Bruce McDougall ~ The Master Painter

Just before noon she hears Raymond, the painter, call­ing from the bed­room. Come here, please, mis­sus, he says.

She finds him stand­ing on a lad­der in the mid­dle of the room. He has spread tar­pau­lins over the floor and moved the bed and oth­er fur­ni­ture to one side of the room, under the win­dows. He has removed his shirt and is lean­ing back on the lad­der, flex­ing the mus­cles in his shoul­ders as he runs a roller across the ceil­ing. She thinks she has nev­er seen hair so black as Raymond’s.

Aren’t you cold? she says. She wears a tai­lored wool jack­et over a white silk blouse.

No, he says. I’m working.

Through the win­dow, she looks across the leaf­less tree­tops in the ravine to a band of steel-blue water on the hori­zon. Sunlight puls­es behind the slate grey sky like can­dle­light through ice. She thinks of the Brazilian natives liv­ing on her husband’s gold-min­ing prop­er­ty. She won­ders if home­less peo­ple in the city sleep in the ravine in winter.

Raymond reach­es down from the lad­der. In his fin­gers, he holds a cou­ple of paint chips. You look at these, please, he says.

She moves clos­er to exam­ine the paint chips. Raymond has long fin­gers. She can see the half moons of his cuti­cles. Her hus­band, by con­trast, bites his nails inces­sant­ly. They’ve become jagged and tat­tered, like the husks of nuts dis­card­ed by squir­rels. For a labour­er, Raymond takes good care of him­self. She imag­ines his fin­gers against her skin.

You like these colours? he says.

I can’t see them clear­ly, she says.

Raymond climbs down from the lad­der. He leans with the paint chips into the cold pool of day­light that wash­es across the bed under the window.

Which one do you like? she says.

Her hus­band often says that she can’t make up her mind. She says it doesn’t mat­ter what she thinks: he insists on get­ting his own way, whether they agree or not.

When she and her hus­band first met, they dis­agreed all the time. That’s what attract­ed them to each oth­er. They enjoyed argu­ing. At law school, she learned how to split hairs, but she believed in com­pro­mise. Her hus­band believed in vic­to­ry. Now she defers to him and takes com­fort in the wis­dom of her dis­cre­tion. She prefers not to risk the secu­ri­ty of her mar­riage to win an argu­ment about lawn fur­ni­ture or dry clean­ing. She doesn’t mind. It’s his money.

She leans for­ward to study the paint chips in Raymond’s hand, two dif­fer­ent shades of carmine. Take off your jack­et, he says.

I beg your par­don? she says.

Your jack­et, Raymond says. Take it off.

He spreads the black jack­et on the bed and holds the paint chips over it. The colours deep­en. Which one you like now? he says. You decide, she says. She stud­ies his black hair and resists an urge to adjust it with her fin­ger­tips where it brush­es his ear.

She and her hus­band met in New Haven. She was vis­it­ing her boyfriend at the time, a senior at Yale, major­ing in archae­ol­o­gy, learn­ing Turkish. She was shop­ping in a sports store called Denali for his birth­day present. She’d tak­en a Patagonia jack­et from its hang­er to exam­ine the lin­ing. A man stand­ing beside her said, He won’t like that. She thought he was a sales clerk. She told him that she didn’t need his help. She looked at him more close­ly. He had dark hair that spilled from under a worn base­ball cap. He looked at her with mis­chie­vous brown eyes. His teeth were crooked, but in a good way. When he smiled, he looked about thir­teen. With one glance, she could tell that he would make a lot of mon­ey. I’ll show you what to get, he said. He held up a North Face jack­et. Give him this, he said. He’ll like it. She nev­er found out if her boyfriend liked it or not. She gave it to him the next day and then told him that she’d met anoth­er man.

Her hus­band seemed con­fi­dent, lev­el-head­ed, intel­li­gent, sin­gle-mind­ed and deci­sive. He’d sailed through the tur­bu­lence of his ado­les­cence unruf­fled by the cur­rents of pop­u­lar fash­ion. He didn’t play sports. He nev­er want­ed a car. He didn’t drink. His clothes were func­tion­al. He taught him­self to play the slide gui­tar. He once played with Emmylou Harris, but she nev­er wor­ried that he might aban­don him­self in a fit of mid­dle-aged luna­cy to his music. He played the gui­tar with pur­pose. With pas­sion, he made money.

After law school, she went to work with the firm where she’d arti­cled, but when their first child was born, she took a leave of absence and nev­er went back. She’d nev­er regard­ed her­self as a lawyer, and by then her hus­band was mak­ing so much mon­ey that he need­ed her to man­age their wealth. It was a much more demand­ing task than she’d expected.

Your hus­band trav­els, says Raymond.

A lot, she says. Thirty weeks a year. Like the Rolling Stones.

Raymond’s eyes narrow.

On tour, she says. The Rolling Stones tour for thir­ty weeks a year.

Do they? Raymond says.

The last time her hus­band came home from a trip, he said he felt unap­pre­ci­at­ed. No won­der, she said. In busi­ness, you’re the star. At home, you’re just my hus­band. What do you want me to do? she said. You fig­ure it out, her hus­band said. Appreciation’s not part of my job descrip­tion, she said. The next day, he went away again. It was like lov­ing God, she thought. Most of the time, she had to remind her­self that he existed.

You don’t go with him? Raymond says.

Sometimes, she says. But I feel anx­ious when we travel.

You are afraid of flying?

I’m afraid of fly­ing with my husband.

Her hus­band believed in the pow­er of the intel­lect. He took offence at yes-men and mar­tinets who fol­lowed orders with­out ques­tion and imposed their author­i­ty on oth­ers with­out rea­son. He accused air­line clerks, immi­gra­tion offi­cers and secu­ri­ty inspec­tors of squan­der­ing their human­i­ty. He couldn’t hide his con­tempt. They saw how he felt and antag­o­nized him. Immigration offi­cers told him to remove his shoes, then took him away to inspect his under­pants. Sometimes he missed his flight. He said he’d buy his own air­plane. Then they could avoid these encounters.

When we trav­el togeth­er, she says, I take medication.

Raymond picks up the paint chips from the bed. You make up your mind, please, he says.

She feels unset­tled by his insis­tence. She touch­es him light­ly on the wrist. A mist of dark hair cov­ers a fad­ed blue tat­too on his fore­arm. He holds the chips high­er. He stud­ies her face, wait­ing for an answer. I’ll think about it, she says.


That night her hus­band called from Brazil. He said he was hav­ing trou­ble per­suad­ing the natives to move from his prop­er­ty. She said she was hav­ing trou­ble choos­ing the right colour of paint for the walls. Her hus­band told her to take a dig­i­tal pho­to­graph of the two chips and send it to him by email. I’ll decide, he said.

Your hus­band is a smart man, Raymond says the next day when she shows him the colour that he has selected.

Why do you think so? she says.

Smart men get rich, he says.

Then my hus­band is very smart.

Her hus­band grew up with a capac­i­ty for hard work and a sin­gu­lar pas­sion for mak­ing mon­ey, but he sel­dom had fun with­out pur­pose. He nev­er learned to ride a bicy­cle, nev­er owned a soc­cer ball or a skate­board, nev­er received an allowance. If he need­ed mon­ey, he took a loan from his father, then repaid it, with inter­est, by work­ing around the house. Her hus­band paid his own way through school and inher­it­ed noth­ing from his father except his webbed toes. Now her husband’s wealth far exceeds his father’s, but he gets angry when he looks at his feet.

I am not so smart, Raymond says.

You make mon­ey, she says.

I make more, he says, before I come to America.

Painting hous­es?

Painting por­traits.

Why did you stop?

I paint what I see, Raymond says, not what peo­ple tell me to see.

It’s hard to make a liv­ing that way.

I can’t live the oth­er way, he says. That’s why I stop.


When her hus­band called again that night, he said, Tell the painter to do three coats, not two. And make sure he paints thick over thin. The walls have to absorb our vision, he said. What does that mean? she said. He’ll know, he said. And you think you know bet­ter than he does how to paint a room? she said. She won­dered lat­er why she would risk an argu­ment with her hus­band to defend the integri­ty of a painter. Tell him he won’t get paid until you’re sat­is­fied, her hus­band said.


Today she pass­es along her husband’s instruc­tions. Raymond just shrugs. I do what I’m told, he says.

She notices a small can­vas lean­ing against a lad­der in the cor­ner of the room. For your por­trait, he says.

Perhaps, she says. I’ll ask my husband.


When she talked to her hus­band again, she told him he was right. Raymond is an artist, she said. He used to paint por­traits. You should sit for him, her hus­band said.


The next day when he calls her to the bed­room, Raymond ges­tures toward the bed. He has used a lad­der to impro­vise an easel and propped the rec­tan­gu­lar can­vas on one of the rungs. My hus­band says it’s all right, she says.

I thought he would, Raymond says.

She looks again at the can­vas. It seems small for a por­trait, she says.

I paint you from the neck up, Raymond says.

She feels disappointed.

He ges­tures toward the bed. Sit, he says.

I feel fool­ish, she says.

Whatever you say, he says. Sit.

She sits on the edge of the bed. She’s wear­ing a black skirt and a mauve silk blouse. Raymond put his hands on her shoul­ders and push­es them back. Pressing two fin­gers against her jaw, he turns her head to the left. His touch is gen­tle. She fears that he’ll tell her to relax. She gets anx­ious when peo­ple tell her to relax. I show you what to do, Raymond says. He lifts her chin. She can feel the ten­sion leav­ing her body. He touch­es her fore­head. He runs his fin­gers through her hair. He holds up his right hand.

Look up, he says.

She looks at his hand. He stares at her.

Aren’t you going to begin? she says.

I already have, he says.

He unfas­tens the top three but­tons of her blouse.

He runs his hands over her face. She can feel the warmth of his skin. She wants him to kiss her. She wants to lean back and draw him for­ward onto the bed. The fab­ric of her blouse press­es against her breasts. He stands back. All right, he says. You go now.

For the rest of the day she makes her­self busy. She makes phone calls, answers let­ters, sends emails, pays bills, thinks about her chil­dren at their schools. She thinks all day about Raymond upstairs. She waits to hear his voice call­ing her. Late in the after­noon she hears him leave through the front door. She rush­es upstairs to the bed­room. He’s pre­pared two of the three walls with a rough plas­ter sur­face. He hasn’t start­ed the ceil­ing. The can­vas isn’t in the room. She feels relieved. He will have to come back.


He can’t afford a big­ger can­vas, she told her hus­band when he called that night.

Tell him I’ll pay for a big­ger one, he said. The big­ger, the better.

Art by the yard, she said.


She spends the next cou­ple of days keep­ing appoint­ments and attend­ing meet­ings around the city. When she final­ly sees Raymond again, she tells him of her husband’s offer. I don’t need a big­ger can­vas, Raymond says. But he’ll buy it for you, she says. Raymond shrugs. I paint what I see, he says.


In the mid­dle of the fol­low­ing week, her hus­band called from his hotel. The natives had agreed to leave the prop­er­ty, he said. We can pro­ceed with the mine. Her husband’s com­pa­ny would help them to find hous­ing and pro­vide them with jobs and med­ical care. They’ve nev­er lived in hous­es, he said. They should be grate­ful, she said. They don’t seem grate­ful, he said.

She told her hus­band that Raymond had turned down his offer of a big­ger can­vas. Screw him, her hus­band said. If he doesn’t want it, tell him I have bet­ter things to do with my money.


When she tells Raymond, he laughs. Your hus­band is maybe too smart, he says. He gets what he wants, she says.

Raymond fin­ish­es paint­ing the bed­room the day before her hus­band comes home, moves all the fur­ni­ture back into place and props her por­trait on the dress­er. It looks as if he has dashed it off in a few min­utes. Her face seems expres­sion­less. Her eyes look dead. She’s seen more flat­ter­ing like­ness­es in her pass­port. But her hus­band loves it. He’s a world-class painter, he says. He tells her to have the por­trait framed. We’ll put it on the wall, he says, beside the bed.

That night they have sex in their new bed. Her hus­band makes love the way he dress­es, func­tion­al but with­out exu­ber­ance. He moves inside of her with the pre­ci­sion of a cash card in an auto­mat­ed teller. When he fin­ish­es, he rolls away from her and takes a deep breath. God is in the house! he says.

When she wakes up in the morn­ing, she looks at the ceil­ing. She can see shapes in the swirls of paint, like a body in the clouds. She stares more intent­ly and sees her­self, unclothed, her spine arched, head thrown back to release her mane of dark ecsta­t­ic hair. She inhales and feels dizzy.

Do you see that? she says.

That’s the way I told him to do it, her hus­band says. Three coats.


Bruce McDougall has worked in Toronto, the city where he was born, as an air­port atten­dant, bounc­er, taxi dri­ver, social work­er and news­pa­per reporter. His short-sto­ry col­lec­tion, Every Minute is a Suicide, was pub­lished in 2014 and won an IPPY Award. His non-fic­tion nov­el, The Last Hockey Game, was also pub­lished that year and was a final­ist for a Toronto Book Award. His nov­el, The Lizards of Palm Beach, was pub­lished in January 2021 by Owl Canyon Press, and anoth­er col­lec­tion of his short sto­ries called Urban Disturbances was pub­lished in March 2021 by The Porcupine’s Quill. It, too, won an IPPY. He grad­u­at­ed from Harvard College, where he was an edi­tor of The Harvard Lampoon, and attend­ed the University of Toronto Law School.