I was accosted while slumming on subway. Tedward nabbed my collar and whispered sotto voce:
“Stop me if you’ve heard this one.”
“Yield,” I said, “there’s nothing new under the sun. I may not have heard this particular iteration—”
Teddy shook his head. “You with your Schroedinger’s opinions. Keke darling has found a new painter, simply to die for.”
“That’s nothing new.”
I folded the copy of the Times I had been using to hide my lunch. “Go on,” I said, “you’ve bugged my Watergate.”
The gist of the matter—once you boiled down layers of Teddy’s pith—was some new thing was painting abstract swirls that made certain sensitives collapse, gray matter no doubt leaking out their ears. At the show’s opening, six art reviewers alone were rendered pudding, to small loss.
“Breathtaking,” said I, “what’s the cheese?”
Teddy leaned in close, a conspicuous gesture for a conspicuous man. “They shuttered his show until they figure out how to play off the reaction. Private showing, you dig?”
“Dug. What time?”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Teddy said, “don’t be forward. Keke planned a little soirée to show off a new body mod.”
“And to scalp the guests for potential entrance fees,” I said distastefully, “pass.”
“Everyone who is someone will be there!”
“Well,” I said, “seeing as I am someone who may or may not be someone, let’s just stick that in the box and gas it, shall we?”
He was still puzzling that one when I got off. Some people, I tell you. It’s almost not worth having associates, but then again, who else would you show new outfits to? The populi? Please.
Keke Cola had returned from yachting Europeward to her ancestral manse, a glass-and-crystal palace that would’ve made C.F. Kane turn green. She’d decorated for the party by garlanding the place with rafflesia; I was given a pink gas mask with Reagan’s visage as a party favor. My fellow raconteurs were pawing through the buffet table like a trove of ravenous beasts. If there’s one thing we love, unconditionally, it’s a meal gratis.
Alabaster was there, along with Verdigris and several other colors. Sister Mister shot me a meaty hoof, dressed in a copper lame top and upsettingly short denim cutoffs. Algonquin Jack was masticating a humorously large beef rib, dentures seesawing in his mouth from the effort.
Keke, as always, stood in the middle of a knot of people. Her dress was slit down the front practically to the floor, showing off the control-top of her pantyhose briefs. She had some large tortoiseshell lenses on her head, stopping every other word to sweep a strand of hair back with a hand holding a cigarette stem. If she wasn’t careful, she’d ignite all the aquanet undoubtedly keeping her wig anchored.
Keke threw her arms open when she saw me. “Mon amour, ma cherie, it’s been a bit of too long.”
She air-kissed both of my cheeks. Up close I could see she had Coco Chanel’d to such a degree even the trenches of her wrinkles were tan.
“So afraid you’d miss this,” she spoke with a gravely rasp prized by blues singers and gargoyles.
“And miss seeing Verdigris fill up on shrimp?” I said, “I think he’s even sown a pocket into the lining of his jacket for the occasion.”
Verdigris gave me the finger. Keke gave me an oh you slap on the wrist.
“Dear, darling,” she said with sudden gravity, “have you heard the news?”
“About our lord and savior?” I said, “ages ago. I hear his squiggles make people squiggly.”
But the mistress of the house shook her head. “No no, darling, not squiggles. The boy paints de la vie.”
“That bad, huh?”
Another wrist slap. This was threatening to become threatening.
“I’ve been to his loft,” Keke pontificated, “and he has such a unique vision.” She leaned in close, flooding me with rosewater and old meat. “There are layers one must be au courant to see.”
“Sing it sister,” I said, nabbing a shrimp cocktail before they went extinct.
“He paints in colors only seen on certain parts of the spectrum. Infra-red. Ultra-violet.”
“Don’t forget concussion green.”
Keke whipped off her Diors. Beneath the glasses, her eyes had been bandaged heavily.
“Neat threads,” I said, “so you’ve finally decided to drive blind then? Or do the police pull you over walking, now.”
“I got my lenses removed,” the lady said rapturously, “so that I may see.”
“Now I smell what you’re spraying. What’s this, a new self-destruction fad? Why not try pogo-sticking off the space needle again?”
The lady’s sticky grin rearranged into a frown. “You mightn’t be jealous, Darling?”
“Jealous?” I said, “I? Why, we’ve all evolved beyond such human peccadillos. You might as well accuse me of knapping flint into a knife.”
Metz pointed at me with a half-eaten squid tentacle. “You’re Krushchevving!”
I raised an eyebrow at him.“You’re about two presidents too late for that slang.”
Keke darling had become carried away with mirth. “I never thought I’d see you get green for a grocer.”
“You aren’t seeing at all,” I said testily, “and when you get to the afterlife, phone me and let me know what Satre is wearing.”
Hoots followed me out.
“Just because you don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it has no merit!” Keke called after me.
“The hell I don’t understand,” I grumped as I got into the car. “I appreciate art. I live art. I breath art. I sweat art. I ma—I consume art.”
“That may well be,” Lady D sniffed, “but if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a flash in the pan masquerading as a claymore.”
Mrs. Dumont had declined to attend the party, natch. There had been bad blood between the two ladies for decades now, something deeply injurious that neither would talk about. My guess? Something to do with shoes.
“What do you think?” I consulted with her. “you think we should crash the showing?”
Dumont gave me Bette Davis eyes. “Crash, gauche. We will destroy it.” She revved the motor.
I changed into black turtleneck and slacks while she drove us, following a map Candy Warhol had inked on a napkin for us the night before. The loft above the Roi en Jaune show was shuttered until further notice. What they hadn’t counted on was decades of Lady D’s espionage against her fellow man. Through a combination of flirting and threatening, she got us a spot in the neighboring parking garage. Four storeys above the cement, I fit together a contraption of her own making, kind of like a crossbow fashioned from old hangers.
“And what happens if it doesn’t work?” I asked.
“You die and leave a beautiful corpse,” she replied.
“Just checking,” I said, and lined up my shot.
Bull’s-eye, though the company who put the billboard up would wonder why their model had gained a single, dark nipple in the morning. I saluted Mrs. Dumont and swung across, barely shitting myself in sheer terror at all. Once I had landed and kissed the surface of the roof a few times, I gave the all-clear signal to Lady D. She nodded and sat back with a thermos of tea, a copy of L’Etranger, and a Kalashnikov.
I slid my slim jim between door and jamb, popped the latch, and I was in.
Getting caught at this point would mean worse than jail time: public excruciation. My ego was in a sling as it was. I shuffled here and there in a crafty fashion, seeing as my dignity had long ago fled to winter in the alps, and looked for something likely.
A light snapped on above my head. Ugh, florescent.
“Who the hell are you?”
The young man spouting this cliché had the remains of a patchy beard and one eyebrow shaved, as if he’d already attempted to disguise himself. His eyes were flat in the middle. So he’d already gone ahead and had the surgery. Yet he wasn’t dead? Curieux.
“I’m the ghost of Potter Stewart,” I said, “I heard there was a breast sighted somewhere in the area and I wanted to check if it was pornography.”
Understanding dawned on the young man’s face. “Oh, you’re one of those.”
I tried not to appear too ruffled. “If by those you mean ‘art appreciator’ then yes, I am.”
He squinted and frowned, I think the light was getting to him. “Look, what do I have to do to get this through your heads? The paintings aren’t supposed to kill people.”
“Did I say I came here to die?” I placed a hand on my breast. “I came here on recommendation of a friend.” Which wasn’t a total lie. “A dear friend.” Which was such a lie. “Who spoke highly of your art.” Truth enough.
The young man sighed and scratched his beard. “You know,” he said ponderously, “when I started out doing this, I had such high hopes.”
“I know,” I said, “developing your style, evolving your technique, and maybe selling a few canvases before you die.”
He shook his head. “No. I wanted to tell everybody the good news. And He came into my arm and showed me the way.”
“The King, man, he…” the young man looked down as if he’d find the words he wanted on the floor, racheting his hand. “it’s too…je ne sais quoi.”
“Ne gaspille pas ta salive.” I said, “show, don’t tell. That’s what artists do, don’t they?”
He gave me a smile that made me a bit wary. “Sure,” he said, and giggled.
Never trust a man who giggles and assents too easily. It’s how I got stuck with my last five cars.
I followed him to the sheeted area of the studio, where lithic rectangles overshadowed cans of linseed oil and mineral solvent. He touched each one reverently and he went, naming them.
“Regalia. Cassilda’s Lament. Unmasked. Boiling Hali.”
He stopped before the last.
“This is it. The big one. This is the one that has been taking lives.”
He started forward suddenly, grabbing my lapels. “I never meant for this to happen, you know.”
“Sure,” I said, straining back.
“I mean that.” He breathed like a rabbit in a snare. “But…I’m happy it’s happened. Happy. Do you see? Now everyone will know the King’s message.”
“That’s really okay,” I called, as he ran forward and dragged the sheet from the canvas, “I’m really gone cold on the idea—”
The sheet hit the floor with a sound like a thought ending. I pondered the piece.
The young man wrung his hands. “Well?”
“You’re no Kandinsky.”
He frowned. Obviously that hadn’t been the answer he was expecting.
“I mean it’s good,” I said, turning to him, “but I don’t see it on a postcard anytime soon.”
He felt my forehead.
“Hello to you too.”
He took his hand away. “This is wrong.”
“Funny, my phrenologist said the opposite.”
He looked at the painting, back at me, and then at the painting again. His face got suspicious.
“You’re not colorblind?” he asked.
“Well, that would explain my failed airforce career,” I said.
He nodded, as if I had agreed with him outright. “You’re color—the painting doesn’t fucking work on you!”
“Watch your mouth,” I said, “children are within a five-mile radius.”
“This isn’t funny, there’s an entire section of the spectrum you can’t see! You can’t fully fucking appreciate the King’s fucking portrait.”
“Using that word constantly isn’t going to make its property value go up,” I said, “now listen—”
“Stew,” he said absently, looking up at the painting.
“Stew,” I agreed, “is this the only…masterpiece that has been causing these extra-vulgaris symptoms?”
Stew looked at me, eyes wary. It really wasn’t attractive, the flat look. Maybe he could invest in snake-eye contacts.
“Then I am correct in assuming it’s special effects were an accident?”
He went crafty, like a fifth-grader with a forged parental note. “It fucking won’t be,” he ranted, “when I learn to reverse the process and find what I did.”
“Such language,” I chided, tweaking his nose. “anyway, I’m taking it.”
“Actually I’m a Pisces.” I hefted a corner of the sheet and tossed it over the painting. “I have the most darling little alcove at home. This will fit right in. I’ll keep it veiled unless I have guests who merit a private display.”
“You can’t do that,” he said numbly.
I waved the kris that Lady D had loaned me from her extensive collection. “I can’t? Anyway, help me with this corner.”
Sheeted and tied, the painting flopped like a wayward kite to the ground. I waved to Lady D, who flicked a lighter at me. I shook my head sternly.
“I can’t fucking believe this,” Stew said, holding a can of what I hoped wasn’t paint thinner, “my only success is getting stolen by a fucking poseur.”
I slapped him lightly on the wrist. “I know you have a beef, Stew. But simmer down.”
I laughed my way down the stairs. I allow myself time to be corny when I’m alone. It helps me keep shtum in the public eye.
On the street Lady D had donned her battle beret, smoking a black cigarette and sitting on the canvas.
“One word,” she said, “and I can make it look like the Secession gallery.”
“Negatory, good lady,” I said, “I’ve decided to adopt it.”
She snorted. “And invite Keke Darling, I suppose.”
I tied it to the luggage rack. “I had thought of that, yes.”
When we were back in the car, Dumont turned to me and gave life to the utterance that every artist dreads:
“What’s it a picture of?”
“The stuff that dreams are made of, kid,” I said. If I craned my head a long way back I could just make out the forlorn silhouette of Stew the painter. Maybe it really was paint thinner. Maybe it was for the best.
“The stuff that dreams are made of.”