Listening for Life, part one of two, by Matthew Pitt

Matthew Pitt is the the 2009 Literary Awards Program Grand Prize-winner, selected by judge Pagan Kennedy. We’ll be excerpting Chapter Three from his winning entry, Listening for Life.

Chapter 3—Late Summer, 2001—Carlos

Note the texture of the thorns. That’s a ring of melted glass, buffed and polished, with chopped pine quills matted and steamed into the glaze. The dark circles beneath the eyes come from black shoe polish applied with a moistened Q-tip. And in this one— the blood about the face chest and neck is salmon colored. Very faint. Was this done to suggest His blood will remain freshly spilled for all eternity? For whosoever believes in Him? Or that it is purer than the blood of man? No. The painter had simply run low of red acrylics. And being a Sunday night, the art store was already closed.

I pat the artist whose work I just categorized. He takes it as a sign of admiration.

This, for your eyes, is the touch’s actual translation.

Don’t be embarrassed: I used to paint Christ that way too. Weakly. Safely. The focus on my materials not His. Christ was a Revolutionary, and must not be reduced to citizen status. He wasn’t some notary public, signing his name to documents that spewed a halting pragmatic morality. Not God’s yes-man. You must smell the sweat he shed in his efforts to revive us. He must be redeemed in all His renderings—He must explode on my unworthy canvas and again in your wicked heart.

Meet a mistake gone straight. Until tonight’s party I’d been living a life I was supposed to want. But here’s the disconnect: In the morning I was showering off champagne; when I closed my eyes I saw dancing cubes of cheese and false kisses. My Father was nowhere to be found. I couldn’t focus long enough to construct even His suggestion. I tried to meditate Him back into my mind. Tried to work Him out while sitting on the toilet. I’d have tried anything, stuck a knife into an electric socket—hoping for revival, a jarred heartbeat, or a quick release—had the idea of hitchhiking back home to Mexico not occurred first.

My name is Carlos. Excuse me—I’ll need a second—I’ll try to give the information you want, but facts and figures are only my third language. So; here we are; name, Carlos Quasaro; age 33, but I wish every day I was who I was at 13, which explains my youthful gait. My birthplace was Ciudad Anahuac, a town seventy miles from the Nuevo Laredo border crossing. I lived there with my entire family for thirteen years, until most of us made our exodus from Mexico, into Massachusetts.

The job my father held in Anahuac provided just enough bread for a couple of children. By the time I was born—the fifth of five—we were eating yesterday’s leftovers tomorrow. Father had to drive farther and farther from town the larger his family grew. He wound up taking a second job, as a janitor, in Nuevo Laredo, a job that paid better wages than he made as a court clerk at home. He chose carefully, finding a place of employment with no third shift—meaning we heard his exhausted Chevette rumble over the stone driveway only one hour after midnight. We ate with him only at breakfast. And breakfasts were uncomfortable. My father controlled the conversation. He cut our food into small pieces. But no matter what he did, we would stare at him strangely. He smelled ill or wounded. When he sat across from my brothers and sisters and mother it was as if we were dining with a stranger whom we’d groggily agreed to let a room to late the night before.

Mass was the one place where relief attended us. My mother wore a bright dress, and my father would huff to squeeze into shoes he unveiled just for Sundays. Three hour shoes, worn not a minute more. Shoehorned off the moment we returned home from services, for fear they’d break down, like wine to vinegar, at any moment. Each Sunday I felt like a party was being thrown for us. People were gathering to honor my father’s week of work, and the reunion of our assembled family. And the ornaments they provided! The clockwork structure! Every week things went just so. The cathedral walls were dancing with candles and Stations of the Cross. This was the lone portion of pageantry in my life—so each Sunday, mindless as to what we were supposed to pray for, but mindful that prayer fortified wishes, while its absence triggered voids, I begged God furiously to allow me back in the next week. Later, worried that prayers were not enough, I turned to painting. You know Catholics. We cover our ass with deeds.

I decided to leave tonight’s party early. That’s not much of a decision, but it becomes more when I add that the party I left was for me, an art gallery opening honoring a few others and myself. And add that when I say, “leave,” I don’t mean bound for Williamsburg or friends on the Upper East Side. Or even back to Boston. I mean I left the party early to return to Mexico. Like I was a salmon suddenly engulfed with the one purpose its whole soul hinged upon.

I’ll take you inside that last gallery opening. September 2001, for the record, 66th and Fifth Avenue. That’s my work there: The Hunger of God series. I’ve finished eleven. There will be thirteen in all. They are how I paint now. They must be how I see the world. I stand in the center of the gallery. Gaze into each canvas hanging from the fixtures as though they’re stars in the sky. I try to connect to the moments when I made them. Those frenzied hours. Elated or emptied, rarely in any mood in between. I stare into their color and shadow, the animation of brush strokes, the paint layered like dried wings, clinging to the canvas like shaving cream remnants on a man’s upper lip. I stare and stare, waiting for the paintings to speak back. There is no exchange. They have nothing to say to me.

I am close to joining the people hanging back in the corners, orbiting my work, mocking me. Joining the woman wearing huge, gaudy cockatiel earrings, gulping champagne, thinking and whispering, “What a fake!” I am thinking their group could use another member. But it seems their club is closed to me.

(#9) Observing the Sabbath: Christ, in a vanity mirror’s reflection, witnessing Himself eating a follower. His teeth puncture a palm; the eyes survey the landscape of skin.

Somewhere in Mexico there is a sanctuary for birds. Parrots mainly, and mynahs, who from neglect have gone insane. Birds in an asylum, recovering from poisonous lengths of silence. Birds, tricked into thinking that their owners were friends; that the shared world between them would last for life. Who can blame the birds for feeling forsaken? They repeat the same phrases that once pleased their adopted families, only to find that the trick’s gone stale, and that their owners have tossed the speech-training cassettes into the trash. Leaving the birds craning their necks and trilling wannacracker endlessly, until their adopted families stop by to feed them only to shut them up. Alone, for days on end with no community, not a soul to sing for.

(#3) Mindless Caravan: A line of roosters awaits entry into the cathedral, despite the pile of dismembered rooster claws and drifting tail feathers lying at the building’s side, below an open window.

My fall from the Church, like my loss of virginity, was precipitous. Acted out over years. A missed Sunday. Smooth talking my sister (or someone else’s), trading something of value to her so she’d let me practice unlatching her bra, and let me touch her bare back. Drinking my mother’s wine (the tannic acid gave her dizzy spells). Getting the boys at slumber parties in Massachusetts tired enough to agree to circle jerks. (But Christ’s Fall was precipitous too, no? He didn’t storm the false prophets or the Roman Senate in a hurricane temper. He built to the day of reckoning with parables and long interviews. By the time there was a plan in place to bring Him down, everyone saw it coming.)

One Sunday after Mass, I followed Dad to where he painted, a tiny room two miles from home. I never really returned. Every item (dust scratching the floorboards), sight (sunlight hanging in the window despite calls for it to come home), and sound (the flatulence of tubes as my father tried to squeeze one last burst of paint from them, as if they were infants about to be birthed) felt inviting, consuming. He made a marvelous still of a toy truck I’d lost the spring before. Unsatisfied, he tossed it into one of his janitor’s buckets and called the day a waste. The next morning I retrieved it and kept it bedside for years. It was as real as the truck.

1 Comment

  1. Maggie

    Beautiful work, well deserved. Matthew writes like a painter — it’s visual, textural. Love the references to birds (angels)? Congratulations!


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