My 2006 NaNoWriMo novel. Woo! Note: since I am posting as I go along, the storyline is backwards. To read this, start from the oldest post and read to the newest.

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Location: Los Angeles, United States

I am an awkward, stubborn, slightly insane woman who would rather talk Plato than Prada, rather watch Frank Capra than Carrie Bradshaw, and rather listen to Norse myths sung in Icelandic than anything currently on the radio. Yeah. Told you I was weird.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Chapter 9

To: Jason Slocum, Angie Parr, James Peyton, Erin Leason
From Stephan Anastasios
What: a solo show
Who: the artist, me
Where: University art gallery
When: February 12th-February 19th. The opening will be February 12th, at 7pm.
Title: The City and the Angels
"So, are you planning to go to Stephan's show next week?" Angie stirred her tea, dumping in a spoonful of sugar.
"I'd like to; I'm pretty busy, though. I guess since it's in the gallery, I should be able to get to it, but I don't know about attending the opening. I'm not much of one for gallery openings. Too many people trying to say original things about the artwork, while everyone else stands around and tries to figure out what they're talking about."
Angie laughed, shaking her head. "I can understand that. But I don't think you'll have too much trouble with this one."
"Why's that?"
"Have you seen any of Stephan's art yet? I mean, apart from the trails of scribbles on napkins."
"No....I don't think so."
"Well, his stuff's pretty different. Clear enough that anyone who wants to work a little at it can probably get what he's trying to say, but...ah, what's the word.."
"Obscure? Abstract?"
"No, neither of Profound? No...Drat. Anyway, enough that that you don't just glance at it and think you got it. You gotta work at looking at his stuff, but it's very much worth it."
"Oh, ok." I poked thoughtlessly at the remains of the food on my plate, cutting the skin of my baked potato into geometric patterns with the side of my fork. I still planned to avoid the opening of the show, but now I felt almost guilty about it.
"How're you doing today, Jason? I know things have been really bad lately, and I haven't been able to be any help." She looked away, then back again. "To tell you the truth, I think I was pretty arrogant to assume that I could help, and very arrogant to attempt to force you into being helped."
"What if I didn't need help? What if everything I was saying before was right, and the way you see things is the illusion? That'd be a cruel sort of help, to blind me with a silk hankerchief so I couldn't see the piles of corpses, when the blindfold comes off at death anyway. I'd see the corpses in all their horror just in time to become one of them."
"Jason, that's got to be one of the most melodramatic metaphors ever made." She smiled, and I had to laugh, just a little.
"Ok, granted, but the point still holds, I think. You know what I'm trying to say, right?"
"Yes, I do. But I still want to know why, when presented with a view of corpses and a view of living beauty, you assume the ugly vision is the true one. There's no logical basis for it."
"Wouldn't you use a prettier picture to trick someone?"
"To trick them, you'd use whatever picture they'd buy into the most, whether beautiful or ugly. And ask yourself this: who would be trying to trick you, why, and what would they have to gain from it? I know you'll be honest with yourself on those: as much as you hate delusion, you don't like putting one in front of your own eyes."
I nodded, and pushed my plate away, setting my napkin on top of the remains of my dinner. I watched little pools of grease spread across the surface of the napkin, bringing a strange translucency to the cheap paper.
Angie popped a white plastic lid onto her cup of tea and gathered her things. "I need to get to the library; I'm supposed to be at work at 12:30, and it's nearly 12:20 now. Walk me over?"
"Sure, I need to get some books anyway." I grabbed my tough knitted book bag and slung it over my shoulder. I wrapped a few cookies in a napkin and grabbed an apple, stuffing both into the bag, hoping that neither would get crushed by the other items in the bag.
Angie grabbed two oranges from the fruit bowl, and put one in her bag. As we walked to the library, she tossed it into the air for a few minutes, then pulled a pen out of her bag and began scribbling on the peel of the orange.
We chatted about grades and campus activities; she was, as usual, interested in the status of the ongoing discussion in my Bible class. As we entered the library, Angie went to her desk, and I headed upstairs. As I rummaged around in my bag, feeling around for the apple I'd dropped in my bag, my fingers closed around the dimpled cool skin of a citrus fruit. Pulling it out, I saw an orange, with crazy eyes and a stuck-out tongue drawn on it.
I laughed, said a quick word of thanks for Angie's sense of humor, and started to peel the orange.
The night air was chilly, but calm, and the sky was full of stars. As I walked down past the cafeteria, the deep blue overhead contrasted richly with the warm yellow light from inside the buildings. As I neared the bell tower, I could hear muted laughter and conversation, and a long rectangle of buttery light fell across the pavement. It looked like Stephan had gotten a good crowd to show up for the opening of his show.
I shouldered my way through the crowd around the entrance, and stepped inside the gallery. My first impression was of bright slabs of color on the walls, luminous as stained glass. A faint strumming of guitar strings could be heard over the sound system. I saw that one of the first things in the room was a large home-made book, brightly painted with various figures. I stepped up, and began to page through it.
I soon realized that Stephan was using the book to introduce us to the figures in the paintings. The pages featured differents part of the city; buildings, people, and landmarks, each introducing itself, and claiming "we don't know what we are." I flipped open another page, to a simple drawing of little red birds, who stated, "We are the finches, and we don't know how we are still here." Following them was a large white snake, proclaiming itself the Dragon, or Scientism, and threatened to crush all.
I closed the book, and began to examine the rest of the room. Another book, larger, lay on a pedestal in another corner of the room. Since no-one seemed to be looking at it at the moment, I decided to start my tour of the room there. This book was made of plywood, about one yard square, with comic-strip style panels on it. It seemed to have one simple story line. The pictorial narrative started at dawn in Los Angeles, as a figure in blue with a single star on its shoulder entered the city. As the figure passed a fire hydrant, the hydrant suddenly started up, sprouting legs, and began to follow. Page after page, more and more objects joined the figure in its silent trek through the city. Trees pulled up their roots, cars ejected their occupants, and finally, the buildings themselves ripped themselves out of the concrete and joined the crowd. I recognized the image as a progression of the rough sketch on the napkin that Stephan had shown me earlier. The final image showed darkness setting over Los Angeles, the population left alone in the night, and all the trees, buildings, birds, and cars following the Lady out of the City.
I'm not sure what it was about that image, but it stayed with me. My heart ached for the people who'd been unable to follow, and a rush of joy for the City, which had followed the Lady in blue. With a twinge of regret, I turned away from the book, resisting the urge to flip back to the beginning and start again, and moved to look at the paintings on the walls.
One depicted a tall building, covered in billboards, yet proclaiming there was no room for a non-commercial sign. In another, a huge tree hung in midair, with the Los Angeles freeway system feeding into it. The white Snake was wrapped around the tree, and dozens of small, blank, empty people ran along the freeways. The title posted on the wall next to it read, "The Tree of the Knowledge of Everything Except for Good and Evil." In one, the sky was dark and gloomy, and the white snake towered over the landscape. Its fangs were bloody, and beneath it lay the mangled form of one of the little red birds.
Two of the paintings were so evocative, that I was almost moved to tears. The first was painted in deep, rich, almost secretive tones. Under the shadow of one of the freeway overpasses, two of the Angels (a car and a building) were looking at a plant. At the root, where it sprang from the soil, the trunk of the plant was a luxurious blue, spangled with yellow stars. As it grew, it became green and fertile, and ended in a glowing purple fruit. Above the heads of the angels, one of the finches chased the Snake away. "The Tree of Life is Bearing Fruit in Downtown LA," read the sign on the wall.
The other was in brighter, sun-bleached colors. The Tree from another painting hung upside down in mid-air over the Hollywood Hills, strung on wire held by the little red birds. The Snake, looking quite worried, was wound about the trunk of the tree, while more birds hatched from eggs hidden in the branches of the tree. The Angels looked up, saluting the birds, and the large white letters on the hills read "Credo Ut Intelliga." I looked to the placard on the wall, and read, "If the Snake in the Wilderness Is Lifted Up."
I turned around to see Stephan standing behind me, smiling slightly. "Hey, Stephan, this is amazing!"
"You think so?" He scratched his head unconsciously, making his already unruly black hair stand up even more. "I'm glad; some people don't know how to think about LA as a spiritual place, except in a solely negative way. I dunno, I just love the City..."
I pointed to the listing for "Snake in the Wilderness" on the handout I'd picked up at the door. "Are these for sale? I noticed that there's a price listed for each of these."
"Oh, yeah, the paintings on the walls are all $75, but the prices on the others varies."
"Ok. Is this one sold?"
Stephan looked at the sheet, then at the painting. "No, I don't think so. I put red stickers jut below the ones that have sold, and that one doesn't have one. You want it?"
"Yeah, I do, actually. I really love it. Can I get the cash to you later, or would you rather have a check now?"
"No, don't worry about it now, you can drop it by my studio later. Know where it is?"
"Yeah, I think so. That'd be great; I really want to have this one...Aw crap, that sounds so materialistic and possessive, but that's not why I want the painting. I want it because...well....ok, this is awkward, but it's like it's a window, and I want to be able to see the view from it, and be able to see it more than once. I almost wish I could afford the whole show, because it makes the view fuller and clearer, but I'll have to settle for the one window."
Stephan grinned, and nodded. "Yeah, I know what you mean. I'm happy that you want to buy one of the painting. I've gotta go, but just drop the $75 by anytime." He went up and stuck a small red sticker just under the edge of the paintings, then disappeared into the crowd.
As I watched him go, I noticed another piece I hadn't seen before. It was a sculpture, a miniature skyline, completely white. Tiny people milled about aimlessly at the feet of the buildings, but one figure sat atop a building, alone. I almost missed the poem that was attached to the pedestal; I don't remember the whole poem, but the opening line seemed full of longing and hope, even at the edge of despair: "Lady, speak the word, the word that keeps the City from falling."
I became almost unaware of the room around me; the roof seemed to become transparent, and open to the stars shining over the city. Though I was surrounded by four walls, I felt as though I could see the city skyline, gleaming in the night, lit up like a beacon. It all seemed so fragile, like an enchanted palace, made of crystal and hung upon a Word.
Then someone bumped into me, apologized briefly, and moved away, leaving me back in the gallery, stars hidden, and the City miles away.


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