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It rained for the third day that week, a relentless downpour that coated the small town in black puddles. Drops of water clung to the window of the coffeehouse. Some froze to the glass in the 31-degree weather, entangled ice flowers growing upwards from the lowest corners. Outside, tree branches hung limp, weighted down with dampness and frost, too tired to recall their spirits and raise their dreary limbs. Passerby hunched under black umbrellas, hurrying to their destinations, warmth. Business people scuttled to and from work and lunch engagements, bundled in black trench coats and grey scarves.
Enveloped in the warmth of the quaint café, Noah sat at the same table he had for the past three days, cozy next to the fire. He stared glumly down into the murky waters of his coffee as if gazing longingly into a wishing well. No matter how much cream he added, the brew remained as dark as pitch. It reminded him of the charcoal paint globbed onto the pallet back in his studio. It even had that same acrid smell, that aroma similar to turpentine.
“Are you sure you don’t want something else, hon?” asked the waitress for the third time. She was a lovely woman, somewhere in her early thirties, with kinky red hair and vibrant green eyes. She had been flirting with Noah since the first moment he had entered the establishment three days ago. Hon was her pet name for him, one that he did not refuse flat out, but one also that brought back memories best kept dead and buried.
“Just some more cream, ma’am.” If this unrequited puppy love persisted, he would have to find a new coffeehouse. For both his sake and hers.
“I keep tellin’ you, hon, you can add all the cream you want, but that coffee will still be dark as death.” As if to prove her wrong, he took a gulp of the drink. Thick as mud, and about as tasty, too.
“Told ya, darlin’, I just want some more cream,” Noah said with a twitch of a smile. Anything to get her to go away. As she went to fetch a third pitcher of cream, he continued inspecting the images someone had etched onto the glossy, black tabletop. Cats chasing dogs, stars raining down into the sea, a swollen heart pierced by an arrow. All gibberish, pictures carved in a foreign hand, lifeless and without meaning to Noah. Yet at the same time, he felt connected to their creator. Art has that ability, to draw people into the mind of the artist, to connect unrelated persons in an indescribable way, to make clear even the most enigmatic thoughts and ideas of the soul.
Before the waitress could return, Noah slapped down money for the coffee and a tip. He rose as quietly as possible, grabbed his coat and hat from the stand, and made his way out into the rain. The storm still hadn’t subsided. He was reminded of the etching of plummeting stars as the drops delivered blow after blow. Luckily, his studio was only one block down from the coffeehouse. As Noah walked, he couldn’t help but think about Ellen. She had died a year ago, on an equally dismal day. Hydroplaned right into a tree not far from town. She had been coming to meet him for their three-month anniversary. He had planned to propose that night, after dinner.
Silly to let himself be haunted by ghosts from the past. He lifted his face into the rain, letting it clear his head. Rain always had that effect on him, like a tonic for any malady. But heartache was a different matter. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t shake her memory from his mind. She was his first and only love. His muse. His best friend.
Noah’s studio apartment was a mess. Oils and pastels smeared across the walls, paint spilled on the floor, half-eaten Chinese take-out containers strewn throughout the small kitchen. It was his wonderland, a forest of colors and smells both aesthetic and discordant. Hundreds of portraits and panoramas hung from every wall, even from the ceiling. He had created his own world of dazzling shapes and ideas, a world that had become his sanctuary, his prison.
His current project stood in the middle of all the chaotic beauty. A strip of houses crammed together, two women ambling by in the summer heat. The buildings’ pastel colors gently tickled the eye’s fancy. The women’s sundresses, all shocking yellows and greens and reds and blues, flowed seductively in a soft breeze. But the most eye-catching aspect of the scene was the white house with the red door. It sat, the largest and grandest of the old houses, right in the middle of the painting. It was the home Ellen had hoped to live in with him. It was the home he had promised he’d buy.
Noah picked up the small brush and pallet sitting on a small side table next to the canvas. He dipped into the charcoal glob, and slowly, carefully applied the paint to the flower garden that grew in front of the white house. The blossoms withered instantly, nothing more than black husks baking in the sun. He moved on to the flowers in the powder-blue boxes beneath every window. One by one, they all shriveled and darkened, their once-red petals now black in death. Noah blotted out the brightly colored sundresses of the walking women next, adding mourning veils and black tears to cover their sun-soaked smiles. Tears stung Noah’s eyes, clung to his face like raindrops on a café window. He picked up a thicker brush now, dabbed it furiously in the paint, and stifled the summer sky. Every cloud, every twittering bird disappeared beneath black night.
Noah painted over every tree, every bush, and the other two houses, everything but the white house and the women. The image seemed to float in space, in time, in his very sorrow and desolation. Once again, he picked up the smaller brush, still covered in black paint. With a few brush strokes, Noah painted over the red door, covering up the last piece of vibrancy and life on the canvas. Sighing, he lowered his tired hand and returned the brush to the side table.
Without looking at the painting, Noah covered the canvas with a sheet and slid it under the couch. Something had lifted from his chest, although he knew Ellen would always remain in his heart. For now, this was enough for Noah. Hoping to go out and find a new coffee shop to frequent, he slipped on his jacket and picked up the umbrella sitting idle in its stand. It was white.