I’ve decided to post the first chapter of this story here, because I think it may be of interest to my readers to learn what struggles this tortured writer has endured for so many years. Besides the fictional twist about the mysterious painting, which is the MacGuffin of this story, the rest of it is 100% true. In this chapter I’ve described in excruciating detail a very horrific event that happened in my life, which has plagued me with nightmares, but also intensified some very crippling mental illnesses that I’ve been battling with since I was very young. Every word of this, including the dialog, is absolutely true to life. And I think for those of you who have known me personally, these words will probably explain a great deal of my unusual behavior, and even shed some light on certain aspects of my personality that may have seemed eccentric or peculiar.
Chapter 1 Easel of Passage
Franklin Square was busier than usual on this Sunday evening in early Fall. This time of year has always been one of Scott Barton’s favorite, because of the Indian Summer that occurs briefly between the Summer and Autumn months, bearing some of the most stunning colors as the leaves begin to change. Unfortunately, the seasons have been so erratic in recent years, so the Indian Summer doesn’t last nearly as long as it used to, if it even occurs at all. But Franklin Square, which lies at the epicenter of Philadelphia, is one of the only places in the city where there are still enough trees to make this trip worth his while. Scott is a photographer in his spare time, but has recently taken up painting as a hobby is well. The foliage of Autumn has always been one of his favorite subjects to photograph, and the challenge of recreating these leaves and colors in paint has become somewhat of a therapeutic nuance for him. In fact, it was his therapist Valerie Cortez who first suggested the idea to him in one of their sessions. She felt that it would be good for him to explore some different forms of self-expression, which would keep his mind off of his depression and anxiety. She had the right idea, and it was definitely helping. But what helped him more was the medications that he was given, which made it almost bearable to be out amidst the bustle of the crowded city streets.
Twelve years ago, Scott lost his father to cancer. At least, that’s what his family had always assumed was the cause of his death. His father had been struggling with two types of cancer, but was also diagnosed with a severe case of diabetes, which he never managed to get under control. He was always being rushed to the hospital in a diabetic coma that was brought on from letting his sugar get too low. The comas would happen frequently, and for extended periods of time that caused his entire body to become feverishly hot and drenched in sweat. Over time, his father’s brain had practically fried from the long-term exposure to this state. And as a result, Scott watched his father’s mental state deteriorate rapidly. Besides all of these conditions, he was also facing a rare disease known as Scleroderma. This disease causes the body to harden, which begins with the skin, and eventually moves inward to affect the organs and blood vessels. So, in essence, any one of these problems could’ve been the result of his death, and it was never officially confirmed which one had claimed him in the end. But Scott had developed a couple of issues of his own at that time, which were probably due to the nature of his father’s passing.
Scott’s mother had been trying to reach his father for a few days before finally calling Scott at his job and asking him to go over and check on him personally. Scott used to live with his father at one time, so he still kept a set of keys, and he let himself in when he arrived. But when he came to his father’s room on the second floor, he could hear a gurgling sound coming from within. It sounded almost like a person was gargling with water. He knocked on the door, at which point the gurgling sound grew louder, which Scott had assumed was an urgent cry for help. He called out to his father, but received no reply. He didn’t have a key for his room, so he had to bash the door in with his shoulder. He found his father lying in bed. But he looked as though he was only resting or sleeping. And yet, he was still making the same strange noise, which was now growing louder and more intense, even though his father didn’t look as though he was in any distress. Even the pillows and sheets were undisturbed, which suggested no sign of a struggle. Scott tried to call to him again, but there was no answer. He went to his side and shook him, calling louder this time. His father’s head lolled to one side, and a discharge of mucus or bile began to dribble from his mouth and down the side of his face and chin.
Now Scott knew that something was terribly wrong, and he’d witnessed enough of the diabetic comas to know that this was something entirely different. He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and dialed 911. The responder answered and asked what the emergency was. But Scott wasn’t even sure how to explain it. He tried to remain as calm as he could as he described his father’s condition to the woman on the phone. She told him that someone would be there shortly, and suggested that he try to clear his air passage in the meantime. Scott tried to roll his father onto his side so he wouldn’t choke on the fluid that was dripping from his mouth. He had to get onto the bed for leverage, and his pants had quickly become saturated in something wet that was all over the sheets. When he knelt in it, a terrible stench rose from the mattress that made him gag and nearly throw up. But he finally managed to roll his father onto his side. Just then, he could hear the first responder come through the front door downstairs. It was a young police officer who came into the room, and Scott turned to him tearfully and begged him to get a wash cloth or towel from the bathroom down the hall. The policeman went to grab something as quickly as he could and returned with a towel in his hand. Scott took it from him and tried to wipe the excess fluid from his father’s mouth. All the while, his father was still gurgling and gagging. And the officer looked as though he was turning green as he helplessly watched what was happening. The EMS crew arrived within two minutes of the officer, and they came straight upstairs with a stretcher and some medical equipment. The young officer escorted Scott out of the room and tried to keep him calm as the team raced to help his father. Not even a minute had passed before one of the crew members turned to Scott, who was now watching from the hallway. She announced that his father was dead.
“How can that be?” Scott asked as calmly as he could manage. “He was still choking when you got here.” He then looked at the young officer who was standing with him, prompting him to confirm what he’d just told the EMS. The officer nodded and said that he did in fact see him choking when he arrived.
The woman who was standing in front of his father’s bed replied, “I’m sorry. But it looks like he’s been gone for a couple of days now; maybe two or three.”
Scott looked at the officer again, who was now turning as white as a sheet. The woman continue to explain, “What you were both hearing is referred to as a death-rattle. This happens when there’s mucus or other fluids blocking the wind passage. It traps the last breath of air in the lungs, and this causes the sound that you heard. He wasn’t choking. I’m afraid he’s been gone for quite some time.”
Scott had no further reply to this. He felt as sick as a dog, and he hoped that the officer would be able to offer him some comfort now. But the man appeared to be just as puzzled and nauseated as he was. Scott turned and walked into the bathroom. He stood over the toilet for a while, hoping that he would vomit. He knew it would help to make him feel better. But his body was probably in a state of shock from the news that he’d just received, and his stomach refused to cooperate. He gave up and washed his hands instead, using a copious amount of soap before washing his face as well. But nothing he did made him feel any better. And worse yet, no amount of scrubbing made his hands feel any cleaner.
After the police and ambulance had left, he had to wait for the mortician to arrive. He stood outside while the two men went up the stairs to collect his father. He couldn’t bear to see them put his father in a body bag, and it was bad enough just to watch them carry him down the stairs and load him into the back of their van. Afterwards, Scott returned to his job and spoke with human resources. They asked him if he would like to take the rest of the week off, which he gladly accepted. But being home alone had proven to be more difficult than he’d anticipated, so he ended up coming back to work earlier than scheduled. He found it more comforting to be around people he knew. And keeping himself busy was exactly what he needed to get his mind off of what he’d just experienced.
But in the months to come, Scott began to display symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. No matter how many times he washed his hands, they never seemed to feel clean to him. And the smell of death lingered in his sinuses everywhere he went. His mental state had continued to worsen in the years to come, and he eventually became Agoraphobic as well, which was a condition that he found to be far worse than the OCD. Agoraphobia is a fear of leaving the house, which usually begins with a difficulty of being around large crowds of people. This condition was becoming harder and harder to handle, and leaving the house was becoming a task that he no longer had the power to control.
He eventually ended up leaving his job and collected unemployment for the first year while he filed for disability. All of this was going according to plan, but his fears had progressed to a point where he couldn’t even go out to his own mailbox anymore without having a panic attack. The problem had ruled his life for far too long, until he finally forced himself to seek professional help.
At first, his therapist had agreed to make house-calls. But after a while, she finally insisted that he should come to her office instead. It was rough for him at first, but he forced himself to do it. He desperately needed help, and he knew that he would have to agree to the therapist’s terms if he wanted to get better. Scott liked Valerie as a person, and he found her to be caring and compassionate. So he trusted her when she said that he was ready to take his treatment to the next level. He was right to put his faith in her. If not for her insight, and her faith in him, he would still be afraid to walk out his front door.
But here he was now, standing in a park full of people, and completely unafraid. In fact, he was almost comfortable, despite a certain level of anxiety that has become manageable since he started his medication. Now he was able to walk among the throng of people with hardly any difficulty at all. He arrived at the Square a little after 5:00pm, and was content with the amount of photographs that he managed to get within the last few hours of sunlight. But even though it was dark now, he still stayed and walked around, enjoying the open air. The first smells and sights of Fall were all around him. A woman was selling roasted pumpkin seeds and peanuts on a pushcart. Several banners were already hanging from the light-posts, which displayed images of all things associated with season: like jack-o’-lanterns, Fall leaves, cornucopias full of fruit and vegetables, Indian corn and pilgrim hats. Halloween had just ended a week ago, but several ornaments were still left out. And Thanksgiving was just around the corner. It’s no wonder why Scott had so much love for this time of year. It’s a time when everyone and everything seems to slow down to appreciate the peace and tranquility of these few months before winter. And the temperature is just cool enough to wear a dinner jacket if you so desire, or even just jeans and a T-shirt. Truly, Scott has always felt a sense of passion and romance in this season.
He walked slowly around the Square, finally getting the chance to wear his favorite leather jacket for the first time this year. The cool breeze was just strong enough to carry a fine mist from the large fountain that stood in the center of the park, and the light spray felt good on his face. Some vendors were gathered around the fountain, and Scott took a look at each of their displays as he passed through. A few of them were selling fresh foods and snacks. One was selling sports merchandise and clothing that displayed the insignias of all of the local teams. And a few artists were gathered here as well, selling their paintings, photographs and prints. There was even a cartoon artist that created personalized portraits for anyone who might be interested in seeing a comical portrayal of their own face. But there was one vendor in particular that really caught Scott’s attention. The vendor himself looked disheveled, and may have even been homeless. His bushy white beard was stained with a dark strip that ran down the front of his chin, which Scott assumed was a result of hitting the bottle late at night, or maybe from puking on himself one too many times. His coat was a patchwork of several pieces of different fabrics that were sewn on to keep the coat intact for a few more years before it’s seen its last day. But what really drew Scott’s eye was the beautiful paintings that surrounded the man, which were painted on various materials that he may have come across in his scavenges. There were some wooden pieces; some of which were painted, while others were carved with a stylish intricacy and precision that Scott found impressive. Other pieces were done on sheet metal, or scraps of plastic and fiberglass, or reused canvases that were likely salvaged from the curbside. And there were even a few busted up pieces of furniture, which were now priceless works of art. Scott was in awe of this man’s work, and maybe even a little jealous that the craftsmanship was far superior to anything that he’d ever created himself. He decided that he couldn’t leave without buying at least one of these creations. And besides, the artist himself looked as though he desperately needed some cash.
Scott took a good long look at all of the pieces. He was impressed with the entire lot, but one in particular really stood out to him. This painting was done on a piece of rusty sheet metal that had a thin wooden frame carefully attached around the edges. The wood was somewhat decayed, and there were spots of mold and rot that showed through the dark varnish that was applied to the surface. Scott felt that these subtle flaws offered the piece a certain character that was appropriate for the nighttime setting that was painted on the metal. The picture was of an old hotel or apartment building, which was centered as the focal-point in the foreground. It was surrounded by a neighborhood that was badly neglected and dilapidated. The setting was of a town that appeared to be in a state of poverty — maybe located in the slums or projects — and Scott could imagine the despair and struggle of the people who lived within the walls of these crumbling buildings. He was intrigued to find that someone would take the time to paint a place that was so lackluster and dismal, and to do it with such intricate detail and feeling. Every brick and window was captured perfectly, recreating every crack and shattered glass. Even the rooms within the buildings were rendered in such precise detail: with potted plants on the windowsills; curtains that were old and torn, some of which were pulled aside or tied up; the bathrooms, the kitchens, the bedrooms and living rooms; showing every sink, toilet, couch, and family portraits on the walls. He could even see a few people within the rooms, busy about their nightly activities. And in the background of the painting was the Philadelphia skyline: the buildings lit up; the Delaware River reflecting the lights of the city, as well as the glow from the moon that was hidden somewhere outside the border of the painting. The Ben Franklin Bridge was perfectly detailed, and complete with cars that were traveling on either side, with their headlights gleaming through a thin fog that crept up from the banks of the river. And to top it off, the backdrop was set against a gorgeous night sky that looked like something out of a dream, with clouds and stars that were captured so perfectly that they almost seemed to be moving. Truly, the piece looked more like a photograph than a painting, and Scott had never seen anything quite it’s equal. He decided that he must have it, no matter what the cost.
“How much is this one?” he asked the man in the patchwork overcoat.
“Twenty-five,” the man replied modestly. His voice was coarse and scratchy, probably from years of smoking and living outdoors in the elements of one too many winters.
Scott reached into his back pocket and took out his wallet. He knew that the painting was worth much more than what the man was asking, so he decided to be a little generous. He pulled three bills out and handed it to the man. When he reached for it, Scott could see that his hand was crooked, and his fingers were gnarled in almost a claw-like form. Now Scott was glad that he decided to give the man a little extra, and he was curious what sort of accident may have disfigured his hand in such a drastic way. But he thought better than to ask him. The man looked down at the bills and noticed that there were at least two twenties in his hand. He looked up at Scott as though he was about to tell him that he’d given him too much. But he saw Scott nod and smile, and now realized that it was not an accident at all. He looked over the three bills and discovered that he was holding a total of $50. He looked at Scott again and smiled. There was a severe gap in between his upper two front teeth, and it continued into a wide cleft palate that deeply separated his gums. Scott returned the smile and thanked him. He then picked up his purchase, gave the man a wave of thanks, and walked away.
The painting weighed a little more than he’d expected. But he should’ve realized this, since it was a piece of sheet-metal after all. His apartment was only eleven blocks away, but he decided to take the bus instead of struggling the whole way home. He left the park and waited at the corner, pleased with his purchase. Now that he stood in the lights from the city streets, he took a moment to hold it out in front of him to admire it. He could see a few more clouds in the sky than he’d spotted earlier. And even the moonlight on the river appeared a little brighter than before. In fact, there were several minute details that he didn’t notice at a first glance, and he couldn’t wait to get it home and have a chance to study it properly.