Monday, November 21, 2005

A spilt life

When the money for the canvasses ran out, he started to paint on the curtains, and when he was done with those, on the windows themselves, hoping to catch the sunlight that way. "I must have the only house in the Universe where you've got to look into the windows to see the view instead of out of them", he told me. "You know that nude I painted on the bathroom window? Man, you should see the number of peeping toms I get".

When the windows gave out as well, he started on the wall-paper, tearing great swathes of it off the wall and painting on the back, the glue making his colours stickier. He was painting in strips now, painting the kind of torn beauty that the world is really made up of, hoping he'd be able to put it all together one day, stick it back up with the wallpaper reversed so that the walls would bleed with his colours. ("You know how people are always turning their pockets inside out to look for something they think they have on them but can't seem to lay their hands on. Well, that's what I've done with my house.")

When the money spring (as he put it) finally ran dry, he sold off all his music, keeping only that one Charlie Parker record he'd never got around to painting. ("You got to hear the blue on this one, you just got to. There hasn't been a blue like this in the world since Tintoretto. Honest"). Even so, it was a choice between buying food and buying paint. He went and bought ten huge cans of paint, saying, "There's more than enough food in the world, but there sure isn't enough colour. Don't you worry about it, I'll manage."

How he managed was this: every morning he would wake up at three in the morning ("Not wake up - I don't have the strength for that anymore - more like fall awake") and go wandering about the city, stealing a bottle of milk from some passing doorway to slake his hunger. He was careful not to steal from the same house twice, though, not because he was afraid of getting caught but because he really didn't want to do anyone harm and figured losing one bottle of milk in their lives wasn't going to hurt anyone. As the months passed, this meant he had to go further and further to get the nourishment he needed, returning home exhausted from having walked too far. The evenings were better though. There was a bakery around the corner who agreed to let him have a loaf of left-over bread every night as long as he'd come in once a week and draw a new background for the 'specials of the day' board. So he did. With nothing but three pieces of coloured chalk to work with, he turned out glorious, golden paintings of melting butter and soft, rising bread and coffee blacker than a moonless night. People told him he was wasting his talent, to which he replied, perfectly serious, "No, actually, it's wasting me."

And wasted he certainly was. As the days passed, the pounds fell off him like leaves from autumn trees. His face had the hollow look of eroded stone, his eyes were dark and bloody wells. And still the paintings flowed out of him. By this point, he'd covered practically every surface in the house, even painting on the pages of the Telephone Directory, even painting on toilet paper ("Now I've really got paint running out of my ass!") He tried painting on bread once, but it soaked up too much of the colour and the image got soggy and crumbled away, so he didn't try that again. Then one day he stared at himself in the mirror, seeing his withered body, the skin stretched tight across his gaunt frame, and it made him think of a canvas so he started painting on himself ("Now that's what I call a self-portrait"), using a mirror he borrowed from a neighbour (his own was covered with a portrait of Narcissus) to paint his back when the front was all used up. "I used to tell people that when they saw my paintings they saw my true, my naked self. Now that's literally true!"

And still the images wouldn't stop coming. He painted on the undersides of dustbin lids, he went to fairs and painted on the faces of children. His system of stealing milk bottles no longer worked because he would absent-mindedly end up painting on the doors he stole from, so that his trembling images told them at once who had taken their milk. He didn't care. He wasn't really interested in the milk anymore, he only wanted the bottles so he could paint on the insides of them and then drop them from a height to see how colour shatters, how beauty is destroyed. When the few friends he still had came to check on him, they would find him lying stark naked in the centre of the room, drunk on colour. "Beauty, real beauty is the stuff I imbibe", he told them, "all this other junk is just the vomit that comes out afterwards". Then he started to attack them with paintbrushes, hoping to paint on them as well, and they stopped coming altogether.

Slowly the conviction that the world was just something he'd painted grew on him. Stuck all day in his tiny garret of a room, its walls and floor and surfaces all painted over more times than he could remember, he felt as though he himself were a figure in his own paintings, without the strength to get out. For the first time in his life he experienced the pride of the imagined in its own creation, felt how desperately the image needed to be perfect because the visible is all it had, all it could ever be. What you see is what you get.

When the paint finally ran out he cried for three straight days, using his tears to dilute the blotches of paint in the room to go on painting with. By the end of it though his eyes were giving way and he knew he couldn't go on. It occured to him then, that there was one surface that he still hadn't painted on, one last canvas left untouched. The inside of his skin. Slowly, deliberately, he imagined the painting he would make on that canvas. For two nights and a day he sat rapt in meditation, picturing it to himself, sketching it out with the paintbrush of the mind, with the colours of memory. Then, when he was sure he had it, when that last, perfect painting was done and he could feel the colour humming in his veins, he climbed up to the top of the roof and threw himself open on the street, sharing himself and his work with the city the way he'd always wanted to, the way he'd never dared. As the paint spilled out of his broken body, it seemed as though the flow of it would never stop, as though the great spreading pool of his colours would engulf the city, dye it with his images. In that moment he saw, for the first and only time, his vision realised.

Two months later, his paintings had all been sold off to private collectors, to hang safely in their sterile homes. The landlord had auctioned off the rest of his personal effects and used the money to hire a professional housekeeping service that scrubbed the floors clean and put up new wallpaper. All that was left of the fever of his life was a slight stain of red, hardly noticeable, on a anonymous sidewalk in a little known corner of the city.

"They tell me it's no use crying over spilt paint", he used to say. "But what else is there to cry about?".


The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

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Mrudula said...

It reminded me of 'Narcissus and Goldmund' by Herman Hesse. I don't know why.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed a lot! »