He touched it and then couldn’t take his finger off. Maybe that meant it was art. A pleasantly cool silver rectangle, for what that was worth, and on the back a smaller rectangle, chrome: “LINEAR PROJECTION.” Then today’s date, looking odd because it was permanent, engraved right there: June 23, 1965. Then his name (LAWRENCE HONIG) because he had bought it.
Now, Larry’s name, for day-to-day purposes, was Bud (“I’m Bud, this is Lonnie,” he had said introducing his wife and himself to the artist, no bullshit necessary, patrons are just people with wallets) but that wasn’t the point. He had commissioned the sculpture, the artist had drafted his designs and had labored, had hung up the phone when Bud called, had done the whole number, artist-mage, and this was the result. At least there was the plaque. And Bud’s finger liked to stay on the silver.
Bud held his sculpture out to Lonnie. Her green eyes squinted, she tilted her head one way while her smile slid up the other way. She was saying, What are you going to do? Art’s a lottery. Bud tipped his head back and laughed. Jasper Johns’s beer cans, he’d gotten a lot of grief at first for buying those, and the four tape recorders laid nose to nose, wrapped in clear plastic — you hit buttons on different machines, heard different combinations of voices singing through the plastic about a small, small world. That had been kind of beautiful after a while. So, all right . . .
The artist blinked back at him. If being puzzled entails having your attention snagged in some way, then the artist was not puzzled. Nothing had drawn his attention so far. They were in the duplex, and Bud liked to think the duplex was worth looking at — white walls, mahogany floors, the Astaire-style grand piano with the faces on the keys (James Dean, Joseph Cotten, Tom Mix), painted there by Warhol before he got his name everywhere. Look out the window: down on the ground, Central Park was lying there like a green bath mat they’d forgotten to pick up. The Lichtensteins, the Jasper Johnses, the Oldenburgs — a gallery of soup cans, fighter jets done comic book style, miniaturized traffic signs, bull’s-eyes — the colors and idiot primal shapes vibrating and climbing up and down the white walls. With all that backing him up, Bud didn’t mind saying that, hey, he just didn’t get it. “Okay,” he told the artist. “Shoot.”
“Shoot?” the artist said, and blinked — a South Sea maiden asking young Bob Hope, What is this “kiss,” white man?
“Clue me in,” Bud said. “You said you needed silver to make the sculpture, and now it turns out the silver is the sculpture. So, what, is that the idea?”
The artist held forth a manila envelope. Bud took it, tried hoisting the silver plate under his arm, handed the plate to Lonnie. Inside was a sheet of onionskin typing paper, the kind that’s slippery but crinkles. The artist, or his miserable stringy-haired girlfriend up in the loft, had tapped out a paragraph.
First were the words, all caps, DORIAN GRAY. A literary touch. Then, in conventional uppercase and lowercase, came instructions: keep the plate in the same place, take it out every six months, take a photo of the thing, write the date on the back, put the photo in an album, wait six months, repeat.
“Any ideas?” Bud asked Lonnie, who was reading over his shoulder.
“Dorian Gray,” she said, and a lacquered fingernail poked at the page’s title. “Get it? The silver tarnishes, the silver gets older and . . .”
“Oh yeah, like the guy in the picture.” The idea began to break over him. The silver ages and they keep track and . . . That was a part of art, he had decided a long time ago — the riddle, the disconnected bits that suddenly snapped together and made sense under a heading you’d never have expected. Dorian Gray, a silver plate, photographs . . .
Bud laughed again; Lonnie too. “Yeah, all right,” Bud said to the artist. “We’ll take good care of this.”
“You’ll take care of it,” Lonnie said. The instructions spelled that out: the work’s owner took the photos. The work stayed out of sight except for the twice-a-year.
“Me, yeah,” Bud agreed. To the artist: “Now you are going to stay and help us drink some highballs.”
But no chance of that. The artist, in his reed-thin, frayed-cuff way, was visibly straining for the door. His loft was calling him from down on the edges of reeking Chinatown, the dented file cabinet with the projects he had no money to build, the resentful girlfriend cooking chow mein over a stove, the one-eyed cat — “One goddamn eye!” Bud had reported. Bud and Lonnie waved goodbye from the door as their new genius shuffled over the parquet to an elevator that outclassed his bedroom. Bud took the picture, laid his palm on the silver for a last, long appreciation, closed the safe. He joined his wife for the highballs over the green mat New York had deposited at their feet.
That was 1965, the beginning of the silver epoch. Bud did not give it that name until enough decades had passed for him to finally catch on. But in the meantime there was plenty to do. You don’t think about time when you’re living your life, as Bud told anyone who listened. Up at 5 — he still did that. Lonnie slept, God bless her, she had her own day ahead: exercise class and facials and talking the finishing-school wife of Omnicorp’s chairman into a lunch at Lutece. And he had his day. In the car to the Bronx — he drove himself — and by 6:30 at the latest he’d be there checking the fleet, talking to the night shift coming off and the day shift as they came in. He knew all the drivers, there were fifty of them now, no, fifty-four. He’d moved the company twice as the fleet expanded, and now they lived in the shadow of a brand-new arterial highway with the traffic moaning and banging overhead. In winter the wind snaked under your coat and tightened about your bones, and in summer . . . in summer, it was like a 5,000-pound kid was taking a wet, sloppy crap over the whole city, but at least that was the whole city’s problem. Jakey smoked his cigarettes and said he wasn’t taking the Knightsbridge area any more, the Puerto Rican kids hosed out the backseats, the morning crew came stumbling in, and soon Bud was behind his desk, that metal box, with the telephone jumping and the ship to steer. That was his day. He saw no reason not to love it, even with New York steaming under the cosmic diarrhea. To scramble through the traffic, to touch base here and here and here — Woodside, Avalon, Park Slope, because he had some supermarkets stashed away along with the cab company — to fight through the city and to know he owned enough chunks of the whole mess to visit its far corners . . . well, nothing to complain about there. He was on top of the pile, and that could only be lucky.
And at night . . . he and Lonnie got dressed and plotted strategy. You talk to her, I’ll talk to him. Corner Babs about the banquet invites, I want us to buy a table. What kind of donation do we give to get a seat on the committee? — but, you know, subtle. There was another pile that towered alongside his; his pile, in fact, just got them high enough to hop across and put their feet on the slopes. He owned cabs and supermarkets, and fifteen years ago he hadn’t owned anything. The lords of the pile, on the other hand, owned television networks and airlines, and in many cases their grandparents had owned railroads, refining companies, and banks. They lived in the stratosphere, the region of fine WASP bones and thin German Jewish lips, dinner jackets, gowns, and women’s shoulder blades. Cancer, civil rights, muscular dystrophy, art . . . these people always gathered for a cause, one that deserved money, and of all these causes Bud much preferred art. His collection had not grown up by accident. Back when he didn’t have a dime, he and Lonnie would wander in MOMA so they could feel the marble under their feet, listen to the cool hush of their loaner palace. Then the art began nagging at him. The colors, the lapel-grabbing bounciness drew him in but they were also a puzzle. When he had thought of paintings . . . somewhere he had seen an 18th-century boy with hair like a spaniel. The boy was done up in blue knickers, one toe pointed forward, his hand on his hip, the whole buried under sepia fog. Art was supposed to be too polite to move . . . so the colors here, that was one surprise. And then the picture of the boy had at least been a picture of a boy. The artists here felt entitled to do anything, and that would be art. So there was another puzzle. Maybe they just had nerve and were laughing all the way to the bank. Maybe they had nerve and were doing stuff nobody else had thought of. Who knew? The combination grabbed him: chutzpah, colors, friendliness, mystery. So when the money started to come, he started to collect, and that put him with his feet on the pile, climbing.
He and Lonnie would stand shoulder to shoulder and look at a room before entering. Not just to case the territory, to see which old WASP or German Jew was to be cornered, but because everything was laid out before them. They watched the black-clad shoulders and fine old noses whirling about the floor; a string quartet played beneath the lights, or else the Count Basie Orchestra. There was the museum crowd: lovely girls from Wellesley or Vassar talking with clever men who had turned graduate degrees into their stratosphere passports. There was the gallery crowd: more girls, and Europeans who had inhabited tuxedoes since middle Picasso. The occasional artist showed up, punishing the floor with spattered work boots.
“Here goes,” Lonnie said. “You got it,” Bud answered, and they launched themselves out onto the floor. It was the same feeling he had when breasting the traffic — a swimmer plunging into the crest of a wave would know what he meant. You plowed forward and whatever pulled at you and battered you just made it more fun.
At one benefit the paintings on the wall were all of a gleaming Atlas rocket and its curl of fire, which continued from panel to panel. Bud gathered that in this century art had become about grabbing the future before anyone else. And this year probably had more future than any other in history. Whatever was old, was dead. Well, fine — bring it all on, he’d gotten there first. He remembered when his Jasper Johns beer cans had been a joke. Now those kids got off the plane and they were on TV — the songs — and those kids on the West Coast, the light shows, girls with plastic boots, guys with bangs. It was all fine. The more the merrier. Tonight, for instance, the raccoon-eyed pack from downtown who had set up their instruments and their black-tower amplifiers and were loosing various squalls and electronic distress signals into the air. Ten years ago, unimaginable. Five years ago, unimaginable. Now . . . let it all loose. An old fart like himself should be feeling that the world had gone mad, but instead it was like everything had come around to his point of view. The walls of MOMA had invaded shirts, dresses, wallpaper, cars. Everything had picked up speed. Good.
1965 became 1970. Lonnie had served on a committee by now, acquisitions for 20th century Flemish, and hadn’t that been a struggle, but another was lined up and lunch with the wife of Omnicorp was not a special occasion. The Whitney had wanted a loan of Bud’s Rauschenbergs, with a nice fat mention in the catalog and some fuss made over him on opening night. The next day, as it happened, was another of the six months. Bud opened the safe and took a photo; the tarnish had picked up a little depth. He laid his finger against the silver and then reluctantly put the plate back in the safe.
Bud looked at Lonnie these days and she was still his partner and pal but, let’s face it, when she wore strapless the knobs of her spine popped right out at you. Between clavicle and chin you could almost see it, that tent-rope look, the taut cords you saw strung along the throats of old society ladies. “Who says you’re immune?” he asked himself in front of a mirror. He thought he could make it out already: the creases at the eyes, the face getting thicker. But maybe not. His hair hadn’t even picked up any gray, and he never dyed it. Still, 50 was not 45.
And 53 was not 50. He noticed that a while ago he had begun looking away when her clothes were off. When she stepped into her pumps and some calf was exposed — the withered meat. It didn’t matter; she was the one who made him laugh. But in a gallery one day he was joking with an art girl and he decided not to let it drop when she remained standing close up to him. In the past, yes, because when you had a buddy, who wanted to be some young girl’s wallet? But with Therese he felt a connection: green eyes and a lopsided smile. How did you go about these things? Well, a restaurant, one that was better than good but a long way south of the East 50s, and then another restaurant, soul-baring talks, a present — earrings from Cartier. It was easy because he liked Therese, she listened. He could imagine her talking with one of the guys up at the cab company, which could not be said of most people he met in the galleries. So one evening in her apartment he slid his hand up her leg and felt warm, solid thigh. Why not?
And that was 1973 to 1977. Lonnie knew something, but she never said a word. Of course, every rich old duff in the country went through this. The duff would feel the flesh sag and the lines deepen and he would decide, damn it, no, he wasn’t through being young. Then wives got dumped. I’m living a cliché, Bud thought. He knew about ironic quotations from his Pop Art days; now maybe his life was a quotation by a Pop artist of godlike powers. Lonnie’s exercise classes were running longer; the flesh was vanishing off her bones, sweated away as those eyes of hers loomed wider and glassier. He felt all the elements trembling into place: old wife, impatient young woman, years that wouldn’t stop going by. He looked in the mirror and still no gray, which you could say was proof that he deserved Therese.
But it didn’t happen. Lonnie was Lonnie, which settled all questions in the end. And maybe because there wasn’t any gray, no drop in his energy — still up at 5 — he didn’t see the need to buy up a bundle of youth. “It’s been great,” he told Therese one autumn night. They were sitting knee to knee in the living room, which was rather larger than the one she had when they met. She blinked back tears, angry, and he was surprised. “It’s no use me saying anything one way or the other,” he told her. “I made a decision and, well, there you are.” She turned out okay. A couple of years later one of the smart men at the museums married her, which made a lot more sense. Now she had kids, grandkids.
Years after the breakup, he asked Lonnie what she had known. Just about everything except the name, it seemed like, but of course that’s the point of cliché. “You’re a man and I knew at some point you’d be an asshole,” she said. “Hey,” Bud told her, “if I was an asshole one time.” She was frail on his lap; he held her and felt her bones.
It was interesting to watch her grow old. In some ways she became more like herself — the things she said now were things she had said for decades, the same phrases and ideas and reactions orchestrated in the same patterns and variations over and over. The variations consolidated and thinned out as the years went on. People always said that was the bad thing about age, that the mind became calcified, but to him it seemed different. The way she thrust her chin forward when looking in the mirror, the brief taps of the palm with which she helped a gown past her hips — though now the gowns rarely needed help — the amused drop in her voice when reading the punch line to one of their comic strips: everything she did, she had done a thousand times before, and no one else ever did them. As you got older, everything that didn’t belong to you fell away, and what was left was more you than anything else could be. That was artwork too, he supposed.
He photographed the silver plate, pulled his hands away and put it back in the safe, went to look in the mirror. He wondered when he would become more himself. No gray.
He watched Lonnie because he was losing interest in the rest of the show. The last time he voted was back in ’80. He just forgot after that — things fell away from him. The future rushing on . . . it wasn’t rushing anymore. He felt like he was out for a stroll while everyone else was running ahead of a locomotive. Even change had changed. At work, guys with ponytails were wedging their bellies behind the wheel so they could put in another day of blue-collar labor. Long hair and drugs (Christ, he’d had to fire seven guys) didn’t mean what they had meant 10 or 20 years ago. A pop star talking with Johnny Carson had on transvestite makeup and a Raggedy Annie costume. (When was that? A while back.) Change was something you could take for granted now. He’d seen it in art: minimalism, photorealism, ideas jumping around like ants under a match. His collection had kept growing, and then he had forgotten to collect. He forgot to sit in at the MOMA board. The country had a war, everyone got excited about computers — more future. He noticed people carrying pieces of metal in their faces.
Some of the guys at the company were dying now. He actually saw Jakey go: the old guy let out a cough, steadied himself with a hand on the cab hood, then settled his elbow there, his shoulder, then he was sliding to the ground. He landed on top of the cigarette he had dropped. Bud still smoked. Why not? People’s systems were different.
One night — when had this happened? — Lonnie began pounding on him, her fists rustling against his chest. “You’re not human! You aren’t my husband!” But he was. She wrapped her skeleton arms around him and cried. “It’s still me,” he said. “You see? I haven’t changed.” She cried harder. This was after the cancer had begun, when she was being whittled, pared. Her mind was not so good either. It’s like they said: the lights went out one by one. The habits and expressions that had made her up, they just blinked off and disappeared. He spent the money for the cancer and she pulled through, but now she lay in bed with 24-hour nurses to watch her. She was good as gold, the nurses said, but when he came in the room he seemed to scare her. He sat by the bed and watched. Really, he couldn’t take his eyes away. Of her memory, all that remained was his face, and eventually not much of that. She couldn’t get her mind around a sentence; when she had to talk, she bleated and squawked and maybe some words were in there someplace. She beat the flat of her hand on the bedsheet. So what was left, when you came down to it — was this her? When she gulped at a spoonful of chocolate pudding, was that Lonnie’s old eagerness, or just a mouth doing what it does? Her body was like a wire laid out in human form, twitching with whatever energy goes through human beings. “You must love your mother very much,” a nurse told him. Lonnie died before he could work out the mystery.
Magazine profiles mentioned his time at her bedside. Journalists are always looking for legends, and now they had Bud the immortal millionaire. He tried to oblige. Up at 5, yes, but no longer to the cab company — by now that should be running itself. He walked a lot. The city looked different at 5 or 6 when you were pacing along empty blocks. He developed patterns, mapped out different quadrants of the city with his feet. Why? He never thought about it, just looked around him and counted steps. His real estate background, maybe, but he had to remind himself to look for purchases, and soon that fell away. In a way, it was like with Lonnie. He had been looking at this city for a long time, he had known how it changed because you couldn’t survive in real estate otherwise. But now he could watch it change, just as he had watched Lonnie. He realized that his memory of one block could go back half — no, way more than half a century. Still no gray.
The magazines didn’t write about him anymore. He did nothing interesting except be eccentric, and the thrill of extended youth was lost once a few crops of billionaires had taken advantage of the biotech. A man was living forever, but he didn’t date models, so who cared? Bud felt the same way. He just liked to watch things now. People had turned themselves into display areas for decoration — first the metal rings in their bodies and the pictures inked onto their skin, then the translucent plastic curves embedded in their skulls, the silver discs that emitted musical tones as they passed from light to shadow. Bud noticed it all, but never thought of being interested. The artists who had died and how they died — Drepper the action painter and ex-heroin addict, finally keeling over with a glass of milk in one hand and his grandchild on the phone — he took note of that, but now he didn’t see these people as people whom he knew. They were phenomena that he was aware of.
He had met his own artist again, a couple of times. Once after . . . Therese? . . . in the late ’70s, and then again 10 or 15 years after that. The first had been at a party in a millionaire’s loft. The artist still blinked, but he looked prosperous. Bud had heard his name around, though the only big thing had been a project down in the Southwest, a field of metal poles set out against the horizon.
“Hello,” Bud said. “Looking sharp.” He pointed his thumb at the dark silk of the artist’s jacket, cut in an aloof Japanese diagonal. The artist inclined his head. “Thanks to you,” he said. Well, for him that was a whole conversation.
“You’re living off that one commission?” Bud asked. “I don’t see your stuff in a lot of places.”
The artist shrugged.
“Who’s buying it?” Bud asked.
“Alien life-forms.” So, yes, the artist-mage.
The second time, well, Lonnie was dead, that was definite, but otherwise he found it hard to place. Bud was walking, mapping a quadrant that intersected the middle East 50s and Central Park. In the park, he found the artist squatting by a bench, his nose aligned with what turned out to be an ant. The ant was within a square formed of vacuum tubes, walking back and forth because the tubes were chilled. A small generator hummed, and a video camera on a tripod taped everything while the artist watched.
Bud sat on the bench to watch the artist. Around 4 the ant died and the artist straightened up. He did it slowly; Bud had expected him to be a fellow evergreen, but no. The grooves in the face seemed to have sharpened it, and his hair had fallen away except for two white swatches at the side.
“Why did you call it ‘Linear Projection’?” Bud asked.
“Well, it’s like a straight line, just extended . . . projected, I suppose.”
The silver tarnishes, the photos are taken — seven albums of them by now — and the line, the progression, goes on.
“I like feeling the silver,” Bud said. “It doesn’t feel like anything else. I put my hand on, I don’t want to take it off. Even now.”
“I didn’t really have anything to do with that.”
“Who did — alien life-forms?”
The artist nodded.
“Huh. A collaboration.”
“They wanted to make sure you’d touch it. That’s how the thing works.”
“Listen — are you the Devil?”
“No,” the artist said. “It really is alien life-forms. They commissioned me.”
“I commissioned you. Well, hey, a double fee. I guess that’s why you’re living so well.”
The artist’s son came to visit 10 or 15 years after that. He was narrow and tall, like his father, but a lawyer and not an artist. “So why are you here?” Bud asked.
“It’s a hereditary commission.” The son tapped his long fingertips together and considered the ceiling. “I admit art is not my calling. You might have a better idea of all this than I do. Being a patron. But our clients, patrons, want each generation to check in on you. No one’s quite sure how this process is going to work out.”
“I sit a lot,” Bud said. “I watch things.”
A while later Bud met the lawyer’s son, who had chosen holograph engineering rather than law. He was no more interesting than father or grandfather, but he gave Bud a device to replace the long line of cameras with which he had recorded the silver, now dissolving into tarnish. (Bud still loved touching it, the one punctuation in his long, slow existence.)
Cameras had been left behind. Meanwhile, crops of eyes were cultivated in jelly-like walls; Nike and McDonald’s ran 10,500 plants that pumped ozone into the sky’s upper layers. An eight-year-old girl with genetically engineered breasts and a chimpanzee’s forehead was the most-watched entertainer in the world; she sang and chaired political roundtables. The art of the time consisted of the placing of cubes, some real, some holographic, on various planes. No one did any other sort. Bud did not know most of this. He sat and he watched: shadows, whatever. He continued through time, projecting his indefinite straight line for whoever, from however far away, had given the artist his commission in another century.
Copyright © 2003 Tom Crippen
Copyright © 2003 Tom Crippen
Tom Crippen lives in Montreal after having spent a few years traveling in Europe and Latin America and many years working at a trade paper in New York City. To contact him, send him email at Tom_Crippen@hotmail.com.