by David Schuman
You’re scrubbing grout in the bathroom when the old guy next door shouts through the wall. Wants to know if you’ll come over and see his paintings. He’s been bugging you ever since you moved in, convinced you’ll understand what he’s getting at. It’s ten minutes before Maritza may or may not arrive. The tub looks clean, even around the drain.
The old guy opens his door and you’re hit with a whoosh of stewy air. He’s got about twenty canvasses, some hung, some leaning against the walls, all of his little dog. Pepé.
My muse, he says.
Pepé, a dishwater Chihuahua, peeps from a mound of newspapers behind the sofa and yawns. The paintings are crude, with colors right out of the tube. Pepé as a circus ringmaster, a pizza chef. Pepé behind the wheel of a red blob you suppose is a sports car.
Maybe you’ve stumbled on a primitive cache, a Grandma Moses, a Henry Darger.
No. This ugliness is not transcendent.
Well? he asks.
You say you’re just a librarian at the med-school.
Later, after the tub’s passed inspection, after she’s soaked while you waited outside the door, straining to hear the stirring water, Maritza allows you to comb her hair as she sits in front of you watching cable. Her long black hair is smooth with conditioner but when you draw the comb through one final time, it snags. You pull a single strand from the teeth.
Give it to me, Maritza says, her eyes on the TV.
She rolls the hair into a ball between her fingers, passes it back.
Swallow, she says.
Next door, Pepé insists on something. Yip. Yip. Yip.
You place the ball on your tongue. It begins to unfurl, drawing on memory, trembling like a fly.
David Schuman’s fiction has appeared in Missouri Review, American Short Fiction, Conjunctions, Black Warrior Review and many other publications, including the Pushcart Prize Anthology. He grew up in New Jersey, but now lives in St. Louis, where he teaches fiction and directs the MFA program at Washington University.
Image credit: Danielle Deleon