Father took a deep breath. “What,” he asked, “is that smell?” “Our daughters have taken up painting,” said mother.
“Meg and Marie?” Father hung up his hat and proceeded into the living room, holding mother's arm. “Painting pictures?”
“The latter-day Van Goghs are upstairs in their inner sanctum. If you knock three times and are very polite, they might let you see.”
“By all means. This I must investigate.”
Advancing alone into the rarefied upper country of the house, which smelled of sun-tan powder, perfume and bubble baths, he rapped discreetly on the door of his daughters' room. The smell was stronger here, the sharp autumnal smell of turpentine and oil, a creative odor, the odor of genius and imagination. He was smiling quietly when the door opened.
“Hi, dad!” said Marie.
“Come take a look,” said Meg. She was standing at the old fireplace, using the mantel for an easel, a brush in hand, white paint on her nose.
Father advanced with good humor and proper reticence, “ What’s this about your giving Rembrandt a run for his money?”
“Oh, nothing like that!”
“I'm always pleased when the creative spirit boils to the surface of girls seventeen and seventeen years eleven months,” observed father warmly.
“Will this be your college major next year?”
“Gosh, no! We’re trying to paint a picture of the ideal male.”
“We're using our imagination, trying to show how we'd like our boy friend to look if we had our choice. It's a contest in the school Wolfbait Club. Oh, you know what we mean, dad!”
“I am afraid,” he murmured, “I do.”
“Ten of us girls are doing portraits of the fellow we'd like to go with. In a way, it's kind of a composite, good features from every boy we know.”
“All well and good,” said father. “But when you've finished, what do you do? Search for this dream prince in person?”
“You can only try, father.”
“Yes, you can always do that.” He cleared his throat and became determinedly hearty. “Well, let's see the prince!”
Meg stepped back from her canvas, “I’m having trouble with his eyes.”
Father observed the painting, hand to chin, a long while. “Yes, I see what you mean.”
One of the eyes veered in a westerly direction, while the other traveled somewhat to the east.
“Of course,” said Meg hastily, “I’ll change and add to it from day to day.”
Father stood quietly, fascinated with Meg’s handiwork; then turned to Marie’s painting, which stood beside it on the mantel.
“Sometimes I think he should have blue eyes, sometimes brown, “said Marie. “It’s amazing how I change my mind. How do you like it? Snazzy, huh?”
“Are they still saying ‘snazzy’?” wondered father aloud. “That word got around in ’34, when I was in college. Yes, this fellow is quite snazzy.”
“Snazzy, dad, can never be ‘quite.’ A thing either is or is not snazzy. No in-betweens.”
“Something’s wrong with this fellow’s chin.” Dad squinted. “Is he chewing candy, gun, jaw-breakers?” “No, no! That’s a strong jaw. I like men with strong jaws.”
Father rubbed his own rather ruefully. “This portrait’s unfinished too?”
“Heck, yes. Someday we’ll finish. More fun!”
“What do Clip and The Joker think of this?”
Clip was the boy with the bath-brush haircut who waited silently outside the house evenings of late. The Joker was something else again; so named by father because his bellow, his guffaw, his great haw-haw of convulsive laughter could be heard a mile out in farm country on a clear moonlit night. He was always telling some joke, the point of which father was always careful to search for, and then exploding, leaning on father for support. Clip and The Joker, all in all, were rather interesting boys. Not at all like these portraits.
“We haven’t shown them our paintings yes,” admitted Marie slowly.
“It wouldn’t be fair not to,” said father.
“Well, we’ve only known them a few weeks.”
“They should know what they’re up against, anyway,” father reminded her. “Maybe they’ll start wearing shoes.”
At this moment a great shuddering roar rang out in the yard below. Father stiffened in spite of his resolution not to show fear. It must have been even thus; a million years ago cavemen in their hiber-natorial diggings probably jumped and pulled furs over their eyes when dinosaurs lumbered about the front doorstep, crunching bones and giving antediluvian whinnies. Father, a twentieth-century man,
though dressed in a seventy-five-dollar suit, a lodge ring glittering on his hand and the sanctity of marriage and children to reassure him, felt the hair on his neck rise slowly as the laugh rang out below.
“The Joker,” whispered Marie.
“The Joker,” said father.
“I guess we better go let him in.”
“Make him walk upstairs slowly,” called father. “If he breaks his leg, we’ll have to shoot him.”
Clip and The Joker stood in the center of the living room, pawing the carpet with their large shoes and peering at their not excessively clean fingernails. Father, coming down the stairs and saying hello, was given pause for a moment at the spectacle of the creatures his daughters had led in from pasture. The boys were of an equal build, rather on the order of some hasty sculpture containing bits and pieces of odd-sized toy building sets and old mammoth bones. Their elbows were always flying out, striking against things — other people’s ribs, doors, pianos and vases. Most especially vases. There seemed to be an odd and inexplicable magnetism present in boys' elbows, which caused vases to fly across rooms, ricochet off walls and jump from fireplace mantels. China shops had been known to use signs stating in no uncertain terms that only boys who held onto their own elbows would be allowed in. Right now, Clip, whose real name was Chester, and The Joker, whose name was Walt, were trying their best to keep their elbows under control while waiting for the girls to speak.
They were also preoccupied, father realized, with two other tasks. One, keeping their rather large heads on their shoulders, a juggling act of no mean ability, since their heads were twisting and craning about constantly; and, two, preventing their feet, which, next to elbows, were most unpredictable, from kicking anyone's shins or crunching rungs off the chairs. The feet, like their heads and hands, were excessively large. Their expressions were suck as to make father expect an explosion at any moment.
“Hey!” said The Joker. “What's this about somebody painting pictures of Prince Charming?” The girls looked startled.
“It's got around school on the grapevine,” said Clip. “Let's have a look-see!”
“No, no!” cried Meg.
“They're,” said Marie — “they're not finished yet.”
“Aw,” said Clip, “don't be a spoil-sport!”
The girls looked at their father. Father looked at the girls. “Well,” said Meg. “All right.”
They went upstairs. Father stood, feeling both quality and alert, cautiously eavesdropping. The upstairs door opened, he heard the clump of large feet. A long and nerve-racking silence ensued. He was just turning to go into the kitchen when he heard the stabbed bellow. This was followed by a hoot, a shout and a roar.
The Joker was laughing. His feet stomped crazily around the room above, jarring the house.
“Oh, oh!” said father.
Now Clip had joined in. The girls were ominously silent. Clip whooped, took a deep breath and hollered. Then both of them were calling to each other: “Look at that! Look at this! And that! And this! Hey!” They were all too probably holding onto each other, toppling, to keep from falling down and rolling.
Father clutched the bottom rung of the stair banister.
The girls spoke. Quietly, with indignation. Then louder. The Joker and Clip didn't hear. They went wildly on, describing to each other the anatomical charms painted before them — the ruby lips, the golden hair, the Grecian body. Drunk with hilarity, they were no doubt reeling about the pictures.
It was a jungle scream. The laughter died. Father swallowed and began to perspire.
The girls were talking so quietly now, so coldly, that it was like a winter wind let through the upper house. The silence was complete. The girls spoke evenly, almost hissingly, thought father. In his mind's eye he saw them point stiffly toward the exit.
Sure enough, a moment later, hands over their mouths, Chester and Walt came in a kicking walk down the stairs. They looked at their father. He looked at them, questioningly. Their eyes glinted and danced. Clutching their hands tight to their lips, the boys rushed from the house. Father winced, waiting for the door slam. It came.
“And never come back!” cried Meg, at the top of the stairs, too late.
Outside in the twilight there was a moment of silence, followed by a great guttural boom of hilarity. The last father saw of the boys, they were stumbling off, roughly embracing each other's shoulders, their heads flopped back, looking at the sky, for all the world like two men fresh from a wild night in the town saloon. Father watched them until they were out of sight.
The phone rang later in the evening. It was Clip.
“Hey, I just wanted to say we're sorry,”
“I'm afraid I can't get the girls on the phone,” said the father apprehensively. “Not even for an apology?”
“They've got their door locked upstairs.”
“We sure ruined things,” said Clip miserably.
“Don't give up. It'll blow over.”
“Just when things were going fine,” said Clip. “We've tried for two weeks to date Meg and Marie. They said ‘maybe’ all along. Now we go look at the pictures and ____”. He chuckled abruptly. “Sorry. I don't mean to laugh.”
“If it helps any, I understand,” said father.
“Tell ‘em we're sorry. Tell ‘em we're very sorry and penitent, “ said Clip.
Father went upstairs to relay the message through a door which did not even answer him. Shrugging, he lit his pipe slowly and went back down.
The week was somewhat busy. Father, home early from his office on several days, saw nothing of Clip and The Joker for three afternoons straight. The girls, meantime, were painting furiously, steadily, in their room. On the fourth day, Clip and The Joker appeared, far down the street, in the misty distance. On the sixth, Meg spoke a dozen words to them. The following Sunday, Clip and The Joker were allowed front-porch privileges for five minutes. By the next Wednesday the boys were calling three or four times a night, trying to solidify the movie or dance date they had been promoting for over a month now.
“You think they're ever going to date us, Mr. Fifield?” they asked, encountering him alone one afternoon before the house.
“It's in the laps of the gods, boys.”
“I think we've been very fine,” said Clip. “Penitent as heck,” added The Joker.
“We never even mention the darn paintings!” “Wise.” Father shook their shoulders, “Wise.”
His relationship with the girls had been a bit remote during the week. They seemed to consider him part of a male conspiracy. He, for his part, had been most judiciously delicate in questioning the development of the new art form.
“Almost done?” he'd inquire tersely.
“Almost,” they said.
“Found the boy who looks like your pictures?” he added casually.
“Almost,” they replied.
“Stiff upper lip,” he said.
On the tenth afternoon after the original falling out, father viewed the Works in Progress when the girls were briefly away. He commented to his wife later, “Aren't the oil portraits changing a bit?”
“I hadn't noticed.”
“The hair. Wasn't it blond at first?”
“Seems to me the eyes in both pictures were bright sky-blue first time around.”
“Maybe you're right.”
“The girls say anything — ah — to you about having trouble finding boys to fit the pictures?”
“They've been awfully moody. It's time they quit this foolishness.”
“Nonsense. They're flexible; they roll with the punch; life'll never beat them. You wait. Something'll turn up. Those portraits, though. M'm'm Seems to me they've thinned out. Kind of bony. Odd. Can't put my finger on it.”
“It's a terrible predicament,” said mother. “The girls have painted themselves into a corner, you might say, where there isn't any door. What do they do now with the portraits?”
“They're not finished. We'll have to wait and see. But I must confess, the suspense is killing me.” And father wandered up to peer into their room again, musing.
On the eleventh night, Friday, the dining room was strangely silent as father, arriving late, entered, sat down and pecked his wife on the cheek.
“Hey,” he said, “a Siberian wasteland,” looking at the set table with the napery and silver gleaming white and metallic, untouched. “Where are mother's slaves?”
“Upstairs being sick.”
“Oh, you know; every time they go on a date they get sick ahead of time. When their dates show up, they'll be all right. By ten tonight, after the show, they'll be in condition for four malts apiece. Tonight's a big night. They've found their Prince Charmings!”
“Yes. They said so!”
“I knew they had it in them! Who's footing the bill?”
“It's a big surprise. Whoever it is will be here in five minutes, so we'll get to see if they fit the portraits upstairs.”
“Proud of my girls. Initiative! Set up a goal and got it.”
“They've been painting some this afternoon. Finishing touches, they said.”
“God bless us all,’ said Tiny Tim. This calls for a celebration. Frankly, when the whole thing started, I thought they were setting their sights too high.”
At this moment, outside the house, a great tin avalanche rounded the corner, collided bumpily with its own brakes and heaved terribly, with a sound of shrieks and dead souls, to a halt.
“Here they come,” said mother.
“I've got to see this.” Father arose, beaming. “My only hope is they have brains to fit their handsome faces.” Going to the hall, he waited for the bell to ring, then opened the door, throwing the porch-light switch. The light didn't go on.
“Oh, forgive me,” he said to the two strangers out in the dim light. “Been meaning to change that darned bulb. I'm the girls' father. Glad to see you!
Come on in, fellows! Your names?”
The two figures shifted uneasily forward into the light.
“Aw, you know us, Mr. Fifield.”
Great laughter blew around him in a win try gale, subsiding suddenly and with becoming self – consciousness into a titter.
“Clip,” said Father. “The Joker.”
“Hi,” said the two boys.
“I mean,” said father, stepping hastily back to let them in, “Chester and Walt. I don't think – that is, there's some mistake. Are the girls expecting —you?”
“Who else?” said The Joker in a big laughing voice. Then he swallowed and lowered his head and tried it again.
“Who else?” he said in a small, quiet voice, a gentleman's voice.
“Martha” — father turned to his wife — “I thought you said ------ “
“Come in, boys; come in!” said mother quickly.
“Thanks.” The boys shuffled slowly to stand under the parlor light strange, odd and somehow different. “We finally got our date,” said Chester.
“We wore down their resistance,” added Walt. “Let me look at you,” said father.
The boys smiled.
They looked at their pants.
“Hands washed.” Father said this with awe.
They glanced quickly at their hands
“Wearing ties and white shirts.”
They adjusted their ties, perspiring pleasantly, with pride.
“Shoes shined,” finished father. “I almost didn't recognize you, Jok —that is, Walt.” “That's O. K. Nothing's too good for your daughters, sir.”
“That's what I always say. “ Father stared at their faces, and then at their frames covered with neat clothes. An incipient gentility had crept over the boys with the coming of night and the weekend.
The girls came running down the steps, stopped halfway and walked slowly the rest of the distance, picking at each other for ling and imaginary powder dustings. They brought with them a faint smell of turpentine, hidden by perfume.
“I guess we've got our heads on right,” said Meg.
“You sure have!” cried The Joker loudly, and then resorting to his new technique, did the whole thing over again, sotto voce, “You sure have, Meg.”
“Good night, dad, mom!” The girls turned a merry-go-round, kissing cheeks. “We'll be back by eleven.” “I'm not worried,” said father.
“Don't worry at all, sir,” said The Joker, taking his hand. They stood solemnly shaking hands. It was a deal.
The front door closed quietly. Father, waiting for it to slam, was surprised. He walked mother back through the parlor. “I thought you said ______”
“I was as surprised as you!”
“You know, the fellows didn't look half bad dressed up. Give them another year, a little more milk and vegetables and _____” Father stopped. “Say, it's none of my darned business, but I've the most voracious curiosity at this very moment. The oil paintings. Did the girls throw them away, give up the hunt or what? There's only one way to tell.”
“Oh, do you think you should?”
“It's a secret I'll never tell. Here I go!” He hurried up the hall stairs to the girls' room. He hesitated a moment before touching the door. He took a deep breath and twisted the knob.
He opened the door quietly, as if the ghosts of the two girls were lurking inside. He moved in quietly and stood looking at the two paintings under the light of the hurricane lamps. He looked first, for a long time, at Marie's picture, and then, as long a time, at Meg's.
Marie's picture. It was the same one he had seen four days ago, and yet it was not the same. The jaw line had sunk mysteriously, the teeth had become somewhat protuberant, the elbows were in danger of flying away like two reptilian birds, and the stance of the two feet was such that they appeared to be walking in several directions. There was a lazy grandeur, a careless and handsome indifference about the portrait. The eyes were a rather washed-and-rained-out blue. The hair that had been so long, blond and duck-tailed was now a rather muddy shade of sparrow brown. It looked very much like a military brush, stiffly and angrily abristle.
Father smiled warmly and softly, shifting the portrait under the light. While he was looking at the second portrait, he heard a soft step at the door and turned. Mother entered and walked over to stand beside him.
“Why,” she said, after a minute, “that’s a picture of ___”
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, Prince Charming.”
Mother put her hand to her face. “Oh, it’s kind of sad and silly and sweet, all at once. Girls, girls.”
“What about this second portrait – Meg’s? I was just starting to look when you came.”
They both studied it carefully. “That doesn’t look like any of the boy’s she knows. I sort of thought since Marie’s has turned out like Clip, that this one would look like___”
“The Joker?” “Yes.”
“It does. A little. And yet, something else. It looks like___” She thought a moment and then turned to glance at her husband. “It looks a little like you.”
“Oh, but it does.”
“Ho, ho!” He snorted.
“That jaw line.”
“My jaw isn’t that strong.”
“It is so!”
“You and Meg are both blind.”
“I’m not either. And those are your eyes too.”
“My eyes aren’t that blue.”
“You’re fishing. See those ears? It’s part you and part The Joker.”
“No, you’re not; you’re flattered,” she said quietly.
“Because my daughter puts my face with The Joker’s?”
“No, because she put your face in the picture at all. You’re flattered and touched. Come on, admit it, Will.”
He stood before the picture for a long time, feeling warm and ruddy and comfortable. He grinned. “All right. I give up. I feel flattered and touched. Those girls.”
His wife took his arm.
“The Joker does look a little like you, you know.”
“I forbid you to say a thing like that!” he said aghast.
“I’ve seen pictures of you when you were seventeen. You looked like a skeleton with feathers. Give The Joker another two years to fill out and settle down, and you’ll have an informal portrait of yourself today.”
“I’ll never believe that.”
“You protest too much.”
He said nothing, but looked sheepishly pleased once more.
“Oh, well,” he said. “Tomorrow they’ll do these portraits over. They said they weren’t finished. Change ‘em tomorrow.” He put his hand out and touched the pictures. He stopped.
“Well, I’ll be darned,” he whispered.
“Feel that,” he said, taking her hand and running it over the portrait.
“Watch out! You’ll smear the oil!”
“No, touch it. See?”
The portrait was dry. Both portraits were dry. They had been sprayed with fixative and set before the fire to become permanent. The portraits were finished, dry, and done.
“I'll be darned, bottled and put on display,” he said.
Outside, in the cool night, the heap gave a great tin thunder, the fenders flapped like wings, the girls laughed, Clip shouted, The Joker gave a great guffaw which caused a number of night birds to leap through the sky in a panic, and the car spun away down the avenue toward the lights of town.
“Come on, Joker,” said mother quietly.
She led father from the room. They turned off the light, but just before closing the door they gave a last glance in at the two portraits standing there in the dark. The permanent oil faces smiled lazily, awry, the bodies stood lumpily balancing their heads, careful of their hands, holding their elbows so they wouldn’t explode, and being especially concerned that their immense feet would not suddenly plunge about and kick the glass from the cool night windows.
Smiling, mother and father took hold of the knob and silently shut the door.
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