Don’t Want to Die Before I Die

There I was under my usual cluster of trees at the annual art festival in my hometown sketching charcoal portraits of children for a donation to my tip basket. Sometimes I made enough to pay for a whole month of going out for coffee with the guys.
I don’t right remember how long I’ve been doing this. Let’s see. The festival’s been going on for thirty-six years. I didn’t start drawing until after I retired so that makes—well, too many years to figure out. The folks who put this shindig together have always put me on the row with vendors with local produce, the dog cremation company, the historical society, the man who sells plants that eat bugs and politicians handing out petitions to be signed.
The real artists and craftsmen are on the other side of the park, and that’s all right with me. Nope, never won a ribbon. Wouldn’t know what to do with it. The house is filled with my wife’s clutter, and it’s been two years since she died.
What I get a kick out of are the parents who force their kids to sit in my chair long enough for me to draw them. Basically, all the little boys look the same. Just like the girls. The mamas don’t care. They can see the resemblance, and that’s all that matters. They toss a dollar into my basket and move on.
Some days are busier than others which is fine. If I draw too many pictures in a day, arthritis plays hell with my fingers all night long and I can’t get a decent sleep. My fellow old men will sit in my chair to rest up before they finish their walk around the circle. A few want to bend my ear about local politics and others just stare in the distance at something, then without a word they stand and walk away.
A handful of mamas through the years have brought their children for a drawing each festival. They say it’s saving their kid’s childhood, picture by picture. That’s kinda nice. I also like to watch the mamas watching their boys and girls squirm in the chair until I’m finished.
On the last day of the festival this year a woman—she must have been as old as I am but I couldn’t tell for sure because she wore too much makeup—walked down the path toward me. She held the fingers on her right hand like she was holding a cigarette. I figured she had smoked for years until her doctor told her she would die of cancer if she didn’t stop. She beat the nicotine habit but she couldn’t keep her fingers from assuming their long-time pose of sophistication. Smoking used to be considered very sophisticated back in the old days.
I became aware of her standing behind me as I finished a charcoal rendition of twelve-year-old boy. The mother burbled something about how she was so glad to have this because next year he’d start changing into a teen-ager and never be her little boy again. She walked off without putting anything in my tip basket.
The old broad leaned into my left ear. I could smell her lipstick. It had to be red; red lipstick had a smell all of its own.
“You do know you’re not really talented, don’t you?”
I turned and smiled. “Of course. If I was really talented, I wouldn’t be in this one-horse town drawing pictures for free.”
Her lacquered fingertips went to her rouged lips as though she wanted to puff on her imaginary cigarette. Boy, I thought, she really missed smoking.
“Then why do you even bother?”
“Because when I give it up, I start to die.” I shrugged. “Oh, I know I’m dying.” I patted my chest. “But if I stop things I like just because I’m not really good at them, then my soul begins to die.” I paused to smile my best little boy smile. “And I don’t want to die before I die.”

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