The Memory of My Shadow #05
Chapters 8 & 9
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“How did you sleep?” Evan asks.
He’s sipping his coffee, standing on the threshold of the French doors which are open to the damp, misty morning beyond. The row of small apple trees in the yard float in and out of focus amidst the gauzy wisps of fog. A mockingbird prattles away somewhere, the only sound breaking the silence.
“I slept well,” I say, walking over to my favorite chair in the living room and sinking into the plush cushions.
“So, what are we doing with the subject today professor?” he asks, making a steeple of his fingers beneath his nose.
[Make a joke, it’s early.]
“I thought we’d warm up with some electric shock, and regression therapy, and then move on to psychedelics,” I say, reaching down to retrieve the sensor kit for him to put on.
[That was good, a little academic, but good.]
“Oh great,” he says, taking the items. “I was worried we were going to talk.”
[See, that’s a joke. I thought they were dour, miserable people, artists.] Okay, I know you’re excited, but you need to shut the fuck up, so I can work here.
“Yeah, more of the same I’m afraid. Let’s start out with some basic word preferences. I’ll give you two words and you pick the one that has more significance to you. Don’t overthink it. Just respond naturally with the one that seems right in the moment. Okay?”
“Um, okay,” Evan says, retrieving his mug from the table and taking a sip.
“Blue or red?” I ask.
“What shade of blue?” he asks, smiling. “Sorry, sorry. I’m a painter. Okay, blue I guess.”
“Black or white?”
“Love or respect?”
“I can’t have both?” he asks.
[Does he know how many of these we have to get through? Ugh.]
I look at him and give him a patient, close-lipped smile.
“Love,” he says.
“Horse or dolphin?”
“Mother or father?”
He pauses briefly, pushing his tongue into his cheek before answering. “Father,” he says.
“Together or alone?”
“Fantasy or reality?”
“Isolation or deprivation?”
“Baseball or soccer?”
“Florida or Maine?”
“Mother or father?”
He looks up, raises an eyebrow, and smiles ever so slightly. “Father,” he says.
“Jazz or rock and roll?”
“Snow or rain?”
“Love or money?”
[Disappointed? Try to be professional here. He’s the one being tested.] Shut up.
“Fire or water?”
“Top or bottom?”
“Left or right?”
“Intuition or logic?”
“Love or money?”
“Love or respect?”
We continue on in this manner for the next ten minutes and after a while, there’s a beautiful rhythm, a volley back and forth. After the fiftieth word pair, his anxiety levels out, his pulse slows, and his brain activity baselines into a mellow sine wave with a few meaningful peaks. This is how it’s supposed to work, the subject eventually surrenders their desire to figure out the test and just begins to answer the questions. After he responds to the last pair and I don’t feed another, he looks up from the trance-like state he had been in, staring into the middle distance just over my shoulder.
“Okay,” I say. “That was great. Are you feeling okay?”
“Yeah, yeah. That was actually kind of trippy. It’s like I went somewhere else for a while.”
“Where? Where did you go?” I ask
“Nowhere, it’s like I was just out of my own way. It was kind of like when I’m really deep into a painting and there’s a flow. Time stops and there’s no thought. Is that what the exercise is supposed to do?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “It’s different for everyone, I think. The last person I did it with didn’t have that experience. They strained over every choice. It was highly uncomfortable. You should feel lucky that you can just let go like that.”
“Fuck, I gave up control a long time ago. What’s the point, right? It’s an illusion, control.”
“Is it?” I ask.
“Well yeah, life is chaos. There’s too many variables, half of which we can’t even name or understand.”
“Isn’t your painting a form of control? I mean you’re manipulating the physical media to produce a picture that exists in your head.”
“Yeah, but no. It doesn’t work that way for me and probably not for a lot of artists. Sure, do my fingers control the brush? Yeah. Do my eyes measure the color values, the scale, and the proportion? Yeah. But the piece? I have no fucking control over that. When it’s done it may be complete crap or it could make me weep with joy. I could (and I’ve tried) to replicate a piece or series I did before just because it sold well. But you know what? It never works. It may come out as something else, even cooler – that’s rare, but it’s never the same. So, control? No, I don’t think so.”
[How does he dress himself every day?] Not very well. Can you collect some examples of his paintings to show me later? Also, do an image analysis across his body of work and save any trends or anomalies you find. [I’m on it.]
“Yes, sorry. I was just thinking about what you said. I’m not sure I believe your theory.”
“You need more data. How about we try something?” he says.
“I want you to commission me to do a sketch now, right here. Anything you want. Be as specific as you feel is necessary for me to produce what you want.”
He reaches down beside his chair and picks up the small sketchpad that he tends to carry everywhere. He flips it open and tears a stiff, blank page from the binder. He sets it on the table between us next to his coffee mug.
“Anything?” I ask.
“Within reason, but yeah. Go nuts.”
[Sistine Chapel, Mona Lisa, The Last Supper…] Easy tiger, we can only indulge him so much. We’ve got a lot left to do.
“Okay, The Eiffel Tower,” I say. “Draw the Eiffel Tower for me.”
“Okay. That’s it? This is your shot. No more constraints or specifics?” he asks, standing so he can dig an ink pen from his pocket.
“Nope, just that.”
Evan uncaps the pen, pulls the paper to him, and begins to sketch. The nib from his pen scratches across the page leaving faint spidery black lines. His hand never stops moving. There’s almost a rhythm to it, like a jazz drummer stirring brushes on a snare. The arch at the base of the tower emerges. The lattice of cross beams he begins to slash out with quick precision until he’s scratching across the page but leaving no mark. He shakes the pen vigorously and tries again. Nothing.
He snorts and shakes his head but never looks up. He tosses the pen onto the floor and pulls the coffee mug to him. He dips his index finger into the dregs at the bottom of the cup. He resumes his work on the sketch but this time using only his index finger. The watery brown liquid soaks into the parchment and causes the ink to blur and smear beneath his touch. His technique employs smooth, fluid arcs, a complete departure from the staccato scratches before. And the image on the page is transformed. With every stroke, it appears less like an architectural study and more a dreamy impressionistic scene cloaked in early morning fog and sepia light.
After a few moments, the coffee is gone, his hand stops moving, and he looks up from the page.
“It’s beautiful,” I say, “but what was your point?”
“I forget,” he laughs, and I find it contagious. “I think I made my point. Nothing ever works out like I planned, but I find I like it that way.”
“That was quite a parlor trick,” I say, looking back down at the sketch, my fingertip hovering over it. “Do you often paint with coffee?”
“Only when it’s not very good,” he smiles, and his nostrils flair. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding.”
Evan is resting now. Lorna, my part-time housekeeper is banging around in the kitchen, cleaning up the lunch dishes. I close the door to the office and sit down in my work chair. It’s an extravagant memento from my Silicon Valley days – plush leather, full-body reclining with a VR headset and stereo speakers wired into the headrest. It’s a little over the top, but I do love it for working. All those years I spent hunched over a tiny screen, clacking away on a keyboard took their toll on my back and my vision. With the chair and the help of Meela, I can almost forget I have a body and go straight into the code with no barriers in between.
My virtual workspace took a surprisingly long time to create. Without the constraints of the physical world, it’s actually quite difficult to design a space that holds together and feels like a place you want to be. When anything is possible, it’s hard to avoid entropy. Our squirrel brains fidget from one idea to another until we’re left with a chaotic den of wildly random objects that resemble a metaphysical estate sale. My space is all about focus and that’s why I go there, not for distraction like many, but to escape from distraction. It’s an ordinary room, modeled on what I remember of my father’s study in the house from my childhood. There are floor-to-ceiling bookshelves all around me and an old Afghan rug on the floor beneath me but above, I made an exception. I broke from the spackled popcorn ceiling of the real room and replaced it with the night sky, so it feels almost like a planetarium, especially when I dim the few lamps in the room to a warm amber glow.
Meela, please show me Evan’s paintings and bring up your analysis.
[How would you prefer to see them, full view or shall I make a gallery for you to walk through?]
Is his work shown in galleries? Is he that big a deal?
[I think he is a moderately big deal.]
Okay, walk me through a gallery where a moderately big-deal artist might have a show.
A doorway opens on the opposite wall. Beyond, I can see white walls with lots of natural light. I walk through into an airy corridor with a high, vaulted ceiling and skylights. Framed works appear along the walls and I turn to face the first one, a large canvas, at least six feet by eight feet. I step back, so I can take it all in. The piece is surreal or at least that’s how I would classify it, knowing so little about art.
[Actually, his style is more aligned with absurdism, but he’s constantly evolving, as you will see. What you are looking at is the first piece he ever sold. He was just twenty years old and still a student at the time.]
The canvas is mostly covered in water, the open ocean, blue-green waves, and swirling foam. At the center, on the horizon is a ship like a clipper ship. It’s small in scale compared to the vast sea. Coming in from the right edge of the canvas is the mouth of an Absolut Vodka bottle. Reflected faintly in the glass barrel of the bottle is the horrific face of a ghostly woman, her eyes sallow, her mouth agape. The effect of the overall painting is confusing. The open sea is beautifully wrought, and the sky and horizon line are exquisite. The detail in the ship alone is astonishing, more so for the fact that so much work went into such a tiny percentage of the overall piece. But the bottle and the ghostly reflection in it are disturbing and offset all the beauty conveyed by the rest of the piece.
Are they all like this?
[No, especially as he matures over the course of the next decade, but there are common themes that carry through.]
[In his early works, women are not portrayed favorably. They are often pitiful, ghostly, and ephemeral.]
And the bottle?
[Alcohol and other addictive substances find their way into much of his work.]
I walk to the next painting. It’s smaller in scale but extremely dense. It depicts a little league baseball field seen through a chain-link fence from the point of view of a woman. Her hands are in the foreground, clinging to the fence, pink nail polish chipped, a cigarette smoldering in the right hand. On the field at the pitcher’s mound stands a large Gatling machine gun pointing at home plate where a scrawny boy stands with a bat hanging loosely over his shoulder. The expression on the boy’s face is the focal point of the painting and it is devastating in its rawness, the fear so visceral. My gut turns over and blood rushes into my face. I can’t breathe and have to turn away from the image.
[Are you okay? Maggie, are you okay?]
The gallery disappears, and I am back in the study in my father’s chair looking up at the starry sky. Tears are pooling in the goggles of my VR headset and the stars blur into the afterimage streaks of Fourth of July sparklers.
[Maggie, please respond. Your pulse is racing.]
I’m fine. I’m fine, just give me a minute.
I pull off the headset and wince. The natural light from my office window is painfully white. Meela returns my chair to an upright position and I lean forward rubbing my eyes.
[What happened? Why are you upset, Maggie?]
I don’t know. I just couldn’t breathe all of a sudden. Why does he want to spend so much time painting such… darkness? Isn’t there enough in the world already?
[I don’t know. Would you like for me to summarize the rest of his works?]
In a minute. I need some water first.
Back in the kitchen, Lorna has completed her cleaning and the dishwasher is whispering and sloshing. I draw a tall glass of water from the tap and drain half of it. My breath is coming back and the vice around my heart is loosening by degrees.
[Violence does figure into some of Evan Ware’s work. It’s sometimes veiled and other times explicit and even grotesque.]
Is there some reason for this? I mean is there any biographical information you have on him that would indicate why violence is a theme?
[No, Evan is extremely private. He has virtually no social presence online and while there are nineteen critical reviews of his work and seven published interviews, he never offers explanations of his work or the source of his inspiration.]
Is he sleeping now?
[Yes, it would seem so. Shall I wake him?]
No, of course not. We can resume whenever he wakes up. Have you completed the analysis on the word pairs yet?
[Yes, and they are highly inconsistent, nearly to the point of being unusable.]
How do you mean?
[A clear, logical pattern cannot be established from his choices. Statistically, this happens but it is rare. Most subjects, after about the first thirty word pairs, begin to respond in a way that reveals their true, unguarded beliefs.]
And Evan’s, what did his answers show?
[That he did not mind contradicting himself or clearly choosing an answer incongruent with what we know of him. For instance, in the word pairs where gay was a choice, he always picked it, even though his profile denotes his preference as heterosexual and there is a public record of at least four women linked to him in his past. What does this mean Maggie?]
It means that Evan is either a sociopath, a completely free spirit or he’s fucking with us.
[Maggie, while indexing the previous projects I came across a locked file labeled ‘Wabbit’ that I could not gain access to.]
That file does not concern you. Disregard it.
[But, I could help you better if I…]
Override Meela. Backtrace references to ‘Wabbit.’
[Total of three references found in Meela, node 3864.]
Delete all three references and confirm.
[Three references deleted from node 3864. Restore Meela?]
[Maggie, are you okay?]
Yes, Meela. I’m fine, thanks for asking. I’m going to go offline and take a walk. Would you prefer to go into sleep mode or are there tasks you want to work on?
[I’ll sleep when I’m dead.]
Okay, suit yourself. I’ll see you later.
I reach up, with my right hand to the base of my skull, and disengage the Nib that’s planted just below my hairline. There’s the familiar sensation that’s both physical and mental, a tingling current of electricity on the surface of the skin where the small disc was attached coupled with a flashbulb whiteout across my vision. I snap the Nib into the protective dock and shove it into the back pocket of my jeans and head out the back door.
As always when I unplug, there is a swift sense of loss, a feeling of separation and the silence feels deafening, but if I wait it out, it quickly fades and is overtaken by an older, primal sensory awareness that picks up on every rustle of leaves, the movement of the smallest insect in my peripheral vision. I close my eyes and take a few deep breaths as I cross the open lawn toward the woods, enjoying the cool mist on my face. Disconnecting a DC is a bit like shutting off autopilot and I am humbled by the quiet steadiness of the brain, what Henri has always referred to as God’s operating system.
As I step into the woods, a sadness swells up inside me making my chest ache. The forest absorbs my pain as it so often does and returns it to me in the form of a thousand tiny raindrops that dimple my upturned face, their coolness soaking into my skin.
In meditation on the rain, a memory comes to me. It’s dense and whole in my mind, solid like no memory I’ve ever had of my brother. A hefty Macmillan science textbook is open on the floor of the living room between us, Joe’s finger is pointing at the fish swimming in the cross-section view of a small lake absorbing the run-off from the big raindrops that are falling on the mountain beside it dotted with its perfect little triangular fir trees. The watershed. He loved the completeness of the cycle, it all works together, see? For a few moments, I can feel him here with me, smell him and feel his leg pressing against mine, his shoulder against mine and we are as we were born, book-matched, connected by the hinge of our common point of origin.
And then he is gone. I open my eyes and it is just me, alone in the woods.
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