Every time I paint a portrait I lose a friend. —John Singer Sargent
The first portrait Jules Johnson saw, really saw, was a watercolor she held in her hands in her uncle’s frame shop: a woman seated on a rock at the edge of a river. The subject’s shoes were off, her jeans rolled up, her feet kicking in the water. The woman looked right out at Jules with eyebrows crunched together, her mouth smilelessly closed. Her expression was intimate but not entirely friendly, barely containing something like rage.
The client was the painter. The subject was his wife. “Does she really want this on her wall?” Jules had asked Uncle Walt.
“Not ours to worry about. He pays on time, that’s ours to worry about.”
In the summer before starting high school, Jules was still learning the process: mounting the work with a hinge of archival tape, cutting the beveled mat, hinging the mat to the mounting board, then blowing out the dust with the air compressor. She cleaned the glass, checking for streaks and lint, then dropped the work into the frame and secured the precious layers with staples. They sealed the back of each frame in brown paper, mounting screw-eyes along the edges, twisting in a hanging wire, and affixing a sticker to the paper: WALTER WEIR FRAMES.
Uncle Walt worked through the steps with unconscious precision. He barely looked at the art after the initial conversation with its owner. Jules’s brother Alfie, too, ignored the art when he came to help Walt cut a large piece of glass. Jules hated that they didn’t trust her with the expensive panes. Everybody trusted Alfie with expensive everything. If only they had seen him Saturday night, vomiting into a ditch after the county fair—and he hadn’t even gone on any rides. In his new job, Alfie drove an expensive tractor. Jules used to dream aloud about owning her own tractor, and her brothers would just laugh. “You’re cute,” Ray would say, which only enraged her.
That summer, another portrait came into the shop, a print of a John Singer Sargent painting, the opposite of the watercolor of the nearly-enraged bluejeaned woman. Tall and slender, the woman depicted wore a tight corset and a loose expression. Her mouth was red with frank sensuality, her auburn hair swept up in a comb, her pale skin rendered in soft strokes of pearly white and pink. After mounting the print, Jules laid it on the worktable to study it under the florescent light.
The woman’s clothes were what made Jules stop and look. The formal dress was pink satin, but if you blurred your eyes, especially from across the room, you could convince yourself that it was her skin, that she was standing there, naked, next to the pink upholstered chair, making that face at the painter like a dare. The woman wasn’t ashamed. She wasn’t worried about what they would say at school the next day.
“Are you working, or are you standing?” Walt said.
“Working,” Jules said quietly.
A couple years earlier was when shit got complicated, as Alfie was fond of saying, when their mother married Kirk the Quirk.
Kirk had a son, who Alfie called Son of Quirk. He was Alfie’s age, but never quite a brother. “I don’t like the way he looks at you,” Alfie said, after they had all gone swimming down at Lake Winnebago. Quirks young and old were in town, celebrating the union of families, before Mom moved away to an airbase out west, leaving Jules and her two brothers in Walt’s house, where they had been living for the last nine years. Mom dared not leave them with their father, Nate Johnson, who was not really the fathering type. He was not, technically, Jules’s real father anyway. That little fact made everyone uncomfortable.
In seventh grade, Jules seemed to have a knack for making other people uncomfortable. Like when her pediatrician examined her—then, blushing, handed over her shirt to cover up. He hadn’t been able to take his eyes away from the pink skin of her growing breasts. She could see his heartbeat yammering in his neck as he leaned into her face with a penlight, asking her to say ahhhh.
On that trip to the lake with the Quirk family, Jules had plunged from the dock into the freezing water, relishing the chill in her scalp, blowing bubbles and splashing her long hair back, before running back to the grassy bank, like she had done since she learned to swim. Alfie’s eyes turned stormy as he watched Son of Quirk, whose expression was both faraway and close, gaze rested on Jules’s wet body. Alfie reached for his own flannel shirt and threw it, hitting her square in the stomach. “Jujubee. Don’t get cold,” Alfie said.
The summer before high school, Jules used to go over to Lainie Frisk’s house to lay out, as Lainie called it, in the back yard. Their friendship had been engineered by Uncle Walt, who knew Lainie’s dad from the Chamber of Commerce. “You girls are the same age,” Walt had said. “Maybe you need some female friends.”
Lainie had just moved in from Chicago. She had earrings, poked in by a friend back in the city, running all the way up one of her ears. “I’ll do yours too,” Lainie said one afternoon. “All you need is an ice cube and a needle. And a match, to sterilize the needle. And an earring. I could give you some of mine. I have loads. And a potato.”
They had spread an old quilt on the grass in the center of the yard, where the sun was best. Jules’s legs and arms had turned brown from all her time outside chasing her chickens, riding her bike, going to the swimming hole with Alfie and his friends. In Lainie’s yard, they slathered coconut-scented oil on their skin to magnify the sun, then lay flat on the blanket. The yard had a high fence, making this patch of grass their own private lair.
“I think rhinestones would look good on you.” Lainie pushed her sunglasses to her forehead and squinted to picture the baubles, reaching over the blanket to lift the sun-bleached hair away from Jules’s ear.
“Rhinestones aren’t really my style.”
“You have one of those? A style?” Lainie tugged on the sleeve of Jules’s oversized tee shirt, a hand-me-down from her brother Ray. “The kind of style where you sunbathe in your Christian youth group shirt?”
Jules had her one-piece bathing suit on under the shirt, but had grown into the habit of covering it up. Conversations went easier this way.
“C’mon. You have tan lines on your arms. It’s just the two of us. What, do you have a horrible rash under there?” Lainie made her cute face, cheeks puffed out, then she sat up and started tugging at the shirt. Jules finally relented and twisted her way out of it, then rolled the shirt up to make a pillow for her head. “You see?” Lainie said. “Geez, you’re gifted. Why you hide? I’m a joke. Look, I look like I’m ten. Here, I’ll put some of this on.”
Jules let Lainie rub oil into her bare back, between the crossed straps of her bathing suit, then into her shoulders, pale until the line where the short sleeves ended. She rubbed the oil herself into the skin of her chest, before flopping back onto the quilt and closing her eyes, inhaling deep the smell of coconut, letting the sticky heat cook the newly uncovered skin into a brutal sunburn.
She felt like a giant, lying next to Lainie on that blanket. Lainie was one of those skinny girls who ate ice cream and candy and chips constantly. She wandered around the house in a bikini like it was nothing, like all the eyes could be on her and she didn’t care, as she leaned into the fridge to find her next snack. She didn’t preen like the cheerleader types at school, who would arch their backs if they knew someone was looking. She was truly free.
“Tell me, Jules,” said Lainie, through a Cheeto dangling from her lip like a cigarette, “who all the hot guys are. Who do you like?”
“Nobody. It’s the same old guys since kindergarten.”
“I miss Victor.” Victor was her boyfriend in Chicago. “He’s going to come up and kidnap me. We’re going camping.” Lainie shook the Cheeto bag to find another big one. “I wish I could talk to him.” The telephone was perched just outside the sliding glass door, on the patio, its long cord stretched as far as it would go, waiting for the Victor call. Jules had never seen it ring.
Victor was real, though. Jules had seen a picture of him, shot in a photo booth with Lainie, one of those black and white strips, poses progressing like a love story. In the first photo, he was stern and gaunt, while Lainie, beside him, stuck her tongue out between her kidlike, freckled cheeks. In the last one, he finally had the glimmer of a smile under his spiky black hair. He looked older.
“Or, he said we’ll drive down to Chicago for a punk rock show. Did I show you my new ID? He nearly broke his elbow moshing the other night. At Metro. We have to go to Metro. You been there?”
Moshing had yet to become a thing in the Fox Valley. Jules had never gone down to Chicago, let alone a nightclub.
“C’mon, you must have someone you like, Jules.”
“Maybe Buzz Larson. But everybody likes him.” She felt weird even saying the words aloud. “He’s in hockey. Alfie said he’s the only freshman who might make varsity this year.” She turned over on her stomach, turned her head away, so Lainie could not see her face.
“Buzz? Is he an astronaut?”
“My brother calls him that. He got stung by a yellowjacket last year, and his whole arm swelled up. Beau, that’s his real name.”
“Beau. How fitting. Show him some of that cleavage, he’ll notice you,” Lainie said. “Flaunt your assets. Right?”
That night, Jules soaked in a cold bathtub at home. She didn’t have any lotion for the sunburn, nor anyone to ask to put it on her stinging skin. She didn’t dare ask Walt. Lying around in the sun was asking for pain, according to him.
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