to play with the son too. The three of them would hop into bed and pretend to be a family while the father was away. They took turns painting across her face with a blank canvas.
As a young man, the son believed that he could become a famous painter. The first portrait was easy. He walked up to a woman waiting for a taxi in front of a loft building on East Jefferson that reminded him of a painting he saw once. He told her that he was an artist, and he would like to sketch her portrait. “How much is this going to cost me?” she asked. “Nada,” he replied.
They walked to the edge of Belle Isle Park and sat down on a graffiti-sprayed bench. He took a cigarette from his pocket, huffed and puffed, and began to tell his story:
I am not actually an artist, but I am a magician. A bottle of red wine and two glasses magically appeared. My father has said not to come back home until I can prove
something. He did not actually say these words, but that is what I am getting from him. Will you help me? The young woman said yes, and closed her eyes and parted her lips. With the slip of a tongue, he kissed her, and they locked fingers. “Your eyes are beautiful,” she said. “Yes, that’s what people tell me,” he replied, cried, and began to paint.
His father asked him about the young woman, but he said nothing. His father’s friend asked about her, and he replied that she was a secret, a woman hidden behind a smile with perfect breasts but she was no dame. He winked at his mother when he said this. She looked at him, and knew what he meant. “Just like the painter, I will always be your muse,” she said and nodded her head. The night after she took those photographs with the other painter, he mysteriously followed a bunny rabbit out of the house and disappeared.
That was the year her son had been a magician. He simply went into the wine cabinet, and pulled out a bottle of Merlot to celebrate the birth of another savior exactly two months early. He poured the drink as if it would be his last. The son stood up and looked at the group. “I think that it’s time for me to change professions. You know, I’ve always wanted to be an inventor.” His mother took a sip of wine and his father looked at his son. The father replied, “Yes, of course, but first, I am going to paint across your face.”
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