Friday, December 11, 2009

The Disappearing Woman

When my sister Rhonda was 5, she got her head stuck between two wrought iron rails on our front porch. I don't remember what prompted her to put her head between those rails. Maybe she was playing "Jail." All the kids on Emmet Street loved to stand on our front porch, grab a couple of the rails, and chant, "Look, I'm in jay-yul! Look, I'm in jay-yul!" This was well before the days of video games and ipods. Our thrills were much cheaper. If a kid had two wrought iron rails to wrap their hands around, they were in business. They were in jail. Just like Otis on The Andy Griffith Show.

Maybe Rhonda was playing with the idea of her head breaking out of jail. Her logic must have been:

  • I think.
  • Therefore I am in jail.
  • I think with my head.
  • If I can get my head on the other side of these rails, I won't think.
  • I'll be out of jail once I get my head on the other side.
She did have a philosophical bent early on. It runs in the family. It's a wonder I didn't pull such a stunt. Then again, that's what little sisters are for. Did I talk her into this? I hope not, but I don't clearly recall. Although I don't remember who came to her rescue, it had to be our mother. She must have spent a good fifteen minutes lightly holding Rhonda's head, coaxing my sister to turn her head a quarter-inch this way, take an eighth step backwards with her right foot--good! we've got your right ear back--now a quarter-inch that way, step back--here comes the left ear! Having given birth to breech babies twice, my mother was adept at such maneuvers. The neighborhood kids stood in our front yard, silent, in open-mouthed awe of such magic.

Has Rhonda ever put her head through a pair of rails again? Has anyone who witnessed that scene--the breathless kids, their parents watching from the windows--dared a repeat performance? Hell no. And yet we all keep trying to get our head out of jail. My sister writes. I paint.

When a painting isn't going well, I feel like I've poked my head right through the canvas. On the other side of the canvas is a wall, a place to bang my head. When things are going well, though, I feel like a magician has sawed me in half. I gaze from my severed head at my hands. They belong to someone else. They know just what to do. They coax my head to the other side of the canvas. It turns just enough...this way, then that...the top of my head disappears. There goes my forehead. My eyebrows, nose, lips, chin. I am looking at the painting from the other side. I have eyes in the back of my head. Red paint splashes over them. I disappear.

I'm feeling no pain.

Travels with the Magician
48" x 24"
acrylic on canvas
private collection, Mercer Island, Washington

How do you get your head out of jail?