When they went to clean out the dead man’s room, one could see their noses wrinkle from the smell of his cigar years. There was sweeping and wall washing to be done, but the first thing was to get that stuck window open. Brother John was dispatched to the hardware for a crowbar. Their old man had really been a slob. Floors, furniture, and nearly all other surfaces were rimed over with a thin coating of smoke-embedded grease, and the tile floor was cracked and puckered.
A fold-up easel leaned against the wall by a closet door, and a battered metal case stood beside it. Since his retirement at age 60, Henry and his loosely-knit family had fallen away from one another. When it became clear that all he wanted to do was smoke and paint, mother had cut her losses and ran. Henry took this dim little room above a second-hand store. He had enough money to provide each of them with a meagre living and to buy himself unhealthy food and have it brought to him.
And he painted. Once a month, in summers, he would slide some of his canvasses into the back of his Ford pickup, and set up shop in the pothole parking lot of a small plaza. His stuff was different, oddly pleasing, and a cut above what you would find at Woolworth’s or Kresge’s. John and Sheila had seen his work, and thought it strange but mediocre.
This night, as they aired the place out and began scrubbing, Henry’s landlord came to the door to see how things were progressing. Sheila asked him if he knew of a key that their father might have kept for the lock on his closet door. “No, and that will need fixing too, once you get it off. And no, I don’t have no bolt cutters.” John nodded, and made another trip to the hardware store.
The deed was done, and the door creaked open with a musty smell. Dad’s old football jacket, a beanie, some mitts, and a pair of snow boots. A half dozen shirts that looked as if each might have been devoted to a day of the week, and one worn twice on weekends. And, on the floor in the darkest corner, some rectangular bundles wrapped in towels and tied with twine.
The two kids, having no tools of their own, used the bolt cutters on the heavy string. When they unfolded the towels, they found Henry’s treasures. Three paintings as real as photographs. The first depicted a man’s shirted shoulder, and his hairy arm with a rolled up sleeve. A leather belt dangled from his fist. In the background was a blurred shadow. A small figure cowering on the floor with its hands protecting its head. The second, in stark relief, was of the man’s fist, held up in a threatening manner. A gold signet ring leered back at the viewer. John and Sheila knew that ring.
The last was a portrait of a boy, barely into his teens. His bruised face and contorted mouth told all that was needed. The boy was Henry. Besides his cuts and bruises, he had one other thing to remember his father by.
Photo by Brett Hurd.