This story is by Gian COok and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Dad staggered into the den, grumbling and glossy-eyed, and told me to get to bed. He lurched around, arms swaying, spilling his beer, and his eyes were swollen red. I could’ve thought he’d been weeping if hadn’t reeked of burned paint and whiskey sours.
That June morning the bill of sale had come, reminding dad that his art store was lost, that it was set to become a storage center, that the store name was sold to some app developer, and that Corliss and Saul had cut the deals because, as they said over the phone months before the end, “Art won’t sell – but today we can, Hal!” What they’d started in 1993, when they were friends full of ponderous angst upon a Los Angeles just ‘uncool’ enough to listen, it was over now, sold off like a fattened calf to be slaughtered at the altars of profit.
So, dad spent the day harder than he’d been wasting his weeks. He drank relentlessly and stacked all his lustrous glories – portrait paintings, sketches, drawings, sculptures, and all the materials that made them – into tall pyres. He gas-soaked them first, then liquored them, one by one. Then he burned them. All day long he burned them, and all of the time he gnashed out his words, “The bastards lost vision!” And all of that time I watched him ignite infernos as if he were trying to burn away so many sins with one.
And now here he was, four months deep into a midnight oblivion and anger-slurring in front of the television and my favorite cartoon.
“Don’t let me tell you again, Ty,” he threatened.
“I want to wait for mom,” I contended and entrenched my little body into the sofa.
“Up with you – you’re done with the cartoon,” he grumbled between hiccups and swigs, fully aware of my game and having none of it.
I gave him the face.
He grimaced back. “No? It’s on you then,” he said and flung himself to the couch. I rolled to the floor, escaping the ballooning shadow of his gut and his crash into the cushions that thudded like a boulder hurled into golden dunes.
I glared at him as I rose, fists clenched, and little body trembling beneath the stagnant heat of the room. He was lying belly up and slouched like a perfect sight of failure. His silver beer sat low on his lap against the sweaty gut that breached out of his plum purpled robe. Drool clung on the brink of his lip and sweat bore down his black matted hair to his face, glistening his thicket of a beard when his growling breathes shivered his cheeks. His eyes were inert and pit-black like they’d devoured light…like his vision were caught between deaths and dreams, hells and heavens, and worse.
I moved toward him and prodded that oily face. “Then,” I started with as solemn a voice as a ten-year-old could muster, “Tuck. Me.”
He drank down his beer. “Get. Out,” he mocked my drama and shut his eyes after.
I hated him a bit more for that, but it was his lemon smell that compelled me to quit the room and endure another night untucked. But as I turned to start my exit, the smoldering shards of fiery orange glowing from the backyard seized the root of my interest.
I walked out to the remnant flame, serene in its decline from effulgent life to darkness. When my eyes adjusted, I saw what dad had left. All his work…it was charcoal now, an insipid ruin of ash and soul.
That savory aroma of smoked wood wafted out there and I would have dawdled in it till mom came home, but amid those corpsed lumps of char and rubble and dust, I spotted an unpolished murder: The one vibrant portrait dad had made of me – full of wonderful color – was two-thirds torched and one-third monstrosity. Right then I couldn’t cry. Disgust claimed me, and I surrendered to the hate swelling out of the wreck: Dad had burned me to hell – he killed me.
I rushed inside. Found his face. And I slapped him. He remained expressionless, stuck in his lowest ebb and mumbling. Then I cocked my hand farther, and I struck that sullen face. I went quick for another strike, but he blocked my hand and I fell to the floor. The beast had awoken.
“What the hell boy!” he growled and rose, standing tall over me with terror lingering on the rim of his face and eyes black like horror. “Damn it Tyus!”
“You!” I started and stood up. The tears were coming now, but I could just get the words out, “Judas!”
“The hell?” He said and poked me.
“You – you killed me! You burned all your stupid paintings but – and – and – you burned me!”
“What the hell are you talking about, boy?” he asked and searched my limbs until I pulled away. “You’re fine,” he said.
“No!” I yelled. Mists of tears burst forth now, and all my muddled view could see was a distorted shadow of him, lusterless, and full of broken faith. “That picture of me on the swing,” I blubbered, “That was me daddy! And you burned it! You burned me”
Dad said things, penitently maybe, but the world to me was impenetrably quiet. I wouldn’t let him touch me when he tried. Something in me wanted him hurt; something deeper still could only cry.
He didn’t try arguing with a boy. He didn’t plead or blame the bottle or Corliss or Saul or Mom. No. For the while, he just let me whimper till all those hot tears fell out, and I had no fight-back left.
Then he held me. He was warm. Yes, with that strange and hallowed power that parents possess and are helpless to forfeit, he held me, taking up the hate he’d given me until I tucked tight into the heat of his arms and slept heavy into dreams. “No, boy,” he whispered with breaking voice, lips pressed against my hair, “You can’t be crying for me, now.”
And I dreamed. I remember it: That dad cried…that he cried himself sober…that he was releasing droves of bitter words and black tears. That he wailed out blubbering whines, shrill and wild…his sound like an unfettered storm. He cried and cried, and I whispered to him, “No one can cry for you, daddy,” and he looked up. “All better,” he said.
Dad woke me up early the following morning.
“Come on boy,” he said and nudged me, “I owe you.”
There was a pond of drool on his robe where I slept. I said nothing. It was too early for words.
“Up with you,” he said, “I’ve got one day left with the store and one good painting I owe you.”
Our drive was quick and quiet. Dad was somber, but I could tell something in him was different now. He was settled into a new knowledge. Nothing about him exposed it, but children can always tell.
“Let’s be quick, but not hurried,” he said as we pulled in.
I smiled wide when I saw it. “Color of the Valley,” I read.
Dad grinned, shrewd-like, as if the name whispered something greater to him.
“Well?” I exclaimed, eager and trembling with expectation.
He unlocked the door, and I rushed inside. And the place was desolate, swarmed in dust and absolutely empty. There weren’t even aisle shelves. The store was less than a ruin now, a tomb robbed of its god.
We made for the back corridor that lead into the black-walled auditorium. Light cut through the ceiling window, enflaming the eddying dust and glowing it into streaming bits like flashing metals. He prepared his things and before long led me before the stage and two setups – canvasses clamped to easels beside air compressors and full tables of dozens of airbrushes and paint bottles.
I bolted to mine…I was smiling huge right then. I took up my airbrush when he did, and he loaded color for us both. Then we began.
Some of the time he’d guided my hands, most of the time he let me make what I could. I know he watched me some of the time…simpering at that great smile I had at the rumbling feel on the fingers when color jets out the brush…that first joy of making something.
“How’s this!” I cried out when I finished, pointing to my perfect chaos.
Dad laughed. A jolly laugh wrapped up in something new. He kept on with the laugh and his work and I could see his eyes glimmering like an opal full of the colors he bore to life on his canvass.
“Let’s keep going,” he said, “We’ll keep going for as long as we can.”
And we went on with it. For hours we made and laughed till the paint dripped off our canvasses to the floor, or our shoes. That was the last day he held the store.