Paint By Numbers

Dear Sirs,

In September I placed an order from your company, a gift for my mother’s 80th birthday. She was, at the time, recovering from a stroke and beginning to suffer effects of elder depression, the likes of which we’d expected long before that and, as I am sure you can imagine, were prepared to deal with as a practical matter of family business. All this to say we wanted to do it up a little for the old gal’s birthday this year, there can’t be many better ones left.

I myself am an old man. I follow the prevailing wisdom of the postwar period — that creative hobbies enhance life, that they make it worth living. Even Winston Churchill, even President Eisenhower for Christ’s sake, were Sunday painters, and as my father, God rest his soul, always said, if it’s good enough for Ike, who the hell are you to want any goddamn better?

And while my mother is by no means an art enthusiast, your ad, boasting “Every man a Rembrandt” was very convincing. Why should the joys of artistic expression be relegated to the trained and talented? We’re Americans, we’ve got idle hands. I want my art like a tv dinner — everything you need in one goddamn box.

This is all besides the point, of course. Just to say that I appreciate what you at Paint by Numbers do. It’s downright American. You are true patriots. After a thorough review of your catalog I settled on the Apprentice Series, featuring bigger, easier to open paint pots and a handy no-mess workstation. I filled out your order form, and sent in a check for one beginner level classic “Cocker Spaniel Pair in Pastoral Repose,” lot number 4534, reportedly bursting with color and imagery and promising to offer a rewarding but achievable challenge for artists looking for something extra in their finished paintings.

Something extra indeed, sirs. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I am sure you can appreciate the trust I demonstrated in your company, having the kit sent directly to my mother’s home. I will admit that the giftwrap was lovely — the nicest in the pile, even according to my sisters, who are very unlikely to exaggerate for my benefit, I can assure you of that. And while my mother seemed less than thrilled upon pulling off the paper, mumbling something about a Whitman’s Sampler she’d asked for, she took the box to the garage to give it the old O’Connell try.

But unfortunately, there was a problem with your product. From the moment your kit arrived my mother scarce left the garage. She could be heard shuffling around, singing Danny Boy, working on the painting for hours at a time, her cheeks not so ruddied since she’d disappeared to the bathroom for a mysterious thirty minutes after Dick Clark’s cameo on Perry Mason in 1966, her complexion no less flushed than when my father, God rest his soul, accidentally touched her rear when she reached to place the tree topper in the scandal of Christmas ’59. She refused to come to meals or settle down her singing, even when asked repeatedly. She dug out an old stick of rouge and applied it in a thin line around her lips. She asked Marjory to curl her hair and put on nylons. At a certain point she locked the door and refused even her own daughters entry. After the third day they called me to come and break the door down, no easy feat at my age, let me tell you.

What we found on the other side of the door, my faith prohibits me from describing in plain words. My father, God rest his soul, should block his ears in heaven, should I try to convey to you, despite my Catholic sensibilities, the perverse display presented in your painting, the shameless pagan naturism of man in the most engorged depravity. I cannot even begin to describe to you the glut of body, the excess of skin. Rather, I am enclosing some photographs. I think you will agree the finished product depicts a very different Spaniel than the one on your box.

My sisters were screaming, my mother clung to the canvas — it was left to me to get the goddamn thing out of the house. I had to wait until nightfall so the neighbors wouldn’t see, had to carry the goddamn thing in my own goddamn hands — not facing me, of course, but still, I knew the whole time what was on the other side of the canvas. And if you think the thought of your ailing mother painting what amounts to an abomination of God in your childhood garage, and singing Danny Boy while she did it, well, if you’ve got a goddamn heart in your chest, I trust you know having to explain why great-grammy painted a man with an Easter ham between his legs to an 8-year-old, well it just about goddamn destroyed me.

To resolve the problem, I would appreciate it, well hell, I would appreciate it if you’d burn my goddamn eyes out of their sockets — but barring that as a possibility, maybe you wanna check your goddamn inventory.

I look forward to your reply and a resolution to my problem and will wait until after the holidays before seeking help from a consumer protection agency or the Better Business Bureau. In the meantime I have brought the painting someplace dark, without a lot of traffic, until it can be disposed of properly.


Padriac O’Connell



Jill Summers writes short stories, puppet shows, and once, a play. Her fiction has been featured internationally by Chicago Public Radio and has been published or is forthcoming in Monkeybicycle, decomP, Knee-Jerk, Ninth Letter, Annalemma, The2ndHand, and Make Magazine, among others. She is a past recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Literary Award and was Chicago’s reigning Opium Magazine Literary Death Match Champ for a short, glorious period in late 2009.