The Art of Addition by Subtraction
"Hey, Marie -- see the couple staring at Janette's Pomegranate #5?" Buster nodded toward the two men, one tall and slight as a whisper, the other squat, the pleat of his suit coat flaring out like a ladybug's wings.
I'd shoved show catalogues into the hands of the two as they entered the gallery, but they'd looked right past me to the twelve-foot tall nude that Buster had hung in the entryway to aggravate a yawping neighbor who thought of good art as Norman Rockwell. "Window shoppers?"
"They're going to buy your Brooklyn Menopause and All Dog's Children." A wry smile split the thatch of Buster's beard. He held up a fist.
I bumped my fist into his, weak-kneed with relief. After a three-week run, my first gallery showing was due to come down in a few hours, and until that moment I'd sold exactly nothing. Buster, who'd taken a large risk giving a relative unknown half of the wall space in his gallery, would have had nothing to show for his generosity. "Full price?"
"Me? Discount? Please. But the best thing is those two are alphas in the collecting community. This almost guarantees I'll be able to sell the rest of your pieces."
From across the room a bejeweled matron, giggling at Jeanette's Beautox, curled a forefinger to beckon Buster. He gave me a sheepish look and headed her way. I snatched a glass of champagne from a caterer's tray and tossed it down in one unladylike gulp.
One night a month ago, guiltily tempting fate, I'd totaled up the prices of the works I had on display. Absurd. $600,000. Even after subtracting Buster's half, and allowing for taxes, I'd clear enough to finally quit my job at the library to concentrate on my art.
I giggled at the irony—it had taken me twenty years of schlepping my booth from one street fair to the next to become the "promising new talent" the Times had mentioned the week before in an Arts Section tidbits piece. I went looking for my sister Casey to share the good news.
She stood at the foot of the iron spiral staircase that led to Buster's office. She was flirting, as usual, this time with a younger man, mid-30s perhaps, with copper hair and a bushy goatee. He had the almost translucent skin of a true redhead, with protruding ears that begged for a nip and tuck, and doleful eyes behind glasses with thick chartreuse frames. He was dressed in a fire-engine red turtleneck with leather pants to match.
I pushed my way through the crowd surrounding the refreshments table to join the two.
Only the flutter of Casey's eyelids tipped me to her annoyance at my imposition as she pivoted to make room for me in the conversation. "I was just telling Dean here," she touched him lightly on the sleeve, "how hard you worked to get this show. He thinks your stuff is super."
Dean nodded, peering at me over the glasses suspended on the flare of his nostrils. "Dean Lyons. Right. Yes. Super is certainly a word."
I was familiar with the contempt that Casey's ebullience brought out in some men, but he seemed sincere.
"Thanks for the compliment," I said.
"You're welcome. I was particularly taken with this piece." He made a hitchhiking gesture toward the centerpiece of my show in the spotlight behind him. Justice was a full-sized, freestanding sculpture made of human hair on a hidden wire framework; curly, straight, black, brown, red, blond, and white. Very conceptual, in that it didn't resemble anything except perhaps a whirlpool. I'd spent over five years collecting that hair, which had been trimmed by undertakers from the heads of corpses while sprucing them up for their funerals. It was the piece I'd been working toward my entire career.
"I've never seen anything quite like it," Lyons said. He tapped the open catalog in his hand with his index finger. "$75,000. Now, how can you justify such a price?" His tone was playful. Casey sidled closer.
I replied in kind. "Justice weighs almost forty pounds. Christie's just sold Femme by Miró for $2 million, and I'll bet it didn't weigh more than a pound."
"Stalin said quantity has a quality all its own," he replied, smiling as he idly tugged on his goatee. "What's with the title?"
"Do you really expect any artist to answer that question?"
He sighed. "I never give up hope." He rolled up the catalog and thrust it into the inside pocket of his suit coat. "Anyway, I'm going to buy it. The hair thing. All forty pounds."
I almost peed my pants in delight. Casey took a step back, though, and I was puzzled at the sudden suspicion, perhaps even anger, in her expression. She eventually turned on every man she took up with, but never within the first ten minutes.
"You're joking," I said.
"No joke," Lyons said. "Justice will fit perfectly into my collection."
Hoping to draw out the conversation so I could savour the moment, I said, "You're an artist, too? Might I have seen some of your work?"
Casey discreetly kicked my ankle as Lyons replied, "I doubt it. I'm a performance artist. My audiences are very intimate."
"What kind of performances?"
"Hard to explain. Maybe you'd like to attend one?"
"I'd love to," I said. Casey kicked me again, and I kicked her back.
We exchanged business cards, and Lyons promised to call me later with the details. He then excused himself to search out Buster and arrange the purchase.
"What?" I said to Casey as soon as Lyons was out of hearing range. "I'm not trying to steal him from you, if that's what you're worried about."
She put her hand on my shoulder and turned me to face the wall before whispering, "I just figured out who he is. He's that guy that makes bonfires out of art."
I had no idea what she was talking about, but before I could ask, a stocky young man trying to decide between Crass and Boring and Arrogant Prick cornered me with a multitude questions about how each should be hung, curated, and which one I thought would be worth more in ten years. A few minutes later, Buster appeared, carrying a SOLD sticker before him like a communion cup. He transferred it with great ceremony to the label of Justice.
After the gallery closed, Janette, Casey, Buster and I crammed into a vinyl-upholstered booth in the bar next door, Muscadet. I waited until the cocktails were delivered before asking the group about Lyons.
"Dean Lyons?" Janette said, frowning. "The pyro artist? He was there tonight? I read a profile of him in the Village Voice. He calls himself "Mr. Addition by Subtraction." She swirled her martini olive. "He buys art and burns it in public."
Just that quickly, my joy turned to ash. Casey patted my hand.
"He used to come around the gallery every six months or so," Buster said, "asking me to show his paintings. He had some talent, but his technique was sloppy and his subjects were vapid. Still, he has a shitload of money, so I kept thinking that if I got desperate enough I could sell him a few weeks of wall space. Fortunately, I never reached that point. Yet."
Janette asked Roscoe, "You didn't sell him anything of mine, did you?"
When Roscoe shook his head, I said, "He bought Justice. You think he means to burn it?"
"You dickhead," Janette said, glaring at Roscoe.
"What?" Roscoe replied. "A customer buys a piece, he buys the right to do with it what he pleases. It's not like we don't charge him plenty for the privilege. And Lyon's money is as good as anyone's. Right, Marie?"
"But why would he burn Justice?" The notion was intolerable.
Janette said, "In the profile, he said that eradicating bad art was as valid a form of artistic expression as creating good art. I think he even got a grant from the NEA."
"He can't burn Justice," I said. "I don't care what he paid. I poured my soul into that piece."
"You go, girl," Casey said, raising her wine spritzer in support.
Roscoe rest his chin on his fist. "Money is money. It buys you the time to make better pieces. Some artists do commercial work to pay the bills. Is this so different?"
The insult to the quality of my work implicit in Roscoe's words hurt. "If I do better work," I said, "maybe he buys and burns that, too. You think people will remember me for the money I had?"
My tablemates snarled at Roscoe as he replied, "Then think about me for a minute, OK? A sale like this allows me to show more new artists like you two. Besides, the contract's been signed."
"Stop the check," Janette said.
"He paid cash. And he had the piece picked up at closing time."
"Oh, bite me," I said, stood, pulled a ten out of my billfold, tossed it on the table, and stomped out.
I stood on the street corner outside the bar for fifteen minutes before I finally flagged down a cab to haul me from Tribeca to the Upper East Side address on Lyon's card. Along the way, I wondered if our mother would have been as proud of Justice as she'd been of Casey's firstborn, Troy, whose birth she'd regarded like a biblical miracle.
It was midnight when I jumped out of the cab in front of a high-class apartment building overlooking Central Park. I felt like a hobo in the simple pants suit and sensible flats I'd worn to the gallery, and the stare of the doorman implied he shared my opinion. Rather than try to fast-talk my way into the building, I took a few steps to the side of the entryway, pulled out Lyon's card, and dialed his apartment.
He answered on the first ring. Crossing my fingers and trying to keep anger out of my voice, I told him I had to speak with him, right away. I was relieved when he agreed to let me come up. The doorman didn't take his eyes off of me until the elevator doors closed.
The elevator opened on the 30th floor to an apartment the likes of which I'd only seen in high-end decorator magazines. The walls were covered in chartreuse silk wallpaper, and the living room beyond the foyer was decorated in blended curves and playful takeoffs on vegetation; a chair made in the shape of a bunch of bananas, asparagus floor lamps, garlic pillows. Spotlights in the ceiling reflected from the chrome of empty art hangers lining the walls like sconces.
Lyons, still dressed in the clothes he'd worn to the gallery, was leaning against the wall waiting for me, his eyes half open. "It didn't take you long," he said. There was a sag to his face that I hadn't noticed earlier, and he spoke so softly I could barely hear him. He turned and waved an arm toward the living room. "You're not armed, are you?"
"Not this time," I replied, feigning amusement, since I still had a faint hope of reasoning with him. I preceded him into the living room, taking in the panoramic view of Central Park and the West Side. Empty celery-stalk display stands stood like pilings throughout the room. A see-through glass cabinet separated the living room from a music room, but the shelves were also empty. "You have the whole floor?" I asked.
Lyons pointed me to an orange sweet-potato couch in front of the window, and collapsed into the bananas. "Three floors, actually. My grandparents were talented capitalists."
I sank into the couch. A spray of fresh-cut pink orchids on the coffee table concealed Lyons face. He reached out with a socked foot and shoved the vase aside.
"I’m surprised you invited me up," I said.
He shrugged. "Might as well get this out of the way as soon as possible. You figured out why I bought your piece." He yawned. "And you want it back. They always want it back."
I leaned forward to escape the lethargy of the overstuffed furniture. I'd steeled myself for a pitched argument, but Lyons seemed abstracted.
"Of course I want you to stop," I said. "I'll give your money back."
He slid lower in the chair, like a bored child in a pew. "Does a car mechanic worry about what becomes of the spark plugs he installs? Have you ever seen a short-order cook try to buy back a breakfast?"
"Are you comparing my art to a spark plug?"
"Why not? Art isn't holy, is it? It's a product. Mostly a defective product. A few years ago, a hundred paintings by leading British artists were destroyed in a warehouse fire. You know what I call that? A good start."
I bit my lip and replied, "I leave a piece of myself in every work. You burn my work, you burn me."
Lyons removed his glasses and rubbed his face with both hands. "I used to say shit like that, back when I was painting."
"Then you know what I mean. Why I need my piece back."
He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. "My paintings were crap. All they did was obscure other people's brilliant work. Every mediocre piece taints the art world like a drop of soap in a pot of coffee."
"So my piece is crap?" I clasped my hands between my knees.
"Duh," Lyons said, and yawned again.
"So burning it accomplishes what? Beyond stroking your ego."
He lifted his feet onto the kiwi coffee table. "I call my art addition by subtraction. And yes, I realize how pretentious that sounds. I’m sorry about the harsh appraisal of your work, but I'm not giving your piece back; I need it. Take my money and try harder next time. Or find another way to scratch your art itch. I understand quilting is fun."
I sat seething quietly for a couple of minutes, trying to frame a response that didn't include screaming. Before I could speak, Lyons began to snore softly.
I stood and turned to the window, tempted to chuck one of the end tables through it. When Roscoe had, at long last, agreed to show my work, I'd spent hours digging up the addresses of the teachers and classmates who had ridiculed my ambition. I'd sent them all invitations to the exhibition, and a few had even come. Now, in a few minutes, Lyons had made a cruel joke of my revenge.
I waved a hand in Lyons' face, but he didn't respond. Still furious, I crossed the room and passed through the folding glass door dividing the living room from the music room, which was dominated by a Bösendorfer grand piano beneath a crystal chandelier. The walls in this room were also bare. I took out my house key.
As I gouged Art is sacred into the walnut top of the piano, I wondered if the pieces Lyons had gathered for his next bonfire were somewhere in the apartment. Maybe if I acted quickly, I could still liberate Justice.
I passed through the music room to the dining room, then the kitchen, breakfast room, restroom, pantry, and back into the foyer, checking closets and cabinets as I went. No art. Into the library. No art.
A side door from the library led to a winding staircase. I returned to the living room to check on Lyons, who was sound asleep, a thin line of drool trickling into his beard.
I climbed the stairs. The upstairs hallway opened first onto a massive media room that had escaped the attention of the psychedelic decorator. The only seating, a battered leather recliner, was placed at the focal point of the sound system.
I gave the room a quick once-over. Still no art, although two empty cabinets bookending the entertainment console were purpose-made for displaying sculptures.
I searched the guest bedrooms -- under the bed, in the bathroom cabinets, the walk-in closets. Nothing. My last stop was the master bedroom. Strewn clothes, piled magazines, a 60-inch plasma TV, and a dirty breakfast tray on the floor suggested Lyons spent a good part of his day in bed. A hypodermic, lighter, and silver spoon on the bed stand explained Lyons lethargy.
The only piece of art in the apartment was hidden in a cardboard box under the bed. The small abstract acrylic painting was done in five primary colours. Straight horizontal lines at the top and bottom sandwiched other lines which curved, looped and twisted like intestines. The piece lacked unity, and the color pallet wasn't harmonious. Still, not altogether hideous. It was unsigned, but on the backside was a faint note in pencil: DL '01.
The wronged dream first of vengeance, and I was no exception. But I also recognized the danger in confrontation: some people are willing, even happy to burn, in which case everybody loses. I decided to wait until Justice was in sight before proposing a trade.
I removed the painting from the frame, then cut the canvas free from the stretcher with my Swiss Army knife. I shoved the frame and stretcher back under the bed.
I rolled up the painting and slid it under my collar at my nape and down along my spine, under my bra strap and tucked it into the waistband of my pantyhose. Standing up straight, the canvas was barely noticeable beneath my blouse.
The doorman didn't.
Lyons had left a message on my answering machine earlier in the evening with directions to his next performance, on Saturday night five days hence. A written invitation followed two days later.
I spent the week hounding Buster, fruitlessly pleading for him to negate the deal. I talked with a lawyer, who agreed to pursue it if I gave her a $100,000 retainer. I even stalked Lyons for a couple of days as best I could via public transportation hoping he'd lead me to his cache, but a burly marine-type accompanied him everywhere he went, and he didn't leave his apartment very often.
"Grieve for Justice," Casey counseled me. "Then let it go. Remember when Catigula ran away? We got over that."
"He was a kitten. We were children. There's no comparison."
"You should have had children," she said. "You'd have more perspective."
"So you keep telling me." She'd had two, by partners unrevealed, and now that the kids were grown she had convinced herself that all those years as a single mother had been joyous. I knew better. I'd been there with her, every day, every tear, and every day I had returned home thankful beyond words that I'd chosen art.
Because Lyons had told me his audiences were very small, I was surprised to find over 100 people gathered on the roof of an old brick high-rise for Lyon's performance. Caterers were serving wine at one white-clothed table, canapés at another. The attendees ran to tattoos and trashy-chic clothing. The air was redolent with wood smoke and marijuana.
Lyon's bodyguard collected my invitation and checked my name off the list on his clipboard. He also ordered me to uncap the cardboard mailing tube I was carrying. I told him the painting rolled up inside was a contribution for Lyon's performance. He waved me in.
After grabbing a glass of wine from the table, I wove my way through conversation clusters toward a theater-in-the-round stage which filled almost a third of the roof. It rested on layer after layer of fireproof insulation and was surrounded by a phalanx of fire extinguishers.
Another goon stood guard at the bottom of the ramp to the stage. In the center of the stage, a bonfire of hardwood logs was already sending up flames six feet high. A few steps to its right, a blue tarp covered what I presumed was the artwork Lyons had chosen for the event.
He was nowhere to be seen, so I circulated, dipping into a few conversations long enough to confirm that no other artist whose work was to be burned had been stupid enough to attend. When the conversers discovered that I was one, they assumed that I was a willing participant, and made jokes at my expense. I pretended to be amused, holding my anger for later in the evening.
Finally, as a nearby cathedral struck 10 p.m., floodlights clipped to the roof antennas snapped on, illuminating the stage. I moved to a spot next to the ramp. Most of the crowd was surrounding the door leading onto the roof, twenty yards behind me. The guards quickly cleared a cordon for Lyons' grand entrance.
He appeared in the doorway dressed in a riotous brocaded and beaded robe with belled sleeves and a deep cowl. It reminded me of a Klimt painting; sumptuous, gold. He was wearing too much stage makeup, and his face looked like a mask in the spotlight glare. Following him was a fuchsia-haired girl with a video camera, shooting the festivities.
He passed through the cordon, reaching out as he passed to brush fingers with the hands held out to him. When he reached me, though, he stopped and brought both hands to his heart like an infatuated mime. "What a lovely surprise," he said. "You're the very first. You realize that?"
"The first artist to attend?"
He nodded. "Oh, this is going to be an epic performance. Can't you just feel it?" His face was flushed and his eyes darted around the audience.
"I'm not here to help you murder my art," I said.
"Murder means the taking of a life," he replied loudly, looking around to make sure the bystanders were enjoying his repartee. "Believe me, there's no life in the art we're burning tonight."
The people close enough to hear broke into laughter.
I, on the other hand, spit on him. Startled, Lyons took a step back and would have tumbled over the ramp if the guard had not propped him up. He scowled at me as he climbed to the stage.
In the spotlights, he appeared a foot taller. He stood, hands on hips, taking in the audience for a minute, which was applauding politely, before raising his arms. Music began booming from speakers behind us, a Dead Can Dance piece with the bass cranked up until I could feel it bouncing off my sternum. The onlookers fell silent.
"What is art?" he said, his voice rising in pitch as he strained to be heard over the music, "The struggle to find order in chaos? To bring meaning to meaninglessness? To return passion to a jaded world?"
The people standing next to me smiled indulgently. A goth on the opposite side of the ramp rolled her eyes and elbowed the man beside her. He thinks he's moving them with his so-called art, I realized, but to them, it's just bread and circuses.
"If so, then bad art can make chaos out of order," Lyons continued, playing to the camera. "And worse, it leaves us too numb to recognize the good stuff."
He wrung his hands. "I compare what I do to tearing down a billboard in Yellowstone. Burning a McDonalds on St. Marks Square, or blowing up an oil derrick on the Great Barrier Reef."
The crowd clapped politely as he paused.
Lyons' face was already covered with sweat. The ramp guard had turned his back to me. I eased myself around the banister so that I had a straight shot up to the stage. Now that confrontation was inevitable, I was ticking with anticipation.
Lyons crossed to the tarp, reached down, grabbed a corner, dragged it to the edge of the roof, and with a toreador's flourish sent it spinning into the darkness. Revealed were half a dozen unframed paintings, a misshapen glob of glass the size of a beagle, and Justice. The audience hooted like drunken soccer fans.
Lyons plucked a painting from the pile and held it aloft. "I paid $11,000 for this," he said.
The picture looked like vomit on houndstooth fabric.
"Burn, burn, burn," the crowd chanted.
"This one's for Modigliani," Lyons shouted, and pitched the picture into the fire. It caught fire immediately. I could smell the acrylics as they boiled away.
Lyons waited for the applause to recede before brushing his hands together and saying, "Isn't the world more beautiful now?"
As those around me cheered, I fought off the impulse to imagine the artists whose works were being burned. I had to remain focused.
Lyons returned to the pile, grabbed another painting, repeated the process. Then more self-aggrandizing gibberish. Then another. And another. A portrait of an old man with daisies for eyes. A solid black rhomboid. A puppy taking a crap. An abstract done with a paintball gun. All up in flames, except the glass piece, which shattered. The crowd egged Lyons on, and between each sacrifice, he implored their applause with come-hither motions.
Finally only Justice remained. A young couple behind me debated about how long it would take for human hair to burn. Lyons appeared a bit wobbly on his feet, and he kept rubbing his chest. He locked his eyes on me, though, as he grabbed my sculpture and dragged it to the edge of the fire.
He raised his hands for quiet, then said, "It takes a brave person to admit that the art world would be better without her work." He pointed at me. "A woman like Marie Shaffer. Can we have some applause for the first artist to watch her work burn?"
As the crowd craned to see whom he was addressing, I sprinted up the ramp and crossed the stage, pulling the rolled painting from the mailing tube as I went. I came to a stop a few feet from Lyons, a few feet from the fire.
Lyons, watching the audience, didn't seem aware that I had something in my hand. When the applause died down, he nodded in satisfaction and turned Justice to face me. "Would you like to do the honour?"
The audience fell silent, straining to catch my reply.
"No," I said. "But I will burn this." I unrolled the painting in his face. He staggered back a step and blinked several times. When his bodyguard took a step up the ramp, Lyons shook his head to stop him.
I held the picture up to the crowd, and paced across the stage so that everyone could get a good look. "It's the last remaining original work by Dean Lyons," I yelled. "Should it burn? Thumbs up or thumbs down?"
A multitude of arms shot into the air. Thumbs down. I turned back to Lyons, who sighed deeply.
"It looks like your friends have no pity. Lucky for you, I do. I'm willing to trade. Your darling for mine."
The crowd buzzed with pleasure at the high drama.
Lyons stroked the hair of Justice. "A trial by fire, huh?" To my surprise, he smiled but his eyes were wet. He thought with eyes closed for a minute before nodding, taking a step toward me, and bending his head to whisper in my ear.
"Thank you," he said. "I would never have been able to work up the nerve to burn that one."
He lifted Justice and heaved it into the flames.
I flicked my wrist. Lyon's painting landed beside it.
The crowd's applause was all but lost on us as we watched our art burn. I'll never forget the smell of burning hair, or Lyons, both hands up in the air as though celebrating. His posture was belied by the despair on his face as his painting turned to thumb-sized feathers of ash and floated away in the smoke.
Through my eyes, the world had never seemed so ugly.
Tom Barlow is an Ohio writer. Other stories of his may be found in anthologies including Best American Mystery Stories 2013 and Best New Writing 2011, and numerous magazines including Redivider, Temenos, The Apalachee Review, Hobart, Penduline Press, Thrice Fiction and The William and Mary Review. He is also author of the short story collection Welcome to the Goat Rodeo (long-listed for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Collection Award) and the novel I'll Meet You Yesterday.
La mariée à la lune
My father decided to use his inheritance to buy my mother a Chagall. I figured this would remain another of his unfulfilled schemes. He’d fly to New York or London for an auction, get distracted five minutes off the plane, and come home with tourist bric-à-brac rather than a painting. Even if he only went as far as the Toronto auction houses, driving our car down to Bowmanville and taking the GO the rest of the way, I could divert his attention easily enough with the sarcophagi at the ROM or the Hockey Hall of Fame or betting him he couldn’t climb all the stairs of the CN Tower in one go.
But then he told me you could buy art on the Internet, and I started to worry.
“Look," he said, having dragged me into a cupboard under the stairs where we had kept the telephone, before it was disconnected for non-payment. “Which do you think your mother would like?" He passed me a book.
Flying goats. Violins. Elongated women. Spheres of flowers in the sky above la Côte d’Azure. And all that blue. My mother loathed blue. We lived in a house bereft of blue. No blue plates, no blue sheets, not even blue jeans. We didn’t buy Rice Krispies because of the blue box. We filled up at the PetroCan because of the blue on the Esso and Ultramar signs. There was no way my mother would want a blue painting.
I hesitated and my father grabbed the book back from me and held it to his chest. The plastic library cover crackled in his hands. He must have used my mother’s card to take the book out; I’d hidden his card because we couldn’t handle any new overdue fees.
“Your mother’s happiness will be like an atomic bomb," he said. “Boom."
I might have only been in my second decade alive, but had I received the money, I would have used it in a less frivolous fashion. For instance, we’d had an estimate for roof repair next to the microwave for months. And most of the banister through all the three floors of the house had rotted through. Also, each winter the furnace took longer and longer to spring back to life. Plus the electrical in the house was original and ungrounded, except for the kitchen, redone on its own circuit breaker by a friend. We needed to use this money responsibly, as our only other income was the honorariums my father received from his few corporate board positions and some dividends from a few stocks he benignly neglected. This miniscule sum did not pay for the lifestyle to which he was accustomed, even out here in the sticks, with nothing to spend money on.
“We’ll have to keep this a secret," he said. “From your mother. This isn’t a surprise you are going to ruin. Not this time." He dropped the book and grabbed my arm. “You aren’t going to ruin this for me?" he asked, grip tightening. “Are you?"
I shook my head.
“Promise me," he insisted. “Promise me."
At dinner, my father slammed his plate onto the table. “Cookies," he announced.
My mother didn’t look up from her book, an orange Penguin with pages loose in their binding. “There may be a box in the pantry," she said, chewing from the edge of her mouth. “I’d finish your dinner first."
“I mean computer cookies," my father clarified.
“What about them?" My mother disinterest was palpable.
“We should delete them every day. Clear the cache. Like a garbage bin." My father mimed emptying a wastepaper basket into a larger bin and knocked a fork to the ground.
“I don’t see the harm in that," my mother agreed, head still down in her book.
I told her that the routine expunging of the cookies and cache would mean having to enter her library code each time she went to the library website since the browser wouldn’t save the twenty-two digits in memory for her anymore. Only then did she look up from her book and frown at my father.
“That," she said. “I wouldn’t like to do that."
“No. No problem," my father replied. “Already thought of. Already solved. I saved a text file on the desktop. Copy paste every time you want to go to your library account. Almost no additional time whatsoever."
My mother thought about this.
“Edward Snowden," my father said warningly.
“I suppose," she finally decided. “For safety."
“And that," my father told me later, “is how she won’t be able to search the history and see what we have been up to."
I disliked the way he included me in his we.
I decided an indirect approach might yield results. Thus, I pointed out each creak and hum in the car, wincing theatrically as we drove over speed bumps and commenting on the state of the shocks. I kicked at the back shed until it collapsed and then asked him where he was going to store the lawnmower. I grabbed calculations off the bank website about how much money one needed to get a professional degree Medicine/Dental and presented the printed-out spreadsheet to him.
“I don’t want to be a dentist," my father said. “Do you want to be a dentist?" he asked. “That seems rather," he thought for a while. “Pedestrian," he decided upon. “I always figured your work would be more substantial, artisanal farming or becoming an apiarist. Or an explorer." His eyes flashed. “You would be like Vasco da Gama searching for the Fountain of Youth."
I didn’t bother telling him it was Ponce de Léon who searched for the Fountain of Youth, not Vasco da Gama.
On Monday, I took his SIN card from his wallet and called Revenue Canada. Although the money had come to my father via a cousin, I guessed my father was still liable for paying some sort of inheritance tax. Obviously, my grandmother hadn’t left my father a quarter cent. But the cousin who’d inherited the lot felt sorry for us and had passed a chunk of the liquidated assets along to my father because, other than my grandmother, everyone in my family loved my father. He played the family mascot, an idiotic puppy, and made them all feel better about their own Ponzi schemes and tax evasion and the Rosedale branch who had lost all their money in Bre-X and Nortel stocks. They liked that we were country in that we lived near Peterborough and didn’t have season passes to the symphony and Soulpepper the way they did. They liked having people poorer than them in their periphery.
I couldn’t get a straight answer about the inheritance tax, although the gentleman with the thick West Indian accent did get very snippy at me regarding the back taxes and fees accumulating exponentially on my father’s account. I scribbled down some of what the civil servant said on a serviette, then hung up the cellphone before we could discuss repayment plans. To find my father, I followed the orange extension cord from the one grounded plug in the kitchen back to the understairs’ nook. He sat, cross-legged on the floor, with the laptop balanced on his lap. I started to wave the napkin of figures in front of his face but he pulled me down next to him so I could look at the computer screen.
“See," he said. We both couldn’t sit inside the cupboard, so I sat on the uneven marble tile of the hall. He turned the screen towards me so I would see more than the reflected glare of his face. The website listed a variety of Chagall’s available at auction or for purchase from private collectors. Scrolling down to the bottom were some relatively affordable lithographs: low five digits rather than high sixes or, the more worrying, Serious Enquiries Only, no price listed, ones at the top.
I found a small lithograph, second to the end, in ivory and red and black. Splotches of dark leaves and red currants, petals, hints of birds in the upper right corner. I moved the mouse onto the image to show my father. The painting matched the décor in the second floor powder room. My mother could hang it up there.
“Oh no," my father said. He shook his head so hard his tie rose up and smacked his sternum. “Not that. Too puny. Not grand enough." He scrolled back up to the top. The very top. “That one. Number one. Thinking." He knocked the side of his head with his fingertips. “Must be the best if they put it first."
Serious Enquiries Only. A painting. Not a lithograph or a reproduction. A full-on painting of a large blue bride in white, holding a red bouquet of flowers under a yellow crescent moon. Plus a man in a tree with a violin. Plus a goat. Of course a goat. I mumbled a dazed question about picking such a painting up.
“Pick up?" He sounded disgusted. “They ship. Fancy courier. Insurance. All ship-shape, top-of-board."
“Oh Marty," I could hear all the relatives say when my father told them this story, inevitably after the painting got lost or stolen or strayed or that the whole thing had been an Internet scam and no Chagall had ever been forthcoming, all the money squandered, our house’s shingles still shedding, termites dining on the original woodwork, our car’s transmission having dropped out somewhere by Fowler’s Corners on Highway 7, me in dental school on student loans, and my father in prison on tax evasion charges. “Always such a gas."
“Friday," my father said. “Guaranteed delivery by Friday."
My mother cried on Friday. She wept like an open tap on Friday in the entryway, surrounded by box cutters and Styrofoam packaging.
“Oh Marty," my mother cried. “Oh Marty, you remembered."
“I did," my father said. “I remembered. All by myself. Just me. Remembered."
“Oh Marty," my mother cried again and again.
And there I stood, at the edges of my parents’ lives. My mother crying, my father. I had to breathe through the clenched teeth of my smile to keep from crying too. Not out of their shared happiness though.
I hated being wrong.
Meghan Rose Allen
Meghan Rose Allen has a PhD in Mathematics from Dalhousie University. In a previous life, she was a cog in the military-industrial complex. Now she lives in New Brunswick and writes. Her work has appeared in The Fieldstone Review, FoundPress, The Puritan, and The Rusty Toque, amongst others. One can find her online at www.reluctantm.com.
The house of the sculptress stood in the middle of an abandoned quarry where limestone had
been carved away, to leave a powdery grey, almost surreal landscape. She had chosen this site
purposely, believing correctly that the starkness might force her imagination into blossom.
There were times in the night, when she heard the wind and the cries of coyotes, she felt she
was in the desert. Yet the house was only a short distance from Taxco, the silver mine town, near
enough to send her gardener Ramon for food and supplies when needed.
Now as she lay awake she felt something akin to doubt, or was it expectation? The moon full,
it glowed with chalky light and made her bed effervescent.
Moonlight played in her studio as well, making shadows on the walls and on her newly
completed sculpture. Moonlight danced on the figure of the Mexican girl still emerging from
stone, so much like Michelangelo’s captives from the Boboli Gardens.
She turned on her side, her insomnia gaining on her. She decided she did not feel fear. She
had lived alone so long she feared nothing. No, if she felt anything in her bed in the gleaming
quarry, it was regret. But she had made the right decision, to fire Ramon. But she knew that, after
nearly a quarter of a century, Ramon was the only family she had, perhaps ever had. She had
always felt distant from her own people, even as she lived among them. They thought her mad,
or at least unbalanced.
Now an occasional relative would come from Boston or Baltimore to visit her, the eccentric
Margaret. They would return to the East and make a full report to the rest of the family. The last
visitor had been a niece, Gloria, recently graduated from college. Her graduation gift was a trip
to visit Margaret in Taxco. While Gloria enjoyed the train ride through the South, crossing the
border at Laredo, she disliked Mexico immediately. She found the house in the quarry
forbidding, even with the lovely garden surrounding it.
“Aunt Margaret, how can you live in such desolation? There’s no one to talk to, and hardly
anything to listen for,” she had complained.
They had sat on the veranda overlooking the garden. Ramon was there, as he always was,
watering or clearing weeds. Ramon knew the garden as well as he knew himself, as well as his
family he saw only at night when he work was completed.
“I find there is much to hear,” Margaret told her niece. ”After all, we hear what we want to.
Silence is good. Here I hear only peace, something I never heard back home.”
It was this peace that brought Margaret to this place so many years before. Even then she was
certain the quarry stirred with life. In Boston she sculpted in a rented loft off the Commons. But
after spending countless hours starting and stopping, then staring while waiting for inspiration,
she realized that time was flaking away as quickly as the clay drying on the table. It was then that
she made her decision, one she never regretted, to move to Taxco.
As she lay awake in the moon white stillness of the room, she remembered discovering
Ramon. He watched her through the studio window as she stood before the nearly completed
sculpture of the Mexican girl. She had pretended not to see him.
Ramon studied Margaret’s rapt attention to detail as she worked on the sculpture. He was
mesmerized by the angelic face of the girl coming into being, emerging from stone. One foot
already stepped free of the limestone block.
In another week the girl would be completely free. She would no longer have to depend on
Margaret’s deftness with a chisel, with whims of her wrist in combat with stone.
Ramon, a voyeur in the open window, watched and learned. Behind him the hills rose like
heavy clouds in the afternoon sky. Margaret wondered how the girl’s hands should be shaped.
Would they be delicate with the fragility of youth, or would they be coarse from a hard peasant
life? There was still time to go either way.
The look in the girl’s eyes was a distant gaze. She would never be the kind to stay in one
place. Instead she would wander, always anxious to know what was beyond the next hill, or what
happens at horizon’s end. She would be enamored of rainbows, Margaret thought. Then, without
looking his way, Margaret could sense Ramon moving away, returning to the garden.
Then Ramon began showing up late for work, and when he finally appeared he was drunk.
His work suffered, but Margaret decided to over look it. After so many years she would give him
the benefit of the doubt. But she wondered what it was that made him drink. Probably family
problems, she decided.
But it continued, and it was the garden that suffered. Margaret was unsure what to do. When
she took her afternoon walks she came across butchered hedges and flowerbeds choked with
weeds. She found carelessness with every step.
“Ramon, what has happened?” she asked him finally. “The garden is ruined.”
He apologized and promised it would not happen again. But Margaret was unsure if he was
sober enough to understand her. She was disappointed. He had never acted this way, not in
One morning she sent Ramon to gather rosewood from a place in the hills not far from the
quarry. He left quite early and did not return all day. Margaret busied herself in the studio but she
found it hard to concentrate. She knew the rosewood was only an hour away. She imagined he
was drinking somewhere. She worried he might end up in jail or worse.
Finally, late in the afternoon, as Margaret stood in the garden among the ill-tended beds and
dried soil, she heard a car approach in the distance. She followed its progression by a trail of
white smoke rising up from the road as the car sped downhill from the main road to the quarry.
The car emerged in the clearing and steered wildly into the driveway.
Ramon got out with a dazed expression on his face. He was drunk, and as he tried to gather
the rosewood from the trunk, the pieces fell from his hands to the ground.
Margaret followed him as he staggered to the studio with the rosewood. After he dropped the
wood into the bin and turned to leave, she stepped in his path.
“Ramon, I can’t overlook your behavior any longer. You’ll have to go. The garden is ruined. I
want you to leave, and not come back.”
Ramon listened and then slunk off, not making a sound. He walked back up the dusty road he
had driven down so wildly. Margaret watched him, a lone figure that seemed to evaporate into
the distant hillside, arms at his sides and his shoulders slumped. He walked into the hill like the
Mexican girl stepping free from the limestone, Margaret thought. In a few moments he was gone,
as if he had vanished into stone.
In bed she decided this was what bothered her. It was as though Ramon knew something
about the quarry, perhaps that he had discovered one of its qualities. She gave up trying to sleep,
her insomnia winning out. She got up, and as the night was chilly she gathered a robe around her.
In the kitchen she made jasmine tea. She walked through the shadows to the Mexican girl in the
studio. The girl’s eyes were wide open. That makes two of us, Margaret mused.
“Soon, dear. Soon you will be on your own,” she whispered to the figure in limestone as she
began the final touches on the statue.
A week later Margaret was awakened at dawn by the front door bell. She roused herself, put
on a smock and rushed to answer it. She so rarely had visitors, she imagined it was bad news
from the East. But when she opened the door she saw Ramon standing there, a small cloth sack
in his hands. Behind him she could see the rose-tinted limestone coming to life beneath the
breaking sky of dawn.
“I told you not to come back,” she said. “I’ve no use for a drunk around here.”
She was intimidated that he would return so soon. But she could not help feeling sorry for
him. He stood before her in his tattered clothes, his dark eyes overflowing with sadness.
“I worked in your garden a long time, nearly half my life,” he said, his voice cracking with
emotion. “I made something for you,” he said, handing her the cloth sack.
“What is it?” she asked, now embarrassed as she took the sack.
She opened it and found a carved rosewood figurine of the Mexican girl. Margaret recognized
it immediately. But the figurine was unfinished.
Margaret then realized that it was at the point of completion her own had been, a week before
when she had fired Ramon. She had since finished her own.
“I didn’t know how to finish it,” Ramon apologized.
“It’s beautiful,” Margaret said, turning it over and over again in her hands, her astonishment
Though it was crudely crafted, Ramon had managed to endow the figurine with a primitive
beauty. Margaret saw that, even it was a copy of her own work, the style itself belonged to
“For a long time I couldn’t see your people in the quarry,” he told her, his head downcast. “I
drank. I thought something was wrong with me. But when I went to get the rosewood, I finally
understood. I knew there were people in the wood trying to get out. I knew I had to help them.
But I drank more because I couldn’t accept it. Was it the same way in the quarry?”
What Margaret had so vaguely expected was now clear to her. She could see night stars
fading in the morning light, but she knew the stars remained., One only has to know where they
are, she told herself. In this lonely place she had never felt alone. Now she knew that Ramon
understood this as well. There were so many in the quarry waiting to be set free, and so little
“Come with me, Ramon,” she said. “There is so much more work to do.”
The Quarry previously appeared in Stone Voices.
Christopher Woods is a writer, teacher and photographer who lives in Houston and Chappell Hill, Texas. He has published a novel, THE DREAM PATCH, a prose collection, UNDER A RIVERBED SKY, and a book of stage monologues for actors, HEART SPEAK. His work has appeared in THE SOUTHERN REVIEW, NEW ENGLAND REVIEW, NEW ORLEANS REVIEW, COLUMBIA and GLIMMER TRAIN, among others. His photographs can be seen in his gallery -http://christopherwoods.zenfolio.com/ He is currently compiling a book of photography prompts for writers, FROM VISION TO TEXT.
I was waiting for a bus at Union Square East. It was cold and it was winter and it was night. I stood on the sidewalk by a black fire hydrant that was stuck in cement, cement that was engraved with dozens of names. The bus stop where I was waiting was in front of a building with four tall fake-looking Greek columns, right next door to a Babies ‘R Us. From where I was standing I could see only the last four numbers of the countdown clock.
I didn’t know it was a clock until last summer when I was walking with Avery across Union Square and a guy stopped us and told us the whole history. He explained that the orange LED numbers that were constantly changing showed the time. If you read the clock from left to middle, it shows the time in military time: two digits for the hour, two digits for the minutes, and two digits for the seconds. If you read the clock backwards from right to middle, it counts down the time left until midnight.
So, the two digits on the far right show the hours left until midnight, the two digits to the right of them show the minutes left, then the two digits to the right of the minutes show the seconds. The guy also explained those giant rings with the hole in the centre to the right of the clock, and pointed out an orb on the far right side of the wall that apparently rotates to show the current phase of the moon. I had never noticed that part, and the numbers on the clock part had just been mysterious to me. I had assumed that it was counting something, that it was representing something, like maybe the national debt. And I guess I was right. It was counting something. Time. After the guy explained the whole thing to us like a docent in a museum, he said that giving that speech about the art was part of how he earned his living, and that he appreciated donations. So we gave him money and went on our way.
I think about all he said sometimes when I walk across Union Square. I wonder how many of the people around me know about the clock, and how many don’t. From the bus stop, I could only see the last four numbers of the clock, the countdown to midnight. I looked at the four orange numbers. 1602. That means there are 2 hours and 16 minutes left in the day. But the four numbers together look like they could stand for a year. 1602. I wondered what was going on that year, 1602. Plymouth Rock? Then I realized I had never been in Union Square when the clock got to midnight and reset.
A fleet of yellow taxis was waiting at the red light. It was cold and I wondered when the bus would get there. MTA has a website called MTA Bus Time. I looked at it on my phone. There’s a list of bus stops named for their location and there’s a little icon of the bus next to the stop it’s stopping at or approaching. The little bus icon was getting closer to my stop. It was making its progress, climbing down its ladder, down the list of stops. It was another kind of countdown, this one in stops, this one in distance.
What if I decided not to get on the bus when it arrived? What if I decided to wait and watch the clock count down to midnight? The clock is like an hourglass, the sum of time on one side and the balance of time on the other. I imagined the clock getting to perfect equilibrium, all zeros, at midnight, and rainbow waves of light like an aurora borealis beaming and radiating above the Burlington Coat Factory. Could I miss such a gorgeous phenomenon?
Avery doesn’t believe in countdowns. Because in a countdown, you’re focusing on the numbers, on counting, and not on being in the moment. But looking at the countdown clock that night with the bus getting closer to me, stop by stop, I somehow felt consciously where I was at that moment in space and time. I was waiting for a bus in Union Square, and there were two hours and sixteen minutes left until midnight.
Jamie Christensen graduated with a B.A. in comparative literature from Brigham Young University. She currently lives, works, and writes in New York City.
Pushing through the throng inside Brooklyn’s Inverted Funnel gallery, one finds at the centre of the room a sizeable marble sculpture resembling a black bear hunched low to the ground. The object is so striking, it is a moment before one realizes that beneath the sculpture is a woman in her late twenties, thin with auburn hair and a pale, heart-shaped face.
It is the artist herself, Marilyn Stahl, pinned beneath the dark ursine form. Circling the sculpture and the ring of gallery-goers surrounding it, one gradually comes to realize that Stahl has had the sculpture lowered over her and bolted to the floor, thoroughly trapping her beneath it.
After standing for some time at the edge of the crowd, which conversed freely with Stahl, this critic was able to compose a list of Frequently Asked Questions:
Q: How long are you going to be trapped under that sculpture?
A: Until the exhibit closes, three weeks from now.
Q: How do you eat/use the bathroom?
A: I have an assistant who will prepare my meals and collect my waste.
Q: Why are you doing this?
A: In “Untitled (Protector 3)” I interrogate the notion of protection, suggesting ways in which custody, ownership, and even romantic attachment can verge on imprisonment. Also, I’m trying to quit smoking and this seemed like a good way to do it. (Laughter of gallery-goers)
After a time, the Inverted Funnel crowd cleared out and I was left alone with the work and the artist. I introduced myself as a great fan of Stahl’s, and remarked that I felt honored to bend down and shake her hand. Stahl assented to an interview, but cautioned that the gallery would soon close.
Q: Your previous installation work, “Untitled (Sadist Wars),” was a video game that allowed players to explore public spaces with an assault rifle, shooting anything and everything—including, controversially, an elementary-school field trip. Some were upset that you were not on hand to explain yourself. Do you feel as an artist that it’s your job to manage the meaning of a work, rather than just sending it out into the world?
A: I believe the role of an artist is to disappear, to remove herself from the work. That’s why I tend to make work critics have called “provocative”: it’s got to shock people out of their complacency without needing me there to explain what it’s all about.
Q: And yet . . . here you are, inseparable from the work.
A: Here I am. This time, I’m not going anywhere. Not for three weeks.
Q: There’s a courage to that, a vulnerability. I was thinking, watching you interact with the crowd, that anyone could come in and—I don’t know, do something—and you couldn’t get away.
A: You must have gotten here late—a woman spat on me. She said her best blouse got skunked at “Untitled (Sulfur Clouds)” [An exhibit in which gallery-goers were sprayed with a sulfur-based solution]. It was a big green pearl. The owner threw her out. It was tremendous.
Q: I’m sorry I missed it. Now, this brings to mind a rumor I heard, that the columnist Pam Fulton is going to be writing a piece on the exhibit, a kind of follow-up to her coverage of the “Sadist Wars” brouhaha. Is there any truth to this?
A: She’s coming down this Thursday.
Q: How do you feel about the prospect of facing her, after the things she’s written about you?
A: I regret I won’t be able to punch her in the mouth.
Q: Oh my.
A: “Oh my” is right.
Q: Switching gears, after the success of “Untitled (Jellyfish/Mother 1),” you moved to Manhattan, but after the muted reception of the sulfur clouds exhibit and “Sadist Wars,” you relocated your studio to Hoboken, which is where, if I’m not mistaken, you still--
A: I’m sorry. It looks like the gallery’s closing. I’m going to eat something and go to sleep. Good luck with your article.
This critic solicited permission to attend the meeting of the artist and her antagonist, Pam Fulton. The gallery owner approached and hustled me out, while a narrow-waisted attendant brought Stahl a pillow and a dish of some sort of ethnic food, very fragrant and appetizing. I stood at the window of the gallery, watching the attendant feed Stahl, until the gallery owner arrived and pulled down a great opaque window shade.
Stahl’s name was first heard in the art world three years ago, when her installation “Untitled (Jellyfish 1/Mother)” caused a frisson at Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory. In that work, Stahl created a narrow Vaseline aperture across an entranceway, with a sign directing visitors to pass through the slit. Those who did found themselves in a completely empty room, with the options of climbing the fire escape four stories down or returning through the rather slimy entranceway. A photograph accompanying an Artforum piece on “Untitled (Jellyfish 1/Mother)” showed Stahl as a fierce, grimacing wunderkind swallowed up by a man’s Oxford shirt, auburn bangs spilling over her porcelain forehead and her hard green eyes fixed remotely, as if they had pinned the future and meant not to let it go. This critic’s interest in Stahl’s work can be dated from the moment of his seeing that photograph.
On the appointed day, I arrived at the gallery at eleven thirty and hung around outside the Inverted Funnel. I was looking through a narrow space between the shade and window frame when a loud, somewhat sultry voice behind me called out, “Look, everyone, a pervert.” Standing quickly, I recognized the long legs, alabaster skin, and silken black hair of Pam Fulton, accompanied by a cluster of handlers and photographers.
In person, Fulton is even more striking a presence than on television or the covers of her books, delicately thin and with bright, perfectly matched clothes: on this day, she wore an avocado-green pant suit with matching pointy-toed high heels that produced an exact staccato rhythm as she arrived at the door of Inverted Funnel and directed one of her hangers-on to knock. Although she continued to smirk at me, she did not spare me another word as the gallery owner held the doors open to Fulton and her menagerie. The critic coasted in at the back of this group.
After completing a languid orbit of “Untitled (Protector 3)” without acknowledging the artist, Fulton sneeringly commented that the piece “look[ed] like a turd that fell on top of another turd.”
Marilyn Stahl: Welcome, Ms. Fulton.
Pam Fulton: Cut the “Ms” stuff. Who am I, Gloria Steinem? (Simpering laughter from retinue)
Tarantula – turn brackets into parens
MS: Did you have a pleasant trip from Manhattan?
PF: If you don’t count the homosexual who tried to stab me with an AIDS needle, then yes, it was lovely.
MS: Look at it this way: now you can write a book about it. I’m sure he was a liberal. [Appreciative laughter from critic]
PF: Who’s Chuckles the Clown? I saw him peering through the window outside. I think he was about to drop his trousers.
MS: He’s a critic or something, I think.
PF: What’s he doing here? This isn’t one of those smear jobs, is it?
MS: He asked to observe our interaction. He’s harmless.
PF: Did you ask to be here, Chuckles?
Critic: I’m merely interested in what you and Ms. Stahl have to say to one another, in light of your past attacks on her and her work.
PF: Attacks? Where do you get off?
MS: Now, now. You have to admit you haven’t been friendly. Isn’t that the whole point? You’re here to write a slam piece?
PF: Don’t assume you know what kind of piece I’m going to write.
C: You did tip your hand, Ms. Fulton, in your newspaper column the other day. I believe you insinuated that Marilyn was quite familiar being pinned beneath big, black things, and enjoyed the sensation.
PF: Oh, what tripe! I wrote no such thing!
MS: It does sound like your m.o.
PF: My m.o.? Who are you to tell me my m.o.? Nina [Hartford, personal assistant], did you hear this? These clowns think I have a modus operandi. Ha!
Nina Hartford: Should I call your attorneys, Mrs. Fulton?
MS: I’ve been following your writing for a while now, Pam, and you do have a certain style.
PF: Do tell, please, what [air quotes] style you think I possess.
MS: Confrontational. Flamboyant.
C: Mean-spirited. ‘Slanderous’ would apply.
MS: Assertive. Telegenic.
C: Asinine. Seditious. The literary equivalent of torches and pitchforks.
PF: How would you like a knee to the family jewels?
NH: Mrs. Fulton, try to calm down. Your blood pressure.
PF: Someone throw a sandwich down the street. That ought to get Scarecrow here out of our hair.
C: My mistake. I sincerely thought you wanted an honest answer to your question.
PF: Don’t try that on me, that snide stuff!
C: I’ll leave right now if it will help your blood pressure.
PF: And now he’s a gentleman. Ha! Do you hear me? Ha!
MS: Yes, maybe you should go. This isn’t the exchange I expected. Mrs. Fulton, are you all right? She looks overheated or something.
NH: Mrs. Fulton? Mrs. Fulton? Barry, bring me the ice pack. It’s all this stress. It’s being constantly [significant look at Critic] under attack that does it.
My presence being a deterrent to the momentous meeting, I decided to remove myself from the situation. Barry, Fulton’s male lackey, followed me out the door and stood watching me walk down the street, hands on hips.
When I arrived at the gallery the following day to continue research for this piece, Marilyn Stahl informed me that Pam Fulton’s handlers had been inquisitive as to my identity, which publication I wrote for, and—in Stahl’s paraphrase—what my deal was. Fulton herself had left shortly after I had, complaining that she felt weak.
Q: I was up late dictating an apology. Do you think I enjoy having to apologize to Pam Fulton?
A: I don’t understand why you felt the need to do that.
Q: Why does anyone do anything?
A: Do you mean courtesy?
Q: You little baby lamb. An attack from Pam Fulton is great press. I wanted her to confirm that my work is subversive, destructive, anti-American.
A: [Nonplussed] I apologize. I suppose I thought I was sticking up for you.
Q: Do you know nothing about Pam Fulton? If I had given her nice little platitudes about what my work means, she would have been at my throat. But you had to go right at her, didn’t you? Now there won’t be any press from her—today’s column is about college Democrats or something. No mention of “Untitled (Protector 3).”
A: [Discomfited] But you yourself said the other day that you’d like to punch her in the mouth.
Q: [Turning face away] Part of the thing. The dance.
A: It didn’t seem like a dance. It seemed like an attack about to happen.
Q: It’s the dialectic. You win by losing. By getting beat down, I win.
A: I’m sorry. I didn’t understand.
Q: [Turning face further away] I’m not feeling well. You should go now.
When I returned to the Inverted Funnel the following day, I found “Untitled (Protector 3)” cordoned off, and was told by the attendant that Stahl had taken ill overnight.
It was likely the tasteful and professional “Get Well” card that I then sent, which included my contact information and an invitation for Marilyn to call me whenever she was able, that allowed Pam Fulton’s handlers to get in touch with me. The phone calls began suddenly, coming several times per hour. After refusing, for a day or so, to speak with Fulton via telephone, I was surprised one morning when Barry showed up, lingering in a door across the street from the critic’s building and, after following menacingly for several blocks, accosted this critic in an alleyway.
Q: What do you want? My wife will call the police if I’m not where I’m supposed to be.
A: You don’t have a wife. Don’t bullshit me. I want to talk to you. We’ve been trying to get you on the phone for days. What’re you scared of?
Q: Isn’t this a little trite, cornering me in an alleyway?
A: My boss would like to speak to you.
Q: What does she want?
A: Call and find out. Be a man. [Confidential lowering of voice] Listen, if I can make a request: please call soon. We’re all getting sick of hearing about your conversation.
Q: What conversation?
A: Her words, my man. But . . . you might be surprised what Pam is like when you get to know her.
Q: Is she not obsessed with liberals? Does she not breathe fire?
A: No, she is, and she does. It’s just there’s another side to her.
Barry handed me a business card.
A: Just call and it can all be over. I’m going to be in this neighborhood every day until you call. And I really don’t want that. It’s kind of a shitty neighborhood.
The audacity of Pam Fulton in dispatching her lackey forced my hand. I called that afternoon.
Critic: I’m calling to end the harassment, by your staff, of me.
Nina Hartford: Oh, thank goodness. I’ll connect you to Pam.
Pam Fulton: Hello? Is this the writer from the gallery? The one who looked like he hadn’t had a hot meal in months?
C: Will this call suffice to get you to leave me alone?
PF: That depends. Would you be willing to meet to discuss the conversation we had at that art gallery? Remember?
C: As I told your hired muscle, Barry, A: I don’t recall it being much of a conversation, what with me listing adjectives and you threatening my genitalia. And B: I’m not interested in being ambushed on television, or radio, or whatever medium you have in mind for savaging me.
PF: [Laughing] Savage you? You’re not big enough for me to want to savage you.
C: I’ll have none of your insults.
PF: What about tomorrow night? At Fontina [posh restaurant uptown]? You could use a good feeding.
C: Will the tone be civil?
PF: That’s up to you, isn’t it?
C: Somewhat. [Delicate pause] I hate to be gauche, but--
PF: It’s on me.
I agreed, but with serious private reservations.
The following day I tried again to see Marilyn Stahl but was rebuffed by the increasingly snippy attendant, who told me only that Stahl was still not feeling well. I began to fear for Stahl’s health, imagining dire consequences from her digestive organs operating horizontally, and wondering if the woman who had spit on Stahl at the exhibit’s opening had spread some nasty malady. I also imagined the gallery’s tile floor getting very cold at night.
I left and came back an hour later to deliver a pint of vegan noodle soup and green tea with lemon, purchased from a local gourmet eatery at significant expense. Then I hustled away to make my dinner engagement with Pam Fulton, arriving at Fontina fashionably late. Pam Fulton wore a slinky red dress and matching lipstick, the effect of which when set against her alabaster skin and obsidian hair was, admittedly, stunning.
Pam Fulton: Where the hell have you been?
Critic: You look nice.
PF: Don’t try to butter me up.
C: Why would I want to butter you up? It seems clear our relationship is an antagonistic one. I’m your avowed enemy, aren’t I?
PF: Are you? My staff could only find one article you had written, for some pet-care website. I’d hardly call you a card-carrying member of the liberal media.
C: Do you think that if you had been born in another era, you would have built your career on attacking, say, abolitionists? Or perhaps those yellow-bellied colonists who dumped tea in Boston Harbor?
PF: I don’t know who you think you are--
Waiter: Good evening. Would you care to make a wine selection?
PF: A bottle of Gruaud-Larose. 1982, s’il-vous plait.
W: An excellent choice, Miss Fulton.
C: All our differences aside, Ms. Fulton, I hope you were all right the other day. You did seem overheated or feverish or something. I hope you’re feeling better.
PF: I was feeling much better, thank you. Until just now.
C: Ah. I see. The subtext being that I make you sick, is that it? That I possess some nauseous liberal essence?
PF: Let’s not fight. Please.
C: Do you have some other mode? Isn’t that all you know how to do, is fight?
C: Fine. But I’d just like to say that the way you spoke to Marilyn Stahl the other day, it was clear you had every intention of dragging her through the mud. I’m not proud of how I spoke to you, but please understand I won’t let a defenseless artist be attacked. As a critic, I see my role as championing artists, which entails defending them when necessary. I don’t take kindly to bullies, you see. No, in fact I rather pride myself on--
At this point the critic felt an unexpected pressure moving along the inside of his thigh, upward to the crotch, where the pressure sought out his genitalia and began the languorous process of frottage. Pam Fulton raised an eyebrow lasciviously. The waiter arrived, presented the bottle of wine, and poured a small portion into a glass. Pam Fulton sipped it, her eyes fixed to those of the critic, and then smiled to signal her approval to the waiter, who poured out two glasses. She then ordered for herself and the critic, her foot undulating steadily all the while.
Q: [sotto voce] Is this any way to behave?
A: Relax. The tablecloth is covering my foot.
Q: What is your game?
A: Isn't it perfectly clear?
Q: I mean I don’t understand what this sudden friendly gesture is to mean when you’re usually so awful.
A: [Cooing slightly] That’s it, baby. Tell it to me.
Q: I beg your pardon?
A: Tell me.
Q: Ah, I see now. You want me to tell you the truth about your work as a so-called public intellectual? That you’re a human Uzi for the conscience-less Right? That your writing resembles the contents of a spittoon wrung out onto the page? Is that what you want?
A: [Nodding, biting lip]
Q: I won’t do it! [Repelling foot] I have standards and one of them is not to be bought off—by any means. If this is a problem, I will remove myself from this restaurant tout de suite.
A: No. Don’t go. Let’s continue our discussion like two rational adults. . . . Or like one of us is a rational adult and the other is a liberal who happens to be of age.
Pam resumed her fully upright posture and made a show of scanning the restaurant.
A: Now, then—where’s that waiter? I’ll see if we can get you a bib.
Pam Fulton cycled between flintiness and cooing amorousness throughout a rather fine meal and during a cab ride uptown. She invited me up to her Central Park West townhouse, but I declined, and was subjected to the most vituperative abuse—continuously, for as soon as Fulton had quit the cab my cellular phone rang and I received verbal provocations during the rest of my own ride home. Before being permitted to hang up, I was forced to assent to another meeting several days later, once Fulton had returned from a speaking engagement in Pittsburgh.
Continued attempts to drop in on Marilyn Stahl at the Inverted Funnel proving unsuccessful over the next few days, I holed up at the public library to survey critical reception of “Untitled (Protector 3).” The work had received positive notices from a few small weekly newspapers in New Jersey and the outlying suburbs, but was savaged by the daily papers and a downtown art magazine.
“Predictably self-conscious and hollowly provocative,” opined one scribe. “And for God’s sake, why won’t she give any of her pieces proper titles?” I noted a jeering message on an insider art “blog” of some repute, to the effect that the prospects for the sale of “Untitled (Protector 3)” looked dire. To wit: “If nobody bought the piece at the opening, how likely is anyone to pony up $60K on a Thursday afternoon? Not very. Because what are you really buying? Without a person under it, it isn’t a very interesting piece at all.”
This snide “blog” entry perturbed me, lighting a long fuse in my mind as I left the library to meet Pam Fulton, who had called repeatedly throughout the day to needle me and remind me of our plans to meet that evening at Kawara, a fancy Japanese restaurant.
Fulton, waiting inside the designated restaurant, again looked spectacular, attired this time in an electric-blue evening gown whose neck dove steeply, exhibiting her smooth, milk-complected clavicle and sternum. She proved to be in high dudgeon over a crowd she had encountered in Pittsburgh.
The speech itself was a big success, she reported. But afterwards a group of college students was standing outside holding up signs, and had written things in chalk on the pavement outside the auditorium. She would not indicate what the signs and street-chalkings had said, but invited me to guess at their content.
Q: “Pam Fulton Hails the Dusk of American Democracy”?
A: [Sigh] Boring.
Q: “I’d Burn Your Books But I Don’t Want to Give You Any Ideas”?
A: [“Tiger eyes”] Not bad. Keep going.
Q: “Where are a House and a Twister When You Really Need Them?”
A: [Foot-to-crotch gambit]
Near the end of the meal, I begged off a cab ride uptown, explaining that I meant to return to the Inverted Funnel to conduct further research.
Q: That trollop? Haven’t you filed your story yet?
A: The piece is following her throughout the entirety of her exhibit.
Q: How much more time do you need with her? She’s a captive subject.
A: Unfortunately, she’s taken ill. Perhaps seriously. I haven’t had access in a week or so.
Q: What, did her scabies flare up again?
A: Now, now. I suspect that she’s subject to different drafts and cross-drafts, being that close to the floor. I’ve noticed too that she eats fairly spicy foods, and that may exacerbate the problem. In fact, I wonder if--
Q: Oh, put a sock in it. I’m so tired of hearing about Marilyn Stahl. [Putting down fork] I think you get off on standing over her. You like seeing her trapped like that.
A: That would be highly inappropriate to the artist-critic relationship.
Q: Maybe she’s not even there. Did you think of that? Maybe they peel that thing off her every night and she’s off in Soho, laughing it up with her artist pals.
A: I’m sure that’s not the case.
Q: Are you really going to spend all your time with that woman until her exhibit is over?
A: And a few days afterwards, most likely, for follow-up material: what it’s like to be walking around, using the bathroom again, and so on.
Q: Should make for riveting reading. So you’ll bail out on me like this regularly?
A: I’m afraid so. Unless—[clearing throat] well, unless someone for some reason were to buy the piece and demand that it be installed right away. But that seems unlikely. Between you and I, it may not sell at all.
Q: Would that really surprise anyone? It’s insolent art. It’s not aesthetically pleasing, which everyone knows is the only purpose of art.
A: Yes, unless someone buys the piece and for some reason demands that the exhibit end and the piece be moved immediately, I’ll be covering Marilyn Stahl for the next two weeks at least.
Q: I’m half tempted to buy that piece myself, I’m so sick of hearing about that sociopath. But then what the hell do I want with it. I’ve got a Klimt in my bedroom. I don’t want that leftist sculpture cluttering up the place.
A: You could donate the piece, I suppose. To a museum, or another individual.
Q: Another individual? Who do I know who would want that oversized paperweight? Nobody I associate with, I’ll tell you that.
A: I could keep an eye on it for a while.
Q: You? You’d let a woman buy you art?
A: I am a liberal.
Q: You are, aren’t you? To the watery marrow of your chalky bones.
Pam Fulton purchased “Untitled (Protector 3)” for an undisclosed sum the following day, insisting that the exhibit be discontinued and the sculpture installed in a private residence. Fulton visited the critic’s living space that evening to inspect the installation of the work.
Q: May I take your coat, Ms. Fulton?
A: What a dump. I thought I was going to get bit by a rat on the way in here. Did they convert this from the old TB hospital?
Q: I’d like to thank you for allowing me temporary custody of this masterpiece of contemporary art.
A: Temporary custody nothing. I don’t want to see that thing again, and that means when I come over. Stick a drop cloth over it, would you? It at least better be covered when I get back from Europe.
Q: If that would make you more comfortable.
A: I’ll tell you what would make me more comfortable.
Q: And what’s that?
I stopped by The Inverted Funnel the following day to inspect the residues of “Untitled (Protector 3).” There were bolt holes in the tile, and the sun had left an outline of the place where the sculpture had been. A few long auburn hairs were found on the floor. The artist, the gallery owner told me, had returned to her home in Hoboken.
Attempts to reach Stahl for a follow-up interview were, for nearly two weeks, as futile as my attempts to visit her at the Inverted Funnel had been. However, I was persistent and eventually persuaded Stahl to receive me at her studio.
On the appointed day I took the train to Hoboken and walked to the location specified by Stahl, a nondescript factory building with crumbling bricks and broken windows. On the ground floor was a garage whose surly mechanics jeered at me as I circled the building looking for an entrance to the upper floors.
Marilyn Stahl looked ashen and dour upon greeting me. Situated vertically, she is about five feet four inches tall and slender, with long unkempt hair that frames the smooth, clear skin of her face quite nicely.
I suggested a tour of the studio and Stahl looked at me morosely for a moment before leading me briskly around the space. Stahl’s studio is spacious and open, with here and there a pile of materials—stone, twisted rebar, an industrial-sized tub of Vaseline—set atop bare wood floors giving on to ceiling-high windows.
Rounding a corner, I was surprised to see a rumpled bed and an improvised kitchen situated in a far corner.
Q: Your studio is quite nice.
Q: What was your reaction when you heard of the offer to buy “Untitled (Protector 3)”?
A: Disappointment, mainly.
Q: I thought you might have been relieved at the condition that the piece be installed immediately. Since you had fallen ill.
A: Yes. But it was also a blow to have to suspend the exact piece that I had planned. The three weeks was integral to the work.
Q: But you sold the piece. That must count for something. That will keep you afloat, won’t it? And perhaps fund the next thing?
A: But look who bought it. Now she’s going to parade it around and put photographs in her next book: [air quotes] liberal art. Or she’ll have it crushed or something—I heard she had it installed in some fleabag place way uptown. Who knows what that’s about. I didn’t have to sell it to her. None of it looks very good.
Q: Pam Fulton won’t do any of that. She bought the piece for a friend. At the friend’s request.
A: Who’s the friend, Newt Gingrich?
Q: Well . . .
A: Do you know something, Mr. Critic?
Q: Marilyn, it was for me. The piece is in my apartment.
A: For you? [Long, inquisitive look] Why you?
A: That encounter at the gallery—that was all staged. It’s some kind of revenge. Is that it?
Q: I promise you nothing was staged.
A: What is this visit? There is no magazine, is there?
Marilyn backed several steps away.
Q: I’m not on her side. I’m on your side. In fact you might say I engineered all this—the purchase, and you being free from the exhibit. I worried about you. Your health. I felt I had to do something.
A: “Free”? Who said I wanted to be free?
Q: Because you were sick. I thought you might really be in danger, health-wise.
Q: I just don’t want you to think Pam is going to do something nasty with the piece. It’s on display in my home. She won’t be crushing it or selling it for parts or anything else. It’s mine, basically.
A: What is your connection to her? You’re her boy toy now, is that it?
Q: It’s hard to say. But I assure you, the piece is safe.
A: Great. Good.
A: I’m afraid I’m feeling unwell again.
I was stampeded toward the door and out into the hallway, but clung to the door frame, my head just inside the studio.
Q: Marilyn, it would mean a great deal to me if you would come to my apartment and let me take your photograph with the sculpture. If you would just lie beside it. Not now, of course, but perhaps when you’re well. As a sort of authenticating component, a signature.
A: I don’t think so.
Q: I wonder then if I might see you again some time? . . . I mean I’d like to see you socially.
A: No, I don’t think so. [Pause; long, coldly appraising look] You know—what is your name, by the way? I keep forgetting it—Listen, if you want to meet women there are other ways of going about it.
Marilyn gave a push that seemed all out of proportion to her size, shoving me clear of the door. Then she threw it shut. Inside the studio, bolts could be heard slamming to, and chains were drawn across the door.
I walked through the weed-lined streets of Hoboken back to the train station. The jagged skyline of New York in late afternoon had me convinced that the train would spill off the tracks into the river. When it didn’t, I disembarked miles earlier than I ought to have and wandered Battery Park. At a bench beside the harbor I sat and made desultory notes toward the conclusion of this piece. Tourists mounting boats to be taken out to the Statue of Liberty produced a goose-like cacophony that pierced me to my marrow, and I took to my feet again. I stopped in a coffee shop in Chinatown and watched the constantly moving knots of people outside, nursing a thin cup of coffee so stingily that the owner of the shop finally chased me out with a rolled-up magazine. I wended along the river, which percolated an acrid veil of fog that hung over the broken walkways as I trudged north to my own neighborhood and my own crumbling building.
It was deepening dusk and the apartment was dim by the time I entered my apartment, though it was not so dark that I felt it necessary to turn on a light. I was crossing my small living area towards the bedroom, tossing my raincoat over a chair, when I froze, my body going cold and rubbery with terror.
In the gloaming of the living room there squatted a dark, brutish-looking animal coiled to spring, its square forehead and face turned out as if with fangs bared. And in the dim space beside it a narrow body lay sprawled, in places as dark as the tensed animal and in others stark white against the murk of the room. This critic’s heart seized with mingled fear and hope.
Q: Don’t be afraid. It’s only me.
Q: Did I frighten you? I didn’t mean to. Come sit down.
A: I thought you were in Europe.
Q: A government fell in one of those post-Soviet countries. The currency’s no good so it’s no use trying to sell books now. I decided to come home. I came here from the airport.
A: How did you get in?
Q: Your landlord let me in. He’s a big fan of mine.
Q: I didn’t think you’d be so late.
A: I was in Hoboken. I just got back.
Q: You don’t have to tell me where you were.
Q: Come lie here. I missed you.
A: I saw Marilyn.
Q: Europe is so strange. Everything is old and pushed up against everything else. I don’t like it.
A: I don’t think I’ll be able to write an article after all.
Q: They said such awful things to me there.
A: Like what?
Q: I can barely remember, with the jet lag and everything. And it was all in broken English. I thought you could help me remember what they said.
A: Yeah, maybe.
It may make a fitting coda to note here that “Untitled (Protector 3)” did provide a modest sense of protection as I lay on the floor in the sculpture’s shadow, my shoulder touching Pam Fulton’s shoulder, and after some consideration took a stab at guessing the awful things the Europeans might have said.
Adam Reger is a writer living in Pittsburgh. His fiction has appeared in New Orleans Review and Cream City Review, among other publications.
“To encourage spots and blobs he tugs the ear forward, towards the canvas. So, very sadly, the design the elephant is making is not hers but his. There is no elephantine invention, no creativity, just slavish copying.” - Desmond Morris, Daily Mail, February 21, 2009
Aree watched her mahout approach: his long metal hook resting on his shoulder, his gnarled, leathery face pinched in a scowl. He grabbed Aree’s ear and led her past a young elephant tied up between four wooden posts. Dried blood covered the elephant’s face, and his trunk hung low. As the mahout passed, he swung his hook in a lazy, half-hearted motion striking the elephant on his back. Aree had been “broken” like this too long ago. She turned her head away so as not to lose resolve for her planned insubordination.
The mahout led Aree through the bamboo forest which shrouded her grim accommodation from tourists. Next, they walked down the tunnel, one side clear plastic glass, the other side a cinder block wall wheatpasted with prints from Van Gogh, Munch, Picasso, Klimt, Hopper, Homer, and others. Aree once had a young mahout who’d talked about those paintings as he led her down this chute, a daily, 100-yard art education.
The tunnel opened up into a larger paddock. Aree approached the easel set up there and faced the steel-cable fence and the tourists beyond it. The mahout grunted and handed her a paintbrush loaded with black. She hated the necessity of this, that despite her aspiration and talent, she wasn’t physically able to pick up a paintbrush without human help.
Aree heard the familiar low-level chuckle from the audience. The mahout tugged her ear. A small nail hidden in his palm dug into her skin and guided her to the starting point on the canvas.
She painted the same thing every day: two elephants trekking through a field of flowers. She used simple, representational outlines for the elephants, short brush strokes for grass, and specs of color for flowers. The mahout’s hook hovered above. His nail tip pinched the back of her ear and guided the arc of her lines.
Aree recognized the paintings on the cement tunnel wall as comedy through juxtaposition. How many human painters were there? She assumed many. Only a population rich with artists would laugh at the folly of an elephant trying her hand at this lofty human endeavor. Extrapolating from the small sample of human work she’d seen, she imagined a near infinite number of artistic styles and longed to create something of her own.
Aree had never seen a field of flowers like the one she painted daily. Her compound looked raw and dusty. The captive elephants imprisoned with her wore their plight in the form of complex, wrinkled, scarred, and fragmented faces. Deep, severe lines. Picasso’s cubism mixed with the dark outlines of Van Gogh’s trees.
The mahout tugged down on Aree’s ear, a signal for her to complete the downward slope of her subject’s trunk. Instead, she closed her line to make a small rectangle. The mahout mumbled, then smacked her back with his hook. He tore the paper off the easel and hung a fresh sheet. He grunted, reloaded the brushed, handed it to her, and pulled her ear hard, his nail digging into her skin. Again, Aree began the slope of the trunk, then made the sharp right angle of a rectangle. The mahout struck her three times.
She wanted to paint a piece that showed the depth of her experience. She’d already composed it in her head and needed materials and space to realize her concept.
The mahout reached to tear off the paper again, and Aree swung her trunk and pushed him out of the way. He stood back wide-eyed looking at her from shoulder to toe as if noticing her enormous size for the first time. She added several more lines, the amalgamation of rectangles began to form an elephant face refracted and reimagined. The mahout yelled and raised his hook high. Aree kept painting and stomped her foot twice hard and heavy. The ground shook. The mahout quieted. The crowd gasped. She reloaded her brush and made dark, heavy lines.
She felt the mahout approaching from the side. She turned to face him, and while instinct told her to trumpet a great sound of warning, she didn’t want to drop her brush. Instead, she grunted and made a sudden move with her head as if she were about to charge. The mahout froze giving Aree more time with her canvas.
She worked furiously knowing others would soon rush in, beat her, sedate her, or dole out whatever punishment deemed appropriate for an elephant breaking from realism and delving into abstraction. She didn’t have time for the self-critic. Instead, she marveled at the waterfall of shapes spilling down her paper, hard edges that together made the gentle slop of an elephant’s trunk. Her subject’s eyes looked wise and hard between her clean, angular lines. She heard murmurs from the visitors beyond the fence but stayed focused on her work.
Then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw seven men approaching. They carried rope, hooks, a dart gun, and an electric prod. If she could finish painting the head and face of her portrait, that might be enough. A few simple lines suggested the outline of the body already.
The men surrounded her. She stepped back and looked at her canvas. In it, she saw all her influences — the posters she passed daily, her life experiences — and she was satisfied. Next, she felt a jolt of electricity shoot through her.
She’d once heard a trainer say an elephant has 40,000 muscles in its trunk, and she thought how this elaborate interwoven systems of nerves and small muscles had to be more complex and nuanced than human fingers. In those 40,000 muscles Aree imagined potential for new techniques, new brushstrokes. Now, with the pulse of the electric prod, her trunk muscles stiffened, and she dropped her brush. A sharp pain pierced her neck and she turned to see a man lowering a dart gun. A moment later, the tranquilizer took effect. Her legs gave out. She sank to her knees, and her vision blurred.
A man threw a canvas bag over her face. With much effort, Aree lifted her head and pushed the bag from her eyes with her trunk. She took one last look at her work. Her mahout took the paper off the easel and looked at it quizzically. Then, he tore it in two, the sound an audible end to Aree’s experiment in abstraction. She gave in to the tranquilizer and let her head fall back to the ground. She wondered if there were any artists behind the steel cable fence with enough empathy to understand what she was feeling.
by Theodore Carter
Theodore Carter is the author of The Life Story of a Chilean Sea Blob and Other Matters of Importance (Queens Ferry Press, 2012). His fiction has appeared in several magazines and anthologies including The North American Review, Pank, Necessary Fiction, and A capella Zoo. Carter’s street art projects, which began as book promotion stunts, have garnered attention from several local news outlets including NBC4 Washington, Fox5 DC, and the Washington City Paper. www.theodorecarter.com
I got up for dinner and ate quietly with my parents. They kept up a polite chatter of irrelevant banalities. I don't think I said two words. Then I went back up to my room and stayed there for the rest of the evening. They didn't intrude to say good night. They went to bed around 11:30.
I listened to some classical music on the radio and lay in bed in darkness for a long time. When the station went off the air, I turned the dial until I picked up an extremely weak signal. It was a religious station from somewhere in Virginia. I left it on because of the way it kept fading in and out, which sort of hypnotized me. I didn't actually listen to the words of the sermon, just the absurd, tinny voice against the background of static. My eyes were closed, but I don't think I actually fell asleep. I was more like in a trance of morbid introspection.
When I next looked at the clock, it was 3:00 a.m. I turned off the radio. The house was completely quiet. I could hear the air conditioner next door again. I looked out the window and tried to see the stars, but with the street lights and the limited view, it was hard to see them. I put on my slippers and walked as softly as I could downstairs to the basement. I put on the light and looked around. It was the way it had been before Cathy came, except that the table and chairs were unfolded, and a clean, dry cup was on the drainboard.
But Cathy had left something behind. It was the print of Van Gogh's Starry Night, which was still taped to the wall above the bed. The sky is a dark greenish blue, the water a royal blue. The town is a rough outline of blue and violet. Its patchy lights are yellow along the shore, and their reflections in the water begin with gold and transform to greenish bronze. The stars above are spiny patches of green and pink. They form the constellation of the Great Bear. In the foreground, on the near bank of the river, are the figures of a man and a woman — lovers — drawn in dark blue- black strokes that blend together. They are alone on a starry night in a setting of ideal tranquility, sharing a moment of sublime and inexpressible happiness.
by Crad Kilodney, an excerpt from the novella Cathy, 1985
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