Monday, February 11, 2019

Consider Me Dead by Clive Aaron Gill

An art lecturer at the University of California shelters a homeless man in the hope of reigniting his own artistic flair; by Clive Aaron Gill.

Andrew Miller drove to 16th Street in downtown San Diego on a Monday afternoon to buy paint and paper supplies. He parked and walked toward his favorite art store, his back stooped, his head of untidy hair like a shrub. He crinkled his nose as he smelled the garbage and exhaust fumes.

Winos clung to the shadows, and arrogant young men sat in large cars, seemingly prepared to deal drugs.

Andrew's eyes traveled to a man wearing dirty jeans and a torn denim shirt who appeared to be in his early forties. The man stood on the sidewalk in front of watercolor paintings and charcoal drawings propped against a low wall. One drawing showed a woman with sunken cheeks.

"Good God," Andrew mumbled, looking at the picture of the woman.

He approached the man. "Did you do all these?" he asked, gesturing toward the art pieces.

"Yeah."

Andrew examined the artworks. "How much for the drawing of the woman?"

"Ten dollars."

"I'll take it."



Two days after Andrew had acquired the artist's drawing, he stared at it. Critics had said Andrew's art was boring. He needed stimuli to create new, engaging works. He realized that the artist he saw downtown could inspire him. And he knew he would gain prestige by helping a talented artist's career.

He returned downtown to the street where he'd seen the artist.

"How you doing today?" Andrew asked.

"Been better."

"I bought one of your drawings a couple of days ago."

"Yeah."

"I'd like to talk to you about your art. Can I buy you breakfast?"

"Okay. I could use hot coffee. I been eating restaurant scraps."

"Let's go to that diner," Andrew said, pointing to Goodman's Café, an eatery with large windows and a flashing, neon sign.

Jason gathered his artworks and limped beside Andrew to the cafe. They entered, hearing the buzz of conversations and the clatter of dishes. The establishment had a black-and-white, checkered-tile floor, red vinyl booths, and fluorescent lights. Customers sat on bar stools around a horseshoe-shaped counter.

A middle-aged waitress, in a white shirt and black pants, approached them with a warm smile. "Good morning. Table for two?"

"Yes," Andrew said.

When she led the men to a booth at the back, Andrew guessed she had smelled Jason's sewer-like odor. Andrew sat facing his guest.

"I'm Lucy. Coffee?"

"Yes, for both of us," Andrew replied.

She poured coffee into the off-white, heavy mugs. "Need a few minutes, dears?"

Andrew nodded.

She walked to other customers, coffeepot in hand while the two men studied the stained menus.

"I'm Andrew Miller." He waited for a response.

The man clasped his hands to stop them shaking.

"What's your name?" Andrew asked.

"Jason."

"Jason who?"

"Just Jason," he said, averting his bloodshot eyes.

"So how long have you been drawing and painting?"

"Since I got my first crayons as a kid."

"Where do you live?"

"Wherever," Jason wheezed.

Lucy returned. "What can I get for you today?"

"A stack of pancakes," Jason said. "And a cheese omelet, bacon and hash browns."

"Toast with jelly for me," Andrew said.

She scribbled on her order pad. "Coming right up."

Andrew had grown up in a poor, single-mother household in a decaying neighborhood and understood people who lived in poverty. "Besides breakfast, Jason, what else do you need?"

"I been wearing the same pair of socks for weeks. They got holes at the toes."

"I'll buy you socks. Where were you born, Jason?"

"Born and raised on the east coast."

"Did you like it there?"

"It was okay. Had a mutt for a few months."

"How old?"

Jason rubbed his eyes "Just a puppy. My ma said she didn't have money for his food. She gave him away."

"Losing a dog is hard."

"Yeah. That put me in the hurt locker."

Lucy arrived with their orders. "Here you go. Enjoy."

Jason ate with the concentration of a famished man, seldom pausing, and Andrew did not interrupt him with conversation.

When Jason's plates were empty, he leaned back with a satisfied grin.

Lucy returned and removed the plates. "Anything else I can get for you?"

"Apple pie," Andrew said. "A la mode."

"Cherry pie would be great," Jason said.

Lucy filled their mugs with coffee then gave their orders to the cook.

"Thanks for the breakfast, Andrew. I haven't felt full in a long time."

"You're welcome. I have a favor to ask." Andrew adjusted his wire frame eyeglasses. "Can you tell me what it's like as an artist on the street?"

Jason gasped. "Huh?"

"My lips will be sealed."

"You see I'm homeless." His sagging eyelids trembled.

"My mother and I were almost homeless when I was ten," Andrew said. "I remember her sitting in the kitchen and crying."

"Oh. I see. I... I feel lost, alone, scared shitless. Who are the scariest on the streets? Other homeless people, or the police or the hoodlums? One night, thugs beat up two homeless men and pissed on them. A guy driving around in a car said I could live with him in exchange for sex."

He screwed up his face as if he was reliving his fears.

"I take sink baths in gas station restrooms or showers at the beach. Find a place to sleep at night. Like under a bridge. Sometimes I sleep in a shelter. Bedbugs are free. I search for a mat away from the snorers, the booze-stinking guys, the insomniacs."

Jason sniffled and his lower lip trembled.

"One day I had an attack. Like I had a monkey in my scrambled mind who never shut up. I went to the psych ward at General. Ya know... like I was gonna kill myself. I asked the psychiatrist to help me. He put me on meds for six weeks. Depression haunted me. Like a shadow on the inside. Eventually, I got my sanity back. For how long? I don't know."

Lucy set the pies on their table, and Jason breathed the warm, sweet aroma with closed eyes. They ate their desserts in silence and sipped coffee.

"Jason, what are some other difficulties you have, as a homeless person?"

Jason raised a finger as he swallowed the last of his pie. "No privacy. None. People see me pissing."

"That must be distressing."

"People who walk by avoid me and walk faster. And churches turn us away."

"The churches? That's sad. You've told me some heavy stuff. I appreciate that. But with all your difficulties, how are you able to create art?"

"How? Because I must. Art is a journal for me to I record my experiences and feelings."

"I understand. I've enjoyed talking with you today. I'll be downtown on Friday. Would you like to meet here for breakfast at eight?"

"Sure."



Andrew arrived at Goodman's Café at seven forty-five on Friday morning. He found Jason waiting outside near the front door. Lucy escorted them through the busy diner to the same booth they had sat in two days earlier. Their entry attracted stares from customers. A heavy woman held a napkin to her nose.

They ate breakfast and talked about the murder of a prostitute the previous Wednesday night.

After breakfast, Andrew said, "You're a gifted artist, Jason."

"Gifted?"

"Yes. I've taught art at the University of California for fourteen years. And I know exceptional art."

"Oh, yeah?"

"I have confidence in your work. And I'd like to make you an offer."

Jason scowled in distrust. "What's that?"

"If you continue working on your art, you can use the studio at the back of my house."

"You're kidding." He laughed a cynical laugh. "My art may be crap -"

"No, no."

"I don't want your studio."

"Why not?"

"Don't think you can play trick games on me," Jason said with a sidelong glance.

"Listen -"

"Are you a control freak? You remind me of my mother. Locked me in a closet. I had panic attacks. She had boyfriends. In my nightmares, I'm a boy lying in bed, my hands over my ears, trying to block the sounds of a drunk banging on our front door and shouting filth at my mother."

People turned their heads and stared at Jason, his face flushed.

"Lower your voice."

"I don't shoplift painkillers." Jason picked up his art pieces and stood. "I don't freebase coke. I'm not a sex pervert."

"Please sit down." Andrew's legs shook under the table, and his ears rang as if a deafening wave was breaking over his head.

Jason waved in a dismissive gesture.

"Cool it, Jason."

Jason lowered himself onto the seat.

"Jason, will you listen? I have an empty studio with a bathroom and kitchenette. Other artists have stayed there. I use a workspace at the university."

"Who are you? Why... why would you do that for me?" "I've become skeptical about my art. I've lost my compulsion for self-expression." Andrew rubbed his brow and closed his eyes for a few seconds. "My work is stale and uninspiring. Seeing how you create art could help me. I need to do something soon before my arthritis makes it impossible for me to use my hands. Also, your artistic talent must be recognized. I want artists and critics to see your work."

"You're like... fantasizing."

"Do you believe in your talent?"

"Well... I dunno." Jason picked at a grimy fingernail. "I feel the spirit of an artist. I see through to the soul."

"You see below the surface."

"Yeah."

"Will you consider my offer?"

"Maybe." He mimed balancing two scales. "Or maybe not. I must tell you, living on the streets has weakened me. I'm tired all the time. My clothes are loose."

"You're malnourished. I'll get fruit, veggies and meat for you."

"Not just undernourished. I'm fragile, man." He bit his cracked lip. "My mind feels like a popcorn maker, ya know? Pop, pop. Ya think I'm crazy?"

"I don't know," Andrew said. "You think I'm normal?"

"What's normal?"

Andrew raised his eyebrows and chuckled. "What do you say about the studio?"

"Not sure." He looked to the side.

"No obligation." Andrew gripped the edge of the table in anticipation. "You can leave any time you want."

"I just met you."

"True."

"I dunno." Jason rubbed his nose with the back of his hand. "A studio for me? Hard to believe. Seems like you're rushing me."

"Think about it. Let's meet here next week. Same time. If my offer doesn't seem right to you, I'll drop the subject."

Jason nodded.



The following week after breakfast, Jason said, "Well... I'll try the studio for a few days."

"Good. I'll take you there."

Jason sat in the front passenger seat of Andrew's car as he drove with the windows down to relieve the discomfort of Jason's odor. Andrew hated bad smells, was allergic to pollen and kept a clean house. He steered the car up the winding roads to his home in the hills of Pacific Beach.

Jason showered at Andrew's studio. He wore Andrew's shirt and pants, baggy on his slim frame.

Andrew threw Jason's old clothes into the trash bin and bought socks, underwear, jeans, and shirts for him.

Every Sunday morning, Andrew shopped for food and stocked the refrigerator in the studio. And he left a twenty-dollar bill on the kitchen table for Jason's sundry expenses.

"Andrew," Jason said after Andrew had arrived with groceries, "will it be okay if I give some of this food to my homeless friends? They helped me when I was flat broke."

"Sure. Go ahead."

On Mondays, Jason put grocery items into large shopping bags. He rode a bus downtown and gave the food to people on the streets.

During the next few weeks, Jason watched television, ate well and slept ten hours a day. He became accustomed to living in the studio and accepting Andrew's generosity. The infections on his hands and feet healed. He grew stronger and took early morning walks in the neighborhood, admiring the yellow and orange California poppies and the Hollyleaf Redberry plants of spring.

Andrew purchased art supplies for Jason and allowed him the freedom to create art in any way he chose.



The summer morning sunlight spread over clumps of red and purple bougainvillea climbing the studio walls.

Andrew visited Jason in the studio where he smelled the fumes of turpentine. He reviewed Jason's canvases. "Your images are skillfully accomplished. You captured the emotions of life's struggles."

"You think so?"

"Absolutely. You show moods that are downcast and angry. Excellent work."

Jason pressed his hand against the side of his face.

"Why are you holding your face, Jason?"

"Toothache."

"I've got a good dentist."

"Can't afford a dentist."

"I'll pay. You focus on your artwork."

"Andrew, why are you doing this? You know nothin' about me."

"Then tell me."

Jason stood in silence, looking down.

"Jason, I'll tell you some of my story. I cheated during my two marriages. No children. I'm a compulsive gambler. Sometimes gambling seems wrong, dirty. Greedy for easy money. When I don't win, I'm sick to my stomach and embarrassed. My legs tremble. I'm stunned as if someone smacked my head." Andrew coughed. "Early in my career, I believed I could achieve greatness as an artist. I wanted what I felt I was born to do. You know. Go beyond the technical skills."

"Yeah, I know."

"To be honest, I'm excited to discover a talent like yours."

"Like mine?"

"Yes. Now tell me something about yourself."

Jason sighed. "I've told my story many times. Too many times. It's not pretty. You sure you wanna hear it?"

"I'm sure."

Jason sat on an orange plastic chair streaked with dry paint. Andrew lowered himself onto a kitchen chair opposite him.

"I was one of six children," Jason said. "My dad was often angry. He was in and out of lockup. Mostly in. My mom died young. From AIDS. When I was a kid, a babysitter guy messed with me. Like, sexually. He warned me not to tell anyone."

"Oh, my God." Andrew winced. "That's tragic. I'm so sorry."

"Yeah. I often think about that guy. I hate him. Got beat up a lot in high school. The jocks didn't like me." Jason clamped his fist and stared with a far-off look. "I got kicked out of two schools."

Andrew shook his head. "That's tough."

"It sucked," Jason said in a quivering voice. "Social Services put me in a foster home. But I didn't hit it off with the family. Living on the streets seemed a better choice."

"How did you survive?"

"I searched for bottles and cans. Sold them. A freakin' struggle every day. Then I sold my art and panhandled. I was dumpster diving one time when I found a dead baby."

"Oh, no. Horrific."

"Yeah. I had a meltdown. I felt... like a bird struggling in a net." Jason rocked from side to side. "That hurt still stays with me. Gives me nightmares."

"No peace."

"Not until I went to AA meetings. They helped me get off the juice."

"You do drugs?"

"No more."

"Thanks for telling me about your life, Jason. You've suffered painful things. Awful things."



Two days later, Jason visited a dentist who relieved his toothache.

A week passed, and Andrew arrived at the studio with groceries, surprised when he did not see Jason. He put food in the refrigerator and on the counter and left, his forehead wrinkled in concern.

Jason usually watched TV after dinner, but that night the studio was dark.

During the next four nights, Andrew did not sleep well. The following morning, he drove downtown and searched for Jason. He asked homeless people if they'd seen the artist. After hours of questioning and searching, Andrew returned home, worried and disappointed.

Three weeks later, when twilight darkened the bright colors of the day, Andrew saw a light in the studio. He hurried there and knocked.

Jason opened the door. "Come in."

"I missed you, Jason. You look tired. Where were you?"

"Well... I shacked up with Cristabel."

"Who's Cristabel?"

"A beautiful, twenty-one-year-old. From El Salvador."

"Why did you leave her?"

"She wanted to move into the studio."

"And...?"

"You've been generous to allow me to use it for art. Not for a girlfriend. Also, she would distract me. I'm ready to work on a large canvas."



In September, the yellow chrysanthemums in Andrew's garden bloomed, and an early cool rain saturated the air with a fresh scent.

Andrew met Jason in the studio where he was working on a six by four-foot canvas, oil paint splattered on his face and clothes.

"Jason, you've created a great scene," Andrew said, rubbing his hands together. "A stormy sky, the dark earth, the murderer with a knife raised. The impulsive brush strokes are dramatic."

"Not overdone?"

"Not at all. Your characters arouse horror and fascination. You empathize with people on a deep level. Your work inspires me to create works of my own. Different works. Was the murder something you saw?"

"Can't say. I can tell you I've lots of scenes in my head."

"Scenes?"

"Bad images, ya know? I've seen evil. I paint things I can't express any other way."



Jason completed a series of paintings with browns and grays, depicting torture victims and the dead.

"Keep working," Andrew said, on his next visit in October. "You control the flow of colors and lines so well. These works are sensational."

"I get pleasure by making art."

"And I love your creations. I'm happy you're working in this studio."



In November, Jason left the studio again.

After a few days of worrying, Andrew searched for Jason in downtown San Diego. He hurried past a park where tall, blue asters grew. Grimy junkies sprawled on the grass.

Andrew approached a worn-faced woman wearing sweat-pants. Her rusted shopping cart held a mound of black, plastic bags.

"Spare change?" she asked.

Andrew handed her a dollar.

"God bless you."

"Have you seen my friend, Jason? The artist."

"Maybe." She scratched her tangled, gray hair under her chunky wool beanie.

Andrew gave her another dollar.

"He at the Civic Center. Sells art."

Andrew walked five blocks and found Jason working on a drawing. A purple, black and blue swelling surrounded his eye.

"Jason, what the hell happened?"

Jason covered the bruise with his hand. "It's nothing."

"What are you doing here?"

"Ah... I needed cash." His mouth twitched. "And I missed being downtown with my buddies."

"Cash? Being downtown? I don't get it. Do you want to go back to the studio?"

"Yeah, I do. I need a hot meal and a shower."



During the next month, Jason painted outside with watercolors. Sometimes he rode buses to Mission Beach for a change of scenery.

Andrew examined Jason's latest paintings. "In your beach works, you captured the bright colors of California. And you portrayed the natural forms of the sea with the geometry of the coastal buildings."

"It's not kitschy?"

"No. Your landscapes have a strong sense of the open air. After seeing your work, I'm also creating new art. Exciting pieces."

"That's great."

"Your works are ready for an exhibition."

Jason bit his thumbnail. "Are you sure?"

"A show could jump-start your career."

"I don't care about a career. I make art because I must."

"I know. But, listen. At the university, I look for brilliant students. After twelve years of teaching, I haven't met anyone with your talent. And I like you."

"I kinda like you too, fella."

"Listen, my friend. I'm glad you're in my life. A show could lead to other opportunities. I'll contact Nola about a possible exhibition."



Andrew met Nola Graham, a five-foot-tall woman with green eyes, in her prestigious gallery in San Diego.

"Andrew," she said, "I have a long list of artists who want me to exhibit their work."

"Nola, we've known each other for what, fifteen years? Do me a favor, just come to my studio, and judge for yourself. I think you'll like what you see."

The following week, she visited the studio. She studied Jason's paintings and drawings while rubbing her happy-buddha pendant.

"Good work, Jason," she said. "Outstanding. I'd love to show your pieces in a one-man exhibition. About twenty-five."

Jason scratched the back of his head. "You would?"

"Definitely. I enjoy representing emerging artists. Your works will create a buzz in the art community."

Nola, Jason and Andrew agreed on the dates for the exhibition, six months out in May.



Jason worked steadily in the studio without leaving for more than a day, and he became more productive. He and Andrew strolled in nearby parks two or three times a week, and once a week Andrew took him to a restaurant for lunch.

Nola mailed invitations to art collectors, critics and the public. A month before the showing, she announced the opening date in newspapers, art magazines and on the Internet.

Her assistants painted the high gallery walls white and hung Jason's artwork. Well-positioned lighting heightened the colors of the art.

She ordered orchids, wine and appetizers.



Andrew met Jason in the studio on the Friday morning before the exhibition opening. He knew Jason felt uneasy, and he wanted to encourage him.

"Nola's done a great job of publicizing the show," Andrew said. "More than she usually does. People will appreciate your creations."

"I don't like being the center of attention." He ran his fingers through his hair. "Do I have to be there?"

"Yes. But don't worry. After we meet Nola and a few artists, we can leave. And if you go your own way tomorrow, I'll understand."



The cool evening sent birds to their perches. Andrew, his hair combed and wearing a jacket, knocked on the studio door.

"Jason, are you ready?"

Andrew paced outside, then banged on the door. A knot cramped his stomach. He wondered if Jason was ill or if he was not at home. He recalled moments with the artist: Jason in dirty jeans and a torn denim shirt selling art, his sewer-like odor, his satisfied grin after breakfast in Goodman's Café.

A wind arose in a sharp gust, sweeping dust and leaves across the yard toward Andrew.

He opened the door and searched for Jason. He felt a cold sweat on his back and grimaced as if he had tasted bile.

Then he saw a handwritten note on a workbench. He picked it up and read, "Andrew, don't search for me. Consider me dead."

4 comments:

  1. Jason is a fascinating, well-drawn character, yet the story leaves enough mystery about him to provide added depth. Andrew does good things for selfish reasons, like most people. Loved how the ending loops back to the title.

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  2. Jason kinda reminds me of Kurt Cobain, he wasn't into fame and he suffered for his art. Anyway, Andrew did his best, he is a realistic character, he does things out of empathy and to assuage his own guilt, he genuinely cares about Jason due to his own life experiences..he succeeded despite adversarial conditions... but Jason can't be exactly as Andrew wants. He is what he is.

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  3. It is a pleasure to call you my friend, Clive. And it's interesting to see how far your writing has progressed in the time that I have known you. Very good, my friend, very good.
    Michael

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  4. The story is intriguing and reflective of how a self-destructive person will continue on that path even in the face of opportunity for something else.

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