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Contemporary American Fiction

It’s a Willy Wonka world out there. Dis-ease is sweeping the country. Not just the mutating variants of CoVid, but the malaise of racial discontent. Liberals and conservatives stoke the fires of cultural animosity. The left tries to bridge the interests of educated college kids and the urban underclass. This is the case, even though your average inner-city dweller, especially if they have criminal experiences, will rip off a bubbly idealistic undergraduate for their undergarments if given the chance. 

The right has chosen a crass billionaire as a political savior—a mouthpiece that alienates anyone who can’t empathize with white supremacy. Civility is at an all-time low since the 60s. It’s hard to find a city where people aren’t stuck in asshole driver mode. Everyone is down a delusional rabbit hole. Everyone has a single-minded interpretation of what the malaise boils down to: patriarchy, unbridgeable racial differences, the worship of money, the ailing environment, the decline of religion, the LGBTQ agenda, the triumph of Marxist idealism or Nietzschean cynicism in the ivory towers of academia.

My dad is as insensitive as ever. He thinks it’s my fault I was raped. “You got drunk, Justine,” he says in his Cuban-accented English. “You were out to have fun. You think horny boys aren’t out for a good time when they go to college bars?” He still calls me by my former name, even though I changed it a year ago. I’m tired of telling him my name is Justin. He’s not happy I also changed my family name after he divorced mom. “From Chavez to Chase?” he asked after I had gone to court with my petition and spitefully shown him the notice that I was required to put in the paper. “Being Hispanic isn’t good enough for you? You want to have an Anglo name?” 

I have no aspirations to be a Victorian lady. I’m Hamlet furious at a man, perhaps at all men, for what happened to me. Specifically, I feel ire toward a college football player who spiked my drink with Molly, took me into the men’s bathroom at a pub and probed the terminal end of my intestinal tract with the Lucifer serpent between his legs. I’m gonna die, I thought as it was happening. It was glorious. It was god-awful. I’d had adverse experiences as a kid (as all children do), but no memorable trauma. The rape was my first childhood trauma, since I didn’t consider myself fully an adult yet when it happened. I was twenty years old. 

I never even knew the guy’s name, and ever since then I started wanting to become a guy. Ironic, right? But there’s also something wrong with it, something profoundly sick in the head about the fact that I would want to become a man after undergoing one of the worst forms of victimization a man can dish out. Understandably I have a lot to talk about in therapy.

My dad doesn’t understand me and despises my art. His disdain for my paintings makes me doubt myself, and ruminating about it fuels the depressive downswings of my bipolarity. Painting doesn’t come easy for me. Especially since I started to paint non-representationally—without using live models, setting up still lives, or trying the occasional landscape. It’s difficult for me to translate my thoughts and feelings into abstract or expressionistic color and form, but I want to be the next Hilma af Klint with a little Jean Michel Basquiat mixed in for good measure. 

I’ve read that at a certain point in her life af Klint desired to have a penis. This isn’t the only reason I aspire to be like her. My ambitions are lofty. I also want to have a temple dedicated to my paintings like she did. But I don’t want to go unrecognized in my lifetime, like af Klint did. This is where Basquiat comes in. I want to be a living artist celebrity. I want to make millions selling my hallucinations of jagged lines and livid color. I wouldn’t mind dying at the age of twenty-seven if it meant I would die famous. That gives me six years to produce a body of work to rival af Klint’s or Basquiat’s. That’s plenty of time if I paint ten hours daily for the next twenty-two thousand or so days.   

My latest work is a rectangular assemblage of four smaller canvases predominantly in hues of blue and orange, with highlights of neon yellow. Part of the originality of my work is that I take smaller canvases I’ve painted, canvases that may be of questionable quality and couldn’t stand before a gallery jury alone, but when conjoined into a larger piece, they work, their visual impact equaling that of a larger, single painting.

I take this canvas assemblage to a framer’s shop not far from where I live with my doting mother. “I have a painting I’d like framed,” I say to the man inside the store, “should I bring it in?” The painting sits in the front seat of my 2001 Toyota Camry as if it were a girlfriend, waiting for me to bring her into a surprise birthday party she already knows about and therefore isn’t such a big surprise.

“Well, we can’t find the right frame for it if it’s not in the store so I can use our imaging technology to visualize what the framed masterpiece will look like,” says the man. I’m 5’4” and he stands nearly a foot taller than me. He has blondish hair, and at the moment I can’t remember what color his eyes are. I want to say green, but they also could be hazel or even brown. You’d figure someone like me who considers themselves an artist would remember chromatic details like that, but I’m nothing if not distracted most of the time, either by my depressions that stew me in negative thoughts or manic episodes that bask me in the sunlight of uncompromising positivity.   

After he explains the details of pricing, I say “I hope this is worth it. I can barely afford the materials to paint these things. Getting them framed for purposes of making them more saleable is going to put me in further in debt to my mom. It's not like I don't already owe her my right thumb.”

After he helps me choose four sections of framing to place at the corners of the painting, he comes back to the work desk where he uses a computer to create an image of the fully framed painting. “What’s it called?” he asks.

“Perseverance,” I say. “The goldfish in the bowl on the canvas in the upper left-hand corner represents me and how sheltered I am, the metaphorical bubble I live in. I live under the watchful eye of my mother, the woman on the canvas in the upper-right hand corner. The two fish in the lower right-hand corner represent my mother’s sign, Pisces—she’s very sympathetic and goes to great lengths to ensure my happiness.” 

I don’t tell the frame shop employee that I rarely express my appreciation for Mother Marbles’ emotional sensitivity and awareness in words—I don’t remember when I last told her I loved her, but I’m able to depict my feelings for her in drawings and color. I am her prized, solitary goldfish in a bowl. 

The last canvas in the quartet is a hand holding a spatula. My mom makes the best grilled cheese sandwiches imaginable, and she prepares me one without fail when I’m in a funk. Although Mother finds it difficult to express her thoughts and feelings for me into words, the canvas in the bottom left corner is an homage to my mom’s ability to feed her way into my heart.

“I get the impression your painting tells a heartfelt story. You should really sign it,” the frame shop employee says and offers me a collection of pens, brushes and inks with which to do the honors. I ask for a scrap sheet of paper to practice signing and when I’m done, he glances at the initials I use to personalize my work. “JC? As in Jesus Christ?” he asks, raising an eyebrow. 

“If only I could be so compassionate and determined to save humanity,” I say. 

“Interesting,” he replies, “my theory is that the original JC was a provocative artist, definitely a poet, possibly a visual artist who made the blind see, and most likely a singer who made the deaf hear. If he was a performer, I believe he was able to cathartically heal people with his performances. The closest we’ve had in the modern age is the 60s psychedelic rockstar Morris James, but you look a little too young to recognize the name.”

“He was the singer for The Way Out, right? I had a friend in college who listened to James religiously. Funny you should make the messianic comparison.” 

The frame shop employee proceeds to use his phone to show me a collection of the artistic work he has done. He seems to be particularly proud of a series of paintings he has made by applying paint directly onto the bodies of men who then make full body contact with a canvas and thereby leave a multi-hued impression that is simultaneously figurative and abstract on the fabric.

By the time we’ve found the right frame for my painting, a thin rustic matte black one that complements the roughness of the painted images, we’ve opened up to each other about facts of our lives that only people that have known each other for months would know. He tells me of the drugs he has taken to inspire the creative process, of the argumentative brothers who own the frame shop. He tells me about his biracial teenage twin daughters and the wife he divorced four years ago.

I open up to him about my diagnosis, about my mother’s and my codependence, about my insensitive father, and my name change. Before he receives payment for the framing services, I tell him about the uncertainty I feel about my artistic ability and the desire I have to form a country-punk band. 

“Country-punk, huh?”

“Yeah, a mash up of old school country like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard with the political sensibility and cadences of the Clash. The band would be called Pussycat Janks, my musical pseudonym.”

“A 10% discount says you won’t sing me a verse from one of your songs.”

I’ve only recently started practicing original material, but fourteen dollars will pay for lunch at the taco place in the strip mall not far from the neighborhood where I live.

With a face that’s turning strawberry red, a fluttering heart, and the best country twang I can muster, I sing:

My heart wouldn’t listen

When I knew you were kissin’

Another boy.

Why’d you have to go and

Extinguish my joy,

Deliberately kissin’

Another boy?

Now the bottom of the bottle’s dry.

And nothing can pay for the

Tears you made me cry.

The carefully measured clapping of the frame shop employee breaks the silence that follows my a cappella performance, “You just earned a discount, and if that performance is any indication of the rest of your repertoire, you’ve just made me a fan of Pussycat Janks.”

I feel relieved, flattered, and like I’ve made a soul connection with someone who until forty-five minutes ago I didn’t know existed.

He gives me the change for the two hundred-dollar bills I hand him, and before I turn toward the exit, he asks, “Justin, can I take you out to lunch?”

I want to say, Sorry, Mr. frame shop employee, boys aren’t my thing anymore, can’t you tell? But before I can say anything, he says, “And don’t worry, my intentions are purely platonic. It’s not every day someone has the opportunity to share a midday meal with a latent country-punk star.”

I hesitate, but think of what Mother Marbles is always telling me: “Justin, you need to get out more. You don’t have any friends. Artists need to associate with other artists. You have to take some chances if you expect to feel better about yourself and the world.”

It kind of scares me, but I tell the man who just heard my song, “Okay, we can go to lunch. I know the perfect taco place, but I only accept if we go Dutch.”

He takes one of the frame shop’s business cards, jots down his name, Jack, and his number, and says, “We have a deal, Justin. Dutch it is.”  

December 23, 2022 16:40

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14 comments

00:22 Dec 26, 2022

I really enjoyed the opening synopsis of current politics. With that going on right now, everyone is far better off focusing on art and making a few friends. The ending felt very real, great to see Justin open up a little bit. Also makes me think about how I know a few people who've become far too isolated during the pandemic.

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Mike Panasitti
01:55 Dec 26, 2022

Thanks for your assessment of this story's introduction. It didn't work as well for another reader, but we each have our own tastes and literary preferences. I agree that focusing on art and friends is probably a healthier pastime than paying attention to so much of the discord that passes for news. Thanks for reading and happy holidays, Scott.

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Michał Przywara
18:14 Dec 26, 2022

Another enjoyable episode in Justin's story :) It's weird how quickly total strangers can suddenly become old-friends close, just by finding some common ground, but it certainly does happen. But of course, sharing a hobby, a passtime - an interest - is a good way to form an unexpected connection. The intro seems tangentially connected to the main narrative, but maybe there's a deeper link. A particular line caught my eye: "Everyone has a single-minded interpretation". Yes. Single-minded is appealing because it's easy to grasp, but serious ...

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Mike Panasitti
18:38 Dec 26, 2022

Thanks for reading, Michal. And I will be trying my hand at additional stories that aren't part of the multi/metaverse soon - just for the sake of providing some fresh alimentary substance to all my Reedsy friends.

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Zack Powell
06:06 Dec 25, 2022

Fun fact that no one asked for: I saw the words "Willy Wonka" while scrolling through my activity feed, and so reading this story is summarily how I opted to spend my Christmas Eve. End of fact. Really loved how this story is just, at its core, a person trying to make a connection with the world around them. There's a lot of great inner turmoil and conflict going on too with Justin, of course, but then a lot of it gets externalized and alleviated through the interaction with Jack. And that's beautiful. There's a nice meta-connection here ab...

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Mike Panasitti
15:55 Dec 25, 2022

Zack, thanks so much for reading, especially for taking the time to do so on Christmas Eve. I'm also glad that you appreciate the interconnectivity of my stories here on Reedsy. Graham Kinross calls it the "Panasitti metaverse," which is very flattering. David Mitchell's work provides the impetus to write these narratives that are interrelated by plot and repeated appearances of characters from previous stories. This aspect of my work here is probably lost to most, if not all, one-time readers, but just to have a few thoughtful Reedsy...

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Wendy Kaminski
17:23 Dec 23, 2022

This story had me engaged from beginning to end, Mike: truly excellent storytelling and writing, as well. On top of that, though, I loved this in particular: "possibly a visual artist who made the blind see, and most likely a singer who made the deaf hear". Intriguing to consider that interpretation! One thing I wondered, is whether "barely [avoid] the materials" that word should be "afford"? Thank you for the story. One other thing I got out of it, among many things: I was particularly gladdened that Justin found someone in the end as a c...

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Mike Panasitti
21:32 Dec 23, 2022

Wendy, thanks for catching the typo! Also thanks for reading and commenting. Your words encourage me to continue writing.

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Delbert Griffith
00:04 Dec 30, 2022

Mike, you have this insanely cool ability to throw out trenchant observations and mild epiphanies like party-goers at Mardi Gras. Astounding, really. Justine-turned-Justin is a character I want to know more about. She-turned-he is a fascinating character, one who deserves more ink. I loved the Basquiat references. His work makes me weirdly happy, though I couldn't tell you why. I suppose that's part of his genius. I also liked the reference to The Clash. Underrated musicians, IMO. You should watch the movie 'The Danish Girl." It would res...

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Mike Panasitti
20:25 Dec 30, 2022

I accept your accolades with gusto and a nice serving of humility pie, Delbert. I think part of Basquiat's genius is the way he was able to get over on the art world, create impressive pieces that required no formal education and kind of just slipped the rug from under the snobby art scene in New York (and, later, the world). Since you also appreciate The Clash, I've a feeling its the subversive nature Basquiat's art that makes you weirdly happy. Even though I hardly have the appetite for most films these days, I'll watch "The Danish Girl...

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Graham Kinross
23:14 Dec 29, 2022

“A 10% discount says you won’t sing me a verse from one of your songs.” I can’t work out if this means the guy does or doesn’t want to hear Justin sing. Cool to make an instant friend like that. That was how art school was for me, so many people who didn’t judge ‘weirdness’ and an environment where people got to be there true selves which is far too rare.

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Mike Panasitti
05:29 Dec 30, 2022

I wanted it to mean that he'd get a 10% discount for singing, but, yeah, that phrase doesn't quite sit right. Artists do tolerate much from other people on the weirdness scale. Seems to go with the territory. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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Unknown User
00:06 Jun 07, 2023

<removed by user>

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Mike Panasitti
02:02 Jun 07, 2023

Thank you for the complements, Joseph. They motivate me to keep writing. Since you ask the question, I suggest you take a look at my "8th Iteration" series. These are prequels to "Atlas Rises," which, if I remember correctly, you seem to have enjoyed. The plots center around Morris James, a cloned rock star. Hopefully they continue to satisfy your appetite for authenticity and originality. Thanks again and take care.

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