“Stripped” by James la Vigne

Having little to his name when he died, the reading of Henry Fromm’s will went quickly. Nothing surprising or contentious. On paper he never did anything surprising or contentious. He had a few thousand in stock options, which, after a chunk was donated to an art school, were split evenly between his two children, Mary and Fred, who hadn’t seen each other over a year though they both lived in town. Not that they were estranged. Far from it: you can’t help a year going by. The executor weaved his hands together and asked if they had any questions. They both shook their heads. The only asymmetry between them in the will was a sketchbook left for Fred, which had been among the bric-a-brac Dad had left in the nursing facility.

They left the office with that uncertainty of feeling, that sense that it was proper to grant Dad something akin to sadness. But even barring their resentment for the man, once someone in your family entered the limbo of dementia, you were a saxophonist who could only hold the same mournful note so long. As they reached the parking lot, they halted.

“So,” Mary said.

“Yeah.”

They stood there. The parking lot was cramped with cars visiting the other offices. The cover of one jeep’s spare tire was torn. It was just the sort of thing Dad would paint, with his John Cageian receptiveness to the humanity lurking in accidents and tedium. He had always been careful to invite you to overlook the crucial details of the scene.

“Still driving the Buick, I see,” Mary observed, as though impressed.

“Yeah.” Fred cleared his throat. “Hey, there’s a teriyaki place just around the corner. It’s pretty good. I mean, if you’re free at all.”

“Sure.” They walked slowly, as though accommodating someone with a limp. “I’ve been there a few times.”

They had lunch. Mary ate as though famished. It was a weird feeling, sitting across from her. Weird like a helping of hash browns on his breakfast plate–a simple, not strictly necessary, but welcome change. They talked about the weather, about Amazon and Jeff Bezos’s divorce, about how traffic was only going to get worse with the impending construction projects. He made sure to ask about her husband and kids: they were now 8 and 15, and they were doing well, in general and in school. She returned the question, but there was nothing to talk about on his end. He kept the conversation going, broaching some recent news item. The conversation quickly returned to her kids (because parents couldn’t help themselves, not that he minded), how school days were starting later in the morning for her son this year (common sense, he agreed), & how her daughter had a poem reproduced on the metro lines (did she remember how it went?). At some point they got on politics, and he mentioned Donald Trump, you had to, and they talked about their hopes for the 2020 election, though they agreed it was too early to say much.

“Dad would have loved him,” she said, finishing her soy-sauced rice. “Trump, I mean.”

Fred wasn’t sure how to respond to that. He started on his egg roll. While it was true that Dad had been a lifelong conservative, he disliked the “conservative = Republican = Trump supporter” equation, though it seemed to hold up well in practice. Dad had once, in fact, while then-nominee Trump was speaking on the TV, huffed, “I’m sick of this ugly man.” Maybe it hit him right in time, the disease. There were plenty of reasons for her to be bitter. No reason to just create hypotheticals.

“Maybe,” Fred replied.

“You know,” Mary said, putting a napkin over her plate and pushing it away, “it sounds awful, but I preferred him that way. The worse he got, the more I liked him. He was so happy to see me, every time I came in, toward the end. I’m glad he died before he forgot who I was.”

He nodded, was going to say something.

“But at the same time,” she continued, “It almost made me angry, seeing him like that. Happy to see me. Like he didn’t make me hate him. It didn’t seem fair, you know?”

“Yeah, I felt the same way.”

“Like he got a free pass on everything. I–”

“The disease strips you down, strips you bare. What we saw, those last years–”

“You think it was him.” It wasn’t a question. Fred nodded. Maybe it was him. Maybe not. But you had to believe certain things. “Like deep down,” she added. Her eyes showed a thorn of disbelief. “Like if he didn’t have a thousand layers of asshole around him at all times.”

Fred kind of laughed. They made promises to stay in touch after the funeral. As the TV coughed the news, he was distracted with the mystery of the sketchbook in the sack of nursing home stuff on the chair. It was no mystery; he had seen his classically impeccable paintings, his sketches, his self-consciously naive canvas-poems, or “verbal semi-serials,” as he called them. All his full works had predated his stay at the home and had been sold. Someone with finer taste in the arts might have believed they redeemed him, that they were a window into the deeper nature of a distant and severe soul. But art didn’t redeem anybody, especially bad art. His most celebrated painting, or at least the one that had fetched the highest price at an auction, was simply a still life of a pot of wilting flowers. It was supposed to be ambiguous: were they wilting because of neglect, or because of, say, a sudden death in a lonely house? Or was it symbolic? But Dad’s trademark was that his paintings’ subjects were easy to dismiss–stymied with a humdrum palette and an anemic subtlety. His technical skill had no doubt deteriorated as the sketchbook progressed, and it was tempting to believe that, as Fred had so compassionately bullshitted, he had been “stripped down” by the disease.

So, Days later Fred opened the sketchbook to prove what he already knew. The first page was a sketch of a father and son casting lines from a canoe, the sun silhouetting them. Dad painted that kind of thing, but never actually fished, with Fred or otherwise, not in canoes nor on the shore. On the opposite page, a woman stood tiptoe to reach a jar in a cupboard in a homely kitchen. You could accuse these portraits of being an overly Disneyesque, sanitized vision of reality, but only so “ironically.” Despite the wealth of detail, the crux of the sketches was supposed to be their omissions. Like a photograph, they had the potential to warp reality through the “oppressive lens of objectivity,” as Dad said. Was the fishing trip a relaxed, common affair, or a desperate effort of an emotionally absent father to regain his son’s affection? What about the woman? Was her home life happy? There were no clues in the natural lighting or the smooth, well-defined lines–or there were, all of which suggested utter normalcy, but you were supposed to ignore them to presume a darker theme. Yes, bad art. Fred closed the sketchbook.

Deaths have a way of dragging up all that junk, that coral reef of resentment that you haven’t sorted out one prickly hand of, but who really had the time? Fred went back to work selling life insurance. A new potential customer called, and he forgot part of the pitch which he had used for years, which made him angry because he didn’t care, certainly not enough for it to affect him that way.  The spreadsheets were a scrounged nothing, a surplus of unconnected nodes. His coworkers all asked how he was doing, and his face would be pinned into a smile for a minute. He rehearsed his pitch under his breath, focusing upon each syllable and inflection. By the end of the day his hands and mouth were doing the work for him, and he was more concerned with the NBA playoffs. But once he got home the sketchbook was on the counter, now splayed open to a certain page, probably due to the air conditioning–or perhaps, a ghost, he may have thought for a second. Though he closed the book quickly, he saw two rudimentary sketches of a peacock and a youngish woman’s face, perhaps a nurse, comprised of rigid lines colliding. He watched the news before the game. Ghosts only haunted you if you let them.

Fred dealt with mild depression for weeks afterward, which was hard to recognize because it was a foreign experience, and at 45 he presumed to be well beyond the trappings of self-loathing and -pity. He rationalized the emotions as being the natural response to the events of the world–the news of shootings, impending global disaster, of corruption and inequality–this whole apparatus he had so dutifully served his whole life. He regretted not having children of his own, or adopting, and generally being lousy with women, that when death came for him, it was complete. So, he scheduled an appointment with a therapist. By the time he was seen, however, the depression had sorted itself out. He talked about the irritations of the day and about the downward trend in blockbuster movies.

Meanwhile, Fred reconnected with his sister Mary. He integrated himself into her family, bonding with his nephew Terry by exercising his long-dormant skills at FPS games. His niece Madison was marvelous and talking to her made the world seem like a fresh place to be in. Henceforth he was a regular presence in their lives, coming to see his relationship with his nephew and niece as a sort of middle ground between parenthood and that solipsistic oblivion that had seemed to be his destiny. He and Mary became much closer than they ever had been while living under Dad’s roof, enduring his lectures, his endless lectures. And if you had a differing opinion, oh boy.

Now, since Dad’s stature as an artist wasn’t sufficient to attract anyone to a book of unrefined final sketches, Fred did not attempt to sell it or even donate it to an art society, and since his resentment wasn’t sufficient to destroy it or throw it away, he ultimately shelved it underneath some boxes at the top of the closet. He thought of it whenever he thought of Dad. While to look through it would be to dump the pieces of one jigsaw puzzle on top of another, identical puzzle, obviously Dad had a reason for leaving it to him specifically. So, while he didn’t commit himself to the study of shadows, eventually he assessed the sketches with a fortified neutrality. Basically, uninspired topics from a technically gifted hand which had deteriorated, like the self-portraits of William Utermohlen he had googled. You could see his motor and cognitive ability to render form deteriorate, and many would have viewed this as a tragedy. But the keen eye was still there, and the frustration evident. The disease stripped the detail and irrelevancy from his expression, leaving behind a stark, vulnerable selfhood, one free of the narcissism we propped ourselves up with. The end of the sketchbook appeared to be what was called “asemic writing,” which were strokes of the pencil that resembled letters in a shaky hand, as though he was trying to communicate something verbally. Fred’s name appeared in the last ten pages.

However, Fred later discovered that Dad did, in fact, enjoy some posthumous popularity, with people on his artist blog speculating about whether new art would surface, so he posted there and put an auction on eBay for the final sketchbook. Within a few weeks he had a prospective buyer. They met in the house. 

“Would you mind if I take a look?” she asked. When Fred handed it over, she treated it like it wasn’t already coated in fingerprints. She looked at the first sketches, of the fishing trip and the woman in the kitchen. “Yes, I can see it’s him. He really was unmistakable, wasn’t he? There’s just this sense of quiet urgency. When did he start this project?”

Fred shrugged. “He was very private about it.”

“Yes, many artists are. The best of them. I think that’s when it’s most pure. When you work for yourself, rather than those around you.”

“Certainly, one of his strong points,” Fred replied.

“Of course. Of many. You know Francisco de Goya–”

“I’m sorry. Would you like a cup of coffee?”

“Yes. Please.”

“Is black fine? Good, because I don’t have any cream. I’ll be in the kitchen while you look.”

Fred brewed coffee and prepared a salad (he had been eating better since his brief mental health scare). The woman perused the sketchbook, lingering on each page until her expression changed, and she looked at him. She approached. “My, I’ve never seen this side of his personality,” she proclaimed. “You are absolutely sure these are his originals?”

He nodded and explained his battle with dementia.

She expressed her condolences. “It must have been hard, but I’m glad he continued to work,” she said. “Such a disease… would have crushed a lesser man, because they paint with their minds rather than their souls.”

“It strips you down,” Fred offered.

“Exactly. To be honest, I almost feel like I’m getting away with something here, Mr. Fromm. Your father was always a genius, albeit one whose fanfare didn’t match his skill, one who could illuminate some small corner of the world–make you think about life, if you let him– a man who was capable but a bit aloof. While I feel he was always there, behind the paintings, teasing you with a little peephole into his voracious personality, in these sketches you get to stand in the room with him. And I think once the world gets a look at these, they will serve to bolster his reputation. He was a great man, and, in these pages, you feel like you’ve gotten to know him.”

“Yeah,” Fred said, handing her the coffee.

Her eyes swam over the pages. About fifteen minutes later she departed, asking if there were any other new works he was “hiding.” Fred ate his salad. Dad’s reputation could be bolstered a thousand times over, for all he cared. It was their treasure, not his.



James la Vigne is a fiction writer and coffeehouse poet with a background in mathematics living in Seattle, where he trains parrots not to do tricks. He has a story in Cardinal Sins.

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