52 Drafts: 30

(This story will be rewritten & reworked 52 times)


“I’m a noble hill!” the millionaire was drunkenly barking in his face, manicured fingers tugging on the lapel of his coat. All Michael Dryden could do was stare back into the dark beady eyes and try to catch his breath.

Earlier that night Dryden, a portrait artist fresh out of the Chicago Art Institute, stood alone on the ferry deck. Lake Michigan was restless, and the stars were hidden behind clouds. The door to the dining cabin creaked open. Dryden shuddered. He’d painted a family of Hungarian tourists while waiting for the ferry to show up, and he hoped they weren’t coming to check his progress. He never liked to make small talk before, during, or after the transaction. He just wanted the money for his art, and then to never see them again.

It wasn’t the Hungarians. A drunk, disheveled man waltzed his way to the railing. There was no moon, and his upturned collar and wild hair kept the yellow deck lights from revealing who it was. The man grabbed the railing and leaned over the side. Dryden flinched, waiting for the stranger to vomit, but the man just leaned over the edge like he was looking for something out on the water.

Then he was leaning over too far, and Dryden fought the urge to reach out and pull him back onto the deck.

“Maybe you shouldn’t lean out so far,” Dryden said.

Startled, the drunk turned to face him. “Oh yeah? Why should I?”

“I think the water’s pretty cold.”

“You a swimmer?” the drunk slurred back at him.

“No. I’m an artist.”

“Oh yeah? Well I’m a millionaire. My old man hired the best to teach me how to swim. Could probably use a nice cold swim. I go over and they’ll turn this ferry around to fish me back out again. Did you say you were an artist?”

The man swung back onto the deck and into the yellow sodium lights of the ferry. The man peered at Dryden with two tiny eyes set close together, pulling his face into a pinched look. This wasn’t just a drunk, Dryden thought in full recognition. This was John Beaufort, a socialite known for doing nothing and still having two million followers on Twitter.

“Your mouth is hanging open, but nothing’s coming out,” Beaufort slurred at him. “Does that mean you’re a mime?”

“I paint sublime landscapes,” Dryden said, trying to impress.

“Oh! Such dignity!” Beaufort shouted out over the grey water. Dryden glanced over his shoulder. Beaufort hiccuped. “You should paint me.”

“I paint landscapes,” Dryden said, gritting his teeth against a blast of spray. The ferry pitched and rolled. Dryden and Beaufort ducked away from the cold spray.

“Pretend my face,” Beaufort said, boots sliding on the wet wood, “is a noble hill.”

Beaufort twisted and turned, fumbled with his coat. “I have ten grand in here. Show me something you’ve painted and I’ll hire you, and the ten grand is yours.”

Dryden trembled. He closed his eyes, he saw the number burning bright: $10,000. He thought about what it’d be like to read that number on his bank statement, on the ATM screen. Beaufort pulled out a dirty handkerchief, a sleek new cellphone Dryden had never even seen an ad for, and a zippo. And then out of an inner pocket he pulled out a lump of greasy bills. Hundred dollar bills.

“Ok,” Dryden said, suddenly out of breath. “Ok, let’s do this. When we land. I work fast, don’t worry.”

“Not so fast. Let’s see some paintings. Show me you’re an artist and not a con artist.”

Dryden’s face drained pale.

“I have a painting with me, but I don’t want you to think I couldn’t do your portrait justice.”

“So you phoned it in for someone else?”

“I didn’t phone it in.”

“Don’t you have a website?”

“Yes but it’s not updated.”

“Then show me the painting.”

“It’s kind of a…”

“Stop stalling and show me!”

“How about we get a drink?”

“Show me the painting and then we drink.”

The ferry pitched into another trough, deeper than before. “Ok, it’s in my locker.”

In a room of wide lockers in the hold of the ferry, Dryden pulled the oil cloth off the canvas. He didn’t look at it. He couldn’t. He just whispered “ten thousand dollars” over and over while he held the canvas up in the bare bulb light and peered over the top.

What is it that makes an artist an artist? Is it their craft, or choice of subject? And can one or the other part of that equation decide their fate? Take the example of Mike Dryden. A brilliant portrait artist, in technique only. Few of his professors at the Arts Institute had ever seen anyone get as much out of a single brush stroke as he did. None of their students grasped color and value and shading like he did. It was like he was born with a complete understanding of chiaroscuro. They’d put an apple in front of him, and he’d paint the apple so perfectly, that he planted seeds of doubt in their minds about their post-modernist ideas and understanding of platonic ideals. But they knew his paintings would never end up in a museum, because he didn’t have an eye for a subject. Given the option of a bowl of fruit, he’d pick the lease aesthetically appealing banana.

After an eternity, Beaufort’s small, dark eyes jumped from the painting to Dryden and back to the painting. He lips twisted in one direction, then the other. He looked deeper into it, then looked right through it and at Dryden with a look Dryden hadn’t seen since art school. A familiar panic crawled up Dryden’s back.

He looked down at the painting. It was photographic in its flawlessness. He did it one attribute at a time, starting with an ear, and then blending it into the jawline and misshapen lips, wandering up to the left eye before following the thick unibrow over to the right eye, down to the swollen cheek and then to the awkward nose, jumping to the other ear and then the muddle of hair and rings of the neck in a grotesque patchwork of flesh, lovingly capture in exquisite brushwork. Their jowls hung loosely on their chin bones, their ears flapped unflatteringly.

But it’s all about the eyes. When you run into a stranger and you know instinctively you can trust them, be honest, it’s because of the eyes. When you see someone who reminds you of someone you used to know, it’s because of the eyes. When you want to let someone know something but don’t want to use the power of language, you use your eyes. They’re the windows to the soul, they’re the poker player’s tell, they’re the first impression. Really, they are.

They say beautiful faces are all about symmetry. But if you have a perfectly symmetrical faces but crossed eyes, would you be considered beautiful? What if you had the most beautiful blue eyes, like the Hungarian family? They were the color of the Caribbean on those impossible-to-find-but-in-a-magazine tropical beaches. And they were totally off center, off kilter, off the grid of each other. It was disconcerting, even if no one could look away because they were so hypnotic. Don’t blame him, blame God. This, Dryden would argue, is exactly what they looked like. He painted people, not their vanity.

Unfortunately, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So is the pocketbook. Beaufort he shook his head like a drunk shaking off a hangover, the metal stairs clanging as he climbed back up to the bar.

Passengers wandering out on the deck in the star spangled night. Beaufort stood at the bar, sipping a gin. Dryden slipped into a back table. The door to the cabin slide open with a cold blast and the Hungarian family came in from the deck. Their faces blotchy, their eyes wild and wide and noticeably crossed, they spied Dryden smiled and waved. Dryden sheepishly smiled back.

But what he noticed was Beaufort, squeezing his drink until his knuckles paled. He was standing straight up, suddenly looking as tall and elegant as his pedigree might suggest. Then he slammed the glass against the wood deck floor. Dryden eyes grew big as dinner plates, his hands trembled. Beaufort tripped on a chair, tumbled over another into Dryden’s table, pressing the money against his dark coat.

“It’s perfect! Paint me! I’m a noble hill! I’m a noble hill!”