Galley Beggar Press Short Story Prize 2017/18
‘Pictures at an exhibition’
I SEE NO REASON to decorate my apartment. Sometimes when I come home, it seems bare and bleak and empty. But I feel that way on the inside: Bare and bleak and empty. I haven’t eaten for three days.
I went to the art museum. I tried not to compare myself to the painters. I didn’t know any of them. Their lives could have been total wrecks. Some of their lives were total wrecks. I told myself that as I looked at the paintings of Van Gogh.
Today I went to the bookstore. I drank a cup of coffee, bought a paper, and looked in the want ads. With a blue felt-tipped pen, I circled at least thirteen ads. I called seven of the numbers. But it’s Sunday, and only one place answered. It’s an art supply store, five miles from home. I have an interview on Tuesday.
I slept through my interview. I bought a six-pack of beer and a carton of cigarettes. I smoked and drank while I drew a picture of my room. I used all sorts of shading, so that in the picture, the room doesn’t seem so bare. I taped the sketch on my wall.
I went out and bought a set of paints. I put them in my drawer. Then I went to the bookstore. I bought a book about the lives of several painters. None of them were happy. I threw the book away.
I did my grocery shopping. I bought vegetables and vitamin pills. I almost bought some meat, but picked up a package of fig newtons instead. I ate them on the way home, and stopped inside an art gallery. I saw a painting of a cow with patchwork quilting for skin. Maybe I’ll buy it. Maybe I’ll go to the museum.
I went to the zoo. I unearthed my sketchbook from a closet – it had dust on the cover, and horrible pictures inside that I had drawn some time ago. I tore them out. I drew birds in the birdhouse, and an overweight zebra. I sketched a peanut, two feet tall, and an elephant beneath it, five inches tall. I crumpled them up to throw away, but then kept the elephant. Later, I went back to the trashcan and dug out the zebra. I came home and smoothed the wrinkles out of the two sketches, and then taped them on my wall. I lay on my bed looking at them. Bare walls with three posters.
I’ve always wanted to be a painter. When I was twelve, I moved into a foster home with a family that went to the library every Wednesday. I stayed home and drew. Just for an hour at two, at first; then, I began taking a sketchbook with me wherever I went. I sold my first painting to the neighbors for fifty dollars: I mixed buckets of paint and threw them against a canvas on the wall.
“Abstract, rambling, cruel, crude, farcical, ugly.” All these words have been used to describe my paintings.
Today I bought a gun.
I also bought an African violet and a big plant with gigantic leaves, like a palm tree. I put the African violet on my dresser, and set the big plant in the corner, between the pictures I drew at the zoo. I sat at my desk with the revolver. I aimed at the zebra, at the elephant, and at the peanut. I fired, even though I have no ammunition. I pulled out my paints from the drawer and made a watercolor of the gun. I liked the way the colors mixed – black and white and gray. Then I painted the African violet, with the same colors. I put both pictures in my drawer, beneath my underclothes. I have only three pairs of underwear, and I wanted to conceal the gun. I ended up wrapping the gun in one of the old pairs.
My room looks better. I have hope. I have a gun. I have my paints, three paintings, and a sketch of a zebra on my wall. I have a peanut and an elephant. A mattress on my floor, two cans of tomato soup, and a loaf of bread. I’ll sell a painting to Danny Turner. He’ll give me a thousand bucks for it and probably ask for more. I’ll tell him there’s no more where that one came from. I only need the money.
Today I slept. I awoke at three, took the check from Danny to the bank, and cashed it in. I went to the grocery store and bought a bag of apples. I ate one while walking down the aisle. I took the rest home, arranged them in a bowl, and sketched them. I put the picture on the wall above my desk. I sat on my bed, picked up an apple, and pitched it at the picture. Danny asked for more. I painted a two-foot apple with a five-inch can of tomato soup and a worm crawling out of the can. For Danny.
I checked to make sure the gun is still in my drawer. It’s funny, having a gun wrapped in underclothes. I’m a painter. I painted the gun in an open drawer.
Danny paid me nine hundred dollars for the apple and tomato soup. I bought a cup of coffee and a dozen pastries. I took them to the park and fed the ducks.
Here are some of my dreams: I’m a world famous painter, living in New York City. There’s always something happening, and I never miss out. I’m never missing anything. My paintings have style and color and flair. I’ve read that in the reviews. But I don’t need the reviews. I feel at home.
A man is murdering his children. I dream in color. He smashes a plant over each of his babies’ heads. It’s an African violet with pink flowers, in a clay pot.
I’ve dreamed that one of my best paintings is of a man killing his children. In the middle of a party, he smashes a wine bottle over each of his three children’s heads. Everyone is eating cheese and crackers and drinking wine, looking at a photography exhibition on the walls. The killing could be an exhibit – it’s a mere fragment, split off from the party. It’s only a picture. It’s only a dream; the killing takes place in a tiny corner.
Today I walked about town sketching buildings, lakes, trees, ducks. I sketched a duck eating a pastry on top of a tree. I drew a building with a mouth, eating a pastry. I sketched a lake with ducks sailing in pastry boats. I bought a wine glass, some cheese, crackers, and a bottle of beer; took the sketches home, and put them on my wall. I had to take down the watercolor of the gun to make room for my new sketches. I used the watercolor as a place mat, and then threw it away. At midnight, I went into town and bought a pastry for dessert. I walked by the lake and left a bite for the ducks.
Today I pulled the gun from my drawer. I still haven’t bought any ammunition. I put the gun against my temple and pulled the trigger. I lit a candle and ran my fingers through the flame. I stayed indoors until ten, then picked up a towel and walked to the lake. I took off my clothes then swam across and back. The water almost froze me.
My dreams were to be a concert violinist, a peanut a zoo attendant a zebra, a painter an elephant a duck a pastry a building. I’ve lived to become all those things.
I sat on the bed in my room, cradling the gun in my hands. I sat there all day. At five o’clock, I went out to sell a painting to Danny Turner. He asked me to stay for dinner. I refused. I bought bullets for my revolver. I went back to the lake and offered the ducks some bullets to nibble on. They came up to me, expecting pastry; but left when they discovered the bullets. I took out my sketchpad and drew a bullet growing out of the ground, with pastries hanging off its branches. I took the picture home and put it in my drawer. I unwrapped my gun and stared down the barrel. Finally, I took the bullets from my pocket. I loaded the gun. I put an apple on my windowsill, opened the window, and fired. The apple exploded into space. I took the rest of the bullets, threw them out the window, wrapped the gun back up, and put it in my drawer.
I’m meeting Danny for lunch. He wants me to do a show in his gallery. He wants it to be me, alone. I am alone. I’m taking the gun with me to lunch.
Today is Friday. I slept on Wednesday and Thursday, except for a visit to the ducks. I bought fifteen pastries and left them by the side of the lake.
I’m doing paintings for the exhibit. The walls of my room are covered; now, I’m painting for the public. A violin, a duck, a pastry; an elephant, a zebra, and a wine bottle. I painted a picture of a party and a man in the corner of the room. I’ve painted it before.
Danny is having the opening this Saturday night, at his gallery. He’s pleased with the outcome of my work. Several people want to meet me. My work has been selling. They want more. I sketched a picture of myself walking alongside a duck. The duck is my size, and its enormous, webbed foot is about to come down on a gun. I don’t know if the gun is loaded or not. I put the picture on my ceiling, above the bed. I bought a hanging plant. I look at the picture through the leaves of the plant.
I bought a pastry on the way to Danny’s and stopped at the lake to feed the ducks. I drew a picture of the water, and a tree in the middle of the lake growing pastries off its branches. I felt like going home. Instead of showing at Danny’s, I would paint the picture. I stood by the lake. At home, the gun lay in my drawer. I walked back to my room, but didn’t paint. I pulled out my gun and returned to the lake. At the edge of the water, I dug a hole. I buried the gun.
At the opening, I gave my sketch to a woman who asked for it. I’m a success. I’m a tree with pastries hanging off me, growing in the middle of a lake.
Everyone was eating cheese and crackers and drinking wine. My paintings were on the walls.