There’s a lessening in volume come morning, the decrescendo of cricket wings, a change in birdsong. When the mockingbirds finally quiet their clamor, and the doves in turn murmur apologies, Andy throws a cord of wood into the local barbecue joint’s smoker.
The smoker sits like a galvanized submarine at the end of Thorn St., a black matte thing, cylindrical, and neatly welded. It belches smoke before the neighbors can crack their windows and notice the shift in perfume, else—if windows have already been open to the night air—the smoke acts as a pre-dawn and somehow undetected something. It’s just part of the morning, like the first pour-overs of coffee, or the rustle of corvids, which sound like sheeted plastic when grubbing for palm nuts in the fronds
Scent may remain the furthest sense away from our notice, yet it’s the best to conjure memory. It’ll be impossible to forget this time and place though the smell of mesquite is presently unobserved in its ubiquity.
That sense of smoke. It’s just the sunrise rising, and part of everything else dissipative in the morning: the steam off a cup of coffee; the new clouds, which the night made old; the water heating the brass fixtures, the brass heating the shower.
Morning erases itself without notice.
“I have this idea,” Chris suddenly says. We’re in our shared apartment, east of the university.
“What now?” I respond drolly, still nursing a coffee from an afternoon lunch with our sculpture professor, Italo.
It should be noted Christopher’s now dead. Italo, too. In different ways, dead.
Italo, though—he has a sculpture down at the local Thai place, which still stands years after his passing, a monkeywood and metal affair. Italo had the clever idea of soldering chain-link into a frozen-upright position, so that it never collapses into coils on the floor. Cunning immortality, if you think about it.
“I hope it involves actually finishing one of those ready-mades you were supposed to’ve done last Wednesday.”
I flip through a back issue of Art in America.
“Then again,” I reconsider, “A ‘ready-made last Wednesday’ is hardly a ready-made.”
“I’m just exploring the media,” Chris smirks.
Chris is maybe 5’7”, short of average and with forever-sleepy eyes that seem sleepy as affect. Always the thrift store cardigan, the threadbare canvas shoes, and unkempt hair. He is unpolished to perfect blemish, insouciant and under-eye bruisy.
“Ex-plore the media,” Chris says, his best imitation of Italo’s heavy Calabrian accent. “Why yoo rush?”
Chris stands on the balcony overlooking a view of nothing much, boxwood hedgerows and a climbing jasmine with autumn-extinguished blossoms still clinging to the vine like paper.
“Man, I love Italo,” Chris says, a wreath of cigarette smoke settling over his head like an effete crown. “He’s full of shit.”
Italo’s infinity chain down at the Thai joint stands frozen next to a five-foot pillar of a statue, a human figure with limbs still congealed in media, arms frozen to hips like an alabaster chessman. The whole thing’s done up in tempera, Italo’s preferred paint.
“Tempera,” Italo announced over coffee today, gesturing with his half-gnawed bagel. “It is stupid.” You could never tell what Italo meant by ‘stupid’, whether disparaging or not. “You know the Acropolis was not always white? Used to be a whore, done up in color thousands of years ago. All this garish egg paint. It’s only white now,” he said dangling a demitasse from his left pinky.
Italo would use fresco recipes to slapdash whatever sculpture he could unfinish, knowing that tempera was bound to fade. By contrast, museum-piece Rembrandts, the deep dank Rembrandts, are still wet beneath six inches of oil redux.
“I order all these monkey-men statues from a warehouse in Tibet. I say, ‘Give me all of them, give me all the monkey-men.’ I love them, my little soldiers,” he scratched his temples, the seemingly only well-groomed part of him. “Let the monkey-men turn white again, after I’m done painting them. Then people will think I’m genius.”
“You think he’s genius?” Chris asks, drawing the last of his cigarette with pursed lips. “Italo, I mean.” Chris extinguishes his smoke against the railing, letting the cinder drift to the downstairs patio. He exhales blue, then waves off his own question. “Probably.
I flip a page in Art in America where another Beuys retrospective is featured on page 43. Something to do with a coyote and a walking stick.
“He’s got tenure. You’re a ways off. You tell me.”
“Here, here,” Italo said to me and Chris, “I love these cranberry bagels. Have some. You are my protégés. We share coffee.” We sat in a grove beneath old-growth eucalyptus with its paper-thin bark and creaking limbs.
Italo wagged a finger and spoke quietly, “The Parthenon is a beautiful thing because it became beautiful by accident.”
“So make things ugly first, on purpose,” he chewed his half-bagel and thrice shook his finger. “Make ugly things.”
“Why I use tempera,” he says again, “It is the best disappearing ink.“
Chris hooked half a bagel toward himself and chewed laconically. He looked bemused, else bored to death in his chair.
It was a year later when Chris disappeared in Czechoslovakia, when ten pairs of Levis could still afford you decent digs, and when Prague was advertised as the city of spires and bridges. All these cantilevered and beveled constructions, romantic in their concrete and wire defiance of physics. The city was a leaden gray exercise in suspension.
“Hello from Praha,” Chris would at some point write to me, a postcard done up in dumb paint with scrawl on the back. He had an upcoming art show. “In beautiful Czech Krimsky R—-“. The R— word was illegible, cut off by an airmail stamp. Chris was cut off, too–dead before the postcard arrived Par Avion.
Chris was found face down in a bar, supposedly having slipped on ice outside the absint establishment, which placed a half-pour in front of him as subterfuge before the coroners could collect him. The bruises, though, were obvious on the soft of his neck, two heady whacks to the brain stem, which loosened up the passport from his back pocket and left Chris without any ID. He was shelved for three weeks as John Doe in the morgue before his parents began their Transatlantic search.
“I feel…,” he said before the blue set in beneath his eyes cyanotically discoloring his cheeks. He was 23, which I suppose is as viable, die-able age as any.
“So this idea,” Chris says, leaning against the porch railing. “Well, this thought…” Chris has a vague manner about him always, a loosely drawn curtain neither open nor closed. He doesn’t ever seem solidified in any tense, and won’t be until he later becomes preterite.
“These vans that go by,” and he gestures past the boxwoods toward the University, “They have ‘Information Destruction’ printed on their sides.” Chris half-heaves himself over the railing, anchored by his elbows. He lands back on the concrete in soft sneakers.
“What if they actually vacuumed up everything?”
“What do you mean? They’re just paid to get rid of all the university files and shit. All the tests and whatever else from the regents’ office. You sound high.” I look up at Chris with mock-concern. “Are you high again, Chris? And why are you not sharing?”
“No, no. Think of it like this. Wherever the vans drive, everything just disappears.”
Chris scoots a geranium pot from one side of the porch to the other with a scraping sound and does the same railing trick, just backwards this time.
“Like, gone,” feet landing on the ground again, “And you could drive one of these vans and get rid of stuff, just erase everything.”
I examine Chris’s face. “Yep. You’re totally high.”
He twirls against the railing. “They’d play ice-cream chimes. Minor key. And, <shwoop>, no more dog-walkers. No more cars. Complete takeaway of information.”
I pause, then nod approvingly. “It does sound delightfully sinister.” Chris lights another cigarette and resumes staring into the not much at all.
It’s morning, the mesquite burns correctly without the snapping of sap. Andy works the barbecue pit smoker in the near distance, stoking the flames and releasing occasional fireflies of cinder into the air.
Chris’s postcard is tucked into a book, so neatly shelved away, I forget where. The crickets are forever chirping because the house is situated over a crawlspace. It’s easy for them to seek shelter up through the pantry and into the warm corners behind the fridge. You get used to them, eventually, just like you get so used to the mockingbirds that you no longer notice when they become doves; or when the juncos start their flitting and antemeridial search for bugs to feed the cowbirds crowding their nests, the children that don’t resemble them but which the juncos take care of anyway.
Chris boiled water for tea twice daily in the kitchenette.
“No, thanks.” I have my coffee.
Chris is still musing the Information Destruction vans.
“I suppose it could be sinister,” he smiles, “But why not have fun pretending?” He opens the cabinet to rummage for honey.
“Call it wishful thinking. That you have the power to erase.”
The cars sit monumental curbside, temporarily stopped. The cars will sit for another hour, motionless, designed to look in motion even when not moving. It’s like a car can’t even be parked anymore, aerodynamic to the point of improbability. Soon there’ll be the morning commute, the coffee, the cell phones on point.
Andy throws more logs into the fire to stir the air, his contribution and making of the morning. If the fire weren’t there, the morning would be incomplete. You’d notice the fire in its absence, the scent of the ante meridian all wrong. If Andy stopped, the morning would, too. If I stopped waking up, as Chris did, the world would cease.
“What the hell is that? Never noticed it,” I jut a chin Chris’ direction.
Hanging above the tea cannisters is a painting in unlikely color, something Chris has tacked to the inside of the cupboard. The woman depicted is ugly, else the painting is, and the fingers are prominent.
“You’re obviously not DeKooning, Friend,” I say, “Though it looks like you’re trying to murder the female form all the same. ‘The fuck is that piece?”
“Karen,” Chris says, stirring honey into his tea. “Her name ‘s Karen. She presides over the Darjeeling.”
“She’s goddamn ugly.”
Chris taps his nose and acrobats onto the counter with a brimming mug, barely a slosh.
“Sure,” he says, “But she’s got mighty fine fingers,” and he pats his crotch.
“Oh, shut up, you degenerate. That the girl you’re seeing? I’m sure she’s not flattered by your pedestrian use of paintbrush.”
I return to my magazine. Now Beuys is draped in a blanket and the coyote’s pissing on a stack of Wall Street Journals.
Chris dangles his legs over the bar, the tea a medicinal effluvia of wet twigs. He scratches his scuff.
“Knew her in Santa Cruz. She’s down here now. Thought things could maybe work out.”
He shakes his head. “Didn’t work out, but…” he trails off, touches his chin to his chest and rubs the back of his head. He moves his hand to cover one eye, then looks up to grin impishly, holds the tea cup at chin-level.
“Whatever,” he finishes. He inhales a laugh, which has him rock in his perch briefly. He ponders a sip, rubs the side of his nose.
“Whatever.” He shakes his head and draws from his cup. “Ready for Italo’s class tomorrow?”
Italo would always pace the classroom while we worked. On unexpected days, he’d replace his belt with a braided rope. Always the same corduroys though, with wide waling and three colors of brown flecking the pants, cuffs ragged at the bottom. He invariably wore burnt marshmallow loafers, like some Calabrian Bilbo Baggins.
His off-campus studio was set up in an abandoned water tower, a galvanized cylinder where you could walk literal circles around your work. It was junked up with monkey-men and chains and salvage-yard finds.
“That is DOPEY,” he’d berate a student occasionally. “You’re not dopey. Why do you make dopey?”
Like when I first came to New York. I thought: why does everyone in America like yellow so much? Yellow is the worst color, so dopey, but all these cars. Yellow. Why?”
He’d slap Chris upside the head.
Chris would grin, and duck accordingly.
“Just exploring the media, Prof,” he’d say as excuse, squishing clay into another unrecognizable mess.
“They were taxis! I thought everyone just liked yellow cars. You people. But I like your UPS trucks, you know. UPS brown: THAT is a fantastic color. Should all taxis be like that.”
I look up at Chris, flinging Art in America onto the coffee table. “Yeah—I finished up my ready-mades. Still have that wire sculpture left to do.”
Crickets chirp in chorus with the ceiling fan, a thrumming of regular noise, which by its constancy, fakes a rise and fall in pitch, white noise pretending grey. The fan pulses, less helicopter than suggested; it’s the consistent buzzing of a streetlamp, the drone of a heater pushing air through the vents. The fan swings on its swivel.
Chris ponders his tea, and points.
“Rauschenberg erased that DeKooning drawing, remember?”
“Took one of DeKooning’s drawings and fucking erased it. Signed his own name in the corner.”
“Balls.” I again nod.
“Erased DeKooning,” he repeats. “Man, that is balls. Better than Duchamp’s urinal.
“My work is going nowhere, you know,” Chris continues, tapping a spoon on the counter. “Maybe I should just erase all of it, too. You can sign your name. I’ll go to Europe or something.” He tosses a spoon into the sink where it noisily lands face-down.
“Maybe Prague. I hear it’s happening.”
Chris died on a Praha street; in actuality he died in the bar, but his life escaped him on the street, that moment he crumpled and wondered, on hands and knees, what had hit him exactly—what was fastly deleting him. No blood, just a purpling contusion that surrounded his brain stem, making him less likely to breathe, more likely to sleep.
When you don’t what’s hit you, there’s nothing to struggle against. It’s the cheapest, least fulfilling manner out.
Chris sighs. “Karen—I really like her. But,” he shrugs, “Guess that ship has sailed.” He looks bothered for a second, then perks up.
“Wanna beer or something?”
Chris hit his head on the bar once, fell bodily, pulled himself up a second time and managed a drunkard’s posture with brow resting against crossed forearms, body slung over a stool. He turned his head to exhale, letting his right ear fall into the recess of his elbow.
The end of the bar was hinged, south of a football jersey stapled against the wall, number 38, red and black, the colors which shifted as Chris nestled deeper into his forearm.
The colors blurred as his vision faded, pupils dilating.
Please, back to red and black, please not purple, please, back to red, don’t. The number three, no eight, please don’t
“Buddy. BUDDY.” The bartender nudged Chris’ shoulder and Chris’ head slipped its hold, his nose falling bent against the bar. His mouth fell slack.
Purple and royal oblivion.
Chris was served an absinthe, on the house, while his cheeks turned a darker shade.
Italo was still lecturing the merits of tempera, but, seeing Chris’ gaze, Italo interrupted himself. “Here, here, here. Have some more bagel.”
Chris picked at the crumbs, dislodged a cranberry for inspection.
“Purple is dopey. Make nothing dopey. Purple is the worst color, hard to erase.” He situated his demitasse next to a small plate.
“Whatever color–it must be erasable.” He crossed his arms. “There are colors you can’t forget; to be forgettable is the way to memory.” Chris sighed and pushed himself forward in his chair, bent at the waist, elbows on knees. He looked up.
“Do you ACTUALLY believe yourself, Italo?” Christopher asked, smiling, before flicking the cranberry to the floor.
Italo leaned back in his chair. “I remember all the taxis,” he laughed, “But also I don’t. You see?”
Andy stokes the fire pit, and the embers match the orange sky. He rakes the coals to either side, watches them wither from black to white. There is the snap of mesquite releasing its hidden syrup and the brushing of the grill. There’s waiting for the fire to extinguish and the subsequent delivery of smoke, the smoke that eventually wafts past the porch and lingers in the gable as parcel to the morning. The mockingbirds have stopped; now the juncos, now the crows.
Karen told me that Chris was gone, years ago. I met her in line at the coffee shop, and it was an accidental conversation that led me to draw connection.
“You knew Christopher?”
“He was my roommate.” She looked down while worrying her hair with long and remarkable fingers. She bit her lip and readjusted her bookbag.
“We should sit.”
The eucalyptus creaked their sympathies while Karen delivered her postcard of regret over madeleines. Twice she offered condolences. Her fingers touching my shoulder.
“His parents were a wreck.”
“I imagine. Goddamn.”
“Nothing.” I open my mouth to speak, but settle on breathing.
The smoke eventually rediscovers the coals, dies down to just an accordion wave of heat that radiates from the grill. I think about Chris–Fisher was his last name, that much I remember. I always have a hard time remembering his face, though. The crows pick through palm nuts as if imagining there’s food buried deep within, their feet losing traction on slippery fronds. Cars are stopped, there is the scent of tea; there is signal of a present tense, and the morning begins and begins and begins again.