52 Drafts: Week 8

(This story will be rewritten & reworked every week for 52 weeks.)

THE SUBJECT

Michael Dryden’s current commission were like all his others. His decision to follow his artistic dreams was not a popular one in his family. They thought he’d spend his time looking for work. But, Dryden would wryly put it, that’s because they didn’t think about ugly people. The aesthetically unfortunate, the beautifully unblessed. While waiting for the ferry to arrive and load up, he struck a conversation with a plain German family of tourists making their way across the country, and hearing he was a painter promised to pay the bill if he’d capture them on this leg of their trip. He needed the money, so he agreed. But now, standing on the deck, he fumed that he’d never get famous with his art if he kept painting ugly people. The whole idea of this trip was to get lost in the wilds of Michigan and paint the sublime scenes of carved natural beauty and meteorological forces that trappers and French priests and Lewis and Clark made famous a few centuries before. The artist swayed back and forth between the empathy he needed to paint these true to life portraits of the people who hired him and his fears that their ugliness was holding him back from being the celebrated artist he knew he craved to be.

The door to the cabin creaked open. Dryden’s face twisted. He was having such a fine time sulking alone on the trans-Lake Michigan ferry deck, and now he had to share the rail with someone else. Over his shoulder, Dryden saw the drunk, disheveled man waltz his way to the railing. Tottering. Teetering. There was something about him, Dryden thought. There was no moon, and his upturned collar and wild hair kept the yellow deck lights from revealing who it was. Dryden gripped the rail and debated whether to say something or not.

“Maybe you should just sit back on one of the benches,” Dryden said.
Startled, the drunk turned to face him. “Oh yeah? Why should I?”

“I think the water’s pretty cold.”

“You a swimmer?”

“No. I’m an artist.”

“Oh yeah? Well I’m a millionaire. My old man hired the best to teach me how to swim. What kind of art do you do?”

The man turned into the light and peered at Dryden with two tiny eyes set close together, pulling his face into a pinched look. Dryden knew it. From the papers. This wasn’t just a drunk, it was John Beaufort II. Son of a shipping magnate.

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

“I paint landscapes.”

“Front yards or back yards?”

“Sublime landscapes.”

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

The ferry pitched and rolled. The weather on Lake Michigan was turning. Dryden and Beaufort ducked away from the cold spray. The red and green maritime lights on the tip of the bow reached out into the dark, but no lights answered from the shores ahead or behind.

“I paint landscapes,” Dryden said, gritting his teeth against another blast of spray.

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

“I guess I can make an exception for a Beaufort,” Dryden said. But he’d still be painting an ugly portrait. “But I’ll need cash up front.”
Beaufort twisted and turned, fumbled with his coat, reaching into all the pockets. He pulled out a dirty handkerchief, a flip phone, a zippo, and scrap of paper covered in crude pencil drawings. “I have a grand in here somewhere.”

Dryden trembled. He thought it was the cold, ducking from another blast of lake spray. But when he closed his eyes, he saw the number burning bright: $1,000. It’s a lie, he’s drunk. And then out of an inner pocket Beaufort pulled out a lump of greasy bills. Hundred dollar bills. This, Dryden thought, is the last ugly portrait I’m ever going to paint.

“Tomorrow morning,” Dryden said. “After we get to Michigan. Are you leaving Traverse City when we land? Tomorrow morning we can do it in the clean, crisp morning light. Maybe you have another coat you could wear? Something… regal. Yeah, regal.”

“Ah!” Beaufort shouted and pulled the money back up above his head. “This is hard earned cash! Show me something you’ve painted.”

Dryden gripped the rail for support. Right there was all the money he needed to paint the whole coast and interior of Michigan. But all he had to show was the portrait of the German tourists.

“I have a painting, but it’s really not representative of my true style.”

“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 down another trough, deeper than before. Dryden turned away from the cold wind “Ok.”

With every step they took together Dryden’s heart swelled. Back at the Arts Institute, his classmates were openly jealous about this brushwork. His professors openly praised his technique. But the faculty always wondered why he chose to paint the subjects he did. He picked the ordinary, and not in a way that showed he was discovering the beauty in everyday objects. He picked the most ordinary orange in the bowl, the most average roomful of people, the awkward models to paint. He could render them exactly as they were, but never brought more to his paintings than that. And even if Dryden was aware of how brilliant his painted replicas were, he never understood why they were mystified by his choice of subject.

In the heart of the ferry hold squatted a room of wide lockers, designed to transport luggage and cargo from the west to east and vice versa. Dryden pulled the oil cloth off the canvas with flare to reveal a portrait of the German family. He beamed at it, the stippling and blending, face burning with a wide grin. His technique was still as sharp as it was during his final critique at art school. He looked up at his audience. Beaufort squinted at it. He blinked and shook his head. He rubbed his eyes.

Dryden had painted them 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 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 eyes: crisp and blue, unavoidable, but hardly hypnotic because they were all obviously uneven in different ways. Their jowls hung loosely on their chin bones, their ears flapped unflatteringly.

After an eternity, Beaufort’s small, dark eyes jumped from the painting to Dryden and back to the painting. He lips, twisted when the cloth was lifted off the canvas, twisted in the other direction when he left, the painted metal stairs clanging as he climbed back up to the bar.

Dryden dropped the cloth back over the painting. He skulked up the stairs into the dining cabin, shuffled to the back corner. The dining cabin had mostly emptied, with passengers wandering out on the deck in the star spangled night. Beaufort stood at the bar, sipping a gin. Dryden waved at the waiter, but before he caught his eye he noticed Beaufort squinting at him. The railroad heir sighed deeply, then ordered another drink.

The door to the cabin slide open with a cold blast and the German family came in from the deck. Their faces blotchy, they spied Dryden smiled and waved. But Dryden was watching Beaufort. The railroad scion squeezed 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. Conversations cut out and people turned to see what the ruckus was.

“Magnificent!” Beaufort shouted. “Magnificent! Beautiful work! Paint me! Paint me next you bastard!”

Beaufort pushed himself away from the bar. He staggered and dug through his pockets until he found the roll of bills. 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.

“I’m a noble hill!”