a short story by Jerry Zinn
Howard Jordan sat on the back patio on a cool autumn morning and took a sip of warm, freshly brewed dark roast. He could hear the birds chirping and what remained of the leaves rustling, the two sounds often melding together. Leaning back into the deep wicker chair, it’s fibers crunching as the strands rubbed against one another, Howard propped his feet up on the table, atop a stack of large books on subjects about which he knew nothing. All that mattered to Howard was that they were suitable for elevating his loafered feet to a comfortable position. He held the mug to his face and let the humid fragrance dance up his nostrils.
As he nestled in, Howard wondered what Noel Fullerton’s idea was. Fullerton had commissioned Howard to paint a few pieces in the past and purchased countless others. But when he phoned the night before saying he wanted to commission another work, Fullerton said, “It will likely be the most challenging and frustrating piece you’ve ever done. I believe it has the potential to be incredibly rewarding as well.” What he meant by all that, Howard was unsure. When Howard pressed him, Fullerton insisted he would provide no further details until he met with Howard in person the following morning. So there Howard sat, the following morning, awaiting the arrival of one of America’s great philanthropists and supporters of the arts, anxious to discover what subject would be at once challenging, frustrating, and rewarding.
Behind him, Howard heard his wife moving around in the kitchen and pouring herself a cup from the pot. “Come on out here Sara. I’m just waiting for Fullerton,” he said.
“I’m just putting some sweetener in my coffee, then I’ll be out.”
“I can’t believe you put that poison in your coffee. It ruins the taste, and I hear that substitution stuff is worse than real sugar.”
“I know,” Sara said, settling into the chair next to Howard with a shiver. “Chilly this morning,” she remarked, changing the subject from toxic substances.
“Yeah it’s finally starting to feel like fall out here.”
“Any idea what Fullerton has on his mind?”
“I thought about it all night, and I’ve been thinking about it all morning, which is to say I thought about it instead of sleeping. Honestly, I have no idea. Maybe he wants me to paint a ceiling, like the Sistine Chapel. I couldn’t even get him to give me a hint. He said it was important to him that he ask me in person.”
“Sounds like it will be an interesting project. I can tell the unknown intrigues you. To have you up all night, after all these years, that’s something. Well he should be here any minute, so at least you won’t have to wait much longer.”
“For sticking with me. I know it’s not easy being married to an… artist,” Howard hated calling himself that. It made him feel like he was boasting, even to his wife. “It isn’t the most structured life. But there’s no way I get to where I am today, figuratively or literally, without you being by my side every step of the way. I don’t say it as often as I should, but I love you more than anything.”
“I love you too Howard. I knew what I was getting into when I married you, just like you knew what you were getting with me! No one should ever wish for an easy life. The most important thing is to be surrounded by the people you love and who love you. We are both very fortunate.”
“Exactly right, Sara,” A ring interrupted their professions. “I think that was the doorbell. Must be Fullerton.”
“I’ll let him in and leave you two to talk shop.”
“Thanks hon.” Sara rubbed Howard’s shoulder lovingly as she slipped back inside and went to open the door.
A moment later, Fullerton’s unmistakable, booming voice rattled through the house and out to Howard in his wicker chair, which shook at the sound, “Hey Sara! Is the maestro in?”
“He’s just out back,” Sara answered, noticeably softer.
“Howard!” Fullerton said as he walked in and invited himself to be seated.
“Noel. I must say I’m anxious to solve your riddle. What is this piece you want me to paint that’s so special it can’t even be mentioned over the phone?”
“Boy Howard, you don’t mess around do you? No time for weather talk or how’re you doings, huh?” Fullerton replied, “Down to business. Well, it’s something I’ve wanted to talk to you about for a long time. You know we’re setting up that exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art, of your landscapes, next year?”
“Yes, I think I might have gotten a phone call or two about it,” Howard joked.
“I felt it would be an important statement, an insight into your mind if you will, if I could commission you to paint on a very personal subject, as a complement to those pieces.”
“And what might that be?”
“Howard, I want to commission you to paint a self-portrait. And before you refuse,” Fullerton put his hand up to quash any reactionary responses. “Please hear me out. I realize you’ve never done one before, and I understand why you haven’t. But consider how much of an impact that could have on people who come to see your work. You are unquestionably one of the most influential artists of the last fifty years if not more, and you’ve changed the entire idea of what people believe is possible, and not just in art frankly. I’m not exaggerating. You know me well enough to know I’m a straight shooter.”
“Noel, I just don’t know about doing a self-portrait.”
“People want to know how you see yourself. All I’m asking is for you to think about it, Howard. As I said, it will be very trying, but I think you’d be surprised how rewarding it could be for you and for countless others.”
“Alright, Noel. I’ll consider it.”
“Thank you Howard. You know how to reach me,” Fullerton said standing up. “Take your time to think it over. In keeping with your philosophy, now that I’ve said my mind, I’ll leave you and Sara to enjoy the day.” To that Howard simply nodded his head and returned to his coffee as Fullerton let himself out the front.
“I heard what he said…” Sara said stepping back onto the patio.
“What are you going to do?”
“Think about it. I owe him that much after all he’s done for my career. I suppose he’s right too. It could have an impact on some people. Can we go for a walk?”
“Of course, let me grab your shoes and coat.”
Howard felt for the table and set down his coffee, carefully to be sure none of it spilled, as he sat up. He stood and stretched as he let out a sigh and walked through the kitchen.
“I’m just at the door Howard. I’ve got your coat and shoes.”
“Thanks Sara.” Sara guided Howard into his tennis shoes and jacket, and they headed out the door. She threaded her arm through his and hugged it tightly. “You know Sara you’re more than just my wife, you really are my better half.” Sara didn’t answer but Howard imagined she was smiling, which made him happy. She guided him down the steps one at a time, serving as his wife and his better half, as she’d always done and would always do.