"Death Drawing 2: Rachel Hart"
Aaron Schneider is a Founding Editor at The /tƐmz/ Review. His stories have appeared (or are forthcoming) in The Danforth Review, filling Station, The Puritan, Hamilton Arts and Letters, Pro-Lit, The Chattahoochee Review, and BULL. His story “Cara’s Men (As Told to You in Confidence)” was nominated for the Journey Prize by The Danforth Review. He runs the Creative Writers Speakers Series at Western University. His novella, Grass-Fed, was published by Quattro Books in the fall of 2018.
“‘Death Drawing 2: Rachel Hart’ is the second of a series of stories that all start in the same grade eleven art class. Each story follows one of the members of the class through their life to their death — hence, the ‘2’ in the title — and several play off of Jean-François Millet’s turn to quotidian, lower-class subjects. ‘Rachel Hart’ begins with the titular character striking a pose in imitation of the subject of Millet’s Woman with a Rake (1856-57).”
May 2, 1976 – January 17, 2004
On a Tuesday afternoon in late April, in a room in a high school on top of a hill in Owen Sound, Ontario, Rachel Hart stands on the oak desk at the front of Mrs. Robinson’s grade eleven art class. She braces herself on a broom handle and strikes a pose that is a rough approximation of Jean-Francois Millet’s “Woman with a Rake.” Her sleeves are rolled past her elbows. She thinks, as she stands there driving her weight down through the wooden cylinder, about how the desk shifted and returned under her when she boosted herself up onto it, and the effort of steadying herself against the still-fresh feeling of that off-balancing grooves her forearms. Mrs. Robinson has picked Rachel to pose like this because she is good at staying still. Two weeks ago, she lifted the same broom handle over her head in an imitation of Eugène Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” and stood like that for almost fifteen minutes before her body, her raised arm, began to stutter with exhaustion. She once sat in the posture of Rodin’s “The Thinker” for a full period without moving anything more than her eyelids, and those in a slow, deliberate rhythm, as if she was blinking out a message that only she could understand. Today, she stands like this on the desk for as long as she can. And then she makes a shift of her own. Without moving or breaking her pose, she eases her weight off the balls of her feet and back onto her heels, settles her hips, and relaxes her forearms. She relieves the pressure from the palm of her right hand where it has been driving into the broom handle. This careful, wholly interior realignment of muscle and tension is invisible to everyone in the room, to Mrs. Robinson sitting in a chair next to her, casually leafing through the most recent issue of Canadian Art, even to the four rows of students who are diligently studying and drawing her. So much of Rachel is invisible like this. So much of her life consists of a series of minor, internal adjustments, of secret efforts that only she can perceive. What everyone sees, the only thing they see, is her beauty. And Rachel is beautiful—not pretty, beautiful—in an old-fashioned, almost voluptuous way that her female teachers call classic. The lines of her face, of her body that she hides under plaid shirts, denim overalls and flared jeans, cause her male teachers to think about their age. Looking at her reminds the teenage boys in her classes that their confidence is mostly a bluff and they have artless hands. But the circle of stillness that surrounds her as she stands on the desk holding, now, instead of leaning on the broom handle, the poise that she carries with her through the halls and across the back parking lot to her car at the end of the day, the calmness that contains her like armor and that no one can penetrate is due to more than this. She is a Jehovah’s Witness. The other students don’t understand what this means. They say it anyway. They pass it back and forth like an explanation. Last year, she knocked on the door of the trailer in which one of them lives with his mother and older brother. He told his friends about it over hearts at lunch. The cards snapped rhythmically down on the table and made slippery noises when they shuffled them: there were two other teens with her. They were both boys the same age as him. All three of them stood bunched together on the grey sheet of plywood that served as a porch and rocked dangerously to one side no matter what he and his brother did to level it. The trio minded their balance. The two boys talked quickly and fervently to him and his mother about God and the Bible and what they believed. They said they were living in the Truth. Rachel didn’t talk. She held out copies of The Watchtower without saying anything. He couldn’t tell if she recognized him. Or if she wanted to be there. He rolled the pamphlet into a tube and ran it through his hands while he listened. The paper was plush and fibrous. Its texture reminded him of water colour paper, of the worn edges of the cards that he and his friends slid across their table in the corner of the cafeteria. Two days later, as he played and told his friends about standing there in the trailer door listening to the two other teens and looking at Rachel, he passed those cards through his fingers and felt like he could touch that velvety cylinder, the mystery of her silence and the strangeness of that moment again. They don’t have sex until marriage, one of his friends said. They don’t even date, he said. But Rachel does. She has a boyfriend whose chestnut hair is parted in the middle and cut even with the tips of his ears so that it curves in a pair of dark brown arches from the centre of his forehead to his temples. He likes to push it back with his left hand in a gesture that sometimes makes her wonder if he has a headache. Andrew lives in Meaford, the next town over, in a ranch house with aluminum siding that looks out over the lake. He goes to a different high school but worships at the same Kingdom Hall as she does. And they have, once. And they will, again. Secretly. Clumsily. In moments they will steal away from their parents and chaperones. No one in the classroom at the top of a hill knows any of this about Rachel. They don’t know that the excuses she makes to herself are minor adjustments inside of the shape of her shame: we are going to get married. It was only once. Each time. We are all sinners in the last days. And no one will find out. At the end of the period, she will hand the broom handle back to Mrs. Robinson and hop down from the desk. She will sling her backpack over her right shoulder and walk out of the classroom door, down the hallway and across the parking lot to her car like she always does on Tuesdays. She will go on being looked at without being seen by the students around her until high school is done. And then she will disappear out of their lives and into her own. She will live with her parents for one more year. She will work at a framing store. She will place images in the centre of rectangular mats. She will then move the images up by a millimetre, a touch, a hair’s breadth so that the band of white below the image will be a fraction thicker than the one above it. The images will simultaneously float above and be grounded in this blank space. Her manager will call this “bottom weighting.” He will explain to her that, when we look at a framed image, our gaze tends to fall slightly above its geometrical centre and raising the image like this aligns its focal point with the viewer’s eye. The motion with which she will do it will be so tiny that it will be only half-visible to a careful observer. None of the customers will notice it, but they will see it every time they look at their pictures. She will quit her job. She will marry Andrew. The wedding will be an intimate ceremony on a late summer afternoon in the dense air of the Kingdom Hall. She will wear a gown with a beaded bodice and a train that makes a muted rustling sound as she draws it across the short-pile carpet. The bodice will pinch under her ribs and allow her only shallow breaths. She will like its tightness. She will like the way it closes around her. There will be a dinner in the low-ceilinged basement. The wedding party and the guests will sit together at long rows of folding tables covered with white tablecloths. The wives of the congregation will cook the food for the occasion and they will eat it off china plates whose patterns have flaked away leaving only flecks of rose and broken ribbons of gold. The ricketiness of the tables that will wobble when they touch them and the shabbiness of the plates will feel at once disappointing and perfect. They will move into a tiny apartment above a hardware store on the main street of Andrew’s hometown. They will have two children, both sons, the first while they are in the apartment and the second in a red brick bungalow with white metal awnings shading the windows. The bungalow will only be a little bit bigger than the apartment, but it will have a yard with a lawn and a chain link fence. Their sons will grow. Andrew will cut his hair close to his skull. And, one day, during a fall like any other, planes will fly into a pair of buildings in New York whose names she will only learn when they are collapsing. She will stand in the living room of that house with her second son on her hip and watch a cloud of dust and smoke roll towards the camera. The television announcers and the newspaper headlines will tell her that everything is going to change. The world is going to change. But nothing will. Not for her. Life will continue to take its predictable forms and she will continue to fit herself into them, to find the room inside of their constraints, the flex, the play, until a wrenching pain, like a muscle cramping at the limits of its endurance, will shear through her. She will shift. She will adjust. She will spend hours sitting motionless in a chair by a window that looks out from under the scalloped rim of its awning onto a patch of lawn. She will find no relief. This agony will follow her no matter how far she retreats into herself. It will send her to her doctor. The tests he orders will turn up nothing. And then the tests will turn up something. The doctor will study them with a puzzled expression on his face, and he will tell her that her values are off, but he won’t be able to point to anything conclusive. And then the tests won’t be confusing anymore, and a specialist with tired eyes will tell her that she has stage 4 gastric cancer. She will refuse all but the least invasive treatments. The doctors and nurses who listen to these refusals will look at her with disbelief and then with a dawning mixture of pity, condescension and disgust. Their looks will be like the gazes of the students in Mrs. Robinson’s grade eleven art class. They will stop at her skin, at the beauty that she will no longer think about, but that will still be there, worn by illness, refined by time to the lines of her bones, but there. Their looks will stop at that surface. And go no deeper. Her decline will be quick. The doctors will say months. In a few weeks, she will find herself in a hospital bed with a teal sheet drawn tight across her body. The tension of the sheet will be as satisfying as shame. She will weaken. She will prop her head on the pillows and lie still for long stretches of time with her pale hands folded in her lap. Andrew will sit in the chair next to her bed. Sometimes, he will look at her posed like this. He will look at her across the space that separates his chair from her bed, and, one day, he will think to himself that he doesn’t know her at all. He will have left their sons at home with his mother. The nurses whose names neither of them will have bothered to learn will be out of the room. And, when Andrew looks at her and thinks this, she will make one last adjustment. It will take him several minutes to notice that she is gone.