~This story was previously published in Natural Bridge (2011).
Jared needed to be fucked, fueled and reconfigured, but mostly, he needed to be inspired, which was why he invited Richard to his studio. While Richard wandered around his windowless loft, Jared stood by the radiator and listened to the floorboards creak. His canvases were propped against the wall, facing out, as if he was onstage and his paintings were watching him. What would they see? – these women, these figures culled together from paper and plastic, bodies jagged with industrial shapes, their natural curves forced into the right angles of credit cards and subway passes?
Collage was the best description of Jared’s work. He made large painted canvases onto which he glued scraps of paper. Any kind of paper so long as it was discarded: newspaper, paper cups, sugar packets, movie tickets. If someone threw it away, it could very well end up on one of Jared’s portraits. Women emerging from garbage: a feminist manifesto or a misogynist’s vindication. He let the viewer decide.
Right now his work was stalled. He hadn’t made a new piece in months. Every day he would comb the streets, picking up cigarette packs and sales receipts, examining fast food containers and wet magazines. He would bring these findings back to his studio, spread them on his work table and wait for inspiration.
He tried to give Richard space, but eventually found himself walking a few steps behind, pretending to scrutinize. Richard put one hand on his face and scratched his stomach with the other. His belly separated the fabric of his button-down shirt; black hairs peaked out like fungus.
Richard put an arm around him. “Good stuff. Good stuff.” His wet armpit stuck to Jared’s shoulder.
Richard was a lawyer with an art history degree, not a full time dealer. He had sold a few things of Jared’s before, and even bought some of his earlier work. One of Richard’s clients was Catherine French of The French Gallery. He told himself if Richard sold a piece to French, it might jump start his creativity.
“You see how these images clump together?” Richard pointed with his free hand. “The elements need to breathe.”
Jared squinted and nodded, trying to see what Richard saw.
They moved to the next canvas. Richard stood behind him with his hands on Jared’s shoulders; his stomach pressed into the small of Jared’s back. “See how the movement stops there? The figure lacks cohesion.”
On and on they went, Jared squinting and nodding. Richard weighing and counting the errors, storing them in his file cabinet mind. When he found something wrong on canvas number twelve, he could reference it back to canvases eight, five and four. The room was alive with opinions about his art – all of them negative. Now when Jared looked at his canvases, he saw flashing dismissals: amateur, incompetent, bad.
Richard led him by the upper arm over to the next canvas. “I wonder about the choice of color. Is there a theme here? I’m just not moved.” He fingered his gray beard, dislocating a crumb of risotto left over from lunch.
More squinting and nodding.
By the time he had finished, Jared could barely stand up. That familiar feeling of worthlessness and shame inched up his spine.
“Thanks for stopping by, Richard. I’m sorry you didn’t see anything you liked.”
“Oh, I liked everything I saw.” Richard absently circled his own nipple. “Call me when you have something new.”
Jared locked the door and turned off the lights. He kneeled on the paint-splattered chair and placed his chin on the wooden back. He was waiting for the sorrow to bloom all lovely and full of thorns. His fingers curled around the spindles. He could feel the wave of sadness coming, like watching a floppy eared puppy running to him across five lanes of traffic. He held onto the chair and waited for the smell to arrive: the Clorox-y scent of old bleach bottles. He listened for the rush of blood in his ears, the slippery sound of his own saliva and the chair creaking back and forth. An explicit, pellucid photograph of pain was developing inside him – Sorrow – such a familiar face: his mother with her jaw unhinged and gums bleeding; his father red and puffing, knuckles raw, unzipping. And watching it all – a tiny head, squinting and nodding, squinting and nodding.
A car alarm blasted outside, and two men starting yelling at each other. The chair stopped creaking. The fan in the computer continued its motorized wheeze. Upstairs someone flushed a toilet, and water rushed through the pipes screaming for escape. The pain, once so bright it swirled around him in vicious Technicolors was now a grainy cloud of broken images and fragmented lines.
He got up from the chair and turned on the lights. His paintings stared back at him: amateur, incompetent, bad. He put on his coat and left.
When he got home, his wife Belinda was sprawled on the couch, her legs propped up with ice packs under both calves. Belinda was a dancer. He sat beside her and started massaging her legs, digging into her gray sweatpants like a backhoe unearthing soil.
“How was rehearsal?” He asked.
“Grueling. Victor had us squatting and kicking for three hours.”
Jared worked his way up her thighs, bending her knees to her chest, the way she had taught him. He put one leg on his shoulder and stretched it. Belinda groaned a little. He could smell her, vinegary and sharp. He loved her legs, giant oars hinged to her tiny boat of a body. He remembered when he had first seen her dance, some athletic piece where she kept jumping into other dancers’ arms. She ran, then leaped, her legs paddling through the air, pointed and articulate.
His fingers found their way inside the elastic of her pants; he started tugging them down.
“J., I’m exhausted.” He hooked a finger into her underwear. She wiggled away. “I need a bath.”
She was especially beautiful like this: tired and vulnerable, open to him for the first time in months. Since becoming a member of a new dance company, Belinda had been noticeably distant, occupied with her choreography, her new friends. At home, she only wanted food and sleep; he was a mere dust mote drifting past her field of vision.
He traced a line down from her navel and watched the flesh erupt in goose pimples. If she wasn’t going to engage his mind, she could at least give him her body. He needed to play himself against it – make it sound and move. She had always been his muse, if not featured in his paintings then an integral part of the process. It was unsettling to discover that she had her own creative world independent of him. That she could lose herself in another life and possibly never return.
He pulled her underwear over her legs along with the sweatpants. The calluses of her feet snagged his shirt. She bent her knees, legs falling apart; she was all his now. Her smell, sour and overripe, rose to his nostrils. He began to lick her upper thigh, like a tiny worm inching along the branch, following the scent of rotten fruit. When he got to the fruit, he gratefully buried his head.
“Jared, no. I’m tired.” She curled her legs and rolled on her side.
“Okay.” He lifted his head and caressed her hot thigh. “You want me to make dinner?”
“I could get something at the Thai place?”
“I ate at the studio.” She flung an arm over her face. “Victor ordered pizza for everyone.”
He got up and went to the table where Belinda had tossed the day’s mail. He ripped open a credit card statement and scanned the charges, noticing a couple restaurants where he had never eaten.
Her breath was starting to make faint whistling sounds through her nose, her back expanded in and out while the white sail of her ass trembled over the cushions. She had always been able to fall asleep quickly. After not seeing him all day, he thought his presence home early from the studio might persuade her to stay awake. But it seemed he could set himself on fire right here in their very own living room and she would sleep right through it, dreaming about squats and leaps and Victor and his damn pizza.
Over the couch hung one of his canvases: a female figure composed of hundreds of Sweet N’ Low packets. Each were layered like paint, creating thickness and shadow. Richard had offered to buy this painting several times, but Jared refused to sell. The woman in the painting was entirely self-contained, entirely exposed: legs apart, leaning forward, hands on thighs, breasts falling, waiting – both sweet and low.
“Well at least Victor got to have dinner with my wife.” He threw the mail on the floor. She buried herself deeper into the couch, her naked legs clutching a pillow, the sweatpants crumpled around an ankle. “At least Victor got to spend the day with my wife. You’re not too tired to talk with Victor. Did he tongue your cunt? Is that why you’re too tired for me?”
“Please shut up.” She spoke into back of the couch.
He picked up her dance shoe and threw it at the couch, just missing her feet. “Wake up, Belinda. This show’s a joke. It’s going to fail. The company’s amateur. Victor’s incompetent. The whole thing’s going to flop. Meanwhile the rest of your life is going to shit.”
Belinda jumped from the couch, pulled up her sweatpants, and marched to the bedroom. “I can’t deal with you when you’re like this.” She slammed the bedroom door. He heard the familiar sound of the chair being pushed underneath the doorknob.
Time to go out.
Izzy worked at a vintage clothing store on North Eleventh called Aunt Harriet’s Musty Attic. When Jared arrived, he was just closing up. The store was empty except for two girls in back giggling and trying on neon afro wigs.
“Jared, my man. How are you?” Izzy called out. He was organizing credit card slips on top of a glass case displaying army hats and Turkish tea cups. He wore an orange hunting cap with ear flaps. “Your show, man. Very fine stuff.”
Jared stopped a moment, peered into a row of tweed coats, unsure what exactly he was talking about. Then he remembered the small group show at Billy-Burg Gallery: Lost / Found: Artists and their Trash.
“Thanks,” said Jared. “It’s not my show. Nineteen other people are in it with me.”
“Yeah, but yours was the best. The best. Those Burger King boxes with the grass seed packets – brilliant.”
“Nice of you to say.” Jared studied the Turkish teacups and thought he might buy one to please Izzy.
“Hey. I got something for you.” Izzy went to the back of the store, and Jared watched the two girls. They were young, on either side of twenty. Both had dyed black hair, highlighted with color: respectively Cobalt Blue and Indian Red. The strings of their camisoles and straps of their bras wrapped their meaty shoulders like a pork roast.
“Here, man.” Izzy came from the back, holding a tan leather jacket. “It’s too small for me. But it would look great on you.”
He held the jacket in front of the mirror and Jared slipped into its arms. It smelled of cigarettes and pot, just like Izzy. The jacket fit like a second skin: wide lapels, tight waist. Izzy stood behind him, his hands brushing off the shoulders and down Jared’s back. A hard pack of Marlboros in his shirt pocket occasionally poked Jared in the arm. “You look great, man. Like a rock star.”
Jared noticed the girls watching and squared his shoulders.
Cobalt Blue called out, “Looks good.” The other girl slapped her on the hip.
“Like it was made for you,” said Izzy. He absently fingered the lapels of the jacket. “I’ll let you have it for a hundred bucks.”
Jared felt all eyes in the store scrutinizing him, and he held that moment. He thought about growing his hair out. He used to wear it longer, curls languishing over his ears and dribbling down his neck. But no one took him seriously with curly blond hair and blue eyes. He cropped his hair short, so dealers would stop asking what school he was studying at.
“Okay. I’ll take it,” he said.
“You can wear it to your next opening.” Izzy slipped the jacket off his shoulders and started bagging it up. Jared glanced sideways at the hard little protuberance of his stomach and sucked in.
“Are you an artist?” Cobalt Blue asked.
“He’s got a show down the street,” Izzy called from behind he counter. “You should check him out.”
“Do you need any models?” Cobalt Blue touched his bicep.
In his younger days, he would have taken both of these girls back to his studio, laid them on a couple yards of raw canvas and fucked the meat off their bones. Maybe even given one her first orgasm. It would be a change to roll around with bodies so white and pudgy, like eating bread fresh from the oven.
They smelled of industrial hairspray and cinnamon gum. He could fuck Cobalt Blue, while he made the other one play with herself. They both would be silent as monks, not wanting to act-out in front of the other. However, inside, bells and whistles would be sounding.
Yet, the thought of their timid gratitude, mopey love, and eventual puny hatred made him tired. These girls couldn’t give him what he needed.
Back at his building, he stopped on the steps. He could already hear murmurs from his studio – his canvases talking: “Is there a theme here? I’m just not moved. It’s not affecting me.” He decided to walk to the park. The sun was setting. He put on his new jacket and immediately felt better, swaddled in a big leather hug.
At the park, some boys were playing soccer: Latin kids against Polish kids. He sat on the splintery bleachers and watched the game. The Latin kids were quicker but the Poles had aggression. Still, nobody scored.
Gradually, the light faded and the kids gave up the day. On the other side of the park, it looked like a low cloud was moving directly towards him. Closer examination revealed a swarm of pigeons flying in a circle. Beneath the pigeons, a humpback lady in a long Nylon parka shuffled along, the unlikely eye in this storm of birds.
Jared had seen The Pigeon Lady before, dragging her metal cart through the park, pigeons swirling above her head like a gray thought bubble. She was a neighborhood celebrity of sorts. The kids stopped packing their equipment to watch.
When she got to her bench, the pigeons gathered around her, landing on the ground, the bench, some even tried to sit on her lap. From the cart, she took a long loaf of bread and began breaking it up and casting out crumbs. The pigeons went wild, flapping their wings and jumping into the air, like fans at a rock concert when their favorite song is played.
He noticed her reach down and swiftly wring a pigeon’s neck, then toss it into her cart. She did this three times. A drunken man approached and started yelling in Polish, holding up his arms. The pigeons parted in flapping waves as he waded through their numbers.
The old woman brandished her half loaf like a cudgel and screamed back in Polish. Jared imagined curses so horrible he moved out of her line of vision and covered his crotch.
There was much waving of arms and flapping of wings. Finally the drunk staggered away; the birds covered his path, pecking and scratching. He called over his shoulder, “suka.” Jared had heard this word on the street; it meant bitch.
The Pigeon Lady broke up the rest of her cudgel and shuffled over the grass. Some of her fans stayed behind and fought for the last crumbs. Others followed, circling the air above her head, hoping for an encore. The remaining kids threaded around her, kicking a ball back and forth.
Jared watched her leave, dragging her cart of plastic bags and pigeon bodies. He wondered how she would cook the birds, and what they would taste like.
She had trouble maneuvering the cart over the roots of an old maple tree that had broken through the sidewalk. The wind lifted the corners of her long coat and she disappeared down one of the side streets.
It was dark now. The park was empty.
He pulled a loose piece of wood from the bleachers and tossed it into the night. He imagined himself the last man on Earth, alone with just grass and trees and a black sky above. When the color drained out of the world, he lost connection to it. Everything will go on without him. The sky will get dark, the stars will shine; the moon will rise, white and indifferent, not caring whether it’s shining on his rotted carcass or his salivating smile.
He stood cautiously, not wanting anyone to see his shame. The shame of loneliness in the dark. Underneath the tall end of the bleachers, the drunk man was rubbing his face against the metal supports.
“Are you okay?” Jared asked. The drunk muttered something in Polish. He was going to walk away, but the man’s face moved into the streetlight. Jared looked into eyes blue-white and wet. Sorrow had crystallized these eyes into a hundred sharp edges. The man was crying. He wrinkled his brow and black lines formed in the creases. Jared wondered if he was mentally disturbed.
“Ona zabija ptaki,” the man said. “Ona zabija ptaki. She kill birds.” He slapped tears from his face with the backs of his hands, making smudges under his eyes. Jared kept returning to those eyes, like jewels peeking out of the dusty earth. He pulled his leather coat tighter around himself.
The man came forward with an outstretched hand. Crescents of dirt framed his nails, the fingers lumpy and thick. Jared thought he wanted to shake, but the man went for his head and started stroking it. He smiled. “Blondynka. Blondynka,” he said, combing the tight curls with his grubby fingers.
It felt good. The man stroked one way and then the other, happy as a kitten with a ball of yarn. Jared stood there and inhaled his winey breath, his odor which smelled like damp soil and baked beans. The man said things in Polish. They sounded kind. Jared listened and made up his own translation: “Nice boy. Beautiful boy. Good boy.”
The man took Jared’s hand and placed it on his crotch. He was hard. The other hand pushed his head down. “You suck,” he said.
Jared needed to leave. He pictured himself running across the soccer field, past the old maple tree, along the street and all the way home to a hot shower. Then he heard the creaking; his mouth filled with saliva, his knees buckled and he was sliding down that familiar trail from head to heart to stomach, falling into that little boy’s world squinting and nodding, squinting and nodding.
The man wore black dress shoes laced with wire from a set of earphones; the ear plugs were tied like tassels. His navy blue work pants had rivets on the pockets. Quickly, the pants were unbuckled; the man held himself in both hands. Jared was surprised at the sleek white penis in contrast to the knobby hands: a pale crocus emerging from the craggy rocks. The man waved his little gift in Jared’s face; his pants fell to the ground, reveling legs large and white in the moonlight. Jared didn’t expect these hairless and smooth legs. He wanted to stop and contemplate their texture against the weathered hands, but the man was pushing himself into his mouth.
Jared opened, and the man’s stomach pressed against his forehead, soft and enveloping. Heat was pouring from him and Jared brought himself into that bubble of warmth. Fingers swirled around his head, fluttering and timid like incomplete thoughts. He was present for someone, completely engaged in fulfilling a need.
He grabbed onto the man’s sturdy legs for balance; the muscles shivered under his skin like little animals. Sound escaped the man’s throat, rhythmic glottal stops as if he were afraid of his own pleasure. The tail of his shirt hung in Jared’s face; two white buttons sewn in the hem. Somehow this seemed profoundly hopeful; the man didn’t have a home, a friend or complete control of his mind, but he did have extra buttons for his shirt.
Hands vice-gripped Jared’s head, twitching and tightening. The man stammered, “suka, suka, blondynka suka.” His mouth filled with heat; it tasted like the baked beans his mother used to make.
The man’s legs stepped back and Jared reluctantly released his grip. He stared at the ground, not wanting to look into those eyes. He watched his hands make trails in the grass. The pants came up. The belt buckled. The shoes shuffled away.
After a while, he stood and stretched his legs, walked out the chill. When he came to The Pigeon Lady’s bench, he noticed hundreds of feathers pulsing in the cool night air – as if the ground were breathing. The moon held each one in a trembling pinpoint of light. Jared brushed a feather against his cheek: one end soft and pliable, the other sharp and pointed – a stab and a caress. They reminded him of spines, of blood vessels, the heavy curve of a woman’s thigh and the spidery hairs on the back of her neck.
He started gathering the feathers. They poked his fingers and crunched underfoot. He shoved them into his pants and the pockets of his coat. When his pockets were full, he stuffed them down his shirt. They tickled his skin and jabbed him in the stomach. A wind came up and feathers started rolling across the grass, tumbling down the sidewalk, sticking in the cement cracks and fluttering in the bushes. Jared ran through the night, pursuing every one.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
This story developed as I was thinking about the creative process and where to find inspiration. I, being a hedonist and a wimp, usually opted for the gentle approach of walks in the park and coffee with chocolate. However, I was surprised when many of my writer and artist friends told me their most productive moments often came after traumatic events, and in one case, a particularly degrading experience. Carrying that idea further, I tried to imagine the most revolting and degrading acts and how they might inspire. It’s odd that the most degrading thing I could imagine turned out not to be so horrible.
ABOUT MARTIN CLOUTIER
Martin Cloutier has been published in Natural Bridge, Story Quarterly, The Bryant Literary Review, The Portland Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Bombay Gin and The Southeast Review. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, where he still swears by the efficacy of long walks and coffee with chocolate.