He was a sculptor. His body was found on the shore the next morning. Overnight, frost crystallized on the ends of his hair, his lips, the inside of his ear, his nostrils, his forefingers, his chipped fibula cracking through wax paper skin. The coroner said that the impact wasn’t enough to kill him outright, but that he had a heart attack during freefall. He had jumped off the Francis Scott Key Bridge.
Now they discuss his tools, his methods, his inspiration. He’s avant-garde, a cult figure. Sotheby’s sells his art for millions, when they’d just laugh at him when he would call from his studio saying he just finished a new piece. Collection and consumption. Even his druggy bio is trendy, just like the laceless moccasins of the professionally wealthy twenty-something that outbid everyone at the auction. Isn’t that a bitch.
But now you can afford to go to college.
Do you feel guilty? Don’t, it’s not your fault. All the note said was that he loved you, was sorry he never met you, and for his estate executors to put all the money away in a fund for your education. Aren’t you lucky?
Who was Gerard Ehman really? I know you didn’t know him. But he was your uncle, and he left you this. Take the package because the note said that you were to have this too. The note says everything. But you’ll never really know exactly what he meant, or felt—he was never there.
Take it. I don’t care if you don’t want it. I certainly don’t.
* * *
I decided to rip off the wrapping of the package the lawyer had given me once I got home after funeral ceremony was over. And that’s what was embossed on the wooden chest—happiness in a box—the “h” perfectly centered, the rest spiraling outwards.
The chest is perfectly rectangular, mathematically, so typical of all my uncle’s work. I had read some obituaries and found out he was obsessed with the proportion of lines. “Never has anyone in the last twenty years employed such precision in the art of sculpture,” the critics say. And the mathematicians back them up too. They say he used the golden mean, the divine proportion: “the most aesthetically pleasing ratio of the long and shorter lines of a rectangle.” It’s a number that can never be written. Like pi, infinite decimals—like the new number on my online savings account.
I stared at the top of the chest for a long time before I opened it. Was I answering the question the poem proposed just by lifting its lid?
A draft ruffled the curtains beside my bed.
* * *
I was a sculptor. I jumped off the Francis Scott Key Bridge. My body was found on the shore the next morning. Overnight, frost crystallized on all of my extremities. It was really fucking cold by the water, you know. But the first snowflakes of the season were falling, and while lying there, in a mess of drying water, blood and protruding bone, I tasted my last snowflakes.
What a scene that’d be for a self-portrait. It’d be white marble. I’d splurge on myself. The image of the artist lying there in death repose. Failed. Having met his end below an indifferent bridge that didn’t care it lead to a city of deal-making and throat-cutting—a city home to only to the those who couldn’t afford living elsewhere. And you know what, I don’t care either.
But, you’re probably thinking, well it’s not that odd anymore that a guy who’s fantasizing about depicting his own death in stone, who seems to care about nothing, would leave everything he has to a nephew he’d never even met. I’ll explain myself because I’m dead, and you should listen. Or not, if you’re one of those people who get alienated by outlandish plot points and traps and devices. Or who don’t believe in ghosts.
Jeanne and I lived in New York City back in the late seventies, in a three-room apartment on East 20th. It was supposed to be a red brick co-op, but years of rain, snow, neglect and one big fire turned its façade to a bistre color, not unlike vomit. But we were twenty-somethings caught up in the glittering city lights of Manhattan. Your next coffee and cigarette, making the next month’s rent, trying to make it as an artist in the city. That’s all that mattered.
My sister would work nights as a nurse at NYU hospital to help pay for the apartment and to get her degree, while I would work during the day. She didn’t know exactly how I got my income though. I used to tell her that I had a wealthy patron on the Upper East Side, which was true, but it wasn’t my art that she bought.
We had a strong mutual respect: she would never come into my room, where I worked and slept and hid my stash, and I would never question the jazz-musician boys she’d bring back to hers. But now I was always paranoid she was snooping around, so now I always took extra precautions, hiding whatever I had in whatever I was working on. She wouldn’t dare snoop around that.
But the cause of all of these theatrics stemmed from that last time she walked me home from the clinic. She cried, and I held her, brushing the hair from her face, until she pushed me away and looked me in the eyes, pupils narrowed and wet with held-back tears. She made me promise I wouldn’t use again. She looked down and placed her hand on her abdomen. Then she grabbed my hand and pressed it over hers and made me swear on my unborn nephew. Because “I don’t have it in me to take care of the both of you …”
She was six months pregnant then and her hormones must have been acting up. But I knew she was trying to finally have a stable home for once. So I swore on you.
But all promises inevitably end as disappointment.
She was dating this sax player from Manhattan School of Music, and thankfully she really dug him and he dug her, so he moved in with us. We were all poor, but this guy was a destitute bastard. I remember the day he moved in. He had two cardboard boxes, one with three shirts and a couple of pairs of pants, the other spilling over with sheet music and theory books. He looked like shit. He wore long hair, shiny with grease, week-old stubble, a flannel shirt, bleach-splotched jeans, and a fraying overcoat. Then he went over to the couch, thudded the boxes down, and slumped his thin body onto the couch. He wasn’t just skinny, it was that emaciated look that you get after weeks spent subsisting on peanut butter and Ritz crackers.
But I’ll never forget that night, in that room, my miniature gulag, a rectangular diorama of my silly nihilism—how I loved it.
I was sitting on the floor, next to my latest piece, a life-sized sculpture of an old man I had shared a cigarette with in the park the month before. Sweating from obsession, I measured the length of the bench, making sure that the man’s dangling left leg, which was crossed over his right knee, divided the bench into one longer segment and one shorter segment. Uneven, but calculated. The ratio between the longer segment and the whole bench equal to the ratio between the longer segment and the shorter one. Just like the old masters. Euclid, Phi, golden and divine.
Then Julian came in fiending. But he was too tired and junk-sick to pay attention to his horn case swinging around as he slid it off his shoulder, and knocked my drying bust to the ground, shattering it into pieces of plaster body parts.
Jeanne had heard the crash and waddled in.
She recognized it immediately. You could see her grinding molars moving her cheeks, as she went over and the head of the old man down on the table, or more precisely, what was left of it. The back was smashed and gaping, as if someone had shoved the barrel of a gun into the statue’s mouth and pulled the trigger. I remember wishing my head were the plaster one. But feeling the worst shiver shook me out my stupid denial. The clammy nervous pulse started from my sweating hands, up through my arms, to the back of my head of flesh, down the back of my neck and spine. I would say I can feel it now, but I can’t feel anymore.
She dug her hand into the back of the old man’s head and pulled it out. She turned to me. She held the off-white bag in front of her face, so that it was all I could look at. There were no tears. Nothing. She wouldn’t even give me that. This was it, I’d never be able to hold her and tell her I’d be better, that we’d be better, that we’d be happy. But she couldn’t give anything to me anymore because all I had done was take.
She waddled as fast as she could across the room, and grabbed Julian by the hand, led him to the door, and pushed him out of the room. Before she stepped across the threshold, she turned and looked at me, “You promised.”
I heard her let out her first sobs as the front door slammed behind her.
Every now and then, after your mother moved out, I’d sit, pick up the phone and press its plastic numbers, 2-0-2. But I could never get past the area code; I never got past what my life in New York had amounted to, what I had done to your mother, the promise that I couldn’t keep. I never said sorry, and never will be able to because I’m not a man—I’m not even a person anymore. I’m damned to drift through this haunted world of past failure, spiraling out from a haunted nowhere in quarter turns of a factor of phi.
To be contined in next week’s issue…