by Rebecca Orchard

     At five past four in the morning, her fingers numb and tired, the sculptor looks up from her work and sees her young assistant across the studio, asleep with his head on her desk. When he wakes, scraps will be stuck to his cheek: bits of paper, strands of stretched polyurethane, metal shavings fine as sand. She can picture him blearily rubbing his face, imagines him driving home. He will shower in a thin trickle of water, fall into his nest of a bed and sleep snuffling like a rabbit, his warm limbs curled around his body. He will rise in the late afternoon and pull on the clothes immediately to hand, his hair a studiously unstudied mess, and drive back to her studio, stopping on the way to get coffee at the contemporary-organic place on Coal Ave., where he flirts with the barista named Zarah.

     The sculptor envies him. He took her there once, wanting to show her off, but of course no one recognizes artists. Smocked, clay-streaked, zeroing in on middle age, she stood there, hating the roughness of her large hands, hiding them in her pockets as she watched the tiny, lithe assistant, whose youth and radiant energy were not as contagious as either of them had hoped. Ordering her coffee, her life-long anxiety throttled her: she mumbled at the quick-eyed Zarah with the sardonic smile and got a paper cup of drip coffee. She loaded it with cream and sugar, eager to leave, but the assistant ordered a flat white in porcelain and stood at the bar made of reclaimed wood, his foot propped on a low railing so he looked like a well-caffeinated Washington, crossing the Delaware.

     “But you’re the artist,” he’d said to her later, when they’d finally returned to the studio and she’d surprised herself by confessing her discomfort. “They just talk about doing something about art. We—” he’d looked so earnest just then, “We do it.”

     What was the doing of it? she’d wondered, trailing her hand over the mess on her workbench. Mostly she paced and felt stupid, pasted together idiotic craft projects. “Someone comes along later and calls it art.”

     “I’m calling it art,” he’d said.

      Now she stands and watches him from across the room, separated from him by the two long workbenches covered in forms and the hints of forms, plaster molds and sheets of plexiglass, her etching tools and his visor and soldering iron, this jumble of work and combined effort. She wants to stop right here and do a piece on this: this clamor of mess that would mean nothing to outside eyes but to her means happiness, productivity, speech beyond the clumsiness of words.

     But only if she can get it right. She runs her hands through her hair. The graceful, ethereal structures she guards in her mind turn to clumsy stuff in the reality of air and water and three dimensions. Styrofoam, knives, strips of newspaper, plaster of Paris, oil paint, latex paint, watercolors. She looks down at what she’s finished, sees the crude lines and infantile scratches for what they really are, wants to crack it, burn it, hit the assistant, scream “Why did you let me think that was good, this was anything?”

     She needs to go home. She needs a drink. She needs an ugly assistant, whose words she will trust instead of suspect as flattery or charity.

      Her fingers throb, and her headache is deep and gray. She takes her keys from the hooks on the wall and leaves him with his head on the table, arms draped over his neck. He murmurs occasionally.

      Her mind in these hours is plastered with surface thoughts but yawning empty beneath. There is a moth-like flutter at the edge of her ear, competing inanities beating for her attention as she climbs into the car she’s driven since she was 27, a VW Golf now a pastiche of silver and rust. She thinks of the orderly rows of her possessions, waiting for her in the blue light of predawn, she thinks of the competition announced on the radio earlier that day—there’s a piece in there somewhere, maybe—and she thinks how absurdly mundane the great artists must look with their elbows out the windows of their cars, glancing in the rearview.

     She heads north to the unfashionable part of the city along straight roads and infinite stars, down the traffic-free boulevards where the streetlights line up, refracting, one of the many incidental, seconds-long works of art the world produces. Like telephone lines slung gracefully before a low and gathering sky, like the huffing breath of elk in the early morning chill, like the knowledge that this country, which so many think of as sun-baked, is in fact sky-wrapped. Embraced.

     She reaches the fringes of town where the city dissolves and where, in the daylight, she can see the barest smudge on the northwestern horizon: the range of pine-carpeted mountains where she had lived many sweet years alongside a fair-haired musician with long, thin fingers. Wild country, where pink clay sliced through the jade scrub brush and the creek ran red after storms. She used to crave those rain-soaked mornings, when a land already fragrant with pine became saturated and heavy with rosemary and lavender, breaths of sage…her memory of their love bore the smell of crushed herbs and the sense of the mountains rearing out of their canyons.

     That was where she’d lived as she quietly became successful, years of patient, deliberate work culminating in a solo show at the Whitney. They’d flown in together to help stage the exhibit and for the first time she was embarrassed by their provincial behavior. Her clay-smeared overalls and his tie-dye shirts, the cheap beer they favored, how obvious it was that he was stoned at the show opening. Their friends in the mountains thought being high more polite, somehow, than being drunk; Jason didn’t even try to hide his bloodshot eyes or slow, emphatic blinking as they shook the hands of art world luminaries. Her friends at home told her not to worry: those East Village artists were probably hooked on something way worse.

     She had money then, after years of scavenging for change. She could fix up their house the way she wanted it, every angle framed for a still life, lit like a Vermeer. Clothes had never mattered to her before, but she found herself judging cut and fabric as if she was working on a sculpture, crafting her body into new shapes. She took up a correspondence with the artists she had recently met, asking for their thoughts on ideas and processes, directing a keener eye towards her own work.

     Jason didn’t care for the new pieces, she could tell. In the years they had been together, he alone had traveled the vast spaces inside her head, those deep and chaotic places. What new things he didn’t understand he attributed to her new friends, her money. “You’re building me out,” he’d said one night, arms around his guitar, thumb nail picking at a low string.

      She hadn’t tried to change him. She hated the sight of him in collared shirts as much as he hated to wear them; she loved his messy work, how his music spilled into every room at odd hours; and she liked his smoking, too: the sweet-acrid smell, his absent-minded ritualism, the specific movements of his elegant fingers. But she’d changed around him, he said, until suddenly he did not recognize her.

     A morning arrived when his side of the bed was empty, and when she went sleep-numbed to find him she saw he had passed the night in her studio, curled into blankets piled underneath her drying lines. She knelt to smooth the hair off his forehead; he flinched awake. More and more of his things migrated to that space. He took refuge there, in the chaos of her half-finished sculptures, the only place on their property he claimed he still felt at home. He barricaded himself in there for months, their once-total intimacy, which had been as casual and encompassing as air, reduced to the mumbles strangers utter when they slide past each other on a train.

     She hesitated on the threshold to her studio every day, knowing that when she pushed open the door his eyes would shutter away from hers and that he would slink around her and head outside with his guitar and his pipe the moment she settled at her work bench. He didn’t look at her new pieces anymore, and she hadn’t heard a note of his music since the night he moved into the studio. There was no music in their house at all, anymore; just silence, the ticking of insects in the heat, the creek nearby when the water ran high. She hated those long weeks of her stomach roiling, the clench of her muscles when he approached, the quiet pressing in around her, and wished he would just leave, just finally leave her, for God’s sake, let her get some peace, but once he finally did go she fell into an aching, bottomless grief.

     Her bereavement turned her into a hermit. He’d taken the dog, who’d loved him more, and she was left alone on their ranch in the mountains, wandering through the hip-deep grasses in the early morning as the sun splashed its way across the red cliffs. Kept company by the skittish lizards moving in stop motion along the gravel paths, by the wind scraping along the juniper and scrub pine.

      One night after months of solitude, drunk on the cheap tequila, stocked by the package store down the road, she stumbled into her yard and screamed at the mute gorges, cursed their dumb magnificence, implored them for shreds or scraps of human feeling. But they remained utterly blank. Alien: silent and vast.

      She awoke with a hammer headache and a bone-deep embarrassment; shortly after, she came down off the mountain.

     A friend helped her load a trailer and drove her to the new, sterile apartment, plaster walls instead of adobe, a hollow front door. She rented a studio in a neighborhood far too trendy for her, assembled particle board bookshelves, and, on the advice of her friends, hired the impressionable, excited assistant who bent his full attention to her every word.

      In his first week, they were occupied smearing textural elements over a plaster base when she’d turned to him and said, “Always use gum arabic,” and was startled when he reached for the notebook he always carried (minimalist cover, acid-free paper, fountain pen) and asked, “Why?” with such fervor she was too embarrassed to admit it was just because she liked to say “gum arabic.”

     They’d settled into each other since then. Her constant second-guessing of her own work suppressed most of his awe, and time, as it ever did, deadened her self-consciousness. She now looks forward to seeing him, to showing him new things.

      She arrives home, pulls into her anonymous driveway, lets herself into her apartment, changes from art smock to sleep smock, and curls on her side like a child, eyes pinched against her growing headache. The piece she is working on is plaguing her. A site-specific commission, it’s something she rarely undertakes, but she had liked the space, and shapes had suggested themselves to her.

     Normally she liked to let her thoughts on any piece resonate within her for some time, settling, expanding, touching on some things and recoiling from others. She wanted to let the impression of the space and its owners sink from her conscious to her subconscious mind so they would be intrinsically present but the piece would not edge into parody—this was how, she had  thought, the question of artfulness could be resolved. How  she could avoid making something merely decorative, the equivalent of a garden gnome.

     But the forms she’d sculpted were not the ones she’d imagined: they were cruder, lopsided, lacking all grace. She’d tried again with metal and then again with plaster, and each time the only thing she’d crafted had been her own ineptitude. This failure follows her into the studio and back out of it, and now it curls heavy around her neck as she lies in bed with her fingers pressed to her eyes, her mouth filled with the taste of weeping. She has sacrificed for this—this is what she wants to scream. Wants to open the window and holler at her neighbor, her whole street.

     “I have given things up for this,” she says, quiet. The balance of what she’s lost, measured against her repayment.

     She wishes she could talk to Jason. She had touched his casual understanding for so long and was now relearning how to navigate the delicate, shifting paths of her mind by herself. It left her one-legged, lurching, unsure of the value of anything she did.

      She rolls onto her back and massages her fingers, sore and dirty, fingernails bitten, covered with ink and glue and old blood. The sky won’t see the sun for several hours but the air shimmers blue to prepare itself, waiting for the light to cross the vast lands to the east before finally slipping through her bedroom window. The room fills with this promise of light, fills with her unspoken worries and her mind’s tired, peripatetic turns. Fills with the truth and reality of the past, of mornings lit just like this one, mornings when she was not alone.

     A completely ordinary daybreak with an ordinary sunrise comes to her, memorable only because it is iconic of so many others. It floods her, this morning on the mountain, lying at Jason’s side, sheltered by the line of his shoulder. The smell of pine and wet clay drifts through the open window. He smiles at her, smiles and takes her hand. Takes her hand and draws it to him. Draws it to him, lays it over his face, and presses his mouth to the center of her palm.

      She sleeps.


Rebecca Orchard is a writer and classical musician who majored in French horn at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. Her studies have taken her to Vienna and throughout the US, Scotland, and England. She loves equally the mountains of New Mexico, the canyons of Manhattan, and the hills of her native Ohio, where she has recently returned after living in New York City. She is currently obtaining her MFA in fiction at Bowling Green State University.