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Brenda

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Obsession and insanity in a twisted tale by Eve Brouwer

Now there were two of them, her own attorney and another, a fatter one.  The fat one was obscuring her vision of the courtroom, and asking questions, one after another, with no time between them for her answers.

As she moved from side to side and tried to see around him, she kept telling him she hadn’t killed Gregory Hanover.  “Then why,” he asked,” did you tell the court that you did not kill Gregory Hanover because he was a racist?”

“Because,” Laura answered, “it was more than that.”  

And then, realizing her mistake, “No, no, I didn’t kill him.”   It was easy to say that now, with the fat attorney blocking her view of Brenda.  When she’d been on the witness stand earlier in the trial, it had been more difficult, impossible,.  Then, Brenda was sitting up closer in the courtroom. No one was in front of her. The view was unobstructed.  Then, Laura had felt as though Brenda was piercing her with her eyes, uncovering her, stripping away her secret, revealing her bare truth.  Then, it had seemed only natural to Laura, in such direct view of Brenda, to turn to the jury and explain why she’d killed Gregory Hanover.

The heavy-set attorney was talking.  Laura interrupted, “No, I didn’t kill him.  Could you move a little to the right? But I could’ve.  I may not be big,” and here she smiled, “but I’m smart.  I do know my bones and organs and where to pound a scissor in. To get the results you want, you know?”  Her lawyer was stupid, she thought, jumping about, yelling at her to shut up. “You shut up yourself,” she sneered as she leaned to the right, around the fat question-asking guy.    

Ah, there, she thought, there’s Brenda.  Laura wanted to lift her hand to wave. But, under the circumstances all she could hope for was a glance that would confirm their bond.  She felt a surge of hope as Brenda turned and met her eyes. A subtle change of expression—Laura decided it was a smile—crossed Brenda’s face before she looked away.  Laura’s spirits lifted as she searched the black girl’s face for another look of recognition. She tried to answer the lawyer’s questions and also follow Brenda with her eyes as Brenda slid out of the aisle seat, walked to the back of the courtroom and left.  

“No,” Laura answered, “I didn’t kill him.”  She was smiling now, thinking of the first time she’d seen Brenda.  

It was in an art class, Drawing 101.  Laura had no artistic aspirations. She’d registered for the course to fill out her schedule and fulfill the college’s fine arts requirement.  She expected it to be a diversion from the chemistry, anatomy and biology classes that her pre-med curriculum demanded.

Within the first twenty minutes of the first meeting of Drawing 101, Laura began to hate the class.  Laura recognized the instructor’s tactics: he was determined to prove that his course was as worthwhile as any other by making it as difficult as any other; he was not going to let anyone think that drawing was an easy, “blow-off” course.

He’d had the students briefly introduce themselves during the first few minutes of class.  Laura was charming. “I’m a pre-med major, in my senior year. I’ve learned a lot here, but I’ve never learned to relax.  I remember how much fun drawing used to be when I was little. I hope to recapture some of that fun in this class.” She laughed.  The class laughed. But not the instructor. He seemed to become all the more determined to teach this class that drawing was hard work, as hard and as valid as any other class.  

He began with the supply list:  large pad of newsprint, 16” x 20” drawing board, charcoal, lacquer spray to set the charcoal, pencils, erasers, a plumb line, pastels, and a pad of smooth paper.  Warm-up sketches would be done at the beginning of each class. After the warm-up, he would give the day’s assignment. Once begun, the assignment must be completed on the sheet of paper on which it was started.  Erasures were allowed, but not new attempts. Everyone groaned.

Laura bought a smock and braided her hair back from her face.  Charcoal smudged her hands and everything she touched. During physiology lectures, she sketched the wastebasket near the door.  She tried to capture the angles of the instructor’s lectern in the margins of her text. She tried to create depth with penciled-in shadows in the skeletons in her anatomy text.  

In line for lunch at the cafeteria, Laura smiled at the drawing instructor.  He ignored her. She began to skip lunch and go early to art class. When the instructor arrived to set up the day’s still-life model of boxes and cylinders and spot lights, Laura would be at her drawing board, charcoal in hand, ready for success.  The page could not be turned. A faulty start on the first sheet of paper was disheartening. Other false lines followed the first, and the corners of the boxes met at odd, disorienting angles. Her two hours of work were often a failure. The determination that brought Laura success in the sciences was worthless in Drawing 101.  Her straight lines were heavy, ground into the paper. The curved lines of the cylinders wobbled. The shadows were ugly splotches.

And then, with no introduction, Brenda arrived, black Brenda in her black leotard and black tights.  Brenda stepped onto the platform where the still-life of boxes and cylinders usually stood, and moved easily from one warm-up pose to another.  She settled into her final pose, and the instructor moved around her, placing spotlights at different angles. He placed a light directly behind her, and from Laura’s perspective, Brenda’s face was encircled with a halo of sparkling, crinkly spider’s webs.  Laura’s charcoal moved easily over Brenda’s curves. Light, quick lines captured the halo created by her curly hair. The shadows hid secrets. The light revealed slick skin that shone, radiated. Her face remained as immovable as her body. For two hours she stood in one position.  The bell rang, and Brenda left the room.

She returned the next day.  As her body flowed through warm-up positions, her face remained impassive.  Laura held her charcoal at an angle and swept it up over Brenda’s prominent cheekbones.  She curled it around her nostrils, darkened her parted lips, drew it down the length of her neck, until it reached the beginning of Brenda’s leotard and the end of Laura’s paper.  Laura the scientist was thrilled. Here I am, she admitted to herself, a medical student, and I’ve never really seen the human body before.

The sudden improvement in Laura’s work brought the instructor to her side.  “Begin with the shadows,” he suggested. “Let the form emerge from the shadows.  Keep your eye on the subject. Draw what you see.” And a version of Brenda appeared on Laura’s paper.  

Brenda never showed the least curiosity about any of the students’ drawings.  She spoke to no one and left immediately after each class.

Laura asked her name one day, and the instructor answered.  “Brenda.” Laura scrawled the name on every pose she’d done.  Brenda standing with her weight on one foot, a hand on her hip.  Brenda kneeling, elbows resting on the floor. Brenda sitting, legs crossed, fingers intertwined in her lap.  Brenda lying on her side, head resting in her hand.

Gretchen also modeled.  Laura’s charcoal wobbled and scratched along Gretchen’s angular face.  The charcoal was heavy in her hand. It blackened the shadows cast by Gretchen’s large nose.  Gretchen’s curves flattened just where Brenda’s would have lifted. The charcoal dragged lifelessly along Laura’s paper.  Where Brenda had a halo of hair, Gretchen had an auburn cap sitting smoothly on her conical head. Laura’s hand tightened around the charcoal, the muscles in her arm tensed, and Gretchen resembled so many boxes and cylinders.  

Later, in line at the school’s cafeteria, Laura’s eyes searched the dining room for an empty chair.  There were none. With her tray filled, she wandered aimlessly through the tables. And then she saw Brenda, eating alone, her face as impassive as ever, only her hand moving as she lifted her fork from plate to mouth.  “Can I sit with you? Is anyone sitting here?” Laura asked.

“No one’s sitting there,” Brenda answered in a deep voice, deeper than Laura expected.  She realized then that she’d never heard Brenda speak before.

“I admire the way you model,” Laura said. “It’s really a pleasure to draw you.”  

Brenda’s face moved, and Laura thought she was going to smile, but she only asked, “Are you an artist?”

“No. No, I’m not an artist. I’m pre-med.  What are you? This is my first art course.  How did you get into modeling? You’re very good at it.  What year are you in? I don’t think I’ve seen you on campus before.”

“I keep a low profile,” Brenda replied, and this time one side of her mouth lifted in a near smile.  She stood, gathered her dishes on to her tray and began to walk away.

Laura reached out and caught her sleeve, “Will I see you again?  I mean, will you be modeling for our class again?”

Brenda watched Laura’s hand on her sleeve and answered slowly, “I don’t know, girl, I don’t know.”

“Laura, my name’s Laura.  I mean, if you wanted to know or anything.”

And Brenda, in her slow, deep voice, “I’m going now,” and after a pause, “Laura.” Laura released her sleeve.  Brenda walked away.

Brenda did model again for Laura’s class. Once, while she was changing poses for the warm-up sketches, Laura managed to catch her eye, and she searched for a glimmer of recognition.   That day, for the first time, she drew Brenda’s whole body during the long pose. The angled charcoal slid down her trunk and, with sideward movements, curved around her thighs. Working faster and faster, Laura shaped Brenda’s calves, arched her insteps, cupped the bend of her heel.  The instructor offered an occasional comment, “Concentrate on the shadows. Pull her out of the shadows. Forget about her hair and clothes. Just concentrate on the form.”

Laura kept her books and supplies close by, ready.  In the back of her mind she planned to approach Brenda, ask her if she’d like to join her for a coke or a cup of coffee.  But Brenda left as quickly as usual. Laura grabbed up her books and jacket and hurried after her. It took a minute for her vision to adjust from the bright studio lights to the early winter’s twilight.  She saw a figure and followed. She followed the figure out of the campus, down a city block, into the business district, where everyone looked alike.

Someone turned and looked back.  Laura thought it might have been Brenda and wondered how she must appear to her.  A light snow had begun to fall, and Laura realized that she felt cold and foolish.   She buttoned her jacket and retraced her steps back to the campus.

Brenda wore an old-fashioned long skirt and ruffled blouse to the next day’s art class.  The instructor pinned a silk rose at her throat and arranged her in a formal, seated pose.  Laura was enthralled with the costume. The white blouse stretched across Brenda’s massive back.  And yet, Laura thought, her hands are so graceful. Circled with the white lace on the blouse’s wrists, her hands seem ladylike and gentle.  

The skirts’ pleats were sewn flat against Brenda’s large hips and then fell loosely around her thighs.  Laura worked with new enthusiasm. She sketched Brenda under the costume, as the costume made her seem.

In Laura’s sketch, the thighs protruded from the torso at odd angles, the arms were disjointed, still and awkward.  Laura worked feverishly and with increasing pleasure. When she asked the instructor’ opinion, his evasive response irritated her for a moment but was quickly forgotten in her enthusiasm.  With charcoal, on newsprint, she was capturing the essence of Brenda’s vitality. Her very life force was on Laura’s paper.

Laura caught up to Brenda after class, as Brenda struggled to remove the costume.  “Here, let me help you,” Laura offered, and was surprised that her fingers trembled as she reached out to remove the silk rose that the instructor had pinned at Brenda’s throat.  But Brenda’s long fingers were already unpinning the rose and unbuttoning the blouse. Laura turned away, suddenly shy, as Brenda struggled to pull the blouse open, over her muscular shoulders and down her long arms.  Confused by her own embarrassment, Laura escaped from the dressing room into the studio where she gathered her supplies and drawing pad and textbooks together.

The texts looked strange—anatomy, physiology, biology.  Is today Tuesday, she wondered, or Wednesday.  When does Anatomy meet?  

Later, in her bedroom, Laura tore the pages from her drawing pad and taped them to the wall above her desk.  She discarded the still-lifes and the sketches of Gretchen. Only Brenda was left, standing, sitting, kneeling Brenda.  Pleased, Laura left for dinner at the coffee shop. She was late. They’d stopped food service hours ago.

She walked to the town’s business district where she’d followed Brenda a few days earlier.  It was nearly empty. As she turned to leave, she caught a glimpse through an open door of someone who resembled Brenda.  Laura entered the tavern and walked to the bar. It wasn’t Brenda. A leering man asked if he could buy her a drink. “No,” Laura answered hastily, too hastily.

“Why  not, little girl?  You too good for me?”  A man behind Laura laughed.  

“I don’t want a drink.  Leave me alone,” Laura cried.  

And the man behind her waved his hand and, in a high voice, mimicked, “Leave me alone.”  

Reflexively, Laura took her cell phone from her pocket, put her finger on the emergency key, got ready to call for help.  

“Watch out,” another man mocked.  “She’s got a cell phone, and I think it’s loaded.”  He reached out and snatched the phone from her hand, held it high above his head, then tossed it to a man across the room.  When Laura rose to the bait and jumped in the air as the phone sailed over her head, everyone in the room joined in the laughter.  

Until a deep voice interrupted, “Leave her alone.”  And Laura knew it was Brenda.

Laura searched the darkness of the bar, her mind racing.  Where is she?  I must look a fool.  

The statuesque black girl stepped forth from the shadows, and Laura could not help marveling at her powerful beauty.  “I’ll walk you back to the campus,” she said.

As they began the short walk between the town’s business district and the college’s campus, Laura’s embarrassment lingered and kept her stiffly silent.  But, when they approached the student apartment complex, the shrubbery that grew high along each side of the campus sidewalk narrowed the path, pushing Laura and Brenda toward the center of the walk, and Laura, feeling Brenda’s arm brush against her own, became elated and talkative.  “This is my building. I’m all the way up, on the third floor. We have an elevator, but I usually use the stairs. I’m in 316. Isn’t that funny! The same number as the art studio, 316. If you’d come up to my room, I could make coffee for us, and I have some bakery that my mother sent me.  I love sweets. Do you? Then, if you wouldn’t mind, I could sketch you. Ever since you came into our class I’ve loved drawing you. I have your pictures all over my walls. Would you like to see them? I’d love to sketch you in my room, privately, without the instructor constantly criticizing and distracting me.”  

There was a long, definite silence before Brenda answered.  And then, “Because you’re so stupid girl, I’m going to be easy on you.  But let’s get this right once and for all. I do men, not women. You find yourself some nice roommate to make you happy and stop following me around like a sick calf.”  

“I am not,” Laura said to no one.  Brenda had turned away from Laura and disappeared into the shadows cast by the tall shrubbery.  In a calm voice Laura repeated to herself, “I am not.” With a scientific detachment she noticed that her internal organs seemed to be vibrating, that her bones felt like they were shaking loosely inside her skin.  The phenomenon continued as she walked toward the dormitory where she lived.

Laura’s brain was frantically working on a logical response to Brenda’s implication. Or was it an accusation, Laura wondered.  And she tried to remember Brenda’s exact words.  No, it was a misunderstanding.  Poor Brenda. She’s probably never been liked just as a friend before.  Probably never had a white girl want to be friends with her before. She was confused.  She didn’t understand me, Laura explained to herself.  

Another accusation from another student an earlier time at another school, tried to creep forward from the safe recesses of Laura’s mind.  A voice interrupted, and the memory faded. “Are you ok? Do you need any help?” Gregory Hanover was coming around from behind the building’s mail desk.  He’d been working part time as security guard for a few months, and he was becoming accustomed to the glazed eyes and careful steps of the students who drank and used drugs, “partied” he’d heard it called.  He was older, and it looked to him like what his crowd had called “drunk” and “stoned.” But Laura’s trembling body and incoherent ramblings alarmed him.

He grabbed her elbow and guided her toward the elevators.  Her spontaneous reflex to pull her elbow out of his grasp was countered by a sudden, tiny thought that perhaps Gregory Hanover could help her tonight, once and for all, to put an end to the implications and accusations of friends who misunderstood her intentions.  She pressed her elbow hard against her side until she could feel that his hand, still holding her arm, was touching her body. “Can you help me upstairs?” she asked as she moved the muscles in her face that would, she hoped, produce a smile, an attractive smile, a seductive smile.

She closed and locked the door behind him as he stood surveying her room.  Many of the students joked and kidded with him, but no one had tried to seduce him before.  It was an experience, he thought. He’d have something to tell the guys at the plant where he worked during the day.   They’d scoff, he knew, probably wouldn’t believe that he, prematurely balding, out of shape, flabby, had scored with a coed.  

Laura switched off the overhead light and turned the bedside lamp to its lowest setting.  In quick, frenetic movements, she stripped to the waist. Greg asked Laura her name and tried to make conversation as he fumbled with the buttons on his shirt.  

His uneasiness increased at the sight of her completely naked body.  She laid—a skinny piece of flesh—on the bed and presented herself to him.  He found his clothes difficult to remove, a knotted shoelace, a tricky zipper, an awkward reluctance slowed his movements.  She responded to none of his questions: What year was she in? Did she like school? How old was she? Was she a virgin?

As he removed his jeans he became desperate for time.  “Who’s the nigger in the picture?” he asked. And Laura did respond.

“The what?” she asked.  “The what?”

“I mean the black girl,” he corrected himself as he backed away from the hostility in her voice.  But, as she answered, he became interested and relaxed and moved toward the bed, toward Laura’s voice, toward the words telling him about Brenda, about the drawing class, about the day Brenda modeled in the old-fashioned costume, about how easy she was to draw, about the feeling that the charcoal practically slid along Brenda’s body and down her thighs.

“You really like that nigger, don’t you?” Gregory Hanover asked, recoiling slightly as he lowered his soft stomach onto Laura’s jutting hip bones.   “You’d almost think you’ve got a case for her” he added, reaching down, grabbing, trying to forget the image of Laura’s naked body. He closed his fingers, tight, around the back of her knee, pulling outward, making a place for himself between her rigid legs.  His every movement was an effort. Laura, neither cooperating nor resisting, lay completely still for a few moments and then she lifted her mouth to his, opened her lips, held his kiss, demanded his kiss, all the while reaching out to the bedside table, her arm twisted, around, down, her hand fumbling for the round knob on the nightstand’s top drawer.  Awkwardly, the back of her hand against the drawer, she closed two fingers around the knob and jiggled the drawer far enough open to reach her whole hand inside.

Gregory pulled his mouth away from Laura’s to whisper into her ear, “Hey Baby, it’s too bad that nigger ain’t here now.  I could really get off watching you two going at it. You think some time we could . . . .”

“Some time we could what?” Laura screeched as she closed her right hand around the pair of scissors she kept in the nightstand drawer.  “We could what?” she repeated, bringing the blade around and stabbing it into his back.

How pleased Brenda will be, Laura thought as she clenched every muscle in her right arm, kept her right hand clamped on the scissors’ handles.  The searing pain catapulted Gregory from the bed, dragging Laura behind him, her fingers bent into the scissors’ handles.  She yanked the blades free and chose her next point of entry, the abdomen, the flabby gut, no vital organs, but easy, easy in and easy out.  And then the chest, his arms flailing, batting her away, Laura dodging, concentrating, intent on forcing the shears into his chest, into his heart.  She pushed forward, as his blood flowed and rasping grunts rose out of his deflating lungs, gurgled through his throat.

How pleased Brenda will be, Laura thought as the scissors kept going into Gregory Hanover’s body, as the blood came and the screams and sirens sounded, as the stretcher carried his body away and a woman dressed Laura and led her from the room.  

How pleased Brenda will be.  She was wrong, and I forgave her and then I defended her and protected her from Gregory Hanover’s foul mouth.  How pleased Brenda will be. Perhaps we can be friends now.

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Published inCompelling

3 Comments

  1. Russell MacClaren Russell MacClaren

    Is this the woman who drove her psychoanalyst crazy? Her trip through dementia is an interesting story, her psychosis a state of mind we should study sparingly, then run away from–as fast as possible! I can’t say there isn’t a part of me that is glad this guy got what he deserved–but RUN!

  2. cgramlich cgramlich

    “It’s always the quiet ones,” springs to mind. But Laura is not exactly quiet, although she has hidden depths. Nice touch having her be premed, so she knows just where to put the shears in. Enjoyable story with a dynamite ending.

  3. cgramlich cgramlich

    I wonder why the comment I made the other day didn’t come through. It says I’m logged in so this one should. I really enjoyed the tale, and what a wicked ending. One might say, “It’s always the quiet ones,” but Laura is not all that quiet. She’s certainly got some hidden depths, though.

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