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Published: Sun Jul 1 2012
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Destruccion por un remolino del aire Xocomeel del Lago Atitlán / Destruction from a Vortex of the Xocomil Winds around Lake Atitlán (detail), 2014, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
Online 2012 Arts Family Illness
Month to Month

With the day drinking I try to put it off. Six months, sometimes longer. I get a nice streak going. I see someone with a beer at noon and nearly shake my head. I’m judgmental inside the streak. I feel good I’m not the one at noon. Funny thing is I don’t even want it. Makes me kind of sick thinking about it. I eat my banana. I drink my water. I get on my bike for a ride, see who’s drinking at the cafes. It’s always more than you think. Sometimes I count. I feel like Superman to not be there. I know it’s coming for me, but then again I almost believe it isn’t. I keep riding, stay busy. I move my shop about every two years. I’ve found a back door of sorts into the neighborhood. Commercial space doesn’t always get rented right away. Place stays unrented too long, the landlord starts calling me back. I come in way below market value. It’s always month to month. It’s always cash. I move my bikes in, start up again. The first six months are nonstop. My last place was an old garage. I had to fix the plumbing. No heat, no hot water. I had a wood burning stove going and I rigged up this plastic tarp to cut the wind off the river. Spring rolls around and everyone wants to rent a bike. I swear every European tourist must have it on their New York list to ride a bike in the West Village. I make my money on rentals. There’s not a whole lot left for me to do once it’s up and running. I hire a pretty girl to sit up front. I hire a mechanic. That’s when I start in on the cafes at noon as a reward one day. Every business has a cycle. I guess I like the building part. Good thing about this city for me, just as I start to lose focus the landlord wants me out and I need to get sharp again.

There are others like me still in the neighborhood. It’s not all finance. Some days it seems so, but hang around my shop and you might take a different view. My best friend Archie is a painter. He’s sober twenty years. Helps to have him around to extend the streak. He lives in this old factory near the river and pays almost nothing in rent. He paints landscapes and nudes. His wife died last year. Towards the end it was just Archie caring for her in the apartment. She couldn’t get out of bed. Once he started painting her he couldn’t stop. The canvases are everywhere tossed about the place: Dying Janice. Dead Janice. Just-After-Death Janice. Janice in the Morning. Janice at Night.

“I still had my models coming in like always,” Archie said. “At first it was weird with Janice lying in the bedroom to have a naked girl on the chair. But I’m not gonna stop working. Man, I never get sick of it.”

Archie greets me the same way each day. “Any rich bankers rent bikes today?” He’s shameless about selling his paintings. He will accost anyone at any time. It’s uncomfortable to watch. But Archie doesn’t seem to mind one bit. Not one part of him is humiliated. I’ve always been amazed by this. People don’t like him. He comes on strong. He’s got bad teeth. He’s twitchy. His eyes flick over his shoulder. His eyes search your face. He talks too fast and certain words come out like yelps. But he’s disciplined, my god. The man paints. He doesn’t miss a day. Then he’s got the guts to grab his canvas by the scruff of its neck and walk it down the street, prop it up against my shop window.

“I can’t stand him.” This is Tyler talking. He’s another one who comes by my shop each day. “Why would anyone buy one of his paintings? Look at him. He smells. He heckles your customers. I don’t know why you let him hang around here.”

Tyler has been in the neighborhood forever. He inherited a rent-controlled studio from Great Aunt Jane who was a famous Broadway star in her day. Tyler started out as a contractor years ago but had a hard time landing projects. For a while he was a handyman and he posted colorful flyers around the Village advertising his services. He never seemed to land the work. It was chicken or egg—did Tyler lack hustle, or did Great Aunt Jane’s apartment make him lazy? In any case, Tyler wasn’t on the hook for much and he gradually settled into a routine which didn’t include work. These days his sole occupation seems to be street parking. If you keep a car around here, and have a lot of free time, you can fill your day moving the car around to stay ahead of the street sweepers and traffic cops. Tyler never pays a meter. In front of the bike shop he leaves the Volvo running—an old red junk of a car, covered in stickers from Great Aunt Jane’s Provincetown summers—and out he pops with a cup of coffee in hand and gets going on Archie.

“He’s perverted. He told me he paints with a hard-on. And his sick wife in the next room. Then he comes here with those bug eyes like a beggar chasing everyone down the street. I don’t know why you keep him around. He doesn’t change his clothes. He asked one of his models to touch herself with his wife in the other room. She had a bed pan for crying out loud. You know what he said the other day? ‘I’m a shaman.’ He said that, he actually did. ‘I’m a shaman. I go to places people don’t want to go. I come back with things.’ That’s an exact quote. What a load of crap.”

While Tyler talks he looks to the left and right for traffic cops. You can faintly hear music coming from inside the Volvo, scratchy old show tunes from Great Aunt Jane’s collection. He is a tall guy with a big round belly and tufts of brown hair on the side of his head and tufts of white hair in his ears. The years and lack of work have taken their share. He is more stooped than he was, seems to be sitting in that old car even when he’s standing there on the curb. He still wears brown overalls from the handyman days and keeps a bright yellow tape measure clipped to his belt.

“I wouldn’t take an Archie painting for free. Every time I’d look at it, I’d think of Archie with his rotten breath, Archie with his perverted hard-on, Archie with his wife crying out. Did you know Janice? She was lovely. How did she stand it? It was her money you know, paying for Archie’s models, paying for Archie’s shrink. I’ve never met anyone—have you?—who starts so many conversations with, ‘My shrink told me.’ But it’s not a conversation. You can’t talk back with Archie pressing in, standing this close to your face. Sometimes when I hear him talking I get back in the car and roll the windows right up. I can’t hear him but I see his arms waving, his mouth moving, those big lips flapping, chatting someone up—your customer, a decent person who doesn’t want to be harassed. I sit there and can’t help but watch. It’s like I’m on safari peering through the window at some rotten scavenger beast that has spotted a wounded animal. There he goes loping up with his face all thrust forward like he’s sniffing it out. I actually once saw him circle someone. No kidding. And then he’s got this bit—have you seen it?—where he bows his head, slinks off, then comes charging right back at the guy dragging the painting behind him. Kick him out of here, is my advice. He knows he’s got the advantage. Some poor guy fiddling with the gears for the first time, trying to fit the helmet just right, in swoops Archie like a maniac. It’s not fair. Furthermore, it’s not decent. The other day he had a Janice painting in here with these enormous bony hands on the bed sheets like dead crabs, her mouth wide open and her face this gauzy, pasty blur like she’s wrapped up to be shipped down the river on an ancient barge. It’s not fair to your customers make them see that.”

By mid-afternoon the street sweepers have parked their vehicles in a domed garage at the sanitation department along the West Side. Tyler’s Volvo is tucked into a shady spot on a cobbled side street. Tyler himself is in a café reading through the day’s newspapers. He’ll read any paper as long as he doesn’t have to pay for it. I wander over to Archie’s. He’s got a nice view of the river. A big window, I can watch the boats go by. Or I watch Archie. “Who is luckier than me?” he says. “I get to paint naked girls for a living. Come on in.”

Nudes and Dead Janices all over the place—on the sofa, against the sink, as if flung over his shoulder the minute of completion. Archie himself beside this giant easel in the center of the room that rises above everything else like some carnival machine spewing out one wild thing after the next and all Archie has to do is push a button and get out of the way.

“You see that one over there, the dark blue with the mouth wide open? Someone said the other day, ‘Is that death or sex?’ I almost hugged him. Maybe I did. Did I hug him? I can’t remember. See what I mean, I doubt myself. It’s because of my old man, you never knew when he was going to turn on you. I hugged him. I remember now I definitely did. That painting took forever. It was terrible, I hated it. But then it just happened, it got good. Did I tell you I saw my father the other day, the old bastard? He says to me, ‘I’m proud you.’ He never said that. Fifty-three years he never said that. He said everything else you could imagine but never that. It was like the goddamn Olympics in my house, me sprinting down the hall jumping over a chair with this crazy old Jew with bad knees chasing me, trying to balance his drink up the stairs. He’s gonna die soon, I’m sure of it. It was that same painting you’re looking at, the dark blue one, he was looking at it when he said he was proud of me. That one right there. My paintings get better the more you look at them, take your time. After all these years why does he say it now? What’s he proud of? Painting, he doesn’t know a thing about it. It’s probably just one of those things he said same as saying, ‘I like tomatoes.’ That’s what I’m gonna ask him next time, ‘What are you proud of?’ He’ll deny saying it. Or he’ll die before. Oh, who cares. It’s a good painting, isn’t it? I’m gonna have a show soon: ‘Sex and Death.’ The Girls and The Janices right next to each other. I’ll choose ones so you’ll be uncertain who’s who. No kidding, towards the end sometimes Janice lying there didn’t look all that different from one of the girls lying there. Do you want a Perrier? Now that I think of it, the old man didn’t say one thing about Janice his last visit. He’s getting old, you know. Makes it hard to stay mad at him when you see him sitting there, right there by the radiator looking out the window, half the size he once was. Hard to stay mad. I just stood here like I always do, ready to run if I said the wrong thing, and he would magically be young again chasing me. Come to think of it, saying he’s proud of me after all this time is really just the World According to the Old Man. Same as always. I forget for a minute, but my anger hasn’t gone anywhere. Narcissistic bastard, getting me thinking about him again when I’m in this groove with my work. It’s a groove, all right, call the paintings what you will, but they’re coming. There’s no stopping this right now. It’s a nice feeling when the paintings surprise me. It’s a good sign. Damn it, what’s he proud of? Oh, forget it. Not asking about Janice dying is also the World According to the Old Bastard. He knew he wasn’t asking. Maybe knew there wasn’t much to say. See what I mean, I’m always looking for ways to let him off the hook. She died. It was horrible. We still fought. I got used to her dying after a while. I’m waiting for the serious grief to start. Everyone says it’s coming—my shrink, everyone. I’m just trying to push it back long as possible to get this work done.”

I get on my bike and go for a ride along the river. My Dutch one-speed with the high seat and the tall handlebars. I never get tired of being on this bike. I pedal fast and take it personally if anyone passes me. When I go fast, I stand up and I can feel the pedals through the soles of my old sneakers. I sit back down, my ears ringing with Archie. “It’s death for me. One sip is death. But go ahead, it doesn’t bother me.” The last bit of sun is on my face. The new glass buildings along the river are orange and pink in the fading light, seem from here to be stuck down into the soft backs of the meat packing plants. I turn in at Charles Street and find the smooth bricks for my front tire. People say it’s changed, the Village isn’t what it was, but these bricks under my tires are still here. Charles Street getting dark isn’t any different than it ever was. I lock up my bike and sit outside. The restaurants are full. I can see the chimney of Archie’s building. Up there’s the train where the pretty girl working for me now rides in from Brooklyn. Her jeans just right, her freckles just right, jumping forward like everything else about her. I still have some of that stored up, whatever young people have to keep them jumping. I see it in the way she walks, as if she might twirl around a parking meter at any moment. I switch to water. It occurs to me that Archie is the only true artist I’ve ever met. My mom up in Connecticut thought I’d be governor by now. She wears white sweaters in every season. I can’t remember the last time she was in the city. I’m certain she’s not proud of me. A young person’s blood still flowing through my veins wouldn’t make it high on her list of things to be proud of. Desperation is Archie’s most defining quality. Neediness. Sometimes I think he should still be in diapers. Hunger. Maybe that’s what his old man was proud of, the hunger of it all—paintings everywhere, Janice recently boxed up, Archie fifty-three years old standing in the middle of it in jeans with one pant leg rolled up. Archie with his mouth open. His teeth yellow. His eyes huge. Sweat stains on his arm pits. His fingernails dirty. Staring at his father by the window, wondering what the old man is going to do next.

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Sean Gibbon is a former managing editor of Vermont Magazine. His book about traveling with Phish, Run Like an Antelope, was published by St. Martin’s Press. This is his first published fiction. (updated 11/2012)

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