The Lady and the Pistol

I woke a second time, still on the floor, only now the room was bathed in sunlight. I groggily adjusted my eyes to the light and once again a humanlike shape morphed before my eyes. I thought maybe the ghost of Tank Dupree had returned. If I had in fact seen his ghost. But he had been seated in the chair across the room, outlined in faint light, recognizable only by his voice. This apparition was close at hand, and it was definitely female and smelled of Irish Spring soap and lilac perfume. Crouched like a lioness at rest it also held a big pistol in one hand, and that pistol was pointed straight at my face. Whoever this was it certainly was no ghost as it slowly pulled the hammer back and rested the barrel against my cheek. It spoke.

"You the punk-ass who killed Napoleon?"

 

Faced with the prospect of getting my head blown off but not knowing who or what in the hell she was talking about I took a "punk-ass" flyer at an answer.

"Bonaparte? He died a long time ago on St. Helena, didn't he?" Me, Johnny Jump, comedian. Thank you, ladies and germs. Try the veal.

She shoved the gun deeper into my cheek. "Asshole," she said, but she didn't pull the trigger. She slowly lowered the gun and stood. She was tall, very tall, nearly six feet.

"Get up," she said. I got up, but slowly. After hours spent on the cold wooden floor it felt as if somebody had worked me over with ballpeen hammers. I unlimbered myself as she pointed at my painting with her pistol.

"You do that?" she asked.

"Yes."

"It's sacriligeous," she said. Oh goody I thought, a born-again critic.

"But it's good," she added. "Real good."

"Thanks." I stretched my arms out, yawning, but still cognizant of the fact that she had the gun. "Who's Napoleon?"

"Napoleon Dupree."

"Napoleon? So that was his real name. I only knew him as Tank."

"So did everybody, but his Christian name was Napoleon and I've come for justice."

"Who are you?"

"Bridget. His sister. But most everybody calls me Cat."

I could see why. A mane of red hair cascaded down her back. Along with her green eyes, small nose and lithe muscularity the overall appearance was that of a predatory cat; beautiful, but dangerous. I looked for a family resemblance to Tank and could see none.

"I've come for justice," she repeated, but her voice was cold as the steel of her pistol. It was not justice, but vengeance she was seeking. I found myself thinking that I would not enjoy being on the receiving end of her wrath. Female or not, she looked as if she would be a formidable opponent in a fight.

"I'm searching for the same thing. But I don't have any clues as to who killed your brother, or why."

"You're the one who found him, right?"

"Right." I minded the pistol still swinging in her hand. Best to assuage any feelings of anger or suspicion toward me she may still be harboring.  "And we were friends," I added.

"I know. He told me. When we talked on the phone, which wasn't often."

She found the chair in the corner that her brother's ghost had occupied the night before and sat. I wondered if I should tell her about what had happened but thought the better of it. I really didn't know who she was and I certainly didn't know whether or not what had transpired the night before had been reality or a turpentine-induced fantasy. She claimed to be Tank's sister, but he had never mentioned her. And she did have the gun, which she had shoved in my face and threatened to blow my head off and which now rested on her lap, her finger on the trigger. If she did in fact prove to be Tank's sibling, then we would not be working at cross purposes but as for now I didn't know who she was, where she came from and what in the hell she wanted from me. Better to keep quiet about everything and see how it would shake out. Grandma Jones used to admonish me when I was a little boy, "It's bes' you keep yo' mouf shut an' look like yall's stupid than t' open it an' prove t' th' whole worl' you is." Good advice from the coal black lady who raised me as her own child and taught me the difference between right and wrong. I loved that old lady, and missed her every day, even though she'd passed over a decade ago. She was my maternal grandmother and when my parents died she took me into her home and sang songs to me when I was young and made sure I did my homework and cried when I graduated from high school and then went away to the army. I bristle when I hear the word "nigger," not because I am a one-quarter black one quarter Jewish half Polish American, but because that old lady had more nobility in her little finger than most people could aspire to in a long lifetime. She was a lot of things, Grandma Jones, but "nigger" she was not.

Cat Dupree crossed her long legs and reached into the pocket of her work shirt and pulled out a lone cigarette and a pack of matches and asked "mind if I smoke?" as she struck the match and torched the coffin nail.

She took a long drag and slowly exhaled it in a long sigh, as if she were expelling some vaporous demon from deep inside her. "How long did it take you to do something like that?" she asked, gesturing to my painting with the cigarette.

I opened the blinds and for the first time took a long look at what I had wrought in my two day frenzy. I had painted exclusively under the electric bulb and wanted to see it in natural light. Colors appear to be one thing under artificial light, totally another under natural illumination. It was a frenetic, day-glo, pulsating composition that expressed all the mad passion in which it was created. As I surveyed the work, I felt excitement knot my stomach, like a mother who has spent an agonizing forty-eight hours birthing her baby and was now holding her newborn in her arms. And that's what it's like, birthing a baby. It's something you carry for a gestation period that can sometimes last years and then suddenly it kicks and punches and demands to be pushed out into the real world and you have no choice but to give in, to give it shape, a voice, its existence. I had done that with this painting and I smiled with the satisfied grin of the mother cuddling her baby in her arms. The lump I had carried with me for all this time was now a reality, a being of its own. I had birthed it. I was satisfied.

"Two days," I answered. "Years."

"What's it supposed to mean?" she asked.

"Mean? I don't know." Pablo was consistently interrogated about the symbolism in "Guernica," and he just as consistently played dumb with his interrogators, coyly stating he didn't really know what the symbolism was and that they could read whatever they wanted into it. In the case of myself, however, I really didn't know exactly what I had meant. The liberation of the nuns and the morphing of night into bright day was obvious, but why I did I choose Catholic nuns? I mean, I don't have anything against the Church of Rome and certainly harbor no animus towards their brides of Christ. There are nuns in the Orthodox Christian, Anglican, Lutheran, Jains, Bhuddist, Taoist and Hindu faiths as well. Perhaps I chose the Catholic nuns because of their more universal impact, bit if I did it had been subconsciously. Richard Nixon as Jehovah was a whole other ballgame. That happened at the height of my art-boy frenzy. It was pure, unadulterated serendipity. It made sense but I couldn't tell you why it did or why I did it. It happens that way sometimes; your heart guides your hand, not logic. No use trying to explain it to myself or to anyone else.

"Why don't you tell me," I said.

"It tells me you are one crazy motherfucker," she replied, taking a second demon-liberating drag off her cigarette.

I pointed to the gun in her lap. "You know," I said. "I'd feel a lot more comfortable if you put that thing away someplace."

She laughed and set the pistol on the floor beside her, then stared at me sternly. "What exactly do you know about my brother?" she asked.

I had the unsettling feeling that I was about to be privy to facts about my dead friend that I did not want to hear.

 

Go to top