Romero walked back to the gallery and climbed the staircase to the studio above. Ignoring the painting on the easel in the middle of the room, he sat down at the desk and stuck a CD in the player. Whenever painting came to a standstill, he mixed CDs from playlists from the computer. The music gave him an excuse.

He looked around at the cluttered studio. Today he’d get busy. He walked to the long table next to the easel and cleared away old paper cups, dumping cold coffee down the sink and throwing the cups into the garbage. He gathered old photographs and carried them to his desk to be put away later into albums. He considered the painting on the easel. Stepped back. Tilted his head one way and then the other. Shrugged his shoulders and stacked it against other paintings that leaned against the wall. When was a painting done? he asked himself. Never. Probably. I guess when I say it is, he laughed.

His life, like his studio, was a mess. Why had it gone this way? Maybe he should give up painting. But it was the only thing that gave him any relief from his wretched life. Sadly, it had become his life.

But it wasn’t too late to change. He could travel. Lock up his studio and leave. Lock it up? What would anyone be interested in? He laughed. Maybe someone would do him a favor and take everything. He could start over.

But he couldn’t afford to travel. He’d never been any good at saving money, never had a lot to begin with. The hell with saving it.

The music relaxed his mind. He stood at the window looking down on the bare trees along Fourth Street. Across the street stood Mila’s shop, deserted now. She left today. Would he ever see her again? He remembered thinking the same thing about Sheryl when she told him goodbye so many years ago. He never did see her again. She was dead now.

He turned back to his studio. Time to get busy. But his heart wasn’t in it. Right now he needed to walk. He hurried down the stairs and out into the fall sunlight, crossed the street past Mila’s shop and down the block to the park.

It was the day before Thanksgiving and the park was crowded. Even though he could see his breath in the cold air, the sun melted the snow from yesterday. In his mind’s eye, the brown grass beneath the twisted branches of the trees became a painting, he couldn’t help it.

A couple sat close to one another on a bench, their breath made clouds of steam in the air. Several boys chased a football around in the large grass infield.

Romero tucked his bare hands into his coat pockets, his ears burned. He walked faster, past people talking on cell phones. He thought about Thanksgivings from his childhood. Nothing specific came to mind, just feelings. Running, dropping down exhausted into the damp warmth of the brown grass, rolling over, staring up at the languid clouds.

On the edge of a bench, an old man sat alone. Romero sat down close to him. The old man smiled at Romero. “Good afternoon,” Romero said.

“Good afternoon,” the old man said. “It’s a nice day for so late in the year. Usually, the snow is heavy on the ground.”

“I prefer the grass and sunshine.”

The old man stared out at the boys in the grass infield.

“I can hardly believe Thanksgiving is tomorrow,” the old man said.

“Do you have plans?” Romero asked.

“No, nothing out of the ordinary. When you get to be my age, each day runs into the next.”

“What about family?”

“My wife died four years ago and our two daughters live far away, one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast. It’s funny, when I was a kid, I never got twenty miles from where I was born. Until the war. Then I was sent to a place I couldn’t ever have imagined. I was a dumb farm kid from Kansas. England first and then to France and then onto Germany. There was so much destruction. Everything charred and in ruins. You never saw such horror.”

“That must have been something.”

“The French were all so happy to see us. And then in Germany, we were met with such hollowness and sorrow. I will never forget it.”

“I don’t understand war,” Romero said.

The old man looked at him with deep sadness. “The world is filled with such confusion. Man doesn’t fit in here. He struggles to find his place. This restlessness is met with a kind of universal upheaval.” The old man looked down at his hands folded in his lap. Romero stared out at the boys chasing the football around in the large grass infield. They seemed so far away. A distant memory. He tried to imagine the horrors this old man had seen. He’d seen pictures. Like everyone else. But unless you’d been there, you wouldn’t really know. And now, so many years later, these images were burned into the old man’s memory.

“Do you feel like getting a cup of coffee?” Romero asked. “We could walk up the street.”

“Why not?” the old man said.

They walked up the sidewalk, past Mila’s shop, and turned the corner toward the coffee house. Romero pointed out his studio across the street. The old man asked if he was an artist and Romero said he tried. “It wasn’t an easy thing,” Romero said.

After they got their coffee they sat outside. The old man leaned his head back to the warm sun. Romero looked back down the block to the empty shop on the corner. Mila was a memory he wanted to put behind him. Then he looked through the leafless trees that lined the street in front of the Firehouse Gallery to the dark windows of his studio upstairs. Only a month ago he’d looked out his studio window through the trees to Mila’s shop across the street.  They met. And she’d sat for him while he painted her and each night they made love and then one day he looked out his window to see a truck parked in front of her shop that took away all the exotic things Mila had gathered from the four corners of the world. Mila had seen much in her short life. And he, he realized now, was like the old man who grew up on a small farm in the middle of Kansas. Engulfed by the scope of the world, Romero’s life was framed inside a painting. His was a world of imagination.

But not really. He painted what he saw. Although he tried to paint what he felt, not just what he saw, he failed. No more than this old man could come to grips with what he saw after the war, Romero couldn’t capture what was inside his heart.

They sat drinking their coffee watching the world from different perspectives. Romero wondered where the old man’s thoughts reached. His moved to Mila and back. Romero hadn’t bothered asking the old man his name. It didn’t matter to him but maybe it mattered to the old man. The old man relaxed in the sunshine. He would like to paint him like this but didn’t want to ask the old man to sit for him. He guessed the old man would but it would be a terrible inconvenience to him.

“The sun feels good, doesn’t it?” Romero asked.

The old man turned to Romero and nodded. “I have been thinking about your art,” the old man said. “You paint?”

“I do,” Romero said. “Not very good, but it is how I spend much of my time.”

“It is good to have something that takes up your time. It is a beautiful thing to create, to do something that inspires, something to shake up the world, something you love. I spend too much of my time reminiscing.”

“Painting in so many ways is nothing more than a reminiscence.”

“I suppose it is,” the old man said. “Many of my memories are like paintings in my head. Elora and I, Elora’s my wife, used to go to art museums often. She loved art. I enjoyed sharing this with her.”

“Well, you wouldn’t have seen any of my stuff in a museum,” Romero said.

“Maybe not, but it’s the fact that you do it that matters,” the old man said. “No one really knows what’s good. It depends on one’s mood at the time. And what memories one has tucked away.”

“Yeah, I think you’re right. It’s not about point of view, but more about what one has tucked away in his heart. Some things strike people’s hearts, some things don’t.”

They sat in silence. Romero looked over at the old man from time to time, thinking about what the old man had seen in his lifetime. He’d been thrown into the maelstrom and it was hard for Romero to imagine what this was like. It occurred to Romero again that he should give up his painting and travel. See a little of the world. How could he expect to leave his mark on a world he didn’t even know?

He imagined the old man would trade it all for one more day at the museum with his wife. Loneliness can be a terrible thing, even worse than the tumult of war. No, Romero needed to stay put for a while. His heart was bleeding because Mila had walked out of his life. Someone else would come. It always worked out that way for him. No one stays forever.

In the late afternoon, the sun slipped behind the buildings along the street. Romero looked over at the old man. He reminded him of a black and white photo of Picasso. His hands were strong and his eyes deep-set. He asked the old man if he was cold and did he want to go inside? The old man said it didn’t matter to him, either way was fine. “Let’s go in,” Romero said. The old man picked up his cup and followed Romero inside.

They sat at a table close to the windows in the last of the sunlight.

“Would you like another cup of coffee?” Romero asked.

“Yes, I would.”

Romero went to the counter and their cups were refilled and he brought them back to the table. He sat down and looked into the old man’s deep-set eyes.

“When I was in France after the invasion, I met a resistance fighter,” the old man said. “An interesting man. Reticent, shy almost, but he told me one thing that I’ll never forget. He’d learned to survive by looking at death as his religion. In order to do the things he was asked to do, he had to embrace death as most people embrace their faith. Once you are able to look at it in this way, you put life behind you. You become careless. And you live – truly.” The old man paused for Romero’s reaction. Romero sat still.

“Life has no meaning outside of death,” the old man said. “Only when death knocks on your door do you look outside to see how cold and fragile life really is.”

Romero wasn’t sure what to say. He had never had to think seriously about death. It had never stood on his doorstep.

“These were not brave men as much as they had resigned themselves to their fate. They had forsaken any promise life holds up to an imperceptible light. Death comes to all of us. It’s really that simple.”

“It does,” Romero said. He thought he understood. “If one doesn’t cling too desperately to the notion of life, death is an easier visitor.”

“Death is always waiting on the doorstep,” the old man said. His strong hands gripped his cup. He looked hard at Romero. “You need to paint. It won’t keep death out of your house, but He respects honesty. Art is honest. It has to be. Even if done poorly, it is an honest effort. The resistance fighter told me, ‘It is absurd to turn to God when he has deserted us. Death at least can be counted on.’”

Romero looked sadly at the old man. The old man smiled and said, “I am ready. I have waited all my life for this. I only wish I’d done art. Even if badly.”

They finished their coffee in silence. The old man stood and took his empty cup to the plastic bin filled with empty cups. He walked back to the table and looked down at Romero. “Done?” he asked. “Yes,” Romero said and glanced down into his empty cup. “I’ll walk back with you.”

“That isn’t necessary,” the old man said. “I can find my way back.”

“I know you can,” Romero said. “I want to.”

“Then I’d enjoy the company.”

Romero took his empty cup to the bin filled with the other empty cups and turned around. The old man looked strong. He would have made a good artist, he had courage. Romero wished he could be as strong. But he wasn’t. Mila had pierced his heart. And afterward, he whimpered like a lost child. His pain sickened him. When so many people have suffered and lost so much, he’d lost nothing. Mila had brought a little joy to his life and then left.

They stopped on their way to the park, and the old man grabbed Romero’s arm. “Meursault, the resistance fighter I told you about, a very brave man and a deadly fighter, told me one other thing, at a time when I wanted to believe that I was an invincible warrior, when really all I was was a frightened, confused boy from Kansas, he told me that life was filled with terror only when we worry too much about death.”

Romero looked at the old man, wondering if they’d ever meet again. It wasn’t such a big city and he was sure to run into the old man again. Certain meetings stayed with us forever, Romero thought. Mila had carved her initials in the soft bark of his heart. And this old man, who had known a resistance fighter after the invasion of France, had touched Romero in a special way. He wanted to tell him, but he wasn’t sure how. Some things couldn’t be said. Maybe the old man knew. Maybe he didn’t. But for such an old man who’d seen so much, what would it matter?

When they got back to the park, the old man took Romero’s hand, “Promise me that you’ll keep up with your painting.”

“I promise,” Romero said. But he wasn’t sure he would. He had things to do. Things to see. Art was such a fanciful occupation. Leading nowhere. But then what about travel? What was there to say about travel? Only death held any promise.

Romero walked back past Mila’s empty shop, crossed the street, and climbed the narrow staircase to his studio. He walked to the window and looked over the tops of the buildings to the park, to the tops of the trees there, and then looked once again across the street to Mila’s shop, and he thought about the old man. He would have liked to ask the old man to sit for him. He would have been a good painting.



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