At 1 am, you’re your biggest critic, everyone else is normally asleep.  The night air is balmy, thick with the scent of fresh rain. Neon lights, along deserted streets, are cathartic as I venture to a little donut shop named Earls, which is the only place open. It’s nostalgia; food for my soul. Earl’s atmosphere is a mixture of a thousand pounds of grease and sugar and lots of it. You only live once. Please don’t tell my cardiologist. Earl is standing over a bubbling pot of oil with a dingy rag thrown over his shoulder, meticulously forming dough rings that bob along the oil’s surface. He turns to briefly acknowledge me as I enter and spin into the center stool to begin toying with the napkin holder. 

“The Usual?” Earl asks, sliding a cup of black coffee directly in front of me. 

“With sprinkles,” I add.

“That bad, huh?”

I respond with a sigh, dumping a heaping helping of sugar into the coffee. The liquid lightens as I drizzle it with cream and it swirls around my pacing spoon. I sense apprehension walking up my spine, but I bat it away. I feel it. Nothing this good lasts forever. Earl comes back with three cake donuts, dripping with icing. I’m about to devour them, but he stops me in my tracks and pats some sprinkles on top. Well played, Sir. Well played. 

As sure as a fruitcake at Christmas, the front door opens. Instinctively, I reach for my saucer and coffee, to move. I know exactly what’s coming next.

“Mind if I sit here?” He says, taking the stool adjacent to me.

“No man, go right ahead.” 


As he’s ordering, I take lead.

“So um, what do you do?”

He let out a strained grunt. 

“Ugh. Not today, lord.” His mouth forms a smile, as he looks in my direction and we exchange a handshake.

     “I’m Jake. Art critic. I can’t believe you don’t recognize me.” he says. The man is in his late thirties, in a studious suit, but the gaping mouth of his unbuttoned shirt, and the lack of a tie, say he’s had a heck of a day.

“There are 57,000 people in the metropolitan area. You wanna know a secret?”I ask.

“Enlighten me.” says the man in the suit. 

“I don’t really know any of them,“ We both chuckle as his coffee arrives. 

“Are you into paintings?” 

“I’ve dabbled in high school. I was never really into the critiquing side of the house.”

“You prefer oil or acrylic?”


“See I knew I wasn’t going to like you.”

“What can say, I hate mixing.”

“Fair enough. Art critiques aint what they used to be though” he says, wryly. “Ever wonder what makes a really good painting?”

“You’re the critic, you tell me.”

Jake whips out a napkin and scribbles on it. 

“Ok, so not every art form is orthodox. What about Picasso?”

“There’s a reason cubism ended.”


“A fluke of nature.”

He crumples up the napkin and wipes icing off his lips. 

“I’ve seen hundreds of them man. Like that new show that opened downtown. That guy, what was his name Sabastian -–”


“Yeah Rhodes. One of the main attractions was a crumpled piece of paper.“

Nope! That gremlin is staying locked in my closet. Larry isn’t coming out to play, he’s grounded.

“Maybe that paper meant something. To him.”

“Sure, that doesn’t mean it’s Mona lisa.”

“They probably said something similar to Di Vinci.” I chuckle slightly. Jake finishes his second donut and starts on the third. He’s beating me at donuts, but I’m winning at java. I check my watch, it’s now closer to two. I wave Earl down. 

“What do I know man, I’m just a guy who dabbled in art a long time ago.” I finish my first donut, and the endorphins are starting to kick in. 

“No, it’s ok. Even critics need to be told what’s up every so often. Everyone has an opinion. Yours counts too.”

He asks for a refill, sips it, adds more cream and stirs his coffee. I chuckle. I know this moment would probably arise. It’s here now. I start formulating my answer in my head.

“Nah man, I try to keep politics out of my donuts. Ruins the indulgence” We both share a lighthearted chuckle. 

“We should ask Earl.”

Earl has been eavesdropping the entire time, but he pretends to be uninterested. Jake and I both know that’s not the case. 

“I’m good,” he says, wiping a countertop. He starts sweeping the kitchen floor at a measured pace to finish listening in on our conversation. 

“Chicken!” Jake goads. 

“Yep!” Earl responds.

“Nah, I just think art is the part of you that goes onto the canvas. Great artists are underappreciated until centuries after they’re gone, you know. That’s when their work has to speak for them. It is only then, that people appreciate the value of a painting, or rhythm and blues, or boogie-woogie, because it speaks to the soul. It’s timeless.”

Jake nods in agreement with a swig of coffee, as I continue.

“Two hundred years from now, you think people are gonna have mp3s? No, but they’ll probably still be listening to old blue eyes in one format or another. That is what makes art special.”

“So what’s that paper say?” Jake asks as he shoots the napkin into a wastebasket, and it goes in. 

“A lot.”

“Like what?”

I sigh.

“That crumpled piece of paper could’ve been an umpteenth rejection from a guy who struggled his entire life to put himself onto a canvas, an amalgamation of all of his crushed soul and broken dreams. The manifestation of every voice telling him he couldn’t because he wasn’t Di Vinci, Picasso, or Rembrandt. Because regardless of what those critics told said, he was still continuing to paint himself on that canvas.” 

My head drops slightly, but I don’t let on.

“But that’s my humble opinion.” 

“What makes your opinion any less subjective?” Jake asks.

“I’m Sabastian Rhodes.”

April 16, 2022 03:57

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RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

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