The Fiction of Owen Thomas

Signs of Passing

Still Life   —an excerpt

In the main gallery hung twelve large, ornately framed oils of sailing ships tossed upon the watery lips of dark and angry seas. The spume was like snow in the air and seemed likely to come off on her finger had she ventured a touch.  She consulted her leaflet instead.  The artist, a Mr. Carlyle, was a native of Boston and it seemed that in forty years of painting he had garnered an impressive list of distinctions.  They were listed in the leaflet in a bold, scripted print, which Mrs. Foves generally noted without reading.

Turning the leaflet over, she read that one of the upstairs galleries – referred to as The Stansfield Gallery after some devoted benefactor—featured the works of Staff Sergeant Arthur Griggs, a local from up near West Quincy, which was only about thirty miles beyond the river as the crow flies.  His oils, it said, were a tribute to the common soldier and to the brotherhood born of sacrifice.  The leaflet included a small self-portrait of the artist in a little box above the text.  His face was clouded with some unknown emotion and his eyes, deep-set beneath a shelf of brow, were dark and disproportionately large, as though it took something extra for them to stare out of the leaflet and into the world. 

Resolved to see the exhibit before she left, Mrs. Foves finished her tour of the main gallery and then left the main room for a staircase ascending from a point near where she had first entered. 

A man and woman, nicely dressed, married most likely, parted for her on the staircase, the man, smelling of musk, opening his shoulders to her, unnecessarily rotating his body sideways along the rail, allowing her passage but holding his courtesy for so long after she passed that his companion continued her descent without him, calling up after him from the bottom. He skittered down the stairs in a controlled, obedient tumble.

Walking along the upper balcony she paused to look over the railing at the gilded works of Mr. Carlyle. It was a god’s perspective to be sure, there, from up in the lights, looking down upon the dark and roiling, foam-flecked seas.  Ms. Foves imagined a body in the water, limbs flailing, features frozen in horror at such a long fall from the masthead.  How easy for a god to save the fallen, she thought; to reach out and pluck a drowning sailor from the pitch and to leave him gasping and grateful on the deck.

In the Stansfield Gallery, the featured works of Sgt. Griggs was not the same grand affair on display below.  The paintings were small.  They were hand framed in a dark wood and hung in two even rows on each of three walls.  The room itself was insufficiently lit and between the shadows and the size of the paintings, Mrs. Foves found that she needed to stand very close to the wall in order to appreciate the display. 

The paintings were of men; of soldiers and comrades in uniform, posed indulgently as if for a photograph, arms draped over shoulders, leaning on shovels, smoking in the doorframes of scarred and battered Quonset huts, reclined upon the hood of a jeep, caps askew, hands on hips, standing as totemic fixtures in the mud of foreign soil.  Mrs. Foves moved quietly and slowly from one to another, taking them in, scouring the faces.  In each portrait, the artistic perspective was unreservedly reverential, as though the act of painting had taken place from deep within some hole at the feet of the subject.  Heads and shoulders were carefully framed between clouds against a blue sky. Except for the occasional building or vehicle, the soldiers may well have been suspended in mid-air.


She turned to see a man at the entrance of the gallery looking at her.  He wore khakis and short sleeves and held a hat in his hand.

“Emily Foves, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” she replied, looking around uncertainly.  “I’m Emily Foves.”

The man stepped towards her quickly, but with a decided limp, extending his large and sculpted arm.  He had a solid posture.  He took up space, pushing the air between them aside with his chest.  As he approached she was suddenly and almost fearfully preoccupied with his physicality.  She felt a quickening in her body and knew that if this man did not have honorable intentions, there would be nothing in this empty room to stop him.