Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Satire  ➡  Black comedy

Artifice

p(((((((())))))))=.

Artifice

Eric Bickernicks

©2016 Eric Bickernicks

Contents

1. Art Gallery

2. Home

3. Artist Loft

4. Art Gallery

5. Moaning Lisa Bistro

6. DLC Headquarters

7. Art Attack Store

8. Art Gallery

9. DLC Loading Dock

10. Art Attack Store

11. Moaning Lisa Bistro

12. Sparky’s Garage

13. The MFA

14. Art Gallery

15. DLC Loading Dock

16. DLC Headquarters

17. Linda’s Apartment

18. DLC Loading Dock (Night)

19. Ikea

20. Artist Loft

21. MOBA

22. Artist Loft

23. Moaning Lisa Bistro

24. Big Pine Key

25. Artist Loft

26. Supermarket

27. Artist Loft

28. Brent’s Basement

29. Outside DLC Loading Dock

30. Art Gallery

31. Brent’s Basement

32. John’s Apartment

33. Cafe Au Lait

34. John’s Apartment

35. Artist Loft

36. Carnival

37. Barney’s Marina

38. Big Pine Key (1 Year Later)

Author Website

A Fictitious Interview With The Author At An Obscure Cable TV Station.

Chapter 1

Art Gallery

I was going out of my mind, trying to get everything ready for the Eastborough Artist Guild Exhibit. We were expecting about one hundred guests over the course of the night, which wasn’t too bad for a frame shop that’s located inside a strip mall in the middle of Massachusetts. Jerry and I had been working together for the past three years, making and selling frames to the same artists who would be there that night. He’s in his early thirties, kind of over-weight and has perpetually messy hair. I was just happy that he wore a collared golf shirt to this event and not his typical heavy metal t-shirt. My job was to assign three winning ribbons to the artwork I’d already vetted, and hopefully get some new customers onboard. I pointed with a hammer to a row of art work that I had just hung on the wall and said too, “We need the rest of the title cards printed out and stuck next to the piece. I’m gonna hang these last two paintings.”

“Right,” Jerry said. “When’s the newspaper photographer supposed to be here?”

“Around seven.”

It sucked that I couldn’t have my own artwork in the show. But, I could place my own stuff front and center by the door. The show was kind of a big deal for most of these artists, as this will be the only public place their artwork will be seen. There was this desperate hope that permeated over this event that one of their pieces would sell.

It rarely happened.

Most of the stuff came straight out of the Bob Ross school of painting – forest landscapes and waterfalls, complete with a token deer in the foreground. If it didn’t match someone’s couch, there was no way it would come off that wall unless I took it down and sent it back. I was always amused at the price tag they attached to their precious creations. $200 for a ten by twelve-inch fuzzy painting of a cabin in the woods? You could get a Thomas Kinkade abortion printed out on glossy stock for that kind of money. I wished we had a giant refrigerator door which we could hang everything on with some big magnets. Everyone’s mom would then come down and dole out positive affirmation for their offspring’s precious creations, just like we did in elementary school. It would certainly make my job that much easier.

Jerry said, “So I’ve got twelve paintings all called “untitled”. What goes with what?”

I focused on the nail I just tapped in. “I told those guys that they should at least call it something. Anything.”

“OK, I’ve got an idea,” he said. “You come up with an adjective, I’ll do a verb. That will be the name of this first piece. Go.”

“Aaaahhh…insurmountably..?”

“…woven,” he finished.

“Insurmountably Woven?”

“Yeah, that works. I’ll print it up.” He ran off towards the office.

A bunch of guests arrived just as I hung the last painting. At a side table, Nina from The Prodigal Coffee shop was setting up the wine and cheese. Next to her, Carol was trying to make room for her bread bowl. Terrible artist. She did lousy knock-offs of Margaret Keane paintings—all those sad bug-eyed children—but as long as she brought her bread bowl, she was in.

Brent, all dressed in black with the prerequisite dark sunglasses, made his appearance. Hanging around his neck was what looked like a bright red stick of dynamite on a piece of string. It looked like he’d painted a road flare and added a piece of grey rope as a fuse. Brent was an artist with a capital ‘A’. His stuff certainly wasn’t boring. In fact, we never knew what the hell he was thinking most of the time. For a while he was doing performance art. One time he pretended to nail himself up on a cross out by Route 9, but only managed to hang there like a wounded kitten for three minutes before his wrists starting throbbing and he had to get down. He’d only suffer for his art for so long, apparently.

Jerry came out of the office, carrying something that looked like a science project. “All right; I know how we can prevent the guests from touching the artwork.”

“Bigger signs?” I asked.

“No, I made some trap artwork titled ‘The Light Of Life Is Always On’.” He flipped the thing over. It was a painting of a sunset and had a toggle switch attached to the canvas. Beside the switch were the words: OFF/ON. “If you look on the back, I’ve got this battery and a motorized gear. If someone turns the switch on, the gear will turn and dump the painting on the ground. It’s all set to fall apart on impact,” he grinned.

“Lemme guess—the switch will be set to off.”

“Yup,” he said, “and when they read the title and try to do something about it, they’ll realize they should’ve known better. DON’T TOUCH THE ARTWORK.”

“So this is how you like to express yourself, huh?”

In a bad Japanese accent, he replied, “Be happy in your work!”, then strolled off to set up his art trap. Jerry loved speaking in film quotes. That one was Colonial Saito from Bridge On The River Kwai.

Mr. Moonscape burst through the front door and approached me. He looked anxious. “Hey, where’s the bathroom again?” he asked.

I pointed. “Through the workshop on the left.” I called him “Mr. Moonscape” because he paints moonscapes on black velvet, replete with UFO’s and black monoliths. He didn’t even realize that painting on velvet stopped being ironic even before Elvis died. You typically saw him set up off Route 20 in the parking lot of the Mobile station, hocking his wares to the type of people who are looking for pork rinds and boiled peanuts. Since he was the most visible artist in town, I had to let him in. Thank God I didn’t hang his stuff in the bathroom as I intended.

Eventually six o’clock rolled around and I was supposed to the start of the show. Everyone was already armed with their drinks and hors d’oeuvres. They had formed little ‘comment circles’ around the artwork, addressing each other with hypocritical politeness. It was time for my introduction. In my best announcer voice, I said, “Hey everyone! Thanks for coming by the Eastborough Artists Guild show. I see some really great art this year.” (Was my nose starting to grow?) “We’re happy to sponsor you guys at our gallery. Moving the exhibit from the walkways of the library to this location was a great idea.”

Jerry shouted from the back, “and we don’t take library fines!” There was some polite snickering.

“OK everyone,” I said, “Hopefully this is just the beginning, so thanks for coming and enjoy the exhibit.”

I was now obligated to do the circuit of meet and greet. I reminded myself to refrain from making too many snarky comments, or at least until the booze kicked in. I went over to a group standing in front of James’s painting.

He turned to me and said, “Why am I over here by the fire extinguisher?” James was one of the few “full-time” (pony-tailed) artists who almost made a living at what he does; paintings mixed with collage elements. In reality he was living off of his air force disability pension. He managed to injure his back when he fell out of the cargo bay of a C-17 when he was stationed in Germany back in 1983.

“You were the first one I grabbed,” I said, “starting down the wall, from left to right.”

Jerry scooted up next to me and pointed at the little title card, “Intermezzo 6”? He said to James. “What did Intermezzos 1-to-5 look like?”

James finished taking a sip from his wine glass. “I never completed them.”

Jerry said with a grin, “Then, shouldn’t you have just called this ‘Intermezzo 1’? Now you have no more room for improvement!” Jerry’s mission in life was to bust everyone’s balls.

James ignored him then asked me, “Why do you guys hang such dreck on the walls? How many renderings of fruit bowls does the world need to see?”

“We take what comes in James,” I said.

“These people aren’t real artists, they all have corporate jobs. They’re more worried about their IRAs than their work.” James was in full struggling-artist mode again. Because he lived in a shitty apartment, he resents anyone with nice furniture. “I spend more time cleaning my brushes than these people do applying paint. They think buying an expensive frame will make this stuff look better?”

We’ve all heard this from James before. If his indignation were head lice, we’d all be scratching ourselves silly. “You’d be amazed at what a nice frame does to anything,” I told him.

“Right,” he said, then he held out his hands the width of a picture frame. “Between these borders signifies ART!” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that we make our living selling expensive frames to all these weekend artists.

Brent wandered over. “Hey man. . .great. . show.” His entry was this incredibly dark painting with layers of caked-on black acrylic paint that sort of form a relief map on it’s surface. Stuck on the left side was an actual dead mouse, polyurethaned in frozen agony. He called this masterpiece “Meet Your Destiny”.

“So what’s with the dynamite around your neck?” Jerry asked.

Brent reached for his prop. “I thought I might explode onto the art scene.”

Damn it, I couldn’t tell if he was trying to be funny or provocative. I said, “You do realize you look like a crazed bohemian terrorist?”

He stood there for a moment, smiled at me then said, “ala snackbar,” a play off the term “allahu akbar.”

“You know David Lynch did a painting with a dead rat embedded in it, right?” I told him. “It was called ‘Meat As a Face’.”

Brent struck his contemplation pose and then pondered his creation. “You see. . .the mouse represents. . the darkness of the underground.”

“OK, fine; but my point is it’s been done before.”

“It has?”

That’s the problem with Brent; he had no filters. It’s what made him an interesting artist; but it also filtered out the fact that someone else’s artwork had inspired him. He headed towards the bathroom with his head down.

“Wow. I think you made him cry, dude,” Jerry said.

“Look, I like the guy’s stuff. . . it’s just that this one was so painfully obvious and—“

A sudden crash brought all conversation to a halt. Across the room, there was a guy staring at a pile of broken metal and wood next to his feet. That was Jerry’s cue. “OH MY GOD! Look what you did to my artwork!” he shouted.

The guy raised his hands, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to…”

“Don’t you know? You’re not supposed to touch the artwork!”

“But…but…the sign said…”

Jerry waited a beat, flashed his satisfied grin and then said, “Naaaaahh…I got ya! Look! There’s a motor on the back which makes it fall. Ya see?”

The guy worked up a laugh, sort of.

Jerry scooped up all the parts. “Here, let’s set it up for the next person.”

While Jerry reassembled his ‘art trap’, I made sure the food and booze were holding up. In front of the bread bowl was Leslie. “Mmm, this is great!” she said while dipping a chunk of bread into the opening. Leslie was in her 50’s and practically left a trail of granola behind her everywhere she went. She was that ‘earthy crunchy’. Her thing was found objects and clay. She basically sculptured random crap into weird shapes and gave it a name. This year she submitted a folded-over clay pot that looks something like a vagina. Because I couldn’t hang it on the wall, I had to stick it on its own little platform.

I grabbed a chunk of bread, popped it into my mouth, then studied her creation. I felt obligated to say something. “I like what you did with the glazing,” I lied.

She wasn’t listening. “Do you think anyone is going to bump it? This stand looks flimsy.” She knelt down to adjust it. There was a little piece of string trailing out from the pot’s opening. She inspected this errant piece of debris, like a piece of fluff on a sweater. It wasn’t part of her creation. She pulled on it and a wet tea bag slid out from the opening. We both watched it dangle from her hand for a second, it looked like some kind of “tampon surrogate”.

“Who did this?” Her head whipped around the room, looking for the culprit.

“God damn it!” I said in feigned outrage. “Somebody must’ve left it in there. I’m sorry.” She had the biggest pissed-off look on her face while she continued to scan for someone who would admit to this insult. I would have to kick Jerry’s ass later. I had to get away from Leslie before I lost it. I then made my way over to a set of watercolors.

A woman wearing leopard print glasses was studying the paintings. “I like how these streaks and lines formed before the water had time to dry,” she said.

“He always comes up with some interesting things.” I lied again.

“I like the name, “Insurmountably Woven”. It makes total sense.”

I try like hell to not show any reaction.

“In fact, all the names on these are interesting: “Elastic Juxtaposition”, “Undulating Burst”, “Half Nude?” Hopefully one of these will win a ribbon. I think they’re all very unique in their own way.”

As she continued going on about aesthetics, I noticed Brent taking his painting off the wall. He shuffled towards the middle of the room with a pathetic look on his face. He looked around, paused, then took the painted road flare off from around his neck. He dropped the fake fuse to the floor and removed the striker cap.

I froze. What the hell did he think he was doing?

It took him three hits with the striker cap to ignite the road flare. A bright red flame burst from the end of the tube.

I felt all the blood drain from my skull.

He let the bright red flame hit his painting. All those layers of dried chemicals instantly combusted in a big flash. Even he seemed surprised at how fast his painting had ignited. He held the flaming square above his head for greater effect. “I WILL NOT BE JUDGED!” he yelled.

Everyone, I mean everyone, turned to look at the shouting, flame-wielding lunatic. Glowing globs of acrylic were falling past his face and burning the carpet.

“I SEE LIFE!!” he screamed.

You know that moment right before you get into a car accident where you see it coming, but can’t do anything about it? Brent had just put us all in that position. It seemed Mr. “No Filter” was ready to have us all, along with himself, die for his art. I had never seen a flame reach that high indoors. I sprinted to the fire extinguisher, pulled it off the wall and took aim at Brent. Just as I squeezed the trigger, the sprinklers popped on, raining down on the gallery. I hit the jerk right in the face with the spray anyway. “I SEE LIFFFFE…” he sputtered.

The fire alarm went off and scared the crap out of everybody. Everything in the room got drenched. Now, what do two dozen artists do in the middle of an emergency like that? Immediately head for the door? Nope. They all went for their precious artwork, pulled it off the wall before it got soaked, THEN scrambled out the front door. All the artwork that took me two days to hang was cleared out of there in thirty seconds flat. I stood there getting completely soaked, shook my head and said to myself, “show’s over folks.”

Chapter 2

Home

My single bedroom apartment was filled with a few pieces of cheapy IKEA furniture and some milk crates with boards as shelves. By working at a frame shop, I had the benefit of covering my walls with professionally framed reproductions of my favorite masters, Winslow Homer, Paul Cezanne, and just to be ironic, C. M. Coolidge, the guy who painted the dogs playing poker. I tried painting in there, but I was paranoid that I’d spill something on the carpets and lose my $500 security deposit. I’ve rented an artists loft just for that purpose. The girlfriend is no longer with me. She left six months ago over a stupid argument about my friends (she didn’t like them). I thought she would’ve come back for the rest of her crap, but I guess it’s time to dump it at the Salvation Army. Thank God my name was on the lease this time, or I would’ve been that guy in the joke: ‘What do you call an artist without a girlfriend? Homeless.’

I had promised that I would bring my neighbor, John, some mat board I got from work. John is a very interesting artist and a fascinating individual. I met him about two years ago when I saw him outside our apartment complex, sitting on a bench by the front entrance. He was hunched over, carefully drawing on a piece of cardboard with a black Sharpie pen. When I saw that we had another artist in the building, I had to go over and introduce myself.

When I spoke to him, he kept drawing; he didn’t even bother to look up. Eventually he said, “I didn’t get it from the trash.”

My first thought was “Huh?” I stood there for a minute, watching him draw. His face was about six inches from the cardboard. I moved in, slowly, to get a good look at what he was doing. From a distance it looked like an asymmetrical pattern of dots and lines, a giant doodle. When I looked closer, I could see a series of horned devil faces buried in the chaos. It must’ve taken him hours to cover that cardboard. What was he going to do with it? When I told him “That’s amazing,” he kind of tensed up and inched away from me. His mother came out of the building and found us together. I introduced myself to her and she told me his name was John, and that she was taking care of him. You could tell the guy was on some sort of medication. John seemed to relax when his mother introduced me to him. She said drawing was part of his therapy and that he really enjoyed doing it.

Since then I’ve learned that, during the summer, he liked to sit outside when he’s drawing. I’ve slowly been able to become friends with him. I’ve noticed he only liked to draw on pieces of cardboard, usually something like a squashed cereal box. I started bringing him some mat board which is stiff like cardboard, but better. We always have pieces left over from jobs at the gallery, so instead of throwing them out, I bring them to him.

John’s apartment was on the floor below mine. I knocked on the door and his mother answered. “Gavin! Nice to see you! Come on in” she said.

“How is John doing?” I asked.

“He’s in his room drawing. Would you like a cup of tea?”

I sat down on a sofa that’s covered in a bile orange, pea green and brown floral fabric, a 70s original. She’d probably get some good money for it at a hipster flea market. “Oh yeah, sure,” I said distracted. There’s so much going on in here. She had all the old lady classics: porcelain figures, a couple of marble eggs, family photos in fancy silver frames, and an RCA record player with eight-track. I had my eye on her Margaret Keane painting of a bug-eyed kid with her bug-eyed dog. I was dying to know if it was a print or an original.

“I see you brought John’s drawing materials.” She handed me a cup of tea.

“I think he will like this much better than cardboard.” I pretended to take a sip. Why would she think I like to drink tea? I was just trying to be nice. If I wanted tea, I would’ve asked for it iced, with a ton of sugar and maybe a squirt of condensed milk. I abandoned the cup and saucer on the end table next to a statue of the Virgin Mary. “How has John been recently?”

“He’s doing better,” she said. “His doctor has him on a new medication. Clozapine.”

“I hear that has some nasty side effects.”

She looked worried. “Well, the alternative is another hospitalization,” she said as she glanced toward his room.

“What’s he been working on?”

“Let’s go see.” She led me to John’s room and knocked on his door as she opened it. “John, Gavin is here to see you.”

The walls of his room were covered entirely with pieces of cardboard, all illustrated with finely drawn lines and dots, all with the same thickness, drawn with his favorite Sharpie pen. There was probably several years’ work here. Some of the cardboard had printing on it. On one sheet I saw the Kleenex logo under all the dots and lines; on another I could make out the Campbell’s Soup logo. I approached the wall and got a good look at these things. The detail was hypnotic; it pulled you in like a Mandelbrot set, that never-ending series of patterns that appear as you get closer and closer.

“Hey John, this is interesting stuff,” I said.

John was sitting at his desk, filling in another piece of cardboard. “I was at the grocery store,” he said.

I didn’t know what to make of that. I looked towards his mom. “We were at Stop and Shop; they save boxes for him,” she said.

I went over to his desk. He was working on a bigger devil-like face, embellished with more lines and dots. “Hey John, what do you think of this?” I placed the stack of matt board on his desk. He put his pen down and shuffled through them, feeling their texture. He chose a beige piece and put it beside the Bekins moving box he was working on, picked up a Sharpie and continued where he left off.

“Hey John, once you’re done with that piece, I can put a frame on it for you.”

“Did you hear that John?” his mother said. She touched his shoulder and he glanced up at her, then quickly looked over at me.

“Hi,” he hesitantly said before going back to his artwork. He drew a few lines on his new, clean surface then asked his mother, “Can we have Wendy’s for supper?”

I knew outsider art had gained a big following in recent years. It started out in the mental institutions of pre-WWI Europe, but really got going on this side of the Atlantic in the 80s, the definition expanding to include art from almost any self-taught person. It would certainly be a change of pace for the gallery. Good luck matching stuff like his to your couch.

“John, I bet I could find a spot for you in the our next gallery showing,” I said to him. “Maybe you can even sell it!”

He didn’t respond; he was still focused on his drawing. I got the impression that John wouldn’t have cared if he sold anything. He lived in a world where money and fame had no meaning. It’s about as pure a reason to do art: no ego, no greed; he just did it because he had to.

Chapter 3

Artist Loft

I wanted to go to my happy space—that place where I could paint, create and just chill out from the car crash at the gallery. I was looking forward to hitting my reset button and getting some painting in. I pulled my shit box of a car into the dirt parking lot of the Water Street Artist Lofts and killed the ignition. The car sputtered for another 10 seconds, trying to decide if it wanted to remain motionless. The place used to be a shoe factory at the turn of the century. Surrounded by woods, it was the perfect spot for kids to chuck rocks through the hundreds of little windows. The entire west side wall had a definite lean to it, as if it misplaced its old folk’s walker.

I used my key and obsessively flicked chips of paint from the front door. The lock was so bad, you could probably use a screw driver for a key. I let myself in and walked past a big pile of trash bags that had grown since the last time I was here. Ritvars Berzins, the Latvian building owner and superintendent, was supposed to be taking this stuff away every week. I’d never even seen the guy on his own property, so eventually a group of us would do a dumpster run on our own. Imagine coming across a peasant pushing a cart through the streets of war-time Stalingrad: that’s Ritvars.

There were about a dozen artist spaces on the second floor, laid out like horse stalls. Hanging overhead was a driveshaft that had powered the pulley system of the Victorian-era machines. I was sure somebody had lost a finger here back in the day. My spot was the fourth one down on the left. The floor creaked under every step as I approached the padlock and popped it open. The door swung open in a wide arc, knocking over an empty coffee can filled with brushes, sprinkling them all over the floor. At least I didn’t have them soaking in turpentine.

Leaning against the plywood walls around the room were three paintings I had already started. The last time I was here I worked on one called “Schoenberg Study At Twilight”. I was going through a post-Impressionistic phase along the lines of Van Gogh. I called it my “musical” style; it involved a series of vertical brush strokes applied to the canvas at regular intervals. I thought I could get this one done in another four hours. I put on my apron, plopped my butt down on my stool, twisted off the cap from a tube of Windsor & Newton Van Dyke brown, swirled my #6 filbert brush in my can of turpentine and then tapped it against the leg of the easel. I was ready to go.

“So when did the firetrucks leave?” James’s voice came over the wall from the next space. He’d rented the space next to mine for a few years now.

“Oh Jesus, it took ‘em an hour just to reset the alarm.” I put down my brush and went over to his side.

“I guess Brent had a burning desire to win a ribbon that night.”

I rolled my eyes. “Oh yeah…he was wonderful.” I grabbed a plastic milk crate and sat down.

James was working on yet another collage thingy: a bunch of cut-out photographs of naked women lounging around within a surreal-looking desert scene. “When are you going to reschedule the show?”, he asked.

“Yeah….I dunno. I need to suck up all that water and dry everything out. That’s going to be tomorrow’s job.”

Leslie’s head appeared at the door; she’d been here as long as James. “Nice show,” she said sarcastically.

I knew I would have to deal with all the blow-back from everyone. I just sat there and took my lumps. “Great. Did your piece survive the deluge?

“It’s been glazed and fired; it’s fine,” she said. “In fact, you could’ve made a pot of tea inside it, which it seems someone attempted to do.”

I still needed to kill Jerry for what he did to her. I went for the deflection; I asked her, “What are you working on next?”

“I’m putting together a collection of found-art objects.”

“Let me know if you ever find some clients,” said James. “I’ve got a cable bill that’s past due.”

“Why? How many paintings have you sold this month?” I asked.

Mmm “Not enough,” James sighed. “It’s almost like I need to see their living room before I can start. The colors don’t match.”

“What can I tell you? It’s not like we’re selling furniture.”

“There you go,” James added a few brush strokes to his work. “Change the gallery to a furniture store. Free paintings with every couch. All sizes and colors!”

“I’ll see you guys around,” Leslie said as her head disappeared behind the door.

“It’s not like the old days,” James said as he dabbed a few more strokes on his canvas. “Back then you could find a king or a church to pay for all your work.”

“Yeah, but how many times can you rework “The Last Supper”?

“At least you got a nice horse and a place to work in.”

“Oh, you’re talking about a medieval corporate job then?” I said with a grin.

James frowned and focused in on a detail with his brush. We’ve all heard his ‘the world has sold out’ rant a million times before and I couldn’t help myself by pointing out his little unintentional hypocrisy. I was studying the interesting pattern of paint spills on the floor when I heard a strange warbling sound coming from somewhere inside the building. James lowered his brush. “What the hell is that?”

“That’s a didgeridoo—one of those long skinny tubes you blow into. From Australia.”

We both got up and followed the sound to an open door across the hall. This loft was filled with stacks of driftwood and some carved wooden figures of kangaroos and lizards. The didgeridoo player was sitting on a handmade bench, the instrument pointing towards the middle of the room. I could feel the vibrations of it in my chest. He stopped and looked up at us. “Hi!”

“Hello! We’re you’re neighbors!” said James.

“Cool.” He got up and shook James hand. “It’s Steve”

I leaned over and shook his hand too. “Gavin. It’s a didgeridoo, right?”

“Yeah, I bought it the last time I was in Australia. I like carving Australian folk art and this was something that I wanted to try. Am I bugging you guys?”

“Not at all!” said James. “I like the sound of it; it’ll be soothing to work to.”

I asked Steve, “When did you get your space?”

“I paid Ritvars on the first of this month. Is he Russian?”

“Latvian, one country over.”

James knelt down and studied the didgeridoo up close. “So how do you play this thing?”

“Well, like this.” Steve sat down and produced a long, throaty warble that he held for almost a minute straight. He showed us the nuances of playing the instrument, then went over how much he enjoys carving the Aboriginal style of sculpture. We hung out for a while, talking about art stuff in general. Steve started carving a new piece out of driftwood, so we left him alone and headed back to our stalls.

As we headed back to our spaces, four young guys in their early twenties appeared from the stairway. There were laughing their asses off and bouncing off each other. I’d never seen them before. We didn’t acknowledge each other as they passed in front of my stall. One of them—a guy with brown hair down to his waist—was carrying a ripped paper bag. He body-checked the guy next to him and a can of Narragansett beer tumbled out and bounced off the floor in front of him. He kicked the can down the hall, ricocheting it off a support post. “That one’s yours dude!” he yelled. Another round of laughter broke out.

I closed my door, sat down and listened. I could hear them goofing around all the way down the hall. What the hell were they doing there? I knew somebody had stolen some rolls of copper wire about a month ago, but why would somebody come here in the middle of the day to commit a robbery? I hoped they would continue on, go down the other set of stairs and exit the building.

Nope: an electric guitar went off at concert-level volume. My ears flinched as the sound pinned me in place. Where the hell was that coming from? The guitarist did another tearing lick, then the bass and drums kicked in. I knew that song; it was “Give It Away” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The guy wasn’t too bad. I liked the song when it came out in the early nineties.

I met James, already out in the hall, covering his ears with his hands. “WHAT THE FUCK?” he yelled.

I screamed back at him, “I know!”

A small group of artists formed in the hallway. I followed James as we headed towards the music. It was coming from the last stall at the end.

James kicked the door twice with full force, the plywood door barely held onto it’s hinges with each slam of his foot. The music stopped and another round of laughs circulated from behind the wall.

The door opened. It was the long-haired guy and his buddies, surrounded by their instruments and amplifiers. They all had smug smiles on their faces. The guy even looked like Anthony Kiedis, the lead singer of the Chili Peppers. He saw James with his classic pissed off old guy face; “Hey dude! What’s up?”

James crossed his arms, “What the hell are you guys doing here?”

“Hey man! We’re practicing!” the singer said casually, “You want a beer?”

“No. Who let you IN here?”

“Huh? Oh yeah…we paid that Russian dude. Rivers?”

James’s mouth literally dropped open. “RITVARS RENTED YOU THIS SPACE?”

“Yeah, we saw the ad – artists lofts for rent.”

James was getting more agitated by the second. “But you guys aren’t artists!”

“We’re a Peppers tribute band called Under The Bridge. We’re artists…we’re MUSICIANS.”

“No you’re not. You’re just making noise. It’s shit.”

The singer took another slug of beer. “Hey…we paid for this space, old man!” He spread out his arms like he was talking to a massive crowd. “We can do what we want.” He then let go of his beer can and it hit the floor like a rapper dropping a mic. The guys behind him snickered some more. The singer started rummaging through his ripped bag of beers for another can.

James tried the reasonable approach. “Look, why don’t you just come here at night—when you won’t bother anyone?”

“So it’s all about our music, huh?” The singer stepped up to his mic and cracked open his beer, then hung his arm over the mic stand and struck a pose. “What’s wrong with our music?”

“It sucks,” James said.

“So what would you like to hear? Neil Young?”

James just stared at them.

The singer started to do the song ‘Old Man’ in a nasally parody of Neil Young’s voice. The rest of the band took their cue and started playing along. Big laughs broke out as they enjoyed their musical taunt.

I could almost see James’ blood pressure shoot up to 240. He did a military snap and turn and went down the stairs. I followed him. “Hey! Where you going?”

“I’m calling Ritvars!” he yelled “This is complete bullshit!”

We made it out to the parking lot. James dialed a number and put it on speaker phone.

The phone rang once and Ritvars picked up. “Allo?”

James paced in a tight circle. I was sure foam would come from his mouth any second. “RITVARS – WHY DID YOU ALLOW NOISY ASSHOLE MUSICIANS TO PRACTICE IN OUR SPACE?”

“Who is zis?”

“It’s JAMES. We can’t even think in there!”

“Vhat are you talkink about?”

“YOU LET ROCK MUSICIANS IN THERE.”

“They pay money; they get space.”

“But they’re not ARTISTS!”

“Many empty rooms—I pay lease.”

James stopped pacing. “You can’t fucking do that.”

A series of heated Latvian exclamations jumped out of the phone’s speaker. I’d guess even sailors from the Baltic Ocean would’ve been offended by his diatribe towards James. Ritvars eventually came back to English, “You don’t tell me vhat to do vit my business!” He shouted a final “stulbenis!” then hung up.

We looked at each other. Now what? We could still hear the band playing from inside the building. “Well I’m not getting anything else done today,” James said as he put phone away. “I’m gonna close up shop.”

“I’m right behind you,” I said as we both headed back inside.

Chapter 4

Art Gallery

I needed to look up “General Gau” on Wikipedia when I got back to the gallery. Who was that guy? I’d been asking the same question to myself every time I went to our Chinese take-out joint, the Golden Dragon. I dumped my styrofoam plate into the trash and stepped outside onto the sidewalk of our strip mall. God I feel bloated, but the sun felt nice. I took the plastic off my fortune cookie, cracked it open and read: ‘Two days from now, tomorrow will be yesterday.’ Well that’s deep, I thought. I pocketed the little strip of paper, then walked past an empty Radio Shack and a nail salon. I got to the gallery just as a pair of customers were leaving.

Jerry closed the register. “The Andersons want to know if their frames will be ready by five.”

“Yup, no problem.”

Man what a mess. The only thing left on the walls were the hooks and nails that had held up the artwork. It was like a Black Friday sale went off in there. The carpet was soaked under the spot where Brent had been standing. I could still see little bits of his charred artwork on the floor. I picked up the nozzle of the wet-vac we rented and looked for a place to plug it in.

Jerry adjusted a floor fan with his foot as he saw me getting ready to turn on the wet-vac. “Hey, you know what the difference between a Harley and a Hoover is?”

“Nope.”

“The position of the dirt bag.”

I couldn’t deal with him; I had too much shit to do besides listen to his jokes. I hit the start button on the wet-vac; it was as loud as an aircraft engine.

Jerry yelled, “HEY! I’m gonna go back and cut some more moldings!”

I gave him a nod and he went off to the back room while I continued vacuuming up the water. I started forming stripes of dried carpet with the nozzle. The thing was powerful; you had to really tug at the sucker to get it to move. I did this for a while when I spotted a customer coming inside. I killed the wet-vac, put down the nozzle and wiped sweat off my forehead with my sleeve. “Welcome to the gallery!”

The guy looked to be middle aged and was wearing the standard golf uniform – Izod shirt and khakis. He had a perfectly trimmed haircut and manicured nails. I guessed that he had some sort of money, so I made an effort to give a shit.

“Hello!” he said, “I saw the banner on the building. Are you having an art show?”

“Well, we were. We kind of had a fire sale,” I said.

He glanced around the gallery and noticed it was mostly devoid of art, unless you wanted to call a series of hooks and nails art. He saw the slightly charred spot on the ceiling and pointed. “What happened?”

“One of the artists had a meltdown during the show and cleared this place out. You’re now looking at the aftermath of that event.”

He laughed and said, “It sounds like it was an exciting show; I wish I could’ve seen it!”

I just took a deep breath.

“I’ve been to too many boring exhibits,” he said. “Some excitement is always good.” He noticed my painting on an easel by the front door and walked over to it, “Whose is this?”

“That’s mine. It’s called Mahler on the Danube.”

He studied it for a beat. “You’re into Post-Impressionism?”

“I like to call it my musical style.”

“What do you think of Fauvism? Henri Matisse?”

“Huh? Oh yeah…that’s right up my alley.”

He looked closer. “You work in acrylics?”

“Yeah.”

“Heavy body?”

“Yup—from a tube. So you’re a painter?”

He laughed. “Used to be, before the company took over my life.”

“What did you paint?”

“I dabbled in Expressionism, but I wasn’t very good at it,” he said with a laugh. He took a step back and studied my painting some more. “How many have you sold?”

“Eh, a few. My problem is my marketing.”

We both examined my painting for moment in silence, then I pulled out my favorite line. “There’s no genius, only marketing.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look, Van Gogh never sold a painting in his life, right?”

“That’s correct.”

“If genius were obvious, people back then should’ve spotted it. People should have been pulling his paintings off the wall and throwing him money because he was a genius. His paintings are the same today as they were back then. The only thing that’s changed is the marketing—his story.”

He let out a big laugh. “OK….you sold me! I’ll take it!” Holy crap; I wanted $1500 for this one and he was going for it! We shook hands. “My name’s Gary. Marketing, huh?”

I was still stunned from the sale and blurted out, “Yeah.”

“What else do you have?”

“Aaaah…I’ve got another one in back that’s not ready, it needs a frame.”

“Let’s see it,” Gary said.

I practically skipped to the back room like a school kid. Jerry was cutting some moldings on the table saw. “I just made a sale!” I called out to him.

Jerry looked up from what he was doing, “What? A bag of hangers?”

“No! My painting! And the guy wants this other one too.” I grabbed my other painting that was leaning against the dry press. Jerry followed me out to the front. I showed Gary my latest work. “I call this one Lunch With Schopenhauer,” I said. “I’m asking $1500, but I can lower the price because it doesn’t have a frame.”

He glanced at it. “Put a frame on it; I’ll take both of them.”

I’d just made $3000! I had to restrain myself from doing a pirouette. “Did you want to wait while we put a frame on it?”

“No. I have to get back to the office. Can you deliver it?”

“Sure!”

Gary pulled out his wallet and handed Jerry his American Express Centurion card. He asked me, “Listen. I like what I’m seeing. How would you like to do more paintings for me?”

“Sure!”

Gary handed me his business card. “Speak to Veronica and set up a time we can meet in my office. I’d like to offer you a contract.”

“A contract?”

“How would you like to paint under commission for me?”

“Commission?”

“Sure,” Gary said. “We’ll talk about the terms when you get there.”

Jerry handed his card back to him and gave me a smile. I had entered into complete kiss-ass mode; I had never sucked up to anyone this hard, ever. I picked up his framed painting and Jerry and I followed Gary out to his car—a red Ferrari. It was amazing, I had never seen one this close.

Jerry asked, “Is this the FF Model with the V12?”

Gary pulled out his key, hit the door lock button and said, “Sixteen miles-per-gallon on the highway.” Looking at the car I thought, Boy, life is tough in the fast lane; I’m sure his Shell card is all maxed out. He hit another button and the trunk popped open. I slid the painting in and pushed the trunk down. It sounded like a refrigerator closing, the sound of pure engineering. How come my car didn’t sound like that?

Gary opened his door, “So listen, it was great meeting you guys and I’m looking forward to seeing what you create for me in the future!” With that, he got into his car and drove away. Jerry and I just stood there while we watch his machine glide away and disappear behind a distant curve in the road. How is all this happening? I thought.

Jerry grabbed my arm. “Do you know who that IS?”

“Who?”

“Gary Fucking Easton!”

I looked down at the business card I’ve been holding the whole time. Gary Easton. CEO and CTO, the DLC Corporation.

Jerry and I went back to the gallery. “The guy is friggin’ LOADED. He owns DLC.”

The DLC Corporation had their corporate offices out by Route 495. I’d seen their logo on all their buildings. I’ve been driving past them my entire life. It seemed like they had a building in every industrial park around there.

We went back to the counter. “I’m telling you, the guy owns an island! You gotta see this.” Jerry went over to his computer and did a search on Wikipedia. He entered Gary Easton’s name and smacked the return key.

The wiki entry appeared.

Gareth “Gary” Easton. (Born August 17, 1955) is an American entrepreneur, businessman and philanthropist. He serves as executive chairman and chief technology office of DLC Corporation. He is listed by Forbes as the fourteenth-wealthiest man in America.

Jerry scrolled down the page.

In 2012, Gary purchased the Caribbean island of Xousía (51 square miles), formerly part of the British Overseas Territory, for $200 million.

“Dude! And he wants you to paint just for him?”

“I guess so.”

“How awesome is that?”

I looked down and ran my finger along the edge of Gary’s business card. I couldn’t believe my life had changed in just 10 minutes. I replied, in a Boston accent, “Yeah…it’s wicked awesome.”

Chapter 5

Moaning Lisa Bistro

Brent stood on the little stage, waiting for everyone in the room to stop murmuring. We all had to wait uncomfortably until he got complete silence. Whenever Brent read his poetry, I knew it would be an ordeal to sit through. As he approached the mic, a cappuccino machine went off in the distance and he took a step back.

[Oh Jesus Christ, _]I thought. _This is going to take forever.

The Moaning Lisa Bistro was a handy place to crash after work, since it’s only a short walk across the parking lot from the gallery. It was a coffee shop that served wine, beer and real food. They supported the local art scene by featuring musicians and poets on open mic nights. They also hung paintings by local artists on their walls. They had a couple of comfortably worn couches where you could sit and watch everything. The few tables and chairs looked like they survived a bar fight; the place felt comfortable.

Eventually, when everyone saw that Brent wasn’t moving, he got his silence agin. He stepped back up to the mic, licked his lips, then said “Feisty.” We had to wait a moment for the next word to arrive. “Charcoal,” he let out. There was another pause, then he uttered “sour.” He took a step back.

[_Oh just kill me now. _]Brent was in his element; everyone was watching him. I knew he wasn’t going to let us off easy. He stepped back up to the mic and glanced around. “Reflection. . .descends. . .” There was a long pause during which a few people looked at each other. Then he added. . .“Smiling.”

I thought he was done, but no—he continued “Pygmies. . .Power. . .” He stressed both words as if they held great relevance to his previous babbling, then finished with “Numb.”

His head dropped dramatically and he stood back, as if he was giving us a moment to digest his wonderful prose. Was he done?

From previous experience, I knew I’d be annoyed at his pretentiousness and bored with his pacing before he even started. Then it hit me: how many syllables was that? Seven? He was doing a haiku. . . I’d bet he got high one night, found an online haiku generator and decided to inflict it on us.

Mercifully he stepped off the little platform. A smattering of obligatory applause broke out as he headed towards our table. He took a seat next to James, who was flipping through his iPad. “Interesting,” James said cooly.

“Hey thanks,” Brent replied. He looked at me, waiting for my comment, but I was saved by a thin, pale woman who got up on stage and began to read her poetry to the crowd. “Beetle-browed amphibians mutate. . .One million oscillating wormholes. Point: kindhearted anesthetic genocide.”

Brent seemed transfixed by her. He took a sip of his coffee and, without giving me any sort of eye contact said, “Hey man. I’m sorry about what happened at the show. I guess I got a bit carried away.”

“Well, yeah, a bit.” I waited to see if he had anything more to say.

Nada.

It seemed that was the most remorse I would get out of the guy. Reluctantly I said, “It wasn’t too bad; we were able to suck up most of the water.”

The woman continued: “Beetle-browed amphibians mindlessly oscillate, threading uncertainly toward. . .appointed apocalypse.”

“That’s genius!” declared Brent, as he applauded her. Everyone and everything was genius with Brent. If someone took a dump on a carpet and outlined it with a frame, that would be considered genius by the guy. Most of us learned to dismiss any compliments from him long ago, but he was still interesting to hang around with.

I noticed a new painting on the wall behind Brent. It looked like one of his, a dark rendition of two crabs fighting. I nodded towards it and said, “Is that one yours?”

Brent turned and looked at it, “Oh yeah…I finished it last week. Lisa thinks it will sell.”

“It looks cool. I like what you did with the colors.”

Brent took a sip of his latte. “Thanks.”

While I took a bite of my croissant, I noticed he signed it “#Artist”. I asked him, “Who the hell is hashtag artist?”

“Oh yeah—that’s my new name.”

James glanced up from his iPad. “You want to be called hashtag artist?!”

“You don’t pronounce the hashtag symbol,” Brent said. “It’s just…(he nodded his head)…Artist.”

“Wait a minute,” I put down my croissant. “Prince…or the artist formally known as Prince, or whoever the guy was, already wanted to be known as The Artist. Even though he’s supposed to be that squiggly symbol.”

“Right.” Brent said. “You would spell my name with a hashtag at the beginning, but it’s just…(he nodded his head again)…Artist.”

“Let me get this straight,” James said impatiently. “Your name is now….(nodding his head)…Artist.”

“Yeah.”

I had to jump in. “So I would say – Hey Brent. Sorry; hey…(I nodded my head)…Artist, could you pass me that bucket of gesso?”

“But what would its possessive form be?” James asked. “Hashtag apostrophe-s…artist?”

“I think it’s…(I nodded my head twice)…Artist,” I said, giggling. I was pretty sure Brent hadn’t thought that one through.

“Hey man,” he said, “you gotta change with the times.”

A guy with an acoustic guitar stepped onto the platform. He hoisted the strap over his head and got ready to play. “Thanks for coming, everyone,” he said, “My name is Barry. I’m going to start off with some Radiohead.” He played the opening chords to “Paranoid Android”. Good song.

I took a sip of my caramel macchiato and said, “You guys aren’t going to believe who I met today.” I got a two-way glance from everyone at the table. “Gary Easton.”

“From DLC?” said James.

“Yup.”

“Who is Gary Easton?” asked Brent.

“He owns an island,” said James.

“Number fourteen on the Forbes’ richest people on the planet list,” I replied.

“The DLC corporation was recently fined forty-five million for dumping mercury-laden circuit boards in a landfill,” James told us. “Those guys are evil.”

“He bought two of my paintings today. He says he wants to commission me to do some more.”

“How many?” said Brent.

“I dunno. It might be a lot more.”

James flipped his iPad around and showed us a news article. “It says here he recently bought a Matisse original for $9.6 million. Why is he interested in yours?” said James.

‘I don’t know. He wanted something for his bathroom? The guy didn’t blink at the price. He hardly glanced at the second one.”

“Hey man, that’s pretty cool” said Brent.

“I already spoke with his assistant. I’m supposed to go over to the main DLC office tomorrow and bring the other painting with me.”

“So you’re gonna work for a corporation now?” said James.

“Well, kind of. I guess”

“Does that mean you get health insurance?” said Brent.

“It doesn’t work that way.”

“Those guys will want to fuck you over,” said James. “Anything corporate will just chew you up and spit you out. They don’t give a shit about the individual.”

“I heard people were throwing themselves off of the roofs over there,” said Brent.

“That’s a totally different company,” I said impatiently to Brent. “They kill themselves over in Japan, not here. We just go on shooting rampages.” I turned back to James. “My artwork is hardly worth anything now, so what’s there to lose?”

“Your dignity,” said James.

“Look, I don’t care if I have to paint in a clown outfit with a little monkey on my shoulder. I’ll finally get paid for my work!”

Chapter 6

DLC Headquarters

I managed to coax my car into the parking lot of the DLC corporation. Veronica, Gary’s assistant, had scheduled our meeting for 1:00 pm. The place was easy to find; it was the exit off the highway called DLC Avenue. I’ve driven out there before, when someone who worked here had a bunch of paintings framed for their office. You might think their corporate real estate would look like Apple or Facebook headquarters—interesting architecture and funky crap out on the lawn, a few hipsters playing Segway polo. Nope; this was the east coast. These guys built servers that dealt with databases. All their buildings were constructed in the eighties when brown and square was the motif; strictly utilitarian. I pulled into a visitor spot, killed the ignition and grabbed Gary’s framed painting from my back seat. I managed to get it through the tall glass doors without dinging the frame. I approached the receptionist behind the marble counter.

“I have a one o’clock meeting with Gary,” I told her. “I’m here to deliver his painting.”

She impassively looked up from her screen. “May I ask who this is from?”

“I spoke with Veronica yesterday; tell her this is Gavin.”

She slowly picked up the phone and hit a few buttons. I noticed the atrium went up three floors and was surrounded by all this glass. Somebody could easily throw themselves off the top floor and be dead within seconds. Maybe Brent was right about this place.

“She’ll be down in a moment.” The receptionist hung up the phone. “Could you please take a seat?”

I took a seat on a chunk of marble and continued to scan the lobby. On the far wall was a row of Ansel Adams landscape prints. It seemed corporate American couldn’t get enough of his stuff. Too bad the guy died before the money really started to flow in. I looked closer; I was pretty sure Jerry did those frames.

“Gavin?” A tall woman in a corporate power suit extended her hand to me.

“Veronica?” I stood up and shook her hand.

“Hi. Gary’s expecting you. Can you follow me?” Veronica turned towards the elevators and of course, being a guy, I had to give her figure the once over. Christ, she was good-looking. I assumed she was just as smart as she was gorgeous to be working with Gary. What’s the percentage of the population who meet that criteria? Less than one percent? I was confident that Gary was the type of guy who could find a person like that. I knew she was way out of my league.

She took me up the elevator and led me into his office. Gary was on the phone, facing out towards a wall of windows. I took a seat in a leather chair in front of his giant mahogany desk. I put my painting down and leaned it against his corporate throne. I scanned the artwork on the walls of his office.

“Can I get you a coffee or something else to drink?” Veronica said.

“Huh? Oh yeah; coffee would be great.”

“Gary will be with you in a minute.” Veronica left the office and closed the door.

I continued scanning Gary’s artwork. The one by his desk looked like a Salvador Dali. He hung up the phone. “Gavin! How are you?” He came towards me and we shook hands.

“Great! Your offer sounds very interesting!”

“I enjoy it when I can find a new artist.”

I glanced at the painting on the wall next to us. It was a surreal painting of a plate-like object with a tiny picture of Hitler under something that looked like a phone in a tree. “Is this Salvador Dali?”

“It’s called ‘The Enigma Of Hitler’. I got it when I was in Madrid a few years ago.”

“Is this a reproduction?” I moved in closer so I could almost touch it with my nose and studied the detail. “I thought this was in a museum.”

He laughed. “It was. That’s the original. Spain’s economy is almost as bad as Greece’s. Let’s just say it’s on lease.”

I reached out and tried to touch it, but reflexively pulled my hand back, as if I would get yelled at by a museum guard. I realized there was no guard, so I touched the frame instead.

“Salvador Dali had an obsession with Hitler.” Gary said. “He worked him into a few of his paintings.”

“I know Hitler was a painter. Before he got consumed with politics.”

“That’s why I like this painting. I was hoping to be an artist when I left high school; I took a semester of art classes in college. Then computers happened and I was there at the right place and the right time.” He added wistfully, “life can push you into different places.”

“But Hitler was a lousy painter.”

Gary laughed.

Oh shit. I think I just insulted my benefactor.

He took two steps back and nodded at a so-so water color of an old building. “This one is called ‘Vienna Opera House Scene’.” He pointed to the signature: A. Hitler.

Holy shit! A Hitler original? I thought the government confiscated all his paintings at the end of the war. We only know this stuff existed because of Nazi-era coffee table books. “How did you get this?” I asked.

Gary smiled. “The world could have been a very different place if only more people had bought his paintings,” he said.

“It’s kind of late for that now, isn’t it?”

“That’s why you’re here today.” Gary walked over to his desk and sat down. “Let’s talk about your future.”

I went back to my seat. “You were talking about a contract?”

“I run many philanthropic organizations outside of this company. One of my favorite themes is emerging artists and their work. Not only am I promoting the arts; I’m willing to invest in them.” He handed me a multi-page document. “I would like to give you an exclusive, lifetime contract.”

I flipped through the first few pages of legalese. There’s a saying; “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” Well there I was, staring at what you could call a gift horse mouth.

“Why?” I asked.

“You mentioned Vincent Van Gogh. How much do you think you could’ve bought his paintings when he was still alive?”

“Pretty damn cheap, I’m sure.”

“Right. I’m buying you cheap.” Gary got up and sat on the edge of his desk. “I think your work could possibly be worth a lot more in the future.”

“You picked me to be the next Vincent Van Gogh?”

“Well” Gary laughed. “To be honest, I’m hedging my bets.”

I could feel my sweaty palms sticking to the pages of the contract. “How much am I getting paid?”

“I will pay you $1,500 per painting, delivered.” He turned and gazed out the windows. “Of course there are some restrictions. I would like to see paintings that meet a certain size: twenty-four square inches or larger.” He sat back down in his chair. “I’m not interested in buying postcards or sculpture.”

“What if I wanted to work in crayons?”

He smiled. “All paintings will contain at least fifty percent oil or acrylic paint. Objects applied to the canvas are fine. Limit two per week. Feel free to explore your imagination.”

I tried to comprehend what I was holding in my hands. A cup of coffee appeared in my peripheral vision. Veronica handed it to me and she gave another one to Gary.

“Take your time to think it over,” he said. He turned to Veronica and they started talking about something else.

Jesus, I thought to myself, Let me do the math. [_ I could easily do a painting every two weeks. That’s $39,000 a year. No wait - I could probably crank one out every 10 days; that’s $54,000 a year. If I change styles to abstract expressionism, I could squirt that stuff out every few days, that’s over $100,000 a year- just to paint. Where do I sign? _] As I waited for Gary to finish up with Veronica, I started to zone out, staring at the contract.

“Did you want your lawyer to look it over?” Gary asked.

“Huh?” I said as I snapped out of it. I had to think this through. Lawyer? I don’t have a lawyer. I don’t even have a health plan. Where the hell am I supposed to get a lawyer? I’ll just act cool about it. “Nah,” I said. “He’s in Barbados right now. He’ll just charge me double if I contact him on vacation.”

Gary handed the contract to Veronica. “Can you have these papers notarized once we’re through?” Gary picked up a silver pen from his desk and handed it to me. It felt heavy and expensive; a Mont Blanc. I had heard these were worth more than a sports car. Hell, you could feed a year’s worth of ramen noodles to a stadium full of starving artists for the cost of this pen. “We’ll have your final copy ready within twenty minutes,” he said.

I was having a hard time trying to comprehend what would happen if I signed. The text on the contract started to look like hieroglyphics. How many artists would sell their left nut for this? Do I even deserve this? There had to be better artists than me walking around this planet who could achieve something wonderful if only they were given this chance. An entire generation of great artists would die completely broke and in obscurity. Their life’s work would just deteriorate on a folding table at some shitty swap meet; yet by mere chance I get this opportunity?

Fuck it. I signed.

Chapter 7

Art Attack Store

A weird squealing sound had been coming from under the hood of my car for the past couple of days. I needed to go over to the Art Attack art supply store and I hoped my car was going to make it. Cripes, I got soaked by those assholes at Sparky’s last time I had my car fixed. $1,800 for a tune up and muffler. But what was I going to do? My car should not have been making that noise. I had mentioned I was a painter to those guys and their reply was, “Yooz do houses?” I would love to make fun of blue collar types, but I’m humbled any time they hand me a bill for something. So much for art school.

Art Attack was one of the few remaining art stores that hadn’t been swallowed up by the Walmart of art supplies: Michaels. The place wasn’t very big. The isles were so narrow that all of their crap was stacked up almost to the ceiling. I was there to get some blank canvases—a lot more canvases. I would be needing more of everything once Gary’s money started rolling in. I did a quick lap around the isles and grabbed six 30”x40” canvases. I had some pre-cut frames for this size ready to go back at the gallery. I carried everything up to the front counter and got behind some old guy wearing a fishing hat covered in lures—the guy was straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. He was talking to an attractive thirty-something woman with long black hair who was working behind the counter.

“I’m looking for a small can of fire red lettering enamel by Dick Blick,” the geezer said. The Dick Blick brand of art supplies had been around for a while; they also had a whole bunch of stores that sold everything.

“The one-shot size?” she asked.

“Yes, that’s the one,” he said.

She came from behind the counter, walked past us and returned with a tiny can of enamel. She studied the label for a moment then placed it on the counter. “Are you a sign painter?”

“Yes,” the old guy replied.

She rung up his order and placed a few brushes into his paper bag. She picked up the little can and said, “Would you like some spray-on hardener with your Dick Blick shot?”

I snorted out a laugh then suppressed it. She glanced at me with a quick smile. It was a legit question. There’s a spray-on substance that accelerates drying time for enamels. The old guy missed the dick-pic joke completely.

“No thanks.” He grabbed his paper bag and left the store.

I burst out laughing as I stepped up the counter.

“I’ve been waiting all year to ask that question,” she said with a laugh. I placed my six canvases on the counter. “Six?” She picked one up and looked for a price. “What are you going to do with all of these? Build a fort?”

“Let’s just say I’ve gotten incredibly inspired.”

“That’s a lot of painting to do.” She rung them up. “I’m lucky if I can finish a tiny water color in a month.”

“Really? You like to do water colors? Of what?”

“Whatever I feel like. A mixture of things. Painting has helped me unwind from my studies,” she said.

“What are you studying?”

“I was going for a master’s degree in English Lit at Wellesley. That didn’t work out, so I ended up taking night courses in art history at Framingham University.” She stacked up my canvases, finished my order, then settled down on a stool. “So are you an artist, or do you have a real job?” she said with a grin.

I laughed; I liked this woman’s attitude. “I work at a gallery in Eastborough doing frames, but I think I’m going full time with the art.”

“What kind of things are you doing?”

“Mostly scenic stuff, sort of like Winslow Homer in the style of Van Gogh.”

“You know why Van Gogh became a painter, don’t you?” she said.

“No.”

“Because he didn’t have an ear for music.”

I groaned and let out a smile. “Ah yes, Van Gogh ear jokes.”

“Sorry,” she said, “I had to go there.”

“Did you learn those in art history class?”

She thought for a beat. “It was on the final.”

I offered to shake her hand. “My name is Gavin.”

She stood up, did a limp-wristed handshake and curtseyed. “Linda.” I felt like an idiot for being so formal. “So, Gavin the artist. When will we see you next?”

“Like I said, I think I’ll be going on a tear. I’ll be needing a lot more of these.”

“I would love to see what you’re working on,” Linda said.

A woman holding a box of pastels got in line behind me. I scooped up my canvases and headed for the door. “Will do!” I said. Linda gave me a smile on the way out. That was fun.

I got back to my Water Street loft and continued where I left off. I was determined to get “Schoenberg Study At Twilight” done that day. I picked up my pallet, already covered in dabs of oil paint from my last session, and focused on the blank spot on the bottom right hand corner. The paint started coming off my brush with confidence. It was such a weird feeling—the thought of having a painting that’s already bought before it was even finished. It was almost like I could assign a dollar amount to each stroke. As the paint started to flow onto the canvas, I did some calculations: Let me see, I’ll probably apply 10,000 strokes to this canvas – divide that by $1,500. That around six cents a stroke. If I changed over to Japanese calligraphy, I could get it down to six strokes – $250 a stroke.

“How did your meeting go?” James’ voice startled me. He was standing in the doorway of my space.

“Oh my God!” I said as I continued working, “He’s buying everything!”

“What,” he asked, “everything in here?”

“No. Everything I do from now on. He gave me a lifetime commission!” I moved another dab of paint from my pallet to the canvas. I wasn’t going to let James slow me down.

“Why would he do that?”

“He thinks I could be worth something in the future. That’s why he’s buying everything of mine now.”

“What kind of contract did you sign?”

“I make $1,500 per painting delivered. I can probably make up to $100,000 per year.”

James sat down on a plastic milk crate. “Did you have your lawyer look at it?”

“What lawyer? Who has a lawyer?”

James shook his head from side to side, “Oh man.”

“Look. . .” I said as I started stabbing at the canvas, annoyed, “. . .who else would offer to pay me this kind of money for my work?”

James waved his hand dismissively at me as if he had the final word. “C’est la Vie!”

I got three more brush strokes in before I froze. A young guy, covered in tattoos and wearing only his underpants, casually walked up to us. “Hey,” he said as he stopped in front of my easel and looked down at my painting. “Can I see what you’re doing?”

There was this awkward moment of silence. The guy stood there, tilting his head from side to side, like a giant parrot, fascinated by what I was doing.

“Dude” I said. “Where’s your pants?”

“We’re practicing today.”

I thought he looked kind of familiar. “You’re the bass player, right?”

“Yeah,” he said, “we’re going to start later so we won’t bug you guys.”

“OK, that’s cool,” I said. “My name is Gavin.”

“Lance,” he replied.

Now it was starting to make sense. Flea, the bass player from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, liked to play in his underwear. James just glared at the guy, but he didn’t seem to notice. He continued to study my painting. “That looks cool,” he said.

“Thanks.” I said, “Do you paint?”

“No. I just play music.”

James realized his glaring wasn’t having any effect. “All right,” he said, as he stood up, “I’m leaving.” With that he walked out.

I told Lance, “You guys sound pretty good; I like the Red Hot Chili Peppers.”

“Cool,” he said.

We talked for another twenty minutes about music that we liked. The rest of the band slowly appeared and collected in my area. They offered me a couple of cans of Narragansett beer and I accepted. They seemed like nice enough dudes once you got to know them. They talked about how hard it was to get gigs, and I told them that it was the same way in the art world. Whatta ya know—I made a couple more friends that day.

Chapter 8

Art Gallery

Jerry opened the box of pizza we’d ordered and studied our lunch. “But a Hawaiian pizza doesn’t make any sense,” he said.

“It’s got ham and pineapple on it,” I said. “You think Hawaiians don’t eat cheese?”

Jerry picked up a slice. “No,” he said, taking a bite. “It’s got ham on it. Hawaiians like to eat Spam.” He started chewing away, with a smug look on his face, while he waited for my response. We always had this pizza topping argument during lunchtime at the gallery. That was why I liked to order Chinese food.

I was obligated to play along, so I had to take it to its logical extreme. “I’ve been to Maui,” I said. “There would be a scoop of macaroni on it, and instead of tomato sauce—poi.” I picked up a piece of pizza and took a bite. “It would be disgusting. Not even a Hawaiian would eat it.”

Jerry crammed another slice into his mouth. “But it doesn’t have any Spam.” He continued his relentless chewing, like a ruminating Holstein cow.

“Why?” I asked, “Would you eat a pizza if it had Spam on it?” There, I had him. He ordered the pizza; it had been his choice.

He swallowed, then took a sip of Coke. “Nope.” He took another bite and went back to his annoying chewing.

I knew I should’ve ordered Chinese food.

We ate in silence for about a minute, then he asked me, “Are you going to quit?”

I had told Jerry about the contract with Gary Easton. I could be making a lot more painting than I would at the gallery. “Not at this point; I have to see how it plays out,” I said. “I don’t want to blow all my options.”

“What if he ends up not liking your stuff? Will he still pay you?”

“I guess so.” I went for another slice of pizza. “He said he’s investing long term.”

Jerry stopped chewing for a second, then froze. “What if he wants you to paint nudes of his wife?”

“Why would he want to do that? I do mostly landscapes.”

“If I hired someone full time to paint for me,” Jerry paused as if deep in thought, “I’d want them to toss in a couple of nudes.”

I ignored this last statement and continued eating my slice of pizza.

“You know how to paint staircases, right?” Jerry asked.

“Yes,” I took a deep breath. “I can paint a staircase.”

“How hard would it be to add Gary’s nude wife descending the staircase?”

“Fine,” I clamped down on a piece of crust and spoke between my teeth. “For fifteen hundred dollars, I’ll paint his wife coming down an escalator naked.”

A welcome respite of silence settle between us. We continued eating.

“Wait a minute dude.” Jerry had a concerned look on his face. “Does he have any kids?”

“I dunno.” He had a look of mock concern on his face. I didn’t like where this was going.

“You could get arrested for painting nude children, you know.”

“When did I say I would paint naked children?” I asked incredulously. “Where did this come from?”

“Think about it, why else would he pay you so much money to paint for him?”

“Because he thinks I have potential?”

“Nah,” Jerry said, then took another a gulp from his Coke. “Let’s say you finish up your latest landscape, and it’s time to paint the deer in the foreground.”

I rolled my eyes. He was referring to the most virulent cliche in painting, adding a cute forest animal to your painting as a final flourish. “I don’t do deer,” I said flatly.

“And instead,” he giggled, “he wants you to paint a naked little cherub that looks like his kid.” He pointed to an imaginary painting hanging in front of him, “Right there in the foreground.” He let out a huge laugh and a piece of crust flew out of his mouth and landed in front of me.

I got it. Jerry just wanted to bust my balls. I watched his fat face contort as he convulsed with laughter, his mouth still full of pizza.

I fought back by saying, “Which way is this naked cherub facing?”

Jerry stopped giggling for a moment and said, “Why?”

“Penis is porn; buttocks are art,” I said. “If I have to paint genitals on this cherub, then that’s smutty and offensive. If it’s only buttocks, then it’s tasteful and artistic.”

“Oh, then definitely go with the genitals,” Jerry said with that stupid smile of his.

I was done eating. Mercifully, a customer arrived and I got to escape his line of reasoning.

Chapter 9

DLC Loading Dock

I had finished up “Schoenberg Study At Twilight”, and completed another painting called “Winslow’s Gloucester Breeze”, a view of Gloucester Harbor. I had a meeting with Veronica at one o’clock to make my first delivery. I thought for sure Gary would like these. I pulled into the parking lot and found the same spot I had last time. I carefully took the two paintings out of the back seat of my car and closed the door with my foot. Oil paint takes a couple of days to completely dry and this last canvas was only touch-dry, so I tried to be careful and not smudge anything. I headed for the entrance of the DLC building with one painting in each hand. I stopped at the glass doors and made a sad face at the guard. He saw that my hards were full, opened the door and let me in. I went straight to the receptionist at the front desk.

“I have a one o’clock meeting with Veronica,” I said. She picked up the phone, hit some numbers then said a few words.

“Veronica said to go to the shipping entrance,” the receptionist said, putting the phone down. “She’ll meet you there.”

“Where’s that?”

Both the receptionist and the guard pointed to the opposite end of the building. “That way,” they said.

Shipping entrance? Does it look like I need a forklift to move these things? I saw a bunch of different hallways branching off from the front lobby. “How do I find it?” I asked her.

“It’s easier if you drive around,” she said. “Go left and left around the parking lot. You’ll see the bay doors.”

OK, the shipping entrance. I thought I would be hand delivering these paintings to Gary personally, but what the hell. With both my hands full, I tried to push the front door open with my foot until the guard finished the job. “Thanks,” I said.

I got back in my car and went left and left. I saw two giant bay doors, a blue dumpster and an eighteen-wheeler parked in front of the shipping entrance. A set of concrete steps lead up to a doorway. I parked next to a Mack truck. My car was practically hidden by the raised deck of the entrance and the giant vehicle next to mine. I hoped another truck wouldn’t try and pull in; they’d probably flatten my car. I got out with my two paintings and climbed the stairs to a metal door. I went inside and didn’t see anybody. Good thing they had a guard at the front entrance to protect everyone; I could’ve wandered right in, holding two sticks of dynamite with burning fuses. I headed towards a little glassed-in room that looked like an office. I called out, “Hello?”

Nope. Nothing.

Towards the back of the platform were stacks of broken office chairs and desks piled against the side of a hallway. Beyond that was one of those flappy plastic strip doors that led to the rest of the building. I heard a noise to my left and went that way. There was a guy struggling to load stacks of reports into the opening of what looked like an incinerator.

“Hi!” I said. “I’m supposed to wait here for Veronica.”

He stopped and looked at me. “Yup,” he said, then went back to shoveling reams of paper into the opening. The guy looked to be in his sixties and was literally wearing a shirt with a blue collar. I watched him load the machine for a minute. “Oh yah,” he said in a Boston accent, “that Veronica’s a sweet-haht.” He spoke with a slow methodical voice; I could probably finish his sentence for him before he finished his own thought. My guess was that he’s been down here in the basement of the building for his entire life. Computers probably baffled the guy and I’d bet he though everything was better in the sixties.

“Yeah. I’m supposed to give her these paintings.”

He glanced at them, then up at me for a moment. It looked like he was going to say something, but he returned to tossing the remaining stack of paper into the machine.

“How come you guys don’t just shred all your documents?” I asked.

He closed the door, then hit a big red button on the machine and it started up with a roar. “Do you know how long it takes to shred a single ream of paypah?” He shuffled past me. “It’d take yeahs to go through all of this stuff.” He headed towards his little office. “So what’s yoah name, young fella?”

“Gavin.”

“I’m Michael, but everyone calls me Mooky,” he said. “I’ve been workin’ heah for twenty-five yeahs.”

Christ. I couldn’t imagine working at a loading dock for twenty-five years. I would’ve gone out of my mind, not being able to create anything. After a while, I was sure I’d be arranging empty boxes into geodesic patterns, just to amuse myself. On my last day I’d probably make a giant phallus out of a pallet of obsolete PCs, sign my name to it, and throw myself into the incinerator. I didn’t know how guys like him did it.

“So Pedroier is doin’ great this yeah,” Mooky said.

Pedroier? Oh yeah, Dustin Pedroia, the Red Sox player. I liked how he assumed that everyone watched baseball. Does he think that someone like Seiji Ozawa, for example, would check the score during breaks while conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra? Now I had to play along, just so I didn’t offend the guy. “Yeah, he’s doing great,” I said.

Mooky checked something off on his clipboard. “Don’t get me stahted on Big Papi!”

I couldn’t listen to any more of this; I hated small talk. If you have nothing in common with someone, why force it? The problem with slow people is that they don’t know they’re slow, so they insist on dragging you down to their level. “Hey,” I held up my paintings, “where can I put these so they don’t get damaged?”

He pointed to the right of the big flappy door. “Ovah theah.”

I leaned my paintings against the wall next to some pallets.

Veronica came through the flappy door. “Gavin! Great. You’re here.”

I went to shake her hand, but noticed I had a booger of wet paint on my thumb. I quickly glanced around for a rag or something.

“That’s OK,” she smiled and subtly motioned to stay away from her. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”

We glanced down at my unframed paintings leaning against the cinderblock wall. It really didn’t have the same effect as if they were up in a gallery. “Did Gary want me to frame them?” I asked.

“No. That’s alright,” she said.

“The first one is called “Schoenberg at—”

She cut me off and spoke quickly, “They look very nice. Did you bring an invoice?”

“Invoice?”

“Email me an invoice with the names of the paintings and a description of each. Did Gary have you fill out a 1099 form?”

“No.”

“Send that in too,” she said. “We’ll make out a check and send it to you by the end of the week.” Veronica was all professional; I was sure she didn’t give a shit what I did, she was just following Gary’s orders. Because the paintings were still kind of wet, she picked them both up awkwardly, with her fingertips, as if they were freshly scooped bags of dog feces. I was sure her suit was worth more than the paintings.

“Is Gary going to come down and take a look at them?” I asked.

“He’s in a meeting right now,” she backed up until her butt touched the flappy door, “He’ll see them later. He appreciates your work.” She continued backwards through the opening, turned and disappeared down the hall.

Well, it seemed that was it. I had just made my first $3,000. No stinging remarks from the critics. No murmuring from adoring fans. I had gotten more feedback from my mom for the stuff I put on her refrigerator as an eight year old. I headed back towards the concrete stairs.

“I hear the weathah is supposed to be nice this weekend,” Mooky said from his little room.

Christ. Not the weather pleasantry, I thought. He’ll be asking me about hockey next. I picked up my pace; I was almost out of here. I didn’t want to be trapped in unending small talk. I made it to the concrete stairs, gave him a fake smile and a waved. “Yeah, See ya Mooky!” I accelerated down the stairs, desperate to get in my car. I wanted this inane conversation to end. I dove into my car.

Before I could pull the door all the way closed, his voice called out from the loading dock. “I hear the traffic’s horrible this time of day!”

I slammed the door shut. Damn it. The bastard got me.

Chapter 10

Art Attack Store

Winsor & Newton Cobalt Deep Blue, double A oil paint; I had noticed it last time I was at the Art Attack store. I needed one of those. I slid it off the hanger and dropped it in my basket. Winsor & Newton Cobalt Green? Bang; in it went. What the hell? I thought. I dropped all the Winsor-Newton primary colors into my basket. I was sure Gary would only want the finest oil paints used in his paintings. After all, this stuff would last forever. I then headed over to the paint brushes and chose a nice assortment.

I had cashed the DLC check and wasn’t going to wait for it to clear. I figured banks must send checks from big corporations like DLC right through. I had already loaded up with groceries and was restocking the rest of my essentials. Linda was behind the counter, I approached her with my basket of goodies. We had already exchanged glances when I entered.

“So it’s Gavin the artist,” she said. “What’s shaking?”

“I’m here to get the good stuff.”

“Hey,” she said with a grin, “you’re not the person posing the little wooden manikins into obscene positions, are you? I saw you wandering around back there.”

“No,” I laughed, “I’d be the one painting genitalia on them.”

She unloaded my basket and placed the items on the counter top. She picked up a long, skinny brush with a flat, fan-like end to it. “Da Vinci Pure Badger Hair Brush, size 16. $104.95.” She looked at me.

I shrugged my shoulders and smiled.

“Do you know how many shivering little badgers were left out in the cold after they made this brush?” she said. She scooped up the first three tubes of oil paint. “Winsor & Newton? You know these are sixty-two dollars each?”

I smiled again. “Quality work needs quality materials.”

“What did you do—win the lottery?”

“You could say that.”

She shook her head. I guess nobody buys the expensive stuff. But I wanted to make the best damn paintings possible, and I had the money to do it. She continued totaling up the contents of my basket.

“I’d like to place a special order,” I said.

“OK.” She picked up a little notebook and armed herself with a pen. “What do you need?”

“I’m looking for someone interesting and charming. . .and good looking. To have coffee with.”

She put down her pen and looked up at me, a little smirk on her face. “I’m not sure we stock that. Special orders normally take weeks for delivery.”

“OK, then I’ll take what’s available on the shelf.”

“A rush order? That’s going to cost extra,” she said with a grin.

Oh my God, she was having fun busting my balls for being stupidly cute. I started to sweat a little. I hoped my charm would hold up. “I think it could be worth it,” I said, “I like the quality of materials I’m seeing and. . .” I broke down in embarrassed laughter. I realized I was objectifying this woman by comparing her to expensive art supplies. She won. I just stood there, covered my face with my hand and took what was coming to me.

She looked at me with an evil grin; she knew she had me. She waited a beat, savoring the moment, then said, “Where would you like this special order delivered?”

“Do you know where the Moaning Lisa Bistro is?”

“Of course,” she said. She filled a bag with my art supplies. “I get off work at six.”

“Six? I’ll be there.”

“You know,” she said as she handed me the bag, “up close, you might notice some flaws and defects in your order.”

I took my bag from her and walked backwards to the door. “I can deal with that,” I said. I needed to escape from my own joke. “Six o’clock it is!” I called out as I gave her one more smile and scurried out the door.

Chapter 11

Moaning Lisa Bistro

At ten of six, I claimed an empty table at the Moaning Lisa. As I sat there waiting for Linda, I watched a female singer with a guitar play Lorde’s “Royals” song. I nervously picked up a plastic straw and bent it into little shapes. I was supposed to be at the gallery at seven, but Jerry said he would cover for me till then. I really hoped this would go well.

Linda entered. I stood up and we made eye contact. She walked over to me. “I would’ve been here sooner,” she said, “but some woman couldn’t decide between beige, cream, off-white, or eggshell pastels.”

“Do you want to get a coffee?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said. We walked over to the counter together and looked at the menu choices written in colorful chalk on a blackboard. “Do you come here often?”

“All the time,” I said. “I work across the parking lot at the gallery.”

“Oh cool,” she replied while scanning the choices. She ordered a mocha latte and I got a caramel machiatto. We basically stood there and watched the dude working the machine, grinding the beans into a little cup. We were standing so close I could feel the warmth of her body; she had just a touch of perfume on. I started to get the twitchies and felt compelled to fill the empty silences with something.

“They make some really great coffee here,” I said.

“The place looks really nice,” she said.

The guy finally finished our order; we got our coffees and sat down. We both took a sip at the same time, glanced around and sat there in silence. I tried to avoid any intense eye contact; I didn’t want to come off as a pervert. It felt awkward, so I had to say something. “OK, I have an idea,” I said.

“OK,” she said as she took another sip of her latte.

“These initial meetings always feel kind of weird.”

She nodded her head. “Sure.”

“What if I end up being incredibly boring?”

She hid a little smile behind her cup. “You’re getting there.”

“How about if we use a safe word? If you feel the need to get the hell out of here—let’s say I start droning on and on—you just say the safe word, and I’ll understand.”

“What’s the safe word?” she asked.

“I dunno, something like. . .cabbage.”

She put down her cup. “Cabbage?”

“Yeah. Let’s say I start pontificating on the aesthetic response or the functional theory of art. Where nature is beautiful and it can produce aesthetic experiences, but it can’t produce those experiences on its own. For that to happen, you need an artist.”

Linda studied her cup for a moment.

“There,” I said. “Your reply would be. . .?”

“Well I would counter with the anti-essentialist stance. The question of whether a new artifact is art or not, is not factual, but rather a decision problem,” she said with a grin.

“Wait a minute—what’s my keyword?”

We both laughed. “How about lettuce.” she said.

“Ok, let’s agree to not discuss leafy vegetables then.”

She held up her latte in a toast. “To no leafy vegetables!” she exclaimed.

I took a sip of my macchiato. “So how did you end up working at the Art Attack store?”

“I was going for my masters in English Lit at Wellesley college when the money ran out, or should I say my boyfriend at the time ran out with my money,” Linda said. “I didn’t feel like spending money on a lawyer, so I just moved on.”

“Wow. That sucks,” I said.

“Co-dependency problems up the ass with that guy. I just didn’t want to deal with him.”

“So how did you end up here?”

“I took some art history courses at Framingham University and needed a part time job.”

“Where did you grow up?”

“Florida. In the St. Augustine area.”

“Isn’t there a really cool liberal arts college in St. Augustine?”

“Flagler College,” she said. “At the time I wanted to go far away and be a writer, so I went to Wellesley.”

“So what’s stopping you from writing?”

“Money, for one thing,” she said. “No publisher is going to pay for someone without any writing experience.” She took another sip of latte. “I’ve got a couple of story ideas in me; I may have to forge ahead and just self-publish on Amazon.”

“Like what?”

She smiled. “I came up with this one recently at the store: what if a bunch of extraterrestrial artists traveled across the galaxy to find new patrons?”

“You mean like alien Michelangelos, but with giant heads?”

“Yeah,” she said. “And they show us their artwork; it’s just some weird moving plasma. We completely don’t understand it and reject it. They get angry at this and start attacking us, like in War of the Worlds.”

I laughed. “So that’s why aliens keep destroying our buildings—they hate our architecture!”

“I suppose so,” she said. She took the last sip of latte and put the cup down. “So you went crazy with the art supplies today. You have a chapel to paint somewhere?”

“I’m now painting for a very interesting client—Gary Easton.”

Linda paused for a moment, as if she had to make sure she heard it right. “Gary Easton,” she repeated.

“Yeah.”

That Gary Easton—the guy who owns the island?”

“Yeah,” I said. “He came by the gallery, saw my stuff and gave me a contract to paint for him exclusively.”

She looked at me dumbfounded for a second. “How many other rich people do you know?”

I laughed. “I don’t! I swear! I just met the guy last week.”

“Can I see some of your artwork? I want to see what the big demand is,” Linda said.

“Sure.”

I pulled out my iPhone, called up my website and handed the phone to her. She swiped through the photos of my paintings. “They’re nice,” she said without too much enthusiasm.

“Nice?” I asked defensively.

“No, they’re good,” she expanded a photo to get a closer look. “I like what you’ve done with the texturing.”

“I call it my musical style.”

“I like it. They remind me of Winslow Homer.” She continued swiping the screen. “I notice water seems to be a big theme of yours.”

“Yeah. I love to paint on the beach; it’s relaxing.”

Linda studied the last photo. “I certainly hung out on plenty of beaches while growing up.” She handed my phone back to me. “How long have you been painting?”

“Ever since high school. I started on an MFA at Mass College of Art. Been at it ever since.”

Brent came out of nowhere and sat down at our table, a cup of coffee in his hands. “Hey man, what’s happening?” Where the hell did he come from? Jesus Christ, not now. He turned to Linda before I could say anything. “Who’s your friend?”

I pondered my options for a second. Was there a trap door I could have Brent drop through?

No; I had none. Reluctantly I said, “Brent, this is Linda.”

Brent got up to shake her hand. “Hey man, nice to meet you.”

She reciprocated. “Likewise. Are you an artist too?”

Brent sat back, arms open in dramatic fashion, appearing to ponder the question for a beat, then said, “No man. . .I’m a dreamer.”

God that was stupid. I had to speak up. I pointed to the painting behind Linda. “Brent painted those fighting crabs over there.” She turned around and looked. “He’s definitely a painter,” I said.

“I like it,” Linda said.

“I like to create what comes from the subconscious,” Brent said, sipping his coffee. “I don’t like to limit myself to reality.”

I could tell Linda was trying to suppress a laugh. She looked over to me and I did an eye roll towards Brent.

“So Brent,” Linda said, “are you saying you like to paint on another plane of existence?”

Brent nodded his head. “At times.”

“So what planet are you on now?” she said with a grin.

Brent broke out into his high pitched laugh. He got the joke. He pointed at her and said to me, “I like her.”

“Brent’s done some good stuff. He’s been in all our gallery shows,” I said to Linda.

“Hey man,” Brent said, “what’s this I hear about Gary Easton?”

“He wants me to paint for him.”

Then James came over and sat down in the remaining chair, a cup of coffee and a croissant balanced on his iPad. I should’ve known these guys would be there that time of day. “Did the DLC corporation give you a hard time?” he asked me. “Did they give you a check?”

My luck sucked; I was never going to get anywhere with Linda at this point. I said to James, “Yup, I got paid.”

“Hey James,” said Brent. “Have you met Gavin’s friend Linda?”

“No,” James replied. He reached over and they shook hands. “How long have you known Gavin?”

“About thirty minutes at this point,” Linda said with a laugh.

“Haven’t I seen you in the Art Attack store?” asked James.

“Yes,” she said. “You an artist too?”

“Full time. Not like these hacks,” James said jokingly. “But I don’t know, I think Gavin’s got the perfect goose that’s going to lay the golden eggs.”

This was getting out of hand. I needed to extract Linda and myself from the group. I said to her, “So Linda, I think I just saw a vegetable truck pull into the parking lot.”

“Do you think it has lots of leafy vegetables?” she asked.

James and Brent both looked out into the parking lot, confused.

“Yeah, can we go out there and maybe buy a head of lettuce and cabbage together.”

“Why not,” she said.

We both got up and headed for the door. I said to James and Brent as I was leaving, “I’ll be back in a second.”

We made it out to the parking lot. “Sorry about that,” I said to Linda. “I had no idea those guys were going to show up.”

Linda smiled and said, “You’ve got some interesting friends.”

“Can we continue this conversation in another place?” I asked her.

“I think we should,” she said smiling.

“Can I have your email address?” I pulled out my phone and called up my contacts list.

“Sure. It’s [email protected]

I froze. She let me sweat for a minute, then laughed and said, “I’m kidding. It’s [email protected]

I typed it into my contacts. “So you’re not going to send me pictures of sauerkraut?” I asked hesitantly.

With a sly grin she said, “Do you want it with or without sausage?”

I put away my phone, made a fist and held it against my stomach. [I’m not shaking her hand, I’m not shaking her hand. _]She offered me her hand. I held it, limp-wristed, and did a deep bow like a member of the king’s court. “It was nice meeting you, my lady,” I said. _There, I got her back.

She smiled at my goofy stunt. “Ok Gavin the artist,” Linda said. “Let’s see where all this leads to.” She waved, turned around and walked to her car.

Chapter 12

Sparky’s Garage

I had finished up two paintings, and was letting them touch dry so I could deliver them to the DLC headquarters. One was called Satie’s Placid Lake _]and and the other one was [_Isadora’s Studio, a street scene. Veronica knew they’re coming and I had said I would have them there by 11 o’clock. That would added another $3,000 to the coffers. I also had an appointment to get my car fixed at Sparky’s Auto Repair; I hoped they knew what the hell was wrong with it. I also wanted to schedule a date with Linda via her email.

The squealing noise from my car had gotten even louder when I pulled into the Mill building parking lot. It was warm the previous night, so I knew my paintings were pretty dry—I wouldn’t have to handle them like a hot pizza.

I ran upstairs and stopped to check in with James. He was working on his latest collage/painting hybrid. I didn’t want to have a full-blown conversation with him, so I held onto the edge of the doorway and leaned into his area, as if I were an awkward drunk. If I went all the way in, then I’d be obligated to have a full conversation with him, but I had to get out of there quickly. He saw me and said, “You’ve been busy.”

“Hey, If Gary is buying, then I’m painting!”

“How many is that this week?”

“Two.”

“You’re practically an assembly line.”

“Right,” I said. “It’s too bad I couldn’t outsource all this work to Asia.”

“That girl was cute.” James stopped painting for a moment. “What was her name again?”

“Linda. I’m hoping to set something up with her later today.”

“Does that mean we’ll get discounts at the Art Attack store?”

“I’ll see what I can do.” I straightened myself out in the doorway. “OK, need to scram. I’m just here to get my paintings.” James waved goodbye with his brush.

I grabbed the two paintings from my space and bounded down the stairs out to my car. It took twenty minutes to get over to DLC headquarters. I pulled through the front parking lot and drove around back to the loading dock. Veronica had said to leave the paintings in the same spot as last time. I parked next to the loading dock, grabbed my paintings and took the concrete stairs two at at time. Mooky was sitting in his little room, reading a newspaper. There was nobody else around.

“Hey Mook!” I said. I figured I could be in and out of there in five minutes.

Mooky looked up from his paper. He saw me holding two paintings out by my side. “Hey! Mistah artist!” He had no idea what my name is. Whatever.

“Veronica told me to put these new paintings in the same spot,” I said. “She’ll come down later to get them.”

“Oh that Veronica is a cutey.” He probably didn’t remember our conversation from last time.

There was a wooden pallet of old filing cabinets wrapped in plastic in the exact same spot.

I held up my paintings and asked Mooky, “Where can I put these?”

He slowly put down his paper, got up and shuffled towards me. “Whatcha got there?” he asked.

Oh Jesus Christ. I needed to be at Sparky’s garage in fifteen minutes. “Can I just give these to you? Veronica said she’ll be down here to get them.”

“You’ll have to sign for them.” He began to shuffle back to his little room. “I got paypah work ovah here.”

“Alright, forget it.” I quickly scanned the hallway filled with office junk. “Can’t I just leave them on the pallet?”

“Those are going out. I wouldn’t do that.”

“Well, can’t we just move it over a little bit?”

“OK, lemme get the movah.” Mooky shuffled to the opposite side of the loading dock and got a pallet mover.

He slowly pushed it in my direction. “I heah we might have a thundah storm tomorrow.”

“Yeah.” I did a little impatient bounce, hoping he’d miraculously accelerate.

“We could really use the rain.”

“Yeah right. Rain,” I said.

He finally got the device under the pallet, cranked the lever up and down a few times and moved the filing cabinets towards us a few feet. “There could be floodin’,” he warned.

I gritted my teeth and said, “Right. Right.” I got my opening. I placed my paintings in exactly the same spot as last time. Veronica couldn’t miss them. I took a few huge strides towards my car. “Thanks Mook!”

I almost made it to the stairs when I heard behind me. “Hopefully it’s not the El Niño!” I sprinted the rest of the distance to my car.

I pulled into Sparky’s Auto Repair with my engine squealing away, announcing my arrival. I made it just in time; the engine light had come on. I caught myself thinking, just need to keep this car on the road long enough to do six more paintings. I had this weird realization that I could, in a sense, paint myself some money.

I approached the mechanic sitting at the front counter. He was staring at a computer monitor that was covered in greasy fingerprints. “I scheduled an appointment at eleven,” I said.

Without looking up, the mechanic said, “Sounds like a serpentine belt.”

“The engine light also came on.”

He typed a few keystrokes then said, “Let me have your keys. We’ll give you a call with the estimate.”

“I don’t have another car. When do you think it’ll be ready?” I asked him.

The mechanic scooped up my keys and walked out into the bay area. “Probably around five,” he said over his shoulder.

Wonderful. I was stuck there for six hours. I accepted my fate and evaluated the creature comforts of an auto repair shop waiting room. A Coke machine; a half empty candy machine in the corner; some well worn copies of Popular Mechanics on a little table; and all the Michelin tire samples a guy could ever fondle. I took a seat on a green plastic couch that sat in front of the window and sighed. Normally your girlfriend or wife would save the day in this type of situation; she’d pick you up and give you your life back. But no, I’m a dope. I didn’t have a spouse or girlfriend of any kind. That reminded me, I now had time to email Linda.

I had pulled out my phone when the world’s oldest dog appeared from behind the counter and slowly ambled up to me. He stopped at my knee and gave me a sad ‘Kill me now’ look. The dog was overweight and had a couple of weird bumps growing on his torso. I scratched his head and said, “How ya goin’ fella?” He squinted his eyes as if he was enjoying the attention for that moment, then turned around and disappeared back behind the counter. Maybe I was the highlight of that dog’s day. I should stop bitching about my situation; I could be stuck working here full-time.

I opened up the mail app on my phone and typed in this message:

^To: ^[email protected]

From: [email protected]

Subject: Benefits of Sauerkraut :-)

***

Hey Linda! Wikipedia says that sauerkraut is a time-honored folk remedy for canker sores. See? There ARE some good things to say about sauerkraut!

I’ve recently come down with a case of ‘art madness’ and there’s only one place that can treat it’s symptoms. I was hoping you were interested in helping me treat my affliction.

***

Gavin

I hit send and waited. A half-filled coffee pot was sitting on the other side of the room near a wiper blade display. Maybe I could get some coffee if I was totally desperate. The gumball machine next to me was filled with incredibly old M&M’s that had deteriorated into these little pieces. How long had that thing been sitting here? An alert sound from my phone grabbed my attention.

^To: ^[email protected]

^From: ^[email protected]

Subject: re: Benefits of Sauerkraut :-)

***

I also checked Wikipedia. It says excessive consumption of sauerkraut may lead to bloating and flatulence. lol

I might be interested in helping you with your prognosis. Text me at 5088590777.

***

Linda

Woo hoo! Got her phone number! I entered it permanently into my contacts and open up the message app. I typed in:

Gavin: TAP TAP TAP – is this thing on?

About a minute later I got this for a reply:

Linda: I had to find my phone. LOL

The mechanic came back inside the front office and wiped his hands on a little red rag. “Your car needs a new serpentine belt and the catalytic converter is shot. Your car won’t pass emissions without it.”

I looked up at him. “Yeah. Great.”

“The front tires only have three millimeters of treads left; you should replace those too,” he said with a blank expression.

“That’s all right,” I said. “How much is it gonna cost just to do the engine?”

“A little over a grand,” he said.

“Then just do that.” I squeezed my phone impatiently. “I’ll do the tires later.”

The mechanic headed back towards the garage. “All right,” he said with a ‘you’ll be sorry’ tone in his voice. Finally he was gone; I could focus on my phone.

Gavin: I’m getting my car repaired. Another $1,000 into the toilet.

Linda: Where?

Gavin: Sparky’s in Eastborough.

Linda: I know where that is.

Gavin: I knew I should’ve taken shop class instead of art back in high school.

Linda: Make sure they give you all the parts.

Gavin: What am I supposed to do with them?

Linda: I dunno. Build a sculpture out of them. LOL

Gavin: I was hoping you could help me with my ailment.

Linda: Art Madness?

Gavin: I need somebody to take me to the MFA.

The MFA is the Boston Museum of Fine Art. It’s one of the largest museums in the country. I figured this was a safe spot for a first date.

Linda: In a wheelchair perhaps?

Gavin: LOL I may need one!

Linda: I’m not going to catch Art Madness too, am I?

Gavin: You might ;-)

Linda: OK, let’s get infected. :-)

Chapter 13

The MFA

The MFA is the place to go if you want to dumpster-dive up to your armpits in culture. The place was built at the turn of the century. It had granite walls and columns and a bronze statue of an Indian on a horse out front. If you swapped out the Indian for an SS Storm trooper, you’d have Hitler’s Reichstag.

Linda and I ended up standing in line for twenty minutes to buy a pair of tickets. I liked the outfit she wore, a black dress and black tights—the artist’s uniform since the 1960s. It might’ve been a cliché, but I was all over it.

“What do you think of going to Chinatown for dinner? I asked her. “I know of this great dim sum place.”

“Love going to Chinatown,” she said. “The more surly the service, the better.”

I laughed. Many a Yelp reviewer has commented on the cultural divide between expected service at a real Chinese restaurant in Chinatown and what you get in the suburbs. We bought our tickets and walked towards the entrance hall.

“I think I was here about ten years ago,” Linda said.

“I basically make this a yearly pilgrimage.”

I flipped open the visitor guide and gave it a once-over. The place is huge. I’d had easier times getting out of a corn maze than navigating through that fortress. I oriented the map that came with the guide and showed it to Linda. “OK, we’ve got Art of the Ancient World, Art of the Americas, Europe, Asia or Contemporary Art. Where should we go, or should we just wing it?”

Linda spotted a woman holding a green guided tour sign. “How about her?”

“OK,” I said. “Sounds good.”

We joined a little crowd that was forming around her. I had a couple of favorites I liked to check out every time I went there—Post-Impressionists from the turn of the century. I hoped she would be heading in their direction.

“Welcome, everyone, to the MFA,” the tour guide said. “If you have any questions, please feel free to ask me at at any time.” She walked out into the rotunda and our little gang followed her. We approached a large mural that looked like it was covered with crinkled, gold wrapping paper. I thought to myself, [_it probably took the guy a day to slap this together. _]Our tour guide recited her well rehearsed spiel, “This is Mathias Goeritz. He spent the last forty years of his life in Mexico, where he developed his theories of Emotional Architecture”.

Linda and I glanced at each other with a worried look. It was already getting pretentious.

“Beyond function, he claimed constructed spaces should also elicit a spiritual response from the bodies that experience them,” our guide announced. “He designed surfaces like this one as architectural walls, sculpted through a rhythmic performance of driving nails through them repeatedly.”

I immediately spotted a rip in the canvas. Did he do that or did FedEx screw up the shipping? Should I appreciate the hole as some kind of void, or merely sloppy shipping? I couldn’t help but stare at that damn hole.

Our tour guide continued, “The irregular lines, or pores, in this gold skin might draw us from across the room, inspiring an appreciation that is not only retinal, but sensual.”

[_Not only retinal? _]I wondered if there was any corrective surgery for artistic glaucoma.

Linda leaned over to me and whispered, “Can we bail?”

She knew what I was thinking. We slowly backed away and made our escape.

“Those nail holes were too sensual for me,” she said with a laugh.

We ended up in a room called The Curiosity Cabinet of Previous Wonders. Inside were all sorts of knick knacks on glass shelves, stuff that would’ve fetched a decent price even at a 17th century flea market. In the middle of the room was an ornately painted table from the 16th century. No ropes were around it, nothing to signify its importance. Linda leaned in to get a closer look, which set off a sharp beep from the ceiling.

I spun around and had to chide her. “Hey! You were trying to touch the art!” Touching the art is a major no-no in the museum world. You can look at it, but don’t put your dirty little paws on anything. That’s why they had all the invisible sensors monitoring every angle.

“No I wasn’t.” she said. “But why would they leave a table like this in the middle of the room? I could’ve charged my phone on it.”

“You mean you can’t tell the difference between furniture and art?”

She laughed, “I guess not.”

We wandered over to the Art of Europe section and ended up in front of Claude Monet’s work. He was an Impressionist painter who did most of his stuff at the turn of the century, mostly country landscapes of France. We inspected one called “Fisherman’s Cottage on the Cliffs at Varengeville.”

I asked her, “You know why these paintings look like they’re bolted to the wall, right?”

“So no one runs away with them?” she replied.

“No,” I said with a straight face. “Monet’s porn.”

Linda gave me a puzzled look.

“Because stretching a canvas was expensive and time consuming back in the day, many artists found it easier to do another painting on the back of something else.”

“Something else?” she said.

“Yeah,” I said as I lowered my voice. “Monet’s are notorious for having an alternate painting of naked women in explicit positions on the back of them.”

“Get out,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said. “Nobody knew about them until after he died.”

Linda tried to get a closer look at the edge of the painting, but set off another sharp beep from the ceiling.

“Got ya!” I said with a laugh.

“But I wanted to see what naked French contortionists looked like!”

We then entered The Art of the Americas section and noticed a huge collection of paintings from Thomas Sully. He painted portraits of all the bigwigs at the time of the revolutionary war. One room displayed a work called “Passage of the Delaware”. It’s of George Washington on a horse, crossing the Delaware river. The scale of the painting was impressive; it literally covered an entire wall.

Linda looked up at the huge painting. “Wow,” she said, “this must’ve been the jumbotron of the 1800s.”

I said, “I’ve seen billboards smaller than this.” I took a couple steps forward and to get an even closer look. I studied a group of people that were in the background of the painting, just below George’s horse. They were positioned in the water, crossing the river. “The detail is amazing,” I said.

Linda backed up to get a better overall view. “It must’ve taken him a while to paint this.”

I noticed a soldier in the background with his arm up. “I think this guy is giving George the finger.”

“Where?” Linda asked with a laugh. She moved in closer to got a better look. “I dont know, I think he’s pointing at something.”

“He’s giving George the finger because George crossed on a horse, while he’s standing in freezing water.”

“But you can’t really tell which finger he’s using.” She squinted her eyes at the soldier. “Did artists put easter eggs into paintings back them?” Easter egg is a term used in computer applications or tv shows. It’s a hidden feature that you’d only know about if you searched for it.

I moved back to the middle of the room. “You certainly wouldn’t be able to spot it if you stand back where everyone else is.”

The next room we entered was filled with some of my favorites, Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins—American artists from the turn of the century who were considered Post-Impressionist painters. I decided to take a moment here and get some inspiration. Before taking a seat on a padded bench, I reflexively waved my arm over it, checking to see if it set off any alarms.

Linda spotted me doing this and said, “Don’t sit on any art!”

“Yeah,” I replied as I carefully sat down. “I think I’m safe here.” I sat there for a moment and scanned the wall of paintings. I liked what those guys did. A few minutes later we went over to the gallery of Contemporary Art. The first paintings we encountered were by Edward Hopper. He was an American realist painter who did mostly desolate urban landscapes. His most famous painting, Nighthawks, depicts a New York diner from the 1940s. The point of view is from the empty city street, looking at a few lonely people seated inside. I found one of his called Drug Store; it looked similar to Nighthawks.

“If Hopper were alive today,” I wondered, “would he have been painting a CVS store like this?”

Linda studied the painting for a moment. “That certainly would be a convenient spot to set up your easel if you needed to refill a Percocet prescription.”

The Contemporary Art section had a little café and wine bar seating area. Instead of being nestled into some cozy spot, it was in a high-ceilinged hallway leading to the gift shop. Linda got a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and a blueberry tart and I ordered a Sam Adams. Before taking a seat on a green retro-looking chair, Linda waved her hand above it and cracked a smile at me.

“It’s safe,” I said.

She settled into her chair. “It feels good to sit down for a little while,” she said.

I took a sip of my beer and noticed what appeared to be paper mache mannequins suspended over our heads, their arms outstretched in a kind of superhero flying pose.

Linda saw me looking up and noticed them too. “Are they supposed to represent flying and the freedom of art?”

I continued to look at them and let a mouthful of beer drain down my throat while I pondered the question. “I kind of see them as artists falling to their deaths.”

Linda laughed. “Cheer up, will ya?”

“Do you know how hard it is to get your work shown here?”

She took a sip of her wine then said, “It’s gotta be tough.”

“You pretty much have to be dead.”

Linda raised her wine glass in a mock toast. “Then here’s to dying for your art!”

We both clinked our glasses and took a sip. We continued talking about what we had seen, but I was distracted by my own thoughts on what I found attractive about her. I studied the way she moved in my peripheral vision while maintaining strict eye contact. She crossed her legs and adjusted the edge of her dress as she spoke about the finer points of Paul Gauguin. I caught myself zoning out at her lips for a moment while she spoke. Did she notice that? Jesus, I must have the word pervert written all over my face. We finished our drinks and continued our journey. The farther you went into the Contemporary Art gallery, the more abstract it became. We found a Jackson Pollock, covered in swirls of paint.

I asked her, “Did you ever see the movie with Ed Harris as Pollock?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I liked it.”

“It’s interesting how he didn’t use typical oil paint, but thinned enamel paint you would find at a hardware store,” I said.

Linda thought for a moment. “So that’s the color of his house, huh?”

I laughed. “Probably.”

We continued walking past rows of abstract art. My distain for abstract art runs pretty deep. It didn’t help that my legs were starting to get twitchy from all the standing.

Linda took a quick glance around. “I don’t know; I think I could’ve done most of this stuff.”

“Wait,” I said. “We haven’t hit the primate room yet.”

“Primate room?”

“It’s where they hang all the stuff the chimps painted,” I said. “You gotta look closely at the placard. It’ll tell you if a chimp, gorilla or human painted it. You really can’t tell.”

On the way out, we both hit the bathrooms. As I was waiting for her in the hallway outside the women’s room, I noticed they had a series of prints on display in this out-of-the way spot. They were nothing fancy, stuff I would frame at the shop. I also noticed that this hallway had a designation: G47.14 – Corridor.

Linda came out of the women room. “Geez, they even designed the bathrooms nicely in here.”

“Did you spot any interesting graffiti?” I asked.

“What?” she said. “Like, for a good time call Pablo?”

I laughed. “I bet that existed somewhere.” I studied a blank spot on the wall. “OK, I’ve got an idea on how I can get my stuff shown here at the MFA.”

“Who do you know?”

“Nobody,” I said. “If I could sneak a painting in here, there’s a spot for it right there on this wall. I bet no one would notice it for years.”

“I’ve heard about a guy who snuck in his own books into Barnes & Nobel,” Linda said as she got out of the way of a group of people entering the bathroom. “As long as he had a working bar code on it, the store never noticed.”

I milked my joke further. “I would have to make a folding frame, so it would fit under my coat to get past the guard.”

“But what would you tell people who wanted to see it?” she said. “Go to the place in the museum where it stinks the most?”

“No, no,” I said. “It would be much more sophisticated.” I pointed to the designation marker. “Go to Gallery G47.14.”

Linda laughed. “I think I’m all arted out for the night. Let’s get our coats.”

“Should we go get some food?” I asked.

“Right with ya,” she said.

Chapter 14

Art Gallery

Crap. I was an eighth of an inch off. I pulled out the 14×17 7/8” mat from our Easterly mat cutter and flung it across our workspace towards a barrel next to Jerry. “INCOMING!” I yelled. The mat bounced off the far wall and landed on the floor.

Jerry looked at the growing pile of misshapen mat board pieces. “Your aim sucks dude.”

The Easterly mat cutter is a fairly large cutting device that is mounted on a wall. If you broke open an Etch-A-Sketch and dumped all the sand out, it would look something like that. Just about everything we framed would need a mat cut to exact dimensions.

“How many do you need?” I asked Jerry.

He was arranging the metal moldings into U-shapes on a large work table, ready for the artwork and glass. “Three total.”

I placed another sheet of mat board in the machine and double checked the measurements. It’ll be 14×18 this time. I set the stops and slid the cutting mechanism down with a swift stroke. Now it was eighteen inches.

Jerry shook a can of foamy glass cleaner. “So Linda sounds pretty cool.”

I had told Jerry about our date at the MFA, how she really loved the dim sum restaurant we went to and that we basically had a blast together.

“Did you guys do tonsil hockey?” he asked.

I was trying to focus and not screw up the next cut. “Yes-we-did-tonsil-hockey,” I said mechanically.

He covered four sheets of picture glass with cleaner and started wiping the first one. “How was it?”

Oh boy, here we go again, I thought. It’s obvious that Jerry doesn’t get laid much. I’ve had to listen to his stories about hiring women through an escort service. They’re so expensive and they don’t care for him; blah blah blah. Now he was going to live vicariously through my relationship with Linda.

The doorbell out front went off. We both froze for a second and heard a woman’s voice say ‘hello’ from out front. It was Linda. She wanted to see the gallery and some examples of my work and then we were going out to dinner. “Why don’t you ask her yourself?” I said to Jerry. We both went our front.

“Linda, this is Jerry,” I said.

Jerry shook Linda’s hand. “Nice to meet you.”

“Gavin has told me some interesting things about you!” she said to Jerry.

“I’m sure all of it’s true,” he said.

“Well,” I held my arms out in a sweeping gesture towards the gallery floor, “this is where we frame the art!”

“We can take your piece of shit,” said Jerry “and make it look like it’s not a piece of shit. With a frame.”

“What if I bring in something that’s good?” Linda asked.

Jerry blinked twice and had to think about it. “Then we can make it shitty?”

She gave Jerry a grin and scanned the walls of artwork. “So this is where the magic happens?” She approached a knock-off of a Robert Kincaid pastoral village scene. Jerry nodded towards her and gave me an exaggerated thumbs up behind her back. Seriously, I was gonna smack the guy.

“I don’t have anything of mine on display here,” I told her. “This is stuff that the public wants to buy.”

“It all reminds me of something Bob Ross might’ve painted,” she said.

Bob Ross was one of those guys who taught painting back in the 90s on public television. He had this weird, fuzzy perm and a kind of wimpy demeanor. Every week he’d knock off another landscape with the minimal amount of brushstrokes.

I laughed. “Did you watch Bob Ross too?”

“As a kid,” she said. “He made it looks so easy.”

Jerry said, “William Alexander could’ve pistol whipped Bob Ross any day!”

William Alexander was the other guy on PBS who also taught painting. His reign was in the 80s before Bob Ross. He was a squat, old Prussian man with a funny German accent. He was known for pontificating about his philosophy on life while wielding what he called his “mighty brush”.

Jerry started goose stepping around the gallery and did his William Alexander impersonation. “Vit my Van Dyke brown unt my MIGHTY BRUSH,” He threw out a Nazi salute. “I shall rule ze world!”

Reluctantly both Linda and I laughed at this.

Jerry finished up with, “Thank you for vashing me.”

William’s tag line at the end of his show was “Thank you for watching me,” but with his German accent it sounded like “Thank you for washing me.” As a kid, this amused me greatly.

“I got a cool seafood place to check out,” I said to Linda. “If we can stop by my loft, I can get the two paintings I need to deliver tomorrow, and I can show you what else I’m working on.”

“Sounds good,” she said.

I asked Jerry, “Can you finish up the rest of the mouldings?”

“Sure thing,” he said, “I don’t want to keep you guys from your oral hockey game.” He walked back towards the work area with a smart ass grin on his face.

Linda looked at me and smiled.

“Sometimes he just does non-sequiturs,” I said casually. Seriously. I was gonna slug the guy.

We got to the Mill Street loft just as the sun was starting to set. Above our heads, the sky was filled with orange cloud crescents from the sunlight hitting them at just the right angle. I felt compelled to take a picture of it, but playback on a little screen never conveys the size and scope of the experience. For a split second, I started to mix and match the colors on an imaginary pallet in my mind. What the hell was I thinking? Like the world needs another painting of a sunset. I held Linda’s hand as we walked towards the door. It then occurred to me that I was hanging out with someone who I really enjoyed being with and it was a nice night. Jesus, I thought my myself, If I get any more sentimental, violins will start playing out of my ass.

We got to the entrance of my loft area. There was no one else up there. I opened the door and cleared out some empty cans of painter thinner to make room for Linda.

“This is where the magic happens,” I said. I started picking up crap from the floor, trying, in vain, to make the place look presentable. The place was a dump. In reality I was nervous about what Linda would think of my work. She walked up to my latest creation, still on the easel. I said, “I call this one Monet’s Sunrise. I just finished it yesterday.”

She nodded her head. “I like the colors you have coming off the water.”

I went over to the other painting that was leaning against the wall and picked it up. “This one is called Signac’s or Seurat’s Lily Pond. I haven’t decided yet.”

She studied it carefully. “I like it,” she said.

“I kind of used a pointillism style on that one.”

She looked back to my original painting for a moment. “You’re really good.”

“Thanks,” I said with a big smile.

She glanced around the room. “Is this all you’ve got?”

“I have photos of everything I’ve done on my website,” I said, “But I’m kind of sold out at the moment.”

“Sold out?”

“Yea, I also have to deliver these two paintings tomorrow.”

“To who?”

“Gary Easton”

She seemed surprised and thought for a moment. “The guy with the island?”

“Yeah.”

“How did that happen?”

I began loosening the screws on my easel that held the painting in place. “Tell ya what, let’s get something to eat and I’ll explain everything.” I grabbed both of my paintings and we drove over to Sandra’s, a seafood joint known for it’s fried clam plates. It looked like a tidal wave had scooped up every bit of flotsam it could dislodge from the Atlantic ocean and dumped it over the building—that was Sandra’s. Old fishing nets dangling from the ceiling, broken lobster pots perched at weird angles, brightly painted buoys scattered every few feet. It was New England nautical decor to the max. Our hostess sat us next to a salt water aquarium, filled with rising bubbles and colorful fish.

Linda was absorbing the ambience. She looked down at her menu and said, “Are we obligated to speak like a pirate in here?”

“The clam plate dinner is just nuts,” I said. “I can’t even finish it.”

Our waitress came over. She looked like she was around thirty years old. Her lids were caked with turquoise eye shadow and her hair had bleached streaks through it. “Hi, my name’s Jen! I’ll be servin’ you guys!” she said with way too much enthusiasm. “Can I get you any drinks?”

I tried not to stare at all the glop above her eyes. “I’ll do a Sam Adams.”

Linda looked down at her menu. “I’ll take a Corona.”

“Oh yah! I love Corona’s,” Jen said, slightly torqued up. “Did you ever try it with a Jäger shot?”

Linda had a ‘what the hell’s up with the woman?’ expression. “Why no,” she said.

“Those are wicked good.” Jen scribbled something down on her pad then bounded away towards the bar.

Kind of embarrassed, I said “I’ve never seen her in here before.”

“So tell me about Gary Easton,” Linda said. “I have to hear this.”

I brushed off a few crumbs from the red and white checker board tablecloth. “I’m under commission to paint for Gary Easton.”

“Wait,” she said, “how did you meet Gary Easton?”

“He came into the gallery and liked what he saw of mine,” I said. “I went to his office and signed a contract to paint for him.”

“How many paintings?”

“All of them.”

Linda looked at me with a puzzled expression.

“I have a lifetime contract to paint for Gary Easton. He thinks I have potential and wants to own everything I do, early on.”

“Wow.” Linda was taken aback. “Can I ask what kind of money he offered you?”

“Sure,” I said. “Fifteen hundred dollars a painting.”

“Ah, so that’s where you got all that money for all those art supplies!”

I grinned. “I kind of went nuts that day.”

“So you’re officially a full time artist,” she said. “Congratulations!”

“That’s what it looks like. I haven’t decided what I want to do with the gallery job.”

Jen came back with our beers. “Have you guys decided what you wanted to order? Our special tonight is Surf ’n Turf, but I love the fried oysters.”

“I’m thinking of just the clam roll,” I said. “The last time I had the clam dinner here, I was so stuffed I felt kind of sick. It was that good.”

“I got sick from eating some bad quahogs last summer at a beach party,” Jen said as if I was a close friend of hers. “I know what that’s like—I was barfin’ my guts out.”

Linda and I looked at each other; we had the same thought: Jen obviously didn’t get the concept of boundaries. I wanted to see where this ended up, so I decided to play along.

“Food poisoning is no fun,” I told Jen. “It can make you feel woozy.”

Jen nodded her head vigorously. “I definitely get woozy from Ghost Train Haze.”

Wait a minute, I thought. Ghost Train Haze is a type of pot. How did our waitress go from naming seafood to smoking pot? Someone else might have been offended at that point and called the manager. I found Jen kind of charming in a white-trash sort of way. Linda had a smile plastered on her face as I egged Jen on.

“If you don’t want to get woozy,” I said to Jen, “then maybe cocaine is the way to go.”

Jen got excited; she had found a kindred spirit. “Oh, you guys do crack?”

Linda started to lose it and buried her face in the menu. I kept going. “Well, I might do some crystal meth from time to time.”

Excited, Jen said, “Oh! I know a guy that cooks some great meth!”

How do you like that. I made a new drug addict friend!

Linda jumped in on the fun. “But dear,” Linda touched my arm and feigned a concerned wife tone, “you know your heroin intake can get out of hand, you should stick to your methadone.”

Jens expression changed dramatically, a somber look come over her face. “Oh yeah, heroin is bad,” she said in a low tone. Jen now felt sorry for me. I guess us heroin addicts can be dead at any moment.

“Well,” I handed the menu back to Jen, “I’ll do the clam roll.”

Linda said, “And I’ll take the baked seafood casserole.”

Jen wrote our order down and shuffled off into the kitchen.

Linda and I both cracked up and simultaneously took a slug of our beers and laughed. What a couple of assholes!

Chapter 15

DLC Loading Dock

The gravy train was rolling along nicely. I did two paintings last week that Linda and I delivered to the DLC headquarters. Each time I invoiced Veronica, one week later I’d get a check for my work. I figured that, in about a month, I’d be able to put down a huge deposit on a new car. Struggling artists and shitbox cars just seem to naturally go together. The concept of buying an actual new car versus something that’s at the end of it’s life was just weird to me.

I parked near the loading dock because there was a truck in each bay when I pulled in. I grabbed my two paintings and scaled the concrete steps. A couple of guys were unloading pallets and boxes from each of the trucks. Mooky was standing in the middle of all this with a clipboard in his hand, talking to one of the drivers. He noticed me enter the loading area with my paintings and gave me a nod. I thought, Beautiful, I won’t have to make small talk with him. I could just make my own delivery and get the hell out of there. I avoided a guy pushing a hand truck and ran over to my spot next to the flappy doors.

A painting was already there, leaning against the wall.

My brain locked up for a second, trying to comprehend this inanimate object. It wasn’t one of my paintings. It was just a random bunch of colors and shapes—someone’s bad attempt at surrealism. I stood there staring at it, as if I had found a set of Bigfoot tracks out in the woods. What the hell was it doing there? Did one of those guys just take it off one of the trucks? Like mine, there wasn’t a frame on it, so it wasn’t ready to go up stairs and get stuck on a wall someplace. I leaned my two paintings in front of it. I looked towards Mooky for answers, but he was still outside with his clipboard, approaching a third truck that had just pulled in. I returned to my car and started the engine. I remembered Gary saying something about hedging his bets. Was there another artist who had the same deal as mine?

I was supposed to have been at the gallery twenty minutes ago, so I drove straight there. I found Jerry in the back, finishing up the last cuts of some wood moldings at our table saw. “We’ve got an order for three more 10”x14” prints,” he said.

“Where’s the artwork?” I asked him. He pointed to the unmounted prints on the assembly table. That meant he needed three more mats cut. “Do they want museum grade mats or just the regular stuff?” I asked.

“The regular shit, ivory white,” he said.

I pulled out two large sheets of ivory white mat board from the box and placed the first one into the mat cutter.

“So. . .?” Jerry asked slowly.

“So what?” I said as I set the stops on the mat cutter.

“Did you. . .?”

I stopped and looked at Jerry. “Did I what?”

“Did you guys. . .?” Jerry made a circle with his finger and thumb on one hand and thrusted his other index finger a couple of times through—the universal hand signal for humping.

I exhaled slowly and thought for a second. Did I really have to tell him? If I didn’t he would just keep asking. “Yes,” I replied in a condescending tone.

Jerry’s eyes widened. “Awesome!”

Wonderful, I thought. I’d been transported back to my middle school lunch room. If I was lucky, maybe Jerry would try to blow some milk through his nose.

“You guys looks like a great couple,” he said.

“Yeah,” I adjusted the blade in the machine, “she’s really great.”

Jerry seemed satisfied with my response. He scooped up all his moldings and walked over to the alignment machine—a device that held the cut pieces in place so they could be joined together. “How’s the DLC contract holding up?” he asked.

“They keep sending the checks! It’s great.” I ran the first cut on the mat board. “I just delivered two paintings today.”

“How many paintings have you done for those guys?”

“I’m trying to do two a week,” I said, “That’s eight so far.”

Jerry drove a staple into each corner of the wooden frame he was working on. He took it out of the machine and held it up. With one eye closed, he checked the alignment and said, “Where are those paintings going?”

I had to think for a moment. [_Where are they going? _]I put down the second piece of mat board on the floor. “I’m not sure,” I said to him. “Gary never told me where they would end up.”

“Well what happens when you make a delivery?”

“His assistant Veronica comes down and gets them.” I thought for a moment. “At least she did on the first day,” I said.

“What do you mean ‘on the first day’?”

“I dunno,” I said, “I lean the paintings against a wall and get the hell out of there. I’m afraid of being tormented by Mooky.”

Jerry asked, “What’s a Mooky?”

“It’s a long story,” I began to set the stops on the cutting machine, but I had already forgotten the dimensions. I was completely distracted by Jerry’s questions.

“Is he going to have a showing of your work?” he said.

“That never came up; maybe it’s in the contract.” I absentmindedly started turning the stop screw on the machine. “I’m guessing he’s putting them up in the hallways of all the buildings they own.”

“They do own a crazy amount of real estate.”

“Think about it,” I said. “If you hung artwork in every room of the DLC corporation, including all the hallways, that would be what? Hundreds of paintings.”

“That’s a crap load of artwork,” he agreed.

“It makes sense, right?”

He nodded as he squared up the edges of the next frame. “Will they allow you to see where your stuff is hanging?

“They should at least tell me that, right?”

Jerry broke out in a big grin. “You could have your own gallery showing down there!” He pointed to the blank wall and pretended to be a museum tour director. “And this one by the water cooler was painted by Gavin in 2016. It is called Sunset At Poland Springs.” He crossed he arms and pretended to be a snooty patron. “Yes, yes. I like how he mixed the subtle hues of blue to create the sheen on the plastic jug.” He darted over to a stack of boxes. “Hey, what’s this one called? Paul Gauguin’s Copy Machine At Dusk! Note how it doesn’t have the stylistic flair of some of his later work like Monet’s Coke Machine Under Fluorescent Lights.”

I gave Jerry a sarcastic smile for his performance.

Chapter 16

DLC Headquarters

The parking spaces in front of the DLC headquarters were all taken, so I had to park way on the other side of the lot. I had sent Veronica an email, asking her specifically where Gary was hanging my paintings and could I come down there to see them? She never answered. I decided to just go for it and make a surprise visit. How long would it take for them to show me where my paintings were hanging?

It was a sunny day, so I tried to haul ass across the hot concrete without breaking into a run. I probably looked like those speed walkers who have that weird gait that makes them look like they’re in desperate need of a bathroom. I made it to the glass front doors and gave them a yank. I dove through the wave of cold air that escaped from the lobby and went right for the marble front desk. The same impassive receptionist from before was sitting there. She watched me with a bored expression as I approached.

“Hi, I’ve been doing some artwork for Gary Easton for a while now and I was wondering if I could. . .” I stopped myself in mid-sentence. I realized that trying to explain myself to this person wasn’t going to work. I had cut to the chase, “Can I speak with Veronica, his assistant?” I said.

The receptionist’s expression hadn’t changed since I entered the lobby. “Do you have an appointment?” she asked, probably for the ten-thousandth time.

I didn’t. I was going to have to bullshit my way through this. “I sent her an email last night,” I said.

“She knows you’re coming?”

“Yeah,” I said with a straight face. “We’ve worked together on a couple of things for Gary.”

The receptionist picked up the phone. “Who should I say this is from?”

“Tell her it’s Gavin. I just have a couple of questions I need to ask her.”

The receptionist punched in some numbers and spoke to someone. I noticed the guard was just staring out into the parking lot, bored out of his mind. Thank God I didn’t have his job.

The receptionist hung up. “Veronica will be down in a minute. Could you please take. . .”

I cut her off. “Right. Take a seat.” I planted myself on the same chunk of marble. I glanced around the lobby. Maybe they had hung my paintings someplace down here? Nope. The Ansel Adams prints hadn’t gone anywhere.

A minute later Veronica appeared from the elevator and shook my hand. “Gavin. What can we do for you?”

“Hey,” I said, “I was wondering how Gary likes his paintings?”

“He likes them very much and enjoys your work,” she said as if she was a politician sticking to her speaking points.

I asked her hesitantly, “OK. So. . .what does he plan on doing with them?”

“I’m not sure,” she said. “He hasn’t said anything.”

That wasn’t the answer I was looking for. I thought for a moment then said, “Is he going to have a showing of my work at some point?”

“I don’t know. That would be Gary’s decision.”

“Can I ask, where are they now?”

“I honestly don’t know.”

Veronica was beginning to sound like she was in a courtroom, answering all questions without incriminating herself. I pushed on with my interrogation. “Are they hanging someplace here? In this building perhaps?”

“Maybe. Sorry, I can’t help you.”

I couldn’t believe I was being completely stonewalled. How hard were these questions? I finally asked her, “Should I just keep painting then?”

“Of course,” she said. “You have been submitting your invoices and getting our checks from payroll?”

“Yeah.” I thought for a moment, but couldn’t come up with anything.

“Can I help you with anything else?” she said with a fake polite smile.

Frustrated that I hadn’t gotten any answers, I just said, “No. I guess that’s it.”

Veronica turned around and walked back to the elevator. The receptionist and guard gave me a look, like I should’ve known better than to ask questions to important people from upstairs. I just shut the hell up and got out of here.

I started to walk back to my car. Damn it! My paintings have gotta be someplace in that building. Why would they just stack them up in a broom closet? Somebody had to be framing them and putting them up in an office somewhere.

I had take a look for myself.

If I could find at least one of my paintings in a hallway, then I would be happy. I kept walking out into the parking lot until I knew the front desk couldn’t see me, then took a hard left and went straight for the loading dock at the back of the building. I cleared the first corner and pushed myself through a row of arborvitae plants and made a beeline for the loading dock. Mooky knew who I was at this point; I should be able to bullshit my way past him.

I ran up the concrete steps and spotted Mooky sitting there in his little room. He saw me and said, “It’s mistah artist again!”

“Hey Mooky!” I said, “I think I might’ve lost my wallet last time I was here. Can I check?”

He got up from his chair. “Wheah did you think you lose it?”

I pointed towards the flappy doors. “Probably over there at my regular spot.” I walked over to the space where I had left my paintings last time. Mooky followed me. I pretended to look around. “Yeah, I don’t see it.”

“Oh, that’s too bad you lost your wallet,” he said as he shuffled towards me. “I lost mine and they ran up $2,000 on my credit cahds.”

Oh boy, here we go—his version of the ‘I lost my credit card’ story. Everyone had one. I pretended to listen.

“I had to go to the bank and cancel them all,” he said. “I wasn’t hit with the chahges, because I told them in time.”

I thought he was done. Well that was easy enough.

Mooky continued, “You gotta watch out if you buy somethin’ online too. . .”

I cut him off. “Hey, where’s the bathroom?”

He pointed to the flappy doors. “Through those doors and to your right.”

I immediately hustled over to the doors. “Thanks Mooky!” I said as I pushed my way through the vertical slits. I took a right and then went down a hallway that was lined with old desks stacked on top of each other. The walls were painted cinderblock and the ceiling had pipes suspended from it. The hallway ended at an open area with a snack machine and an elevator door. The closest thing I spotted that could be considered artwork was a ‘safety first’ poster by a trash barrel. I hit the elevator button, a bell dinged and the doors opened up. I got in the elevator and examined my choices: floors one through five. I knew Gary’s office was on the top floor; I didn’t want to wander around there. I hit the button for the fourth floor and the doors closed.

The doors opened again and I walked out to a small lobby. I immediately spotted a pair of bland corporate-style prints on the opposite wall—two blue and red splotchy things that sort of complimented each other. Why did they even bother buying something like that? If they needed a splash of color on a beige wall, they could’ve hired a regular construction guy to chuck some paint on the wall and put a frame around it. I went left and came to an open area that had about twenty cubicles, each with a person doing something at a computer. I got a quick glance from the woman closest to me. Uh oh, I should’ve planned this better. I noticed everyone was wearing a dress shirt with tie, or at least a collared golf shirt. I was wearing a t-shirt with Edvard Munch’s The Scream printed on the front. I decided that if anyone asked, I would say that I was lost and looking for the cafeteria.

I briskly walked along the outer perimeter of the cubicles as if I knew where I was going. I figured if I just kept turning right every time I got to the end of a hallway, it would take me back to the elevator. I snatched a glance of what was inside all the offices that I passed. I saw a print of a lake scene, some more splotchy colors, a fuzzy impressionistic rendering of a city, bands of color in a square and finally, the classic ‘Hang In There Baby’ cat poster. I outlined the whole floor by following the same hallway, taking a right each time and ended back at the elevator.

I saw nothing there of mine.

I approached a middle aged guy waiting for the elevator. He looked like a manager of some sort—full suit and tie. I hit the glowing down button. Our eyes met for a second; we gave each other a polite smile and I went back to staring at the down button. C’mon c’mon c’mon, hurry up with the elevator, I don’t want to answer any questions from this guy. I was feeling very self-conscious because of the way I was dressed. The elevator doors opened with a ding and we both got in. I wanted to check out the third floor next, but he hit that button first. Shit, I don’t want to get out with him, he’ll see me wandering around. I hit the second floor button instead.

The doors closed in front of us. I was staring at the floor, trying to remain as inconspicuous as you can in a small box with one other person. Suddenly he asked me, “Is that called The Scream?”

I looked at him and he gave me a little point towards my shirt. “Huh?” I said, “Oh yeah, it’s by Edvard Munch.” Shit. He knows I’m not supposed to be here.

He said, “They should issue one of those to everyone who has dealt with human resources.”

The elevator dinged, the doors opened and he got out. That was close.

The second floor was laid out the same way as the fourth. I took a lap around the outer perimeter, peeking into all the offices I passed. More prints of street scenes, framed blobs of color and posters of funny memes. The closest thing I found that looked like something I painted was a print of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

Nothing of mine. Back to the elevator.

I got out onto the first floor and panicked. I was in the lobby with the receptionist and the entrance guard. Fortunately they were facing the wrong way and didn’t notice me. I quickly back-peddled into the elevator. Taking the elevator which ran right through the middle of the building was not a good idea. There had to be some stairwells that I could sneak around in and attack this labyrinth from another angle. I pushed the button for the basement floor and the doors closed.

I got out where I started this journey, in the basement hallway. As the elevator closed behind me, I spotted two people standing in front of the snack machine. They didn’t look like they belonged here. They were about my age; one was a guy all dressed in black, wearing Doc Marten boots, and the other was a woman in a paint-smeared smock. The woman reached into the machine and pulled out a candy bar. She laughed at something the guy said, then they both walked past me to my left. I followed them down a short hallway where they stopped in front of a security door. The woman swiped her ID card and they entered the room. They saw me a short distance behind them and held the door open for me. I must not have looked as suspicious as I thought. I accelerated up to the door, said thanks and entered the room behind them.

Holy fucking shit.

The room was filled with people all sitting in front of easels, painting. There was maybe twenty of them, each with their own cubicle, filled with painting supplies, blank canvases and brushes. It was as if you took my painting loft and crammed it into 6’x6’ space. The smell was incredible too—linseed oil and paint thinner—nothing like upstairs. I slowly walked past the first few cubicles, trying to comprehend what I was seeing. They each had their own little tchotchkes and photos attached to their walls, just like everyone else did upstairs. You could tell they’d been working there a long time. I noticed something peculiar; they weren’t making original works of art, but copying a painting that was set up next to them on another easel. I stopped next to a person who was putting the finishing touches on a perfect copy of a nude done in a cubist style. He had a pair of earbuds on and only glanced up at me for a second before focusing back on his work. I stood in the middle of the room, fascinated by all the pairs of finished canvases leaning against the cubicle walls.

A heard a woman’s voice behind me, “Are you the new hire?” she said.

I turned around and saw an older woman standing up, wiping her hands with a rag. Now what was I going to do? I couldn’t use the cafeteria excuse. I considered for a split second that maybe I could make a dash for the door. Screw it, I was in this deep; let’s see how far this goes. “Yeah,” I replied.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Gavin”

“My name’s Sue.” She walked past me then said, “Follow me.” Sue spoke in a voice that sounded like she’d been there for way too long. She brought me to the back of the room, to an empty cubicle filled with art supplies, blank canvases and an easel. “You can have this spot,” Sue said in a monotone. She pointed to a door on the other side of the room and sighed, “That closet has more blank canvases and supplies. Try to match the original as closely as you can.” She pointed to two paintings leaning against my cubicle wall. “These are the first two you should start on. Michael will bring out the next one when you’re done.”

I sat down on the stool in front of the easel. My brain was having a hard time processing everything that I’d just experienced. I tried to hide my confusion as I picked up a brush.

Sue asked briskly, “Are we ready to go?”

Her voice snapped me out of it. “Huh? Oh yeah,” I said, “All set.” Sue went back to her cubicle.

I slowly scanned my surroundings. All this stuff kind of looked familiar to me, but it wasn’t. Why the hell would anyone want to paint here, in a cubicle, for chrissakes? I looked around the room at all the other artists painting in isolation. There was another cubicle that was behind me. I peeked over the edge of the wall and saw a red-haired woman working on her painting.

She saw me looking at her and said, “Hi! My name is Janice.”

“Gavin,” I told her. “I guess we’re neighbors.”

“If I can help you with anything,” she said, “let me know.”

“What are you working on?”

“I have no idea what the artist’s name is,” she said. “It’s pretty easy though, it’s a snow covered landscape.”

“Can I ask how long have you been working here?”

“Eight years,” she said. “I’m due for a pay grade increase in about six months.”

She’s been here eight friggin years? A pay grade increase? What kind of artist could create in such a bizarre environment like that? I asked her, “Why?”

“Why?” She said as if I were some kind of idiot, “You didn’t read your benefits package? We’re getting the best health insurance plan around, plus full match back on any retirement savings.”

I didn’t know what to say to her. I studied the guy in the cubicle next to us, painting a duplicate of a fall nature scene.

“You’re going to like it here,” Janice said. “They really go all out for employee appreciation incentives. Have you ever been to the Bahamas?”

“No,” I said reluctantly.

Janice loaded up her brush with a dollop of brown paint from her pallet and placed it on the canvas. “Those are really fun,” she said.

“OK, thanks.” I sat back down behind my side of the cubicle, trying to make sense of all this weirdness. I looked around for another minute, then began to feel very uncomfortable. I needed to get out of there before they figured out who I was. I got up and walked back to the door I had entered. Sue watched me from her cubicle. I asked her, “Where’s the bathroom?”

“Down the hall, past the candy machine on the right,” she said.

“OK, thanks,” I mumbled. I pulled the door open and took a step out into the hallway that led back to the loading dock and freedom. I felt the doorknob touch my butt just as the door shut behind me. There’s a saying when someone quits a job and nobody gives a shit if you leave: Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out. Whatta ya know, I thought—a door actually hit my ass on the way out of my first and only corporate job.

Chapter 17

Linda’s Apartment

While Linda was in the bathroom putting on some makeup, I amused myself by snooping around the bookshelves in her living room. It was around 6 pm and we’d made plans to get dinner around 7. It’s interesting what you could learn about a person by doing an inventory of the books they own. I took Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights off the shelf and started flipping through the pages. I called out to Linda in the next room, “What can you tell me about Emily Bronte?”

I heard the water turn off in the sink. “She was a shut-in; her older sister wrote Jane Eyre and her brother Branwell was a drunken lousy painter,” she said.

I put the book back and continued going through her shelves. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, a couple of Charles Dickens and A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. “I heard Aldous Huxley died on his deathbed while under the influence of LSD,” I said towards the doorway behind me.

Linda’s voice came out of the bathroom, “When you gotta go, you gotta go.”

I continued my intellectual voyeurism with the next shelf. Uh-oh, this didn’t look good. I read the next books out loud, “Astrology, A Cosmic Science?” I said hesitantly. “Crystals for Healing: The Complete Reference Guide?” I waited for second but didn’t get a response. “Seriously?”

Something bounce around in the sink. “You never told me what your sign is,” she said.

Oh man, this wasn’t good. I had never gotten the impression that Linda was into new age crap. I knew if I had to lie about such things, it would put a serious dent in our relationship. I answered reluctantly, “Pisces.”

“If I got you a crystal, would you wear it?” she asked. I thought about it for of a moment, then heard snickering from the bathroom. “Those are Natalie’s books, my roommate’s.”

“You’re killing me,” I said as a wave of relief drenched me. The bottom shelf had a row of CDs. I picked up a small stack of them and said, “Do I have to guess whose CD’s these are?”

“Let ‘er rip, babe.”

I flipped over the first one – The Essential Backstreet Boys. “I hope to God these are your roommate’s,” I said, “or else we would have to break up right now.”

Linda came out of the bathroom, looking perfect. “I don’t even have any CDs. Everything is on my iPod.” She walked into her bedroom. I heard her voice from down the hallway, “So where are we going?”

Before I could answer, the front door opened and a woman in her late twenties entered the apartment, carrying a small bag of groceries. She looked at me and asked, “Are you Gavin?”

My first inclination was to say something like “I hope so,” playing off the fact that there was a strange man standing in her apartment. I used my better judgement and just went with, “Yeah. Are you Natalie?” I would save the jokes implying that I might’ve been a rapist for when I knew her a little better.

Natalie put the bag of groceries on the kitchen table “Nice to meet you Gavin,” she said.

Linda came out of her bedroom and walked over to the dining room table. She picked up an envelope, peered inside and said to Natalie, “The electric bill was $149 this month.”

“That’s cool,” Natalie said as she put something in the refrigerator. She closed the door and asked me, “Linda says that you’re an artist?”

“Yeah,” I said, “when I’m not making frames, I paint.”

Linda said, “Do you want a glass of wine? I’m going to have some.”

I told her, “Sure,” then sat down on the couch.

Natalie called out from the kitchen, “What do you like to paint?”

“Mostly things like seaside landscapes.”

Linda got two wine glasses out of a cabinet. “He’s really good,” she said to Natalie, ”he has a kind of impressionistic style, like Monet.”

I said, “What do you do for work, Natalie?”

Natalie walked out of the kitchen, “I’m an actuary at East West Mutual Insurance,” she said.

“What does an actuary do?” I asked.

“I spend a lot of my time doing reserve analyses or pricing adequacy reviews. I also do a lot financial projections for clients.”

Jesus Christ that sounded boring. I flat out lied and said, “interesting.” It was always helpful if you could get your girlfriend’s roommate to like you. I wasn’t sure whose couch this was, but if Linda and I left a wet spot, it would be nice to know the roommate would cut us some slack.

Linda handed me a glass of wine. She sat down on the couch next to me and took a sip from her glass. “Did you ever learn where your paintings end up?”

“No,” I said. “They wouldn’t tell me anything.”

“Really?”

“Yeah,” I said, sipping my wine. “I got so annoyed with them that I snuck in through the loading dock and checked the entire DLC building.”

“The DLC building?” asked Natalie.

“Gavin’s got a contract to supply paintings to those guys,” Linda said.

“You snuck in?” Natalie asked, “Couldn’t you have gotten in trouble?”

“I wanted to know what was happening to my paintings.” I said to Natalie. I turned back to Linda, “You wouldn’t believe what I found!”

“Two computer nerds looking at porn?” Linda said with a grin.

“No,” I said, “An entire roomful of artists, each working in their own cubicles.”

“People working on Photoshop at their computers?”

“No, actual painting-painting. Like with easels, brushes and tubes of paints,” I said. “It looked like they were copying other people’s paintings.”

Linda said, “Why would any decent artist want to sit in a cubicle all day?”

“But I work in a cubicle all day,” said Natalie.

“No, that’s different,” Linda said, then asked me, “What were they doing again?”

“They weren’t even doing their own paintings, they each had another one they were working from.” I told her.

Linda reiterated, “Copying paintings?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you saying that Gary Easton is forging artwork down there?” said Linda, “On an industrial scale?”

“I actually talked to one of them,” I said to her, “She said she’s been doing it for years.”

Natalie asked, “Did you recognize any of the artwork they were doing?”

“No,” I said to her, “The strange part is this woman actually likes working there. She mentioned her health plan and benefits package.”

“I hear the DLC corporation offers great benefit packages,” said Natalie.

“But it’s pointless behavior,” I said to her. “Why would anybody want to piss their life away doing something as meaningless than copying someone else’s artwork?”

“I’d love to do something more creative in my cubicle all day. Those people sound like they have a great job,” said Natalie.

I started to get worked up. “But the point of art is not to just make money. You’re leaving something behind—a legacy of what you’ve done on this planet.”

“If I’m lucky,” Natalie said meekly, “they’ll give me a plaque on the wall when I retire.”

I wasn’t getting anywhere with Natalie. Maybe being an artist is an affliction, a birth defect you have to live with. Some people couldn’t even put two sticks together creatively. Trying to explain that to someone who decided to dedicate her life to the financial consequences of risk was a waste of time. I took a big swig of wine from my glass and looked at Linda, “Where would you like to go to eat?”

Linda thought for a moment. “Did you get a picture of this operation?”

“A photo?” I sat there with a puzzled look on my face, “I could barely bullshit my way out of there before they figured out who I was, or wasn’t.”

Linda concentrated some more then said, “Where do you deliver your artwork again?”

“At the DLC corporate headquarters out by 495.”

Linda finished up her wine. “That would make an interesting exposé story: ‘Billionaire creates art forgery ring’.”

“Well how about food?” I asked Linda. “There’s a Mexican joint I like, off of 495.”

“Would we go past the DLC headquarters?” she said.

“Yeah.”

“Come on; let’s stop there.”

“Why? I’m sure they’re closed.”

“So what? I want to see the scene of the crime.”

I realized my girlfriend was asking me to take her to a dark parking lot in the middle of the night. What the hell was I thinking? I could get in a couple of gropes in before dinner. I liked that idea. “Ok,” I said, “let’s do it.”

Chapter 18

DLC Loading Dock (Night)

Linda and I pulled into the DLC parking lot about an hour after sundown. Everything was dark except for a little oasis of illumination under each of the scattered light poles. We drove past the few stray cars that were still there and got to my usual spot next to the loading dock.

“Well, here we are,” I told Linda.

Linda looked towards the front parking lot, “This place is huge.”

“I’m amazed that there are still people staying this late,” I said.

“I guess they have to climb the corporate ladder at night too,” she said. “Where do you deliver your paintings?”

I nodded towards the door above the concrete stairs, “Right there through that door.”

“Let’s see if it’s open,” she said.

“Why?”

“I want to get a picture of this clandestine art room you found,” she said. “This way we have proof that Gary Easton runs an art forgery ring.” She opened the car door.

I tried to stop her. “Linda, wait. . .” She was already walking towards the concrete steps. I got out and quickly caught up to her. I whispered, “What if someone sees us?”

She was already at the top of the stairs when she said, “Just tell them that you work here.” She tried turning the knob on the outside door; it was locked. She came back down the concrete steps. “Oh well, that would’ve been fun.”

I told her, “During the day this place is wide open. I was able to get past Mooky and have free run of the joint.”

“What’s a Mooky?” she asked.

Just then the door swung open and banged against the hand rail. There was a Hispanic-looking guy with a cigarette dangling from his lips. He was holding a lighter in one hand and the open door with the other. I guessed he was a janitor of some sort. He looked surprised to see two people standing out here in the dark. Did he think we were there to kill him?

I tried to defuse the situation by giving him a friendly smile and said, “Hi! My name is Gavin!”

He continued to study the strangers in front of him.

“I’m an employee here,” I said as I point to Linda. “I wanted to show my girlfriend my office.”

“Não entendo,” he said.

I asked him, “Do you know English?”

“No,” he said. “Eu sou do Brasil.”

I said to Linda, “OK, Brazil. Do you know any Portuguese?”

“Sort of,” she said to me. “I think employee is empregado.”

I told him, “I’m an employee here. Empregado.”

“Empregado?” he repeated.

“Yeah, Empregado,” I said to him. This seemed to relax him a little bit. I tapped my chest. “I know Mooky!”

He nodded his head and said, “Ah Sim, Mooky!”

I approached him on the stairs and motioned towards Linda. “This is my friend Linda.”

He lit his cigarette and gave Linda a quick look. “Linda,” he said.

I pointed to myself and spoke my name slowly. “Gavin.”

He exhaled a cloud of smoke, “Gavun,” he repeated. He said to me, “Meu nome é Pedro.”

I nodded my head. “Pedro,” I said back to him. There was a small painting of a reclining nude with large breasts leaning against the inside sill of the doorway. What the hell was that doing there? I politely squeezed past Pedro and picked it up. It wasn’t that good, more like something an art student would’ve done. I asked Pedro, “Is this yours?”

Pedro had a little grin on his face while he looked between me and his painting.

“I’m a painter!” I told him. “I do paintings too.” He didn’t get it. He just laughed to himself while he took another drag off his cigarette.

Linda studied the strange piece of art with me. “Why would this guy have something like this?” she said to me.

“I dunno,” I said, “Did we catch this guy stealing something from the forgery studio?”

Pedro laughed and shouted to someone inside the loading dock, “Esses caras como minha pintura !”

Someone respond to him with a laugh from the back of the loading dock. There was a second guy at the incinerator, loading something into it as it was running. I gave Pedro his painting back and approached the other guy, “Do you know English? Where did that come from?” I asked him. As I got closer I could see that there were maybe a dozen paintings leaning against the wall in the exact spot I had left mine, next to the flappy doors. I could feel the heat from the incinerator; It had been on for a while. The second guy scooped up two paintings as if they were a piece of trash, opened the incinerator door and casually tossed them in. I spotted a few paintings burning inside the incinerator before he closed the door.

That was completely nuts. “What the hell are you guys doing?” I said.

Pedro arrived behind me while the other guy grabbed three more paintings that were leaning against the wall.

“Who told you guys to do this?” I stressed a little louder.

The second guy pointed to the ceiling, “Big boss,” he said. Three more paintings disappeared into the incinerator. Pedro collected two more from the top of the stack and I saw one of my paintings that I brought down there that week. Wait a minute, my painting is going into the fire next! I bolted over to there and grabbed it.

I yelled at them, “WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU GUYS DOING?”

No reaction.

I shook my painting towards them for emphasis, “THIS IS MY PAINTING!”

Pedro didn’t even look at me as he threw two more them into the incinerator. The second guy kept repeating “Big boss, big boss” as he scooped up the rest of them from against the wall.

Wait a minute, where is my second painting? I stuck the one I was holding under my arm and pulled the remaining stack from the hands of the second janitor. I quickly flipped through them. My second painting wasn’t there; it was probably already in the fire.

Shit.

The second guy shook his head, casually removed the paintings from my hands, repeated “Big boss” again, pushed them into the flames and closed the door.

What. The. Fuck.

He gave the painting under my arm a glance as if his work wasn’t done. I glared at the bastard and made a growling sound like a dog hovering over his food bowl.

He wasn’t going to touch it.

He looked at me with a dumb expression on his face, shrugged his shoulders and said, “Big boss” one last time. He reached for a push broom leaning against incinerator. Pedro picked up his painting of the nude and they both left through the flappy doors.

“You saw that,” I said incredulously to Linda. “They just destroyed my painting, and this one was going to be next!”

“I know,” she said, “What the hell?”

I started pacing frantically, “Big boss, big boss, he said. My painting is GONE.”

“Was he talking about Gary Easton?”

“Yeah, I’m sure,” I said. “But why would he tell those guys to do that? I mean he paid for those paintings.” I continued pacing in front of the incinerator while I tried to make sense of what happened.

Linda said, “What do you want to do?”

I stopped and held my breath for a moment. What the hell was I going to do? I said, “I’m going to call fucking Gary Easton tomorrow, that’s what.” I shook my head and examined the sole surviving artwork that I held in my hands. There was nobody else down there, so we headed back to my car.

When we got outside it then hit me. “Pedro kept the boobs!” I said with a renewed burst of energy. “Can you believe that? He kept the boobs, but chucked everything else.” I looked up at the stars and howled to Linda’s extraterrestrial artists, “Who knew I should’ve been doing more boobs!”

Chapter 19

Ikea

“So is taking a girl to Ikea considered a date?” Linda asked me as we drove there. IKEA is this weird Swedish furniture store that somehow has managed to invade the American retail space. It sells not pre-fabricated furniture, but UN-fabricated furniture. You’ve got to somehow manage to assemble this stuff yourself from the cryptic instructions that are included. The cost savings are then transferred to you, along with a Swedish migraine. Anyone with a New England sense of style shunned the place, but I was perfectly happy with it. I was also happy that I could now replace my broke college student milk crate chic with Scandinavian particleboard.

“I dunno, I think we’ve entered a grey area,” I told Linda. “I think that we’re more or less hanging out now on a regular basis, versus strictly dating.” I considered what I just said for a moment then continued, “Even though I said to you ‘Hey, do you want to go to Ikea with me?’”

“Then I guess I’m a cheap date,” she said with a laugh as she watched some passing cars.

“Hey, play your cards right and you’ll get a dinner out of this.”

“You’re not talking about the meatballs, are you?”

“Oh yeah. . .” I said in my authoritative film trailer voice, “get ready for meatballs!” Apparently, one of the big attractions of going to IKEA was having a good ol’ heaping plate of Swedish meatballs in their industrial style cafeteria. Are the Swedes obsessed with their meatballs? Who knows. As an American, I know there are three things that come from Sweden: IKEA, meatballs and ABBA. I got to experience two out of three today.

Linda asked me, “Did you get any word back from Gary Easton?”

“Not yet,” I said. “I sent an email to Victoria telling her what we saw. I told her I needed to speak to Gary as soon as possible.”

Linda checked out my painting, still sitting on my back seat. “What do you think happened to the rest of your paintings?”

“I dunno, but I’m certainly going to find out.”

We pulled into the parking lot of the giant blue and yellow IKEA building and parked in the garage. People were swarming all over the place, balancing multiple boxes on roller carts, trying to get their stuff into their cars. We went inside and headed towards the escalator where I was almost bowled over by a fat middle-aged woman struggling with a over-laden shopping cart.

Once upstairs, we made it to the sanctuary of the store map kiosk, outside the barrage of humanity that was in there. Linda watched the lines of people flowing past her. “This place is a madhouse.”

I pointed towards the middle of the showroom map. “I guess I’m looking for living room storage. I could use something with drawers and maybe a shelving unit.” The store was literally laid out like a giant rat maze. The map showed, with a curving dashed line, the only way to escape from this labyrinth. Linda also looked at the map and said, “So, if we make it through this rat maze experiment, do they reward us with meatballs instead of cheese?”

With a vague sense of direction, we joined everyone else on their furnishings pilgrimage.

We passed through multiple household dioramas of clean, modern furniture, all labeled with a tag that displayed its peculiar Swedish name. After checking out a living room set, Linda turned to me and said,

“I’ll take an Ektorp on top of a Randerup next to a Svalsta with an Älvängen on top of it, along with a Vittsjö.” What she’d said was IKEA for “I’ll take a love seat on top of a rug next to an end table with a lamp along with a laptop stand.”

I asked her in feigned amazement, “You mean you don’t want some Sinnligs too?” Why they didn’t put an English description first is puzzling, but I guess that’s the whole charm of coming here.

“Well obviously I’ll want some Sinnligs (a scented candle),” she said, “once I’ve found the perfect Smörboll (a duvet cover).”

My phone dinged in my pocket and I checked to see who texted me. “Holy crap! It’s Victoria!” I sat down on a white Timsfors (a loveseat).

Victoria: I have Gary with me. Can we do a video chat?

I called up Victoria’s number and initiated a video call. The phone rang and I saw Victoria’s face appear on the screen. Linda sat down next to me and watched the little screen in my hands.

Victoria said, “Gavin, I got your email. Gary is here with me, I’m going to hand my phone to him.”

I saw a quick view of some ceiling tiles and Gary’s face snapped into view. “Hey guy, I’m here with my lawyer Tom.”

The camera panned over slightly to a middle aged man sitting next to him. “Hi Gavin,” Tom said.

Gary’s face reappeared. “So we understand that you witnessed something on our property that you would like to discuss with us?”

“Yeah,” I could feel myself starting to grip the phone tighter. “I found two guys burning a bunch of paintings in your incinerator at the loading dock. They were about to throw my painting into the fire.”

“What were you doing on our property after hours?” Gary said.

Shit. I needed a bullshit excuse. The only thing I came up with was, “I wanted to show my girlfriend where I worked. Some guys let us in.”

Gary asked me, “What guys?”

“Look,” I said sternly, “I found these guys trying to burn my painting! Why were they doing that?”

A look of concern came over Gary’s face. “Gavin, didn’t you get paid for your work that week?” Gary continued in a condescending tone. “Technically that was my painting, was it not?”

I replied slowly, “Well, yeah. . .”

“I didn’t think the quality of your work was satisfactory this week,” he said dismissively.

“But you paid for it!”

Tom took the phone from Gary. “Can I remind you, Gavin, that you signed an exclusive personal services contract with Mr. Eastman. You have no property interest in that artwork, once the terms of the contract are met.”

“Why did he have to burn it?” I asked Tom. “Couldn’t you guys just put it in a vault somewhere?”

Gary’s face reappeared. “Again, I don’t think the quality of your work was satisfactory,” he said. “As I said, I’m invested in your future results.”

“But I saw a ton of paintings getting trashed that night.”

“I have a lot of artists under consignment, Gavin. As I’ve mentioned to you, I’ve hedged my bets.”

I glanced at Linda; she couldn’t believe what she was hearing either. I adjusted the framing on my face and propped the phone up on my knee. “Do these artists even know that you’re destroying their art work?

Tom’s face reappeared again, “It’s his exclusive property, Gavin; he can do anything he wants.”

I thought for a moment and hit him with, “I found the secret art room.”

Slightly exasperated, Gary said, “What secret art room is that?

“You have a room full of artists copying other paintings,” I said. “I saw it. You have some kind of forgery ring setup!”

Toms face quickly appeared on the screen. “I need to remind you, Gavin, that you also signed a non-disclosure agreement. Any mention of anything you see on the grounds of this company can result in civil penalties.”

Gary said, “Gavin, why would I need to forge artwork when I can buy any original?”

I said, “Why do you have all those painters working for you?”

“There’s a market for lower quality originals, off the rack stuff. I’ve got an entire plant in the Philippines making hundreds of originals to sell to the Chinese market. They’re not forgeries if they are all mine.” Gary continued in a snide tone, “If you are not inspired to create your own work, I can put you on staff at a much reduced rate.”

Exasperated, I replied with the most logical answer I could think of, “Look, can’t you just give me back my artwork instead of burning it?

“Sure,” Gays said, “I could do that for a ten percent profit. Pay me $1650 and I’ll sell you your artwork back.”

I winced, “I’ve got to buy my own artwork back to keep it from being destroyed?”

“I’m a businessman, Gavin. If the demand for a single product is a single person, then there is a profit to be made.”

I shouted into my phone, “You gotta be kidding me. You’re holding anything I create for ransom?” A couple standing next to a Föckelby, or a Möckelby table, or whatever the hell it was called were staring at us. Linda squeezed my arm to remind me to keep it together.

Tom’s stupid head appeared again on my screen. “I need to remind you that you signed an exclusive contract with Gary. Anything. . .”

I cut him off, “Yeah, yeah. FINE.” I took a deep breath, then said, “OK, then I won’t paint.”

Tom continued, “Any money is contingent on the delivery of a painting to the specifications of the contract. In short, if you don’t paint, you won’t get paid.”

God damn it.

I felt like taking a Arv Bröllop (a cake stand) and flinging it against a Kallax (a bunch of shelves).

“Gavin, I’m paying you to be a painter,” Gary now said in a fatherly voice. “If you want to stop painting, I can’t force you to create. I’m not losing any money if you don’t deliver. But, if you have a better arrangement, say in retail sales, and would like to pursue that, feel free.”

Retail sales. He really knew how to kick a guy when he was down. I asked him, “What happened to all my other paintings I delivered?”

Tom quickly swiveled the phone towards him, “Mr. Eastman doesn’t have to answer that.”

Gary reverted back to his impersonal, professional voice, “It was nice speaking with you Gavin. I hope you want to continue our arrangement. I’m looking forward to seeing more of your work in the future.”

“But in the mean time?” I said.

“We will see how things develop. The contract still stands,” said Gary. “And also, please return my latest painting.”

“The one that I saved from going into the fire?”

“I paid for it. It’s my property.” Gary handed the phone back to Victoria, whose face appeared for an instant, then the connection dropped without any goodbyes.

I tapped my index finger on my phone while I stared at it in silence. I was having a hard time comprehending what had just transpired. Linda had been leaning on my shoulder the whole time. She looked at me with a concerned expression. I looked down, pinched the corner of the cushion I was sitting on and flippantly said, “So what do you think of this love seat?”

“What do you want to do?” Linda asked me.

I stood up and said, “What the hell, let’s go get some meatballs.”

Chapter 20

Artist Loft

“What do you mean burned up?” James said as he applied a layer of white gesso to a canvas. I had to fill James in on what I had discovered before I painted anything else.

“There were these two Brazilian guys throwing a ton of paintings into an incinerator,” I said, “including mine.”

“Whose paintings?”

“I dunno, it was a whole bunch of different styles. It looked like Gary was cleaning house of his mediocre artwork. Pedro took the boobs.”

“Wait a minute, what boobs?”

“It’s a long story,” I said. “I told those guys that I saw what was going on down there.”

“What did Eastman have to say about this?”

“He said he wasn’t satisfied with the quality of my work! Can you believe that?” I did my ‘Lord Of The Manor’ impression, a rich guy with an English accent. “Oh OH OH! I don’t like the QUALITY of your work my good man.” I brushed aside some imaginary shrubbery. “Dig these bushes up and remove them from my property at once.”

James said, “But he paid you for your work.”

“That’s what I’m saying.” I started pacing in James’ tiny work space. “He so friggin’ rich that he doesn’t CARE.”

He shook his head. “Corporate American screws the little guy over again.”

“I’m not sure what he even likes. He had a Hitler on his wall for God’s sake.”

James removed a brush hair from his canvas with his fingernail then said, “You were pumping out two paintings a week there. How long were you going to do that for?”

“I know, I know. I was mostly concerned about quantity versus quality. I’ve never made so much money this fast.”

“Maybe you need to focus more on the work.”

“But how do you say one painting is better than another one? More brush strokes? Finer details?”

“He said he liked your work initially. It’s what got this started, right?”

“Right,” I stopped pacing. “I guess I gotta go back to what I was originally doing.”

“Just focus on the work,” he said.

“I think I got it. Let me take another whack at this.” I walked over to his doorway. “Thanks James.”

I went back to my room and started to prepare another painting. I was going to call this one “The Division Of Notre-Dame.” I was going to use a technique called divisionism or pointillism, where you group different dots of color together to form a different shade. When you stand back and look, the dots all blend together. It would be something like Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. It would take a while because I had to plan the different hues and get the details just right. I also found a postcard of the cathedral from the turn of the century and I used that for reference. I got to work. . .

Five days later, I drove to the DLC headquarters with my new painting plus the one Gary insisted on having back. My phone rang, it was Linda.

I answered the phone in my forties gangster voice, “Hey doll face, what’s up?”

She laughed. “OK, Sport. Whatchya doin’?”

“I’m on my way over to deliver a new painting to DLC.”

“How did it come out?”

“I’m happy with it. I took friggin’ forever to work in the pointillism style. Now I know what writers’ cramp feels like.”

“Did you think he’s going to like it?”

“He’s gotta like it,” I said with mock confidence.

“What are you doing this Thursday?”

“I dunno. Wadda ya got?”

“Since you took me to the MFA,” she said with a sly hint in her voice, “I’ve got another museum we can go to – the MOBA.”

Distracted, I said “Ah cool.” I then thought about it. “What’s the MOBA?”

She did a dramatic pause and said, “The Museum Of Bad Art!”

I laughed. “No way! I’ve heard of that place!”

“It’s located in Somerville in the basement of a movie theatre. I figure we can catch a movie while we’re there and have dinner afterwards.”

I considered the implications. “What a minute, are you trying to give me some kind of inspiration for my work?”

“Hey,” she said with a laugh, “after that Ikea date I don’t know.”

“But that wasn’t a date,” I told her. “We were just hanging out.”

In a sing-songy voice she said, “You say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to.”

I laughed. “OK, you’re on.”

I got to the loading dock and took both of my paintings up to Mooky’s little room. He was sitting there drinking a cup of coffee.

“Hey Mook!” I said to him, “I’m gonna drop these off in my usual spot.”

“OK,” he said as he put down his cup, “How was the traffic coming ovah heah?”

I quickly accelerated over to the flappy doors and pretended I didn’t hear him.

Damn.

Another painting was leaning against the wall. It was a generic looking landscape with some interesting cloud formations. I put my paintings in my usual spot and studied the other composition. My stuff looked way better than that. I walked over to the incinerator on the other side of the room. The door was closed and it felt cold; nobody had been using it recently. That was good.

I wondered: do these other artists even know what’s been happening down here? Gary did mention he was hedging his bets, but I couldn’t see how this other guy’s stuff was anything special.

On the other side of the loading dock a phone rang in Mooky’s room and he answered it. That gave me an idea. I wonder if Mooky was in on this? Did he know what was going on here at night? I walked over to him.

Mooky was speaking into the phone. “Ok, ok, I’ll be heah until five. Ok. Bye.” He hung up.

“Hey Mooky,” I asked him, “I noticed there’s another painting over there by the doors. Do you know where that came from?”

“Oh yeah,” he said, “that’s a gentleman by the name of Billy. Nice fella.”

“How often does he come by?”

“He comes by with a paintin’ every two weeks or so.”

“Really?”

“There’s about five of you guys that come by with paintin’s,” he said.

“Five?”

“Yeah, one guy does a lot of nudies.” He added with an embarrassed smile, “I kinda like those.”

I asked him, “What do you do with them?”

“Victoria said to just leave them theyah. I guess she gets ‘em laytah.”

“And you’ve never thrown them into the incinerator?”

Mooky had a puzzled expression on his face. “You shouldn’t do that. That’s someone’s property.”

“Have you seen anything like that at night?”

“No. I go home at five,” he said.

OK, so it sounded like Mooky wasn’t in on any of this. I figured I could use an ally to keep tabs on what has going on around this place. If I needed to dig up any more information, I definitely wanted him on my side.

“So Mooky,” I said to him, “how about those Red Sox?”

Chapter 21

MOBA

Driving into Boston at night could be an intimidating experience, especially for someone who had lived out in the suburbs their whole life. The Museum Of Bad Art was located in Davis Square in Cambridge, which in my mind, was still part of the jumble of streets called Boston. The area was jammed with drivers who acted like they knew we were from the suburbs and they decided to taunt with us by getting in our way.

Linda tapped on her window, “Ooh! Look! I bet that guy is selling crack!”

I jammed on my brakes to avoid hitting a blue Corolla. “I think we’re on Mass Ave., and we need to get over to Davis Square.” I handed her my phone. “What does the GPS say?”

She zoomed in on the little screen. “I think you need to turn left up here.”

I corrected her, “It’s called bang a left.”

“What is?” she asked me.

“When you’re in Boston, you don’t say turn left, you say bang a left.”

“That’s good to know,” she said sarcastically, then glanced down at my phone, “I think we passed it; turn around.”

“OK, I’m gonna bang a you-wee.” I quickly darted into a side street and hoped the next street headed in the right direction.

“Pull over; let’s ask this guy,” Linda said.

Uh-oh—not that—the eternal conflict between the sexes of ‘asking for directions versus I have a map’ cliché. I felt pretty confident that the GPS on my phone would get us there in no time. Maybe in five years that would be an argument between us, but since it was still early in our relationship, I just kept it to myself. We saw a guy in a blue sweater on the sidewalk; he was walking with a weird gait. He wasn’t pushing a shopping cart filled with crap, so I thought maybe he could be of some help.

We pulled over. Linda leaned out of her window and said to the guy, “Do you know how to get to Davis Square?”

The guy darted us a frightened glance, his body tightened up and he kept stiffly walking. I let the car slowly roll forward to keep up with him. He had a terrified expression on his face.

Linda called out again, “Davis Square?”

He started to walk even faster. We followed him for about half a minute, waiting for an answer.

Linda leaned back into the car. “I think the guy is just nuts,” she said.

“You wanted to ask for directions. . .” I said. We watched him move ahead of us, his arms swung with a strange staccato. I had to stop when we came upon another car.

“I bet he’s going to tell his psychiatrist that he escaped an abduction today,” Linda said.

Eventually we found the Somerville Theatre and pulled into the parking lot around back. I turned off the engine and Linda called up a web page on her phone.

“It says here that Frank, the guy who runs the place, uses the same criteria to spot bad artwork as a judge once famously applied to obscenity: He knows it when he sees it.” She slid the page down further, “What we look for are pieces of work that are produced in an attempt to make some sort of artistic statement — but clearly something has gone wrong.”

“I know how that feels,” I said.

She read some more, “It says one of the museum’s co-founders got the idea in 1994, when someone hung up a painting that an antiques dealer was about to toss onto the trash. The dealer had only wanted the frame, not the crappy painting it contained.” Linda looked at me with a satisfied smile.

“What? You wanted to see culture?” I said as I get out of my car. “Here we go.”

The museum was in the basement of the old theatre building. By following the fire escape stairs down to a narrow hallway, you came to a sign stating, “Art too bad to be ignored.” We stopped past the entrance and took in the ambience of the environment for a moment. It looked like this place was a storage spot for the theater before they moved the junk out and gave everything a coat of white paint. It had a low ceiling with pipes running the length of it along and a string of bare light bulbs right where the workmen left them. The MFA spot that I had claimed for myself outside their bathrooms blew this place away.

“OK,” Linda said, “now we’re talking.” She walked towards a painting of two blue poodles dancing together with their mouths open. She read the placard next to it. “It’s called Blue Tango, purchased in a thrift shop in Brownsburg, Indiana.”

We both examined it carefully for a moment, then I spoke first, “Yup, it’s bad.”

“I can see why they didn’t want it,” Linda said. “How long do you think it would take to paint this?”

“Four hours, tops.” I quickly scanned the other paintings, “I notice that dogs seem to be an important theme around here.”

We approached a painting of some hills and a barn called On A Windy Day. Looking carefully, you could see the artist did his best to convey windiness: a person with a kite, a flag on the barn, swaying tree branches, flower petals being carried away, and to hammer the point home, a beagle in the foreground with its ears blowing in the same direction as everything else.

Linda said, “It kind of reminds me of the artist who did the guy with an apple floating in front of his face.”

“The Son of Man?” I said, “By Rene Magritte?”

“I guess so,” she said. “I’m mostly thinking about his use of color tones.”

“It’s certainly surreal. . .but in a sort of obvious way.”

Next to it was a plastic drainage pipe that arced across the entire wall and ultimately took a hard right turn through it. “I suppose this is apropos—having actual sewage running past all the artwork.”

“I suppose if it did burst open,” she said, “it would be no great loss to humanity.”

Most of the artwork was done by artists who had limited talent, and it showed. You couldn’t really slight them for trying. When you got to someone who had a sense of perspective and proper shading, it jumped out at you. One of the better rendered paintings was President Kennedy Eating Ice Cream. (Anonymous donation) Typically with presidents, you’d want to convey a sense power and dignity, but this one showed him with his jaw agape, devouring a half-eaten ice cream cone. I was sure the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis foundation didn’t want this for their hallways.

“Gavin! Come here!” Linda said from across the gallery. She was standing in front of Sunday On The Pot With George, a painting of a man in his underwear, or perhaps an adult diaper, but rendered in the pointillism style. “Weren’t you working on something like this?” she said with a grin.

“Ha-ha, very funny,” I said to her. “I said I was inspired by Georges Seurat, I wasn’t copying him.”

She took half a step back, “you know, if you stand back and squint, it doesn’t get any better.” We slowly made our way down the wall of paintings.

“So you know what I’m noticing,” I said, “Is that half of these paintings were donated by the artists themselves.”

“Yeah?”

We paused for a moment next to The Gilded Nude, a painting that was done by someone aping Picasso’s later abstract period. The artist was going for a Cubist composition but the focus ended up on her left tit. “I have a problem with people donating their artwork to the museum.”

“Why?”

“There is something pure about an artist abandoning their artwork and having it end up at a flea market, or even better, found in the trash.” We continued walking. “They admitted to themselves that it was bad and rejected their own creation. They had to accept that their artwork would live in obscurity, forever.”

We barely slowed down for Spewing Rubik’s Cubes (purchased from a Boston thrift store) “And?” she said.

“By donating it here,” I said, “you’re hoping at least for infamy. Even if people are snickering at it, your art affected another human being in some way. It was successful in some manner.”

“But now you’re talking about the Museum of Failed Art,” she said. “We’re here at the Museum of Bad Art.”

“Van Gogh died knowing he was a failed artist. His stuff was good; he just failed to affect anyone.”

“Are you saying that if he painted blue poodles, he might’ve had a chance?”

I laughed at the thought of a Van Gogh rendering of a blue poodle. “Well, they would’ve been good blue poodles.”

We stopped at Blue Mushroom Man (purchased at a Boston thrift store), a reasonably rendered head of a bald man, suffering from some kind of oral fungal infection. “Now let’s talk about someone like Mark Chapman.”

“The guy who shot John Lennon?” Linda said.

“Yeah. He knew he was a complete obscure nobody. He wanted the fame, but he knew he didn’t have the talent. He knew if he did something bold, he’d be remembered forever. The asshole pulled it off.”

She asked me, “So the people who donated artwork here are the Mark Chapmans of the art world?”

“Kind of,” I said. “Hell, they can brag that they have a piece in a museum somewhere!” My phone alerted me that I had a text message. “What’s worse for an artist? Dying broke and in obscurity, or just broke, but knowing that you accomplished something with your life?”

I called up the message screen. “Holy crap, it’s a message from Gary Eastman!” I sat down on a giant red circular couch that certainly was an example of bad furniture. Linda sat next to me to get a better view of my phone.

It was a single link to a YouTube video. I tapped on it and the video began with a handheld shot of a line of paintings leaning against a cinderblock wall.

Someone was speaking Portuguese off camera. “OK é rolamento”

Oh no.

I recognized the location. It was the loading dock at the DLC building. It was the same spot where I had left my artwork and seen those assholes throw everything into the incinerator.

The camera tilted up to reveal Pedro, “Começa agora?” he said to the camera.

“Sim,” was heard off camera.

Pedro went to the far end of the paintings. He picked up the first one, a rendering of a woman in a room. He showed it to the camera for a moment, walked over to the incinerator, opened the door and pushed it into he fire. The camera lingered on it so we could clearly see the flames start to consume it.

Pedro went back for the second one, a nighttime street scene. He showed it to the camera for a second and then into the fire it went. Now Pedro entered the frame holding my painting that I saved from the fire a few weeks ago.

My heart stopped for a second; I couldn’t believe what I was watching.

With a quick toss, he flipped it into the fire.

God damn it.

“I can’t believe these guys are doing this,” Linda said in astonishment.

I could feel my face getting redder as I watched Pedro load half a dozen more paintings into the incinerator. He did the same little pause for the camera each time he let one go into the flames. It was as if someone wanted to clearly document the destruction for whoever was watching the recording.

“Why are they doing this?” Linda said.

I was gripping my phone so tightly it felt like it might spontaneously combust from the pressure. Seething, I said, “I-don’t-know.”

Pedro picked up the final painting, the one I had just delivered a few days ago.

Motherfucker.

He casually walked over to the incinerator and attempted to place it inside. Because it was filled with burning paintings, he had to force it in with a couple of wiggles. He closed the door and said, “E issue aí.” The recording stopped there.

We sat in silence for a moment. I felt like I had been hit on the head with a shovel.

Linda asked, “I thought he’s been paying you for your artwork?”

I gritted my teeth and said, “He has.” I sat in silence next to her for a few moments. I couldn’t believe Gary had the gall to send something like this to me. He knew how it would affect me; it was as if he was getting off on some sick mind game.

Concerned, she asked me, “What are you going to do?”

I pondered it for a few seconds.

Slowly, I said, “If he wants to play that game. . .”

I took a deep breath, “. . .if he’s going to pay me and not care what I do. . .”

I liked this idea. It was almost like an epiphany come over me.

“. . .then chuck everything into the fire . . .”

I slowly stood up, really warming to the thought.

“. . .I am going to make so much bad art. . .”

I held my finger up in dramatic fashion; I was going full dictator. “I will put this place to shame!”

Chapter 22

Artist Loft

Who knew you could find all the paint colors an artist could ever want at Home Depot. If Gary was putting everything of mine into the fire, then why should I be painting with the good stuff? I went all out with one gallon jugs of Rust-Oleam oil based enamel paint. They had all the primary colors; Hunter Green, Safety Red, Safety Yellow plus flat black and white. I also picked up a gallon of Rusty Metal Primer, which is a sort of brown color and my favorite: handicap blue, which is kind of a sky blue. Who knew handicap parking spaces had their own assigned color? I could’ve asked the person behind the counter to mix me any shade of latex paint, but why complicate things?

I got a nice assortment of cheap-o brushes, ranging from half an inch to 3 inches. No clean up, I’d just thrown them out after I created another masterpiece. I also picked up a ten foot by twenty foot canvas drop cloth and a staple gun. Typically a drop cloth is used to keep paint off the furniture when painting your living room. I figured I could cut it up, staple the pieces to a frame and use them as canvases. It took two trips to my car to get all that stuff up to my loft.

I remembered what Gary said about minimums in the contract. My artwork had to be roughly two square feet in size and covered with about eighty percent paint. No problem. He’d never mentioned anything about time, though. How long should I be taking to make something he considered to be of sufficient quality? No idea. I was sure I’d be inspired enough to do this stuff as fast as possible. I finished my first painting today in exactly fifteen minutes. I’d covered my second canvas with some Glidden Flat White as a form of gesso when James walked in.

“Hey, how is the Eastman contract working out?” he said.

I couldn’t tell him. If I told James that two Brazilian guys hired by Gary were throwing everything I did into an incinerator, he would ride my ass about the evils of corporate America and would go off on an incessant loop of “I told you so’s” forever. If I also told him that I was only submitting artwork for the money, he’d think I was the biggest sell-out in history. If Gary still wanted to pay me for whatever I came up with, I would make him regret for ever having me sign that contract. The plan was to buy a new Jeep Wrangler that I’d been fantasizing about. I figured it should take about six more paintings. I told James, “Hey, it’s going great.”

He looked around the floor and saw all the gallon cans of enamel paint. “Are you going to turn your car into a hippy mobile?”

“I’m going in a completely different direction, James. I’ve decided to really embrace abstract art.”

He gave me a sour look, like I’d just farted. He said slowly, “I thought you said that you hate abstract art.”

“No no, I just didn’t appreciate the nuances of it,” I said. “I think Gary is going to like what I’m coming up with.”

Puzzled, James looked at the paint cans around his feet. “How are you supposed to work with this stuff?”

“Oh it’s great. It dries real fast.” I picked up my first painting, a mostly yellow streaked canvas with some red smudges along the edges. “I call this one Rothko Simplified.” Mark Rothko was an abstract painter known for doing two or three squares of color on a canvas. That was it. I had him beat; I would go with only one.

James looked at me in silence. I could tell what he was thinking; this is a joke. It was a joke, but I couldn’t tell him. Confused, he seemed to be waiting for me to reveal the punchline, then looked back down at my canvas. “How do you know if it’s upside down?” he said.

I leaned the canvas against the wall. “I’m just about to do another one, watch this.” I slid a bunch of paint cans away and cleared a space on the floor. I took a blank canvas and set it on the ground and said, “Remember how Jackson Pollock flicked all that paint onto his canvases?”

“Yeah?”

I took a screwdriver and opened a half-pint size can of Rust-Oleam aluminum color that I had bought just for this. I held it above the middle of the canvas. “Watch this,” I said as I poured the entire contents of the can into the middle of the canvas, as if I was pouring frosting over the top of a cake. The pool of paint slowly creeped out, forming an expanding circle. With the remaining dribble from the can, I did a flourish of splatter droplets near the edge of the canvas. “I’ll call this one Pollocks Puddle,” I said to James. I admired my work as the spreading paint came to a halt, after covering most of the canvas.

“That’s really stupid,” said James.

“Look, I know.” I threw the empty can of paint into a trash bag. “He said he wasn’t happy with my work. I’m kind of frustrated at the moment.” I sat down on my stool. “He’s obligated to pay me, so I kind of think that this as way of getting back at ‘the man’.”

“So that’s it?” he said sarcastically, “You’re done creating masterpieces for the day?”

“Of course not; I’m going to start a new painting, one of my own.”

“You’re not going to sell it to Gary?”

“Why should I? I can paint whatever I want during my free time.”

“OK, I’ll let you get back to work.” He walked to the doorway. “Let me know if you want to get some coffee later.”

“Sure thing,” I said to him as he left. I closed up all the gallon cans of paint and chucked the three paint brushes I’d used in the garbage bag. I broke open my box of oil paint tubes and set it on my lap. I thought I’d call this one Renoir at the Louvre. Near the end of his life, Renoir visited the famous French gallery and saw his paintings being hung there. I wanted to show him walking down the halls towards his own exhibit.

A slapping bass line came from down the hallway. It was my new buddy Lance, the naked bass player. I put down my box of paints and moved towards the sound. I found him sitting on his amp, slapping and popping at the strings while the drummer was adjusting his cymbal stands.

Lance noticed me standing at the doorway. “Hey, it’s the Rembrandt guy!”

I said to him, “I notice you’re wearing pants today. That’s cool.”

He looked up from the fretboard and went “Huh?” He thought for a moment slack-jawed, then remembered the last time we met. He smiled as he began noodling on his instrument. “Oh yeah,” he said.

“Listen, do you guys know where the DLC headquarters is?”

“Yeah. Out by 495,” Lance said.

“Do you want to make fifty bucks every week?”

Lance thought for a moment with his mouth open. “You want me to break into their offices?” To punctuate his remark, he strummed a thick chord on his bass as if he was doing a sinister hit from a film score. “Cool!” he said.

“No, I need someone to do a delivery.”

The drummer stood up from behind his drum kit and said “You sell weed to Gary Eastman?”

I couldn’t tell if the drummer was joking or if he was serious. Good thing I wasn’t hiring those guys to pull off a crime. I told them, “I actually sell paintings to Gary Eastman. I just want someone to take my two paintings down to the loading dock.” I couldn’t bear to go down there ever again, knowing that it was the place where everything went into the fire. I figured it was worth my sanity to just pay someone to deal with it. I continued, “On every Friday, I’ll try to have two paintings ready for delivery.”

Lance made a twanging sound on his bass, “Sounds easy enough,” he said.

“You just gotta give my two paintings to Mooky.”

They both looked at each other and said in unison, “What’s a Mooky?”

“Oh, you guys will love him.”

Chapter 23

Moaning Lisa Bistro

“It kind of has a new car smell, if you breath deeply,” Linda said as we drove to the Moaning Lisa Bistro in my new Jeep Wrangler. I had bought it earlier that week and I was still excited about my new toy. The vehicle was two years old, but it was the newest car I’d ever owned. There was no way I would’ve shelled out that kind of money for a brand new vehicle, just to have it depreciate by a couple grand if I drove it one mile down the road.

Linda asked, “What did this Jeep cost you?”

“I put down five grand and the payments are only three hundred dollars a month.”

She checked out the back seat, then flicked the air vent a couple of times. “What’s the remaining cost in Gavin money units?”

I smiled and said, “Only twelve more paintings.”

She hit one last button on the radio and settled into her seat, “Who knew you were a Jeep kind of a guy.”

“Why?” I asked her, “Does this vehicle have any status associated with it?”

She looked out into the oncoming traffic for a moment, “Maybe hunter-gatherer. You going to start wearing flannel?”

“Hey, I could bivouac some wounded Marines on the hood of this car in a pinch. C’mon, the four wheel drive on this thing will get us out of any snow bank.”

She pinched one of the clamps securing the canvas roof. “With the top removed, it’ll have that convertible vibe. I’m into it.”

I slowed down as I approached a red light. I noticed that I was able to get closer to the car in front of me because of the shorter hood length of the classic Jeep. It felt like driving a big go-kart. “So listen,” I said to Linda, “James and Brent don’t know that everything I give to Gary has been going into the fire.”

“I’ve seen what you’ve been delivering to Gary lately; they deserve to go into the fire!” she said with a laugh.

“Yeah, I know. I don’t feel like taking shit from James because I’m doing it for the money.” She rolled down the window and yelled out to the traffic next to us, “MY BOYFRIEND’S A WHORE!” An old couple in a Lincoln looked at us with a bewildered expression.

I just sat there in my new Jeep and took my lumps. Ten minutes later we were at the Bistro, where we found James and Brent already waiting for us at a table. An older woman on stage was singing as she strummed her auto harp. Thank God the volume was low on the PA.

Linda and I grabbed a couple of chairs. “Hey guys,” I said to everyone, “how’s it going?”

James said, “Hey,” while not bothering to look up from his iPad.

Brent climbed out of his chair and approached Linda while doing a big flourish with his arms apart and demanded a hug. “Hey my dear,” he said to her, “You look fabulous!”

Linda gave a cheesy grin and went with it. She glanced at me while she was being enveloped by this human anaconda. “How’s the life of a struggling artist?” she asked him.

“I struggle with my emotions mostly,” he said.

I asked everyone, “Do you guys want anything? I’m buying.”

James said, “Could you spend some of that corporate money on a spinach turnover and a latte?”

Brent released Linda and they both sat down, “I’m fine,” he said.

Linda called out, “Caramel macchiato.”

I went up to the counter and placed everyone’s orders with a female barista who had some interesting piercings. I ordered a mocha latte for myself and asked her as a joke, “Hey, do you have any of that Luwak Coffee from Indonesia?

She was busy frothing the milk for our drinks and didn’t bother to look up, “No, what’s that?”

“It’s the coffee that needs to be pooped out of Mongooses,” I said. I had seen a documentary somewhere. They actually fed coffee beans to Mongooses in Indonesia, then waited for the beans to come out the other end. Supposedly the animal’s digestive system changed the flavor to something special. I want to know who was the first guy to actually try coffee from beans that came out of Mongoose poop. It had to have been a dare from his buddies. I’m guessing he pretended to enjoy this concoction, just to make his buddies try it and get the joke back on them. From there my comment just spiraled out of control.

“Nope,” she said as she banged down the coffee basket, “we have no mongooses here.”

Well that joke didn’t work. I also ordered a bag of real Hawaiian Kona coffee at $34 a pound just because…what the hell… I brought everything back to the table.

Brent asked Linda, “What’s new at the Art Attack store?”

“We’re now offering a ten percent discount to anyone from the artists’ guild,” she said. “Come by while you’re still inspired.”

Brent leaned into her and winked, “What kind of discount does Gavin get?”

“He now gets his supplies from Home Depot,” said James without looking up from his iPad.

Brent giggled and asked me, “What are you painting? Houses?”

“I’m going in a completely different direction,” I told him.

James said, “He’s gone to the dark side with abject expressionism.”

Brent laughed, “Abject expressionism?”

“You heard that right,” James said.

Brent turned to me and asked, “What have you been delivering to Gary Eastman?”

I put down my latte and pulled out my phone. Brent came over and huddled around my little screen. I called up some photos that I had been taking of my artwork over the past month—the stuff that would be delivered by my musician friends. The first one was a painting of some random squares. “This one was called Klee’s Aneurysm.”

“As in Paul Klee?” Brent said.

“Kind of, I tried to imagine what he would paint if he experienced an aneurysm.” I glanced down at the photo. “You’ll notice that it looks exactly like his normal work.” I flipped to the next painting, a small black dot on a white background. “This is Escher’s Vanishing Point.”

“As in MC Escher,” Brent said.

“Yeah. In this one, if you looked at it under a microscope, you’d see all sorts of cool figures walking upside down on staircases. But because it’s so far away, it’s just a dot.”

Brent was riveted by the photo for much too long. “Oh wow,” he said. “That’s deep.”

Linda was hiding her face behind her coffee cup, trying not to crack up. I flipped to the next one. “I called this one de Kooning: Age 9 to 90. It’s a series of vertical panels that are supposed to illustrate the evolution of his painting technique from the age of nine to ninety.”

Brent concentrated on the photo. “Hmmm…” he said, “They all look alike.”

“Yup.” I swiped to another one. “This one is just called O’Keefe’s Meat Wallet.”

Brent studied it for a moment. “Georgia O’Keefe was known for doing close up flowers,” he said.

“That’s not what I saw.” I swiped to the next one. “Oh yeah, here’s O’Keefe’s Meat Wallet #2…” _]I went to the next one, “and [_O’Keefe’s Meat Wallet #3. I guess I was inspired that week.”

“These are all great,” Brent said.

I got to a painting of a series of overlapping Nazi swastikas. “I called this one Jasper’s Fascism.”

Brent said, “Didn’t he paint American flags?”

“Yeah,” I said “Think of this one as a what-if alternative history.”

Brent looked back at the painting with some fresh eyes. “Oh WOW,” he said.

I looked over to Linda. She could barely contain herself. James saw Linda and started to lose it himself. He quickly hid his face behind his iPad.

I showed Brent the last one, “And this is just Stella’s No U-Turn Sign.” I put away my phone.

Brent looked up at me as if he had just seen a UFO. “This is one month of work?” he asked, eyes wide.

“No, I’ve got about a half a dozen paintings at the loft that I’m keeping for myself.”

“Yeah,” James said, “he’s also done some good stuff. I’m amazed Eastman pays for this crap.”

Brent said, “I’m working on getting my own patrons through the Kickstarter website.”

“How is that going to work, Brent?” Linda asked him.

“You know how artists have raised money to fund their projects?” he said.

“Yeah,” she said, sipping her coffee.

Brent smiled and looked around at us. “I’m going to assign a Kickstarter campaign to each of my paintings.”

“I don’t get it,” I said to Brent. “How will it work with only one painting?”

Brent said, “People who are into my art will want to contribute.”

“Yeah I know that,” I told him, “But what’s in it for them?”

“You know how musicians and filmmakers raise money for their projects?” he said, “I want to raise money for my artwork.”

“Yeah, but everyone who contributed to the recording of an album or movie received a copy of the final product.”

Brent leaned back in his chair. “Exactly.”

“But you’re only doing one painting,” I said impatiently, “Who gets it?”

“No no no. . .they will all own it.”

Getting annoyed, I said, “What? Are you going to FedEx the painting to a different person each week? Are you going to cut it up and mail everyone a little square?”

Brent quickly said, “No no! You know how taxpayers all own our bridges?”

My brain short circuited for an instant.

“WHAT bridges?” I asked him. I knew this would happen if I tried following Brent’s logic. The guy’s whole thought process was one big non sequitur.

“Like the taxpayers,” he said carefully to me, as if I was the idiot in all this, “everyone would own my artwork.”

I concentrated at the far wall for a moment, baffled. Fortunately I got a text message alert on my phone so I didn’t have to continue the conversation with him.

It was a another video from Gary Eastman. I hit play and showed it to Linda. It was another of Gary’s weekly video of Pedro and his buddy throwing a series of paintings into the incinerator at DLC.

Linda saw what was on the screen and whispered to me, “What an asshole.”

I watched Jasper’s Facism go into the fire, shrugged and turned off my phone.

Linda put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Listen, I’ve got two weeks vacation coming up next month. I usually go see my mother in Florida,” she said.

“Where is she located?”

“She’s in St Augustine.”

“From what I’ve seen, it looks like a nice city.”

Linda gave my leg a squeeze, “You want to come?”

“Sure!” I slipped my phone into my pocket. “I haven’t taken a real vacation in years.”

“Can you get away from work?”

“It’s pretty slow at the gallery. I’m sure Jerry can handle whatever comes in.”

“My family also has a cottage in the Keys,” she said, “No one’s there right now, so there’s plenty of room.”

“I’ve been dying to visit the Florida Keys. Where’s this cottage?”

“It’s on Big Pine Key,” she said, “about halfway to Key West.”

“How is Key West? I’ve never been there.”

“It’s a blast,” she said.

Chapter 24

Big Pine Key

There’s something fascinating about a palm tree when you’ve lived your entire life up north. Compared to an oak or pine tree, they appear so extraterrestrial. When I got off the plane at the Orlando airport, my eyes were immediately drawn to them. I suppose people living in Florida think snow is something special to experience, but when has a palm tree ever made you late for work?

Our first week down there was spent in St. Augustine at a tropical themed beach cottage that we found on AirBnB. There was no way I’d stay in some hotel compound. I took corporate money, but I didn’t want to live there. Linda’s mom offered her place to us, but she was kind of elderly and we didn’t want to impose. And we were planning on staying out late and didn’t want to stumble back in at night while groping each other. We stayed at their family’s cottage on Big Pine Key, one of the islands that make up the Florida Keys. The place was gorgeous. It was on a canal circled with palm trees, complete with a little Tiki or Chickee hut as the locals called it. I kept expecting Gilligan and the Skipper to stroll by. I was never the kind of artist who’d set up an easel outside and paint, but the warm and sunny Florida climate sort of compelled me. I wondered if this would all wear off in another week.

Linda and I were checking out the boat dock on the canal when three little deer approached us. One of them was a fawn looking for a handout. I extended my hand toward the first one and it approached me and sniffed my hand, “Holy crap, this deer is completely unafraid of me,” I said to Linda.

“They’re actually a protected species,” she said, “the National Key Deer Refuge is just up the road.” I continued to stroke the curious little animal on the neck. “My mom always got annoyed when the deer ate her hibiscus flowers.” Another deer joined the first one, looking for a handout. “She wanted to chase them away with a broom,” she said, “but could’ve gotten in trouble if the neighbors said anything.”

I stood up and watched them disappear into a patch of palmettos. I scanned the yard, which felt so foreign to me. “Why is the house built ten feet off the ground,” I asked Linda. “So you get a better view?”

“Hurricanes,” she said. “At some point a big one will make landfall here and just bowl everything over with a wall of water.” I approached one of the cinderblock columns. “On some buildings,” she said, “you can see the water line from the last hurricane.”

“So that’s why I didn’t see very many tall trees on the way in here?”

“Yes; you learn to just enjoy it all while it lasts.”

I looked up and spotted a few coconuts hanging way above our heads. I thought, one of those would hurt if it fell on us. Up north, the worst thing that might fall from a tree was a shower of acorns. “I really like this place. How are the sunsets?”

“You’re going to wish you had your easel with you.”

“Wait, does that mean I would have to paint little deer into the foreground of everything I do?”

Linda laughed and said, “Either that or a passed-out drunk from Key West.”

We started to drift towards our rental car. “OK, that’s one thing we’ve got up north—” I said. “—hardier drunks.”

“Are you referring to all the Irish in Boston?”

“No, no,” I said. “If you get drunk down here and pass out in the bushes, what would happen?”

“You’d wake up and go back to your bar in the morning,” she said.

“Right.” I leaned against the car. “But in Boston, if you passed out in a snow bank in February, you’d be a goner.”

“That’s how it goes,” she said.

“It’s kind of like mother nature culling the herd. You gotta have something going on upstairs to be able to live in the cold weather.”

She laughed and said, “Should we contact an anthropologist with your theory?”

“Hey, look what happened to the Hawaiians,” I said. “Hawaii was basically colonized by cold weather Europeans. And it’s a good thing the Vikings only got so far.”

Linda opened the car door. “What do you think of swimming with dolphins?”

“To do today?”

“There’s a place called Dolphin Bay,” she said. “You can pay to jump in the tank with them.”

“That sounds cool. I’ve always wanted to do that.”

We both got into the car. “They allegedly do research with them,” she said, “but I’m guessing it’s mostly marketing research on how to extract money from tourists.”

“Well I’m a tourist and I got money!”

Dolphin Bay was located about an hour away on Route 1, past a relentless string of tourist shops selling tiki heads and painted wooden crap. We found the place and it was packed. The young woman inside who was doing the orientation didn’t sound like she had a degree in oceanography. I bet every kid on this stretch of the keys has worked here at some point. This place hopefully paid more than McDonald’s. She did her well-rehearsed spiel for us, “There are two options. The structured swim and the natural swim. With the structured swim, the dolphins are forced to interact with you. With a natural swim, you get to interact freely in the enclosure and the animals will initiate contact themselves.”

“Oooh, let’s do the natural swim,” Linda said.

“Cool,” I said.

“That will be one hundred and fifty dollars,” the young woman said to us. “Each.”

“A hundred and fifty bucks?” I said as my mouth dropped open. “Will the dolphins also bring us lobster they’ve caught?”

I gave her my credit card and she ushered us over to a desk with racks of snorkeling equipment. We got our face masks and fins and went over to a pair of large enclosures that were fed by the sea, but separated from it by a large net. One side had the structured swim; we saw people holding up hoops that the dolphins jumped through. I noticed there weren’t any hoops on our side of the enclosure. Six of us formed the next group who were to go into the water.

A tanned guy wearing sunglasses in an orange t-shirt approached us and gave us his spiel, “With the structured swim, you want to slowly paddle counterclockwise around the enclosure. You don’t want to splash the surface of the water or reach out towards the dolphins. This is the dolphins free time, so it’s up to them to decide if they want to approach you.”

In an English accent, the word “Brilliant!” was uttered by a guy next to his wife.

Linda leaned over to me and said, “So it’s our job to perform for the dolphins?”

“I can’t think of any good orca jokes at the moment,” I said to her.

I’d snorkeled plenty of times and was a pretty decent swimmer. I noticed the English couple were struggling to put on their masks and flippers and they looked very uncomfortable at the prospect of entering the water. I got in the water and paddled away from the dock. I noticed a person in the other enclosure being pulled in a circle while holding onto a pair of dolphin fins. That looked like a lot of fun.

The surfer dude tooted his whistle, marking the start of our session. I did a smooth lap around the enclosure and found that the water was kind of murky. I could barely see the bottom and kept popping up my head to see where the dolphins were. A few feet from me, the English couple were flailing around in the middle of the pool, struggling to stay afloat, looks of panic on their faces. Damn it, don’t they know they’re supposed to keep the splashing to a minimum? I took another lap, careful not to break the surface of the water with my kicking. On the third lap I finally saw a dolphin. A blur of motion passed between me and the bottom of the pool, about ten feet down. I popped my head up, hoping I would see the dolphin jumping out of the water in excitement, or something, but nothing was there—no dolphins, anyway.

The English couple had somehow managed get back to side of the enclosure. Their arms were draped over the dock while they gasped for air. They looked like a pair of shipwreck survivors. I did one more lap and was taunted by another blur of a dolphin zooming past me. Damn it, dolphins are smart; don’t they know I just paid $150 to do this? Then it hit me—who was really the dumbest thing in the pool?

Time was called and we all climbed up on the deck. One dolphin stuck its head out of the water, caught a fish from the surfer dude and went back to what dolphins naturally do when they are not forced to deal with tourists: avoid people. We returned our snorkel equipment and dried ourselves off.

“So did you see anything?” I asked Linda.

“I saw a blur of something go under me a few times,” she said.

“Maybe you were splashing too much,” I said sarcastically.

We looked over at the other enclosure where they were having another guided swim. A dolphin jumped through another hoop and everyone clapped. Disappointed, I said to Linda, “They should have just asked us, do you want to have fun or no fun with dolphins?”

Linda said, “I guess it’s unnatural for them to do that.”

“It’s unnatural to pay $150 to be avoided by dolphins. I just wanted to touch a lousy dolphin, so I could’ve checked that off my bucket list.”

On the way out we had to go through the souvenir shop, which had the prerequisite dolphin beach blankets, dolphin shot glasses and the most incongruous thing imaginable – a Dolphin Bay snow globe. I had to pick it up and give it a shake; fake snowflakes swirled around a breaching dolphin. I turned it over: Made in China. I pictured the Chinese worker who had assembled it shaking his head the whole time. Above the rack of flip-flops was a framed piece of dolphin art, bearing a price tag of $150. Attached to it was a photo of a dolphin with a paint brush in its mouth, creating the actual painting.

Linda spotted it and said, “Looks remarkably similar to a chimp painting.”

“Nobody cares about the painting,” I said. “It’s only worth something because it has a back story.” A dried out puffer fish compelled me to remove it from the souvenir shelf. I turned it over while I continued with my well-rehearsed rant, “If I said some paint brushes just randomly fell on a canvas, nobody would give a crap. The second you said a DOLPHIN created this, people want it, even though the dolphin was basically dropping a paint brush randomly on a canvas.”

Linda asked, “When does talent come into play?”

I absent-mindedly rolled the inflated fish in my hands, feeling it’s spiky texture, “This one is by a guy who chopped his ear off, this one was made by a dolphin. Marketing is what sells paintings.”

Linda looked at the dried inflated fish in my hands and said, “Are you going to buy that?”

I put the fish back on the shelf and we got the hell out of there.

Later, we had dinner at a seafood joint called the Bonked Conch Cafe. It looked like it had started out with a bamboo tiki theme but, over the years, the walls had been plastered over with business cards. If you needed to find a handyman on the Keys, that was the place to go. We decided to order a plate of conch fritters, a staple of the Keys, and a couple of Dos Equis. Conchs are the creatures that live in those big shells you could find in any tourist shop down there.

After dinner, we found a little roadside joint that sold Key Lime Pie. We pulled over, ordered a couple of slices and sat on the hood our car to eat them. The sun was setting and a nice breeze blew off the ocean; everything felt good for a change.

I took my first bite. That’s some fucking good pie. “What the hell is in this,” I asked Linda.

“Pure goodness,” she answered.

“The crust isn’t soggy. It isn’t too tart.”

Linda didn’t reply, she put another forkful in her mouth, eyes half-closed.

“We need to take some of this back with us.”

“Don’t bother. It won’t be the same once you fly it home.”

“Really?”

“Yup.” She slowly swallowed what was in her mouth. “You have to come here to get it like this.”

I had shoveled three pieces into my face and was having a hard time chewing. She looked at my hamster cheeks and said, “You need to take your time dude, enjoy the moment.”

I felt like an idiot. I swallowed my mouthful and took a deep breath of ocean air. “We have to get more of this before we leave.”

Linda smiled. “Definitely.”

We got back to the house on Big Pine Key and took a walk westward towards the ocean. On the way down there, we passed some houses with nautical-themed mailboxes. It was as if there was a town ordinance that required everyone to comply with a tropical theme. We saw a manatee holding a mailbox, another box perched atop a long-legged pink flamingo and a giant fish that appeared to be impaled on its mailbox. White coral gravel crunched under our feet as we walked.

“It’s really peaceful here,” I said to Linda. “It’s like the end of the world.”

“You can’t drive any further once you hit that final mile marker in Key West,” she said. “You’ve run out of road.”

We paused for a moment and listened for any kind of sound. Nothing.

A tern passed silently overhead. “It’s like nobody could find you out here.”

“All the streets are dead ends,” she said. “There’s no real reason to drive out here unless you live here.” We stood perfectly still, taking in the silence. A boat horn went off way, way in the distance.

“Of course you might have some boat refugees landing here,” Linda said, “but that’s about it.”

I felt a subtle breeze on my skin. “It would be a nice place to retire.”

We got to the water and sat down on some white rocks. Behind silhouettes of palm trees, we watched as the sun disappeared below the horizon and the sky turned a deep orange. Yeah, it sounds a post card cliché, but I guess you just had to be there. I thought, if only I had an easel. Linda pulled out her phone and took a picture.

“Another desktop background?” I asked her.

“I’ve got hundreds of these,” she said. “I don’t know why I bother.”

“Never gets old, does it?” I said.

Linda leaned into me, “Could you paint sunsets and palm trees?”

“I could do that.”

As if on cue, a tiny deer walked in front of us at the water line and stopped.

We both looked at each other laughed.

Chapter 25

Artist Loft

Maybe having a monkey paint for you wasn’t such a bad idea after all. After I got back from my vacation with Linda, I found a new perspective on things. As long as I kept pumping out what I called “frying pan paintings”, as in ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’, I could keep painting what I enjoyed. The hard part was generating crap on a theme in the shortest amount of time possible. If I’d had a monkey sitting next to me, wielding a brush, I could’ve just focused on what was important, which was doing my real art—the stuff that Gary would never see.

The trip to the Keys inspired me to do something in a tropical vein, kind of like Paul Gaugin, a French Post-Impressionist painter who chucked it all and moved to Tahiti to paint. On my easel was a new painting I had just started. I had laid out something that looked like a shoreline; I figured palm trees would work themselves in somewhere. I was mixing a shade of emerald green on my pallet when two guys dressed in black suits came into my loft space. They looked like they walked out of a Quentin Tarantino movie. My first thought was that they were police detectives or federal agents of some sort. I did a quick rundown in my mind if I’d done anything illegal recently. Unless they were there to bust me for selling that bag of weed to Mike Jones back in the tenth grade, I should be all set. The first one approached with a dour look on his face. He got to within an arm’s length of my stool and crossed his arms. The other one walked behind my easel and was scanning all the junk I had piled up—including my recent art work that was leaning against the wall. Did he think I had a meth lab set up amongst the empty cans of linseed oil, color-stained rags and canvas tarps? The first one continued to glare at me. “Can I help you guys?” I said uncomfortably.

“Are you Gavin?” the first one demanded.

Confused, I said “Yeah, can I help you guys?” I noticed that they both wear wearing rainbow flag pins on their lapels. It seemed an odd choice for detectives.

The second one picked up one of the newer paintings and examined it. “Gary Eastman sent us.”

“Do you guys work for the DLC corporation?” I asked.

The second one studied the painting he held, “Yeah, you could say that.”

The first one pointed to the paintings leaning against the wall, narrowed his eyes and said to me, “Did you do those?”

I put down my brush and palette. “Who are you guys?”

The second one picked up another painting and gave it the once-over like he was some kind of mafia art dealer. “We’re here to enforce the contract you have with Mr. Eastman,” he said cooly.

Wow. I never thought Gary would send over a couple of art goons to see what I was up to. It must’ve taken some effort to find where my studio space was, but I suppose with his kind of money, it was easy.

“What are you talking about? I’ve been delivering two paintings a week for a while now.”

While still scrutinizing my work, the second goon said, “O Keefe’s Meat Wallet. Huh?”

Uh oh, I didn’t think Gary Eastman was even bothering to look at what I was sending him. It was all going into the fire; what did he care? The first goon leaned in a little closer and said, “You got a problem with the Post-Impressionist movement?”

I started to sweat and squirmed in my seat. “What can I say? I’m doing the best I can.”

The second goon picked up another painting. “The function of the artist is to express reality as felt,” he said. That was a quote from Robert Motherwell, an abstract painter from New York. I couldn’t figure out if these guys were here to criticize my artwork or break my legs. “I find it odd that you embrace Abstract Impressionism when you paint for Mr. Eastman,” he said, “yet you continue to paint in this other so-called style of yours?”

“But he said I could paint anything I want,” I said nervously.

The first goon jabbed me in the chest with his big gorilla finger. “Mr. Eastman thinks you’re mocking the entire modernism movement.”

“What? Me? No!” I quickly pleaded. “It’s all a stylistic choice I’m making!”

The second goon took a long look at my last painting. “He thinks the quality of your work has suffered in recent weeks,” he said.

Sweat was pouring down my forehead. I stammered, “It’s all good! If Gary wants something different, I can go in any direction!”

The first goon picked up the tube of emerald green paint off my easel and unscrewed the cap. He held the tube of paint in front of my face and said, “Mister Eastman thinks you’ve been holding out and squeezing him – like this.” With his fist in front of my face, the emptied out the entire tube of oil paint between my legs, then dropped the squashed tube to the floor.

“What do you mean holding out?” I said in a panic, “I’ve been delivering two paintings a week!”

The second goon pointed to my five paintings leaning against the wall. “Who painted those?” he said as if he were scolding a child.

“Those are mine.”

The second goon walked over, pulled a contract out of his coat pocket and held it up to my face. “Paragraph three, line two,” he pointed with his finger. “You signed an exclusive contract with him. Anything you create, he retains ownership.”

“But they’re MY paintings!”

“You should’ve read your contract,” the second goon said. “If you do so much as a chalk outline on a sidewalk, he owns it.”

The first goon jabbed his finger into my chest one last time to reiterate his point. “He OWNS you pal!” I was terrified what this guy could do to me. I briefly considered if I could use art supplies as a means of self defense. I doubted a filbert brush would do much damage to this guy looming over me. I should’ve had a lawyer look at the contract before I signed it. Who knew Gary would not appreciate my art jokes? Right then, I decided I would put a little more effort into what I delivered.

The second goon pointed to the paintings against the wall. “Those paintings are Mr. Eastman’s property.”

“What are you talking about?” I said. “I never intended to deliver them.”

“We’re here to fix that,” the first goon said with a smile. The second goon collected the first three paintings and formed a stack under his arm.

“HEY! Those are MINE!” I said as I tried to get off my stool and stop him.

The second goon placed his hand firmly on my chest and growled, “Stay there.”

“But I never got paid for those paintings! How can they be his?”

The second goon flipped open the contract again and read, “Page two, paragraph three,” he pointed to a line, “If the claimant goes beyond the maximum paintings delivered in the time allotted, the remaining shall be paid at the rate of $100 each.”

“I count five paintings beyond the required deliverables,” the first one said. “That’s five hundred dollars.” He pulled out a zippered money pouch from his inside pocket and removed five $100 bills. He casually flipped the currency into the air, where it fell randomly on the floor below my stool. The other goon grabbed the remaining paintings and went out the door with them under his arm. As if that wasn’t enough, the first goon pulled the painting right off my easel and headed towards the door.

“Hey wait. . .that one isn’t finished yet!” I pleaded with him.

He turned around and gave me a nasty look. He lifted the unfinished painting above his head and smashed it down onto the point of my easel, shattering its legs and punching a hole through the middle of the canvas. He then twisted the canvas frame like a rubber band in his hands until the wood snapped from the force. He dropped the twisted ball of canvas onto my easel, now lying on the floor in pieces. With a final glare, he said “It’s finished.”

Chapter 26

Supermarket

I pulled open the freezer door, then blanked out on what I was looking for. I could feel the cold air wash down my legs as I started the timer on a whole section of frozen supermarket food going bad while I pondered my indecision. I needed to figure out two very important things: what direction should I take for the rest of my life, and what to throw into the oven for that night’s dinner.

“I can’t believe it, they took everything!” I said to Linda.

Linda did a one-eighty with the shopping cart and parked it in front of me. “Took what? All the fish sticks?”

“No, they took my paintings! All of them!” I reached in the freezer and pulled out a frozen box of lasagna and showed it to her. “Lasagna?”

“Why not,” she took the box and dropped it into our cart. “What paintings? I thought you had them all delivered by those goofy musicians.”

We headed towards the produce section. “I had five paintings that I’ve been working on that I wasn’t going to give to Gary. They took ‘em!”

Linda picked up box of Devil Dogs and said while inspecting it, “The musicians took your paintings?”

“No, Some. . .art goons.”

“Art goons?”

“I guess Gary didn’t react well to my bullshit modern art. He sent two guys to my loft to give me the shakedown. These guys didn’t like the fact that I was making fun of Expressionism.”

Confused, Linda said, “Gary sent over some art critics to intimidate you?’

“I didn’t know who the hell they were!”

Linda laughed as she placed the Devil Dogs back on the shelf. “Did they have some biting sarcastic remarks about your work?”

“They wanted to beat me up!” I said, “They were huge!”

“So they just stole your stuff and walked off?”

“Well no,” I said as I slouched against the shopping cart, “they paid me.”

“I thought they wanted to beat you up?”

“That too. They pointed out that my contract said that any paintings I did beyond two a week would only be paid at a reduced rate.”

“What did they pay you?”

“Five hundred dollars.”

“You’re complaining that two guys paid you five hundred bucks for you work?”

“That’s not the point; those paintings will now go into the fire. I actually WANTED those paintings.”

Linda leaned into me and said in a hushed tone, “Quick! Give me your phone!”

I glanced around the store. “Why? What’s going on?”

She nodded towards an obese woman riding an electric scooter wearing a “just lick it” t-shirt. “This would be a perfect People of Walmart shot.” Peopleofwalmart.com is a website filled with photos of odd specimens of humanity that were captured anonymously while wandering around Walmart department stores. The more interesting ones fell into the category of “What the hell were they thinking?” The ‘just lick it’ t-shirt on this woman clearly placed her in that latter category.

“But we’re not even in Walmart,” I whispered back to Linda.

“Who’s gonna know?” she said as she motioned repeatedly with her hand for me to give her my phone.

I laughed quietly. “No,” I said, “Just savor the moment!” We snickered together like a couple of asshole school kids as we watched the woman disappear down the next aisle. “C’mon, let’s get outta here.”

We loaded what little groceries we had into my Jeep and drove for several minutes in silence, listening to NPR on the radio while I brooded about the confrontation I had at my loft. I killed the volume and said to Linda, “I won’t have a body of work to show. If everything I do goes into the fire, how do I prove to anyone that I’m an artist?”

“Artists who sell their work don’t get to keep it,” she said. “You can’t have it both ways.”

“I know, but once my work ceases to exist, I cease to exist! I might as well have painted houses for a living.”

“You would have been paid some pretty good money to paint houses!” Linda said with a laugh.

“Nobody remembers the guy who painted the White House back in the 1920s. This is my one shot at immortality—my work! I’ll be dead, but hopefully someone will look at one of my paintings and go, oh..THAT guy!

“How does that help you if you’re dead? You won’t be around to appreciate it.”

“So I should take the money and get drunk and not worry about it?”

Linda laughed. “It’s worked for plenty of artists in the past!”

“But I NEED to have my work. At least KNOW that someone appreciates it and didn’t use it for a roll of toilet paper.”

“So are you not going to take Gary’s money and not paint? I mean you can stop, right?”

“I can’t do that. I NEED to paint. It’s who I am.”

Linda asked, “Can’t you paint in private?”

“I tried that. Now I have two goons who are going to keep tabs on everything I do.”

“How did they even know to find you at the loft?”

“That’s a good question. Somebody must’ve told them I paint down there.”

We got to my apartment, grabbed the groceries from the car and walked towards the front door. John was sitting in his usual spot, his nose inches away from a notebook in which he was obsessively scribbling. He never glanced up at us as I searched for my keys.

“Have you ever met my neighbor, John?” I asked Linda.

Linda craned her neck slightly to get a peek at what John was working on. “No,” she said.

“John, this is my girlfriend Linda.”

“Nice to meet you Linda,” he said in a well rehearsed manner, never looking up from his notebook.

I found my key and opened the front door. “John lives with his mother,” I said to Linda. “She makes sure he stays on his meds. He’s a very interesting artist.”

“Oh, you’re an artist too, John?” Linda said, still struggling to get a peek at what he was working on.

There was an awkward moment as he continued to draw in his notebook, as if ignoring us; then he finally said, “I like to draw.” I could see Linda was dying to see what he’s been doing.

“John, can we see what you’re working on?”

He reluctantly showed us his page. It was covered in finely detailed spirals and circles, perhaps mapping out the connections of all the synapses in his brain, clearly a full day’s worth of work.

Linda was slightly taken back by the amount of time that went into John’s drawing. “That’s very. . .interesting, John.”

“He’s got an entire bedroom covered with this stuff,” I said to Linda as we entered the building. “Hey! I’ll see you later John!”

“Wow,” Linda said, “He sits there all day?”

“Yeah, I guess it’s the one thing that keeps him focused.”

We got to my apartment. I tossed my keys on the kitchen table and turned the oven on to three hundred and fifty degrees. Linda went for the TV. “What do you think of a movie on demand?”

I rummaged through what I considered my liquor cabinet, a cupboard space next to the stove. “Shit, I don’t have any wine.”

“Really?” she said from the living room, sounding disappointed.

I moved to the doorway; Linda was running through some movie choices with the remote. “While I was ranting about my life’s work, we were supposed to have gotten. . .” I stopped. There was a blank canvas sitting in the middle of my couch. I picked it up and asked Linda, “Did you put this here?”

“No, I’ve been trying to find a movie,” she said.

A wave of adrenaline washed over me. “I didn’t leave this here.”

Linda glanced up at me with a concerned look, and then at the canvas. She also realized what that meant. I went to the closet where I kept the blank canvases. The others had been moved. “Somebody’s been in here,” I said quietly.

We went into my bedroom. I pointed to the closet doors. “The closet doors are all the way open. I always keep them closed.” I gave the inside a quick scan. “I don’t see anything missing.”

“Who do you think it was?” Linda said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it was those art goons. They probably came here looking for more of my work.” We went back out to the kitchen. I had a sickening feeling of paranoia as I scanned my apartment for anything else out of place. “Let’s ask John if he’s seen anything.”

We went back outside and approached John, who was still working in his notebook. I asked him, “John, did you see two guys entering or leaving the building today?”

John didn’t look up from his work. “They took a couch.”

Perplexed, Linda looked at me and said, “Nobody took your couch.”

I knelt down next to John. “John, what were these guys wearing?”

He stopped for a moment and bit down on his pencil. “Uniforms,” he said slowly, then continued to draw.

Would John think two guys in dark suits look like uniforms? I asked him, “John, what did it say on their uniforms?”

“Bekins Van Lines.”

Frustrated, I glanced at Linda for help. It had always been tricky to get any sort of clear information out of John. I asked him one more time, “John, who else came by today?”

He continued sketching for a moment and stopped. “Flag agents.”

Flag agents? That sounded intriguing. “Were they wearing dark jackets?” I asked him.

“Yeah.”

“And sunglasses?”

“Yeah.”

“Why do you think they were flag agents?”

“They had little flags.” John pointed to his chest, “Right here. Rainbows.”

I stood up and looked at Linda. “Shit. That was them.”

Chapter 27

Artist Loft

I started the painting with the distal phalange. I mean it’s just a bone, you can’t see it under the skin, but the power of its true meaning cascaded down from the apex. The absence of any bend in the distal interphalangeal joint is what gave this great painting its power. I had worked my way down the canvas, each tendon imparting its own sense of muscularity.

I had finally found inspiration in something that held meaning for me, as I painted the stout, crisp lines of a middle finger on my canvas. I wanted the image to explode with emotion, to snap the viewer’s head forward from the virtual rush of G forces as if he had crested the apogee of an emotional rollercoaster. I worked to the big middle knuckle. I enhanced it with subtle shading that fell away from the light source, as if you were looking at a white porcelain vase held between the legs of a nude model.

I stood back for a moment and admired the dominance of this Roman column that I’d created on my canvas, but there was nothing indecent about this middle finger. I felt this expressed the true feelings I had towards Gary Eastman. This was no rheumatoid arthritic digit – this was the finger of youth, a super hero finger. I considered having it jut out of the glove of an invincible comic book character, or even the black leather clad fist of a motorcycle outlaw. Hell, I would’ve gone with a ripped gay guy wearing a leather harness. (Who knew where that finger had been?) The name of the painting couldn’t be coy – no play on ‘flip the bird’. I wanted it succinct and to the point. At first I considered merely calling it FUCK YOU GARY, but where was the subtlety or nuance in that? A great piece of art like this needed a name for the ages. I went with the Latin phrase: Digitus Impudicus! It required the exclamation point, there was nothing subtle about it. Perhaps art critics in the future would come to appreciate its majesty, the sheer expression of anger I had towards my patron.

I had finished up the rest of the hand when Lance walked into my loft space and immediately spotted the painting. “Sweet!” he said.

“Thanks. I’ve been greatly inspired recently.”

He studied it some more, “That would go great in our space. It’s so rock and roll.”

“Sorry. This is a delivery you’ll need to take down to DLC for me.”

“I love talking to the Mooky dude!” he said. “He’s so funny!”

Mooky was a funny dude? I wasn’t sure if Lance was high. “Really?” I asked.

“He keeps talking about the 1975 Red Sox. How they almost won the pennant that year.”

“You did point out that the Red Sox have won a bunch of world series since then?”

“Yeah, he doesn’t care about those. He keeps talking about this guy Carl Yeah-strum-she.”

I corrected him, “Yastrzemski.” I knew this from my childhood. I think I had four of his baseball cards.

“Who?”

“He was a really important player back then.”

Lance lost interest in my painting technique and focused on a tray of used tubes of paint, he casually pushed his finger through them. “Mooky sure is old. He talked about some blizzard with this other painter dude.”

I stopped painting. “What other painter dude?”

He picked up a tube of Cadmium orange and studied it, “This other dude brought down a painting of a snow scene. Mooky said it looked like the blizzard of ’78.”

I put down my brush. “What was this guy doing down there?”

He absentmindedly squeezed the tube, molding its sides as he spoke, “I’ve met him a couple of times. He puts his painting next to yours then takes off.”

That was interesting. I remembered the other paintings next to mine that went into the fire. I wasn’t sure where they had come from up till now. “When do you usually see this person?”

“Around 3 o’clock. When we normally go down there.”

My phone alerted me to a text message. I saw that it was another video message from Gary. I felt a knot building in my stomach before I even hit the play button. I started the movie.

I heard a now familiar voice speak in Portuguese. “É em ?”

I saw all five of my paintings that the art goons had taken, leaning against the wall of the incinerator.

“Aqui vai a primeira,” was heard off camera. A hand entered the frame, picked up the first painting, a scene inside a cafe, and tossed it into the fire.

God damn it.

That one was called “Absinthe With Degas”. I worked so hard on that one. I watched the next four go into the incinerator the same way. I turned off my phone before the movie completed. I felt like I was going to be sick. Was this to be the fate of everything I did from that point on? Was his intention to torment me with his videos, and keep paying me off like some cheap artistic whore? I felt my face become flushed. The hatred of my benefactor suddenly grew to an exploding point.

I said to Lance, “Hey, do you want to watch me create another painting?”

Lance put down my tube of paint. “Cool,” he said.

I found my can of clear-lite casting resin—the kind of stuff used to make a desktop paperweight with things embedded into it. But I had a better idea. I shook the can violently, letting my anger help mix it’s contents. “You ready to see some great art in the making?” I said to Lance, between my gritted teeth.

He looked at me with this bewildered look, confused by the tone of my voice.

I spread out a tarp on the floor and took a blank canvas I had prepared earlier and placed it face up on the ground. I cracked open the can of casting resin and poured a puddle of it in the middle of the canvas, the weight of the gunk making a shallow depression at least half an inch thick on the canvas.

The image of my last five paintings going up in flames burned through my mind. “DO YOU WANT TO SEE SOME GREAT ART?” I yelled.

Lance glared at me, as if he should be concerned about his own safety.

I straddled the canvas with my legs and undid my belt buckle. In full maniac mode I shouted, “DO YOU WANT TO SEE SOME GREAT ART?”

He slowly backed away towards the door. I’m sure he thought he was ten seconds away from being attacked by a psycho artist.

I slid my pants below my knees and squatted over the canvas, then deposited at least a four inch piece of reasonably dry ‘inspiration’ on the canvas. I watched as it was completely engulfed by the resin, locking it in place on it’s surface.

Lance yelled in disgust, “THAT’S GNARLY DUDE!”

I pulled up my pants and redid my belt buckle. I immediately felt ashamed for letting my emotions completely take hold of me for that one instant. I then realized that once dried, my temporary insanity would be saved for future generations of art patrons to admire. I guess it was a point I had to make with Gary. “How would you like to make another fifty bucks?” I said casually.

Perplexed, Lance said, “Dude, I’m not delivering that!”

“What?” I said trying to sound as rational as possible, “It’ll be completely dry when you take it down to the DLC building.”

Lance looked down at the canvas in disgust.

“C’mon,” I chided him, “you said it was rock and roll.”

“The other painting dude…the OTHER painting!”

“Make it a hundred bucks.”

Lance had a look of revulsion. “Why did you do that?”

Without the slightest sense of irony I said, “I guess just I needed to get that one out of me.”

Chapter 28

Brent’s Basement

I was standing three inches from Brent’s painting in the basement of his mothers house, when I noticed actual flies embedded within the paint. The painting itself was just a knock off of an H. R. Giger painting—a series of close-up fly heads, painted rather crudely, arranged in rows. But there were actual flies trapped in the oil paint.

“OK, so how did you get the flies onto the painting?” I asked him.

“You know those long sticky rolls of paper, that pull out of a little tube, that you hang from the ceiling to catch flies?”

“Right. Fly paper.”

“I wanted to use that as a painting,” he said.

“What?” I asked him, “A painting that’s three inches wide and three feet long, attached to a paper tube?”

“Yeah.”

“Did you have any ideas how you were going to frame it?”

“I dunno; the problem was the oil paint wouldn’t stick to the surface. . .and the flies came off with the paint.”

Brent’s mother yelled down the basement stairs. “Did you want me to make you a sandwich, Brent?”

He shouted towards the ceiling, “No ma, I’m with Gavin!”

After a moment his mother replied, “Oh, does he want anything to eat?”

He turned to me and asked casually, “Do you want a sandwich?”

“No, I’m fine,” I said. Brent had the perfect artist setup. His mother thought he was the most talented, precious thing out there. She was totally supportive of his artistic endeavors, didn’t ask for any rent and really didn’t care if the guy ever left her basement. That meant that Brent felt no compulsion to get a real job and take on responsibilities the rest of us humans had to endure. He thought he was always just one painting away from the world discovering his true great talent. As long as he convinced his mother of that, she was more than happy to support him in whatever he did.

“So what made you switch to a canvas?” I asked him.

“After I scraped the fly paper off, everything was covered in flies, so I just went with it.”

“Obviously if your paints are ruined with dead fly bodies,” I said, “you aren’t going to start on a still life of a bowl of fruit.”

He thought for a moment. “I dunno, fruit flies?” he said, then did his weird little laugh.

“OK, what do you want for it?”

Brent was taken aback for a moment.

“Seriously; the Eastman gig has been paying real well. I want to give something back to other artists,” I said. “How about two hundreds bucks?”

Brent was floored by my offer. “Wow,” he said. “That’s totally cool! Really?”

In reality, I was being a jerk. Yes, I was going to give Brent the money, but I was actually looking for paintings that I could hand off to Gary. Since I made $1,300 per painting, I was more than happy to give Brent a chunk of that. He didn’t have to know that it would end up in an incinerator. We would both make some money and we would both be happy. No one would ever buy this painting, anyway. It would stay there in his basement until it got water damaged or something, then his mother would throw it out.

“Can you make it two hundreds and fifty?” he grinned.

“Fine,” I said.

His mother’s voice came bellowing down the stairway again. “Did you want me to make you boys some coffee?”

Slightly annoyed, Brent began to yell at the ceiling again, “NO MA! We. . .” He caught himself in mid-sentence and asked me quietly, “Do you want some coffee?”

“Nope.”

“NO MA! WE DON’T WANT ANY COFFEE!” he screamed.

Unperturbed at Brent’s curt dismissals, she continued, “Did you get your clean underwear I left by the table?”

“YA MA! I’ll fold it in a minute.” He glanced at me and rolled his eyes.

“OK, What else ya got?” I asked him.

He pulled out a painting from behind an exercise bike and held it up. It looked like two strips of charred beef on skewers, sitting on some burning lava rocks. Confused, I asked him, “What is it?”

He said, “I call it Nagasaki Teriyaki.

“Nagasaki?” I said, “Like the atomic bomb city?”

“Yeah.”

That painting definitely needed to go into the fire. “I’ll take it. What else?”

Brent put the painting down, picked up an acoustic guitar and strummed some happy, upbeat chords. He was a pretty good musician; if he had stuck to one artistic endeavor, he could’ve been a master of something. I could tell that I was making his day. “I’m working on something personal; it’s not quite finished,” he said.

“That’s OK, I like raw stuff,” I said. I didn’t tell him that I’d just splash some paint on it to fill in any blank spots before I would deliver it to Gary.

He strummed and held a chord. “Turn around,” he said, “It’s leaning on the wall behind you.”

I saw a painting of a stormy ocean scene, complete with a lightning bolt arcing between some clouds. Floating in the huge waves was a mattress with a terrified little boy curled up in the middle of it.

He looked down at this guitar and strummed a minor chord, “I had a bed-wetting problem when I was a child.”

“Done.” I looked around the room for more paintings. I asked him, “What about the rat one you did for the gallery show?”

“Oh yeah,” he said, “I got that in the garage.”

“I’ll take all of ‘em. What else can you have for me in four weeks?”

He passionately strummed his guitar and sang, “Paintings Señor! Paintings galore!

I pulled out my wallet, peeled off ten hundred dollar bills and deposited them on the coffee table in front of him while he continued to sing, “I’ve got an ardor, for paintings galore!

Chapter 29

Outside DLC Loading Dock

Instead of pulling into my usual spot near the loading dock of the DLC building, I parked my Jeep towards the back the parking lot. I turned the engine off and slouched down in my seat; I didn’t want to be seen. I had paid Lance to bring my paintings inside the loading dock every Friday, but I was hoping I could find this other person he mentioned who was also delivering artwork at that time of day. Within five minutes I saw a shitbox of a car pull up to the loading dock. Lance got out of his car, pulled two of Brent’s paintings out of the back seat and entered the building. He came out five minutes later, got in his car and took off.

It was pretty quick; Mooky must not have been very interesting that day. Those were the last two paintings done by Brent that needed to be delivered. In a couple of days I’d planned to go by his house and see what else he had for me. About five minutes after Lance left, a nice BMW pulled into the parking lot. At first I though it was some executive who got bumped out of his assigned space, but then I noticed the guy had long hair and was wearing a t-shirt and some scruffy jeans. When I saw him pull a painting of a landscape out of his back seat, I knew that was my guy. I got out of my car and approached him as he walked towards the loading dock.

I jogged up to him, “Hey! I can talk to you?”

He stopped and looked at me slightly confused, “Yeah?”

“Listen, I’m an artist,” I said. “I’ve also been delivering paintings here for a while. Do you know Gary Easton?”

“Yeah, I do paintings for him.” He started walking towards the door again.

I put my arm out and stopped him. “Listen! I’ve got something important to tell you!” I could tell the guy was getting uncomfortable with my persistence, but I didn’t care. “You shouldn’t bring that painting in there,” I said.

He frowned. “What? I have a contract with Gary Eastman to paint for him. What’s the problem?”

“He’s been burning all of our paintings. He’s been sending me videos of all my paintings going into the incinerator.” I pulled out my phone and started the last video he sent me. He glanced at the video impassively. “I don’t know why he’s been doing this,” I stressed.

“Yeah, I don’t know either,” he said. “I get the same videos.” He started walking again towards the loading dock.

I caught up to him, “That doesn’t bother you? That he’s BURNING all your paintings?”

He continued walking towards the loading dock. “What?” he said while glancing over his shoulder at me. “He pays me. I don’t care what he does with my paintings.”

“But why do you think he does that?”

“I don’t know; I get paid.”

“What about your legacy? You won’t have anything to show!”

He stopped walking and glared at me. “What? I’ve got a nice car and a house. I was able to pay off my RISD tuition with this job.” RISD is the Rhode Island School of Design; it’s like an Ivy League school for artists. If you couldn’t get a job after going to RISD, something was wrong with you. But something was wrong with this guy; he didn’t seem to care that his paintings were going up in flames.

“But, as an artist,” I said, “your whole existence is pointless if you have nothing to show for your work.”

“I told you, I’ve got plenty of show for my work.” He was now completely annoyed with me. “I don’t care,” he said in a condescending voice, “I-get-paid.”

“But what about the videos?”

“The videos are probably a joke,” he said. “CGI or something.”

“A JOKE?” I said as I raised my voice. “I personally watched two guys load half a dozen paintings into a furnace…our paintings!”

“I don’t know. . .I’m just happy I have health insurance. I’ve got to deliver this.” He took off towards the loading dock. I watched him walk up the stairs to the entrance and enter the building with his painting.

Health Insurance? The guy’s work was going up in flames and he was worried about freaking health insurance? I walked back to my car shaking my head. I couldn’t believe some people were happy just going through life as consumers. They’d leave nothing behind, add nothing to the human condition; they’d just eat, shit and die. Nobody would ever know they existed. I supposed if you didn’t care about such things, then fine – but this guy was an artist.

Just before I reached my car, I heard the entrance door open behind me. I was surprised to see the two art goons standing there. One of them looked over his shoulder and spoke to someone inside the building, a second later, the artist guy came through the door.

I nearly shit my pants.

What they hell were they doing there? The artist guy pointed in my direction. The two art goons saw me standing there and headed towards me. I didn’t want to know what they wanted. I quickly got into my Jeep and started the car up. Fortunately there was a parking lot between them and me so I was able to get the hell out of there.

Let’s just say, I didn’t like those guys.

Chapter 30

Art Gallery

“Have you ever tried doing a painting with your penis?” Jerry asked me nonchalantly.

I was standing next to Jerry at the front counter of the gallery, filling out a work order. He was cruising the Internet on his laptop. I took a deep breath of annoyance and continued working. “No,” I said.

“I found this website that features artists who have unique painting styles,” he said. Jerry always liked to do this to me. He would see me working and would tell me something profoundly stupid, knowing that I would be compelled to analyze how idiotic it was. It was amazing how gullible I was, since I fell for it again.

I stopped writing and thought about it, “Would you consider using your penis a style? I’d call it more like a technique,” I said.

He rotated his laptop towards me, “Well this guy is doing a painting with his schlong,” he said.

I was compelled to look. The photo showed a guy’s crotch covered in paint; his canvas was just a blurry mess. He might as well have created it using an old style shaving cream brush. “Now how would you differentiate between an actual painting that was done with an actual penis,” I said, “and an outright forgery, with, say, a kielbasa?”

Jerry scrolled down the webpage. “Here’s this woman who vomits the paint onto her canvas.” The photo showed the woman leaning over over a canvas with her finger at the ready. I could tell she was an artist because she was dress all in black.

“Again, how do you PROVE that that splatter of paint came from her throat?” I said. “You would need a witness just to verify your method.”

Jerry continued to study the screen, “Or maybe a video.”

“Fine,” I said. “Nobody cares what the finished products looks like, it’s all about HOW they made it, not WHO made it. Without the back story of how it was done, nobody would even bother looking at the finished product. It’s just another version of a chimp or dolphin painting.”

He showed me his laptop again. “Ooooh, this woman paints with her breasts.”

I gave it a quick glance and then sighed as I shook my head. It just looked like colorful mud wrestling.

“I would buy this if it came with the video of her making it,” he said.

I was staring out the front window when a large black SUV pulled up to our front door. Two guys dressed in suits and sunglasses got out of the car—the art goons. I didn’t have time to run out to the back, so I just dropped to the floor behind the counter.

Jerry looked down at me with a puzzled expression, “What are you doing?”

I blurted out, “Don’t tell those guys I’m here!”

“Why?” he asked.

I heard the front door open. I went “Shhh!” and frantically waved at him to stop looking down at me.

I heard a pair of footsteps approach the counter and stop. Jerry politely asked, “Can I help you guys?”

“Does a Gavin Vonn Getch work here?” I recognized that voice as belonging to the bigger of the two goons.

“He’s not here right now, he felt kind of floored.” Jerry had to make a joke about all this. I was about to get my ass kicked and he thought the whole thing was funny.

“We need to speak to Gavin,” the other goon said.

Jerry paused then said, “Can I ask you guys something? Why are you wearing sunglasses? Are you guys from the Matrix or something?” I saw that he had a little smirk on his face. God, what an idiot.

There was another pause from the art goons before the smaller one repeated in a very no-bullshit tone. “We need to speak to Gavin.”

My heart was pounding away. Jerry wasn’t taking this seriously. He replied casually, “Told you guys—he’s not here.”

“Where is he?” the bigger one growled.

“Like I said,” Jerry replied, “he was feeling kind of down and left.”

“When do you expect him back?” the smaller one shot back.

“Actually, I think he just quit,” Jerry said.

There was a longer pause from the two art goons. I was sure they could tell Jerry was lying.

The smaller one said, “I thought you said he left early?”

“He did. He quit and left early.” Jerry crossed his arms. “Do you guys always dress the same, or was today a coincidence?”

I was expecting the larger one to do the classic movie collar grab and pull Jerry over the counter. Instead he said, “Why don’t you fucking lose some weight?”

The smaller goon sounded completely pissed. “Listen, we could buy this shitty gallery with you in it, just to put you out of a job, but we’re not going to bother. We’d rather watch you rot here.” Jerry took a step backwards. “Now where is Gavin?” the goon demanded.

Jerry’s face got pale. He stammered, “He quit. I didn’t blame the guy. He’s got this fabulous client that he now paints for. He makes a ton of money.”

The smaller one hissed, “That’s what were here about.”

The bigger one said without the slightest hint of irony, “We’ll be back.” He sounded exactly like Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator. I heard the front door close, followed by the sound of a car starting up and driving away.

I looked up at Jerry, “Is the car gone?”

I could tell that Jerry was shaken by all this, “Holy shit, I think that guy was carrying a gun.” he said. “I thought I saw a holster when he leaned towards me.”

“But is the car gone?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Who the hell were those guys?

I stood up and brushed my pants off.

“They’re Gary Eastman’s art goons,” I said, pulling a piece of tape off my butt. “Gary sicced them on me because he wasn’t happy with what I was sending him.”

“What did you send him?”

“Recently it was a giant middle finger,” I said.

“That’s not too bad, I guess.”

“And I sent him my turd on a canvas.”

“A real turd?”

“Yeah.”

“YOUR turd?”

“Yeah. But it was covered in plastic.”

“Oh man,” Jerry looked at me in disbelief, “and this guy PAYS you?”

“What can I tell ya, I was angry with him at the time.”

Jerry shook his head, “I would completely lay low,” he said. If they find you, they are going to take your painting and shove it back up to where it came from.”

Chapter 31

Brent’s Basement

I hit the doorbell and noticed a huge metal star hanging off of Brent’s house. I guess they’re known as barn stars, even though it’s hanging off of a suburban home. Originally it represented the mark of the builder, but ended up being adapted as a sort of architectural IZOD emblem. I was always disappointed that they didn’t have any pink flamingos in their yard.

Brent’s mother answered the door, “Hello Gavin! Come in! Brent is downstairs. Would you like come coffee?”

“No thanks,” I said, “I’m just here to pick some things up from Brent.” He had three weeks to come up with some more paintings, so I was hoping he’d have at least one or two ready to go. I just laughed if off when Gary sent me the prerequisite video of Brent’s first two paintings going into the fire. If Gary wants to pay Brent and me for our time, I was just gonna run with it.

I went downstairs. Brent was lying on the couch with his eyes closed, wearing a pair of headphones. The room smelled like pot and there was a water pipe sitting next to him. I tapped his foot, “Hey Brent!”

He slowly looked at me through slits. “Hey man,” he said as I woke him up.

“Hey, how ya doin’?”

He awkwardly leaned forward and pulled the headphones off his head and dropped them to the floor. I could see that his brain was going through a boot up sequence after a long pot-induced sleep. I watched him for a moment while he got his bearings. “What time is it?” he asked.

“I dunno, four o’clock?”

He stood up and yawned. “Do you want my mother to get you some coffee?”

“I’m fine, Thanks.” I watched him scratch his head one last time while his eyes opened all the way. I asked him, “So what have you been doing?”

“I’ve been working on my music. You gotta hear this.” He reached behind the couch and picked up a didgeridoo. It looks exactly like the one the guy was playing at the artist loft.

“So where did you get that?”

“I was visiting James at the loft and I heard it being played there,” he said. “This guy was doing some amazing things with it. I had to have it.” He brought it over to an a microphone connected to a little mixing board. He turned on the amplifier, a loud pop came through some speakers. A noticeable hum filled the room; it was up way too loud and he hadn’t noticed. “You gotta hear this,” he said right before blowing through the thing. The room vibrated from the sound, layered with additional echo and feedback. The closest I could some to describing the godawful noise was something Godzilla would make while attacking Tokyo.

Brent’s mom yelled down the stairs, “Sweety? Can you turn it down?”

He stumbled over to the amplifier and turned down a knob. “Yeah Ma! I was just showing Gavin!”

“So the guy just sold it to you?”

“Yeah.” He sat back down on the couch. “It’s hand made from Australia. He only wanted $800.”

I did some quick math in my head. I gave Brent $1,000 for four of his paintings. That’s most likely where he got the cash. He probably spent the remaining $200 on pot. OK, I was probably responsible for all of this, but no biggie, Brent can do what he wants with his money.

He held the instrument horizontally out in front of him. It was practically the length of his couch. He stared at it for a moment. “Ya know, I bet I could also use this as a giant bong. Imagine playing it while you smoked it.”

I hated listening to stoned people when you’re not stoned yourself. I feel the same way about having sex with someone who was stoned and you’re not. You’ve just got to be on the same wavelength if you want find anything of interest in the other person’s babbling. I’m sure Brent was in a state of ‘everything is genius’ at that point, but I had my own objectives as to why I was there. “Have you done any paintings?” I asked him.

“No, sorry. I’ve been working on my music. I wrote four new songs this week; do you want to hear them?”

I could only imagine what he came up with playing a didgeridoo through an effects box, but I’m confident that it approached Mozart in his mind. I’m sure Capitol records will be calling shortly, looking to fill the government contract for music to torture terrorists by. “When do you think you can have more paintings?” I asked him impatiently.

“I dunno. Maybe I’ll start one this week.” He scratched his chin, then looked around the room for something. He picked up a cup of coffee. “I did paint this ceramic mug for my little cousin. Do you want it?”

Disappointed, I shook my head and headed back up the stairs. Maybe if it said “World’s Shittiest Boss” I could’ve sent it to Gary Eastman.

Chapter 32

John’s Apartment

Damn it, I wanted to do it all with this in one trip. I surveyed the pile of painting supplies I had thrown into the back of my car. I wanted to get everything inside in one go. I stacked the two canvases together, the palette went on next, then the box of oil paints and assorted brushes. I was able to hold the folding easel under my armpit as I walked to the front door of my apartment. I was disappointed that I didn’t find John outside, carefully drawing away in his usual spot, because all this stuff was for him. I went directly to his apartment and knocked on the door.

His mother opened it, “Gavin!” she said with a smile.

“Hey! I brought something for John. I think he’s going to like this.”

“Oh my, John—come see this!” she said.

“I haven’t been painting in a while; I’d like to give John all this and see what he thinks.” I tried to released the pressure under my arm slowly, to let the easel settle to the floor, but the stupid thing just dropped horizontally with a clatter.

“Let me help you with that,” she said as she bent down to pick it up. I followed her to John’s bedroom.

He was sitting at his desk, holding a piece of cardboard up to his face, methodically doing his thing.

“John,” his mother said, “Gavin is here to see you. He’s brought something for you.”

I dumped everything I was carrying onto his bed. “Hey dude, have you ever tried oil painting?”

He took a quick glance at the stuff I put on his bed, then went back to his drawing. “No,” he said indifferently.

I thought he wasn’t going to embrace anything new. It was going to be up to me to basically ‘prime the pump’ with him. “Let me show you how it’s done,” I said. I picked up the easel and attached a blank canvas to it.

John seemed disinterested and continued to focus on his piece of cardboard. “John!” his mother said, “let Gavin show you what he brought!”

John put his pen down and noticed that I had slipped my thumb through the hole in the palette. He seemed focused on how I was able to hold it that way with my thumb.

“So John,” I said, trying not to sound patronizing, “What do you want to paint?”

He kept staring at my thumb that was outlined by my palette. “Thumb tacks,” he said.

This is what made John such an interesting person to talk to. You had to force yourself to not overanalyze any of the non-sequiturs he threw out there. I suppose it’s possible to find inspiration for a painting in office supplies, but for now I just wanted to show him how to paint something easy like a bowl of fruit, or maybe a sunset. I picked up a tube of cadmium blue with my free hand and twisted the cap off with my teeth. I held up the tube of paint and showed it to John.

“Watch this John. First you put down some blue paint.” John seemed fascinated as he watched me squirt a small line of paint onto my palette. I twisted the cap off another tube between my teeth. “Then some yellow,” I said as I squirted another line of paint onto the easel and picked up a palette knife and began mixing the two together. “You see? We get the color green!”

John ignored what I was doing and picked up the tube of cadmium blue and held it between his fingers. He started to squeeze the tube of paint and a blob formed at the opening. I could see he wasn’t going to release the pressure as this blue blob grew to the size of a grape. He held up the tube of paint to his mother and said “Looks like my toothpaste. Just as this blue booger was about to fall from the tube, I managed to get under it and caught it with my palette.

“Watch out John,” I said, “this stuff can ruin your carpet!”

John’s mother admonished him, “You’re going to have to be careful John with that paint. Don’t get it on yourself.”

I loaded a brush with some of the freshly mixed paint. “Then we apply it to the canvas,” I continued, “like this.” I made a little green splotch on the canvas. I offered the brush to John, “Do you want to try?”

John ignored me and picked up the smallest round brush I had. You’d use it paint the glints in someones eyes. He held up the tube of cadmium blue still in his hands and dipped the tip of his brush directly into it’s opening. He applied a small dab of paint onto the canvas, making a tiny circle. He then repeated this three more times until he had a small square pattern. A content smile broke out on his face.

Where is Bob Ross when you need him? Typically you’d fill in larger areas first, then add more detail as you added more layers of paint, but OK, you can start with tiny circles. “John! You’re doing great!” I said.

He took the canvas off the stand and placed it in his lap. He put his face right up to the canvas and continued painting tiny circles, carefully dabbing the little brush into the tube’s opening.

“Oooh, this is great,” his mother said, “We’re always trying to get John to try new things.”

“John,” I asked him, “What are you going to paint?”

“Goggles,” he said.

I concentrated for a moment and tried to imagine what he was seeing. Was he painting TINY goggles? Goggles for the eyes of a fly? Maybe with enough dots, if you stood back, you’d see some kind of eyewear, as if you were looking at a screened print up close. I had no idea what John meant as I watched him meticulously apply more paint to the canvas. He got me again.

His mother asked me, “Can I give you something for the materials?”

“Oh no,” I said, “in fact, I’d like to pay for John’s paintings—when he’s finished of course.”

A perplexed look came over her face.

“I have a buyer who is looking for new artwork,” I said. “I think he’s going to like what he’s doing.” I wasn’t going to tell her that everything he does will end up going into an incinerator. I’m sure John wouldn’t care either, he’s got a room filled with cardboard drawings that even his mom hasn’t seen. Hell, I thought I was being magnanimous, John will now be supporting himself and his mother with his own artwork.

Chapter 33

Cafe Au Lait

Linda and I were sitting outside at Cafe Au Lait, a nice joint that has some good sandwiches. It’s located downtown on the main drag where anybody could drive by and see you sitting there stuffing your face. I felt kind of exposed, out in the warm sun, holding my Thai chicken wrap. I said to Linda, “I haven’t been sleeping well,” then bit into my sandwich.

“You have seemed jittery lately,” she said.

I scanned the street while I chewed carefully. I swallowed and said, “Can we go inside?”

“Why? It’s nice out. Our food is here.”

I took another bite and watched the traffic flow by. Damn, everything just didn’t feel right. “I had this weird dream last night,” I said.

Linda had just loaded her mouth up from her salad and wasn’t in a hurry to say anything. She finished chewing and smiled. “OK,” she said, “let’s have it – Gavin’s weird dream.”

I put down my wrap and wiped my mouth with a napkin. “I was this Arab sheik who owned all these oil wells. Each one pumped a different colored oil, one did blue, another red. I had an entire oil refinery that did every color. I was selling this colored oil to the government and making all sorts of money.

“Colored oil,” Linda said with a nod.

“Yeah, I had basically cornered the market on colored oil.”

She pulled an olive off of her fork with her teeth and casually bit down on it. She was in no rush to get through her analysis of my psyche. “OK, so oil paint,” she said. “I can see where this is going.”

“I also owned this psychedelic Rolls Royce, because, you know…I was super rich.”

“Like the one John Lennon had back in the sixties?”

“Yeah. But the government didn’t like that I had cornered the multi-colored oil market and they sent some Navy Seals to put me out of business. I was mad that they were going to do this to me, so out of spite, I started smashing my wells. I watched as all this different colored oil poured out into the desert. They flowed together and formed all these word patterns in the sand.”

She nodded her head.

“I wanted to light these oil wells on fire, but the colorful oil wouldn’t ignite, because my matches were soaked in all this green oil.”

“So you were the Saddam Hussein of the art world?”

“I guess. These Navy Seal guys spotted me behind this geyser of green paint and were going to kill me. I started to run towards my psychedelic Rolls Royce, but that’s when the desert turned into quicksand. I was frantically trying to get to my car but couldn’t move my legs because my legs were stuck. I was just a few steps from my car, but I couldn’t get away… That’s when the dream ended.”

“OK…we could analyze this in all sorts of different directions.”

“I woke up with my heart pounding.” I picked up my wrap and took another bite.

“So you were being chased by some Navy Seals?”

“I think so.” I put down my sandwich and nervously glanced around again. “They were more like a threatening presence. Can we go inside?”

“Dude, wait,” she said. “So what did these Navy Seals look like?”

“Kind of like the art goons,” I said as I watched a car drive past us on the street.

“Well that makes sense,” she said.

“The art goons were asking Jerry about me.”

“When was this?”

“Yesterday.”

“What did he tell them?”

“Naturally he was being a smart ass at first.”

“I’m sure they found him endearing,” she said.

“They had a gun,” I said as I watched for more oncoming traffic.

“Who had a gun?”

“The art goons. Jerry said that one of them had a gun. He was being his usual smart ass to them and they flashed him their guns.”

“Wait a minute,” Linda said, “I thought you said only ONE guy had a gun.”

“I dunno. Maybe they both had guns. Who knows, they could’ve been machine guns.”

Linda laughed. “Why? Were they carrying violin cases?”

I hunched down into my seat. “All’s I know is they’re looking for me.”

Linda looked at me quizzically, “They want to shoot you?”

“I dunno,” I said. “These guys are now following me. They appeared at my loft. They were waiting for me at the DLC loading dock and they tracked me down at the gallery.”

“Didn’t you meet Gary at the gallery? C’mon…he could’ve just told them you work there.”

My eyes went back to the street again. “Those guys were driving a black SUV.”

“So I don’t understand,” she said. “If these art goons need to speak to you, why don’t they just call or text you?”

“I don’t know.” I went back to my Thai wrap and carefully took a bite. “Maybe they don’t want to leave an electronic trail,” I said.

Linda finished her sip of water and went, “Huh?”

“If they were going to do something, they wouldn’t want any records that they had contacted me.”

Linda thought about it for a moment. “But the checks keep coming, right?”

“Yeah.”

“If Gary had a problem with what you were doing, he would just stop sending the checks, right?”

“Then why is he sending his art goons after me?”

Linda rolled her eyes and said, “Well, the feces was a bit much.”

“They could’ve just called me and said knock it off!

“I suppose,” she said.

“Unless they have something else in mind,” I said. “What’s that saying? Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

“Damn dude,” she said with a laugh, “you need to relax.”

I scooped up my sandwich and stood up, “Can we go inside now?”

Chapter 34

John’s Apartment

I had circled my entire apartment building, looking for a black SUV, before I parked. I was pretty sure I hadn’t told Gary Eastman where I lived, but I’d been unable to shake the paranoia, which was probably a good thing. I scrutinized the parking lot as I walked to the front door of my building. John was sitting in his usual spot outside the front entrance. He had his face pressed up to another piece of cardboard, meticulously drawing something. “Hey John,” I said as I searched for my keys.

“Hello Gavin,” he said in a flat voice, without making eye contact. That was his usual method of greeting me, so I wasn’t put off by his indifference. I kind of hoped that I’d find him painting on one of my canvases, instead of just doodling on some more cardboard. I watched him do his thing while I dug around in my pockets. From out of nowhere he said, “I like to paint.”

I asked him, “Then why aren’t you painting, John?”

“I finished them,” he said.

I couldn’t believe it. I’d given him two blank canvases two days before that. He did two paintings in two days? “You finished BOTH canvases?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“Can you show them to me?”

He stood up with his piece of cardboard. “OK,” he said, then headed towards the front door. I held it open for him. I remember thinking that if he could pump out a painting a day, I could supply Gary with a lifetime’s worth of paintings. As John walked towards his apartment, I went in the opposite direction and yelled, “John! Let me get something from my apartment! I’ll be right over!”

From down the hall I heard him say, “OK.”

I ran inside my apartment and grabbed the four blank canvases I had stashed away in my living room closet. I made a mental note to buy more canvases. I also took my check book and went back to his apartment with everything under my arm.

His mother met me at the door. “Thank you for the art supplies!” she said. “John has really enjoyed them these past few days.” John came from his bedroom holding his two paintings awkwardly out in front of him, as if they were shields to be used in some Roman army attack. He offered me the first one.

Wow. The entire canvas was covered in tiny blue dots and patterns; it almost looked like a detailed schematic for a circuit board. It must’ve taken him the entire day to do this. His other painting looked pretty much like the first, but with an odd color change occurring right in the middle, as if he’d run out of blue and just continued on with a tube of orange.

“John,” I said. “These are really great!” He cracked a smile; it was the first time I’d ever seen him do it. I could tell he was proud of his accomplishment. I pulled out my checkbook and said to his mother, “I’d like to pay John for these paintings.”

“But you don’t have to do that,” she said. “You gave John all these supplies.”

“It’s not for me,” I said. “I have a buyer would would really enjoy his artwork. Can I give you five hundred dollars?”

John’s mother gasped. “Five hundred dollars?” she said as she shook her head. “We can’t take that.”

“No no, five hundred dollars for two paintings is a bargain for this individual.” I started filling out a check. “He’ll probably want a lot more when I show him these.” John put down his paintings and went back to his bedroom.

“Did you hear that John?” his mother said, “somebody is going to pay for your artwork!”

His nonchalant voice came from the bedroom. “OK,” he said.

I doubted he understood the importance of money. I knew this check would help his mother immensely. I tore it out of my checkbook and handed it to her. “Get something for John that he really likes.” She took the check. I could see she was ready to cry. “I’m going to leave these four more canvases for John,” I said. “Let me know if he needs anything else.”

She looked at me with glassy eyes and said, “God bless you.”

I was feeling pretty magnanimous at that moment. She and John could really use the money. I knew they wouldn’t piss it away on something stupid like a didgeridoo for chrissakes. So what if all of his paintings ended up in an incinerator? Would John even care? I knew it didn’t bother him when his mother threw out stacks of his cardboard drawings to make more space in his bedroom. Gary Eastman would be helping to support John and his mother, even though he thought he was still tormenting me with his fucking art-burning videos. I felt like some universal karma had been aligned. Who said you couldn’t be snarky and philanthropic at the same time?

Chapter 35

Artist Loft

I had taken the prerequisite lap around the outside of the artists’ loft building, looking for a black SUV. Other than some new additions to the graffiti by the dumpster, everything looked normal. I grabbed John’s two paintings from my Jeep and went inside. I ran into Ritvars Berzins on the first floor, rummaging through piles of metal crap in the middle of the lobby. He picked up a metal conduit of some sort, muttered something in Latvian, then flung it with a crash into the other pile of crap on the floor.

I watched him for a moment until he noticed me. “Do you zee vat zey did?” he said angrily while pointing towards a smashed metal box on the floor.

I shrugged and said, “What?”

He held up a metal conduit and shook it at me, “Zay took zee vire!”

Apparently there was a black market for copper wire. Maybe some homeless guy had snuck in and gotten a few bucks for recycling copper wire. They certainly wouldn’t be interested in stealing art supplies. Somebody had done this a while ago and now he was getting worked up all over again. I tried to feign interest and asked him, “How much did they take?”

He threw his hands up in the air and said, “All of it!” He picked up a bent metal box, turned it over and shouted, “Sūdi!” (Latvian for “shit”).

I stood there for a moment and watched him search the floor, then wandered upstairs. Down the hall I heard the sound of a single drum being repeatedly struck. The drummer in Lance’s band must be tuning his kit.

I walked in just as Lance started a rhythmic run on his bass. He stopped when he saw me enter and said, “Artist man!”

“Hey dude,” I said. “I’ve got two more paintings for you to deliver.”

He put down his instrument and walked over to me while the drummer continued pounding on his drum head. He picked up the first painting by John and studied it for a moment. A puzzled look came over his face. “What the hell?” he said as he scrutinized it even closer. “Why did you do this?”

I hesitated for a second, “I was trying something different.”

Lance didn’t know what to make of it. Even a twenty-one year old musician knew that this was something made by a mind that wasn’t right. He studied the little circles and lines covering the canvas for another moment then said, “What are you calling it?”

He caught me off guard; I’d never bothered to come up with a name. I scratched my head for a moment then blurted out, “Van Gogh’s Sudoku.” Maybe, if Vincent was painting in Chinese characters, you could spell something out.

The drummer stopped his pounding and said, “These two dudes were looking for you last week.”

I took a few steps towards him, “Dark suits? Sunglasses?”

Lance put John’s painting down. “Yeah, they were kind of assholes,” he said. “The little guy said we sounded like Schoenberg with late stage-syphilis.” He looked at me with a puzzled expression and said, “Who’s Schoenberg?”

“He was a composer who did 12-tone music,” I said. “It sounds kind of strange.”

Lance nodded and smiled. I think he took it as a compliment. “Why were these guys looking for you?” he asked.

“They’re not crazy about my artwork either,” I said. “I should have some more paintings for you to deliver next week.”

“Cool,” he replied, then walked over to his amp. He sat down and placed the guitar strap around his neck and played a barrage of notes. He suddenly stopped and said, “Ah. . .guess what— we’re playing a beach party next week.”

“An acoustic gig on a beach?” I asked.

“It’s on a little island off the Cape,” he said. “You can only get to there by boat. We’re bringing a generator and all of our equipment. Everyone gets trashed and then we sleep in our tents. It’s wicked awesome!”

I wasn’t sure if getting marooned on a Cape Cod beach with a pile of drunk musicians and their buddies was my thing. I tried to be polite and just said, “Sounds interesting.”

From the hall behind me I heard James say, “I thought that was you.”

I turned and saw him approaching me, “Hey James.”

“So what have you seen working on recently?”

I picked up one of John’s paintings and gave it to him. He stared at it in silence. “Wow,” he said. “A little obsessive compulsive lately?”

“Yeah, I know it looks weird,” I said. “It’s a totally different thing I wanted to try.” Of course I had to continue the lie about where these paintings came from and where they were going. I’m sure if he’d seen the earlier ones, he would’ve recognized the Brent paintings that I had submitted to Gary, and then I would’ve had to explain the whole thing to him. It was easier if I kept the ruse going. I leaned into him and said quietly, “Did you see two guys looking for me?”

He looked up at me said, “What guys?”

“I dunno. Two guys.”

James paused for a moment, as if he wasn’t sure I was messing with him and slowly said, “Why would two guys be looking for you?”

“I dunno. I’m just asking.”

“OK,” he shrugged. “So how come you haven’t been here at the loft?”

“Eh,” I grunted, then glanced toward the stairway, my only exit. “I just don’t feel comfortable working here. Exposed.”

“Exposed?” James gave me a weird look. He put down John’s painting and I followed him out into the hall. “Then can I show you what I’ve been working on?”

Looking at the stairs, I said, “Sorry, I gotta go. Linda is waiting for me.” I could see that James was put off by my abruptness. Normally I would’ve loved to hang out with him and see what he’d done. I went back down the stairs; Ritvars was still studying his pile of twisted electrical components on the floor. He looked up at me, frowned and[* *]shook his head some more. I was reaching for the door knob when I noticed, through a side window, a black SUV parked in front of my Jeep.

I froze.

It was the art goons, waiting for me to come outside. My heart raced[* *]as I stared at their car. I slowly pulled my hand away from the door; I couldn’t leave. Ritvars shuffled up to a window next to me, muttering something in Latvian.

I had an idea. “Hey Ritvars,” I said as I pointed out the window. “Do you see those guys in that black SUV?”

He looked up and squinted, “Eh?”

“They’ve been here a bunch of times,” I said. “Do you know them?”

Staring at them, he shook his head and said, “Neh-eh.”

“The guys in the band mentioned they were here last week. I think they might be the ones who stole your wire.”

Ritvars started to slightly sway and his hands curled into fists as he stared out the window. I could see this might work. “How many times zey here?” he said.

“A bunch. I don’t know who they are though.”

He continued to glare out the window like a cat ready to pounce on its prey. He started making these low, guttural sounds, as if he was replaying in his mind all the times the Russians pissed him off back in Latvia. Here was my chance to push him over the edge. I said, “It looks like they’re waiting for you to leave.”

He banged open the front door, shouting something in Latvian as he marched towards them. I snuck out the rear door by the dumpster and made my way around the parking lot towards the front. Crouching down, I snuck up behind my Jeep to listen.

“How come I never see you here before?” Ritvars shouted.

“We’re waiting for someone,” the smaller art goon said.

“Vhy don’t you go vait somewhere else?” he shouted again.

The other art goon sneered, “Why don’t you mind your own business?”

It was beautiful. Ritvars exploded in a series of Latvian expletives and English. “Māte stulbenis! (motherfucker) ZIS IS MY BUILDING. I SAY WHO STAYS HERE! Ee-at! Ee-at!” (Go! Go!) After a moment, I heard the SUV start up, then drive away. Ritvars went back inside and shouted, “Nolādēts!” (God damn it) one last time. Laughing,[* *]I congratulated myself on a job well done. I got into my car and left by the dirt road around the back, in case they were waiting for me out on the main street.

As I drove back to my house, I went over in my mind what Gary must be thinking about my ‘even newer direction’. I know he was annoyed that I wasn’t even trying with the modern art crap that I’d sent him. He knew it only took me a few minutes to paint that stuff. The new John paintings would look like they’d taken a while to do. He couldn’t slight me for just slapping something together, as I’d done in the past.

I did a lap around my apartment complex, then pulled into my usual spot. I got out of my Jeep. Before I knew what was happening, the black SUV slammed on its brakes behind me, blocking me and my car from leaving. I looked right into the eyes of the smaller art goon who was driving. He glared at me and said, “Get in.”

Two words kept repeating in my mind, holy shit – holy shit – holy shit – holy shit. I didn’t know what to do, but there was no way I would get into their car. I found myself vacillating between fight or flight, but I knew I couldn’t fight these guys. In desperation, I tried stalling them by pleading, “Why are you guys following me?”

The small goon repeated, in an even more menacing tone, “Get in.” The larger one got out on his side of the car and approached me. It was time for the flight part of this equation, but I didn’t know where to go. The only option I had was to retreat two steps back into my car and lock the door. At that moment, I regretted buying such a shitty, flimsy vehicle. It was a ragtop, with a fold-down windshield. You could take the doors off that thing. I closed the door and sank into my seat as the art goons approached from both sides.

The smaller art goon leaned towards my window, “Get out of the car, Gavin.” The larger one pulled at the other door handle. It was locked.

It felt like my pituitary gland had squeezed itself dry. I gasped at the amount of adrenaline that was flowing through me. In a panic I cried, “I didn’t do anything!”

The art goon next to me started pulling at my door and the one on the other side did the same. The car rocked back and forth from their tugging. I lost it and went total pussy. I leaned into my horn and screamed “HELP!” at the same time. Then I realized the horn was canceling out my hysterical screaming.

I pushed the horn, then screamed, alternating that a few times like some psychotic car alarm. The larger art goon pulled out a huge folding knife and opened it up. He jabbed it down into the roof; the blade made a popping sound as it pierced the canvas. He began slicing a hole into my car. I was trapped and I would be dead in five seconds. I looked straight ahead and saw an opening. Next to the parking lot was an embankment that went down about six feet, straight out into some woods. I started the engine and pushed the lever into four wheel drive. It was as a good time as ever to try some off-roading.

I stomped on the gas and the Jeep shot forward a few feet, hitting the concrete curb. The front end leapt straight up about a foot then came down with a thud. All four tires grabbed the earth and I sailed out of the parking lot and onto some grass, dragging the art goon as he held his knife. He fell away as I went down the embankment and splashed to a halt into a stream bed. I looked in my rear view mirror and saw the bigger art goon tumbling down the hill behind me. Screw this, I thought, I wasn’t going to wait to see if he could stand up. I cut my wheel hard right and floored it.

A wave of muddy water flew onto my windshield as I hit a deeper spot. What I thought was a stream was really a marsh that ran parallel to the parking lot. I forced the Jeep forward and was jolted violently every few feet, as if I were hitting submerged logs. My Jeep was bouncing up and down like a little kid getting a horsey ride on his dad’s knee.

It was slow going but I was making head-banging headway. I saw that the two art goons had gotten into their car and were pacing me up on the parking lot. I saw that I only had about fifty yards to go before both parking lot and swamp ended. If I got stuck now, they could easily have jumped down and fished me out of my car.

I kept going and plowed through a row of cattails at the border of the parking lot. My Jeep pulled itself up an embankment and was headed into some woods. I snapped my steering wheel to my left, dodging a tree, then spotted a patch of daylight through the brush. It looked like a field of some sort and I drove towards it. The world opened up into a sloping green pasture. I could see a few cows grazing in the distance. I winced as a branch raked across my hood and slid across my windshield with a nasty squeal. The Jeep lurched for a second, then was released with a pop.

I realized that was a barbed wire fence I had just driven through.

When I was finally clear of that tangle of crap, I accelerated up the hill, feeling relieved as the Jeep picked up speed. Looking out my window, I could see the two art goons behind me, standing by their SUV in the parking lot. I still needed to put some distance between them and me. I crested the hill, probably going forty, and almost slammed into some cows. They scattered as I stomped on the brakes and leaned on my horn. They looked like wildebeests running from a lion; I didn’t think cows could move that fast. I laughed, feeling totally relieved that I’d somehow escaped and wasn’t going to die by bovine collision or art goon mishap.

I spotted a huge barn in the distance and went in that direction. There was nothing in my way as I headed towards freedom. As I got closer, I noticed that there was a guy in overalls beside a metal gate, hands on his hips, watching me. He was probably the owner and I was pretty sure he’d seen me terrorize his cows. He had a dour look on his face as I approached. I came to a stop and he opened the gate.

I rolled down my window and looked at him as he yelled, “What the hell did you think you were you doing?”

I don’t know where the words came from, but I said, “Can you believe it? The goddamn GPS screwed me!” Laughing my ass off, I hit the gas and booked it down his driveway, throwing up a huge cloud of dust behind me. He probably though I was the biggest asshole but I didn’t care. I was out of there; I was alive.

Chapter 36

Carnival

Forget the Tilt-A-Wirl, screw the ring toss game and the cotton candy, I was on a crusade for some fried dough. Linda and I were driving to her place and I had started to explain what had gone down outside of my apartment. That was when I spotted the carnival, just off of Route 9. I wanted some comfort food after what I’d been through. We pulled into the parking lot of a Save-A-Lot store.

“Do you really want to go in here?” said Linda.

“Trust me,” I said, “I’ll feel safer in a crowd right at this moment.”

“Shouldn’t you go to the cops?”

“What am I going to tell them? Look for two art critics in a black car?”

“What about their license plate number?”

I shook my head, “Nope. I was kind of busy running for my life.” We got out of the car and headed towards the lights and sound. The closer to we got to the first row of colorful trailers, the louder we were engulfed by all the carnival noise. It was a mixture of random music from different locations, screams and squeaks from the rides, hundreds of people talking and laughing, and the hum of generators struggling to power this temporary metropolis—all competing for our attention. We walked until found a row of food trailers, offering all the foods that could destroy any self-restraint. We smelled sausages and onions cooking on a grill, freshly made popcorn and cotton candy. There was also just the right amount of diesel fumes and to give the carnival its own unique aroma.

Linda leaned into me and spoke loudly, “I liked going to carnivals when I was younger.”

“What was your favorite ride as a kid?” I said.

“I liked The Scrambler,” she said. “The one that spins you around. I was 12 years old and had a crush on David Dunmire and we went on it together. Because I was on the outside, the centrifugal force pressed my body against his. When the ride got up to speed, I wasn’t trying too hard to hang on.”

I smiled and said, “Do you want to go on The Scrambler with me?”

She laughed. “Only if I can sit on the outside.”

We found the fried dough trailer in front of the Round Up ride and got in line. I watched the circle of people being held in place as the ride spun on a steep angle. I zoned out, watching the happy faces of the people being twirled around.

“I gotta get out of this contract,” I said as we stood in line.

“Can’t you just stop painting for Gary?” Linda said.

“I tried that; they’d just find me,” I said. “I need to move. I need to hide.”

“The second you show anything at another gallery, they’ll find you.”

“Then I’ll paint under a different name.”

“If he figures it out,” she said, “he’ll just show up and take everything, won’t he?”

“I gotta get out of this contract,” I repeated as I shook my head, “if it’s the last thing I do.”

Linda turned towards me and said, “That’s an idea.”

She gave me that evil grin that told me some wacky idea was was cooking inside her head. I looked at her and said, “What?”

“Kill yourself. If Gary thinks your dead, he won’t be looking for you, right?”

The couple in front of us finished paying and walked away with their food. I peered through the window, smelled the hot oil and watched the cook drop a blob of flattened dough into the deep fryer. My mouth was watering as I ordered two of them.

I leaned against the side of the trailer while we waited.“Where would I go once I’m dead?” I asked Linda.

She gestured around us and said, “How about running away with a carnival?” I glanced at the crowd moving past us, trying to comprehend such a fate. She laughed, “Could you subsist on fried dough and lemonade?”

“I think carnies like the harder stuff,” I said.

“You could move to Gibbtown, Florida. It’s where the carnies winter. Everyone’s lawn is filled with rides,” she said. “Home of the infamous Lobster Boy.”

The woman handed me the first piece of fried dough. I could feel its heat coming through the napkin. “Who?” I said as I handed it to Linda. “The deformed guy from the tabloids who killed his wife?”

“Yeah.” She took the fried dough from me and said, “If he was still alive, you could’ve hung with him.”

I got my fried dough and paid the woman. We walked over to a table covered in powdered sugar. I picked up a shaker and covered my fried dough with a layer of white powder. Linda went for some brown sugar. I took a bite and ate in silence for a few minutes, before I spoke with my mouth full, “Ya know, I actually worked at a carnival like this for a day.”

“Yeah?”

“I worked the ring toss game.”

“I never play that one; it’s pure luck.”

“My job was to yell at the crowd to bring them in. People were throwing stuff at me by the end of the night. It sucked.”

A loud bell went off, signifying the start of the squirt-the-rotating-clown-head game. A row of people were aiming their water pistols at the mouth of the clown, filling a balloon on its head with air. A loud pop was heard and another bell went off. The carny working the trailer yelled, “We have a winner!” We walked further down the midway, stuffing our faces.

“Speaking of Florida,” Linda said as she licked the sugar from her fingers, “we could go to Big Pine Key. The cottage is always empty. We could go there.”

I quoted the punchline to an old Lone Ranger joke, “What do you mean WE Kemosabe?”

Linda stopped walking and said, “Yeah…US.”

I stood there for a moment and looked at her in amazement as a crowd of people flowed around us. “You’d do that?”

“What am I supposed to do? You go out to a shack somewhere and pretend to be Ted Kaczynski while I FedEx food to you? I’ve wanted to move back to Florida. This art store job was always temporary.”

I thought about it for a moment then said, “There is an art scene down there. Nobody knows me.”

A siren went off from a ride next to us called Musik Express, it’s a bunch of cars that rotate on a circular track with alternating sloped sections. The operator yelled into a distorted PA, “Aaaaaand heeeeere wheeeee go!” The Nickelback “Animals” song started to blare through the huge sound system. I motioned to Linda to move away from that spot and we walked towards some picnic tables near the edge of the carnival. I said to Linda, “The scary part of that ride is you have to listen to Nickleback the entire time.” We sat on top of a picnic table next to a barrel overflowing with trash.

“How do you fake your own death?” I asked Linda.

“It’s tricky,” she said.

“Can’t I just wander out into the woods on a camping trip and never come back?”

“No body,” she said. “Who’s to say you’re dead?”

“How about if we take a trip to Hawaii and you just say I fell into a volcano? There would be no body.”

“Oh come on; now I’m culpable,” she said. “It would just be my word. You need a bunch of witnesses.”

We sat there for a moment, watching the Zipper ride throw its passengers around. One girl in particular kept screaming as her car went over the top, her voice temporarily standing out above the din. After a few moments, Linda said, “In Thomas Hardy’s book Far From the Madding Crowd, one of the characters goes into the ocean and is carried away by a current. He gets rescued by a boat, but everyone assumes he drowned.”

“That’s an idea,” I said. “I’m a pretty decent swimmer. Can you work a boat?”

“Sure,” she said.

“Are we gonna do this at a public beach? If I leave my clothes and wander into the ocean and swim out to you in a boat, who will know I died there? Someone will just find my clothes the next day and assume I forgot them when I went home.”

“You would need to leave a suicide note of some sort,” she said.

I sat upright. “Wait a minute, Lance said the band was having a beach party on an island. Those guys know me. They definitely would remember the next day if I was missing.”

“How?”

“My tent would still be on the beach. I’ll also have a pile of clothes. . .and a suicide note. We just need to figure out where we could rent a boat.”

She asked me carefully, “You really want to go through with this?”

“Let me contact the bass player right now.” I took out my phone and entered some text:

Gavin: I think I want to join you guys at your beach party. Where is it?

I hit the send button. We both watched the screen on my phone as we waited for a reply. A message soon appeared:

Lance: Monomoy Island off of Chatham. We meet at Barney’s Marina at 10 am. My friend has a boat and a slip. We load out from there.

Gavin: Thanks. I’ll be there!

“OK, we need to rent a little boat,” I said.

“All right,” Linda said with a tinge of apprehension, “I’ll call around.” She stood up and motioned me to follow her. “I want to find my game,” she said.

“What game?” I said.

“There’s one game in particular I’m good at.” Her pace quickened as we headed towards the midway. “I watched a date of mine blow twenty-five dollars trying to impress me at a carnival once.”

“When was this?”

“When I was a teenager. It was at the stand up the bottle game. The poor guy couldn’t do it. No one ever won me a stuffed animal. I went home and recreated the game myself and got good at it. The next boyfriend that took me to a carnival couldn’t do it either. I did it on the first try. I let the guy stew for a few hours before I let him in on my secret.”

“Wow,” I said.

“Hey, if the guy can’t take a joke – don’t fuck him.”

I laughed as we entered the midway and she searched for her game. It was next to the throw-a-softball-into-a-basket game. It was exactly as she said—a beer bottle was resting on a little platform and the objective was to stand it up with a ring attached to a stick on a string. The carny saw us approach and yelled out, “Watch how it’s done!” He carefully caught the ring on the neck of the bottle and deftly raised it up into a standing position. The carny tried to hand me the stick and said, “Do you want to win something for your lady?” Linda grabbed it from him and snapped out a dollar bill. The guy took her money and watched Linda maneuver the ring into place. “Good luck,” he told her.

Bang. The bottle was upright in five seconds. The carny’s jaw dropped open, then looked me. I shrugged as Linda paced around the booth and studied the huge stuffed animals hanging above our heads. She pointed to a big white bear. “I’ll take that one.” The carny took the giant stuffed animal down and handed it to her. Linda let out a phony little girl squeal and exclaimed, “Look honey! I won you a stuffed animal!”

She handed me the fuzzy bear. “What the hell am I supposed to do with this?” I said.

“I guess this means you gotta put out,” she said with a laugh as she started to walk towards the car. “Let’s go home.”

Chapter 37

Barney’s Marina

The GPS on my phone got me to Barney’s Marina easily enough. The parking lot was getting full and cars were parked on a sandy area near the water. A crowd of people had formed on the beach next to the marina. I parked my Jeep, for the very last time, next to a row of old lobster pots.[* *]I had twenty-four payments left on the vehicle, so I decided to just leave it there. The marina was a parking lot for the toys of middle aged guys. All the boats looked fairly expensive; all were the same shade of white and were neatly arranged in their little waterfront partitions. Linda had found another marina about a quarter of a mile from there that rented smaller boats by the day. The plan was to fish me out of the water later that night once we coordinated my final location.

I approached the crowd and watched people pull coolers and backpacks from their cars. I spotted the singer of the band talking to Lance as he was pulling his amp out of his car. Lance saw me approaching and called out, “Artist man!”

I gave him a nod and said “Hey.”

The singer cracked open a beer and said, “Dude, that’s some really fucked up shit you’ve been painting recently.”

“Thanks,” I said in a sullen tone. I had to pretend to sound depressed and hope someone would notice. Lance reached into his cooler, held out a beer then said, “You want one?”

I took the can and asked him, “How are we getting to this island?”

“Flynnie’s boat,” he said. “It’s an eighteen foot Searay.” Lance leaned back, slugged down some beer and spotted a boat loaded with equipment passing us on the other side of a rock jetty. He screamed “FLYNNIE!” then held his beer out in a mock salute. Flynnie tooted his horn and waved back. “He’s taking the generator and our PA out there now.”

“How many people do you guys expect tonight?” I said.

“I dunno, a couple hundred?” the singer said.

Lance dragged his amp over to a pile of drums. “Everyone with a boat on this part of the Cape is going.”

A guy in a faded Rasta shirt walked up to us; he was holding a bulging plastic bag with both hands. There was something brown and organic in it. He showed it to Lance and said, “Dude! Look how many ‘shrooms I got.”

Lance looked inside the bag and went, “Whoa! Where’d you get all those?”

“My cousin,” he said. “You guys want any?”

All the band members reached into the bag and took their share. The mushroom guy motioned the bag towards me. It looked like maybe three pounds of psychedelic mushrooms. I’d never seen that many in one bunch. I waved him off. “Nope, I’m fine,” I said.

I watched some guy reach for his hat which had blown into the water. It was floating a few feet from the dock, just out of his reach. One of his buddies pushed him on the ass with his foot and he fell face first into the water. They all laughed as he hoisted himself back up on the dock, soaking wet. I noticed dour looks on the faces of the older guys on their yachts as they watched some overweight guy in a purple shirt urinate off the dock.

Eventually Flynnie came back and I helped load the equipment and a couple of kegs onto his boat. Another eight people jumped on board. The boat was noticeably lower in the water than when Flynnie first arrived. As we backed away from the slip I watched the yacht owners shake their heads. For a moment I stopped pretending to be glum and considered the real possibility of dying in a boating accident. We pulled out of the marina, everyone chattering away, oblivious to any danger.

It was a nice day to be out on the water. The engine purred as we traveled along a sandbar and the saltwater spray felt nice on my face as we cut through an occasional wave. We passed a group of seals watching us from the sandbar, maybe two hundred feet from the boat.

Lanced turned to Flynnie, who was manning the steering wheel, and asked him, “Did you hear about the shark attacks around here?”

“Yeah, they eat seals,” he said as he nodded towards the beach. “That’s why they come here.”

Lance studied the seals for a moment then screamed, “YOU GUYS ARE ALL SHARK FOOD!” That got a laugh from everybody. Wonderful, I thought; I had to swim out into this water at night. I wanted to fake my own death, not actually go through with it. The seals were watching us as we passed them; they seemed to be thinking who are these idiots?

Monomoy Island is a long stretch of sand that sticks out of the “elbow” of Cape Cod. There might be a couple of shrubs poking up here or there, but it was mostly sand dunes and grass. Our intended spot was pretty isolated, away from the public beaches. Some people were already there setting up tents as Flynnie grounded his boat a few feet from the shoreline. I grabbed my gym bag and tent, jumped overboard up to my knee caps in water and waded towards shore. I dropped my stuff near the generator and surveyed the situation.

I couldn’t imagine making any new friends here, and really, what was the point? I would be long gone by morning. A short muscular guy, carrying a keg of beer on his shoulders, walked up to me. He dropped it on the sand, took a deep breath, then looked at me for a second then said “Budweiser”. He turned around and walked back to Flynnie’s boat. I wasn’t too sure what I was supposed to do with that information. Protect the keg from marauding domestic beer drinkers?

My cellphone rang. I pulled it from my pocket and saw a caller ID from “Unknown Number” on the screen. I answered it and heard Linda say “Do you know how hard it is to find a pay phone these days?” We had agreed she wouldn’t call me from her cellphone. That way, if the authorities looked through my cell phone records, there would be nothing to implicate her.

“So what do you got?” I said.

“The boat is all set.” She sounded pretty annoyed. “I had to convince Captain Quint at the bait shop that I could handle it. He kept calling me sweety.”

“I’m at the spot right now. Lemme get you the GPS coordinates.” I sent her my information. “I’m going to paddle straight out from here.”

I heard her fumble with the phone as she entered my location. “OK, I see where you are. There is a lighthouse just to the left of you.”

“Yeah.”

The plan was to contact me at 11 p.m. and then we’d set the plan into motion. She hung up and I got comfortable in my spot. I had another eight hours to kill before it was time. I hoped someone would notice me looking forlorn, sitting off by myself on the sand. Boats kept arriving and lining up on the shore. Tents were erected as the crowd steadily grew. I watched the band set up and do a sound check. I had brought my iPad with me so I had something to read. I was bummed that I had to leave it there on the beach, but it had a cellular data card in it, I could be tracked if I brought it with me. I checked to see if it still had a signal. One bar—that was good; it would show that my final location was sitting there by the water.

I smelled hamburgers and hotdogs grilling, got up and headed towards the BBQ area. The pudgy guy cooking everything was wearing one of those beer-dispenser hats and he took turns drinking from the tubes that ran from the beer cans to his mouth. He squinted from the smoke that billowed up from the sizzling meat, sucking on his beer pacifier in perfect tranquility. It probably took most people years of mediation to reach such a state of spiritual joy, but this guy seemed to have done it in an afternoon with some beer and meat.

“Could I have a burger? I’m with the band,” I said.

He pointed with his spatula to a bag of buns on a blanket. I made myself a burger, took a plastic red cup from a stack and poured myself a beer from the keg. I took a swig and let the liquid slosh around in my mouth. It was Budweiser, but it still tasted good at the time. I spotted a group of people looking at something in the sand and I wandered over to see. I pushed my way through the crowd and saw the mushroom guy sprawled out on the ground, his eyes rolled back into his head. His arms and legs were slowing forming random patterns in the sand and his mouth rhythmically opened and closed like a helpless baby chick looking to be fed.

“Is that guy OK?” someone asked.

Someone else knelt down beside him and shook his shoulder, “Are you going to be all right?”

The mushroom guy didn’t react; he just continued flopping around in place. A second guy stepped forward and said “Billy. . .how many mushrooms did you eat?” He shook his friend a few times then raised his voice, “How many mushrooms did you eat?” There was no answer from Billy. He had been reduced to an insect helplessly flailing around on its back. His friend shook him harder, “Did you eat that entire bag of mushrooms?” he yelled. Billy was so far out of his mind, his[* *]consciousness had probably passed Voyager on its way out of the solar system.

The crowd moved aside as a guy in a Coast Guard uniform pushed through and knelt beside Billy. “Can everyone gives us some room?” he said. The crowd slowly moved back and I saw a Coast Guard boat anchored further out. A dingy was beached on the sand and another guy in uniform came forward, carrying medical supplies with him.

I could hear a helicopter approaching. It landed further down the beach and its blades blew sand in all directions. Two guys with a gurney jumped out and ran over to Billy. They strapped him in and carried him back to the helicopter. His face had a contorted, terrified look. He probably thought he was being abducted by aliens and was being carried back to the mother ship.

I refilled my cup with beer, grabbed a hot dog and went back to my tent. The shouting and loud music continued around me as I watched the sun set. Once it was dark I prepared my belongings. I had a little waterproof flashlight that I was going to use to signal Linda once I was in the water.

For my suicide note, I got a little creative. Since I’m an artist, I figured it would be appropriate to express my final thoughts with an image, so I had recreated my middle finger painting on a small square of canvas. I debated adding the words “good bye cruel world” near the bottom, but I decided I would let the image speak for itself. I was sure Gary would understand the significance.

At 11 p.m. I got a text from Linda. She was ready. I wondered if I should leave my clothes by my tent, or drop them dramatically near the water. From what I could tell, high tide had happened about two hours earlier, so I moved my stuff to a spot just above the high water mark. No one was around when I stripped down to the bathing suit I had on under my clothes. I folded everything into a neat pile in the sand, placed my ‘suicide note’ on top and weighted it all down with my shoes. I walked into the water up to my thighs; it was colder than I’d expected. A wet suit would have been nice, but I probably couldn’t have carried that and everything else onto the boat without anyone noticing it.

I pushed further into the water until it was up to my chest. My teeth were slightly chattering as I bit down on the flashlight. I breast-stroked as fast as I could out into deeper water, hoping I could warm myself up with the exertion. I did great for the first hundred yards. The light and noise from the beach faded behind me as I kept swimming forward. After about ten minutes, it looked like I was about a quarter of a mile out. From this distance, the people moving around on the beach looked like they were about an inch tall. I faced the marina and treaded water in the cold darkness, waiting for Linda to arrive.

There was nothing.

My arms and legs started to get numb and I began to shiver. I pushed my arms harder against the water, trying to keep my core temperature up. Why the hell didn’t I hide an inflatable life jacket in my gym bag? What the hell was I thinking? It was too late now. I spun around and scanned for anything that looked like a boat.

Nothing.

What were they saying about those sharks? How the hell would a shark know I’m not a seal, flailing around here out in the water by myself? Do I want to get eaten by a shark, just to get out of my contract? My plan wasn’t looking so good. I should’ve just hired a lawyer and gone after Gary. I wondered if I should swim back in and call the whole thing off. . .I looked towards the marina again.

Still nothing.

I scanned the horizon behind me and spotted a little red light heading into shore. Did Linda go past me in the dark? I took the flashlight out of my mouth and fumbled to turn it on.

It didn’t work.

Shit. The stupid thing was dead. I saw the vague outline of a boat in the distance as it got closer. I was about to yell out ‘Linda’ when I heard a mans voice go “Heh heh heh”, and a woman’s voice say “Hey!” and then laughter. Someone else was heading for the beach, and they were coming straight at my head. If they saw me, they’d want to help me out of the water. I frantically swam farther out, away from the beach. I managed to put a good fifty yards between me and the boat before I stopped. I sank down into the water up to my nose and watched it pass. They hadn’t see me. Why would anyone be this far out in shark-infested water in the middle of the night anyway?

Where the hell was Linda? I scanned the horizon towards the marina again and spotted a tiny moving dot of green light. Navigation lights show different colors depending where you are in relationship to the oncoming boat. Green meant it was headed towards me. I really needed to get out of the water; at that point I was ready to be rescued by anyone. I wanted to wave my arms above my head, but my whole body had gone numb and I could barely lift my limbs out of the water. The plan was for Linda to find me by my flashlight signal, but I had let go of the useless thing. I tried shouting, but could barely croak out “Linda!” The sound of the boat’s motor grew louder as it approached. I could tell it would miss me by a hundred feet or so if I didn’t get its attention. I tried yelling “Hey!”, but that only came out as a muffled yelp. Then I remembered something: when I was a kid, my best friend and I used to have competitions on who could produce the loudest whistle using only our fingers. I stuck my fingertips into my mouth, folded my tongue over them and blew a sharp note.

The boat’s motor stopped.

Linda’s voice came from the boat, “Gavin?”

Oh thank God.

“Over here!” I let out between chattering teeth. She turned on a flashlight and scanned the surface of the water until she blinded me with the light.

“Why didn’t you signal me?” she said.

I paddled towards her. I tried to answer but couldn’t say anything until I reached the boat and grabbed onto it. “The. . .light. . .wasn’t. . .working”, I said.

Linda latched onto me. “Jesus, you’re freezing.” She tugged at my arms but I couldn’t move. “I can’t pull you all the way in,” she said. “You’re going to have to help me.”

That was the final obstacle; I just had to get my frozen carcass into the boat. I kicked as best as I could and heaved my chest over the side. Linda grabbed the back of my swimsuit and hauled me in the rest of the way.

I had made it.

I rolled over and looked up at the stars overhead. I felt like I was having an out of body experience, Is this considered suffering for your art? Linda covered my body with a beach towel and started the engine. “Where were you?” I whispered as I shivered.

Linda gunned the engine. “Just as I texted you, the engine wouldn’t start.”

I groaned.

“I think it was flooded. I got it going again after I let it sit for a while.”

I laid there on the bottom of that boat as it accelerated, gradually warming up. I felt happy that she’d made it, and happy that I’d be starting a new life.

By the time we got back to the marina, I was able to sit up and get my bearings. The shoreline was dark except for the lights around the docks. She drove the boat about a hundred yards to the left of the marina. The boat lightly scraped some rocks as it stopped on the shoreline. “There’s a parking lot straight ahead,” she said. “My car is there. Be careful; if someone’s at the marina, they’ll see you. I’m going to return the boat to the rental slip. I was supposed to have brought it back before dark.”

“Thanks hon,” I said. I stumbled over the edge of the boat and headed towards the parking lot. I heard the boat’s motor start up as it pulled away from shore. I walked through some reeds and climbed up an embankment. I found her car, attached to a U-haul trailer, opened the door and collapsed in the passenger seat. A few minutes later Linda emerged from the darkness, got in and started the engine. She turned to me and said, “You know I love you.”

I leaned back against the seat and said, “Obviously”. Everything she owned had been loaded into the trailer. Everything of mine had been left at my apartment. I no longer cared about that crap. We drove for eighteen hours straight, stopping only for gas and food. When we got to St Augustine, we spent a night at her mother’s place, before driving another seven hours down the length of Florida. The only detour we took was to get some of that key lime pie. As we pulled into Linda’s family cottage at Big Pine Key, I thought: nobody will ever think to look for me here.

Chapter 38

Big Pine Key (1 Year Later)

It took a while, but I eventually got comfortable with my new name: Gavin Miller. ‘Miller’ was Linda’s last name. I decided it would make things easier if it looked like we were married—something definitely in our future. I discovered that it’s hard to prove that you’re not married to someone. There’s no central database that anyone can check to see if your marriage is a fraud. It’s amazing what you can learn from the Internet about changing your identity and disappearing. I had let my beard grow and I blended right in with all the fishermen around us.

A week after my “disappearance” back on Cape Cod, I found a newspaper article that said I had gone missing. They mentioned the beach party and a mysterious suicide note that was found with my belongings. They had divers out looking for my body for a couple of days. It was kind of surreal reading about my own disappearance. I felt like a ghost haunting the wrong seashore.

It’s only forty minutes from Big Pine Key to Key West, so I joined the Key West Artist Society. It’s a great community if you’re an artist; they have 42 galleries on the island. I got a job at a frame shop on Duval street and I like it. I’m basically doing the same kind of stuff I was painting back in New England, but everything now has a tropical bent. I’m getting really good at painting every kind of palm tree. I like my new life. The pace of things down here is different; it’s what you would call “island time”. It feels like you’re on vacation all the time. I get to paint what I want, when I want.

Recently I’ve been obsessed with taking pictures of the orchid tree that has blossomed in our backyard. I thought I could incorporate the color into my next painting. I found the pitch apple or autograph tree interesting; there’s one growing next to our driveway. If you etch something into the leaves, it stays legible for months. I was drawing a smiley face on a leaf when Linda shouted out the living room window. “GAVIN! Get in here quick!”

I started to add another face.“What is it?” I asked.

“Just get in here now!” She sounded very excited. “There’s something on the TV you’ve got to see!”

Linda was watching CNN on the television. She sat down on the couch and pointed frantically at the screen. “They just mentioned you and Gary Eastman on CNN! Something about Eastman selling your artwork,” she said.

A car dealership commercial was on the screen. I said, “What do you mean me?”

She pointed towards the screen again. “Wait. Just watch.”

The commercial ended and a news anchor came on. A graphic over his shoulder read ‘Eastman Art Auction’. He started speaking to the camera, “Gary Eastman, owner of the DLC corporation, has released to auction from his person collection a trove of art by the late artist Gavin Vonn Getch. The collection is fetching millions of dollars.” The next thing that appeared on the screen was a group of distinguished-looking art patrons leaning into my painting called Winslow’s Gloucester Breeze, examining it up close. They quickly showed a shot of the painting called Renoir at the Louvre. The news anchor’s voice continued: “Mr. Eastman is a philanthropist who has contributed to the art world through worldwide grants for the arts and through donations to struggling artists. He supported Gavin through many commissions of his artwork.”

They cut to an interview with Gary Eastman. “Gavin was such a dynamic artist. He expressed his life through his art,” he said. As he spoke, the camera did a slow pan across my painting Schoenberg Study At Twilight.

I was completely astonished at what I was seeing. “What a minute,” I said. “Where did he get those? I saw them all go into the fire.”

“You personally saw them go into a fire?” Linda asked.

“Well, I saw videos of them being. . .”

My heart stopped and I couldn’t breath. I thought I was going to be sick. The host continued, “Gavin disappeared from a Cape Cod beach one year ago, leaving behind a mysterious suicide note. Officials never found his body.”

They next showed Lance, being interviewed on the beach. The graphic ‘file footage’ appeared under him. “He looked depressed all day,” he said. “We were all having a great time but he didn’t look too happy.”

The interviewer asked, “What do you think happened to him?”

Lance had a sad look on his face, “I never knew anyone who was eaten by a shark.”

The program cut back to the interview with Gary. “What of this mysterious suicide note?” the interviewer asked.

“Gavin was unhappy with the world he lived in; he wanted to express that through his art. This was his final epitaph to the world.” He held up the little middle finger painting I left on the beach for him. “I think it was his final goodby cruel world message.”

I shouted towards the screen. “You asshole, that was meant FOR YOU and you know it!” I got up and paced the room. “I knew I should’ve just gone with FUCK YOU GARY EASTMAN. Damn it!”

Linda waved at me and said “Sssshhh!”

On the screen was a close up of my face. We heard the interviewer’s voice say “Who was Gavin Vonn Getch?” They showed a few more close ups of my work. “His work ranged from the banal to the unbalanced as his mental illness took hold of him.”

A woman identified as a psychologist came on and said, “You can see Gavin’s mind deteriorating as you look through his work. He started with simple, mundane landscapes. . .” They showed a close up of my painting called Satie’s Placid Lake.

I said to Linda, “Mundane? Did you hear that? And this woman thinks she’s an art critic?”

She shushed me again and I sat back down next to her.

They showed a shot of Klee’s Aneurysm, one of my expressionist paintings. The psychologist continued, “His work grew darker. You can see his mind slipping from the titles alone: O Keefe’s Meat Wallet number one, two and three.” They showed a close up of one of Brent’s paintings. “The next series of paintings show an abrupt change in style. It’s quite evident that psychosis was setting in towards the end of his life.” They played some weird, dissonant music over one of John’s paintings, just to hammer home how strange it was. “He must have been a tortured soul who couldn’t cope with everyday life,” the psychologist said.

I just shook my head.

Next they showed Jerry being interviewed. “I remember what he told me,” Jerry said as he glanced towards the ceiling, as if he was hearing me from beyond the grave. “Penis is porn; buttocks are art.”

The interviewer seemed confused, “Buttocks are art?”

“Oh yeah,” Jerry said with his shit-eating grin, “He talked about wanting to paint nude cherubs all the time.”

The interviewer asked, “Was Gavin obsessed with the nude form?”

“Well, he did talk about wanting to paint Gary Eastman’s nude wife descending an escalator.”

I couldn’t believe it. Jerry was going to continue busting my balls, even after I was dead. I would have to make a point to come back and haunt him when I actually died.

They interviewed Brent next. I recognized that recliner; the interview was taking place in his mom’s basement. “Gavin was also influenced by others around him, especially in what the experts call his Dark Phase”, the host said.

“You are known as. . .” The word Artist, preceded by a hashtag, appeared on the screen. The interviewer paused awkwardly and nodded towards Brent, “. . .Artist?”

“Yeah,” Brent said, wistfully, as if the world had finally come to recognize his great talents.

“You say you were one of his major influences of his later style?” the interviewer asked.

Brent looked totally relaxed as he leaned back in his chair. “Gavin would often come to me looking for inspiration.”

The interviewer said, “It was said that many of his later paintings, his dark period, used stylistic choices that you pioneered.” The camera cut to his stupid rat painting.

“Yeah man,” Brent said. “I felt flattered that he used my techniques.”

“Oh Jesus Christ,” I ranted. “I paid for his lousy paintings! I covered up sections with black enamel paint just to hide the fact they were his.” The camera cut back to the interviewer. He waited a beat, then nodded towards Brent and said, “The, uh, Artist’s creations are also in demand.” We saw a shot of Brent blowing into his didgeridoo. “He recently sold a brightly painted didgeridoo for $15,000.”

The host continued, “Some of New York’s biggest art galleries are now embracing Gavin’s work.” I couldn’t believe what I saw next: the two art goons appeared, sitting side by side in an art gallery. Gone were the black suits. One of them was wearing a fuchsia golf shirt and the other had on a yellow-flowered Hawaiian shirt. “Terry and William, the owners of the Ambrosian Gallery were among the first to embrace Gavin’s work.”

Terry, the smaller art goon, said, “We like the simplicity of his juxtapositions.”

William, the bigger one said, “It had a reductive quality.”

“It’s what made his work accessible,” Terry said. They both sounded like a stereotypical gay male.

“I didn’t like his expressionistic phase,” William said as he dismissed it with a limp-wristed gesture. “O Keefe’s Meat Wallet? Oh please. . .”

Terry leaned towards the camera. “William doesn’t like ANYTHING to do with lady bits.”

“Stop!” William said while he gently swiped at Terry’s shoulder. “You know I just found it subaqueous.

Linda asked, “Was your gaydar broken that day?”

“Wait a minute! These guys never spoke like that! They didn’t dress like that, either—they wore these dark suits and sunglasses.” I jumped up from the couch and pointed at the screen. “They had GUNS!”

“Did you actually SEE these guns?” she said.

“Jerry said they had guns!” I paused for a moment and realized what I had just said.

“Mr. Eastman has made available reproduction prints of Gavin’s artwork,” the host said. The program switched to the DLC building and showed the cubicle artists at work.

They were all making copies of my paintings from little reference photos tacked to the easels. In the background, I could see the security door I had gone through on my visit there. It felt surreal watching his little army of flunkies pump out stacks of my paintings. “You can now buy an Eastman certified Vonn Getch reproduction for a fraction of the original,” the host said.

“So that’s what we saw go into the fire?” Linda said.

“Yup, all fakes.”

The program returned to the host sitting at his desk. “Gavin posthumously received the Wilson Medal of the Arts, the Tanaka Prize and the Yugo Achievement Award.” The story ended and Linda shut off the TV.

I sat there in silence for a minute; it was all too much for my brain to handle. Linda had a worried look on her face. “So how does it feel to be famous?” she said.

I stood up, walked around the room and said, “Can we go for a walk?” I needed some fresh air while I tried to sort it all out. We walked to the end of our street and sat on some rocks next to a little strip of sand by the ocean. The sun was going down and the sky was turning its familiar shade of orange, but I might as well have been sitting on a different planet. We sat together in silence for a while, watching a few pelicans fly overhead.

“So Gary knew what he was doing the whole time,” she said.

“It looks like,” I said. “He was doing reproductions for all his artists on commission. No one else was bothered by the videos of their paintings being burned. I was probably the only guy who objected. Everyone else was happy with their fucking health insurance.”

“Why do you think he picked you?”

“He just played the numbers. He knew that if he tortured enough artists, one of us had to react in a big way. It would make a great story, and a great story sells art. It’s all about the marketing. Nobody gives a shit what I actually painted.”

“Couldn’t you just announce to the world that you’re still alive?” she said. “You could get back at Gary that way.”

“But how do I prove that he did anything?” I asked. “I’m the guy living with this fake identity. I’m sure the authorities would have something to say about that.”

“But you would be trashing the amount of money he’s been getting for your paintings, right?”

“I dunno…would I? He’s already made a ton of money off my work. I would just be trashing the value of each painting that some schmuck had already bought off of him. If I just suddenly came out of retirement, I would still be under contract to him! A Vonn Getch would still be worth something just for the novelty factor…and he would still be making money off of me.” Linda nodded. I looked out onto the ocean and said, “Can you imagine how many people would descend on our little piece of paradise if the headline went out: dead artist found on Big Pine Key? I like my life now. I’m happy doing the stuff I want to do.”

“You do seem very mellow compared to a year ago,” she said. I picked up a piece of coral and threw it into the water. I watched the ripples grow out from where it splashed. “Any regrets?” she asked.

“Nope. It’s perfect here.” I stood up, took a deep breath, brushed the sand off my ass then said, “Let’s go get some key lime pie.”

AUTHOR WEBSITE

adeadguy.com

***

What other stuff has he done? Why is he calling himself a dead guy? Find out more and sign up for his mailing list!

Eric gets licked by Widget

A Fictitious Interview With The Author At An Obscure Cable TV Station.

Inside the control room of a small cable TV station, the director sat in front of large console displaying an assortment of glowing buttons and screens. He swiveled his chair towards the plate glass window to his right, put on a headset and and motioned to the cameramen in the studio beyond to do the same. The director said “Can we check his mic? Have the guest say something.”

The guest for that night’s show was Eric Bickernicks, an author pitching his new book. He sat alone in a director’s chair, surrounded by a black curtain and a pair of ficus plants, the typical set for a tiny cable station. The Camera One operator leaned out from behind his camera and said, “Can you say something?”

Eric hesitantly said, “Something…” paused, then quietly repeated, “something…”

Back in the control room the director shouted, “Jesus Christ, can we get this fucking guy to SPEAK? We need a level.” He hit the button on the studio intercom and impatiently said, “Eric, what did you have for breakfast today?”

Eric looked up at the ceiling which seemed to be the source the imposing voice. “Aaah…I think I had an egg McMuffin….at McDonald’s.”

The director asked the audio guy sitting next to him, “Did you get that?”

Without looking up from his sound board, he yawned and said, “S’cool.”

The director took a sip from a Coke can and placed it under the console. “When did you put the order in? I’m ready to chew my arm off.”

The audio guy made a final adjustment to one of the knobs. “About thirty minutes ago.”

The host of the show walked into the studio and sat down in the director’s chair opposite from Eric. An attractive woman in her thirties, wearing a pencil skirt and blouse, she stuck her hand under her butt and fished around for a tiny microphone attached to a wire. She then clipped it on the front of her collar and said “Are you guys fine if I smoke in the warehouse? It’s freezing outside.”

The director’s voice boomed from the ceiling, “Whatever. Just don’t sit on the mic next time.” The director asked the audio guy, “Do you have this guy’s name entered into the Kyron?”

The audio guy slid his chair over to a computer screen, “No.”

The director adjusted his headset and said, “Camera One, get the guy to spell his name.”

The cameraman leaned out and asked Eric, “Can you spell your name?”

“Huh? Oh yeah…it’s Eric, with a “C”. Bickernicks. B-i-c-k-e-r-n-i-c-k-s.”

The director watched the name appear on the monitor as the audio guy typed his name into the computer, then muttered to himself, “What a weird fucking name.” He went back to the control console and told the audio guy, “I’m gonna start rolling, you ready?”

Back in the studio, the host touched up her makeup in a little mirror and asked Eric, “What kind of name is that?”

“It’s Latvian,” Eric said. “Both my parents came over with their parents in the 1950s. They met and had me here.”

“Latvia? Where is that?” the host asked.

Eric began to speak, “It’s…”

Camera Two cut him off, “STAND BY! We’re rolling,” he shouted out. The sound of music playing in the control room could be faintly heard in the studio. The cameraman counted down, “5,4,3,2…” then pointed towards the host.

The host did her intro, “Welcome to another episode of For The Record. Tonight I’m speaking with author Eric Bickernicks. The book’s title is Artifice, and it’s a story about an artist’s struggle to achieve fame and fortune. It’s good to have you with us, Eric!”

“M-hey!”

“This is your first book?”

“Right. I’m worried that my middle school English teacher will call me at any moment and point out the bad grades I got in English, then scold me for attempting such a thing.”

The director spoke into his headset. “Camera One, check your focus on the guy.” The cameraman zoomed in on a pimple on Eric’s chin and focused. The audience saw a close up on the host as Eric spoke, off-camera, about being a failed filmmaker and how he wanted to tell his stories in book form.

“Where did you get your idea for the book?” the host asked.

“I sell kettle corn at a farmers’ market,” Eric said. “There was an artist who was selling paintings from his tent. I asked him if I could commission a painting from him and how much would it cost. He gave me a rough price.”

Camera One whispered into his headset, “I like kettle corn.”

“Christ, I could use some now,” the director said. “I thought this guy said he was an author.”

Eric continued his story to the host. “I wanted to bust his balls, so I asked would you have a problem if I burned your painting in front of you? He thought for a moment, then said it would be fine, as long as he got paid. I then asked him how long would he put up with me paying him and then burning his paintings in front of him? He figured he could do that for a while, since the money would be good. I then tormented him further by proposing to buy everything he owned, then burning it all in front of him just to be funny. At this point he told me that I was getting into a grey area, because it was well…his life’s work. Later that day I thought, this would make an interesting story.

The host asked, “Are you an artist?”

“My thing was cartooning when I was growing up. One year of art school killed all that. I then got into filmmaking and used my visual skills there. I also tried being a drunk musician in my twenties, but that didn’t work out.”

“Why not?”

“I didn’t like to drink,” Eric said with a grin.

“I’ll need a drink if I have to listen to any more of this guy’s jokes,” the director muttered into his headset.

“So you’ve created music, film and now books?” the host asked.

“But I don’t think of myself an artist.”

“Why not?”

“I can keep a day job. You know the joke: What do you call a musician without a day job?

“No.”

“Homeless.”

The host asked Eric, “I get the sense you don’t like artists.”

He smiled. “No, no, they’re the most interesting kind of people! I guess I have to admit that I am one, but it seems so sad. There’s no guarantee anyone will like your stuff. And, if your sense of self-worth is dependent upon the public’s acceptance of your output, you’re going to be a very depressed individual.”

“But what about the famous artists out there? People love them.”

“Those are the outliers. Once you get comfortable with obscurity, you become satisfied with yourself.”

“Were any parts of the book true?” the host asked.

“My best friend worked at a frame shop in a small New England town. I used to hang out with him and watch him hang shows and make frames. I basically took what I saw him doing and ran with it. He thought it was kind of eerie reading about his own life when he read my book.”

“He was OK with it?”

“I asked him if I could use what we lived through as source material. He was totally fine with it. It just didn’t sink in until the final output was in his hands. He’s the guy in my audio book who read the part of James. We always kind of hoped that someone like a Gary Easton would turn up at a show and pluck us out of obscurity.”

“Isn’t that true for all artists?

“We’re a delusional lot, aren’t we? It was nice to make it finally happen, at least in a fictional setting.”

A delivery guy holding a pair of pizza boxes entered the control room. “Did you guys order the pepperoni and plain cheese?” he said.

The director quickly spun around in his chair and said to the pizza guy, “Oh shit, yeah.” He blurted into his headset, “Camera One, hold on the guy; I’m staying on you. Our pizza is here!” Both cameramen’s sighs were heard through the intercom. The audio guy stood up and took the pizza boxes while the director got some money from his wallet.

In the studio, Eric continued speaking. “The Monomoy beach party literally happened as is. I played bass guitar in a band back in my twenties. We dragged all our stuff out to a sandbar and performed for a couple hundred people that showed up on boats. Some guy overdosed on mushrooms and had to be rescued by the Coast Guard. Before I wrote the chapter about going on a date to the Massachusetts Museum Of Fine Arts, I visited the place and had fun pretending to be Gavin. My wifey-girlfriend Therese came with me, pretending to be Linda.”

The director said to Camera Two, “Give her the wrap-up sign; our food is getting cold.”

Camera Two twirled his finger in the air towards the host. Distracted, she quickly glanced off-camera then said, “Wifey-girlfriend?”

Eric continued, “Yeah. We’re not married, but we’ve been together for twenty years. She was my editor for this book. She’s the one who made me sound literate.”

The host said to Eric, “Well, it was nice having you on our show.” Faint music could be heard from the control room again. Eric nodded towards her and gave her a little smile. She looked at the camera, “And this has been another episode of For The Record. Good night.”

Eric quietly asked the host, “I thought the show was half an hour. Did that seem kind of short to you?”

She looked down, unclipped her microphone and said, “I think they were short on time.”

Five seconds later the director burst through the studio doors, “Great job everyone,” he said. The audio guy put the pizza boxes on the set table. Both cameramen ripped off their headsets and grabbed a slice. The host stood up, smoothed out her skirt and said, “How did I sound?”.

“You were great,” the director mumbled through a mouthful of pizza.

Eric watched as everyone quietly chewed. He motioned towards an open pizza box, “Can I have a slice?”

The director nodded, “Sure.” He took a sip from his Coke and said, “Where can someone buy this book?”

“I’m self-publishing on Amazon,” Eric said. “What kind of books do you guys like?”

While going for another slice of pizza, the camera one operator said, “My brother bought a full-sized silicon love doll on Amazon.”

“With or without a drainage hole?” the audio guy said. A round of laughter broke out around the room.

“Ugh,” the host said in disgust as she left the studio, “I’m gonna go have a smoke.”

“Hey, I’ve ordered all sorts of slutty attire for my girlfriend on Amazon,” the director said. “Don’t knock it.”

The audio guy said, “Yeah, but you’ve never ordered an entire girlfriend on there, right?”

The director shook his head and smiled, “Nope.”

With that, no one ever spoke of Eric’s book again.


Artifice

Would you like a couch with that painting? Obscurity is a way of life for Gavin Vonn Getch, a painter who works at a frame shop in a small New England town. His life changes when billionaire Gary Eastman enters his shop and becomes the ultimate patron: a lifetime commission for all his work in exchange for a crap-load of money. Some of his artist buddies envy him and others think he’s sold out. Curious as to where his paintings are being displayed, he makes a trip to the DLC headquarters, where a shocking discovery forces him to reevaluate his deal with Eastman and his identity as an artist. Why does an artist create? What alternatives are there to completely selling out? Is there no genius—only marketing? The book is a satirical, and sometimes surreal look at the art world.

  • ISBN: 9781370776542
  • Author: Eric Bickernicks
  • Published: 2016-11-04 17:35:28
  • Words: 65080
Artifice Artifice