“To Paint Great Pictures and Smoke Cigars” was published in FAMILY GATHERINGS in 2003, an anthology edited by Whitney Scott, Outrider Press. The short story tied for second prize in that year’s Tall Grass Writers literary competition. I presented the story as a guest author that same year at the Chicago Printers Row Book Fair. The original title was “Rooma and Teelo”
The house is filled with the mark of ages. It is 400 years old. We sit outside, and there’s a soft breeze, and seagulls and voices, and the sound of distant cars and dripping water and church bells. The port is shimmering below, with curly fishing boats, all colors, all sun. The flat Spanish desert has given way to something incredible, a vertical world awash with massive valleys and tiny towns far up, clinging to the rocks, a world where people never get sick and in-laws prefer you over their own children.
Teelo leans forward. “Samee has nothing to drink. She’s come all the way from America to see us and look how you treat her! Where is the water?”
“She said she didn’t want any!” says Rooma.
“What do you know? She’s just being polite!”
Before I can object, my mother-in-law runs into the house and returns with a bottle of water. “Water. There’s always more water.” Rooma fills my cup, then lingers by the table. She laughs at our jokes and gossips about the latest news: someone stole the park bench last night, and one of the local children picked all the church tulips. The nuns are quite upset.
Rooma doesn’t sit down. I learned long ago that Rooma never sits or eats with us. No one offers a seat. She would refuse anyway. With her feet in need of surgery and a tremor that spills the wine, Rooma still chops wood, runs up and down the stairs, and walks two miles a day to get water from the well. We try to help her, but she shoos us out of the kitchen with a pan.
Last night Rooma was up until five in the morning washing the dishes, fregando los platos, no easy task for a family as big as ours. But this is the 21st century, and we want to buy her a dishwasher. She laughs, because she’d never use it. We have no choice but to believe her. She has never used the vacuum cleaner, television, CD player, or electric beater, and the washing machine sits in the bathroom, 10 years old and unused. Rooma washes clothes by hand, and on rainy days she dries them over the wood stove; they are left with the scent of fried grease and smoke.
The phone rings, and Rooma runs upstairs to answer. It is the operator. “You have a collect call from your grandson. Do you accept?”
“Eh? He is my grandson.”
“Yes. You have a collect call from him. Do you accept?”
“What? No, call back later. He isn’t here. He’s out with his friends.” She hangs up and tells us the message. “I didn’t get the caller’s name.”
“This wife of mine, she can’t do anything right,” says Teelo.
“You be quiet,” she snaps back and thumps him on the head.
“I look around and see all these pretty girls with high heels and cell phones, and look what I have to deal with!”
She laughs and threatens to hit him again.
It is a lazy afternoon, and we chat and dream and talk of old times.
All day Rooma stands by the stove, runs the kitchen, monitors everything. Plates are topped off, potatoes fried, soup reheated. There are only five of us in the house, but family and friends drop by at all hours. When Rooma learns we like something – oranges, zucchini, ice cream – it appears in abundance at every meal. Food is cooked over the wood stove. When Teelo gets on her nerves, the food is extra salty and burns the tongue.
Soon the sun is settling far across the town and Rooma brings us coffee. It is old coffee, thick and black and reheated over the stove. My mother-in-law coughs and, as if we haven’t had enough to eat yet, brings us unos pinchos de lomo, a snack of bread rolls with fried pork. They have been sitting on the table, in the sun, all day. No fridge. No nothing. We eat without pause. How does this make sense? What kind of world is this, where the milk never spoils, the meat and cheese and sausage are always fresh, the bread never hardens, and no one ever gets sick? It is a strange place: the rules of hygiene and food handling don’t exist. I chuckle to myself. It doesn’t matter. I am happy here.
Teelo talks about his latest painting. My father-in-law is a short, gesturing man, always puffing at a cigar, always chuckling, always trying to steal a kiss from his Rooma. The latest painting is a massive rendition of his wife. He’s a small man, and the painting is twice his size; he’d using a ladder to reach her face. Teelo chuckles and offers me a job as his assistant. “You’ll have a place to stay, food to eat, and just enough money to enjoy unas copas de vino, enough to impress your friends,” he says.
“And what type of work does an assistant of yours do?” I ask.
“Paint great pictures. And smoke cigars, of course.”
Next to Teelo sits Angelo, the town-painter’s youngest son, a beautiful boy with black curls and a tattoo that matches mine. I like to run my fingers through this boy’s hair, ruffling the curls loose and free, and sometimes he lets me get away with it, when it’s the end of the day and his body belongs to me again. Angelo glances at me philosophically. No, he tells me. A doctor should not be so easily attempted to abandon her patients. I nod. I smile. He reads my mind and clicks the tip of his tongue, the Spanish gesture for “no.”
Rooma pours me a second cup of coffee. I have jet lag, and she knows the night is still young. “The neighbor told me there are red flowers on the priest’s grave,” she says suddenly.
“Yes, red flowers. They do it just to bother me.”
“They do it just to bother you?”
“Everyone knows it’s my week to buy flowers for his grave. I buy white flowers. But red flowers? What will people think?”
“What does it matter?”
“Oh, what does it matter! It’s a priest’s grave, that’s what matters. What will people say, that I was romantic with him? I’ll be the talk of the town. I need to get those red flowers out of there as soon as possible.”
The sun has disappeared. Everyone is watching TV. Rooma has returned from the cemetery; now she is alone in the kitchen, and I head downstairs to say good night. She is eating dinner. Her clothes are stained, disheveled, worn out. The tremor is bad, and she keeps dropping soup on the table.
“Can I get you something?” she says. “Some warm milk? A yogurt?”
“No, no. I’m fine, thank you.”
“Some pastries? They’re very good.”
I change the subject. “You know a little bit of wine would take your shakes away.”
“Yes,” she says. Rooma does not drink wine. I know this, but I like to tease her.
It is wonderful to be home. Around us the kitchen is a disaster. I like it this way. A messy kitchen is a sign of a popular kitchen; it means the cook is too busy cooking to worry about cleaning. It is chaotic, with cigarette butts, potato peels, bottles, dirty plates, melting ice cream, half-eaten zucchinis, all of it, everywhere. Salted pig heads, sausage, ham and a dozen types of cheese hang from hooks in the ceiling. Rooma has butchered a chicken. It lies on the counter next to the garlic and oranges. The window and door stand open, letting in fresh air and the sounds of the town below.
There is much work to be done. I do not offer to help. Instead we sit together, her hand in mine, her eyes mothering over with me with that unbridled Spanish passion, and she tells me about the Spanish civil war, the stillbirths, the way Angelo used to hide in the closet when he was a child. There is no rush, no pressure. Finally I lean forward and say thank you. I plan to do this every night. Rooma coughs and smiles. “Mil veces,” she says. “A thousand times. For you I would do it a thousand times.”
I am sick.
It seems I am floating, a blanket of brilliant white and silver shining across the room. I feel someone pull at the blankets. There is no one there. My head aches. I rock and rock and ask the pain to go away. It stings. It stings terribly. There isn’t a comfortable position. There isn’t a spot to press or key to turn. Nothing helps. I rock and realize that even with pain life goes on.
How is this food poisoning? No, no, something is wrong. We must call the hospital and let them know I have pancreatitis, cholecystitis, meningitis, something awful. The nausea takes over. It is funny how a sick physician calculates his own diagnosis. I check myself for nuchal rigidity. I check myself for tenting. There is no pulsating mass in my abdomen, but by golly the liver does seem tender. I need IV fluids, normal saline, two liters, an NG tube – and something for pain. I chuckle at myself. Good grief! Get out of my emergency room. It’s just a little stomach flu. It’s just a little head cold.
The stinging, creaking, blasting noise is the worst. I am half-deaf, and there, all the time, is this hellish tinnitus sounding louder than the world itself. What if it never goes away? Tell me, Doctor, what good is a deaf psychiatrist? Maybe I’ll have an excuse to quit medicine and become Teelo’s assistant.
I can’t get Angelo out of bed today. He has a cup at the bedside filled with green phlegm. I try not to look at it. “You need hot milk and honey,” says Rooma. I nod. I don’t tell her we’ve tried it. We’ve tried the heater, the electric blanket, two types of leaves, and a natural vapor that smelled of dung. We’ve tried powders and pills and fizzes and syrups and everything else the pharmacy has to offer. We’ve walked all day, avoided smoke, stayed three days in bed. We’ve tried warm showers. We’ve avoided cold drinks and spicy food. We’ve rubbed a white goat behind its ears. We’ve visited the doctor. We’ve visited the priest. Me cago en la mar salada, we’ve done it all. Good Grief. The flu, food poisoning, and menses have hit me all at once.
It is a strange sensation to walk after three days in bed. Your body shivers nervously and your feet don’t remember how to pace themselves. Your step is awkward, pathetic, and there is perspiration about your brow. People smile, thinking you are drunk. You are happy and dizzy and might as well be drunk – or in love, maybe.
I see Angelo. He has made it out of bed. We exchange sympathetic gazes and join his family in the kitchen. “Happy New Year,” someone says.
“Hey, my vacation is almost over,” I remember.
“You’re leaving so soon?”
“Back to America in two days,” I say, then cough and accept a cigar from Teelo. I hold the cigar like a novice, puckering my lips with each exhale. The kitchen is packed with aunts, brothers, children, friends, and there are too many people. I accidentally burn an old lady who is standing nearby. I don’t recognize her. She clicks her tongue and moves away. Someone laughs.
All night we stand in the kitchen, puffing cigars and sipping wine – and the lights go out and the electricity stops and we bring out the candles. This is not supposed to happen. It doesn’t matter. I am watching Rooma watch me, and yes, maybe I won’t go back to America after all, maybe I’ll stay here. Maybe for the rest of my life I’ll paint great pictures, smoke cigars, and Good Grief, I’ll even leave red flowers on the priest’s tombstone every now and then. Maybe.
Alex Natalian is a penname for psychiatrist KRR.