An Artist Goes to Hell – Excerpt 11

5 Jan

They came around the corner of a pallet squared off with boxes of cheese crackers and saw a group of middle-aged men sitting in soft leather chairs next to boxes of TVs. There were seven of them and they varied in shape and size. Disappointingly, only two of them had long beards.

One of the younger men, that is to say, about forty-five or so, in a suit and a trendy pair of glasses, turned to Pensivemo and said, ‘Here he is then.’ Pensivemo came to the man, now standing, and extended his hand for greeting.

‘Pensivemo’

‘Pensivemo! I’m Roger. We’ve heard a lot about you from Bernie.’

‘Bernie?’

Dr. Sintek laughed. ‘That’s me.’

‘You ready to work for us?’ Roger asked Pensivemo.

‘Work for you?’ Pensivemo said, puzzled.

‘Sure!’ Roger smiled. He gave him a just-kidding sort of tap on the shoulder that was contradicted by his saying, ‘It’s not that bad. Just some sweeping up and stuff.’

‘Sweeping up?’

‘He comes from pretty bourgeois beginnings,’ Sintek told Roger with a big grin, his index finger and thumb together with his other fingers spread. ‘He’s never heard of a broom, you know.’

‘Well we’ll have to acquaint him with one.’ They both laughed.

‘Listen,’ Pensivemo said, ‘as much as I’d love to stick around, I think I’m gonna get home. I don’t think I leave too far from here.’

‘Well remember what we talked about?’ Dr. Sintek said. ‘These guys are gonna help you lay low if you don’t wanna get caught again.’

‘But I have stuff to do,’ Pensivemo said. ‘I can’t sit around sweeping floors.’

‘You have to make art?’ a voice called from one of the chairs. They all turned to one of the bearded men sitting in a leather chair. ‘Write plays?’

‘Yes. Among other things,’ Pensivemo said.

‘Oh, you’ll have time,’ Roger said. ‘We’re not really sticklers about time. I promise you, Pensivemo, you’ll get all the time you need to scribble.’ He and Dr. Sintek turned to each other and laughed.

Still suffering the aftermath of their laughing fit, Sintek turned to Pensivemo and said, ‘Listen, Pens, I gotta get out of here unless you want me to start giving you bills. You have a good time, alright? Call me if you need anything.’

‘I don’t think I have your number.’

Still smiling, Sintek lifted his business card into the air with two fingers, came close to Pensivemo, slid it in his breast pocket, patted it in and said, ‘Take care, sport. These guys’ll fix you up good.’

Pensivemo turned the men and said, ‘Would any of you happen to have a cigarette?’

One of the men pulled a grave expression and pointed at one of the pillars where a sign listed smoking among things that were not allowed in the building, along with firearms and knives.

***

With his jacket draped over the corner of a pallet of Kleenex, Pensivemo swept his tiny broom along the floor and gathered up bits of orange cracker, dried out spider butts, paper clips, gray clouds of dust, fuzzballs, hairballs, baby binkies, bits of glass and empty sample cups covered in the crusted goop of whatever they’d once carried.

In the center isle he noticed a stack of stationary items including spiral notebooks. He went to them and pulled a purple one from the pile and flipped through its clean, empty pages. He pulled the always present pen from his pocket and went back to the corner where he’d been sweeping. He sat down and began to draw a face. It wasn’t until he was almost finished that he realized he was drawing one of the bearded rabbis from the group. It was far too crude; so much so that he was afraid he’d lost his drawing touch. Perhaps he should stick to plays, poems, essays, music and everything else he still had it in him to do.

Just as he was finishing the crude beard, he felt a presence hovering over him. He looked up to meet eyes with one of the rabbis. This one was probably fifty-something, clean cut—one of the men standing in the back to whom he’d not directly spoken before. He looked down at Pensivemo with light, soft brown eyes and said, ‘Can I have a little peek?’

Pensivemo lifted the notebook up to him and the rabbi took it.

He smiled and said, ‘You know, you know, that’s good but eh … What about if you maybe do some more shading on the beard here?’

‘Very well,’ Pensivemo said, taking the notebook back from him.

‘Which means you’ll want to do it in pencil, not pen,’ he said with a nervous laugh.

‘Right but …’ looking around, ‘I don’t have a pencil.’

‘Okay, listen, I got one right here.’ The rabbi produced one for him.

Pensivemo took it and said, ‘You want me to redraw it?’

‘Oh feel free!’

Pensivemo started redrawing and all the while, the rabbi hovered over him. When Pensivemo finished, the rabbi turned in to get a look and Pensivemo handed the notebook to him.

The rabbi frowned and bobbed his head from side to side. ‘Eh … that’s better cuz it’s in pencil of course but eh, you’re gonna wanna do a liiiiiitle bit more shading on the beard.’

Pensivemo tore the notebook from the rabbi’s hands and, as he began shading, said, ‘You draw?’

‘I know a thing or two,’ the rabbi said, sheepishly.

Pensivemo spent about three whole minutes shading before he leaned against the wall, sighed and set the notebook on his lap.

The rabbi raised his brow, smiled and offered his hand to see the notebook and Pensivemo gave it to him. The rabbi smiled and said, ‘You know, listen, I don’t want to interrupt your sweeping.’ He chuckled. ‘Listen, why don’t you come talk to me later tonight after dinner and I can show you a few things.’

Pensivemo almost protested but said, ‘Okay, thank you,’ with no intention of doing so.

***

Come evening, Pensivemo had a great number of pencil-drawings hung up all over the wall. Some were self-portraits. Some were of girls he used to know. He had at least one drawing of each rabbi for which he was actually proud.

He took a walk to the covered entrance of the store and looked out at the black clouds and the darkness of the industrial land below. Off in the background, he could see the great, pale, Meta-Corp building which, from that distance, seemed far more like a monument to something lost, far more talismanic, strange and kingly. It occurred to him that up close, while still looking very big, it didn’t look quite that big. The clouds above it stirred about in a circle as though a tornado would set directly over it. Perhaps he could sneak back home come nighttime—slip in behind his Ludmilla and slide his arms around her, the little one resting in the living room or the bedroom. He’d been with them at the Costco, hadn’t he? They’d been standing with him taking samples of pork and beans from the little cups with the little plastic spoon just like him. Yes … Perhaps he would wait until nighttime and go see them.

As Pensivemo gazed into the black evening, he thought about his days in Paris—the city that will publish what no one else will. He’d always been one of those artists that had to explain to puzzled journalists that he was proficient in some other area for which he was better known by a completely different corner of culture. Some people thought he was a musician who wrote novels. Some people thought he was a novelist who wrote poems. People thought he was a poet who wrote plays. People who bought his paintings and hung them up on their walls thought he was an artist who wrote the odd concerto. People who enjoyed his concertos were surprised that he plucked on the odd guitar and played on the odd piano in clubs.

Pensivemo took a look behind him at the store and outside through the opening under the entrance cover to see if anyone was in eyesight. Deciding no one would see him, he stepped outside into the empty parking lot. As soon as he did, the earth started to quake lightly. He went back to the doorway for safety, watched as lightening flashed in the sky and listened as thunder belched through the air. Once he came back inside, the earth became still again.

A moment later, a voice behind him said, ‘Did you go outside?’ He turned to find the rabbi who’d given him drawing lessons.

‘Only for a moment,’ Pensivemo said.

‘Yeah, that’s probably not a good idea.’

Pensivemo went and sat on one of the benches at the food court and the rabbi came and joined him.

‘I just thought I’d take a little trip down the street to my house to see how things are going,’ Pensivemo said.

‘Well … things are a little iffy right now. I’m not sure you’ll be able to do that for a while.’

‘What’s the worst that’ll happen if I just go right now?’

‘Well, I wouldn’t want to find out but I would imagine something similar to what just happened a second ago when you tried to step out.’

‘Well … Is there any way my lady can come visit me? Or the little one?’

‘Eh … They’ll have to sign an appointment form, which always gets reviewed first by Sintek, who does his best to take it up the chain to his boss, but it rarely gets past his boss, you know, because his boss is really weary about the different laws that conflict with the ones in keeping with the laws of eh …’ He pointed at the sky.

‘Then what the hell am I supposed to do? Sweep all day? Draw?’

‘Well, you don’t have to draw, you know. I mean, provided there’s still notebook paper, you can do anything you want!’

Pensivemo sighed. ‘Fair enough.’

‘But there’s just one minor detail I should make you aware of.’

‘What’s that?’

‘Anything you create during your time here is legally owned by Costco.’

‘And I can’t leave.’

‘That’s the way it appears. At least for now.’

Pensivemo put his hands to his pock-marked face and ran them slowly through his floppy, black hair. ‘So what will it be then? Sweeping? Shading beards?’

The rabbi shrugged and lifted his empty hand level with his shoulders and smiled nervously.

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