Last Ten


Tag Archive: excerpt

T H E  C O P

Paul looked at his scars. He saw them as tokens, small things tossed out to appease. Slashed hands from shrapnel. A glistening pock, path of a bullet. He didn’t like inventories. He looked only at those he could see.
    His mornings were simple, built only to maintain him: three hardboiled eggs, a military shower, and a cup of coffee. He’d been told before, by a woman hungover from the night before, that his routine was like a newly sober alcoholic’s. He hadn’t told her then that up until recently, he’d been drunk on adrenaline and imperatives to not die. He’d been so because civilians were long fucked on oil. He didn’t say much to her that morning, not beyond thanking her for her time. He’d been back three days.
    Paul chewed his eggs in the dull gray box of his mornings. Predawn haze baited punishment from the sun; Paul stared at the skin on the back of his hands, paranoid it was growing lighter. He was surrounded, nearly always, by white people. He knew they saw him as a nice anomaly——this one black cop——because they’d told him so. He kept getting raises and kept questioning his logic. Paul didn’t want to be paid back because he’d already died.
    Paul thought of sand, and then of screens. He blinked the infrared bloom out of his eyes, or maybe just the last seconds of cold water.
    Paul held his thumb over the lip of the mug and let it fatten with steam. He had a job. A mother. A pulse. Paul drank coffee and thought himself to meet only the requirements of being an American.
    Before locking his front door, Paul felt a perfectly general desire to kill.

The car in which he spent most of his days was new because the police department had more money than they knew what to do with. Other cops talked about the gift from the foundation like a lucky Powerball ticket——Paul didn’t understand why the dead rich white man didn’t put his name on a building. Old money had come through for old money, for the already protected white. Paul tried not to think about the strata of his job, or why it could even be considered political; his childhood and his service had retired him from the grave and complex. He liked the demands of the cop routine, liked the gun, felt fed by the possibility of needing to die on duty. Not that he wanted to die——no, but that he had died already, and already once over. Once on a sidewalk in Philly, and once in an empty room on another planet. He believed not a lick of the toughguy shit, that post-mortem shellshocked samurai line, but instead simply and precisely believed in undeserved, uncaring time. He felt this belief most acutely when he warmed his fingers in front of the cruiser’s vents in winter, for some reason.
    Though this was summer——or spring, Paul bad with borders and holidays——and hot and damp enough to make all the force creep their cars in their t-shirts, when they could sneak it. Paul wiped at his forehead and cranked the AC. No one there to play at being harder than the weather.
    Paul got a call. Parsed easily: a woman, old, lost, in an intersection.
    He hit the lights but not the siren.

She was outside of town a bit, less than two miles from an old folks’ home, which Paul called. She was standing in a gown, her gray hair lit by patient headlights. No one honked among the four; as Paul pulled up, two drivers slowly backed up and turned around. The sun had set, yet Paul saw the hand-knit daisies on the face of her gown, and its ragged bottom edge, a few strings hanging down to her sneakers. No socks, black with orthopedic soles. They looked too big for her.
    Paul quietly shut his door and silenced his radio. She was shuffling her feet in a small arc, her arms out either for balance or some communion. Paul watched her lips sporadically pull back and eyes squeeze shut; he guessed pain.
    Ma’am, Paul said. She continued to gradually turn away from him, shoulder blades steep ridges in the gown. Paul spoke up: Ma’am. She stopped shuffling but kept her arms out. She was speaking——her tone clear, her voice broken——but Paul couldn’t make it out. He reached out with his left hand and said, Hello, ma’am. I’m here to help.
    Okay, she said.
    May I put my hand on your shoulder, ma’am?
    Sounds fine to me, she said. As if that would never be a problem.
    Paul did so, feeling her slight shiver as he came to face her. By now the intersection was free of cars; the sun had set and the remaining light was ashen. Paul looked at her, her eyes down and out toward some unknowable distance, lips chapped and still jumping into quick sneers. She was spotted with age, white skin veiny and mottled, spotted with brown. Paul remembered plenty of lost old women, homes blown out or threaded with gunfire. He swore then that they all had a smell: he was never able to describe it in analogies or even as some combination of other scents, strange foods or whatever. He never got it right in words, so only referred to it as The Smell, which stuck among the others. So did his new nick, drooled out every time: The Poet. He hated the name because he’d never read that shit, even as a kid. Teenaged years mostly bulging sweaters and knuckles, and taking care of mom. Paul opened to his old nick——The Poet——as he realized that this woman smelled clean.
    The woman smiled wide, the smile overriding her decaying mouth. It’s kind of over your head, isn’t it? She looked at Paul.
    He made himself take a second before responding. Yeah, that’s right. He smiled back, took her right arm. Bone as thin as the handle of a plunger.
    The woman looked away, back out. She moved her left hand, tracing a hazy shape with her long fingers. It’s stone still, she said. It doesn’t go anywhere.
    Paul noticed the curiosity in her voice, and so the lack of fear, anger. Yes ma’am. That sounds right to me. Paul heard the last clip of the ambulance behind him, probably half a mile out. It was darker now, but he glanced over his shoulder anyway.
    Paul felt it: the woman had found his right hand with her left and was softly squeezing it. Paul felt its warmth, and its strength. The stranger impeccable smoothness of it, everywhere but the fingertips. Paul kept his left hand on her shoulder. He snorted a gnat away from his face.
    The landscape doesn’t move, she said. It makes you move.
    Paul looked at her as the swinging red and blue of the ambulance lit them. New shadows on her face, but she didn’t mind. Paul knew she’d be safe, if not also tended to. He checked: ambulance alone with its openings and paramedics, the intersection otherwise empty.
    She was rubbing Paul’s hand with a circling thumb, beginning to dig.
    You could kind of lift yourself out from this place.
    Without waiting, Paul had nodded and said yes as the two silhouettes approached her.

Paul finished his Friday shift and its paperwork then drove home trying to remember what the demented woman had said. After missing an exit——his muscle memory failing him——he realized how much this forgetting was bothering him. Paul felt anger gather in him where it normally did: his hands. He’d tried to crush the steering wheel of his beater before, but maybe not hard enough. Paul found home——a small house with many problems, a cheap rental——as he contrasted himself to his six friends who’d also made it out. All six with their tales of crippling VA waits, heaps of glowing orange bottles.
    All the names of all the edible unions which kept them sane. Or functional, like a gun.
    Paul walked into his home and swam nothing that he wanted to see.

Many leaves died and the evening winds began to drive people indoors when Paul took five days off. He had more to spare which the chief urged him to use, but Paul knew the days would come in handy when the six dropped down to five, or when his mother died. While locking up his rental for the week, Paul realized that it’s probable that millions of Americans save up in order to visit their newly dead. Paul laughed.
    With a few thousand dollars in cash and no plan, Paul drove south.

The first day, he drove as long as he could. He didn’t have a map and he kept his phone off, listening to the radio to stay awake. The first night, a few hours before dawn, he pulled off at a chain hotel, paid in cash, and set his alarm for 9am. His sleep was restless, concussive detonations somehow moving through his dreams like sparks off some welded metal. He woke, showered, hunted down some hardboiled eggs and coffee. He was refueling somewhere flat and dry by mid-afternoon. He listened to the shady roar of trucks down the highway and realized that he wanted to end up in New Orleans.
    He still refused to turn on his phone and look at a map, but suspected he’d overshot a straight line down to the city; he was too far west. So he kept driving, found Highway 53, and followed it through small towns——Magnolia, Fluker, Roseland, Hammond. He kept in his car, wanting to reach New Orleans before nightfall. His car sped south, now following water, great amounts of water tracing a permission: you may live there, but not here.
    Paul worked his way into the city by getting off the highway. He drove through neighborhoods for awhile, simply looking. Old low houses, stained. Massive trees that both hid the sky and reached down to those on the sidewalks. He noticed the asphalt, its potholes and stickiness. He drove through the poorest neighborhoods that he could find, sweating through his shirt, windows down, pistol on his lap. He saw slowly loping young men, women and girls on lawns, folks with snow cones and on ticking bikes, and then, gradually again, big houses set further back from the street and its pulsing SUVs and convertibles. He saw sandwich shops, record stores, and countless bars and clubs, most open air and sheltering at least a few. Junkies on the sidewalk and jaywalking, talking at tourists and doing little tricks: magic, jokes, simple riddles with coins and their shoes. He saw hotels spraying mist from the bottom of their outstretched balconies, and huge neon or translucent containers filled with brightly-colored liquors——bright like the parrot on a one-legged man’s shoulder as he cut through crows of ambling tourists taking photos on their phones of most things: hanging ivy, old doors, bar signs, storefronts with posters of blues and jazz musicians, sleeping drunks. He left that part of town and drove toward the stadium, ignoring the corn and fruit sellers under the high overpasses, ignoring their kids and the kids, parentless, playing soccer and football. He saw a group of middleschoolers get in a fistfight among hundreds of shaded parked cars; one of them tripped on his own feet backing up, landed on the hood of a sports car and setting off its alarm, the kids then grappling and tearing shirts and throwing a few more exhausted punches before jogging off in one group. Paul saw long stretches of road without people, and tall office buildings, already abandoned for the day. He saw open boulevards and green-painted lanes for bikes beside new modern buildings with patio restaurants; he saw people in suits and dresses drinking white wine while staring blankly at menus. The sun set as he turned around, following the bends of the snaking river back into some neighborhood, past the tourists, back into some place that he’d already seen. He found an expensive parking lot watched by one attendant and parked. He locked his gun in the glove compartment, handed the keys to the tattooed attendant, then walked. Lamps clicked on, revealing big concentric swarms of gnats. Paul swept the bugs away from his face and walked, following knots of shouts, laughter, teasing screams. He came to a bar and po’ boy place and ordered a beer and a sandwich. He watched, from his perch on an uneven stool at the counter plastered with wrappers and sticky napkins, watching the groups of friends and alert men and the two old regulars, the two nearly asleep at their tables, one reading a paper under the tinny speakers belting out some brass band. A few times, he watched men watch him, bringing his eyes back down to his beer to not start a fight. Paul had seen, in the last four hours, more black skin than he’d seen in four years in the Marines, and two years in Vermont——more skin like his than he’d seen since childhood. He was thinking about this when she walked in with a date, their distance and newness to each other palpable. Paul watched her for a few more seconds then ordered a shot and another beer. He was in the right place.

The date went to the bathroom and Paul walked over to their table.
    I’m not tryna muscle your man or anything——
    But maybe you are, she said. She looked up at him and held up two pinching fingers. Just a little.
    Yeah, you got me. Paul glanced at the bathroom hallway. Imma be at the counter, havin one more beer. If you feel like it, I’d love to have you. If this guy ain’t right. Paul turned and walked back to the counter.
    He seems alright, she called out.
    He sat and swiveled to face her. She had her eyebrows up, and he laughed. You ain’t wrong, he said. He sipped his beer after smiling at her, turning back to face the counter as he heard a bathroom door shut.

They clopped drunk down small crooked streets, passing in and out of bars to keep themselves laughing and moving forward. They lingered under dull streetlamps in the half-night, New Orleans’ sky a necrotic pink. They stopped to listen to sidewalk bands, both uncomplicatedly impressed by the solemn talent of the musicians, the coordination of their hands and mouths and obvious spirits. They danced a little, but stopped when they remembered where they were going. So they went, leaning over the first counter to check out a room. Paul handed her the key to watch her walk down the hallway, which she did slowly, elbow in her hip and key dangling from a curled finger, weighting each step with all of her before the next, making sure——once——that he’d seen. He had.
    They fucked once without choreography, Paul too forceful with his hands. They lay there and Paul looked at her body, laying the brown of her skin next to other shades. She was looking at the low ceiling and catching her breath. Paul knew then what he wanted, but in an image——he wanted to fuck himself into a crater of thoughtlessness, and then sit down there under no sky for as long as he could. He knew he’d need help, and so he’d need to help her, too. They could get there. So he said her name——Belle——and put her hand on the scars on his back then kissed her.

What Paul had thought while driving: bombs, strips of cartilage like calamari, tracers pinging through heads at ghostly angles at a distance, the stars and their differences, the smell of the sky in Riyadh, the smell of the dirt, the dust, their skin, A.B. and his nubby pencils, his explanation of Euclid’s first proposition, his explanation of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, A.B.’s insanity at trying to keep that shit up with a bunch of grunts who killed people and burned their own shit, A.B.’s mother when she stood too long holding onto Paul’s hand, vomiting in bathrooms and bathtubs, shitting as a kid, having his ass wiped as a kid, getting pulled up on outside of school, at a party, for fucking, for not fighting, wanting to kill, craving killing without announcement, garrote wire, barbwire fences, his uncle’s small farm, those asshole goats, sloppy barbecue, swallowing a shard of bone and feeling it cut him all the way through, water on the other planet, water in convoy covered in dust and blood, the crinkle of water bottles like a trumpet for the beggar kids, wanting to hand out guns and ammunition, exploding buildings, shattered bricks of mud, snuck fireworks, colorblindness, Raul telling about his mom, blindness, brown tap water, surprise funerals, plague, fucking amid death, fucking beside corpses, heat, diseased heat in the cock and cunt and eyes, vanishing civilization, the collapse of this one, fascism, mockery, mocking his little sister, PT, weights, trick knees, amputation, gangrene, MRSA, Chris in the VA, Chris in the ICU, gloves and suits, fogging up his mask while saying goodbye to Chris, Chris’ hope, the tight shiny craters of his abscesses, draining pus with a pen, highschool, metal detectors, the one security guard that got shot, the German Shepherds, non-existent lunches, beating Tyrell with a lunch tray, his mother’s face, his mother’s face, the dumb country, his phone, throwing his phone into an active volcano, throwing himself into an active volcano, learning to cook, Chief’s wife, fucking Chief’s wife on their dining room table, her ass grinding into some perfect salad, paying his rent, his landlord’s sad eyes, writing a final check, emptying his accounts, spending all his money then killing himself, killing some VA administrators, killing his mother in her sleep before the home, moonlight, the light from a full moon on the barrel of a shotgun, the barrel of a shotgun clacking against his teeth, knowing the click of the trigger and then, a flash surveilled from twenty-thousand feet up, then what, then what, then what.


Warren woke to the blue of the tent. He felt with his fingers, or tried to——nylon rustle of a sleeping bag, but his fingers were numb. Warren licked his teeth. Grime. Blinked through the dry haze. Dawn.
    Warren, at the fact of another day, puked.
    Warren spat twice, trying to break the arc of drool that hung from his mouth, open and panting. He looked at the thin puddle of bile on the dark gray tarp while realizing that he already felt nothing again. His throat relaxed. He wished for rope.

He knew someone would visit to make him move. Daniel had made his days predictable, careful. Warren wanted to greet this regularity with explosive mutilation. Though he wouldn’t. He could not break his promise to Daniel. Though he did leave his puke there, thinking it might move a visitor to hate him more and therefore abandon him, skip a watch.
    Daniel didn’t use that term——watch——but Warren knew well the rooms with no possible exits. This time there were trees, though.
    Warren damned himself for wanting trees to be his accomplices.

Hey, she said. Warren flinched. He didn’t know who was with him, and if he’d been sleeping. Someone had cleaned up the bile. He felt food rattle in acid in his stomach. His mouth was dry. Light through the blue was blown out, forcing a migraine. His hands shook through their clench. Warren wanted others to see his cells screaming for death. He wanted to pound his pain into them but knew they wouldn’t change; he was forceless. A dumb skin forbidden to break.
    Hey, she said. How are you feeling?

He was lead to a tree for some reason. After he’d been fed another sandwich. He picked at his lower lip and thought about being flayed.
    She stood beside him, watching. Daniel had said to be there but not restrain him. Daniel had asked her to say aloud that he was able and able to listen. She thought he, Warren, looked like shit. She felt bad for feeling afraid of him.
    What are we doing, Warren said.
    I’m just here to be with you, she said.
    Warren felt coddled, weak, able to choke on his own protest. He said nothing.

Crows battered the trees with their posturing. Warren watched them without seeing anything. He wondered when he could find the time to lie down in a muggy shade and let his liver be pecked and plucked out of him.
    Daniel put his hand on Warren’s shoulder.

What did he say to you? She was in his tent and asking.
    Warren said I don’t know. He shook his head, eyes heating. He saw himself crying at a remove, briefly, receding away from a vision of himself as if he had jumped face-up off a bridge. Warren felt warm while watched, but yearned to have money again so he could securely destroy himself with it.

Weeks of walks, of talks with him near trees, and regular feeding. He could only think that, as Daniel had promised, he had waited it out. Outlasted it, is what Daniel had said. Warren thought his renewed desire to live miraculous, and the feeling of miracle itself proved to Warren that he was better.
    Gradually, Warren rejoined the group. Sat back before the evening fires. He kept alert for differences: softened characters, shallower conversation. Like all the times before during which he freshly declaimed suicide, Warren treated himself like an open wound. He guarded himself against sensitive measures in some strangely guilty dance of compensation. Warren knew to watch, and to feel.
    On the group’s third night in full attendance, Daniel asked this opening question: Why must we kill ourselves from a place of tranquility?

Daniel invited Warren for talks. These talks were always private, though open to guests——those allowed to walk beside the talkers and to listen. No one had yet been a guest. They thought Daniel most valued time either with all or with one. As he had said to them many times: Be open or closed to the world. Half measures are for those who haven’t allowed themselves to think.
    They’d been strolling through the woods around their camp every day for a week. This time——the first yellow leaves new on the ground yet still pliable as flesh——Daniel hadn’t said a word for miles. Warren waited, knowing again——no: remembering——that silence is always profound if we let it be. Warren had felt well for weeks, running water and cooking in between conversations. He’d volunteered for the solo town run, but Daniel recommended against. He had a good argument for Warren staying close, but Warren couldn’t quite remember. Though he knew that it was good.
    What do you want, Warren?
    Daniel stared ahead, walking.
    Warren waited for the next question, but it didn’t come. Warren only realized this after many minutes——too long to keep a response waiting between them.
    I want to stay with everyone until we’re all ready.
    What will you do if that doesn’t happen, Daniel asked.
    Warren sped up. Daniel was taking long strides ahead. I’ll——Warren tripped on a storm-rent branch, caught his pace again. He felt dumb for starting to speak before knowing where he’d end up. He didn’t want to waste this time.
    I’m sorry. I’ll go when I’m ready, then.
    Daniel stopped walking, looked up at the canopy, inhaled.
    Warren stopped beside him and looked out. He had nothing to look at, so he picked a point. Some tree with a gouge in its bark, stunted.
    Daniel slowly turned toward Warren and opened his arms. He laughed.
    May I?
    Warren laughed too, dry and low. He felt Daniel’s quick and strong hug, and returned it. Daniel stepped away and looked down while Warren tried to banish the bristle against touch he always felt light up through his skin.
    I’m so glad you’re back with us, Daniel said. After all that time in the hands of the preservation industry. With no dignified curiosity in your beliefs and aims. Punishing your body with unnatural stasis. I hate to think about all that pain, Warren.
    Daniel looked into Warren’s eyes.
    I do, Daniel said, nodding.

Warren felt through weeks fat with scrutiny. Daniel appeared more often, touched more often, gazed at them until they realized their errors, which were correctible. He felt the lift of potential in his body——Warren knew it was now totally gone, what the unseeing folks called depression. He repeated to himself often the ward that Daniel had passed to him on his first day: The concept is meant to hide its origin.
    Daniel felt strong——nearly strong enough to let himself die.

Warren, Daniel, and the two women stood backlit by sundown. The rest of the group had been asked to leave until the trees became obscured by night; Daniel and the rest standing here wanted space for their talk and their decisions.
    A knife lay on a tree stump. Amber sunlight seemed to seal it.
    Daniel spoke: What it is that’s in front of you is a tool.
    Yes, Warren said.
    Yes, Amay said.
    Yes, said Rose.
    Daniel stepped forward and placed his palm over the blade.
    The reason we choose to use this tool——if this is the tool we think best——is to save ourselves from the danger, from the true and final threat.
    Yes, they said. Their affirmations necessary to proceed.
    The true and final threat being that of a true and final death. An eradication. A self-conscious burning of all possibility.
    They agreed.
    Rose, Daniel said. He held out his hand.
    Rose stepped forward. Warren noticed that, next to him, Amay was sweating. He wanted to laugh. He knew his laughter’s disaster. He kept closed.
    Daniel placed Rose’s hand on the knife.
    Who do you respect, Rose?
    No one, she said. And so everyone yet to come.
    Do you respect yourself, Rose?
    A finger of wind found its way through the trees, birds cackling awake.
    Rose looked back at Amay. Warren watched Rose look, look for something else in what she saw, try to look past what was there. Which was just some body.
    I do, Rose said, returning to Daniel.
    Ready… Ready, Warren whispered. He felt very full of many things.
    Would you like to act now, Rose?
    Warren stepped forward, impelled. I am, Warren said. I’m here and completely present. Aimed. Aware of the weight. I——
    Warren. Daniel still knelt with her, begging someone to fulfill his wishes, to be voluptuous and defined by speed.
    It’s all here——the air——Warren jumped for the knife——
    Daniel pulled it back, Rose shouting, Daniel thrusting it out, out, a talisman.
    Don’t you fucking move, Daniel said, facing Warren.
    But it’s too late, Warren whispered. He looked at the knife, at Daniel’s admiration, at this pointed offering. He giggled.
    Daniel stepped back, arm locked. He looked into the copse.
    Quick footsteps through the woods——Warren had already felt them fly away, leap into the trees, become indefinite.
    I couldn’t be more here, Warren said, offering up his wrists.

T H E   A R T I S T

We grew up in Texas but had never seen a lake ice over. We were with our aunt, my father’s sister, the last sister still alive. She walked Debbie and I out to Lake Michigan, which wasn’t far from her front door. A long cold walk in the frozen center of America, is what my sister called that day––after she’d read Dante in high school. Shelly, our aunt, told us the whole walk about her dead sisters, about how they died, and only then about their secret problems and ways of making my father into an angry and quiet person––into a cocoon of a boy that we, all three of us, shivered against in the full knowledge of him as a man. He terrified us, me most of all, and now I think that Shelly brought him up in order to make us happy to be outside in such a wind. It worked, I guess. Still works, in a way.
    So we came to the lake and stood on the freezing sand for awhile, awed at the frozen shore. The waves had stopped up as chunky glyphs, very dignified and terrible. Debbie grabbed my arm and held on. Shelly had stopped talking. It wasn’t until I read Antigone––to address a peculiar sort of dare that Deb and I often traded––that I found a word for that ice: deinos. Root of dinosaur. Wonderful and terrible. Ancient. We weren’t trembling at the ice, but we were shaking before it, and I’ve wondered at the difference ever since.
    I came back to the lake, in winter, when Deb died, and long after Shelly with her guilt and tales had gone. I had them both on my skin in portraits, making them visible in the way I thought most practical for me. The tattoos didn’t quite cover me, not yet, and even now I don’t know why I’ve left my face blank. But I was at the water, standing with my bare feet inches away from the ice, thinking about Deb––and I felt in my mind, held there both perfectly at once, a lucid memory of Deb’s face just the day before she died, and an indescribable desire to disappear. For some reason, this desire presented itself, in tandem with my memory of Debbie’s face, as a squat black crystal, this crystal resting on a long white table in a well-lit but empty room. I laugh now because it sounds pretentious, just recalling that little thought. But if I were able to take one of your hands into my hand, and then to squeeze that hand with the intense pressure of that desire––not to die, but to purely and utterly disappear, without consequences, without grief––then I think you’d buy it, that force by which my mind was commanded.
    If you feel up to it, keep this story in mind during the next twenty-three hours. The frozen lake, a sister’s face, the desire to go: together as a crystal on a table in a room.
    In Venice, for the Biennale, the gallery that represents me and sells my work––this gallery––had put me up in a nice tired old hotel, a place at a comical proximity to the water. The second night I was in town, before I got sober, I spent a few hours––right around a sherbet orange, milky sundown––sitting and drinking in the bar. And don’t worry: other than booze crumbling to pieces everything good or whole in my life, I was––and still am––severely bored with drunk tales, with druggy tales––so I won’t fixate on details and recap every bent of another night’s dumb drunk––but I was at the bar when I was approached by an elder gentleman, maybe seventy.
    He was stately––gray, pinstriped, manicured but not precious. Skin the color of an acorn. Rough hands, but not arthritic, that lit a cigarette with a small pewter lighter. He sat next to me. He asked for my name, and I mean just that: he said, May I have your name? We spoke for a few minutes then about I don’t know what, yet I noticed that we both drank at a pace belying our desperation––like we wanted to die, but didn’t want to broadcast that fact within a place of such civility. The plain way of saying this is that our hands were shaking. After awhile, the gentleman turned to me and said: I want to destroy something beautiful in Venice. Will you help me?
    When he said this, I thought of Taxi Driver, of Scorsese confessing––or trying to convince himself––that he was going to shoot his wife and the black man she was sleeping with. That crazed vulgarity of wanting to fire a gun into your wife’s vagina. Looking at this man in the bar, I was trying to suss out any psychotic violence. Sniffing, best I could through the new drunk, any want to kill. I knew I had to ask him questions. So we talked for awhile, hours maybe. He slowly revealed his desire to mar a piece of culture––some art––like a man slowly opening his right hand to reveal an injured baby bird, the man’s face proud and protective and also curious about the consequences of crushing it. I indulged him––we ragged on Bernini, on Bosch. Not critically, but in a homicidal admiration. The gentleman asked: do all artists want to rid themselves of their predecessors? I finished my drink and placed my flat palm over the glass and said: one way or another. We traded good questions and bullshit answers for another hour. Then, the pledge: I would help the gentleman destroy something beautiful in Venice, and it would be an inhuman thing––the thing destroyed––and the destruction would be public. No apologies would be issued, no pardons requested upon the event of arrest––no pleas against the original power of the act. He said within a year, it must be done within a year; I told him five.
    This brings me to the thing destroyed: Celebration, pen on paper, twelve years. I started drawing the piece in 1990. I wanted to work on something, one thing, for a long time, to see primarily if I had stamina for repetition and redundancy. I told myself that I would draw chandeliers, hundreds of thousands of chandeliers, if possible. The first twelve by sixteen piece of paper that I filled with chandeliers became the centerpiece of the whole collection of sixteen thousand, eight hundred and seventy-five pieces of paper, all others arranged in a random grid around the first piece of paper, the whole piece occupying twenty-two thousand, five hundred square feet. Filled the first page at a desk in an apartment in Detroit, day-drinking and reading James Baldwin, trying to not sleep. The last page, which took me two months to fill, I worked on in my aunt’s old apartment, in a hot Michigan summer, coming to and from the lake at dawn and dusk. Our family’s money was all gone at that point––or at least all of the fortune that I could get ahold of––and so I kept up a pace of three small paintings per month, on top of my work on Celebration pages, in order to pay others what was owed and buy paper, pens, and soup. The prior three years, representatives of this gallery tried convincing me of the use of selling off Celebration piecemeal, both for cash and hype. With the Venetian gentleman’s promise in mind, I refused, staying cheap and low.
    It might be that novelists are excused for––or expected to––sacrifice precision for beauty, and philosophers beauty for precision. If that’s true, artists should be expected to sacrifice neither. We’ve got no excuse, is what I’m saying. The freedom and power––in other words, the money given to artists who have been granted access to a club that peddles in a certain grandeur, or scale––I’m thinking of Walker’s sugar sculpture, the hanging rock in Los Angeles, Koons and his Play-doh, or Turrell’s holy sanctuary in the goddamned crater of a dormant volcano, like some ascetic Dr. Doom––this money allows you into this club, and as much as this club is capable of anesthetizing artists to their responsibilities and skills, it also allows you to do whatever you want. In my case, secrecy about Celebration was its necessary pressure, and the art market’s necessary gimmick. My bait. But I wanted to make sure that the piece did two things with my newish access to scale: draw attention to it, this access and pattern for grandeur in contemporary art, and do so with beauty and precision. This is why I worked on the piece for twelve years. This is why I did everything––drew it all myself. No unpaid, minimally paid, never credited assistants; no pyramid economics with a blank white face. This is why I told only Deb, Matthew, and Isaiah, and only showed Deb. The only eyes that had seen Celebration before it came and went in Venice were Deb’s and she died with those eyes. It’s strange to me that the only person who saw the piece––pieces of the whole, at least––took that impression underground, diffusing the sight somehow. Maybe the dirt is a more honest audience member––the Eumenides testifies to that. I don’t know. Deb died, I promised a gentleman some destruction, hence Venice, 2003.
    For those who don’t know what I’m assholishly alluding to, I had Celebration exhibited in its entirety––all sixteen thousand plus pieces creating a huge rectangle––displayed on the floor of the Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy, for the 2003 Biennale. What I kept private, though, until the seventh hour of the piece’s exhibition, was its planned destruction. Nobody knew, so that’s why there’s only one video of the helicopter drifting forty or fifty feet above the square. This silly Zapruder film caught me pouring bucket after bucket of red and white paint onto Celebration, caught a few diligent security guards running out over the field of chandeliers in order to plead at first to the helicopter pilot and then to me––none of the guards with their navy arms raised knew my face; presumably none knew the Biennale bought a hefty insurance policy because I had strategically refused to allow the papers to be laminated or laid over with plexiglass, and had also strategically refused to sell any of the piece, which stung only for a minute after the piece got valued, in an arbitrary and psychotic flurry, at over five million bucks, a number the pure product of fairyland art market logic, through which scale is confused for beauty then begets pride, which then, as always, affirms itself with cash––so the tan Italian men shouted up to us in urgent imperatives as I kept spilling paint, trying to avoid splattering the guards as the helicopter banked, tilted, its blades kicking up winds which licked the corners of each page. With each emptied bucket, the act of defacing this thing, this thing that I had worked on for twelve years, covering much of that work with simple and scattered colors: this never felt like a joke. I never felt sly or even triumphant, nor relieved. I was sober. I was fulfilling a promise from a drunk to a drunk. I was destroying the thing I had labored to make beautiful and precise, ruining it from above. This wasn’t war; this simple act wasn’t even violent. My destruction of Celebration was merely a necessity of responsibility. A pledge without mystery.
    There’s a line in Montaigne’s essay on prayer: “He was wretched enough to be taken literally.”
    I flew back to Michigan the same day. Friends wrote letters about what friends said, simple critics. We wrote back and forth about banal stuff. Gradually, I slowed. Walking six, seven hours per day. Speaking a handful of times, mostly to checkout people at the grocery store, postal workers. Beyond those simple habits, my mind became mush. I got boring without being bored; I sank into middle America like a rock tossed by a kid, sinking into mud.
    A couple gray months and I started walking less and reading more. Montaigne and Mandelbrot. Both made me laugh and look at things harder; I began to itch. I soon started drawing again, and then my gluttony for filled pages, completed work, kicked in. My old stubborn stamina returned––I was sketching and painting twelve hours per day. Lunch: bread soaked in olive oil, tangerines, green tea. Dinner: rice and fish. Once I was settling into this new period of work, I felt capable of not being a disappeared prick, again ready to help friends. I mailed a letter to Celia, a friend who worked at Bomb Magazine, and asked for a short column every month. She approved, so I ordered the internet again. Spent two hours a night trawling blogs and portfolios, staying away from gallery websites. Eventually, I rounded up ten names and ten pieces. One thousand words per article. I promised Celia an eleventh post, too: an essay on the destruction of Celebration. With the ten essays on the work of young artists, I thought to keep those artists from starving, assuming the art game functioned as it had for years––the articles by the artists and critics fed the gallery owners and curators, who pitched the rich with the language from the articles. Sometimes just handing over the articles themselves, preying on the dumb potency of paper. I reread Orwell and avoided art speak the best I could.
    One of the paintings I wrote about, titled Four Objects in White, was made by a gentleman named Antonio M. Noralez. A strange surname, as if the regular M had been factored out, shifting the alphabet to the left by one character, his last name already a denial. His work was great, mostly acrylics on paper, but Four Objects in White was incredible––the painting consisted of a large sheet of paper filled with what looked like three thick layers of about six shades of white paint, arranged such that certain shades served as plateaus on certain portions of the page. The photograph of the painting, taken with natural light coming from an unseen source behind the left shoulder––or at about seven o’clock from the orientation of the camera facing the painting––zooming into the photo reveals soft discoloring shadows created by the different geological thicknesses of paint on the paper. The four objects named in the title of the painting were four vaguely geometrical shapes, maybe solids, that had been painted and carved out with minute strokes of a scalpel in a way that made the objects appear to move into and throughout themselves. The painting was new, beautiful, and worth looking at for a very long time.
    I had questions about the painting, and questions about Antonio––his website was as bare of information as it could be. He was born in 1989, lived in Mexico, and titled the six pieces of art on the site––all photographed, none scanned––in simple, mechanical English. Surprisingly, he included his email address. I sent him a brief introduction and asked if he would be willing to respond to a few questions.
    He responded eight days later. He said yes, thank you, and that he would answer five.
    I thought better than to ask him more than one question about his life. His timidity was obvious; I felt that he could be pretty easily scared off. But I also wanted as much information about his work as I could get, greedily hoping to learn from him, and to get his new methods into my aging hands. That was tactical. Though my strategy in only asking one question about Antonio’s private life was to present him as a mystery. I knew that, if I could do my job as a critic, if I could adequately describe his painting’s novelty and importance without flattening his identity or explaining it away, then I would get him gallery representation and attention, and ultimately, get him paid and fed and able to make more work.
    He answered my first four questions quickly and precisely. I got the impression he had struggled to learn English, and now wrote with a hard won grammatical fidelity. Checking the time signatures of our emails, he responded to the first four questions about Four Objects in White and his other work all within forty minutes of me sending them. So I learned we both kept late hours. For Four Objects in White, he copped to the painting’s obvious laboriousness––hundreds of hours of work with the scalpel, putty, paint. He said that Four Objects in White was the only painting of his that felt “adequate.” This little phrase revealed his pain, which I instinctively bought. His obsessiveness couldn’t have sweated an ounce of affectation––faking care would’ve been an unbearable waste of time.
    The fifth and last question I asked him went like this: do you feel capable of describing in detail your desire to make art?
    His response, which I’ve now since memorized: Yes. My desire to paint and to draw feels like a convoluted itch. This itch causes me much complication. If I am to be honest, scratching this itch requires me to host a sadness. This sadness is that which I could never solve. I am sorry to answer in such mournful terms. When I am painting or drawing, though, I feel myself to be making quiet things capable of life.
    Six weeks later, Bomb published the piece on Antonio. Eighteen days later, his body was discovered in a park six miles from his childhood home. Antonio had travelled to southern Mexico, near Oaxaca, by bus, and then had killed himself with morphine and a scalpel around midnight. In his apartment in Mexico City, he had gathered together his life’s work––around six hundred drawings and forty paintings––and had destroyed them. He shredded most of his drawings with scissors and a scalpel, likely the same scalpel he used to kill himself, and burned his paintings, carefully diverting the smoke out his small kitchen window. His apartment was otherwise immaculate.
    I’ve looked harder at Antonio’s death than I’ve looked at anything. But I won’t let my looking, and trying to understand, make me into the kind of obscenity that connects events to one another with colorless straight lines. I have plenty of facts about Antonio, his life and his death––I do now. His suicide eclipses those facts.
    Two weeks ago, I returned to the lake in order to work on the circumstances of this piece. Needing to ask myself again and again if it was, or would be, a performance. Asking again: why make this? Why invite other people, strangers, to witness it, or inevitably to listen to it, read it? Down at the shore in the evening, a strand of small black rocks sat just inches away from the pull of the tide. They were placed in a way that assured me of the hands that had set them down, carefully out of reach of the cold foam. I looked around, hoping to see a little girl, or some other child. Hoping for some benevolent kid to come around some corner that I hadn’t yet noticed. Carrying one or two more little dark stones.