A short story inspired by The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. He’s truly an excellent writer. I recommend reading any of his work; The Things They Carried is probably the best book I’ve read in a long time. I tried my best to do his voice justice in this short piece about artists.
At 12 p.m. on April 10th, 2015 Monterey Grover popped the kickstand of his 1960 Schwinn Jaguar and set off down the narrow streets of Eugene, Oregon. A leather messenger bag carrying his Polaroid SZ-70 clattered against his leg as he pumped the pedals. The sky sulked in heavy sheets of gray, as if to make sure that the world below didn’t cling to any hopes of seeing the sun for another two months.
The sun snickered over the balcony of Raul Castell’s high-rise apartment in San Francisco, California. Raul stood by the railing, drawing from a Toscano cigar and wondering how the dramatic arches of the city’s skyline would look on a suit jacket. He tapped out the cigar and turned to call for Eric.
Olivia Markowitz turned in her desk chair to call for her cat. When Sir Snouffles failed to round the corner, she glanced at her alarm clock and winced. Crap, it’s 3 o’ clock! I have class in thirty minutes! She bent back over her charcoal and tried to drown out the racket of the New York City streets with the trance of Rachmaninoff.
Crackpot kids. Senseless racket, Sean Reynolds thought sourly as he tucked the spray paint can into the front of his oversized jacket. He shrunk back into the shadows of the Philadelphia alleyway to wait for the gang of teenagers blasting rap music to move along. How was it that every time he picked out a new spot to paint something got in his way?
Every time Lien Phan returned to wash the stained glass windows, she found fresh smudges and grubby fingerprints. She sighed and set down the rag, turning to look at the wooden apples and grapes of Grinling Gibbons’ mantelpiece carvings that were on display across the open hall. Maybe today I’ll actually pick up a wood block, she thought. But it was only 2 o’ clock. She would be here cleaning windows at the Sugar Land, Texas Art Center and Gallery for another three hours still.
In the pockets of Olivia Markowitz’s oversized School of Visual Arts hoodie she carried stale cat treats that had never been thrown away. She didn’t even know why she held on to them; Sir Snouffles always spit them out every time she tried to coax him onto her lap. She carried pencils upon pencils upon pencils, HB and 9B and charcoal, chipped and chomped from long nights of nervous teeth chattering. She carried them in grocery bags and in coat pockets and in her hair, though she never seemed to be able to find them.
Raul Castell carried a tin of Toscano cigars to his studio every day in anticipation of client conferences that might need a little nudge in his favor. He liked the simplicity of the Toscano brand, the classic oily must of tobacco and tang of spice. He also knew that a fresh cigar paired with his diamond-cutting gaze could swing any interview his way. He carried a sketchbook of rich red leather, filled with drawings of evening gowns and feathered lapels and checkered pant cuffs.
Monterey Grover carried The Man, The Image & The World: A Retrospective by Henri Cartier-Bresson. It was the closest thing he had to a bible, and he liked to have it handy to whip out and prove his points during debates on the philosophy of photography — debates which he had surprisingly often. He carried a titanium tea mug that was virtually indestructible and impenetrable, and always had fresh bags of oolong and chai handy in his messenger bag pockets.
Lien Phan couldn’t fit much in her apron pockets, but she carried a stiff and square-shaped handbag in which she kept a small tub of vaseline, a flip phone, an unused pad of yellow paper, and a collection of tickets from fortune teller machines and cookies. They read phrases like “The beginning of wisdom is to desire it.” and “Your many hidden talents will become obvious to those around you.” She carried a small wood carving of a cross-legged Buddha that her grandfather had whittled for her when she was twelve years old. He always seemed to be smiling up at her, inviting her to admire his chubby chiseled fingers and toes.
Sean Reynolds carried a couple of cans of Rust-oleum Touch N Tone spray paint whenever he could scrape up $6.95 to buy them at the corner store. They always seemed to be running empty though, choking on their last fumes, and he never had quite the right colors. He carried in his Walgreens shopping bag a stick of chipped deodorant, a role of quarters, and a wallet with nothing in it except for his driver’s license from 1989. He liked to take out the license and imagine that he still had his steel Sedan and fresh, unlined face.
Lien carried a mountain of what-ifs between her shoulder blades. They started low with “What if I slept in this morning?” and peaked with “What if I was born in Hoi An, in the Kim Bong woodworking village? What if I grew up with Grandfather, with Ong Noi to teach me?” She carried the blind hope that one of her fortune tickets would come true, that a fresh start would put her on her way or her hidden talents would reveal themselves. She carried the fear that she would never be taken seriously in the presence of geniuses like Gibbons and Moriggl and the master woodworkers of Kim Bong. She carried the fear that she wouldn’t know where to start or how to start. She carried the fear that she’d never start.
Sean wore a worn Phillies cap that he knew would never collect enough change to guarantee his next meal. Weighing heavy on the back of his neck was the dread that he would turn a street corner and be caught in the crossfire of vying gangs, or that one morning he’d just drop on the sidewalk by a dumpster, left cold and forgotten and dead with the trash. He carried the tangled wires of panic and pride — pride in his work, in his signature that stamped back alley buildings and boxcar walls, that brought color and vibrancy to an otherwise grim and uninviting place. But panic in the price, in the worth, in the wondering — is this all there is to remember me by? Panic in the knowledge that he was alone with his art that everyone could see.
Raul carried rivalry, hot and bitter in the pit of his stomach. It fermented at all hours of the day and bubbled up whenever he opened a magazine and saw that his name wasn’t in the featured fashion column. He stubbornly lugged around his cutthroat passion and pressed it into pages of designs and long hours of stabbing and stitching around mannequins. But he also harbored vulnerabilities — the wanting to give only the finest in life to Eric, the conviction that nothing but the best was acceptable, the need to prove with Marsala wine and Persian carpets that he was thriving. Succeeding. Unbeatable.
Monterey carried carelessness, steaming in the lenses of his useless glasses. It clouded his 20/20 vision, causing him to fall back on the comfortable cushion of stability that his parents had built beneath him. He bore a name that he had given himself when he decided that ‘Michael’ was too mainstream. His evolving identity toted his aversion to the conventional. He sprouted a beard, tied his hair in a bun, and proclaimed to all 36 followers of his blog that he was going to look at the world more authentically. He carried cockiness, but he also carried passion — for the still, silence of photography that could capture loud and angry moments and manage to make them look peaceful. Monterey carried fear, the fear of being like everyone else, the fear of never establishing a self, the fear of being crushed by conformity.
Olivia liked to think that she didn’t carry anything but unpaid student loans and unanswered emails from her parents. But really, with each sleepless night and completed canvas she carved a new tally into her growing doubt. She hauled around the doubt that she would never be able to support herself on art alone, that the wide-scale, carefully detailed charcoal portraits she slaved over were really worth no more than the crappy doodles she did on her napkins at lunch. She hunched over the worry that her parents had been right all along — that art school was a mistake, that she would never hold a stable job, that in the end she was better off sticking to her napkin scribbles and going to some business school. Olivia carried uncertainty, and to a lesser extent, insecurity — because though she lived for the gruff grasp of charcoal on paper and feeling of all the parts of a portrait becoming a whole, she still bent her back to the fear that she would never be good enough.
They carried what-ifs and rivalry and carelessness, and panic and pride and sleepless nights. They carried contradictions, but they also carried the same fulfillment, the same gratification in creation. The same satisfaction in wanting to make something that was more than them.
We are different, but art is the same.
Raul Castell snuffed his cigar in an ash tray by the door and walked inside to the kitchen, where Eric stood over the stovetop frying eggs. He wore a simple ivory button-down, an early design of Raul’s from 2005. A shirt that Raul had sworn to never let see the light of day. But seeing it on Eric stirred something in him. It made him…happy. It made him want to go back, to the days when he designed not for maintaining his brand or stealing the runway — but for him and for his loved ones.
“Eggs? At noon?” Raul pressed.
Eric shrugged and scraped the contents of the pan onto a plate. “You looked like you were seething. Here’s to something soothing.”
The soothing draw of Rachmaninoff crowned on a mellow note, and Olivia Markowitz dropped her charcoal pencil, her fingers smudged black. It was too late to get to class now, but she had finished. Finally finished. Suddenly the grade didn’t mean anything, and she was left with just her and her smudged fingers and her art. A grin crept across her lips as she felt a familiar tail rub against her legs.
Blades of dewy grass rubbed against Monterey Grover’s legs as he knelt into the dirt, focusing his polaroid camera on the peeling paint of a park bench. Angle, zoom, and snap! He chuckled to himself as the picture processed — he liked it, he liked being alone in a park and taking pictures of friendless benches. He liked the solidarity of it; he liked having a piece of something that no one else cared about. He shook the photograph dry and waited to see whether or not the image would be worthy of his wall.
Lien Phan had spent a good five minutes staring at the wall displaying the Grinling Gibbons carvings before she remembered that she wasn’t getting paid by the hour. She returned to her window scrubbing, and thought that maybe she should give her mother a call and ask about the family back in Kim Bong. Maybe, just maybe, a trip home would find her the answers she needed. After all — “Your happiness is before you, not behind you!” her fortune of the day declared.
Sean Reynolds declared to himself that if the loitering teenagers didn’t move along then he would have to settle on finding a new spot. But where was he going to find a canvas hidden in plain sight that wasn’t infested with cops and pink-eyed dealers? He waited in the shadows and held his tongue, and eventually the lot of them moved on, their music shaking the dust in the air and pulsing through the ground to Sean’s feet. He advanced in on the cement wall and pulled his only two spray paint colors from his Walgreens bag: blue and black. As he shook up the first can, he glanced over each shoulder to make sure that the alley was good and empty. He could feel the energy in him, building up and sparkling at his fingertips, like firecrackers charged and busting to pop on the asphalt. A raw glee stirred the smoke in his belly, and he flicked the cap of the can to the ground.
Then he stepped back, saw his signature draped in sea-salt waves and midnight oil, and painted.