The painter

Untitled (Fallen Angel) by Jean-Michel Basquiat

My first foray into “horror”. I hope it won’t be the last. I wanted to write a story about the writer’s block. The ending surprised me. I wasn’t thinking of ending it like this. I had just finished “A Farewell to Arms” by Hemingway when I started to write this hence the sentences are short and the characters sound like they are drunk.

This turned out ok, if I may say so myself . A little long, but I am contented with how it turned out. I know I meant it to be horror but it turned out pretty funny. I hope you have a good laugh yourself.

When he woke up, alcoholic hammer smashing his skull, to get to his workshop, the painting was already there. He hadn’t made it. What he left the previous night — what he’d been leaving for the past nights for the past three months, was a blank canvas. Yes, a few failed sketches, all failures, and the crumpled papers littered on the floor were a testament to these. But the painting? He had no record of ever doing it.

It was chilling. As if the colors were arranged so on purpose, in a way to send a shiver down the spine. It was not ugly, no, it fact it had its particular beauty. But it sent off a repulsive instinct, as of something primal pre-learned long-embedded into the subconsciousness. It portrayed no concrete image, it was abstract, and this gave the imagination and the gestalt instinct more room to fill a man with fear. It is always more fearful that which is not recognizable than one that is.

And yet. And yet, it was his style. The idea could very well have been conceived by him. It could pass off as his, he was sure of it, if he were to sign it and sell it to the gallery.

He had been looking for a solution but this was not what he expected. He had been looking for a cure to his painter’s block. It was a profound dryness penetrating the innermost, a torture to the soul. It had reached a point in which he believed some white ghost would inspire in him more fear than the blank white canvas staring at him. That emptiness, resisting any change, any addition to its appearance.

He just ran out of ideas, period. His career had started well, much acclaim — no Picasso, that’s for sure, but getting there, possibly. And then, one day, just like that, no more ideas. He would sketch something, an inkling or a spark or an intuition, on a paper, and filled with shame of the idea, crumple it and throw it. Abandoned like an aborted fetus unloved and ugly from conception. Left in him he had nothing and that white canvas sat there and stared at him to remind him of the fact.

He had turned to the bottle. At first, it was a stimulant. That was what he told himself. Then it became a crutch. Now it was an addiction. He could not live a day without the bottle. And so he started to get drunk, often not even realizing it. He lost contact with his friends, the few real ones he had, anyway. He stayed in his house all day, sitting there in front of the blank canvas, reading design and art books for “inspiration” — a form of hiding, although he wouldn’t admit it — surfing his social media — yet more hiding — and drinking. And the days and weeks and months passed in which he produced not a single finished output. Nada.

And now that painting stood there, inspiring in him more fear than the blank canvas. He shuddered. He avoided looking at it any longer, like some aggressive obscenity that scars the memory. He took the painting off the stand and placed it face leaning against the wall.

When he went down to get breakfast his head was aching and his stomach grumbled and when he looked into the refrigerator, there was not much left. There was an eighth of a bottle of whiskey. He drank that. There was half a sandwich from God knows which day. It smelled terrible so he threw it. In short, he didn’t have anything to eat for breakfast, and he had no money.

“I am worth shit,” he said to himself. He sat down on the table cradling the bottle with the last few drops of whiskey in his hands like some religious negro idol. His head still hurt and now it was clear to him that he was a failure. “Some artist,” he said to himself. His stomach grumbled again, complaining for the delay.

“I could sell the painting,” it occurred to him. He called up his agent.

“Hello?” he called.

“Pablo?” said his agent. “Is that you?”

“Yes. It’s me.”

“I thought you were dead.”

“Very funny.”

“I’m sorry. Anyway, it’s been a while. What’s up?”

His voice quivered and it was difficult for him to say it. “I have a new painting.”

“What was that?” his agent asked.

“I have a new painting.”

“No?”

“Yes.”

“At last! I am glad to hear it. I would like to see it.”

When his agent came to look at the painting, he put his hand on his mouth. Either deep in thought or shocked with what he beheld. “You made this?” He paused in more contemplation. “No, we can get you a buyer for sure. But this is so…”

“So?” Pablo asked.

“So dark. Are you feeling fine these days? Are you okay?”

“Yes.”

“Well I suppose it is art.”

“You don’t like it?” Pablo asked.

“It gives me a certain charm,” his agent said. Like a grotesque fascination. I can’t stop looking at it. He didn’t say that out loud. “I didn’t know you were influenced by Basquiat.”

“I am not.”

“Well it looks a lot like a Basquiat. I think that would be a good market.”

“Look I am short on cash right now, so whatever works for me.”

When he received the payment a week later he felt the feeling of coming up out of water after being long submerged. It was enough dough for him to last another two weeks. The first thing he bought was more whiskey, of course.

That next day he decided to do some real work, since that money wasn’t going to last him forever. He sat down in front of another blank canvas.

The work of an artist is agonizing. It is a constant battle with those voices in his head, owners anonymous. The moment the pencil makes contact with the paper those voices start What are you doing, they say or They are going to laugh at this, says another and another This work isn’t worthy of you, and the worst is This is proof that your talent has dried up. Or worst even, You never had any talent in the first place. And as the pencil moves and traces a line the whispers turn into excited babbling like that of some old ladies in church on a Sunday and when the shape finishes it turns to shouting. And at one point the voices become unbearable and the only way to make them shut the hell up is crumple the paper and throw it away. The anonymous voices have won. And you pick up another paper and it is blank and it is the same process. Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat. Shit after shit after shit.

Then come the voices in the night reminding him of his failure. The what ifs. What if he wasn’t meant to become an artist after all What if those first few paintings were flukes What if there is nothing left What if. What if.

And the voices drown out only when he is connected to his phone. There is no reason for an artist to use his phone, except for this. And the whiskey, at once the greatest pal and the worst enemy.

And when you wake up the next day and it is time to go to work, there you are back at the blank canvas. It was at this rectangular ghost that Pablo now stared. It was silent and he would have preferred that it say something at least. A word to inspire fear even, just anything to slake his artistic dryness.

He stood up from the canvas and went to his kitchen. There was the whiskey, asking for his accompaniment like some miniature, well proportioned lady eager to see him.

When he woke up the next day his head was hurting. He already knew the solution which was to chew aspirin. There was something in the bitterness of the powder that improved the painkiller’s effect. He stared at himself in the mirror and saw the half-plums under his eyes. The face of failure.

When he went down to his workshop he saw another painting there. Similar to the last one, “Basquiat” as his agent had said although he, Pablo, himself did not see it. It had a quality that made you look, just look and stare even if you know you were going to regret it afterwards. Like some grotesque animal brought out from the unknown depths of the sea, a human deformity, or a massacred corpse. Pablo could only stare as if an external force kept his neck locked to that position, eyes glued to the painting. His phone rang and he stepped out of the entrancement.

“Pablo.” It was Joe his agent.

“Yeah. I’m here.”

“Look man. They are asking when you are coming out with your next painting. You’re getting good reviews right now.”

“Funny you should call,” Pablo said. “I have another one to sell.”

“Oh? Good to hear. I’ll come right over and pick it up.”

And it happened like this for three more paintings. Someone bought the painting, the art market asked for more, he tried to paint his own work, never did it, despair with the usual alcoholic crutch, and after some days of said desperation wake up with a finished painting placed on the canvas. Each painting was more disturbing than the previous. Then, a few months after that first painting, his agent called him up and told him he wanted to visit him in his apartment.

“Have you read it?” his agent asked as soon as he entered the apartment.

“No,” he replied. “About what?”

“About one of your paintings. It’s all over social media for crying out loud.”

“I haven’t seen anything. I’ve been disconnected lately.”

“The buyer of your first painting? She was found dead in her apartment last night.”

“So?”

“There was no sign of a break in whatsoever. On the contrary, all the doors were locked, windows shut, covered by curtains. She lived alone. She was found dead in front of your painting.”

“What are you trying to say?” he asked.

“Her eyes were left open and described as like two black marbles. And her lips were found twisted in a smile. Blood all over the teeth.”

“How did she die?”

“Suffocation is what the report says. Judging from the lack of any apparent external cause, they conclude that she had forgotten how to breathe. The autopsy has also found some internal bleeding.”

He swallowed. “What does that have to do with my painting?” he asked. But he already had a feeling of what the answer will be.

“Everyone is saying it is your painting that killed her.”

He forced a laugh. “My painting? How could a piece of art kill a person? You know how mindless people on the internet are.”

Joe’s face stayed grave. “Have you been getting into anything occult lately? This is serious Pablo.”

“Joe, come on. I haven’t. I’ve already told you.”

“You been sleeping well?”

“Yes. For God’s sake.”

“Do you want me to get you a psychiatrist?”

“Get out.”

“Or a priest?”

“Get out,” he said. “Get out. I mean it.”

“Take care of yourself, Pablo.”

When the agent left, Pablo looked at his email. He avoided reading what other people said about his work because it tortured him. And when he did read it he never did it without the whiskey bottle.

His mailbox was flooded with hate mail. God always triumphs over the devil, one said. You must be the devil’s painter, another said. “Evangelicals,” he said to himself. “Don’t pay them any attention.” He took a long swig from the whiskey and the liquid felt in him like an infernal fire filling his body.

He sat on his stool and he began to paint, liquid inferno serving as creative engine. He painted in broad strokes, small strokes, undiscriminatingly, shutting out the voices that once shouted in his head. They were still there, yes, shouting if not even louder, but he no longer paid any attention. Who cares if this is bad? he told himself. He paid no more attention to the quality, to the What will they say, working almost unconsciously, only half-aware of what it was he was putting on that canvas.

***

Joe, the agent, was worried. Pablo hadn’t called him up in two weeks. He’d been receiving calls on behalf of his client — who apparently hadn’t been returning any calls himself — about his paintings. It was a combination of two kinds of call, either they were asking for more of his paintings because they wanted to buy more or they wanted Pablo to stop painting as it went against their religious sensibilities.

Joe had tried emailing him but he wasn’t replying. He had called him on his cellphone six times but he wasn’t picking up. Nor did it appear that Pablo blocked the call because the phone just kept on ringing.

He got his jacket from the perch of his office and walked out to go to Pablo’s apartment. He rung the door once, twice and no one answered. He looked for an open window but all were closed. He twisted the doorknob and it gave in. Pablo, for some reason, had not locked his front door. “Artists,” Joe said to himself. When he went into the house it smelled sour, a combination of food gone bad and a long-unbathed man. All the lights were turned off. “Pablo,” he called. No one answered. As he walked further into the house he heard a faint noise. The noise of a paintbrush on canvas. “Pablo?” he called again. The noise did not stop.

When he stood outside the doorway of the workshop he saw the artist sitting there, painting. The painting had that same distinct, disturbing quality of the previous ones. There were whiskey bottles, all empty, surrounding him like brown bowling pins. Crumpled paper was scattered all over the floor. Around him, canvases, some lying on the floor, others leaning on the wall, exhibited different paintings, all demonic, like some abandoned museum of the occult. The artist himself, profile seen from behind, had grown frail, a frailty in sharp contrast to the furious energy with which he applied strokes to the painting. Like a man possessed by a demon.

“Pablo?” Joe said. “How are you man? You alright?” He approached him from behind and placed his hand on his shoulder. The face — pale, gaunt eyes like two shiny black marbles empty of any life — turned to him, head swiveling stiff and slow on its neck, and the lip corners turned up and exposed a smile of blood-stained teeth.

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