Girl with Smear: A Novelette
Arrived at the studio bright and early today. Surveying my surroundings as if for the first time, I felt a sense of…I’m not sure what. The sun was coming in through the slanted rectangular window behind the canvas; the branches and leaves from the large tree outside the window formed a perverse shadow-face inside the light, one that seemed to smile and grimace alternately with the movement of the wind. I placed my black shoulder bag down on the floor about four feet from the canvas and looked over the painting supplies. Putting on some water, I flipped open my cell phone and texted my agent. At studio. Everything perfect. Talk soon. The skin on my bottom lip was dry; it flaked off when I rubbed it with my forefinger. Once the water had boiled, I poured myself a cup of tea and sipped at it, sitting in the wicker chair. The canvas looked as though it had grown larger overnight.
Cloudy today—the studio was dark when I arrived at a quarter past nine. The row of LED lights that have recently been installed illumined the work area in a profusion of stark brightness, reminding me of the lights used in an operating room: intense, sterile.
I was just about ready to start prepping the canvas for my work (which has been commissioned by a special client whose identity I cannot reveal here), when the landline phone, which rested on the floor in the corner of the room, to the left of the canvas, rang. The model had the flu and wouldn't be coming today, perhaps not until next week. That’s preposterous! I shouted into the receiver, without consideration for the speaker at the other end of the line. I’m here, and I’m ready for her. But, can’t you begin work on the background? the voice on the phone said. I grunted and hung up.
No use doing anything today if the model isn’t coming. Though I should probably have started prepping the canvas with gesso, I felt tired and irritable. I’ve got all week to prep, I told myself. Tomorrow is another day.
I arrived at the studio with a hangover. Bad way to start things off. I’d hardly put my foot inside the door when the landline phone began to ring. The model is in the hospital with pneumonia, the voice at the other end said. We are looking for a replacement and will let you know as soon as one is found. In the meantime, please start working on the background. We can’t afford to be late with this project. We? I said. Whose reputation is at stake here? (I was seething.) Yours or mine? Well? No answer. Fine. I’ve already got the background half done, I lied. Send a new model as fast as you can, or I’ll start painting from a photo instead. I hung up the phone, then went to the small refrigerator to get myself a diet coke, though what I really needed was some water. I looked at the blank canvas, which no longer reminded me of a chess square (or rectangle), but rather a slab of concrete wall that had been removed from its foundation. Some light from the window behind it seeped out in broken lines across the wooden slats of the floor. I sighed as I drank my diet coke.
Didn’t get to the studio until sundown today. I was all ready to start prepping the canvas when, suddenly, I felt a sharp pain in my right eye and had to sit down. With my eye closed, I drank a beer (the cheap stuff, but it did what I wanted it to do) and then took the bottle of gesso out and poured some of it into a tray. When I searched through the brushes, however, I was distraught to realize that there was no gesso brush! What’s the meaning of this? I screamed aloud to no one. My voice echoed in the room, and the stony gaze of the Medusa head seemed to echo the echo somehow. I flipped open my cell phone and texted my agent. No gesso brush? WTF! Send immediately. The day ended on this sour note. I realize there’s no use crying over “spilt gesso,” but it was a waste, nonetheless.
Woke up with a head cold. Stayed in bed until past noon, and dropped by the studio in the early evening to find that my gesso brush had been delivered (I’d missed the text from my agent that said it would be there in the morning), and that there was a message on the landline: They found a replacement model, someone who resembled the first in both face and body, and that she would be there the following morning. Feeling drowsy from the cold medicine I had taken earlier, I put a pot of water on for tea and began to pour the gesso into the tray. I took a break to drink the tea, and then, standing on the stepladder, began brushing the first coat of gesso over the uppermost (left-hand) corner of the canvas, but it was no use: I was dizzy and sapped of energy from the cold.
I took a nap in the corner of the studio. When I awoke it was completely dark, and the gesso in the tray had dried out. Cursing under my breath, I made myself another cup of tea, washed out the tray, and poured more gesso into it. This time I was only able to cover about half the canvas before I felt tuckered out. I left the studio to buy some ginseng drink and returned with it, still feeling lousy. After drinking the ginseng, I fell asleep on the floor a second time.
I opened my eyes to a gray morning, with a light, misty rain falling outside. I’d left all of the lights on the previous night, so the room was bright and hot when I got up. Feeling my forehead with the back of my right hand, I questioned whether I had a fever. I was sweating, and felt slightly chilled. No matter, I told myself: I have to finish prepping the canvas, at least before the model arrives. I’d worry about the background later, as I still had (have) another thirteen days to complete the thing. I washed my hands and face in the large sink, though as there was no mirror—a minor detail my agent had neglected to provide for—I could neither deny nor confirm the image in my head of how I might look after a night of sleeping on the floor of the studio with a cold. My thinning hair wet with perspiration, I ran some water through it before shutting off the tap and drying myself off with a paper towel. The pain in my right eye was back again (it hurts me as I write this), though not quite as persistent or as sharp as it had been the other day. I am thankful, at least, for this. Stumbling over to the tea kettle, I filled it with water and flipped on the gas burner. As I was doing this, there was a knock at the door.
I suddenly experienced that inexplicable something I had felt when I’d entered the studio many days ago, something bordering on panic… I walked over to the door uneasily, opening it in anticipation. It was a package for me, without a return address. I signed and thanked the postal delivery woman (whom I’d thought to be a man at first, with her short, slicked-back hair and brusque accent). Closing the door behind me and walking over to the table, I tore the package open with unsteady hands. At first it appeared as though there was nothing inside. But, when I looked more closely, I saw that there was a tiny wrapped object hidden away inside the layers of tissue paper filling the box.
Unwrapping the object, I found myself looking at the first digit of someone’s forefinger―male or female, it was impossible to say (the nail was not polished). There was no threatening note accompanying this most strange of objects. Is it real? I was not sure; too difficult to tell, as the digit was coated with something inorganic, perhaps some sort of plastic resin or lacquer. Unable to determine whether it was a human finger or just a good replica of one, I wrapped the unneeded object up again, but, before I was able to toss it or the box in which it arrived into the trash, there came a second knock at the door.
Shoving the wrapped fingertip into my pocket, I approached the door (the box was on the floor, near the sink, out of the way). When I opened the door, I was surprised a second time. It was not the model, but rather my sponsor, the one who had commissioned the painting. I explained to him in no uncertain terms (not fully opening the door, so that he could not see far enough inside the studio to view the canvas) that the model was sitting naked inside, that I was very much in the middle of painting her (despite my looking a bit too clean for that), and that, therefore, now was not a good time to show the work, please come back in a few days, etc. He tried to convince me that I should show him my work-in-progress now, but I insisted that now was quite impossible (naked!). Finally, he went away, assuring me that he was very excited to see the painting as soon as possible. I continued to smile until he disappeared, then shut the door, turned off the burner (the water had been boiling furiously), and nearly collapsed. I was sweating again, my body alternating between hot and cold.
I poured myself some tea, and as I began to sip at it I remembered the finger in my pocket. I took it out, unwrapped it, and looked it over again. Indeed, it must be real, I thought to myself. I decided to save the object (telling myself that I’d do a small painting of it after all of this business with the commissioned work was finished). I should have been prepping the canvas! My cell phone started to beep. The text message on the small screen read: Did gesso brush work out alright? Hope yr work is running smoothly. Then the landline started to ring. The second model’s father had just been hospitalized. She would come tomorrow instead. After finishing my tea, I shut everything down and left the studio, shivering like a nervous child despite the mild weather. And now, I am shutting off my bedside light to sleep. My head feels like a soppy sponge…
Too ill to get out of bed. I texted my agent, who got in touch with the others. Model should come tomorrow instead. This was fine by her (the model), as she wanted to visit her father in the hospital again anyway. He seemed on the brink of death. I didn’t want to hear the details.
Feeling much better today, though the strange pain in my eye is still there, albeit duller. Arrived at the studio at around 9 a.m. Poured some gesso into the tray, made some tea, and began coating the canvas. I’d just finished the first coat when there was a knock at the door. This time it was she. The woman was young and very beautiful, as expected, a brunette with blue-gray eyes, thin (plucked?) eyebrows, a narrow, slightly upturned nose, and thick, voluptuous lips. Beneath her artfully-done makeup, however, I could sense her tiredness; not even the foundation could fully hide the dark rings under her eyes.
Come in, I said. I’ve been waiting for you. She smiled with one half of her mouth and entered wordlessly. Once I’d closed the door behind us she turned to me and, with a sort of curtsy, offered me her limp hand, which I kissed dutifully. I’m Mirabelle, she said. And, of course, I know who you are. I’m very pleased to have been chosen for this job. You are infamous for being picky about your models. (This is true, though I no longer choose them myself.) She continued to talk about how honored she felt to be in my presence, etc. I was hardly listening, to be honest, and just grunted after everything she said. Her facial expressions were entrancing. That half-smile of hers, both asymmetrical and lovely, attracted me in a way that is difficult to express.
I led her to the wicker chair on which she was to pose. You can undress behind the canvas, I said. No one will see you through the window. There is a large tree blocking it, and this is the fifth floor anyway. Take your time. Would you like a soft drink, or some tea? I have beer as well, if you prefer. She politely declined the offer, and by the time I returned to the canvas she was already sitting, stark naked and with crossed legs, in front of it. I realized with a start that I had not yet mixed my paints, as I’d only finished the first coat of gesso when she arrived. She seemed to catch on to this without my saying anything and leaned back in the chair, uncrossed her lovely, smooth legs. As I was uncomfortable about my lack of preparation—imagine, me, the respected (if not exactly famous) artist she so admired!—I took out two cigarettes, lit them, and offered her one. Fortunately, she was a smoker. Placing the glass ashtray on the floor between us, I sat down cross-legged in front of her, as if I might kiss her feet, and, smoking, asked her whether she had any questions for me before we got started (I said nothing about having to mix my paints first!). Her first question was whether I was ready to paint her. No, I said, my face flushing a bit. Not really. I didn’t think so, she answered with that curious half-smile of hers. She blew smoke rings into the air, licked her full lips. Well then, I’m going to get dressed. Unless you have any better ideas? Like, maybe, you getting undressed, too. That would work for me.
I must admit, I was taken aback, as none of my models had ever suggested such a thing before. As a professional, though, I was forced to decline.
After she left, I felt that indefinable feeling again. I realized that my penis had stiffened inside my pants, and was pressing against the severed finger-digit in my right pocket.
Please don’t ask me to write anything today. I can’t bring myself to do it. I’ll write more tomorrow.
Yesterday was a sham.
The model did not show up. She did not call anyone to say that she would not be showing up. She just disappeared, and left me waiting in my studio: anxious, worried, annoyed. I smoked two packs of cigarettes and drank the rest of the beer in the fridge before sundown. It wasn’t until nearly 8 p.m. that I got a call on the landline saying that she had apparently left town, and that they would now have to look for another model. I did not have the mental energy to put a second coat of gesso on the canvas, though that’s exactly what I should have done. I was planning on three coats from the start, and all I had—have—is a single coat so far.
Today I arrived early, put up water for tea, and sat staring at the canvas, smoking a cigarette. The sky was a strange color this morning; the light coming in through the slanted window painted the room a reddish, almost sinister hue, while the canvas appeared the color of a blood-orange. I lit a cigarette, watched its orangy tip flare and burn, and then looked back at the blank rectangular canvas again, which today appeared as a second window, a window into another universe, perhaps. As I sat and stared something stirred within me. I don’t know exactly what. I had the urge to do something reckless, an urge so great that it finally won out over my rational mind.
Standing up (I heard the wicker chair hit the floor behind me…), I rushed toward my supply of oil paints and began squeezing the tubes, one by one, haphazardly—though perhaps not so much haphazardly as intuitively—upon different spots of the canvas, smearing them with the palms of my bare hands until I was sweating and gasping for breath. When it was over I found myself holding my head in my paint-covered hands and dry heaving. This lasted only a few moments, however, and soon I took a number of steps back, away from the canvas, but was somehow too nervous or frightened (?) to look up and see what I’d done.
I turned off the burner (nearly all of the water had boiled out at that point, though the pot was three-quarters full when I’d placed it there), staining the black knob with two stripes of yellow and green and a hint of red, walked over to the sink, and washed the paint off of my hands, though I didn’t bother with either my face or hair. On the way out of the studio I picked up the wicker chair and put it back upright, not once so much as glancing at the canvas or the spent tubes of paint on the floor. My heart was racing, and the urge to be reckless, to destroy something, remained for some time. Where did this feeling come from? Why had it come over me so suddenly?
I received a text message from my agent. They found a replacement model. She will arrive tomorrow morning. I need a day off, but I can’t tell my agent this. I will drink tonight, and try not to think about the mess I made in the studio earlier. I’d never done anything like that before. Perhaps I am still ill. I know I will regret my impulsiveness in the morning.
I had a most disturbing dream last night. The model who had undressed for me the other day (I don’t remember her telling me her name, though I think it was Miranda, maybe, or else Mabel?) was with me in the studio, seated on the wicker chair. Behind her the canvas loomed, like a watchful eye. Onto it (and, by extension, onto her) were projected scenes from my sordid past, things I haven’t thought about—haven’t wanted to think about—in years, things too terrible to repeat here. The model was naked in the dream, as she had been in real life, save for the fact that her wrists and ankles were bound with gesso-soaked rags. She wasn’t struggling or scared or anything like that; rather, she had that sort of half-smile upon her lips, while I—the me in the dream; less bald, less corpulent, altogether younger—couldn’t stop watching the films projected onto the canvas, as though I were Alex in A Clockwork Orange, my eyes held open against my will. In the blink of a sleeping eye, the model’s skin became rotten, like a piece of bruised fruit; large splotches, the color of eggplant skin, broke out upon her face, neck, breasts, stomach…all the way down to the ends of her extremities. She asked me if I wanted to sleep with her, but I could only sit there with my mouth hanging open. Just as something seemed to burst forth violently from beneath the skin of her belly, I woke up.
Groggy. Feeling quite out of sorts. I haven’t yet gone in to the studio. In fact, I’m writing this from bed. What time is it? Certainly past noon. I’ve turned my cell phone off, as I don’t want to be disturbed. The fingertip (I keep calling it a “digit,” when it would be simpler to just say “tip”) sits on my night table here beside me. Who could have sent it? And why? Were they trying to scare me? What for? Is it somehow connected with the painting I’ve been commissioned to do? How did said person know to find me at the studio? The location was a secret to all but a few, after all. This narrows down the choice of possible senders quite a bit.
Feeling sleepy now. I am going to put down my pen and notepad and set my alarm for 2:00. The new model is supposed to arrive at 3:30, unless something has changed.
Text message from agent. The new model has had to cancel. She is worried that we are not going to make our deadline. I worry that we are. Back to my nap…
I slept all afternoon long. Woke up less than an hour ago to the sound of my cell buzzing. I’ve been asked to start painting from a photograph, “just in case.” I think I’ll improvise at this point. I no longer care what my patron thinks. I no longer care about anything except who sent me that finger digit, and why. For some reason I have suddenly become obsessed with that question. I am going to go and make myself a nice cup of tea and brandy and think about it some more.
Woke up and went in to the studio at 8:30 a.m. When I got there the door was already partially open. I stepped inside cautiously, in case any criminal should jump out and point a gun (or a knife) at me, and surveyed my surroundings. Everything that should have been there was there, and no person or persons were in the studio. However, as I approached the smeared canvas I had left behind two days ago I noticed something odd about it (this was the first time I had scrutinized what I had done): the colored paints seemed to form the shape of a finger, pointing accusingly at the viewer. Further, there was a small box on the table, next to the gas burner, with my name, but no address, on it. Slowly, cautiously, I approached the box, looked around to make sure there really wasn’t any intruder about, and opened it with my bare hands. Like the first box, it was stuffed with tissue paper, and like the first there was an object inside, but this time it was not someone’s fingertip, but rather half of a bloodless ear, the upper part, minus the lobe, like a half-crescent moon or a shell one finds on the beach. And, again like the first time, no note was to be found accompanying this strange object.
I looked around again suspiciously, but was quite alone in the studio. I pocketed the ear fragment, which was coated like the fingertip in a plastic-like substance, tore the box to shreds, and threw it in the trash. And then I proceeded to stare at the canvas, my work of temporary madness. It no longer looked like a finger pointing at the viewer; more like the half-crescent ear I had just put in my pocket. Or was I seeing things? The painting was, I realized, a giant Rorschach blot; how it appeared depended on the viewer’s (i.e. my) state of mind at the moment viewed. And this made me feel…I don’t know. As if the painting were an entity of its own, not something “I” created, but something quite outside of me, the so-called artist. And then my cell phone buzzed. They found a model. She could be here as soon as this afternoon. Was I ready? Yes, I texted back. Ready.
What occurred during the three or so hours between the call and the arrival of the model is near impossible to set down in words, as I don’t really understand it myself, but I’ll try. I pulled up a chair and sat down, gazing at the painting to determine whether it would morph before my eyes, as it had morphed between the time I had determined it to be a finger and the time I saw it as an ear. After some time sitting there in a meditative—or, rather, near-vegetative—state, I forgot where I was and what I was doing, and my mind began to wander aimlessly. It was then that things began to get weird, for, not only did the painting “morph” into various objects—objects that both seemed to possess symbolic significance and, simultaneously, seemed devoid of meaning—but the objects also became three-dimensional; they wafted toward and around me, outside of the four sides of the canvas in which they had before been contained.
It wasn’t until the steady knocking upon the door penetrated my consciousness that I stopped staring and these objects stopped their autonomous dance. But, I’m getting ahead of myself… The objects: knives, guns, screws with pointed tips, surgical tools, bottles of arsenic, shards of glass, shrapnel, fragments of bone, gelatinous eyeballs, fingernails and toenails, sheets of flesh, clotted globules of blood and mucus…. A dizzying array of horrific oddities, brought to life by my imagination. Or was it? None of these objects tried to attack or hurt me, but their very presence was threatening. Was it I who created these things, out of spattered paint and repressed anger, when I smeared the canvas in a burst of rare passion a few days ago? Was I (am I) headed for a total mental breakdown? How can I explain this experience on paper in rational terms? How can I understand it without fully believing that I am starting to go quite insane?
Knock, knock, knock. The model is at the door. I must go and let her in. I must paint her. But when I open the door no one is there.
The model arrived later, accompanied by her pet dog, Maggie. She immediately took off her clothes, but the thing I painted resembled more a blur of color than it did a human form. When she saw what I had painted she spat on my face, dressed, and stormed out of the studio with her flea-infested dog. She had expected something else, apparently. So had I.
Slept in again. I seem not to have any energy for living. My dreams were filled with horrific images of human appendages delivered to me in a series of boxes within boxes. I would wake in a cold sweat, fall back asleep, and the dreams would resume, as if without a break. I am afraid to sleep, yet I cannot stay awake for long for my extreme exhaustion. I feel that if I don’t stop the dreams from recurring, I will eventually go mad.
When I woke late from a fitful night of sleep, again filled with those nightmarish boxes and their squalid contents, I discovered that someone had left a number of messages for me on the cell phone, both text and voice messages. It was my manager, who wanted to know what the problem had been with the model, as there was little to no chance of finding a replacement at this point. She also wanted—or needed, as she put it—to know how the painting was progressing. She warned me that my patron would be stopping by the studio tomorrow (i.e. today) to see what I was up to. She hoped that I was doing, if not well, then at least okay.
I stumbled to the bathroom, looked in the mirror, and then pulled off my ear. The hole it left in the side of my head did not bleed. I threw some water onto my face and corrected the image: my ear was still there, where it was supposed to be, and there was no hole in my head. I brushed my teeth, not bothering to shave, and then dressed (there was a pile of clothes, probably dirty, in the corner of the bathroom, near the tub), realizing that my shirt was inside-out only after I had put it on, but I was too tired or lazy to fix it. Then I got my car keys, my wallet, and my sunglasses—the sun wasn’t out, but I have sensitive eyes even when it’s cloudy—and headed to the studio.
When I arrived, my patron was already there, waiting for me. I immediately recognized his red Jaguar, parked in front of the building, and swallowed air without actually breathing any of it into my lungs. When I got out of my car and approached the outer door to the studio, I saw a figure standing beneath the awning there, smoking an unfiltered cigarette. It was he, looking for all the world like a lizard in a three-piece suit: slender, pointed nose and eyes reduced to slivers, darting tongue, thin lips, greenish skin (he had a liver problem from years of drinking; to me his flesh looked more green than yellow). I greeted him with a slight dip of my head, which felt both heavy and light at the same time. He did not return the gesture, but rather gazed at me coldly as he took a final drag from his cigarette before extinguishing it under the heel of his shiny black shoe. So, how is my painting coming along? he said. May I see it? I take it there’s no naked model in the studio at present, and with the deadline fast approaching, isn’t it time you allow me a peek?
I tried to smile, though it felt more like a grimace than anything resembling the aforementioned, and answered in as cordial a tone as I could muster. I understand why you are here, I said, my voice hoarse and cracking, but I’m afraid I have a policy of not allowing anyone to see any of my paintings until they are completely finished. Call me superstitious, but if I show it to you now it could have an adverse effect on my creative process, thereby leading to a disastrous final result. Won’t you wait a few more days? Then you shall see it in all of its polished glory. My patron just continued to stare at me, his eyes open wider now; they were bloodshot, the pupils so large I could barely make out the thin circle of blue-gray that surrounded them.
You must be joking, he said flatly. I am paying you good money for a product. I could care less about your personal “policy,” which has nothing to do with our agreement. You and I are in a binding contract. We are married, essentially, like it or not, and unless I agree to a divorce, we stay married. Now, you are going to let me upstairs to see the painting. If you do not, something terrible will occur, something you do not want to have to contemplate, believe me. I have friends in high places, very high places, as well as some occupying the lower rungs of society who will do anything for a buck and do not fear the law. Let us go upstairs, shall we, my friend? Let’s make this as painless for the both of us as possible.
Not knowing what else to do, and feeling as if my entire face were about to slide off of my skull and fall onto the pavement, I nodded automatically. As I reached into my pocket, however, I stopped myself from moving forward, for there was both the fingertip and the half-crescent ear I had received in the mail. I held these out in the palm of my hand and asked, in an emboldened tone, whether my patron knew anything about them. A smile played upon his disgustingly thin lips as he denied any knowledge about them whatsoever. Fine, I said. Play it that way. Is this what you meant when you threatened me just now? My patron frowned this time, making no attempt to hide his displeasure from me, and rebutted my accusation with an angry and emphatic “No.” Instead of insisting we go upstairs together again, he walked past me and around the driver’s side of his car. I’ll see you in a few days, he said. This had better be your masterpiece. Don’t forget that I have friends in high places. Good day. Good day, I echoed. I was dizzy, and images from my dreams flashed before my eyes, interspersed with the images I had seen while staring at the canvas. As I heard his car pull away, I found myself crouched over the pavement throwing up whatever it was I had eaten last night for dinner. (I had forgotten even that I had eaten anything; perhaps this was from an earlier meal?) After my stomach was emptied of its contents, I continued to dry heave for some time. Finally, I wiped my face off with the back of my hand, opened the front door, and ascended the stairs to the studio.
Feeling a great sense of déjà vu, I noticed that the door had been opened by someone. Fearing an intruder, I looked around me, but no one was there. A package sat on the table beside the teapot and burner. I was terrified to open it this time, and so just stood there looking at it until I saw something move out of the corner of my eye. Turning my head to see what it was, I was struck across the face by a cold, possibly metallic object. Whatever it was, it knocked me over, and it took me a few moments to stand up again. When I did I could find no evidence of the thing that had struck me, be it human or otherwise (though how could it have been the work of a person, when no one but I was in the studio?).
And then I saw the painting, a blank canvas with a single layer of gesso on it. What could be the meaning of this? What had happened to the painting I had done yesterday of the model atop the abstract painting I had earlier created? Blank. Had someone stolen my work and replaced it with a blank canvas? Or was my memory of the previous few days—how many I’ve forgotten; I’ll have to reread what I’ve written later—completely skewed?
Whatever the case, there it was: a blank canvas, with a single layer of gesso. There would be no more models, I knew, but I could always paint from a photograph. Yes, this is what I would have to do. But there was still the issue of the package. What could be in it? Another finger or ear? A few toes? Someone’s brain stem? Should I open it now, or wait until later? And was it from my patron, or someone else? Did he put one of those “friends” he had mentioned up to it to scare me? Why was he now engaging in threats to my personal safety? Couldn’t he see that I was already a wreck over the painting, and just needed some time to let the inspiration flow through and out of me?
I need to stop writing now, as I am again exhausted. Sleep and more nightmares await. There is, indeed, no rest for the wicked.
I opened the box.
It was empty, save another box inside of it. And inside of that box, yet another box. Just like in the dreams. However, when I got to the final box, expecting to find another severed appendage, all I discovered was air and a small piece of red paper with the letters EXH written upon it. EXH? What could this be in reference to? What did they mean? And who had written them? Things were becoming less and less clear. I wanted to hire a private investigator to decode all of the veiled messages that had been sent to me, but I could not afford one, nor did I want to have to deal with more people than necessary (my manager and my patron were enough for now). I was, in fact, looking forward to painting from a photograph, rather than having to acclimate myself to the presence of yet another model in the studio.
But this package really had me perplexed. It didn’t match the contents of the first two packages, and the tiny red paper with “EXH” written on it made no sense. Perhaps it wasn’t supposed to make sense? Perhaps the paper had been accidentally dropped into the final, smallest box before that box had been put into the other boxes surrounding it? I was at a loss, and my head hurt. The pain in my right eye was back as well, after a number of days free of it. Things were not going so well. I had to paint. I opened the cabinet to take out some gesso. And then there was a knock at the door.
My manager. I hadn’t seen her in ages. All of our communication was generally done through text messaging, as she was usually out of town and too busy even to speak on the phone. But now here she was, in the flesh. Her hair, which she normally dyed red, looked like a hornet’s nest; a good inch or so of gray roots showed. Her bulgy, hazel-brown eyes were underscored by dark baggy rings, and her nearly-flat chest seemed sunken, as if a heavy load were pressing down upon it. She wore a red top and gray slacks, the pleats barely apparent. May I come in? was all she said, without looking at me, her voice broken and faint. I motioned her inside wordlessly, too stunned to speak. I pulled out a chair, and she fell into it, as if too weak even to lower herself into a comfortable seated position, and once she did her posture was slumped, like that of an old lady, though she was only in her late thirties, not exactly geriatric. I offered her a beer, which she accepted gratefully. And then I prepared to hear what she had to say, realizing only at that moment that she was seated directly in front of the blank canvas I had recently discovered myself.
Her mouth opened, but no audible words came from it. All I could discern was a sort of raspy exhalation, which smelled of something foul, as if she had just swallowed a mouthful of sour milk mixed with garlic cloves. I said nothing, hardly breathed. Instead, I showed her the little red piece of paper. Know anything about this? I said. Any idea of what it means? But she was not looking at the paper; rather, she was staring at the blank canvas, her jaw hanging limp, her tongue like a piece of pink felt in the dark cavern that was her mouth. The painting is gone, I said. Someone must have stolen it. I came into the studio today to find this here, blank, as you can see. She did not respond, however, but just continued to stare and gape, gape and stare, at the canvas.
When I turned to look at it again, I saw that, in fact, it was not blank, but that there was a painting of yesterday’s model there, though her naked body was covered with smears of the most nauseating colors: mostly yellows, greens, and some spattered red streaks like blood. This wasn’t what I had painted yesterday, nor was it the blank canvas I had just been looking at. What was going on here? How could this be possible? I, too, stared, trying to figure out who had done this painting and how it had appeared so suddenly to replace the blank canvas. I reached into my pocket and pulled out the fingertip and ear, or at least I thought that’s what I was pulling out, but the objects I now held were made of rubber and shaped like tiny sparrow’s eggs. Rather than show these to my manager, I hastily put them back into my pocket.
Not knowing what else to say, I asked my manager what she thought of the painting. Brilliant, she said. But your patron will kill you when he sees it.
After my manager left me, I passed out on the floor of the studio from exhaustion, only to have more of the same dreams of boxes within boxes, revealing appendages in the final, smallest box. This time it was someone’s nose (it looked a lot like Michael Jackson’s nose after his multiple plastic surgeries), a literally “green thumb,” and three cracked, yellow teeth, still attached to a clump of pinkish-red gum (i.e. flesh, not chewing). When I awoke, I was lying directly beneath the canvas, which loomed over me like a tyrant with its bold colors and splashes of green, yellow, red, and undertones of purple, orange, pink, gray, and almost every other color under the sun. I stood up, my legs shaking like gelatin, and tried to survey the painting objectively, but my eyes were still half-glued shut by crusty mucus, and when I rubbed the stuff out of them and reopened them wide, what I saw before me made me swoon.
It was a painting of a naked woman, definitely one of my models, her face smeared so that the features were indistinguishable, her skin a sickly green, breasts slightly pendulant, sex red and inflamed, and, across her midriff, the letters EXH scrawled in red. Who or what is this EXH, I thought to myself, but the next moment I looked and saw that the letters were gone. Instead, where they had been, a transparent hole in the model’s stomach remained, as though something had eaten right through the canvas. When I say “transparent,” I mean that, literally, there was a hole in the canvas, through which I could see the window. And through the window—through the hole revealing the segment of window—shone a bright white light.
The landline started to ring. I raced over to it, picked it up, and heard a familiar voice at the other end of the line. It’s done now, I said. And yes, it’s my masterpiece. But you can’t see it yet. The deadline is in another three days. You’ll have to wait. And then I hung up.
Slept all day and all night. Had a fever and threw up multiple times. My dreams were benign: mostly of a corpulent woman farting in my face while fanning herself with a peacock’s colorful feather.
Still sick. Awoke at 1 a.m. and ate some dry cereal, as I’ve nothing but mustard and mayonnaise left in the fridge, as well as some week-old Chinese food that is probably growing mold. When I looked in the mirror after urinating bright orange pee, I saw that there was a gaping hole where my nose should be. I tried to patch it up with some bandages, but the hole kept growing larger and larger. When I gave up on trying to fix it, my face reappeared in its original form, though something was not-quite-right about it. I don’t believe it will ever go back to looking as it looked before I started the painting.
Went back to bed after this experience. Oddly, I did not dream at all. Awoke to the sound of the garbage truck outside my window, doing its weekly trash pickup (is today Monday?). There were three text messages on my cell phone, two from my manager, and one from some company trying to sell me insurance. I deleted the latter and read the two messages from my manager through bleary eyes. She told me my patron would be at the studio at 8 a.m. sharp on the twentieth, and that I should be there to show him my work. In the second message, sent approximately two hours later, she said that my patron had apparently been involved in a traffic accident, and that he was in hospital and in critical condition. Would I visit him at El Xavier Hospital? I texted back. Of course. I’ll bring him a present too. Before I knew what had happened, I was in the car, racing toward El Xavier Hospital, a 20-minute drive from home, my present for him in tow. So, he had been in an accident. I wondered what had happened. Such uncanny timing.
When I reached the hospital and pulled into a space in front of it, I killed the engine and glanced at myself in the rearview mirror. My eyes were veiled by the sunglasses on my face, my forehead beaded with droplets of sweat, my nose crooked (had it been crooked before?), lips taut, dry, dark stubble surrounding my mouth and jutting from my double chin. I pulled the sunglasses off of my eyes. One of them was missing (the right), a dark crimson hole there instead. I blinked three times, and my eye reappeared, a fat, glimmering tear rolling down the side of my face at the same time. I placed the sunglasses back onto the bridge of my nose, opened the door, and made my way to the hospital entrance.
A dark-skinned nurse who looked like the supermodel Iman, only a bit heavier, greeted me. How may I help you? she asked. I’m looking for a patient, I said. What’s his name? she said. I don’t remember, I said, realizing that I didn’t actually know what his name was. Well, if you don’t remember, I can’t help you. That makes perfect sense, I said. Would you do me a favor, though? Please give him this. I took the severed finger, the half-crescent ear, and the red paper out of my pocket and placed them on the counter. The red paper, I saw, now read HEX, rather than EXH as before. The nurse looked at me as though I might be missing a few marbles. I simply smiled (or was I grimacing?) and walked back to the car.
I drove straight to the studio. The door was locked, but when I opened it the canvas was missing. In its place, a box.
The box was empty, completely empty. I made myself a cup of tea and then returned home. I just woke up about five minutes ago. Today is the deadline, and my patron is dead. I received a text from my manager. He died in hospital of heart failure after the accident. (Guess even those friends in high places couldn’t help him there.) She wants to put my painting in a museum, “where it belongs.” Unfortunately, I can’t take credit for it. It was the work of someone, or something, else, something much larger than myself. I simply cannot and will not take credit for its inception. I don’t even know what it looks like anymore. A whirl of objects, colors, body parts? Or a smeared woman, her sex dripping paint like mother’s milk into the lap of the astonished viewer? Or perhaps it’s blank, a white canvas with a large hole in its center, through which one can view snippets of the real world rather than a mere representation of it, a giant vagina, if you will, an oversized birthing canal…
I’m finished. No more paintings, no more patrons, no more nightmares. I look at my face in the mirror. There is little left of it, just a patchy outline of what used to be. I could paint in the details with my brush, by why bother? If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. That’s what my father, also a painter, always used to say to me when I was a child. Of course, it is broken. But that’s just the point, isn’t it? I’ll leave things as they are and let future generations judge my life’s work.
The pills I’ve swallowed this evening won’t betray me. After I’ve put down the pen I’ll tie these two plastic bags securely over my fast-dissolving head. My ear has fallen off, my nose is gone, my eye missing from its socket. I point a finger at the moon, and the moon bites off the tip, laughs as if to say: You are so naïve, Marcel. In my final moments I will ejaculate into the hole in the canvas before me, the canvas of the world. And there, in its fecund emptiness, those tiny seedlings shall blossom into something larger than life itself.
Marc Lowe is currently pursuing his MFA in fiction at Brown University. His work has appeared in various journals, including 580 Split, Big Bridge, Caketrain, elimae, Farrago’s Wainscot, >kill author, The Salt River Review, Sein und Werden, and Storyglossia. His e-book collection, Sui Generis and other fictions, will be published by ISMs Press in January 2010. Visit www.malo23.com for more information.
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