Using cardboard, duct tape and a lamp, Tess turned her closet into a camera obscura.
“This gag’s been around forever,” Tess explained to her “model”–a simple but sweet cocaine addict named Sabrina. “Remember, hold a straight face and don’t look at the light.”
After so much thissing and thatting, positioning Sabrina and, sigh, already having to gently remind the ditz not to look at the light, Tess entered the closet and resealed the cardboard behind her. She saw an upside down, inverted, but clear image of Sabrina on the canvas she’d placed on the back wall earlier; an image created by a narrow light beam passing through a small hole cut in the cardboard. Tess avoided the beam, sighed again when she saw that the airhead was hopelessly attracted to the goddam light, and traced the upper half of Sabrina in pencil on the canvas.
“How cool,” Sabrina said when she saw the result. She was twenty-one and pretty, but unlikely to remain that way if she went back to coke.
“It’s an old scam used by lazy painters in the olden days. Beats having someone sit around for hours–all I’ve gotta do is add color,” Tess said, placing the canvas right side up on an easel. “The trick didn’t die with the invention of the camera because after tracing there’s no need for anything else. Perfect proportions. You see, the squeezed light is a reflection, like in a mirror. Go to a museum sometime and look for portraits of people who got wedding rings on their right hands, or holding stuff in their left–even though most people are righties– big ass camera obscura tells.” (Tess considered adding “and eyes that seem to be looking at a light” but she saw no need to be a bitch.)
“I see,” Sabrina said. Tess plainly saw that Sabrina didn’t see; she was nice enough, but her intellect was what Tess and her big sister, Sarah, would describe as “post.” The sisters had a secret language, highly compressed, and the passing years had made it as concentrated as the light driven into a camera obscura; common phrases, for instance, say, “Dumb as a…” were rendered to their soul words.
Tess began mixing oils. “How about streaked blonde hair and amethyst eyes?”
“You can do that?” Sabrina was a dark-eyed brunette.
Tess smiled. So post. “I can give you Dolly Parton knockers if I want. I’m the god of this fucker.”
The intercom sounded three soft tones. Every room had a speaker, so whatever the intercom had to say was heard by all. This time a hushed professional voice politely requested Sabrina to report to her counselor. Politely requesting (or any kind of asking) was one of the big differences between rehab and jail.
“Shit–forgot the time,” Sabrina said, headed toward the door.
“Tell ‘em you were out back scoring an eightball.”
Sabrina looked back with a Why Would I Say That expression on her face.
“Ha-ha,” Tess said with a wink.
“Tragically post,” Tess said with a little laugh once Sabrina made her exit.
Tess continued to mix oils. Poor Sabrina was proof that a person could be too stupid to be a drug addict. It was Sabrina’s first time in rehab and Tess was certain it would be her last. Sabrina was a mortal lock for a Just Say No ending because she was properly scared of the hardcore Or Elses society promised coke heads. Tess figured that the worst the girl would get up to in the future might involve wine a bit early in the day.
The song says “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.” That didn’t apply to Miss Sabrina. Even though she had to satisfactorily complete a thirty day intake to clear a chickenshit possession charge, Sabrina would leave and stay gone. But it fit Tess. At twenty-six this was her seventeenth time (nineteenth, if jail counted for anything) in treatment. Pain pills, heroin, all things poppyfield. Ironically, this was the only time she had committed herself. Tess could waltz out the front door and no one could say jack about it, whereas Sabrina was on the Or Else hook for another week or so. Only Sarah suspected that Tess had entered rehab as a perverse fast. Oh Sister Sarah the Sublime was definitely not a light looker-atter–which could be an awful drag at times. But, yes indeed, it was as another song says “The best part of breaking up is when you’re making up.”
Tess’s heart fluttered and eyes dilated when she took her first truly good look at the image she’d basically auto-limned onto the canvas. Dreampurple, the color of Holy. Right there in the set of Sabrina’s eyes. Sometimes, so few anymore, a canvas shone Dreampurple. Tess used to see Dreampurple constantly throughout her childhood, then it ebbed until she was reunited with it through the needle. Free range Dreampurple was rare and precious. And yet there it was, Dreampurple only gained due to Sabrina’s inability to refrain from looking at the light.
Until then the project had been something to do to pass time, a little present for slow Sabrina. As a professional artist (who’d actually sold enough work to pay for this rehab break), Tess rated camera obscura stuff only a step above paint by numbers–a clever trick at best, not art at all–nothing she’d put her name on. But Dreampurple, when it came, was something that demanded you drop everything–even betray what you loved–especially betray what you loved, and go to it now, before it found you unworthy. Holy. Godless. Ruthless. Pure. Dreampurple.
She began to paint a vision and was Holy.
“Hey! Stop!” Some guy yelled from behind.
That meant only one thing.
Tess didn’t need to be told twice. She and Sarah were off, as only gazelles and shoplifters eleven and thirteen could be off. They tore across the House of Values parking lot, both consciously resisting the temptation to look back.
“Don’t look back. Just run like hell and get off their property as fast as you can then go into the lots,” Sarah had more than once instructed Tess before they went on their little “shopping” trips.
They never “shopped” at Mom and Pop outfits–little business owners paid for their wares and would not give up easily–and some could be surprisingly dangerous; for the old shotgun under the counter thing was not always a myth. But unless you were unlucky enough to run into a psycho, people who worked at chain outfits such as the House of Values would only chase thieves so far–usually just to the end of the parking lot (if they had one), mainly for show. They’d get paid anyway. But once in a while there’d be a tough guy.
Tess didn’t understand why chasers always yelled “Stop!” Not likely. But it was a good thing, for it provided the girls with a head start.
Their retreats, though simple, were well planned. If whoever was in pursuit could still be heard chugging along behind once they reached the end of the store’s property, they’d toss what they boosted on the ground and split up then dash into the lots and back alleys of Charleston, which they knew as well as the rats, and eventually meet up at a lot near home.
“Split,” Sarah called out. Tess could still hear the jackoff running behind them, once they got out of the parking lot, apparently neither gaining nor losing ground, by the sound of things. Psycho. She guessed he was a hundred feet or so behind.
Tess didn’t feel like giving up the gum and pens she had stolen, so she didn’t drop them. She veered left and timed a run between a pair of cars headed opposite directions on Fourth Street. She deftly avoided both to the extreme annoyance of the drivers, but it would delay asshole if he decided to run after her. Once across the street and within yards of the first lot she’d vanish into like a ghost through a keyhole, Tess broke form and looked back in time to see that
Sarah had slowed almost to a stop, then laughed and instead of parting with her loot, she hurled a stone at a thick young guy who had a face like a pig. There was a purpose to this. Sarah was the faster of the two, plus a bit of a psycho in her own right.
The guy took the bait and went for her, so she kicked it back in gear and dashed across Burwell, which crossed Fourth, reestablishing her lead within seconds. There were no cars coming at the time, but there was a bus about to depart on the corner that had to hit the brakes when Sarah punched it below the driver’s window, crossed in front and disappeared on the other side. The guy had to stand and wait a second for the bus to depart. He should have given up by then, but he kept chasing. Tess slipped into the lot. She knew Sarah would lose the guy and made her way home.
Downtown Charleston in the seventies was a busted smile sort of place. One block would be perfectly reasonable looking, with a run of tidy businesses in it, while the next might contain shuttered shops or ruins being slowly swallowed by the ever flourishing weeds. Due to its proximity to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Charleston had been a boomtown during the Second World War, but had fallen on hard times since. Thus there were plenty of derelict places to disappear into; although it was impossible to know them all, the sisters knew enough of them.
Tess cut through the lot, careful to avoid snatches of brambles that tried to wrap her around the ankles. It had rained earlier and there was an earthy smell she associated with the mold that often thrived in the kitchen drain at home no matter how much bleach Mom dumped in it. In a few minutes she’d rejoin Sarah in a lot near their building. The way was secure, home base was easily reached by lots and alleys and crossing only one more street.
She heard a scream.
I may in May
For years Tess had been certain she would die in May. She had no idea what year, but she was certain of the month. And every June she experienced a strange disappointment. She couldn’t remember when this idea took hold in her mind until she saw the Dreampurple in Sabrina’s eyes.
Sabrina was incapable of eyes like the ones Tess had painted. And yet there they were, the pain and shame; the violence. The double-lit oracle that spoke of her dying season. Tess had to laugh for such a sublime Dreampurple had traveled from whatever dimension it had been born because a silly girl with an IQ just high enough to avoid special ed couldn’t stop looking at a light.
Tess later found out that Sarah had slipped on the rain slickened grass covering a short bluff that linked one lot to the next. Tess had no idea what had happened during the time it took her to cross the lots she had to take, hearing inarticulate sounds made by both a male voice and fear in the one she knew was Sarah’s, but assumed the worst. She knew that no one would investigate, because that was the way of their shitty little town. Knowing they were always on their own she grabbed a length of rebar lying near a broken foundation in one of the lots she crossed. There was never a shortage of handy weapons in Charleston. The choice was between the rebar and a brick.
Over the years to come, Tess doubted that the House of Values trained its employees to catch young female shoplifters, overpower them and lift their shirts and expose their breasts. But that was what Tess saw when she arrived in a scuzzy clearing at the foot of the bluff. The guy was on top of Sarah, who was fighting like hell, as he was trying to pull down her pants.
Chasers make noise from behind, but Tess didn’t when she hit the guy on the back of his neck with the rebar. She’d been aiming for his head but, perhaps fortunately, her aim was a little off. She was swayed by the fantastic Dreampurple light that shone in Sarah’s eyes as she watched Tess lift her weapon.
He screamed and rolled off. Sarah sprang to her feet, grabbed the bar from Tess and drilled the guy in the balls with it. He didn’t make much noise after that. Sarah pummeled the guy with the rebar. Tess began to panic after she thought she heard a rib crack.
Sometimes, Dreampurple makes deals. There was a blank in Tess’s memory regarding how she kept Sarah from killing the guy. But she got her moving, and nothing ever came of the situation, for raping the poor was a big sport in Charleston, but also a cause of amnesia when the cops come to the hospital.
In all that chaos, Tess had made a strange deal with the Dreampurple. One that not even the Holy could understand.
“I may in May,” Tess said.
“Glad you got off the blow before you had to blow for it,” Tess told Sabrina, as she presented her with the painting about ten days later, on the eve of Sabrina’s return to the real world. (A non “post” person would have heard “Glad you got off the blow before you had to.” But as it goes in the real world adjustments for postishness must be made.)
Even Sabrina knew that something was up with her portrait. It was her all right, to the last lash. But…that “but” was as far as Sabrina was equipped to follow.
“God, Tess, thank you…It’s beautiful–um, who’s Hester?”
Tess laughed. Dreampurple art always rated a signature. “That’s my real name.”
Sabrina had another go at the difference. “Are my eyes really like that?’
Tess smiled. “They are when you see the light.”