I’m here to pick up the painting.
I need the painting. Larry made a big point about being back by four.
Howard spoons a heap of medium roast into the grinder. Three spins like a dentist drill and the smell of freshly turned soil fills the room.
It’s familiar, a part of the morning Eucharist, but today there’s something different, a fragrance, familiar yet he can’t put his finger on it.
Or maybe it has nothing to do with the coffee but comes from the trees flowering outside the open windows.
Or maybe it’s something from another time or place, some part of a memory reaching out for attention.
Whatever it is, he pushes it aside, fills his mug with the day’s first hit of caffeine, and heads for his studio and the canvas he’s working on.
In the upper left, thick brush strokes of gray and white against cobalt blue that yesterday he saw as a meadow carpeted with wildflowers. Today it’s a cloud-filled sky.
Below the clouds or the meadow, red and orange edged with yellow that, two days ago, he saw as rivers of lava flowing down a mountainside, and just yesterday they were bursts of light as a sun dips below the horizon. Today they’re a wound in a young soldier’s belly.
The right side of the canvas is blank.
He squeezes a teardrop of autumnal brown onto a palette, another of yellow, a dab of white, and stirs them into a color near that of the reptilian skin of the maple outside the window.
He dips a pencil-thin brush into the mixture, and loops it across and down, back, and the paint becomes, to his surprise, a horse and a rider.
He steps back and studies the canvas. “Nice,” he says, then gives the horse’s mane a lift, showing that it’s in full gallop.
He takes a gulp of cold coffee. The maple outside the window catches a breeze, and waves to and fro as if trying to catch Howard’s attention.
He adds maple emerald to the palette, dilutes it, and, using a brush like the one Hitler wore below his nose, gives the painting a wash, covering the canvas with a translucent curtain like it’s floating just below the surface of a stagnant pond.
He steps back, takes another sip of cold coffee, and wonders if the contrast needs to be pushed, should he add touches of white, suggesting sunlight, to the green?
His phone buzzes. It’s Larry, his agent, calling to tell him the guest list includes a couple of heavy-hitters from The Modern. “Wanted to share the good news. See you later, bro.”
Howard looks at the painting again and is shocked to discover a splash of orange, a gray tower, a golden scroll, that he missed or, maybe, wasn’t there before.
Whatever the explanation he believes, no, he’s sure, sure there’s more on the way. And so, he decides that he has to keep the painting with him.
Pondering how to break the news to Larry, he heads to the kitchen, refills his coffee mug, and places it in the microwave.
Twenty-five seconds in, a gray minivan pulls into the driveway. The person behind the wheel is not who he expects—what’s his name?—Larry’s intern.
Howard opens the door and meets a woman in her late 20s with a ring in her nose, pink in her hair, and cheeks dusted with a patina of alabaster—a portrait by John Singer Sargent.
“I’m here to pick up the painting,” she says shoulders back, chin high like a cigarette girl in a 1940s movie.