The Artist, Deeply, Brushes
by Ken Altabef
Was that a pair of legs protruding from the dumpster?
I stood frozen for a moment, intent on dissecting the whorls of shifting obscurity that masked the far end of the cul-de-sac. It seemed as if I glimpsed just such a pair of oblique forms scissoring up through the gloom. Red tennis shoes? Surely not, I told myself. It was dark in the alley, I was lost and seeing things, shadows in the shapes, and I best concentrate on finding the gallery. I did not feel safe here.
I was running late thanks to an overworked radiator that had burst in a hissing fit of steam and left me without a cab, wandering streets oddly deserted, unable to find another. With a grumble and a shrug I set forth on foot, deep into the Delornn slum.
Why anyone should open a fine arts gallery in this horrid place, I shall never understand. I immediately lost my way, having to zig-zag repeatedly to avoid broken-down derelicts looming in doorways or other suspicious characters shuffling up the street toward me. This had always been a place of dark alleys, exposed pipes slick with mildew and dripping rot, leaking steam and noxious fumes, of sidewalks carpeted by debris, the only traces of color the glint of broken glass. The streets were unnaturally quiet except for the rustling of small creatures as they scurried through the garbage and strange whisperings heard around the edges, garbled voices muttering vague and senseless words. The air was dank, thick with the reek of resignation and despair. This place could never be clean.
The night was lit only by a pale sliver of moon playing hide-and-seek above the frowning rooftops. I wandered up and down what might have been the same street over and over, unable to make out any identifying numbers. The buildings all seemed vaguely similar in the gloom, the street signs bent and corroded. To be lost in Delornn was maddening.
At last I came upon what I thought must be the proper street. A police cruiser sat parked at the curb, its lights turned off, a motionless silhouette perched behind the wheel. The only sign of life were gray gasps of cigarette smoke puffing out the driver’s window like some kind of frantic smoke signal, but that was good enough for me.
“Excuse me,” I said.
“You want the DuBlanc gallery,” a thin, reedy voice suggested. The policeman leaned closer to the window, disgorging smoke between a pair of thin, dry lips. His face appeared bloated and sickly, although that impression might have been a trick of the moonlight playing against pale skin and deeply bloodshot eye sockets.
“That’s right,” I said.
“Alone? A young lady needs to be careful on these streets at night,” he said sternly. It took a moment for me to grasp his implication. Looking as I do, the thought of rape hardly ever rears its ugly head even in such desolate surroundings. Not likely, I thought to say. I was so thoroughly used to scornful glances from men and pitying looks from women.
“You go on,” the square-faced policeman said, gesturing across the street. “I can’t go in, but I expect to be here for awhile. I’ll see that you get home safely.”
I crossed the empty street, still unsure as to the exact location he had indicated. A high-rise apartment building stood directly opposite. Twin mounds of rancid garbage rose in huge heaps on the pavement, having been simply discarded from the windows of the tenement. Between these decaying monuments to depraved carelessness squatted a dwarfish warehouse. The doorway was charred with old fire damage but there seemed to be a sign scratched into the blackened wood above the lintel. I made out a single word: DuBlanc. There was no light above the transom, just a dim glow seeping through one thickly-draped window on the second floor.
The buzzer sounded three shades harsher than expected, yet proved poorly effective. I passed an impossibly long time alternating glances between the penumbral police car and the shadowed doorway, the grating noise of the bell the perfect accompaniment as I watched my plans of the evening devolve into yet another missed opportunity. My career was a helpless, mangled thing. It was difficult enough to talk my way into an interview these days at all, and now it was growing very late. When I reached the point where I could stand it no longer, another moment of that nerve-jangling racket certain to drive me insane, I turned away. Only then did I hear a chain scraping against the inside of the door.
The gallery opened upon a pitifully small man that could only be Cadaque. He smiled at me, I guess, if you could call that twisted thing a smile. His face seemed a sheet of clear plastic stretched over a blotchy complexion, unnaturally smooth and moist like some sort of lifeless vinyl mask. He was well-dressed for the hour in a dark little-boy suit fronted by a voluminous pink cravat.
“Monsieur Cadaque,” I said, “allow me to introduce myself. Doku Leung, Independent News Service.”
He offered an oddly feminine hand, an artist’s hand I suppose, and I found it faintly humorous to see such elegance clasped within my own ungainly butcher’s mitt.
“Miss Leung, you are terminally late. It’s well past the hour for the interview.” His voice was as small as his figure, distorted by irritation, the high-pitched squall of a petulant duck.
I began to mumble some sort of ill-conceived apology but he cut me off.
“I’ve no time now for an interview,” he insisted, ineffectually waving his hands. “This is not a suitable hour, and I require a certain amount of sleep. You understand.”
“I’ve come a long way.”
“So you have. Perhaps you would care to view one exhibit. Nothing more. You’ll have to come back again for the interview.”
He led me into a tiny foyer whose fluorescent lighting was dim, like a miscarriage, perpetually caught in the split-second stutter when the bulbs haven’t fully engaged. I was rendered half-blind, barely able to make out the furnishings in the shadowy hallway – shabby Victorian cast-offs that fell somewhere between mangled junk and deeply-weathered antique. I glimpsed a hallway of closed doors at the top of the stairs. One loomed slightly ajar, coldly backlit by some flickering source, perhaps a guttering candle. The sole concession to elegance among the oddments was a coffee table, darkly lacquered and polished to an intense ebony sheen, set with a richly embroidered doily. A glass bowl half-full of peppermints rested on the table. I reached for one only to find the lot of them clotted into one unmanageable lump.
“Allow me to present my newest acquisition,” he said, pronating a delicate hand with a miniature showman’s flourish. Newest acquisition. I thought it strange for an artist to refer to his own work in that manner, but he was a quirky sort, no doubt.
I felt oddly reassured. My scathing review of the shabby DuBlanc Gallery already half-formed in my mind; I need see little more. I was tired, and grateful to avoid having to endure a lengthy interview with all the attendant niceties and nonsense. And so much better than an extended viewing, just a sampling of the art.
The bulk of the warehouse was divided into cubicles, each perhaps five feet square, by a series of flimsy, frayed curtains. As Cadaque led me down the makeshift corridor with his peculiar shuffling gait, I could hear faint scraping sounds, barely discernible, rustling the lower edges of the partitions. A musty smell emanating from gaps in the floorboards spoke of a cellar beneath, telling tales of mildew and creeping mold and suggesting wild images of gigantic mushrooms that grew feculently amid the chill indifference of a swamp.
The pale smoke-blue lighting of the hallway snaked itself into the makeshift room housing the exhibit, an inordinately large space that contained only a small vanity table. It was in very poor condition, the surface vigorously defaced as if set upon by the maniacal urges of some lunatic. The entire room had the dingy appearance of an extremely dusty space although upon closer inspection there was no dust.
Behind the table hung a small mirror framed by a string of cheap colored lights like those made for a Christmas tree. Unlit, they appeared pathetic, dead and dark. What nonsense is this, I thought. I wanted to leave at once but a voice, his voice, perilously close to my ear, said firmly, “Wait.”
Only then did I notice, resting on the table’s marred surface, a tiny wooden tee. The tee housed an unusual crystal which resembled in size and color a yellowed chunk of rock salt or a lone piece of half-eaten hard candy.
The lights went abruptly out. Cast in the absolute darkness of a windowless room, I strained to see my own face in the mirror. The image would have been a familiarly disturbing one: a pair of sad, droopy eyes spaced disconcertingly far apart, the too-flat nose, the pitted skin, unloved, unlovable. I could see nothing.
I felt, mesmerized, that despite an intense desire to run I desperately needed to stay, sensing that some momentous event was just about to occur. I began to experience a series of strained and disheartening emanations. I felt the dry-mouth of the habitual drunk, a midnight fog creeping around the edges of thought. I found myself cast into a place where sunlight could never reach, where there existed nothing but a vast deathly blackness and an unopposable crushing weight pressing against me from all sides, bearing me inexorably down. Dead-end jobs, family ties withered away, a woman he had loved transformed into a viscous shrew right before his eyes, pains in his chest, his knees, his head. An unending, driving rain which pelted him with the bitter dregs of sad and vainglorious truths. It was almost too much, the unbearable loneliness, the incessant failure.
Just as I reached the point where I felt I could plummet no lower, I caught a tiny sparkle within the gem. It was such a small light but in the enormous darkness of the place, tainted as it was by my depressed state, it seemed a beacon strobing and flashing like lightning in a bottle. Glorious images began to fill the room, or merely played somewhere deep inside my head; it was impossible to tell. Daydreams and dalliances. A castle in the air, made of cloud-stuff, accessible only by way of a winged horse that ferried children to and fro; wondrous armies of mechanical men clashing within the heart of a nuclear explosion; entire civilizations etched onto the head of a pin, tucked into a clown’s lapel; calcimine castles that rippled below a weightless sea; a pair of lovers trapped forever in a bubble of time. These things and more, all wonderful beyond description, cavorting, tumbling, cascading together until they joined at the center, which was me, lifted off the ground in an ecstasy of light and warmth.
The drab string of Christmas lights were suddenly ablaze, pulsating with a strange new beauty, sporting impossible colors I could not have conceived earlier. It was all too much.
For some undefined period of time I was unable to move. I stood staring as the lights flashed in the gravy blackness, blinking azure and crimson and gold. When I was done, my host surely already gone up to bed, I let myself out. I broke off one of the congealed mints by the doorway as I passed. It was surprisingly sweet.
Across the street, the police car was conspicuously absent.
The rapping at the door became increasingly insistent to the point of sounding frantic, but I continued to ignore it. It wasn’t that I was engrossed in what I was doing, riffling through yellowed files in hopeless hope that something new would materialize among the coffee stains, but I was much enjoying the early morning solitude of the office.
The workroom at INS looked exactly like what it was, a watershed for otherwise unemployed and unemployable reporters. Desktops carved by frustrated fingernails, battered keyboards, erratic monitors heaped with mountains of useless paper, the indecipherable scribble of misguided middle-of-the-night inspirations. Here, a wasp’s nest of crumpled paper jutting staples and paperclips. There, coffee grounds and cigarette ash, mingled with sweat and tears. A few of us had once eked out viable careers, fallen now on hard times, irredeemable news hacks lost in the professional abyss. Some, like me, never really had a chance.
Looming stacks of files and useless paper towered above me on either side. One day they would all come crashing down, flattening whatever poor soul was seated below. I was alone in the room. Everyone else had someone to go home to, Saturday picnics in the park, reunions with family and friends. Gone, without a care for those of us who live entirely alone. Many consider Christmas the most depressing time of year but for me spring holds that distinction. I’ll take a chill morning any time, a heavy blanket of snow locking down the city in restful quiet; there is nothing like bursting wildflowers and children running laughing across green grass to bring me down. Let them have their fun. I rummaged through my dead files, searching for a story to work up, something that hadn’t been done to death already, but my thoughts kept coming back to that horrid gallery and its strange little curator.
The door slammed open. I slouched down in my chair. Really, as short as I am it didn’t take much for my head to disappear below the monitor. After a minute I braved a peek around the edge of the screen.
“I’ve got questions,” said the beefy policeman.
“Don’t we all,” I returned. I gathered his hair had once been blond, judging by the pale snatches of stubble barely visible against his pallid skin. He breathed with a perpetual wheeze, his lips faintly blue, gaping in a circular hole in need of a cigarette. The tip of his tongue, glimpsed furtively through the cigarette-sized opening, a sickly gray.
“A girl was killed last night in Delornn. Her body tossed in a dumpster, like garbage.” His voice was reedy and vague, as if it had to travel a long distance to break free of his barrel chest. “You were there. See anything?”
So many things, I thought. “Nothing.”
“What about inside?” he asked. Standing across the desk he towered above me, his barrel chest huffing, the wheeze relentless.
“He showed me his work,” I began. When his eyes kept on asking, I added, “Just junk. What else could you expect in a place like that?”
“Cadaque’s mixed up in this. He’s a killer.”
“He’s an artist.”
“There have been others. Three deaths in Minnesota. Two in Jersey. Another here, last week. This guy Cadaque gets around. You see this?”
He tossed a crumpled photo on the pile cresting my desk. Before it sank into the morass of paper, I had a good glimpse of it. Although I had never laid eyes on him before, I recognized him, even in death.
The policeman huffed. “Found on the docks, face down in the muck. Booze-hound, loner, vagrant, all-around loser.”
“He wanted to be a writer,” I said.
“That’s not in his file. He was nobody.”
“He had lots of wonderful ideas. He just couldn’t get them out. He didn’t have the words.”
“That’s a lot of nothing you seem to know,” wheezed the policeman.
“I’m working a story, that’s all. What was that you said about a dead girl?”
“I was asking you.”
“I don’t know anything about it. Look, he owes me an interview,” I said. “I’ll see if I can dig anything up.”
“Her name was Marissa Mosely. Another never-ran in life’s lottery. Drugs. Prostitution. Dead.” He tossed a greasy card at my desk. “Stay away from Delornn. That’s my advice.”
I went back. Despite the last scattered vestiges of daylight seeping down through the breaks in its rumpled skyline, Delornn was somehow no less dark. Even the sun could not defy the drain of undeniable gravity in the slum. It was a feeble, desperate bulb here, its light an anemic trickle against an infinite pool of darkness. I found the police car parked again in the moonless dusk outside the DuBlanc Gallery. I avoided it.
Cadaque greeted me coldly, his pink foam-rubber face and liquid eyes impassive as he ushered me into a sitting room off the foyer where he had set out tea and biscuits. I was late and the tea gone cold, but he poured anyway. The delicate porcelain cup looked odd in my meaty hands, a raised design of filigreed flowers around the rim, vibrant in pink and green. The tea was overly strong from sitting too long in the pot, and I noticed odd-shaped rinds drifting lazily in the bottom.
“A young woman, a transient, was killed near here last night,” I said.
He made a small mouse-like noise. “Such things happen. We are all transient, though, aren’t we?”
“And a search for permanence in this creation will yield neither monument nor personage who may claim that distinction. All washed away, in time. Only one thing above all do we preserve and treasure, one thing spared even in times of war.”
“Art,” I said, nodding my head. I sipped the tea, finding it unusually bitter. I swirled the elegant little cup, setting the tiny insectoid shapes to whirling in the depths. “Where exactly do you ‘acquire’ your exhibits? Minnesota? Jersey? The docks?”
“You have an unusual interview style,” he said.
“Maybe that’s why I can’t keep a steady job.”
His face creased in the middle, releasing two puffs of dry laughter. “Tell me, Miss Leung, how did you like the exhibit?”
“It did have a certain charm. And I’ll admit it surpassed my expectations. At first blush this place doesn’t look like much–”
”Yes, but when you delve deeper . . . . Were you surprised to find something so achingly brilliant amid these squalid surroundings? There can be found great beauty where it is least expected. I suspect you already know that.”
I didn’t answer, just watched him suckle at his teacup, an impassionate expression on his formless face. He was baiting me. But it wasn’t going to work. After a lifetime of loneliness, I had fallen into tacit agreement with the rest of the world. I simply didn’t think that much of myself.
Eventually, with a tone of mock-capitulation, he added, “Am I correct to assume you would like to see more?”
“I want to see Marissa Mosely.”
“It is easily arranged.”
Another nondescript room, hung with gray canvas sacks for walls; another small end table, somewhat tilted, one leg shorter than the other. This time there was a hanging mirror in a cheap plastic frame, unadorned by lights. I refused to look into it. On the table lay a single withered flower on a silver tray, illuminated by a tiny spot light. Dead white. Was it a lily or some rare cousin, some exotic type of orchid? I suppose it didn’t matter.
The light went out, and I surrendered myself once again to the darkness. I had expected the second time, having steeled myself against what was to come it would be easier, but I found myself no less affected. Unwelcome and disturbing emanations once again wheedled their way into my consciousness, needle-sharp fingers rummaging under my scalp, penetrating my mind. Marissa Mosely. I felt the swirl of dull disorientation, riding the white horse, meant to take away the pain but substituting instead a ravenous hunger. A tragic stick figure with an abyss yawning below her, calling her into it, dancing on the wire, destined to fall. The things she had let men do to her for money, for drugs, her womb not full of life as it should have been but full of pus, corrupted, seething. All her chances cut away by the surgeon’s knife, never to have a child, never to give all the love she had inside. Never.
The flower twitched. Was that a breath of life? Yes, I realized, she had so much love inside her for those yet unborn, those destined never to be, unconditional love that shone so white and so pure it was fierce and terrible to behold. A delight I had never imagined. If only she’d had the chance. The chamber began to fill with light, the world exploded with light, but I was unsure if it was actually in the room or merely all inside my head. I can’t contain such a brilliant light, I thought, such love. It was so beautiful.
When it was over I lay trembling across the bare floorboards of the makeshift room. They were remarkably clean. The spotlight was on, the dead flower unchanged, the tray brilliantly reflective.
I spent the next few days listlessly pacing the apartment. Four dull walls, secondhand appointments, stick furniture, frozen dinners. It wasn’t much, but it was home.
I shrugged on my coat and went for long dispirited walks, wandering through streets gone suddenly unfamiliar. There is no experience as disparaging as walking the tarnished streets of a friendless city, no one to talk to. Spring was in the air with its stinging promise of hope and happiness, the sky painfully blue, scraps of familiar music drifting on the breeze, and paired lovers holding hands. I was an unwanted shadow among them, nothing more.
I shuffled on, recalling Cadaque’s offer, the smoky mirror with the Christmas lights and what I had seen there. The revolving door had turned, and I revisited again everything that had caused me to shut myself away from the world. Rocks thrown on school playgrounds, doors slammed in my face, prayers unanswered, whips of derisive laughter. Why had I hesitated?
“Are you willing to conclude our interview?” he had asked, the mask had asked. I realized now that he was nothing, neither artist nor killer. Nothing at all.
Darkness fell as I sat sipping a cup of tea in my empty apartment. The brew was disappointingly bland; I had run out of sugar days ago.
The phone shrieked. My first impulse was to let it ring. I received so few calls these days, mostly salesmen and pollsters, I rarely bothered to pick it up. But then on the heel of the fifth ring I thought, what if it was him? I grabbed for the receiver with a jerky motion.
There was near total silence on the other end.
“Hello?” I said, thinking I sounded pathetic, like some sort of gullible fool. There returned only a distant sound, a now-familiar wheeze.
“Who‘s there?” I asked.
“Stay away from Cadaque. He is more dangerous than you know.”
I pictured the cop’s ashen face, his dry nicotine-stained lips. I wasn’t sure how he had dug up my number. It didn’t matter.
“What do you want from him?” I shrieked. “What do you want from Cadaque?”
“”I want justice.” The wheeze came again. “For his victims.”
“You fool!” I shouted. “There aren’t any victims. Only palettes.” I slammed the phone down. I knew what I had to do.
My mind made up, I braved Delornn one last time. The weather seemed to have suddenly skipped tracks, following the suit of my dreary mood, offering a pitiless slate-gray sky and a relentless drizzle tossed about by a cold wind. I don’t think springtime ever comes to Delornn.
I had no trouble locating the warehouse but I found the sign torn down, stomped carelessly underfoot, leaving a pair of bare nails protruding from the doorway. My heart dashed in my chest. Crestfallen, I rang the bell. It made a different sound now, dented and off-kilter, a dead sound. There could be no answer. The door was unlocked, the warehouse empty, the drapes scattered across the floor, trampled in the dust.
The place deserted, I stumbled upon the mirror, the string of lights hastily torn away. There was only my reflection in its milky surface, seen clearly now for the first time. I stared at it in horror. That’s not what I wanted to see. I wanted to shine. I wanted so much for him to make me shine.
Ken Altabef’s short fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and other magazines. Way Of The Shaman, his 5-part series of epic fantasy novels is published by Blueberry Lane Books. Readers can preview this work and others at the author’s website www.wayoftheshamanONLINE.com.