We were catching up on the phone after a longish break, and I asked Dale if he’d heard from Karen. She was an old girlfriend, now married, who he’d reconnected with a while back and then disconnected from when he realized he still had a thing for her.
“Funny you should ask,” he said. “I hadn’t thought about her in months, but her mother called me just today.”
“Her mother?” I didn’t even know he knew her mother, much less kept in touch with her. Somehow during the eight years he and I have been exchanging intimacies, I had never heard of this person, never heard him utter the name Julia.
“Sure. We’re close.” He explained how she’d gotten his cell phone number during the brief reunion period with Karen.
“Well, what did she want?”
She was annoyed with him, he told me, though she was being good-natured about it. When she retired, she moved to Kentucky, where she found life simpler and less stressful than the not particularly happy life she’d left behind up north. As part of her spiritual renewal, she’d become passionate about a hobby: paint by numbers. Perhaps never having had the opportunity to experience real art, she took it pretty seriously. She loved to give the paintings to friends and loved ones and especially loved to see the reactions to her gift.
A while back, she had asked Dale what she could paint for him and he had decided on an eagle. The painting had been completed months before but, because of the distance, she couldn’t give it to him in person. So when her son came to visit, she sent the painting home with him with instructions to meet with Dale for the exchange. I couldn’t imagine why no one had thought to just put the thing in the mail. But apparently she wanted a witness to phone her as Dale opened the package, give a play-by-play of his reaction, and then hand Dale the phone so she could hear whatever it was he had to say upon seeing the eagle for the first time.
The reaction, it seemed to me, was the real reason for the painting’s existence.
The eagle had landed, so to speak, months before, but Dale hadn’t made arrangements to get it. It wasn’t that he didn’t want the gift; he was just busy, plus he wasn’t anxious for the reminder of Karen that seeing one of her relatives would bring. Julia wanted him to hurry it up, though, and had called to tell him so.
Dale and I spoke again a few days later. For someone I’d never heard of, Julia was suddenly very much in the news. He told me that she had called him again the previous night, but this time she’d left a long, drunken, and very angry voicemail. It might have been about the painting at first, but Dale’s mailbox soon became the target of all the hostility in her life, a life that featured this one joy that Dale was depriving her of.
When her name appeared on his caller ID the next day, Dale wasn’t inclined to pick up the phone. She didn’t call to continue her tirade, though, but to apologize for taking her bad day out on him the night before.
She might not have sounded like the sort of person I’d sit down to a cup of coffee with, but I felt bad for her.
“Are you finally going to pick up the picture?” I asked.
“I will,” he said. “I just don’t know when.”
Dale and I don’t tend to speak to each other all that frequently, so I was surprised when he called me just a few days later.
“About Karen’s mother?” he said. “You’re not going to believe this.”
“What, did she call and lay into you again? Or did you finally get the painting?”
“No. She had a heart attack. She’s dead.”
He would see her, as it turned out, and the paint-by-numbers eagle would find its way to him at her funeral. But Julia would never witness his reaction to it, which was surely not the one she’d imagined.