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Authors: Hillary Kanter

Tags: #Romance: Fantasy - Historical - Time Travel - Humor

Hillary Kanter - Dead Men Are Easy To Love (7 page)

BOOK: Hillary Kanter - Dead Men Are Easy To Love
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Chapter Five:

STARRY, STARRY NIGHT

 

 

Today was my usual weekly appointment with Mr. Perfect, my shrink. I still did not have the nerve to tell him about these strange journeys I have taken lately—or of Hemingway and Beethoven. I’m afraid he might throw me into the looney bin, if I did. Hell, I’m almost ready to throw
myself
into the looney bin. But these trips and escapades are certainly growing on me. Not bored anymore, I find myself looking forward to what might happen next. I now knew it was all connected to the crystal heart the psychic had given me. What else could it be?

 When I left Mr. Perfect’s office, I headed in the direction of the New York City Museum of Art. A cold, early spring wind was blowing, and I needed somewhere quiet to go warm up and review what we had discussed.

The therapy topic “du jour” had been about how frustrating a writing career could be, how hard it is to sell one’s work, what a challenge it is avoiding insanity, and how difficult it is knowing that no matter how good you are at anything in the arts, no matter how high your level of aptitude, your odds of becoming successful—at least while still alive—were
piss poor.

I have seen that, for most people, success comes with excess, infidelity, divorce, alcoholism, anxiety, depression, etc. With failure came … well,
failure.
Failure, for me, is fairly simple. It has a pure, quiet, simplicity to it that can be easy to deal with, once you get used to it.

And I was used to it.

Fortunately, publishing magazine articles helped pay the bills and left me better off than most writers. But I was still frustrated with the rejection letters streaming in for my unpublished book. As the songwriter Roger Miller once said when asked how things were going in his career, he said, “ yeah, my career is gaining momentum—as all things do that are going downhill.” Bingo.

Leaving these weightier thoughts behind, I walked into the museum. It was warm and quiet—exactly what I needed. Someone touched me on the shoulder just as I began to relax.

“Hi, Ariel. I thought that was you.”

Oh, crap. It was that chubby lawyer, Rob, who lives upstairs from me. I had gone out with him once, and trust me, once was enough. At dinner, I was so bored my head almost fell into my bowl of fettuccini. He was always showing up somewhere, usually in the hallway of my apartment building.

“Oh, hi, Rob.” I could barely contain my excitement.

“Isn’t this a great museum?” he said.

I nodded in agreement, and was grateful that after some inane small talk, he finally moved on. Happy to be alone again, I parked myself on a bench in front of one of the most interesting paintings. Yellow stars wore shimmering halos, and shone down on tall, dark, cypress trees and rooftops, with a church steeple in the distance. I knew this painting well—Vincent Van Gogh. From history, I also knew this was one
passionate
man, to say the least.

Closing my eyes, I took deep breaths and felt my chest rise and fall. I rose from the bench—though I was not moving at all—and found myself walking ghostlike through and
into
the “Starry Night” painting!

Thus began another one of my journeys. And an odd one at that.

***

The southern sun of Arles, France, greeted me as I stepped from a railroad car. The year was 1888, according to the bit of newspaper I spotted drifting in the wind along the train platform. It was August. Yellow fields were alive with green, growing crops, the skies were deep azure, and the sun made the land vibrate and glow. This countryside’s rich hues and colors stunned me.

I carried in my hands a slip of paper with the name of a small inn down the street. Assuming I was meant to go there, I stepped inside. It was nothing fancy, but the innkeeper led me to a sun-drenched room on the second floor. I unpacked a few items from the suitcase in my hand, and threw open the shutters, breathing in the fresh air.

For several days, I explored the area. Arles was a restful place, but I was ever the more curious about what I was meant to do here.

There were no immediate answers.

In the evenings, I sat upon the window seat in my room, staring up at the stars and the full moon. Several nights in a row, I saw a man seated before an artist’s easel in the middle of the square, painting furiously. His hatband was ringed with lighted candles for illumination.

Heading out one morning for a walk, I encountered the innkeeper sweeping the front doorstep. “Who is this man,” I asked, “that I see painting at night, outside the inn?”

“Oh, he’s that crazy, crazy painter,” the innkeeper grumbled. “His name is Van Gogh. Vincent Van Gogh. He is from Holland, and if you want some good advice, stay away from him. Nobody in town likes him except for our mail carrier Joseph, who is quite fond of him—for some reason I cannot fathom. I had to throw that lunatic out of here back in February for not paying the rent. The idiot still owes me two francs. Can you believe he tried to trade me some stupid painting for the rent? Of course, I refused.”

“So you don’t think he is any good? He looks like he works hard.”

“Aw, he’s all right, I guess … if you like that sort of thing. But it’s not really my cup of tea.”

***

That night, Van Gogh was there in the square, just as before. I threw a housecoat over my nightgown, went down into the street, and cautiously approached him. Absorbed in his work, he did not notice me for ten minutes.

I cleared my throat. “Ahemmm.”

The artist turned around with a start.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. I was just admiring your painting,” I said.

“Thank you,” he mumbled.

“I’m staying upstairs in the inn. I’ve seen you out here the past few nights, and I was curious to see what you were working on.”

He fidgeted with one of the candles on his hat, catching a drop of hot wax in his hand. He did not seem annoyed with me, although he was terribly preoccupied. “I enjoy painting in the hours after dark. The night is more alive, more richly colored than the day. You can come closer,” he said. “I won’t bite, contrary to what the townspeople might say.”

We studied each other. He had reddish hair, a beard and mustache. His clothes were old beneath his blue painter’s smock, and although he wasn’t handsome in a conventional way, I liked the kindness in his piercing blue eyes and the way his lips moved as he spoke.

“Where are you from, miss?”

“My name is Ariel, and I’m from New York. I’m just visiting for a while.”

“And what might be the purpose of your visit?”

“Uh, well …” I stuttered. “I just thought I would like to take a trip somewhere I had never been before.”

“I have heard of New York. It is far away. I should like to visit there myself one day.” Extending a paint-covered hand, he said, “My name is Vincent … Van Gogh.” In his Dutch accent, he gave the name sharp guttural sounds.

“Yes, I know,” I said rather sheepishly, as I pointed towards the door. “I asked the innkeeper.”

“Oh, him. Well, he’s no admirer of mine, I’m afraid.”

I inched closer for a better look at the painting. Cypress trees sliced the foreground of a starry expanse, and the midnight blue-black sky glowed overhead. I knew something about art, and from what I knew about his style, it was very different from other Impressionists, such as Monet, Degas, or Renoir. Most people at the time had not cared for it.

“I very much like the way you paint,” I said.

“Consider yourself part of a ridiculously small minority. Me … you … and, oh yes, my brother Theo. Must not forget him. He lives in Paris, and he helps pay the bills, God be thanked, so I can keep painting these canvases that nobody buys. He’s an art broker, and let’s just say that it’s broken him, taking an interest in my art.” Vincent peered from beneath the brim of his hat. “Come closer. Let me take a look at you.”

His boldness scared me, though I didn’t quite know why. Regardless, I stepped closer.

“You’re really quite beautiful,” he said. “The structure of your face is unique. I should very much like to paint you, if you’re available sometime.”

“Oh, um … thank you. I don’t know, Mr. Van Gogh. We don’t even know each other, do we?”

“Let’s get to know each other, then. There’s a café down the street. You could meet me for a coffee sometime, tomorrow morning perhaps?”

This was the opportunity of a lifetime. How many people could say they had their portrait painted by Vincent Van Gogh? Sure, he was strange, but somehow I knew he was not dangerous. He seemed very lonely, and, knowing no one in this foreign land, I was lonely myself.

“All right then, what time?”

“I hope you don’t mind meeting early. I am headed out to the fields tomorrow and want to get there while the sowers are still working. Say six? If you wish you could even come with me while I paint.”

“That might be nice.” It was getting late, and I thought I better get to bed since there would be no such thing as a wake-up call.

“I’ll see you in the morning then, Ariel. I am already very much looking forward to it.”

***

The corner café boasted outdoor tables and an array of fresh-baked pastries. Vincent ordered me a café au lait, and we watched the sun crest over fields of grain. Already, farmers moved through the cornrows, hard at work.

“Did you sleep well?” Vincent asked me.

I nodded, still chewing on a croissant. I noticed little things about Vincent—his shoddy clothes and the fact he never seemed to eat. Again from history, I knew he was impoverished.

He mentioned he had gone home at 3:30 a.m., and slept only two hours.

“Why so little?” I said.

“I could not stop thinking about a woman I met last night.”

I started to ask who, then realized his meaning. My eyes darted toward a street-sweeper, hiding my embarrassment.

We met that morning, the morning after, and the morning after that. After coffee, we walked to the fields where I watched him paint. One painting he worked on was of a wheat field with the wind blowing through it and a lark flying high above. I could actually
feel
the breeze in the windswept sky. He also painted sunflowers
.
A lot of sunflowers. He told me the one I had watched him paint was his sixth or seventh.

I got to know him well during these times, and finally agreed to his earlier invitation. What woman wouldn’t want the great Vincent Van Gogh to paint her?

But I would not be the first, nor the last.

Vincent had a reputation for painting prostitutes he knew from the local brothel, and it was a known fact he had almost married one. He felt a great deal of compassion toward these “women of the night,” because they too had led hard and impoverished lives.

The following afternoon I met him at his “yellow house,” down the street from the inn. Green shutters hung on exterior walls that were the color of butter. The house stood in the full sunlight, in a square with a garden of oleanders and acacias.

I knocked. No answer. I knocked again, a little harder.

Still no answer.

I hoped he had not lost his hearing like Beethoven in my last time-travels. Wouldn’t
that
be just my luck.

When Vincent did open the door, he was out of breath. “Oh, hello, Ariel. I’m sorry. I was lost in my painting and didn’t hear you.”

“That’s all right. I knew I had the right yellow house, because it’s the
only
yellow house.” I failed to mention that everyone else knew where it was too, since he was thought to be the most peculiar, irritable, and odd man in town.

“Come,” he said. “Let me show you my home.” Though modest and holding few furnishings, the place was charming, with a studio and four rooms crammed onto two floors. He was proud of it. “My good friend, Paul Gauguin, is another artist, and he will be here to visit soon. Have you heard of him?”

“Yes, I believe I have.” Visions of Gauguin’s Tahiti paintings flashed large in my mind.

“We are going to start an artist colony here. Then all of us lonely souls will have each other for inspiration and companionship. Let me show you my new painting,” Vincent said. “It’s a study of my bedroom.”

I followed him into the studio and ran my eyes over the canvas propped on the easel. Yep, I had seen this before in art books. It was more colorful than any photograph could capture. The walls were lavender, the bed yellow, the floor mauve and edged in green to match the shutters. It was a happy, cheerful painting, suggestive of rest.

“Since you have already seen my bedroom, I don’t need to show it to you, but come see the room I’ve prepared for Gauguin when he arrives. I’ve even skipped a few meals to be able to buy the frames for the canvases. Come along. I want to hear what you think.”

I followed Vincent to a large whitewashed bedroom with a washbasin, a chair, and a sea of paintings of giant sunflowers splashed across the walls.

“I hope he likes it and will stay a long while. He is supposed to be here any day now, but with Paul, one never knows.”

His need for Gauguin’s companionship and friendship bordered on the obsessive. I knew the years of artistic frustration and obscurity had taken their toll, and my heart went out to him.

I walked back to the easel and looked at his bedroom painting again. “It’s lovely. It looks so … peaceful.”

“And that is my point, young lady. That is exactly what I wanted you to see.” He returned to the easel, and set down his paintbrush. He gestured to me. “Come here by this window and stand in the light.”

When I was in place, he moved from one side of the room to the other, studying me in the various patterns of light. He stepped up, a couple inches from my face, and turned my chin from left to right. His touch was warm and strong. I felt self-conscious.

“Yes,” he said, “you have good bone structure. I can’t pay you much to model for me, perhaps one franc, but are you still interested?”

“No, Mr. Van Gogh. I mean, er … yes, Vincent. But I cannot accept payment from you. I’m very honored that you want to paint me.” Of course, I was sincere, but being unfamiliar with francs, I wondered what that value would be in dollars.

BOOK: Hillary Kanter - Dead Men Are Easy To Love
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