The Portrait Artist

 

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It had been an especially long, dark winter until that day in late February when the sun shined especially bright, melting the snow so rapidly that one’s socks absorbed the musty vapors of heat that rose from the ground. The streets, each one representing a tendril of Manhattan’s rumpled brow, perspired rivulets the color of caramel against the dappled tar. Down the gutter and through the cracks in the overburdened ground they made their descent, emptying out here and there onto the subway tracks where an occasional rat would scurry from one crevice to the next between the rails. On the subway platform stood a crowd of people waiting for the next train to take them to a destination that wavered somewhere in the periphery of their muddled expectations, all of them alone among millions, fastened to their places in a state of obligatory resignation. Not a soul dared look at one another. Inward sighs could be felt throughout the impatient throng. I could not help but wonder what it would be like to fall or be pushed in front of the train that I saw approaching, a red light alerting the crowd of its arrival as it roared forward through the tunnel. Its clamorous entrance died down as it slowed to a halt before us, letting a handful of passengers off to make room for new ones. We shuffled onto the already overcrowded train, our chins pressed against the backs of the people ahead of us, our direction limited by the crowd pushing everyone further inside from behind.

The bright lights in the train were a sad imitation of the sunlight above us. The humidity of that day was especially pronounced with all of us packed in against one another, our arms reaching out for something to hold onto lest the train stop too suddenly and fling us against the nearest wall. My feet were writhing in the old sweat of my shoes and my clothes smelled like I had been wearing them for a month. The inapproachability emanating from everyone on the train was even more obvious within the confines of the train. It seems the closer we are put together the more estranged we become. And yet, I still wanted to compliment the man across from me on his sneakers and tell the young woman beside me how beautiful she was.

The doors of rubber and worn metal clumsily opened up to 42 nd Street. Nearly half of the passengers got off. Though I was able to get my favorite seat at the end of the bench near the door, it was still crowded, with a handful of people who remained standing. I ventured to look at some of their faces only to quickly avert my eyes the moment they caught me looking at them. A procession of spectators whose attention stayed glued to the flittering shadows of their overworked senses, the people on the train indifferently observed their own souls dancing in place before them, fading in and out of sight between our dimension and another while the motion of our ride flickered through the windows: a frenetic blend of dull pigments flashing on and off to the beat of a minimalist clang. Some of the passengers lowered their heads to the ground, shutting their eyes to the runways beneath their feet. Grateful my thoughts could not be heard, I wondered which one of them were coming home from work to a mob of kids to feed at home, who was thinking about what would make her boyfriend happy on his birthday, and what music the guy across from me was listening to on his headphones.

Then I saw an elderly black man braving to do the unmentionable: he was looking directly into the face of the man beside him! It wasn’t until I recognized the pad of paper in his lap that I realized he was drawing him.

The object of the portrait artist’s project had a stocky build. Hanging down to his Adam’s apple, his lower jaw suited the proportions of his square head. A pair of spectacles added refinement to his otherwise burly appearance. More suitable for a colder day, he wore an overcoat of gray wool with a matching cap. He looked fashionable in that old European sort of way that you read about in nineteenth century novels. He watched the portrait artist out of the corner of his eye, assuming the customary stillness of a barbershop patron. The hands in possession of his likeness hustled to catch that vanishing moment of time with the controlled strokes of a pencil. The humble demeanor of the black man showed that he had been through considerable hardship. But instead of turning bitter, his constitution had been softened to reflect a deep sense of gratitude for having been left with enough of his soul to enjoy the remaining years of his life. You knew that he was one to greet his neighbor with a deferential nod of the head. When he asked a direct question, a pair of crows’ feet would encircle his smiling cheeks to disclose peaceful intentions. But he showed no indication of cowardice. Unlike so many people I know, he was not the type of man that would back away from asking a direct question in the first place. His stoic presence could have made him a model for passive resistance, for the best of his features were highlighted by a quiet understanding of noble suffering. He wore the kind of polyester pants one sees filling the racks of the Salvation Army by the dozen, but they were cleaned and pressed with loving precision. His knees were bent to reveal nylon socks covered by a freshly polished pair of shoes. Offset by their earthen tone, the glaring neon around us was gently overpowered by their orange-tan color to create a heartier atmosphere within the train. Frosted with age, a bed of dark hair covered the back of his head from temple to temple. A smooth patch of bald skin made up the top of his head. I looked about me and, to my surprise, I saw everyone watching him as if they were children being told a story before bed. If only for a short while, this simple act had turned a train full of phantoms into human beings again.

The portrait artist drew back to view his final creation once more before turning the pad around on his lap to give the man a look. He had drawn the caricature in the matter of five minutes. I wondered how he was able to time his sketches between stops so perfectly. I strained to get a peek but could not. The man nodded, curling his lips downward to express a certain smug appreciation before handing the artist a bill that had been folded into the shape of a thick blade of grass. The artist appeared satisfied and calmly put the money into his breast pocket. Normally I would think it rude that he did not thank him for it, but in this instance I understood exactly how he felt. That inward strength shined through again, that strength that had kept him proud in the face of doubt. He was so assured of his abilities that he did not need to decorate his services with any perfunctory expressions of gratitude. Indeed it was he who was most deserving of thanks for providing such a callous world with a dose of honest warmth. It’s a sin that a man of such spirit should work for next to nothing. Inside I felt a pang of shame for the heartless country I belong to. Though he may or may not have had much to say for a bed, you knew he could sleep at night. This is because of the honesty of his work. Here was a man who ventured to make real contact with real people and so freed them, if only momentarily, from an environment of alienation by virtue of a simple ritual. Like a missionary, he braved the territory of the downtrodden to return souls to their rightful keepers, and he did this for next to nothing.

It was the reactions of the people on the train that day, as well as my own, which led me to draw such lofty conclusions with respect to our hero. Even if I had been able to catch a glimpse of that portrait long enough to decide he was completely void of talent, my feelings about him would be the same; though I’m almost positive he was in reality quite talented. It would be impossible to persevere in such a trade if one did not achieve a certain degree of positive reinforcement for his work, both emotionally and financially.

The train screeched to a stop and the burly man jerked to his feet. He stomped out of the train with a couple others, his portrait jerkily flapping about in his hand somewhere by his side. The portrait artist followed, only he was slower than the others. A barely distinguishable smile could be read on his face. The back of his green and maroon sweater was the last I saw before he disappeared into the crowd altogether.

 

Oliver Lodge is an author who lives in upstate New York. He has been published in “Inner Sins”, “Blood Moon Rising Magazine”, “Body Parts Magazine”, and “Yellow Mama”.