By Drew Calvert
Featured Art: Coastal View by Madelyn Bartolone
Jim Dahlberg was eating a bran muffin and reading The New York Times when he saw that Lucas Bloy had won the Joslyn P. Fish Award for New Conceptual Art. Jim put his muffin down. He wondered if there had been some mistake—not that he was an expert in the field necessarily. He wasn’t an artist, or a critic, or a scholar. He didn’t know the first thing about the Josyln P. Fish Award. He did, however, know a thing or two about the recipient. Lucas had been his nemesis.
Years earlier, Jim had entered a sandwich shop in Madison, Wisconsin. He was in his third year of law school at the time and had just completed a lengthy exam on copyright litigation. Whenever he finished a big exam he liked to eat a roast beef sandwich slathered in tangy hot sauce. It was, for him, a kind of joy. And so he was deeply touched when he saw that Joanne Neier—by far the prettiest girl he’d ever seen at Ralph’s—chose the same condiment. On the basis of this connection, he was able to score an impromptu date.
Life is astonishing, he thought. One minute you’re biking through town with a roast beef sandwich on the brain, and the next minute you’re sitting across from a beautiful stranger with hazel eyes, convinced that all your days on Earth were prelude to this fluke encounter. There had, of course, been one or two highlights. Kissing Natalie Finchbaum at the Cineplex was a clear triumph. Receiving his law school acceptance letter—and the scholarship it came with— had opened his life to dewy pastures previously unfathomed. And there had been that interesting brush with nature during a baseball game when he was sixteen. He’d been grazing in a trickle of meadow along the left-field foul line—his team, the Borlyn Reds, were playing in Ripon, Wisconsin, home of the Tigers— sniffing his glove and watching Trent McGinnis mow down batter after batter, when all of a sudden the wind picked up and sent the trees into a frenzy, and he was able to recognize—though he couldn’t say exactly how—that trees are in a struggle against the heavens, just like the rest of us. But between that night on the baseball field and the moment he and Joanne Neier shared the corner booth at Ralph’s, it seemed that very little had happened.
Joanne was a senior, an honors student. Her major was art history. Jim had trouble understanding the thrust of her undergraduate thesis—something to do with the patriarchic orthodoxy of Renaissance painting—but he was drawn to her obvious passion and playful repartee. Her plan that afternoon, she said, was to visit the new Warhol exhibit—a temporary offering from the Museum of Modern Art—and she invited him to come along. Together they browsed the Soups and Maos and Marilyns and Rorschachs, a body of work that baffled him. Warhol should have stayed at home in Pittsburgh with his mother, he felt. But Joanne was clearly charmed by the stuff, so he went along with the whole charade. He folded his arms and issued gentle epiphanic harrumphs. He laced his arms behind his back, the pose of a brooding sophisticate. Afterwards, over glasses of beer, she raved to him about André Breton’s Surrealist manifesto. She asked if he had heard of it. He hadn’t—of course he hadn’t—but he looked it up in the library on his way home that evening. He couldn’t make heads or tails of it and found it rather boring. Eager to make an impression, though, he mentioned it on their second date, which was dinner at an Italian place on State Street he could barely afford. He said he liked the part about dreams.
“The part about dreams,” she teased him weeks later, between kisses. They were in her bedroom, following dinner and a stroll by the lake, recounting first impressions with the sweet relief of the newly coupled. “Did you actually read the thing?”
He laughed and said that he’d tried.
“How far did you get?” she asked, unbuttoning her shirt. “Did you reach the section called ‘How to catch the eye of a woman you pass in the street’?”
He watched her remove her shirt and bra. He admitted he hadn’t gotten that far.
She pulled him close. “And what about the call to ‘shed all inhibitions’?”
He murmured as he kissed her neck that that sounded familiar.
“Oh, beloved imagination.” She sat on the bed, naked now, and frowned at him. “Be honest.”
“I only read the first page,” he said, holding the wall for balance, peeling off his last sock. “I almost fell asleep.”
She laughed and pulled him onto the bed. “Well, stay awake for this.”
They told each other about their families. Jim’s father welded for Aurora Manufacturing and drank at a bar called Alibi’s. Joanne’s parents were wealthy and, she said, “a little status-obsessed.” Born in New York, she lived for much of her adolescence in Paris, in a four-bedroom apartment just off Victor Hugo circle. She did her algebra homework at a little café along the Seine.
“I would have become an artist,” she said, “if I had guts or talent. Alas, my skills are academic, the lamest variety.” She sounded ashamed to have downgraded from Paris to Madison. For him, Madison was Paris.
That spring, before graduation, they drove to Chicago to look at apartments. They spent a day at the Art Institute, with Joanne playing tour guide. She teased him about his ignorance, his lingering over minor works, the exaggerated squint he performed in front of bewildering canvasses. Mostly he was polite and rever- ent, deferring to her expertise, especially when it came to things like Dalí’s skulls and Magritte’s “pipe.” He decided these were mysteries he would never under- stand—and besides, the pleasure he took in Joanne’s analysis overwhelmed the nagging doubts about his sophistication. Everything else had clicked just fine. Politically, they were left-of-center (he was center and she was left) and fell within a respectable range on the disciplinarian-liberal spectrum of hypothet- ical parenting. Both chose Scrabble over Monopoly. When they’d laughed at each other’s childhood photos—his bowl cut, her jagged bangs—he’d felt the pinch of destiny. He didn’t give Warhol another thought.
They settled at first in Rogers Park. Joanne was now a graduate student in art history at Northwestern—her thesis was on the gender implications of Surrealism—and Jim worked on copyright infringement for a midsize firm. For him, this was a period of bliss. He loved Chicago, and he loved Rogers Park, despite the occasional shooting and the syringes he sometimes noticed in the neighbors’ mulberry bushes. He loved that everyone seemed to own a retired greyhound racing dog. He jogged in the mornings before sunrise, when the lake, with its violet glow, had the majesty of an ocean. He sat at a desk from which he could see a decent stretch of Wabash Ave. Trundling north on the El after work, he felt enormous affection for his fellow Chicago commuters—the teen- ager doodling on her sneakers, the elderly couple resting their eyes, the mother pronouncing the names of the Red Line stations for her infant son. He never imagined he’d be so lucky.
He’d begun to develop a vision of what their life together could be. The vision included a house in the western suburbs of Chicago—in Downers Grove, or Naperville, or possibly even Aurora. He pictured himself riding the Metra with other suburban commuters—their coats spread across their laps, newspapers held gently aloft, dawn breaking over the towns of Lisle, Westmont, Hinsdale, LaGrange. He pictured the two of them venturing out for dinner on a Friday night, laughing over the server’s quirks and sampling bites from each other’s plates, then driving home past the high school stadium, which, at least in Jim’s vision, was floodlit, and the bleachers were packed, and the marching band was always in full regalia, blowing trumpets.
Joanne teased him. “The suburbs? Really? Isn’t that too obnoxiously pleasant?”
Jim liked pleasant—he thought it was a viable aesthetic—but he didn’t press the issue. He enjoyed the way she teased him for his pleasantness, his innocence, his lack of sophistication. He was always game for a ribbing. Occasionally, though, she teased him too sharply, too dismissively. One night, over dinner at the home of one of her classmates, Jim was explaining the work he did when he noticed Joanne smiling apologetically at her friends.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m boring you.” Then, to Joanne, and with more of an edge to his voice than he’d intended: “Honey, why don’t you tell us what you learned at school today?”
On their walk home she held a hostile, accusatory silence. He said she was being too sensitive, and this caused her to explode.
“Sometimes I am amazed by what an absolute fool you are,” she said.
“I’m so glad I amaze you,” he said. “The world exists for your amazement.”
Later that night, he drank a beer and stared into the kitchen sink. He remembered the time his mother threw a handful of coins at his father’s head. His father, despite many firm avowals, had come home late and hopelessly drunk, and his mother, incensed, had reached for the quarters they kept in a sugar bowl on the counter. His father looked more shocked than hurt, and all he could do was laugh. Jim was determined to live in a house where nobody threw any coins at heads. Before he slept he wrote Joanne a letter of apology. In the letter, which he slipped in the bag he knew she would take to her morning class, he quoted something he’d read in one of her less academic books. A couple, the author had written, was “a conspiracy in search of a crime.” That was how it felt to him, and he wrote that in the letter. Beyond the birthmarks, scars, phobias, bedtime habits, taste in movies, and mispronunciations that had gone uncorrected for decades, there was this other, basic thrill. He didn’t know how to explain it, he said. He quoted from a poem he’d once read in her apartment: “Wind’s word, apple-heart, haven of grasses.” It sounded nice. Joanne received the letter warmly.
A paper she’d written won an award. A week later, he was promoted. For the celebratory dinner, they chose a French restaurant in Old Town, but they were slow getting out of the house—Joanne had been explaining her paper’s thesis over a glass of wine—and by the time they’d finished the bottle, devoured a large plate of cheese, and made love on the living room carpet, they had missed their reservation. Instead they made love again and drifted off to sleep. Jim woke up the next morning and noticed he’d left the blinds open. A fractal of sunlight moved across Joanne’s shoulder, and up the wall. He rose and went to the kitchen, where another beam of light shone through the two medallions of wine left in their glasses from the night before. Washing the dishes, he decided he would ask Joanne to marry him. They were married ten months later.
And then Lucas entered their lives.
By this time, they had moved into a two-bedroom in Andersonville. Jim hoped they would eventually turn the “office” into a nursery, but that was a few years down the road; in the meantime, they would rent out the extra room, at least for a year. Regarding housemate qualities, Jim preferred “stable and solvent.” Joanne had a bias for “interesting.” Lucas Bloy of Montreal, an artist and a McGill alum, was very much the latter. An online search revealed that he had caused a stir with his senior project, “Parliament of Inflatable Dolls.” Joanne thought it was witty and bold; Jim was less sure. There were all kinds of artists out there—Rory, their downstairs neighbor, played guitar, including a soulful rendition of Gillian Welch’s “The Revelator.” Couldn’t they find some- one like that? But Joanne was intrigued. She seemed to think it was some kind of adventure.
“He really knows his stuff,” she said, after the phone interview. “He’s got this great fellowship at the School of the Art Institute.”
“What’s the, uh, orientation?” he asked.
“Is that our business?”
They compromised, agreeing to rent the room for a month and see how it went. Jim was wary but eager to play the role of enlightened husband. Until he caught the bastard sniffing her panties, he would have to endure.
Their housemate arrived in ripped corduroys and a white T-shirt emblazoned with the image of a bloodshot eye. He was less than handsome—gangly, morose, with long stringy hair—but maybe he had other tricks. Jim helped Lucas carry his extra bag up the flights of stairs. It was heavy. He set it down with a thump.
“What’s in the bag?” Jim asked.
“Almonds,” Lucas said. “Carved from wood.”
“For one of your exhibitions?”
“Cool. What’s the theme?” “I don’t really do ‘themes.’”
“Right,” Jim said. There was a pause. “Maybe ‘theme’ is the wrong word. But you probably have a reason for carrying a duffel bag full of wooden almonds.”
“You’re being sarcastic, aren’t you?” “Not at all! I’m just interested.”
“But you think I need a reason.”
“No,” Jim said. “I just thought you might.” He felt the heat rise to his face.
“All I know is that almonds will play a role in my next project.”
“Well,” Jim said. “I look forward to it.” His intonation was one degree off.
“Right,” Lucas said. “Of course you do.”
“I mean it,” Jim said. But it was too late. Lucas unpacked in silence, frown- ing, regal in his martyrdom. Eventually Jim couldn’t stand the silence. “I didn’t mean to say ‘theme.’”
Lucas had never been to Chicago, so they wanted to show him a good time. Their social world consisted mainly of Joanne’s academic circle and a handful of couples from Jim’s firm. They went to jazz clubs, comedy shows, and visited the Art Institute whenever there was a new exhibit. But none of this seemed to interest Lucas. He preferred to spend most of his time holed up in his room. What was he doing? Casting spells? Bottling piss? It was unclear. If he was, say, beating off into envelopes and sealing them, at least he was doing it quietly.
Once, while Lucas was out on one of his rare human errands, Jim walked into his room and found a mop bucket filled with wooden almonds on the desk. Next to the bucket was a pencil, a sketchbook, and a bottle of superglue. He had glued the “almonds” onto the wall in the shape of capital letters. YOU MUST CHANGE YOUR LIFE, it read.
“Is Lucas okay?” he asked Joanne that night as they climbed into bed.
“I think so. Why?”
“Nothing—he just seems a little off.”
“I mean, he’s an artist. What’d you expect?”
A few weeks later, Lucas proposed they attend a show in Logan Square. Jim agreed immediately; he was eager to witness the kind of event Lucas might enjoy, and he figured a little bonding time might be good for the household. The “show” was held in someone’s private two-bedroom apartment. Both bedrooms were fur- nished with an air mattress and nothing more, and the guests loitered freely with- out any visible sense of unease. He was handed a beer and quickly lost track of Joanne and Lucas, who had gone to greet the hosts. It was, he decided, a strange crowd. The hosts, owners of turntables and first-edition LPs, had somehow never gotten around to purchasing a bed frame. But Joanne, whom he eventually spot- ted standing between the coatrack and the window, chatting amiably to a woman with a shaved head and red leather boots, seemed to be enjoying herself. He knew they were there to see a “performance,” but it was unclear what that would be.
Maybe someone would play violin with a shoestring or slaughter a goat.
“I never really did this,” Joanne said, when she tracked him down. “Are we too old for Bohemia?”
“I could get rid of the bed, if you want.”
Late in the evening everyone hushed and gathered for the performance. Someone placed a plastic chair in the center of the room. At first, nothing happened, so it seemed to be a false alarm. Was that it, then, an empty chair? Houdini meets John Cage? Jim had no problem with that; at least it wasn’t sexual. Eventually, though, a kid wrapped in a shower curtain entered the room and stood up on the chair. “My cold father,” the young man said. “My cold mad feary father, till the near sight of the mere size of him makes me seasick and I rush, my only, into your arms.” Then he sat in the chair, hunched over, curled his shoulders inward and wept. Jim glanced at Joanne to gauge her reaction. She was riveted.
It would have been easier, more straightforward, if Jim had caught them tangled up in the sheets, or giving each other massages, or posing for sulky nudes. But Lucas wasn’t a sexual threat. It was worse: he was her confidant. Jim tried to be happy that his wife had found someone with whom to share the obscure realm of art. He just wished that someone were him. He thought of the Pasternak poem they had quoted in their wedding vows: “two eyes of a single gaze.” But they weren’t two eyes of a single gaze. The art she loved—Lucas’s art—was, to him, nothing more than a tantrum the culture had to endure like parents in a grocery aisle.
One night, he came home from work and found Joanne and Lucas drinking boxed wine from mason jars. Lucas was slouched in the reading chair, twirling his oily locks. From the hallway, Jim had heard them speaking French and laughing uproariously, but as soon as he entered the room, they were quiet.
“Do you know who Agnes Martin is?” Joanne asked.
He shook his head. “Friend of yours? Classmate?” Lucas laughed—a single bark.
“Painter,” Joanne said. She turned to Lucas. “I thought he might know that one.”
“All right,” Jim said. “Carry on. I’ll pour myself a drink.” In the kitchen, he poured a glass of bourbon, drank it down, and poured another. He filled a bowl with cashews and fired several into his mouth. He held a cashew between his fingers, a marvelous shape and texture. “Hey Lucas!” he shouted. “You ever use cashews?”
He took the problem to Dave Perkens, a friend of his from law school. They met at a bar in Lincoln Park on a Saturday afternoon. Perkens was roughly Jim’s age, but he had fathered two kids and was now a partner at Clifford & Wei.
“Take him to a ball game,” Perkens said. “Find him a girlfriend.”
“I don’t think he likes sports.”
“So find him a boyfriend, whatever.”
“Yeah,” Jim said. He thought about this. “Yeah, I don’t know.”
“At least you’re not dealing with daycare, my friend. Enjoy life while you can.”
“I think I might enjoy your life.”
Perkens took a sip of his beer. “Yeah, well, shit’s expensive. Oh, you gotta see something.” He picked up his iPhone and scrolled. “Check it out.” The photo was of Perkens’ infant son pissing up toward the lens—evidently a diaper mishap. “Obviously you didn’t see this. But look at that, a powerful stream.”
Jim tried to imagine taking Lucas to a Cubs game. It simply wasn’t possible. So instead, after the beer with Perkens, he decided to go alone. He told Joanne he was swamped at work, rode the train to Addison, and bought a ticket off the street. The Cubs were playing the Pirates. Sitting on the lower terrace, he took a moment to marvel at the beauty of Wrigley Field—its pockmarked beams, its ancient seats, its lush ivy wall. He remembered going to baseball games in Milwaukee with his father. That first glimpse of the diamond, he thought, was not unlike the first glimpse of the ocean from a coastal highway.
It’s strange, though, how the awe fades by the second or third inning. He left in the top of the fifth and went to pick up groceries for dinner.
That night Joanne was sitting alone, reading a copy of Artforum. She said she had exciting news. Lucas had finally settled on an idea for his first exhibit. The title was “Mucus and Stardust.” Jim had no idea what that meant. He put the eggs and lettuce in the fridge.
“One small issue,” she said, laying the magazine aside. “Lucas will have to be late with the rent. He’s a little short on cash these days.”
“How did he get ‘short on cash’? What about the fellowship?” “The fellowship money ran out. I swear, they never give enough.”
Jim tried to take perspective. Five hundred dollars was no small amount, but neither was it a large amount. He made a decent salary, and Joanne received a monthly stipend. They were doing fine.
“Couldn’t Lucas get a job?”
“A job would be distracting,” she said. “He needs to focus on his art.”
He loaded the freezer with Johnsonville brats.
“‘Mucus and Stardust,’” he said, doing his best to keep an even tone.
“I know,” she said. “Great title, huh?”
“Mucus and Stardust” was curated by a studio in Wicker Park. The exhibit, as far as Jim could tell, consisted mainly of silly putty and glitter fashioned into blobs. Joanne was visibly impressed.
“This is a keeper,” she said, grabbing a copy of the exhibit guide, which Lucas had printed the night before on Jim’s Canon Pixma. There were about three hundred copies.
“Very cool,” he said, as he calculated the cost of the ink.
Only a few people showed up, which didn’t surprise Jim, but the turnout wounded Lucas’s pride. He spent the next few days lying face-down on his bed. Jim began to feel sorry for him. He told Joanne about his aunt who’d suffered from depression in the months after she’d left the Church.
“Maybe Lucas needs a good psychiatrist,” he said.
“Well, that’s not really our call.”
After a moment he thought he heard footsteps down the hallway. “Is he eavesdropping?”
“Come on,” she said. “Don’t be paranoid.”
Eventually Lucas emerged from his convalescence with new ideas. The second show was a two-in-one. On one side of the art space was his piece “Tryst with Psyche.” It consisted of a cigar stuck in a brain made of oatmeal and wood- chips. On the other side of the room was a piece called “Interior Decorating Problem.” On the wall hung a wooden cross, with a message written in black marker across the horizontal plank: “The instrument that took our Lord.” Surrounding it were objects placed on individual floating shelves. On one shelf was a photograph of a shark; the caption below it read: “The shark that ate your father.” Another held a cinderblock, with the label: “The brick that killed your mother.” And so on. There was a gun, a knife, a noose, and a bottle of pills, each with its own caption. Jim was unsettled. He decided to raise the issue with Joanne.
“Don’t you think it’s a little dark?”
“What, you hoped for a watercolor?”
At work, he moved offices. He could now see the entire length of Wabash Avenue. But it felt as if he hardly saw Joanne, who was fully committed to help- ing Lucas succeed in the art world. This wasn’t a problem on its face. In fact, it seemed to energize her, the role she played as Lucas Bloy’s advocate and interpreter, drafting exhibit materials that contextualized his dark aesthetic. What bothered Jim was the fact that she regarded her work as secondary, which was untrue, since without her, Lucas would have no audience. To Jim, her work was better than his. Lucas could play a video of his own sneeze on an endless loop and Joanne would salvage the meaning.
For a year, he put up with it. Lucas met with minor success—a show in Minneapolis, a collaboration in Ann Arbor—but none of it seemed to make him happy. It certainly didn’t make him rich. He paid rent about half the time—Joanne kept letting it slip—and by the end of the year his debt was up to three thousand dollars. Jim kept records but didn’t complain. After all, he was doing well. When he upgraded to the new iPhone, he offered his old model to Lucas—as an olive branch of sorts—and although Lucas accepted the gift, Jim only saw him use it once, as a paperweight while sketching.
Then, mercifully, Lucas decided to move his dreary operation out West, to Los Angeles.
“Chicago isn’t the place for him,” Joanne said, stirring her coffee. Jim was cooking omelets. “I told him he needed to move on.”
Jim was relieved—and somewhat chastened. He should have known that Lucas was only a temporary problem, that his wife would eventually come to her senses. He inquired after the rent money.
“The thing is,” Joanne said, “he’s broke.”
He flipped an omelet and stifled the urge to gnaw at the spatula. “Do they not charge rent out in L.A.?”
“He’s got some kind of commune or collective lined up.”
Jim decided to eat the cost. Despite the quavering in his bowels, he thought it was a fair price for getting the kid out of his life.
And, for a while, a version of the old bliss returned. There were movie nights and Italian dinners. They went to see the Cubs play the Brewers on a Sunday night, and Joanne almost caught a foul ball in her hat. But then, one night, Lucas called. And then he called again. He seemed to require encouragement, and Joanne spent many hours on the phone lifting his spirits. Jim felt he was using her—the kid was being manipulative—but he couldn’t say this to his wife without sounding jealous or square. Still, the calls grated on him. On the night of their anniversary, Jim was kissing her bare stomach and tugging at her jeans when the phone rang in the kitchen and she jumped up to answer it.
“Why do you always have to answer?” he said when she returned to the bedroom. “Can’t you just call him back?”
“Sometimes he calls from a pay phone. You know how he’s trying to live off the grid.”
“Wouldn’t that mean not calling at all?”
Joanne buttoned her jeans. “Oh, don’t be so dramatic.”
Jim’s unease deepened when he heard about the next exhibit. It was called “Things That Are Caesar’s,” and it caught the eye of a curator at the Hammer Museum in L.A.
“The Hammer Museum!” Joanne shouted when he stepped through the door that night, weighed down by contracts and a large bag of frozen peas. “Do you realize how exciting that is?”
“Things That Are Caesar’s” was a giant playpen built using iPhones, dis- carded cables, and DVDs melded together. It was featured on the website. Joanne thought they should fly to L.A. and support Lucas for opening night. But the dates overlapped with Jim’s first-ever client meeting in New York.
“He’s worked so hard for this,” Joanne said. “It’s going to be his break- through.”
“I’m sorry,” Jim said. “I can’t make it.” She sighed. “You’ve never liked his art.”
“I just don’t know if it’s real,” he said. “I think he melted my iPhone.” “You don’t know if it’s real? What is that supposed to mean?”
Sitting at his gate at O’Hare, Jim ate a tuna sandwich and contemplated the giant nose of the Airbus beyond the glass partition. He was on his way to New York; Joanne was floating somewhere above western Nebraska, en route to L.A. He took out a yellow legal pad and drafted a letter to his wife, but it was an odd document. He’d only written a paragraph when he balled it up and threw it away.
While boarding, he noticed an ad for the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. It was on the wall of the tunnel that led from the boarding gate to the plane. The ad featured a giant image of Jeff Koons’ “Balloon Rabbit.” Jim stared at the image of the bright red porcelain rabbit and wondered what he was missing.
The meetings in New York went well. His clients offered him tickets to the Yankees game that Saturday, but instead he spent the afternoon at the MoMA, looking at art. He was hoping for some insight that would set his marriage back on track. He started with Cézanne’s apples, those melancholic yellows and reds. A “still life,” he came to see, was more than just an exer- cise: there was life beyond the frame decaying just as poignantly. He lingered over “Nighthawks,” the famous Edward Hopper piece: an entire era’s mood captured in one brooding image. Degas’ dancers haunted him with their blithe effervescence. He wondered if Lucas would ever create something so beautiful. He wondered if he would ever see the three thousand dollars.
When Jim returned to Chicago, he was eager to share his experience at the MoMA with Joanne. But she was busy writing her thesis, and otherwise dis- tracted by the event in L.A. The show at the Hammer Museum had indeed been Lucas’s breakthrough; he’d been featured in a Times piece declaring a new, exciting phase for the city’s burgeoning art scene. Joanne showed him the story online and told him all about L.A.—the museums, the music, the weather, the food.
“The tacos are amazing,” she said.
“We have tacos here,” he said.
They moved to a quieter, leafier street near Lincoln Square. They watched their shows. He bought a blender, a fun phase. He traveled twice a year to New York, and whenever he did, he stopped at the MoMA. The Impressionists, he came to see, had captured life’s tenderness, the sense that it could disappear if all the particles simply dispersed. He was standing in front of “The Yellow House” when a guard sidled up to him and told him it was time to leave. Back in Chicago, on a Thursday night, he dropped by the Art Institute to marvel at the pointillism of “Paris Street, Rainy Day,” enraptured by the wet cobble- stone, the pearl-gray umbrellas, and the quiet, eternal dignity of Parisians as they strolled through their otherworldly plaza. “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” was almost too much for him: the fern-green cloudbursts of trees, the dogs at play, the girl in white ambling with her mother. The whole astonishing scene just a delicate mirage.
When Joanne finished her thesis, she had trouble finding a teaching job in or near Chicago, so she cast an ever-widening net, though neither of them was greatly enthused about living in Huntsville or Syracuse. Her options were dis- couraging, and she felt undervalued. She wrote essays casting her erudition in ironic light, publishing them in obscure journals for little to no pay. Her moods were unpredictable; occasionally, after a phone call with Lucas, she would look deflated. “He has an audience now,” she said. “He doesn’t need me.”
It was true—Lucas rarely called. It was she who always called him. Part of Jim was secretly glad that Lucas had drifted away from her, but he hated to see her moping around in pajamas, editing cover letters, waiting for her brilliant friend to share his latest triumph.
Soon enough he did call.
Jim came home and found Joanne cooking pasta with scallops.
“He’s going to Guatemala,” she said. “He’s creating his own artists’ retreat.”
“Help me understand what that means.”
“He’ll have his own studio there, and he’ll choose others to join him.” She showed him the GoFundMe page. “He’s only two thousand shy of his goal.”
Jim felt his eyelid twitch. “But I’ve been supporting—”
“You’ve been supporting?”
“We’ve been supporting. We’ve been supporting.”
She sighed. “Forget it. Never mind.”
In the end, they pledged two thousand dollars for Lucas’s artists’ retreat, which, as far as Jim could surmise from the photos on the website, involved drinking dark rum with European tourists, surrounded by a blazing archipelago of clouds.
Three years passed. They argued a lot. When the arguments petered out, it was worse. Joanne took a part-time job teaching freshman composition. He noticed her taking a step back from the mirror before assessing her features, which broke his heart. She was beautiful. He wished he could hand her a para- sol and hire a Claude or Edgar or Vincent to come do her justice. But his wife no longer shared her ideas, and this was the most upsetting part. She felt almost like a stranger to him.
One morning, in a flash of weakness, he browsed her spiral notebooks for clues while she was in the shower, but all he found were notes for an essay theorizing transgressive art. What some don’t understand is that it’s a mystery for the artist, too, this need to tear a peep-hole in the fabric of the universe. It isn’t smugness; it’s desperation. She’d never phrased it like that before, at least not to him. Later that night, in his office, while the pearl and ruby procession of traffic streamed along Wabash Avenue, he tried again to address his wife in letter form, but his mind sputtered. He tore the paper and tossed it away. He wouldn’t have minded tearing a hole in the universe if it led to the past.
When Lucas finally returned to L.A., he made an immediate splash. His controversial pieces spread through the very media ecosystem he satirized relentlessly. “Collective Suicide Note” was the first piece to garner attention beyond the L.A. art scene. On a billboard off Interstate 5, Lucas plastered phrases drawn from celebrities who’d killed themselves, arranged as a glossy ransom note. He followed that with another work, equally popular: a rectangular glass enclo- sure—like the ones for models of office parks—filled with a hundred G.I. Joes hanging from nooses made with floss from a hundred miniature plastic trees. It was called “Military Industrial Complex.”
By this time, Lucas was in high demand, and more distant than ever. Joanne could only read about his exploits in the news. For the first time, Jim under- stood that his wife might envy Lucas, who was living a version of life she desired, or at least thought she desired. He wanted to tell her that she was the one who was special, not Lucas. She made art accessible; Lucas was only after fame.
A silence descended upon the household. Joanne renewed her job search in earnest, applying to schools everywhere. When she was offered a job curating a museum in Seattle, they sat down at the kitchen table.
“I don’t know how to say this,” she said. “I think we need to explore ourselves.”
The separation was temporary. Joanne moved to Seattle for the year and Jim stayed in Chicago. She left behind several boxes of books, which he took as a promising sign. He found himself reading them after work, often late at night, studying her notes in the margins. He felt a painful affinity with the loops she made in her l’s. He read an essay she’d written on Marcel Duchamp’s “ready- mades.” It was wonderful—lucid, witty, humane. He left the dishes in the sink.
Work was still going well, and he was thankful for the distraction. He had finally made partner and was earning a higher salary than he ever would have expected. But always he thought about Joanne. He tried to imagine where he would be if he had never met her, and sometimes this counterfactual got him thinking about the cosmos. He discovered Kandinsky, whose alien spheres he mused about on the El after work. He noticed the colors people wore. He thought about how strange it was to be in orbit with all these people. He wanted to tell Joanne about it but didn’t know how. He took out his yellow legal pad and wrote, WE ARE IN ORBIT.
As Lucas’s star continued to rise, critics examined his earlier work and found it rich with meaning. Someone posted a YouTube clip featuring “Mucus and Stardust”; within two days, it collected more than 100,000 views. When Jim saw it, he called Joanne, who told him that Lucas had earned a grant, a fairly sizeable one, and would soon unveil his latest project.
He took one of his trips to New York and visited the MoMA again. First, he looked at the Twombly exhibit, those stormy crayons and colored pencils: childlike, miraculous. There was one from 1970—oil-based paint and crayon on canvas—that lit him up entirely. It looked like an angel’s treatise on the soul caught in a hurricane. His eyes misted over as he felt a pang of mortality. Then he browsed the Rothkos, those harrowing orphaned bars of paint: the moaning blue, the dizzy orange, the terrifying burgundy, the color you see when you close your eyes. The color of dread, of merest hope. The black squares were the night sea, the pupil of a beast. He could almost hear the paintings breathe.
“I can’t describe it,” he said to Joanne, when he FaceTimed her late that night from the desk of his hotel room, the lights of midtown dimming around him, the avenues growing quieter. “I wish you could have been there.”
“I have been there,” she said, but he could see she was only teasing, and the teasing gave him hope. She was sipping a mug of green tea while editing the program for her first exhibit as curator: a sculpture of light made from Costco’s warehouse-style fluorescent tubes. The artist was a young woman from Idaho she had just discovered—a former Costco employee, a drifter, completely un- credentialed. Jim was intrigued and happy to see his wife so enthused. “It turns out I’m a curator, not a critic. Who knew?”
“So it’s going well?”
“It is,” she said. “Better than expected.”
“Maybe I should take a trip.”
“It’s late,” she said. “Get some sleep.”
Back in Chicago, an envelope from Lucas Bloy was waiting for him. It con- tained a check for five thousand dollars, and one wooden almond.
There was no official publicity for “The Windowless Room of Wisdom,” but somehow the title made its way through the art worlds of New York and L.A. The buzz even spread to Chicago, where a group of local artists hoped to claim Lucas Bloy as their own.
It was, Jim learned, a photo booth of the kind one finds in shopping malls or video arcades. Except there was no camera or screen. It was just an empty booth with a curtain that opened and shut, and a metal bench. Lucas put the first one in the middle of Times Square, and soon there were Windowless Rooms of Wisdom all over the country—at the end of the Santa Monica pier, in the middle of Harvard Square, at an intersection in Key West. Lucas had somehow gotten his hands on a number of decommissioned booths. He added the garish, carnival-style signs that lit up at night. It was billed as an interactive experience: anyone was free to enter the Windowless Room of Wisdom; the only rule was that you had to enter it alone. The New York Times referred to it as “an artist’s brilliant response to our vapid, media-saturated world.”
A booth appeared in Chicago, near the Michigan Avenue Bridge. Jim over- heard his colleagues at work talking about the phenomenon. Some admitted they didn’t get it. Others were mystifyingly stoked. Those with liberal arts edu- cations tried to explain it as best they could.
“I’m happy for him,” Joanne said during one of their FaceTime conversations. “He’s entered a more mature phase.” She laughed. “Maybe we all have.”
He asked about the exhibit she had curated—the sculpture of light.
“Oh, it was perfect. So, so good.”
He was pleased, of course, but something about these conversations pained him. They were too polite, too formal. He asked if she had thought any more about moving back to Chicago. She sighed and took a while to speak. His ribcage turned to sand. He studied her eyes, the nebula of a blemish on her left cheek, the frizz of attractively unkempt hair. She was working on a new exhibition, a series of bedroom miniatures she described with typical eloquence, mussing her hair with one hand and gesturing with the other. “I think you’d actually like this one.”
He wanted to climb through the screen and kiss her. “Come back for a visit.”
In the meantime, he decided to visit the Windowless Room of Wisdom. He walked there during his lunch break. It was a cloudless spring day, and hundreds of tourists were waiting for water taxis and river cruises. The booth was occupied, and there was a line along the sidewalk. The tourists disembarking from the riverboats were curious. Some of them joined the back of the line. A large man with a fanny pack opened the curtain and walked out. “Well, it sure is dark,” he said to his wife, and they sauntered away together. “Huh,” said the woman who went in next. “It’s actually kind of peaceful.” The next woman gig- gled as she reunited with her friends. “You know, I just don’t know,” she said.
Jim went inside. He closed the curtain. He found himself wanting something to happen. Maybe he’d been stubborn, or obtuse, or simply impatient, and if he concentrated now he would finally see what Joanne saw. What did she see? He wished he knew. He’d always longed to inhabit her mind, to notice every glint of light or a shade of blue she noticed first, to dream exactly the same dream. Maybe this would be his chance. He’d wait. He’d wait as long as it took.
But nothing happened—nothing at all. He waited in the dark booth and felt time pass. He heard a bus rumble over the Michigan Avenue Bridge, the gentle slurp of water against the concrete riverbank. He heard the sound of his own breath.
It came to him: his marriage was over. He saw that very clearly now—in fact, it had been over for years. Joanne had wanted a different life, a life he couldn’t offer, a life she’d had to find for herself. It made him rather emotional. He watched the life they might have had play out in his mind. He pictured a child, a girl with a bow, standing with him and holding his hand on an El platform in winter. They were huddled by the platform heater along with other passengers, their breath escaping in ribbons of cloud. He and the girl were humming a tune, and whenever he hummed it wrong, she paused and showed him how to hum it right. The snow, huddling too as it fell, gusted over the brownstones and traffic lights and power lines. It did a lazy pirouette across the empty tracks. What was the tune? He didn’t know, but he found it deeply moving. It came from such a strange place. Tears began to form in his eyes, and suddenly he was weeping.
He sat in the booth a long time. Eventually he gathered himself; he would have to get back to work. He parted the curtain and stepped back onto the street, where a crowd had formed. They watched him wipe the tears from his eyes.
Drew Calvert is based in Claremont, California. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, The Threepenny Review, Gulf Coast, The Missouri Review, and other publications. His awards include an Arts Fellowship from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a Fulbright grant for creative writing.