Not my Best Day

'Hey, Neil?' by Steven Deeble

‘Hey, Neil?’ by Steven Deeble
Photograph by M. R. Lewis

It is 1986.

I watch the capstans turn in the cassette recorder on the table. I look up as the detectives glance at each other, signaling another change in tactics. They have been questioning me for almost two hours.

Three weeks ago, my mother was found murdered.

The tape records my answers, alternating with expressions of my grief.

“We found your studio out back in the garage,” begins ‘Good Cop’.

“We’re painters ourselves,” chimes in ‘Bad Cop’.

Oh, great. I picture sad clowns and dogs playing cards.

“You have a painting – it’s a brain.”

Oh, fuck.

“Yeah.”

“What does the astronaut represent?”

“Our ultimate technological achievement.”

The astronaut is Buzz Aldrin at Tranquility Base, taken from the classic photograph by Neil Armstrong. In my painting, he has been relocated into a surreal seascape.

“What about the brain?”

“That’s how we achieved it.”

“What does the checkerboard represent?”

“Integration. The black and white squares – think of them like woven threads.” I interlock my fingers. “There is strength in the integration of opposites.”

“What about the ocean?”

“It’s the source of all life.”

“And the lightning?”

“Electricity – the power of the brain.”

“What do the mountains in the background represent?”

This gives me pause.

“There aren’t any mountains in the background.”

“Sure there are.” They look at each other. “We both saw them.”

Shit. They’re seeing breast imagery.

“I didn’t do a good job of painting the underside of the clouds. You did a Gestalt.”

They look at each other again.

“A what?”

I explain figure/ground reversal.

Later, as I am leaving, ‘Bad Cop’ stops me.

“By the way what’s that painting called, anyway?”

“It’s called ‘Hey, Neil?’”

His face reddens. He is a big guy. He steps towards me.

“What?” The word comes out like steam from a crack in a pipe.

“The painting is called ‘Hey, Neil?’.”

His jaw clenches. He seethes. His eyes narrow to slits.

“You called it “Hey! Kneel!’? Like ‘Get down on your knees’?”

I swallow. “No, like Neil Armstrong. The astronaut.”

I think he is going to hit me.

Forever 39

It is 1985.

My mother’s birthday is approaching. She will be 39. She has been 39 for at least ten Fire Cautionyears. She was 29 for ten years before that. She tells the story about being Den Mother of our Cub Scout den when one of the boys asked me her age and I replied without hesitation ‘29’.

She has been dating Len, an architect, for a several years. He really cares about her. But he is a widower. His wife died of cancer. He is reluctant to marry again. They date and have fun together, but I know she wants something more.

Len’s 60th birthday follows hers by a couple of days. They have a joint birthday party at Len’s condo. His daughters have arranged for a three-tiered cake covered in white fondant. Embedded in the fondant are 115 candles, representing their combined ages.

Go ahead. You do the math. She’s 39.

This is a good idea in theory. Two of Len’s daughters and I begin lighting the candles with long wooden matches. I realize two things: First, that unless we hurry, the first candles lit will be completely melted by the time we light the last one. Second, there are so many candles burning that we soon reach a point where it is hard to find a way to light the remaining candles without being burned.

But we manage to do it. I am certain that the heat is picked up by Soviet spy satellites and that for a few minutes their command and control system is trying to decide if it is the heat bloom of a missile launch.

Fortunately, Len’s living room has a vaulted ceiling so we don’t need to call the fire department.

We sing ‘Happy Birthday’ and everyone claps as they blow out what candles they can. The golden light bathes my mother’s face. Her blue eyes shine with happiness.

She has a crooked smile due to a partial bridge. She’s always been self-conscious of it. When I took her picture for her real estate collateral she only asked that I make her smile look good.

Her smile is beautiful.

This is the last time she will be 39 again.

Now she is forever 39.