Yellow Painting: The Ballad of Leonardo
The light shown from the frames of her glasses as light illuminates from a Christmas tree, sparkling and wrapped around, and she smiled and wanted to hug as old friends do after they’d survived time apart. After a three years Chari couldn’t tell the difference between a ceremonial clinching and an embrace from a friend—an embrace that said, “I’ve missed you, too.” Flies were in the place and were so pesky he’d wondered if his shirt was dirty or if the deodorant he put on in the car had already worn off or if he should’ve waited until after they left to smoke instead of right before they met. She had that effect, Liz. She had the effect of reducing a man with the battle scars of the road less traveled to who he was before the road split, before he and Liz split. The menu was in Spanish and neither of them spoke it and were both lost and were both hungry and both played it safe and ordered tacos. Chicken for Chari and steak for Liz. She was very much who he remembered her to be—tall, wavy hair, hazel eyes, quick to smile. Her hands surfed the air circulated by the ceiling fan as she spoke. The rhythm in Liz’s movements were slow motioned as if Time loved her. It was like Liz, the girl who’d had to buy her own corsage for a prom they’d gone to together, and the homecoming queen Chari had no business with, was worth the standstill of a wobbling rock. Time would stop anything for her.
Liz insisted dutch. The going had already been done once and was about to be again. Chicago had done Liz well. The rain smacked the roof they’d sat under a million times over as kids. They were kids before. They were Southern kids. They were privileged Southern kids. Chari could tell she was annoyed with being home.
“It’s not the same no more.”
“What’s not?” Chari squeezed the jalapeño on his taco before biting it. She could tell he was hungry.
“I don’t know. I miss it there. It was always so much to do. Home is cool but its slow. You get used to a place so busy.”
“You mean a place that doesn’t care about you.”
“No,” she grabbed a taco. Liz hadn’t wanted him to feel uncomfortable eating alone. He couldn’t hide anything about being himself. Evolution, that of people, does not—nor has it ever—erased the core of them. People are who they are and therefore who they will be. It is only through growth and a lifelong series of mistakes that people grow from who they are to who they’ve been; people only grow into wiser versions of themselves. Chari couldn’t hide anything about having never left home but he was leaving then and she was grounded then. “I mean a place that’s open-minded. People don’t care how you’re living your life there. You get to do anything you want.
It’s expensive, though.”
“Well, it is Chicago.” He smiled. “Chicago knows what it is, how much its worth. Besides, you can afford it.” Liz took a small bite from her taco before putting it back down.
“I dated an NBA player.”
“Yeah. He took us out to a strip club and just let us throw his money around. I wish I’d have just put some in my purse, though.”
“Us?” Chari squeezed the jalapeño again. He’d liked his food as spicy as he could take it. “‘Us’ don’t sound like no relationship.”
“Oh my God! You are such a Southerner.”
“The hell that mean?”
“Just, I don’t know. Y’all got this old idea about what a relationship is. Like, y’all got this whole—”
“What?” Liz was confused.
“Take you outta the South but can’t take the South outta you, eh?”
“I’m a Chicagoan now,” Liz sighed. “I swear, y’all are so judgy.”
“I don’t know,” Chari used his third napkin before balling it up. “You act like we’re so backwards. Hell, you act like you’re not a part of ‘we’”.
“I don’t know. Folks from home just don’t get it.”
“Nigga, you from home!” She laughed.
“Ok.” She chuckled again. “I’ll give you that. Its just that, like, you get numb to it.”
“To what?” Chari had sauce or chicken juice or something that had no business in his beard on his chin. Liz used her thumb and wiped it off.
“You get numb to that family, house, car shit. I mean, its just too slow. Its just too slow here.”
“Not everybody wants a family and kids and stuff. Nothing wrong with that.”
“Nothing at all.” The food had almost fell from his mouth when he said that.
“And, like, its ok to live your life and not worry about what nobody says.”
“And so what? I can’t wait to get back outta here. I swear. I mean, y’all are so closed-minded.”
“Whatever! I was born, like, raised here. Nobody should settle down where they grew up. It’s the worst way to die.”
“Huh?” Chari had half a taco left. She’d still been playing with hers.
“Home will choke you. Like, it’ll suffocate you. Like the dog that outgrew his collar back in the day. Home just—”
“Its just home.”
“Its only pretty in your rearview, you know?” Chari was licking his fingers then. “You’re a fucking dweeb.”
“I’m a handsome one, though.” Chari looked back to his plate.
“It slowed everything down. It makes you think about stuff. You get to know home again.”
“What slows you down?”
“Having to come back here.”
“It ain’t that bad.”
“Easy for you to say. You never left.”
“I’m leaving now.”
“So you’ll see.” She sipped her straw. The two of them sat there silent for a few moments. “I missed you, Chari Richardson. I know you don’t think I missed you but I did.”
“Please. I’m some country dumb-fuck you had no problem leaving.”
“Is there anything else I can get you?” The server’s timing was impeccable.
“No, ma’am. Just a refill.” He’d always guzzled his drink at restaurants.
“And you, ma’am?”
“The same.” The server left. “Chari, you know that’s not how it is. Why would you even say something like that?” Chari rolled his eyes. He noticed the family at the next table. The mother was cutting up her son’s food and the father sat with confidence, he sat with the pride of knowing that not only could he treat his wife—his woman—he could treat his family.
“How have your scans been?”
“No tumors this last time,” she’d slurred. Liz reached for the saltshaker but knocked it over. “Damn.” She played with one of her tacos. “How are your meds? They still—”
“Look, I’m fine. I was just making sure you were.” Chari had lost his appetite. He looked up at the black chalkboard of a menu and tried to sound out in his head everything that was served. His minor in Spanish wasn’t much after seven years out of school. She’d liked that, Liz. She’d liked how Chari could pronounce the Spanish words in Spanish art when they’d gone to the museum. She’d told him that their trips to the art museum were how she knew that he was her person. “I’m glad they were good this time. I’m glad you’re ok.” He smiled.
“Just call me Chari.”
“Why do you keep cutting me off? What’s up with you?” Chari couldn’t look her in the eyes. He’d have teared up. “You’ve always been Dimples. You’ll always be Dimples.”
“Well to you I’m Chari now so, yeah.”
“Why are you so mad at me?” Her left hand trembled and she pinned it down with her right.
“Yula doin’ ok?”
“Dimples, what’s wrong? Why are you so mad at me?”
“Nothing’s wrong. I ain’t mad at nothing. Forget about it.”
“Your words. Use your words, Chari.” He shook his head in frustration. “You’re better than that. You got the words. Use the—”
“I’m just saying. You’re not your dad. He gets a pass. You don’t. I know you.” Liz’s hand had stopped trembling. She took the safety one off it.
“You did know me. But then you left.”
“So that’s what it is.” Her hand started trembling again. “You didn’t seem too concerned when I told you I was leaving. And I did tell you. I told you a year before I left. I told you a whole year before! So all this damned…all this damned energy you have about it is a few years too late.”
“I was mad then. But what was I gonna say? Chicago wanted your paintings. They wanted you. You wanted them, too. ‘Till the end of the line’, eh?”
“That’s not fair.” The server was back to clear their table and gauge their conversation to tell how long it’d be until her table would be free. “Ba—Chari, don’t do that. You make it seem so mechanical.”
“It is mechanical. We’re artists. ‘We benefit from a little pain’, right?”
“I left for the art! For my craft! You said you’d never stand in the way of the art. You said it the same way I said I would stand between you and the writing. But see, you went and got engaged and had this whole—”
“This whole what?”
“You’re still cutting me off! You went and got with the first thing that read your shit. You were ready to commit to the first pair of tits to read your writing. I swear, you didn’t miss nothing about me. So don’t you do that.”
“I got off ‘em for a sec. My meds. They ain’t worked the same. I mean, they work but they ain’t workin’ the same.”
“None of my letters? You couldn’t respond to any of them? We said we’d write letters like they did in the back in the day. We said we’d write back and forth and we’d publish them and all the things. We said we’d do all the things. It was one thing to go away. It was another to leave.”
“And you said we’d be in the histories. That our destinies were tied. That they couldn’t mention one of us without the other. But you asked a whole other woman to marry you. You wanted to commit the rest of your life to her.” The family at the next table was having a hard time hiding their curiosity. “You forgot me. You forgot me like I knew you would. Don’t ask me about no goddamned letters.”
“Fatima. From the book!” He was growing angry
“Fuck Fatima! It was your turn to be Fatima.”
“Fatima was the gir—".
“When did that ever matter with us, Chari? Or did you forget? Or is all the gender shit just stuff you say to get pussy? That why you proposed to her? She was cool with always being Fatima? Always bei—”
“I guess only men can be Santiago, then.” The flies had landed on, flown from, and landed back on their food again. “I guess so. ‘Cause you found a whole other person. Chari, you found a whole other person. All that talk and you couldn’t even be Fatima. Mr. ‘I don’t abide by the rules’ couldn’t be Fatima for even one second!” She pinned her trembling hand down again. “Fatima always has to be the ‘girl,’ huh? You’re so full of shit.”
“Liz,” she looked away from him. “Elizabeth Moyt! Santiago didn’t make Fatima feel like she was alone!” The children of the family from the other table had taken notice then. “You left Fatima to live and die alone! You…” Liz clinched her jaws as Chari spoke.
“Chari I’m here now. I’m,” She paused to gather herself.
“Words, Elizabeth. Use your words. My dad gets a pass. You don’t.” Chari clinched his jaws, too. “Don’t get quiet now. Don’t you get all—”
“It happened to me, too, Chari!” Pause. “It happened to me, too, and we talked about it. We talked about it before. We talked about everything before! And its ok! Its not ok but its ok! Its me. I’m here now. Talk to me. You know you’re not by yourse—”
“Elizabeth. I think you should go back to your new life. I gotta go.” He moved to get up and she grabbed his arm.
“So that’s the Chari you are now? You’re the runner. That’s who you are. Always scared of a fight. Always scared to stand up for—”
“Fuck you! You don’t know shit about me! I handle my shit and you handle yours! You handle all your professional pipelayers and I’ll handle my shit!”
“Chari,” he avoided eye contact. “No. Baby,” she grabbed his arm. “So she was a woman. Don’t make it no better.”
“You left it, Elizabeth. You left it. I suggest you stay that way. Go back to your goddamned horsehangin’ dick.”
“Look, this is about your ego. Go find your—”
“That’s you. Whatever you were gonna say. ‘My’ is ‘you’. It’s you, Chari Richardson.”
“I know you Elizabeth. And I know when you start feeling bad for me like I’m some goddamned charity case. Like, why do you even do this shit? Fuck! You make it seem like you get a kick out of it! Like you get a kick out of me being weak!”
“Lower your voice!” The restaurant’s lobby was quiet then. “I make it seem like its alright if you’re weak at all. Maybe you need to lean. Maybe you do. Ok, I’m fine with that. I’m ok with that. That’s what happens with your person. That’s why you have a person. Because sometimes your person needs to lean. Sometimes they need to lean. Sometimes they ain’t strong enough to lean by theyself. Sometimes you gotta push ‘em to lean a little bit. Sometimes even the strong folks gotta be forced to lean. You’re my person, Chari Richardson. You can always lean on me. You can bleed, babe.” Silence. The rest of the restaurant was quiet still. “Baby, you can bleed.” He was breathing deeply, angrily. “You just can’t bleed on other folks. That’s the only thing. Ain’t nobody gonna punish you for bleeding but it’s selfish to bleed on other folks. And you damned sure can’t bleed on me.”
“Liz,” Chari didn’t even want to look her in the face. “Elizabeth Moyt, why are we even having this conversation?”
“Because, Chari Richardson, you’re my person. You’re my person and I’d take my person against a hundred persons. You’re my person and I’d take my person against a hundred persons in a war against God. I’d do it a hundred times over, too.” Chari wiped his cheek and got up to leave again. “Chari Richardson!” He kept getting up. “You are always my person whether you want to be or not! And I always got the words for you. I always got the words for you even when you don’t got the words for yourself. Because I love you. I’m waiting for my man on the moon, Chari Richardson. I’m waiting for him to wake up.” Chari grabbed his cigarettes. “I’ll wait for my man on the moon until he gets back. My man is on the moon and I’ll wait for him. I’ll wait for him Chari. I’ll wait for my person. I’ll wait for him. I’ll wait for him because I know my person. My person would wait on me. I know he would. I just know it.” Her person still, from the moment she’d first thrown herself in the way of his demise, couldn’t look at her. “Hey, Chari.” He looked up. “My person sees me like I see them. Its why they’re my person. I never forgot you. We’re us, Chari. We’re us.”
“Elizabeth? Can you do me a favor?”
“I’d like it if we never spoke again. I’d like it if I never talked to or spoke to you again. I’d really like that. I’d like it if we left it here. I think we should leave it here. I’m leaving it here.”
“Knowing you, Chari. That means we’re leaving it in the histories. We’re stuck here, you and me. We’re stuck here. No time. No clock. No nothing. I’m here and you’re here and we’ll always be here.”
“They’ll remember you, Chari, the histories. Just like you always said.”
“I’ll be an afterthought.” He wiped his nose.
“People remember Mona Lisa. The guy who painted her gotta be Googled.” Chari sighed and shook his head. He hesitated and tried to have the words and tried to do it. She’d tried to be brave. She failed. “Can Fatima call Santiago tomorrow? Would that be ok? Just to, you know, just to check on him. To see if he’s ok.” Liz smiled.
“Look at you, Chari.” She smiled again. “Look at you being my man.”
Christopher Major: "I am a Southern writer looking to deconstruct gender, class, and race in my work. When I’m not writing I’m daydreaming."