What you don’t see

In the summer he sits under an awning, selling paintings on the sidewalk. They are canvas squares of red or brown, of green or grey. They are paintings of buildings and streets, trash cans and curbs. Cityscapes. He never painted people, or cats, or dogs.

He sits wearing an ingratiating smile, thanking people for stopping even a second out of their day to look at his wares. He has not sold a thing in days. There was one woman who he thought might be close to buying, but instead she went white and walked away like she might be sick. At lunch he squats by an easel and chews a hotdog, studying people. A man walking with his young daughter. Some grandmother smiling at his view of a set of stone steps. A bum who sizes him up and lopes on.

He finishes his hotdog and wipes his mouth daintily on his napkin.

A group of girls across the street giggle, shoving each other. He pretends to study an ant by his toe. One of the group breaks away and drifts over to him, a slim, pretty girl with hair like a buttercloud.

She says, are these for sale?

And the other girls call Em-ma, Em-ma.

And he says, Emma? That’s a lovely name.

And he says yes, each and every one is for sale, feel free to browse.

He likes the way she walks around, humming through her nose, head cocked to study each painting. She makes a full circuit of his wares before coming back.

And he says see anything you like?

And she says yes, I like the one with the striped tabby cat.

And now he’s excited, but tries not to show it. And he says I didn’t paint any cats.

And she says yes, that one there. And she points with polished fingernails to a red canvas alley. And she says the cat is just behind the crate, you didn’t paint it but it’s still there.

And he can’t hide his smile and he says yes, yes I can see— but there’s more. She can see others, she says, she spotted others but not all of them. And she names a few. Now he is very happy and he says Emma?

He says Emma, I’d like to paint something for you.

And she says for me? And she chews on a strand of hair.

And he says yes, I can’t think of anyone who would appreciate it quite as much.

And she blushes and turns away to hide it. And the other girls cajole her: Em-ma! Em-ma!

And she says I might like that.

And he takes out a canvas and a bit of graphite, and he wets the tip of it in his mouth and says describe the view from your window to me. And she tells him about the clean, white sidewalk, and the trim of the house next door, and the liquid amber tree that shades it all, and finally her purple curtains. And he puts down the graphite and says thank you very very much Emma.

And she says when can I see it?

And he says it won’t take me long. Just a few days. Don’t forget about me, okay?

And she nods and runs off with her friends. And he whistles as he wraps his canvases in butcher paper and carries them all to the basement apartment where he lives. He whistles while he squirts paint from a tube onto a palette made from a hammered tin can, and dabs a big camel brush into it. It’s more like nine days when he’s done, but he brings it with him on the tenth wrapped in a piece of green cloth.

And Emma comes back and says eagerly can I see my picture?

And he gives it to her and tells her to open it when she gets home. He wants to imagine her face when she sees it.

She comes back the next day. The painting is unwrapped. She says I don’t want this. You take it back.

He says what’s wrong, isn’t it as you described?

The canvas is the view from her room exactly. Every leaf distinct, every spot of shadow. And so he smiles and asks what’s wrong Emma? though he knows full well what. She says you put yourself into the painting. He says I didn’t paint myself in. She says yes, but you’re still there, just there, beyond the corner? You’re crouching in the dumpster with a knife.

He says I haven’t got a knife.

She says it’s in your mind. And a man who thinks knives is just as bad as a man who uses knives. She says don’t paint anymore pictures for me. She turns on her heel and walks away.

He starts a new picture that day. This one is still exactly the view from her window, but he isn’t in it, painted or otherwise.  Something else is, though. Behind the paint. When he finishes he sends it straight to her house, though she never gave him her address.

The package comes back, unopened. There is a note with it:

You awful man. Don’t paint for me anymore. I can tell through the paper what you put in there, I’m not touching a single string on this package.
You leave me alone and never talk to me again from this day.
And no more paintings!

He smiles.

That night he’s in her yard. He’s got his green dufflebag with all his paints and all his paintbrushes and a fine linen canvas. He’s just shouldered the bag onto the lawn when a flash blinds him. She’s in the window with a Polaroid.

She says say cheese. She says now that was much faster than a painting, wasn’t it?

And he says Emma now don’t be silly—

And she says remember that thing you put in the painting? It’s still there.

And she says goodbye.

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