THE PAINTER'S CANVAS
When Stu Green entered the art supply store on Queen Street in downtown Toronto he knew that something was not right. Sure, the door had the same familiar beeping tone when a new customer was entering, but something was off somehow.
He looked behind him and saw the “Urban Art Supplies” emblazoned insignia outside the establishment, backwards of course from his perspective, yet somehow the place looked…different.
For one, he wanted Rhiannon, the hot blonde twenty something with the tight-fitting tops and Lu Lu Lemon yoga pants that he had secretly lusted over for the past God knows how long since Ellen’s passing. No, Rhiannon was nowhere in sight.
Instead, an old woman, probably 70, approached him, back hunched over to the point where Green wasn’t even sure how she retained an upright posture without the use of a cane. He noticed that the old woman was clad entirely in black, nothing new he supposed with the traditional gold Italian horn amulet around her neck on a chain known as “The Corno”. An Italian friend of his from his Ontario College of Art days had informed him that this was an amulet used to fight off the “Evil Eye” or bad spirits that were called “The Malocchio”.
“Is Rhiannon here?” Stu queried.
“She gone,” the woman proclaimed with a wave of her arthritic hand. “She no here no more. I own.”
Her skin was dark. Stu thought, maybe Sicilian. She had a black kerchief around her graying hair that matched the black shawl draped over her shoulders. Her right eye was lazy, with the lid half closed permanently.
“Um.. I’m here to get to get a canvas.”
Ordinarily he would order his art supplies though Rhiannon, either through the phone or on line. It was rare that he actually stepped foot in the establishment, but in the case of a canvas, well that was more personal.
I guess with this lady, no more on line orders, Green thought. He doubted she even owned a computer let alone knew how to use one.
“Um..a canvas, white about 24” X 36”. Pre-stretched if possible.” He drew an outline of the frame in the air so that she could understand him better.
“Ahh…” she said. “I have.”
She turned her back and hobbled away from him through a door behind the front showroom. In a moment she returned with the ideal canvas for Green’s request, a Blick Premier Gallery pure cotton canvas with solid pine frame.
“Great, great,” Green said. “How much do I owe you for this?”
Rhiannon had usually charged him $50 for one this size and quality, but Green wanted to see if there had been any increases or decreases with the new owner.
The old woman stared at him for a few seconds and then smiled. Not an evil, threatening smile; more one of warmth, compassion.
“You like-a me.”
Green blinked. “I’m..I’m like you? How?”
“You know about loss. In mourning.” She gestured to the black shawl.
Green appeared visibly uncomfortable by this woman. “Um…yeah..yeah I guess I am.”
Green had lost his wife Ellen to stomach cancer just 6 months into their marriage, now 1 year ago. He had always felt a void in his life since her passing and as a result he immersed himself in his work.
He was an exceptional artist, but one of many in a city as large as Toronto. He had had moderate success in the gallery circuit and had made a decent living from art auctions and exhibits. Enough to afford the large loft apartment which also housed his art studio at Dupont and University Avenue.
Following Ellen’s death, Green had churned out painting after painting, some of dark themes and images (others not) with varying degrees of quality. Most sold. He had even taken on some commercial work, painting a Rockwell-esque portrait of two youngsters happily downing a bowl of Berry-O’s cereal to be proudly displayed on boxes at the local Metro grocery store chain. Hack work for sure, but he definitely appreciated the $ 5000 cheque that came with it.
How could this woman have known about Ellen?
She pointed to her left eye. “I see it in your eyes.”
Green felt his shoulders sag a little. “It’s that obvious, huh? Well..yes, I suppose you’re right.”
The old woman’s smile never faltered. “Take canvas. This is what you need.”
Green held the canvas by its top and reached for his wallet with the other hand.
The old lady shook a crooked finger at him.
“No pay. Just paint. You like, you pay later.”
“Really?” Green asked incredulously. “That’s very generous of you…”
The woman patted his arm and turned her back to him. As Green exited the store, he could swear he saw the old woman kiss the Corno from around her neck.
When Green got back to the loft, he couldn’t wait to get started on something new with the quality canvas. He carefully placed it on its easel which sat upon the paint-smattered tarp he had laid across that area of the apartment. He had prepared all of the various oil paints he was going to use and opened a new package of brushes he had ordered on-line from Rhiannon during his last purchase one month ago.
As he stared at the blank canvas, he searched for inspiration. He did not wish to make something abstract or obscure, he did not wish to paint a landscape or a nude…his mind was just in another place and he was incapable of making a sound decision as to where he wanted his artistic muse to go. The old woman and her bang-on perception of his feelings of Ellen’s loss permeated his thought process.
He made his way to the kitchen area for a Perrier when he saw the basket of fruit lying on the wheeled median. Okay, a still life of fruit, he thought. Boring and routine for sure, but it’ll sell at an auction easily and that’s about all the inspiration I have right now.
Dipping his brush into the palate and swirling the oils he had on hand, Green began to paint the basket of fruit to the finest detail. The contour of the peach, the shadow the apple cast on his countertop, the various pricklings in the pineapple’s top.
He painted furiously with breaks taken only for washroom visits until nightfall. He was so focused on completing this painting, he had even forgotten to eat dinner!
Exhausted, he stepped back and admired the basket of fruit that was correct to the every detail. He was pleased and hoped to put some finishing touches on it tomorrow and hopefully get it up for auction by the end of the week.
That night he slept without interruption, however he had recurring visions of Ellen in her last days; how gray her skin had become, how sunken her face looked and how weak her grip was as she held his hands and prayed amidst the buzzes and hums of the hospital machinery.
He awoke at 6:00 a.m. the next day and promptly washed his face with cold water repeatedly. He dressed in his typical at-home painting attire – baggy blue track pants with a hole in the knee and a white bootlegged Bruce Springsteen concert shirt. He contemplated shaving, but then reneged on it, thinking he wasn’t going to be seeing anyone today to the best of his knowledge.
He made his way to the kitchen area of the loft and prepared a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich (good Jew that he is) and glass of orange juice. As he sat at the kitchen table he looked over where the basket of fruit is…or was.
It was entirely gone.
The basket itself, the fruit, not a trace morsel remaining of its very existence.
How odd, he thought. I didn’t have any fruit last night and I certainly didn’t put it in the refrigerator. He double checked to be absolutely certain. No, the fruit was gone, vanished into thin air.
He rushed over to the canvas and there was the basket of fruit, the shiny oil paints now dried, so the colours appeared slightly less vibrant. He studied the painting up close, trying to recall his various brushstrokes and color blending, all present and accounted for except for the subject of which the painting was based.
There was still ample room left on the canvas for more objects to complement the fruit, so Green figured he would try an experiment.
He went back to the kitchen area and moved the wheeled median that the basket was on closer to his painting quarters. He then began to embellish the basket of fruit by now painting the median itself, correct to the very color tones and orientation. After a few hours, he had completed the median and went onto his computer to try to contact his agent about getting him a spot in upcoming auctions.
He would peer every now and again at the median, just to see if it was still there, or perhaps catch it in mid disappearance.
What the hell I am doing? he thought, seeing the chrome sided median standing unperturbed. This is nuts. I probably threw away the fruit and forgot about it.
But the basket too?
Later that same evening, he enjoyed a bottle of Molson Canadian beer and watched Pink Cadillac, a crummy comedy with Clint Eastwood on Turner Classic Movies before calling it a night.
He slept uninterrupted once again and like the previous night, he dreamt of Ellen. This time she was alive and vibrant, the two of them enjoying a picnic lunch at the Scarborough Bluffs as they often did while dating.
Her hair was black and short cut to just below her ears, her skin smooth and her smile radiant. They held hands as they enjoyed camembert and tomato on foccacia bread and drank white wine, chilled overnight.
How he missed her and ached for her to be back in his life.
The next morning, 6:00 a.m. Green awoke and made a mad dash for the easel.
Sure enough: canvas there, wheeled median gone.
He knew no one had come in the middle of night to play some sort of cruel practical joke. He knew he had not moved that piece since he began the painting. The median was present on the canvas as was the basket of fruit. Same vantage point, same color pattern, same level of detail.
This is so fucking bizarre.
He took a shower and shaved today, trying to piece together exactly what was the issue with this canvas.
He remembered the old lady. The Corno. The Mallochio. Her words…what had she said…you know about loss?
So now he was cursed to lose everything he had like the one he so dearly loved? Is that the point? Just to be left with a two dimensional reminder of what used to be like a photograph?
At 9:00 a.m. he phoned “Urban Art Supplies”. The phone rang three times and on came the answering machine with Rhiannon’s voice giving the hours of operation of the store.
Screw it, though Green. I’m going down there myself and tell the old hag to lift the goddamn curse!
He pulled up to the store’s door in his Mustang convertible, lucky enough to have snagged a parking meter just before 10:00 a.m.
He approached the door and found it to be locked. A sign written in what appeared to be magic marker was affixed to the door, “Closed until further notice”.
Green slammed his fist on the door with such force he thought he may have shattered the glass.
He rode home in what felt like breakneck speed to see if there were any changes to the canvas.
There it was, standing proud on the easel with the fruit and median in full view.
Green ran a hand through his sandy blonde hair. He could feel his palms being to moisten and his heart rate increase. Running to the phone, he called his agent, Jerome Grant.
As the phone rang, Green began drumming his hand on the coffee table, anxiously looking at the canvas every few seconds.
“Jer, it’s me.”
“Buddy! Didn’t you get my e-mail? I said there were no auctions until…”
“Forget the auctions. Listen, something weird is going on here.”
“What do you mean, weird? Like weird how?”
Green took a deep breath. “Well, I got this canvas from this old Italian lady..”
“Wait a minute,” Jerome interrupted. “An old lady works at an art shop?”
“She owns it now buddy. Anyways, listen. So I did a painting…a little thing..and everything I paint disappears.”
“Yeah, disappears. Like here one minute, gone the next day.”
Jerome chuckled. “Can you paint a headache? That would help me about now..”
“Listen, I’m being serious man, it’s freaking me out.”
“Ah, listen to yourself. Will you relax? You’re just working too damn hard. Take the day off. Get laid or something. I dunno. I’m sure everything will turn up. Ay, don’t forget about our breakfast meeting tomorrow morning..”
Green hung up the phone. He knew Grant wouldn’t understand.
He marched over to the easel and stared at the canvas. So, you’re gonna take everything from me, is that it?
Okay, experiment # 2. I’m going to paint myself.
Green thought about that for a moment. What the hell would happen to him? Maybe he would wind up with Ellen wherever she was and live happily ever after.
Maybe he would end up in some kind of vortex, a bizarre space/time continuum that had no beginning and no end.
Green picked up the palate and began meshing colors, intermittently staring at the canvas which had a hypnotic grasp on him.
As soon as the brush hit the canvas, Green began making some broad strokes that were completely different from that which he originally intended. There was not much room left on the canvas, but certainly enough to paint a human form and that is exactly what he was doing…but it was not him he was painting. It was as if his hands were furiously operating independent of his brain.
Ellen’s figure began to take form, with her dancer’s body and beautiful almond eyes courtesy of her Japanese heritage. Green painted her long fingernails the red they so often were and her beautiful white strapped high heeled dress shoes she loved. She was reaching over the median for one of the fruits (the apple perhaps?) her right forearm extended.
By dusk his arms were so weak and sore, the mere touch of the musculature caused ripples of pain to travel up to his shoulders. There were large circles of sweat underneath his T-shirt which he barely noticed as he worked.
The painting was complete. No more room left for anything, no object appearing on the canvas that was in the very room with him.
He had another beer, watched some ESPN and went to sleep.
At 6:00 a.m. the next morning, Green awoke, but not on his own accord. Someone was shaking him.
“Get up! Get up! Don’t forget about your breakfast meeting with Jerome. It’s important.”
Through his crusty eyes, Green made out Ellen, looking just as beautiful as the day he had met her.
Sonofabitch. It works in reverse.
“What’s the matter?” she said. “You look like you don’t know who the hell I am.”
Green shook his head. “Nothing’s the matter. Quite the opposite. It’s perfect.”
He knew he would never do anything more to the canvas ever again. He would not dare sell it and he certainly would not destroy it. And maybe, just maybe if he ever ran into the old woman again he would thank her. The one with the Corno to get rid of the Mallochio.
© Copyright 2016 Steve Balsky. All rights reserved.