This is a novella (a short story that’s a bit too big to be a short story) that I wrote over a decade ago. Since it’s too long to publish in one go on the Internet, I thought I’d do it in a series. Hope you like it!
The painting came on a grey autumn morning, riding on the back of Peter’s truck. Jane would never forget that day: It rained later on, but right then the wind was strong enough to pull the wrapping cloth away and make poor Peter chase it around the yard.
Peter worked as a night guard at the Dunns. The Dunns – named after the founding family – was a small shoe factory about ten miles away from their house. Peter got a job there after he wrecked his knee and couldn’t count on his football skills to provide the two of them with the daily bread.
He always joked about it though.
He’d been working at the Dunns for almost two years when the painting came. When it came. Jane couldn’t put it any other way: Peter didn’t bring it. It came.
So it was one of those ugly, grey, freezing Tuesday mornings, around half-six, and there she was, standing in her purple robe, waiting to hear the engine roar as she stared at the big Snoopy mug with the plate on top to keep the coffee warm. Black. That’s the way Peter drank it. Said it suited him. A big black coffee for her man.
The truck pulled up the front yard and Jane flinched. She knew the ritual: He’d come in, heavy boots on the front porch – and staying on the front porch – and he’d come inside in his socks, he’d grab her, kiss her and stroke her hair. Then she’d give him the Snoopy mug and he’d take one long swig, set it down, smack his lips, go “mm-hmm” and say that he just loved the taste of his wife’s coffee right after his wife’s lips. Then she’d laugh, and the day would begin.
There had been a time when she would spend those mornings – grey ones, sunny ones – wishing that the ritual would change; today, maybe tomorrow. But after a while she spent mornings – grey ones, sunny ones – telling herself that rituals were good, that they meant something, that they gave life steadiness; something like an iron bar you could hang on to when your ship was being stormed to pieces – and boy, did she know about storms.
Like the day the painting came.
Peter didn’t come straight in that morning. Jane was looking at the Snoopy mug, telling herself about how good rituals are and all that, and suddenly she realised that Peter was still outside, by the truck, calling her.
She wondered if she should take the mug with her but decided not to.
She went out to the front porch.
“Mornin’, baby! What’s happenin’?” Her voice was always hoarse this early.
Peter waved and walked behind the truck. “Mornin’, sugar. Got you somethin’, thought you should see it before I brought it in.”
All Jane could see was a big flat object, covered in a white cloth. Looked like a window. “What’s that?” she asked, starting to get suspicious like any rational woman at a moment like this: the moment when he brings something into the house, and that something is not expected.
Peter straightened the object and Jane mechanically placed herself in front of the door, like a guard.
Peter stretched out his hand.
Jane took a deep breath. It was cold out here.
Peter pulled the cloth off.
Jane didn’t breathe out. She just stared at it. And it stared back. Because that was what it was.
A face. That was the first thing that struck her. A face. The fact that it was a painting sank in later.
Or maybe it never did.
She was speaking now, fast. “There’s no way on earth that thing is coming into the house. No way.”
Peter’s face fell. “You don’t like it? C’mon, baby, it’s art. Kinda weird, sure, but that’s the whole thing about it. It’s modern art!”
Jane kept shaking her head. “No. No. No!”
And then Peter looked down at his feet. He did that when he got serious. “Look, just listen to me for a second – there’s a story here.” Remember old Piper Jack?” Piper Jack used to teach at an aviation school, teaching folks to fly Piper Cherokees. After crashing with one of his students, he developed a bad case of the shakes that eventually beat him down to the lonely old drunk everyone knew him to be: an old alky with no one to share his war stories except a mangy brown tomcat that pooped all over the house. When they found his rotting body earlier in the summer – a steaming hot week after he died – the coroner put down the cause of death as either the bottle or the cat’s filth.
Jane stopped shaking her head and peeled her eyes off the painting. It didn’t take its eyes off her. “Piper Jack? What about him?”
“Well, here’s the story. Remember we used to think the old man had no family? Well, it turns out he had this cousin, right? So, since he didn’t bother making a will before he passed, all of his stuff – including this painting – went to her. I can’t imagine where he even got it from – he didn’t strike me as the artistic type. Anyway, get this”, he said, and pulled a folded piece of paper out of his back pocket, “when the cousin came over to collect Jack’s things, she finds this note taped behind it. It says: ‘In the event of my death, this painting is to pass on to Peter Belder, for his kindness towards me during my old age.’ Can you believe that? I just helped him cross the street a couple of times – that’s all. Didn’t like it one bit either, him reeking of whisky like he did. Anyway, the note is signed and all, so the cousin comes in yesterday evening at work – very polite and all, didn’t look like old Jack one bit – and gives me this painting. It spooked me at first, but after spending the whole night with it, it kinda grew on me.”
Jane tried to sympathise. “Baby, I still don’t see why this… this thing has to go into our house. You want to keep it, fine, but do we have to put it in public view?”
Peter shook his head. “You don’t get it? It’s not about the painting. When I asked the cousin what she was going to do with the rest of Piper Jack’s stuff, she told me that it was going to either charity or auction. Scattered to the four winds. So you see”, he said and looked at it, “this painting here is all that remains of the old fella. It was a present. It don’t feel right, just burying it somewhere, know what I mean?”
Jane sighed. He had a point. And now that she took a calmer look at it, the face didn’t seem as hideous as it first did. It actually seemed a bit friendly too, something like a faint smile on its lips. In fact, the artist must have been a genius – the face seemed to change expressions when you looked at it from different angles.
“So what’d you say, baby?” Peter was giving her puppy eyes as the final resort.
“Okay”, she said, still looking at the face that suddenly seemed satisfied. “Okay. But I say which wall it goes up, right?”
Peter beamed. “Sure, honey. Whatever you say. Thanks.” He began to untie it. “I love you”, he said, but she had gone back into the kitchen.
By the time he brought the face inside, the coffee had gone cold. He didn’t even touch it though, preoccupied as he was with their new acquisition. Jane poured the black liquid down the sink while Peter went down to the basement to get a hammer and nails. It was later, much later, that Jane realised that their ritual had been broken.
He didn’t kiss her either.