“You’re looking for a painter? Beret and easel? How come?” Maggie asked, helping her grandmother bring in the groceries.
“Your baby sister’s birthday is coming up, and since this is her first apartment, I figured it would be a nice touch,” Maggie’s grandmother, Arleen, responded as she held open the door with her foot for Maggie.
“Nana. It’s going to be a den of drinking and debauchery. I don’t think a still life over the mantel is really going to bring the place together.”
“I know what you think of your sister, and despite trying to hide it, I know you’re proud. No, don’t put the bags on the floor please. I haven’t mopped, and we just bought those bags. On the table, love.” Maggie’s grandmother pointed to the kitchen table. “It’s her first apartment, and I know college apartments are never the best or the cleanest, but she could make it into a nice place. And yes,” she said, shooting her granddaughter a look, “I realize it will collect pot smoke- oh, wipe that look off your face. I was young once, you know! But, she might appreciate a painting.”
Maggie shook her head, opening the fridge door. “You’re full of surprises, you know that?”
Arleen smiled as she replied, “You’re obviously a little put out I didn’t tell you about my college days.”
“Sure,” Maggie responded as she put the milk on the middle shelf. God forbid she put it on the door shelf again. “But only because that would have made me feel less guilty about slacking off.”
“And risk you failing a semester?” Arleen asked, collecting the reusable cloth bags and hanging them on the pantry door. “Not a chance. You liked school too much to fail. Besides, I don’t think your father would have appreciated you following in his footsteps that closely,” she said it with a small, sad smile.
“Wait. Dad failed a semester?” Maggie asked as she sat down at the kitchen table.
“That’s how he met your mother,” Arleen responded, filling two glasses with water from the tap. Joining Maggie at the table, she passed across a glass of water.
“Would any of your friends know someone who can help me find a painter?” Arleen asked.
“Why not just buy a painting?” Maggie asked, taking a sip of water. “Go browse a couple of galleries, see if you like anything.”
“Buy something pre-made?”
“Nana, it’s not ‘pre-made.’ It’s-” Maggie cut herself off, laughing and shaking her head. Trying again, Maggie spoke slower to keep herself from laughing, “Nana. It’s not pre-made. Someone was inspired to paint something, and the idea is that someone will come along, connect with the inspiration, and purchase the painting.”
“Well, that just sounds like pre-made. I want something specifically for Samantha.” Arleen sipped her water. Her voice made it clear she didn’t expect argument.
“Why would I know any artists, anyway? Why not ask Samantha? She’s the artsy one with artsy friends.” Maggie changed the subject, deciding the argument wasn’t one worth having.
“Because her ‘artsy’ friends might tell her. Not a great surprise, is it?” Arleen asked rhetorically.
Maggie laughed again, only less exasperated this time. “I’ll ask around. But don’t hold your breath,” she said, standing up from the table. “I’ve got to run, need anything else before I go?”
“You’re always running,” Arleen chided and stood up as well, clearing the now empty glasses from the table. “Can’t be good for you. Give your boys a kiss on the cheek from me. I know they don’t like it when I do it.”
Maggie shrugged, walking out of the room. “They’re growing up. They don’t like anyone touching them, anymore. Love you,” she called out before walking through the front door, closing it behind her.
Arleen walked into the living room and sat down heavily on the couch. She stared at a painting of a man across the room from her. “You know what nobody ever told me about getting older?” She spoke into the empty room. “Everything hurts. Everything hurts, and everything starts to fade.”
The painting gave no response. Arleen didn’t expect one, but she found comfort in listening for it, just in case.
“A work friend of mine knows of an artist. She intended to hire him last year, but she broke up with her boyfriend, so there was no need to commission a painting.” A week had passed since they last talked, and Maggie was back in the kitchen, putting away last night’s leftovers that she had brought over.
“What’d you bring?”
“Half a chicken, some of the salad. And before you ask, of course I didn’t put the dressing on it already.”
“Why did you bring me so much food? I’m seventy-six. You think I eat as much as your two boys? Just leave me a leg. And I appreciate you leaving off the dressing. Where do I find this painter?”
Maggie closed the fridge door. “I’ll write down his address later. Should I leave it on the fridge?”
“Please. Now, come sit down,” Arleen requested gently as she led the way into the living room.
Maggie followed her in and sat down cross-legged on the floor.
“Why do you sit like that? It hurts to look at,” Arleen asked, sitting on the couch.
“It’s good for posture. You should be doing this too, you know. You’re not that old, and yet, you act like you have one foot in the grave,” Maggie straightened her back, breathing deeply. “Maybe you should try yoga? I could bring you to one of my classes.”
“What makes you think I want to be healthy? I’m too old for yoga, anyhow,” Arleen said as she leaned back.
“You do realize that some of the most famous yogis are well into their eighties?”
“That’s good for them, dear. I think I’ll stick to the couch. Now, this painter?”
“From what I’ve heard, he usually does cloudscapes and skyscapes. And since Sam likes clouds so much…”
“See? You do love her.” Arleen smiled.
“Only when no one is looking,” Maggie joked back. “He lives just outside downtown, in the area with all the old converted industrial buildings. Need me to come with you?”
“I appreciate the offer, but I could probably manage to find him alone. I used to spend time over there, when I was younger, but…” Arleen’s voice trailed off as she smiled. “Well, those were different times.”
“Don’t you have somewhere to run off to?” Arleen asked, looking back up at Maggie.
“Sure, but I figured I could sit with you. Any time you talk about the past you always get… quiet.” Maggie finished weakly.
“When you get to my age, and trust me, it happens sooner than you think, you start to remember the past more and more often.”
“Then you should do stuff, go places. Make new memories.” Maggie stood up and walked over to the couch. “Scootch.” She shooed Arleen over.
“Why?” Arleen didn’t ask with any malice, only fatigue.
“To meet people. To have new experiences. To journey far and wide! You never know, your greatest adventure could still be ahead of you.” Maggie threw her hand out, gesturing towards the sky.
“I’ve had plenty of adventures, in plenty of places. I don’t mean to be negative, but I doubt there’s some great adventure waiting for me to embark on it.”
“But it could be good for you! I mean, when was the last time you left? And I don’t mean going over to Gainesville again for a funeral. Properly traveling. What about Europe? Have you ever been there?”
“You think I haven’t?” Arleen asked, shifting in her seat to turn and look at Maggie.
“I mean,” Maggie said, trying again. “You were born here. And you’re still here.” Maggie cringed. “Sorry, Nana. That came out way worse than it sounded in my head.”
Arleen laughed gently, stroking Maggie’s hair.
“When I was your sister’s age, or thereabouts, do you know where I was?” Arleen asked, tucking Maggie’s hair behind her ear.
Maggie raised her eyebrow.
“I was on a train, halfway between Istanbul and Venice. Sleeping in a seat next to three people I had just met. I traveled, and I walked, and I sailed, around the world. I know that might not seem like much these days, but in the sixties, it was nearly unheard of. A woman traveling alone? This was pre-Hippie. Pre-everything. But I wanted to see everything. And I think I got pretty damn close.”
For the first time in her life, Maggie heard her grandmother swear. It was as if the woman sitting across from her wasn’t the old lady who shopped in the Manager’s Special section of the grocery store, or someone who brought her custom crocheting hook to a doctor’s appointment. She was a stranger.
“Then why do you look so sad when you think about it?” Maggie finally spoke.
“When I came back, I realized one thing.” Arleen held up a finger.
“What’s that?” Maggie titled her head.
“It doesn’t matter if you see the most beautiful things, or the most magical things, if you have no one to see it with,” Arleen paused. “Beauty and splendor are nothing if no one understands what you saw and the way you saw it. No one could understand. No one shared that moment. And after a while, people start having trouble connecting with you. They can see you trying to share experiences with them, but it just doesn’t click. Or worse, it looks like you’re just boasting.
“When I first met your grandfather, we were in Naples, and this is the Naples of almost fifty years ago. Imagine that! Me, in Naples, fifty years ago! We talked and walked for hours. I followed him into nearly every gelateria and sfogliatellaria in the entire city. We talked, and talked, and just kept talking. We talked about where we’d been, who we’d met, the things we ate, and the oceans we swam in. It was past midnight when he dropped me off at my hotel. More of a pensione, really. We were desperate for someone to understand,” Arleen smiled across the room. “And we finally found someone who understood.”
“Look at who I am, now.” Arleen looked at Maggie, whose eyes were beginning to glisten. “Who could I share experiences with now? You and your sister have your own lives, your own adventures ahead of you. No.” Arleen shook her head. “It would only make me feel more disconnected.”
“I’m sorry, Nana,” Maggie said. There was nothing else to say, no way of fixing it.
“That’s alright. Now give your Nana a kiss on the cheek and go run off somewhere.”
Maggie leaned over and kissed her cheek gently before standing up and walking into the kitchen. After a second of rummaging, Maggie found a notepad.
“Name and address of the painter is on the fridge, chicken and salad is in the fridge,” Maggie half-shouted from the kitchen. “Dressing is on the counter, I know how much you hate it when the oil solidifies.”
“Thank you, dear. I’ll see you this week?” Arleen asked standing up and walking Maggie to the door.
“Probably. Love you,” Maggie said, hugging her grandmother.
“Love you too, drive safe.” Arleen closed the door after Maggie pulled out of the driveway.
Arleen walked back into the living room, staring at the painting. “I still can’t believe you went to Dakar,” she said to the empty room. “Without me,” Arleen added with a smile.
The painting of the man didn’t move, but Arleen thought she caught a smile on the man’s lips.
The next morning, after mowing the lawn, pulling weeds, spreading pine straw under the azaleas, and watering the tulips that weren’t growing as well as she’d hoped, Arleen took a look at the address and name on the note that had been stuck to the fridge.
As Maggie had informed her, the address was for the strip of old converted industrial buildings.
After showering, Arleen drove downtown, to a part of town she rarely found herself in these days. Pulling up and parking in front of an old building, all she could see was rusted-over corrugated sheet metal and concrete. It didn’t look like anyone had gotten around to renovating this building yet.
A doorway with two massive sliding metal doors stood closed in front of her, with the numbers in faded yellow paint above the threshold.
Arleen knocked loudly three times. She knocked again after a minute had passed. This time, she heard footsteps approaching.
“Yes?” A young man, with his hair pulled back in a ponytail, slid open the door.
“Mr. Ward?” Arleen asked.
“Call me Isaac,” The man offered, sticking out his hand. Arleen shook it.
“Isaac, then. I heard you were a painter who was currently open to commissions?”
“I am!” The man called Isaac broke into a large smile. “Come in.” He turned and led the way inside. Isaac waited until Arleen had entered before sliding the door back into place.
The building was split into two floors. The bottom was spacious, covered in dried paint, with a few eclectic bits of furniture strewn about. In the center of the studio space sat a large painting across two easels. A massive skyscape of billowing clouds winding their way through mountains.
“It’s beautiful,” Arleen said, gesturing at the painting.
“Thanks. It’s just the sketch. The finished piece will be far more grand.”
It didn’t seem possible that the perfect looking painting was only a sketch, but Arleen didn’t respond. She looked up towards the loft, and assumed it was the living area.
“Coffee?” Isaac asked, leading her over to two chairs and a small circular table in the corner of the room, where one cup already sat.
“No, thank you, I’m fine.”
Isaac nodded, then gestured for Arleen to sit, before sitting himself. “So, what would you like created?”
“It’s for my granddaughter, actually. I thought it would be nice. It’s her first apartment.”
“The one we remember forever!” Isaac exclaimed. Taking a sip of coffee, he asked, “What do you think she’d want? Do you have a couple of ideas of what she’s into?”
Arleen nodded. “Well, she likes clouds. Always pointed them out when she was younger. So maybe something with clouds? Or just clouds? I’m sorry; I don’t do this type of thing often. I’m not really sure what I want. I have this idea in my head, but- pfft.” Arleen made a little motion with her hands, showing her idea fizzling out.
“That’s okay!” Isaac exclaimed just as energetically as before. Reaching over and placing a hand on Arleen’s shoulder, he squeezed gently. “The reason people come to me is because they have an idea, and they need it visualized. That’s what I do. I visualize.” Isaac made it sound like the simplest thing in the world.
“Okay, I can help with that.” Arleen smiled.
Isaac nodded once, then leaned back in his chair. “Clouds, yes?”
“What kind? Stormy? Golden? Thinning? The kind that are high in the sky, or scraping the ground?” Isaac rattled off options, lifting a finger every time he introduced a new option.
Arleen thought for a moment. “Have you ever traveled?”
“Sure, here and there.” Isaac nodded.
“There’re types of clouds you can only find on a distant beach, or high up on the side of a mountain. You can see them reflected in canals and watch as they sail across the sky from a park. The kinds of clouds that make you want to be alive. Do things. Inspire people. I want you to paint clouds that make her feel great,” Arleen said.
“A sunset, then. Some of the most beautiful clouds we will ever see happen when the sun falls,” Isaac whispered like it was a secret.
“Then I want that.” Arleen nodded once, making up her mind.
“That is what you shall have.” Isaac echoed her nod. “How big would you like it?”
“I’m not sure what’s normal. Think ‘first apartment’ so nothing too big. But nothing too small, either!”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Isaac responded, laughing with her.
“I suppose I should have asked earlier,” Arleen said, changing the subject. “How much do you charge?”
Isaac quoted her a figure lower than she thought it would be. “And I usually ask for a half up front, and a half on delivery.”
“Which will be when?” Arleen asked.
“Is there a specific day you need it by?”
“My granddaughter comes to town in two weeks. Would it be possible to have it done by then?”
Isaac thought for a second, staring at the ‘sketch’ of the clouds and mountains in the middle of the room. “I think, if I move some things around, I can do that.”
Arleen nodded, pulling out her checkbook from her purse. Adding her phone number to the top, Arleen told Isaac to call her twice, since she just got a smartphone, and still wasn’t sure how to answer it.
“And here’s mine,” Isaac said, texting the number he was given. “Once you get that text, you’ll have my number.”
With a handshake, Arleen left the loft, imagining the process that would unfold.
Just over two weeks later, Arleen stood inside the airport, near the arrivals, holding a sign that said, “Welcome Home.” Samantha laughed as she saw the sign, and hugged her grandmother.
“How was the flight?” Arleen asked, as they climbed into the car.
“Oh, Nana. It was beautiful. You should have seen some of the things I saw. I saw these clouds that reached into the air, like hands, pulling themselves up. The guy next to me said he used to sell meat, door to door. Told me how horrible it was, trying to trick people into buying meat. The cookies were better this time around. They had the cinnamon kind.” The words tumbled from Samantha’s mouth, not allowing Arleen any time to answer.
Samantha kept on talking, moving from the flight, to her classes.
“And the professor asked me to help him. Me! Can you believe it? What’s that sound? Do you have phone, Nana?” Samantha paused, letting Arleen respond.
“Maggie bought it for me. Said something about being in a car accident with no one to call. Do you think she knows we had car accidents before cell phones? Can you answer it for me? I always mess it up.”
“There’re only two options, Nana. Green and red.” Samantha tapped the green phone symbol, handing the phone over to Arleen, who held it to her ear.
“It’s ready!” The voice on the other end of the line sounded energetic.
“Pardon? I can’t hear you on this thing,” Arleen apologized.
“This is Isaac. The artist from a few weeks ago? We talked about clouds for your granddaughter?” Arleen recognized the voice the second time around.
“Oh, yes! Is it done?”
“Great, should I come to- ” Arleen looked over at Samantha, who was busy staring out the window “-where I met you the first time?”
“Actually, I’m down on River Street, if you’d like to meet me here,” Isaac offered.
“Why down there?” Arleen asked him, trying to keep the car in a straight line.
“The evening light. My studio doesn’t have this kind of light.”
Arleen shrugged. “I just picked up my granddaughter, can I come by afterwards?”
“You should bring her! I think she’d appreciate it more. She’s only going to get one chance to see it this way.” Isaac replied, and Arleen heard something—maybe a smile, in his voice.
Arleen nodded, and then remembered Isaac couldn’t see her. “Okay, I can be there in ten minutes. Where on the river?”
“East, past City Hall. I’ll find you from there.” With that, Isaac hung up the phone.
“What do you- Hello?” Arleen looked down at her phone. “Huh. He just hung up without saying goodbye. Who does that?”
“Movie characters? Who was it? It sounded like a weird conversation from my end,” Samantha prodded.
“Just someone I met recently. Wants to meet us on River Street. Are you okay with that, or do you need to rest first?”
“A mysterious meet-up downtown on River Street? How could I say no? Besides, I napped on the plane.”
Shaking her head, Arleen laughed, then took the highway exit for the downtown area.
They parked in front of one of the many hotels on the bluff overlooking the river. Together they walked over to the railing that kept them safe from falling and stared at the river, looking down at the boats, before descending a flight of stairs nestled tightly between two stone buildings. As they climbed down, Samantha stopped and pointed. Before them, a massive container ship with sides painted deep blue, glided slowly down the river.
“This is the best time of day. Always has the biggest ships. It’s like they wait for evening. Where do you think that one is from? It looks like Re- Rey something.” Samantha squinted.
“Reykjavik?” Arleen guessed, trying to find the easiest way down the steep steps.
“It looks like it, yeah!” Samantha exclaimed, jumping down the last two steps. “How’d you know?” she asked.
“Wisdom,” Arleen joked. “You’ll get it one day.”
Strolling down the bricked boardwalk, Samantha continued her storytelling while Arleen searched for the familiar figure of Isaac. Beside them, ships large and small sailed into port. A strong wind blew up from the ocean, bringing the smell of salt, fish, brackish water, and sun-warmed marsh. Samantha sighed, leaning against the rail separating her from the river. “I missed that smell.”
Arleen smiled back, still looking for Isaac.
After fifteen minutes, Arleen gave up and sat down on one of the benches, looking across the river to the green of trees and bulrush on the other side. Tourists with maps in hand strolled past, looking for the next watering hole, or a rooftop patio to enjoy dinner.
A man joined them, taking up the small space available next to Arleen. Looking over, Arleen met the young painter’s eye.
“Isaac!” She nearly shouted, happy to not have been dragged down here for nothing. Isaac grinned.
“Nice to meet you,” Isaac reached across Arleen and offered Samantha an outstretched hand.
“Hi. Who are you?” Samantha shook the offered hand.
“An artist,” he answered.
“What? Really? Nana, is this the person you were talking to on the phone? Is this a date? Did you set us up on a date? That’s crafty,” she gave Arleen a look of mock suspicion. “You better not go walking away.”
“Nothing like that!” Isaac reassured her at the same time Arleen said “No, dear, of course not.”
“Then what’s going on?”
Arleen looked at Isaac, who took the reins. “Your grandmother came to me, wanting to give you a gift. She asked me to paint you something.”
“Clouds, specifically,” Arleen added.
“Aw, Grandma. You shouldn’t have! You know I get anxious when someone spends money on me,” Samantha said, giving Arleen an awkward sitting hug.
“So, where is it?” Arleen asked, looking around at the obvious painting-less Isaac.
Isaac leaned over the edge of the bench and grabbed a cardboard box, roughly the length of the bench. It was only wide enough and deep enough to hold a painting if the painting were rolled, tightly, and slid inside.
“Your grandmother asked me for many things,” Isaac said, standing up with the box. “She wanted clouds, yes,” he said, opening one end of the box. “But more than that, she wanted you to feel empowered. Courageous. Inspired.” Isaac slowly slid the rolled up painting out of the box and set it down, still rolled, on the bricked boardwalk.
Isaac looked down at the watch on his hand. “In essence, she wanted me to give you the feeling of greatness.”
Isaac took a step back, and said, “Five seconds.”
“Now.” Isaac pointed up at the sky.
The sun dipped lower and dying light flashed across the sky. Massive white clouds, broad and graceful, now hung in the sky with golden hues in their billowing folds. In front of them, smaller clouds of violet and blue made steady headway to the West. Beyond that, the sky was a perfect orange, broken only by spindly tendrils of red clouds and yellow light. It was the kind of sunset that filled them up with a yearning for a time that neither of the two women had ever known.
The thin veil that divided realms dropped away, and the Universe beneath it shone through. It was magic. The kind of magic that created life, that gave us sunsets, oceans smashing against cliffs, and rainy days in the forest.
Isaac leaned forward, and with a flick of his wrist, unrolled the painting across the boardwalk.
Arleen and Samantha stared at the painting. They stared at massive white clouds, broad and graceful, now hung with golden hues in its billowing folds. At smaller clouds of violet and blue. At an unbroken orange sky and tendrils of red clouds. The painting was moving, slowly. The built up layers of oil paint shifted as the sky drifted.
“What better way to give you this painting, then to also give you the sunset itself?” Isaac asked, sitting back down next to Samantha.
For the first time she could remember, Samantha was lost for words, and sat silently, staring up at the sky as tears slid down her cheeks.
“I don’t… I don’t understand,” Arleen whispered. She tried to turn to Isaac, but she couldn’t look away. She could feel Isaac also staring up.
“Do you like it?” he whispered back.
Neither Arleen nor Samantha responded.
“I’m just happy to have someone to share it with,” Isaac sighed, a small smile forming around his lips.
They sat as pale yellow clouds darkened to orange and purple splashes seeped into the perfect orange sky. They sat until the sun set, teasing the clouds west, until only the soft grey wisps of night were left.
The painting before them, still unrolled on the ground, seemed to emit the early light of the sunset. The soft glow of reds and yellows rose from the painting as the clouds still danced across the canvas. A slice of time from the beginning of the sunset.
“And it’s mine?” Samantha asked.
“Completely,” Isaac said. “Would you like to help me roll it up?”
Samantha bent down to the painting with Isaac, and together they rolled the painting into a tight tube, trapping the light inside.
Isaac slid the rolled up painting back into the cardboard box and handed it to Samantha. “If it’s all the same to you, it’s best to leave it un-stretched. The clouds like loose canvas.”
“Right. Of course,” Samantha said, smiling. “Thank you.”
“And this is for you,” Arleen said, handing Isaac the rest of the amount owed.
“Thank you,” Isaac said, tucking the check away in his breast pocket. “There used to be a time where I didn’t charge. But times change, and food and rent is expensive.” Isaac gave a little shrug.
Reaching out a hand, Isaac shook Arleen’s then Samantha’s hand. “If you ever need me, just call,” he said, turning around.
“Who are you?” Samantha called out to him.
Isaac turned and thought for a second. “I don’t know, anymore.” With that, he walked away.
Samantha clung to the boxed painting, as if it would disappear as soon as Isaac left. But it didn’t. She and Arleen walked in silence back to the car and got in.
“I can’t believe….” Samantha said, unable to finish.
“Me either. I have seen many things.” Arleen laughed. It was a small laugh, an incredulous laugh. “But never that.”
When Samantha arrived back to her new apartment, she hung the painting in the middle of the living room wall. (The house was devoid of both a mantel and a fireplace.) At her housewarming party, a few people commented on it. Is it moving? Is the orange light coming from it? And some of the other partygoers were quick to ridicule them. Of course it’s not moving. Just a trick of the light. And that’s clearly painting with some kind of iridescent or bioluminescent paint. Don’t be silly.
And so the years went by, and Samantha took the painting with her from apartment to apartment, always putting it on the wall before unpacking any boxes. One day, she met someone. Someone who came back to her apartment and saw the painting for what it was. A testament to impossibility.
From then on, their lives went forward together.
When their kids grew up, Samantha would find them up, past their bedtime, sitting on the couch in front of the painting. So Samantha would turn out the lights and snuggle with them, curling her kids into her arms. She would tell them the story of the painting, of her grandmother, and of Isaac. And they would sit in the light of the infinite sunset until the children fell asleep, dreaming of places they’d never been and people they’d never met.