Between the bridge and Ulrich’s apartment was a quarter of a mile, plenty of time to cool down and enjoy the river. Along this stretch, and for five months now, he had been playing a game with himself, testing himself: Ulrich liked to think he wasn’t like other men.
In June, he had noticed a woman, a painter, seated on a crate, a bohemian looking sort with pants rolled up, no shoes, straw hat, and a cigarette dangling from lips. She kept her brushes in a big, vintage coffee can. She had one canvas on the aged easel and others, of various sizes, stacked beside the crate. She balanced a wooden palette in her hand. The game was this: Don’t look. Don’t look back.
The first time he saw her it had been a clear, cloudless day, so plenty of people were in front of him, and each and every one of them looked back at the canvas. Not one stopped to talk to the woman, but they all looked back. They were weak. They couldn’t help themselves, couldn’t master their curiosity. Ulrich was determined. He wouldn’t look back. And he didn’t, not until the end of October on a gray and cold day at dusk.
When he slowed down after the bridge there was no one in front of him, no one behind. The woman had recently added a scarf to her wardrobe, switched to a Gatsby cap. He didn’t know how much longer she could last under such conditions.
After passing her, he stopped and turned, thinking how he had more than proved himself. He looked hungrily at the canvas and was shocked by what he did not see.
“What is that?” he said out loud.
The woman, palette and brush in hand, smiled. “You like it?”
“There isn’t a damn thing there,” Ulrich said.
“What are you talking about?”
Ulrich, unable to control himself, lurched forward and flipped through the canvases leaning against the crate.
“You haven’t painted anything.”
“Of course I haven’t.”
“I’ve seen you out here for five months, every day and—”
“What the hell have you been doing?”
“Why are you getting so hot?”
Ulrich told the woman he didn’t know, but he did have ideas, ones having to do with the months and the game, ones he wasn’t going to begin to try to explain to this lunatic impostor.
“Well,” the woman said, shrugging her shoulders, “I can’t paint.”
“You can’t paint…”
“I can’t even draw a decent stick figure.”
“Everyone can do that.”
“Nope,” the woman boasted. “But I am an artist.”
Ulrich, because rebuffing such insanity would only prove or contribute to his own, ignored that. “What’s the point?” he asked.
“The point of what?”
“This stuff. All this time and energy.”
“The tableau, of course.”
“What tableau! There is no tableau!”
The woman reached her arms toward the sky, her fingers curled inward like a shelter, and then swept them down to her feet. “This,” she said.
Ulrich thought for a moment, and then he said, hesitantly, “No. Not…”
“You’re nothing but a cliché.”
“Perfect, then I’ve succeeded.” The woman stood up, started gathering and arranging her things. “I’m a success and you are my first admirer. How much?” she asked.
“How much what?” Ulrich said.
“How much will you give me for it?” She pointed to the small, white, blank canvas on the easel.
“Not one penny.”
“Sold!” she said. “Sometimes, it’s true, you’ve got to give it away.”
“But I don’t even want it.”
“Really, you should try to be less shortsighted in this life.” She shoved the canvas into Ulrich’s hands and he couldn’t help but take it, couldn’t help but think about all the days he had passed this woman and not looked back, the pride he had felt.
“I don’t get it,” he said, defeated.
“Don’t be like that. You go home and you put that on your best wall. You look carefully. You’ll see.”
“Everyone will think I’m crazy.”
“Let ’em,” the woman said. “You’ll have the last laugh.”
Ulrich turned the canvas in his hands, regarded it from all angles. “Will you at least sign it?” he said.
The name was illegible.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Susannah Simms. What’s yours?”
“Ulrich, it’s been a pleasure.” She reached out her hand, Ulrich shook it, and then she slung a bulging sheet onto her back, lit another cigarette, picked up the crate, and took off in the direction of the bridge.
At home, Ulrich did as he was told. He hung the canvas on his best wall and tried to look carefully, tried to see, and the damn thing was, the more he looked, the more he did see, until, eventually, he saw perfection in that small canvas. It spoke to him, it screamed at him like no other painting ever had. The pleasure was incredible, but neither his wife, nor his friends, understood. They called him crazy, and to prove it they bought a canvas, of exactly the same dimensions, scribbled a signature on it and hung it next to his gift. Ulrich humored them, but there was nothing there. “You don’t get it,” he told them, thinking, once again, how he was ahead of the curve, a special man, and though it had become too cold to run, the test had bolstered his resolve.
With quickened heart, he hustled himself down to the river, this time with money, to buy another, to buy several, to pay exorbitant sums for as many as were available, but Susannah, the artist, was gone.