The Flamenco Painter

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
The sheer ruffles of her dress swept across her brown ankles while she stomped her feet in resounding claps against the cobblestone floor. Miguel's heartbeat struggled to match the staccato rhythm.

Submitted: July 20, 2017

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Submitted: July 20, 2017

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The Flamenco Painter
By Shawna Van Arum

2002

 

“What are you doing with all these cans, Emilio?” Miguel ran his fingers through his graying hair. “You live like a pig. No, worse than a pig. You live like a man who’s given up.” He shook his head and looked around the camper his 21-year-old son lived in. “Where do you go to the bathroom?” Miguel mumbled, probably not sure he wanted to know the answer. “What a mess.”

 

The airplane-lavatory-sized bathroom next to the front door had been converted into an aluminum storage closet. Silver beer cans were compacted so tightly Emilio couldn’t fit one more and still shut the door.

 

The sunlight pushing its way through a muddy window in the front door created a dirt haze. Two other windows were boarded. A countertop suffocated in greasy fast food packaging and cans. Across from the countertop stood a booth style table. The seats were also covered in cans and garbage, except for a small space for Emilio to sit. The table was a collage of ashes, cigarette butts and cans. At the peak of a slippery aluminum mountain laid a twin-size bed. The aroma of sour beer-rot singed Miguel’s sinuses.

 

“Dad, no one visits. Who’s gonna see it?” Emilio stood, pulled his torn black T-shirt over his bulging gut and swiped his hand across the seat to clear another spot at the table. Cans clinked to the floor and drops of beer oozed out.

 

“It has nothing to do with people seeing it. Miguel didn’t budge from the door. How can you live this way?”

 

“I’m not home much.” Emilio shrugged. “It doesn’t bother me.”

 

“You’re not home much? How did you drink so much beer in here then?” Miguel kicked a can across the floor. “Your mother would cry if she saw this.”

 

“She’s dead.” Emilio lit a cigarette. “You’ve been threatening me with her ghost for years.”

 

“Christmas is in two days. Are you coming over?”

 

Emilio flicked ashes on the floor. “Are you inviting me?”

 

“Yes, son.”

 

“I might have to work.”

 

***

 

Miguel took the bus back to his two-bedroom home. He opened the squeaky chain link fence around his dormant yard, strolled up the sidewalk, and opened the door into the warmth of home. He went to the kitchen where he washed his hands and gazed out the window to see the fence and rusted swing set in the neighbor’s yard.

 

The kitchen was cluttered with cornhusks, pots, pans and foil paper. Theresa had made tamales every Christmas for the Catholic Church on the corner to serve at the community soup kitchen. Miguel tried to keep up the tradition but he always said his tamales were not as good as hers.

 

Theresa died fifteen years ago, but sometimes he said he could still smell her perfume clinging to the lace curtains and her voice still rode the backdoor breeze. He told the story of how they met often.

 

Miguel was a twenty-two-year-old artist in Mexico. He was hired to paint a group of Spanish style Flamenco dancers. When he walked into the dance school he found himself surrounded by waves of bright colors and ravishing dancers. Seventeen-year-old Theresa danced near a window, her long brown curls wrapped around the sunlight. He set his easel up near her, asked Theresa to continue dancing and began the portrait.

 

The sheer ruffles of her dress swept across her brown ankles while she stomped her feet in resounding claps against the cobblestone floor. Miguel’s heartbeat struggled to match the staccato rhythm. Her shawl swirled around her with the passion of a matador’s cape. He explained that she only had to dance near him for a few minutes so he could capture her image in his heart, where it lingered until he spread it across the canvas.

 

Miguel came to the school every morning to work. He painted the dancers at the zenith of their dance. Swirls of red, orange, brown, and black surrounded long flowing hair and alluring brown eyes. Beautiful women, light as butterfly wings, coated his canvases. He took each stroke with a cautious respect knowing it would be a compilation of each stroke before it. He worked even slower than usual so he had more time to collect the courage to talk to Theresa.

 

They were alone in the washroom of the dance school. The concrete floor disappeared under a screen door, which opened to an overgrown rose garden. He was soaking his brushes and she was hemming another dancers dress. The smell of rose blossoms swept through the room clinging to warm hues of the setting sun.

 

“Your dancing is exquisite, senorita.” He freed the words that had frolicked on his tongue for weeks.

 

“And your paintings are more beautiful than Gods creations. She pushed a lock of hair behind her ear and looked into his eyes. God might strike me for saying that but I’ve never seen anything so beautiful and inspiring.”

 

Three months later Miguel completed four paintings. They were displayed in the home of the dance school’s owner. Theresa and Miguel spent hours walking through the rose garden at the school or sitting outside of Theresa’s hacienda. Miguel used the money from the paintings to buy Theresa a ring. Her father agreed to the marriage. He said Theresa glowed brighter than embers in the fireplace when she was with Miguel.

 

After the wedding, they moved to El Paso, Texas where Theresa instructed dance at a small academy and Miguel made money painting portraits and murals. Theresa gave birth to Emilio two years after the move. They paid their bills and ate well for many years until Theresa got sick.

 

She was struggling with cervical cancer. It stole her and Miguel’s arts from them like a slow-motion bandit. Theresa grew thin and too weak to dance. She lost her hair from the chemotherapy and spent most days in bed. Emilio and a woman from the church took care of her. Sometimes, Emilio even missed school to help his mother. He could make his own meals and give his mother medication before he was six. Miguel took a job at a local farm to help pay for medical bills. Time and money became scarce and soon Miguel’s brushes dried.

 

One October, Miguel returned home from working in the field to find Theresa lying at the bottom of the stairs. Her orange flamenco dress was stained with blood and Emilio sobbed next to her. Emilio later explained that Theresa was feeling stronger and wanted to dance one last time. He helped zip her dress and walked behind her down the stairs. She fainted halfway down and tumbled to the bottom, never waking again. Theresa died from a broken neck.

 

Miguel did the best he could to raise Emilio alone but he was not a typical child. When he was in seventh grade, his teacher found him sitting in a puddle of blood on the bathroom floor. He was slicing his wrists with a pair of scissors.

 

Emilio was diagnosed with manic depression and bipolar disorder. Miguel worked two jobs to pay for his son’s prescriptions but soon Emilio joined a gang and started selling his pills to other kids. He dropped out of school and became a drunk by the time he was 18. Which lead up to his semi-homeless life in the camper. At least, he was working, people would say. Of course, his job at Sunland Park Race Track shoveling manure did little more than support his alcoholism.

 

When Miguel finished the last batch of tamales, he put them in a paper bag and walked to The Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church. The December wind was brutal, making his skin tingle. The wood siding on every house in the neighborhood was water stained and pealing. He reached the stone church, looked up to where the steeple stabbed the gray El Paso sky, and stepped through the double doors.

 

***

 

After his father left, Emilio let one cigarette burn away and lit another. In front of him was a black spiral notebook with a torn corner. He flipped slowly through the pages of black and blue handwriting.

 

Emilio read his description of his father. He laughed about Miguel’s one crooked index finger caused from years of drawing and painting. He wrote about the rainbow of colors under his father’s fingernails and teeny spots of paint on his clothes. He also wrote about how dirt replaced the rainbow under those fingernails when Theresa got sick and Miguel started hoeing fields.

 

Emilio penned stories of playing in his mother’s closet - full of red, yellow, and orange dresses with wispy ruffles. He loved to feel the soft fabric against his cheeks. He often danced in his room mimicking her steps while listening to Flamenco music. Emilio skimmed through the pages about how angry he was when his father gathered up those dresses he loved so much to donate them to the church months after she died. He begged his father to keep the dresses in the closet.

 

He searched through some garbage on the table and pulled out a ballpoint pen with a cigarette wrapper stuck to it. He peeled off the wrapper and turned to a blank page in the journal.

 

I hadn’t written in forever. My old man came by today. He invited me for X-mas. Thought I’d never see him again. Last time I saw Pops he was bailing me out. I tried to walk out of Sears with a chainsaw. There was no gas in the chainsaw or they wouldn’t have caught my ass. I guarantee that! A few days before he busted me stealing some old paintings he did that were out in the garage. I didn’t think he’d miss them. Juan said I could sell them at his sister’s flea market booth. I thought for sure Id ended whatever was left of me and Pops. I drank so much that night I begged the ole lady next door to shoot me. Life sucks. Life sucks. Life sucks!!! Now here he comes all asking me over for Christmas and shit. I don’t know. If he knew how much shit was my fault I bet he wouldn’t want me over ever again.

 

Emilio flipped through a few more pages. Then picked the pen up again.

 

Fuck it! I’ll go.

 

He shut the journal. Stood up crunching cans beneath his feet. He walked to the old lady’s camper next door and returned with a box of trash bags. Emilio picked up can after can and put them in the bag. Each can he sacked exposed another part of the carpet, wall or table. He was tearing strips of a garbage canvas away to reveal a whole new image behind it.

 

 

***

On Christmas Eve, Miguel sat in a recliner in his dark living room staring at the tabletop tree he pulled out of the storage room. There were no lights or decorations on it but he hadn’t put a tree up in years and the tree was enough.

 

In his living room was a television that quit working three years ago, white walls, one window, and a brown sagging-cushion couch with a colorful afghan draped over its back. Above the afghan, on the wall, was a portrait of Theresa. Miguel painted it the first year of their marriage. She was wearing a solid black dress with a high collar and her hair pulled up neatly. Miguel dusted and vacuumed every Saturday so not a speck of dust clung to anything.

 

Miguel’s eyes were creeping shut and his chin drooping lower and lower when the front door opened.

 

“Pops?”

 

Miguel’s eyelids shot open. He pulled on his flannel shirt and smoothed wrinkles in his pants. “Emilio?”

 

Emilio flipped a switch and a warm yellow light reflected off Miguel’s slicked-back hair.

 

“Merry Christmas Pops!” Emilio set a paper bag on the couch and hugged his father. Emilio was dressed in a neatly buttoned and tucked shirt with some jeans. His hair was clean and he smelled like Ivory soap.

 

“You didn’t have to work?” Miguel asked with a grin.

 

Emilio shook his head. “Juan covered for me.”

 

“Oh good.” Miguel pointed in the direction of the racetrack. “They are not racing today are they?”

 

“No, not until after Christmas but horses are boarding there.”

 

“I see.”

 

“Are you hungry, Mijo?”

 

“No, not really.” Emilio stuffed his hands in his pockets.

 

“I made tamales.” Miguel rubbed his hands together. “Just like Momma used to.”

 

“I’ll have to eat some of those, later.” Miguel bit his bottom lip and stared at the picture of Theresa. “Pop, I cleared all those cans out of my place.”

 

“Have a seat, son.” Miguel sat on the edge of the recliner. Emilio sat on the couch. “You did?”

 

“Yeah. I had them recycled.”

 

“Did they pay you good for them?”

 

“No, not really.”

 

“I would think all those cans would be worth a fortune!” Miguel reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out an envelope. He handed it to Emilio. His name was drawn in fat letters with a pencil and shaded to look 3-dimmensional. ”Just in case you didn’t drink enough beer to pay your rent.“

 

Emilio set the envelope on the floor next to his foot. He looked down and felt his freshly shaven face with his hand. Then he took a deep breath, reached into his bag and handed his father a book.

 

“Its my journal. Dr. Montoya made me keep it. I want to give it to you.” He cleared his throat. “To give you the truth.”

 

“The truth?”

 

“About Mommas death.”

 

“What?”

 

“Look.” Miguel leaned over and grabbed the journal again. He turned to a page and handed it back. Miguel read.

 

How do I tell I killed my own Mom? I hate it. I wish I died too. I was only six and I remember everything. I thought if I could get momma out of bed and make her walk shed get stronger. I heard the doctor tell Pop that if she didn’t get out of bed pneumonia would get her before the cancer. I begged her until she cried. Dance for me in the kitchen. I threw her dress on the bed. I told her Id poke her eyes out if she didn’t get up. She laughed and I got mad. She pulled herself off the bed. I helped her put her dress on and forced her down the hall. She was breathing hard and she fell all over the place and her elbows were all bloody before we even got to the stairs. She kept trying and crying and crying. She kept calling me Miguel. Then she fell down the stairs and died. I lied to everyone. I was only six and I lied and lied. It was all me. And I’ve known this forever.

 

 

“Oh no Mijo!” Miguel moved to sit on the couch next to his son. “All this time you’ve been blaming yourself?“

 

“It was me, Papa. I was a stupid kid!” Emilio’s face turned red and he took short quick breaths.

 

“No. No. Emilio. Tears slid down his face. What have I done?”

 

“You did nothing but try to help me and all I did was steal from you.”

 

“Emilio.” Miguel whispered. “All these years you thought you killed Momma?”

 

“Yes, I did kill her. Don’t you see?”

 

“No, Emilio.” He almost shouted. “You were too young to remember what really happened. There is so much you still don’t know.”

 

“What do I not know?”

 

“That I let your mother die.”

 

“What?”

 

“She was so sick that morning, Emilio. She was vomiting blood and in so much pain she could hardly move. She asked me to let her die. She begged me!” Emilio listened in silence, his forehead wrinkled into V’s. “We cried for hours, her and I. We talked about when we first met and how much things had changed. She said she knew she was dying and wanted to go now before things got worse. She begged me, mijo. I loved her so much. I’d do anything even if it meant losing her. It’s what she wanted. What she needed!” Miguel put his face in his hands.” I gave her shot after shot of morphine, I held her until she fell asleep. I was so upset I didn’t go to work. I went to the church. When I came home you and your momma were at the bottom of the stairs.”

 

“She was full of morphine when I made her walk?” Emilio clasped his hand across his open mouth.

 

“Yes.”

 

“That’s why she kept calling me Miguel.” His eyes were huge.

 

“I didn’t know how much to give her. I guess, I only gave enough to put her to sleep but you were able to wake her.”

 

“Oh my God! Papa, you tried to kill her?”

 

“I tried to let her die Miguel put his arm around his trembling son. I’m so sorry. I wish you had told me about your guilt. I would have told you this sooner but I didn’t think you’d understand. I’m so sorry, Mijo. I just didn’t know what to do!”

 

Emilio could barely speak. ”I saw mamma so sick and sad all the time. I wanted her to either get up and dance again or sleep forever.”

 

“Emilio, I will always live with the guilt that I helped her give up. I was letting her go but I know it would be selfish of me to let her live in such agony. Not a day goes by that I don’t wish things had happened differently. I wish I could have been a better husband and a better father. I’m so sorry.”

 

Emilio leaned into his father’s embrace, unaware he kicked the bag he brought with him. From the bag slid several tubes of professional oil paint and some brushes. The father and his son didn’t notice through tear soaked vision.

 

***

On New Year’s Day Emilio was folding clothes into his old dresser. He was moving back home with Miguel, who was working on something in the garage.

 

Miguel stood in front of an easel. Sounds of the Flamenco guitar cut through the cold air. Tiny dust particles danced in the sunlight from the six square windows in the garage door. On the easel, sat his first creation in seventeen years. In swirls of red, orange, brown, and black; Emilio played the Flamenco guitar in a rose garden. His almost translucent mother danced in a white ruffled dress with a red shawl -- light as a butterfly wings.


© Copyright 2017 Shawna Van Arum. All rights reserved.

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