At one point I began a painting. This is always a mistake, especially if you’re the type to keep your window open when it rains. The power plant above our town pumped orange clouds into the sky. The odor was perfume but it was also the gasoline in my dad’s motorcycle. Except it wasn’t either of these things.
Mostly the smell reminded me of squished-up animals. Our house was a block from the railroad tracks. Walking along them at night, I came across the bodies of deer or rabbits, fur pressed into lumpy carpets. The streetlights were rusty, and somehow the train was rusty too, a long, disintegrating trumpet. The train didn’t keep me awake: It made me bored. I acquired a taste for coffee. I bought a lot of records and started painting.
My room—my studio, my Factory was a patchwork of clichés: Audrey Hepburn, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles. There were, of course, those icons reserved exclusively for children whose parents read The New Yorker: Atticus Finch and Banksy. There were ticket stubs, Playbills (The Glass Menagerie, The Wizard of Oz), pictures of outer space and skies so big my eyes brimmed looking at them. The color blue excited and terrified me. My hands were restless. I stole paint samples from Wal-Mart based not on color but on name:
Michigan Motown Blues
With these taped to my wall, I began my painting. It was not my first. I had just decided on a subject when I got a call from Derek.
“Model for me?” Derek was my photographer/ friend. Whenever he wanted to build his portfolio, which was often, he asked me to model. Sometimes I held props, knives or dolls or books by J.D. Salinger. I got free prints of the photographs. These I taped to my wall between Audrey Hepburn and the Playbills. I was a narcissist.
“Can we do lines?”
Cocaine makes living in the suburbs really cool. It’s an effective way to do nothing at high speed. I haven’t done it in ages. Living in the city, I never felt the need. Time passed quickly enough, a whirly-gig of faces. Everyone’s face was a thousand years. I learned more in conversation on long, hooded-sweatshirt walks than I did in four years of high school.
I want to pull the girl who was me out of her bedroom and take her for a walk. “In this town, even time takes drugs to make itself go faster.” We’d walk all the way across the Atlantic---myself and I---to the bathroom stall in Heathrow Airport where I just read this graffiti:
IT IS NO MEASURE OF HEALTH TO BE WELL ADJUSTED TO A SICK SOCIETY
Reading the graffiti makes me feel better and worse at the same time.
I want to tell the girl putting down the paintbrush “life is about felling better and worse at the same time.”
I don’t want a Time Machine. I couldn’t handle the Butterfly Effect. I read that when a butterfly flutters its wings in one part of the world, it starts a hurricane in another. Kids who stay awake listening to train track eulogies are butterflies. Only the hurricanes caused by their fluttering hands don’t start in China or London. They start inside their bedrooms, their own spacious heads.
It snowed today, a fickle April affair everyone blames on the power plant. My dad’s motorcycle is a pile of handsome guts in our basement. I don’t know why he took it apart. I have a feeling he was looking for something sweet at the center. Coming home, I found my dad exactly how I left him. He does not look older. He is timeless as a mall Santa, or Walt Whitman.
I can’t believe it’s morning. My room stinks of milk, half-finished cups of coffee. I can’t drink it black, so load up on milk and sugar. This is a really nifty way of making something bitter into something sweet.
I thought of pouring coffee over the painting I didn’t finish. The cream and sugar would make the canvas smell sticky and sweet like semen. There was a time I thought all art was masturbation.
There was also a time I thought a malevolent race of gnomes lived under my floorboards. This was before I got so bored I put white stuff up my nose to make myself go faster. The gnomes had a radar system, so I had to run to the toilet, and gently too, so my footsteps wouldn’t set off the radar. My terror of the gnomes was very real. If they caught me, the floor would open up. I would fall into the gnome kingdom, be put in a cage, and be forced to participate in scientific experiments.
I used to look out my window and wonder how many of the stars were planets in disguise. Derek and I used to argue about music and then make out while my parents were downstairs, which was the sexiest thing in the universe.
When I think of the girl I was losing her virginity to someone else, I want to play her a Johnny Cash song I like that is a cover of a Nine Inch Nails Song she likes. I want to point to a picture of outer space. I want to say, “It’s nothing special, except when it is.”
The walls of my room have not changed. There are so many pictures of famous people you can hardly see the white paint underneath. Blank space terrifies me. I wish it didn’t. I wish I were terrified of gnomes instead.
The Newspaper on my desk says something about a new car dealership on route 422. It says I can get two Big Macs for the price of one.
Here’s a secret: Love doesn’t exist. Space exists. What we fill it with is up to us.
I read the opinion section of the Newspaper. The Conservative Party says I should fill my space with hatred for women who use birth control. The Liberal Party says I should fill my space with hatred for The Conservative Party.
Too bad I already filled my space with the album cover for Bob Dylan’s Freewheelin’. It’s still there, a big fat billboard lit up in neon. When I think of love, I think of two people walking down a street alone.
Taking apart his motorcycle piece by piece, hands slippery with grease, I wonder if my dad was looking for something to fill his space, an image he could light up inside him and keep warm.
Now I am going to stare very hard at the painting I didn’t finish.
The palette is not uniform. The background is pearly sea foam, mist melting into blue dark. The reflection on the jacket is excruciatingly precise, and is so bright the paint literally rises up from the canvas. The flowers in the hat are chalk outlines. I want them to be red, though I think the picture I was painting from was black and white.
The shadows under the eyes are dirty. The eyes are dirty too. And the hair. The face could be that of a miner blinking as he emerges into the night—he’s been working all day, and his skin is dusty except for where sweat streaked it clean. His lips are too shiny. One of his eyebrows is higher than the other. He has one purple nostril and one yellow nostril. It is difficult to tell his race or ethnicity.
The painting is a portrait of Bob Dylan.
A long time ago, my dad bought me a stuffed coyote from an Indian in Nevada. The coyote smells like skin and has yellow eyes. I take it with me everywhere, even to the city. Men have come to my apartment after a few drinks and, unnerved—the coyote has a bird skull necklace—have turned around and left. “Sorry, but I carry this thing with me everywhere,” I tell them. “Sometimes I carry it right behind my face.”
I don’t know what I talk about when I talk to beautiful men. They smell too good. Once, I told a beautiful man about the painting in my bedroom:
“If I could just finish it, I think I would know everything. I’d be smarter than my dad.”
“Why would you want to be?” said the beautiful man. I think he was a socialist.
When you go to writing school, they say you can write about anything you want so long as you avoid these words:
Very is avoided because Ernst Hemingway was allergic to the word. Profanity, they say, obstructs meaning, so you better cut the damns as well. Infinite is a word for teenagers, or people who never leave their bedrooms.
The beautiful man’s question left a very damn infinite echo in my brain.
“What are you doing?” my dad walks into by bedroom.
I stick my head out the window. “Trying to tell which stars are planets and which are stars.” Clearly.
My dad tells me that star is Mars and that star is Venus.
“What about Jupiter?” I say, being tricky.
He points to a small star I would never have guessed.
I used to think that if I can’t be smarter than my dad, I could at least be cooler than him. This was when I still thought being an artist was about masturbating and always looking busy.
“Did you really get my coyote on a motorcycle trip?” I wanted to know how much of my dad was bedtime story mythos.
“It was the trip Hunter S. Thompson invited us to his ranch.”
“You knew him?”
“We corresponded.” He showed me the letters.
Damn damn damn.
The coyote on my bed is vibrating. I pick it up and answer the cell phone underneath.
“Model for me?” It’s Derek. I only have one photographer/friend.
I don’t feel like it though. “I think I’ll just watch movies tonight.”
“Watch LeFooohhhhhheeey,” He says a French movie whose title I don’t recognize. “Watch LeFooohhheyy so we can talk about it.”
But I don’t want to watch a movie, not unless I can watch it in the sky. Then everyone could watch—or at least everyone in my time zone. It would be something groovy we could all together. We would sit on our rooftops and wonder which actors were planets and which were stars.
I decide I will be smarter and cooler than my dad only after I invent a projector that plays movies on the sky.
It’s been ages since I’ve carried the coyote around in public, but decide to take it with me on my walk. Everyone in the town goes to bed at 9:30, so I’m not worried about bumping into people. I’m putting on my old boots when my dad comes home.
He looks at the coyote. He takes my face in his hands. “And what’ll you do now, my darling young one?” He smiles. He has two missing teeth and two teeth that are capped with gold. Then he goes to his study and shuts the door.
I sit on the floor.
I wipe motorcycle grease from my cheeks.
I get up.
The coyote’s tail drags as I walk back up the stairs. I look at my bedroom. I used to have nightmares of my mother coming in and tearing the pictures from the walls.
My window is open. I smell the coyote, the train and acid rain, and wonder where I’ve heard those words before.