The Fake
Rhapsody in Blue
Our new apartment did not feel like home. The furniture was modern and uncomfortable and the rooms smelled like a combination of musty old building and bleach.
Tall structures surrounded us and I longed for open meadows, trees, and mountains. The only room that felt right was Dad’s studio. The movers delivered hundreds of blank canvases in twenty different sizes that sat propped up against every spare bit of wall space.
Cynthia expected some serious production.
Dad decided to get right to work when we got back from pizza. He pulled out a sixteen by twenty canvas, set it atop his easel, and taped a photo of a hairbrush to the wall. He smeared dabs of cobalt violet, vermillion, and zinc white on his palate and then he began to block out the shapes.
The movers had only set up one easel and I was too tired to put the other one together, so I sat on Dad’s old gray couch—the only big piece of furniture we’d moved—and watched him work.
“I’m going to do a series of everyday items and call it, ‘The Beauty Within,’” he said. “Fun right?”
I smiled. “Definitely fun.”
In Dad’s better days, he’d been able to turn out a painting in a couple days, but lately he’d spent weeks working on the same two or three pieces. He struggled to get the level of detail he was famous for, and because he’d had to overwork them, his paintings didn’t feel as fresh as they used to.
But he was still a master at the beginnings. He could turn a blank canvas into a pretty realistic representation in an hour or two. It was getting from that to his hyper-realistic masterpieces that took work.
By the time the hairbrush was fully formed, my eyelids drooped. He was still hard at work when I fell asleep.
I woke sometime later to the sound of a frustrated moan. I opened my eyes just enough to see Dad, hunched and exhausted in front of the canvas.
He stared at the brush in his shaking hand and whispered, “Please God.”
He touched the tip to the canvas and breathed deeply as he attempted to paint a shadow along the hairbrush’s rim. He tried to steady his hand by gripping his shaky wrist with his other hand. It suppressed the tremor, but didn’t stop it entirely. The line wobbled.
He tried again and again, each time attempting to make the shadow exactly as it was in the photo and each time failing because he couldn’t keep his hand steady. Finally he set his brush and palette on the table and left the studio.
Dad’s brushes were worth more than the car I’d been trying to talk him into getting for me before we left home. I knew a night coated in paint would ruin their delicate hairs, so I got up, opened a can of acetone, and started the process of soaking and blotting.
He would get better.
He just needed rest.
He shouldn’t have started so soon.
He’d be back to himself in no time.
I’d been telling myself these lies for months.
Something was really wrong. I knew it now. My dad wasn’t well and it was getting worse.
Painting wasn’t just his profession. It was him. When Mom left, he survived by painting. When my grandma died last year he got through it because he could immerse himself in color and shadow until it didn’t hurt so bad.
And honestly, it wasn’t just the painting that was so important—it was also the praise. He glowed when people talked about his art. He needed to be reassured that what he was doing was important—that he was making a real contribution to the world. When reviews came in for his last show he’d been devastated. Most were civil though not really positive. One however, written by a critic Dad really respected, called the collection “uninspired, overworked, and kitschy.” He’d been crushed.
I held a brush up, examining the hairs to make sure they were clean.
Dad taught me how to use oil paints when I was three years old. Mom said I was too young for it, and honestly I probably was considering all the toxic chemicals in oils, but I loved the feel of a brush in my hand guiding thick paint around a blank canvas. I loved turning a white, flat backdrop into something full of movement and texture and life.
I developed a style of my own—one that was loose and free and more about feeling and color than replicating an object exactly. I didn’t like the constraints of realism. It wasn’t fun.
But I could do it, if I had to.
Dad’s palette was on the table—the colors mixed and ready.
I picked up a tiny detail brush and sucked in my bottom lip. It would be wrong to paint on Dad’s canvas. I knew that. People paid thousands of dollars for a George Foster original and they wanted it to be painted by the master himself.
But what if I could help? What if I could do the tiny bit he wasn’t capable of doing himself? What if I could make everything okay?
I mixed a little black into the violet and began.
I woke to the sound of the doorbell. It felt too early for a visit, but sun streamed through the blinds of my new bedroom. I rolled out from under the covers, wiped the sleep from my eyes, and tripped through the hallway to the front door just as Dad came out of his room, still in his pajamas.
“Expecting anyone?” I asked, groggily.
He shrugged and followed me to the door as the bell rang again.
He sighed and nodded to me with a knowing look. There was only one person who’d feel justified ringing our bell twice at six-thirty AM on a Sunday morning.
I opened the door to reveal Cynthia in all her New Yorker glory. She wore a perfectly tailored gray suit, black leather heels and a sickly sweet smile. In her hands was an enormous welcome basket, full of cheese and sausages and fancy crackers.
“Anna told me you made it yesterday and I just had to see how you were settling in.”
“Uh, we’re good, thanks,” Dad said stepping behind me, clearly uncomfortable being in pajamas for this visit.
“I knew you would be. Isn’t this apartment amazing? I had to pull strings to get you something so near the park. You’re going to love it here. New York is the perfect backdrop for your work. I’m dying to see some fantastic cityscapes if the creative bug takes you that direction.” She winked. “I think it will be just what you need to get back in your groove. Don’t you agree, Claire?”
I looked back at her blankly, still wondering why in Hades she’d come for a social call this early on a weekend.
“Can I see the studio? I’ve been on pins and needles to see how it turned out. We had to tear out a wall between the third and fourth bedroom so it would be airy enough, you know. I’d love to see what you’re working on. That is, if you’ve had a chance to start something new . . .”
“Actually, I started something last night,” Dad said, finally realizing this was not, in fact, a friendly visit. Cynthia had invested tens of thousands into this move and the apartment and everything, hoping it would restore her top painter to his former glory. Of course she’d expect results.
“It’s very rough,” Dad said, hoping to put her off.
Cynthia’s eyes lit up and she clapped her hands together like a giddy child, “I’m sure it’s brilliant!” She stuck out her bottom lip so she resembled a giant toddler begging for a lollypop, and added in a babyish voice, “Pwease let me see.”
Dad grimaced, almost imperceptibly, and then waved for her to follow him to the studio.
I stood there in the entryway, looking at their backs and feeling a vague sense of dread. And then I remembered the night before—the hours of measuring and painting and perfecting.
I sped down the hallway, but was three steps behind when Dad opened the door and Cynthia stepped in.
She brought her hand to her mouth.
Dad’s brow furrowed.
I slunk back from the doorway. Hoping to avoid the awkward moment when Cynthia asked Dad how he could paint something so terrible and Dad realized I’d defaced the canvas he’d worked on for hours last night.
“George,” Cynthia said, walking closer to the canvas. “I’m speechless.”
Cynthia was never speechless, and it was probably a very bad sign.
Dad turned his head to the side as his eyebrows knitted in confusion. “I, um.”
Cynthia turned to look at us with a grin so large even her bottom teeth were showing. “I told you New York would be good for you. This is easily your best piece in five years.”

Keep Reading

Chapter 4

Anything can happen in New York

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