Curtain

The artist had stipulated in his will that he wanted to be cremated, alongside his paintings. Thierry was 50 at the time, very much in demand, but very picky as to who his art would go to. He started getting very concerned that his art would end up in the wrong hands, little bits of his soul scattered around the globe. His views on death were tinged by his upbringing. He rejected the doctrine he was inculcated purgatory, heaven and hell and conceived his own rendition, as unique as his art. He felt that what he created should die with him, and to that effect, he started buying back his art, pushing the prices up.

Unwittingly, by creating scarcity, Thierry became unable to afford what he created, yet could not help creating more. His agent begged him to let him place his paintings, so that he could still generate revenue and keep on living. He arranged for the art pieces to be on long-term loans, with a proviso that they should be burned within 50 years of his death. Privately, he saw a bonfire, the patrons creating a mega-event by choosing to all act on the same day. He would have liked to choreograph up to the last details, ascribe meaning to the proceedings, crunch numbers to make them relevant and help his soul find the rest he aspired to. In that period, his art was minimalist. Thierry spent hours staring at a carefully prepared canvas on which he had dutifully applied a thick coat of white. In his mind’s eye, he view carnage on the snow, a battle between forces, a broken tension. After hours, nay, days of staring, he dotted the landscape with large swaths of blood. He made it snow to cover them up, their unsettling presence made known by the pinkish hue, a half-blanketed empty cartridge barely visible, fat vultures sitting on forlorn branches.

They were a hit, of course. The art critics had a field day, analyzing the deleterious effects of modernity on Mother Nature. He was haunted, and it matched the day’s zeitgeist. He went into fits of sleep, interspersed with bursts of activities, the white canvas giving way to monochromes. He painted horrific scenes from the nightmares his mind brought to life. And then he covered the whole thing with thick black paint and called the piece “Night.” The piece was to be seen under a special light that revealed the gruesome shapes beneath. Again, collectors all wanted a piece of him, and it tore at him when he relented. Even at the outrageous prices he charged, Thierry still felt robbed, as though no money could soothe the pain he felt.

He died, of course, as we all do. Everyone knew of the will and art critics took his demands seriously. By that time, he had asked that his body be preserved and burned at the same time as his oeuvre. He had painstakingly catalogued all the pieces, with owner and known addresses so that his wishes could be carried out. He wrote that his soul would know no peace until all of him was together again and disappeared on the same day. Before the time came, however, war broke out. It was a long war, and very damaging, as wars tend to be. Rich houses were not protected, art was looted and defaced, his body abandoned when its protectors flee or were killed. The coffin in which his body lay had been forced to see if it contained treasures and left open when the looters saw there was nothing but a corpse. Bombardments shred the roof and from the box he could finally see the sky. Buzzards came to feed. There was no blood. Snow fell. Night fell. Curtain.

The Lilliputians

He’d fallen in love with a dog walker. Actually, he now knew the four dogs were her own, crowding her tiny apartment. When he first came in, the little dogs swarmed his feet, interacting with them as though with their own kind, sniffing and prodding and nipping. She stopped them in time when Jacko made as though to urinate on his socked foot. “Jacko, not in the house,” Lorena said sternly. He would have preferred “Not on Regan’s foot” but he supposed general rules were easier to enforce. He recognized he had a lot to learn, starting with avoiding stomping on dogs. They always seemed to be underfoot, and he bobbed and weaved his way to the kitchen, Bordeaux in hand.

It wasn’t the grand entrance he’d rehearsed, the effortless funky walk that would make her swoon. He pretty much stumbled into the apartment and into her arms. She made a joke of it, a little alarmed that he would crunch one of dogs underfoot. They laughed uneasily; the setting was not what he expected. He sat down on the sofa while she arranged in a vase the flowers he’d brought. The dogs snuggled against him, one unnervingly laying down on the back of the sofa where he had thought he’d rest his head. He ended up leaning forward, which he reasoned made him looked interested. He’d read about posture for interviews. Leaning forward was good. He relaxed into it, tried to stop his Turbo-charged mind running from him. Lorena brought him some Orangina, a very tame drink that he thankfully held. He didn’t want to pet the dogs. He didn’t like the smell of them.

She took place beside him, shooed the dogs away to be close to him. His magnetic charm was working. They clinked glasses and chatted about the book that had brought them together. It was on the table, a grand epic set in Hong Kong. The book was turned upside down, open at the page where she was at. He winced. Seeing the book pinned down on the table, quartered almost, was painful. He retrieved a business card from his pocket, slid it between the pages and righted the book apologetically. It was her turn to blush and stumble, and they stayed in an awkward silence, looking at each other over the rim of their glasses. He started a joke, got into it, started talking excitedly waving his hands about. Jacko growled. “Jacko, no. Regan is a Friend. Friend.” She sat closer, her face almost touching his, looking intently at the dog. He turned, intending to give her a friendly peck on the cheek, but she was turning to apologize, and they kissed on the lips. Jacko got the message. Regan was in.

After that, dinner was a blur, and they made their way to bed. He hadn’t intended to be sharing those moments with all those eyes staring at him, the dogs jumping up, nestling in the crook of her arm, on his feet, on the side where he intended to lie down. It was awkward for him, but Lorena was quite used to sharing and moved them about lovingly. They talked into the night, that time that is so favourable to confidences. They couldn’t snuggle easily. He felt like the book, the sheets stretched taut by the weight of the dogs. He was pinned in place and feeling a little claustrophobic. He hardly slept at all. She was up early. “Did you sleep well?” “Hardly a wink.” “Nap a bit while I walk them. I’ll take my time and then we’ll have breakfast.” She got up to prepare and the dogs started following her around, like the sweep of a long dress swooshing all around her feet. He could hear the patter of their nails on the floor and feel their excitement growing until the door thankfully shut and the lock bolted.

He fell into a deep slumber, peopled with fantastical dreams taking place on a barge. He felt the motion of the boat, heard the seagulls, woke up to the smell of coffee. He tried to sneak up on her, to see her vulnerable in the naked light, but he stepped on a dog, who started them all yapping and circling him, the intruder. “Hello, Sleepyhead,” she said with a kiss. “I’m warming up some croissants. It’s a lovely day. I thought we could eat out on the balcony?” She had cleared the small table from the plants that usually lived there. He felt he was displacing everything, taking up more room than he ought to, but that was only his perception. He could tell Lorena welcomed him easily in her space, the awkwardness of the previous evening replaced by a new complicity. He gave Jacko a piece of croissant to seal the deal.   

Knock, knock

Pain knocks at the door, but he knows better than to let it in. He focuses on his video games, turning a deaf ear to the steady, patient knocks. He gets up and grabs another bottle. Pain and Fear are chatting in a corner, not paying attention to him. He didn’t see the doorknob turn, the door open, but he now senses a presence, feels a shimmering in his bones. They slipped in while his guard was down.

The booze does the trick and knocks him cold, the dull headache competing with the emotional pain. He hates that they broke up. He looks around at the absence of her, the no cosmetics taking up all the space counter in the washroom, the tidy kitchen with no ongoing project, the empty bedroom without her piles of clothes on chairs, the floor, the dresser. Her half of the bed is barely messed up. He didn’t have the heart to sprawl. He was too wasted anyway. He ended up sleeping in the position he was in when he crashed.

It’s been two days. He hasn’t washed nor eaten much. There is no incentive to shave or to look presentable. He’s not going anywhere. He can outlive the pain, trick it until it lashes out at inappropriate moments, at a distracted cashier, or a hapless driver. He excels at avoidance and denial. He feels no pain and dislikes those tears that flow unbidden. He paints his eyes with heavy mascara, dons leather and spikes his hair. He’s put on his armour, makes sure no one will try to approach him. Ricki, his white rat, is on a leash and comfortably roams on his shoulders. People turn to watch him as he attacks the pavement. He’ll go to Karl’s for a piercing.

He knocks on Karl’s metal door. He lives in a bunker-like apartment. “Karl!” he shouts. There’s screamo on. He lets himself in. Bodies are strewn in the gloom. A hand offers him a pill – ecstasy, for sure. He pops it with a hint of misgiving. He’s already hard-wired. He gropes his way until he finds the kitchen. There is Karl, working on a client. He’s focused on enlarging a pierced earlobe. They have a common bourgeois background and expectations. For sure, he would’ve gone on to be a surgeon without his detour to the underworld. He’s got nerves of steel. Ducky waits his turn. He’s relaxing now. He’ll ask for his left eyebrow since there is still room. He knows the drill to keep it clean. He’s never had an infection. Karl talks non-stop, like a runaway horse, or better yet like one of those cattle auctioneers. He chuckles to himself.

First Skate

Mark was a slow-moving, lumbering man. People often compared him to a bear. He didn’t have a bear’s ferocity, nor speed when he ran. At least, I assume not, because I only saw him moving at one speed: slowly. He had a great smile, an insufferable accent, and loved to hear himself speak. Come winter, he always walked around with a pair of skates over his shoulder. Manolito was a newcomer to the country and my classmate. I had gotten new skates last year. He was small so I had him try on my old ones. With an extra pair of woolen socks, they fit perfectly. I had decided to teach him how to skate and Mark joined us when he saw them hanging by their long laces on our shoulders.

“Headed for the pond?” “Yes, have you been yet this year?” “No, I thought I might have a look.” We walked together, after introductions, Mark trailing with his shuffling gait, us boys scampering on ahead, a little excitement pulling us all along. The trail was packed by other eager feet. We heard the metallic sound of blades hitting the ice. There was not much sound apart from the scraping, other than the occasional scream and thump from falls, followed by murmurs when kids were pulling other kids up. We turned a bend and saw the pond. It was well attended with Billy and Joe and Peter and others I didn’t recognize at first glance. We dropped down onto the snow and took our boots off. Mark arrived and looked around with a smile. He was tall. If he sat, he might not be able to stand back up. He leaned against a tree and proceeded to change into his skates.

Manolito and I were done fast. I helped Manolito lace the skates tight and saw his surprise when I pulled him up. He was unnaturally tall on the blades and ready to topple back in the snow. I guided him to the edge, walking slowly. He had put both his hands on my shoulders to steady himself. I descended upon the pond and turned around to face him. “Slowly,” I advised. He put one wobbly foot on the hard surface, then another. From the corner of my eye, I could see Mark detaching himself from the lamppost and see his labored breath condensed in front of his mouth. It was probably everybody’s first time of the season. The ice was pockmarked. Here and there tall grasses broke through the surface and tripped the unsuspecting skaters. “This way, Manolito.” Bravely, he started dragging his feet, trying to walk with those contraptions.

“Glide,” I said unhelpfully, as I strode away. The new skates were amazing, sturdier and the right size. My feet were happy, I could wiggle my toes. I soon forgot about Manolito as I saw Tom and his sister Kate , Anthony and Peter, and joined them to compare skates and stories. With a pang, I realized I’d forgotten about Manolito. Mark was talking to him, with large arm movements. He put his arm out and Manolito took hold of it. Mark started dragging Manolito around. He was so graceful, even with this weight attached to his arm. For his part, Manolito’s job was to stay upright and watch the scenery. Mark was skating effortlessly, away from the rough edges to give poor Manolito a chance to keep his balance. The speed helped and Mark was talking non-stop.

Cautiously, Manolito tried to imitate him. He was scrawny but emboldened by Mark’s steady arm. He kept losing his balance, the skates giving out under his feet and pulling him forward as his head drew an arc back towards the ice, but his grip was good and his tottering gave way to a more stoic stance. They were a sight to see, Mark gliding away, followed by what looked like his tree. As Manolito started to relax, he increased his speed, and soon we were watching them circling us, like a circus act, thinking that at any moment poor Manolito would come hurtling towards one of us like a bowling ball and topple us down like pins. We could hear Mark talking and soon, still holding Manolito, he turned and started skating backwards effortlessly, all the while holding Manolito’s gaze on his own. Manolito started gliding too, imitating Mark’s long strides. I don’t know who started clapping, but pretty soon a rhythmic clapping accompanied them, muffled mitten sounds, then stomping blades and chanting. We had retreated to the edges, leaving the nicer, smoother part of the pond to the pair.

Mark said something and sent Manolito sailing in the air. The chanting stopped as we saw his body suspended mid-air, Manolito’s exhilarated face turned to the sky before pummeling back to the ice. But Mark caught him effortlessly and deposited him on the pond, before pushing him off in a straight line. He hadn’t yet learned to stop and so Tom came to the rescue and grabbed his elbow before he barrelled into someone. He expertly turned him around and started skating with him in the other direction. Kate took him off his hands. She was the same size as Manolito and their strides were equal. One by one, kids accompanied him back and forth, to the chanting and clapping of the others. He was grinning so much we thought his face would forever stay that way, frozen in perpetual glee. The light was falling and the cold was getting fierce. Reluctantly, we brought Manolito back to the edge and sat him down in the snow. His eyes were lighting up the small area where he sat. Kate helped him out of his skates and into his boots. When he stood, he looked as unsteady as when he first put on his skates and we ribbed him gently.

All the kids were now shod again and about to leave when we looked back once more at the deserted pond. Mark’s silhouette could still be seen gliding in furious circles, doing arabesques and jumps, no longer a lumbering bear, oblivious to the dwindling light, happiness lighting the way.

House For Sale

The real estate agent had created a video which started with an aerial view of the farmhouse. The drone came in low, through the cornfield, in a scene reminiscent of a thriller movie. He could call it “Murder in the Maize” or something.  He downloaded the video to add his own creepy music. He could ask for a private viewing, perhaps entice the owners to let him film on the property for a few days. He’d done it before when the owners had already moved on and lost their attachment to the house. He’d filmed period pieces, complete with period costumes. It felt homemade, but the acting was good. He used young actors who were willing to work for peanuts to have a chance to see their names when the credits rolled. His wife Jo-Ann was a prolific writer who rote scripts. They were a great team. He scouted the locations and arranged for the film crew. Together, they ran auditions. He took care of the finances and she assisted the director, having no patience with actors and their egos. She was strictly interested in making her ideas come alive.

They usually wrapped the gig in a few days. The results weren’t masterpieces, but then that wasn’t the goal. The films were shorts, meant to showcase new talents. Against different backdrops, the young actors could present a decent portfolio, creating the illusion they’d starred in a few roles. Jo-Ann wrote all genres, western, comedy and drama, thriller and romance, whatever the house was fit for, fifteen minutes tops. In rare cases, they used two locations. When they first started, the shoots were improvised. They were in cahoots with a real estate agent and filmed for a day, without the house owner’s knowledge. The agent knew which houses were empty. They were soon found out, when friends of the owners recognized the house in the shorts and alerted them. Some had been flattered. If they liked the short, they were good sports about it. They’d had to refine their approach now that their real estate friend’s license had been revoked. They refrained from releasing the short until after the deal had been closed but before the new owners took possession. The window could be small, but they were used to working quickly. Jo-Ann cut and spliced the film to match their joint vision.

Though they’d been collaborating for years, they still managed to make things fresh. Sure, the stories had become a bit formulaic, but the actors were given liberty to infuse the movie with their particular brand of craziness. Nowadays, they did not post the short. It was strictly used as promotional material by the actors. Of course, Aaron had all the original footage. You never knew when it could come in handy. He hid behind a numbered company, and targeted cheaper houses or isolated ones where the owner was less likely to sue. He loved the thrill of creating a short in a few days and working under pressure. For the newbies, it was a good experience, a fun one he hoped. They had managed to buy one of the houses to use as a permanent set. They had more elaborate scripts that the young actors were encouraged to learn and play out. The participants paid good money for the experience, which financed their other ventures. For those occasions, they catered meals to give the impression of a real movie. If you paid extra, you had the use of a trailer as though you were a star.

It was the equivalent of a vanity book, for the film industry. The idea took off and pretty soon there were spin-offs for bachelor and bachelorette parties, then, more simply, parties. The protagonists were not actors, nor would-be actors. Aaron and Jo-Ann were purists, and they did not condone the spin-offs. They clamoured they were the originals, but they fell out of favour, with more expensive outfits competing in the field. The competition grew tough. Houses could no longer be rented for a song. The gig was up, the spin-offs had pissed in the pool and now everybody was swimming in it. Jo-Ann and Aaron should have gotten out then. They’d made their money. But they were adamant to prove everybody wrong. They ruined themselves in fruitless legal action alleging plagiarism. Even then, they could have settled out of court. In the end, they lost it all. Ironically, a competitor did a very good short on the industry and their role in it. They regained a bit of dignity, of former glory, and retired with less bitterness.

***

Aaron has started a new career selling houses. He spends a lot of time spinning yarns about his past exploits. His advertisement shows his face half hidden behind an old movie camera. He gives autographs to his clients. Jo-Ann now has a syndicated column giving business advice and admonitions. They moved after the disastrous verdict that wiped them out. They got tired of people slowing by the house and pointing or taking selfies. Some were bold enough to ring the doorbell and pester them with questions. They now live in an undisclosed location. Their neighbours shield them from unwelcome attention, giving frivolous directions to unwanted guests.  In this way, the small town protects its celebrities and ensures a steady stream of visitors.

Pothole

Gail loved her life in the almost countryside, the gravel driveways and lush greenery. She was not as keen on the neighbours who drove too fast by the house. Her two girls played by the side of road, rode their bicycles, chased the dog. Gail had repeatedly asked the municipality for a speed bump or a traffic sign, but to no avail. She decided to take matters in his own hands.

She was a design artist by trade, had studied Fine Arts. She decided her best bet would be to create the illusion of obstacles. It was spring. Potholes seemed in order. Using the actual potholes as a starting point, Gail took pictures of them at different times of the day, in sunny and cloudy weather. She did not bother to capture their likeness under the rain, since the girls were seldom out in foul weather, and people were more cautious in bad weather.

One day, she came out with her paints and brushes and proceeded to create first her first trompe-l’oeil. Her project included three potholes, strategically placed to take advantage of the existing ones. The drivers would not know which were true and would need to slow down because of the uncertainty. She did one the first day, brushing the pavement to clean the surface, positioning her garden kneeling pad to protect her knee. Gail wore an orange vest and a sun hat and had positioned a few traffic cones to secure the area. The first car slowed down, waited, then went around. Amanda was driving the second car that went by. She rolled down the window, “What are you up to?” “Protecting the kids,” she answered laconically. Amanda parked her car in her driveway and took the groceries in. A few minutes later, she came by on foot, holding two popsicles. “Break?” she offered.

Gail got up, surveying her work with a critical eye. She took the orange popsicle, her favorite flavour, and took a few steps back. Two neighbourhood kids came by to look, one on his bicycle, the other on a skateboard. They looked at the paintbrushes, tilted their heads. “What are you doing?” “It’s a safety initiative,” she replied. “What does that mean?” “I’m painting things on the road to make people slow down.” He was rocking his bike back and forth, nervously. He couldn’t wrap his mind around it. “Do you think it will work?” “I don’t know, it’s an experiment.” “Will you change it over time? Add debris or sand, or pebbles?” “That’s a good idea. I haven’t thought this far ahead.” The boy who had been quiet spoke up. “You could paint water and the reflection of the tree there.” He pointed at a maple. Then the kids would want to splash around and they’d be all surprised when nothing came out.” She smiled. She had eaten the popsicle quickly, because of the heat, and was ready to go back to work. “Thanks for the ideas, guys.”

She knelt down and finished the painting. The boys stood watching and grunted their appreciation when she sat back on her heels, her work done. “When can we ride over it?” “Give it an hour to dry. I’ll remove the cones when it’s ready.” They rode off. When she took the cones away, they came racing down the street only to avoid the hole at the last minute, hopping over it. She clapped. They clapped back. “It looks real,” the cyclist said. “Hard to tell the difference,” opined the skateboarder. The three of them got out of the way. A car was coming. The driver slowed down to avoid the pothole. High fives all around. She waited a few days and painted a second one. She was more daring, and made it bigger, adding cracks in the asphalt around it. There weren’t many people around during the day. She felt safe.

The residents grumbled about the state of the street. Some took side streets, others complained to the municipality. Soon, a municipal truck came and a workman came out with an orange spray can. He circled the offending potholes, including the trompe l’oeils. Gail came out. “Excuse me, sir? Please, these are not real.” He stopped, annoyed. “Do you mind if I take a few pictures of you with the potholes?” “What for?” “To send to your superior.” “Go ahead.” “May I have their name?” He handed her a card on the back of which he scribbled the name and email address she required. The kids were back, listening, one on his bicycle, his friend on his skateboard. “You can’t put asphalt over this, it’s already flat. Look.” She walked over it. He raised an eyebrow and dipped his toe. Hard surface. “Well, I’ll be.” He crouched and passed a hand over the “hole”. “Did you do that?” “Yes, I called the city and they wouldn’t install a speed bump. The drivers weren’t paying attention to the speed limits posted. There are a lot of kids in the neighborhood.” She pointed to the boys. The man smiled. “Can you paint some in my street? I’ve forbidden my kids to ride their bikes at certain times. It’s just nuts.” “I’ll see what I can do for you,” he added. It was his turn to take down her coordinates.

That evening, the phone rang. A local journalist wanted to write a story on her “installation”. Would she be willing to be interviewed? After the article came out, her services were in high demand. Her art was very realistic. She started making larger pieces, speed bumps and collision debris. At first, she charged a nominal fee, to cover her material, but as demand grew, she started charging more. It was still cheaper than getting a crew to do the work and it tricked people into paying attention. Her own city hired her part time as a consultant, recognizing her efforts in making the streets safer.

The fakes had to be labeled, so the guys filling the holes would not get fooled into trying to fill them. They had been ridiculed enough the first time it happened, when a video went viral on the Web.

Barbie Doll Heads

After the flood, Barbie doll heads littered the streets. I suppose they were kept in basements for the future grandkids who never came. The kids never asked for their old toys, so they sat there, unperturbed, until the great flood washed them ashore. But why just the heads? We never did find the bodies, even after poking at the soaked leaves with long sticks. I collected them, and aligned them on the windowsill, facing the street, smiling at the passersby.

I volunteered when a freak tornado hit the town next door. I went to sift through debris looking for important papers, jewellery, valuables, heirloom. Here again, the doll heads were ubiquitous. They were considered refuse, and I was allowed to pocket them. They made unseemly bumps in my crotch and I noticed quite a few smirks, but nobody called me up on them. I labelled those carefully, in case someone came looking for them. Again, where were the bodies? I was growing restless with all those detached heads. This time, rooves were ripped from houses and children’s bedrooms’ walls. I suppose the barbie dolls came from attics. Those houses were built high on rocks, with nary a basement to their name.

I guess intact dolls exist. They are cherished and held closely to children’s hearts when on the move. My bodyless specimens speak of older brothers, of dark arts, of tears and vengeance. My windowsill overflows. I build an altar, white heads, long blond hair, reminiscent of white slave trade. They’re all smiling of course. That’s the fetish. I come across one or two brown-haired dolls, colours faded. I touch them up, so they won’t look like the ugly relative. I place them in the corners, to anchor the scene. My little menagerie is attracting attention, with a crowd of heads on both sides of the windowpane. �A<˹�T