Clarice Miller was facing the mirror and arranging the neckline of her black sheath to sit squarely on her plump shoulders. She regretted the folds that puckered around her waistline but felt reassured that the artist would soften them in the portrait. Sighing, she picked up her handkerchief and ambled down the hallway and into the living room. Sixty years of marriage and now he wants a portrait.
Julian Miller had practiced law for more than fifty years. Comfortable in his retirement, he hired Anastasio Frumkin, a highly regarded portraitist from New York, to create a lasting image of his wife. Clarice could not fathom why. They had plenty of photographs from their years of parenting, world travel, and social life. Over the past decade, the Millers had spent little time together. He passed his days with his golf friends at the Club and she volunteered off and on as a tutor at local schools. Evenings, they often were too tired to eat. In separate bedrooms, they watched their favorite television shows, then dozed off.
Frumkin was waiting for Clarice in the brightest part of the living room. His easel, paints, and brushes were set up and he seemed ready to work. He greeted Mrs. Miller with a strained smile and invited her to sit in a high-backed, stiff chair.
“Should I sit like this? You know, Frumkin, I’m really uncomfortable. I don’t know if I can sit here for long.”
“I understand, Mrs. Miller. Try to distract yourself. Think of other things. Now, ready?”
Mrs. Miller nodded and assumed the posture and head pose Frumkin had fussed over. After a while, her thoughts did drift. Why now, she mused. Seems like he’s making a show of being the devoted husband. We haven’t had much to do with each other for years.
On the prepared canvas, Frumkin had sketched in Clarice’s main features. Then, he took up his brushes and daubed at the canvas with light strokes. Clarice was on the point of rolling her neck and stretching without Frumkin’s permission, when he said, “I’ve laid in the first layer of paint. We’ll need a week to let the oils dry. Shall we meet again next Thursday?”
“Sure, sure,” she said, “but, Frumkin, let me see what you’ve done so far. I’m curious.”
“Mrs. Miller, I don’t let my clients see the piece until it’s nearly finished. That’s my policy.”
“So, for me, change your policy. We pay you enough.”
The artist sighed and with a wave of his hand, invited Clarice to have a look.
“Frumkin, it’s very nice so far, but I’m asking you for a little favor. Paint in a long necklace of fat pearls.”
“But Mrs. Miller, you’re not wearing any pearls.”
“I know, I know, but you are so talented, I know you can do it, hmm?”
Frumkin agreed, worked in the necklace, then cleaned up and left after shaking Clarice’s hand and thanking her for the opportunity to paint her portrait.
“Don’t thank me. You’re working for Julian, but, sure, anyway. Fine. Happy to oblige.”
One week later, the painting process resumed. At the end of the session, Clarice asked Frumkin to paint in some ruby earrings set in gold. His objections echoed those of the previous week, but Clarice insisted and her portrait grew more elaborate.
At the end of all the sittings, Clarice’s image included the pearl necklace, ruby earrings, several costly rings, and a diamond tiara, none of which she had worn while posing. The artist invited Clarice to view the painting before showing it to her husband. As she stood back from the easel, with arms crossed over her ample chest and smiling with satisfaction, she heard Frumkin ask why she had insisted on his adding those precious items to the portrait, jewelry she did not own.
“You see, Frumkin, when I die, Mr. Miller will remarry and probably to some young thing who loves his money more than him. I want her to see the portrait and kill herself looking for the rings, the necklace, the earrings, and the tiara. She’ll never leave Julian in peace until she finds them.” With that, Mrs. Miller said good-bye, left the living room, and went into the kitchen for a snack.