The Sky Painter

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A story about desire, betrayal, and sexual obsession.

Submitted: January 11, 2011

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Submitted: January 11, 2011

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I noticed Sam Daniels for some time before I ever spoke to him. I have an interest in artists and musicians and Sam standing on the corner with his easel caught my attention. But I didn't have any first impression that Sam was unique. He was just one of many street corner artists in my town who scratched out a living doing quick caricatures of tourists who stopped by his stand before going on to be tourists.

I had never had artistic pretensions myself. I had a hard time drawing a respectable stick figure, but I liked to drop by museums and see what real artists could accomplish. Occasionally, a museum would host the work of a major artist like a Picasso or Matisse or Monet and I would look on in awe.

It was probably because Sam's work reminded me in a vague way of Monet that I got interested. Monet used the effects of light extensively in his work. He would often take the same subject and paint it at different times of the day to capture the variances of light. Sam did the same thing with the sky.

I first spoke to Sam on a day that reminded me of Melville's famous line about it being "a dark and drizzly November of the soul." It was an overcast and chilly day and the wind hurled paper down the sidewalks and bent pedestrians against the blasts. Sam had to grab onto his easel like a sailor grappling a main mast and I went over to help him.

"Whew!" he said. "Thanks. Time to close up shop. Would you like some coffee or tea?"

"Sure," I said.

I helped him lug his easel and art supplies to a coffee shop on the corner. Even as we waited for coffee, he took out his sketch pad and made a quick drawing of the coffee shop.

"Wow," I said. "You're good."

"Thanks," he said, "but I'm average. I'm trying very hard to get to mediocre. Name's Sam Daniels," he stuck out his hand.

"Brian Fillborn," I answered back. "Can I see your sketch?"

"Sure," he said. He pulled the drawing from the sketch book and handed the sketch to me.

I didn't claim to be an art critic, but I was impressed. Sam had even done a quick self portrait and I thought his drawing of me was flattering. He had captured the ambiance of the place: the hustling servers, the wind-blown and rain-soaked customers who had scurried inside to escape the storm, and the art deco look of the coffee shop itself.

Sam was a slight man with well-trimmed black hair. He had the beginnings of a beard, but I suspected he just hadn't had time to shave. He wore a blue baseball cap with a corporate logo, a worn London Fog overcoat, blue jeans, and a gray sweatshirt.

"What brought you out on a blustery day?" Sam asked me. He moved back as the server brought a porcelain cup of tea for him and coffee for me.

I warmed my hands on the mug and told him, "I just get tired of being cooped up," I said. "I just wanted to take a walk."

"My wife throws me out," he grinned. "Her name's Sherry. She works in an office all during the week. But she doesn't like the smell of paint much, so she throws me out on the street."

"I'm still single," I said. "Still looking."

"What kind of work do you do?" Sam asked.

"I'm kind of a journalist," I said. "I cover a little bit of everything. With the way newspapers are going I'm wondering if I should check out broadcasting, but I'm not sure I have the voice or look for it."

"There's still radio," Sam suggested.

I told Sam I had to go. I was working on a story about the city's sewer system and how it was affected by a chain of rain storms we were getting that season. It was the kind of wonky story I did well. Even though it sounded boring, I found things like infrastructure interesting.

I had been getting freelance assignments from a small weekly magazine called The Reporter. The magazine emphasized environmental issues and it had a kind of avant garde appeal that was creating a growing circulation. I hoped so, anyway. I enjoyed the freedom of being a freelancer, but I longed for a permanent editorial position.

I did most of my work at home, but I had a small cubbyhole of a desk at the office and I went there after leaving the coffee shop. I kept some research materials there and I checked in with the editor to see what stories were in the pipeline.

At first glance the office looked a lot like a big city newsroom. There were the bright fluorescent lights, the cubicles, and the computer terminals. The owners tried to go "green" any way they could, so they used energy saving lights and avoided plastic whenever possible. I'd been told my wood desk was constructed of wood recycled from a wooden sailing boat that had spent considerable time on the Pacific Ocean.

I loved living near the ocean, but I seldom went out on boats. I had once done a story about crab fisherman and that was as close to a boat as I wanted to get.

The next time I saw Sam I was in a great mood. I had just turned my infrastructure story in to The Reporter and gotten paid. The day was sunny and occasionally warm when the wind wasn't blowing. Birds were high above in the scrubbed blue sky, wheeling on the wind currents, and I was hungry as I smelled all the delicious food being cooked in the restaurants on my street. Sam was sipping from a coffee cup and working on a painting on his easel, stopping only to do a caricature when he had a paying customer.

"Brian," he called out. "Want your caricature done?"

"Why not?" I said. "I just got paid."

Sam clenched a charcoal pencil in his teeth and mumbled, "Have a seat."

I sat in the chair next to his easel and watched him create my caricature in a few swift and sure strokes. He signed the drawing with a flourish and handed it to me.

"Wow," I said. "I'll have to get a frame to keep this in good shape for when you become famous."

I paid him and took a look at the painting on his easel.

Little bits of the skyline were visible and then there was the sky in shades of blue I had never seen before. The painting had almost a 3D quality to it. I expected birds or airplanes to come flying out of the canvas.

"This is some experimental stuff I'm doing," Sam said. "I like Monet and the paintings he did of water lilies. I'm trying to do variations on a sky theme."

"Are you planning to paint just the sky?" I asked.

"No," he said. "That wouldn't be very interesting. But I make the sky the dominant part of the painting. The sky is really a kaleidoscope with clouds, changes in light, and the colors you get at sunrise and sunset."

"So you have other paintings like this?"

"I have a series if that's what you mean. You think you'd like to come to dinner and I could show you some of my work?"

"I'd like that," I said.

The next day I went to the address Sam gave me It was an old Victorian home that had been converted into apartments. Sam's unit was on the second floor and I climbed the narrow stairway and knocked on the door. I could smell something cooking from inside the apartment.

Sam answered the door dressed in a blue sport coat, white shirt, and tie.

I suddenly felt under dressed. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize a tie was required."

"It's not," Sam said. "Sherry and I like to dress up every now and then and dine a little more elegantly. Have a seat. Can I get you something to drink?"

"Sure. Coffee if you have it."

Sam went for the coffee and I looked around the room. I liked the polished hardwood floors and the inexpensive, but somewhat elegant, throw rugs scattered around the room. There was a fireplace that had a small fire burning and it threw out light around the room. What caught my eye the most, though, were portraits Sam had painted of his wife. Portraits of Sherry were on all four walls.

I hadn't seen Sherry yet, but if the portraits were an accurate representation she was beautiful. She had long silky blond hair and blue eyes and the figure of a goddess. When she came in to introduce herself I could see the portraits were not an exaggeration.

She was dressed in a black blouse and white skirt and wore a pearl necklace. Her hair was secured by a silver barrette. She brought my coffee on a silver tray that she set on the coffee table.

"Sam's tending the chicken," she said. "Hi, I'm Sherry," and she offered her hand.

I shook her hand and asked, "What's for dinner? It smells delicious."

"We have rotisserie chicken," she said, "and steamed potatoes, salad, eggplant, and chocolate cheesecake for dessert."

"Wow," I said. "That's the kind of meal I get maybe once a year. My cuisine features lots of microwaving."

"Don't be too impressed," she cautioned. "We don't do this often either. I'm always working and so is Sam. If not for McDonald's, we would probably starve."

I thought then maybe it was true that opposites really did attract. Sam was the epitome of the artist, lost in the dream world that he turned into tangible creation. Sherry struck me as grounded in the practical, daily grind real world. I suspected she contributed most of the rent and food money.

"If you're ready," Sam said, "dinner is served."

I went into the small space just off the kitchen that they used as a dining room. A snowy white tablecloth was draped over the dining table. Scented candles were burning in a candlestick at the center of the table.

Sam sat at the table while Sherry gave us our dinner plates. I saw that Sherry had prepared the rotisserie chicken herself. The chicken was golden brown and had been prepared with butter and herbs and I savored the tender buttery white meat.

The salad was arugula with mushrooms, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, and olives. Sherry had made a vinaigrette with Dijon mustard and rice vinegar.

After the meal Sam invited me into the living room to watch the sunset through the atrium window in the living room. The sunset was a mix of vibrant red, orange, tangerine, and purple and Sam turned down the lights and turned on some soft classical music. I noticed him working quickly on a canvas that he lit with a small lamp.

Sherry came into the room and I was conscious of the light flowery scent of her perfume. "You'll have to excuse Sam," she told me. "He's always working."

"I'm no professional critic," I said. "But I think Sam has talent.'

"Yes," she said softly and rather distantly. "I think so. Sam tells me you're a writer."

"Very mundane stuff," I told her. I suddenly felt uncomfortable with her gazing at me. There are some people with what you might call presence. They absorb energy and they radiate energy and it's as though they possess you. That was how it felt with Sherry.

The colors of the sunset deepened and melded into the darkness and Sam said, "I think I got it."

"Do you ever take pictures?" I asked. "So you can capture the moment?"

"It's an interesting idea,"Sam said as he started rinsing his brushes. "But the painters I admire didn't have cameras as a rule. I like to paint the old-fashioned way."

"So, Brian," Sherry said and lightly touched my arm. Her voice had a sultry quality, I thought, but it could have been my imagination. "Are you really interested in art?"

"Yes," I said. "I don't know much about it, but I'm interested."

"I keep telling Sam he should do more portraits," she said. "Did you see the portraits he did of me?"

"Yes," I said. "Very impressive."

"I like doing portraits," Sam said. He flopped into a chair at the corner of the couch where Sherry and I were sitting. "But right now I'm more interested in other things. I do caricatures all day and I get tired of painting or drawing people."

I told Sam and Sherry that I needed to work on an article, so I excused myself. I was disturbed by my attraction to Sherry, or perhaps that she was so overtly sexual with me. I loved women, but I didn't believe in getting involved with the wives of friends. I had to wonder if Sam was oblivious to what Sherry was doing, if I was letting my imagination run away with me, of if Sam just didn't care.

As I made my way home I kept imagining a jazz soundtrack like you would hear in some old noir movie. A Robert Frost line occurred to me: the road not taken. I was letting my imagination run away with me, I told myself, and a runaway imagination could be a dangerous thing.

The next day I was walking down the street when I saw Sam at his customary spot. He waved me over.

"Thanks again for the dinner last night," I told him.

"My pleasure," he said and started cleaning his brushes. "I have to wonder why you were coming on to my wife, though."

"Excuse me," I said.

"Sherry told me," he said. "While I was working on my sunset canvas she said you were getting a little too friendly."

"I see," I said. "I didn't do anything except talk a little bit about art," I said. "I'm sorry if Sherry took it the wrong way."

Sam's expression didn't change. "Sherry is a beautiful woman, wouldn't you agree?"

"Of course," I said.

"Don't you think it's really terrible to come and eat a man's food and come on to his wife?"

"Look, Sam, this is getting us nowhere. I appreciate the dinner. I think Sherry is nice looking. She's your wife and I didn't come on to her. I'm sorry if she got the wrong idea."

As I walked away, I noticed that his canvas was a bloody red sunset. It reminded me a little of Munch's painting "The Scream."

I tried to put it all out of my mind. But one day I found a letter tucked into my box at The Reporter. The note was from Sherry.

She wrote, "Dearest Brian, I know this is crazy. We only met at dinner that one night. But I'm immensely attracted to you. Sam is a nice man, a good artist, but not much of a husband. I'd like to get to know you better. If you feel the same way," she went on and named a Mexican restaurant where we could have lunch.

The warning bells began clanging in my head. I didn't see how any good could come of this. I knew a lot of guys who would have no scruples about meeting Sherry for lunch. It was, after all, a lunch. But it was so much more too.

I gave in. When I got to the restaurant I saw Sherry sitting at an appropriate rear table that was largely out of sight if you looked in from the front door. She was dressed simply. She had on a white blouse and blue jeans and sandals. But her hair was loose and flowing down around her shoulders. She smiled radiantly at me. As I looked closer I saw she wasn't wearing a bra and her nicely-shaped breasts pushed up against the blouse.

"I'm so glad you came," she said. "I hope you like Mexican food."

"I do," I said. "Where is Sam?"

"Off somewhere," she said vaguely. "Sam is always looking for some place with perfect light. It probably doesn't exist, but Sam looks for it like he's looking for the end of the rainbow."

"I feel a little strange being here," I said. "Sam already thinks I'm playing up to you."

"I probably gave him that impression," she smiled mysteriously. "I think it's good when a husband doesn't feel too secure."

The waitress came and I gave our orders. Then I said, "But it puts me into a bad position. I consider Sam a friend, even though we haven't known each other for long."

"So you don't find me attractive?" she pouted.

"Of course I do."

We ate our lunch and I suddenly found myself weighing the alternatives. There was no question that the most primal part of me wanted her. I kept imagining those beautiful breasts just underneath a thin veneer of cotton. When we finished lunch she whispered, "We can go to your place."

I found myself saying, "All right."

It was as though time stopped, or the world was ending, and no other thought existed except having her. We went to my apartment and we spoke little. I nuzzled her neck and helped her out of her clothes and felt the silkiness of her golden hair against my face and chest. Then she was on top of me and I was running my hands down the smooth skin of her back and feeling her taut breasts against my chest and her mouth clamped down on mine. I felt the deep warm depths of her. Before I could even let guilt take me over we made love again.

Sherry got dressed and went into the bathroom to check out her makeup. She came out and said, "We'll have to do this again."

"What about Sam?" I asked.

She pressed a finger to my lips and said, "Sam will be all right. Believe me."

Sleeping with Sherry became almost an obsession. When I didn't hear from her for a few days I wondered if she was dumping me. Part of me was relieved and part of me panicked. Then we would meet again and have a quick love making session and I was hooked all over again.

I began to sense Sherry's contempt for me. It seemed to mirror what she felt for Sam. Sam and I were too needy, not ambitious or accomplished enough. Her contempt began to weigh on me. It wasn't so much like corrosive acid as it was a steady and gradual erosion.

After our last meeting she said rather tiredly, "I think the novelty is gone, Brian. There's no love between the two of us. There's just the sensation and now the sensation has turned into boredom."

"Maybe it's just the accumulation of guilt," I said.

"Guilt?" she laughed. "Over what? Sam and I were done except for appearances a long time ago. Life is short, sweetheart. To borrow an old expression, you have to grab all the gusto while you can."

She pecked me on the lips and said, "See you around."

For the next several weeks I absorbed myself in work and tried not to think of Sherry or Sam at all. Occasionally, I would come across some memento of her and the memories would flood back. There would be a piece of lingerie or a hair brush or a pillow that still lingered with her scent. I consciously avoided meeting Sam, but it was inevitable I would see him on the street one day.

He was at work at his usual corner and surprised me by waving me over.

"I'm sorry about the things I said," he told me. "It was really Sherry all along. She left me, you know."

"I'm sorry," I said. "But I guess you know Sherry and I had an affair."

His expression didn't change. "She didn't make it a secret. Yeah, you share some of the blame. But if it wasn't you it would be someone else. The funny thing is I keep running over everything in my mind and wondering what I did wrong. Isn't it funny how it works out that way?"

"Where did she go?" I asked.

He shrugged. "I don't know. One of these days you or I will hear from her again. I'll get divorce papers or something. In a way it will be a relief."

I told him goodbye, watching briefly while he did a caricature for another tourist. I looked at the canvas on his easel and I looked at the sky and they mirrored each other. I thought of an old e. e. cummings line about a "true blue dream" of sky.

THE SKY PAINTER


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