“But moooom, I don’t want to!” Jessica cried out as she obediently held out her arms. Her mother placed a large dish of casserole carefully covered in tin foil in them. Jessica let out an annoyed huff of air.
“I don’t care what you want, Jessica. Mr. Flowers is in need and our duty is to be good neighbors and help.”
“What, so we’re like State Farm now? Like a good neighbor, the Richards' family is there?”
Jessica turned thirteen last week. How is it possible that the teenage attitude has already started seeping into her mind and spitting sarcastically back at her mother? Better nip that in the bud, she thought to herself.
“I like the sound of that,” she answered her daughter as she rolled her eyes. “And where is your compassion? He is an elder –whom I’ve taught you to respect—and he just lost his wife!”
“Like a year ago,” Jessica mumbled under her breath.
“Go,” her mother said sternly, shooing her brooding daughter out the door.
She wouldn’t be so bitter about bringing Mr. Flowers casserole twice a week if it weren’t for that fact that he was a bitter man himself. First of all, Mr. Flowers? Could there be a less perfect name for an unpleasant old crab? That would actually be more fitting: Mr. Crab. He just sulks in his home all day, glaring out his window and snatching at casserole dishes with his wrinkly liver-spotted hands without so much as a thank you. Then the worst. He just stares at her until she lets out a nervous, “Well, goodbye,” and makes her way off his porch, acutely aware of the old cloudy eyes watching her walk down the driveway back to her house next door. One time, she made the mistake of cutting through the grass between the two houses and he yelled, “get off the lawn!” like any typical old geezer would. The stereotype is real, folks.
The casserole was uncomfortably hot on her arms, and she was already sweating from the midday summer heat. The sun shone down so that the sidewalk was even blinding, making her squint. A bead of sweat plopped from her chin onto the aluminum foil. Gross, she thought.
When she rang the doorbell, there was no answer. It sometimes took him a moment to wobble to the front door. She usually heard him stiffly lunging out of his chair with the aid of an audible groan of tremendous effort before the sound of socks sliding slowly across carpet could be heard approaching the door. Jessica sighed—annoyed—and rang the bell again.
Oh, man. He’s dead, Jessica thought, eyes growing wide. Right when her heart started to thump erratically at the thought of an ambulance wheeling out a black zipped up bag, she heard socks shuffling on the floor along with a mysterious clacking sound. She took a deep breath and composed herself as he fumbled the door knob on the other side, allowing it to slowly creak open.
“Hi, Mr. Flowers,” Jessica said in the fake, cheery voice she used on her mom’s friends when they tell her how big she’s gotten. Duh, that’s the point of puberty. Was I supposed to stay six forever?
She saw that he was leaning heavily on a large grey walker, two bright yellow tennis balls on the bottom of two of the legs. She looked back up at him and giggled nervously at his scowling stare.
“Mom made chicken and pea casserole for you,” she said, holding out the dish in her arms.
“Do I look like I have extra arms sprouting out of my head?” Mr. Flowers snapped, his voice gruff with what was probably a nap she interrupted. Not waiting to answer, he slowly turned his back, wheeling the walker around with considerable effort, “bring it in the kitchen.”
Jessica had never been inside Mr. Flowers home. Not even when the bubbly, chatty Mrs. Flowers was still alive. She would come over to mom’s all the time and share tea and scones and sewing techniques or whatever else old ladies babbled about. Mrs. Flowers probably kept this home spotless, but Mrs. Flowers hasn’t been alive in over a year. I couldn’t see Mr. Flowers doing any cleaning, especially now that he looks like if he bent down, he’d never be able to get back up again.
Jessica didn’t have time to imagine how horrible the house must stink, or dust and bugs and litter filling up the corners of his living room. Maybe dishes piled up in the sink and dirty litter boxes overflowing and making the house smell like ammonia. Wait, does he have cats? She followed him in.
It took her a minute to adjust to the darkness in contrast with how bright it was outside. Cautiously looking around, the small living room seemed to be in perfect order. Old antique Tiffany lamps on either side of a floral-patterned couch on one wall with a small wooden framed tv with rotary dials on the opposite wall. A heavy wooden coffee table with a small, dainty dish of Werther’s caramel candies in between. Cream colored carpet, with fresh vacuum lines. Who cleaned up in here? I should stop complaining about bringing over a casserole and start praying for whoever has to come here and clean under his supervision.
Jessica turned her attention straight ahead to the kitchen and her heart leapt, realizing Mr. Flowers had been glowering at her. She walked quickly to the kitchen counter and plopped the casserole down. Jessica had turned to say goodbye to him, but on the wall directly behind Mr. Flowers, a gigantic, beautiful painting had caught her eye.
“Garden of Earthly Delights,” she exhaled.
“Who painted it,” Mr. Flowers was quick to ask. He asked it in a way that felt like a pop quiz. He knew who painted it, and fortunately so did she.
“Hieronymus Bosch. He’s my favorite artist,” she snapped quickly back, straightening her posture.
“Hmph,” He scoffed. “So, you appreciate art too.” She watched him shuffle his walker to face the living room, and slowly walk off.
“I want to be an artist,” she said. He didn’t answer, but Jessica knew he heard.
“Well, goodbye Mr. Flowers,” she said, leaving him by the front door, feeling his scowl follow her all the way home.
Four days later, she brought the next casserole. Jessica didn’t moan and groan as hard to her mother about it this time. She was hoping for the chance to take a closer look at the inside of Mr. Flowers home. You appreciate art, too, he had said…implying that he as well appreciates art. What other remnants of art did he possess?
The metal clack followed by the shuffle of socks finally reached the door, and Jessica smiled at him as he opened it with his usual scowl.
“Baked Spaghetti,” Jessica had said.
Mr. Flowers didn’t respond. He turned his walker around and paced himself to the kitchen, Jessica following. She placed the dish carefully on the counter, and saw that the kitchen dining room table that was cleared away last week was now full of jumbled stacks of art.
“Wow,” she said, looking back at Mr. Flowers.
“You know what a conservator restorer is.” He had a habit of turning his questions into accusatory statements.
“Um, no,” Jessica said, looking from the table to him.
“I restored delicate artworks as a career. Mostly all renaissance. I restored all of those,” he jabbed a trembling withered finger to the table.
“Really?” she gasped, making her way slowly towards the table.
“Those are reprints. Obviously not the original pieces.”
The Birth of Venus, The Last Supper, The Girl with the Pearl Earring, American Gothic…all the art pieces I dreamed one day I could hold a candle to, and Mr. Flowers professional restored them? I flipped through the pile on the table, no longer thinking about his scowl behind me.
“What about that Garden of Earthly Delights on the wall?” she asked, looking back to him.
“That was the last piece,” he said, clearing his throat. “I retired early. My hands started shaking, I developed Parkinson’s. Couldn’t do it anymore.”
So that’s why he’d snatch casseroles from my hands, Jessica thought, feeling humiliated by her rude thoughts.
“Can you teach me?” Jessica asked.
“Hmph,” Mr. Flowers grunted.
The rest of the summer, Jessica didn’t just go over to Mr. Flowers every few days with a casserole. She went over there every day with pencils and sketching paper. Mr. Flowers was a rough teacher. He was impatient, and along with Jessica’s impatience it usually led to arguing, yelling, and Jessica stomping out only to return after about ten minutes.
“No, no, no! That’s not what I told you to do!” Mr. Flowers would yell, looking at the poorly executed replica of the hands of Creation of Adam.
“It’s too hard,” Jessica would argue, slamming her pencil down and glaring up at him, “Can we start with something other than hands?!”
“Once you understand hands, the rest will follow,” Mr. Flowers yelled, swiping the pencil back towards her. She sighed, mumbled a few words under her breath, picked up the pencil and tried again.
And again. And again. And again.
Failure. Failure. Failure.
“Isn’t restoring art just…I don’t know…sketching over where the artists paint has faded?”
“No!” Mr. Flowers yelled, slapping his walker against the floor. “How can you expect to restore a masterpiece if you can’t even get down the basics of art!”
It was a struggle all summer, but one late afternoon in early August, Mr. Flowers squinted his cloudy blue eyes at the hands drawn on Jessica’s paper.
“Hmmm…” he said. Jessica stared up hopefully.
“Is it good?”
“We will start on techniques of hair tomorrow.”
That year, following the summertime, Jessica learned that art conservation isn’t about just tracing over faded paint. It was how to strengthen a weakened canvas, handle water, fire, and insect damage, gently cleanse dirt and other soiling properties from the original piece, and integrate repairs to restore the artist’s original intent. Art restoration was like the superhero of the art world. Superman coming to save the integrity Mona Lisa. Spiderman rushing to the aid of Madonna and Child. Batman battling the mold off The Last Supper. Mr. Flowers was a hero, and he taught Jessica how to be one too.
It was the third ring of his doorbell, and no answer. She was a little earlier today than she usual came, but wanted to show him how she fixed the canvas he gave as homework to repair. You couldn’t even tell that there was once a hole in the lower right corner. Good as new.
No shuffling of socks or frustrated stamps of his walker.
After five minutes, Jessica jiggled the golden knob. It was unlocked. She walked in and saw Mr. Flowers napping on the floral couch, the tv quietly playing an infomercial on the exciting Slap Chop.
“Get up old man time to paint!” She chimed. Mr. Flowers didn’t move. He looked so peaceful that Jessica almost left, but…something was slightly off. He was as still as his paintings.
“Oh, honey,” her mother gently combed a hand through Jessica’s hair as she rested it in the crook of her neck, tears falling down her cheeks.
Mr. Flowers had died peacefully in his sleep. Jessica couldn’t get over how the man in the casket looked very much at peace like the man on the couch that day. She always thought death was an ugly, gruesome looking thing. I guess it’s not always as gory as the movies, she said to herself.
She was in a state of shock, and the tears didn’t quite catch up until just now sitting at a large desk in a law firm, a rather stout man with a red puffy face looking down at her from his glasses.
“It clearly states here that Miss Jessica Richards is entitled to any of the reprints in Mr. James Flowers possession, but I highly suggest putting the one titled The Garden of Earthly Delights up for auction? Museums across the world would pay millions for this piece.”
“Are you telling me that’s the original?” Jessica felt she could soon ask Mr. Flowers that question herself. She felt as if she were having a heart attack.
“It is. He was gifted the piece by a private seller after his many years of work restoring some of the worlds most renowned pieces. A notation here states Hieronymus Bosch was his favorite artist.”
Jessica couldn’t believe it. Nor could her mother.
“Well, if that isn’t the worlds biggest thank you for all those casseroles!” her mother laughed, dabbing the tears from her own eyes.
“I never thanked him for teaching me his craft,” Jessica sobbed with the sudden realization.
“Honey, you spent every afternoon with that man. Your company to him was so much bigger than a passing ‘thank you.’”
That was that. Maybe a thank you wasn’t necessary when the time meant so much more to the both of them. Jessica smiled, giggling nervously as she turned back towards the attorney.
“It’s not for sale,” she laughed, blowing her nose and finally sending a silent thank you to Mr. Flowers. Thank you so much.