The Sidewalk Artist

A Novel

Gina Buonaguro and Janice Kirk

Thomas Dunne Books

Chapter One
 
This story begins with the rain
 
What truly moves Tulia is not the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame Cathedral or any of the wonderful sights.  It is the little things. A windowsill with a pot of geraniums and a glimpse of lace curtain, the way the sun glances off a puddle, the echo of her heels as she walks down a narrow cobblestone street, the taste of coffee at an outdoor café, the sound of children calling out to each other in French.
 
And this, this brief moment of rain, a sun shower. Sunlight spinning raindrops into gold. She raises her face to the blue sky, and the drops are cool against her skin. For her, rain has always held the memory of sadness, of loss—although she has never been able to determine why, or what it is she remembers.
 
The shower is over almost as soon as it starts, but its clean scent lingers in the air, and the sense of sadness is replaced by an equally mysterious sense of promise and renewal. She closes her eyes, the sun drying the raindrops like tears on her cheeks. She stores this moment close to her heart to bring out again on a gray autumn day in New York.
 
This sprinkle of rain like a blessing.
 
Chapter Two 

Smoke rings like afternoon halos

She almost missed the angels. She doesn’t know how. But they are there when she opens her eyes. Cool and unruffled beneath the dappled shade of a sycamore, untouched by this short burst of rain, the angels surprise her. She would not expect them here among the vendors with their displays of T-shirts, postcards, and miniature Eiffel Towers.
 
The angels are enough to make her forget her aching feet and the gingko tree she just fell in love with in the botanical gardens. She has seen gingkos before but not one so magnificent, and she wishes not for the first time that her claim to a garden was more than a few pots on a concrete balcony. Not that she has the hundred years it takes to grow a tree so grand, but to start one from a little seedling would be quite a legacy.
 
Instead she will content herself with the pods of seeds she gathered from the garden’s poppies in coral shades of pink, orange, and yellow. Already she can picture them, blooming among her cherry tomatoes and geraniums. Will she be allowed to take the seeds through customs? She wonders what harm could come if she did. Unleash a plague of poppies on New York? Hardly the thing disaster films are made of.
 
She loves Paris. With its wide tree-lined avenues, narrow streets of cobblestones, and parks and gardens, it is extremely walkable—and without the tall buildings of Manhattan, one can see the sky. She has come to like New York, her adopted city, but Paris has a less claustrophobic feeling—a sense that its link with the countryside has not been completely severed.
 
Until the sun shower, until the angels, she was looking for a bench where she could rest. She needed to decide whether to continue to the Louvre as planned or go back to the hotel and change her shoes. The cream-colored, square-heeled 1930s-style Mary Janes—an impulsive purchase the day before near the place Vendôme—were not made for hours of sightseeing. Ethan, for whom appearances are everything, would tell her to work through the pain as if she were running a marathon, but Tulia prefers comfortable shoes—and she thinks this is another difference between them that is irreconcilable.
 
The angels are familiar. Chins resting on plump hands, they look pensively toward an ochre-colored heaven. She stares at them again, reconsidering. Maybe pensively is the wrong word. Perhaps it should be contritely. With their mussed hair, it is possible these little angels have been up to no good.
 
This is no ordinary sidewalk scribbling. Rich layers of colored chalk have transformed this gray patch of pavement into a luminous masterpiece. It is the product of someone with real talent, genius perhaps, someone able to render a flat surface into something akin to flesh and blood—or in this case the divine.
 
His back to her, the artist kneels, adding clouds to the heavens with rapid strokes. A black beret bulging with coins sits next to the painting, and a man tosses some change into it as he walks by, his steps not even slowing. The painting is all the more fascinating for its fragility. In a few hours, the cherubs’ delicate faces will be scuffed by uncaring feet, and a little rain is all it will take to return the sidewalk to drab concrete.
 
Tulia places a euro in the beret. She can’t explain it, but it seems like the most important thing in the world that she let him know how much she admires his chalk painting. “C’est très jolie,” she says, addressing the thick, dark ponytail that falls just below his shoulder blades. He wears black jeans and a black shirt, both soft-looking and faded with wear. Over his shirt is a tapestry vest embroidered with a wild tangle of birds, suns, and flowers. Its colors too have mellowed with time, but it is still beautiful.
 
“Thank you,” he replies in accented English, not falling for her French for a moment and not looking up from his work either.
 
“You speak English?” she asks with relief.
 
“I will speak anything you like,” he says, turning his head slightly and addressing her new shoes.
 
“Except for the little French I learned in high school, I’m afraid I only speak English.”
 
“Your French is fine,” he says, and while she appreciates his desire to be kind, she also knows he is lying. Still, she thanks him as a few more coins clink into the hat.
 
“It’s Raphael, isn’t it?” she asks. “The painting, I mean.”
 
“That is correct. And it is kind of you to stop and notice,” he says without pausing in his work. His fingertips are a mélange of chalky color.
 
“You must’ve been worried when it started to rain.”
 
“It was just a sun shower, not even enough to penetrate the leaves.” He blends the colors of the clouds with the side of his hand, and they become soft and full under his touch. “I saw you,” he continues. “While everyone else kept walking, you stopped. There, I said to myself, is a woman who appreciates beauty. Do you know a lot about art?”
 
“I wish I did,” she says, feeling a little self-conscious that he’d been watching her. “But except for one art-history class, my knowledge is pretty limited.” There were of course the openings she’d attended with Ethan in SoHo, the memory of which always conjures up the image of a giant ball of human hair that looked like something a very large cat coughed up.
 
She only recognized the angels because they’ve been reproduced everywhere—on coffee mugs, Christmas cards, microwave popcorn boxes, even on the sign of a pool hall near the bookstore where she works, cues clasped between chubby fingers. In fact, they have been reduced entirely to cliché. But not these angels before her, vibrant as stained glass, seemingly as fresh and inspired as the originals Raphael painted five hundred years ago.
 
“Are there any Raphaels in the Louvre?” she asks. “I’m going this afternoon.”
 
“There are a few. If you sit down, I will tell you about them. I am almost finished here, and some conversation would be very welcome. Besides, those shoes look lovely on you, but they must be killing your feet.”
 
She laughs. “They are. I was looking for a place to sit when I saw your angels.” Already the sun has dried the sidewalk, and the sun shower is only a memory.
 
“My coat is under the tree,” he says. “Spread it out and rest there. I will be done in just a moment.”
 
She accepts his offer gladly, sinking gratefully onto the outstretched coat. It is nice to have someone to talk to. Except for the desk clerk at her little hotel on the boulevard Port-Royal, she has hardly spoken to anyone in the three days she’s been in Paris.
 
She slips off her shoes before pulling a water bottle from her shoulder bag and taking a sip. The water is warm and tastes of plastic. She watches the artist for a moment. His back is still toward her, and apart from his long, dark hair, she has yet to get a good look at him. What she can see is a well-sculpted, olive-hued cheek, a slender frame, strong chalky hands, and the glow of the embroidered vest that is almost as fascinating as the angels. The light draws out a galaxy of moons and stars and suns before a subtle shift makes them retreat into the background and a garden of flowers and birds takes precedence. She would love such a vest, but in all the hours she has spent perusing the thrift shops and markets of the Lower East Side, she has never seen anything quite so wonderful.
 
Copyright © 2006 by Gina Buonaguro and Janice Kirk. All rights reserved.