JOHN slid his hand along the slippery oak banister. It was a hot summer in New York, so the climb to the third floor was trying, particularly in an Armani suit and carrying a large attaché case. He made a left onto the gaudy red carpet, went down the hall and knocked on the door. There was a grunt. The door opened, but the chain remained. A large jaundiced eye
popped through the crack.
“Yes?” came the voice. It sounded like an out-of-tune cello.
“What?” he snapped. The man’s breath shot through the crack in the door and right up John’s nostrils. Whiskey.
“It’s John Finkelstein, I was your student at NYU back in the eighties.”
“What do you want?”
“Well, I now work for the Guggenheim and have a proposition for you.”
“I’m not interested.”
“We would like to acquire some of your paintings to add to our collection.”
“I’m not interested.” The eye blinked.
“If you wouldn’t mind letting me in, I could better explain what we are prepared to offer.”
But the eye remained in the door. John had been warned that his old professor had become rather strange but to turn down a purchase from the Guggenheim was akin to madness.
“My work,” said Northrop.
“Yes, we want to show your work.”
“No, it’s MY work. I don’t want to show it to anybody.”
“That’s ridiculous Professor,” said John. “What is the point of painting if no one sees it?”
“I see it.”
John was starting to get impatient. Shortly after John graduated the professor had disappeared from the art world with no explanation. He quit his tenured job at the university and no one heard from him again. And now he was acting like a fool, like a child.
Northrop paused and said: “Fucking Kenny,” then the door slammed shut. It remained closed for a few moments and John was about to knock again when he heard a few latches click and finally the doorknob started to turn. The door then swung open.
Northrop was an odd shaped man. He had a rather oblong head and unusually large, insect eyes. His torso was a sort of exclamation point. It started wide and got narrower and narrower the closer you got to the floor. His hands were big and crawled with veins. He was wearing coveralls but, as far as John could tell, nothing underneath. The coveralls were white
and had splotches of paint all over them. On his feet, pink bunny slippers.
Northrop turned and shuffled down the long, dark hallway, saying nothing. John followed.
They entered the main room, which had a dark maple floor. The walls were paneled in oak and the ceiling was rather ornate, almost Baroque. It was dim. Northrop clicked a little green light and sat down on a large chair that was shaped like a hand. He put his elbow on the thumb and rested his cheek in his own hand.
John turned and looked around the room. Paint cans, brushes and stacks of canvasses everywhere. They were magnificent, so much more than the pictures showed. He had to have them.
Northrop reached to the little table next to him, grabbed a soft pack of Kool menthol cigarettes, popped one up from the pack with a flick of his wrist and stuck it in his mouth. He grabbed a lighter. The lighter clicked. The little flame lit his cigarette and bathed his face in an orange glow.
“Your son Kenny was very kind,” said John. He set down his attaché case and stood in front of his old mentor. "For sending those pictures of your paintings.”
“I shouldn’t have let him take those damned pictures. I knew he was up to no good.”
John looked around for another seat but could not find one. “Is there another chair around?” he said.
“Why would I need another chair?” Northrop said.
John finally located what looked like a stool underneath a tarp and some paint cans. He pointed to it. “Do you mind if I?”
Northrop took a big drag and blew the smoke out in a billow. John took this as a “Sure, help yourself," so he made his way over, removed the paint cans, lifted the tarp, and grabbed the stool and eased it out, then let the tarp flop back to the floor. He brought the stool back over and set it down in front of Northrop and sat down upon it.
John clicked open his attaché case and pulled out some papers. “We are prepared to make a very generous offer to you.” He handed the papers to Northrop. Northrop took the papers, but held them out in the air in front of him and stared at John with disgust.
“In fact, we would like to offer you a show. We’ll call it,” John splayed his hands out for emphasis, ‘Philip Northrop: Emerges’”. He put his hands down and leaned forward. “What do you think?”
Northrop, still holding the papers out in front of him and glaring at John, clicked his lighter, swung the flame over to the papers and lit the corner on fire. The flames began to climb the papers.
John leaped from his stool, grabbed the burning papers, threw them to the floor, and stomped the fire out under his leather shoes. “Why on earth did you do that? You didn’t even look at it! It’s a very generous offer.” John then realized that he had been shouting and his hair had flopped down in his face. He pushed it back up, regained his composure and cleared
his throat. “Just name your price. What will it take for us to make a deal?”
Northrop got up with a moan and made his way across the room and through a doorway into the kitchen. John tried to tidy up the paperwork and dusted off the parts that had been burned. He straightened them out against his chest and then sat back down on the stool and leafed through the papers. Several of them were more than half burnt. He sighed,
got up, crossed the room and dumped the papers into a trashcan in the corner.
Northrop returned from the kitchen holding a bottle of Jack and two shot glasses. He sat down and held out one of the glasses.
“Oh, no thank you. I don’t drink,” said John.
“You do today.”
“No, really, I never touch it.”
“Do you want to make a deal?”
“Yes, very much.”
“If you outdrink me, you can take a painting. No charge.”
“Really, I just can’t. You must understand, Professor, the museum is prepared to offer you a great sum of money.”
Northrop continued to hold out the tumbler. John didn’t see any way around it. He had to get this acquisition. John took the glass. Northrop poured. They held the glasses up.
“To old friends,” said John.
“One,” said Northrop, and he tossed it down his throat.
John, seriously befuddled by his mentor’s complete lack of recognition of their past, hesitated, and then swallowed the burning shot with a scrunched face and a shudder.
Northrop poured two more. “Two.” They tossed them back. By four John no longer shuddered. By six they were downright delightful and John started to giggle and slur his words.
“You are so darned talented,” John said. “What happened to you Professor? Why’d you disappear?”
David W Foulds is a writer, filmmaker and educator. He holds a certificate in creative writing from the University of York, an MA in media studies from The New School and is currently working on a second MA in English studies at the University of Nottingham.
Northrop just poured another round and said “seven.” They tilted their heads and shot them back. John got up and crossed over to the canvases and looked at them.
“Jesus, these are just unreal.” He admired the brushwork, the detail and yet simultaneously the spontaneity. It was as if some little demon had leaped out of the brush and onto the canvas. He had never seen such a combination of chaos and order at the same time.
“How the hell did you do this? It really is amazing.”
“I’ll tell you what,” Northrop finally said. “Why don’t you pick one. We’ll call it even. I don’t want to have to clean up your puke from my floor.”
“Really? I get to pick one?”
Northrop nodded slowly.
“Just one? That’s not enough for a show--”
John’s eyes followed the sinewy lines, the action, the thickness, the roughness of the canvasses. He was nearly in tears at the beauty and pain evident in every stroke.
“You have five seconds,” said Northrop.
“Five… Four… Three…”
The man was insane. He couldn’t possibly choose in a matter of seconds.
John pointed. “That one!”
Northrop hobbled over and picked up the painting. John smiled as he watched him take it across the room and into the kitchen.
“I think I made a good choice there.”
“Yes,” Northrop called from the kitchen.
“It really is marvelous. One of the most sublime pieces I’ve ever seen.”
Northrop emerged from the kitchen holding the painting in one hand and a giant knife in the other.
John gasped. “What are you doing?”
Northrop thrust his knife through the canvas as if he were stabbing a man right in the gut.
“My god man! Stop that!” John rushed toward Northrop but the man turned the knife on him. It flashed. John stopped and threw up his hands.
“Steady now. Easy there.”
Northrop turned back to the canvas and thrust again. With each jab John felt as if he were being stabbed in his gut. He buckled in pain and fell to the floor.
The painting was in shreds and Northrop dropped it on the floor next to John.
“Why are you here?” said Northrop. John just stared at the ruins of a painting he considered to be better than the Mona Lisa.
Northrop kneeled down, grabbed John’s head and turned it to him. “Why are you here?”
“To ask you--”
Northrop grabbed John by the throat. “WHY ARE YOU HERE?”
The room started spinning. Paint swirled about John in red, orange and blue. Brushes jumped out of the cans and swished back and forth, up and down the room. The figures in the paintings climbed out and danced and sang a demonic chant. The room tilted back and forth. Northrop towered over him, his yellow teeth and spiky white hair made him look like an evil doctor, a madman.
“WHY ARE YOU HERE?” demanded Northrop.
John let out a cry. “Because I’m a failure!” he moaned. “Because I’m a damned failure as an artist!”
Northrop let go of his throat. John gasped for breath and coughed. He heaved and nearly threw up. “You’re a madman,” he said.
Northrop shook his head. “You have forgotten everything I taught you.”
“What?” John rubbed his throat and looked up at Northrop. “You remember me?”
Northrop went over to the table and pried the lid off one of the paint cans, dipped a brush in, walked back over to John and flung paint at him. The paint splattered, Pollock-like, all over his suit.
“Jesus Christ! This is a two thousand dollar suit,” said John.
“Not anymore. Take it off.”
“Why in the hell would you do that?”
“You’re lost. Take off that hideous monkey suit.”
John slowly unbuttoned his collar, took his tie off and placed it on the stool.
"All of it.”
John unbuttoned his shirt and trousers and let them drop to the floor. He let out a laugh. He was soon down to his boxers. This was madness. Utter and complete madness.
“Those too. You have to be primitive to really feel it.”
John slid off his boxers and stood there completely naked. Northrop put a large canvas up on an easel in front of John, loaded a brush and put it in his hand.
“Close your eyes.”
John closed his eyes and Northrop wrapped himself around John’s body from behind. His arms became John’s arms. His legs, John’s legs. They moved slowly together, swaying back and forth to an unheard rhythm.
“Let yourself go,” he whispered in John’s ear.
John awoke, naked and alone, in a small room. Cool air and a soft, blue light came in from a little window. He felt sore. His eyes rested on a photograph. It was old. John took the photo and noticed his hands were covered in paint. He examined the photo. Professor Northrop stood, tall and proud, his arm around a young apprentice painter, John Finkelstein, in his studio, in 1985.