A tribute to artists and the homesick everywhere. Projects like Vexations wouldn't be anything without artists.


Hot, dusty desert air blew over Vex as she stepped out of her cab and shut the door. When Blake had mentioned Scottsdale, he hadn’t mentioned exactly where in Scottsdale the house was situated. The dark and gravelly curves of the McDowell mountains rose up behind the white adobe house like looming colossal giants, sleeping underneath the blanket of the too-blue afternoon Arizona sky. Shielding her eyes against the glare, she could see the reddening rocks of Red Mountain jutting up from the mostly flat landscape, surrounded by the hot waver of a puddling mirage.

Katrina von Appeldorn’s house stuck out of the dark, bush dotted land like a diamond in the rough—stark white adobe pocked with hollow black windows and doors. It seemed to be put together in blocks that barely hung together in a planned accord. Redwood verandas and walkways sprouted between them, following the contours of the tan and grey rocks. Vex mused that Frank Lloyd Wright obviously had some hand in the inspiration for the architecture.

She passed under an eave held up by two pillars, garishly designed to mimic copper saguaro cactuses, and rapped on the door.

At first blush, Katrina von Appeldorn looked like a girl aged into a woman’s body. She wore a loose-fitting shirt that dripped over her features and sweatpants that revealed extremely pale bare feet. The woman’s face sculpted around her broad smile and large eyes, an effect accentuated by a bit of blue paint that smudged across the bridge of her nose and onto a cheek. The hand that opened the door had its fair share of various colors of paint splattered on it.

“Hello?” the woman at the door said.

Her voice sounded breathless, as if she had been caught in the middle of calisthenics.

“I’m Vex Harrow,” the cabbie said. “We spoke on the phone just a few hours or so ago. I wanted to ask you about your childhood home?”

The woman blinked once, twice, and stood woodenly for a moment, like a statue. It took a few seconds before her features melted into the semblance of recognition and emotion. Surprise lifted the corners of her mouth. “I didn’t expect you to come,” she said. She noticed the paint on her hand and started to try to wipe them off on her sweats. “Please, come in.”

The indoors bore a remarkable resemblance to the outdoors. Mostly in that the ceiling was painted sky blue, with wispy white clouds delicately brushed onto them; the walls also depicted a vast, panoramic desert scene, replete with red rock mountains, cactus, and distant horizons. The hardwood floors displayed carvings of various animals, glossed over with lacquer, etched detailed enough to look lifelike.

Katrina swept over all this without notice. A large covered canvas lay against the far wall, looking almost incongruous against the desert scene. Next to it a large sheet of paper rested on the floor, covered with dollops of various colors of paint, paintbrushes, and cups of water. Obviously a work in progress.

“I almost thought I had dreamed you,” she said, swishing past, betraying an elegance of motion that her outfit belied. “I guess I don’t invite many people to my home on a whim, but you said you had pictures of my parents’ house? Why, it burned down so long ago, I’ll bet they must be daguerreotypes. You do you sound a genuine sort, Mrs. Harrow, so can I see them?”

Stunned by the amount of work that had been poured into this room alone, Vex stood bemused for a moment before realizing that Katrina’s large, dark eyes were on her.

“Oh,” she said. “Of course… Did you do all of this yourself?” She indicated the walls and ceiling.

“Every brush stroke,” Katrina replied. “It took me the better part of a year to finish this entire room. I’m pretty much that way about anywhere I live. I guess that a place just doesn’t feel like it’s mine until I’ve made my mark.”

The brochure had come along with several Polaroids paper-clipped to it. Katrina took them from Vex’s hands with a muffled noise of recognition.

“This is the house I remember,” she said, “but these photos are modern. And… I don’t remember these houses.”

“They’re modern because they were taken sometime this year,” Vex said. “I’ve seen the house in person. I visited there yesterday—which is why I’m here. You mentioned it burned down? Well, I read some newspaper articles saying basically the same thing, but…”

“It still looks exactly the same?” Katrina frowned and flipped through the photographs. “Exactly as I remember it. I was a very young girl when it burned down. To the ground, the insurance company told my parents. An inferno, they said, destroyed it down to the iron nails used to pin the boards together. We were in Florida at the time. My parents made our vacation home into our primary residence and I never thought about it again.”

Vex glanced at the panoramic mural painted across the nearby wall. “The interior of the house is covered with artwork.”

“I painted every inch of that house. I couldn’t stop myself,” she said, her voice lost in memory. “My mother would scold me for using crayon on the wall, and she would make me scrub it clean—wasn’t presentable, she would say. But my father, he indulged me, secretly at first, with paints, pencils, and all manner of other artly tools. Eventually he convinced my mother to let me paint the kitchen. I think with a diamond ring.

“Free from fear of punishment, I blew through there like an April storm. My mother loved daffodils, so I painted the kitchen. Covered it with them: green stalks, yellow flowers, and the blue of the sky. Mother didn’t let it show, but I think she was impressed.”

Katrina nodded to herself, Vex listened.

“I think it broke my heart when I heard the house had burned down…” She took a deep breath; her eyes lingered for a long moment on the covered canvas. “Actually, I have another reason that I invited you, even after such a brief phone call.”

She beckoned and trotted across the room to the canvas; upon reaching it she grasped the covering and threw it aside in the manner of a person flinging curtains open to greet the day. The image beneath depicted a wide sky of brilliant, cloudless blue, a swath of emerald green grass and several small trees, and in the middle a house—a house that looked almost unerringly like the one in Mesa.

“I’ve been having dreams,” she said. “Dreams about my childhood home. And then you come to me. I was painting the sky when you knocked. I thought you were my agent.”

“It’s beautiful,” Vex said. “It looks almost exactly like what I saw yesterday.”

“I must go there,” Katrina said. “Would you take me? I’ll pay you for your time, Mrs. Harrow.”

“It would be my pleasure, and you don’t need to pay me.” Vex grinned and gestured to the door. “My lady, your coach awaits… Also, please call me Vex.”

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