A brown painting took up an entire wall in my grandmother’s art gallery where I worked while I was in college. I’d gone up and down those stairs hundreds of times and never noticed it. I knew it was there with the rote awareness that lunch was at one o’clock and that my grandmother loved me.
One day after the same lunch, the same grandmother, different art but the same artists overly concerned with inches, I gasped, mid-step up where it hung over the turn of staircase while I carried down a plate of crusts and the crumby rules of a cookie. (Pepperidge Farm, white chocolate macadamia nut—just one—-my grandmother instructed, be able to touch your toes at sixty-five, she said. Every day make sure you can reach down to your toes.)
The canvas was a singular shade of brown splattered with gold and black, a whip of red infected the top left quadrant, but the red so swallowed up by brown exhausted itself: hunger accusing satisfaction of its murder.
The painter’s name was Jim Bird and is titled “Blue.” I loved it before I knew its name, but even more once I understood its identity: a spot of blue had been inexplicably dropped in the midst of a grim, shapeless landscape. All this available space, and there it had landed. Delicate yolk caught mid-shiver in an airless cosmos. At once an accident and the entire point—an atheist shaking a scientific fist at a nun who serenely nods across the shared puddle of their improbability. The painting never sold, but I remember its price: $8,000—which seemed like part of the art—tipped up infinity symbol trailed by a wake of nothingness.
I am over a series of tiny islands in between Puerto Rico and the southern tip of Florida. I can see the color of the sea change as it shallows and erupts into outright land, the sand notion of a nose and tail whilst cinched in the middle. These islands are a retired person’s slender hole from tee to green. I nudge my boyfriend out of his crossword puzzle and ask, “what do you call it, in golf, the space of land between when you hit the ball and the goal?”
“A hole,” he says, not looking up.
“No,” I say, “I mean the whole thing. What do you call those things numbered one through eighteen on a course? Pars, or whatever.”
“A hole,” he says a little louder. His blue rimmed glasses drop from his forehead to his nearsighted eyes and he looks at me as though this should make sense: an entire landscape from the whack of the ball to where it sinks, an intricately navigated journey named for its hollow goal.
You told me it was an orange tree, but the fruit was so small and timidly green, it had to be lime. But then that tree made a perfect orange which ripened right over the chair where you sat every night and ate dinner and drank Spanish wine until it was time for a Rusky—White Russians you prepared in tall plastic Quik Trip cups—which we sipped as we stumbled upstairs to the bedroom—then sex, cigarette-butt flicking contest out the window, and then back into bed where you’d put your left ear on my belly and listen to the ocean and I’d write notes on your back with my fingertips and you’d guess every letter until you had a whole sentence to recite to me and when you got it right, I’d poke a period with my finger. I never felt you move, but in the morning your back would be turned toward me and I’d fall back asleep reading the sentences I’d written between your freckles.
The next morning the ice had melted a shameful foam atop our Ruskies. The sun rose over Camelback Mountain and hissed through the break in the curtains which quieted when your silhouette leaned over in a collared shirt, kissed smoke on my lips. After you’d leave, I’d dump the milk in the bathroom sink and wipe the wet rings they left on the bedside tables. Then I’d go hunt for our cigarette butts on the patio, turn the garden hose to drip into the base of the orange tree and arrange your chair to sit just under the bending limb where an orange hovered mid-air like a grenade. Your own private sun.
It was my idea that it would fall on your head, but you agreed to it. Every night, we waited for it to drop. “It’s going to happen tonight. I can feel it.”
You said, “Oh Holly, maybe then I’ll get a clue.” That’s when I stretched my legs across your lap, and that’s when I knew.
You called me one afternoon, six months after I’d moved back home, and solemnly informed me that you’d found it that morning. Unwitnessed and alone, the orange had fallen, thumped once on the tile and rolled over on its side. The aloe plant was slowly growing out its blue spines in the dark. The cat who’d chewed it into bleeding nubs had come back with me. The sun rose early between the hip and the shoulder of Camelback Mountain, and you woke due to a slim break between the curtains. On the bedside table, a wet ring warped the wood .
I never thought to ask you if you ate it. Nor did I imagine that you’d picked it up and tossed it in the bin where I’d thrown out the pink wig, the blindfold, a pair of unlocked handcuffs. The false incarnations with which we had seduced each other mated with rubbish into brown slush. What I did ask about was the hummingbird who lived in the orange tree but had disappeared when the landscaper pruned it. The hummingbird moved away, its home severed, and I’d missed it terribly. I’d named it Jim Bird, after the painter. You hadn’t seen Jim, you reported, but the branches had grown out.
“They’ll come prune it soon.”
“Why is it called pruning, no matter what fruit it is?” I asked.
A cork pulled from the throat of bottle of wine.
“What grape? Rioja or a Malbec?”
Our phone dates were the length of a bottle of wine, sometimes two. We always poured the next glass at the same time, and we’d devolve into the vacant promise that we’d never love anyone again as we loved each other. You’d admit that you had checked what Delta wanted for a one way ticket from here to back to there. “What do we do?” I’d ask. I had you almost where I wanted you, standing at one of those plotted intersections in Phoenix, the crossroad between the price and its cost. Wild aloe, dehydrated plan.
“Holly, I know I need to catch up,” you said, pouring a glass.
Everything had 8,000 meanings, infinity turning up its nose at a wake of nothing.
Across the continent, three hours in the future and exactly one thousand, eight hundred fifty two miles away, I rested on my heels in a chair where I poured my own glass and held the shell of you up to my ear. Has it gotten dark there yet? I asked. Not quite, you said. Well, when it does, you will see the moon is almost full. A curve of it is missing like someone took a bite.
You mentioned that it had briefly rained.
“You love it when the rain starts.”
“And I hate when it stops.”
This is the real name of Jim Bird’s painting, “Blue,” but no one should speak it.
The satisfaction of art is nonverbal. Once you see it, it’s gone; a brief snap of the tongue revolts and notifies the back teeth to crush into extinction the memory of having craved. Hunger as funeral for the meal.
The satisfaction of love is when someone else speaks your native language and chooses to name the whole world made of brown for the tiny puddle of you.