Tuesday, August 30, 2016

#215: "The Art Business" by Jeff Fleischer

~This story was previously published in Chicago Tribune Printers Row Literary Journal (2014).

"How much did you say again?" Davis Javits had heard the number perfectly clearly. He didn't doubt his hearing; it was his imagination that he mistrusted.
The heavyset man seated across from him grinned, unconsciously straightening the lapels on his obviously expensive suit. He casually leaned back in his chair, about as far as he could without tipping over. "One million, two hundred and fifty thousand dollars." He'd said it as "one-point-two-five million" the previous time, but took the question as a lack of understanding. When that second response was met with only a quiet stare, The Suit leaned his girth forward, opened his metallic briefcase, and removed a strapped-together stack of bearer bonds that totaled the quoted amount. He handed the bearer bonds to Davis, who examined them in silence for so long that The Suit half expected him to bite one to verify its validity, like a cartoon version of a nineteenth-century merchant. "Satisfied?" The Suit asked, leaning back again.
Davis Javits drew a breath and looked around his gallery. The man in the suit was the only thing inside the whole former field house that carried even a coincidental smell of success. That uninspiring reality started with Davis himself, with his thrift-store clothes, hand-me-down shoes, and generally scraggly appearance. He liked to think that his beard — a thick but untrimmed mess that didn't quite connect with his sideburns, leaving an uncomfortable gap on each side — gave him a vaguely hipster look. He also thought it was cool how his hair, which didn't grow as long as he would like and was thinning a bit in front and on the top of his dome, bunched up in the back and always seemed to have a natural bedhead look. In reality, he looked more like a newly homeless man or a college student who'd recently ceased to care, although his hygiene suggested better than either of those scenarios.
Not quite thirty, but not far from it either, Davis Javits didn't lack for work ethic. His art had been a lifelong pursuit, a hobby he'd chosen to make his career when he found he lacked the qualifications for any other appealing option. He'd gotten in on the found-object art trend long before it became overexposed, and continued to toil away at it despite a complete lack of financial reward. When he failed to find success, acclaim, or even acknowledgement in the medium, he refused to alter his basic style but doubled down on quantity. He decided he simply wasn't coming up with enough pieces, and began to work at an almost superhuman pace, producing a new work of art nearly every day.
He'd discovered his affinity for found-object art back in elementary school, when he would spend almost every recess alone, collecting sticks and rocks from the fields and fashioning them into eccentric trinkets he tried to peddle at class fundraisers or through door-to-door sales to townspeople, many too concerned about looking cheap in front of their neighbors to refuse. Until The Suit arrived, those sales for a few dollars each represented the most lucrative stretch in the art career of Davis Javits.
His gallery was an abandoned school gymnasium he'd rented back when his finances were in better shape, when he took a few thousand dollars of inheritance money his great uncle had expected him to spend toward a college education and instead invested it to fund his theoretical career. The building had seen better days, with several contradictory coats of paint visible through cracks in the wood, and more than a little rust showing on the hinges. The gallery had started out as a barn but, like many such buildings in eastern Indiana, it had been repurposed several times. It endured stints as a speakeasy, a munitions storage facility, a town hall, and ultimately as a basketball court for several area high schools before each built their own. When he learned the building's history, Davis Javits felt it fit his own extremely well. Before the small inheritance, he'd scraped by financially as a bartender at an often-empty dive, a checkout clerk at a gas station, and a greenskeeper at a third-rate golf course. The landlord didn't really use the field house anymore, and gave him a good deal. When the building's rightful owner died, Davis and his monthly rent somehow got lost in the paperwork, and he saved even more money when he decided to live there too. For three years, he'd slept on a mattress in the old visitors' locker room, using the showers there and storing his few possessions in the vacant lockers. That way he could work to the point of exhaustion anytime he wanted, then collapse for as long as he needed to recharge.
As he looked around his makeshift gallery, contemplating the magnitude of The Suit's offer, Davis Javits started to consider how much money his existing collection could bring in if a single piece was suddenly worth more than a million dollars. Every wall in the field house was lined with art. Every corner held stack upon stack of completed pieces. Every locker in the abandoned home locker room overflowed with supplies, with incomplete scraps of incomplete ideas. A good percentage of the building's square footage was filled with raw materials yet to be put to use or, more accurately, in need of repurposing. The ability to stock up with virtually no overhead was one of the advantages of practicing found-object art, so the parts of the building not visible to the public looked like a cross between a city dump and the aftermath of a small, localized hurricane. Finally, Davis thought, it had all amounted to something. Something far more financially viable than he'd ever imagined. "Thank you," he told the fat man, extending his hand. "It's a pleasure to do business with you."

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

#214: "Chenartu So Near" by Frank Light

~This essay previously appeared in Mosaic Art and Literary Journal (2014).

Editor’s note: "The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent official positions of the United States Government."

 Chenartu So Near

In that it was barely governed, lay a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Tarin Kot, the capital of Uruzgan Province, and had experienced a visit from the Governor's militia, Chenartu had more in common with Nesh, down in Kandahar Province, than it did with Chora, the district to which it belonged. Although the district capital sat only 30 kilometers to the north, the track between the two towns had become so rough by 2004 that travelers found it easier to drive into Tarin Kot and go out the other spoke. Five hours total. The District Chief made the journey once; he was in no hurry to do it again. Nor did the Americans get around to it much. Heading out of Forward Operating Base Ripley, near Tarin Kot, the one destination of military interest on the road was an outpost named Anaconda up in Khas Uruzgan District, five hours farther east. Usually they went by helicopter.
No wonder Uruzgan's governor kept asking Kabul to make Chenartu a separate district. He talked as though this were a done deal, with a new district government up and running. The little we knew of the area came from him. He labeled all his enemies, and the man had more than his share, as Taliban. Case in point, his militia would dump bodies at the police gazebo in Tarin Kot's traffic circle. Taliban, he claimed. From Chenartu, of course.
On one thing everybody agreed: the place needed attention. But the infantry battalion headquartered at Ripley was stretched thin, and its commander kept declining the Governor's pleas for joint operations – in Chenartu, or anywhere in Uruzgan. Only Special Forces operated with his militia; they kept to the western end of the province.
If any Americans were going to fill the vacuum, they would have to come, indeed should come, from the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) at Ripley. PRTs were designed to spur development, enhance security, and extend the reach of the national government. The one at Ripley had the means – a dozen armored Humvees, half of which were serviceable – and it had the manpower: commander and support staff, a four-man civil affairs team, some 20 locally-recruited guards for the team when it traveled, some 20 more to watch over the new PRT site then under construction, a handful of Afghan interpreters, three military policemen, a rifle company from the Iowa National Guard, a U.S. aid representative we'll call Kerry, and a State Department employee on his last foreign assignment: me.
So in the latter part of October, after the Afghan presidential election and before our own, an advance party from the Guard drove up for a recon. Strange, they reported, though they couldn’t say why. It just didn’t feel right. Originally we were going to stay a while; you needed some downtime to get a sense of a place. They recommended we start with a day trip. We could overnight when we knew the area better.
The commander gave the go-ahead, scheduling it for two days after Kerry and the civil affairs team returned from Chora's capital and one day after our military-police advisors and I – along with the infantry's Bravo Company – returned from Nesh. We’d start early, about daybreak. Civil affairs needed that; they had a long drive ahead of them. They were going to accompany us as far as Chenartu, and then their contingent, six vehicles in all, including their protective escort led by Farouk, a village headman from the far side of Tarin Kot, would continue on to Anaconda to wrap up projects started by their predecessors. A smaller element would take Kerry and me back to Ripley.

Monday, August 15, 2016

#213: "Young Men of Prague" by Kelly Cherry

~This story was previously published in American Letters & Commentary (1998).

Einstein and Kafka are young men. One, a former patent examiner and now a full professor, lectures on physics at the Karl-Ferdinand University in Prague; one, an insurance adjuster for the Austro-Hungarian government, sprawls in his chair at the café, a tall glass of lemonade on the table in front of him.
            One lounges in his seat, dreaming of a young actress who travels with the Yiddish Theatre Troupe; the other runs a hand through his black hair and talks enthusiastically about atoms. The atom, he says, is a kind of dream, a space in which power is compressed to a point of conversion, at which point it becomes—becomes!—possibility. It is as if, he says, the atom is a symbol of itself.
            The windows of the lecture hall have been opened wide, the shades snapped up. The pull-rings, wrapped in silk thread, can be reached only by a long stick with a hook on the end.
            Beyond the windows, tall glasses of lemonade are growing downright hot atop the glass tables of all the sidewalk cafés. Trees in thick foliage shade the broad avenue and narrow side-streets, leaves rustling like taffeta skirts.
            The sky is lovely, blue and silent.
            To the young men, the sky is everything, a dream.
            It is atomic.
            It is theatrical—posed, awaiting a cue.
            In the classroom, a young professor gestures, and tugs at his black hair almost as if he would absent-mindedly pull it out.
            At one of the outdoor cafés, a young businessman drapes himself around his chair. The lemonade is stale and sour, and his digestion delicate.
            So sweet, she is lovely, the actress, gentle and mirthful, her lips as red as blood. (Something wildly provocative about her mouth, as if she reddens her lips by biting them herself. . .)
            The two young men, too, are lovely, in their fervor and good suits, and with such good manners.
            Prague is lovely, a gold-leafed city dawdling on the far edge of the century now closing. There are so many books to be written, so many lives to be lived. So many dreams. The future is so close that for a brief moment there seems no need to hurry into it. In fact, there is a single moment when no one raises his eyes to look at it, just as a lover, sensing that the one he worships has at last arrived at the dance, chooses not to notice, attempting in this way to reclaim some of the control he has already surrendered.
            Then, somehow, it happens that everyone looks up at the same time, which is what the darling beauty wanted in the first place. She shrugs off her wrap, into the waiting hands of the servant. She descends the short, carpeted staircase into the ballroom.
            Everyone rushes toward her.


Saturday, August 6, 2016

#212: "A Memorial for Hammerhead" by Richard K. Weems

~This story was originally published in Dogwood (2003).

             Bad enough it had to be a rhino like Hammerhead, a fighter who at forty-seven could still hold down solo one of those high-yield elephant trunk hoses that sprayed gallons by the heartbeat.  We knew fighters who went down in the Towers, and they had their names carved into brass and stone, but Hammer went out in a lame-ass way and didn’t get any such remembrance.  He came off the ladder after a routine blaze at an apartment house.  He was spraying down the remains of the roof, his safety line not hooked properly.  I guess we all make mistakes, but I had a hard time feeling something other than a gyrating anger that Hammer had to go out like a granite-headed rookie and leave Meg, Danny and me to make a go of it without him.
            The fighters who came for the service had on their game faces.  They looked like they were attending a mandatory staff meeting—dutiful, but wanting clearly to be out barbecuing on a day like this.  Meg, Danny and I knew where they were coming from.  We three were the closest thing to surviving family, but no one looked to us to say anything.  We sat in the back like pewter-cast figures.  I could barely even look at Hammerhead, his hands folded over his chest as if someone were holding him down for the three-count.  The chief brought out his usual platitudes about duty, and then we were made to stare at a radio as it played “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”  Danny’s metal joints clinked rhythmically during the chorus.  When it came time to pay respects, I stayed where I was.  I could think of nothing new to say to the rat bastard.
            But Meg thought differently.  “Here we go,” she said and got up.  As she joined the line that had formed in the aisle, Danny tapped my leg with his flask.  One of the fighters in front of us, a volunteer from Hamilton Township, turned back and gave me a brief, knowing nod.  Like hell I was going to offer him any whiskey.  And I didn’t need his damn permission to get lit at a buddy’s funeral.
            When Meg’s turn came, she strode past the casket as though she just wanted to make sure it was Hammer crammed in there and not some other thick-necked slob in a dark blue uniform.  As she walked back up the aisle, she bowed her head to keep her sun-bleached curls in her face and avoid eye contact with anyone else.  When she sat down, Danny murmured, “Worse than a high fucking school graduation.”
            “Feel any better?” I said.
            Meg scratched her nose boxer-like.  “Anything to make this crap go by a little faster,” she said.
            As soon as things came to an end, the three of us made a hasty exit and manned Danny’s pickup.  I needed air and crashing waves and a wide fucking berth.  I needed beer with sea air mixed into it.  Anything to make me forget the funeral parlor smell of stale antiseptic.  Danny gunned the engine, took his arms off, and we shot out of the parking lot.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

#211: "The Same God" by Patrice Gopo

 ~This essay previously appeared in Relief  (2012).

The measure of a man is what he does with power.
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
     –Jesus Christ

The dishes stare at me, covering every available surface, piled high like acrobats balanced on one another, the aftermath of a dinner and a breakfast in a home overflowing with visitors. Dishes seem low on the list of priorities since my friend will walk down the aisle later this week, but my hands are searching for ways to help ease the stress of a busy week, searching for ways to somehow earn my keep as a visitor in this family’s house.
Here in this African nation where the overseas missionaries dedicate their lives to reaching out to the locals, I awkwardly attempt to find a comfortable place in the landscape of existence. My role is missionary, like the rest of the expatriates I know, and yet not quite like the rest, as I look, outwardly, remarkably similar to the people who call this country home. At first glance, people often mistake me for a local, but when I open my mouth to speak, the words cannot mask the truth. My unique background perfectly positions me to walk the tightrope between two worlds. Not fully outsider or insider, simply other.
In this country, in this missionary home, in this in-between life, I cautiously inquire about ways I might help my hosts. Now I stand in a kitchen that breathes chaos. Washing dishes in this house is an eminently unsatisfying task. By the time the sink empties and order returns to the shelves, the next meal beckons. But it was my desire to help my friend, coupled with long-ingrained feelings of obligation to contribute, that brought me here. Reluctantly, I plug the sink drain and set to work.
It is a solitary job, away from the main traffic of the house. In the background, my friend’s laughter mixes with the giggles of her mother and sisters. From the occasional phrases I catch, I know the conversation surrounds upcoming wedding details. I want to be there, to be a part of the conversation and the planning. I remind myself I asked for ways to help. A voice in my head whispers, But you didn’t want to be shuffled to a far-off room away from all the fun. I created the situation, but this isolation feels nonetheless unfair. If I were family, I would leave the dirty dishwater behind and join the fun. I’m not family, though, so I continue scrubbing dirty plates and flicking rice grains off pots.