Activity (Part One):
Prove to a pompous ass that creative expressions and tastes are sometimes fiercely personal. The progression of a season, a given day, or even a moment, a moment that exists because of an accumulation of a lifetime: these affect how one responds to a piece of art. You were never artistic enough for him. You got mad, but there’s no need to get mad again. You are creative. Shape it, mold it, feel it between your fingers like warm clay and redefine it. This is the emotional side; for the physical side, use the following materials:
*1 package of twine
*1 hole puncher
*10 to 15 photocopies of Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus. Keep the original print, torn from a large reference book at a library on the edge of town. It has always been one of your favorites, and really, it strikes you as odd that you’ve never owned an actual print until now.
Wait until he’s at The Day Job, as opposed to His Calling. Then commence.
Melanie sipped her Manhattan. “What are you working on?”
He sat at the bar, hunched over a pile of shavings, whittling a small block of wood. She assumed he was a regular; the bartender didn’t seem concerned with someone sitting there wielding a pocketknife.
“Come on. You can’t carve wood out in the open and not expect someone to ask.”
He smiled. “Have you heard of Claes Oldenburg?”
She shook her head.
“He does these crazy, massive installations,” he said. “He’ll take something mundane and ordinary like a tube of lipstick, or a set of bowling pins, and blow it up into something greater.”
She slid onto the barstool next to him.
“See this?” He held up a jagged, splintered piece of wood. “It’ll eventually be a shuttlecock. He’s got this giant one on display in Kansas City. So the shuttlecock started small, got big and distorted, and now I’m making it small and distorted.”
They made more small talk. She told him about her majors in sociology and social work. He explained his mission further and named it: “Deconstructed Reconstruction.”
Her buzz made it sound impressive. Now, two months later, she wished she’d laughed in his face.
Melanie held the flashlight out and in front of her stomach.
“Remember what we discussed,” said Andy.
“Two flicks on and off if I see any headlights,” she whispered. He smiled as the wind blew her hair from side to side. He kissed her.
“I’m not gonna lie, you look really hot right now.”
She nodded and took a deep breath. “What if we get caught?”
“We won’t. Nobody really drives out here this time of night. Just stick to the plan and we’ll be out of here in ten minutes. Fifteen tops.”
“But there’s a trailer over there. What if there’s a foreman or security guard inside?”
He sighed. “Then I’ll take the blame and you can drive away. How’s that?”
“Just hurry up,” she said.
“It’s nothing,” he said. “These big construction companies always have items left over after their projects. They won’t even notice they’re gone.” It was the second time he had explained this logic that night; Melanie wasn’t sure if he was trying to convince her or himself.
Andy crept down the hill to the worksite. The chain link fence wasn’t securely fastened all around; he had done a test run the previous night. Melanie saw him flash a thumbs-up in the faint stream of light, then he slipped into the fence’s crevice. He swore and grunted as he shoved cinderblocks through the inside of the fence to the outside.
“Fuck,” he said.
Melanie pulled the light up to his face. “What’s wrong?”
“Hold it down, Mel. I can’t see.”
“But you just–”
“Hold the light down. Go pop the trunk.”
She held the light with one hand and reached to grab the handle. Another flash of light illuminated the license plate. She nearly dropped the light, but held on and flicked it on and off twice, then crouched by the passenger side door.
The approaching car slowed down, then sped away. She waited until she heard Andy’s voice.
“Yeah. Please, let’s get out of here.”
He loaded the blocks into the trunk. She held the flashlight and noticed how much he was shaking.
One evening, he sprawled on her couch and flipped through TV channels. She filled out an internship application with the Department of Children and Family Services.
“That’s great about us,” he said. “We’re both trying to save the world.”
She stared at the back of his head and sipped her tea. She couldn’t tell if that was the most audacious or the most misguided thing she’d ever heard him say.
Activity (Part Two):
Go to the pine tree outside his bedroom window. Sit cross-legged in front of it. Punch holes in the top left and right-hand corners of the Emmaus copies. Smoke a cigarette and look up at the sky. There’s nothing to hide, so don’t rush. Once you’ve finished your smoke, tear off pieces of twine to tie loops into the photos. Take breaks; it’s tedious. Have another cigarette once all the photos are ready. Look around. Are any of his neighbors watching? Hold your head up high. If you see anyone, wave.
Melanie finally knew their relationship wasn’t going anywhere while in the contemporary art hall of the museum. Andy stopped every few feet and brought his hand to his mouth. She couldn’t look at him for more than a few seconds without getting irritated. It was like a performance piece. He exhaled through his fingers, rubbed his chin, and circled a pile of Styrofoam chunks. He circled counterclockwise.
“What?” she asked.
She winced and bit the inside of her cheek. The faint taste of copper tinged her taste buds.
“Yeah, it can be read in so many ways. It could be a commentary on our dependency on plastics. The consumeristic dominance of instant shipping. Most of the crap bought around the world comes from China. And most of it is carefully packed in these pieces.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just don’t get it.”
Melanie could see the calculations adding up in his mind. She doesn’t get it. She’s not thinking in the abstract. She doesn’t get serious art. She she she she.
She zipped her jacket and walked out of the hall. “I’m going to the other wing.”
The museum had Supper at Emmaus on loan from the National Gallery in London. It was why they came. But as soon as they walked in, he begged for “just ten minutes” in the modern wing. He carefully chose his words.
“Savor the anticipation. We don’t have to run up to it right away. We have all afternoon.”
Cleopas’s hands thrust out in shock at the sight of the newly resurrected Jesus, who appeared deep in thought. The shadows were jagged, the silhouettes creepy. The ripe fruits, loaves of bread, and glistening duck on the table looked delicious. She glanced behind her and saw Andy.
“It’s pretty, but what’s the point?”
“Pretty? I think it’s stunning,” she replied. “I can’t comprehend the time that went into creating this.”
“It’s a commission. Some pope just wanted this to wow the peasants.”
“Can’t I just appreciate this? I’m sorry it’s not as, as ambitious as fucking Styrofoam.”
Andy had full reign of the courtyard in front of his apartment, thanks to a landlord who enjoyed his installations and fancied himself a supporter of the arts. As long as he did it while the rest of the tenants were at work, he had freedom to chop wood and weld scrap metal to fasten together collages in his rotating outside gallery. Melanie sat on the front steps, jotting notes in her case book while Andy, shirtless, swung sledgehammers and caulked vases to broken down end tables he’d found in alleys and dumpsters. Whenever someone walked by, he’d stop momentarily mid swing to let them admire his clenched back before heaving and breaking down a pipe or a piece of plywood. The landlord sipped his coffee and peeked through the blinds.
She didn’t care if it was commissioned. It was no big deal that it represented a religion she cared nothing about. It was meticulous and somewhat unsettling. Soon it would be packed up and sent back to London. In her mind, the wing was empty. For as long as she stood there, the painting was hers alone. The name “Caravaggio” rolled off the tongue like a seduction or a declaration, depending on the tone. He drank, he brawled, he killed a man. He used prostitutes as models for nuns and the Virgin Mary. Melanie imagined being his model.
She’d sit on a rickety stool and expose a shoulder and some of her chest. Caravaggio would look at her, then back at the canvas or sketchbook. He’d channel his arousal into a wholly pure image of the Virgin. The devout would kneel and pray before his work, oblivious to the fact that he’d taken the model to bed. She’d drink with him, fight with him. They’d have grand arguments, not passive-aggressive text message conversations. And the mutual forgiveness would warm them both for days after.
“I can’t do this anymore.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re a good guy. I’m just not ready for anything serious right now.”
“I thought we were getting along so well.”
“We were. We are. I just don’t want to string you along or have you get disappointed. I just want to be friends.”
7:30PM: what’s up Mel?
7:36PM: Hey Mel at the bar where are u?
7:49PM: Hope you are ok
8:24PM: Thinking about you
8:31PM: Miss yo
8:31PM: *you lol
9:03PM: Fuck fine I’ll stop bothering you just wanted to see you won’t bother you again
Activity (Part Three):
You’re almost done. Gather the photos and string them through the little pine tree outside of his window. Make sure they’re even, don’t bunch them up. Push them back on the branches so they don’t blow off in the wind. Then, they’ll have to be pulled just a bit harder when he eventually removes them.
He doesn’t love Caravaggio. He never will, and that’s fine. But you never understood his sculptures and you never will. You’re even. But this is your creation. Not only will he see Supper at Emmaus at least fifteen times, he’ll be reminded of you each time. Really, this act should impress him, but it will probably scare him. He’ll wonder what else you’re capable of. He’ll never text you again. But some nights you’ll sit at home, slightly drunk, and look at your phone. You’ll secretly want him to break down, even though you have the upper hand and always will. You’ll put your phone away and stare at the picture thumbtacked to your wall. Imagine Caravaggio’s kisses and the inspiration. You are a model in more ways than one.
James Yates is an MFA Candidate in Creative Writing at Roosevelt University in Chicago. He’s also a fiction editor for Longform.org. His fiction has appeared in Hobart and CHEAP POP, and his nonfiction has appeared in Necessary Fiction and the Fanzine. He lives in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood.