The Color of Air
A Short Story
Danny sat on the edge of a kitchen chair in the middle of a tool shed working on a painting he didn’t particularly like. He found himself leaning uncomfortably close to the canvas, and thought about a trip to the optometrist. A dull throb in his jaw made him think about dentists. These were not the thoughts of the young man who had renovated the shed and commandeered the kitchen chair twenty-two years earlier, attacking that first canvas with passion. These days Danny often wondered where that young firebrand had gone.
He stood up slowly, rubbed his back without noticing, and walked to the window. Ann was in the kitchen rhythmically kneading a mound of bread dough. He could hear the nasal drone of public radio and the initial buzz of nocturnal insects.
That woman will never leave the farm, he thought.
He stood at his window fighting the poison of disdain, and watched Ann through her window kneading dough. He wondered what she could possibly be thinking--fussing and puttering around like someone’s grandmother. He shook his head.
He thought about calling Bob. If he hurried, he might catch him before he reached Onion Creek and started the long dusty drive to Ann and Danny’s front door.
No. Let him come. See what happens.
Danny returned to the canvas. He had painted a young couple surrounded by delicate pencil lines that would eventually become a medieval forest. The woman wore a spray of white baby’s breath in her hair, and an emerald highland dress. The young man wore a leather doublet, and his right hand rested on the hilt of a sheathed broadsword. The painting would sell for about $100 at the next Renaissance Fair, probably to a couple dressed exactly the same way.
Danny frowned. The woman was fine, but the young man was all wrong. He tapped the boy’s face with his thumb, hoping for one of those happy accidents that can sometimes replace legitimate work. He wiped his thumb on an old necktie and squinted. Nope. It still wasn’t happening. There was something wrong with that boy.
He looked at the phone. Bob would be expecting an answer.
Danny removed the boy’s face with a rag and started over. He redefined the features and added a beard, working dutifully until he heard Bob’s BMW crunching gravel outside the shed. Danny looked up. Bob entered with bluster and beer. He plied Danny with expensive lager and talk of their glory days at art school before launching into his sales pitch.
“You need this, Dan,” Bob said, “You need this job. You’re falling apart out here.” Danny nodded solemnly and opened another beer.
“You need the money. You need the insurance. We’re not kids anymore. You may feel fine and all, but you’re walking around with a fifty-three year old pancreas. How scary is that?“
Danny slid his glasses back up his nose. They both stared at the new painting and drank. “The woman’s fine,” Bob said.
“You won’t have your own office at first. We’ll have to bring you up to speed on the software. You gotta get back into it, Danny. Gotta learn the program.” Another sip of beer.
“Ann hates computers,” Danny said.
“I’m not hiring Ann.”
“She’ll never leave the farm,” Danny said.
Bob sighed. “Look, I’m offering you an opportunity to get back in the game. Now why don’t you go tell Ann to pack up her patchouli and start thinking about putting this place on the market.”
“Yeah,” Danny said. “Okay.”
Ann was seated at the kitchen table with an open portfolio in front of her. The pages crackled as she turned them. Danny could smell bread baking.
“What did you tell Bob?” She asked, not looking up.
“I haven’t told him anything. What’s that?”
“Work you did for the agency in Houston. Is this what you’d be doing for Bob? Soft drink ads and annual reports?”
“No. Well, yes. Sort of. Man, look at this stuff. I can’t believe you kept it.”
“Of course I kept it. I’m your biggest fan.” She smiled up at him. “Your hair’s getting long again. Looks nice. Would you have to shave your beard?”
“To work for Bob? Not bloody likely.”
“I just wondered. The agency in Houston had a dress code. Remember all those neckties?”
He remembered. He suddenly remembered that Ann was someone’s grandmother. Moreover, he was someone’s grandfather. It was a package deal. He remembered that it was a long journey, far from over, and her gentle hand was guiding the ship ... and he cursed his mutinous soul.
“I remember,” he said.
She said something he didn’t hear. He was looking at the flour on her apron and the gray in her hair and the calm patrician features that defied time and grief and disappointment. Without a blink he saw her at eighteen with flowers in her hair and at thirty with almost no hair at all and in the present at the kitchen table with only three chairs waiting for bread to bake, warming their home against the infinite blackness of an October night. And he knew, with unqualified certainty, that she would never leave the farm.
He leaned forward and kissed her forehead.
Bob took Danny’s answer with a shrug and a wink and a promise to come back soon for barbecue or beer or no reason at all. Then he drove off, spraying gravel, leaving Danny to his painting.
Danny loaded his palette with paint, scrubbing ochre and blue and a touch of yellow into a rich buttery hue that would define the depth of his forest. It was a special color, a color to which he always returned. It wasn’t for the trees or the shrubs or the sky or the brooding mounds of distant earth. It was for everything in-between. It was the color of air.
As he filled in the background he recognized what was missing from the young man’s face. Glasses. Poor bastard couldn’t see a thing.
The woman was fine.