The Woman Who Painted Herself Gone

 

            Myrna stood before the tiny bathroom sink with its rusted pipes and remembered the promise she made to herself.

            “I wasn’t going to use this,” she whispered.

            She turned the tube of paint in her hand. No name or list of ingredients was printed on the solid white tube. Outside the bathroom, the T.V. blared with the shouts of another touchdown. “Sonovabitch!!” Billy’s voice rose in anger as his hand smacked against the vinyl arm of his chair. That could only mean the other team was winning and Billy was sure to be pee-o’d about it. She could wait out his anger here in the bathroom.

            She looked in the mirror. Red eyes from sleepless nights stared back at her. Nights of turning fitfully in the sweaty twin bed she shared with Billy. The drone of the ceiling fan no longer lulled her to sleep. These past nights its steady hum seemed to be a voice which kept talking to her. It talked to her far into the night until the dirty morning blinked through even dirtier Venetian blinds.  Then, at last, she could get up and be free of the confines of damp sheets. Free of Billy’s thick hands.


            Myrna hardly recognized the face that stared back from the mirror. She had, at one time, been considered pretty. But years of straining to say the right things to Billy, of hiding her fear of him, had taken their toll. Dark circles under her eyes accentuated the red inside them. Her cheeks were sunken, her nose still swollen from Billy’s dead-aim fist when he lost his temper for the umpteenth time the other day.

            She shook her head sadly at her reflection. Again, she turned the tube of paint in her hand. She whispered to herself, “What the hell were you thinking, girl? Why’d you take this thing from that old woman?” The croak of the old woman’s strangely accented voice replayed in her head: “You take. You need someday.”

            Myrna remembered the night she was stopped in a dark alley by that voice. She barely made out an old woman’s face half-hidden in the shadows of packing crates and cardboard boxes damp with the salt air.  The old woman had shoved a small tube into Myrna’s hand. It resembled a tube of Bacitracin. The metal case was white with a small black screw-cap. She thought of Bacitracin because she had had to purchase a tube of it a couple of years ago at a drugstore in Dimebox. She needed to apply it to the raw cross-shaped burn on her thigh after Billy, in a jealous rage, carefully marked her as his own with his cigarette.

            She strained in the darkness to see the old woman. “But what is this? What do I do with it?” She questioned.

            “You know what to do. You know when time comes.” Her voice faded as she turned and hobbled into the night, leaving Myrna alone with the cracked bricks and the scurrying rats.

            That was over a year ago. She and Billy had just moved fromLufkinto this tiny town on the Gulf, a few miles outside ofPort Arthur. They left Lufkin by night, in fear of retaliation by the paper mill foreman, whose face Billy rearranged in a drunken claim that the foreman had cheated him out of his overtime. The move wasn’t much different from a half dozen other moves they had made acrossEast Texasduring their three-year marriage.

            Billy got work at the local tackle shop and she figured she’d wait tables till something better came along. Thing was, “something” never did come. She waited daily for that something as she cleared tables at Al’s Diner.  She took lunch orders from burly truck-drivers and chain-smoking, bee-hive-hair beauticians, and each day flowed into another until more time than she thought she’d have to wait, passed.

            Their one room, big enough for a twin bed and the pea-green vinyl chair, sat over the alley where she met the old woman one night coming home from Al’s.

            She had never met the old woman before, yet the old woman seemed to know her. Myrna never saw her again after that night, but the croaking voice often whispered in her ear: “You know when time comes.”

            The voice usually came after Billy hit her or yelled at her for not turning the T.V. on for him, or for not bringing him a beer at just the right time, or for just being Pure D Stupid, as he called her.

 

            Myrna looked again at the eyes in the mirror. She squeezed them shut. When she opened them, they stared back, red with dark circles underneath. The broken nose was still there too. She couldn’t afford to have a doctor look at it. Anyway, Billy did say he was sorry and shouldn’t have done it.  He just couldn’t take living like rats and making three dollars an hour shoving wooden pegs in cork balls down at the tackle shop. He was high-strung these days, he said. Just stay out of his way and wait till he cooled down, he said. Hard to stay out of a big man’s way in a tiny room with the bed butting up against his throne.

 

            Everyday, Myrna thought she could make it just one more day. If she waited one more day, something good was bound to happen. She thought the very act of getting up one more morning, going to work one more shift, waiting one more table, forgiving Billy one more time, would surely be fertilizer for a miracle to grow up out of the hard soil of their lives. She had promised herself there would be no need for anything drastic, like opening the tube the old woman had given her.

            Now, as she took in the full meaning of the gaunt face, broken nose and red eyes, all staring expectantly at her from the mirror, she knew there was only one way for a miracle to happen.

            Myrna opened the medicine chest and took out one of her make-up brushes, her favorite. She rubbed her thumb over the soft, nylon bristles. She had filched the brush from the five-and-dime last week. She slowly turned the black cap till it came off between her thumb and forefinger. She laid the cap on the sink, then turned the water on, letting the rust run out before she wet the brush. She carefully squeezed the tube. The whitest paint she had ever seen came out. Whiter even than old Aunt Eva’s sheets. She let the paint curl in a swirl, like ice cream at the Dairy Queen, onto the brush. She dabbed her cheek. The paint was cool and soothing, and when it touched her skin it turned shiny white, like the milk-glass her mama used to collect.

            Myrna thought about the old woman and wondered if she knew the tube was being opened at last. That old woman had been right. Myrna knew it was time. The waiting was over; she knew what to do.

 

            Billy’s voice drowned out the T.V. “What the hell you doin’ in there, Myrna? Come on out! I got to pee!”

            She turned the faucet as far as it would go so the rushing, splashing water covered any sound she made. She need not have worried. The nylon brush was silent as it glided over her face.

            She carefully pulled the brush down her cheeks, across her forehead, down her nose, covering the swollen bruised skin. The trails of white strokes smoothly covered her face. Myrna realized she saw less and less of her face and more and more of the peeling, flowered wallpaper behind her. She stroked the brush over her head, covering her dishwater blonde hair. As Myrna watched herself, only her hands and arms were visible in the medicine cabinet mirror. She felt her lips turn up in a smile. It was the first
time she’d smiled in about a year, but she couldn’t see it.

 

            Billy’s fist banged on the door. “Godammit, Myrna, get the hell outta there! NOW!”

            The door groaned and she thought the lock might give way. She didn’t rush. In slow motion she drew the brush down her neck, stopped to unbutton her blouse and let it slip from her shoulders. Then she pulled down her bra straps, unfastened the clasp. The bra dropped silently as she painted down the hollow of her neck and over her breasts, shoulders and arms. She undid the buttons on her skirt and let it fall to the floor. She stepped out of her panties, and with the loving touch of Monet painting water lilies, drew the brush over her stomach, sides, thighs, pelvis, down her legs. With each stroke the painted part of her turned milk-white, then vanished.

            The door jumped in its frame as Billy pounded and shouted, “I’m busting this door down, girl. You better open up!”

            Myrna squeezed the last of the paint from the tube and finished painting her feet. She saw the floor right through her legs. The dirty linoleum stretched around her in a small square from the edge of the tub to the door and under the toilet. She let out a small gasp when, instead of her body, she saw only the towel she and Billy shared, in a heap near her clothes.

            She jumped as Billy kicked the door.

            “You stupid bitch! Let me in!” He screamed into the thin wooden door.

            Myrna carefully rolled the brush and empty tube in toilet paper and laid them in the wastebasket by the sink. She stepped into the once-white tub, sat down on the scratched, gritty porcelain and leaned against the tile wall. Soap trails streaked down the gray tile; quiet, dirty gray where shoulders and breasts should have been.

            She glanced at the window over the toilet. An orange-pink sunset glowed futilely through the murky pane. The window was shut tight, cemented with old paint. Even Billy hadn’t been able to open it since they moved in.

            Myrna closed invisible eyes and leaned her invisible head against the tile. She breathed deeply and, for the first time in such a long time, felt calm inside.

            “Billy will be so surprised,” she thought.

            She waited, then smiled as the door finally gave way.

 

THE END

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