The Artist at the End of His Labours
“Of all the theories hanging low on the tree of Western Thought,” Marshall said, “you’ve grabbed this rotten coward austerity. You really think you’ll cleanse your art with poverty?”
Phone pressed to his ear, Anthony thought he heard the creak of palms in the background. He observed the cars encased in ice outside on 45th, and pictured his more successful friend, reclined outside his studio, beneath the creaking palms.
“I’m not sure you’re hearing me,” Anthony said, though Marshall had it perfectly straight. “This guy’s like animated money. He doesn’t even eat. He subsists entirely on cans of Budweiser. That’s what he’s reduced it to. When I was at their house, I checked the kitchen cupboards and he wasn’t kidding: just flat after flat of Bud.”
“His diet is unrelated to your painting.”
“His wife said it’s all she can do to make him sit down for an egg sandwich every four or five days.”
“And so what?” Marshall said. “You expect not taking the cheque will reform him? Is that how people change, in your world?”
“It’s more a matter of whether I want my work to be implicated,” Anthony said, losing track. Marshall had a way of making ideas ridiculous. “Implicated, you know, in all that...”
“Implicated,” Marshall echoed. “You sound like one of my undergraduate papers, like something I wrote the night before.”
“I just want to get on with my real work,” Anthony said.
Now his phone buzzed with another call—it was Cass himself.
“And you will,” Marshall said. “This is your chance to get on with it.”
Marshall said, “Do my vouch a favour, Anthony. Do it for yourself. Just take the money and say ‘Merry Christmas.’ Say ‘Merry Christmas’ to yourself.”
Anthony turned from the window to the painting as he switched calls: “Merry Christmas, Mr. Flowers.”
“Here’s the new deal,” Cass started in. “It’s nine-thirty on the nose. Mark it. For every minute after ten that I don’t have the painting, I’m subtracting a hundred bucks from your commission.”
Anthony calculated: by eleven, the painting would be less than worthless. He touched the paint. It was sticky.
“Look, Anthony, it’s Christmas Eve. Harriet returns from Abaco at twelve, you understand? You’ve left this to the very last minute. I’m very uncomfortable.”
“You can’t rush perfection, Mr. Flowers.”
“Don’t get lofty,” Cass said. “I’m looking at the nail in my wall. I want to hang a masterpiece.”
Anthony phoned for a van, smoked a Pall Mall, and took a final appraisal of the painting. It had been commissioned by Cass Flowers to comprise, he said, “an ode to my wife’s favourite things.” Recommended by Marshall for his photo-realistic talent, Anthony had spent several months rendering dozens of objects into a five-by-six panoply that looked, in this final analysis, like a kind of neoliberal trophy case.
He’d spent a day at Cass and Harriet’s house in the hills beyond the city’s south end, drinking Budweiser and photographing the various items she wanted depicted. These included her Attic vase, talking parrot, Empire chair and iPad 3, which she called “so old it’s basically European.” Elsewhere, Anthony was instructed to scatter flowers and tropical fruit. He titled it Superabundance, his way of ironizing how more objects existed in the painting than in his entire apartment.
Following guidelines, he’d had the painting framed in gold, though he couldn’t resist touching it up after, all the way to this very last minute. The woman at the frame shop hadn’t recognized Anthony from his student days, when was he constantly in, or from the fruitful years just after, what he privately and extravagantly called his Dumervil period.
The Artist Goes Among the People
Anthony received a text from Cass Flowers: It’s ten o’clock.
Another Pall Mall burned down to his lips. Still waiting for the cab, Anthony felt his money begin to drain, begin to become not his money. In order to maintain something of an ethical track record, he’d wanted Marshall to register his reservations, but now that the money was close, his desire for it intensified. In truth, Anthony needed every dollar. Financially, the thought of next year blew through his head like a black wind.
He heard a honk. Anthony seized the painting by the frame and rushed from his building. When his sneakers hit the walkway, they met ice, and Anthony skidded forward. At the very same moment, a gust off the building’s concrete face took the canvas up, and now Anthony sailed down the walk as if on skates.
The trunk yawned open. He slid the painting in, crushed the door down. Caked with salt and black snow, the fuming van almost palpably warmed the atmosphere.
“I’m in a hurry,” Anthony said, having given the address.
“Not too quick,” said the driver. “There’s only two cars with snow tires in the entire fleet.”
“Well I’m in the mood to risk my life,” said Anthony, and envisioning his money, added, “I’m an aggressive tipper, possessed of Christmas spirit.”
The driver put a bit more pressure on the gas. They made a light they would not have made.
Now Anthony relaxed in the backseat. He enjoyed times when there was nothing more he could do. He was in the cab; the cab was going. The city scrolled by almost scenically. All December it had rained; then the temperature plunged, casting everything in ice. But even on these perilous roads, Anthony trusted the expertise of the driver, his driverly craftsmanship. He read his license—Joel Hubbard. In the photo, the camera-flash bounced off Joel’s skin, lending him a certain freshness, whereas in the dim of the van, a Cowboys toque pulled down to his eyes, he had the aspect of someone heavily, even ruinously experienced.
“Christmas Eve shift, huh?” asked Anthony. He liked the sound of his own voice in the cab, talking to the back of a head. He was never one to just let the driver drive, like some servant. “What’re your hours?”
“Five to five.”
“Five to five...” Anthony imagined what that would be like, and his imagining seemed to authorize him to say, “That’s not so bad. You’ll be home on Christmas morning.”
The driver grunted his assent.
“I’m on the clock myself,” Anthony added, “delivering gifts like Saint Nick.”
“You taking that to a museum?” said Joel with a kind of mock naiveté.
Anthony laughed brightly: “No, its owner. Its buyer, that is. The man with the money.”
“How much it fetch?”
Anthony told him the amount.
Joel whistled and said, “And you just shove it into grimy trunks like that?”
“It’s only worth that much to the buyer,” Anthony said. “Otherwise I just keep it lying around the house.”
“Here on 45th?”
“You live alone?”
“You keep a weapon?”
Anthony wavered: “It’s not really that much money, in the scheme of things. It’s not worth anyone’s life.”
Joel patted the dashboard, and said, “If you’re a poor man, even a buck is worth a life.”
Anthony liked being recognized as poor and living in a difficult neighbourhood.
The Artist in the Throes of Desire
Anthony imagined himself presenting the painting to Cass Flowers. In his imagination, however, the painting was not what had been commissioned. Instead, it was in a Dumervil mode: marred by some obscene, neon image, or in a sophomoric, abstract expressionist style, or simply torn to ribbons. As at the thought of salty food, Anthony glowed with a private, dark-red pleasure, thinking of pranking Cass in such a way, a Dumervil way. He saw himself holding up his anti-painting, watching the rich man’s face contort, exhaling Pall Mall smoke...
At the first prick of desire, he touched his breast pocket for his cigarettes. But he’d forgotten his pack. Anthony checked the rising fare, measured this against the painting’s plummeting price. Now his desire outran him. It was worth it from a perspective unrelated to math, or the future: “I need to stop for cigarettes.”
“There’s a Bounty Mart up here.”
Joel eased the cab into the lot.
“I’ll just be a sec,” Anthony said. “Keep an eye on the painting.”
He hustled up the salted walk to Bounty Mart, where he asked for a pack of Pall Malls. The clerk brushed the pack across the scanner’s eye, and Anthony reached for his wallet. It wasn’t there. He frisked himself, and there came the mental image, obvious now, of his Pall Malls atop his wallet by the hot plate.
Anthony looked out the glass of the automatic doors: Joel stood outside the van. The trunk was open, and with reading glasses newly perched upon his nose, he examined Superabundance. Anthony was touched by the man’s attention.
He rooted through his pockets, and produced three dollars in change. “Forgot my wallet,” he said, and the clerk drew the cigarettes back across the counter.
Maybe Cass would spot the fare, Anthony reasoned. Or he could bring the cheque to Cash Money later, and reward Joel handsomely. Meanwhile, glancing about the counter, Anthony had the odd desire to buy a scratch ‘n win. In fact, he would buy a scratch ‘n win for Joel. Anthony hadn’t anyone to give a present to this year, and though he would, in casual conversation, denounce consumer culture at large, he was not impervious to the urge to give, which he couldn’t separate from the urge to buy.
He spread his change on the counter. “I’ll take one of those,” he said, pointing at a Fruit Bowl.
The clerk slid the ticket over. Three of a kind – cherries, bananas, limes, etc. – on any one of nine rows won a cash prize. Three peaches won the ultimate grand prize of $90,000. Even if Joel didn’t win, Anthony would have given him the pleasure of hope.
He received a text from Cass: Your painting has been devalued by 50 percent.
Joel was back in the driver’s seat when Anthony returned, having sucked down a hundred-dollar cigarette.
“I saw you check out the painting,” he said. “What did you think?”
The van fishtailed as Joel turned off the lot.
“That’s a lot of stuff,” he said. “Very festive.”
It occurred to Anthony that this was the only criticism he’d receive. As ever, he instinctively contrasted himself with Marshall, whose work was widely exhibited and written about and collected.
But the better person would always be Anthony, Anthony thought. He knew, for instance, that Marshall had gotten his start by plagiarizing the work of a classmate, Rachel, a woman whose mental health had never been sufficiently robust for her to show up to class, let alone exhibit. With merciless ambition, Marshall had befriended Rachel, only to seize upon her very particular, almost hermetic style, the style he’d come to be known for after his earliest shows, after shunning her altogether. As far as Anthony knew, he was the only other person ever to have seen Rachel’s work. He’d done a studio visit after she complimented his Dumervil paintings. Upon graduation, she disappeared.
Anthony suspected that the Flowers commission, passed along by Marshall, was his friend’s way of servicing his conscience, which he’d probably feel he had to do every now and then until Anthony, too, disappeared. This was their pact. Anthony had not read Faust, but he knew the plot in general outline.
“Is that what’s current?” asked Joel. “That sort of old-fashioned look?”
“It’s not my thing,” Anthony said.
“What is your thing?”
The Artist Longs for Past Achievements
Although he hadn’t made such work in years, Anthony told him about Dumervil. “He appears in most of my paintings,” Anthony said. “He’s a character I invented in school, but he’s more than that. He’s a legend, a mythological entity, a way of framing reality. Dumervil is a kind of trickster god. Dumervil emerges out of the silence. He’s the absurd element of reality. Any time your world seems to swerve into the madcap, any time you’re in a pure fiasco, that’s Dumervil. I imagine him doing a kind of acid rain dance on the Milky Way. I imagine him putting germs up your nose. I imagine him dropping bombs.
“But he’s also a private metaphor,” Anthony developed. “Dumervil stands in for the id of the artist, the kind of prankster approach I’d take to my work, at least on my better days. He has a wildness that’s both sexual and conceptual. He’s a destroyer who generates meaning. Anywhere categories collide, or definitions break down, there’s Dumervil. You might say he’s the colour of the universe.
“Many of my paintings are Dumervil paintings.” Anthony was looking at himself in the darkened window. “I’d take a painting just like this one, pristine and organized, and then I’d have Dumervil annihilate it.”
But in truth, Anthony had abandoned Dumervil. At the encouragement of Marshall and others, he’d concluded that the paintings were hideous and childish. Certainly they were unsalable. Yet he was capable, here in Joel’s cab, of feeling nostalgic for Dumervil, who remained his only idea.
“There’s plenty of Dumervils in the city,” Joel said darkly. “I get all sorts of Dumervil types in here.”
“Is that so?”
Part of Anthony’s mythology was the impossibility of ever wholly becoming Dumervil. Instead, Dumervil was a mood, a rented costume. But with the same sentimentality that might cause him to envy a wild animal for its simpler, albeit murderous life, Anthony envied anyone who actually lived as Dumervil, rather than as a subject in his kingdom.
Joel said, “Dumervil never wants to pay the fare.”
The Artist’s Generosity and Its Limits
The van skated to a stop at a red, overlapping the pedestrian crossing.
“I got you this,” Anthony said, passing the Fruit Bowl from the backseat as if it were the fare.
Joel took out his reading glasses and eyed the ticket.
“Three peaches and you win ninety grand,” Anthony said.
“That would be swell.”
“What would you do with ninety-thou?”
The tires spun on the ice before the van accelerated.
“I would know the joys of homeownership,” Joel said, drawing himself up in his seat. “I live on 54th. Total rat-shack. Ninety-thou and I’d move further south, maybe even to the thirties.”
“If you win, how about this ride’s on you?”
“Sure thing,” Joel said.
They’d passed through the south end, the many windows of its homes glowing with a fireside light, their rooftops ornamented, blinking, and now a forest darkness encroached, the hills gathering about them. Anthony began to recognize Cass and Harriet’s neighbourhood. Here and there in the high dark distance, houses shone in miniature.
The road clear of traffic, no lights to worry about, Joel fingered out a dime from the cup holder and began scratching at the Fruit Bowl.
“See what we’ve got here...”
The road bent ahead. Joel glanced up from the ticket to guide the wheel.
The scratching of the rows came like a low chant: “Lime, apple, banana... Apple, peach, banana...”
Nearing his destination, Anthony felt a growing urge to remain inside Joel’s van. The van was warm; the seat of the van was soft; Anthony was hidden in the darkness of the van.
“Cherry, lime... And what is that?”
Joel passed the ticket over his shoulder.
Anthony squinted and said, “Pineapple.”
He wanted to delay his arrival, even if it meant the fare driving up, the painting plunging fatally down. He was aware – somewhere, Anthony had always been aware – that the delay of the painting was unrelated to a theory or principle. He’d delayed because nothing existed on the other side of Superabundance.
“Apple, apple, lime...”
He’d been telling himself that after the commission, he’d proceed with his real work. But in his dread, he understood that Superabundance was not the point of departure for some other, deeper undertaking. He understood that Cass’s bit of gold would not evolve into his life.
Suddenly there came a cry: “Peaches! Peaches!”
Joel twisted from the wheel, thrust the ticket at Anthony. Anthony felt his eyes widen. He saw three orange circles.
There came the dagger of regret.
“Peaches!” Joel cried, waving the ticket under Anthony’s nose. “Peaches!”
The mistake of having given the ticket away spread like an enormous vista before Anthony. And it was then, somehow in that vista, that he saw the bending road ahead.
He made to speak—he pointed. Joel crushed the brakes—they did not purchase. The van drifted from the lane. Headlights swept the woods. Anthony ducked, doubled over the belt in his guts, as the painting chucked overhead and the van pitched into the ditch.
The Artist, Resurrected
Outside air rushed in. All around the snow took up the headlights, but inside the van was dark. The metre was dark. Joel sat upright in the frame, a swaying shadow, the painting like a colourful pond up to his shoulders. He groaned.
Anthony saw the Fruit Bowl on the canvas, where it had fallen like a golden leaf. With strange clarity, he considered things from Marshall’s point of view. Marshall had seized his chance; Marshall had struck. Before Joel roused, Anthony reached to take the ticket to himself.
A hand gripped his wrist.
“Who are you?”
Joel was wildly blinking the blood from his eyes. It dripped from the toque’s polyester. Now he released Anthony and clawed at the painting. He ripped the canvas into ribbons, then kicked open the passenger’s door and heaved the empty frame into the night.
Anthony shoved the Fruit Bowl in his pants.
Joel screamed, “Get out!” He frantically pawed at Anthony across the seat. “Get out get out get out!”
Anthony scrambled out of the van, and fell a few feet to the snow. His breath spilled into the lights. From the ground, he could hear Joel’s laboured breathing, then low muttering, like a whimper.
Anthony gained his footing. He tried to climb out of the ditch, and slipped. Flailing, his hand seized the frame, which he yanked beneath him as he landed on his side. He faced the crumpled van. Against the glowing snow he saw Joel’s shadow in the seat. He’d withdrawn something from the dash. Anthony heard the unmistakable click.
“Go away!” Joel yelled, aiming the gun. “I’m warning you!” A terrified sob broke as he pleaded: “Please, go away right now!”
Anthony held up the frame in self-defence, and still clutching it, he clambered up to the road and tore away from the wreck.
With a queer indifference, he expected a shot; but when it did not come, Anthony felt the madcap thrill of escape.
“He was going to shoot me!” he yelled. “I could’ve died! I could’ve died twice! Two times!”
The frame over his arm, the Fruit Bowl in his pants, Anthony ran with an animal recklessness, the winter night seeming to unleash him. Anthony was rich, Anthony was free. He was laughing.
The Artist at Work
Not far up the road, Anthony began to recognize his surroundings: the Deer X-ing, the Hidden Driveway, and then in gold cursive, Flowers.
At the end of a long, snowy drive, their house glowed like a house in an Advent calendar. He approached with purpose, as if hunting. In the glass of the front door, Anthony smoothed his hair, righted his shoulders, and noticed his bruises, which contributed to the overall Dumervil effect. He pressed the bell, and holding his empty frame, gazed into the smoldering eyes of the artist.
Cass Flowers came to the door in khakis and a coarse wool sweater. He took in Anthony and his frame with a glance, but his lifted face did not register the expected shock or disappointment. Instead, he took a slow sip of Budweiser, stepped to the side and said, “You’d better come in.”
Like an actor waiting for his cast-mate to deliver the crucial line, Anthony followed Cass across the foyer, into the living room. The house was ready for Harriet’s return. The white tree sparkled like a mirror, beneath which a profusion of gifts in gold and silver foil spilled toward a crackling fire. Only the blank wall above the mantle seemed unfinished: there, a nail awaited a painting.
At the back of Cass’s bald and spotted head, a stack of wrinkles shuddered and twitched.
Now he turned on Anthony, and pointed at the frame: “Is this some kind of prank?”
Finally, Anthony made to hang the frame. Cass shoved him back.
“Oh I get it,” Cass said. “Some kind of art-school gag.”
After a brief tug-of-war, he wrested the frame from Anthony, and shoved it to the floor.
“What happened to your face?” he said. “You get in some sort of punch-up?”
Anthony bent down, but Cass snatched the frame and broke it over a knee. He flung the gold wood behind him.
“Marshall said you were a nut,” Cass said. “I thought he meant in an artistic way. But you’re just a brat.”
Anthony stood there empty-handed. He had not considered how he might complete the gesture.
“You’re a real piece of shit,” Cass said. “You’re a real Grinch.”
But after a deep breath, as if preparing for medicine, he brought a slip of paper out of his pocket, and not looking Anthony in the eye, passed it to him.
“Here,” he said. “Just take it.”
Anthony glanced at the cheque: it was for the full price of the painting.
Cass said, “Merry Christmas.”
But Anthony did not want the pity of the rich. The ticket in his pants enabled him not to want their pity.
“I don’t want your money.”
“Don’t get self-righteous on me. I’m not interested in your righteousness. Just get the hell out of here before Harriet arrives. She’ll be here any minute.”
“I don’t need it!” said Anthony, as if on principle. “You think you can just sit up on this hill, ordering us around? You think we’re all your subjects?”
“Is that what this is about?” Cass said. “Are you trying to prove a point?”
Anthony found his conclusion: he tore the cheque in half, then into bits, and let them snow to the rosewood floor. Having shown his empty hands to Cass, like a magician after the trick, Anthony turned and strode grandly from the house.
“You’re a very troubled person,” he tried not to hear Cass say. “I feel for people like you.”
The Artist in the Kingdom of Dumervil
Anthony paused on the step. He could still feel the paper of the cheque on his fingers, like a lover’s smell. It seemed to him that he’d struck a real blow; it seemed he’d spat in a face; it even seemed the world had seen it, had seen it and applauded.
A pair of lights approached up the drive. Plunging his shins in snow, Anthony stole around the side of the house. He wanted to haunt his scene of triumph. He kept on the edge of darkness, and observed the living room.
Cass withdrew a wreath from behind the couch, and hung it on the nail. He took in the room, sipping Budweiser. Then he chucked back what remained in the can, broke down the frame and stuffed it in the fireplace. The burning gold contributed yet another aspect of luxury.
Harriet entered. Eyebrows arched, she looked over the display with some contempt. Cass approached her, wrapped her in a hug, but Harriet’s arms stayed stiffly at her sides. He seized her at the roots of her hair, wrenched her head back, brandished an open hand, and just as quickly released her. Harriet kept her throat exposed, then slowly brought her head forward, leveling her eyes at him. Suddenly she was upon him, scratching at his face. After a minute, their violence evolved into kisses. Now they were laughing, and petting each other.
Anthony observed the couple through the windowpane. Harriet sat in a deep leather chair, idly swirling the wine in her glass. Crawling back and forth across the Persian rug, Cass bore the gold and silver gifts to her, one by one. She unwrapped each present delicately, and never failed to register an expression of delight. Anthony recognized many of the objects from Superabundance. But they were not precisely the same. Rather, these were newer versions: a newer valise, newer shades, an iPad 4. It was as if Cass had commissioned the painting to commemorate what would soon be left behind.
Anthony wondered at his own new life, abundantly blank and framed in gold, stretching out before him. Perhaps he would go to Europe. Perhaps the Europeans would understand Dumervil. Perhaps all he’d ever really needed was to go to somewhere, elsewhere. He produced the Fruit Bowl from his pants, and held it up to the glow of Cass and Harriet’s house. On closer inspection, he found two peaches, one apricot.