Vincent Scarpa recently graduated with a BFA in writing from Emerson College. His stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in New Madrid Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Monkeybicycle, and plain china: Best Undergraduate Writing 2011. He now lives back in his hometown of Vineland, New Jersey, which Forbes rated as the second worst-educated city in the country.
Painting Jorge’s Daughter
At night in the new apartment, after the sun has broken down on the moon and this part of the city only hums, I can hear the planes. The rent is cheap, and now I’m figuring out why. They keep me up at inconvenient hours, these red-eye flights to unknown corners of the country. Sometimes I’ll invent the city of final destination in my head to fool myself to sleep. Sleep, where I dream of the planes, of a line of 747s taxiing down Flatbush Avenue, waiting for pedestrians to cross. They’ve started showing up in all of my paintings, too, silver wings in the pale-blue skies of landscapes and in the reflections of eyes.
I ask Imelda, my Filipino neighbor in 4E, if the planes keep her awake too, and she says she hasn’t noticed them once in the two years she’s lived here. Imelda is a violinist for an orchestra in the city, and I have to wonder if her hearing is going; if too many nights in the pit have started to take their toll.
“They’re loud,” I tell her. “Really loud. Listen for them tonight.”
The next morning, I find a note from Imelda slipped under my door, scribbled on the back of a piece of sheet music: “Lucy—I listen, but I hear nothing.” Like a proverb.
Eventually the planes begin to blend into the soundtrack of the apartment, of my life—bruised vegetables from bodegas sizzling in a pan, the quiet croon of the ancient refrigerator, the pitbull’s growl as he sees his reflection in the mirror, Imelda practicing the same twelve measures. There is even some semblance of comfort to be found in the patchwork of noise, like the violin in tune with the telephone ringing—the days that it does.
But on nights of excessive flight activity, I call Erin on the road. She’s a singer-songwriter, and she’s had exactly one hit in the seven years we’ve been together. Last year was when she began to realize her best days were behind her, that she couldn’t sell out a room the way she used to. On the bookshelf in the living room is a playbill from the night she played the Beacon Theater downtown in ‘99, but now she’s lucky if she can get a bar in Buffalo to half capacity.
“I can’t sleep,” I say. “Talk to me about the show.”
“Not great, not terrible. Thirty people or so. Sold a few CDs.”
“Gas money,” I say.
“Gas money,” she says. “They kept yelling for ‘Asleep at the Wheel.’ I’m starting to think it’s the only reason anyone comes.”
“Then I suggest you play it last,” I say, though I know she’s tired of playing it at all. “Asleep at the Wheel” was the song that turned Erin into something of a celebrated obscurity overnight. She wasn’t on the billboard charts—she never wanted to be—but they started putting that song in rotation on college stations and independent radio, and in some of the lesbian bars in the city. Erin started getting better gigs—bigger theaters, nicer towns, paying audiences. Venues started putting her up in hotels, which meant I could come along.
We chased America together. We got high in a cable car in the San Diego Zoo and laughed at tiny elephants and sloths stretched out on the limbs of trees. We bought a used pick-up in Salina and drove it through Yellowstone like outlaws, or kings. We made love in dressing rooms and backstage corners. On stage under amber floodlights, I’d swear Erin was the closest approximation to God I’d ever seen.
But it’s been a long time since I’ve believed anything like that.
Erin asks if the planes are keeping me up again, which means she doesn’t want to talk about the show anymore.
“The 2AM flight to Ottumwa, Iowa is now departing,” I say, in my airport voice.
She says she hopes she’ll manage to sleep through them when she’s back, and it’s the same kind of comment she’s been making since she left six months ago: it rests on the promise of her undisclosed return.
What I’m doing here is waiting. Waiting for her to tire of fast food lunches and rest stop bathrooms, of burnt-out bar marquees that always misspell her name. She takes two hour naps in Wal-Mart parking lots, the driver’s seat reclined as far back as it goes, and calls it her life. But I know she doesn’t love it like she used to. The payoff isn’t the same. Six hours in bumper-to-bumper on I-95 was worth it when they wanted her autograph, when she’d have to overnight boxes of CDs to tomorrow’s venue because she’d sold out of copies the night before. At her peak, she’d see the same groups of college girls follow her from show to show, night after night, all along the East Coast. One had lines from “Asleep at the Wheel” tattooed across her shoulder: I forget what’s fake and I forget what’s real/those nights I fall asleep at the wheel in calligraphy that crawled across the girl’s collarbone.
But Erin mistook all of this as having something to do with longevity, like the best rooms in the country would keep booking her until she played the skin off her knuckles. And I know this pipe dream of a tour, these six months of tipjar gigs in no-name towns, is an attempt at salvaging that life—I just don’t know when she’ll realize there’s nothing left of it to save.
Erin says the interstate is Tetris, and I trace the highway routes on the map above the headboard. She’s somewhere south of Raleigh in a sea of headlights, on her way to a women’s festival in Tampa. I follow the Florida coast with my index finger, down through palm trees and amusement parks, gators and senior citizen community centers. From there she’s got a one-nighter outside Atlanta and another in Nashville. Both shows are painfully undersold. She says the house manager at the club in Decatur wants to cancel, that he thinks they’ll break even at best. I know she’s picturing the show in Atlanta all those years ago—a sweaty line wrapped around a city block, a stage manager anxious about exceeding fire code, the last night of a sold-out tour.
Sometimes Erin asks me what happened to these people who loved her, these college girls who waited in the rain and hail to stake their claim in the front row, and what I can’t tell her is that the answer is simple— they’ve outgrown her. No one loves anyone forever.
“Let me talk to the dog,” she says. Tom Thumb is an American Pitbull she found wandering the streets of Duluth last Summer. I hold the phone up to his drool-flecked jawline, even flip it when I realize the speaker is on the wrong end. I don’t love the dog the way she does, but still I smile as he barks and pants into the receiver for Erin.
For Erin, so far away.
Because he doesn’t bond well with other dogs, I usually walk Tom Thumb to an empty park on the sorry side of town, where all the windows are spiderwebbed and signs instruct you not to leave your vehicle unattended. We like this park for the privacy. The dog can let loose his daily rage and I can wait in peace until he tires himself out. But today, before we even turn into the park, we hear other dogs. Tom Thumb pulls at the leash and the blue dye rubs off on my wrist.
We watch from the gate as a fleet of six pitbulls go airborne, lunging toward a man holding a floral couch cushion. Once they sink their teeth into the fabric, the man shakes the cushion and dances the dogs off until they roll into a patch of dandelions by the fence. Tom Thumb wants to yank himself free, wants to join the circus, and yelps when he can’t. The man sees us and walks to the gate; none of the dogs follow.
“Can I help you?” he asks. I stare at the tattoo sleeves that swirl from his forearms all the way up his biceps, his dark skin, dark eyes— everything about him dark. It’s what must make him attractive, I think. He eyes Tom Thumb. “He yours?”
“My girlfriend’s,” I say. “But I take care of him.” I scratch at the dog’s snout, which is supposed to show my deep affection, my respect for the animal. I wipe his slobber on the side of my sundress. “I’m Lucy.”
“Jorge,” he says, kneeling to Tom Thumb’s level. “He’s got a nice build. Tough.”
I ask Jorge if he’s a trainer, and catch myself staring at another tattoo on his arm, a blue-eyed girl smiling in a communion dress.
“You could say that,” he says. He sees how I’m fixated on the girl, her wide smile and fat cheeks, her hands clutching a rosary. “That’s my daughter,” he says, sliding up his sleeve to show the rest.
In the park, the dogs are still as statues in the grass. “How do you get them to do that?”
“They know better than to get outta line,” he says. “They’re better listeners than they get credit for.”
“You sound like The Dogfather,” I say.
“The Dogfather. Haven’t you seen those commercials? An offer you can’t roof-use?”
Jorge hasn’t seen them, and doesn’t get the joke. He doesn’t have to.
“What are you training them for?” I ask. I imagine a pitbull beauty pageant, lipstick-covered jowls and sashes ripped to shreds.
Jorge hesitates. “Tonight.”
He laughs and says that if I’m really interested I’ll just have to come and see for myself. There’s a hint in his smile, in his voice when he gives me directions and tells me to stop by around midnight.
“I hope I see you there,” he says.
Once we’re back home, I figure I’ll paint. But the dog won’t leave me alone.
I go next-door to ask Imelda if she’d mind practicing in her living room, the walls between hers and ours tissue-thin. I tell her that the dog is soothed by Itzhak Perlman.
“I think about the planes,” she says. “And I think you’re dreaming them, but awake.”
Everything she says, I swear Socrates has said first. I want to tell her that she’s going deaf, like the violinist in a French film I saw last year. He doesn’t tell anyone, not the conductor or his wife, and it’s not until opening night that he loses his hearing altogether. The last scene is the first measure of the violinist’s solo—and he’s playing it all wrong, in 3/4 when the piece is in 6/8. I consider lending Imelda the DVD, but think better of it. Because I know the truth is that Imelda’s hearing is fine, and that the French film was just a movie, and that the real problem is I’m more tuned into transience, into comings and goings and takeoffs and landings, than I ever wanted to be.
“Maybe all you hear is music,” I say, with a smile that is likely more patronizing than I want it to be.
“The whole city is music,” she says, and because she’s starting to sound like a slam poet, I thank her in advance for putting the dog to sleep and walk back to my door.
Through the walls, I can hear Imelda bring her bow to the strings of the Stradivarius, and Tom Thumb is down for the count in no time. I laugh as his floppy ears dance with each snore. I try to capture it, the dog in afternoon light, but it turns into that Wyeth painting, Dog on Bed. A yellow lab curled up on a king-size comforter, the wooden posts perfectly symmetrical, blue sky through the window.
I grab another canvas and start again. This time I paint Jorge’s daughter. I curve lines into rosy cheeks, dip a brush in burnt umber to get the darkness of her hair, and then again in sea foam for the watered-down blue of her eyes. I paint her fingers with the rosary woven through them, the tiny cross hanging between her wrists. The outline of her communion dress in champagne, the rest in an off-white like meringue custard.
I thought she’d make more sense on the canvas than she had on Jorge’s skin, where her face would turn stretchy and disproportionate with the flex of his bicep. I wanted to see her sweetness without the contrast of his tough flesh as a backdrop. But I’m reminded of a former art professor and something he said to me the semester before I dropped out of art school altogether. He’d been reviewing my portfolio and told me I was a dilettante and always would be until I figured out why I wanted to capture, and not what.
I couldn’t hear it then, but looking at my attempt of Jorge’s daughter, it begins to make sense. Outside, the blue of the sky has been replaced with black and it’s starting to drizzle. The clock above the stove tells me I’m already ten minutes late for Jorge. I let my hair down, change into an inconspicuous top and jeans that are tight as a second skin. Tom Thumb growls when he thinks I’m leaving without saying goodbye, so I knead the muscles in his back with my knuckles and let him kiss me. Then I grab the canvas, hit the lights, lock the door, and leave Jorge’s daughter resting against the trashcan on the curb.
Jorge’s directions lead me to a warehouse in the same part of town as the park, far removed from the buzz and bang of the city. The windows are boarded up with planks of wood and the brick has decayed to a grimy yellow. A man in a suntan suit guards the paint-scraped door in the alley, and this is the part where I should be nervous. This is the part where I should turn around. I think of Jorge’s dark eyes, of pitbulls taking flight, of what Erin would think of all this. But I know what I’m getting myself into.
“I’m looking for Jorge,” I tell the man.
He asks for my name, and I give it to him. My real one. Lucy.
The man gives me a crooked grin and pulls out a walkie-talkie from his breast pocket. He radios for Jorge as he flicks his cigarette to the floor, and the bright embers thread through the wind.
“You can go in,” he says. “Should be starting soon.”
Inside are groups of men, some in suits and others in torn-up jeans. There are coolers full of beer and the place smells like cigar smoke, like a pool hall. There’s a scale in the corner, the kind you see in pediatric offices. A dog is being weighed. Some men wait in line at a table by the back, thumbing through their wallets and loosening their ties. And then, at a clearing in the middle of the warehouse floor, I see it— a makeshift ring, no bigger than a sand pit in a playground, the perimeter lined with concrete barriers from the interstate. Two dogs are tied up on opposite ends, pitbulls like the ones in the park. One has scabs over its eyelids, the other a fleshy pink scar from ear to belly.
“Not what you expected?” Jorge asks from behind me, his voice thick like honey.
“I had a feeling,” I say.
“And you still came?”
I did. I came. And as I survey the room, I know why. Because here is the thing I’ve been looking for—the thing that disrupts my stagnant life and plunges me deep into consequence.
In the ring, the two trainers start to rile up their dogs. They smack them around for a bit, quick kicks to the neck and legs until the dogs are sufficiently agitated. The men, twenty of them maybe, crowd around to get a closer look. And then, like it’s the most ordinary thing in the world, the trainers back away and the dogs are at it.
“You sure you want to stay?” Jorge asks. I watch as one dog sinks his teeth deep into the other’s hind, dragging him around the floor like a broom.
“I should be mortified,” I tell him. “Why aren’t I?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe you’re not the type.”
“I should be home.”
“Sounds to me like you should be a lot of things you aren’t right now,” he says.
The match lasts forty-five minutes, a scene of bloody flanks and jowls swollen shut. The men with money in the game watch quietly when it looks like they’ll lose, but hoot and holler when their dog gets up to fight some more. It ends with the smaller of the two dogs being carried out back, his eye torn out and left in the middle of the ring like a grape dropped at a grocery store. I jump at the sound of the bullet, but I’m the only one. The winning dog limps to its owner who runs a hand down his champion’s back. The dog shivers even though the warehouse is hot as hell.
Judging by the men collecting their earnings, this seems to have been the predicted outcome.
Jorge makes conversation with the men as they filter out of the warehouse, wishing them well like a pastor after Sunday mass. The ring is disassembled, the fold-out tables are folded up, and someone mops up the blood. The warehouse is like new. Like a new abandoned warehouse. I watch from the back, in awe of how routine this all seems to be. I haven’t spoken a word in an hour when Jorge walks over to me.
“Let me walk you home,” he says.
We walk Brooklyn’s sleeping streets, the sun still a few hours from rising, and Jorge tells me the rules of the game. He says a dog that wins three times in a row is a champion; five times, he’s a grand champion. He talks of the rigorous training, of towing chains and springpoles. The dogs are trained to run treadmills, he says, and a four-minute mile means they’re ready to fight.
“What about the men?” I ask.
“Just regular guys. Regular guys who like fast money.”
“Is the money that good?”
“Tonight’s purse was five grand,” he says.
I think of how many shows Erin would have to play, how many paintings I’d have to sell. “And what about you? Don’t you ever feel like it’s wrong?”
Jorge pauses, like it’s a question that’s never crossed his mind. I can’t tell if that’s better or worse.
“It isn’t wrong or right,” he says. “It’s just— what happens.”
There’s so much of me that wants to know more, wants to ask how could a man, wants to know that Jorge and I are different in fundamental ways, but each answer presents the possibility of implications I’m unwilling to entertain. The whole night, all of this, is shaken-up soda and I’m trying not to twist the cap too soon, trying to save myself from sticky hands. Instead, I let it fizzle. When we’ve reached my building, I look to the curb, to the painting where Jorge’s daughter was. The rain has turned her into an abstract, thin lines of green and pink that snake down the canvas into the sewer grate. What was it I was trying to capture, and why?
At the front door, the key turning the lock, I don’t even have to ask if he wants to—Jorge just follows behind me.
Inside the apartment, Jorge sits on the couch and wrestles with Tom Thumb, who is surprisingly happy to have company other than mine.
“Your girlfriend is a singer?” he asks, eyeing up the picture frames throughout the living room.
“She is. She’s on the road right now.”
“She any good?”
“I doubt she’s your style,” I say.
I bring two beers from the fridge and sit on the couch with Jorge, the dog between us. He asks more about Erin, so I tell him. I tell him about our first date, how she pretended to know anything about art and I pretended to appreciate Bob Dylan. How she asked, “Lucy—in the sky with diamonds?” and I said, “No—on earth, with cubic zirconia.” I tell him about her mother who drank and her father who left, the born-again sister in Michigan that hasn’t spoken to her since she came out in college. Jorge laughs as I reminisce about how jealous I used to get when fans came up to Erin after her shows, saying how she’d changed their lives with her music. And then we’re halfway through a twelve-pack and I tell Jorge that, if he wants to know the truth, I don’t even like Erin’s music all that much. I never even listen to her. I tell him she reuses the same chord progressions, the same melodies, forty songs you can’t tell apart. I tell him my girlfriend is a one-hit wonder who can’t sell out a phone booth most of the time, but that she’s so full of aggressive hope she won’t give it up. `
Jorge nods through all of this, scratching at Tom Thumb’s side. He doesn’t yawn or look away or check the time—he just listens. And then, because I’ve told him everything that’s true, because the beer is gone and I am a husk, I kiss him. My emptiness is big enough to tuck the entire world into.
It should be loud, but it’s quiet. He slides the dog off the couch like men in movies clear already-set dining room tables or desks in offices in one fell swoop, and I wrap my legs around him like a seatbelt. We’re both sweaty and violent and drunk and the sun is coming up over Brooklyn.
I wake up in the bedroom, my head resting on Jorge’s chest, listening for lungs. He kisses the top of my head and climbs the bones of my back with his fingers like a ladder. Tom Thumb snores at the foot of the bed.
“Morning,” he says. “How’d you sleep?”
“Like a rock,” I say. “You?”
“How do you sleep through all those planes?” he asks. “It’s like a fucking airport.”
“We’re in a flight path,” I say.
I can tell Jorge wants to kiss me, but I have morning breath and my tongue is beer and it isn’t last night anymore. The room is bright with sun through the curtains, and the morning taxis are already honking at pedestrians and bikers. The comforter lies horizontal across the bed, the decorative pillows arranged like an art installation on the hardwood floors. Imelda’s violin waltzes through the walls. A few miles from here, the dead dog from last night is at the bottom of the dumpster behind the warehouse, slowly turning into skeleton. And a million miles further, Erin is waking up in a rest stop parking lot near Tampa and writing down her mileage before she goes inside to brush her teeth and wonder if anyone will show up today.
On the bureau, the answering machine blinks red, like a warning. Odds are it’s her famous line—I just wanted to hear your voice before I went on—but just you watch. Watch this be the day she finally gives up, agrees to lay down the highway and come home.
But what is she coming home to?
Jorge turns my face to his and asks if I’m going to listen to the message, and I tell him I will once I figure out what I want it to say. But until then, I fit my body into his like a puzzle piece, and then we’re so quiet, so still—as still as that pair of sloths in the San Diego Zoo, suspended in place so long that it took three months for anyone to notice they were dead.
“ 'Painting Jorge’s Daughter' is a story that lived fully-formed in my head for a few months before I actually sat down to write it. I’d been thinking a lot about the people and the lives that entertainers—be they musicians, comics, magicians, what have you—leave behind at home while they’re away for indeterminate amounts of time. I wondered what the challenges of that dynamic would be, and in what ways the relationship might suffer if the entertainer didn’t seem to be making it on the road. Rather than have the story follow the character that leaves—which, admittedly, this story did in the first draft—I became more interested in the character that is left. That’s where I found Lucy, and the story seemed to unfold from there. I wanted the story to see her at an important moment in her otherwise stalled and stagnant life. And, seeing as I was re-reading a lot of Amy Hempel at the time, I found resonance in a line from her story, 'The Harvest,' where the narrator says, simply, 'I waited for the moment that would snap me out of my seeming life.' Lucy seemed to be waiting for something similar, and she finds it an a place that equally excites and unsettles her. ”