The Painter

By Paul Hobday

Catherine sits at her easel, her face contorts in concentration. Paints blob her pallet; on her brush is large glob of rosy red. Her smock displays a hard life of many colors. Paint seems to find its way onto everything in her little studio—except the canvas. Her easel is a blank, cream-colored slate. Every so often Catherine extends the brush toward it, but she cannot bring herself to touch color to canvas.

It has been this way for months now. She makes time, sits in her little make-shift studio, and stares at the easel. Nothing comes of it. Almost a year has passed since she sold a piece, and even then it hadn’t been for as much as she thought it was worth. She can feel her dream slipping through her fingers, dissolving like dust caught by the breeze.

Times are tough—Catherine has taken on a job. Since she isn’t painting, she needs another means to pay rent. Now she works three times a week at a local art supply store, advising amateurs on paint mixing and brush types. She resents it, but the owner is an old friend, and he pays her a decent wage. He even offers to hang some of her paintings. They hang limply on the walls, gathering dust, unsold.

Despondently, she sits with a straight back before her blank easel. She dabs paint onto the brush, mixes it around, makes new colors, and mixes them with other colors. Creating colors is soothing: making something new, perhaps something never seen before. While working on blending the darkest shade of orange she could imagine, Catherine’s phone jingles. She reaches out with a finger and slides the button on the screen, tapping the speaker.

“Hi Hon,” she says in her coyest tone.

“Hey Kate,” Harrison—Harry—has been Catherine’s on again, off again boyfriend for nearly three years. They have a strange relationship built on mutual respect. Harry and she are on one of their up swings; things are good, they talk almost every day.

“I’m not going to be able to make it for dinner tonight,” he says, his voice crackling through tinny speakers.

Catherine puts the pallet down and turns to address the phone, a habit she loves because it reminds her that technology is not reality. “Why?” she asks.

There is a pause, a moment that probably means nothing, but could mean everything, before Harry responds, “It’s work, there’s an emergency. I’m heading in to the office now. I don’t know how long I’m going to be there.” Another pause; heavier, longer. Catherine can hear blowing wind and traffic drifting across the phone line. “Maybe I can come by later? They can’t expect me to stay all night.”

With a sigh, Catherine picks up the phone and holds it closer, as if that might increase the intimacy. “I was really hoping to see you for dinner. Is it such a big deal that you can’t blow them off?”

“Babe, you know I want to impress these guys” —Harry has recently passed the bar and is working for a prestigious law firm— “and I can’t do that unless I’m willing to be there when they call.”

The conversation is over. “Alright,” she says, “I guess it’s ok anyway. I’m painting today.”

“Really?” he perks up; in the background a horn blares. “That’s great Kate! Maybe when I’m out, you’ll have something new for me to see?”

“Maybe,” she says, glancing over at her deep shade of orange, “maybe. Anyway, call or text me before you head over, in case I fall asleep, ok?”

“Of course, see you later.”

“Yup” and she pushes the little red button on the phone’s face that says end, thinking how accurate that statement is. End, like their relationship when Harry realizes Kate doesn’t paint anymore; end, like when Harry realizes he’d be happier with a nine-to-five soccer mom type; end, like the sudden, overwhelming urge Catherine can taste on the back of her tongue to go run screaming through the streets.

Instead, she goes to the medicine cabinet and pours out a dose of blue pills (the ones that calm her down), swallowing them with a mouthful of warm water. Then, still wearing her paint-stained smock, Catherine puts on water for tea. Her apartment has only a tiny kitchen and she hates it. In her last place, she had a full sized kitchen, decked out with a brand-new stove, a dishwasher, and enough counter space for her to experiment with various culinary concoctions. Now, Catherine only uses her kitchen when she has too—making tea and pouring milk over Cheerios, or making toast before work.

The water boils; Catherine pours a steaming measure into her chipped mug and stirs honey into her tea. Taking her drink into her equally-small living room, she opens the big windows that look out over the street. The second floor has its perks—she can open the full length windows wide and let the outside in without being completely exposed to the bustling street below. She sits there whenever the weather permits, watching traffic and pigeons, wishing herself to be someone else.

She clicks on the TV, channel surfing past boring dramas, meaningless sporting events, and news programs highlighting the dismal, self-destructive state of humanity. It disgusts her, makes her stomach sink into a tight ball of anger. Her hands begin to shake, spilling warm tea over the lip of her mug. Catherine can barely contain the desire to hurl the mug at the screen, to go out in the street and shake passersby until they see how frightfully meaningless their lives are, to scream her lungs out so the entire world might hear her dismay.

Thankfully, the pills are melting in her belly, numbing her senses. Her sudden rage ebbs, and with it the grey clouds that have begun to gather drift apart, revealing a glowing sun. She wonders to herself why she wasn’t a cloud, or a pigeon, or anything else in the vast universe, why she is trapped in her mediocre body, with her imperfect skill-set and her unfulfilling life. Catherine likes the easing effect of the meds. The abrupt anger of a few moments ago upsets her, so she rises and goes to the medicine cabinet for a stronger dose. The little white ones (that are meant to ease anxiety, but really get her quite high) are what she’s after.

Returning to her open windows, Catherine retrieves the teacup and swallows the rest in one long gulp. She loves tea, almost as much as she loves the soothing pills. The anger at the world of only a minute ago has completely passed. Her face cracking into a smile, Catherine leans out over the windowsill, breathing in the warm air.

A rugged smell slams into her nose. Like sour milk poured over road kill, the smell of a city, even a small one, is unavoidably unpleasant. The odor makes Catherine’s face pucker, she leans out further, searching for the fresh smell of flowers and warm air, reaching for it like it has to be only a couple of inches farther from the building. She imagines pedestrians looking up, seeing a short, slightly overweight young woman with unruly black hair and a stained smock leaning over the edge of her window. She imagines just pushing off with her toes, letting go with her fingertips, slipping her knees gently over the edge, caressing the air with her body, tumbling, sliding, and wafting down. All the while in search of that clean smell, the smell of summer and happiness that she knows is out there.

Pulling herself from the window, Catherine decides that the blue pills and the white pills interact nicely, and that she feels rather well. The wave of despondence passes; her self-pity is but a soft whisper, barely audible. She picks up the empty tea mug and takes it back into the kitchen to brew another cup. Absently, she clicks on the little radio on the bookshelf and tunes it to the local public radio station.

The steaming water poured over another tea ball, Catherine takes her cup back into her studio. With all her paintings sold or in storage, the room looks deathly white and sad. Catherine draws back a heavy cloth and pulls open the window, letting some light gush in. A gentle breeze makes the drop cloths sway, giving the entire room an eerie appearance of life.

Something is happening; Catherine sips her tea and then sets it on the little end table next to her favorite lamp and a paperback she’s been reading for months. Something is happening; Catherine can feel something in her guts that reminds her of inspiration. Her dissatisfaction—with herself and all of humanity and everything—is twisting together with the gentle chemical ease saturating her senses. Something is happening; she’s sure of it, can taste it like the gentle lemon flavor of her tea.

She takes up the pallet and grimaces at the now dry blob of dark orange; it is not what she hoped at all. Nevertheless, Catherine isn’t dissuaded, her body is electric, her mind a razor. Something is happening. The cool breeze lifts her and she spins, uncontrollably, wonderfully, toward her easel. She can see the shade of orange she was aiming for earlier; see it as plain as the sky out the window. A vision, a new world, a shade of orange like none imagined before, fills her mind.

The day drifts by. Catherine sips her cooling tea and dabs paint onto the canvas without noticing the intruding darkness, the ringing of her phone, the soft tapping at her door. The radio plays from the living room, dismayed voices, crackling and full of fear. None of these sounds, these clues from the outside world, intrude upon her. Catherine is absolute Zen, she is the center, she is everything and nothing; and it is perfect. Catherine paints, patiently, unblinking, for hours.

When she does finally stop, setting her brush and palette down, screwing the tops back on the tubes of paint, the sun is eking up over the rooftops, running bright shafts in through the still-open window. A strange smell creeps in with it, something like burnt leather.

Catherine blinks and stretches—her mind races back to her. Like a runner colliding with an unseen wall, reality grips her, squeezes her, until she cannot deny it any longer. She realizes with a start that it is morning, that her phone has been making noise on and off all night, that she definitely heard someone—probably Harry—at her door many hours ago, and most important of all, that she has to pee quite badly.

Stumbling on cramped legs into the bathroom, Catherine relieves herself. On her way out of the bathroom, she clicks off the radio as a newscaster prattles on about a battle, a war raging in some foreign land. Catherine is too happy about her painting to worry about any of that.

She goes into the kitchen and puts on coffee, and then she goes back into her studio to find her phone. The battery is nearly dead, so she plugs it in and stands near the wall outlet while scrolling through the unacknowledged messages from the night before: 10:43 pm – done work, heading over; 11:04 pm – at your door, want to let me in?; 11:06 pm – called you, where are you?; 11:07 pm – What the hell Kate, I can see lights on…and so on. Harry left her ten messages, three missed calls and two voicemails.

Oddly, she also has a couple of calls from her mother, her aunt, and her sister. She doesn’t bother listening to any of them, she just deletes them and sends Harry a simple reply: Sorry. Painting. She hopes he’ll understand, but really, she doesn’t care if he does.

Because Catherine has discovered something, found herself within herself, found her paint again. It’s not the same, not the giddy high of creation she once felt when her hand poured out the vision of the world she couldn’t contain. Her past work was often simplistic, often appreciated for its refinement more than its statement. She was capable, proficient, but uninspired. Now, inspiration courses through her. She feels great.

Cradling a steaming mug of coffee, Catherine draws a bath, taking another little white pill to help her keep feeling good. She’s tired now, the long night and exertion catching up with her. The bath is perfect—temperate, soft, the bubbles forming a glaze over the surface of the water, cocooning her, making her safe and clean. She runs a wet hand through her hair and pulls the mess back into a ponytail.

It’s then that it occurs to Catherine: she doesn’t know what she painted! She made it, swirled the colors, stroked the canvas, churned the fire within herself, and poured it out as a work of art. But she cannot recall anything specific about it. The exact content, the sum of the parts, the “thing” that she has made, it is a mystery to her. This thought startles her. Catherine has always worked with such control, such grace, knowing precisely what she hoped to accomplish with each piece she painted. But this work, whatever form it has taken, is an enigma to her.

She leaps out of the tub, splashing soapy water all over the linoleum, and runs naked through her apartment. Sudsy footprints mark her passage across the living room carpet, she grabs at the sliding door that separates the studio. Inside, the studio is more of a wreck than she’d expected. Fresh paint stains the drop clothes. All the paint tubes are jumbled on the floor around her stool. The palette is a disaster. It’s utterly ruined; she’ll never be able to use it again. So much paint is on it, in varying states of dryness, that it’d be a waste to even try scraping it clean.

And then there’s the canvas. It’s…Catherine can’t even imagine the words. “Woo,” she mutters, dripping on the carpet.

The painting, really, is nothing special. Good technique, smart strokes, well-proportioned lines—it’s the color use that has Catherine standing frozen before her work. The shades are bright and vibrant, like the glow of morning sun on dew-wet grass, or the perfect full moon on a clear summer night. She has achieved that deep, dark shade of orange—the darkest she’s ever seen—just like she had been trying for. And the whole thing has a certain spinning quality to it, like a person looking into the sky and twirling around and around until they are dizzy.

Catherine likes this thought: dizzy, dark orange.

Her phone begins ringing from the other room, but Catherine feels the beginnings of further inspiration. It starts at the base of her spine and tingles its way up to her neck, sweat dampening her forehead. The phone continues to ring, a distant lullaby.

The trance breaks as suddenly as it began. Catherine is unsure how much time has passed. The light seeping in through the windows is dimmer, closer to the center of the sky. The carpet around her is wet, she is nearly dry. Insistent banging and shouting knifes into her mind. She snaps around, walking purposefully out of the studio and retrieving a robe.

Harry is at the door, banging, calling for her. She sighs and carries her cold coffee mug to the door with her.

“Jesus Kate, were you ever going to answer you phone?” Harry is disheveled, tense. He looks like he hasn’t slept.

Catherine shrugs and shakes her head, standing aside to let him in. Harry brushes past her and stands, towering before her, his face blanched and angry. “Why haven’t you been answering?”

“I,” she starts and stops, sipping her coffee. Cautious movements always calm Harry down. She sits, huddling the robe over her legs. “I was painting. I sent you a message.”

Harry drops his shoulders and plunks down into the easy chair. “You were painting? Fuck Kate, do you have any idea what’s been happening? You picked the most incredible time to decide to drop off the face of the earth. I can’t even…”

Catherine stops listening, jumping up and spilling her remaining coffee. It runs down her robe and onto the carpet, but she doesn’t care.

“You have to see it!”

Harry screws his eyes up, furrowing his brows deeply. “See it? Kate you aren’t listening!”

She grabs his sleeves, pulling him up. “No you’re not listening! I painted Harry! And not only that, but it’s beautiful, it’s incredible! You have to see the colors!”

Dragging him, pulling him by his sleeves, Catherine guides Harry toward the studio.

“Kate, really, I’m glad you’re painting, but you aren’t listening to me. The world, some crazy stuff happened last night. I can’t believe you didn’t hear.”

“Hear what,” she mumbles absently, opening the studio door and gesturing toward her masterpiece. “Look!”

Harry, shaking his head, steps into the studio, but rather than look at her work of genius, he turns to Catherine and puts his hands on her arms, making her look at him.

“Kate, listen to me,” he shakes her gently, “listen, we shouldn’t even be here. Dear, the world…the world is burning, love. No one knows what happened, but governments, military; something happened over in the Middle East and Asia. Bombs going off, hell Kate, the western half of America.” Tears well in his eyes, Harry’s jaw is trembling. Catherine doesn’t understand why he’s so upset.

“Harry,” she coos, “look.”

Suddenly, he’s angry. “Goddam it Kate! I don’t give a shit about your stupid painting! You aren’t listening! Millions of people are dead! Millions! The world is going to war! Who cares about the fucking painting? The world is on fire!”

Catherine, a bright smile on her face, turns Harry toward her painting.

“I know,” she says, gesturing toward the easel.

* “C” quotation: Article II of The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, 1789.


Paul Hobday is a native Vermonter, immersed in the writing community in scenic Burlington. He was recently featured in the Burlington Writer’s Workshop’s 2014 Anthology. When not writing his own stories, Paul volunteers as an assistant editor for Vermont’s newest literary journal, the Mud Season Review.

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