|Art by Rob Clayton|
God put a gun to the writer’s head.
I’m making a rule, said God. You can’t write another word or I’ll shoot you. Agreed? God had an East Coast accent, tough like a mobster, but his lined face was frail and ethereal.
The writer agreed. He had a wife and family. He was sad because he loved words as much as he loved people, because words were the way he could say what he wanted about people, but this was God and God was the real deal, and he didn’t want to spend too much time dwelling on it. So he packed up his typewriter and paper and placed them carefully in the hall closet, and within two days, to comfort his loss, went to the art-supply store and bought oil paints and a big canvas and a palette and set up in the garage amongst the old clothes and broken appliances. He’d always liked painting. He thought he had a good sense of color. He painted every morning for four hours, until he started to paint something real.
He was working on his eighteenth canvas, all blues and reds in sharp rows blurring in the middle, to make a confrontation with purple, when God came back into his ã studio, this time holding a dagger.
Cut the painting too, said God. No words, no images. Or — he made a slicing motion near his stringy throat.
Why? asked the painter, already missing the sharp smell of the oils, the way the colors mixed to become brand-new again, an exotic blush of yellow, a bluish green to convey silence, a new way to show trees, with white!; he missed the slow time he took washing his hands with turpentine, the way his wife liked the new rugged scent of him.
God lifted the dagger to the light bulb of the garage and it glinted, unpolished silver, speckled with brown. Do not question God, said God.
So the painter packed away his paints, inside the hall closet, right next to the typewriter and reams of white paper. He felt sad again but within a week, signed up for a drama class, held in a church where the ceilings were high, the air cool, and every scene took on particular gravity with those stained-glass windows acting as set. He played a few roles, and he wasn’t very good at first but he was enjoying it anyway, shy man that he was, liking the way he would feel his feeling and then use it and look around at the other people in the class, faces split into red and yellow triangles from the windows, and see they were feeling that same feeling with him, how contagious it all was. He needed a lot of reassurance as an actor but he was starting to understand its ultimate camaraderie ã and loneliness, the connection which is tight as laces then broken quick as the curtain’s fall.
So of course one afternoon, walking out of the church, spanking a new script against his knee, he found God in his car, in the back seat, this time gripping a bayonet.
No more, God said. In my house no less, said God.
The actor started to cry. I love acting, he said. I’m just learning to do it right. My wife thinks I’m getting out of my shell.
God shook his head.
Mime? asked the actor.
God poked the actor’s side with the sweet triangular tip of the bayonet.
The actor sat in the car, gripping the steering wheel, already missing the audience’s applause, the sight of the woman in the front row with tears in her eyes that were from the same pool of tears he’d visited to do the scene, everyone in the room linked, the entire town fetching water from the same well.
God exited the car. He waited at the crosswalk. He didn’t cross on the flashing hand but waited for the green walking man.
The actor was depressed for a while which his wife didn’t like much, but he finally slogged himself out of it and took up cooking. He studied the basics in the cookbook and he told himself that his patience was a virtue and would be put to good use here. Sure enough, in three months, he’d made his first soup from scratch — potato leek nutmeg — and it was very good. His wife loved it. You’re so amazing, she told him in bed, his hands smelling of chicken guts, I married the most amazingly artistic man, she said.
He kissed her. He’d made a dessert too and brought it into bed — a chocolate torte with peanut-butter frosting. After two bites they forgot all about it.
God was apparently busy, he took longer this time, but he showed up after a big dinner party where the chef served leg of lamb with rosemary on a bed of wild rice with lemongrass chutney. It was a huge hit, and everyone left, drunk, gorgeous with flush, blessed. The chef’s wife went to the bathroom and God sauntered in through the screen door swinging a noose.
No! cried the chef, washing a dish.
This is it, said God. Stop making beautiful food. Stop talking while you’re at it. What is with you?
The chef hung his head. Then hung up his spoons in the cupboard with the typewriter, paints, playbooks and wigs. With the pens, turpentine and volumes of Shakespeare. The shelf was getting crowded, so he had to shove some towels aside to make room. He spent the week eating food raw from the refrigerator, and somehow found the will to dial up the phone and call a piano teacher. But before he even got good, right when he’d first glimpsed the way a chord works, how it fits inside itself, the most intricate and simple puzzle, when he heard the way a fourth made him weep and a fifth made him uplift, the rejoice of C major, the ache of D minor, God returned with a long baseball bat tucked into his belt.
Don’t even try, barked God.
He attempted dance.
No! said God, backstage at the show, waving his rifle high in the air.
The man took a year off of life. He learned accounting. He was certain this would be no problem, but after a few weeks the way the numbers made truths about people’s lives was interesting to him; he tried law but kept beginning a duet with the jury; he found the stock market reminded him of an animal. God kept showing up at the workplace and sticking pins near his eyes.
So the man sat in a chair. He went outside to a park and looked at people. He kept eye contact with a lonely young woman sitting with her journal; she was writing and writing, and he caught her eye and sent her waves of company and she kept his gaze and wrote more, looked up again, wrote more, circled his bench and sat down and when she asked him questions he said nothing but just looked at her, deep and real, and she stood and went away, got a drink at the drinking fountain, circled back. After an hour of this, she said Thank You, tears in her eyes, and left. The pathway of her feet looped to the bench and back and away and back, swirls and curls and lines.
God came back, irritated. Close your eyes! said God. He was shaking a bottle of pills like a maraca.
The man’s wife was unhappy. She was doing the cooking again and her husband didn’t move or speak anymore. She missed their discussions, his paintings, his stories, his pliés. She missed talking to him about her job with the troubled people and how at certain moments there was an understanding held between her and the person, sitting there, crying or not crying, mad or not mad, happy or unhappy, bland or lively, and it was like, at that moment, she said, they were stepping all over a canvas together. It’s like, she said, the room is full of invisible beetles. Or water. Or pillows. Or concrete. She told him all about it but his eyes were closed and she could only feel, from his skin, that he was listening. She went over to him and undressed him slowly and they made love there on the sofa, and he barely moved but just pressed his warmth to her, his body into hers, and she held him close and the man gave her all he could without speaking, without barely shifting, lips and hips, and she started to cry.
Afterward she pressed her head to his chest and told him all the things she had thought about, the particular flower he made her feel, the blade, the chocolate torte.
They slept on the sofa together.
God put the man in a box with no windows and said: Stay there. He tied his hands behind his back and knotted a blindfold over his eyes. He stuck tape over his lips. He said: Not a peep out of you. Don’t you interact with anybody. The man sat with his head full of dreams. He thought of flying fish and the smell of his wife’s skin: white powder and clear sweat. He thought of basil breaking open and the drawing of a tomato with red and black paint and the word tomato, consonant vowel, consonant vowel, consonant vowel, and the perfect taste of tomato with basil together, and the rounded curve of a man’s back, buttons of spine visible. He wondered where the girl with the journal was right then. He thought of his wife making bridges of air over air. He listened to the sound of wind outside the box, loud and soft as his breath.
Aimee Bender is the author of The Girl in the Flammable Skirt: Stories. Doubleday will publish her first novel next year. She lives in West Hollywood.