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Janstein’s Subject

by Randall Lahrman

Steven’s heart beats rapidly in his chest as he lifts his fist to knock against Janstein’s door. He wonders if his teacher is even ready for him and he jumps back when, after a single knock, the bronze doorknob turns sharply and the door is pulled open.

Janstein stands in the doorway, dressed in his usual attire of khaki pants, brown sweater vest over a white button-up, and black shoes. He pushes his glasses from the bottom of his nose to balance over the bridge. They stand in silence, locking their eyes and waiting patiently for one to speak. Janstein breaks the silence.

“No one followed you I trust.” His eyes narrow into slits while awaiting Steven’s response like a cat readying to pounce. Steven nervously looks towards the ground and kicks at a rock, unable to stare his teacher in the face during the interrogation.

He lifts his face back up towards Janstein, his eyes round like a puppy’s. “Yes sir. I didn’t tell anyone I was coming and I walked all the back ways through the park and not on the street, just like you told me to.”

Janstein looks his student up and down, studying his clothes to see if he followed his directions on how to dress. Steven is dressed exactly according to Janstein’s specifications. His black shoes are polished to a reflecting glint with black pants that cover his legs without a sign of a wrinkle or crease. His black shirt is buttoned in the front and tucked into his pants. His brown hair parts in the middle and flows down both sides of his head.

Janstein smiles in satisfaction then quickly cocks to the side like a curious dog. With a questioning look on his face, Janstein lifts his hand slowly to Steven’s face and caresses his cheek. Realizing it had been recently shaved and was completely smooth, the smile returns to Janstein’s face and Steven releases the vise in his stomach and allows air to escape when his cheek was no longer being touched.

“You truly are a beautiful subject, Steven,” he says, while turning sideways and extending his arm into his home. “Welcome to my house and thank you for meeting my demands.” His eyes lock steadily on Steven, and he can see the boy breathing hard. “It is a way for my students to show me their true dedication to the art.”

Steven shoves his hands deep into his pockets as if searching for a small amount of courage in them but finds nothing. He steps slowly past Janstein and does not turn around as he listens to the door creak shut and lock behind him.

Janstein nimbly sidesteps past Steven as in a mastered dance move and motions for him to follow. The brown-vested teacher quickly makes his way down the hallway and turns into a dark room at the end.

Steven is hesitant to follow the man into the room, still unsure of if he should be in his teacher’s house alone. In the same moment, Steven looks up and notices the walls and is reminded of why he came.

The hallway stretches out before him about fifteen feet and hanging delicately on both walls were Janstein’s paintings. A small crevice of a smile forms in the soft skin of Steven’s face as he steps forward into his own private art show. He doesn’t dare blink, and his eyes are as wide as silver dollars. Each canvas he stops to look at attacks his eyes with beauty and nearly stings them just enough to draw tears. The bright colors and individual beauty of each painting increases his confidence and stops his knees from shaking.

When Steven moved to Ashview, he knew his life had just taken a serious turn for the worse. He had just turned fifteen and was about to enter high school with all his friends when his father, who wass enlisted in the Navy, was transferred to the seaside base in Ashview. The move was long and tedious, but Steven knew the worst was to come.

After the first few days of attending Catherine Patrick High School in his new town, Steven confirmed to himself that he would never be happy there. He was not making friends quickly, not that he wanted to, and the classes were hard and the teachers were strict. But then, halfway through his first year of school, he found his way into Janstein’s art class.

“Steven, are you coming?” Janstein’s voice echoes from the end of the hallway.

“You’ve never shown these paintings in class before,” Steven says, immediately hearing Janstein’s footsteps coming back down the hallway. “They are beautiful. Why haven’t you shared them with the class?”

Janstein stands behind Steven with his chest pressing against the back of Steven’s shoulder. “That’s because these are too precious to me.” He whispers down towards Steven as though sharing a dark secret and places a hand on Steven’s shoulders. “It is only those that I truly trust that see these paintings. Take your time. When you’re ready I’ll be in the living room.” He squeezes Steven’s shoulder softly and turns to disappear again into the other room.

Steven continues to feast his eyes on the paintings and feels himself to be a glutton of the art. Each painting captures his eyes, and he smile with the sheer excellence of each one, but there is one at the end of the hallway that consumes his attention. It is a portrait of a young boy no older than himself sitting at the embankment of a river. The boy is shirtless with denim jeans rolled to the knees and a straw hat on his head.

Steven can recognize the unauthentic theme to this picture, but that is not what impresses him; it is the preciseness of the artistry that makes the painting so unique. The colors of the oak trees shine brightly with the browns, yellows, and greens of a fall afternoon. The blue hue of the river glows eerily fluorescent and seems to be reflecting the warmth of the sun onto Steven’s face.

He slowly escapes into the painting, allowing his imagination to wander. He can feel the breeze that whisks gently through the trees, sending so many leaves to float atop the running waters like so many tiny boats. He can hear the birds chirping and the flutter of their wings as they stretch to take flight. He can even hear the boy whistling the tune to “Dixieland” as he kicks at the water.

Steven pushes up onto his toes and stares at the boy. Everything about him seems so real. The denim jeans have holes in them and tiny traces of fraying fabric which he can only imagine being painted on with a single brush bristle and a magnifying glass. Each tiny aspect of the boy’s anatomy is shown with great clarity from the tiny scar on his shoulder to the barely noticeable outlines of his muscles. Even the child’s face demands attention and Steven finds himself locked in the gaze of the painted child.

The hallway darkens round him and engulfs him completely like drowning in water. He can’t pull his eyes from the boy and begins to hear his thoughts, although seemingly impossible, he heard of all the troubles he had at home and his only escape was the river where he ran every day to relax with nature. Steven’s mind began to spin and his senses were filled with every aspect of the river and just before Janstein rips his attention away, the boy looks at Steven and blinks.

“Steven, I believe you have spent enough time in there.” Janstein’s head pokes into the hallway and pulls out quickly like a frightened turtle.

Steven forces his attention away from the painting and proceeds down the hallway. With each creaking step, Steven becomes more and more aware of how loud the creaking is in his ears. At the end of the hallway, he peers around the corner in the direction he saw Janstein’s head disappear and sees what it is he has come for. The room is completely empty save for Janstein. The floor is covered in plastic and a large blank painting canvas.

“Are you ready, Steven?” Janstein asks. His words flow from his mouth as smoothly as marble. Janstein mentioned to him once that there is a secret art to painting, one that he sacrificed much to learn and one that only he could teach to those who are worthy.

“Yes sir.” Steven replies and shyly covers his mouth with his hand feeling he screamed the answer.

Janstein hands him a paintbrush, and Steven remembers why he is so insistent on learning the trade. From the first day he spent in art class, a glint of happiness began to grow inside of him, soft as a bubble at first, but it continued to grow, and it became more demanding like a fattening pig. With every stroke of a brush he smiled wider and with every combination of colors that came together to create a landscape, his soul brightened within him.

“Now, Steven. Just as I told you, painting needs to be about who you are on the inside.” Janstein drives his point by pushing a limp finger against Stevens’s chest. “All your emotions and everything you feel has to be expressed through your painting. You must put your entire soul, your entity, onto this canvas to achieve the results of a true artist.”

Steven’s eyes are glazed like glass as he listens to his teacher. His heart beats faster and he hangs onto every word as if caught in a trance. Eager to paint, his hand unwillingly begins to brush in mid air like a cobra tempted by a flute.

“I can see you’re ready to start. Let me rush and get your paints and we will begin.” Janstein leaves the room nearly skipping.

Alone with the canvas, Steven looks into the white and envisions what he will create. His pulse throbs in his temple and he is anxious for release. His hand works faster in the air, outlining strokes of a landscape absent of color.

Janstein returns a moment later with an odor that precedes his presence. A combining smell of burnt hair and exotic herbs swirl into the room like a wandering ghost. As Janstein brings himself beside Steven, the source of the odor becomes apparent.

“Here are your paints, Steven. Take the time to study them and when you are ready, paint.”

Steven takes the palette of paints and studies them briefly. The texture is surprising and foreign. Thicker than oils, yet thinner than acrylics, and they look to be as soft and elastic as flesh. Steven dips his brush slowly into the paint and steps back as the paint oozes up the bristles without his moving the brush, as if they were eager to be applied to the canvas.

Steven glances nervously at Janstein. But seeing that his teacher does not look alarmed, he continues focusing on doing what he loves and puts the brush to the canvas and begins.

Janstein stands behind his student, gazing at the young boy’s progress like an adoring father. His strokes are smooth, without a sign of running paint and the colors mesh together without a mistake.

“Block out the entire world, Steven, and make a new one for yourself. Create a sort of dreamscape on the canvas for yourself, and you will find true connection with the painting.” Janstein nods to himself, agreeing with his own statement, and Steven continues to paint undisturbed, mesmerized by the flow.

Steven is swallowed up by the darkness again. Janstein, his family, his school, all gone. All he does is think about his dream world, becoming lost within himself. Within a universe made for him, one he will create.

Janstein smiles widely as he watches another of his subjects prove his worth. He watches tentatively as a new masterpiece is created and does not so much as flinch when Steven’s light-brown skin begins to fade. “You’re doing wonderfully, Steven.” Janstein purrs encouragingly while watching his student work.

Steven’s strokes become more furious but no less accurate. Each brushstroke blends with the previous one and molds together into an image being freed from his mind. The work feels effortless, and Steven begins to feel he is watching himself paint, more so than doing it himself. He soon finds himself an out-of-body private audience to his own painting.

He watches as his skin lightens in color with each stroke he makes. With every seeping dip of his brush into the colors on the palette, his skin becomes more transparent. The canvas looks to be nothing but a tie-dye mixture of colors, yet he knows he is painting something more than that. He feels Janstein’s gaze coming from behind and can hear him chuckle, almost gleefully.

Steven watches as his fingertips are slowly being sucked into the bristles of the brush like water down a drain. His arm and torso smooth out and sink into the wood of the brush handle only to pour out of the bristles in pursuit of his hand. His legs and feet follow next. His whole body is absorbed into the paintbrush and applied to the painting until the canvas is full and the brush falls lifeless to the ground, echoing in the nearly empty room.

Janstein steps up to the canvas, picking up the brush from the ground and gently puts it in his pocket. “Lets see what we have this time shall we?” With eyes watering he looks at his painting.

The reds, browns and whites on the canvas glow like dawn. The wood of each cabinet is painted to perfection with every crack and chip to be seen. The floor is dotted with the many colors of paint spills and the light through the windows project every shadow in perfect proportion against the wall.

And in the middle of the room, all alone, is Steven with arm held high in the air and a smile on his face forever in the only place where he will truly be happy. Janstein turns looking around the room for a place to hang his new masterpiece.

Copyright © 2006 by Randall Lahrman

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