It was an odd place for a painting I thought to myself as I watched him unlock the narrow white closet where the cleaning products were stored. Beneath them was a utility sink that was old, but surprisingly clean. The man by my side pulled out the janitorial cart, and started stocking it with trifold paper towels. People were going through significantly more during the pandemic he informed me. I walked beside him, thinking to myself as we walked the halls. Late at night it was quiet, offices were dark, and our footsteps made no noise once we stepped onto the carpeting of the reception area. He hadn't been cleaning at this place for very long he explained. Filtered music accompanied us as I watched him empty trash cans, the one in the lunch room downstairs had a row of thinly sliced onions laying on top of a brown paper bag. That was laying next to a container that had held a chicken sandwich, and a half empty thing of marinara sauce that was dry around the edges.
By the time we rounded the corner I was tired, having already worked an eight hour day. My day job isn't strenous, but because I don't really enjoy it, I find it more draining than if I was active. Progress came to a halt when we discovered we hadn't packed enough paper towels for both lavatories. I walked faster than he did, later on I discovered that pacing yourself is key, but that night I was determined to try and impress him with my hustle. Several drops of water that I swore hadn't been there earlier were on the floor when he opened the door. I thought he would wipe them up, or at least toss a paper towel down, but he took his phone out, and snapped a picture instead. More confused than ever, I stood there wondering why I was watching someone take pictures of water droplets. He must have seen my face because he offered a feeble explanation.
The next door he opened was new (this was part of his tale); at one time the two buildings had been separate, some time later they were joined, and this awkward hallway was created as a byproduct of the newly enhanced, larger structure. A line in the ceiling was still visible, and true to form, people had spent a lot of money trying to impress the people who walked through the front doors while marginalizing those who entered through the ones at the rear of the building. Since my back was to the closet I didn't notice the tiny trickle of tears until his hand reached for me, and he warned me not to slip. He took another picture, and I opened the door, curious to see if the faucet was leaking because the sky was dry. There had to be some explanation for the water that we could hear dripping. The lower portion of the painting was wet, and I felt bad about that for some reason.
My first instinct was to lay it down on a nearby display case, but he carried it into the upstairs lunch area, this one wasn't nearly as nice, or as pretty as the one downstairs, and again, I felt that there was a classist distinction in the way this lesser arena had been set up, which was more of an afterthought than anything else. Water seeped from the edges of the painting, and I realized the moisture was coming from it, almost as if the piece was weeping, but that was impossible I thought to myself. In the dimly lit windowless room I wondered about the people who ate lunch there, who they were, what types of dreams they had, how their lives were playing out, and which of them had left an apple core dangling on the precipice of the furthest trash receptacle. Whatever knocked it into the bin also made the painting fall, but only into the nearest chair.
A wordless love song played, and we probably should have been working. I was getting ready to wipe up the water that should have been on the chair, but noticed that there wasn't much, just a thin line where the edge of the painting was touching the back of the faded orange plastic. Idly I tried to determine what color the chair had been originally, some sort of red I decided, nobody would order chairs in that particular shade of butternut squash. My hand reached for the painting, but his was there before mine. Almost immediately, it slid from his hand, only his quick reflexes allowed him to hang onto it, and I watched in fascination as water started running down his arm. He had never seen this much coming from the painting before, maybe it was crazy to give the painting outings, but I felt bad for it, being locked up in the closet like that. Downstairs he started to put it back when I asked if we could take it outside, for a breath of fresh air.
I was disappointed when he reminded me that we were on the clock, and vowed to get that painting out of the closet after we had punched out for the night. It didn't happen on that date although I did hear music that wasn't coming from the sound system when we returned the utility cart. Sometimes I talked to the painting, as if it was a person, or a plant, it became a part of my life, and I got into the habit of checking in with it as part of my new work routine. The door to the upstairs lunch room was a beast. We had asked the maintenance crew to fix it, attempts had been made, yet success proved elusive. The day my fellow employee called in sick I was running way behind, normally he got the door for me, as it required a knack that I didn't possess. I stood there frustrated and swearing when it gave way, and I was standing there staring at an apparition that had appeared out of nowhere. His hand slid across the door, he hadn't touched the knob, but it yielded for him as if it never given anyone the slightest bit of grief. That was on my mind until I noticed that he was holding the troublesome painting.
Once we were in the lunch area he carried the painting over to the stretch of counter, and rested it on nails that had been pounded into the wall, presumably by the hammer he put back into a drawer that also housed salt, pepper, ketchup, and salsa packets. I'm no home decorating guru, but I wanted to question the wisdom of putting a piece of art at the intersection and height he chose, either he couldn't speak, or chose not to, but after the painting was in place he moved his chair, sat it against the opposite wall, turned the rectangular trash receptacle, and bit into an apple he had grabbed from the bowl. From his point of view, I started to experience the painting in an entirely new way. Up close, it wasn't much. From afar, it was, really hard to describe. I saw a tattoo of what looked like a chain link fencing pattern on the underside of his wrist. He had a two digit number in one of the holes, and I had no idea what that meant either. His hand moved, and he made a motion I couldn't place at first because there wasn't really a remote in his hand, but on the wall, the painting suddenly flipped, and I began to watch what he was seeing.
The tones and facial expressions more than the visuals of the scene alerted me to the fact that I was watching a fight. She was shrieking while he was silent, I saw the painting drop into a different pile of garbage, glass shattered, and what looked like blood ran down his ink free wrist and forearm. A wooden corner of the painting splintered, and a slick of oil appeared on the furthest edge of the seashore. His voice changed, and I heard him try to reason with her, there was an edge I hadn't heard earlier, he was mad, but I thought he was pleading with her as well, to look out for herself, and not tempt fate the way that he apparently thought she might be. His head rocked back when she slapped him, bloody droplets dripped onto the underside of the painting, and then she was gone. Together we watched him bypass a row of warmer clothing, he must have been freezing outside in what he had on, but the cold didn't seem to bother him. Once again I heard music playing, I fancied it might be in my head, the whole scene was unbelievable, and I questioned my sanity while watching him mourn her still warm body.
A portion of chain link fence imprisoned her right arm. She had a two digit tattoo that mirrored the one he has now, but the numbers were different, and I was left to wonder what was significant about the markings. There was so much blood it was impossible to tell what color her hair might have been. He knelt down, and at first I thought he was going to remove the saturated scarf that was unable to soak up fluid that continued to gush from her wounds. The clasp of her repaired necklace dangled from his fingers, and I marveled that he had removed it so quickly. I read her name, and watched his fist tighten around the inexpensive piece of colorful costume jewelry. When he pulled out her handbag, it was clear that he wasn't attempting to steal anything despite appearances that may have indicated otherwise. He rummaged through her possessions until he pulled out another scarf, and with grace, dignity, and great care, placed it over her unseeing eyes, and still perfect ear. The screen of her cellphone had shattered, collateral damage as a byproduct of the accident that had taken the life of one person, one animal, and left the kind of scars one can't see well with the naked eye.
The next day I called in sick to work. I've had mental health issues in the past, and the entire painting turned TV screen scene in the lunch room had given me horrific nightmares when I finally did fall asleep. I hated that I could still hear the music the dead woman's cell phone had been playing, and to make matters worse, someone had tampered with the stereo equipment, and I was viewed with suspicion since I had been there alone, late at night, without a way to account for the time I had spent in the upstairs room by myself. Nobody who knows me well would suspect me of messing with electronics that were well beyond my scope of expertise, and the false accusation made me bitter, angry, and tired. I did not want to be a part of this dead persons failed romance, and I said as much to the friend I had met that very first day on the job. I can't really explain what I felt when I heard him say that the painting wasn't showing me anything that had happened in the past. My feet felt unsteady beneath me, the company we work for gives us quality control numbers, and in an instant, the tattoos made a lot more sense to me.
Knowing how you are going to die is a spectacularly unhelpful slice of information to have. At home I deleted everything off of my iPhone, traded it in for a Samsung device that I detested, only to have that snatched from my purse when I was getting my driver's license renewed right before my birthday. I haven't been in a relationship for so long, and everything should have been wonderful, but the sickening foresight left me so nauseated more than one person asked if I was expecting a baby. I could have lied, but there was no point in that, I've had a celiac disease diagnosis for decades, and tried to blame my touchy stomach, and fragile emotional state on that, but eventually people who cared intervened, and I narrowly escaped another extended stay at a psychiatric hospital when I told the truth. That I had seen a painting turn into a TV and stood there staring at something nobody else could see when I should have been working. Everyone knows I carry an extra scarf, and removing it from my bag made no difference in the end. My eyes were miraculously dry when I knelt beside the man I had loved, his blood stained my clothes, but I didn't care. How do you thank someone who sees how you are going to die, and makes the necessary intercessions and arrangements to take your place?