By Jon Fain
Lenore, at one time the sharpest point on the cutting edge, was six months into her performance art comeback when the phone calls began. What she got for keeping a landline.
The voice was garbled, hard to understand. One thing was clear: The dude, clearly a dude, could talk some real dirt, although nothing she hadn’t heard, or for that matter shouted out in front of always under-paying audiences.
It wasn’t some speed-dialing Romeo trolling for a random female. If Number 7 answered one of these calls, he’d get the same treatment. He gave it right back, convinced it was some lame, uptown button-down, someone trying to wedge into their scene. After a few more calls, he claimed he knew who it was—a regular at their gigs—and told Lenore to call him out at the next one, really soak him down.
Lenore wasn’t so sure, especially when they got the dead earthworms in the mail. It was beginning to look like someone who wasn’t juggling more than one. You couldn’t be too careful. Back in the day, so long as you called it art people went along. But things were different now.
“Mom! Hey Mom! You got a call!”
Adam wandered into the open space of the loft. He held the cordless phone and listened. He heard deep breathing. He wished Ricky would wait until his mother got on to get weird.
He walked through the kitchen area, the center island covered with spilled and scattered food—two burned bagel halves, a smear of lox and cream cheese, some old spaghetti crusted onto the bottom of a pot, a gnawed and oxidized apple quarter, a plastic bottle of flat seltzer—and the sink stacked with cold greasy water and dirty dishes. The not-so-faint whiff of overflowing garbage wafted out of the can next to the fridge. It never used to be like this. He called out again.
His mother finally emerged from her bedroom. The doorframe had been painted with black swirls, supposedly to look like pubic hair. That was what Timmy told him anyway. Over the door, the sorry tool had painted in red the words TUNNEL OF LOVE. Adam caught a glimpse of the room, his mother’s bed, Timmy’s pale stupid foot stuck out from under the covers.
Lenore looked like she’d been hit over the head with a hammer. She always looked worse after one of her performances.
He said, “It’s Grandma.”
His mother held together her short brick red and green kimono, its tied-off belt dangling like a tail. Her thick legs were bare and white, shaved smooth, like porcelain. She held her other hand for the phone.
“Hey Ma,” she croaked.
She listened a moment.
Adam ducked through the heavy drapes, into his side of the space.
“And then dude. Puck. She told that kid—”
“What was she wearing?” Adam asked.
“He deserved it. He dissed their band!” said Ricky.
On his bed, Adam flicked through a wrestling magazine, one of the all-girl ones that Ricky had found in his sister’s room after she’d left for college.
“I’d do her,” Adam said, but it didn’t come out stronger than wishful thinking. He got into his magazine, the girls with narrow faces and heavy make-up.
“Think they do each other...?” he said, trying to make it sound like a question he knew the answer to.
“Puck and Withers? Yeah. Girls are like that. Like my sister.”
“To them it’s nothing,” said Adam, not so sure.
“Yeah,” Ricky said, and then, “Dude I don’t know about me and Withers.”
They had been over it, decided.
“She’s funny,” Adam reminded him.
“Adam?” his mother called out, close by.
She’d probably been listening. Adam hid his magazine underneath the pillow—hoped Ricky would stash his cell phone away.
“Adam...? Are you boys doing homework in there?”
It was Saturday afternoon. Adam’s laptop played an old science fiction movie without sound. Spacemen pretended to be scared of some guy dressed in what looked like big metal garbage cans, supposed to be a robot. Even though he hadn’t said she could, Lenore came in.
He’d asked her to put the drapes up, not that it helped, since she didn’t respect it. She made it worse by taking it wrong, told him that seeing as he was almost 15, he could have a girl over if he wanted. How it would have been a nice way to lose her cherry, rather than in the Jersey woods during fly season—as if he needed to hear that.
“How’s Grandma?” Adam asked, and Ricky laughed.
“You didn’t talk with her?”
There came a slow, chik, chik, chik—Ricky flipping pages below.
“She’s—” his mother stopped, and looked at Ricky. “What’s your name again?”
“Samir,” Ricky said.
“She still like California?” Adam asked.
After she left, Adam and Ricky switched magazines. He hadn’t told his friend about the time his mother had gotten it into her head to teach him how to put on a condom. She’d gone to the fridge and gotten a carrot, decided that wasn’t fat enough, and took out a cucumber. But she’d gotten frustrated, couldn’t get the condom on because of “all the fucking wax.”
“Timmy,” Lenore said. She had to say it a couple of times.
She was on the bed, looking at the windows in the building across the street.
The sun had dipped below the skyline and dusk settled in. Normally, she loved this time, the first swallow of the night.
“Come on, Timmy, I know you’re awake.”
Number 7 really was number 7, and he was also crazy enough to get a kick out of it, enough so that she referred to him as Timmy infrequently; she’d had to think before remembering his name.
She’d realized too late he was only twenty-five. Her first performance back he’d sat close to the stage, and in the flush of the moment, when he’d come up to her after, she thought he got it better than most. It had been awhile since Number 6, the executive director of the foundation where she’d worked for way too long.
Adam’s father had been Number 3, and she talked to him once in a while because of the kid, especially now when he was growing so fast she couldn’t afford all his new clothes. She’d seen Number 5 by chance on the street once, but had long lost track of the others. She had no idea what the final count would be, but she liked the idea of the “baker’s dozen.” When you got one more than you expected.
Number 7 lay on his back, his right forearm over his face. The sheet and blanket had slipped down to expose the mantle of black hair across his chest. He had a body like a swimmer, supple like an otter, with the stamina and playfulness to match, but Lenore couldn’t start thinking about that now.
“It was him.”
“The one with the mouth. The worms. On the phone.”
“I didn’t hear anything.”
Number 8 took a step closer.
“So what...? Like last…?” He yawned and stretched.
“It doesn’t matter what he’s saying.”
She got off the bed and went to the windows. Down on the street, a man in a gray hoodie walked the line of parked cars, paused at each one and tried the door handle before moving on. She felt better right away. She liked being apart while still a part of something—that’s how you discovered the truth, buried in with everything else.
“He disguised his voice so Adam thought it was my mother. His Grandma!”
“How does she like Florida?”
The man below opened the door of a black compact. He reached in and lifted out a purple gym bag, gently closed the door, and walked away with it under his arm. Crime at the time was why her mother had moved to L.A. Once people got something into their heads, and thought it was the truth? Facts were effervescent. What everyone had bubbling inside them was an opinion—usually wrong.
“I know who it is,” Lenore said.
“The dude on the phone? I told you before.” Number 7 sat up, scratched a match for a cigarette and dropped it into a water glass on the floor, where it hissed out. “He sits down front, comes every time. Short fat guy, with glasses.”
Lenore rarely looked into the audience. She’d blind herself by staring into the stage lights if her focus began to wander.
“I know who it is and it isn’t a fan.”
“Oh yeah, it is,” said Number 7. “Haven’t you seen him? Follows where we are, gets there early and sits grinning. Thinking up all the shit he’s going to call up and say. He wants to be part of it, but he doesn’t get it! Doesn’t get the difference between performing, like we do, artists doing art. Anybody can say those things on the phone.”
“No! It’s that asshole who reviewed us in that blogsite or whatever you call it.”
“Come on! I just told you who it is!”
“Nothing has changed. It’s just like when I was out there giving it my all before. All any so-called critics care about is the last word,” Lenore said. “It’s all about them. You do the work, provide all the creativity, and all they do is write down, spew back what happened. All the best stuff, so people don’t even have to find out for themselves! Write that it’s no good, that it’s sick and disgusting, like this thing she does with… it’s total censorship! It’s gigs canceled unless I sign an agreement not to do it, it’s censorship, it’s the beginning of the end, it’s the last fucking word!”
“It’s the fat guy,” said Number 7. Then he laughed, as if it was all a big joke. “He wants that tuxedo you’ve been wearing.”
Lenore had found her new look in a thrift store tux, pants cinched tight above her waist with yellow utility rope. She opened with a recitation of an improvised free-form poem—channeling Billy Bob Thornton whacked on horse tranquilizer gave her the vibe—while Number 7 hunched off-stage, breaking glass and making swamp sounds. After that, she had a couple of different directions she could go, but usually ended up stripping down to nothing but the tux’s cummerbund.
“What he wants is the last word,” she said. “So what does he do? Writes that it’s dated. That’s it. Don’t bother seeing this.”
“Didn’t he also call you a ‘caterwauling nuisance’?”
Lenore looked down at the street. She’d stopped doing her art, what really mattered, because of what certain people said or what she thought certain people wanted. She wasn’t going to make that mistake again. She needed to blow away those past regrets.
It had accelerated the afternoon they’d had the naked model in Live Drawing, the only class the four of them had together, after the teacher, Mr. Roddensweig, left the studio and all of a sudden, Puck took off her clothes. The room charged with blitzed energy as she went up with her tuft of hair and smack-dab tits and stood next to the older woman model. Puck posed with a can of Dew held up in the air like she was the Statue of Liberty.
It had been a long build-up from that day in October to this day in late March— now Adam and Ricky had to make do with a pile of bottles and cans, paper trash and other garbage, set up to stimulate their sketches.
Puck and Withers had come in late and set up in the far corner, mouthing off about the clay dust and the stink of paint thinner and solvents. Live Drawing was taught to keep the art high school’s alumni happy. What students wanted now was more time in the multi-media lab.
Mr. Roddensweig got gifted a tubful of shit when he came over to ask where’d they’d been. They had guitar cases with them, although Puck was sax, and Withers drums, in the all-grrl band that was playing the school’s April Fool’s party Saturday night. They had been calling themselves Rotten Red Razz—now just Razz.
These chicas were seriously all that.
Ricky attacked his newsprint pad, backed away from the easel, and absently-mindedly smeared charcoal on his face.
“Hey. They’re looking this way,” said Adam.
“Hell nah. But Roddensweig is,” Ricky said.
Ricky looked at Adam’s blank page. “He cares more than they do.”
It was the girls, Puck especially, who put out that school wasn’t important—it was all living your life for art. Finally, Adam drew a vase. He added in a big flower that had a smiley face with war paint and a headdress of petals.
“Well, Adam,” said Mr. Roddensweig, who’d come up to stand behind him. “Making a statement again I see.”
“Blow me,” Adam said. The girl at the next easel squeaked in surprise.
By the time he turned, Mr. Roddensweig’s cheeks had flushed crimson above his thick red beard. Adam thought he’d get grabbed and pulled out of the room, his teacher fed up at last by all the smart-ass remarks.
But Roddensweig walked off without saying anything. It was like Ricky said: the teachers always had to step down because the kids had the power, because their parents would be right there to bitch and get them fired if any of them got tough.
“Dude that was sick!”
Adam looked across the room. He ached whenever he saw Puck. Maybe it was stupid trying to impress a girl no matter what. Doubly dumb when she was too far away to see how far you were willing to go.
He knew he couldn’t miss his next chance, whenever—if ever—it came. The month before, when he finally worked up the courage to talk to her, it hadn’t gone well.
“Oh, I know you,” Puck had said, after Adam and Ricky caught up with her and Withers in the crowded flow after class.
“You’re the one whose mother… the de-formance artist… does it with oysters!”
Withers—and Ricky too—laughed and so did the kids standing around.
Looking across the room, he remembered Puck naked in the earlier class. Yeah… so there he was now, no notebook or knapsack to cover himself—as he’d had to do lots of times thinking of her, when she wasn’t even around. He folded his hands in front of him, careful not to touch it, much as he wanted to. Tried to think about something else.
What helped it go down was remembering what it was like to live in a place where the food was worse than a homeless shelter’s main course, where a plate of condom-covered cucumbers came on the side.
Adam spent Friday night at Ricky’s, and they stayed up playing video games. Before that, they’d had dinner with Ricky’s parents; Mr. Sampson let them have wine with the meal.
On Saturday, they didn’t go to the museum as they had planned because it was raining so hard. They played some new Sega, and then they let Mr. Sampson talk them into some chess on the board he was so proud of, with him commenting sometimes on their moves. Mr. Sampson asked Adam how he’d learned to play, and he told him online, rather than his Dad. To avoid all the questions, all the if-you-want-to-talk-sometime-sons.
The April Fool’s party was that night.
Later, in his room, Ricky brought out the cell phone. He was the only kid Adam knew who had one at the time. Ricky pretended to make a call, practicing to get his voice down low, disguising it.
It had been Adam’s idea to do the calls. He’d done the first couple, but then Ricky had come up with the real nasty things to say as soon as Lenore or Timmy answered. Ricky said they should mail stuff to them too, something way foul, but Adam told him no.
He’d wanted to scare Timmy out of there. Things started to change before the tool had arrived—all of a sudden, his mother decided to quit her job and do her performances again—but it got worse once he moved in. It was like waking up one morning and having someone else’s big brother in your house, the big brother of your worst enemy.
Ricky moved the phone toward Adam, back and forth, as if they were magnetized to each other.
Adam looked out the window. Rain slanted past the buildings. It was only 2:00 PM and his mother and Timmy would be still in bed.
His mother looked out the window all the time, for an hour or more sometimes. She’d always done it, at all the places they’d lived, now in the loft, with the big windows that looked down on Broadway. When he was little, she’d hold him on her lap as she sat on a chair by the window. She’d promise they’d see something interesting, but it was always the same: people walking and talking, cleaning up after their dogs, cars driving and honking, pigeons. Oh yeah, sometimes it rained. He had stopped trying to figure out what it was she wanted to happen.
He wondered when his father would call next. Invite him again to come back to live in Connecticut. Why shouldn’t he?
No reason except they had nothing going. No reason other than his stepmother and her two sons creeped him out. No reason except those one of those creeps now had his old room.
No reason except it would mean admitting he had no chance with Puck.
“I got something,” Ricky said, “it kills.”
Usually Adam liked staying over, with the clean sheets and the down quilt. He would like a clean place again.
“No, forget it,” he said. “It was a stupid idea.”
Lenore couldn’t stop pacing. Since the last phone call she’d been wound tight, and when a next one never came—
They waited in an overheated cramped room while the opening act, a trio of tattooed and toneless boogie boys, shook the walls out front. The club, a holdover from back-in-the-day, was still too cheap to lay in snacks. It looked the same inside and out. It had lived on like a blood-sucking vampire, its maw open to catch and circulate through its veins the newest generation of posers and yearners in their shades of black.
Shirtless, Number 7 arranged his props. Sweat dripped off his face and onto his fencing mask.
“And when you bring out the seafood, just before, all right? Give me a signal, so I can gear up into my Poseidon thing!”
Lenore didn’t care what he did or when he did it. She tugged at the yellow rope looped through her black tuxedo pants.
Why didn’t he fucking call!
To start that night’s piece, Number 7 crashed his shit down like California’s final earthquake. Sooner than usual, Lenore got down to the cummerbund, screaming out her challenge—trying to see through the glare of the stage lights, calling the critic out, calling him up out on stage, calling for him over and over again.
Discovered instead through her angry squint, a man down front—who looked, give or take, like a 44 short—laughing, and pointing back.
Earlier that night, after taking over from the DJ and his industrial mix, the first song Razz played drove the dancers off the floor. Adam and Ricky drifted over where Withers bounced up and down on her stool, abusing her high-hat and snare.
Her white sleeveless undershirt was just so, enough to catch a sneak profile of plump grrl-tit and Adam stared at this buried treasure. Then he watched Puck honk on her sax, while the other two girls in the band, who may as well have been in another time zone, sang and played guitar.
Withers suddenly turned in his direction as she drummed, saw him, and smiled. It wasn’t only the surprise of it; he’d never gotten a smile like that, at him, for him—ever.
As if to the music, his hands danced at his sides, but if he could have controlled them, he would have waved to Ricky that whatever happened next, whatever dude. Just as long as something did.
Jon Fain’s recent publications include short stories in The Twin Bill and King Ludd’s Rag; flash fictions in The Broadkill Review and Reservoir Road Literary Review; and micro fictions in Blink-Ink, The Woolf and CLOVE. His chapbook “Pass the Panpharmacon!” is forthcoming from Greying Ghost Press.