Stories

Paintings on the Wall

There were two trees, each perfectly captured upon the canvas.  Both of them had their own regal quality, but one of them seemed to be more important.  It wasn’t the one in front–a tall, skinny maple–but, rather, the willow behind it.  The willow was reflected in the surrounding lake, and–though it could not be seen in the painting–each of the rope-like leaves made small ripples in the otherwise calm water.

            The artist, whose name was sloppily written in the corner, had not wanted anyone to see the ripples. He’d also not included the small frogs that had hopped from lily pad to lily pad.  Nor were the flies that had buzzed across his path in the picture.  He hadn’t painted them because they hadn’t mattered.  But he had included the red barn in the background, and that most certainly did matter, because that was where he’d met Jay Finley. 

            Ira Kelley had been sixteen on July 19, 1969.  It was the year Woodstock would be held hundreds of miles from his Ohio home, and the year when the Miracle Mets would win the World Series.  But Ira wasn’t interested in Woodstock or baseball on that evening.  Instead, he was going to that deserted red barn.

            Ira ambled lazily along the path, humming slightly under his breath.  His shaggy, black hair was scattered carelessly atop his head, his crystalline blue eyes half-closed as he hopped over one raised tree root after another.  When, at last, he stopped at the barn, he threw off his backpack and sat on one of the many forsaken haystacks.  The barn was silent: Each empty stall was piled high with mud and overgrown with mushrooms; sun filtered slowly through the holes in the barn’s roof.

            Ira grinned, picking up his backpack and slowly taking out a pack of cigarettes that he had swiped from his older brother, Keith.  He knew Keith wouldn’t tell on him, because that would mean he’d have to admit to Mom that he was smoking, and Mom thought it was a “dirty habit.”

            “Jay?  It’s me.”

            “You sure it’s you, kid?”

            “Pretty sure.”

            “Positive you weren’t followed?”

            “Nope.  Just me.  Got your smokes.”

            Immediately, a man stuck his head up from one of the haylofts, a strange grin plastered on his face.  If Ira’s hair had been shaggy, it was nothing compared to the man that was now climbing toward the ground.

            “How ya’ doin’, kid?” he asked, smiling and taking some of the haystack for himself.

            “Not bad, Jay.”

            Jay nodded, reaching for a cigarette.  “You know, kid, this right here is what I miss most.”

            “Smoking?”  Ira found it hard to believe that Jay could miss cigarettes so much.  Personally, if Ira had broken out of prison, he would have missed regular showers more than anything else.

            “Nah, this is nice, though.”  Jay took a match from his back pocket and struck it against a nearby post.  He took a long drag and exhaled, the smoke swirling in front of his face for a brief moment.  “Nah, I miss talkin’ to people.  Tha’s what I miss.”

            Ira was slightly taken aback, but grinned nonetheless.  “Yeah, okay.”

            They were both silent for a long while, each with their own thoughts.  Ira had no way of knowing what Jay could be thinking.  Jay didn’t talk much; he’d come down and ask Ira how his day had been, ask if The Who had released anything new, and just listen to anything Ira could tell him.  When he did talk, it was usually something more along the lines of “Looks like it’s gonna rain.”  He never talked about himself.

            In fact, Ira had only heard Jay speak of his own past once, and that had been several weeks ago.  Ira had been alone; all of his friends had gone home, but Ira had stayed, sketching the surrounding barn.  It was a guilty pleasure of his–drawing.  His father would have preferred that he was into baseball or football (just like Keith), but Ira simply wasn’t.  No, he preferred drawing, just as he’d been doing on the day he’d met Jay.

            Jay had startled Ira, not because he had suddenly appeared behind him, but because Ira had recognized him almost immediately: He was Jasper Raymond Finley, murderer and escapee from The Ohio State Prison.  But he hadn’t murdered Ira like he had Reeves Walden.  No, instead, he had just stood there, his hands in his tattered jeans pockets, staring at Ira with simple curiosity.  He’d told Ira that he could call the cops if he’d wanted; it didn’t make any difference to him.  He’d said that by the time the cops got there, he’d be long gone, but that he didn’t want to leave because he liked listening to all the news that Ira and his friends brought with them.

            But Ira didn’t bring his friends to the barn any more.  They wouldn’t understand why Ira was housing an escaped convict in this old barn, why he hadn’t turned him in and collected the sizable reward.  They wouldn’t have understood Jay’s story.

            Ira wondered if that was what Jay was thinking about.  He wondered if Jay’s mind was back with his little boy and his wife.  He wondered if Jay was thinking about how Reeves Walden had threatened to go after Jay’s little boy if he didn’t pay him the money.  Perhaps Jay was remembering the way the blood-covered knife had felt in his hand, or the way his wife had cried when he’d told her he’d be going away for a while.  Ira wasn’t sure, but Jay’s eyes were unfocused, his cigarette slowly burning between his dirty fingers. 

            No one else would understand that Jay wasn’t a dangerous killer.  He was just a confused man who’d made a big mistake.  A mistake that, according to Jay, had saved his little boy’s life. 

            Ira hadn’t asked for details.  He hadn’t asked because he’d never seen a man cry before, and he didn’t know what else to do… except help him.  So, Ira had been helping Jay, bringing him food, or clothes, or whatever it was he needed.

            “Jay?”

            He turned toward Ira and grinned.  “Yeah, kid?”

            “Why’d ya’ do it?”

            “Do what?”

             “Kill that man?”

            “I di’n’t kill nobody, kid.”

            “But, you said–”

            “S’far as I’m concerned, he killed hisself when he went after my little boy.”

            They were silent again; Jay threw the cigarette on the floor and squashed it with the sole of his shoe.

            “How’s yer day been, kid?”

            “Oh, fine.  Nothin’ much important.”

            “Ther’s always somethin’ important in a day.  No use livin’ a day if nothin’ important happens, ‘n’ you’s alive, ain’t ya’?”

            “Well, yeah, Jay, but–”

            “Then somethin’ important had t’ happen, di’n’t it?”

            Ira laughed, tossing a stone through a hole in the barn.

            “Nice shot, kid. Watch this.”  Jay picked up a stone, and threw it toward the same hole.  It went through, just as Ira’s had done.

            “Not bad,” Ira laughed. 

            Jay grinned, nodding toward Ira’s backpack.  “So, nothin’ interestin’?”

            “Okay, fine.”  Ira reached for his pack, and took out his sketch book.  “Here, take a look for yourself.”

            Jay flipped through the book, and gave a long whistle.  “Kid, you got yerself a future with this stuff.”

            Ira laughed modestly, but Jay shook his head.  “I wouldn’t lie to ya,’ kid.”

            They were both silent again; the barn was slowly growing darker as the sun set.  Both of them were having to swat at mosquitoes more and more frequently.

            “Well, I’d better be going, Jay.”

            “‘Kay, kid.  See ya,’ tomorrow?”

            “I’ll see if I can.” 

            Ira and Jay both knew that this statement didn’t mean much.  Ira always found a way to come to the barn; he’d been coming every day for the past several weeks.  Their visits were always short, many times quiet, but they were safe and pleasant.  Ira had grown to look forward to each and every one.

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            It was dusk when Ira ran into the barn to find Jay standing against one of the old stalls, singing to himself as he carved into the ancient wood.  “Hey, Jay!”

            Jay jumped backward so quickly that he hit his elbow against the stall.  “Shoot, kid!  You tryin’ to give me a heart attack?”

            “Sorry, Jay.”

            “Don’t worry ‘bout it.”  Jay waved the incident away, and motioned for Ira to sit.

            “Watcha’ doin’ there, Jay?”

            “Nothin.’ I was jist bored, so started carvin’.”

            “Well, what’re you carvin’?”

            “A tree.  Tha’s all I could think of.  I couldn’t very well put my name, seein’ as how that would be a dead give’way if they ever git back on my trail.  ‘Course, it ain’t nothing compared to the stuff you do, kid.”

            Ira glanced to the side, shrugging. “I wanted to show this to ya’,” he said, reaching for his backpack. “Tell me whatcha think.”

            Ira passed him a piece of canvas, and Jay studied it for a long while, his eyebrows knitted.  He traced the paint for a moment, then scratched his disheveled hair.  “Well, tha’s somethin’.”

            “You like it?”

            “Like it?  When d’you get the time to do this, kid?  I though yer old man weren’t none too pleased with you ‘n’ drawin’ ‘n’ stuff.”

            “My dad?  No, he’s not seen it.  I did it in art class.  My art teacher, Miss Carling, thinks I could get into some sort of school for this kinda stuff.  Whaddya think, Jay?”

            “Whatcha’ askin’ me fer?  You know I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout artsy things.”

            “Yeah, but I wanna know what you think.”

            “Well, kid, if yer gonna be so dern persistent, then I’d have to say that…well… tha’ has to be the best dern old, scraggly hay loft I’ve ever seen.”

            Ira released a bark of a laugh, and took the painting back.  “It’s supposed to be your hay loft.”

            “I fig’ured such.”

            Jay became silent as Ira took the canvas back and returned it to his pack.  After a moment, Jay stood, scratching his bearded chin.  “You know, kid, maybe you should show that to yer old man.”

            “Nah, Jay.  He would never understand this.”

            “Maybe he jist doesn’t know how good you are.”

            Ira huffed.  The idea was a nice one: His father looking over the painting with a critical eye, just as Jay had done, then proclaiming how wrong he had been. Keith could be athletic, and Ira could be creative.   Then, he would pat him on the shoulder, smiling proudly–a touching father-son bonding moment. It was a great idea, but, sadly, not realistic.

            “Kid?”

            “Yeah, I’ll see, Jay.”

            “Alright, don’t take my advice, kid.  I don’t know yer old man, but, hey, it was jist an idea.”

            “No, I’ll… I’ll give it a try.”

            Jay nodded; they both knew that Ira would do no such thing.  Last week, his sketch of a cardinal had won first place in a local art show. He hadn’t said a word to his father, simply tucked the picture away in a trunk in his room.  This time would be no different.

            There was nothing else to discuss, so they said their goodbyes.  Jay returned to his hay loft and Ira began the walk home.  The sun had disappeared, and the stars were just beginning to pinprick the sky.  Every once in a while a firefly would join his walk, and Ira would shoo it away.  When he was a kid, he’d loved fireflies, but as a teenager he just found them annoying.  He began to wonder if they would be fun to paint, if they would be– 

            Ira heard a noise behind him, and he stopped dead.  He hardly had the time to turn around when a figure emerged from the trees, running toward him.  Ira was slammed into a tree, and he yelped, trying to squirm away.  “Stop it!” he yelped.  “Help!”

            “Ira, shut-up!”

            A hard hand closed over Ira’s mouth, and his eyes widened.

            “Keith?” he tried to say, but all that came out was a muffled whimper.

            Keith raised a blonde eyebrow.  In the shade of the trees, Ira’s brother appeared as nothing more than a hazy shadow.  His football-trained arms pressed harshly against Ira’s scrawny body, and he couldn’t break free.  Ira shook his head, forcing Keith’s hand from his mouth.

“Keith!”

            “Ira, will you keep quiet!”

            “Keith,” he continued in a rasping whisper.  “Keith, what’re you doing here?”

            “What are you doing here, Ira?”

            “I–I’m just out walking.”  Ira struggled, but Keith had him too tightly pinned.

            “What were you doing in that barn, Ira?”

            “I was just… just drawing like I always do, Keith!  You know I can’t do it at home without Dad blowin’ his top!”

            “Yeah, were you?”

            “That’s all! Look in my bag!  There’s all sorts of barn drawings in there!”

            Keith pressed harder against Ira, who gasped at the sudden pressure, averting his eyes to the side.

            “Who were you talking to, Ira?”

            Ira stiffened.  He was confident his heart had skipped a beat; perhaps, it had stopped altogether.  He knew he was holding his breath.

            “Ira!”

            “Nobody, okay!”

            “Ira, I saw you! I saw him!”  

            “He’s nobody, okay! Just some… homeless guy!  He’s nobody!”

            “Ira, I’m not stupid!  I’ve seen his picture all over the place!”

            “Keith, you’re… jumping to conclusions!”  Keith’s grip had lessened.  Ira didn’t know if the reaction was because Keith was so shocked by his actions or because Ira’s face was turning red.  He broke free from Keith’s grasp, falling to the ground.  He quickly stood, tripping and falling over himself as he began to sprint back to the barn.

            “No, you don’t!”

            He heard Keith’s quick steps behind him.  Within moments, Ira fell, his face scraping against the rocks and tree roots that littered the ground.  “Get off me, Keith!”

            “Ira, he’s dangerous!”

            “No, he’s not!  I wouldn’t hang around him if he was!”

            “What do you know?”

            “Keith, let go of me!”

            Keith lifted Ira slightly, positioning him so he was face-up.  “Ira!  Ira, stop it!  Listen to me!”

            Ira continued to struggle, but Keith only pushed harder.

            “Ira, he’s a killer!”

            “No, he’s not, Keith!  You don’t know anything!”

            “Ira, he murdered that man!  Do you wanna be next?”

            Ira merely struggled.  Of course Keith wouldn’t listen.  He didn’t care.  He’d forgotten that Jay was a person.  He wasn’t a killer or a convict.  He wasn’t even Jasper Raymond Finley.  No, he was a person, capable of mistakes and remorse, of both love and hate.  But Keith would never understand.  He was just like everybody else.

            “Ira, stop struggling!” Keith shouted between groans as he tried to keep Ira still.  “Do you un–understand what you’re doing?  You’re harboring a fugitive!  That’s illegal!  Do–do you understand that, Ira?  ILLEGAL!  Did your ‘friend’ tell you what prison’s like, Ira?  You wanna head there?  Ira, are you listening?”

            Of course he was listening.  He was hearing it all.  Yes, he’d known he was doing something illegal, but somehow he’d never felt like he was doing something immoral

            “Ira!  Ira!”

            “Keith, you can’t tell anybody!”

            “What?  You’re lucky I don’t tell Mom and Dad what you’ve been doing!  But–stop struggling, Ira–but I won’t!  I won’t ‘cuz I don’t wanna see you in that much of a mess!  But so help me if you go back to that man I’ll tell everybody who’s been helping him hide!”

            Ira quieted.  After a long while, Keith got up, but Ira didn’t move.

            “Ira–” Keith’s voice was much softer as he leant a hand to help Ira up.  “He killed a man.  He deserves–”

            “Don’t you dare say what he deserves.”

            “Ira–”

            “What gives you the right, Keith?”  Ira snapped, turning and beginning the long walk home.

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            The storm was at its peak when Ira finally decided he’d had enough.  The hail was banging against his window, the lightening crashing against the darkened sky like cracks in broken china.  The thunder was rolling, the wind was blowing… and Ira was running as quickly as he could to the barn.

            “JAY!  Jay, where are you?”

            The unkempt man looked up from behind one of the stalls.  His hair was slightly wet, his eyes more faraway than normal.  “Kid, what’re you doin’ here?”  He coughed slightly afterward, rushing forward, and pulling Ira near him.  “Kid, watcha doin’ runnin’ out here tonight of all nights?”

            “Jay, they’re comin’! Jay, you gotta run!”

            “Calm down, kid!  Who’s comin’?”

            “The police!  My brother–he saw me come in here!  He called the cops!  Jay, you gotta run!”

            Jay’s eyes widened, and he stood–perhaps in shock, perhaps touched that Ira had actually come to warn him–before turning suddenly toward his hayloft.

            “Jay?  Jay, what’re you doin’!”

            “I gotta git somethin,’ kid!”

            “Jay! They’re comin’ right now!  You gotta run!”

            “I am, kid, but I ain’t doin’ nothin’ without this!”

            He leapt from the hayloft, clutching a slightly torn and wrinkled piece of paper.  Ira only saw it for the briefest of moments before Jay shoved it into one of his pockets, but Ira was certain he had seen the juvenile crayon markings of a child, and perhaps the word “Daddy.”

            “Jay, you gotta get movin’!”

            “I know, kid!”  Jay was throwing a coat across his shoulder, tucking a pack of cigarettes into his pocket.  “But I ain’t gonna be able to come back fer nothin’, ‘n’ it might be a while ‘fore I can get some things.”

            Ira nodded, running to the door.  He saw the flashlights before he heard the voices.  The dogs’ barks had been drowned by the roar of the thunder, but now they were loud, echoing dangerously against the night.

            “Jay!  Jay, they’re here!  Jay, you gotta go!”

            Jay looked up, his eyes so wide they seemed as though they were going to engulf his entire face.  “Kid, you gotta go!”

            “Jay, no–just–just leave!”

            “Kid, you’s gonna be in some deep deep trouble they catches you with me!”

            “Jay, that doesn’t matter!”

            “Yes, it does.  Now, go!  Git up in that hayloft!”

            “Jay!”

            “Just git, kid!”

            Ira nodded, surprised at the urgency in Jay’s tone.  He had always been so casual, but now….  Ira gulped:  Jay was scared.  He was actually scared.

            Jay’s eyes continued to follow Ira until he was up in the hayloft.  “Good! Now, kid, git down! Lower, I can see yer head!  Good!  Now, stay there, kid!”

            Jay rushed to the door, staring at the approaching flashlights.  The voices were so loud that the shouts of “This way!” and “He said in the barn!” were clear. Jay turned on his heel, to a hole in the side of the barn, and slipped easily through it. 

            Ira leaned closer, the stale smell of the wet hay surrounding him.  Again, he felt as though his heart had failed him as he heard a shout echo through the darkness:

            “There!  I see him!  He’s running toward the lake!”

            Ira closed his eyes against the mental picture playing in his mind: Jay, running through the woods, his bony frame dodging between trees and branches; the men and dogs behind him, closing in quickly.

            Ira waited until he’d heard the last hurried footstep run past the barn, then climbed slowly from the hayloft, toward the lake.  He moved swiftly, the branches slapping his face and arms.  Twice he tripped, but he didn’t slow.  The men’s shouts were getting louder, the dogs’ growls more prominent.  He stopped, ducking beneath a bush, waiting and watching.

            “He’s up the tree!”

            “Shoot him if you have to!”

            There was another roll of thunder as the rain pounded against the lake.

            “No need to shoot!”

            Ira tensed.  He recognized Jay’s voice immediately.  Ira looked through the leaves, cupping his hand over his mouth–if he didn’t, he would surely shout. 

            The party was congregated around an old willow tree, the leaves whipping violently in the wind.  Jay was leaping from the branches, his eyes downcast, his hands held high.  His hair was lashing around his face, his head was bent downward.  He’d never looked weaker.

            Ira gulped back the yell that wanted to escape him.  He grabbed onto the bush, stopping his frantic run toward Jay.  He just watched, unable to avert his eyes, as the men took Jay away.  Ira sat by that bush long after the men and the dogs had left, long after the storm had given the lake its worse.

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            Ira found himself by the bush again, weeks later, staring at the same willow tree.  The path to the lake had been littered with orange and red leaves; he’d kicked up a few acorns on his way there, and now he’d tossed one lazily into the water, watching the ripples slowly grow.

            They had torn down the barn.  All that was left were some scattered pieces of rotting wood and damp hay.  So Ira had come here, alone with his sketch pad and his thoughts.

            Jay had stopped answering Ira’s letters.  Ira had known why even before the prison had sent him notice.  It had been so blunt and emotionless that, at first, Ira had not thought it was real.  But he knew.  He’d known for a while, but not admitted it.

            Jay had died in prison not long after they had taken him away.  Ira didn’t know the details, nor would he ever learn them.  He didn’t want to know, anyways.  His heart was already heavy enough at the news.  It wasn’t important how Jay had passed, just that he had.

            Ira sat near the lake, an orange leaf drifting to the water from above him.  He kept his gaze upon the willow, its branches waving peacefully in the gentle breeze.  Ira sighed, remembering the night they had taken Jay.  It seemed impossible that the stormy memory could have come from this tranquil place.  Ira looked around:  This really was a beautiful area.  It was so far from everyone else that the rest of the world didn’t seem to exist.  The rest of the world didn’t matter.  Surely, this was as close to Heaven as a person could get while on Earth.

            Ira sighed, tossing another acorn into the water.  He knew that Jay wasn’t good enough for Heaven, but somehow, he couldn’t imagine him being bad enough for Hell.

            Ira stood, taking one last, long glance at the lake.  Surely, this was paradise.

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            The plaque beneath the painting read “Heaven’s Paradise.”  There were two trees in the painting, one of them a willow, the other a small maple.  It was one of many that people had gathered around.  Beside that painting, was one that was very similar.  It appeared to be the same scene, except the trees were waving fiercely in a stormy wind.  This painting was called “Weeper’s Willow.” 

            The next was of an old barn.  There were so many holes in the weathered wood that it looked as though it could fall apart at any moment.  But the sun was filtering through it so beautifully that the barn actually looked inviting. It seemed little wonder that the painting was entitled “Home.”

            “Did you hear what everybody’s been saying about him?”

            “No, I didn’t.”

            “He’s been called the best new artist of 1990.  There was this article about him–can’t remember the magazine–wish I could!  Oh, it was amazing, said he was ‘bringing back impressionism with a new twist.’”

            “Oh, well I can see that.  Did you take a look at this piece?”

            There was a portrait of a hay loft that looked downright comfortable.  Across from it was a painting of nothing more than several ripples in a lake.

            “What did you want to say with this one, Mr.  Kelley?” 

            “Please, call me Ira, Miss–”

            “Katie Taro.  I called for an interview.”

            “Oh, right, of course.  The ripples.  I dunno.”  Ira Kelley shrugged, looking again at the painting.  “That sounds kinda corny, don’t you think?  ‘What were you trying to say with the painting?’ It’s a painting of ripples because… because I’ve always liked ripples.”

            “And why is that, Mr. Kelley?”

            “Go ahead and call me Ira, I don’t mind.” He shrugged again.  “I don’t know.  They’re just… well, you have one small ripple, and it makes so many bigger one, you know?  I just always thought it was funny how one thing can affect so much.”

            “Is that your favorite painting?”

            “Me? Nah, my favorite’s over there.”  Ira nodded toward a corner where a large collection of people were clustered around a single portrait.

            “What’s it of?”

            “Well, go take a look, Miss Taro.”

            The painting much different than any of his others, not only because of the strict attention to detail, but because it was of a person.  The portrait was only from the chest up, but it was easy to see that the man was very thin.  His hair was untidy and tangled; his face was heavy with a scraggly beard.  He wasn’t smiling; instead, his expression set in quiet suffering.  But his eyes–and this was the reason why so many people had circled the painting–his eyes seemed to be lit with a strange sort of joy, a sense of peace.

            “Who is that?” Miss Taro asked, but Ira just shook his head. 

            “Couldn’t tell you that.”

            She was silent, just staring at the painting for a long while.  “He seems–”

            “How I like to remember him,” Ira explained.  “Yeah, how I remember him.”   He looked again at Jasper Raymond Finley–murderer, escapee….

            And all he could see staring back at him was Jay, the man in the old, red barn.      

Copyright Sarah Davidson 2020

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