by Greg Rose
“You know Frank was considered a poet among painters,” said the woman. Statement, not question. She pointed at the sculpture with her walking stick like a professor at a blackboard.
“I did know that,” I replied. Like her, I had read the text stuck on the wall in the previous room. I didn’t come to galleries to receive lessons from old ladies, but my mild surprise at the unprompted remark was sufficient to lure me into examining its maker. Her unmasked face was an omelette, pocked, lopsided and mustardy. Black designer glasses perched precariously on her upturned nose like a dare.
“I knew him,” she added, offhand. The artwork was a raised cast of a writer’s foot, its outline imprinted in sand in a drawer below. Underneath, two further trays slid open with diminishing percentages of toes.
“No. Well, yes – everybody knew Frank. But I knew Jasper. I mean I know him – he isn’t dead yet. Did you realise that?” Funny phrasing, I thought, undead rather than still alive.
“91,” I said, remembering the blurb before the other blurb, which included the artist’s age. “What was he like?” It was the first time I could recall an elderly person I wasn’t related to starting a conversation with me; my curiosity overwhelmed a natural urge to veer away as hastily as possible. Plus, I didn’t believe her.
“What was Johns like?”
“Oh, he was a darling,” she said, turning her gaze to traverse my figure, toes up. “Crisp white shirts. Knew where the iron was.” I pulled at my crumpled sleeves as I calculated the woman’s age. Wide-legged blue trousers, big purple collar, flowery wrap, wiry neck. She looked strong considering she claimed to know someone who died five days before England won the 1966 World Cup. My top was supposed to look creased, by the way, but I decided to let the sartorial dig lie.
“I like the one about the Coke,” I said, marvelling internally at how a decade old literature class had somehow stuck. The stick, which really was a stick, plausibly part of a tree in the recent past, fell to her side. I imagined her embarking upon a crepuscular raid, smuggling it from the park under cover of darkness. But she probably typed Natural Wood Walking Stick into Amazon in size 72 font, all caps. Then, three to five days later, she buzzed a gloved figure with a wonky grin pasted on his hoodie into her Upper East Side apartment, bemoaning the excess packaging before letting her latest cat play with it.
“Do you recycle?” I asked blandly, thinking out loud. Where the hell was Bella?
“Jasper always has,” she nodded. “A song doesn’t stop working just because you’ve heard it before.”
“Unlike a joke.”
“I wouldn’t know about that,” she said. We returned to the sculpture. Memory Piece, said the label. The gallery was getting busier. A distinct aroma of disinfectant was growing but I couldn’t tell if it was from the woman or the aggressively increased COVID-related air conditioning. A woman carrying a transparent bag containing On Certainty by Ludwig Wittgenstein and nothing else hesitated by the woman’s left shoulder. She tried taking a selfie with the sculpture, but the woman’s shadow was in the way, ruining the result. I wanted the photographer to ask her to move, to expand our two-hander, but she got distracted by a notification and wandered off.
“How do you know Johns, then?” I asked. I could already see myself regaling the boys at the bar later on, playing up the delusion, possibly doing a voice.
“Let’s just say we ran in the same circles,” she said, with the flicker of a smirk.
“Did you model for him? I think I recognised you in the targets over there.”
“I can see you think I’m making it up,” she said, raising her raspy voice on the final words. “And that’s fine. I won’t bother you anymore, young man. I’m just here to see my old friends.” A woman in athleisure wear, her top stating Nama-stay in bed, walked slowly past. She didn’t glance at the sculpture but did linger on me and the old woman, weighing up what was going on, I’m sure. A granny and grandson day out gone wrong, or a disagreement between carer and patient. I wasn’t keen on either role, thank you very much.
“Not at all,” I said. “Thanks for the, how shall I put it, different perspective.” She didn’t like that. The upturned nostrils sprouted.
“Come on then,” she said, leaning askew with all her weight on the stick and motioning at the sculpture. “What do you reckon, slick stuff? Dazzle me with your opinions.” I snorted at the new nickname I would be sure to ask Bella to call me if she ever made it out of the subway. She was always inviting me to galleries on the weekend, but normally I was the late one. The strange part was she sincerely enjoyed looking at modern art, even the crap that looked like toddlers made it on an off day. I wasn’t above dropping into conversation that I’d been at MoMA, or was going to the Guggenheim, but I didn’t actually care about the stuff. At least this place was in Meatpacking; hopefully Bella would buy expensive apology dinner. The woman was still looking at me, waiting for some insight, so I obliged.
“Oh god,” I said, remembering my English teacher Mrs Hooper. Blonde hair, squeaky. “It’s so wonderful to get out of bed and drink too much coffee and…”
“Just fuck off,” said the woman, flatly.
“Excuse me?” I took a step away from her. The curse seemed to hang in the air.
“I asked what you thought about it. The artwork. Anything to add or are you just going to be smart?”
“Just smart, I guess.” Silence. If that was my cue, I’d take it. The woman shuffled off to an empty bench, planted herself in front of a flag and sat down with a heavy sigh. I walked in the direction of a water fountain, relieved they were allowed on again. It was refreshing to take my mask off for a moment and feel the water hit the back of my throat. The hag had sworn at me. For reciting verse! The nerve.
I checked my phone. Bella had arrived a few minutes ago. She was looking for me, but I was in no rush to find her now. I needed a minute to compose myself and resolved to spend it staring at maps of America. A skinny girl in a leopard print Hakuna Matata! shirt with matching mask, shoes, shoelaces, backpack and fanny pack crossed the vast savannah of the exhibition. She gave me an accusatory once-over and continued her prowl. A burly man in a plaid shirt spent a solid 10 seconds in front of a numbers painting and told his companion: “Dude, this stuff must be worth a shitload.”
In the next room, a small, pasty guy in a Yankees cap was typing rapidly into his phone while absent-mindedly looking at a wall of seemingly crosshatched lines that never quite crossed. I read over his shoulder.
Buy Rolex, submariner, no date, 91 approx
Book eye test
Hinge replies x 4
Get Blackface outfit
I wasn’t sure where to start. He was wearing a fancy watch, so that part was realistic. Did that mean he was genuinely planning to dress up like Justin Trudeau in 2001? He’d capitalised the B in Blackface, so conceivably he was au fait with evolving culturally sensitive typography. I wondered what he was selling, who was buying, and whether he could see me spying given the eye test had not been booked yet. It occurred to me that if I was more physically imposing, and simply a better person, I would commandeer his phone and warn the poor souls waiting for his dating app responses. He noticed me hovering and his sly look convinced me to dive in.
“Which Mexican are you going to?” I asked, doing an upwards nod of bro-like greeting I’d never quite mastered.
“The tacos.” I gestured at his iPhone.
“Oh, right, yeah. I dunno. Plans for later.”
“Hang on, why are you peeking at my phone, bro?”
“Couldn’t help it,” I said. “Inquisitive. Like Jasper, here.”
His face was growing redder. “It was just a joke, an in-joke, for my friend.”
“In your Notes app with the rest of your to-do list? Sure.”
“Oh, that’s okay then. I’ve got to ask: what does an outfit even consist of?”
“Fuck off, bro.”
Twice! In quick succession. I was on a roll. Perhaps this was why Bella loved coming to galleries so much – the abuse. Maybe all of that guff about being fascinated by symbolism had actually been a healthy dose of sadomasochism. Where was she, anyway?
I soldiered on, passing through a room I could tell the curators would be particularly pleased with, all mirrors, light and repetition. In Memory Of My Feelings. A huge painted rectangle, the proportion and scale of the more famous ones with the stars and stripes round the corner, but dark, dank, and ghostly grey.
Bella was wearing a devastating black dress that reminded me of the outfit she had been wearing the night we met, about six months ago in a Brooklyn super-club she had never been to before and I pretended I hadn’t. She was waving her hands animatedly, sweeping movements to mimic the loose brushstrokes. I noticed there was an actual fork and an actual spoon hanging off the ugly picture before I realised who she was talking to.
“There you are!” she said, turning around as I approached. Her delicate arms were quickly wrapped around my neck. I lowered my hands down her waist as the old woman looked on.
“Oh, sweetie. You’re with him?” Bella’s slight rise of her perfectly trimmed eyebrows gave the woman her answer, and I responded with a beaming toothy smile just for her.
“You can’t plan on the heart,” she said.
“Babe, I’ve been speaking to this delightful lady, here. Oh – I’m sorry – I didn’t ask your name? I’m Bella. She’s so knowledgeable, and she actually knows the artist. This one is named after a poet, and she,”
“She knew him too, yeah I heard.”
“Oh,” she said, startled. You’ve met?”
“Briefly,” the woman said, grimacing at me unnecessarily. “Let’s try this again, shall we? What do you think of this one?” I was game.
“Moody,” I said.
“Yes?” said the woman.
“Well, yes,” Bella said. “But…”
I cut across her. “Hunger-inducing.” Sensing Bella’s disapproval, I tried and failed to play nice. “I don’t know. The shape of the piece echoes his longing, I guess. 50 shades of grey. Spoon dangling on a bloody wire. Lost love turning into art or somesuch.” In memory of my feelings.
Withering. That’s the look the woman gave me. It was time to leave the god damned gallery.
“The piece over there,” she said, turning pointedly to Bella and away from me. “He made the cast years before Frank passed away, then turned it into such a sublime tribute. This one is from much earlier.”
She paused and Bella ushered her to go on. “It was such a shame,” she said. “It was just so sad when he died.”
“Oh my gosh, I can’t imagine,” said Bella, her sympathy still starkly visible through her N-95.
“A dune buggy accident,” the woman went on. “On Fire Island beach. Sounds made up, doesn’t it? Something that would happen in a mystery book, not in real life.”
“Just dreadful. And he was so young, wasn’t he?”
“He was,” the woman said. “We all were.”
“I always presumed it was AIDS,” I said.
The stick was the first thing I’d noticed about her. As she raised it up over her head, I was just glad I hadn’t spotted a gun. It crashed down hard on my skull. I didn’t cry out, not immediately. The second blow did it. My hand went to my head, feeling for blood, and I felt the sturdy wood crack into my fingers as the third strike rained down.
Greg Rose is a writer whose work has been published in The Times, The Guardian, National Geographic and NME, with fiction in Spry and Neuro Logical. A former journalist, music writer and footballer, Greg directs content and communications for Virgin. He was born in England and lives in Brooklyn.
Photo: Jeremy Bishop/Unsplash