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Poor People / A.E. Weisgerber



I see a freshly fallen branch and pick it up. Black walnut. I squint at the cluster of male catkins and the single, delicate cup of the female bloom, its softly limp, feathered stigma faded below milk-blue morning skies. I have to breathe.


I know Sebastian is watching, looking down from his atelier window as I pinch the bud with my nails. He'll complain about it, call me filthy, tell me how black walnut is a strange tree. How it poisons competitors yet permits lilies, bluebells, bleeding hearts. How it yields gorgeous hardwood, gunstocks and knife hilts, yacht cabinetry. He'll say, "All that, and you."


I know he's looking because my neck prickles. I hold the branch close, register that whiff of spice, rot, and lemonade, then discard the blossom. My hand reaches for my lucky pin, a tiny silver hand holding an opal.


I look up.


I smile and wave.


I stop waving and keep drowning. I hate this city. Sebastian is three storys up, and I see the full maw of his south-facing studio window; coffee cans of brushes jig-jag along the lower edge like cracked and horrible teeth. Sebastian's enormous face, disembodied and dreamlike, sags like a quarter-moon, the reflection of clouds frames him like a god.


Facing the skillet-flat front of his studio, I code in through the gate to the side door. Sebastian is no longer at the window when I get to our apartment.


He faces the door, man of dust. His smile is an impact crack in a mirror. He leans away from a filthy pile of crayon sketches and tear sheets. He affects the short-range repulsion of a bird, steering toward something with his paper flock. His collared shirt, with its alternating royal and gray stripes, contours his soft paunch.


He looks at me, his gaze the bruised hues of yellow, mud, and green below his shock of rust-brown hair. His eyes tilt down a moment, like the horse subject to continuous beatings he is, led by its wallet, one canvas to the next. Somehow, he saw a new bridle in my arrival. He fears me leaving. I have begun to feel the bore of his depression.


His peripheral canvasses in progress are room dividers. Early as the day is, he'd been up and working since first light.


He resumes looking at my face, and motions for my hand, his suspended in the air between. "Life is so ordinary."


"You're not," I glance at my black finger and thumb nail.


"Not what? Ordinary?" He takes my proffered hand, but his eyes focus on my tiny lucky pin, its black stone. He is about to complain about dirty fingers.


I say, "Leave my extraordinarily dirty hand alone."


"My hillbilly woman."


"Meow-now."


He holds my hand like a bird in his own, softly trapped, guiding me lightly toward him. "You're not ordinary," he says as he examined my smooth young hands. He flicks my thumbnail with his own and asks, "Is that why I care for you?"


I look away, toward the crenelated view. This corner space has a coffered ceiling, an inexplicable recessed oval ringed by crown dentil. There might have once been a machine shop below, with a family apartment above and this space once storage or a showroom, a plumbing supply vibe.


He released my hand and had an honest laugh. "I will tell you why."


I tap his shoulder. "So shall my anticipation prevent your discovery?"


He arches an eyebrow.


I am always surprising him, but I am also thinking right now but it's Hamlet, c'mon.


He plays along. "I've no feathers to molt."


I do not look him in the eye just yet. He has that wonderful, smooth studio smell, pleasant and redolent of how things must have been for the happy old Masters. There is a salt-and-pepper spray of soft hairs feathering the hollow of his throat. "The buttons don't match," I say.


I undo the top two while he tucks a loose filament of hair behind my ear then cups my chin. I ask, as I fix his shirt, to tell me again why he likes me.


"You don't give a shit about art."


"Yeah, well, art," I smile, "is for losers."


He puffs again like a bull, straight down the nose. "I like that you always wear that pin."


His shirt sorted, I think it good form to rest my hand, holding his collar. He enjoys feeling accosted.


"Beside my life as muse to the great artist, that pin is the only thing I've won in my life."


If you must know how I met Sebastian, I was starving, new to the city, and on a notification chain for gallery openings that had free food. I can't remember much of the art that year. Cindy Sherman's Film Stills, for sure. Little postage-stamp-sized paintings by a Japanese man. At least one Serra sculpture killed someone. Sebastian's paintings were these blurry, inscrutable portraits. He motioned me over as the shrimp tray stalled at his circle, and I tried to look dignified holding a napkin with a shrimp tail balled inside it. He asked me what I thought of the art. I said something candid and exhausted and he realized: she hasn't a clue who I am. This and my beguiling youth were the sum of it. He felt to me very much how Jay Gatsby must have felt to his neighbor. Invisible, yet then he suddenly appeared.


"All right." I return his pressure at the pelvis. I can feel him through my jeans.


"Come close." He pulls my hips more firmly into his, still studying my face.


"Don't look at me like that. It's terrifying."


"I won't paint you."


"I'll die if you do." Given the track record of his muses, he knew I was about right. Not one but three of his subjects had committed suicide.


"It's a good day for a dinner party." He relaxed his grip. "I'll cook for you tonight. Let's see who's around."


Like magic, the phone rang.


Sebastian tips toward the ringing, grinds a little harder into me as he backs me toward the wall where he picks up the phone. He begins his conversation, presses my shoulder to let me know to stay put. With one hand, he removes my pin and listens absentmindedly, worries the stone with his thumb. He moves to the kitchenette doorway, his back to me, then ends his conversation.


"Manny?"


"No." He starts down the hall. "Come along, kitten."


I slip out of my shoes and pad after him. All the doors along the corridor are shut.


He sweeps open a door and motions me to enter. "I'll see you in a few hours." He sets the pin on the bedside table. There is a tall vase of lilies arranged on it. "I'll need the quiet. Back to work."


I meow, not loud enough for Sebastian to hear.


He is generally done by two o'clock. He has that endless, Rothschild-ish money that can't be shared. That gives me plenty of time to slip out again for a run, take a bath, and call his agent to hear if he knows to come for dinner. He says Sebastian told him he was cooking for two tonight.


By the time I emerge, there had been a delivery and Sebastian hums with the warmth of meal preparation. Ours is a galley kitchen, old but clean and well equipped, Thermador and Viking. There is a huge steel pot, restaurant-supply-level, sweating full of cold water as Sebastian turns up the burner. I don't know anything about Thermadors. I once paid three simultaneous tuitions. I started in Los Angeles, but got called home by my histrionic German mother. Then I restarted in London, and almost finished, but was called home by my histrionic German mother. Then, after I had given up on school, she died. Sebastian asked me how that sort of thing was done, coming up with money, and I said All I can say is you hold your breath, jump in, and start swimming until you drag yourself out on the other side. He said that was marvelous. Everything is like that. The rich are from outer space.


Sebastian tells me to bring in the lobsters from some bucket in the hall. I say sure. I make two trips.


"Don't name them," he advises. "Don't go calling them Louie or Lucky." He is chopping shallots. "Can you find a set of crackers?" He points out a location.


Sebastian is much taller than me. Large-framed, like his canvases. You can tell from the brush strokes and how they emanate from a certain point what his reach is, if you care to look for that sort of thing. Sometimes that's all there is to be said about art. He stood here. He did this. I only know because I've seen him at work and later realized his brush strokes are his lampblack aura.


I had a broken leg before I knew him. It was compound, with a 180-degree rotation, and hadn't set after three increasingly daring operations. I remember my first thought: "I'll never be a leg model." Honestly, the only thing between me and the big insurance payout was the ski patrol not throwing a ski and boot in the ambulance, a fact my German mother never forgot. But I did get supermodel skinny from the ensuing Demerol addiction.


I find a cache of crackers in a—I think it's called a spoon jar?—on a high pantry shelf, and picks in a low cabinet.


Sebastian is adding vinegar to the rolling boil. "You are in the audience on death row."


I looked at the lobsters, black and orange, swiveling jerks. I prefer the mystery of cod.


I start thinking how, to speed up harvests, farmers spray wheat with poison two weeks prior. They do this to desiccate the plant, rather than chance dry weather. Nobody can say how poison gets removed from the wheat on its way to the mill, the market, the baker, the oyster cracker.


I think I'm an old timey person. One of those old souls. Farmers hoe and plant, they spray, they water and pray. Maybe I am some hillbilly. Some seeds in the front forty to harvest and sell, some in the back forty for seed stock. I used to do that small scale in the vegetable garden. If I wanted this year's heirloom tomatoes next year -- Mortgage Lifter, Persimmon, Mr. Stripey -- I save seeds. I ask Sebastian, "Is what I heard true? that all the wheat is sprayed with poison before it is harvested. I looked it up."


He is peeling the silk that remains on the corn, and says, "All of it. Canada, too."


We both shake our heads and slowly exhale: big bull, little bull.


"Better tell our friends the heat is coming."


I think about when I'll live somewhere I can grow tomatoes. Maybe I'll get a coffee shop to donate the day's grinds. I think about removing the bands from the claws. "When is everyone coming?" I know it's just us.


Sebastian smiles. "Five-ish."


I rub the lobster heads, lulling them to sleep. The high court of my government says nobody can own what drifts onto their property. Think about it: lobsters aren't trapped, per se, but more like victims of bad timing. They are either in the trap when it's tugged up, or not.


It's like: Your first pan of magic gingerbread is a divine prize. You got it because you are a good person. It replenishes itself, slice for slice, overnight. You'll never be hungry. Unless you're the type to drink a $200 bottle of cognac rather than surrender it to airport security. You make a choice, it leads to this, it leads to that, and poof: cognac's gone, people appear, boarding denied, bread pan stolen. Today's taste of heaven may be the last ever. But I can have a Persimmon tomato every year if I save the seeds of one.


While I'm sat there with my face cradled in my palm all Brancusi-like, Sebastian finishes chopping the celery, the carrots, the red onion. I'd offer to help but this narrow kitchen isn't really meant for two cooks. Anyway, what I find important is not visual.


He says, "You are quiet."


"Am I? I feel like all I do is talk."


He does that snort and smiles. "Don't look at the lobsters. You have to be sorry-not-sorry."


I need to be away. Once, when I first met Sebastian, I felt I'd traveled to the future and now I'm in the present and I feel like these lobsters: angry.


I was once prowling the desolation subReddit, and for some reason clicked through to something about the Exhaustion Doctrine. I wound up listening to a Supreme Court argument. Then all of a sudden got stuck on how people really cheat in this world. Think about it: AT&T had a patent on a method of compressing speech, which was used by Microsoft, and in doing so they infringed on AT&T's patent. So Microsoft began to make copies of AT&T's compression software overseas. They skipped out on copyright by being an inch into international jurisdiction. But those are businesses dicking over one another. I'm a person facing lobsters.


"And... eight minutes." The critters are dropped, claws banging.


I ask Sebastian if I can help. "What do you do with the corn? Do you need to put curry on them?" Do I need supervision here?


"No. You don't need to destroy the corn."


"It bothers me, Sebastian, that the Chinese park their boats at the edge of the Galapagos protected waters." I think I said that, but I might only have thought it. I was obtuse.


Sebastian, fussing over the table setting, uses a silver tong to place a little black roll on each bread plate. When we sit at last, he beckons and I hand over my lucky pin. He looks at it, then at me, and he rubs his temple. I rub my own temples. I know what he is thinking. It's the same thing I think: what will be left of me after my death but bones and teeth, like some tusk-deprived carcass at the center of sticks and leather in the dust.


/


A. E. Weisgerber (1964 - ) was born in Orange, New Jersey to middle-class parents. She is a Frost Place Scholar, and Reynolds Fellow. Her prose, poetry, and essays appear in 3:AM Magazine, DIAGRAM, Yemassee, Berfrois, The Alaska Star, Essaying Daily, and SmokeLong Quarterly. She is the Assistant Series Editor for the annual Wigleaf Top 50 contest. Follow @aeweisgerber or visit anneweisgerber.com.


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