S H O R T S T O R Y
THE FIRST, LAST AND ONLY
PAINTING OF PABLO CASO
b y b r u c e t a y l o r ~ s e a t t l e , w a s h i n g t o n
THIS IS the story of Pablo Caso -- a strange story about his ambition, his accomplishment and his disappearance.
Pablo was born in Southern California to parents who had grown extraordinarily wealthy as grape growers and wine producers. And nothing, nothing was too good for little Pablo. He got the finest education and, very early, he showed a profound interest in art. Parents, friends and teachers were overjoyed: the depth of his interest was certainly a measure of immense talent. Yes, yes another Picasso in the making here (a teacher once said that Pablo even looked a little like Picasso but another teacher said, "No, I think he looks a bit more like a happy Van Gogh.") and Mr. and Mrs. Caso began saying, "Pablo! How nice to see you so interested in art. Would you like to try painting? Canvas for your birthday? Paints? Here is one hundred dollars, Pablo, why don't we go down to the art store and you can buy whatever you wish. If you need more, there is two thousand dollars for you, whenever you want it, at the bank."
But Pablo said, "No, but thank you. For now, I just wish to study." At first, everyone was disappointed, but then the realization: of course! Don't pressure Pablo into painting! If he wants to study the great masters, then that is the way to motivate and encourage; bring the great masters to him or take him to the masters.
And so, Pablo, accompanied by his parents and often his close friend, Mickey, who was bright, big and diligent, went to museums everywhere. Pablo met and talked to artists. At every new gallery opening, or art show, there was Pablo.
By age seventeen, there was little that Pablo did not know about art. In his bedroom, bookshelves sagged under the weight of art books. Artists stopped by to see if Pablo had begun to do anything with the talent that simply had to be present, but needed, you know, a little push -- talent and interest -- they must be nurtured, encouraged, not demanded or controlled; no unreal expectations should be set. But still, Pablo did not paint.
Mickey (who was trying his hand at art and doing very well, much to the chagrin of Pablo's parents and teachers) said to Pablo one August afternoon, "Hey, hey, Pablo, old friend, are you ever gonna paint?"
Pablo did not answer. He stood looking out the French windows that opened out to a balcony. The late afternoon sunlight flooded in; Pablo was a silhouette in the light. Mickey sat in a chair on the other side of Pablo's bedroom. As Mickey waited for Pablo to reply he looked around, vaguely wishing that he could be as neat as Pablo (he always wore good clothes, kept his bed made, his room clean although, oddly, he never did anything about the sagging bookshelves).
Finally, Mickey looked back to Pablo who continued to stand in the sunlight, hands behind his back. Mickey sighed. "We've known each other since we were five years old. Since you turned eight, you've immersed yourself in art. Nine years you've been visiting galleries, reading, talking to artists. Are you ever going to paint? Or is it just a nine-year hobby that you've enjoyed but are not going to do anything with?"
More silence. Then Pablo turned and, though he faced Mickey, Mickey could only see an outline of him. At last Pablo said, "You know why I don't paint? I don't have to. If I were to paint, my work would far, far outshine Picasso, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Van Gogh. I don't have to justify my existence by painting. I don't have to paint to prove I'm an artist. I'm not that insecure that I have to produce."
Incredulous, Mickey stared. Regaining his composure, he leaned forward. " -- ah -- maybe it's not a question of -- as you say -- 'justification' or 'insecurity' leading to production. If you're such a great artist, why don't you share your art, your soul? Why keep it locked away in your fingertips?"
Pablo walked away from the windows, sat on the bed and looked at Mickey. Mickey saw something in Pablo's eyes that he had never seen before -- an intense sadness, yet determination. "Believe me, my friend," said Pablo softly, "I want to paint. I want to paint more than anything in the world -- but I cannot do it right now. If I paint, it will be only when I am ready to die and that won't be for quite some time. Because when I do paint, I will paint only one picture. It will be the best, the most perfect picture ever painted. If I were to live after I painted such a painting, I would forever feel that I could somehow improve upon it -- I would be competing with myself to the end of my life -- "
Mickey waved his hand. "You talk nonsense! Do you realize how long it takes before an artist can turn out something excellent? My God! I've heard it said that a good writer takes ten years to develop. What you are saying -- if applied to writing -- is that someone who has never written a word could sit down and write a book that would be the ultimate book! What nonsense!"
Pablo shrugged. "I simply know that when I paint, it will be an exquisite painting and I don't -- can't -- paint it until I am ready to die."
"So what are you going to do between now and the day you die? And how do you know you won't walk out in the street tomorrow and be hit by a truck? Then you will die having never painted what you call the perfect painting. You'll die in a distortion, in self-hatred -- for never taking the time to make something of your life as you sit around waiting until you feel it's time to die! Pablo! What incredible trash! I don't believe it! I don't think you have a single gram of talent in you! I think you are fooling yourself. If you are really an artist, you would be painting and sketching like crazy because life is so short and there is so much that you must do!"
Again, Pablo said nothing. But his gaze at Mickey was, as before, that mixture of sadness and determination. He looked away from Mickey. "I hear what you say. All I will say in return is that we will see who is right," then, looking directly at Mickey, "and who is wrong."
Exasperated, Mickey shook his head, then suddenly stood. "But don't you see, Pablo? Don't you see? Words are so cheap! It's the action, always the action that makes the difference between dream and reality. Don't you understand? I'm trying to spare you humiliation, Pablo! You talk of being better than anyone, yet you've nothing to show! You're a dreamer! You're fooling yourself!"
Pablo drove his fist down on the bed. "And you! You are a fool! You are asking me to prove myself and I say I don't have to! I know I am good!"
"Pablo!" said Mickey, spreading his hands, "where is your mind? What if Beethoven said those words? He might have created one symphony, not nine! Or what if he had died before he created any? Or what if he went around whistling his symphonies but never bothering to put them to paper? Don't you see how painful it is to see someone seemingly gifted -- not using their gift? To see potential simply remaining potential?"
Finally Mickey said, "Maybe you have no gift. Maybe you've had us all fooled for years." Then, with an air of decision, resignation, "When I see your art, then, to me, you'll be an artist. Not until then. Until then, you are a close friend who, while interested in art, is hardly an artist." Mickey shook his head again and left.
That night, Pablo disappeared. He left a short note: "I have studied long enough. Now I must go to work."
The note was open to any number of interpretations. Mr. Caso had several feelings about Pablo's leaving: "That's how generosity is repaid. That's love for you. You give them everything and that's how they treat you." Sometimes when saying this, he might be sitting in his big, leather reclining chair with a wine glass in his left hand, gesturing with his right; the wine would slip up and around the side of the glass.
Or, if not resentment, then: "My boy has spunk. Takes after his father -- goes right out and tangles with the world -- just like I did only I did it when I was fifteen. Best education is to go out and step into the bull ring." Sighing with pride, he'd look at the wine in the glass as though noticing how sweet, rich, dark the wine and how still, so very still.
And Mrs. Caso? At times she paced about wringing her hands, saying, "What did we do? What did we do? We gave him everything! How can he just up and leave? Only seventeen! A boy! Did we give him too much? Did he lack love? Should we have made him work for everything?"
Sometimes, she might be sitting in a chair by the window, watching the sun set: where is my boy? Where is he now? What is he doing? Back east? On a ship in the Pacific? In Australia? Greece? Where? Where is my boy? And she would continue to sit, with eyes dark as though drawing darkness from shadows as shadows drew darkness from the night. Sitting, sitting, black silhouettes of trees dissolve in the night, sitting, sitting, will something emerge from the darkness? A hope? A prayer? A sparkle? A shining kernel of truth, of understanding? Something? Anything? But nothing would come and eventually, like a shadow herself, she would move through the room to go to bed only to lay on it until the weight of silence, of night, forced her eyes closed.
It was like this for ten years. Every couple of months or so there might appear in the mailbox a letter, a postcard with a rare and strange stamp or picture: Spain, Belgrade, Leningrad, Athens, Cairo, South Africa, Madagascar, Rio de Janeiro, Chile -- sometimes he would stay in one place, work for a year, other times he would go through three countries in a week; but whatever he did, wherever he was, it was obvious, he was having a great time, yet also there was something else: he was studying -- no matter what his postcards, his letters said, somehow there was a thread of something -- everything was described in such a way that showed Pablo to be watching, looking, as though he was avidly participating, yet also a spectator.
Whenever Mickey was in town he visited the Casos, to see if, by some strange act of coincidence, God, synchronicity or whatever, Pablo had returned hone. For ten years he was disappointed, but he would stay to read the latest letter or postcard. He was not around too much; he and his art had become well known with showings in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, and after he turned 26, he had even been contacted by galleries in Chicago and New York.
His success was of some discomfort to the Casos; however, they were always glad to see Mickey and seemed happy for him. Mickey always downplayed his success; once he told the Casos, "Yes, I'm pleased to have done well, but I wish Pablo could be a part of it with me."
Mr. and Mrs. Caso loved Mickey for his sensitivity to their feelings. And whenever Mickey dropped by, Mr. and Mrs. Caso might say, "Have we been deluding ourselves? Did we do him an injustice? Maybe he left because he felt we expected something extraordinary . . . "
Mr. Caso might shake his head, sigh and sip his wine.
And Mickey, at a loss for words, too, might simply say, "I don't know. Do you have any idea when he'll return?"
Mr. Caso would likely say to his wife, "Where'd you put the last letter?" Mrs. Caso would get up, find a recent letter and they would discuss, dissect, speculate about, question the letter: why that word? What did that mean? That's an odd note to end on. He sounds happy, don't you think? I wonder what he's doing there! Maybe he's getting ready to come home. Isn't there a big art museum there? Do you suppose he's going to start painting now? I think he's sad. Listen to the way this reads -- doesn't he sound sad there? I think he's lost. A poor lost soul wandering the ends of the Earth.
It was on such an evening, ten years almost to the day after Pablo had left, that Mickey and Mr. and Mrs. Caso sat around the table, drinking wine; August Venus was a burning pearl in the darkening shadow of sky. Mr. Caso was refilling empty glasses. A knock on the door.
Mr. Caso looked puzzled. "We weren't expecting anyone, were we?"
"No," Mrs. Caso said. She got up, turned on the porch light, opened the door -- a shriek of delight, "Pablo!"
In the dusk, Mickey and Mr. Caso stared at each other for a second -- then screech! chairs shoved against the stone floor; everyone gathered about Pablo; lights went on in the house and Pablo, standing in the doorway, looked embarrassed; his hair was down to his shoulders, he was bearded, tanned, muscular, wearing a blue denim jacket, blue jeans and had a pack on his back. He then grinned, looked sheepish, and finally said, "Hello." He walked in, shrugged off his pack and sat at the table. Pointing to a glass of wine, he said, "This one mine?"
Suddenly everyone was talking at once -- and the talking continued far into the night. You'd think that by the time everyone got to bed -- about three on Sunday morning -- that no one would be getting up too early. Mickey stayed the night but, about five a.m., he awoke with a very odd feeling. He shook his head; what is that? He concentrated. A sense of joy and sorrow, wonder and despair, sunlight and darkness. Mickey, somewhat beside himself and not quite knowing why, climbed out of bed and, as quiet as a shadow, opened the door, crept down the hallway -- the door to Pablo's room was open. Pablo was not there. Puzzled, Mickey continued. Hearing something, he dropped to his knees to look through the keyhole into an empty spare bedroom. He stared for quite some time, not quite knowing what to think. There, in front of open, east-facing French doors stood Pablo -- naked. It was just before sunrise. Pablo stretched his arms out as though being crucified; the rising sun suddenly bathed him in the light. Mickey distinctly heard, "I am ready." Then, a pause, then, "I am life, crucifying itself on the awareness of itself. Mortality need not forgive itself for being mortal and being afraid. I know what I do. And I am ready."
Abruptly the sunlight coming into the room became brilliant. Pablo exploded in color -- every color imaginable filled the empty room -- and it occurred in utter silence. Quickly, the light faded. After some minutes, Mickey, caught between being spellbound and at a loss as to what to do, slowly stood, then opened the door.
Pablo was gone. Or -- was he? For the room was filled with him; every square centimeter of ceiling, wall and floor was a fine detail of Pablo's 27 years. Upon looking closely at the floor, Mickey saw flowers of such detail as painted with a single human hair. The walls were landscapes, cities, scenes in rooms and public places -- all so perfectly captured that it seemed they were painted with the scene right before the artist. It was as though Pablo knew every second of his life and accounted for it. There was even a scene in the lower left north wall where, by squinting, Mickey saw himself and that evening when Pablo left, there was Pablo, a silhouette in the light of the setting sun, and Mickey sitting on the bed -- the copper color of the bedspread was perfect as was Mickey's green plaid shirt. Amazed, Mickey looked up. The ceiling faded from blue around the edges to black in the middle. Present were constellations from the northern and southern hemispheres.
Dazed, Mickey kept turning around. Involuntarily, he whispered, "Pablo! Oh, God, Pablo! How right you were! It is like I am walking about in your heart! Forgive me -- "
He heard a whisper. "Thank you, Mickey." The voice came from a little sparkle, a miniature sun, suspended in mid-air. "God bless you, Mickey, and take care."
The little sparkle drifted to the wall, toward an image of Pablo, at age five, dressed in a red and blue striped short sleeve shirt and short blue pants. His face was turned, looking back to an unseen observer -- Mickey had the uncanny sense that anyone looking at Pablo would feel that Pablo was looking directly at them. Pablo's mouth was open as though joyously shouting; his expression was eager. In the sky above him, the sun and the moon. The scene was that of Pablo running, one arm outstretched, his finger pointing to -- the horizon? Mickey simply shook his head in wonder, disbelief; spellbound, he watched the little sparkle, that minute star, drift toward Pablo, settle on Pablo's finger and glow, glow so very, very brightly.
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