The sky was so clear the blue looked prickly, like if you raised your palm it might cut your skin, but the sun was mild and there was no breeze as Jonathan sat in his old beach chair in his open garage and closed his eyes. He tried to breathe.
“Good day for the clouds.”
He had learned to ignore this voice, the old man sitting in his open garage across the street, the old man next to his easel, his jar of brushes, his silver platter of paints. The landlord said he was a reputable artist with galleries in Scotland, Norway, one up north. He had awkward hips and always struggled onto his stool, but once he managed he didn’t leave. If Jonathan came out to watch the sun set the old man would still be there, pressing a brush to his canvas. He greeted Jonathan every day with a random comment, and that was it, never another word. Yesterday it was, “Getting warmer, goldfinches should arrive soon.” The day before: “I saw a coyote up north near Traverse City once, fat as a bear.”
Jonathan, as usual, ignored him.
“Don’t you think, Jonathan?”
The unexpected sound of his name unnerved him. It confounded him. Squinting, he saw the old man hunched over, his large hands covering his knees, grinning. Jonathan closed his eyes and tried to breathe. What right did he have calling him by his name? How did he even know it? He moved here, what, three weeks ago? Right after he had ordered everyone to leave. His brother didn’t like that but he left too after Jonathan threw the vase at him.
“The thing about clouds is, they’re comfortable.”
Jonathan’s eyes opened.
“Although technically they are just vapor. You can’t actually touch them.”
Jonathan squinted and saw the old man smiling straight at him, one hand on his thigh, the other now moving a brush across his canvas.
“Sure feels like you can, though, doesn’t it?” He nodded at Jonathan without slowing his brush across the canvas. “If you do it right.”
Jonathan fired a glare that expressed the old man better shut up.
The old man nodded, like he expected this.
The landlord said he was esteemed for his depictions of some particular type of architecture. Jonathan constantly toiled with remembering anything occurring more than three weeks ago. The old man could have specialized in hairy animal genitals. Who fucking cared?
“I’ve always wanted to paint meaningful clouds,” the old man said. “But I never had a good reason.”
He was smiling really big and it really pissed Jonathan off. “You don’t know how to fucking shut up, do you?” Not shocked that he had spoken, he was angry, so angry he could throw another vase, thirty vases. One hundred vases.
“I’m not familiar with cloud terminology,” the old man said. “I just paint what I see.” He studied the sky, and then he studied Jonathan, and as he smiled he slowly blinked, his brush never slowing.
The fucking guy had outright dismissed him and Jonathan’s anger twisted into rage, his face broiling red. He wanted to scream. He wanted to punch.
His cell chimed, dull and distant. His brother, or mother, or father, or doctor, or boss, or his wife. He did not care who it was. The ringing from inside descended like tranquil background music, and his eyelids closed, and, gradually, Jonathan breathed.
The next morning he did not return the 39 missed calls, but his routine was still disturbed. He did not want to go outside and see the old man. He did not trust what his hands and feet might do so he stayed inside, until the apartment brightened. He did not like being here when it was this bright and peered out the side window. The garage belonging to the old man’s apartment appeared to be closed, so Jonathan opened his door and sat in his old beach chair.
Except he couldn’t.
Something was in it.
He bent down.
A painting framed by thin gold.
He peered across the street, at the old man’s three dark windows. Jonathan squinted at each window but did not detect any movement behind them. Then his eyes dragged around, lowered to the thin gold frame. The painting showed a man in a faded red Tommy Bahama chair, his nose and cheeks, redder than the chair, all that protruded from thick dirty strings of hair. He held a book called Cat in the Hat, the book in his left hand, over his heart. In his right hand, a purple nightlight glowed. It was the brightest color in the painting.
Until Jonathan realized it was not the brightest.
The two brightest colors, emitting equal amounts of white shine, rose above the young man, one behind his right shoulder, the other behind his left. They were clouds, and they were so authentically defined the one behind the young man’s left shoulder resembled a three-year-old boy eyeing the book curiously, as if he expected the man to open it and begin reading, while the one behind his right shoulder resembled a slightly older girl, but she eyed the man with concern, the way her hand curled urgently down his arm, as if she knew he needed comfort.
Jonathan stepped back. He turned and squinted at the old man’s closed garage, his three dark windows.
A golf cart stopped between Jonathan and the old man’s apartment and Elizabeth the landlord stepped out. Shielding her eyes from the sun with a palm, she said, “Hey Jonny.” Walking towards him, she noticed how Jonathan stared at the old man’s apartment.
“Where did he go?” he asked. Shocked, for this was his voice, and he was not angry.
“He moves around a lot, they say,” Elizabeth said, and chuckled, stepping very close, so close their shoulders almost caressed. “You know, I guess their kind goes where the calling takes them.”
James Hartman’s fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions, and appears or is forthcoming in Blue Fifth Review, December, Lost Balloon, Jellyfish Review, The Airgonaut, and New World Writing, among others. His scholarly work is featured in The Hemingway Review. He has several degrees, including a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, and lives in Michigan with his wife.