Part I


With a deep breath in, a long inhale that prickled the sensitive hairs in her nose and forced her neck back and raised her eyes, half-closed, to the ceiling, she left the clean lobby and the chatty coworkers and the endless, winding snake trail of customers and their questions and their concerns and their change in small bills and quarters because it's laundry day ha ha—and when her lungs could hold no more of the clean air direct from the A/C unit, she was there. In her gallery, on the gala opening night, and nothing else mattered.

Now it was the hair on her arms that prickled, raised to attention by the chicken-skin on her arms as the chill breath of the air in the cavernous space ghosted across her flesh. No gallery on earth was like hers—it was a mausoleum, paintings glinting with their firefly jewel-lights out of the dark, like heirloom gems adorning the necks of mummified Pharaohs, and it was a mine, priceless treasures waiting to be found and their gloom dusted off by those brave crusaders ready and willing to climb down into the shadow and perceive them whole and unspoilt, preserved from the glare of the gaudy world in this, the prudent darkness.

She herself always stood in the center of the hall, shoulders bare to the chill, but body warm in blue velvet, the color of the infinite Pacific and the breast of the twilight sky, her head bent down towards her right shoulder, close enough that her shallow, measured breaths warmed and dampened a patch of skin, flushed it against the cloud-pink of the rest of her exposed body. She too was a treasure to be found, appreciated for her statuesque stillness, a self portrait for once accurate in each detail, down to the two freckles on her wrist the exact size and shape of a magnified colon—which, her father said, showed that she always had more to say. Here she was always still, feeling the ghosts of those who populated this shadow gallery misting about her, leaving their imprint only as smoky incense lingers about the hair, the skin, and the clothes, to be breathed in only in vigor, in movement, in a sudden gesture that brings a gust of the forgotten fragrance wafting into the air.

She could never give the ghosts life, not as she had life, not as her paintings, her creations, her fragments of soul and spirit shattered onto the walls like shards of prismatic stained glass, all in rainbows—and they had life, she felt no need to look at them because she could feel them shimmering and vibrating through the clean, muted air—for she did not know them, the people who would brave the chill and the darkness to come and dig, to draw back the curtain of obscurity—not to moan or ooh and aah like morons gazing at a circus freak—but to stand back and look, really look, and then turn to her and nod and think to themselves yes, this is hers and it would not be possible to think otherwise and move to the next picture, to look and think and nod.

And she would stand there, bare and open and exposed, ready for the whip to crash down on her bare shoulders, and split the skin into a gaping red chasm, irrevocable, unequivocal.

But in her stillness, she knew she would not feel the whip, nor yet the knife. Just the quiet sensation of thought, of judgment, and considered, solid admiration, given by those who looked, really looked, and thought, truly thought.

That would be not only bearable, but pleasant, like leaning against a mountain's raw, granite flank and feeling one's body extend and harden and yearn towards the sky, or lying on a deep, sweet grass bed and soaking down into it, until one's fingers stretched through the whole earth as spidery veins, and were capable of bringing that whole earth into oneself and joining that mad, whirling dance so deep into the cosmos—

There her thoughts ended. She had never known that sensation from anything human, and the consideration that perhaps she never would brought the rhythm of her breath to a stuttering gasp, an unwilling expression of repulsed horror—and her teeth gritted against it and her hands clenched, and her head lifted, raised by her all-controlling pride, and she opened her eyes and forced light into her shadow world, longing to catch a glimpse of one of the faces yet hidden from her by the seething herd of humanity—

In the meantime, her mouth smiled, and spoke, and said ha ha I hear ya and gave change in tens and fives, singles and the quarters so essential to laundry day