LOOKING AT EAKINS • by David Macpherson

“Yes, I’m here to look at your Eakins,” the little man at the door said. He was old with a bald head and a messy gray mustache. Dockers and a cheap polo shirt were his attire. The man looked strong, like he did a hell of a lot of yard work in his day. Ken was expecting someone, but he figured it was some fine art freak, the kind his father had over all the damn time. This guy, ready to trim the hedges, Ken was not expecting him.

Ken was only a little out of it, he just had half a joint, so he was still with it enough to not make the pause too uncomfortable. “My dad said you would be coming. To look at one of his paintings, right?”

“Yes, the Eakins he owns. He was gracious to allow me to look at it. I am sorry he could not be home.”

“He had to go to London for work.”

“He reached me by email. He told me his son would be happy to show me the Eakins. That would be you, I hope,”

“It would. I’m Ken.”

“Ken, of course. Do you live here?”

“For now. While I’m going to law school, dad is cool with me staying.”

“That’s nice. It’s nice to live with family. Your father must be pleased to have you about.”

Ken had to smile. “I guess. He’s not here a lot. And I’m studying. You want to come in, sir?”

“Thank you. I am Nick Tcharkov.”

Be polite, Ken reminded himself. “It’s upstairs. My dad left me a note about which one to take you to. It’s in the back office. He said it was on the northern wall. Let’s see if we can find north.” They walked by all the familiar things Ken didn’t notice, heading to the staircase.

“It’s a lovely house. That Sloan is wonderful.”

Ken looked to where Mr. Tcharkov pointed and saw a cartoony painting of two boxers going at it. “My dad has a lot of paintings. Ashcan school, it’s his thing.”

Mr. Tcharkov nodded, “Ashcan, yes. Not that Eakins was of that school, though he was contemporary of them, had similar themes as well.”

“So you’re a collector?”

The old man raised a hand. “Not a collector. I am not so blessed. Your father has just been kind enough to let me look at the Eakins.”

“Big Eakins fan, huh?”

They had reached the stairs, passing the Calder mobile. “Truthfully,” Mr. Tcharkov said, “Eakins is fine enough. Not my favorite, but still it is my goal to see every Eakins I can. I have seen all the ones in the museums and public trusts. Now I am in the difficult stage of seeing the ones in private collections. Your father was very generous to allow me here.”

“You don’t like Eakins and you are seeing everyone you can? Forgive me, I don’t get it.”

The old man looked up to the ceiling for a moment, “My wife, Alison, loved Eakins. She had books and books of his art. Never got to an exhibit, we lived in Northern Wisconsin. We didn’t get to museums. When she died, I made a promise to her. I spoke to her stone, but she heard me fine. I promised I would go see every Eakins. Every one. I’m retired and I got insurance money, so I go and see Eakins.”

Ken never liked uncomfortable moments. Without anything good to say, he said, “Wow.”

“I have seen 376 Eakins currently. Men rowing boats, doctors over the operating table, naked men bathing on the rocks. Alison is pleased, I am sure.”

Ken swallowed dust. After two hallways, they reached the back office. “Here it is, Mr. Tcharkov. I’m sorry, I don’t know which one it is. I think that’s north. I think it might be there.”

The old man patted Ken’s shoulder with a calloused palm. “I’ve been looking at Eakins for three years. I can find him.” The old man entered slowly and walked directly toward a painting, like he was being pulled to it by an invisible line being reeled in. It was a portrait of a guy in a stiff shirt. He said, “Portrait of James Farrens, an associate of Eakins at the Academy. Not a remarkable man. But then, it is not a remarkable canvas. A lesser work, yes?”

Ken looked at him. “You don’t like it?”

“It’s fine. But liking it is not the point, it’s the looking. It’s being here with the painting.” The man turned back to the picture and gazed intently for a minute or two. Ken’s skin tingled, as if someone was standing too near . He looked over his shoulder, but of course, it was just him and the old man.

Tcharkov looked down and exhaled. With eyes still looking at the floor, he said, “Thank you, That was wonderful.”

Ken felt something needed to be said in the static of the moment. “You must miss her a lot.”

Mr. Tcharkov looked up, “How can I? Doing this, how can I? Thank you for your kindness and your father’s generosity. If you don’t mind, I will show myself out.” He turned and walked out.

Ken watched him leave and said, “What the hell was that?” No one answered. Ken looked up at the Portrait of James Farrens, at this picture of someone who meant nothing to him or anyone he knew. He wondered if he’d ever noticed this painting before. His flesh goosed up again and he smiled. He had the sensation of receiving permission to search for a treasure, to share a secret he never realized he always knew.

David Macpherson is a writer from Massachusetts. His first book, Tales from the Reanimator’s Saloon, is available as an e-book.

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