Master Class

by Sarah Pascarella

Emmett had tried to rationalize the decision. He was no different from a scientist, dissecting tissue to uncover its cells, the very building blocks just under the surface. Or from a little boy who dismantled the parts of a BB gun, trying to decipher its inner mechanics. Or yes, that too, a mechanic, whose tinkerings under the hood of a car offered up understandings of a whole other world.

He took a few swigs from his bottle of whiskey, each taste burning a little less than the one it followed. He still wasn’t completely right with what he had decided to do. He had hoped the booze would bring courage, as it so often did. As it usually did.

He paced around the room, took in the painting from a few feet back.

Perhaps he would start in a corner – the bottom left. The autograph was on the bottom right. He would do that last.

Or first! First, and obliterate all sense of ownership.

Ownership. The word sounded strange in his thoughts, as if it were a pinball getting knocked around the levers and passageways of his brain. Funny how some thoughts could be so disruptive – meandering, fast, without an intended destination or purpose, just pure movement and descent.

Own. He owned it, this piece. It was not his own work, his own painting. But it was now his, purchased, and he was free to do what he pleased with it. Posterity be damned.

Only. It was the only one of its kind. The originator had made others like it, countless others, let’s face it, Emmett argued to himself. But this was the only one with this curvature here, to the center canvas. The particular shade of blue – no, cerulean – no, azure – elongated across the plane.

The bottle emptied down his throat; heat spread through his sinuses. He went to the cabinet for another.

Once the whiskey had been poured, he mixed the necessary chemicals in a small plastic cup. Yes, he’d do a little at first. The name, first. The rag dabbed the authorship away. The P, most prominent, was gone in just a few strokes, the i and c shortly thereafter. He took the o next, then stopped.

Ass. Emmett snorted, decided to leave it. It seemed fitting, a reminder of what he himself was. A desecration so humorous it could make his decision if not palatable, then tolerable. And yet he still felt he had to do it.

He hadn’t told Laura, seeing no need to inform her of his purchase – or his plans. Laura, an artist in her own right. Laura, whose own paintings adorned the walls of their home, this very studio. Laura, who would try to dissuade him, of course. Maybe he would tell her, in due time.

How could he tell her, though, that he hoped to learn something that couldn’t be taught any other way, in no other shape or form? He had turned it over in his mind, ricocheting between despair and elation. His act, in her eyes, in anyone’s eyes, would be deemed a crime, unconscionable. But then …

What better way to learn from the masters than deconstruction? What better way to understand something than to peel away the surface, delve under each layer, study the skeleton? Bones had showed us the dinosaurs. Teeth identified a body when nothing else remained. She would have been deaf to these arguments, upset with his plan. She would discourage him, maybe even leave. He didn’t need that. Not today, not ever. So this would be—it must be—a private lesson.

He took a little off the top, revealing a swath of ink, lightly rendered, under a layer of charcoal. A little thrill raced across the tips of his fingers as he swabbed, as if he were reading Braille, the comprehension of intent and communication manifesting physically from fingertips to brain. He took a step closer to study the line. He took another step, slight, until he couldn’t get any closer to the painting. He leaned as close as he could, nearly bringing his nose to the canvas.

A thumbprint. Just underneath the first layer, pressed in the charcoal, was the telltale presence of the artist. Emmett trembled at the reveal, as though seeing a lover unclothed for the first time. He studied it for a moment, then took a few steps back again.

The pinball in his head rattled once more.

Owe. What debts was he accruing today, with this crime? What lessons would he take away that he shouldn’t have been privy to – that were never intended for him, or for anyone?

If he were sober, he thought as he poured another drink, he would admit he was at an impasse. That he needed to desecrate another master’s work to move forward with his own. That he imagined his next piece to be a sort of phoenix, rising from the ashes of what he would lay waste to today.

He took the rag and smoothed it right down the center of the canvas, its trail a swath of colorlessness, a void in a forest of greens and blues and grays. No retracing any steps now.

Old. The pinball shifted lanes, bumping associations anew. True. He was old. But he didn’t feel his age, his history. And as long as he didn’t feel it, he didn’t want it to be true. Old meant his prime was behind him. Old meant his future would never catch up with, nor equal, his past. Old meant slowing down, settling, not learning. He looked at the mangled canvas. Wasn’t that the whole point of this purchase, this insanely expensive decision? He had forked over the money to purchase a lesson that, like the work itself, was priceless. He had no desire to teach, to work with those who would come up next. He still wanted to learn, to be awestruck by talent, grand talent, that had preceded his own.

Ode. Would anyone understand his motivations, how his crime came from a place of need, of desperation? And if he could just recover that spark of learning, get those juices flowing again, that he would create – as much as he could – in tribute to those past masters, including his own masterworks?

He heard the familiar engine of Laura’s car approach the small drive behind the studio, then its final wheeze as she came to a stop. Home, early. She’d find out now. His first justification would be due.

He dipped the rag again, made a fresh swipe along the paint. The skeleton emerged a little more, the lines increasingly distinct. A grid, organization underneath the chaos. A roadmap, there all the time, if only one knew to look for it.

Chaos contained, Emmett thought. To destroy a work could be a similar act, he reasoned. Could Laura agree? An act of controlled chaos, all toward the purpose of his own forward motion – would that be enough to convince her? Or would she see only the crime, and nothing more?

Laura’s footsteps were coming along the drive, now at the door. Emmett reached out, touched his thumb to Pablo’s thumbprint. Explanations would be forthcoming, more justifications would be offered. As he saw the doorknob turn, just in his peripheral vision, he also discerned the settling of the pinball, somewhere just behind his eyes, and with it, space and quiet – the place of absorption, where the master’s teachings would be deciphered.

He reached for his glass, took another fiery shot of whiskey. The door opened.

He turned to greet Laura, to offer his first defense, but in his movement saw the artwork anew, from a fresh angle. He stopped to stare, and felt the air crackle around him. Class was about to begin.

Sarah Pascarella is a Boston-based writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Travelers’ TalesThe Boston Globe, and USA Today, among other publications. She has a Master’s in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College. Her novel, The Virgin Mary Hotline, is available via Kindle and Nook. She is currently at work on her second novel.