Alma learns to paint, not just with a hand, or with fingers, but with her body, her whole hunched self flooding out. She paints her love and sorrow onto canvases, walls, tiny postcards, scraps of metal, and anything that will take pencil or brush. She paints because her father made her afraid of words. When he was in prison this is how they wrote to each other, one image in exchange for another. When her painting is going especially well, Alma feels as if her body is singing, like the tiny hairs on her arms are dancing. Sometimes painting reminds Alma of her father because she is never satisfied. There is always something off between what she imagines and reality. Distance becomes slippery and her paint so liquid she can’t quite get ahold of it.
When her father would say her name Alma, she thought he was saying love.
There are voices that echo in Alma’s dreams because once she hid in a closet with her mother and brother as a gang of police raided their house.. She remembers her throat locking, the heaviness of their breath. She remembers fear tasting like the desert. There is burst of light, the boom of doors being knocked down, uniformed men all gruff with their demands. Drawers are flung open and mattresses shredded. Even her own room is not safe. She sees her world splitting. And afterwards she is always thirsty. She starts to dream of oceans, of coasts and their salt sand. Fear returns unexpectedly, in the grey stillness after the blast of a gunshot, in the shadows of muscled raised voices.
When she was eight her father went to prison. Six years of waiting until one day there was a call. Her father was hospitalized. Her father was now dead. Alma didn’t get to see him before he was rushed into surgery. But after that she sees him all the time.
She carries a small scoop of her father’s ashes with her. It is a weight that is always with her. One day she thinks she will be ready to let it go. She plans to mix the ashes into her swirls of paint that are the color desert reds and browns. Maybe then she will be able to focus on something other than the smallest pebbles and rocks; the way dust sweeps lightly across the gray of gravel. She thinks if she paints these images long enough she will find the answer to fear. But her father tells her to be bolder and bigger in her work, to add a slash of bright neon green and to remember the lull of the bright blue ocean. Sometimes Alma enjoys these conversations, but she would give it all up to have her father back, a real live being, and not the phantom, the specter she has come to know.
You could say she is haunted. You could say Alma and her father speak more clearly to each other in Alma’s dreams than they ever did when he was alive. You could say she is following some ancient migration pattern of her ancestors who were once like birds and circled the world. You could say these stories seeped into her dust-brown skin, into her bones. Maybe these stories radiate from her pores and she will never be able to escape them.
In her twenties Alma falls in love with a series of boys who remind her of the boys back home. She will never say they remind her of her father. They have records and are reformed or semi-reformed. She reads their histories on their bodies, in their scars and tattoos. What they don’t tell her, she makes up. She likes that they have made their bodies into canvases. She likes that they’re haunted, too, that they’ve been hunted.
There was one that made her feel soft. Alma meets him while she is back home for summer, on break from college. He was only a few years older than her, but there was a weariness about him that makes him seem much older. Alma names him her Ghost Boy because he tattooed the names of everyone he’d lost on his body. His mother’s name curls up against his chest, a cousin’s initial marks his collar bone and his best friend’s name rests on his forearm. He tells her how he found out about his friend’s murder, about the gut of emptiness he sometimes feels. She traces the ink on his arms, and thinks about his friend, who she only knows by the curve of his name on her Ghost Boy’s brown flesh.
Other times, while he is sleeping, she traces the three numbers inked black on his back. It is their area code. He never knew her father, but he is no stranger to men like him, and to the life her family once lived. He tells her there are things in his past that they would never speak of. She begins to think there is a certain quietness about him that she could settle into. All summer she lets him make her feel safe. But even him, she leaves, like all the others. The ones she knows can’t follow, won’t leave the state or city because they’re on probation or parole, or because they can’t imagine themselves outside of their city, their neighborhood. Only her father follows her wherever she goes.
Alma’s brother Eric learns to paint with his body, too. He paints Karmann Ghias, big-muscled Chevys, tricked-out 50’s American bombs, and sleek Cutlasses. Cars that cholos whistle at. Coarse edges are sanded down with his hands until, his hands feel like dust. Once, when Eric was drunk on the night, fast cars, and alcohol, he told Alma that in his dreams he was a desert waiting for the wild wind to bring droplets of rain. When Alma touches his hands, she is reminded of her father’s roughness. Alma watches her brother’s gentle touch with a spray gun. He learned this light touch from his teenage years of tagging, throwing bombs up with a quickness that rushed into his lungs and limbs.
Alma calls her brother an artist. When she says his name what she really wants to say is memory.
Alma wants to see the way Eric does, the way he finds beauty in cars that go everywhere but nowhere, cars that cruise and circle back. She is jealous that he feels at home in such small places.. He lifts his Chevy Silverado and lowers his Buick Riviera. He drives to soothe himself, leans back into the seat and takes off.
Once, when he was younger and cruising in his silver Honda, he was shot at. It was dark and he didn’t see the other car, but the bullets came quick. It broke the night. The shots were fast. He tells Alma he remembers the moon’s fullness, and a star-pocked night sky. The dim yellow flickering of a cracked streetlight and the smell of grey smoked rubber. He remembers his body jerking to the sound of bullets, their force breaking the driver’s window. The zoom of its trajectory that barely missed his face. His body knows what to do before his mind does. It tells Eric to drive off quickly, his hands now gripping the steering wheel.
Eric comes to believe that a car saved his life, so he whispers to his cars; he speaks to them. He tends them like his father did to their orange trees, like his grandfather did for his trees. Strong hybrids that ripened with sweet fruit. Eric understands that a neglected car will grow fallow. For a long time that was all that he wanted to do, lose himself in a car, to forget, and for that dark well to disappear. Eric tries to explain this to Alma. He tells her at the bottom of this well are the memories he calls Father. How he tries to fill it up with desert-grit sand, with drugs and anger. But Father always climbs out of that hole.
Eric gets a lot of time to think about Father and the dark well after he gets locked up. He doesn’t allow his mother to visit, but lets his father come see him every night. He allows for those conversations his father has been trying to have with him for years. Alma notices that when Eric gets out he finds he can soothe himself in the rough, in the rust and dents of broken cars. She likes the way he claps his hands when he feels a moment of lightness overcome him. The thunder of his hands wakes her to the world. Alma sees how painting cars teaches Eric patience. There are steps to follow, ratios to be learned. Painting cars teaches him to listen to his body, his intuition. A spray gun becomes an extension of his hand. Eric tells Alma that sometimes he can hear their father say, Steady there, like he did when he was teaching him to ride a bike or shoot a gun.
There is one car Eric loves more than the others. He will never sell it. His father had picked out the 1967 Buick Riviera as a project for them to work on when he got out of prison. The insides were battered and the paint dull, but the body was still sleek. Eric liked that it was different than the long Chevy Impalas his friends rebuild with hydraulics and chrome. Alma admires the way both Eric and her father could see the potential in the Rivi. But their father never gets to see what it becomes, what Eric is able to make out what gets left behind.
Alma thinks her mother, Lisa, is proud of her fancy degrees, but doesn’t understand her art. There are many reasons why Lisa doesn’t talk to Alma about her work. Alma thinks her mother doesn’t talk about her paintings because to talk of them would be to talk of all the things that have lived in silence for so long. Alma sees a cave inside of Lisa, a place where her mother pushed silence, the red-dark of herself, all of her guilt and blame.
Alma makes up a story for her mother. Once the cave inside her mother was small. Lisa didn’t even know it was there, that it would grow, becoming a place she would live for many years. It grew slowly, like cells multiplying. Lisa let it grow because she believes in necessity. She let it grow because she was once young, once a weed that grew in the wild of city, learning to survive. She let it grow because she loved a boy, who became a man, the father of her children, her pearl of opium. They met in high school when life was less complicated. Back when she was bold mouthed and someone else’s girlfriend. Back when his hands were still soft and he could cast a boyish shadow. She learns loving him means believing in his stories, that the hustle of their lives is temporary, just one step, a bridge to another kind of life. Once they make it across that bridge they will pile up their darkness, move it to the cave, and build a door to lock it all away. But they never make it to the other side or build the door. The dark makes its way out, like slips of shadow filtering through the pores of a body.
Alma tries to understand her mother. She imagines her mother believing that if she took her children to that cave of silence they would be safe. So Lisa takes them there and watches them grow up as brick-mouthed, watchful-eyed children. And then that day comes when Lisa takes her children to hide in a closet. There was so much fear packed in those murky minutes.
Lisa divides her life into before and after the raid. Then comes the day when she divides her life into before and after her husband’s passing.
Lisa moves to the mountains. Alma calls their new home their Sky Island. When Lisa moves from her city house, someone tells her, Good, you are finally letting go, letting your husband rest. It is here in the space, in this distance between understandings that she begins to speak, climb out from her dark cave. Lisa tells Alma, I am not letting your father go, he was, still is, my slice of moon. I am moving north to the mountains because it is where I feel closest to the sky. The moon glows brightest there, a white ember in the endless night sky. I am moving because it is there I feel closer to the earth, the thick soil at my feet. Something special happened there long ago, you and Eric can call it science, but I call it magic.
When Alma says Mother she knows she is actually saying story. A story too large to be painted on any size canvas.
There comes a time when Alma leaves the country. She makes sure she packs her father’s ashes. Ashes she once scooped out of her father’s heavy urn with a shot glass. She thinks she is ready to let them go because an idea for a new painting has been whirling before her like hot breath. The new painting with her father’s ashes will stay in another country. An ocean, mountains and thin lined borders will separate them. But months later she returns with the portion of her father’s ashes still packaged in plastic. For reasons Alma can’t quite understand, she can’t bring herself to mix them into her paint. She returns to her family, to her mother who now lives in the mountains of their town.
Alma tattoos a bird on the ridge of her shoulder. First, she grinds her father’s ashes with a mortar and pestle. His remains become a fine powder. The first tattoo artist refuses. There is talk about liability and infection. Alma doesn’t let this stop her. She goes to another who finally agrees when she says she will sign whatever papers he wants and come after hours. He tells her he is used to getting odd requests, that he likes the challenge. As the needle sinks into Alma’s skin she asks him to distract her by telling her stories of others like her, those who want to mark their bodies with memory. She listens intently as her father becomes a part of the bird, a part of her shoulder. She wants him there, his ashes in her skin, not because she needs to be reminded to remember him, but so she can be reminded that for whatever he was, whatever mystery he held within him, he is a part of her she can’t run from forever. She is inked with him now, all of who he was, her mother and brother, her grandparents, and the old ones, all on the crest of her shoulder, where if she were a bird, her wings would sprout from.