When I Paint My Masterpiece

New York, 1987.

After the bars closed, we headed to Geoff’s stockbroker friend Erika’s place to drink more and get high. I was happy to hook them up. On the ride up in the elevator, I coached myself. Time to shake some action, Billy boy. Geoff says she’s interested. Time to close. Screw up and you’ll never get that padlock off the studio. I’d gone after it with a crowbar, but the lock was too stout for me to pry off. I lived and painted in an empty warehouse in New Jersey with a fabulous view of the city skyline but, unfortunately, no heat.  I threw some money at the landlord every couple months, but this time was serious. A year’s worth of paintings, all my materials and brushes, my books, my clothes—everything was locked inside. Erika was loaded. Play things right and you’ll sell that painting.

Erika tore the cellophane off a new pack of Benson and Hedges. “So, Billy, what made you decide to become a painter?”

For a moment I smelled linseed oil and saw the smears of red and yellow on my plywood pallet, and remembered things that could not be described or shared. Then I waved at the smoke. Who smokes on an elevator?

“I got into it for the money.”

Geoff burst out laughing. “How’s that working for you?”

I looked at him over the top of my glasses. How was this helping? He was supposed to be helping.

The doors opened and we stumbled out. The apartment was huge, and practically empty, big enough to roller skate from one end to the other—a great place to showcase art, not like some cramped New York apartments where you never get more than five millimeters away from the canvas. Geoff had propped my painting, one from my “Macon Younger Sucks” series, against the far wall. It looked so boss—five feet high, lipstick red and black, a big swirl Helen said looked like Pigpen from Peanuts. She was right about that—but the color was furious, thrilling. I felt the glow of pride.

“Really makes an impact, doesn’t it?” I said.

Erika shrugged. “What are you asking for it? I paid $12,000 for that.”

That was the rusted hood of an old green Packard, a $50 piece of junk. I slapped my forehead with my hand. Why did I waste my time freezing my ass off in an abandoned warehouse, trying to thaw out my brushes, when all I needed to do to eat three times a day was wade through goat droppings at a salvage yard?

“Put a Wrigley’s Spearmint gum wrapper on the wall in a frame and some morons will think it’s art.” I tried to recapture her focus. “It’s a really cool painting, don’t you think?” I stepped back to admire it and bumped into a big box with a lid covered with glass rods.

“What’s this? An electric coffin?”

“It’s a tanning bed.”

“Seriously?” I started to climb in.

“No, don’t,” she shouted. “It cost five thousand dollars.”

“I’m not going to break it. Jesus.”

Things were not going well. While she mixed the drinks, I tried to signal to Geoff that this was urgent. I was locked out of my studio. Where was I going to live?

“If I don’t walk out of here tonight with a fat check in my fist, somebody’s in big trouble,” I whispered.

“Are you suggesting that somebody is me?”

“Here you go.” Miss Wall Street came back carrying a pitcher of gin and tonics. Geoff and I followed her onto a rooftop garden with a fantastic view of the Brooklyn Bridge, all splashed with amber light. I was still buzzing, and made some perceptive observations, I thought, about the futility of materialistic pursuits. Most people lack imagination, especially those drones working on Wall Street. Most of us never pause to appreciate life. Silently, Geoff mouthed to Erika, “He’s an asshole.” I ignored him. Spreading my arms, I embraced the totality of Manhattan with all its power, although perhaps it looked like I was indicating only the rooftop garden. “And to think,” I said, my voice gritty with contempt, “this is some people’s idea of success.”

I didn’t mean that our hostess, specifically, was shallow, although in retrospect I can understand how she might have felt that was my point. She frowned.

Geoff said, “Billy, this is everybody’s idea of success.”

“Not everyone’s. You know, once I asked Keith Richards —”

Geoff cut me off. “I am so sick of hearing you talk about Keith Richards and Macon Younger.”

“He knows Macon Younger?” Erika asked.

“I discovered Macon Younger,” I said. I tipped my drink back and sucked the gin-flavored ice. “I gave him the money to record his first album.”

“We know,” Geoff said. “You discovered him playing in a pizza parlor, made him what he is today. Blah-blah-blah. If you tell that story again, I’m going to break your glasses.”

I leaned close to him. One solid punch and I could have laid him flat. I outweighed him by 80 pounds. “You’re just jealous that people don’t find your own anecdotes as,” I paused, “interesting.”

What else could I say? It was true.

Geoff’s face twisted. His hair stuck from his head out like a mad scientist’s, and white foam collected in the corners of his mouth. His eyes had no irises, just pupils. He really does have a drug problem, I thought.

Bam! Unbelievable. He punched me in the face. Pain exploded in my head. I fell on the floor, and my glasses shattered.

And Erika, that yuppie, applauded. Applauded. “Take your god damn painting,” she said, “and get out.”

Maneuvering the big canvas on the subway was not easy. A sticky stream of spilled something ran down the middle of the car, so I set the painting on the top of my shoes and rested my chin on its top edge. With my glasses broken, everything looked smudgy.

A bleary-eyed guy nodding in the corner perked up when I got on. His creepy stare made my skin twitch.

“Whaddya call it?” he asked.

“Whaddya think?” Asshole.

He looked for a minute. “Indigestion.”

“Oh, great. Robert Hughes on the subway. Like I need this.” Genius is never recognized by its contemporaries.

I closed my eyes. Where could I go? Not back to Greenwich, where my mom and stepdad kept nagging me to go to rehab. My father and his much-younger wife were busy with their new baby—besides, Dad had been piqued ever since his plan to send me to med school failed. Me, a doctor? What a joke. I doubt they’d take me in. The car’s rocking rhythm soothed me a little, until the brakes started screeching as we approached a stop. In much the same way, I’d been happily chugging toward adulthood when a catastrophic explosion blew up the tracks. I partied with the Rolling Stones. That was the explosion. My roommate at Princeton’s uncle was a record executive, and he invited us to come by the studio where the Stones were doing overdubs. Pretty heady stuff for a nineteen-year-old. I walked into the Hit Factory one afternoon and in some ways had never walked out.

These days attaining that feeling of euphoria took more and more coke.

The next stop was mine. I stood to push through the sliding doors. The junkie said, “You’re bleeding on it.”

Propped against the pole on the subway platform, my painting looked totally different than it had in the apartment, like something spread out on the sidewalk, people’s trash. I scrubbed at the blood with my sleeve. New black marks smudged the lower corners where I’d squeezed through the turnstile.

Somehow I got it up the stairs to the street. It wasn’t heavy, but it was unwieldy, like carrying a mattress. I couldn’t see, tripped, and fell face forward on the sidewalk. I just lay there for a second. Give up, my heart said. I felt like I already had.

Maybe I just didn’t have what it took. My dad was right. Painting was my avocation, not my vocation. I should have stuck my neck in the yoke, settled for nine to five. The possibility opened like a chasm in the earth, an enormous sinkhole, a grave.

There was only one thing to do. I picked it up and kept going. It was four a.m. when I finally made it to Helen’s. She buzzed me up.

Hours later, I woke up with a hangover. My forehead pounded. My ears buzzed like a snare. Everything was blurry. The bright tinkling of the shower stopped, and Helen came out of the bathroom wearing a dazzling white robe, silhouetted in light, combing water out of her honey-colored hair.

“Madonna the Magnificent,” I said. “Venus Rising from the Waves.”

She laughed. She had no idea how stunning she was. She poured me some coffee. “Do you remember getting here?”

The steam coming off the cup warmed my face. My breath ruffled the surface — a brown lake rimmed by the blue of the mug. I reached for my glasses, then remembered. Bad luck, I thought, sinking back on the pillows. Light streamed through the street-facing windows, making the potted mums on the fire escape hazy, yellow splotches. Dried blood spattered my pillowcase.

“Here’s some Alka Selzer.” She tossed a little packet on the bed.

“You’re so good to me.” I smiled. “One in a million.” Bitch. I knew she had beer in the fridge.

She spread the sections of the Sunday Times across the bed. A shaft of light illuminated the side of her face, the fine golden down swirling around her ear. One in a million. Also one of a million — good-looking girls who arrive in Manhattan with mediocre educations and enormous, inchoate desires. The acme of her accomplishments was publishing a seven-line poem in the undergraduate literary magazine at her second-tier state U, something about women’s bodies and fruit. That shouldn’t have been tough to top, but so far she hadn’t. Publishing one poem didn’t make her an artist, no matter how many vodka tonics she downed, talking about it. I didn’t have the heart to tell her.

To be honest, I was surprised that I enjoyed her company so much. These days, my Princeton friends crossed the street when they saw me coming. My own sister asked me to stop dropping by. Helen still buzzed me up. Cocaine had dumbed me down, I guess.

“Why don’t you go clean yourself up?” she said.

“Do I need to?”

In the bathroom, I swabbed the dried blood off my nose with a washcloth, then tugged Helen’s comb through my tangles. How long had it been since I could afford a haircut? I’d put on weight. I didn’t eat for days, then gorged myself on burgers, fries, ice cream, whatever I could get.

Helen had changed the pillowcases and flipped the magazine open to an American Express ad, a black-and-white photo of a well-known artist. “This could be you in a couple years, Bill,” she said. “Member since 1989.”

“Ha! That’s an ambitious timeline.” The total of my worldly assets was in my pants pockets — a crumpled dollar, a dime, and a return bus ticket to Bloomfield. “Maybe Macon Younger will have pangs of conscience and fork over a percentage of his royalties.”

She put down the magazine. “You’ll get there. You don’t need his help.”

Really, she was so cute. I tackled her, straddled her body, pinned her down by her wrists. She shrieked, laughing.

I nuzzled her neck. “Someday a writer from the Times will visit me in my studio, a renovated barn in the Hamptons.”

She stopped squirming, turned her head on the pillow. The vitality drained out of her body and her eyes glazed over. This happens nine times out of ten when she starts me up.

“What?” I climbed off.

“How come you never say, ‘Helen Schnakenberg, member since 1990?’”

“I — I don’t know,” I stuttered.

“Did you like the poem I showed you?”

“Sure,” I lied.

She waited.

“I think it shows great promise.”

Her eyes filled with tears. “That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me, Bill. Thank you.” She went back to turning pages in the magazine. “I’m just sensitive after getting fired this week.”

“Fuck it. Stupid editorial assistant job. You’re destined for better things.”

“Apparently not, since they fired me.”

“Well, that can’t have been very enjoyable. I wouldn’t know.”

Now, what made me say that? I didn’t plan it. It rose up from the depths like a big, sulfurous bubble, drifted up to the surface and went pop. I’d been fired from every job I’ve ever had.

Fortunately for me, the phone rang. She picked it up. “Hi, Mom.”

My hangover was relentless. I needed distraction. I grabbed the magazine, turned the page, and stopped. Goddamn. I squinted. There was Macon, a pale oval on a black background—his gaze burning salt in my wounds. That cracker never even heard of the New York Times before I plucked him out of the kudzu.

Helen spoke into the phone. “I’ll find another job. Anything so I can stay here.” Silence. “I’m taking a night class at NYU. Remember? I told you about that.” Her mother called long distance every Sunday, and every week Helen had to introduce herself again. I’m Helen. I live in New York. No, I’m not coming back to Wichita.

I stared out the window at the sunny smudges on the fire escape. The Rolling Stones weren’t going to let a nineteen-year-old kid be a member of their entourage, no matter how handy he was refilling glasses and getting ice. Their kids were older than I was—but it didn’t matter. A year later I saw Macon playing in a pizza restaurant, and I knew he had something special. After graduation, I moved to his town and shopped his demo to my roommate’s uncle. We toured. We hung out. We wheeled and dealed. We partied. But things weren’t good. Stuff happened. The record was just about to come out when I walked into Macon’s office in his garage apartment.

“I just saw the cover, Macon. My name on the back, ex producer. Usually it’s abbreviated exec. producer.”

Macon folded his hands. “I’m sorry, Billy.” Then, silence. He didn’t argue, didn’t explain. I felt as if he’d cracked an egg on my head and cold, slimy goo ran down my face, my neck, my armpits, into my groin.

Helen hung up the phone.

“I thought I had a headache before.” I showed her the picture.

She swallowed. I saw the pain travel through her like a spear. She was in love with Macon. She couldn’t help it; everybody was. It was my fault for introducing them.

“Would you look at those teeth? That’s one ugly fucking guy,” I said to make her feel better.

She took the magazine from me, touched Macon’s picture with her finger. “I don’t know. I’ve always had a thing for scrawny guys with prominent Adams apples.”

“Oh, please. You’d never have looked twice at him if he wasn’t a rock star.”

She hadn’t evolved to the point where she could admit this yet. “He has a sexy neck.”

“A sexy neck!” This really bothered me. My mug slipped out of my hands and coffee splashed over the bed. “Jesus Christ! You are so fucking stupid.”

She giggled. Giggled. I couldn’t believe it.

“I mean it, Helen.”

I didn’t mean it. I meant I was stupid. But her laughing stopped. Her eyes filled with tears.

“Oh shit.”

“No, you’re right, you’re right. I am stupid.” She wiped her eyes with a corner of the sheet. “I always thought I was special. I always thought special things would happen for me.” She smiled a little. “When Macon took me with him on his tour, I thought, this is happening because of me, but really it was happening because of him.”

Well, that sounded a little unrealistic. Couldn’t she see that?

She gazed in the direction of the window. “When I little, my mother used to tell me, Baby, you’re a Cadillac. Don’t forget that.”

That’s what they told us at Princeton and Exeter, too, although in those cases they were correct. I tried not to smile. Try a Buick, honey, I thought. Or an Olds. I forced myself to say, “You are special.”

She looked up; eyes shiny. “How?”

I felt compelled to be completely honest. “You’re nice.”

That’s the paradox, isn’t it? She was special, but not in the way she wanted to be? The expression on her face was like a woman watching a tornado rip the roof off her house.

That was when I made my big mistake.

“The only reason he had anything to do with you was to get to me.”

She flinched.

I’d seen her expression in other people’s faces. Something died, a light went out, as visible as the blue flame on a gas burner when the knob on a stove turns off. Then, nothing. Not even pity.

“I want you to leave.”

She kicked me out, just like that, then opened the door and kicked the painting down the stairs after me. The frame cracked and the canvas tore. It was filthy now, the image obscured by grime and coffee and blood. I dragged it outside, folded it, and gripped it beneath my arm. The sky had clouded over and the wind gusted a plastic bag across the sidewalk. I turned up the collar on my jacket, thrust my hands in the pockets, and trudged towards the East River.

The liquor store wasn’t open yet, and Smirnoff bottles languished in the window behind the bars of the security gate. The smell of eggs and bacon wafted through the open door of the coffee shop next door where I’d eaten a million times. People inside were drinking mimosas with brunch. I’d counted on Helen providing breakfast. I was so hungry. I could barely stand it

In front of the bodega on the corner, fruit brightened the shelves over stacks of newspapers and magazines — and there Macon was again, on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Just like I always said he would be. His bowl haircut made him look like a monk—albeit a sex-crazed, cokehead monk. His head was a full moon against the dark background of the magazine’s cover, a light bulb, a lemon, the size of my fist, my heart. I wanted to flatten his already two-dimensional self.

I set my painting on top of the vegetables and went inside. Boxes and cans filled with delicious processed food packed the shelves from floor to ceiling. Starving in the midst of plenty, I thought. It’s a metaphor for my life. An enormous white refrigerator case drew me like a magnet. I lifted the lid and reached into the bright light and chill to grab a can of Busch.

At the register, the clerk looked like he should be riding across the desert on an Arabian. I dropped my last dollar next to the lottery tickets and vials of ginseng. “Do you sell single cigarettes?” I asked.

“Ten cents.”

There went the last dime. Outside, trailing smoke, I headed toward the gray sheet of the river, walking in ancient footprints. The park was a wide sidewalk built over FDR drive. Beneath me, tires clacked over joints in the road. I sat down on a bench.

What was my problem? It wasn’t that I didn’t work hard. I painted and painted, and then painted more—and the paintings were terrific, I thought, always getting better. But nobody ever saw them. Erika might have bought one if I hadn’t insulted her. And Helen? She was a Fiat, an MG. A Porsche like the ones lined up outside my school, air trembling with heat of the exhaust, dads picking up the kids for the weekend. My dad wasn’t cruel. He wasn’t trying to cut off my toes so my shoes would fit. He just lacked imagination. He couldn’t see me, but I forgave him, forgave them all.

Would they forgive me?

I felt I was onto something, on the verge of understanding something important. I scrunched my face up and tried to concentrate, but I’d smoked my cigarette down to the filter, and the heat burned my fingers. Without thinking, I flicked the butt on the ground.

A woman passing by clutched her raincoat around her throat. “What’s your problem?” she said, ruining my train of thought.

“What’s your problem?”

She disappeared into the crowd of Burberrys. People passed, walking north, walking south. Couples. A girl in skates. A man walking a dachshund. A scarlet tugboat scooted by on river, then a speedboat trailing a wide wake. What would I have given to have — well, any of it?

Someday, when I paint my masterpiece.

The bows of the boats split the water like hands in prayer. Waves curled back from their sterns, and in the churning water I saw faces — profiles, eyes, noses, and beards — the thousands who’d come to New York to make it and didn’t.

Poor fuckers. How sad to be one of those who’d lacked talent, or opportunity. Not like me. I knew I was going to make it.

Mary Bunten has been published in The Opiate, SAVEUR, The Houston Press, The Austin Chronicle, Art Lies, and elsewhere. Bunten has taught creative writing at the University of Kansas, where she received an Outstanding Instructor award in 2005, and worked as Executive Director of The Writers Place, a literary center in Kansas City. Her MFA in Creative Writing is from the University of Houston, where she was awarded a C. Glenn Cambor Imprint Fellowship. She blogs about gardening with native plants at mywildgarden.net.