Fiction: A Figure in A Window

Read More: A brief interview with David Kranes

When the painter, Hunt’s, wife Leah died, he wandered their house for three days talking to her.  Asking her thoughts on the day’s news.  Checking: Had she seen the cat curled up in the Easter basket?  Asking: What would taste good for dinner?  Then he sat in their bed doing New York Times crosswords–alternating the solutions he would usually solve with those Leah had a knack for.  When each puzzle was done, he would say something like, Pretty quick for a Thursday.  He’d be watering the plants outside and think he saw Leah inside.  Or he’d be inside tearing Thai basil for a stir-fry and be sure he’d caught sight of her outside, setting out suet-cakes for birds.

A week after her passing, he invited five of Leah’s friends over to explore her closets, jewelry boxes, bureau drawers– try whatever on, model for one another, share Leah stories, memories.  He had their lunch catered by the Bentwood Bistro, left them to the known pleasures of their mingling–to nostalgia and treasure explorations–asking only that they not leave anything of Leah’s behind, a request that all five of Leah’s friends found both sad and strange.  But Hunt was, in his way, strange they had often said.  So: best to not disputee.

His own day he spent walking in the foothills and neglecting the cell-phone calls from his sons.  In the late afternoon, he went to see a showing of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and, fifteen minutes in, knew he’d made a mistake.

In the calls he took, both boys–Sean and Todd–echoed each other: How are you doing?//  Do you want me to come out?//  Do you want to come here and visit? // No!–although he didn’t say no; he said, let me think about it.  The truth was: He didn’t want to be trouble, create a burden.  And he couldn’t imagine that either boy would want an old painter hanging around.  Especially when the Old Painter was their father.  Worrying if he was being entertained sufficiently.  Worrying about his diet.

So–with Leah gone and gone only a month–he made all the necessary preparations: sold their home and sent each son $200,000.  In registered letters, he included house keys and the information that they had 60 days before new-owner possession.  He’d take only two canvass duffels and his paints.  Anything else?—theirs!—furniture, china, glassware, pool chemicals, clothes, rugs.  Maybe they’d think it all junk.  But they could decide.  Both were level-headed; they could sort.

Hunt’s notion–after Leah’s passing and after he’d failed to reappear significantly in his own house–was to disappear.  In what remained of his life, he would not bother anyone.  He began by jotting possible destinations—eliminating the U.S.   If he were Stateside and got clinically depressed or began failing, calling someone close might become tempting.  He didn’t want that.

He’d had a full life—one of always-new-possibilities and of sometimes wild changes.  To ask more—especially from those who’d shared affection—was too much.  He’d asked….and gotten.  Now, then–in the chaos of ghost-moments that crowded his heart and brain–he needed to go away.  And away wasn’t Arizona or Idaho or New Mexico—Maine or New Hampshire.  Away was away.  Abroad.  Across an ocean.

What Hunt eliminated next were countries in the European Union.  The Euro had never seemed like real currency.  So he crossed all the EU countries off, which opened whole other continents—Africa, Austrailia, Asia, South America.

He began listing criteria.  He’d like away to have a coastline; he felt, at heart, a sea person.  As well—ideally, he’d have no notion of the language.  That way, he’d avoid sitting in a café and over hearing a conversation that might break his heart.  Climate–?  Warmer rather than colder.  Drier rather than wet.

The possibilities grew…diminished.  Hunt bought a hand-tinted World Atlas and thought it beautiful.  He drank Tanqueray Ten—so cold it made his throat ache—sat by the graying pool of the house he’d just sold and pressed post-its onto the atlas pages marking away candidates.

It took three days—reading, Googling, watching videos—but he chose.  His choice: a small coastal city in a country with vast uninhabited stretches—mountains and desert.  It was a walled city with an Old Town and, outside its walls, a newer industrialized district.  Its mean temperature translated to 72 degrees Fahrenheit.   Its annual rainfall was less than a foot.

He’d fly from Tucson to Atlanta, Atlanta to Seville, where he’d spend two nights, because the only airline to his destination flew only twice a week.  Then there’d be yet another night in a city whose name he could only find written in Arabic.  Finally, he’d board a 10-seater which would take him—a three-hour flight–to his new home.

Other than airlines, Hunt made no other reservations.  He had his USBank manager set up the routing to a local bank where he’d be, so that he could receive monthly funds.  Finally, he shut down his laptop and set it on the granite countertop in his kitchen, assuming one of his boys would find and take it.  You can know too much, Hunt reflected.  There can be too much information and too little mystery.

He would take a cab and leave his and Leah’s Accord in the garage.  The boys could flip a coin.  One of them should have it; it had been a loyal car.

The night before departure, Hunt had trouble sleeping.  He roamed the house, picked things up, set them down again.  Perhaps he was turning the page a bit too quickly.  Perhaps….   Still, it was a page that demanded to be turned.  He could perhaps himself to death.  Why flinch?  Why look away?

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He lifted off from Tucson on a Tuesday.  An hour later, gazing at clouds, he felt himself a doppelganger of George Clooney—in that movie directed by the son of Ivan Reitman.  How was it children knew the transitory better than their parents?

Atlanta’s Hartsfield International confused Hunt, so he retreated to a far corner of The Bayou, a restaurant decorated with swamp grasses, strings of alligator teeth and colorful bird paintings.  He spooned gumbo and drank something in a wide glass called a swamp cooler and tried to finish a book which, even though it was short, he’d been working on for two months, J. M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals.

By the time he left The Bayou, he felt fully disoriented.  He was in Concourse B and had to find the international concourse, C.  Hunt descended escalators, took a train, ascended escalators.  His flight, at gate C-31, was delayed.  He pulled out The Lives of Animals and stared blankly at the bookmarked page for two minutes before realizing the book was upside down.

Hunt’s seatmate to Seville was a woman in a burka.  For most of the flight she slept, and he watched the synthetic fabric over her mouth inflate and deflate with regularity.    In Seville, he stayed at the Becquer—just off Calle Arjona—a hotel constructed, mostly, of hammered copper and brass.  All the lobby and dining room voices were mutedly musical—as if from distant radios.  He walked streets, visited the Catedral Giralda, circled the Plaza Toros Real MaestranzaWhat happened in a bullfight, exactly?  He had seen sequences in movies, but they’d been only fragmentary.

On his next flight, his seatmate was a man of man of deep African darkness—skin more pitch and grain than Hunt could remember ever seeing.  The man wore a silver-and-green matching kaftan and hat and spoke no English.  He played solitaire on his laptop.

Before boarding his final flight, Hunt stayed three days in a small city which had suffered a terrible fire and was being rebuilt.  There were empty blocks fronted by the charred brick hulls of buildings, while, only a block away, there were modern glassfront stores and open cafes.  The language had a distinct basso.  Even when the conversations seemed antic and delighted, the gestural language was with fists.  Locals drank coffee out of square cups and stirred in a yogurt substance.  The lifts in Hunts hotel sounded like chains rattling when they dropped to the street level or rose.

On the last leg—the 10-seater—his seatmate was a breathtaking red-head who plucked fashion magazines out of a wide Armani bag.  At one point, she tapped his elbow and pointed—first to a model in a silk-scarf spread then to herself.  Hunt made the connection and nodded.  She smiled.  He jerked a thumb into the air.  She laughed and returned to her turning pages.  Hunt, unable to finish The Lives of Animals had moved on to a Francine Prose biography of Caravaggio.

When, long hours later, their plane landed, the redhead dug a blue business card from her bag and presented it—indicating that Hunt should turn it over.  On the back, Hunt found two handwritten questions in English:  Are you staying in the Old Town?  Would you like a ride?

The cursive questions made Hunt feel charmed and apprehensive.  He could hear Leah–as if from the seat behind: You and your students!  He moved his jaw as a prelude to language then began to nod.  “Yes,” he finally said—followed by “Thank you.”  He spoke each of the three words too slowly, too loudly.   A half hour later he found himself strapped into a bucket seat in a Nissan “Z,” driving across a bridge toward a ring-route.

Outside the Old Town’s gates, the young woman produced yet another card with the name of a hotel.  Again, Hunt thanked her; she smiled; they waved goodbye.

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The hotel on the silk-model’s card was the Neptune—small and boutique and without a  lift—an odd, indifferent hive where the air more shifted than circulated, and employees treated him more as a co-worker than as a guest.  After finding his connecting bank—Hunt leased a mid-sized, sparsely furnished flat a block only from the harbor and a larger studio-space in what had been a meat-packing plant.  Hooks still hung from the ceiling in the rental’s walk-in refrigerator.  “Ready to rock-and-roll,” Hunt pronounced, hoping.

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Language was, nevertheless, an issue.  Mostly Hunt pointed and used hand signals.  There was a word which seemed to be a greeting and another–thank-you.  The locals smiled when he used either.  He would experiment with pronunciations; they would offer slight modifications, and he would try to approach their off-hand, burr-of-the-tongue vernacular.  Neighbors and neighbor-merchants began recognizing him and rattling off what-he-assumed-to-be-the-news-of-the-day when he entered or passed.

He had the urge but stifled it to call Sean, call Todd, say: Hey–I’m in a place that’s barely  on a map! 

Dad: get a grip, he imagined Sean’s voice saying.

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In his first weeks, Hunt frequented the nearby cafes, all of which served a wonderful espresso, which they pronounced ezbresto.  When he wanted a refill, Hunt learned that he was to say, addindo.   Please seemed to be congraches.  Hunt was happy.  To sit in a café beside a harbor dotted with black-bordered green and red fishing boats and to know no one–well, almost no one–and understand almost nothing, felt a kind of gift–what he had always wanted.  Or so it seemed.

Still, he wished Leah were there.  She would say, Look at the water!  What are those birds?!  I should have brought my bird book!

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He discovered life-away to be surprisingly inexpensive.  Fish were fresh and available at the markets as well as produce.  There were long, thin potatoes the color of Yukon golds.  Honey was a local specialty—and a cereal grain that, when cooked, tasted like rye oatmeal.  Bakeries were everywhere.  Cheese venders sold out of cooler carts on the street—hard cheeses, soft cheeses, cured meats.  Most of the men wore sandals; Hunt had brought none.  In a dry-goods store he bought a soft-leather pair that fit perfectly and that cost—by his currency calculation—about $12.00 US.

Logic told Hunt he should be lonely; instead, that old, hollowed-out emotion—though he expected its knock—rarely came calling.  However it happened, most hours he felt….what? what was the word?….accompaniedAlone: true.  But not solitary.  He settled in; he walked the harbor, watched the fishermen unload their boats, mostly foot-long flat fish with scales that were iridescent blue.  He began painting.

Most days, he would wake early—shave, shower, dress, visit a nearby bakery, buy breakfast rolls, return to his flat, make coffee and sit by the open window watching thin charcoal- and-orange-colored cats cavort on the rooftop below.  The cat roof was like a theatrical stage on which animal Punch & Judy shows took place—the sea as backdrop.  The show was always different; the cats, always amusing.  They made Hunt smile.  He imagined Leah watching and her laughter.

After his breakfast and the cat-theater, Hunt–sketchpad in hand–would walk the paths sloping the city’s promontory.  What interested him was the Feininger-like plane-geometry of the buildings patched and intercepted by smaller blocks of doors and windows, edged by satellite discs and crisscrossed by the hatchwork of television aerials. In the final two years of what Leah had called her dwindling, Hunt’s work had increasingly abstracted, grown colder and more mathematical.  He’d vowed to never again do a painting that, when he looked at it, hurt him.

Within weeks, he found two favorite cafes where he almost always lunched and where the waiters, greeting him, seemed attuned to his odd language of hand gestures.  Almost every day—the sun still nearly overhead—he would have a dark beer and a salad with egg and olives and shell fish.  The waiters called it calladaccia—except that: when he said calladaccia they all laughed.

When he finished his lunch, he’d return to his flat and nap an hour.  Sitting outside in the café sun, together with the dark beer, made him feel tired and unproductive.  So he slept.  And then, in the mid-afternoon, he would rise and walk to his studio space outside the walls and paint.  He’d built easels from pieces of wood-slatted food crates the café waiters had given, and they sufficed.  The light where he worked was terrible, but none of his canvases were larger than five feet and almost square, so he could carry work outside and—in the diminishing natural light–set it against his building for appraisal.

In his new cold abstractionism, he had set a limit of four colors: blacks, browns, dirty-

emerald greens and a burnt oranges.  Most days, he would work past dark, retrace the walk to his flat, cook a dinner and listen to music.  He’d bought a CD player for less than $20, and he’d put on Monk or Miles Davis, Annalisa Ewald or Frernando Sor.

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His routine had become regular for almost two months when, one night, a young sweaty man with snaky braids slid from an alleyway and stood in front of him with a knife—the fingers of his free hand folding repeatedly in a gesture which Hunt read as, Give-me-your-money!

Hunt waved the youth-with-a-knife away and shook his head.  He was not buying in.    He set his face with ferocity, ignited blowtorches behind his eyes.

“Everything you’re carrying, fucker!”  The young snaky-haired man sounded like a stock character in a bad television police drama.

All that Hunt carried was the equivalent of thirty dollars.  But that wasn’t the point.  “Just go away,” Hunt started, but before his words, the young man screamed: “Give it—you fucking Zeeker!

Fucking Zeeker….?

And then the young man lunged—slashing.  The lunge threw Hunt against the stone side of a building where his head slammed.

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Hunt’s eyes opened in a drab room smelling of antiseptic.  He had a drip running into his arm.  A nurse-woman in green scrubs opened and shut drawers in the near distance.  When Hunt’s throat made a sound, the nurse-woman turned, approached and spoke calmingly in her own language.

“…English,” Hunt managed—a request.

The nurse-woman shook her head.  She smiled and brought a mirror to where Hunt lay, held it up.  He saw the long stitch-line on his face.  And a shaved patch bandaged on his head.  The medic/woman screwed her face into a mock pout, offering a dismissive it-will-all-be-better—it-will-vanish gesture.  She smiled.

Hunt spoke the word that he believed—through his café exchanges—to be thank-you.  He took her gestural reply to assure him: no problem!  Off to the side somewhere: a voice–stern, upset–Why did you have to challenge him?!

First, with his hands, then with currency, he asked what he owed.  The nurse-woman waved the offer away and brought his folded clothes.  He changed, thanked her again and left—jotting down the address and transcribing the word on the outside sign: Kleniq.  On the stitched side, his face felt tight—like another person’s.  And the crown of his head felt measurably shrunken.

But his skin relaxed; his head filled.  And he felt odd pride when others, in cafes, stared.  With only a day’s break, he fell back into his routine until one night—two weeks later—when the same sweaty, snake-haired man slipped from a different alley and, again, confronted him.

When Hunt recoiled, the young man held his hands out—a gesture, half-surrender, half-apology.  “Dude; chill; it’s cool; I’m cool; chill.  Look: sorry for the other night.  I thought you were—you know–one of them.  A Zeeker.  I didn’t know you were American.  Truth.  Sorry.”

Hunt didn’t speak, only listened.  Certainly, this time, the young man wasn’t threatening.  He told Hunt: “Look, I’m gonna cut to the chase,” that it was a long story.  “Details are shit,” he said.  Point was: he’d ended up in this city and had quickly run out of cash.  He’d become a poacher and squatter.  He’d lived in alleys, fishcrates, discarded cardboard boxes.  “These Zeekers have showed—insensitive fuckers–absolutely no compassion.” He told Hunt he’d never intentionally mess up another American.  He said: call him Wolf and offered to buy Hunt a drink.

“I thought you had no money,” Hunt said.

“Yeah.  True.  Maybe, then, you could buy me one,” Wolf said

Against better judgment, Hunt agreed, and they sat in a harbor café Hunt had never tried —one where a middle-aged man at a microphone played a guitar-like instrument.  When the young, snaky-haired man asked if he could have a couple shots of tequila, the waiter gestured that they didn’t serve tequila but he had something the young man would enjoy.

The waiter was right.  Hunt stopped the young man called Wolf at his fifth shot.  He’d rambled—stories about rejection and victimization.   What would Sean or Todd–stranded without resources–do in a foreign city?  “Look,” Hunt said finally, “It’s late.  Where I work, there’s an old mattress and a working toilet.  Nothing really of value—except my paints and canvasses.  For a while – stay there; use it.  Don’t be there, though, between three in the afternoon and eight at night.  That time’s mine.  But it will keep you out of the rain.”

Wolf lifted his hair with his fists and cried.  He blubbered and thanked Hunt.  They retraced streets, crossed under the gate, ended at Hunt’s meat-packing space, where Hunt showed Wolf how to work the lock and left him.

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The arrangement stretched into a second week—with no signs of Wolf’s habitation other than occasional chop bones in a corner or what looked like strewn spinach leaves.  Once, he’d used Hunt’s burnt umber to fingerpaint a wall-message: HEY—MR. LANDLORD!

Hunt’s scar healed.  His head scabbed over and then smoothed; hair began to grow.  Seen in one light, Hunt’s new canvases looked like colored geometries superimposed on one another.  Seen in another, they looked like fish scales.

On the second Thursday of Wolf’s tenancy, Hunt arrived mid-afternoon to find a new canvass gouged with the message, THIS PAINTING IS CREEPY.  At dusk, a sweaty Wolf lurched in through the door, drunk, and used a wall for support.  “Hey—outta sight, outta mind!  Right?!” he crowed.

“I’m sorry, but I’m working now,” Hunt said.

“I’m sorry, but your work is shit!” Wolf spat back.

“Where’d you get the money to drink?” Hunt asked.

“Hey!  I’ve got sources,” Wolf sneered.  “Sources and resources!”  And he staggered to where Hunt painted and smeared his hand back and forth over the canvas.

Hunt snapped.  Minutes later, he would not be precisely clear about what happened, but there was blood on his hands and Wolf had been locked inside what had once been a walk-in fridge, where he was slamming his fists against the door, screaming to be let out.

Hunt paced his space.  Once–and it still haunted–he had over-punished Sean for some small, some trivial thing.  Sean had been what?….five? six?  Did he still–? Was it possible that he–?  Hunt washed his hands with cold water in the room’s single rust-streaked and worn porcelain basin.  Then, using a palette knife, he scraped all of the paint from the canvass Wolf had smeared, re-gessoed, and began again.  On a small table were wads of cotton, brought to re-dress his head, and he stuffed two in his ears to muffle the door-pounding.

By the time–two hours later–he’d cleaned up and removed the earplugs, the door-slamming had quieted. […]


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David Kranes is a writer of seven novels and three volumes of short stories—most recently, (novel) Making The Ghost Dance (2005) and (stories) The Legend’s Daughter (2013). His 2001 novel, The National Tree, was made into a film by Hallmark, which aired in November, 2009. His short fiction (appearing in such magazines as Esquire, Ploughshares, Transatlantic Review) has won literary prizes and has been anthologized. Over 40 of his plays have been performed in New York and across the U.S. (in theaters such as The Actors’ Theater of Louisville, The Mark Taper Forum, Manhattan Theater Club, Cincinatti’s Playhouse in the Park), and his Selected Plays was published in 2010. His most recent theater venture was contributing a play to an evening (with the prompt of “bravery”) of six short plays—3 by American playwrights; 3 by Iraqui playwrights. His play, A Loss of Appetite was performed (with an honoring of his body of work) at Salt Lake Acting Company in April, 2014. He has written for radio, film and for dance companies. The opera, Orpheus Lex, for which he wrote the libretto, was performed at New York City’s Symphony Space in February of 2010 and again, recently, in Salt Lake. For 14 years, he directed the Playwrights’ Lab at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute. In 2015, he was asked to recreate a national-in-scope version of this Playwright’s Lab for Salt Lake Acting Company. The SLAC Playwrights’ Lab has been a resounding success. Two new novels, abracadabra and Crap Dealer will appear in 2017 and 2018. Mr. Kranes is an award-recognized mentor and continues mentoring whenever and wherever he can (most recently, in Provence, France).

Read More: A brief interview with David Kranes