From the Editor’s Perch

Edtior’s Note:  Well, the Muse was with me, and I finished this story Christmas Eve… well in time to post.  But the Computer elves were not.  My computer failed me until today, when I was able to Google a help thread with the use of my Blackberry.  Hooray!  So here is the remainder of our tale.

A Christmas Story

Part Two:


Still, things remained pretty slack.  So I took any sort of work customers offered.  As Moliere used to admonish his troupe (to paraphrase a bit), “When the King wants to see a performance you don’t tell him you’re not ready.”  I drew from small and poorly lit snapshots.  I drew pets.  A lady brought me a two inch by two inch poorly lit snapshot of her shaggy dog, standing against the wind, with its hair being blown backwards across its face.  The only identifying features, besides all of the yarn-like hair, were three dots.  Two suggested eyes, the other a nose.  A magnifying glass got me that far.  But for the rest of the fifteen dollars I had to invent a lot of dog.  I drew babies…  Most babies’ features are near identical.  Their expressions are fleeting.  In fact, whatever they do is fleeting.  The key to recognition is in accurately recording the distance between their significant features: such as the eyes, the nose-eyes-mouth triangles, how far off are their ears?  And their mother’s brains are built like airport scanners that can pick the terrorist from a million other faces.  That’s not him!  “That’s not my baby.  That doesn’t look like my baby!”  (Well, what part of it do you think does?)  What I’d do for fifteen dollars!  One of the first things I did with my newly made money was to purchase a bigger magnifying glass. 

You had to watch the jokes.  Don’t tell a sweet little girl, “You move, and I’ll punch you.”  The mother’s gasp, just behind me, sucked  all of the air from the room.

Nice things happened.  A lot of people left very pleased that you’d noticed the same special quality about their loved one that they knew.  Some felt you’d done an ‘honest assessment’.  And some thought the chin was too long.  (Actually, the nose was too short.)  The best were younger children with dark hair and dark eyes.  You couldn’t miss.  And it was fun to observe their silence, or their chatter.  And I didn’t worry too much if they moved a bit.  Most humans (and animals) repeat the same gestures.  Patience worked.  I just had to be sure to finish in around twenty minutes.  Otherwise, it could become a tedious experience. 

The only exception to this were the pretty young women who would sit for their portrait, draw you into conversation and then ask, with a rather demur turn to their voice and a slight quiver to their eyelid: “Have you ever drawn women nude?”  This is the sort of experience you earn as a portrait artist.

Like any young man, most of the women I met were on the job.  One was a psychologist:  “I don’t think that you can actually produce the quality of portrait you have on display in the twenty minutes you have to do them in,” she suggested.  I didn’t argue with her.  I also didn’t say that anyone who won’t cheat or steal a little for their art, probably hasn’t the balls to get anywhere.  The last conversation I remember having with her, she insisted I was depressed.  I told her I didn’t think I was depressed; that I was just feeling the way it was.  You don’t understand she said, “Depression is a very, serious disease.” 

Well, I would agree with her partly there.  Art is a very, serious disease.  This is probably why parents become so concerned when they detect signs of it in their loved ones.  And there was the police officer who I went out with for a drink.  “Well,” she said, “if it’s not working out for you, you can always do something else.”  You go silent as an artist when you hear that.  ‘It doesn’t work like that,’ I thought.

A thought that slowly dawns on you as an artist is that most of the way you experience the world and/or ‘feel’, is illegal.  In the eyes of normal people, you are not simply describing failure and how it feels – you are suffering from a very, serious disease – and/or you’re a whiner, loser, complainer… (You go to the Thesaurus yourself.  It’s too depressing.)

I finally happened upon someone though, who it seemed I connected with.  And it happened through the first (and only) blind date I had ever arranged for myself.  One day I was finishing up a portrait of some …little girl, I imagine.  A small crowd had gathered.  And as the girl rose to claim her drawing I heard this high pitched squeal from behind:   “Oh.  Would you draw me?!!”

I turned.  And there was Miss Piggy.  A pretty tall, Miss Piggy, in a big pink foam head and flannel costume, and, of course, with those long flowing blonde locks and batting eyelashes… lovely round nose.  She had me from hello.   “Sure,” I said.  “Sit yourself down.”  “Oh goody,” I imagine she said. 

I started on the portrait; made a show of needing a much larger piece of paper.  She stayed in character.  I imagine we traded in Sesame Street gossip.  But as the crowd dissipated and I finished up – we made a date to meet at the base of the escalator when she got off around seven, (I think).

It was a delight and surprise to find I’d just made myself a date with a tall, healthy, good-looking, honey-haired blonde who looked a lot like Candice Bergen.  Turns out she was a highly intelligent, down on her luck professional tennis player who happened to have ended up broke in Seattle after losing one too many matches… and latched onto the first job she could find.  We attended the theater.  I believe I cooked dinner for her once.  She spent a day visiting with a famous young woman tennis player she’d coached who came to town during the Virginia Slims tournament.  (Have I remembered that right?  Did a cigarette company actually promote a tennis tournament?)  And going broke trying to do something seemed the most natural thing in the world to her.  Or, at least, I can’t remember talking about it.  Anyway, the last I corresponded with her, she had written me a note from the Bahamas where she was coaching at a plush resort.  I sent her some ash from the Mount Saint Helens eruption.

But they don’t call it the Christmas Rush for nothing.  You get down to those last few days and the shoppers become like desperate fish who will bite on anything.  They are literally tossing their money at you.  And my business picked up too! 

Time was money, and I’d never worked so hard.  You have to make hay while the hay is making.  And I worked hard right up to the line. 

By late afternoon, Christmas Eve, I was emotionally exhausted.  At the drawing group I attended we had a curious Chinese fellow who would check the arrangement of the features of our model with a measuring tape.  We’d be drawing away as he pulled the Carpenter’s tape out.  Then there would be a “snap!” as he got the measurement he wanted and left the tape to recoil.  I didn’t draw like that.  I judged the proportions – and everything else – by feel.  And by mid-afternoon Christmas Eve I was totally numb.  I had no idea what I was doing.  I still knew where I was.  But I would look out at a face; then look at the easel without any memory of recognition whatsoever.  I was moving by rote; winging it on a hope and a prayer.  You don’t turn down money.

The store was closing when my very last customer appeared.  He was a disheveled, quite drunk, pudgy, thirty-something year old male with a very red nose.  “I want you to draw my portrait,” he said.  I helped him to sit.

I did the best I could.  And he did the best he could.  He said he had been walking around for hours and just couldn’t figure out what to give his parents for Christmas.  He happened by my display when it hit him!  That what they would like would be a portrait of him.  I nodded, as I drew, as if that were very thoughtful.  For the life of me I couldn’t tell what the hell I was doing.  So he finally decided he would give me some help by stepping around the easel.

“The nose is too small,” he said.  This is very funny.  Because the standard cynical definition of a portrait is, “a painting in which the nose is too large”.  (Maybe Whistler said that.)   I worked on.  He sat.  Time passed, until finally even he was becoming restless and/or nodding off.   “You about done?”  He said.  “Just another minute or so,” I answered, softly.   I kept looking but I just couldn’t get a reading on whether or not it was right.   He awoke again:  “Because I have somewhere to be.”

All I could think of was the time in medical school when I lost a hooked needle in the bloody scalp of a drunk.  When you stitch a bloody scalp laceration, you’re never supposed to let go of one end of the needle with the clamp, until you have the other end securely clamped.  So how can you screw up?  I still don’t know.  But after a loud, drunken interrogation about what was “taking so looong?  Do you know what the fuck you’re doing!”   And I still couldn’t find the needle.  The intern finally bailed me out.

I looked around.  To my surprise all of the lights in the store had been turned out, and we sat within the one lamp which illuminated him, and the one drawing lamp which illuminated my easel.  Just on the perimeter of the circle of light I heard a ‘whimpering’?  I squinted further and there were three Dobermans standing patiently in choke collars about the perimeter, backed by their handlers in black leather jackets who were doing a last sweep of the store.  “Are you going to be much longer,” the most authoritative one of them asked me.  (With remarkable deference, I thought at the time – apparently to my ‘artistic needs’!)

“No.  I think I’m done right now,” I said.  I presented the drawing to my ‘customer’.  He looked it over.  Said thank you, as if however it looked, I had solved a big problem for him.  He paid me and left.  And I packed up and left immediately after.

I rode the number 7 home that Christmas Eve with about half a bus load of other non-committal passengers; just a portion of the left-out people of this world, not late for anything or needing to be anywhere.  I walked to my house and scooped up some dinner from the crock pot meal I had left simmering all day.  I sat in my bare living room in my one overstuffed chair and footstool, with my two cats layered on my legs for warmth, and watched the many colored lights on my jade plant twinkle.  One strand of indoor lights will go ‘round and ‘round a tiny jade plant.  And it shone brightly as a burning bush.

The End


Photo by Carl Nelson

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