The Painter and the Ugly Man

In the garden block of Mall Street, Fyodor Ptrov hummed painting, so engaged with his noontime work that the pidgins would crowd around without fear and watch. In fact, so intense was Fyodor’s concentration that the pidgins made games where they would compete to distract the painter, the result of which left Fyodor’s baseball cap and brown woolen jacket covered in bird shit, as many as thirty splotches by the end of the day. These, Fyodor would scrub off each night in his kitchen sink, smiling, considering it the occupational hazard of working beneath so many healthy trees in such nice weather.

It took the painter some time to notice that beside his easel stood an exceptionally ugly man breathing noisily through rhombus shaped nostrils. Fyodor, startled, took in the thin unhealthy hair, skin of a particularly repulsive shade of brown, the lazy eye, the uneven protruding cheek bones, and rose from his work to shake the man’s hand, uncharacteristically. He was so taken back by the man’s appearance that he became nervous, like meeting with an old lover. ‘How can I help you,’ he shot, biting the words off with his teeth. ‘how-can-I-help-you?’ as one evenly spat ejaculation. ‘I would like to commission a portrait,’ said the ugly man. ‘Of course! Take a seat.’

The painter unfolded a second director’s chair and excitedly pulled out a blank canvas. ‘Portrait? Angled?’ Fyodor fussed. ‘Actually it’s not for me, it’s for my daughter.’ “Ah. Ok. Where’s your daughter?’ ‘She stays at home. She doesn’t care for public places. If at all possible I would like you to come to my house and do the portrait there in the anteroom.’ ‘I see. That would be acceptable,’ nodded Fyodor. ‘Tomorrow?’ ‘Not tomorrow. Come in three days. This is my card. You’ll find the address printed on it as well as my cell phone number if you wish to reach me. Do not call unless you absolutely must.’ Fyodor couldn’t help but be disappointed at the delay. That such an ugly man had a daughter who was a shut in meant she must be near as ugly as he was. Fyodor read the card. – AMOBBI – STYLIST – XXXX ORCHID Row, ______ TOWN –

‘Stylist,’ Fyodor wondered. He didn’t remember anything particular about the man’s dress. ‘He was so ugly one could hardly notice up close what he was wearing.’ Putting the card in his jacket pocket, the painter looked at the blank canvas and pondered. He didn’t move, even when a fat pidgin shat on his shoulder.

The house at which Fyodor showed was on Orchid row, far back in the trees, neighbored only by a boarded up Church and a field of raspberry bushes. It was large and sparsely kept. Fyodor walked along the gravel path which was mowed only a foot out on either side. The rest of the spacious lawn was abandoned to wilderness. With an easel and his box of brushes and paints under one arm and a canvas and stool in the other, Fyodor walked his way to the big white door with it’s steel fish knocker. ‘Why’d I bring a stool? Like they don’t have seating,’ Fyodor muttered. Putting down the stool and leaning the canvas against it, Fyodor knocked three loud knocks.

The man who answered the door was smartly dressed in a tailored grey suit, black neck tie, and gold watch. He was incredibly ugly. “Hello, Mr. Amobbi,” said Fyodor with warmth. There was something endearing to the painter about the ugly man, and Fyodor blushed, something he never did, and bowed, but not too low. “Have you everything?” “Yes.” “Then this way.”

M. Amobbi led Fyodor into the house through a short hallway with closets and shoe cubbies all painted in yellows and blues, past a staircase of marble with black diamond pattering and a greek styled bannister, till at last they came into a sitting room, offering Fyodor a brief glimpse of the kitchen where something was cooking making the house smell of boiled parsley. The sitting room featured three couches of different complimentary fabrics and black geometrics running on the yellow wall paper.

Lounging on one of the couches lay a girl, completely nude but for a goat mask covering her head. Her proportions were all wrong. The painter noticed. The knees and elbows were off place and the ribcage was too high. The body was otherwise not fat, but soft- not fit, but as pale as someone who never went outside. “However you wish,” said Mr. Amobbi, and Fyodor had the girl move to a different couch where the light was better.

Her voice was high and musical and muffled under rubber. “Mr. Painter,” she said, “I always imagined being painted this way,” and she would pose her awkward limbs splayed unusually. “That’s irregular,” Fyodor would mutter, but always with consent to the girl, so that he started sketching several times only to have the girl say, “Now Mr. Painter, why not this way? I think this will be so much better.” So long did this go on that the sun set behind the trees and Fyodor picked up all his paints and toolbox and promised to come back tomorrow to get the best morning light, finally on the position they had last agreed on. All while this posing and sketching was going on, Mr. Amobbi watched from the door frame, going back and forth to the kitchen to work on dinner. Not invited to stay, Fyodor brought his supplies to the busline and retired to his apartment.

Early the next day, before dawn, Fyodor returned to the house, with canvas, toolbox, and easel, taking the north busway. Only today, the door, which was white before, was now painted an inky black. To this, Fyodor had no answer, but as the fish knocker was as it was, he knocked firmly three times and waited. After a minute with no footsteps forthcoming, Fyodor knocked a second time. Though he spent near an hour knocking and looking in windows, the painter could only conclude that nobody was home.

“Curious,” he said.

As it was already late in the morning, Fyodor caught the bus to the park to set up shop and salvage what he could of the day.

At 3oclock, covered in shit, Fyodor had a strange visitor. It began when a hand gently but firmly prodded his shoulder. The woman to whom it belonged was slender, of average height with tanned skin and a spaniards mole above her lip. Her eyes were green but her hair was dark and fell about her shoulders where her white collared shirt came up in contrast. She appeared to be in her mid forties by anyone’s guess.

“Are you the painter?” she asked. Fyodor was indeed the painter. “I want to commission a portrait.” “Yours?” “My husbands. I’m afraid he’s a recluse on account of his condition.” “What condition is that?” “It’s very rude to ask.” “Sorry.” “He’s ugly.” “Ugly?” “Unbearably so.” “I’m sorry.” “But I feel like I could make love to him once again with a portrait of his face over his real face. I would still be making love with his face- only removed.” “Are you Mrs. Amobbi, by chance?” “That is my husband’s name.” “He was here the other day.” “Impossible.” “He commissioned a portrait for his daughter. Only the house was empty when I went today to paint it.” “Impossible. My husband lost both his legs below the knees in a skiing accident, and our daughter is a model in Switzerland.”

“Then it must’ve been a completely different and not dissimilar Mr. Amobbi,” Fyodor thought, unconvinced. But he didn’t say anything. He began to suspect this woman was lying, but he couldn’t explain why, except for the beauty of it. Some people get into the habit of lying and secrecy purely for the sensual beauty of it. To lie is a great relief, for if one can lie, one can control the past, and if one can lie, one can succeed at anything one wishes to have succeeded at without the hardship of doing it, and even if such a thing would’ve been impossible.

Mrs. Amobbi said, “Now if you want the job,” “I do,” though Fyodor, already. “They’ll be some rules. Whatever my husband was paying, I’ll double it and you will not paint the serving girl, but my husband’s face, merely, life sized and it will be at my aunt’s apartment where I live, where my husband lays crippled.” “I’m prepared for that.” “Good,” Mrs. Amobbi said, flushed with the power of changing reality. Such was the kind of woman that was Mr. Amobbi’s wife.

When Fyodor got to her apartment early the next morning, it was Aunt Rosette who answered the intercom. Shouting her words- a woman once of great force, reduced only by age, she politely told Fyodor she had no idea who he was and to screw off. Pondering this for a moment, Fyodor was relieved when the old woman laughed and buzzed him upstairs. Tepidly, with arms full, Fyodor took the elevator to the fourth floor and knocked, firmly, thrice on the door.

Aunt Rosette opened the door with the chain up and squinted at Fyodor. “Who are you?” she spat. “We just spoke.” “Never happened.” She slammed the door. Then laughed and unlocked the chain. Fyodor hoped it was the last time she would pull the same joke.

“But you really must hurry with it,” Fyodor caught Mrs. Amobbi mid conversation. “I worry if we change the story too much.” “It won’t matter long,” he heard Mr. Amobbi murmur. Any further conversation was interrupted by Aunt Rosette who announced ‘The Painter’ had come.

“The Painter!” exclaimed Mr. Amobbi. He was seated in a wheel chair with a brown wool blanket over his knees and smiled at Fyodor. He was captivating and repulsive. Mrs. Amobbi was colder and gave a curt, “Painter.”

“Where will you have me?” said Mr. Amobbi, amiably. His wife wheeled him towards Fyodor as if handing him over. They checked all the rooms but the child’s, and at last settled to do it in the kitchen against the north window, with the rising sun profiling the old man’s hideous face from the east window.

Fyodor began to sketch Mr. Amobbi. So distracted was he by his fascinating subject, he didn’t notice the quantities of liquor he was being handed by Mrs. Amobbi. “More wine, Fyodor?” she asked, demurely, pouring already. “No, if I drink more my sketching will suffer.” “Nonsense. Why the sketching is getting better and better. Besides you’ve only had one glass and now are only on your second. I’m keeping track for you, Fyodor. Don’t worry about anything but the painting.”

Fyodor painted and as he did he noticed something peculiar about his painting. The more work he put into getting the ugly man’s face right, the more the face in the painting looked like his own. “It’s not a painting at all, but a mirror,” he thought. In the depths of the painting there he was: a bachelor at forty two, a painter of some local renown, and a repulsively ugly man. In a stupor, Fyodor noticed the rain. But it wasn’t rain, but merely thick in the air like rain. Fyodor was getting covered in bird shit. He soon found his limbs pinned and heavy. Movement was impossible. His eyes, trapped, but mobile, watched from the depths of the mirror, searched for escape, but could only watch as his own head became slowly buried. At last Fyodor couldn’t breathe.

Fyodor awoke in an unfamiliar room. The walls were pink and gold gilded in vertical stripes. A single upright lamp was alight beside the dark wood dresser. The sheets around him were white and pink. Fyodor scratched his stubble where his lips were throbbing and swollen. After some time, Fyodor noticed that he wasn’t alone. At the foot of the bed was the daughter, her odd length limbs knotted up as she sat like a dog watching him. Her face was uncovered and Fyodor found it plain.

“Are you going to die?” she asked. The painter tried to speak but his tongue was swollen and dry and he found he couldn’t make a sound but suck his lips. The girl looked at him with sad green eyes. Fyodor wondered if the painting was ok. “What happened to the painting,” he wanted to ask, but couldn’t. So he cried. Tears welled up around his eyes and the girl crawled forward on awkward limbs and wiped his face with her thumb. Then Mrs. Amobbi came in, throwing open the door and shouting, “Mr. Fyodor! You should’ve told me you were allergic to wine.” Fyodor tried to speak. “No don’t speak. Something terrible has happened after you passed out. You see my husband took a fall. After you passed out, Mr. Amobbi leapt out of his wheelchair like I’d never seen and began to tap dance along the window sill. I tried to get to him in time but I’m afraid he died.

Thankfully, thankfully you saved his face. The real thing’s all over the pavement, but we saved it, you and I, in the painting. Yes darling, why don’t you fetch the painting for Mr. Amobbi to see?”

The girl rolled off the bed and scurried in her odd gait out of the room. It’s unfortunate,” purred Mrs. Amobbi into Fyodor’s ear. “Just when our lovemaking was about to get back on track, you lost your face.” She placed her lithe tanned hand on Fyodor’s throat. “Everything above just doesn’t turn me on like it used to, but we’ll fix that. I hired a painter, you see. He’s going to make everything better. He’s a fashion designer, you know. I’ve got his card here somewhere.” Triumphantly, she pulled one of Mr. Amobbi’s business cards out of her bra.

The daughter came back with a frame that Fyodor couldn’t see the front of. The mother with firm hands laid the painting over Fyodor’s face and tied the frame with brown leather straps around the back of the painter’s head. The world was dark. Fyodor felt what was happening. He was suffocating in bird shit.