by David R. Gwyn
Two frail arms clutch the oxygen tank desperately close to his chest. He thinks that if he can prove his immense love for the cold metal canister, it might relinquish more oxygen. If he snuggles it like a lover, it might release additional molecules of the element he needs to catch his breath. When every move is a sprint, he will try anything to keep from feeling the stifled scream of his lungs below his curved ribs. He’s drowning despite the air around him.
The artist sits, hunched, watching the masses navigate the streets. The colorful fall day contradicts the pale stone structures of Rittenhouse Square. Like the others, this month has come and passed and still he sold nothing. With winter on its way, the season of possible sales closes rapidly. A chill penetrates him to his arthritic core. Bones in his fingers grind against one another like the gears of a rusted bicycle.
Like a relic of another world, he exists only in the folds of artistic expression, captured by the fibers of a canvas. An oxygen tube runs like an interstate highway up his chest, forks at this neck and winds around his ears.
The stubble of his beard suggests what he would never admit; there is a deficiency in his aid. He looks like (and is) the kind of man whose wife had passed years ago. He never leaves the house except for this sidewalk art sale one weekend per month.
The chair is comfortable, but his body still aches and stiffens underneath his rapidly reducing weight. With clouded eyes, he watches as the artists on either side of him have intermittent sales. Their faces, blurry and unfocused, are an archetype of his failures. He has a sideline view to everyone else’s success.
He had always thought of it as only a matter of time before he would conquer the purest form of human expression. The form that transcends time and language and culture. When he was young, he assumed he would work for a few years, then come back to painting, aggressively attack the hidden dream of his youth.
Year to year, however, he never seemed able to distance himself from safe employment. Student loans, a wife, children, mortgage, the list goes onward and ends at the seat where he sits now.
He needs validation for his life’s work, but his time’s up. He won’t make it to next month. He can feel the aching in his chest, the rumble of his heart working desperately to beat just once more. His only wish is to steal the beats he used up in his younger years. He wasted so much time chasing the money he didn’t care about and a dream that wasn’t his.
Fifty dollars to a rarely seen great nephew will get his paintings back to storage. The dark locker doesn’t even allow a sliver of light through their rolling doors. Somewhere across the street he swears he hears the screams of the gates as they pull shut, hiding his work away.
He will go back to his apartment where he hopes the shakes of his hands subside long enough to produce another piece. Just one more. This could be the one. Though he’d never know.
A young man in a long, grey pea coat passes, then stops. He eyes a painting, removing one of his ear buds to focus more of himself on the piece. The artist observes the man as the man observes the painting he named, Youth Reclaimed.
This sale could be the one he needs. Then he can die without dying. This version of him could live on. It would be imprisoned behind fibers soaked in paint, but free in its own way.
Running low on time, he would willingly sell this piece to the man at half price if he would agree that it is worth having, worth owning.
“How long have you been painting?” the young man asks.
Swallowing, he calms his nerves. Deep inhale through the pipes to fuel his lungs, tricking them into thinking they are well enough to force air past his vocal cords.
“Studied it in school.” Breath. “Came back to it just recently.”
“They’re very good. I especially like this piece.”
He points to Youth Reclaimed.
The artist leans forward, nodding. “Probably my favorite I’ve ever done. Crushed me to paint it.”
“It never comes out exactly as I see it in my head.” Deep breath.
“Well,” the man says. And with that word, the artist’s lungs curl up under themselves in a way that pushes every molecule out of his chest. “Good luck with everything. I hope you have some luck today.”
“You were my luck,” the artist says quietly before he can curb his own lips.
“What’s that?” the young man asks.
“What do you want?” the artist asks. He feels lifted up by his wasted time. It’s the practical part of him, the one that kept him from his art for so long, that speaks up like a guilty lover.
“What do you mean?”
“What do you want from your life?”
The young man looks left and right, but the people continue to walk by. In a way that shows he is willing to indulge an old man, he smiles and says, “I guess I want money.”
“Then you’re doing something wrong. Here,” The artist hands the man Youth Reclaimed. “Take it. You need it.”
The artist’s wrinkled face stares, dark eyed and regretful, out of the coarse canvas. His frail neck looks too thin to support the grey-haired head that lingers just in front of a bland, navy blue background.
“I can’t take this.” The young man tries to hand it back to the artist.
The artist closes his eyes and pushes the canvas back into the man’s hands. “I want you to have it. When you look at it, remember to never become that man.” The artist’s bony finger crudely taps the face on the painting. “That man lived everyone else’s dream but his own, and now,” he pauses to breathe, hugging the tank to his chest, willing the oxygen into his lungs. “And now, he realizes he’s never lived at all.”
The young man holds the painting for a while. He looks at the artist, then back to the painting. When he looks up again, he says, “Thank you.”
The artist watches the man walk down the sidewalk, the painting carefully tucked under his arm. He keeps both hands on it, caring for it like a child.
“Ready?” his great nephew says from behind him. “I can help with the paintings now.”
The artist turns to face his nephew and nods with a half smile. When he looks back, the man is gone, engulfed by the crowds who pull tighter to their coats, putting hats and gloves on as the day turns into night, cold and windy.
The other artists have already started packing up their work. It would be too cold for him to come next month. He would have to wait until spring, but he knew he wouldn’t make it to next spring.
He takes the tubes out of his nose and takes a deep breath, allowing the chilled, fresh air to navigate into his lungs and through every blood vessel. He feels every molecule dash through his body. “I’m ready,” he says.
David Gwyn holds a B.A. in English from Muhlenberg College. He teaches in Harlem, New York and lives with his wife, Katie, and their dog, Reggie. His previous publications include The Write Place at the Write Time and Down Dirty Word’s, The Legendary. He can be found online at www.DavidRGwyn.wordpress.com and on twitter @DavidRGwyn.
(Van Gogh self-portrait.)
(Blue painting by Martin J. Crane Sr.)
2 thoughts on “Breathe”
Nice. I once read a quote that said something like putting off the work you want to do while you do something you don’t want to do until you’re financially secure enough to pursue your true calling is one of the Devil’s most devious tricks. Naturally I can’t find it now, but this story struck that chord for me.
Scott, I’m glad the story worked for you in that way.