Thursday, October 20, 2011
The Good Doctor's Portrait
Geez, it seems like another lifetime ago when I last posted, but now that the nights are longer, it should be easier to find the time. I wonder if I'll miss the sun. I haven't had time to blog because I've been super busy working on a portrait commission of a new arrival in town. He's a Doctor of Hematology by the name of Acula. He bought an old mansion in the center of Pittston Village named Marston Manor. The manor has seen better days since it was originally built back in the late nineteenth century, as today it's run-down and creaky with crooked shutters hanging askew next to broken windows. He said he has plans on restoring it to it's former glory so that, as he put it in his wicked cool, vaguely European accent- "everyone will fit".
The Doctor said he saw my work on-line, (so, that's a good reason to have a web site!) and asked me if I could paint his portrait. I thought it was a wonderful gesture to ingratiate himself to his new neighbors. I was expecting for him to hand me a photo to work from, but as he said he takes a lousy photo, he requested I do it from life. The only rub was that I had to work on it at night because he's not available during the day. Not a problem. There's nothing on TV at night anyway since the Red Sox blew the season. The manor is only a short walk across my lawn, so early one evening I grabbed my gear and headed over.
We set up that first night in what was once an elegant front parlor. It has an amazing fireplace with an eight foot tall granite mantle topped by a huge beveled mirror. The mirror was covered up to prevent any damage during construction. The only light came from one naked bulb that hung down from the cracked, sagging ceiling in an area that apparently had a chandelier at one time. Bad light, but hey-- you deal with it. The Doctor has a remarkable face with intriguing features that I was certain would be fun to paint. He's about sixty-five or so, although he says he looks younger than he really is. He still has an amazingly thick head of jet-black hair swept-back from his intelligent looking forehead with just a touch of gray at his temples. It's quite old fashioned, yet aristocratic. To a follicle-challenged type like me, I was quite envious. His face is long and lean with high, prominent cheek bones, and an elegant, aqualine nose. His mouth is somewhat wide with bright white teeth, but what got me was his eyes. I couldn't quite figure out what color they were. At times they seemed blue, then gray, then maybe silver. All I could do was stare and stare and stare.
I worked pretty hard that first session, so much so that I hardly realized the night had flown by. The only thing I remember was hearing all kinds of strange noises coming from the cellar, but Acula said it was to be expected that animals would get into an old building like his. After a couple of days my beautiful partner Ellen noticed how lethargic I had become. More so than usual for me! She pointed out that my complexion was looking rather pasty, and my lips looked almost blue. I did feel extremely tired and it seemed I just couldn't get myself going during the day. I blamed it on keeping late hours while I was working on the portrait. That probably was the case, because after the second week, I was sleeping through the whole day. After the sun was fully set, I would feel much better and be ready to get back at it. I did become aware of strange little quirks in my home life. After a couple of weeks, I noticed my dog Champ was acting rather oddly around me; snarling and growling when I'd get up for the night. I wanted to ask Ellen if he did the same thing to her, but she was no where to be found. Come to think of it, I couldn't remember when I had last seen her. And damn, was I thirsty. Acula said the thirst was to be expected. I guess dusty old buildings can have an odd affect on you.
I thought the portrait was coming along alright--but damn, those eyes. The good thing was that the Doctor was a very engaging man. I discovered we both have an affinity for history. Acula would regale me with lively and entertaining stories of centuries past, told in such a way as to make me almost believe he lived through them. His stories almost kept me from noticing the noises coming from the basement. The sounds of shuffling feet, low guttural grunts and squeals did disrupt my concentration from time to time. I asked the Doctor if he was going to do anything about getting rid of whatever was down there, but he just gave me one of his slight, quixotic smiles and said he wasn't bothered by it at all. I guess after a while, it didn't bother me either.
As I was walking to the Doctors during this past full moon I noticed our neighbors, Harry and Jean coming from the direction of the manor, looking like two ghosts glowing in the moon light. I hadn't seen them since early spring when we celebrated Harry's eightieth birthday. Jean is seventy-nine and used a wheelchair and oxygen pack, so as I remember, we kept the candles to a minimum! This night I noticed they were both running across a meadow toward a horse that was grazing there. The startled animal ran frantically away from them, but was soon cornered against a fence. It reared up and slashed its hooves at Harry, who ducked and bobbed under them with lightning speed. The horse's terrified baying and whinnying sounded like a woman's screams as Jean clawed at its stomach with her long, pointed finger nails. Then both Harry and Jean jumped up on the horse and by savagely ripping and chewing it's neck brought it down in a shrieking heap of dirt, kicking legs and blood. I thought the silver light sparkled beautifully on their gray hair and flashing teeth as the sounds of gnawing and slurping filled the air. Eventually, the horse lay still. Made me pretty damn hungry.
The other night I was in the manor working on the painting, and I felt it just wasn't coming together. The eyes...the eyes... Something was gnawing at me, but I couldn't for the life of me figure out what it was, so I decided to use my mirror trick. If you've never tried it, looking at a painting through the reflection of a mirror really helps you see with new eyes what is wrong with the work. In my studio I have a mirror on the opposite wall behind me for just that purpose, but I wasn't in my studio. When Acula was in another room, I went over to the huge mirror that was covered up over the fireplace mantle. I adjusted my easel to see the painting, then peeled back a corner of the covering to see the reflection.
All I saw was a blank canvas.
As I was puzzling over my blank painting, I heard footsteps come up behind me, but nothing showed in the mirror. I turned around and saw Dr. Acula standing beside the painting and gazing fondly at it. "My young artist friend," he said in his silky voice, "No need to fret so, you've done excellent work on my portrait. It is exactly like me in every particular! I've an idea," he continued, "We must have a grand showing of this masterpiece, and I am sure all of your neighbors will be delighted for you to join them!" With that, he tipped his head back and started to laugh. It started out as a low bass note that seemed to eminate from every room in the house, then changed pitch until it became a piercing whistle that stabbed my ears like ice picks. Just when I thought I couldn't stand anymore, every door in the ancient house blew open. Then I saw them as they shambled into the parlor.
They were all of my neighbors; Harry and Jean, George and Mary Ellen, Dan and Leyla, Vicky and Sue-- and others I didn't know that well. Dozens of them. Their clothes were torn, dirty and encrusted in dried blood. Hair was matted and scraggly. Even my beautiful Ellen was with them, one lone earing flashing a reflection from the light bulb swinging overhead. She was holding Champs empty dog collar and his fur covered her torn black T-shirt. But worst of all was that they were smiling. It was the type of smile a starving man might have when he finally spies some food. They slowly made their way across the room toward me.
"Yes," Dr. Acula continued, "Your friends would love for you to join them forever in the night."
"I'd be thrilled" I gushed, "But do you all think we could hold off until the 31st? You know, we could even make it a party. After all--
I love Halloween!"