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.

Hands

Bea made her living as a courtroom sketch artist, capturing in minutes the highlights of proceedings. Her renderings were exact but not clinical. She had a knack for seizing the flicker of emotion, highlighting it with a shadow or a hint of colour to the cheeks. She was a consummate portraitist and, as any artist, was always looking for a challenge. She had two sets of notebooks: the official and the personal. She did her work, chronicling each witness and, in effect, describing the proceedings. If a picture is worth a thousand words, she was surely a very quick typist.

Once her official duties were taken care of, she would often choose one person who offered challenges of some sort. She would try and feel that person from the inside. She looked at people in the general seating for inspiration. Some were regulars, others were family or interested parties. In publicized cases, there were more spectators, drawn in by mere curiosity.

One day, she was assigned a case involving an attack on the Muslim community. Bea delighted in seeing a number of veiled women as they were deceptively expressive yet more challenging to depict. She chose a young woman, whose eyes were the only visible feature. Wanting to preserve her anonymity, she chose not to draw her eyes but to focus on the tension in her shoulders, and the way she carried her head which betrayed the intensity of her concentration. Bea could not help but create stories for the people she sketched. Surely, this was a young woman. Her moves were quick, her body supple under her cloak. Bea was able to match the emotions shown by slumped shoulders or head held high to precise statements in a case. The story she invented mirrored the case – the young woman’s sympathies were for the accused, a woman suspected of having murdered her child who was being abused.

Her unwitting model was old enough to recognize when someone was wrongly convicted. She was clearly drawn to the case, not missing a single day. Like most cases, people typically arrived according to a set schedule and sat roughly in the same place. She had become familiar with Miss A., as she called her privately, and came to rely on her presence in order to start her day. She was almost a talisman, or a good luck charm.

She had become so engrossed in her personal drawings that she took to sketching in the official and personal notepads side-by-side, timestamping both as she went along. She learned so much from that study that she applied the technique to her official court sketches and made them even more valued.  Reporters came to her and asked her to extrapolate from her observations either to predict public opinion or the jury’s position. They noticed how accurate her predictions were and started arguing for or against according to her sketches, which made for lively debates in the press.

One day, Bea noticed that someone was drawing her as she sketched. It was someone from the general public. She felt a professional curiosity and went to compare notes at a recess. It turns out that artist was only sketching hands. Her own were a blur of circular moves. The depictions were amateurish and all the more interesting. They were pure instinct and had a definite naivete about them. The artist had no formal training but was intensely curious and an avid learner. His line showed energy fields as he felt and saw them. Bea saw how he was sensing the invisible and adding yet another layer of understanding. They started sitting side-by-side and learning from each other. As his drawings became more precise, hers were pared down to their simplest expression.

Her official work had always relied heavily on the accuracy of the faces, but she could see how distinctive and eloquent hands and hand movements were. She still drew faces accurately but added more details in the hands that told the story. People knew to guard their faces; they were much freer with their hands.

When arthritis attacked her fingers, she did not despair. Instead, she took it as yet another example of storytelling. Her fingers were tired of chronicling bad deeds; they longed for restful topics. She retired from her lucrative work in the court. Indeed, her protégé took over after years of learning by her side. His own style was still naïve, almost cartoonish. In a world where the general public was looking for dumbed-down news, his simpler tales sold well. She was glad to be rid of a job that had started feeling like a chore. When her protégé had last drawn her hands, the lines were square and almost static, the energy imploding.

They met occasionally for lunch where he plunged into detailed descriptions of expressions and caustic descriptions of court happenings. Though she recognized in him the passion she used to have, she now felt strangely detached from that world. When she’d retired, she had felt grief at leaving the life she had known, privately doubting her decision. Paradoxically, an intense freedom had befallen her. She was free from rigid schedules and set forms. A world of new interests opened before her. She became daring in her desires, forceful in accomplishing them. She had nothing to prove and nothing to lose. Because of her arthritis, she was no longer able to quickly sketch. She had to be deliberate and choose how she would use the few hours without pain that she had each day.

She decided on gardening. With the same precision and attention to detail she had always shown, she established a schedule. However, she quickly realized that success depended on her attitude and intention. Her first attempts resulted in crooked vegetables and stunted growth. As her awareness and comfort levels grew, her fingers sensed the seeds’ personalities and energy fields. The interplay of her growing ease and inner peace translated into larger and tastier crops. “Hands,” she thought. All this time they had been hiding in plain sight. When hands covered faces, covered eyes, covered tears, people tried to pry the fingers apart. But all this time, the body was trying to show the hands.

 

The Prince

He bowed deeply, with a flourish of his feathered cap. The prince cried excitedly, “Is it time?” The painter replied, “The light is very flattering at this time of day. The others have taken position.” The prince went to the yellow room, which served as a studio. It was a large room, to accommodate all the courtesans. He changed into flowing red robes. They were creating an intimate yet daring portrait, though following the rules of the day. The king’s emblems were discreetly alluded to, his crown and scepter discarded on a settee. A bathtub was in the background, his lover of the time still in it, a coiled white towel on his head, another draped on half the tub on which he reclined. The poor boy was shivering, the water having cooled off while they all waited for the prince’s arrival. The prince’s tame tiger lay on the floor, between royalty and the boy, a symbol of strength and dominion. He was enormous, well-fed, chained to the bath’s cat paw, a royal motif in vogue at the time. The prince struck a pose, holding an ornate mirror, his powdered wig just so, his valet strengthening the folds into elegant whorls. “Music,” commanded the prince.

The quartet started playing, the painter painting, and a hush fell on those assembled. The scene was unlike anything they had ever witnessed. They were used to the prince’s eccentricities but this latest one was beyond understanding. It was to be a surprise for the Queen, and a surprise it would be. Of course she knew of the lover, her son was none too discreet, but they would still get an heir out of him yet. The traditional elements of a royal painting were all there, though subverted. It was Dali before Dali, a hint of the Revolution before it happened, colonialism, decadence all wrapped in one. With a frisson, they wondered if the painter would be put to death for creating such a grotesque, yet oddly engaging, portrait. It was close to finished. Clearly the painter and the prince were enjoying their work, and seemed oblivious to the dangers inherent to the deed.

“The king!” announced a guardsman, and everyone’s attention shifted to the door. He came in with a huff. “What is that you are painting? Bring it over.” The paint was still wet and concern could be read on the painter’s features. He motioned to his assistants, explaining in urgent tones where to hold the frame to avoid smudges or dropping it. The assistants walked uneasily towards the king, dropping to their knees as they came closer. The guardsman put his spear in front of them and they stopped a few meters from the king. A wide grin relaxed his features. He looked at the painter and made a cutting gesture at his throat. The painter paled, close to fainting. “My king, you don’t like it?” asked the prince, offended. “Amid all this nonsense, the painter had the good grace of making you look healthy,” he replied. This was the royal painter. He always fleshed out the skinny to make them look healthy. He had added a double chin to the lanky prince, and given him the required haughty air. “Your queen will be pleased,” he added, turning away with his retinue.

“We’re done for the day,” said the prince, his good mood vanished. His lover wrapped himself in the large towel and got out of the bath covered in goosebumps. A maidservant toweled him energetically, to get the blood flowing again, lest he catch cold. The king’s visit had put a damper on the gathering. “I’m hungry,” exclaimed the prince. “Get me a snack.” The order was relayed and a long table set up in the green room. The meal was an elaborate affair, the wine flowed and the music mused. The prince’s frown melted as his companion made him laugh. The painter and his assistants did not join in the revelry. The painter had taken his leave and had the painting shipped to his apartments in the palace. He felt trapped. This was his best work but nobody understood it. He was a modernist, creating what passed for extravagant and amusing art, but it was very serious to him. He agonized over his compositions.

He knew the prince well, since his childhood, and this portrait captured his essence – he was sensual, authoritarian, vain and shrewd. He wanted to please and shock. He also wanted the throne and its power. He acted like a spoiled brat but was far from it. He just did not want to appear as a threat. The painting was calculated to destabilize and engross, but he may have miscalculated. The prince might not hesitate to throw him under the cart or have the painting destroyed. The painter slept fitfully, the painting at the foot of his bed. He woke up several times during the night, afraid when he heard steps coming his way. He had resolved to steal away with the painting, to live as a destitute, rather than seeing it or himself destroyed.

The thunder of feet he had heard in the night was not meant for him, however. Messengers from all over the country had been coming in, bearing bad news. An invasion was imminent. The painting was forgotten as troops were raised in earnest. It was time, yet again, for war.

Perfection

– The problem is, it’s too perfect.
– That’s not possible. Perfection is binary. It’s perfect or it isn’t. It can’t be too perfect.
– Look, for me perfection is the same as normality. It’s a convention. Too perfect is lifeless. Remember when CDs came on the market? Purists wanted the scratches from the previous recordings. There is something to be said for the messiness of life. When it’s too perfect, it gets too cerebral; it no longer speaks to the animal in us.
– We are still talking about landscaping, right?
– Are you doing this on purpose? I am just saying that if you don’t break the symmetry or add a touch of whimsy,… Remember when women painted moles on their faces? False beauty marks to stand out?
– And then it became a fashion trend. Nothing like standing out for other people to want to be unique just like you.
– Maybe we’re digressing.

They look at the house. A short alley, a few steps, a porch, a red door. Large pots with cascading flowers flanking the door.

– We could use one of the pots elsewhere, as a reminder of this one. One calls to the other. There is tension, a need for completion.
– You’re doing this as if it were a painting.
– And why not? A painting is a representation of life.
– I will leave it up to you to find a compromise. You’re perfect at that.
– Very funny. Nobody’s perfect…
– Not even a perfect stranger!*

They laugh and start dancing like the crazy teenagers they once were.

They’re dancing on the front lawn. “Our house… in the middle of our street,”** they sing loudly.
– I can’t believe we were arguing over flower pots. Argh! We’ve turned into our parents.
– Let’s strive for imperfection and celebrate flaws!
– Plaid and stripes! I’ll start wearing purple with a red hat which doesn’t suit me…***

They go to bed still laughing, feeling light. It’s a good feeling.

They’re a bit uneasy, in the morning. They look at their manicured lawn, at their nice clothes. They’re not sure how to go about embracing flaws. They try and remember the lightness – that helps. They eye a crumb on the table from the toast they ate. Is that imperfect – or unsanitary? Will they feel heavy or light if they leave it there? They make an effort and leave it conspicuously on the table. “Don’t sweat the small stuff” becomes their mantra. They simplify an already simple life – or so they thought. They find they are drawn to people they had lost touch with – they had become unpalatable. The refinement of their palate had cost them friendships.

Are there other hidden costs? Yes, they’ve lost their spark. They now have a reflection of their spark. They dig deeper. They’ve hidden what made them unique. Flaws are what make us intrinsically human.

 

*Time the Avenger, by The Pretenders
**Our House, by Madness
*** “Warning” by Jenny Joseph

Ink Art

She mastered the throwing of the ink at an early age. Her pouch was supple and contained plenty. She dreamed that she had access to differently colored inks. Not that she wasn’t content doing black and white. It afforded her the pleasure of contrast, of crispness and vagueness, shadow and light. She had taken to sending splashes in quick succession. The trick was to use the tentacles to shape the ink. It tended to dilute before she had time to fully express her thought. Her art was evanescent.

She was dedicated to her craft. It was less a matter of physical survival than of emotional fulfillment. Other squids left her alone, thought her weird. One or two kept an eye on her, either for fear or curiosity, she couldn’t tell. They alternated bringing her attention to food. She always felt ravenous after an inking session. She also must eat to replenish her ink supply.

She enjoyed long sessions of reflection – lying in wait for her next meal, she watched her envelope transform to blend with its surroundings. It went against the grain. She wanted to stand out! Throw ink in people’s faces! Instead of only replicating her own shape to distract would-be predators and flee, she sought to reproduce the predators’ own shape, as in a mirror. She spent long hours perfecting her gaze, to catch a likeness instantly. She mesmerized her aggressors – they loved seeing themselves more than eating. Her work garnered reputation; predators unknown to these parts came from far and wide to get a glimpse of themselves. They sometimes regurgitated fish for her in a gesture of gratitude. Soon she had hangers-on, eager to benefit from the overflow. She sometimes ate them distractedly. Anything for her art.

She generously taught. The parents were incensed but some kids were really talented and developed their own style. Two boys, born of the same mass of eggs, lived as one. They took to floating across from each other. One would project the ink while the other molded it. The first had to guess at the creation. Other times, they played riddles. The first one sent out a splash of ink and the second one would try and guess what it was. In the early days, it was more Rorschach than skill, but they honed their skills over time.

The boys started collaborating on projects, each inking to complete the others’ thought. Their intelligence fused, their sculptures fascinated their peers. They were skinny. They were so immersed in their work that they would go without eating or sleeping, consumed in thought. That made them less appetizing and afforded them some protection. Feelings about them ranged from dismay to admiration. A lot of their peers just tried to ignore them, hoping their influence would decrease as the novelty wore off. It didn’t. Soon sharks came circling – the boys had gone beyond mere reproduction and flattery. They bravely expressed their vision of the world, living for the thrill of sharing it.