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Fiction 1st Place: The Dance at Bougival by Jack Fay

The Dance at Bougival by Jack Fay



Marcus Wellman burst through my office door at 6 PM on Saturday. He was waving his arms and jumping from foot to foot in a demonstration of despair.

Marcus had been sent to me three years ago by his mother, the grand-daughter of Victor Wellman, the last textile baron of Lowell, Massachusetts. In early teens Marcus began developing an unbridled infatuation for the works of French impressionist painters. Today, at the age of 25, the infatuation is an acute emotional fixation, which in my line of business falls into the category of personality disorder. My patient is not dangerous, either to the public, to his mother or to himself. He does not harangue, pester or bother anyone. His every thought is internalized and except for yes, no, hello and good-bye, he talks to just one person—me.

In physical appearance Marcus is quite unremarkable except for one distinguishing characteristic. His nose is long and shaped like a cucumber, an affliction that in part accounts for the personality disorder. Other than the strange configuration of his nose, his overall appearance can be stated in a single word; “average.” Marcus is not handsome and yet not objectionable despite the nose. He is not tall yet not short; not heavy yet not thin. I have always regarded a person of this appearance to be invisible, like the man you pass on the sidewalk and five seconds later cannot recall having seen him.

After losing interest in studies at Harvard, Marcus took an apartment in a condominium on Huntington Avenue, one block from the Boston Museum of Art. From opening time to closing time, Tuesday through Sunday, Marcus is in the museum sitting on a marble bench in the broad, high-ceilinged room whose walls are graced by the creations of Monet, Renoir, de Toulouse Lautrec, Degas, Pissarro and other standouts of Impressionism. Wall lamps above each painting cast a glow that falls to the highly polished marble floor, imparting to the visitor an ethereal aura.

My office is on Newbury Street, not far from Fenway Park. It is my practice on Saturday afternoons to review and lock away notes and patient files. At 6:30 PM I leave for Jimmy’s Harborside where I meet my wife so that together we can enjoy the finest seafood in all of New England.

As I said, Marcus burst through my door at 6 PM, uninvited. I ushered him to the plush leather armchair reserved for patients and asked him to tell me what was going on. He gave a violent slap to his knee and uttered a single word, “Eloise.”

“Please calm down, Marcus. Who is Eloise?”

“She lives in a painting at the museum.” I lifted my eyebrows and waited for him to continue. “The Dance at Bougival, by Renoir. Eloise is dancing with a stranger, a bearded man in a yellow hat. I told her not to dance with him. He will hurt her.”

“You spoke into the painting?”

“No, I spoke to her after she came out of the painting.”

“She came out of the painting?”

“Yes. She pulled away from the bearded man and flew out of the frame and stood in front of me. I held her by the shoulders and warned her but she smiled and said I should not worry. I pleaded with her, ‘Don’t go back, Eloise. You will be in danger. Stay here with me. I will take care of you.’”

Psychiatrists are used to hearing strange things but this was different and I needed to hear more. “What happened next?”

“Eloise went back. Back into the painting. The bearded man is holding her again, leaning into her face, trying to kiss her. She is avoiding his kiss but for how long can she keep him at bay?”

I tapped the eraser of a pencil against my front teeth before saying, “Marcus, I want you to go back to your apartment, have something to eat, take a shower and relax. Tomorrow pay a visit to your mother. She will be glad to see you. Your regular appointment with me is at four on Monday. We can talk then.”

If it could be said that Marcus had been agitated on Saturday, he was frantic on Monday. His eyes were bulging out of their sockets, spittle ran from the sides of his mouth and his hair was a riot of tangles. The only feature of his face not changed was his cucumber-like nose. His first words were, “She won’t listen to me.”

“You met her again?”

“Do you think I would not? What do you take me for?”

I dared not tell him I thought he was looney-tunes, a remark totally inappropriate for a psychiatrist. Marcus was entitled to vent and my role was to encourage it–to help him let it all hang out, so to speak. So I said, “Please, go on.”

My patient composed himself and continued. “Yesterday I thought I had Eloise convinced. She saw the trepidation in my face and consoled me. She held my hands, and smiled like only she can smile.” Marcus quickly leaned forward. “Doctor, you must see her one day. You will understand why I so desperately love her.” He leaned back, drew in a breath and said, “I was sure that she would push herself away from the bearded stranger. To reject him for the cad that he is! But she did not. She went back into his arms. What am I to do?”

I ignored the question because it is the role of the psychiatrist to ask questions, not answer them. A genuinely skilled psychiatrist, as I am known to be, should help the patient discover the proper course of action. I gave Marcus an appropriate answer to his question: “What do you think you should do?”

“For God’s sake, you’re the doctor. You’re the one who is supposed to have all the answers.”

This was the first time Marcus had treated me rudely. I forgave him because he was under great pressure. I did not respond to his outburst and waited for him to continue.

“There is one thing I have not told you, doctor. I am running out of time.”

“What do you mean?”

“The Dance at Bougival is in a traveling exhibition. Next Saturday morning the exhibition moves to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. The painting will be packed in a box and loaded into a truck. Eloise will be alone, in the dark, with the bearded stranger. That will be the perfect time for him to violate her.”

I knew Marcus would ignore my counsel but I gave it anyway. “You need to decelerate, Marcus. Slow down. Think of something else. Think of…” I had to stop. He was not capable of thought that existed outside the boundaries of French Impressionism. The sentence went unfinished because Marcus rose from the leather armchair and trudged out of the office with his chin on his chest.

The next day was Tuesday. I called Marcus at his apartment. No answer. On Wednesday I called again. When he didn’t answer I called his mother. She said she had not heard from him in over a month, which was not unusual. On Thursday I called him. Again no answer, so I went to the condo where he lived. The concierge told me she had not seen him in several days and mail was in a pile outside his apartment door. She told me, “Feel free to check for if you like.” So I did; there was no answer. On Friday afternoon I went to the museum to look for Marcus.

A security officer in the museum lobby pointed me in the direction of the great hall where I expected to find Marcus on a marble bench staring at The Dance at Bougival. The bench was empty. I stood before the painting and looked at it up close because I was most curious about Eloise, the girl Marcus had fallen in love with. Yes, she was indeed beautiful. A young, coquettish face turned to one side, a red bonnet tied beneath her chin, a flowing white dress cinched at the waist with a ribbon that matched her bonnet. The man dancing with Eloise wore a yellow hat—but strange—he was beardless. Marcus had called him the stranger with the beard. But the man had no beard. I moved an inch closer to the painting to see the man’s face. It was partially hidden beneath the brim of the yellow hat but I was able to see one curious facial feature. The man had a nose that looked like a cucumber.

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