Ultimate Rose

by Anna Sykora

When I heard my diagnosis, the floor bucked twice. “But I never felt better,” I complained. “Except for this pain in my gut.”

“I’m sorry, Daniel,” said jolly Dr. John. “The scan’s clear: your cancer has spread to your liver.” Jolly John knew about my solo show at Fred’s–after fifteen years of me slaving and starving, scrounging and mooching–and my old drinking buddy did his best for the soon to be famous dead painter, Daniel Rose. He got me into a study where they poked and burned me, dripped poison into me and took tubes of my blood, till even my pubic hair fell out and my finest brush felt like a hammer in my hand. I made Rhonda cart and carry for me; but her weeping and whining got on my nerves; and I can’t say two words to a girl on the phone but she has a jealous fit.

“How dare you?” I yelled in Rhonda’s face. “I need to finish this painting for Fred, who’s carried us seven years. He’ll never see his money again unless my show’s a monster.” We had to put off the opening, and then I called up and told my torturers, enough: their chemo wasn’t holding back the cancer; it was draining all the red from my blood. I couldn’t eat or sleep; I couldn’t paint.

Jolly John says it won’t make any difference now if I work or lie in bed. I packed Rhonda off to her mom in Albany; Rhonda gets a bequest, if there’s anything left; but Fred gets all my paintings, who’s carried me around on his broad back, like I carried him in Nam when the Cong blew off his legs.

I’m not gonna answer the phone till I’m done, and I told everybody, leave me alone; poor Fred in his chair can sweep up the glass. I’ll be 50 in August. Time to make something more lasting than love.

There’s something wrong with the Splendor, though; it’s been bugging me, and tonight I’m sure. And Fred calls this painting my masterpiece, and the centerpiece of my show. It’s overpowering like Manhattan before September 11: all angles devouring angles, colored in my cold-hot style. I can hear critics yammer about its mahvelous ahchitecture; but I hate this painting. Tinkering with it is putting me to sleep…

Why doesn’t it satisfy me? I started work before my diagnosis. The hell with it; Fred can take it as it is. I’m never gonna be a commercial painter.

I told everyone I’d take care of myself. I’ve got two bottles of pills left, and one of Southern Comfort. I still have some time at the bottom of my glass. The painter Daniel Rose shouldn’t waste his time.

I need some fresh air. How cool these panes in the studio feel. Leaning my forehead into them, I’m a kid again, back on the West Side. All those stacks of windows out there, with people inside them, living and loving. You can paint them; you can love them to death; but you can never know them.

Looks like someone finally moved into that loft where Angie threw her parties. Where did my Angel of Soho land, with her stripped-white hair and eyes like rushing trains? I’d love to get stoned again with her again, and make love on her floor until we crack our ribs.

Who’s that moving in Angie’s window? A long-haired cat, a Persian. She paces gracefully over the sill, dancing just for me. The light goes on, and now she has colors like a Siamese.

Hey, a nude woman–lithe and tawny. Stay, and I’ll eat you with my eyes: your sturdy hips and dancer’s waist. Pert breasts make my dessert. You haul that cat up by his tail, and he just hangs there, peering into your face, which looks Moroccan. I’m lost in your curly, long, black hair.

You grip his shoulders, kiss his back and drape him around your neck, like the lamb in the ancient Greek statues of shepherds. A man laughs, and your light goes out. Hey, turn it on; I wanna see what comes next… That was it, I guess; too bad. Her cat knows all her secrets though.

Her body: I can feel every curve and thrust, and caress her in my mind. I could paint her from memory, right now. Hey, that’s what I’ll do…

Somewhere I had a small stretcher, sized and primed, to use for studies. Rhonda should clean up this closet for me. Here’s my baby–a little dusty.

Gasping, just a bag of bones, I push the Splendor over to the wall. Have I got blood enough for this woman? Fred will be mad; but what the hell; I’m rising to my chance. The final tease of Daniel Rose: a representational painting–when for years I haven’t even sketched a nude.

My Moroccan’s hot, and dancing down my arm like a skein of fire. Don’t need a mark to start her here; this stretcher makes her window.

Now I’m squeezing my colors thick from the tubes, and mixing them new. I can match any color in nature, work it with my brushes or my knives. I’m stroking the bare canvas, forming its elements and filling in its fields. Feels like the first time, tonight. What was her name? Leila, like the song. Those days were my best, starting out as a man. Painting and all came later…

What time is it? I should eat something; and I’m supposed to keep swigging water too. I’m bony now, not bloated.

Chinese leftovers in the fridge. I’ll eat them right here, standing to study you. Don’t want to leave you, Leila, no.

The phone burbles: Rhonda, again. Let her think I’m getting laid.

No, it’s Fred, who sounds worried; I owe him a call… Oh these breasts, these glowing-happy handfuls, almost done. Shall I make her shaggy cat purple, just for fun? I’d better paint him just like I saw him, and I need my finest sable for his fur. What color were his eyes? Lying around her neck, he closed them.

Leila’s rising up, like Botticelli’s Venus on her shell: with curling seaweed hair, glittering eyes and a self-delighted smile. Smug as a cat, proud as the Sphinx…

“Hi, I’m Leila, your new neighbor,” she murmurs. “Heard you’re a monster, like Picasso. Daniel Rose, are you for real?”

Hours or days go flitting by, and I pull the shades but don’t nap. Now Leila’s smiling under my brushes, and I’m smiling too.

My stomach hurts: time for a pill. A chaser of Southern Comfort would kill me. Must be a can of peas back here. Peas are good; they make you fat. Don’t need coffee, I have my paint. How I love this oily reek, Leila, and getting your colors all over me.

Damn, there’s a problem with your mouth–with the light on your lips. Leila, you’re not the woman I needed you to be. I need to see my model again; but her window’s dark and cold. Pace up and down like a tiger, Daniel.

I’m tired; I hurt in every cell. I’m disgusted with myself; I failed. I’ll just leave a note for Fred here, and sink down on the spotted floor. Freddy, my man, I’m sorry; you know I loved you best.

The door bell? If it’s Death, he can go to hell; I have to solve this problem with her lips. She’s gonna be my nude Mona Lisa; I’m staking everything on her smile.

And here she comes, barefoot, and smiling in a sable coat and nothing else. I’ve lost what remained of my mind.

“Won’t you come in?” I ask my model. Maybe Leila feels sorry for me?

“I’m sorry; I don’t have much time,” she murmurs.

“Me too. Can I take your coat for you?”


“‘Then through a glass darkly, but now face to face.’ If you stand over here, with the light on your face, you can help me, dear. Are you chilly?”

“I’m fine.”

“I can close that window, if you like.”

“No, don’t; I love the wind on my back.”

“I bet you do, Leila. Now you don’t have your cat. Let’s pretend he’s draped around your shoulders. He was not my problem.”

“I’m your problem, Daniel?”

“Women always are.”

She lifts her golden arms.

“I need more red, like the red in Vermeer’s red-hatted girl–who glows like a holy furnace. I’ll mix you a new color, my dear: ultimate rose. ‘Cause cadmium pigment’s poison, but red’s the color of life.”

Leila laughs, like a flight of silver bells on a wind-brushed morning in Katmandu. “So you’re a philosopher now? What have you learned from your many messes, Daniel?”

“Not much; maybe, never fake a thing. Then whatever you do, it’s your best, no matter how lousy it is.”

“I’ll remember.”

“Remember me.”

“Am I beautiful, Daniel?”

“I’m satisfied. Wish I could see Fred’s face.”

When Fred broke in with the locksmith, they found Daniel dead on the floor, his brush in his hand. He’d signed his new painting–which meant in his mind it was done.

Who’s this woman? Fred pondered. Not Rhonda, or anyone I know. She’s splendid. This post-it tab must be the title Daniel wants.

Leaned against the wall, the Splendor remained unsigned, and the man in the wheelchair groaned.

Helped by news of Daniel Rose’s death, his solo show proved a memorable success: the critics praised it, and the public bought. Cut to the heart by the Leila painting, Rhonda would get a bequest after all. Daniel’s ex–and the five kids she never let him see–would get nothing.

A week after the opening, an anonymous buyer paid a premium over Leila’s asking price, to take immediate delivery. Fred grieved to part with the painting so soon, but needed the money to settle Daniel’s many debts.

At home the buyer pulled her curtains closed and slashed the painting to rags.

One Response to “Ultimate Rose”

  1. Milo says:

    Daniel’s perspective is strong; good job getting the reader into his head

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