A Golden Light
Stephen M. Tomic
It was going to be his final masterpiece. He’d been planning it for some time. His gallerist called for details. But there were no details, only secrets and silence, which only raised further interest. He’d become a critical darling at a young age with a series of large-scale paintings he made in his parents’ garage. Everyone called him a precocious talent. After that came New York City and London and his celebrated “haze” period, then marriage, two kids, divorce, remarriage, self-portraits, retrospectives, and a studio built at the foot of a mountain.
Even people not connected to the art world knew his name, although he hadn’t yet been shortened to a one-word moniker like Picasso or Matisse. Maybe he never would. It was completely out of his hands.
When the mountainside studio burned to the ground after a prolonged drought and forest fire, he went through a period of depression. He didn’t paint for two years. Dozens of canvases were lost, objects worth hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of dollars. He didn’t keep track. Soon after, his second wife, a thin, turtle-necked architect, left him for a younger man.
The indignity didn’t faze him. He emerged from his dark cocoon bathed in a golden light. The remnants of the studio were left to nature’s folly. He gave the land to a conservancy. In a misbegotten press release, the artist said he wanted there to be bears again.
The critics called his next work political, whatever that meant. He countered by publicly calling it trash, falling just short of disavowal. The money continued to pour in. There wasn’t any point in fighting it. He continued to buy skim milk by the gallon.
Some years after the fire, the artist said in a magazine interview that it was the most liberating experience of his life, save for his divorces. Of course, he was lying. What was worse was that he knew he was lying, about both things. The artist then attempted to paint pain, but failed time and time again in his estimation. Still, each failed attempt sold and the critics described these bruised canvases with words like “orgasmic,” “haunting,” and “blessedly unfamiliar.”
The artist stopped reading reviews after having surgery to remove a malignant tumor from his liver. This might have been forestalled, some thought, but he had never drunk alcohol before. He preferred freshly squeezed lime juice. When the surgeon extracted the golf ball-sized tumor, he preserved it in a jar of formaldehyde at the artist’s request. Later, after his recuperation, he used an X-Acto knife to slice away fine slivers of this cancerous mound of flesh. He then used a mortar and pestle to grind it into a fine powder, which he then mixed with acrylics in order to paint a self-portrait that was put on permanent display at the Guggenheim.
He wasn’t the first artist to paint with cancer. Others before and after him had used unusual materials for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it was for a unique texture or hue. The four bodily fluids—blood, saliva, piss, and shit—were the cornerstones of shock value. The artist had privately derided shock artists for years as one-trick ponies and flashes in the pan. He hated clichés and knew he was one now too, and therefore he grew to hate himself.
Both of his kids were grown and visited infrequently. He winced every time his daughter called and referred to him as daddy. Where did this cesspool of hatred and self-loathing originate? He knew his life was blessed. But he also knew the translation of the French word blessé meant injured, bleeding, or stricken, and he wondered if that also applied to him.
Taking a page from Klimt, he began to wear a thin cotton smock without any underwear. Thus began the next phase of his career. He invited scores of female nude models to come and pose for him. Rather than glorifying them with color and light, he kept a sketchbook that consisted of small drawings made from ink and pencil and charcoal. They were intimate, erotic images. These nubile young women were instructed to fondle their breasts or spread open the carpeted lips of their labia for some fleeting sense of immortality.
He crept nearer to the cusp of lechery, though he resisted the urge to seduce them. But then there later came the occasion when one of them, misreading the signs of his affection, groped him before leaving. With her hand softly stroking his flaccid penis through the thin material of the increasingly dirty smock, he thanked her again for coming and reached for the door. Her face was a cracked eggshell of hurt and confusion.
The artist knew she was filled with imprudent lust and knew their unholy union would be something she’d soon regret and would one day use as leverage for financial gain after he was dead. There was more than four decades between them. She was young enough to be his granddaughter! So no, he decided. The lingering disappointments of being a cuckold in the past had soured him on the prospects of an affair.
He considered her for a moment with a cultured eye. Here was a beautiful small-breasted woman in full bloom; her aura was rose pink, he knew.
By contrast, he seemed to have devolved into a wilted mushroom practically overnight. Where had his vitality gone? Sure, he’d witnessed firsthand the signs of his aging. He looked in the mirror; he had painted his decline. His curly mane was a fraction of its former glory, thinned and receding. His skin was the texture of old paper. His hands were covered with liver spots. His obliques had fattened like a goose’s liver.
He played tennis and other racketed sports as a younger man, but a hip injury had robbed him of his mobility, so he took to hiking trails in the woods. He had a walking cane made from medlar and inlaid with mother of pearl. On these walks, the mountains seemed to mock him, and he felt looked down upon by nature’s pity and disdain. There was a time when he would have hiked to the summit and brandished his middle fingers, but now a growing sense of resignation powered his step.
The girl didn’t budge. “You want me,” he stated. She nearly spoke, but then averted her eyes and nodded. “Why?”
She clicked her tongue against her front teeth while she thought of a response. Finally, she admitted she found him handsome (presumably more like an old leather-bound book than a shriveled fungus). Then, she added that she wanted something to tell her grandchildren. He began to craft a detailed reproach in his head. By then, however, she had put him in her mouth.
As they made their way to a small cot tucked away in the corner of the room, the girl lifted the soiled smock over the artist’s head and appraised him. Their roles had been reversed. Naked, lying on the thin foldable mattress with his arms tucked behind his head, he then instructed the girl to strip. She complied with a casual ease. When she was down to her underwear, she walked over to the artist’s cluttered workbench. She withdrew a fine-tipped brush from a coffee mug filled with cloudy water. She then searched for a tube of paint and returned to his side.
He asked her what she thought she was doing. She said she wanted to be able to paint. A stern look cinched his lips like a knot. He asked her if she thought she was an artist. She shrugged her shoulders and squirted a glob of dark green paint onto his lower leg. His hands had touched paint more times than they had touched a woman.
But the paint on his calf was at once cool and unfamiliar, an erotic texture. She took the brush and began to create dozens of miniscule leaf shapes along the contours of his legs. With her other hand she reached for his penis. Once his legs were covered, he stole the brush from her grasp and squeezed the rest of the tube onto her arched back. He knew he had only a few minutes in which to work. By the time they brought one another to climax, her body had been transformed.
Afterwards, the girl sauntered over to the shower. As she rinsed and scrubbed, the artist approached with a camera and snapped a photo as the paint swirled around the drain. A prolonged silence at the door preceded their goodbye. They kissed cheeks. As she turned to go, he seized her wrist and put the Polaroid in her hand. His signature adorned the backside of the photo in wet red paint thinned to the consistency of ink. He thanked her for everything and then added, almost as an afterthought, that her services would no longer be required.
He closed the door and turned off all the lights inside the studio. The faint glow of the rising crescent moon came in through the windows. The artist returned to the cot and lit a pipe. He sat with his back against the wall blowing smoke rings into the dust-glimmered air. As he sat and smoked, he sketched ideas in his head for what would be his final work of art. He then slept soundly, knowing that in the following days there would be plenty of work to do.
He called Guy the next morning. A renowned master carpenter and tanner, Guy had been hired by the artist for the past thirty years to build canvases. Their conversations had always been direct, practical affairs: materials, figures, and dimensions bookended by the typical formalities. This phone call was no different. Guy concluded that he’d need two months to have it ready.
The artist went about making other arrangements. He decided to contact his children and inform them of his imminent retirement. Over lunch at Britannia’s, his son asked if an artist can ever truly retire.
“There will come a day,” replied the artist, “when you’ll see that the end has come and you can either fight it—to which you will inevitably lose—or you can accept it with something resembling grace and decide to hang it up before it’s gone for good.”
His daughter, a perpetual child with three children of her own, had other concerns besides his legacy. He sensed the implicit desire in her tone over the phone that he finally assume the mantle of grandfather that he’d carefully sidestepped ever since she eloped with a man he loathed. He’d never actually said it because he had too much tact and reserve to ever make his true feelings felt. Sometimes a cold shoulder has more impact and consequence than a direct slap to the face.
Her kids were young and innocent, but their eyes reminded him of his first ex-wife. Plus, they shared a genetic legacy with a deadbeat, leach, and clown. He didn’t have the heart to cut them all out of an inheritance even though he knew it would be mostly unappreciated and wholly misspent. Better to put the money in a trust with stipulations and arrange for the rest to be divested in various philanthropic causes. Or he’d have an executor burn it all in a barrel with the leaves. This third option was the most enticing.
Money was the weed that had ruined his yard. Best, he thought, to burn it and begin anew. Besides, his children couldn’t hate him much more than they already did. His perpetual aloofness had divided them during adolescence. He knew after his divorce to Janice that she had been vindictive enough to lay out his faults one by one for them to hear.
But what was done was done. It was impossible to start over and too late to make amends. No amount of backyard barbecues or grandfatherly piggyback rides would alter his final standing in the eyes and memories of his estranged family. He lived the curse of having become more of a myth than a man.
While waiting for the canvas to arrive, he began to contemplate the showroom where he’d simultaneously create and display the painting. The room itself would be sealed until he gave a signal. The canvas would be one of the smaller ones when considering the totality of his oeuvre, a four-foot by four square of reinforced calfskin. Rather than hung on a wall or suspended from the ceiling by wires, it would instead lie horizontally within a recessed pedestal of sorts, raised three feet off the ground.
He intended to transform the rest of the showroom into a replica of his parents’ garage. He located a shoebox of photographs his mother had kept safe to help him fill in the details the passing years had gradually smudged and erased. He took a trip to the hardware store and promptly dropped a few grand on the same fire engine-red toolbox his father had once owned. Then, he bought set after set of various Craftsmen wrenches, ratchet sets, screwdrivers, saws, and other assorted tools that filled up every single drawer. Not that these drawers would ever need to be opened, but maintaining a sense of authenticity, he thought, was key.
He took to hanging drywall and a plywood pin board where his father occasionally hung his childhood art attempts of cartoon dogs like Snoopy and Scooby Doo. He instructed his assistant to acquire an old Pioneer stereo, which she found on eBay.
As the showroom proceeded according to plan, the artist grew excited. He worked with an electrical fervor that he forgot had once existed. He fell in love with the process again and lingered over details.
He rebuilt the weighted miniature derby car his father had helped him make from a single block of cedar for the annual Boy Scout race at the VFW. He must have been eleven at the time. There again with the jigsaw in hand, he resisted the temptation to rewrite history by altering the aerodynamics of his third-place racecar to mimic the sleek Formula 1 winner a fellow Scout had made, but whose face he’d long forgotten. He colored the blocky shotgun-shaped dynamo an inky black with a yellow lightning bolt motif running along both sides. An encircled number seven rested on its hood.
On and on it went, each piece gathered and assembled in this cluttered facsimile of a life. Of the art he’d first made there—and, in some cases, later sold—many were kept in a climate-controlled warehouse he rented. He flew cross-country to excavate these sketches and failures and positioned them around the room. Each picture, each position told a story.
Concurrently, he reached out to the various museums and private collectors who were in possession of his first—and in some ways signature—series of prints that some critics took to calling “Cubist Americana” and asked for a temporary loan to complete the installation.
The canvas was delivered in a large, thin crate filled with thousands of Styrofoam peanuts. Equipped with a crowbar and screwdriver, the artist carefully unpacked it and then placed it on the pedestal. The pale beige calfskin surface was smooth and soft to the touch. The texture reminded him of the underside of a sheepskin rug he once owned. He kept it in front of the fireplace of his first house where the children would sometimes play board games.
He then thought of their first waking moments after birth, emerging as they did with squinting eyes and crying as the nurses outfitted them in swaddling clothes. And as he held them and touched their delicate, glowing flesh and peered down at their noses ripe like raspberries, there was this fleeting glimpse of true sublimity and a sense that everything might be okay.
From the plastic brush cup he’d once copped from an Arby’s, he withdrew a fine bristle brush and dipped it in midnight ink. He allowed the excess to drip onto the floor and canvas before he signed his name in the bottom left hand corner. He then found his cellphone in his duffel bag and sent a text message to the gallerist informing him of his final instructions with the caveat that he’d be finished in less than thirty minutes. He then switched off the phone.
He took one last look around the room. Everything seemed to be in place. He cleaned and rinsed the brush he’d used for his signature and put it back in the cup. He then moved with purpose, knowing there wasn’t much time left.
From his bag he took out a snub-nosed Smith & Wesson, the so-called .38 Special, and a box of gold-tipped bullets. He cut the security tape of the box with his X-Acto knife and filled the chamber. He’d never much cared for Roulette. Nothing had ever been taken to chance and there was no reason to start now. The gun, one of the few remaining family heirlooms, had its familiar heft and polished gleam.
The artist pulled shut a heavy black curtain. He then took off his shoes, removed the smock, and climbed atop the pedestal. He sat on the canvas with his feet dangling over the ledge and closed his eyes. The gun felt cold in his sweating hands. His penis was hard, and he imagined the joys and terrors of sleeping for a thousand years. He visualized in lush precision what it would look like after his body had been carted away. He hoped his skull would remain intact. All the planning and presentation boiled down to this one final moment.
The end had come, but that part didn’t really matter so much. He knew he was ready. He trusted that the gallerist would ensure the integrity of the scene. He hoped people would look past this deliberate and macabre suicide and see something beyond the dried blood and pretention. At the same time, he was thrilled to have no idea what the public’s response would be. To hell with legacy. Excitement came from beyond the unknown and pulled him forth.
He opened his eyes one last time and looked up at the overhead lights. It was the one change he allowed himself to make from the original garage, which had been outfitted with long tubes of vampiric fluorescence. That wouldn’t do at all, so he’d put in softer iridescent bulbs because he knew everything depended on being seen in the right light. Content, his white caterpillar mustache curled into a smile. He then put the gun under his chin, exhaled, and pulled the trigger.