This story in a slightly different form is (presently) a chapter in a novel I'm working on. It works well as a stand-alone story.
Brigham Stone stopped at the top of the Accademia Bridge in Venice and looked toward the dome of the Salute church. The white marble and lead-gray dome of the church glowed orange in the light of the rising sun,
and reflected in the Grand Canal like fire on blue-green glass.
Raising the collar of his thin sport coat a
gainst the chill March wind, he pushed his
gainst the chill March wind, he pushed his
too small artist hands, aching from the cold, into his pockets. Shivering as the wind penetrated his jacket, his breath blowing away behind him, carrying off precious body heat, he cursed himself for not wearing a scarf. He expected it to be warmer because he had read the weather report for Rome. The sun gave no comfort.
St. Mark’s Square stood deserted, but for the street sweepers swinging old-fashioned “witches” brooms clearing the debris from the previous day’s crowd. The brooms, nothing more than a bundle of little sticks on the end of a big stick, looked like something Harry frickin’ Potter would ride while trying to whack that winged ball.
He craved a cup of coffee, but no cafés were open at this hour.
Gondolas bobbed and banged against each other in the waves caused by the wind and the wake of a passing boat. Briny water foamed and splashed onto the pavement, filling the air with the scent of salt water and fish–the smell of the sea–conjuring in him the desire for a martini and raw oysters. But only a drunkard would drink gin at this hour. He put his mind back to coffee.
The large revolving door of the Danieli hotel moved slowly out of his way (he hated this fucking door, but he didn’t know why), admitting him to the lofty atmosphere of one of the swankiest hotels in Venice. Medieval marble covered the walls, and an atrium with a roof of stained glass allowed light to fill the room. He was to be interviewed by a London newspaper regarding what a great artist he was. Hopefully the guy would pay for a coffee and a croissant at the obscene prices of the Danieli. Anyone who stayed here could spring for a stinking coffee and pastry.
The interviewer was not in the lobby, so Brigham strolled about, using the time to run his fingers through his unruly long graying hair to convince it to behave. One of the showcases in the lobby reflected back clear blue eyes set in a scraggly face, and an image of the wild uncontrollable mop of hair that looked white in the stark light. This was not his reflection. He was a neat and well groomed young man . . . distinguished . . . a gentleman . . . with dark hair. What tricks the mind could play. But such had not been true for years. Even while practicing law, his hair shorter and well-groomed, he looked disheveled. Now, he might go months without a haircut before his wife would remind him that he looked like a wild man, and he would remind her that he was indeed a wild man, which always caused her to laugh. That was tantamount to calling Mr. Rogers a maniac.
Just as he gave up trying to look like a civilized human being, the interviewer appeared.
“Mr. Stone?” the interviewer asked.
“Yes,” Brigham answered, “you must be Mr. Todd.”
“That’s right. How are you?” Mr. Todd asked, looking directly into Brigham’s eyes.
They shook hands. Mr. Todd, a man in his late thirties, stood several inches taller than Brigham, head intentionally made bald by shaving, wearing blue jeans and an ugly striped shirt. That is, he looked and dressed like a middle class Brit. Brigham liked middle class Brits. They made him feel comfortable.
Thin and fit, Mr. Todd’s handshake was firm, and he looked at Brigham with a kind face cracked by a half smile.
“I’m well, thank you,” Brigham said. “And you?”
Mr. Todd’s smile widened, but not so as to expose any teeth, as though he found humor in Brigham’s way of speaking. This annoyed Brigham, as he was very self conscious about his American accent, particularly around Brits, whom he imagined to be snooty about their language, which Americans had ruined. On the other hand, anyone who would wear that shirt and walk around with an unnecessarily bald head could not possibly look down their nose at Brigham Stone, Esquire, Attorney at Law, now painter in Venice.
“Good, thank you,” Mr. Todd responded in his working-class British accent. Brigham’s first impression had been wrong – he liked Mr. Todd. “Shall we?” Mr. Todd said, motioning for Brigham to sit down. They sat a low table surrounded by four upholstered chairs in the bar area. A waiter took their order.
“Thanks for taking the time to see me,” Mr. Todd said, making eye contact.
“Happy to,” Brigham said. “My pleasure.”
“Mind if I record our conversation?” Mr. Todd asked, pulling out a little tape recorder and placing it on the table.
Brigham hesitated, blinking at the device. He did not like having his conversations recorded, but thought he would look like a jerk if he refused. “No, I don’t mind, that’s fine,” he answered, lying.
“I have seen some of your paintings, and they are quite colorful and energetic.”
This was like saying they were interesting, as though searching for something good to say about a thing one did not like or understand. “Yes,” Brigham said with his mouth filled with pastry, as the question came at the moment he took a bite. Crumbs of sugar fell on his jacket.
“How would you classify your paintings?”
Brigham put the pastry down, dusted himself off, leaned back with his coffee, and crossed his legs. He thought for a moment, putting his head back and looking beyond Mr. Todd to a huge painting on the back wall of the room, and sniffed. “I don’t like to classify my art,” he said finally. “I think that’s the work of critics and academics.”
“But surely you must think it belongs in a category.”
Brigham sipped his coffee, then looked at Todd, thinking, then said, “The only category I’ll put them into is abstract.”
“Would you say Abstract Expressionist?”
Brigham leaned forward, put his cup down, and went back to work on the pastry. “If you say so,” he said, dropping more sugar and bits of flaky crust on himself, some falling out of his mouth.
“Yes, but do you say so?” Todd asked.
Brigham washed some pastry down with coffee, and looked at Mr. Todd, and frowned. “No, I don’t say so. The answer I would like you to tell the world is that I classified them as abstract, and refused to classify them further.”
Mr. Todd looked at his notes written on a yellow legal pad, flipping a couple of pages. “What painters influenced you the most?” he asked finally.
Brigham leaned back and put his hands behind his head. And crossed his legs. “Picasso.”
“What is it you like about Picasso?”
“Did you know that Picasso, at the age of sixteen, could make a realistic painting as good as any old master?”
“Then why didn’t he continue to do that?”
Mr. Todd started to move his mouth as though to answer, but Brigham interrupted. “I’ll tell you why. Because realistic painting is not great art. It’s been done, there are museums all over the planet filled with such work, and it would not accomplish anything.”
“I see what you mean,” Mr. Todd said, still leafing through his notes, the light shining off his ugly bald head.
“He might as well have been a house painter if he stuck to realism,” Brigham continued. “But he tried to do something different . . . and succeeded. He changed art forever with Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. That painting had the effect on painting that Beethoven’s third symphony had on music.”
“Yes, quite,” Mr. Todd said. “Anyone else?”
Mr. Todd flipped a couple of pages on his notepad, then asked: “How would you describe the state of modern art?”
“It’s a fuckin’ mess . . . art is dead.”
Mr. Todd raised his brow, wrinkling his bald head, a sight Brigham found disgusting, causing him to look away.
“What do you mean?” Mr. Todd asked.
“All we have to do is go look in the Dogana, or Palazzo Grassi. Have you seen the bullshit that passes for art in there?”
Mr. Todd scribbled something on his note pad.
“And I take it you’ve been to the Tate Modern.” Brigham said.
“Then you know what I’m talkin’ about.”
Mr. Todd looked up from his pad. “Those are some of the best contemporary art museums in the world.”
Brigham continued to sit back with his legs crossed, hands behind his head. “Sure, there’s interesting stuff in them. Even the Dogana has a few Cy Twomblys, but the rest is horse shit.” He sipped his coffee, and Mr. Todd was busy taking notes. “Painting is dead, and art is dying. Art is an old woman lying in the street in need of CPR, but nobody wants to get puke on themselves.” Mr. Todd stopped writing and looked up. “All artists care about anymore is making fucking installations, and drawing dicks. You ain’t shit in this business unless you paint a dick with hair, balls and all. The object, apparently, is to shock and disgust.” He sniffed and sipped coffee.
Mr. Todd raised his brow again, looking at Brigham for several seconds without speaking. “But these works have important social meaning,” he said.
“Aw, bullshit,” Brigham said, closing his eyes in disgust. “Have you read any of the descriptions of these so-called works of art? It is all plain and utter gibberish. I know the shit’s written in English, but the words are totally meaningless . . . they conjure no images in the mind.”
“Oh, now,” Mr. Todd started.
“This ain’t a debate. You asked me my opinion and I’m giving it to you.” He reached for his coffee and saw his hands, appearing unnaturally small and bony. He always hated his hands.
Mr. Todd looked at his notes, bit his bottom lip, then looked to the ceiling as though thinking. It occurred to Brigham that he may have been a bit curt with the lad who, after all, is here to interview him and to spread his name and work through the art world. On the other hand, Brigham feared that Mr. Todd aimed to make the hillbilly American look foolish. That was silly, though. Hadn’t he been sent from London and put in one of the best hotels in Venice, purely for the reason of interviewing Brigham? This was an important matter and he was about to screw it up. He had to recover.
“I’m sorry,” Brigham said, “I don’t mean to be a prick.”
Mr. Todd waved off the apology and smiled a little, though not a happy smile, rather a wistful one.
“I’m rather passionate about that subject. Please continue.”
Mr. Todd looked at his notes, then moved his head to get the kinks out of his neck. “So, what do you think of artists like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons?”
Brigham motioned to the waiter for more coffee for the two of them. “Wait till your boss sees the bar tab here.”
“Don’t worry about that, Mr. Stone, we can afford it.”
“I’m sure you can. Well, to answer your question, or more accurately, to dance around it, I congratulate them on their success. But I’m not a critic . . . you will have to ask a critic whether what they do is good or not.”
“Do you consider them part of the problem with modern art you so graphically described?”
Brigham moved his head from side to side like a dumb blonde, considering how to answer without sounding like an ass hole. “I won’t say that, but I will say that I don’t like their work. But who am I? They do their work, I do my work, and that’s that. I don’t know them personally–I’m sure they’re fine individuals.”
The interview continued for another hour after Brigham had calmed down. Mr. Todd promised to send a copy of the article once it had been published, and asked for some images of Brigham’s paintings.
The weather was warmer by the time Brigham left, so he turned toward the large garden at the east end of Venice. At the edge of the garden stood a café with tables on the walkway along the water. The best seats in Venice. The waiters recognized him as he sat down and ordered an American coffee, and a small ham and egg sandwich.
He felt bad about the way the interview had started, but it ended on a very positive note. Hopefully, Mr. Todd would chalk it up to Brigham being a sensitive artist.
This was his favorite spot in Venice. Large trees shaded the tables, and the brilliant sunlight of midmorning sparkled on the turquoise water. The only place in Venice he knew where one could sit in the shade of a tree and look out over the lagoon.
A hunched over old woman walked past him, moving with tiny steps. He could tell from her brown and green woolen outfit, olive skin, white hair, and the facial expression of someone with a stick up their ass, that she was a native Venetian. She had no doubt lived in Venice her whole life, as her family had done for centuries. Her decrepitude telegraphed the end of her life, and she probably would not see another year. This reminded Brigham of his own mortality.
He had turned fifty-five this year, and felt like an old man. Not physically, although he had developed some aches and pains, but because he knew he had already lived two-thirds of his life. The coming years were not going to be as kind as those past.
He watched the woman creep along and wondered what he would do if she collapsed onto the pavement. He thought he might run away. Maybe he would tell the waiter, but there was little chance that he would actually walk over to the creature and offer help. And if she died right then and there she would probably barf, and would certainly shit her pants. He wanted to pay and leave before she died. He was sure she would drop dead right there in front of him, causing the ruin of his morning.
A young woman came up and greeted the old woman as her grandmother, and started to walk with her. Thank God, he was relieved of any responsibility. These thoughts shamed him, but he could not help it. He was a dirt bag and he knew it.
This all belied his true nature. He was not the dour, mean old man, but a fun guy, full of humor and goodness. People smiled when the saw him, and seemed happy for him to enter their establishments. But maybe that was only because he spent money. Yet they laughed at his jokes. For the same reason, perhaps.
He left the café and began the long walk back to San Marco. About a hundred feet ahead of him a young woman knelt over a heap on the pavement, shouting urgently for help. Brigham ran over. The heap was the old woman. Fuckin-A . . . for the love of God. One of his greatest fears now lay on the pavement in front of him: an ancient woman, disfigured and made horrible by age, in need of saving, the doing of which would require getting close and touching her, and certainly being soiled by hideous things issuing forth from her nasty little carcass. He called the ambulance, then knelt down beside her.
She was not breathing. Holding back the urge to puke, he motioned for the younger woman to kneel at her head, and prepare to breathe into the woman’s mouth. Brigham had taken dynamic control of the situation, but this woman, probably the granddaughter, needed to take ownership of the nasty end of business. He had recently seen the new procedures for CPR, which called first for compressions of the chest, and then breathing into the mouth. He pumped on her chest several times, then indicated that the woman should breathe into the old woman’s mouth. He pumped the woman’s chest several more times, and they repeated the process until finally the ambulance boat arrived, and the paramedics took over.
Now hot, tired, covered in sweat and filled with horror and disgust, he returned to the bar and ordered a beer.
“I saw what you did,” a voice said. At the next table sat Mr. Todd.
Brigham sipped the beer not knowing what to say, then said, “What else could I do?”
“You could have turned and gone in the other direction.”
“Don’t think it didn’t occur to me.”
“But you didn’t.” Mr. Todd came over at sat at Brigham’s table.
“No,” Brigham said.
“You saved her. That’s amazing.”
“Nothing else to do. And not so amazing, I knew what to do.”
“You saved her, and you saved my article.”
Bits of sunlight filtered through the trees and danced on the table and on their drinks. Sparrows flitted about the table looking for crumbs.
“How did I save your article?”
“I really didn’t know what to write about you. You are a very talented artist, but a cynical and jaded middle-aged man.”
“So far I’m with you.”
“Not what we generally see in art.”
“No, I don’t suppose so.”
“An artist telling me that is art is dying.”
Brigham threw one of the birds a potato chip. “You know, I hate these fucking birds.”
“These sparrows. They are worse than the fucking Gypsies. They don’t go away, and there are more of them than can be fed.”
“Never thought of that.”
“One took the chip right out of my mouth once. Scared the shit out of me.” He popped a chip into his mouth and crunched with exaggerated movement of his jaws.
“Yes, right. Well, back to the article. You saved it.”
“You said that.”
“Here’s a guy who is disillusioned, cranky and mean. What can I write? Here’s an artist with great talent, but a real bastard?”
“Would’ve been the truth,” Brigham said, smiling, still crunching a chip.
“Quite, but not a good article.”
“Maybe not. I’m trying to get the world to love me.”
“But now, not only are you not a bastard, that just being a front you put on, but a true human being.”
“No, I wanted to run like hell when I saw that old woman. I’m still disgusted by the thought of it.”
“Of course, but you didn’t run. You did what you had to do.”
“In spite of your horror and disgust.”
“All right, so what does that get me?” He waved to the waiter for another beer. It was only ten o’clock, but he had a rough day already.
“I intend to say that you think that art is dying, but that you have what it takes to revive it.”
Brigham thought for a moment, looked out toward the glittering water, and sipped his new beer. “I like that. Nice ring to it.”
Mr. Todd smiled, looking satisfied with himself and his idea.
“One thing you should know, though,” Brigham said. “You noticed that I didn’t give her mouth-to-mouth.”
“I would’ve let her die first.”
“I would’ve let her die, anyway,” Mr. Todd said with a mouth full of pastry.
“Then, Mr. Todd, we understand each other.”
A large glob of white with pale green seagull shit landed violently in the middle of the tan tablecloth. “Look,” Brigham said, “a Jackson Pollock.”