I had just bid goodbye to the exterminator when Egge called.
“You’ve got to come over, right now if you can.” In that whiney voice he used when distressed, he continued, “I’ve done it, I’ve created a new color. It will change your world, it will change my world, it will change the world! Get over here right away.”
I hadn’t seen Egge for a month or two, so I was willing to amuse his sudden request. “On my way, I just have to stop by the butcher’s first. I should be your way in 25.”
“Thom, hurry if you can.”
I thought to myself, as I grabbed my umbrella, I will old man. Just wait. Every so often, sporadic yet driven by some arcane period, he’d call me in quiet panic. Most of the time it was some fatuous, easily handled problem that he could have solved solo. For me, it was often a waste of my time, but I obliged as you do with old friends. Oh, the things he’d needed help with! All of them urgent too, or at least they were to an old man with few friends and many problems. A cat, surly with fear, needing rescue from its perch in a dusty tree; his old and irreplaceable books covered with the water emanating from below his sink; angry graffiti on his door from unpaid landlords and creditors – I’d been there for all of these.
Of this latest call, I expected nothing more than to soothe the ramblings of a mid-level artist in his twilight years. I made it to the Village before rush hour filled the subway cars with the sweaty, stinky crowds longing for their holiday weekend. It was also the end of summer, a fact I’d somehow mysteriously forgotten. Knocking on his door, I was partly out of breath from my hurry up the stairs.
“It’s about time,” he called as he opened the door. “You won’t believe it, you can’t, it’s the first new color in decades, or at least since Mirὀ invented that tacky vermillion shade in the 50’s. I remember telling Pilar, his wife at the time - I think we were in Cap d’Antibe - how unimpressive that shade of red was, but I digress.” Egge often digressed, especially when dropping the names of artists, especially artists more renowned than himself. He was an inveterate name-dropper. Sometimes (but not today) it was part of his charm.
“So show me this shade, this new color.” In this age of discovery and instant notoriety, I couldn’t imagine how myriad artists and craftsmen throughout the centuries had missed a color. Surely, they’d all been discovered by now!
“I’m celebrating so have a glass of Barbera with me.”
“Indeed, let’s drink to your discovery.” I was not expecting to be impressed.
He swept me into his studio proper. Pulling my hand, he steered me over to an unpainted canvas of great dimension. The sides of the canvas were blank, untouched with gesso or paint. There it was – in the center a masstone had been applied to the void canvas. I stopped moving. I was delivered, like a baby, into a new world. My brain struggled to find the words to describe this color. My head hurt from the toil.
“Yes, I know. It’s hard to comprehend. I can only try to explain how this happened,” Egge had switched to instructor mode. “You’ve met my assistant Dev, right? I can barely afford to pay him, he works here for the experience, of course. He pays rent from his mundane work at Dupont Chem – he mixes rare earth metals in crucibles, it’s really too dreary for me to understand! Anyway, it turns out this … this miracle happens when you mix yttrium, barium, sulfur, thallium and one or two other elements that I can’t pronounce, in a furnace red hot like the Sun. You know, like the Broadway line on an August afternoon.” He smiled and chuckled, for no one enjoyed his own humor as much as Egge.
Still smiling at the thought, he took a break and then continued, “I’m a luddite as you know, I still make coffee with only a filter and tapwater, but this technology, well…. I can get behind this.”
I had to know so I blurted out, “so what’s the plan? Are you going to paint with this heavenly hue or just release it to the world somehow?”
“I know nothing about social media – and don’t care to know anything about it. I’ll be damned if I’ll turn into one of those fools with a machine attached to their arm! I will not “Facebook” this. No, I’ll pick a spot to release it, to show it to the World. I may, in fact, do it this weekend - maybe even tonight.”
Egge stayed true to his word. By 8:30, after a series of phone calls -- for I’d left to run an errand -- we were in a cab on the way to the Empire State Building. “We have half an hour to get to the observation level before it closes.”
“Why are we here Egge, what’s the plan?”
“I need three things to introduce this new color to the world: a high spot, a nice windy night and you. I need you, Thom, for this to work. You will be the observer, the recorder if you will.”
I had questions for Egge but the noisy crowd, the last crowd of the night to go to the observation deck, prevented me from asking him. We dodged and swayed as the large group of tourists and locals jostled for place in the elevators. I thought Egge was looking for a particular place to view the city, he scurried this way and that, slinking through the crowds like an eel. The breeze had developed into a steady wind up here. We were, after all, a good twelve-hundred feet above the sidewalks. From his pants pocket he removed a large zip-lock bag. He waited for a group of cell phone cameras to go off, their owners now finished with this landmark.
As they stepped aside, he whispered to me, “watch the guards Thom, tell me when they’re not looking.” Fortunately for Egge, the guards were tired after a long day and seemed a bit distracted. It was at this very moment when they huddled together to share a story or joke.
“They’re not looking this way, Egge, why do you care?” Surreptitiously, he quickly opened the bag and placed the zip-lock opening through the diagonal slats of the metal fence. That glorious color, illuminated by myriad spotlights along the observation deck perimeter, swept up into the air and was carried in every direction. Like a spectacular display of Brownian motion, the particles of pigment zigzagged across the night sky, reaching every alley, gutter, garden and roof across this great city.
We left soon after but just after we reached the ground floor of the Empire State building, I noticed a hum, a crackling - coming from every direction. Egge noticed it to, his face a mixture of fear and excitement. His forehead was now covered in sweat.
“What is that sound, Egge?”
“I think, Thom, it’s the sound of people. People moving fast.” Egge, it turns out, wasn’t wrong. A surge of people down moved down 34th Street, about to encounter an even larger group of people surging down 5th Avenue. I thought one group would stop but they simply ran into each other, and then through each other. Chattering like birds, they tore and fought their way through the surging mass. Here and there, the momentum of the crowd moved over the stragglers, trampling those in their way or too weak to hold their place.
Egge and I, and several others, headed west on 33rd. Perhaps unconsciously, we moved towards the subway station at Herald Square. Suddenly, from the mouth of the Herald Square station a mass of people, flowing as if but one organism, flew up the stairs and out of the entrance. At that very instant, a massive group approached from the north, a tsunami of limbs propelling them down 7th Avenue. As if in slow speed, we watched the two groups collide, speechless in fear and fascination. There was not enough space in the intersection to handle the sheer number of people. The snap of breaking bones filled the night air. The sound scared me like nothing I’d ever witnessed. Egge, panting at my side, began to moan.
“It’s the color, the pigment, oh Thom, look….” His words ceased.
From that point onward, my brain struggled to comprehend what I saw and what I did. I remember vomiting into a garbage can after my shoes became sodden and slick with the fluids of those too slow to keep up. The horrid moment when Egge stopped moving and began to dance, whirling and whipping around and around like a brain-damaged animal. The whirling and whipping stopped when he launched himself through a shop window – his blood spurting in arcs around and around and around. But the most gruesome images came from the sky: bodies falling here; falling there - rapturous in their synchronized fall to the hard surface below.
For the city now consisted of a single moving organism, bent on its own destruction. North, south, east, west – it made no difference, the hum of disease was everywhere. Crowds constricted my movement, so I ran down one dark alley after another, eventually hiding in the cardboard refuse littering one particularly somber and lonely passage. I couldn’t remember how I’d made it this far south, for I could hear the river nearby - even above the frightening sounds of a world in absolute chaos.
I lay there through the dawn - cold, wet, and terrified, as I struggled to understand what had happened after Egge’s release of the pigment. This new color, like a virus or bacteria without barriers or restrictions, had expanded without check throughout my city. Laying in my bed of wet cardboard, I was almost catatonic, my brain consumed by the faces I’d seen – the color new in every upturned eye.