Ron McKitty could not imagine anything in his life being sexy enough for Elton John. But that’s what Enrique was asking for. On the other end of McKitty’s phone, Enrique had just told him that Elton walked into the gallery and paid five thousand dollars for Ron’s “Sparrows Above the Green”, an impressionistic watercolor of sparrows flying past an open window. Then the rock superstar had asked for another painting. Something edgy. Sexy.
“Tap into your emotions, your psyche, give me something suitably flamboyant to sell,” Enrique said, his voice rapid and thrilled. McKitty realized this was as big a break for Enrique’s gallery as it was for himself. And his wife Julia would be thrilled too; her husband now commissioned by a rock star and suddenly making big money. After nearly two decades of toil as a department store display artist, this was it. This was finally McKitty’s big break.
When Enrique hung up, McKitty dropped his cell phone into his lap and relaxed in a window seat on his evening train home. The train shot from a tunnel beneath the Hudson River into the hazy summer sunlight that lit up the Jersey Meadows. McKitty gazed at a green and mushroom-colored landfill. How many of his department store paintings were in that landfill? Up top, a buzzard in unsophisticated flight circled a maroon hump-backed garbage truck. McKitty thought his artwork for the store was unsophisticated, too, but, like the buzzard’s ungainly flight, he also got the job done. He sank deeper into the seat and followed the bird. Just then, it abruptly nosedived and buried its beak into a fresh pile of trash.
Once off the train, McKitty stopped into a liquor store to buy bottles of champagne and chardonnay. Out the storefront window was a view of the train station and its crowning spire. The parked cars appeared to him to be artfully arranged. The vertical lines of the parking meters struck him. He’d always been drawn to the mundane and its quiet beauty, but today he felt the call of ambition and vowed to take more risks in his painting.
“Let’s celebrate,” he said when he walked into his kitchen and held up the champagne. Seeing the perplexed look on Julia and their daughter Simone, he said, “Sold a painting to Elton John today. Five thousand dollars. He gave Enrique a check.” Simone put down her cell phone and hugged him. Julia, slicing tomatoes on the granite counter, blew a kiss to him.
Simone picked up the phone again and said, “Yes, Elton John. He just wrote out a check for five thousand.”
“Enrique said that’s now the perceived value for this painting … maybe a yardstick for future sales,” McKitty added.
He placed the bottle of chardonnay in the refrigerator. On a lower rack, tin pans held flank steaks and salmon filets, marinating for an upcoming Fourth of July barbeque. Julia always kept the pantry tidy and the refrigerator well-organized. She taught high school math, and her income paid for suburban essentials like family membership to the community pool and Simone’s visits to the orthodontist. When he sold more paintings, she could spend more time on charity work, her passion. She looked beautiful in a sleeveless turquoise blouse, beige skirt and sandals that showed off her tan. Her brown hair was combed so that it curled perfectly just above her shoulders.
He popped open the champagne and offered a toast: “To Elton John’s appreciation of fine art.”
“Yeah, who woulda thought the creator of Crocodile Rock knew anything about it!” quipped Julia.
McKitty’s house backed up to a golf course and country club. He had grown up there; when his father, a successful investor, and his mother moved to their second home in Boca Raton and he was just starting at the store, he moved back in. Only a spare line of small bushes suggested a boundary between his yard and the fairways. After dinner, he and Julia strolled on to the course carrying the chardonnay, two glasses and a blanket. He held Julia’s hand and inhaled the scent of fresh-mowed grass. Fireflies rose from their favorite spot to rest — between two sand traps that defended the thirteenth green. They had been strolling here since the first days of their marriage, setting out a blanket, popping open a bottle of wine and, when twilight darkened to nighttime, making love. They amused themselves over the years about this routine, laughing to think they had conceived Simone between two hazards.
“C’mon, let’s make love.” McKitty held Julia’s hand tight.
She resisted a bit, but he held her hand tighter and gently pulled her against him. She had often reassured him that professional recognition would come to him one day. This was the day.
“My husband, artist to the celebrities, won’t be denied,” she said.
He bent down to feel where the grass was dry and soft, set out the blanket and they carefully reclined close to one another. And after they made love, McKitty lay on his back. This precise moment in his life, at age 39, was exactly where he wanted to be. Everything was being consummated. He looked at the darkening sky and watched the stars come out.
When they returned home an hour later, McKitty suggested they go for a ride around the course. Julia declined. He got from the garage a golf cart he had bought years back when the club was selling off its older Harley-Davidson models. It didn’t have a cup holder, so McKitty fashioned one with a bit of thin wire, and also installed head lamps. He had liked how the cart couldn’t go very fast; he didn’t have to brace himself when the Macadam cart path turned sharply around sand traps and water hazards. So this is middle age, he had thought, tooling around in a golf cart rather than in an open-topped sports car in Rome. But on this night he wished it went faster. He turned off the lamps. Canopies of branches that hung from the trees darkened the night. Though he could hardly see, he veered off the path and went wherever he pleased. He’d do the same with his painting for Elton, go with a brush where he’d never gone before. McKitty rolled over the hills, exulting in his recklessness and shouting in the darkness, “I’m a rocket man.”
Growing up on the course, he had played hide-and-seek among its trees and bushes with his friends. He was the first to sleigh down its hills after a snowfall. But he didn’t play much golf. His father had been club champion a dozen years running and tried to teach his son to play, but McKitty couldn’t master the muscle memory required of the game and his stroke was erratic. He turned instead to pencil sketching the natural settings on the course, enjoyed landscape painting in art classes in high school, and eventually obtained an art degree.
He took a job as apprentice to Dirk Harrison, the Manhattan store’s longtime display artist. Harrison’s paintings, when fixed on walls and columns throughout the store, served as backdrops for the latest fashions—a woman’s colorful scarf, a trendy blouse, a fur coat hung on store racks or wrapped around the necks and shoulders of flesh-toned mannequins. “I keep my strokes simple and use neutral colors,” he told his apprentice. “I vary my scenes. Some are impressionistic, some are pastoral. I use geometric patterns. But I never paint anything that might be deemed offensive to a store patron.” Each new season meant new fashions and new paintings. Harrison worked fast, supplying three dozen canvases every three months. The old paintings were discarded, but the faux-antique frames were reused. McKitty did the framing, ordered studio supplies and liaised with the store’s decorators, who draped fabrics over chairs and set vases, candelabras and framed pictures on end tables. He learned everything about the business and, around the time of his first anniversary, began painting too.
Harrison retired five years later and recommended McKitty for the job. There was no replacement for McKitty, however, so he would have to do everything himself. Harrison’s studio was also made into a shared space, a storage closet for a bevy of naked full-length mannequins. A year later, McKitty got a look at his personnel file and read Harrison’s recommendation: “Ron is hard-working, dependable and compliant. A good enough painter for what you need here.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement. He vowed to one day prove Harrison wrong.
Like Harrison, McKitty also worked quickly. He used splashes of color that, in production, were often no more than that. He never developed a style with bite and power. He trashed older paintings or painted over them. But once a season, as his defunct paintings were taken down and discarded, he felt the utilitarian, temporary value of it all. It would be nice if his art, just once, shined brightly in a private setting and that brightness reflected back on him. He dedicated his weekends to painting landscapes more freely. But when Simone was born, with so many hours at work with a brush in hand, he devoted time at home to her.
All that changed the day Enrique Waldorf was shopping to buy perfume for his wife and saw the painting of the sparrows. He found his way to McKitty’s studio.
“You’ve mastered broad brush strokes but your scenes lack emotion,” Waldorf told him. “Be daring. Use a finer brush and slash at your canvas as if it were a knife.” They walked around the store, and Waldorf selected three of McKitty’s paintings for an upcoming show. Afterward, McKitty searched online for information about Waldorf. In a news story, a New York art critic said Waldorf was an ambitious gallery owner in Chelsea who introduced unknown artists and wanted to expand to the Hamptons. The writer cast Waldorf as something of a huckster who kept the sales coming. McKitty thought, okay, let’s see what happens. On the third day of the show, Elton John walked in.
As he dressed for the Fourth of July picnic, McKitty decided to say nothing to his neighbors about the exciting turn in his career. That would be boasting. In the mirror the pot belly he could easily hide under his painter’s smock was very evident. He vowed to lose ten pounds. Until then, he’d try to stand more erect. He had, after all, good reason to hold his head up high.
Standing very erect, gin and tonic in hand, McKitty watched Gretchen MacSwan approach him at the picnic. She had fair skin and ash-blonde hair parted on the side. McKitty liked her high cheek bones, her Nordic freckles and her merry face. She was in her early thirties and recently divorced, but she still lived in a house on the golf course she and her former husband had bought. Both McKittys knew her, but not very well.
She smiled as she stepped over. “I hear you sold a painting to Elton John. I’m impressed.”
“It was just a scene of the golf course, one of my favorite subjects.”
“We have a budding celebrity in the neighborhood.” She reached out and touched his arm with one hand and raised her cocktail in the other as an invitation to clink glasses. “I was once at a record industry publicity party and Mick Jagger walked in. I was so star-struck, I couldn’t say anything. I promised myself I’d do better next time.”
“I’m no superstar. Just paying the bills.”
“Don’t I see you riding around the course at night?”
“After a day cooped up in a cluttered studio, I enjoy the open space.”
“Sounds like a good way to relax.” McKitty offered to refresh her glass, and when he returned, they toasted to his success.
At work, McKitty turned out a painting every two days. He felt conflicted over what the store needed and what Elton John might purchase, so he tried to achieve both. When the store began remodeling in early August, he broke from routine and kept his old paintings. Along with the new ones waiting to be hung, and a dozen mannequins, his studio was packed. He asked the workmen to ship the old ones home; who knew what Waldorf might sell? He set scores of them around the basement. To him they represented his best work; when he became famous—when Elton John spoke of his McKitty collection—they would be valuable. He visualized them being auctioned at Sotheby’s. He yearned to again feel the rush he felt when Waldorf first told him he was connected with a rock star.
One evening, a week after the picnic, McKitty’s pastor called to ask him to donate a few paintings to the church’s upcoming peddler’s arts and crafts fair. “Ronald, your reputation’s growing,” Pastor Osborne said. “A member of the church council was saying the other night your paintings bless the purity of nature.”
He told the pastor: “I’ve just finished one you’ll like, a scene of moonlight making the curves and rises of a snow-covered golf course look like a silken white negligee.”
“Uh, that’s unusual for us. But okay,” the pastor said.
The sale of his paintings, he believed, would free him from the treadmill train commute and the creative limits at the department store. He’d establish his own studio, perhaps in Brooklyn among the hipsters’ crash-pads cropping up in the Gowanus Canal neighborhood. And when he began selling paintings in Europe, he’d open a studio in Paris. He would be a true artist. Forget about painting backgrounds for expressionless plastic statues. His work would adorn the homes of Hollywood moguls, billionaire Wall Street executives. Elton John would commission him directly, and they would discuss his art.
After speaking with the pastor, McKitty took an evening ride in his cart while Julia headed to her book club. He filled a stainless steel thermos with ice, gin, tonic and the juice from a lime, and fit it snugly into his cup holder. He crossed the fourteenth fairway to the sixth and stopped to enjoy a drink at a stand of trees by the sixth tee. The warm breeze felt pleasant. He resumed his ride and drove straight down the middle of the eighth fairway toward the homes that rim the course.
“Hey, do you pick up hitchhikers?” It was Gretchen, waving from her rear deck. He turned toward her and she smiled. She was wearing shorts, sandals and an aqua marine halter top. McKitty thought her shoulders and legs were well tanned for a fair-skinned girl. He pulled up to her yard and she got in. He turned back toward the course.
“Where to?” he asked.
“Wherever you usually go.”
He punched down on the pedal, heard the low hum of the battery-powered motor, and returned to the center of the eighth fairway. The mid-summer sun was slipping below the tree tops. McKitty thought it was nice that a new friend, a very pretty one, enjoyed riding with him. Gretchen’s fair skin was a contrast against the lush greens of the course. The lips of the sand traps were freshly trimmed. The flags on the pins in the greens flapped at full mast.
“Suburban life is boring. You have to jazz it up. Don’t you agree?” she asked.
“Yes, but this summer’s been a bit different, given the new demands on my painting.”
“What will you do?”
“When I sell a few more paintings, we’ll finish the basement. Big screen TV, wet bar.”
“Don’t you have bigger dreams?”
McKitty spoke for the first time about his ideas. “Perhaps someday having my own studio in Brooklyn. Years from now, maybe Paris.” McKitty knew in his heart this was unlikely. But his career had taken an unexpected turn. Who knew what surprises lay ahead?
“Paris! What a fabulous idea. I’ll visit.” McKitty did not want to ruin her moment of fun by admitting how far-fetched the idea was.
He drove around for half an hour, sharing the gin and tonic, before heading up a slope toward the eighth tee, the highest point on the course. When he reached the crest, he turned the cart entirely around and stopped so they could look out over the course in the remaining twilight. He felt the breeze on his face again and took a sideways glance at Gretchen, expecting to see her in profile, her short blond hair being swept back by the breeze. Instead she was looking at him. She smiled. He had seen that kind of smile years before when sitting with a girl at the top of a Ferris wheel, and the look said, “I’m ready for some serious necking.” A stirring inside of illicit naughtiness made him hold her gaze. She threw her arms around his neck and gently pulled him toward her, and they kissed hard for several seconds.
He pulled slowly away, feeling unsettled. He was attracted to her but he had never cheated on his wife. Yes, this summer was different.
He took a final sip, handed the thermos back, and stepped on the pedal. He could see she was happy. He drove the cart up to her back door.
“Come in for a nightcap,” she said.
He got out, stepped to her door but stopped short. A silent warning sounded in his ear. It was his grandfather, so patrician, telling him when he was a young man: “Cross the threshold of a woman’s abode carefully. The deeper you go, the more committed you’ll be.”
“I’ll take a rain check,” he said and backed away. “It’s been a lovely night.”
She was lovely, too, and he thought about her. That week he took in the usual things of his world: businessmen on the train manipulating a newspaper into the commuter fold, the noon bells of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, the wail of an ambulance on Broadway, the mannequins’ blunt stares. He looked above the crowd, but Gretchen always seemed to be there. He imagined his hand sliding up her tan thigh in the light of a bedside lamp. He saw her high cheek bones and sparse blonde eyebrows in bright sunlight. When he refocused and turned back to his canvas, she was there. He longed for her, but he would not be seduced. What could he do? He could use his longing to create art. He’d paint her portrait, a sexy scene, one that would satisfy Elton John’s expectations. He’d give it straight to Enrique.
A few days later, his manager Jim emailed McKitty to meet with him. McKitty hated these meetings. What could it be this time? Another denial of his request for an assistant? Would he be chided for not spending all weekend helping make over the store? There was never a word of appreciation. After previous sessions with Jim, McKitty had felt like storming out and grabbing the first train back to New Jersey. And he might have chucked it all if not for the responsibility he felt for his family.
Jim said: “I don’t think your new paintings work for the store.” McKitty wondered, is he going to fire me? Jim went on, “You’re painting mannequins into your nature scenes. Some are winking, some are pouting. Some have come-hither looks.”
McKitty awaited the ax. Jim said, “Look, I’m happy you sold a painting to Elton John. But you can’t experiment here. Stay with neutral colors and soft scenes. Nothing that elicits emotion. Remember, this is your bread and butter.”
“Just trying to give us a different look,” McKitty said.
Jim raised his index finger and swung it left and right: “No more artsy mannequins.”
McKitty didn’t lose his paycheck, but he felt constricted, again. As he walked back to his studio, his cell phone rang. It was Waldorf, calling with news that a second painting had finally sold. “Brought in five hundred dollars,” he said. “Wasn’t much interest in it until I boasted about your sale to Elton.”
“Why only five hundred?”
“The buyer dickered and we agreed that was a fair price,” Waldorf said. There was a momentary silence. Then Waldorf said, “Heck, can’t wait for Michael Jackson to walk in. He’s dead.”
Another disappointment. But it was five hundred dollars. Maybe it should go toward a surprise overseas vacation with Julia. Her passport was current but he’d have to renew his. Or perhaps a night in Manhattan. McKitty wanted to know more about this world of fine art; together they could attend gallery openings and maybe meet sheikhs, Wall Street wizards, exotic women.
The day of the peddler’s fair, the lawn between the church and the parking lot was lined with tables in rows wide enough for people to casually walk among the vendors. McKitty found the place reserved for him and set up three easels and paintings: the scene of the moonlit golf course he had first offered to the pastor, and two others of the course depicted in different seasons. On each he posted a price of five hundred dollars.
“Morning. I’m Bessie Karstens,” a teenage girl said as she set up an easel and displayed a single painting. Other paintings rested against the leg of the easel. It pleased McKitty his neighbor was a fellow painter.
Pastor Osborne walked over. “Let’s not be modest about our achievements,” he said. From a folder, he took a four-by-five card and wrote: “Winner, 2016 Bedford High School art contest,” and gave it to Bessie to display. On another card he wrote, “Discovered by Elton John.” McKitty smiled as he received it and taped it to one of his easels.
The crowd began to swell. People inquired about the reference to Elton John and McKitty patiently told his story, but no one purchased a painting. Bessie sold her high school contest winner for $50. She posted another painting, and then a third as people paid $25 for each. Seeing this, McKitty called Julia on his cell.
“When you come down, please bring the receipt from the Elton John sale.” In a short while, McKitty watched Julia threading her way through the crowd, pleased again at her unstinting support. He taped the receipt next to the pastor’s sign. A man in purple shorts who had inquired earlier returned.
“So it’s true, $5,000!” he said. “But he’s a rock star millionaire.” He strolled away again. Other people looked and lingered but did not buy.
When one of Bessie’s customers tried to negotiate her price down, she held fast and made the sale. The man in purple shorts again stepped before McKitty. “What’s your best price on these?” McKitty had a ready answer. “You’re getting them today at the friends and family price. But fine art increases in value.” The man rubbed his chin between thumb and index finger and walked away.
It was getting late. The crowd was drifting away. Vendors were packing away their wares. Bessie put her last painting out. The fellow in the purple shorts came back. He looked from one easel to the next, then at McKitty. “You haven’t sold anything. I’ll give you $250 for all three.”
McKitty shook his head.
“Two-fifty. Take it or leave it.”
McKitty glanced at his paintings. Would they sell at Waldorf’s? He thought of all his paintings discarded as worthless. Bessie was watching. The man in purple shorts was waiting. McKitty had nothing to give to Pastor Osborne.
“Okay. Three for $250.” McKitty made the exchange. He felt relieved as he headed over to the pastor’s table and turned in his proceeds.
Arriving at work Monday, an email from Jim awaited him. The note included a link to a story in a British tabloid that said Elton John was auctioning off his vast collection of original paintings. “The rock star has been bingeing at galleries in New York, Milan and Paris. His barn at his Berkshire estate overflows with his indiscriminate purchases. Paintings by unknown artists are going for pennies on the dollar.”
Jim signed off: “You got Elton at a good moment.”
McKitty and Julia planned to meet at Waldorf’s gallery after work. He took an Uber from Midtown to Chelsea and got out at the gallery on West 23rd Street, just past the Highline. People inside were milling around and gazing at paintings washed with bright light from overhead tracks. Julia and Waldorf were talking. McKitty greeted her with a kiss and shook Waldorf’s hand.
“I’m just about to show your wife your latest painting,” Waldorf said, and led them to a display. “Your husband’s becoming very imaginative, even whimsical,” he said to Julia.
All three cast their eyes on a painting of a mannequin in a silvery negligee lying on an emerald golf course green. Its facial features would mean nothing unless one knew Gretchen MacSwan. McKitty thought Julia might recognize the face, but now his wife had a look of shock.
“Did Gretchen sit for you? Where’d you get this idea?
She turned to Waldorf. “Who will buy this?”
“Wealthy people have money to burn.”
“Jeez,” she said, shook her head at McKitty, then looked beyond him. His wife was simmering. Waldorf, watching this, gently took Julia by the arm to show her other artists’ paintings. When the gallery closed, the McKittys found a sidewalk café for dinner and drinks. As they ate, and during the train ride home, Julia appeared to suppress her irritation with a patient smile and one-syllable answers.
“Did you enjoy meeting Waldorf?” McKitty asked.
“How was your meal?”
“Would you like another chardonnay?”
The breakfast conversation was equally staccato, and McKitty was uneasy all day. So he wasn’t altogether shocked when he arrived home to find his golf cart parked in the driveway piled high with luggage. A note was set on the steering wheel: “Goodbye Ron. When the cart needs recharging, do it, and keep going.” He raced inside, steeling himself for a brawl.
“What’s this about?”
Julia was ready. “Sit down and listen. I went to Gretchen’s house and showed her this.” She punched up the picture of Gretchen as a mannequin on her cell phone. “She was amused, even flattered. She said you and she had discussed your career plans. She’s going to visit you at your Paris studio!”
“That was speculative … just talk.”
“Is this speculative?” she said, and tossed a FedEx parcel on the table. She had opened it. Inside was McKitty’s newly updated passport. “You’re planning an overseas trip and didn’t discuss it with me?”
McKitty broke into a sweat, knowing he had to defuse this heated moment. “I’m planning a surprise vacation for us.”
“Oh sure … and there’s that moonlight ride. One of our neighbors said you two looked awfully friendly sitting up on the eighth tee. And don’t think I didn’t see you smiling back when she was fawning over you at the barbeque. You, artist to the stars!”
“Nothing to that. We went for a ride together.”
She calmly got up, went into their bedroom, and as she slowly shut the door, said, “How far’d you get in her house?” McKitty heard the metallic click of the door lock. He went over and spoke through the door.
“I didn’t cheat. I wouldn’t cheat. Julia, be reasonable. Let’s talk.”
“Not now. Not tonight.”
He knew not to bang on the door. Shunned from his own bedroom, he looked around. “I’m not sleeping on the living room couch.”
“Then sleep in the basement.”
“Can’t open the hide-a-bed. Too many paintings.”
“Make room. Throw them out.”
Throw them out! The words were like a blow to the stomach. The basement was so full he could hardly set foot down there. He decided to spend the evening sorting through them, trying to separate the passable from the outright crummy. Going through them, he had to admit, a true collector would know his birds looked like cheap toys, his greens were the color of cooked spinach. How pathetic. His brush stroke was as erratic as his golf stroke. Elton John’s purchase was his Warhol moment of fame, and now he felt the frost. He was no Picasso. He wasn’t even Dirk Harrison or Bessie Karstens. He was McKitty, just McKitty. Finally, craving sleep, he relented. He kept three paintings and lugged the rest, his burden, to the curb outside. Then McKitty slept.
He lay face down in the morning thinking that his wife misunderstood him and he hated his manager’s face. He roused himself up and, with unsteady gait, groped for the stairs. He pulled himself up hand-over-hand on the banister. He went out for fresh air. There were noises up the street; the scavengers who picked through suburban garbage on collection days were busy. Two men in sweat-stained tee shirts and worker paints got out of a derelict Ford pickup and pulled a sagging, discolored couch into the middle of the street. One stood behind the couch and pulled at its back, straining, while the other bounced with his entire weight on the seat cushions. Crack! The wooden frame began to split. They tried again. The frame cracked loudly and a crevice appeared. Several coins fell out, and by the rings they made when they hit the macadam, McKitty could tell they were quarters and nickels. The men dove for the coins; the one behind kicking his legs over the back, the other jack-knifing toward the crevice. Both came up with silver. Then they dragged the now-misshapen couch back to the curb. They got their prizes but did not smile. McKitty understood, this was serious work. This was making a living.
The men had disturbed McKitty’s pile of paintings, but when he went in for a closer look, he discovered all were still there. He stood alone on the sidewalk, in the light of dawn, considering what he had left.
Philip Barbara asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work