by Melissa Wiley
Freddy stood behind our piano with his mouth hanging open. His face was leaning into a picture I had painted, one of a little girl seated among brown fire rising from frame’s bottom. Her cheeks were the same pale lemon as the paint tipping the flames behind her. She kept her eyes closed, impassive, never seeming to notice the conflagration.
I turned her skin to rubber while knowing nothing of the process. This is the only way I now believe she survived this. Somehow I also managed to make the rubber flame resistant. Without intending to, I vulcanized her, which alone explains her sitting so calmly amid flames no one ever bothered extinguishing for her. I made her milky skin harder with the addition of sulfur.
Freddy’s tongue fell long as a banana as he watched her. I practiced piano for my lesson, wondering if he realized we could all go up in flames at any moment in this dry of a summer. For weeks, the news broadcast forest fires overspreading the Appalachians. No one was ever caught having set them, meaning fire could lurk in hot air alone on occasion. A summer so rainless could make tinder of leaves fallen before autumn. Eleven years old, and I understood this as well as how to turn a girl’s skin to rubber without knowing this was what I’d done for certain.
Freddy turned to me with his blue eyes wide and radiant. He asked me if this was a self-portrait, and I told him no as if he were stupid. I didn’t want to admit the girl’s original complexion was closer to an eggshell, less fire retardant. Had she better resembled the one wearing a matching dress and bonnet in a knitting magazine I found on my mom’s nightstand, she would have died of the flames that charred her face within seconds. As it was, I left her somewhat protected.
Freddy pumped gas, chewed tobacco looking like powdered raisins, and cleaned windshields using a stick with a rubber blade stuck inside it in a town ten miles north of our farm in southern Indiana. My dad met him playing poker on a riverboat that never left its dock or succumbed to river’s current. At first Freddy; his five-year-old daughter, Mindi, from a previous marriage; his girlfriend, Amy; as well as Jordan, her four-year-old son from a former boyfriend, only occasionally went waterskiing with us on Sunday afternoons that bled into early evenings. At first, they only circled the same manmade lake while sitting beside us with shrill hysterics, intoxicated from the gasoline that our boat leaked freely as oxygen.
The gasoline at length entered their systems. They either swallowed it from the nozzle of our boat’s engine while we were looking the other direction or absorbed the vaporizing liquid through scratches in their skin. Growing inured to the exhilaration, they started coming over on Saturdays and weekday evenings. They pretended all our grass mowed of dandelions was a blanket for them, one to lie on or fall asleep in and stay long past when I had gone to bed and started dreaming of snow and wind and coolness in a summer with no precipitation.
Amy spent whole Saturday afternoons sunbathing in our backyard nearly naked on a towel she wore around her neck like a boa while riding shotgun in Freddy’s station wagon. Meanwhile my sister and I spent hours playing badminton with Mindi and Jordan as my dad and Freddy emptied cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon. My mom stayed washing dishes and mixing salad in our kitchen.
As I sat down at our piano to practice, Freddy asked me how I’d done it. He didn’t explain what he meant, so I answered only “knives” while playing a Prelude by Chopin, always a prelude to nothing, I’d learned from playing more than one of them. I’d painted the fire with knives, I told him. I applied their blades directly to the canvas to lend the flames sharper ends. How the girl survived sitting so still among them I had and offered him no explanation.
Freddy’s hair was dry and graying in patches, while my parents’ was still dark and silken. A scar below his left eye looking like a knife had once sliced him open deepened when he smiled or laughed. At his most joyous, I always felt slightly sorry for him. Occasionally I wondered if Amy had ever glimpsed the weapon that carved this strange fissure within him. While looking older from a distance, Freddy was younger than both my parents by almost a decade, I heard my dad once mention, while Amy looked fresh faced to me even then. Only when she wore her bikini, eating hot dogs burnt the color of bruises, could I see the scars from her C-section.
It was Jordan who made her ugly, she said once when she caught me examining the map of her abdomen. She confessed this while looking tanned and luminous, as if Indiana had no season except for summer without any rain fallen until the end of August. She said this while stretching her legs over our boat’s rim as if she could sunbathe through autumn’s harvest, spring’s cranberry blossoms. To see her face pinch with disappointment while focused on the line etched across her stomach was to imagine no one ever saw her without all her skin bared to the sun’s ecstatic bursts of helium.
She and the girl in the painting appeared equally immune to fire’s damage. For all the time she spent beneath the sun, Amy’s skin never burned or melted as my mom always warned might happen to my Barbies if I left them too close to the furnace. Instead of painting the little girl in the magazine I found on my mom’s nightstand, I later wondered if I painted Amy before her only season was summer. Perhaps she was vulcanized while knowing nothing of the process.
Monsoons make for the only change of season where thousands of laborers harvest most of the world’s rubber among a fruitless forest. Rubber trees overspreading farms throughout Malaysia and Thailand sustain constant flesh wounds to yield latex. They sustain what are not serious by definition, what fail to breach bones or vital organs. The scars they leave do nothing more than harm the skin’s appearance. Yet rubber trees are slayed easily as other species of trees with axes. At least in theory then, I could have chopped Amy all to pieces.
Amy, Freddy, and my parents waterskied in circles more times the one summer of their friendship than now makes any difference. Although Amy never waterskied before she met us, time and again I watched as she clutched a rope fraying like an umbilical cord’s axis while my dad choked our boat’s engine. Lean as were her legs, with muscular definition, she could stand on the water for no more than a few seconds. She was never able to leverage her skis for balance. My dad kept shouting at her to keep her legs together, but she could never manage.
She made yet more attempts as Jordan slept among the lifejackets later one Sunday than we were used to staying before bringing the boat in. My mom took my towel from my lap while Amy tried to ski again. My mom held her finger to her lips before I could complain about my skin pickling in the wind, and I watched in silence as she covered Jordan’s eyelids. She used the towel to shield what she sensed were too thin to keep the sun from piercing the irises that lay behind them. Aside from the clear, clean blue of them—Amy’s hazel eyes were brown in comparison—the rest of his features looked delicate as those of the woman who had birthed him.
Amy tipped over on her skis again at the thrust of the boat’s ignition. Still her face shone with wholeness unknown to her husband’s as I watched Jordan’s rib cage contract and expand like a silent accordion. Jordan’s eyelids were diaphanous, something my mom alone detected. Had she done the same with me? I wondered as a fly landed on my eyelash. Had she taken a towel some seven years before this from some older children to protect me from the sun, and had my eyelids since thickened? I stared into the horizon at Amy losing her balance. Before her skis collapsed onto water’s surface, they raised themselves like knives come to cut down all of us.
Once we docked the boat and started walking toward the picnic tables, my mom carried Jordan as my sister, Mindi, and I followed, leaving Amy behind us and my dad and Freddy to cover our boat with a tarpaulin. My sister and I laughed and begged my mom for her attention as if we were small again. We did this only because she was giving all her love to Jordan.
Jordan’s feet were tenderer than ours, my mom whispered with secret knowledge. She was wiping his bangs from a forehead smooth as rubber that had been rounded into a ball we might have played with. The rocks lining the beach hurt my feet too, I said, even though I wasn’t walking barefoot like my sister but was wearing sandals instead. If I weren’t, even blades of grass could stab them. Even grass grown slim as needles could puncture what was skin softer than I felt it should have been. My sister, who was eight then, walked on gravel as if she were wearing shoes with rubber soles when she wasn’t. Whereas my feet had never fully hardened. I needed carrying too, I pleaded, so much older than the rest of them. If my mom heard me, though, she didn’t listen.
Ancient Mesoamericans dipped their feet in latex tapped from rubber trees later exported to Southeast Asia, where the rubber industry now flourishes. They waited for the sap to dry then peeled it from their feet’s bottoms. Afterward, they smoked the molds over a fire to strengthen them. Calloused feet fulfill the same function as shoes in essence, although it’s best not to burn them. Everywhere except the balls of our feet, most of us prefer our skin supple as resin. So much do we crave another body’s touch, most of us will soften our skin into cushions despite all the advantages of hardness. A girl with rubber for skin sits above the piano in isolation for a reason. Amy’s skin only resembled rubber in its smooth perfection.
To tap rubber from a tree requires substantial skill and practice, cutting the tree just deep enough, wounding it so it dies only a small death then quickly comes back to life again. A helical gash in the tree made four feet from the ground and halfway around the trunk’s circumference remains the standard in the industry. Whereas a cut any wider or deep enough to penetrate the xylem destroys the tree. Latex fills the buckets for two hours on average, before the sap hardens and the cut seals itself into a continuous surface. This is by way of proving all things return to wholeness, though not all things do in my experience.
That summer, I developed acne with a seeming vengeance for some past transgression my mind had forgotten but my body hadn’t. As soon as my dad saw a pimple forming, he dug his fingernails into my skin to extract the whiteness. He held me down on a chair in our kitchen, keeping me from squirming with his elbow against my neck. He scraped his nails so hard against my skin that the blood that followed the whiteness dried and hardened in wormy patches. Over that summer and others following it, he turned my face into a series of lacerations.
Freddy asked me one Sunday evening if I had been bitten or gotten an infection. I told him no again as if he were stupid. I was only becoming an uglier person. Having painted a girl looking like myself sitting among brown hell fires was not coincidence.
When my mom later took me to a dermatologist, my dad searched my face with heightened vigilance. His face lost animation at the sudden emptiness. The marks of his fingernails, however, are still visible in places. Although my skin was fond of exploding in rages, still it was sensitive. Still it became used to preserving memories of pain no longer with me.
Amy, I heard my mom ask my dad one evening, was she old enough to drink even? My dad laughed and said she was in her mid-twenties, something my mom had a hard time believing. Her skin was so perfect. She must have never had any acne. If not for that scar on her belly, you would hardly guess she was more than a girl with a woman’s proportions.
When I was Jordan’s age, I told Amy once after we were finished waterskiing, I wrapped what seemed hundreds of rubber bands around my wrist. I had loved watching my hand change colors, from pink and white to violet. I had taken the rubber bands off a door handle and doubled each around my wrist while my mom and her aunt gossiped. Eventually my great aunt noticed a purple hand gone nearly lifeless. I was girdling myself without knowing it. Unaware of rubber plantations, I made my arm into a working rubber tree aging out of its only occupation.
I told Amy this while she took the plastic forks from their package. Even though I knew she wasn’t listening, I still wanted to say it. Perhaps I wanted her to recognize the harm that could come from something as common as rubber bands she used to pull her hair up into a bun with after swimming. Perhaps I felt she was too happy to notice Jordan’s eyelids should be thicker than they were then. Perhaps I felt that becoming a little sadder makes you more sensitive to others, something I still have a difficult time not believing.
She smiled when I was finished then walked over to my mom and took the tin foil off the baked beans, letting flies land on top of them. My mom was stirring coleslaw when Amy threw the foil in the garbage and started talking. Although I couldn’t hear her clearly, I knew what she was saying. I knew she was speculating, about the new curtains and furniture and carpets she planned on buying. It was always the same topic since Freddy had gotten a promotion. Freddy was now managing the gas station rather than pumping its liquid. Freddy had secured a loan to buy a house for Amy, Mindi, and Jordan. Amy would soon have her own lawn mowed of dandelions to lie in nearly naked.
If you want to kill a rubber farm outright rather than make each tree die an early death by its lonesome, you have only to girdle the trees trunks rather than draw gashes across them. Make a flesh wound that encompasses the whole tree rather than one half of it. Strangle the tree to suffocation, which is better than coming at it with an axe. This way, the death will be silent. You will never have to ask yourself if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it. You will never have to wonder if it makes a sound or doesn’t. Its falling will take so long that no one will notice a death so long in the process. Someone else will have to answer the question of existence.
Freddy and Amy invited us to their house several times before they moved in, but we never visited. Still I know that Amy never bought any furniture for it, never hung any curtains or laid any carpet. I know because Amy and Jordan soon left Freddy and Mindi behind them, though odds are Freddy easily found someone different. He must have, because his eyes were wide and radiant. The wound below his left eye signaled some deep inner split. So much past suffering, I wanted to believe then and still am tempted, ensured more future fulfillment.
After Christopher Columbus’ second voyage to the West Indies, he brought back hundreds of rubber balls to Europe. He later imported whole rubber trees so his countrymen could make the balls themselves for even more amusement. Yet he soon found the trees grew in only tropical climates, places where people wore less clothing and you could better see the hang of men’s testicles, of women’s breasts and buttocks, the roundness of all us that stretches. Rubber represented fertility among Mesoamericans. The rubber balls with which my sister and I played badminton with Mindi and Jordan were only desire compressed into something too small then to contain it. They bounced so easily against our rackets.
Once several weeks had passed since we’d last seen Freddy, Amy, Mindi, and Jordan, I asked my parents what happened. Well Amy had cheated on him, my dad said in a tone hinting this was something he expected. As if that’s what came of having skin too perfect, everywhere except your abdomen.
I assumed we’d seen the last of them when the headlights of Freddy’s station wagon blinked one weekday evening at our driveway’s end. He knocked at our door then walked in carrying a box of oil paints and a pile of blank canvases he found in his new basement. The man who died there before him had been an artist. His paintings, Freddy said with his blue eyes deepening to violet, were all landscapes, not portraits. He was really good, but he didn’t have my talent. There were more canvases too, filling the back of the station wagon. They were all for me, something he said he realized once he saw them. I forget how many there were now, but I imagine hundreds.
I meant to paint Freddy something for Christmas but never got around to it. He stopped coming over to visit while my parents seemed to forget that he and Mindi existed. I stopped painting altogether before I filled less than a quarter of his canvases.
Twenty-five years later and I still cannot say what happened to all of Freddy’s gift. I have even less idea where all my old portraits may languish, most of them of young girls and women looking well dressed and serious. I only know that yesterday evening while walking to my apartment, I noticed my handyman’s wife was taking what looked like all the furniture from their unit. She was divorcing him, something he had told me a couple days before this.
I don’t know what led to their split, though there are usually only a couple of reasons. She may have stretched her arms out toward another man, or my handyman may have reached his toward another woman. She had in any case hired a mover to take the bed, dresser, couch, as well as all the curtains. However much misery he may have caused her, I couldn’t help but feel slightly sorry for him. As he poked his head into the hallway, the lines in his face deepened.
Later that evening, I baked him cookies and left them at his doorstep once his wife left. I didn’t knock or leave a note for him. I didn’t care if he knew I was the one who baked what I arranged in a small tower on a paper plate ringed with blue hibiscus.
Next morning, he rapped on my door ten minutes after I had taken a shower and eaten breakfast. I thought he was going to thank me for the cookies. Instead, he said he needed to check the bathroom ceiling. The toilet belonging to the upstairs unit had started to leak. After stepping inside and looking up for a few moments, he sighed and said he’d fix it tomorrow when he had the time for it. He pounded his fist against the door, saying he hated fixing things he thought he had fixed already. He hated solving everyone’s problems for them until they started repeating.
Rubber stretches the farthest when it’s only latex, when it falls as naturally as blood from a laceration, becoming brittle in cold, deforming in heat, when it is of little use to humans. Rubber reaches the longest distance when it’s sticky and uncured by vulcanization. Older as I am now than Amy and Freddy both were when I knew them, I cannot keep myself from thinking that together we made a forest. Because we were trees then, all of us. Only some god of the underworld cut our roots with his scissors without us asking. He cut until his scissors reached our pubis, making us look divided from our feet to our buttocks. Diving into the lake’s coolness, we kicked our legs like the blades of the scissors that freed us. On the shore, we then walked farther away from each other, Amy farther than the rest of us, though in the time we were together my legs had grown longer in a sudden growth spurt than anyone else’s. Whether we were trees of rubber or not hardly matters. For a summer, we still stood together reaching for the sun and the rain that never fell on us as wildfires raged across the Appalachians.
The box of paints that Freddy gave me looked sunburnt from a distance. There were more shades of blush and crimson than blue or yellow, anything with which I could have painted any forests or oceans. Of painting any more girls seated in a hell colored to match the real one I had no intention. Instead, I started painting flowers and fruit that went quickly rotten, all needlessly reddened. A burgundy bowl overflowed with red bananas on one of the larger canvases. When I squinted, the bananas resembled fingers curling up from a missing hand below them. The bananas were red because I had too little yellow to make them look ripened. The plums and figs had used up all the blueness.
My dad walked over to my easel, which stood near where we played badminton, and asked me how bananas could be red. They could because I wanted them to be, I told him. At the time, I thought I’d invented them, though I’ve since often come across them—sold on the streets of southern Africa, in Central American markets, deepening into the color of a sunset along canals in Amsterdam—always when I wasn’t looking for them. They are fairly common, only not in Indiana. You find them more easily in places with less seasons, not where Freddy loved and lost a woman too beautiful for him. Not where I borrowed the red paint of fire to make the bananas look either flushed with desire or livid depending on the light with which you viewed them.
Melissa Wiley is the author of Antlers in Space and Other Common Phenomena. Her creative nonfiction has appeared most recently in places like The Rumpus, DIAGRAM, Phoebe, Waxwing, The Offing, Juked, Noble / Gas Qtrly, Drunken Boat, PANK, and Queen Mob’s Tea House. She lives in Chicago.