Arthur showered on the night of his big opening. He trimmed his beard with a kitchen scissors and put on a clean collared shirt. He didn’t have a decent pair of dress slacks, unfortunately, as it was summertime and he’d already cut all his long pants off above the knees in the name of better breathability. The top half of a pair of gray cords would have to do. He took his mug of strong, black coffee - brewed with beans he got special from an old tweaker friend of his - and stepped out back by the water. Arthur lived in a trailer on the banks of the Napawaupee River, which girthwise was really more like a creek. The river swelled rather impressively in the spring, however, and considering the wacky weather patterns of this, our modern age, Arthur wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to wake up one day and find himself floating down stream. The notion brought a slight smile to his face.
The artist sipped his strong, black coffee and gazed out at the lazy water. Old Shit Eyes panted anxiously at his feet. He reached down and stroked the dog’s muzzle. “Don’t worry, Old Shit. Daddy’s just gotta go downtown and show his paintings to some rich old ladies… drink up some free wine… then he’ll be right back home, okay boy?” Shit was Arthur’s companion of three years, a frisky black lab, neither old nor very shitty about the eyes. Art just considered the name too good to not utilize. A man could hardly pronounce it without exuding fond, drawn-out whimsy. ‘Oooold Shit Eyes…’
The dog knew something was up weeks ago, as soon as Art started pulling his paintings out and arranging them in careful group poses. Now, with the big night upon them, Old Shit was half mad for his master’s fear. But Arthur played the tough guy. He wrestled Old Shit Eyes into the house and set out in the direction of the gallery. Art’s trailer - dilapidated as it was, and forever threatened by the river and its weedy, green foliage - provided a sneaky obscurity. Though well within the city limits, if Art walked out his back door and down the steep bank to the river, he could forget all of civilization, his only reminder being the occasional moan from a car passing by on the road up above. But now, as he made the four blocks or so to the Swan Song Gallery - his each plodding bootfall landing like a challenge to the sidewalk’s integrity - Art’s lush, green illusion of safety deserted him for the brick and stone and lights and cars of the city. The artist marched off to meet his fate with a heavy, methodical gait. Art was six foot two and looked like a vacationing lumberjack. The rich old ladies at the gallery were going to love him… or fear him. Or fear him then love him for it.
There wasn’t much to downtown; a couple blocks of kitschy shops that caught a smattering of tourist runoff from the waves heading north in summer and a few hotels and bars that filled up with fisherman in season. The Swan Song was a new addition, the passion child of some kooky society lady from Chicago known to Art only as Miss Lola. Conventional small town wisdom had Miss Lola collecting a fat life insurance check or coaxing a sweet divorce settlement out of her hedge fund manager-husband and parlaying that into a new life as a player in the Northeast Wisconsin folk art scene. But that was all just speculation, of course. Loose talk and flaccid rumors. Art didn’t know a thing about it
When he arrived at the gallery, it was only Miss Lola and Dave, milling contentedly around the empty space surrounded by Art’s paintings. “Arthur, darling!” Lola ejaculated. She accosted him with an awkward sort of pseudo-Euro hug and kiss. Then she held him in a long gaze, her eyes watery with feeling. “I’m. So. Excited. Aren’t you so excited, dear?” Art indicated that he was, though he wasn’t so sure he could even register excitement in the way Miss Lola meant it. Art knew “excited” as a cousin to a whole family of anxious feelings he’d spent most of his life trying to dampen. A lewd idea flickered across Miss Lola’s face. She gasped delightedly. “Should we do a toke before the crowds get here?” she asked, all but wriggling her eyebrows. The attempt at slang from this breathless woman in her horn-rimmed glasses, seashell necklace and black cocktail dress had an objectively queasy sound. The artist glanced at his friend Dave who shrugged uselessly. They followed Miss Lola into the basement. Here things took a turn for the weird. They formed a semicircle on the cement floor among the musty boxes from Lola’s move - old clothes and embarrassing knick knacks. No one said anything. Miss Lola pretended to enjoy the strains of some tune in her head - something by Carole King perhaps. After a few uncomfortable moments, a crack appeared in her euphoric facade. “So… do you have the pot, Davie?”
Startled, Dave pulled out a plastic baggie and some papers. Lola forced her lips into a smile while her kept man rolled a hasty joint. Dave was the gallery attendant, resident artist, general handyman and apparently in charge of getting Miss Lola high. Art and Dave had met at a local tap room, where they bonded over shared affinities for strong barley wine and Harry Nilsson. Dave was the first and only friend Art made in the ten years since he moved to town. It was Dave who got him into this.
As the THC started settling in, Miss Lola forgot her etiquette. She began monopolizing the joint, holding it like a cigarette. Ghostly snakes of smoke slithered slowly above her head and dispersed into the shadows about the low ceiling. Miss Lola started talking. She really was “ecstatic” about Arthur’s show. She was “thrilled” that the Swan Song had the opportunity to host such an “authentic” artist. Art listened to it all stoically. He wasn’t stoic by nature; rather he’d adopted stoicism as a philosophy and life coping mechanism. Soon enough Miss Lola got around to her true raison d’etre. “Of course I attempt to create as well; it’s really nothing more than a hobby…” She sighed as if talking about her own meager artistic efforts was a terrible bore. “I work in collage mostly… If you can tolerate it, I’ll show you some of my things…” She fixed Arthur with a look so desperately childish he felt compelled to answer for it in some way.
“Well… of course, I’d love to see your things.”
Lola squealed and leaped at him, draping herself over his six foot, two inch lumberjack’s frame. Over Lola’s shoulder, Art’s eyes bulged at his main man Dave. Dave snorted and quickly clamped his hands over his mouth.
Miss Lola continued to press herself against the artist, her toes dangling just above the floor, and the artist’s eyes continued to bulge and strain as if their terrorized perception would cause them to shoot from their sockets. And Dave - poor Dave - his face blushed and grimaced as this queer, embarrassing, intractable situation seemed finally to place upon this simple gallery hand something like a (gasp!) unavoidable moral imperative.
But just then, as if plucking God’s own vocal chords, a voice at the top of the stairs came to the boys’ rescue. “Lola dear? Are you down there?”
Miss Lola dropped to the floor, uttering a panicked little yelp. “Ah! What time is it? David!” she snapped randomly at her man, “come on, people are arriving!”
On their way up the rickety, wood stairs, Arthur hooked his friend by the collar. “I’m going to kill you,” he promised softly.
David laughed nervously. “It’ll be fine. Just drink plenty of wine… maybe you’ll sell a painting or two.” Weak reassurance indeed, Dave.
...meanwhile, in the little trailer on the banks of the Napawaupee - the river sickly and stagnant now in the doldrums of August - Old Shit Eyes jumped up on the couch and pushed his snout against the window screen. Muscles tense like a sprinter in the blocks, he sniffed roughly in the direction of downtown. He launched into a series of sharp barks. Quivering, he sniffed again, and again, a series of worried barks. His was a post of high vigilance in the humid August night…
Upstairs, in the Swan Song Gallery proper, it was Art’s worst nightmare come true. It seemed an expert conductor had been living some time inside the artist’s brain, curating all his queasiest fears only to play them back to their author now, all in perfect symphony. Clinical light glaring off of bald domes and gaudy jewelry; clammy hand shakes and bony hugs; the sickening smell of perfumed rot.
“...and you live here? Funny we’ve never seen you.” (An oversexed bob and too much lipstick. Classic mid-life sexual reawakening.) “Richard and I love it here. We come for dinner at least once a week… of course Richard’s an old stick in the mud.”
“Ha ha, now dear.” (Meaty fingers burrowing into a bare upper arm.) “But really, I dig your stuff, man. Very hip. Would you say it’s more pomo, or…”
“I call it crap art,” the artist blurted out defensively.
Miss Lola swooping around the room like a drunken vampire, carrying an economy-size bottle of merlot for balance. “Arthur dear, your glass is nearly empty! Let me fill you up.”
“Yes mam,” Art said, stunned by now nearly into submission.
Lola gleefully filled his glass and then her own, and even poured one for the floor in her sloppy state of excitement. Then she turned without warning and shrieked across the room. “Mildred and Bonny! You can’t leave yet, you must try the brie! It has pralines!!”
Arthur eventually backed himself into a corner of the room. He pressed his back against the wall and breathed - in through the nose, out through the mouth… in through the nose, out through the mouth… He became aware of the sweet sounds of James Taylor floating above the manic din in the gallery. Sweet Baby James was strumming softly, singing in his trademark wise and patient tones… some familiar tune. The artist screwed his ears up to the sound. “...I got 99 problems but my girl ain’t one… oh ain’t it good to know, yeah, my girl ain’t one…” Art shuddered from somewhere way down deep.
David spotted his friend posted up there in the corner, eyes bugging, teeth grinding, reliving old traumas. He siddled on over. “So… what do you think so far?” he asked sheepishly. The artist just stared back at him, his eyeballs cracked like smashed windshields. “Umm… do you want to step outside and smoke a cigarette?”
“Yes!” Arthur announced from beneath his many layers of mortification.
Outside, in the open air, the artist calmed down a bit. He burned off a smoke in three or four superhuman pulls. “Jesus Christ,” he shook his head. “I didn’t know it was going to be like this.” A sympathetic smile from his friend Dave. “I feel like a clown they rented for their fucking party. Does anyone even looking at the paintings?”
“Well, they look… nobody usually buys anything,” Dave said. The artist stared back with a certain intensity that indicated he did not wish to be humored or find humor. “Come on, Art It’s not that bad. Have you ever been to one of these things in Chicago? It’s the same shit only worse. Or New York City? Holy shit, the pretentious assholes you have to deal with there… I mean, these are the things you have to do if you want your stuff to be seen. If you want to get your name out there.” Dave shrugged his shoulders.
The artist sure was thoughtful then. He stood there with his hands in the pockets of his halved corduroy pants, taking in the lamp-lit night with an even, judicious eye. Perhaps he was reimagining the small town downtown scene as one of those romance-blurred paintings of Paris in the 20s, reproduced for American department stores and hanging in living rooms and kitchens all across this great great country.
Ah, but the artist’s eye is a portal impenetrable, a funny sort of mirror giving only the illusion of depth. The distance between the artist and his audience is impassable; a vast theater for the folly of our lives.
Just when it seemed like Dave might make another overture to this monolith in cut-off cords - he wearing always the reflection of our existential dread - a crowd came bursting out of the Swan Song, led by Miss Lola, brandishing now, a bottle of half-empty muscato. “Come along, come along everyone!” She was raving wildly. “We’re all going to Kerouac’s On Main; there’s a 60s cover band! Ha ha!!”
The whole gallery crowd went stumbling down the street, disregarding traffic and open intoxicant laws and generally terrorizing anything in their path. Dave and Arthur, not having been called out by name, thought they might be spared this night’s final indignity. Then came Lola’s voice from half a block away, a panic-tinged shriek. “David!!” Dave and the artist shared a moment’s silence then, that was a communication of sorts. David shrugged and the artist just stared back evenly - noncommittal. A communication that went something like: ‘no pressure’ - ‘no promises’ - ‘no judgments?’ - ‘no promises’.
They quickly caught up to the gallery crowd, who were moving along at a leisurely pace while Miss Lola illuminated points of interest, spewing ugly details of the profligate exploits she’d accomplished at various properties downtown. When they reached Kerouac’s, David held the door like a good gallery boy. The artist lingered behind, an animal of the shadows, happily reintroduced to his natural environs. “So… you want to hang out for a while? I’m sure you can drink on the gallery’s tab,” David offered, though by now he knew better. The noise of the bar poured out through the open door; orgiastic shouting and the clinking of glasses rippling over the smooth jams of the cover band ‘…Ventura Highway in the su-un-shine…’
The artist was unmoved. “The show comes down next Sunday? I’ll see you on Sunday.” The artist was firm. “And thanks for everything Dave.” With that, the artist was off, putting to the night that same sturdy stride; each firmly-placed step a test of the very earth beneath our feet.
Dave stood there for a while, with the door open, watching the artist go. ‘...the days are longer and the nights are stronger than moo-oon-shine…’ Dave decided he was going to get good and drunk on Miss Lola’s dime.
Back at the trailer, Arthur and Old Shit sat by the riverbank, taking in the especially bright moon and the billion stars up above. Old Shit Eyes was especially attentive to his master, not with the manic excitability of a puppy, but rather, it seemed, with a certain respect for the night’s particular gravity. Or so it seemed to Art. Yes indeed, Old Shit Eyes was really beginning to mature, he thought, scratching the dog behind his ears. “Know what, Old Shit? I think you might finally be ready to sit for your portrait. What do you think of that, old boy?” Shit Eyes panted eagerly up at his master, tongue lolling, the supple, pink appendage glistening intelligently in the moonlight.
Arthur took on a serious tone. He held the dog’s head in his hands, looking him in the eyes. “But understand this, Shit, I will require all your patience. It may take several sittings. When I paint a friend it is a labor of love. I will paint your whole soul…”
Shit Eyes snorted cockily. The frogs of the Napawaupee sang for them a brave tune.