Paris In Achromatism
a story by
Allister Farrington turned, and looked back at the picture from which he had just emerged into his living room. Paris scene. Watercolor sketch by Charles Demuth. A painting Farrington had not found listed in any of Demuth’s works when he returned from Paris to his residence at Chestnut Village in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Here is what he remembered…
Farrington had purchased the watercolor for a song one sunny afternoon as he walked out of the Louvre. He immediately encountered a wizened man holding a painting in each hand and in a weakened voice asking anyone within hearing distance: “Vous souhaitez une peinture de la ville lumiere reelle?” Behind the man was a hodge-podge of watercolor and oil paintings, all resting against a black iron fence running near the museum side exit. The paintings showed faded or darkened pigments that once must have been bright, but now were in varied stages of deterioration on torn canvas or heavy paper, all nailed to frames. The paintings looked old to Farrington, but, were they really? ‘After all,’ he thought, ‘this is Paris. I’m in the right place to be duped!’
“Etes-vous certain?” the old man asked as Farrington handed francs to the man and took hold of a watercolor that had caught his fancy. “Il n’y a aucun retour, Monsieur,” the old man said with a twinkle in his eye, that in an instance suggested malevolence.
Walking away, Farrington frowned, thinking the old coot might be slightly off his rocker! Farrington looked at his wrist watch and hurried on. His schedule called for a rendezvous with a lady who had caught his eye in the hotel elevator, and who had subsequently accepted his invitation to dinner. He had spent more time than planned in the Louvre, delayed by a group of Japanese tourists who insisted on taking photos of the Mona Lisa with camera flashes going off all over the place. Time was taken up by a female attendant sitting to one side of Leonardo’s famous painting, and who would flick a light switch on the wall so that no one could see the enigmatic lady encased in the box with a glass front cover. She would call out to the Japanese: “Arretez les flashs! Arretez, au nom de cet art precieux!”
Farrington walked to the Rue d’Alger where earlier in the day he had passed a Bureau de poste. Inside, he used what high school French that he could remember and asked if they had paper and string to wrap his purchase to mail home. With some French mixed with English and much gesturing of hands, Farrington was finally able to purchase paper and string at what he considered to be an outrageous price. He proceeded to wrap his new acquisition and half-hour later emerged from the building, pleased that he had sent a small watercolor to himself in Lancaster from Seine City. He smiled at his little impromptu play on words, retracing his steps of earlier in the day to Place Vendome where he could catch a bus that would take him back to the Hotel de Paris Nord. Farrington had barely glanced at the faded watercolor, but looked forward to having all of the time in the world to study it when he returned home.
Several days later, Farrington’s self-mailed package from Paris was waiting for him in the Chestnut Village mail room. He sat in the retirement community’s main entrance foyer and opened the fourteen-by-sixteen flat package.
“What you got there, Allister? A poster?” On his way to the mail room, Morgan
Childress stopped and stood in front of Farrington’s chair.
“Watercolor,” Farrington said as he finished unwrapping the sketch, hoping that there was no damage to it. “Bought in Paris.” He frowned. Had the picture faded since he purchased it from the old man on the street outside the Louvre? And the colors? What had happened to the faded pastel colors that had caught his eye, causing him to make the purchase?
“Let’s see!” Childress said, moving his body and scrunching his neck around to look down at the painting. “It’s…it’s….”
“…Faded,” Farrington finished for his friend.
“Well…but…it’s all in…gray? That’s okay,” Childress hastened to add. “Almost all gray—maybe I see a bit of blue, there…and…is that a suggestion of pink?” Childress pointed.
“I…think it is,” Farrington said with not a little consternation in his voice. It was only a sketch. Not a finished production. But, it had suited his muse to look upon it. As a matter of fact—
—Sitting, while Childress waved and went on his way, Farrington now found himself entranced with the achromatic watercolor that he held out at arm’s length. It was as though some of the buildings became more than two-dimensional, almost straining to move out of the page! Perhaps he had drunk one cup of coffee too many at breakfast! He did feel a bit fuzzy. Maybe his overseas trip had been more fatiguing than expected. Farrington folded the brown wrapping paper loosely about the sketch, took up the string and rushed to his apartment.
A few minutes later, the Paris watercolor sketch was on Farrington’s living room floor, propped up against his favorite recliner. On hands and knees, Farrington looked intently for what remnants he could find of colors that had receded into near oblivion. He looked hard at what was now gray and black lines of suggested buildings along a street with the Tour Eiffel in a distant background. In the foreground…in the foreground was a familiar looking dark figure at a wrought iron fence; the old man from whom the painting had been purchased!
‘But… but… he was not in the painting when I purchased it! Was he?’
Mouth opened quizzically, Farrington leaned in toward the sketch. Rather, he found his mind and body merging into the painting….Until he found himself standing next to a wrought iron fence beside the Louvre. He looked about at people going to and fro. Weathered two-dimensional art works were resting haphazardly and looking poster-like against the fence. Farrington’s head bobbed and his body turned this way and that, searching for the old man who had sold him the watercolor, and whose figure was presented foursquare in the sketch back home on his living room floor.
“Hey, bub! Er these things fer sale, pardner?’ The Texas accent startled Farrington.
“Ce qui?” Farrington found himself asking.
“Fer sale? Parlays vous ‘merry-can?”
“I speak English,” Farrington stammered. He continued looking about for the old man.
“Hey, bub! I asked yuh, how much fer this’n? You sellin’em, ain’tcha?”
It was then that Farrington looked down at his clothes: old, dirty, tattered and with scuffed and torn shoes on his feet. He brought his arms up closer to his face to examine the sleeves on the ragged coat that he wore. He touched his face and felt several days—weeks?—of beard. He smelled himself. He needed a bath. He attempted to stand straighter, taller. He could not straighten himself.
Farrington was that old man in the fading pen and ink and watercolor, and from whom he had purchased the sketch several days ago! It was only days ago, wasn’t it? The time had gone awry in his mind.
Farrington put out a hand in supplication to God, and into which, the Texan put a wad of francs and picked up a picture that he handed to the lady with him. They walked away with the Texan saying: “…Must have somethin’ matter with’m!”
Now, more people were crowding around him and handing him money and taking paintings of their choice.
He froze in place, voiceless, with both hands remaining outstretched in bewilderment.
A thought slammed through Ferrington’s mind: ‘After all, this is Paris….’
But, Farrington wanted to return home, to America and his comfortable apartment and surroundings at Chestnut Village retirement community. How could that be accomplished? He was in Paris. No doubt about that. And had moved from the United States to France in a nano-second. Desperate, he could think of only one thing to do in order to extricate himself from this bereft of reason situation. He took off running! He ran to the Rue de Rivoli and straight toward a large truck bearing down on him. He did not care what happened now. Better to be dead than this sort of life experience! He ran and ran and ran right into the truck. He felt nothing, heard nothing, and for a split-second saw only shapes in aspic. Until….
Allister Ferrington tumbled out onto his living room floor, not a little dazed. He lay heaving for breath. Too weak, too sick to move for a minute. Then, a strong compulsion came over him to roll over and look at the Paris watercolor.
Nausea returned. The watercolor now held no suggestions of fading colors, only grays to near blacks. But it was not drab. Most startling of all, the painting had changed from a traditional rendering of a Paris street, to flat planes juxtaposed against and over and under and beside one another! There was even a half-circle locked in amongst straight planes. The half-circle… the half-circle: ‘a partial face of the Mona Lisa?’ He had to imagine buildings, people, the very street featured in the painting. And the figure of the old man—of himself?—could barely be discerned; it was dark and in a squared-off manner against what might be perceived as a fence. Squinting his eyes, Farrington viewed a poster-like painting; it reflected precision. ‘Probably done when Demuth was at the Academie Julian,’ Farrington thought. The septuagenarian leaned forward—not too close—attempting to detect whether or not he saw anything resembling his own face in that dark plane of a man who must be the seller of pictures.
In a quandary, Farrington sat on the floor for many minutes. What had happened? What was this bizarre thing going on? He finally rose, not looking at the sketch. A good night’s sleep might set things right.
The next morning’s eggs were too hard, the bacon greasy, toast was burned and the coffee tasted like dishwater looked. He sat back in his Chestnut Village café chair, recalling croissants with strong, flavorful coffee and a piece of cheese as a sufficient breakfast in the Parisian spring time that he had recently experienced. This led him to make comparisons between Lancaster’s narrow, stultifying horizons, and Parisian social freedom accompanied by a constant metaphorical breath of intellectual fresh air.
“Parles-tu francais?” Farrington asked the Puerto Rican waitress who was clearing his table. “Allez-vous souvent a l’Opera de Paris? Notre Dame? Montmartre?”
“Que?” the girl responded sharply. “Que estas hablando?” As she walked away with a heavy tray of dirty dishes, she added: “Viejo loco!”
He sighed. It was then that he made a momentous decision, for a widower and retired fuel oil truck driver.
Before lunch, Allister Farrington was in the Chestnut Village Park, desperately clutching under one arm a flat, brown parcel bound loosely in white string. He walked vigorously on the macadamized walkway in anticipation of what he hoped would soon happen. Again. The experience in his apartment was one thing; it was something else to try the same out of doors. He headed toward the park pond and gazebo beside it.
Alone in the gazebo, Farrington unwrapped the achromatic watercolor sketch from Paris. He propped it up on a bench that went around inside the structure except for the entrance way. Allister Farrington looked one last time over the grounds of Chestnut Village. He took in a deep breath and walked directly into the sketch.
A day later, Chestnut Village administrators and Lancaster police searched for Allister Farrington. The only possible clue—not recognized as such—was found in the gazebo by the pond: a blank piece of heavy and aged paper nailed to a worm eaten wooden frame.
A lone, slightly bent figure in tattered clothing watched from a line of evergreens bordering the western edge of Chestnut Village. After several minutes, he moved away with the aid of a walking stick. ‘C’est que, comme on dit!’ he said aloud to himself, and walked on into Lancaster, the Red Rose City.
Henry Brasater was a radio-television newsman before going into academia. His PhD is in Rhetoric & Public Address. He has taught at various colleges and universities, including Cairo University as a Fulbright Senior Lecturer. Brasater’s stories are published in ezines, print anthologies, and magazines. His novels are: Nondum, Dead Guns Press; and Upheaval, Spanking Pulp Press. His nonfiction book, A. E. van Vogt: Science Fantasy’s Icon, is available from Booklocker and Amazon.