On the second floor of the east-side building, above the bar, she feels another's heartbeat and thinks of leaving, while below, next to the crazy man, Tobias sits and contemplates his first and only work of art, which is hidden from her beneath their bed.
The work of art is his passion.
As an atheist and sometimes anarchist, he has no religion. The art is his temple.
Tobias, hunched over the barstool in his baggy green cargoes, his short crop of dyed blond hair concealed beneath a red beret, is not a secretive guy; but the art is his secret. If discovered, she will assault him with it, relentlessly, until of course she leaves again.
Then, two weeks later, the day after her humble and sensitive return, he'll hear about it.
Tobias, though slow of wit and stride, is not as simple as he looks. Within him a kettle boils. The anguish of repression steams and groans.
His patience is a dam with cracks.
Every time he glances at the work of art and dreams of beginning his next, the pressure behind the dam is drained; but her chatter, though ever sweet, only fills it up again.
If Tobias, with his innocent gaze and soft countenance, is simple in appearance, then the man who's known in Riverview as Lenny, is simpler still.
Lenny is called Max on Broadway. He's a perennial fixture two stools from the far door in Max's Pub.
A pint of beer for two-fifty, dressed in faded jogging pants and a worn shirt that says Miller-Time across the front, he has on an orange hat that he might have gotten for free at the hard-ware store.
On this day, the sky and concrete are wet with the same dreary rainfall. Tobias lectures to his lone audience on a difficult life.
Max, who is almost always silent, responds occasionally in his own obscure tongue: mumbled phrases, nervous groans, and the odd loud and clear colloquialism.
Tobias reprimands the rich, vilificates the drivers in town, damns all musicians, and undermines the government.
He tears pieces from the police force, condemns all criminals to death, and complains about hippies, punks, jocks, and ravers.
He curses all fathers, including the Holy One, defines the word nag with his mother's name, and swears that he will never willingly recycle.
In the same breath, he mutters an oath to never again eat meat.
Finally, he scowls, bitterly at the rain, sneers at all smokers, and reaches for a cigarette.
"Wh...Wh......When in Rome---guys gotta do like a Roman," counters Max decisively chewing each word.
"Jesus Jones." Tobias straightens his beret, looks nervously around the bar, at his watch, and then at Max. Max is a statue practising the art of looking without seeing.
"Well Max, I gotta go. Game time's in about twenty. I bet four bucks on a tie, gonna hit the store."
"Catch ya later."
With that, after quaffing the rest of his pint, he eases off his stool, waves goodbye to the bar with the one broken fan, and exits the room into the grey day.
On the south side of the street, next to the vacant lot that once held a Supervalue, there's a man holding a can of spray paint. He's busy adding a line and a shade, the glint on a tooth, to his masterpiece.
Tobias watches the man carefully and records in his mind his shape and the shape of the graffiti.
He's reminded of the No. 2., a Wyndham Lewis painting he saw in the gallery when he was a kid.
It was a piece with a man and cannon, and heavy blends of reds and yellows. The man casually spraying the wall across the street and the man igniting the cannon in the painting have in common their stance.
"You paint all this stuff?" he says, after watching the artist at work for a while.
"Ya, sure did, man. Pretty tight lines hey. Check this out, it's funkin out," and he keeps on spraying.
"What is it?"
"What, you blind? It's a deejay man, he's funkin out. You don't see it, shit." He steps back from the wall and looks doubtfully at the graffiti.
"Oh, I see it, the deejay. What was I thinking? What's your name?"
"Jay-Grey, Gee. Was up?"
"Tobias, not much. I've always wanted to try my hand at Graffiti..."
"You an artist?"
"Aw, not really, but I'm learning"
"You got a smoke? I'll give you this can of paint for a smoke, as long as you don't mess up my deejay."
Tobias hands Jay-Gray a cigarette in exchange for the beat up can of red paint. He shakes it a few times before pointing at a blank stretch of wall to the left of Jay-Gray's deejay and pressing the nozzle. A fuzzy red horizontal line appears on the wall.
"You a natural man," says Jay-Gray, lighting the smoke. "But you gotta move your hand steady and keep off the wall a bit." A few more lines of red are added to the first one.
"Ya, man, you're getting the idea. It's cool, but here, let me show you how to do it right."
Tobias hands the can back to Jay-Gray, who finishes his cigarette with a third drag and continues where he left off, brushing up his work.
"Ya see, ya gotta make the lines fine by doin' im quick."
Tobias watches Jay-Gray's hands glide for a while, then departs silently into the drizzle.
Eggs, butter, milk, bread, two rolls of toilet paper, four cans of spray paint, and a magazine entitled "Spray It" in a wet brown paper bag.
Tobias with a smoke lit carries it all home. On the stairwell of 704 Albert Street the bag rips and the contents scatter.
Frustrated he kicks at them uselessly. Most of the eggs break.
He gains the stairs and unlocks the door. She's not home.
He's not sure if he likes it better this way.
The night falls like shade, creeping across the wall. One glance and it's small, the next and it's huge, covering the painting and the chair. Then reaching all the way to the window.
He sits down on the brown salvation army couch and reaches his hand into the graveyard of things.
Magazines. A beer bottle. A cigarette butt. Hagen-daz containers. Styrofoam packaging from the Sushi Samari.
It settles on the cold remote.
Thirty thousand electrons sweep in precise order across the screen of the Grenada. He follows the puck around the ice, his rigid features radiating in the dark.
She's in my mind. She's got no place in my mind. She's not a part of me. Only my art is a part of me.
The hallway is a passageway to the chambers of a pyramid. The bedroom is the altar. On his knees, his head buried like an ostrich, he digs out his Holy relic and frowns.
It's not as beautiful as I remembered. The trees don't tower. The moon doesn't glow. The sky doesn't drip into the ocean like it used to.
Further under the bed are a brush and paint-tray. On the fire escape, inside a Glad garbage bag, beneath several pizza boxes, two lawn chairs, and somebody else's bicycle, is the new canvas.
He changes his clothes and clears away her junk from the dressing table. Then props a cut up cardboard box against her mirror to use as his easel. In a subconscious effort to clear away their sins, he lights a stick of her incense.
His fingertips are damp. He is a clammy Gollum, slick with anticipation and fear.
He trembles, squirms, begins, hesitates, begins again...fidgets, ponders, sulks, cries, and shouts.
He puts his favorite CD in her ghetto blaster, showers, clears the coffee table and empties the fridge of old take-out Chinese food.
He dreams up a landscape, sketches a musical instrument on a napkin with eyeliner, eats toast, and smokes.
The canvas is an opponent and he is out-matched.
Like a sulking stray, with his tail between his legs, he puts away the brushes, the tray and the canvas.
In the darkness of the early morning he falls asleep cold on the couch.
On Tuesday a copy of the Sun is in front of him. He smokes as an engine smokes, methodically.
The paper and the strong crude coffee are equally bad on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Only on Friday, at the three o'clock breakfast hour, there is as well, a pang of guilt; an unwelcome reaction to her absence.
Throughout the week his creativity fails him. The canvas, despite his every effort, remains dry.
At seven o'clock, Friday evening, he's accosted with a memory of her. He had told her of his artistic aims for the first time and she had burned him with her acrid anger.
On that night, she was a fountain of energy; a constant flow of chatter. Here scolding him for one thing, there tidying up the living room. Then in the kitchen cooking noodles.
Next, in front of the mirror, trying on her costumes - skimpy little things, some with feathers, others with tiny scales of shiny plastic. Her essence was in the room so completely that even though he sometimes paid rent, he felt like the intruder.
Her words came back to him:
"You're such a selfish prick, Toby. You think this is fair, but it isn't. You add your dreams and your stupid goals and get nothing."
"Toby, listen to me."
She had said it with so much passion, had flown into such a beautiful rage, that he was silent and did as she told him to.
"You've got no job. You drink. You smoke, and mumble about your grand future, painting the world. You spend my last dollars on cigarettes."
How can you feed a child with a painting? What, are you going to stuff-it-in-her-mouth?"
She pushed her pretty face up to his and enunciated the last words by opening up her lips and jaw theatrically. That was the way she chattered, vigorously.
She was like one of those dolls they had outside car dealerships. Limpid, until the slightest thing irritated her. Then she filled with air and started trembling.
That night, she'd drawn him into the conflict with her crazy talk of a child. He was amused by her stupidity. The flat honk of the taxicab outside had ended it. She had, with a flurry of activity and a few sharp words shot in his direction, disappeared into the night like an apparition.
He wondered if she was.
Real? What a stupid question.
She's real all right. A real nuisance. A real pain. A real reason why I ought to enjoy every moment that she's gone. Have I ever done anything to her? Anything? It's a miracle I get anything done at at all, what with her constant chatter.
The pub is an illusion, a collage, a kaleidoscope of images.
Jamie, sidestep Jamie, who, like his father, wanted to be a nobody, loud and obnoxious, insolent and stupid, narrow minded and short, has the floor of Harod, where the beer seeps out of clogged lines and the smeared and ugly figures of plasticine talk and walk like real people. He shouts above the din for any challengers and guards the pool table triumphantly with the crooked cue.
Tobias floats clumsily across the room through the different zones of light. Max's at night is a reminder of the city's brief history. It was the avant-garde of neon. There were once more signs than junkies.
He battles the crowd of sweaty alcoholics to the back where the crazy man with the frog in his throat is nursing his drink pathetically.
"She's gone again, Max. This time for good. Good riddance, eh? Don't need none of that bullshit anyway. Never needed her anyway. Should a known right from the start, when she thought I was Toby Clemson."
"Do I look like an angel to you? She thought I was. Stupid girl. But it was already too late; she said I was all right, so she stuck around."
"All right! That's the way it is with her, hey? Never has anything nice to say to anybody."
The words were cracks in the dam.
"A...bird in the hand is worth t..t..two...in the bush," responds Max, slowly.
A black man, smiling, pushes between Max and Tobias. His skin is tight on his face like the skin on the head of an African drum.
"Gee, how's the art?"
"I know you. Where do I know you from?" says Tobias, straightening his beret nonchalently.
"It's Jay-Gray, Gee. How can you forget the main man? The top dog? The wild, dialed, summer child? Gimme a beer."
Jay-Gray puts a dirty Mac shirt on the barstool, and mounts it like his steed. With dirty fingers, he searches the ashtray for a long butt.
"Here," says Tobias, offering him a smoke. "I got some paint you know. Four cans."
"Ya got red?"
"Ya got blue?"
"Ya got yellow?"
"Nope. Ain't got no yellow. What do I need yellow for?"
"What! You high? How you gonna paint the sun with no yellow? How is your monkey gonna eat the banana?"
"I thought you was somethin' special. Now I'm gonna have to show you how ta paint. Word to the mother, like I ain't no Saint.' He empties a tin of quarters on the bar.
They drink as if it's their duty, as if they owe it to themselves. The beer is orange juice and they are men with colds.
When they are out of money, Tobias and Jay-Gray look through her drawers where they find her last fourty dollars, which he was saving.
"She don't hardly remember nothin she does," he tells Jay-Gray.
They buy more beer and cigarettes, and throw the cans of spray paint in a bag. They drink the beer, eat her pills, and smoke their way down the fire escape, laughing into the night, which smells of gasoline and garbage.
Dogs bark. Cars honk and squeal. Sirens howl out warnings with urgency.
"Come on, Gee. Move it. We gotta get to the Dash before it gets out, man. We're gonna make a splash at the Dash."
The Dash was the warehouse down in the dock district, at this time of night filled with a frenzied youth.
"How far are we now? Are we almost there?"
"Ya, ya, take easy, Gee. We're almost there."
"Jeez, you're a wimp. No wonder you let that bitch push you around. You stick with me and I'll show you how to paint, man. I'm a whiz. I'm a mother f--ck--in Michaelangelo."
The beige wall covered in graffiti is a block long. Music pumps through it with dull monotony.
They attack the wall with vigour. They spray for poverty. They spray for oppression. They spray just to spray.
Exes and ohs.
A jester in a cap.
The word 'Kool' like it is on a seventies t-shirt.
A giant genie from a magic lamp takes shape before Tobias and whispers to him: "Anything you want to paint is done, just wish it."
Tobias wishes it.
Like a bullet is his art, straight and true, it hits the mark.
It is the work of Jay-Gray's practised hand. It validates the very existence of the graffiti junky.
The wall is dancing with devils. A fine and humerous troll will take a toll from all that dare to pass.
The fisssshhhhooooot of the paint is the air escaping from a tire.
The cracks in Tobias' patience spread like cracks on a frozen lake in spring when the ice begins to feel its weight.
The dam breaks, and the paint flows like water.
"It's mine. This wall is mine, my man. My canvas. Now give me the green, then we outta here," he says, greedily, revelling in the gluttony of his expression.
People pour out of the club and crowd around the hot dog vendor like ants around a glob of peanut butter. The two painters flee into the night like escaped prisoners.
"So the shadows run again when half the city sleeps
Down the lanes across the roofs the baggy demons creep
The muse has got a hold of them and will not let them go
From wall to wall they move along their sac of paints in tow."
Theirs is a silent world of mist, in which they dance to the best graffiti spots. They jump with glee and smirk. They are so obsessed in their art, they lose each other in it. Tobias is left alone with two cans of paint and still he is a madman venting years of frustration.
He is selfish. His art obeys no rules. It knows no boundaries. It cries loudly: "this is me!"
He is a spider, not interested in crawling, but in the web, in creating it.
His can of paint is a true brush of air, each stroke fine and simple, sweet and acute.
And the art was sprayed. So soon it dried. It was the muse, personified.
It took its own shape, burst forth like morning rays from the sun. The genie, freed from its lamp, flexes on the wall and comes to life, an animated inspiration with color, sharp and clear like a prism.
Tobias, emptied of haste and bitterness, tired but not spent, is an instrument of free expression.
This is it, it's finally going to happen. I can do it justice. I can paint it.
He leaves the tunnel beneath the bridge and heads back to her home.
He enters her apartment and walks slowly down the corridor toward the secret chamber in the pyramid.
Beneath the bed he finds the medium he seeks. On it, for a brief instant, is an image of her cast in time. He's calm as he sets the easel up against the mirror.
The aftermath of his release is selfless. Like a monk he falls to his knees in prayer before the canvas, devoid of thought.
Somewhere, he laughs at the humour of his meditation. However, with deep breaths through his nose and into his belly, he gathers energy and adrenaline.
He picks up the bamboo brush and it becomes a blade of grass trembling in the wind.
The tray of paint becomes a pond of wondrous magical colours that bring life to his emotions. They are eternally animated on the canvas.
He empties his coffee cup and brews a new pot.
As the CDs change and the room fills with smoke, his exacting hand weaves an image of her. Freed now from the genies charm, he paints as he was taught, with unforced patience.
After a time, he finds he isn't painting anymore. Instead, he's sitting before the painting pondering a new found revelation.
Nothing with any meaning has ever happened to me. The only significant experience of my life is taking place right now. This moment is my first. And to think I've wasted thirty years waiting for this, and the entire time it's been here just the same.
He looks at the image of her before him, the cultivation of his innermost desires. He sees a woman of inexpressible beauty, expressed with unequalled clarity.
He feels her presence, sees the humour in her eyes; the thousands of expressions that her slender cheeks and deep lips form.
He blushes, guilty momentarily of past transgressions.
She is a deity to him, even though the portrait expresses her darkness. It resurrects her scowling tantrums and insults. It makes the room echo the thunder of their struggles.
Within her passive innocence, he sees the smirk she wears when she meets her male friends, the unsuspecting peons bewitched for her malicious purpose.
He reaches forward and lifts the portrait carefully from the makeshift easel, holding it at arms length and staring into her lucid eyes.
"Jesus Jones," he whistles softly. You are indeed one pretty bird."
[Restaurant (feature) Image: Jonelle Summerfield Oil Paintings: Night Cafe In Paris II]
[Etsy Image: An image Peacock Feather Tail Train Full Length Costume Your Choice - Etsy Israel]
[Genie Image: BuzzFeed - Amazing Graffiti Tributes To Robin Williams Appear Around The World - https://twitter.com/hugh_w_forrest/status/501118757368889344]
[Pub Image: Fine Art America Railroad Men at the Bar by Prankearts Painting by Richard T Pranke - Fine Art America]
Note: This story was written during a creative writing class, in 1999, while the author studied sciences at a community college.