by Jack Andrew Urquhart
He stopped dead in his tracks—the sweat trickling indecently down his arms and legs and from all his hidden places. The painting was still there in the window, still waiting behind Rex Fordham’s see-through reflection to make a mess of his thoughts.
Damned if he knew why, but there was something about it, something about the crudely rendered landscape in the gallery window—its obvious brush strokes and garish blues and greens, the amateurishly depicted barge in the foreground with its stick-figure passengers—that sang to him:
Up the lazy river by the old mill run …
A tired old standard if ever there was one—the painting and the tune; nevertheless, their combined effect had broken his stride mid-jog three days running, each time the surprisingly inviting scene, the scrambled lyrics of the song, catching him up, arresting the momentum of his thoughts toward disappearance. Toward self-eradication.
For weeks he’d been moving in that direction, contemplating during his daily run the options, cataloguing the least dramatic routes to suicide, thinking, why not? and why wait?
And now, when his mind was practically made up, this—this interruption.
That lazy, lazy river in the noonday sun …
Such a stupid song—and inappropriate given the painting’s eastern setting. Rex’s architect eye placed the canvas’s centerpiece—a structure strewn with stupas like inverted grapefruit halves—as a domed Hindu palace or temple. But it was the artist’s rendering of the foreground—an azure-blue river and candy-striped barge (too simplistically executed to suit a real maharaja)—that he most appreciated, that made him want to merge with the scene.
Throw away your troubles, dream a dream with me …
It was always the same voice in his head: Louis Armstrong, growling, louche. ‘Satchmo’ on the Ganges. How crazy was that?
Marcia, his soon to be ex-wife, would appreciate this, Rex thought. The moment, that is.
“This is just like you,” she’d said, not unkindly, during their last property mediation session when he’d suddenly ceded the house to her. “When you can’t see the big picture, you exhaust the details to the point of capitulation; and then, you turn on a dime.”
Her assessment had been accurate enough, Rex was willing to admit. Even so, Marcia couldn’t have known it was the appealing notion of non-existence that had ‘turned’ him after weeks of negotiating intransigence.
“What’s to see?” he’d responded, avoiding his wife’s eyes, which he’d noticed looked a shade of spring green beneath the vibrant eye shadow she’d chosen. Marcia had been sporting a new hairdo as well, all those rebellious auburn curls shorn away and smoothed into a neat bob—a style well suited to her face and petite frame. Clearly she was moving on, he’d thought at the time, adopting to herself a modern, fresh-foot-forward look from her Italian-made pumps, to her tailored slacks and silk blouse (with its undone top button). But then, wasn’t it just like Marcia to evolve, to let go? To adapt when there was no other choice?
“Besides, I’m getting used to my short-term rental,” he’d offered, hoping the explanation would assuage her concerns about his sudden change of heart. “Guess I have no taste for a permanent residence these days.”
If only he’d let that be enough.
“Anyway, the house would take too much effort. I’d just as soon not deal with all that … that empty space …”
Rex had stopped himself, but not in time.
Already five years since Peter’s death, and still the sickening vacancy could find you whenever it wanted. He knew Marcia well enough to see that she felt it too. The signs were there—in the way she seemed to collapse inward, her folded arms and clasped hands shifting into self-protection mode against her chest, in the quivering around her eyes, like a REM-sleep spasm.
Some things there would never be enough time to escape. Like the death of a child.
“Besides … besides, Alec will be living with you,” he’d said fumbling for solid ground.
Instead, a mental portrait of their surviving child found Rex. Poor, twin-less Alec—grieving after all this time for the half of himself gone missing. Ready to murder the sibling who’d been forever getting himself up a tree—and who’d been stupid enough to go falling out of one. Just as furious at his fallen father, who’s succumbed to an even bigger cliché than the Grim Reaper: the middle-age sexual indiscretion—and not even able to get that ‘straight’. Such a picture this Alec made: sixteen, thin as Ichabod Crane, all angles and anger and greasy hair. Sullen as a sack of dirty laundry.
“I think it’s better you two should have the house,” Rex had sighed.
Especially now, he might’ve added. Now that Alec had hunkered into a Kurt Cobain-esque phase, a stage from which ‘the-world-is-nothing-but-fuck-ups,-and-you,-Dad,-are-the-worst-offender’ was the tune blasting twenty-four-seven.
“Much better this way,” Rex had insisted. Indeed, what use would bare walls and empty rooms be to a man divested of wife, family, hope?
That was the realization that had arrived while sitting with Marcia and the divorce attorneys. What use were any material possessions to a man in his frame of mind?
You can live without them, it had come to Rex, the irony tweaking him to a splurt of nervous laughter right there at the negotiating table.
“In this case, I think it makes good sense for Mister Fordham to relinquish the house,” his wife’s attorney had been emboldened to say.
Marcia’s counter—her face an odd mix of relief, worry and half-hearted amusement—had surprised Rex.
“Sounds more like a case of depression to me. My husband’s good sense has been known to fail or triumph in the spur of such moments.”
And hadn’t they both shared a good laugh at that.
After seventeen years Marcia certainly knew something about his ‘moments.’
And now, here—in front of this strange little storefront—came another one.
Blue skies up above, everyone’s in love.
A quaint little doorbell tinkled when Rex entered the gallery. Once inside he was engulfed in a potpourri of fragrances: paint and aged canvas, old wood and Murphy’s Soap. Coffee and patchouli wafting above it all.
“Anyone here?” he called.
A voice, silvered as jingle bells, answered.
The young man was anything but diminutive. A pair of lively blue eyes beneath a gnarl of orange hair greeted Rex. Tall, sturdy, freckled, he was the picture of bigger-than-life good will in a bright Hawaiian shirt.
“Oh, it’s you! The runner guy!” he trilled, face like a sunburst, like he’d been waiting all along for the right moment to shine. “I hoped you’d eventually stop in.”
No point hesitating, Rex thought, embarrassed. “I want the painting out front,” he said only briefly considering his post-legal-fees bank balance. “The one with the river and the barge.”
“And the palace,” the young man added. “Mustn’t forget the palace. May I ask why that particular canvas?”
It was a fair question. Rex gave it a moment.
“Because I like the notion of lazy afternoons on a river,” he said thinking how simple that sounded. “Just drifting along, waiting to see what’s lurking out of frame?”
Surely he must sound a perfect lunatic.
But the man beamed. “Sounds like a case of art appreciation to me,” he said.
Such generosity gave Rex courage. “And because it makes music in my head,” he laughed.
“I see,” the man answered, and then suddenly he was singing, his tenor ringing through the small shop:
“Up the lazy river, how happy we could be.
You mean like that?”
“Yes!” Rex said, grinning. “That’s it. Exactly.”