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THE ARTIST

by

David Sparks



"It was a messy battle. There were times that I doubted that I would pull through on the winning side-that supplies would hold out. Yes, it was a messy battle…but I won," Jasper scribbled onto his notebook furiously and with new hope. Then he stood up, took an insurance wipe, and dropped what remained of all of the toilet paper in the house into the toilet, and flushed it all to hell. It was a messy battle. But he had won. He was clean.

Jasper walked out of his bathroom whistling. They were the first words he had written since the drought began, and he knew it was all a matter of time before something was etched onto the blankness that he had been suffering from. Then that mark-that scratch-would grow and branch like a crack in a windshield until it would become a genius-snaring web.

The dam is cracked, he thought. And it was good. It was beautifully written and just a bit mysterious. He was ecstatic. Now its time to go out, he thought. It's time to catch some flies. He stopped short. Maybe he should write that down. Nonsense. He'd remember it if he needed it later.

It was all a matter of time.

And time was a luxury Jasper could not afford. Time isn't money; it costs money. It costs to live. If you miss too many payments, your lease is revoked-shredded, burned. Jasper was a payment behind, and writing was his life.

And it wasn't much of a life. He had been alone for as long as he could remember. He didn't even know a woman, let alone one that he could potentially date. He lived alone in a small, lame apartment in a small, lame suburb of a small, lame city-that's how he looked at it, anyway. Already, his young social and professional life were amounting to a large nothing, and, despite its desperate emptiness, he couldn't afford it.

"Nobody knows you when you're down and out," Japer sang to no one, and, thinking quickly, he wrote it on his hand with a pen he kept in his jacket in case any such breakthroughs occur.

Cool, he thought. Everything's coming together.

Jasper got halfway to where his car was parked when he began to panic. The euphoria of his earlier victory was fading, and grim, stony reality was starting to invade. His rent was due. His electricity was due. His water was due. His phone had been disconnected two months ago. He was hungry. The very idea that anyone could afford basic cable seemed like a ludicrous impossibility, and the bare fact that so many could blew his mind.

Jasper had no story. He had no theme. He didn't even have the broadest of characters. This fact hit him hard just as he grasped the door handle of his ill-functioning, blue '85 Ford Escort that had no power steering and just under a half a tank of gas. If he'd had the energy, he would have cried, but he was just too damn tired.

I have the germ of an idea, he lied to himself. I wrote something. It was only a matter of time.

And when his car fired up on the first try, Jasper interpreted-correctly, he figured-that this was a good sign. The sky was perfect, and the air was perfect, and the good men on the assembly line in Detroit, Michigan in nineteen eighty-four when this mean goddamn machine was born were true Americans and masters of their craft.

He backed out of his spot and put her in drive, and when it stalled he nearly went to pieces.

Out on the road he began to feel better. It was bright out. It was blue. The afternoon was wide open.

It's so beautiful, Jasper figured that he was bound to find something to inspire him. Just looking at the cloudless sky, the glistening blacktop, and the bustling suburban business district he was driving through sent thousands of poetic, important words through his mind. But none of them strung together.

"It's do or die," he muttered to himself, and quickly made a note of it. It could go with that whole war thing he had started. A man-in war. War is ugly. The man is ugly. There's some conflict-conflict of battle and of the soul.

But where's the story? Where is the story? Maybe a kid? Maybe a beautiful, mysterious woman? A woman at war standing in front of a beautiful big sky? A war in Montana?

"A beautiful, mysterious woman in Montana!" he exclaimed, and started to pound the passenger seat in frustrated celebration. It was brilliant, but it didn't make any sense. He realized that had he written the story, no one would understand it-including him-until long after he was dead. And then they would only pretend.

He needed something physical. He needed glue. He needed faces. He needed atmosphere. It was too early for a bar. Only the miserable frequent bars this early. No one extraordinary.

He was pondering writing a story about a mysterious, beautiful drunk when he accidentally pulled into the University. He had intended to go to McDonald's, but he took the wrong driveway.

He recognized the mistake, and he decided to go with it, assuming that fate was at work. He turned on public radio and a light, bouncy, baroque-sounding movement blared out of his overdriven speakers. He thought he recognized the piece from a car commercial and began to feel very academic indeed.

He had always thought that he should have gone to college. He'd always dug the intellectual atmosphere. If it wasn't for the actual work involved, he might well have signed up. Unfortunately, Jasper realized beforehand that, just like every battle plan in history, the college thing looked good on paper, but out in the field it was an ugly mess.

But this music is beautiful, he thought, and again his mind soured. The music filtered through his ears, but the images it evoked were distant and intangible and quickly disappeared. But it felt like writing, and Japer was encouraged. He parked his car and walked towards the main building. It was a relatively small, ivy-covered university and only had a few buildings in which actual teaching took place. There were more buildings in which administration took place, but Jasper wanted to stay away from them. Too many suits. They all looked the same. They all walked the same. They all carried the same briefcases.

Jasper walked towards where the backpacks were. There were interesting people to write about there-a lot of stimulating faces. A lot of story-filled eyes. A lot of new and unusual hairstyles and sweaters.

That was when he saw a girl sitting with her back leaned against the corner of the main building, which in and of itself is nothing unusual. But this girl was something. She had long, dark hair, dark eyes, a smooth, luminescent, dark complexion, and dark eyebrows. She had all of the right features in all of the right places, which were all the right size to be considered by certain men who are of the type to place a lofty estimation towards some of the more base and superficial characteristics of a woman as attractive. Jasper was one of these men, and he could tell by looking at her that she'd never had to worry about a thing in her life.

She was holding a large sketchbook in her lap and was pressing a pencil against it. She wasn't drawing. She was just pressing it there, waiting. And she was looking at him. He stared back at her and she motioned for him to come. He was suddenly overcome with an emotion somewhere between lust and alarm. He walked towards her, and the closer he got, the better she looked. He marveled about how that sort of occurrence is rare, and he didn't know whether to be inspired by her or to attack her.

Maybe I could be inspired by attacking her, he thought, and filed it away as a possibility.

"Hi," he said. She stared at him. "I ah…I saw you over-do you…What do you want?"

"I want to draw you," she said in a relatively thick, European accent that he couldn't quite place. He almost fainted. What was she? A beautiful artist? A mysterious refugee from war?

"Why?" Jasper was flattered, but growing a little wary. He wasn't exactly what women would consider a good-looking guy. He was short. His nose was long and his eyes were kind of close together. Depending on how he wore his hair, his ears stuck out either too far or not enough.

"I think your face is extraordinary," she cooed softly, moving her full, red lips seductively to form her "o."

Jasper shifted to his other foot. "That's funny because I always thought I looked very ordinary."

"That's what I mean," she said enthusiastically, and started to draw without permission.

This whole dialogue confused Jasper a little, but he stuck with his fatalistic plan and sat down to pose.

"Your face is very beautiful," she continued, "in the sense that it is ugly."

"Wh-…" Jasper started, but the woman immediately cut him off, nearly hissing, "Don't move."

"Can't I talk?" he asked.

"Only if you do not move your mouth."

"What's your name?"

"Catherina de Paradiso," she said, looking at her paper and scribbling the general shape of his face.

The name was perfect. Catherina of Paradise. "What does your father do?" He was trying not to move his mouth.

"He was a soldier," she said almost sorrowfully.

"The Foreign Legion?" Jasper asked, growing excited.

"The Coast Guard."

"What does your mother do?" He refused to be discouraged.

"She's a tennis player." She looked at him and put her thumb up in his face. She was less than an arm's length away, and her knuckle pressed on his nose.

"You know," he continued, "you're quite amazing."

She laughed-almost scoffed. "What do you mean?"

"You-you're…amazing." He started to spit when he talked.

She looked at him quizzically. "But I'm just like every other beautiful European art student."

"But you're talking to me," Jasper added off the top of his head, and he smiled in satisfaction of his flirtatious wit. She smiled a smile of sincere amusement, and Jasper excitedly began to examine the real possibility that he might get laid out of this.

"I've never seen you," she said, still drawing. "Do you go here?"

"No," he confessed, "but I bought some college text books at a garage sale once."

"Did you read them?" she asked.

"No," he said, "I write."

"Text books?"

"No," he answered a little testily, "stories. I sell them."

"Have you sold any?" She studied the shape of his nose.

"Yes," he said, shoving out his nose for her to see, "I've sold a few."

She giggled coyly. "What do you write about?"

"I want to write about you." His heart fluttered, and his throat clicked when he swallowed. He felt like he was proposing to her.

"Why?" she said with a tone and look not unlike disgust. "I'm so boring."

Jasper couldn't believe that this creature was capable of such genuine modesty. "But you're so beautiful and interesting and…you're from Europe."

"A lot of people are from Europe," she said frankly and handed him the sketchbook. All of the air left his body. It was his face, but somehow-someway-whether it was the shading or the texture of the pencil or the pose, she had made it spectacular. His eyes were mournful and his mouth was slightly parted in a rich expression of disjointed, cowardly heroism. Looking at it filled him with a profound feeling of joy and sadness. It melted into his eyes, and he wanted to smile and cry. He wanted to write about it. He wanted to write it.

"Do you like it?" She leaned back on her hands and was completely unaware of the affect it had on him.

"You did this just now?" He stared at it.

"Of course," she touched his leg. "Don't be silly."

"It's…" Words escaped him. "Well…it's really something. How did you do it?" He looked at her imploringly, waiting for her to whisper to him some magical insight, some inside secret between artists.

Instead, she glanced at him with an expression of confusion. "What do you mean?" she asked as if he were an idiot. "I drew you."

She took the picture back and kissed him on the cheek. "What's your name?"

He was awestruck. "Jasper." It was the only word he knew.

"Goodbye, Jasper," she breathed, and walked away, moving her sumptuous body in a way that some poets have almost not failed to capture and that some great pieces of music have nearly touched.

Jasper sat in a moment's silence, and, regaining his bearings, he quickly jumped to his feet. He rushed to his car and coaxed it home in a way that can only accurately be described as reckless, trying to keep the image of Catherina de Paradiso fresh in his mind. He ran up to his apartment, his mind full of pictures and people and beautiful words. He jumped on the sofa with his notebook opened in one hand and his pen uncapped in the other, and then stared at a page that said, "It was a messy battle. There were times I doubted that I would pull through on the winning side-that supplies would hold out. Yes, it was a messy battle…but I won," on it for three and a half hours. Then he looked up some pornography on the Internet for awhile, and when he became relatively bored of naked women, he resigned to a fitful sleep earlier than usual, eagerly anticipating the greatness he would achieve on the page on the morrow.







ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Sparks is a 25-year-old writer and musician, who was born in Flint, MI and raised in neighboring New Lothrop. In 2000, he graduated with highest honors from a small state university that will remain unnamed to protect the identities of his parents who sent him there. He and his wife, Kelly, reside in Chicago, IL where he has watched such great films as "The Maltese Falcon," "Goodfellas," and "Major Payne."




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