He was too busy being ten years old to notice that his mom had left her brushes immersed in the jar. They sat there, in the sunlight, in the little glassed-in side porch that was her studio, the turpentine slowly evaporating and leaving rings inside the jar the color of pennies left long in the elements or the despoiled shell of a stillborn robin—the exact hue she hadn’t been able to mix that day, nor the day before, nor the day before that, until this day arrived and she finally surrendered to the idea of getting her realtor’s license. Had she waited for the paint to dry, cure, gestate in its time, the color she’d sought would have materialized; she’d known this, but she’d run out of time, faith and money in equal measure, and of the three, she also knew there was only one she could do a damn thing about. And just as she couldn’t observe the verdigris fluid change its state, he, Gray, her son, could never have known the graduated series of rings accumulated in his mom’s mind that corresponded to her decision; all that was clear to him those first few weeks was not to complain about having Hamburger Helper, again, because that would only lead to Tuna Helper and tears.
The metamorphosis of Gray’s mother cemented in his mind two ideas in this time when all else seemed shattered, when the story of their lives had switched abruptly as a television channel: one was that he would never suddenly change for anyone, even if it was supposedly for the other’s sake, for the best, and the other was that he would someday find a way to freeze time. He shared these thoughts with no one; they were his alone, and in this way no one, not even his own mother, could do a thing to them.
By the time he was twelve Gray had become used to being alone almost all the time and had almost become used to seeing his mom looking like anybody but his mom with her ponytail and all lopped into a severe frosted wedge and her paint-splotched overalls gone for good and rough tweeds with huge fake shoulders now the new norm and now that the kids he’d known his whole life were just learning to hone their cruelty it had taken him absolutely no time to get used to his own new clothing, his mom not even bothering to bag up his old shirts with yesterday’s collars and the way-wrong brand of jeans just so they could wind up again where they’d started in the first place, at the Goodwill, no, she didn’t have time for that now. When she drove up one evening honking and grinning in a brand new yellow Volvo, the old manual shift wagon just gone, no goodbye, and the window descended in a discreet hum and she told Gray to stand by the trunk and suddenly it popped open, all on its own, there, as if to climax the trick, was a new bike for him, its chrome wheel spinning on momentum and reflecting the refined brilliance of sunset. The bike seemed enormous compared to his old Huffy and as he pumped and wobbled away he wondered if his mom had thought he was bigger than he actually was and until he finally got used to mounting his mom’s fast and expensive gift he was often haunted by jack-in-the-box fears that the bike might be killing his chances of ever becoming a father one day. The thing, though, that he was most used to, the thing he had known ever since absorbing the outside world from inside the womb, the thing that had always conjured “home” the instant he walked in the door was the smell of the place, the aroma of the house, the scent of oil paint and turpentine and linseed oil, and having known it for all his existence he hadn’t known how bereft he’d be without it until it disappeared, all at once and in a single day. This was the day that the source of the aroma— the side porch, his mom’s old studio—was demolished, and the next day and for weeks after the blows of hammers fell and echoed back as a new addition to the house was constructed, the smell of cinderblocks and plaster supplanting paint and thinner and linseed completely.
[Continued in Confrontation 109]