by Lou Gaglia

Joseph Roulin

“Portret van de postbode Joseph Roulin” (detail), oil on canvas, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888.

Gary sat in the back of Professor Washburn’s class and flipped through Joyce’s Dubliners while Washburn lectured in monotone on “Thanatopsis.” Another sixty-seven minutes to go, listening to him drone on about that one poem and its significance, all to be spat back thought for thought at test time.

He put the book down and picked up his Moby Dick test that had been returned with a thirty—Washburn’s “Wake Up!” written boldly in red next to his answer to number two:

What is the significance of the “Lee Shore” chapter?

It’s short.

Underneath Washburn’s “Wake up!” Gary wrote, “How? With you droning on, you old buzzard.”

He was a sophomore English major, ready to switch to Comparative Literature. He liked old Professor Gross, the department head, who taught The Faust Theme in Literature. He let students talk, let them wonder, and he asked questions without putting anyone on the spot. Just asked and waited. He never smiled much, but he was smart. Gary could tell that Gross knew it was better to let Gary listen and think and jot down thoughts, and that he didn’t want to speak in front of others.

Gary liked his art history class, too. Professor Rubin showed paintings on the screen and talked interestingly about color and line and light. The placement of a table cloth. A half hour spent on one face. Gary hung on every word.

He could draw only stick figures well—faces with smiles or angrily slanting eyebrows, and two-legged tables and chairs—but he didn’t have to draw or paint in Rubin’s class. In his papers for Rubin he was allowed to think, to speculate, to have a theory. He didn’t need to wake up for Gross or Rubin.

It was Thursday, and late Friday afternoon he was going to take the train from Stony Brook into the city. His old high school friend Marian, who was going to Columbia, lived off campus and had invited him to a dinner party with the promise that he could stay the night at the apartment of a young married couple who would be at the dinner. The next morning he’d go to MOMA and find a painting to write about.

Washburn was at the board now, and students around Gary busily copied notes, but he turned to Joyce’s “The Boarding House” instead and felt sure that Washburn would shoot him down if he wrote that it was Joyce’s best story.

Marian lived on the West Side in a two and a half room apartment. She hugged him hello and introduced him to everyone—six others including the married couple, Dean and Leah. They were all friendly, even though it seemed to Gary they’d been waiting for him, because dinner was served within minutes.

Marian, living on her own for two years already, almost right out of high school, had made a full course—a salad to start, then Vichyssoise, followed by some kind of chicken with a mix of vegetables and macaroni salad, along with buttered rolls, and wine.

He sat at the head of the table next to Marian and said nothing as he ate and drank and listened. One of them, a young man with black-rimmed glasses and black hair, asked Gary where he studied and what he studied.

“Oh.” Gary wiped his mouth with his napkin. “I’m a sophomore at Stony Brook. Comparative Literature.”

Speaking fast, the man made a joke about existentialism in European literature, and everyone laughed, but Gary just smiled vacantly. He tried to listen to the talk around the table as it continued. When he heard the word “phenomenological,” he stared at Marian, who kneed him in answer.

Dean asked him another question, but Gary could hardly understand what he was saying.

“Excuse me?”

Leah interrupted, asking Gary what he’d been reading in Comparative Literature classes.

“Oh, it’s just one class this semester. We study Faust.” He gulped down some wine. “The Faust Theme … in Literature.” He felt his face redden. “It’s a good class.”

She wanted to know what he thought of the Faust theme.

He paused for a while, drinking again, and Marian kicked him under the table. He didn’t look over or say “ouch.”

“Well, I think Faust himself was a fool—anyone’s a fool who would make a deal with the devil. It’s almost like all those idiots in Moby Dick who stuck around even after they knew Ahab was a nut. They deserved what happened. I don’t know, maybe there’s a connection.”

They were quiet, and he took a bite out of his chicken, thinking it was over, but the one with the black glasses wanted to know then why our society blah blah blah blah, and if that’s so then why blah blah-blah-blah blah? Gary felt the blood rush to his head. He tried to kick Marian’s leg but only ticked the chair, and she made a joke in French and they all laughed.

They didn’t ask him any more questions, and he didn’t say anything else except “Pass the wine, please,” a couple of times. He watched them and tried to follow the conversation. They were all so very nice, with such great minds, and he was all so very stupid. He saw the tender sadness written on Marian’s face when he dropped a piece of chicken onto his lap and grinned as he picked it up with his fingers and put it back on his dish.

He woke alone in the living room arm chair and heard water running in the bathroom. In a little while the water stopped and Marian came out carrying an armful of sheets and a pillow.

“You can stay here tonight. We didn’t want to wake you.”

“I can’t believe I slept. All I heard was a buzz of voices and then I was out.”

“Buzz is right.”

“What happened to Bill and Stephanie?”

“Dean and Leah. They went home. This couch is very comfortable. My mother slept on it for a week.”

“It’s all right?”

“Of course it’s all right.”

He helped her spread the sheets and took up the pillow. “My head,” he said, covering his eyes with a hand.

“Sulfites,” she said.

“Gesundheit.”

On the couch under the covers, he listened to her move around behind the curtain in her cramped sleeping area next to the kitchen.

“Those people were very nice,” he said to the ceiling.

She paused before answering from behind the curtain. “They thought you were very nice, too.”

“No, they thought I was stupid.”

“You’re not stupid. They liked you.”

“I liked them, but I can’t even hold a conversation.”

“No, you can’t hold your wine. Go to sleep.”

He faced the wall and closed his eyes.

“Are we still getting married when we’re thirty if we’re both not married by then?” he asked.

“Of course. That’s a date. Go to sleep.”

In the morning he went out early for bagels, and Marian made coffee. When he left for the museum, she gave him a long strong hug outside the elevator door.

Before he even paid at MOMA, he opened his notebook when he spotted Rodin’s Balzac in the courtyard. But he thought better of it and took the escalator, having already planned to catalog the Impressionists and write about a Van Gogh or a Matisse or a Cezanne.

He breezed through many rooms, stopping to take notes on paintings by Seurat, Degas, and Renoir. Then he reached the Cezanne section where he looked for a long time at a painting of apples and pears tumbling out of a bowl onto a tablecloth.

Nearby stood a girl behind an easel, in front of a Cezanne countryside scene. She was halfway through copying it, and seemed unperturbed by those who stood behind her watching. He paused behind her, gazing at her solemn face and then at her painting.

He wanted to talk to her, tell her how beautiful the painting was, how talented she was, but she was intent on what she was doing, and there were too many people around. He wondered if she would answer him at all, especially since he had no idea how to do what she was doing.

When he reached the Van Gogh section, he was struck immediately by the painting to the left. It was Portrait of Joseph Roulin. He read its description on the plate, then stepped back to look.

No one else was around looking at the postman Joseph Roulin, so Gary sat and opened his notebook without yet taking the pen from his pocket.

Joseph’s gray and white beard swirled, and his eyes were blue and friendly. Gary could not pull his gaze from the eyes. He imagined those eyes darting over to him as he came up the road toward his house…

“How are you, my friend?” Joseph beamed.

Joseph talked with Gary amiably in front of his house, telling him all about his village and the life there. He was on his way home for lunch, he said, and asked Gary if he’d like to join him and meet his wife and his daughter.

“My daughter is around your age,” Joseph informed Gary, elbowing him gently.

“Oh?”

“She paints. Do you paint?”

“No, but I’d like to.”

“Maybe she’ll teach you,” Joseph laughed. “And she wants to get married too, before she’s thirty. She’s probably ready to get married right this minute.”

“Interesting.”

A man walked along the side of the road, talking loudly to himself. Gary looked alarmed.

“That’s Washburn, the village idiot,” Joseph said sadly. “Used to teach at the university, but all he does now is rant about a whale man.”

“That’s too bad.”

“A lot of blather about nothing. Come inside.”

Joseph’s wife was short, plump, and friendly, and she was happy to meet Gary. Joseph’s daughter was the same girl who was painting the Cezanne in the other room.

At lunch they talked a little about the food and then about music. Gary asked them if they’d ever heard the Andante in Brahms’ Sextet No. 1. “It’s been in my head all morning,” he said.

“I love that piece!” Joseph exclaimed, pointing with his fork.

“It’s all turmoil and strife until about the fifth minute,” Gary, said, “and then it’s the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard.”

“Well, that’s life, too, sometimes,” Joseph answered.

Gary smiled at the daughter, who looked down at her food.

Lunch was over quickly and Gary found himself outside with the girl, overlooking a valley. He noticed how a curl of her brown hair was tucked behind her ear.

“I saw you painting in the museum,” he said to her. “Do you think of yourself as an artist?”

“I’m no artist,” she said.

“I think you are. I’m not that smart, but I can tell what’s beautiful.”

“All right, tell me what’s beautiful then.”

“Maybe I can’t after all, because if I were to really talk to you, I mean go back into that room and really try to talk to you now, I wouldn’t be able to say a word, or I’d stutter a bunch of gibberish. It would be pathetic. I couldn’t tell you what’s beautiful in a million years.”

“Well, stop trying.”

“Maybe I can paint and play music every day, even though I don’t know how to do either. When I go back in there, I’ll probably just pass you by without a word.”

“Probably. So just stay here then.” They walked back toward Joseph’s house.

“I think I know what to write about now,” he said uncertainly, taking out his pen. “Maybe how Van Gogh’s own turmoil and strife led him to create beauty. I’ll write it and see what Rubin thinks.”

“Who’s Rubin?”

At dinner her mother served stew with corn bread. Gary sipped at a small dixie cup of wine, and they all talked quietly. Joseph’s eyes shone as he told stories about his day.

Later pie was served with coffee, and Gary smiled warmly into their faces, listening to the quiet of the evening and the music in their voices…

He walked slowly through many rooms, looking at paintings only in passing now, and circled at last back into the room where the girl was painting the Cezanne. He stood, arms folded, watching her slow progress.

You’re really very good at that. Where did you get such talent?

Get lost, creep! And leave me out of your daydreams.

He moved closer to get a better look at Cezanne’s painting and at hers.

“They really do look alike—”

Take a hike, crumb bum.

He smiled a little sadly to himself, glancing at her painting and at the brown hair tucked around her ear.

He headed uptown along Fifth Avenue instead of back toward Penn Station, not seeing the hundreds who passed him.

You see, there really was nothing beautiful or timeless or special about her, the black-framed intellectual from Marian’s party said to him in his mind. A cluster of startled pigeons flew wildly before him. We’re no more than what we can sense. And beauty means nothing either, her beauty or a painting’s, because it dies with us. We don’t carry on into other realms like the—

Oh, shut the hell up, four eyes!

He stopped at a vendor’s for a pretzel, and methodically brushed the away the salt. He felt the stone pavement beneath his feet and froze the moment in his mind. The girl’s face. Her brown hair. Her painting. Her whole past and future. Marian’s friendship. The faces that passed him,the warm sun. The Portrait of Joseph Roulin. And the mother rolling the three-baby stroller directly at him. He froze each image and burned it into his mind. An entire past and future of moments, with the present flowing by and impossible to grasp.

Is that what beauty is, Professor Rubin? Is it? Longing backward and urging forward, and trying desperately to pay attention to the now? Can I write about this, even if I’m wrong?

Gary turned and walked back down Fifth Avenue, finishing the last bites of his pretzel. He looked into Central Park, his eyes following a tarred sidewalk that wound up a hill. And all the way back to Penn Station he still tasted the pretzel salt even though he thought he’d wiped it all away.

Ω
Lou Gaglia’s Poor Advice won the 2015 New Apple Literary Award for short fiction. His stories have appeared recently in Halfway Down the Stairs, Thrice Fiction Magazine, Drunk Monkeys, and Menda City Review. He is a long-time teacher and T’ai Chi Ch’uan practitioner—first in New York City and now in upstate New York. Visit him at lougaglia.com