Landscape with Strange Fruit Trees, by Randy Lowens

In cutoff shorts and a backless halter, Sonja was more skin than fabric. A businessman in khakis and loafers, browsing the aisle behind the group, paused to examine her. His gaze swept from her ankles to her legs and lingered below her slender waistline as though trying to penetrate the scrap of cloth there. His inspection continued up her young, bare back to the brunette coif draped across her shoulders. Tiny hairs bristled on the back of her neck. She glanced over her shoulder, but he was already walking away.

At the head of the crowd, Rufus Jones held court. He was a tall man in a crimson beret with an ebony face that glistened in the sun. His voice boomed across the fairground and caused strangers to stop and stare. As he spoke he pointed to a series of oil paintings that portrayed whiskered old men in straw hats rocking on the porches of log cabins, grinning children shooting marbles in dirt yards and similar rustic scenes.

“What separates the artist from the mere painter,” he was saying, “is not the hand that holds the brush. The difference lies behind the eyes. The artist views the world in a new way. He sees it from a novel perspective, from a point of view that others fear to assume. He only takes up the brush–almost as an afterthought, you see–in order to communicate that vision.”

An elderly matron stood at the front of the crowd holding a giant red purse. Her skin was wrinkled and her hat was decorated with several large red flowers. “Mr. Jones,” she interjected, “I’ve heard my nephew say the same. He insists no one painted like van Gogh because no one saw the world in a similar fashion. Van Gogh was mentally ill, of course. Seems a terrible price to pay for stardom, to be disturbed in that fashion. But then again…”

The woman prattled on. Sonja tuned her out, distracted by the face of the artist. His eyes were fixed on the horizon as though listening to some faint and distant music.

By all that is holy, if one more blue-eyed stranger prances down the aisle of this godforsaken flea market and compares my Afro-Tennessean creations to those of a syphilitic, alcoholic, red headed Dutchman…

“Mr. Jones? Mr. Jones, did you hear what I said? About van Gogh?”

“Excuse me, ma’am. I, I was having a vision. Right here, just now, I had a vision. The artist’s calling is more a curse than a blessing, I assure you. Angels, like demons, arrive unbidden. I have fasted for days in search of guidance, only to find myself devoid, I say, devoid of inspiration. But at the most inopportune times, visitation occurs.”

“Consider this painting, for example,” he continued. “It was inspired by a vision that came as I sat on a creek bank, fishing, listening to birdsong and meditating on my brothers and sisters, yes, my very kinsmen who have worked this tragic soil for generations…”

Smiling, Sonja backed away from the crowd surrounding Rufus and continued down the aisle of the Five Mile Flea Market, heads turning on either side as she passed.

#

Perched on the edge of her bed, Sonja’s father stank of whiskey and cigarettes. “Worked mah fingers to the bone for this family,” he mumbled. “Nothing but the best for you all. Nobody gay me a dime, but what I earned it. Bosses never did like me. When I made top dog of the local, though, I made em like me.” He sighed. “Even down to the union hall in Chattanoogie, nobody gay me a break. Clawed and fought for ever inch of turf. Ever dollar.”

He looked to the ceiling as though expecting an argument from his Creator. Receiving no such rebuke, he stared out a nearby window and continued. “Purty young girls, now, y’all get the world on a platter. Ever thang just give to you. Don’t know what it is to scratch for a meal. Don’t know a tall.” He looked down at his daughter who cowered beneath a purple bedsheet, pretending to sleep. His eyes swept the bed from her covered face to the protrusion of her butt. Feeling his gaze in the silence, she extended her limbs, straining to iron smooth the contours of her form.

“Men want you, Sonja. Teenage boys. Old men passing on the street. Even kids in grammar school, they lay awake at night and think about you. How you look. The way you smell, all rose petals and sweet milk.”

His voice trailed off. Entire minutes of silence followed. When she could stand it no longer, she lifted a corner of the sheet to peek, then started at the sound of his voice. “Where’s my drank? I had a got dam drank.” He stared at his lap as though expecting a sour mash and Seven-Up to materialize between his knees.

“Daddy?”

“What, Sugar?”

“You finished your drink already. Please go to bed.”

“Go to bed? Go to bed?” The idea seemed to strike him as novel, preposterous. “Ain’t going to no bed. Where’d my drank go?” He looked to the floor, but the missing drink did not appear between his feet, either. He lurched upright and gathered the lost narrative thread. “Men want you, Sonja. Don’t never forget it. It’s not a bad thing a tall. It’s your ticket to Easy Street.” He turned and patted her bottom. She cried, but silently, hoping not to wake her mother.

“Whatsa matter, Baby?” he asked, his hand still resting on her behind. “What you quivering for? You can tell me.”

“Daddy?”

“What, darling?” He leaned close, and she nearly gagged from the stench of stale sweat, Heaven Hill and Pall Malls.

“Would you get me a glass of water from the kitchen, please?”

“A glass of water,” he repeated. “From the kitchen.”

“Yes. Would you please, Daddy? Right now?”

“Right now?”

“Yes. For god’s sake, get me a glass of water right now!” Remembering herself, she added, “Please?”
Her father sat mute, staring at the opposite wall where Joey Ramone hunched a microphone stand. She wondered if he had heard the request or if, upon hearing, had understood. “For your little girl? Get me a glass of water from the kitchen?”

Abruptly, the father stood. He swayed and pointed towards the kitchen as he announced, “I sure will, honey pie. Nothing’s too good for my little beauty. Back in just a minute.”

“Please, God,” she whispered as he stumbled from the room, “make him forget what he went for. Don’t let him come back. Please. Or… or I don’t know what I’ll do.”

#

Sonja slouched against the wall, her sullen posture at odds with her spiffy cheerleader suit. She wore a navy blue skirt over red panties and a white lace shirt beneath a matching navy blue vest. Red socks inside white sneakers completed the ensemble.

The girls were waiting to go onstage for the afternoon pep rally. The looming contest was critical to the team’s ranking. Anticipation had hovered about the hallways of the school throughout the morning, animating the whispers of the student body.

Sonja surveyed her companions. She hated her fellow cheerleaders. She hated football. She even hated Rodger, her fullback boyfriend. Why did she date that dork? Why did she let him kiss her, touch her, even lay atop her when she loathed the sight of him? Because all her former boyfriends, street toughs like Max, Logan, and John, hated football players. And because he was a star. Sonja’s classmates envied her, and Daddy was beside himself whenever they went out. Daddy. Oh dear god, poor Daddy, who had worked his fingers to the bone for the block house and scruffy little yard she grew up in; Daddy, the loyal family man who never drank in bars but instead came home to douse himself numb and morbid; Daddy, the faithful husband whose head swung like a gun on a turret at each passing skirt.

The girls chatter subsided. Heads turned towards the stage as the band struck up a song. A brief pause followed the warm-up tune as musicians shuffled sheets of paper before kicking into a spirited rendition of Dixie. On cue the kids in the auditorium went ape shit, and the cheerleaders streamed onto the stage. They formed a line, clapping and yelling at the top of their lungs (though no one could hear them above the din). They leaped into the air with raised arms and pointed knees, causing skirts to fly to their chests. As one hundred and fifty horny teenage boys hooted at the sight of her freshly laundered red panties, pumping their fists in the air, screaming their passion to live and die in Dixie, away, away, away down south in Dixie, Sonja became moist and remembered why she had gone out for cheerleader in the first place.

#

Sonja’s mother placed a platter of hushpuppies on the dinner table. Burgundy lipstick stained the filter of the Salem Light 100 that dangled from her mouth. She laid the cigarette on the lip of an ashtray and picked up a pill bottle from the kitchen counter. She shook out a tablet, hesitated, shook out another, and swallowed them both with a sip of water. With her right hand, she extinguished the cigarette. With her left, she took up a small bell and rang it. “Soup’s on,” she mumbled.

The father was home from work early. Oftentimes on Friday afternoons, Sonja would hear the rumble of his Plymouth and look out the window to see his ruddy face scowling through the grime on the windshield, half-inch bristles at attention atop his head. He would turn sideways so his paunch cleared the steering wheel as he rolled out the door, arms laden with cases of beer and cartons of cigarettes. Laying in supplies for the weekend.

At the head of the dinner table, he drained a tall can of PBR. He lifted the empty, looked at his wife and shook it. “Honey?” She shot him a sidelong glance, but complied. Returning with a fresh stovepipe, she handed it across the table to him. He fumbled until he got it open, took a sip, and laid it on the plastic tablecloth. He bowed his head and began to pray.

As man of the house, he always blessed the food. For years, Sonja had heard him recite the same suppertime prayer in various stages of drunkenness until the saying of grace had been transformed into an unintelligible incantation. To Sonja’s ears, it sounded like, “Far, ceptin hover thanks, give us udder sins, cries name, aye-men.” As a child she’d closed her eyes and imagined a witch doctor preparing to disembowel a human sacrifice.

The blessing said, members of the family opened eyes, raised heads and unclasped hands. Sonja’s mother started the plate of catfish around the table, followed by hush puppies and cole slaw. The meal was her husband’s favorite. She studied his face, gauging his reaction as he took the first bite of fish. He neither smiled nor frowned, just sat and chewed, looking out the window at the rusting swing set in the backyard.

When his plate was empty, he drained his can and burped. He looked around the table, as though surprised to realize he had company, and announced, “I’m full as a tick.” Sonja laid her fork down and asked to be excused. Her mother seemed not to hear either of them. She sat lost in streaks of ketchup littered with hushpuppy crumbs that radiated from the center of her plate.

#

Scantily clad, Sonja wandered the aisles of the outdoor flea market pretending not to notice the leers of male passersby and the venom of their companions. She passed used bicycles, BB guns, tools of all sorts and an old gent with patchy whiskers who played clawhammer banjo beside a wooden box of record albums. Occasionally she picked up an antique doll, clock or wooden rolling pin to study. But she didn’t purchase, or even price, the goods she examined.

When she arrived at Rufus’s stall, she paid particular attention to the man’s paintings and to the man himself. She didn’t buy his items, either, but she openly admired his work. She hung on his words when he spoke seriously, and indulged him with a smile when he didn’t. Rufus was given to talking shit. But lately when Sonja arrived, he spoke earnestly of his calling. He talked about the balance between the vision and the craft, about the tension between his vagrant muse on the one hand and the plodding chore that was painting on the other. Alone with her, he no longer pretended to be visited by angels or demons. Instead he spoke of the real vision, the simpler one, of his fascination with the way light played on a glass of wine by candlelight, with the nobility of a man plowing a field and his desire to express that nobility on canvas, with the splendor of a saxophone and his ambition to translate that sound into the language of oils.

The girl imbibed his words, thoughtfully savoring each drop. She scrutinized his paintings from corner to corner. She searched his face as well for something neither was certain of. After a few minutes of this, he turned and looked directly into her eyes. She responded by folding her arms across her chest and studying her feet. He looked away and resumed his banter.

She left soon after. As she walked away, she glanced over her shoulder to see if he was watching. She caught an older man admiring her backside, but not Rufus, who had turned his attention towards a prospective buyer. She returned home.

#

“My pants are tighter than Dick’s hat band,” her father declared as dropped the last morsel of biscuit into a puddle of gravy on his plate and loosened his belt. He rose, fetched a beer from the icebox and wandered out of the room.

He was sprawled across the Barcalounger, TV clicker in one hand and Blue Ribbon in the other, when Sonja appeared at the door. In the kitchen, her mother rattled dishes. She turned on the radio, causing Lionel Richie to complain, “Know it sounds funny, but I just can’t stand the pain. Girl, I’m leaving you tomorrow.” Sonja’s father muted the pre-game show and called out above his wife’s racket. “Just where you think yore going, dressed like that?”

She stopped at the door. She turned, her hand still on the knob, and looked at the floor beside her father’s chair.

“Yes, Daddy?”

“Where you going, Little Lady?”

“I’m going to town, is all. To the flea market.”

“Seems to me girl, you know I done all I can. I begged, stole, and I borrowed.”

“The flea market. Didn’t you go last weekend? And the week before that?”

“Gosh, Daddy, you’ve quite the memory. About anything that takes place before noon, anyhow.”

“Excuse me?” His eyes opened wide, then narrowed to slits. “You know who yore talking to, Young Lady?”

Sonja put her hand to her forehead and closed her eyes. “Eddie Lee By-God Bagley, that’s who. Top gun of the local, and I didn’t get there by kissing nobody’s ass. So don’t think I’m gonna take lip off some smart-ass teenage girl who done thinks she got too old to whup. You understand me?” His daughter continued to look at the floor. “I said, do you understand me?”

In the kitchen, Mrs. Bagley turned the volume up on the radio: “I paid my dues to make it.” Sonja looked into her father’s eyes. “Yes, Daddy, I think I understand. You’re a hero, a beacon on the hill. You’re a regular…” She paused, scanning the archives of a recent sophomore Literature class. “You’re a regular blue-collar Willy Loman,” she gushed at last, stepping out the door and closing it softly behind her.

Eddie Lee looked quizzically after her. He cocked his head to one side and furrowed his brow like a hound dog puzzling over a train whistle. After a while, he shrugged and lifted the sweating can to his lips.

“That’s why I’m easy. I’m easy like Sunday morning.”

#

Autumn had arrived in full, so bare skin was out of the question. But in a tight sweater, snug jeans and slender boots with heels, Sonja garnered her usual portion of attention as she wandered the aisles of the flea market. Above her head, on a loudspeaker mounted to a telephone pole, David Allen Coe longed for a young lady who was too far away. A Mexican man and his wife sold avocados, cilantro and nopales with big smiles and a handful of English words. A bleached-blond fat woman in a knee-length sleeveless sweatshirt, waddling with prickly heat, chain-smoked Salem Lights and sold tee shirts bearing the likeness of the Tasmanian Devil holding a Rebel Flag.

When she arrived at Rufus’s stall, she positioned herself close enough to eavesdrop. He was struggling to close a sale with the owner of a local restaurant. “Picture like this makes folks hungry, Sam. One look at that painting, they smell fresh air and taste honey on the wind. Next thing you know, a big plate of food is the only thing on they mind.”

The restaurateur smiled. He replied that he would certainly consider the purchase, but today his budget simply wouldn’t allow it. He clapped the artist on the shoulder and continued down the aisle, wallet intact. Rufus looked up and winked. “Is like fishing, you see. Sometimes a live one gets off the hook, but you gotta keep casting.”

Sonja returned the smile. She looked around to ensure no one else was within earshot. “Where do you live, Rufus?” she asked in a small voice.

He stood silent, looking past her as though weighing a decision. He turned his head and gave his surroundings a 180 degree survey. Satisfied they were alone, he replied, “Take the highway south outta town. Pass two marked, paved roads, then take the third unmarked dirt road to the right. Follow it to the end. Don’t stop at neither of the two houses on the way. Big hound dog on the porch, but I put him up if I’m expecting company.”

She listened, nodding, then turned on her heel and walked away, reciting the directions under her breath.

#

Sonja had only been driving six months. She took a wrong turn, so it was dark when she arrived. She wondered if Rufus was married or had a girlfriend. He didn’t wear a wedding band, but what did that prove?

His driveway was red clay and gravel, his home an old farmhouse with a ramshackle barn that stood watch on the backyard. The dog was nowhere in sight. A 1973 Lincoln Continental was parked in the yard, a dented rear fender recalling some mishap of years past. Despite the evening chill, the front door was ajar, causing a pyramid of golden light to split the shadows on the porch.

She crossed the yard and paused at the top of the steps. From inside she heard the crackle of an old stereo and the lively noise of two saxophones sparring. The sweet smell of marijuana wafted out the cracked front door. She tapped the knocker lightly, and it swung open.

Rufus was seated at a small table. An empty bottle of Johnny Walker Red served as a candle holder, green wax melted all down the neck. He looked up, seemingly with only mild curiosity, before returning his gaze to the table. “So,” he said, “you came.”

“Yes,” she replied, “I did.”

“And wearing some fella’s letterman jacket. Not quite the getup I’m accustomed to seeing you in,” he added, smiling.

“I wore it for a reason. I want to pose in it.” She swallowed hard. “And nothing else.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Do tell?” He looked to the table once again, then back at her. “When you say you wanna pose in that jacket and nothing else, do you mean you wanna pose wearing it, and do nothing but pose? Or do you mean you wanna pose, and wear nothing but the jacket when you do?” A glint was in his eye, the hint of a sneer at the corner of his mouth. “Just so I understand, you know.” Sonja giggled.

“I mean, I want to take my clothes off. All of them. I want to stand naked,” she continued, tossing her hair and lifting her chin. “Then I want to drape Rodger’s letterman jacket across my shoulders and have you paint me.” Her forehead wrinkled, and she added, “I mean, I want you to paint my likeness. Not paint me.”

Rufus laughed out loud.

“I see,” he said at length. “I see. An interesting idea, I’ll admit. Now supposing we hold true, you and I, to this artistic vision. Not saying I will, not saying I won’t. Just supposing. First of all, we can be certain of being found out.” He raised a hand at her protest. “Ain’t calling you no snitch. But when you live as long as I have, you’ll understand that some things won’t stay secret.”

She bit her lip and waited for him to continue.

“Now, assuming I agree. When we get found out, as a reward for our, ah, dedication to the arts, you could expect to be disowned by your father. You could expect to be disowned by your entire family. Dumped by your boyfriend, shunned by every friend and acquaintance. And I can expect to be lynched, no? Tarred and feathered, rode out of town on a rail.”

Sonja slipped out of the letterman jacket. Her eyes remained dry, her mouth a flat line. “If word got out, I suppose Rodger would break up with me. And you’d be in a world of hurt, just like you say,” she added, unbuttoning her blouse as she spoke. “But you know what? Come late of a Friday evening, after a six pack or two, I expect my Daddy is gonna be right proud.”

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