Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Painting: A King in Yellow Story by Chris Perridas

"I’m sorry," Thompson cleared his throat, "for the loss of your friend, Mr. Stuart."

Jeth Stuart sat in the lawyer’s office with all those brown, leather bound books forming an impenetrable wall. The huge cherry desk impeccably shined and loomed like Mr. Potter's had in front of Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life. The proffered hand shake of the attorney, Owens Thompson, had been scurvy. When Stuart sat before Thompson's cherry wood desk throne the cushy thing nearly swallowed him whole. The oddest thing was a tiny yellow caterpillar crawling across the venetian blind. That wasn't Frank Capra. However, in the bright sunshine, the insect appeared to glow and it cast a weird golden shadow across Stuart's only clean white shirt.

“Mr. Stuart! Are you with me? I do have another appointment in a bit. I suspect we should get right to it."

Thompson rifled through some papers on his glossy desk and when he found the correct document he said in a formal tone, "Mr. Jethro Stuart, this letter allows me to act as Gerald Bates' executor. It is the only official record, but I assure you that the spatters of blood do not contain any untoward elements of disease - the crime scene experts tested thoroughly. When we are done, the document will go into the county records. However, if you wish a copy, I can make one available to you for a small fee.

Stuart said, “Listen, I know everything there is to know about Jerry. We grew up together and we've been through a lot of strange shit – uh - things. I was there that night - they called me over to identify his body. The whole place smelled like rotted fish, and there was wet slop all over the floor mixed in with his blood and brains. I guess I know he shot himself. We had that falling out a while back..."

Thompson interrupted, "You may know, then, that the only items of significance left in his small-furnished room were this letter and a painting. Apparently, Mr. Tyler purchased it an estate sale. Otherwise, there was no money, valuables, or furnishings except those belonging to the landlord.”

“I know he didn't have nothing except that once Jerry used to have quite a collection of horror books. He tried to get me interested back in high school, but I'm more of a comic book guy. He read Lovecraft a lot, but I never could figure out none of them big words that old weird writer used, so I only read one all the way through that one about Dagon. Didn't understand it, so I never picked up another one.

“I don't know when exactly, but his books disappeared a little at a time as he moved from one flop house to another and then there was all those drugs and all those chicks he got into after he visited Chicago and got into that cult shit ... uh, stuff. I'd stop by to see him, ask him to a basketball game or something, but he was either high or he was screwing some..."

"Mr. Stuart, I do have a few other appointments today. I think we need to move to conclude this business. The letter is very short."

'Jeth, you son of a bitch. I know what you did. You got paid by the cops to turn me in on that cocaine I had. Not the local guys, but the feds. Well, just 'cause we fell out over Linda, and she thought you had a small johnson, you didn't have to take it out on me. She wouldn't have stayed with you - or me - she's a free spirit. But you did what you did, and now I have to do what I have to do. I'm not going to jail, not when other dimensions call. Take a good look at my blown out brains, because the next time you see me I'm gonna have your ass in Hell and it'll be your brains splattered. '

Thompson pointed to a covered frame, “This is yours.” The attorney stood to end the legal ceremony.

“So there’s nothing to sign?” Stuart asked.

“No. It’s all taken care of, um, one of my pro bono cases for the city. Good day.”

With that, Jeth Stuart picked up the covered frame. It was then he saw that it had a caterpillar on it – the same yellow one from the window sill - so Stuart flicked the thing off. Thompson blanched as it hit his exquisite carpet.

Stuart ignored the secretaries' snide remarks about his blue jeans, went down the elevator, and out to his pickup truck.

He tossed the picture into the passenger seat, and took off. Stuart cranked up Toby Keith - and between Keith's verses and choruses - Stuart cursed his ex-friend Jerry.

Uppity Jerry had got that football scholarship after high school and went to that small college while Jeth Stuart stayed home to work at the factory until it closed. “Damned money grubbers – if it weren't one country taking American jobs, it were another.”

“Linda did like me - in fact we'd just was getting tight, when you came back home from school with that degree in history - as if that meant something. What did book learning ever get anyone in Lebanon Junction?”

Stuart hit the windshield washer. Threads of silk and thousands of little yellow caterpillars splashed against that windshield - each one making a tiny yellow dot sticky goo, until it looked like a jaundiced sheet of glass.

Stuart's gas gage was low, so pulled into a Speedy station on State Road 31. Inside, of all people, there was Linda buying lottery tickets.

"Hi, Jeth." She said, "guess you heard about Jerry." God she looked hot in that low cut yellow gingham.

"Yeah, I did, Linda. In fact, guess what that damned old bird did. He left me some crazy picture. No idea why."

"The - painting?" Linda turned pale.

"What do you know about it?" Jeth asked. "You and he – hey were you with him again?"

“Now, don't get all hot and bothered, Jeth. It's just that he and I bumped into each other a while back - at old man Tate’s estate sale. We aren't - weren't - together, not like that - he'd moved on, but he did have this thing - a wildness - so when he sat next to me, I figured I'd just let him. If I got up, he might've done I don't know what. He seemed anxious, nervous, maybe he was on drugs, but he talked normal.

“Anyway, you remember Mr. Tate, our English teacher in High School? You know he's the one that got Jerry into that Lovecraft stuff. Well, Old Tate, he died of something - maybe cancer – but no one ever said.

"Well when they brought out that painting, Jerry when he saw it – oh, God. He started breathing all funny. He must've known that Tate had it from years back – well he had to, they were so close, and I guess he just had to have it.

“He leaned over and told me about it - that it was some original - went way back to the 1920's - and it was used on one of those old fashioned pulp magazines Jerry liked to read. Y'know Tate must've had a bunch of them 'cause Jerry went on and on about reading them in Tate's basement - but they weren't nowhere at the estate auction - and then Jerry called the artist of the painting by name – something funny, a weird name, but I remember the last name, it was Smith.

"He bid on the thing – it was some dark something with a big old king smack in the middle, and in front of some run down old castle like out of a Dracula movie - and no one else wanted it so he got it for like $20.

“But then, Jerry leans over to me and says, 'Linda, I'm in a jam. I promise you, I'll pay you back, but you got to lend me the twenty bucks.'. I about told him where to go, but his eyes were so horrible looking, staring wild, and he scared me, Jeth. So, I did; I gave it to him right out of my purse.

"Jerry called me later – y'know, I never did get my money back - and I thought he was going to try to get me to go on a date or something, but instead, he opened up to me and said that there was some letters tucked in behind the picture frame's back-tack. Some correspondence between this Smith fellow and that Lovecraft guy he adored - talked about how this Smith guy and another writer – someone Chambers - didn’t hit it off. According to the letters, Lovecraft sent back some stuff to Smith who lived out there in California, but it was in Latin or something, so Jerry said he had to go up to Chicago to get it translated by his cult-friends up there. Ugh, those cult people give me the willies thinking about them.

"A few weeks later, he called and ...". Linda stopped cold. She grew silent for a moment.

Jeth asked, "And what."

"Well he said - that you'd called the cops - he'd ended up in jail - he'd ditched the cocaine before they got to him - they couldn't keep him - they'd be watching. God, he had such an awful drug habit - he used to tell me - when we was dating - that he needed the drugs to see visions. He said he had plans, big plans, but wouldn't tell me what they were, and then he said goodbye - all final like I'd never hear from him again - and I didn't. But I was glad – I think if it went on, and he hadn't stopped it, he might have killed me.

“Jeth, I used to dream that his cult-friends sacrificed me to some octopus.”

Stuart said, “Linda, I don;t know about no squid, but I bet he might've killed you. You shouldn't have left me for him.”

Linda ignored the remark, and said, “Well, there was one more thing, those letters from the Smith guy, they disappeared, Jerry said.

“One night, up in the Chicago motel - he told me - a big rat ran out from nowhere - grabbed the letters off the motel chair and the thing carried it into the wall - I guess to make a nest out of it. Jerry told me he was furious, that he ripped the plaster off the wall, but they were gone for good - nowhere in sight. But after he cooled down, he said it came to him in a vision what the Latin words on the letters meant - that he figured out what the rat was too - and that it was all okay.
“I don't know what he meant - but he laughed over the phone in a way that terrified me. He finally said, I got all I need, you'll see, Linda. Good-bye."

"Well that's some story, Linda.” Stuart suddenly saw a thing crawl on Linda's gingham dress. The caterpillar stared at him. Straight into his eyes, it seemed. He flicked the thing off. “Damned caterpillars are everywhere today.”

Linda said, “Well, I guess I better get on home."

Stuart said, “Linda, do you think ...” but Linda stopped him and placed her hand on his arm.

"I'm sorry if I hurt you, Jeth. There just is no - chemistry."

"Yeah." Stuart looked down. Linda kissed him on his unshaven cheek and walked away.

Stuart drove back to his trailer. The door was covered in the loathsome golden caterpillars, and he smashed them, hundreds of them, into a yellow soup. His hand was covered in yellow syrup that stunk like mildewed cabbage.

He went inside, washed his hands, and popped a cold one out of his small refrigerator. Then he set the cloth-covered painting on the ragged sofa.

"Maybe I can sell this thing?" he said out loud. He pulled the cloth away.

Just like Linda had said, it had a dark lake in the mid-ground and a tower loomed in the background. Two moons indicated that it was some outer space setting. In the front, some king stood holding some book. The king was dressed in pale robes, his back to the observer.
Stuart turned on the TV and after a second beer, dozed off.
In his dream, Jerry came to him. "You, Bastard, Jeth. Get ready, boy. It's not going to be pretty.”

Jeth woke up. It was already late because Jay Leno was telling some joke on the TV. He looked over at the painting, which was now different.

The king wasn’t facing away anymore. The monarch in yellow robes looked right at Jeth, his face covered by some pale mask. The book was tucked under his robed arm.

He fled to the kitchen drawer and Jeth threw out a fish lure, some poker cards, and then found the magnifying glass. He took the magnifier out and peered at the king who now was turned around with his back facing Stuart. The king was reading the book and over the king's golden shoulder, Stuart could actually see the words; the detail was amazing. Under the twin moons, through the looking glass, Stuart read, "The Play: Act One, The King in Yellow assists Gerald ."

Jeth layed the magnifier down and sat on the laz-e-boy. Leno was introding some movie star chick.

The painting changed again. The king's hand, pointed at Jeth, its forefinger motioning to join him.

Compelled, Jeth walked across the room as he ehard the actress say, "I had the best time making this movie. I'd never read Lovecraft before, but the writers did a marvelous job with the script. They say he was a recluse up in Rhode Island, but other people on the set who were into him said he was some kind of magic guy."

Jeth looked at the picture through the magnifier again. A monster - half-frog, half-alligator swam in the dark lake. The king had the book out in plain view so that Jeth read, "Act III, Jethro Stuart's demise."

Venom flowing with hate, jeth tried to kick the painting, but it was a strong as steel. After several blows, Jeth stopped and breathed heavily.

Leno asked, "And Julia, what about that one scene. The one with all the blood."

The actress said, "Yes, that was really eerie. I don;t know how the special effects guys managed to mix all that foam rubber and fake blood, but - she paused - I ahve to confess. It was so bloody, I actually threw up. tahnk goodness it wasn't real."

Jeth looked at the picture a final time. There, the king stood firmly in command and summoned with a royal gesture that Jeth should come to him. The other hand was firmly wrapped warmly around his departed enemy - Jerry Bates.

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