The neon artist, shit, I heard he’d been in a psychedelic band in the late ’60s when nothing was an easier cliché than being yet another itchy hippie pretending to have access to the infinite through rudimentary blues scales on an out of tune guitar in San Francisco. Who in San Francisco in the late ’60s wasn’t in a psychedelic band or supporting someone who was or getting Syphilis from the former or the latter? Now here he was in ’83 having an affair with one of his students and turning a sly old gradual eye toward his illicit mistress’s even-better-looking buddy, who was another one of his students and happened also to be my girlfriend, my savior, Wanda, a gap-toothed beauty from the sticks. The personification of innocence jumping clogs-first into the brackish, deepish, cig-butted pool of mid-sized-city quote sophistication unquote.
The biggest assholes I ever liaised with in Dutchess County or Oyster Bay Cove were transplants from Kansas and the nicest assholes I ever dealt with were Manhattanites who’d been transplanted to the Twin Cities but the sweetest problems I ever had were with the Wisconsin art student who had run away to Minneapolis, seeking All That Shiny Shit Out There, as though Minneapolis was Manhattan. It was not. If she fucked herself up in Minneapolis there was no glory in it and if she didn’t fuck herself up, anyway, the best she could hope for was eventually giving up on the notion that she was any better than her origins and therefore moping back to the dull destiny of a hick husband and hick babies and a sticky web of hicker Wisconsin in-laws…. but later, hopefully, rather than sooner, so no one in either city noticed. Five years after you leave school, nobody remembers you and even less will they remember, or tauntingly hold you accountable for, your transparent aspirations to make them eat the gilded dust of your ascent into the wannabe pantheon or heaven.
There is a kind of art you are provincially unaware of and nothing comes close but I used to unzip and page through Wanda’s big leather portfolio of watercolors and charcoal drawings she’d done in high school and I was always impressed. Sometimes I caressed the page. Her lines had weight and grace and the shading she used to give heft to negative space was exquisite. But what she was working on, for half her total grade, that semester, was an installation piece called VGNA BX. Whatever its final form was intended to be, the process involved disassembling two-dozen brand new Barbie Dolls, the buying of which wasn’t cheap and so I cooked for Wanda every evening. The Barbies and the power drills, solenoids, gears, AC-to-DC converter, Xmas lights and turntable that were the other components of the silly installation. A worthless silliness so good and healing. I could have told her.
Often, Gilda came over to dinner when I cooked for Wanda and I did not mind one bit. Gilda and Wanda were best friends and I was far beyond indulging in lover-versus-best-friend jealousy and soap operas or provincial kidstuff like that. The only thing I didn’t like was when Gilda used half the dinner to talk about Kip. Kip Canelli the neon quote artist unquote. Especially when Gilda tried to elicit sympathy for the shithead.
It wasn’t the so-called questionable morality of the student/professor/sleeping thing that bothered me (we all have closeted skeletons), it’s the phony innocence of the so-called neon art I couldn’t abide. Whereas Mr. Goold’s Performative Art was real art, art is nil innocence, The Futurists said war is real art and real art is war, as unlike the neon phony’s glowing baby-guts as could be because Mr. Goold’s performances were so importantly harmful, because these performances left a lasting dent, a deep wound that meaning flowed into and pooled.
“Kip’s toxic shock is acting up again,” Gilda sniffed, one evening, face low over chicken and rice (my secret weapon was adding peanuts along with the green pepper: mwa) and I couldn’t help myself. I popped off.
Wanda mouthed dear please and reached across the table and put her hand to Gilda’s cheek and over one wet blue eye. I used this as a natural break in the flow of the conversation to offer to fetch a bottle from that place on the other side of the sound barrier.
People I kind of knew would ask me about my new young girlfriend and I would tell them she’s supersonic and they’d say oh right like here we have another spent fuck with a scarred chin spilling infatuation’s touching bag of glass hyperboles. But I would then explain that Wanda lived in the canary-yellow so-called Cupola House on the other side of the sound barriers, which were literal walls about twenty or thirty feet high on either side of 35W. The Cupola House was right there at the base of the stairs of the footbridge over 35W, from one side of the sound barriers to the other. Wanda’s unguarded declarations about a benevolent world I know cannot exist was my only hope after my job facilitating Mr. Goold’s scream art.
On the other side of the sound barrier was the Art Museum and a hop and a faux naive skip further was the Art College and the further you went in that direction, the nicer things suddenly got until you finally hit a lake. But I only intended to walk as far as the wine aisle in the corner shop a bit further up 24th Street, which was still in the part a good distance before the nice stuff started.
The ironic life-cycle of a lot of neighborhoods is if they start off too posh they will end up slummy as recessions and reversals of fortune price the original inhabitants out of the area so unscrupulous landlords turn half the mansions into twenty-unit apartment buildings and the other mansions into 24-hour check-cashing, chicken shack and Laundromat blocks after leveling the mansions, buildings that become like machines you feed poverty into to cook it solid. So the neighborhood surrounding the palace-like grounds of the Art Museum was rather rough by the time Wanda moved into the Cupola House, meaning she had to cross a lot of slum, after crossing the sound barriers, to attend classes, every day, or to catch a bus to the lake, the fascinating detail being that lots of the slum’s inhabitants were Dakota Sioux and Ojibwe Indians. “Slum” sounds like slang for thick liquids of an industrial by-product. The slum had grown to displace the deep forest, pure sky and sweet streams and swallow up the area’s original inhabitants, who had done nothing but remain in place as rotten centuries rose and overgrew them.
The sun has set and I’m hurrying to the corner shop for the after-dinner bottle so I can get back to the Cupola House before anything happens. And by “anything” I don’t mean anything lurid or nasty, I mean the innocent bonehead bullshit that two naive art students can get up to when not under the subtle guidance of a level-headed presence, like go up on the roof with four birthday candles, some twine, two straws and a sandwich baggie to make a miniature hot air balloon in order to feel winsome and clever and accidentally fall off the steeply-canting roof, the perfect way to ruin an evening.
Because it’s the evening and I’m wearing a suit and loafers (I used to like to wear suits and loafers) and hurrying across a slum, straight up 24th street to Nicollet Avenue, I’m calling attention to myself. I have two thousand dollars in crisp hundreds in my front right trouser pocket and five hundred dollars in crisp fifties in my upper inner blazer pocket on the left side and a twenty dollar bill in the slim wallet in the ass pocket on the right side and I detect a distinctly male, and wheezing, presence scurrying up behind me on the left that seems frighteningly familiar. Something about the limping rhythm and the wheeze.
Is it finally payback time?
But let me explain.
I used to have this thing for hairdressers, I started off by selling under-the-table Aveda products to the chicer salons in the Uptown, there were four in a sixteen-square block area, the kind of salons with neon blazing everywhere inside the shop in the middle of the afternoon. Well I knew a guy who knew people who had come by the entire factory-fresh contents of a delivery truck while the driver was receiving fellatio of painstaking languor by a complicit mulatto chippie in a truckstop head; most of the stuff was Aveda products meant for that Austrian Rechelbacher’s Kenwood headquarters. The list price of this stuff was unheard of.
I’d buy cases of it from my source for quarter price and sell it to the salons for half-price, and do that again in a month or so, and do it again and so on until the transactions were so classy and polished that nothing could happen except I changed hypothetical tax brackets. The process simply ground to a halt when we ran out of supplies, tra la. Life remained on its gliding upcurve of blessed youth so by then I was dating the best girl at LAIKA LUX to whom I had sold most of the products, the so-called Aveda junkie of LAIKA LUX. She trained her ‘do into a platinum model of the Lulu bob and I thought I had gone to heaven. Not half as much heaven as I later went to with Wanda but I was a different proposition (concerning a condition) then and heaven is a flexible concept. It grows with our needs.
The stylists in that salon wore fantasy-name nametags and mine was Mystique. I’d go in like I was entering a church, cap in hand, pick up my Mystique for a hot lunch and catch one of her clients giving me the estrogen eye, as if to indicate the client was aware of the fact that all her barn doors were open and the barn was on fire so why not catch a ride on the last horse out, to put it kindly, and that horse could be you? Meaning me.
So I performed. This was way back when people who weren’t even in business adopted the peculiar, when you think about it, practise of ordering for themselves heavy boxes of business cards, a thousand cards, people who sold nothing, people who wore no uniforms, who did nothing, which made it easy to initiate relations on the sly; slipping a fresh card in a designer raincoat’s warm vinyl pocket was half the questionable fun. I was far from atrocious-looking back then (and remain so but if I were atrocious-looking now I’d probably be more interesting) and the ladies were pleasant-enough-to-glimpse-naked at close range with the shades drawn (though I saw one get hit by a devastating beam of direct sunlight when the wind blew a curtain askance once and I gasped a gasp which had to be converted into a fake orgasm to save the day) and making love with them was mostly quickly effortless like trying on a secondhand windbreaker, no crispness or crackle left. The windbreakers were generous in their way. I got a fifteen-speed bike and so forth.
Long after my Mystique and I came to an amicable no-fault understanding regarding the pressures of modern life and the law of averages, I was still doing some of the secondhand windbreakers and paying big rent that way. And long after I had stopped seeing all but one of them, I found myself on call for this particular windbreaker’s husband, who would pay me to allow him to swallow my semen while his wife ogled, day or night, depending on whether he was in town, for a few hours, on business. It seemed so entertainingly immoral at the time. The wife would start me off (or, that is, I would start myself off by imagining Mystique’s Lulu-lips or Lulu herself and I would hand the baton off to the secondhand windbreaker before she handed it off to her husband) and the husband would finish me and I would take a bow, walk away, cash in hand, only slightly disgusted, x- times a week, beaucoup dollars a pop. Franny and Stewy D. from Wayzata were their names and they’re the ones who introduced me to Mr. Goold of Long Island to where I relocated for quite some time, taking the job from an unreliable Abramovic.
Mr. Goold was an artist/collector whose rare collection focused on the ephemeral storage media (in obsolete formats/ the obsoleter the better/ all you had were authentication certificates with barely legible descriptive notes) of recorded Performative Art Events. He had Ampex Quadriplex Chris Burden no-copy tapes of Burden being burned in a connect-the-dots pattern with a soldering iron and several Kinescopes of Yves Klein leaping out of the window of a specially-built plywood facade into a reconstructed pile of old shoes at Buchenwald plus silent nitrates of Oskar Schlemmer licking a starved cat and a sequential Daguerreotype motion-study of Antonin Artaud scrubbing opposite sides of his neck simultaneously with cactuses (the neck becomes black and glossy): you name it. He had a difficult-to-authenticate Edison cylinder recording of a laughing Dali being whipped by a weeping Lorca to tango music on a new Victrola. Mr. Goold owned and disposed of many things because he was genuinely wealthy, the first and only genuinely wealthy person I ever had anything to do with; may I never meet another. He taught me what the letters BMW stand for. Here’s a man who taught Acconci and called Kenny Anger a putz to his face in front of a heated pool bobbing with illuminated frangipani like a dream.
I know it’s corny but Wanda’s love was the one dumb good thing that salved my monstered heart after the eye-opening ordeal of performing under the black guidance Mr. Goold’s unflinching employment. Even if it wasn’t love, even if it was just naive dependence, even if it was really just the money Wanda was drawn to, Wanda’s gap-toothed smile and her silky little blonde rabbit cunt managed to pull me up out of the pit most every day and I wish to whatever, to The Button in the Sky, that I had a Wanda now like I did on the night I went to fetch that three-dollar wine on 24th street and feared my time had finally come. The Wandas of the small good towns.
I stopped walking and held my breath, ready to face retributive judgment, to pay my debt, almost eager, almost relieved while verging on shitting my suit-pants. I stood in an accepting stance but all that happened was a drunk Indian bumped right past me and continued up 24th street, illuminated at the corner, long black hair full of leaves as he waited in parodic profile to cross the street. Well of course the key performances had happened in a mansion in Long Island and other estates along the East Coast and this was the Upper Midwest; this was warm-milk Hicksville where no one ever screamed; what was I thinking? Maybe the next time, then, I thought, heart pounding but I keep waiting and waiting and The Button in the Sky does zilch. It’s been many years and many cities but that was the closest I ever came. No one tracked me down. Nothing in the news. No calls in the dead of night/ no letters.
It’s not so much that the past comes back to haunt you; you never leave.
Even now we’re in it.