originally published in O:JA&L
As the rain got heavier, people moved inside. When the annual Art Walk was held in good weather, everyone stayed out and enjoyed the spring twilight. Last year’s mild temperature and clear skies meant poor sales. Tonight, just about every place was packed. Moving among the paintings on display was difficult, and some business owners grieved the occasional drops of water shed by hastily closed umbrellas, even as they celebrated the occasional keen interest in one or two pieces.
Celia was soaked. She’d had to walk into town because her boyfriend Terry had been working swing shift all week at the hospital and just didn’t have the energy to get off the couch and give her a lift. Might she borrow the truck? Just for tonight? He reminded her that it was less than a mile and that she was always saying how she needed to get more exercise. Celia was a cashier in an upscale grocery store and found that hours scanning jars of imported olive oil, Oregon bleu cheese, and Japanese eggplant didn’t do much against the thirty extra pounds she carried, even though she was on her feet the whole time. When she reminded him what it was doing outside, he gave a tired look that just said, “don’t.” He told her to take his jacket, which was waterproof. On his days off he hunted or went fishing, depending on the season. He was a man who knew how to brave the elements.
The jacket was miles too big. The cold penetrated easily. Her track shoes squished with each step, and her feet were going numb.
But the art lured her on. She was a sometimes painter. Her fortieth birthday had been a big wake-up call. If she were going to make something of herself as an artist, she needed to work a lot harder. Terry was sympathetic. He said turning forty had been a kick in the balls for him, too. He was a custodian and didn’t know how much longer he could go on emptying bins of medical waste just for a lousy paycheck. Celia knew that if he won the lottery, he’d quit his job in a New York minute. Then she’d never see him. He’d be off somewhere with one of weird friends who tended to either be in rock-and-roll bands, or work for the sanitation department, or both.
And her? If she could get up in the morning and do what she wanted? Well, paint, of course. But spend more time seeing her mother, who suffered from multiple sclerosis and was confined to a Medicaid nursing home at the age of sixty-one. Then there were her sister’s three boys whose company she enjoyed a lot, except when they were hungry, or fighting with each other, or most recently when Trevor, the youngest at seven, threw up his chocolate milkshake all over the back seat of her car. That was months before, and it still smelled when she sold it after deciding that walking everywhere was good for her health.
A group of young people stood outside the door of a popular diner, laughing and smoking. One girl had green hair. A man had large gauges in his earlobes. Celia tugged involuntarily at her right one as she passed. She’d always found that look hideous. Some people wanted to make themselves ugly as some sort of statement, which was what, exactly? That beauty was bullshit?
She made her way toward Mona’s, a lovely gift shop that also had a good selection of work by local artists. Some day Celia’s watercolors would show there, with higher and higher price tags as time went on. Clarion was a small town in the South Sound region of Washington State, and just up the road was Seattle. That’s where the money was, art-wise. The galleries there were the goal, financially speaking. But money and art were poor bedfellows, weren’t they? How could you put a price tag on what came out of your soul? Then again, you had to pay the bills. Commerce and creation had to get along somehow.
She was momentarily distracted by a set of four drinking glasses that were nicely etched in broad, wavy strokes. She’d taken a glass blowing class once and adored it. Her vases were always lopsided, and the instructor eventually despaired.
Next to the glasses was a set of hand-embroidered napkins that struck Celia as fussy and too old-fashioned. And on the shelf below them was an assortment of small leather-bound journals. She picked up the one with a lavender cover and turned the blank pages, thinking she could use it to sketch in. The twenty-five dollar price sticker on the back dissuaded her.
Towards the back of the room several people were gathered next to an old man in a wheel chair. All of them were considering a watercolor in a heavy wood frame Celia saw at once was all wrong for the delicate shimmer of the image it contained. “Moonlight On The Bay” was full of blue and black tones, balanced against yellow and green. She approached and inspected every inch of the picture, led by the subtle changes in hue from one patch to the next. She was smitten.
The man in the wheelchair was the artist. He was telling the people around him that he had decided not to sell the watercolor, after all, because it needed a little something more. One woman protested and said it was perfection itself. He waved her off with a bent, gnarled hand.
“I absolutely agree. It’s amazing,” Celia said.
The old man looked up at her with tired blue eyes.
“Only the artist can say if a work is finished or not,” he said. He asked Celia to take the picture off the stand and hand it to him. She lifted it, held it about eighteen inches from her face, and gazed at it longingly. Then she set in his lap.
She asked his name. He took out a card from the breast pocket of his blue blazer.
Charles Lawton, then a telephone number with an out-of-state area code.
“Like the actor, only spelled differently,” she said.
“You’re too young to remember Charles Laughton.”
“I’m an old movie buff. In that I like old movies, not that I’m old, but you just said that.”
She sounded like an idiot, but Mr. Lawton didn’t indicate that he thought so. The group had moved off. He asked if she would mind pushing his chair towards the door. His driver would be bringing the car around in a minute.
She got behind the chair, waited for him to release the brake, and nudged him forward. She went very slowly, not only to avoid crashing into an expensive display of bone china, but because she wanted to talk him out of not selling the painting. Then it occurred to her that she probably couldn’t afford it, anyway.
“I take it you’re an artist, yourself,” Mr. Lawton said.
“Watercolor, as luck would have it.”
“Watercolor hasn’t been particularly lucky for me. I do better with oils and pastels, but I keep getting called back.”
“It’s the only way I can truly express myself.”
The rain hadn’t let up. Mr. Lawton’s driver wasn’t there, so Celia parked him to one side of the entrance and helped herself to a hand-painted rocking chair. After a moment it occurred to her that the sales clerk giving her the eye might not appreciate her butt gracing a piece of expensive merchandise, and didn’t care. She had Mr. Lawton all to herself. Even better, he let her look at the watercolor up close again.
How had he managed that blue in the middle of the bay? Had he blended cobalt and lavender? That’s what she would have done and suggested this, but he was distracted by the arrival of his driver, who turned out to be his grandson in a pickup truck that had seen better days.
The grandson was deft. He got Mr. Lawton into the passenger seat quickly then returned, folded up the chair, and put it in the bed of the truck under a thick tarp. Celia waved good-bye as the truck pulled away. Neither man saw her fond gesture.
She had the next day off. She set up her easel on the porch, barely warmed by a low-voltage heater she borrowed from the bedroom. The furnace way dying, and they were trying to do without it. The landlord had not yet responded to their messages about its pending fate. Celia suggested they just replace it themselves. Terry said she obviously had no idea how much a furnace cost, which was true.
She pulled out her last work-in-progress, a marsh. The cattails were well proportioned, and their hue was right, but the grasses were too blue. She added some yellow to lend a greener shade. It worked. She preferred realism in art though admitted that some painters who pushed the boundaries of color, like Picasso and Van Gogh, were geniuses.
The sky was a subtle mix of gray, purple, tinged with red. Dawn or dusk? Dusk would have murkier tones, she thought. Dawn would sparkle. Or was that too predictable? Couldn’t dawn rise drearily and dusk fall brilliantly?
Stop tripping yourself up and concentrate!
It was hard to. She was pulled back to “Moonlight On The Bay.”
The rain let up the following day, and her walk to work was complicated by huge puddles along the shoulder of the road. Terry had complained about what she’d made for dinner the evening before. She’d overcooked the rice because she’d been trying to work and get a meal on the table at the same time. Terry used to cook a lot when they first got together. He was pretty good at it, too. His specialty was spaghetti with browned garlic. He hadn’t made it for her in a long time.
At 11:30 she ate her lunch as she always did in the employee break room, which was sparse and dreary, at odds with the elegance of the rest of the store. The overhead lights hurt her eyes, and she made quick work of her chicken sandwich. Her supervisor, Drew, came to say that someone was out front looking for her.
It was Mr. Lawton’s grandson, who removed his baseball cap as she approached, then shook her hand. His palm was rough.
Mr. Lawton was doing poorly and wondered if she could come by and talk about the painting some more.
Celia asked if he had decided to sell it after all. The grandson — Luke — wasn’t sure, he hadn’t said anything about selling it. He just wanted to talk to her about it.
Celia asked how Luke had found her. He’d gone back to the gallery and asked someone there. The lady he’d talked to knew Celia well and where she worked and so, here he was.
“That would have been Maureen. Tall? Sixties?” Celia asked.
Luke looked vague. He clearly hadn’t taken note of her appearance.
He wrote down their address on a paper napkin he got from the hot soup kiosk. Celia said she didn’t get off work until four. She added that she had no way to get out there, so could he come back and pick her up?
Luke thought about it a long time. He said he’d try.
The hours slowed to an impossible crawl. Her distraction was noticed by more than one customer and by Drew, who said it was hard to be efficient when one’s mind was elsewhere. Drew was a gentle boss. Celia loved her dearly.
Four o’clock came, four o’clock went. Celia waited twenty-five minutes in the cold then walked towards home. Luke pulled up beside her.
“Sorry. Battery died. Had to get a jump,” he said. She climbed into the truck. On the dashboard was a bobblehead of SpongeBob SquarePants. The cab smelled of cigarette smoke, but the ashtray was clean.
They made their way towards Hays Harbor, a remote wooded section of Clarion. It occurred to Celia that she could be headed to her doom. Luke was spindly. She could probably fight him off. She remembered that she hadn’t told Terry she was going to be late. Her phone wouldn’t get a signal out here, in any case.
A light rain fell. The wipers were bad, and the windshield was soon streaked and hard to see through. They turned onto a dirt road through thicker woods at the end of which stood a large, handsome home, brightly lit and inviting.
Luke told her to go on in, the front door would be open. He needed to get the truck into the garage. The door was heavy, with leaded glass at the top. It led to a generous open space with a kitchen on one side and a huge stone fireplace on the other. The walls were covered with paintings, decorative plates, African masks, and stunning black and white photographs. What hung there was better than anything in the downtown Clarion galleries. If she ever won the lottery, this was the kind of house she’d have.
Mr. Lawton rolled his chair up a side hall and stopped. He stared at Celia then held out his hand. She walked over to him and took it in hers.
“Here you are,” Mr. Lawton said. He told her his studio was the first door on the right. She pushed him back the way he’d come and turned the corner into a room with a high ceiling and skylights. There were several easels set up, each with a work-in-progress, including “Moonlight on The Bay,” which he’d taken out of its frame. Next to a ceramic mug full of brushes were tins of paint. Some hadn’t been touched in a while. Others glistened with recent use.
“There,” Mr. Lawton said, pointing to the lower portion of the painting where the moonlight shimmered. Celia bent down to look. The yellow shade contrasted harshly with the water’s blue. It hadn’t looked that way in the gallery. He’d been working on, trying to make it right.
“More white? A hint of gray?” Celia said.
Mr. Lawton nodded. He lifted a brush from the mug with a trembling hand.
“You,” he said.
“Oh, no, I couldn’t.”
He pushed the brush at her. She took it. Her face was warm, but her fingers were cold. She dipped the brush in the glass of water on the side table, then put the tip into the tin of white paint, then into the one containing gray paint, and with excellent precision applied the bristles to the paper. She stood back. Mr. Lawton leaned forward. The moonlight had taken on a soft silvery tone that worked perfectly with the deep blue of the water.
He told her it was just fine.
“Now, sign your name below mine.”
“I can’t do that.”
“But it’s your painting.”
“Not entirely. Not anymore.”
“Mr. Lawton — ”
He pointed with effort.
Celia painted her first name. The letters were too large, she saw, and made Mr. Lawton’s signature seem small and insignificant.
He told her the painting was now hers. She was not to refuse. It could not go to someone who didn’t know it as she knew it, who had not completed it as she just had.
Luke came into the studio and asked Mr. Lawton if he wanted some tea. Mr. Lawton winced at some sudden pain, then shook his head. He told Luke to drive Celia home.
“I’m sorry I can’t ask you to stay longer. I’m rather tired at the moment,” Mr. Lawton said.
She removed the painting from the easel and shook Mr. Lawton’s hand. His eyes were damp.
On the way back to town, this time in Mr. Lawton’s much newer sedan, Luke said Mr. Lawton wouldn’t finish the other pieces now. He was all used up.
Celia cradled the rolled paper in her lap.
But I’m not.