The artist as a boy

In the beginning was the canvas, a tabula rasa of promise, patiently waiting for a brush to touch its emptiness and leave color behind. Facing the canvas, the artist chanted softly like the magician he was, conjuring his art. His brush unraveled its colors onto the linen, the man’s voice breathing hope into what had only been possibility, potential.

One moment there was nothing: the next, lines drawn on the canvas, some straight, some crooked, some curved into a circle the shape of a woman’s face, and then a blast of color to fill what was only a skeleton of a thing. Soon there was the splash of a Rembrandt sienna for the woman’s hair, her eyes a dancing Mediterranean azure, a sinopia for her smiling lips. The artist easily worked the oils, his hand and its brush passing back and forth, dabbing an extra texture here and there, molding the paint into the form he desired.

Adam Jarvais, five years old and tall for his age, watched the artist touch his brush to the palette, then stroke the canvas once, twice, three times. His grandfather, who was the artist, made a woman’s chin, then a slender neck and shoulders. Soon the woman’s head was covered with an indigo scarf. Like a cat focusing on its prey, the boy studied the older man. How he moved his arms, his hands; how he stood, his feet seeming to be nailed to the hardwood floor. His Grandfather Peter was a conductor waving his baton, his motions playing the oils like an orchestra.

The fifty-eight-year-old Peter Jarvais wiped the bristles of his brush clean of paint and settled it down beside his palette. Stepping back one step, two, a third, he admired his day’s work, then grinned, sighing an audible “ah” that said he was pleased with what he saw.

He came over to the boy, knelt down to have a face-to-face, and looked deep into his grandson’s eyes. With practice, those eyes would observe the world for what it was and what it could be. He wrapped his hand around the boy’s and stood up and said his usual afternoon, “Come, boy.”

Instead of the daily walk grandfather and grandson made to the lake nearby, instead of the skipping of the rocks across the clear waters of the lake, instead of the daily ritual of tossing the boy into the air and catching him, this particular afternoon Peter led Adam over to a stool. He had arranged it in front of a blank canvas standing lonely against its easel, waiting for the companionship of some colors, a canvas blank as that first morning sky before the gods made the sun fill the heavens with sunlight. Lifting the boy, he stood him on the stool, then went over and brought a table with its palette and brushes back to the five-year-old.

The artist whispered into his young apprentice’s ear, “It’s time to paint.” Setting a brush into Adam’s open palm, he said, “This is your friend.” He stepped behind the boy. He

knotted his young student’s hand into a fist and touched the canvas with the brush. There was no paint on its bristles. Grandfather Peter made Adam’s hand swish back and forth. “Feel the motion,” he said to his grandson, nothing but kindness in his voice. “Feel the air that passes over your hand. Feel the wind that runs with the sea.” T he boy felt the motion, he felt the air across the back of his hand.

“Now let’s gather some color onto your brush.” The older man guided the brush to the palette and touched the tip to the paint, gathering just enough for the brush to begin to have color. “Just a bit more.” He pressed Adam’s hand a little firmer. He lifted it and led brush to the canvas.

“So what if you want to make a horse? All you need do is touch your brush to the canvas before you, and a horse will appear. As if by magic. Your magic.”

The boy hesitated as apprentices are accustomed to do. For they live with fear. Until the fear dissolves with the practice of the doing the thing they do. “What if Grandfather Peter is wrong?’ he asked himself. “ What if I have no magic in me?”

As if his grandfather could read his mind, the older man encouraged his young pupil, “It’s okay, boy. There’s nary a thing to be afraid of. You have magic in you. I know it. All you have to do is trust it like you trust your Grandfather Peter.”

But what if…?

The boy’s hand trembled. He concentrated and tried hard and could not stop his hand from trembling. It shook as the bristles touched the linen stretched before him. An electric charge shot up his left leg through his chest and shoulders and down his arm and onto the canvas. His hand stopped its shaking as a long black stroke became the hind leg of a mustang, and it was running wild and free across the arroyos and through the canyons of New Mexico. Adam was making something out of nothing just like he had seen his grandfather do.

“Follow the brush,” the older man encouraged him again and again. “Follow the brush. It will lead you to the place you are to go.”

So Adam followed the way of the brush. And the what-if never came. Session after session he hummed, “A little dab’ll do you,” and dabbed his canvas with paint. Or sometimes it was “Onward, Christian Soldiers” as he drew lines nice and straight or crooked to create the outline of a very large mountain above a small village in the backwoods of France or some such place.

For eleven years, he kept at the work. Even the accident could not stop him. When he was eight years old, he sneaked into his father’s studio. He was alone. The late afternoon sunlight fell through the full wall window and glanced off the steel blade of the samurai sword on the other side of the room. The weapon drew Adam toward it like a moth to light. He padded across the wooden floor. His hands reached the sword and lifted it out of its setting. What a thing of beauty and power it was.

It was heavy, heavier than he had thought. It slipped from his hands. The blade caught on his sleeve as it fell and bounced off the floor. It nicked his left hand and took his pinkie  and suddenly he was unconscious.

A few days later he was back at the canvas, one finger short on his painting hand, but unwilling to give up on his work. And he became good. Very good. Even his grandfather was surprised at how good an artist he was becoming. Somewhere along the way, he switched from oils to acrylics. Then one day it struck him that something was missing, something very important. Oh, the splashes he threw on the canvas were okay, the dabs were good, and the lines were good enough. But good enough was not good enough he decided. He wanted more.

One lovely afternoon in August, at least Adam remembered it as August; after a rather long session of things just about right and just about perfect, Adam realized what he had not known before. What it was that was missing. What he had been leaving off the canvas. It was the emotion, the feeling. In frustration, in despair at not-knowing the how of connecting his feelings to the canvas and pouring them into his work, he threw his brushes and his palette across the room. They landed at his grandfather’s feet.

 

The Perfect Diet

Have I got a diet for you. It’s guaranteed. A real weight loser if ever there was one. There are just two ingredients and it’s not an expensive diet. I am talking the Bread and Water diet. And not just any bread and water. Make sure you get the newly branded Prison Bread and Water. It will be the ones stamped with San Quentin’s Seal of Approval.

If you are one of those who need help sticking to a diet, we have a very special program for you. It’s a new fangled spa called the Joint and this joint ain’t the kind you smoke. To help raise some badly needed cash, the government has agreed to rent out its prisons as spas. Don’t worry about the prisoners. They are all being paroled.

When you arrive there, you’ll be strip searched. It’s for your protection. It’s to make sure that you are not sneaking food in. If you do get it in, you might be attacked by some of the other inmates when they decide they don’t want to stay on diet.

This new prison system of diet farms is guaranteed to cut the recidivism rate on dieting down to 10%. Recidivism? you ask. Yes, that is those people who go back to their old ways. The Joint uses a new psychological re-education program. It’s called the taser. If you even think about going off your diet while in The Joint, you are tasered.

The great thing about this new system is that the program offers something for everyone. There will be four different rates. For the $100 a week rate, you get to share a cell with a fellow inmate. It allows you to motivate each other. For this rate, you get to join your fellow inmates on the Chain Gang. It’s one heck of an exercise program.

For the self-motivated, there is the $200 a week rate. This pays for a cell all by yourself. Also you get to participate in the many in-house work programs, like the laundry, the kitchen or the warden’s office.

And then there is the solitary confinement rate. It is $500 a week. This allows you to spend your time alone and not having to associate with the riff raff. You’ll get your meals served by a gourmet chef whose recipes for Bread and Water are mouth-watering. On top of that, you get to exercise in the yard all by your lonesome.

Finally there is the Death Row program. For $1000, you will have your own special cell on Death Row. You will be visited by a chaplain. You’ll get a last meal of your choice. Then you’ll be led to the electric chair, where a special executioner will zap those pounds right off you. Some previous participates of this program have lost up to 100 pounds in just one setting.

Now I can hear some of you with your doubts. This program will never work. It’s worked for years for the Russians. It is called the Siberian Rejuvenation Program, better known as the Gulag. Remember the word “Gulag” is Russian for weight loss.

So hurry. Be the first one on your block to sign up. Already we have over 1000 enrollees scheduled to begin the program the first of next month. The program can only accommodate one and a half million inmates.

Short Story Wednesday: Blessed Those Who Mourn; They Shall Be Comforted

Gaby got home around six. Opened her box and took out the mail. Climbed the stairs to her third floor apartment, dog-tired from a day standing before her sixth-grade classes, trying to teach them a piece of music they did not want to learn. Everything her students wanted to learn was out on the streets and not in her classroom.

Rifling through her mail, she found the special letter she had expected for the last few weeks. The one from Carl. She dropped her other mail on the table without looking at it. She lifted Carl’s envelope to her nostrils and smelled it. It had his scent.

She decided she would save it for a treat later. Besides she knew what it contained. A ticket to join him in L. A. She laid it lovingly on the coffee table. Then made herself a cup of tea and concentrated on the work ahead. It shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours to crank it out.

Taking her tea and scone over to the computer, she booted it up. It was Friday night and time for her to respond to the email from her editor. His email contained three letters asking relationship advice. Her editor expected a response from “Aunty Jabberwocky” by Saturday afternoon.

The letters often were several paragraphs long. For each, she gave the editor a required two hundred and fifty to three hundred word response. Most of the time she wanted to respond with “Get a life”. But she didn’t. Her editor wouldn’t like it. He wanted a positive outlook from her. Something to soothe bruised egos and help them on their way.

She opened the email and read through the letters quickly. Though they were each different, they were in many ways the same.

“I’ve been married ten years. Now my husband is cheating on me.” Gaby’s response, in a diplomatic way: “Shoot the son of a bitch.” Advice she would never have followed since she was afraid of guns.

Or “I am seventeen years old and I am so lonely. My boyfriend left me because I wouldn’t have sex with him.” Gaby’s response, in a diplomatic way: “Ask the b/f why God gave him two hands.” Advice she never followed. She had lost her virginity at fifteen, giving it to a seventeen-year-old who wouldn’t even ask her out on a date.

Or “My mother is dating a new man. She wants to know if she should accept his proposal for marriage.” Gaby’s response, in a diplomatic way: “Tell her to accept. It will be a great way to get Mom off your hands.” This too was advice Gaby would never have followed if she had known who her biological mother was.

Sometimes she wondered how she, of all people, ended up doing relationship advice. She was no damned good at relationships. All of hers fell apart.

Four years earlier, she had been looking for a way to bring in some extra money for a cruise she wanted to take. So she answered an online ad for a local newspaper. “Need advice columnist. No experience necessary but the applicant must be able to write.”

Steve, her editor, liked her honesty and hired her on the spot. He figured anyone who had done as poorly as she had in the relationship department would have some ideas on what might work for other people. He slid a couple of relationship books across the desk and ordered her to go read them, then said he would email her the first three letters the following Friday. The answers were expected by Saturday afternoon for the Sunday edition of the newspaper.

In the beginning, she went to work at the job with a gusto that surprised even her. And the relationship advice she sent out was some she got up the courage to take herself. Each new guy she dated became Mr. Possibility. That is, until he became Mr. Dud. Over the four years, she had taken on four relationships, each one looking better than the previous. The first three ended with a thud. Then finally, at forty, she met the One.

Carl had everything she was looking for in a man. He was tender. His jokes made her laugh. He was a great Mr. Fixit. There was never any putdown from him the way the others did. He seemed to be able to read her mind when he would come out with the most outlandish suggestions. If she had believed in soulmates, Carl would have been hers.

He was twenty-five. But it wasn’t a problem for him. He told her that older women always attracted him. The younger ones, the ones his age, fell flat. And he felt like he and Gaby were perfect for each other.

When they first met at a dinner party, Carl had done several small roles in avant garde plays. For the year they were together, his skill as an actor and his roles grew. A month earlier, he had gotten a role in the pilot for a new series. It was to be shot in L. A. If it panned out, he told her that he would send for her. No use for her to give up her job if the pilot was not picked up.

So here she sat at her computer, writing relationship advice, and not sure where she stood. At least, until tonight and the letter. The letter on the table.

She finished her email, then hit send and off it went to Steve for the Sunday edition. It was back to the kitchen nook for another cup of tea.

While she waited on the water to boil, she picked up the envelope with his letter and her ticket to paradise and smelled it once again. His faint odor, the odor of the earth, wind, water and sun. Just one whiff of him was enough to drive her into ecstasy. The kettle whistled. Like a train whistle, she felt lonely would soon be long gone.

She pulled out a bag of mint tea, her favorite, and dropped it into the cup. Over the bag she poured the hot water. She waited for the bag to steep in the water. Her waiting seemed like an eternity. The cup of tea was ready. She walked it over to the coffee table, set the tea down and settled on the sofa.

Her trembling hand picked up the envelope. She sliced it open with her letter opener. Afraid to touch its contents, she shook them onto the table.

Five one-hundred-dollar bills fell out.

She shook the envelope again and nothing more. She ripped into the envelope. It was empty. No letter. No note. Nothing. The envelope had contained only the five hundred dollars Gaby had lent Carl to go off to California for his pilot.

Her body slumped deep into the sofa. She did not feel pain. She did not feel her heart break. She did not feel the loneliness.

Where once there were dreams, there was now only emptiness. Where once there was hope, there was now only a void. Where once there was a woman, there was only an old haggard body, ready for the Angel of Death to carry her off not to Paradise and not to Hell. To limbo, that gray netherworld where lost souls go to live out their forevers.

Across the room and on a bookcase, she spotted a black case. She tried to pull herself together but she could not. Her body sunk deeper into the cushion. She pushed herself off the sofa and onto the floor. If she could reach the case, everything might be better. Her hands pulled her dead body closer and closer to the bookcase. Finally she reached it. She raised her arm, her hand barely touching the case. She strained and managed to make the case fall onto the floor, almost hitting her in the head. She pulled her body up against the wall and unsnapped the black case.

In the case was a trumpet. She lifted it out of the case. She took the Yamaha 14B4 mouthpiece, spat into it, then rubbed it dry on her dress. She inserted it into the trumpet.

She managed to get herself into a standing position. The trumpet somehow gave her the energy to make her way to the window. The world of the city stood before her, and a lightly lit street below. A drunk stumbled out of a bar and into a dark alley.

Gaby lifted the trumpet to her lips. At first, nothing came out of the brass instrument. Then a little peep. Pretty soon she had that trumpet making a sound, and then more sound.

The sound she played filled her body, each breath giving the trumpet more sound. Soon it went to that deep secret part of herself that she had shared with no one, not even Carl. She became the sound and the sound became her, a requiem rising toward the heavens, mourning for what had been, a grief for what never was.

She breathed into that trumpet the way God must have breathed into the first man. The music became a living thing. She was in the deep water of the sound she played, heading further and further out to sea.

Her neighbors, who were prone to complain about any noise, did not complain. For some, the music sounded as if it was announcing the Second Coming. For others, it reminded them of all the loses they had ever had. For still others, it was the most beautiful noise. The music reached down into each of their souls and made them feel as if they had never felt before.

The music ascended like incense rising into the heavens, and the angels wept. It was that kind of noise.