The artist came shambling along the river and though she tried to avoid him he apprehended her and begged her to walk with him to the Gagosian, insisting that she take a look at his exhibit, as they would be hanging his works today. His skin was leprous and he smelled of burnt plastic and piss, but his voice was bewitching, and she had nowhere better to go, so she followed him, curious, not believing, to the second floor gallery. Here, tilted against the white-tiled walls of the bathroom corridor, stood his paintings, or else a collection of works he had dredged up from summer garage sales in Connecticut.
In one of these pieces––a pine mountain landscape––the young artist had painted a pair of photo-realistic pelicans on the sky and draped between their beaks a banner which read (upside-down) “Fuck Authority.” Another large, abstract canvas had the prosaic title “Pollock in Chewed Gum.” Many of the works, he informed her, had been painted with a mixture of glitter and his own ejaculate.
A flock of clown-colored, trussed and powdered birds sipped on bourbon and craft coffees at the other end of the hall, murmuring with pressed lips and hands clasped behind backs, smiling affectionately at her. She studied the paintings carefully and decided they were precisely the gestures Modern Authority craved most.
She would not learn this until later, but the show in the 24th Street Gagosian toilet shaft had been made possible by an elaborate performance by the artist on the skin side of a well-connected London heir’s linen slacks.
She convinced him to hang one of the paintings with the painted side to the wall and excused herself, saying she needed a shower.
A month or so later she received a $70,000 check, along with an invitation to a Francis Bacon retrospective and celebratory gala. Enfolded in the check was a handwritten note from the artist which said, “You have a good eye.”
She couldn’t decide which was more vulgar: the money or the compliment.
Back in Bensonhurst we played stickball under the high corrugated roof of my uncle’s truckyard and we tuned our brass knuckles to the clank of chains and rumble of gears and pigeon hools, and the drivers passed through with their dirty jokes and farts to fill up the fuzz of the empty season. In summer the rains pummeled at steel and concrete and washed the soot and sounds off the walls and paper cups rolled in silent gutters and we smoked blunts and spat at cars and when the clouds opened we played stickball again. I took the N train into town two or three times a day to run envelopes to a mezzofinook in Alphabet City with a fat stubbly neck who snatched at me from behind his chained and smoky door crack and asked why I didn’t get myself a new name. When his boys met me down in the wasteland of Canal Street station they muddled my left eye into its socket like a paste, like a blueberry jam, and I remember lying flat and half blind in Cabrini Medical Center with my uncle crooked over my bed, eyes sparkling, asking me how the hell he was supposed to explain it to his sister.
ON THE DAY BEFORE HE DIED
He wrote in his notebook: “So goes the hot, vacant summer, with all the best people away scouring their crevices for ticks,” and he walked through the morning syrup to the Café St. Germaine, where he ordered a croque madame and became disturbed when it did not arrive with mustard. He lingered too deeply over the arts and leisure section so that the sun on the walk back was unbearable, which called to mind those paper Geishas of Times Square with their parasols; he wished he had been born one of them. Later he floated down to the hotel lounge and sat reading an unidentified book while drinking a cocktail of Domaine de Canton, mint, lemon, and cayenne pepper. Sometime in the night he took up his pen and spread his notebook on his pillow, but he could think of nothing else to add.
Dan Reiter‘s stories have recently appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, Ploughshares, One Story, The Paris Review, Harper’s, and Granta slush piles. He is the latest winner of The Florida Review Editor’s Award for Fiction. He was born in Montreal, but lives here now: www.dan-reiter.com.