Matthew Pitt was the the 2009 Literary Awards Program Grand Prize-winner, selected by judge Pagan Kennedy. This is the second half of Chapter Three from his winning entry, Listening for Life. Catch the first part right here.
Cut to: Training by father’s side, copying his motions, his anguish, his joy, even his swearing. My attention rolls. I find things perched on sills, or creeping on dirt, that I have to revere. A bug. A bird. I sketch them to slow them. I sketch them so they stop. That evening my father cradles me and hurries me down the hill, home like that. “Believe in God,” he says, “and you will always know beauty like the kind you drew today.”
The studio was the best place my father took me, but not the only. One afternoon, the summer I turned ten, we drove to Nuevo Laredo. We turned down a small side street, and a scent like Dad’s beers, only saltier, filled up his car. Rolling up the window, I saw smeary white clouds that covered the sun like streaks of lard.
With a sad smile the storeowner, Mr. Sucacero, looked me over when we arrived. A position for a second janitor had opened up. I’d been painting a year. Dad was happy I’d taken a shine to art, but he needed me to buy my own supplies. “I’ll arm you just with this for now,” Mr. Sucacero said, handing me a broom with an unsanded handle. “His constitution needs time to harden before he can handle tripe detail.” He and Dad laughed. I had not yet begun comparing other men’s faces with my father’s. Father’s face was too flat, ashen; his tight curly hair was edged in white and gray.
I didn’t notice this then, didn’t notice until the summer was over. Everything other than the stacked coins given to me weekly seemed incidental. I pushed the broom across the floor. Attended church. Painted madly. I was playing dress-up inside the clothes of my father’s life long before either of us could have imagined.
Quickly I was initiated into the reason for Mr. Sucacero’s joke. Where we worked was a butcher shop. Twice daily during our watch, men arrived in trucks from the highway, carrying loosely packaged chunks of meat and savories. I held my breath when they rang the buzzer. After wiping their feet on the mat, they carted carcasses to Mr. Sucacero, who worked them through a band saw, grinding them into pieces of higher value, like a jeweler cutting rocks at the right angles. I saw things drop. Goat tendons, neck bones, toenails, hearts. The pieces would drop and Dad would rush to where they had scattered, rubbing furiously, sucking blood with his mop, until the colors vanished into the bucket. He was amazing. When he finished you could look at the floor and forget where you were and why you’d been hired. This sparkle lasted maybe two hours. Then new drivers rang the delivery bell, and it was time again to hold my breath.
One afternoon Father took me aside, out of earshot from our boss. “Follow Señor Sucacero everywhere. Forget your schedule and forget deliveries.” Dad thrust his finger so close to my eyeball, for a moment it seemed I saw straight through its skin. I did as I was told.
Mr. Sucacero was losing his hair. He was fifty, and his top had begun to thin. This condition would never do for a flirt like him, since the lady shoppers always got a clear view of his crown when he bent to carve meat. He’d taken a miracle drug to correct his problem, but had bought it from the cheap junk shop next door, which dealt almost exclusively in defective miracles. So to preserve his vanity I followed all afternoon, brooming black clumps quietly from behind.
After the dinner rush, Mr. Sucacero stormed into the junk store. I tailed. His hair was now falling at a rapid clip. The amount of loss was frightful. His head looked like a stone spotted with mold. He yelled at the manager, who shrugged and asked to see a receipt. When this was produced, the junk man only shrugged again, and told Sucacero he couldn’t refund purchases. He could, however, offer the butcher his choice of anything on the shelves, for free.
I was thankful Mr. Sucacero’s carving tools were already locked up for the day.
This fight would last a while, so I set down my broom and rummaged. The price tags were of higher quality than the inventory. Clocks missing hands, ceramic ubiquitous as forest mushrooms, pairs of toxic socks, the cheap dyes of which seemed to leak from the fabric. Around a corner, facing me, were two ceramic figurines. One of Jesus, the other of a dog, mistakenly set on a shelf of religious icons, or left by a child who’d excitedly picked up the dog only to become bored. The dog was the same size as Christ. Jesus was painted poorly. His face seemed more tired than serene. The dog looked cruel, severely malnourished. But its teeth were white and bare and angled out, anxious to change its condition. It was the same size as Christ. It was a terrier of some sort—though I have in the years since this day reconfigured its features so frequently I no longer feel confident with specifics—but it was as large as Jesus. That the dog was scale to Jesus seemed as absurd as it seemed intrinsic. Jesus’ hands were lost in His cloak. He wore sandals, hard to run in. I couldn’t help but dramatize the ensuing scene: The dog snaps his head to the right and in one hairpin gesture tears into Christ. Hardly swallows one bite before the next gallops down. Ravenous, it does not discriminate between swatches of fabric and intestinal cords. I thought of Dad next door mopping tripe, dying as he made our living. My eyes widened. My world shrank.
Once home I painted all night; that is still my artistic process. My dreams at night are tame; they have no substance, vision, color. They are obligatory compositions, lame wishes made before birthday cake. Only when my mind’s awake does it catch fire.
My paintings’ focus tightened. I painted Jesus in glorified stances, feeding, healing, motioning heavenward just as a father motions to his belt strap to quiet rebellious minds. But each canvas was a distraction to the inevitable. Jesus could be consumed by the world He had made. I suppose I’d already known this—what, but this, was crucifixion? But I’d always thought of crucifixion as a grievous error we’d made and would spend our existence endlessly regretting. I had not anticipated it could be a mistake we could make again, did make again, forgetfully, willingly even, on smaller scales, day after day. It didn’t take much. Even our own church in Ciudad Anahuac could perpetrate the crime. Now on Sundays, when we took our seats, I was conscious of being pitied. Tolerated. Our poverty alone was enough to make me feel like we were prisoners in the pews. I scrutinized the priest’s announcements. We were told to pray for Celia and Juan, who renovated our roof. Pray for the Guzmans, who donated piles of money carte blanche each week. The ladies in lipstick were always financing a new water fountain, or money to restore the church bus. Our family could have used a prayer or two, but our family was never mentioned. The church of the rich. The church, a dog with bright white teeth. Those being blessed paid for their blessing. Those intimate with God gave to his shrine. The few names the priest said in conjunction with charity and grace became as much a part of Mass ritual as his homily. Goodbye, I kept thinking, nipping jaws in my head, Christ grew jaws, goodbye. Even then I knew what I was saying goodbye to: The faith ingrained in me will, for the rest of my days now, bobble. And I tried to get it back. I try to speak with it. I do try.
The rich women in church ate up my pretty paintings. Every few weeks I finished a new work (the Virgin tending infants, Jesus blessing caught fish or catching blessed fish, a rear view of God in a chair, His luminance glowing through its gold, high back). The other side of town would come step over our train tracks and broken glass to bid. Each time I chanced a new opening bid, higher than the last. I would explain that my paintings were getting larger, even when they weren’t. Eight hundred pesos. A thousand. Two. Each time the women gasped with satisfaction, as if getting the deal of the century. I liked being asked about, fought over. Commissioning me became a competition. Covering the cathedral walls with my work, a way to heaven. My works always had to mention the Guzmans or Vaqueros as benefactors and providers of the art, in bronze plated plaques screwed into the sections of the canvases where I had signed my name.
Father would collect the money, handing it to Mother only after tithing the haul twice, first for church, and next to buy more brushes and paint. It was decided I would no longer sweep in Nuevo Laredo. It was decided I would take the first week, or month, off school. Actually these decisions were more like official blessings. I was the one who refused to return to the butcher’s. Who refused to remain in my classroom desk, so long as there was an image keeping me up and enough light left to work the image out by.
Except on Sundays, I painted alone. The money stockpiled but I forgot to spend it. I watched work swallow Father, even as I found release in mine. It was at the studio where I saw him lose it. By the September I was thirteen he was holding his paintbrush like a push broom. The strokes were uninspired. Talent dried up, no moisture could get through. Once, after a full hour of staring at his blank canvas, he looked at me. To what I was working on. Then he turned back to the window, to the source lighting my face, then again to me. “Get out.” He did not mean only here and now.
(#6) Commend My Spirit: Five portraits of two sets of lips. Friction. Animation. The mouths scuffing together, as though to latch on. But while the large mouth has rough, cracked parts—good for clinging to—the other is smooth and wet, and slides off.
A tall, gaunt woman from Boston, in the United States, has heard about me. She comes to our house and moves through the doorway before being asked. She is the first person who, it strikes me, is not, and will never be, pretty. Her smile collapses back into itself before it’s had time to fully form. But she is sincere when she says I have talent. And she is solemn about wanting not my paintings, but me myself, as her souvenir. For three days she speaks to my parents out of my earshot, unfolding brochures beneath their noses. They smile and laugh and cook meals when she’s here. When she leaves for her hotel, they fight and slam their fists until the moment she reappears. It gets so bad that I come to see the woman as a healer—having no idea she is the strain.
After three days I am left in my mother’s arms, who leads me and my two youngest sisters into an airplane bound for Boston.
Not all of us can afford to come along. My two eldest siblings will stay behind with my father, until they can claw enough money for their own tickets north. My father, waving on the rough tarmac, is left to his thirty minutes of remaining rest before leaving for Nuevo Laredo to handle the mop that will slurp intestines.
This all brings me to now—the official record I promised to lead you to—the last days of summer, 2001. The cabby who has agreed to spirit me away is working under an expired license. “Where ya headed?” he asks, already northbound, pegging me for South Bronx or Spanish Harlem. “The other way.” He perpetrates an insane, against the light U across Lexington and onto Park. He proceeds to have a brief and violent relationship with his cigarette. Through the window, he flings the tip. Doctors crack chests in the e.r. with this same casualness. I turn my head—I want to see it land at the spot where its ashes stop rolling. At the spot where it will be ground into Park by the next rush of cabs, who in turn will leave their flaming embers to be crushed by future fares. “To the Aduana,” I instruct; he nods the least-comprehending assent I have ever seen. I don’t care. We’re going the right way now.
(#11) Hunger Becomes Me: A panorama of the Last Supper to which I, at the age of thirteen, have been invited. I sit with curious energy and just enough discretion to remain under radar. Not only does the painting capture me picking at my steamed vegetables— which I eat only out of polite respect for Him—but catches me also pilfering a doughy piece of bread, covered in honey, at rest on Judas’ place setting. Out of the corner of His eye, Christ notes what I am doing. The side of His mouth is buttoned in a wry, pleased smile.
Born in St. Louis, Matthew Pitt received his MFA at New York
University, where he was a New York Times Fellow. His fiction appears
in numerous journals and anthologies, including Oxford American, New
Letters, Southern Review, Alaska Quarterly, Witness, Colorado Review,
and Best New American Voices. His work has won honors from the
Missouri Review, Mississippi Arts Commission, and Inkwell. He has won
scholarships from The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Sewanee and
Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences. Recent work was short-listed in
Pushcart Prize XXX and Best American Short Stories 2007.