A 36-year-old painter is renting a bedroom near Fort Tryon Park and is currently poised over his sketchbook with a chewed-up pencil in his desiccated mouth. There isn’t a desk, so he’s placed a stained pillow against his lower back and is leaning against the wall on his unmade bed. An old bulldog is snoring by his sweaty feet. It is 4am. There are two, tall windows flanked by red curtains which look southeast over the dark mysteries, scattered lights, and throbbing, pulsing, chaos of Manhattan. Opposite the window is a white dresser littered with novels, paints, brushes, palettes, sketchbooks, and pens. Above the dresser is a faded mirror. Taped to the mirror is an image of Bedroom in Arles by Vincent Van Gogh. The hardwood floor is covered with dirty clothes, old newspapers, a crumpled backpack, stale loaves of bread, jars of peanut butter, dog bowls, chewed-up toys, and empty water bottles. The droning and whishing of passing cars blends with the thumping music of the Spanish party still going strong downstairs. The painter stares wretchedly at an easel across the room that is facing the opposite wall. He removes the chewed-up pencil from his desiccated mouth, shoves a pinch of tobacco inside his lip, and looks down at the sketchbook in his lap.
He draws an image of an 18-year-old boy looking up a steep hill. It is the middle of summer. The day is bright and hot. There are winding, beaten paths through blossoming maple trees and thick ferns which thread their way to a stony, barren summit. The paths disappear halfway up the hill. It is steepest near the summit. While drawing, the painter becomes distracted by thoughts of the previous two, days: drinking too much in a crowded bar, exhausted and vacant subway commutes, meeting a prospective boss with a bushy mustache and fidgeting eyes, meeting a beautiful woman whom he shared a passionate and tumultuous past. The woman kept asking him, through tears, “What are you doing with your life? Why don’t you give up your dream?” Does he still love her? Does she still love him? You know that story.
He draws the boy’s face. The eyes are eager and hopeful. The mouth is grim and determined. The boy has never climbed this hill before. There are few birds, arrested in flight, but not a single cloud in the clear and expansive sky.
The old bulldog on the bed groans and turns on his crippled back. The painter rubs his belly for a minute and becomes invaded by distractions again. I’m selfish, he thinks. I’ve always been lazy and selfish. The money is running out, as always. There’s $5426 left in the bank account. Time is slipping by faster and faster, as always, yet here I am sketching a stupid boy looking up a stupid hill. The painter shoves another pinch of tobacco against his lip and stares wretchedly at the easel across the room.
Earlier that day, he stood for six hours in front of the easel without drawing a single line. He stared and stared at the canvas until his eyes burned and his muscles ached. How does one discover the difference between patience for something beautiful and weak, insinuating concessions? thought the painter. I’ve been doing this for 18 years now, and I still don’t know. He left the easel and walked with his old bulldog through Fort Tryon Park. It was the middle of winter. They walked together on one of their routine paths and traveled up the steep hill. Since it was Saturday night the park was quiet and empty. The surroundings were shadowy and still. The stricken maple trees were dense with snow. The painter huddled into himself against the cold and focused on his steady footsteps. The fight he had with his dying, sick father a month ago echoed through his thoughts: “You’re wasting your life! Don’t make my mistakes! You’re 36 years old yet you act like a boy! How are you supposed to support yourself?” You know that story.
The painter sketches the details of the stony, barren summit. It should be desolate and lonely up there, the painter thinks. But the boy won’t know. No, he won’t know. He sketches the rocks, dirt, and patches of grass. I’m sure the view will beautiful up there, if the boy ever finds his way. Yes, if he ever finds his way.
For the next hour the painter sketches until the soft, morning sunlight passes delicately though his windows. Then he closes the sketchbook, steps off the bed, and closes the red curtains. The room is now dark. The old bulldog is still snoring. The painter tries to fall asleep, but is having some difficulty. He is still thinking about the image of the 18-year-old boy in his picture. Maybe he will get lost on one of the winding trails? he wonders. Yes, maybe the boy will get lost. Maybe he will get lost on the hill.
J.W. Kash lives in New York City. He has been published in The Tishman Review, The Unbroken Journal, The Galway Review, literally stories, and more. You can find more of his work on his website: www.jwkash.com