The man on the sidewalk had walked by twice now, silent as a butterfly, carrying the portrait painted on plywood at an angle so that the people seated outside the sport’s bar got the best view of it each time.
Kat instantly recognized the man on the plywood piece. Although he was abstractly painted in greens and yellows and her view was continuously thwarted by throngs of drunk college students, she knew that exact facial expression. She had seen it beneath that exact afro, only a glossier, smaller version looking down at her from above her brother’s bed. It was the same man from the poster they used to fight about because from that spot where it stuck, barely holding on by two pieces of Scotch tape, it lined up perfectly across from Kat’s own twin bed and stared at her all-night long. She had begged her brother for months to take him down, at least at night so he wouldn’t stare at her while she tossed and turned, but he would never listen because this was Jimi Hendrix and,
“The greatest musician of all time has better things to do than watch you sleep.”
Their mother had agreed that Kat was being ridiculous so every night he watched her, and every night as she couldn’t fall asleep she tried to figure out the color of his eyes as a way to make him seem less scary, but it never worked.
And that man up on the wall saw everything. He saw the nights her brother snuck girls too old for him in through the window while Kat huddled in her blankets pretending not to hear. He saw a few months later when Kat began to develop breasts, and he must have seen when Kat’s mother noticed too and left all of her old women’s size XL sport’s bras on Kat’s bed for her to find. Kat was a kid’s medium, but she wore those to school for three years. He saw when the girls stopped coming in through the window at night and he must have seen Kat’s relief turn to shock when she discovered that the lack of women didn’t change the strange noises her brother made in bed at night.
And he had seen the snake.
Brought home by her brother, even though he knew how Kat hates them. Their mother was at work when he brought the two-foot long, piano-key black creature into their room, otherwise she would have heard Kat’s screams quickly move into hysterical crying the closer her brother got with it.
“Oh my God you’re ridiculous. He’s more scared of you than you are of him.”
Kat doubted that as she stared into its yellow eyes that were caught on hers. She doubted that when her brother slopped it into her old fish’s bowl and stuck it on his nightstand where it was held in by nothing but a sheet of newspaper fastened over the top by a single rubber band. And she doubted that when she laid in bed at night staring at the man on the wall and begging his terrifying eyes to cast down on the snake in the bowl and expel it from her home.
He never did though and eventually the snake died. It’s body still stayed though until it began to smell like ancient sardines and mildew, only then did her brother dump it back out into the yard.
She threw away her fish bowl after that.
And Jimi saw it all.
Then one night he was gone. Kat had figured her brother had seen reason and taken him down, and that he must to have done it in a hurry because one corner of tape stayed stuck to the wall where it was covered over eventually by puke green paint when the kids moved out and their mother finally sold that house. Kat figured he had been taken down and stored somewhere so that he could go back up when they finally bought the house with the room that her brother wouldn’t have to share with his little sister.
None of that ever happened though. Not the second part, nor the first part which Kat found out when she had to go searching for something to wrap her mother’s Christmas present in years later. In a last-ditch effort, she rummaged around under her brother’s twin bed and saw him down there, crumpled up against the wall, surrounded by rogue hairballs, a soccer ball from another time, and some dusty playboys. Kat couldn’t see his eyes from the way he was folded in on himself and she didn’t make an effort to see if they still frightened her the way they had when she was a girl. Instead she abandoned her search and went on with the rest of her day, sad that her brother hadn’t actually taken the poster down for her, and somehow sadder that her brother had let the greatest musician of all time fall behind his bed and hadn’t bothered to pick him back up.
“That’s a really cool painting, isn’t it?” Kat’s mind was slowly coming back to the table with her three friends.
“I told you she wasn’t paying attention!”
Kat wasn’t sure who had said it but she turned her rickety chair on the cobblestones to better face her friends. Her chair wobbled in this position anytime she moved, but she could only see the face being paraded down the street from her peripheral now, so she ignored the discomfort.
“We’re trying to decide if we’re going to celebrate the holiday with beer or whiskey…” Allison filled Kat in.
“All depends on if I’m willing to call in sick tomorrow,” Leah was clearly leaning toward the idea.
“I think it just depends on if you’re really as Irish as you claim to be,” Michele teased.
The waiter showed up at that exact moment and Leah stared Michele down as she handed him her menu, “Whiskey. Neat. Keep ‘em coming.”
They drank and spent the rest of the night laughing at the tacky paper leprechauns taped to every bit of open space outside the bar, and then at the fact that they matched the tackiness all too well with their own overtly green attire, and eventually Kat was able to forget about the face.
“Guys, guys, I think they’re fighting!” Leah interrupted one of Alison’s drunken rants to point out a couple on the street. Kat’s eyes wandered right past them though, to the man with the painting walking by again.
“Who even is that?” Leah followed Kat’s gaze to the piece of art.
“Jimi Hendrix.” Kat responded absently finally feeling the effects of alcohol on her tongue. “Some people say he’s the greatest musician of all time.”
“Oh yeah! I know a song I think,” Leah slurred the final word then began humming the intro of Don’t Stop Believin’.
Michele turned back to Kat, “You like him?”
Kat shrugged and turned her attention to fiddling with the plastic gold coins scattered on the table.
“Hey mister!” Michele was on her feet waving down the man with the plywood painting. “How much?”
“Michele!” Kat was instantly snapped out of her reverie, swinging her head around so quickly that the ends of her hair caught some foam from her fresh pint.
“What? You like it! You said it was cool! Let me buy it for you. Early birthday present!”
“My birthday isn’t until July! Really, I don’t need it, come on, let’s just finish our drinks and get going!”
But Michele had already begun haggling. The man was taller than her by nearly a foot and smelled of weed and acrylic paints.
“How much ya got?”
“I’ll give you ten for it.”
The man laughed without humor, clearly offended by Michele’s lowball, “I don’t think so. He took all day.”
“Alright, fifteen.” Michele stuck her chin up to appear taller.
“Twenty-five.” The man shifted his weight, settling in for a lengthy negotiation.
“Michele, that’s crazy, really, I appreciate the thought but I don’t need it,” Kat made a show of trying even though she knew it was useless.
“I’ll give you a twenty and the lucky penny I found this morning.” The entire table rolled their eyes but the man was intrigued.
“Deal.” Michele dug through her shamrock socks for the stashed penny and the man handed the painting over to Kat who had to stand awkwardly to accept her newest belonging. Green paint came off on her fingers when she touched the edges. “He’s a good one. It’d be best for you to take care of him.”
It wasn’t easy getting the plywood painting up the stairs to Kat’s seventh floor apartment, almost as difficult as it was fitting it into an Uber with all four women. By the time Kat made it to her door the nails poking through the back of the portrait had completely shredded her festive green tights and there was a slight stream of blood running down her leg from the same spot but the alcohol kept Kat from worrying about tetanus or even really feeling the wound. She set the painting in the kitchen, facing the cupboard where she wouldn’t have to look at or deal with it until morning.
She couldn’t get the paint off her fingers but once her face was free of makeup, and her ruined tights kicked into the corner of her closet, Kat came back out into the living room without even thinking about it. She’d had plenty to drink and should have been falling into a restless sleep full of complicated and jarring dreams but she couldn’t take her mind off the man in her kitchen.
It was heavier than she remembered it being when she picked the wood up and turned it around to really look at it for the first time. There were quarter-sized holes scattered around the wood and sloppy initials that she couldn’t quite make out in the corner, but there was no denying that the painting was beautiful. The face was a bit warped but clearly as an artistic choice and the result of the different color blends holding it to together. Streaks of blue swam within the textured yellows and it was that yellow, eerily familiar to an earlier memory that brought anger coursing into Kat. Anger at her brother for bringing strange men and swamp creatures into her space, at Jimi for never letting her sleep and for not being the Saint Patrick she had begged him to be, at her mother for every time a boy at school would try to snap her bra strap but find it too loose to make the same awful sound that every other fifth grade girls’ made. And so, she set the plywood back down and went to get the hammer.
Kat slept with her head at the foot of the bed that night where she would be able to open her eyes and meet his at any point. He didn’t keep her up this time. She watched him as he watched her for a little bit but only long enough to decide that his eyes were too many colors to pick just one.
Sara Sutton is an emerging writer with a single previously published work. She is currently finishing up her Creative Writing degree at Florida State University. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her family and many pets. Sara has an avid passion for stories and hopes to spend her life telling them.