Short Stories

A Family Portrait

Mitchell Scott Karnes

“Has your lawyer explained why you are here today?”  I nodded and placed my hands in my lap, wiping the clammy sweat on my pants legs.  “You were the last person he talked to.  At least your number was the last one dialed.   Are you prepared to give your story?”  My lawyer nodded.  The detective pushed record and said, “Go ahead, Mr. Thatcher.”

            Suddenly the events of the past few months raced across my mind.  I had to really think about where to start.  Where did Pat’s tale begin anyway? I wondered. Then it hit me…that night out on Smith’s Knob, when Jim Garrett’s mare died.  I took another sip of water, but it failed to moisten my tongue or cheeks.  No.  It really began when we met Cynthia and she planted the seed in his mind…set him looking for more…what did she call it?  Oh, yeah…more passion in his painting.  So, in that dingy New York police department with cold metal furniture, in a room with two detectives and my lawyer, I recounted the tale of Pat Guffey’s rise and fall from fame…and the night of his final demise.

Pat just returned from New York and his meeting with an agent named Cynthia Sterling.  At first she’d encouraged him, telling him his paintings were incredibly accurate portrayals of nature.  Then, when he sat down with her in person, she claimed she would be unable to market his goods for the very reason they were praised earlier.  Her clients were reluctant to buy paintings that looked like photographs when they could simply commission a photographer to do the same.  She said his paintings lacked passion.  Then, she set the hook deep telling Pat if he could just tap into the passion…maybe find some anger deep within his soul…let it rise to the surface…then…just maybe then she would take him on.  Well, Pat swallowed the challenge…hook, line and sinker.  Jeez, he swallowed the whole pole for that matter.  He came back with fire in his eyes.  It was the closest he’d ever gotten to the “big time.”  He was tired of the starving artist shows.  He was tired of teaching kids how to paint.  He was ready to paint for a living.  That’s when everything seemed to spin out of control.

One night, Pat called me up and asked if I would go with him to “find some passion.”  I didn’t have a clue what he meant, but Pat was my best friend.  If he needed me to be there with him, I’d go.  So I did.   We went down Highway 31 between Spring Hill and Columbia.  Pat pulled off the road and took a sketch pad and some art pencils.  I just took my phone and played solitaire on the side of the hill.  The storms rolled in and took us by surprise.  We’d been sitting on the northeast side of Smith’s knob for nearly an hour, oblivious to the darkness heading our way.  “Come on, Pat, we better get back to the truck,” I yelled as a gust of wind ripped across the crest of the hill.  Pat didn’t move a muscle.  He stared out over the field below waiting for some sort of inspiration.  “Pat!”  Lightning struck just to the west of us; the thunder boomed and rattled my heart.  “This is insane.  I’m heading back.”

            I got up just as hail the size of marbles began to pelt the side of the hill.  It was too far to the truck, so I ran for cover as quickly as I could.  Those tiny balls of ice stung my shoulders and neck like paintballs shot at close range.  Pat didn’t follow, though.  He ran the other direction, towards the lightning strike.  If the fool wanted to die in Jim Garrett’s pasture, that was his business.  As soon as the hail lightened a bit, I sprinted for the truck.  I actually considered leaving the fool, but stubborn or not, Pat was my best friend, really my only friend.  About thirty minutes later, just as the heart of the storm passed, the passenger door opened and Pat tossed his soaking wet sketch pad in the floorboard.  “That was awesome!”

            “Are you thick or something?” I asked.

            “You should have seen the fear in the mare’s eyes.  I couldn’t move.”  He looked over at me and pushed the sopping wet hair out of his eyes.  “I wanted to leave, but I was mesmerized by the scene.”

            “What mare?  What scene?”

            “Jim tried to free…”

            “Jim?  You mean old man Garrett showed up?”

            “Yes!”  Pat opened the glovebox and grabbed a handful of fast food napkins trying futilely to dry off.  “Will you just shut up and let me tell the story?”

            “Jeez.  Who stuck the cob up your ass?”

            Pat punched me in the shoulder and then reached over to grab the seat belt.  “Jim Garrett rushed up the hill and tried to free her…”

            “Free who?”

            “Come on, Billy.  Let me tell the story.”  I put my fingers to my lip and made a key turning motion with my hand as I pulled out onto Columbia Highway.  Pat continued.  “He tried to free his favorite mare from the tree…you remember the lightning?” 

            “You kidding?”

            “Yeah, that was probably a stupid question.  Anyway,” he continued with great energy and excitement, “the tree kind of blew up…it was dead I think…but a big chunk of it fell on the mare.”  He caught his breath and wiped at the water on his face and arms.  “Like I said…I wanted to help, but I was like paralyzed, just taking the scene in…and Mr. Garrett’s truck slid to a halt and he hopped out.  He must have seen it too.”

            “Did it kill her?”

            “No.  Well, not at first.  He fired up his chainsaw and tugged at the tree, but it wasn’t moving.  He screamed at me to help at first; then he looked up in the sky and cussed out God for letting it happen.”

            As I pulled of the highway to our exit, I asked, “Didn’t you say this was awesome?”

            I glanced over and saw the flush in his face…not an angry red, but one a young boy has when he’s been caught in a compromising moment.  “Did I say that?”

            “Yeah, you did.  The first words you said when you got in the truck were, ‘That was awesome.’”

            “Well.”  Pat paused for a moment, probably searching for the right words.  “It was terrifying, but it was…also…well…it was kind of beautiful too.”

            I let that comment fall and waited for a long time before saying anything    I remember it well…his look of…

 “Stick to the pertinent details, Mr. Thatcher,” the detective said, bringing my distant look back to the dingy and dull surroundings of the interrogation room.  “Go on.”

Yes.  The story.  Where was I?  Pat took the rejections in stride at first, but then they started to wear on him.  He didn’t want to teach art to high schoolers the rest of his life.  He wanted to make art, not teach it.  So, after his seventh rejection, Pat got an appointment in New York with an art agent.  She was interested in meeting with him and seeing his work first hand. 

            “You’ve already covered that.  What does any of this have to do with the phone call?” the other detective asked, pushing the recorder closer.

            “Everything,” I said.  “I’m getting to it.”

            “Can you get to it a little quicker?” he asked.

            “Listen, you wanted my story about the phone call.  Well, it doesn’t make any sense unless you know what led him to the call.  Can I go on?” I asked with quite a bit of attitude.

            “Sorry.  Please continue.”

We flew back to New York that following Monday and sat together in Cynthia’s waiting room.  Well, actually I did, but Pat couldn’t stay seated.  He looked at the art on the walls and rambled on about the petty details of brushstrokes and other things that sailed way over my head.  It’s not that I couldn’t understand him; I just didn’t care really.

This beautiful older woman, probably in her mid-fifties, stepped out and introduced herself.  She was pretty for her age…classy too.  So this was “Cynthia”?  Not bad.  Anyway, Pat grabbed his portfolio and followed her to the door of her conference room.  He stopped at the door and motioned me to follow.  It was kind of awkward, but I went in with him.

“Let’s see what you have for me,” she said as he spread his work across the length of her table.  She didn’t seem too enthralled with some of his newer pieces, but she stopped dead in her tracks when she came to “The Death of Jim’s Mare,” that’s what Pat decided to call it.  She nodded and mumbled something to herself.  “Now this is something we can work with.  This shows true passion.”  She extended her hand to Pat and offered to represent him, on one condition, that he continue his quest to dig deep and discover true passion.  “You’ve almost tapped into it with this one,” she added pointing to the mare.  Looking into the painting I could almost hear the crackle of lightning as it ripped across the sky and the whinny of the mare as she screamed for help.  And…the look in Jim Garrett’s eyes…that look of fear and anger as he lifted his hand towards the heavens and cursed God.  I had to admit, it was incredible.

Cynthia managed to sell that painting, but had a difficult time moving the others.  She pushed him and pushed him to find more emotion and to channel it onto the canvass.  “You have to stop being the observer and connect with the subject of your work.”  He submitted painting after painting, but Cynthia grew ever wearier of the monotony of Pat’s paintings.  “Your art is tremendously realistic, but I’ve told you time and time again, my clients aren’t looking for paintings that look like photos.  If they were, they’d buy photography instead.”  It hurt him, I could tell.  He wouldn’t admit it, but Pat was about to break.  “Tell you what,” she said one day by Skype.  “I have a meeting with the Frist Center in Nashville next week.  Take the weekend.  Go back to the basics if you have to, just to stir your soul again.  I’ll stop by your place and take a look at anything new.  But I have to be honest.  If you can’t reach a new level, we’ll have to sever ties.”

Pat locked himself in the apartment, turned off his cell, and spent the entire weekend without a single break looking for the anger.  Nothing came to him; his mind went blank.  He finally fell back on the advice of a former art teacher and began painting anything, hoping the activity would bring his Muse out of hiding.  He was putting the finishing touches on a bowl of fruit when something finally snapped.  He rushed through the apartment smashing and shredding anything and everything he had painted or sketched, splintering frames and tossing the fragments across the room.  Although this was his life’s work, mutilated by his own hand, Pat felt some grotesque sense of excitement in it all…the same excitement he felt that night on Smith’s Knob where he captured the death of Jim’s mare.  Unfortunately, that memory triggered the frustration as well.  His heart sank to a new low. 

No one appreciated his art anymore.  They wanted abstract and unique work.  He was ready to end it all.  Pat opened the night stand drawer, put the revolver to his right temple and willed his hand to squeeze the trigger, but it refused.  He tried and tried, but his hand trembled.  Death lingered and taunted him.  No matter how desperately he wanted to ease the pain and stop the darkness, he couldn’t do it.”

“So he tried to kill himself back then?” the detective asked.  I rolled my eyes, frustrated with the interruption, and had to remember what part of the story had already been told.  Once I recalled my stopping point, I continued.

            “The frustration gripped him” I said and continued the tale.  He put the gun back to his head and squeezed.  At the last moment, he swung the gun to his right and shot all six rounds into the bowl of fruit.  Fruit bits exploded everywhere: watermelon chunks, grapefruit and orange pulp, banana paste, and an assortment of other fruit parts splattered the canvas and the wall behind it.  Thankfully, his nearest neighbor lived over a mile away and didn’t hear the shots.  Ashamed and distraught with his failure in even this attempt to end his life, Pat tossed the gun across the room and collapsed in a heap upon the floor.  He woke sometime later, but once he realized night had fallen, so he crawled to the couch and fell fast asleep.

            That’s where I found him the next morning.  I honestly couldn’t tell if Pat had become a hoarder or if someone had vandalized the place of the weekend.  It scared me at first.  But then I found Pat passed out on the couch and he told me what happened.  I started to clean up the mess.  As I was digging one of the bullets from a door frame, someone knocked at the door.  “Pat, wake up,” I whispered intensely.  He slept right through the pounding.  I shook him by the shoulders, but he still didn’t move.  That’s when I accidentally kicked the empty bottle of Jack, which my foot sent spinning across the wooden floor of the den.  I lifted him to a sitting position.  Pat let out a sigh, which nearly knocked me over.  His breath reeked of alcohol.  “When did you start drinking again?” I asked.  “Come on, man, snapped to it; somebody’s knocking at your door.”   I peered through the curtain.  “Pat, it’s Cynthia.”  I shoved as much of the mess as I could out of sight and opened the door a crack.  “Hey, Cynthia.”

            “Where’s Patrick?”  She looked at the clock on her phone and stomped her foot.  “He hasn’t answered any of my calls.  I’m supposed to be at the airport in an hour.”

            I glanced over my shoulder.  Pat was beginning to stir.  “I don’t think he’s up for a meeting today.  He’s not feeling…”

            Before I could finish, she pushed past me and made her way into the room.  At first, I thought she was mortified at the mess, but then a strange look came over her…a look of genuine admiration.  I’ll never forget her response.  She staggered over to the table and reached out like a mother who was seeing her newborn for the first time.  She teared up…her lip quivered.  “It’s…”  She couldn’t speak.  Cynthia caressed the canvas.  “It’s passion personified.”  She turned to Pat, who finally had managed to open his eyes. 

He held the side of his head with one hand and shielded his eyes from the light with the other.  “What time is it?”

“My boy, you did it.  You really did it.”

            Pat scratched his head.  My mouth hung open.  Cynthia cradled the canvas, unconcerned that the fruit was staining her dress.  “It’s exactly what we were looking for.  He’ll love it!”

            “Who’ll love it?” I asked, butting in.

            “Ramone,” she said, not taking her eyes off of Pat.  “One of my clients.  He’ll pay handsomely for this.”  Looking down at the canvas in her arms, she asked, “May I take it to him?  After you seal it, of course.  I’ll wire the money as soon as I have it.”  Pat looked at me, then at Cynthia, and back at me.  I shrugged my shoulders. 

            “Sure,” he said.  Looking around, Pat said, “Sorry about the mess.”

            “Speak nothing of it,” she said.  “Whatever it took to produce something like this…pure passion…pure genius.  When can I come for more?” 

            Pat found a sealant and brushed the canvas with tender strokes in order to preserve the pieces of fruit.  “How much do you think he’ll pay?” Pat finally asked.  The fall was approaching and he desperately wanted to give notice to the school. 

            She looked at the canvas.  “Oh, I suppose no less than two thousand.”

            “Thousand?” I asked.  “Why?”

            She smiled.  “I wouldn’t expect you to understand, William.”

            “It’s Billy.”

            “Of course it is.”  She took the canvas long before it was dry, almost as if she feared Pat would change his mind.  As she started out the door, she asked, “What do you call it?”

            “Uh…Bowl of Fruit, I guess.”

            “No.  That won’t do.”  Cynthia stood quietly before announcing, “We’ll call it ‘Passion Fruit.’  Yes, that has a nice ring to it.”

            Pat was just as baffled as I, that is until an email came from Cynthia saying she’d just transferred twenty-seven hundred dollars into Pat’s account.  Ramone was so excited he immediately commissioned two more.  Pat complied, with much sarcasm at first, but he enjoyed the money.  He bought all kinds of food:  fruit, milk, eggs, and meat.  He set them before the canvas and blasted away.  Thankfully, his family home was in the middle of nowhere.  The next morning, after the food dried, he signed the canvas and sealed in the stench.  He finally bought a silencer for the noise, but that didn’t help the smell any.

Pat was beginning to change…go into a dark place.  I believe it escalated when he grew tired of the food and began to experiment on more “interesting” subjects.  Yeah, I think that’s what he called them at first.  I, like everyone else, was oblivious to the dark road he ventured down.  Pat became a recluse, refusing visitors, saying he feared we would frighten away the Muse. 

            He never really liked anyone looking over his shoulder in the first place, but he was beginning to sound more and more like his snobby little New York friends, telling me, “William, you are stifling my inspiration.” 

“William?” I snapped.  “Since when did I become William to you?”

It wasn’t long after that Mrs. Sallisbury, one of Pat’s neighbors down the road, stopped me and asked if I’d seen any stray cats.  She was missing all three.  Pat refused my visits, but I kept trying.  During one of my other attempts, old man Parker stood in the middle of the narrow road, waving his arms and ranting about two missing goats.  “We’ve got ourselves an animal thief, Billy.  He’s taking cats, dogs, and now my goats.  I tried to ask Pat about it, to see if he knew anything about his neighbors’ animals, but he kept to himself, saying he didn’t have time to trouble with such nonsense.

            Like it or not, Pat’s childhood dreams were coming true.  Strangely though, his love for art subsided.  But you sure couldn’t argue that he’d definitely broken through.  They say his “paintings” are all over the world even today.  He was raking in the money too.  He bought homes in New York and Paris, claiming he tired of hotels, but it was really to work in private on location.  We talked by phone at least once a month, but even that contact diminishing.  Our friendship was heading the way of the dinosaurs and the dodo bird.  One time I asked, “Why don’t you let me come by anymore?”  He made up some lame excuse about the odor, but I could tell he’d just “outgrown” me. 

After pressing him relentlessly to meet me, Pat agreed with a huff, but insisted on meeting me on neutral ground, whatever that meant.  He sounded like we were at war and I was a danger to him.  Anyway, we were eating at Longhorn Steakhouse in Brentwood, when he got a frantic call from Ramone.  Apparently, there was an “emergency” he had to take care of. 

             “He’s flying a friend in with an urgent request.  I’m sorry, but I have to do it tonight.”  He apologized and left me sitting there. 

            “An emergency?  Are you kidding me?  How does an artist have an ‘urgent request’ that can’t wait until morning?” I asked.  I followed him out to his car.  “What’s going on?”  Pat tried to ignore me, but I snatched the keys from his hand and stuffed them deep into my pocket.  “Why, in God’s name, do you have to leave this instant?  I haven’t seen you for over three months.”

            “Give me the keys, Billy.”

            “Not until you tell me what’s going on.”  He pulled on the car door, but I butted it shut with my hip.  He yelled and I yelled back.  I could tell he was getting embarrassed.  People were staring at us.  “Give me the keys.”

            “Not until you level with me.”

            “Fine,” he said through gritted teeth.  He held out his hand for the keys.  “You want to know why I don’t want you around anymore?  Come see for yourself.”

            I should have known better, but my curiosity got the best of me.  After Pat picked Ramone and his friend up from the airport, we drove to his house.  Ramone introduced his friend and her aging poodle, Fi Fi.  Pat introduced me.  By the looks of it, Fi Fi was about to die any moment.  I thought it would be of natural causes.  I was sadly mistaken.

            We all stood quietly around the studio as “Patrick” set Fi Fi on the stand in front of the canvas and prepared her for the “shoot.”  As Ramone’s friend recounted her long friendship with her aging poodle, Pat pulled out his pistol, screwed in a silencer, and splattered Fi Fi all over the canvass.  I fell to my knees in shock, but everyone else just looked on casually.  Maybe my eyes deceived me.  Strings of bloody flesh and internal organs of the once living Fi Fi clung to the stretched cloth.  Pat set the canvas in front of a drying fan and prepared his work for the final step, the sealant.

            I didn’t know what to say…to do.  It was wrong.  Anyone in his right mind would have agreed.  What about Fi Fi’s owner?  When Pat finished, the woman paid him ten thousand dollars and raved to Ramone about preserving Fi Fi’s spirit in an original Cleburne.  Oh, I forgot to mention.  Cynthia didn’t like the sound of Patrick Guffey, so she used Pat’s middle name as a pseudonym.  His real name sounded too country.

            That was the last I saw of Pat.  He occasionally reached out by phone, but the rift between us widened.  I heard Pat married a stuffy old friend of Ramone’s by the name of Constance a few months later.  None of Pat’s friends or family were invited, only Constance’s and Ramone’s “chums.”  Two weeks later, Pat emailed a picture of his family.  Apparently, his “new” wife forgot to mention she had three grown children and partial custody of her four youngest:  three girls and a little boy.  He also mentioned in a later text, the children were from four different marriages.  Even from afar, I could tell Pat wasn’t happy.  He used to be my best friend.

            I saw a special on the Today show on Cleburne’s unprecedented success.  He’d certainly made it, just like he said he would when we were kids.  He had everything:  fortune, family, a following, and worldwide fame (for an artist that normally comes after death).  I gave up on any further contact from him.  Constance replied to my last email, saying, “Patrick Cleburne is detained by more pressing manners, and is certainly above speaking to someone the likes of you.” 

“I’ll just call Cynthia and arrange a meeting with her,” I said.

“He’s no longer with Cynthia.  Ramone is managing Patrick’s career now.”  Constance encouraged me strongly, “Don’t hold him back.”  I knew what that meant, and to be quite honest, I never expected to hear from him again.

            But yesterday…yesterday, out of the blue, he called.  “Billy?”  His voice was shaky and slurred.  He sounded old and drunk.

            “Pat?  Pat Guffey?”

            There was a long silence.  “Yes.”  He sounded unsure…as if the name were a stranger to him.  “Man, I haven’t heard that name in a long time,” he said.

            “You okay?” I asked.  He said nothing.  I looked over at the clock on my nightstand.  It was two minutes to two in the morning, which meant it was almost three in New York.  “Pat?  Are you still there?”

            “Yeah, I’m here.”  I could tell he was in trouble.  He hadn’t sounded like this since his father committed suicide the day before our eighth grade graduation.

            “What’s wrong?”

            “I’m sorry, Billy.  I shouldn’t have called.”

            “No…no.  Don’t you dare hang up.  Spit it out.”

            I could hear muffled sounds…like several people sobbing…, but then, one by one, the sounds disappeared. 

“Pat, what’s going on?” I asked. 

“You’ve been a good friend, Billy, even if I haven’t.”  Then the last of the muffled sobbing stopped.  “I didn’t treat you right; I’m really sorry.”

            “Hey,” I interrupted, trying to lift his spirits.  “This can’t be Patrick Cleburne Guffey, the pride of south Franklin.  You don’t know how…”

            “Stop it!” he screamed.  His breathing became even more laborious.  “I just wanted you to know, I’m making one final painting.”

            “Wait, Pat, are you hanging it up?”

            “Please, Billy, for once in your life just listen.”  His voice was getting weaker.  I could tell he wanted me to hear the unspoken words as well.  “It’s almost finished…I have one more thing to add…just wanted to say thanks for everything before I add that final touch.”

            I wanted to stop him, but I didn’t.  I just lay in bed and listened.

            He was repeating himself, saying things he’d already said.  “I’ve got one more thing to do before it’s finished, but I won’t be able to ship it.  Would you tell Cynthia I’m sorry and I want her to have it?  It should bring a lot for her.  Tell her I’m sorry Constance fired her…sorry I did nothing about it…I don’t know…I couldn’t…anyway I just got tired of it all.  Tell her this isn’t the art I dreamed of.”

            “Why don’t you just…”

            “Please.”  It was all he said for a long time.  I wanted desperately to break the silence…to reach out across the miles between us and shake him by the shoulders.  “Will you do this one favor for me?  Will you tell her?  Promise”

            “Sure, Pat.  If that’s what you want.”

            “So, is that what he called to tell you?” the detective asked.

            “I’m almost finished,” I told him.  “Please, be patient.”  My lawyer nodded and I continued.

            “I’m sorry,” Pat said.  “Tell Cynthia that too, please.”  He paused.  I heard the faint sound of metal scraping against metal like an old rusty thermos clinging to its lid as it was being screwed loose.  “You’ve always been my best friend, Billy.”  Before I could say anything else, Pat added, “Tell her it’s my family portrait.”  The shot echoed through the phone.

Mitchell S Karnes