Joseph JP Johnson
In the final hours of Michael Smith’s life, family rotated into the hospital room. Most had little to say and spent, on average, three minutes each wishing the man well and promising his full recovery. There was the inheritance to think of. Should Michael survive—as he always survived—it was important to be seen. There might be, like after the heart attack or the shooting in Lebanon or the car wreck in Mali, a revised will. When Michael did not recover, each relative commented how ironic his death was: that in a life lived so dangerously, a bacteria-laced tuna fish sandwich fell the man.
Michael’s granddaughter, Samantha, refused irony as an acceptable explanation of death. She, like her grandfather, was an artist—not a photographer, but a sculptor (a student sculptor). She was also Michael’s favorite living relative.
In her last visit with the-then-conscious Michael, Samantha entered the white-walled room alone. She had only known her grandfather as a virile man, but there he was, unshaven and emaciated. He lay impotent on a hospital bed opposite a cheap print of Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte. In her final ten minutes with the photographer, Samantha opened the curtains.
“Real light,” said Michael.
“For a little longer.”
“What do you see?”
Samantha pulled a chair close and watched her grandfather’s face. He stared at the ceiling.
“Strength,” she said.
Michael let out a grunt. “Lies.”
“I see the sharp line of a great jaw.”
“The fluorescents are killing me.”
Samantha stood, walked to the door, and flipped the light switch. Shadows, black and precise, appeared on the man’s face. In the areas of the room unclaimed by shadow, color glowed. Everything with yellow in it—the cushion on the chair or the hand soap bottle on the sink—radiated. Samantha’s green coat was vivid as grass after rain.
“The magic hour,” said Michael.
“We’re lucky, Papa.”
“Hurry,” he said. His jaw twitched. Michael’s breathing was interrupted and irregular. He seemed to be steadying it, tightening his neck as if holding back a yawn.
Samantha studied her grandfather’s face. She spoke like a TV coroner: “The cheek has an indent that’s not usually there, like the muscles below it have shrunk away. The lines from the cheek to the eyes are curved and deep, but not as pronounced as they once were, almost as if they were flattened by an iron.”
“Good,” said Michael.
“The color in your eyes is bleached, like they’d been left on a windowsill over summer, and the white has yellowed like old plastic.”
“The nose,” Michael said. He closed his eyes.
“It’s sharp along the ridge. Cartilage and thin skin. But it’s swollen at the nostrils, like you’re a smoker. A drinker. It’s turned down, like the tip wants to point to something.”
“To your chin, I think. Your chin hasn’t changed. It still has its bump like a small ball, an armature, under a tight sheet.”
“Good,” he said.
“Tell me about Andy Warhol, again,” she said.