The Painter of Hearts

In an exclusive excerpt from her book Mad Anatomy, Palm Springs author Kimberly Nichols reveals the improbable aesthetic in one of the world’s most perplexing killers.

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They were destined to be together for just one night.

That morning Malena woke up in incredible pain. She was familiar with it and in the three years since her diagnosis had formed an interesting relationship with it. Instead of masking or running away from it, she became intimate with it. It needed consistent attention. There was room in her life for nothing else.

Her pain followed her into the shower. She sat on the hard tile beneath the scalding water. The extreme temperature soothed the intense temporal illusions popping within her brain. She knew today was the day. She had shifted in her sleep all night.

After toweling off it took her 15 minutes to walk the 100 feet through her bedroom toward the closet. She stopped to sit on the stacks of blue blankets placed around her space — panic chairs to support the inevitable fall.

When she finished getting ready the pain had subsided. It was a bad wave but a relatively short one. She stepped outside into a biting cold San Francisco morning and threw away the newspaper that lay on her doormat. It contained nothing of interest to her. As she walked down the street, the sun peeked through the clouds and danced softly on the jagged edges of her shortly cropped pink hair.

At a stoplight she saw her reflection in a square of dirty glass patched onto a lamppost. One of her eyes was absent of eye shadow and she wore only one earring. She laughed, her wide mouth flattening into a sideways crescent, her lime green eyes washed with a dull sparkle, her hands covered in kid gloves, her body inwardly eating itself away.

Slipper had visions — good and bad. They came from nowhere and were tinged with an underbelly of woe. Even the good ones pointed at something beneath the surface, a hint of blue. He would see a strange man in his bedroom only a few days before actually running into him on the street. He would see the sick and the dying, their bodies outlined in X-ray monochromes while riding the bus. If he looked at someone for too long, he would see their heart beating through their skin. Once in a while, he would spot gray patches on a person and came to identify the grays with corruption. Gray spots would pepper the liver, the lungs, the flesh, and the brain.

Like anything that begins horrifying and surreal, the visions had scared Slipper once. But now he was slightly amused by them and strangely fortified by their presence.

His insights into the breathing human heart had earned him acclaim as an artist. For each heart he witnessed, he created a painting. A 6-foot-by-6-foot canvas containing only that elusive organ looming in black and white. His trademark stamp had become an iodine pink line that traced one route on each heart, cutting the canvas down the center into two conflicting and bisected parts.

On the previous night, Slipper had dreamed about Malena. He didn’t know her but he knew she would die soon. And when the visions evolved from the sicknesses of humanity to the sicknesses of anatomy, Slipper would drink to help drown out the pain.

Malena was an art critic and spent her days sitting in galleries getting to know an artist’s body of work. Art was her only source of joy. She was passionate for the multitude of perspectives she encountered while studying the creative mind. She was aroused by the ever-existing potential to be blindingly touched. The absence of life in her personal realm left a void for the continual fulfillment that came from the characters and colors she encountered in her work.

She spent all day in a gallery critiquing an old Indian artist’s work. He painted voluptuous beige figures that embraced and merged. She studied each, wrote down the titles, listed her emotions alphabetically, and began to fill in the blanks with her questions.

The gallery owner was graying, silent, and kind. He didn’t distract her with small talk. He shuffled paper, whispered through phone calls, and shut the gallery door quietly when he stepped out to smoke.

Each time he arose to the kitchen for water he would say, “Need something to drink doll face?”

Nothing you have could possibly sate me, she would think.

At the end of the day, Malena gathered her things, took a deep breath as she walked outside, and felt the strings of fall pulling together the city for the holidays. Lights were twinkling. Her insides felt warm.

She took a detour on the way home and walked down by the pier. She stood near the edge and the swish of cold hit the back of her arms. Her flesh froze in a streak of pain. The cold followed her home and by the time she reached the top of the iron staircase, she was panting and winded. She stopped for a moment in the impending night and noticed the city was remarkably beautiful. Everything seemed constructed of origami thinness, an inner translucence. The trees, the leaves, and the people in the streets were composed of a papier-mâché fragility.

It was a small moment in clarity’s minefield — booms, explosions, and bliss.

At that moment, in the Mission District, Slipper walked into a convenience store with $5 left to his name.

His head felt soggy as he stood in line and read the cover of a newsmagazine: “Two Sides Are Showing Their Faces In America.” It was a piece of social commentary on the presidential election. He picked it up and skimmed the article. He could tell it was another opinionated essay on the chasm between the peoples that the last election had illuminated. The article was authored by one of the new breed of political writers who frequented the media soapbox circuit. “One side booms out tradition, while the other strives for erase and renew. There are hypocrites in the cupboards and thieves in the pew.”

Same old bullshit. Slipper wanted to close his eyes. He had been feeling foggy and disconnected, and tonight it was worse. He had spent too many nights with cigarettes, sangria, and little sleep. He was burnt out on 24-hour restaurants and late night banter about conspiracy theories and the latest fashionable isms.

After purchasing cigs, he stopped off at a small artsy meat market — a perfect place for waiting when one needed the price to be just right. He had an hour before he was expected to attend a party at the home of one of his collectors.

He slid his fingers through his wavy black hair and headed into the club. Before long he was drunk. He slurred his words as the waitress approached the table.

“What are you doing in my gift shop soliciting candy?” he mumbled.

She had long vinyl nails, every week a different color, and she poked him in the ribs with her middle finger. A nice gentle fuck you. “What are you talking about?” she asked before jotting his order, a fourth gin and tonic.

“Hmmm,” he groaned. “Sometimes I wonder.”

His head began to pound. As she sidled away, Slipper closed his eyes. He sank down in the white plastic chair and held his cigarette near the ground.

The waitress was back shortly with the drink.

Slipper leaned in toward her, bucked himself up in his seat, and stopped himself from murmuring that he could see a gray line, right now, right on her brow, through her skin, on the brain, that signified she was mortally terrified of herself. He could spit at her but it would do no good. Humans were happiest when afraid of themselves — when they could predict the experience before the outcome, dream the dream without living a smidgeon of it.

“You better just get on home now Slipper,” the waitress said. “That painting of yours on the wall over there and your tab are about even.”

“I don’t need your condescension,” he mumbled.

He asked for a glass of water.

Before long, Slipper was on a concrete bench waiting for a cab. He wondered why it was so hard for him to be a drunk in these parts. The waitresses always looked at him as if he were too young for misery. He found that insane.

He believed that age gave one a false sense of security. People spent way too much time living in terms of a number, following a predetermined order of when and where they should be. It was a philosophy doomed to failure and fear. It was a cold gray cell that contained society.

Slipper shook his head. What was he thinking about this for anyway? Nobody studied philosophy anymore. He was tired of getting his ego kicked to the curb every time he tried to disappear into drink. He was tired of running into people who no longer believed in true intimacy, conversation, and bloodletting.

The party was already bustling when Malena arrived. She often attended these parties. They were full of people with Ph.D.’s in energetic psychology that promised both one hell of a time and a nice healing space.

As she walked in, her host danced before her wearing a silver dress on her 6-foot-tall frame. Strawberry curls tangoed with the rest of her face as she leaned to Malena’s ear to whisper, “Someone you love is going to be here tonight.”

Malena never knew what to expect at these parties, but they were the perfect place to disappear. No one would judge her tonight for drinking massive doses to cover the pain. No one would blame her for taking a small space in the corner alone.

The place was filled with the usual hodgepodge of seekers. There were the tall and tan beautiful people focused on aligning the mind temple with the body temple. There were the ones who regularly did Ecstasy and ended up talking for hours in the Jacuzzis and showers, naked from the waist up or waist down. There were the new intellectuals, or pseudo scientists who talked about the new flexibility in quantum physics and the exciting horizons where spirit and fact would soon meet. There were dancers in the energy rooms who would boogie all night to produce enough white light to feed everyone. There were drummers on the dance floor’s periphery, all new to each other but working in perfect synchronization.

Then there were the stragglers, eccentric strangers, artists, pharmacists, street bums, freaks, ancient healers, retired hippies, advertising executives, trust fund babies, and band geeks. The people who came expecting an orgy were never included if it were ever to naturally occur and the ones who just wanted to get high were never invited. Anyone who came seeking anything other than a common higher power left sadly disappointed.

The spaces at these parties were constructed, built, and provided for homogeny. Hosts hoped to create one human organism from many.

Malena enjoyed that environment. She liked being naked and free of inhibition. Her sickness glared less bright in places like these.

She went to place her coat in the spare bedroom and a wave of pain in her stomach caused her to fall to the hallway floor. In the past few years, she had been prepared for this. Her doctor had told her it would happen in a short period of time. The body would tire from the battle and shut down. She had always imagined that she would have time to go somewhere quiet and alone, that she would curl up gracefully on a couch and be released from life, that she would have a chance to create her space for passing.

She looked up and saw Slipper emerge from the bathroom. As he walked closer, she saw that he was Slipper and she thought she was dreaming.

He stooped in front of her with a glass of water in his hand. As their eyes met, his hands lost muscular control and the water spilled across Malena’s lap.

“You are dying,” he said.

“Yeah,” she nodded. “I mean, yes.”

Her thought process was jumbled. She was losing control of her thinking. Nothing was making sense. Slipper sat and told her about his vision. “It was just last night that I dreamt of you,” he said.

He saw that that she was tired and asked her if she would like to walk near the shoreline. He didn’t want to leave her. In the stringy moonlight the shore was littered with debris.

“The first time I heard the word cancer, I became uninterested with perfection. Uninterested with medication. I wanted to feel the virus move through my body. I wanted to relinquish myself to the disease. In return, my senses sharpened.”

Sometimes other art critics would speculate about the iodine pink lines in Slipper’s paintings. They wondered if each line signified a different emotion. Some were convinced the lines represented Slipper’s personal scars. But Malena had always imagined that the pink pathways were like electrical wires and that in his paintings he would highlight the particular wire being sparked at a given moment. She liked to imagine that if he put all of his heart portraits together, the lines would connect to each other and cause a sudden burst of life.

The intimate setting was making both their hearts flutter. They felt the same exact emotions simultaneously. Malena’s body was full of ache. She was halfway in love and halfway ill.

“It’s like an orgasm mixed with a laugh, a sneeze, an earache.” Slipper said.

He pulled a small bottle of tequila from his pocket. He had pilfered it from a cabinet at the party, figuring it would help her cope. They slugged straight from the bottle and it helped blur her eminent demise and their attraction to each other.

“I’m starting to feel weird,” Malena said.

They sat on the sand, and Malena took off her shoes. He opened his legs wide and pulled her backward so that she was lying in between them. Her toes touched the water and the coolness sedated her. She felt dizzy. It happened in spurts. She would be fine and then her body would shut down. Each time she faded out of consciousness, even if only for a second, she would experience a wave of nausea as her mind returned.

Slipper watched her go away each time.

“Let’s just sit here without sound,” he suggested.

Malena looked around. Her thoughts stopped making sense. She let her body fall backward into Slipper and stifled the urge to puke.

“I have to tell you something,” she uttered.

“One last thing,” he shushed. He started to rub the back of her neck and her shoulders. He could see her heart now, vivid and bright, beating imperceptibly. It was all he could see. The shore had disappeared and the moon was gone.

“The hearts that you paint contain nearly desperate pleas,” she announced. “They remind me of things that are dying. They remind me of how it feels to live with only a small pulse of life that keeps trying to join with another to cause a fire. You can cause an eruption.”

He closed his eyes and felt his head fill with the picture of her heart. He felt inflated and drugged. It was there and so tiny and beating inside the darkest red. He could feel the stars burning into his closed eyelids. He could feel Malena as she gave up control. He felt the warm pleasure of her urine running down his pants leg. It was hardly catastrophic.

It happened with a whisper.

Adapted from Mad Anatomy under the agreement with the author. All rights reserved.

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