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February 26, 2024

In the Land of Zim, Part 2

By Robert Earle

Part II

Suzanne had known Kerry too long to take her cross words about not doing her job too seriously, but they hurt. It seemed something about the two of them was always hurt. The first time Kerry came into Suzanne's studio at the Periscope Plant Art Center, she was seventeen, her mother had just died, and she was totally adrift. For a good ten minutes, she looked at the prints on the wall and said nothing. As she sometimes did when a person interested her, Suzanne surreptitiously began sketching the trouble in her face, the natural shadows under eyes, the unawakened force in her posture.

When Kerry finally spoke, she asked the funniest question. "Does the artist ever come in?"

Suzanne said, "She's here all the time. I'm the artist."

"But -- " Kerry pointed at a press clipping about a recent exhibition Suzanne had left on the counter " -- the article says you're from Zimbabwe."

"I was born in what's called Zimbabwe, and I'm still a citizen, but I've lived in America since I was eight. Some of us are white. Not many, but a few."

Kerry said she had lived in Kenya and Ghana and Malaysia as a girl because her parents worked for the U.S. government. "I guess that's what attracts me so much about your work. It's sort of from everywhere."

"Like you?"

Kerry shrugged. "I wish I could create things the way you can."

Teenage waifs and renegades were attracted to Suzanne's work. She was especially popular with Goths. Her images apparently confirmed their feelings of darkness, but they tended to flitter away as fast as they flittered in. Kerry returned, though, her spirit aroused while also arousing Suzanne's, who enjoyed her restless energy and sympathized with her frustration that she couldn't get what she wanted from life. Before long Kerry had volunteered to sit in the studio when Suzanne had to be out and began trying to learn how to draw. Despite Suzanne's encouragement, however, she couldn't express what she saw in harmony with what she felt. She said she didn't feel anything. She lived with her father near Groton and had relationships with older guys that never worked out. At nineteen she said she was quitting that. Going celibate. Suzanne's husband Andy said that would never last and Suzanne wondered if basically Kerry was trying to become a little girl again. Suzanne thought maybe Andy had hit it. Kerry's power was the power only children had, the power of no boundaries or restraints. If she couldn't become an artist, what else could she become? She seemed to think Suzanne could tell her. Suzanne wished she could. She felt she knew so little, not even why her images obsessed her despite bringing in almost no money and contributing nothing to society, which ignored them. After all, who needed art? Kerry protested when Suzanne asked that question -- "No, don't say that!" -- and she hated it when Suzanne talked about starting over in life, going back to what she called the Land of Zim, and not being an artist at all. "Stop it, I won't listen to you!" So Suzanne did try to stop talking about herself, but she couldn't stop talking about Kerry. "You're so lucky," she ended up telling her. "You can pick almost anything, and it won't be selfish or small. For me it's just too late."

Kerry tried archeology when she enrolled at Connecticut College, going on a dig in South America. Then she tried religious studies and anthropology. She earned awards and prizes. She was an organizer of conferences, field trips, study groups, and research projects. Nothing stuck, but things kept happening, faster and faster until she called Suzanne one night in the middle of her sophomore year and told her she was on the floor in her dorm room and could not move.

"Where is the pain?"

"From my butt to the middle of my back. Can you come?"

"What can I do? You need a doctor."

"Suzanne, it hurts so bad I threw up."

Suzanne drove to the college and found that someone in the dorm had prescription painkillers, and Kerry had taken a second dose when the first dose didn't act quickly enough. Now she could move, and Suzanne was able to get her to the emergency room, where the doctor told her it seemed she had had some kind of spinal inflammation. He had no idea why. After that, a few months would pass with no attack; then there might be two attacks in quick succession. Kerry could ward them off by exercising and avoiding stress. She was good at exercising, but not good at avoiding stress. Instead, she began taking painkillers on what she called a precautionary basis and went to a back specialist who told her she was developing a disease called ankylosing spondylitis. The disease was serious, but fortunately, it would not advance quickly. Right now Kerry's biggest problem was her painkiller addiction. Suzanne sat beside Kerry as the doctor spoke and seemed to see him as very, very large and Kerry as very, very small. She hadn't wanted her father to come with her because she didn't want him to know anything about her problems, he had his own. But here was the doctor, stern and somehow useless, Suzanne thought, just like a father, lecturing, not curing. Stop taking the painkillers; learn to live with the pain when it strikes; in a day or so, it will go away. Breaking the addiction was excruciating, and being in a girls' dorm full of painkillers presented impossible temptations. Finally Kerry found support in a campus substance abusers group and moved into a sobriety house. On weekends she came to Suzanne's studio at the Periscope Plant to sit on the floor behind the counter and catch up with schoolwork that she tended to let slip as she adjusted to her new condition.

The upside of Kerry's pain was that it inspired Suzanne to make the Quill Girl prints -- four studies of a naked Kerry lanced up and down her back with spear-like porcupine quills, some of which tore through her sternum. Kerry said these frightening prints at least made her feel seen and certainly made her feel cared for, but Suzanne wanted more. She wanted Kerry to recover; she wanted to hear there was some cure and that ankylosing spondylitis wouldn't crush her spine by middle age and possibly affect her eyes and lungs. She felt protective of Kerry and confused by her. Should they even be friends? Is that what they were? Or were they each other's lost children, the one trapped in the other's breast?

All the Quill Girl prints sold. So many women wanted them. Thank God, or thank someone, because the money helped Suzanne hold onto her house when Andy was laid off and had to start over himself.

During the summer between her junior and senior years, Kerry went on an inoculation mission to Rwanda. Suzanne thought this was a terrible idea. Kerry said, "I'll be surrounded by medical professionals. If I have a problem, all I have to do is take some pills and lie down." "What pills?" Suzanne asked. But Kerry went to Rwanda and took whatever pills she took and returned apparently okay. This led her to decide she would get a nursing degree in a program at Yale that also granted a masters in international public health -- not only would it enable her to make a difference faster than becoming a doctor, it also would help her return to Africa sooner, a link to Suzanne she was convinced would draw them even closer together.

Three years later, she had funding for a pilot project to develop a training module for nurses who wanted to work in developing countries. She called what she wanted to do "expeditionary nursing," and she wanted to involve Suzanne, whose art wasn't selling at all in the terrible economy. She could be the three-nurse team's administrative aide and graphic "rapporteur," bringing back a portfolio of images that could be exhibited and published and would generate funding for additional expeditionary projects. And one last thing: the pilot project would take place in Zimbabwe.

Andy had always valued Kerry for her comedic nuisance value. "But this one is off the charts." He didn't want Suzanne anywhere near Zimbabwe given the way things were there: the disease and decay and disorder.

"Disease, decay and disorder are my métier," Suzanne countered, laughing at his pungent formula.

"In art. Not in life. There's no happy ending for any of that in life."

"Oh, endings are endings wherever they are," she said.

"Maybe so, but this is straight out of your fantasy life into hers and back again. She's dangling your Land of Zim in front of you! It's brilliant, but what a manipulator. The girl will not leave you alone!"

Suzanne didn't know if she wanted to be left alone. After Kerry failed by trying to persuade her by herself, she brought Emmy and Michelle from New Haven to New Portshead as reinforcements. Emmy combed her dark blonde hair straight back off her strong forehead and dressed sloppily like Kerry. She came from Tennessee where her hobby was rock climbing, which showed in her muscular shoulders and arms and rough hands. Michelle had thick brown hair, a low forehead and wore rimless glasses that made her appear almost scholarly. Three women in their early twenties wooing her, however ridiculous their proposal, were almost irresistible.

Suzanne protested she might know a little bit about Zimbabwe, but she didn't know anything about nursing or health care. "I'm an artist. I can't afford to get sick."

"But so much of your work is focused on illness," Kerry said. "Think about Quill Girl. Think about your plague and malaria prints. We'll be where all that is real, and it's where you were born!"

Suzanne offered a Kerry a goofy smile. "I left over forty years ago."

They were sitting in the Starbucks as usual when Kerry came up from New Haven. First she looked at Suzanne's new work. Then they crossed the street from the Periscope Plant for green tea and oatmeal raisin cookies.

Michelle decided to enter the conversation. She wasn't as quiet as she looked. She said she had committed to the project because it would help make public health America's new international mission. "We've got to be fast, light, and flexible, just like the military. Why not emphasize healing instead of killing? I mean, we could go without you, but I think any team of nurses that goes to a place like Zimbabwe and just gives shots all day with no record of what they're seeing and feeling won't be motivated to go back. We need you because when you nurse, you see unbelievable things but at the same time, you almost don't see them at all. You'll be dealing with a really interesting patient and you'll have to rush to take care of someone else, or he'll have a pain -- "

"Or he'll die," Emmy interjected dryly.

"And you never have time to get into that pain. The looks they give you. The way patients sit for a nurse. The way they pose without intending to."

"Oh, sometimes they intend it," Emmy said.

Michelle admitted she was worried about the situation in Zimbabwe, particularly the cholera around Harare that the government was denying. "Let's be realistic. We've got to get out in the countryside where things would be more manageable. Near the Zambezi or in the mountains in the east. You've been to those places, haven't you?"

"I was a little girl. It's a dream to me, it's not real."

"It's not even that to us," Michelle said.

"Perhaps going to another country right now might make more sense. Zimbabwe really is in turmoil."

"That's exactly what makes it interesting," Emmy said, as if she were assessing a cliff face. "If what we do works in Zimbabwe, it will work anywhere."

Suzanne said again that she had done only one thing her entire adult life. She was a wood engraver, not an administrative assistant or rapporteur. She had set the plague prints Kerry referred to in Zimbabwe -- Queen Mab as a Shona cadaver, two little girls using her as their maypole -- but until this cholera outbreak, there had never been a plague in Zimbabwe. It was all in her imagination like the two little girls with spider web eyes.

"Why don't you take a filmmaker?" she asked, thinking how her father might have leaped at this opportunity when he was young.

"We might ask you to shoot video," Kerry said.

Suzanne laughed. She had been laughing all along, asking herself why not go, why not take time off from the studio and do this crazy thing that had haunted her all her life, why not succumb to solving their relationship problem by doing exactly what she had once fantasized, switching their roles, Kerry the organizing adult, Suzanne the wriggling child? She asked if Kerry were simply taking pity on her. Would they even be having this conversation if the art market hadn't fallen through the floor with the Periscope Plant almost empty every weekend and New Portshead getting rattier and more shuttered and destitute all the time, banks closing, stores closing, library branches and recreation centers closing? Wasn't that why Kerry was proposing to take Suzanne along and pay her $30,000 instead of just adding another nurse?

The more she talked, and she could talk very fast when she was upset, the more upset she became. In the last year, New Portshead and her life there really had become grimmer. Andy was scrambling to start a business and seeming to get nowhere. She sold a few pieces a month. And there was nothing she could do to change that except work harder, which only overloaded her inventory. She felt as lonely and lost as she did when her family settled into a barely furnished house in East Lansing, Michigan, after they left Southern Rhodesia. Her mother moaned around the place like a lost wind. Her father arranged his books alphabetically along the baseboards of what would be his study when he could afford bookcases. Suzanne and Allie had a double bed in their room, and nothing else except Suzanne's pink suitcase and Alma's green one, so they both sat reading and playing on the bed as if it were a remote island, the only place in the house where they didn't drown in empty space. They ate canned vegetables, canned meat, and the same oatmeal for breakfast every day until their father began receiving his checks from the university. Then they ate better, but the fight about furnishing the house began. Their mother wanted new furniture. Their father framed the issue as a choice between buying new furniture and settling for second-hand so that they could buy everyone decent winter clothing. Neither of the girls had ever experienced anything like Michigan's icebox cold. All Suzanne had was her Fair Isle sweater, a rubberized canvas raincoat, and her tam (Allie more or less the same.)

Their father won the argument, and miraculously, they transformed the empty house into something like a home. Suzanne always felt that experience was crucial to her inexplicable optimism -- somehow the world would renew itself, even desolation provided opportunities to nudge things in the right direction. As the different pieces of furnishing arrived, she made sketches to greet them. She perfected her cylinders by drawing stacks of plates. She perfected cones by drawing lampshades. She mastered perspective by peering through the front window at the milkman parking his delivery truck across the street or a cat perched on a porch railing two inches above the snowdrifts. She had a squat, compressed style and worked fast to populate her mind with images that would take the place of everything she had lost, meaning the whole of her life in Southern Rhodesia, every detail, none of which could be found in Michigan: The earth frozen brown, not soft green. No black faces except in little cracks and creases in the cityscape -- a boy in a stockroom behind a store counter, a man hanging on the back of a garbage truck, a woman at a bus stop shielding herself from the biting wind. One day she missed their house in Salisbury so much she asked her father what had happened to it and why couldn't they go back.

"Nothing happened to it," he said. "I didn't sell it; I simply locked the door."

"That's because no one would buy a house from Frederick Mosel," her mother said, "so now here we sit, paying assessments on a property to which, no, we can never go back. Southern Rhodesia is over for us. We would do well to simply forget it."

Finally Suzanne stopped talking and to escape the expectant stares of Emmy, Michelle and Kerry, looked past them, scanning the quiet Starbucks. A woman in tall boots was treating her child to a pastry. A young girl, as young as Kerry had been when Suzanne first met her, stared intently at her laptop screen. A black man at another table was looking back and forth from his own laptop screen to what appeared to be an order book. He had a jewelry-like Bluetooth device in his ear. Did she really want to spend the rest of her life in Connecticut and talking about life instead of living it? What life in Connecticut? She transposed the scene before her to Zimbabwe, scratching away the café's subdued, prefabricated luster, taking off the woman's boots and giving her strong bare feet and engraving the black man's head so that it was rocky and hard while his eyelids were swollen and his eyes were reproachful. When things collapsed, this is what remained; this is what she rescued, and it seemed better to her. Why couldn't it work? She looked at the child with pastry crumbs on her mouth and saw her apprehension about whether she was making her mother happy. She wondered about the teenage girl, seemingly oblivious to the violent changes gestating within her that were just months away from transforming her into a woman. She noticed Emmy following her eyes; she felt Michelle's stillness; and Kerry, she knew, was sitting there transfixed by an emotional bet that she was convinced she'd win and couldn't afford to lose.

Suzanne said all right, she'd go, too.

Article © Robert Earle. All rights reserved.
Published on 2014-02-24
Image(s) © Rosemary Feit Covey. All rights reserved.
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