From a Margaret Atwood Master Class Assignment, using the following:
Event: Pooping in a doorway.
Character: Artist preparing for first show.
Foundational Story: The Shoemaker and the Elves
Kevin saw her pulling her pants down in a doorway. He could understand how she would not expect an audience on this street – it was occupied by a storage facility that didn’t get much traffic, artist lofts that behaved like abandoned brick apartment buildings, and a couple of dark store fronts that were rarely open before noon.
From his angle, he couldn’t see her face, but he knew she was a woman from clues that unconsciously added up in his mind – flower-printed yoga pants, pink backpack, wide hips, smooth bottom. He felt a repulsion-related instinct to quicken his steps, move on and forget the image in his mind. But he also felt a need to keep her from taking a dump in front of the door he was headed for.
“Hey! Stop!” he yelled.
The woman’s body jumped, and she frantically pulled up her pants, moving quickly out of the doorway.
“Wait!” He almost shouted. And then, since, to his surprise, she did wait, “There’s a bathroom inside you can use.”
He smiled, thinking he should, to counteract his loud voice from before. But the smile felt creepy, so he turned toward the door, pulling the key out of his pocket to unlock it. He noticed her in his periphery, half turned away, looking ready to spring away if necessary.
“It’s in the back,” he said, swinging the door open and leaving it that way as he walked inside. “It’s got a locking door,” he added, internally slapping himself on the forehead as he said it. His efforts at seeming trustworthy just made him look weird. Why did he care? He flipped up the light switch on the wall to the left of the door.
He hadn’t really needed the lights on, he realized, with a glass window store front and morning sun blasting its way inside. He heard the bathroom door closing behind the back wall.
An idea hit him then, a pre-emptive regret and hope that she would not be doing drugs in there. Especially anything needle-related. What if she over-dosed? What if she died? He felt bad that his most salient concern was not having enough time to hang up his paintings if he had to deal with a death: he’d have to call an ambulance, give a police statement, fill out morgue papers, or whatever bureaucracy that went with such things. He didn’t have time for that.
Kevin looked at the framed canvases on the floor, nine of them leaning haphazardly against the wall and each other. He was showing his art tonight. He hadn’t been able to get the day off from his cooking job, but his boss had allowed him to come in half an hour late and leave a half hour early. It made his 10am to 6:30pm shift one hour shorter, and would still make him late to his own show, which officially stated at 6:00pm, but only 30 minutes instead of an hour. It’s as far as his boss had been willing to budge.
He bent down and rearranged the 3 foot square paintings, spreading them out, so he could see all of them at once and decide where they should go on the wall.
Kevin had been exploring yellow in this set, and had featured a plant-like character he called Glorp, who was about the size of a chipmunk. With leafy arms and frill-bordered, orchid-like face, Glorp explored the world of nature with a practical curiosity. He danced in a field in one of the paintings, and flew on top of a friendly crow in another. Glorp swam in a bird bath with a chickadee, tended a tiny vegetable garden inside a half-buried paint can, and he hosted a ladybug tea party in a home he created out of an abandoned work boot.
Kevin wondered how people would respond to his leaf creature. He liked the pictures and was proud of his work, so he tried not to care about what others thought. But he did. He at least wanted to present his pieces in the best way possible. Reception sometimes depended on presentation.
A low cough from behind him made him jump and turn. The woman was there, a sheepish smile on her face. She was younger than he had originally thought, maybe in her 20’s. Why had he assumed she was older?
“Sorry,” she said. “I just wanted to thank you for letting me use the bathroom.”
“Oh. No problem.” He noticed that her face seemed cleaner than when he’d first seen her, her brown curly hair more smoothed out, slightly wet down.
“This is an art gallery,” she said, answering a question she hadn’t asked out loud. Then, “Do you own it?” She adjusted her backpack and looked around at art on the wall while waiting for the answer.
He realized later that his uncoagulated thoughts had been, Why is she still here? Why is she asking me questions? He had unconsciously assumed she’d be ashamed enough of her situation to leave as quickly as possible. But she was young, he later reflected. Not old enough to have had life’s troubles beat the hope and self-respect out of her.
“No, I don’t own it,” he answered her. “Well, I guess I kind of do. This is an art co-op. About 20 of us pay dues and take turns displaying our art.”
“Is that yours?” She pointed down at the lineup of green and yellow whimsy.
“Yes. I’ve got to get these up in the next fifteen minutes. My first show is tonight.”
“Your first show here, or like, your first show ever?”
Why had he put it that way? He breathed in, guessing her thoughts, since they were the same he encountered in himself every day. The gray hair, face wrinkles, age spots – he looked his age, and it was about 30 years older than he had originally hoped he would be at his first art show.
“I’m a late bloomer,” he said, with a closed smile. His mind gave him fleeting, choppy images of his life’s many distractions – marriage, children, divorce, day job. Art had been his original goal, ultimate refuge, and a smaller piece of his daily puzzle than he had hoped or intended. He envied a friend (downgraded to acquaintance due to lack of contact) who had a rich family. His parents had provided money for his supplies, a studio, and eventually inroads to the New York gallery system. The two of them had gone to the same Seattle art school, but Kevin was still here, still the struggling artist that his buddy had never had to struggle to be.
“I like it,” she said. Her smile, directed at the painting, seemed sincere, layered and changing as she saw new things. He knew the complicated look of a real smile versus the flat, polite one he often saw, features fixed in a painting entitled, “Art Show Etiquette”, accompanied by the sound track, “Well done!”
A knock on the open window-door accompanied two shabbily-dressed bodies, walking in with practiced assertion that mimicked confidence.
“Jill? We got your text,” said the young man. The girl following him hit his shoulder.
“We were passing by and saw you through the window,” she corrected, as if the first explanation hadn’t been uttered.
“Hey guys!” said the first woman, who then turned to Kevin. “Could my friends use your bathroom?”
Kevin kicked himself internally, seeing a given inch rapidly becoming a mile.
“Look,” he said, taking his phone from his back pocket to glance at the screen, “I don’t have much time; I have to get these painting up in the next…” the time shocked him, “10 minutes!”
“We’ll be quick!” The new girl headed back in the direction of her friend’s pointed finger, adjusting the straps of her large cargo bag as she went.
“Ima go outside,” the first woman said to the young man as she walked through the front door.
Kevin felt the beginning cramps of panic. The situation had moved out of his control. The solitude he had hoped for had been stripped away from him before he could take it. The anxiety of years seemed to slowly climb on top of him, making it hard for him to think or move. He sighed, trying to reset the moment with oxygen, but it was interrupted by an enthusiastic voice.
“Wow, man! This is awesome!” Kevin turned to see the kid bending down very close to the picture entitled “Glorp Meets an Octogon”, in which the leafy protagonist has climbed up a stop sign and, while hanging on to the post with one hand, offers a sticky, dirty lollipop to its new friend’s red and white face with the other.
The guy laughed, then stood up and looked at the other paintings, one at a time. Grateful he hadn’t touched anything with dirty hands, Kevin watched his face react in a series of movements – raised eye brows that then scrunched up with concentration, mouth open as if taking in the view orally, then pinched up in a smirk, head shaking.
“Your turn,” he heard, followed by a muffled door slam. The girl with brown/blond/blue hair (archeological layers now uncovered by hat removal), waved at the guy, called to Kevin, “Thanks!” and was quickly out the door to join her friend, the original interloper (invited, Kevin self-reminded) who stood in front of the gallery window, smoking.
When Kevin turned around, he heard the bathroom door closing again. He looked at his phone. 9:55. Shit! How did it get so late? A cloud of gloom covered him as he realized he would not have time to carefully consider painting placement, but would have to put up nails and hang things and leave.
Trying to relax – breathe in, breathe out – he grabbed a box of nails and the hammer off of the floor and mentally divided the length of the white wall in front of him. No time to measure, he spread the paintings out, equidistant, along the floor, and began to pound in one nail above each painting, a little below his own eye level, since he was tall.
When he was midway through the wall, he heard, through the pounds of his hammer, a muffled flush, running water, and an opening door. Pound, pound, pound. Then footsteps and a bright smile from a moving face. “Thanks man! And your paintings are seriously sick, dude!”
Kevin, hammer paused but still up, nodded in his direction. “Thanks.” Though he wasn’t sure if it was a compliment.
The threesome collected outside as Kevin grabbed another nail and pounded it in the wall above the next painting. When he turned back, the trio was gone.
At work, while dishing out plates of chicken breast, mashed potatoes with gravy, and overcooked broccoli, Kevin’s mind was not on the scrubs-clad servers who took each plate to its corresponding wheel-chair surrounded table, where shriveled old folks waited for their food to be ladled to them. He thought with dread of the haste with which he had put up his paintings in the gallery. He had hung his art and placed title cards beneath each piece, but there hadn’t been time to think much about placement, what with putting away the hammer, nails, and poster putty, sweeping the floor, and giving the bathroom a quick wipe down. He hadn’t even had a chance to look at the other artists’ work.
The two other featured artists had put up their paintings over the weekend that Kevin had worked double shifts to cover for a sick coworker. He, on the other hand, had put up his art in the space of about half an hour, and had been 20 minutes late for work.
Kevin pictured himself in memory: putting away the broom, turning out the lights, standing at the front door worrying that he might have gotten a parking ticket.
He froze the picture, then tried to move it forward, slow-motion, but it was a blur.
Did I lock the gallery door?
Breathe in, breathe out.
When Kevin arrived, the sun had moved to the other side of the building, putting the gallery in twilight shadow. The lights inside were all on, and dozens of people milled about inside, some holding clear plastic cups of wine or juice, some munching on cookies or pulling nuts or M&M’s from cupcake cups held in the opposite hand. People stood outside, too, in a beehive-like collective buzz of activity and conversations. It was 6:40pm – 40 minutes after the doors had opened up to the art walkers. The crowds were still thickening. Kevin squeezed his way in through the door.
“You’re here!” proclaimed a melodious voice.
“Myra! Sorry I’m late.” He awkwardly returned her greeting hug.
“No problem. Hey! Congratulations! Three of your pieces have sold already!”
His mouth dropped open involuntarily. “Really?”
“Take a look,” she said, pointing to the tiny red dot stuck on one of the title cards.
“Glorp Flies a Bird”, in the middle of the wall, declared its accepted value, but Kevin felt something was wrong.
I’m sure that painting was by the window, he thought. But he could be mistaken: he had been in a hurry.
Another red-dotted work, two paintings and a dozen people down, declared the title, “Glorp on Fire”. Kevin felt his chest tighten. That painting had been next to the far wall. He was certain of it.
Heart beating fast, Kevin moved, as quickly as he could with the throng moving like molasses around him, to the Artist Statement page and slowly worked his way to the right. Each title matched its painting. Good. But none of the paintings were where he had originally placed them. He was almost positive.
Kevin felt frozen, stuck to the cement floor before him, paralyzed in the cold realization that he had been violated. Or he was completely crazy. Or… he considered, without much credibility, that Myra may have rearranged his paintings when she came in to set up beverages and snacks on the back table by the display case of prints. But this notion was shattered when she came up to him, mouth near his ear so she wouldn’t have to shout over the din of art appreciators.
“By the way, I love how you put up the paintings. It’s like they were meant to be in that order. I didn’t realize before tonight that they told such a cohesive story.”
He stared blankly at her smile, then turned to the wall. Little by little, like a drop of food coloring pluming through water in a cup, he was filled with realization. She was right. It was a story he hadn’t known he was telling. But someone had seen it.
Without revealing his potential misstep, Kevin asked, “Say, Myra – did you happen to notice the door key being kind of sticky? I had some trouble with it this morning.” A lie to get to the truth.
“Nope. It opened up smooth as a whistle for me. Maybe we need to get you a new key?”
Kevin nodded. It hadn’t necessarily answered his real question, but did it matter? He was having his first art show. A successful art show.
He felt the weight of the day, the weeks, months, and even decades slowly lift from his shoulders.