He said in passing, so long ago, something like this: “The bright fabrics swimming against the bodies of the pretty women on the streets seem dull rags. One watches as their skin peels away in layers, like paint leaving only ash… the perpetual tint of… of death… that underlying color…”
Then, as if none of that mattered, as if this instead was what he had to share with me, he said: “That flag. You see that flag, Nate? Taut billowing atop that stark stratified stone skyscraper?”
He had a distinct way with words. He loved them for their clacking sounds against each other. But he wasn’t a poet, he was a painter. And I said I do, I see the flag, James. We stood on the corner of Kearny and Market. My friend was thin and he had not groomed himself in a long while. Cheekbones prominent, eyes sunken.
The trolly rumbled down the middle of the avenue toward the Embarcadero. My old friend shivered with a chill that wasn’t there, and I gazed again at the flag atop the Hobart Building. What did he want to say? His eyes were glazed, pensive, expectant. It had rained in the morning but now the sun beat down and I could smell the rain evaporating off the asphalt.
“It is bereft both of stripes and stars,” he said finally. “The canvas is entirely gray.”
After all these months he had to say something like that, completely out of the blue, with me unready. I felt the fool. I had nothing to console him with.
But that was a long time ago. Years ago, an interminable time. Then tonight, for no reason at all, I found him at the end of a trans-siberian train of thought. While I sat too-sober in a red-leather booth with my friends at the Condor. My friends with whom we used to share stories that began, ‘Remember that time James…” We ran out of those, eventually. And eventually we forgot the stories or lost audiences for them. Eventually we forgot him.
But the black stripper with linebacker legs was sliding head over tits down the stripper pole, dressed like a fireman. And for some reason I thought of his fire escape, the one off the kitchen window of his old third floor apartment. It pulled down onto one of those narrow, angular alleyways born of the diagonal Columbus avenue.
I couldn’t help it, though I knew it was rude, to stand and leave the club like I did. But I didn’t care. I couldn’t take it any more. Though that’s how it started with him. I recalled his inane comment about the flag, how he had just turned and walked away because I didn’t understand. But I didn’t care, as he hadn’t, though maybe now I was beginning to understand. Suddenly everything reminded me of him. The stretch of neon signs extending drunkenly along Broadway, as in that one painting of his. The clear sky and the stars quiet above the madness. Even the girls. The tall pretty ones I passed, walking along Columbus, seemed as dreamlike as the brushstrokes in his portraits. He was a famous artist, or he would be. They would find his place strewn with canvases.
I turned off Columbus and went up the steps that connected to the alleyway. Nobody around. I jumped up and pulled down the fire escape. I did not hesitate. Some curious force compelled me. I climbed up certain I would find him painting. But jarring open the window, and slipping into his unlit home, I could already tell. I was culpable, yes, but I had forgotten. I had forgotten, and he had slipped. He had slipped and he would do nothing though the slope ended at a cliff face. The fall would happen. It was inexorable, it was as sure as the sunset.
He was hardly there. On the wicker chair he painted from he floated ghostly as a hologram. But even less, as no light rested on my old friend. The streetlamp shined through the window and through him and through him I could see clearly the blank canvas he sat facing. He had become a shade. A man fashioned out of thin fog, as imperceptible as a UV filter over a camera lens. He was disappearing in front of my eyes, deteriorating, deteriorating, leaving only the wicker chair.
I had to look away. When I looked back, he was gone. Through the open window in that room on the third floor I could hear the dim rumble, the collective sound of the footsteps and chatter of the Friday night revelers on Broadway. I looked again at the chair, at the loneliness of the chair. The memories were still there. That or I had encroached on a memory. He had turned his back entirely, on me, on everything else.
The place was cluttered with paintings. The stench was horrible. I climbed out the window and went down, wondering where you go, you know, when it happens. I had the stupid image of my friend hovering in a void. He had a sky brimming with stars regardless of his orientation. And he had long since stopped searching for that pale blue dot, suspended in a mote of dust.
I wanted to be silent descending the fire escape, out of respect, perhaps. But the iron had rusted in the salt-air and even stepping lightly the metal groaned. And tonight the sky was pure and I could know by looking up how far we are from everything. I had such a moment, the kind we all have at least once, and will never share. I had it looking up at the sky, an ocean awake with the lights on the boats of a whole town’s fishermen.
As I walked with my head down to the police station, I knew quite firmly I would share none of this with my friends.
Photo by Tammy Wilbur