The World of Zornes

Photo by April Spreeman.

When Andi picks up fares, she stays away from the university. When Andi talks to her passengers she never talks about art. She doesn’t talk about her other job, teaching part-time, or her sister who is still seventeen and still living with their parents even after social services was called. She does not talk about putting away money to send to Terri on her eighteenth birthday. She doesn’t talk about Milford Zornes either. He seems too precious to share with anyone.

When Andi picks up someone who sits and stares at a phone and does not want to talk, she has taken to populating Zornes’s watercolors with the people she thinks would live there, Edna and her son Jacob, Edna who has lost her husband and might well lose her house, who lives a subsistence lifestyle that seems so simple and easy. In her dreams, they’re alive just after WWII, and they glean and hunt for food, and they are good people, and they are kind and smart, and Jacob is walking with his mother with his rifle, hoping to shoot a deer in the foothills of their Central California town when the woman who is in Andi’s back seat makes a call, and Andi hears her voice and understands that this is the president of the university.

The woman, whom Andi has heard speak from a podium three times and whose name escapes her says into her phone, “I’ll be there in a half hour.”

Andi who has been lost in her dream of Edna and Jacob, realizes that she is heading to a police station. She realizes that the woman smells of gin. She is wearing a smart red suit, and her make-up is smart, and she’s holding it together, but Andi still smells what she’s probably trying to hide.

The woman asks, “It will be about a half hour won’t it?”

“About that. I’ll try to take some shortcuts I know.” The president, who has always seemed so distant and powerful to Andi, reminds her a little of Edna, especially now as she hangs up her phone, as she puts her face into her hands and begins to weep. Andi lets the woman be for a few long minutes, and then says, “Is there anything I can do for you?’

The president seems to remember that she’s not alone and turns to Andi, composing herself in a half second as though she is used to doing that, used to hiding herself behind her office. She smiles, “No thank you.”

But her hands are still shaking, and she begins to look through her purse, digging for something, and pulling objects out that she puts on the seat next to her. What she comes up with is a couple of those little bottles of gin that they give you in hotel minibars or airplanes. She opens one, takes a nip, and makes a face. Andi thinks of Edna, who has no money, but the people around her love her. Everything is simple there. She and her son walk uphill, and she gathers mushrooms because it is April, and these are the foothills of the High Sierra and the morels are out and that’s food. It is a cool day, and she and her son chat about little things.

She thinks of Terri back with her parents figuring it out and getting through each day, one at a time. Andi has told her sister to stay away from the house until it is time to go to sleep and to get good grades. She has told her to avoid the house on Friday nights when their father will come home drunk. She has told her that as soon as she gets out here to California they can live together and their lives, both of them, will be so much simpler. Life is easier, choices are clearer when you are with someone you love. That’s what she’s told her sister. Who knows, maybe she’ll tell her sister about Jacob and Edna?

At a stop light, she offers the president some gum. The woman stares at Andi hard for three beats, judging her perhaps, trying to figure out if Andi is safe. “Do I need it?” she asks.

Andi nods her head. “Hey, I have a really good sense of smell.”

“So do police officers,” she says. She finishes one of the little bottles then takes the pack and says, “Thank you. It’s not one of my better days.”

“That’s just the modern world, isn’t it? Life just keeps getting more complex.” Andi thinks of Edna and her boy. She thinks of patches of sunshine between trees and searching the places where they know food will be.

The president cocks her head. “I know you, don’t I?”

“No,” she says.

“Yes, I do. You teach art history, don’t you?”

She smiles into the rearview mirror. “Yeah, I’m Andi. I can’t believe you recognize me. I’m teaching only one class this semester.”

“I know all of the faculty by sight.”

Andi watches stages of realization move their way through the president’s face, and she seems to collapse into herself.

Andi can see into her, the worry about her reputation. She puts her face back into her hands, and Andi says, “I want you to know that I would never tell anyone about this.”

“About the police station.”

“Or anything.”

But there is a full-time position coming up in the art history department, and Andi can see that thought moving through the woman’s face too. Andi doesn’t know how to assure her that she wouldn’t use this against her. She imagines why they might be going to the station, whom they might be picking up. An uncontrollable adult child. A husband with anger problems. Maybe a younger sister running from their parents.

At the police station, the woman asks Andi to wait for her, and Andi says she’ll be there as long as she needs to be. The president rushes into the building, and Andi gets out of the car to stand by it and wait. Something catches her eye in the back seat, and she opens the door to find some of those gin bottles, some kleenex, a lipstick, and some crumpled bills that must have fallen out of the president’s purse when she was digging through it.

In the world of Zornes, Jacob has spotted a goat up in the foothills that must have wandered off some farmer’s place. It is someone’s property, maybe someone’s pet, but Jacob raises his rifle and fires, giving him and his mother days of food. Andi stares at the money and thinks about Jacob’s choice and thinks about the president. Above her police helicopters begin circling something. She stares at the money and thinks about the richness of the world Zornes created for himself. She thinks about Terri.

John Brantingham

About John Brantingham

John Brantingham was Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks’ first poet laureate. His work has been featured in hundreds of magazines, Writers Almanac and The Best Small Fictions 2016. He has nineteen books of poetry and fiction including his latest, Life: Orange to Pear (Bamboo Dart Press). He teaches at Mt. San Antonio College.

John Brantingham was Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks’ first poet laureate. His work has been featured in hundreds of magazines, Writers Almanac and The Best Small Fictions 2016. He has nineteen books of poetry and fiction including his latest, Life: Orange to Pear (Bamboo Dart Press). He teaches at Mt. San Antonio College.

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