A sticky June dusk befell Chicago on the night Charlie Greene decided to cross the line.
A young negro tip-toeing through the busy Loop district, Charlie paused in front of a department store and contemplated his reflection in the tinted display window. He worried for a moment about the stubborn soot stains on his brow and nose… but looking sharp wouldn’t make him any less out of place on this side of town. Coffee-colored skin was wont to stand out against the pale brickwork lining the downtown streets. His Sunday best really wasn’t much—just a nice beige shirt, stitched slacks, and a cloth hat. But he supposed that if it was good enough for God, it would have to be good enough for some strange white folk.
The designated meeting spot was a lavish speakeasy, hidden in plain sight beneath the Fine Arts building on Michigan Avenue. At the end of a journey that began with a password-kept door and ended with a spiraling staircase, the barroom bloomed, full of gold trim and gentle jazz and drooping, ruddy white faces. Charlie kept his head down and made a beeline for the rear of the establishment, where Atkins, the man who had set it all up, would be waiting.
He halted, nearly running headlong into a white woman wearing a scandalously short, shimmering black dress as she danced from man to man. “Sorry, ma’am,” Charlie said with an apologetic tip of the cap. He quickly adjusted the two thin parcels beneath his arm and carried on, giving the mustachioed Atkins a grateful, if skeptical, nod.
“Nervous?” Atkins asked, escorting Charlie down a candlelit corridor.
“How could you tell?”
“Try to relax, my dear man. It’s only dinner. My associates are merely asking you to be who you are—you know, tell your story. They don’t often get to hear from people, shall we say, in your unique position.”
Charlie kept a frown to himself. I had hoped the artwork would stand on its own.
The corridor opened up into a lofty, luxurious parlor. Two centuries of progress in painting crowded the walls, a collage of faces and spaces looking down on the lengthy dining table in the midst of it all. And at the end of that table sat two men shrouded in swirling cigar smoke, and between them, a stunning, dark-haired woman dressed in a grand emerald coat. The glint in her eye pierced the haze.
“Here we have Misters Blake and Kowalski, and the ever-lovely Oiseau Arnaud.”
Charlie bowed politely to each guest in turn. “Wah-zo?”
The woman smirked, then replied in a subtle French accent. “That is correct, Monsieur Greene. It means… qu'est-ce-qu' on dit... ‘bird.’ You know, your pronunciation is actually quite good. I suppose I should not be surprised—the artist’s mind is sensitive to the details of things, non? ”
“Uncle Sam sent me on a little errand over there,” said the young veteran, with a smile as false as could be.
Oiseau did not seem interested in the subject. “Come now, won’t you join us?”
You’re doing this for Liz, Charlie thought. And for the baby.
He took his seat at the table.
The food proved marvelous and confusing. At Oiseau’s request, the server—who just so happened to share Charlie’s complexion—introduced each item. Lobster imported from Maine, potatoes from Idaho, grilled oysters from Florida. The whole world was, apparently, represented on the table. Even French caviar, which, in Charlie's neighborhood, was merely the punchline to a bad joke. It became evident from the food and the décor that these people valued the exquisite, the exclusive, the exotic. What could they possibly find interesting about a broke south-sider and his amateur paintings? The result of all this thinking, for Charlie, was an overwhelming sense of vertigo.
If not for Atkins' small talk, dinner would have been curiously quiet. He droned on and on about the promise of economic recovery after the war, and about prohibition’s inadvertent empowerment of organized crime. In the tiny pockets of time where he did pause to take a bite, Blake and Kowalski would grunt their approval or disapproval, depending.
Knowing this would likely be his first and last chance, Charlie ate as much lobster and melted butter as he could stand. And when the main courses were taken away, he set his sights on a tray full of coffee cakes. He sank his teeth into one and blissfully closed his eyes as the bittersweet pastry melted on his tongue.
“Pardon, Mr. Atkins,” he mumbled, uncouthly speaking with a mouth full of food. “Is this here on top just a whole coat of sugar?”
Atkins smiled, the corners of his mouth disappearing behind his considerable mustache. “Decadent, don’t you think?”
I didn’t think white people knew how to bake.
Charlie scarfed down several more coffee cakes with a glass of mulberry wine, and at last he was too full to be nervous. It had been a very long time since his last satisfying meal. Suddenly, the people across the table were only peers, and the paintings on the walls were nothing special, just brush strokes on canvas. He felt he had nothing in particular to worry about. There was a place for him this side of the Midway; an oasis in what he had assumed was a spiritual desert.
“Well then,” said Atkins, cleaning his hands with a wipe provided by his servant. “I suppose we had better move on to the matter at hand. Charlie? Why don’t you stand up and make your case?”
Charlie glanced at his potential patrons. Blake and Kowalski seemed stoic, but Oiseau offered an encouraging smile. He stood at the easel where his paintings had been sitting covered and took a deep breath. Within that breath was a silent prayer. Judge my work on its merit. Not in reference to who I am. Do not call it intelligent… for a negro artist. Do not call it sensitive… for a veteran, or a humble steelworker. Do not call it beautiful… for a product of poverty. Say only what you mean.
Charlie removed wax paper from the first canvas, revealing a piece entitled By the Forge. It was modest in size, and drew the eye immediately to a fist-sized absence in its center. Surrounding the puncture wound were a number of overlapping geometric shapes in various light shades of brown, gray, and red. It might have been called cubist, although at this point, Charlie had never actually seen a Picasso.
“What is the subject?” asked Blake.
Charlie swallowed. “I had a coworker pass out from the heat on the foundry floor and hit his head on a piece of railing. He never come back to work. This is what I worked on that month.”
“It’s remarkable,” said Kowalski, looking around at the rest. “A marvelous abstraction in so little space, and there’s a hole in the canvas for God’s sake. Imagine what he could do with the proper materials!”
“Actually, sir... this piece wouldn’t exist without that hole. I can’t ever get any work done on a blank canvas. It helps me to have a limit… something to work around. Always been that way.” Charlie scanned the crowd and, upon seeing a knowing smirk from Oiseau, pushed himself to unveil the next piece. “This one is called Red Summer. I painted it one morning last August. My wife and I—her name is Liz—we spent the night before locked in the attic while an Irish gang took our neighborhood straight to Hell. The sounds… they were something awful. I tried to paint something that sounded and felt like all that we went through.”
“Sounded?” Blake scoffed. “Synesthetic as well, eh? So who do you think you are, Picasso or Kandinsky? Utter nonsense. Well done on finding a less tarnished canvas, I suppose. But you stuck to the same bland color palette. Brown, gray, a bit of red, and that’s all. Why?”
Discarded paints tend to mix in the dumpster. I use what I can find.
Kowalski eyed his partner. “Can you not see? He paints his reality. Brown faces, filthy brick, and blood. This is the palette of his visual world. And of course he should use damaged materials; it reflects the persistent material disadvantage of his kind. The work personally and passionately presents the inevitable fracture of the black American psyche in the face of institutional barriers to growth!”
Blake rolled his eyes and folded his arms, leaning back into his creaking chair.
I just did these for fun, Charlie thought. But if all that noise is going to get you to buy my damned paintings, sure. In the end he stayed quiet. He had been through war and hard labor. If he had one skill, it was to smile, nod, and avoid undermining the white man who had his money.
“Well,” said Atkins. “What do you think, Madame Arnaud?”
Oiseau leaned forward and steepled her hands over the table, eyeing Charlie as though he himself was the artwork, the thing on which she was passing judgment. For some unnamable reason, Charlie felt as though her opinion was law. “He’s clearly brilliant, and, as yet, untainted by those stodgy old academies. He may be limited by his means, but he is also unapologetic about them, and in a way, that may be his greatest strength. If he has decided that his limits are not limits, then what is to stop him from making the next great American masterpiece?”
Charlie’s heart pumped in his chest, and he failed to stifle a grin of gratitude. Oiseau’s words were more than he could ever have hoped for.
“Alright,” said Atkins. “Mr. Greene, if you could step away from the table for a moment.”
Charlie wandered away to the edges of the room and gawked at the paintings on the wall. For the most part, they showed peaceful ponds, waning sunsets, and smooth, naked white bodies. If indeed he was about to garner a patron, then perhaps one day his work would be exhibited alongside such classics. He could not say how the public might feel about such a juxtaposition, but he knew how he would feel. Embarrassed.
He peered over his shoulder, where a hushed discussion was taking place. Atkins made a gesture, and the three patrons each raised a paddle. The two men held red, while the woman held green. Did they have any idea what this little charade looked like? Probably not. After all, it would have been their fathers or grandfathers showing up to the auction blocks, not them.
Charlie figured Oiseau had won the bidding war, because by the time he returned to the table, both Blake and Kowalski were gone, leaving only empty plates and trails of smoke.
“These are my terms,” Oiseau said, her eyes like pools of liquid opal. “Take it or leave it, as you would say. You are to produce one piece by the first of each month without exception. I will pay $400 per piece, with a bonus of $250 cash if you agree to the arrangement tonight. Quality must not waver—I will be very frank with you on that. You understand, I must see a return on my investment.”
“Okay,” Charlie replied. “And when—”
“—Lastly,” Oiseau continued, smoothing the tablecloth in front of her, “and most regretfully: you will never be credited for your work. Each piece will be exhibited and sold under my name and my name alone. Do we have a deal?”
I should have seen this coming. It’s the same at the mill, it’s the same everywhere. I’ll do the work, and the glory will go to somebody who’s already got more than enough. But then, is that my pride talking? Thinking of the money, how can I say no? It’ll mean Liz doesn’t have to work at the plant anymore… we can move to a safer part of town and make a better life for our child. There is no choice. There never was. Miss Arnaud knows that the customer is looking for a white face and two neat rows of white teeth, and that I haven’t got either.
I'm the substance, she's the glamour. Dinner and a show.
Charlie gave Oiseau’s hand a firm shake and grabbed the envelope full of bills she had placed on the table. “Thank you, madame.”
She smiled triumphantly. “Adieu, Monsieur Greene.”
“Au revoir. Isn’t that what they say?”
Charlie had a quarter of a thousand dollars burning a hole in his pocket, so he decided to stop at the department store he had passed earlier. There, he bought a brand new wool suit and, on the way out, happened to notice a scandalously short, shimmering black dress that would fit his wife just swell. It nearly emptied his envelope, but it would be worth it as soon as they found the time to go dancing. Pretty soon she would be too pregnant to do all that moving around, so now was as good a time as there would ever be.
He sauntered through the streets with the dress in hand and a smile on his face, swaying from side to side, humming along to the tune of Will the Circle Be Unbroken?
Then he came upon an artist’s studio which had evidently been shut down for the night. How could he resist? He made his way around to the alley behind the building and popped open the lid of the dumpster. Inside, he found a palette full of paints which—damn—appeared too thin and dry to salvage. More importantly, he discovered a rectangular item swathed in wax paper, in much the same way he packaged his finished artworks. Standing in the dim light of the alley, he carefully unwrapped the object, and found whiteness. A perfectly pristine, blank canvas.
He realized with a start that, in light of his deal with Oiseau, he could buy fresh materials whenever he wanted. Perhaps she would even go so far as to compensate him for these purchases. But what would he do with all that space, all that infinite possibility? He could—.
A small click sounded behind him, and he realized what was happening right away. The cold cocking of a .38 Special. Charlie wouldn’t scream, wouldn’t beg. For damn sure, he wouldn’t give whoever it was the satisfaction of seeing the fear on his face. A negro dressed in expensive clothing, digging around in a dumpster at night on the white side of town. In so many ways, he had crossed a line.
He took one cautious step away, then a second, gazing thoughtlessly at the canvas in his hands. And as he took his third step….
The wind was knocked out of him, and his spine twisted with the shock of the bullet’s impact. He collapsed to his knees, and further still, until his face ricocheted off the pavement. With the last of his energy he rolled to one shoulder and held his hands where he could see them. One clutched a pretty black dress that Liz would never get to wear. The other was letting go of a small canvas that rattled around and finally settled in the dust. It bore an uneven cascade of blood spatter surrounding a bullet-sized hole. What had been endless potential was now a fixed disaster.
Oiseau Arnaud placed a column in the Chicago Tribune at her earliest convenience, lamenting the death of her dear, dear friend Charlie Greene at the hands of an unknown assailant. In praising him, she admitted that most of her big ticket pieces had ultimately been the labors of other struggling, lesser-known artists. “I make no excuses,” she wrote. “It has been the joy of my life to bring these works—which otherwise surely would have gone unnoticed—to the public’s myopic eye. A confidant of mine asked me whether this process of co-opting and profiting brought me any feelings of guilt. I replied that, in the truly fresh art of this millennium, where reproductions abound, object and production are secondary to concept. I convinced you of the worth of something you all seemed sure was worthless. When the price finally drops, am I the one to blame?”
The following weekend, Arnaud took Collateral I—the canvas found beside Charlie’s body—and sold it at auction for $75,000.
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Damn, this was a slap in the face to me. I was invested in Charlie, then when the deal was struck I wanted to slap him. Then *bang* I wanted to stop reading, but I couldn't. I'm not the biggest fan of reading historical fiction unless it's good, immersive and easy enough to understand. This had that. I don't really go out rooting for people to win most of the week, but this could win in my book.
I also have to state. IT'S SUPER HARD to describe art, food, music, photography in literature, because either it can be strangely immersive or detaching; this also did it pretty well!!
Happy you could appreciate it. I don't read much historical fiction either, but I think the key idea for me is Less is More. (same goes for the art, food, etc.)
I am in awe of your prose. You are a gifted story teller.
WOW! I just was NOT expecting this ending... At all...! I liked the little touches of French too. You obviously speak it pretty fluently
Fantastic work! Great job setting up such a visceral scene and characters. You really brought the pretentiousness of the supporting characters to life in so many tangible ways. I loved the juxtaposition of joy and disappointment, lift and defeat, victory and devastation. All very powerful and evocative. Great work!!
Sacré bleu! This is fabulous. The scene setting, the descriptions, the sentence structure, the often lyrical rhythms (one of my favs: "In the tiny pockets of time where he did pause to take a bite....") And how you described the paintings....I felt like I could picture them. Add to that, the powerful subtext of slavery and desperation, and the cultural appropriation of black art (music, painting, etc.). I couldn't find anything to critique. I just enjoyed this colourful, infuriating ride from start to the crashing last breath.
:D Day made. I'm glad you liked it!
I would like to ask you a favor. After reading a few of your stories, l don’t know if I should continue to pursue writing. Would you be kind enough to read one or two of my stories and give me your honest opinion. Thanks.😊
Managed to get through one without any magic in it! That was really the only goal this week. (However, if you're looking for magic, I believe I popped off last week.)