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The Man Behind the Canvas
A Fiction Story
I moved to this apartment complex three years ago. I live alone, so I only have one bedroom. My neighbors keep to themselves and apart from the courteous “how are you” not much else is ever said. It’s strange. You get mad at the loud noise coming from downstairs and impose your irritation and anger on that freak who listens to heavy metal all day and night, only to find out he’s gone a month ago and it is a new guy giving you the pandemonium. Other than that, the life in our community is pretty lethargic here. The silence of our courtyard is rarely splashed by lonely jumps into the swimming pool and hurtful yelps of volleyball players. Sometimes I watch their games thru the window, a bunch of boozed middle-aged arthritics witth borrowered enthusiasm passing the ball and dryly spitting in the sand. Once I ventured to go to our gym. First you wonder why the exercise equipment is covered with dust, several minutes later you realize it is better to leave as it is, for it is so hazardous that you may break your hands and legs before you have a chance to strengthen your muscles. No one seems to care about anything. The fact that my car was broken in and no one gave two shits about it, that is, no one reported it to the office before I saw it with my own eyes in late afternoon, did not surprise me after all. Faceless and indifferent, we are gathered by chance to live in a “community”, which sounds like a joke.
One night I heard weird sounds coming from behind the front door. I got up to look into the peephole. There was a man, possibly my neighbor, sitting in the chair and snoring so hard it woke me up in my bedroom. What the hell. It was a hot night, what was he doing there right amidst restless mosquitos and dancing moths under the wall lantern? I had to endure that gurgling ranting till early morning. But somehow it evoked my slight curiosity about my neighbor because I practically knew nothing about him, we said hi to each other a few times. But what really puzzled me was that several days later I saw fresh canvass paintings standing by his door. My fantasy skyrocketed. He’s a painter? First of all, you should see his face. Red sweaty skin of a sausage-eater and beerdrinker. Fat as a truckload. But the paintings! They were of a extreme beauty, the colors were alien and strangely mixed and that was my only brief impression from staring at them for a few seconds. But then I came to the most ordinary explanation that he had simply purchased the paintings at our local museum shop. Still, quite an art lover, isn’t he?
After that I started to pay more attention to what was going on next to my door. My life revolves around my job and home with supermarket shopping in between, what else is there? By all signs my neighbor was living alone, although I heard shrill screams and cursing thru the walls. Maybe drunk? He also had a strange habit of opening his window shades with the light on at nights, so everyone could see his messy apartment. But one night I heard again strange sounds behind the door. I looked out and saw him spraying giant canvasses with a white paint. So an artist, after all; I could not believe it. A next-door Gauguin working as a policeman (or whatever his uniform is) during the day and creating pictures of alien beauty at night? Now it all made sense, screams and yelps: there was a painter enraged at wrong passage, touch, wrong light... I felt ashamed that I belittled a person by his appearance.
One Sunday afternoon I was sitting in my chair outside, relaxing with a glass of wine.My neighbor was out there, too, reading a wrinkled stained newspaper in his lounge chair. Half an hour later we found ourselves talking lazily about this and that, why and how each of us moved in here. Mick – yes, that was his name – told me how five years ago he threw out the woman that lived with him, cut all ties with friends and without a halt shifted towards alcohol that quietly took him to the workshop of loneliness. By then he had lost his job and was in bad shape. Then he moved on to his younger days. It went into an hour long lament about his youth mostly wasted, his failures and disappointments. How he wanted to become an artist. How his drawing skills were denied even by modest tutors. And how he gave up on art and had to work meaningless jobs.
“But, Mick, these paintings…” I briefly felt a light stream of oil scent in the air.
“These paintings have nothing to do with me. I’m not a painter”, Mick fell into a hysterical laughter. His face got even redder.
“Then I don’t understand. I see you every evening with these canvases”, I said after he gained control over himself.
”You’re precisely right, with canvases. Have you ever seen me holding a brush?
Now I was completely puzzled. Certainly I was moved by the unleashed crowd of suppressed feelings, anger and self-pity but I could not make sense out of all that. I wanted to ask my next, so obvious question, when he suddenly got up and said he had to go. He thanked me for having listened to him and wished me a goodnight.
It was a month ago. I heard weird moaning that did not stop thru the wall dividing my apartment from Mick. Now what is going on there? The sounds were so spooky that I could not help but come out and knock on his door, actually concerned if everything was alright. No one answered but the weeping continued. I called the attention of the gardener working nearby, he had a master key. As we opened the door, it became very silent. We cautiously stepped in. “Anyone here?” I saw Mick first, laying face down on the floor by the fireplace. The gardener leaned down to Mick and nodded to me that he was alive and then dialed 911.
Apparently Mick had had a heart attack but was going to be alright and I cringed at the thought of not finding him in time, because Mick was always alone and seldom had visitors. I went a couple days later to the hospital to check up on Mick and found him in good spirits and he mentioned that they did some repair on his heart and that he would be alright as long as he didn’t drink so much anymore. I was happy that Ole Mick was going to be okay then and I took my leave, he thanked me for coming by.
A few days later I was returning home from work and discovered that there were several men taking things out of Mick’s apartment. They looked like movers and were taking all of his paintings with them. I was perplexed because Mick never mentioned that he was leaving, perhaps he was going to stay with relatives not trusting himself to take better care of himself. At any case I never saw Mick again and often wondered what became of him. He left the mystery of his paintings unsolved and perhaps Mick was just toying with me and he himself was probably the artist being a little modest, as they were quite good. Before the movers left they asked me what my name was because Mick had left something for me, it was a painting and it had my name on it.
I still have Mick’s painting. It shows a red man standing on a dark hill with his shadow casting into the sky. Whenever I look at it, I recall all over again what happened and think of Mick and his strange life, and a man who found his own way to come to terms with his experiences and for his love of art.