The Portrait

The Portrait, Alyssa Quinn

Alyssa Quinn

A man in Wisconsin flew fake airplanes on a computer in his basement. There was a joystick on his desk, a green screen draped across the wall, many maps with vectors sketched in pink and blue. He broadcast his flights live, and people, lots of people, watched. He established a fan base. There are more people interested in simulated flying than you might imagine. The fans started sending him things. He mentioned he needed a new, larger hard drive for his software (all that topography took space—black pine pinpricks around SeaTac, the indigo Pacific hemming LAX). The next day $600 came in with a note from a fan saying: buy two. Another time he raised enough money between lunch and dinner to buy a new headset, the very best. The fans liked to see the man wearing the headset as he flew the fake planes over the fake topography. They felt they had done something unaccountably good and generous.

On a Tuesday in January, one fan commissioned a portrait of the man. He pulled a picture off the web and sent it via email to an artist in Pittsburgh. The artist had mounted a trio of video cameras in his studio, and he charged clients $75 an hour to watch him paint an 8×10-inch oil painting live. The artist had once been fascinated with cubism, but now he stuck to portraiture.

The artist in Pittsburgh received the photograph of the man from Wisconsin. The picture was from the high school graduation of the man’s daughter, and the man had on a nice blue button-up. It took several hours to paint the man’s portrait. Due to the three video cameras, the man and many of his fans were able to watch the artist paint. One camera pointed at the canvas, and the man watched and was amazed to see his face being slowly constructed. He said to his wife, “Look, it really does look like me.” Another camera showed the artist’s face; he wore glasses and clamped his tongue between his lips while he worked. The third camera, mounted high up in the corner between wall and ceiling, offered a view of the whole studio. A single room, small, cell-like, strewn with open sketchbooks and many colors of paint. A purposeful mess. The artist was actually a very tidy person, but he knew that chaos was part of the appeal. He knew they paid him to make it look real.

When the portrait arrived in Wisconsin, the man’s daughter opened the package. It was swaddled in bubble wrap and tape, which she scissored off. The painting was impressive. He looked handsome and happy. The high school graduation had taken place shortly after the divorce. His ex-wife, the girl’s mother, hadn’t supported his flight simulator hobby. She hadn’t understood, and so his daughter, who missed him, was trying to. She watched him fly and tried to figure it out. The way he cradled the joystick. The way the weather excited him, cumulus plumes and rain slanting the sky. The day he downloaded fog. He had called her to the basement as he taxied a runway in Maine, the little red lights emerging in parallel lines to guide him. “Amazing, right?” he asked her. She stood behind him and gazed into the fog, into the pale pixels, thick enough to get lost in. She wanted to say Yes, amazing. Instead, she stared at the back of his neck. The soft dark curls grew overlong. She reached out, touched them very lightly, as he took to the air.

Alyssa Quinn is a recent graduate of Western Washington University’s MFA program, where she worked as the assistant managing editor of the Bellingham Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Brevity, Gingerbread House, Sweet, Frontier Poetry, Punctuate, So to Speak, and elsewhere. She currently reads fiction for Quarterly West and will begin her PhD in creative writing at the University of Utah this fall.

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