Read Rough Likeness: Essays Online

Authors: Lia Purpura

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Outside’s thunderclap, its tonnage and stipple. The toilet in the room above’s flush. Extended, deepening thunder sounds. The picture window’s darkening glaze. Except for the mother with her hood pulled tight, a sporty family neverminding the rain, laughing, carrying big, wet cups of coffee. A runner tendon-stretching, braced against a stop sign. An old-salt type in a long, yellow slicker waving to someone, or directing the deluge. More cars than usual heading north to the parkway, as goes the decision through many heads at once to leave the shore earlier than planned. Methods of resignation abound: one on a gearless soft-seater pitches into the weather headfirst, a sack of oranges hooked on his arm. Four pedaling a surrey remain committed to their rented hour. The sky brightens. The clouds shift. The cars slow and their numbers decrease. Runners come out, had they ducked under awnings. Outside our window, a gaslamp-style streetlight’s on; it must have self-lit at the first hint of dark. Walkers wearing long sleeves and sweatshirts, who must have tested (head out a window, arm out a door) the temperature before emerging.
Various pitched rumbles, filling, ablating. A rough sound, that otherwise might be silk tearing, but for now is tires parting puddles. All headlights on. Sky darkening again. Those choosing to be out or having been caught, somewhere on those bodies in the noisy rain: shiny, cicatricial spots of damp. Wet shoulders where clothing is sticking. Abrasions on ankles where sockless shoes rub. Itchy tags. Rings of sweat. Objectwise, sunglasses in bags or hooked at collars. Loose, jangling change. Newspapers rolled and stuffed in back pockets. Some lightning now, but candescent, not the sky-ripping variety. Some darkness lifting at the horizon, baring a strip between sea and sky, like a hem rising over a sock.
Now the umbrellas, now that the walkers have figured it out:
rainy
not rain. Dark as any November day, late in the afternoon. Blue turned to its compounds and alloys, its milkier elements, whitened and hardened. On Beach Drive, the activity increases: doppler riffs. Gutters surging. Thunder yanked like special-effect sheets of aluminum, behind the scenes. A jogger who can’t economize movements, whose legs seem strapped on and lack propulsion, whose elbows angle too far from his body, seems wetter than others. Bending in wind, heavy with rain, some hardy beach roses suggest a boat tethered and scuffed against unseen pilings.
One species of sleeping person can sense rain and somehow knows to stay abed, undisturbed in their summer rental, up and down the beach. An announcement such as this won’t jar them:
May I have your attention, please. Lightning is on the beachfront. Lightning is
on
the beachfront. Clear the area for your safety
. It sounds not at all canned: the voice of a real and excited someone, red-faced, soaked and bringing the news. At the horizon where ocean meets sky, a mist congests and erases perspective. Rain threshes the sand. The sky darkens further. The sky turns,
toward
or
into.
The sky now. The sky is—what
is
the shade, gradient, hue, tint I’m seeing? The _________ sky. That sense of searching, fingertips tapping, calling forth terms. Sifting, anticipating: the
something
sky. Something. Something pushes in. It draws up to full height.
It blots out any other sky,
gunmetal,
does
.
How irksome.
Gunmetal.
What a cliché.
Strike me down if I use it again. If I don’t, right now, erase this method by which we impart, those of us who know nothing about guns, drama to a sky, pressure to a scene, hardness, know-how, coldness to a description, glad for its hint of treachery, its sidelong, thanatotic meanness.
Why
erase, though? Why deny the relief of a shared, common phrase—novelistically charged, not the worst imaginable?
You
know gunmetal and
I
know gunmetal: why not meet there? Pretend it’s a bar of the same cool name, “Gunmetal’s” (brushed steel, understated track lighting) and relax, converse, affirm each other’s positions on many Big (or breezy and minor) Life Issues. Since I had nowhere to go this evening and you were free, and isn’t that better than staying home? Even if I know where the conversation’s headed? And really, you’re perfectly decent company,
you
aren’t at fault. But after an evening like this, I’m way more antsy and hardly refreshed, since I’m not at all changed or challenged or stretched. And neither are you.
And yes, the
coldness
of a gun pertains. A gun is, when you first hold it, very cold, and way heavier than you’d think—say a .22, hitched right up against the shoulder. At least the one I shot weighed more than I expected, made as it was, of . . . I don’t know what. Gunmetal, I guess. I hardly have anyone to ask about this. One strictly seasonal pheasant-hunting friend, who will answer modestly and not say one thing beyond what he knows. Another who fought in the Iran-Iraq war, and though that’s long ago now for him, I hesitate. Because maybe it’s not so long ago, the way rogue scenes slide in when you’re making a sandwich, washing your hair, touching your sleeping child’s face.... Also, I’ve seen that tree, in the photo in his living room, the tree he’s standing so uprightly next to (he in his uniform, and both so thin they look related) and
something
came just before the photo and
something
happened just after it, to the side of the tree, or behind it—it’s that the tree’s starkness is a point of reference. There is, I think, a lot more he knows, for example, on the subject of grenades, that I don’t want to ask about either, there being no “grenade blue” I’m harrying here. Though there’s a sky for that, too. A misty tint, a haze indicating surprise detonation, rain turned to hail, very suddenly.
But I want to know what “gunmetal” means, and found the perfect guy to ask, a friend of a friend, a gunmaker out west, who’s currently working on a matchlock from 1510 (“older than all my friends combined” he says.)
My questions, of course, are embarrassingly basic.
And yes, I do need to start at the beginning.
Jim writes:
Glocks are made of plastic with metal inserts in the receiver or frame (the part you hang on to), the slide and barrel are metal and the color is determined by the options you choose
. (He’s seen pink as well as sky-blue ones).
The basic metal a .22 is made of varies but it is always shiny silver, what we in the trade call “in the white.” This reflects that it has not been colored or coated yet. The coloring (whether it be bluing, Frenching, coating or browning) is put there to keep the metal from corroding or oxidizing in an undesirable manner. “Gunmetal” as a color is usually a gray, more technically called “French gray.” Think of the dark ash on charcoal, only shiny.
The shiniest guns would be chrome or nickel-plated, the blackest ones would be the black epoxy-coated; black chrome is black beyond belief, but is shiny like a mirror. These coatings can be applied to any firearm. I have examples of almost anything you would like . . .
Almost anything I would like . . . as, too, this sky is variously compounded, concussive, concupiscent, and oh, could be layered with names transfinitely: it’s the rivery color a silver spoon turns when held in a flame. It’s the color of a well-used plumber’s wrench. A perfectly battered railroad tie. I try on:
A burnt-spoon sky
.
Below a sky where we sat down, under wrench-colored clouds. Before the sky opened and a rain as hard as railroad ties fell.
... It’s the color of a cataract (which, very like “promontory,” is not much in use, ever-nailed as they are to the nineteenth century, provenance of the Lake District poets). It’s a kinked intestine-gone-bloodless-pale sky. Translucent, unfeathered, fallen-chick silver. Powdered zinc. Stripped olive pit. Dirty-kid water in a porcelain tub. Farinaceous. Clayey. Grime in pressed tin. So why
gunmetal
? If it’s something about the act of smithing, why not things from the worlds of cooper, tinker, wainwright, glazier? I suppose the throwback quality’s engaging—the forging, the shine, the bluing, blacking and browning—but mostly, I think, it’s rugged and hip to suggest with this phrase you know something about guns; enough at least to toss likeness around. You have to like a likeness to toss it (note: kids running, jostling, outshouting each other as they race to a car will call
“shotgun!”
not
“side saddle
!” not
“the seat next to my mom”
).
If you’re really set on naming a sky by way of armaments, try a breech-loading carbine’s pencilly softness, or another from the Civil War (see the excellent display at the Gettysburg Visitor Center), a Harper’s Ferry musket whose mottling looks like winter rain. Try a cannon’s smoothbore, or case shot, the spherical or precisely penile munitions, pocked, blackened and smutted by all the ways they ruined a body, rolled, muddied and were gathered up again for duty. Try the brass coat buttons, buckles, and plates identifying cavalry, riflemen, musicians, artillery, infantry, engineers, and the tarnish spots there,
that
color, where the salts in blood wore away the finely wrought eagles, lyres and flags. A mess cup’s the color of the Potomac in winter. A bayonet’s black as a rasping crow. And “rust,” it turns out, is a complicated blood-dew-gunsmoke amalgam.
“Battleship gray” is also a problem; consider the monstrous snout of a ship, fastened with rivets the size of plates, unyielding and lithic—does a
sky
intend to communicate this? To bear down, to invade? Can’t we come up with something other than a destroyer’s brutal, flat gray to signal a presence that hovers over with steady nerves and conviction? In Farsi, my friend offered
Ghamangeez,
“a saddening sky,” and his wife refined it: “a sky that brings on sadness.”
Okay. Now we’re getting somewhere.
It’s quick, gunmetal is, and efficient. I’ll give it that. It speeds the scene. So you can get on to something else. It’s a term that makes you feel part of a team. A baton you hold firmly and pass down the line. The way a party icebreaker works: let me introduce you to X. Now you’re friends. Now the two of you can have coffee together. Then
you
introduce. To one of
your
friends. They go for a drink (you know where). Now so many of us have something in common. We’re cozy. We know what the other means when we say....
Skies change, thankfully, and grays complicate—unfurl, turn smoky, egressive, specular. A few hours later, the sky in Cape May has taken a turn that stymies. It stumps me. Car base coats, the flat ones, rally to help. Giorgio Morandi knew, and applied to the bottles and humble plates in his paintings a range of opacities, the soft, cool creams of unspeckled eggs, of froths and dunes. Of dusty, white Neccos (whose flavor is cinnamon, and surprisingly spicy, almost fireball hot, but muted and sweeter, so the shock spreads more evenly over the tongue, with no ping, no ache, nothing tornadic.)
This
sky is more oatmeal, ashed incense, clamshell. It’s the color of shit in its calcified state, though this likeness is not much in use, alas, our palette’s not very broadly accepting, and shit is not aesthetically easy; it won’t stay domed. Won’t stay chapeled, as it is when left alone to dry into earthy, roadside temples. Fat white gulls and snowy egrets disappear against this sky, which makes its color more erasure than presence. Ghosted. Palimpsistic.
Birds can’t sink into gunmetal skies.
“Gunmetal,” on the comportment family tree, is close to “steely.” Steely eyes. Steely wills. Ramrod posture. (And ramrods, of course, pack down charge in muzzle loading guns; thus a body fit to load munitions, push explosives, shoulder them in, so straight and stiff, it must have been trained.
To fight, to serve and never to yield,
its motto might be. A body like that. A sky like that. Mission-bound. Singleminded.)
“Gunmetal,” deployed, delivers a payload of routine. And routine is a much sought-after commodity. I get that. The best of us succumb at times. About McDonald’s, for instance, the Cape May guidebook confirms, “You can’t live on gourmet food alone. So it’s comforting to have Mickey D’s right here! There are few things in life more reliable or comforting than a Happy Meal. There is something to be said about knowing EXACTLY what you’re getting EVERY TIME. No worrying if your steak is going to be cooked enough, or if the clams are bad. The only thing to worry about at McDonald’s is whether to get your meal small, medium or large.” “Gunmetal” as Happy Meal. It’s compact, the phrase “gunmetal sky,” as reliable a delivery system as any Big Mac, withtwoallbeefpattiesspecialsaucelettucecheesepicklesonionsonasesameseedbun. (How cleverly that little jingle—I can still hear the tune—indicates both precision and overabundance.) And though I won’t go on with this point, research shows there are 380 seeds on each sesame-seed bun, “give or take a few.”
So when I say the word to myself, for a sky’s particular depth and hue, “gunmetal,” which precisely means “dark gray with blue or purple tinge” (but you knew that, didn’t you), a third, nictitating lid comes down and though I
see
the sky—more accurately, the real seeing stops. The little path meandering out, where I went hunting all this time for other colors the sky might be, fuzzes up. It bombs the path, “gunmetal” does. I’m trying to locate it in my body (say at the spot where clavicle and shoulder meet, where the rifle kicked hard and knocked a week-long bruise into place) so I can say the word “gunmetal” and mean it. But I don’t feel it. I just join with. I fall in. I get phalanxed with the staters. Heads of Statement all start talking. All agreeing, nodding, yessing. Settling. I feel I’ve been given one of those ovoid bumper stickers, alerting all to my vacation spot—that mysterious “OBX” (Outer Banks Crossing, I learned at a stoplight, eye level with an SUV’s bumper). Or in Cape May it’s “Exit Zero.” Very in-clubbish. The longer I stay in a place, the more okay the decals seem. I’m hustled in with the locals and after a while—we’ve been coming here for years—I begin to feel pretty local myself. Happy to be readable. Glad to be part of.
BOOK: Rough Likeness: Essays
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