All Stories, General Fiction

Oblique Lines by Jack Coey


It was a day he learned too much about himself when the judges announced his drawing, 1st Place, and he heard the applause, and that night at the party, drank whisky for the first time, and loved how it made him feel. He was eighteen, and in a few more years, he flunked out of community college, and kept drinking anyway, until his wife, a local girl who gave him a son, left him after tolerating more humiliation than most women, but oh, he wasn’t done yet; it took until he lost his job as a used car salesman even though if he’d been sober til noon it would have been overlooked. He had nothing left, and sat in the common, and told passerby’s that life was unfair, and the townspeople knew who he was, and his story was nothing new.

Stan sat in the common, and talked to anyone who had the time or inclination, but said the same thing over and over, and people got bored and walked away. He realized he wasn’t good expressing himself that way, and decided he was better off not trying. There was a man named Peters who owned a car parts store on Main Street who talked to Stan about sobriety meetings until Stan cursed him so vilely that he was embarrassed by his effort. At dusk one time, his ex-wife, Cora, and their six-year old son, Harlan, came to talk to him, and he went berserk. He stood on the bench flailing his arms and screaming until he collapsed on the ground. An ambulance came and took him to the hospital. He was delirious for four hours. They gave him an ounce of whisky a day to stabilize him, and after supper, sedatives to knock him out. He got better but refused to talk.

A psychiatrist named Eliot tried to talk to Stan but got nowhere. Eliot asked that a social worker visit Stan to see if she could coax some interaction. The next day a social worker asked him if he would like anything to read, and he shook his head. Play music? Head shake. Draw? Nod. She went away and came back and left him with a large pad of paper and a box of pencils. Two days later, she came back, and was reminded of the activity by the pad on the chair. She asked if he’d done any drawing and he nodded. She asked if she could see and he pointed to the pad. She took up the pad; flipped the cover, and was stunned by what she saw.

A drawing of a mother feeding an infant that was so real she was moved by the tenderness. She couldn’t take her eyes away, and when she finally did, Stan was staring straight ahead, expressionless. She said his drawing was beautiful. The last thing she said to him was to keep drawing.

The drawing haunted her. She thought about it two days later when she told Eliot about it. He was curious to see the drawing for what it might tell him about Stan. On his next visit, he asked Stan if he could see his drawings, and was amazed at what he saw. Eliot told Stan he had talent, and Stan’s sad, brown eyes stared straight ahead. Eliot left Stan, and two days later was thinking about the drawings, and realized there was a market for Stan’s drawings. Not only that but he had a former patient who owned a gallery in Manchester, and he had the idea to talk to Louis about hanging Stan’s drawings in his gallery. He decided to wait a few more days, and go back again to see if the drawings were still as powerful as he thought they were: They were. He decided to talk to Louis, and got Stan to agree to let him take five of his drawings.

He had unexpected thoughts on the drive to Manchester. He’d always admired people who created something. He was a medical man who followed procedures and practices that came from others. He always wanted to be able to follow what came from inside him. He would be free of logic and data, and could follow the promptings of his muse. At first he thought he was indulging in entertaining fantasies, but couldn’t stop thinking about it, and when Louis asked him who the artist was – he said he was. On the drive back home he admitted that sometimes opportunity overtakes judgment.

Louis was enthusiastic about hanging Eliot’s drawings in his gallery, and sent Eliot an invoice for the cost of framing and hanging the drawings. The men worked out an 80/20 split from any sales. Louis set the price for each drawing, and told Eliot he could charge more if the drawings were signed which Eliot did.

Stan’s attitude about his finished work contributed to Eliot’s delusion; he didn’t care about it. Eliot made good money from his practice so he gave the money to Stan. It was the identity of an artist – the reputation he wanted, and Stan didn’t care about it so Eliot would.

Eliot justified his behavior by thinking how could he hurt Stan if he took something he didn’t care about anyway? Eliot brought Stan some watercolors and an easel and asked him to work in that medium as well; it would expand his market.  

Stan was released from the hospital: sober. Eliot rented him a studio/living space with good light over the hardware store on the condition of sobriety. Stan still didn’t talk, but he felt differently now, maybe, because he had control over his drinking. Every two weeks or so, Eliot showed up, and took what was available, and paid Stan for the work that sold.

Eliot delivered some drawings and watercolors to Louis, and met some of his fans in the gallery, and the couple asked him questions about how he did his work, and he didn’t know how to answer, so he made stuff up. He abruptly ended the conversation when Louis came into the gallery from his office.

Stan was working in his studio when he heard someone on the stairs. Unexpectedly, it was Cora. He drew up a chair for her, and she watched him while he drew. Stan talked about Eliot, and how he was selling his drawings for him, and Cora wanted to know where, and he answered some where in Manchester. Stan told Cora that Eliot was a shrink he met in the hospital. Cora knew Stan’s attitude about his work: that he loved creation, but cared nothing for sales. He’d always been that way. When they got hungry, Cora went to get sandwiches at the restaurant the next street over, and Stan craved a drink bad.

Cora thought Stan changed; he was calmer and more focused than when she lived with him. She thought about Harlan, and how he needed a father, and maybe now it would be possible. It took awhile, but one day while painting, Stan asked about Harlan and Cora talked about his bursts of anger. Stan stopped his brush, stood back from his easel, pondered for a moment, turned and looked at her and said,

“Ah, he has the artist’s temperament.”

Cora wasn’t so sure about that, and thought it was a good way for Stan not to face his failings as a father. It was about a half hour later when Eliot appeared, and gave Stan a check for his sold work. Cora thought he looked like Atticus Finch in the movie To Kill a Mockingbird. After Eliot left, Stan showed Cora the check, and she was impressed by how much it was. She asked once more where Stan was selling his work.

Cora was uneasy about Stan’s indifference about his work.  Eliot seemed like an empathetic man, and an accomplished one as well, so he wouldn’t take advantage of another would he? She had an idea to ask Stella, a neighbor of hers, to drive her to Manchester so she could look around. She did one day, on impulse, and Stella answered she thought about going to Manchester the following morning. Cora enjoyed the conversation with Stella who smoked one cigarette after the other which gave Cora a headache and stinging eyes. Stella dropped Cora off on Elm Street, and they agreed to meet in an hour and a half. Cora went into a pizza shop, and borrowed a phone book, and read two entries under Art Galleries: The Artist’s Collective, and The Louis Grenier Gallery. She chose the Grenier Gallery first because she knew where it was. Her headache was getting less.

She walked down Elm Street to Bridge Street and started looking at the numbers. When she walked into the gallery, there was a man behind the counter, who greeted her, and she guessed it was Louis. She looked at the hangings, and came across a drawing she knew was Stan’s, but was signed: Eliot Howe.

“That son of a bitch,” she thought.

She saw under the artist’s name: 250.

“I have some watercolors as well of Eliot Howe,” offered the man she thought was Louis.

“His work is quite delicate, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Uniquely so.”

The man showed her the watercolors; she thanked him, and left the gallery. She walked a couple of blocks and sat on a bench in the sun.

“Now I know,” she thought, “Eliot is not a good man. He’s willing to take advantage of another’s weakness; how sickening! And he’s supposed to be helping others; it’s disgusting, it really is. I should tell Stan, of course, but what if I don’t? Then I’ll be just as bad as Eliot. But maybe there’s a way here to teach Stan a lesson he deserves as well? I’m going to keep this to myself, for a while anyway, till I can figure out the best way to handle this.”

She sunned herself, and when it was time, she met Stella on Elm Street.

By the time they got back to Keene, Cora had her headache and sore eyes all over again.

Cora went back to spending time in Stan’s studio wordlessly watching him work. He worked in pen and ink now, and was in a good frame of mind. The prospect of him being a father went back and forth in her mind like a tennis ball. He got so involved in his work; he lost awareness of her being in the room for long periods of time. He acted surprised every time he discovered her sitting there. One time, going to use the toilet, she looked past a curtain, and saw pajama bottoms on the bed. She knew Stan didn’t wear pajamas, and didn’t expect how painful it was for her. She left the studio and walked the streets.

She never thought about another woman, and boy, did it hurt. She knew it wouldn’t work with Stan, and that was the easy part. Getting over the pain wasn’t so quick. She was depressed, and there was mornings when she worked at making herself breakfast; routine became ponderous and slow.

“I got to make a new life for me and Harlan,” she told herself over and over. She got better until one day in the bank she saw his pen and ink drawings hung. She looked at the signature and it was Stan Johnson. She wondered if Stan knew about Eliot. She looked at the drawings and was moved by their eloquence. There was a portrait of her, and she stood before it for a long time, and saw the sorrow in her eyes. She never knew he saw her that way. She realized, not for the first time, how sensitive he was to be able to make something like that. Her desire for him stirred inside her.

“No, no,” she told herself once more, “it’s not going to work.”

She decided to go see Stella for help.

Stella worked the lunch shift at the diner, and was done at three. She sat in a booth drinking coffee, and of course, the cigarette. Cora sat across from her and said,

“I’m having trouble moving away from Stan.”

Stella silently stared at her and blew smoke.

“He did a portrait of me that’s hanging in the bank.”

“Yeah, I saw.”

Stella sipped her coffee.

“Wanna coffee, hon?”

Cora shook her head while saying,

“I don’t know what to do.”  

Stella quickly smiled as she stuck a cigarette in her mouth. She blew smoke and said,

“I’m not the one to give advice about men. They’ve been nothing but trouble for me so I don’t even try and make sense of it for myself and certainly not for anyone else. I’m sorry I can’t do more for you.”

“Oh, that’s okay. It’s not your problem after all.”

“You know, though, I did hear this woman on TV who made sense to me, and she said to spend time with other men to help you get over the feelings you have for the one particular man which I thought was clever. You see the idea is they’re not that different from each other, and they all want the same thing, and boy, do I know about that!”  

Cora laughed.

“I shouldn’t laugh. That’s my problem. Stan isn’t like other men.”

“Bullshit he isn’t! Sorry to be so abrupt. Why do you say that because he can draw?”

Cora looked out the window for several moments before she said,

“Yeah there is that, and he never was aggressive with me the way other men were.”

“You mean sexually?”

Cora blushed and looked away.

“Doesn’t sound like any man I ever knew. Usually, I got to beat them over the head with a club to get them to stop pawing me. I had this one guy that I fed whisky to until he couldn’t stand up, both him and his you-know-what, but hey, I gotta good night’s sleep.”

The two women sat and looked out the window at the people walking by.

“Look at ‘em all,” commented Stella.


“Nothing but a sea of misery.”

Cora thought to herself, and decided she couldn’t get help from Stella; she was too mired in her own feelings. She made up some reason, and left her sitting in the booth, blue smoke around her like a nimbus.

Cora was unresolved about Stan, and she thought the only way to decide was to go see him, and hope that she could crystallize her feelings by being around him. So she went and sat, and watched him work, until that day when Eliot came out of the bathroom wearing the pajama bottoms.  

Jack Coey


Header Image: By Patrick Pelletier (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons




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