Unfinished West

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Dedicated to the writers and readers of Crestview, Florida and her surrounding communities. Thanks for the memories.

Jack stood in front of the painting. Something just didn’t ring true, so he turned to Ashley.

“I can tell, Ash.”

“No, you can’t,” she said. Her smile as enigmatic as another more famous face, albeit in Paris and not New York. “Even the experts can’t tell, and though I love you, an expert in art you’re not.” She smiled up at him. Droplets from the sudden Manhattan rain shower sparkled in her hair. They’d dashed in to save a soaking and stumbled upon an exhibit on loan from the Vatican.

Jack bobbed his head in agreement. “Yeah, yeah. I have a brother and a fiancé who never tire of telling me how much I don’t know.”

She slipped her warm hand into his. “I like your stories.”

“Uh-huh.”

Before him was Raphael’s Transfiguration, unfinished except for the hand of Giulio Romano. The painting, with a fanciful and dark interpretation of man’s inadequacy stood behind a barrier and a Swiss Guardsman. Jack spread his arms wide, daring the canvas to sweep him into the maelstrom of an ascending Jesus.

“Come on, get me.”

Jack glanced at the unsmiling Vatican escort. The man was not amused and could probably provide him with a maelstrom of his very own.

“Sorry.” Jack dropped his arms and grinned.

An unsmiling NYPD cop glanced at the two and shook his head.

Jack walked to a small sculpture. If it were possible, he probably knew less about model carvings than he did painting. Music, too.

He glanced at Ashley. She had a master’s degree in both fine art and music, and had acted as their tour guide on a recent visit to Vienna. When an undergrad junior doing an overseas study course, she’d even interned at the Vatican as an Italian speaking host. He wondered what she saw in him.

Ashley caught his eye and pointed toward the ceiling, the speakers actually. Gustav Mahler’s Symphony number 10, according to the Pandora display near the exhibit.

She walked behind him and whispered. “This isn’t even a Mahler. You know, he died and a couple composers got together and cobbled this work together.”

Jack thought about that, moving to stand again at Raphael’s feet. The talent dies, someone else jumps in, creates an unfinished something or other, and pockets the ducats.

He understood the impulse. As a history teacher, he knew about unfinished work. Benjamin West painted the incomplete “Treaty of Paris,” a portrait to celebrate the end to the American Revolution. West hadn’t died. The ticked-off English lost the war and the country, and said they didn’t need any bloody reminders and had refused to sit for the painting. Only the Americans-a couple Franklins, John Jay and Henry Laurens sat, and gladly so. Heck. They won.

Jack added the bloody for fun. He had no idea what they actually said, but thought scant kind words likely passed between the two countries in 1783.

Unfinished work? The thought made him shutter. His new novel’s outline sat at home, untouched in a month. The rest of the story, he liked to say, hid inside his laptop waiting to be set free.

How in the world could someone else finish his work? Even Jack didn’t know how the story would turn out…sort of.

He exhaled loudly and stared at Transfiguration. Not every face in the painting’s crowd left on earth seemed impressed. He wondered why, and if it was Romano just having fun with the adoring word.

Ashley moved to another painting. Jack remained rooted.

What about his characters, Pfeiffer, Calendar, and the bad guy? The hero, heroine, and antagonist in his unfinished novel. How does anyone know how they’ll react, or what they’ll say unless it’s the author? Characters are supposed to grow, be transformed…not necessarily transfigured, like this painting. Someone else got that gig.

“This is a Raphael,” Jack said aloud. “Just different.”

An older woman, also wet from the cold autumn shower turned his way, but said nothing.

Ashley laughed. “Are you talking to yourself again?”

The overhead lights blinked.

“Closing time,” a voice called.

Ashley slipped back into her wet coat. “Let’s go. The painting’s here for another month if you need someone to talk to.”

Jack shook his head. “I don’t think so, Ash. This is too…” He waved a hand. “…hard. In fact, I going to take up fishing. I’d rather be on my deathbed bragging about the one that got away, than obsessed for a last word I’ll never get right.”

Ashley nudged him toward the exit and an impatient guard. “Come, Hemmingway. I think it’s time I got you home to a pot of coffee. You’ve got papers to grade and I think there’s a story in you itching to get out.”

She smiled.

He grimaced.

The guard’s expression never changed.

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