The sky is overcast and the air hot and sticky as I make my daily walk to the warehouse where I rent studio space from my friend, Danny. I stay on the shady side of the street, but there’s no escaping the heat. Sweat stings my eyes. Already, my face is burned.
A long time ago, I read in an etiquette book that a gentleman never wears shorts unless he’s exercising or at the beach. My adherence to this rule is absolute, even as the temperature nears a hundred degrees. When I was a boy, my father told me I have unsightly legs. My knees, he said, were knobbier than a dresser full of drawers. His words left an indelible mark, and now, even while bathing, I make sure to keep my knees covered by a washcloth. A rash has formed where my jeans rub my thighs, so every few steps I have to adjust myself. The farther I walk, the harder it becomes. Poor Blanche is weary of my incessant complaints. Two men pass, dressed in floral shorts and tank tops. I can’t help but envy their pragmatic sensibilities.
Back when Danny bought the warehouse from a retired mechanic who used it as a chop-shop for stolen BMWs, the neighborhood was a colorful place, where one constantly found oneself embroiled in all manner of adventure. A stray bullet once shattered the studio’s window and put a hole through the canvas I was painting. Another time, I was held up at knifepoint over a box of pork buns. Danny always insisted the building was a prodigious investment, but years later, here we are, and I’m sorry to report he was wrong. Real estate prices have skyrocketed, forcing out the pawn shop where I once got a tremendous deal on a gold chain and the liquor store that sold loosie cigarettes for a quarter.
For months, I’ve pleaded with Danny to use his connections to help me get my work seen. But he’s always refused, claiming not to want any part in subjecting the public to my “perverted worldview.” My work, Danny says, epitomizes everything he hates in art, namely that it takes into account supernatural forces.
“Religion is dead,” he once said, “but your provincial superstitions remain.”
Nevertheless, he’s recently experienced a change of heart.
“At the very least you never bore me,” Danny said last week, then told me he’s arranged for one of my pieces to be included at a group show organized by his gallerist, Susan.
The thing I admire most about Danny is that he viciously hates anyone who bores him. The man simply can’t distinguish between an evil person and an uninteresting one.
I’d been working on a series of paintings of Gwyneth Paltrow. With each piece, she became more satanic and menacing, until finally she sprouted bat wings and horns, holding all of mankind in a saucer of anti-aging cream. Just as I was almost finished, I sliced my finger opening a can of soup, inspiring me to abandon the project.
Instead, I decided to climb a tree. Halfway up the elm I’d picked—it was especially fine, I thought—a branch snapped, and I fell. It was then I had the vision for the work I’m making now, a sculpture of a baby nailed to a cross constructed of cellphones. The difficulty, of course, has been gathering the phones. After exhausting my resources buying used devices on Craigslist and eBay, I was still nowhere near my goal of the five hundred I absolutely require, so I ran a funding campaign on social media, which, somehow, was met with what I can only call apathy, and, at times, even scorn. This left me with no recourse but to rob a Best Buy recycling center, a move that Blanche and I deemed both courageous and bold. Anticipating the major stir my piece would cause in the art world, I penned an open letter to the noted critic Jerry Saltz, of New York Magazine. “I think we can agree, sir,” I wrote, “that in this sea of idling conformity, even the smallest act of subversion or rebellion cannot but be heralded as a shining triumph.”
Public opinion, I’ve learned, however, is not my friend. The response to my crime has been so unfavorable that Blanche thinks I should move abroad and change my name. I’ve been so afraid, in fact, that for the last several days I’ve lain in bed chewing bubble gum and picturing myself dragged from the show in handcuffs.
Danny’s parked his Lamborghini in front of the studio, a replacement for the Maserati he drove into a lake last month. Already he’s hard at work in his uniform of camouflage shorts and the tie-dye tank-top that shows off the stick-and-poke tattoos he gave himself one night while under the influence of ayahuasca. He’s nearly completed his training to become a Sun Dance Chief, studying under a part-Crow, part-Sioux, part-Jew survivalist named Shelley. His final objective is to retrieve the carcasses of four golden eagles.
I don’t know how he does these things, but overnight Danny has constructed a ten-foot-long sandbox in the studio in which he’s now observing a black and yellow snake. No detail is too minute. Whether the snake slithers, coils, or flicks its tongue, Danny writes a detailed account in his Moleskine notebook.
“I’m glad you’re here,” he says at last. “I need your help.”
Danny leads me to the alley behind the studio, where a pool of blood has collected on the ground. I flinch at the scene, but Danny seems entirely disaffected.
“They should be about dry now,” he says, glancing up. “We need to get them inside before the birds pick them clean.”
Overhead, a wire has been strung across the alley from which hang what appear to be furry rugs. Something drips onto my face as I squint—a strange phenomenon, indeed, since there’s not a cloud in the sky. It’s not rain on the back of my hand, however, but blood.
“They’re from roadkill,” Danny says, and begins to hand me the hides. “Cats.”
I’m struck by the juxtaposition: the empty gleam in the eyes of these dead animals belies their lustrous coats.
“How’d things go with Janie this morning?” he says, gesturing me to follow him back inside, where he fills a garbage can with water and a box of salt.
“She sent two men to collect her stuff.”
“It’s often difficult to imagine what makes one person attracted to another. I never could understand what she saw in you.”
I drop the skins into the water, then go to the sink to rinse my arms. But even before I’ve touched the faucet, I’m stabbed by something, in my leg. I shriek, and when I look down, Danny’s snake is retreating to the radiator.
“Your snake just bit me, Danny.”
“You should go to the hospital immediately.”
“Is it poisonous?”
“It’s an Eastern Coral Snake, one of the deadliest in the world, though they’re usually very mild-mannered. You must’ve done something to provoke it.”
My leg is really starting to throb. I roll up my pants to find two perfect red puncture wounds.
“Will you drive me to the hospital?”
“Just give me a minute to tie up some loose ends here.”
I open Danny’s snake handbook for instructions. The author strongly advises against sucking out the venom or even applying a tourniquet. Ice is also discouraged. Without treatment, I learn, I could be dead in hours.
The studio is always hot this time of year, but never have I sweated like this. A tightness has gripped my chest, I can hardly breathe, and a tingling sensation has spread through my face. My vision is blurry. I’m even drooling on my shirt. In no time at all, I’m overcome by a weepy drowsiness and crash to the floor, barely conscious.
Danny says he needs to finish labeling the animal tracks he cast in plaster earlier in the day. If he doesn’t do it now, vital data he collected on his survivalist retreat will be lost. His reputation is at stake, he says, which I suppose is true. Danny has amassed the largest private collection of paw prints on the Eastern seaboard, and his assemblage of marsupial casts is on loan to the Zoology Department at Harvard.
“You doing okay down there?” he says, as Blanche fans her tail in my face.
I laugh like a hysterical child. “It’s just melting away,” I mutter, “all the suffering!”
Next to my head, I see a fortune cookie that must’ve fallen off the table where Danny takes his lunch. I manage to crack the cookie open. “You’ve been dying,” the fortune says, “since your first breath.” Waiting for Danny to finish, I think of all the time I’ve wasted treating myself to life’s little pleasures with nothing but regrets to show for it.
When I was in the fifth grade, my best friend Jesse and his family moved to Kansas City. Just before they piled into the station wagon, he gave me a story he’d written documenting an adventure the two of us had shared crossing the city of Denver on our bikes. I spent the afternoon hunched in a closet with a flashlight reading it over and over through tear-filled eyes. Jesse told our story with such poignant tenderness that it was difficult to believe it hadn’t been a lost classic by Mark Twain. I sobbed uncontrollably at the thought of losing him. He’d been my only friend since first grade, when he was kind enough to swap lunches with me after my mother had packed me a turkey sandwich, knowing very well I was a vegan.
Shortly after Jesse moved, there was a call for entries in a writing competition at my school. I worked hard on a tale about the time I brought home the class’s pet salamander for the weekend only to lose him in the creek, yet nothing I wrote could match the eloquence of Jesse. In despair, I copied Jesse’s work and submitted it to the contest.
A month later, the entire student body packed into the gymnasium for the quarterly assembly. First, we were forced to endure the marching band’s spirited but uneven performance of the school’s fight song. Next, the girls’ basketball team was honored for their fifth-place finish in the district tournament. Then the vice-principal announced an upcoming carwash fundraiser. Finally, Mr. Mackey, the chair of the school’s English Department, delivered a rambling panegyric about the school’s depth of talented writers. I left my seat in the bleachers to fetch a Dr. Pepper from the vending machine. When my dollar bill got jammed, I kicked the machine until the custodian, Mateo, raced down the hall waving his arms and shouting. I had won the writing contest, he said. The whole school was waiting for me to accept the prize.
“What about my Dr. Pepper?” I said.
Mateo rocked the machine back and forth, and sodas of all variety came spitting out. “Take whatever you want,” he said.
Upon my return, the crowd rose to its feet and exploded with applause. Mr. Mackey shook my hand and introduced me as the greatest writer from Colorado since John Fante. I chugged my entire Dr. Pepper for strength.
“It’s a great honor to stand here before you today,” I said.
“‘Two Bikes, One City’ is a tale of friends who don’t know how to despair, boys so resolute in their determination to conquer a city that they feel almost humiliated by their own strength of character, boys who were ready to leave behind all they knew, to cut themselves off from the world, like castaways on a desert island, to seek their fortune. I consider myself one of destiny’s elect, an adventurer who has triumphed against all odds to write the tale of a generation. Please, when you pass me in these halls, try to think of my accomplishments and be inspired to reach inside yourselves, for it’s only there that you’ll find the stuff of which you’re truly made.”
Mr. Mackey started a literary magazine to publish the work. Sales of the story were so strong that the school was able to re-sod the football field. My handwritten copy was placed in a glass vitrine in the administrative offices. Every day I had to walk past it and be reminded of my grift.
Again and again, I promised myself I’d contact Jesse to confess my misdeed, but I always found a reason not to. A year passed before I received news that he had perished in an accident. He had left a note for his mother explaining that he missed his best friend Paul and was riding his bike from Kansas City to Denver to surprise him. Jesse had ridden five hundred and ninety-seven miles of the six-hundred-and-twenty-mile journey when he was struck by a cement truck.
I wake in the hospital with a tube up my nose and a nurse pricking me with a needle. The doctor arrives, and I recognize her immediately as a friend of Janie’s. We had met at various social functions Janie had forced me to attend. Her imperious eyes twinkle with misgivings.
“Paul, is that you? What happened?”
A nurse is sent to retrieve the anti-venom vaccine. It’s lucky they have any in stock, Janie’s friend explains, as snakebites are uncommon in Brooklyn. When Janie’s friend asks how it is I was bitten, I invent a tale about volunteering at the Bronx Zoo, then feign tiredness and close my eyes.
Matthew Binder is the author of the novels Pure Cosmos Club, The Absolved, and High in the Streets. He is also a primary member of the recording project Bang Bang Jet Away.
Want to read more? A full excerpt of Pure Cosmos Club is published in EXCERPT Magazine - No 1
Pure Cosmos Club will be released by Stalking Horse Press in May 2023; it's now available for pre-order online at https://www.stalkinghorsepress.com/shop