Debts
a story by Margaret Maloney


Ellen hated using right-handed scissors, and, in fact, carried her own pair of lefties when she came to work so that she could avoid using them, but plans for the display had changed and so she was caught without her pair today. Instead of tying elegant knots into sheer white and gold organdy, she found herself cutting tall isosceles triangles out of red and black butcher paper with the anti-ergonomic handle of the scissors jutting into her hand, leaving scraps of paper to be swept up by the night janitor, who she always gave a Christmas tip because she felt she owed him for her messiness. The winds of fashion had changed once again, and this time they had made it all the way down to Birmingham just in time for Ellen’s supervisor to change the entire concept that she had been working with all week. “Romantic” and “luxurious,” the words that had defined the season to this point, were thrown back in the drawer of constantly reused fashion phrases, and “confident,” “sexy,” and “graphic” had taken their place.

Normally, Ellen would have liked this. Her final project in design school had been a collection of red and black circles painted on the walls, ceiling, and floor of an otherwise completely white room, leading the viewer up, around, and over from the corner just inside the door, varying in size and texture until they reached the opposite corner, where they terminated in a small, cool, blue-grey oval that sat just above eye-level, hugging the crease of the walls. “Graphic” had always been her buzzword, just as much as “confident” and “sexy” had not.

She stretched her arm out, cutting the last inches of the final triangle and then dropped her scissors on the floor blade-first, nicking out a tiny divot of linoleum. She flexed her hand, squeezing the poked spots with her thumb and finger. Rolling up the butcher paper triangles, she tucked them under one arm, grabbed the portable radio, and threw it into the basket of things she would need to dress the window. She opened the door out of the prep room with her back, measures of the Mozart concerto that was pumped out into the main floor spilling in from behind her. The show floor of the store always smelled vaguely floral, with floorwalkers spraying perfume as you squeezed between the makeup displays and old ladies clustered around the Estée Lauder counter, giving off their own particular scent while they calculated how much Ivory Beige Intensive Lifting foundation they needed to buy in order to get the free gift.

The door to the display windows was across the room, behind the hat section that was full of colorful church lady hats that sold well in the spring but that were now, in the fall, untouched. Ellen had the only key that opened that door, a sort of artistic security that she had insisted upon when she took the job. Once her displays were up, they were finished pieces that could not be changed unless Ellen did so herself. She was a little indignant of the tony Mountain Brook socialites (always a perfect mannequin six) who came in and insisted they needed exactly the outfit on display in the window—she’d take it out, of course, but only after making sure they realized the effect the loss had on her compositions.

The display windows themselves were rather similar to that completely white gallery in which she had created her thesis project, stark except for the pane of glass that took up one wall and looked out onto the usually deserted downtown street and a full parking lot beyond. Piles of the organdy fabric she had been expecting to use were in one corner, and next to them, in a stack uncharacteristically neat, were six gilt-framed landscape paintings of the Alabama countryside that were reminiscent more of the primeval delicacy of the Hudson River School than of Ellen’s idols Miró and Mondrian. She looked at them and swallowed a sigh, for these were really the center of her problem.

Putting her things down, Ellen pulled out the radio and turned it on. The radio had a loose dial and had a tendency to switch stations on its own, morphing from the sinuous sultriness of Al Green slowly into unrecognizable static and out again into talk radio, or maybe into the practiced cadences of a preacher on Sundays. The radio had belonged to her friend Desi, whom she had met through the small circle of Birmingham visual artists. “It’s stream of consciousness radio,” he’d said. “Whose stream of consciousness, I don’t know. But I like it.” They had been sitting in a booth at Full Moon Bar-b-que, discussing his plans for his next series. Desi rejected graphic abstraction—his work was decidedly realist, but idealized. He bit off a hunk of his pulled pork sandwich, and ruminated. “I know I’m a Romantic.”

“Weren’t you born in the wrong century, then?” Ellen asked. She was cutting the corn kernels from her cob out of habit.

“Maybe.” Desi was getting barbecue sauce all over his fingers. Contrary to his delicate brushwork, when Desi ate, he never failed to spill on himself. “I’d like to do a series on monks and monasteries,” he said, the daubs of red sauce at the corners of his lips turning his mouth downward into an expression of heightened seriousness. “There are three monasteries in Cullman County. I’d really like to examine the affect of a religious sensibility on a place, and particularly a religious sensibility that seems out of place.”

“How is it out of place?”

“One word, honey: Baptists.” Desi licked the sauce off of each of his thick fingers, then pushed the sleeves of his blue plaid flannel shirt up over his elbows, making sure his damp fingertips didn’t touch the fabric. Ellen trusted Desi a great deal more than she trusted any of their mutual friends. Many of the artists they knew were continually looking for their next chance to break into the New York art scene, but in a roundabout way that involved them not ever actually living in New York, keeping them safely within the environment they knew. But Desi, like Ellen, had actually tried New York for a while, and knew he didn’t like it. There was very little that was Romantic about the city, at least in his understanding of it. He had found himself painting Central Park, again and again, until he felt like a souvenir artist, painting familiar scenes that had no emotional resonance. Ellen’s experience had been different—for her there had been too much to paint in New York—but the need to return south had been the same, even if it meant giving up a part of her art and taking a job as a department store window dresser.

Desi made enough off his paintings to forgo other work. They were the kind of paintings that the Mountain Brook ladies would buy for their living rooms and to go over their mantels. “Romantic” and “luxurious” were not seasonal in Mountain Brook. Ellen liked going over to his house in Vestavia, walking around the large studio that should have been the master bedroom and examining the paintings that stood in various stages of completion on easels around the room. Modern art was intellectually necessary to Ellen, but Desi’s paintings were exciting in their own way. She liked knowing that their long conversations had been part of the process and that her opinions on color and composition were incorporated into his work. Ellen had gradually started insinuating herself into other parts of Desi’s life, too, getting him socks at the department store when he mentioned he had worn through a pair, or taking a weekend to fix his car, something he was inept at but at which she excelled. She liked to stop by his house on her way to work to make him coffee, when he was invariably painting feverishly in the morning light, animatedly pacing back and forth in front of his easel as he questioned, loudly, his choice of color in recreating the glassy surface of a backwater creek.

Each of these things she did for him Ellen tallied in her mind, counting up the things she had bought, or fixed, or lent. As she drove from Vestavia, through the hills that divided the city and toward downtown, she would tuck away each favor, each gift, adding the new ones to a mental tab. This morning she had done it again, making coffee in the kitchen overlooking a kudzu-filled ravine and talking with Desi as he drank it.

“I’ve got a proposition for you,” she said, leaning forward over the kitchen counter toward him. “How would you like your paintings to be in one of my windows?”

“Really?” Desi sat back, nursing the steaming mug and waiting to hear more. The theme for this month’s windows was perfect: the Romance of Autumn didn’t suit her normal geometric shapes and limited palette, but it was the perfect opportunity to display Desi’s emotionally wrought vistas in one of her compositions. More society ladies would buy his work, and once again, he would owe her. But she didn’t explain that to him—her tally of debt was a closely held secret. They went into the studio and she selected the six canvases that she liked the most: river and lake scenes from the late summer, with such rich colors and depth that she could hear the evening swells of crickets as she examined them. Desi helped her carry them to the car and she took off down the winding roads and into downtown, parking in the lot across the street from her windows.

And now she stood, arranging her red and black isosceles triangles along the back wall of the display window in a backgammon-gone-mad sort of pattern. The mannequins were lined up on the far side of the display standing next to red straightback chairs in their little black dresses and boldly patterned jackets. Ellen had never really cared much for the clothes that she displayed. Each window was constructed carefully so that they were the focus, of course, but the fun was in arranging the other elements. This time, there were glowing white spherical lamps that she hung from the ceiling and cardboard triangles attached to the ground next to the straightback chairs that complemented the triangles on the wall behind them. She positioned the six mannequins, three in chairs and three standing, and adjusted their featureless bald heads to look at the lamps that hung down into the room.

Ellen stood back from her work. The composition should have been finished, but she wasn’t pleased with it. It was all very well done, but the mannequins seemed more lifeless than normal, and her choice of red black and white, which had looked perfectly adequate in her sketchbook, seemed flat and bland now. The radio was coming out of static into the classical music station, and a Chopin piano prelude was taking shape. Ellen paced in front of her work for a moment, biting her lower lip and with her hand over her mouth, and then decisively strode over to the corner where her unused materials lay. She reached into her basket and took out her handbag, pulling out her checkbook, and a pen. Pay to the order of Desmond Black, one thousand two hundred and no hundredths dollars. She ripped the check out, then folded it and put it in her back pocket. She leaned down again and pulled out an X-acto knife, then reached over and picked up the top gilt-framed painting, slicing out an isosceles triangle from the center. By now, the Chopin prelude had become Aretha Franklin: “You make me feel! You make me feel! You make me fsheng mn xssssssss…” and it slipped into static again. She sliced up each of the paintings, and then filled up each hole with a slab of color taken from one of the triangles that she had taken down off the wall. She placed each finished frame in the hands of the mannequins, picked up her basket and the organdy, and walked out of the room, leaving the mannequins still engrossed in the light coming from the orbs over their heads, ignoring the mutilated masterpieces in their grasp.

 


Margaret Maloney ’06 is a Linguistics concentrator in Dunster House.