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Painter, Painter

Zero, the stray cat living on the porch, witnessed all of our arguments the third summer we lived in the old house by the gravel pit. Not one neighbor could be seen from our rented home so you could paint unbothered. I found teaching opportunities, freelancing and completed the sixth draft of my first memoir.

“Squandered,” you declared our past three months as we sipped coffee on the only remarkable feature of the farmhouse – a wide porch situated to capture a sliver view of Lake Michigan.

I pushed to extend our lease another year and wondered if your fantasy of being footloose while dragging a seventeen-foot trailer packed with canvases might reflect feeling stuck in a marriage with much heavier cargo. Memories, not all heart-warming, had built over two decades. In a storage unit off Clark Street we packed away your early self-portraits, our wedding china, my hope chest.

Now, after a calm winter and gentle spring, we fought about whether Zero pissed on the doormat, if we should drag him to a vet for an exam and neutering. Conversations about the cat often drove us to bigger discussions and the need to open a bottle of wine. On star-illuminated nights in our Door County farmhouse, we slept like children after a day outdoors, like old lovers with your hand touching my hair, my toes resting against your legs.

The third of July, Zero walked in thru the front door when a friend stopped by to confirm plans for a cook out in Fish Creek before fireworks. The regular artsy crowd would be there. You would find people willing to talk about baseball as well as the vagaries of summer tourists’ purchases. Before the first snowball firework flew over the harbor, someone would cross the tipping point between a few beers, and a few too many, and begin gossip about who was working and who was struggling with art.

Zero plastered himself against our friend’s leg, rubbing against his running shoes.

“Jenny, you’ve tamed this fellow,” Jerry said before landing a kiss near my right ear.

“The cat could have fleas,” you called. “Get him out of the house.”

Our friend bent, one strong potter’s hand touching Zero’s speckled head.

“Zero needs a friend?” Jerry’s drawl poured out in a human version of purring.

“Don’t encourage the cat. We don’t want him in here.” You encouraged Zero’s exit with a shove of your big toe, “Go chase a butterfly fur bag. He’ll miss us this winter when food doesn’t show up.”

Our friend missed my shock. “Coming into some good sense and heading out for a few months? Maybe after Winter Fest? Nobody here then, but folks tied to the school.”

“I’ve been looking at Mexico.”

“I hear Costa Rica’s safer.” He tipped his head and winked. “See you both tomorrow. Almost forgot, bring your guitar, Jenny.”

I closed the door, the window air conditioner replacing outdoor sounds. I wanted to bring you out to the porch to hear the whispery movement of the maple before asking what you meant about leaving. You rubbed the back of your neck, that gesture which signaled reluctance to talk, while looking not at me, but the floor.

“Why did you say that about Mexico?” In the past you invited me to dream with you.

“I’ve been thinking about it for months.” You turned your head away. “Swap a skinny little view of Lake Michigan’s cold water for a place above the ocean. I feel…cramped.”

“Let’s get out of here and stay tan all year round for a few years.” An old languor pulled words from your mind the same way you layered colors on canvas. “I found a place in La Paz.” You leaned against a doorframe, its trim about two inches higher than your six-foot-two height. “What do you think, Jenny? We can break this lease.”

“I’ve got the book tour through winter and school contracts for April. Remember?” Looking out the window, I could see Zero jump on the porch railing, balance while tucking his body over his feet.

“So we’ll get settled by March.”

“I am settled. We could buy this house plus ten acres for less than we banked from our Andersonville house. That’s what I want to do.”

“And look forward to Fourth of July fireworks in Fish Creek and Christmas Mass in a country church?” You turned too quickly, knocked an elbow against a bookcase. An old wooden toy boat you restored our first winter wobbled. “Jenny, we’re too young to be tied down.”

“We’re over fifty and have lived in about ten places.” There were places I dropped. “I like the idea of having someplace that is ours.”

I walked to you, but you nudged me aside. We were truly man and woman, mature and formed, settled yet searching. I smelled turpentine on your shirt.

“It’s not going to work, Jenny.” You didn’t look my way. “If I’m not happy I can’t paint. If I don’t paint, we don’t eat.”

“Michael, that’s not been true for years.” So I broke one of our unspoken rules about whose career ruled – that my freelance and books and teaching provided insurance, a decent car, a savings account, retirement funds.

“I can make more than you with one good show.” Your voice sounded tired.

The mail carrier stopped at the driveway’s end, her old silver minivan raising dust.

“Will you stay here alone?” You announced our ending with one question.

“Probably not in this house.” My voice crumbled toward the end of the sentence. “I’ll miss you.”

“If you stayed here I could leave the studio intact.”

You threw a lifeline, a tantalizing ribbon of hope that you would return to old canvases after Mexico, a subtle request that I preserve home while you tried a new life, an implication that I should wait for you to decide what you wanted next.

“We don’t have to decide today,” you said when I didn’t answer.

Zero stared away from the front windows, as if guarding the road and yard.

“I’m going to get the mail,” I replied.

You followed me out of the house, grabbed me and pulled me to your chest. Your lips settled on my head. “Jenny, don’t make me do this alone.”

Part of me rested in the familiar comfort of your arms. Part of me felt held back, practicing for the time you would leave. You tugged me closer.

“Painter, painter. No more making love to your wife on the driveway.” Big Cal, one of our neighbors, yelled from the mailbox. “Wanted to tell you we got the Winter Festival arts grant.” He smiled. “The crew wants you two to administrator it.” Neither of us accepted with the wild joy of artists offered money. “Could pay for a month in Mexico.”

On another day you might have laughed at how swiftly the Mexican trip story traveled back to town. You might have suggested opening a bottle of Chardonnay. I escaped to answer the phone while you two talked.

“You left the damn cat back in the house. What’s with him?” You grabbed at Zero with your left hand, the right clutching the mail. You threw Zero out the door.

You closed the inside door, your face soft as you dropped the mail in my lap. “Are you moping?” One hand landed on my head, fingers moved through my hair. “Do you really want to go to fireworks tomorrow night? We could build a fire in the back, open a bottle of wine and chill out.” You walked away without an answer, floorboards creaking along your path, the back door squeaking as it shut.

By the feel of the largest envelope, one from a prestigious writing organization, I knew I had won a fellowship, the fifty thousand dollar biennial grant. I sliced the envelope, took out the tightly folded pages and read each page. Climbing up the stairs to my writing space, I fought the tradition of twenty years of running in your direction with good news. I emailed acceptance of the grant in three eloquent sentences, and confirmed I would be available to spend March in Boston and Key Largo.

Last year we dressed for the Fourth party – you in a flag t-shirt and me in a red and blue starry sundress. We brought good chilled beer. This year we met at the car, both looking tired from a night of work and day of silence. The concept of freedom played in my head as I rested my guitar on the back seat.

“Sure you want to go?” Like an owl, I turned my head in response to your voice. “The fire pit is ready.” Sun-reddened skin covered your nose, a sign of napping in the hammock.

“If you don’t want to go, I’ll say you are working. This group will understand.” I fumbled in my bag for keys.

“I know you’re upset about moving to Mexico, but give it a chance, Jen.” You held up the car key. “Maybe you’ll like Mexico so much you won’t want to live in the land of rain and snow again. You’re always pretty with a tan.”

“I’d like to get to get to the cookout in time to help Alicia. Are you coming?”

You threw the keys to me. “You drive.”

Talk at the gathering returned to the Winter Festival grant with folks looking to you for inspiration. As you drank, ideas flowed.

“I’ll be unloading all my snowscapes,” you dropped into plans. “Me and my beautiful bride are off to build our next nest in a warmer climate.”

“Mike, you can’t take away our famous writer and everyone’s best friend,” Alicia inserted into the quiet. “I just convinced Max Peterson to give Jenny keys to that small cottage on Players Road as a writing studio.”

Jerry pointed a beer bottle your way. “I thought you were talking about a winter getaway.”

From across the patio I felt the pull of your blue eyes, the unspoken command that I distract our friends from challenging your plan. Your chin pointed slightly upward, chest held wide with shoulders positioned back against a tree – a proud and stubborn artist chasing a dream where the paints flowed easier. You wouldn’t admit in front of these people that you were in a creative drought.

I knew I loved you as I threw a lifeline woven with glass splinters. “Well, I’m not going because I’ve got news of my own. I won the Words grant.”

Bottles and glasses were raised, more wood thrown on the fire and the music began. I became our designated driver as you attempted to drink the equivalent of Lake Michigan.

“You accuse the cat of pissing on the door mat.” We drove home under a dark blue velvet sky dotted with intense stars on country roads summer visitors seldom used. “I’d say you did the same to me back there. Pissed on me in front of the crowd with news about that grant.” A burp rumbled in your throat. “How long you been keeping that secret?”

Our old Subaru’s headlights cut through the darkness up our drive. “About thirty hours,” I said and turned off the engine. “I’m not leaving here. Not right now.”

“And I’m not staying.”

“I know. I believe you.”

You put a hand around my neck. I expected a beer-drenched kiss to follow, was shocked by the roughness of how your strong arm shook my upper body. I pushed you away, opened the car door.

You held. “I can’t go without you. You’re my muse.”

I used my elbows. “You’re drunk. Go sleep it off in your studio.”

“We’ll talk it over in the morning,” you said and plodded away.

Zero waited on the porch, green eyes watching as I approached. I stepped over a dead vole on the welcome mat, held the door open. The cat didn’t move.

Cynthia Frisque Kraack’s Bio:  Cynthia Kraack’s first novel, Minnesota Cold, won the 2010 NEMBA in fiction. Her second book, Ashwood, was published in 2010. A Wisconsin native, she lives in Minnesota with a second home in Door County. Cynthia, a Marquette University graduate, also earned a M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.