20 cigarettes (an excerpt)

20 cigarettes is a fictional-memoir set over the course of four days, with four people, one pack of cigarettes, and everything to consider.

Mr. Meyers hired me after I insisted he did so and with only a meager resistance. We crossed paths on a cloudy August day.

He wound his way back to me the dingy open study room in the foyer of a library where I never read, at a university I’d never attend. Instead, I hover just below the surface of social ripples, waiting, slipping through the locked door after someone with a keycard opens it. All doors open. I steal some seat in the dim light at the heavy set tables and sketch the bystanders. Most are too caught up in the whirring of the printers and their freshly minted lives to notice any idle gaze drifting by or lingering. 

It’s ironic though, that no one seems to notice, because everyone anymore is itching to be watched, to turn every eye into a network of paparazzi lenses so that they can truly live. 

It gives one indigestion. So I watch the phantoms dance and sit about the necropolis, sketching the only lines I see, sharp along the edges where society grants the clearest form, smeared and blown out at the joints where the hardlines begin to fade. 

Take these two young men for example. Both of them are second rate athletes. They wear trendy sweats, hair tight to the top and slicked to the side. The precise embodied essence of ‘I have enough money to spend on things I don’t know why I care about but I do.’ 

You’ve already filled out the other details yourself, I need not go on.

Now, look deeper. Look past the hardlines and read the text in the acne on their faces, the soft flab that peaks out the shirt tight across their chesty benchpress muscles. Their sickness unto death begins where they realize their bodies don’t quite fit the form they’ve thrust themselves into. 

And keep going, their black teammate just passed and greeted them. Watch them watch him walk away. Certainly he’s no differently dressed, but it means something different to him and they know it. So they wonder, jealously, why does he look cooler than we? And the same clothes—why do they fall on him slightly differently?

Keep gliding onward, past the horizons of their eyes and mind, where their parents petty bourgeois incantations blend with the fog of their desperate and internal sighs. These are where the lines begin sore into the heavens, muddy water flowing one moment with an easy gate and suddenly crashing over the levies and spilling violently, and electric particles once stable are vaporized, exploding up into the sky.

Watch the clouds drift out beyond their horizons.

Meyers wandered around the room stroking all the tables, scrutinizing every miter and grain inside the finish. I admired how obliviously he persisted, ignorant to the awkward discomfort of the studiers. He could have been a professor, slightly crooked and grey. The air carried him like an academic deep in cerebration. Were it not for his interest in the tables rather than the books he would have blended in.

In a slow and clumsy fade I classed his interest. It brought to mind an encounter I once had, sitting on the floor outside the library, admiring the canvas hung opposite the entrance.

The painting, still there, is an abstraction though colored naturally with greens and browns like a tree opening in early spring. Atop the cured oil the artist impressed squares of gold foil. There is so much foil, in fact, the image only barely blooms through the cracks. The viewer can’t make out much more than the possibility of a brown trunk here or green leaflets there. I was lingering waiting for the door to open when an unassuming east-Asian man strolled in and walked directly to the piece. He stood still for a moment. With his arms clasped behind his back he approached it directly and leaned in as though he intended to plant a kiss on it. He must have been so close he could smell the old gesso. It was unsettling. The abrupt and peculiar interest captivated me.

The door open and smacked shut. Startled, I noted the missed opportunity to slip into the library and turned back to find the man now fingering, however lightly, the foil. My mild interest escalated quickly into perturbation.

“What are you doing?”
He withdrew, and spun on his heels clearly indicating he was oblivious to me until then. The sudden start faded to a soft smile.
“I am the artist, this is my painting,” he said, permitting my lungs exhale the unease into the shared air. “Do you like paintings?”
“That’s relieving. And…yes. Sure.”
“The fantasy of many paintings is to be interred in a museum. But for this painting, the foil must degrade to unconceal the image. And so I ask the viewer, ‘what composes the art piece: what it reveals, or what it keeps secret?'”

And with that, he strolled out, interested in neither prolonged dialogue nor obliging me by entertaining a floundering and improvised answer. I suppose the point of the question wasn’t the answer.

All I was left with is that painting, the artist and the whole experience as one, composed and constellated across the foyer walls of my mind. The query persists, consistently. 

Meyers scrutinized the tables precisely as the artist had. These were his tables—not the library’s, nor the university’s, not the board who had green-lighted the purchase, nor the donor whose name was on the grant, not the occupants, nor the trees that sacrificed the wood. These were Meyers’ tables. No one could own them, regardless of who could pay money for them. No locked door could keep them from him. No one could know them as he knew them.

If you recall, I had capitulated to the universe when it denied me the privilege of surviving solely on the merit as a canvas painter. Suffice to say, I was open to other work.

Meyers finally approached my table, intrusive and molesting a little splinter with his clubbing, pale fingers, the nails cracked and cuticles receding.
“What are you doing?”
He was hardly startled but certainly bothered, “what does it look like I’m doing?”
“Checking on your tables.”
“My father and grandfather built these tables,” never diverting a bulging finger from the task or shifting weight to lose his eye line.
“But they are your tables?”
“They are now.”
“Do you still build?”
“Hire me. I’m worth more than your money.”

And so it was that I startled the old, sour bastard into hiring me. I think he did it, at first, out of morbid curiosity, to see how much harassment and embarrassment he could subject to me to before I quit. But I never quit. And now we share at the least a modicum of respect for each other.

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