The Third Element
2nd place prizewinner
Jodi Paloni lives in the iridescent hills of southern Vermont, where she is working on a collection of linked stories. She received an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and studied for ten years at The Poetry Studio in Marlboro, VT. Her writing has been published in upstreet, Hunger Mountain, Contrary Magazine, and New Pages.
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Like a kid, Meredith counts down the final days of summer vacation. Twelve. Less than two weeks before the teacher in-service bullshit begins at the high school, and this afternoon one of her last-semester seniors from art history, Sky Ryan, is skulking around her back porch threatening to waste her time.
She spies on him through the window of her studio in the back corner of the yard. He’s barefoot. A wrinkled undershirt and army green shorts caked with dried mud drape his lank frame, like he just woke up in a ditch. Now he cups his hands around his eyes and peers through the screen door into her kitchen as if spying on her.
Meredith tells herself that if she holds completely still, he may not sense her presence, perched on the edge of her stool, leaning forward to hold back the curtain. She knows how to become motionless from the tedious hours she modeled for life drawing classes in college. Breathe into the pose and imagine the body suspended in space.
Maybe he’ll go away.
She tries to remember something that stood out about Sky in class or a clue as to why he’d show up on her porch, but she hasn’t thought about students for weeks, especially not the ones from art history, a class she teaches with the lights out and slide images flashing on a screen. He was probably one of the last-minute seniors who required credits to graduate. She tends to remember how a student works with line and color, or a compelling piece, more than the personal interactions.
When Sky raps on the screen door, she lets the fabric slide out from between her fingers, but can still see through a two-inch gap. In grade school, playing kick-the-can with the neighborhood pack, Meredith would crouch in the dark a few feet away from whoever was guarding the jail, unobserved, thrilled with secrecy, but more, struck by an amplified sense of isolation while in such close proximity to a cluster of other people. Watching him in secret reminds her of the time she first understood the pull of loneliness. She shifts on her stool.
Sky hovers around the door, and then sprawls on the wicker loveseat where Meredith likes to sip her dark tea at dawn, where her mother used to savor wine in the evenings. He folds his arms like an over-sized stick insect on a flake of bark, hands over his heart, a giant praying mantis boy. He closes his eyes.
Meredith generally shrugs off small town curiosity when she can, holing up with her assemblage projects for weeks at a time. She can go days without speaking. The end of August marks a year since her mother’s death. Meredith shuts herself away with an aim to channel loss and confusion into something tangible. Her table holds piles of sketches, diagrams of ideas for a series of framed collages, but the images remain flat before her. She has nothing more to show for nearly three months in the studio. Now there’s a guy on her porch, she thinks, and though he seems to have fallen asleep, he’s there because he wants something.
She observes how his legs mimic the top branches of the birch in her yard, knobby and angular, like they’d be surprisingly strong under duress. She lifts a pencil from a jar and sketches the lines of his body on the newsprint covering her table. She hasn’t drawn from a live figure since college. She certainly hasn’t wanted to think about bodies since she watched her mother’s waste away to a sheath of bones.
When she should get up and walk to the house to speak to him, she can’t stop her wrist from flicking marks on the paper. The scratch of graphite and the trill of a wren in the garden, the disparate quality of two sounds, fill the distance between their bodies, her hand jerking a pencil, his torso as calm as the August afternoon.
He raises an elbow to discourage a fly. She lifts her pencil, as if ceasing her strokes might still him. Drawing him feels like summer should, no stress, no thick dull strain inside her chest.
The next-door neighbor opens a bedroom window and flaps a white sheet into the air, snaps it three times, then whisks it back into the pale blue house. This practical motion brings Meredith to her senses. She looks at her drawing, black lines and gray, a form taking shape.
When Sky stands, arches back, and straightens, Meredith freezes. He knocks again on the flimsy wood of the screen door. She’s reached a choice point. Of course, he would have seen her car in the driveway and suspect that she is home. He backs down the stairs to the lawn while looking up at the house. His movements are deliberate, as if he is easy in all things. She wants him to stay. She slides her pencil behind one ear and steps out of the studio and into the patch of sunlight near the climbing yellow roses on the fence.
“Hello,” she calls, her throat filmy from not speaking all day. “I’m back here.” She runs her fingers along the creamy petals of an open blossom, waiting for him to join her in the garden between the two buildings, wanting to watch him move.
“Hey, Ms. Webb.” He stuffs his hands in his pockets, elbows branching out like a tire jack and his arms freckled with splattered mud.
Meredith rubs her eyes to stop herself from staring at his arms, how they triangulate the space around him. “I’m Meredith. You graduated. You can call me that now. How are you, Sky?” she asks.
“I’m good. Yeah. I stopped by about the ad in the paper, the one about painting the house.”
“What paper?” she says. She hasn’t placed an ad, though she’s aware that the house was scraped in preparation for fresh paint, a year ago last spring, before her mother needed hospice care. Meredith meant to see about it.
Sky unfolds a crumpled, brown-stained paper pulled from his pocket. “I found this out in the barn.”
She takes it from him and gets a whiff of horse sweat. Wanted: House painter for small cape in town. Call Jolene Webb. Her mother’s phone number is listed, too. The ad must date back over a year.
A cool brush of air smelling of earthworms tickles the hair on Meredith’s forearms and neck. She felt the visceral pulse of her mother’s disembodied presence once before, the day after the memorial service, when Meredith listened to saved voice messages her mother had left her on her cell phone. That night, Meredith felt as if someone was walking around the house in sheepskin slippers on the pine floorboards. In the morning, she erased the messages.
Sky pulls on a branch from the rose trellis and says, “You’ve got some dead wood in here. Climbers need a hard pruning every fall. You could lose it to disease.”
Lose it all to disease. Meredith places her hand on her chest, clears her throat, and nods. “Well, then, I guess I need to think about getting a few things done around here.”
Sky lets the branch spring back releasing a whiff of high summer scent. “I could fix this mess. Prune stuff and paint.” He gestures to the paper ad in Meredith’s fist. I noticed the job still hadn’t been done. I’m looking for work away from my father’s farm this fall. I’m tired of all the horseshit, so to speak.”
Meredith stuffs the ad into her pocket and rolls the tension from her shoulders. School starts for teachers in twelve days. She doesn’t have time to paint a whole house or prune an arbor. She watches a wren dart past with a winged insect stuffed in his beak. The bird disappears into the wooden house hanging crooked on a nail in the fence. Meredith doesn’t want to take care of houses and plants. She only sowed the vegetable garden in honor of her mother.
“How much do you charge?” she asks him.
“Twelve to fifteen an hour, depending on what I do.”
“Let me think about it.” She squints up at him. He’s at least a foot taller than
Meredith. If he came by, she could continue to draw him, garner energy for her stalled project. “Stop by tomorrow.” She hopes to sound strong and in charge, like she has clear boundaries.
“Sounds good.” He nods.
Meredith watches him stroll away, slack jointed and light, down the alley between her house and garage. She pulls the scrap of paper from her pocket. The ad. She feels the cold again, as if her mother’s exhale in death is prickling her skin.
“Okay, Mom, I get it.” she says aloud. It feels good to stand in the middle of the yard and snap at her mother. “We’ll paint the damn house.”
. . .
Meredith arranges to have Sky start work in the garden. She draws him in secret as he bends to weed and stretches to prune. She moves from pencil and newsprint to velum and charcoal, but is careful to keep his features opaque. The sketches could be of any thin body.
She is awed by the strength coiled in Sky’s weedy legs, like the copper cord she sometimes uses in her sculptures. At the end of the day when the two of them talk about the work he has done, she longs to wrap her hand around his wrist to see if she can meet thumb with finger, like she could her mother’s during the final days. In sickness, her mother had become sylphlike, but her slimming made her mother frail, while this boy’s slender lines, taut and springy, seemed to snap the air like an electrical current.
She draws him for four more days. More paper piles on Meredith’s table. She feels her mother watching over her shoulder, not as a spirit per se, but as a lingering consciousness of how they had been both been changed by illness, gentler in their judgments of each other, softer in their love.
. . .
When there are only six days left until in-service, Meredith spends her evenings in the art room at school, sweeping up remnants of spring and lining up new supplies on shelves. As she walks home, she notices that the dark air smells of apples and tomatoes, stagnant ditches and forest molds. She brings copper wire and polymer clay. The pressures of diminishing time urges her to work late in her studio, turning sketches of Sky into figures that reach and fold like ballet dancers.
Now that her project is in full swing, she feels as if she could live on one pot of black tea all day, but Sky brings her cucumbers and beans from the garden, and she eats these raw with late blueberries from the hedge.
The first time he stopped by the studio, she followed his eyes as they surveyed the room and glanced at the sketches. She couldn’t tell if he recognized his form on the paper. She wasn’t sure how she would explain it.
She felt relieved when he asked, “Do you like teaching in Rosewood?”
“I had a little studio apartment in Philadelphia. I worked in a cafe all morning so I could paint all afternoon and into the night. I was the volunteer curator for the café gallery in exchange for getting to show there once every summer when we were flush with tourists. I drank way too much coffee. I lived alone.”
It felt strange to talk about her life away from Rosewood to a former student, not the part about painting, but the part about living alone. She lied that she was content in her job here.
He picked up the top sheet from the pile of the figure sketches she had made earlier in the week and appeared to be reading the notes in the margins, measurements and letter codes about points and angles that only she could decipher. She bit a flap of skin from a thin blister on her index finger, nervous about his actual body located so near to the sculpted figures.
He said, “I really liked your class. I wish I hadn’t waited to do the art thing until senior year.” He set the drawing down.
She watched him cuff the edges of the pile until they were lined up. She admired his grace in the cramped quarters. She didn’t know what to do with her hands. “That’s great,” she said. “They have a really good teacher on staff at the community college, a retired professor from The Art Institute of Boston.” She felt pleased that he was pursuing something creative. He seemed to have natural aesthetic sensibilities.
He stretched his arm in a gesture that swept the space above the pile of jumbled wire forms. “This all looks really cool.”
He didn’t seem to realize they were miniatures of him, but still, Meredith felt odd to have him probing her design process. Her work had always been so private. Now it was about her loss.
“I only have a little bit more time before school starts. I should get back to work.” Immediately, she wanted to touch his arm to soften the brush-off: she turned to her worktable instead.
Now Meredith keeps the drawings in the file cabinet and when Sky drops off the snacks from the garden, he doesn’t cross the threshold.
. . .
The house, gray with scraping, used to be flaky white. With two days left of summer vacation, Meredith tells Sky to leave the garden and start painting. She chooses daffodil yellow for the clapboards and a deep nasturtium shade for the trim. As Meredith stirs the paint she says, “My mother’s favorite color was yellow. She used to say it was the color of good health when she feng-shuied the living room. Well, good health to the whole neighborhood.” She waves a wooden stirrer, twirling tiny circles like it’s a magic wand. The paint fumes make her feel a little heady, reminiscent of sleepovers when half a dozen girls painted their nails in the attic room with the windows closed. “The door will be cerulean, the color of today’s sky, Sky.” She laughs at her own joke. “Did you hear a lot of sky jokes growing up?”
“A few,” he answers, smiling.
By now she’s noticed that he doesn’t make small talk. He works hard and takes short breaks. She lets him go to start on the rear side of the house where she can watch him from her studio. She sits at her worktable as he climbs the aluminum ladder and spreads paint across boards, like butter on autumn corn. She’d put a hold on painting when she left Philadelphia to take care of her mother, but she remembers the pleasure she felt when paint left the brush and contacted the canvas, as if recording her gesture on linen meant keeping a part of herself that she also gave away.
Her hands are quiet on her lap. She draws Sky with her eyes, sees ladder rungs through his clothes, hash marks across his body, like she’d been taught to draw people in school.
Now the rich creamy paint reminds her of ice cream. She must be hungry. She used to love ice cream until the day in the hospital, the day her mother died. Meredith ate ice cream directly from a cardboard carton while her mother watched from her bed. It’s what her mother had asked her to do. She told Meredith not to worry so much about what she ate, that it didn’t matter in the end, and to eat ice cream every day if she wanted. She told Meredith she would enjoy watching her only child eat ice cream as she left the world, as much as if she were eating it herself.
Meredith hasn’t been able to stomach ice cream since. She realizes its funny about mothers and daughters and love and hate. It had been just the two of them from the beginning. Day in and out, eating, talking, and moving into their separate rooms in the evenings to pursue their independent solitude, which increased with the years. As a young adult, she could hardly stand to be near her mother for more than a few hours, but now an absence fills her chest cavity in spurts, like buckshot, leaving tiny spaces for hot and cold to seep in and send her into hiding.
Meredith hears Sky singing the song rapping in his ears from his iPod. When he’s got half the wall finished, Meredith walks to the store and buys caramel coffee ice cream. She wonders if eating ice cream with another person will help her move past the day in the hospital when her mother grabbed Meredith’s hand and squeezed with the strength of a talon. The monitor sounded the telltale steady beep for over a minute before Meredith felt her mother’s finger release. But in a strange way, Meredith feels that her mother still holds on.
At the end of the day, while Sky cleans the brushes in the bucket with the hose, Meredith stands on the back porch with two bowls. “Hey, Sky. Want some ice cream?”
“Sure. Let me finish here.”
Meredith sets his bowl on the steps and sits in the love seat. The ice cream slides along the base of her throat, tasting like the smell of exterior enamel, like toxic yellow, like the hospital room. She dumps the rest of her portion into the flowerbed.
“Hey, whoa,” Sky says and laughs as he walks over, shaking water out of the brushes. “Why’d you do that?”
“It’s not my flavor. It smells like paint.”
He sits down on the steps and takes a spoonful of his ice cream. The male wren warbles from the rosebush in the corner of the yard.
“It’s mind over matter,” he says with the spoon in his mouth. “I did a social studies report on this theory.” He turns to face her. “It’s called Vedic consciousness.” He balances the bowl on the palm of one hand. He stretches out the spoon from the other, both arms fully extended. He stands and walks to the lawn to wobble across a hose in the grass as if walking a trapeze. “I tell myself I can stay on this hose, and I do.”
Meredith hasn’t heard Sky speak this many words in a week or do anything silly in fun. She decides to play along. “Careful not to fall,” she jokes.
The color of the landscape beyond him seems amplified, as if the bushes and flowers, like Meredith, are alerted by his motion.
“I’ve been practicing the concept that thoughts and words hold power in manipulating my surroundings. It works.” He reaches the sprinkler at the end of the hose, steps off, and returns to the porch. “There’s a belief that consciousness is more than mere brain activity, but a separate entity, an energy apart from the body that the brain can manipulate with thought, and so forth. Here, take my bowl. Hold it to your nose and close your eyes. Smell the ice cream and think ice cream. Coffee ice cream.”
Meredith accepts. The smell of coffee, extra sweet in the melting, presents her with an image of a shared studio space in Philadelphia, where she thrived on caffeine and paint fumes. She needed long stretches of solitude to work and lost the desire for sleep, and friends, and home. Only her mother’s illness could bring her back to Rosewood. She wished she’d found the courage to draw her mother, but illness had not eased her mother’s excessive need for privacy.
Sky asks, “What do you smell now?”
“Wow. Okay, well, that’s weird. That’s something else, then. He hands her his spoon. “Take a bite.”
She stares into the bowl and studies the tawny moat surrounding a small hill as if she is reading tea leaves and can see her future. Using his spoon, eating from his bowl, it seems to cross a boundary. What is she thinking? The paint made her dizzy.
“There’s more to it. I don’t think I can.’ She thrusts the bowl at him. “You finish it. I really bought it for you.”
He shrugs. He takes the bowl and bends to eat, hunching his knobby shoulders into a curve. Meredith’s is grateful he is turned and cannot see her watching him, staring at his scapula, and the bone of his hip. Her fingers itch for clay. She leans back in her seat. “Tell me about the classes you’re taking this fall.”
. . .
The next morning, Meredith drags three empty wooden canvas stretchers the size of rock star posters from the garage into a rectangle of hot sunlight on the driveway. She wipes off the dust and cobwebs with the hem of her skirt.
Last night after the ice cream, she told herself that she needed to stop stalking the kid. Today Sky works on the opposite side of the house, but she can hear him sing as she paints the frames with shiny black enamel for a triptych sculpture—maiden, mother, crone. The air feels dense. Time is slim. Her vision for the project seems dull, the themes overdone.
A reviewer once wrote…Meredith Webb shapes three-dimensional pictorial statements using object displacement to represent absurdity in American culture. Ridiculous, she thought, when she read it. She had no such thing in mind. When she works, she responds to an impulse to sand and paint and glue and wire. She found the review political and reaching. Reading it made her want to slam doors, they way she did as a teenager. She’s lost heart, and now fears what a reviewer might say about repression and third-wave feminism if she shows a triptych about the evolution of woman.
While the stretchers dry against the wall of the garage, she flips off her shoes, and sits in the grass on the front lawn to look at them. She leans back on her elbows. School starts tomorrow. Maybe it will be different, her second year. Maybe she’ll try and reach out more to students—students like Sky—help them make connections between their natural impulses and their work.
When Meredith was ten, her mother moved the two of them to this house and Meredith began fourth grade in a new school. Her mother gave her art supplies: Bristol paper, beeswax crayons, and a set of ebony pencils. She told her that it can be hard to adjust to a new place, and she could use the paper to draw about her feelings. Meredith used up a whole pad making black circles and filling them with grainy color. When she ran out of paper, her mother got her more.
When Meredith cleaned out a hall closet last winter, she found seven sketchpads filled with pages and pages of circles and spirals, brought alive with soft strokes of crayon. Her mother had dated them as if they were journals. Meredith sat on the floor, pressed against boots, and looked through every one.
As she gazes at the frames against the garage, she can’t stop thinking of possibilities for filling the space within them. She likes the shape they make, lined up in a row, black against the white backdrop. What they need is something inside the emptiness, but what?
She sits up and squints. She rubs the grass imprints on the skin above her elbows with the tips of her fingers, her arms cradled, holding herself. An idea flits in, like a phantom wren, shy, as if she has caressed it into courage. Her assemblages are not about culture or merely an impulse to use her hands. She realizes that what she wants to do is illuminate space inside form with some third element. Where line becomes shape is entirely dependent on the area that surrounds it and dwells within it.
It was Sky, that afternoon when he first showed up, who taught her this, the way his clothes dangled on his bones like loose skin, like the skin of a dying mother. That’s what compelled Meredith to shape the lines of his figure, as if documenting a body could keep it alive.
She hauls the frames from the garage to her studio and working quickly, bolts them together in a row. She fashions steel wire ladders within the space of the three frames at odd levels, then fastens the copper and clay figures to and from the ladders, creating a circus of lithe floating forms, suspended in place and time, the figures miniature effigies, replicating a woman’s body before disease took the whole thing.
“I don’t consider just writing as my only part of “being a writer.” I read a lot, I’ll review other people’s work, I edit. I think that’s a writer’s job, to do more than just write.”
-Excerpt from our interview with Jodi Paloni.
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