Russell Richardson lives with his wife and sons in Binghamton NY, the carousel capital of the world. His publishing credits include Fabula Argenta, Crimson Streets, Jitter Press, and others. His story, "Death Reel," appeared in Scarlet Leaf Review, April 2018. He is also illustrator of "Poems for Children," by Larry H. Richardson; and, for charity, the books "Super Cooper Saves the Day," "Abel's Way," and "The Many Adventures of Mya." All books are available at Amazon.com.
Number 32 Speaks to Me
Orin Kincaid, wearing a gaudy checkerboard suit, stood beside the sandwich board propped on the sidewalk outside his gallery. The board’s advertisement read, “Seniors’ Night.” For one evening, the elderly residents of Pondlily Nursing Home were exhibiting works they’d painted in art therapy classes. Orin flicked his cigarette at the street and edged into the gallery’s hot doorway. He grunted to himself. The gamble had paid off. A sweaty, shoulder-to-shoulder crowd packed the converted firehouse. Crowds were a necessary evil. They meant profit, but people repulsed him. Slipping through the party, Orin offered a deflecting smile to those who recognized him. He avoided the slack-skinned nursing home residents who’d been shuttled in for the spotlight. But he couldn’t evade the chunky woman with a purple crew-cut who sought him out and pressed upon him. She was Magda, the art therapist who had phoned Orin’s assistant a few weeks earlier to propose the event. “Bless you, Orin,” she gushed. “You’ve done our seniors a splendid service.” The woman’s pawing and rancid breath made Orin squirm. “If only I could do more.” The woman’s moist hands gripped his wrists. “Could you host this monthly?” Orin tugged against her. “We’ll see how tonight goes,” he said. “Excuse me.” He escaped any further lathering. Slithering through the multitude, Orin mourned the bygone days when respectable aficionados patronized salons. He reached the rear of the gallery, where he kept a small bureau. Seated at this desk, his assistant, Beverly, had their metal moneybox open and was about to tally the door’s gross. As he approached, Orin snapped his fingers, directing her attention to the gallery’s front. “Go find out who painted number 32. It’s gathering a crowd.” Fuming, Beverly went round to check. She sassed, in passing, “You seriously can’t do it yourself?” Orin shrugged. In her absence, he acted fast. He stepped to the desk stealthily, reached into the cashbox, and pocketed a wad of bills into his jacket. From the door's collections, percentages were due to Beverly and Pondlily, and the rest went to him. He had agreed to the terms but never intended to play fair. When Beverly returned, Orin was coyly hovering beside the desk. Beverly sat heavily enough to spin the chair. She had slovenly tendencies and a Frida Kahlo unibrow. “Charlotte Cutler painted number thirty-two,” she said. Beverly opened the box and began counting the money. When finished, she lowered that caterpillar brow and riffled through the money again. She glowered at Orin. “This isn’t right.” Orin bared his teeth. “You’re positive you collected everyone’s admission fee?” Beverly shot daggers. “If I missed any, it would be due to lack of help.” To change the subject, Orin craned his neck and surveyed the crowd. “It's criminal we can’t sell anything, but this is great P.R. Perhaps some of this rabble will return for a proper exhibition.” Abruptly, he became perplexed. “Strange——more people are squeezing around that damned painting.” Smoldering, Beverly was sealing the divided proceeds into three envelopes. “It’s a moiré painting, just messy squiggles. Not my thing.” Obscuring Orin’s sightline, the crowd elbowed each other with increasing vigor, each person jockeying for a superior view. Tension steamed the gallery. “But it is theirs, apparently,” he murmured. From the crowd, a woman, dressed in a shiny blouse, sauntered toward Orin. Locked in her gaze, Orin adjusted his ascot and groomed his graying hair. He received the woman with a confused head tilt. Hot blood flushed her cheeks. “Are you the gallery’s owner?” asked the woman. “At your ser——” “What’s that painting cost?” She meant the work that had drawn such interest. Before Orin could open his mouth, Beverly intervened. “The paintings are exhibition only.” The woman ignored her. She focused on Orin instead. “I’ll pay one thousand dollars,” she said, her voice a buttery purr. “Sorry,” said Beverly. “Exhibition only.” “Let’s not be hasty,” said Orin. The woman fingered the collar of her blouse and stepped up to the man’s chest. Her eyes were glazed as if mesmerized. “Two thousand dollars,” she said. “Exhibition only——” Orin coughed, hard. “We can make an exception this once,” he said. He scowled at Beverly. She threw up her hands and sank in her chair. The woman's tremulous hand produced a checkbook from her handbag. Orin eagerly provided a pen. Nearby, a clammy man in a collarless shirt came shuffling at them. Orin cringed at him. “Is she b-buying the painting?” the man stammered. “She is,” said Orin. “Number 32. It’s quite popular.” The man gasped. “She can’t. Whatever her offer, I’ll d-double.” “Double?” Orin asked, intrigued. But the woman shoved the new man aside. “Back off,” she growled, spraying spittle like an unmuzzled pit bull. The man roared and launched upon her, grabbing her coat. They crashed first into the desk with a painful thud and then to the floor. Beverly and Orin leaped from the fray. Horrified, they looked from the skirmish to the painting in question, where patrons had begun to strike each other. “What the hell?” asked Beverly, reaching for her phone. “I’ll call the police.” Orin stood motionless and sneered devilishly. “We don’t need the police,” he said. “We need more paintings from Ms. Cutler.”
“Imagine living at the mercy of these brutes,” said Orin. They were in the Pondlily Nursing Home’s lobby, awaiting Magda, the art therapist. Orin gestured to the front window, beyond which a tattooed orderly pushed a resident in a wheelchair on the patio. Beverly patted his back. “I’m sure you’ll never grow old.” Orin's thoughts had already fluttered on. “Nevermind. Let’s hope the old bitty’s been productive, eh?” Beverly frowned. “Do you have a conscience?” Orin’s lips peeled over a repellent grin. “I don’t carry it with me.” Beverly rolled her eyes. Orin took her by the arm, indelicately. “If you want our gallery to pay its bills,” he said, “remember to be persuasive.” “Your gallery,” she said, prying free. “I’d make more at Dunkin Donuts.” “Then go do so, sweetheart,” hissed Orin. Then he straightened and waved his hand. Magda was waddling down the hall. “Salutations,” he bellowed. “How wonderful to meet again.” Moving cautiously, Magda narrowed her gaze as she came upon the visitors. “You’re a surprise after Friday night’s fracas.” “An unfortunate event.” Orin attempted a seductive smile, which looked more like stomach discomfort. “But great art inspires passion.” Beverly abhorred his slimy charm. She interrupted. “Orin wants to hold another event.” Magda shook her head. “As I said on the phone, it’s impossible. The brass has canceled art therapy groups. Only individual counseling is allowed, due to——” Orin’s raised a finger. “Actually, our interest is limited to one particular artist. Ms. Charlotte Cutler, who so moved Friday’s audience.” Magda laughed. “No way. There are many reasons why not, least of all how hard it is for her to produce anything.” Beverly and Orin exchanged glances. “That was her painting at the exhibition?” Beverly asked. “You don’t know?” asked Magda. “Follow me.” Through corridors cluttered with wheelchairs, medical equipment, and the occasional cot——occupied by sheet-covered, birdlike creatures——Magda led the visitors to the residential rooms. At one doorway she beckoned them to enter. They did and saw in the room, alongside one of two beds, an old woman. Beneath a frizzled nest of white hair, she sat slumped in a wheelchair by the window, gazing at the blue sky. Wet drool glistened on her chin. “I present Ms. Charlotte Cutler.” Magda folded her arms upon her massive bosom. “She’s catatonic.” Beverly and Orin were open-mouthed. Magda chuckled. “Charlotte’s a vegetable. An unpleasant term, but true. What’s amazing, however, is that if you put a brush in her hand, she’ll paint. Her arm will move, and she’ll cover a canvas.” Orin’s brow furrowed. “I don’t follow. If she’s like DeNiro in Awakenings, how could she——?” Magda nodded. “It’s confusing, yes. First, I prop the canvas beside her, set out paint cups, and squeeze the brush into her hand. Then, slowly, she works. When the brush needs cleaning, she taps the canvas. The whole time, there’s no change of demeanor or spark of consciousness. But she paints. Honest to God.” Orin stepped toward the old woman. Magda squared to block him and continued: “The problem is that we’ve had incidents here, similar to what occurred at the gallery on Friday. Until your exhibition, I chalked them up to senility. But now. . . .” Catching on, Beverly asked, “What happened?” Magda gazed at the room’s second, unoccupied bed. “Charlotte had a roommate who bullied her. Pulled her hair, poured water on her. Then I was hired to start art therapy groups. Everyone loved our sessions. And to see Charlotte paint shocked us all. I hung her first canvas right there to celebrate.” She pointed to a bare wall. “On the night the painting went up, screams came from this room. Charlotte’s roommate was found beside the painting, dead from a seizure.” Orin’s smirk revealed his skepticism. Magda’s eyes slit. “It sounds nuts, but the painting caused that woman’s death. I just didn’t connect them at first. Our groups continued, and she painted a few more pictures. Then, one day, two male residents grew obsessed with her work. Each insisted they must have the picture. By the time we separated them, those two codgers had clawed chunks out of each other.” Beverly was listening assiduously. “You really believe her paintings trigger these responses?” “There’s evidence to support my hypothesis.” Orin’s grin persisted. The profits were mounting in his mind. “So she’s produced a few paintings, including the one from our exhibition. Where are they?” “In my office,” said Madga. Orin’s chest swelled. “Okay. You go grab those for us. We’ll prepare to exhibit on Friday.” Magda batted the air. “Are you crazy? Not a chance.” “A woman offered $2,000 for Ms. Cutler’s work before being deterred by a man who sought to double that.” Orin rubbed his palms together. “Barring police interference, we’d have been well compensated for her piece.” “A piece not for sale,” Magda clarified. Orin ignored Beverly’s vigorous nods beside him. He sized up the stout art therapist. “You’re a . . . a handsome woman,” he said, trying and failing to sound alluring. “Can’t you and I——?” Magda cackled hard enough to sprout tears. “No way, José,” she managed to retort. Beverly murmured, “He’s completely lost his mind.” But Orin clapped with a loud smack. “Don’t be rash. A substantial amount could find its way to both your pockets.” Magda wouldn’t budge. “No dice.” A pitiful expression creased Orin’s face. “Please. Our gallery is struggling. But one successful show could secure us for a year.” Declining again, Magda wrinkled her nose. “Fine.” Orin pointed at the oblivious Ms. Cutler, who forever swept her mental hallways. “Deny an old woman her therapy, you philistine. Your employer will want to hear this.” Magda showed incredulity. “Tell them. They don’t cotton to bullies, either.” Growling, Orin stalked out. Beverly apologized and then followed her boss down the corridor. Until they reached the walkway outside, he muttered incoherently. “This is nonsense . . . a catatonic woman’s paintings incite violence?” Beverly kept pace at his elbow. “But if it’s true?” she asked. “Would you want that on your conscience?” Wickedness flickered across Orin’s features. “You’ve questioned my morals twice. I won’t tolerate a third.” He huffed as he scanned the yard. “No, I suspect Magda, herself, is the painter. Improvable, I suppose. Nevertheless, the work will surely sell.” He punched the air. “But how to acquire it?” He halted and curled a grin. “Go wait in the car,” he said. He set his rump against the waist-high stone wall that lined the walkway, and he watched the distant, tattooed orderly who now lounged near the patio’s picnic tables. Orin studied the man while feeling his pockets for a cigarette pack. “I need to smoke.” “Don’t you dare,” hissed Beverly. “Don’t do what you’re thinking about.” Orin flicked his hand at her, shooing her away.
10 o’clock. Gallery’s rear entrance. Bring the paintings from the Art Therapist’s office. These were instructions any idiot could follow. So where was the idiot? Orin crouched inside the gallery’s back door, peering through the window glass and gouging his overlong pinkie nail in the window’s frame, impatient for Lurch’s arrival. That’s what the orderly called himself: Lurch. He exceeded six feet, wore homemade tattoos over his frame, and possessed intense eyes that hadn't blinked during their conversation at the Pondlily facility. Now Orin consulted his watch. Fully half past the hour. What if Dude didn’t show? Orin would be without recourse, an annoying and frightening outcome. Suddenly, staring at Orin through the window were those obsidian eyes. Orin jumped. He fumbled to open the door. The goliath slipped past, grumbling, with the stolen paintings wrapped in a black garbage bag and clutched in a bear-hug. Orin grimaced at the man’s body odor and clasped his nose. “You frightened me.” Lurch grunted as he laid the paintings against the nearest wall. He turned to Orin. The man’s scattered teeth were yellow when he smiled. He jerked his thumb toward his delivery. “Hundred bucks.” “Yes, we agreed to one hundred dollars,” said Orin. “A drop in the bucket compared to what they’ll fetch.” He bit his knuckle. Orin, the insuppressible braggart, should have known better than to disclose his potential profits. He handed a few bills shakily to Lurch and winced a wavering smile. “Drop in the bucket, eh?” Lurch pocketed the money, assessed his foppish host, and scratched his bristly scalp. “Grabbed 'em too fast to look ‘em over. Mind if I take a peek?” Sizing up Lurch’s swollen biceps, exposed by his short sleeves, and recalling the chaos of Seniors’ Night, Orin stammered. “You wouldn’t like them. Primitive stuff.” Lurch flashed his tombstone teeth again. After a moment, he snorted. “Whatever, man.” He stepped toward the door. Orin cleared his throat and said, “Wait.” The goliath stared down at him. “When these sell, I’ll need more,” said Orin. “Can you help with that?” “It’ll cost you,” said Lurch. “Money’s no object.” Orin knitted his fingers together and grimaced, lamenting his second mouthful of foot. But Lurch simply shrugged. “Tell me what I gotta do.”
The next day, Magda stormed into the gallery. “Give them back, you thieves!” she cried. It was mid-afternoon, and Beverly was framing paintings while Orin sat with his laptop at the desk. Beverly flashed confusion and then her icy gaze leveled on Orin. He looked between the women. “To what do we owe——” “Quit the act,” barked Magda. At the desk, she slammed her palms upon the surface. “You stole those paintings, and you’re gonna return them.” Orin’s eyebrows climbed his forehead. “Stolen paintings? Whatever do you mean?” Magda balled her fists. “You have them, and I’ll find them!” She flew to the canvases that Beverly had stacked for framing. The crazed woman threw each painting aside, frantically hunting for Ms. Cutler’s missing works. Leaving his chair, Orin said, “Madam, these accusations insult me. You’ll have to leave now.” Magda stopped and fumed. Her chest heaving, she snapped at Beverly. “Do you know?” The other woman shook her head. “Well, my next stop is the police station,” said Magda, wheeling on Orin. “Let them search the premises,” he said. “They'll find nothing.” She charged at Orin, who shrunk timidly, pinned against the desk. Magda’s finger prodded his chest. “You’re playing with fire!” “Leave, troll!” screamed Orin, covering his head. Beverly waited in the wings, unable to decide who deserved her help. At last Magda flung up her arms and thundered to the door, crashing it closed behind her. Regaining his composure, Orin smoothed his shirt. “The nerve of that heifer.” A light bulb ignited above Beverly's head. “You did it, didn’t you? You got that orderly to steal the paintings.” She paced the floor. “You’re too smart to display them here. I bet you’re trying to unload them online.” Orin produced a greasy grin. “Clever girl.” Beverly scanned her remaining work, those frameless paintings now strewed across the floor, and she growled at Orin, “I quit.” “Over the paintings?” he asked. She spun on her heel and followed Magda’s fresh tracks to the door. Lingering at the entrance, she snorted at the man one last time. “Get back here,” Orin demanded. It made no difference. She didn’t stay. He found he didn’t care. All that mattered was the small fortune to come from the online bidding war currently underway.
Orin was waiting again, this time for the buyer of the last painting. Charles Wingblutt, the online auction’s winner, was due shortly, pending traffic between Des Moines and Orin’s city. Based on the man’s intense desire for the work, Orin expected him post haste. This customer was even more passionate than the previous three with whom Orin had dealt online, and was determined to collect the painting in person. Orin knew nothing else about him. He did know, however, that this was the last painting for now. Per their agreement, the orderly had better be helping to generate more. In fact, Orin thought, let’s kidnap the golden goose and be done with it. Then she’d create paintings at his command. He could sell prints, too, and t-shirts——a whole enterprise. Orin smoked a cigarette with relish, absorbed in his fantasies. From the front window, he scanned the rainy night. Fog fluffed the glassy streets. No sign yet of Mr. Wingblutt. Unable to sit, Orin paced the parlor and drank wine. Dave Brubeck’s piano tinkled from a turntable. Snapping his fingers in time, Orin paused here and there for a soft-shoe flourish. He felt wealthy——and considering the Cutler money collected thus far, he would soon be rich, too. A few, interspersed candles illuminated the room, and one bright lamp spotlighted the final Cutler painting, propped on an easel, center stage. Occasionally, Orin examined the work, searching in its haphazard lines for what magic others saw but which was inaccessible to him. Orin was at the easel again when the doorbell pierced the room’s placidity. He nearly lost his slippers in his hurry to answer. However, upon opening the door, he found not the man, but Beverly. Orin cleared his throat. “Well, well. The rain’s brought out the rats.” Beverly’s drenched clothing clung to her body. “Can I speak to you inside?” she asked. Orin flicked his wrist. “Not welcome.” Beverly leaned in urgently. “The orderly——did you pay him to help Ms. Cutler paint?” Orin took a casual sip of wine. “That’s ridiculous.” “Well, he did,” said Beverly. “And now he’s dead.” Interested, Orin rested his shoulder against the doorframe. Beverly continued, chattering from the cold rain. “He brought paints into her room, set up a canvas, gave her a brush. She painted. And sometime after that, he killed himself.” Orin swirled his wine glass. “It’s unfortunate that you’re susceptible to magical thinking, but it's not my concern.” Beverly reached for him and reconsidered. She peered through the doorway, to the painting. “He stuck a broken paintbrush handle through his eye, into his brain. Because of her painting.” “Enough,” sighed Orin. “Run along, please. A guest is expected.” “Orin——” He kicked his foot at her, threateningly. “Go.” He slammed the door. He returned to the parlor and tried sitting on the duvet, but was quickly pacing again, rubbing his temples, drinking more wine. Beverly had rattled him. The orderly was dead. Orin scrutinized the canvas. How could this unsophisticated work, an idiot’s red rectangle with yellow and orange swirls, endanger him? This asymmetrical, illogical thing, painted with less skill than that of a child? No. Packaging the paintings and counting cash would be his only inconvenience. More time elapsed, which felt like half the night. Just when Orin had reached the brink of his patience, the door rang once more. Opening the door revealed a smallish man with receding, unkempt hair who stampeded past Orin’. “Mr. Wingblutt, I presume?” asked Orin. The impudent visitor stank of cigar smoke and wore an untucked, half-unbuttoned shirt, and his manic, red-rimmed eyes were fixed on the easel. He charged it like a bull. Orin scoffed as Mr. Wingblutt grabbed the painting by the sides and bent his nose close to it. “I see you’re not one for small talk,” said Orin. “Let’s do business then. I’m ready for your check. $12,000, please, made out to cash.” Orin stood behind the man and extended his palm. Obsession, however, deafened Mr. Wingblutt. Orin repeated himself, adding, “If you please?” Still nothing. Orin tapped the man’s shoulder. Ragefully, Mr. Wingblutt lashed out and struck his fist into Orin’s chest. Orin toppled backward, over the duvet. As he climbed to his feet, Orin saw that the maniac’s face once again hovered inches from the painting, as if sniffing it. Orin stuttered in shock. “S—sir——this is unacceptable——” Mr. Wingblutt pivoted again. Fury shook him; his snarling mouth foamed, exposing teeth. He lunged forward and howled, intent to kill. Orin dove from the man’s path and scurried to the corner table. As Wingblutt charged a second time, Orin grabbed the first sharp thing found on the table——a pair of gleaming, steel scissors. Turning, he thrust the weapon into the air and drove it into the man’s chest. Briefly, the men froze, staring at each other. Then, bellowing, Mr. Wingblutt ripped the scissors from his torso and stabbed them into Orin’s throat. Orin sank to his knees. He clutched at blood spurting from his neck. He saw Mr. Wingblutt limp to the painting, his altar; he saw the man sway before the easel; and finally, both men collapsed upon the floor. Reality strobed in light and dark patterns. The horizon reversed, and the floor descended, sloping at an angle toward Cutler’s painting, to which gravity seemed to pull. Orin heard the doorbell, a swirling, murky sound; he heard the door open and feet scuffling. Policemen. Beverly and Magda. Sideways, he saw Magda cry in horror, though her sound came out as a torpid slur. Beverly was pushed back by a cop. Her hand cupped her mouth, stifling a gasp. Orin laid akimbo, blood soaking his linen shirt, expanding in a circle beneath him, chugging from his neck gash. Life’s last throbs twitched in his extremities. The room stunk of his blood. He heard Beverly, begging the officer, “Over here! He needs your help!” And, as Orin’s vision permanently flickered out, he saw the cop pass her and approach the canvas on the easel, and heard the man murmur, “This painting . . . it speaks to me.”