By Gary Duehr
I'm an idiot, an imbécile. I know this about myself. Just ask anyone on my block, any of the miscreants I hang around with nights in the Superette parking lot, bumming smokes, knocking back six-packs of Leffe Blonde. Jules is an idiot, my pals will say, or, Don't be an idiot, right to my face.
But I am an idiot— I find it can prove useful. I've been nipped a couple times by the cops for graffiti, but they always let me go with a warning. I look innocent, young for 23, a buzz-cut of brown fuzz, arms and legs like sticks, and I know how to play dumb. My tag is a capital "I" in a bloodshot cartoon eye, outlined in white with radiating red streaks. For I Am an Idiot, see? I hit freight cars and the underside of bridges, the big brick walls of abandoned factories. Always on my own, no witnesses. In and out, a quick spritz of glossy red and white, one in each hand like a gunslinger.
Then I sprint in my Nikes and gray tracksuit back to my girlfriend Adie's place to post to Instagram, scroll through what my fellow street artistes have been up to. It's a friendly competition unless some upstart smashes your mark. Then it's war. I've expanded my territory in the Quarter since I got laid off from the auto garage. Too greasy anyway, the smell got under my fingernails, plus working for dickheads who don't know a socket wrench from a ratchet. They kept cutting my hours so screw them! I try thumbing through my laptop looking for gigs, but there's nothing out there.
When I do manage to score an interview, it's a joke. I throw on a clip-tie for the Zoom, but there I am on Adie's futon couch, trying to show sincere interest in some crap job. Adie says she doesn't mind my current situation. She's full-time at the deli on the ground floor. She hates her handsy boss, but it's money. As long as I'm looking, she says. And she thinks I've got real talent for drawing. I do calligraphy in my notebook, trying out combinations of letters twisted together like vines.
I like to hang around the Louvre, but I'm not up to anything. What else can I do all day? I go there to get inspired. I imagine I'm flailing in the waves in Gèricault's massive "The Raft of the Medusa, or lying wounded in the smoky battlefield of Delacroix's "Liberty Leading the People," staring up at that red flag. I want my cartoon eye to have that kind of punch. I can't afford a ticket, so I sneak in with a bunch of tourists dressed like kids in tshirts and baseball caps. Sometimes I let them carry me along to wherever they're headed. That's when I first saw Mona in the flesh. She's smaller than you think, just a foot and a half by maybe two-and-a-half feet. Her sideways gaze seems to pick me out of the crowd. And her expression reminds me of Adie, the way she's always watching me. I'd like to get closer, but the crowd is usually too thick. She's in a big glass case behind a curved wooden railing, like she's a witness in court or something. I usually manage to catch her eye through the tangle of raised arms and cellphones. No flash is allowed, so there's just this steady clicking like sleet hitting a windshield.
It's hard to keep still at Leonardo's. The air is suffocating. There's the odor of horse dung from the stables across the way, the tang of turpentine rags, and my eyes sting from wood smoke spilling out of the stove, which barely heats his barn of a studio. I've only seen him once or twice, coming through to grab a piece of red chalk or a drafting tool. I'm left in the hands of his apprentices, bent over the easel. They say he'll be coming soon to put on the finishing touches, he's behind on geometry diagrams for Luca Pacioli's Divina Proportione. My half-smile's not meant to. be mysterious, it's fixed, stuck to my upper teeth. I'm just trying to get through this, it's a present from my husband Francesco. I've seen Leonardo's rough sketch of me, chestnut ink on vellum. Pretty generic, I look just like the one he did of Isabella d'Este from Mantua: folded hands, far-off gaze. She's in profile to show off the slope of her nose, but she looks as bored as I am.
The morning it all happened, I left Adie's at 6 when she went down to open up. We'd had a stupid fight earlier about who was going to clean the toilet. She asks if I'd done it yet, it's gross with hairs all over it. I tell her I'd scrubbed it just last week. She says she doesn't care, she's got a girlfriend dropping by after work. Who, I ask? Rochelle. Rochelle?, then there's no place for me tonight. I tell her she didn't tell me. She says she did last night and besides it doesn't matter. She can't do everything and work all hours at the deli too. I tell her I've been busy too. Right, Jules, she says. Yeah, busy, there's some jerk who's been wrecking all my tags. I asked her if she got a new brush, the old one was busted so I threw it out. I don't have money for a new one, she says. I have to pick up wine for tonight, please do it before I get back. I'll try, I tell her. Don't try, I'm sick of your trying! And she slams the door on her way out.
I'm a real person, I'm no grinning haflwit. I was born in Florence in the late 15th century, and my real name is Lisa Gheradini. I was married to the Florentine trader Francesco del Giocondo. Some people think my painting is a portrait of Leonardo's mother, Caterina. That's Freud's big thesis, that my, quote—enigmatic—unquote, smile comes from his repressed memory. That's hilarious. How old do I look? Or even crazier, that I'm actually the artist's self-portrait, disguised as a woman. They imagine some likeness between our broad foreheads and pointy chins. What, does it look like I have a beard?
So that morning I'm there in front of Mona like always, only this time the tourist throng is shoving me forward until I'm eye to eye with her. I feel something in my pocket. A rock from the train tracks where I was tagging earlier. It's sharp and hard, I can turn its flinty surface over in my fingers. I look up at Mona. Her half-smile seems to be mocking me. She looks so perfect, so untouchable behind bulletproof glass, floating in a paradise of bluish fields, a river zigzagging through. It's just me and her. My hand closes tight around the rock, as if acting on its own.
Finally, the master arrives, trailed by apprentices like a prince, his sharp nose cutting the air, his long hair and beard flowing down. For a man of 50 he's pretty agile, waving a brush in the air and zeroing in the easel. It doesn't look like there's any pigment on it. Over and over, he swipes the wood panel's surface, glazing it. When I look at the end of the afternoon, almost nothing has changed, but the flesh of my forehead and cheeks is softer, they're glowing now. I feel as if it's me who's dissolving in turpentine. He doesn't talk. The whole studio goes silent. We're all in a trance. I'm transported, transfixed in the dusky landscape.
I smile to myself as my hand eases the rock out, warm in my palm. I feel the solid weight rise to the height of my shoulder then somehow get released in a slow-motion trajectory that feels like my arm is separating from my body and going off on its own.
I see the glass crack, the galaxy of fractures. I feel the panel tremble. A microchip of crimson paint flakes from my lower lip. Inside my glass case, I can hear the muffled gasp of the crowd, the clatter of stanchions echoing in the marble hall. I watch the perpetrator, a skinny kid in a track suit, race away down the hall. I feel like I can breathe.
High overhead, a police drone trails the suspect out onto the sunny plaza, down through narrow side streets. A call goes out to nearby patrol cars, which begin to converge on his path. In the aerial view, he's a silvery blur darting under trees and down brick alleys. All the greens and reds run together like a wet watercolor that's been tipped to one side, and that part of the city is suddenly magnetized and drawn to him. He makes it to the Metro and vanishes. The drone captures a clutch of officers pounding down the subway steps after him.
I remember hanging upside down over the railing of the pedestrian bridge over Canal Saint-Martin, a red spray can in one hand and white in the other, blasting away on the green steel girder. My big fat eye stares back at me. I Am an Idiot.Because that's who I am, always on the rock bottom looking up. I can hear the swirl of water and squirrels rattling in the leaves. It's five in the morning so no one's around, only a drunk moaning against a lamppost. It's just me and the city, dead asleep.
Gary Duehr has taught creative writing for institutions including Boston University, Lesley University, and Tufts University. His MFA is from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. In 2001 he received an NEA Fellowship, and he has also received grants and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the LEF Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Journals in which his writing has appeared include Agni, American Literary Review, Chiron Review, Cottonwood, Hawaii Review, Hotel Amerika, Iowa Review, North American Review, and Southern Poetry Review.His books include Winter Light (Four Way Books) and Where Everyone Is Going To (St. Andrews College Press).