Randy Berry and Jewel Beth Davis

June 25, 2008

Randy Berry
Inspiration Piece provided to Jewel Beth Davis

Abstract Realism Or Realistic Abstraction
by Jewel Beth Davis

I love spiders. Well, that’s not really true but I have very amicable relations with them. I’ve just explained this to the members of my writing group. I’m showing my fellow writers a photo of a painting that’s meant to inspire me to write a story. We are sitting in the beautiful old Trustees Room in the Dover Public Library. The table where we sit is mammoth, heavy and solid wood, circa 1920’s. I love the solidity of it, except when I have to move it.

I’ve recently taken on a project to write a piece based on a work of art in a genre different than mine. I write and act, so I’ve been bestowed a painting for my inspiration.

“The painter, Randy, said it’s an abstract painting but it doesn’t look abstract to me,” I say. “See that black thing there in the middle? It looks like a spider. And he’s smiling. Widely.”

“Well, I think it’s an ant. A happy ant. There’s a whole line of ants coming down from the upper left hand corner of the painting,” says Roberta. She pushes her thick black hair out of her eyes so she can examine it better. “Yup, it’s an ant.”

The painting is on my new Mac Book Pro laptop. The colors are deep, intense swaths of yellow, pumpkin, and sage.

“Let me see,” says Peg. She reaches a long arm to the laptop and turns it around to face her. “Yeah, I think it’s an ant. And they’re all marching down from that crawfish onto that papaya that’s been cut in half. See?”


She points to some little round black outlines shapes in the middle of the painting. “Those are the papaya seeds. And that looks like a peach there. Or maybe a melon.”

We all three lean in even closer, peering at the screen. The fourth member, John, is on summer hiatus. I wonder what he would make of this. I’ve made the painting as big as I can without distorting the work.

“Spiders and I have always gotten along,” I say. “Well, maybe gotten along is too strong an expression. We live and let live. They’re always in my bathtub or shower stall. I’m very careful never to wash them down the drain and they don’t bother me. I always talk to them. I always call them Pidey. I say, ‘Hey, Pidey. How’s it going? How you doon?’ They seem to like that.”

“Wow, I have arachnophobia,” Peg says. “I’m deathly afraid.”

I’m really enjoying the fact that my writing group is so engrossed by this discussion. Sometimes I wonder if we’d rather talk about anything rather than deal with our writing. Writing with honesty is difficult. Being critiqued is painful, often brutal.

“I used to be afraid of spiders when I was young. I don’t know what changed me. But spiders are good bugs,” I tell Peg. “They eat all the bad ones like horseflies and mosquitoes.”

“Yeah, that’s true,” Roberta confirms. “They’re gross but it’s good to have them around. They’re necessary.”

Everybody says that about spiders, that they’re gross, but beauty is a relative thing. They don’t look ugly to me.

I have no idea why I’m on such good terms with spiders. Sometimes they get trapped between my sheets and I wake up the next morning with two huge red spider bites on my belly. They’re painful. Still, I don’t get angry.

I think back to my yoga class this morning. Heidi had us with our legs spread as wide as they’d go as if they’re attached to a torture device. She put her hands on the floor between her legs, her fingertips barely touching the shiny wood. “Pretend your fingertips are spiders and creep them gently forward along the floor,” she said. “Away from your bodies.”

The word “creep” is always used when referencing spiders. Well, how else can you walk if you’re given that many long legs? As far as I can tell, they don’t creep around much unless they’re trying to get away from the shower water. They seem to like it damp.

Peg says, “A few years ago, two enormous spiders, the kind with the thick hairy legs, came to live on my front porch. One in the right corner and one on the left. I was petrified whenever I walked out onto the porch. My husband moved one of them into the garden.”

“Yah, but,” I say, “What happened to the other one?”

“We left that one there,” Peg responds. “Because I actually felt, for the first time, a bit less afraid and I had developed a strange fascination for the beast. It was hanging out in its web, waiting to catch the moths that were attracted to the porch light. I didn’t want to disturb it.”

“Ahh,” Roberta nods sagely.

“That’s good,” I say.

“In New Hampshire,” Roberta says, “People always seem to be talking about not killing bugs.”

We all have roots in NH and Massachusetts.

“In Boston,” she continues, “This conversation would be going very differently.” Peg and I nod and murmur agreement.

We all go back to looking at the painting. I will it to telepathically tell me what to write. Thus far, I’ve had no lightning strikes of illumination.

“That’s a great idea for a writing prompt,” Roberta says.

Sure, she can say that. She’s not the one with the vacant mind. “Amy, my friend from school in Vermont, thought it up. She’s pretty smart. I’ve no idea what impelled her to come up with it.”

“Would you mind showing it to us when you’re done?” Roberta says.

“Okay, but there’s a time limit on it. We’re supposed to do the whole thing in two days. No real time for feedback.”

“The colors are wonderful. So rich,” Peg says.

“Mmmn, they’re yummy colors.” But how do I describe them? Maybe they’re different shades of butternut and acorn squash. Lots of sage green and buttery yellow too. And now that I look again, there’s watermelon coral and pomegranate.

“Food colors,” says Peg.

“I wonder why that spider looks so happy,” I say.

“Probably because it’s walking all over delicious fruit,” says Peg. We savor that idea for a moment.

“Good point,” says Roberta.

“Those two on the upper left corner look like they’re watching television,” I say. “The big spider in the middle looks like he’s dancing.” Like a Hasid on the Sabbath, I think.

What is abstract to the painter appears to be completely subjective and representational to me. And to my friends in the 4-C’s Writers Group. We each have our own interpretation of the shapes but we’re convinced they are real objects and living things.

I keep coming back to the same question. What is a joyous dancing spider/ant doing right in the center of this rolling landscape of luscious colors? The answer: even spider/ants can be happy and glowing with beauty, despite the negative way they’re usually described.

We three writers bend our heads over this painting, our imaginations spinning sugary webs of words and thoughts that shoot sparks intermittently.


Randy Berry
Acrylic and collage on paper

Painted using Jewel Beth Davis’s story (below) as inspiration

Clothes Encounter of the Fourth or Fifth Kind
by Jewel Beth Davis

I look into the three-way mirror at Macy’s and am horrified. My beautiful body that I work so hard to keep in shape has betrayed me. I say aloud to no one, “There’s a small person living in my stomach.” It’s funny but it’s not. I look like that guy in the movie “Alien” who had an entire person inhabiting his abdominal cavity.

I’ve come to Macy’s to look for a dress for my niece Anna’s Bat Mitzvah. I am flying to Atlanta in a few weeks for an over-the-top Southern version of the Jewish rite of passage that, until the 1960’s, had pretty much been reserved for Jewish boys. Now, the female version of the ritual, the Bat Mitzvah, had caught up and even surpassed the Bar Mitzvah, especially in Atlanta among my brother’s attorney colleagues. I have to have outfits for each occasion of the weekend. There’s the Friday night Shabbat service, the dinner at a lovely restaurant with the cousins afterwards, the Saturday morning Bat Mitzvah service, the Lox bruncheon that follows it at the Temple, the Saturday evening party at the beautiful lodge on the river that goes into the wee hours, and finally, the Sunday morning brunch for close friends and relatives. I have to look good. It’s important to hold at bay the attacks on my self-esteem that occur every time I visit Atlanta. I haven’t had a boyfriend in almost three years, which my brother Michael never fails to remind me of. I’m well past childbearing age and everyone I see in Atlanta has family and is starting on grandchildren. I’m an adjunct professor with no savings. I rent, don’t own. No matter how good I feel about my life, my anxieties about my personal failures are ongoing backwashes of acid reflux that accompany me on each trip to Atlanta.

I try on a black silk strapless that two years ago would have been breathtaking on me. This time, I just look as if I am pregnant. I’d wanted to become pregnant for the last twenty-five years and never had. Now, I look as though I am, without the kid bonus. What is going on with my body, I wonder? Why has it suddenly taken on this strange shape?

I try on a lovely blue satin form fitting column dress, another style that had always flattered me as I was very curvy and looked great in clothes that hugged my body. Now, I resemble a stuffed blue sausage with a protruding growth.

I’d danced ballet and jazz most of my life and maintained a slender, muscular figure, even up to the age of fifty. My best feature had always been my tuchas, rear end in Yiddish. All three of the Davis kids had booty. I still do. I still ask friends to punch it because it’s hard as a rock. My legs are long and curvaceous with a small ankle. My thighs are big but pure muscle, no fat. My arms are well defined with none of that skin that continues to wave goodbye even after you’ve stopped. My neck is long and leads to shapely breastbones, and the girls are still round and firm.

I still exercise every day. I take a yoga class four to five times a week, power walk, lift hand weights, and do crunches, bike ride, and ballroom dance at least twice a week. Now, in my mid fifties, it’s all still there. I’m still working it. All except for one thing. I have a stomach that’s shaped like I’ve been gestating for six months.

I try on six more dresses at Macy’s, each one more traumatizing than the last. I keep looking in the mirror thinking that it’s a hoax, that if I look enough times, this anomaly will disappear. I’d been counting calories for the last three months, 1500 a day. I write down everything I eat. I should be losing a pound a week. Nothing. I eat NO junk food. I eat only healthy fats. Tons of fruits and vegetables. Only lean meats. I don’t drink alcohol. Except on Passover. Four glasses. I’ve maintained a stable 152-154 pounds for a year and at 5’5”, I’ve lost an inch of height. Last year I was 142-146 lbs. What’s the deal? I should be a cool 130-135 pounds.

Listen to me, Body! What do you think you’re doing? You’re a freaking digestive Benedict Arnold! You’re the Saco and Vanzetti of the Stomach. You are not behaving in a logical or just manner. What more do you want me to do? Why don’t you just leave? No one wants you here, Stomach. You’re not invited. Take a hike!

I remember I purchased Spanx foundation garments for my MFA graduation in January. I’ll have to root those out before I pack for Atlanta. Foundation garments. What a load of hooey that is. They’re girdles. What does a foundation have to do with it? They’re “Suck-Ins.” They’re “Breath Disallowancers.” Why can’t people just be direct? Don’t sell me. Don’t handle me. Just say it in plain language. You’re fat. You have a huge stomach. You need a girdle.

“Is everything all right in there? Do you need anything?” the sales woman calls through the door.

Shoot! I must have been voicing some comments out loud. I’m getting more and more eccentric every day. Yesterday, I lost my balance, tripped over my own feet and fell hands first onto a bunch of pebbles and the center of my palms bled. One of my students asked me if the marks were stigmata.

“Fine. Just fine,” I respond in my sanest voice, smiling into the door. “Still have things to try on. Be out in a minute.”

“Take your time,” the saleswoman replies.

“Yah, right,” I say sotto voce.

“Excuse me?”

Jeez, she’s still there at the door. I decide to pretend not to have heard her and maybe she’ll leave.

I re-try two of the dresses. Both are empire waists, both are floaty. One is white with a black silky tie encircling the bodice and falling straight down the front. The other is built similarly but is black with gold and silver flocked velvet. They are absolutely beautiful dresses that look terrible on me. And although they look terrible on me, they look better than anything else I’ve tried on. Maybe the long silky tie down the front will hide my bulge or distract from it. And get this. Macy’s is having an 80% off sale and they’re only $20 each. So I buy them both. If, in some parallel universe, I lose even five pounds, they’ll both look great.

This shouldn’t be happening to me. It should be happening to all those people who eat loads of lard-covered fries, greasy burgers, chips and Dunkin Donuts mochaccinos with donut sticks. I eat only olive oil and avocados, for cry-eye! I’m so good. So healthy. Why must my body be so treasonous just because I’m over fifty? And what’s all this about a stress hormone Cortisol? Who came up with that? I don’t feel bad enough about myself already but now I have to feel guilty about having too much stress, which is causing all the bulging around my middle. That’s insane. I exercise all the time and meditate. How can I have too much stress? And now I have to worry about all this subcutaneous abdominal fat causing heart attacks and cancer.

People tell me things. About themselves. My gynecologist told me that she didn’t lose her stomach until she came off the anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication. She’d had a really bad marriage and even worse divorce so she had to take psychotropic medication. But now she’s better so she stopped taking it and her stomach flattened out. Well, goodie for her. I can’t come off. I’ve had a serious chemical imbalance my entire life and the last ten years have been the first time I’ve ever felt capable of handling the stresses of everyday life. I feel balanced for the first time and I’m not plunging myself back into a deep depression to lose my stomach.

Liposuction is an option. Too bad I’m an adjunct professor and don’t make enough to afford it.

The other night I was sitting at my friends’ Marsha and Ben’s table in a condo overlooking Portsmouth Bay. Marsha’s mom, Evelyn, was at the table. She’s known at the synagogue for asking who you are every time she sees you. She has Alzheimer’s or some other memory loss syndrome; she’s ninety-seven after all. She has plenty up there to forget. We’d slowed down eating and I was talking about this story I was working on. About my stomach. I was rubbing my belly and pulling and pushing at it as I sometimes do when I’m disgusted and fed up.

I said to Marsha and Ben, “ So why am I writing about my stomach? Why do I envision an alien living in there?” I talk it out sometimes when I’m writing and it often helps clarify my thoughts. “I mean, why does it bother me so much?” I didn’t really expect an answer. I spooned more chicken chow mein onto my plate and picked up my chopsticks.

Evelyn’s mom said something so softly; I couldn’t hear her at first.

“What? What did you just say?”

“Nothing,” she said. “It’s not important.”

But I knew it was, so I hoched at her until she spilled it.

“I said that it’s important because Marsha and I had babies in our stomachs but you never used it for what it was meant.” And she sat there in her chair, a small grey haired woman, her face a blank slate. I just stared at her. She’d no idea how momentous her comment was.

There it was. So simple.

I am so bothered by the way my stomach looks because I’ve never had a child.

The end. Finis. Exeunt. What more is there to say?

“But I’m probably not right,” Evelyn says.

“No!” I say. “You’re right! You are no dope, that’s for sure.” I’d been screwing around in the forest while Evelyn, though she can’t remember who I am from visit to visit, identified the tree.

I feel betrayed, by my body, by my age, by science, by this society, and especially by the marketing mavens of this country. They’re the ones, men mostly, who created Cortisol, liposuction, Spanx, size zero clothing and the diet industry. I bet Jenny Craig is really a man. It is a fact that men run most of the franchises. We know too much. That’s the real problem. About science, exercise, medication, health issues, weight loss, plastic surgery, and psychology. About everything. All this information isn’t doing us any good. And it’s making me even crazier than I was before. So we’re living much longer but with fatter stomachs, heart attacks, strokes, wrinkles, fake boobs, cancer, and best of all, Alzheimer’s and HIV.

All right, the truth is, I feel betrayed by my own choices and lack of them. By the child I never had or was blessed with. Aside from that, what I still want to know is, who is the alien being living in my stomach and how do I give birth to him?



  1. I love these stories. What an interesting concept. Looking through the eyes of two artists. I hope we see more from this writer in the future.

  2. Thanks so much for your story. Your story is my story, although my body was altered by four pregnancies and plenty of carbs. Last year I looked like a sausage stuffed into an sheath for my niece’s wedding in Aruba. Another wedding looms on the horizon, so I am going to be reliving your dress trials at Macy’s come next week. Even though the nuptials will be held on a farm, I don’t want to be a sausage ever again.

  3. Jewel Beth Davis,
    We met at Audery and Irwins place and you suggested I look at your website and I suggested you look at ours.
    I enjoyed your essays, especially the one about the spider. I wish more of our friends would write rather than call on the cell phone. I set aside time most days to practice my writing skills by creating short stories. I send them to my close friends for their entertainment. Do I ever receive any in return? I think you know the answer to that question, no.
    If I would stop writing if it was not for the fact that I should practice and I do enjoy creating lives for my characters to live.
    Thanks for the entertainment I received from your stories.
    Stuart Wisong, author of Angel Come Home.

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