Dale’s breath halted at the root of his tongue. He felt the heat, prickling at his cheeks.
He leaned into the painting, as though it were reeling him in. It was an acrylic pour, with vibrant, eddying pools of crimson and magenta. Spirals of eggshell white and canary yellow carved through its focal point like an insecure, poisonous snake.
Dale heard an elderly couple whispering as they slipped behind him, and he grew annoyed. Normally, he’d visit the gallery between 8 and 9 a.m., so that he’d have the place to himself. The owner would only smile softly, and walk to the back to make tea because he knew Dale wasn’t much of a talker.
Dale jammed his fingers into his pockets and rocked on his toes. The couple paused at a shelf lined with glazed pottery. He could hear the old man’s fingernails zipping back and forth against the threads of his wife’s sweater. Love. Comfort. Reassurance.
Dale knew then that he had the wall to himself. He’d never been a fan of acrylic pours before. He had always seen them as something too shallow and leisurely to be considered even abstract. This one, though, was talking to him. And he’d always been a good listener.
He leaned in once more, reminding himself that breath was supposed to come involuntarily. Light from the raindrop chandelier glazed the painting; its sunny rays invigorating a sheet of ice on a March morning. Bubbles of emerald green greeted him suddenly, like subtle lily pads. Oh, he thought to himself. Where did you come from?
He was familiar with the painting, and he was certain that the painting recognized him as well. It was a piece as clear as day, like a single, precise slice of a memory contained within a picture frame. Dale smiled to himself as he closed his eyes, allowing a younger sun’s rays to swipe its amber strokes beneath his eyelids.
“C’mon now Dale. What did I say? Without any weight, that thing’s walking on water. And these fish ain’t baptists.”
His father shook his head again, as Dale splashed, stumbling across the river rocks with an outstretched hand. He took the pole from his son, and bit into the split shot’s soft metal hinges. He had been fishing enough times with his father to know that his impatience would linger until the first fish. That’s all it took. After that, Dale would suddenly evolve into a version of his father’s friend. His father would see his own essence in Dale, and he’d treat his son like a younger version of himself: the boy who never got what he needed.
That first fish did bite — and fast too. There were plenty of fish to follow, and Dale’s father was delighted by each and every interruption. He laughed at the abundance, even dancing a little when Dale finally tied the score at six.
“That’s a dozen!” he marveled, “We should have brought a bigger cooler!” He laughed at the otter too, when they saw it flop onto its back over on the opposite bank with a juicy trout balanced on its four furry limbs. “There’s plenty to go around, right?” he said, nudging Dale with an elbow.
For the first time ever, they grew bored with catching fish. Thirteen in two hours, which left far too much daylight to waste.
Dale never lost that particular image, gazing up through the ‘v’ of the drainage. Sunlight, bursting through the leaves of a dozen huckleberry bushes. His father’s eye, sizing him up and down before gauging the scramble.
“Think we can make it up there, kid?” he asked.
Dale nodded. His youth would take him anywhere.
His father grunted and cursed as they clawed their way up the incline. At the steeper portions, he’d reach a hand out to Dale, hoisting him up and over the granite boulders. They paused to watch a golden eagle swoop into the treetops below them.
His father sighed when they finally approached the first bush.
“Are those blueberries?” Dale asked.
“Even better. Huckleberries,” he responded. He bent forward and tugged at each of the flaps of Dale’s cargo pockets. “Stuff ’em full as you can.”
Later on, Dale’s father would brush a sleeve against his boy’s chubby cheeks, soaking up the purple juice that had already stained his lips.
“Bet you never thought you’d find candy growing in the mountains.”
Dale shook his head, licking his fingers. Perhaps that had been the first lucid thought of Dale’s silent, green life, as he watched his legs swing beneath the overhang of the granite:
Candy in the mountains. Sweet, sweet, sugar.
He tilted his head up toward his father’s face, and saw how the sunlight cast its shade into the creases of his skin. “We better get back to your mother.”
“Dale?” the man asked. “Are you okay?”
Dale opened his singeing eyes and absorbed the owner. The steam, twisting from his mug. Orange peel and star anise.
“I couldn’t find the label on this one,” he muttered to the tile floor.
The owner arched an eyebrow and smiled. “This doesn’t seem like your usual taste, Dale. I’m surprised.”
“It’s more for my daughter,” he replied. “She likes these styles. I never understood why.”
The owner nodded and swung around, pacing to the counter. He flipped through his pad as he returned to Dale’s side.
“What’s it called?” Dale asked, attempting to bury the torment beneath his tongue. The owner slid his finger down the edge of the page and rested it in a point at the bottom corner.
Maurice Catlin (1960–2019)
Tig Ol’ Bitties & Banana Splitties, 2019
Acrylic pour on canvas
Dale felt the heat return to his cheeks, much hotter than before.
“Thank you, sir,” he said quickly. He stuck his hands in his pockets and made his way toward the gallery’s exit.