The Peculiar Painting

by Desmond Manny

I’m standing and staring while people are having to navigate around me the way a swiftly moving stream flows around a mute, resolute stone. Transfixed, immovable in my shock and confusion, I don’t notice that Paula has moved along with the current of the other patrons. All of them are moving on to the room with sculptures that look like either a crackhead’s nightmare as imagined by H.R. Giger, or something the cat I had when I was eleven might have coughed up. Right now all I have attention for is this painting. This stretched piece of canvas on which some dead guy painted a portrait of some other nameless dead guy. The dead guy in the painting has my face.

It’s not a passing resemblance either. My face stares out at me in a relief of brush strokes with the same fidelity as a mirror. It is the second face I see every morning, the first being Paula’s, but this one I see in the mirror as I start my day. I know the sweep of the jawline I’ve shaved countless times, the bridge of the nose broken once during a soccer game, the thick curve of the eyebrows that earned me the name “Bertie Boy” after the Sesame Street character. It is me in 15th century costume, and it makes me think of those cardboard cutouts at the fair for humorous photographs. Stick your face in the hole and you’re a muscle-bound gorilla. At this moment I’m not laughing.

I can feel my head shaking slightly in rejection of this entire moment. There is enough ridiculousness in the world without this sort of thing. I’m leaning forward from the waist to scrutinize the painting more closely. Immediately regretting the action as I notice a tattoo on the forearm of the man in the painting. Like the face, the tattoo is my own. It is nearly covered by the sleeve of the man’s shirt but it is there. Unmistakably there.

“Bullsh-”, I begin in a whisper. There is a man speaking at my back then. Turning toward him I look at someone else other than the me in the painting for the first time in who knows how long. He’s about the age of my father and has the same sort of bearing. A dark green sport-coat hangs awkwardly on his slim frame and I notice the edges of the sleeves both hang past his wrists and are fraying. On the lapel of the ugly coat is a thin gold nameplate that says, “Sam Groate”, and underneath the name the word, “Docent”.

I’ve been standing in front of the painting too long. Set of all kinds of suspicions. Sam here has been sent to see what my deal is, and to send me hurrying along toward other exhibits and installations if he doesn’t get a bad vibe off me. Possibly, I’m one of those nuts who likes to walk into museums and throw paint on the art, or slash at them with box cutters. Would that be a self-inflicted injury in this case?

“Beautiful work isn’t it, sir?” Sam speaks to me with a deep and engaging voice. He sounds a bit like Micheal Ironside and looks a bit like Timothy Leary. An oddly comforting mix.

“Is it?” I turn back to the painting. Staring again into my own eyes trusting Sam to do the heavy lifting of our conversation.

“Gustave Micheline is the artist’s name. Not as well-known as some of his contemporaries, unfortunately.” Sam is standing at my shoulder now and we both stare up at the painting. “You’ll notice his use of color and a muted palette. It imparts a sense of reality to the painting that some find disquieting.” Sam had to see it. My sense of reality was at the snapping point and I needed Sam to see what I saw, to prove I’m not having a moment of insanity. I am definitely disquieted.

“The subject,” I say. “Do you notice anything odd about it? The man’s face I mean.”

“Probably some minor nobleman. You can see the intelligence there. Educated. Probably commissioned the painting for his private residence.”

I look at Sam now. Is he messing with me? “He looks just like me.”

Sam looks from me to the painting. “Do you think so, sir? I suppose there is some general resemblance.”

“General? He has my face! He looks exactly like me!” Yelling isn’t my intention but my voice goes up octave after octave with each word.

Sam puts out a hand on my shoulder, unmoved by my anxiety. He sighs and closes his eyes. When he opens them again he fixes me with a hard look. “It happens sometimes, and I’m sorry son.”

“It happens? The hell?”

“Micheline was said to have a gift. As the old legend goes he painted his portraits not of people who would sit for him, but of people who would one day view his paintings.”

I brush the hand from my shoulder and take a step back. I am not stupid. Stupid is what this was. “You’re telling me this guy painted portraits of people in the future? Like, a regular thing?”

“I can only tell you the legend. And offer that last year we had another two Micheline paintings on display. Each depicted a blond woman of noble birth. One showed her on her wedding day, the other with an infant in her arms. A woman came in, pregnant with her first child. Nearly fainted when she caught sight of the paintings. Claimed, like you, that they were paintings of her.”

If he is an actor he is a damned good one. Sam seems genuine in his story. “So this painter, you have more of his work here?”

“A few more, yes.”

“Of this…person?”

“Well, I don’t know for sure. It’s possible. Next week a few more are going to be hung that accompany this one. You could always come again and see for yourself. Nothing like the proof of your own eyes.”

##

Sam watches the young man move on to catch up with his wife. Moving toward the corner of the room he presses what looks like only an outline in the bare wall but is actually a door. Following a winding set of corridors that make their way behind the exhibits he finally comes to a large room with people, a bank of security monitors, and a makeshift painting studio.

At the bank of monitors a young security guard in a blue uniform turns to smile at him. “You took your time with that guy, Sam. Wasn’t your usual charm working on him?”

“Some take a little more finessing, that’s all.” Sam removes the ill-fitting sport-coat and tosses it across the back of a chair. A woman sitting at the easel works over a canvas. Sam looks over her shoulder. On the canvas is a picture identical to the one Sam has just been discussing, except it’s face is blank and the woman is quickly filling it in with precise brushstrokes using a printed out photograph pinned to the frame. The photograph has been captured on the museum’s security camera as patrons enters. A thin-lipped blond man with a goatee is seen walking behind two children.

Kids always make selling it a bit easier, thinks Sam. “Good work, Angela.” He pats the woman on her shoulder.

He joins the other docents at the square table where they are playing cards. “You’re up on this one, Carrie. Guy has kids and you are great with kids.”

“Sure, Sam.” the dark-haired young woman leaves her spot and walks across the room to pick up the sports-coat. She fixes her own name tag to the lapel and is off to bring a little excitement into another life. Who wouldn’t want their day brightened a bit by a dash of the unusual? And if it helped with the museum’s attendance rates, all the better. Sam sits in her place and deals himself in.

Copyright Desmond Manny 2015

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