The dead have fads. I work in Deadtown, at a bar mostly frequented by the Dead. They call me PD for Pre-Dead. The Dead tip for shit because they just aren’t all that interested. That’s what I think. Cory, one of my regulars, says it isn’t like that. The Dead are interested fine, he said. They’re just poor.
“Would you live here if you weren’t poor?” he asks.
“I dunno,” I say, “I like it here.” I do. The rent is cheap, and that’s why I moved here. I’m taking classes at the Cleveland Institute of Art, doing the starving artist thing.
“But you don’t expect to live here the rest of your life,” he says. “You’re slumming.”
“Maybe,” I say. “But artists don’t tend to get rich.”
“You’ll marry some guy and live in the suburbs,” Cory says and takes a pull on his Heineken.
“Maybe I’ll marry a Dead guy,” I say.
Cory laughs. Cory was drowned when a drunken boater hit his boat and was resurrected as part of court-ordered restitution. Cory almost doesn’t look Dead. In bar light, he practically passes. Not like Schmitty at the other end of the bar. Even if Schmitty wasn’t scarred all over his face from some kind of accident—maybe he went through a windshield—he just looks dead. I always say the well and truly Dead look like they were made out of clay or something. Cory says they look more like those sculptures of maids and old women that look really real and normal enough to fool you. The kind that people start talking to until they realize that they aren’t alive.
But like I said, the Dead have fads. The big fad among the Dead these days is square dancing. Thursday night is Square Dance Night. The caller is setting up his equipment on stage. The square dance caller is a kid with a cowboy hat and a goatee. He’s wearing shorts, fishnets, and red cowboy boots. He’s setting up DJ equipment. The light is really yellow over the stage and I can’t tell if he’s Dead or not.
The DJ starts a mix. “Da Doo Ron Ron” with a house beat. After a moment, the lights flash and then pulse with the bassline. Four people are already standing, ready to dance and the DJ leans into his mic and starts saying all those incomprehensible things like “allemande left and shift a gear.” The four people, three Dead women—one of whom is a punk princess in her leather and crinoline square dance dress—and a Dead guy start doing their thing. They come every week.
Cory leans across the bar and passes me a five and shouts above the music, “Give me change for the cigarette machine?”
“Can’t smoke in the bar,” I shout back.
The Dead have a lot of self-destructive habits, at least the ones I see. They smoke too much, drink too much, don’t exercise. There’s a pretty high murder rate down here, and a pretty high suicide rate, too. But most of the crime is Dead on Dead so no one much seems to care. Not even the Dead.
* * * *
I’m working on a big project for school. It’s a series of collages. I took one of the Dead Chick calendars (Dead Girls of 2029 which is a good one because in seven of the months the Dead Chicks are standing or moving) and cut out six of the Dead girls to use as characters in my collage. My collage series was originally going to be The Dead Chicks Battle Evil à la the outsider artist Henry Darger. I started screwing around, and I traced the Dead Chicks and started drawing. I drew a tree and a landscape, and I ended up with Dead Chick lynching. Dead Chicks hanging from trees with their heads at crazy angles and people picnicking all around—that one’s called “Strange Fruit Dead.” Dead Chicks running from bloodhounds. Dead Chick Elizas leaping from ice floe to ice floe on the Ohio River—“Uncle Tom’s Dead Chicks.”
They’re a little too political, I think. But I really like making them. I use a lot of colored pencil on really big rolls of paper, and I put two or three different versions of each situation on each page. So I’ll show the Dead Chicks running for the river, and then I’ll show them leaping across the river—they are all spread out so I can really concentrate on each Dead Chick. They have names on the calendar, and I feel as if they’ve got personalities. Aileen has short blond hair, and she’s more there, so she’s the leader. And Violet looks really Dead. She has this stillness that makes her hard to work with. But she works really well as this visual moment that halts the movement of the piece. Your eyes slide across the river until they hit Violet, and then everything stops. In that piece, I actually used really cool colors to trace her and fill her in so she looks icy.
My teacher really likes them, which is great, but for once, it isn’t the point. A lot of times when I’m working, even if I like what I’m doing, I’m thinking of it as for school. But I think about the Dead Chicks a lot. I think about them when I’m riding the bus to class or home. I want to work on them. My favorite part is working on the actual Dead Chick figures, Aileen and Violet and Leisha and Mary and Karen and Ai-ling, so sometimes I just trace them for no reason. I can draw them pretty well anymore without tracing them, and sometimes I draw them on bar napkins at work. When they’re isolated from the work, they look a lot more like calendar figures. They have that sort of vapid I’m-having-my-picture-taken pose.
Cory usually comes in on Wednesdays and Thursdays. I don’t know why. He’s an orderly at St. Vincent’s where he says they are so desperate for employees they’ll even hire the Dead.
“What are you drawing?” he asks.
I flip the napkin around. I’m drawing Violet. I’m using a Derwent pastel pencil. Lately I’ve been really into pastel pencils. The pencil I’m using is Crimson Lake Full. I have an obsession about pigments.
“Nice,” he says. “Is she Dead?”
“Yeah,” I say. “You could tell?”
He shrugs. “I dunno. Maybe it’s just because I know you have this Dead thing going.”
“You make me sound like a corpse-fucker.”
“Maggot,” he said.
“PD! Don’t tell me you haven’t heard that!”
“Oh, god!” I say. “That’s so gross.”
“So you’re doing Dead art?”
I haven’t talked to anyone Dead about my collages, and I feel weird doing it now. “Sort of playing around with it,” I say.
Cory shakes his head. “Is it for school?”
“Yeah,” I say. And then I start telling him about Henry Darger. Darger is this guy who grew up in institutions and then worked as a janitor for a Catholic church for his whole life. All that time he was doing this huge artwork. It was about the Vivian girls and it is pages and pages of illustration about these seven little girls and their battle against evil. Darger didn’t like his own drawing so he traced the Vivian girls from illustrations. And sometimes he drew them nude with little tiny boy penises.
“Penises?” Cory says. When Cory leans close, there’s something that reminds me he’s Dead. It’s as if Cory is this perfect replica of a human being.
“Yeah,” I say. “Some people think he really didn’t know what a naked girl looked like.”
“That’s really twisted,” Cory says.
“But they’re gorgeous,” I explain. “I mean the Vivian girls are like these little Shirley Temple figures, but all around them is this sort of luscious-colored pencil art—butterfly wings and flowers and red-coated soldiers, and there’s all this mutilation and stuff. It would be like some weird cliché or postmodern junk except it’s so obsessed.”
Cory is really into this, I can tell. “So you’re working on a project based on that?”
“Not really based on that,” I say. I don’t know that I want to explain it. Talking about art and dancing about architecture and all that stuff. On impulse I say, “But I’m going to have some stuff hanging in the student show at the end of term. You want to see it?”
“Yeah,” Cory says. “I’d like that.”
* * * *
I wear a white jean skirt and red boots because I think that art students wearing black are such a cliché that you have to make a thing about it. I don’t even care that I have thick ankles.
I’m so used to hanging around Dead people that I don’t even think about it until that day, and then I realize I’m bringing a Dead guy, and a bunch of people I go to school with are going to be there. I mean, lots of people know I live down in Deadtown, and people make necrophiliac jokes all the time, but between the art and Cory, I’m going to end up looking like a pathetic fetish chick. But fuck it, I think. I like Cory.
I take the bus to school, and Cory is waiting outside for me. Cory is wearing blue jeans and a sports coat. He almost couldn’t come because he had to work, but at the last minute, this black Dead guy traded shifts with him. He’s smoking a cigarette.
“Those’ll kill ya,” I say.
“You’re kidding me,” he says. It’s all an old joke. But I’m nervous, and it makes me lame.
Inside, there are a bunch of people in the Reinberger gallery and Chuck Asay, my instructor for my second year project, sees us come in the door. He’s short and skinny and balding and intense. But he’s a good teacher. “Therese,” he says. “Hey, I want to let you know, your piece is attracting a lot of attention. Susan Kafrey of Bonfoey is looking for you.”
My stomach does that elevator in freefall thing. I mean, this is Cleveland, not New York. But Bonfoey Gallery means something here. They’ve been around forever, for one thing.
“What—what does she want?” I say.
“I think she wants to see your portfolio,” Chuck Asay says. Then he sticks his hand out to Cory. “Hi, I’m Chuck Asay.”
“Cory Zinteroff,” Cory says. And then I see Asay sort of flinch, but then shake Cory’s hand firmly in a gesture that says, “I’m not prejudiced, I’ll shake the hand of a Dead guy.”
Cory doesn’t change expression. I guess he’s used to it.
Suddenly to me he looks really Dead, and I almost can’t bear to be with him. People talk about the Dead like they are the persecuted minority for today. And they are. People treat the Dead like shit, and they didn’t do anything to deserve it. At least most of them didn’t.
But the Dead are different.
A bunch of people are standing around my two pieces, which is both really cool and really scary at the same time. One of them is “Uncle Tom’s Dead Chicks,” and the other is “Dead Chicks Titanic” about, of course, the sinking of the Titanic, with Violet, the Deadest-looking one, as the heroine standing at the prow of the ship as it hits the iceberg. I don’t have all three parts of that one in the show; at home I have the getting-into-the-lifeboat scene, and the ship-sinking scene, but they aren’t done.
There’s a woman there in black pants and a cerise silk shirt, and she stops me and says, “Hi, are you PD Langley? I’m Susan Kafrey. I’m from the Bonfoey Gallery, and I just want to tell you how impressed I am with your work.” Her eyes flicker from Cory back to me, but Cory is looking at the work.
“Wow,” I say, “That’s great!” I don’t know what to say so I just sort of gush and act stupid.
“I like the way you haven’t sacrificed to the political,” she says.
“Thanks,” I say, and trying to say something intelligent, I add, “I’m really interested in the way that outsider art can transcend cliché and convention. I mean, reinventing the wheel, but making it new through real obsession.”
“I like the references to Darger,” she says. And I want to jump up and down because she gets it, but then I’m thinking, maybe she thinks it’s too derivative? But she goes on. “I’d like to look at some slides,” she says. She digs in her purse and hands me her card. “Call me and we can make an appointment.”
“Sure,” I say. “That would be great.”
I can see Chuck Asay, my teacher, and he’s grinning me and giving me the thumbs up. I guess he saw her give me her card.
“Congratulations, maggot,” Cory says. I don’t know if he’s completely kidding. But a couple of kids from my life drawing class want to know what she said, so I don’t really have time to do anything but introduce him. I drink a couple of glasses of white wine out of those big green glass gallon jugs, and they go right to my head because I haven’t eaten, and then Cory and I look at the other stuff that’s hung. Some of which is okay but some of which is pretty lame. Cory doesn’t know shit about art and I can tell he feels a little out of place. He looks at Lindsey Cunningham’s big Mylar-and-grocery-store-plastic-bag sculptures, and I can tell he’s thinking, “What the fuck?” I mean, I like how she’s taking off on all those artists who recycle, and I like the way she uses space, but I can see how it would all look like just a lot of plastic bags. And Hiko Sakai’s video of nail polish doesn’t do anything for him. But he likes Beth Cornish’s big head oil paintings, and he likes some of the neo-traditional watercolor stuff.
I can’t help noticing how Cory is a little overweight. I mean, I’m not the skinniest person in the world, you know? But Cory has no style. He dresses kind of Walmart. And he has brown hair, kind of curly, but he uses some sort of mousse or something on it, and it’s really thinning on top, and so I can see his scalp. In Deadtown, Cory looked great. He looked normal. Here in the gallery, well, he looks like a bit of a dweeb. A Dead dweeb.
So eventually we end up back in Deadtown getting a couple of gyros from the Gyro Cart guy (who is not Dead but who is ancient and has been working this area of town since it was called The Flats.) I have been chattering a mile a minute about neo-traditionalist stuff, but the wine buzz is wearing off.
Cory’s really quiet, which I think is because he doesn’t know squat about art. “The girls in your picture,” he said. “Are they real girls?”
“Yeah,” I say. “I got them off a calendar.”
“One of them looks like this girl I knew,” he says. “I think she might have been in one of those calendars.”
I feel a little creepy.
“Her name was Eva?” he says. “I didn’t really know her, but this guy I knew did.”
“None of the girls is named Eva,” I say, obscurely relieved.
“Maybe she didn’t use her real name for the calendar,” he says.
“I can show you the originals,” I say.
He is holding the foil with a couple of bites of gyro in it. It’s cold down in Deadtown with the wind whipping off the river.
“She’s dead now anyway,” he says.
I almost say “Duh, of course she’s Dead,” but then I realize he means it the other way. “What happened?”
“She had HIV, so she killed herself,” Cory says. The Dead commit suicide a lot. It’s illegal to bring back a Dead person who has killed themself.
I don’t know what to say to that.
Cory kind of shuffles his feet.
“That’s too bad,” I say, which sounds lame.
“Yeah,” Cory says. “Like I said, I didn’t know her that well.”
We stand around for a bit, feeling uncomfortable, and it’s cold. I’m about to say I’ve got to go when Cory says, “Did you ask any of them if you could use their pictures?”
Which is a stupid question. “It’s just a piece for school,” I say.
“Yeah, what if it ends up in an art gallery? What if that one woman, the one from the art gallery, what if she buys it?”
“Art galleries don’t buy stuff,” I say. But I know what he means. “It’s not really a picture of someone,” I say. “I mean, you thought it was this Eva chick, and none of the girls were named Eva. And besides, they’re just based on the girls in the calendar.”
“Maybe she changed her name,” he says. He’s looking at me really funny, and I’m feeling really creeped out. I mean, sometimes the Dead just scare me. And right now, Cory is scaring me big time.
“I don’t think what you’re doing is right,” he says.
He’s going to kill me, I’m thinking. And then I’ll be Dead. But I can’t run away because what if I’m wrong and I’m being a total idiot? “Why not?” I say, trying to sound friendly and interested, but sounding whiney.
“Because . . . you’re, like, stealing something,” he says.
“I’m not stealing anything,” I say.
“People like it because it’s about Dead people,” he says. “You’re, you’re, pretending you’re one of us.”
“I’m not!” I say. “Everybody knows I’m not Dead.”
“I’m not saying this right,” he says. “You know what I mean.”
And I do. “You’re saying it would be different if I were Dead,” I say. “But that’s an old argument. Only black people should paint about black issues, only Native Americans should do Native American stuff. Only women should do women stuff. But nobody worries about that anymore.” Well, they do, they worry about whether or not they’re being jerks about it. But I’m not being a jerk. I’m trying not to be a jerk.
“But it’s like you’re trying to get people to admire you, because you’re a friend of the Dead,” he says.
“No, I’m not!” I say.
Cory’s face is way too pale in the streetlights, and I suspect mine is too. “Forget it,” he says.
I want to explain. “I mean,” I say, “I’m on your side.”
He shakes his head. “I wasn’t saying it right. Just forget it, okay?”
I want to go home. I wish I were in Massillon, an hour south of here, in my own room with the purple walls and my stupid stuffed animals and my mom and dad asleep down the hall.
Cory nods. “Well,” he says. “I gotta be getting home.”
“Me too,” I say.
We kind of hug each other, and he doesn’t try to kiss me. For which I am glad.
* * * *
I notice I’ve stopped using my Crimson Lake Full pastel pencil, which is weird because I really like it. But I just . . . don’t use it. I had left it at the bar the night I asked Cory if he wanted to see the show and been worried I’d have to buy another one. They’re about two bucks a piece. But it was there the next day, and I stuck it in my purse and brought it home.
I think it’s Dead.
I know that makes no sense. It wasn’t like my pencil was murdered and then resurrected. But it’s different.
After a week of not using it, I take it to school and leave it on a windowsill in a drawing class. It ought to be gone in an hour. But a week later, it’s still there. Because it’s Dead. And it’s different.
I call Susan Kafrey of Bonfoey Gallery, and I take my slides with me and go to see her. The gallery is doing a show of works by Daniel Dove. They’re these strange painted landscapes, like photographs but superimposed, and, well, they sort of look as if I were seeing them through some irregular glass. I could never do anything like them in a million years.
The good thing is that when I take my slides in to Susan Kafrey in this cluttered office in the back, I don’t have any great expectations anymore. I’ve got so much work to do to be good enough to be somewhere like this. The Dead Girls stuff is nice, but it’s the very best work I’ve ever done. The rest of my work isn’t anywhere near as good.
But she is really nice to me and gets out her viewer, and then bends over the slides. The office is full of business stuff and she has some sort of spreadsheet open on her computer.
“Who do you like besides Darger?” she asks.
I name some artists. Kate Shepherd and Francis Bacon.
She smiles, very encouraging. “It’s nice to hear that you know a little about contemporary art,” she says. “I ask a lot of students, and the artists they like best have been dead for two hundred years.”
“I really like the show you’ve got now. Daniel Dove.”
She nods. “He’s doing us a favor, letting us do a show for him. He’s with Cherbois in New York, now, but he started here.”
Yeah. New York. I watch her look at my slides. I had fantasies that she would offer me a show, or a place in a group show. Maybe, in these fantasies, I would say no. And I could go back and tell Cory.
This is not a fantasy. It’s just too ordinary. I’m too ordinary. Susan Kafrey is dressed really nice in gray raw silk pants. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t ride the bus.
She’s really nice, and she only takes two phone calls. She tells me that my Dead Girls stuff is a real leap in technique and subject matter. And then I thank her, and she gives me my slides, and I walk out across the empty gallery, my boots clicking obscenely loud on the wooden floors.
I do take the bus. It’s after four, and the buses are supposed to come fast, but it takes a long time for it to come. There are a bunch of other people waiting for the bus—they are mostly black guys in maintenance suits and heavy-hipped black women with swollen ankles. We all stand in the cold, waiting for the bus.
* * * *
It’s a Thursday night and the square dance DJ comes up to the bar and asks for a beer. He drinks on the house. I hand him a Heineken and notice he’s not Dead. He says, “Hey, what’s your name?”
“PD,” I say. I have to raise my voice over the music. Some asshole is playing “Don’t Fear the Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult. I wish they’d take it off the jukebox because almost everybody I know hates it. But some dipstick always thinks it’s funny or something.
I talk to the DJ kid for awhile. Then he’s got to go set up his gear. Cory is in, and we are acting studiously normal, joking and stuff. After the DJ kid, I bring Cory another beer. I don’t know how I ever thought Cory passed for not Dead.
But he’s still Cory and he’s still an island of sanity in this madhouse.
If I work here long enough and live in Deadtown long enough, like my Crimson Lake Full pastel pencil, will I become infused with Deadness? Will I be Dead without ever having died? Wouldn’t that be a fucking laugh?
“I went to that gallery and talked to that woman,” I say.
“Yeah?” Cory says. “I thought about what you said, about blacks not being the only people allowed to paint blacks and stuff, and I think you’re right.”
I shrug. “Doesn’t matter,” I say. “She was real nice, but she wasn’t interested.”
“People will be,” Cory says. “You’re talented, PD.”
“That just earned you a free beer,” I say.
I’m watching the DJ. I’m tired of this place, tired of my life. I wish I’d never gone to see Susan Kafrey because now I hate working on the Dead Girls picture. I don’t get lost in it. It’s not an obsession anymore. Maybe I don’t need an obsession if I’m going to end up doing graphic arts for packaging for some manufacturing company.
Someday I will end up either Dead or dead.
I want my obsession back. I want it more right now than I want to be in a gallery. Being in a gallery used to be what I wanted more than anything. Like getting an A in class. I’m thinking about the Crimson Lake Full pastel pencil. I’m thinking about making something Dead. Imagine I made a painting, and then I left it in the bar for a week, hidden. Imagine it was Dead. Put that in your gallery, Susan Kafrey. People would walk in, and they’d part around it like the Dead Sea. It would be anti-art.
I bum a cigarette from Cory.
He’s surprised. “I didn’t know you smoked?”
I shrug. I don’t. I mean, I’ve tried it, but really right now I just want to get outside. So I take a Dead cigarette from his Dead fingers and go outside and light up.
It’s just winter. The dead part of the year. In Deadtown the streets go out and away in straight straight lines. The corners of the buildings go straight up into the cold night. Above the clouds are lit from below by the indifferent city and the snow comes down. Flakes of snow are falling into the white of the streetlights, falling. Falling and falling across and through the indifferent light.
© 2013 by Maureen F. McHugh.
Originally published in the Readercon 24 Souvenir Book.
Reprinted by permission of the author.