Philip J. Turlington was not aware that he had painted his last flamingo.
While not exactly a young man, Philip was still a spry sixty-seven. He had no reason to believe that death would arrive at his studio one day and inform him that the final touches he had made to the portrait of a Chilean flamingo would be his last act of creativity on this earth.
“But Death,” Philip exclaimed, “You cannot let this be my final flamingo portrait. Why, look at this! It’s trivial! It’s putrid! It’s garbage!”
Death had to admit that, yes, the previous flamingo portrait he had painted was better--although, still, nowhere near as good as the flamingo portraits Philip had completed when he was in his twenties. Back then, he was fearless when it came to bringing the birds to life on canvas. He chose dangerous color patterns and exhibited in galleries that nobody else would dare show in. Philip once covered his first wife in pink paint then made love to her on a white throw rug. When they were finished, he would tell her that the blotchy pink result would soon be presented at the MOMA. She was delighted. Their love was art, and not just art, but modern art.
That was before his wife left him for a glass blower named Anne. That was before his second wife left him for his first wife and Anne. The three of them now live on Cape Cod and send him Christmas cards that read “No hard feelings,” but oh dear, there are so many feelings and so many of them are hard. Death feels pity for Philip J. Turlington. He knows the man wanted to paint one more great flamingo before his demise, but alas, it is not to be so.
“I will be forgotten,” said Philip, “As it stands, I am only relevant, because I licensed my flamingo portraits to a shampoo brand that has become very popular in New Jersey and Connecticut. Once I am dead, the brand will not want my flamingos. They will find it too costly to deal with my estate. They will choose to rebrand using a cartoon parrot. That will be the last of me.”
Death had no idea how Philip could be so prescient. Everything he was saying was right on the nose, and Death could only glance awkwardly around the artist’s studio and try to make polite conversation before both of them were called to the Underworld where Philip would be wiped clean of his memories and spend the rest of eternity playing bocce with either Joan of Arc or Boutrous Boutros-Ghali.
“You know,” Death said, seeing a small print of one of Philip’s first works leaning up against the far wall, “I’m sure art lovers will remember your early portraits. Those flamingos are iconic. They reshaped the way we paint pink birds. Nobody, Philip--and I really mean this--nobody painted flamingos like you did.”
Philip knew Death was being polite, but he also knew that Death does not lie. So what he was saying must be true. The trouble is--Was it enough? Once a life was over, were twelve or thirteen spot-on portraits of nature’s more fabulous bird enough to constitute an existence that had value? That had panache?
“The longer I pursued greatness,” bemoaned Philip, “The faster greatness ran from me. These last few years, I’ve been reduced to speaking engagements at the Y and the occasional NPR interview. Nobody wanted to hear about what was next. There was no next--and they knew it. They knew this is how it would end. Alone in a studio with a finished portrait that will only fetch a fortune because it is my last.”
Death had found a book of crossword puzzles and had begun to think of a three-letter word for “expire.” It wasn’t that Death was insensitive to Philip’s turmoil. It was simply that Death was, surprisingly, not all that good with grief. It wasn’t until Death saw Philip slump down on a stool facing his last flamingo that there was a stirring in the soul of the symbol of Termination.
“Philip J. Turlington,” said Death, taking on a firm tone, “If you are unhappy with that portrait, I suggest you fix it. Or smash it to bits and start over. Spit on it. Stomp on it. Eradicate it and create something better.”
That was when a sound rang out of three raccoons chittering.
“Actually,” said Death, “There isn’t time. We have to go now. I’m sorry, Philip. It really isn’t a remarkable painting at all, but, uh, you know, um, life isn’t--Sorry, I’m so bad with speeches. Uh, well, life--Life is--Gosh, what do I know about life? I’m Death. Well. Life is life. There is no sum total. You do a lot of things and some are good. Some are bad. Some are catastrophic. Whoever invented pesticides? Think how he must feel. Or how he felt. I assume he’s dead. I really don’t know. Uh. Well. Yeah. The important thing is, you have things of which you should feel proud. The fact that those things occurred early in your life rather than later is of no merit when you consider that time is a flat circle and pizzas are square at least twice a day. My apologies, I’m not good with aphorisms. Neologisms? Aphorisms? Anyway, we should go.”
While Death was rambling on, Philip had picked up a brush, dipped it in pink paint, and moved it slowly across the canvas. He placed a line where there had not been a line. With that one stroke, he had created--
Philip motioned for Death to come take a look even though once the raccoons start chittering, you really need to get moving. Death obliged, because Death hated those raccoons and who were they to rush the Great Finality?
After looking deeply into not just the painting, but the spirit of the painting, Death announced--
“The one before this was better.”
Philip nearly collapsed. He thought he had accomplished it. The goal he’d been reaching for his entire life. The drama of the moment seemed to affirm that it was so. His ultimate act as a breathing being would be to take something mundane and make it spectacular. He should have known that would be too quaint. Instead, Death had labeled it a failure.
“I didn’t say it was a failure,” Death corrected the Narrator, “When did I say it was a failure? It’s certainly not a failure. It’s a masterpiece. I just happen to prefer the previous portrait because it was blue and I like blue more than pink. That’s my opinion. I’m allowed to have an opinion. Objectively, yes, this portrait is much better. His best work. It’s your best work, Philip, you should feel very proud. Now, it’s time for you to shuffle off your mortal coil. Joan of Arc is expecting you for bocce, and she does not appreciate tardiness.”
Philip didn’t hear the part about Joan of Arc. He only heard Death tell him that, yes, the portrait was a masterpiece. That one stroke had rescued it from the ordinary. He could close his eyes now. He could sleep.
If only those raccoons would stop their chittering.