She Paints

She paints people. It is a hard job, because people are so full of light and shadow and color that they cannot fit fully on one canvas. Today she is painting the man who stands behind the counter at the bodega on the corner. She sets herself up on the sidewalk. The easel leans just so, the canvas propped against it, her spurt-stained palette and rags and brushes in a jar all crowded by her feet. She does not sit, because when you paint as much of a person as you can fit on a canvas, you cannot be comfortable. Besides, when she looks so closely at somebody else that she can see the color of the pulse beating in their throat, she tends to forget to feel her own feet.

The man does not see her, but she does not intend him to. The artist has to find out about him when she paints. If he sees her watching him, the awareness of being watched will cloud him over. She needs a clear view, because even when she sees perfectly, her painting will only be a jumble of colors. People don’t look hard at her paintings, hard enough to see everything she’s making with them, as hard as she has to look at people in order to make them. So she angles her easel and watches the man in the bodega for a while. She starts to sketch without looking at her hand or altering its jabs and scratches across the white. She just watches the man and moves, making the shape of his head, adding in the curve of the hollow of his throat, twitching back his hair where his ears stick out. Only after she has darkened the shadows to her satisfaction does she pull a paintbrush from the jar and stand back, studying what she has done.

She paints in a fury. His skin, his hair, the color of his eyes, the wrinkles in his shirt and around his mouth. Once she has pushed color and form onto the canvas to show what he looks like, she begins to paint who he is. Now the artist studies the lines pressed into his cheeks and the way they jump when he smiles, how they tremble when he frowns. His mouth presses close when he is annoyed, the words caught behind his lips. His hair is smoothed down with a comb because it springs from his head when he gets up in the morning. His hands are small with short fingers and broad palms, and they are cracked and rough with the cold. When he turns his head against the light, the shadows well in his eyes and trace the shapes of bone beneath skin. She paints the blue shadows that deepen when he sighs. She paints the tension corded in his neck when he is startled by a sound. She paints the hope held in his mouth, tucked in the corners, tugging at his smile. On her canvas she shades the sadness he’s accumulated over the years, that he wraps around himself, that makes him shiver. His wistfulness, the ache he pushes away when he watches a stranger smile at someone else. His anger that draws his shoulders into a droop like bone-deep weariness. His bottle of memories, held within, of his children when they were so young that they reached for his hands without thinking. She colors and shades. Her paintbrush rasps and smears, pokes and smudges, carves and feathers across the canvas. She paints his impatience with the customers in the store, his fear and loneliness, his quiet contentment when he watches crime show reruns, his brittle bitterness, his rare fierce joy.

When the painting is finished, it is because no more of him will fit on the flat square of canvas. She can paint no more of him. The artist picks up her paintbrushes in their jar, her rags and her palette, her tubes of paint. She folds up the easel and carries everything, canvas and all, in a jagged unwieldy lump in her arms. When she gets home she lays it all on the sofa, carefully enough that the paint won’t be touched. She goes down to the bodega and buys a carton of eggs to make herself dinner. She eats standing over the sink.

On some days, the artist tries not to paint. It is exhausting work. She leaves her brushes and canvasses leaning in a corner and does something else for the day. Inevitably, always, the turn of someone’s wrist or the flicker of someone’s eyes will pull at her, and she will wish for her colors and brushes again. She will get on the train and go home, where the paints are waiting.

After the Yellow Moon (Painting Futures)

Later, Mason thought that perhaps his paintings showed all sorts of moments. He recognized the coffee cup in Starbucks that he picked up by mistake and the brush of someone’s fingers against his hand. He saw his painting spread across the street when he walked to work, cramming a bagel into his mouth and leaning on the ache in his shins like any morning. Then, of course, he burned himself on his coffee and sighed with the pain and the stain spreading. He tripped over the sore stiffness in his legs and hit someone’s face with his elbow. The hospital bills and the apologies spilled out after. He began with an ordinary moment, but the painting didn’t show him the hurt that colored it.

When Mason was working, and his brush dabbed and smudged the world together, he couldn’t feel it at all. There had been no heartbreak in the oily light of the yellow moon. When he squinted his eyes to watch the coffee cup take shape, he didn’t have any sense of the spill, of the heat searing his flesh, of the warmth in his cheeks as all thirty people crammed into Starbucks turned to watch him curl in pain and swear like a stained sailor. That only happened in the moment. All he could do was watch it turn into something he hadn’t expected, hadn’t meant to draw and paint and smudge into being.

He kept painting at least once a week, for a while. For months, even. Mason painted the next man, and the one after that, and when he met them he recognized the strokes of their faces from the lines his hand made with the long straight handle of the brush. Afterwards their paintings stayed in his closet, facing the wall. They were easier, hidden away.

He painted getting “let go” at work and the stumbling stutters of three job interviews all in a row after that. He painted a night so steeped in whiskey that the canvas nearly oozed its acrid stink. He only assumed, later, that the shapes on that canvas had happened to him at all. He didn’t recognize the faces or the street. He barely remembered that night at all, except that he’d painted it, so it must have happened.

Author: Vinegartom Image created using Adobe P...

When his paintings came to pass, it was always in a way he didn’t expect. He’d thought, in a vague hopeful way, that perhaps he was getting a promotion. When he finally got a new job, he had never painted that congratulatory call. He smiled at a new coworker, but his brush never traced the answering grin. His canvases stretched from one tragedy to the next, big and small. There was one canvas that ended up with Alan’s face on it. Mason hoped, with a painful twist in his breath just to think it, that it meant they would see each other again. He realized, eventually, that it must have been his tragedy that happened without him.

After a long while painting, he recognized the pattern. His dreams started bring him to his studio and to tell him to paint a car crash, his mother in a doctor’s office, Alan’s death. Mason put his canvases away. Now he waits to see what the future looks like. He doesn’t paint anymore.

Yellow Moon Future

He couldn’t find himself in the painting. Mason knew he was there. He’d felt the shapes of his head and his shoulders somewhere, and he felt the curve of the light slipping against his skin in the tender smudge of yellow. It could have been anywhere though, anywhere tucked into the details of the trees and the buildings. He’d painted a slow yellow moon precarious on the horizon, fat and round against the deep blue-black of the sky. When he looked at the painting, he tried to look for himself. The moon kept pulling his gaze back, though. It almost shone from the canvas. Sometimes he was amazed at the light that came from the smeared shapes of oil and pigment.

There – maybe he was there, in the corner. What was he doing? Mason squinted, leaned, and smiled. There he was, definitely. Now that he’d found it, it seemed obvious. The light trickling down the side of his neck was a ridge standing out from the painting. It would be bumpy and hard when it dried. He – the him in the painting, the little one – was curled against a tree, fitted into the waves of the trunk. The leaves spread out over him in points of light, like a string of Christmas decorations pinned up on the sky. When he looked, Mason could see his head bent and his arms clenched around his knees. He wondered what he was doing, what he was feeling, when this would happen.

The Moon as seen in Hockessin, Delaware.

As it turned out, it was only the next week. Once the paint dried and he could run his hand across the wrinkly-smooth surface of it, the moon was hanging heavier in the sky. He drove out to see Alan. When he pulled up to the house and got out of the car, the balance of the light on the trees and the shape of the leaves on the sky was suddenly and differently familiar. In his painting he hadn’t noticed that forest there, but when he saw the trees he could see his own strokes curling up the sides and pressing in the shadows. When he got into the house he knew something was wrong.

Alan made him a cup of tea. Mason was fidgeting, at once, his fingers moving to scoop the sugar and turn and pour, as he usually did. His heart tapped a rapid tattoo against his ribs. He watched the steam puff and billow over Alan’s shoulders and thought it might spill down his hunched back, the bony spine that curved toward Mason while the rest of his body reached away. Alan poured, stirred, and turned to bring the cup over to the table. When he sat down, Alan looked into the shimmering surface of the tea and said, “Listen, honey, I want to talk to you about something.”

When it was over and the silence had stretched too long, Mason escaped. He curled and bent like Alan had, like a leaf withering and twisting on the ground in the autumn, like he was trying to fold into himself or wrap around the edge of pain in his throat where he wouldn’t let the tears come. He walked, without thinking, not toward his car. He got to the edge of the trees and listened to the creak of the forest, the chirp of the birds and crickets, the timid crunch of his shoes on the bits of forest carpeting the ground. He nearly walked into a tree. It loomed over him, leaves tipping and straightening in the night breeze like uncertain dancers. Mason knelt and leaned, fit himself against the curve of the tree and nestled into it like a lost lover. He stayed there, huddled against the tree, until he realized that he had painted these moments. A canvas at home was splashed with the colors and the beauty of this heartbreak. He closed his eyes then against the glitter of light on the edges of leaves, the fat yellow moon, the forbidden glow of the windows half-hidden.

The Painter

You will probably never meet the painter. She doesn’t spend a lot of time meeting people. She works a lot.

Have you ever seen a sunset so glorious and rich that you think that the colors have to be made? Someone, somewhere, has to be stirring pots of paint and then swiping a brush across the whole sky. Or have you seen the mountains, with their dimples of shadow and the careful hatch-marks of the trees that bristle against the sky? There are things like that, scenes and places. Bits of the world that are absolutely too perfect to simply happen. That is a true instinct. Those things – the colors, the lines and shapes, the delicacy of the sky brushing the seas – those are the work of the painter.

She wouldn’t brag about it, of course, she’s very modest. Sometimes once she’s finished with a new forest or hill or something she will sit, leaning against a tree and looking at her finished pieces with glazed eyes and a sigh. It’s hard for her to see it, but when she sits for long enough she feels the beauty of what she’s done, and a faint pride that stirs in her breast and nestles deep in her bones.

Of course she loves her work. It’s important work, true and honest work. The world couldn’t do well without it. Because of her there is beauty in the world. Even so – or perhaps because of that – it is exhausting work. When she’s smudged in the last stroke of the rays shed by the sun, or smeared moonlight across the sky, she sinks with weariness. The breath rushes out of her lungs and she folds onto the ground. It’s a long minute before she picks herself back up.

There are places where the painter doesn’t work. Even if you somehow found the painter, you would never find these places. They are frightening, bare and cold. The places she leaves be are small, folded into the corner of a desert nobody has seen or twined through the murky depths of a long lonely river. They are pale and blank like a canvas still waiting for the touch of a brush.

Those places are quiet, and the painter loves them. They do not need the breath of her paint, and they will continue on without it. They will still be as cold and stark as ever, untouched by the relentless beauty of the brightness she has to bring. At the end of a very long day, the painter is tired. She closes her eyes against the blazing beauty of a sunrise, turns from the shadows that stretch long and blue across the snow. When the days are done she longs for a pure simplicity where the colors won’t glare at her.

When she’s done with her work, the painter searches for those places where she’s never worked. She finds the empty hollow of a mountain, or the heart of a forest that’s forgotten to look like anything. If you were to find the painter – and she is hard to find – you should look there. You might find her in one of those white places. She will be curled around her bundle of You will probably never meet the painter. She doesn’t spend a lot of time meeting people. She works a lot.

Have you ever seen a sunset so glorious and rich that you think that the colors have to be made? Someone, somewhere, has to be stirring pots of paint and then swiping a brush across the whole sky. Or have you seen the mountains, with their dimples of shadow and the careful hatch-marks of the trees that bristle against the sky? There are things like that, scenes and places. Bits of the world that are absolutely too perfect to simply happen. That is a true instinct. Those things – the colors, the lines and shapes, the delicacy of the sky brushing the seas – those are the work of the painter.

She wouldn’t brag about it, of course, she’s very modest. Sometimes once she’s finished with a new forest or hill or something she will sit, leaning against a tree and looking at her finished pieces with glazed eyes and a sigh. It’s hard for her to see it, but when she sits for long enough she feels the beauty of what she’s done, and a faint pride that stirs in her breast and nestles deep in her bones.

Of course she loves her work. It’s important work, true and honest work. The world couldn’t do well without it. Because of her there is beauty in the world. Even so – or perhaps because of that – it is exhausting work. When she’s smudged in the last stroke of the rays shed by the sun, or smeared moonlight across the sky, she sinks with weariness. The breath rushes out of her lungs and she folds onto the ground. It’s a long minute before she picks herself back up.

There are places where the painter doesn’t work. Even if you somehow found the painter, you would never find these places. They are frightening, bare and cold. The places she leaves be are small, folded into the corner of a desert nobody has seen or twined through the murky depths of a long lonely river. They are pale and blank like a canvas still waiting for the touch of a brush.

Those places are quiet, and the painter loves them. They do not need the breath of her paint, and they will continue on without it. They will still be as cold and stark as ever, untouched by the relentless beauty of the brightness she has to bring. At the end of a very long day, the painter is tired. She closes her eyes against the blazing beauty of a sunrise, turns from the shadows that stretch long and blue across the snow. When the days are done she longs for a pure simplicity where the colors won’t glare at her.

When she’s done with her work, the painter searches for those places where she’s never worked. She finds the empty hollow of a mountain, or the heart of a forest that’s forgotten to look like anything. If you were to find the painter – and she is hard to find – you should look there. You might find her in one of those white places. She will be curled around her bundle of brushes, smudges of paint on her hands, surrounded by the eerie blankness and smiling in her sleep.