Fred just stood there. Gazing at the painting, not seeing it so much as experiencing it, as a window into the soul of the artist, feeling the pain and the joy that floated about in the painter's head before crashing on reality and leaving this bit of flotsam. For the briefest moment, the painting, the artist that created it, and his own sense of emptiness connected and blended and became one.
"Click, Click, Click ..." The noise echoed in the quiet room, he raised his eyes and the mood was gone.
"Click, Click, Click ..." Fred looked about, seeking the source of the disturbing sound and was startled to see a woman that was obviously out of place here. Tall, blond and well built, the sort that would turn heads walking down any street. Her bright red dress was clearly expensive and it clung in all the rights spots, but it clashed with her particular frown and the hard icy eyes.
"Click, Click, Click ..." Her high heels made an irritating sound as she paced back and forth, checking her watch every other click, oblivious to the disturbance she was causing.
Fred shook his head and tried to ignore the sound as he turned back to the painting, struggling in vain to recapture the mood.
"You are late!" Her voice was a bit shrill and she spoke too loudly for the quiet, peaceful setting of the gallery. It seemed to penetrate the walls and the ceiling and the place was no longer peaceful, but tense, as if full of electricity. Fred shuddered a bit and considered bolting for the door. Unfortunately the woman and her friend were exactly in the way and Fred was much too withdrawn and shy to push past them.
"How is a woman to be late when you arrive practically the next day? I had a good chance to contemplate my own afterlife here in this funeral home, thank you very much."
"Ah but rejoice it was not all eternity." The man replied in a somewhat amused tone.
"Definitely seemed like it."
"Alright, let me resurrect you then. I hope they didn't drink all the good whiskey just yet."
Fred blushed a bit; it felt as if he were eavesdropping, even though it seemed obvious the couple couldn't care less.
The woman draped herself on the man's arm and the two left, allowing the normal peace and quiet of the place to slowly rise from the corners and cracks where it had been banished and reclaim the walls and ceiling.
Heaving a great sigh of relief, Fred meticulously studied the painting, hoping to find again that place where he had for a moment felt included, part of something he could not name. But the moment was past and all that came to mind was a flash of anger at the people who had the uncaring cruelty to destroy his rare moment.
Despondently he turned to the door, ready to make his way home. Stepping out into the twilight he paused again, thinking if there might be some other place he could go, anywhere but to the empty, lonely matchbox thing he called home. Home to prepare a lonely meal, which he would consume by the flickering light of the TV, or perhaps he could stop at the diner and have a meal prepared by someone else, consumed in the half dark of a booth in the back. Turning left, he set off for home, at least there his loneliness was a matter kept to himself... besides, he would always bump his head on the peeling low ceilings in that diner.
The streets in this part of town were peaceful in the fading light, Fred noted as he walked that many of the buildings were empty, windows boarded over. Once this area had been home to bookshops and delightful little boutiques selling curios from all over the world, but fashion had moved on and the beautiful people no longer came here.
The few people he passed walking this quiet street seemed to him to be as sad and distant from the world as himself. Turning this over in his mind, an idea began to form. What if they really were like him? Maybe there were actually a lot of people out there who, like him, had no place to go, no friends to chat with, not even a stray dog for company. Nowhere was there a person he could tell about his rare and wonderful moment and expect any sort of understanding.
Blinking, he stopped in his tracks. Lots of lonely people, lots and lots of lonely people, could it really be? Looking back down the street, the way he had come, there was a woman locking the front door of the art gallery he had just left. Beyond her a man sat on the edge of a planter box, smoking a cigarette and gazing off into the distance. Across the street an old man leaned on a cane, making his way down the front steps of one of the few remaining bookshops. Each of them alone, alone and cloaked in their loneliness as if it somehow protected them. Boldly he stared at each of them, startled a bit by his own audacity. As he looked at each in turn, their eyes quickly turned from him, avoiding the dreaded eye contact which might force each to face their own inadequacies.
Frowning, he turned and resumed his journey homeward. Odd, he too had always looked away, should a stranger be so bold as to look at him, but why? Surely a greeting, a friendly nod, perhaps even a kind word exchanged among these quiet, nervous strangers would cheer their day, lift their lonely spirits for a moment. Why was such a small thing so impossible?
Arriving at last at his own door he extracted his keys from the depths of his pocket and fumbled with the lock to the sound of soft woofing noises from inside. The door opened at last and Rex, his small half black terrier leapt into his arms and greeted him happily. Still preoccupied with his own musings about the behavior of strangers he cut short the usual greeting ritual and moved directly to his small kitchen.
Quickly he opened the usual can of dog food and fed Rex. Without thinking much about it he fished some baloney from its wrapping and stuck it between two slices of Wonderbread, then over-sugared his tea. Cup and plate in hand he retired to his wobbly easy chair, facing the glimmering TV. But this night he did not immediately reach for the remote. Instead, he sat in the quiet semi-dark and reviewed the events of the day. There was only one possible conclusion; somehow something in him was different! He had broken the rules, looked at strangers, and even considered the possibility that they might become friends. It must have been that fleeting moment in front of the painting. Something about it had made him realize just how alone he really was, and maybe, just maybe, he need not stay that way. But what to do about it? Rex's insistent whining finally broke into his thoughts and he stirred, realizing his sandwich was untouched and his tea had grown cold. He rose from the chair to let Rex out and was startled to hear the clock strike half past eleven. He had been lost in his own thoughts for hours. Moving to clear the stale sandwich and cold tea he resolved to try again tomorrow. Tomorrow he would return to the painting, the gallery, the street where there was more to be learned about this, that was where he would begin.
"So get in the car."
The man spoke in a strange tone, as if surprised and wondering... and then he made 12 steps for the 3 feet needed to get to the front door of the car and opening it in the most awkward way imaginable nearly slid himself underneath to get to the seat. The three girls he spoke to were in significantly better shape, for the most part. Either that or they just appeared somewhat more stable as they walked tightly grouped together, one in the middle holding the one to her left around the neck and the other around her back. They did manage to clean most of the snow and dirt off the side of the car while making for the door, but none seemed too impressed. Who cares for coats anyway?
The driver looked in the mirror and saw... well, mostly a playboy pictorial. The blond in the middle was just about to pour out of the seat, and in the process her very deeply cut top was pushed up and to the side, and her left nipple with most of the breast was poking out, uniformly tanned, color matching her hair... or maybe the hair was painted to match the tan, one can never be sure with these things.
"Gimme a Shirley Temple," mumbled the girl sitting on the left side, right behind him.
Unfortunately the mirror could not show her, but every driver, even the most burned out, high school drop-out, intellectually unremarkable driver has an imagination. And even if his job is going nowhere and his dinner has been pizza or one week old Chinese take out for the past month, his imagination is not diminished. And so he was served yet another mildly erotic representation of reality, as it happened to him now and again at all-night stores, passing on the street or during family reunions, or early in the morning.
"Shut up you dumb whore," said the blond. She spoke slowly, almost like chanting the words, and with her eyes
closed. She looked perfectly asleep, except she was talking.
"Alright Freddie, let's take the girls home."
The driver's name was not Freddie. It was Edward, Rupert Edward Fulke Warhola. Why ever a permanently drunk Pittsburgh steel plant worker with 9 kids to his credit decides to name his 10th Rupert Edward Fulke is anyone's guess. Such a kid might have been destined for a great future, maybe a great scientist, maybe a great writer... or maybe even a great conceptual artist, an innovator and force of renewal. But it seems in Edward's case the name was not enough of a pull. Ah, if only it were Andrew... but as it is, he gets to be called Freddie and take the girls home. On second thought, he just gets to be called Freddie and go home to his TV and fridge.
The car moved silently out of the parking lot and into the stream of fellow cars, massive, white, and somehow reassuring. The girls seemed to slowly emerge from their previous torpor and soon the windows were vibrating with the intensity of their chat.
"Yes but you don't realize he was in love with that girl."
"No, she told me, Pete had a crush on her but she was at the time with that guy, Pierce whatever, the insurance
"Yea like hell, the Pierce insurance guy is in reality a club dancer at the Mystee and she paid him by the hour to play
the insurance guy."
"No! She is buying escort services now?"
"Well not exactly buying. Anyway, she figured she can tell Pete that Pierce got her into some crazy scheme and she
is out of cash. You know the crap."
"But then why tell Pete to mind his own business?"
"She never did that."
"She told me she did."
"Like hell, I have a bag of Polaroids somewhere with her telling Pete to mind his own business right up her tail."
"How did you end up with that?"
"Well last year when Paul kicked her out she came to my place to crash for a while."
"Your place? Where was that last year?"
"Well not exactly mine, I was staying with Peter."
"What, with Pete?!"
"No not with Pete, with Peter the guy from Norensa."
"It's Norsena you gel brain."
"Like who the hell cares if it's Norensa or Noresna or whatever stupid name they give banks these days."
"So how come I was never invited to see your place?"
"Well it was tiny. Just one big room and a bedroom."
"Oh, but you lived with that aristocratic fart last year didn't you?"
"Yea that or Amsterdam or something. Who cares what stupid names they give aristocratic farts these days."
"Yea, but Paris was before Peter."
"Must have been a bit of a drop, that one..."
"Oh shut up, you are so grand yourself aren't you?"
"Well what can I say; Perry is a real nice guy. He has a yacht and a hunting lodge. I'm covered all year round."
"Except when he makes you fuck his dog."
"What?! Who told you that? That is so untrue!"
"Eh, shut up."
The girls glare at each other angrily and for a moment there is silence. And that silence resounds in the tiny space of the automobile like a symphony. A second later, a symphony can really be heard. It is Bach's 3rd. It is a phone ringing.
"Hi Patrick. How are you?"
Suddenly all three girls are wide-awake and eyeing the man and his phone.
"Give me that phone."
Three young voices, all as one, the man turns startled. He eyes the girls for a minute, one at a time and then turns back and continues his discussion with Patrick, about bonds, about bonds going low, about buying the bonds, about forcing the company to issue stock, about getting the stock to bonds exchange at the face value of the bonds, about the officials that could help with that, about the future. Eventually he has had enough.
"Okay Patrick, I'm going to throw you in the lion pit now. Take care."
He throws the phone over his head, without looking. The girls start wrestling for it, pulling hair, messing clothes, collapsing as a strange monster from one side of the car to the other, every now and then one manages to get control of the cell long enough to say a few words but is quickly overpowered and the scene starts over.
The car takes a turn and melts in the distance.
***Morning came, bright and clear, Rex jumping up on his bed to wake him as usual. Fred came full awake quickly, remembering that this day he has a plan, a goal, something to investigate, maybe something to learn. Moving about the small apartment he completes the usual morning chores.
Make the bed, shower, dress, feed the dog, prepare breakfast, clean the kitchen ...
Standing at the sink washing dishes he stops, startled once again by his own thoughts. How many days had he done this? Too many! Just exactly like this, always the same order, always the same things, every day, day after day... smiling to himself he wipes his hands and walks away, dishes left standing in the warm soapy water.
There are more people on the street today, he notes as he strolls towards the gallery. There a woman getting out of a car, a couple standing by a bus stop, a few people rushing along as if on some important mission, eyes on the sidewalks in front of them, each one seeming oblivious to all the others. Today Fred realizes that he is just like those, rushing along, head down a bit, looking at no one and no thing. In response he slows a bit, stands just a bit straighter, holds his head high and deliberately looks about. Passing the car where the woman had just finished locking her door their eyes meet, and Fred smiles! Apparently without thinking, she smiles back, then blushing furiously she drops her head and busies herself, fumbling with packages and purse, avoiding any further eye contact.
Fred reaches the gallery without further incident and enters the quiet peace of it. Smiling towards the clerk he moves into the gallery, knowing exactly where to find the painting that so fascinates him. There he stands, for hours, gazing at the picture, willing it to fill his senses and show him once again that depth of feeling and unity with the universe. But moments like these are gifts, not be demanded or commanded, and in the end he realizes this and turns away in defeat.
Back on the street Fred pauses, looks about and ponders what to do next. Seeing the planter box where yesterday the smoker had sat, he walks over to it, sits and wishes briefly that he still smoked. His eyes travel up and down the street, watching the various passers by, there are a few young couples here and there but most are like him, alone. His gaze travels to the street and he notes that even there, in the cars passing by, the drivers are alone, ten minutes of observing traffic reveals only one car with multiple occupants, and that a bunch of laughing, screaming teenagers.
Turning back to the sidewalks his gaze falls on the closed shop next to the gallery. The sign still legible in the grimy window reads, "The Reading Room". He remembers when that shop had been on his list of favorite places to spend a bit of time. A spacious place, with shelves and stacks of books in every corner, but with a few spots reserved for a soft chair and a reading lamp. The owner had encouraged his customers to spend a few moments there reading and relaxing. Fred did not recall a time when he had visited the place and found all the chairs empty. Odd, he wondered why it had gone out of business, such a wonderful refuge, and obviously popular.
Slowly the picture formed in his mind, the shop, but different. Still with plenty of shelves of books, but more space and chairs in groups, twos and threes. Here a table and chairs with a deck of cards, there a chess set, some music to dispel the library hush of the place. Refuge!
No, not refuge, sounded too much like escape, ahh yes, Asylum!
And why not? Suddenly filled with purpose Fred strode to the door, pulling down the Realtor notice he walked off to find a cab.