Between Two Hills, fiction by David Kemper

Pablo wondered if his ability to create was gone forever.  It was his one true gift, the reason he’d been born, and if he couldn’t do that anymore he might as well not exist.  It had all happened so fast.  In a matter of months an exceptionally prolific artist had become a dull and idle loafer with neither strength nor motivation to put his brush to canvas or plunge his fingers into clay.  It was almost like he’d been injured, but only on the inside, with no external signs of trauma.  It wasn’t a car accident or a fall from a ladder that had ruined Pablo’s art.  It was meeting Philip Swain.  In a way, it was his own fault.  How could he allow that gallery owner to talk him into going against his better judgment?

A fire at the storage facility had destroyed a cache of Pablo’s sculpture.  Everything was chipped and cracked, with large pieces broken off, charred by smoke and waterlogged, trampled beneath the rubber boots of firemen who knew only about flame and nothing about art.  Pablo was set to toss it all into a dumpster but the gallery owner convinced him to exhibit the ruined artwork in his space.

“All we need is a good concept,” he told Pablo.  “I’ll take care of it.”

The exhibition opened under the title Damaged Vessels – The Inherent Brokenness of Human Relationships.  According to the program printed by the gallery: “Pablo employs a multi-tiered process in which the sculpture is first nurtured like a relationship in its earliest stages, subsequently embellished like two lovers gradually revealing themselves to one another, and finally obliterated in the tumultuous breakup.  Tragically, as with these damaged vessels, it is the essence of our own inner-brokenness that prohibits we humans from seeing the damage we inflict upon those closest to us and ourselves.”

The New York Times swooned.  Wealthy art collectors flocked in from Westchester.  Every chipped, charred and battered fragment sold, at outrageous prices, much of it to Philip Swain.  He cornered Pablo at the reception, a glass of chardonnay in one hand, a cocktail shrimp skewered on a plastic toothpick in the other.

“Man, it’s brilliant what you’ve done,” he said, wolfing the shrimp.  “When I look at your broken sculptures I see my broken marriage, my broken relationships with my children, the very essence of my own inner-brokenness itself.”

Why did Pablo listen to that gallery owner?  It was because he’d been so desperate, he had to admit, thirsty for the notoriety he saw other artists getting, the kind of attention he knew his art deserved but wasn’t getting.  He made a deal with the devil.  That was a mistake.  But it was too late to undo it.

“I’m nothing but a broken vessel,” Philip Swain said, stabbing with the toothpick at his teeth.  “I see that clearly, now.  Thanks to you.”

Pablo vowed never to do anything so stupid again, no matter how lucrative.

“Feel free to call me anytime you have a fire,” the gallery owner laughed as they were divvying up the proceeds.  “These jetsetters can’t get enough of this fucked-up shit.  Tell you what: I’ll bring the kerosene if you bring the matches?”

Fortunately, Pablo did not have to resort to arson as a career move.  His career was made.  There was no problem now, getting the recognition previously denied.  Newspapers and art journals were lining up to write about him.  His canvases and sculptures were coveted by the chicest galleries.  Celebrities solicited commissions for their sunrooms.  It all came Pablo’s way without him having to work those shady avenues where he was deficient and which he hated: networking, schmoozing, glad-handing, self-promotion.  Gone were the days of pounding the pavement with his portfolio, trying to talk his way past bored receptionists who only wanted him to leave so they could get back to fingering their phones between their thighs.  No longer was it necessary to waste entire mornings dialing, pitching his work to gallery honchos – always too busy and important to talk to him – only to get hung up on by some secretary.  He didn’t have to waste any effort anymore, dialing anyone.  The world was on its head.  Everyone was dialing him.

***

“Come on downtown and meet me for lunch.”

Philip Swain’s imposing voice sailed across the megahertz to Pablo’s ear.

“I’m buying the steaks.  I’ve got some friends who’d like to meet you.”

Pablo hung up with Philip, but not before the remorse of agreeing to go took hold and shook him.

“Idiot!” Pablo reproached himself.

He’d not accomplished anything constructive all week.  His projects were stalled, gathering dust, waiting for him.  And where was he?  Off somewhere, making nice with fancy people he called ‘art groupies.’ Lunch with Philip, he knew, meant an entire afternoon, and possibly the evening, wasted on nothing, nothing that would last, nothing worth painting or fixing in stone or bronze or even in mud.  He saw the whole rest of his day unfold before him: $80 steak and too much drink, forcing smiles through gritted teeth as Philip and his crowd of Wall Street poseurs peppered their new mascot, ‘the artist,’ with clever talk about philosophy, Andy Warhol, the meaning of soup cans and experimental jazz.  And that’s exactly how it went.  Sometime after midnight, seated at the head of a long table, Philip got up to make a toast:

“To my dear friend, Pablo.  The greatest living American artist.  In my humble opinion.”

The stupid, leering faces turned to Pablo, glasses raised.  Inwardly, he seethed.  If he really was so great, why were they keeping him from his work, the thing, allegedly, that made him great in the first place?  Why couldn’t they all just disappear and let him get back to doing what he had to do?  Perhaps, he mused, he’d somehow been transported into a short story by Edgar Allan Poe.

“Is this some kind of twisted joke?” he wondered.  “Is Philip taking revenge on me for something?”

***

Without warning, Philip was prone to turn up at Pablo’s studio.  As Chairman of Swain & Swan Holdings, he wasn’t obliged to anyone else’s schedule, so there was never a time when Pablo could safely rule out a surprise visit from Philip.  He’d stroll about the space as though it were his own, flipping through canvases, shopping for more pieces to acquire for his growing collection.

“I like those two,” he’d say, dropping a wad of hundred dollar bills on the table.  “Have them shipped for me, will you?”

Mostly what he liked, though, was to sit around drinking and disrupting Pablo’s progress with what he plainly regarded as deep and novel conversation.

“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking,” he announced, “and I’ve finally figured out what you are, Pablo.  You know what you are?”

Pablo shrugged, not knowing what was coming, and dreading it.

“You’re a bridge between post-modernism and the new-wave romanticists.  That’s what you are.”

Philip beamed in triumph.  Pablo smiled, weakly.  He did not believe he was a bridge between anything and anything else.  There was no point, though, in correcting Philip, who simply talked louder and faster at the slightest hint of opposition.

“Your paintings,” he declared, “are like power.  And your sculpture is like sex.  And remember what Oscar Wilde said: Everything is about sex, except sex, which is about power.”

Philip nodded, raising his index finger as a sign, Pablo thought that they were both supposed to observe a moment of self-reflective silence.  Philip sipped.  His eyes twinkled.

“Good old Oscar,” Pablo said.

“There must be a connection, there,” Philip said, refilling his glass.  “Don’t you agree?”

Philip’s overreaching theories made Pablo very nervous, as though they were playing a game in which Philip first bound Pablo to a stake and then began throwing darts at his head and at his heart.

“Take this painting, the one I just bought.  What I see here – and the reason I believe it’s worth every penny of those seventy-five hundred dollars, frankly – is a tragic juxtaposition of mortality and denial, a kind of boxing match between death in one corner and the frenzied will to go on living in the other.  Do I have that right?”

Pablo recognized the language from an exhibition review that had appeared in some newspaper.  It made him cringe when he first read it, as it did now when Philip recycled it, almost verbatim.  He managed to confine his answer to: “You certainly have given it a lot of thought, Philip.”

Bound hand and foot, shimmying like a creature in a trap, Pablo did his best to not get hit by anything sharp.  It was hard work, and he resented it.  When the topic shifted to personal matters it was no better.  Philip complained at length about his ex-wife and his girlfriend, about his responsibilities as an executive and the countless sleepless nights his adult children had given him.  He rarely asked for details of Pablo’s life, though.  And if Pablo volunteered anything that wasn’t gleaming with optimism Philip got churlish.

“Ah, you artists!” he’d say, halving the air between them with a decisive backhand.  “You’ve got no worries.  As long as you’re talented and brilliant you’ll be fine.  Just look how everything worked out for you.”

Pablo wrestled with the urge to spit the truth about the damaged vessels in Philip’s face.  It would serve him right, he thought.  But before he could make up his mind Philip had already swung the spotlight back onto himself.

“Now, take a business guy like me.  Do you have any idea what I have to put up with?  All the people who depend on me?  All the risks I have to take?  When you’re in mergers and acquisitions you put your life on the line every day.  You have no clue.”

Pablo looked helplessly at the wall.  Six o’clock.  Another day wasted.  He’d not even put on his work clothes or got his brush wet.  Should he just throw Philip out?  End their association for good?  That wouldn’t be easy.  Philip had done so much to help his career.  He was Pablo’s biggest supporter, the one who owned the largest collection of his work.  He’d subsidized Pablo’s projects and introduced him to many influential people who’d also helped.  Surely, Philip meant well.  The fact, however, that his meaning well could cause such disastrously contrary results only made him seem that much more sinister to Pablo.

Philip smiled: “Dinnertime.  Let’s go.  I’ve got some people I want you to meet.”

***

One of Philip’s haunts was a cigar lounge in the East Village that prided itself on its diverse clientele.

“We’re not snobby,” the manager, Jake, was glad to confirm for Pablo.  “We cater to all types.  Blue collar Joe’s.  Artists like yourself.  Hipster kids and bikers with tattoos all over.  We believe that fine cigars were meant to be enjoyed by everyone.  Not just wheeler-dealer bigshots like Philip.”

Philip laughed and asked Jake to retrieve two coronas from his personal stock, which was stored in the back in his own humidor.

“It’s a convenience,” he explained to Pablo, “included in my elite membership.”

They sat in leather chairs, Persian rugs under their feet, sampling the flavor of the cigars and of the room.  A handful of businessmen were scattered about, wreathed in expensive smoke, alone or in small groups.  Pablo looked for the tattoos and blue collars but saw none, only a chalkboard sign above the bar reminding customers it was a ‘tie-free zone.’  Philip slipped his off and hid it in his pocket.  He was anxious to talk about the inherent brokenness of human relationships.

“I sent one of your damaged vessels to my ex.  With a note that said: ‘THIS IS WHAT YOU ARE.’  She won’t get it, though.  She doesn’t think deep the way we do.”

Philip’s thumb and first two fingers cradled the corona like it was born there.  While he spoke, the hand moved rapidly in all directions, as though drawing pictures in the air, using the glowing tip of the cigar to sketch out shapes and symbols that might help – if Pablo could read them – explain what it was that Philip said:

“It’s interesting, because the totalizing nature of brokenness, as it pertains to human relations, obviates the desire to recognize and heal that very brokenness itself.  The meta-narrative of all humans is: ‘I break therefore I am.’  I assume that’s what you were getting at?”

“I hope the weather clears up,” said Pablo.  “Do you know if the Mets won?”

“Ah,” Philip laughed, “you artists.  Ancient Chinese secret!  Come on, quit playing coy, I’m serious.”

Pablo bobbed and weaved around Philip’s deepness for a while, and was rescued when Philip suddenly remembered something else they had to do.

“Hey, it’s getting late.  I told Monique I’d drop by.  I want your opinion.  I think you’re really gonna love her.”

***

At a loft studio not far from Pablo’s, Philip introduced Pablo to Monique, a young black woman with braided hair colored to resemble the African National Congress flag.  Philip and Monique chatted while she worked on a new painting.

“Well,” she admitted, “only part new, actually.”

She’d been invited, she explained, to submit her work for a corporate-sponsored exhibition that was coming up.  It was a themed exhibition, titled H2O.

“So everything has to have water,” Monique said.  “At least a little.  That’s why I’m putting in this waterfall.”

“Ah,” Philip said.  “You know what Antonioni said about water, don’t you?”

Pablo studied the canvas, searching for some hidden kernel of interest that might reveal it as more than just a dark brown patch of mud, and crudely rendered.  He found nothing.  It was a dark brown patch of mud.  There were some grayish objects, apparently boulders, arranged in a circle at the center.  Monique was sacrificing a few of her boulders for the waterfall, which she painted on top.

Stonehenge, Revisited,” she told Pablo, “is what it used to be.  But now I’m going to call it Drowning in the Cesspool of My Bitter Tears.”

“Nice,” said Philip.  “Deep.  Deep water.  H2O.”

“Either that,” Monique said, “or Surf’s Up.”

The other paintings she was retrofitting stood on easels around her, in various stages of their H2O metamorphoses: a craggy mountain that now had a swimming pool teetering on top, a cornfield sprouting bottled water in place of corncobs, a tenement that somehow found itself submerged inside a fish tank – algae, swordtails, crayfish and bubbles.

“A great painting,” Philip said.  “Dali couldn’t have done that.  What’d I tell you, Pablo?”

Pablo was having trouble connecting the word great to any of the paintings.  They all displayed the same dull artlessness as the mud patch – rudimentary, technically awkward, unremarkable in every way.  He tried and failed to think of something nice to say as he stood before the last canvas, an old man in Indian garb with a faucet instead of a mouth.

Injun Joe Gets His Comeuppance,” Monique told him, “is what it was.  “But now I’m not sure what to call it.”

“How about Just Add Water?” Philip suggested, his eyes puckish.

“I don’t think you have to change it,” Pablo said.  “I think it’s the same.”

Monique beamed.

“Hey,” she said, “thanks.  That means a lot coming from you.  You know, I’m a big fan of your stuff.”

She gave Pablo her card and suggested they get together sometime for coffee.

“Nothing would please me more,” Philip said, “than for you two geniuses to collaborate on something.  I’ll buy it right now.”

Pablo succeeded at closing the discussion civilly without commenting on Monique’s work or committing himself to anything, which irritated Philip, he could tell.  Philip’s face clouded.  The corners of his mouth went taut, as – Pablo imagined – they might in the boardroom when the other members refused to go along with Philip’s plans.  Philip and Monique disappeared into another room.  When they returned, Philip was handing her a thick envelope.

“Have them shipped for me, will you?” Philip said.

In the taxi Philip was brooding and Pablo wanted to go home, but Philip insisted they make one more stop, a party at a converted bookbindery in SoHo.

“If you’re too threatened by Monique’s talent to acknowledge it,” he said, tersely, “perhaps at least you’ll find it within yourself to enjoy the free drinks and entertainment provided by my friends?”

Pablo would have jumped out of the car if the driver ever slowed down enough to give him a chance.

***

Their objective was a 19th century cast iron hulk where artisans once sweated over Dostoyevsky and Dreiser, and now in their place Manhattan’s richest and most beautiful lived, prospered and misbehaved.  Philip announced his presence to the valet, who unhooked the red rope and stood aside to let them pass.  In a freight elevator large enough to transport cattle a uniformed operator closed the gate and they ascended.

“Lotta folks up in there,” he said.  “Gonna be a long one, yes sir.”

At the penthouse Philip and Pablo went their separate ways without a word.  It was easy to get lost.  The party was big, thrown by fancy art groupies, Philip’s colleagues, lawyers and financial wizards who had everything but good taste and talent, and had now decided, evidently, to purchase those things, too.  Among the throng Pablo saw many artists whom he knew – good ones, bad ones, mediocre ones – eating and drinking and dancing with the suits.  They all seemed to have a wealthy patron, and they all knew Philip Swain.

“You’re friends with Philip, right?” they said.  “Good man to have on your side.  Don’t blow it.”  And: “I always liked your work, Pablo, but when Philip discovered you I knew you were destined for great things.”

“Discovered?” Pablo said.  “Like Columbus?”

The question went unanswered.  Pablo was advised to fill up on champagne and caviar and not to think too much about where it came from.

“Have fun with it,” he was told.  “You’re lucky to be here at all, dude.”

Pablo wondered if these other artists were suffering the same lack of productivity as him.  They weren’t getting any work done tonight, that was plain.  If the intent of Philip and his fancy Wall Street friends was to stop all art from happening they’d found the perfect recipe: fish eggs, French bubbles, subwoofers and a dance floor.

Three DJ’s rotated between sets of live music, edgy noise-rock bands that Philip liked.  One of them was called Double Wide Trailer.  Another was The Deep-Seeded Agents of Faith.  To Pablo they were virtually indistinguishable, a generic sort of band that specializes in making a chaotic, grating racket, purposely ugly, though ultimately without purpose.  At times it was like an industrial accident, at others it was like two camels in a death fight, exactly the thing, Pablo thought, that Philip and his crowd of art poseurs would be smitten with, a badge of honor to be worn only by those enlightened enough to recognize – beneath all that shitty sounding crap – the infinite brilliance.  As he stood soaking it up, Pablo invented band names he thought were more befitting.  Double Wide Trailer became Narrow Gauge Wailer, Trailing Edge Failer, Machine Shop Camel or Dude, What’s Tonality?  The Deep-Seeded Agents of Faith were rechristened, simply, as The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Philip finally wandered over.  He had a couple of the musicians with him.  They were all pretty drunk and Philip was showering the band with his typically florid praise.

“You weren’t just playing, man, you were putting a new set of ears on my head.”

Pointing at Pablo, he added: “Don’t bother asking his opinion, though.  He’s a genius and some of them can be very stingy about that.”

***

It sounded good at first: country woods, winding trails, fresh air and quiet.  Paradise!

“Why not come stay at Swainwood for a while?” Philip had asked.  “The guesthouse has been empty since Ashley left for Colgate.  No one will bother you.  You’ll have privacy.  And plenty of time to make your art.”

Philip’s estate, Swainwood, sat on three hundred acres of rolling woodland not far from the Hudson near Pocantico Hills.  There were tennis courts, walled gardens with sculpture, a conference center and a polo pitch shorn between the towering oaks and maples.  Pablo was in a battle with a horrible landlord, so he leapt at the chance to bailout on his studio, a temporary fix, he’d find something permanent later.  All his stuff was moved to storage.  He boarded the train at Grand Central.  The city limits were not yet behind him when the good feelings from ditching his lease wore off, replaced by deep forebodings about life under the roof of Philip Swain.

“Oh, man,” Pablo realized, “where will I go if he gets weird?”

That first night, when he went to dinner at the main house, two servants were busy in the ballroom, hanging Monique’s tenement in a fish tank above the fireplace.

“You’ve got to admit,” Philip said, pouring the wine, “her conceptual composition is second to no one.  Not even you.”

From his place at the head of the table, Philip passed the dishes along with the conversational agenda, reveling in his role as commanding though generous host.

“You know what Pocantico means, don’t you?” he quizzed Pablo.  “Running between two hills.  Rather poetic, don’t you agree?”

Pablo was surprised at how conservative Philip seemed.  His speech and mannerisms, even subtle things about how he dressed, were different here than in the city, more genteel.  Philip didn’t drink as much, either, which relieved Pablo a little, though he was having difficulty following the gist of the conversation, fixated as he was on the strange new tone in Philip’s voice, the merest suggestion of an English accent.

“I do believe,” he said, “you’ll find it inspirational living here.  Swainwood has a way of bringing out the best a man can be.”

Again and again, Pablo wondered: “Is he joking?”

“Yes, and I wanted to talk to you about that commission.  The Saga of Swainwood?  For the Orangery?  It has to be big, you understand?  The biggest thing you’ve ever done.”

Reluctantly, Pablo had agreed to paint a large mural for Philip, depicting the long and fruitful history of the Swain clan in New York.

“Yes, and I was thinking it would be nice if perhaps you’d dedicate it to me?  Nothing fancy, mind you, just a simple: ‘In Deepest Gratitude, To My Dear Friend and Patron, Philip Swain,’ or something.  No big deal.”

Philip was smiling when he said it.  But Pablo knew this time it was no joke.

***

At Swainwood there was no one to talk to, no everyday demands and no distractions.  The only thing to do was to get down to work.  Pablo had setup a makeshift studio in the guesthouse so it was practically just a matter of rolling out of bed.  He kept expecting Philip to barge in and interrupt.  Now that Philip had such easy access to him, Pablo figured, he’d be over all the time, hanging around, shooting the shit.  It never happened.  During the entire length of Pablo’s stay at Swainwood he saw less of Philip than he used to in a few days back in Manhattan.  So he was able to get some stuff accomplished, though he wasn’t sure if any of it was any good.  Everything seemed to have less teeth than before.  Part of that, he thought, was the environment.  The country was nice and it was certainly relaxing but not at all inspiring, no matter what Philip said.  Pablo wasn’t a painter of rustic landscapes.  He didn’t want to do oak trees or colonial bridges.  The energy here was wrong, too sedate for who he was.  It even affected how he dreamt.  In the city he’d often awaken in the middle of the night from electric dreams, which pulled him from his pillow into the studio, and which instantly became the sparks that fueled a firestorm of new work.  At Swainwood there was nothing like that.  Pablo slept straight through and either did not dream at all or dreamt of lifeless things that went nowhere.  One night he dreamt of Philip in his smoking jacket.  Philip wasn’t doing anything, just sitting in his chair, gesturing with his cigar and saying something ridiculous in his English accent about art.  Another dream was Philip at the breakfast table eating oatmeal.  Two servants held his Wall Street Journal for him.  The first one kept it straight with both hands while the second one turned pages in response to Philip’s nods.  Both of them wore paint-splattered smocks over their uniforms.  But the most frequently reoccurring ghosts in Pablo’s slumbers were trees.  From the hazy fringes they encroached to chase his eyeballs back and forth, and one morning, after a single leaf dropped from a maple took all night to reach the ground, Pablo found himself virtually paralyzed, rooted, robbed of purpose, empty of action.  He stayed in bed the whole day, staring at his easel, twelve feet away.  What kind of art could ever come from dreams like that?

***

Though Philip wasn’t stopping by in person to badger Pablo, there were other methods.

“Good morning, sir,” the servant said.  “Mr. Swain left this for you.”

Pablo tore open the envelope.  A typed letter from Philip.

“I do hope you’re enjoying your stay and are getting somewhere with your work.  I’ve been busy downtown and am off to Europe tonight, but I’ve been thinking of you and will be eager to see the great things Swainwood has brought out of you.  One point that occurred to me as I was reviewing my collection is that you might do better – please don’t take offense – if you emphasized more the dialectical (i.e., the vertical) as opposed to going so heavy on the emotional (horizontal).  I’ve always sensed that – great as you already are – you were on the cusp of breaking through to something bigger.  I’d be honored if my modest insights were the catalyst that took you there.  Not so much onward as upward.  Think about it!”

Crumpling the paper, Pablo thought some other things instead, which were not nice.  On another occasion he found a handwritten note under the door.  The barely legible scrawl advised him (please don’t take offense) that there were too many angles in his work.  Too many angles?  “It tends to overload the viewer,” the scrawl explained, “with sensory geometry.  Just my two cents, you understand?  From one art lover to another?”

Pablo once believed all babies were born artistic, but that in most cases the talent wasn’t nurtured and so it died.  Philip Swain forced him to reconsider this opinion.  There were many, he now knew, born without a trace of artistry, and there were further those whose only natural talents were lethal to art.

Another two cents, deposited electronically this time:

“Just been to The Louvre, where something about the Near Eastern Antiquities reminded me of you – a likeness in line and symmetry, if not in subject.  It might be interesting, when you start on the Saga of Swainwood, to incorporate some of those ideals – the New York Swains as Mesopotamian kings?  Just a thought.  Have fun with it!”

Pablo went straight to the Orangery.  He painted the New York Swains as cubist ducks in a blood-red sky, and some hunters down below, vaguely Mesopotamian, shotguns raised and set to scatter (horizontally as well as vertically) every last patrician feather around the air.  Finally, Philip had done something to inspire Pablo.

***

The woman exhaled: “Oh!” and then: “Are you the new gardener?”

She’d walked in on Pablo as he was scrubbing the acrylic rainbow off his hands.

“I’m a friend of Philip’s,” he told her.  “From the city.”

“Ah,” she nodded, “yes, I’ve heard about you.  The new artist.  Not the new gardener.  My apologies.  Victoria Swain.”

She came at him, offering her hand, a smart, petite blonde in an equestrian outfit that wrapped her contours like cellophane stretched around a holiday fruit basket.

“So you’re the one I have to blame for taking up an entire room of my house with broken junk.”

She smirked, one eyebrow raised, her hand outstretched for Pablo to shake, or maybe kiss, he wasn’t sure.  He shrugged and nodded at his own hands, which were still a disaster, dripping colors and solvent into the sink.  Victoria Swain’s arm fell back, useless, against her side.  On one finger was an onyx ring the size of an ashtray.  Pablo explained about the mural and the arrangement he’d made with Philip.

“He invited me to stay here while I work.”

Victoria laughed.

“Well, that’s nice,” she said, “inviting you to stay in a house that isn’t his.  Didn’t he tell you?  No?  So like him.  Swainwood’s mine.  I own all this.”

She turned slightly, making a sweeping gesture with the ashtray apparently meant to encompass the land and everything on it for miles around.

“I was young and naïve,” she said, “but thank god I listened to my mother about the prenup.  Philip’s the one who should be thanking me for letting him stay.  I still haven’t decided about selling.  I’m in the city mostly, now, or Boca Raton.  Do you play polo?”

Without waiting for a reply Victoria proposed a one-on-one for after lunch.

“Actually, it was a relief to find you here.  All the way driving up I was thinking I was going to have to kick that bitch out again.”

***

“You want her?” Philip said.  “Take her.  She likes artists.  I learned that the hard way.  Only don’t expect her to understand you.  She doesn’t have the mind for it.”

Pablo had not mentioned his brief encounter with Philip’s ex.  She must have said something, though, for Philip was keen to bring it up.

“Her kind of woman,” he told Pablo, “doesn’t waste time on anything she can’t use to make her girlfriends burn with envy.  The only things that interest Victoria are new shoes and skybox tickets to Yankees games.  She likes ballplayers more than artists.”

With much effort Pablo steered Philip off Victoria, but then Philip grabbed the wheel and crashed them head-on into Monique.  When was Pablo going to get together with her?  Hadn’t they made any plans to collaborate?  Why wasn’t Pablo helping Monique the way Philip and his friends had helped Pablo?

“I heard that interview you did on NPR,” Philip said.  “It doesn’t bother me that you can’t bring yourself to express even a shred of gratitude where I’m concerned.  But it really would have been nice if you’d put in a good word for Monique.”

That was it.  The limit.  Pablo couldn’t bob and weave around this.  The truth shot from him like a punch.

“Her paintings are shit, Philip!  A waterfall over the top?  Because they told her to?  That’s not an artist.  That’s a house painter rolling on a second coat of semi-gloss.”

Philip was stunned.  And then infuriated.  He threw his arms around and shouted but it was impossible for him to simply dismiss Pablo’s opinion.  Pablo was a genius, after all, Philip had said so many times, and how can a genius be that wrong about anything?  A conundrum Philip could not concentrate his brain on to untangle, and he’d had three glasses of wine so he settled for shouting louder and flailing his arms a little wilder, forgetting his Englishness as he did.

“I’m going to Indonesia on business for three weeks.  And when I come back we’re going to have a little talk.  Your attitude needs some shaping up, you know that, mister?”

From the airport he sent Pablo a message, apologizing.  It was the alcohol, he said, which did not make Pablo feel any better.

***

The want ads were in his lap.  He was seriously considering some sort of menial job.  The desire to create had fled him.  What was the point, when whatever he created would only be misused, misconstrued by poseurs like Philip; categorized, labeled, arbitrarily relegated to the same specimen jar as the Monique’s and Double Wide Trailers?  Any new work that Pablo did would implicate him as an accomplice to the fraud.

From the other direction Victoria was stalking him, trying to shanghai him down to Florida to do her portrait, a whole series of portraits – The Horsewoman in Action – saddled atop her beast, jumping fences, wielding her crop.

“I could use a good stable boy,” she told Pablo, eyebrow raised.

He did not want to go.  Was a menial job in Florida better than a menial job right here?  Puppet strings, it seemed, were tugging on every move that he might make.  He’d had that dream again, about the two servants holding the newspaper for Philip.  Only this time one of the servants turned his head and Pablo saw clearly, and with horror, who it was.  He was out of bed and packed in fifteen minutes.  He left the keys on the table, with a note:

“Philip: thanks for everything.  The mural is done.  Take care.”

When Philip returned he would find the Saga of Swainwood as he’d ordered it, a king-sized tribute to the storied Swains and their achievements, the biggest thing Pablo had done, so imposing it was like two dozen murals woven through and around each other, a swirling jigsaw of scenes that could be stared at repeatedly for years without nearly registering every image that was there.  The cubist ducks and the hunters with their shotguns were as good as invisible, concealed within a larger rendering of Ebenezer Swain coming ashore off the Mayflower.  The parable of the evils of capitalism was also not likely to attract anyone’s attention, painted upside-down inside a gilded commemoration of the first board meeting of Swain & Swan Holdings.  And there were many more hidden treasures like that, so many not even Pablo could find them all when he was finished.  Philip would look straight at them and never see.

“Where to?”

The cab driver’s question startled Pablo.  He hadn’t thought that far ahead.

“Just go,” he said.  “I’ll let you know where when I know where.”

The driver laughed.

“Oh, one of those, eh?  Sure, why not?  I got no plans today.  You want a circle or a figure-eight?”

He laughed again, started the meter and coaxed the car along the twisting, wooded road towards the front gate.  


David J. Kemper hails from Chicago, Illinois, city of big shoulders and hog butcher for the world.  He attended music school, dropped out and has had many, many jobs he can’t recall.  In Little League Baseball he played center field and first base.  Besides writing fiction and poetry, Mr. Kemper composes and produces original, independent, genre-defying music, some of which can be sampled on his website, www.davidjkemper.com.  At present, he is willfully semi-homeless and quasi-stateless, barnstorming Europe and South Africa, seeking out like-minded artists to collaborate with.

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