“Hating Melissa Gruber” by Jenean McBrearty

Rudolpho Mantuas’ paintings were revealing. From four feet away, they were swirls and amalgamations, interludes of blank space punctuated by rat-a-tat swathes of color. From twenty feet, the chaos reformed into coherence. What was once random crystalized into dogma. How? Critics pondered the inexplicable.

The key,” Bernie Curtis asserted, “is to suppress expectation.”

Rival critic Melissa Gruber cryptically skewered Matuas and Curtis. “They are what they are because neither of them can be good at what they yearn to be.”

What does she mean?” Katherine Curtis asked mid-bite of a poached egg.

Bernie said, definitively, “Too much purple on her palette.”

Well, it is spring,”

He played roulette with an invisible pistol pointed at his temple. “She’s crazy as Mantuas.”

Are they lovers, do you think?”

Miniscule minds and less finesse. They haven’t the talent for l’amour.” He finished off the last piece of toast and finished his second glass of champagne. He needed fortification. Mantuas was giving the media a preview of his latest collection entitled, The Soul. “I’ve never enjoyed the sound of gushing water or flushing toilets” he responded when Katherine asked him why he was going, “but I promised the Times a preview review.”

It isn’t a musical performance, Dear.”

Yes, it was. She just didn’t understand. Fifty people⸺half from media and half “Blue Ribbon Collectors”⸺would be herded into a twenty-four-hundred square foot warehouse, ceiling lights low, while a string quartet played Mendlesohn. In a half an hour, waiters would begin to gather stemware, a sign everyone should drain his vodka or cognac.

Strategically placed minions would slowly pull curtain cords, and the black drapes would part to reveal ten-by-ten foot canvasses for close-up viewing. When the lights brightened, it was time for the guests to mingle and the chorus of oohs and ahhs would rise. Forty-five minutes later, when the cacophony of admiring chatter replaced astonished swoons, there would be a drum roll and blaring trumpets, and Mantuas would arrive to shouts of Magnificent! Monumental! Majestic!

Worthy of Vaudeville,” Bernie whispered to whoever was in ear-sot.

At least he deserves top billing,” A matron of the arts shot back, “and you didn’t buy a ticket.”

Her huffy-puff was accurate. His reputation guaranteed him an invitation. Bernie waded among the chosen few, listening to predictable reactions. His review seemed to be writing itself: Art should be viewed in context. The drama of orchestrated emotions never ceases to entertain. Pictures destined for long dining room walls that scream for attention. When the crowd dissipated, he decided to examine the merchandise.

Only one other guest remained. The six-foot-five man wearing white tie and tails. Must have left his top hat in the limo. Bernie congratulated himself on owing an electric car. “Did you buy two or three?” He asked when he saw the man stooping to read the title and price tags hung in tiny frames beside the framed behemoth oils.

Nothing tonight. I’m waiting for a fire sale.” Then, as if to apologize for the wisecrack, he said, “I’m looking for his inspiration. Sometimes it reveals itself in the title of the work. See here? This seascape is called Contrition at High Tide.”

High tide? From where Bernie stood, it was a picture of a boat desperate to ride out a storm. “Yeah, I’d be sorry too if I’d was sailing into a maelstrom.”

The man came to his side. “Oh, yes, I see it now. Such an amazing talent. Makes you wonder if he made a deal with the devil. He’s from Georgia. Atlanta’s the American Florence.”

I don’t know about devils, but I sure know a marketing genius when I see one. And only twenty-three. Ballyhoo and brushstrokes.” The title of his Times’ review was writing itself too.

How long did it take you to become famous?”

Without thinking Bernie replied, “Sixty-three years.”

Is that so?”

Not really. I started writing when I was in high school. The fame came at forty, after a guest spot on local public TV. I guess what I mean was, it takes a lifetime of experience to be able to pontificate on other peoples’ work. Mantuas’ rise is meteoric, in comparison.”

Speaking contritely about jealousy?”

Bernie nodded. “Yeah, I guess. I always wanted to be a painter. My uncle paid me nine-hundred-dollars to white-wash his barn one summer. I bought an electric typewriter. The next summer I painted his house. Got a computer when I was in college.”

Tell you a secret, Rudolpho told me he always wanted to be a writer.”

Are you the devil he made the deal with?”

In a manner of speaking. I’m his father. He had no skills he could sell to an employer, but he could draw. It was either art school or welding. Now he’s rich, famous, and still unhappy.”

Wrong deal. Wrong devil. Tragic story.”

It is. But he mastered the technique of his craft. Sooner than you, he’s reaped the benefit of maximizing his abilities. But, Mr. Curtis, like you his quest eludes him. All those words, all that paint⸺and neither of you has given the world anything beautiful.”

Of all the arts, Bernie thought, the music of the human voice is the most terrifying because it can speak the cruelest of truths in the strangest places. He’d have hurled an insult at the man had he not disappeared in the hall’s cavernous corners. With different criteria in his mind’s eye, he inspected Mantuas’ paintings again, traipsing around the hall’s perimeter and reading each title as Rudolpho’s father had done. Was it a man’s fault he never found what he hadn’t been looking for? A blank page. A blank canvass. He hated Melissa Gruber. Cryptic and correct Melissa Gruber. Diviner. If there was anything beautiful about Mantuas’ exhibition, he would find it and write about it because every young man should have someone to encourage him. To tell him the truth before he’s sixty-three.

That quest eluded him too, however, because reading all the small print made his eyes water.

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