Its inspiration was from the ripped Polaroid found in the back of the grey 1991 Beretta, used as a bookmark in Nana’s weathered Bible. It was the only picture Nana and Poe had taken together during their courtship. After his death, we were nearly destitute. Nana had to go back to work. She read scripture on her lunch breaks and smoked nearly a pack a day until her death.
The painting was of her and Poe. “Like the author,” he would say. Then he guzzled a Budweiser and turned on the Chicago White Sox baseball game. We were Cubs fans with my grandfather. Now with Poe, we were Sox fans. Poe was South Side of Chicago, poor, and we were North Side, rich. He never let us forget it.
Poe was neither a stepfather nor a grandfather. I shudder at calling him my grandmother’s boyfriend. We referred to him as the “gentlemen caller.” His given name was Archibald. In Nana’s later senile ravings, she referred to him as “that asshole.”
Growing up, the neighborhood boys nicknamed him Poe for his rhymes. He quoted many poets from The Second Anthology of American Poems he found in the trashcan behind the bar where he worked at when he was eleven. It was his first and only book, over two-thousand pages and thick as a two-by-four. The only time I tried to open its contents, Poe slapped me across the face and tackled me to the floor.
In the painting, Nana was sitting on the left and Poe was sitting on the right. When they sat for the portrait, it was discovered Poe did not own a dinner jacket. My mom jumped to the closet and pulled out a moth-ridden jacket of my grandfather’s. Poe sat down in the chair at the head of the table, having occupied every single place my grandfather had. This was echoed later on his tombstone. It stated the same phrase as my grandfather’s did, “Always remembered, but never forgotten.”
After fifteen minutes, Poe got up from the chair, in one of his rages and the painter worked from the old picture of them instead.
Nana always considered the painting cursed. Poe died several months later of a heart attack in his favorite corduroy chair, one of the few items he brought with him when he moved into my Nana’s from the boarding house where he stayed twenty-years prior. The morning we found him, it was littered with potato chip crumbs and twelve cans of Bud. Those were discounted by Nana. Poe was a martyr. She wept the day they buried him and poured a final Bud onto the soil as they lowered his body into the ground.
Nana always said, “Men, line them up across the world and shoot every one of ‘em.” There were few exceptions. “Except, grandpa.” Included in the “shoot ‘em” crowd were my father, uncles and the majority of my male cousins. I never knew how she dealt with Poe.
In her last days, amidst weeping, wringing of hands and endless pacing, she asked to look at the painting again. She still hated it.
“Will you paint one?” she suggested.
This was an uncharacteristic request. Nana normally asked for nothing.
I didn’t finish a single painting in high school. I had one friend and one boyfriend. I didn’t talk much to either. The beating from Poe had silenced me for ten years. I spent my days reading or watching television. I always claimed I did not have enough time to paint. Creativity could not be rushed.
After high school, I was a student in a private arts college. We were all living off Poe’s life insurance money. I never went away; I stayed local and commuted on the bus or train.
My first assignment was handed back with a resounding purple F. It was mostly unfinished. Professors are no longer allowed to give red F’s as it is said to lower students’ self-esteem. I was distraught, but they passed me on.
I couldn’t stand my degree, my program, my fellow students or my professors. I lingered on, took overloads and finished in three years instead of four. The inheritance ebbed away.
My junior year, I took the train to visit my friend at the larger more well-known university; I saw a lighter at a joke shop that reminded me of Nana. It was red as a pack of Marlboro’s and said, “Yes, I smoke. Fuck you.” It reminded me of her and an unwilling smile crept across my lips. I didn’t have the money to buy it then. The next time I went back, Nana was already dead of lung cancer and the gift was in poor taste.
After my stint in college, I attempted a reproduction of the painting Nana wanted. I went to the supply store, used my student discount card and purchased the correct liniments. I thought it would mean something to use the same canvas I had from high school.
The picture turned out as flat as the previous. There was no character or depth to the drawings. I sketched the same dull and lifeless characters while I was supposed to be listening to lecture in art history about “the greats.” I doused it with lighter fluid and burned it in the parking lot. Nana’s lipstick burned electric pink and Poe’s face melted away.
In a broad based analysis of my first finished painting, it did not do either of them justice. The faces were long, oval and maudlin. They were not proportional to the bodies and looked like bobble heads. It was not to scale. The picture had a cerulean blue background, accomplished with one brush stroke. Sky is more complex, there should have been complimentary colors. It was ultimately a failure on all counts. The smiles were saccharine and the bodies were still, not fluid. They were not real.
Disliking the outside world more than the university world, I returned in less than a year for my Master’s. I completed the application while sitting at the front desk of my third temp job, ignoring the ringing phone. A painting degree sounded like it would fix all my problems.
I took it upon myself to reproduce the painting of Nana and Poe again for my Graduate Final Project, the way I saw it. This time, I painted the mothballs on Poe’s coat. I drew the thick black hair on his knuckles that he shaved every Sunday night when Nana called him a disgusting ape. It grew back the third day, but still he did it, each week on schedule.
Instead of a cheerful place, I painted the drab and crumbling three-flat that we sold at a loss once our money ran out. The builder demolished it in favor of new construction. It was a shit-hole in 1900 when my great-grandparents built it. They had low standards after they came off the boat from Ellis Island, lice infected and scurvy-ridden.
The love that held us together was dead with my grandfather. It was replaced by a tyrant in a blue dressing gown who brandished the television remote like it was a weapon.
“If you don’t like it, you can leave.” He would say this after his sixth or seventh beer every Saturday afternoon, while raising his eyebrows menacingly and gesturing to the leaky roof with his fist. My Mom would have a few glasses of wine and weep into a dishrag in the kitchen. Nana would sit near him and say nothing. I painted it all. We could not leave. There was no place to go; Poe had squatter’s rights on my home and my Nana.
I painted Nana’s smiling discontent, at her age; he was the best she could get, so she better put up or shut up. I highlighted Poe’s smirk. He never smiled.
Even the day my alley cat, Mr. Brooks died, he sneered at my tears and misery. “You shouldn’t get too attached. Everything dies.”
“Even you,” I whispered into my pillow softly that night, terrified he would overhear.
I was seventeen the night Poe died. I had been up until midnight wrangling with my college decision. The deadline was the next day. Mom and Nana had already gone to sleep.
I signed the acceptance form and enclosed my tuition deposit check that I had saved from my allowance money. I was going to college. I gleefully ran downstairs to the mail box and threw it inside, hearing the creak and squeak as I closed it.
I bolted back upstairs.
“You’re making such a racket!” Poe slurped his Bud and burped. “What are you doing? Have you finally stopped pussyfooting and made a decision?”
“School of the Art Institute,” I said meekly.
“So you’re going away?” He eyed me suspiciously. “On whose dime? The government?”
“Nope, I’m staying home.”
“You’ll go to school and find a husband, right? Dump that loser boyfriend? Not like your mother at all,” he mumbled. “Not married to the father of her child, it’s unwomanly!”
“I haven’t seen my boyfriend in months,” I replied. “I am going to school to learn.”
“What are you doing to your family? Studying art? How are you going to support us?”
“I’m going for myself –”
He cut me off. “We can’t all live off your grandfather’s pension forever. You should study Business. Something practical.”
“Like you? I know what kind of business you did in the neighborhood.”
“Hush up.” He did not ask, he ordered, always. “Any packages I may have delivered, I never saw what was inside,” he recited the script the public defender gave him.
“I’m studying something I love. That’s enough for now.”
“Look, Little Missy, you need to get yourself straightened up and if I have to knock some sense into you again, I’ll do it.” He massaged his left arm.
“I was seven years old!”
“It doesn’t matter. It quieted you down, didn’t it? Made you think!” He pounded his can of beer and the amber liquid dribbled on my Nana’s hand painted side table.
I watched the beer continue to trail down onto the hardwood floors that my grandfather painstakingly buffed and coated each summer. Those floors were the prize of his home. Now they were scratched, stained and ruined.
“Go to Hell!”
My Mom often told me that I had my father’s temper and his lack of rationale. Poe was twice my size and already drunk. I knew what he could do. The words flew out of me like bile; the intent was to wound irrevocably.
Poe flinched, but said nothing.
I waited another moment and there was still no response. Poe sat still.
Then I saw his bloodshot eyes. He grunted and a stream of spittle ran down his chin. He spluttered angrily, but no words came out. He clutched his left arm again. His right hand still had the television remote, a repeat of the Sox game played in the background.
I turned and walked away, shutting my bedroom door behind me. It was the first night in over ten years that I didn’t lock it. I knew he would never get up again. In all my life, he only got one hit in. Nana made sure of that. It was the only time she ever called the police. Then she beat him with the cordless phone.
According to the Coroner’s Report, a few minutes after our conversation, Poe’s heart seized and he died alone, in his own chair, in my grandfather’s house a few minutes after midnight that evening. Morning came and the three of us discovered him.
They both blamed themselves. I made no remark. He made me his beneficiary, days prior. It was a recent change and only noted that it was for Little Missy’s school, “wherever and whatever she chose.” After ten years in prison, we were all justly pardoned. The true likeness of Nana and Poe hangs next to my diplomas.