Xian took a paint marker and an old mini-cassette recorder from his pocket. “Second and C,” he said into the tape recorder.
His work was marked by symmetry and a lack of clutter. No plastic bags, rarely a can—just things, objects with meaning. “Old air conditioner, bicycle wheel, laundry hamper, Ikea shelving unit, bundled magazines, guitar case, two broom handles, two feet of chicken wire. March 10, 2010.”
His friend Roger, a minimalist musician from New Zealand who played tambourine exclusively, had encouraged Xian, with misused words, to destroy the “large-object hegemony” he had created and allow mass groupings of smaller, like objects. Thus began the “utensil series.”
The one he had just completed was, he admitted to himself, a bit bulky, but materials were luck of the draw. The works were site-specific – collections of similar cans – coffee, Red Bull, Pringle’s – grouped around a fire hydrant, for example. Initially he’d tried to plan his work around the nights before garbage was picked up, but he soon figured out that that hardly mattered. Now he worked when he saw the opportunity, when a particular block spoke to him.
The precision, the symmetry of his work, was a sort of negative reflection of his home life. An old girlfriend had, after all, chastised him for spending more time straightening his neighborhood than he did his apartment. There were certain meticulous spots in his apartment, which he took solace in. His books and CDs were all alphabetized. His kitchen cabinets and refrigerator were quite manageable. But most of his apartment was cluttered with the things that were on his mind. Putting things away, he feared, would cause them to be forgotten.
But the mini-cassettes were meticulously catalogued. They were the only record of his work. No one ever saw the work, or if someone did, they’d likely think it was happenstance or the pastime of some vagrant. He sometimes considered that the tapes themselves might be the work, that the art might be the recorded descriptions of arranged piles of refuse. He wasn’t sure which he preferred – the tapes or the piles being the byproduct – but it didn’t matter yet. He’d figure that out if someone, preferably someone offering to back him, showed interest, or rather he’d let their interest determine what part of the project was the art. All of it was, actually, he’d tell himself, or perhaps none of it was.
He opened the front door to his building and walked to the door of his ground-floor shaftway apartment, rattling the keys along the way, let himself in and immediately labeled the tape case with the date and location, then placed it alongside several dozen other tapes on the wooden shelf hanging on the wall. Each tape contained descriptions of about 100 works, or contained 100 works in themselves, or was one work, or part of a work. He frankly wasn’t so interested in breaking down the project like that – it was only as a result of Roger’s infernal quizzing that he had come to consider such questions. Which was likely to begin again soon. Roger was supposed to pick him up to go to the Vanguard.
One of Xian’s favorite spots in his apartment was the top of his refrigerator. It too, as well as the medicine cabinet, was an oasis of order. In addition to a long, wooden dish shaped like a leaf where he put his wallet, change and keys, there was a small jar containing a copy of every apartment key any woman had ever given him, had ever trusted him with. He’d given back the originals, but he’d kept a copy to put in the jar. They weren’t labeled, he figured he’d tell people, if ever questioned (which he knew wasn’t likely – if he was ever questioned, it would be by a friend to whom he’d tell the truth or a lover with whom he wouldn’t risk even a partial revelation and would have to lie completely), so he wouldn’t know which was whose, and certainly some of the women would have moved by now. Of course, there were a few he remembered, but he would never use one. That wasn’t the point. He wasn’t sure what the point was, however, and sometimes considered throwing them all away. But he’d come this far – why quit now? He imagined one day using it as a gallery piece, though he realized there was a certain unattractive machismo to that. Still, with the right title.
Roger pounded on Xian’s apartment door and yelled “Oi!” in the way he had of playing up his nationality, or at least his non-Americanness, which had always struck Xian as a little out of character, or in any event unappealing. “Zee! Door!” Roger had many names for Xian – “Zee,” “X,” “Chris,” “Criss Cross,” “Cross Chris” and “Christ” were the ones in heavy rotation. Xian only called Roger “Roger.” He’d called him “Sid Vivacious” a few times, but it was too long for a nickname, and he wasn’t really looking to give Roger a nickname anyway. The blandness of Roger’s given name had a sort of undermining quality he found satisfying.
Xian recounted the afternoon’s work at Roger’s insistence and to his disinterest. Then Roger helped the subject flow back to himself, and helped himself to one of Xian’s cigarettes. He’d done some close-miked tambourine recordings he was quite happy with by the East River and in Tompkins Square. Roger much preferred collaborating with environmental sounds over other people, something Xian attributed to Roger’s questionable social skills. But Roger did have a session scheduled for that evening with a vocalist and an acoustic guitarist— in an abandoned stable house in Brooklyn no less. If some people showed up he might walk away with $10 or $15.
“So you’re not coming to the Vanguard?” Xian asked.
“Aw, brother, given the opportunity to create or consume, you got to go with the former,” Roger replied. “Besides, that cat ain’t made a good record in 15 years.”
“Cat.” Roger would also play up his Americanism at times, depending on the context of the conversation, and always with anachronistic slang that was to be understood as a statement of his superiority.
“He hasn’t made a good record that you’ve heard,” Xian said, leaving the linguistic annoyance alone.
“Well, you’ve got them all. I’ve heard them. Besides, cover and a two drink minimum?”
Xian wasn’t surprised. Nor did he care. His mind was elsewhere. He had a meeting with his lawyer, a lawyer, in the morning. No big deal, but it always made him a little anxious. He considered not going to the show, but somehow Roger’s not going meant he had to. And truth be told, Roger was right. The Vanguard was pricier than his usual haunts, but he walked across town anyway after seeing Roger off at the subway.
The gig was by a saxophonist who had moved to Europe some time ago and didn’t play in town as often as he used to, and he had made some great records a dozen or so (but less than 15) years earlier. Arriving alone, Xian ended up being shown to a table already occupied by a woman he’d gone on a couple of dates with a few years before, sitting with another woman he’d never cared for. Carolyn was endlessly energetic, and forever cheerful. They’d met back when he used to go to the park carrying an empty guitar case, when he went by “Zion.” Carrying his guitar, he had learned, was a great way to meet women, but on days when he didn’t need it (which he never really did), or didn’t feel like playing, he’d carry the empty case on a strap on his back. Much lighter that way. If pressed, he would say he was picking up the guitar from being “set up,” and then when asked would say “like a tune-up for your car.” It never happened, but that was what he planned to say should it ever play out that way.
Carolyn had loaned him a CD that he never returned and eventually just sold. He had completely forgotten that until a few minutes after sitting down, and was horrified now at his behavior, and worried that she might remember. It was one of his biggest dating fears, losing media, books, records, and here he’d done it himself. They chatted, he was civil to Carolyn’s friend whose name he’d forgotten. The saxophonist played a respectable and reliably forgettable first set, Xian slowly sipped up his minimum, and when both were through he explained he had a meeting with his attorney in the morning. He didn’t know if he liked saying that, and wondered if it sounded like a lie. As Xian got up from his chair to leave, Carolyn’s friend politely declared, “It’s Stacey.”
The next morning’s meeting wasn’t that early, 10:30 in Midtown, and he decided to stop off somewhere back on the east side. Seeing Carolyn at The Vanguard was getting to him, for no good reason, and by the time he reached 1st Avenue he’d decided to go try his luck. He turned and walked up to Coyote Ugly, a notorious pick-up spot where he’d never spent a pleasurable second. He walked in, saw a heavily made-up woman standing on the bar with a nondescript guy licking her stomach, turned around and left.
He moved on to a wine bar closer to his home that had jazz bands and no cover on Tuesday nights. He sat down at an empty table, ordered a beer and had to admit to himself that the young, pianoless quartet was nearly as good as the living legends trio he’d just dropped $60 on. After finishing the song he’d walked in on, however, the trumpet player said they were taking a short break, and a pleasant enough Cassandra Wilson record came up on the little stereo behind the bar.
That’s when he noticed that there was a woman sitting alone at the next table. How’d he missed that? Not his type – makeup well applied, tasteful blouse that seemed perfectly her size. But what the hell? He asked if he could join her, and she smiled and murmured into her wine glass.
Fueled by being in the sort of situation he imagined all guys but him find themselves in, he chatted her up a bit and then asked her for her phone number.
“Write me through my blog, ‘satindoll’” she said, quickly and legibly printing the url on a napkin.
“Oh, I love that song,” he replied, mistaking it for a moment for an old doo-wop side, a mistake he later realized and cursed himself for, though luckily he hadn’t said enough to look stupid.
She knew the bassist, it turned out, but he didn’t think she was his girlfriend. At least she didn’t say she was. They chatted a bit more. He mentioned the gig he’d just come from, she seemed impressed, and he talked it up more than he thought it deserved, even inventing an episode where the bassist played a solo while muting his strings on the drummer’s cymbal. When he saw the band returning to the stage, he abruptly decided to leave and gulped down the last of his beer. He repeated the same thing about the attorney meeting, feeling even stupider doing it this time.
Part of what felt insincere about the attorney story was that it was really his father’s attorney, which was to say his mother’s attorney since his father had died four years prior, leaving him a not inconsiderable inheritance. He had to go up to Midtown twice a year to meet with the lawyer about the foundation he’d set up with his father’s money, although neither of them had any interest in it. His first inclination, after his father died and the will and estate had been sorted out, had been to blow through the money as fast as he could. It was a plan Roger, that Kiwi-accented ball of pure id, had wholeheartedly supported. The attorney, an avuncular figure named Tim O’Brien, though Xian harbored secret suspicions that he was Jewish, had encouraged him to “do something intelligent” with the money. There was enough there to allow a meager living for 12 years or so if he’d make some simple money-market investments or something. Xian had asked him about setting up a foundation, and O’Brien had grudgingly established a fund, naming Xian as the administrator and allowing him a salary of some $2,000 a month.
The work of the foundation was entirely Xian’s idea – a fund for the repair and maintenance of public clocks. Xian loved the idea of public-service timekeepers, and hated the fact that the city streets were home to clocks 10 feet off the ground and frozen at 10:35 or 12:08 or 4:50. He’d never done much to publicize the foundation, though, and O’Brien couldn’t frankly give a rat’s ass about it. No one knew it existed, so no one ever applied for grants. Xian would meet with O’Brien twice a year to discuss the state of the foundation, he would cash his monthly checks, and otherwise would only occasionally worry about whether or not there were any legal repercussions to being the administrator of a foundation that did nothing. He thought sometimes about asking O’Brien if that might mean trouble, but he knew about O’Brien and the rat’s ass he didn’t give about the unrealized scheme. For all he knew, the foundation had never really been set up anyway. Had he ever signed any papers or anything? He couldn’t remember. And anyway whenever he got to the office he wanted to leave as soon as possible.
At some point two or three years ago, with O’Brien’s help, he’d also set up an arm of the foundation, a DBA or some such thing, to serve as the agent for his artwork. Somehow that part of the scheme, the corporation, the whatever it was, did concern O’Brien, who wasn’t at all pleased with the fact that Xian’s work had taken on a decidedly nonpreservable quality. That was the word O’Brien used: “nonpreservable.” In a fit of disapproving rage, Xian had looked “nonpreservable” up in his Merriam-Webster, and indeed it wasn’t there. Xian suspected that O’Brien’s interest in that aspect of their business relationship was the product of his mother’s prodding. The clock thing, sure, whatever, but his parents had invested no small amount of money for him to study art, coming very close but not quite getting his MFA, and although she never said as much, Xian knew that his mother would prefer him to be producing works that were at least capable of being sold, even if finding a buyer was less than likely. Armed with the blunderbuss of a 35-year-old minor in art history, his mother was fond of pointing out that Picasso himself had made art out of garbage, a bust of a bull fashioned from a bicycle seat and handlebars the artist had found in the trash. Xian’s argument that he was trying to destroy such forcing of figurativeness held little truck with her.
O’Brien never brought up that bit of business when they met, and of course neither did Xian. For all he could figure, the sole purpose of the meeting was to keep O’Brien getting whatever cut of the money he got, however that worked. At least it didn’t take too long.
It was a warm day and Xian got off the train at Union Square and walked home, stopping by a vinyl-only shop on the way. Up on the wall was a copy of Lester Bowie’s African Children, the one album he truly coveted. He felt a bit of bile rise, thought he might actually vomit as he took it from the wall and held it in his hands. At $150, it was a bargain. But $150 he didn’t have, not really. He put it back on the rack and left the shop.
Shuffling back toward his apartment, he lit a cigarette, inhaled and felt nothing. There was no familiar rush of smoke down his throat. He exhaled a lungful of smoke. He saw it, watched it dissipate, but couldn’t feel it leaving his mouth. He tried again and felt nothing again, and considered the fact that maybe he wasn’t dying so much as just disappearing.