Monday
Jun292015

All This Life

By Joshua Mohr


Soft Skull Press
July 2015
978-1593766030


 

Kathleen is a caricaturist. One of those entertainers and hustlers and performers down by Fisherman's Wharf—the part of San Francisco reserved for tourists. It's all shops and restaurants and trinkets. All cioppino and cracked crabs. Clam chowder served in sourdough bread bowls. Ferries to Alcatraz. Carousel rides. Saltwater taffy stands. Sea lions barking on K-Dock, bellowing like drunkards. Gulls, those winged mercenaries, trailing children for lost pieces of corn dog bun. The whole bay can be seen from the end of Pier 39. Sailboats and tankers and the Golden Gate Bridge. The fog creeping in from the Pacific.

There are other caricaturists out and about, too, though not as gifted as she. Kat can draw wonderfully, and for five dollars people go home with a solid souvenir. She was one of those kids always doodling on something or other and that habit carried her into the world. She didn't have to work when she was married. Her husband had a good union gig so she stayed home with her young son. Once he started kindergarten she'd watercolor and sometimes oil paint. But her first love was drawing portraits, headshots. There's something special about constructing your version of someone else.

And with caricatures, it should have a bit of funhouse mirror to it, which is a freedom she loves taking advantage of. You have buckteeth? Well, now they're going to jet out of your mouth looking like water slides. Eyes close together? She'll only draw one eye, right in the middle of your face. Big ears? See how they look like open car doors. She does this with a smile on her face, which translates to her clientele, most of them taking her facial remixes in stride, giggling and shaking their heads. Sure, occasionally some sulk seeing their "worst" features exaggerated, branding them in idiosyncrasy. But to Kathleen that's the way life works: We are defined by our worst features. We are those mistakes. We are defined by the discrepancy between the life we think we have versus the one everyone else sees. We have a collection of mistakes and failures, stacked up like those sea lions on the docks, a pile of all the things we've flubbed.

Our mistakes barking into the air.

She sets up her chair, another for her clients. Gets out her pens, pencils, and erasers. Sometimes, she'll simply sketch a bit, whatever's on her mind.

"What will it cost us?" a couple asks, sneaking up behind her.

"What did you say?" she says.

They walk around her and sit on the chair. They are both young, in their mid-twenties. Younger even? Kathleen hopes not.

Because the girl has a black eye.

The guy does not.

And the girl is pregnant.

"What will it cost us?" the girl with the black eye says again.

Kathleen stares at the young man with her. Looks about the age when her husband turned violent—he was a good husband up until her son's accident, and after that every one of them had closed head injuries, not only the boy. Their beautiful boy who for whatever reason climbed on that weather balloon, floated thirty feet up in the air, and was dumped onto the concrete. He survived, which was a miracle, but his brain was never the same. It wasn't only him, though. Every one of them was rewired.

"Only five dollars," Kathleen says.

"Can we do it, Tyler?" the girl with the black eye says.

"Fine."

"Don't make me look fat," the girl says to Kathleen.

"You're not at all fat, sweetie."

"Dude, you should see her naked," the guy says, nudging the girl and laughing. She hits him playfully on the arm and says, "Shut up, Tyler."

He apologizes, though it's obviously insincere. Kathleen gets the sense that if these two were home alone, barricaded in some trashed apartment, Tyler wouldn't be saying sorry for anything, but slugging beer from a can, a dune of tobacco bulging from his bottom lip and making the girl with the black eye wait on him like an indentured servant.

"Better suck in your gut," Tyler says and pats the girl on the stomach.

"That isn't a gut, asshole. That's your baby."

"What kind of background do you want for the picture?" says Kathleen.

"It can be anything?" the girl with the black eye asks.

Kathleen nods.

"Where should we go?" the girl says to Tyler.

"I don't care," he says, and Kathleen watches him check out another girl's butt as she passes by. Then he looks at Kathleen, shrugs.

"Paris," the girl says to Kathleen. "Can you draw us in front of the Eiffel Tower?"

"Sure."

"Pack your bags," the girl says to Tyler. "We're on our way to Paris."

Kathleen prepares to draw the girl with the black eye first. Normally, she captures her subjects mostly from the neck up or with tiny bodies, but she doesn't want to this time. No, she wants to make sure and capture this pregnant young woman whole.

There's life in her.

There's hope.

There's hope until there's not.

Kathleen can see their future so clearly because it's identical to her past. And since today is her son's eighteenth birthday, she's feeling both nostalgic and cruel. These emotions knotting around her neck. These emotions leaving her no choice but to lash out at this innocent couple because she's tired of lashing out at herself.

She draws the girl's black eye first. Swollen hues puffing under it. The black eye is huge. It's going to be a monument for every woman's eye that has ever felt a man's knuckle. Tyler has to be able to decipher his own violence.

"Are we in Paris yet?" the girl with the black eye says. "I'm in the mood for a chocolate croissant."

"We've started our final descent," Kathleen says.

"Good. I'm starved."

"There's a shocker," Tyler says.

"Should I deprive your baby of sustenance?"

"Our baby is going to be fine."

Kathleen cringes at the use of the word fine. An impossibility.

She draws the girl with the black eye's stomach much larger than it actually is, a huge belly and a big baby visible through her skin, and she draws a black eye on the baby too because it's a lesson every mother needs to learn. Disaster is inevitable. Disaster comes disguised in all kinds of gentle ubiquities, such as your son going to the park. Trying to ride a weather balloon. Trying to live.

This girl has to know what her child is in for, what they're all in for: that their child won't evade the world's wrath because nobody does. Maybe it's as simple as Tyler drinking too much and beating them up. Or there might be a car wreck, a lightning strike, any of a million iterations of violence too asinine to be true until they warp your world into pulp.

Kathleen runs her pen in circle after circle around the baby's black eye. Defacing the baby. She makes the baby frown and tears run down its face and splotches from her red pen on the cheeks. The girl with the black eye and the baby with the black eye, and it's time to draw Tyler.

"Have we landed in Paris?" the girl with the black eye asks.

Kathleen can't stop this tentacle of anger slapping and convulsing around inside of her. It's empowered by everything she left behind in Traurig. Feeling the high-octane angst of someone who has done something unforgiveable. It will burn forever, this fire. Never needing to be stoked.

"I'm doing my best," Kathleen says, drawing Tyler's face snarling and beads of sweat collecting and trickling from his forehead and his right hand knotted into a fist, scars across his knuckles, and his left hand has the girl with the black eye by the hair and there's a conversation bubble coming from Tyler's mouth that says, "Life beats babies!" and Kathleen hasn't drawn the Eiffel Tower behind them because she doesn't want to take them anywhere. Forget Paris. She wants them to remain here, with their baby's bruised face and life's unruly way of torturing everybody and the way that her husband turned on her after their son's accident, the way they turned on each other. They always drank too much, sure, but now it was different. Screaming blackouts and hangovers and trying to adjust to their new damaged son and then the same the next day and the next. A recurring day. An outlandish hallucination. All this life, a punishment repeating until the end of time. Rolling that boulder up a hill but never reaching the top. Having your liver pecked out by an eagle every day. No parole or pardon or hope. Punishment until the world ends.

So she traded in that shared punishment for a new one. Not really an escape, because once she fled Traurig and got sober it was worse. Once her head cleared, she had her consciousness back. Her conscience. To relive her decision. To ponder every day what she did and why and maybe she had her reasons and maybe they were cogent reasons—at least understandable ones—but maybe they were not.

Three years living sober has taught her one malicious lesson: She made it worse once her head dried out. That's when she was assigned her official boulder, her hill. That's when the eagle got her address.

"I think I'm finished," Kathleen says and turns the portrait around for them to see. Their faces are astonished as they take in all the caricature's details, the detritus of violence, the line of dialogue: "Life beats babies!"

No one says anything for about ten seconds, and finally Tyler stands up and says, "What's wrong with you?" and Kathleen doesn't say anything, and he says, "Lady, you can't do that!" and then he knocks over the easel, and Kathleen keeps holding up the picture and the girl with the black eye sits there speechless and Tyler rips the portrait from Kathleen's hand and crumples it and tosses it on the sidewalk and Kathleen falls down, too, landing next to her easel and caricature, while the girl with the black eye walks away, Tyler consoling her with each step they take.

Kathleen sits alone on the street, snatches the portrait, smoothes it out, looks at what she's done. The anger tentacle goes dormant inside her as she caresses the picture, feeling tenderness, an empathy she wishes she could've shown the girl with the black eye and Tyler and their baby, but it's over now. All she has is this picture, this memory, and so she rubs it on her face, snuggling, smelling it, wishing it had the wonderful scent of her son's scalp after he was born.

And she allows herself to do something forbidden. Something she doesn't regularly indulge in, something off-limits and toxic and tough. Kat imagines a portrait of her own hopeful family. One before Rodney set foot on that weather balloon. One before their mythological punishment. Kathleen, Larry, and Rodney all smile in this picture. They are together, and they have no idea what awaits them.