Stories  Page 2

    

 

 

A Lovely Picture 

              by  Michael C. Keith

 

 And so he spoke and fed his thoughts on the unreal painting. -Virgil

 

                                                               

No matter how gloomy Sam Goldman’s state of mind--and it had been quite gloomy ever since his wife of 30 years divorced him--the small painting he had inherited from his father still managed to lift his spirits.  There was something about it that never failed to charm him and make his day a little brighter.  Over many years he came to regard it as his personal talisman and valued little else as highly.  Indeed, when he was feeling down in the dumps, he would stand before it and let its magic transform his mood. 

Since his former wife moved out months earlier he spent more time than usual gazing at the painting’s enchanted field of wild orchids because sadness consumed him and permeated every aspect of his life, even in the classroom where he always felt the weight of his life’s burdens lifted.   Now as he lectured his students on the lives of the transcendental poets he could not transcend his own bleak outlook.  The lecture hall had turned as dark as the landscape beyond it, and that fact brought him down even more.

When Sam finished teaching for the day he would dash home to refuel his barren soul, and while it took longer these days for the painting to lift him from the dark pit of his despair, it inevitably succeeded and Sam was able to get on with his routine activities.  At night, he would remove the painting from its hallway location and place it on a table beside the television so he could quickly feed his plunging spirits.   The idea occurred to him to take it to work for a fix when he needed it, but he ruled it out as impractical since he would have to transport it back and forth from home.  It wasn’t so much the concern about what people may think as it was the fear that it might be damaged during the commute to campus on the bus.

Despite the fact Sam had taught at the same college for over two decades, he had developed no strong friendships, and that added to his sense of isolation.  Being childless with few close relatives also compounded this feeling.  He was not ignorant of the fact that his depression was exacting a toll on him, and so he decided to do something about it.  He knew he had to be more socially engaged and proactive and so he decided to venture a first step in that direction by inviting a female acquaintance from the art history department to his house for lunch.

Over the years, he had a handful of encounters with Lara Beloit, mostly at faculty meetings and office holiday gatherings.  She was what some at the school had called an old maid, even though Sam calculated her to be only in her late 40s, and since he was pushing 60, that did not seem old to him by any stretch of the imagination.  Besides, he found her attractive, albeit in a way he could not quite explain.  While she was relatively plain looking her slender physique lent her a youthfulness that enhanced her overall appearance, and Sam figured that was why he found her pleasing to the eye.

To his pleasant surprise, she accepted his lunch invitation, and he spent the next few days agonizing over what to serve her.  He finally settled on a pear and cashew salad whose recipe had belonged to his ex-wife.  It was one of his favorite dishes, and this was the first time since his breakup that he was about to sample it again.  The prospect of that alone excited him as much as sharing it with somebody.   Nonetheless, he did look forward to a visitor, the first one he’d had in weeks, and he scampered about his house making sure everything was orderly and clean.  By nature he was not a sloppy person, but in his wife’s absence he had let some things slide.  For example, he had not removed the daily newspapers for at least a month, allowing them to pile up on the living room coffee table.

The doorbell rang exactly as the kitchen clock chimed one o’clock and Sam was both pleased and impressed with Lara’s promptness.  On that alone, she scored major points with him, since one of his pet peeves in life was tardiness.  In class he would count a student absent if he or she were late more than twice, and on that point he had been challenged more than once.

“Professor, how can I be marked absent when I’m actually here?” the repeat offender would lament, and Sam’s response was to direct the student’s attention to the course syllabus, where it unambiguously stated his rule on the subject.

For every two times a student is tardy he or she will incur an absence, and, as stated above, absences lower a student’s grade.  Arriving late to class is a major disruption and should be avoided or this penalty will be invoked.

When Sam opened the door, Lara pushed a cardboard box into his chest.

“It’s my key lime pie.  Thought you might like it.  Only dessert I’m very good at,” announced Lara with a certain gruffness that made Sam wonder on different occasions if she were  a lesbian.

The possibility of that did not trouble him, because what he wanted first and foremost was simple companionship to take the sting out of his loneliness.  The idea of romance was way down on his list of priorities, while adding friends to his solitary existence was high up.

“Please come in, and thanks for coming,” said Sam, escorting her into the kitchen where he had set the table. 

“Thanks for asking me,” said Lara, surveying the surroundings.  “Well, that looks yummy,” she added, pointing to the large leafy bowl and loaf of French bread on the table.

“Hope you like pear and cashew salad,” he replied and Lara nodded in the affirmative.

Over lunch they traded stories about work and what they agreed was an inept administration lead by a dean who was completely incompetent.

“He can’t even speak the King’s English.  My God, the man says ‘keep me appraised instead of apprised.’  It’s embarrassing when you take a job candidate to meet him.  He invariably Bushwacks the language,” complained Lara. 

As Sam cleared the table and took dessert dishes from the cabinet, Lara asked if she could use the bathroom.

“Right down the hall and to your left,” instructed Sam, pointing her in its direction. 

Several minutes passed when out of curiosity he peaked down the hall and there she stood motionless in front of his beloved painting.

“Wonderful, isn’t it?” he commented, moving in her direction.

“Yes,” she replied softly as her focus on the picture caused her face to line and harden.

“It belonged to my father forever.  Brought it with him from the old country.  He gave it to me just before he died.  Makes me feel better when I look at it.” 

Lara remained silent and fixed on the painting for several moments and then finally asked Sam if he knew where exactly his father had gotten the work.

“No idea, really.  In fact, he kept it mostly tucked away in his office at the factory, so I never really noticed it until he gave it to me a couple months before he died along with a bunch of other things.  I never thought to ask him where exactly he got it.”

More moments passed as Lara inspected the canvas with an intensity that intrigued Sam.

“Is it important?  Maybe done by a great artist?  A lost masterpiece, perhaps?  You’re the expert.  What do you think?”

Lara finally turned away from the painting and looked  at him with an intensity that only increased his curiosity.

“I’m not sure.  Can I take it and have it checked at the museum.  I have a friend there who’s an expert at identifying works of art that show up out of nowhere.  He’s a real Sherlock Holmes when it comes to this.”

“So it might be something special, huh?” asked Sam.  “I know it is to me, and I’m not sure if I want to be without it.  It gets me out of my grizzly funks when I look at it.”

“I think you should have it analyzed.  I have a hunch that this might have some special uniqueness,” said Lara returning her gaze to the painting and again scrutinizing it with deliberateness. 

“So what’s your hunch?” inquired Sam, now staring at the painting with her. 

“I’d rather not speculate.  When it turns out to be a painting done by a dairy farmer, I’d be embarrassed.  But let’s find out for sure, okay?” answered Lara assertively.

“How long will it take?  I don’t want to be without it for long,” replied Sam beginning to feel his anxiety grow at the prospect of being without his antidote to darkness.

“Not long.  Maybe a week or two.  Could be less.   I’ll try to push my friend along.”

Sam reluctantly agreed and with Lara’s help encased his precious painting in layers of bubble wrap for its transport to the museum.   His trepidation about handing the painting over to Lara affected his enthusiasm for her company and diminished his capacity for conversation.  Sensing this she left shortly after a helping of salad saying she wanted to get Sam’s painting to her friend right away.

That night he felt gloomier than ever and laid awake for hours before finally finding escape in sleep.   In the morning, Sam arose and walked to the wall where his painting had hung hoping that some residue of its transformative power still remained, but all he found was an empty space like the void in his heart.

A week passed and then two and Sam was getting desperate for the return of his painting.  During its absence his mood had darkened further to where he kept the door to his campus office closed in the event someone might stroll in to engage him in casual conversation.  In his present state of mind, he found that not only was he morose but he had become combative, and the slightest thing could set him off.  Better, he thought, to remain cloistered than to risk snapping someone’s head off.  Finally, he could take no more and insisted that Lara return his painting. 

“Who cares about its history or if it’s the work of a great artist.” he complained to her on the phone.  “All that matters to me is that it makes me smile, which is something I haven’t done since you took it.”

To his profound relief, Lara said she was meeting with her art expert friend that very afternoon and would bring the painting to him that night.  That news alone buoyed his spirits.

“My friend says he knows who painted it, but he won’t tell me until I meet with him.  He sounded pretty excited,” conveyed Lara, again promising to come directly to Sam’s house after the powwow with her friend.

When the doorbell rang a few hours later, he dashed to the door like a kid expecting the delivery of a new puppy.   Never had he missed anything as much as his painting, not even his former wife, who still had a prominent place in his thoughts.

“Welcome!” he blurted out as he swung the door open, and the greeting was as much for his picture as it was for the person holding it.  “Come in, come in.  So what’s the big news?”

Lara said nothing until they got inside, and then she took a deep breath before speaking.

“It is big news, Sam, but I’m not sure how you’re going to take it,” she said, a mixture of uncertainty and excitement in her eyes.

“Well, tell me, for God’s sake!” replied Sam, unwrapping the painting and holding it before him.  “Welcome home, my lovely friend.  You can’t imagine how you’ve been missed.”

Lara sat on the couch and suggested that Sam do the same, which he did balancing the painting on his knees like an uncle would his favorite nephew.

“It’s called “Flowers of Messines,” announced Lara.

“Messines?  As in Portugal?” responded Sam.

“Could be,” answered Lara swallowing hard. 

“So who painted it?  I owe him a lot,” said Sam smiling broadly.

“Hitler,” replied Lara hesitantly.

“Who?” asked Sam, his eyes finally leaving the painting and settling on Lara.

“Adolf Hitler, Sam.  It was painted by Adolf Hitler.”

Sam began to chuckle at what he thought was a cruel joke.  “Maybe while he was in prison writing Mein Kampf, right?” he quipped, giving Lara a look of exasperation.

“He was a painter when he was young, and my friend at the museum thinks your picture dates back to the teens.  Maybe 1915 or thereabouts.”

Sam’s head spun as he stood up and placed the painting against the wall. 

“You’re serious, aren’t you?  I can’t believe it.  My little picture was done by the world’s greatest monster?”

“It’s not all bad, Sam.  It may be worth a lot of money.  You could sell it and take a long vacation,” Lara offered.

Sam suddenly felt the need to be alone and asked Lara to leave.

“Are you sure you’re okay?  I know this news is pretty shocking.  Don’t do anything rash.  Give it some thought.  It has real historical significance,” advised Lara nodding toward the painting as she rose from the couch to leave.

“I don’t know what I’ll do with it,” replied Sam, escorting her to the door and thanking her for her efforts, although he wished he hadn’t let her take the painting in the first place.

When Lara was gone, Sam returned to the couch and sat staring at Hitler’s handy work for hours.  As the night went on Sam realized the long-time positive effect the painting had on him had not vanished despite news of its creator.  In fact, his mood had improved substantially since its return.  So what if it was the work of a fiend, thought Sam?  It was still a lovely picture, one that gave him hope and eased his angst.  Shortly before dawn, he returned the painting to where it had hung for so long and went to bed.  In a dream that quickly followed, he was a young boy clinging to his father’s leg as Nazis soldiers goose-stepped past them.

He was awakened several hours later by the telephone.  A reporter from the local newspaper said he was calling to confirm if he was the Sam Goldman who owned an authentic Hitler painting.  Sam was dumbfounded.  How could anyone know this, he wondered, and then responded to the caller by hanging up.  It must be Lara, he thought, but that did not seem plausible.  She was not the kind of person to behave like that.  Not the kiss and tell type.  After several moments of further speculation, he concluded that word was likely leaked by her friend at the museum, who probably wanted to claim discovery of the painting’s origin.  That scenario made the most sense to Sam.

By evening the whole town knew about Sam’s painting, as it had made the front-page of the city’s newspaper.  He called Lara in a highly agitated state demanding that she confront her museum friend about what he did, and she said she had already done so.

“He’s really sorry, Sam.  It turns out his cousin is a reporter at the paper, and he casually mentioned the painting not thinking where it might lead.  Stupid on his part, and he knows it.  He might even lose his job over it, because the museum has a rule against employees discussing their work to the press.”

“He should lose his goddamn job!” snapped Sam.  “Does he have any idea what kind of  headache this may cause me?”

Before Lara could say anything further, Sam hung up.  The next day as he was preparing to leave the house for his classes, there was a sharp knock on the door.  Before him stood two young men adorned in black leather from head to toe.  Sam’s first thought was that they were skinheads and he was right.

“Can we see the Fuhrer’s painting?” they asked in unison craning their necks to see into the house. 

“I don’t have any such painting,” replied Sam closing the door.

The two men stood in front of the house for a brief time checking a piece of paper which apparently held Sam’s address.  When they finally departed, Sam dashed to the bus stop fearing he might encounter the twosome again.  His enthusiasm for teaching was nil and he had all he could do just to get through his lectures.   Back home his answering machine flashed.  There were several messages from people inquiring about the painting and one was from the rabbi at the temple he attended, who said he had an urgent matter to discuss with him.  His was the only call he answered.  The rabbi wanted to see him and pressed Sam for a time he could visit him that evening.  Sam reluctantly agreed knowing the rabbi wanted to discuss what everyone else did.  Actually, Sam thought the visit might be an opportunity to unburden himself.  Who better to speak about matters of the heart, he mumbled to himself as he returned the phone to its receiver.

The rabbi was late, and as usual that did not sit well with Sam.  Nonetheless, he concealed his displeasure when the clergyman finally appeared. 

“Hello, Sam.  So you’ve been in the news lately.”

“I’m afraid so,” replied Sam, escorting the rabbi into the living room.

"Where is it?” asked the rabbi, waving off Sam’s offer to take a place on the couch.

“The painting?” responded Sam, unnerved by the rabbi’s cut to the chase.

“No, the Statue of Liberty.  Yes, of course, the Hitler painting.”

Sam’s first instinct was to tell the rabbi to leave, but he stifled the urge and complied with his request, escorting him to the hallway where the painting hung.

“Amazing,” remarked the rabbi, transfixed by the scene before him.  “How could such a devil make something so beautiful?  You must donate this to the Holocaust Museum.  It is the only moral and ethical thing you can do as a Jew.”

“I’m not sure I want to give it away,” responded Sam.

“What do you mean?” asked the rabbi, and after a moment’s hesitation said, “Oh, I see, you want to sell it.  Make some money.  Samuel, is that what you want to do with it?  How can you think of profiting off of this mass murderer’s work?  Tell me that’s not what you’re thinking of doing.”

“No, I’m not going to sell it.  But, I need to keep it, at least for a while.  It helps me feel better,” replied Sam directing the rabbi toward the front door.

“Makes you feel better?  How can the work of a psychotic killer make you feel better?  I don’t understand that.”

“I’m not sure I do either,” said Sam as he escorted the rabbi out of the house.

“Think about what is the best thing to do in this case, and you’ll realize what I’m proposing is the only conscionable action,” were the rabbi’s parting words, as Sam closed the door behind him.

Sam spent the next couple of days incommunicado.  The phone had rung constantly about the painting, and he had finally taken it off the hook.  Nor did he answer the door on the frequent occasions someone rang the bell or knocked.   It had all become too much for him, and while it pained him greatly, he decided to destroy the picture that still provided him such crucial solace.  He planned on a symbolic method for doing away with the scandalous objet d’art, one he felt most appropriate.  He would burn it in his old gas oven, which had not been used since his wife left him.  

While he vacillated about whether to go ahead with his plan, he ultimately found the resolve to do so and placed the painting in the oven and ignited it.  It soon caught fire and its flames burst forth from the oven door washing the kitchen in intense light and transforming it into a field like the one in the painting.  Sam found himself in a meadow of wild flowers as a gentle breeze caressed his face.  This must be heaven, he thought, as he took in the sublime landscape.   There, not twenty feet away, stood a man before an easel applying oil to a canvas.  Sam moved in his direction and the artist turned to face him.  Sam’s heart stopped.  It was young Hitler.  

 

“You . . . it’s you!!” Sam cried out and sprung atop the person who would soon execute the worst atrocities in history smashing his head against the ground repeatedly until the life had drained from him.

 

                                                            *          *          * 

The secretary of the English department where Sam taught had tried to reach him after he missed classes.  When she dialed his home number she got a busy signal, so she figured he must be okay, but when he missed classes a second time, she informed the department chairman, who knew Lara had the most recent and ongoing contact with Sam.   When Lara informed him that she, too, had not seen him for several days, they decided to ask the police to check on him.  Immediately after the call Lara went to Sam’s house to await their arrival.  

There was no response to their repeated knocking and doorbell ringing and by then Lara was convinced something was gravely wrong.  It took little to persuade the officers to enter the house through an unlocked window, and as soon as they were inside, the smell of fumes accosted them.   They found Sam’s body in the kitchen. 

“He gassed himself,” observed one of the officers, while the other called for an ambulance.  “No rush.  He’s been dead for a while.”

Lara’s stomach did a flip-flop and sensing she was about to vomit she headed to the bathroom.  On her way she shot a glance at the image that had caused so much turmoil.   It beckoned her and she was unable to resist the urge to respond.  Long minutes passed as she stared at it thinking what a lovely picture . . . what a truly lovely picture.

 

                                              

Bio: Michael C. Keith is the author of several books, including a critically acclaimed memoir published by Algonquin Books in 2003.  He teaches Communication at Boston College.