“Good friends have the cajones…”
Jack Sheppard had been welded to the barstool at The Country Gent for the better part of the evening, inhaling shots of Johnny Walker Black, munching fries and scribbling on cocktail napkins with a stubby pencil.
“Okay then… How ‘bout this?” Jack asked Lou Terkel, the owner of The Gent, and possibly the only person left in Carver’s Mill who would talk to him. He cleared his throat for effect and shot an endearing look at Lou. Chance of a Lifetime! If you’ve always yearned to be an artist! If you like Guinness Stout and Billie Holiday… If like to work with your hands creating sculptures that will span the eons. Apply to Black Dog Gallery… What do you think?”
Lou put his glasses on and slid the soggy napkin over into the light. He looked more like a retired rodeo rider than a bartender: Plaid shirt, stovepipe jeans and a craggy care-worn face.
“Well, that’s probably the best one so far,” Lou drawled, “but…if you want my opinion, I think you’re over sellin’ the job just a little, Jack.” Lou gazed at the man who had once been his best friend. He was drunk again…or maybe still. It was getting hard to tell the difference and it didn’t seem like there was a whole lot left of the old Jack. The funny, talented metal sculptor with the pretty wife and a ready smile. He flipped the soggy napkin over to see if there was anything written on the back. “You might wanna sleep on this before you go puttin’ it in the newspaper.”
“And why would that be?” Jack asked, his voice thick from the liquor.
Another bartender might have backed-off right about then. But there was that history between them. “Well, for one thing, you and I both know it’s a load of crap,” Lou said. He wiped up the peanut shells with the napkin and threw it all in the trash. “I mean…you seriously planning on servin’ pints of Guinness…to your sales help?”
“Sure. Why the hell not?” Jack shot back.
“And you’re gonna teach em how to make sculptures for…the eons? Sheeit, Jack, I don’t even know what an eon is. I suppose it’s some real long span of time or somethin’. But last time I checked, you said you were kinda phasin’ out the creative sculpting…just doin’ production.”
Jack Sheppard’s eyes narrowed. The foggy veil disappeared from his eyes. “We go back a long way, my friend,” Jack said, his eyes still watery, but suddenly sober. It was a threat, the first he had ever launched at Lou.
“Yes, we do,” Lou agreed. “But here’s the thing. Good friends have the cajones to tell their friends the truth. And the truth is, since Beckie left you, you ain’t been a friend to nobody…particularly not to yourself. As far as your artwork is concerned… Well, I’m not the kinda guy to kick a friend when he’s down.”
Jack’s eyes had become huge watery planets, rimmed in white. “Oh… No… Don’t stop now, ole buddy. I wasn’t aware that bein’ a bartender made you an expert on sculpture…”
“Oh, it don’t,” Lou agreed. “I’m judgin’ it all by YOU…by what’s comin’ outta YOUR mouth. Time was, you and Beckie would come in here, red hot on some crazy new sculpting idea or one of Beckie’s manuscripts and you’d scribble shit on napkins till the cows came home. The main thing I always noticed was that you two were happy. You two had it made in the shade. But now…” Lou’s voice trailed off.
“Well, that part of my life…” Jack said, his voice dropping out of fight-mode.
“Well, I’m sorry to hear that,” Lou said. “Tell ya what… tonight’s on the house. Why don’t you go on home. Maybe things will look a little brighter in the mornin’. Maybe that ad will come a little easier for ya.”
“What would you write?” Jack said. It was out of the blue. Jack had never asked Lou advice on anything.
“If I was you?”
Jack stared at him directly. “Yeah.”
Lou picked up a beer mug, rinsed it under the tap and swiped it with his towel. “I’d write somethin’ like this: ‘Dear Beckie, I am a sorry sonofabitch and I’m totally fucked-up in the head. Please come back. Please forgive me. I am a dumb sonofabitch and I will never hurt you again.’ Then I’d brand that onto my forehead…backwards so I could read it every time I looked in the mirror. It just might work for ya.”
Jack sniffed at the words and looked around the bar. “Well, now…Tell me again, Lou. How long’s it been since you’ve been married?”
“That’s a low blow, Jack,” Lou said. “Tonight, I’m gonna chalk that up to the booze. But that’s your one and only gimmie.”
“You don’t have the only tavern in Carver’s Mill, you know.”
“Oh, I’m highly aware of that. I was thinkin’ more on our ten years a bein’ friends. Good friends…real friends are rarer than hen’s teeth.”
Interviews from Hell
Monday morning broke dark, cold, grey, and ugly. It was January third and it’d been spitting sleet since five-thirty that morning. As Jack drove to the gallery, tiny invisible ice crystals pelted like BBs against the windshield and everything had a quarter-inch of ice on top. Like most of the days lately, it was a day to just try to get through somehow. His head hurt bad from the night before and as he got out, the ice stung against his face and bounced off his too thin suede jacket.
He peered over at the shotgun seat. To the untrained eye, it was just a wadded-up smelly horse blanket. But from under one of the folds, a quarter-inch of black nose and whiskers stuck out.
“C’mon, Bart,” Jack muttered to one of his few remaining friends.
“C’mon, Bart, get your ass in gear,” he growled at the aging dachshund.
“I don’t have all day.” He stopped and changed his tune again. “Hey, c’mon, It’s friggin’ cold out here.”
The black nose receded slowly beneath the blanket. Jack walked around to the passenger’s side and threw open the door. He gathered him up, blanket and all, and threw him up on his shoulder. As he traipsed through the crusting ice to the gallery, his head began throbbing again. There hadn’t been enough time since Beckie had left for his liver and the blood vessels inside his brain to get accustomed to the regular overdosing of alcohol. He stooped to pick up the newspaper and felt a wave of nausea. Well, this is just friggin’ great. Why don’t you just shoot me, Lord. …and while you’re at it, shoot Beckie, too. She’s probably at some goddamn book signing in Paris or something.
Sal, the proprietor of the shoebox-sized pizza shop next door, poked his head out to see what was going on. He looked like someone had hit him with a giant powder puff and he was gesturing something. “Hey! Jack, my fren!” he yelled too loud. In the blur of sleet and all the flour in his hair, he looked like a happy specter in a Fellini movie. Jack glared and moved his finger slowly to lips.
“Oh!” Sal called back gleefully, his voice not changing so much as a decibel. “Sorry! You drink too much…right?” Then he winked and did his own pantomime to show that he understood. He put his thumb in his mouth and tipped his head back grandly. “When ya get some time, come over. I got somethin’ I want you and Bart to try.”
Inside the gallery, the display windows were frosted over like something out of Dickens. Jack reached over and scratched at the glass just to confirm…they were frosted all right, only on the inside. Jack put the wad of horse blanket and Bart next to the welding table and sighed. He could see his breath. He went into the bathroom to get some water for coffee. The toilet was iced-over. “Well, I wonder how that’s gonna play out,” he groaned to his own image in the mirror. He hadn’t actually looked at himself in a long time. Why bother? But this morning he accidentally caught his own eyes. “Man you really do look like homemade shit,” he said. If Beckie saw me now… Since she’d defected…discovered her own life of fame and glory doing book signings, he had imagined her life better and better and better. Now she was probably having dinners at the White House and being pursued by greasy French and Italian guys with accents and cool cars and smooth lines.
He kicked the ice out of the toilet and peed out the Johnny Walker from the night before. He hit the toilet lever as usual. It went down but nothing happened. He looked straight up at the ceiling. “Is this some kind of joke?”
After an hour or so he was able to remove his coat and Bart decided it was time to pee. He ran over to the door and stared at it as if he could make it open by sheer will power. Then he began, for want of a better word, mooing.
“Okay, okay,” Jack said. “Keep your shirt on.” He took a break from snipping out copper elm leaves for an order and went up to the front to let Bart out and then watched him through the frosted glass. It was getting even more miserable outside. His old vintage BMW was a blurry-looking icicle now. Getting back home would be a bugger.
He let his guard down for half of one second and his mind flashed a little scene before his eyes. It was summer. Beckie had just pulled into the lot and tooted. He stared out the window at her. She was in really short cut-offs and that little blue tube top, and she’d just hopped out of the car. She glanced left, glanced right and yanked her top down for him. Oh God….
Bart ran directly to the lamppost, lifted his leg for five seconds, then ran back. He barked a perfect…Ralf! before he could even get to the door. Jack opened it a crack and Bart galloped past him like a short-legged racehorse back to his bed.
Back at his work table, he dragged out the morning edition of the Carver’s Mill Patriot. “Let’s see what we got here,” he said to Bart. Wanted, mature salesperson for part-time sales position. Inquire in person at the Black Dog Gallery. “Well, what it loses in inspiration it makes up for in brevity…I think.”
Not unlike the ghost of Christmas past, the first applicant for the job hobbled into the shop at one o’clock, jangling the hammered copper door chimes unmercifully. Jack fought the urge to look up. He’d been working on a small free-standing bronze tree for the better part of an hour, and at that moment, he was making brass splatter leaves out of molten brazing rod. It was tricky when he’d first started out. You had to have perfect timing and…quick reflexes.
Jack finally looked up at an old woman who was standing just inside the door. A molten glob of bronze hit the table and skittered like hot grease…only a whole lot worse. It rolled off the table and felt into his boot. For a second he smelled something funny and then…“SONOFABITCH!”
He tore off his boot and hobbled over to the chair. The old woman peered at him with rapidly increasing distrust and clutched at the doorknob. The chimes tinkled softly, tentatively. Jack yanked his sock off and threw the still steaming blob into the trash. “…Damn!” he said softly as he began massaging his foot and looking around for a Band-Aid. Then he looked up at the woman. “Hey, uhmmm… Sorry ‘bout that!” he called to her. “I didn’t mean you. You know, about the…” Then he looked at her closer. She looked to be about seventy-five or eighty…possibly a hundred, liver spotted and frail, with a distinct blue-grey haze over her eyes and a funny woolen ski hat with a fuzzy pom-pom. He chuckled nervously. “I guess, that’d be pretty obvious, wouldn’t it?” he said. The humor was lost on the old woman.
“Is this the place in the ad?” the woman pronounced with more intensity than he was expecting. A slight New England accent.
“What? Oh, yeah…” If he’d had just a second more, he could have come up with something oblique to say that would have let them both graciously off the hook. As it was, her simple interrogative was hard to dodge. “Uh, yeah, I guess it is…sorta,” he answered, realizing his mistake instantly.
“Good.” The old woman took something from under her arm and began unwrapping it as she trundled closer to the counter.
“Uhhhh, whatcha got there, young lady?” he asked, hoping to head her off before she got much farther along.
She ignored the question and put the half unwrapped parcel on the counter with some difficulty. “You could give me a hand, young man,” she said sternly, trying to pull the last corner of stiff brown paper away from the slender stack of paintings.
“Oh…Yes. Of course. Pardon me,” he said, succumbing to a distant reverence for truly old women. He helped her lift the paintings off the paper and put them back down. He looked down at them and cleared his throat. Then he coughed a little to buy some time. Jack stared at the top painting, not comprehending it at first. Then he whistled low under his breath.
“Well? What do you think?” she snapped, her pale grey eyes looking more focused now, her wispy overgrown eyebrows arched like antique moths up into the wrinkles on her forehead.
He lifted the top one off to see what was below. The next painting was a kissing cousin to the first still life of fruits and vegetables. It was only when you looked closer that you saw the tiny, beady-black eyes staring back at you. Tiny, nasty eyes and nasty little mouths with sharp pointed teeth that were perfectly white. They seemed to be…eating each other… or perhaps...killing each other, it was difficult to say.
“…Interesting,” Jack said. He scratched his head and then tugged unconsciously on a corner of his moustache.
“That’s what everyone says,” the old woman said flatly.
He thumbed slowly through the rest of the paintings. They were all in various stages of cannibalism, war, throes of death and mutilation. The last painting, unlike the others, had tiny genitalia on the avocados and apples and sharp tiny teeth. It was gruesome.
“I haven’t decided about the genitals,” stated the old woman.
He could feel her staring at him. “Yeah…I think I know what you mean,” he said.
“What do you think? As an artist…do you like them?”
“Well…you’re kind of putting me on the spot. They’re different. I’ll say that for you. Kinda…ballsy for someone your age.”
“Ballsy,” repeated the old woman as if it were a word she didn’t quite understand. “What do you suppose they’re worth?”
Jack scratched his chin and sighed. “Geez…Ya know, it’s hard to say. Have ya sold a lot of em? I mean… How many have you sold?”
“Zero,” the old woman replied without hesitation. “But I don’t consider that a reliable gauge. Van Gough only sold one painting in his entire life, and now one of his paintings just went for twelve million at Sotheby’s.”
“Good point,” Jack agreed. He was starting to relax slightly in the knowledge that this old woman wasn’t looking for a job so much as she was looking for a gallery to take her paintings. This was easier to handle.
“I can give you three of them to sell,” the woman said sternly. “But… and don’t take offense, young man, but I’m not entirely sure that this is the best place for them… You know, one shouldn’t put all one’s eggs in one basket.”
“No offense taken,” Jack said, “in fact I think you make a good point.” His mind was going a mile a minute now. If he didn’t do something instantly, he was going to have three paintings of fruits eating fruits to sell… along with his five hundred and fifty metal sculptures. “Uh…Hmmm.”
“I suggest we start out with a reasonable price…say a hundred dollars a pop. Sort of test the waters so to speak.”
“So to speak,” Jack repeated vacantly. “Well, to tell you the truth…” Then he looked at her. Her eyes were bleary and in a way that wasn’t all that different from his own. Now they were focused like little laser rifles upon his own eyes. “To tell you the truth, a hundred bucks a pop sounds just about right,” he heard himself say.
“Now, the question is, which three do you want?”
Jack flipped through the five paintings. “It’s really kinda hard to pick,” he said honestly. “Let’s see… How bout…first one, the second one… and I like that last one with the tits and weenies. It’s kinda…”
“You don’t have to explain,” said the old woman. “I’ve been married three times and I have nine grandchildren. I know all about men.”
“I bet you do,” Jack smiled.
“Now, then…about the job.”
Jack cleared his throat and stared at her. She’d been snookering him after all.
“What? It’s already filled?”
“Nope, it actually isn’t.” He took in a deep breath and looked at her again. “I’m trying to think of a nice way to say this…”
“I’m too damned old,” the woman said.
“Couldn’t have said it better myself.”
The old woman stared at him with her piercing eyes. But then she saw she wasn’t going to win this one. “Well, I suppose I should be grateful that you’ve taken my paintings. You’re the first you know. I’ve been all over BucksCounty.”
“Well…there’s just no accounting for taste, is there?” Jack grinned.
The next interviewee from the ad didn’t go quite as well. A young woman of about twenty came in, dragging her feet as if there were some dog pooh on the soles of her shoes that she was trying to get rid of. At the counter he saw her up close. The right side of her head was shaved down to a grey-skinned crew cut. The left side was harder to describe, sort of poodle-like tufts in shades of plum and orange. There was a small, ornate, silver ring piercing her left nostril and her fingernails were amazingly long and painted a grapey color that irridesced to green when she moved.
“Hi,” he said. He gazed at her hair. “Man, that’s really…”
He gazed at the shaved side of her head. There was a little blue tattoo of a man holding his dick. “S’cuse me for asking but…is he takin’ a whizz or is he beating off?”
“This isn’t gonna work, is it?” the girl said.
“I kinda have my doubts, Miss.”
The third interviewee was a jowly heavyset woman dressed in full battle array for a BucksCounty interview: navy pleated skirt, navy blazer, white blouse, attaché, gold watch, and matching gold wire-rimmed glasses which dangled from a long gold chain around her neck. All she needed was a Phi Beta Kappa key that shot poisoned darts.
Her voice was strong, stronger than his own, and she did most of the interviewing while the hairs bristled up and down the back of his neck and he found himself wondering who would win if they Indian wrestled.
Her credentials were impeccable. She had managed The Gap in Doylestown for two years, and been second key at Strawbridge’s before that…and by her own admission had personally insured that Senator Arlen Specter got elected. A year ago she had gotten a divorce, (her lip curled up over her teeth when she mentioned her ex) and now she wanted a change. He could tell by the way she kept wrinkling her nose when she looked around that it wasn’t meant to be. Then for reasons completely unknown, Bart growled under the covers. It might have been the tone of her voice. It sounded somehow…threatening.
“What is it?” she asked.
“It’s a dog,” Jack answered.
“I’m allergic to dogs,” she countered.
“Well…there ya go,” he said with a grin. “Some things just aren’t meant to be.” They parted company with no blood drawn on either side.
By five o’clock the last vestiges of his hangover had departed, but he was left with the feeling that all his blood had been quietly drained out of him. The bronze tree was still only half foliated with coin-like brass splatters. Outside, the sleet was mixing, turning to snow and it was getting dark. He had just decided to pack it in early, maybe go back over to the Gent and… Well, it wasn’t his style to do too much apologizing, but…he’d think of something. Then a car pulled up in front of the shop. He hoped that it just might be a customer for a change and not another weird person looking to work.
He turned the stereo down and listened. Whoever it was, they didn’t intend to stay very long. The car lights stayed on, making a fairyland of the falling snowflakes and he could hear the muffled sound of an engine idling. In the darkness of the day, and the snow, and the sleet, it already looked like about eight o’clock at night.
The front door swung open and a slender young woman in a grey woolen poncho stepped inside and shook the snow off. She stopped and looked at him warily. “I am sorry. Are you still open?” she called softly in a voice that was thinly accented. He couldn’t tell from where exactly, though from fifty feet she looked slightly oriental.
He already had his wallet and keys in hand. He held the keys tightly so that they wouldn’t jingle and give him away. “To tell you the truth, I was planning on skipping out a little early. But…”
“That’s all right. I can come back,” said the young woman. She turned to leave but there was something about her that he couldn’t quite place.
“No… Hold on a sec.,” he called across the gallery.
She stopped and turned back to look at him and for a moment they just looked at each other.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “it’s just that you remind me of someone. Please excuse my manners. Did you come about the ad? Or were you looking for a sculpture?”
The young woman hesitated…thinking. She appeared to be confused. “I’m sorry,” she said in a soft lyrical voice, “but…I don’t know anything about an ad. You see…my father asked me to come here to see if you can make something very special for him out of copper.”
“…Oh,” Jack replied, not successfully hiding his disappointment. There had been a girl a long time ago, a very strange girl and very peculiar circumstances. He had met her in Korea, when he had first gone into the Air Force. “So…how can I help? What’s your dad want?”
She stared at him oddly. She looked as if she might bolt any moment back out into the sleet and snow. “My father has drawn up sketches and diagrams of what he wants. I have them in the car.”
“By all means. Oh, do you need some help?”
“No, thank you,” she said with a trace of a smile. “The diagrams are not that heavy.”