Two years or so ago, the artist Jeremiah Ketner released a print of his painting, “All My Dolls”, as seen above. There were fifty prints, numbered (unsurprisingly) 1 through 50, sold through his “Small and Round” store. I don’t know where to find forty-nine of those fifty prints, but I do know where to find #6/50. It’s double-matted and custom framed, two shades of purple and a silver metal frame with light engraving work.
It’s in my basement.
The story’s odd and complicated and simple and stupid all at once. I knew a girl who knew the artist. I knew a girl who looked like the girl in the painting, even though I didn’t really see the resemblance until it was hanging in my hallway. I knew a girl who knew that girl and knew me too and wouldn’t stand for it as it hung in my hallway. She talked to it. “You bitch,” she said, “one of us has to go. Every morning,” she clarified, “I tell [name redacted] here that I’ll probably be the one to go.” But she was wrong and right all at once; her mortal enemy is long gone and she’s only now leaving.
“You don’t understand,” I snarled at her one night, “if anything it’s really a picture of [name redacted], she worked for the guy, hell, for all I know she stood there in a dress like that and held dolls, she was the model for the painting, who’s to say?”
“I know,” she replied, “who is inside that frame, waiting for me to leave.” Then one night I asked her,
“What can I do to make you happy?” She named a thing I couldn’t do, something that would require a better, braver, less selfish man than I was at the moment. “Is there anything else,” I said, abased and abashed and ashamed, “I could do?”
“You can take that painting down.” So now it sits in the darkness, next to a Paul-Cochrane-built Heritage Kenny Burrell Signature amplifier with a case covered by frankly gorgeous but terribly delicate tooled leather. And when I go to the basement, it, meaning she, talks to me. I didn’t believe she was in there, but she is, and Christ, she won’t shut up. I hobble around the basement, careful not to lean to far to the right lest my fractured hip open up and pitch me to the concrete out of spite, giving her a wide berth. But she always had the kind of voice that carried. It resonates within my thrice-cracked chest, because it is the voice of the past.
In the desert
I saw a creature
and you know the rest, or anyway, I do. When you spend your lifetime, your childhood at least, buried between the covers of a book, the past is all you get. Emotion, recollected in tranquility. Who said that? Fuck him, I used to say, he was no poet, he was a whiner, some sort of proto-emo, who the fuck cares about a walk you took around the lake, you don’t even bother to make it rhyme. But he was just more honest about it than most of us are willing to be. The past. The past, the past, the past, is past, but it’s still here, no amount of present happiness can save you from it. You are walking across an endless lake in the winter and the ice is remarkably thin and worse than that, it’s not a one-way transaction, it isn’t dependent on you just avoiding the worst spots, there are things that can come up from underneath and hit that frozen layer and spiderweb it in a heartbeat and drop you out of sight.
Recently, I saw someone who is more than a little important to me get a text message from the past and I saw her face collapse even as the phone finished buzzing. Sorry, you thought you were safe but there are things swimming down here and they want out or they want you in. I had a conversation with someone else about someone from their past and although it was, strictly speaking, irrelevant to me I finished the conversation with one hundred percent certainty I could cheerfully rub a cheese grater over the face of everyone involved for an indefinite period of time, the set of “everyone” being a set that included myself.
Even my son, who has almost no past to remember, who wakes up every morning smiling because yesterday was normally quite nice and today is expected to be no different, can be tormented by it. “Mommy,” he said, “slow down, there could be black ice.” What does black ice do? It makes a crash and then people whom you quite liked up to that point have blood on their faces and they can’t talk to you and you find yourself being carried through the cold air by someone who, too, has blood on his face, perhaps not his own.
Robert Bly talks about “ashes time”, time spent on the road of sorrow, but it’s only supposed to be a transition phase. Adolescence, he says, is ashes time. Prison, he says, is ashes time. Divorce — oh, yes, that’s ashes time, too. To that list, I would add many other things. It’s always ashes time somewhere, the way it’s always Miller Time.
For someone, anyway. When your ashes time is over, you come back out of the kitchen and you re-enter the world, stronger and better for it. Ashes time is time spent reflecting on the mistakes of the past and suffering for them. Once you leave it behind, you’re allowed to be done with it.
But that doesn’t mean it’s done with you. There’s a text message, an out-of-town arrival, a painting in the basement whispering to you that all I asked was for you to love me, and come to me, and be mine. The indomitable CMW, a veteran of many a small-aircraft flight, says with her serious face that “The easiest maneuver to make is a 180-degree turn.” She means that it’s always possible to turn away from trouble when you see it coming, that it’s always best not to chance weather you can’t predict or a ride a bad hand to the end.
Too bad that it’s also true for the past. It’s always easier to turn back into it. You know what happened in the past. The future feels easier to predict when you retreat into the past, when you re-make the same choices. It’s the easiest maneuver. To pick up the phone and shake someone else’s world, to force them to make the turn with you, to cage them in your old mistakes, to have a partner in your misdeed, to be in command of the situation.
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
to reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.
And who knows if it would be Heaven anyway. You might end up serving in Hell.
In the basement
I saw a painting,
lovely, sultry, beautiful
Who held her dolls in her hands
And lived through them.
“Are you bitter, friend?” I asked.
You’re allowed to be bitter, during ashes time. Until the time when you climb the stairs and rejoin the court, when you
…pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
That would be the thing to do. The other thing to do, of course, is to stay in the basement, with the past, and all your loves, all your mistakes, clutched to your chest, all your dolls.