A Favor

Nick J. Graham

He was three hours into painting before stepping back and thinking about throwing the canvas in the garbage. Oscar’s room was a poorly played Tetris game, with supplies piled in random clusters like mines that would surprise him every time he got too drunk and had to avoid falling onto cheap carpet laid over the hardwood floor. He took a step back from the canvas, opened the window and lit his Pall Mall Red, blowing the first patch of smoke through the screen. He took a second to nibble at his fingernail and his eyes felt like they were freeze-drying in their sockets. Suddenly, in one swift motion, he removed the painting from the easel and threw it toward the comically small trashcan by his door. He fell back onto his chair and smoked in silence.

It was a beautiful spring afternoon in Astoria; lush greens dripping off the leaves of trees that knew they would darken and die soon. They hung waiting over the second floor of the neighborhood apartments on the whole street. Oscar and his roommate shared the house with their very outspoken downstairs neighbors. As Oscar sat, he heard them stomping around and talking over the television. There would be moments when the couple would argue so loudly that Oscar and his roommate Justin would simultaneously meet in the hallway between their rooms and laugh before they had a chance to say anything. They both agreed it was better than the noises that happened when the neighbors made up.

At that moment, Justin came to the door and looked down to a strange cloud of smeared acrylics melting into their shared hallway. He laughed and took the painting into the kitchen. “Dude, at least throw it face up if you are gonna throw it.”

“Sorry, man… I don’t know what the hell is wrong with me. I'm just churning out terrible ideas lately.”

Oscar heard Justin’s voice faintly from the kitchen, “Lately?!” That was followed by echoed laughter. “I’m just kidding,” Justin walked back to the doorframe.

“That one looked good from what I could tell.”

“Eh…” Oscar replied. “I haven’t painted anything I’ve liked in weeks.”

“Well, you’ll think of something.”

“Yeah… I guess… I am gonna make a beer run tonight so let me know if you have any requests.”

“Will do.” Justin walked back into his room and opened the door to the sound of a sitcom laugh track before the door closed and Oscar decided to shut his door too. Oscar got halfway through his cigarette before he decided to smash it into his ashtray and trade it for the half-smoked joint leaking loose grinds into the bottom corner of his cigarette pack. He took a deep hit of the joint as he leaned over to the mini fridge that functioned as his nightstand, and twisted the cap off of a bottled Pabst Blue Ribbon. “Looks like I’m playing poker”.

Wind floated through Oscar’s room and blew out the candle that was lit on the top of a waist-high bookshelf near his closet door. He closed his eyes and the breeze felt good against the untrimmed hair and sweat gathering on the back of his neck. Along the walls under his window were almost a dozen paintings leaned against the wall. The sequence contained scenes of sepia or greyscale creatures against backdrops of giant contrasting blocks or windows of color as if they all populated a world of Rothko works. The few people who saw the monster in each of these paintings looked in horror, their skin and clothes seemingly blending into the background. Each monster seemed to be reaching for some kind of everyday object. Most of the creatures had an oblong anatomy made by smashing together asymmetrical patterns, but most of them shared the same Roman nose and the furrowed brow that Oscar would rub as he sat in his room thinking.

Oscar took a gulp of beer and thought about his grandfather, Pedro, who had passed away a few years earlier. Before he died, they would sit on the bench outside Pedro’s house and Oscar would listen to stories from his grandfather’s days in Franco’s Spain. He kept repeating something about a book where they poured cement down people’s throats and buried them in trees, but Oscar never found the book. It had been three years since his grandfather’s passing and Oscar still saw him in his dreams. He would rush to try and draw what he saw, but it would start as a definitive sketch of his grandfather, and then an amalgamation of shading that looked like shadow around him. His father told him that Oscar’s grandfather drank beer faster than anyone he had ever known but kept lucid until the second his bladder betrayed his façade and he had to leave the barstool. Pedro talked about the Catalan eating clubs where women weren’t allowed except on rare occasions. They always offered Pedro to eat and drink for free because he used to offer to do all of the dishes for them.

Oscar, lost in reverie, suddenly noticed his eyes watering, but the breeze in Oscar’s room picked up and, as he drifted back to his memory, he could almost smell his grandfather’s Clubman Pinaud aftershave. He had told Oscar that he had never worn cologne until he came to New York City, walked into the barbershop, and smelled the Pinaud talcum powder being brushed across the back of the patron’s ear. He had sat in the chair and talked with the men about Spain and they had asked him about Picasso and Spanish women. Their yellowing teeth had flashed over their lips in Morse-code sequences when Pedro decided to give half details and feign modesty before he left them by saying something about how lucky he was to be married to Catalan queen. Oscar remembered one day, a year before he died, when Pedro had leaned over and whispered into his ear that he had actually never had too much luck with women before he met his wife.

Oscar took another hit from the joint and looked out of the window into the backyard. The neighbors had left all of their landscaping equipment across the yard, but Oscar didn’t mind because him and Justin rarely used anything except the hand dug fire pit during the summer. The grass had thinned at its greenest patches, with elliptical pock-marked patches that looked like golden delicious apples from his bedroom window. Oscar frowned when he realized how long it had been since he had hosted a good party at his place.

He exhaled smoke into the stale sunlight diving into the room and remembered the party he had thrown three summers ago when he had still been living at his parents’ house. He had ended up getting drunk and walking a quarter mile to the beach. It had been late August and he’d sat on the low wooden fence guarding the rectangular field with parking spots either side. The surrounding blocks on the shore and up into the main road were dotted with million-dollar beach homes that had already been abandoned for the upcoming school year. Oscar had stumbled his way to the nearest house and leaned against the window, his breath pooling hot mist onto the window.

The house was completely dark except for a moonlit reflection through one of the second story windows that illuminated the dimensions of the living room. Oscar looked through the living room and into the kitchen where he saw a bowl of fruit sitting on a pristine marble counter. In his drunken haze he pictured a spectral silhouette of a couple cooking together in the kitchen. The tall, handsome man had the woman’s arms wrapped around her lover as he cooked their eggs on the stove. She was wearing just his oversized shirt and she kissed his neck slowly. Oscar blinked and rubbed his eyes.

“That fruit is gonna go bad… goddamn morons,” Oscar grumbled then laughed as he pushed himself away from the window and stumbled his way to the next house. There was enough angled light from the streetlight in the background to reveal the entirety of the first few rooms of this house. Oscar saw the furniture lying dormant and he had the sudden urge to smash the window and lie down on the loveseat nestled near the opposite wall. He saw his own reflection and felt like smashing the mirror again, but he just threw up his middle finger and stumbled backwards.

“What the hell are you doing?” He heard someone ask, giggling behind him. Oscar turned around to see Sarah laughing and walking up the stairs to meet him. “Are you looking to buy soon?”

“Nah, I just hate how these assholes just pack up and leave and these houses just go to waste.” He smiled for a second. “You wanna break in?”

“Ohhhh nooo. I don’t think so,” and Sarah grabbed Oscar by the shoulders and led him down the stairs.

His eyes carved a delayed path toward Sarah’s face, but he just focused on her long black hair as it caught the ocean wind. She blinked and her eyes pooled with tears before she turned toward the wind and blinked them away. He forgot what he had told her, but he must have forgotten to hold back when he had talked about how much he couldn’t wait to leave for art school in the city. She had been solemn and tried to fight how upset she actually was in the moment. Now, three years later, Oscar leaned back on his chair and all he wanted was to go back to his hometown. All he had wanted back then was to leave. He tried again to remember. All he could conjure up was her squeezing his hand and telling him that she was going to visit as much as she could. At first Sarah had kept her promise. Their calls had been wonderful, then they became few and far between. Oscar tried to pull up the rest of the conversation, but the details were muffled in the primordial pool swirling in the back of his stoned mind.

Oscar looked at his new blank canvas. He took a moment to figure out what he wanted to draw and then felt the urge to cry. He remembered getting accepted to school and how it felt like the greatest moment of his life. Now, every day, he watched his grades slip lower and lower. Every gallery he had applied to and for every competition he entered he was denied, and he felt as if his dream of becoming an artist of any merit or renown was evaporating in front of him. The light had shifted slightly in the half hour that he sat there pondering. He debated texting Sarah now, but decided against it. He grabbed another beer from the fridge.

Oscar tried to concentrate on what he was doing. He would have to choose his colors wisely because it was the one thing he never suffered for on his project rubrics. He sighed and took out his phone and sat back in his windowsill to light another cigarette.

Outside he heard the cries of children playing in the street and the occasional car that crawled down the street against the lowering sun. Oscar watched the shadows grow longer for a while and kept glancing down at his phone. He scrolled through everyone enjoying their last vacations of the season and he was mad that he hadn’t saved up enough money from his part time job to even go away for the weekend. He scrolled through a parade of beachside pictures and live shows before he put his phone back in his pocket and told himself again that he would finish the painting.

As Oscar leaned forward, he caught the glimpse of a young girl looking through his window from the street. Her jeans were torn in patterns that were not factory made and the edges of her jeans were frayed as they flapped against the bottom of her shoes where sole met pavement. She saw Oscar look toward her and she glanced away and ran inside the house next door. Oscar looked in the second story window of the neighboring apartment and the blinds were open to reveal a bedroom packed with teenage guys sitting around a glowing screen. He tried to make out what they were saying to each other, but all he could see was someone talking and then the other guys laughing, staring at their phones, or making a big reaction. The bedroom was painted a rich purple, which you could only spot if you looked closely between the makeshift collage of posters and album artwork; the corners farthest from the sun deepened themselves to an almost aubergine shade.

Oscar smoked as he watched the bedroom door open and the little girl sit wide eyed as she slowly articulated something. Oscar tried reading her lips, but he couldn’t make out what anyone was saying in the room. After a few seconds he saw one of the guys gesticulate toward the door and the little girl went out of the room and slammed the door shut. Oscar was the eldest of three brothers, and he shuddered at the thought of how many of those moments he had made happen. His mind flashed to each brother’s face when they came down to his basement bedroom and tried to hide their rejection on their way back up to the living room. Oscar stood up and paced in the small free space in front of him. He didn’t know what to do with his body; he wanted to text his brothers and apologize and then figured it would be too much to explain himself. For a brief instant, he wanted to throw himself out of the window.

He grabbed his head and crouched down for a second and felt like crying. He thought about how many people he had to apologize to and how many people would think it was better if he just disappeared. He felt so stupid for thinking that he would be some beloved artist, and the thoughts bloomed and echoed and crumbled in half-second intervals. He thought about his friends and family, and then the image of his parents at their next social function appeared in his mind. He pictured their disappointed faces as they explained to guest after guest what their eldest son had decided to do with his life. Oscar sat back down, his head in his hands. He looked around briefly and saw stacks of medium sized canvas next to his acrylics, and he wanted to smash them all against his paintings and burn the entire pile.

The sounds of moaning filled the air and Oscar sat up, surprised at the register of his own voice. It took him a second to realize that the sound was coming from outside himself and far away. He looked around the room and then out of the window, and he saw the little girl, doubled over sitting on the front steps, her body writhing as she hid her eyes in the crease of her elbow. Every third breath or so he heard the sound of her cries that she couldn’t hold back, and for a few seconds, Oscar was paralyzed. The girl sat up and her fragmented breaths were followed by the sound of her sniffling.

By that time, Oscar had already made his way outside and was standing on the sidewalk between the two apartment buildings. “Hey, um,” Oscar said, and made sure to stand back to not scare her.

The little girl looked up; her face stained with tears.

Oscar held up both arms; under one he had a stack of canvases and in his right hand he had a bag of whichever acrylics and brushes had been close enough to him as he scrambled out of the room. “I was just walking over because I have some extra art supplies and wanted to see if you or your brother wanted to use them.”

“Don’t give them to my brother,” she spat out.

Oscar smiled. “Well, hey, you get the first bid. I have some paint, brushes, and canvas here.” Oscar’s mind began to race, and he felt nervous that he was acting weirdly. He looked around and everything seemed to be slowly oscillating before it centered back to frame in his vision. He remembered absentmindedly hitting the joint a dozen times and he wobbled a bit before saying: “I’ll just leave these here.” Oscar put the bag of supplies and the canvas on the sidewalk and walked back to his apartment. He almost tripped on the curbed and had to grab the stair railing, kicking over his recycling bins before regaining his balance. He climbed the first stairs slowly, then after a few steps, he moved quickly through his front door.

“Jesus Christ,” Oscar said and then laughed thinking about the interaction. Outside the girl gathered up the supplies and struggled to get them in one trip to her front door.

Oscar made his way back into his room and his face was warming from laughing and then a flash of regret and fear, hoping that he didn’t do something wrong or look too crazy. After a few moments, he sat back in his chair and got up to reach for the fridge, but before he could get to the handle, he noticed in the window that the door to the purple bedroom had swung open and the girl was holding the paint supplies. He still couldn’t hear what was happening, but she yelled something into the room, and then slammed the door shut on the group of guys, who sat in stunned silence.

He sat in his room’s own quiet before bursting into laughter. He sat back in his chair and kept laughing until he sighed, almost out of breath. Oscar got up and closed the blinds to both windows in the room and pulled over a reading lamp from his nightstand to add extra light to the canvas. He looked down to see which colors he had left and shrugged his shoulders, still giggling. He shook his head and then grabbed a brush. Suddenly, he felt like painting.

Nick J. Graham

Nick J. Graham is an emerging writer working on his first collection of stories. His piece, "Elm City" will appear in So It Goes: The Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library Literary Journal this fall. He is an adjunct writing professor and Tutoring Coordinator at Manhattanville College and Post University respectively.

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