And The Frequency Dissolves
A Short Story by Spencer Cushing
Written using the suggestion "Purgatory"
Originally featured on 04-30-2009
As part of our series "Where the Wild Words Are (Words Gone Wild!)"

He could never get the face right. As he sat with the brush between his fingers, resting his back after hunching forward for so long, he couldn’t even remember where the idea had come from. Probably a nightmare, he thought while he took another sip of vodka. After thirty some paintings, his oil on canvas apocalypse series—as he was calling it—seemed to lose whatever idea he had been reaching for.

He put the brush down and turned toward the mirror he’d hung on the wall for self-portraits four years ago. He hadn’t shaved for nearly a month and his heavy lids were surrounded by dark grayish circles. There was paint in his beard and on his nose where he spent a great deal of time worrying his face whenever he’d come to a frustrating point in the painting.

“Coffee,” he said to himself.

He stood from his stool and slipped his feet into a pair of ratty sandals, wandering into the kitchen. He removed the coffee pot from the warmer plate and filled it with water. He poured slowly eyeing the movement of liquid from one object to another and wondered if he could paint such movement without having to practice the concept approximately fifty-thousand and three times. He found that painting was a practice in patience, but he also knew that his perfection got in the way of most of his work.

When he finished pouring the water he dumped a few spoonfuls of coffee grounds into a filter and dropped it into the machine. Before he’d hit the on button he thought he might as well pour himself just a tiny sip of vodka. He pulled the water filter from the fridge. He’d converted the pitcher’s use to his alcohol, because he heard he could turn cheap vodka into a quality beverage. It helped a little, but he could still tell he’d spent only five dollars. He continued to buy the cheap vodka.

He wandered to the table and leafed through the mail that had accumulated, quickly passing over the letter requesting child support money for his thirteen-year-old daughter. He took another sip. He held the cup to his lips and the scent of alcohol burned his nostrils. His daughter Andrea found him standing at the table staring at the wall when she arrived in the dining room, her backpack over her shoulder.

“Dad?” She asked. She moved into the kitchen and looked at the wall where her father’s gaze seemed transfixed. She found nothing. “Hey, Dad? What are you doing?”

After finding the face of a gorilla in the textured bumps and shadows of the wall he blinked. He could hear himself breathing again. He turned toward Andrea.

“Hmm?” He mumbled.

“Dad, are you okay?”

“Oh, sure. I just had a few ideas. I kind of got lost there,” He said. He set the cup on the counter. He leaned against the surface of the tile, more for support than anything, and tried a smile. He could tell it hadn’t worked.

“Mom’s coming to get me. I called her this morning.” She sounded annoyed.

“Okay.” His mind had already started to wander.

This was not the right thing to say. He could tell. She tossed her backpack at the legs of the table and sat down with a huff. She put her head on her hand and stared at the splotches of paint on the table.

“I’m hungry,” She said.

“Me too,” he replied and it was true. He couldn’t recall what exactly it was he ate last, or when exactly it might have been. He searched the cupboards and couldn’t find anything, but a jar of vegetable bouillon. He popped open the fridge and found a small carton of half-a-dozen eggs. He ignored the expiration date and started a pan of easy scramble.

The kitchen remained silent except for the light buzz of the stove and the click of the spatula in the pan. He resisted picking up the glass of vodka several times. When he finally did give in, he grabbed the glass and moved to the sink, turning the water on and filling the glass, hoping she might think it had been water in the first place.

She made circles with her fingers on the table until he set a plate of eggs in front of both of them and sat down beside her to eat. She ate quickly, picking out the pieces that didn’t look gross. She swung her feet back and forth and he cleared his throat to say something, but a knock at the door cut him short.

“That’s Mom,” she said. She stood and ran for the door. He followed and when he reached the door, Andrea was already through and dashing for her mother’s car. Hannah stood on the other end of the screen, waiting for him with a dark visage.

“Morning,” he mumbled.

“She called me at five-thirty this morning. Did you spend any time with her?” She asked. She looked good in her denim jacket. She had no make-up on, and her hair hadn’t been brushed, but he found it sexy. Even still.

“I’ve been really busy,” she started to shake her head. “I’ve got this new showing coming up and I really needed…”

“She said you’ve been throwing gray paint on a canvas and that’s it. That’s art? That’s more important then spending time with your daughter?”

“I just haven’t been myself.”

“You smell like vodka,” she chided him.

He couldn’t even think of what to say next. He scratched his beard and glance over her shoulder at his daughter who leaned her head against the car window.

“You owe us money. Gabe, figure yourself out. You’re hurting our daughter,” she shook her head again and when he didn’t speak, she threw her hand up in frustration. He caught a glimpse of her blue eyes and could feel a strange twinge in his throat. He swallowed hard. She stepped off the porch and half-jogged back to the car.

Gabe stood at the door and watched as they drove away. His fingers began to itch. He wandered to the kitchen, filled his glass again and stumbled back to his canvas. A man, or at least his arm, stood to one side with his hand out holding the hand of a little girl, looking up at him and pointing off into the distance. The horizon held a foreboding sunset, torn asunder by red and ash gray. He eyed the painting, wondering if the young girl’s face was soft enough, if he’d gotten the eyes just right. He touched the textured cheek, pressing his finger into the paint. When he pulled back his finger, the smudge he left angered him.

He couldn’t get the man’s face just right and had always left it till the last. And now he stared at a gray hole in the painting where a face should be. His face.

He knew he had to break the spell that the emptiness held over his painting. He just couldn’t see a face in all the gray. There stood the headless man, his hand wrapped tightly around the little girl’s tiny fingers.

“Notes,” Gabe said to himself.

He stood and moved to the desk near his stacked wall of paintings and reached for the small voice recorder he used to dictate his ideas, talk through his problems, note his unhappiness. He hated writing. Something about journaling all the details of his life, seemed self-important and pompous. He’d talk for a long time into the small whirring device and never returned to it again. It remained an outlet for regurgitated thoughts, until the rare occasion when he needed to hear the notes he had stored there.

Gabe flipped the device to rewind the tape he’d been recording to. He stopped a few times and listened to a brief note, to get an idea of what he may have been talking about, before rewinding further. His voice sounded weak, manic and hollow. When he reached a long blank space he let it begin to play.

“Um...afternoon, Tuesday. I’ve got three weeks till the show,” the tape said. Gabe set it on the desk and started to sort through the various pieces of the apocalypse series. “The face looks wrong on this, I think fourth, painting. It’s distracted, not paying attention to the girl and what she’s pointing to. She could use softer lines. Too much red in the horizon. Feels like the sky is burning. It’s too hot for the picture.”

The tape was silent for a moment. Gabe sorted through the paintings. Like a cartoon flip book the man in the painting changed, detail by detail.

“11 days until the showing. I’m tired. I can’t…the face…it’s the face that’s doing me in. His face. Her face is great, perhaps too happy. She’s more afraid than that. A mushroom cloud was overpowering and just plain ridiculous. I think I’ve got the color mix nearly there. I just can’t…there’s something wrong with the face. I will leave it and try again.”

Gabe reached the twelfth in the series. He pulled it forward to look at his next attempt then moved it back. He moved it forward, then back again. He could tell that it was there when things started to fade.

“Eight days. This fucking painting.”

The man in the painting was starting to fade.

“His legs seem wrong. Left some strokes of charcoal to denote the form, but it looks like he was blasted by the bomb. Left only his arm. I think…I think it’s…he’s receding.”

Gabe returned to the first canvas, his fingers gripping the edge weakly. He could see a man, his hand out for the girl, his face melancholy, but something was still wrong. The painting held an incompleteness he couldn’t explain. Even still.

“Five days. I can’t remember if I’ve already made notes. Need to get more vodka. Andrea’s staying with me this weekend. Not sure what to say to her. The man is no more than a hand. Without a body he seems insincere, not genuine, and ephemeral. I can’t get even his body. I’ve painted it all gray. It’s just a ghostly hand, holding her hand. I think I could…” The tape crackled. Gabe could hear another fading word, but the tape rolled off into a scratchy buzz and silence.

He sorted through the paintings and like the flipbook, the man slowly disappeared, painting by painting, until the grayish, smudged hand was all that remained, all he had managed to paint. As the tape continued its dissolving buzz and white noise, Gabe turned to see himself in the mirror. There was something wrong with his face. He grabbed the canvas from the easel and through it into the mirror. The remaining shards fell in sharp angles to the wooden floor.

“…I don’t know…,” the tape crackled, arising from the deep envelope of noise and silence like the small device had just come up for air from fathoms below some ash grey ocean. “I can’t do this. The face will never be right.” A pause rolled over the device.

“I need to shave.”

Read More By Spencer Cushing

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