by J.R. Salling
During the bombing, our apartment building destroyed, we moved into a row of metal pipes in the foundry yard. The largest measured 20 meters in length with a diameter of 150 centimeters, a particular disadvantage for the males. Some took to the low ceilings with ease, I noted, grinning when I saw them continue to drag their knuckles out in the open air. I envisioned future generations of our kind reverting to walking on all fours.
A little rusty but clean on the inside, I would like to say our new accommodations offered running water, electricity and other western amenities, but no such luck. Serving as shelter alone, the pipes were made available to us by the benevolent indifference of the foundry owner, Mr. Pavlovich, who had lost his main plant. We never asked if we could live there. He never asked us to leave. An older man, short and stocky with the gait of a wrestler, he arrived at his small office building every morning, despite his misfortune, with a somewhat horse-faced but voluptuous young secretary called Aurelia. I guessed he had business besides the manufacture of pipes.
Stavros, my old friend and a large, aggressive fellow, did not like our apartment. "Cramps my style," he said. By such statements, he referred to the difficulty in attracting females to our new cylindrical lair as he had the old cubical dwelling. Aurelia, for one, ignored his advances.
Having been an artist my whole life, embracing poverty in the bohemian tradition, I regretted only the loss of my studio and supplies. I had nothing productive to do as a result, although I did enjoy my afternoons of dominoes and smoking with the old men.
After the war came to an end, the victors brought us food and supplies. These came in assorted packages, which included all of the basics: canned meat, bottled water, cigarettes and toilet paper. Stavros managed to get far more than our fair share of packages when the aid workers tossed them off the truck into the crowd. I managed our supply, trading surpluses for deficits. One canister, it excited me to discover, had been filled with aluminum tubes, like the many paints I once owned. I knew better. They proved to contain a sweetened paste, similar to peanut butter.
"It's the same color as Aurelia's skin," Stavros decided, after I had squeezed some of it onto a hard roll. The substance had been packed in so much oil that it spread with ease. Without a word I retrieved one of the brushes I had salvaged, dipped it into the paste, took two of the rolls, and created a quick impression of female breasts.
I showed him my work. "What do you think?"
He laughed. "No. Much larger." He snatched one roll from my hand and stuffed it whole into his mouth. "That's what I will do, my friend," he mumbled, spitting bread fragments.
The poor idiot. I shook my head, but did not share my doubts with him.
Because Stavros has few ideas, when they come to him he tends to overreact. In this case, he bolted upright and hit his head with such a clank that it surprised me he didn't lose the notion altogether.
"You must paint her for me," he pleaded, rubbing the emerging lump.
It had already occurred to me. "Perhaps I could, if I had a surface to paint on and some dark chocolate for the shading."
"I'll take care of it."
And he did over the next few days, using some of his few Eurodollars for imported chocolates and constructing a small canvas from an old ironing board cover and scrap plywood. He even built an easel and positioned it to take advantage of the morning sun, which entered the rear of our pipe.
While Stavros assembled my studio, I staked out the foundry office in order to sketch Aurelia as she arrived and departed each day with her boss. I used the backs of old envelopes, capturing her likeness from several angles. She usually braided her blond hair into one long pony tail that swung back and forth like the flagellum of a tadpole, propelling her forward on her spike heels, her large breasts and equine profile charging ahead. Mr. Pavlovich kept pace a few yards behind, a ring of two dozen keys flapping on his belt. He gave me the evil eye on more than one occasion, as if he suspected me of industrial espionage.
I enjoyed the challenge of creating a duotone. I chose the profile view and believe I flattered her in every way. As Whistler achieved his famous arrangement in black and grey, it pleased me to compare, I had my Aurelia. Stavros shuffled back and forth within the pipe, resembling a nervous chimpanzee father to be.
"Go to work," I insisted. "It won't be finished until you return."
In fact, I knew it would be finished beforehand but in the process of visualizing her hairpin curves, my interests in the project had changed. I wanted her for myself. As a true artist I tend to indulge these procreative urges.
When I spotted her emerge from the office for a cigarette break I made my move. I ran to the pipe, grabbed my little masterpiece and hurried back. Genius is a proven aphrodiasiac, second only to power I believe. I intended to show her my portrait and claim the reward, albeit in a sophisticated, clever way that one expects from the cognoscenti.
My plans, however, never had a chance to unfold when she spotted my approach and spoke first.
"Go away," she said, looking at the vapor trails from passing fighter jets.
I held up her portrait, despite her discouragement, hoping to benefit from its magnetic pull. "Look! You have inspired me."
As I suspected, she could not resist, but I failed to foresee her reaction. "My God, do you want to be murdered?" she confronted me in an angry whisper. Up close I could tell that she was not a natural blond. "Get that out of here before Pavlovich notices you. He's crazy jealous."
Confused by my complete failure, I repositioned the portrait in a different light.
"Go on, already. You stinking maggot!"
Forced to recall that I was a mere refugee, dirty, unshaven, my clothes tattered, I limped back to the pipes. Pausing only long enough to toss the portrait inside with a carelessness that marked how it had fallen in my esteem, I went to join the old men in their game and distract myself from my unexpected failure.
A couple of hours later, Stavros marched up, beaming with happiness.
"She's beautiful," he cried. "You have done it."
"Yes, yes ... she's all yours," I agreed without interest, mixing the dominoes for the next round.
He embraced me where I sat, unaware of the discomfort he caused, and headed back toward the pipes. "He's a genius," he told everyone along the way.
'Shut up,' I thought to myself, embarrassed by the display, but later, after returning to our place, I took another look at my work. It was damn good, even if Aurelia in the flesh had proven a disappointment.
Bedded down that night, her image kept intruding upon my thoughts. At some point I got up and took the canvas to the front opening, so that I could see her in the starlight. I sat with my portrait for some time then gave her a good night kiss.
"Hmm," I said. "You're so sweet."
Stavros shook me awake the next morning and began to slap me against the head, blows I was slow to block. "My friend! What have you done?" he cried in obvious distress.
He stopped hitting me and held up the portrait, where the mere ghost of Aurelia remained. Only then did I understand that to love her was to destroy her.
Days later I could still taste remnants of fine chocolate in my mustache.
About the author:
J. R. Salling is a happy camper, intoxicated by citronella. Other publication credits include Yankee Pot Roast, Insolent Rudder, Word Riot, Opium Magazine, Poor Mojo's Almanac(k), Facsimilation, The Dead Mule, uber, Ten Thousand Monkeys, Copperfield Review, Rumble, Skive, Subterranean Quarterly, Defenestration & Thieves Jargon.