map Out of the Flats

by Nick Burton

Published in Issue No. 10 ~ January, 1998

The sky over Crystal City was the color of blue flame; the glass skyline reflected shimmering silvers and golds, achieving an aesthetic ugliness that comes from a kind of sterile perfection. It was if the entire city was hiding behind one way mirrors, and if Ernie Milford could not yet see Jenny Featherstone’s private corner of the city, she sure as hell could have seen him coming.

Milford found himself gazing upwards at the city’s massive skyscrapers, almost losing control of his 1966 Montclair, it’s engine now chugging like a sick steam engine. He checked the scribbled address on a torn piece of legal paper that Rhodes had taped to the Montclair’s glove compartment. Jenny’s art gallery was a brown semi-circular glass and brick Bauhaus style building coming up on his left, smack in the middle of the city’s main drag. Ernie felt like he was going to black out behind the wheel from sheer, stupid anxiety. With an honest to god Lothar Spengler in his trunk, the prospect of dealing with Jenny had him playing with the variables; their meeting would either prove to be mutually profitable both financially and socially, or a colossal waste of time.

He pulled into the gallery’s parking lot, got out of the Montclair, and still nervous lit a cigarette. He hadn’t seen Jenny since she changed her name from Martha Pfizer seven years ago. They had been friends and lovers, and for no good reason Ernie could think of, they simply lost interest in each other. And now she was living in C.C. Time, Ernie thought, that and success change everyone.

The inside of Jenny’s gallery looked bigger than the outside, an illusion Ernie thought suited her quite well. The art on display was eccentric Crystal City chic; a blazing pink neon abstract light sculpture stood next to a striking, almost billboard sized tinted black and white still of Marlene Dietrich. It was a publicity shot from “Morocco,” with Dietrich wearing a tux and a top hat cocked to slightly to one side, a burning cigarette between her fingers. Ernie began to panic again, his better instincts telling him to forget the whole deal, get back in the Montclair and drive out of C.C. forever, back to the toxic charms of the Flats, with its attendant stink and brown fog. But it had been too late the moment he put the Spengler in the trunk; he had to try for a way out of the Flats, and if he could get one foot in Jenny’s door as an art dealer, he might not have to go back to teaching.

Jenny appeared from behind the huge visage of Dietrich like a phantom. She had shoulder length blood red hair, and her body was made to look square and heavy by a black one-piece outfit with too-large shoulder pads. Smoke plumed from her Sherman cigarette, glowing pink from the neon.

“Excuse me, miss,” Ernie said, “I’m the Fire Marshall, and I’ve come to put up the new ‘No Smoking’ signs.”

Jenny emitted a high pitched shriek, and embraced Ernie. The two stood looking at each other at arms’ length.

“Christ,” Jenny said, “I never thought I’d see you here.”

“I hope I’m not embarrassing you, but we provincial types do crave the big city lights from time to time.”

“Oh, shut up!” Jenny said, laughing and appearing genuinely pleased to see him. “You look well.”

“And you look terrific, Jenny,” Ernie said, almost calling her Martha.

“Terrific being a euphemism for fat, right?” Jenny said.

“No, I mean it. You look great.”

“Well, well!” Jenny said, and then there came the moment Ernie knew would come, the moment where they both knew they had nothing else to say to each other. There had been too much time between them now to renew even the most platonic friendship. If Ernie had harbored any hopes for anything more then a business relationship, they were gone, along with all the anxiety he felt driving in to the city.

“Listen,” Ernie said, “I didn’t drive all the way out her for a reunion. I have something that might be of interest to you. I have a Lothar Spengler.”

Jenny became animated stubbing out her Sherman furiously with her spiked heel, and pulling Ernie by the arm towards the center of the gallery.”No shit, Ernie? I thought he was dead.”

“No shit, Jenny. Spengler’s not dead, not even close. You know what Spengler does these days? You know those announcements for the Emergency Broadcasting System?” Jenny nodded, rapt in attention. “If it turns out to be a nine on the Richter scale, or if someone decides to launch a nuclear assault, the government calls Spengler at a remote radio station where he throws a switch and government broadcasting takes over.”

Jenny’s jaw dropped visibly. “Ernie, I have never heard such bullshit.”

“But I swear it’s true,” Ernie said, “they’ve never used him. He sits next to a red button all day reading letters to Penthouse.”

“He’s completely given up art?” Jenny was now beginning to yell in shrill voice Ernie always found somewhat affected.

“Sort of,” Ernie Said. “He paints about once a month, but he’s got a back stock of a hundred or so paintings.”

Jenny started to laugh. She wasn’t buying.

“You know, Ern, you had me going for a second, and it’s a cute story.” She lit another Sherman and turned away from him.

“Just trying to brighten your day a bit. But I do have one painting with me, and it’s yours for two grand.”

“I’ll tell you what,” Jenny said, “I’ll give you a grand, and that’s mostly for your story. To tell you the truth, a Spengler just isn’t in demand anymore.”

“And who do the elite decorate their walls with these days?” Ernie noticed a few canvases towards the back wall of the gallery. “Your stuff?”

“Christ, Ern, I know you’d love to rain on my parade, but it’s not going to happen. Besides, you’re looking distinctly green-eyed and monstrous today.”

Ernie suddenly couldn’t wait to get back in the Montclair and get back to the Flats. He took his time walking back to the parking lot, feeling foolish for losing sleep in apprehension of this meeting. He took the Spengler, wrapped in butcher paper, from the trunk of the Montclair. He stood for a moment, taking in the city’s skyline. Jenny emerged a moment later with an envelope in her hand.

“Cash okay with you?” Jenny asked as she was putting the envelope in his hand.

“Just spare change for you these days, I suppose,” Ernie said.

“Oh, fuck you,” Jenny said, tearing the butcher paper from the canvas, and letting it drop as litter on the parking lot. “Not one of his best,” she said, holding the canvas away from Ernie, “but it’s nice. Listen, Ern, I’m glad if I helped, and I loved seeing you again, but…”

Ernie cut her off. “But you have to go. It’s busy being Jenny Featherstone these days, right?”

Jenny gave him a quick peck on the cheek. “Come back anytime. We’ll have dinner.” She smiled sweetly.

“And you can pick up the check,” Ernie said.

“It’s a date,” Jenny said. She turned to go back inside the gallery. “Good-bye, Ern,” she said, walking away.

“Bye, Martha,” Ernie said, not knowing if she heard him.

Lothar Spengler was dead. He was a sixty-six year old German -born industrial engineer who dropped dead from a heart attack while he was watching television. He left no family behind, and when Jimmy Rhodes read this in the obituary column of the paper, it made him, perhaps for the very first time, confront his own mortality. Although he had another thirty years before he reached Spengler’s age, he had no wife, no family, no children, and he imagined the horrible loneliness in dying like Lothar Spengler.

Jimmy was an unsuccessful painter who was loved by a community of similarly situated artists and writers who lived out in the Flats, the polluted suburbs that spun out like a web around Crystal City. Five years earlier, a jazz musician Jimmy knew named Ben Carver was hired by an up and coming Crystal City movie director to score one of his films. The film bombed with the C.C. elite, but Carver’s music proved to be a huge, unexpected success, paving his way into C.C. He recorded a soundtrack disc, and not forgetting his friends, hired Jimmy to do the artwork for the project. Jimmy, who had only been to C.C. once and hated everything about it, used the name Lothar Spengler for the artwork. The artwork itself- a minimal, almost oriental watercolor of a Mandrill- became a chic C.C. icon, and eventually proved to be more popular than Carver’s music. The Spengler Mandrill became the ultimate symbol of Crystal City hip. Carver left C.C. for Italy after a year, and never told anyone about Jimmy Rhodes.

The C.C. elite were soon out scouring the art galleries in the Flats, looking for original Spenglers. When Jimmy realized what had begun, he painted as many canvases as he thought he could sell, and told every gallery owner he knew in the Flats that he was acting as “estate agent” for an artist who had committed suicide and was popular in Crystal City. The death hoax drove the price of a Spengler painting sky high. Jimmy didn’t know if anyone apart from Ernie knew about the scam, but as long as it worked, he didn’t really care.

Jimmy Rhodes now stood five years later in front of an empty canvas, wondering where his muse was, and when Ernie Milford was coming back from C.C. Jimmy brushed a blue CocteauÐ style star on the canvas, and tossed it aside. In the old days even that would have been worth three grand to some C.C. bozo. A knock on his studio door made his heart jump. He was starting to realize how quiet things were in the Flats these days.

“It’s me, Jimmy,” a voice from outside announced, Jimmy identifying it as that of Annie Shock. Her real name was Keiko Kyo, and she had come to the Flats two years ago from Hokkaido. Annie was trying to get into C.C. as a performance artist; she did traditional Japanese folk dances to her own recorded music, a kind of industrial atonal synthesizer din. Jimmy thought she was one of the most striking women he’d ever seen; she stood slightly over six feet, and wore her raven black hair to her waist. Because of her height, she could only find men’s clothes to buy in the Flats. Today she wore a blue blazer, white shirt, red tie and baggy black trousers.

Jimmy let her inside. She appeared typically cheerful, which didn’t correspond with Jimmy’s meditative frame of mind. She grabbed a beer from Jimmy’s fridge, and sat down on his ripped up pale blue sofa.

“Epicurean,” Annie said.

“I’m not sure,” Jimmy said, “I think it has something to do with sex, though.” Annie spoke beautiful English, and every time she learned a new word they played a little game of definition. Jimmy always told Annie that she had a much better understanding of the language as he did.

“Sensuous,” Annie said. It’s going to rain soon. Maybe I’ll do a dance in the rain. Maybe naked. That might have a good effect.”

“Yeah, Annie, in the rain,” Jimmy said looking out the window as he heard the chugging of Ernie’s Montclair.

“I’m going now,” Annie said, jumping up from the sofa, leaving her unfinished beer on the table. She smiled and nodded at Ernie as she passed him on her way out, and disappeared into the cloudy afternoon. Ernie sat down on the sofa.

“This Annie’s beer?” he asked yawning.

“I think she likes you,” Jimmy said.

“It’s always hard to tell” Ernie said, taking a big swig on the bottle.

“So what went down today, Ern?”

“I only got a grand for the painting. It seems a Jenny Featherstone is worth more than a Spengler to those dumb fuckers these days. Ernie tossed the envelope of cash onto the table. “Anyway, I’m sorry about your waning popularity.”

“Take six hundred,” Jimmy said, counting the bills, “and ask Annie if she knows ‘waning.’”

“I told Martha this great bullshit story that Lothar Spengler was alive and working for the Emergency Broadcasting System.”

“Shit, Ernie, nobody would buy that.”

“I know. You’re still dead.”

“It’s getting to the point where I don’t care who knows what,” Jimmy yawned, “I really don’t need Crystal fucking City anymore, and neither do you. Start teaching again.”

“I still think we can sell Martha the rest of your stuff. Things just…” They both looked up as it started to rain.

“Things change,” Jimmy said. “You’re never going to sell the rest of my stuff, so take the six bills and get your car fixed or something. Take Annie on a trip. She likes you. You Don’t need some hack like Martha Pfizer giving you status envy.”

“You’re right as usual,” Ernie said, “it’s just that once in a while I get….”

“I know,” Jimmy said. “I know better than you do.”

Outside Jimmy’s little shack, it was raining harder. Ernie took the money, shook Jimmy hand and headed back to the Montclair. He sat in the car thinking that the rain took the stink out of the air in the Flats, and sometimes the sky was spectacularly clear and blue after a good rain. Through his windshield, he could see Annie Shock doing her dances in an empty lot next to Jimmy’s shack. Her tape player, safe from the rain on Jimmy’s porch, blared with her wonderfully bizarre music. Maybe it’s Annie, Ernie thought. Maybe he’d stay for her. She’d always liked him, and he knew she’d support him no matter what.

He sat and watched her for ten minuets as the rain came down before he bolted out of the Montclair and knocked on Jimmy’s door.

“Jimmy, give me a few more paintings. I make this scam work, I swear. I just need to kiss her ass a little more. Either that or remind her that she’s just as provincial as I am.”

“I was going to try to sell these locally under my own name,” Jimmy said, grabbing two canvases wrapped in butcher paper behind the blue sofa. “Do me a favor though, and don’t get all fucked over by Martha.”

Ernie ripped them out of his hands. “Thanks,” he said, rushing to his car as it stated to pour.

“Hey Ernie!” Jimmy was yelling from his porch, Annie’s music still blasting over the sound of the rain.

“What?” Ernie shouted back. He could see Jimmy’s mouth moving, but he couldn’t make out what he was saying, his voice lost in the noise. Ernie shut the door of his Montclair, It would be another two hour drive to Crystal City, and for the whole drive, he knew he’d be wondering what Jimmy wanted to say to him, and if Annie was crying as he drove off, or if it was just the rain on her face.

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Nick Burton lives in Newport Beach, California. His fiction has appeared in many small press and web publications, inlcuding: Chronicles Of Fiction, Pauper, and of course Pif.