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Today's Story by Therese Duncan

“You won’t be bringing men home, will you?” she barks.

Van Gogh’s Cadillac

My feet are killing me but I don’t care, I just want the room so I can work and paint and get on with my life because I’m twenty years old.  I can pay forty dollars a month, like the ad said. The sunlight on this white Victorian house, and the dark brass numbers on the front, make me think of Seattle, end of summer, 1956, my life about to begin in the First grade. So, it feels like I belong here.

It doesn’t feel like I’m on my own yet, because of that gold Cadillac over there. I didn’t want to buy it–I don’t like it, and it seemed pretty expensive, $500. Even my brother Martin got big eyes when I told him how much I paid.  But Dad said it would keep me safe, and when he shrugged with that sad look like nobody wants his help, I said sure, I’d buy it from him. I didn’t like it when Martin said he ripped me off, because Dad wouldn’t do that. I told Martin it’s a good car, I just don’t like it. But the fact is I hate it.

I’ve always hated it, because when Dad bought it five years ago, he changed, started wearing shiny suits, and his voice got different, like he was imitating rich people, joking, talking like he was a snob. I didn’t like it. And then he started making sudden moves in his shiny suit, running his hands across my breasts so quick I wondered why it made me want to bang my head on things. He swept me into his arms, singing and dancing like Fred Astaire. I can’t even think about it, the sound of his breath in my ear was so awful. So. He’s always had loose hands, but something changed when he got that car. He made strong quick moves that scared me.

But maybe I’ll get used to the car, because I feel guilty hating it. He just wants me to be safe. I really wanted a little compact car, but he said they’re death traps, and he just got sad when I argued with him.

Well the perfect grass at this house makes me feel like a fraud, like I’m trying to act like I’m somebody, like Dad did, but I’m not, I’m nobody, like Van Gogh, and I like that. Still, I want the room. I work and I can pay for it, so I should belong here without being somebody. And besides, Scott will like it.

If he ever sees it. Scott’s not really my boyfriend. I’m not sure what he is. I’m scared to go up this walk. I’m just going to look at the flowers for a minute before I go knock on the door.

Scott didn’t like the Perdido place. He didn’t say so–he’s too polite–he just waited by his open car door whenever he came for me.  I liked the place because it was Jean’s and mine. We were finally out of our parents’ house. But it got bulldozed, all those plank cottages, because of the cockroaches.

I think Scott likes me because I don’t hardly talk, I think he respects that. But his neighbor Elizabeth is the one he wants. Still, I can’t help wishing he’d love me. I day dream all the time what would happen if he said something like, “Marie, I want you to come and live with me on the mountain.” His dark steel eyes with their solemn smile, his white T-shirt and low slung jeans, cuffs rumpled on his work boots, of all things. A handsome–like–the–devil twenty-two year old Religious Studies major rich intellectual with a construction side–job, living in the woods.  He’s my first, you know. And he was gentle. But no matter how good we feel together, he wants Elizabeth.

Oh well. I’m an artist, so I accept he doesn’t love me. Nobody loved Van Gogh. And I don’t think Van Gogh went to a university, either. I have to ask about the room. It just looks too nice here and I’m scared. I‘ll pretend I’m waiting for someone here on the sidewalk, until I’m ready.

If I went to the University still, I might feel like I belong here. Scott goes to the University but I had to leave. The scholarship made me think I was somebody, like the way my dad was acting with his new car, a lie, but mainly it was no good me being behind bars, really, stuck inside everybody else’s thoughts–in all those books and lectures–and it was going to go on for years. I was too sad there, you know, but nobody understood that. Not even Scott. And Mom’s political friends said don’t throw it all away. But they didn’t know I was throwing myself away every day going there.

I hate that Cadillac. Why did I buy it?

When I explained I couldn’t have some Incomplete nagging at me for years to go back to the university, and I begged my Geography teacher for an “F,” he got a sad look, different than Dad’s sad look, and I felt bad. He didn’t understand I didn’t want what I saw at the university–I would never belong with professors and students who could talk to them, I wasn’t from their world which wasn’t muffled like my walks alone around the lagoon singing Leonard Cohen and sipping my little vodka bottle. Their world seemed unreal. I wanted real life. And I didn’t want the university to ever suck me back. It could, it had a certain dazzle.

Oh well. He wouldn’t give me an “F” and there’s nothing I can do about that, just not think about it.

So now all I need is a room so I can go to work and come home and paint.

I don’t know why I don’t feel good enough to rent a room. I feel like, well, scum, but I don’t know why. I just have to do it anyway. It doesn’t matter how I feel.

Here goes, up the walk. Someone just kill me right now, okay?

Hey, I’m just asking to rent a room.

Nice porch. Cool, shady. Big door with a window. Just knock.

No one heard that. Knock harder.

Fuck–I hurt my knuckles.

It’s no use. I knocked four times. No one’s going to come.

Maybe you just go inside.

I don’t know if you just go inside. Fuck it. I don’t know anything. Before I got my factory job, I didn’t know the car wash guy hired me to shove me in a closet. What a jerk. He pushed me against a counter and forced kisses on me, and when I said, “No!” he said, “You should’ve known why I hired you.”

I had two thoughts at once: What? Is he right? I should have known that? And: He’s not going to ruin my work day. He probably didn’t know I would push my way out, wipe his germs off my face and go right back to work, because I’m not a baby.

I jumped in a few back seats, washed some inside rear windshields–that’s what got me accepted when I first got hired, the guys were too big for that awful job–something made me get up my nerve to tell the guys washing the outsides what our boss had done. And what those guys did when I told them, I still think about, over and over. They actually shook their heads and muttered, “Prick,” “Asshole.” Ex-cons shook their heads, on my side. I think about that.

Hell, I pushed my way out of a closet I can push open a big front door on a fancy house.  Who cares if I don’t know if you’re supposed to?

I just turn the knob and push it open.

Wow.  It’s beautiful in here. I breathe quietly. There’s a purplish red carpet, with big purple leaves in the pattern. It looks like Grandma and Grampa Wells’ rug. Stairs. Good. Banister with white posts. No dust.

“Wow! What a difference,” I can hear Mom say, her eyes sparkling, after I dusted our banister in Seattle, and I could see what she meant.

I need this banister in my life now. I miss my Mom because I know she needs me, but she has her political meetings so she doesn’t miss me too much.

I see Scott going up those stairs. He’s not yours, Marie. I remind myself that a lot.

Mirror. Whoa, keep your eyes on the frame. Oval things are always nice. No dust anywhere. And I don’t want to be too excited, but maybe everyone puts their coats on that coat rack when it rains. The thought of a cozy rainy night in the hall tugs my heart into another dimension of longing for childhood, so painful I have to shake my head to snap out of it. It’s day light again. Yep–this plant is real, with the biggest leaves I’ve ever seen. Uh oh. That door’s unlocking.  Act normal. I just want to paint and bang my head.

“What do you want?”

Dang. That’s a sharp tone. She’s small, old, in a gray and black dress which looks awful, with her gray and black hair.

“Are you Mrs. Fox?”

“Of course I am. Who else would I be?”

“Nobody. I mean, it’s just the ad, it said,‘See Mrs. Fox.’” What did I do wrong?

“Yes, I’m Mrs. Fox.”

I’m afraid to tell her what I want.  Well that’s stupid.  Just be nice, and be serious. Dad says I need to be serious about things. I’m serious when I tell him I don’t feel like watching a movie with him–his arm creeps around me–when I’m home. But, maybe he’s right.

“I’m looking for the room that’s for rent.” That sounded serious.

She looks me up and down. I came here straight from work, so my work clothes should be okay, but I don’t know if they are.

“Why do you want a room?” she snaps at me.

Well, the obvious reason can’t be right. Why do people want rooms?

I guess I don’t know. If she doesn’t like my clothes she sure won’t like the reason I need a room–my last place got bulldozed for cockroaches.

Well, say something, like, oh, it’s just the regular reason.

“Well, actually, it’s because I’m just looking for a room to rent. That’s all.”

She looks me over again and looks away, like she can’t make herself say something.

She looks at me. “Well you don’t look like someone nice,” she says, and looks away again, like, There. I’ve said it.

I can figure this out. Mom always says, “You’ll figure it out,” whenever I have a problem.

I know–of course–Mrs. Fox doesn’t know me. She probably thinks I’ll be rude to her.

“Oh, no, I’m very nice,” I say, serious.

“I mean your clothes.”

Oh. My T-shirt and jeans are dirty and splattered with many colors of resins that are thick on my thighs, like hard plastic. I stare at those intense and vague Monet-like colors when I eat my lunch.

“Oh, these clothes, yeah these are my work clothes, that’s all. I work at a lamp factory. I don’t usually wear clothes like this.”

Everything’s sinking in.

Idiot. Of course there’s such a thing as dressing right to rent a room. You don’t know anything. I use one hand to smooth my hair. She watches. Wrong.

“You don’t comb your hair, do you?”

“No, I do. It’s just after work now.” Just don’t say anything else.

She cocks her head, nods and says, “That doesn’t seem like work for a young lady.”

Damn, she’s old fashioned, though I like hearing I’m a young lady, but she doesn’t know I’m not one.

I need to show her how the men’s work is harder.

“Well, you see, actually,” I begin.

She opens her door a little more, and I see inside her apartment–velvety oriental carpets, fancy furniture with lace, and silver and china. Oh well.

“You see, the way they have it, is the men do the hard part with the furnaces, and the girls, we just pour the lamps,” I say. “It’s resin, that’s what’s on my jeans, all different colors–well you can see that–and we pour it from paper cups, but to stop it dripping you wipe with your finger fast, and, you know, wipe your finger on your jeans. It’s just how you do it. That’s where all those colors come from.”

“Well, I don’t know anything about that.” Her voice is like a worried child’s.

“Oh, don’t worry, nobody does, hardly. They’re Tiffany lamps, only plastic,” I explain. “You can’t tell, though.”

She knits her brow.

“The House of Pies is getting lamps that look like slices of pie,” I say, on a brighter note. “They’re all pink. That’s not my job, though. But I got a nickel raise for my idea to pour them in Saran Wrap instead of foil. I work on the regular orders. There’s marble ones, not real marble of course, they’re plastic,” I say, and feel guilty, because I don’t really pour the marble ones, usually. Mostly only Rosie gets to. But I want to impress her. “There’s tulips, and coats of arms lamps, too.”

“Never mind that.”

I need to walk up and down those stairs.

“It sounds dangerous with a furnace and resins.” It’s strange to be scolded for working.

“Not really. We just call Duck when the barrel catches fire. He doesn’t even have to hurry, and he throws a tarp on it. The thing is, the fire is see-through blue, so, I guess it could get big if we didn’t notice it when it’s small, but so far, somebody always sees it.”

She shakes her head like it’s all too much. Dad says he sells his customers by staying pleasant no matter what.

So I smile.

“Now you say you have a job. Can you pay forty dollars a month?”

“Yes, I can.”

“How old are you?”


“Well, where’s your family?”

“In Goleta.”

“Oh? And why doesn’t a young lady like you stay there with them?”

“They have a lot of kids, and there isn’t still a room for me.” Which isn’t true. They would squeeze me in if I were in school, but I don’t want to be there.

“Don’t you miss your family?”

“I see them on Sundays.”

“Oh. Well, you’ll have to share a bathroom.”

“That’s no problem. There’s ten kids in our family.

“You won’t be bringing men home, will you?” she barks.

“No,” I say. If Jean was here we’d be howling right now and never get the room, we brought so many men to the Perdido place. Well, Mom says it’s cruel to get a guy excited just to say “No,” so, they just get excited and we don’t say “No.”

I search Mrs. Fox’s judging eyes for a glint of humor. If only she’d say, “Oh never mind I’ll be happy to have you as my tenant now get your things and get settled and come and have a cup of tea and a cookie with me.” I’m not used to being taken for a loose woman and I don’t like it. Well, it’s just her opinion. She doesn’t know. Sometimes we are the sisters of mercy, like last month, that guy no one wanted because he was missing teeth, and maybe on the run, drifting through, humble, gentle man. That’s the kind you want to love. Now he was honest and said he’d never be back, so I loved him with all I had to make it last. You know, like a big parcel for him to take on the lonely road. He was grateful.

“Well, I don’t know if you’re going to like the room.” She takes a key off a small lace covered table inside her front door and walks by me toward the stairs. “The room’s on the corner. This was my mother’s house.”

I want her to tell me if I can have it.

“Really? Your mother’s?”

We climb the stairs I yearn to have.

“It’s small, I’ll warn you. It’s just a room,” she says.

I wonder what else it should be. “It’ll be fine.”

“Well–don’t decide yet. See what you think.”

“Who is this?” I stop at a portrait hanging halfway up the stairs.

We both look.  “My father. He was a Canadian Mounty.”

“Oh. It’s beautiful. I paint.”

“Oh?” She walks up the rest of the stairs to the first door on a hall that has three doors on one side, and two doors on the other side. “Well I’m afraid there won’t be room for you to paint here. This is it.”

I have to paint here, that’s who I am, but now I know better than to say anything else about me. She puts the skeleton key in the door, turns the lock, and opens the door.

It’s beautiful. I know I won’t get to have it. But now that I’ve seen it I want it so bad my chest hurts.

It’s pale pink, with three tall windows, see through glass curtains billowing with a breeze and pull down shades, a white cotton bedspread with those fluffy balls, a thin wool rug printed with faded flowers, a high ceiling, a stuffed rocking chair, and a tall dresser. I can’t bear the suspense.

“You don’t have to keep the chair,” she says with a shrug, like she think’s I won’t like it.

“I can have the room?” I ask in disbelief.

“I had to have the wallpaper removed,” she says, sad. “I don’t know if you mind paint.”

“I don’t mind paint. Is the room mine?”

She’s quiet. “I don’t know if it’s what you’re looking for.”

I’m a mouse she just batted across the room. Why can’t I have what I want? Is there some code I was supposed to have learned to gain access to what I want? She’s playing with me.

“It’s fine,” I say, sad, and let go of my hope.

“Well, the bathroom’s down the hall. That’s the trouble,” she says, leading me out of the room and down the hall. “And whoever’s in there,” she says, glancing back at the pink room, “shares the bathroom with Mike. He’s a nice man. He’s been here for ten years. He doesn’t give anyone any trouble.” She gives me a look.

“I wouldn’t bother him,” I say softly. The bathroom has a claw foot tub and tile everywhere. “It’s nice,” I say, nonchalant. “My last place had a rusty shower with sharp edges you had to watch out for.” I don’t care what she thinks anymore.

She screws her face up. “Rusty?”

“Yes. This bathroom is very nice. Someone will like it very much.”

I don’t know,” she says, now I’m following her back down the hall. “Do you think this will work for you?” she asks.

I’m not good with hiding tears. Whenever someone’s nice, tears just come.

“Yes,” I say.

“Well. All right,” she says at last, with a higher note like it’s against her better judgment, “If you want it, of course.”

“Thank you. I do want it.” I pretend I’m looking at the ceiling to keep my tears in my eyes.

“You’re sure you won’t bring men up here or have parties?”

“No, I don’t have any friends.” I smile, happy to finally say something right, and pretend I just need to rub my eyes.  “I just work and come home and paint.”

She squints at me. “Don’t you ever go out?”


She tilts her head with a sad look. Wrong answer. “Well, maybe once in while, with my sister.”

“Do you have someone to help you with your things?”

“I don’t need help,” I say. “It’s just three boxes. Clothes, books and notebooks, and one box with my paints. They’re in my car.”

“Well. All right.” She presses the skeleton key into my palm, reaches into her skirt pocket and hands me a regular key. “This is for the front door. You won’t have any trouble.”

I need her to say something nice, but instead she turns and leaves. The sting blocks out gladness to get the room, and I feel guilty, like I just took something from her.


I’ve been here at Mrs. Fox’s house a month. You can get so much food in cans–wild rice, sardines, blueberries, peaches. And every night I have a hot fudge sundae for dinner at the Blue Onion up the street, it’s just right, and talk to strangers, and write. And I needed something to study, because I have deep thoughts, and found a book at the thrift store which I figure must be wise because it’s so old. ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY by Robert Burton. I liked the word “melancholy,” it describes me. And tonight, for the first time ever, I have my own fifth of Jack Daniels. I paid Martin to get it for me. Scott would be proud.

My paints are all out on the small table that I could bring home from the thrift store because of the gold Cadillac, and I have worked on a small portrait of Scott in this room every night, from memory, smoking pot and cigarettes, mixing colors, dabbing in tiny details of shading, sitting in the stuffed rocking chair, with Mrs. Fox somewhere downstairs–I never see her. The picture’s getting better. He’ll be amazed, because it looks so much like him with his intense eyes. It’s just that the picture seems kind of small now. I’ll get bigger canvass boards next time.

I should because I’m a real artist now, because tomorrow I have a real commission. A Black man I met who saw some sketches in my notebook at the Blue Onion, Lawrence, is coming over to get his portrait done in pencil. I told him fifty dollars, and he said, “That sounds like a good price. I’m sure you’ll do a good job.”

I said, “Well, you don’t have to pay if you don’t like it.”

“I’m sure I will. I like your car,” he said when we left the restaurant. “Maybe you’ll let me drive it some time.”

“Sure,” I said, because it’s like we’re friends now, we talked for an hour, and he’s about fifty and really nice, and didn’t try to hit on me.

I’m tired but I just want to have a couple more swigs from my bottle, and be totally relaxed and happy, so I climb up in my bed for that, with the fluffy white bed spread with little white balls and my bottle in hand. But I want a cigarette, only I don’t smoke in bed.

I’m drunk. I like whoever Cato was, because Burton’s book says, “If Cato were drunk, it should be no vice at all to be drunk.” My head swims and it feels good, it feels good to have enough to drink so I don’t feel nervous like I do all day long. And I don’t hate myself like I do all day, except when I’m eating my hot fudge sundae.

This is my room. I swig my bottle and feel pretty good, but I don’t feel totally good. Something’s missing. Something deep that Cato knows but I don’t, I’m thinking. I get glimpses of it sometimes, looking at Van Gogh’s pictures in the museum, and Monet’s, and reading snippets of Mom’s Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. But I want it now. Camus’s Stranger had it for sure. I know–you need a cigarette, then you’ll know the thing you can’t quite feel.  Okay, but don’t fall asleep smoking. Sit up straight.

I light a cigarette. Stay awake.


Therese Duncan has been writing for years and is just beginning to submit for publication. A short story, “The Rope Trick,” appeared in The Ojai Bubble last year. She was invited to read from her novel in progress, LION TAMER, at Word Fest in Ojai in 2012. “Van Gogh’s Cadillac” is a chapter from LION TAMER.


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