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Short Story | davelovell.net

Short Story

 

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,

“Joie, …Trou­vee”

 Posted by at 9:03 am

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