Nick takes pictures of smiles, in coffee shops, at the store.
He especially likes crooked smiles, like his older sister Nan’s. When she smiled. When she was a being and not a shadow in the past tense. He’s tried to store her smiles like contraband. A smile on the way to bed, the two of them exchanging a glance. A smile pronouncing his nickname. Nicky. Or a smile while watching The Big Lebowski, a smile transforming into real, crackled laughter, especially when The Dude lit a joint without care.
But time makes it impossible to store things.
So, he creates collages of photographed smiles. Especially the crooked ones.
The pieces clash, seas of crooked angles. There are thin lips, cracked ones, lips with copious amounts of chapstick or lipstick, which Nan mocked. Yet these smiles hold Nan’s weight, the same sharpness. She rises from each piece, the energy unfurling once more before Nick. There’s such a lack of neatness or preconceived organization, something organic. Nan would have praised it.
She loved painting scenes where boundaries clashed, where the odd juxtaposed. Border walls and peace rallies. Cathedrals and garbage dumps. Money and altruism, even, embodied by a lady in a long lavender gown kissing a child, while drinking a glass of champagne. Said glass of champagne was replete with dollar bills.
Nick tries to form her unspoken words, help, love me, how do you describe sorrow? I want to paint, Nicky. How the fuck do you explain that to Mom and Dad? At least he thinks that’s what she’d have said beneath her suicide and general death-related jokes. Jokes she fired like fusillades in response to Mom and Dad’s expectations. Want to be a lawyer? You’ll love it. You’ll learn. Art’s a hobby. Enough senseless dreams. Or why not a realtor? You can make money there too. Sell houses. Listen to us, Nan, listen, listen. Trust, trust. Enough.
Nick once viewed a smile as just that. A smile. A curving of one’s lips into a position of pleasure. Before Nan he never looked beneath the smiles or even tried to categorize them. Well, maybe once or twice, an impulse tugged at him, a sense that something lingered within Nan. Of course, he batted away those thoughts.
The crooked smiles he’s collected seem to conceal frustration, rage, hatred. People expect each other to don a smile like makeup. It’s the way things are. He remembers Mom and Dad insisting that she smile at her high school graduation. Smile, smile. It’s not hard.
A part of him thought he was imagining when they told him about Nan, about her descent. It was a year ago. She was twenty-six, and Nick twenty-one. He thought it was one of her dark stories. A joke. So there’s this woman who wants to paint. She jumps off an office building, right, little brother.
What’s the punchline?
Nan would probably say she gets to be the subject of a painting. Still Life of A Newfound Corpse.
He almost laughs. But shame rushes and he destroys the collage, ripping at contrivance and societal expectation. He rips each angle, each piece, until there are only small fragments, the tiniest ones.
Some things can never be completely destroyed.
Now, he pastes a neat smile onto a photo of a frowning Nan. It’s from her high school graduation. She wears a long black gown, a long, large vestment, like a straitjacket, which contrasts her thin oval face.
It’s not a starched smile, he’s chosen to paste, but a smile that holds something confident. The smile of someone whose life is a multiple-choice test of possibility. Nick took this smile off a young woman in a coffee shop, someone who had Nan’s brisk gait. He remembers thinking she might be a painter too, or even a writer, a poet seeking inspiration with eagerness. There was something in the way she surveyed the coffee shop, the yellow walls, the old baby grand piano in the corner.
But Nan’s owl-like hazel eyes rise to the top of this new work. There’s something wide and tiresome. A look of surrender, tinged with rage. It’s as if she knows what’s to come. She can’t convey her vision of the world. A world where she mixes charcoals and purples to create unpleasant nuance, as she put it. She can only frown and make a point and collect expectations until she can no longer hold them. Until a certain point arises.
Nick removes the smiles.
This is a photo. A straight shot of Nan. No sharp angles here, it seems. He stares, looking for that point. Or a hint of it. A gesture, a point toward which she is looking. A point that conveys her future. Nick keeps staring, but he knows the truth. There is a key point, a moment of inevitability. He still posts the picture in different spots, accentuates and decreases the light upon it, but nothing changes. There’s a point, precise and sharp and jagged, but it’s somewhere on a dark, dark plane, captured in a color the best artist cannot find.