I have always been big on the end justifying the means, the Karmic shuffle of it all—a path that allows for missteps and interesting discoveries, mistakes and second chances. A person who has made a lot of mistakes in life would be a fool to profess otherwise, and though I am a lot of things, a fool is not one. My desire to see a wrong turn or a mistake become something wonderful that you never thought it could be is why I have long been a disciple of the television painter Bob Ross. You may know him only as the man on PBS—The Joy of Painting —the pleasant-faced man with the Afro or Jewfro or Latinofro—whatever his origin might be—who speaks in such a kind and gentle voice about happy little clouds and little creatures hiding there in the nature he is painting. And yes, I know he is dead, but when I pop in a video it is like poof: resurrection. Bob said you could use your mistakes, like an accidental drop of black paint might become something beautiful or mysterious, the mouth of a cave or the shadow of a mountain.
I love Bob Ross and I also love the cheap substitute of paint-bynumber. It’s therapeutic and what I like to do when I don’t want to think at all. As a result I have lots of shitty paintings all over my house—kittens with balls of yarn and puppies with gnawed-up shoes, horses with big fake butterflies lighting on their arched tails. These are cute enough, or would be if I was still eleven and waiting for good things to happen to me. Paint-by-number is an art form that jumps from the preadolescent to the elderly; it’s an art form designed for BL (Before Life) and AL (After Life). I am just forty and should be In Life, like right in the middle, yet I remain a devoted follower.
I have gotten so fast with the process, ripping through those little plastic pots of oil paint, that I’ve had to look for bigger and bigger paintings in hopes that they would hold me for a while. Everyone who is into PBN knows that the biggest kits are always intricate whaling ships and The Last Supper. I did a whole harbor full of ships right after Stuart and I split up—I called it The Fucked Up Fleet From Hell. I thought if I painted one more sail, I’d need to drink some arsenic and put myself out of my misery. So, I broke down and bought The Last Supper. Dark, Dreary and Depressing. If somebody had offered me a little silver to sell them all out, I would’ve done it. And I certainly would have sold Stuart out in a flash, too, except for the fact that he sold me out first and not for what should have been my fair market appraisal. I didn’t even get the chance to say here’s your hat but don’t hurry before he was clean across town and in a brand new life with a brand new girlfriend, this one without children which didn’t surprise me a bit. He wasn’t good with his own child; why would he even care to try with someone else’s?
I mean it’s not like we’re married or anything, he had said. It’s not like I’m his father. He looked out the window to where Andrew was pushing the lawn mower, the handle about taller than he was. We both know we have hit the dead end. I watched those words coming out of his mouth and knew that he was right. I did know, had known, had a lifelong habit of picking dead ends because they were familiar to me, not good, just familiar, like the way an ex-prisoner starts to feel better—free and living elsewhere—with the furniture pushed up against the wall and the floors hosed down and swept. It’s not a pretty sight but it’s dependable as clockwork. A life without any surprise is safe in its own way. You know if you stay within the lines and don’t glom too much paint on your brush, your paint-by-number picture of a seagull squatting on a rugged post will turn out okay. Do you want to look at it for the rest of your life? Does it make you happy? Now those are different questions altogether.
I keep thinking that if I do enough paint-by-numbers and keep watching my tapes of Bob that my artistic ability will take shape. That one day I will wake up and instinctively know how to create light on the water, wind in the mane, deep furling creases in the robe of Judas. So far this miracle has not occurred. And I guess things like artistic talent cannot be easily explained. You can’t explain tal ent just like you can’t explain the ability to love. People are forever asking about my quilt designs which, by the way, actually earn me good money when I settle in and do them. I am known for my Crazy Quilts and the good eye I have for piecing together colors and textures that people would never think of combining. In one of my prize-winning quilts I cut up Stuart’s tuxedo he’d left hanging in my closet and coupled it with scraps of antique bark cloth from the drapes that had hung in my grandmother’s bedroom for seventy-five years. I named it The Night Has a Thousand Eyes. I cut the satin lapels from the tux into circles like pupils—some dilated, others not—and sprinkled them onto other fabrics—bits of an old butter-colored chenille spread my parents owned, worn soft flannel from my own Lanz nightgown. The centers of the pale pink peonies—some white, some yellow—of my grandmother’s drapes also resembled eyes, dappled and searching. I never explain the name I give to anything. I never told how every bit of fabric laid out there had been witness to the life of a bed. These fabrics knew the routines, the cries and murmurs, of three generations. These fabrics held secrets that I myself would never know—ones I didn’t want to know. I was both drawn to and repulsed by the thought. I didn’t want to imagine my grandparents’ naked bodies entwined in the darkness those rich colored peonies had shed, and I didn’t want to picture my parents beneath the soft warmth of that chenille, a fabric that completely betrayed the real texture of what was a sad and hopeless relationship, two people light-years apart but choosing to share the same space. I was the glue that held them together. I was the mistake that shaped the rest of their lives: her sad attempts, his bitter regret.
Divorce would have been such a gift for my parents. I wanted that for them. When I was eight, the music teacher at my school got one and it seemed to make her really happy. People whispered about her but she didn’t act like she cared; she just kept singing and looking beautiful, like a plump, black-haired Julie Andrews. I remember sitting on Santa’s lap late one December afternoon in front of Taylor’s Hardware on Main Street. He said, What do you want, Little Girl? There was a boy dressed like a gunslinger pointing his six shooter at me like I better hurry up, so I leaned back against Santa’s warm padded chest and tilted my mouth near his ear. My parents were standing right there in front of a stack of snow shovels that nobody in this neck of the woods would ever need, looking tired and bored—she was probably wishing she was over at JC Penney trying on clothes that would make her look like a teenager and he was wishing he was out drinking something and working on that old Thunderbird he swore would some day be a prize but never was. A divorce, I whispered in his warm creased ear and then lay my head down while the cowboy made sounds like he just shot a whole round into my heart.
What? Santa sounded surprised and tried to look me in the eye but I held onto him another minute. He smelled good and I liked his fat body. What did you say, honey?
Thumbelina, I said then. The little one and also Incredible Edibles.
Stuart was wearing his tuxedo when I first met and fell for him. How can you not notice a man in a tuxedo sitting in a little elementary school chair, his long legs stretched way out into the room? It was Back to School Night. I am the school nurse and I had just given a presentation about what constituted the need for a parent to come and take somebody home: fever over one hundred degrees, severe sprains and broken bones, vomiting more than once. I explained how sometimes a child might throw up out of pure excitement or one too many times around on the whirligig or as part of a chain reaction set off by another child’s vomiting in the cafeteria. However, I stressed, beyond such spontaneous and event-prompted nausea, it is very important for a child to be sent home. Not only is a vomiting child contagious, but it is humiliating to be stretched out and moaning on a cot for others to see.
I tried to remind the crowd of parents seated in the cafeteria what it felt like to be a child. I believe that whole thing about those who don’t remember history are forced to repeat it. I have a poster like that in my office, right beside one of a frightened kitten out on the limb of a tree with the caption Hang In There. I think if a parent can remember what it felt like to be frightened and alone then maybe they can protect their kids a little bit better, keep them from having to go through all the bad shit they did.
Life is scary enough, I told them, without being sick on top of it. That was when I looked up and saw Stuart leaning into the open doorway, tie undone, overcoat open. He was right beside a traffic poster that said: Look both ways before crossing. When in doubt, don’t, and I should have remembered that a half hour later when he came up to me, juice and cookies in hand, to suggest we go get a real drink somewhere. His little girl—a second grader who had never been sick at school and thus was unknown to me—lived with her mother full time. He only showed up at these things to fuck with the ex a little, let her know he wasn’t entirely out of the picture. It was a negative hidden picture like if Bob Ross had painted a rattlesnake down in the bushes beside the front door of your painted house instead of a tiny nest of sparrows. I should have taken heed. I knew better even as I accepted his invitation and all the ones that followed.
Why don’t you realize that I, like most humans inhabiting this planet, am not inferior to you, I once asked when he was explaining at great length how I should have done everything I’d done that day from wash the clothes to cook the meal to wear my hair. We had been together for about a year and this was a pattern. Stuart is one of those people you marvel at, not because he’s so great but because he thinks he’s so great. People who meet him for just little encounters are fooled for a long time. Those who actually get to the end of the prerecorded message he spurts and spits at first meeting—who he knows, where he’s been, why he’s admired by so many—realize that there’s nothing else on the tape. That’s it. Th-th-th-that’s all folks. All roads lead to his various experiences as a real estate attorney. What you see is what you get. No surprises hiding there after all. If Stuart was a paint-by-number, he’d be right in there with Jesus’s last night on earth: dark, depressing, swigging wine, eating way too many carbs, and of course betraying. Constantly betraying. Not me so much as himself. Stuart wants to be loved and wanted by everyone and he wants to accomplish this by doing nothing beyond his own job and offering commentary on everyone else’s job. Whenever I mentioned his daughter and how nice it would be for him to plan something for her, a trip to the zoo, dinner out, how I would go, too, if that made it easier, he would say good idea or yeah sure or any number of those quick replies people give when they want you to shut up and leave them alone.
By then, of course, I noticed her all the time—Charlotte—a thin little girl with dark curly hair and big brown eyes. Every day at recess she sat in the same swing, the same little red-haired boy beside her, and every day her mother, far more attractive than Stuart had painted her, was waiting on the sidewalk to walk her home. Stuart had told me that he and his ex often went weeks without speaking, that it was like living in a tomb and sleeping with a corpse. And all I could think was how much better then that this child is no longer breathing their stale bitter air. How wonderful it must be for her to wake and find her mother alone in the bed.
Children who grow up in such a household learn early how to clown and try to make everyone happy or they learn to apologize for things they didn’t do in hopes of ending the tension so a kind of normal life can return. And some parents let them do this—soak up blame and responsibility like a sponge when what they really need is for someone to pick them up and wring out all the bad waste they’ve absorbed. It isn’t theirs to carry. They are the emotional placentas, struggling to protect their own vital parts while sucking up and storing others’ neglectful nasty habits.
When I saw Andrew for the first time, his warm wet body placed atop my stomach, cord still connecting us, I promised him that I would do my best. That I hoped to always admit my mistakes and try to make up for them. That I never wanted to dump my problems on him. That I wanted to try and explain things in a way that made sense, try and explain what’s beneath the surface of it all. Now, I show him how before I do a paint-by-number I usually paint a message onto the canvas first, just in case anyone ever bothers to look or more so just so I know it is there, like a worry stone or lucky penny in your pocket, a wish that repeats itself in your head. Or I take out my plastic brain mold, which I have used to entertain him and those at school every Halloween and other holidays too. It’s a Jell-O mold and if you buy Berry Blue or Grape and add just the slightest bit of cream, it comes out a perfect brainy gray. I put messages in the brain, little notes wrapped in Saran Wrap that he discovers like fortune cookies: My mother loves me to pieces or I am going to be a great poet or Beware! Igor grabbed the wrong brain!
Once I put I’ll be quiet which made us laugh even though it’s not funny. It’s what Stuart’s mother who we still visit on occasion says all day long in the rest home whenever anybody makes eye contact with her. I’ll be quiet. I’ll be quiet. Well, it doesn’t exactly take Einstein to read beneath the surface of that one, does it? Stuart’s father must have told her to shut up forever. Stuart argues that he never said those words to his mother, but I say his behavior was the same as if he’d formed the words and let them out. Shut up is what he said every time he went into the bathroom while she was talking, and shut up is what he said every time he shook and raised the newspaper up over his face. I suggested that it was never too late, that he could go and sit with her, tell her there was no reason to be quiet, that he wanted to listen. But he said the time had already come and gone, that she didn’t even know who he was anymore so what difference would it make? I was feeling a great wash of sadness and the desire to make it all better but then I realized that this was the way he wanted it. Why should I be the one to care? Why did I care? Why do I still?
You might look at me now and wonder why I didn’t get sucked on down Misery Canal. Why did I not become my sad shell of a mother taking pills for ailments that likely didn’t exist and hiding behind racks of clothes to try on and hoard while tired salesladies on commission told her she was beautiful? Why didn’t I pack a bag and flee, as Stuart had from his marriage and then from me, as my father might as well have all those years ago when he sat in a dark garage in a car that would never move again? Flight. Escape. It’s such a simple and common story. Why am I not sitting off somewhere saying I’ll be quiet or zonked out of my gourd or living a total lie? Well, for one thing I have a good job surrounded by children who need me, and I have projects it will take me years to finish as I practice the teaching of Bob Ross, and I have Andrew. Above all else, I have Andrew.
It was when I was pregnant that I discovered Bob. I was told his voice would soothe and ease me into sleep better than trying to read the Bible, which was another recommendation for insomnia that I received. And it was true—Bob was even better than NyQuil or Benadryl, neither of which was an option while I was pregnant anyway. He lulled me to sleep each afternoon, me with eyes barely held open searching the pines off at the edge of the mountain for the little nest of birds he assured me was there while Andrew paddled his little limbs within, his tight round rump twisting and pushing against my ribs. Happy creatures, Bob said, there to find if you look real hard. I wanted to live in Bob’s world. I didn’t even crave very much—light, air, occasional laughter. I would lie there like beached blubber murmuring, Goddamnit Bobby, I want happy clouds. I want to be a happy creature. What he could do every day with a blank canvas amazed me. It was like painting all of one little number at one time in a PBN without having the box to show you exactly what you were doing. What’s more, Bob’s technique of applying one color right on top of another was called “wet on wet,” which I found erotically charged even there in my condition. Wet on wet sounded to me like slick skin-slapping sex the quality of which I had not experienced nearly enough in my life. I love how Bob never abandoned what began with wet on wet even when it was looking messy. In Bob’s world there were no mistakes, only happy accidents. Take that smear of yellow where the reflection of your sun looks stupid and unnatural and turn it into a giant sunflower. Take your deformed-looking dog and just smear it all out into a little tranquil pond. Bob could dive into a pile of shit and come out riding a silver pony.
Andrew is eight now and expressed very little emotion when Stuart packed up and left. It’s not like he’s my real dad, he said, and looked at me as if I might give him more information about his father, the fiction I have created to fill the void of what is not entirely known—a kind but otherwise really boring mechanic who taught me what parts to point to under the hood so I wouldn’t be taken advantage of, the medical student doing a month’s rotation in ophthalmology when I was finishing up nursing school, the married landscape designer who spent half a summer wandering the grounds of my apartment complex, taking in and examining the various women who lived there the same way he did the grade and slope of the terrain. He was famous for complimenting women on their buds and bushes. And of course we all thought he was totally full of shit but too completely good looking for his own good, or our good I guess. For all I know he’s still hoeing rows and planting seeds, like an old mule who only knows one path.
But Andrew’s father—by my account—was a brilliant young man who, after being in the Peace Corps for two years, became a war correspondent during the Gulf War. No sooner did we marry and have a beautifully memorable honeymoon in the Galapagos Islands (I saw a television special on this and knew all I needed to know) than he was reported missing and presumed dead. The only question Andrew asked was why we didn’t use his father’s last name—Purdue—(we were in the grocery store when he asked) and I said it was just too painful a reminder of the life I almost had but then didn’t. I told how his father was an only child whose parents had both died when he was young so we were all that was left of his family. When Andrew wanted to know where his dad was buried I pulled out a photo of my childhood home and pointed where the sun was about to drop behind the thick pine woods between my house and the high school. I sprinkled him here, I said, it’s where he proposed to me. I told him how you can’t see it in the photo but if you walk there in the woods there is an old rusted-out buggy where as children his dad and I had sat and pretended we were heading west to find gold and eternal happiness. I told him how wonderful it was to be hidden there in the trees.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little angry when Stuart left, even though it was inevitable and I was glad it happened. It was more about feeling responsible for what had failed. I had spent my life feeling that way and that is what really made me angry. I was sick and tired of making other people’s mistakes look good when no one was helping out with mine. How did this happen? my mother asked when she saw me pregnant with Andrew. What on earth am I going to say to people? She spoke with great authority and arrogance as if she might be the mother equivalent of the Mona Lisa.
Painting is a very good way to handle anger. Sometimes, I paint like a maniac while my mind goes over things. Sometimes the thoughts are XXX rated. I do things in my head that would get me the death penalty in this state. And that’s harmless, right? Paint a little on Jesus’s beard while imagining all that will never happen but could—all the ways I might force people to see and hear me as I really am, all my parts and all my layers.
I am someone who needs to be aware of what is under the surface. When I examine my grandmother’s old quilts, there is often a quilt face under the one showing; who isn’t intrigued when a painting is discovered under another? Who doesn’t like those little Russian nesting dolls—something inside of something inside of something. A secret message tucked back, layered for a later revelation. It’s history—the organs beneath the skin—the heart. It’s the belief that there is something out there that will save you.
Nothing lasts forever, Stuart said when he left. It scares me to think so, but I believe there was a time I would have begged him to stay, changed myself into something I wasn’t to avoid conflict and change. I likely would have taken the blame—a problem I have wrestled with my whole life, so conditioned to assume that I didn’t deserve anything better, that once I messed up I was out of the game, like misspelling a word in a spelling bee or severing a main artery out in the middle of nowhere. I was asked by a shrink once what my worst fear was and I didn’t even have to think. My worst fear, I told him, is that I will stumble upon a crime and confess that I am responsible. I am someone desperate for resolutions, a sense of completion and wellbeing. I want to tell people how everything is going to be okay, to reassure them that there is light up ahead even when they can only see the darkness. The glass is half full. When you find yourself neck deep in this much shit that silver pony is bound to be nearby.
That’s fairy tale bullshit, Stuart told me on more than one occasion, when I expressed hope for what was awaiting me out there in the future.
There’s no brass ring, my father often said, One bad turn just leads to another. You automatically sink lower than you might have been, with no hope of getting back. He looked at my mother as he said this.
If there is a hell and I am forced to go there, then I will be surrounded by negative and pessimistic people. I will hear them complain and whine, judge and sentence everyone and everything around them. And in between their tirades I will be presented with books missing their final chapters, movies that blip out just before the final scene, elaborate recipes that don’t tell what temperature the oven should be. No situation will have a resolution; there will be no glimmer of a future.
But for now, I love nothing better than sitting on the little cot in my office, my fingers smoothing tangled hair and tear-stained dirty faces. I tell them they will feel better very soon. The fever will break and the bone will heal. Their parents would never forget to pick them up. There’s traffic, so much traffic, I say; there is nothing on the whole planet they love any better than you.
Some might say that my life has been one long series of mistakes and accidents, but Bob Ross has taught me otherwise. I can take myself and turn me into something really good. He has taught me that it’s important to know what’s possible. He was only fifty-two when he died, though his show has continued to play long after. Some might see these repeats as a sad thing, the long goodbye. But I see them as a wonderful rebirth. Day after day, he springs back to life. He’s a lot like Jesus when you think about it—the second chance, the promise of something better, the beard.
Now when I paint, I leave little spaces in the trees for Bob. I like to think he’s back in the woods there painting up a frenzy. Or he’s cooking a nice gourmet meal for the two of us to sit and enjoy at the end of a long day. We’re just friends, of course, bound by our artistic sensibilities. He has a wife he loves and I am really not attracted to him in that wet on wet kind of way, though I am not above thinking he might have a friend he wants me to meet. He’s there thinking of all the nice things he will say when he sees me; how he sees beneath my skin and bones to my very soul. How I deserve so much more than I’ve seen thus far. He says the trick is to go just one little brush stroke at a time, that what I am making of Andrew—that little wet on wet happy accident—is a great work in progress and worth every minute I spend. He tells me to look before crossing, to hang in there. He says every day is a good day to be alive.
Jill McCorkle is the author of five novels—The Cheer Leader, July 7th, Tending to Virginia, Ferris Beach, and Carolina Moon—and three story collections, most recently Creatures of Habit. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Ploughshares, Best American Short Stories, and New Stories from the South, among other publications. The recipient of the New England Book Award, the John Dos Passos Prize, and the North Carolina Award for Literature, she has taught creative writing at UNC-Chapel Hill, Tufts, Harvard, and Brandeis. She is currently on faculty at North Carolina State University and in the Bennington Writing Seminars. (10/2007)