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White on White by Harmony Neal

White on White by Harmony Neal

Nonfiction, Vol. 1.1, June 2007

I’m in an Embassy Suites in Austin watching the National Geographic Channel. It offers thirty minutes about close calls with nature: panda and polar bear attacks, a rampaging circus elephant, a killer whale flopping onto a trainer at Sea World, a grizzly bear being shot with a tranquilizer gun, falling out of the tree onto a trampoline then onto its head—they slow the bear’s fall on a replay, circle in red where it lands on its head, draw an arrow to the broken neck, then fast rewind so we see the bear come off its head back onto the trampoline to bounce into the tree, then get shot and fall again. I flip to the History Channel where they’re telling the story of Ramirez from Mexico who’d take trains into Texas and kill people, close-up shots of crying-with-joy white people when he was caught and sentenced to death.

Commercials catch my eye: new Nintendo handheld games. I imagine someone in a third world country being plopped into my seat, on a couch in the Embassy Suites in Austin, Texas, free cooked-to-order breakfast, free cocktails from 5:30-7:30, air conditioning, cable, because I keep thinking about the three pints of milk I bought and how I might not drink them all and what a waste of milk that will be. What a waste of vitamin A&D, grade A, pasteurized, homogenized, white milk. I imagine a weathered Sudanese woman sitting next to me, drinking the milk and eating a Little Debbie honey bun, glued to the screen. I wonder if I’d encourage her to sit on a couch the rest of her life.

Colleagues appear at my door with colorful prints they bought at a coffee shop hosting an art opening. Anne’s print is an ugly Dalmatian kitten, but Katie holds a plump brown caterpillar on a dewy green leaf. I get directions. They are leery of me walking alone at night, but I tell them not to worry; any crazy person who’d want to mess with me would get a crazier person to deal with.

As I walk over the Colorado River, which the locals call the “lake,” a dusk breeze tickles my neck. The bats are all out from their daytime home under the bridge. I have yet to stand under the bridge and watch them take flight, though I once saw them trailing up, a brown stampede, from a distance. I’m almost afraid they’ll come back and swarm me while I’m out trying to be alone and finally getting a present for Daniel, but then I breathe in the salt-tinged air. It’s good to move my limbs. For a second I wish I’d dive into the black water, imagine it’s cold cold cold.

It doesn’t seem like an art opening, just a small open space with a few chairs and small tables, the coffee bar at the back filling the room with the pungent scent of ground beans. I keep looking around for signs of art and finally notice the 4 x 6 prints on the wall, lined up three to a silver plaque, names and prices underneath. I inspect the selection: pictures of iron gates with yellow star nubs on top, a tiny dirty ivory elephant speckled in brown, carved out of what might be a potato.

I stop at “White on White,” a fierce blue sky with immaculately white cumulus clouds moving in from the left towards a tree with pointy green leaves and delicate flowers whose white petals dart towards the ground. I linger, then move on.

I need something for Daniel, so consider a classic black and white police car, but I’m not sure.

There’s a funky photo of brightly colored red, green, and yellow coffee cups, but I’m not sure.

I spot more photographs on the opposite wall.

There it is: “Mask and Glove,” a close-up photograph of a grass-green lizard whose head and front paw are filmed with translucent pea-green dead skin. Such a perfect partial molt has to appeal to the five-year-old boy hiding in every man. Daniel will love it.

A handsome man with long black hair approaches me, “Do you like that one?” I tell him I very much do. “Funny story about that one. My cat, he was out in the yard playing with something. I went over to look, and it was this lizard, and he was molting just like this. So I snapped a picture before I picked him up and saved him from my cat.” He plucks it from the wall, “This is for you,” he says as if it’s a gift, and I suppose it is.

We chat for a bit, and I’m grateful to be out of my hotel room, talking to a beautiful man about his work, not in any sort of pretentious way, just appreciative. He gives me his card. I tell him I also want “the one with the clouds” for myself. He grins. We start walking towards it and I admit, “I’m pretty depressive, so it’s nice for me to have beautiful things around that aren’t dark like I am.” Of course, there is a story. He was out sketching Jerry, one of the local homeless people, who would let Ismael sketch him, but never take his photograph. Jerry was lying on the ground by South First and Ben White, and when Ismael looked up above where Jerry lay in his greasy brown pants and tattered gray hoodie, the sky above was brilliant.

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