Penn State York

Palimpsest by Mary Lee (Fiction)

Palimpsest was the word for today on the calendar. “Pal’imp-sest’ n. parchment, etc. with writing on top of previous writing.” Useless. When will I ever have the chance to use “palimpsest”? Yesterday’s word had been much better. Palaver. There is a definite lack of palaver in the car right now. Palaver.

It has been seven minutes since we have pulled from our driveway. We are making excellent time. Punctuality. We’ll be at the art gallery soon. I place my hand on Sonny’s thigh.

Sonny is staring vacantly into the side mirror. She has on one of my least favorite facial expressions. The only look more dismal is when she’s crying. She’s probably fixating on last night again.

“Well, what do you think?” Sonny had just finished the final piece for the show today. She stood back, her face speckled with black paint.

I looked at the painting. The series she had been working on was based on the Hans Christian Anderson story, “The Shadow.” She had done the panels in non-sequential order, and this one depicted the opening scene. She had chosen to make the learned man a writer, and I had posed for her at my desk. (I had lasted about an hour, before my muscles had cramped, and she had resorted to taking my photo.) I didn’t care for how my shadow took (there has to be a better word – bogarted? consumed?) two-thirds of the canvas.

“It’s fine,” I told her.

“Why do you do that?” she had asked me. “Why do you use neutral terms like that?”

I had used it because it was neutral. She’s capable of better work. She has more potential than anyone I know, but she squanders it (such a great connotation the “squa” sound has!). Then her work becomes squalid. Then I tell her so. Then we squabble into a squall because she squawks that I’ve squashed her spirit. There should be more words with “squa.”

I blame her parents for her need for unwarranted approval. Their only expectations of Sonny were for her to look pretty and say adorable things. Two things she does well without effort.

“I want to play Polonius,” Sonny said. It was about a week ago during dinner. I remember because the word that day was “turgid.” I was puzzling how to use it in a sentence while chewing on the strange cornbread she had made that night. “Baked polenta with butternut squash and Gouda,” she called it.

I wanted to tell Sonny that she was better suited to Ophelia.

“But you’re not an actor,” I retorted. (Retort? Refute? Rebuke?)

“You don’t know that. I don’t even know that. I’ve never tried.” And then she stared off, biting her lip.

“What are you reading?” she asked me later that night while we were in bed.

“Words, words, words.”

“Why do you do that? Why do you answer with an answer that requires more questions?” Sonny hadn’t gotten the joke. She rarely does lately.

The last time she had been this tumultuous, (I wonder if there is a word with more u’s than “tumultuous”) it was right before she had run off with that idiot. (I should really find an insult with more impact. Douche? No, only douchebags use the word “douche.” What was that word? Gadfly. No, I’ll sound like a prohibition gangster if I start calling people gadflies. Maybe that wouldn’t be so deplorable. Deplorable, what a great word!)

Sonny squeezes my hand. Maybe she’s over last night? I take her hand, growl playfully and bite her fingers to palliate the silence. Sonny laughs. (Facetiously is a better word than playfully.) I growled facetiously.

Sonny is still laughing. I give her an inquisitive look. (Is inquisitive the i’s answer to the u’s tumultuous? If the i and the u were to battle it out, which would be the more victorious vowel? The i has a greater army, I think, but the u has all those un- worthy contenders. Ha!)

“What are you giggling about?” I ask her.

“Pink paisley explosion,” Sonny says. She’s referring to earlier this morning. I had found her in the guest bedroom. I had laid (Laid? Lied? Lain? Why can I never remember the correct past participle of “lie”?) down beside her. It was then that I had comprehended why we never had visitors. The mattress is inflexible, and the wallpaper is, well, a pink paisley explosion.

“Terrible. Just terrible. Who lived in our house before us?” I ask her.

“Homosexual terrorists?” Sonny can be quick-witted (brilliant?) at the most unexpected times.

Sonny could be brilliant all the time if she strove for it more frequently. But she is complacent. She submits to her emotions and admits defeat before she even attempts something.

“Why?” I ask her.

“Why what?”

“Why did you sleep in the guest room?”

Sonny isn’t answering my question. She has gone back to staring into the side mirror.

“Sonny, this has to stop. You have to control your emotions. Crying at dinner like that – for absolutely no reason. Why? Why did you cry?”

“I don’t know. I don’t want to cry,” she says into the window, fogging up the glass.

“Well it has to stop, okay?” I have a lopsided smile as I squeeze her thigh.

“Okay,” she mumbles.

Palimpsest. If we paint over the old wallpaper, would it be a palimpsest?