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Fools Like Me

by: John Pistelli

Greenman dreamed of their first meeting, seven years ago, during his final year of college and her first of law school.

The weather warmly dripped and ensconced the campus. Storms like art restorers had scrubbed the twilit sky bright; it glowed with pink-shot cerulean. All the leaves of the city had cracked wetly through their dull wooden cages at once, raw and luminous.

The art department had mounted the last exhibit of the semester—a showcase of the graduating seniors’ final projects—in a high-walled white gallery. Without any set theme or medium, the blank space enclosed a chaos of colors, shapes and ideas. Grubby objects at the room’s four corners suggested a flea market: a school
drinking fountain, an obsolete telephone booth, a typewriter, a hand-mower. The decline of the nation, or of its middling classes anyway, emerged as the main artistic incitement, Greenman noted as he strolled alone in a burgundy silk shirt among the artworks. At the head of the room, an automobile’s system of axles hung high and greasy on the wall; its maker obviously intended it to be the show’s presiding image. Greenman observed with faint derision the consummately professional irony of the piece’s title: Cruciform.

He turned his attention from the far wall and saw proof of the rumor he had heard earlier that day. The ironist had been usurped, the sham-crucifix had been upstaged, by a mute act of authentic and autonomous creation. In the middle of the gallery, a notorious obsessive and recluse who scarcely spoke in classes and so
had the reputation of a sufferer from mental illness, had somehow erected a crystalline tree some ten feet high. Built of a thousand or more small glass slivers, like the ornaments that dangled down from chandeliers, the slim-trunked tree spread its branches in high arcs over the gallery-goers, glinting and refracting and diffusing the white light, casting a gently clarifying radiance on all the broken objects hauled sardonically out of the social wreckage. The vast jumbled room became unified by the tree’s presence: it became different from
the world outside. As the show began, all eyes oriented themselves by the tree’s silvery light.

The people whispered and murmured in wonder, envy, or curiosity. Who had paid for this? The university didn’t give out grants large enough to cover its expense. A government grant of the requisite size, devolving upon an undergraduate no less, was unlikely in the present circumstances. Perhaps the strange, silent student was a
trust-funder, thrown out of Oxford or Yale for some glamorous reason—poor grades, erotic scandal, the irreconcilable madness of genius—and whose way was thus paid in this slum of a public research university. As it happened, the school daily reported the next day, incidentally, amid their coverage of the violence, that the student came from nothing and the project had been supported by a green philanthropist; in conformity with the patron’s ethics, the glass was wholly recycled—Greenman speculated much later that perhaps the glass of a thousand mansion’s chandeliers really had been transmuted from the base of greedy decoration to the silver of generous art. The artist had given the piece a wittily self-mocking but subtly self-praising title, alluding to an old and bad tree poem by a writer named Joyce. All the questions of money and meaning rebounded from the tree’s reflective surface back into the faces of the questioners, as if to demand what they meant by being so mean-minded in such a glowing room.

The spell was soon broken, and the gallery-goers milled around with attention only half-fixed on the art. Mostly students, shuffling in their soaked shoes, dreaming of end-of-semester pleasures and parties, they spent the remainder of their attention on their devices. All their eyes darted between screen and wall; half their ears were plugged up by bulbous speakers.

Greenman, his hands in his pockets, sans device and sans date, stomach-spasmingly hungry, inconspicuously approached the refreshments table toward the rear of the gallery, with the goal of filling a clear plastic cup full of cheap white wine, a red plastic plate with bread crusts and cheese and olives, and escaping into the
aqueous night to contemplate its present perfection and to avoid thinking of his uncertain future, a future that had little paying place for the artist he wanted to be. Such would be his night’s dinner.

His thin cup grew weighty with golden light under the wine-box’s tap as he happened to look toward his own contribution to the show and saw, obscuring it, a curiously smart couple. They stood out from the art-school types, who tended to favor either the tattered dress of world-condemning saints or the outlandish fashion of
the would-be superhuman: no, these two were proud professionals, the man with cropped hair and a suit, its jacket thrown over his arm, his other arm entwined with that of the woman, who wore a bruise-colored blouse, slim black skirt, black tights, and high heels. Greenman softly walked behind the couple and drank down his
wine too quickly.

The man was saying, “It looks absurd in this context. Like it’s from two hundred years ago.”

A smile crinkled the side of one soft-painted lip: “I like it.”

“You’ll tell me it’s not serious. An historical commentary on this way of painting. I did my gen-ed requirements too. .”

“No. Look at her expression. The tension in the smile: exhausted, resentful love, not on her face but in the whole mood of it. The fold between the eyebrows, sleep caught in the corners of her eyes. She’s been making dinner, washing dishes, feeding everybody. Look—” she illicitly pushed the tip of her index finger toward the image until the surface halted it, flattened it against the impasto even as her eyes peered through it, narrowing— “at the thin sheen of water on her hands, look how red they are. They’re raw but glowing, they’re flesh but spirit. It’s a true thing. We decide what to do with it, but it’s real.”

“Who needs this kind of thing, though? We have cameras. And the title—Grandmother—what is he trying to do, apply for some kind of old-fashioned psychotherapy? The painting cure? Or sell conservative books about the good old days? Or just make a fucking joke out of everything? Come on, Mona, you can’t really like this painting.”

“I didn’t say I liked it; I said it was true.”

“That’ll really stand up in court, honey. What, is this guy a friend of yours?”

“Never met him, don’t care. I’m not praising him. I’m praising the truth that bothered to show its face on his canvas.”

Greenman wanted to say something but could think of no response. Which was just as well, because it was then that the violence began.

There were five to their group, not counting the two Rottweilers, which, if they stood, would have been the tallest creatures in the gallery. Everyone heard the dogs’ cries—that was what alerted them that some danger had arrived. Each howl was double-voiced: a profound, expansive, echoing bellow and a high and keening whine: an explosion with violent mourning. Humanity tries to keep this sound out of places like the gallery, because it comes hot and unstoppable, like lava, from a riven, warring, half-forgotten place very far below the world we have built. Hearing that cry, Greenman felt as if his bowels had been turned burningly to ice. His brain went on wryly chattering, though—he supposed that some conceptualist had installed the dogs with the intention of problematizing the boundary between nature and culture. Someone’s mutilation and death would certify the artist’s statement: nature and culture indistinguishable, the archaic and the post-modern one and the same substance, all boundaries effaced by the mess on the marble floor. In the icy silence of the white room, Greenman exchanged a brief glance with the sharply-dressed woman who had admired his painting. Her mouth was twisted into a grimace by primordial fear, but something droll, something amusedly from elsewhere, a higher elsewhere rather than a lower, played in her hazel eyes. They wanted to laugh, and somehow Greenman did too.

Everyone recognized soon enough that the dogs’ tethers were held by members of the group who occupied the center of the room, just beneath the sheltering branches of the crystal tree. In black coats and red bandanas, with sunglasses covering their eyes, they were anonymous and featureless. Each member of the group produced what looked like small flashlights, and they shone powerful purple beams across the room’s four walls. Black light. Messages had been stamped invisibly across every piece of art, across the empty spaces on the walls, and these theses now strobed with all-caps insistence wherever the cell members cast their disillusioned gaze.

BREAD BEFORE BEAUTY
THE ART INSTITUTION IS AN EXPROPRIATION OF THE COMMON
ART REPRESENTS ENACTS ENFORCES PRIVILEGE
WHITE WALLS ERASE HUMANITY
EVERY WORK OF ART IS A THEFT FROM THE HUNGRY
YOUR IRONIES WILL NOT PROTECT YOU
THE CRITICISM OF ART MUST GIVE WAY TO ITS LIQUIDATION
THE ONLY TRUE MASTERPIECE IS THE JUST SOCIETY

Greenman’s brain ran on. So these were the roving guerillas, the cultural revolutionaries he had read about, facing a world that had no use for them, seizing weapons from the revolutionary archive their sophisticated professors tended, determined to force a crisis, so desperate to clear some common ground that they would do it with fire. This was their second strike and their coming-out party: An old professor of religion had been found just the other day on the outskirts of campus, her skull caved in by a brick. And now they were here.

They allowed each Rottweiler to leap. Across the room from Greenman, people turned and ran for the gallery doors—they looked suddenly so unfashionable, so awkward, flinging up their hands, unable to close their jaws, bounding with an almost childish abandon. One of the dogs jumped with its huge clawed front paws on a woman’s back, forcing her to the floor, and began, even as she fell, to chew through the back of her neck. The other dog ran at Greenman, because all the people around him had scattered while he was rooted in place. No—the woman who had defended him, she too stood where she was, even as her companion tried to pull her away.

The falling shadow of the dog slowed down time until it froze and became a space that Greenman could move through. A maneuver he had seen once in an action movie or comic book returned to him. Into the slow time, he thrust his left arm, bent at the elbow so that it paralleled his chest. The Rottweiler then crashed through the pane of frozen time with its furious pointed snout. Dull yellow teeth bared through sneeringly in-folded lips of rotten meat hurled themselves at Greenman and sunk deep into the flesh of his forearm. He understood the first wave of pain contemplatively; he seemed to be operating his body from a great distance. With the dog affixed to him tooth to bone in a crazy kiss, Greenman took three steps forward: the dog’s neck
twisted around as it held onto its prey. It was looking backward, a posture so vulnerable it was almost human. Greenman then stepped to the side and pulled his wounded arm flat against his chest, fist thumping heart, like a man swearing a pledge—and snapped the dog’s neck with an flat click. It dropped from him and hit the marble like a raw beef torso. The appreciatrix of Greenman’s art ran to him as his self flooded back into full physical presence and assumed the burden of pain. The sleeve of his silk shirt was in bloody tatters, a captured flag. Across the room, the other dog fed on the woman it had killed, her blonde hair up-spilling, stained, from what looked like a bloody hole in the floor.

While Greenman had been entranced by his ordeal, the guerilla group was setting fire to the gallery. They now retreated toward the exit, but they paused, even as the room filled up with the acrid smoke of burning plastic, the smoke just barely concealing the abattoir reek of fresh blood and blood-sheathed meat. Each guerilla bent to his or her boot and pulled out a small revolver; they leveled their guns at the center of the room and fired. The gunshots sounded like the first part of the dogs’ howl but without the keening, moaning, mourning cry.

Greenman had several times dreamed that this was his wedding day, that in the smoky room hung with all the blowing crystal shards of the shattered crystalline tree, each one burning with a piece of firelight it had captured, Mona had slipped a ring upon his blood-slick finger, and then and there they became one. In fact, they didn’t even start dating until several months after the destruction of the gallery, and weren’t married until two years later. According to Mona, Greenman lost consciousness just as the tree was destroyed.