Anne Savage

Updated: Jul 29

Sweetheart


Every morning the artists at the summer residency would gather in the abandoned barn silo and scream. Iris could hear them as she applied her mascara, gazing in the visor mirror of her car parked far out in the tall grass. Everybody could hear them. The whole damn valley could hear them. The empty silo amplified the sound, so that it echoed over the cows grazing and the harvest ripening and the boys cutting hay and the car exhaust gamboling up toward the atmosphere.

The artists’ screaming was cathartic, supposedly. Iris never felt much catharsis.

Seven minutes later, the artists sloughed out of the silo and into the barn kitchen. Some were on their way to the swimming pool or to smoke or to work in their studios throughout the converted barn that still smelled of the white paint Iris applied all throughout inside before the start of the residency. Iris was in the kitchen preparing a new batch of coffee when one of the artists – a photographer from Finland – ruefully informed her that the sink was clogged. Iris nodded. She looked for herself. There were two inches of sinister, brackish water.

She let it be, though, because Nathaniel was lingering in the kitchen. Iris could sense him behind her without even looking.

“Hello, Iris,” he said. “You look very beautiful this morning.”

“Thanks.”

“I like your blouse. What shade would you say that is?”

“I don't know. Purple.”

“No, it’s… fuschia. I see it and I can’t help but wonder what pigments I’d have to mix to capture it on the canvas. Especially the way it looks against your skin.”

Iris listened to the coffee maker gurgle. Nathaniel went on, “The light would have to be just right. The sun is too harsh in the morning – my studio faces east. But you could come sit for me in the afternoon.”

“I have some errands to run this afternoon. Sorry.”

“Of course. You’re a busy girl. You’ll just sit for a photo, then? I’ll shoot. I can work from that. I’m flexible. It’ll only take a moment.”

“Nathaniel, you know I’m here to assist the entire residency, not any one particular artist.”

“Don’t tell me you’ve never in your life done anything you weren’t supposed to do. Come on, Iris, it’s a compliment. Lots of girls would be honored to be immortalized. To hang on a wall in a gallery or even a museum. Forever – wait, how old are you?”

“Eighteen.”

“Forever eighteen.”

Nathaniel reached out and Iris instinctively recoiled, but the edge of his pinky still swept along the hollow under her eye. His touch was delicate. When he withdrew his hand, there was a black streak of mascara across the pad of his smallest finger. “There was a little something,” he said.

“I have work to do,” Iris replied instead of thanking him. She went deeper into the shadowy part of the barn.

*

The residency was catered and Iris was offered a free plate – prosciutto and local organic tomatoes and salad that only sometimes had a mosquito dying in it. But Iris hadn’t eaten in front of anybody but her sister since she was eleven years old, so today she spent her half hour break in the little uninsulated shack beside the barn, where next week the artists were supposed to learn how to screen print.

Iris walked past the sounds of their chewing and their boisterous talk of grant funding and Ana Mendieta. On the way, she stepped over Constance, the performance artist. The very first week of the residency, Constance had explained to Iris that she dedicated herself to stasis and passivity. This entailed lying in the grass and filming herself for eight hours a day. Eight hours of rain mottling her skin, the horseflies ravenously feasting, and her guileless open eyes.

Iris locked the door of the shack, then checked again that she locked it before hitching up her skirt. She contorted herself in contrepasto positions until her body looked irreproachable and cold to the touch. She took dozens of photos, then chose the money shot and sent it to her boyfriend, Roy.

He asked her to send him some “sexy pics” because it was eleven thirty in the morning and he had been polishing crystal at the restaurant for hours. He was bored. At first Iris demurred. Then he begged her, called her sweetheart. Iris couldn’t think of a good reason to say no, except that she wasn’t in an amorous mood and she just didn't want to do it. Which was not a compelling reason. Roy had once read the first thirty pages of Das Kapital in a free online pdf and he also believed in free love. He believed that Iris’ refusal to send him photos of herself was ungenerous and furthermore anti-feminist because she was not exercising her full sexual liberty. Iris hadn’t read any pages of Das Kapital so she didn’t know how to refute these arguments. She pulled a splinter out of the flesh of her thigh.

*

In the afternoon, Iris drove the official residency van – a rusting, molting model from 2006 with mildewed seats, no air conditioning, and a CD player on which she played a copy of Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea that she purchased for six dollars at the Goodwill. She drove into town to run her errands.

She liked driving. It made her feel harmonious. She was just one part of the current of the road, reacting, keeping pace, polite and courteous. She liked having an intention, then executing it. She wanted motion, so she twitched her hand or her foot and then the car was gliding. For that reason Iris liked to drive barefoot. It made her feel closer to the rumble of the engine. She liked knowing that she could kill everyone on the road, and she liked even more feeling merciful for not doing it. She drummed her fingers along the steering wheel. Ahead of her, the tar shimmered.

*

After she went to the junkyard to find scrap metal, then to the McDonald’s drive-thru, Iris searched the men’s section of the Goodwill for Hawaiian shirts (one of the artists was doing a multimedia piece about neocolonialism). It was then that she recognized her mother’s friend, wandering about nearby in the aisle with all the dusty porcelain angels.

“Iris!” the woman exclaimed. “How are you? Oh my God, how is your sister?”

“They actually just weaned her off the morphine, which is great.”

“Did they ever find out who hit her?”

“Turned out to be some little old lady who works as a janitor and hasn’t got any auto insurance. So, you know, there was no real sense of vindication.”

“Terrible. Just terrible. And how is Amy coping?”

“Last I spoke to her, she was mostly concerned with how the skin graft surgeries would affect her seven year plan.” At the quizzical arch of the woman’s brow, Iris explained, “She wants to be promoted by next year, get married by age twenty-six, and have her first kid before she turns twenty-nine.”

“Why is it a seven year plan?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe because when you break a mirror, it’s seven years’ bad luck.”

The woman tsked. “Well, she always was a very neurotic girl.”

*

The artists were delicate, their creative humors were easily addled by growth hormones and preservatives, so Iris went to the organic natural health foods store, which was ingeniously named ORGANIC NATURAL HEALTH FOODS STORE. There was sawdust on the floor. Iris filled her wooden crate (instead of traditional plastic basket) with two lemons, dragonfruit, agave nectar, a dozen brown eggs, fair trade coffee, and every possible milk alternative, including one grass-based. She checked expiration dates and ripeness. Dispassionately, she noticed her own gooseflesh in the freezer aisle.

One of the cashiers at ORGANIC NATURAL HEALTH FOODS STORE was Mackenzie Clark; she and Iris had graduated high school together. When Mackenzie Clark saw Iris waiting in the checkout line with her wooden crate propped against her hip, she frantically gestured to a weary-seeming woman whom Iris assumed to be her shift supervisor and asked to take a smoke break.

“Sweetheart, I thought you were trying to quit,” the supervisor said.

Despite the fact that in the parking lot of her senior prom, when Iris had lifted her gown and taken out a joint that she’d secreted in the flap of her cotton underwear, then proceeded to share it with Roy, Mackenzie Clark had called her a godless hippie whore, Iris decided to be polite and say hello.

Mackenzie Clark was silent.

As she scanned the lemons, the dragonfruit, the agave nectar, the brown eggs, the fair trade coffee, and the milk alternatives, the diamond on her finger glinted like a sunlit piece of trash strewn on the side of a highway. “Wow,” Iris said when she noticed. “Congratulations to you and Chris.”

“I’m not with Chris. I’m with Benjamin now,” Mackenzie Clark informed her.

“Oh.”

“It was going to be so that he and I could live on base together. They only let you live on base if you’re married legally. But Benjamin got discharged – honorably – on account of his eye.”

“His eye?”

“He lost it.”

“How?”

“Weed-whacking. Stick flew wild. Idiot wasn’t wearing his safety glasses. He’s still a hero for trying, though. And now that I’ve got it, it’s not like I’m gonna give the ring back. Anyway, is Roy going to enlist?”

“Naw. I think if there was a draft he’d go to Canada.”

“Pity,” Mackenzie Clark said. “You know, if he's skittish about proposing, a positive pregnancy stick usually works. My cousin, she lives across the river, she’s pregnant. She’ll sell you some piss if you like.”

Iris watched herself in the grainy footage of the ORGANIC NATURAL HEALTH FOOD STORE security feed. She tried to arrange her face in an appropriately grateful expression. “I’ll think about it.”

“Suit yourself. Your total is seventy three thirty seven.”

*

The gas gauge of the residency van was an eyelash-width away from empty and Iris had to buy eighteen packs of Native Spirit yellows for the artists anyhow, so she careened into the gas station parking lot. After she purchased the cigs, she stood there, restless, filling the van’s tank. She had nothing to distract her, except for the advertisements playing at each pump, the sounds looping slightly asynchronous and schizophrenic.

Half a dozen men on motorcycles rode into the parking lot, kicking up dust. They were gray bearded, laughing, and raucous. They wore their leathers like suits of armor. The glass of their aviators glinted in the sun as they looked at her. They didn’t try to hide it. Iris didn’t blame them. In fact, she sympathized with them. If she were an old man, she would also look at some eighteen year old stranger girl pumping gas. Just like she would look at a billboard or a sunset or the cover of a skin mag locked behind the counter of the service station. Just like now she was watching the numbers on the gas pump display steadily tick up now, or the American flag hitched to the back of somebody’s bike snap and flutter in the manic June wind. Just as she was watching these old men watch her.

While watching them watch her, Iris had the sudden conviction that these old men existed more indubitably than she did. She could imagine herself through their eyes more easily than she could feel her own hand gripping the gas pump. Her body seemed to belong to them, because they were looking at it, more than it belonged to the person who was existing in it. She didn’t belong to them. Just her body did. She was always surprised when the light hit her and cast a shadow.

A part of her preened. They looked at her like she was thrusting a torch into the air and embodying liberty, or like she was sprawled out over the hood of one of those shiny new cars assembled in Michigan. Everyone in the parking lot was engrossed by her and all she had to do was stand there. They were all wondering about her – what color were her eyes, where she had come from, where she was going, whether or not she had a boyfriend, what positions they had sex in, whether or not he properly appreciated her. Iris shifted her weight from one hip to the other. Since they were already looking at her, and there was nothing she could do to stop them, she hoped that she at least looked beautiful. If they were going to look at her, she wanted to be beautiful and therefore mysterious and good, like the kind of person who was constitutionally incapable of ever bleeding through a pair of blue jeans. If they were going to look at her, then she wanted to be the most glamorous girl in the gas station parking lot.

*

Later, Iris asked, “What do your tattoos mean?”

She was crouching down, today applying white paint to a wooden pedestal she’d constructed the day before. Roxane had asked her to, so that she could display one of her pieces inspired by ancient fertility statues. Roxane was a sculptor. She was one of Iris’ favorite artists simply because she always fetched her own buckets when it rained and the barn roof leaked.

Roxane had a scorpion inked behind her left ear, a stern-faced gorgon on her breastbone, and several stick and pokes of flowers – sloppy, whimsical, less than half an inch in diameter each – scattered across the backs of her hands. She glanced down at the tattoos now and said, “Oh, they don’t mean anything.”

“I thought tattoos were supposed to mean something.”

“Well, this was a dare.” Roxane pointed to the scorpion, then at the flowers, “These were an impulse.”

“And the last one?”

“A warning. I guess.”

“I like them.”

“Thank you.”

“I always wanted a tattoo but I never know what to get.”

“How old are you?”

“Eighteen.”

“Eighteen,” Roxane mused. “What do you know about always or never? Here’s my advice – don’t get a tattoo of anything. Not until you’re at least thirty. Better yet, thirty-five.”

When she was thirty-five, Iris thought, the sun would’ve already tarnished her skin. It would be webbed and cracked like clay left out dry in the open air of the studio. Supposedly then she would feel nostalgic for now. She might be married. She might have a daughter. She wouldn’t be worth paying attention to any longer. She would no longer be malleable. Iris didn't know whether to feel gratitude or dread.

*

By four o’clock that afternoon, Roxane’s pedestal was drying, the shade of the oak tree had shifted to cover Constance, and none of the artists had bothered to unclog the kitchen sink of their own volition, even though they themselves were the ones who blocked it in the first place. Iris got down on her knees in front of the cabinet below the sink. She knew her skirt was riding up. But nevertheless somebody had to snake the drain.

She unscrewed the plastic pipes, fed in the mouth of the snake until it hit the bend where little particles of food and fat tended to congeal. She thrust it back and forth and had just felt whatever obstructed the drain shake loose when she heard the click of the camera.

Iris twisted around. For a moment, the sun shining into the barn was so ebullient compared to the darkness underneath the sink, she couldn’t see anything. Just kaleidoscopic color. Then she became accustomed to the light.

Still, even then she couldn’t see Nathaniel’s face, just his hands holding the camera.

“Sorry I didn’t warn you,” he said. “It’s just, you looked so natural and I didn’t want to ruin it. The light – it was just perfect. And you know, there’s a long tradition of paintings depicting people doing labor. Totally devoted to it. Typically peasants. Have you ever seen El Angelus, by Millet? That’s what you remind me of right now.”

Iris didn’t say anything. She screwed the pipes back into place. Then she disconnected the end of the drain snake from the rest of the apparatus. She stood up so that she wasn’t gazing up at Nathaniel. He lowered the camera. On the end of the snake, Iris dangled the putrid clot she’d extracted. She thought that it was maybe a decomposed piece of lettuce. Speckles of stagnant water dripped onto the cement floor.

 

Anne Savage lives in upstate New York.


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