I’m wandering through the fog down backstreets, alleyways, and riverside footpaths at around about midday, dead phone, alone, dressed a bit too warm, and I’m looking for somewhere to be. It’s Sunday and everything’s closed in this part of town. The cafés. The museums. Everything.
Grey fog, step, squelch, stand, step, scrape, step, scrape, step, oh well.
I turn the corner and all of a sudden it’s sunny again and there’s the river and a man and I look at the man. He’s painting, sitting on a cinder block, leaning on a brick wall, and 10×14 water colors hang on the wall, radiating from his arms and shoulders, drying, presumably all his own. He doesn’t look up at my footsteps.
I peruse his gallery. There are at least 50 paintings and they’re all dated today which is impossible cause it’s barely noon, but they’ve all been unmistakably coaxed to life by the same pair of hands that I now see painting from memory on another 10×14 canvas the face of a girl about my age — stroke, stroke, stroke, stroke, red, blue, purple, gold — and by the look on his face as he paints her, if she’s not dead then she’s at least gone.
The gallery is beautiful. There’s no way all the dates are correct.
“These are all only brushstrokes all done by only me.”
He still hasn’t looked up at me. He has a thick Italian accent.
“Most of the people in the galleries you will see they don’t do this. The brushstrokes. They are not talented enough. They use the inks, the dyes, they cheat. Me, only me, brushstroke only. You watch.”
I watch. He isn’t lying. I say, “Yes I see.”
“I don’t joke, nobody paint like this. It takes much practice. Study.”
I tell him I don’t doubt it. I wonder why he doesn’t his own —
“I don’t have gallery myself. This for me is fun. I am professor of mathematics. I did this once. I taught, I paint. I didn’t like the teaching. The students, so many of them didn’t quite, um, understand. They could just—“
He waves the brush in the air three times and looks at me, straight into my eyes, away from the girl on the canvas for the first time .
“Do you know what I say?”
“You are artist, yes?”
“Artist is a strong word.”
“Yes. Ha. Yes, you are right.”
He puts down the canvas. The painted girl stares up at us with her purple eyes. He’s got a pointed nose, crackling black electric eyes, and an exceptional tan on all but the bottom half of his face, where I assumed until recently must have sat a rather impressive beard. He claps my shoulder with his hand and looks past my eyes into parts of my soul I never knew I had, and for some reason, I know he’s not crazy.
“I see it.”
“The paintings are beautiful.”
“I normally don’t talk to people. I sit. I paint, they walk by, sometimes buy, but I don’t talk. Not usually. You, though, I see in you. I see in the young people. There is love, light. You must follow this. You are young, there is love in your soul. You must follow this. It is important to tell the young people this. They forget. It is important.”
His smile widens to the point I think his face might split down the middle.
“Oh no don’t you want—“
I give him a five and he doesn’t want it. He gives me a painting of Venice’s Grand Canal and one of a rather elaborate tombstone.
“No, normally they are $20, but I like you. Please remember.”
He takes my hand free right hand with both of his, shakes with purpose, and tells me to have a wonderful, prosperous, beautiful life and I thank him and I wish him the same and he tells me he has. He starts to finish the girl’s face.
I walk away toward the main road with the two paintings. I see an open bookstore — the first open place I’d seen all day — called Tombstone Books with a sign out front that says they have coffee. I go inside; the lighting is bright, it smells like history, and they are playing an experimental jazz song sung in a language I can’t understand. I give one of those paintings to my mother and father and will hang the other one in my apartment someday.