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Today's Story by Esme Benet

I can never do anything exactly right, because I just keep ignoring my muse.

Not For Sale

It was a poorly composed picture. The colors were beautiful, but the subject was posed awkwardly, and had become a lump in the middle of a picture rather than a part of the story.

If there was a story. Maribeth couldn’t quite tell.

She stood in the center of the gallery and stared at the poster-sized print. Jerry’s email had been so proud: Afridam Gallery! Be there! I can’t have success without you! You must come to the showing!

But she’d never much liked Jerry’s work. There was always something not quite right about it. Something missing, or a little off, or badly placed—some small touch that ruined the effect. She looked at the picture and bit her lip. The model was very like Maribeth. The model was a bit thinner, a bit younger, but there was definitely a similarity between them.

“You didn’t answer my email. I’m glad you came.”

Maribeth started.

“Hello, Jerry.” she said, and turned. She’d been thinking about a way to praise this picture, still tell the truth, and yet not damage Jerry’s massive artiste ego. Then, lo! Here he was.

He was smiling, so happy to see her. He was dressed in a black turtle neck, thin-legged black jeans, long, pointed boots—German Existentialist circa 1960. He never had given up his despair at having missed the Beatles in Hamburg: he’d been born much too late. Turning to the picture, she thought that there was a touch of Astrid Kircherr to the girl’s clothing. Just a touch. You had to know about the time and the place to see it.

You had to know Jerry to see it.

“This one is my favorite, the best thing in the show.” Jerry said. Casually, he put his arm across Maribeth’s shoulders and hugged her to him, then turned his smiling face to hers. This, she knew, was where she was supposed to tell him how great it is.

In the distance, she heard footsteps, sharp like hooves, crossing the smooth marbled floor. She grasped at this diversion. “I thought there was no one else here?”

He shrugged and dropped a kiss on the crown of her head. “Oh, another invitee. This is a private hour showing, but that doesn’t mean it’s private just for you.”

He stepped up to the display and began to describe to her his thought process in composing the picture. She heard the other person in the gallery walk up behind her, and the foot steps stopped. She glanced over her shoulder: a man, dressed in a conservative, pinstriped suit, black hair and a ruddy complexion. He appeared to be paying minute attention to the piece he was looking at, a wild and weird composition of the type that Jerry liked to call his “abstract still life.”

She didn’t recognize him. Probably a buyer, she thought, and turned back to Jerry.

She heard Jerry’s voice begin to break into pauses and his words coming in fits and starts; he was beginning to wind down, to come back from that place where he was so lost in his own world that he wouldn’t notice if anyone was listening to what he said. She began, therefore, to pay attention—he’d be looking for her response, soon.

“I have to be honest with myself, though.” he was saying. “It’s taken me a long time to see it, but I recognize it now.” He looked back at her.

She gave him the attentive look; their long association had taught him to just go on with what he was saying when she did so.

“The picture isn’t perfect.”

She felt a shock race through her body. She would never have expected that kind of awareness—or, at least, never expected to hear him admit it. Truth be told, she knew she could never know what was in his mind.

“I realized, as I was hanging this, that the problem was the model. I can never do anything exactly right, because I just keep ignoring my muse. I get close to her, but when she stands in front of me, I look to the side and just can’t quite see her.”

Maribeth smiled. “That’s a very poetic way of putting it. I think you may be on to something.”

He laughed. “You don’t get it, do you? You are my muse. I have been in love with you all these years, but I just didn’t have anything to offer you.”

Maribeth’s heart plummeted. She felt the blood leave her face. Oh, no.

But he hadn’t noticed her stillness, or perhaps he attributed it to shock. He pulled her close to him, front to front, and looked passionately into her face. “I will have something to offer soon, though. This will be the show that makes me. Let me make you immortal, baby. Marry me. I’ll paint you and photograph you and everyone all through time will finally see you as I finally see you. You are the Muse. Inspire me.”

Her thoughts raced. She’d never seen him as anything more than a friend. She had affection for him, sure enough, or she never would have tolerated all theartiste behavior. Marry him? Oh, God, no.

Her voice seemed weak and distant. “I don’t know what to say, Jerry.” She heard the man in the background moving, his steps coming closer. She focused on that for a moment, trying to collect herself. She dropped her voice. “Can we talk about this later?” she whispered.

Jerry put his hand up to her cheek, caressed her face. “No, baby, now.” Then he moved to her arm, gently drawing his hand down to cup her elbow. “But I know you mean to say no. You would have already said yes, otherwise.”

“No, Jerry, it’s.. it’s just so sudden.” she stuttered, but it was a half-hearted denial. He knew it.

The buyer finally reached Jerry’s side. The man cleared his throat, trying to delicately intrude.

“Mr. Belling, I don’t have much time—another appointment. About that sale. I have the contract here. Are you prepared to accept my offer?”

Without taking his eyes from Maribeth, Jerry replied, “Yes.”

“Excellent!” the buyer enthused. He pulled a folded document and a pen from somewhere in his suit and arranged the papers for the signature. Jerry barely looked at what he was signing.

The buyer reviewed Jerry’s signature, and added his own. “Almost done,” he said, and his voice oozed satisfaction. He closed the contract and put it back into his suit jacket. He folded his hands and waited.

Jerry stepped up to Maribeth. “I love you, and I will do anything to become the greatest artist of my generation, just to immortalize you.” He bent down and kissed her, slowly, tenderly. He cupped her face with his hands. He pulled back again, whispering, “I must have you before me to practice, to inspire.”

Behind him, the Buyer smiled. “Let’s shake on this, and I’ll be on my way, and out of yours.”

Jerry turned to the buyer, clasped his proffered hand, and their hands rose as they began their handshake.

The world spun around Maribeth then, and she felt her stomach churn. She felt as if every drop of moisture was removed from her body; she saw nothing, and then she saw every color in the world. She clutched at her head and closed her eyes, trying to steady herself. It was the briefest of instants, and yet it felt eternal. When she steadied, she opened her eyes.

She was standing in an autumn landscape. Beside her, a cardboard cut out of a woman fell over and began to crumble away; Maribeth just barely had time to recognize the model in the portrait. She looked down at herself; she was now wearing the model’s clothing. Panicked, she looked toward where she thought Jerry had last stood.

He was still there. He was still in the gallery. There was a clear division, a place where the autumn landscape ended and the gallery began. She moved toward him, but as she tried to step over the edge, a great force pushed her back.

She could see him, hear him. The Buyer was with him, and they were still shaking hands. Jerry was speaking.

“In return for becoming a great artist with Maribeth as my Muse, I freely sell you my soul.”

The Buyer smiled. Maribeth flung herself against the division, its force, and began to beat against it. “What the hell is happening here?” she cried, and turned her head.

It was in that moment that she noticed the frame. She stepped back, looked all around the strange division, and realized that it was a framed, rectangular opening.

She swallowed. Oh, god, she was in the painting. She ran her hands across her clothing, the touch-of-Astrid outfit. No. She was the painting.

She looked again at Jerry, at the buyer. Jerry was staring at her. The buyer was placing a heavy, noose-like chain around Jerry’s neck. As she watched, the chain began to change, melting and reforming into a golden necklace. Maribeth began to scream.

The Buyer stepped up to the painting. “Really, dear, calm down. I assure you, you have the better end of this deal.”

And he was gone, just disappeared.

Jerry watched her. Tears streamed down his face. Still, his voice was calm as he said, “The gallery opens in five minutes. Pose, now.”

She felt her limbs move of their own accord. Slowly, she shifted into a position similar to that of the cardboard model. This time, her stance more natural, her body lithe and appropriate. She froze in position.

On the other side, she saw Jerry nod affirmation. “You’re right, dear, that is better.” He wiped the tears from his face with the back of his hand, then pulled a small plaque from his back pocket. She read the letters “NFS.” He moved to the picture and mounted the plaque on the price block.

In the distance, a door bell rang. She watched Jerry walk away.

Her frozen half-smile prevented her screams.


Esme Benet loves to write. She is from Chicago. She sometimes blogs at http://esmebenet.blogspot.com/


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