Tonight, the artist is in his studio alone. He sits slouched in his chair, elbow resting uncomfortably on the arm, the upholstery worn to the bone, his fist pressing into his cheek.
He stares up at the row of large charcoal drawings he’s pinned to the wall. He studies them, scrutinising every thick, energetic, arching line, every frenetic scribble, every pressing scrawl. He’s looking for something, but he doesn’t know what it is, doesn’t even know if he’d recognise it if he saw it. But he knows there’s a chance it’s there, hidden, waiting for him to find.
He grips tight on the charcoal stick in his hand, black dust crumbles onto his trousers.
Rubbing his other sweaty hand on his trouser leg, leaving five smudgy black lines down his thigh, he shifts in his seat. He’s not seeing it, not in these pictures. None of them remotely show a trace of it, the thing he’s spent years of his life trying to capture.
The shows, the galleries, the buyers, all of them were just a means to an end. He hasn’t had a show in almost a year.
It’s been like trying to remember the details of a dream after waking. It’s elusive and ethereal. He doesn’t want to manipulate the memory with his interpretation, he just wants to channel it through his body, to let his muscles remember the vision.
But today he could have sworn he felt closer to it. He was sure he’d glimpsed it, but then again that’s how he feels most days.
He knows the thing he’s striving for is universal. When he sees it, it’ll change everything, paradigms will shift from it. When it reveals itself to him he will unlock the secrets of the universe. It won’t be quantifiable , you won’t be able to measure it in numbers, it’ll be a truth that surpasses mathematics, that only some special part of us, separate from
the brain and body, but part us all the same, maybe the soul, but he doesn’t want to put a name to it, only that part will understand it.
Turning, he picks up his packet of cigarettes from the long table littered with sheets of drawings and broken
charcoal sticks. He places a cigarette between his lips, pads himself down, where did he put his lighter? He rifles through the pile of drawings on the table, looks around the studio but all he sees is half finished canvases leant against the walls, easels with works in progress, he realises all of this, all of what he sees, this is his legacy. This work, it’ll survive a lot longer than he will. He thinks it’s funny how people spend more time and money preserving art, inanimate objects, than they do trying to preserve their own lives.
There it is, his Zippo lighter, tucked precariously on the little brown ledge of the easel of painting No.803.
He needs to come up with better names for his artwork, that’s what his dealer keeps telling him. His dealer says this is why he’s having trouble selling them, he needs to be more poetic. His dealer doesn’t understand he doesn’t see his paintings as works of art in their own right. They are experiments. Attempts at striving for that perfect piece. Once he achieves that, he will name it, or try to name it, he can’t promise anything, it may not be up to him.
He lights his cigarette, inhaling and watching the end glow and burn towards him.
The painting he’s been working on for the past week is a commission, for some businessman, up town, some stooge with a corner office. His dealer at the gallery begged him to take it. He’s willing to pay a lot of money she said, it’ll keep him going until things pick up.
He paces up and down, from one end of his studio to the other.
The Artist, he hates the business side of things, he thinks how shallow it is. He thinks about the businessman. He thinks about his painting hanging in his corner office. He thinks how it’ll just end up as some conversation piece.
Hey, look at this painting I bought, see how rich and cultured I am, aren’t you impressed?
That stooge will never get it, he’ll never understand what he’s really trying to do. Maybe no one ever will. He can
barely understand it himself, it’s why he does it, to try to understand, to find it and just marvel at it.
Moving to the large window at the back of his studio, he rests his elbows on the windowsill and blows a cloud of smoke out into the night, listening to the peeling of tires on the wet tarmac from the street below. The city beeps and barks at him, sirens fade out into the distance. He imagines those stooges in their suits scrambling around in their skyscrapers like termites.
He’s so close to it, closer than he has ever been.
Looking above the concrete mounds to the stars above. The sky is infiltrated with an orange aura, spoiling the vast blackness. If only he could replicate that hue. That mysterious black of the night, the deep black of space.
Yes. That is what he must do. That black might be the key that will unlock reality, at least that’s what he hopes.
Flicking what is left of his cigarette and watching it briefly as it cascades through the air in a fiery streak. He
hurries to a collection of large, blank canvases leant against the wall. He grabs one, lifting it easily off the ground, it should be as heavy as it looks but it is not. He positions it attentively onto an empty easel, the void of whiteness towering over him. He collects up his paints and begins squeezing them out onto his palette.
Scooping up a lump of Hansa yellow light with his palette knife, he spreads it into Napthol Red, then he slaps in a splodge of Ultramarine blue blending them together. No. Its not right. He counters with a slab of Phthalo Blue, and adds Alizarin Crimson and Cadmium Yellow Deep. He thins out his mixture with some spirits. He whirls the palette knife through the viscous pigments until a bottomless, dark void appears on his palette. Perfect. He flicks through the collection of brushes poking from the empty jam jar on the drawing table next to him. He plucks a large, flat hog hair out. He loads up his brush and with a sharp flick of his arm he tears a black line across the canvas. Taking a step back and tipping his head to one side he calculates his next strike. He lunges forward, whipping the brush up in a semi circular motion leaving a glistening trail of dark oblivion in its wake.
He is so caught up in the movements, the moment, that he loses track of time.
He doesn’t know how long he’s been at it. He steps back from the towering canvas. By now covered in thick, criss-crossing black lines that curl and twine around one another. His hands and legs are trembling, he feels the sweat beading on his temple, this is it, he knows he needs to make the final mark, but how, and where?
He notices a tiny area up there in the top corner.
Dragging his ladder, still gripping the loaded brush in his other hand, he positions it in front of the painting. He
climbs the first three rungs, reaches his brush up, hovering it over the vacant area. The sweat now stinging his eyes, he closes them. With A blind twitch of his wrist he makes contact with the canvas. He stays there, not willing to open his eyes, not willing to move.
A deep reverberation rumbles throughout the studio, shaking his easels and rattling the wooden frames of pre-stretched canvases. He opens his eyes, gripping the ladder to save himself from falling. He doesn’t quite believe what he’s seeing. The black, painted marks are moving, squirming and uncoiling before him. The artist steps down from his ladder.
Sparks of thin electrical webbing shimmer and crackle across the canvas.
His lighter spasms on the table next to him, besides the fluttering stack of papers. The black brush strokes bleed onto the floor and snake their way towards him. He steps backwards until he presses himself against the cold glass of the window. The painting has become a dark, writhing portal of leathery tentacles reaching into this world from some nightmare world beyond.
Looking down, eyes wide at the black tendrils reaching now for his paint speckled boots.
His voice is raised a little more, he says, “Ten more reps bro! You’re killing it!”. The instructor’s crotch is right near my head, I can almost see up his shorts.
I do the ten reps. The instructor, he says, “Bro, I think you can beast this, gimme one more set”. He’s leaning over me and his tiny gold chain with a cross on it dangles above my face.
After I’m done with the set the instructor helps me put the barbell back, his hand strokes against mine. I sit up and dab the sweat on my face with my towel. I catch people looking over in our direction, when they see me seeing them, they look away.
“Man, you’re a machine”, he says. Yeah, a machine, but I know he really means a “Freak“. The instructors arms aren’t as big as mine but he has better definition on his forearms, he has beautiful ravines between his muscles. When I stand up the instructor is a whole head shorter than me.
“Chicks must be throwing themselves at you”, he says, looking up at me. Yeah they throw themselves at me. Truth is, most women when they get up close, they’re a little intimidated by my size. Most women, they’re attracted to the idea of me. In the animal kingdom most females are attracted to the strongest males, it’s about survival, nothing more.
I tell him I think I’m done for today, that I’m gonna head for the showers. He says, “Yeah of course bro…”, he looks around to make sure everyone is watching us. Which they are, which they always do. I’m the guy that everyone wants to be, big, broad and bulging.
“…see you next week bro”, he grabs my hand and pulls me in for a slap on the back, like we actually are bros except he can’t reach his arm all the way round me so he just slaps my shoulder a few times, he presses his body against mine making my shirt stick to my sweaty body.
Whilst I’m walking away he shoots me with his finger and makes a clicking sound, I don’t get it. Is it supposed to mean something?
I shower and get changed.
I’m walking across the car park carrying my gym bag when a trio of housewives, cougars in yoga pants pass me.
“Hiiiii…”, they all sing in unison, waving, carrying their mats under their other arm, puffing out their chests and doing that thing they do; meticulously placing one foot in front of the other so their butts swing from side to side like some kind of mating ritual designed to get my attention.
In the animal kingdom it’s mostly males who do most of the pageantry to attract a mate. I saw a documentary about birds in the rainforest, them jumping around and flashing their feathers, saying look at me, look at me.
I nod and curl my lips, forcing a smile.
I get to my pick-up and chuck the bag on the passenger seat.
My body aches. I just sit there soaking in the soreness. I can see the instructor through the window of the gym. He’s helping to stretch out one of the cougars, pressing his body against hers. The others just stand around watching, waiting for their turn.
It trickles down my cheek, over my lip and I taste the salt. I start taking short, rapid breaths, the salty water and snot starts pouring out of my face. Why am I so weak?
I start wailing, like really moaning. I’m happy I paid the extra for the tinted windows. I wipe my arm under my nose and there’s a long shiny snail trail from my wrist to my elbow. Seeing it glisten I think to myself; I need to work on my forearms. I’m gritting my teeth so much I’m afraid I might break them.
I don’t know after how long but I start to calm down. I reach for the box of tissues in the glove box and dry my eyes. I take a look in the rear-view and my eyes are all red and puffy. The instructor is standing in some Yoga pose and the cougars are copying him as best they can.
“I love you”, I say softly.
On the way home I buy a box of donuts, glazed ones, the ones with all the coloured sprinkles on top. It’s ok, I’ll work it off tomorrow at the gym I tell myself.
[The following piece is a an idea I would like to develop into a short story]
Malcolm blames himself for the accident, I can tell. When you’ve been with someone this long you pick up on these things. It’s like I can read his mind.
We’ve been married for almost seven years,and we were together six more before that. Our seven year anniversary will be this September. Your wedding day is one of those big events in your life you’ll always remember, like giving birth or your mother’s funeral.
Then why is it that the little girl that’s sitting outside waiting in the taxi, the one everyone says is my daughter, how come I don’t remember her?
The doctors said it was common after a head injury, especially ones that result in a prolonged coma. Most likely there’ll be some memory loss they said. But give it sometime, those memories should hopefully come back. But what if those memories weren’t there in the first place?
I’ve gone over the events leading up to the accident again and again, reliving it and I just don’t remember a creepy little girl being in our lives.
I remember packing up the tent and putting it onto the back seat with the two sleeping bags, I remember having to show Malcolm how to attach both of our bikes to the roof rack again, he forgets everything, which is ironic really, considering my present circumstances.
I remember Malcolm driving and being upset about something I’d said. I remember him taking his eyes off the road for just a second. I can remember right up until I saw something in the corner of my eye in the headlights, maybe it was a deer, and then I’m screaming and reaching for the steering wheel.
The next thing I know I’m waking out of a coma and every time Malcolm comes to visit there’s a little girl who I don’t know and then later, when I’m feeling a little better the doctors and the nurses are telling me how sweet my little girl is, the strange little girl dressed in adorable dresses who comes everyday to visit her Mommy. I didn’t buy it, something wasn’t right.
I wanted to go home, I didn’t want to stay another night in the hospital. So I tell my husband I’m feeling better. I tell the Doctor that it’s all starting to come back to me. Hannah, yeah, my daughter, I’m starting to remember things now I say. But it’s not true, not really.
The taxi driver helps Malcolm lift me out of the wheelchair and into the back seat, my legs are still a little weak.
The girl sits next to me and just looks at me the whole time. What a weird kid, or whatever it is.
Craning his neck round the front passenger seat to look back at me,at us, Malcolm says “Hey Hannah, tell Mommy how excited you are to have her coming home”.
She doesn’t say a word, she just looks up at me with those inhuman eyes of hers.
Hannah. I don’t like it, it’s not a name I think I would have picked for my child.
She doesn’t say a word to me the whole way home.
The taxi driver offers to help bring me inside but Malcolm politely says, “Thanks, I’ve got it from here “.
Honestly, I’m starting to feel sad about how guilty he feels about all of this.
Malcolm gently drops me onto the sofa, the way his arms started shaking I thought he was going to drop me in the hallway. Can someone gain weight whilst being in a coma?
There’s a handful of cheap party balloons pinned to the wall and a shiny, silver welcome home banner, hanging across the TV.
He fusses over me, which is quite nice.
He gets me a pillow from the bedroom and the blanket. He cooks me dinner and helps sit me up so I can eat it, asking if I’m OK, if there’s anything I need or anything I want. I tell him no, I’m fine, that’s its just nice to be home.
Then I catch “Hanna” staring at me.
I just want her to get out of my house. I don’t know who or what this imposter is but I need to keep up the charade, mother and daughter, yeah, sure, why not. Other wise they’ll lock me up and medicate me again. This kid’s got everyone fooled. I need to play the slow game with this sneaky one.
Yesterday I read all of Chuck Palahniuk’s ‘Consider This: Moments in my writing life after which everything was different”, in less than six hours.
I think that was a new personal best.
I’d ordered it online and had been waiting over two weeks for it to arrive. I was eager to get my hands on a new Palahniuk book.
Honestly, I hadn’t read anything of his for a long time, the last book of his I had bought was a collection of short stories; ‘Make Something Up: Stories you can’t unread‘ and that had been a few years ago .
Most of his books I’d previously read had only taken me on average a few days to finish.
I remember in high school I read ‘Choke‘ in two days, that was my previous personal best.
I’d always been fond of most of his writings. ‘Pygmy‘ and a few of his shorts in ‘Make Something Up‘ being the exceptions, but only because at the time they were a little too experimental for my tastes. His style, for the most part anyway, had been easy to read and so absorbing of my attention.
If it had been any other writer I’d probably have skimmed ahead to see how long the chapter or short story was and if I had deemed it too long I’d have tapped out.
I have a short attention span.
I bought ‘Consider This‘ because I had decided to teach myself how to write short stories, I had consumed all of Chuck’s craft essays on ‘Lit reactor‘ and was ecstatic to find out he was finally bringing out a book on writing. I was entirely aware that I wouldn’t magically become an amazing writer just from reading his book, I don’t think any book has that power, but I knew his book would have some incredible insights, and it did not disappoint.
I especially found the section on Authority very useful. My present concern for my own writing at this stage is how to make my stories believable and have the characters appear authentic. Now this sounds a little contradictory as Fiction is essentially a fabrication, it isn’t real , it never happened.
By believability and authenticity I mean to be able to make the reader surrender their disbelief and just be consumed by the story that no matter what you write, whether it’s a story about aliens, or ghosts or monsters, they will be compelled to keep reading it.
I’ve written a list of writing commandments from Chuck’s advice, I’ve named them ‘Tenets of Minimalist writing’. I’m not going to tell you what they are because they are for me, not you. Also, go buy his book and write a list of your own commandments.
Anyway, I’ve stuck mine on the wall above my desk next to a piece of Ray Bradbury’s advice; “Don’t Think”. He was referring to what Chuck said Tom Spanbauer describes as “shitting out the lump of coal”, the struggle to write out that raw first draft.
I’m trying not to think Ray, really, I am.
But I can’t.
So for now I’ll just think out loud.