Fiction - Third Place
I was a regular in the pre-Cubo-Constructivist, post-Eleanor Roosevelt downtown art world. I hung out with di Orge before he exiled himself to Europe, argued with Rinkle in public places. I saw Penny Nosh-Ziklen pour a glass of wine into Barbara Browne's ample lap. Barbara was a big deal, writing the art column for The Daily Worker's Sunday magazine, but she should never have told Nosh-Ziklen that soft sculpture using rope and other natural fibers on a masonite base was dead.
Molly drifted into our circle out of the rain one gray Tuesday afternoon. We were at my house. I say "house" because I was raised in the Baltimore suburbs. It was a vacant loft I was living in illegally. It was dirty, and bitterly cold in the winter, but the light was enormous. Rinkle said that. Maybe he said that to everyone whose couch he woke up on, hungover, at noon. He shielded his eyes and said, "The light is enormous." I thanked him and looked around appreciatively, then handed him two aspirin and a glass of New York water.
Di Orge had been making us sit through dozens of slides from his studio, but thankfully Rinkle was beginning a new conceptual piece titled "Dirt" and had mixed in snapshots of anthills, potholes, and pitcher's mounds for a study of the competition. Molly was shivering, lost, and she asked me for a dollar. I got her a towel, but she shook the rain off like a bird or a dog and brushed past me, pointing to the image of a particularly evocative patch of bare, dry earth. "What kind of p-place is this?" she asked.
New York. If I could conjure up that city with words. You see it in Rinkle's work--the gravitas, the baroque detail and undersea light. I'm thinking of "Blue #26," or the so-called Cranium installations that Rinkle would only work on when the temperature fell below freezing. I'm thinking of the bridges wreathed in mist and street pretzels hard as fired clay, the leaking subterranean steam. Any bum on the street could be your brother, and your next idea might easily be the big one.
Consider di Orge and his famous Apathetic Principle: If one stands in place, etc. When he first told us, in a small bar known for its stage shows involving impromptu knife fights, everyone knew he was on to something. Nosh-Ziklen nodded vigorously, and Rinkle even insisted on paying the check, generously tossing cash onto the table. We hurried out after noticing the bills were still wet from the screen-press and featured Stalin in leopard pajamas. The first examples, I should add, of his "World Leaders Ready for Bedtime" series.
Molly was not beautiful, as you can clearly tell from Rinkle's numerous sketches. But all the same, his sketches don't do her justice. She possessed a devastating implacability that was beyond Rinkle's art, and a charming stutter that was nearly impossible to capture in charcoal. None of them got her right. She was as confusing as Barbara's column and as difficult as optimism. The Cranium installations are only Molly in a cranky mood, and Zabatini's oils are like seeing her through the eyes of a myopic fool. Scholars may debate whether he needed new prescription lenses, but it is clear to me he was foiled, not only by the limitations of his brushwork, but by his stubborn insistence on dressing his models in dirty underwear and coaching them to stare out of the canvas as if in search of an all-night laundromat.
She'd begun with Rinkle, posing for hours in his studio while he painted like a madman. We had never seen him work so hard or so well; it was like the one Rinkle had become five and the five had pooled their resources and hired someone with talent. Then it was Bernardo Zabatini; he remained a terrible artist but managed to lose 20 pounds. Rinkle never forgave his old friend but grudgingly admitted he looked five years younger. And Nosh-Ziklen, after treating Molly to lunch, devised the idea of site-specific sculpture on a restaurant napkin stained with Worcestershire sauce, only to forget later where she'd left the napkin. Molly was becoming a celebrity in her own right, so famous that to spot her even at a distance seemed a privilege. Artists from other movements asked to borrow her, the neo-Realists even resorting to threats of violence, but we managed to keep her to ourselves and generally out of sight. For a time we were the hottest ticket in town.
I was working in my studio, struggling to devise a new way to suggest nihilistic despair using corduroy, animal fur, and photographs of my parents, when I looked down from the window and saw Molly standing on the sidewalk looking up. I put down my scotch and water. I hadn't seen her in weeks, but she had always denied my existence with an ease usually reserved for breathing. She took off her sunglasses, and I realized that I was in love with her. It was just like that, like someone had flipped a switch. She looked different, happier, or maybe it was the tan, and she was clutching several bags from a store uptown that catered to people who accepted the mundane world at face value, never questioning the easy answers and surface opinions engendered by a consumer culture that valued wealth over creative expression, beauty over truth, and blondes over brunettes.
I banged on the window and waved for her to come up. I had a thousand things to tell her, or maybe just one thing said a thousand different ways. She shook her head and mimed checking her watch, walking, and then to show off, being trapped behind a pane of glass. I was about to go down when she was joined by someone I recognized all too well. He grabbed her arm and they jogged to the end of the block, then disappeared around the corner. I wanted to chase after her until my feet hurt; instead I closed my eyes. I felt crushed, deformed, like I had just taken a powerful drug or attended a poetry reading. I stumbled against the kitchen table, then picked it up and smashed it to the floor. I say "kitchen table," but it was really a crate I had stolen from the banana importer across the street. I stormed through my studio, breaking what I couldn't afford to replace, tearing out what little hair I had left, finishing off the last of the milk in the refrigerator. I took a deep breath. For a moment I had forgotten that I was broke, depressed, and that my loft smelled like a monkey with a hangover. I'd had an idea.
I worked for several long and solitary hours, and the next morning the piece was finished. I realized it expressed what I had never been able to say because I'd never known I needed to say it. It was a wingtip with a buckle, size 8 1/2 narrow, the reddish brown of a scab about to peel. There were pockets and secret zippers inside, and the heel turned around to reveal a tiny journal in which I would record my most profound and confusing thoughts. I had painted racing stripes along both sides to suggest speed, and attached the kind of pompom usually found on ice skates to imply that sport's precision and grace. I put the shoe on and paced. The shape, combined with the pockets and their clasps along its interior, made blisters appear in odd places along my toes and my gait as graceful as a hunchback's. I only had the materials for one shoe, so I would need to rotate it for an even wear.
Bullog was hosting a party that night, but when I arrived he was sitting alone in a corner of the room, dejected and drinking heavily. But that was Bullog, even on his birthday. Another gallery, citing possible health-code violations, had passed on his series of peanut-butter drawings, and ostensibly he was throwing the party to cheer himself up. He looked down at my feet and asked if I had seen Molly. "Unh," I said noncommittally, not wanting to find out if his mood could get any worse.
"Gone," he said. "And I was onto something big. Huge! Or maybe not. What are your feelings about chocolate pudding?"
I had only been wearing the shoe for a few hours, but already people were saying it would become my trademark. Wolfgang Frommel suggested I call his attorney. Even Barbara was impressed, and Rinkle pulled me aside to tell me I was the only person he knew who could wear a righty on his left foot. "Well," I said, hoisting my foot up to his chin so he could get a good look, "it hurts."
He squinted at my shoe, and the vodka sloshed from his cup. This was before he could hold his liquor.
"If it's painful," he said, "you must be doing something right."
"It's the wrong foot," I said. "It's not even the right size." But he was already off somewhere, thinking whatever great artists think. He asked me where the bathroom was, and I pointed, then hobbled toward what was left of the food.
Barbara was holding court, a nearly empty bottle of cheap Cabernet in one hand and the last of the crackers and cheese in her mouth. Art students were nodding their shaggy heads, and I noticed Nosh-Ziklen behind her, evidently ready to crouch on all fours if only someone would give Barbara a push. She looked at me hopefully, but I shook my head "no."
"It's just a metaphor," Barbara was saying. "Like the hors d'oeuvres at this party or God in the Old Testament."
"What was wrong with the hors d'oeuvres?" I asked.
"May I continue? The salesman rubs his hands on his shirt and asks, 'Might I interest you in a shoe or two?'" Barbara winked at me. "'No,' I tell him, 'just looking.' Here we enter into a dangerous silence. How long might I browse before being evicted from the premises? I have no intention of buying, nor do I have any money, but I pretend and fondle the merchandise. You see, I am a critic. I absorb, interpret, weigh, judge, explain. I hold the object in my hands. Should I praise its heuristic and exemplary functions or disparage the naive synchronic ideology? Do I detect a geometric style? Has the artist been rude to me in the past? But finally the salesman is done with his patience, has licked clean his fingers of waiting and throws me out. 'Too late,' I tell him as he pushes me onto the street. 'I own your wares, all of them, because I have eyes and a mouth that speaks!'"
Hopefully, the winter air would do something for Barbara's drunk. She had been insisting we go over to Smile, a gallery 10 blocks north in the Village. It was a Claes Oldenburg opening, and everyone liked Claes. Plus, she promised there would be food. Barbara turned off the transistor radio and the room got quiet, the petty gossip dying down to a whisper. "Claes' opening," she said. "Yum yum." There was a mad rush for the freight elevator. If the cable had snapped then, instead of when poor Mr. Argyropoulis was coming back from the grocer, would it have been better for all of us? I pushed the down button, and the elevator descended as smoothly as a reputation.
Smile was one of the newest galleries, and the owner, Sven, didn't know enough to keep us out. I saw he'd snagged Rinkle and Bullog at the door. I ducked past and slipped inside.
I saw Claes' soon to be famous soft toilet and a large safe that was Scotch-taped shut. Claes was standing in front of an upside-down bicycle, saying something to a tiny blonde about subverting reality. "Surprise," he whispered into her hair, "tricks one into seeing freshly. The world becomes new." You could always count on an abstract expressionist to recycle those tired surrealist lines. As if the accent wasn't enough.
I nodded to people I didn't know, scanned the crowd for Molly. I checked my goatee in a mirrored cube and noticed someone other than me applying lipstick to the entire lower half of her face.
Barbara winked and nodded for me to follow. We threaded our way through the crowd, Barbara waving tiny waves but wearing the unstoppable expression of a kamikaze pilot, complete with a rising sun. We circled through the room until we arrived at our destination, a small crowd passing a joint and a jug of homemade sangria. Barbara stepped to a microphone in front, and I noticed Claes grinning in the shadows behind her.
"Silence." There was a whine of feedback, and then she continued. "This is a moment in history that will have a dollar bill named after it! There will be stamps depicting the yearly parade! This day will be remembered in songs that will distract us from life's worthlessness and terror!" Barbara was soused; she always kept the Cabernet to herself. His big moment spoiled, Claes ran crablike from the room, tearing at his clothes and weeping. Barbara didn't seem to notice.
"Yeah, OK," someone said from the crowd. "What's under the sheet?"
Claes' mother had told me he considered it his magnum opus. It was intended to incorporate the intellectual gestures of his previous work, she'd said, and by doing so invalidate them. I had run into her that morning waiting for an uptown bus, and the street was so cold I had to stand like a flamingo, my naked foot curled beneath me.
"Then why show the other pieces?" I asked. She took another puff on her cigar. "Because they might sell," she said. Incidentally, when the bus came she chose a distant seat.
Barbara scowled, reached for the sheet, and, as she pulled it, slowly fell over and went to sleep, the white cloth collapsing over her like a parachute.
Rinkle tapped me on the shoulder.
"It's over," he said. "We're finished. Look."
Claes wasn't much of a bricoleur, but Rinkle was pointing at a small and quiet assemblage sculpture that was surprisingly powerful in both the statement of its cubist collage roots and its exorbitant price.
Rinkle reached inside and yanked free a pair of cat's-eye sunglasses. "I gave these to Molly," he said. "I know a guy who gets them wholesale." He began to cry, at first so quietly I thought he was giggling, and then with great convulsive sobs that became louder and more frightening as he slowly sank to his knees.
I needed help getting Rinkle home, and I looked behind us into the throng of artists and buyers for a familiar face with a strong back and two shoes. But they were staring and pointing at Claes' newest creation. A low murmur began. Huddled in the back, Claes was tear-streaked but rapt with joy as the crowd erupted into wild cheering.
Seth Hurwitz lives in Mount Washington. He is a co-founder of the alt-pop band mild7 and is working on a novel based on his as-yet-unproduced screenplay Little Gray.
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