by Patrick Fiorilli
Artwork by Alex Cerebella
Just in front of Abel and Crawford’s Appliances, in the southwest corner of the city square, there stands a flagpole. Raised in the midst of the Great War to show support for our boys on the front, it had, in the seven years since its construction, become somewhat of an overly patriotic eyesore. The flag itself – purchased in such a nationalistic fervor – was much too large for the pole, which just barely met the tops of the surrounding buildings, and so it hung in perpetual apathy over its tiny plot of the home of the brave.
I considered the implications of this as I sat atop that pole this morning, perched on a wooden platform at its peak. Mr. Crawford and Mr. Abel, in their continuing quest for market domination, had taken to advertising through whatever fads filtered down from Philadelphia. This month, it was flagpole sitting which had almost overnight become the hottest form of street performance on the east coast. A friend of mine had seen them advertise for the position and, knowing my penchant for reckless stunts and easy money, informed me of it. The job lasted for 19 hours – nowhere near the record at this point – but it paid well and I wasn’t looking to have my name in the books anyway, so I took it.
For entertainment I was given yesterday’s newspaper and for sustenance a bucket of water. I was told I could have a bathroom break only when absolutely necessary so I decided to carefully ration the water and, quite frankly, I wasn’t particularly keen on reading hackneyed local news, so I passed the time by taking in my surroundings.
The early morning clouds hung low with vapor. Too thin for risk of rain, they tethered themselves together with thin strands of grey. Here and there slim rays of sunlight broke through and diffused into the antemeridian gloom.
Glancing lower, I could see the square in all its uncharacteristic silence. Without the commotion of commerce it seemed larger – the space between the buildings uncomfortably vast, like they were unwillingly pulled apart. I was thankful to see people begin to filter in and fill the void.
At first only a trickle of young businessmen passed by. They took long confident strides, inhaling deeply with each step, like they wanted everyone to know how much they loved the morning air. Not a one glanced up at me.
Then came the older men who, thinking on it, were probably the bosses the younger men were trying to impress with punctuality. They kept their hats turned down and their coat collars turned up like they were trying to block out the rest of the world. Some looked lost in contemplation, others lost in life. Their bodies seemed to hang down from their heads rather than hold them up. I corrected my own posture in response.
The buildings around me began to wake as the streetlights turned off. The grocery, the bakery, the law office, the jewelry store, the pharmacy, the tailor’s. One by one they all lit up. I even saw Mr. Crawford himself, as he walked under me to open up the store. He wished me luck with a smug grin before disappearing inside. The square began to feel refreshingly less spacious.
I first noticed the man as he turned into the square off of the street. I couldn’t say exactly what attracted my eye, but he carried a sense about him like he was one step removed from everything else in the world. He didn’t have the stiff back of a businessman, nor the thick neck of a working man. He looked full in the face but I couldn’t be certain because most it was hidden under a large black beard. A heavy browline protruded from his skull and his eyes seemed sunken as a result. He wore no hat so I could see his dark hair slicked straight back, retaining only the slightest hint of a curl. Draped over broad shoulders was a worn grey overcoat and in one gloved hand he carried a large leather bag that threatened to burst from the bulk of its contents. With the other, he fiddled with something in his pocket. He favored his left leg heavily, each step precise and purposeful and measured.
He limped towards one of the two stone semicircles that surrounded a small garden in the middle of the square and, taking a seat on the one nearest me, sat his bag down beside him.
He did not move immediately, instead drawing himself up into a powerful sigh. But it wasn’t dejected, rather content. Taking off his gloves, he rubbed his hands together and snapped open the clasps of his bag. He rummaged through it for a while before removing a small wooden sign upon which a single word was written in elegant black lettering – “Portraits.” He leaned the sign against the stone bench.
The square had still yet to fill with shoppers and so he took the time to carefully take inventory of everything left in his bag. Satisfied, he began to extract his supplies – a few pencils, a couple lumps of charcoal, a simple handheld easel, and sheet after sheet of crisp white paper.
If he noticed me staring at him, he didn’t show it, but I began to feel intrusive to his routine nonetheless, so I looked towards the customers who were beginning to stream in.
My actual job was simple, but utterly mindnumbing. Each time I saw someone looking at me, I was supposed to draw their attention to the wide range of modern conveniences and appliances available at Able and Crawford’s. I realized quickly that I was never meant to be a salesman.
Whenever I had the opportunity, even in the middle of the spiel, I would glance over to the man. Though his clients were numerous, he ensured that each was treated with the utmost respect. He stood to shake the hands of husbands and motioned to kiss those of wives. He bent over to look children in the eyes, and made faces to amuse them. The very model of Old World courtesy.
But as soon as that man began to draw.
His brow dropped low, and his lips drew up entirely into his moustache. Every so often he would squint one eye and then the other, tilting his head to each side as he did so. One hand held the easel and tucked it close to his chest while the other darted and danced across it, his body tensing and relaxing with each stroke like a pianist mid-sonata. I could not see the works in progress but caught glimpses of the final pieces as his clients received them.
The subjects were consistently impressed and generous with their payment. As they each took their leave, he thanked them innumerable times before gently placing their money back into his bag.
By the evening, he had collected a sizable amount of cash, at least rivaling my own wage for the flagpole job from what I could guess. As the streetlamps lit up, and the square quieted, I found myself observing the man all the more. He showed no signs of weariness, despite having worked almost the entire day.
Finally, once most of the stores had closed, and the traffic all but ceased, the man put away his sign but not his supplies.
I turned to see him staring directly at me, his hand wild upon his easel. He did not squint or tilt his head or shift his weight this time, but stayed almost perfectly still. He looked at me like there was some kind of secret between us.
Eventually, he stood, put away his supplies, and, taking his latest drawing with him, walked towards the flagpole.
For a moment, he stood directly in the light of a streetlamp and, bathed in its electric hues, he seemed almost ethereal. He hesitated briefly, glanced at the drawing in his hand, then back at me, and continued walking. He stopped at the base of the pole, and I bent lower over the edge of the wooden platform to see him.
The man knelt down and gently laid the drawing on the ground, retrieving a small hunk of charcoal from his bag to weigh it down. He smoothed out the paper with his hands and stood.
“I can’t pay you,” I said, finally.
The man did not look up.
“I said I can’t pay you. I didn’t bring any money up here with me.”
I heard him breathe in deeply and hike up his bag. He slowly raised his head and tilted it back until we again locked eyes. And at that moment I felt that I should follow him into this silence.
I couldn’t say whether the man said anything before leaving. I know that I said nothing. His departure was quick but I watched him until he rounded the corner onto the street and was gone.
Sliding my weight to the very edge of the platform, I looked down and saw myself, from what seemed a terrible distance, flawlessly reflected in absolute and hallowed black. And I could not look away.