Jack had a special gallery just for self-portraits. He did a new one every year, the passage of time immaculately mapped onto his many faces. Seeing all the paintings together like that, I couldn’t help but notice that every year his brow seemed a little heavier. His smile was a little sadder, his eyes a little wearier. I didn’t like seeing him change like that, and I told him so.
“Don’t you worry, I still know how to paint a happy picture. I’m just saving it for the year when your mother finally forgives me.”
I told mom that too. She told me that he’d be better off figuring out how to decorate Hell.
The self-portraits made me sad, but they didn’t start to frighten me until Grandfather showed me his latest work when I was 19 years old.
“Where are your eyes?” I asked, staring at the blank pools of flesh dominating his latest portrait. The lines were more jagged than his previous work, making his sagging face seemed to be carved from marble.
“Right behind my glasses, silly,” he said.
“Why didn’t you paint them?”
He studied the picture, seeming to notice for the first time. “Would you look at that,” he mumbled. “Doesn’t matter. You can tell it’s still me, can’t you?”
More features were missing in the portrait next year. The whole face seemed to be sliding, almost as if the skin was a liquid that was dripping right off. He couldn’t figure out why I was making such a fuss over it.
“Looks like me to me,” he grunted.
Shortly later Jack was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and it was all downhill from there. He’d retired as a professor several years back, and painting wasn’t a hobby anymore — it was an obsession. Now that I wasn’t living on my own it was easier to visit him more often, but even in the span of a week, he’d have finished three or four more self-portraits, each more disconcerting than the last. I don’t know why he even called them self-portraits — they weren’t even recognizable as human anymore. Just tormented flesh, grotesquely and unevenly contoured as though the underlying skeleton was replaced with a haphazard pile of trash.