by Graham Powell
Michael walked out to the sidewalk, took a breath, and sighed deeply. Then cold air bit into his lungs, and he coughed. He pulled his overcoat close around him and glanced up at the sky. The sun was bright in its glassy blue sky. He wondered how it could look the same and be so very different.
His reverie was broken by a clattering crash at the other end of the parking lot. An old man digging through a stack of cardboard boxes had upended a pile of scrap tin. He climbed out, cursing bitterly, and gave the heap of metal a kick. He grabbed a shopping cart full of assorted junk and walked off down the alley, still mumbling to himself.
Michael followed impulsively. “You there!” he called. “Wait! Wait a minute!”
The man stopped and glared at him. Time had weathered his face the way a river wears away a landscape, carving out channels and dumping the silt downstream, turning the sharp coastline of his jaw into a sagging delta. His eyes flicked over Michael, taking in his wingtips and suit and neatly parted iron-gray hair, and his snarl melted into an altogether more calculating expression. “Spare change, mister?” he said.
“I have a better idea,” said Michael. “Let’s talk about it over lunch.”
The man’s eyes narrowed and he turned away. “I don’t think so, mister. Besides,” he said, indicating his cart, “somebody would steal my stuff.”
Michael laughed. “We’ll take it! I’ve got a car.” The old man hesitated, and Michael held out his hand. “Please,” he said. “I need your help. My name is Michael Gabney.”
The old man’s expression didn’t change, but he shook hands and said, “I’m John Stoop.”
Stoop watched Michael throughout the crosstown drive to his apartments. He watched him during the ride up in the elevator. He watched him unlock the heavy oak doors. Once inside, he could contain himself no longer. “What’s your game, bud?” he asked. “What do you want from me?”
Gabney smiled. “Just what I said. Dinner and a deal. The kitchen’s this way…”
The old man planted his feet wide apart and stuck out his chin mulishly. “I want to know what’s going on, and I ain’t movin’ until you tell me.”
Michael’s gaze didn’t waver. “You want some change?” he said. “I’ve got about a hundred bucks. You can take it now and leave. I’ll take you back where I found you, or wherever you want. Wherever home is.” His face softened, and he smiled. “But please, come on and eat.” He started down the hall, his voice trailing after him. “I hope you like scrambled eggs, because that’s all I can make. I usually eat out myself…”
John stood there for a minute, hands on hips, then shook his head and followed.
Half and hour and four eggs later, he sipped an ice cold glass of milk and grinned. “Mr. Gabney, you can sure cook those eggs. I’ll take some more milk, or something stronger if you’ve got it.”
Mike emptied the carton into his glass. “Sorry,” he said. “I haven’t had a drink in twenty-six years. Long story. Sure you won’t have some more?”
“No, but thank you just the same,” said the other man, chuckling. “First time I’ve been full in a year.”
Gabney put the dishes in the sink and ran some water over them. “Now I want to talk about our deal,” he said, wiping his hands. “Come this way.” They went down another hallway to a sitting room. It was dark; the wood paneling and deep blue carpet soaked up most of the light. The furniture was heavy, brass rivets straining to tie overstuffed leather to cherry and pine. One wall was lined with bookshelves; a few volumes stacked here or there, with most of the space given over to trophies, photos, miniature cannon and elegant beer steins. It was a man’s room.
On one wall hung a portrait, lit softly from above. It was a young woman, twenty at the most, with warm brown eyes, skin like the moon on a pool of still water, and the barest hint of a smile. Michael stood silently before the picture, head bent. John shuffled uncomfortably and finally said, “She’s pretty.”
“Yes,” said Michael. “She is. Her name is Amelia. We met at a dance at school, up in Ithaca. She’d arrived with a friend of mine, but before long she and I were the ones dancing and he was left alone by the punch bowl. He was best man at the wedding; I felt it was the least I could do. That’s the week this portrait was made.” He reached out gently as if to touch the canvas, then drew back his hand and sighed. “She’s dead, I’m afraid. Dead and gone all these years. For a while, I didn’t know how I’d go on without her. But time went by, and I realized that she’d never grow old, never feel pain or sadness, and never leave me. I love her as much now as on that day twenty six years ago.” He turned and looked at the old man next to him. “This painting is my most valuable possession, John, and I want you to have it.”
“No, no,” said John, hands raised in protest. “No, I can’t take that. I mean, well, no, I just can’t. What would I do with it?” he finished lamely.
Michael was lost in the picture, his eyes tracing every stroke, every curve. “Please,” he said. “I’m dying, John. It’s cancer. I may have two months, or three, but no more.” He held up a hand as John began to speak. “When I’m gone she’ll have no one. Help me. Please.”
Michael lifted the frame from its hook and carefully lowered it to the floor. He pulled a small folding knife from his pocket and carefully sliced away the canvas. When he was done he rolled it into a tight tube.
The painting had concealed a small safe. Michael twirled the dial until the tumblers snicked into place, then opened the safe and removed an envelope. “Here,” he said. “There’s a thousand dollars here. Take care of her. Keep her safe.”
The old man’s mouth moved silently, as though urging the words to come. “But why me?” he finally asked.
“You understand,” said Michael. “You know what it is to be alone. Without help, without hope.” He pushed the painting and the envelope into John’s hands, then gripped his shoulder. “I know you won’t let me down.” He smiled. After a while, they both smiled.
Michael was still smiling when he returned to the apartment. He went straight back to the sitting room, unlocked a small cabinet by the door, poured himself a snifter of brandy, and flopped into his favorite chair. He was still smiling when he heard the front door open again. “Amy?” he called. “Come here a minute, I’ve got news!”
A young woman, not more than twenty, with brown eyes and alabaster skin, strolled in. Her eyes grew wide and she gasped, “My picture! What happened to my picture?”
“I’ll get you a new one tomorrow,” said Michael. “I gave the picture to a friend of mine – the picture and a reason to live. Anyway,” he continued, “I went to see the doctor today. I’m in full remission, Amy. God willing, I’ll live to be a hundred.” He laughed and leaned forward, eyes shining. “I feel… how can I explain? I feel illuminated . I can see things so clearly now.” He thought of an old man asleep on a sidewalk, a scrap of canvas clutched to his chest, lonely but no longer alone. Then he laughed again and said, “Let’s talk about it over dinner.”
The girl glanced over at the empty frame. “Mom’s going to be pissed,” she said. They left arm in arm, and Michael quietly shut the door behind them.