Fiction: Oil on Canvas

Image: Henrik Donnestad

Monday 21st January, 2019

By Todd Schoepflin

No matter what happens, I want to thank you. I appreciate you hunkering down with me all the time we worked on this plan, plotting, scheming, drinking. When you’re done reading this you can hide it or throw it out. People will question why you didn’t talk me out of this. There was no talking me out of this. Everything in my life was leading up to tomorrow.

You know how long I’ve been obsessed with this painting. The raindrops that look like teardrops—I’m telling you brother, they make the world less ugly to me, they get to me every time. For so long in my life I was delusional, so naïve, I convinced myself I’d be able to buy it someday. Until I finally accepted reality. I have no family fortune. No opportunity. I’ve never been in luck. I can’t get rid of my obsession. I have to do this. I went to the museum yesterday to see it again. After all these years staring at it, it still blows my mind. Now it’s almost mine.

You’re the best friend I’ve ever had. You’ve been there through the dreaming, the struggling, all the ups and downs, being broke beyond broke yet always finding enough $$ to go out for a drink. Arguing about the greatest Beatles song of all time. Arguing about self-driving cars. Arguing if Jaws or Do the Right Thing is a better movie. We truly are masters of killing time. All the places we’ve been… filthy bars in the city, boozin’ the whole summer we worked in the Hamptons, random spots when we lived in L.A., everywhere in between. When this is all over, we should catch up with Murph. Where the hell is he? What I wouldn’t give for the three of us to have a reunion at the campground next to Graceland.

You’ve seen me at rock bottom, couch surfing in your basement apartment, unemployed, miserable, feeling sorry for myself, but you never judged me, you only encouraged me. I still can’t get my shit together, doubt I ever will, but you never look down at me, never talk shit to me. Playing chess, watching movies, beach days, all those walks to nowhere. But the best were those nights hanging out on the porch when we lived with Don in Queens, drinking and laughing our asses off. After this we gotta see Don too. Let’s all go to the Old Main and play Steely Dan songs until they kick us out or I fall asleep on a barstool. It’s usually one or the other, right?

All the reckless shit we’ve done over the years, you’ve got the goods on me same as I got ‘em on you. Man it’s good to share those secrets. And this one, the greatest secret of all. If I get caught they’ll say I’m crazy or I did it for the money. Please don’t let them say that. I’m doing it because I love this painting. I know in my bones it was meant for me. It makes me feel something. Like I’m actually capable of something. Who knows, maybe the life I want is around the corner.

Know that I write this in a calm and quiet moment, flashing back to thousands of hours volunteering at the museum in preparation. Years of my life. It all comes down to tomorrow. But it really doesn’t matter to me if this works out or not. I don’t know what comes next, even if it does work out. I have no more plans. I feel good. I feel ready. In a weird way I feel optimistic about the future. Honestly I think it’s gonna be okay. And I know I’ll see you soon.

Exegesis

In a memorable conversation with my best friend, he observed that everyone has a dark side. “Even you have a dark side,” he said to me. I liked the observation and even took it as a compliment. The conversation inspired this fictional short story. I wanted to explore the idea of having a dark side. When I set to writing it, I didn’t expect friendship to be a major theme in the story. But the more I worked on the story, the more I found myself celebrating our nearly 30-year friendship. The story became less about having a dark side, and more about the communication to a friend about how much their friendship means.

And so, the story puts forth a cherished friendship. Deep appreciation for a history of shared experiences. Gratitude expressed to a friend who’s seen him through rough times. And trust, cemented. Lucky if you have even one friend in your life to whom you would tell everything. All your secrets, all your vulnerability. Think of it as friendship intimacy. This is the type of friendship captured in the story.

But not only that. In the process of revising the story, I was challenged to think about the character’s motivation for stealing the painting. I got to thinking about a person obsessed, a person truly moved by an object, who somehow believes it will make his life different, something better. It's the kind of person I like to write about: someone down on their luck, yet remains slightly hopeful, and is desperate to do something to change their fortune. And he has to tell his best friend about it. He needs his friend to know what he’s thinking and feeling. He wants his friend to know what he’s going through and what he plans to do.

Why fiction? Sociological fiction frees me from expectations in our discipline to use specialized language and impress with data. In my fiction writing, I aim for a colorful description of social life. I see fiction as a method of inquiry that encourages emotional storytelling, a creative method available to interpret the social world in provocative ways. I consider fiction an emotional rescue from traditional sociological writing which is often soulless and filled with jargon. In this story, fiction gives me space to write about a person struggling to find new direction, to reflect on a vital friendship, and to imagine how the importance of the friendship might be conveyed to a dear friend.

Todd Schoepflin is Associate Professor of Sociology at Niagara University in Lewiston, NY. He has a Ph.D. in Sociology from Stony Brook University. He is author of Sociology in Stories: A Creative Introduction to a Fascinating Perspective (Kendall Hunt). He is a contributor to the Everyday Sociology Blog.

Want to submit your own sociological fiction? The Sociological Review is seeking submissions of sociological short stories that critically and creatively explore the social as well as the politics and consequences of sociology itself. Please see submission guidelines and other information here.

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