Jan. 6, 2019

THE BODY DIES, BUT THE SPIRIT LIVES FOREVER.

I saw this portrait on the wall in a Goodwill store. The young man looked familiar yet...no one came to mind. His eyes followed me as I walked out of the store. There are no coincidences.

We lost touch.  Years later, my long ago, next door neighbor and self-appointed running coach approached me in a Shopping Center.

I heard my name and stopped. Turning around, it took me more than a few moments to recognize the person standing in front of me. The years had not been kind. My handsome, adorable young neighbor was no longer young, no longer fit, or handsome. We talked briefly, mostly about our lives on 36th street, in a town we’d both left for different reasons. When there was nothing left to say, we hugged, said our goodbyes, then went our separate ways.

Overtime, I hadn't reflected on that chance meeting until a friend sent me an obituary. My long-ago neighbor and running coach, Mark Barrett had, at the age of 48 years old, voluntarily left this world. I was in China at the time, too far away to attend his funeral.  A reliable source emailed me, explaining that Mark drank heavily, took drugs for depression, and--- after losing a multitude of jobs---was unable to work.  Like so many of us, Mark had too-many demons and too-little strength to fight back. I signed the online registry and mourned the loss of a dear friend.

But my long-ago involvement with Mark didn’t end with his obituary.  Years later, after leaving China and living in various places—I finally returned to Arkansas. I bought a house in Little Rock, had my storage of more than twenty years delivered, and began yet another... new life. Unpacking the endless stored boxes from long ago, it became clear that many of the clothes and items were outdated.

After unloading my car at the Goodwill Store's donation platform,  the attendant said he had misplaced his receipt book. If I wanted a receipt for tax purposes, I would need to go inside the store. While the inside clerk wrote a receipt, I glanced around.

On the far wall, hanging with a menagerie of photos, plaques, outdated calendars, and empty picture frames, was the portrait of a handsome young man. Drawn to the young man’s eyes, I walked closer to get a better view and immediately felt a connection. When the clerk handed me a receipt, I left the store.

That night and all the next morning, I couldn’t stop thinking about the painting. I went back to the store and asked if anyone knew who donated the painting and how long it had been in the store?  No knew anything except: the painting had been there for months and was marked twenty dollars.  The store manager said I was the only person who’d shown interest in the painting so--- she would mark it down to ten dollars.

I hung the portrait on an upstairs bedroom wall where it stayed for five years; the identity of the young man in the painting remained a mystery. One night, unable to sleep, I decided to write. Needing a change of scenery, I took my laptop upstairs--- to my favorite bedroom--- but instead of writing, I found myself distracted by the portrait. I felt the young man looking at me, trying to communicate.

 Studying the portrait, I sensed something familiar in the young man’s eyes and was suddenly reminded of my one-time neighbor, coach, and young friend, Mark.  Could the man in the portrait be Mark?

I posted a photo of the portrait online, on Facebook, asking if anyone recognized the young man.  I also posted the name of the artist, Markissia.  Almost immediately a new Facebook Friend, living in Tarpon Springs, Florida, recognized the artist as one of his friends and contacted her. Markissia verified she had painted the portrait but didn’t remember the name of the young man in the portrait. Several weeks passed and, unable to think of much else, I searched the internet. I easily found Mark's parents, now living in Little Rock, and also found a telephone number.

Mark’s father, Milton, now ninety years old, seemed glad to hear from me. I told him about the portrait and mentioned tracking the portrait’s artist to Tarpon Springs, Florida. He said he vaguely remembered taking the family to Tarpon Springs one summer, a very long time ago.  He said his son Mark, somewhat of a budding artist at the time, had posed for a portrait but no one ever saw it.  In fact, he believed his son, Mark, had forgotten to pick up the finished painting before the family left Tarpon Springs.  I asked if I could bring the portrait to his home so he could decide if it was, indeed, Mark.   Mr. Barrett sounded interested but commented on being busy and asked if I could call the following week to arrange a time.  

I called the next week… and the following week, and the week after… and no one answered the phone. I left message after message but my calls were never returned until….early one morning I answered my phone and a woman asked to speak to Miss Sally. She didn't volunteer her name but said she'd heard several of my phone messages and believed I should know the truth.

The woman said, “Mark died in the nineties.  His father cleared out Mark’s apartment and stored all his belongs--- including a portrait--- in the storage shed behind his house. The caller related that a few years ago,  Mark’s older brother-- Milton--a well-to-do medical doctor in West Virginia, suddenly died.  When Mr. Barrett learned of his remaining son’s death, he quickly cleaned out the backyard storage and took everything to a Goodwill store.  The caller said Ms. Barrett was nearly hysterical when she learned of her husband’s actions but could do nothing.

The woman caller, describing herself as a home care worker, said she asked Mr. Barrett how he could so easily dispose of his son’s personal items and he’d replied: “The only reason I stored Mark’s items was because his brother, Milton, wanted them.  Well, my successful son Milton is dead and his worthless brother, Mark, died without amounting to a hill of beans.  I don’t need any reminders of Mark’s life. Shortly before he died, Mark had the nerve to tell me he was gay!” I thanked the woman for contacting me and hung up.

Who can explain why I was chosen to find the portrait in a Goodwill store or why I was compelled to buy it and bring it home? How can I make sense of the fact a new Facebook Friend “just happened” to live in the same town with the artist and the two of them “just happened” to be friends? How shocking that soon after my new Facebook Friend connected his Florida Artist-Friend with the portrait... my Facebook Friend suddenly died!

 Equally coincidental was the unknown home care worker who “cared enough” to return my phone message.  By doing so, she solved the complicated mystery of the portrait.  I’ll always believe a power--- far beyond reason, reality, and explanation---knew Mark needed someone to care about him; to care about his life and, about his death.

Recently I moved. I've hung the treasured oil painting in my bedroom where I see it every day.

Mark, my sweet young neighbor--- my running coach from so long ago--- is no longer alone. He's found his final resting place with me.

Sally Miller

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