Remembering what happened the last time he tried this was not helping.
Grant tweezed another little cube of glass from the tray and held his breath. The tremors were getting worse, not better like his doctor had promised. He’d tried using both hands, but that didn’t work and so all he could do now was hold his breath and laser in with insane focus. The colors swam a bit. He bit down on the leash of every nerve and…….dropped the cube into place.
Snug. Perfect. Cuddled into its tiny space and never to be jarred out. Sort of like how Grant could feel here in the studio on the best days. It was cold out there today and he hadn’t heard anything from Lenny yet, but then ……. Right, wait. Yeah, he’d left the phone unplugged. It was ok; Lenny’s used to that. Grant knew he’d be by with groceries and the latest gossip. Time for the next trial by spatial alignment.
He breathed, stretched a little and bent back over the tray to find the next perfect piece.
One life reduced to the importance of a colored bit of glass; every yearning, each fall and each righting, every uttered word and every unspoken thought, each miserable season of failure and every brief bright triumph, each reaching for the unreachable and every sign that all is not lost, every 4am panic attack and every afternoon nap, every delicious meal, each orgasm intense and disappointing, every satisfying dump and the dreadful panic of a breath undrawn……..all compressed in a flash into one irregular cube of sand and metal oxide that glitters but keeps its secrets.
Grant lives and moves like other men. But every so often he feels like he hits a barrier and has the overwhelming sensation of being cuddled into the perfect space, never to be jarred out. Usually he settles back into his space, content to shine in his own modest way. Working on this last mosaic things begin to change.
If Grant is a chunk of colored glass, tucked into his assigned spot, Lenny is a wash of paint that can’t be contained. He’s swept against many chunks of glass and has altered the color of many. His fluid, restless ways have made some little pieces burrow more deeply into their spaces and he’s been known to unseat the less securely moored.
“Hey Svengali, dude, you left your door unlocked, ya know.” Lenny bumped the door shut with his hip and tossed the keys onto the counter. He didn’t expect a response and didn’t get one. This is just how it was when you kept company with these genius types. He moved around the kitchen, straightening up and putting things away.
Lenny had long ago made up his mind about life and the stuff he was prepared to accept to get by. One long ago 9 to 5 job gave him grinding, endless, inane hours to consider exactly what he was doing here: dying. Slowly. Incrementally. Document by document, his life was being leached from him and he could feel it. He’d shove blindly through the morning until it was time for the 10:15 coffee break and he’d flee the office to buy a muffin and toss crumbs to the sparrows, jealous of their freedom. He couldn’t quit; it was a “good” job after all with benefits and good pay.
It was the worst nightmare he could imagine and only the decency of the gods got him fired and free.
Since then he’d put his hand to all manner of ways to keep the wolf from the door but it wasn’t until he’d moved downtown and begun drinking with the artists, the cranks, the conspiracy nuts and the writers that he found his way. In broad strokes, he swept through various doorways and, finding the open ones, rushed in to make himself indispensable. He fetched and dropped off, he could fix stuff, he could leave stuff alone and he could be trusted in the way of the best opaque acrylic paint to cover every bump in the panel and keep his friends’ lives bright and uncomplicated.
He was also very good in bed.
He put the kettle on and peered into the studio at Grant’s humped form. Poor bastard’s hands shook so hard that Lenny couldn’t imagine how he was getting any work done. Kindly, he slopped a little bourbon into teacup and reached for the shortbreads Grant liked so much. Reaching around the corner in the kitchen, he plucked down the apron, tied it around his waist and got to work on the dishes while the kettle heated up. He still needed to pick up Maddie Jo’s stretched canvases and run up to feed Mr. Xander’s Jack Russells.
“Oh, here you are.” Grant sighed, wiping his hands on the front of his shirt.
“Hey, Grant.” Lenny poured and passed the cup. “Careful, let it cool a little. Hungry?”
“Oh please.” Grant’s laugh was gently musical, putting a pretty face on his fatalism. “I haven’t been hungry since Reagan was in office; how I’m still vertical is a mystery for the ages.”
“You’ll like these.” Lenny pushed the plate of shortbreads over as Grant lowered himself slowly into the kitchen chair. His movements were slow, but with slight small-bird jerks and Lenny had long ago learned not to fill his cups to the brim.
“So? Who’s about to make a good sale? Who’s in bed with who?” Grant sipped his tea and winced a bit, then smiled. “Good tea, Lenny.”
Lenny smiled and poured one for himself. He liked Grant, so Grant got the full scoop, uptown and downtown. Others got carefully edited editions that fit what they already believed about their part of the forest. Grant unfolded and had some more tea, glad for the sun filling the kitchen and for the company. A real joy of Lenny’s spill of news was the utter lack of judgment.
Maddie Jo’s failed gallery show merited nothing either in sympathy or malice; it was what it was. DeLaria and Skip embarking on a partnership in a new shop were wished well without noting that their location was abysmal. Yes, they were off to a slow start and what of it? Bickford was still up at the detox and everyone hoped he’d stick with the meetings this time, but no one was going to give him any grief about it. Grant knew Lenny would be swinging by with the care package they’d assembled for him later.
“Ah, it’s a fine mess of a world, isn’t it, Len?” Grant finished the last of the shortbreads.
“Bad days, good days.” Lenny shrugged and refilled Grant’s cup with straight tea this time.
“Thanks for bringing my groceries, Len, you’re a godsend, you are.” Grant sincerely loved that Lenny never asked how the work was coming. “Here.”
Lenny pocketed the money without counting it. “I’ll see you on Thursday, Grant. Let me know if you need anything before then as I’ll be over at Dickie Master’s watching his cats all week.”
“Poor Lenny. Good luck over there with that!”
“They’re only like that when he’s around; when it’s just me and them, all is calm and friendly.”
“If you say so.” Grant pulled himself up and shuffled over to the door to let Lenny out. “Hear anything from Dex?” Oh, oops, that was a bad move and Grant could only blame the bourbon as he watched Lenny’s face stiffen.
“I’m thinking he’s crazy busy getting settled in.” Lenny, liquid, pools out away from anything that would leave Grant feeling bad, but he’s not going to give more than he has to to get out the door.
The day begins to harden once Lenny’s gone. Grant putters for a bit, but there’s no escape and he returns to the studio and his tray of bitter, little bits of sharp color. He’d sworn never to do another mosaic, but here he was again at it, too far gone to get out and resigned mostly to how the process was going to drag him along an unmarked, unpaved and unfriendly road through every new uncertainty and lost opportunity. He hopes it’ll be worth it, but has his doubts.
They all pretend they’re a community, a tribe with a shared history and regard for each other’s well being. It’s a necessary deceit and Lenny knows his role as the harmonizing color that is altered slightly at the doorway of each tribal pretender. He’s never seen his ability to morph gently into the required shade of whatever color will best serve as a being detriment. But Dex saw this differently and it never stopped being a point of friction between them. The sadness of it was that Dex never recognized how much he needed Lenny to lighten, darken, deepen or brighten for them to see each next step of their complicated dance.
Was it love? Not exactly. Passion and lust and curiosity and wonder, yes. A joy at finding a recognizable face in the mirror of each other’s lives. A shared delight and shared repugnance in many of the same things. All this and an ability to make each other laugh. But Lenny firmly believed it wasn’t love until Dex took the job in L.A. and now the steady darkening of his palette could only be the spreading ichor of a broken heart. And that was a real pisser.
Maddie Jo was Lenny’s hairshirt that he wore with shifting shades of glancing blues and barred bastard black. In his rounds he encountered every permutation of ego, but none towered like the great Maddie Jo’s. He’d read the dismissive coverage of her new show over at the Gadasion and knew what he was in for.
“Fuck off, you little faggot.” Her voice and her malignance filled the parlor without needing her actual presence to back it up.
“Kiss my tight, cute ass, bitch.” Lenny needed to feel taller when he walked through some doors and he positively loomed rounding the corner into Maddie’s reading room. He’d joked once that she’d had the place decorated by PBS Masterpiece Theater; the woman really took delusions of grandeur to exciting new places.
“I told you I don’t need you today.” She looked diminished somehow, an alarming sight.
“You don’t know what you need.” He worked to keep any kindness out of his voice. “Here.” He set the bottle of cognac on the dry bar and went for glasses.
“I’m not paying for that shit you know.”
“You’ve already paid. We both know it.” He poured and handed her the glass.
That was cutting it close and he turned his back on her, giving her time to get her weapons redeployed. He’d been reading about Maddie Jo Bishop since he was sneaking Art In America into his geography textbooks in high school. It was Grant who introduced Lenny to her on a day he vowed to never wash again.
“Here.” Her fury only seemed to steady her and the extended hand held out an envelope without a tremor.
He took it and knew the trouble he was in immediately. It was his own fault; thinking that he could waltz into the den of this wounded lioness and not come out raked and bloody. The envelope was addressed to the one man the tribe all courted and hated: Alexander Ulysses Castor.
Layering water colors of experience over the hastily scratched out line drawing of the clichéd gay teen coming of age story, Lenny had done much to dismantle an ancient structure of defeat. Lack of discernible talent or drive weighed against bone deep desire and belief in luck. Luck will always win. Lenny quit high school, left home without so much as a note and came here because he was willing to be lucky. Turning up his collar and stepping out into the bite of late autumn, he felt around in all his tucked away places for extra luck because he was going to need it more than ever now.
Maddie Jo was never one to dwell on what was. She’d sent her bullet and wasn’t too concerned with whether the wound be mortal or flesh. Nor was she overly concerned with any collateral damage. As far as she could see, Lenny had accepted some responsibility by standing this close to the mouth of the cannon. She poured more cognac and went back to her studio. Clearly her magic ideas about combining mirrors and strung out bits of colored wire and found fabric were too innovative to be appreciated by the current arbiters of art (morons). As if she was going to alter a single idea to appeal to anyone. Maddie Jo gathered the stiffened pile of calf pelts that had been delivered yesterday. She had work to do.
Approaching the storied address, Lenny squared himself. Under and behind and just barely visible through an easy going acceptance of his place in this particular firmament was the beating, inexorable certainty of Something Great. Grant was blind and deaf to it, but Maddie Jo and some of the others smelled ambition when it brought their groceries and walked their dogs. It colored their experience of Lenny and his of them.
There was no reason to approach Castor trembling; in fact, Lenny was discovering more reasons to see this as a god sent opportunity with each step up to the imposing front door. He pressed the doorbell and heard nothing, but one push would do. He waited, willing every tension into a masquerade of louche and then believing the lie. Just as the door swung open, the thought of picking up old Castor here as a client turned the trick and he greeted the gray-clad housekeeper with an easy smile.
“How do you do?” He held out Maddie Jo’s calling card.
She didn’t just seem stern, she was the very stuff of every stern rebuke ever thrown in the face of a generation of supplicants. But she recognized the card and stepped back to allow Lenny in.
“I’ll see if Mr. Castor is available.”
The envelope felt warm in Lenny’s lapel pocket and he knew he would not be leaving it in the care of this gorgon. She gestured and he obeyed, settling comfortably into a small chair outside a ridiculously sumptuous sitting room. Yes, he was being put in his place by the help and he didn’t care. Briefly he wondered about what was in the envelope and what kind of reaction he was going to face, but here he was now so let’s just savor the moment, shall we?
He wasn’t given much time to savor anything as Gray Lady was back almost immediately to usher him into The Presence. He rose and smoothed his jacket, sorry not to have had the chance to dress for this occasion, but this was how life handed you glittering prizes or dire disasters. Lenny’s real talent resided in his unlearned ability to tap into just the right rush of color for every need. Today called for something a little subdued, but with a decided hint of the treachery of twined red, gray and sparks of obsidian.
“So the bitch queen from beyond the grave has something to say to me?” Castor didn’t even bother turning to face Lenny.
“How do you do, Mr. Castor.” Lenny made standing look as casual as easing back in the most comfortable of chairs, another of his little party tricks. “To be honest, I have no idea what Maddie Jo is sending.”
Now Castor turned and gauged the cut of Lenny’s character. It took everything in Lenny’s deep palette to maintain the flow; the gods only knew how many otherwise confident contenders had been stripped to the bones of their last refuge by that look. In the balance of a moment something tipped in Lenny’s favor and he was fully, exquisitely, painfully aware how close he’d come to dismissal. Fluid and subtle, he held out the envelope.
“Open it and read it to me.” Castor smiled.
Lenny, knowing an audition when he was in the middle of one, complied. This was not the time for too much thinking and he read without taking in one bit of meaning. Each word was a new color falling off a new brush. It registered in his brain that this was breathtakingly abusive and dangerous shit coming out of his mouth, but nothing in his roll of color and composition let on that he was aware of any effect it might be having. Indeed, it wasn’t having any effect. Castor’s expression was beige.
“Thank you.” Castor lit a cigarette and nodded towards the door. The audition was over and as Lenny was shown out the grand front door by the housekeeper, he had no idea how he did. He did know, however, that Maddie Jo had tipped over one very large and far reaching domino.
You can take the most pure and brilliant colors and make them into a dismal mess unless you approach your work with forethought and discipline. Lenny let himself into Xander’s small flat, carrying treats for Missy and Champ. He’d gone on about his business yesterday, not bothering to get back to Maddie Jo. She knew where to find him. He puttered about, watering the ferns and tossing goodies into the air for the dogs to catch. Xander kept it too cold in here, so Lenny went over and opened the valve on the radiator in the corner and saw the most curious transaction out the window.
Lenny was far from the only player on the fringes of the tribe and nothing about his place in this particular circuit was secure. That Maxwell Westy would always be trouble and there he was chatting up Grant. To his credit, poor dear Grant seemed to be trying to get away, but old Max was all Velcro and Lenny could only draw back a bit and watch. Grant was nodding and easing away, but Max touched his sleeve and leaned in closer. From his vantage point, Lenny couldn’t make out Grant’s face, but saw his back stiffen. Then he was doing something Lenny had never seen him do: yelling! Grant, the poster boy for courtesy and gracious behavior was ripping a very startled Maxwell a new one. Lenny quickly leashed the dogs and stepped out just in time to quite intentionally collide with Grant.
“Oh! Sorry, Grant!” Lenny pulled the dogs around, glad to dance for Max’s benefit. “Say, dude, are you all right?”
Grant didn’t say anything at first, but fixed Lenny with the strangest look. This wasn’t good.
“Lenny, I’m glad to run into you like this.” He dropped his gaze and voice. “I, well I won’t be needing groceries this week and, well, yes, may I get my keys back for the time being? I, uh, well, need….them.”
“Sure, Grant, no problem.” Ticking through every color in his files, Lenny made a strategic move. “But, you know, I don’t have them on me now. When’s good to bring them over?”
This flustered poor Grant and he stood there, stuttering and miserable. Lenny, lately in some very cool company, chose to wait him out. Bad juju was afoot and this was not the time to be playing the sweet fool.
“Is it true then?” Grant bit into this new direction like he was eating glass. “You went to see Alexander Castor?”
“Grant, this is not a conversation for the street corner. Why don’t you come into Xander’s for a cup of tea and a little chat?” Lenny’s helpful hand on Grant’s arm was much more than suggestive and Grant found himself wheeled up the steps and deposited in the dining nook in such a way as to rattle even his most well-set intentions.
He looked around himself with wonder; this is not how he’d envisioned his afternoon constitutional to play itself out. And now what was he going to say? Nothing, that’s what. Every so often Grant found firm footing and right now he was reaching for it with all his might. This Lenny came across as the ever helpful, always soothing runner of errands and bringer of small news. But after what he just heard from Max out there, well this young man had some explaining to do. Grant waited for his tea and waited for his explanation.
In the kitchen Lenny trying to find teabags now understood the shaft of fear his errand had engendered. He didn’t need to be afraid of Castor (yet), but just being in the beast’s proximity was enough to shake even Grant, Lenny’s most trusting puppy. God only knew what was being whispered up and down many lanes right now. The mashup of colors and directions was getting pretty muddy here. Lenny put the kettle on and stood with both hands on the counter and his head down. Quiet. Don’t think. Let something separate out from the mess.
“Grant, I have to say I’m a little surprised at you, jumping at the first thing out of Westy’s mouth. Milk?”
“Tell me why you went to Castor’s.” Grant almost managed to be firm. “Uh, milk, please.”
“Tell me why it matters so much to you.” Lenny poured equal parts milk and sweet whitewash into the cups and into the air between them. “You don’t have any issue with the man, right?”
“Was it Maddie Jo?”
Ah, time to move with real care. It was entirely too easy to underestimate a quiet man with lovely manners.
“How’s the tea?” Time, Lenny needed time and was having a tough time understanding why it was important to withhold this information. But it was important.
“Then it was Maddie Jo.” Grant shook his head. “That woman will be the death of us all. What did she have to say to Castor?”
“You don’t think she’s that reckless, do you?”
“And I suppose it’s entirely out of the realm of possibility that I chose to go see Castor on my own for my own reasons?”
“Lenny, dear young man, I’m not a complete fool. You’re not as pure and altruistic as all that, I know, but you don’t go charging into minefields without a map.”
Lenny retreated and pondered the mess he was making in response to the mess he’d been handed. What would Dex do? He was always so good at cutting through crap and turning tables.
“Grant, do you trust me or not?”
“Trust you to do what?”
“To see this through without having to defend myself from a lot of malicious gossip. Will you be my firewall?”
“Oh, dear. Oh Lenny, you can’t be as naïve as all that!”
“Dear Grant, dear dear Grant, all you need to do is go back to your work and shut anyone down when they come to you with this bullshit. I don’t need you to say anything, misdirect or lie or embellish. Just shut them down with your understanding of my character.”
Grant had some tea and let Lenny think what he would. This would not end well. The boy had no idea the stakes of any game involving Castor. He sighed. There were several new deliveries of glass waiting at Dillson’s and he was not up to lugging twenty pound bags home. A shattering, fragmenting was always part of the deal and who was Grant to try and hold anything together?
“So you’re not going to tell me anything. I still think it was that madwoman, but it’s on you, son.”
Deep pools of one color mean nothing, regardless of the depth. Lenny lay awake long into the night. His deft swirls of movement and motivation were being tested, but this was the most worthwhile use of his long latent abilities and before the sun rose, he’d convinced himself that he could conjure any sweeps of misdirection and seduction required. He rose, weary but set. Let’s see, bags of glass over to Grant and new canvases and wine up to Stanley. He hadn’t heard from Phillip in awhile and now was the time to shore up his defenses. He logged onto his email to start sending out the first string of communiqués.
Six emails from Dexter? The most recent one sent an hour ago and the subject line was all in caps.
I NEED YOU HERE.