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A View from the Altar / Portrait story
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Portrait story

by Ghost Writer

Early last week I was doing some landscaping work for an old woman.  It was one of those beautiful afternoons that made Southern California famous, slight ocean breeze, mid 70s, clear sky.  My boss went inside, leaving me alone to finish up, and I soaked up the solitude.

After an hour or so, I took a break from shoveling gravel, and as I put down the shovel, my ears were assaulted by the barking of two little poodles from the house across the fence.  I cussed under my breath and looked to see how to devise some sort of counterattack.  That was when I saw the poodles escorting an old man, probably in his 80s, tall and thin with a slight bend in his back. He was moving gingerly from the living room to the outside patio area clutching a large picture framed in gold.  Dressed in a collared shirt and slacks with suspenders, he looked as if he had just come home from work at a law office or a bank. Oblivious to my curious stare and his yapping dogs, he placed the picture on a white plastic patio chair partly draped in black velvet, then retreated inside the house.

I guessed he was going back to get a camera so he could sell the picture on eBay, and the black velvet was there as a background.  Though impressed that an old guy was tech savvy enough to do this, I still thought it was a waste. Who would buy a framed picture, and even if somebody did, how much could he possibly get for it?  I couldn’t see much except the frame from my current vantage point, but I was reasonably confident I was not looking at some long-lost Rembrandt.

Before I could finish that thought the man emerged from the house again, this time holding two glasses of dark liquid.  He placed one down beside the chair containing the non-Rembrandt, then sat down facing it with the other glass still in his hand.

Feeling conspicuous about taking such a long break, I went back to work while moving closer to his position to see what was going on. I began to hear him talking as if someone were there with him.  Having heard no one approach the house, I again peered over the fence to see…just him.  And the picture frame.  Shaking my head at the man’s mental condition, I thought, “California,” and again resumed my labors, figuring I’d ask my boss about her neighbor.

After about 40 minutes or so, the old man was still conversing with his picture frame, and by this time I was even more curious to see what the picture was.  I assumed knowing the subject would answer the question of why the man was talking to it, and why he felt it necessary to provide it a late afternoon libation.  So I looked over the fence again, making sure I did not alert him or the dogs to my presence.  My work had placed me so that I was essentially looking over the man’s right shoulder.  Squinting into the setting sun, I saw the photo was that of a middle-aged lady in a Sunday dress.

That’s when I realized this was a portrait of the man’s dead wife.  Until that instant I couldn’t imagine why this man would be sitting alone on a patio telling a golden picture frame about his day.  Now I felt like I’d trespassed on something, if not holy, at least extraordinary.

Here was a prosperous man with nice house in a nice neighborhood and a nice new car in the driveway.  He had good enough health to be living alone unassisted despite his age.  But the one thing he desired, that mattered more than all the other stuff around him, was his wife.  And the only way he could cope with losing her was to pretend she was there on the patio drinking a Coke with him.

By this time he had been outside for nearly an hour. The sun had almost completely gone down. I began to quietly gather up my tools, hoping the racket didn’t disturb the old guy.

As I started towards my truck, he got up and began to dismantle his makeshift shrine. Taking the portrait of his lady inside, he never even took his eyes off it to look where he was going.  He returned seconds later to retrieve the Coke glasses and now silent dogs.

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