It was the darkest I’d ever seen nighttime be. The kind of darkness that enters a man who could eventually cut off his own ear. The kind of darkness that keeps him locked in—unable to see his next step—unwilling to trust that his feet will find solid ground. So uncertain is he that light could ever enter into more than his paintings, he abuses yellow. He smears tube after tube of acrylic light on six-foot canvases. Grinds dirt and coffee grounds into the mix until the yellow is as grimy as he is. Then he sleeps.
I wake, bathed in the light of my small room. He’s gone. I close my eyes, search through floating gray dots for the painter. Sounds of cars on the freeway and birds outside the window distract me. Disturb me. Remind me that I’m supposed to get up, get dressed, keep my appointment. I drift back into the darkness. Follow the cloud of dots down as far as I can, then pull them back up with a gentle tug of my eye muscles, and watch them slide down the inside of my lids once again. Everything should be this easy.
A knock on the door brings me back to the light.
“Sheila, it’s 9. You need to get up if you’re gonna make your appointment.”
I listen to Bart put his ear to the outside of my door. “Sheila, are you awake?” He knocks again, harder this time. “She—la, it’s time to get up!” I imagine him getting red-faced. He’s so short tempered. “She—la!”
“I’m awake,” I respond.
“Well, you could’ve said something earlier,” I hear him mumble as he heads down the hallway.
I slide out of bed; I don’t want to piss Bart off. Ba—art. Ba—ad. Ba—ad—art. He runs this place–a halfway house—full of people who are halfway back into a world they had once left behind. We’re supposed to want re-entrance into the land of what the alkies on the ward called normies. We’re supposed to take our meds, get jobs, and move out. This is our second, third, fourth chance. Ba—art, our surrogate father/mother, leads mandatory group meetings, schedules chores, and reminds us of appointments we don’t want to keep. He could never be the artist.
He probably never even thinks about yellow. I listen for sounds of others in the house. It’s quiet. I slip down the hall and into the bathroom. Against the locked door, I lean, close my eyes, start to drift. Fuck. I can’t do this. I have to get ready. If I don’t get this job, I’ll be out on the streets. I wash my face and drag a comb through my blunt-cut hair. No time to shower. No desire for meds.
Back in the room, I look at the white blouse and black pants lying on the chair. My new uniform. Bart has arranged for me to bus tables at a diner two blocks away. I like the pants; put them on. They feel good, soft against my legs. I slip into the short-sleeved blouse, button it up, tuck it in and reach for my shoes. The blouse pulls against my shoulder blades, cuts into the flesh of my upper arm; I can’t wear it. I take it off, pull on a yellow tee shirt—that’s much better—and put on my black shoes.
In the kitchen area, Bart has placed a container of milk, a box of dry cereal, and plastic bowls and spoons on the table. I decide I’m not hungry. As I head out the door, he yells from some recess of the house, “She—la, are you leaving? The man you want to talk to is named Bob.” Like I’m going to forget a name like Ba—ob.
I respond with “Thank you, Ba—art” and close the door behind me.
Outside, the sun is too bright; I make a mental note to buy sunglasses when I get money. I walk the two bright blocks. Enter the dimly lit diner that smells of burnt coffee and look for a man who looks like a Bob. A woman asks me if she can help me, I tell her I’m here to meet Bob. She says, “Sit down,” and points to a red vinyl bench. I sit—yellow and black on red. I close my eyes; drift through a mist of dots and flashes of light, hoping to catch a glimpse of the artist.
“Hey, you can’t sleep here,” a gruff voice announces.
I open my eyes. “I’m not sleeping. You Bob? Bart sent me.”
“You Sheila? You’re supposed to come ready for work.”
“I am ready to work.”
“I can’t let you work in a tee shirt. Look around.” I do. The place is a dump—a few booths—fewer customers—and a counter.
“Do you see any other employees in a tee shirt?” There are two waitresses behind the counter in stiff white blouses and a cook in the open bay kitchen in a white shirt. “I can’t make exceptions for you,” he said. ” If you want this job, go home and change your clothes.”
“Okay,” I meekly reply and look for the door. Finding it, I enter the blinding brightness. I can’t wear white, only an empty canvas wears white.
On the sidewalk, I try to decide what to do. I have to think. I have to lie down. I have to lie. I head back to the house.
I try to sneak in but Bart is in the kitchen. He asks me what I’m doing home so early. I reply, “Bob sent me home. There’s no job.”
“Are you sure? I just talked to him yesterday.”
“He hired someone yesterday.”
“Well. We’ll have to see about that,” and he heads for the telephone.
Down the hallway, I bolt myself in my room. Put on the white blouse. Remember desire, too many meds. Lie down and close my eyes. As I float beyond the haze of dots, I enter the darkest need. Hear Ba—ad—art fade. I meet the artist. Without a word, he smears me with yellow paint. I let him. Feel the cold paint soak through my clothes. Feel him grind dirt and coffee grounds into light. And then, we both sleep.
Kitty Nard lives in the High Desert region of California with the youngest of her four daughters. She holds a BA in Literature and an MA in Creative Writing. She currently teaches writing courses in the English department at California State University, Northridge and is completing an MFA in creative writing through CSU, Chico. Her poetry and short stories have been published in the literary journals The Northridge Review, 51%, Eclipse, Roar, and Watershed.
“Canvas” began as a short story submission for a creative writing course at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. The instructor read the original piece and declared that it contained only one good sentence: “It was the darkest I’d ever seen nighttime be.” He added, “Start with that sentence and follow the language.” The result of this exercise is “Canvas.”