The Portrait

The tiny bells on the door jangled, alerting me to her arrival.

So this is what I’ve come to, I sigh before throwing back a shot of the world’s cheapest vodka.

I step into the vestibule to greet my client. I offer my hand, a forced smile, and falser confidence.

My eyes study her form. All straight lines and sharp angles. Not a single gentle curve to cling to.

I lead her to a Queen Anne wingback chair I found at a yard sale.  “A formal portrait requires formal seating,” I offer. Not so much as a smile for my effort.

I study her face from this angle and that. I adjust my lamps—a little more light here, a little less there.

Dear God, her hair is in a tight square bun. How on Earth am I going to paint this woman?

I know what she wants. She made that very clear during our phone consultation. “An old-fashioned portrait,” she had said. “Something genteel, like you’d find in the old house of an old family.”

That’s not my preferred style. I haven’t painted human still lifes since art school. But the rent must be paid.

I settle at my easel to begin my sketch. The blank page taunts me.

I rearrange my charcoals.

I lean right, peering around my easel to study my client one more time.

She sits poised and collected. Her spine straight as a flagpole. Her closed mouth straight as a ruler. Her nondescript sandy-colored eyes vacant, bored already. Her ecru blouse buttoned up to her neck and down to her wrists. A place for everything; everything in its place.

I dare you, my sketchpad whispers.

My fingers pick up a stick of charcoal.

The tip of the charcoal touches the page, creating a small dot.

I double dog dare you.

My hand tingles with electricity.

I put down the charcoal and flex my fingers. The customer is always right, I tell myself—only I sound like my button-downed father giving me yet another lecture. Even as a kid, I never bought a word he tried to sell me.

I pick up the charcoal again, my fingers grasping it just a bit tighter this time.

Once again, the tip of the charcoal stick touches the page. One small dot now a bit darker.

I pause. Then…

The woman’s image explodes onto the paper. One eye here. Another over there. Her nose somewhere else. Her body broken into squares and triangles. A genteel portrait deconstructed into unrecognizable parts.


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