Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 2 · no. 2 · January 2002
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"He should never have gone back into his mother's sick room, should never have stared at her wrecked features."

The Hungry Eye, Episode 2
Joshua Brown

Episode 1: Chapter I | II | III | IV
Episode 2: V | VI | VII
Episode 3: VIII | IX | X
Episode 4: XI | XII | XIII


Ghosts

Padlin stayed too long in Mulvahill's saloon, drawing and redrawing the girl's face in the wet circles left on the bar by his glass, putting off for as long as possible the retreat to his room in Mrs. Mendoza's boardinghouse. At some point late in the evening his stomach began to grumble and, knowing he'd missed his landlady's designated dinner hour as well as her disinclination to keep a dish in the oven for the likes of an artist (a suspect calling in itself, let alone one with liquor on his breath), Padlin stoked up on Mulvahill's fare of fatty mutton. But amidst the mastication of his third or fourth mouthful, Padlin felt his unhappy stomach take a still unhappier turn. It took the last shreds of his determination to make his way past the crush at the bar and through the cluttered alley alongside the saloon to the privy in the back.

So, stomach empty and head compressed in the liquor's remnant vise, Padlin returned to his boardinghouse. He disrobed, slipped on his soiled nightdress, and burrowed under the rough ticking. All he wished for was the deliverance of sweet slumber, nothing more: no thoughts, no dreams, and, certainly, no visions. But against the scrim of his eyelids it began to emerge: the face he could not capture and the shame, the thick, choking miasma of mortification. His counterpane seemed to shrink about him; he could feel it tightening into a shroud.

Gripped by a sudden panic, with a shout Padlin wrestled free, flinging the wet covers onto the floor. He had been dreaming, however briefly. But the realization did not bring relief. He lurched off the bed, the straw mattress crackling with alarming loudness, and proceeded to walk the meager contours of his room. Apparently, his pacing was accompanied by rather audible exclamations because in due course--although Padlin had no idea how much time had elapsed--Mrs. Mendoza made a dramatic entrance, accompanied by the red-eyed Wall Street clerk who rented the room below. Padlin was required to exhale in his landlady's face upon which, her lips compressed in condemnation; she suggested that if he could not hold his liquor or his tongue there were more suitable quarters available for the sketch-artist in the Five Points. After the duo departed, Padlin realized there was really no recourse. He lit the gas and pulled out his pad.

He shut his eyes and burrowed into his mind, trying to clear a path to the girl's face. The pulsating pain the liquor had induced in the center of his forehead actually helped, a knife slicing away the usual interfering images. When he thought he had it he let out a long sigh and began to draw.

But it was no good. When the harsh yellow of the gaslight was replaced by the muted blues of a dull morning, Padlin faced a batch of unsuccessful death-portraits scattered at the foot of his bed. Each seemed one step further removed from the last in its fidelity to the girl's countenance. He stared at the pad, unnerved by his utter inability to guide his hand, to control the glide and twitch of his pencil. The chatter of morning traffic seemed like a rebuke, wagon wheels and horse hooves composing a condemning litany, a chorus uttering failure, failure, failure.

Choking back a sob, Padlin fell back against the wall. And the terrible face broke through his restraints and took over his mind.

Not the girl's face. It was the one that always haunted his inner eye, beclouding his mind and paralyzing his fingers.

He drifted out of his room and the rising noises of the street diminished, replaced by the keening of his father. The usually deep voice cracking into ear-splitting whimpers. He could not look at his father, knowing he had failed him. His first and everlasting failure.

Nine years ago. Just when Padlin thought he had mastered his craft, it proved beyond his grasp. And it had been his mother's face that had sealed his fate.

Now he saw it before him: cradled on the white pillow, shrunken, deteriorated. The odor of vomit and purged bowels was heavy in the July air about him, the awful stench worsened by the nose-piercing camphor "segar" smoking on the table by the bed. The effluvium lingered despite the windows cast wide open to disperse the stink of her last hours of life. The Brooklyn street outside was eerily silent: everyone who could had fled the city; those who couldn't hunkered in stifling terror in their homes. Padlin had tied a kerchief over his mouth and nose before he began laboring over the corpse

His father had refused to remove her to the cholera hospital. That was no place for his Lil, that charnel house for the vice- and vermin-ridden denizens of the Points. They had forced down her throat the gobs of chalky calomel mixed with laudanum prescribed by the head-shaking doctor until her gums bled, stuffed her with sulphur pills only to see them spurt from her desiccated lips. Within a day, her soft features had shriveled against the angles of her skull, her rosy complexion turned a terrifying sky blue. One moment she had been bustling about his father's print shop, cooing praises over Peleg's latest drawing--of what he no longer could recollect--when she wasn't retrieving errant tools or wiping invisible specks from the press (even though there had been no customers for weeks); the next, she was prostrate but for the violent vomiting and shitting.

The end came quickly. But before the deathwagon arrived to remove her, her son had one final duty to perform. His father had begged him: draw her, draw her as she was, my dear dried up darling wife, your mother. You never got round to sketching her lovely face in life: now, for the love of God, do it before it's too late. You can't bring back the dead, but you can return her face as it once was. Give it back to me, he pleaded. Please, lad, give it back to me now!

Padlin should never have jumped to obey the request . . . but how could he refuse? He should never have gone back into his mother's sick room, should never have stared at her wrecked features. But he thought it might jar his addled, bereft imagination, give him at least the foundational markers from which he could resurrect her once splendid form.

Steeling himself, Peleg propped his pad in front of him and, wiping away the obscuring tears, he set to work. Oddly, he felt a confidence emerge out of his grief, like a resplendent butterfly arising from the murky pupa: he could do this, he thought: capturing a likeness was almost second nature to him. Sitting by the Fulton Street ferry for hours at a time, hadn't he rendered face after face after face with only the most passing glance as a resource? Hadn't his father guffawed mightily at the caricatures of his customers that Peleg quickly scrawled from memory?

It was all delusion, though. As Peleg worked by his mother's corpse, he was slowly poisoned. The beauteous, red-winged monarch never emerged from its cottony shroud: instead, in its place, scuttled some hideous, slimy-carapaced beetle. Padlin labored furiously, labored for hours--he labored as he had never done before and never would again. He babbled encouragement to his cramped fingers; he tried out small cartoons hoping to prime the pump of his exhausted being, his useless being; he held back the realization of his incapacity for hours until, weeping, he trod from the deathbed and dumped the rotted fruits of his efforts before the unforgiving gaze of his poor father.

Of course, Padlin tried again. The next day, then the next week, then the next month he went through notebook after notebook, filling them with inaccurate, unidentifiable physiognomies. It was as if a hole had been burned in his eyes, leaving only the smoldering remnants of his mother's deathmask for him to cherish for eternity.

Padlin poured water into his wash basin, savagely slapped his face and armpits, dressed and, punishing himself, avoided the attractive odors emanating from Mrs. Mendoza's kitchen to make his way back to the office.

He was chagrined to hear, on his arrival, that the woodblock was now in the hands of the engraving department. Luckily, the slothful engravers had not deigned to begin their work until forced to do so, and he found the boxwood rectangle still bolted together. It lay on a table, looking more solid than before, lacquered by the lines and tones jotted over its surface. Padlin carried the block to the window, away from any prying eyes, before he permitted himself to inspect what Waddley had wrought.

The drawing was wrong, so wrong. Waddley was good, Padlin had to grant that; the face possessed dimension in that its placement felt right, the head heavy and slack against the slab, a dense weight tautly tethered to the body by the long line of the neck tendons. But the face projected too much grace, too much purity: instead of her contorted features, the girl had become a martyred saint, undeserving of her end and yet at peace with her fate.

"Do you approve, Mr. Padlin?"

The little sketch-artist stood a few feet away, his mouth set in that irritating, wet pucker of a smile. His eyes danced upon Padlin's face, sliding off of the shadowed brows, skittering on the inky beard, vainly trying to locate a secure plane to settle upon.

"I hope you're pleased with my endeavors," Waddley continued, one hand flapping vaguely at the block. "I have tried to do justice to your vision."

And then as Waddley approached him, Padlin turned and raised the heavy boxwood above his head.

"Padlin, what are you doing?"

Padlin didn't know what he was doing. He just stared down at Waddley, imagining the impact of the block on the round melon head, the feel of density converted to pulp through the wood, pits and bone and meat spattering the floor.

Continued next issue.

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