First published by Beyond Imagination, a digital literary magazine that, sadly, is no longer available. Fear not, my story is reprinted below.
There is an intersection near our house with a police station. An artist was painting a mural on the large, blank wall behind the bus stop. I wondered where he got the inspiration.
This was my first published story.
Deep Pools of Tepid Remorse
by DL Shirey
“Does the mural have a title?” she asked.
The artist pointed a brush toward the far left corner. “Inscription on the headstone, the quote is the title,” Curtis said.
He knew who the woman was, her reputation and why she was here. Deliberately he said nothing more. Q&A was the game.
He also knew the next question this blogger would ask.
“You always put quotes in murals but I didn’t know they were your titles. Where is the quote from?” said Trina.
The answer would be found in a book of poetry: Do not delve in deep pools of tepid remorse. One line buried in a sonnet written about him, about a night deep red with too much wine, when his new lover opened herself for the first time.
The blogger stepped back from reading the inscription. “It’s not attributed, just a date–April May–and you didn’t include the year.”
Curtis shrugged, “Maybe it isn’t finished yet.”
“Mind if I take some photos?”
“It isn’t finished yet.”
“Just close-ups. Befores before the afters,” Trina said.
He shrugged again. Heard the computer chip renderings of a camera shutter sound. Curtis wondered if he should be less aloof. After all, she was showing interest in his work.
Trina’s blog had long been a must-read for local artists, but recently it had crossed over to the mainstream press as a go-to source for something artsy, something hip to list in a what-to-do-this-weekend article.
No, Curtis would remain cool despite the blog’s popularity. Q&A was the way to play it. Let her ask the questions, if she came back at all.
Curtis smiled to himself, until he walked to the central figure in the mural. The eyes weren’t right, and the curl dropped from his cheeks.
The next-day bus delivered the artist and his tools. Curtis liked that the mural was just behind a busy bus stop. A bench, tiny shelter for rain and the bus stop sign. Setting his paints and brushes down, he dodged cars to cross the intersection.
From this perspective, the bus stop was fully integrated into the mural. On one side, a happy cemetery filled with flowers. On the other stood the Virgin of Guadalupe with a toothy smile. Peeking from behind the bench and shelter, to the Virgin’s left, was an array of what one critic would eventually describe as gaudy, stereotypical ethnic products: saints on candles, piñata animals and Day-of-the-Dead skeletons. There was an iridescence and photorealism to the painting, making the bus stop structures, with their bright blue metal, an intrinsic part of the tumble of color.
The mural was a commission for the unwindowed wall of a police station parking garage. The artist was engaged to solve two problems. First, to literally illustrate the cops’ interest in the neighborhood. Second, hope that a mural would deter graffiti-wielding locals because of its subject matter. Spanish was the primary language in the district and Curtis lived just up the road. His Irish face was familiar to the neighborhood.
He jogged back across the street, pondering just where to start his day’s work. The fat brush dipped into pale aquamarine when a car slowed behind him.
“Back again?” said Curtis, looking over his shoulder.
Trina was riding shotgun, her elbow crooked out the window. Butter-yellow hair framed her pale face, her freckles had a speck more color.
“April May is a local poet. Your name is listed with the people she dedicates her latest book to.”
“One for you.” Curtis quickly slashed a +1 on unpainted cinderblock, then went about his work.
He heard the blogger laugh, then an electric window whining shut. He glimpsed her wave as the driver joined traffic. Curtis was pleased with her interest, less so with the drive-by brevity. He blended the three strokes of paint into a background color that would eventually become wings for the Virgin.
Perhaps his law enforcement benefactors were right. There was a fresh tag next to the mural, far enough away that even the misty edges of can spray didn’t touch his colors. BIG CHICO, it read. The G had teeth, the O a penis poking through it.
Curtis covered it in aquamarine.
The graffiti was to the right of the Virgin, on the stretch of wall beyond the bus stop. For this side of the painting he planned a different cornucopia, with pre-Columbian objects of Mayan or Aztec or Incan designs. The Virgin was the centerpiece, her celestial wings to embrace the cultural ties that would tumble to either side.
The figure of a woman always dominated his work. She could be dressed, as she was here, in the kitschy colors of a 14th-century apparition. In his mural Her life a mosaic of jagged years she was Hestia, the goddess who stayed home on Olympus to keep the hearth fire burning. In Trees yield soft needles to walk on she was a wicker woman embodied by tendrils from all living things.
No matter the mural’s theme, the woman in his life and in his bed made an appearance in Curtis’s work, both in the words she used and as portraiture for the central figure. Until now.
The quote did not match the face because Holly was gone.
Trina was on the bus when he boarded the next day. Curtis placed his crates of paints and brushes on an empty bench next to the door. The blogger pushed through a clot of commuters to join him.
“Here’s a happy coincidence. Heading to a lunch downtown and I was going to pop off the bus to ask you something.”
“Guadalupe? She looks nothing like April May,” she said.
The artist looked down again, concentrating on the bits of magenta under his fingernails. “Guadalupe’s not her name. Mary, the mother of God.”
“Still, she isn’t April. Looks more like the women in your last two murals, the Greek Mythology and the one with Mother Nature.”
How could Curtis explain? April’s words moved him, and their passion often brushed over his thoughts. Yet she wasn’t enough to mask his feelings for Holly, goddess and earth woman. Holly had left, never to return. There might be a continent and an ocean between them, but her imprint still remained. Deep pools of tepid remorse was the first time the portrait and the words were different women. And in truth, it felt like a betrayal to both.
“Who is she?” Trina’s interest was absolute.
The question pushed into his thoughts from the rosy voice close to his ear. Curtis looked up, the same moment a bell chimed for his bus stop.
“This is me,” Curtis said. “But I’d love to talk to you more about murals. I read in your blog about the bar where you do your writing. Maybe I’ll meet you there.”
Before her lips moved, Trina’s eyes smiled first. Three different shades of hazel.
He grabbed his tools and exited the bus. Pacing the length of his mural, he knew the changes to be made and the coming anguish to make them. Curtis also recognized that without the changes, he might very well vandalize the mural himself one drunken night. Curtis spent the rest of the day painting over the headstone words and making the Virgin’s face a blank of flesh.
What now? The bits of peanut shells and circles of stale beer on the bar top did not form an answer. He hated the thought of random quotes and make-believe faces, but deadlines and rent checks might make the decision for him.
“Another shot, Joe, and a beer to chase it.”
Trina pulled into the empty stool beside Curtis and said, “Make that two.”
Curtis nodded, pushing the bowl of nuts between them. “Been reading your blog and you really know your stuff. You’re drawn to public art, I see.”
“Drawn. I get it.”
“No, really. Your writing’s good, a real sense of place, and art history behind it.”
“Thanks, but it sounds like there’s a ‘but’ coming,” she said.
“No buts. A hyphen maybe.” He was pressing to be clever, to show her more than the brood of silences he had given her before. “In your name. I never know whether I’m supposed to use both last names or just the one that follows the hyphen.”
“My friends call me Trink.”
The clatter of shots and pints accompany the handshake.
“Never met a hyphenate, that I know of,” Curtis said.
“I’ve only known two and they were my folks. Three if you count my sister before she got married,” Trink said. “But I think before we tell life stories, you should read this.”
She pulled a screen from her pocket and tapped it to life. “I know your mural isn’t finished, but I didn’t want to wait. Your process is just as interesting as your body of work. My readers will think so, too.”
Curtis wiped fingers on his shirt before taking the phone.
Trink winced as the tequila hit the back of her throat. She followed it with a quick gulp of beer while his glasses remained untouched.
“Love this line about tasting oranges before you smell them,” said Curtis, noting the exact color of light reflected from her cheek. “Where’d you come up with that?”
It was the first question he’d asked her.