The Painter: A Short Story




This piece appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal: Imitation, No. 23

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George is holding the photos of Caitlyn Jenner and Billy side by side when the sound of loafers can be heard on the stairs. Panic. Sweat dampens the hair above his ears, and he has just enough time to tuck the photograph of Caitlyn (the famous one, the cover of Vanity Fair) under the Freud book on the drafting table. 

He turns around. Against the low ceiling of his basement studio, Laura stands at the foot of the stairs. She wears pearl earrings. In her white blouse she looks casually radiant, like someone in a box at pro tennis. “Is today the day Billy gets the treatment?” she asks, already making out the photo in his hand. He’ll never know how she can take in a room without moving her eyes.

“Just might be.” Had he mentioned it Sunday night, that he was planning to paint Billy? He’d startled himself awake at 4:00 a.m., the reflux so hot in his throat that he’d gone in and woken her, too, ranting like a loon about esophageal cancer. But could he have been dumb enough to bring up Caitlyn?

Now Laura lifts and rattles something: a white bottle of Zantac. “Thought we promised Dr. Nazario?”

“I know, I know.” His laugh comes out like a tortured exhalation. “One hundred fifty in the morning and 300 at night.” 

“Strange omission for a man so concerned about his health.” A minute later, when she is going up the stairs, she adds, “I’m off to the DMA with Joyce.”

“Enjoy!” he calls back, but she’s already turned and closed the door. This time he’s sure to lock it. Walking down the stairs and back to the table, he gives himself to studying the photo in his hand: Billy, at his desk in Nashville; a slight wince cinches the pastor’s mouth. Maybe it’s the creeping influence of Bacon, but the note of infirmity is what recommends the photo to George. Like the pain’s sanding away at Billy until all that’s left isn’t his face, but some space behind it that can’t be destroyed.

After all, it was Billy’s strength — his sheer size — that stood out to George in Kennebunkport those years ago. The broad, wiry shoulders and Easter Island head. The light was sharp off the water as the two made the circuit around Walker’s Point. What stupid shit had George asked? How come earthquakes if the Lord, et cetera? And what had Billy answered? George didn’t remember the man’s words, just his reedy voice and blue, unbothered eyes.

But six months later, after celebrating his 40th at the Broadmoor with Don and Susie, George had the dream. He woke up at 6:00 a.m., scrabbling at his crotch, and the relief that it was dry came roaring through him so that he just made it to the toilet. A hangover as depthless and fetid as any he’d had. Thudding terrors, the girls chased each other around the California king while Laura, with an unbearably servile expression, applied the hot washcloth to his forehead. And as the blue sky outside the hotel window drained into black, it was as if the low opinion his father had of him had come to settle in George’s own heart, like buckshot, and every mother and child on earth would rightly curse him with a viciousness that could not ever be relieved.

After hangovers, dreams were always bright and accusing, but the one that night at the Broadmoor was something else. Backlit. George was stepping into the library in Kennebunkport, and there was Billy among the wind-blown curtains, and the arch of his neck so high and strong, peach-white with little hairs. That was it. And George woke up and he knew — he knew the Word and that Christ was with him. He woke Laura up and said, You don’t have to worry, I’m never going to drink again, and she saw that it was true.

Such is the nature of a decision, George thinks, studying that photo of Billy with that force of gratitude that can sneak up on him these days. Just last week at the Hilton in Tulsa, George tried to explain it to the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs: It’s like conversion, okay? The right course is the one you’re already on, even if it takes a sudden, extraordinary turn.

Standing now like a fool in his studio, George recalls the Zantac in his hand. He walks to the small studio kitchen and swallows two with the Fiji water Desiree stocks the fridge with. Well, if it’s so easy to make a decision, hot shit, which will it be? Caitlyn or Billy? 

With some determination, George walks back to the drafting table, retrieves the Vanity Fairfrom under the Freud book, and clips it to the stand. He’s stared at it alongside Billy’s all summer, so long they’ve started to look alike. Nuts. You go out and poll 100 people, 100 will say no resemblance whatsoever, unless the poll included him. Something in their eyes. Saying — what?

George grabs tubes of paint from the wide shallow drawer. Squeezes the paint onto the palette. Enough pussyfooting. The cover of Vanity Fair has wanted something from him since he fished it out of his sourcebook back in June. With superstitious dabs, George begins mixing for skin tone. Each stroke of the brush, it’s like passing something into law, he once said to Laura, and she made that face she always did, like it was a vast and ongoing scandal that she loved him.

After these months of paralysis, it’s a miracle to be at work, even to this small degree. How had he gone so long without knowing these sounds? The scraping and bristling, the light farting of the paint. But then it’s happening again: the knocking of the brush recalls to George the biker’s wheel splashing in that puddle two weeks ago on SMU Boulevard. Smart-ass with stringy black hair under a red biker’s cap, all of 20 years old, screaming about the blood of 750,000 Iraqis. Behind him, a pear-shaped black kid with dyed scarlet hair.

Soon George is back in the kitchen for more water, swallowing another Zantac. Christ Almighty, who cares? Been called worse by better. A minute later, George has returned to the canvas, but it’s gone. The door inside him shut. He wants to bang on the door, but it won’t open. He’ll be left out in the swampy, sunless parts of himself, banging. I’m dying, he told Laura Wednesday night. Cancer, I know it. Fool! Almost called Billy, too. At four fucking a.m. 

A walk, he decides. Around the yard. Say hi to Juan, who always cheers him up, who says the right thing always. But breaking a routine spooks George to a degree he can never explain, least of all to himself, and as he begins to mount the stairs, an unpleasant heat comes into his neck. Get your numbers right, he should’ve said to the kid. As Americans, we have the right to disagree, but get those numbers right. And we shouldn’t have ended the surge, you want to talk about ISIS.

“Sir?” Aaron sits up in the rattan chair in the sunroom. Oakleys dangle over his broad chest. The iPhone 6 like a toy in his right hand.

“Don’t shit yourself, soldier.” 

Aaron laughs. Former southpaw for A&M, fiancée teaching kindergarten in McKinney. One day George will paint him. Today? Scrap Billy and Caitlyn altogether? he thinks unhelpfully and opens the sliding doors and steps onto the cut grass.

It’s mid-September, and the Texas sky is low and spacious and illuminated by a soft, balanced, otherworldly light, even now, at 11:30 a.m. At the far end of the yard, Juan plants iris and yarrow. The sight of Juan gives George a little bounce, and George waves to him. Juan waves back with his rubber gardening glove on. Already George feels better. He’ll walk the perimeter of the lawn, clear his mind, and wait for that third Zantac to kick in. By the time he’s done, he’ll have decided what to paint. Period.

See him now, walking in his backyard in khakis and a black Under Armour shirt. A jet roars overhead, out of Love Field, and George peers up in its direction with animal interest. Wasn’t always the case, but to hear the engine fade away, into nothing, fills him with a warm and spacious feeling. Laura’s right. When on Wednesday night he came to her bedside, sweat through his nightshirt, his wife reminded him that Barrett’s rarely ever turns into cancer, even more rarely when monitored. That’s how I know you’re an artist, she said. You’re getting neurotic.

She’s right, damn it. He’s in perfect heath! And suddenly, the luck of being alive to smell cut grass for the length of a walk strikes him as a moral opportunity unlike any he’s known. He wants to stick a sunflower behind his ear. And here’s Juan, one of his favorite people in the world.

“Sir, I don’t usually see you out here this time of day.”

“Well, Rembrandt needed a stroll today, Juan.” He pats Juan firmly on the shoulder. “How’s Mary Anne, Juan?”

Juan nods deeply. A plumber from Mexico City, now a naturalized citizen. Family man. “Third test in a row with no abnormal cells. Beatriz and I — we can’t thank you enough. For all your support.”

“I’m just glad to hear it, I’m just glad to hear it.” 

“Thank you, sir.”

Juan stands there with his hands folded on the rake. But George doesn’t want to budge from that spot. He wants to continue to celebrate the recovered health of Juan’s daughter. If she were here, they could play, chase each other. Braid each other’s hair. 

“You know, I had a sister pass away from leukemia,” George says.

“Yes, sir, it’s —”

“So when I tell you that being able to assist you and your family in a time of need is a blessing to me and Laura, you’ll understand that it’s true.” Why is he shouting? 

“I’m very sorry, sir,” Juan says. “I tell everyone, I tell them all what a good man you are. I tell them you’re the greatest man I’ve ever known!”

“Now if only those Rangers can get to .500!” George claps Juan on the shoulder and begins to walk away. But Juan doesn’t follow baseball. “I gotta feeling Dak’s the real thing, but we’ll see this season, won’t we?” George turns toward the house before Juan can answer. As he walks, the lining of his stomach is burning, molten. Football, fool. Not baseball. He reaches the outside of the house. Through the sliding doors, Aaron scratches his neck and stares into the phone, held at eye level like a compact. Looking in from the outside, George has the sudden, ridiculous apprehension that it isn’t his house, that he has come as a desperate salesman to petition its owner.

A drink, he decides. Fiji maybe, or Pellegrino Lime. He walks to the door leading to the kitchen and slides it open. The room is lemony, seared with disinfectant. Calla lilies stand in a vase on the island and George takes one.

“Hi, sir.” Desiree is wiping down the island, wearing her smock with the begonias. Mariachi blares out of the small radio. “Do you need something? Would you like the sandwich now?”

“Oh, I’m fine. Just lookin’ for something cold.”

“I can help you get it, sir.”

He feels the smile in his ears to make sure his tone is right. “But I’m not sure what I want, Desi!”

He looks in the fridge. Why does he feel like he let Billy down? Really, that’s what it is. He doesn’t mean about the runt on the bike. The war. Historians in time might come to understand what George did, or they might not, but it’s something else anyway, something deeper. As if the part of him that was a drinker, a cynic, whatever you want to call it, is still rattling around in him somewhere. Even after a 100K with the warriors, he can feel it, like the ticking of a bike after it’s stopped.

He tried to tell 41 about it in Maine. Not knowing what to paint. The Barrett’s. But 41 had entered into some new phase of total, wrecked tenderness. It’s always that way, George thinks, with fathers and sons. As soon as you’re ready to broach the old way of understanding, they’ve passed on into some new, strange demand. 

I look back, 43, at all of it, 41 said to him their last night in Maine. It’s like a dream to me. It’s like all of it never happened. My time in office. The campaigns. War. 

I know it, George said. He was trying to think of how to state his own troubles when 41 sputtered out, I love you more than tongue could tell, and wept until his face was like a casserole of trembling Jell-O. And George, his mouth set, could do nothing but hold his father’s hand as they watched Brit Hume on the flat-screen under the mounted wooden swordfish.

It was that night George put on Laura’s underwear. In recent months their relations had somehow taken on a desperate vigor, and afterward, feeling 10 pounds lighter, George grabbed the panties among the hard coil of red flannel sheets. I look like Jane Fonda or what? he said, but with an edge to his voice he hadn’t planned on.

Laura laughed, her hair mushroomed against the headboard, that protected twinkle in her eye. He felt greased with shame and took the panties off. He wanted her to say something — but what?

He grabs a can of Pellegrino Lime and closes the door of the fridge. “At ease, soldier,” he says to Desiree, and she laughs. George walks to the hallway that would lead him through the sunroom back to the studio. But already, it’s happening: the open hours have stunned him. As when out of the corner of your eye a rat has surely scurried over the kitchen counter, but when you turn there’s nothing to see, so a thought must have flitted across George’s mind, but when he makes to retrieve it, there’s no thought there at all. 

With the Pellegrino in one hand and the flower in the other, he begins to ascend the stairs. What would Robin be if she’d lived? An attorney? A librarian? Back in those days, still lawless with grief, in Odessa, Mother had dressed George in Robin’s favorite dress, the teal one with the lace collar and blue polka dots. And then she had laid him down on her bed and held him in such a hard, quaking embrace it seemed almost worth it to George that his sister had died, not for him, but for his mother, that she could feel so much, so totally.

At an angle parallel to the stairs, along the opposite wall, hang the family photos. Jeb and Columba with the boys and Noelle in Miami. Prescott. Henry and Jenna at their wedding. They resemble one another to an unnerving degree, the same sickle-shaped smile, the eyes slightly too close together.

At the head of the stairs, in front of the blown-up photo of the 2002 State of the Union, George turns left toward Laura’s bedroom. He closes the door and locks it. They’ve slept in separate bedrooms for years now. George lays the calla lily next to the neat stack of hardbacks on the nightstand beside the pink case for her earplugs. Sitting on the bed, he cracks open the Pellegrino Lime. 

“Christ!” he says aloud when he notices the black script on the can: Budweiser. Andy must’ve left it when he and Barbara visited from New York. George lets out a laugh. Bud. Each one stupid, un-special, and cold. He’ll pour the rest out and get back to the studio. And with the matter settled, George lifts the beer and takes a gulp. His head already looser on his neck. God bless. Another. Like bright rust. 

Jauntiness with that undertow of sad. Is it like this for everyone, or only alkies? That there’s another you 10 paces away and every sip you’re him again, the other one, snickering at the stupid diorama of your life?

Now, for instance, it’s April 2004, the day after 60 Minutes II came on in the Lincoln Bedroom. The photos wait on his desk in the Oval Office. That first one of the detainee standing on that box with the black hood, his hands outstretched like Christ himself. PFC England holding the naked man on a leash. 

Blossom was saying, We’ll raze the fucker. Demolish it. 

Condy sat, gazing up at him in a way he was understanding he hated.

That morning, after breakfast, George had slugged four capfuls of mint Listerine and, by the time they conferred in the Oval Office, was rounding into the hangover. Sweat along his collarbone, and his head throbbed.

Sir? Blossom asked. 

It’s true, sometimes George hated the gig, but he was always grateful that it was him doing it and not some other shit, like that pomposity Gore. But that day he thought, I should be in Midland chasing a Mexican girl with long dark hair, or I should have long dark hair myself and she should be chasing me. Sunlight was coming in through the South Lawn, splashing Blossom’s face such that his baby fat was soft with it, his eyes bright with calculation, and George thought, People think he’s a weasel, and he is, but what are you supposed to do if you’re born a weasel? Then he thought, I’m going to paint his face one day. Yes, I will capture the light in Blossom’s face: the idea was so roomy and soft that George sank into it, and he rested inside it for the remainder of his administration as if within the knowledge of Christ himself.

But what good was it now? To be a painter? Unless he should have been one all along? George stands and walks to the dresser. He lifts a scalloped bottle of perfume on the dresser and sprays it in the air, walks into the spray. Not for the first time, George conjures the stations of an alternative life: gallery shows in Fort Worth. Chelsea. Critic friends with bitten fingernails who go to The New Yorker Festival.

Usually the mere recollection of this parallel biography cheers him some. But the acid is high in his throat, his heart is beating high and quick, and strange thoughts assail him: Has he ever known Christ, for instance? How does he know that he isn’t really Juan’s daughter or someone else entirely, someone he’s never met, a stranger dreaming him up right now? His feet and hands are cold, and the coldness will travel all the way to his heart, and George hurriedly takes his Samsung out of his pocket. 

Don’t! some voice is saying, but it’s as if he’s in a pool and someone’s crying it far over his head. 

It rings four times. “Hallo?” 

“Hello, I’m trying to reach Billy Graham.”

“Mr. Graham is in a nap now. Who is this, please?”

“George W. Bush.”

“I’m sorry, who?”

“George W. Bush, the 43rd president of the United States. It’s urgent that I speak to him.”

“Thank you, Mr. Bush. Mr. Graham is in his nap now. What would you like to say?”

He hangs up. But a minute later he calls again. 

“Hallo?”

“I’m sorry, we got disconnected. I just wanted to tell Mr. Graham that America thanks him for his service, and we Americans love him, we truly do, and we don’t know where we’d be without him!” 

He hangs up again, his breath shallow. He could take a letter opener to his left eye. Call The New York Times, go on the record about 45. He stands. But he wobbles and sinks again onto the bed, off his axis. He’ll pour the rest of the Bud down the toilet, hop on the stationary. Catch Ice Road Truckers. But he knows he won’t. No, he’s deep in it now, that rippling, tenuous mood, like how it used to be on his bike, motoring across Texas, the state a blur of dirt, lunar sky, Texaco stations, perfectly red stoplights, and the glory of it all wrapped up in the knowledge that he would have to go somewhere and stop and get off the bike and see his father again. He takes a last small sip of Bud.

Ready, he stands and walks to the door. It doesn’t budge when he pulls. White terror fills his body, and then a crackle of some new thing, something staticky running through his fingers, and then terror again, until he can’t tell one from the other. 

See George kneeling on the white carpet, digging through the dresser. With the selections in hand, he’s soon enough in her bathroom. His trousers and the Under Armour shirt puddled in the bathtub. Naked, he stands before the mirror. The bra is harder than he thought. He has to clasp it in front and then turn it around. The blue cotton panties soft, the lipstick grainy. It smells sweet but tastes like wax. A Kleenex for where it’s smudged. 

Is this it? The thing he’s sought? 

In the mirror, he stares back at his tousled and thin gray hair, the empty bra, his lipstick. He wonders: When his mother squeezed him on that bed years ago, had he felt loved or merely useful? Is it freedom he sees in Caitlyn’s eyes? In Billy’s?

George shuts his eyes. He’s not dying, that he knows. A dream, he thinks. This must be a dream.

¤

Jacob Rubin is the author of the novel The Poser and holds the Laurence Perrine Chair of Creative Writing at Southern Methodist University. He recently wrote about Mary Gaitskill for Slate.


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