C.M.F. Wright has spent her entire life inhabiting paintings of various sizes and shapes. Occasionally she emerges to teach classes, attend conferences, and publish fiction.
Mom’s inside a painting. A Matisse, to be specific. She’s in a copy of the Seville Still Life, asleep on the green sofa. Her arms cushion her head; her legs splay across the sofa. The blue of her coveralls clashes with the other colors in the painting, but the original picture was so chaotic, it makes little difference. Her chest moves up and down slightly as she breathes. I’ve rarely seen Mom asleep before. In our world, she’s always blazingly awake, doing everything. But it’s definitely her.
It’s the first time I’ve seen Mom in a painting. Dad stands beside me, chewing his lip, face twisted in bewilderment as he studies the Matisse. The painting’s one of many in the house, all relics from when Mom used to copy famous artwork, back in college. We found Mom here two hours ago, and she still hasn’t moved from the sofa.
“You sure it’s her, Zach?” Dad asks again.
I don’t reply, because it’s a stupid question. Mom’s not in the house; she’s nowhere to be found; and the woman in the painting looks just like her, down to the blue coveralls she wore when she was fixing the sink this afternoon.
“Huh.” Dad reaches a hand forward, then draws it back, like he’s afraid he’ll hurt her. He massages the zipper-thick scar on his chest with a frown.
There’s no particular reason I can think of why Mom would have chosen today to enter a painting. The sink’s broken down again and she was complaining about all the bills she had to pay, how much data analysis she had left for work, and how she still hadn’t called Aetna about the insurance claims for Dad’s surgery and heart meds, but “Another day, another crisis” is Mom’s motto. I remember coming down from the cave of my room on a homework break to find Mom’s head up and under the sink, plumber-style, tools and grease spewed over the checkered kitchen tiles. She grabbed me before I could escape to the safety of my room and forced me to unscrew a bolt for her. It all seemed very normal.
“She’ll be back,” Dad says at last. “She’ll come home. She deserves a vacation.”
But the next day, Mom hasn’t come home. She’s left the Matisse, and we scour all her old paintings and prints to find her. Finally, we spot her in a Monet near the kitchen. She’s staring at haystacks in the distance. Her clothes have changed. She’s wearing a white dress and a floppy brimmed hat, but we still know it’s her. She doesn’t move, just stands still and quiet, bathed in the purple and orange and yellow hues of sunrise.
At first, it’s a game, like Where’s Waldo. The third day, I find Mom by the sea in Monet’s Cliff Walk, staring across the distant swells. The fourth day, she’s hiding behind a girl with a hat in one of Renoir’s paintings, and I almost don’t see her.
By the end of the week, Mom still isn’t home, and the game’s growing sour. People from work have been calling to ask where she is. I don’t tell them she’s in a painting. Who would believe me? Instead I say she’s on vacation. Dad yells at me for that; he thinks I should’ve said she’s sick, but I don’t like to lie.
There’s a void every dinner, a free chair where Mom used to sit. Dad and I eat takeout in silence while Mom explores beaches and oceans and bright sunny landscapes. I look at the empty chair, and I think of the last time I saw Mom in the real world—emerging from under the sink, her hair covered in grease, which was smearing black onto the clean kitchen tiles. I remember her saying how she couldn’t call the plumber, after Dad forgot to pay him last time. And I recall how, when Mom finally walked me through getting the stupid bolt off, the one she couldn’t reach, she turned to me and said, with a roll of her eyes: “Sometimes it feels like I’m the only one who’s vaguely competent in this house.”
The salary of a part-time piano teacher doesn’t cover our rent, and it’s clear Dad and I will be downsizing unless Mom comes back soon. Dad looks for jobs, but he can’t do work where he’d be lifting or standing all day, not with his heart like it is. And he won’t let me drop out of school. We both know Mom wouldn’t like that.
I try things to make Mom come home. I reason with her, as well as one can with a person in the painting. When that doesn’t work, I take down all the Renoirs and Monets from the living room, except for the painting she’s in. I hope she’ll get bored of it and come home. But Mom’s more tenacious than I give her credit for. She stays in the same painting for three days, until Dad makes me put all the paintings back up.
A month after Mom leaves, our electric shuts down. The day after, it’s our gas. I learn to pay bills and get our gas and power back. Dad tries to make his blood thinners last while he argues with insurance people. When we manage to break the sink again and the plumber demands payment, Dad argues with him, too. But he can’t argue with the landlord, who’s not happy that our rent check’s late.
While Dad fends off the debt collectors, I tell Mom our situation. I beg and plead. She rests unmoved, in her Monets and Renoirs and Afremovs. If she can hear me, she doesn’t show it. Her face is shades of tan and pink and orange. Her eyes are azure blue. She looks up serenely, never at me, always toward the horizon and into the distance, as though searching for some lost or hidden truth.
The first thing we do when we get to our new apartment is hang up the paintings. They barely fit in the new small cramped space. I even hang some in my room. They replace my Pink Floyd and Star Wars posters. Soon, it feels like they’ve always been there.
Some days I wake up and find that Mom’s paying me a visit. She’ll be hanging out beneath the cliffs of Falaises près de Pourville, or on the boulevard of Piazza San Marco. I say good morning to her. I say how great it would be if she could come back. Sometimes, I reach out to touch her image in the painting. As if with my fingers I can pull her out. She doesn’t move, not even when I touch her. My fingers feel only rough paint.
One day, tired of trying to talk Mom into coming back, I lose my temper. I take a knife from the kitchen and hack out the strip of canvas where Mom’s standing, a nice oval piece that’s just Mom and some flowers and a pretty white bench in the shade. I hope maybe I’ll scare her, tearing her world up like that. Maybe she’ll finally return. But she doesn’t move as I cut her away from the rest of her world. I carry her around with me all day, raging and yelling and pleading with her to come home. But the next day she’s moved on to one of the Afremov oil scenes, and I’m left with nothing but a scrap of canvas with some flowers and a garden bench for my pains.
After that, I resign myself to Mom’s absence. Dad’s been trying stuff, too, calling up exorcists and magicians and self-proclaimed diviners, and none of them know how to get Mom out, either. One of them, a kindly man with a beard like an eggplant, takes me aside after meeting with Dad. “See her face,” he said. “See how peaceful she is. She’ll come out when she’s ready. You can’t force her out.” He knows shit about magic, but he knows about people, and I actually think maybe he’s hit on something.
Dad talks a lot about Mom’s old love of art, how it was all she did in college, how she might’ve made it her career if they hadn’t been so broke. I wonder if Mom would have painted more, if she wasn’t looking after the two of us. Maybe, if we’d gone to more art museums or shows, Mom’s face would have had that peaceful look more often, while she was here.
With the loss of Mom’s health insurance, Dad stops taking the blood thinner meds for his heart. One day, I wake up to find he’s not talking. I rush him to the ER in our rusty old Chevy, where the docs tell me he’s had a stroke. They wheel him away for emergency treatment. I find him again, hours later, drugged up and woozy, still not talking. The doctors say he might recover or he might not and anyway he needs to sleep and rest flat, so there’s no use in my staying overnight at the hospital.
I don’t go straight home that evening. Instead I go to the nearest art supply shop. I pick out one giant canvas and the most vibrant acrylics I can find, in all shades of the sunset sky. Then I drive the acrylics and the big canvas I also bought back to our tiny apartment and set everything down on the kitchen table.
For a long time, I stare at the blank space on the canvas, thinking about Mom and Dad and the last time I painted, which was probably in the first grade. I don’t even know where to begin. When I finally do take a dollop of paint and put my brush to the canvas, it comes out looking like a monkey drew it. I have to restart a few times. By my fourth or fifth try, I’m more certain.
Gradually, walls emerge. They’re the same light yellow as the walls of our old kitchen. They start out as splotches of color and become slowly textured and angular. There’s cabinets now, a big smudge that’s the window, red and white smudges on the floor—tiles, in checker-pattern. A table joins the picture, surrounded by chairs of bright red. I’m sitting in one of the chairs; my dad’s across from me. I try to capture a fraction of what makes us who we are. One chair, the one where Mom used to sit, stands empty, in invitation.
I paint other parts of the kitchen, faster now. The coffee-maker, the toaster, the temperamental sink in the corner. I pore over the thyme in the carefully tended window-pot, the garden outside, the light that streams in through the checkered red curtains. I paint the fridge, and the pots, and the stove. At last, I turn back to the kitchen wall. The wall at our old house had a Renoir, Le déjeuner des canotiers, one of Mom’s favorites. In place of the Renoir, I put a sign. “Dear Mom,” the sign says. “Please come back.”
Tonight, I’ll hang up the canvas on a wall in my room. I’ll sit by the painting and wait. I’ll wait until fingers of color light the sky. I’ll wait until Mom finds the painting and steps out of it and smiles at me, real and warm and alive, and we drive the ocean road to the hospital. The air will be clear, the dawn skies a palette of purple and orange and yellow. The sea will be brilliant azure blue.