“What the hell are you doing?” Bertha asked her friend Thomas.
“What does it look like I’m doing?”
It was a rather warm, late fall day, with a gentle breeze. The two were standing in front of their easels painting the sunset over the Hudson River from a pier near the train station in Yonkers, NY. The sheer cliffs of the Palisades, across the river, were in deep shadows and cast a flowing bluish-black shadow on the gentle waves as the sun slowly drifted down towards the top of the cliff. There were a few puffy clouds to the north and scattered rays dimpled on the river. These two had painted this ever-changing scene on the first Saturday of the month for over four decades. They often touched up paintings they’d almost completed in previous sessions. Thomas had brought five of these.
“You’re covering the oil painting you made in the spring with thin vertical lines of black paint.”
“Maybe I’m trying to make it saleable.”
“If you didn’t already know, you wouldn’t be sure that it is a sunset,” said Bertha. “You’ve ruined it.”
“Ruined it? I haven’t had a sniff of a sale in over six months.”
“You sold five last year. You’ll never sell that one now.”
“Maybe.” They fell silent as they continued to paint.”
A passerby strolled up and watched them. He shook his head, pointed to Thomas’ canvas and asked, “What the heck is this one called?”
“Sunset Viewed From My Buried Coffin,” said Thomas.
The passerby laughed, “An extremely modern interpretation.”
“Not really,” Thomas replied. “It’s pure Realism.” The passerby waited, hoping to hear more but Thomas was silent.
Bertha took out a card and handed it to the viewer. “In case you want to buy, this has our website on it.” The stroller took the card and departed.
“You usually go on and on about your paintings,” said Bertha. “Why didn’t you say more? What’s going on?”
“Take a wild guess.”
Bertha pointed her brush at him and almost shouted, “I don’t make guesses.”
She waited for a response but there was none. “Sorry,” she continued much more quietly, “Last week you told me the test results were fine.”
“My exact words were, ‘I’m fine with the test results’”.
“Stop being so damned enigmatic,” said Bertha.
“It’s probably weeks. Not months.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Thought you’d figured it out.”
“That’s horrible,” said Bertha. “I’m shocked.”
“’Sunset Viewed From My Closed Coffin’. It’s a great name. It might be the making of our joint artistic fame. The title’s not quite accurate though.”
“What the heck are you talking about?”
“I’m going to be cremated. Cleaner and takes less space.”
“Stop joking,” said Bertha. “I’m devastated.”
“I’d give you a hug but I’ve got paint all over my smock.”
Tears rolled down Bertha’s face. Thomas had finished painting thin lines over his first canvas. He started covering another sunset painting.
“Why don’t you join me?” asked Thomas “We could have our last joint show.”
“Is it? I don’t think so. People will respond.”
“Is there time for a show? asked Bertha. “What gallery can we get in time?”
“Doesn’t matter. If we can’t find one now, you can have the show after.”
“Without you. It will be so bizarre.”
“Yes, but …” and Thomas stopped talking.
Bertha began painting thin black lines at a 45-degree angle over her painting. Thomas watched her for a minute. She said, “We have to make sure people can tell who painted what.”
“I agree,” said Thomas. “We’ve always had very different styles.”
A few tears flowed down Thomas’ face. “I’m really going to miss you and our painting sessions.”
Bertha turned towards Thomas and waited.
“Now that you’ve got paint on your smock,” Thomas said, “we can hug.”
They did. By the time they got back to painting, the sun had set.
“The Hudson and the Palisades will still be here,” said Bertha.
“Thank God,” said Thomas.
“You always shouted that you’re an atheist.”
“You never know what you really believe until the time comes.”
“Yes …,” replied Bertha. Thomas looked at her but she said nothing more.
They continued painting black lines by streetlight.