This issue features
photo by Lucyrock47,
poetry by Larry Beckett,
poetry by Alex Carrigan,
photo by Tomislav Birtic,
fiction by Rob Davidson, and
poetry by Charles Rammelkamp
The Louvre courtyard with the Pyramid
Copyright © by Lucyrock47.
The Louvre, Paris:
The Astronomer. Johannes Vermeer
The zodiac, circle of signs, and in the ark
among the iris, the science of pharoah’s
daughter, by the galaxy’s brink, that living
light, from the left window, in a dark robe,
one hand out to touch the celestial globe,
he thumbs the book of stars, open to Look
for the lyre, in the divine, and is he here
to calculate heaven, or to cast a nativity?
You wonder why this oil, by the old master—
it’s not astronomy, the dust of meanings,
morals, but from our rough quarter, where
they say cut eyes, keep to the boulevard,
I pilgrim through lightning in Paris, to this
image: in the bone palace, the eye is king.
Copyright © 2023 by Larry Beckett.
in the ark…brink: Exodus 2: 3-5
the science: Acts 7: 22
This oil: The Astronomer. Johannes Vermeer. (The Louvre, Paris; Vermeer: A View of Delft. Anthony Bailey)
I slide back dreaming to the Bay of Angels,
and the fifteen beaches. . . On the roof of
Hotel Splendid, I’m writing out No country
for old, and miss the odalisque slipping
into the pool. I suffer down the promenade,
old town, but men with nymphets—desire
doing backflips, a rag-tag band pumping out
summer, few puffs of the sea air. And down,
to the water level: though the three graces,
one bare-breasted, step into the slight ocean
light pierces, swimming out, I have eyes for
this girl, on her belly, puzzling? all promise,
uncocking, cocking her leg, in vain, the sun
no solace: she loves me, she loves me not.
Copyright © 2023 by Larry Beckett.
The Bay of Angels: Nice
Hotel Splendid: After the Flood. Illuminations. Arthur Rimbaud
No country for old: Sailing to Byzantium. The Tower. W. B. Yeats
water level; no solace: Summer in Algiers, in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Albert Camus
About the Author
Larry Beckett's sonnets have appeared in Zyzzyva, Field, Salamander, the anthology Portland Lights from Nine Lights Press, and his first book, Songs and Sonnets from Rainy Day Women Press. Beat Poetry, a study of the San Francisco renaissance, was put out by Beatdom Books. Three book-length poems have been published, Paul Bunyan, by Smokestack Books, Wyatt Earp, by Alternating Current Press, and Amelia Earhart, by Finishing Line Press. These texts were collected, with seven others, as an epic, American Cycle, published by Running Wild Press. The Book of Merlin, a translation, is forthcoming from Livingston Press, and Song to the Siren from Halbaffe Press.
If I could leave for you a mural made out of white marble, would you be able to make out the meaning of the way I laid each tile down on the ground? Would your eyes follow the lines between each tile like how your eyes follow along the metro map, or would you think the concrete between would resemble the synapses of my brain that formed the lit fuse that fired the idea out of the cannon in my eye and onto the pavement? Laying concrete is merely how I will bring my project to life, so stand high above and focus on the pieces I present to you. You would see the dozens of tiles I pilfered from every Home Depot and Lowe’s in the city, see how I specially cut some into curves and crescents, circles and crosses, diamonds and darts, are carefully delineated into the space below your balcony, for you to see every time you step out each morning with that porcelain mug of coffee whose image is beginning to fade from too many runs in your dishwasher. When you look below, will you see the image I dedicate to you, one that can’t erode no matter how often nature washes over it? Or will you just see a layer of snow and wonder if I am buried underneath?
After Manahil Bandukwala
Copyright © by Alex Carrigan.
About the Author
Alex Carrigan (he/him) is a Pushcart-nominated editor, poet, and critic from Virginia. He is the author of "May All Our Pain Be Champagne: A Collection of Real Housewives Twitter Poetry" (Alien Buddha Press, 2022), and "Now Let's Get Brunch: A Collection of RuPaul's Drag Race Twitter Poetry" (Querencia Press, forthcoming 2023). He has had fiction, poetry, and literary reviews published in Quail Bell Magazine, Lambda Literary Review, Barrelhouse, Sage Cigarettes (Best of the Net Nominee, 2023), Stories About Penises (Guts Publishing, 2019), and more. For more information, visit carriganak.wordpress.com or follow him on Twitter @carriganak.
Man with Camera and Bag
Copyright © Tamislav Birtic.
It was a mild autumn afternoon, the temperature in the mid-fifties. We’d had a couple of days of rain. The ground was soft and slightly muddy, sticking to the soles of my shoes. I sat on a low brick wall outside the auditorium, grateful for the fresh air. As a campus budget analyst, I spent far too many hours in a climate-controlled office wearing a mask and maintaining social distance. Sometimes I needed to get outside, stretch my legs, and remind myself I was awake and alive on this climate-threatened cinder hurtling through space.
That’s when I noticed a man photographing me. He wore a baggy, gray pantsuit and held a camera, a real camera. He darted about like an agitated insect, sneaking around columns, looming over planter boxes, even perching opposite me on a bench across the courtyard. Searching for the right angle, I supposed.
It didn’t bother me at first. But after a dozen shots, each marked by that distinctive, mechanical click, I became annoyed. I crossed and uncrossed my legs. I turned my face away. None of it worked. He kept at it.
I stood. “Do you mind telling me why you’re taking my photo?”
The man paused to meet my gaze. He didn’t seem startled or defensive.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I asked you a question.”
He snapped another picture, then turned and walked away, his unbuttoned coat flapping at his side. I pondered pursuing him—his coldness offended me more than his camera—but told myself to ignore it. What were a few photos?
My mind drifted back to the data set I’d taken a break from. Fall enrollments were down for the second straight year. The first-year students who’d held off during the lockdown weren’t showing up. It was my job to predict the numbers for next year, and the budget forecast to match. Usually I had a clue, but this was a pandemic.
Budget analysts prefer stability and predictability. Change, if it must come, is best delivered slowly. The pandemic wasn’t slow; its rapid, destabilizing upheaval was frightening. All you could do was wait for things to calm down, though no one knew when that would happen. Even if you were vaxxed and boosted—as I am—you could still contract the virus. Always, you had to be careful. Always vigilant. Anxiety hung over me like a bad tule fog. My job, my life—amid this seemingly unending pandemic—I felt stuck in bizarro land.
My smartwatch beeped; the break was over. As I stood from the wall and stretched, the man in the baggy pantsuit popped out from behind a shrub, camera in hand. Click-click.
I wasted no time. “Hey you! Stop what you’re doing!”
The camera clicked again. I darted across the plaza. “Stop taking photos of me!”
The man dashed across the courtyard. A small, black canister fell from his jacket pocket. I scooped it up. This guy was shooting film! In 2021! Who did he think he was, Weegee?
He trotted toward the arts building. I quickly donned my mask and caught up with him just inside the door, in a wide, white hallway. The man wedged himself in alongside a water fountain, panting for breath.
“Do you mean to harm me?” The accent sounded Slavic.
“I want to know why you’re taking photos of me.”
He fumbled with a paper mask, looping it over one ear. “I have a right to shoot as I please.”
“You’re invading my privacy.”
“You’re in a public space.”
“I asked you to stop.”
He took a step away from the wall, walking slowly backwards, keeping his eye on me. We stood like that, facing off against one another, for a long moment. Then, with a practiced gesture, his thumb pulled a lever, advancing the film. He raised the camera slowly to his eye.
“Don’t even think about it!” I hissed. Lunging forward, I stripped the camera from his hands, sending it to the floor. How was I to know it was a vintage Leica, worth hundreds of dollars? Maybe he shouldn’t have been shoving it in my face.
The man shouted for help. A woman in trendy black slacks and a matching mask stepped into the hall. It was the gallery curator, Ms. Elise Holland. She’d already called campus police. Now would I mind stepping away from Mr. Zepilov?
Zepilov scrambled after his camera, muttering a curse.
I pointed a finger at him. “That man invaded my privacy!”
“He was shooting photos of you?” Ms. Holland asked.
“Yes! Even after I asked him to stop.”
She lifted an eyebrow. “You should be flattered.”
She informed me that Dimitri Zepilov was an invited guest of the university, the Rogers Visiting Artist. He was a distinguished street photographer and, she added, he had every right to take photos in public of whatever or whomever he liked.
I pleaded my case, citing common decency and civility. Somehow Zepilov had gotten under my skin. This isn’t usual for me, I insisted. I’m a budget analyst, cool and objective. Since returning to campus after a year of telecommuting, I’d been a little tense.
Ms. Holland proved to be an unsympathetic audience. We ended up at the campus police station. An officer cited me for a public disturbance. It was up to the aggrieved to decide whether to press charges for assault and battery. The statute of limitations was two years.
I walked back to my office in a daze, dumbfounded by this turn. I’d been accused of assault! I couldn’t have that hanging over my head. I would apologize to Zepilov and offer to pay for camera repairs. Surely, he’d be reasonable about it.
As a campus budget forecaster, I prepare the future for the untamable now. My job is pure foresight, the divination of data. From a budget planning perspective—which, incidentally, is a practice that affects, and to some extent controls, every part of the institution for which I work—most scenarios can be anticipated. It’s not uncommon to be wrong. But, with surprising frequency, I am close. And, on a handful of occasions, I am precisely correct.
Such moments, when they come, are fleeting. How long can the numbers align? Like stars, they keep moving. Eventually, we exit the projected period and, inevitably, in the next one the numbers are off. But that’s all right. There is always another future to predict.
Once, I had two consecutive quarters pan out. Fiscal 16-17, my greatest year. From July to December, I lived each day in a special glow. It’s a rare sensation, to be living in the past’s future, occupying a moment that, back then, I dreamt of inhabiting with such exactitude (that is, statistical accuracy). Trapped in the transient now, I yearn for a past I can never reclaim, but only hope to forecast on future occasions. I set about my day’s work, rooted in the predictive statistical present, envisaging another time, a year away, when I hope to feel then what I feel today about last year. Time becomes tri-layered, the present being but a moment of pure anticipation for a future which, if my predictions prove accurate, will sanctify the present as a moment of past accuracy. Anticipatory nostalgia: the rarest, the sweetest drug.
The fact that I knew nothing about Zepilov irked me, so I looked him up. He was indeed well-known. He’d had noteworthy shows in Europe and the States. He’d won big awards. An art historian had written a book arguing that Zepilov, along with a handful of other artists, had had something to do with the fall of the Berlin Wall, staging a famous gallery show that incited an uprising.
Online, I gazed at his images. Dirty children sit on stoops in run-down urban neighborhoods, garbage at their feet. Anonymous, drab tower blocks loom over them. A weary soldier directs traffic somewhere in Eastern Europe, standing before a tangle of barbed wire. And a series of sharp black-and-white images of rough looking kids vandalizing the Berlin Wall, spray painting it, or attacking it with sledgehammers. There was something violent and menacing in those images, but that was ages ago. Anyway, Zepilov was on the right side of history. The Wall fell. People were liberated. Budget analysts in a reunited Germany were awash in new data sets.
I had a more immediate, pressing issue. Would Zepilov file charges? As a mid-level analyst with an eye on a future management slot, and a state pension to follow, I couldn’t afford to take chances.
I decided to visit the art gallery. Elise was just locking the door, en route to a meeting. I begged a minute of her time. In a cool tone, she asked what she could do for me.
“I want to apologize for the other day,” I said.
“It’s not me you need to apologize to.”
“Is Mr. Zepilov around?”
“He rarely comes to the gallery.”
“But he’s your visiting artist. What’s he do, if I might ask?”
He was teaching a class and would deliver a public lecture, she explained. At the end of the semester, the gallery would host a show of his new work. They were very excited.
“You should be,” I said. “Your funding has increased six percent every year for the last three years.”
It’s amazing how, when someone is masked, their upper face becomes more intensely expressive. For instance, a narrowed eye looks like a blade.
“Where did you say you worked?” Elise asked.
“The campus budget office. I’m a forecaster.”
“I love how there’s four administrators for every decision that gets made around here. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m running late.”
I cleared my throat. “About Mr. Zepilov.”
“Look him up in the directory. He has an email, like everyone else.” Then she walked briskly away.
My email was short and to the point. I apologized and offered to pay for any camera repair. I gave him my personal cell number. A few nights later, my phone rang.
“We should talk,” Zepilov said.
“About the incident.”
What else did we have to talk about? But I asked him to proceed.
He’d been looking at the photos he took of me, he said. There was something there.
Somehow, hearing that made me uneasy, but also intrigued. I asked what he meant.
“Meet me Saturday morning at the mall. Ten o’clock. I will be in the food court.”
“My running group meets on Saturday mornings.”
“Take a day off,” he rasped. He’d cased out his location. He had some ideas about shooting me in that milieu. That was the word he used.
I wondered how many people would be at the mall. Since the restrictions had been lifted, people were crowding into restaurants, bars, and sports arenas. But we were in the thick of the Delta variant. Hospital beds were filled with the unvaccinated. The mall was essentially a giant germ exchange.
“You are vaccinated,” Zepilov blurted. “Wear a mask.”
“Why Saturday?” I replied. “I’d rather do it on a weekday. Less crowded.”
He rattled off data concerning pedestrian density, age distribution, and the quality of light at noon. The weather forecast was for an absolutely clear day, no cloud cover.
I admired his data set, but something about it struck me as odd. What was he up to? What possible purpose could I serve? I never went to the mall, even before the pandemic. Never!
But this guy had the goods on me. He could press charges, making my life more complicated, or he could drop them. Given that choice—and Zepilov had said nothing on the matter—I preferred the latter. I told him I’d be there.
“One final thing,” he said.
“Wear what you wore on the day of our altercation.”
I asked him to describe it: dark denim jeans, brogans, and a striped dress shirt under a burgundy cardigan. I recalled the specific combination. Business casual, as befits my station and occupation. I try to look good, and I keep up with fashion, especially footwear. I don’t call attention to myself. On a campus filled with bright, energetic young people and highly educated faculty, I am content to fade into the background. No reason to call attention to me.
I found Zepilov in the food court, sucking on an Orange Julius. Does anything scream “mall” in America more than an Orange Julius? Maybe acid-washed jeans and off-brand walking shoes.
“These are delicious,” he said, sipping on the straw.
No one in the food court was wearing a mask except the workers. Just walking into the mall, I’d felt unease. The vax rate in my conservative Northern California county was among the lowest in the state. You want to talk numbers? The States has just four percent of the world’s population, and we invented these incredible vaccines, yet we suffered the highest number of Covid deaths of any nation. Why?
The truth is we’re dumb enough to do ourselves in.
I turned to Zepilov. “Why did you ask me to come?”
“You are an interesting subject.”
“I’m a pencil pusher at a state institution. I have a degree in business accounting. I’m the most boring person in this town.”
Zepilov tapped a finger on the plastic lid of his drink cup. “You have read Kafka?”
“Maybe in college, I don’t know.”
“You should. He was the poet of the bureaucracy. What he did in his fiction, I try to do with my lens. That is why I came to America. Yours is a very rich country, very innovative in some areas, but very corpulent in others. Things here can be fast and slow at the same time. I want to capture that complexity.”
I looked around the shabby, half-empty food court. A mother fed her toddler a French fry. A cluster of old guys nursed coffees in Styrofoam cups. Everyone else was on a screen. None of it struck me as complex.
“What do I have to do with any of it?”
Zepilov leaned forward. “The images I shot of you. There is something there. What I see in you. What I can make of you.”
“I thought street photography was spontaneous.”
“I no longer define myself as such. My new work is a departure.”
He explained his plan. He’d mapped a route for me, certain choreographed moves near store entrances, a visit to the food court, a scene before the color-coded map, and so on. At no point should I engage with anyone or touch any objects. I was to convey an air of indifference, as if on a journey of higher purpose. Apart from that, he said, I was free to invent. Free to add a little touch here or there, a gesture or an allusion.
“I want you to wander as if in a dream,” he told me. “Absurd and surreal, yet, because it is a dream, somehow normal.”
“I’m acting? This is a role?”
“Yes and no. Be yourself. But be the other, too.”
I cocked my head. “The other what?”
As we walked to the starting point for my trek, Zepilov stopped before a cluster of trees standing in an elevated planter, under a skylight.
“There is something of the sublime even in the most pedestrian of simulacra. Not the grandeur of the forest,” he said, gesturing to the trees, “but the suggestion of grandeur. Do you understand?”
He clapped his hands. “Precisely! Your country is drunk with it.”
“I prefer to focus on the future, not the past.”
He turned to me, stroking his beard. “Yes, I see that in the images.”
“What’s so great about those pictures?”
“Nothing,” he admitted. “Rather, it is the potential I see in you.”
We walked to one of the anchor stores on the north end of the mall, a name with a long and storied history in American commerce. In the age of online shopping—which mushroomed during the pandemic—its status had plunged. It had failed to adapt, and its viability was in question. It was from such a position, Zepilov explained, that his hero’s journey was to begin.
“Hero?” I laughed.
“Every story must have a hero.”
I’d never been the hero of anything, but I resolved to try. In doing so, I hoped that Zepilov would forget our tiff.
At the maestro’s command, I traversed the zig-zag course he’d mapped out, moving between storefronts, pausing in some of the smaller courtyards to strike various poses. Some were scripted ideas he’d given me; some were my contribution. As we cycled through the rehearsals he annotated my moves, letting me know which to keep and which to discard. It was a slow, at times maddening process. Gradually, I got a feel for what he wanted, and what I might add to it, but it was work.
We moved to the food court, where I stood in line at the pizza place. Zepilov wanted me to look up at the menu items in a state of rapture, capturing “the anticipation of the order,” but not the order itself. I was to step out of line the moment the clerk asked if they could help me.
Okay, sure. But as we undertook a second and then a third round of rehearsals, and as the lunch hour approached, the food court was beginning to smell pretty good. Your hero stands in line for pizza and guess what? Pretty soon your hero wants a pizza.
After three rounds of it, I felt exasperated. “You chose the wrong person for this project.”
Zepilov frowned. “Forget everything I told you and just be natural.”
Having learned the route, we walked it several more times. Zepilov circled me, snapping from every conceivable angle, dropping to a knee, or hopping up on a bench for an elevated view. For a heavyset guy, he moved with admirable dexterity. Always, I was to act as if none of this were happening, ignoring the stares of shoppers, the wondering eyes of children, the scoffs of tweeners and adolescents, the narrowed eyes of mall security. Most of all, I was to ignore the dervish whirling around me.
After several trial runs, I knew the route and my moves were falling into place. I was adding less and augmenting what we’d agreed upon. Zepilov’s coaching became less adamant. Yet something was off. We both felt it.
“We need something,” Zepilov muttered.
As we walked back to the starting point for our final trial run, we passed a men’s clothing store. The windows were filled with mannequins wearing dress coats and shiny leather shoes. Zepilov stopped to comment. It seemed he was always commenting.
“There’s something exquisite about that pose,” he said, pointing to one of the mannequins. “Something crisp and indifferent. That is the pose of a hero.”
He was beginning to annoy me. “I don’t know. A little too plastic.”
“All heroes are plastic.”
We walked into the store, wandering the aisles, ignoring the clerk’s offer of assistance. And then I found it: the attaché. A slim, brown leather case, unadorned. Shiny and new. It felt great in my hands. The perfect weight. Its color played off my burgundy sweater with just the right counterpoint.
“Yes, the missing object,” Zepilov muttered. “It completes the narrative. You have an excellent eye!”
He purchased the attaché, then we walked quickly back to the starting point for my hero’s journey. I was to carry the bag with me on my route, he instructed, shifting it from one hand to the other. I must never set it down. It was a part of me, an extension of my mind and thinking.
“It is your very essence,” he explained, “like Arthur’s Excalibur. It is the thing that defines you.”
I thought about that. “You know, things don’t work out too great for Arthur.”
“Yet Britons await his return. The greatest form of nostalgia!”
We walked back to the starting point. It was time for the final run-through, the one that counted. Zepilov asked me to remove my mask.
I should have seen this coming. Neither of us had stated up front our intention, but after several rounds of rehearsal I’d hoped the precedent was set. And by the way my mask perfectly matched my sweater.
“Can’t we keep it?” I protested. “Sort of a pandemic period piece?”
“Absolutely not. The hero’s face is half the story.”
“Maybe I consider this one of my contributions.”
“Remove it!” he snapped.
I hated him then. Yet, given how far we’d come, and how deep into this I was, I could hardly refuse. I pulled the loops from behind my ear and stuffed my mask into my pocket.
“If I get Covid…”
“Action!” Zepilov barked.
Some of my frustration and hostility must have shown through. As I made my way through the mall, Zepilov was no longer spitting out orders, only exclamations. “Yes! Excellent! Just like that!” I moved from storefront to storefront, through the now-familiar plazas and hallways. I stood in line yet again for pizza, turning away at the last moment. The clerk waved a hand and groaned, “Ah, buzz off.”
As scripted, I ended up at an exit, between two sets of glass doors, where I was to stand as if trapped. I didn’t like that ending; it seemed wrong for the story as I understood it. This hero didn’t want to be stuck in limbo; this hero wanted a vindication, a vanquishing. If there were unsettled questions, he’d demand answers. He didn’t ask permission; he took what he wanted. As this feeling welled inside me, I felt less like an actor and more like whomever I was playing, this peripatetic post-capitalist pilgrim. One of us, I’m not sure who, wasn’t finished.
“Follow me,” I ordered Zepilov. “One more shot.”
Unscripted, I marched off before he could mutter a protest. I strode into the palm-lined central courtyard, full of a cross-section of everyone at the mall: teens; parents and small children; grandparents and retirees; workers on their lunch break. I barged through them like an explorer claiming a new territory. In the center of the space, as if on cue, the sun intensified, and a brilliant column of light shone down on me.
“Yes!” Zepilov shouted as he spun around me. “Lift your chin!”
The camera clicked and clicked.
“Turn left! Move the attaché to the other hand!”
Zepilov dropped to his knees. I threw my shoulders back, lifting my chin like one of the mannequins he so admired. After a furious final flourish of lens snaps, the camera fell silent. Zepilov stood and, with surprising theatricality, bowed deeply.
“Thank you, that was tremendous.”
Spontaneously, the circle of mall attendees broke into applause.
The other man turned to them, a plastic smile fixed upon his face, waving, and nodding in acknowledgement. They confirmed something he’d never doubted, some entitled sense that he belonged exactly where he was. He was, in that moment, irrefutably the shaper of this tale.
I didn’t hear from Zepilov for several weeks. Temperatures fell as we sank deeper into autumn. Sweaters and fleeces came out of the closet. Through it all, I streamed television and made calculations.
I thought often of that day at the mall, puzzling over what Zepilov would make of it. The uncertainty nagged at me, as did a couple of other things.
There was the question of the attaché. After the photo shoot I’d taken it home. We’d both been so caught up in the day’s success that neither of us addressed the issue. I thought I might drop it by the gallery for Elise to deliver. Yet I hesitated. Zepilov might have paid for it, but I’d picked it out. It was, he’d declared, an essential part of my character. Some part of me, perhaps that man I’d so briefly become, wanted to keep it. But that seemed so bold.
Then there was the question of the charges. The fact that I hadn’t come to a clear agreement with Zepilov troubled me. He had two years to follow up. He could act at any time. I needed a clear and definitive answer.
I emailed Zepilov, nominally checking in about the photo shoot. Two weeks later he replied, inviting me to visit the campus gallery the next afternoon. They were installing his new show, and he had some images to show me.
When I arrived Elise was there, her hair pinned up and an electric blue scarf arranged elegantly around her neck.
“Oh, it’s you!” The warmth in her voice was new, and I liked it greatly.
Zepilov stood in the middle of the gallery, in his baggy pantsuit, ordering someone on a ladder to adjust a track light. It shone on an image of a man in dirty jeans standing before a worn-looking tent under a highway overpass, one of the sprawling homeless encampments in Oakland. Other images showed the man walking around Jack London Square, reaching into trash cans, or standing on a street corner with a hand-lettered sign.
I wondered about the ethics of using a person’s suffering as a vehicle for art. But maybe it wasn’t genuine suffering. Maybe that man was just another actor, the hero of another story.
In another sequence, a single mom stands wearily in the middle of a cluttered living room wearing a nurse’s outfit. A toddler sits at her feet, mesmerized by a smart phone. In another, she’s at work, fully masked up, leaning over a hospital patient hooked up to a ventilator. The worry and empathy in this nurse’s eyes, it can’t be feigned. In the next photo, she’s in the queue at a local food bank, her son in a beat-up stroller, again transfixed by a smartphone.
Other series focused on fast-food and warehouse workers. Others still, wealthy golfers, or bankers sipping cocktails in the View Lounge of the Marriott Marquis in San Francisco.
I felt confused. How did the story in my photos relate to these others? Country club matriarchs and unkempt homeless guys; portly bankers and single, working moms. They were all so different, yet equally true. There was something unsettling about it. Maybe that was Zepilov’s point.
I looked around the gallery. A woman stood on a ladder, stenciling the show title in bold, black letters.
CONFERENCE OF VICTIMS
ABUSE AND CONQUEST IN LATE CAPITALISM
Zepilov approached, beckoning with a hand. “Come. I will show you.”
On the back wall were mounted a series of large color prints, all of me at the mall. Me in line for pizza, or standing before the large, color-coded map. In another I walk briskly past a shop window filled with mannequins. Then I’m encased behind a wall of glass doors. And so on.
In the center of all these prints stood the image of me in the palm-lined courtyard, washed in sunlight. One foot is slightly before the other, a hero mid-journey. The attaché is in his right hand, partially hidden behind a leg. The line from shoulder to hip is powerful; this man moves with great purpose and confidence—chin slightly lifted, gaze off in the distance. Behind him stands a distant ring of fellow shoppers, their eyes fixed on him. A small child in a jumper has her mouth agape in wonder.
“That picture makes the series,” he said. “Maybe this whole show. The shot you called for!”
I smiled sheepishly. I didn’t know where that impulse had come from, but I knew we were both glad it happened.
Elise approached. “That one is really special. I think we’re looking at a lead image.” She turned to me. “What do you think about that? Are you ready for your fifteen minutes?”
“I’m not sure what we’re talking about.”
Lead images go out on flyers and e-blasts, she explained. They go on the cover of the catalog. They’re sent out with the press release, that sort of thing.
“Your face is going to be everywhere!” she said, patting my shoulder.
I’d never been on the cover of anything. The thought of it terrified me. I looked again at the picture. It was me, yet it was not me. I was playing a role, only in that moment I distinctly recall not thinking of it as a role. I had become, however briefly, another person—an unexpected transformation. Gazing at the image, I felt again that power, that self-assurance. I knew I wasn’t that man, not literally. It was me playing that man. There was something intoxicating about it, like a daydream gone rogue, a private fantasy that you granted yourself but shared with others. You might escape, just for a moment, the wailing and the worries of your world.
Of course, those worries would be waiting for you the moment you returned.
I turned to Zepilov. “Before this goes any further, I need to ask you two things.”
He lifted a bushy eyebrow. “Yes?”
“Your court case. The charges against me. What do you plan to do?”
He gave me a quizzical look. “Forgotten, of course.”
Before that could even truly register, he asked me what the second thing was. I’d planned to ask what he wanted me to do with the attaché, ready to defer to his wishes. But, caught up in the moment, I simply declared that I was keeping it.
There was an awkward, silent moment as my face flushed bright red.
Zepilov burst out laughing. “Has that been bothering you?”
He put his hand on my shoulder. “It could only belong to you.”
Relief washed over me. There’d been that bit of awkward, unfinished business, but I’d followed through and gotten my answer. More importantly, I’d surprised myself by making a declaration. Sometimes you just have to tell the universe what you want, and make it happen.
Zepilov completed the installation of his show and attended the opening, where he delivered a lengthy précis on late-stage capitalism and nostalgia. This project was decidedly political. He hoped the images would spur reflection, discussion, and ultimately action. Questions were asked. A graduate student noted the juxtaposition of gross income disparity, with some images so gritty and realistic, and others so arch and ironic. Was the work a critique of capitalism, or merely complicit in its ulterior motives? A lengthy, serpentine answer followed. Finally, we broke for wine and cheese out in the courtyard, where we could gather without masks. I saw Zepilov in an animated conversation with a ring of students.
A reporter from the student newspaper interviewed me. How had I become involved in Zepilov’s project? What did I think of my depiction? Had I been aware of the famous ’89 opening at Gallery X in West Berlin, featuring a performance by Einstürzende Neubauten?
I blurted out some nonsense about the poetry of the bureaucracy, trying to parrot Zepilov, then stopped mid-sentence. I was out of my league. About identity, social roles, and art, I only have questions.
Elise stepped in, her answers nimble and brisk. Zepilov had elevated street photography to another level, something on par with sculpture or painting. Think Jeff Wall.
Satisfied, the reporter lunged after another target.
“Thanks.” I sipped my wine. “This Sauvignon Blanc is good.”
She stabbed a cube of cheese with a toothpick. “It’s a Pinot Grigio, and I buy it at Costco.”
We both laughed. I asked how she felt about the show.
“Now that things have opened back up, foot traffic is going to skyrocket. There’s a buzz about this. He’s already lined up galleries in San Francisco, L.A., and New York. Every one of them is going to mention where the show premiered.”
That kind of proximal data could be useful in establishing distal goals, but even I knew better than to say as much to a pretty curator at a party.
“Sounds like news you can use.”
“Precisely.” She planned to lobby her dean for a larger, better located space, one that could attract bigger audiences. She would need to hire an assistant.
“Necessitating a budget increase,” I suggested.
“You are a bright boy.”
I felt that tingle in my fingers, the anticipatory sense of where a data set was pointing. During the pandemic, it was a rare sensation.
“I could help,” I offered. “Review your data. Ensure accurate projections. Plus, I know every budget person on this campus. I can get a draft on the right desk for a preview.”
Elise raised a finger to her chin. “Yes, you can help. I’m pushing the cross-disciplinary angle. Admin in the arts, that sort of thing.”
I looked down at my half-empty glass. “I’m no artist.”
“Zepilov told me about the shoot, how you selected the attaché. How you took control of that final scene. He’s impressed.” A moment later she added, “That’s rare, by the way.”
“I don’t know how to explain it,” I muttered. “It was like someone else was in control.”
She folded a paper napkin in half. “It’s called acting, and apparently you’re a natural.” She was involved in community theater, she told me, an avant-garde troupe that did some edgy stuff. They were always on the lookout for new talent.
That didn’t exactly sound like my thing, but then neither had Zepilov’s project. I’d agreed to participate for a wholly unrelated reason, yet something magical had happened. There was a lesson in that.
“Let’s go out for a coffee,” I proposed. “We can discuss your gallery plans and you can tell me about your theater group.”
Elise smiled. “What’s your Tuesday look like?”
I never saw Zepilov again. He wandered out of my life just as he’d wandered in, an imp in a baggy pantsuit. A few weeks later a package arrived at my office. It was a framed print of the photograph. Zepilov had signed and dated it on the back.
Elise tells me it will be worth something before long, and I should take good care of it. Of course, I will. But what it means to me can’t be measured in dollars. For once, the numbers are meaningless. Zepilov drew out of me an unexpected energy. I won’t try to name it.
I suppose I wanted to thank him for that. Perhaps one day I shall.
As a data analyst, I prefer stasis over volatility. I like predictability and routine. I favor a closed system with known parameters. Only then can projections be made with a reasonable degree of accuracy. Only then do the numbers behave themselves in predictable patterns. Only then can I sit before my laptop with a hot steaming double soy latte and tell you what you’ll be doing, statistically, a year from now.
There is an art to making predictions. Opening yourself up to the process is the first step. It’s like when you’re looking at a Jackson Pollock painting. At first it seems like a big, random mess. But the longer you study it, the more you get pulled in, entranced by the movement, color, and energy. (Elise has helped me with this.)
I feel that way when I receive a good data set. Study the numbers carefully enough, and there are little leads, call them hooks, that pull you in a certain direction. But the numbers alone can’t do anything. They need me to arrange them into a proposition, a prediction. It is a process almost sacred, and I am here to tell the tale.
Elise makes fun of me. She says I’m a palm reader with a calculator. She’s not far off.
We’ve been dating for three months. I have a role in an upcoming production with the Rogue Theater, an outdoor staging of a Brecht play. Elise’s gallery proposal is under review. These are difficult times; every budget on campus is tightly scrutinized. But word on the street is she stands a good chance.
Amidst all the sickness and the suffering, the distress, and the doubt, I remain hopeful. For what? I’m not exactly sure yet. A better world, wiser friends and family. Less bluster and bullying. An end to this pandemic. My world is already better with Elise in it. Will it go any further? For once I can’t render a prediction, but it feels good. Stay tuned.
Copyright © 2023 by Rob Davidson.
About the Author
Rob Davidson is the author of six books, including Welcome Back to the World: A Novella and Stories, forthcoming from Cornerstone Press in 2024, which will include "The Photograph." Davidson’s fiction, essays and interviews have appeared in ZYZZYVA, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Indiana Review, New Delta Review, South Dakota Review, and elsewhere. His honors include a Fulbright award, multiple Pushcart Prize nominations, and an AWP Intro Journals Project Award in fiction. He teaches creative writing and American literature at California State University, Chico. Visit www.robdavidsonauthor.net
Ring Around the Collar
The old Wisk commercial
from the 1970’s,
a mocking voice outing
the insufficient shirt-cleaning,
taunting the derelict homemaker:
a filthy collar,
stained with neck sweat,
the collar having been noose-like tight
around the husband’s neck,
choked with a tie,
as he’d toiled all day at “the office,”
supporting his family.
“Why doesn’t he just wash his neck?”
my little sister wondered innocently
in the face of the authoritative voiceover
that took over from the tattletale.
Nobody had an answer.
Copyright © by Charles Remmelkamp.