The Shape of Fire

Energy flowed through Michael’s hand, through the torch, into the metal. He didn’t plan in advance what he formed.  There was no plan.  It was only the desire to begin.   Once he did, the forms took a shape of their own.  The metal twisted, burned, and bent.  Smoke rose, steam settled.

His income wasn’t consistent, but at least there was income.  He might have said the same thing about women.  They came and went but he knew, at some point, they would be there.  His unspoken philosophy aggravated some of them.  He thought of one particular ex-girlfriend, flinched, then smiled.  Michael picked up his torch again, ready to shape the next fold of metal into place.

He liked the moment of the curve.  The process of heating before it all solidified.  He didn’t like the ending.  The next day, he’d begin a new project or revise an old one.  Much like the women, he saw his work, from one project to the next, as a continuing stream.

The torch snapped and sizzled.  The flame was dangerous, and he wore a special mask for protection.  One stray spark into his eye and his budding career as an artist would have ended.  He listened to the hiss of fire on metal.  It was a thrill, he realized, like a drug.  It was the act of beginning, of not knowing what would come next.

***

Melissa sat on a solitary barstool. She stirred hot chocolate fluffed with the barista’s magic.  A happy man, she thought when the bearded stranger breezed past her, a jaunt in his step. He wore jeans so faded they were almost white.  Very different from her boyfriend of three years, Jason, who walked as if in a military parade.

Still, Charlene’s comment this morning on the bus bothered her.

“Everyone at the bank thinks Jason is great,” her friend had said.  They all worked together at the bank.

Really?  Jason? It wasn’t jealousy that sparked her bad mood.  It was something else, undefined.

Melissa glanced over her shoulder at the man in line, the one with the nice fitting Levi’s.

She turned back to her chocolate and glanced at her silent BlackBerry.  10 p.m. Jason hadn’t called to ask where she was. She wished she hadn’t dropped out of art school. It was a regret that occasionally took her over to the funky café on the south side of town. She soaked up the atmosphere, drank in the creativity. Her hands ached for the touch of clay upon the wheel, the cool formation of earth.

“I might sign up for a night class next semester,” she had mentioned to Jason the previous night.

“In what? Marketing?”

“No.” The thought of it made her skin crawl. “Why would you say that?”

“Because you’re the assistant manager of the customer service division? Generally, people go back to school to further their careers.”

“I was thinking of taking something fun. A pottery class. Maybe drawing.”

“Hmmm.” He had turned his gaze back to the television.

She was startled by a tap on the metal stool next to her

“This seat taken?”

***

Michael pushed through the café as if underwater. Visions of the sculpture dominated his mind; the next bend, the next shape. Light and dark played shadow games – the fluorescent above the cash register, the green glare of the digital numbers blurred against the darkness of a corner booth.  Voices mingled into a single song, pitches and timbres moved low and high through a scale of sound.

He meandered around tables and chairs, college students with laptops, art students with charcoal and sketchpads. The scent of warm chocolate and coffee enveloped him, pushed him to the depths, only to be jolted to the bright surface by a bitter stab of green tea. A gleam of silver attracted him; a lone metal barstool against the window.

“Can I sit here?”

The blonde woman who sat in the neighboring chair ignored him or didn’t hear him. He cleared his throat, conscious of not having spoken to another for days. “This seat taken?”

She drummed her fingers on the top of her cell phone sitting on the counter next to her before she glanced up. “No, go ahead.”

The stool scraped against the wood floor as he moved it. He cringed at the abrasive sound, a donkey braying through the low hum. He sipped at his espresso and tilted his cup toward the woman. “I’m taking a break from a project I’ve been working on.”

She lifted her cell phone, pressed buttons. The glow reflected in her eyes. She tapped at it again and then suddenly shoved the thing into her purse – a brush stroke of silver before him.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Did you say something about a project?”

“I did. I’m a sculptor. Welding.”

Her multi-looped earrings glittered, caught in the headlight of a car passing outside their window seat. They sat in silence. The pattern of her earring put an idea in his head, elliptical, with a point. The contour of a dove.

“I used to be into pottery,” she said suddenly.

“Used to?”

“Well, I mess around with it sometimes.” She smiled and twisted the paper napkin she held. “Clay didn’t seem practical as a college major, though.”

He tapped his own fingers against his espresso cup, a ceramic impracticality. “I heard that a lot from my folks when I started school.”

“What made you stick with it?”

“I love what I do. I can’t imagine not doing it. It’s not easy, sometimes, but I’m starting to sell pieces.”

“That’s great.” She coiled the napkin into a spiral. “I guess I never felt like I could make a living with pottery.”

“Is that why you gave it up?”

“One of many reasons.”

“Or excuses.”

Her eyebrows shot up at the bluntness of his words. He returned her look, silently asking: which is it?

“You know what made me drop art classes? The professors always wanted to know my meaning, the message. Why did everything have to mean something?” Her voice rose with emotion. “Why couldn’t they let it be? Appreciate beauty for beauty’s sake?”  She stirred a spoon in her cup and shook her head. “I like the shape of things, a blend of color. There’s a certain moment in art where I want to leave it in that exact place.”

Michael pondered her words. He knew what she meant, about that moment – but for him, it never lasted. “I wish I could get to that point. I always want to redo whatever I’ve done. Maybe I listened to the professors too much. I’m never satisfied with it.” That wasn’t exactly it either. He couldn’t explain the feeling of purposelessness when he turned off his torch.

He noticed the purple scarf, the forest green of her sweater.  She did have a propensity for color.  “So now you live a …practical…life?”

“Sure do. Share an apartment with my boyfriend, steady paychecks, and health insurance.” Her tone was sarcastic.

“401k?”

“That too.”

He liked her smile. She balled up the paper napkin she’d been winding. He could see her hands moving around a mound of clay, forming, shaping.

“But you’d rather be an artist?”

The cell phone buzzed from inside her purse.

“I’ve got to go,” she said. “See you.”

Michael realized he hadn’t asked her name.

***

Melissa slammed the alarm clock with the palm of her hand. Her blow sent the clock crashing off the nightstand, onto the floor.  She curled her throbbing hand back under her pillow.

“Jesus.” Jason left the bed and strode toward the shower. “Just turn off the switch.”

She remained still, eyes closed.  Mornings weren’t her best time, although she didn’t know this about herself until she lived with someone who bounded out of bed as if his ass was spring-loaded.

After a few minutes, she lurched to the kitchen where she fumbled desperately with the coffee pot.  She couldn’t think or speak until she had one cup of measurable caffeine in her system.   She dumped in a spoonful of sugar and wrapped her hands around the heat of the thick, earthenware coffee mug, one she had made.  She debated whether to shower before work.  Who cares, she thought.  It was time to find something new.

“Bye babe.” Jason brushed past, jostling her shoulder. Her coffee spilled on the counter.  Unlike Jason, Melissa took her time getting to the bank. She preferred to watch the sun rise over the mountains that loomed above town. Today, though…maybe she’d call in sick, stop by the university and pick up a catalog…maybe.

Dissatisfaction nagged at her. What was it that guy had said? He couldn’t imagine not doing art. That was the problem; she could envision her life without art.  It terrified her.

***

Michael draped the metal sheet over its post, as a wing rests upon a bird.  The hot steel would soon set into the shape he wanted.  He flicked the switches off on his torch and stepped back to analyze the sculpture again. The silver fold curved as he had envisioned.

His fingers drummed the top of his workbench. Inside his leather work gloves, his hands grew hot, needing either to work or be set free. He turned on oxygen and acetylene switches.  Thin blue flame jetted out from the cutting tip. He held the torch at an angle, ready to turn the metal back into lumps of steel. Each time, this happened. He wasn’t ready to be done.

“There’s a certain moment in art where I want to leave it in that exact place.” He heard her voice, the girl from the café. The sculpture was there, in that place, if he didn’t ruin it first.

He switched off the torch again, set it down, tapped his restless hands on the workbench again. Abruptly, he pulled of his work gloves, kicked off his heavy boots. In a manic rush, he shoved on old tennis shoes, and grabbed his road bike. He had to get out before the impulse overtook him again. He walked out of his garage studio, and, with a backward glance, he saw a thing a beauty.  He paused, breathless in that glorious moment between heat and cool, before the artwork was stationed into its final performance.

***

The colors on the desert horizon reminded him of flames.  He rode past park signs to one of the pueblo remains that dotted the landscape. Pink hazed in quietly, softening the whole sky into a gentle cushion of light.  This isn’t the heat of fire, he thought to himself as he leaned against the side of a pueblo to watch.  This is something else.  Something magic.

The rising sun tinted the bricks a golden-pink, highlighting every shadow and crevice.  The roof had gone missing a century before, the pinewood and juniper carried off for some cowboy’s fire.  What remained was a rectangular adobe structure, deserted by its inhabitants a thousand years before.

Small openings within the brick created windows that allowed beams of sunlight to slice across an empty room. Michael heard movement in the dry dust.  He peeked through a window and saw her in the doorway. Gold beams, as though sent from the gods, barred her entrance.  She touched the rough surface of the wall. Dust floated in the light as if the thousand-year-old clay breathed beneath her fingertips in communion.  She ducked under the sun beam, while her fingers traced the coarse bricks. She sank to the ground and grasped a handful of dust, clutching it.

He debated whether to leave her alone.  Of course, he was never one to leave a woman alone.

“Hey, are you OK?” he whispered.

She started. The dirt from her hands left orange streaks across her face.  “I’m fine.”

“Hey, you’re the girl from the café.”

She blinked away tears. “Oh yeah.  Hey.”

“So. What brings you here?”  Stupid question, he thought.  Save that one for the girls at the bars.  Michael walked around the pueblo to the doorway.

She answered when he appeared on the other side. “Decided to take the day off, figure a few things out.”

He sat next to her in the sand and looked up to the sky, through the roofless building. He allowed his eyes to play with the orange brick on the background of blue. Piercingly blue.

“I finished that last sculpture; the one I told you about.”

“Finished it? Like it’s complete? You’re not going back to rework it again?”

“No. Not this time.” He leaned back with her against the pueblo wall.  “This time, I decided to…let it be.”

Michael pointed to the clash of colors he found so enticing. “Look.”

***

Melissa followed his gaze, and sighed.  The dried orange of the clay gave way to pink, then gold.

“It’s beautiful.” She wanted to grab the vibrant, stark colors with her hands, and meld them together into something permanent.

“You could do that…” His voice trailed off as light etched out a new corner in the shadows of the pueblo.  “My neighbor is moving, selling her wheel, kiln, what’s left of her clay. You should take it.”

“Maybe I will.” She pressed her fingertips together, and felt the mixture of damp dust and sand.  He knew.  Knew what her hands were desperate to take hold of. Knew what she was desperate to find.

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