Time To Spare
Having friends you've known since childhood can be mind-bending. Nobody can hide from all the stupid things we all did as kids. And now, even after all this time, they probably know you better than you know yourself.
I can never walk on concrete. As a kid, splits and slivers of pain shot up to my knees when teachers made us march on the sidewalk; the feeling stays with me today through grocery stores and parking lots. Dirt and grass are always easier and more honest, softer. When my mother took me for shoes, once a year, I would look for ones that felt like I was walking on the ground, but I never found them. Jogging shoes are close, but my feet fall around them. I find myself walking on their sides, the soles rolling out from underneath my feet, and needles of pain piercing my shins.
So I roll over and stare at the concrete floor from the height of the mattress, trying not to drag the blankets with me. The floor stares back, waiting. I know if I get up barefoot my legs will hurt the rest of the day. My shoes are on the other side of the bed. In between sleeps David, who doesn't have to get up for another two hours.
I don't want my legs to hurt because today I have to go to see Willy. And Willy can't just sit there and talk to people -- he has to drag them along with him through the concrete floors of his converted warehouse, showing them this and that as they try to explain why they've come to see him, and that makes things worse. Willy doesn't seem to think that people might go out there for some reason other than just to see him. No life exists for him outside the warehouse. Newspapers might as well be science fiction.
I stand carefully, tiptoe through the door to the bathroom, snap on the lights.
I futz with my toothbrush until my teeth are clean and my breath scrubbed -- and now I am ready to think. I pull on some socks and pants, then snatch a sweater up from next to the bed, reasoning that they are all equally clean. I try to lock the door quietly as I leave. David doesn't want to be reminded about my going to see Willy.
Skipping over a fence, I follow the weeds along the side of an irrigation ditch and wonder if today -- a rather warm, cloudy day -- is strange. If it is, then I think that everything will go all right with Willy. If not, then we'll have to get drunk again.
Willy and I grew up together -- as much as myself and anyone could grow up together. Our fathers built airplanes. They originally worked for the same company in the same division, but mostly they worked as a team. We were born in Oklahoma and moved on from there, switching companies, following the contracts. It was great fun for me and Willy -- we'd pack each other's things, playing in an adventure only we shared. I remember the faces of new children in elementary school, trying to find a place for themselves in the middle of a year, trying to learn the new names and places. Willy and I never went through that. Moving wasn't a terrible thing for us because we were together. It wasn't moving at all -- it was just finding a new playground.
That changed when Willy was moved up a grade. Then the only times we saw each other were during recess -- and Willy'd get teased for hanging around the younger kids' playground with me, even more so because I was a girl. Eventually Willy stopped coming over, and then, the next year, our fathers had a falling out. His family moved again and mine stayed behind.
Since then I've always thought of Willy as being ahead of me, both because he skipped a grade and because he got to move one more time.
Maybe he's still ahead of me.
He says he thinks my hair has grown. I run my fingers through it -- I hadn't given it any thought, but I guess it has. His is just growing back, so I don't say anything.
He wheels around through the doorway, taking me out into the cool air of the main area. The crates and cardboard boxes are all where he left them, the fluorescent orange spray-paint still scrawled everywhere, labeling things. Chair. Doorway. Mess.
Willy was always one for organization. The Caterpillar forklift is still in the corner, zebra-striped with purple, the telltale shimmer of grease beneath it. We'd never managed to get the thing running, not after all these years.
"Wanna go up and see Chez Viola?" he asks, pushing himself along. "Been a while."
Chez Viola is an old supervisor's office overlooking the main floor of the warehouse. Willy had converted it to a den of iniquity with a television and an old mattress thrown into one corner.
I hesitate and cast a glance towards the windows of the old offices. I couldn't see the tattered lawn furniture we'd arranged there. "Can you?" I say. "I mean..."
"No," he says, a statement of fact. "I suppose not."
We go along almost like we're in a museum, look but don't touch, alarm sensors everywhere. I'm amazed they let him come back here, after everything. You'd think they'd take him somewhere else, a residential program, or at least send someone here with him to make sure he was all right. But I guess they won't. Willy is an adult. We both are now.
"The docs says my ship fucking well came in. Say it's fashionable, being an artist and all. Van Gogh, you know. Robert E. Howard. Got it made now."
Willy stops, looking at a styrofoam panel leaning against a door, the outline of a human figure melted into it. "Is it a strange day yet?"
I don't know what to answer. "I don't know," I say lamely. "Probably not." Inwardly, I kick myself.
Willy waits a minute, taking in the white-on-white.
"Uh huh," he says, and turns away.
Willy sets the bottle down on the tar roof and slowly wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. As I reach for it a truck -- a pickup, four-wheel drive -- rumbles over the old train tracks that cut the road leading to Willy's warehouse. Dust flies up, a mandala without a god, then shifts in the setting sun.
"Want some Codeine? They gave me some Codeine."
It was a pain in the ass trying to get him up here. We'd started at five and the sun doesn't even start to go down until about seven this time of year. Neither of us said anything about it -- our conversation skirted the task at hand.
I liked the roof because it sunk a little under my weight; he liked it because he could see all around the building, king of his hill.
It was strange to carry him up, then pull the chair along afterwards. He's so light there's almost nothing to him. I remember the time I broke my hand and Willy had pulled me back to the house, out of a snowstorm on the way home from school. Probably saved my life then -- kept me from going into shock, then freezing to death.
He might figure this makes us even.
I take a swig from the bottle.
"The trust money is gone now," says Willy, looking towards the gold-tinged, treeless mountains. "Looks like things are pretty much over."
"The bills did it?" I ask.
"Yeah. Ate it all up and more." Willy snorts. "Looks like I gotta go out and get a job, now."
"Yeah. Shit. Pass the -- yeah, thanks." The shadow of the bottle falls across his face. He doesn't look much older -- I hadn't expected that. I wonder if it's just the light.
"Do I look older?" I ask suddenly.
"What?" He sits up a little, eyeing me like a traitor. "You think you're growing up on me or somethin'?"
"Well, then." He settles back down, pulling the shadow of his baseball cap over his eyes. "I guess. Your hair's longer. Older women're supposed to have long hair. How're those gran' chillin?"
"Oh, fine," I say, nodding. "Fine."
"Glad to hear it."
We sit a while; I prop my feet on the lip of the roof. I know the amber fluid is settling into me but I can't feel it and this worries me a little. I reach for the bottle.
"If you need a place to crash, I've got space," I say. "Staying here might not be a hot idea."
"Really?" Willy squints at the sunset. "So how's David?"
I take a breath. "Zonked."
"Pretty much." I rub my eyes. "He quit smoking for New Year's."
"Mmmm." Willy sets the bottle down again. "Thought he gave it up for Lent year 'fore this."
"Then the Lord's an Indian giver," he smiles, teeth glinting with the sunlight. "And we'll all get our souls back come Judgment."
"You already got yours back once, though."
"Yeah," He fumbles around inside his pocket and fishes out some tablets. "Reckon so. Sure you don't want any?"
Dear Libby-That had been last year when we were living together, before David had moved in. Before there was a need for him to move in. I can still see the napkin stuffed in my old 1953 Royal typewriter, the one that had survived the Blitz, undoubtedly -- the one still sitting where Willy had left it.
Don't worry about the sleeping pills anymore. They're all under the sink in the upstairs bathroom, in the plastic Safeway bag. I'm feeling better and have sorted things through-you don't have to worry about the pills anymore.
Today I bought a gun.
David had taken the note out that night, after I'd gone.
It took me a long time to realize the Blitz happened before the typewriter had been made.
The night had been bad enough already; cold wind ripping at the walls and the TV reception flickering, snow imminent. We still hadn't picked up from New Year's, although I'd finally swept the broken glass. The popcorn had long since been crushed into the carpet; now it was only the slight yellow of butter that distinguished it from plaster dust. Bowls and glasses and cups were everywhere -- a dark coffee stain in the doorway. I hadn't been doing anything but reading -- I'd managed to get in and get some tea and settle down without once looking at the old Royal. It's like that some days. Sometimes you can sit at it for hours and hours, watching the paper go through it as if someone else were typing. Other times you can't even look at it, like you can't look at your parents or your grade school teacher.
Of course I'd gone straight over to the warehouse, running lights and sliding on the ice in David's Chevy. Willy'd crawled to the doorway, towards the phone, when I got there. I stared for a long minute before I did anything. The first thing I wondered was if they'd ever be able to get the stain out of the carpet.
"They let him out?"
"Sure. He can't pay anymore so they had to let him go."
"And..." David stopped, running his fingernails through his hair. I watch expectantly over the rim of my cup. "But is he all right?"
"They plugged the hole. Looks fine to me."
"Oh, for Christ's sake -- " David disappeared into the kitchenette, his sounds filling the place his body had left. "And he's back at the warehouse?"
I sip and set the cup down. "Why? Does that bother you?"
"Bother me?" David's head and a shoulder re-emerge from the kitchen. "Oh, no, why should it? I mean, it's only where he did it the first time -- "
"You make it sound like there's going to be a second time."
"Well, what if there is?" He looks at me a moment, seeming pleased with the silence. It carries on further and its weight shifts back to his shoulders. David fidgets and turns back into the kitchen. "You'd think they'd send him someplace else," he says finally.
"I don't know -- some loony bin."
"They sent him home, David. The warehouse is his home."
"Yeah, well they still should lock him up."
"He can't afford it," I say, and take another sip.
Sometimes we'd go to a schoolyard in the evening or in the summer -- when nobody was there. It was strange to see the asphalt, the jungle-gyms, the tires, the paint, the sand, all sitting there without kids to scrape their knees and bleed on them. We'd decided that's what playgrounds were for -- for kids to bleed on. Blood was like frustrations and playgrounds prevented kids from taking theirs out on teachers. We came for similar reasons. We'd walk around, eye the basketball hoops -- shorter, closer to the ground now than they had been -- and talk about things. Comic books, Christmas, anything. Even home. We'd talk about Willy's dog, his parents, my parents, the trees, the people in the houses next to the school. We'd talk about superheroes and cartoons, how to build a better Lego rocket-ship.
I suppose it was from watching TV we'd learned about plot twists, about melodrama. I think that if you kept every aspect of our lives -- cars, cigarettes, drugs, schools, moving -- and somehow stripped out radio and TV and books -- no, just stripped out the pulp, the trash -- that you'd find we wouldn't have been rebellious, that we never would have done what we did. No more sprained ankles jumping off the roof because Willy thought he was the Six Million Dollar Man. No more imaginary tantrums or tears over fights. It would have been wonderful and we would have been children, the children our parents meant us to be.
As it was, melodrama ruled our lives. It satisfied our need for attention, gave us the means to the corruption and decadence we were looking for. And when we found it, we learned how to use it. We became subtle, which translated to "bright" and "gifted." We did well in school, even as we moved, confident in our sophistication, our superiority, our ability to draw in others with our frightening darkness, our secrets. It was ours, it was all we had.
And now look at us.
I set down the paper, thinking it looks very chic against the paint-spattered bench in the warehouse. Willy smiles, then tosses an old paint tube into the trash. He's cleaning -- company is coming.
"How did they find out about you?" I ask, lifting myself up onto the tabletop.
Willy smiles again, examining the bristles on an old blackened brush. "I told 'em. Rolled right out to the pay phone and told 'em."
I laugh at this -- I can just see Willy popping quarters into the phone to call up the newspaper, his voice very deep and controlled. He looks up and me, grinning even wider. "S'right, Libby. That's exactly what I did."
"So who're they sending?"
"Their Arts and Leisure editor. I'm hot shit -- I get the editor."
"Publicity, babe. That's the way it works."
I nod as Willy bumps around the table to examine a series of jars, layers of pigment and solvent neatly cross-sectioned in the glass. "Why did I get into this shit?" he says, pulling coagulated brushes from each. "Spray cans are better. Point 'em, squeeze 'em, toss 'em when you're done. Disposable." He squeezes fluid out of the bent bristles, staining his fingers, wincing. "No such thing as red sable spray paint."
"Rips up the ozone, Willy."
"Yeah, so does farting. Ozone's disposable too." He passes me a jar. "Dump this down the sink, will ya? I don't gotta save old turps no more."
I take it and walk across the floor. "So why're you rejecting your old spirits?"
Willy sits back, carefully examining the tabletop. "Gonna be rich, Libby. Then I can get clean turps, brand new, straight from the ozone layer."
I dump the jars and watch the mud swirl down the sink. "How're you figuring?"
"You got me thinkin' last time. They say Van Gogh was addicted to turpin."
I turn, bringing the jars back over and remounting the table. "Yeah, so? Maybe he ate his paints and shot himself. Big deal. He's dead."
"The man sold a sunflower for 37 million, Libby."
"Nuh-uh," I say, seeing where this is leading. "Whoever owned that painting sold it for 37 mil, probably after paying ten bucks for it."
"I intend to improve upon that example."
I sigh. "You're fucked up, Willy."
"Not yet. Which reminds me -- " He fiddles with his shirt pocket, produces a plastic bag. "Gotta do something about that before Ms. Bradburn arrives." He reaches for a matte knife.
"Oh, man." I don't want to sound whiny, but this is really pushing things. "You aren't -- this is the paper you're talking about."
"I sure as hell am." He wipes his mixing surface with a rag. "Marketable. Gotta have that crazed look, that beyondness. Angst." He spills a little of the powder onto the tabletop.
"Shit, Willy." I stand, reaching for my jacket. "I'm leaving now."
"You'll miss the birth of a star. Brightness -- " He gestures. "Glitter. The smell of fresh turpentine."
"Love ya too, Libby." He smiles, I know, behind me as I walk towards the door. Out the window I see the sedan pulling up over the train tracks, turning towards me.
Willy should stop watching soap operas.
It's nice. Not the most prestigious place, but nice. Not that I'd expect somewhere prestigious to carry his line of shit, anyway. I see pieces I remember from years ago, remember fumes burning into my sinuses up in Chez Viola.
I turn, facing a woman with cropped hair, a jumpsuit and boots. I can hear her earrings clank against her neck -- she smells like a boutique.
"I'm sorry, you'll have to leave. The show isn't open."
"Guest of the artist." I give her my best condescending smile. "Elizabeth Francis? Surely it's on your list." If I had a cigarette -- if I smoked -- I would have exhaled then. Not into her face, but close enough that she'd know. As it is, I blink twice and put a hand on my hip. She ruffles through the clipboard.
"Yes. I'm sorry. The reception is back in the acquisitions room, through -- "
"Yes, I know where it is -- thank you very much."
As I walk through the gallery I notice the air. Stale, but underneath it all, the faint smell of the warehouse, the freon and grease.
I decide the show, for that reason, will be a success.
Willy is surrounded by men and women in suits. They're holding cups and standing in a tight circle, twittering with nervous laughter. Willy isn't wearing a hat and you can see the dent where his skull doesn't quite fit together. He introduces me and the heads of the circle collectively turn, nod politely, then lock back into place with Willy at their center. I'm reminded of a car crash -- the fascination of blood. I step back and get a glass of something, then lean against the for wall. I pick up a pamphlet, pretend to peruse it, and wait for Willy to need a ride home.
Stability, I think, isn't really the thing that's been getting to me like it's been getting to Willy. What gets to me is concrete. Not just the stuff that you walk on, sending ice picks up your legs, but the kind they heap everywhere around you, the kind that tourists pay money to lock themselves inside. All everyone seems to want are little concrete crannies to themselves. Doesn't seem to matter what the people do in other crannies, as long as their music isn't too loud and they don't smell too much. Concrete, after all, blocks smells.
But it is stability that Willy is after. He wants an immortality aside from children; an adoring public, and an end to his guilt. He wants it in himself and in people, in living things. It's not that he doesn't want challenge -- he realizes that is what drives him -- but that he wants the freedom of affluence.
He would make a good philosopher-king.
Me, it's concrete. Forget the people, the money, the prestige -- all of it. The only thing I really want is concrete. Pure gray, machine-formed, shipped in bags, concrete. Because it occurs to me that the reason buildings are made of concrete is its stability.
A Vivacity in Art -- The Story of a SurvivorBy MARILYN BRADBURN
Chronicle Arts Editor
Art today -- styrofoam, installations, screaming sirens and flashing lights in galleries, artists strapping themselves together for years as a performance; feminism, mysticism, photo-realism, post-modernism, corporate sponsorship, post-structuralism... To many, it seems that the art world has entered a phase of unprecedented decadence where a Master's degree is required to understand childish scrawls and where charcoal smudges are artistic allusions on the level of James Joyce. How can someone outside the artistic elite garner anything from this jumble of fluorescent meaninglessness? Does art still have the potential to communicate, or has it become too esoteric to be relevant? Has it gone too far?
Enter William Finnel, artist-at-large.
Over a year and a half ago, Finnel walked into a pawn shop and bought a revolver. On returning to his studio that evening, he shot himself in the head. Discovered by a friend, he was rushed to St. Mary's Hospital where his life was barely saved.
"I didn't have the guts to do sleeping pills," Finnel said this week in an interview. "I wanted something fast and sure, so I bought the gun."
This uncommon sense of immediacy and purpose has always pervaded Finnel's life and his artwork. Particularly in his work since his attempted suicide, his art is furious with animation, vivacity -- an unmistakable life.
"Physical therapy was hell," he says. "I guess that gave me a lot of motivation to do anything besides that."
Finnel remains paralyzed from the waist down, but has otherwise has made a remarkable recovery, according to his doctors. According to Finnel himself, he's "a living miracle of modern medicine."
The experience has fused an incredible power into his work, a power unlikely to be found elsewhere in the art world today. It's rare to see such force, such emotion and truth from any one person without the agenda of a movement or minority bonded to it. There are no value judgments here, no political agendas, but instead the view of an individual within a society, both before and after an incredible trauma.
"So many other [artists] see themselves as being the true answer to the world's problems. Me? I don't got no answers... I just know what I've been through."
The result is art that undeniably speaks to our age, to people rather than art historians -- art that uncompromisingly communicates its intent and content. William Finnel's latest show, "Blood and Napkins" may be seen at Girlin Galleries, 27600 Lake Avenue, through September 7.
I carefully cut the article from the newspaper, using a pair of mending scissors I have left over from my mother's sewing kit. I admire it a moment, turning it in the light, to see if it will vanish like a hologram on the cover of National Geographic. Things published, put on paper like that, have a tendency to vanish if you look at them a certain way. I don't particularly want this to vanish, but I'm not sure I trust it either.
I press it firmly between the pages of a paperback I bought a few years ago, then put that in one of the boxes sitting on the mattress. I know it will be safe there -- I've never read the book..
Adrian Beck is a freelance editor, photographer and researcher for several publishing firms in the Pacific Northwest. He can be reached in care of firstname.lastname@example.org.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 3, Number 4 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1993 Adrian Beck.