By Michael Miner

Deck the Walls: A Christmas Gift

Festooned in a green tweedy coat and red stocking cap, A.E. Eyre entered my office. “My literary monument,” he explained, jauntily waving a manuscript. He poured himself some coffee.

“I thought your literary monument was arranged last summer,” I replied, “when you were accepted by the National Library of Poetry.”

Eyre bit his lip. “There might have been less to that than met the eye,” he acknowledged. “But inspiration is a constant friend, and our latest collaboration has produced a seasonal classic.”

“An evergreen?” I asked.

“A jewel of sentiment, if I say so myself. A holiday tale families will read while the yule log crackles long after the likes of us are dust. Of course an original publisher must be found or all is lost.”

I sensed my place in Eyre’s design. He believes I can pick up the phone and ensure a destiny. As it happens, the publishers who know my name at all operate from kitchen tables in downstate counties whose total populations do not exceed 20,000. But my demurrals are always lost on Eyre. I accepted the sheaves of paper and spread them on the desk. He made himself as comfortable as he was able, which involved placing his face an inch from mine and breathing heavily.

“You’re going to love it,” he ordered.

Ah youth, in all its shallow poignancy, its passionate inconsequence. A sage said youth is wasted on the young, but who but the young would be so fooled by its specious allure?

“Mind if I take a pencil to this as I go along?” I asked.

“Don’t touch a word.”

I continued reading.

On a cold but starlit night in our metropolis, two young and penniless lovers set out on an adventure. They closed the door against the loft they knew as home, a broad, high-ceilinged room in which sewing machines were once assembled. Along one long wall were windows that looked out upon a desolate sea of flats. The opposite wall was bare. How often they sat on their gray, worn sofa, lithe fingers intertwined, and contemplated that unadorned bulwark. But tonight the galleries were open, and perhaps they would find a painting to transform it!

For hours they trudged through the city’s fashionable streets in search of Truth and Beauty. Some of the art they examined was too small for their room, some of it far too expensive. But what a merry time they had, sipping champagne in plastic glasses and mingling with the glamorous and damned who’d arrived in limousines. Let the rich wear cashmere topcoats and black silk dresses! agreed merry Jenny and merry Brian. In their nubby woolen sweaters they felt just as grand.

“The glamorous and damned?” I wondered.

“The glamorous are always damned,” Eyre explained. “Do you know differently?”

Keeping evidence to the contrary to myself, I read on.

They climbed narrow stairs to a third-floor studio where the laughter was not as loud nor the perfume so sweet. They were, in fact, the only people there. A note on the door said “Take a card,” and the lights had been extinguished. Yet fatefully, they found the door ajar, and cautiously they entered the brooding chamber. Gradually, as their eyes embraced the dark, they discerned a massive oil glowering at them from the far wall. It loomed so vast and fierce that they approached timidly, step by step, as one would a leashed beast. Presently they stopped. Here was no mannered pastiche of pastels and undulations vapidly smirking with pleasure at its momentary preciosity. What they beheld was clear and timeless. It was one artist’s defiant vision of their city, expressed in savagely romantic language they knew instantly as their own. They saw rows of flats gleaming in the night’s street lamps, the peeking neon of a corner tap, a steeple stabbing at russet sky like a picador’s lance working a bleeding bull. Brian and Jenny stood transfixed.

“A man,” he sighed. “A genius.”

“It would just fit our wall,” she whispered.

But they said no more about it. An oil so immense and majestic would surely cost more than they earned in a year, even one painted by an unknown, neglected master. As if leaving a cathedral, they bade farewell to the great work. And that night sleep was slow in coming. Each lay in bed imagining the other happy.

Ah youth, why does it set such store by secrets? For to the great distress of Jenny her sweet Brian began to brood but would not say why. She flirted, she pouted, she insisted on knowing what was what. But Brian merely shrugged and kept his counsel. A week went by and one morning he swung the woolen scarf she’d given him about his neck and went tramping mysteriously out into the yawning jaws of the blizzard that had swallowed their city.

“Some of this could be toned down with no great loss,” I told Eyre.

“I’m a writer,” he said. “I don’t just sprinkle pixie dust.”

Up the same stairs Brian trudged in snow-caked boots. He nervously studied the card in his hand, swung open the door, and stood again at the mighty picture. By day he found it even more commanding, and he understood that no mere city had been rendered here but the tortured family of man at century’s turn. He ripped off his hat and twisted it between his palms, a vassal in liege to awful truth. Then someone spoke.

“It is my legacy,” said the voice. “A lifetime inscribed on canvas.”

Brian turned and faced a sage. He beheld an elderly man, standing straight as a stela, who was humbly, nay shabbily attired, yet whose countenance bristled with gravity. Transfixed by the old man’s stare, Brian felt his person turned inside out and examined like silt for gold. At last he found his tongue. “I am not worthy of your picture,” he spoke, “yet I want nothing more.”

The old man smiled faintly. “A life of incomprehension and disdain has its advantages. One is free to go one’s own way, not to cut deals with the gods of commerce nor to dribble away one’s gifts onto the teaspoons of the cosmopolites. In death I will be understood. That is enough.”

Young Brian frequented coffee shops, read his poetry at slams, and once played Agamemnon nude in a church-basement rendering of the Iliad that was closed by police. A child’s life–he saw that now.

“I understand,” he told the painter.

“I know,” the old man said softly.

“And for your painting I will pay any price,” Brian rushed on. “Somehow, some way, I will find the money.

The old man chuckled. “I would give it to you. But it is spoken for.”

I put down Eyre’s story. “Mind if I say something?” I wondered.

“It’s not necessary,” he said.

“I want to alert you to a possibility. Which is that a critical reader might decide this old man of yours is a preposterous self-indulgence and right about now fling your tale on top of that crackling yule log.”

“That reader would be a fool,” said Eyre. “Continue.”

And so life resumed for Brian, yet shadowed by pretense. That very eve, fair Jenny asked him if he still thought about the painting they had seen together. “Oh, no,” he answered. “It was interesting enough, but it has quite vanished from my mind. What I’m thinking now is that for our wall some tie-dyed drapey thing would be more appropriate.”

“Are you sure you don’t entertain the vagrant hope that, by some Christmas miracle, there it will be…”

“My darling,” said Brian, taking her hands in his. “I don’t believe in miracles. Besides, finding it here I should actually be very disappointed. Like a stray cat, a piece of art deserves a proper home. Our home is not proper–we are callow and unworthy. On our wall that painting would reproach me for my innocence. If it is the dark brutal streets of our city you wish to contemplate, well then, my angel, stick your head out the window and contemplate the dark brutal streets.” He laughed with a sickened harshness he did not feel, and Jenny trembled at his scorn.

“This is interesting,” I told Eyre.

“The story?”

“No. It’s that I just realized you have absolutely no ear for dialogue. No one talks the way they do. No one has ever talked the way they do. If you think anyone talks the way they do you’re nuts.”

“I suppose everyone talks like David Mamet,” he sneered. “Not likely. My language creates an atmosphere, just like Mamet’s. It drives the story on. Keep reading. You’re coming to my shattering conclusion.”

Christmas dawned bright and cold. A snowfall had gentled the silent streets. Wrapped in robes, Brian and Jenny nestled in their sofa and opened each other’s presents. For Jenny, a set of curlers. For Brian, a Rolex she’d bought from a man in the subway for 15 dollars.

Ah youth. How near to contentment, tears. How indistinguishable, bliss and tragedy. For Jenny brightly announced, “I found an old sheet in the back of the closet, and if we buy some string and dyes we could make that our project this afternoon–because I had so hoped that today we would have something to hang on that dreary wall.” And with that she began to weep, and when Brian flung his arms about her she revealed, “I had sworn I’d buy that painting for you, and when you stated your indifference I was shattered. This marvelous old man who painted it had already promised I could have it for whatever I raised, because, he said, I was truly beautiful inside and out, and true beauty is too rare a thing these days. I believed that painting had moved you as deeply as it moved me, and when you told me otherwise I wondered, ‘Who is this man?’ I did. So keep your ersatz Rolex. I am leaving you for good, and if that ancient master can offer but a cot in the corner and a crumb from his table it will be more than enough.”

Her bold words amazed even herself, and she waited with apprehension for Brian’s reply. What came astounded her. It was a stricken cackle from deep in his throat that rose in force and volume until his bellow filled the room. “So it was you he’d promised the painting to! My God, if I’d only known. My indifference was entirely feigned because I understood–or thought I did–that it was useless for us to dream any longer. I’d secretly returned begging for his painting. He liked me, too, but he said the oil was promised. Now I know to whom. You wench, you got to him before me.”

And behaving like children from time immemorial to whom one of life’s great secrets is offered, they flung their clothing from their bodies and vanished into a realm at whose portal modest language must tarry. For on this last Christmas of their innocence they had received the most precious Christmas gift of all, and that gift had been wisdom. They had learned that in the name of love each could readily deceive the other and each could be deceived. Neither was clever enough to find out the other. This opened up possibilities not lost on either, even in their rapture. Next year they’d look for another painting for that wall. Or by then they might be living in the suburbs.

I gave Eyre’s story some thought. “There’s a whiff of cynicism at the end,” I said carefully, “that I’m not sure is exactly suited to the holidays.”

“I tell it like it is,” said Eyre. “If you want O. Henry you can find him in the library.”

“This painter of yours. He’s screwed, isn’t he? He winds up not selling the painting to either one of them. He’s stuck with it.”

“Exactly!” Eyre cried. “In the foreground, the foolish trials of youth. But in the background, which is what gives this story its amazing power, a stoic artist endures yet another galling disappointment. I’m assuming that the careful reader will spot the dichotomy.”

“On the other hand,” I said, “what the careful reader might spot is that the story falls apart. I mean, what’s the big deal? Now that they’re on the same page, why don’t Brian and Jenny just go down to the studio together and get the painting the day after Christmas? Everyone has a chuckle, no harm done.”

“Well…because he’s not there!” Eyre said. “He’s gone. Landlord threw him out. No forwarding address. Brian and Jenny go through life not sure whether the painting ever actually existed. Ghostly emblem of times long past.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said.

Eyre snatched the manuscript from my desk. “Might want to work on this a little longer,” he muttered and stormed out.

“Merry Christmas,” I called after him.