The painter forewent breakfast. He walked in the direction of Jacques’ neighborhood with the rental tuxedo slung over his shoulder. Little attention was paid to the whirling leaves overhead, although the commotion loosened a few thoughts.
The abrupt ending of his nightmare stayed with him, and he was convinced that the business at his bedroom door involved a flashlight-bearing intruder, or at least this presence became the police officer. Yet how could it be daylight on one side of the door and nighttime on the other? And then there was the mysterious suitcase, which he had not revisited since waking—and would not address in any hour before sunset.
Knocking on the trailer door, it opened with a low moan. Jacques peeked out like a red-haired troll from under a toadstool. It was odd seeing him out of costume, though a smudge of face paint had survived a tussle with a pillow. He offered the painter no salutation on turning to scratch the crotch of his briefs.
Aloysius placed the borrowed tux over a stack of videos. “Sorry to wake you.”
“I’ve been up for a while,” croaked Jacques.
The visitor made a pass at small talk. “It was quite a party.”
The dwarf’s mood was darker than what could be accounted for in a simple hangover. An official-looking letter bearing a school’s insignia lay on the mattress beside him. He stumbled out of a fog to relay, “I just received a phone call from a friend. They found Moses dead on a construction site late yesterday.”
“Moses Harbinger,” he explained. “An old wino who hung out on campus.”
“The guy with the metal detector?”
Jacques’ expression softened with an anecdote. “I once heard him tell a kid that childhood cancer was caused by space dust, and that dead pets weren’t allowed into Heaven.”
Aloysius nodded. “We had a similar conversation.”
“He started out as a painter here, you know.”
“Yeah.” Jacques picked up the letter and crumbled it. “This town has a way of being unkind to alumni who stick around too long. I guess that’s why people like me want to stay in school for as long as possible, to put off the truth that the world has no use for us.” He tossed the wadded paper under the bed among his encrusted Kleenex. “I don’t know what I’m going to do about funding for school next year,” he complained. “My part-time job won’t cut it.”
(Sympathy was not a natural fit for the visitor.)
The performance artist broadened the topic. “Do you ever think that being an artist will make you lose your marbles?”
Aloysius deflected. “I think it’s an occupational hazard. I’m sure OSHA has guidelines on it.”
Jacques stayed in his dreary vein. “Moses may have been off his rocker, but he was more engaged than most of the people in this town.”
The painter was struck by the paradox. “When you’re an artist, you’re afraid of either having too much passion, or too little.”
Jacques agreed. “It’s the deal you make with the Devil, I guess.”
“Have you ever heard Nietzsche’s dictum?” injected the visitor. “‘One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star’?”
“He went nuts, didn’t he?”
Aloysius explained, “One day he came to the aid of a horse that was being flogged, and collapsed. He was taken back to his rooms where he wrote several letters. In one he claimed to have attended his own funeral—twice.”
“I guess there isn’t much daylight between genius and insanity.”
“It’s the deal with the Devil—as you say.”
Jacques repelled from the bleak prospect. “I once heard John Nash, the guy featured in the film A Beautiful Mind, say the trick to not being insane is to pretend you’re sane, and then it becomes habit.”
The painter thought aloud. “I’m lucky, I guess. My best friend and I feel as long as we can use each other as sounding boards, we’re still grounded to sanity. We’re each other’s canary in the mineshaft.”
“Unless you both go off the deep end together.”
Both men chuckled hesitantly, as if they engaged in gallows’ humor.
Jacques, whistling past the graveyard, squatted on a milk crate stool to expand on his point. “But who’s to say what sane is? The first time I heard someone talking on a cell phone, I assumed it was a nutcase talking to his radio. I thought to myself: How is it that someone who looks well-groomed, has all his teeth, and in no other regard seems wanting, should find himself talking to a radio on the street like a homeless guy? Of course, it took several incidents like that before I acclimated to the new reality.”
Aloysius added, “At a certain level, sanity is a mutual agreement between participants.”
The performance artist looked around at his dire living arrangement and tinkered with his idea. “When your life is whittled down to the dimensions of a dumpster, you either hit a wall or pretend it’s not there. If you want a happy ending, it’s best to start with one. Tear out all the preceding pages in the sad saga and reverse-engineer from back to front. It’s all perspective: You don’t rewrite your history—you reinterpret it. The glass was always half full, even if, up to that point, you chose to concentrate on the empty part. If you change your attitude about the past, then you change your fortune going forward.”
Aloysius intruded on the logic. “Can you do that for yourself?”
Jacques’ brief moment of optimism faded. “If the Devil is open to renegotiation, perhaps.”
The painter sounded a positive note. “But you’re right. It’s never too late for a new beginning.”
The little man was now in full retreat. “A new beginning is too much like a happy ending, I'm afraid. It works better on paper than it does in practice. There’s always a next day. There’s never not a next day.”
Feeling the mood wanting to deepen, Aloysius looked to the door in a fidget.
Jacques could see his eagerness to leave, so rose to be a gracious host. “Thanks for returning the monkey suit.”
“No—thank you. And for the camcorder.”
“Did it work?”
Aloysius sidestepped. “What was originally on that tape you gave me?”
“It was a recording I made of myself last spring on campus. It was a little dark in places. Not good enough for my portfolio. But not bad enough to throw away.”
“Were you dressed as a gargoyle?”
“Ah! So you watched it?”
Aloysius smiled, sidestepping again. “Was there anything else on the tape?”
The performance artist shrugged quizzically. “What do you mean?”
Aloysius was not sure what he meant. Segueing, he asked, “Did you see me with a young woman last night? She wore a wedding dress. I didn’t catch her name.”
“That doesn’t surprise me,” Jacques answered. Affecting a pose, he pondered his grungy window and opined, “Her name is Emma. She works at the coffeehouse. She’s probably there now. She’s one dancing star that’s apt to burn if you get too close.”
The painter was notoriously uncurious where he had a stake in an outcome. He threw the friend another amicable smile before departing.
Jacques, Aloysius believed, feigned normality by hiding in plain view as a lawn ornament, but surely he only drew attention to himself. This likelihood was betrayed by the graduate student’s shrewder observation about some of the townspeople and their persona non grata relationship to the community: If being ignored was what Jacques truly sought, then perhaps being ostracized for being too different would tantamount to the same thing. An unstated dichotomy exists between college and town life, where perpetually young students are set against people like Moses Harbinger, who clearly do not fit in anymore. Such folks stay too long in youth and, in not leaving at an appointed hour, turn into pumpkins.
Chapter Nine/ Back/ Contents Page
Copyright © 2007 Michael Teague. All rights reserved.