THE SUBSTITUTE. 6-6-11
Every time that Fred Hastings went to Eastonville on business he made a point of looking in on the Art Store and Gallery as soon as he’d booked a room in the motel and had dropped off his stuff. He did so because he wanted to catch up on the latest works, if any, of his artist friends and by doing that he’d be able to talk about them when they met up later in the evening.
He’d gone to a nearby college for three years and had rented a room in the town for the last two of them, as had a lot of his fellow students, and he had fond memories of the place because – well, what else? – because some of those fellow students had been generous with giving out benefits generally and not over-selectively which had made a huge difference in the life of a barely attractive eighteen year old youth whose social skills were only just beginning to show themselves but whose juices, for a considerable time by then, had been constantly simmering to the point of brimming over.
As was the case with all of the other salesmen in his company, most of Fred’s orders were repeat ones and so none of them had to go into the field but when cheaper products on-line started to become easily available his company, in an effort to maintain its sales, decided that it had better have a man-on-site in each district so as to be able to give the personal touch to their regular customers and, of course, to look for new ones.
To that end they contacted a nationwide recruitment firm and one of the people that they eventually came up with was a man who lived close to Eastonville and who had the necessary qualifications and whose name was Harold Parrish.
Fred, who was highly valued by his company because his sales figures were always well above average, could pretty much call his own shots as far as making field visits was concerned and he wasn’t a bit happy with the new system because – what else? – the second ‘F’ in BFF/wB’s means just that and, although he had an active love-life in the city, the woman he was living with couldn’t get close to letting him enter the sublime world that a fully compatible one can engender in all-out merging and melding until neither one of them knows or cares which limbs belong to who. That was the state of bliss that he’d invariably found in the arms of the woman who had taught him about it when he was a sophomore and then, ever since she’d moved back out west because of a family crisis, in the arms of the other women that he’d found whose compatibility with him allowed them to be introduced to its wonders.
For some reason all of those special women had majored in Fine Art and were painters and, luckily for him, two of them had managed to secure enough supporting funds to let them work anywhere they chose and they’d decided to stay in Eastonville to remain close to each other, and to their other friends, and also be able to develop their skills and attempt to achieve their established goals in a familiar environment.
Being able to call on, and call-in, those w/B’s regularly – his room mate could hardly object as long as he only went up there on the third Wednesday of each month and got home on Friday evening while knowing that all of his expenses were charged to the company – not only made his every visit to the town both fruitful and rewarding but it also soothed an urgent, inner need of his that was otherwise unappeasable and, after being accustomed to indulging in it for so long, made going without it close to being unthinkable.
Knowing all that makes it easy to see that he was understandably loathe to, uh, lose contact with the town as he’d have to if this guy ‘Harold Parrish’ was given the job of Local Rep.
On his latest trip, as always, he’d stopped on the way up to have lunch in a place that served his favorite meal, chicken fried steak, in just the right way and when he got to the town he booked a room in the only motel and changed out of his suit into jeans and a loose shirt and he tied his hair in a ponytail – being just able to do that with it was the longest that he dared let it grow – and it got to be close to three o‘clock in the afternoon before he got around to dropping in on the Art Store.
He’d barely entered the Gallery that was attached to the store before the old lady who owned and ran the place, a Mrs. Richardson, called out to him to stop where he was and then came hurrying over.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve got to tell you long-hairs that you’re no longer welcome here. Please leave at once and do not come back, you hear me?”
She closed her ears to Fred’s question and protests, “But, I don’t understand. What is this all . . ?” as she walked over to the door and when she got there she pushed on it and held it open for him which left him no alternative but to comply and so, to avoid further embarrassment – he’d seen the other customers stop whatever they were doing to stare at him, no doubt presuming that he was a known shoplifter or the like and were watching to see how he was going to handle the humiliation – he exited to the street.
The incident was, to say the least, unnerving and it set him back for a while but he pulled himself together enough to be able to deal with his professional duties which were to visit his long-term customers – he always did so in case his boss called one of them by coincidence – and they were all pleased to see him but, also as always, were a little puzzled because he’d brought no new products with him yet again and so what purpose did his visit serve that couldn’t have been done by phone or e-mail?
Another advantage of picking Wednesdays to go up north was that on that day there was always a bottle party at the apartment of one of his friends and so he showed up there at seven-thirty with a bottle of plonk – all white wine was called plonk and all red was called merlot, pronounced with a hard ‘t’ – and he was welcomed and greeted on all sides.
He was relieved to see that his two BFF’s were there and even more so when they both, in turn, flashed a special signal at him with their eyes that told him that nothing had changed and that they were as happy as he was with knowing that when morning came all three of them would be thoroughly satiated and, because of that, the two painters would hop out of bed, as soon as one of them woke up, eager to start in on doing new work and – how not? – “taking their art to a higher plane.” Long practice let him know that in the studio that they shared they’d have already stretched and treated three or four canvasses, each, and had put two of them on easels, and that their chances of staying pristine on the morrow and not bearing swirling streaks of pink and red were slim indeed. Every painting that they’d ever done always had a vortex that had a hint of a void in some form or another in it and there were always vague hints of that void being menaced or tentatively approached by the only object in sight that sported a straight line.
Fred was kept busy for a while by having to receive and pass on news about various mutual acquaintances there and in the city but when he found himself sitting with the girl- friend of his host – she was called Betsa and she had a broad southern accent even though he happened to know that she had been brought up in southern New Jersey and that if anybody called her on it she’d tell them, truthfully, that her town down there at the southern tip was actually below the Mason Dickson line – he told her what had happened to him in the Art Store and asked her what was it all about.
Instead of answering him – what he’d told her was an important a piece of news that had to be broadcast that very minute – she stood up and got everybody’s attention by clapping her hands and then she said, “Listen-up for a minute, please y’all. Fred here just told me that he was thrown out of the Art Store this afternoon by you-know-who. She told him that she thought that she’d made it clear already that she didn’t want any ‘long-hairs’ going in there ever again! That was to Fred, mind you! What do you say to that?”
Everybody had a lot ‘to say to that’ and, mixed in amongst all the cussing, there were cries of, “She’s gone completely nuts, man,” and, “Bonkers, man,” and, “That’s totally priceless, man,” and there were a lot more comments in that vein none of which were complimentary.
When Betsa sat down again Fred asked her for an explanation and she said, “A few weeks ago the old bag, for reasons known to no-one, decided that she didn’t want any of us ‘artistic types’ going into her place anymore for any reason – not even the ones whose work she’s currently exhibiting for sale which, as you know, is just about all of us. It’s a complete mystery and general opinion has it that she’s getting senile and has lost it. Well, she’s always been about twenty years behind the times, right man? Ha! ‘Long-hairs!’ You don’t even have long hair and, anyway, when did you last hear that label used pejoratively?”
Fred could get nothing further out of her nor from some other people that he asked before the alcohol began to interfere with cogent thinking so he let it go and allowed the genuine conviviality to drive everything else from his mind but only after imprinting it with the order to search out the real reason for his peculiar ouster before he left town on Friday.
He took care to not drink too much, nor to smoke too much grass, because he wanted to keep a clear head to stay fully aware of – and to take advantage of – the, uh, opportunities that his special friends would kindly allow him when they all got between the sheets.
They didn’t let him down nor did he let them down and so all of the ashes that had been allowed to accumulate, and dampen urges and lessen needs, over the past month were drawn – thoroughly enough to let them rise and be taken good care of – and, in the two artists, hidden embers of creativity were given breathing room and space to blossom which was made very evident, when they woke up, by their hopping out of bed – pausing only to offer him grateful thanks and fervent demands for repeat performances – and then hurrying away to attack their blank canvasses with brushes loaded with full-intent.
When some strength had returned to his knees, a big breakfast in a diner helped with that, he wondered what his next move should be in his attempt to chase down the truth of the extraordinary turn of events of the day before – the more he thought about it the more it baffled him and the more it troubled him too because he really didn’t want anything to so much as threaten to break up his cozy arrangement – and he came up with the name of a woman who would almost certainly know and who would tell him because she had once been an avid member of his, uh, coterie if you will and had left it only because she’d stumbled onto the prospect of making a good marriage and who – on top of that and how good is this? – was a long time friend of Mrs. Richardson’s daughter.
Her name was Alice and she’d changed it to ‘Alicia’ when she’d come to college but had changed it back again when she got married into the family of the owners of the best restaurant in town along with several more around the State.
He looked her up her phone number and he wangled himself – calling her ‘Alicia’ helped – an invitation for lunch in her house that same day.
When she’d let him in she put a finger to her lips and whispered that her son had just that minute gone to sleep and then she waddled ahead of him, her belly was huge with her second child, and led him to a table that was in an alcove of her impressively equipped kitchen.
She opened a beer for him and then they did some reminiscing as she finished preparing the food and that went on while they were eating it too because there were many good times that they both remembered very well indeed and it became very evident that she wanted to take the opportunity to do some wallowing in fond memories. There were, however, many awkward pauses because some, if not most, of those good times seemed to involve, and indeed did revolve around, the sublime merging techniques that he’d taught her and that she’d taken to like a duck to water and couldn’t get enough of back then. He dealt with it by just trailing his voice off and letting the unwelcome memory dissipate on its own and she did so by using both hands to heft her belly, which, evidently, calmed her physically and helped combat the mental distress that came at her from realizing that none of it would ever happen for her again.
Over coffee he was at last allowed to ask his burning question.
She told him that she had indeed heard about ‘the brohaha’ and had already asked her friend, Melanie, about it.
Melanie had told that her mother, Mrs. Richardson, had long been unhappy with having the ‘long-hairs’ using her place to congregate – taking up space for hours at a time – and what had especially irked her was their habit of loudly criticizing the hanging works but only, of course, the ones whose artists weren’t present.
Alice broke into her explanation to tell him that she thought that that was a very valid point in that the woman was, after all, trying to sell the artwork for them – and for herself, of course – and didn’t want potential customers put off by hearing them being deprecated.
She went on, “Well, that wasn’t the only thing that was upsetting her. It seems that none of the ‘so called artists’ – as she’d taken to calling them – buy their supplies from her any more. She knows for a fact that they get them delivered in the mail after seeing them on the internet for rock bottom prices that she doesn’t have a hope of matching – ‘How come they don’t get those discount houses to exhibit their work?’ she’d asked her daughter at one time.
“Well, besides all that, even though the market has gone soft for paintings, and always has been soft for sculptures, they still bring in their latest masterpieces and go to enormous lengths to get her to show them even though that usually entails taking down, and moving out, someone else’s work.
“She says that it isn’t a question of quality because, as she put it, ‘I can’t hardly tell one from another but I’d hazard a guess that if I was to refuse to hang or show impenetrably abstract works or ones that were derivations of Picasso’s distorted profiles or rings of dancing women or absurd attempts to copy parts of a half dozen standard icons, I’d have sixty per cent more space available for paintings and about eighty per cent more for sculptures!’
“Melanie told me that another thing that had bothered her mother was the obvious fact that because they all produced many more pieces than she could show their houses had to be full to bursting and what with that and with the swapping that had to go on all the time what chance was there that any of them would buy from her? ‘It’s like trying to sell a bundle of kindling to a carpenter,’ she’d said.
“It seems that she’s been seething about all this for years but up until now she’d tolerated it for traditional reasons like, ‘Art for Art’s sake,’ and with misplaced reverence for, ‘All Artists, per se,’ and not to mention the influence that the name of her store had had on her thinking, but Melanie told me that, aside from all that, what had brought everything to a head was something truly egregious that had happened a couple of weeks ago and that had forced her to act decisively.
“Her assistant had overheard one of the ‘long-hairs’ tell a potential customer that she shouldn’t buy the painting that she was looking at – it was Cal Frears’ ‘Field of Dreams’ do you remember it? Yes, the abstract with those green swirls that go across it from top left and back across to bottom left – well, he told her that she shouldn’t buy it because he had a much better example of ‘that artist’s work’ at home and she could buy it from him for a much better price.
“Well, as you’d expect, when her assistant told Mrs. Richardson about that she blew up. She went into the gallery and she shouted at the usual group that was gathered there, ‘Enough already! I want every last one of you so-called artists out of here. You can leave your pieces where they are for now because I need time to think about what my next step is going to be but, in the meantime, do not bring in any more of them and tell your friends what I just said and also tell them that none of them can come and hang around here ever again.’
“When Melanie questioned her mother about her drastic action she told her about the, ‘Don’t buy that, I’ve got a better example at home that I can sell you,’ incident and then she went on to say, ‘For years I’ve put up with their arrogance and their grand talk about, ‘Artistic Integrity’ but, d’you know what? Not one of them has asked for their works back as a protest. And as for their, ‘Inter-communal Loyalty,’ another phrase that they use a lot, Ha! They’re just a bunch of hypocrites because I’ve been getting three or four calls everyday since I ousted them and they all say the same thing – “That particular painting by Cal Frears is really not the best example of his work and I happen to have just finished one that’s much more saleable and I’ll take a 60/40 split rather than the usual 70/30 one!” Ha! I tell them all to take their ‘much more saleable paintings’ and try to sell them to the discount houses where they bought the supplies that they’d used to make them.’
“Melanie also said that her mother is thinking of getting rid of all of the local artists’ stuff and checking out the Internet for future suppliers. She tried to warn her against doing that saying that she’d get wishy-washy Hotel-room art and her answer was, ‘If it sells, so what? That’s more than the vast majority of what I’m showing now does and – besides that and just as important – I’ll be able to wash my hands of them all and never have to put up with their whining on the phone and their back-stabbing conniving and their unbelievably underhanded tricks to get a better display position at the expense of their so-called colleagues!’ ”
When Fred had absorbed all of those details he needed a few minutes to deal with the shock and to come to terms with the unappetizing truth but when he’d done so he needed no time at all to decide on his next step.
He stood up and said, “Thanks very much for lunch, Alicia, and it was great seeing you again and catching up on everything.
“Well, I’ve got to go back to the motel now to pack my stuff but before I go there’s one more thing that I have to ask you – do you by any chance know how I can get in contact with a guy named Harold Parrish?”