Stephen Peters

Diego Rivera, Diego Rivera

“First of all,” Matthew banged on, “I question your very premise.” He leaned back in his seat and struck a dashing pose for his reflection in the dark window. “Look at what this guy’s done,” he motioned to the framed art on the walls. “Nothing like your work. Not up to your level at all. You are not—I repeat—are not, a mediocrity. Guys like this can’t compete with real painters like you.”

Andy waited as one of the baristas poured whole beans into the grinder and hit the On button. He didn’t remember calling himself a mediocrity, but maybe, in his present state of mind, he’d given that impression. When the noise stopped, he said, “Apples and avocados, my man. Personally, I like what he does. He’s on the cutting edge and’ll be in galleries soon. I’m old news, Matthew. Just my luck.”

Indeed, what did he care? These discussions bored him anyway. “What is Art?” Pa-leeze. He gathered up his sketchbook and pencils and took a shortcut home down an unlit side street. The freight elevator trembled unsteadily to the fifth floor. His studio was across the hall from a hot little number straight out of art school who seemed to be having a party. He’d need to befriend her before long, expand his network and all that. He inserted the key, jiggled it, and the door sprang open. Inside, he carefully unwound the silk scarf and draped it over the shoulders of the department store manikin, then transferred his fedora to the dummy’s head. From one dummy to another, he thought. Exhausted, he climbed into bed and listened to the BBC for an hour. The coffee and the August heat, not to mention the thumping music and squeals from the party across the hall, kept him roiling into and out of bizarre positions most of the night, and three times he padded off to the bathroom to empty his bladder. Urgent need but weak stream on the last one.

In the morning, he woke as himself, a sixtyish, bald guy who needed a shower and a shave, and began untangling the mess his joints and muscles had snarled themselves into during the night. He turned on the tap in the sink and let it run, waiting for the hot water to climb to his floor, then filled a pan and placed that over a gas burner on high. Somewhere in the process, he dropped his underwear and kicked it across the floor, playing laundry golf. He’d gotten it near the laundry basket. Onto the green, as it were. Didn’t men his age play golf? The water boiled. He poured it over a spoonful of instant coffee and stepped into the shower, where he had jerryrigged a shelf just for his cup in the morning. No need to dilute it under the shower head.

Later, back in his fedora, seersucker suit, and silk scarf, his freshly waxed “Dali-stash” providing that little extra edge to the Andy Crosby brand, he set out for the D and D around the corner. He sat at a table on the sidewalk and Diane came out and joined him. “How about a couple eggs and some toast?” she said.

“Over easy?” he asked.

“Why not? Had your coffee yet?”

“I could drink another cup.”

She motioned through the plate glass to her help. “The usual,” she mouthed and nodded toward Andy.

“What are you planning for Halloween this year?” he said.

“Andy, it’s Au-gust. Haven’t you noticed the heat? Why are you asking me about Halloween? We always do the same thing. You know that.”

“Yeah, that’s my point. The same thing. I have an idea for something different.”

She crossed her arms and lowered her chin. “Which is?”

“You can still do the regular, tired costume party contest, like always,” he said.

“Thanks. But?”

“Yes, BUT,” he said, “there would be a separate, much more interesting contest. More stimulating. Andy impersonators. People coming as me. We judge the best one. They win one of my paintings. A less expensive one.”

She shook her head. “You never let me down, do you know that?” she said. “Wow. It’s not enough we have one of you. Now we need clones. So why hang your paintings all over my walls if we have people walking around as you?”

He plowed forward. “We’ll hang paintings of course, Di. That’s the idea.”

“We already have. Deb was just bitching about it yesterday. ‘Why do we always have to have His things around here?’ You know her song.”

He waved this off. “We’ll take those down. Hang my new stuff. I can’t figure out why she’s jealous anyway.”

“Possessive,” Diane corrected, “and you don’t have any new stuff.”

“I’m working on it. Haven’t you noticed? It’s Au-gust. The heat? I have plenty of time.”

“It’s not enough you put yourself in every painting? You also want people dressing up as you?”

“Hitchcock always made a cameo appearance in his films. It was his signature,” he said.

“So now you’re Hitchcock?”

“Just think about it, would you? You want to pack your place, sell a lot of booze, create excitement. Maybe I’ll sell some work.” He spread his palms as if to say “Why not?”

The server brought breakfast and Andy dug in. He knew Diane would come around. Even after the breakup, when she changed teams and married Deb, the other D of the D & D Café and Wine Bar, she remained a friend.

“You should have been in advertising, do you know that,” she said. “That’s where your real gifts are.” He ignored this. “So what’s on your agenda today, Picasso?” she said.

He had a mouthful of eggs. Diane possessed the rare talent of the strategically placed question. He never could figure out how she asked a question at the most awkward instant and then spun it to excite a vague sense of guilt that he should work harder. She sat smiling as he chewed. “A lot,” he finally managed to choke out. “The mural at Barnhart Brothers.” He placed his hand on his stomach as the food settled. “I’m sketching some of the regulars.”

“You’ll be in it, of course.”

“It’s my signature, Di.”

“I like the Halloween idea,” she said. “I’ll run it by Deb. But you have to actually have new stuff.” She gestured toward the inside of the café. “We haven’t sold any of that for ages.”

“Please do more than ‘run it by.'”

“I know. Let me handle it. Just make sure you attract plenty of people who are going to spend money. Otherwise. . .”

He left the rest of his coffee and began counting out the exact change, plus tax, and a generous tip, then left with the remaining slice of toast in hand. He nipped home for the shoulder bag with the sketch pad and pencils. Before locking the door, he remembered and ran back inside to find the book. He’d seen it in the kitchen bookcase, a slim volume of Hindu devotions, but couldn’t remember where it had come from. He’d had it for years. Shelly would appreciate the gesture and probably like that sort of thing, too. He slipped it in with his sketch materials.

The day looked good as he walked briskly toward the coffeehouse. Nine-thirty would be the best time. Catch the regulars relaxing with their newspapers and laptops after the morning rush. As he approached, he waved to the man he called St. Francis across the street from the coffeehouse. His long white beard blew sideways in a gentle breeze and red winged blackbirds lined up along his shoulders and outstretched arm. A crow stood atop the crown of his baseball cap. Songbirds fluttered around him, swooping into his hand to feed on the wing. Crowds of crows, grackles, pigeons, and geese pecked at what he’d thrown onto the grass. Andy couldn’t miss the man’s stunned blue eyes as he waved back. What had happened in this guy’s life? Too many drugs in the Sixties? PTSD? Religious visions? Why not all of that? Andy stood watching with his mouth open. Placing him exactly like this in the mural would create a magic realist sense unlike any of the other murals he’s done around town.

Matthew already sat drinking a cup of coffee. He and the ex-nun, still Sister Theresa after fifty years out of orders, were in a knee-to-knee conversation. He set right to work.

“A lot of guys would just take a picture,” said Matthew by way of greeting after a while. “Work smarter, not harder.”

Andy didn’t look up from his sketching. “That’s true,” he said, and began erasing a line.

Matthew watched with a little smile under his beard. “You could do that,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about what I said last night, how people do things now. It is more efficient, you have to admit.”

“True, true,” said Andy. The tall man who came in with his mother every day turned his back just as Andy scribbled to capture how he steadied her with a single finger under her elbow. “Maybe so,” he said. “Just not what I do.”

“So do you think you’ll eventually do that?”


“Get yourself a camera. Not bother with all this sketching.”

“I’d still have to sketch.”

“So what’s the point then?”

Andy stood up. “Excuse me for a minute, won’t you?” he said and walked to the back of the coffeehouse to look at the wall by the bathrooms. They’d lit it well, though he’d still have to scrub it down before actually getting started. He figured ten feet wide and maybe nine high until the pipes along the ceiling started. There was a door into the storeroom smack in the middle. The manager had said, “Paint around that damned door,” as if offering a concession for the chintzy pay, but Andy intended to use the door, too.

He stood looking at the wall longer than he’d intended. Sister passed him on the way to the loo. “Diego Rivera, Diego Rivera,” she said. “That’s who you are. Our very own. Think about it.” Then she disappeared.

Diego Rivera, the muralist of peasants and revolutionaries. Andy Crosby, the muralist of eccentrics and misfits. St. Francis and the nun. Matthew, who once actually won an air guitar contest. They’d all be in the mural. He’d include the tattooed runaway from last week’s sketches. Not a regular apparently. Only there that one day, telling his story to Sister Theresa, who was a great talker but an even better listener. Maybe paint him as an angel. Elaborate wings, but injured. An angel fallen to earth. The tattoos symbols of world religions. It was an idea, anyway.

Andy leafed back through his sketches for the boy and was surprised to find he had no face. He had focused on the skinny, brittle body and tattoos. It was as if the boy had AIDS or an eating disorder, and that’s what caught his attention. The tattoos clung to him, wrapped themselves around his limbs like vines, consuming him, tightening around his neck, but for some reason Andy had been unable to look at his face. It remained a blank.

Matthew appeared at his side again. “Got it all worked out now, huh?”

“Getting there,” said Andy.

“That’s how it is with my guitar licks, too,” said Matthew. “They pop out of nowhere, like your pictures.” He lifted his face to the ceiling and strummed an air guitar. “Gifts from the gods.”

“Is that how it happens?” said Andy. “It takes a little longer for me.” He knew Matthew’s guitar licks, so he didn’t comment further.

“Then all I have to do is plug in the old amp and away I go!”

He probably had enough sketches to get started now. “Right,” he said and started to leave.

The place filled with the lunch crowd as Matthew slipped into the line for a free refill. Andy walked the two blocks to the Czar’s Kitchen and sat on the terrace so he could nod at familiar characters going along the sidewalk. He ordered a bowl of borsht, which came with a hunk of black bread, and a cup of coffee, always strong here. Ian, the owner, came out and joined him, quietly smoking a cigarette as Andy noodled ideas for how to group the figures into a sensible composition. When the food arrived, he repacked his pencils and the sketch pad.

“Word is Shelly’s going into hospice in a day or two,” Ian said.

“I know. I’m dropping by after this,” said Andy.

“Her sister came in this morning. She’s the one making arrangements. A shame. Such a nice person. Shelly, I mean. Her sister. . . Wow.”

No need adding to this. Ian knew his history with Shelly.

“And how’s your health these days?” Ian asked, remembering.

“Me?” said Andy. “I’m a bear. No problem.”

“Well,” said Ian, “you do get a lot of walking in,” and they both laughed. “Give my love when you see Shelly,” he said. “I should have gotten around to see her by now.”

Andy put a twenty under his bowl, more than enough, letting half of it flap out for the server to see.

He had a key to her place and let himself in. “Knock, knock,” he called into the apartment. “Here to water the cat and feed the plants.”

He expected to find the sister but instead, fortunately, found Shelly alone. She was propped up on the daybed by the window, all her plants catching the sun behind her. A grey tabby yawned needle teeth and pink gums, then tucked its head into her lap. It blinked once and closed its eyes. Shelly wore a plaid Gatsby cap. The chemo had taken all the beautiful auburn hair she’d been so proud of.

“My true friend,” she sang in a thin voice. He leaned over to kiss her on the forehead.

“I brought you a present,” he said and pulled a dining chair close to her. “It’s right here.” He rummaged in his sketch bag. “I saw it in my bookcase the other night and I immediately thought of you. I kept forgetting to bring it, though.”

She reached her hand out for it and frowned as she looked at the cover. Then her whole face colored and she began smiling. “You thought of me, did you?” she tried not to laugh. “You are so funny sometimes, Andrew.” But she saw his confusion. “I lent you this book—ages ago—and you never returned it, you beast.” Then she did laugh and he tried to join her. “Here,” she said, leaning forward uncomfortably, “give me another kiss. Thank you.”

He froze. That face. Even without the hair, maybe even especially now, unadorned, left to itself, he saw the face he always thought created its own light, the very light that would go out when she was gone. “Really?” he said. “You lent it to me and I didn’t give it back?” She smiled a teasing smile with her whole face as he leaned back in his chair, embarrassed. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “I thought I was. . .”

“You picked just the right time to bring it back.” She held it to her flattened chest. “Come on. Give me that kiss. For good luck.”

He stood up and steadied himself on the windowsill and kissed her on the lips. They sat quietly together for the rest of the afternoon, and when her sister returned, Shelly had been sleeping for over an hour. He stood to leave, looking down at her one more time, trying to fix her in his mind. Her mouth was set in the easy, ironic twist that always softened him. The sister stared at him but caught herself. “She really does look forward to your visits,” she told him before closing the door. “Regardless.”

At home, he tossed together a stir-fry in the wok and ate it with a beer on the fire escape. That evening, hoping to shake off the blues, he leaned into the circle of lamplight at the worktable with his sketches. The runaway angel, well above the groupings of figures, would fall from somewhere in the ceiling pipes. His mind emptied as he sketched elaborate layers of feathers, some on a wing loose over broken bones.

Below, Matthew strummed his for-once-visible guitar.

The tall man steadied his frail mother with a single finger at her elbow.

Birds perched on the head and outstretched arms of St. Francis.

Sister Theresa threw herself into a perfect cartwheel that would show red longjohns under her habit when painted. He hoped, when she saw the mural, she’d appreciate that he remembered the story.

Andy himself stood to the side in his fedora and silk scarf, observing, the stains on his seersucker suit cleaned up in the painting.

But the runaway angel’s face remained blank inside its shape. Andy cocked his head and began filling it with Shelly’s eyes, the curve of her nose, and that wry, teasing expression inexplicably suggesting the light that still set his core to aching.

“How do I catch that, Shell?” he asked, but then harrumphed at himself. It came out a mongrel comment, a laugh in disgust and resignation, but nevertheless a laugh: “So much ambition for such a little talent,” he whispered.

Then, erasing that first attempt, he began searching again with his pencil. “It’s what I do,” he said. “What. I. Do.”

Stephen Peters is co-editor of BoomerLitMag.