Who Asks for DeLorren?
I always wonder what kind of person asks for Dali. That’s what the man in front of me requested, the one lying beneath the white hospital sheet. He must have been out there. Eccentric. Probably a hoarder. Collected unusual things, like taxidermied animals dressed as Hollywood Stars. He’d say the squirrel dressed as Marilyn was his favorite and blow her a kiss. That’s the kind of guy who wants the stilt-legged elephants dragging him across the desert for his final trip.
I don’t find it comforting, but I hang the paintings regardless.
Hung. I mean hung. I’m taking them down and they’re wheeling him away.
They’ve made it to the elevator. The doors ding and I’ll never see the man again. Can’t even remember his name. And that’s how it is every day.
I remove the reproductions from the wall. His daughter mutters a thank you as I pull down the last one. I place the three prints under my arm and carefully dip around the open door, not wanting to scuff the edges of the black, wooden frames.
As the the silver semi-reflective doors part, I meet Dr. Nelson’s eyes as he slowly appears from the luminous box.
“Glad I found you,” he says, stepping from the elevator, work order in hand. “We need you to run a few paintings over to 143. The woman’s only got a few hours. Just transferred from the ER.”
“What does she want?” I ask.
“Couldn’t tell you. Her requests are on the slip,” he says, stuffing the order form into my left breast pocket, just above the Cape Cod Hospital insignia. “No more than thirty minutes.”
“Yes, sir,” I reply, militarily.
The elevator ride is quick. Two floors down. The basement is always empty, devoid of lab coats and emaciated figures slouching in wheelchairs.
My workshop, or so I call it, is at the end of the corridor. I don’t know why I insist on referring to it as a workshop, no real work is done in there. It’s a storage locker. A really big storage locker filled with reproductions of famous paintings arranged in alphabetical order. The hospital pays me with an endowment granted by the local Council on Aging. They even offered to pay for my last year of art school. Still don’t know if I want to go back.
A man by the name of Henry Fellings came up with the idea. He’s the head of the council. His wife stayed in intensive care as pancreatic cancer crept through her lymph nodes, slowly flipping switches and flicking off lights. She didn’t like the painted lighthouse that hung on the wall. It wasn’t soothing. The waves reminded her of nearly drowning at the age of fifteen. Henry didn’t want any of his friends to slip into their final bed with such reminders hanging on the wall, so he asked for donations and now I have a job.
The rooms on the second floor consist of four blank walls, each with three metal hooks arranged at eye level. It’s formulaic, standard for every room on the intensive care unit. I feel no need to tell about the rest of the hospital. All that’s important is the position of these three hooks, that’s my belief. The respirators and heart monitors might rank higher in the eyes of Dr. Nelson, but what does he know? Pleasant imagery could be as integral to a person’s health as water.
I unfold the work order, flatten out the creases in the paper.
Of course she wants Monet. If I had to make a chart for the most requested artist, Monet would be a skyscraper jutting above the little hovels of Degas and Pollock. I’ve got at least ten prints of wildflowers and oddly hued rivers leaning against the far corner. Specifics. I always want specifics. They leave it to me to decide the combination of three paintings. Tell me you want Morning on the Seine, not a blanket statement encompassing any work of Impressionism I want to throw on your wall. It’s a lot of responsibility. I don’t think my boss realizes the stress this involves.
I pick the last image a person sees before they die.
What if they hate landscapes and love portraits? How am I supposed to know?
I need a raise. A few more days off at least.
I pick out three paintings from the corner. The workshop is organized much like the record store downtown. I scan through the rectangular black prisms, thumbing between one painting and the next as if I’m looking for vintage vinyl. I have an Mp3 player. I don’t actually know what this search feels like or how it sounds. I assume the motions from watching movies.
When I reach Monet’s room, I try not to look at the old woman in bed. Her breath is rapid, she could be blowing up a balloon for one of her grandkids, if she has any. I avoid her gaze. The wire draped across the back of each painting slips easily into place. The frame swings for a moment, then settles. I leave knowing I’ll recollect them in a few hours.
After my retrieval I go home, pick up a few work orders from my mailbox. Another day without a challenge. Another day without mistakes. My track record is nearly perfect, customer satisfaction is at an all time high. At least that’s what I tell myself. It’s hard to gauge the happiness of a corpse.
“Who’s DeLorren?” I ask the old man’s son. He rises from his seat in the waiting room. Wrinkles tighten around the corners of his eyes as he moves a few strands of graying black hair from his face.
“I couldn’t tell you. Dad says he’s the greatest painter that ever lived,” the man replies, his hands run spider-like across his jeans, just above his knees. A nervous tick I assume. I see it whenever I meet children of the sick. Each adopts a different twitch: jittery feet, wandering eyes, an exaggerated and highly repetitive nod. I’ve seen them all.
“I looked through our inventory and there’s no DeLorren. I can’t even find an image on Google,” I say.
I had checked all the usual avenues. Wikipedia. Facebook. Yahoo. I probed Jeeves and even he couldn’t tell me who this painter was. I sent an email to the local art museum. No reply. The man who runs the art gallery down on Main Street ran circles around my question, somehow landing on the idea that I wanted to buy a sketch penciled by Degas for a few hundred grand. I hung up on him.
“You’re sure your father’s getting his name right?” I ask.
“It could be a her for all I know, but yeah, he says he’s not mistaken,” the man says.
“I’ll look again,” I tell the man before he rises and creaks through his father’s door, room 215.
I flip through each painting in my workshop. The hollow clank of wooden frame against wooden frame resonates around the room. DeLorren isn’t there. I must have looked through the D’s five times before I made my way around the rest of the room.
The man’s work order says he’s got two days tops. Congestive heart failure. I don’t know why they find it necessary to give me the diagnosis. I don’t want the attachment. If I cared about every patient, really got close to them, learned their names, their life stories, I’d slip into continuous depression. All that dying. I tend to keep my distance.
An hour of searching, hundreds of paintings flipped and flopped and still no DeLorren. I stare dejectedly at the laptop asleep on my “work” bench. I must talk to the sick man, ask him if he knows anything else. Could he be local? He might know a gallery. A friend maybe?
This man is the first patient I have looked at in nearly a year. I slipped up a few months back and practically dropped an O’Keefe into a poor woman’s lap. The only blemish on my work report. Had to look at her: apologies are never sincere without eye contact.
This guy looks good for his age, skin still taught across his face, neck veinless and smooth. He has a handful of tan splotches on his cheeks, sun damage probably.
He smiles when I come in the room. We shake hands. His palms are cold and clammy, mine are humid, swampy. His grip isn’t strong. It’s the first indication, other than the fact he’s propped up in a hospital bed, that he’s sick.
“So you are the man with the paintings?” he asks.
“Yes,” I reply.
“Is there a problem with DeLorren?” he inquires. It sounds as if he is ordering a meal off the fast food menu. Oh, you’re out of chicken fingers. Well...
“Sort of,” I say, not wanting to worry him. “I can’t seem to find copies of his work. Do you know anything else about the painter? Could it be a mispronunciation?”
“No, I am quite sure I’ve got it right. I saw several of his works. They’re beautiful. I was always very fond of one. Haven’t seen it in years, sadly,” the man says, his eyes rising to the ceiling, then the surrounding walls in a look of fond remembrance.
“I’ll ask around, there are a few more galleries I haven’t talked to,” I say.
“If it’s too much trouble, I can think of some other artist. Who was that man who only painted strips of color? He had promise, real promise...”
I feel a lump in my throat. He doesn’t want to be an inconvenience. I have years, he has hours. I’m going to find DeLorren. Two days is a long time.
“Never heard of him.”
I’ve heard it intoned by thick New England accents, heavy lisps, lofty syllables of distant snobbery, even punctuated by a series of sneezes. No one on Cape Cod knows DeLorren. The owner of The Seaside Gallery says he might’ve been a street vendor, one of those self-supported artists trying to sell their landscapes and poorly penciled lighthouses on Main Street in Hyannis. Most of those guys met with obscurity. It’d be hard to find anything by him if that was the case.
“You can try the Poor Man’s Gallery up the way,” a gallery owner tells me.
“I forgot about that place,” I reply.
I’ve only been to the shop once. It’s tucked into the back corner of an alleyway off Main Street. The canopy from an Elephant tree dips its flat green leaves over the front door from a neighboring courtyard. The place sells everything cheap. Canvases of all sizes with just about anything on them. For some reason, on my last trip they had an influx of painters fascinated by seagulls standing in parking lots. I bought one. It hangs in my bathroom.
The pathway is chipped from patrons’ boots. The corner of the alley, where Poorman’s is nestled, is filled with foliage, cigarette butts and Pepsi cans. It appears dark from outside. The overcast sky doesn’t help.
I walk in. A bell above the door chirps my arrival. A thin woman sits behind the counter, her finger runs along the lines of a mystery novel. She doesn’t look up while I wander around the room, staring at crates filled with canvases. Obtuse corners poke above the rest at odd intervals. The few hanging on the walls don’t look promising: a medieval castle with a cartoonish dragon takes up a vast stretch of the wall. Another shows the minute details of a lobster’s claw dismembered and scattered across a checkered tablecloth.
“Looking for anything in particular?” the cashier asks, finally taking notice of my presence.
“Actually, yeah. Have you ever heard of DeLorren?” I ask.
“Sounds familiar. Give me a minute,” the woman says as she rises, leaving the book splayed on the counter.
She meanders through the crates, pausing here and there at similar images of the shoreline, all of which contain a sailboat. One shows the bow of a graying skiff descending into the waves. She lifts it up and turns towards the window, a sliver of light aids her eyes as they wander over the canvas.
“It’s the closest I’ve got,” she says.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I ask.
“A while back there was this guy who called himself DeLorren who painted around here. I think he lived at the homeless shelter. Only painted sinking ships.”
“But this isn’t one of them?”
“I need one by him though.”
“I don’t think you’re going to find one, honestly.”
I needed something to take with me. A backup plan of sorts.
“Great. Fine. I’ll take it.”
She doesn’t offer me a bag as she rings up my purchase. I can see a stack of them beneath the counter, but she ignores their presence. No receipt either. I hand her the money, a twenty and a five, and she shoves them directly into her pocket. I hope she’s the owner, otherwise something shady is going on. I carry the painting the same way I would at work, tucked under my arm, fingers wrapped around the bottom of the frame.
The cashier doesn’t even wish me a nice afternoon.
“That’s not him,” the old man says, as I hold the freshly acquired painting near his face.
“Is it similar at least?” I ask.
“The content maybe. That’s all.”
His son nervously stands in the corner of the room tapping his toe against the white linoleum tiles, hands still running up and down his pant legs. I’m nervously tapping my finger against the edge of the painting. Looks like we’ve got something in common.
“Dad, why don’t you tell him what the painting looked like,” he suggests.
A description isn’t going to bring me any closer to finding the painting. If art galleries and museums can’t produce a single copy or print and the internet doesn’t even acknowledge the man’s existence, I doubt a verbal Polaroid will improve my odds. I bow my head, leaning close to the man’s face, acting as if each word he is about to say will unravel the mystery.
He takes his cue. “The one I have in mind has a family standing on the underside of a capsized sailboat. You know it’s a sailboat by the pale white canvas floating beneath the water. And it’s not capsized. It’s turtled, completely rolled over, not just on its side. But the family doesn’t look worried. It’s like they planned to picnic there, on the boat’s belly. The little blonde daughter is smiling. The son is unraveling the string for his kite. The woman is beautiful. Her blond hair is a mess, tangled in the storm. She has green eyes, thin lips. She holds the man’s hand as they look at the viewer. Oh, and it’s cloudy. No land in sight. Dark seas, white capped waves.”
“And that’s what you want?” I ask.
“If at all possible,” he replies.
“I’ll find it,” I say, looking at him. His dated biochemical clock is ticking.
I manage to find DeLorren’s obituary. He died in Hyannis over a decade ago. Looks like I can’t show up at his front door and ask for the painting.
The way I see it, my last resource is spent. This old man isn’t going to get his painting. It’s the first time I’ve ever failed. I mean completely failed. Figures it’s the only guy who is even remotely concerned about my own well being. The only truly thankful customer I’ve received. Maybe I should just hang up the imitation painting. He’ll overlook the discrepancies if I put it on the farthest hook. Better to have something on that bare wall than leave it blank.
The knockoff leans against my bedroom wall, the overhead lights illuminate the brush strokes across the canvas. They’re imprecise and clumsy. I know I could do better.
No materials though.
The art supply store is still open. I could get the paints, the brushes. He wouldn’t know the difference. I’ll just put it on the farthest hook.
I drive to the store. A woman greets me at the door with a flyer in hand, yammering about sales. I wave her away, swiping a shopping basket from the pile. At this point I’m sweating like the slowest member on a track team, moving along the aisles. My t-shirt is plastered to my back as I reach for the paints. My hand grazes the tube of a cheap shade of blue. I hear the ghosts of art professors past: No, no, no, you can’t compromise quality for price! My hand falls on the name brand tubes, flinging them into my plastic basket with little thought of their dollar value. Brushes next, made with hair from some fine animal.
I have to carry the canvas because it won’t fit in the basket.
I’ve gotten every shade of blue I can find. Pale to dark, the whole spectrum. Mud brown for the boat’s hull. Wheat yellow for the children’s hair.
I think of my last exhibit as I pass down side streets leading home. My car rattles over potholes and divots. People perused my portraits, paused momentarily before cityscapes, then meandered to the next artist’s canvas. My images meant nothing to them. For this guy, DeLorren meant something, really stuck in his brain. I was never able to do that. No one has ever asked for one of my prints to hang on their hooks, and for good reason. They were empty, lacking emotion, any ounce of passion. I never had anyone to paint for, until now.
I can’t leave the space blank. You only die once and the scenery should belong to your dreams.
When I get home I’m exhausted. I fall asleep with my imagined masterpiece coloring itself in my head.
“I’ll do it tomorrow morning,” I mumble as I set my alarm.
I throw the stacks of paper and plastic organizers from my desk, clearing space for the canvas. I lay the base layer across a blank expanse. I didn’t shower this morning and feel as though I took an ocean dip, my skin still briny. I wet the brush.
The indigo acrylic dries quickly.
I paint the boat, its ghostly sail shifting restlessly below the sea. I paint the family: the familiar black and white faces of my grandfather and his sister. It was the only photograph he brought from Germany 80 years ago. In the painting, my young Grandfather straddles the underside of a sailboat, attempting to untangle a mess of knots in his kite’s line. I don’t know the parents. They look friendly though.
I skimp on the details. If you look closely, you’ll see that the boy’s shirt is buttonless and the girl’s braids hold without ribbons. I don’t have the time. And it’s possible I’m too late. I throw some clouds into the sky.
I surmise what DeLorren’s signature looks like. Not cursive: blocky like a Norman Rockwell.
I sprint to the elevator, with the painting tucked beneath my arm. As it dings, Dr. Nelson appears on the other side. He hands me a work order.
“I’ll get to it,” I say. I stare anxiously at the illuminated numbers and bolt as the door opens.
The second floor is a maze of gurneys, teal scrubs and wheelchairs. I run through the labyrinth, dodging medical minotaurs and meal carts. The air smells of weak coffee and bacon. I vault through my patient’s door.
The son sits in the corner, still tapping.
His father looks up at me, still conscious, still waiting for his painting.
“You found it!” the man exclaims, voice more distant than the day before. “Please, bring it close. I want to see.”
I hesitate. I don’t want him to notice the inconsistencies of my interpretation. He’s squinting, lines run away from his eyes, arching down his cheeks and rising into a cavernous explosion across his forehead. He can’t see that well, I tell myself, rotating the canvas so it’s sitting just above his sheet-covered thighs.
“Where did you find it?” he asks.
“Yardsale,” I lie.
“I thought I would never see it again after my wife sold it.”
“You owned it?”
“Of course. Why else do you think I wanted to see it? It hung above my bed for years. It was there each night before we went to sleep. Always said my Edna looked just like this woman. We never had any photos when we were young. This was the closest I could find,” he said, managing a smile.
“Where would you like me to hang it?” I ask, gesturing to the three hooks.
He points to the one directly facing him. I slip the canvas into place as he raises his bed into a steeper sitting position. The heart monitor spikes at regular intervals. Maybe the sight of his deceased love will repair his damaged heart. It’s a crazy idea.
“Thank you,” the man says.
His son nods in agreement.
“I’m just glad I found it,” I reply.
“I’m sorry for the difficulties.”
“It’s no problem. I like a challenge every now and then.”
“I’m glad I could provide you with such a trial,” the man says, coughing dryly. He speaks about the simplicity of DeLorren’s painting. The detail in the wood grain. The haunting motion of the submerged sail. The way his wife remains young even though he lies on his deathbed, withered, the last blips on the heart monitor whispering in his ear. He stares into her eyes as if she is looking back at him, waiting for her words to drown the mechanical cadence in the air.
I understand why this was the last thing he wanted to see.
He lapses into silence and I say goodbye, not wanting to take time away from him, his son, and his wife. The estimation on his chart says his heart is past due. As I walk away, I ask myself, what kind of person asks for DeLorren?
About the author:
Corey Farrenkopf received his B.A. and M.Ed from Umass Amherst. He works as a stove technician. In the evenings, he writes novels and short stories in an attic space with a single skylight. His work has been published in The Avalon Literary Review. He lives on Cape Cod with his girlfriend, Gabrielle. Find out more here.