J.P. Sortland

The paintings depicted attractive landscapes that became outrageous if inspected with a critical eye. 

“Have you ever seen something so beautiful?” the elderly patron asked.

“No,” Crystal said, omitting her other thought, ‘Because it doesn’t exist.’

There were scenes within those gaudy frames that nearly resembled something real. But there was a glittering layer of impossible lighting applied to every detail in those paintings that Crystal found to be offensive.

Or was it that she worked sales for a store dedicated entirely to these Timothy Concorde paintings that bothered her? That even her inadequate lifestyle could not be afforded without this job?

But there were easy secretarial jobs out there. Jobs where she wouldn’t have to stare at the mall’s pretzel shop. 

There were jobs that didn’t involve teens trying to steal the paintings for baffling reasons. 

“I’m having the darndest time trying to decide,” the old lady said to herself but also to Crystal.

“Do you have any questions about the artwork?” Crystal asked, approaching her.

Crystal imagined that the warmth she offered potential buyers was produced out of thin air from within her dark indifference. It was like a magic trick. 

The charade was worth it, however. Unlike any other job for a high school dropout, this gig was paid on commission. She could earn more than any of those other jobs could make in a year. Hypothetically.

“The cabin or the fishing one?” the old lady pointed at two equally obscene paintings.

“That’s a tough one,” Crystal said, “They’re both so captivating.”

“I know,” the old lady groaned.

“Is this a gift?” 

“For my husband.”

“And he likes to fish?”

The old lady huffed, “He’d marry his fishing rod if he could.”

“Up at the cabin?”

“Well, see, that’s the kicker. He’s always wanted a cabin.”

“Then I’d recommend the fishing one.”

“But he’s always wanted a cabin?” the old lady grew confused. 

“Do you want him to buy a cabin?”

“Goodness no! He’s got enough unfinished projects around the house as is.”

“Then the less he’s tempted to think about cabins the better,” Crystal forced a smile, mimicking Vanna White and presenting the fishing painting to the old lady.

Seven hundred dollars later the painting was carefully boxed up and the old lady was carrying it out to her car. 

Seven hundred dollars. Crystal had made dozens of sales and she could still never comprehend how it had actually happened. As if she had just bamboozled the old lady with the greatest selling technique ever.

Except Crystal knew she was no master salesman. There were over three hundred of these exact same stores across the country. What was it then? 

Crystal often wondered while surveying the gallery if she should feel guilty for being a part of some scam.

It’s not a scam, she’d assure herself. It’s free enterprise. Yes, these saps were being influenced by their emotions. They spent big bucks on kitsch that their grandkids will probably donate to Goodwill. But the only thing being taken advantage of here was nostalgic yearning for good old days that never existed.

People see what they want to see. Crystal mulled the theory over in her mind on the bus. The ride took her from the ritzy suburb that housed the mall and her gallery back to the city. 

No, she corrected herself as she climbed down the creaking stairs that had been covered in some kind of protective plastic decades ago. People want validation for what they want to see. The Timothy Concorde paintings performed that magic trick by portraying a fantastical setting.

Unlocking both of the locks to her garden level studio, she envisioned how Timothy Concorde would paint her apartment to fit within the parameters of his art.

The setting sun would cast rays down through the barred window easement with a heavenly brightness announcing the Messiah’s second coming. 

A warm crackling fireplace would replace the fifty year old groaning radiator.

An intricate rug would spread across her living room floor in place of the worn, stained carpet.

And a bountiful, steaming meal would be set out on silver trays, enough for all the friends and family Crystal wished she had, rather than her paper bag’s cold pretzel.

J.P. Sortland has most recently been published in Up North Lit and HCE Review. He lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York.