catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 25 :: 2009.12.25 — 2010.01.07


Clutching Dust and Stars

Art Saves Lives

This is Chapter Seven of Laryn Kragt Bakker’s new novel, Clutching Dust and Stars (read chapters one, two, three, four, five and six)), published by *culture is not optional and available for purchase now.  We’ll be serializing the first part of the novel on catapult for the next several weeks.

She and Dorrie had a game that they played during the day once in a while, when there were enough people browsing through the store. It was based on a kids’ game that somebody had donated-it had tiles picturing a variety of different heads, torsos and legs. The idea was to mix and match them and create bizarre hybrids of people and animals, like Egyptian gods or cross-breeding experiments gone horribly wrong. They had taken the idea and transferred it into real life-they would have huddled discussions and see just how hideous an outfit, or how ugly a person they could make by mixing and matching various components from customers who were wandering the store.

Natalie was leaning on the counter and Dorrie was sitting in a chair beside her.

“Take his nose,” she said, nodding discreetly toward a short man with a beak of a nose, “that guy’s ears…her hair.”

Dorrie’s eyes twinkled and she sat there, shaking with silent laughter. “We’re awful,” she whispered, “and we’re going to get in trouble one day, but it’s so fun.”

Natalie had the cash register and Dorrie was on a break for a moment. Tyler was out there, alternating between cleaning up after people and sorting books upstairs. It was so much help to have another body there during the busy times. He’d been coming in two or three times a week, usually after classes. It was too bad that they couldn’t schedule the busy days, or accurately predict when the people would be there.

He was still helpful to have when there weren’t many customers-he seemed to have a knack for organization, and he didn’t seem to tire of it as quickly as her. Some days, when she needed a break from the drudgery of organizing, it seemed that her paints were calling to her from the back room. Once she had gone back there and looked at the painting she was working on and had been tempted to start working on it, but she knew she’d lose all track of time.

So she contented herself with thinking about the painting during the slow times, jotting thoughts or ideas if they came, imagining directions to take a piece in her brain. It wasn’t quite the same as actually exploring the options with paint, but it was helpful. And so the next time she sat down to paint, she’d pull out all these scraps of paper and reread them to try and attempt the difficult process of recapturing the thought that she’d had.

“I should really get up and start doing something,” Dorrie said.

“I disagree,” Natalie said.

“You’re right.”

So they remained. Natalie rang somebody out, and leaned on the counter again.

Dorrie nudged her. “Have you talked to Rob lately?”

“Yeah…near the end of last week. Thursday after we had the coffeehouse, I talked with him for a bit. He seems to be distancing himself for some reason. Maybe I haven’t shown enough interest, so he’s giving up on me. He had some friends from Seattle up this weekend, but he never brought them over, or invited me over. I called him on Saturday but he couldn’t talk long because they were just about to go out to eat.”

“How long has he been in Bellingham now?”

“Almost three weeks.”

“Not even a month, and he’s giving up?”

“I don’t know if he’s giving up, but it feels that way lately.”

“Does that bother you?”

“Well, yeah, I guess so.”

“So why haven’t you shown any interest, then?”

“I guess I’m not sure how I feel about him. I don’t want to jump in again until I’m ready. If I ever get ready.”

“And in the meantime, you want him to just keep coming around, keep calling on you?”

Someone came up to pay for a puzzle. She was glad for the delay.

“Do you know if all the pieces are in here?”

“No. But I’ll tell you what-if you take that home and put it together and there’s a piece missing, you can bring it back and trade it in for another puzzle.”

That seemed to satisfy the lady. When she was gone from the counter, Natalie turned back to Dorrie.

“I guess it’s just that I don’t want to miss the window. What if he loses interest completely right when I figure out that I am interested after all?”

“You can’t think that way. ‘What if’s’ can kill a person. Just live. Don’t jump into anything because you’re scared it’s going to get away. You’ll get your arms pulled off if you grab a moving train. But don’t be unfair to him, either. Don’t drag him along, hinting at things to keep him on the hook, when you’re miles away from what he’s after.”

Natalie sighed.

“Can’t you just talk to him about it? Let him know where you are right now, and find out where he is. Deepen your friendship again before anything.” If people lived by Dorrie’s advice, everyone would be completely transparent. It would be wonderful.

“That’s easy to say, but…”

“I know. I’m just flapping my gums again. You know I do that. You’ll figure it out for yourself.”


It was nearing five o’clock when Rob walked through the door. Natalie saw him and Dorrie bump in the entrance, and politely say a few words to each other. When Rob was walking toward Natalie, Dorrie gave her a quick wink and a wave from behind him and walked out the door.

“I made it,” he said with a smile, checking his watch. “Do I have time to pick out a few shirts?”

“I’m fine, thanks for asking, and how are you?”

“Oh. Hi, how are you? I’m fine. Sorry.”

“You’ve been keeping over on your side of the hill lately. What’s happening over there that’s so interesting?”

“Oh, little things to keep a guy busy. This last weekend, I had some friends from Seattle come up and we hung out.”

“That’s right-you mentioned that on Saturday night. You should have brought them over,” she said.

“Well, I was thinking about it, and I almost did, but they were just here for a day, and Cindy,” he paused for a fraction of a second before continuing, “had never been here before, so I thought I’d show them around. Dave and Tad have both been here before, but not for a long time.”


“Yeah, she’s one of my friends from Seattle. And Dave and Tad, too.” He glanced at the shelf beside them and reached over, moving a salt and pepper shaker slightly.

“Hey, I got a job-yesterday was my first day.”

“At that copying place?”

“Yep. Yesterday they took me on a walk-through of my position. It should be pretty funny for a while. I don’t think I’ll be there too long, but it’s okay for now. I don’t think the Assistant Manager likes me too much.”

“Oh? Why’s that?”

“I think he thinks I’m a slacker. Actually, that’s why I need to get a few more shirts. I only have one button-up shirt, and apparently I’m supposed to wear them every day. Collars and buttons.” He held up a shirt with a Hawaiian print on it. “This looks pretty good.”

Natalie locked the front door and turned the sign over while he sorted through the shirts. As she walked back toward the men’s clothing, she heard someone coming down the stairs and remembered Tyler. He came around the corner with his head down, reading the back cover of a book he was holding.

“Tyler! I forgot about you.”

“Thanks,” he said. “It’s nice to know I’m appreciated.”

“Aw.” She made a kiss in his direction. “Are you the last one up there?”


Rob was walking up to her with a number of brightly colored shirts slung over his arm. “Can I still get these?” he asked.

“Of course.” She motioned toward him with her hand. “Tyler, this is Rob. Rob this is Tyler. He volunteers here a few times a week.”

They shook hands, and Rob cocked his head to see the front cover of the book. Moving from Print to the World Wide Web.

“You do internet design?” Rob asked.

“Some. On the side. I’m studying computer science right now, but I develop some stuff on my own. I’m trying to get a portfolio together.”

“I might have something you could help me with, if you’re interested.”

“I’m willing to talk about it.”

“Well, that’s about all I can ask, right? Here’s my number.” He pulled a receipt from his wallet and tore the bottom off. He flattened it out on the front counter, balancing his shirts on his arm as he jotted it down.

“What do you need to put on the internet?” Natalie asked, but Rob seemed not to hear.

“Give me a call sometime-it won’t pay a lot, but it should be interesting. And it’ll help with your portfolio.”

Tyler shrugged. “All right.”

Natalie followed him and thanked him at the door. She locked it behind him again.

“What do you want his help with?”

“It wouldn’t be a surprise if I told you now, would it?”

“No. But that’s okay.”

“Nope. I’m going to see if it works out first.” He held up his shirts. “And now for these.”

She rang him up for the shirts and counted out his change from a ten dollar bill. “Are they really going to let you wear those?”

“Let me? I’m just going to wear them.”

He was still as pig-headed as she remembered and that carried a sort of fondness with it. She folded the shirts up, tossing the hangers into a cardboard box by her feet.

“Hey Rob, do you want to see some of my paintings?”

Why did it sound so abrupt when she said it out loud? She stood there with her arms crossed, trying to look casual.

“Yeah, of course.”

She led him to the back entrance. “I’ve only got a little of it back here and they’re not even all finished, but if you want to, we can walk down to the Casa Grande and look at what’s on the walls there. Unless you saw that the other day.”

“You’ve got stuff up there? No, I don’t remember seeing it. All I remember is hearing you up at the counter, and looking up, and there you were.”

“Okay, I’m not going to say too much about any of them, because that’s too easy. You’ve got to look at them and process them before you get any direction from me. In fact, I’m not going to explain them at all. I’ll just tell you the titles.”

“You’re making me worried.”


“I don’t know. Are they bizarre? You  never used to have so many rules when I saw your work. You won’t be offended if I don’t understand them, will you?”

“Not as long as you try to. Sometimes people look at them and say ‘What does it mean?’ before they’ve even thought about it. That’s not what it’s about.” She leaned a few canvasses away from the wall and peeked at them to remind herself which ones were there.

“This one’s called Babel: aftershock,” she said, turning around the one with the two heads connected by pipes and bridges and telephone cords.

“I like the colors.” His eyes were darting around as he followed the connections from head to head and back.

“Are they trying to build these things on themselves that wasn’t meant to be there? Is it about genetic engineering?”

“I’m not going to say anything about them except the titles.” It seemed appropriate that he didn’t understand the point she had been trying to make on this one-communication never seemed to come through perfectly.

“Well, I will say that this one is based on something we talked about at Philosophy Night. I do that sometimes-either I’m already painting something that I bring up there, or I start painting something based on what we talk about.”

“Communication,” Rob said, and she gave a non-committal shrug.

“Here’s another. The past bleeds into the future. This one’s not really complete. I’m not sure it ever will be.” She held up the one with the person who was sitting in the box, looking over her shoulder.

“Wow. That’s different.” He paused. “She’s living in the past. It’s like, when you’re plowing, you’ve got to keep focussed on what’s ahead of you. If you keep looking back, and then ahead, and then back, you get screwed up, and your plow lines are all crooked.” He kept looking at it while she pulled another painting from behind an old desk. “Or, is something chasing her? Why does she look so scared? And why doesn’t she have a mouth?”

It was like a strip show, unveiling these paintings before Rob. Or something more intimate. To hang a collection of pictures on a wall and have complete strangers come in and look at them was hard enough; to have a friend come into your private space and look at these parts of you one by one was something far more frightening. She was thankful that she had made the rule about giving no explanations.

There were only a few more paintings in the studio. The top one was a picture of a tree, or a woman, the face almost hidden in a tangle of branches that were raised like arms. The focus was on the base of the tree, the beginnings of roots that were visible above the soil. She turned the canvas toward him.

Self-portrait, rooted in earth.”

He looked at the painting without saying anything and she began to wonder what he was thinking. He probably didn’t like her paintings. They were stylized but not nearly as abstract as what she was doing before they traveled, which he had liked.

“You feel stuck somewhere? I don’t know. I like the texture of the bark, but you’re not really that gnarled.”

“I think I am, in a lot of ways.”

Rob was holding the painting up, rotating it so the light hit it differently. “The lighting’s not too great in here, is it?”

“Not great. Not great at all.” She turned the switch on the lamp beside the easel. “That’s a little better.”

“I like how you’ve woven your body into the trunk of the tree,” Rob said, still examining. “At first glance it looks like a tree with a head, but the more you look at it, the more it seems like an entire body that’s been transmogrified into a tree. Once you see the legs, the suggestion of breasts, you can’t miss them. It’s like you’re right underneath the bark, like you have a rough shell over your skin.”

She took the painting from him and turned it against the wall.

“Is it about hiding things from other people? Keeping our true selves hidden?”

“No,” she said. “It’s about people being part of the physical world, not something separate from it.”

“Oh. That makes sense, too. Hey, what happened to no explanations?”


She turned around the final canvas.

“This is the last one I’ve got in here.”

 “Huh. What’s this one called?”

The Christ at the ninth hour.

The painting had a dark palette and a lot of black around the edges. The central figure was viewed from above. He was lit up as though by fire from below him, though no fire was visible. She had used all the stereotypical symbols for a devil: horns on the head, reddish skin and cloven hoofs. His bearded face was twisted in agony as he looked up at the viewer. His arms were nailed to a weathered piece of driftwood that had been fashioned into a cross, and his shoulders were covered in cuts which oozed dark blood. Shadowy figures around the cross faded to black.

“It looks like a demon on a cross.”

“You got it.”

“I thought it was Jesus.”


“Jesus is a demon?”

“Or he looked like one at the time.”

“I don’t know. That’s over my head.” He looked at the stack of paintings that they had already seen. “I think it’s cool, but I don’t really get it.”

“Okay, I guess I’ve as much as said it already anyway. It’s the idea that Jesus was, you know, kind of a sin eater.”

“Oh.” He was looking around, as though he needed to look at something, anything except the painting she was still holding.

She set it face down against the wall. Damn. That was why there should have been no explanations. Nobody liked that picture. Nobody but her, and her only sometimes.

“Well, do you want to head over to the Casa Grande and look at a few more paintings, or have you had enough?”

“That would be great.”

“It’s just a few blocks, so we might as well walk.”

“I don’t think they check the meters after five, so I’m okay.”

She pulled the back door shut behind them and turned the key.

“So, tell me more about your weekend! You had friends up from Seattle.”

“Oh, yeah. We toured Bellingham during the day and sang karaoke at night. They just stayed one night.”

“Karaoke! I wish I could have been there.”

“You’re better off not having seen it.” He shook his head. “We’re stupid.”

“If they come up again, you’ll have to let me know.”


“Did they all fit in your apartment?”

“Yeah. That was funny. We all slept on the floor because we couldn’t agree on who should get the futon. In the middle of the night I woke up and was going to crawl into the bed, but Dave was already in there, snoring away. They’re pretty much the group I hung around with most of the last year, so it was a bit of a sad goodbye when I came up here.”

“It’s not so far away.”

“No, but it was far enough that you and I never made the trip.”

She didn’t say anything. The fact that they hadn’t made the trip was for another reason, not the distance. Not the physical distance.

They walked, both looking ahead. After they had walked over eight sidewalk squares, Rob spoke again.

“Nat, how have you changed the most since we were together?”

“Oh, man. That’s a big question. A lot of things have changed.”

“Like what? I was thinking about this for me, and in some ways it’s like, yeah, tons of things have changed-so why am I in the same spot?”

“Which spot?”

“Maybe part of it is just coming back to town, but it kind of feels like I’ve been in a holding pattern for the last few years.”

“In what way?”

“A lot of them. Wanting to come up with a way to do something important. Being disgusted with a lot about our culture. Having you on my mind.”

She quickened her pace to make it across the street before the light changed, and to give herself time to think. She didn’t know if she was ready for this conversation.

“Plus que change, plus que c’est la meme chose,” she said when he caught up on the other side.

“I know,” he said. “Do you think anything could ever work out between us again?”

She forced herself to look at him. He looked so sincere.

“You don’t have to answer that,” he said.

“No, it’s just…I have changed a lot. I’m sure you have, too.”

“I know. That’s why I was asking. How have you changed?”

She was cornered, now. “I guess the biggest thing is I have a lot more questions than I used to.”

“Wasn’t that the official reason that we ended?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

He cracked his lips, but no words came out.

She didn’t have that problem anymore. She felt like she was starting to burst-things had been dammed up inside her for so long that she couldn’t just leak out a few sentences and patch it up again.

“I am intrigued by Jesus. It’s like he’s built into me. Everything else has a question mark. And I don’t know if that’s just because of the way I was raised. I don’t think so. And there’s a lot of stuff that I grew up believing that I don’t believe anymore, but there’s some stuff that I am finding out I do believe, in a different way. And some of the stuff I don’t believe still seems to be inside me sometimes.”

He was still watching her and not saying anything.

“I guess what I’m saying is that Jesus is one of the few things in the world that feels true, that makes sense.”

She glanced over at him again.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“No! It’s good,” he said. “I like to know, to hear.”

“I don’t think God’s some old man in the sky waiting for a chance to get pissed off, or sitting up there oblivious to us. I think he’s working around us, in us, through us. We’ve just got to know it and find him.”

“I can kind of respect that if you have come up with a good answer to the eternal question: What about all the shit?”

“Not really. I don’t think God does it. I think he’s sometimes active and sometimes, for a variety of reasons, he doesn’t interfere.”

“So he gets credit for the good stuff and he gets a pass for the bad stuff?”

“Kind of. It really makes me search for good in everything, you know? If God did this, what is he trying to accomplish by it?”

“And if he didn’t?”

“How’s he going to use it? How’s he going to heal it?”

“Natalie’s got FAITH,” he said in a voice that was dangerously close to his mock-Southern preacher accent.

“Don’t start the jokes again. And I don’t know that it’s any more faith than anyone else has. What are the chances that something’s going to happen just randomly, exactly the way that it happened, out of all those possibilities? Probably one in a billion. One in a gazillion. I don’t know. But things keep happening, exactly like they happen. Do you believe everything is random? That takes faith, too.”

They were at the restaurant already. Natalie stopped talking and stood in front of the door, but Rob didn’t say anything. She opened the door and ushered Rob in, taking him around the side to where the paintings were.

“Here they are-take a look, but I’m not going to explain anything. I mean it this time.”

“Okay,” he said.

She wandered to the side and stared up at the pictures on the wall. It would be easier not to be right next to him as he looked at them. She could watch him from a distance and the space between them was like a buffer zone.

She had a series of three pictures here in front of her-the “suspension” series. They were some of her favorites in the show. The first one, I saw the light, was of a figure, floating in the middle of the canvas with bright lights on every edge, illuminating her from all sides. Her arms and legs were curled in a fetal position, as though she were trying to block the light out. Behind the shadows cast by her arms, her eyes were visible, pinched shut in a grimace.

The place where I will stand was next in the series. A rock cliff emerged from the left side of the canvas and dropped straight down. The background was a gentle gradient of blue sky. Halfway between the edge of the cliff and the far side of the canvas, a naked woman stood with her feet firmly planted in the air, her arms crossed and legs shoulder-width apart. Her head was turned three-quarter view toward the left side of the canvas, and she was staring at the cliff.

The third in the trilogy was called Gravity. She had painted it from a random idea after she had done the two other pieces. She had consciously tried to make it unconscious by allowing her mind to come up with a random image. A girl was floating upwards, like a helium balloon, with a string tied to her ankle. A small boy who was standing on the ground clutched it in one hand. He was indifferent to the girl-he was licking an ice cream cone. The girl was limp but floating upwards into a sky of soft clouds, lit from behind by the sun. Natalie liked to hear what people read into it, because there was no intentional idea behind it.

Rob had walked through pretty quickly, and was nearing the last painting. She walked over and watched his eyes from the side. Prayers of the saints. A pious looking man in a black suit coat was in the foreground, a gentle smile on his face and a soft light illuminating him. His hands were folded, his eyes closed, and a mansion materialized in the thoughts above his head. It wasn’t until a closer look that you noticed the ghosts that haunted the shadows around him-the twisted bodies, the starving children, distended bellies, the smoke, the death and pain.

Rob turned and saw her.

“Do you know what you remind me of?” he asked.


“You’re like the flip side of those televangelists, who go on TV railing against adultery, and then wind up caught in bed with a whore the next week. You’re the opposite. Ever since I first met you, you were preaching against Christianity, like this, but somehow you ended up in bed with Jesus.”

He lifted a hand almost immediately. “I’m sorry. That didn’t come out in words like it seemed in my thoughts. I just meant, well, I don’t know what I meant anymore.”

She didn’t say anything.

“Shit.” He scratched his chin. “I like the paintings,” he offered.

“Don’t worry about it.”


“I said don’t worry about it. It’s okay. Really.”

They walked back to the store underneath clouds that felt heavy with the potential for rain. It was cool out and she hugged her thin jacket a little tighter.

“Do you want a ride home?” Rob asked. “I can put your bike in the trunk-it’ll hang out a bit, but it’ll be okay.”

“Oh.” She thought for a second. It was probably more trouble than it was worth. “No, I’ll be fine. Thanks, though.”

He stood beside her while she unlocked her bike.

“I was wondering if you feel like doing something tonight. I’d like to show you a different kind of art that I’ve been studying.”

“Really? I didn’t realize you did art now-what have you been up to?”

“I can’t explain it right now,” Rob said with a half-smile, “but I’ll take you there tonight.”

“Where are we going?”

“Just wait. I don’t want to spoil the surprise.”


It was already completely dark except for headlights, lampposts and neon signs. Tinker and Shawn had been full of questions when they learned that she and Rob were going somewhere this late on a weekday night, but Natalie kept her lips sealed. She had enough questions of her own. She wondered what he was being so secretive about. She could see Tink peeping from behind the curtain in her room as she sat down and pulled the car door shut.

“Buckle up,” Rob said.

“Okay, but it better not be something dumb. Remember, I should be in bed by now.”

“Yeah, yeah. You’ve turned into an old lady, you know?”

“I know.”

Rob turned toward the waterfront.

“Let me guess: we’re going to see the marina by night,” she said.

“Nope. This is going to be a little more interactive than just looking at a nice picture. But no more questions. I’m not going to give it away.”

He pulled into the parking lot at the harbor and drove around as he examined it. “Let’s see, let’s see. This should work.” He pulled into the spot that was furthest from the streetlight.

“Are you parking in the shadows for a reason?” Interactive, indeed. That was a good line. Despite some misgivings, she decided she would kiss him back.

“Well, the shadows, and those shrubs. The car won’t be as conspicuous to police cars that are driving by.”

“Police cars? Rob, why am I getting nervous?”

He grinned and got out of the car without saying anything. He popped the trunk and reached inside, pulling out a few small items, which he cradled in one arm. He opened her door and looked in to where she was still sitting. “Come on,” he whispered.

She got out of the car slowly, and the air felt cold on her skin. She tried to identify what Rob was holding, but he had it covered up with a sweatshirt.

“Are we going to be long? I’m getting a little cold.”

“Long enough that a sweatshirt would be a good idea.”

She reached back in the car for the sweatshirt he had given to her and pulled it on.

“Put the hood up so your face is harder to see,” he said.

“What are we doing, Rob?”

“Remember, in art there is no asking questions.” He pulled her hood on further with his free hand. “Okay. Are you ready?”

“I don’t know. You tell me.”

“You are. Here we go.” He opened the bundle and pulled out something cylindrical and cold. “This is yours.”

She took it, thinking it was a bomb for a moment. Spray paint. Rob was pulling a balaclava over his head.

“Let’s go!”

She was scared. A car drove by and Rob crouched near the shrubs. He motioned with his arm urgently, like a soldier waving troops through an opening on the battlefield, and started to run across the road. He looked like Quasimodo, favoring his left leg in a lurching gallop, heading over the empty tracks toward the hulking bodies of unmoving trains. She felt helpless-she couldn’t very well stand here waiting for him. Maybe she could hide under the shrubs. Oh, what the hell. She ran across the road.

Rob was waiting for her behind the first train. “Okay,” he whispered, “choose the canvas.”

“I don’t think I can do this,” she whispered back.

“You can.”

A car passed by on the road and her muscles stiffened. She peeked around the side of the train and watched the headlights move away from them.

“Here, let’s go further back.”

She followed him because she had a mental picture of herself getting caught out there alone. Explain that one, ma’am. A paint can in her hand, a dark, hooded sweatshirt on, crouching in the shadows by the trains. Nothing suspicious?

Behind the second row of trains was a grassy hill that sloped up, peaking in a row of houses along the top. Lights were on in a handful of them.

“Rob!” She whispered, motioning to the houses in a convulsive stab with her thumb.

He moved back toward her. “It’s okay-just make sure to keep whispering. If they’ve got their lights on, it means they can’t see us. Same as the road. There’s no way the cars on the road can see way back here, even with their headlights. They can see the road, and that’s about all.”

He turned to the train car beside them. “Good choice,” he said.

“I didn’t choose it!”

It was a huge mass of darkness in front of them, blacker than the sky. She touched it. It was rough, cold.

“Let’s go.” Rob uncapped his can of paint and started shaking it. The sound of the mixing ball rattling sounded like someone was banging on pots.


“I guess we should have done that back in the car, huh?” He smiled; his teeth showed through the mouth of his balaclava faintly in the dark, the only features she could make out.

“I don’t know about this,” she said, looking back at the houses on the hill.

“Here.” He gave her the can he had just shaken and took the one she held to mix it. “You’ve got the lighter color, so I’ll come behind and add some shadows or outlines or something.”

“What colors are they?” she asked, knowing immediately it was the wrong question; instead of objecting, now she was already collaborating.

“You’ve got yellow, and this one is a dark green,” he said, pulling the cap off. “I’ve got a few others if you want to get creative. Let’s do it this way: you start something over here, and I’ll start something over there. Then we switch and I’ll add the dark to yours, and you can add the light to mine.”

She didn’t say anything. He was already moving down to the other end of the train car. She stood there staring at the side of the train for a moment, and it did feel like she was standing in front of an empty canvas, not knowing what to paint. That surprised her.

Rob was already started, his paint can hissing in the darkness.

“Boy, this is tough to see. I should have kept the yellow,” he muttered.

She held the can with the tip under her index finger to get a feel for it. She tried to think of it as an airbrush-though she’d never used one of them before, either. It was heavy, compared to a paintbrush. She couldn’t believe she was standing here, contemplating this.

“Are you just about done?”

“No! I haven’t started!”

“What? Hurry up! We don’t want to be here any longer than we have to!”

“Come on!” Rob was beside her now. “My side’s all ready for you to highlight it.”

“Give me a second to think. And don’t look over my shoulder like that. I’ll do it-alright? Just go away.”

“Okay, I’ll stand away, but I’m coming back in two minutes.”

Two minutes to make art. Let’s see: yellow and green. A dandelion, or sunflowers. She lifted the can and started to draw a petal. The yellow was visible not as yellow, but just as a dim stroke on the dark. There was no time to worry on details with a paint can-you had to move quick or you put too much paint in the same spot. That last one was dripping already. She started to swipe with the can, spraying the sunflower’s rays in a cirle.

In the morning, this would probably look awful, but at the moment, it was amazing to see a sunflower appearing in the darkness. Rob was back at his end, doing touch-up work.

She had the ring of petals drawn. It wasn’t bad for a first try. She brought the can up to touch up one of the petals.


She jerked her head to the right and was blinded by a flash of light. She was frozen there, her heart racing, as though she were gunning an engine in neutral. She couldn’t see him, but she could hear Rob trying to keep his laughter in.

“You are evil!” She was shaking. “And I’m done. I can’t do this anymore. Let’s go.”

“Wait a second, we’re not finished!”

“I am.”

She heard something rustling in the grass, partway down the hill.

“Did you hear that?” Rob asked, turning his head.

“Let’s go,” she whispered, and she started walking, or half-running, not looking to see if Rob was behind her. She jumped the connection between the train cars and was in between trains again. It felt good to have something between her and the road on the one side, and between her and the houses on the other.

She turned to see where he was. A light flashed from the other side of the train, escaping above and below it, silhouetting it. That idiot! Was he still back there, taking pictures? Someone was sure to see that from the houses and call the cops. She crouched close to the body of a train, breathing quickly. Even being this far from the scene of the crime felt better. She set the paint can down beside her and breathed a little easier.

Another flash. She saw a shadow dart through where she had just been and move toward her. The gravel crunched under his feet; he was walking quickly. The opportunity was too good to pass up. She jumped up at him with her fingers out like claws and grabbed his arm, hissing. He tensed up and wheeled toward her, bringing his other hand around like he was preparing for a fight.

“Rob!” She was startled, but laughed.

“Wow.” He pulled his face mask off.

A number of things struck Natalie as odd all at once. Firstly, they were only about fifty feet from the graffiti, but they had stopped running. Secondly, there was a lot of adrenaline running in her bloodstream. She could see why people got addicted to the rush and the excitement.

The third thing was that she and Rob were standing very close. After she had loosened her grip on Rob’s arm, and after he had put down his fist, they were in very close proximity to each other.

She could barely make out Rob’s face: a light smudge in the darkness. He spoke, and she couldn’t even see his mouth move. “That was fun! I’ve never done that before.” He gave her a rough hug.

In a way, it felt like a continuation of the night so far-something was happening, but she wasn’t sure exactly where it would go, or how she felt about it. She leaned forward and her mouth found his nose, then slid awkwardly down his face. It wasn’t a long kiss, or even a big one, but it was a surprise to her that she had done it.

It did feel natural, or maybe just distantly familiar. Rob relaxed his grip around her and raised his hands to hold her face. She heard something moving in the grass on the other side of the train again, shuffling or thrashing.

She broke away from Rob, jumpy and nervous again, looking all around even though she couldn’t see a thing. The noise had stopped.

“It was nothing,” Rob said, his hands having dropped again and now lightly holding her elbows.

“I don’t know,” she whispered. “Let’s go.”

She peered around the train and watched a set of taillights disappear down the road. “We should go one at a time, so that we’re not as conspicuous. You go first, so you can start the car.”

He laughed out loud. “The get-away car! You’re really worried, aren’t you?”

“Shhh!” She was still sure there was something in the grass, or nearer at this point, and she couldn’t see anything in the dark. “Are you going, or should I?”

“Okay already.”

He was gone from beside her. She could see him jogging toward the road, a dark figure against the light of the streetlamp. He was about twenty feet from the road when he threw himself on the ground. A car was coming from the left.

It was moving slowly, and as it came under the glow of the streetlight, she could make out the lights on top. Oh, crap. Here were the police. Her heart quickened its pace once again. At least the lights weren’t flashing.

The car drove by the parking lot, and turned into the next entrance. It backed out again and made its way back in the direction it had come from until it was out of sight. Rob stayed down while she imagined something sneaking up behind her in the dark. Maybe it was already there, sniffing her, preparing to attack.

She was crouched down, leaning with most of her weight on her arm, which was resting on one of her legs, and as she rose to start toward the car, she realized that she could not feel her leg. She stumbled along in the dark, unable to see or feel the ground, worried that she would sprain her ankle. She saw Rob get up and sprint across the road and behind the bushes to where the car was.

Her leg began to throb as the blood began to flow again, and she had to stop. She rolled onto her back and started massaging her leg. Her foot felt like it was burning up or being electrocuted. She set her leg down again and just lay there, breathing and tapping her foot on the ground every few seconds. With the streetlight positioned just right, she could see her breath in the air. If she blocked out the light from the streetlights, she could see the clouds passing in front of the stars.

She could have stayed there for a while longer. It was comfortable. But she heard a car’s horn and saw lights projected out toward the trains. She rolled over, holding her head up. Rob’s car was sitting in the entrance to the parking lot with its lights on high beam.

She took a look at the street to make sure no cars were in sight and made a rush for the road. Thanks, Rob. Now she was running with spotlights on her and she still couldn’t see anything because they were aimed directly into her eyes.

She jumped into the passenger seat and slammed the door.

They looked at each other and Rob laughed as she let out an enormous breath. It felt good to pull out of the parking lot, safely in the car.

“I forgot my mask over there somewhere.”

“I left my paint.”


They drove to the coffeehouse and sat with a cup of tea, the excitement fading into memory as they joked about it. It felt good. She was surprised that they weren’t the only people there-it was almost midnight on a Tuesday. But they must get customers or they wouldn’t stay open this late. They never used to.

Natalie’s pull-over sweatshirt had a green splotch on it and the working theory was that Rob had shot her with his paint can when she surprised him.

“You should have seen your face when I took your picture,” he laughed. “I thought you were going to have a heart attack!”

“I probably did-you gave me no warning.”

“You can’t warn somebody before you surprise them. I really hope that picture turns out.”

“I wish I had a picture of you when I jumped you-except you probably would have punched me.”

“No,” he said. “Well, maybe.”

They both fell silent. She was thinking about that kiss. Rob was drinking his chai. The whole night seemed so surreal, looking back on it.

“What’s on your mind?” he asked, setting his mug down.

“I’m still thinking about tonight-it was not something I expected to do tonight. What are you going to do with those pictures you were taking anyway?”

“Probably blackmail you some day.” He pulled his camera from his pocket and opened the lens cover, pointing it at her.

“Don’t,” she said, giving him what was meant to be the look of death.

The flash went and she fought back a smile. “Put that-” the flash went off again. “Rob!” People were starting to look.

Flash. She was starting to get flustered. She put her hand out and partially blocked another flash. His camera started to hum and he set it down on the table.

“There. I just had to finish the roll.”

She looked into the bottom of her cup for the third time to verify again that it was still empty.

“Do you want another one?” Rob asked.

“Oh no. Just a bad habit.” She pushed the cup away from her. “In my subconscious, I’m always thinking, ‘Hey, maybe there’s just a little more in the bottom of this thing.’”

“And sometimes there is.”


She wanted to say something to him-she wasn’t even sure what-something about them, about the questions in her mind, the possibilities or the fear. Maybe there’s still a little more in the bottom of this thing.

“So is graffiti art?” Rob asked.

“Not usually. I guess it could be, in some cases. But when somebody marks an anarchy sign on a garage door, it doesn’t seem to me to be artistic. It seems more base than that, you know? Like marking territory, or some animal warning.”

He rubbed one of his cheeks. “But it could be, don’t you think? Isn’t art kind of a base thing? What about the petroglyphs, or cave paintings?”

She didn’t respond right away, so he continued. “I was reading an article in the library the other day, and it was an interview with this graffiti artist-if you’ll let me call him that. He paints on trains, and he was talking about how he was having a national art show all the time, because his work goes from city to city, all across the country.”

“That’s where you got the idea for tonight, huh.”


Rob pointed at one of the paintings hanging on the wall beside them-an amateurish attempt at a sultry woman, scantily clad. “This is art, right?”

She responded carefully. “I would say yes. That doesn’t mean it’s good art, but I think bad art is still art.”

“If I nailed a dirty sock to the wall, would that be art?”

“Maybe. I guess it would depend why you nailed it to the wall.”

“How could you know why I nailed it to the wall?”

“You could tell me.”

“Well, what if I nailed it to the wall for one reason, but told you I did it for another reason? Then you’d think it was art, but it really wouldn’t be.”

“I guess that’s possible.”

“So, what you’re saying is that something might be art, but it might not be, depending on who did it. So two different people could produce exactly the same thing, and one would be art and one wouldn’t.”

“I don’t think anyone can do things that are exactly the same, but in theory I guess that’s true.”

“So you can never know whether anything is art, then.”

“It’s not just a matter of the artist-the viewer has a role, too. If you interact with a piece, it becomes art. Maybe art isn’t the physical piece of matter at all; maybe it’s the connection that occurs between the artist and the piece, and between the viewer and the piece. So, you’re doing art when you make something you connect with, and you’re appreciating art when you connect with something you see. So you have to go through life looking for connections, finding art in everything-I mean, sometimes, I look at the ocean, or a bird, or a tree, and I feel this connection, like I’m seeing a masterpiece, and I think that it’s art. I feel connected to something true, in the same way that I connect with an artist through a good sculpture.”

“Then why all the special treatment for paintings, and sculptures?”

“Well, maybe they’ve been elevated because they’ve been produced specifically with those connections in mind. The artist presents something in the belief that there is a connection there, that it is worth someone’s time to just look at it and think about it. It’s really the responses that are critical, not the piece of art itself; the processes of creation and interaction are more important than the physical object we end up with.”

“The way you’re talking, art and life are almost interchangeable words.”

“I know. But maybe everything is some kind of art. You have people who do visual arts, linguistic arts, performance arts, culinary arts, utilitarian arts. Maybe all of life is art, and then people have categories to keep the divisions separate from each other. It makes you really think about living creatively-consciously looking for connections in everyday life, finding things that keep on weaving together. Like our lives are one big knot of artistic potential, and the way we live them is art.”

“I miss you, Natalie.” He was sitting across from her, with his arms folded on the table in front of him, and staring at her, or through her. Her train of thought was derailed, and she stared back at him for a moment, then tipped her mug over and looked into the bottom of it.

“It’s empty,” he said with a little smile.


They didn’t say much in the car. She lived just down the street and there was no time to talk about anything substantial, but there was nothing unsubstantial on her mind so she couldn’t even make small talk properly. He dropped her off at her house and she stood there with the car door open, looking in.

“Thanks, Rob. That was fun.” She hesitated, looked over her shoulder at the house. “Listen, about tonight…well, I guess…it scares me.”

He didn’t say anything, as though he expected her to keep talking.

“We’ll talk later. I’m not sure yet.” She ran out of words, but he was still silent. “Good night.”

She swung the door shut and ran to the front door, fumbling with the key before she realized it was not locked. Rob hadn’t pulled away from the curb yet, so she turned and gave a little wave before closing the door behind her.

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