The End of Him | by Ralph Lombreglia

 

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The End of Him

by Ralph Lombreglia

 

Gordon’s Lux-O-Liner bounced into the rear end of Boston on streets that seemed to be undergoing a bombardment of some kind. Explosions boomed outside his bus as it passed through shrouds of smoke and steam. It jolted over craters in the road accompanied by insane screeching that turned out to be giant War of the Worlds metal monsters rampaging in fenced-off excavations. He watched them in his tinted window, swinging their mechanical limbs against the sky. Then gray exhaust enveloped the bus and all he could see was himself. The whole city had been a war-zone for decades now. It was even worse today than the last time he’d been here, a year ago, and they were still calling it progress.

The excavating machines were interesting, though. He might depict them — giant brutes building glass towers for the sleepwalkers. He’d been casting about for painting ideas since getting on the bus, and it grieved him because he despised artists with ideas. A good-looking woman would be more inspiring, but he hadn’t seen one this entire trip, from the top of Vermont to downtown Boston — not on the bus itself or in any of the villages en route, not even along the shoulder of the road where he had spied comely milkmaids in years gone by.

It made Gordon wonder about himself. Was it possible that he had, in fact, seen many beautiful women today, women who could arouse other men and have liaisons beyond even his imagining, but to him they all looked like nothingness?

His jowly, disembodied head floated in the dark window glass. He could scarcely believe how old he’d become. He began to have a claustrophobia attack. In a minute he’d be crawling over his seat-mate to get out. To calm himself he thought of Pamela, the woman he was on his way to see. Pam was beautiful, there were no two ways about that, probably the most beautiful woman Gordon had ever slept with. Unfortunately, they now despised each other.
She had been his student a decade ago, and then his mistress, and now it wasn’t clear what she was. She had summoned him to Boston. Or more precisely she had invited him to use her Beacon Hill studio for a week while she was out of town. The invitation, inscribed on a Matisse greeting card, had come as a surprise. The last time he’d visited her, they had a vicious fight that ended with her screaming he’d ruined her life.

It would require a story for Lorraine, his wife, but Lorraine had heard many stories over the years. He would say he was visiting his crazy brother in New Hampshire. It was almost true: a visit to poor Russell was long overdue. He accepted with a Samuel Beckett postcard to counter Pam’s Matisse, then the whole thing bothered him every day of the three weeks leading up to it. It smelled complicated. But how complicated could it be? She wouldn’t even be there. Or maybe it smelled too simple: Pam had somehow divined that he wasn’t painting, that he no longer had the vaguest idea how to paint, and she wanted to help him, because women were like that. Or something. Whatever it was, he would find out soon enough. He was having dinner with her tonight before she went away in the morning.

* * * *

Downtown Boston was all changed around. You now entered the subway through crystal pyramids on the street, just as in UFO movies where aliens take you underground to put transistors in your neck. The new shiny stainless steel trains and platforms extended the surgical theme. After two stops Gordon got off to walk across the Public Gardens and up Newbury Street to his gallery. He had come down early to have lunch with his longtime dealer, Malcolm Boyd. He expected to see the usually elegant, enchanting women on Boston’s famous shopping promenade, but Newbury Street was infested by tattooed teenyboppers in stinky sneakers. He struggled up the sidewalk through herds of skinny girls who might have been alluring had they not turned themselves into nose-ringed farm animals.

Boyd-DeCloud was halfway into alphabetical Back Bay, between Dartmouth and Exeter. He saw its brick bow-front from the corner at Clarendon, the windows filled with riotous color, not a good sign. He arrived at the venerable façade to find large cartoony canvases hanging in its parlor-level display room. The subject was apes, apes painted in colors straight from the tube — bright red monkey vulvas, bright blue monkey erections. In the central painting they were wearing helmets and disembarking from a spaceship. The show’s title was stenciled on Boyd-DeCloud’s bow window — “Orangs” — along with the artist’s name, which meant nothing to Gordon. He decided to call the painter UFO Monkey Boy. The pictures were terrifically bad. That was the point, of course, but it had been the point for so long that Gordon thought people might have gotten tired of it by now.

He pounded up the granite steps. The willowy blonde at the desk was star-struck when Gordon gave his name. Alas, he was a boy, named Johnny. After a spate of semi-sincere fawning, Johnny said that Malcolm was running late. He invited Gordon to have a look at the “really great” show they had hanging right now.

Gordon decided to start at the back, where UFO Monkey Boy was embarked upon truly monumental acts of hubris. Some canvases here were eight-foot square. In one of them, technocrat orangs were constructing humanoid slaves from spare computer parts, using banana peels for skin. In the next room, the apes were dressed in business suits, eating diminutive humans like chicken drumsticks. And in the room before that, naked pink people assumed the position before tumescent royal orangs dressed in ermine robes and crowns.

The show was a story, a gallery-sized comic book. Gordon had unwittingly walked through it in reverse. The plot was that apes from outer space came to Earth, raped and enslaved the humans, ate the humans, and finally built cybernetic replacements for the slaves they had devoured. A muddled narrative, if you asked Gordon. Had the space monkeys simply controlled their melodramatic craving for human flesh in Act Two, there’d be no need for Act Three. And there had been precious little need for Act One in the first place.

He sensed someone behind him and turned around. Malcolm was standing in the doorway smiling. “What do you think?”

“Don’t tell me people are paying money for this crap.”

“I thought that might be your reaction. As a matter of fact, they are paying money. This kid is doing quite well.”

“What kind of money?”

“Johnny has the prices at the desk. But spare yourself.”

* * * *

Malcolm had made a lunch reservation in Back Bay, but Gordon insisted they go to Chinatown instead. He wanted real Chinese food and some herbs and teas he couldn’t get back home. They emerged from their cab beneath whole plucked fowl hanging by their feet from shop awnings. Malcolm cringed.

“Don’t be a suburban white man,” Gordon said.

“Well, it’s a gruesome sight.”

“Not as gruesome as what’s hanging in your gallery.”

“That’s different.”

“Yes, because that stuff has nothing to do with reality. These birds do. They’re real and they actually taste like something, unlike the corporate chicken in your supermarket.”

In recent years, Gordon had become a student of Chinese art and culture. The world-view of the ancient Chinese was so complete and well-integrated, it made the big thinkers of the West look like frat boys. Modern American Chinese were a different story, however. The mad scene here in the street did not please Gordon—the chaotic hustle and bustle and touristy bullshit. Chinatown seemed to exult in its own terrible feng shui. Every intersection had traps and pockets where bad spirits could lodge themselves forever.

A restaurant called China Dream caught his eye, up on the second floor of an apartment building. Its menu was posted at sidewalk-level, entirely in Chinese. Gordon approved and led Malcolm up the red carpeted stairs. The host’s podium was vacant. Gordon ventured a few steps into the darkness and made out, by the black-light of massive fish tanks, the spectral shapes of booths and tables and, he was pretty sure, some customers. When he turned around, the restaurant’s impresario was bowing and beckoning them the other way, to a booth in the big window above the street.

“Why isn’t anyone else seated out here?” Gordon asked the owner. “Why do the other people eat in darkness?”

The owner smiled. “They are secret lovers.”

Malcolm took Gordon’s hand across the table. “Our love isn’t secret,” he told the owner. “We’ve been together twentyfive years.”

Gordon reclaimed his hand and waved that idea away. “Your best Scotch, neat, green tea, scallops in garlic sauce. No MSG.”

“Never MSG,” said the owner.

Malcolm ordered a Mai Tai and General Gao’s Chicken. “It’s the chicken from down in the street, yes?” he asked. The owner didn’t understand. “The fresh Chinese chicken hanging outside?”

“Oh, yes. Fresh-killed chicken, always fresh.”

“General Gao’s is the Chicken McNuggets of Chinese cuisine,” said Gordon. “Please order something respectable.”

“I like General Gao’s.”

“House specialty, very good,” said the owner. Then he disappeared again into the darkness. Waiting for their drinks, they discussed Gordon’s favorite subject, the art world. The Reaper was now swinging his scythe at Gordon’s generation in earnest. Since he and Malcolm had last seen each other, several old cohorts had left the planet.

“I expected to see you at Harry’s wake,” Malcolm said.

“I don’t like wakes.”

“A quick trip to New York for a dear old friend?”

“The old friend wasn’t there, Malcolm.”

“Yes, I know, but the idea is to join with others in reflecting upon the deceased and how he touched your life.”

“It’s all bullshit.”

“So it’ll be fine with you if no one comes to yours.”

“I’m not having one!” Gordon said, slapping the table with more force than he’d intended. He looked up to see the owner holding their drinks on a tray. “My friend is trying to rush me into my grave,” he explained.

The owner nodded as if Gordon had pinpointed the one thing that Chinese culture abhorred above all, grave-pushing. He served Malcolm a Mai Tai decorated like a drink for a child, with a crêpe paper dragon and two umbrellas. The old esthete was delighted. Gordon raised his Scotch for a toast, but he couldn’t think of anything to say.

“To your future,” Malcolm said, clinking Gordon’s glass.

“You see me in your crystal ball, do you?”

“I had lunch last week with a guy who advises collectors. Out of the blue he started asking about you. Unfortunately, I didn’t know what to tell him. I don’t know what you’re doing.”

“I’m creating brilliant new art.”

Malcolm applauded. “Wonderful. Is any of it large brilliant new art, by any chance? This guy has a client looking for big paintings. Huge, even.”

Their food arrived too quickly. Malcolm’s dish brought to mind the droppings of a large orange mammal, but it was more appetizing than Gordon’s scallops, which resembled tiny flying saucers in a brown magnetic field.

“Get him to buy some space-monkey pictures.”

“He did. A bunch of them.”

Gordon’s lunch was even worse than it looked. He’d ordered seafood because he was in Boston, just like a tourist. The scallops were probably from Chile. They were tasteless and their texture was off. At best they’d been frozen, at worst he’d be in a hospital this afternoon. Few things irritated him more than making a stupid selection in a restaurant. He said, “Well, it so happens I’m painting big pictures right now myself.”

“Right now while you’re working here in town? Could I come over and see something?”

“How do you know I’m working in town?”

“Your former girlfriend told me. I saw her at the opening.”

“Of the show up now? UFO Monkey Boy?”

“That’s not his name, Gordon. And he’s a friend of hers, by the way. A close friend, it seemed to me.”

“I don’t keep tabs on Pamela’s personal life,” said Gordon, thrusting a chopstick into Malcolm’s General Gao’s and eating the nugget like a popsicle. It was the fresh chicken from down the street, bursting with meaty flavor through a piquant orange glaze.

* * * *

The owner of China Dream had lied about never using MSG. He used plenty of it. No sooner had Gordon put Malcolm in a cab than the pile drivers started in his head. He dragged himself through the cluttered herb and tea shop, then caught a cab to Pamela’s condo in Louisburg Square, jewel of Beacon Hill. Louisa May Alcott had once lived on the block. Gordon arrived on time to find no one home. He crossed the street to wait on a bench in the park that Louisburg Square enclosed. The wrought-iron gate was locked. It was a private park.

He leaned against the metal fence-spikes with his duffel bag at his feet, feeling like a hobo—not the greatest feeling for someone Gordon’s age, but at least he’d finally hit bottom, gone all the way to the depths of himself. Now he had no choice but to turn around and go back up, and that was just fine, because much as he hated to admit it, he wasn’t very good at making choices.

He looked down the hill and saw Pam walking up Pinckney from the flats at Charles, illuminated by a sunbeam coming down between buildings. In her thirties, she still looked like a fashion model. She didn’t see him leaning on the fence and walked right past. He watched her climb her steps, unlock her door, get her mail from the box in the foyer. Upstairs, she passed in sequence across several second-floor windows like frames in a film. That was the floor she lived on. The third was her studio, and she had the roof, too. It had to be a seven or eight-million-dollar apartment. Louisa May Alcott would be the chambermaid today.

He waited a few minutes and rang her bell.

“Don’t step on Juju,” she said, opening her door.

Gordon looked down. “There’s something I could step on?”

“I got a cat. I may have forgotten to mention you’re watching him for me. Don’t worry, he’s no trouble. You’ll hardly know he’s there.”

Gordon spotted Juju at the end of the hall, an intense little beast pleasuring himself on the Persian runner. Juju stuck his longhaired ass in the air and knifed his claws into the carpet. The sight of it amplified Gordon’s malaise. He needed four or five ibuprofen and a big glass of water, followed by a big glass of Scotch. Pam had a cocktail bar on the roof. They passed her studio going up, floor-to-ceiling windows and nothing on the walls. She hadn’t been painting, or she’d put it all away. It was peculiar in either event, but he was glad to escape the obligation to react to her stuff.

“Juju’s not allowed on the roof,” she told him.

“Why not?”

“Because if he gets up here, it’ll be the end of him.”

“Oh, Pam, please. He’s a cat. He can take care of himself. You’re so fucking neurotic.”

“Gordon, I didn’t ask for a critique of my personality. It’s my house and my cat. I make the rules.”

“Fine.”

He followed her into the glass roof-gazebo at the top of her stairs. It was appointed like a hotel lounge—bar, stools, armchairs, music system, all with a three-sixty of metro Boston. He swallowed his ibuprofen at the bar and they took their drinks onto her open roof deck. Gordon planned to spend most of his week out here, summoning his powers from the heavens. He looked into the distance for the spot where he’d entered Boston on the bus. He thought he saw it, a smoky smudge like a paper erasure, the place where the poor people were being rubbed out.

Suddenly the light underwent a perturbation, like something falling into water.

Pamela said, “Ah, the queen has arrived.”

A red-tailed hawk was sitting on the cedar railing. Gordon had these very birds of prey on his property in Vermont, and they were not something you fucked around with. “What the hell is that doing here?”

“They have a nest on a ledge around the corner with two hatchlings in it. The neighborhood’s abuzz. This is the female. When she first showed up, the male already had a mate. She killed it and took him for herself.”

“Bravo,” said Gordon.

The bird rotated its head until it was looking behind itself, then leaned backward and vanished like a gargoyle snapping off a building. In a few seconds it was out over the lower rooftops, riding a thermal like a kite. Sunlight came through its wings and turned them champagne blonde. It reminded Gordon of a woman’s head flying around in the sky.

He heard the sound of a flag snapping a pole, and an even bigger hawk alighted on the railing.

“Pamela, I sincerely hope you’re not feeding these birds.”

“I don’t have to. There’s loads of prey around here.”

“They could eat a large rat for breakfast.”

“They do.”

* * * *

Gordon found all forms of reminiscence repugnant, and Pam knew this, but she insisted upon reminiscing anyway. She wanted to hark back to her college days, the old names and places and faces. She wanted to relive the things she and Gordon had done after they’d started sleeping together. It was troubling. She was feeling romantic or desolate—it hardly mattered which. He kept changing the subject and she kept circling back. He finished his third Scotch and stood up to leave for dinner.

“You still think it was your idea, don’t you?” she said.

“What was my idea?”

“Us. Our affair. You think you seduced me.”

“Jesus, Pam, this is tedious. I’m hungry. I didn’t have much lunch. Let’s go eat.”

“The night we got together? The whole chain of events leading up to it? I set it all in motion. I planned it step by step. I wanted you and I went after you. It never would have happened otherwise.”

“And at this point you honestly think I give a fuck?” The truth was, he had no memory of the night they started their thing. He tried once more to get away from it. “I was at Boyd-DeCloud today,” he said. “They’re having a show by a member of your generation.”

“‘Orangs.’ The artist is a friend of mine.”

“No kidding. UFO Monkey Boy is a friend of yours. I call him UFO Monkey Boy. I hope you don’t mind.”

“As a matter of fact, I do. He happens to be a very nice person. Also a very good painter, in my opinion. He’ll be bummed to hear you don’t like him. He’s a great fan of yours.”

“Be serious.”

“You had a huge effect on him. You’re in his pantheon.”

“His pantheon is Superman and Green Lantern.”

She ate an olive from her empty martini and said nothing.

“Then don’t tell him what I think,” Gordon said. “Or how about this? I could reach out to the lad, have him over while you’re gone. He could give me some pointers on where the art scene is going. Or are you taking him on this trip with you?”

“No, I’m not.”

“What is this thing you’re going to, anyway?”

“A writers’ conference.”

“The horror, the horror. Why?”

“I’m writing a book. I was planning to tell you about it.”

“A children’s book, and you’re doing the paintings too? You could make money with that. Put ducklings in it. Anything with ducklings sells like hotcakes.”

“It’s not a children’s book. It’s a memoir.”

This information orbited Gordon’s skull a few times before crashing into his brain. “Is something wrong? Are you sick? Do you have cancer or something?”

“You don’t have to be dying to write a memoir, Gordon.”

“You don’t?” He stood up and paced the deck. “Well you should have to be. You should be taking your final breaths. This is preposterous. You’re a girl. You’ve done nothing. Stop this bullshit and go paint something. Nobody cares about your privileged life.”

“That’s not true. I have a contract to write it.”

His headache was gone, but apparently five ibuprofen at once was too much for his liver. His three Scotches were hitting him unusually hard. He half-staggered to the deck railing. A sea of lights now covered the land, what the sky must have looked like when people lived in caves. A black dish of phantasms.

“OK, Pam. Fine. But let’s be clear on one thing. I am not in this fucking book.”

“You’re not? Gordon, how could that be? We had a ten-year love affair, starting when I was practically a child. I was your adoring mistress. I wanted to marry you. How could you not be in my memoir?”

“Mistress? Is that your idea of writing? People don’t even use that word anymore. Did we ever use it? Did I ever tell anyone you were my mistress? Don’t trot out antique terminology because you got a book contract. Get a fucking thesaurus.”

“I hoped you’d be happy to hear I’d had success with something. Silly of me, I know. Listen, I have to get up early in the morning. I’m going to bed.”

“We haven’t had dinner.”

“There’s stuff in the fridge. Good luck with your work this week. I hope it goes great. Please don’t drink too much, OK? And give Juju a scratch for me now and then. It won’t kill you.”

* * * *

Sometimes at night, in his sleep, when Gordon was defenseless, dead people crawled out of the woodwork to howl at him. Lovers, enemies, the occasional friend, supermarket clerks, his old secretary, a student suicide, anyone who had ceased to exist and was now alive forever. With every visitation the gang got larger. Harry made his debut appearance among the thirty or forty spirits screaming above Gordon’s bed in Pamela’s guest room. They woke him repeatedly, as did his intestinal cramps from China Dream, and Gordon knew exactly when all those awakenings were thanks to the grotesquely big, bright red numerals on the digital clock-radio. He suffered and slurped water in the bathroom at 1:42, 2:57 and 4:43. At 5:17, purged and exhausted, he resolved to crawl into Pam’s bed and have a talk.

When he got up to do it, it was 9:49.

In her designer kitchen the coffee machine was cold and empty. He pushed open her bedroom door. The bed was made, pillows fluffed, curtains open. He looked around for some farewell communication—an icy note on the fridge, black letters on the whiteboard—but she’d left nothing. He made coffee and walked around the apartment. It had three chandeliers, two working fireplaces, a curving staircase to the studio floor, and it was all Gordon’s for a week, to paint his masterpiece.

French doors opened onto a balcony overlooking the park. Pam had a screen door installed there—to contain the cat, Gordon deduced, spotting one of Juju’s claws stuck near the top of the mesh. The balcony railing and floor were splashed with chalky blasts of raptor shit and bloody hunks of prey. Upstairs in her studio, large canvases were stretched and primed. He suspected they belonged to UFO Monkey Boy. He hung one on the wall and contemplated its empty whiteness. He had hoped to settle on a painting idea before going to bed, so his psyche could work on it while he slept. Instead he’d crashed with nothing in his head, and now his mind was a playground for ghouls, just the way it was at home.

The studio was hopeless. In two trips he had himself set up on the roof, the big canvas on an easel, paints on the teak dining table. He was drinking soda water with lime and mixing Gordon-ish colors when he saw Juju sitting opposite him on the cedar deck, licking his nether parts. The little weasel had followed him up the stairs.

Juju rolled on his back and invited Gordon to come get him. When Gordon tried that, Juju scooted away. They played this game until Gordon was ready to kill somebody. Pamela had said nothing about watching a cat. He had come all this way, to a glorious place for getting something done, and still the world wouldn’t leave him alone. He returned to the easel and tried to think, or better, not think. In the corner of his eye, Juju reappeared from behind the redwood tub of a Japanese maple. He leapt into the tub, then into the limbs of the tree. Good, thought Gordon, use it. Paint it. Paint the fucking cat.

He was starting to channel Juju’s evil essence when the male red-tail materialized on the wooden deck railing. Gordon wasn’t surprised. He’d been expecting the birds, and not because they were his totems or nature-spirits or whatever. He’d seen their habitual desecration of the balcony downstairs. This building was one of their favorite places.

The hawk tried to stare Gordon down. When that didn’t work, he pretended to groom himself, then locked eyes with Gordon again. Gordon picked up his brush. He was making his first stroke when Juju leapt from the tree. The cat’s trajectory was perfect, straight to the hawk, but halfway through it, while Juju was still in the air, the female sliced into the scene from left to right just as the male flashed away from right to left, the whole procedure like a big pair of scissors. When Gordon recovered his senses, both hawks were up in the sky, the female’s wing-pumping noticeably more laborious than the male’s, thanks to the dark cargo wriggling in her talons.

Gordon dropped his brush and stumbled back into the glass gazebo. He sloshed himself a drink from the bottle he’d nearly finished the night before, spilling it because his hands were shaking. His first idea was simple: Leave, get out. Five minutes to pack his things and he’d be on the street. He could go visit his crazy brother for real and explain things to Pam at some point in the future. Or not.

But he couldn’t get Juju out of his mind. What was the poor creature thinking as he flew to his unspeakable end? Or was his mind blessedly empty because Mother Nature showed mercy on prey by shocking them unconscious when they were seized by predators? No, Mother Nature didn’t do that. Gordon had seen little Juju struggling horribly in the sky.

He was downstairs packing his bag when his head cleared and the real Gordon reasserted himself. He had come here to take important action without knowing exactly what that action would be. But now he knew. The Abduction of Juju. He would paint it with everything he had, and when it was finished he would leave it on Pam’s studio wall as a gift. She would see how he sanctified her cat’s sacrifice with his talent. She would forgive him and not reveal damning secrets about him in her book. Things would turn out even better than if Juju had lived.

He climbed back up to his easel on the roof. UFO Monkey Boy needed a whole gallery to narrate the plot of a comic book. Gordon could tell a real story in a single canvas. The old sacred guys had done it: Jesus at dinner here, carrying the cross over there; crucified in this corner of the picture, rising from the dead in that corner. The Abduction of Juju would be about much more than a house pet’s demise. It could tell any story Gordon wanted, encompass any amount of time. Hawks were the descendants of dinosaurs, so he could start pretty far back. He’d get the excavating machines in it somewhere. There was nothing he couldn’t portray, nothing that wouldn’t work. Nothing was beyond him.

He raised his brush to begin.

ralph2

 

This story was initially published in Issue 9 of H.O.W. Journal.

 

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