T. C. Powell is a Los Angeles native now braving the rains of the Pacific Northwest alongside his beautiful wife and daughter. He loves both reading and writing all kinds of literature, and has been fortunate enough to have short fiction published by venues like Flash Fiction Online, New Myths, and Grimdark Magazine, and poetry by the Christian Science Monitor, Strong Verse, and jerseyworks, among others. His woeful web presence can be found at http://tcpowellfiction.blogspot.com.
What He Loved Most
by T. C. Powell
Miklos watched through his window in annoyance as the moving truck rumbled into the neighboring driveway. A family emerged from the truck’s cab: a couple in their early thirties, and a little girl. She wore a sparkly purple-pink fairy costume and carried a star-tipped plastic wand, though Halloween remained months away. Immediately the child began to scamper around her new yard, striking flowers with her wand, trampling the grass, laughing and making other such distractions.
Miklos shut the window, drew down the blinds, and turned back to the nearly-finished canvas: a discord of angry, streaking colors, like woes freshly released from Pandora’s box. Dark, moody and violent.
It was no worse than what he had been doing thirty years ago, when his works were discussed at cocktail parties in high-rise apartments in the city. Then again, it was no better than his last forty paintings, the bulk of which moldered under canvas cloth in the garage.
But this one had to sell.
He phoned Kathy, his agent, and she sounded excited to hear from him… though of course it was her job to sound excited. While she promised to drive over immediately, Miklos knew that he no longer rated the kind of service that the younger, hipper artists in her stable received. “Immediately” could be a couple of hours or longer, so he felt in no hurry as he made the final brushstrokes on the painting he called “Obsolescence.”
A few days later there was an unexpected knock at the front door. Miklos opened it to reveal the smiling young family from the adjacent house, come to introduce themselves.
They had been “saying hello” with their noise for some time now, but Miklos introduced himself and shook the hand of the parents, Steven and Jennifer. It looked as though they expected an invitation inside, so Miklos stepped aside, trying to remember his manners.
“I’m afraid that I don’t get much company, so I don’t keep things as clean as perhaps I should.”
The couple came into the living room with their daughter in tow. She was dressed up again, apparently a regular occurrence, but today like a pirate.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Steven said as Miklos led them to his sofa. “It’s better than we’re doing. We still have boxes everywhere. We have to move a lot for Jennifer’s job and sometimes I feel like it’s just better to leave everything packed.”
Miklos smiled. “Would you like some tea? I always have tea in the house. It helps me to relax.”
Both Steven and Jennifer said they would like a cup, so Miklos had turned towards the kitchen when the young girl spoke up.
“What else you got? Any juice or anything?”
“Caitlyn,” Jennifer said, “remember what we spoke about outside.”
“Sorry,” she said. “Never mind about the juice.”
Miklos nodded. “I can’t make any promises, but let me see what I have. For juice, I might only have grapefruit. Would that suffice?”
Caitlyn wrinkled her nose. “Eww, no. Grapefruit’s disgusting.”
Jennifer tittered nervously. “Please forgive her. She’s excited from the move.”
“I understand,” Miklos said and walked to the kitchen.
He returned minutes later bearing a tray with mugs of hot tea, a plate of buttered toast, and a small glass of pink-orange juice. He sat it on the coffee table.
Caitlyn eyed the juice distrustfully.
“Yes,” Miklos said, “it’s grapefruit, but try it anyway. You might like it this time.” He put a hand aside his mouth, to whisper fake-confidentially to the parents: “I put sugar in it—two whole teaspoons—it’ll taste like candy.”
“So, Mr. Spielman,” Jennifer said, taking a piece of toast, “Steven and I were just admiring your artwork.”
She referred to the canvas still in the corner of the room on the easel. Kathy had taken one look, smiled, and said that she would work tirelessly to see that it got sold. That meant she thought it was junk; his real successes had always been met with silence.
Miklos had put off moving the thing to the garage, and now it had cost him. “Oh? Were you thinking about maybe purchasing it? I can give you an excellent deal—a real ‘welcome to the neighborhood’ special.”
Jennifer laughed politely and Steven said, “We haven’t discussed decoration yet, or color scheme, but we’ll certainly keep it in mind.”
“It’s very interesting though,” Jennifer said. “What do you call it?”
“I call it ‘Grapefruit Juice.’ Speaking of, what do you think, little girl?”
Caitlyn had finished the entire glass and set it back on the tray. She was now at work on her second piece of toast, the buttery evidence smeared across her lips. “The real juice, you mean? Pretty good. But I don’t like that painting at all. It’s ugly.”
Jennifer sat up stiffly. “That is simply the last… Caitlyn, we’re going.” Jennifer stood from the sofa and pulled Caitlyn to her feet. “I’m really very sorry, Mr. Spielman.”
Caitlyn followed her mother to the front door without complaint, but also without any apparent shame.
“Wait one second,” Miklos said, “I have a question for little Caitlyn, here. It’s been a long time since my work has received such a harsh review, and I’d like to know: what makes you say that it’s ugly?”
She looked at the painting. “It just is. Look at it. All you did was take some random paints and wipe them across without even trying to make it look like anything. The colors aren’t even pretty. It’s like a cat threw up.”
“Oh my god,” Jennifer said, yanking Caitlyn hard by the arm, “you are never leaving the house again. Steven, are you staying?”
Steven set down his tea. “No, I’m afraid we’ve worn out our welcome. Mr. Spielman, I hope we’ll be allowed back sometime. We’ll leave our daughter at home.”
Miklos smiled. “No, that’s quite all right, she’s welcome back.”
“You’re too kind.”
As the family walked out to the porch, Miklos called after Caitlyn, “Little girl, do you think that you could make a better painting than I have?”
“Easy,” she said.
“Then do it,” he called. “Bring it to me.”
Miklos regarded her as her mother dragged her home. Caitlyn didn’t try to fight free of her mother’s grasp, but neither was there surrender in her demeanor. If he asked her again what she thought of his paintings, he knew she would tell him straightaway. She carried her pirate get-up properly.
Miklos nodded to himself, chuckling, then closed the door.
Caitlyn returned to Miklos’ doorstep the following Saturday dressed as a firefighter. She carried a sheet of notebook paper, carefully turned away, so that Miklos couldn’t see what was on it.
“Ahh,” he said, “the masterpiece. The work to put all of mine to shame. I’m very excited to see it. Your parents know that you’re here, little girl?”
“Yeah. They didn’t want me to come over. Afraid I’d hurt your feelings or something. But I reminded them that you invited me. That you wanted to see this.” With a flourish, she thrust the piece of paper forward at Miklos. He had to stop himself from laughing.
“Quite right. Please come in so I can take a look at this properly.” He took the thin piece of paper from her as though receiving a blessing from the Pope and led her to the sofa. “Now, before we get started, can I get you anything? Juice?”
“I have orange. I have apple. Fresh from the store.”
Miklos paused a moment on hearing that, then continued, “One grapefruit juice, sweetened, coming right up.”
He returned a minute later with the juice in hand and gave it to Caitlyn. Then he took a pair of slender eyeglasses from his sweater pocket and slipped them on.
“You wear glasses?” she asked. “Do you use them when you’re painting?”
Miklos winked at her. “The stuff I paint, it works better without them. Now, let us see.”
He examined her drawing. It was in crayon, and he could tell what it was right away. It was his own home. It was awful, technically speaking. The proportions were all wrong. There was no attempt at perspective. The straight lines weren’t straight and didn’t meet up, and color bled across them. It was strictly the handiwork of a typical seven-year-old child.
It was beautiful.
“Ahh,” he said, affecting his most pompous art gallery voice. “Yes, I see what you’ve done here with the composition, how it draws the eye across, nice, nice. It is an elephant wearing a tutu, yes?”
“No, wait, I was mistaken. How could I not see it before? It is an abstract portrait of your mother. See here,” he pointed to the windows, “these are her eyes, though I’m afraid you have not been flattering to her nose,” he said, tracing the door with his finger.
“Come on,” Caitlyn giggled, choking on juice. “Really, what do you think?”
“What I think is that there is something terribly important missing, without which, I’m afraid, it will never be very valuable.”
“Your signature of course. Van Gogh, Picasso, yours truly, all the big-time artists do it.” He got up from the sofa and went to his desk, returning with a pencil. “Lower right-hand corner, big as you please.”
Caitlyn wrote her name out with the precision of practice in neat little letters and then handed the pencil back.
Miklos looked down at the drawing. “All right,” he said, “I’m sold. How much?”
“You want to buy it?”
“Well, of course! Artists never work for free, if they can help it. Since we’re colleagues now, let me tell you a little trade secret. When someone offers to buy your work, never act surprised. Don’t say anything until you’ve heard their first offer, then act insulted.”
“Okay,” Caitlyn said, “well then, how much?”
Miklos looked at the drawing as though studying it, punctuating his silence with “hmmm” and “ahh” and “yes.” “I think I shall purchase this drawing from you for the princely sum of one quarter.”
“One quarter?” She brought her mouth down in fake shock. “One terrible, lousy, stinking little quarter?”
“Good,” he said. “A bit over-the-top, but good. Now we’re negotiating. Tell me, little girl, what do you think this drawing is worth?”
“A hundred bucks?”
Miklos laughed such as he hadn’t in years, deep to his belly. He lifted his glasses to wipe away tears. “Yes! That is perfect! A hundred dollars, exactly the right amount to ask for.”
“Really?” Caitlyn asked, pushing up the brim of her firefighter’s helmet.
“Well, yes and no. Yes, you should absolutely ask for a hundred dollars; no, I will absolutely not give it to you. But how about this? Five dollars.”
“Ten,” she said. “Take it or leave it.”
Miklos grinned. “Deal.”
Caitlyn came by every Saturday after that, always costumed in something outlandish, always with a new drawing to sell. They would haggle over grapefruit juice and toast and every time Miklos would wind up with a new drawing, which he used to decorate the walls.
Soon his living room was covered in Caitlyn’s artwork, filled with vibrant primary colors depicting trees, lakes, mountain ranges, and every manner of creature that had graced Noah’s great ship.
There was also a new canvas on the easel near the window—a fresh piece of art that Miklos had begun. He made sure to put it away when Caitlyn was over, but when she left he would immediately set to work on it again. It was different from his usual style, which scared him slightly. For the first time in decades he didn’t feel in control of his art, but controlled by it, as though something larger was looking for escape into the world, through his hand, through his brush.
On one particular Saturday, Miklos had set out a plate of oatmeal cookies and two glasses of grapefruit juice in anticipation of Caitlyn’s visit when the doorbell rang. It was unusual for Caitlyn to use the doorbell; she normally knocked.
Miklos opened the door to find Caitlyn’s mother, Jennifer.
“Ahh,” Miklos said, “the prodigy’s mother. I was expecting the little girl. It is time for her usual art showing. I hope she’s not sick?”
“Can I come in for a moment, Mr. Spielman?”
Jennifer walked into the front room and paused for a minute, staring wordlessly at the row of hand-drawn pictures lining the wall.
“Do you like them?” Miklos asked. “If you would like one of your own, I could put in a word with the artist.”
Jennifer shook her head slowly. “Do you really think she has talent? Steven and I have taken note of this sudden passion of hers, but every time we’ve asked if she’d like to take an art class, she’s ignored us. She refuses to take anything seriously.”
“Ah,” Miklos said, rubbing his chin, “is that what art is? Something to be taken seriously?”
Jennifer stared at him for a moment, then laughed. “Oh, but you know all about it, don’t you? That’s what I keep trying to tell her—that to be successful in life, like you obviously were, you have to bear down. Apply yourself. Work hard and keep focused on your goals. That’s actually why I came over today. I was hoping you could help me.”
Miklos gave a small bow. “Tell me how I can assist.”
Jennifer left the paintings and sat down on the sofa, pushing the plate of cookies to the side.
“I really don’t think Caitlyn’s going to be an artist when she grows up, do you?”
Miklos cocked his head. “We are all of us artists in our way.”
“Yes, fine, but I mean, I don’t think she’s going to make a living selling art.”
“Ahh,” Miklos nodded. “Those who are lucky enough to do so are rare.”
“Right. So I feel… that is, Steven and I have discussed the matter, and we’ve come to the conclusion that Caitlyn should spend her time doing… more practical things than pretending to be an artist.”
“It’s not that we aren’t appreciative of fine art—I’ve spoken with Steven, and we might just want to purchase that painting of yours after all… Grapefruit Juice, was it?—it’s just that Caitlyn spends her days with her head in the clouds. I mean you’ve seen it. You know. Like the ridiculous way she dresses. I plan to put my foot down about that, too.”
Miklos shook his head. “She’s seven.”
“Precisely. She’s not a little girl anymore, and the competition out there is harder than ever before. If she wants to have a chance in the world, we need to get her on track now, before it’s too late.”
He sighed. “So what is it I can do exactly…?”
Jennifer smiled. “I just wanted you to know our wishes. We’ve already told Caitlyn what we expect of her, and I’ve told her point-blank that I don’t want her bothering you anymore. You’re clearly a man who wants his privacy and we mean to respect that.”
Miklos inclined his head. Jennifer stood to go, and he was not sorry to see her leave.
“Oh,” she said, staring again at the pictures. “You know, it might send mixed signals for you to have these up, in case she does come by in the future. You don’t have to keep them up any longer for her sake, at least, and I can take them off your hands if you’d like?”
Miklos sniffed. “For the rest, I will endeavor to respect your wishes, seeing as how you are Caitlyn’s mother. But in this, I must refuse. These drawings are mine, paid for with my own money, and I like them just where they are.”
“You paid her for them? With real money? But they’re just a child’s drawings. What could you possibly see in them?”
“I cannot tell you how much I see in these drawings.” And you wouldn’t understand if I tried, he didn’t say.
Jennifer chuckled as she opened the door to leave. “To each their own, I suppose. In any event, I’ll tell Caitlyn that you fully support our decision. Thank you for being understanding.”
She closed the door behind her, leaving Miklos alone. He sighed, then took the tray of food from the table into the kitchen and poured the grapefruit juice down the sink.
After that day, Miklos’ work on his new painting grew infrequent.
He would meditate on Caitlyn’s drawings, seeking inspiration, but it usually never came. Her drawings were an incomplete expression—they held some part of her spirit, her enthusiasm, her innocent-yet-exacting mind—but never all of it, never all at once.
Every so often, Miklos would hear the sounds of Caitlyn playing in her front yard. These were the best times, the most productive. He would raise his blinds and open the window, and move his brush to her laughter. And so, by small measures and as summer deepened, Miklos’ new work neared completion.
It was a Saturday night in late July. The sunlight stretched on towards nine and the children of the neighborhood took advantage, playing basketball and catch, long-shadowed in the streets.
Caitlyn was in her own yard, dressed as a doctor with a miniature white lab coat and a full-sized stethoscope draped around her like a necklace. Miklos was proud of her, to see that she had withstood whatever attempts her mother had made to get her to limit her self-expression. He admired her resolve.
He looked from her to his painting and nodded. It was done, only needing his signature to be truly complete. It was a new direction for him, a real departure. It was his best work in years, perhaps decades.
An approaching car took Miklos away from the painting. It was familiar, a cobalt blue Mercedes—Kathy, his agent. Miklos quickly shut the window, then scrambled to get his painting covered. He hadn’t decided whether to call Kathy about this particular work; as it neared completion, he felt more and more reluctant to put it up for sale.
The doorbell rang. Miklos drew in a deep breath and answered.
“Miklos, love, it’s so great to see you,” Kathy said, coming forward to embrace him.
Miklos received it along with her customary air kisses. “Kathy. This is unexpected.”
“Oh, darling, I was in the neighborhood and I just wanted to pay my respects.”
In the neighborhood? Kathy lived an hour away, in the city, and there was nothing local to entice an urbane woman like her to make the trip. Nothing but Miklos.
“If that truly is the case, I am happy to see you, but I hope you won’t be disappointed if we don’t visit long? I was just about to turn in.”
“Oh, no, not at all… Say—” she said, pushing her way past Miklos’ elbow and into the room, “is that a new piece?”
“It is, but I—”
“You old devil,” Kathy said. “I knew you had some secret project. Last time we spoke, I could hear it in your voice. Practically bubbling over!” She walked up to the shrouded canvas.
“Please, it’s not finished,” Miklos lied.
“I just want a peek.”
She unveiled the canvas.
“Oh, my,” she said. “This is… different, isn’t it?”
“You hate it,” he said.
She laughed. “Miklos, angel, we’ve been working together for I don’t know how long. You know I love everything you do, though I must admit that I’m not certain I’m as fond of this style. It seems very…”
“Straightforward,” she said with a smile. “Honestly, I’m glad this happened because this is something I’ve meant to discuss with you for a while. I’m not completely certain that I am the ideal person to represent your new line. You know that I do everything in my power for you, Miklos, but another agent may be better suited to handle the new demographic you’re obviously targeting.”
“You’re dumping me.”
Kathy laughed again, looking away to the shadowed corners of the room. “Why must you choose to put everything in such stark terms? ‘Hate.’ ‘Dumping.’ No, of course I’m not ‘dumping’ you; I think the world of you and your art, you know that. I just feel you might be better served by someone else at this juncture of your career. I’m only trying to be fair to you, my sweet.”
“I knew you would. That’s why I love you! So you know, and I hope this doesn’t offend, but I’ve already shown pictures of your last few paintings to some colleagues of mine, and I’m happy to report that there is interest out there. Though maybe I should take a quick snapshot of this, if this is the direction you’re headed… Is this going to be a new period for you?”
“I don’t think so.”
She stood in front of the canvas, squinting. “For the best, I imagine. I just don’t think there’s a market for this kind of… Frankly, it looks something like these atrocious children’s drawings you have plastered up, though obviously far more skillful in the execution. Bold, yes, and colorful, but…”
“Exactly,” she said. “Well, I don’t want to take up more of your time. I’m going to have some of the colleagues I’d mentioned get in touch. I know one or two of them are very excited at the prospect of working with an artist as distinguished as yourself. Keep me informed on how things progress.”
“Of course, Kathy,” he said. “Thank you for stopping by.”
“Always a pleasure, Miklos.” She kissed his cheeks again then opened the door.
“Oh,” she said, “it looks like you have company.”
Standing in the doorway was Caitlyn.
Kathy laughed. “Well isn’t that cute, a little nurse!”
Caitlyn rolled her eyes as Kathy walked down the pathway to her car.
Miklos smiled to see her; she had not come to visit since her mother warned her away. “You’re collecting for the blood bank, perhaps, little girl?”
She looked down at her feet. Something was the matter. “I don’t mean to bother you. I just wanted to see you is all.”
“It’s no bother,” he said. “Not in the slightest. Grapefruit juice?”
“Yes, please, only no sugar this time.”
“Really? My, my, next time it’ll be coffee, I suppose.”
Caitlyn screwed up her face. “Ew, no. Coffee’s gross.”
“Glad to hear it. One grapefruit juice, straight, coming up.”
When he returned with the two glasses of juice, and cookies that hadn’t been touched in months, he found Caitlyn staring at his uncovered painting.
“No great shakes, I know,” he said. “Tell me, how are your own drawings coming? I sincerely hope you’ve continued to draw.”
Caitlyn kept quiet, looking at the painting.
“All right, well, at least come have your juice. I’ve almost stopped drinking it myself, you know. I seem to have lost my taste for it.”
Caitlyn didn’t reply but continued to stare.
“Come on, little girl, you’re starting to frighten me. What’s going on in that mind of yours? Or is it like the Medusa, and my artwork has frozen you on the spot?”
“I’m sorry,” she said finally, slowly bringing her eyes away. “It’s just… beautiful.”
“Pffft,” he said, waving her away. “Flattery doesn’t suit you. I liked it better when you were telling me how ugly my paintings are.”
“But this one’s not ugly. Really! It’s like, the drawings I’ve been doing for you… they were fun, but I didn’t really care about them all that much. But looking at this, I don’t know, it makes me feel happy somehow. It makes me feel like maybe I want to be a painter after all, you know?”
He did know, though he had forgotten for a time.
“How much do you want for it?” she asked.
“What are you talking about? If you want this—really, actually want this—I will give it to you.”
“No way,” she said. “An artist never works for free. Not if he can help it.”
“Fair enough,” Miklos said, laughing. “Okay, how much will you give me?”
“A dime? I offered you a quarter, first time out of the gate! Parking meters in the city won’t even accept a dime anymore.”
“Well, what do you think it’s worth?” she asked.
Everything in the world, he was going to say, when suddenly they heard Jennifer’s voice, echoing down the street: “Caitlyn? Where are you? Time to come home.”
“I gotta go. I’ll pay you back someday, I swear.”
Miklos lifted the canvas off of the easel and put it in Caitlyn’s arms. It was unwieldy in her grasp, rising two feet above her head. “Are you sure? What will your parents say when they see this?”
“I’ll just tell ‘em I made it,” she said. “They don’t pay enough attention to know the difference.”
Set with the painting, Caitlyn eased her way out of the door. She paused. “Oh. What do you call it?”
Caitlyn. “What I Love Most,” he said.
“You need to work on your titles,” she said, and giggled, and then she was gone.
By the middle of the next week, the moving van had reappeared; he realized that Caitlyn had come by that night to say goodbye. Miklos watched as they loaded their possessions into the back of the van, Miklos’ painting, he noted with a smile, included.
As they were getting set to leave, Caitlyn turned to Miklos’ house and put her hand up in a wave. She was not wearing a costume today, but blue overalls with the tell-tale spatter of dried paint. Or if it was a costume, maybe this one would stick.
Miklos made to wave back, but then Jennifer pulled Caitlyn away, and the girl went into the van obediently… but still unbowed.
Miklos always considered “What I Love Most” to be his finest work and, not wanting to follow it with anything lesser, decided that it should also be his last, though he lived for many more years.
In December of the last of these, word came to him that a showing was going to be held in the city for a promising young artist who had taken the scene by storm. The name of that show was also “What I Love Most,” and Miklos made certain to attend.
At the show, he did not make any attempt to seek out the artist—a driven young woman that rumor held was strikingly passionate and uncompromising about her work—or make his presence in any way known. Instead, he took up a glass of the complimentary grapefruit juice, said to be what the artist drank while creating, and offered a silent toast to a little girl that he once knew.
Copyright 2015 by T. C. Powell