Portrait

BY DR. AGONSON

I held still, trying not to let the jostling of the train move me around too much. The stranger’s pencil, I could see the tip of it, jumped about wildly, the eraser circling in unpredictable orbits under the artist’s nose. The white paper of the sketchpad seemed the only clean thing about this little man. His torn trousers of a faded hue were spotted in uncountable marks, his thin shirt, stretched and threadbare, highlighted his meager ribcage.

“Can I sketch you?” he had asked, pulling me from my brown study of the passing countryside.

Slowly, like a man waking from a dream, I said, “Yes.”

He looked at me apprehensively, biting his pencil. “Could you put your hands back?”

“What?”

“The way they were, the fingertips pressing together, could you?” He tried to do it himself while holding his artist’s articles, the pad and pencil.

Remembering this usual habit of mine, keeping my hands before my face—it was an old habit—I pressed the fingertips together, watching the skin under the nails turn white. He seemed pleased by this. Sitting beside me he takes his seat and starts into his work.

When did I first begin this little trademark gesture? I wonder. I used to tap my fingers, bored by the hours of lectures, drumming half recalled tunes from band practice on my desk. It annoyed people, but I hardly even knew when I was doing it. They got me to stop, though.

Looking at the crooked fingers of my right hand, I thought about the last time I had beat out a rhythm. I stopped taking lessons, it was only supposed to be until the cast came off, but we never started again. We sold the drum-set the next year. It was covered in dust.

A strange train to find myself on, thinking about long gone yesterdays. What are dreams, anyway? I wanted to be a drummer, that’s no life, it’s a fantasy. Better to have forgotten it as a boy when there was still time to think about the future. Still, my hand hurts every day.

I got mine, anyway. At our last reunion I was in a business suit, pressed, polished, perfect. I was making ten times what any of those slobs were, and they knew it. Now and again I forget, tapping my fingers on my desk. Shocks of pain race up my entire arm, but that’s just a reminder to me, driving me on.

Gazing out the window, I try to remember where I’m going. Passing a field of lazily grazing cows, I start to wonder when I had even boarded. I look over at the beggar, this artist, beside me. His pencil has mostly stilled, and he sighs.

I would have been just like you, I think, a slave to passions. What was this world for? Surely not to waste our time with the penny-ante drumbeat of art, the stale mastery of antiquated techniques. That’s what computers and cameras are for. It’s the modern age, and artistry, the soul, is superfluous.

It’s a somber face he makes, studying his own work. His expression reminds me of the doctor’s after examining the x-rays. He told me to keep practicing when the cast was off, would help the fingers heal. But I couldn’t even hold the drumstick once my hand was free. I think I cried the most then, realizing the dark truth.

He turns the pad, so I can see. Surely that’s not my face. Dead mournful eyes gaze into the distance, a broken tortured hand stretched out, its twisted knuckles swollen sickeningly. It looks like the face of an old man, worried and poor. Then I catch it, that hint of fierceness about the clenched jaw, the predatory frown of a man condemning all he sees. I recognize it all.

“That’s not my face,” I lie.

He doesn’t say anything, but turns the pad back towards himself. Scribbling a bit at the corner, he puts the pencil away. Closing the pad, he rises and trots down the hallway. A panic builds in my belly, my heart rising to my throat. I can’t explain it, but I need to see the sketch again, to know my face.

“Wait,” I shout. He stops. “I-I’ll buy it.”

Without turning back I can barely hear him say, “It’s not for sale.” I feel as if I’ve been thrown to the ground. “You’re stop’s coming soon,” he adds. “You’ll have to get off the train like the rest of us.”

Please, I think, my whole body trembling. “Let me see it again, once again.”

“You have a reflection, a mirror is a near perfect image,” he replies. “What need do you have of this little sketch?”

He starts to walk away. Jumping from my seat I follow after him. “I need to know,” I shout. What am I even saying? “Is it true? Is that my face?”

“Was it your face?” he turns and asks.

Bowing my head, I sigh, “Yes. Yes it was.”

Taking out the sketchpad the artist flips through pages until, finding the right one, he tears it from the binding. Looking at me he says, “I drew two portraits. Who you are, and who you can still be.” Handing the leaf of paper to me, I see the scare of a deep wound in the center of his hand.

“Your hand’s sacred too,” I whisper, not reaching for the picture.

Smiling at me, he says, “My hands were marred beyond recovery. Some people wanted to stop the truth I presented, so they drove nails through my hands.”

I can’t look away from his scares. “How did you…”

Taking my broken hand in his, he pushes the paper into my palm. Curling my fingers around his work he tells me, “I’m a light that can never be put out. Truth cannot be stopped.”

Unfolding the gift, I see the first sketch, the terrible expression he had shown me. Turning it over, I am greeted by a new face. It smiles a smile I had forgotten. The cheeks somehow appear rosy though it is all in shades of black and white. The eyes are living, and beside my ear my crooked hand twirls a drumstick.

In the corner, I see the signature, “J. C.”

 

Listen to my beautiful voice:

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