“Is that what I think it is?”
“. . . No?”
A sigh. “That’s not supposed to be a question.”
The woman’s heels clacked upon the stark linoleum as she approached. The rumble of tracks behind them grew louder before hissing to a stop. Her jaw clenched as she refused to breathe in the smell of mundanity and piss. Urban development developed into this. Any further west and she’d need the two-dollar neon snorkel.
“Don’t play dumb.”
“I’m not playing.”
The near empty spray bottle clattered. It settled, rolling back and forth. The woman touched it with her foot, the tip of the black heel. Once, the shoes might have been shined. Now they were thrown in amongst the take-out and plastic wrappings and went where all the gone things were. The kids on school field trips never went there. It was easy to lose them.
“How long I’ve got till they come?” The girl glared up from underneath bangs. Definitely an early 2000s look. The woman had preferred that to the frizzed pine trees of the 80s. Now it was gentle waves of naturally dyed highlights. Walmart for twenty bucks, but the dresser did it better. It was looking like it might change to near buzz-cuts, or what would be considered a buzz cut for her sensibilities. Less upkeep, the woman supposed. The girl jerked her head. The bangs jerked with. “Well?”
“Are for peasants.” Blankness covered the girl’s face. The woman sighed. “Wells are for peasants.” Another moment of incomprehension. Then the girl barked out a sharp laugh, one not meant for pleasant company. The woman had gotten good at that, too, polite sincere laughter bubbling up at all the appropriate moments and the clever hand cover when it was not.
“It’s hay is for horses.”
The woman lifted a shoulder, a half shrug. “You ever seen a horse? Live?”
“No. Have you?”
The woman half-shrugged again, breathing out of sync with the moaning of the cement and buzz of the streets above. “A long time ago.” The girl half turned her head away, peering from the corner of her eyes. Predators did that sometimes. Business associates did it, too. The woman’s own gaze turned back to the design. Illegal art, she had whispered to herself, giggling, when she had first arrived. Illegal art, she had rolled her eyes and laughed to another passenger. He had frowned. “Illegal is correct.” She had turned away, lips pressed together and eyes bright as she watched the world pass.
The woman shifted, rolling her shoulders back. The girl tensed again. “I’ve got five dollars on me.”
The girl’s face soured. “I don’t need your charity.”
The woman huffed out a breath, kicked off her pumps. She snapped her purse open, withdrew the bill.
The girl threw herself to her feet. “I don’t need-“
“It’s for my portion.” The woman dropped the bill and picked up the spray bottle.
The girl wouldn’t take charity, but she could do coffee runs and learn the copy machine.
The woman was walking home again on a different stretch of pavement except maybe this time she had followed someone who had stopped at a hole-in-the-wall hardware store before descending. Subtle, unmistakable hissing filled the air until it stopped. The clanking of a can being shook. The hissing resumed.
The girl ignored her for the first few minutes until the woman couldn’t help herself and made a helpful suggestion.
“I didn’t ask for your opinion.”
“Nobody asks for criticism. Not truly.”
The girl huffed, but the woman refused to qualify the generality. This time, instead of a bill, the woman pulled out her own spray bottle.
It wasn’t supposed to continue. Truly, the woman thought, it wasn’t. Sometimes, she believed the girl thought it, too.
Subway walls. Parked trains. City blocks.
Some days, in the most public of places, the woman would loiter on her cellphone or with a newspaper in hand, calling out greetings loudly to passersby when necessary, assuring the police that her grand-niece and herself were just passing through when needed. Other days, the woman would scrub her hands until red and raw, still able to resist the need to leave the evidence where it lay.
“Illegal art,” she had giggled, eyes bright and wide. Illegal art, and she still vaguely remembered Du Bois not giving a damn for any art that wasn’t propaganda. That was the little good her college had done.
Illegal art of a man riding in a car without a mask. A nurse in a red bandana rolling up her sleeves. A child standing in the center of a dark circle, technology and closed schools protecting him from the world.
Illegal art of numbers, words, bubble letters that strived to pop bubbles. We had 10,000 men. A hill with gravestones marching up and down it. Divided we fall. A snake cut into red and blue portions. Common sense. Dynamite dropped into a fire.
They didn’t always agree but could afford to drop the subject when they didn’t. At least for a while. But there were some things they always agreed on, and it was those they returned to, and those they projected, and those for which they were the town-criers - the comment to which the girl had responded with, “We’re not peasants or medieval villagers.”
“True,” the woman had said. “They didn’t have spray paint after all.”
They ended it. Of course, they did, and the girl was disappointed that things were much the same as they had ever been, and the woman told her that these things took time and “there’s always something. Always.”
The girl finished her education, virtually, and she rolled her eyes whenever she clarified such. She still drew often, but on cheap printer paper and the nice cardstock the woman occasionally bought. The woman enjoyed watching her draw more than paint, the girl’s fingers, painted light purple to match the artfully placed streak in her short hair, skimming across the page much faster than the woman thought possible.
They still walked the streets, too, of course, though perhaps less often and during more reasonable times. The woman had told the story of illegal artwork, and the girl had giggled, and then they walked around judging the masterpieces and awarding first and second place. Some works received honorary mentions even. The rumbling never ceased. The smell of urine doggedly followed. Suffocation, from people and pollution, caused coughing and days to stay in. Still, the woman thought, laughing with the girl at a particularly ridiculous piece of work, still, she thought, maybe there was also a small bit of hope. Maybe there had always been.