BUILD A CHIMNEY
Looking at the dark was just about the only thing anyone could have done from her position.
Many other things might have been done first. None, however, would have diverted her from the inevitable contemplation that was to be her fate. This is not an effort to portray such a fate as permanent, or unbearable. No, not by any means of the imagination.
But the darkness was deep, and roiling.
"If you can't see the sorrow there, then you're...then you're..." A half-dozen adequate words washed through her mind, but, one by one, like minnows in a seine, they became caught and eliminated, leaving her open-mouthed and gasping.
Her room was warm, and well-furnished. It was clean, except for the ritualized disarray of paints and brushes. But close observation would reveal that the brushes were clean, and the paints were all sealed and squeezed from the bottom, the way toothpaste is squeezed in heaven.
On the wall were her own paintings. On her wall were dancers, and an abstracted field of flowers, a train station and an orchestra engulfed in chaos. On her wall was a lean old man waltzing across the floor with a red-haired woman half his age, and melting crocuses, a collection of tall stone arches that looked like the interior of a self-confident cathedral, and a cello splintered by bullets and spotted with blood. On her wall were four paintings that she could see, and she loathed them for the fact that she could not destroy them without destroying small old important parts of herself.
"The reason I wrote what I wrote is because I'm your friend," said the man. He looked at her hands. Her fingers were long.
The man sipped from a blue cup filled with green tea, and looked at her imploringly. "Doesn't it make sense, though? There was only one way to get through to you, and that was to make it into a public thing. Besides, I'm only one writer. Many other people have written favorably of your work."
The woman looked around the room, and saw pricetags, and clenched her hands in frustration.
"Listen," said the man, "there are people dying of fatal diseases everywhere we look."
"Think about how this can be a new start, if you've taken my words to heart."
"Why don't you let me take you out, we'll get a couple of beers and some pizza, and we'll not worry about it for a while?"
"I was telling the truth."
The words were all sprayed like drops of cold, hard water spat from a shower head.
"I can't recover from what you've written!" she blurted. "You could have said the same thing a hundred different ways! I've never done anything but speak well of your writing!"
"For Christ's sake..." he muttered. "Fuck. Listen. What if... listen, you know I can't do anything about it at this point. It was true."
"How was it true?" Her eyes locked onto him now. For some reason, she thought she was gaining some ground, here.
His voice rose and became clear as he spoke. She exhaled as though she'd been punched, although all he'd done was to paraphrase his article.
Conversation halted. He sipped his tea. "Well," he said, "up for a movie or something?" He gave her a bright look.
She fumed. He left.
The door made an audible click as it was shut, and she was alone in the apartment, staring through the windows, unable to move.
After a short period of time, she was able to move again.
A day passed. Another began.
The first thing that Melissa Young did was to throw away her paints, and her brushes.
She did this while wearing her nightgown, before brushing her teeth. She threw the paints and brushes into a cardboard box, and put the box into the trash can, and, removing the can's liner, threw the stuff off of her balcony into the cold February air.
The white bag rotated and spun, and dropped toward the Dumpster, which had been coated by snow. It landed atop the other bags with a gentle crunch.
The cement of the balcony was freezing cold, and it burned the soles of her feet. The wind and light assualted her, and she went back into the warmth of her apartment, shutting the sliding door behind her.
Melissa smiled broadly for a while. Then she began to think.
"A critic's voice can be more powerful than he or she might initially think," said the man.
The class listened. It was too early in the hour to drift away, and they still hadn't formed a collective opinion of the guest speaker.
"A critic's voice is a call from the outside world, and it both captures and shapes perceptions. It can ruin a career, or it can build one up. I ruined one of my best friend's careers last week."
The eyes in the class focused on him a bit more intensely. He enjoyed the sensation. Somewhere in the back of the curved room, in the 100th seat, he spotted a young man who reminded him of himself. This gave him courage. This made his presentation important. The young man was looking at him with his head slightly cocked, and with sharp eyes.
"She is... or was... a rather well-known painter of some regard," the man continued. "She isn't yet very talented from a classical perspective, but she was, for a while, developing. And her ideas are riveting; all they lack is the discipline and focus to breathe real life into them."
He paused, and poured himself a glass of water from the plastic carafe next to the podium. He drank from the glass until he was sated, and wiped his lips with the back of his silk sleeve.
"But because of lazy critics, who built her up as a sensation before she was ready for it... because of writers who strive to build everything into a superlative, rather than trying to describe what they see, and who worry about what reaction their words will provoke, rather than the content of those words... Well." The man cleared his throat her. "Her talent was spoiled. She grew lazy too, fattening off of the praise and losing her ability to create."
"Now, this isn't a very uplifting example of why criticism is a lynchpin of the artistic world, but I think it's an important one. If you'll consult your outline, you'll see that this plays into the first of my three main ideas-"
A hand shot up into the air. It was attached to the young man in the 100th seat, a brooding fellow with dark hair, and bright eyes, and the casually tattered clothes of someone struggling to look different.
"Yes?" asked the man, acknowledging the hand.
"Doesn't it bother you that you betrayed your friend?" asked the young man.
The man moved his lips into a half-hearted imitation of a smile. "It might bother me if I had, in fact, betrayed her. Thank you for your concern. However, your question has given me a golden opportunity to discuss the first of my three central points."
What the question had in fact given him was something very different. The lecture was shorter than the man had anticipated, and much more scattered than he had hoped. He lost the class about 10 minutes into his 2nd point, and never really recovered it.
He pounded his hands on the wheel of his car, and felt angry at the dull, thumping, padded pain soaking its way into the flats of his palms as he flailed pointlessly away.
Then things began happening.
The man ate a hamburger, and ketchup got on his hands. He saw blood.
The man found two dimes on the ground over the course of a day, and was reminded of Judas.
Why wouldn't chance, or fate, or Chance, or Fate humor him with a third?
No good answer to the question; put it aside.
The man avoided his reflection when he could, and shaved poorly as a result.
The man missed deadlines.
But back in the apartment, in February, in a place fairly well entombed by a potent blend of pity and cold weather, the woman had found her scissors.
The woman turned up the music, and shuddered when she looked at the phone or the door.
Note: she was not committing a crime.
The woman cut up the old man, and cut up the dancer. The paint flaked, and the canvas curled slightly as it was reduced to a series of multi-colored strips. The blades had to be cleaned, periodically.
The phone still did not ring; the door menaced and from the windows oozed the deadly sound of traffic and human speech.
A blue, recently-washed car did not pull up to the building, and the doorbell did not ring suddenly, startling the woman into dropping the blades. Soon the entire canvas was reduced to colorful, almost festive strips of paper.
The woman let a handful of little strips tumble from her palm to the floor. There was a party going on!
Where was the car?
Again, no good answers stand at the ready. Discard the question, or shelve it for future reference.
The music filled the room - it was new, and vital, and surging, and it gave the woman courage. The value of courage is arguable, of course.
And as time went by, the strips lost their festivity, but the room remained the same.
A freezing rain beat down upon the people of the city, and the roofs of the cars, both parked and driving. The woman smiled to herself. This was perfect, for a little while.
Then: it wasn't, with a vengeance.
The falling water, however, remained, coming down in cold wet drops hovering at around 35 degrees (Fahrenheit), melting snow, wetting down hair, and spilling off of buildings in mindlessly malicious and surprising ways.
Out the window, past one of the three remaining pieces of pigment-covered canvas, a clear liquid flowed: there were drops spilling from above, marshalling themselves, propelled effortlessly, striking and united and tumbling and poured from the dirty gutters down through the polluted air to the filthy ground.
Then came expensive confetti, tumbling from the balcony, struck by and striking the raindrops as they plunged toward the Earth. For a moment, a passerby could look to the streetlight on Diamond Street, and tip his (or her) head in the correct way, squinting dilligently, and see a hundred hours of focused life energy come out of the sky in strips and ribbons.
The contents of the sky were pretty, and transient.
And then it would be ordinary rain again: chilling to the bone.
By coincidence, the man was looking up and squinting dilligently at the apartment above as the confetti fell from the balcony, but he couldn't actually pick it out of the blender of rain and darkness that surrounded the streelights.
He sucked on a cigarette, hands trembling, and continued to stare upwards. 15 minutes earlier, she had been up on the balcony, raising her arms to the inclement weather. Why?
He ran toward the building, but the floral apology (all irises, for some reason) dropped from his hands immediately after his eyes identified the tiny, multicolored spray of hours, and hours and uncritical thinking and hours of paint on paper and sloppy brushwork and 600 minutes and spare change. Petals and confetti melted into the rain, but not before the man picked up a scrap: a head.
Deep blue folds of life and wet, painted strips of paper erased themselves into the dirty concrete, but not before the man picked up an old man's poorly rendered but strangely strirring severed head.
The head was not wet, somehow.
When she checked her mail, she was surprised by the postcard she received.
It was one of the old ones that they both liked: This one was a stereographic view of the pine-crowned heights of Suwa-yama, copyrighted 1904 by Underwood & Underwood. It was dusky and dark, and heavy with age.
On the back was a written explanation of the scene:
"Those smart two-story houses down below the hill are the private residences of foreigners. The Japanese themselves do now and then build and furnish houses after the European manner, but most of them naturally prefer their own mode of life and in this land of earthquakes there is certainly good sense in keeping to one-story structures without chimneys."
Pasted to the post card was the old man's head.
Written next to the head, in the man's handwriting, was the following note:
"It really wasn't that bad. It was really pretty good. You have much farther to go. Go ahead and build as many stories as you need to. Perhaps I will try to stack more bricks than I throw, this time."
The note was unsigned.
James Norton is the editor of Flak