1: Lem, my brother, came over. I was washing dishes and he materialized behind the screen door which made me whiplash a glassful of scalding water into the air.
2: He asked me if I would spend the night at his house because he thought he was being harassed by the former neo-realist painter to whom he’d been apprenticed. Formerly neo-realist, formerly painter, formerly burdened by this mortal coil. The painter’s name was Nomo.
3: Lem had been in love with Nomo’s daughter. Nomo hadn’t approved. She was sixteen. Lem was nineteen. Nomo said it was creepy.
4: I’m perhaps overly open to the possibility of displaced spirits roaming the earth.
5: Nomo was painting an altar-piece for a Roman Catholic church when he died. It featured Babe Ruth done up as St. Francis. He pointed out toward the stands as a bird landed on the extended index finger. Babe/Francis pointing out past the wall, past the stands, into the sky, out, beyond. He’d finished the painting, except for the bird.
6: Apparently, Nomo had fallen from the ladder he called his “scaffolding,” suffered a major head-trauma, retrieved his phone from his pocket, selected Lem’s number, perhaps at random, perhaps not, from his “recent calls” list, and then dialed the number again, and again, and again. Lem had never picked up. Nomo’s wife, Patella, later gave the phone to Lem. The call button stuck a bit. Gummy with blood.
7: Lem had seen the calls, but hadn’t taken them. Lem had grown used to receiving calls from Nomo at all hours, requiring his presence at emergency painting sessions. Nomo kept an exacting schedule. As soon as work on a piece dried, he began work. If a painting phased into fixity in the middle of the night, that was when work began.
8: “Emergency painting sessions” are basically unheard of in the discipline, unless under a severe deadline. Nomo always delivered his work early.
9: The reason Lem hadn’t taken the calls wasn’t that he was used to Nomo’s calls at odd hours and simply chose to ignore them. It was because he was with Nomo’s daughter, Manzana, and they both assumed that her father’s calls meant he’d found them out. They were drinking cider and cooling their feet in a baby pool in Lem’s backyard. During the calling spree, after Lem had finished his third cider and felt the wandering parts of his love for Manzi coagulate into resolve, as Nomo continued to call only during momentary reprieves from bleeding and seizing, Lem dropped his phone in the pool.
10: I don’t want to undermine my credibility too much, but I’ve always wanted to see a spirit. I think I did once. Before this, I mean.
11: The effect that Nomo’s death had on Lem was extreme. He blamed himself. So did Patella. So did Manzi. They all agreed he was a coward.
12: He developed a phobia of phones. I once called it a Phone-bia in his presence, and I can still—with my tongue—feel a scarred place where my teeth jumped through my cheek when he hit me.
13: Once, a girl he met at an opening offered to text him her number, and as she drew her phone out of her purse he slapped it, catching it aloft and sending it skidding out the door and into the street, where it was ground into shards by a Honda Fit.
14: During an important lunch meeting, a gallery owner left his phone on the table while he used the restroom. The phone began to ring and did not stop. The gallery owner returned to find his curry spasming with the slow pulse of a silenced phone and Lem staring at it with unsettling intensity. The de-curried phone worked almost fine.
15: I went with him. I left the dishes. I wanted to see a spirit, again, maybe. Again, if the thing I saw on the stairs in the house we were moving into was anything at all. We drank Lem’s cheap beer. We watched BBC comedies. At a quarter past twelve (12:15 AM) we heard the ghostly ringing of a phone. I lost it. Through a significant exercise of will, I kept my undergarments intact, unspotted.
A: It might seem strange that a phone ringing can cause such disarrangement, but you’ve never heard a call come across dimensions, a call from beyond. However similar the mechanism by which the sound-waves disrupt the air, strike the eardrum, and so on, there’s a difference in quality when a spirit makes the call. Lem said it was like looking at pieces by an outsider artist named Harold J. Treherne, who would draw in such a way that his images had multiple vanishing points, which meant that his objects—he drew chairs, toasters—look uneasy in the world. They’re here, but not in a way that makes physical sense to us. That sounds right to me. It freaked me the hell out.
16: I regained myself. I told Lem he had to answer it. The point of this story isn’t that I told Lem to answer it, I just knew that he had to answer it. He refused. The ringing lasted for just over 11 minutes. I went home.
17: The next night, same thing, small exception. I came over. 12:15 AM, bowel loosening sound of the phone, Lem and I not doing anything. Though I couldn’t be sure, because of the weird perspective of the sound, it seemed to be coming from a closet, and I believe I made out a seeping green glow under the door. And then it stopped. I told Lem that this wouldn’t stop until he answered the phone. He drank another beer.
18: The next night, the door was locked when I got to Lem’s. I said to open up the door or I’d hurt my hand banging on it. We’re a family full of people who’d never break a door down without mortal cause. It was 12:14 AM. I said some things about Manzi and Patella being right. He opened the door. The ringing began. He walked to the closet, opened the door, was bathed in green light, rummaged in a box, picked up the phone, said “Hello.”
19: Nomo—or some emanation of Nomo, or something—on the other end told Lem about his unfinished business. The painting. The bird, about to perch on Babe Ruth/Francis’ finger. He just had to finish the bird, then Nomo would stop calling. This is dumb, Lem said. Who cares if the painting isn’t finished? Isn’t it a painting for the Church? I said. It’s probably some Cardinal or Vicar or something refusing him entry to heaven until he finishes. Lem seemed annoyed. He asked Nomo, Where’s the painting? Nomo wouldn’t say. That’s complicating things unnecessarily, isn’t it? Lem said. The line went dead, or was all along, but now nothing was on the other end.
20: The painting wasn’t in Nomo’s old studio space, which had been taken over by a glass worker who left his kiln open and burned the place down. Lem assumed that it was in Manzi and Patella’s house, probably in the basement. Just ask if you can finish it, I said. No, Lem said. We’ll sneak in and I’ll do it. It’s easy.
21: Lem had a key. It was easy. We found it. I set up the worklight, shrouded it in the corner with black cloths. Watching my brother work, I remembered watching him draw as a child. I’m so innocent to the way someone who can draw sees things. It’s like watching a magic trick. I can never see it coming. I can never see how the lines will connect and pop the thing into existence, and then I do. I watched my brother and when I began to see the bird, I also began to see some other aspect of my brother, how this thing he was making, painting in the realist style, was both here and not here. It was a bird and it was paint. The bird was both landing and ascending, it wasn’t clear. The figure was Babe Ruth and it was also St. Francis. My brother was guilty and innocent. We came back three nights in a row. We remained undetected. Until he finished the bird.
22: We hadn’t accounted for the various paranormal expressions of Nomo’s release, his entry into eternity. With the final stroke of Lem’s brush, the weird green light flashed, we heard a crashing like a giant banging boulders together, were overwhelmed by the smell of soured lavender. Manzi bolted down the stairs and caught us. She saw the painting finished. She saw Lem still poised on the ladder. He couldn’t decide what to do. He went up the ladder. He came down a few steps. Ascending and descending. I thought he might be able to step out into the air and hang there, if he meant it enough. If he decided to.
24: In the middle of the phantasmic disruption, as Nomo moved beyond, I saw him. But seeing him was not different than what I saw as my brother painted the bird, except that it made me feel excessively empty, where watching my brother filled me up. That might sound like an extreme difference, but it isn’t.
23: Manzi got him a iPhone for his birthday and he likes it. He uses one of the painting apps to do pictures that he sends out on a daily basis, usually of something great, like Manzi sitting in a chair, holding a plate of eggs.
Image by Gabe Stevenson