Greaaaat. Nicely done, Bethany. Now she and the crazy-after-all guy were best friends. Some of that old blind luck had stuck around, however: he knew what she looked like, but he didn’t know Beth’s name. Fat chance finding her without it. She could be very sneaky.
“Dumb. Door. Open.” This floor had the worst stairwell. A thick pelt of goop was soaked into the push-bar, gluing it closed until she paid the greasy price and launched herself at it. Three times out of ten, the door peeled free, but unfailingly smeared its gummy mucus on her arm. Centuries ago, someone spilled a stew or something else sticky. Nobody acted surprised that management still hadn’t scraped it up. “Open!”
It did after a long slurp. Beth’s shoulder throbbed. She irritably massaged it and padded down the gray stairs. Thank you, couch, for being home to collapse on face-first. Her lungs burned, her eyes stung, her heart hammered and her stomach slowly hemmed and hawed about uncurling from a knot. She essentially spent that conversation holding her breath, but hooray, she talked to him. She checked it off the mental list. She would’ve liked to have done the same with her art, but she appreciated progress nonetheless.
All right, a tiny bit less.
Beth rolled over on her blanketed couch. She studied the tubes taped to her ceiling. No movement, no noise… She guessed it meant he was resting.
Strange person. She felt bad for him. He might’ve been crazy, but that didn’t stop his wonky relationship – the one she’d effectively ignored for as long as he’d lived here – from flecking her paintings with multi-coloured, acrylic drops of moral guilt. He needed help, probably. He didn’t want help, but that went hand-in-hand with these situations. Yet here she lay, hungry and alert for the first twitch of more, selfishly praying they picked up the pace if she planned on delivering nine finished canvasses.
It hurt. Having his bruises and stammered panic to put to the fights she heard upstairs made Beth feel dirty and exploitative. She never expected to be a creep, building her work on the backs of the less fortunate. Technically, she was the less fortunate. Her creditors thought so. Her parents said so. Jessica plainly danced around the subject but gave Beth a delicate smile and paid for lunch. Rage Against the Rooms didn’t finance gold cars or silver toilets. RAR covered bills: her food, utilities, supplies, taxes – real things. It was called ‘life’, but when someone offered their assistance in surviving it, the right answer was a grateful acceptance. Beggars couldn’t afford to slam doors.
Still… she did feel bad. He’d been so jumpy and off-guard. He didn’t know her; she shouldn’t take the rejection this personally when he had no reason to trust that she’d help. After all, why the sudden interest? Couldn’t she have called the cops months ago? Or now? Had he asked her to in his own stupid joke of a way?
Her phone rang. Perfect timing! Leave it to technology to take her mind off social responsibility.
“Beth? It’s Terry. Do you have a minute?”
Beth sat up fast enough to pull something in her lower back.
“Terry! I – sure! Absolutely,” she sang. “Anything for my favourite curator!” But, she reminded herself, he shouldn’t want anything except her art and they’d already set an implicit deadline. Two days left. “Ah… everything okay?”
“There’s been a bit of an awkward turn, actually.” If memory served, that was British for ‘brace yourself, Beth’. “The exhibition’s fine – no trouble with the venue and the plans are all on schedule.” That translated to ‘I’m about to be your second-favourite curator’. “The artists, meanwhile…” And that was ‘Somebody’s ruining everything, especially RAR’.
Beth swallowed the bile rising against her tongue. It slowed her down in asking him too readily, “Can I help?”
“I’m not sure. I hate to cause an inconvenience and I wouldn’t dream of putting you out, but it’s rather pressing.” So began the long-form British for ‘I know damn well how you’re pitching in and your exhibit’s cut unless you do’. “I have to accommodate everyone to the best of what’s available and very little is.”
“Terry,” she said, “spill it.”
“It’s Edison.” The old man with the moustache made of money. “My great supporter, and the wallet behind the gallery’s bank account.” Terry often also mused ‘a self-stylized eccentric’ when he felt too proper to call the guy ‘a twat’. “He’s done it. He’s bloody gone and done it – that… twat brought in his submission.” Terry did not, apparently, feel too proper right now. “It’s big. Massive! I can’t fit it where I expressly said it had to fit. And I can’t chop the vile thing from the show! Edison will take offence.”
“Hobbyists,” she sympathized. “They’re worse when they’re snotty and rich.”
“He’s imposing. Even a saint can be a bastard when they’ve got their hands on your crap.” She heard him rub his forehead and groan a mild note of despair. “It’s like you and that neighbour of yours, isn’t it? Beautiful leaves may flow downstream, but so will a torrent of piss.”
Sure! Something like that.
“What are you going to do?”
“What I am forced to do is clear the area for this alleged model of sexual spirituality,” he explained. “Pop Passion’s been axed. Edison already bought the space from Devan.”
Beth choked when Terry gave her the price tag. Devan’s glittery scribbles scored that much? Real estate was a serious market in this industry…
“He wants to buy my spot next,” she realized. “My centre stage.” After she’d starved for it!
“No, no. I wouldn’t put the eyesore anywhere near the front. It has its place of glory in the west room. That’s as far as it’ll go.” Oh. Good. Although if Edison paid so much to steal Devan’s cramped corner… “It’s Elated Islands.” Oh God. “Jessica has to go somewhere! She’s said to ring you in case you’re willing to –” Don’t say it, you limey jerk. “– share.”
“Ooh. Ah… I dunno.” Beth tsk-tsked. “I’d love to – you know, for Jessica – but I’ve got nine canvasses. They’re a tight fit.” They would be, shortly after she got past the little snag of only having almost seven. “You understand, right?”
“Beth, she leapt to help you last summer when Edison trotted up then,” he wheedled. “You said you would pay her back. I heard you. And it would really save my ass, which I might have mentioned is on the line with playing host to a crippled human-half bug statue.” The rest sounded like Terry ranting to himself: “What is he thinking? Why use paper-mâché? The left tit sags!”
“I don’t know…”
“Bethany,” he wailed, “I’m begging you! Elated Islands is on the bloody pamphlet. I can’t reprint them on this short of notice. You’ll still have the majority wall!”
“Nine paintings’ worth?”
“Six. Six if the sixth is a small one. Five.”
“Why,” she demanded, “can’t Edison buy her out?”
“Obviously I tried arranging that.” British for ‘I totally didn’t even think of it’. “We both know Jess isn’t in this for the money.”
“I am,” Beth seethed.
“Yes,” Terry said, “and it’s why she’s suggested compensation for the trouble. Supposedly, I’m off to charm the old fart into buying whichever pieces this shuffle would displace. That’s the shortest end of the stick in this. You’re welcome, not that I’ve been thanked.” Speaking over her huffs, he tacked on, “It’s a fair deal from your side. I’ll add it to your placard: ‘Has already sold to inspired collectors’.”
It must have been the accent, since she actually considered this.
“From Edison’s hammy fists?” He gave a sour snort. “I didn’t lead with cash for a reason. He’s stingy. Lucky you, because his definition of a pittance is still well above ours. Interested?”
She didn’t want to be. Did he ask anyone else? Terry had thirty artists coming, but naturally Beth was the first to get called. For Jessica. Of freaking course.
What was that?
“I don’t mean to hurry you,” her phone crackled, “and while I’d love to listen to silence all evening –”
“Terry, no – shh.” Not fighting. Something new. It sounded like… “I have to put you on speaker.” … inspiration. “One second. I need my hands.”
Beth kicked the corner of a half-completed canvas, slamming it away to slap a fresh stretch of fabric into the speckled crime scene’s outline. There it was again, the low rrrrrrrrr! The tubes shuddered in concert from the ceiling. Paint! She had to refill the paint. Where was her chair? Which colours?
Cocoa! A delicately creamy frappe to pair with it. A full-flavoured tate olive because this didn’t call for the harsh shades of anger like before. That noise had to be furniture deliberately organizing. Ooh – ‘organize’! Were they cleaning? She never heard them clean. Tethered Scars? She liked it. Where was her chair?!
“I’m not getting in the way, am I? Not bothering you with this trying-to-save-your-exhibit tosh?”
“You want me to sell out,” she yelled back. Her phone sat lonely on the couch. “Tell Jess if she’s butting into my space, I decide what she shows. I don’t need her frilly oceans clogging up my desperate wars. I slaved for my series.”
“She works hard, too.”
“She sells hard,” Beth vented. “She doesn’t create, she doesn’t imagine, and she doesn’t convey. Her paintings might as well be windows for all the point they have in staring at them.”
“I like windows! Lots of people do. Ever seen a house go up without them? It’s weird. You get chills.”
“Terry,” she warned.
“I’ll tell her,” he finally relented. “She’ll be over the moon you said yes to some degree.”
“How many does she have room on the wall for?”
“Nine minus five.”
“Three,” Beth decided, setting the pump. It whirred to life and heartily burped its first tan droplets. Rrrrrrrrrr. A drop landed left of the middle. “Stormy, lighthouse, and the gray fog. Nothing other than them. Terry, be implicit.”
“Explicit, I think.”
“Well, don’t swear at her,” Beth said. “Not if you don’t have to.”
“You’re such an artist, love.” That was British for something she divinely chose not to understand. “Then it’s settled. Three of her paintings, five of yours. It’s manageable. You’d like that cheque, would you? From Edison? I’ll have to ring him, too. Bring the rest of your work to the gallery tomorrow – I need this sorted soon.”
She choked again.
“Yes, tomorrow morning. We’d all like to sleep in, but chop, chop.”
Her heart threw a fit.
“Um… yeah, but… why tomorrow?”
“Because he won’t buy a damn thing unless it’s in front of him,” Terry said. “I’d do it tonight, but he doesn’t know yet that he wants to buy whatever you’re around to pawn off. He’s gone until the exhibition after midday, too.”
“Okay! Okay. I’ll come in.” Tomorrow. With four pieces ready for sale. “He’s not the sort of guy who displays everything for millionaire parties, is he?”
Please give her the good news that the final paintings she now had to crappily rush would be buried in the garden.
“You might explain the paint fades if it’s not left in shade or a dark hall,” Terry wisely advised. “He must be near-blind anyway. Neon orange, Beth! And spots! See it before you go.”
“How can I turn that down?” She returned to her seat and scooped the phone to her ear. “Thanks for the warning. Thanks for the cheque too, Ter.”
“Thank him. I wouldn’t pay a dime for your drippy, manic messes. You know me.” Beth always could count on him for that. She smiled anyway, especially as Terry went on. “I’m sorry for this. Plans were unfolding too well, I suppose. Be here early and I’ll buy breakfast. We’ll chortle over the odds of a critic knocking Ashley Brendan’s sculpture to rubble again.”
“You’re on,” she told him. Free breakfast! They swapped their goodbyes and hung up for the night. Back alone, Beth’s lip found itself between her teeth. She nibbled. “Damn.”
Four by tomorrow, and the rumbling had stopped. Moving her phone from couch to chair, she hiked her overalls to her knees, then gingerly sat and shook the tubes herself. These were finishing one way or the other, but other took a gamble she didn’t have a night to bet. She’d better get started.