“Just a glass of water, no ice,” the old man said in a raspy voice to the waitress as she took our orders.
Juan called him the benefactor, a sickly old man dressed in a refined black coat, baggy suit, black mask, and what looked to be an old-style of Ray-Ban sunglasses. We sat at a booth at the Frontier restaurant across from the University of New Mexico, a sort of hub for some of our commissions and client meetings.
I felt out of place just being in his company. He looked nothing like the usual southwest art patrons, and doubt was easing in wondering if he would pay what Juan had promised.
Juan also seemed nervous. His face glossed with sweat as he ordered a cinnamon roll. He was good about finding commissions and work, but I was sensing how he also felt off with this client. I prayed silently that we weren’t going to be commissioned to do something kinky or obscene for some fetish.
Juan offered to pay for lunch when he told me about meeting the man initially, so I ordered a brunch combo with Christmas, smothered red and green chile. Money was tight since I lost my scholarship after failing my statistics class. I might save a couple of meals from this outing at least.
“I need to test you, and a couple of other artists around the area,” the old man said as he removed his mask. I had assumed he wore it due to his age and having a frail immune system, but his face was ghastly. His skin was blotchy, molded tightly on the bone structure of his skull, giving him a skeletal look. Scabbed boils and open sores were at the corners of his mouth, while loose skin sagged in unnatural wrinkles around his jowls. I imagined the terror of his sunken eyes if he removed his glasses, and was thankful he kept them on.
He pulled out a small black moleskin book.
“I want you to draw your portraits in this book,” he continued and took out a pencil case with various drawing supplies of charcoal, pastel and watercolor pencils.
I pulled out my phone and snapped a picture.
“What is this test for?” Juan asked as he clasped his hands in front of him, giving the man a studied look that I’ve seen him use before to negotiate a better contract for work. As good as he was as an up-and-coming artist, he was a better businessman with his refined style. Similar to the old man, he wore a fitted suit, but grey with an open blue shirt. No tie made him business casual.
No wonder I felt out of place. I tugged at my oversized graphix tee and leggings nested in a pair of Uggs. While my hair was in a fashionable top bun, and my makeup immaculate, (as I never leave the house otherwise,) I still looked closer to the beggars hanging by the bus stop than an artist seeking a commission.
The old man chuckled. “Do you know the story of Picasso and the portrait of the woman in the park?”
“Let me guess, the one where he charged her 5,000 francs for a 5-minute sketch. She gets mad at him, and he corrects her saying, “Ma’am, it took me a lifetime to draw your portrait.”
It was me who had interrupted, and I felt a little embarrassed acting out the deep voice I used for Picasso. I had enough of his tense atmosphere, and I could feel my insides turning with anxiety.
“Smart girl,” he said as he erected his posture and smiled and ghastly grin, revealing broken and black teeth that must have added to his subtle ascent.
“Smart girl has a name. It’s Lillian. I’m only here because Juan said that there was a commission for drawing a portrait for a ridiculous amount of money. I didn’t believe him.” I said nonchalantly I dipped a chip into salsa. Maybe eating something would ease my nerves.
“Yes,” he nodded. “I am willing to pay you $20,000. For the sketch, no less.” He paused and placed his hand over his heart. “I understand that it takes a lifetime to hone your craft.”
Juan and I exchanged glances.
“Are we drawing your portrait?” I asked, taking a swig of lemon water. The smell of Mexican and breakfast food was making me nauseous. This seemed too good to be true, and we are just starting our careers.
The old man sat back in a comfortable pose.
“No. I have enough of me. I wish you to draw your own portraits.”
He pulled out a black leather briefcase on the corner of the table. He seemed to enjoy studying our apprehensive faces while opening the metal clasps and propped the case open slightly to reveal bundles of cash.
“Are you a mobster?” I coughed jokingly before grabbing a pencil and opening the black book.
Really, what did I have to lose at that point? I noticed an odd stamp on the inside cover.
I used an AB sketch pencil from the case and started to draw my portrait using the camera on my iPhone as a mirror. I have never really liked drawing my own portraits, not like Frida, one of my idols. While I loved her bravado for painting herself as the subject she knows best, I always felt uncomfortable using myself as the subject. It might have to do with how I take more interest in other people, or that there are times when I really don’t want to know myself. Not even for the simple study of a self-portrait.
The waitress was quick with our food, and I pushed my plate aside as Juan started slicing his cinnamon roll. The old man watched me intently as I drew my portrait, almost nodding in approval with each stroke.
“Do you enjoy watching art?” Juan asked.
I learned the hard way, that sometimes, it’s just best not to ask questions about why people like art.
“I do,” said the old man. “It is very important to me that you get the likeness of yourself,” he said gesturing around his face. “I do not like modern art. It seems to be more about making statements than a craft of capturing, or preserving, what is.”
“So is this like an art grant to you?” Juan asked and started eating one small delicate bite at a time. It felt like he was stalling, and that he was considering declining the commission. “From what I gathered, you are seeking to support some local artists. That’s how you got my number at the 505 Gallery, right?”
“In a way, yes,” the old man said, eying me all the more. He was creeping me out, but I was trying to remind myself that what he was also paying for watching us draw.
It didn’t take me very long to finish, about fifteen minutes. I was surprised to see how gleefully pleased he was about it. Juan started at me wide-eyed as the old man pulled out some cash and handed it to me.
I counted it below the table and was surprised to find it was the $20,000 as promised. I excused myself and made my way to the bathroom for a few moments to decompress. It not only felt stressful, but my back ached as if weighted down. I felt as though the wind were knocked from my chest, just from drawing a simple sketch. It made no sense.
When I returned, Juan stopped eating and had also started drawing his portrait into the book. I could sense his unease as he sat there hunched over the book while the benefactor watched him, as intensely as he was with me.
Juan then paid for our lunch while the old man collected the various pencils and the black book. He gave Juan his cash.
“It was a pleasure doing business with you,” he said as he tipped his hat in a farewell and left the booth.
“What business did we just do?” I asked Juan as I scooped my food into a to-go box. He shook his head, as he stuffed the cash he hid below the table into his pocket.
As we left the restaurant, another question filled me with dread. “Do you even know his name? He never even introduced himself.”
Juan stopped and stared into the distance. “No name. He called me from an unlisted phone number, asked me if I was good at drawing portraits. If I knew other artists who could draw their portraits quickly.”
“And that’s it?” I asked, my heart pounding. I felt the sweat forming on my back as a cool breeze hit us from nowhere.
“He asked that I meet him here, and he would pay $20,000 for a sketch in his book. Said he’d pay other artists available too.”
I tightened my grip on the to-go box in my hands. “Yeah, well, seeing is believing. I thought you were joking when you called me.”
“Me too. I keep expecting cameras or a show to pop up at any time. It didn’t feel scripted though.”
We continued to walk towards UNM as we used to after a study group or meetup, even though we haven’t had classes together for almost two years. We gravitated towards the duck pond, still processing the strange encounter with the benefactor.
“So what are you going to do with the money?” he asked me as we settled on some of the outdoor chairs near the student union building.
“It’s rent, food, and next semester’s tuition,” I muttered defensively.
He nodded and folded his hands in front of him. “It feels wrong, somehow.”
“What, do you feel like we swindled him?” I started to poke holes in the container. I decided that I would end up throwing the food out. I doubted that I would have an appetite later, and I didn’t want to be reminded of the odd man.
“No,” Juan paused. “Like we sold more, although, I can’t name why or how.”
My face scrunched into disbelief. “Really? We spent fifteen minutes to draw our portraits in a little black book for $20,000.”
“Yeah. I don’t know why.”
I pulled a cigarette while watching his frown turn deeper, the creases around his eyes and mouth turning into sharp shadows. I had never seen him this upset, and he looked as if he were aging years before my eyes.
“At least it wasn’t as bad as the Bella Rainbows Project,” I smiled, bringing up old memories.
Juan laughed, and I felt better seeing the shadows ease a bit on his face. ““That was a mess. I didn’t regret it though. Learned a lot.”
“But you regret this?” I breathed in deep some soothing smoke, feeling my nerves relax with each puff of my cancer stick.. “Why?”
“If I could tell you, I would.”
“Well, I got things to do.” I smashed the cigarette on the table. I had been trying to quit for a while, but it still relieves me at times.
I kissed him on the forehead, smelling his cologne, and felt my heartache. It had been weeks since we last even talked. He didn’t say anything as I departed to my dorm room east of campus.
Thoughts filled my mind as my eyes adjusted to my dark dorm room. Maybe I was too callous about certain things, especially when it came to money. I was needy at the same time, a bit insecure about my own talent and skill. I knew I was a mess, but at least I owned it. Maybe that’s why we didn’t work, but he had a lot more support than me. His parents at least supported his career path.
I went to the bathroom and was startled by my reflection in the mirror. White streaks predominantly appeared in the part of my hair. I undid my bun and turned on the full set of lights. Was it a trick, or did my hair just start turning white in the last hour?
I stared wide-eyed in the mirror. It wasn’t a trick. Not only was my hair greying, but I noticed similar deep creases form around my eyes and mouth, similar to Juan’s at the pond. Were we aging? Rapidly?
My hands started shaking as I grabbed my phone. I paused a moment before calling him and sat down on the toilet to relieve myself. Surely, I was going mad. I needed to calm down. It had to be stress. This would all pass.
My stomach sickened sitting there, and I looked down, noticing cellulite and stretch marks appearing on my inner thighs. Even my stomach heaved, and I felt intense pain as I emptied my bowels, as if I had eaten bad food or were getting over a hangover.
Something was very wrong with me, and if this was happening to me, was it happening to Juan too?
It sat there for what felt like hours, but it was only about fifteen minutes when I looked at my phone. When I finally stood up, my legs felt numb and it took a few minutes to feel the tingles of blood circulating back into them.
I looked back into the mirror and screamed, barely recognizing my own voice as it sounded deeper and raspier than it should have been. More of my hair had turned white, and my skin formed blotches similar to what I had seen on the old man.
After my initial shock, I dabbed at the sore that started to develop at the corner of my mouth, gasping in horror at the rapid deterioration of my body.
I was startled by my phone’s sudden ringtone playing a song I picked specifically for Juan.
“Juan,” I panted into the phone. “What’s happening to us?”
“Are you aging too?” he asked, his voice sounding familiar, loud and authoritative, but short and airy.
I started crying on the phone.
“What did we really sell to him, Juan?”
I heard deep heaving breathing and sudden gasping noises. Then I heard nothing at all.