Adam and Eva
Adam’s walls: an awkward grid of paper, canvas, shreds of fabric, rag. Viewed left to right, they narrate a difficult work, a discombobulation, a fork in the road, a murky kiss.
He lives there, heats food on a sterno, knows this is a worse sort of wilderness than any he’s ever seen in nature—it’s the kind that takes away everything you have, reminds you of things you’ve always wanted. For a year, there was a striped kitten, grey and black, that shared his food and brought in fleas.
When the kitten deserted, Adam hung posters on every telephone pole in the neighborhood.
The grand dame Eva—is she fan or player? Or just an old mother like his own, with dyed hair and unhappy feet?
She brought him a calico to replace the lost kitten. A woman whose life had been even more different from this one than his own. There’d been more of it to compare—sixty years in a mansion. Now, like Adam, she roams and squats. Paints and culls. Occasionally destroys.
This part of the city is being turned dump to high rise. He goes places, to see what he can find.
Alone behind his walls near the ballpark, he always knows when the home team is winning.
In the dream, he dribbled a baby’s head up and down the court, too nervous to shoot. The next day, he swears, he found a real baby on the dump heap, the only thing worth taking.
Adam holds the squirmy baby on his lap, an arm across its chest as if it’s a toy or a football, something to keep near his heart. The baby twists enough to regard him, brings up a tiny hand to touch Adam’s face. The moving fingers are like worms.
How will he get the baby up the ladder and over the wall?
“Baby, what’s your name? No tag, no sign. I don’t even know if you’re a boy or a girl.”
The baby likes his face, especially the hard nob of nose. Adam clowns his eyebrows up and down, opens his eyes wide, sticks out his tongue until the baby grabs it. When he pulls away, the baby’s mouth opens. Tongue thrusts a little.
Is this a dream? Someone else’s day?
“Copy cat, sloppy mop, jungle gym, born in sin. How’d you get here, baby?”
“Baby, show me your teeth.” He shows his own, very white against his always-ruddy face, and the baby obliges. It has four.
He carries the bundle across shards of glass, broken bedsprings, torn condom wrappers, twigs, certain the baby’s real but wondering if this is his life or someone else’s.
His drawings go up and down the walls, a mural of sketches and paint on canvas, splodges and stories he’s been trying to tell for years.
The baby’s heavy. The head turns right, left, north, south.
He looks in the baby’s face: “Baby, do you get it?” Leaves the bundle on a piece of dirty sheepskin and scrapes spaghetti from the pan. Gurgling, the baby sounds like a bum pipe or a faulty motor. Then, plain crying.
“Hey, baby, hey Charlie, chill! I’ll paint you onto this piece of canvas and then you’ll be forever.” But the baby isn’t listening, doesn’t understand.
Eva is old enough to be his mother, or even his grandmother. Eva gave up the elegance of her former life for the paintings that refused to show up on canvas in a well-lit studio.
Adam watches as, from a sitting position, the baby leans over and props itself on all fours. Like a dog, or a baby, it crawls fast, away from the sheepskin square. It goes up to the wall with the Cat in the Hat drawings and slaps the largest Cat with a pudgy palm, makes aggressive throaty sounds.
He thinks he’s holding a phone; he thinks it’s her voice coming through the receiver. The baby’s clear eyes make him feel like crying. He hopes she gets there soon.
The baby pulls itself around on fists, elbows, and knees. Adam crouches low, spider-like, gangly, stares, makes funny faces. “Boo!” The baby laughs.
Then a smell comes from the baby; it paints a dark trail across the empty floor.
He tests the capellini against his wrist, then holds a piece aloft, just above the baby’s mouth. Curved and red, waiting.
Mostly toothless, the baby swallows the spaghetti with little gulping sounds, as if it’s drinking milk.
On His Walls
For years, he’d been one of those white boys who pray to wake up black.
“Humble baby, grumble baby, baby say your prayers. Crumble baby, tumble baby. Sit up let’s rumble, baby.”
“Ka-ka-ka-ka,” it says, like a crow or a machine gun, blowing bubbles at the back of its throat.
Eva arrives, climbs the ladder with his hands open behind her, in case she stumbles.
Not more than a hundred pounds, the world contrasts sharply with the blue in her eyes.
He notices again the little red ridges behind her ears where she once let a surgeon use a knife on her face.
Is it something he could do, with his fine-motor hands, the fingers that can write whole conversations inside the balloons above his cartoon characters’ heads?
He promises himself that he’ll never take a knife to a human face, certainly not in an effort to make it more beautiful. Less beautiful, yes. He could do that. Anyone can mar beauty.
But who can make it? The baby, in a corner, is growling, half-dog.
Her teeth are older than her face. Disconcerting. Eva paints in chalk on broken sidewalks; when she walks through garbage, she keeps her head high.
He nudges the baby onto its back, holds it there with a gallery of faces, like a shuffled deck of cards.
The diaper is so heavy Adam wonders how the baby carried it around. He removes it, stinking, wraps a towel there. The tenderness of the baby's skin makes him flinch. On his rough hands, spattered paint like a tattoo. Once, he was a baby with tender skin, touched by warm hands.
Eva gives the baby a bottle. Then, like a father, he takes the sleeping baby, puts him on the floor beneath the largest of the Cats in the Hat.
Outside, they hear the roar. The home team’s winning. Beyond the stadium is deep black water all the way to China. It’s a blackness he feels familiar with, one he’s never succeeded in painting.
Now that the baby’s asleep, he comes back to her with brushes and a palette. She laughs, knowing there’s not another thing she can do.
She lets him paint the lines back onto her skin. Laugh lines holding her mouth. Worry between her eyes.
His own skin is crinkled, almost baked. Hardly old. Still, he’s no infant.
With a finger, he traces the lines surgery removed. Then, with the finest paintbrush, he paints a scene on her straight pale back, in a blue-grey not unlike the color of her eyes. Trees, a brook, water gurgling over flat stones. He bends, drinks cool water.
He knows from her breath: everything she's forgotten comes back to her, immediate as lightning. She knows, and knows, and knows a thing so hard to grasp that each time she does, in a cluster of flashes, it’s followed by darkness as thick and deep as the ocean.
She's never had more to lose; she's never been able to give up anything with more grace.
Pre-Columbian masks, first editions, originals. Photographs, coins, shells, costumes. Silverware, plates, fabric, furniture. Bookshelves, carved wood. Husband. Children. Their children. Everything gone, down to the mud beneath the foundations.
He touches her ears behind the lobe where the surgeon tucked the extra skin. Would like to loosen it by gnawing gently. But keeps his even white teeth beneath raindrop lips.
He gives without asking for anything in return, but it doesn’t seem like charity.
When he turns back, Eva is gathering her shawls. Then, she’s up the wall and out. The baby is gone.
He can’t help thinking of what’s delicious: Eva’s shapes turned fruit—pear, apple, pomegranate. Compote. He misses the baby. Its cries, its chubby limbs.
Adam paints everything over, stealing from himself. Forgetting and celebrating. He puts the baby there: fat forearms and tiny fingers. It’s the first time he’s painted something that’s drawn tears.
Finished, he climbs the wall, walks the streets, paints an intricate new tag. He adds wings, teeth.
What could a set of flying teeth do in the world? Go around finding the best things to eat?