He hears the sound of fabric as she slides the cloth from the canvas, and then...silence.
He's deadly aware of the silence. It goes on for seconds, then a full minute. This could be a good thing; it could be an awful thing. He tries not to move, but he feels like every time he involuntarily shifts, his clothing makes enough noise to wake a neighborhood.
She takes a deep breath. It doesn't sound like a happy breath.
"Are you serious?"
He's pretty sure it's a rhetorical question, so he stays silent.
"I mean, are you fucking serious?"
It's starting to sound like less of a rhetorical question. She probably isn't considering the nights of missed sleep, the countless hours hunched over the canvas, the time he ignored his growling stomach in order to finish the piece in the time frame she specified. If she knew about that, she would understand that this offering practically crippled him in its making, and her question probably wouldn't sound so suspiciously un-rhetorical. Or, more likely, she wouldn't care.
"Is this what you think I look like? Seriously?"
This one clearly needs answered. He clears his throat. "You sound unhappy with the painting."
"Oh, I'm unhappy, all right! You're supposed to be this great artist, this painter who can see into people's souls and paint their inner beauty. And this is what you saw?"
"In my defense, I've never claimed to be able to look into someone's soul."
"This looks nothing like me!"
"In my further defense, I might remind you that I'm blind."
"Obviously. I saw my friend Kendra's painting, she looked like a frikkin' angel, and I thought you were faking it--nobody could paint something that lifelike without being able to see. But this thing? You've obviously never seen me. It's garbage. I'm not paying."
"If you're unsatisfied with my work, I apologize. And of course, I wouldn't expect you to pay for an inferior product."
"Damn straight. Eric, we're leaving."
He hears her angry footsteps as she stomps to the door, hears her jerk it open, and cringes as she slams it shut behind her. He waits for the inevitable sound of brushes tumbling from the shelf and onto the floor. He's told himself a hundred times to put them back into their rightful spots so that he can locate them by feel, but when he gets caught up in his work, he forgets, and leaves them on the table. And when the door gets slammed, they roll from there to the floor, which provides him with a frustrating game of hide and seek that can take anywhere from half an hour to half a day.
He sighs and makes his way to the table. He hears another set of footsteps and realizes that her assistant is still in the room.
"Sorry about that," the man--Eric--says. "She always has a pretty bad temper, but it's even worse when she stays out too late drinking. Which she does most of the time."
"It's no problem," the artist says. "It happens more often than you'd think. Shouldn't you be following her downstairs?"
"I'll give her a minute to calm down. She'll want to smoke a cigarette, anyway. Her father forbids her from smoking in the cars, so she'll need to get her nicotine fix before we're off to our next appointment."
"Would you like help with those brushes?"
"If you don't mind--I'm assuming it's a little easier for you to track them down."
Eric crosses the room and begins picking up the brushes--the soft scrape of the plastic handles the only sound in the room as he gathers them.
"Thank you for your help," the artist says, both because he truly is grateful, but also because the room needs more sound.
"No problem. You just want them back on the table?"
"So can I ask you a question?" Eric asks, placing the brushes back on the table so gently that it's almost inaudible.
"By all means."
"To my eyesight, you mean?"
"No. With this painting. I've seen your work--if I was the kind of guy who overlooked something like the 'artist of the stars,' I wouldn't be the kind of guy who could hold onto a gig like this. I'm a huge fan, too--not just of the celebrity stuff, either."
"Thank you--I appreciate it."
"And I know you don't always paint just a realistic portrait of your subjects. That piece you did for Beyonce and Jay-Z was...man, that was some mind-blowing stuff. It looked nothing like them, but it still looked, like, exactly like them. I mean, I think that's when people started talking about the blind artist who could see your soul, you know?"
"During the initial interview, I remember thinking that there was no way I could do them justice if I tried to stick with classical portraiture. I wasn't sure if it would work out, but they were happy with the end product."
There's a slight rustle of clothing as Eric pulls his phone out of his pocket and checks the time. "But that's the thing--everybody's happy with the end product."
"Not everyone, obviously. Your employer wasn't too fond of my work. There have been a couple of others who weren't happy with what I'd produced. Of course, I actually showed them the true...never mind."
"The true what?"
"No offense, Eric, but I just don't know you well enough to answer that question."
"My name's Eric Thiesman. I'm thirty-two years old, and when I first started working for celebrities, I thought it would be the greatest thing ever. After three years of dealing with their shallow bullshit and entitled nonsense, I have to end each day by reminding myself that there is actually still good in the world. I have to find reasons daily to convince myself that I shouldn't try to burn the planet to the ground. Incidentally, your work is one of those reasons."
The artist laughs. "I know just what you mean. When I first began getting commissions from the rich and famous, I thought I had struck it big. Eventually, I realized I was just a glorified customer service worker, sentenced to work for the worst customers imaginable. Not all of them, of course. But enough to make my life miserable. That's why I limit commissions to two per year."
"That's funny--I always assumed it was a business move, to keep your product limited."
"No. Can I tell you something?"
"Absolutely," Eric says.
The artist stays silent for several moments, staring at the assistant. He finally nods, a slight smile forming. "Yes, I think I can. I'm good at reading people, if I don't mind saying. And you seem like a good man. A little desperate, honestly, but I think we're all a little desperate, at different times in our lives, and you've done a very good job at keeping the desperation from consuming you."
The artist chuckles. "Here's what I want to tell you: to create is to live. I don't have a business plan to make my work invaluable. I take two commissions each year because I find my wealthy clients insufferable, for the most part. But I don't just paint twice a year. I paint always. I go onto the streets and paint the people walking by. I go to hospitals and paint for the patients. I paint people in bars, in coffee shops, in bookstores. Oh, you wouldn't believe what I can paint in bookstores.
"I don't take all of my supplies, obviously. Sometimes, I work with nothing more than a cheap palette of Crayola water paint and a biodegradable, recycled napkin. The medium doesn't matter--it's the work that matters."
"You're telling me that people like my boss pay you millions of dollars for one of your paintings, and you're out selling them on the street?"
"I sell them every once in awhile. For ten or twenty dollars, so that the subjects feel like they sacrificed something for the piece; they feel like they earned it by trading money. Most of the time, though, I just give my work away. If you're in the cancer ward of the hospital, you don't need money to trade hands in order to feel like you've earned something beautiful, right? The same could be said for life, actually. Doesn't everyone deserve something beautiful, sometimes? I look around, and I see the people dealing with hardships and I give them something to make them feel better."
"So there all these people running around with napkin art that they could sell for millions of dollars? Why not just leak the story, and they could cash in on their art and improve their lives that way?"
"If the market was flooded, my work would lose most of its value. I think it's better to give them something they can enjoy without having to equate it to money."
"But you don't know that for sure."
"No. I don't."
Eric's phone beeps. It's time for him to leave. But other than glancing at the message on his screen, he doesn't move. "Have you ever considered it, though?"
"Telling the world that my art is out there, all over the place? Yes, I've considered it. Here's my thinking: if I told the world that I had millions of paintings out there, the value would drop so that even the common folk who might benefit would only be able to sell them for a few hundred dollars. Not to mention, I'd be out of a job.
"But if I stay quiet, if I stay exclusive, I can continue to sell my work for millions of dollars. And I don't need millions of dollars, Eric. I take that money and donate it to people who truly need it: shelters, hospitals, that kind of thing."
"Look around. I don't have much, here. I don't need much. I get to do what I love, and all I have to do is suffer through two jobs per year, dealing with people such as your employer. And I get to help people who deserve it."
"Who is she?"
"The woman in the painting. She's real, isn't she? She isn't my boss, by any means, but she's someone. I've studied your early work, and I've seen her before. It isn't blatant, but it's there, if you look close enough. Her eyes in some works, her nose in others. You use her when you need to add beauty to a feature. With my boss, you went all out."
"There is nothing beautiful about your employer," the artist says. "I wouldn't have even accepted her commission, had she not offered to pay three times my normal rate."
"You're not answering my question."
"She's a woman I should have painted, but didn't. I loved her more than I've ever loved anything. It was before the accident, before I lost my sight. I wasn't as popular then, because I had no amazing story for people to write about on the internet. But I was still paying the bills doing what I enjoyed.
"I always said I'd paint her, I always planned to. I thought I'd have more time, just like we all think we will. I didn't have as much time as I thought. She died in the same accident that gave me the brain injury that took my sight. I see her every night in my dreams, and when I need to substitute beauty, it's her visage from which I drink, if you want to get all artist-y about it. And before you inundate me with more questions, you should get going--I've heard your phone buzz six times in the last five minutes, and I think it's safe to assume that if you keep your employer waiting much longer, she will no longer be your employer."
"Yeah, you're probably right," Eric says, opening the door. "Thanks for taking the time to talk to me."
"No thanks needed. I don't know if I answered your original question, though."
"You did, and I appreciate it." He pauses once more before going out the door. "But you stopped short on another answer. You mentioned the others that weren't happy with the final piece, and said they'd seen...what?"
"They all saw the actual paintings I made of them. That's why they weren't happy. I learned quickly that when I painted an unflattering picture--which I do, quite often--to keep it hidden. It must be painted--that's the only way to keep the art pure--but that doesn't mean it always has to be shown."
"May I see it? The original piece?"
"I'm afraid not--as much as I like you, I just can't take that risk."
"I understand." Eric chuckles. "I had to try, though."
"I know you did. When you get downstairs, you'll be in trouble. Tell her that you convinced me to come down on my price by ten percent. She'll feel victorious, and you won't get quite the tongue lashing."
"You know, you don't have to come down on price--in a couple of days, she'll calm down and decide that she wants the painting, even if it doesn't look like her."
"I know, but this way, you'll look like a valuable assistant instead of someone who kept her from her next appointment."
"I appreciate that."
Eric opens his door cautiously--he isn't expecting any visitors, and while his isn't a rough neighborhood, there have been a few incidents that keep everyone in the area slightly on edge.
"Package for you. Sign here."
He takes the proffered tablet and writes his name with the stylus. The deliveryman takes the equipment back, points to the large, flat box leaning against the wall of the hallway, and leaves. Eric carries it into his apartment and reads the note affixed to the front.
I don't think it'll ever bring much on the market, but it is the original, and perhaps it is worth something to you.
Eric places the note to the side and removes the canvas from the box. He stares at it silently for a full ten minutes, taking in the extraordinary talent needed to reproduce the various artworks depicted in the painting: the Mona Lisa, The Starry Night, American Gothic, The Scream, The Last Supper.
Piece after piece, presented in exquisite detail, all of them tossed carelessly to form a massive pile. And above all of this priceless art, a hideous chihuahua, its face scrunched up in agony as it pushes out a turd. The feces hangs precariously from its back end, dangling over the piled artwork.
Eric glances at the title card affixed to the back of the canvas, and laughs so hard that his stomach hurts and his eyes water.
The piece is titled "Bitch Shitting On Good Art."
I've recently started following a blog called WriteWorld. Every day, they post writing prompts, with the caption, "A picture says a thousand words. Write them."
Because I've been wanting to start writing more, and because a thousand or so words is doable, I decided to start giving some of them a try. The above story was inspired by this post, with the following picture:
FFVI terra by tobiee
Posted under Short Stories on 8/23/15