FUGITIVE

I was twenty-seven, working in the warehouse of the art storage operation. This was not an ordinary warehouse: it was a five-star resort for art, climate controlled, cameras every ten yards, plastic surgery available on the premises. We workers were not lowly vassals; we were custodians of the sacred treasures of the race, scraps of cloth and resin and wood oozing market value. We had monthly drug tests. We were provided uniforms, laundered daily. The starch in the white shirts chafed my neck.

As in every earthly paradise, things were sketchier behind the scenes. I was put on forklift because the last guy stuck a prong through a Richter. Maybe it was some other gaseous German. He was terminated, and he sued, claiming the lift was defective, which it was and is. One of its gears, in extreme situations, slips; you have to be prepared for it. That guy wasn’t because he was stoned half the time. I don’t know how he got away with it so long. It came up in the trial. Lawyers got richer.

I didn’t hate the job, but it could have been more interesting. We never saw the art since it was always swaddled in tape and bubble-wrap. And because a truckload of it arrived twice a day, mystique was another popped bubble. So much crap. Channels embedded in the ceiling facilitated sliding 24-rung ladders from one end of the warehouse to the other. Only in the gloomy recesses was there empty space, in the cubicles of levels three, four and five.

Even with the steady deluge of arrivals, I had lag time on most days. The upmost level of the cubicles was out of range of the cameras, except for the one at the ceiling’s apex. That one was on the blink. The fifth level generally features Minor Collections of the Obscure, practitioners whose artistic talent may have surpassed their promotional abilities and/or work ethic. That’s where I’d go to hide out. C5a7 was my oasis. I’d move a few boxes and take a nap. A little refreshing nap.

C5a7 contained twelve stiff paper boxes with reinforced corners. The boxes were separately wrapped in transparent plastic held in place by the blue tape used for so many arty tasks, tape that is easily lifted without damage. Lift it I did one slow day in October when the Giants were in the World Series. I unwrapped the plastic casing and coaxed the tight lid off the first box. It let go with a sigh.

Inside were matted paintings, the uppermost covered by a sheet of acid-free paper. I lifted the sheet. Colors flashed into fullness, a meadow with a jungle at the margins. In the flower-flecked meadow were three giraffes and an angel, a scenario that appeared to be part of a tale. I removed the remaining two illustrations. One depicted an ocean-side cave with an overturned rowboat and the other a view out of a window onto a snowy garden.

I didn’t have the nerve to look in the other boxes that day but over the next few months I pieced the story together, the gist. A boy and a girl shipwrecked on an island like Crusoe. Their adventures may have been imaginary, conjured from a hospital bed in winter.

I didn’t mind the story was unoriginal. I had a visceral reaction to the illustrations, my heart beating faster, trying to batter its way into a deeper place. The sensation was primed, I am sure, by the risk involved. Somebody was going to notice my ass regularly disappearing into C5a7 sooner or later. Fishiness is quickly sniffed out in the warehouse.

I cooled it. For a month. When I thought enough time had passed, that is, when I thought that the attention span of the human monitor had petered out, I returned to my oasis. I was aware of the risk. My fascination fixated on one painting, the first I’d seen, the one with the giraffes and the angel. The giraffes didn’t make much sense but there was magic to them. Maybe that was the point. I kept the painting out of the box for easy access. I was careful, making sure the acid free paper was in place. I covered the painting with the plastic originally surrounding the box.

A seed grew, a persistent weed, a need to know more. One day my supervisor left a printout on a pallet and, doing a diligent perusal to return the document to its rightful place, I discovered the last name of the artist of C5a7. Harris. A common name, probably an Ellis Island bequest to an ancestor.

Thus it was no simple task to identify which Harris was my artist. A lucky accident enabled it. I followed a link in an article about neglected illustrators of the twentieth century and came upon the volcano on the island where the children are shipwrecked. My heart did its drumming.

There isn’t much about her in the public record. She died from pancreatic cancer in the 1970’s. She had several moderately successful books. One about crossing the plains in a covered wagon reeled in some prizes.

A half-century later she was not just neglected but erased, a whisper from oblivion. And yet somebody cared enough to pay the inflated fees of the warehouse. Or else the cash came from a periodic flushing of a bank vault. In perpetuity.

My birthday came and went. Twenty-eight. I decided it was time to start looking for a different job. There was no urgency except one. The office was starting to trust me. It’s probably something about me. As soon as something settles I start pushing against it, testing the limits and my luck.

One day I was ordered to retrieve a four-by-four canvas from C5b7, a shall hop from C5a7. If I had premeditated, I would not have had the nerve. I slipped the three-giraffe illustration into the loose paper wrapping the canvas. Slick. On the ground floor I stood the canvas next to three others near the freight elevator. My skin prickled from the stares of the cameras. The service elevator opened, I loaded the canvases, dramatically arranging a quilted fabric over each to prevent abrasion. On the way upstairs I sequestered the illustration into one of the quilts.

Downstairs again, overplaying the drama, I returned the quilts to the pile in the corner of the warehouse. No alarms went off.

Progress ensued, from the quilts to the lavatory stall to the cardboard carried to the recycling bin and finally to the space behind the seat of my pickup. And finally finally, to the wall of my bedroom where I see it every morning, convinced it will charm my life in ways I can’t foresee.

I told my girlfriend a friend had painted it, and she, naturally incurious, believed me. Nobody else goes into my bedroom so I’m not worried about getting busted. Who was going to miss it? The bank vault? In the unlikely event someone decided to publish the series, no one would ever know it was missing. It was better on my wall than in a musty attic, mildewed and riddled with greyfish.

Not feeling remorse about swiping it didn’t mean things felt the same in the warehouse. It used to be that I could breeze through the workday, turn off the mind and sail, but now I was obsessed by theft. I didn’t intend to take anything else but I kept having fantasies of perfect heists. This swaddled statue, that fat gaudily framed thing said to be a Caravaggio. Or a disciple. It wasn’t just latent anger toward the over-indulged. It was the paradox that no collection can be complete without a missing, untraceable item.

Often my fantasies went to a darker place, a cubicle in which I was imprisoned, regretting my impulsive behavior.

I might have returned the picture, gotten back to former times, but I couldn’t. I can’t. The painting has changed. The colors have faded, some disappearing so that all that remains are vestigial brushstrokes. The giraffes are legless.

I figured out what happened. For a half hour each day sunlight comes into my bedroom and bleaches out the pigments. This is what happens with gouache. The colors are fugitive.

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Finally some recognition

The Book of Leftout Parts

“Is that short for Maximilian?” everybody asks, trying to be witty. Because Max is a pug, a stub, a plug, a bug, a cur testy as a vice-prince. To everybody, including me, the operator of the hand that feedeth, he is a mean little bastard. No ootchie-cootchie under the chin unless you have a finger to forefeit. And he’s gotten worse as he’s aged. Now he’s old mechant Max.

I happened across an ad for a reading of my former roommate’s new book. Another damn memoir, how many was it now, four? And he wasn’t out of his forties. A signing at the Opera Plaza bookstore, and a subsequent interview and champagne reception in the Opera House. No less. The blurbs made it sound like we have a modern Mark Twain among us.

What do you think of our little friend?” I asked Max, and Max, ever true, ratcheted his growl into a snarl.

I called and texted the number on our Mr. Twain’s website numerous times. Finally I got a human, and explained I was the roommate in grad school at Kent State. That character called Dedrick. The rep made nice, said that if I come to the reading don’t wait in line, jump to the front. That wasn’t quite what I hoped to hear. I was hoping for a pass to the Opera House affair, some free champagne. I wasn’t going to buy the damn book.

I called the box office to see about getting a ticket and found out the ticket was one hundred dollars. One ticket!

I went to the reading. I got there early, and hid in the children’s section with a copy of the Fourth Memoir lifted from one of the piles placed around the store. I’m a fast reader. Our author warrants it. There was a short chapter about Kent State but no further mention of Dedrick.

His books are walkabouts in the scenery of his quirks. People love them. I don’t know if it is flattering but some of the neurotic behavior is lifted from my playbook. His adorable deviance is actually mine. The compulsions around personal hygiene, for instance.

He can be funny. It irritates me, as if he has no right to humor, no right to conduct this emotional striptease. Will he go all the way? Stay tuned for memoir The Fifth. But we know the answer.

I kept an eye peeled toward the door, eager to see the body, the face, he grew into. The cover photo looked fifteen years dated.

He looked worse than I expected, despite being tucked and plucked, like a beginner’s mummy. His hair was shoe-polish brown. But his presentation was all bubblish schtick, a porridge of sentiment, probity, and false-humility. Our eyes met three times during his reading. I loaded each successive look with portent.

After the reading ended, as the chairs were rearranged for a signing, he excused himself from an adhesive cluster of celebrity hounds and made a beeline to me.

Dedrick,” he said, his effect ever gaseous, “What are you d-doing here?”

His stutter assured me I was still a figure of account in the registry of his supporting cast, though invisible in the latest iteration. But my name is Eric.

It makes me think I should write the book. The Book of Leftout Parts. We became roommates by chance. He had an All-American puppiness and absolutely no morals whereas I had scruples like biblical ticks stuck all over me. We got off on each other. We did some nasty stuff.

I cut to near the head of the line, ahead of the dopes. When it was my turn, mechanically he asked “To whom shall I make it out?”

To Max,” I said. “Max is my dog.  You remember.”

His face got red so fast it was like he was slapped. Well he was.

I left the book on the shelf in the children’s section. I spent my money on fancy dog biscuits. Max doesn’t know they are fancy and expensive, and that’s okay with me.

Summer is here and the time is right

for some Faro-dancing in the street

http://www.themonthly.com/faro1907.html

Bottom of the Seventh

She was the last one to notice. Blanche, the instructor, stretched her neck and her eyeballs in the direction the sound was coming from. The heads of everyone standing in utkatasana, their butts pushed backward, turned ninety degrees toward the corner with the bags holding street clothes. The noise grew subtly louder. Rachel realized what it was, the tinny bossa nova jingle of her phone. She was horrified. She never brought her phone to class. She was intentional about that, but there was no mistaking it.

“Sorry,” she said, rushing toward it. Because she was in such a hurry to quell it, she had trouble getting it out of her pocket, and when she did, despite having had the phone for at least two years, she had to stop and consider where the mute button was. In the interval she saw that it was her sister’s number. Bad news. Rachel’s sister only called when it was bad news.

Understandably during the rest of the yoga class she had a hard time focusing and a harder time tapping into the equanimity that Blanche extolled so religiously. The minute she got outside she listened to her sister’s message. The news wasn’t a surprise, not even remotely a shock, but it bowled her over anyway. Daphne said she should come, immediately.

There wasn’t a flight going out that night so Rachel took the first one she could in mid-morning. If she got there too late, it was what it was. She spent a lot of time on the plane rolling the question around in her mind, Did she really love her mother? She felt something immense, she knew that, but she didn’t know if it was love. She did know, and she tried to sideline these feelings, that she resented the expense of this trip. It came on top of paying her insurance, replacing a broken window in her car, and succumbing to a merino wool pullover. Her little reservoir of extra cash, so slowly filled, leaked like a burst levee. She wondered if her life would always be like that.

By the time she landed she decided that yes, she did love her mother, and that she hoped she would still be alive when she got to the hospital so they could say their goodbyes. How would they be said? They had no practice, no background for expression of emotion. In her head she practiced saying, “I love you, Mom.” In the back seat of the taxi she said it out loud once, “I love you, Mom.” It sounded as weird and insincere as she feared it would. The cab driver, an Afghani, gave her a worried look through the rear view mirror.

There was a mix-up about what room her mother was in, and she was sent to the wrong floor where she wandered among people in wheelchairs for most of an hour as the pressure built up inside her, the pressure of precious time evaporating. When she finally arrived at the closed door next to her mother’s name, she knocked softly. She could hear voices, remote, from a television. She knocked again with more force and drawing in a caustic breath, turned the latch and entered. The shock she had fortified herself against shifted like a calved iceberg. In the middle of the bed at lounge inclination sat a pale, bony creature holding a remote. An alien. Her mother. On one side of the bed in chairs crowded together were Rachel’s two nephews and brother-in law and on the other her sister and her niece. Only her sister turned away from the baseball game they were watching for more than a few seconds to greet her. Her mother’s eyes, bulging in something like wonder, never strayed from the TV.

“The bases are loaded,” Daphne said. “It’s the seventh game of the World Series.”

She quickly determined that nothing was going to interrupt the drama of the bottom of the seventh in the seventh game of the World Series, certainly not something so common as death, and she sat and watched like the others and even got interested.

The home team lost due to an misplay of a fly ball and the blasted hopes stung the air in the room. The game had gone into extra innings and it was past visiting hours. The brother-in-law, the sister, and their brood went home. Rachel stayed, waiting for the moment when the unreality dissolved into actual life.

Her mother had lifted the claw of her hand when the grandsons gave their awkward hugs goodbye. Now she lay immobile, smiling like she was privy to some joke, her lips stretched outward, her eyelids closed. Rachel had never seen her smile this way, and wondered if it were some kind of rictus. Her mother had said her name, said thank you for coming, so she was at least intermittently aware, but she didn’t say anything else until midnight when she said, “Shame about the error.”

Rachel wondered if she meant the game or some maternal failing, of which Rachel could make a list. But recrimination was over, insignificant. The freshening springs of forgiveness flowed. Death had primed them.

Except that Rachel’s mother kept living. For three days Rachel did not leave the hospital, sleeping as best she could in the only chair in the room that was remotely comfortable. She knew what she was doing. She was waiting for some kind of affirmation that would cauterize the anxiety that seeped from her core.

Her mother’s alien smile had become a fixture. At certain moments Rachel was convinced they were on the brink of the redeeming moment and each time a nurse would come in and fiddle with the drip bags or else a hideous beeping would banish every glimmer of grace. Her hatred of the nurses grew to absurd proportions.

After three days they sent her mother home, prescribing hospice care. Rachel had stayed as long as she could. She had to get back to work, to pay her bills, so one day she said to her mother, “See you later,” meaning much later, as in the afterlife. “This is Rachel,” she added, “I’m going back home.”

“I’m going home too,” her mother whispered without opening her eyes, and Rachel was whiplashed by emotion. Later in a more rational frame of mind she would wonder what her mother could have meant.

Two months later her mother died. Rachel didn’t go to the funeral. When she thought of her mother her feelings were soft and vague, as if she was thinking about a favorite song, or a favorite color.

Rachel took on a second job giving tours of chocolate shops in the city. She stopped going to yoga and lost contact with the friends she had almost made in the class.

One day in the cafe she saw one of them having a croissant, brushing the flakes off the screen she was absorbed by. It took a second to remember her name: Gloria. Gloria came across as immensely self-confident, somebody who lacked the gene for anxiety. This made her very attractive, and Rachel was glad she had a partner so that she could dispense with having a deep crush on her. Women like Gloria were her downfall.

She would at least say hello.

Gloria’s eyes flew open when Rachel tapped her shoulder.

“Where have you been, girlfriend?” Gloria’s voice was like a trumpet coming through a murmur of cellos. “We missed you.”

Rachel told her about rushing home to witness her mother’s dying only to find her mother sitting up watching a baseball game.

“That fucker,” said Gloria.

Gloria’s response shocked and confused her just the right amount. Days later, on the bus coming home from work, sampling from the box of artisanal chocolates on her lap, she found herself choking with laughter.

(In)famous

https://sexygrammar.com/blog/richardschwarzenberger

Monopoly

Thea asked the guy who unlocked the cabinet why they were locking up toothpaste and the guy, who could not be more bored said, like why do you think?

Were they putting opioids in the toothpaste? How hard up are people?

It was one more reason to hate the place.

She felt a thrill of power when she pressed the button and the store-wide speakers demanded, Customer Assistance in Aisle Six, but the phrase kept repeating well after assistance had arrived in aisle six.  It was annoying. She wanted to check which brands had fluoride. They all do, the guy said. He wasn’t visibly agitated but it seemed like he might be near triggering.

Thea took a box of Crest and saw that a line trailed from every register. In the under-twenty-items express line everyone had nineteen and a request for a bottle from the super-secure booze cupboard on the front wall with its own set of keys procured from a netherworld. A powerful thirst was there in the land.

Crest in hand, Thea walked the whole length of Texas in her mind. At last at the register, the woman ahead who decided after intense deliberation the Polish vodka was not the brand she wanted, abruptly spoke to her.

Do you play Monopoly?

No, Thea said is a less than friendly way.

Well, the woman said, offended, I was going to give you my points.

Thea briefly wondered if she might have blown a chance to put herself in luck’s latitudes. Thea was philosophical about luck. She believed in it, especially undeserved luck, grace, whatever it’s called. You don’t spurn its overtures too often, even in tiny matters, or it may abandon you entirely.

Luck didn’t matter right then.  What mattered was getting out of there, into the rain and back to her van with the toothbrush she had swiped for the pleasure of it and her tube of toothpaste.