Salsa Verde


He knows he must take his time to find just the perfect gift.  A gift so impossibly correct that Kathy O’Leary will both understand and appreciate him immediately.  A miracle gift.  An extrasensory one.  None of the memorabilia in his possession now is good enough, unique enough, astute enough, transparent enough.  Not the Roman coins or the 1980’s Chia Bull.  Not the nineteenth-century Jack of Spades or foreign hotel room key.  No.   Something different; something better.   Something that is, at least typically, impossible to find.

And then he finds it.

In a comfortably shabby, nearly invisible, antiques mall south of Memphis; just where the city starts to die away and Nowhere begins.  He stops there late one afternoon, on a dejected drive back from a miserable business meeting in Birmingham, one in which he had to outmaneuver a host of steel-hearted jackals to avoid being cheated out of thousands of dollars.  But outmaneuver he did.  Dance.  Dodge.  Scatter.  Charm, even.  Outthink.  And, finally, threaten—but just once.  A threat, because he does not often level threats, they knew to take seriously.  He left the meeting not exactly having won but not exactly having lost, either.  And what he needed more than anything was a long, hot shower and, even better, temporary amnesia; instead of a five-hour drive in which there would be nothing to do but think and think and think about how terrible those people were.  As a curative, as an emotional prop, he observed the exteriors of any and all antiques businesses he passed along the way, guessing at which would have the best merchandise.  He finally stopped at that antiques mall south of Memphis, not because it was so alluring—although it looked fine, exactly like the antiques stores he always stops at—but because, halfway done with the ride home, it just made sense for him to stop.   He did not expect he would find an appropriate gift for Kathy O’Leary there; the idea never actually entered his head.  He just needed to stop.  But in places like these one never knows.  One can always be surprised.  Thus:

He sees it in the first minute he is inside: on the left, sitting on a chair, up against a wall, only a few yards from the front door.  The painting, he sees from an index card resting against it, is called Salsa Verde.   It’s an odd title, since there is no salsa verde evident in the scene.  Barely any foodstuffs at all.  He does notice a plate and a bowl, but they are deliberately miniaturized, occupying only a small portion of the right-side foreground.  Upon the plate rest some tortilla chips—apparently untested—which of course is what one would eat with salsa verde.  But what exactly is in the neighboring bowl, the plumber can’t tell.  The painter has deliberately left the bowl’s contents undetailed and ambiguously colored.  It amounts to some murky, undifferentiated dark substance.  It could be salsa verde.  Or it could be gruel.  It could be wet dog food.  It could be cat vomit.

But, really, the plate and bowl are tangential to the scene, almost accidental.  The focus of the painter’s eye and the painter’s hand is the face of a man: a striking face, one that dominates the whole lower half of the piece.  The man’s face is handsome, that’s clear enough: smooth planes to his cheeks; absorbing, dark brown eyes; shiny black hair; skin a lightly tanned shade; a beautifully trimmed moustache.  This could be Don Juan.  This could be Rudolph Valentino.  This could be a young Cesar Romero.  This could be any archetypal, irresistible Latin Lover. Behind the beautiful head, the man’s lower half stretches out, evidentially naked.  This rest of him appears enviously put together as well: trim waist, well-muscled but not overly-muscled legs—not a body builder’s legs but a model’s—a pretty pair of masculine buttocks, just rounded enough for glamour.  But this rest of him, no matter how Hollywood pretty, is more or less only background to the painting, not nearly as crucial as the all-important face, which has been rendered in detail unlike anything else in the painting.

The plumber is almost surprised by his attraction to this piece.  Because it is not, for all the evident beauty of the man depicted, a painting of a beautiful scene.  The painting does not set one at ease.  The painting does not enthrall.  Instead the painting makes one worry.  The painting starts faint bells of alarm in one’s heart.  Because it is clear that the man is in pain.  His face evidences an enormous amount of strain, strain he is apparently determined to endure without complaint.  But strain nonetheless.  His cheeks are not relaxed but tensed.  A close study of his forehead reveals the beginning of a brittle sweat long held back, his eyes—even as brown as they are—flash with the first signals of panic.

There is only one clue as to the cause of the panic.   And it’s an obvious clue, not disguised. Four metallic-looking poles or legs are wedged into the man’s back—the painting tops out before it is revealed what the poles or the legs connect to, though most likely it’s a chair—and they are being pressed into that back, as in a slow-motion torture.   From the expression on the man’s face, and from his sweat, one could guess they have been pressed for some time—way too long—longer, clearly, than the man was prepared for.  Hours maybe, a whole day, days maybe, or a whole week.  Worse, it does not look like the poles will ever stop being pressed.  It does not look like the man will ever escape their pressure or the consequent, burning, biting pain.  He will never escape, never be set free.  And he has only just now—in the moment the painter purposefully captured—realized this.