It was him. Inconceivable, but unmistakable: Vincent van Gogh at the Greenwich Avenue Starbucks. I’d heard the neighborhood was becoming a celebrity enclave, but this was ridiculous. He sat near the window with his back to the fixings bar, so close I might have elbowed him in the head. Fumbling desperately for the Sugar in the Raw, I shook the morning clutter from my head and took him in. At first glance, he looked to be a bum—disheveled and wild, glancing furtively at a chalk drawing on the sidewalk. His fingers were dry and cracked, tinged with a yellowish ocher that belied a painter by trade and a chain-smoker by habit. Though spewing venom under his breath about the tastelessness of the coffee, he didn’t seem crazy at all; the brew was weak. He was sporting some pretty heavy Goth metal in his left ear, and I nearly dropped the Half & Half, thinking about the fate of that appendage. I visualized at once the eviscerated flesh mingling with viscous cartilage, experienced the hot stream of blood coursing down his neck . . . and wondered how he might have rendered it—in thick, layered brushstrokes, deftly textured to portray the amputation. Nausea rose in my stomach.
It was then that I spotted Gauguin—sitting cross-legged on a couch in the corner window, chatting up a West Indian girl—eyes on the prize. The booty, however, was not the babe’s ample curvature, but Vinnie himself. While the Frenchman handled the girl with studied panache, over her shoulder he dreamily contemplated his true muse: the man who painted the sunflowers.
Van Gogh, for his part, wasn’t biting. Though Gauguin neigh well volleyed missiles of angst across the room for all to witness, the Dutchman rather deliberately poured over a back issue of Art in America—an article on the platitudes of contemporary art criticism . . . or was it the platitudes of contemporary art? No matter; the stormy relationship between the famed painters was clearly on the roil once more.
Little is known of the nine weeks van Gogh and Gauguin cohabitated in Arles, save that the venture began with hope and resulted in discord. Tales handed down derive from brief missives Vincent wrote his brother Theo and stories told by Gauguin following Vincent’s death. The art world has long fashioned artist biographies in tandem with their salability—pimping Gauguin as the rakish homme du monde and nefarious womanizer; van Gogh, the rag‑tag rogue given to melancholy and self-mutilation. Speculation that van Gogh was smitten with Gauguin became easy fodder for academicians desperate to understand the painter’s mind in his period of demise: the letters, the losses, the lopping off of the ear. Common conjecture surmises that when things went south in Arles, Gauguin’s repudiation of the friendship caused van Gogh, already in dire straits, to mentally collapse and mutilate himself. But van Gogh was no such man. In fact, it was he who made no bones of disabusing Gauguin of the idea they might be lovers, as the Frenchman so ruefully desired. Few are privy to the cloistered theory that Gauguin sheared Vincent’s ear from his skull like a flap of sheep’s wool and drove the man insane, though Gauguin’s sadistic nature was no secret. Ego wracked with virgin rebuff, so it was that Gauguin violated his friend—body, mind, and spirit. And if we know one thing in this world, it is the shopworn notion that history repeats itself.
I began to ponder the small matter of how impossible this all was—two infamous dead painters haunting my neighborhood coffee joint—but as I lidded my latte and returned my gaze to van Gogh, my eyes met not with his tangled mop but an abandoned table and a ravaged pack of Camel non-filters. Panic rushed through me, for I felt he must be in imminent danger and that somehow it was my duty to rise to his aid. But I’d lost him. My mind raced: would he head south to Soho, west toward the river? He’d vanished, and I’d no— But through the steamy window I caught sight of Gauguin, hoofing it down Bank Street, and I hauled ass out of there.
♦ ♦ ♦
A fog rolled over the city, eclipsing the murky skyline and misting the sidewalks with dew. Leaves sprinkled down—flecks of cinnamon against the shroud of vapor—and carpeted the pavement in an autumnal papier-mâché. I kept pace behind Gauguin. Whistling a low, elegiac tune, he paused to straighten his fedora in the passenger window of a Range Rover. A soggy parking ticket flapped flaccidly beneath the windshield wiper as he took in his reflection . . . perhaps a beat too long—whether gripped by vanity or a moment of self-reckoning, I couldn’t be sure. Van Gogh was now a ghostly form in the distance, and I feared Gauguin’s narcissism was going to blow the whole deal. But with a sharp click of his heels on the sidewalk, the Frenchman tore himself from his reflection at last and closed the gap between us and the grand marshal of our implausible parade. Brownstones hovered over our procession, mammoth aldermen cloaked in veils of grey.
I’d learned the supposed details of van Gogh’s death while researching suicides for a poetic short I made in film school. The story just didn’t wash. Legend tells that on a sunny day in July, van Gogh packed up his colors, canvases, and easel; borrowed a gun from the proprietor of the inn where he was domiciled; journeyed into the fields to paint; and shot himself.
The gun was never found. The coroner determined he’d been shot on an angle and from a distance not consistent with a self-inflicted wound. Hardly the blueprint of a suicide.
The details had gnawed at me, but facts and frustrations fade with time’s passage. As remnants of the story trickled back into my memory, I recalled how intoxicated I became with van Gogh’s character: the melancholia that permeated his life, the alcoholism and chain-smoking, whoremongering, and his mysterious friendship with Paul Gauguin. Freed of the misconception there was no bringing Vincent back, the cover-up loomed large in my mind. One had to wonder why so many had been willing to buy the suicide angle all these years and, more important, who had murdered van Gogh. Perhaps those close to him were so relieved the redheaded madman had taken his leave, they went along with whatever stuck to the wall. By all accounts, he was an intolerable menace: surly with his fellow pensioners and given to bouts of besotted moaning, confrontations with strangers, and late-night visits from the gendarme. Those who knew him tell of an irascible soul tormented by slight and loss. Save for a certain whore: the once-beautiful Elise.
Elise had the eyes, the face, the hair, the lips . . . of a tragic porcelain doll—her long, slender neck suited far more to cutting or strangling than the customary string of pearls. The man who sold her believed she resembled a divinely molded, if wretched, cameo figurine—a symbol not of privilege and class, but rather squalor. A more sensuous creature squalor never produced. That her seamy roots begat this exquisite nymph was proof alone of God’s existence—or quite the reverse, depending upon one’s proclivities in that direction. So fair a specimen was young Elise, she put many a passerby in mind (whether consciously or no) that beauty and poverty are bedfellows stranger still than beauty and death. For though the very impermanence of life’s song yields its splendor, there was no philosophical rationale for the sublime air of this godforsaken child.
The radiance of her youth rendered Elise precious chattel. Sold from orphanage to brothel, she was denied the advantage of having a hand in her fate. It was sufferable at first, the Life, before she began menstruating—pregnancy was out of the question, and she found men to be far less aroused by battering so young a girl. A girl still a girl. One who knew her place, her station, and did not need to be kept in line. Towing that line was, at times, all a girl could muster. Something on which she must never lose focus—for no amount of money.
But a whore’s life wears callously on even the most resilient of women. Hard drinking, repeated abortions, and regular beatings extract their pound of flesh and spit back something far less palatable. Her beauty gnarled, her body ravaged, Elise adjusted somewhat morosely to her lot—biding the time not spent on her back or knees in a kind of alcohol-stained dream, a shadow land filled with twisted plots of a surprisingly romantic nature, wherein her knight in tattered armor was inevitably felled, for one reason or another, just before sweeping her away.
She had never loved a man, nor thought it possible. Love did not seem an alluring prospect, for men of the real world were not heroes but rather things to be feared, tolerated, humored. Things to be borne. But this devilish painter, this artist, was not a man in his core. So sensitive and vulnerable were his visage, his eyes and soul, Elise located in him the amnesiatic heart of the brave orphan she left behind those many years ago—before she shut down her heart against the world. Vincent knew what it meant to be truly alone. Outcast. Discarded. This man with the lonely eyes. This painter of sunflowers.
Descending the long, wooden staircase that led to the whores’ rooms, Vincent saw Elise for the first time as she bent to fill the glass of a patron. A vacancy, an insatiable yearning, lodged in his breast—as though it were years since he had had a woman, not mere moments. He began to sketch her mentally—craning his neck to follow her line, transfixed by her astral presence. He never again patronized another of the whores.
He would come to her room and pace about, speaking fitfully of color and nature and the future of art. He did not come to fuck. And of course he would paint her: in his studio, in every manner of pose and repose, he rendered her image—each gentle line and curve that composed the shape of her: this fallen woman, this study in withered grace. With deliberate, tender strokes, he brought her back to life, resurrected her—not merely on his canvas but in her soul—delivering her from the depths of her dark providence.
♦ ♦ ♦
The fog moved in like a wall now, swallowing buildings whole, obscuring street signs, and transforming traffic lights into soft-glowing, colored baubles. Through the labyrinth of Village streets, van Gogh strode with purpose and premeditation, the measured step of a man who knew precisely his destination. Though I wracked my brain, I couldn’t reconcile his reappearance. Reincarnation was one thing, but this was van Gogh. Had he come back to avenge his death, set the record straight? And why here, in Greenwich Village of all places? It certainly wasn’t for the coffee and the Tenth Avenue whores. The geography just didn’t shake out. And what of Gauguin? Had he returned to see his lust requited at long last? Or was it something even more sinister?
As our trio crossed Hudson Street, a sharp pang of déjà vu knocked hard and hollow in my chest. My knee buckled beneath me, and I narrowly avoided a visit to the pavement due solely to a sudden shift in gravity. For that one moment, time stretched out in front of me. Everything became weightless: suspended, impregnated. I felt I was floating between two worlds, and I was certain that calamity was afoot—that history would not only repeat, but outdo, itself. Tenfold. And I knew instinctively that I could not let that happen. Van Gogh was not going down on my watch.
The surrealism kicked into high gear when rain began to fall and Gauguin, ever the dandy, unsheathed and thrust skyward an umbrella rendering his own Femmes de Tahiti. Smat, smat, smat—fat drops of rain spattered the luscious brown maidens. Though his vanity sickened me, I made a mental note to replace the plain black model I held above my head with something a bit more fashionable. Vincent wouldn’t be caught dead carrying an umbrella; he basked in the discomfort of the coming downpour, thrusting his fists into this pockets and setting his eyes skyward. Raindrops sliced his face like shards of glass, intensifying the darkness of his thoughts, sparking the madness that lay dormant in his mind.
Memories of his death had preyed upon Vincent since his reemergence. Coming to him in dreams, or as flashes at the backs of his eyes, they flickered like porous celluloid through an enchanted projector of time. The clap of the gunshot, the agony of his wound, the glory of that perfect summer day. The blood like hot, scarlet paint, seeping from his torso—so profuse, it warmed and chilled him at once. The utter betrayal so apropos to round out his hollow life. The golden wheat field engulfing him—one small, humble artist who, even as he bestowed immortal life upon earth’s bounty, celebrated mighty death. Inexorable death—sire of beauty—without whose triumph all is mundane. But he knew now that neither time nor death were immutable monoliths—that each was a creeping Hydra, prone to metamorphosis and redirection.
He thought of his time away. All those years, he had painted. Painted in his heart, painted in his mind, painted in his soul. Subjects he had never considered portraying—existential constructs he once believed unrenderable with brush, color, and canvas, yet were formed by the mere suggestion of darkness or light: the rhythm of a heartbeat; a waking moment; the narrow point on the mind’s horizon where true pain and loneliness lie; a despair that surrenders only to mortal sin.
He recalled vividly the late-December evening he came perilously close to extinguishing a human life: the night Gauguin fled Arles. Vincent’s sins (though many) up to then had been venial in nature. Mortal sin never roused his conscious mind. But Gauguin taunted every demon inside him, triggering an instinct so primal and reckless, he did not know himself. Like luring a jackal to a still-warm carcass and bidding it have restraint, Gauguin—with his false civility and studied pomp—rankled him to his core. His genial comportment was nothing more than a cunning decoy: a lustrous orange perched majestically atop a fruit bowl, beckoning come savor its juices, all the while concealing the decomposed flesh of its underside. Innocuous, even beautiful, if unmolested; but when handled, one’s fingers punctured the rotting skin to recoil in revulsion.
Gauguin was drawn to Arles by the promise of the bullfights, for he deeply admired the art of the torero—wherein one’s style, skill, and showmanship garnered favor and fame. Though he had come at van Gogh’s behest, in truth he had little interest in the artists’ collective Vincent described in his letters of invitation and made every effort to avoid the subject. Free room and board and the opportunity to paint in Provence alongside a fellow artist he considered his intellectual and creative lesser would occupy him until something more lucrative came along. During their brief acquaintance in Paris, Gauguin had found Vincent insecure and naïve, and was therefore surprised when the low-grade tolerance he held for the man began to flourish into something more. Hungry for brotherhood, van Gogh was eager to please and received him with the lighthearted graciousness Gauguin would succumb to in French Polynesia, when girls of twelve and thirteen (their gender ambiguous in such formative years) would cater to his every whim. Vincent’s broad shoulders, squat stature, and rudimentary manner echoed the primitive Tahitian physiognomy Gauguin found so alluring, and he grew ever more enticed by van Gogh—albeit in an imperious fashion—entertaining sadomasochistic fantasies when he found himself drunk or lonely.
When to his chagrin Gauguin learned the corridas were not in season, he inquired whether any of the region’s notorious toreros were among van Gogh’s acquaintances. “For you see,” Gauguin spoke in all sincerity, “I am of the same brotherhood”—as he adjusted his hat, clicked his heels crisply upon the wooden floor, and struck a ridiculous pose. “The famed torero,” Gauguin continued, “is revered for his style, his technique—much as artists of a certain caliber are held in high esteem.” Again he cocked his fedora, stamped his feet, and delivered a wild gesticulation. Though van Gogh now perceived bitterly Gauguin’s true motive for accepting his invitation to the little house in Arles, he was unable to look away from the man, transfixed as he was by the fedora, which sat upon Gauguin’s head like a fallen layer cake. He would soon learn Gauguin was never without his crowning conceit. Whether painting outdoors or in, patronizing the café or bordello, soaking in a tub, Gauguin and his chapeau were inseparable. The Frenchman continuously caressed and adjusted the hat, incorporated it in gesture—sweeping it through the air, as a torero waves his muleta, to add emphasis to even the most mundane statement.
Gauguin decided to bide his time in Arles until the corridas began in spring, when he might be properly introduced into that society. In the meantime, his infatuation with van Gogh made the prospect of staying on somewhat more palatable, and their daily routine of painting, supping, and drinking together offered ample opportunity for him to make his desires known.
♦ ♦ ♦
Neither ashamed nor proud of her trade, Elise nonetheless considered herself fortunate. Nightly shelter and regular meals were commodities not to be taken for granted by an unwed woman. Though she held a bond of empathy with certain of her brothel sisters, she had never known true companionship—the luxury of its ease and attendant trust—until Vincent. The days and nights they shared had been so full of promise that for the first time in her thirty-three years, Elise allowed herself to harbor a glimmer of hope, which she tended like a delicate bauble. But then here came this Frenchman—so arrogant and cocksure. All appetite, his eyes prowled relentlessly for suitable prey. She had known one other man with that ravenous gaze—and though it had been the fight of her life, in the end it was he who had perished, and from that day forward Elise armed herself at every moment. They had come to the bordello twice together, he and Vincent, and Elise found herself hard put to maintain a civil façade in his presence. His absurd affectation of gesticulating with his hat and clicking his heels on the floor made him a laughing stock among the ladies, and Elise eagerly awaited word of his departure. Her heart sank with disappointment and a feeling of betrayal when Vincent announced Gauguin would be staying on at the little house indefinitely—the house she had dreamed of making a home with her beloved painter.
♦ ♦ ♦
Of a certain Wednesday late into the evening, the men sat at home in high-spirited discussion, well sated with wine. Declaring the necessity of financial freedom for the artist, Gauguin drove home his point with a characteristic flourish of his hat.
An involuntary chortle erupted in van Gogh. “Why do you imitate the toreros,” he asked, “when you have not so much as met one?”
Gauguin sat stock still as a sneer crept across his lips. “What would you know of toreros, my friend?” And here he paused. “When you are more the bull?”
Vincent took time to register the retort, then met Gauguin’s eyes with an honest appraisal of the Frenchman’s petite charade. “Indeed, I am,” he said. And rising to his feet, he placed his tumbler on the table, made horns atop his head with index fingers, and planted himself low on his haunches. Then, pitching his torso forward, he emitted a hoarse shrill and rushed the unsuspecting Gauguin, toppling him from his chair to the floor. Surprised though he may have been, Gauguin sprung to his feet, adopting the stance of the torero—prepared for battle. The corridas had begun. A few passes ensued, with Gauguin stamping his boots wildly on the floor, stalking and circling the bullish Dutchman, at one point employing the tablecloth as a cape to bait his rival. On a most exuberant pass, van Gogh charged between Gauguin’s legs, whereupon the Frenchman folded up like a puppet and tumbled to the floor. Coming to his knees in order to right himself, Gauguin found his rival in front of him on all fours, whereupon van Gogh became privy to the pronounced (if undersized) erection the game had roused in Gauguin.
“My friend, you misunderstand me.” Vincent stumbled to his feet.
The comfortable haze of inebriation evaporated as the room swelled with Gauguin’s gestating humiliation and the staccato rhythm of the men’s labored breath.
The Frenchman turned hastily away to rescue his fedora from the floor and, brushing the dust from it, hissed: “See what your childish games have done!”
“I mean no disrespect, my friend. A misunderstanding. I know that men sometimes—”
“You flatter yourself,” spat Gauguin, “if you imagine for one moment—“
“Come,” pleaded Vincent, “another drink.” But Gauguin cast an eye of stone upon van Gogh, and, securing his fedora, snatched the bottle and stormed from the room.
Thenceforth, the little house became a breeding ground of animus and derision, and the friendship between the painters soured beyond the hope of reconciliation. At first, van Gogh appealed to the Frenchman’s pride: the artists’ colony would never materialize without his influence. But Gauguin rejected the proposal as childish, a notion for amateurs—for though van Gogh’s rebuff had stung him, what vexed him most was paling in the shadow of a painter greater than he. Try as he might, Gauguin could not justify the quantity and quality of canvases emanating from this man. Like a savant, van Gogh churned out painting after painting, fed by a visceral connection to the elements. Nature’s cadence pulsed through him onto the canvas, while Gauguin agonized over the most minute of details, struggling to complete a single work. His confidence now atrophied, he knew that in the end he could not suffer the concerted praise of Vincent’s work.
Another man might have found in van Gogh a kind of shaman—a being divinely driven, from whom a brother in this religion of Art might derive inspiration. But like wine spoiling on a sun-soaked table, Gauguin’s desire turned to venom, and seeing Vincent daily magnified the humiliation he found so impossible to bear. In recourse, Gauguin took an offensive posture. He began to study Vincent with the ruthless eye of the torero—whose charge requires he identify his opponent’s primal vulnerability in order to weaken, then mutilate, and finally destroy his prey. And so the Frenchman launched a merciless onslaught of criticism on van Gogh’s work. Declaring his style childish, his technique rough and rudimentary—Gauguin unraveled Vincent’s nerves and chipped away at his fragile ego, which eroded like sand into the sea.
To avoid his incessant castigation, Vincent ceased painting in Gauguin’s company and sought the shelter of his studio, seldom venturing into the common space of the house. He suffered greatly under Gauguin’s criticism and came to blanch at the mere sight of the fedora, a visceral reaction beyond his control. Vincent regretted having neglected Elise since Gauguin’s arrival, and he missed her deeply. But he now feared leaving Gauguin to his own devices in the little house with the state of their relations so volatile.
In his solitude, Vincent’s wits warned that Gauguin was a menace, that only one of them would survive the other. His dark thoughts and isolation gave way to grave despair, and he no longer could ascertain whether his notions were real or imagined, his fears paranoia or intuition. He was certain only of the pressing sense of a disarming, malevolent, and omniscient presence.
The first time the voice came to him, he thought it a symptom of exhaustion and hunger. He had been painting he knew not how long—two days?, three?—taking only coffee as his sustenance. Uncertain of its genesis or precisely what the voice might have said, its pernicious tone nonetheless seeped into his mind, looming over him like a cloying shadow. Nervously, he chided himself for overwork and self-neglect, and ate and rested, and was not bothered again.
Not for some time.
“You cannot paint”
spat the voice, its timbre sinister, and he whirled ‘round—so present, so tangible the voice had been, like a blow square on the jaw. With trepidation, he crept toward the door—heart pounding, hair on end—and peered out to face his accuser. But the corridor was vacant. Ominously stark. Terrifyingly empty. For that hollow corridor meant the voice was real—an entity in and of itself—and that was far more frightening, more paralyzing, than a stranger stalking the halls.
“YOU CANNOT PAINT”
thundered the voice. Vincent spun back toward his easel, covering the distance in three shin-splitting strides. Grasping his brush, he struck out and attacked the canvas—as if fighting a dragon with a sword—attempting to blot out the voice with each stroke, to smother it, annihilate it forever, to extinguish the lies and horrors it tethered inside him—over which he had no authority, no control, no say. He painted until his eyes blurred, until he could stand no longer, until tears and snot clung to his jowl—while the voice embezzled his sanity and drove him howling to his knees. There, in exhaustion, he cradled himself on the cold, slatted floor and wept like a child till precious sleep ushered him to safety.
Vincent awoke in the greasy mid-morning light. A grey mist clung to the window pane. As he stretched his limbs, he became conscious of the dampness having crept into his bones. A weariness overcame him as remnants of yesterday’s episode framed themselves in his mind’s eye—a nightmarish triptych he hoped would reveal itself to be but a dream. Sensing another presence in the room, he braced himself for the onslaught of the voice. But ‘twas then he noticed a form above him cast a shadow where he lay. Silhouetted in the hazy light stood Gauguin, running his thumb along the length of his dagger.
“Are you aware, monsieur,” Gauguin spoke in a slow, measured tone, “that in France even the corridas are civilized? We French possess a savoir faire many foreigners, like yourself, could never truly comprehend.”
As van Gogh’s eyes adjusted to the light, he made out three days’ growth of beard on the Frenchman’s angular face.
“The bull may choose whether to fight,” and here Gauguin blinked his eyes and swayed, “or no.”
“It seems, monsieur, you are in need of rest,” offered van Gogh.
“No-no-no-no-no-no-no.” Gauguin extended his arm, limply, in protest. “I have enjoyed ample libations with my brethren—toreros whom I encountered in the village—but I am quite clear of mind. And intention.”
Vincent rose to his feet and witnessed the chaotic state of the studio—torn canvasses, paint on every surface, easels overturned. “You must pardon—”
Gauguin held up his hand. “If the bull elects to engage in battle, and the torero performs exquisitely in their duel”—here he doffed the fedora and feigned a bow—“the crowd may petition the president to award him an ear of the bull, which he excises and offers to a lady of his choosing. Do you find that remarkable? The ear as a symbol of courage, virility, and above all, victory?” Gauguin stared hard and long at van Gogh. “To whom do you believe I should deliver your ear, monsieur?”
♦ ♦ ♦
The Village streets grew dark, the fog and rain ever more dense. Van Gogh made a hard right onto Washington Street, and Gauguin burst toward him. I followed suit, nearly colliding with the Frenchman when he stopped short as Vincent spun on his heel to face him with a curt “pour quoi?” The power of his physique was mesmerizing. His eyes were of translucent blue—arresting orbs through which one could scry other worlds—eyes that told of a time long ago, when passion lifted him to lofty heights and plummeted him to unfathomable depths, when isolation and despair had won out in the end. Drops of rain hung pregnant from his coiled locks—curls the texture and hue of his late sunflowers. His face was soaked with rain, his jaw wrought with the telltale musculature of an uneasy mind.
Vincent regarded Gauguin with a whimsy and bitterness that mined a long-buried emotion from his bowel up to his breast—and extracted a sorrow for what might have been. But I soon realized van Gogh was looking past Gauguin—over his shoulder and into my eyes—with a longing that scraped the marrow of my bones. Church bells began to toll, washing over us with an other-worldly resonance, and we stood locked in time, swathed in their ominous song.
Pour quoi? The words sounded in my memory with the bells’ toll.
At the chime of seven, a wave of warmth rushed through me, and I was transported to a golden field of wheat, the heat of a July afternoon, seven long months of torment burning in my heart. Something heavy in my palm, the weight and shape of a pistol. I had not seen Vincent since that late-December evening, his frenzied arrival at the bordello—blood seeping through the tangle of rags wrapped ‘round his head. Something had broken inside him. He spoke erratically, in fragments—of an abominable voice, a bullfight, an omniscient presence, the ludicrous Frenchman. He placed a box in my hand, “for safekeeping,” and rushed into the night.
♦ ♦ ♦
Seven months in the care of a kind and melancholy physician had restored Vincent to relative health. He had painted well in Saint-Rémy, and his release marked a new beginning of hope and independence. He had written to Elise with news of his release, for he now had faith in his stability. He would call upon her this afternoon. But first, as ever, he must work. In the brilliant light of a perfect summer day, he gathered up his colors, canvasses, and brushes, and made his way into the wheat fields. Atop his head rested a brown fedora—sent by Gauguin while Vincent recovered in hospital. A perverse token of remembrance—sufficiently perverse to elicit a macabre appreciation in van Gogh. A clever camouflage for his butchered ear. The least a bonhomme with such savior faire could proffer.
♦ ♦ ♦
Vincent’s last letter spoke of his imminent release, but I’d had nothing more in a month’s time. Then last evening a patron at the bordello spoke of redheaded madman, a painter of sunflowers, who had taken up quarters at his pensione. My heart sailed, and next morning I set out to greet him. As I crossed the wheat field outside the village, I came upon him: but it was not Vincent my eyes conjured; it was the brutal Frenchman who had brought him harm, who had taken from me my only love. Rage coursed through me; I felt my ears would bleed. Wearing his telltale fedora, transfixed in his painting, the Frenchman made an easy mark. Then and there, I reached for my pistol and took aim.
♦ ♦ ♦
As the bell’s final toll faded into ether with the fog, the two vagabonds whom I had stalked through these dark and stormy expanses of Village streets assessed me with great expectation.
“I didn’t betray you, my love,” I muttered to his spitting image, the one with the amber hair.
“You’re goddamn right, you didn’t,” he retorted, and straightened his tattered rags with indignation.
And I saw in the eyes of this forlorn man a time long ago, when passion lifted him to lofty heights and plummeted him to unfathomable depths, when isolation and despair finally prevailed. Another soul confounded by life. An echo of so many misérables whose misplacement in this reeling world has left us unmoored, outcast, alone, and empty.
And we three went our ways—each lost, truly lost, in our own little worlds.
T h e E n d