My first attempt at writing a short piece of fiction…
“Joy of Painting”
Everything was as the artist would have it. His early morning stroll allowed him to see the world before everyone else entered in, as if it were a private viewing, only admitting those who could truly see. The just-rising sun was bringing out the perfect collection of color along the low horizon of the eastern sky, no need to change a brush-stroke. The trees gushingly displayed fresh leaves that had been painted in the completely organic greens that only exist for a few days in the early spring. As he continued to walk, he perfected what he saw, a slight dab of titanium white, to highlight the shine coming off a path side flower petal – a quick dash of deep umber, to deepen the shadow of a fallen log.
From within the work, he reached out with his brush to the upper left corner of his pallet for a last daub of burnt orange, to add a touch more fire to the brightening dawn. As his brush came back and swept across the dawn it created a hideous red gash, and the world around him collapsed – he found himself back in the common world of his duplex, standing before the now ruined canvas of what had been a perfect spring morning landscape. The offending red-tipped brush hanging guiltily from his hand. “Why had I put the red so close to the burnt orange, for that matter, why had there been red on my pallet at all?”
The artist rarely used red in his painting – much too harsh – he like colors that suggested, not screamed. The color red was a scream – and it always made him feel uneasy. By nature he was a careful painter, never spilled, cared for his brushes and hated the very thought of Jackson Pollock.
As he stood, allowing himself a moment to adjust to being pulled back, a drop of the red paint broke free from the brush still suspended in his hand.
He knew it would never come out. The small dot of fire-engine red paint had taken hold in the cloth of his favorite, ten-year old khakis – and was beginning to spread. “Damnit!” the artist allowed himself.
As was his habit, the artist had arisen early in the morning to stand before his easel in the quiet stillness before the sun stirred the rest of his world. He waited to see if the painting would invite him in, and it had, as it always did, but after the red paint fiasco, he had been forced to make a dent in the growing pile of essays waiting to be graded. His Art History students wrote the essays, and he knew that he would be putting more effort into the grading than many of them had put into the writing. He lived a life of continual displeasure at the fact that he was forced to do anything other than paint – he had his hierarchy of importance, but this world seemed to have a very different one. And so to make his way and keep himself in paint and canvas, he spent an inordinate amount of his time teaching about other artists.
The grading had made him feel a little weak, like he got in the late afternoon – too long from lunch, too far from dinner. He settled on eating the last of the English muffins he had bought last week, payday only came once a month and it was still six days away. He had thought to save the last muffin for his treasured Saturday morning when he would stand at his easel without having to give himself to anyone or any place and for as long as he liked.
He paced along his wooden floors, unhappily glancing down at the red stain, which seemed slightly larger now, silently bemoaning the fact that it was just another scar from his battles with a world that failed to see who and what he really was. He reached his tiny kitchen, which also served as dining and laundry rooms, took this muffin from the fridge and scanned its shelves for the same grape jelly that he had eaten since boyhood, not from choice or loyalty or even taste – just habit. Not there, he remembered then that he had scraped the last of it out of the plastic jar last Saturday which meant that all he had was the too sweet strawberry jam that had come as one of those gifts you get from a co-worker who possess neither imagination nor disposable cash (probably a math teacher, he thought).
Deflated, he took the bright red jar over to the counter, reached for his knife and waited. He always wondered what to do with the time spent waiting for the muffins to emerge from his shiny toaster; it was like the time he spent waiting for the water to heat up in his shower, or to boil in his tea-pot. Like the stationary man counting beans from one bowl to another in that story by Camus, he wondered what fraction of his life he had lost in these moments – but then the muffins emerged and he felt the urgency to tend to them. If he didn’t act fast they would get hard and he hated that. He swiped his knife into the red jar and smeared it on the first of the two muffin halves – during the second smear a small dollop of the jelly lost its hold on the knife, seemed to float momentarily in the air, and then drop straight down to the same spot on his pant-leg where the paint had formed a perfect, welcoming bull’s-eye. “Damnit!”
Before the horror of a second spill to his favorite pants took hold, the merging of the colors overtook the artist in him. The strawberry red of the jam combined with the fire engine red of the paint seemed to suddenly meld into a deeper and unnamable… — red. He had never been unable to name a shade of color before, and why this one escaped him was puzzlement. Shaking-off the chromatic fascination, he wondered at what karmic violation he had committed to have his day begin is such a manner. He didn’t feel quite right, not sick exactly, just a little off. He was sure it would pass as soon as he got back into the routine that held his life in place.
With his morning desk time and unrewarding breakfast behind him, he pushed on with the rest of his morning rituals. He checked his clothes for the day, which he had selected the night before – that was too much thinking for early morning – and turned the hot and cold faucets in his aging shower to just the right angles. He took the stained khakis to the washing machine, hoping that the combination of stain remover and whatever magic the machine itself was capable of, would remove the red scar. Once the old pipes finally gave up enough hot water to make the shower habitable, he stepped in. He didn’t like this shower, the porcelain was stained from years of people without the sense to scrub away the soap residue, and it had a window – why would anyone put a window inside a shower, he said to himself, as he did every morning. First the hair, wash, rinse, repeat – probably just a conspiracy of the shampoo conglomerates – but he liked to follow directions, then he scrubbed, brushed his teeth and shaved while looking in the supposedly fog-free mirror he had gotten at Target. He liked doing the last two while in the shower rather than standing at the sink, he knew it wasn’t what most people did – but he was an artist, and therefore expected to have his own way with things. As he was washing his legs he shuddered at what looked to be a gash on his thigh, until he realized it was just the paint – or the jam? – that must have soaked through his pants and discolored his skin. As he scrubbed at it with his washcloth, the reddened water running down his calf had an unnerving feel, almost like it was a real wound and it was real blood – his blood – that was pouring away and washing down the drain. After having to scrub for much longer than he thought it would take, the paint seemed gone, but the spot was still oddly red – probably just from the irritation of the scrubbing itself. He chose not to worry about it and get on with the rest of his morning ablutions before the day got completely out of control.
As he began to dress in the clothes that he had laid out the night before, he remembered the dinner date that he had that evening with Joy. They had been dating, somewhat haphazardly on his part, for the better part of two years. He felt that he loved her, and he knew that she loved him, but he had not yet been able to warm to the changes that would come with a commitment. The date made him rethink the clothes that he had selected – she loved the old khakis that had fallen prey to the paint and jam earlier that morning, so he decided to put on what he had planned, and drop his stained pants at the one-hour dry cleaners on his way to school. He could get them later in the day and be able to wear them that night – maybe the day would turn around for him.
As he stood-up from tying his shoes, he felt the room spin, just for a second, and not very hard, but enough to unsettle him and sit him back down. “Damn it,” he sighed, catching his breath and taking stock. While his mind went through what he had eaten recently thinking that some odd food might be responsible for his weakness this morning, he felt his leg begin to tremble – he looked down, and felt the room spin again – Red! The same spot on his leg, panic. As his breathing started to become shallow he realized that it was just his cell phone, he had slipped it into his pocket and the vibration was just an incoming call, the redness just the light bleeding through the cloth of his pants. Relief.
Once he had finished getting dressed, he followed the rest of his morning routine that would end with him in his car headed for school – he re-checked the weather which would decide what jacket he might wear, he packed his papers and laptop into his briefcase, lowered the thermostat grabbed his pants to take to the cleaners and double-checked each door lock. Twice.
Finally in his car, a late model Volvo wagon that he thought properly reflected his slightly sneering view on the priorities of the rest of the world, he worked his way through the gears and followed the route that he always drove to school. It had taken him months to settle on the route that he took that morning, but it had been worth the effort – no interstates, no left turns across traffic and no stop sign intersections, only red lights. He preferred to wait at a light, rather than have to engage his fellow drivers over the question of who’s turn it was – the customs of nods and waves had always been lost on him and seemed a bit too personal. As he turned onto the big divided avenue that his neighborhood emptied onto, he noticed the sky – it had an odd and disquieting hue that morning, and he partially recalled some long forgotten verse, “…red sky at night, sailor’s delight, red sky at morning…” but he couldn’t remember the rest, and besides he now faced a real dilemma. The dry cleaner that he used was on the left (wrong) side of the street. His habit was always to drop off his laundry while driving home from school, and pick it up after school the next day, that put the stop on the right (right) side of his path – an easy turn, in and out, with no traffic to cross. But if he were to have his khakis in time for his date tonight, he would have to make the left turn, now. He had a vague sense that this should not really be a problem, but it was. So he took a full breath, drifted into the left (wrong…) lane, downshifted, signaled and hoped for the best. The rising sun was directly in front of him, so he had to squint into the glare, but he saw no oncoming traffic, hit the gas, let out the clutch and committed himself. Halfway through the turn he felt the air leap from his lungs – a massive red shape cut through the bright yellow of the morning sun and for a moment, the two colors produced at pool of bright red light onto his pant leg. It was a delivery truck, how had he not seen it coming? Some deep sense of self-preservation had taken hold of his right foot, slammed it to the firewall, and accelerated him through the rest of the turn until he bounced into the safety of the dry cleaner’s parking lot. He was surprised to see where he was when he looked up, as his eyes had been unable to look away from his pant leg, and the reappearance of the red stain. When he looked back down the stain was gone, but he looked again a few more times just to be sure. After some moments spent checking his pulse and wondering about his family history of strokes and aneurisms, he took his pants inside to be cleaned.
He felt he was regaining his composure until the man behind the counter reacted to the stain on his pants, “Man, that’s a lot of blood, are you OK mister?” Even in normal circumstances he required great effort to engage in normal banter with strangers and this morning had been far from normal. He replied with a half audible cough, nod of the head and raise of the eyebrows – hoping that would be enough for the dry cleaner. Their eyes met for just a second, and the man behind the counter seemed to sense he was talking to a man with little reserves to draw from, kindly returned the nod, took the pants, and without being asked, stated that they would be ready by early that afternoon. With a grateful return nod, he headed back to his car.
Choosing not to make a Quixote like attempt at recrossing the road, he maneuvered the Volvo down a back alley that opened onto a cross street that led to an intersection with a light that had a dedicated left-turn arrow – he could now regain his chosen route without conflict and arrived safely at school.
His workday followed the carefully constructed contours of his design. His goal while outside of his studio (he was the only one that called it that, since it really was just a classroom with different furniture) was to avoid any needless social intercourse with faculty members who insisted on seeing themselves as his equal. He had never had much facility with languages, but he had memorized ten or eleven French phrases, just enough to be able to pull-off proper condescension. Nor had he ever been able to grasp the modern-day format of idle chat. He never watched the television, which, sadly, disinvolved him from the majority of his societies’ context. (He would have said Milieu) And why he would be genuinely interested in how people that he only accidentally spent time with, had spent their time, was lost on him. It wasn’t that he was rude, he simply existed elsewhere.
Inside his classroom (studio) was a different story; he treated his students as fellow artists who were only beginning the long path of a life lived among the unseeing. Regardless of artistic ability, his charges saw the mundane angst of their puberty elevated to the airless heights of true artistic malaise. The world didn’t understand them, and it never would – it did not mean they were flawed; rather, it was the reverse. The worlds that they created – on canvas or in their minds, could be more true than the world they walked around in. For the Artist, there was no need to leave Plato’s Cave, the reflected images were better than the real thing – and you could define reality, as you liked.
As he talked to them of the paintings they attempted, he showed each one of them something true and good in themselves. In response to one student’s deconstructive attempt at a flower vase he said, “…Julie, it’s clear to me that you see through the world to the other side, you see the real stuff of life, trust in that, it will see you through.” Julie never really knew what he meant (or how deeply he believed it), but she didn’t care, because it made her feel better about what she did who she was and what she might do from then on. He loved being with them, and they felt the same way – not a bad way to spend the day.
His day trundled along. His design, aimed at limiting his interactions with anyone but his own students, was keeping everything in order – at least until Ms. Johnson deposited a note at his door; he would have to cover the class of another teacher who had been excused to tend to a sick child. “Damn it.” The fact that his day was going to be ruined by some random toddler’s rhinovirus was going to take some time to make peace with. To deepen the impending sense of doom, the class he was assigned to cover was Coach Johnson’s remedial Algebra I. Mon Dieu! If there was anything that he hated more than Algebra, it was a class full of senior football players, making a less than heroic attempt to pass freshman math. These were clearly not his students – in fact, when applying the High School Social Hierarchy Scale, these students existed at the polar opposite of those to whom he referred to as his. As much as he despised the assignment, it came nowhere near the level of frustration that it would take to cause him to actually speak to an administrator directly. Just another passing shot from an ungrateful world, that struck him square amidships.
And so clad in the armor of the intellectually superior but socially inferior (crumpled khakis and a sweater vest) he summoned what powers he had and launched himself out among the heathen hordes. Après Moi, le Deluge. He burst through the classroom door, handed out the assignment sheets (pretended to take roll, as if he knew any of their names), and to his great surprise and no little amazement, watched them take out their books and settle into their (ridiculously off-scale) desks. Exceedingly pleased at this newly discovered ability to make football players sit-up and fetch, he took out one of his tattered sketchbooks, and lost himself in creating a rather good copy of MC Escher’s “Hands.” In reality, it wasn’t that the football players didn’t want to make him cower before their steroid intoxicated forms – they had certainly accomplished it before (there still had been no sign of Mr. Schwartz, who had last attempted this duty), they had just been caught off guard. The reality of having a target this easy – an actual Art teacher, complete with sweater vest… was just so obvious that it seemed to lock them in place. They just didn’t know where to begin, and so they didn’t – until the kicker came up with an idea about twenty minutes into the period.
Awash in the self-satisfied glory of his apparent control, he had lost himself in his sketching, he was a passable artist with a pencil and it made the time pass. Then he saw it. From the corner of his eye, he picked-up the same shade of red that he had already seen too many times that day. He closed his eyes, dropped his pencil, took off his glasses and gave his eyes a good rub, then repeated the steps in the opposite order. Over confidant in the recuperative power of rubbing one’s eyes – he reopened them. It was still there, bigger and deeper in hue, he thought shakily. He looked down, dismissing a slight murmur from the corner of the room, and his eyes came to rest on the same spot on his leg that had been attacked before. He sat as still as possible, thinking that he could expose the gleaming red blotch on his leg for the mirage it had to be, just by staring it down. Neither blotch nor artist blinked. More sounds from the far corner of the room. Then began a dueling crescendo of his internal panic, and the transient suppressed laughter from the far corner footballers. The crescendo climaxed at the concurrent moment of his realization and the outburst of laughter from the room. The kicker (perhaps trying to make his bones with the real football players) had bounced the blood red beam of his laser pointer off the over-hanging light fixture onto the upper thigh of the unoffending artist. The explosive rage and indignation that might be expected by one such as him, after being assaulted by ones such as those – did not come. The Artist simply dismissed them all to lunch, never taking his eyes from the spot on his leg, which still seemed oddly discolored, at least to him.
It was lunchtime now, although the Artist had never ventured into the “Lord of the Flies” reenactment that was the high school’s cafeteria, he usually brought something to eat in the serenity of his studio. But with the tumult and disorder of that morning, he had simply forgotten – and without possession of a conch shell; he was going without food. The merging of the worldly reality of missing lunch with the loss of blood that had taken place in his reality, he did not have much energy to buoy him through the rest of his day. And so the artist did what he always did when too much of their reality crowded in – he painted.
Safely locked back in his studio, he stared down a fresh blank canvas, for some artists that he taught about, this could be the hardest moment in the life of a painting – for him, it was as easy as opening a door. And so he did, the door in his mind was allowed full swing, and the world that he knew better than the one in which he stood, began to appear. If someone had been able to watch the canvas begin to fill, they would have seen something like a combination of Wyeth and Hopper, not exactly Helga visiting with the Nighthawks, but a slightly desolate urban café – the careful observer might note the thin desperation that nuanced the figures therein. But really nothing more. Not so for the artist – he knew both the place and the people, and more importantly, it and they knew him.
“What have they done to you now!” came the cry from Jean, who ran the café, and revered the work of the artist. “You look like you’ve been bled. Why do you insist on spending time in that world?” They embraced, as was their custom, and Jean seemed to try and gauge just how much life had been sucked from the artist. He settled into his table and awaited the perfectly created espresso, which would appear without having to ask. For a moment he glanced over the walls and saw the well-admired work of his peers, but in the best spaces – he saw his own works. He allowed himself as much time as possible to be pampered by Jean and admired by the other hand-drawn patrons, until the hideous bell that the school used to signal a shift in classes, he knew it would come, but still it was always a shock. Today it seemed that he was being allowed more time with his world, as he refreshed the Holbien Olive, to give Jean a bit less pallor, Jean brought a fresh coffee, and tempted the artist with some freshly painted cakes. As Jean continued to question him again about how pale he looked, and that, really, he needed to see a doctor – he felt an insistent hand on his shoulder. Since he hadn’t painted a hand, he tried to ignore it, but Julie refused to stop. In a brief moment of vertigo, he watched as Jean dissolved back onto the canvas, and felt himself yanked back – to find himself back in his studio, surrounded by the concerned eyes of his last painting class of the day.
Some part of the artist knew that the paint and jelly stain from this morning, the cell phone, the reflected light from the truck and the laser pointer, were not things that caused actual wounds, and that he had not really been losing blood all through the day – but he felt weak and his leg still hurt.
“You just don’t look right, let me call the nurse,” said Julie as she watched the artist deal with the after effects of reality shifting. “You look pale and… wait, when did you start this painting – this one with the café scene?” The artist happily remembered how easily Julie’s attention could be diverted. “I started that last week,” he lied. “No way, Julie shot back, I was in here this morning looking for my IPod, and this was a blank canvas.” The artist considered a number of lies that he might employ, but demurred when he realized what no teacher wants to ever admit – this student was a little brighter than her teacher. He tried a half-lie, “I worked on it all through my free period and the lunch break, guess I just got on a roll.” Julie looked at him sideways, “but you had to sub for that stupid bunch of football players, everyone heard about the laser pointer – so you had to have done all of this just during lunch, and, no offense, its way better than your other stuff.”
The artist was trapped, so he played his last card; “OK – Pop quiz time! Everyone get out two-sheets of paper.” As interested as Julie and the others might be in him, they would always be more attentive to any possible ding to their treasured GPA’s. So the artist had been able to escape having to explain how he had practically filled a 3x5 canvas, with the best work he had ever done – all in less than 20 minutes. Good thing, because he had no idea, and he felt even weaker than before.
The artist had been able to stall for the remaining minutes of that last class, and then with the stars seeming to come into alignment, had been able to leave school, stop at the laundry and arrive at the safety of his home. All without a recurrence of the stain, or any unnecessary human interaction.
Now firmly defended by the walls of his duplex, he could allow the rest of the world to go about its business, and he could tend to his – one problem though; he had a date for later that evening. Evening plans were always troublesome for the artist, more so when he had the time to come home after work. The time in between the coming home and the going out were problematic, (even more so than waiting for the toaster, or the hot water) he liked long blocks of time in the same space. When he made it home from work, he locked his door, twice, and relished the fact that it would remain so until the next morning. But now he was faced with an uncooperative time span, too short to really be home, too long to just go to the restaurant and wait. He knew himself, and he feared that now that he was home, he might lose his place in the reality that had dinner plans, to the reality that he might find on the next blank canvas.
In the middle of his main room stood a very old and overly sturdy, oaken easel – upon which rested a fresh white canvas. The tautness of the cloth and the desolate void seemed to mock his paints – daring him to commit to blotting out the empty space. He knew that taking his palette into his hand and accepting the canvas’ gauntlet, would mean missing dinner, and worse – hours of apologetic conversation with Joy. No, the new canvas would have to wait until the next morning when he would have the entire day to devote to obliterating the insulting void. For now, he would consol himself with a few short minutes spent with pencils and sketchpad.
He knew that his phone would ring sometime around 5:20; Joy finished work at 5:00, had a ten minute drive home and would spend another ten minutes trying to communicate the fact that she wasn’t completely fixated on the artist and this evenings’ date. When the phone did ring, they would repeat a game that she seemed to never tire of – “Where are we going tonight? …no, wait, don’t tell me, let it be a surprise.” They only ever went to three places on their dates, and they had been to each one dozens of times, but she seemed to insist on this attempt at leading him into making the grand gesture of taking her to some place new. He had surveyed every possible eatery within a rational distance, and the three that they frequented were the only ones that displayed art that he could be within view of, and still be able to ingest a meal. It seemed that even with all of the time they had spent together, she had never really bothered to get to know him.
The artist was trying to have a quiet conversation with the pencil-sketched countenance of Edouard Monet, but he had outlined the shape of Picasso at the next table who had become the victim of a ceaseless verbal assault from the half-shaded shape of Modigliani seated across the room. As he re-sketched Pablo so that he could trade assignations with his fellow Cubist, he heard a phone ring, as he realized that he was contextually acute enough not to have sketched a phone into a Parisian café of that period, he felt himself pulled back into his duplex. While adjusting to the change, he felt some justice had been served in allowing Modigliani the last word.
“I just walked in the door,” Joy lied. “Work was a nightmare (he would have said cauchemar), so I’m really looking forward to dinner – Where are we going… no, don’t tell me, let it be a surprise.” Resisting the temptation to award himself points on a sure bet, he blinked his eyes to grab a better hold on his current reality, and responded. “OK, I won’t tell you (quelle surprise!)– pick you up in about an hour?” “Alrighty, see you then sweetie” Joy responded with a voice she hoped masked her indefatigable optimism.
After hanging up the phone, the artist looked back down at the sketchpad, disappointed that he would miss whatever it was that Pablo had been about to say, but looking up, realized that the sketch was just the right proportion for the untouched canvas – now he knew who he would be spending his Saturday morning with, but Friday night came first.
He knew it would never come out. The artist had unwrapped his laundered khakis’ fresh from the dry-cleaners only to find that the mornings’ stain was still visible, at least he thought it was. With no other options, he pulled them on anyway – it was just the way that his day had been going.
As he pulled into the curb in front of Joy’s home, he saw (what he always saw) one of the blinds covering the kitchen window snapping closed. He knew that she waited for him, peeking through the blinds, and then with an ostrich-like understanding of vision and solid matter, she would drop the blind and totter off to the back of the house – the very model of non-expectation. The artist knew that she was desperate to be married, and that she had settled on him – he also found it interesting that she was equally desperate to hide that fact from him. There had been moments when he felt some guilt about the relationship, he knew what she was waiting for but he also knew that he would never comply, at least not in this world.
The artist had painted Joy onto dozens of canvases and was always surprised when she didn’t recognize herself. It would have been different if he had painted her in some three-nosed, disconnected torso, Cubist mess – but he was a Realist. He painted her exactly as he saw her.
He knocked on the door, she had a doorbell, but he never really thought that the tone it used was an accurate reflection of him, and waited. Joy would delay answering to complete her ruse of being interested in other things. “Oh, hey, sorry it took me so long, I was in the back room talking on the phone,” Joy play-acted.
Sometimes she would ask him to come inside and have a drink before they left for dinner, the artist always accepted because of two habits she had that he found both intriguing and bewildering. Once every week, he had begun to suspect that it was Wednesday, she would rearrange every piece of furniture in her house. Sometimes she seemed to be trying to create a very open feel, and in other arrangements it seemed she was attempting to blockade any open path. Why she did this was well beyond the six credit hours of undergrad psych that he had taken, but week after week, he just had to see what she had come-up with.
Her other habit was, as far as he knew, completely unique. Joy was the only person he had ever known who actually rented paintings from the Public Library. He had not even known this was possible, and when they had first begun dating, he had thought that she might be a very wealthy, if tragically uneducated, collector. As she rearranged the furniture week after week, she would also replace the paintings – never their location or number, always four to a room — one wall, one painting. It seemed that she was simply working her way through the library’s collection – alphabetically.
To the artist it seemed that Joy had come to believe that wresting a proposal from him was akin to deciphering some medieval grail code – if she could just stumble upon the right arrangement of furniture with the right combination of paintings… the tumblers deep within the artist would click into place and he would chant out a wedding proposal. He never actually believed that Joy would have thought along those lines, but he had developed the theory during their dates while pretending to listen to whatever it was that she talked about.
The Artist took his seat on the decades-old snow white divan that Joy had inherited from her grandmother, and that he was sure spent the majority of its life incased in a protective plastic slip cover. He found it odd that the room most people referred to as the one for “living,” was usually the least lived-in of all. The Artist smilingly accepted a glass of whatever the latest edition of the Wine Speculator had decried as the best $10 bottle on the shelves today, and did his best imitation of sincerity while listening to Joy recite what she had read about the delightful bouquet of this particular bastard son of the Cote’ du Rhone.
Joy had a penchant for flea markets (tres chic, tres bien) and on her last spree she had discovered a set of four rose-colored depression era glass goblets – the Artist now held one in his hand, and the price would be an additional five to seven minutes of Joy parroting information provided by the new world oracle of the Wiki. It was not that the artist lacked respect for Joy, in fact he was continually astounded by the amount of preparatory work that Joy put into what might be mistaken as casual conversation. She researched in detail and depth, and he knew that any question he might have on the wine or the goblets would be quickly and completely answered. But Joy seemed to lack any unprepared knowledge, and the knowledge that she had amassed for this particular evening would vanish within days – he knew this as he had experimented, asking her questions about previous topics at a distance of one to seven days, it seemed that the knowledge began to dim at Day Two, and was completely lost by Day Four. He knew students like this; they knew the required readings, but the suggested readings, (always the Artists’ favorite) held neither interest nor necessity.
As Joy noticed that the Artists’ glass was almost empty, she reached over to him with the bottle as he extended his arm – and then he saw it. The same blood red stain on the same place of his khakis had reappeared. The Artist reacted with a jerk just as Joy began to refill his glass and the wine poured out, not into his glass, but onto his pant leg. He leaped to his feet and looking down, could not now differentiate between the bloodstain and the spilled red wine that ran down his leg. He thought he might pass out, and steadied himself on Joy’s outstretched arm. A door of escape had opened, and even in his weakened condition, the Artist would not miss the opportunity.
“Really, it’s OK, it was just an accident, more my fault than yours. Why don’t I just run home, change, and meet you at the restaurant, that way we won’t miss our reservation,” he offered.
Joy had been through this before. She and the Artist deciding to go out somewhere but him needing to run by his house first, she placed the odds of him actually arriving at the restaurant at fifty-fifty.
“I am so sorry, and those are your favorite khakis, I don’t know how I could have been so clumsy. Of course, you run on home and change, I will head over to Vent Noir, and hold our table,” she said with all the optimism she could.
Back in the safety of his Volvo, the Artist forced himself to look down at his leg, the dabbing of Joys’ dishrag had absorbed some of the wine, but he was sure that he could detect another, deeper red from the area of the day’s wound.
The Artist felt better the instant that he entered the warm embrace of Café Moreau. He would borrow some trousers from Jean and then meet Joy for dinner, but a quick coffee wasn’t uncalled for. As soon as Jean saw him he motioned the Artist to his preferred table upon which would soon be placed a perfect Café’ Ole’. As he made his way across the room, the Artist allowed himself to enjoy the heads that unabashedly turned his way, watched the veteran patrons point to him and then to the collection of his works that hung on the walls. He noticed that Jean had displayed the new piece that he had done just that day – and wondered briefly as to how Jean had gotten it.
Jean arrived at the table just ahead and pulled back the chair to welcome his favorite customer and Artist. As he sat, Jean pushed in the chair as a neatly coiffed waiter placed his coffee neatly at his hand. He lifted the perfect demitasse to his lips under the expectant and servile gaze of Jean.
Everything was as the Artist would have it.
“What can we do for you this evening monsieur? Jean offered. “So nice to have you visit with us twice in one day.” The Artist slid back his chair to show Jean the stain and ask for the loan of some unblemished trousers, as he did he saw that there was no need. No trace of the stain, neither the blood nor the wine, was visible.
“I hesitate to even guess what they do to you out there, but swear I could see the color returning to your face as soon as you walked through our door,” gushed Jean. “Let me bring you a bit of pate’ and warm bread to rebuild your strength.”
“I would love nothing better Jean, but I only have a minute; I’m off to meet Joy at Vent Noir for dinner,” the Artist offered with unhidden regret.
“But monsieur, there is no need, for Joy arrived only moments before yourself, and…” As Jean was speaking, the Artist caught the image of Joy as she crossed the room toward his table. “…she wanted just a quick coffee before she met someone for dinner,” Jean explained. “Why have you never told us of this beautiful woman, she is the one from so many of your paintings, is she not? Where you afraid that I would steal her away from you,” Jean inquired and teased.
As Joy came closer, the Artist felt as though he was seeing her for the first time. The heads that had acknowledged his entrance now turned to take in the site of a beautiful woman who knew how to cross a room. All of Joy’s self doubt seemed to have disappeared, surely, this women would never offer $10 wine nor rent artwork from the library.
As she glided into the seat elegantly offered by Jean, the Artist struggled for words, “You look…you look, like the way I picture beauty in my mind but could never capture on a canvas.”
The warmth of Joy’s hand in his filled him with a peace he had never known, and for the first time, when he looked into her eyes, it was not to try and dissect the color elements within, but to see if she was looking back. She was.
“I really don’t want to go to dinner,” Joy offered with a seriousness of intent that the Artist had never seen. Without words, he knew that what she wanted was what he had always wanted, but now he wanted it with her.
Jean returned to their table and looked at the Artist with considered expectation, “So, I think now you are ready to go?”
The Artist gazed at Joy across the table and then back to Jean, “Yes, everything is as I would have it.”
She had waited at Vent Noir for an hour before she had given-up and gone home. By Monday afternoon she still had not heard from him. Joy summoned all the courage she possessed and drove to the Artist’s duplex.
As she drove up she saw what appeared to be one the Artist’s students getting out of her car. “Hi, I’m Julie… are you his girlfriend?” Julie asked with the unpolished directness of a teenager. She continued, “He didn’t show for classes today, and none of us could ever remember him missing school – the principle said he didn’t call in sick either. I just figured I’d drive over and see what was going on, he really didn’t seem all that stable on Friday.”
Since neither had a key, they decided to just try the backdoor. It opened without hesitation, which to both women seemed odd for the Artist they knew. They entered slowly, the way people move through a space that they have never travelled in before. Once through the small kitchen, they caught sight of the oversized oak easel that held a large canvas. It was obvious that the Artist was not there, the space had the feeling a room gets when no one has lived in it for a very, very long time. Each woman walked around opposite sides of the canvas, they had different questions, but both hoped that the image would provide some answer.
Julie spoke first, “I think is the same Café’ from the painting of his that I saw at school last Friday, he tried to tell us that he had painted it that morning, but we didn’t believe him – wow, I think this one is even better. I never thought that an artist could get this much better when they are already so old.”
Joy said nothing, but narrowed her eyes to try and read the small text scrawled across the bottom.
Julie continued excitedly, “Look, I think he painted himself into the scene, isn’t that him with the gorgeous woman on his arm about to head out the back door?” Joy felt the blood drain from her face and asked Julie, “Can you read what it says down here at the bottom?”
Julie lowered her gaze and said, “It’s just the title, I guess.”
Joy grabbed tightly to herself and asked, “what does is say?”
Julie responded without understanding,