Ned’s fingers drummed along the steering wheel. He’d been watching them, thick and dry-skinned, tap the faux-leather wheel for at least five full minutes. He needed to get moving soon; the walk from the Millennium Park garage to the Art Institute of Chicago was about a block. Ned plunged his tapping hand into the vest pocket of his security uniform and withdrew a plain golden wedding band. It slipped onto his ring finger as easily as it had twenty-three years ago.
Deb had removed her ring when she asked for the divorce; she never missed an opportunity for the dramatic. That had been on Friday. The rest of the weekend the ring sat, judgmental as a disapproving mother, on their kitchen table nestled between the salt and pepper shakers. Ned wanted to wipe one of his big arms across the table, clattering china and ring alike to the floor. It was the same sudden rush of adrenaline that had threatened to overtake him the first time Deb had come home with her eyeliner melting and her lipstick smudged. However, instead of lashing out, Ned had retired to the garage. He hunkered down at his desk and busied himself with a model replica of the HMS Belfast. By Sunday evening he had finished, detail paint and all.
Throughout the weekend Ned treaded like a monk. He kept his balding head bent low, retrieved what he needed from the fridge, and shuffled back to the monastery of his garage. His only extended forays into the house had been to sleep on the couch. Aside from one occasion, when Deb informed him she would be staying with their daughter, Cheryl, they spoke only in silence and averted eyes. A conversation hung in the air between them. After nearly a quarter-century of marriage, Ned could identify the telltale signs: the eyes opened a bit more than normal, the eyebrows arched, the way she scratched her thumb with her index finger. She was waiting for him to ask, “Why?” Ned could tell she was prepared to answer; her lips trembled under the burden of response. He had no desire to ask, no desire to let Deb convince him he was at fault.
His wife was no mystery to him. The night she’d first allowed another to touch her, twelve years ago this past spring, this past April, he’d been a good man. He had come to his wife with forgiving words. “What’s wrong?” he’d asked while wiping his thumb slowly across the moist skin beneath her blue eyes.
She told her story. The lawyer’s hand had rested on her shoulder while they poured over paperwork. Slowly it had drifted towards the small of her back, then further to graze across her behind, firm from an obsession with the elliptical machine. At this point, she’d started crying, her eyes spilling into Ned’s shirt. “Go on,” he’d said. Deb described how the lawyer’s fingers had slipped between the band of her black pants and the skin of her waist — how his other hand brushed aside the wintry blond hair from her ears and softly traced them.
Ned listened with a growing, jealous, possessive heat he could no longer contain. “That damn suit!” Ned shouted three or four times; it was all he could say while his mind, unable to articulate his anger, spun like wheels in winter snow. “That damn suit! I ought go in there and touch him! Touch him right in the fucking face!”
“Ned, don’t! I stopped him, I stopped him.” Deb had reached out pulled Ned towards her, her sobs becoming soft murmurs, heated little whispers of apology and assurance that warmed the skin of his neck. “Let me handle it,” she had said. She thanked him, kissed him, calmed him. Her face was flush with the thought of the challenge. Deb, from her short hair to her pantsuits, her dark-rimmed glasses to her serious, thin lips, was every inch the lawyer, the breadwinner, the independent woman — she could handle this issue at work. She needed to; she had to present strength and self-reliance at all times.
Ned never heard her say these things, but he knew them by heart like the Baptist hymnals he used to recite when he was a choir boy. As he had watched her go to work that morning, beautiful and buoyant as ever, he let his anger slip. But he did not relinquish his guard for a long time; he asked about the co-worker, about other harassments she may have faced . . .
It all seemed a lifetime ago, only distantly part of the same reality in which he found himself. A reality that had this very morning presented him with a lunch packed by Deb sharing the same table as her disowned wedding ring. Deb was gone. The bed already made. A yellow note was stuck to the brown paper bag: Love you. I’ll pay the mortgage until we work things out. Deb.
Ned had picked up the bag, his arm burning to throw it. He didn’t.
Ned hustled down the peeling plaster stairs and out of the garage, his face warm from reminiscing though the crisp, chill November wind whipped his cheeks. Across the wide avenue before him the Art Institute of Chicago stood, stone-walled and stately, an urban castle. He turned away from his workplace, and the yellow cabs, blue-grey busses, and sedans that crawled along Columbus and Monroe, the early morning commuters that marked Chicago’s daily awakening. He strolled through Millennium Park, Chase promenade at his left, the leaves of the trees already past colorful and now a withered orange-brown that drooped towards the wet grass and cement threatening to plunge. The silence was more comforting than the rush across Monroe, though it did leave his black shoes slick with dew. Ned had only recently begun taking this way to work, a straight path through the park to Nichol’s Bridgeway. The bridge rose up and over Monroe connecting to the Institute and Ned liked to get in early and stare at the traffic that passed underfoot. Staring down at the city winding beneath him made him feel like the captain of his own ship; it was a jolt better than coffee.
However, having dawdled enough, Ned strode through the glass doors of the institute. His black, polished shoes clicked hard off the wooden floor drumming a military cadence; the effect lent itself well to his crisp, pseudo-authoritarian uniform. After clocking in and passing out morning greetings, Ned settled into his familiar station, gallery 391.
The third floor gallery, devoted to early 20th century European masters, held Ned’s favorite piece, Picasso’s The Old Guitarist. The painting was stark; it lured patrons to it with a brutal melancholy that seeped from the aged colors. The guitarist was elderly and frail. His body was stretched thin seemingly held upright only by the strength of the guitar itself. Short, white hair and wrinkled skin clearly showed the age of the dying musician. Still, the old man was oddly serene, as if despite the fact his body was withering and dying, his music would divert people from the slow decay.
“You have a blue guitar,” Ned quoted the one poem he knew, the one inspired by the Picasso; “You do not play things as they are.” Ned had always loved the painting. He remembered the day he’d eavesdropped on curators as they explained the piece. They’d spoken of the Wallace Steven poem and also revealed the faint image of a woman underneath the painting – a remnant of an earlier scrapped illustration by Picasso. The curator had waved his thin hand over the piece revealing the ghostly woman just beyond the hunched guitarist’s shoulder, ethereal and dark like a shadow. On slow days, Ned would consider her slight outline and wonder what she did to deserve being buried beneath the sorrowful old man.
Ned had felt an electric thrill at the knowledge he’d gleaned that day. After work, he’d stopped at the Harold Washington Library. Fully captivated by the painting’s allure, the building’s red stone and grand windows, intimidatingly austere, threateningly academic, did not deter his entrance. Inside the hushed building, Ned silently scanned through the expansive section on poetry; his fingers skated along book jackets like kids playing pond hockey, quickly and without direction. He’d not asked for help; poetry, art, the world suddenly open to him that day had before been distinctly feminine. Yet, he found the book, found the poem, and rushed home. That long-ago evening, after Deb had finished studying for her boards, Ned caressed her thigh. The back of his working man’s hand brushed her silken, tight skin. He told her of Picasso, of the Blue period, words he barely understood pouring out of him, a waterfall. His hands climbing higher up her leg, he recited a few lines of Steven’s poem. Ned had never felt so in control, not even when he spent still, quiet hours crafting HMS replicas piece by tiny piece.
Control was mysterious to him now. He almost laughed even though he realized it was far from funny.
Schoolchildren, teachers, elderly couples, tourists, guides, and curators began to populate the gallery. Ned settled into his post. He stood motionless except for occasionally slipping his ring along the length of his finger; every few moments Ned would catch himself in this act and clamp his hands together like a vice. Patrons skimmed past his presence as if he were a function of the building – a wall, a door – and continued basking in the art.
Every patron but one.
The woman was young. She perched over a thick gray sketchpad. Little white earphones with long white cords draped downwards through her ebony hair and twined around her tan, foreign skin. She was a sketcher, a common sight at the Institute. Rhythmically, her almond-colored eyes came up for little breaths of air, took in her surroundings, and then dove back into the depths of her sketchbook, while her pencil worked frantically. On each resurfacing she locked stares with Ned. On the third such rise, he smiled sheepishly and broke their dance.
Ned looked and listened to the museum’s pedestrian traffic. Mostly conversation, as a soft murmur, a mixing of words and languages, served as the musical backdrop to the museum. The steady thrum of blended voices was comfortable to Ned; he’d been conditioned, he once told Deb – drive with the car off, exercise without headphones, just listen to the background.
So attuned was Ned to the white noise of the museum, any disturbance of the regular vibrations caught his attention. A middle-aged couple, a small bearded fellow with the hint of a gut pushing out on his dark sweater and a woman with thin glasses pinched on a thinner nose stood before the Picasso, whispering like school kids. One pass elicited a laugh from the bespectacled woman, a slight, lyrical giggle. The man put his arm around her.
“Her boyfriend,” imagined Ned; no rings graced their fingers. Ned leaned towards the couple. He hitched a thumb towards the Picasso. “Peter Frampton when he is 90.”
The couple’s heads snapped towards him, surprised. The man issued a polite chuckle, the woman a thoughtful nod towards the oil painting.
Ned resumed his security guard stance, leaning back from the pair. They passed by, scurrying out of the gallery. He should have kept his mouth shut, observe and report, not speak; Ned wished he could grab his words and rope them back in. But of course, he did not apologize and even had he the means to wrangle his words, the couple had already left.
Deb had first made the joke, the connection between the withered guitarist and the pop singer. Ned defended the Picasso against such silliness. Silliness. How often Deb would make faces, stick her tongue out after a dirty joke she’d just told poorly. Ned used to be embarrassed to go to the movies with her – her laugh like a squawking gull would cause heads to snap their way. He’d shush her while trying to palm his own laugh in. That shriek was one of the few things she was sensitive about, one of the ways he could always tease her gently. The teasing caused her to laugh more. Ned always prided himself on pulling that high-pitched giggle out of her.
He hadn’t made her laugh, had not even wanted to make her crack a grin, since that day a month ago; the day she came home with him all over her.
It had clung to her faintly, so damn faintly – the musk of Old Spice. She had come home on the verge of tears. He asked her, his voice barely a whisper, “How did this happen again? Am I just catching it now?” No words, just crying. “You gonna take care of it, huh?” How easily his voice had slipped back to the voice of his youth. She didn’t jump to answer. Sobs racked her body. A tension ran the length of Ned’s arm, from his fist to his shoulder, like a corded rope wound too tight. That strain had fatigued his arm so badly, he’d not the steadiness to finish the HMS Phoebe as he hunkered over the model into the lightening hours of the next morning. He just stared at the Leander Class frigate for the whole of the evening, the aft-most gun turret resting in his palm. Twice he’d attempted attaching the piece flush with the gray deck of the ship; twice shaking hands caused the delicate wood to misalign.
She’d take care of it like she did twelve years ago. He couldn’t protect her from the damn louts she worked with, the “old boy’s club” of the law firm. Deb would always come home with a world-weary smile, like she’d had it up to here, right where the corners of her lipstick-laced mouth turned into her cheeks, with all the testosterone and bullshit. She’d say things, complaints disguised as grand statements, “I work twice as hard and do four times the job of anyone else at that firm.”
It had been hell for her to have a kid. Deb heavy, her stomach swollen but her limbs still spindly – watermelon belly, spaghetti arms, he used to say. She worried about Cheryl, but she worried about the firm, too. Would they need her? Would they give her a decent caseload when she returned?
They did. She’d seen to that — marched in there and told them she was back all the way, one hundred percent. Ned still remembered how fiery she looked that evening, how her hand smacked the kitchen table for emphasis, how the slap of skin against the table’s cheap wood had scared Cheryl and caused Ned to plant a dollop of Gerber banana across his daughter’s puffy, red cheek.
She’d handle it again; Ned couldn’t protect her, not when she’d hate him for it, not when it would rob her of that fire.
That night a month ago, unlike the night twelve years before, they did not collapse into each other’s arms; their mouths did not hungrily seek out each other’s skin. He had stayed in the garage fiddling with the Phoebe, but never finishing it. The only model he’d quit on. The next day they shared a few sentences over breakfast, and went to work.
In the weeks that lingered like an illness between that night and her removal of the ring, Ned had wanted to say something, wanted to pat her shoulder, give her the comfort he’d offered before . . . but he didn’t. He feared a slip of the tongue, admittance to fantasies of barging into her office and bloodying his knuckles on every asshole in the place, fantasies of asking her to quit.
“Frampton.” As was often the case, his wife had been right. Was she right to leave him? Right to set the ring he’d given her on the table? Right to leave him because, maybe, maybe he had already left her. His own ring seemed to grow hot on his finger; he should have taken it off.
The room, now empty except for security guard and sketcher, seemed cavernous.
Ned didn’t want to stay. He exited, glancing at the girl’s pad as he passed, but could see nothing over her slight, hunched form.
Ned slipped through the galleries like a ghost. Arriving at his destination, he settled his girth against a steel-gray door and eased it open. The break room, with its gray-flecked tile floors and unadorned walls, was antithesis to the rest of the museum. Above the doorway a large circular clock hung, a ticking reminder that work waited. A fridge and a counter complete with coffeemaker, condiments, cups, and sink, shared the back wall.
Ned poured himself a coffee. It never tasted like his wife’s. Deb possessed unique powers of persuasion, especially with, but not limited to, coffeemakers. She could turn an ordinary cup of joe into a coffee shop delight. The key, she’d said many times, was raw sugars, brown and clumpy, and whole cream. He wondered if she did the same thing at the firm, if the man who’d touched her, who’s cologne had settled into the fabric of her blouse so fully when Ned saw it hanging limp in the closet he could smell him, he wondered if this man had also tasted her coffee, had it awaken him every morning, same as Ned. He tossed in a non-dairy creamer and two packs of sweetener. He stirred the drink together with two thin straws and tried to name his beverage. Perhaps, the café de Ned.
The door clicked open. Roger Yaschmidt, head of the Institute’s security and maintenance, nodded as he came in, his bushy orange-red hair flopping forward. “Ned, how the hell are you?” Roger slapped a powerful hand on Ned’s shoulder. Roger was a forceful man carrying a barrel chest and thick arms; he was an ex-marine, a point he brought up too regularly.
Ned eased back, letting Roger’s big hand slip from his shoulder. “Not bad. Not too bad at all. You?”
Roger made his coffee, one sugar and no cream, before answering. “Tired.”
Ned took a sip of his own beverage, but hissed; it was too hot for his liking. He waved away some of the steam. “Yeah, you look a beat, Roger.”
Roger wiped a few fingers across the top of his lip, clearing away coffee that had dampened his thick mustache. He leaned against the counter. “Goddamn Sunday night football.” Roger was a diehard Bears fan, born and raised. He could, and would, talk about the game every day of the week – rosters, injuries, play-calling. “What happened to all the games being played in the afternoon?” Roger took sip of his coffee and shook his head. “Ned, you ever try leaving Soldier Field at eleven at night with sixty thousand buzzed yahoos?”
“No, don’t think I’d have the patience.”
“Damn straight.” Roger rolled his eyes. “Then Ruth, you remember my wife, well, she gets on me about being out until damn near one in the morning.”
Ned took another sip and nodded.
“Well, that’s the goddamn straw that broke the goddamn camel’s back. I tell her what’s what, she gets pissy.” Roger stopped abruptly and let loose a big grin, his face growing childlike despite the thick orange mustache. “Course, I found a way to make her feel better.” He barked a quick, loud laugh.
Ned lifted his mug a little and lowered his eyes. “Amen to that, Roger. Amen to that.” He and Deb hadn’t had sex since the night a month ago. They’d kissed a few times, he’d asked her to shower with him once, but things never panned out. She’d be tired, or he’d lose track of the evening in the garage. He should have kissed her that night — one hand right across the top of her thigh, the other on her back pulling her forward for a kiss on the collarbone, right above her breasts.
“How was your weekend?” Roger asked.
“Yardwork. The old lady was on me to rake up some leaves.” Ned looked away from Roger as he lied, past him towards the clock. “Yeah. You know, Roger, I got to run. I just needed a little jolt.” Ned lifted the coffee mug. He took a generous gulp, despite the heat. He excused himself again, smoothed out his uniform, and exited.
Ned left the break room angry with himself for lying. He had nothing to be ashamed of; he had not asked for the divorce. Why the fuck didn’t he punch that man twelve years ago? What was he supposed to do this time? Go sock the touchy bastard square in the jaw?
Ned could feel the satisfaction in that. His thick knuckles caving in the cheek of that white-collared son-of-a-bitch. Ned would stand over him, his right hand speckled with blood. “Stay the fuck away from my wife!” In his mind’s eye, Ned was dozen years younger; he should have laid the rules down then. Had he, there’d be no melting under the embarrassment, no lying about his wife. If he’d have taken care of it himself, she’d have stayed. She’d be pissed to be sure, but it would have passed. Deb would have let it slide after a bit, realized there was no shame in having some help. She’d have kept her damn job; she’d have kept her ring on, too.
Ned retraced his steps through the museum, his mind still whirring through a film reel of violence. The sketcher remained seated on the center bench of gallery 391. Coming up behind her, Ned saw a glimpse of her drawing. The head was too thick to be the Old Guitarist, the forehead too broad.
Ned resumed his post. Business had begun to pick up and nearly two dozen people now mingled in the gallery. The activity kept his mind busy and helped his body settle into its station. His back grew rigid and his leg muscles tightened; both actions furthered his height and sucked his gut in. A smile, sincere not foolish, etched into his face, a look he perfected, both friendly and unobtrusive, the ideal security guard smile. He kept his eyes on the people and studied them like they studied the artwork.
Patrons filed past Ned to observe the Picasso. They debated the relation of the old man to his guitar. Ned figured it as love. The old man cradled the guitar like it were a woman; there would be no man, no guitarist, no painting without the guitar.
The room crowded. Individuals paraded in from multiple entrances. They raised fingers to point, they laughed, they opined. Ned remained the calm in the center of the storm. People breezed around him. He remained still – watched without being seen, listened without being heard. Minutes bled into hours like paint bled into a canvas.
Ned made sure that with each new influx of people no one was acting foolish. He made special note of the sketcher. One thin arm held her pad, the other gripped her pencil. She stood out amidst the crowd. Her skirt, flowery and yellow, her shirt sky blue, she was a swirl of colors herself, more painting than patron. The sketcher’s devotion to her art had been a morning long ritual. Ned grew tense as he watched her. She was studying him more than the masterpiece. As if an art student would sketch a security guard. Still, he had a pang of panic, an almost unfightable urge to rip the pad from her hands, pass through him like a bolt. Ned shuffled sideways hoping to reveal the brilliance of The Old Guitarist to her more fully.
She penciled vigorously, her hand sprinting back and forth. Her wide eyes drank in the surroundings; so large, so attentive, they drove a splinter of fear into Ned. He could not, would not, swipe her pad without proof. Though, Ned knew. He knew in the same corner of his being that knew he’d failed Deb by not kissing her that night, by not showing up at her work the next morning with both his fists and his mouth closed. Yes, he knew, he knew.
Motion caught Ned’s gaze and stole it from the sketcher. A long hand raised high above a mop of red-orange hair waved Ned over. Roger.
He could not resist taking another sidelong glance at the sketcher’s work as he passed, but the attempt offered nothing discernable.
“We need to speak in my office, heh?”
Ned enjoyed the way Roger turned directives into pleasant requests; he had always thought it an effective method of management. “Now? It is getting busy back there.” Ned turned back towards his post.
People bustled about except for the sketcher who had regained her seat on the center bench. She idly adjusted her skirt.
Roger waved a hand in dismissal. “Please, Ned. We both know that the alarms on those suckers are going to keep people from grabbing them off the wall. They can watch themselves.” He slung an arm around the security guard’s broad shoulders and led the way.
Roger’s office was sparse. His oaken desk was adorned with the basics: pens, pencils, stapler, a computer that Ned had never seen turned on, and pictures of Roger’s family, two sons, tall and straight, both with their dad’s bright hair, and his wife, Ruth, a petite woman with silver jewelry strung about her small neck. Roger gestured Ned to grab a seat. When Ned had done so, Roger sat in his own chair, a plush black leather affair. Roger said, “I forgot to tell you earlier; you got me in trouble, Ned.” His face was sly.
“Well, you know how Ruth and Deb hit it off at the Labor Day party, right?”
Ned nodded at the reference to their wives meeting, but he immediately did not like the direction of this conversation. Had the wives been talking? Did Roger know?
“Well, Ruth has been on me, and on me, and on me about inviting you guys over for dinner.” Roger shook his head, his bushy eyebrows raised in emphasis of how annoying his wife, Ruth, could be.
“Yeah, Deb’s been asking about Ruth, too,” Ned fibbed. It was a stupid white lie; he’d only said it because of the wedding ring on his finger. Besides, she had mentioned something that night. After an everlasting silence in the car ride, she had said some nicety, something about Ruth. Ned was sure of it.
“Good.” Roger laughed. He then leaned forward a bit like a co-conspirator, letting his elbows rest on the oak desk. “To be honest, I hate these little double date dinner get-togethers.” He spoke in a hushed tone, as if his wife, Ruth, stood right behind him. “But I figure having you come over might actually be fun. Usually it is all of her artsy friends.” Roger gave a harsh laugh and shook his wrist, a limp up-down flip.
Ned chimed in with his own nervous laugh. “None of that here,” he said. “More of a beer and burger guy, myself.”
“So, Friday night.”
“Deb will be thrilled.” No she won’t. She will be livid, he thought. She will scream and rant and rave; she will ask why Ned didn’t admit the truth. But, Ned would not be surprised if she went along with it – Deb had a flair for the dramatic.
“It’s a date. I’ll tell Ruth.”
Ned thanked his boss again and exited. He could keep up this charade indefinitely. He could just tell Roger that Deb had plans and he forgot. No one would ever be wiser. He could keep this going; he’d never been a partygoer or one to blather on about his home life – it would be work as usual. Besides, at this point what did it matter? Deb had her own life, even more so now, and he had his . . . work, his garage, the unopened materials for the HMS Ajax resting on his worktable. He could keep this going; he could just be who he was, nothing lost, show up and do his job, shoot the shit like always and go home, five days a week, he was getting older anyways, retirement couldn’t be too far off, he could keep this going . . . just like he could keep replaying in his imagination throttling the fuck who’d dare touched his wife.
He couldn’t think anymore, his thoughts kept seizing up like car wrecks. He tasted salt at the corner of his lips and realized he was crying. Why didn’t he do anything? Because of her? Because she packed his fucking lunch, paid his fucking mortgage, because she didn’t need his help? He wanted to punch the wall.
His face tightened and grew warm. He had the passing thought that he should not be here right now. How could he stand still? How could he guard anything in such a state? He hadn’t even been able to protect his wife. He marched through galleries and hallways, no longer inconspicuous. Those that noticed him stared. His face, a hot mess, distracted people from the masterpieces, from the works of art. Ned sped up, nearly sprinting past people.
He came to rest beside the The Old Guitarist. The sketcher immediately resumed drawing. Ned wanted to laugh, but with his face still wet he turned towards the painting.
The guitarist cradled the guitar, neither supported by it nor caressing it. He simply played it, and apparently had played it forever. His pallid skin stretched tight over thin bones, his haggard, half-asleep face concerned only with the instrument, the only thing that defined him. He had been at it so long he had grown old and ill. No one noticed that at first glance, but to Ned it was painfully obvious, no amount of clinging to his music could cure the man. Still, as long as he held the guitar, he kept up appearances . . . he was an old guitarist, not an old man. Ned sympathized. Ned was a security guard; he just had nothing to watch over, from his wife to paintings better served by alarms and cameras.
Ned rubbed his face with a large hand. It came away dry, without tears. Turning away from the painting, Ned assumed his normal stance, his guard’s posture. He stood like a sculpture beside the Picasso. He stood, ring in place, and kept up appearances like nothing was wrong.
Of course, something was wrong; even had Ned been able to stop thinking of Deb, of the fact they’d said so little since she’d come home crying a month ago, the sketcher haunted him. Her youthful eyes darted up, drank him in and returned back to her sketch. She studied his charade too intently. He could feel the urge to slap her sketchpad to the museum’s tile floor surge through him just as strongly as his desire to scatter the ring from his kitchen table had grabbed him on Friday night.
He’d find no peace with her drawing him, sketching the image he cast. Ned, not quite a husband but fully a security guard, knew he’d have to get rid of her if he hoped to make it until closing.
The Old Guitarist looked down on him, a brother in arms.
“Miss, you’re going to have to stop sketching now.” Ned’s voice was shaky and weak, like an unused muscle.
The artist raised a slender finger as if to beg for one finishing second. She looked up. There was no confusion as to the subject of her gaze; her eyes didn’t offer even a flicker of recognition to the Picasso.
Ned stepped closer. “Miss, please.”
The woman continued without interruption.
“Miss, I am not comfortable being the subject of your . . .” Ned trailed off waving a hand at the sketchpad.
The young lady paid him no mind. Her pencil danced across the paper, the sound of graphite against page provided the music.
“Miss, please.” Ned wanted to add ‘Not today. Any day but today.’ He did not want to be drawn. He did not want to see his practiced smile staring back at him. He did not want to see his neatly pressed uniform, his shiny shoes – he did not want to see his ring on his finger. He did not want to be here, wondering, waiting. Ned did not want this woman drawing the lie, etching it in shades of grey, stamping eternal the charade he’d committed to today.
The sketcher stopped, halted abruptly. With a twist of her delicate hands she flipped the sketch towards Ned.
The picture was Ned. There was no shiny uniform or practiced smile. The mouth was tight and terse; Ned’s shirt was loose, untucked and his body sagged, all too accurately, in the torso. A bit of stubble gripped his cheeks, his pants were frayed, shoelaces untied – he looked pitiful, like some hound dog cast out into a cold night. On his left hand, his fourth finger, a wedding band circled his skin. The hand was clenched tight into a fist. Beyond his portrait, Picasso’s frame was inhabited by the ghostly image of a woman . . .
“She’s interesting, yeah? More than the guitarist,” she chirped. “She’s really there too, just a bit beyond him.”
She flipped the pad back towards her body. “I’m love the juxtaposition of live figure and static objects, you know?”
Ned turned away silently, slipped the ring off of his finger and stood next to the Picasso. He thought hard about ripping it off the wall, but instead he started to cry so violently his whole body shook.
The sketcher turned the page, glanced at Ned, and began drawing anew.
Originally Published in the January/February 2016 Issue.