In The Rothko Chapel
By Mike Lee -
Katerina stood staring at the broken obelisk sculpted by Barnett Newman, set in a pool next to the Rothko Chapel. The breeze had kicked up, leaves flying by in uneven flight under gray skies thick with moving high clouds signaling a storm coming in from the Gulf of Mexico, though the humidity had dropped to almost a sense of dry; fall had finally arrived at the swamp otherwise known as Houston.
Katerina wore her father’s Navy pea coat, the one she’d wanted from the time she was little when she discovered the photo of him wearing it on the deck of the ship he served on in the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, Katerina resembled a wartime orphan; the shoulders and sleeves were too long, and she’d already scorched the cuff twice with a cigarette.
The sunglasses Katerina wore were his, too, old ones, cheap Foster-Grants from the 60s she found while going through a box of photo slides from vacations dating from before her birth.
The sharply cornered trapezoid frames with moss green lenses lent definition to her pallor, enhanced by foundation and powder and the rich royal purple wet lipstick as a contrast. Legs and feet in opaque stockings and leather brothel creepers; the hem of her old tartan skirt, pleats flattened, deeply creased, and generally wrinkled, stuck out from the bottom of her coat, adding the only physical color to Katerina’s attire.
“Dad,” said Katerina, murmuring it between slightly parted lips, looking at the sculpture, the sky beyond, the clouds. “I miss you. Not that it means anything to you because I know you are probably not listening, because if you are right in your thinking, you probably no longer exist. You were a convinced agnostic, and along with Mom, you seriously fucked with Betty Ruth over her wanting to be religious and cut her off when she got married. Me, I don’t mind. I believe in God and an After, and that was always good enough for me, though it was rough as a kid with no Christmas tree and passing on the Passover.”
“Sometimes, it is the spirit of the occasion in physically getting together and belonging with humanity, not as an abstract concept you feel empathy for a while watching the television news or reading Time and US and World Reports. So, Dad, it wasn’t about the presents, but I thank you for every gift I can remember.”
Katerina took a long breath, trying hard not to crack, and whispered. “But Dad, I just want to let you know that we had a completely secular service at Weed-Corley, with no rabbinical involvement. That would have pissed Betty off had she understood, but I believe she guessed that was the case, which may have been why she chose not to go on leave from the army.
“Burying you in Kilgore was fun—your high school buddies struggled with the casket, and Mom and Bubbe got their feet tangled up trying to sit at the outdoor service. We laughed. That moment cracked open the hard shell suffocating us in mourning you. Your old boss ignored your requests about flowers, but the wreath fell off at the first whiff of a breeze—that’s why I believe you were wrong about the hereafter, Dad.
“I met people who knew you as a kid, and they all said I look like your mother. Hmm, I guess I should. I am, after all, a girl, and Bubbe certainly was one.”
Katerina looked around her to see if anyone heard before raising her eyes again to the sky. “Mom’s drinking. She isn’t handling this well. I don’t know what to say about that. You would know about her more than I ever will. Which I wonder about now that you are dead, and I want to ask: How is it that you would fall in love with a woman so distant and cold? I mean, she cried. A lot, I must add, but ever since your first heart attack, she slowly stopped being Mom, and slowly withdrew to Mrs. Linsky, Katerina’s mother. Now, she’s acting bitter before her time.
“Thank God—oh, sorry for mentioning Him—I’m here in Houston, at Rice. I also want to tell you ….”
Katerina sighed, thinking there was so much more to say, but she was exhausted already and wanted time to escape from thought. She fumbled in her pocket for another cigarette and walked around the pool while lighting it. She stubbed it out on the walkway, placing the butt in her pocket.
She turned and padded to the entrance of the Rothko chapel.
While the Rothko chapel was a place of meditation for many, for Katerina, it was a mausoleum, dense in its low octagon, bricked with stucco, thick, heavy like photographs of Normandy gun emplacements.
Upon entering, if you hit it at the right moment, you were struck by the low rumble of kettle drums and sad violin music, the theme music composed especially for the chapel by Morton Feldman.
The Rothko chapel, with its three black triptychs and fourteen paintings altogether, art so physically demanding and emotionally draining for Rothko that he was reduced to supervising others as they created it, was the place to dwell upon the collective unknowable history and figures of the conceptualized dead Linsky.
Katerina entered, crepe soles quietly swishing on the reddish slate tiles amid violin and silence.
She was alone. Surprisingly few entered the chapel unless it was for an event.
A long dark wooden bench inside the entrance had stacks of religious tracts and holy books from every major religion and books and pamphlets in various meditative forms. Further in, Katerina was surrounded by the paintings: black, black-purple, and black, thickly layered, giving her every visit since childhood energy she thought was not a negative, or dark in the western sense definable metaphysical evil, but instead a throbbing vein of sorrow.
For as long as she could remember, Katerina would instinctively raise her arms, crossing them across her chest, holding her shoulders by her fingers, taking a deep breath, and close her eyes, breathing, sucking the air around her in, exhaling before relaxing and dropping her arms. Finally, her senses overwhelmed, and dizzy, Katerina found her way to the benches neatly placed in a circle in the center of the chapel, under the light of the cupola.
She sat in front of her favorite triptych, a trinity of infinite purple, nothing textured so profoundly they seemed to draw Katerina in with a familiar and kind embrace, signifying souls Katerina acknowledged, and they, in turn, accepted her in their presence. The Foster Grants are safely in a pocket, the music from the soundtrack playing with choral acting in response and counterpoint to the violin. She stared deeper, searching again for faces, their stories.
Bubbe had left Austria without photos, and while she received some letters, they stopped at Anschluss. Papa Linsky didn’t fare any better in the family history department either. Ancestors became fading memories, stories for their now long-dead son, totems of vengeance and expressions of identity for one granddaughter, and a mystery to be plumbed by the other, who felt she was finally grappling with the contradictory nature of her own sense of self. Who Katerina was, and where was that leading her.
Looking today, searching to find from within herself the solace of validation and mourn more than her father and families wiped away without a trace and the life she had until a few months ago.
Maybe that was the point of me being here today, she thought. My name is Katerina Lin—okay, Katerina Mildred Linsky. I know you are there. I know all of you are in there. So tell me you are—please.
Katerina raised her palms toward the center painting, sliding off the bench, falling to her knees, staring intensely into the dark hues of thick brush strokes, following the patterns of movement, the congealed bits of paint, the spaces missed exposing the undercoats, her eyes searching for signals within the near uniformity of color within the grooves left by bristles.
“Where are you, Dad?” Katerina whispered, staring through spread fingers, topped with purple painted nails, her class ring dull bronze in the dimness of the light inside the chapel.
She felt nothing. In attempting transcendence within the painting, Katerina felt she found nothing but water and stone instead of the beyond. She hoped to connect and communicate with her Dad, or at least know he was there, not a series of memories that seemed to be rearranging and fading less than four months after he died.
These paintings, architecture, and places were intended windows to infinity, but Katerina’s conclusion from her pilgrimage was a physical manifestation of nothing, the expression of oblivion, and not the hope of life.
She accepted Dad was no longer sitting at his desk at home in MacGavin Heights, looking over blueprints and the sketches of houses, and developments, signing checks and writing notes in his business journal, but Katerina was not prepared for his absence.
He wore the coat she had on; traces of his aftershave remained, but not him. He was not in the skin, not in these old sunglasses, and he was not in the painting, in this chapel, in Houston, or buried with his body in Kilgore, in the space first to be used reserved for him. Papa, Bubbe, Mom. Their children: Betty Ruth and Her.
Nowhere. Nothing. Ceased. Dad is the First.
Exist. Blank, rotting, fading, disappearing; an unwritten story where his character was changed became less detailed with each draft until edited and excised with time.
Katerina placed her hands on her knees, lowering her head to the floor.
She rose and made a circuit before moving underneath a baffled skylight. Staring up, it reminded her of an eclipsed sun. She turned to look at the guard posted at the entrance, making eye contact.
She went to the floor and lay on her back, spreading her arms. She’d done this before, and they let her get away with it as long as there were few visitors.
Katerina stared into the dark baffling and contemplated the vast depths of nil this symbolized until the guard came over and politely told her that it was time to get up.
Mike Lee is a writer and editor at a trade union in New York City and the chief blogger for Focus on the Story. His work appears in or is forthcoming in Pigeon Review, Flash Boulevard, BULL, The Quarantine Review, Drunk Monkeys, and many others. In addition, his story collection, The Northern Line, is available on Amazon and other online bookselling outlets. He was also recently nominated for Best Microfiction by Ghost Parachute.