One thing, at least, is certain: everything, absolutely everything, that I shall say here is entirely and exclusively my own fault. --Salvador Dali
Here’s the thing.
You know that whole deal about rainbows being a promise or something?
It’s not true.
It’s crap. If it was true, I wouldn’t be home sitting on the driveway in the rain, a massive sucking black hole of a failure. I’d be packing for Chicago.
The rainbow arching over Camelback Mountain is beautiful, though. It’s been raining all day--a rarity in Phoenix--and only now has the downpour stopped. Clouds roll by fast overhead, purple-gray animals growling and flashing teeth. But they haven’t moved far enough west to block the setting sun. Its fading rays create the aforementioned rainbow.
It’s the first time I’ve even hinted at smiling since graduation. A week ago tonight.
Many things suck about living here; the smell of desert rain is not one of them. So I left my room when I saw it wasn’t pouring, and still have a soft charcoal pastel stick in hand. I sketch the image on the driveway: a black-and-slate-colored rainbow over the smudged profile of Camelback, which does in fact look like a camel that’s lain down.
Or is it . . . laid? Ha! For a seventeen-year-old girl, I often feel like a thirteen-year-old boy. So come August, does that mean I’ll be eighteen or fourteen? Discuss.
The driveway is a perfect urban canvas for the rainbow and the mountain. A rogue raindrop splatters right in the middle of the camel’s hump (ha!), so I smudge it into the charcoal, and suddenly the mountain is in perspective. Not bad.
I wonder if Mr. Hilmer, my junior high art teacher, would approve. “You done good, Amanda,” he liked to say, even though ever since about seventh grade, I’ve been Zero to my friends. Which until last week numbered exactly one. I never talked Mr. Hilmer into using my nickname, but at least he didn’t call me Amy like some other people I could mention.
Dad’s truck rolls down the street and veers toward the driveway as rain starts to fall again, smearing my drawing, bleeding it off the concrete. Good. Sucked anyway.
I don’t move. Dad maneuvers around me to park in the carport.
“How’s it going, Z?” he calls as he locks up the truck.
I rub my fingers together, creating charcoal mud. “Moist,” I call.
“That’s kind of a gross word, you know!” Dad shouts, laughing, as I hear him walking into the carport. Our kitchen door opens before he even gets there, as Mom chooses this moment to make an appearance. Oh yeah, this’ll end well.
“Amy!” my mother calls, her harpy voice reverberating around the carport. “Come inside! It’s raining, for heaven’s sake!”
Amy. Like I’m in fifth grade or something. My teachers used to say it, too, before high school. All of them except Mr. Hilmer. He was nice enough to call me Amanda. God, what I’d give to talk to him right now.
Dad, as always, chooses my side. “Oh, hell, Miriam, a little rain won’t kill the kid.”
“Richard, I don’t want her to catch a cold. . . .”
“Colds are caused by viruses, not weather!” I call. Helpfully.
“Would you get off her back for two seconds?” Dad’s voice starts to muffle as it sounds like he muscles past Mom into the kitchen.
“Richard!” my mom yells, and the door slams shut. At the exact same moment, the charcoal stick snaps in my hand.
I fling the broken pieces into the street. My empty fingers immediately tie themselves into sailor knots in my lap. They tend to do this any time I’m feeling, shall we say, tense.
The rainbow over Camelback fades and dies. I blame my mom. Dad hasn’t made it any farther than the kitchen; I can hear them screaming even from out here.
“It’s not fair,” I mutter to Camelback. Instead of starting freshman year at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago like I wanted--like I’d dreamed about since Mr. Hilmer’s classes--I’m going to this dumbass community college in September to crank out my dumbass core classes before transferring to a dumbass in-state university.
Maybe by the time I get to a university, I’ll be able to at least move out of the house. But the way things have started this summer, I shouldn’t get my hopes up. Moving in with my super-awesome former best friend is out of the question, so maybe I’ll end up living with my parents the rest of my life. Sweet.
“But I got in,” I whisper toward Camelback, hoping the mountain will offer some kind of comfort. “I got accepted, and it doesn’t even count?”
Camelback heaves a sigh and a shrug.
I head into the house, rain plastering my colorless bangs against my (bulbous, fleshy) cheeks. My parents’ voices carry from the living room, where Mom is having an epic meltdown.
I head to my room and shut the door. Their acidic voices burn right through the walls, as usual.
That does it; I’m out of here.
Dad’ll leave soon enough. It’s Friday, which means it’s time to pony up to Scotty’s Bar & Grill; underline Bar. But I’m not going to wait till then. And I’m staying out until it’s late enough that Mom’s gone to bed and Dad’s either still tossing back a few at Scotty’s or at home passed out on the couch.
I pass my easel--a drafting table cranked to a severe angle--where I’ve been working on a charcoal trompe l’oeil (French: fools the eye. Class dismissed! Thanks, Mr. Hilmer!). It’s a drawing of a candle burning inside an inflated balloon. The candle leaps off the page in pseudo three dimensions, like its gray flame could light a cigarette. Very ironic, very surreal.
The balloon is a flat circle. My shading is all wrong. It isn’t very good. Neither are the three dozen heavy impasto oil or acrylic canvases stuffed in my closet. Neither are the faces I’ve drawn on my ceiling over the past four years or so. Which reminds me, I need to paint over the geometric portrait of Jenn I did last year. I don’t need her staring down at me every night. It’s not like it’s photorealistic, but I know it’s her, and that’s reason enough.
I haven’t talked to Jenn since graduation. Up until that whole mess went down, me and Ex-Best-Friend Jenn had planned to bum around all summer; be all, like, young and irresponsible. I’d sketch and she’d cook and life would be peachy until I left for one of the best art schools in the country, and instead--
I scowl up at the portrait, like it’s the painting’s fault I’m still in Phoenix. I’m terrified I might be what professional artists would call a hack, which is another word for no-talent lump of shit, but without the dramatic flair. Maybe I should cut off one ear and develop a solid narcotics habit?
I sign my usual initial Z at the bottom of the drawing, finishing it. My Salvador Dali clock says it’s almost eight; time to get a move on.
I pick up today’s copy of the Phoenix New Times from my desk and flip through the music section. I catch a break at last: Nightrage has a show tonight at The Graveyard. That’ll work. Nightrage isn’t going to be playing in town for much longer, from what I’ve heard. Allegedly, they’re going on a national tour with another formerly local band, Black Phantom, who signed with an indie label in L.A. last year and are starting to get some radio play on the West Coast. Local Boys Make Good.
New Times says a band called Gothic Rainbow is opening for Nightrage. Haven’t heard of them, but the name reminds me of my ill-fated driveway drawing, chalky black and gray. I imagine a large painting . . . maybe from a perspective behind me, where you could see both me drawing on the pavement and the rainbow over Camelback itself--?
Anyway. Gothic Rainbow. What are they, gay vampires? I reach for my phone to call Jenn and ask if she’s heard of the band. Fortunately, I’m able to jerk my hand back before I even pick it up.
Man, that was close.
I root through my dresser for something appropriate to wear. Bad idea, because I can’t help but catch my reflection in the glass of one of my four framed Salvador Dali prints. I refuse to have a mirror in my room, because honestly, I don’t much care what I look like. Except when I, you know, see myself.
“And we ratchet up the revulsion,” I mumble to my reflection in the Metamorphosis of Narcissus poster, while poking helplessly at the ring of chub above my waistband. Must cut back on eating, you know, deep-fried butter or whatever. Stays crunchy in milk!
I grab my favorite jeans and pull them on quickly to hide the white-hot shame of my reflection. They’re a bit baggy--one of their chief attractions--so I cinch them with this belt I painted on back in eighth grade in Mr. Hilmer’s class. What was once empty green leather is now adorned with fading ants, melting watches, and other surrealistic icons associated with the best fucking artist in the galaxy.
Here’s the thing.
I wouldn’t call it a Dali phase. It’s more of a “Dali fervent devotion with psychotic tendencies.” Salvador Dali is my hero. I’ve got the four prints of his on my walls, plus the clock, which depicts Three Young Surrealist Women Holding in Their Arms the Skins of an Orchestra, and a handful of T-shirts with his work on them. I painted these Dali trademark replicas on the belt myself, though. I’m pretty proud of the work, and so was Mr. Hilmer at the time. He called it one of my best expressions. Wearing it reminds me of Mr. Hilmer, who retired after I graduated. He said he waited an extra year just so he could have me in his class one more time in eighth grade. I don’t know about that, but it was nice to hear.
Someday, I remind myself as I rummage for a T-shirt, I’m going to St. Petersburg, Florida, to visit (or move into) the Salvador Dali museum. See his work up close and personal, study the brushstrokes, and probably have a cataclysmic orgasm just standing there. But Florida’s a long ways away, and I can’t quite muster the guts to borrow/steal money from the account Dad set up to pay for school, which is “hands-off for anything except educational expenses!” A trip to the Dali museum would be educational, in my humble opinion, but I don’t think SAIC would hand me credit for it, so no can do.
Then again, SAIC is no longer an option anyway. Goddammit, this is not fair. From May 1, when I got my acceptance letter, to May 28, life was so sweet I didn’t even hear Mom and Dad’s usual melee. Then last week--hours before graduation, for god’s sake--I got the other letter from Chicago, the one starting “Dear Ms. Walsh, With regret, your scholarship application has been . . .”
And that was just the start of the worst night/week/summer of my life.
Whatever. I grab a black shirt from my dresser: D.I., that sweet, old Orange County band that never quite made it mainstream. Nobody ever knows who D.I. is. You can tell the idiots from the cool people by who asks, “What’s a D-X-I-X?” The Xs are periods, dumbass.
I glance at my hair in the glass pane of one poster. It’s still wet from the rain and starting to frizz out, so I yank on my old blue canvas cabbie cap to cover it.
“You pretty much suck,” I remind my reflection, and pull the brim of the cap down to shade my eyes. At least my hat looks cool. I shove my wallet into my hip pocket, grab my keys, and go out to begin a night of blessed punk oblivion.
My mother has other ideas.
Excerpted from Zero by Tom Leveen. Copyright © 2012 by Tom Leveen. Excerpted by permission of Ember, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.