Joe's Dawn (guest story by Mike Trudeau)
10.28.2002 by , every Tuesday.
Sorry about the earliness of this posting. I wanted to get one in before Tuesday digests me.
This is a long story. But it's wuuuuuuuunderfull. (Erk. Sorry. It is!) Plus it's won prizes, so you know it's good.
Mike has taken his phat mad flow to Belgium this year. I miss you, Mike.
Also, please email me with stories. I'd love to read them, and it would help me out.
I am not an artist. Many people say I am, but I’m not. I am an artist in the way a reporter is a poet. To call me an artist is to imply the making of statements and the analysis of society. I really do neither of these things. I make pots. I stay up late with Bob Dylan blaring and make pots. I take a lump of clay, and make something.
I consider myself a geological redundancy. Somewhere far away, clay lies underground, as it has since time began. Through countless centuries this primeval material was crushed, squeezed, compacted by who knows how many thousands of tons of sheer planet, and brought to the surface by volcanic forces that have been known to destroy entire villages in minutes. It is carried by wind, washed by many rains, pulverized by mighty glaciers. It lies there for a while and then is dug up and brought to my home. I cut it up into little cubes, and make each one into something to hold something else.
I hold the clay like a lover as it spins on the rumbling wheel. I ease it gently and caress it smoothly. It rises and falls like ocean waves falling back on themselves. I hold the clay like a fighter, as I wrestle it, strangle it, dig my fingers into its soft yet stubborn body. It spins and rears, trying to resist the purpose of my strong, worn hands. Eventually I prevail, and up springs a mug, a vase, a bowl. I cut it off the wheel with a length of wire and set it aside with the others. I place the newborn dishes into my kiln, and bombard them with searing orange heat. To this they draw tighter, grow harder, metamorphosing from a smoky grey to a bone white. I remove them carefully later, like butterflies from cocoons. Of course, each one is sold, taken, filled, broken, thrown away and returned to the ground, all in a geologically tiny period of time.
I am a creator, a parent, a lover, a fighter. I am the ultimate recycler.
But I am not an artist.
Once again, Joe spun the wheel. He kicked it hard three times, and let it spin for a few moments. He stared at the fist-sized lump of clay quietly twirling on the rumbling wheel. It stared back at him in patient defiance.
The potter’s wheel sits in the middle of Joe’s small living room. It is made up of a wheel head, a metal disc about a foot in diameter sitting in a plastic basin. The basin is at table height, and the potter sits on an old wooden stool. He kicks a larger flywheel which rotates just above the hardwood floor.
The flywheel is made of wood and bricks, and is connected by a metal shaft to the wheel head. The wheel head is Joe’s operating table.
This was the fourth time tonight Joe had tried to use the wheel. It was the fourth time he had slapped the clay onto the wheel head and splashed it with water. It was the fourth time he had sat there, unable to do anything but stare at the spinning lump of earth, as the wheel slowed.
He stamped his foot down onto the wheel, stopping it abruptly. He got off his stool and walked to the window. He looked out over the snowy intersection outside his apartment building.
There weren’t many cars at this time of night, only the phantom graders and plows that rumbled by, their blue lights flickering silently, the hum of their engines dampened by the snow they were paid to move. The lonely traffic lights changed uselessly, tinting his darkened room like the inside of a Christmas tree whenever he tried to sleep. Sometimes he would lie there, and keep time with the lights, like counting sheep. Green, yellow, red. Green, yellow, red. Now, he just stood there, watching. The music from his tape player had stopped a while ago, and he hadn’t bothered to change the side. Right now he preferred the loyal company of silence.
He hadn’t always been like this. He could remember being happy, loving and loved. He could remember staying up late, Bob Dylan blaring, spinning his simple joy of living into physical forms. Mugs, vases, plates. Each pot a taste of what he thought it was to live on earth.
Then one day he’d had an accident, and it had all ended.
He looked down at himself. He was slender but not bony. He was taller than average. Some of his friends had called him Ichabod for a while, after the lanky schoolteacher from the tale of Sleepy Hollow. He looked down at his bare feet, his long legs, his flat chest, his hands…
His hands. One was large and muscular, work worn from years of handling clay. The other was nothing but a stump on the end of his arm, a rounded ball of bandage. He couldn’t afford a prosthetic. He cradled what was left of his left hand, and leaned his head against the glass, closing his eyes. His eyes screwed into a silent expression of tearless frustration, and he grimaced miserably into the night. His love had been stolen.
* * *
The phone was ringing. Slowly, Joe woke up. Sunlight was streaming in through the street facing windows. Motors and the occasional horn filtered up from the street below. His window faced east, so it was always brightest in the mornings, when the sun was rising. In the afternoon the room was shady and cool.
The phone was ringing. Joe propped himself up on his elbows and looked at it. Who was it? His friends had been calling recently, to try to get him out. He didn’t want to go out. He didn’t need their pity, he just wanted to be left alone. He watched the phone as it rang. Three, four times. The answering machine clicked to life.
Hi, this is Joe. I’m not here right now, as you have probably guessed, so leave a message after the tone and I’ll call you back. Maybe. BEEP.
"Hi Joe." It was Stacy, the girl he’d been seeing. He hadn’t spoken to her since their fight, when she had accused Joe of giving up and losing hope after the accident, and Joe had thrown her out of his apartment. She’d had no right to accuse him of that. He’d just lost one of his hands, for God’s sake. He’d never be able to make another pot again, ever. She had no idea what she was talking about.
"Listen, um, I’m just calling to apologize. I’m sure you’re there, because you never go out anymore. I’m just sorry it had to turn out like this. I, uh, I’m really trying hard to deal with this, I’m trying hard to be understanding and sympathetic, Joe, but you’re not the person I knew before. You’ve changed. You’ve let this accident take over your life, and I just don’t want to deal with that. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I really liked you. I hope you get over this. I really do. Goodbye, Joe."
She hung up and the answering machine stopped dead. Joe sat up on the couch, and rubbed his eyes. He muttered to himself.
"Trying to understand. Thanks for trying to understand." He got up.
There was some cold macaroni and cheese on the stove in a pot. He picked it up, cradled in his shorter arm, and grabbed a fork out of the sink. He stabbed a piece, and held it up, scrutinizing the day-old pasta. Then he threw the fork into the pot, and set it on the counter.
He squatted on the floor and turned on the small television he had in one corner of the apartment. He flipped through the channels, turning the clicking dial on its display. He stopped once, to watch a commercial, then gave the dial a violent twist and turned the TV off. Something tugged at his memory’s sleeve. His memory looked down and cuffed the small thought, sending it scurrying away. Joe peered at the calendar on his wall across the room. A blue scribble decorated a square that could be today. He stood up and walked over for a closer look. Yep, it was Saturday all right. Painting today.
"Aw, damn it." When his friends had noticed that he wasn’t getting out as much as he did before the accident, they had become concerned. One of them had thought it was a bright idea to give him something to do to keep his mind off pottery. They had all pitched in and bought him a set of weekly painting lessons. He didn’t want them, but had accepted them grudgingly. The first one was today. At one o’clock.
Joe looked up at the clock. Twelve thirty. Joe sighed. He looked around the room for his shoes.
* * *
A basket of fruit. Why the hell was he sitting here painting a basket of fruit? He wasn’t doing it very well, either. On his canvas, the grapes were tiny and too yellow. The banana was gigantic, towering over everything else. He looked around the class. Painters. Artists. He couldn’t stand artists.
The woman next to him looked over. She had shoulder length brown hair, and brown eyes. Her face was sharp, but not cruel. Her nose was thin and pointy, but not too long. Her cheekbones were fairly pronounced, her chin was strong and dimpled. She smiled and mouthed the words, "I fucking hate painting fruit."
Joe pursed his lips in a joyless smile. He whispered back, "Yeah. Me too."
The woman leaned over and looked at Joe’s painting. She giggled and pointed at the banana. "Very Freudian."
Joe smiled, for real this time. This woman didn’t seem to be as serious as the rest of the painters. One of the others even had one of those flat French hats on. As he watched, the painter stuck out his thumb at the basket and bit his lip. The woman followed his gaze.
"He’s been here forever. He’s not really very good, but no one dares to criticize him. Even the teacher pretends to like his stuff. He pisses me off. My name’s Rachel." She extended a hand. Joe looked down at it bluntly. It was covered in paint.
"I’m not shaking that. Sorry. My name’s Joe. Why is your hand so dirty? You been finger painting?"
Rachel pretended to look ashamed.
"Sorry, I was hoping you’d fall for it. That beret man did two weeks ago. That’s why he’s all the way over there. Um, actually, I have, sort of, been using my fingers a little." Joe leaned over and looked at her canvas. She had started painting the fruit, but for some reason decided to finish it with her fingers, in surreal colours, and with doodles and words all around it.
"That," He said flatly, "looks like a lot more fun than this." He put down his brush. "I’m going to try. I’ll only be able to go half as fast as you, though, so you’ll have to be patient."
"I don’t think I’m patient enough to wait around for you. Sorry. Just kidding. How did you lose your hand? Were you born without it? I don’t mean to be rude, I’m just intensely curious."
"It’s a long story. Actually, it’s a short story. I just don’t really want to talk about it. I’m drawing a happy face on my apple."
"So am I."
"As if. You’re copying me. Hey miss, Joe’s copying me!" The teacher looked up from the beret man’s painting, rolling her eyes. "Oh, no. Don’t you dare copy her. The last thing I need is another set of dirty hands. Or, that is, should I say…no offense meant, Joe. Sorry."
Joe looked back at Rachel.
"Why is everyone always apologizing? I feel like I have to comfort everyone else for the loss of my hand. I think people who apologize for no reason can kiss my ass."
"I apologized for no reason just now. Sorry."
"You just did it again."
"You did it again!"
"Sorry! I can’t stop! Sorry! I’m so sorry!" Rachel broke down into a fit of giggles. "There’s no way I can finish this now. I’ve got the giggles."
Joe laughed and slid his stool over beside hers.
"I’ll finish it for you. Then the teacher will think you’re an artistic genius."
"Oh, thanks a lot Picasso. I’ve got a lot to learn from you."
"First of all, this banana’s too small."
"Ha! I didn’t want you to be jealous. If you’re finishing mine, I’m going to finish yours. Move over."
* * *
That afternoon when Joe returned to his small apartment on the corner, there were no messages for him on his machine. His room was dark in the afternoon sun. The wheel was just where he had left it, sitting neglected like some sort of ancient pedestal. His kiln hung open, empty like the mouth of a baby bird. Several bags of unused clay lay beside it. The air smelled of dry dust. Where the sun shone in through his window, motes of dust floated thickly in the rays. The fine white dust that was a byproduct of Joe’s pottery gave the impression that the room had been abandoned for many years.
Joe crossed the room to the translucent box of light that hung between his window and his floor. He looked at the dust; he looked at the grimy glass. Making a swift decision, he unlatched the window, threw it open, and leaned out over the snowy street, drawing deep breaths of fresh winter air. A breeze swept in like an eager puppy, and played with Joe’s hair. He watched as the air, saturated with the dust of his old love was stirred up, twirled, and blown out into the busy street. He exhaled and his breath condensed into a dissipating vapor that joined the faint cloud of departing dust.
A week passed. Joe talked briefly to his friends when they called him, but only went out with them once, to see a movie. They had treated him differently, almost condescendingly. Once one of them actually opened a door for him. Joe didn’t say anything. He went to the library, and found several books he’d been wanting to read. He began slogging through Dante’s The Inferno, as well as a couple of pulp mysteries. At first he found it difficult to hold the book and turn the pages at the same time, but he managed in the end.
* * *
The next Saturday he arrived at the studio on time. He almost bumped into Rachel on the sidewalk outside.
"Oh, hi there. How are you?" Joe asked as he opened the door for her. She looked up at him vaguely.
"Sorry, do I know you?"
Joe stood awkwardly.
"I’m- I’m in your painting class. Don’t you remember me? I finished your painting. Joe."
"I’m not Joe." Rachel was beginning to look uncomfortable.
"No, my name’s Joe. You’re Rachel." Rachel stared at him.
"How do you know my name?" She broke into a grin. "Just kidding. Got you though, didn’t I?"
Joe stared at her.
"Don’t do that. It wasn’t funny."
"Aww, come on. It was."
"No it wasn’t. I really didn’t like that." Joe was looking angrier.
Joe grinned and came in behind her."I made you apologize again."
* * *
Joe lay in his bed that night, awake. Rachel. He kept thinking about Rachel. He got up while it was still dark and got some eggs out of the fridge. He had some cheese lying around too, and a couple of carrots. He tried to break the eggs into a pan on his stove with his one hand. Rachel. He thought of the way she laughed with her whole body. She could just as easily choose to complain about everything, but instead she seemed to laugh everything off, as if amused by watching the story of her life unfold. A comedy of errors. She seemed so light, yet so strong. Like plexiglass.
Joe turned on the heat under the pan and started stirring the eggs. He’d stop every once and a while to pick out bits of shell. Here he was, wallowing in his own self pity. What would Rachel say if she knew how sad he was? She’d laugh at him. She’d say he was like a grumpy old bear holed up in his cave. Just letting the winter pass by without him. Not facing any problems, even though he was strong enough to if he wanted.
He let the eggs cook for a bit, and chopped up the cheese. He thought of the light from the window, illuminating his room and exposing all the floating dust.
* * *
Joe sat on his stool, the omelet on a plate on the wheel head. He took a few bites, and gave the plate a little spin. It wasn’t a bad omelet. Not that he’d had an good omelet recently. It was the first time he’d cooked anything decent for himself since the accident, and he’d done an okay job for someone with one hand. He looked at his clock. It was almost time. Today he was going to watch the sunrise.
* * *
"Have you ever watched a sunrise?" Joe was painting a stuffed cat that sat on a table in the middle of the studio. Rachel sat beside him. Today she was only painting with shades of blue.
"No. Maybe. I can’t remember. I think I might’ve."
"I watched one last week. It was gorgeous. It’s the sort of thing that makes painters want to paint. Not…not stuffed cats. Where do you think she got that thing?"
"Beret man brought him in."
"That guy scares me more and more every week. I bet he’s got a whole bunch of stuffed pets in his basement. But yeah. I think I’m going to get some paints. I want to capture a sunrise on canvas. The way it reflected off the street and the windows. I’ve got some really tall high-rises near my house. Those things are covered in windows. I’m beginning to see how people could like painting."
"Oh-oh. Joe’s falling in love."
"I’m going to have to move a lot of stuff, though. I used to pot before the accident." Rachel stopped painting and looked straight at Joe. Joe hadn’t noticed her look over.
"You used to pot? You mean throw actual pots, out of clay?"
"Yeah. Now that I loved. I’m really having a hard time not being able to do it anymore. That’s why I’m painting now."
"On a wheel?"
"You’d fire them in a kiln?"
"My own kiln. I saved up a long time to buy the equipment, but I was able to make a humble living off it." "Joe, do you still have all that stuff?"
"Yeah. I put an ad in the classified section a couple days ago, though. I mean, what’s the point of having all that stuff taking up space, when there’s no way I’ll ever pot again." Joe stopped to rinse his brush off, and looked at Rachel. "What’s wrong?"
"Joe, I don’t like painting. I took it up because…oh, Joe. I took it up because I couldn’t find a place to pot. You’re the only person I know who has all the right stuff. For potting." Joe looked at her, considering this new development. His heart leapt.
"Well, do you want to use-"
"Yes. Yes I do. When can I come over?"
"Well, um, how about-"
"Tonight! This afternoon. Right after class!"
"Um, really? Okay. Sure."
"Joe, I don’t believe this. I’m so excited!"
* * *
The two of them went back to Joe’s apartment after the lesson. Joe picked up a canvas, some paints, and a brush on the way. It was cold and snowing big, soft, quiet flakes. When they got into Joe’s apartment, they were freezing. Joe took Rachel’s jacket.
"Oh, thanks. What a gentleman."
When Rachel went into Joe’s main room, her eyes lit up. To Joe’s amusement, but not surprise, she clapped her hands and jumped up and down a little. It could have been because she was cold, but Joe didn’t think so. Joe sat her down on the stool, and she rolled up the sleeves of her big grey sweater. Her arms were slender and smooth underneath. Joe realized he’d been noticing details like this a lot lately. Funny thing, that. He’d never really noticed her body before. Usually, that was the first thing he saw when he met a woman. He stole a glance. Not bad, not bad at all.
Joe brought her some clay, and she started to pot. Almost out of habit, he popped in his Bob Dylan tape. He set up his canvas on his windowsill. Tomorrow he would catch the sun as it rose from beneath the horizon.
Rachel was strangely silent while she worked. The first few pots were wobbly, too thin or too thick. Joe stood behind her and guided her hands. Her right hand was engulfed by his, each finger hidden by one of his own. He couldn’t help her left hand, however. His arm ended at his wrist, and there were no fingers to guide hers, no palm to lay on her pale skin. He drew away.
"I’m sorry Rachel. I can’t-" Rachel inclined her head slightly. "Don’t worry, Joe. I’ll be fine. I’ll imitate your one hand with both of mine."
He resumed his place. Her hair tickled his nose, sweet smelling, like fresh grass and the sky. Her body was warm against his as she rested back on Joe’s chest. Together they stayed, creating dishes and vases on equipment that had been asleep for so long.
On through the day and into the night they worked. Joe cooked her dinner from what was in the fridge, and they ate on his old dusty couch. They spoke, but of what, Joe can never remember. Outside the wind howled and the snow fell like feathers after a children’s pillow fight. The first time they got to the end of the tape, Joe asked if Rachel wanted to listen to something else. Rachel looked up from the wheel.
"What did you listen to when you used to do this?"
"Mostly this guy."
"Just flip it again."
They sang along. Rachel faked her way through most of the words, but Joe knew them all. For a while they danced in their dirty, dusty clothes. Rachel ended up with clay in her hair and had to wash it out. Joe stood looking out the window at the people going about their respective Saturday nights. Couples laughed and cars full of teenage boys thumped by. Groups of girls twittered in their high heels, and bouncers stood like concrete lions at every door. He saw Rachel come up behind him in the reflection. She was running his comb through her damp hair.
"You can use my comb if you like."
"No thanks. I already found one in your washroom." Rachel stood beside Joe, looking out the window. "It’s a great view. You must see all sorts of people from up here."
"I’ve only started watching recently."
Joe was silent for a moment. What could he say to that? You’re welcome seemed too much like he was giving something away. In reality, he had never even thought that inviting Rachel over was a favour. If anything, Joe felt he owed Rachel. She had opened his eyes again, brought him out of hibernation. No, thank you. That just sounded rude. He didn’t know what to say.
So he turned and kissed her on the cheek.
He heard her exhale. She turned her head. She lifted her hand to Joe’s cheek and brought his face down to hers. Joe set his hand gently on Rachel’s hip, and they kissed again, slowly. Then she turned to face him, and brought both hands up behind his head. He fastened his arms around her supple waist, and drew her to him. They stood in the window, embraced, kissing, not caring that they were both covered in clay.
A whistle drifted up from the street. Joe looked down onto the sidewalk, where three slightly drunken men stood craning their necks and leering up at them. They waved at Joe, and one of them gave him a thumbs up.The two laughed, and Joe closed the blind.
* * *
Joe got up while it was still dark, and left Rachel sleeping. He found an old box of Cheerios in the back of his cupboard, and poured a big bowl of them. He set up his paints, wet his brush. He squeezed a little of each colour into pockets of an old egg carton to use as his pallet. He took a chair from the kitchen and sat by the window. It was almost time.
Rachel woke up slowly. Light was streaming in through an east facing window. She sat up and looked around. Joe wasn’t there. She got up and wandered through the kitchen into the main room. Joe was silhouetted by the window, concentrating on the canvas in front of him. He looked over his shoulder at her when she padded into the room.
"Don’t look. It’s almost done." She withdrew back into the kitchen. Joe called to her. "You can have some Cheerios. Milk in the fridge."
She sat on the counter to eat because there weren’t any chairs and Joe wasn’t letting her into the room. Eventually Joe came in. He kissed her and said,
"Close your eyes." She did.
"Did you paint the sunrise?"
"Open your eyes."
The painting was in all the colours of the dawn. Blues washed into greens into reds into yellows, with deep purple and oranges on the borders. But it was not the sun.
On the canvas there sat a woman. She was not expertly drawn, but a woman all the same. She sat crouched over a spinning wheel, a lump of clay taking shape between her hands. Strands of hair hung down like vines in a forest, and the woman stared concentrating on the thing in front of her. Joe set it on the counter. Rachel looked up at him. Joe pulled her close to him, and enfolded her in his arms."You are my dawn, Rachel." Rachel rested her head against his chest. Outside, the birds twittered away and the sun moved on its eternal course through the sky. Below, the traffic lights changed and horns blared.