Back at work in his studio, Grant slides into another stab at the impossible; after all, what else is there to be doing while we’re sucking air? Another bit sparkles and makes promises; Grant isn’t the sucker he used to be, though, and now there are negotiations. Squinting and peering up, the glass ponders its options. This used to be so much easier. Look how steady his hand has gotten, god damn it. There’s a subtle twist to be made and the bastard still gazes down with a little smile.
Up and down the boulevard and into the alleys and mews, great projects and small ideas have been abandoned and propped against walls of compromise only to be picked up and reconsidered. Maddie Jo’s calf pelts are making resident rats happy out by the dumpster. Bick, ah poor fucking Bickford, swirling slowly down another drain and drawing his knotted notions tight in around himself. It’s late in the day for most of Lenny’s former clients but it’s going to be a very long day and there is much to be done.
“How soon can you have this to us?”
“Two weeks.” Grant accepts a glass of wine from the deferential intern.
“That long? I’d like to send someone around to take a look.” Murph has a lot to gain here.
“Two weeks and I’ll have it shipped over.” Grant lets a small wrinkle ride the bridge of his nose and sets the glass down after one sip.
It’s a shame he can’t lord it over Murphy the way the little prick deserves but Grant has a deadline. It’s Brendan Murphy’s lucky day and he knows it though he’d never understand where the luck is rooted.
Spring will never come this year.
Literally. It’s late May and yesterday a slicing icing rain cut down the most determined daffodils. Bickford slips on the top step just outside his door and, just like that, makes his deadline. The funeral is not well attended; everyone’s facing down the same impending deadline and time has narrowed to a mean, unforgiving bitch with a cleaver in her hand.
Maddie Jo has taken to daily walks over to Castor’s place, just cruising past with an eye to the twitched curtain, unclaimed mail, unshoveled walk. Every day designs a new disappointment for her but she can’t stop herself and, again today, here she is. The housekeeper appears with an air of secrets held in checked breath, always on time and always ignoring Maddie.
Back to her studio, she lifts and sets down a series of brushes and faces her silent and inexorable mortality. She leans in to implore a Lenny, an angel, an interceder to make the grand bargain and save her. Grant isn’t taking her calls, though he accepts her presence graciously enough when she goes over.
He’s busy. They’re all busy.
Throughout the tribe an energy is pulsing up and down and into a dozen hands attached to two dozen eyes and thirty trillion splendidly firing synapses. With Bickford out of the picture, only Maddie Jo is out in the cold without a way forward.
The Ainsley sisters, of all people, have secured an exhibit down at Juneau’s and Mr. Xander and his dogs are making the rounds of only the best salons around town. Curiously, there is no joy in all this creating, no sense of accomplishment, no pulling the impossible out of the ether. It’s a factory and here comes another idea down the line to be locked into place with another chugging right on behind it. Maddie Jo watches the workers, focused and grayed and wearing down, ferociously jealous and ready to kill.
“Where is it coming from?” She steps back a bit to take in Grant’s new piece.
“What do you mean? Here, have some tea.” Grant would like her to drink up and get out; each hour brings a jolt of doom and he really has to get back to work.
“I’m not getting it, you know. You, Xander, the Ainsleys, Mick and Stella Myosis and, everyone, everyone’s turned into mad little art robots. All but me.” Maddie Jo, once so mighty and fierce, puddles into the chair like a show cat without a show.
“Bickford got it all right.”
Both of them look a little startled at Grant’s blurt.
“What happened that day at Castor’s?” Maddie ignores the tea and leans forward, her lower jaw jutting.
“You were there.” Grant tries not to think about that day. When he does, there’s this terrible swish of voices that grinds into his brain stem and he has to get back to work.
Maddie Jo leans back and fixes him with a glittery glare. Deep in unused chambers something is beginning to pump, not smoothly, but with jerks and starts and stops. The golden times of ideas rising languidly to concentric surfaces and rippling into being never really existed and Maddie Jo stands abruptly.
“I gotta go.”
Outside she ignores another sleety foul day and grits, knits all that’s loose in her into bunched bundles of barbed intent. The gods won’t come to her so she’ll just have to invade Olympus. Rounding the corner to the alley behind her building, she has a bad moment when she thinks the trash may have been collected. But there they are, a stinking wet pile of calves pelts, gnawed and gummed together in a parody of a wedding cake.
Maddie Jo is not a large woman nor is she one with great physical strength. She has, however, moved mountains and art dealers with her formidable will. Now she launches herself at the pile of pelts, embracing it and wrestling it and screaming it into her back door; the smell of rot sets off a new series of inner pops and she thinks this must be it; this must be what’s driving the others. Half the pile slides out her arms and she leaves a trail of dead skin between the alley and her studio.
It takes over an hour, but finally she’s got the pile back indoors and can catch her breath. Now what? She skirts the pile, kicking a pelt here and there. The urgency is gone; the popping and grinding silent. She’s alone with the pelts of twenty eight dead calves and suddenly admits to herself that she doesn’t have the first notion what to do with them.
Maddie Jo slumps to the floor and stops thinking.
Near the edge of the pile she watches curling maggots wiggle and fall. Each one that falls makes a small ping and melts into a smear of color on the floor. Magenta, lime green, aquamarine, fuschia and deep purple. A hum rises and somewhere a strumming whining rising and falling of ancient wailing undergirds the hum. Not sure why, Maddie climbs on to the slippery pile of skins and begins to poke and dig around; there’s a way in and she will find it.
The pounding on her door vibrates up and down her bones and sets off landmines of fury. She ignores it.
“Maaa — -aaad? Maddie Joooo, hon, it’s me, Chloe. C’mon Mad, I know you’re in there; I seen ya go in.” Pause. “I come over to help!”
Maddie’s vision reddens as she paws at the animal hides like a dog burying a bone, goddamn that stupid junkie bitch, go the fuck away. Nothing. There is no way in. For just a breath of a moment there, something was going to give way. Again with the pounding. Maddie Jo knows Chloe and knows it’s useless to ignore her. If Maddie Jo is a force of nature Chloe is nature’s own version of waterboarding. There is nothing to do but climb down from the now-closed portal and answer the damned door.
In she comes; only Chloe can turn the word hi into four syllables, each rising until the last which drops and fades. She peers in that feral Chloe way, always on the lookout for the next bit of change to scoop up, the next morsel of gossip to carry to a place where it can turn a profit.
“What do you want?” Maddie Jo wants this over with and Chloe out the door pronto.
“Got anything to drink?” Chloe leans in with that conspiratorial gleam in her shifty beige eyes; everything is something to manipulate in Chloe’s world.
Now one might wonder when Maddie Jo goes over to pour a glass of Scotch; why doesn’t she kick the kid out if she dislikes her so much? What is it that Chloe’s got on her? On everyone? No one turns Chloe away and the mystery of that gets murkier each time she filches another beer, another couple Percocets, another husband.
A lull is ending.
Around the edges of something vast as small maggots of measurable time are pinging and falling, something stirs, something draws in fire for breath and proceeds to move in a counterclockwise direction. Grant feels it and picks up his pace. The Ainsleys stop talking and glued, gutted and gripping each other’s hands, rise as one and hit the street. The immense field of influence streaked with blinding twining shifting veins of chartreuse, magenta and blue black leached from dying maggots begins to swing in wide arcs that brush against the end tables of eternity, knocking elegant crystal mouthpieces to the burnished floor of the universe where they smash and leave their broken selves across a night sky that no one in the city can see.
But Chloe feels it and doubles down. This is her time and here is her Scotch. She smiles the closed mouth smile of rotten teeth and unspoken threats.
“What’s that? The new masterwork?”
“Could be.” Maddie Jo’s giving up nothing.
“Where’s Lenny got to? I’m suddenly getting alla these calls to pick up cleaning and walk dogs.”
“Who knows. Maybe he finally followed that dickhead out to LA.” Is the floor tipping? Maddie Jo watches maggots roll and feels queasy.
Chloe drains her glass and goes over to circle the pile. Here and there she kicks at it, skirting the squirming maggots. She pulls her lips into a tight closed smirk and fixes Maddie Jo with a look. To Maddie’s ears there’s a definite scraping, sliding thing going on and the smears of color on the floor are puddling out in every direction. Chloe begins looking from Maddie Jo to the pile and back again. She tenses slightly, teasing.
“You know what they’re saying?” She’s all eager puppy again.
“Of course I know; I started it.” It’s time to re-establish who’s boss here and Maddie Jo strides to the pile.
Long double helixes of digits are rumbling under the skins, bumping and twisting, scratching against a wall of glass. Across town Grant drops the bit of color that has been whispering promises and warnings. The center does not hold and bits of consensus reality begin to split off, smacking into walls and foreheads. Chloe makes a judgment call and steps aside quickly allowing a flying Maddie Jo full and complete access to places she thought she wanted to see and always suspected didn’t exist.
What constitutes consciousness?
Is it color? Texture? Pain? Was it ever truly separate from the whole? A great field of spring green ripples and spreads, carrying a distinctive rush of Lenny to spill over a ragged edge of conjecture. No lungs, nothing to breathe and yet an echo of Alexander Castor’s dominating volume cuts striated furrows into the green so that it separates into ribbons that float among marching columns of certainty. Deeper than the darkest midnight blue the source of an ancient hum gains momentum and adds a frothy foam to cushion a theoretical landing into a mountain-high pile of feathers.
Here and there in the floating mayhem rises a curious calf’s head, turning and turning, bleating silently and then ducking back down into feathery safety. The full velocity being promised hasn’t arrived and up and down the light spectrum one hundred million pumping arteries of intent choke out a Morse code of disaster.
Far and down and deep in fractaled folds of sparking facets that rub and glint off each other, tiny bubbles grow. Like swarms of individual sperm, each one frantically wiggles toward an unknowable surface with unstoppable intent. It takes a lot of shit to grow the prize roses and what was once an artist with a pile of dead hides has smeared across the plane of ten universes to fertilize a next rising tide of ideas. Neither the rising ideas nor the sinking remnants of the woman recognize each other even though she sucked up more than her fair share of that rising cloud of inspiration in her lifetime.
There is no cause and effect, no karma, no just exchange of sentience for miracle. Somewhere a massive drain turns the winding, churning stuff of Lenny, Derek, Castor and Maddie Jo into a thundering whirlpool that sucks hard at the back of a hundred thousand percolating brain stems in studios, on subway trains, at kitchen sinks and in post coital drowsings. Tugging hard, stretching a seeking, grasping, questioning line back and down a hundred thousand spinal columns, our four miscreants are joined by ten million other Jesuses who have now given their all for art.
Grant experiences it as a blaze but really it’s nothing more than a tiny, satisfying pop as the perfect bit of glass settles into the perfect spot in a small, hidden fold near the base of his brain stem. He’s lost track of time, hungry for each next blaze of perfection that heralds another shining validation of the direction he’s pointed himself in and then each subsequent veering into a next new unmapped and unmappable territory. This is fun. This is better than sex. Well, maybe. It’s been some time since Grant had sex so he’s not quite prepared to make this claim. His face hurts from smiling. The doorbells and telephones go ignored and another day folds into another night of cackling and creating.
And Chloe? She’s humming to herself and finishing off the Scotch. Those maggots sure are interesting. She finds that she can squash them herself with her foot and they do the same little ping leaving a shining smear of color on the floor. It’s cold in here. She pokes around, being careful to skirt that pile of stinky pelts; she can feel the suck coming from the top and center of the pile. There’s change in a sugar bowl that she pockets and she makes herself a sandwich. She can probably sleep here tonight.
Mr. Xander, though, isn’t having nearly as much fun even with the prolific amount of work he’s doing. Each next throbbing seed of idea that squeezes up from the swamp swirling just to the left of any recognizable dimension is crescent shaped and so scrapes its way to Xander’s surface, causing nausea and cold sweats along with a thin, screechy kind of pain. He swallows and reaches for a smaller chisel. The dogs had to go. Even the most adorable among us has a deadline; some are just a bit more in the care of the untrustworthy than others.
Mr. Xander was never a prodigy; he was ignored and not at all appreciated for most of his unremarkable seven decades, though he never slowed down or tried to fit any trends. A bit swishy with a pronounced lisp, he was long ago used to full octaves of abuse from family, schoolmates and even so called friends. His first medium was a bar of Ivory soap that quickly got out of hand with his entire room studded and marbled with soap shavings and oddly, even lewdly shaped soap bars. His parents panicked and he ignored both them and the child psychologist called in to help.
There’d been every variety of wood as well as resins, plastics, food stuffs (quickly discarded for obvious reasons) and even, heaven help poor Xander’s tools and eyesight, tempered iron. Then he’d hit his perfect medium: highly compressed blocks of walnut shells. He’d perfected the compression process himself with no help from anyone and just that took a decade but the minute he’d scratched his first shell he knew this was his.
The new block stood eight feet by six and was only now showing its true face. In the days since that frightening snowstorm that sent the dogs yipping indoors, Mr. Xander had feverishly compressed a dozen of these blocks and four were already towering around the room with deep, furrowed twinings of braided beast faces each devouring another on up to the ceiling.
Like zinging strands of razor wire, something is zipping upwards, gathering the edges of the storm in behind it and baring its teeth. A spark jumps from a synapse in Lenny’s frame and lands on one that registers in Castor’s wildly fluctuating plane of experience. He’s barely registered the hit when it throws itself headlong to other synapses up and down the continuum and an electrical storm shoots up from gut to amygdala and straight out the top of three hundred thousand heads. The migraines come wrapped around a special little something for each head and three hundred thousand new songs, stories, paintings, theories, sculptures and poems appear out of nowhere.
Now there’s a crazy place all right. It’s pretty much Chloe’s home turf and she hums a meandering aria while piling those stinky old pelts into the corner. She supposes she could haul them out of here; those slippery little maggoty smears were disgusting and, dear fucking Jesus, the smell! But she knows a portal when she slips on it’s excrement and you just never know when that’ll come in handy. Besides, cranky and unpleasant as Maddie Jo can be, Chloe would be happy to see her come back. No one else keeps really good Scotch around anymore.
It’s May and there’s still a skin of ice on the puddles. Hysteria abounds. The fundamentalists of every stripe are feeling vindicated, shouting each other down, each eager to claim full knowledge of mans’ imminent downfall. Children have lost interest in their electronic gizmos and parents have stopped trying to clean the walls. Every surface bears the seed of all those zinging zips of pain. And, in the midst of the mayhem, Grant selects another exactly right bit of clear, hard knowledge that keeps its secrets.
There used to be a pattern emerging, a recognizable and expanding picture that anyone would enjoy, would want to spend more time with. As soon as Grant and his bits of glass realized that, the shift shot back down the twining, writhing, pulsing, enjoined synapses to thud into a faraway basement in the bottom of a great gut. Planted squarely over the drain, stopping the whirlpool and defiantly farting false information up and down the continuum, the gut harrumphed and pondered the situation.
She’s always known and everyone shuns her accordingly. When she leans in towards her next mark, sounding knowing and clueless at the same time, she knows exactly the effect she’s having and it works every time. Every single time. Now she knows there’s nothing but a pile of rotting skin in this studio and it means nothing. The Scotch is gone, the place is too cold and nothing is getting done here. She showers, helps herself to warm stuff to wear, does one more round to make sure she’s got everything she needs and heads out into the storm.
First she considers the Ainsleys; they’re always a soft touch. But no. Right now her belly is full, her clothes are clean and she needs something much more important than any portals or answers. She needs a fix. In any upside down world, certain things remain true and steady and solid. Supply and demand. Tinsley has no more notion of what’s going on in this mad time than Xander’s dogs, but he doesn’t care and one could argue that the dogs do. Or did.
Tinsley’s seen it all, so finding Chloe scratching at the window to his basement flat and then coming into spill mounds of change all over his upended fruit crate coffee table is par for the course. He’s set; of course he’s set. The more mad the world, the more opportunity for the likes of Tinsley. He makes sure he’s set and then he just waits. The world will always come to Tinsley; this he knows from long experience.
“What do you think is going on?” Chloe knows her sleight of hand shit never works with Tinsley, but it’s a reflex that she has stopped trying to control.
“Pocket change? Really? Come on, girl, give it up.” Tinsley has just finished his lunch and is feeling like having a little fun. He never has done any of his product, he seldom even has a glass of wine, but when it comes to putting junkie’s through their paces, no one gets as high as David Tinsley. They got it coming to them.
Chloe scowls and slumps into the old brokeback sofa. She knows the dance and is resigned to it. A sudden chatter rattles across the back of her head and she jerks forward to see what’s on the sofa. Nothing. The chatter continues while Tinsley goes into the kitchen, still talking. Chloe tips her head as if that will improve the reception, but nothing is coming through clearly, just the snittering, jumpy noise of something gathering itself. She must need this fix worse than she thought and is glad she came to old Tinsley; obviously the shit she got yesterday downtown was nasty.
“Let’s see some folding cash, sister.” Tinsley sets his magic tin box on the table and smiles.
“Fuck you. Money’s money.”
“Fuck you and get your goddamned laundry money outta here.” But he doesn’t make a move to put the box away and the dance is still on.
They sit and stare at each other. Chloe is already used to the chatter, like an old time ticker tape machine running in a line right below her ear lobes. Tinsley lights up one of his stubby little cheroots and blows several expert rings to the ceiling. Sleet begins slapping down the windows and the chatter gets louder.
“Look, Tin, I’m hurtin’ and this is what I got.” Chloe has perfected her whine to an instrument of mild torture, but Tinsley’s impervious. She knows it, he knows it and they keep on dancing.
“Show me some Andrew Jacksons and we got something to talk about.”
Chloe pauses and considers the possibilities here. Without a conscious move in that direction, she gets the sense that there’s something useful to be done with this mumble in her head. She kind of squeezes it and the pitch rises. Releasing it, the tempo slows a little and the pitch deepens. Playing like this, she almost misses what’s going on across from her in the dim little room.
“You hear that?” Tinsley’s looking a little green.
Now Tinsley’s tipping his head like a cocker spaniel, trying to decipher something old and big and scary. He glares at Chloe like he knows she’s up to something. Something between a growl and a hum vibrates through the room, rattling the change on the table. Tinsley’s not easily fucked with but this is fucking with him. From a long ways away something big and bad is moving fast and there’s no way of knowing which way it’ll come from.
Chloe, on the other hand, is more relaxed than she can remember ever having been when she wasn’t high. She scratches her nose and smiles. There’s a pulling on all her edges and she can feel her face widening.
“So? You gonna help me out here?” She has to push against it, but does manage to lean forward and shove change in Tinsley’s direction. His eyes are bugging a little, but he does reach across the table for his stash box. Outside the wind picks up. Chloe settles back on the lumpy old sofa in that sweet relief that comes ahead of her hit. Finally.
Has he eaten yet today? Grant can’t remember. He pauses, drops a bit of glass and gets a good whiff of himself. Hasn’t showered lately either. On its back in the tray that bit of glass is popping and humming. Grant misses Lenny. When he tries to stand up, his legs give and he plops back down, bewildered and out of breath. Not good. He looks towards the kitchen and then back at his little friend jiggling and hopping around in the tray. Oddly, when he tries to rise to go eat all the strength in him puddles out to the floor and he can’t move. But when he turns back to the glass, a wire thin shaft of power slices back up through his spine and the juice flows back up into his arms and head.
He keeps feeling stuff going on; there’s something hitting in a regular rhythm with certain things making a bigger thump than others. When he tips this happy little bit of glass into its preordained destination, he can feel a big wallop about to hit and tenses. All the little bits of colored glass get very agitated at this and shudder in harmony for him to settle down, relax and pick one of us, dammit.
Winding into each other, long stretched out, fraying bits of individual lines of consciousness cling to other bits, biting into any stable frequency and hanging on for dear life. And so, at last, Lenny and Derek seem to have found their happily ever after, though happiness is a very abstract concept here. Castor winds in between them, hooking into whatever he can find to hook into while wriggling away from the frantic notes of what has become of Maddie Jo.
Mud. It’s all become mud. Every brilliant color shoves into the breaking down columns of certainty and logic that were never to be trusted anyway and all of it rams down what Maddie Jo still thinks of as her throat. A ragged series of fish hooks tear away great hunks of consensus reality, leaving a spectrum of anguish and loss winding down into that farting gut.
You think you’re safe?
Pick up a paintbrush and see what happens. Maybe this time you will be safe; maybe this time you’ll experience those pleasant surfacings that rise from an unknown place to slide out the front of your head, out your eyes, down your long muscles and out into this plane of existence as an aria, a brilliant series of essays, a master work. Go ahead. Take your chances. Your turn is coming. Ask Chloe. What happened to her anyway? Here she comes, or rather here comes a twisted, disintegrating rope of denial and disbelief that’s been shot through with daggers of maggots whose sole purpose was to tease apart the strands of one junkie’s driving hunger and turn it all into working fertilizer.
All for you.
Don’t waste it. Bickford, poor stupid drunk, he gorged himself on the stuff and later found he had nothing to contribute. Feel that sad bubble that occasionally rises, that bright idea that makes it halfway into some form and then withers away. You can thank all the Bickfords swirling down into the gut for those false starts and, come on, every time you fight your way through the withering, grab your blessed gift and make it work, you get to look back at your half formed babies and exult.
But you’ll get your turn in the maelstrom, too. So make this time count. Suck it up, drink it up, gobble it up and use every molecule, those that sing gloriously and those that fart obscenely. All you get to be in the end is the fertilizer for some other bits of creativity that haven’t even been dreamt of yet, so gird yourself, fill yourself, pull on every ropy bit of inspiration that arrives in any form and blast it across your cosmos. This is your only chance.
Make it count.
When summer finally came, sometime in late June, rents had gone down and new people arrived. A new tribe of the optimists and the cynics, ready to settle in and change the world. Some really will do exactly that and others, well someone needs to pick up the groceries, walk the dogs and pine for rejected love.
None of which, by the way, will go to waste.