Remember this? I revised “Magnum Opus” a few months back and had the good fortune of seeing it published in Poictesme‘s chapbook Cobblestone(s). Revisiting this piece was nothing short of excruciating, as any excavation of your past self tends to be. However, I saw an opportunity for closure and seized it, and I think it was for the best. Perhaps you’ll feel the same weight lifted, whatever yours may be. Enjoy, and thanks for reading.
You never told your father what we did. In his eyes, we were just kids. It was safer to let him believe that we were just kids, even as we stopped coming home for dinner and started sleeping in each other’s beds. But the truth is that it was easier to pretend that he didn’t care.
Last summer’s haze turned the world into a painting, soft at the edges and shimmering in between. In the unrelenting heat, I’d watch cars floating down the road slowly sink into the earth. The naked boulevards of suburbia kept no shade, and I found myself walking down your long, lonely street when the comforts of home turned sour.
Your neighborhood was the last branch on a withering tree, a remnant of a town once marked by farmland. Past the shopping malls and corner stores with bulletproof glass was a moss-coated sign that whimpered “Aspenwald” through paint and ivy. Your home was garish and tall, swathed in gaudy colors that your mother once adored and your father never painted over. The pink shutters peeled even then, and the banana-yellow siding faded with every passing season.
I spent most of the summer in your broken home—between your legs, as it were. When your father’s car pulled out of the driveway, you lit up my phone, and I made my trek through heat and concrete to feed your voracious appetite. The first time we had sex was in your father’s bed, and from then on it was always in his bed, with me on my back and you chafing your thighs in an attempt to grind me down to my very bones. Our clothes never fully came off, and to this day I’ve only ever seen your body in halves.
Our brief, ugly moments of intimacy left me sore and wanting, but I never told you how much it hurt me. I could feel a monster inside of you, something vicious and unsatisfied, and I was afraid that you would swallow me whole if I ever pushed you off of me.
But I suppose dissatisfaction was what held us together. We were both artists, world-beaters in a town full of complacent parents and bleary-eyed youth. Where our generation had dulled their taste for ambition with pills and alcohol, we found ours in the limitless realm of art. It’s no wonder that we discovered each other at a warehouse party packed with wayward souls. We looked so different—you, leaning up against a bare wall; me, slumped in a fold-out chair. Your bomber jacket and knee-high boots stared down my dour plaid and Chucks with a weighty, lustful gaze. But we had some innate connection, you and I. It wasn’t one of love or luck, as I’ve come to find out, but an occult destiny. Yours was the name I would have read on a Ouija board.
You only need to shock people’s sensibilities once for them to remember you, and the underground scene knew us very well. Elsa and Michael; we were like Marina and Ulay. I used my words. You used your hands. Our first foray defied experimentation: to the Johannes Gallery, we boldly submitted a multimedia performance piece based on my series of poems protesting the Vietnam War. The gallery held one performance. Carefully-placed speakers assaulted the audience with graphic radio news clips and searing electric guitar feedback while you writhed blindfolded on the hardwood with a loaded gun in hand. Amid backwards abstract-expressionist trash and small-minded minimalist cubes was our bombastic anti-war sensory overload, and by the end of the week we had been contacted by every culture writer in town.
I was satisfied with the contorted look of disgust on our patron’s faces—proud, even, at our work. But you always had grander ideas than I, and my own prolificacy steadily began to wane as your work required more hands than your body provided. With every barbed-wire sculpture and auto-destructive machine that was welcomed into Johannes, your ego swelled and your projects grew more elaborate. You were granted entire showrooms to let your art stretch and climb. Meanwhile, my manuscripts yellowed and slinked away to desks and dustbins, yet your name remained on the dedication pages.
Your time in the sun, as we both know, was quite fleeting. You always said that our earnings were merely funds for our next project, but money was disappearing faster than we were working. By the time we got to work on your last project, you were still living in your father’s house. Small-town fame came and went too fast for you to savor, and you feared being forgotten. So many of your actions have been fueled by fear, Elsa. I can’t help but wonder whether your last project was born solely from it.
The day you told me about that last project began like any other. I watched your torso writhe and bounce on top of me, wrapped in an orange sweatshirt that kept sliding down your shoulders. To say that I felt numb would be to ignore the circumstances, but something seemed strangely off about you. You were distracted, your eyes unfocussed and glazed over.
When your face flushed and your pace slowed, you rolled off to your mother’s side of the bed, the one that never ruffled or creased. You were still breathing hard, staring off into a world I couldn’t see.
I asked, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” you said hoarsely. “I’ve just been thinking.”
“Thinking. Okay.” My chest was sore from your palms pressing down on me.
You bit your thumbnail. “I found something today. Some materials for my next project. They’re out back.”
“You’re working on something?”
A familiar crinkle of tires on gravel stopped my heart. Your father was home early.
“Oh my god, he’s home!” you cried. “I thought he was going out with his poker fags tonight! Fuck!”
You shot up and scrambled across the room to search for your clothes. I buttoned my jeans and got out of bed, careful to rustle the vanilla sheets back to the mess they had been before our routine fling.
“Why did you have to come over so late?” you wheezed, hurriedly pulling your panties up your porcelain legs.
I had been writing all afternoon, and I was sick of dropping everything to come over, but I didn’t say that. I just watched your twiggy frame bending over to grab your jeans, your tousled mane of plastic colors swinging like a mop head.
“If my dad knows you’re here, he’ll freak,” you said, pointing at me like it was my fault you had been keeping secrets. “Get downstairs quick and go hide in the backyard.”
You yanked denim up your legs. “Because,” you paused to button your fly, “I need you to come around front and ring the doorbell as if you’re picking me up.”
You stepped close to me, much closer than we had ever been outside of bed. I could see deep circles under your eyes, dark and sagging; the months were turning into years on your skin. “I need your help with my next project. Tonight. It can’t wait.”
The kitchen door swung open downstairs. A hardy voice rumbled, “Elsa? I’m home!”
“The materials are out back,” you whispered. “I’ll take you there. Just ring the doorbell in about ten minutes or so.”
Your lips brushed mine and you shoved me out the door. I could still hear your father moving around in the kitchen downstairs. Looking back, I motioned to you to go distract him, and you skipped down the stairs quickly. I sat down on the top step and waited.
“Dad!” You disappeared into the kitchen.
“Afternoon, Elsa. Why is the percolator not ready?”
Metal clanked around. “I’m sorry, dad, I’ve been busy all day—”
“And I haven’t? Get the coffee ready.”
I heard your father slump into a chair, and I stood up quietly. Careful to skip the louder steps, I crept down your rickety staircase and took a sharp hairpin turn at the bottom banister to slip out the back door.
Behind your house was a lone dirt road that led into undeveloped land. It was hardly a virgin plane, as it had been stripped bare many years prior but never used. Pits and dirt mounds pockmarked the landscape like a suburban no-man’s land. The tightly-packed row of houses that made up your neighborhood seemed to be placed simply to block the sight of such an ugly patch of earth, raped and forgotten.
The ripe afternoon sun doused that backfield of weeds and browning grass in a delicate persimmon. I couldn’t tell if the world was trying to set it alight or preserve it from decay. That single road reached out to me in desperation. It was a straight line hard and unwavering, laid bare in front of me as if it were aching for some signifier of civilization to come rolling down its dusty trail.
Two sets of overlapping footprints led to a black mass way down the road, flat as a stingray but at least ten feet long. It sat awkwardly on the left shoulder of the road, too far away for me to discern what it was. Its skin billowed gently in the wind, alone in a sea of death and disregard.
The mere sight flipped some primal defense switch in my brain. I could smell something faintly foul on the stale air as the sizzle of busy insects rang in my ears. My feet moved instinctively, and I began backing away like a frightened dog until I was up against your house’s vinyl siding. Surely, whatever was lying in wait could not constitute “materials” for a new project?
I sprinted down the side of your house, over wilting flowers and hardened mulch beds, and swung around to your front entrance. Your stoop was simple and unadorned; just concrete steps leading to a battered white door. I rang your silver doorbell and a muffled chime hummed behind your walls.
Heavy feet thumped to the door before it swung open. There was your father, staring me down. I had never taken a good look at him until then. He looked like he was built from spare parts; oddly rigid and misshapen like a junkyard car, his head square and tapered like a plank. He was still in slacks and a starch white shirt, rustled just enough to suggest he had been doing something more than paperwork all day. You once told me he was an old corporal—a Korean War vet—and he still had a look of mistrust towards foreign skin such as mine. I shrunk in his presence.
“Milton,” he said in a cold, flat tone. His accent sounded like it was from everywhere and nowhere.
I kept moving my hands in and out of my pockets, unsure of which was the proper way to appear to him. “M-Michael, sir. How are you? Is Elsa home?”
“I’m doing just fine, son. And yes, she is.”
That’s when you came screaming out from the hall behind him.
“Ah, Michael! I’ve been waiting for hours for you to get here!” You squeezed in beside him, just a fraction of his height. You two couldn’t look more different.
He looked down at you. “Are you going somewhere?”
“Michael’s my, ah, business partner. I’ve told you before, dad.”
“Mm.” Your father turned to me. “What is it you sell, again?”
My tongue groped for ideas. “P-percolators.”
His face actually managed a smirk, though it may have just been a twitch.
“We sell paintings, dad. Michael’s just joking. Aren’t you, Michael?”
“Yeah,” I said.
Your father shrugged, and it seemed like every shape he was constructed from shifted position. “Well, get goin’, then. Remember your curfew.”
You headed down the steps as the door slammed behind you.
We skulked back through the wilting flowerbeds towards that endless road behind your house. The heat was starting to dissipate but the sunlight was dense and more invasive than ever. The sun leaned down close to watch us.
“Why don’t you tell your father about our work?”
“He wouldn’t understand,” you said, crushing a dandelion beneath your boot. “He’s an army vet—people tell him to kill and he pulls the trigger. Even now, some bank tells him to move money or close an account, he does it. He doesn’t question things like we do.”
“It’s the truth.”
We stopped at the foot of the dirt road. You pointed to that black lump in the distance. “That, there. Come take a look.”
I couldn’t move. My feet wouldn’t let me.
You pulled on my arm. “Come on!”
I stumbled, tripping over my better judgment, and you dragged me down the road like I was a stubborn child. The black mass grew larger with each step. As we came closer, that foul, pestilent odor overwhelmed my senses. My body knew what my mind rejected, and when we arrived at that black blight on the earth, my stomach was poised to lurch.
I stood still while you circled it, probing the space with your eyes.
You sounded proud. “I threw my dad’s truck bed tarp over it.”
My eyes nearly watered at the putrid stench. “What is it? Is it alive?”
“Oh, goodness no.”
Squatting, you spread your arms and reached for the edges of the black tarp like a magician ready to reveal one last trick. Then, you threw the vinyl back with a morbid flourish, and I stumbled into the weeds.
There, lying in the dirt behind your house was the body of some poor young soul, mouth agape in an eternal expression of immense regret. He was clothed in simple attire—cheap jeans and a button-down one size too big. His eyes were rolled back like he was straining to get a look at you, and his sickly white limbs were sprawled out like tree roots. The back of his head was blown apart, caked in dried blood. A fine spritz of gore was speckled on the surrounding foliage.
I stood up slowly, but my legs were shaking. “Who is this? Why are you hiding it in your backyard?”
You kneeled down next to his bloated torso, picking dirt off his breast. “I didn’t wanna let the flies get to it.”
“No, no—why didn’t you call the police?”
You turned to me sharply. “And what? Give this all away? I took one look at this and I was inspired, Michael!” Your eyes fell on his drooping lids with a forlorn gaze. “I felt like Picasso looking out on Guernica. It’s such a terrible beauty, this one. Such a tragic fate. Only art can redeem it.”
The words were in the back of my throat. You’re mad. You’re crazy. But I choked. Who else was there in this cold, unfeeling world but you? You were the only person who would read my stories without a signed check clipped to the front page. I was only relevant through you.
So I kneeled down next to you and laid my eyes upon that corpse, trying my damndest to see it as a sack of flesh and nothing more. But his fingernails had dirt beneath them, just like mine, and I know I had that shirt somewhere.
“Look at him!” you squeaked. “He looks like a marble statue, Michael. Our own little David.”
Our own little David. You told me that you needed to go get the truck, and that I should stay there with the “materials” until you got back. So I sat in the dirt swatting flies, asking David questions as the sun sunk below the horizon, nauseous and weak. I asked him where he was from, if he knew you, if you’d do the same thing to me. Part of me expected an answer.
I saw a red glint of metal turn down the road as you drove the old Chevy back to me. The tires erased our footprints with a careful precision. You pulled up next to me and David, your arm hanging over the driver’s window like you were picking up gas instead of a dead body.
The door opened and you leapt down. “Wrap it up in the tarp and we’ll lift it into the back.”
We both got down in the dirt and spread out the black tarp beside David as flat as we could. Then, we slipped our fingers under his stiff back and did our best to roll him over. When he was on his side, you patted the dirt off his back as if you were sweeping dust from an old bookshelf. He fell facedown onto the tarp, and we continued to roll him up until he was in a neat black tube like a carpet in a warehouse.
We lifted it and carefully moved it to the truck bed. I had the legs; you had the head. The sheer weight was an anchor to reality. What were we doing? There was a body in your truck and I was walking around to the passenger’s door, totally unaware of what you were going to do next.
The sky was a cold azure. I couldn’t get David’s slacked jaw out of my head.
On the drive back, I asked, “How did you find it? Him, how did you find him?”
Your fingers hung loosely from the bottom of the steering wheel. “I was watering the plants out back when I saw something lying in the dirt. So I walked out and there it was.”
You nodded. “That’s it.”
I watched your house get closer. “Did he kill himself?”
Your fingers tensed on the wheel. Ten-and-two.
“I don’t know.”
You parked the truck behind your house and we took the body down to your rough gray cellar door. The long hiss of bugs flattened the noise of the fields into a blaring siren as the daylight faded.
“Get the door,” you instructed, pointing to the cellar. “I’ll get the materials.”
The short set of stairs leading down to the cellar ran at least five or six feet deep. I twisted the cold doorknob and opened it into pitch black darkness, pressing my body up against it to hold the entrance open for you and David.
With your sweaty back facing me, you grabbed the bottom of the tarp and pulled it down the steps. The head bounced off every stair in heavy, dull thuds. When you reached the bottom, you dragged the body across the concrete floor and exhaled sharply.
I stepped away from the weighty door and it fell shut on its own. The darkness was oppressive, an inky black tomb closing in on me.
A feeble incandescence appeared above a work table along the wall. Your hair was sepia-toned in the low light and you looked to me with an unbridled enthusiasm that I had never seen before. Your eyes could have lit the entire room.
You disappeared into a corner and began pulling down paint cans and planks of wood from a metal shelf. I drifted to the center of the room to let David out into his final resting place. He was laid down unceremoniously like an unrolled camping tent. On my knees, I pushed him over until the tarp unfurled again and that horrible stench filled the cellar’s confines.
“What are we gonna do with it?” I said, teeth chattering.
You strode over to David with a can of gold paint and a roller. “Bring it back to life.”
Your process of resurrection was quite different than what I had been taught in Sunday school. I don’t know how long it took, but in the near-dark of your freezing cellar I watched your blurry form assemble a crude crucifix from several planks of wood. Then, we stripped David down and laid him on the cross like a bloated, pasty Jesus. A savior of nothing. You used a hammer to drive nails into his hands and feet, and I had to cover my ears to muffle the squelch of pierced flesh and rusty metal.
With a screwdriver, you popped open the can of gold paint and poured it into a pan, using the roller to coat David’s colorless body with a tawdry mustard sheen.
It was dripping wet, reeking of a strangely plastic and rotten aroma. You were biting your lip and your eyes were darting all around; your mind was still racing.
“It’s missing a certain…something,” you muttered, and you slithered away to grab a coil of barbed wire. It looked like you had found it or stolen it, as it appeared to be poorly twisted into a circular shape.
Like a crown of thorns, you pressed the steel barbs into his scalp until the skin was pierced to the bone.
“Come on, come on,” you said. “Help me stand this up against the wall.”
I moved around to the crossbar and hoisted it up on my shoulders, bearing the weight like Simon of Cyrene, though my walk was hardly a spiritual watershed. David was heavier than ever, and my stomach was beginning to churn.
You pushed the cross while I carried, and when we got to the wall across from the door, we carefully propped it up so that it would lay steady on its own. Then you stood back several feet, and your shoulders slumped low.
We didn’t speak for a while. All I could hear was dripping paint as I looked over our work. David’s head was hanging down, staring at his feet, ashamed. His body was plump and puffy, but the gold paint rendered his pudginess as more of a picture of wealth than decay.
My chapped lips parted for the first time in what felt like hours. “What are you gonna call it?”
Once you had christened it, everything made sense. For a moment as brief and fleeting as a summer romance, I understood your heinous work. A spark had leapt between us, some glimmer of mutual perception no language could contrive.
The intimacy that you had dangled at my nose for so long was now washing over me like waves of oxytocin. My mind turned blank and porous, just as it did when you rolled off of me in your father’s bed, and my senses opened up to a world of stimuli no rational human being would ever associate with aesthetic beauty. But there it was: terrible and poignant, simple and transcendent, looming over us like so many ethics and mores and expectations.
David was Forgiven, and how appropriate the medium. Just as my words could only thrive on pounded wood pulp, your art was brought to life upon the flesh of slaughtered youth. That is why I headed for the door; it’s why I ran as far as my legs would take me. You were a god where saints feared to tread, and in that unfathomably minuscule moment, I thought I loved you.
(c) Richard DiCicco, 2013