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.