Salsa Verde

The plumber can’t help but wonder who or what is resting on the chair.  If it’s a person, shouldn’t his or her legs dangle down into the “shot,” if you will?  But if there isn’t a person on the chair, what’s to keep the man from just throwing it off?  So maybe they aren’t the legs of a chair?  But what then?  The plumber suddenly realizes a terrifying truth: there is a person, maybe even a heavyset person, standing on the chair.  Some person who agreed to stay up there for hours only to make a poor beautiful man below suffer and sweat; merely to inflict upon him unforgettable pain.  And what would such a person be paid for his or her callousness?  The plumber hopes it was considerable, because standing for hours, maybe days, is certainly a torture of its own.  And also because, in return for the favor of all that standing, the painter has seen fit to paint whoever it was out of the picture.  To render them invisible to history.  Tough work.

Meanwhile, there on the bottom right, as if mocking the man, even if in miniature, is the plate and bowl.   An offering to a torture victim.  Gall to the mouth of the dying Jesus on the cross.  Chips and salsa verde.  What the Latin man could not possibly want to eat, given his present strain.  What he could not even think about eating, but can’t ignore, because the snack has been deliberately set so close to his mouth.  To his face.  Come to think of it, it is actually impossible for the man to eat the snack.  The plumber sees that now: the wicked efficiency of this torture.  If the man rearranges his back muscles and stretches out his arm for even a single ridiculous chip, if he breaks his pose by even a millimeter, the pain will surge through him doubly—and all of him will collapse.  All of his resistance.  All of his strength. All of his soul.  And then he will be gone.  Broken.  Overwhelmed.  A weeping, roiling, thoughtless mess.  Maybe, just maybe, a dead one.

Yet there is the salsa verde. As the hours go by, and the model gets hungrier, weaker. There is the salsa verde. There are the chips. There. Right there, by his face. The man has suffered the torture for so long, the plumber decides, that the salsa verde has started to decay, started to grow rank.  A scrim of mold has developed over its top and the liquid has turned sour.  It smells faintly of dead animal or spoiled fruit.  Smelly old salsa verde and stale tortilla chips, sending their noxious odors into the man’s pain-pulsating nose.  A man who is prone upon a wooden floor, with a metal chair pressed into his back by some heavy person standing upon it.  And standing.  And standing.  And standing.

The plumber has never seen a painting like this one.  He cannot even believe such a queer thing exists.  Yet, he knows he must have it, from the instant he spies it.  He notices the price—$700—quite high for a discarded oil painting in a Nowhere antiques mall in western Tennessee—but he knows he will pay it.  He’ll pay the inflated price without haggling.  Because he wants this painting like he has never wanting anything before.

The plumber stops, pauses, reflects.  I want this painting like I have never wanted anything before.

Is that right?  Can that be true?

It is.

And only then, he realizes why he wants it so badly.  Only then he realizes he has found the perfect gift for Kathy O’Leary.  What better offering to the woman you admire above all others than the thing you want more than anything else?  Something that closes your soul.

He asks the man at the counter about the provenance of the painting.  Not because he cares—he is going to buy it regardless—but just for the show of question.  Just for the game.  Just to disguise his hot, naked desire.

“I don’t rightly know,” the man at the counter says.

He is a bulky man, and rather imposing at first glance: his hair, starting to gray, trimmed close to his skull, plaid shirt wrinkled and his blue jeans heavy.   The counter man is friendly enough, though, with his active blue-gray eyes and rounded cheeks and cheerful manner.  He’s a man who likes his job.

“I acquired it as part of a lot in a blind auction out in Jackson.  Auctioneer said it came from the home of a gentleman who lived in a mansion out near Union University.  Fancy part of town.  Man had died and they were disposing of his stuff.  I don’t know who ‘they’ were.  That’s just what the auctioneer said.  He said the gentleman had moved down here from the north, I think Philadelphia, so there were things in the lot we would not be used to seeing all the time.  Stuff that would really stand out, open our eyes, maybe even shock us.  That’s all I know.  And it could have been bull-hockey, you know.  Total lies.  Those auctioneers will say whatever they have to, to get you to make a bid.”  The plumber nods.  The counter man goes on.  “But there were some pretty surprising things in that lot, I have to say.  Some stuff I can’t even talk about.  This”—he nods at the painting—“was one of the tamer objects, believe it or not.”  He pauses, as if thinking of what to say next, but instead only tilts his head away from the plumber to the painting.  He stares at it for a good five seconds, without expression.  “But it’s damn interesting, isn’t it?”

The plumber nods, but he does not smile.  He does not want to listen to this man anymore.  The man, he has just discovered, is a nincompoop.  A moron.  Damn interesting.  Damn interesting?  That’s all he can say about this astonishing painting, this perfect gift?  Somehow this moronic man has made his envious business work—somehow—probably by sheer, dumb luck.  Certainly not by taste, because if the man had any taste he would not be selling this extraordinary painting.  He would be keeping it for himself.  If the plumber had found this painting himself, he would have never put it up for sale.  $700 can easily be acquired by other methods.  That’s the profit from an ordinary two or three-hour pipe job.  The painting is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

He will have to wrap the painting very carefully.  In fact, he will take it to a professional and pay serious money for it to be wrapped especially well.   And then he will ship it—FedEx, not the post office—to her address: the intersection of those two streets in Beverly Hills.  It will arrive safely, within a week, and she will open it, and she will be happy.  No, she will be enthralled.  And she will finally—finally—know about him.  Not just know of him, but know something important about him.

Salsa verde.

Yes, that’s it, isn’t it?

Salsa verde. 

The plumber thinks: I am not the man in the painting.  I am not a man who can endure days of metal legs being pressed into my back.  But I am a man, Kathy O’Leary. I have that man’s resilience.  His contrariness.  His spark.  I share his quiet, green heat.  His surprising, idiosyncratic spice.  His counter-expectational strength.   I am salsa verde, Kathy O’Leary.  You don’t know that.  You do not yet.

But soon you will.


John VandersliceJohn Vanderslice teaches writing at the University of Central Arkansas. His short stories have appeared in dozens of journals, including South Carolina Review, Southern Humanities Review, The Pinch, Exquisite Corpse, and Crazyhorse. His story collection Island Fog (Lavender Ink) was named as one of the Top 15 Indie Fiction Titles of 2014. His historical novel The Last Days of Oscar Wilde has recently been released by Burlesque Press.