As You Are
Conor Madigan

"I'm to be a sign painter." 

Six-year-old Mr. Mason chose a profession early.

"Noted," his mother said.

His mother purchased enamel, white and black, one rigger paintbrush, a small tin for thinner, and demanded that he "spy on Mr. Ball the sign painter": a notorious drinker deafened by sisters who smacked Ball's large boy ears simultaneously with cupped hands.

Children wept near Ball. Grown men shied from Ball. Rumor had it Ball had killed a wife.

Ball painted late in a day's wan hour—time Mr. Mason snuck old Mr. Mason's watch to keep with his mother's demand.

Hedges buttressed light on courtyard back-patio stone behind Ball's sign shop. Ball gripped thumb and forefinger on handle tip and fanned other brushes between fingers. Lips puckered up and down, grimaced thin lines. Practical, sure brush strokes followed intricate design. Mr. Mason cried for fear of Ball.

As a man Mason weeps aloud Ball's death. As a boy, Mason cried in silence for most things—a loud voice in a hall, cod liver oil on wide spoons, libraries.

Ball found young Mr. Mason asleep in whimpered calm of morning—wake to empty buckets and thinner cans tumbled down. "Did I wake you, boy," Ball said in his gunshot voice. Mr. Mason's balled fists rubbed eyes to yawn—a nod. Ball yawned. A cat negotiated doorframe to courtyard and wove Ball's ankles.

"A cat." 

"Holy Henry, a thin one, hah. Atlas." Atlas and Mr. Mason flinched at Ball's volume.

Mr. Mason attempted the gate latch. "How's it?"

"Here, boy. Push trigger, close gate. Push trigger, opened gate." 

"Oh."  Mr. Mason sprawled on ground and scooted beneath and from outside said, "How I do it."

Ball bellowed, "Use the goddamn latch," through the gate. He opened the gate, the boy gone, retrieved a Daily and placed himself a seat on curb out front.

"He's not so bad."

Mr. Mason snuck old Mr. Mason's watch to keep with his mother's continued glee. Gate ajar, he swung to courtyard, but upon his perch behind hedges found Ball face first on the oxblood floor. Atlas greeted and ran to sit atop Ball. Ball whispered, "Just down for a nap, boy."  His voice startled Atlas.

"My brother Robert eats dirt when mom and dad fight."

"A brother dirt eater. Ate the dirt, huh." Ball drooled.

"And there's this spot in mom's garden in our courtyard he eats it at."

"Young Bob: dirt eater."

"He throws up when he eats dirt, but only if it's a dry day, what mom says. Should I use the telephone?"

"I'll need a minute down here." His voice came full and he said, "Put the caps on those thinner cans," and he hoisted up, stretched with Atlas.

"Did you kill your wife?"

"No. Jesus." Ball stalls—shear directness of the boy, his clarity—and says, "She hung herself—this basement."

"On what?"

"She killed herself with a rope from a rafter in the basement. Stop crying, boy. People do it all the damn time."

Ball walked to Mr. Mason and held him to his stomach with one hand, as fathers will. "Courage to live, courage to die. Let's see how these signs are doing."

Mr. Mason sat on a bench, and Ball hoisted easels to height.

"A matrix, boy, is the first layer of a sign painter's art, these lines. We beg to have a form before us so our letters place themselves, if not in our mind's eye, then—literally."


"For real. This sign, it's for the puppeteers at the library. You've seen the show. Maybe haven't. They're a spoony couple. No one likes them. I don't like 'em. They wanted cute signs for their version Richard the second, who the fuck cares. So, I came up with German looking village font." He belches low. "See how it looks old? Sure. Outline, follow the matrix, place them all and by that point Atlas vomits and I take a break for a drink. Fuck me I've let the enamel dry up.

"He swears a lot."

"Does he."

"He does."

"He has a difficult profession, honey."

"He's loud, too."

"He's a little deaf."

"I told him Brian eats dirt."

"You didn't."

Mrs. Mason breaded chicken and dipped slices in buttermilk.

"He was on the floor."

"Was he."

"And he said Atlas, the cat, eats things too and throws up, vomits, what he said."

"Atlas, the kitty, huh."

"And he showed me how you draw lines on the signs before you paint the letters."

"Say your alphabet."

Mr. Mason dryly spat his letters and first few lines of Lord's Prayer before old Mr. Mason scolded him for leaving a cap off his thinner can. He kissed his wife's neck, took young Mr. Mason by his waist, on his side, to the courtyard and they shot paper clips at each other with rubber bands.

Conor Madigan has had fiction in New York Tyrant, CutThroat, elimae, Lamination Colony, No Posit and others.

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Photo detail on main page courtesy of Darwin Bell.

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