Joshua Kearsley was always starving, which is how I knew him. I worked at a corner cafe where he would come in to get water with no ice, sketching as he “enjoyed the smell of the place.” After the fifth or sixth time he came in, I started giving him free coffee. After the fiftieth or sixtieth, I gave him a day-old bagel, which he’d pick at over the course of several hours.
He told me he was just a little in love with me for all these presents, but that it would take a lot more than that for him to fall completely in love with a man. He suggested that pastries and curry might be a good start.
Joshua Kearsley was an artist.
“I started,” he explained, “in kindergarten. Just finger paints. I was frustrated that I couldn’t make the picture I saw in my head. You see, I saw this woman – this woman in a red dress with a big red hat and a bright orange scarf, and I could never get her out of my mind and onto the paper. I tried with my finger paints.” He shook his head. “Trust me. I tried.”
Joshua was famous in about a four block radius from where he lived and worked. Of course, I doubt he ever used the term “work.” His art was his joy, and everything else he kept simple. To the best of my knowledge, he hadn’t had a job in years – just scrounged by on the occasional commission.
“After kindergarten,” he said, “I was at a loss. They didn’t let me paint in school. So I painted at home. I used crayons sometimes, and pens, and markers, and eventually I tried pencils – but I don’t like pencils. They’re not colorful.”
“What about colored pencils?”
He shook his head. “Mmn. Even then.”
I brought him curry one day to make him laugh. It worked.
After, he smiled at me and set the curry down on his table, taking a solid three seconds to smell it, making an elongated “mmmm” noise before going back to his painting.
“It was in high school they let me paint again,” he said. “They tried to make a lot of rules, though. I liked kindergarten better.”
He was working on the same image the next time I saw him. The shapes were coming into focus, the image of a man and woman holding hands at night in a field speckled with luminescent sunflowers. Since the other day, however, the painting’s canvas had been torn and then sewn back together, stitched in several sections with green thread.
“I like this one,” I said.
“Ah.” He continued painting, then, as if whispering to himself, added, “You think the tears are a part of the art.”
I paused. “Aren’t they?”
“Sadly … no.” He seemed hesitant as he added, “It’s just damaged.”
“I don’t know.” I shrugged. “Maybe it’s part of it anyway.”
He looked up at me, the left side of his lips curving to a half smile. He nodded. “Maybe you’re right.”
“Do you mind if I paint here?” he asked.
“Of course. No problem.”
“Wait. I think I said that wrong.” He paused, lifting his pointer finger into the air. “What I meant was,” he pointed toward the wall, then spoke with slow emphasis on each word, “on the side of the building.”
“Oh. Right.” I took a moment to wonder how much trouble I could get in if I gave him permission myself. “I’ll have to check.”
“There was college, then,” he said. “College was okay.” He painted a few more strokes as I looked down at the image. It was a woman in a cream and lavender dress, leaning from a candlelit balcony with a wistful look on her face. “School likes to teach people to mimic. And I don’t like to learn.”
“I talked to the owners, by the way. They’re fine with you painting on the building, just so long as it’s appropriate. Like, family friendly and everything. What are you gonna paint?”
“Not sure,” he said.
“When will you know?”
He smiled. “When it’s finished.”
On my breaks I would go and smoke a cigarette in the alley behind the cafe where Joshua was working. He was painting in warm colors with violet undertones. Mostly it was this glowing orange.
“This,” he said, “is probably going to be,” he inhaled through his nose, “the last thing I paint.” He nodded, as if acknowledging his own statement.
“Wh-what—why?” My questions toppled over each other.
“Because after this,” he paused, pressing his lips together, concentrating on his brush stroke. “After this I find a place to die.”
I didn’t know whether to laugh. I didn’t know if he was joking.
I brought him a chicken sandwich as the painting neared completion. “It looks like a leaf,” I said.
“Thanks for the sandwich.”
“Is it supposed to be a leaf?”
“It’s a good looking sandwich, but it will still take more than this for me to fall completely in love with a man. Eclairs would be a good start.”
“The official name,” he said, three days later as I was taking a smoke break near his mural, “is chronic myelogenous leukemia.” He looked back at me over his shoulder. “Fancy, I know. But that’s what they told me.” He turned back to the mural. “And there’s two phases to worry about. One is the chronic phase, which has a pretty good survival rate. And then there’s the accelerated phase. That one … isn’t so good.” Joshua looked at his painting for nearly a minute before adding, “I bet you’ll never guess which one I’m in.”
I tried to think of something to say, but there was nothing. I put out my cigarette.
“Anyway, they found out in college. There’s some piece that’s just broken in me.” He was adding a brown border along the edge of the color now, making it into a definitive shape. “Young, maybe stupid, I said I’d go about the end in my own way. An eight-year lifespan, but always in treatment? No, that wasn’t for me.” He re-wetted his brush with paint. “And I’ve been dying successfully for over twelve years now.”
I watched as he continued to solidify the border of the image.
It was a leaf.
It was about three feet by two feet, it was bright orange, and there were countless other colors mixed in, all these tiny subtleties.
“I guess I think they’re about the same,” said Joshua. “Living and dying, I mean. And when your autumn hits you, the colors go about as bright as they can, because you realize you’re not going to be anything but mulch before that long. And that’s okay. Because it gives you a chance to shine out. Bright as you can.”
He turned from the painting to look at me and smiled. “Colorful.”
This story was written in the Summer of 2011. After substantial editing, it was published in the Fall 2011 edition of Touchstones.