The Sawblade Painter

by Whitney Ray


In the morning, he examines her. Though she is nineteen to his thirty-two, Don finds her garish in the clean light. Shasta’s red, spangled tube top is scrunched around her stomach, comically pushing up her breasts. Her thick makeup has faded to reveal acne-pocked skin. Her arm is wrapped around a flannel pillow. She was an entirely different creature, lithe and wicked, in the darkness. He eases away from her and drapes a pilled wool blanket over his shoulders like a cape as he makes for the little cedar-paneled bathroom. His head throbs from the previous night at the Spyder Dome bar, and he recalls with gratitude that today is Friday, his day off at Tri-County Propane Company before he pulls the Saturday shift.

Shasta calls “come back to bed” as he pisses in the cold. She sounds young, and he ignores her. He craves the strong coffee Crystal would have ready for him every morning. He stumbles into the kitchen, the kitchen paneled with knotted pine which Crystal always said looked like a steakhouse, and he puts the Folgers to drip, swishes and gargles the first half mug.

The bottles of paint, the cheap brushes from Hobby Lobby, and the toothed circular sawblades yet unpainted rest upon newspaper on the wrap-around kitchen counter. He sits in front of his art supplies on the fake leather barstool Crystal bought, one of the few objects she didn’t take with her when she left. Throughout the trailer Don can see the holes where her things should be. He hears Shasta groan from the bedroom, the sound she makes when she stretches, a sound to beckon him back.

“Honey, what are you doing in there?”

She is too young to say “honey.” She can say baby convincingly enough, but honey is an endearment earned with age. He ignores her, dips a small brush in sky blue paint and dabs at the pick-up truck sketched on the metal—an old style Studebaker with rounded curves parked in front of a red barn. With a fine-tipped Sharpie marker he outlines a woman wearing a long prairie skirt, and Don nods with satisfaction at the scene.

He knows he is better than the other sawblade painters who loiter downtown at Riley’s Café, drinking coffee, their sawblades painted with stiff western landscapes—barns, grass, tractors, cattle, horses—displayed on Riley’s tables. Most of the painters are old, with failing sight. Don’s granddad was among them, and he taught Don before he died last year. Don took to sawblades quickly. He was good at drawing in school. His high school art teacher always wanted him to enter his sketches into contests in Tulsa. The one year he entered he didn’t win a damn thing, but still his teacher thought he was the best, and the girls in class cooed over his sketches of horses with liquid eyes and thick dreadlocks of mane. Horse drawings are an aphrodisiac for women. When he first started to see Crystal, Don used to slip watercolor sketches onto the console of her truck. Crystal never understood his ability to draw three-dimensionally. Magic, she would call it, her voice downy soft. He never told her he owned a series of Joy of Painting videos on perspective at his bachelor residence, stacked under the bed with the Playboys.

Shasta emerges from the bedroom wrapped in one of his plaid western shirts. She walks to him and views the sawblade on the counter. Her starchy blonde hair nearly grazes the blue truck.

“Watch out there, wet paint.” He is sharper than he means to be.

“That’s not me, is it?” She asks. “Aren’t you ever gonna paint me on one?”

“Sure baby, I’ll paint you one sometime.” He tries for the flirtatious tones of last night, when Shasta looked good in the dim light.

“What are you doing today?” he asks her.

“I need to drive to Tulsa and see my mom. She’s leaving for a Red Hat Society vacation next week—you know those women who wear the purple and red get-ups. Her group is going to Vegas this weekend.”

“Lord, that’ll be a wild time. So what do you have to do, feed her cats or something?” He paints the woman’s hair with rich, chocolate-colored waves.

“It’s more than a cat actually.” She laughs hoarsely. Her voice has traction, like Tanya Tucker’s, Don thinks. “Something I’ve been meaning to mention for a while.”

“What’s that?” The woman’s skirt will be red like the barn, he decides, starred with a design of blue bachelor button flowers.

“Mom keeps my baby with her. Beau. He’s three.”

Don nods. He has long suspected that Shasta has a child, given away to one of those agencies, maybe, or made a ward of the state. These young girls are capable of dark things sometimes, neglect or abuse or ignorance with a child. He sees the faint purple lines on Shasta’s thighs. He notices the way she carries a shadow of a baby around on her hip when she leans against the counter of the Spyder Dome, how she rocks the shadow of him when she drinks her coffee in Don’s rocking chair on the front porch, and how, when Don sucks her breasts, she sighs maternal and comforted.

“Good for you,” Don says. Yet he would rather not know. He does not want the kid here.

“Yeah. His dad run off, dropped out of school right after it happened. He never wanted to marry me.”

Don knows he should marry her. There are times, only at night, when she is tipsy and fragile-looking, that he feels the compulsion to bring Shasta and her patchouli incense into his trailer for good. She could make him frozen pizzas in the microwave, she could wash the sheets, could feed and water the bird dogs he keeps in plastic barrel dog houses outside. He can never have her here now, with the kid confirmed.

Shasta’s pink cell phone is ringing, her mother calling to make arrangements for Beau’s drop off. As she holds the phone Don notes that Shasta’s artificial, French-tipped nails are dingy and beginning to flake off. The one on her pinkie is missing. He looks down at the sawblade depiction of Crystal and finds it difficult to continue painting. He swirls the fine brush in a Dixie cup of stagnant water, listening to Shasta chatter about Vegas. The blue paint blooms in the water like gathering clouds.

Shasta eats Wheaties dry, from the box, crunching wheat and slurping coffee, wandering around in his socks and shirt, dusting the lamps with her fingers. Don uses steel wool to scrub the rust from some antique sawblades he got at a farm auction, longing for her absence. When Shasta must leave for Mason Drug, where she works as a pharmacy tech, Don helps her gather her things. He loans her a sweater and even sights the artificial pinkie nail on the green bed sheets. She crookedly re-glues the thing with a bottle from her purse. Don kisses her on the cheek in front of her truck, anything to move her along.

“You wouldn’t want to see Beau while he’s with me, would you? He’s a good kid. I think yall’d get along real well.”

He pauses long enough to watch her eyes darken with hurt and when he finally agrees, he is regretful of consenting. He needs to see Crystal. At times the craving to see her is unbearable.

Don showers in the cramped bathroom. He yanks a few gray hairs from his scalp in front of the mirror. His dark hair is starting to recede like a pond in summertime. He was a real good looking guy in high school. Now he carries extra weight. He dresses in one of the fancy cowboy shirts in clownish colors he generally reserves for nights at the Spyder Dome. He likes the way the bright turquoise, reds, and oranges of the shirt highlight his swarthy complexion. Crystal’s new realtor husband, he thinks, has a pale, sickly look about him.

Don has Crystal’s recess schedule memorized. When he pulls up to Mason Elementary, Crystal is leaning against the chain link fence, the February wind whipping her black skirt back. She surveys her third graders climbing on the Big Toy.

As he approaches, she opens the gate in the fence for him. The children hardly glance up, accustomed to his visits. Acceptable that he should see Crystal—he is known in Mason, was married to her first. Don feels this too, that he still owns her, the way he owns a little piece of family property in Texas he visits every summer, but doesn’t do a thing with.

“Rough night, Don?” Crystal asks, escorting him past the Big Toy. Side by side, they lean on the fence, where the pale sun is strongest. She gained weight after she left him. She is plump and bright-skinned, her dark brown hair glossy with health. She is pregnant now with the new husband’s baby, her first baby at the age of thirty. Don has watched the flat belly his hands lived on for years gradually inflate. So long as he doesn’t study her bulging stomach, Don thinks she looks good, and he tells her so.

She grins at him. Her teeth have been whitened, he can tell, framed by pink-glossed lips.

“You’d always worry I’d get so fat and you’re saying I look good now?” Crystal says. Yet her voice is playful, without resentment.

Don thinks of the food he’d a ways see in the teacher’s lounge—cream cheese pinwheels, brownies, slice and bake cookies. He always warned Crystal that he didn’t want her to become a lard ass like so many of the elementary teachers. He wanted to be proud to be seen with her. Toward the end, he wanted her edgier too, asked her to wear the tight jeans and shiny tops that Shasta does. Crystal never stopped wearing skirts, hose, and sweaters. Yet even pregnant it’s turned out she maintains herself, so clean and wholesome compared with Shasta, the difference between milk and vodka.

Crystal was always too good. Goodness bothered Don to no end when he first met her, made him wary of her when they were at high school together. She had pale skin and long brown hair. She wore modest, button-down shirts, denim skirts, and a thin gold ring set with a flake of sapphire. She got straight A’s.

When he was at the vocational school and she was earning her four- year degree at the nearby state college they ran into each other in the Git and Gallup convenience store. This time, he was intrigued by so much innocence, the heavy breasts muff led by her college sweatshirt. And when they were established together, her goodness made him cringe again—the way she wouldn’t go to the bars, or have more than two beers at home. The way she went to the First Baptist church every single Sunday and took food baskets around to Mason’s less fortunate every Thanksgiving. The Precious Moments figurines—ceramic, pastel-colored children with hydrocephalic heads and giant eyes she displayed all over the trailer house—the pale pink lipstick and old lady panties she wore, the way she made him take off his boots when he came in the door. He looks at her, guarding the playground, and thinks of her in his bed, waves of dark hair against shell-colored skin.

At times, Don regrets that he slept with Shasta while still married to Crystal. Shasta was eighteen then. He met her when they both rode in the Mason Fourth of July Rodeo. Crystal left him when she found out. Don knows he was a fool to think that in Mason, she wouldn’t find out.

“How’s Shasta doing these days, Don?” Crystal always could run a thread through his thoughts. She touches a hickey near the back of his neck.

Don sighs. “Shasta’s all right. She’s got a baby I guess. Not mine.”

“You know, I’d heard that. Course she didn’t grow up around here, so it was hard to say if that particular rumor was true. And I heard the baby was Down Syndrome too. That may not be right, I don’t know. People like to talk about young girls.”

Yet he can see her take satisfaction from the gossip, like she is biting down on a good steak as she says the words.

“I’m gonna guess you’re done with her now that you know about that.”

Don looks down and rolls his steel-toed boot over a stray basketball, too bewildered by the association of Shasta and a defective child to continue. He asks Crystal how she is feeling, when again is her baby due, and he drinks in her gleaming hair, the movement of her pink lips as she answers. These recess visits, these shots of her, are enough. He would want her back, yes, would be brief ly enslaved with gratitude for her presence, but he knows, inevitably, he would have other women again. Rodeoing in his twenties, he grew accustomed to the luxury of assorted women. Mason has always been a good town for women, for him. The men who work at the propane company, a mildly dangerous job, enjoy success with the barf lies of the Spyder Dome. Shasta and others.

Crystal’s platinum, diamond-studded wedding band glitters as she takes off the plastic whistle she wears around her neck during recess. Don thinks of his cheap, scuffed gold wedding ring at home, hidden inside a sock in his drawer. Crystal blows the plastic whistle and Don watches the children run to her.

A bitter cold front coasts into Mason that afternoon. Don, at home, eats canned tomato soup and toasted white bread. He sets up his newspaper, paints, and circular sawblades on a TV tray in front of the big picture window in the living room of the trailer, in order to watch the clouds unfold across the acreage. He paints a circular sawblade with mountains of clouds over flat land, dead winter grasses, the gray-green clouds denoting hail. He layers the colors to create depth in the clouds, just as the frilly, frightening man in Joy of Paintinginstructed him too. His clouds are damn good, he notes, and he feels cleansed by the paint and the quiet, rid of Shasta, Crystal, and the last remnants of the hangover. Things will be all right, he thinks, even when he finally loses all his hair, even when the young girls at the Spyder Dome stop wanting him in their beds. One day he will be a good old man. When the clouds are covered by darkness and the finished sawblade is laid out to dry, he goes to bed early. He makes the coffee the night before like Crystal used to so he can have it first thing in the morning.

Don’s phone rings and rings at 2:00 am. He stumbles to the icy living room. Death and sickness, his mother or Crystal he thinks, adrenaline pulsing in his throat.

“Hey, Don?” Shasta’s voice, gentle and embarrassed.

“What? You need a ride from the bar or something?” He is irritated that such fear should be caused by Shasta.

“No, our heat’s gone out in the trailer and Beau’s got a runny nose anyway. He’ll come down with pneumonia if he has to stay here any longer. Would you mind coming to get us and let us stay with you until I can get someone out here on the heat? I’m a little scared to drive in the weather.”

The wind rattles the plastic siding of the trailer. He opens the blinds of the kitchen window to see ribbons of ice slanting down. The cedar trees and hounds’ barrels appear crystallized under the porch light. He tells her he’s on his way for them.

The roads to Shasta’s are glassy with ice. He pumps the brakes, feeling slightly victorious as he passes several SUVs and trucks abandoned in the ditches.

Shasta rushes out of her battered trailer the minute he pulls in, her rodeo duffle and a toddler mummified in jackets slung over her shoulder. With a rush of frigid air and patchouli scent, they pile into the cab. The little boy is altered, just as Crystal said. Don can tell that under the dim interior light, through the layers of jackets and hoods Shasta has on him. His forehead is wide and thick, his blue eyes—Shasta’s eyes— very deep set. Don finds it difficult to look at him, but he still notes that the kid’s lips are tinged blue.

“Well Jesus Christ, Shasta, how long did you wait to call me?” Beau looks up at Don, bewildered by the yelling.

“Heat’s been off since about eight. I just thought I could bundle us up enough to make it through the morning.”

“Don’t you have propane?”

“The tank’s clean empty. I couldn’t pay the bill this month. Mom’s making me help her pay for some of the therapy and tests Beau has to go for and I was running short.”

“And I don’t know why you wouldn’t have goddamned said something to me about it. It’s my job.” The truck fishtails slightly on the paved roads through Mason and he pumps the brakes.

The boy is not so bad in the light of the trailer. Even with his jackets off, his large head and forehead, he is not as grotesque as Don first found him. Shasta has him dressed in a gray and white striped sweater and black sweatpants and he looks almost cute, like a tiny, misshapen prisoner. Don cranks up the propane and heat pours through the trailer. He finds a cot in the hall closet and helps Shasta fold it out and make it up with blankets for Beau. He doesn’t mind the kid so much now, but it would just be too much to have him in his bed.

“Hey, I’m gonna make hot chocolate, okay?” Shasta announces. She is pink-cheeked, giddy with the relief of heat. Don sits on the barstool Crystal left and watches Shasta rummage through the cupboards, uncovering old hot chocolate mix he wasn’t aware he owned. She heats up milk in a saucepan on the stove, adding the mix, cinnamon, a drizzle of Hershey’s syrup found in the back of the fridge. Her movements in the kitchen are graceful and sure, just as when she steers her horse around barrels.

She hands him a mug of chocolate concoction and goes to the living room. Beau is sleeping hard on the cot, worn out from the cold. Shasta stands over him and tightens the covers. She finds her rodeo duffle by the door and digs through it.

“I brought you some plate holders,” she says, holding up several clear plastic easels. “I thought we could put your sawblades on them so they could be out in the house. Would you let me do that?”

Don nods, handing her the stack of painted sawblades from the counter. He knows the coziness of the house, his tolerance of Beau misleads her. Just now, he is worn out from honesty. Let her make what she will of this.

He sits in the recliner and watches Shasta prop his sawblades up on the plate holders, watches hounds, horses, trucks, and Crystal go up on the shelves where the Precious Moments figurines used to reside. He thinks maybe tomorrow he will paint Shasta on a sawblade, looking out over a pasture as though she has been waiting for someone a long time.

Whitney Ray is from Perkins, Oklahoma and is currently an MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. her work has appeared in the Iowa Review. she received distinguished story recognition in the Best American Short Stories 2012.