The next line goes here
“Do you want some help with that?”
I spun in my seat. The newcomer stood in my doorway. A lamp shone pallid on his features: protruding eyes and a wide, grinning mouth – the first impression was decidedly froglike.
“You’re stuck,” he said, “I can help you get unstuck.”
My room has two sources of illumination, a fluorescent lamp by the door (white, environmentally responsible), and a bare bulb over my desk (yellow, in constant need of replacement). There exists a small node of twilight about the center of my quarters that neither source properly reaches. As he spoke, my visitor slowly moved into this zone. He looked better in the dark; the amphibian impression faded with the light. He slid one hand into a pocket and – as he emerged into the friendly pool of incandescence – brought it forth clutching a small, plastic bottle that he shook maraca-wise, grinning hugely as he did. Hard somethings bounced and rattled within.
“You just need a boost, a kick-start, I can give you that. I can –”
Footsteps pounded down the stairs. My visitor broke off and turned to the door. I leaned around him to see Jay enter the room.
“Why are you still here?” He directed the question to my visitor.
“I think,” I said, “that your friend is trying to sell me drugs.”
Jay’s eye twitched. “The hell he is – get out.”
My guest scowled, but turned and ambled toward the door. Jay followed him out.
They crossed the node and left. Moments later I heard the door slam. I was turning back to my computer when Jay reappeared.
“Sorry about that.” He sounded more angry than contrite. “I didn’t think he’d just walk in.”
“It’s fine, who is he?”
“High school friend. He’s here for the weekend and decided to drop by.” Jay shifted uneasily (I must have looked unconvinced) and continued. “I’m sorry he came in, I’ll let you get back to work.” A final thought struck him as he walked away. “How’s the great American novel?”
“Fine. Just taking a break.”
He left, and I popped open the computer. The screen flashed up, familiar and dreaded. Five words. The footprints of an idea I had been chasing for weeks.
The first line goes here
Jay is responsible for the painting in our living room. A product of his oil phase, it was retrospectively and accurately titled “A Girl I Wanted to Sleep With”. Kate was a difficult subject, and disliked sitting still. Most of her features were lost in a sea of nervous, lustful brushstrokes. The truest parts are innuendo – the suggestion of a crooked nose, or the sudden clarity of a scar puckering her lower lip. He tried to make her look beautiful, I think, but she came out lumpy and inaccurate. I was quickly convinced that the portrait was avant-garde; Kate thought it was ugly, as did the gallery owners who saw it. Another manuscript of mine had been rejected days earlier, and camaraderie in the house soared to unprecedented heights. Brothers in failure, we drank for days and talked about God.
The visit described earlier had come in mid November and must have been momentous in some way or another, for Jay sold his first painting two weeks later. The doorbell rang around nine; I opened the door to a gray morning, and a small, vulpine man in tweed. Evan Donnell, manager and proprietor of the Horizon Art Gallery (or so his card read), had come for Jay. The click of our front door (they left for lunch) echoed around the house. It bounced off the walls, and soaked into the canvas drying upstairs. I returned to my room, where the rattle of the keyboard did little to drown out the silence Jay had left behind. He returned three hours later, gorged with expensive food and unexpected success; I was almost happy to see him.
The next month blurred. Jay’s new life had arrived with the force and coherence of a typhoon. Accurate description became more or less impossible. I would poke my head from my room only to be greeted by fleeting impressions – a word or two, the jangle of a phone – the echoes of Jay’s existence. Faces most of all. They appeared on our porch at all hours and floated upstairs. One or two paused for a moment and appeared at my door. They seemed almost shocked to find stillness, and they never stayed long. New faces, old faces, suited men and bohemian girls – they all splattered into tableau about my roommate. I remember one in particular. She came in one evening (her portrait had been removed), stopped by my cove for an awkward second (she asked how I was), and drifted inexorably up the stairs. The others were only flashes – brief suggestions of excitement or greed.
I will remember at least one other. Voices in the street had roused me. I checked my clock (2AM), and peered through the living room window. Jay stood in the pool of a streetlamp, gesticulating furiously. A figure stood, slouching and hooded, just beyond the orange glow. As I looked, it turned towards the house. Lamplike eyes rose to train on mine. I caught a glimpse of a Cheshire-cat grin before its owner took a step back – into the shadows and out of sight.
He came again. Of course he did – caught the same current everyone had and pooled at my door. At least he knocked. I opened up to find that gash of a mouth pointed up at me.
“You’re still stuck. Aren’t you?” He said.
“Are you going to try to sell me drugs again?”
“You wound me. I was only trying to help. And no,” he smiled (lots of teeth), “nothing like that, just wanted to see how you were.”
“Go talk to Jay.”
“Oh, I will, but I’m here for you right now.” He craned his neck around me and glanced at the computer. I stuck a shoulder in front of him – the grin widened. “You’re certain you wouldn’t like my help?”
“I’d rather you just let me write. What are you selling anyway? Adderall?”
“Curious? We can discuss this later. I’ve got nothing for you tonight aside from an offer.”
“A good offer. I can help you, I helped your friend.”
“Jay –“ I could feel myself flush. ”Is that it? You’ve been selling to him?”
“Hardly. He sold to me, if anything. But that’s his deal, this is yours. Are you interested?”
He had gotten too close. Eyes and teeth gleamed ten inches away from mine. Something about him suggested predation, must’ve been that smile.
“I’ll think about it.” I said, and then closed the door on him.
“…and I love how he juxtaposes the innocent with the taboo, really makes you think, doesn’t it? And…”
In one ear and out the other – welcome to Jay’s first show. Something had changed. Maybe he took a course, maybe he read a book – things were different. I had been the primary, often the only audience of Jay’s work for upward of a year, and prided myself on understanding some of his artistic reach. He was no genius (we were good company in that sense), but he did have a certain flair for detail, and occasionally hung something surprising on our walls. Portraits, especially, graced our hallways; he had a knack for them.
“…it’s not so much his use of colour as it is his omission of it, just look at this, I’m telling you…”
There’s been a mistake, I found myself thinking, I’m at the wrong gallery, or they’re showing the wrong artist. The press of the crowd had expelled me into a semicircular vacuum. A painting rose up and pushed me back onto some poor man’s feet. I stood for a moment, balancing on an increasingly crushed sneaker. It wasn’t the subject that struck me first, but the lines. A half-turned face dominated the picture. Every feature, every shadow was defined to perfection. There was despair there. From a flaring nostril to the slack, half-closed mouth – everything writhed. The effect was suffocating, so much so that it took me nearly a minute to realize that I was staring at my own likeness. The same accuracy that had overpowered me left little doubt – Jay had captured me. I looked to the background for the first time. It was familiar, unsurprising; I almost expected it. A dark room, a desk, a computer that I had been caught in the act of turning away from. Running across the screen in razor-sharp outline was a sentence: The next line goes here.
I couldn’t get close enough to talk to him at the gallery. He was completely surrounded by business cards and toothy smiles. Conjuring either one was beyond me, and I was left to stew at the apartment until he came back. The front door had hardly closed before I was out into the hallway.
“What the hell were you thinking?”
He grinned, hugely, vacantly. “You liked it then? They’re calling it transgressive. Transgressive – isn’t that something?”
“No. Dammit, Jay! You know what I mean!”
The smile faded. “I do?”
“The one painting, what was that? I’m your friend, not a still life!”
“Wait,” he seemed genuinely confused. “What do you mean?”
How brazen could he be? “What do you think? You painted me, you painted…” What. What else could I say?
“Did I?” He screwed his face up. “You mean the man in front of the computer? You think that’s you?”
“You’re not actually going to claim it’s not.”
“But it isn’t, really, you’re getting worked up over nothing.”
“I am? Explain the computer then, Jay. When did you see that?”
“See what?” He looked extremely confused. “Did that line on the screen actually mean something to you?”
I stared. Four hours of quiet anger had driven me into the hall expecting a fistfight (a clumsy one, with a lot of swearing), or maybe just a shouting match – some aggression, at least. I called him a bastard (and meant it), and went back to my room. My computer was fired up with an unwonted sense of purpose. I stayed up late that night, searching for a new sublet.
Barely a day had passed before I found it. The room was cheap and devoid of upstart celebrities – I would move at the end of the month. For the sake of grace and convenience, I resolved to live out the rest of my lease with Jay with as little fuss as possible. This was surprisingly easy, as I was already fading from the apartment. I only had to step out of my room to find myself in Jay’s domain. His paintings (newer, I didn’t look at them) decked our halls; our furniture seated his guests – even the air in the apartment started to smell like acrylic. I saw very little of my roommate in those days. I spent as little time as possible in the apartment, and I am sure the month would have played out into welcome anticlimax had it not been for a floorboard.
The floorboard was in Jay’s room. Jay’s room was above my room, and so I was in fine position to listen to the floorboard squeak every time Jay stepped on it. Success apparently bred restlessness, as the board had turned into a shrill nightly symphony. It often punctuated Jay’s tracks across my ceiling – I could picture it easily: three steps, creak, two steps, turn, two steps, creak. Some nights it played a stranger tune. Jay’s footsteps would come in staggering, like he was dancing some strange, drunken waltz. Some quality to the board’s noise could send it straight through any earplug – I didn’t sleep very well on those nights.
It was one of these irregular tunes that cut through the leaden haze of a Monday dawn. I awoke with fire and hungover fury and groped my way up the stairs (grace and convenience be damned), to pound on his door. There was no answer, only a growing silence, cracked only by the board. Another, more civil knock faded into the gloom, but the creaking continued. I tried the handle, found it unlocked, and threw the door wide open. Jay stood in the center of the room, bolt upright, brush in hand. As I watched (he took no notice of me), he jerked toward an easel. His movements were spastic, and from time to time his body would cant to one side while the feet scrabbled to compensate – creak. He looked like a marionette tugged about by an incompetent master – but lines took form under the brush, and I could see he was tracing the outlines of a face. His own head lolled over then, and his eyes met mine. They were glassy, unfocused – unconscious. And yet his arm still moved, and the face continued to take form. Jay’s head flopped back again, but he kept dancing his slow, tilting line. I almost fell running back down the stairs.
I dimly remember sprinting back to my room. Shutting the door on Jay was some comfort, even if it couldn’t block out his footsteps. I was a half-step toward my chair (my legs had turned rubbery) before I realized that someone was sitting in it. Two bulbous eyes shone in the sudden glare of the floor lamp, and I recognized my visitor from before. He looked strangely serene and I couldn’t help but feel as if I had invaded my own room. An insane compulsion rose in me to apologize and exit quietly – but no, Jay was there. I took a step forward, then a step back; he spoke.
“You saw him?”
“Yes.” I paused for a moment, groping for words. “Why are you here?”
“For you. We have an arrangement to discuss, you and I.”
“A business arrangement.” He grinned. “The same deal I offered earlier.”
“Now hold on, I’m offering you some – inspiration. A bit of a push, if you get me.” He said, tilting back in my chair.
“I don’t need a push.”
“No? You seem rather stuck, if you ask me. Worked out for your roommate, now, didn’t it?”
“My roommate – “the floorboard cut me off. “You did something to Jay?”
He made a face. “To him? For him, you mean. Look at the man! Hardly a day after we talk and he starts selling.”
“And you made him do that?”
“Helped him. Gave him a nudge when he needed one.”
A nudge. I thought of Jay’s vacant eyes. “And you’re offering me something similar?”
“Absolutely. That novel of yours? Done within the week and done well.”
Jay’s arms. That lunatic waltz. “Will I even remember writing it?”
“Does that matter?”
“Because –” he looked expectant. “Because it’s mine, and I’m not going to let you or your push write it for me.”
“Even if you can’t do it yourself? Even if it could be something great if you just let me help you?”
“Even if! You can’t treat it – you can’t treat me like some kind of…Commodity!”
“And why can’t I?” He stood, stepped toward me. “Look at everything I’ve done for your friend. Money! Fame! Success! He has it all! Meanwhile you sit in front of your blank screen and agonize,” he spat the word out with hate, “about selling out before you even sell.”
Something clicked. I spoke, for the first time, with confidence. “Get out.”
His face contorted, then smoothed. “If you insist.” As he passed, he pressed a slip of paper into my hand. “My number, you’ll want it. Call when you realize it’s worth it.”
And with that, he was gone. His footsteps faded, the door slammed. The noise echoed for a moment, and then died. Jay’s board sang a final note and was silent.
I moved out as planned. Jay and I shook hands when I left – I haven’t talked to him since. Life has become mercifully quieter. A friend found me a porter’s position at a nearby hospital; it’s a decent job. As I write this, however, I can’t call myself content. You see, there are some times, late nights, when the wind kicks up, and I can hear something set to creaking. It’s only a tree branch, I think. Still, I can’t help but look at my desk when I hear it. My laptop is there, always open and often blank. I never called, but I have the card. Even as I write this, I can see it. Half-hidden behind a book, it’s close enough to touch.