Love Letters to the Wall
By Christina Miranda
Marci was good- as in make every abuela on the block cry sort of good (she had three of them to prove it). Wherever she painted, the locals would flock to the wall like a trail of ants making their way to a morsel of sweet bread to gaze at the wall that was lucky enough to bestow her murals upon them. And wherever there was Marci’s work, there was new business for the shop that bestowed the wall. She was never greedy with her prices once people started asking her to paint their walls, so she told them pay what they could.
Every morning, she would wake up at four, pick up her usual black coffee and chocolate muffin at the same Good Time gas station, and be perched atop her ladder, spray painting vibrant love letters to the wall by the time the sun rose. She had this down to a ritual. This was her morning rush; her everything.
She brought color to her small city of dirt and abundance of beige walls.
Then she fucked it all up by leaving town to become a “real artist.”
All it took was a police officer in Colorado who didn’t believe that the donut shop paid her for a mural, followed by a trip to the emergency room for a fractured wrist after falling off said ladder. That day was the declaration of her new creed to never paint again.
Now she was sitting in the back parking lot of the bakery, thirteen months later, shifting her weight around so the sizzling concrete would stop burning her ass. Her friend, Beli, sat atop the ladder Marci gave her, reaching into the paint-splotched backpack hanging in front of her like a papoose, and spray painting the wall that some punk-ass kid tagged the other day with the least impressive phrase, pimpin buns, in thick, moss green letters. Beli was pretty good at covering the wall since she painted the windows with washable paint for every holiday. Marci yawned heavily as she raised her Styrofoam coffee cup to her lips. It was supposed to be her day off from work, but Beli’s bribe of coffee and a bag of donuts and conchas was good enough to give up on sleeping in.
“You can help me you know,” said Beli. “Or do you want to just sit there yawning and sipping?”
She reached into the grease stained white paper bag, pulled out a sugar covered yeast donut and said, “I think I’m good down here.”
“Well stop yawning; it’s contagious.”
“It’s still early,” said Marci with a mouth full of donut. “Your kid just made the crack of dawn normal for you.”
Beli leaned away from the wall. “It’s noon. I actually like knowing what birds sound like in the morning, so she did me a favor.”
With the dry, Texas heat bearing down on the top of Marci’s braided, black hair, she almost wished she were within the cool confines of the airport gift shop. It wasn’t the worst place in the world to work, but the discount on snacks and slightly broken snow globes made things a little more bearable. Beli had offered her a job at the bakery at least a hundred times, but there was no way in hell that Marci could work there without burning something to a pitch black crisp. She also wasn’t too excited about working with Beli. The mom quality about her made her a little uncomfortable, even though she was only ten years older than Marci. She stuck the tip of her braid in her mouth as Beli sprayed the wall a sky blue. The heat on her head had already sunk through her skin and into the surface of her skull.
“You have an umbrella?” asked Marci.
“Nope. Just newspapers in the car,” said Beli, switching to a beaming gold.
Unwilling to let her head cook any longer, Marci pulled out the newspapers from the back seat of Beli’s car littered with toys and junk mail. She leaned against the trunk of the car and folded the front page of the business section into a paper hat that could also pass off as a paper boat, which made her feel like a five-year-old. “How cute,” said Beli, looking down at her.
Marci flipped her off as she squatted onto the bottom step of the ladder. “Enough talking about me,” said Marci. “Since when did you start talking to your mom again?”
“Since I needed a babysitter, and Lucia wanted to see her grandma.”
“So you talked.”
“That’s what happens when you ask for a babysitter.”
It was a little surprising to hear considering that Beli didn’t talk about her mother very much. Marci asked about her once when Lucia spent the day with Beli at work, in which Beli replied with how they haven’t really spoken much since she got pregnant at 17. She lay on couches and in spare rooms until she started working at the bakery a few months later.
“And how’s it going with Robert?”
“Same as always. Visitation and child support. You a detective now or something?”
“It’s my day off, I just want to catch up.”
“Why do you keep working at that place anyway? It’s far from your place, you work too much, and you don’t get paid enough for it.”
She really did hate having to rearrange every stuffed armadillo and snow globe that some demonic child would hug and shake at the gift shop while having to listen to the same safety guidelines every four goddamn minutes. Watching the crowds of people throughout the day was fascinating though. They all walked with a sense of urgency that sent an electric shiver throughout Marci’s shoulders and chest that made her feel as if she had a gate to walk to herself, which was sustained by the comforting smell of coffee brewing in the shop next door. It was a small drop of excitement to her usually indolent day.
“It’s not that bad,” said Marci.
“And didn’t your boss ask you how to club? That’s not even the right verb.” Marci did dislike him.
“Well he’s never had much of a social life. He just needs a few pointers.”
“He needs his own life, that’s what he needs, and so do you. If you’re so insistent on not painting anymore then why don’t you find something new to do?”
“I’m comfortable where I am right now.”
“Then why are you here? I know it’s not the donuts.”
“I just like watching.”
“You’re doing more than that.” Beli moved the ladder to the other end of the wall. “You always did that thing where you stuck a strand of hair in your mouth whenever you were thinking and painting, and you’ve been doing it all afternoon.”
She dropped the braid in her hand. “That doesn’t mean anything.”
“Come on, you’re smarter than that.”
Marci rolled her eyes as she adjusted her paper hat. “Mira, look at this,” said Beli. “A 24-year-old woman acting like teenager. Don’t roll your eyes if you want to be taken so seriously.”
“Quit being such a mom.”
“I’m telling you these things because I care,” Beli said. Marci hated it whenever Beli patronized her. It got tiring being a part of the same conversation every month or so.
“I still think you should come work at the bakery.”
There it was.
“I told you, I’m a shitty baker.”
“Well you can start at the cash register then. It’s the same as working at the gift shop, and it’ll pay more.”
“I’m fine. That’s your thing, and it makes you and the kid happy.”
“Don’t you dare bring my kid into this,” said Beli. “She did nothing to you.”
“Fine, sorry, but I’m just saying, things have gone smoother for you. I mean come on, you manage the bakery now and have a kid, what’s ever gone wrong for you?”
“I had a fucking baby.”
“But you wanted one.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“We don’t always get to be what we want, and why? Because you and I were not born with that option.” She resumed spraying with ease. “I was supposed to go to culinary school you know, but there was no way that I was going to be able to afford it. Scholarship money wasn’t enough, and my mom worked two jobs just to afford the house. So one day I was pissed about not being able to go to school and spent the night with Robert.
“Yeah it’s horrible for me to say, but I always wish I was more careful when I was younger, but I also still love my daughter, and I did something a little different because I’m not going to let one childhood dream kill me. I don’t have time for any of that shit.”
Marci could feel her face burn- not from the afternoon heat- but from the embarrassment of acting like a cocky bitch.
“So when I offer you a better job, it’s because I want you to try something different and not make reckless decisions like I did.” Beli stepped down from the ladder and tapped the tip of Marci’s nose with her paint-covered index finger, leaving a blue spot behind. “Come on, let’s go take a look at this.”
They took a few steps back, and once the mural was in full view, Marci felt horrible. She knew better than to think it after Beli’s stern talk, but she couldn’t help it. She was a better painter than Beli and knew for a fact that she could do better than the cotton fields and mountains that stood before them.
“I can tell that you hate it,” said Beli wiping the paint off her hands. “Quit trying to hide it.”
“I don’t hate it.”
“I know you, Marci. You still think you’re better than everybody, and you don’t even paint anymore.”
“I like it, Beli. What do you want me to say?”
“I want you to grow up, stop moping around expecting someone else to solve your problem for you, and get over yourself. If you still think you’re still great and all that, then fix it. You’re not going to say no this time.” She handed the backpack to Marci.
Too confused to take the can, she stared at the wall and dropped her gaze down to her fraying shoelaces. The paper hat slid off her head.
“Now, Marci. We’re not leaving until you’re finished. I have all night.”
Marci awkwardly climbed up the ladder like a puppy learning how to climb a set of stairs for the first time. When she looked down from the top, the ground appeared to be much farther away than she remembered, which made her tightly grip the sides of her seat. She could feel the sweat beginning to fill the creases of her palms. Beli leaned against her car and watched Marci with a half-eaten glazed donut in her hand. “I’m waiting,” she said.
For the first thirty minutes, Marci stared at the wall, sketching out the outlines of the correction in her head.
The hour after that consisted of Marci’s body shaking profusely as she painted over Beli’s work. She could feel Beli staring at her as she did so, and desperately wanted her to read the paper, or clean the junk mail out from the back of her car, or fold a hundred paper hats for all she cared, but she felt too ashamed to ask.
By the time the third hour rolled by, the bakery and the parking lot melted away. Marci’s body began to cool down as she concentrated on the wall in front of her. The tip of her braid was held in between her chapped lips. However, rather than feeling comforted by the steady sound of the spraying paint, she forced a heavy sob back down her throat.
As soon as she finished, the day was gone and the air began to cool down. The paint fumes lingered in her nostrils. Marci wiped the layer of sweat off her face, leaving a streak of blue and green across her eye and cheek. When she climbed down the ladder, she walked back over to Beli and sat on the ground. “You did good, mija,” said Beli.
She didn’t feel good about it though. She didn’t feel anything at all.
To anyone else, the wall would have been the most beautiful thing they’ve ever seen. Their abuela would cry. But to Marci, it was just a wall. She didn’t care.
It wasn’t love anymore--just a pretty picture on a stucco wall.
“Ready for me to take you home now?” asked Beli.
“Yeah,” she replied. “Yeah, I’m done.”