The Best Light Fades

Fiction

At Mom’s Place I wore a nametag that said Angel and waited on a group of teenagers. They poured ketchup, mustard, mayo, and watery Coke, into a glass and dared one another to drink it. A couple of guys from the Navy Yard showed up for midnight milkshakes, my landlord among them. He was happy to see me but it was clear he’d forgotten my name. Earth Angel, he sang. How’s your boyfriend, the clown?

Fiction by Rachel Lyon

As a kid I’d sleep ten hours a day and summers stretched on forever. I’d spend afternoons in the hot hayloft of the barn my dad kept as a studio, reading, dozing off, and watching him paint by turns, until the best light faded. He’d breathe heavily, crouch low, step back, dance his two-hearted dance with the canvas, attacking, then caressing, brushing on paint, then carving at it with a palette knife. Sometimes he’d call me down from the loft and ask, Ree, what do you think of this?

The composition is a little off-balance, I’d say.

Or, The blue’s still too warm.

Or, The energy fades at the end of this line.

What was I then? A satellite, a student, a protégé. What am I now? A warden, a nurse. Today, with my notebook in my lap, Dad at the window and King Lear stalking chipmunks on the lawn, I’m more of a clerk, a secretary, a scribe, recording the last of our time together.

 

Strange how short this past summer seemed, when I was awake for so much of it. I was living in shifts. I was stuck in a braided narrative.

My mother called in late June. She was leaving for France. King Lear and I had been asleep on the bed, the only piece of furniture in the one-bedroom apartment we shared with Karl, my literal clown of a boyfriend. The apartment was fine, but quite small, and received more than its share of junk mail.

Rita. Glad I caught you. She had her business voice on, clipped and nasal: How are you? How’s the clown?

Karl? I said. He’s not a card-carrying clown yet.

You sound sick. Are you sick?

I just woke up.

It’s five o’clock!

I work nights.

I don’t know why. My mother sighed. Rita, he’s losing it.

Who, Dad?

He called me Laurie today.

Wife Number Two, I said, just for clarification.

Yes. The bitch.

Mom, you can’t take it personally.

I’m not, Rita, I’m worried, she said. I want you to see him every day while I’m gone.

Every day? When will I sleep?

I’ll pay you.

I have a job.

Barely! Rita, honey, this may be the last summer you spend with him.

Don’t be morbid, I said.

He’s almost ninety.

He’s eighty-two!

All day all he does is sit by the window, looking out at the yard, she said in a melancholic tone.

That sounds nice, I said.

It sounds brain-dead, she snapped. Daily, and that’s final.

Okay, I said. But only because you’ll pay me.

You mean only because he’s your dad and you love him.

Right, I said, that’s what I mean.

Good girl! she sang. A bientôt!

 

Mom’s Place was a neighborhood relic, a run-down diner with a C rating from the Health Department sandwiched between a gallery and a coffee shop/record store. In a drawer by the register was a trove of legacy nametags. I wore a one that night that said my name was Chuck. At the counter a palsied old man ate a plate of French fries achingly slowly. Next to him a couple of drunks argued about a recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I brought a young woman and her fat two-year-old ramekin after ramekin of cold applesauce.

In my downtime I worked on a story about a man with a very tough stomach. I called it Who Is That Man Who’ll Drink Anything!? The man is hired by an oil company to put his lips to a busted undersea tanker and drink up the oil that’s contaminating the water. He drinks and he drinks, chasing the oil with applesauce, and in that disgusting way he saves the planet.

I was a firm believer that I had to write every story I thought of, even if I ended up with some that were crap. If I didn’t write the crap stories, I’d never get to the good ones, and then I’d never have anything publishable. But that logic only got me so far. One might say it got me nowhere. I’d never published anything. And in the lull before sun-up, as the old man fondled a fry—I thought maybe all my stories were crap.

 

In the too-bright morning I set off for Darien. Some people hate Metro-North because it smells of hot dogs and the floor’s always sticky and you can’t understand the announcements but I find it peaceful. The sun rumbled through the long grimy windows, cut at rapid intervals by the trunks that supported the power lines.

Dad was asleep in the Brown Cow, his big armchair, his breath light and wheezy, his body small, his face wrinkled as laundry. I hadn’t seen him for a couple of months, and now I wondered why. Laying a hand on his arm, I said, Dad. He didn’t wake. I sat next to him and looked out the window at the balding lawn, the overgrown pines and, beyond them, the sun that flickered like static on the bay. This isn’t so bad, I said. I can see why you like it. He snored a shallow, halting snore. A couple of seagulls frightened a sparrow and the smaller bird lifted into the air. I’ve never supported my mother’s alarmism, but in that moment I knew she was right. We wouldn’t have much more time with him.

I held his warm hand and spoke loudly: Dad. Hey.

His eyes opened slowly and located me. Hey, Ree.

I didn’t want to wake you, but I wanted you to know I was here.

He chewed his lips. Sweet of you to come by.

Is there anything you need before I take off again? I asked him.

Eyes closing again, he began to drift back into the world where he’d come from. He said, Tell your mother she can pick up my package at the post office in Bolinas.

Eileen lives in Bolinas, I said. Eileen was your second wife. My mother’s your fourth.

Fourth wife, he mumbled. Forthwith.

Not possible, I said, she’s en route to Provence.

But his eyes had floated back up into his head.

I made some pasta for him to eat when he woke, then ate half of it myself in front of the TV, where a woman in a cheap evening gown was handing out boutonnieres to men with highly stylized hair. There were more men than boutonnieres. Those who didn’t get one were interviewed afterward, outside a McMansion. The sun was coming up. Their hair was wilting. They were bleary-eyed, outraged. One was crying with spite. I began a story about a woman held prisoner by a TV network. She is made to choose her prisoner husband from a cast of camera-ready demons. As each demon is dismissed from the show, he threatens to kill her in a new and original way. She becomes increasingly fearful for her life. She is a woman with nowhere to turn.

 

In Red Hook it was evening. When I unlocked the door King Lear came to greet me, meowing a clipped, chirpy meow. All winter he’d been manic and imperious, but in the summer we let him come and go as he pleased, and he got drunk with freedom. Once he dropped a mouse on my chest while I slept. Once he left a pigeon on the bathmat.

In the kitchen I found my clown of a boyfriend slumped shirtless on the floor, holding a half-empty half-pint of whiskey. It was sort of attractive, but it wasn’t pretty, if you know what I mean. I don’t mind saying I loved Karl for his body. He was one of those people who was his body, and whose body was him. We were different that way. My own body is an afterthought. My self is mostly my brain. When we first got together, while I’d spend time writing, Karl would hang in the corner, placidly practicing handstands. He’d interrupt my battles with narrative by pratfalling elegantly on the kitchen floor. I was grateful for his levity, glad to be reminded of the world beyond words. But since his enrollment in clown school and my job at Mom’s Place, nights like that had become rarer, then ceased.

I sat down beside him. He didn’t look up. His eyes were red. His lips were red, too, stained with lipstick. Beside him, atop a pile of mail, was an envelope addressed to me. The return address read Pig Pen Press Short Fiction Prize.

Karl said, I’m a terrible clown.

What? You’re an excellent clown, I told him. I tried to sound sure, but when it came to clowning I was out of my depth. I modified my pep talk: You make me laugh.

You’ve been faking it, he said, moping. You haven’t belly-laughed since October.

It was probably true, but when he pointed it out I was more annoyed than sorry. How do you know? I said. Maybe that’s just how I laugh now.

Don’t patronize me, Rita. I’m in the business of laughter.

I reached for the envelope from Pig Pen Press and began tearing it slowly.

He said, I failed my exam today.

What exam?

My twelve-minute routine? he reminded me.

Oh, right! I said, with compensatory enthusiasm. Twelve minutes. So short! How did it go?

I failed.

Who says? I tried to sound indignant.

Gerard.

Your teacher, I said, to prove I remembered.

He said my routine was tired. Tears welled up in Karl’s eyes. He said there was no intelligence to my movement.

I pulled the letter out of the envelope. Dear Rita Pincus. Your routine was tired? I echoed. Thanks for your submission to the Pig Pen Press Short Fiction Prize. I said, I think you move intelligently.

His voice was bitter: You don’t even know what that means. You’re not even paying attention.

We received hundreds of submissions for this contest, and your story—

Rita. Karl’s tone had changed.

I looked up. The traces of makeup in the crease of his brow and the pores of his nose made his serious expression absurd.

I’m starting to think you don’t love me anymore.

I stood up, businesslike, envelope in hand. I can’t handle this right now, I announced. I love you. You’re drunk. I need to nap before work.

I closed the bedroom door behind me and read the letter in full. It took a real turn halfway through: Dear Rita Pincus. Thanks for your submission to the Pig Pen Press Short Fiction Prize. We received hundreds of submissions for this contest, and your story was one of them. Unfortunately, it did not win. Please wait six months before sending us any more work. Yours, The Editors. I ripped up the letter and stuffed it under the mattress. Fucking waste of a postage stamp. I heard the front door open and close.

A cruise ship docked in Red Hook that night and Mom’s Place was mobbed by wealthy middle-aged tourists. I wore a nametag that said José and served iceberg salads to a table of very thin women. I wrote a story about a cadre of jet-setters who tan so much that their skin takes on the consistency of good leather. At an Ibiza nightclub they’re poached by elite gangster shoemakers, who flay them and use their skins for a limited edition of marvelous shoes, which are sold to and worn by, primarily, younger, less sun-damaged scenesters.

 

When I got home that morning, Karl was gone. Maybe it was that morning. It’s hard to remember now. The days of this past summer run together like reruns of unrelated procedurals, shot in poor focus, sent to broadcast prematurely, and edited roughly, with no real transitions.

My visits with Dad were spooky and strange. Usually I’d find him in the Brown Cow, asleep or gazing at the sun on the bay. When he wasn’t in his chair he was in his barn studio, painting strange, abstract portraits. I’ve been painting my daughter, he said to me once. He looked at me, smiling. My daughter Rita, he said, with warmth in his eyes.

Yes, I said, Rita: that’s me.

You’re Rita! He laughed, hit his head with his hand. He showed me a small canvas, its surface scraped and scratched. A tense eye looked out. A thin hand clenched.

You don’t see yourself?

A half-obscured heart shone, silver-green. Hey, yeah, I said. That’s my old locket.

He seemed pleased. Yes, it’s you, Rita. If it isn’t, I don’t know you at all.

I washed my face in Metro-North bathrooms. In the scratched metal mirrors I looked tired as hell. I napped on Metro-North trains, using my backpack as a pillow. The less I slept, the more I wrote. Writing began to replace dreaming. A parable began to take shape in my notebook. A girl lives in the woods with her painter father. She comes of age and wants to know what she looks like, but in their small house there are no mirrors. Her father says he’ll paint her portrait, but the first painting he makes looks like a seagull. What’s that, Father? she asks. It’s a gull, he tells her, because you’ve seen gulls, so gulls are a part of you. No, she replies. That’s no good. I want to know what the whole me looks like. So he makes another painting, but this one looks like the woods where they live. What’s that, Father? He says, It’s the woods, because you know the woods, and so the woods are part of you.

 

Meanwhile I felt a sort of revulsion growing up in me around Karl. I didn’t want to resent him, but I couldn’t help it. Our love felt like as much of a dream to me as anything. I decided to visit him at clown school, to surprise him with lunch.

Gerard Devereux’s School of Antics and Acrobatics was in an old tenement building on the East Side. I showed up with an oily paper bag of falafel and pressed the intercom button. A loud buzz. I went in. A couple of Xeroxed flyers for the school were pinned to a bulletin board: the silhouette of a figure with a big puff of clown hair, from which issued a speech bubble with the school’s name, address, and phone number. I took one, folded it, and put it in my back pocket. I climbed the stairs thinking maybe I’d write a story, part slapstick, part horror, about a clown silhouette that appears behind window blinds, shower curtains, frosted glass doors.

Through a window in the fourth floor door I could see a large room carpeted with rubber mats. Half a dozen people followed one another clockwise on unicycles around a wiry man in a flesh-colored rubber cap. He was waving in time to a French pop song; at the end of a chorus, he made a lassoing gesture and, with varying degrees of success, the unicyclists spun around to go in the other direction. A potbellied, thick-bearded man nearly ran into a woman with a long gray braid. A pretty blonde just averted collision with another potbellied, thick-bearded man. A gawky adolescent of indeterminate sex pedaled gracefully, floating. There was no sign of Karl.

When they stopped for a break, laying down their unicycles with care, I knocked. The man in the flesh-colored cap approached and peered out at me. He had a perfect, pencil-thin mustache. He opened the door.

Gerard? I said. He bowed slightly. Sorry to bother you— I began.

With finger and thumb he pulled on the tip of his mustache, looked me up and down.

I’m Rita, I said. I’m looking for Karl. Is Karl here? He gestured at the room behind him as if to say, See for yourself.

The clown students gathered at the door. Are you a friend of Karl’s? said the teenager of indeterminate gender. Do you know where he is?

The blonde added sadly: He never said goodbye.

I don’t think he’s coming back, said the gray braid. The others seemed to agree. Behind the group, the two potbellied men were sliding open a door in the wall that led to a large storage closet. Inside were dozens, hundreds, of clown-adjacent gizmos: baskets of scarves, wigs, and rubber noses; dog leashes attached to no dogs; a clown ambulance the size of a SmartCar. The two potbellied men each grabbed a pogo stick.

Haven’t seen Karl in a couple of weeks, said one, hopping squeakily.

Adorable, Karl, but dark, said the other, hopping too.

Said the first: Gerard says to clown, you’ve got to be light.

The second rejoined: You have to play.

Gerard nodded approvingly and peeled the mustache off of his face. It left a sticky, shiny residue on the skin of his upper lip, between his real hair follicles. He rolled it up into a neat little ball and put it in his pocket.

I thanked them all and apologized on Karl’s behalf. He says goodbye, I told them. He sends his love.

Isn’t that sweet? said the sad blonde.

On the F train I ate the falafel myself.

 

At home I nearly tripped on King Lear, who was asleep in the middle of the floor on top of a pile of mail. My phone was on the counter, buzzing.

Rita! Finally!

Sorry, Mom. I guess I left my phone at home.

You don’t sound thrilled to hear from me.

It’s been a long series of days. A series of long days. How’s France?

Poor Tilda’s a pill but the weather’s delicious. I lay out all morning, reading Baudelaire.

King Lear got up, stretched, and lay down again in a new spot. I held the phone between my shoulder and ear and reached for the envelopes he’d been lying on. They were warm. Among the catalogs and credit card offers was one from a magazine called Mud River.

How’s your father? she demanded.

I ripped open the envelope.

He doesn’t always know you, does he? she said.

Dear Ms. Pincus.

Rita, honey, don’t cry.

Thank you for your submission to Mud River Review.

All we can do is keep him company.

We! I exclaimed. We? You mean me. You’re off reading Baudelaire.

Speaking of! Her voice took on an irritating, semi-European accent. I have a très petite favor to ask of you. Tilda’s all alone here with no one to care for her. Since you’re there in Connecticut—

I live in Brooklyn.

—I was thinking I’d extend my stay through the fall. Tilda’s ill, Ree. She could use company.

Dad’s ill! Dad could use company!

I think Tilda has cancer.

Unfortunately this piece did not meet our needs at this time. I threw the envelope on the floor. It fell in a lazy swoop.

You can’t just think someone has cancer! Mom, I’m not sleeping. I’m not even thinking. I’m going crazy, back and forth, Karl, Dad, Mom’s Place—

Mom’s Place?

The diner? I reminded her.

She snorted. You know what? she said. Quit the diner. I have a great idea: come to France! I could meet you in Paris. Wouldn’t that be formidable?

What about Dad?

We could get him a nurse, she suggested, as if she was thinking of it for the first time.

Get him a nurse? I shouted. If you could have gotten him a nurse all this time, what am I doing there?

You’re there because you’re his damn daughter, she retorted, and you’re not doing anything else with your life!

I screamed. King Lear startled awake and looked at me with dismay. In the silence after my scream he yawned and laid his chin on his arm and kept watching me.

Are you finished? she said.

Sorry, I whispered—to King Lear, not to her.

You know, she said, I’ve given up an awful lot to care for you and your father. All these years I’ve done nothing but care for you two. So sue me I’m doing something for myself for once.

I said, I thought you were doing it for Tilda.

She sighed her most vehement sigh: I might as well tell you it’s already done. I extended my ticket this morning. I’ll be home in October.

October! So you’re not asking, you’re telling.

Her voice softened—not much, just a smidge. Do you want me to hire someone?

I thought of my dad alone with some stranger, and the thought became a lump, and the lump got stuck in my throat.

Listen, honey, she said, I have go. Tilda’s up and I have to drive her to acupuncture. Just think about what I said. We can hire someone if you want to. But, Rita, do you want to? Hello?

I hung up. I sat down. I got up. I paced. I pointed at King Lear. I hate her, I told him.

He got up and stretched.

Don’t you walk away from me, I warned him.

He scratched at the front door. I let him out into the world.

 

Maybe it was that day, maybe it was another. I fell asleep there on the bare kitchen floor and woke to Karl stumbling into the kitchen, makeup smeared, left eye swollen shut.

Oh my God, Karl! I sprang up.

You’re home, he drawled bitterly.

Were you hit by a truck?

I failed out of clown school. His voice was flat and sad. The red smudge on his lip was not makeup; it was blood.

I got a towel, ran it under the tap, rubbed it with soap, and sat back down on the floor.

I know, I admitted. I went by Gerard’s. What happened to you?

I was busking, he said. I had my backpack out, open, for change. I was collecting some pretty good money. And then these teenagers came and just took it. I ran after them. They turned around, and just wailed on me. You know how quiet and empty it gets at Hoyt-Schermerhorn? There was no one around.

I touched his eye lightly. He flinched. Tentatively I asked, Did you at least get your backpack back?

He didn’t answer. I cleaned his face, gently as I could manage.

You’re going to break up with me, he said. He wasn’t asking. I wanted to disagree with him, to tell him, no, no, I love you, we’re in this together, it’s real, but I couldn’t. I could’t. I put the towel down and I watched as his head fell down the front of his body, as, in cartoonish slow motion, he tumbled to the floor.

There was something about the way he fell over himself that was funny. So funny. He curled up and I thought of a pill bug. His uneven breathing became hiccups, and I pictured the word ‘hic’ exploding all around his head. Involuntarily, first quietly, then more loudly, then violently, I laughed. I laughed until I had a stitch in my side, I laughed until I lost my breath. I laughed until my cheeks ached, until tears squeezed out my eyes. Karl seemed to be crying, his face ugly with pain, but I was clutching my stomach, gasping for air. Finally I was no longer fake-laughing! Finally, maybe, everything would be all right! But then through my laughter I became aware of a thin, reedy sound that, after a minute, I realized was coming from him. I tried to breathe. I said, What? I can’t hear you over my own laughter! I wiped my eyes.

The wavering whine resolved into words. He was saying, I want to die.

The smile faded from my aching cheeks. What? I said, breathless. No! What?

He said it again: I just want to die.

You don’t mean that, I said. Do you? My smile was gone.

I loved Karl for his body. Now, at last, I could see his poor sad mind, and at last I could see that I couldn’t be the person he needed. I needed him to need someone other than me.

The flyer for Gerard Devereux’s School of Antics and Acrobatics was lying among all the other paper on the floor. I found my phone and dialed the number that issued from the clown silhouette’s head. It rang. It connected. I took the phone into the bedroom and closed the door. Hello, I said, cupping my mouth to the mic. Gerard Devereux?

I heard breathing on the other line.

This is Rita. We met a few days ago? Weeks, maybe? I was looking for Karl?

A small nasal sound of recognition.

Karl is…. I spent a moment searching for the right words. There was a hundred pound weight in my chest, balanced unevenly on thin glass. I’m worried about Karl, I said at last. I’m afraid he’s going to. Listen, I know this is weird, and you probably don’t. But is there any, I don’t know, protocol, for this sort of thing? When one of your clowns gets, uh. I just don’t think I can’t help him. I was hoping, you…?

A throat cleared and a fey voice with an unmistakable Brooklyn accent asked, What’s your address?

Wait, I said, is this Gerard Devereux? I compared the number on my cell phone to the number on the flyer.

Your address, the voice repeated.

I gave it to him.

Wait right there, the voice said.

The glass in my heart shattered. The weight fell to my feet. Thank you, I said. Thank you so much.

I went back into the kitchen, where Karl was curled on the floor. I wanted to keep him company, to help distract him, to tell him a story. But for once I was speechless. I couldn’t think of any stories to tell. So instead I took his hand. I helped him stand. I led him to the door. I sat him down on the stoop, and sat down, myself, beside him. King Lear followed us outside and trotted off down the street toward the River. The heat that had built up over the day was still pulsing from the sidewalk and from the steps. I put a hand on Karl’s back. He stared at the curb.

After a half hour or so, the SmartCar-sized ambulance screeched around the corner and stopped right in front of us. Its vanity horn honked a loud melody, and a set of double doors opened in the back. Karl lifted his head. The back doors of the ambulance opened, and out tumbled a clown in a polka-dot suit, and another clown in a puffed-sleeve dolly dress, and another in a blue wig and giant blue shoes, and all three somersaulted toward Karl and me. A fourth clown, in giant black-and-white pants with a hula-hoop belt, held up with black-and-white suspenders, tumbled out of the driver’s seat and tossed the group a stretcher. They caught it gracefully. I felt as if I was dreaming. In a series of elegant acrobatics they lifted Karl, who was loose as a sack of apples, up and onto the stretcher, and passed him one to the next into the back of the ambulance. Then they all tumbled back in behind him— I honestly don’t know how they all fit—and the black-and-white-striped suit shut the door. He paused a moment and bowed to me politely—did I recognize a gray braid peeking out from his wig?—before getting back into the driver’s seat and wheeling the ambulance away.

I sat there alone on the hot stoop in the dark.

I watched a rat run by.

I watched King Lear run by after it.

The night got darker.

I thought maybe I’d write a story about a clown ambulance that saves suicidal men from themselves.

Then I thought, What a stupid idea.

 

At Mom’s Place I wore a nametag that said Angel and waited on a group of teenagers. They poured ketchup, mustard, mayo, and watery Coke, into a glass and dared one another to drink it. A couple of guys from the Navy Yard showed up for midnight milkshakes, my landlord among them. He was happy to see me but it was clear he’d forgotten my name. Earth Angel, he sang. How’s your boyfriend, the clown?

He’s not my boyfriend anymore, I said. I’m not sure he’s a clown anymore either.

My landlord apologized.

It’s all right, I told him. Some people just aren’t cut out for clowning. But, listen, I’m glad you’re here. I want you to know I’m going to be moving out.

If that’s movin’ up, he sang, then I-i’m movin’ out.

That morning, I think it was that morning, a mime came by to pack up Karl’s things. I asked her where she was bringing them, but her answer was just a series of baffling gestures. I tried a yes or no question. I said, Is Karl okay? She gave me an angelic smile.

When she was gone I shoved my own clothes into a duffel bag, my notebooks and laptop into my backpack. I half-lured, half-stuffed poor King Lear into a cat carrier. He meowed outrageously all the way to Darien.

The seasons moved along in their predictable rhythm. Over time I’ve learned my father’s memory has a rhythm, too. In the early mornings usually he’s still lucid, but by noon he’s tired out. He naps in the Brown Cow and I make us food, and keep his portion in the fridge for later. Meantime I walk or nap or write. Sometimes King Lear joins me. Mostly he does his own thing.

This morning I pushed open the barn door to find Dad holding a photograph. He looked up, puzzled, when I came in. Penny, he said.

Who’s Penny? I said. I’m Rita.

He looked at me, hazy.

What’s that picture? I said.

It was a photo he’d taken when I was thirteen. We’d all gone to the county fair. I was holding a dingy plush unicorn.

I said, We had a nice time that day.

He looked at the photo, then at me. He said, What do you mean we.

Dad, I said.

He stepped back from me, seemed to look at me anew. Sit for me, he commanded.

I pulled up the three-legged stool. He frowned at me, mixed some paints, splashed a new canvas with turp. He looked at me hard, and smeared on some oils straight from the tube. I sat through the morning. The photograph fell to the floor. He dug at the surface with a worn-down old brush. We spoke, here and there, but our conversation was fragments. We did not break for lunch.

Around two he stood back and waved me over: What do you think?

In the painting a woman sat on a three-legged stool. Her mouth was smudged. Her eyes were unclear. Her expression was one of concern. I said, Is that me?

He smiled a little, looking at her. Penny, he murmured.

Who’s Penny? I said, more loudly now. That’s Rita. I’m Rita. Your daughter, Ree.

He squeezed his temples with his thumb and middle finger, getting paint on his face. He said, My little Ree. Bending unsteadily, he picked up the photograph. A drop of paint had smudged the girl with the unicorn. With a thumbnail he scratched at the drop, murmuring: Where’s my little Ree?

I’m right here! I insisted.

He waved the photo at me. She’s right here! And what do you have to do with it, woman?

My knees were weak. Dad, I said. That girl is me.

He threw the photo down and it fell lazily. He stamped to the door and slammed it behind him. Through the window I watched his thin blurry body recede. In his absence, I sat before his portrait of me.

What could I do?

What do I ever do?

All I can do is go back to work.

What I’ve got now is a thickheaded revision. Less of the fairy tale I began months ago, more of a reticent memoir. It begins years ago, when summers were longer. A kid spends still afternoons with her dad. In the barn he keeps as a studio on their acre, she lies in the hayloft while he works. She reads, dozes off, and watches him paint by turns, until the best light fades.

[Editor’s note: an earlier version of this story under the title, “Portrait of the Artist’s Daughter with Clown Car”, in the Southern Pacific Review in 2014]

 

Rachel Lyon is the author of the debut novel SELF-PORTRAIT WITH BOY (Scribner 2018), which was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. Her shorter work has appeared in Joyland, Iowa Review, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, McSweeney’s, and other publications. A cofounder of the reading series Ditmas Lit in her native Brooklyn NY, Rachel has taught creative writing for the Sackett Street Writers Workshop, Catapult, the Fine Arts Work Center, Slice Literary, and elsewhere. Subscribe to Rachel’s Writing/Thinking Prompts newsletter at tinyletter.com/rachellyon, and visit her at www.rachellyon.work.

Buy Rachel Lyon’s debut novel, Self-Portrait with Boy, here.

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Gurney Norman Prize for Fiction: 3rd Place

There was an inscription near the front. Perfect cursive, a date from a long time ago. “To Opal. I’m sorry I’m so repulsive. Love, Archie.” Not all of them had inscriptions but they all had the name, “Opal Atwood” on the back cover in thick permanent marker. Opal seemed like she had been scared someone would steal them. Tonight, she was probably turning in her grave.

Fiction by Raisa Tolchinsky


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