Staring Contest

by M. H. Burkett

eyesArthur Roget Theodin the elder stared levelly at Arthur Robespierre Theodin the younger. Rog showed his age, hair thinned and gray, combed severely back in a widow’s peak, the lines in his face sagging with years. The smile sat flat, stretched between wrinkles. The eyes were dark, steadfast, and unreadable. The inscrutability of the elder’s face, the total lack of expression, itself spoke volumes. Rog himself said nothing.

Artie sat across the room from his father and was, to any passing observer, an example of model behavior. He was dressed for the dining room; a collared shirt rode above a dark sweater’s neck, tucked carefully into sharply ironed slacks. Unruly curls and cowlicks refused to be so ordered, crowning his head in impish disarray. Posture straight, head thrown proudly back…young Artie seemed braced for anything that may come. His face, shining in comparison to that of his sallow sire, was marred only by the ill set of the smile. The eyes locked unwavering upon his senior, but the smile…the smile hung awkwardly. Or, if not awkwardly, then uncertainly, as if the partial smirk was a brave façade behind which the boy’s thoughts pulled his lips in a million directions. From laughter to guilt to hope, from secrets to jokes to rebellion, Artie bore that grin as buttress against the weight of the elder’s gaze.

The dining room was formal. The table dominated the room, its length easily holding eight upholstered chairs per side at full leaf extension. The cherry wood china hutch, filled with mirrored shelves of fine flatware and delicate porcelains, stood against the dark paint of the inner wall. The buffet spread between the outer wall and its two windows, thick half curtains there sashed into place. In the corner of the room stood a broken grandfather clock. The clock ran fast despite its ponderous pendulum, the geared tics counterbalancing the alternating tocks, heirloom of forgotten origins racing toward tomorrows.

The Theodins sat against the walls, bookending the table. At any event, they balanced the room. Polar opposites, charging the room, ever attracting the other. It was a constant energy, felt immediately upon entering the room and intensifying when seated at the table between them. Many a conversation faltered into uncomfortable silence. No questions were ever welcomed. No comments ever addressed. Guests found it difficult just passing the wine from fear of direct eye contact.

Neither was unsociable. The younger seemed open to listening, drinking in information. The elder was subdued, subtle, but equally attentive. If anything, both father and son seemed reflective of the mood around them. Then, coffee and desserts cleared, hugs dispersed, cards exchanged, papers signed, coats gathered, and good-byes waved through back windows…the Theodins would sit alone again, staring each other down. Curtains pulled, candles snuffed. Staring.

Years passed. Paint faded. Lines smoothed. Countenances softened.

The dining room was often neglected. So much so that, when occasion arose, it needed airing out. Brooms, dustpans, dust rags…it was no light task. Drawn curtains drenched the room in daylight. Dust motes erupted, swirling in thermal sunshine drafts, drifting toward the middle of the room. There they would hover, clouding the area between table top and chandelier.

The dust was all that came between father and son.

Feather duster down raked circles of dust from the first portrait, the cleaning revealing sharper detail. The painting of Arthur Robespierre Theodin was done with a deft hand, each line sharp and sure, the colors blended with practiced eye. A certain conservation of brush stroke was evident in the background: the smooth strokes matched that of the dining room so well that the figure might have been painted on the wall itself, then framed as afterthought. The command of line was incredible, as not a one was out of place. Neither were there any unnecessary duplications, as each line swelled or quelled as required, capturing a certain boundless energy barely contained in the subject. Minutiae were captured with almost photographic precision: the slight divot in the top of the ear, the dusting of freckles, the length of the eyelashes. It was a study so exacting as to capture, if not the soul of the model, then at least as much spirit as could be contained.

The work exhumed, the duster whisked along planes and curves of the frame, returning luster to gilded wood worn bare in places. The final sweep was the bottom ledge, across the plate bearing young Arthur’s name, then ending in the right-hand corner. There, in a small pocket of the canvas, in decisive slant, stood letters boldly scripted: A R T.

Across the room the elder’s portrait hung at eye level to the younger. This portrait was equally detailed, but cleaning it was a far more delicate process. Not the frame, as it was a smooth, flat, black plastic untouched since the frame shop. Where the dust had lain on the younger like velvet fur, on the elder it gathered in pockets and crevices, like snow clinging to a mountain face. This was due to the countless swoops, peppering, and overall thick globs of paint. The texture was palpable, as if not only had the work taken much time, but also adjustments, corrections. The results: a melting background with a portrait of patchwork composure. It was produced from trial and error…but much study. The visage changed demeanor upon stepping back, shifting moods with distance, until finally snapping into focus from across the room. Close, it was beastly.

But with a little elbow grease, even its motley, somber hues could brighten. A final flick of the duster finished the process, a lick and a promise across the bottom initials, deeply carved through multiple layers of paint: A R T II.


Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing