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The Little Blue Painting

by David Plimpton

It was only about ten inches square, the little blue painting, an oil or an acrylic or some combination, with perhaps a medium added to give it more gloss and reflective qualities. A riot of deep colors, meandering, vertical, thin bands, versions of blue like cerulean, cobalt, indigo, iris, navy, royal, violet, perhaps others, with some grayish splashes thrown in. The canvas was pulled tightly over, and stapled to the back of, a sturdy unfinished wood frame.

I’m a divorced, former professional woman in my 60s, no children, friends, introvert, reader, and recluse, with no great passion. But then came the assault of the little blue painting upon my senses.

It can only partially tell its story in human terms and I’m the one who heard, saw or felt most of it. So I have to be the narrator, even if unreliable and even if my story is unduly intertwined.

Anyway, over the years I developed an interest in impressionist paintings, collecting a handful of reproductions. And impressionist, with a touch of the abstract, is how the little blue painting struck me. It hung in the guest bedroom of my neighborhood friends’ Florida condo, encountered during my daily check of their home while they escaped the searing, suffocating summer. The AC was on low, so the condo was only marginally cooler than the blast furnace outside. A nondescript mirror joined the little blue painting, but no other art. I was struck by its juxtaposition to the artwork in other rooms, mostly photographs of sunsets and sunrises. Curious.

Soon I paused to absorb the little blue painting. The bluish shades inhabiting the tiny canvas, especially up close, as I’ve said, were depicted in vertical wavering lines, like a kaleidoscope. Was this what the painter saw as he or she painted? When I moved away to the opposite wall, the abstraction disappeared and the lines seemed to merge into an integrated whole – a winter’s ocean with grey-capped waves surging onto an unseen shore – but not representational in the detailed manner of much impressionist work.

Increasingly, I communed with it, basking in its beauty, its depth, its coolness (even in its hothouse gallery), its calm, composed, repressed energy, subduing some of the room’s heat, allowing me to linger each visit. Its placement put it in the sun often and I began to worry about its colors fading.

Though its darkish blues seemed to absorb light, the little blue painting paradoxically created a bluish reflection on the opposite wall, neither that of sky or sea, but more a blue moon in its haunting night shades. Chronological time stood still; it cast a spell. Had the enchantment been implanted by the painter’s alchemy, sensations, instincts or mood?

The little blue painting’s provenance? No artist identification on the canvas. Had it been a female or male painter? Why and how had it been acquired and placed in this setting? Niggling mysteries mounted.

As the Florida summer sped by, I started to treat the little blue painting as more than an inert object. The lurking concern about the brightness blazing into the room consumed me. Never mind that its colors could fade. What about blindness? After all, whatever vision it possessed was fused open, no sunglasses to pop on. So, afraid to tamper with the AC, I pulled the blinds.

Impending loss crept over me as the summer’s heat receded and my friends’ return hurtled at me. I laughed at my growing obsession, but it didn’t lessen the little blue painting’s preeminence in my awareness, like its 23-plus hours of daily loneliness. My preoccupation grew to searches in local art galleries, nearest museum, public library, book stores, and online, seeking facsimiles or relatives, as well as possible creators. In vain.

Whether inside its gallery, at home or in the outside world, I stayed within the shell of my fevered and singular pursuit, oblivious to much else around me.

I began to believe it implored me to stay longer each time I departed its forlorn gallery. Its dark intensity expanded its 100 square inches. When I whispered that its owners would be home soon to keep it company, I thought I heard it scoff, “You know it won’t be the same!”

The day before the owners were due home, I wondered anew why I was seeing an inert object as something with a spirit, a force, feelings. I felt helpless as I told the little blue painting it would be on my mind, so not to despair, it wouldn’t be alone.

“Somehow,” I said, “I will be with you again.” Moody silence was the rejoinder.

The owners expressed their gratitude for my care with a gift certificate to an expensive restaurant. I thanked them, but what I actually yearned for was the little blue painting itself.

In the next month or so, without the company of the little blue painting, I killed time, looking forward to my friends’ occasional winter barbecue. Finally, the moment arrived. Under the pretext of using their bathroom, I looked in on the little blue painting. Did it glare at me accusingly?

I whispered, “I’ll volunteer to be your caretaker again next summer, so I haven’t forsaken you.” A sigh? I wasn’t sure. Then I did what I should have done the summer before and used my smartphone to snap a living color photograph.

“Great. How thoughtful of you!” one of my friends said to my offer to be guardian again. Right, I thought, smiling to hide my grim compulsion, soon to be exhibited via a life-size, framed color photograph of the little blue painting in my living room. Not the genuine article, but solace anyway. Through the rest of the Florida winter, I fixated on what I imagined as my former companion’s forlorn solitude. But there was no way to ameliorate it.

Finally, the heat and my duties resumed. On my first house check, I was shocked to find the little blue painting dumped in the wastebasket, one corner of the frame and part of the canvas protruding. How long had it suffered there? Why had it been discarded? Who had done this? Why had it been left there when the owners departed? I gave thanks a visualized trip to trash pickup had been forestalled.

I lifted it out gingerly, examined it. A neat, right-angle three-quarter inch cut appeared, severing both the canvas and the paint, creating a small, loose flap, like a patch of skin separated from tissue. The frame was okay; the canvas mostly taut. I visualized the little blue painting being knocked off the wall and landing on a sharp-edged object on the bureau below . . . or maybe a corner of the bureau . . . or perhaps a projectile had struck it. No forensic conclusion I could see.

Harking back, during the previous winter’s hiatus, in a visit to the library, I had passed a meeting room where a speaker presided. A sign blared, “The Inner Life of Objects in Fiction”. Stunned, I took a seat in the rear, picking up on mention of Charles Baxter, author of an essay, as to which I only caught the words, “Talking Forks.” An electric current shot through me.

In the essay, the speaker said, Baxter dealt with an “atrophied” body of fiction giving most feelings and emotions to human characters. The discussion moved on to Baxter’s treatment of fiction where objects rather than person became expressive or even sentient, like Virginia Wolff’s To the Lighthouse (a house, a lighthouse), Malcolm Lowry’s, Under the Volcano (dead insects), and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (Byron the Light Bulb). Supposedly, here, forces behind and inside objects were at work – human-like feelings, perhaps even a deity.

So maybe I wasn’t totally around the bend in imagining the little blue painting feeling pain with the damage to its skin (paint) and flesh (canvas). Still, I wasn’t totally convinced the life-force, energy and messages I experienced stemmed from its own spirit. Maybe these manifestations were just what the artist put there . . . or perhaps an investment of my own psychic energy, overactive imagination, anthropomorphism or melodramatic streak . . . or, indeed, the little blue painting was imbued with something supernatural, some kind of strange energy. But, no matter, my experiences were palpable, even sacred.

Back at the scene of the crime, without thinking of the consequences, I patched up my friend. Examining the rear of the canvas, I gently pressed the loose flap of canvas into place. Turning it over, the injury disappeared. Seamless on the face – if I kept my finger lightly on it.

On the back, I sealed the cut with two crisscrossed strips of Scotch tape, improvised band-aids. The fissure still couldn’t be discerned on the little blue painting’s face, even on close inspection. It was almost as if there had been no mishap, if you exclude its distress. Could the band-aid give it a sense of renewed wholeness, even ameliorate its pain?

I rehung the wounded aesthetic warrior, viewing it from various vantage points. Perfect – a return of its essence, the injury a secret unless and until the back was inspected.

I considered sending an e-mail to the owners explaining the rescue. Something stopped me. I doubted my friends knew about the mishap. If so, would they have dumped it in the trash?

If someone else was responsible, then who knew what was going on? I had immersed myself in the life of something more than an inert object. Perhaps even the stuff of myth. No way was I going to let go of the thread.

The little blue painting became even more dear, like a rescued, beloved family member. Everything else was crowded out of my mind. I considered bringing it home so it could visit its double and have museum-like climate control. But I envisioned nosy neighbors spotting me leaving its home carrying a suspicious package, and deciding to mention it later to my friends. Two visits a day? Again, someone might take unwelcome notice. So, timid as usual, I didn’t push my luck.

With the cooler weather, my friends returned. I spent another Florida winter in my physical, mental and emotional cloister – separated from the little blue painting, except for the reward of another barbecue and surreptitious visit to its forlorn gallery. I was relieved to find it in seeming peaceful repose. My friends didn’t mention its ascension from the wastebasket.

Still, I began to feel harsh resentment. The little blue painting might be resigned to its fate, but that didn’t cut it for me. The current arrangement was unacceptable.

My summer duties were again re-engaged. I sped to pay homage to my esteemed friend, its aura, its mysteries, pledging to take drastic measures, as yet undetermined, to improve its situation.

I stopped in my tracks. The mini-masterpiece was gone! The gallery stood naked (except for the mirror registering my shock), spiritless, blanched, frozen in time, like a mausoleum.

The little blue painting’s fate? Did it still exist, perhaps in a new home, at Goodwill or in a swap shop? Had the masterpiece been abandoned in a dumpster or landfill, unable to move or breathe under a landslide of noxious garbage?

If the owners didn’t want it anymore, assuming they knew about the injury and guessed at my rescue, was it too much to hope they would might have offered it to me, even for a price?

An empty, sad feeling bloomed. I looked around the condo, including the garage. No luck. Tossing the place would have been beyond even my unstable state.

An epiphany mixed with self-accusation dawned. I should have been more proactive. My friends probably didn’t know about either the little blue painting ending up in the wastebasket or my subsequent rescue. I started to wish I’d purloined it when I had the chance, motion sensor lights be damned. I could have played dumb if questioned later about its disappearance.

I considered trying to solve the mystery. But inertia took over as I regressed even further into procrastination, timidity, futility and paralysis, my chance to maintain a relationship with the little blue painting apparently kaput.

A few nights later I awoke in a sweat. What was wrong with me? If I cared about the salvation of a treasured work of art, with or without a spirit, further inquiry was essential.

I fired off an e-mail to my friends, obliquely explaining my regard for the little blue painting, its rescue, surprise at finding it missing, and inquiring as to its whereabouts.

A few days later the response came, apologizing for not mentioning my repair. My friends explained the painting had been acquired by their visiting teenage granddaughter at a nearby Art in the Park exhibition and installed by her in the guest bedroom. Upon seeing the fix, she figured she’d been discovered and admitted she and a friend had been playing catch with a sharp-edged rock when an errant toss punctured the canvas. She hadn’t known what to do and impulsively put it in the wastebasket, then forgot about it. Upon discovering the restoration, she decided to take it home.

I had mixed feelings: bitter loss combined with relief it had survived and had a new home, even if it wasn’t mine. I smiled ruefully at my self-indulgence, imagining I’d been its sole admirer.

Did I enjoy the weight of stewardship lifting from my shoulders? No. Instead, I irrationally looked to the future. I didn’t know anything about the granddaughter’s family, name or address. Investigation was in order. A new quest kicked in.

I decided to attend the next Art in the Park. Maybe the little blue painting’s creator would be an exhibitor. I knew I would recognize his or her work. Maybe, with my photo in hand, I could commission a replica or at least a sibling.

Online research revealed my condo neighbor friends had a daughter in the Wilmington, North Carolina area; no other children were mentioned. I convinced myself this had to be the little blue painting’s new home.

So, a North Carolina road trip surged to the forefront of my fevered musings. If I could find the daughter, I could use my friendship with her parents as an introduction to the granddaughter, my alleged interest in the work of the little blue painting’s creator, and its rescue, and my interest in acquiring it if she was willing to part with it for cold, hard cash. If she or the mother slammed the door in my face or, after listening, weren’t interested, I might at least learn dope on the elusive artist.

Unless . . . Another scheme pressed unbidden and with force into my consciousness. I wondered if I could resist its sudden power. Anyway, rightly or wrongly, sensibly or not, I was heartened. Brushing aside my nagging concern about my mental state, I hoped a future with my blue friend wasn’t moribund.

Mercifully, the next Art in the Park arrived. I checked the stall of each artist who displayed paintings. No one came close to fitting the bill. I showed my photo and asked if anyone recognized the artist. Around the sixth exhibit, the exhibitor nodded yes and said it was X. He said X formerly exhibited at Art in the Park, but understood she had died in the last year or so. No further information, like her domicile or galleries that carried her work. More checking with other artists indicated X had lived up north, but painted in Florida during the winter. With a thud in my heart, the curtain came down on commissioning work from X that might substitute for the little blue painting.

So it was on to North Carolina. I checked online property tax records and got my neighbors’ daughter’s Wilmington address. Upon arriving in Wilmington, I used my GPS to locate the home, beginning to think stalker now defined my actions.

It began to seem weird for me, a stranger, to knock on the door, even though I was a woman, even with a purported parental introduction, and ask if I could buy the granddaughter’s painting. Even a phone call to my friends aiming for a green light to approach their granddaughter about the little blue painting now seemed sure to make them think I wasn’t playing with a full deck. Better to proceed undercover, at least at first.

Alternatives to a consensual purchase haunted me. I scouted the neighborhood. Near the home, I found a motel, a public park I could use as my base, and best of all, a small public school across the street and down three or four houses from the target abode. Things were starting to go my way, or so I imagined.

The next day I started my version of a stakeout, driving to the park, hanging out and taking periodic neighborhood walks, making several drives by the little blue painting’s new home, several hours apart, going at a speed that wouldn’t make it obvious I was casing the joint. No one seemed to be home.

While walking by the empty school in the late afternoon the following day, I saw a teenage girl I assumed was the new custodian step out of an open sliding glass door onto a patio at the rear corner of the target abode. I quickly averted my eyes and renewed my steps. I couldn’t believe it – a potential entry point. But the exact location of the new gallery, assuming the little blue painting was still in residence, remained a mystery. Only one way to find out.

Retrieving my car, I circled around a few local blocks until the coast was clear and then drove onto the school grounds. The parking lot in the rear was enveloped and partially canopied by mature deciduous trees and undergrowth. I parked in a corner, as far under the leafy overhang as possible. Maybe, after all, the spirits had ordained my mission.

From a back corner of the school, I watched the house. It was almost dark when a car drove into the driveway and an adult and young person alighted. Lights came on. How long should I wait before calling it a night? I felt my pocket for my small-beam flashlight and binoculars. 15 minutes later the house lights went off. The pair exited the house, got into the car, the dome light making clear the same two I’d seen before were departing. I hoped it wasn’t for a short errand and a family guard dog wasn’t on duty.

But I’d come too far now. When darkness completely descended, I hustled across the street. To my surprise and delight, the patio door slid noiselessly open. I leaned in as far in as I dared and switched on my flashlight, playing it over a family room scene, hoping neighbors couldn’t see the telltale fireflies winking. No growling or other sounds from inside the house. Bingo. The little blue painting was on the wall, prominent in all its miniature glory. I scooted in and rushed over to close the door from the family room to the rest of the home. Shining the light leisurely over the little blue painting’s surface showed it to be in fine fettle.

I said, “I’m glad to see you’re safe and sound. I thought we’d never be reunited.” I waited for some response along the lines I’d waited for so long, like, “I thought you’d never come. Let’s get out of here!” But there was nothing but a blank bluish stare. I had two hundred dollars in cash in my pocket to leave as a mysterious purchase price when I spirited away my treasured friend.

I waited for an emanation. Nothing. I began to see a sad blue picture – either I had been completely delusional when I thought my blue friend and I had been communicating or it was satisfied with its new home. Either way, should I now proceed with my plan?

I froze with indecision. Finally, realizing time was running out, no matter what I did, I threw the cash down on a coffee table, lifted the little blue painting off the wall and made my escape, rushing through the dark to my car and placing the little blue painting in the trunk on a blanket I’d brought for the purpose.

I sat motionless in the driver’s seat, trying to regulate my breath and my emotions. I had assumed I’d now be infused with joy. Quite the opposite. I felt like a deflated balloon, starting to think about how I’d hide the little blue painting from inquiring eyes that might soon look for answers to its mysterious disappearance and the mysterious appearance, in its place, of cash.

Then Oscar Wilde, or maybe it was George Bernard Shaw, suddenly rescued me, something one or maybe both of them said, “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” I opened the car door.

“I have been a Maine resident for 54 years. ‘Alternatives,’ a journal of Jossey Bass/Wiley Periodicals, published my essay on the suspension of Tom Brady of the New England Patriots in its June 2016 issue. A nonfiction piece, ‘Lessons from a Horseplayer/’ about my mother, was published in Canyon Voices Literary Magazine, Issue 14, Fall 2016. A fiction piece, ‘Quasi-Tame Shrinking Felines Vs. Throwback Expanding Canines,’ was published in Evening Street Review, Issue #20, Spring 2019.” 

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