Here’s a group writing exercise from Maryam, Meg, Karen, and myself.
He was wearing the old flip flops that he had brought to New York City when he’d moved there about two years ago. The flip flops that had been covered with blue paint stains from when he painted the walls of the small, basement studio apartment that he’d rented on the East Side upon his arrival.
Since then, he’d thought of moving out of the apartment so many times, but never did. It seemed as if the little apartment defined New York City for him.
He dragged the flip flops as he walked on Fifth Avenue without really going anywhere, without having a destination, without a plan, aimlessly. He was high again. He looked lost. He didn’t know where he was going.
He had come to New York two years ago, with a big dream to become a successful artist. He wanted to have his own exhibition. He wanted to sell his paintings and drawings, but now he walking in his flip flops, lost. His dream seemed too far away, so unreachable.
For a moment he felt exposed. He thought everybody was staring at him. Everybody wanted a piece of him. At that moment, the world had teeth and it could bite him with them anytime it wanted.
It was early September when Shane moved to New York City. He hated the farm house where he lived with his parents in Kentucky. More than anything else he wanted to get out of there and move to a big city and pursue his dream. His art teachers always loved his work and often encouraged him to take his talent further. So as soon as he graduated high school, he bought a bus ticket to the city. He had some savings and borrowed some money from his parents and left.
He never imagined he would be a heroin addict one day. It all started with a little bit of hashish, and had moved up the drug ladder ending up with heroin. He forced a nervous laughter out, walking aimlessly, thinking that now he was a heroin addict with no future, dragging his flip flops on the streets of the city he had come to in order to be someone.
The pavement was slightly uneven, and he stumbled. His blue, paint-splashed flip flop caught in the gap between the big, square paving stones, supposedly straight and perfect, but actually rather uneven. His foot slid out of the flip flop and he fell with a thud to the ground. His hip hurt, where he landed, but he laughed because perhaps the flip flop symbolized something. Laughing, he slipped off the other painty-blue flip flop, hauled himself up and kept on walking, barefoot, down Fifth Avenue. Nobody noticed. He wondered at the fate of his flip flops, in such a world where huge teeth poised waiting to bite, waiting to bite them, but not him.
He passed the Metropolitan Museum of Art and kept walking. He passed the Neve Gallery and kept walking. He passed the Guggenheim and kept walking. Art, art, art he hated art. He hated himself for hoping that art would redeem him. He hated the rough sensation of the sidewalk beneath his feet, trying to configure itself into a painting in his mind, textured, layered, pressing art from inside him despite his determination to resist it.
Shel followed the odd bare-footed fellow up Fifth Avenue, past the Met, past the Neve, past the Guggenheim. Her junior year art class had been dottering around the Impressionist rooms of the Met all morning and she was bored. She wanted to encounter real life, real people, real today. She had an aching as had Van Gogh in those curled up paintings of himself and his chair and his bed. She didn’t want to be stuck in herself any longer. She wanted to know something new, something outside the neat, perfect boroughs of the Upper West Side private school life.
A lithe, perfect young woman was walking next to him. Her legs looked as if they were made of light brown plaster.
“Hi,” she said. He looked over at her, feeling embarrassed and remarked, “I lost my flip flops. They had blue paint on them, from when I first moved to New York.”
“Would you like for me to help you find them?” Shel asked, uncertain as why the man was giving her information about his flip flops. His manic laugh startled her as he gazed up and down her body. Shel noticed that his pupils were the size of pin tops.
“Hell no! I can’t even find myself, let alone some shitty pair of flip flops that I probably should have thrown away years ago.” He gave her another full body glance. Even though she was only seventeen years old, Shel could see the hunger, the sexual hunger in his eyes. It was almost like he had sharp teeth in those eyes, ready to reach out and bite her.
Shane was thinking that the girl’s body looked delicious, he was tempted to bite into it. His high had reached a point where he was really quite horny, but even in this state he could recognize that she was jailbait and he really didn’t need to add any more illegal activities to his current repertoire. “Gotta go! Gotta fly!” Shane yelled as he stretched his arms wide and zoomed like a crazed albatross down Fifth Avenue. Shel was left standing in the middle of the sidewalk as she watched the barefoot man dressed all in blue disappear down the street, scattering pedestrians in his wake.
Shane arrived at his blue studio apartment dripping with sweat. His feet hurt to walk on and were covered with cuts that oozed into bloodstained footprints onto the hardwood floors as he paced his apartment. Time to get to work, time to get some paintings done, I really hate art, Shane thought again. Gotta work, gotta sell, gotta get high.
Shane walked on sticky feet to to the supply drawer in the kitchen. All of the necessary paraphernalia was there, except the junk. Shane rummaged through the drawer, spoon, tubing, needle, portable torch, syringe. He saw something white and powdery on the bottom of the drawer. He licked his finger and used it to pick up some of the white powder and brought it to his tongue. It was good, or maybe he just imagined it was good. In his current state he wasn’t even sure exactly what it was. He had energy now and he knew that he would have to get some work done.
Shane decided to start by walking his bare, bloody feet over a white canvas, kind of Jackson Pollock he thought with amusement. It seemed to take him hours to complete the piece. Shane knew from experience that heroin did not eliminate his creative process. It just caused the process to move more slowly. In this case, today, time seemed to stand still. He couldn’t remember how many pieces he owed his art manager, Vulture.
Vulture wasn’t really much of a manager – he had yet to book any exhibitions for Shane. What Vulture had in abundance though was drugs, and that was usually how Shane was paid. Shane had no idea what Vulture did with his art pieces. He was whoring his talent and it made him ache. It just didn’t make him ache as much as not being able to get high.
Vulture took the three pieces in his thick hands and handed Shane the packet of white powder. No comment was made during the transaction. Shane gave over his art, his soul, and Vulture fed him what he craved. He was shaking and craving another hit. At this point nothing mattered, not even the red notice of past due rent that he found taped to his door this morning. The white powder would save him from the brutality of the real world, it would save him from having to feel really feelings, and mostly it would save him from by disguising the wasteland that his life was becoming. On heroin, Shane could feel deep peace and satisfaction. This didn’t happen with every high, and had never been as good as the first time he got high. Shane lived his life trying to obtain that elusive peaceful power instilled in him from that first hit.
He watched with nervous eyes as Vulture disappeared from view into a waiting Cadillac on the corner. Shane clutched the bag of white powder close to his bare chest as he rattled home, rasping with desire for his next high.
Shane couldn’t complete any art pieces. These last few days were devastating to his creative process. The paintings looked like preschool drawings. He couldn’t show them to Vulture, he wouldn’t even be able to show this crap to his mother. Shane shook as he walked down the street. He was in an area heavily populated with art galleries. Not big name art galleries – small, just starting out galleries. A place where, two years ago, he had hoped to make his start. Before he met Alicia, and before she introduced him to addiction. She had loved him because she knew that he wouldn’t ever get completely attached to her, and her addiction could always come first. Shane dabbled in drugs with Alicia as his guide. He kept going up the drug ladder, stopping with the king of all drugs and staying on his filthy throne with nothing to show for his life but disgrace.
Shane almost missed the gallery window, he was so deep in his thoughts that he almost passed it right by. In his peripheral vision he noticed a distinctive shade of red, his favorite shade of red. A shade of read that he had learned to mix in high school in Kentucky, under the tutelage of his oldest and dearest art teacher. Shane stepped back and gazed into the window of the dingy gallery. It didn’t look like much. “Blue Heron Art Gallery” Shane read stenciled above the doorway. Shane forced his fuzzy eyes to focus through the street side window, and he counted at least six pieces of his own art on display under the name Andrew Osprey.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Shane said to the air. It wasn’t clear to him how – he was still a bit too high to work it all out – but it made perfect sense why Vulture was so willing to trade his shabby pieces of art for drugs. He saw a price card by the blood piece, the piece he had walked on to create – $1500. With a fury welling up inside, Shane pushed open the door to the Blue Heron Art Gallery.
“Hello, my name is Edward. How may I help you?”
Shane turned to see a small man, bearded and bespectacled, wringing his pale hands while lisping his introduction. “I see that you find the Andrew Osprey collection interesting.” Something about the smallness of the man, his lisping and wheezing, deflated Shane’s rage.
“Yes. He seems to make good use of that shade of red.”
“This is a fairly recent installment. We haven’t seen any new pieces lately.” The man continued to push his hands together, kneading the, like dough. Shane noticed the suit that Edward wore – not overly expensive looking, but tailored well to fit his small frame. Shane remembered that he was wearing Levi’s with holes worn in both knees, a button down shirt missing half the buttons, and green flip flops – his one recent investment in self care.
“This Andrew Osprey, does he come in often?”
Edward looked startled and put a slim, pale hand to his mouth as he cleared his throat. “We have never seen him in this gallery. I hear that he is a recluse and doesn’t like to appear in public. It is a shame, we have sold a fair number of pieces by him. I think that he could get more money for his art if he made appearances in public.” Edward blushed and looked away, “Maybe that is too much information. I should respect the privacy of the artist, especially one as good as he.”
“Andrew actually sells his work then,” Shane mused half to himself and half to Edward.
“People ask about him all of the time. The red is what draws them in. The red is a distinctively earthy experience for people in the city, so far from their roots in nature.”
Shane had to suppress a laugh, all of this nature talk coming from a man who looked like Edward. He didn’t think that Edward looked like he spent any time outside, let alone actually getting close to nature. Edward coughed again and turned as the bell on the front door rang. A woman wearing a large black hat was struggling to enter the studio, so encumbered was she by shopping bags that she couldn’t get through the door.
“Mrs. Fitzgerald, please let me help you with that.” Edward quickly abandoned Shane to assist Mrs. Fitzgerald with her ordeal through the front door. They began to talk in low voices and Edward disappeared behind a curtain in the back of the studio, Mrs. Fitzgerald trudging behind in spiked black heels that belonged on a woman about fifty pounds lighter.
Shane heard them laughing and exchanging pleasantries about a piece of art the woman had commissioned for her husband’s 60th birthday party. Shane took this opportunity to grab the blood painting and rush out the door. He took off running down the street, a flash of blood red zooming brilliantly through a hazy twilight.
Too soon for a man his age, he lost his stamina and stopped to catch his breath. He walked along for another couple blocks, then took a seat on a littered stairwell leading to a dirty basement. Without any warning, he was passed out, still cluching the painting tight to his body.
When he awoke there was no trace of sunlight left in the sky, though it was still almost as hot and humid as it had been in the daytime. Shane picked himself up and continued to trudge back slowly to his little blue apartment.
The blocks passed by without notice until Shane found himself in the quiet streets of his neighborhood. He let his senses awaken and began noticing his surroundings. He held the blood-covered canvas out at arm’s length. In the streetlight, he could see into it, past its carnal origins. He felt the artist inside bubbling back up again into his conscious. He very nearly smiled.
He looked back at the city surrounding him, and something caught his eye. A Cadillac was parked haphazardly at the end of the block, its lights flashing evenly in the night. Shane approached the familiar vehicle and found Vulture there, leaning against the car, his thick hands tucked under his even thicker biceps.
“I believe you have something of mine,” growled the dealer.
Shane had a surge of self as he replied, “That depends on how you define ‘mine’. I’ve got just as much claim over it as you, if not more.” The dome light was on inside the car, and Shane’s eyes flicked over to see Alicia in the back seat. Her eyes were dark circles, but her body was sunk into the leather seat as if she had sat there many times before.
Vulture picked himself off the side of the car and reached for the canvas. Shane’s body filled with adrenaline, and he wouldn’t release his grip on the painting. The two men struggled and Shane fell back against a green lamp post that marked the entrance to the subway, finally letting go of his art. His green flip flop caught in the cracked lip of the subway entrance. Time slowed and Shane saw himself falling into the gaping maw but couldn’t stop himself. His body was crushed as it hit each snaggled step on the way down.
Vulture stood at the top of the stairs looking down at Shane’s limp and broken body. He looked up and down the deserted street, picked up the discarded canvas and took a step toward the Cadillac. As he walked away, he heard a train roar like a belch into the station below and the gasp of the brakes as it came to a stop. He slid back in next to Alicia, and in another moment, they were gone.