Then I go out at night to paint the stars. —Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother.
Daniel stumbles from the carriage-house. His thoughts snag the horn of a crescent moon and he begins to tremble. He is fifty-six years old and has been an addict for most of his life. His skin is sallow, his gums inflamed. He’s given up on his appearance, wears faded t-shirts and khaki pants that sag in the seat. A former art historian with an abiding interest in post-impressionism, he understands the depth of despair that drove Van Gogh to cut off his ear and hand it to a prostitute named Rachel. “Keep this object like a treasure,” he is purported to have said.
But Daniel is not thinking of Van Gogh’s ear or the man’s enormous talent. Daniel’s attention is focused on the pulsating whoosh in his head. He knows what happens next—rising above the waves of sound, an emphatic voice issues a command: Kill her. Kill her now. Daniel covers his ears and rocks back and forth. He needs a cigarette. He strikes the match three times before it sparks. Sometimes the nicotine muffles the voices, but this time the wheedling voice only grows louder: Kill her! Kill her now!
Daniel flicks the butt onto the damp lawn and walks across the yard to his mother’s home, which was once the caretaker’s cottage on a large estate. Twenty years ago developers tore down the main house, an ornate Victorian mansion, and replaced it with a stucco apartment complex and a dismal park where it’s possible to buy any drug that you desire.
Daniel stoops to clear the branches of an awkwardly pruned sycamore before stepping onto his mother’s back porch. During one of her numerous remodels, she replaced the shingled exterior of the house with synthetic siding, and now the naked limbs of the tree tick against the vinyl. Daniel opens and closes the fingers of his left hand. He wants to be certain that he is not carrying the .45 he keeps hidden in a keyed footlocker stashed in the back of his bedroom closet. In addition to the gun, the locker contains a gift from his deceased father—a Dutch Masters cigar box with a sturdy cardboard lid featuring a reproduction of Daniel’s favorite Rembrandt, the Baroque portrait of The Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild. Inside the box are letters from Daniel’s brother, Albert, written during the year he spent abroad teaching English to French businessmen. All begin with the salutation that Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, employed when writing to Vincent—“My best friend, my brother”—and include detailed descriptions of medieval cathedrals, underground tombs and Renaissance art. After one of many visits to the Louvre, Albert sent a postcard of Ruben’s Lot Fleeing with his Family from Sodom. “Next time I travel to Paris, I’ll bring you with me,” Albert wrote. “We’ll take a boat ride on the Seine and climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower!” Like Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, Albert has been Daniel’s emotional support for most of his troubled life. Because he is thinking of Albert, Daniel’s breathing slows and he momentarily forgets why he’s flexing his fingers. He’s surprised when his hand reaches out and turns the knob on the unlocked door.
The small windows are shuttered and covered with heavy curtains. Even in daylight, his mother’s house is as dark and gloomy as the limestone catacombs in Paris. Daniel makes his way cautiously to her bedroom when a soft, cajoling voice whispers, Do it. Do it now. He presses his hands against the seams of his pants. He does not want to pick up the lethal snow globe on the bedside table, so before she can even register his presence, Daniel speaks. “Ma,” he says, “The voices are back. I need for you to drive me to the hospital.”
His mother sighs and heaves herself up from the mattress, upsetting two of the four skittish cats on her bed. “My little loveys,” she calls them. When they displease her, she slaps then soundly, her palm rebounding off their skulls. The cats scuttle out of her reach and crouch terrified beneath the furniture. Later, they return, crawling with trepidation and longing towards the warmth of her body, rubbing their sore heads against her indifferent hands.
Daniel wanders into the living room while his mother changes out of her nightgown and phones Albert. The evening is cool, but Daniel is sweating through his t-shirt. The armchairs and the sofa are covered with worn copies of Our Sunday Visitor, Garage Sale Gold, and Soap Opera Digest. No matter. He has no desire to sit. He hears the sound of an oscillating fan, and then a chorus of angry voices. You are worthless. Go to hell! He covers his ears and moves anxiously between boxes of used clothing and chipped china. He wants another cigarette, but his mother forbids smoking in her house. He walks to the fireplace mantel where she keeps her rosary beads, holy cards, and scapular of St. Clare of Assisi.
When Daniel was a boy, he and his family visited Assisi. They climbed the Hill of The Damned and entered St. Francis’ Cathedral, which is actually two churches, one built atop the other. Massive arches chiseled with images of Saints, flowers, and intertwined swans flank the central portal. He recalls the family moving slowly through the upper basilica, where Giotto’s frescoes of Saint Francis lined the walls, before descending into the lower basilica and then, beneath that, the underground crypt that contained a stone box of St. Francis’ remains. A tattered scrap of hair shirt worn by St. Francis was displayed in a corner of the Relic Chapel.
Daniel’s mother emerges from the bedroom, grabs a faux fur jacket from the hall tree and slides her arms through the sleeves, careful not to catch her rhinestone bracelet on the lining. “All right, then,” she says, checking her reflection in the mirror. “Let’s go. Albert’s meeting us at the hospital. Are you ready?” Before he can respond, she picks up her purse and heads out to the car. Daniel, who has forgotten his jacket in the carriage house, follows his mother, flexing his fingers and shivering. “What’s wrong with your hands?” she says in a voice that may or may not be accusatory.
On the drive to the hospital, Daniel hears what he thinks is the saw-like buzz of a termite burrowing into his skull but which is, in fact, his mother’s voice. He presses his palms against his ears and makes a low throttling sound in the back of his throat that is reminiscent of the sound he made as a child, pushing his Tonka trucks back and forth on the kitchen tile. Shortly after the family trip to Italy, his father, a curator at the De Young Museum, abandoned his family and moved to Belgium with a young artist. For six months Daniel’s mother insisted he sleep in her bed. Night after night, the smell of alcohol-laced perspiration and mint toothpaste assaulted his senses. Sometimes he’d pat her shoulder and whisper soothing words that TV moms used to console their fretful children. It was during this unsettling time that his mother threatened to drive the two of them off Devils Slide and into the Pacific Ocean.
Albert is waiting in the ER when Daniel and his mother arrive. “Hey, Danny,” he says, squeezing his brother’s shoulder. Daniel’s mind clears briefly, and he flashes Albert a fleeting smile before the voices reclaim his attention. The admitting doctor spends less than five minutes with Daniel before calling psych services. The psychiatrist, who resembles Father Tom, St. Anne’s avuncular parish priest, explains that because San Francisco General’s psych ward is full, Daniel will be transferred by ambulance to a hospital located in the Sacramento Valley. “You and your mother can follow,” he tells Albert. Their mother, who for unknown reasons has opted to wear high heels to the ER, shifts her weight from one foot to the other. “This is not good timing,” she says, twisting her bracelet. “I have a big garage sale coming up this weekend, and I have at least three boxes of sale items that still need to be tagged.” The psychiatrist ignores her and speaks directly to Daniel. “We’re going to make you comfortable for the ride,” he explains. Daniel, who understands that comfortable is a euphemism for sedated, feels a wave of anticipatory relief. While a nurse hooks him up to an I.V., Daniel thinks about Van Gogh.
For at least a decade, Daniel has been researching what he jokingly refers to as the definitive Vincent Van Gogh biography. Recently he has come to believe that the artist’s paintings contain clues to his own troubled life. In any case, Daniel finds the process of gathering and collating the particulars of Van Gogh’s life hugely satisfying. Locating the narrative thread in the skittering mass of singular events, however, is challenging. What, after all, does one make of the fact that the six Van Gogh children, who grew up in Groot-Zundert, a little village on the Belgian frontier, lived in a large house with an upper story that was noticeably narrower than the lower?
Daniel still dreams of the cavernous family house where he and Albert grew up. In his dreams, he descends floor by floor into a rat-infested basement. To discourage the nasty animals, his father shoveled wet concrete directly onto the packed dirt. With each tremble of the San Andreas Fault, the thin veneer cracked a little more. In no time at all, the rats, those cunning creatures, resumed their nightly damage—gnawing though insulation, shattering mason jars full of peaches and green beans. One rat the size of a small house cat crawled into a hole in the lathe and plaster wall and died. The stench of the decaying body whooshed through heating ducts and spewed into the upper story. Their father, who spent most evenings ensconced in an armchair sipping scorched coffee and reading Victorian novels, ignored their mother, who scurried about lighting floral-scented candles.
Shortly after their father moved out, and only after a delinquent insurance premium had been paid in full, the family home went up in flames. The cause was attributed to a faulty electrical circuit. “The rats,” their mother explained. “The rats must have chewed though the wires.” Since all of the family photographs were destroyed in the fire, Daniel drew an elaborate cutaway view of the old house and kept it as a memento. In the drawing, Daniel, Albert and their parents are standing in different rooms, gazing in different directions. No matter how often Daniel studied the drawing he never found what he was looking for. One dreary night while in a state of extreme agitation, Daniel burned the drawing and immediately regretted having done so. Some actions, he understood, cannot be undone.
When Van Gogh cut off his ear on December 23, 1888, he severed an artery in the process. There was a great deal of blood. Earlier that evening, he had argued with his friend, the painter Paul Gauguin. Their disagreement likely sparked Van Gogh’s violent, self-destructive behavior. According to a local newspaper, it wasn’t until the following day that the police located the “unfortunate madman in bed with scarcely a sign of life.” Theo, who was appraised of the situation in a telegram from Gauguin, rushed to his brother’s side. Van Gogh was treated in the hospital in Arles. At this juncture, Theo believed his brother’s situation was hopeless. He wrote to his wife Johanna that if Vincent “might have found somebody to whom he could have disclosed his heart, it would perhaps never have gone thus far.”
As a young man, Daniel—who was exceptionally good looking, high-spirited, and amiable—had no trouble finding girlfriends. The women were all of a type—beautiful addicts with voracious appetites. He loved their crazy, self-destructive hearts. And they asked so little of him—a fifth of vodka, a gram of coke, a place to crash. None of his relationships lasted more than a year. Daniel’s mother likes to blame the young women for his addictions. She is wrong. Addiction is always personal. What Daniel wishes his mother would focus on instead are his accomplishments. Despite his addictions, Daniel earned a PhD in Art History and worked briefly at a small mid-western college. Of this period in his life, Daniel’s most evocative memories are of musical flavors. Daniel has a secret. He is a synesthete, and despite the medical community’s inclination to pathologize alternative means of perception, Daniel considers his synesthesia a precious gift. Who wouldn’t want to listen to a Duke Ellington recording that tastes like liquorish?
As soon as Daniel is allowed to receive visitors, Albert drives his mother to the hospital. The facility is dreary and crowded. Daniel shares a room with a delusional addict who has an aversion to sunlight. The one time Daniel attempts to open the blinds, his roommate cries out, “No, please no!” Even so, Daniel is in much better spirits. It is early spring, and the three of them are seated at a picnic table in the hospital courtyard. A hummingbird hovers and flits between a blossoming acacia tree and a trio of liquid ambers. On the brick wall, a climbing vine of star jasmine emits a sweet, cloying scent. Without alcohol Daniel’s skin feels thin and porous. He needs the inevitability of spring and the comfort of his brother’s presence. “I’ve been sober for six months now,” Daniel tells Albert. “That’s terrific. It couldn’t have been easy,” Albert says, and slaps his brother on the back. “Oh, that reminds me,” their mother says. “Your Uncle Garret gave me a case of last year’s vintage. I saved a bottle of Merlot for each of you.” Albert slams his fist against the table. “Christ Almighty,” he says. Daniel says nothing. He is distracted. Something has triggered a memory of Assisi.
“Do you remember the Basilica of St. Clare?” Daniel asks Albert, “seeing her corpse in the crypt?” It’s a rhetorical question. Daniel knows that his brother couldn’t possibly forget St. Clare’s mummified face. “Remember when Ma told us that the bodies of saints have an odor of sanctity, how we were disappointed when St. Clare didn’t smell like roses?” He laughs, a loud guttural howl that causes his eyes to tear up. “Stop it now,” his mother hisses. “Do you hear me? Just stop!” She looks around to see if anyone is listening. Daniel, who never takes his eyes off Albert, asks one more question. “Was Ma lying to us, or was old Clare just another fraud?” Their mother frowns and shakes her head. “Don’t encourage him,” she tells Albert. But Daniel needs no encouragement. He ignores his mother and resumes speaking. “Of course, after the quake of ’95, nothing was ever the same. The Giotto frescos of St. Francis survived, but Cimabue’s St. Matthew crumbled into a thousand fragments. A real tragedy,” he says, shaking his head.
When Daniel is well enough to leave the psych ward, Albert is the one who picks him up and drives him home. “Ma’s at an estate sale,” Albert explains before they enter the carriage house. “You should know that while you were away she used your place to store her garage sale crap.” If Daniel feels anything at all it’s an enervating sense of inevitability. His sponsor has cautioned him against accepting the role of victim, and his therapist has emphasized that his mother’s narcissistic behavior has nothing to do with him. And while this may be true, it doesn’t change the fact that he is financially dependent on her and, therefore, subject to her capricious whims and constant shaming. While Daniel’s disability check allows him to pay his mother a nominal amount of rent, she never lets him forget that she could get double the money from a stranger.
“Don’t worry, Danny,” Albert says, reassuringly. “I’ve got a trunk full of cardboard boxes, and in no time at all we’ll have your place cleaned up.” Daniel takes a few deep breaths and, as is often the case, does not respond directly to his brother’s statement. “The meds mess with my head,” he says. Daniel does not elaborate, but it occurs to him that the mess in his head is not unlike the vacant-sounding reverberation of pool water slapping tiles. Today, especially, he feels empty-headed, dull and indifferent. No voices, but no real joy either. “I’m sorry,” Albert says.
Once they are inside the carriage house, Daniel lifts a bag of faded towels off a wing chair and takes a seat. It is his favorite chair, and he is relieved that his mother did not sell it in his absence. As is often the case when he dwells on his mother’s disturbing behavior, a mild malaise settles around his shoulders and he finds it difficult to breathe. He rests his head against the back of the chair and watches Albert scoop up armfuls of moth-nibbled sweater, feathered hats, and sequined gowns that sparkle dimly in the lamplight. “She shouldn’t have violated your space,” Albert says. His jaw twitches slightly. “I mean, Jesus, you’ve got a right to your privacy,” he says and unceremoniously tosses the tangled mess into a cardboard box. Daniel feels a momentary confusion of the mind, but is determined not to let it get the best of him.
Van Gogh was living in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise in northern France when one Sabbath evening in late July 1890 he walked to a wheat field or maybe an empty barn, no one knows for sure. In any case, Van Gogh was alone when he placed the muzzle of a revolver against his chest and fired. Theo was notified the following morning, and as he’d done so many times before he rushed to his brother’s side. Shortly after Theo’s arrival, Van Gogh lapsed into a coma and died of an infection, probably septicemia. Van Gogh was only thirty-seven at the time of his death, and he was not yet famous, having sold only one painting, The Red Vineyard. In the seventy days preceding his suicide, Van Gogh produced a prodigious amount of work—seventy oil paintings and sixty-four sketches. Shortly after his death, an unfinished letter to Theo was discovered. It read, in part, “Que veux-tu?” What can I say?
Albert says, “I almost forgot. I have something for you in the car. I’ll be right back.” When he returns he is holding a massive book. “This is for you. It’s a new publication, and it has some of the most vivid color blocks of Van Gogh’s work I’ve ever seen.” Daniel is not accustomed to receiving gifts nor is he sure that he deserves them. Their parents spent extravagant amounts of money on themselves, but they were parsimonious with their children. “It’s not my birthday, is it?” Daniel asks, genuinely confused. “No, Danny it’s not your birthday. This is a welcome home present.” Daniel takes the book from Albert’s hands and smiles. “Thank you,” he says. Light-headed and mildly bewildered, he is nonetheless excited by Albert’s thoughtful gift.
He is tracing the ridges and valleys of the tooled leather cover with his fingertips when their mother enters the carriage house without knocking. Daniel can tell by the sound of her steps that she is in a foul mood. He makes a fuzzyheaded but conscious decision to follow his therapist’s advice and accept his mother as she is. She is not, he understands, particularly bright, a situation that Daniel’s father cruelly exploited. However, she can, from time to time, be kind, and he is pretty certain that she loves him. Why else would she put up with his addictions? Why else would she cook his meals and give him a place to stay? She is, he thinks, doing the best that she can. And because Daniel’s therapist has also encouraged him to be cognizant of his own emotional reactions, he acknowledges that her presence is at times comforting, if only because it is familiar.
“Nothing but garbage at the estate sale,” she says by way of greeting. Albert, who is closing the lid on a box of dishes, jerks slightly at the sound of his mother’s voice. “What are you doing with my things?” she demands in a flamboyantly self-righteous tone. “I’m making room for Danny,” Albert says. She ignores his response and turns to face Daniel. “And don’t you look at me that way,” she says. “I didn’t know when you’d be released, and I needed space for my collectables.” A ragged looking cat slips through the opened door of the carriage house. She lifts the cat and nuzzles its head. “You’re my good little lovey. Yes, you are!” she says in a singsong voice. “That reminds me,” she says, dropping the cat. “A cougar killed the Spencer’s Persian.” Albert, who never looks directly at his mother, winces and glances down at his feet. “Jesus, Ma,” he says. She waves her hand dismissively and focuses all of her attention on Daniel, who squirms uncomfortably beneath her gaze. “If you go out at night, be careful. The newspaper says if a cougar approaches, you should make yourself look as big as you can, get on your tippy-toes if you have to.” She grabs hold of the hem of her jacket, lifts the fabric above her head and spreads it taunt as a painter’s canvas. “And make sure you look the animal straight in the eyes so it knows whose boss.”
Daniel’s eyes must have revealed his skepticism because his mother drops her arms, purses her lips, and looks at him with the focused gaze of a predator. “Some people don’t know what’s real and what’s not,” she says pointedly. “You think a cougar’s going to figure it out?” Words form. Daniel manages not to speak. His mother’s shoulder twitches, and her eyes dart around the room. She’s afraid, Daniel thinks. She’s afraid that she’s gone too far this time. “Christ Almighty, Ma. Let him be.” Albert says. Daniel feels a discomfiting satisfaction followed quickly by guilt and remorse. “Oh, my Danny knows I love him, don’t you my boy?” she asks.
Daniel has entered a familiar, insular space where he is only marginally aware of his mother’s chirping voice. He feels a gradual unspooling of desire. Like Van Gogh, he longs to “surpass the vulgarity” of existence by creating a body of work that mirrors “impassioned emotions.” He will find the narrative arc of Van Gogh’s life, and in so doing he will discover the key to own. Life, he believes, is filled with the thrum of possibility. He opens the art book in his lap and begins flipping through the color-blocks, slowly at first and then faster until he succeeds in creating the jagged illusion of motion and change. For a few glorious moments “the veil of time and fatality of circumstances seemed to be torn apart,” and Daniel is one with the paintings. He is the shadow thrown by the wheel of a passing wagon, the white smoke curving from the bowl of a pipe, the trembling hand wrapped around a glass of absinthe, the goblet, the canister, the sunflowers. He is the arm forever reaching.
Kim Silveira Wolterbeek teaches literature and writing at Foothill College in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her fiction has appeared in numerous periodicals, including Buffalo Spree, CALYX, City Primeval: Narratives of Urban Reality, New Millennium Writings,Other Voices, Ratapallax, Room of One's Own, Santa Clara Review,5Trope, West, Wind Review, Willow Spring, and in A Line of Cutting Women (CALYX). She is the author of The Glass Museum (Bellowing Ark Press) and A Place of Light (Cuidono Press).