I smoke the same brand of cigarette as the curator of contemporary art. We hold up our packs like they’re ID badges. I’m a museum guard. On my real ID badge, my hair looks like a claw.
The curator is hot. He’s wearing a nice suit. I can tell it’s a nice suit because it doesn’t make any noise when he walks. My suit sounds like a handful of grocery bags, even when I’m standing still. There’s a breeze and my pants flap like a cheap flag.
The curator asks me if I like art.
I suck on my cigarette. I have epilepsy. If I suck on my cigarette too many times, I’ll have a seizure. I suck on my cigarette again. I’m one of those smokers who keeps the cigarette in his mouth the entire time he’s smoking. The curator hardly draws. He lifts his cigarette to his face like it’s a glass he wants to inspect.
“So, yes,” I say, “I like art. I went to art school.”
“Ha ha. I thought so.”
The curator bends over and mashes his cigarette into a bucket of sand. He’s bending over that way on purpose. His ass. In my face. I’m lucky I don’t have a bigger dick. I can hide an erection in these circus tent pants, no problem.
“You’re young,” he says. “You’ll feel guilty for making useless shit after a while.”
I’ve heard this before. When I graduated art school, I showed my mother my portfolio. She put on her reading glasses and considered every piece. It was like watching someone play a very slow game of solitaire.
When she finished, she said, “Why are you an artist anyway?”
I went out on the front porch. I sat on the swing. My father was standing in the driveway smoking a cigarette. He took the pack from his breast pocket and tossed it to me. I held the pack like it was a tiny Bible.
My father said, “Didn’t anyone teach you to smoke?”
I took a cigarette from the pack, the lighter too, stuffed in there like a little gun. I put the cigarette in my mouth. My art school friends tried to teach me to smoke once. I couldn’t move my hand the right way to ash the cigarette. It was like when my brother and I tried to teach ourselves magic tricks from a library book.
My father watched me try to light the cigarette. The little gear on the lighter hurt my thumb. My father didn’t help. I got it, eventually. I sucked in so the tip of the cigarette glowed orange. I kept sucking in. I got dizzy. My father came up on the porch and sat in a rocking chair.
“Your mother knows what she likes.”
“Tell me about it,” I said.
“Not much to tell. Just the way it is.”
It’s the same way at the museum. People know what they like.
I turn the cigarette in my fingers, twisting my wrist to make a forceful ash in the curator’s direction. He straightens up. He smoothes his pant legs. He stands by the bucket of sand as if waiting.
“Listen,” he says, “I’m sorry. Just make things because you want to make them.”
He holds the door open for me. I pretend he’s looking at my ass. Maybe he is. Maybe he’s assessing. I see him in the galleries and it looks like he’s been assessing things his entire life.
I’m posted in the fish gallery tonight. There are paintings of people buying fish or eating fish or celebrating, in some way, the freshness of fish.
When I was a kid, the homeless man by the river taught me about fish. He said, “Never eat a fish that looks like this.” He put his hands in a bucket and took out a fish. It had three eyes and messed up scales like a dropped deck of playing cards. The homeless man held the fish like a snake, supporting its middle so it didn’t get jumpy. He put the fish to my nose. “See,” he said, “it doesn’t even smell right.”
When I’m trapped in the fish gallery, I smell my fingers. I put two of them to my nose like they’ve just been somewhere private. The smell of cigarettes is strong. Sometimes, I lick my fingers before I smell them. The wetness makes the scent stronger. I’m licking my fingers when the curator comes into my gallery with another curator.
Neither of them look at me. I stand against one of the walls covered with period-appropriate fabric. You can touch these walls and they spring a little, like a t-shirt stretched over a mouth.
My curator is questioning the authenticity of one of the fish paintings. The other curator doesn’t say anything. He humphs a lot. My curator points at the fish in the painting and whispers something. The other curator leaves.
My curator says, “This is a fake.” He flicks the canvas. It makes a puffing sound like when you take the lid off a popcorn tin.
I point at the fish in the painting and say, “That looks like a big black cock.”
The curator grabs through my uniform like someone who’s lost something in the sheets. He finds my body. We kiss. I’ve never kissed another smoker. It’s like kissing myself. If I was pressed to define an artist, maybe I’d say an artist is someone who can kiss himself.
The curator says, “We can’t do this if I hate your artwork. Do you have a studio?”
My studio is downtown by the river, which smells like shit. I go to yard sales and buy half-used scented candles. When the candles are lit, my studio smells like imitation vanilla and fruit punch.
The curator and I take out our lighters. We go around the studio and light every candle. My artwork looks animated and evil. The curator says he’s never seen anything like it.
“What are these?”
I tell him they’re crocheted monsters. I tell him my mother taught me to crochet. She crocheted when her body ached. She was in the living room one morning slapping her legs. She said, “Not today, you soft monsters.” I tried to hug her, but she said, “Don’t touch me.” I started to cry and she said, “No, wait. Help me crochet.”
The curator pokes a crocheted gargoyle.
“It looks like stone, I’ll give you that.”
I take a crocheted harpy from a bookshelf. The harpy has little yarn breasts. The curator pinches one of the nipples and laughs. I fly the harpy back to the bookshelf like it’s a toy airplane.
The studio is starting to smell like a greeting card store on fire. I sit on the futon while the curator inspects each monster. I light a cigarette. The curator touches the spear-tail of a crocheted demon. He shakes his finger like the yarn was hot.
“God,” he says, “you must be tortured. I don’t want to mess with your mood by kissing you too much.”
I tell him to get over here and feel guilty.
He blows out some candles. Now the studio smells like a match lit over a toilet.
I suck on my cigarette like it’s a straw. I’m dizzy. The studio is almost dark. I fold over on the futon, so tired all of a sudden. I bite my tongue and my left arm lifts without me telling it to. I growl. I’m having a seizure. I’m a little person in my head looking out my eyes.
The curator says, “Where the fuck are you?”
I slap the legs in my head. Here I are. Right here. But my left arm keeps lifting and I’m not in the studio pretty soon. I’m dead a while.
When I come back, I kiss the curator and try not to throw up in his mouth. I pretend nothing happened. I light a cigarette and put it in his mouth. I pick up a ball of yarn and start to crochet in the near dark.
The curator puts his hands all over my body. It’s warm for him because I’m alive again. I act like I can feel it. For so long after a seizure, I can only feel my body popping back into place. The curator asks what those noises are and I say, “I don’t hear anything.” He squints his eyes like there’s something inauthentic about my body. He pulls my mouth open with his clean, curator hands, searching for an end to unravel.
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