Life’s Work

It was around the time when Benny was getting tired of the ongoing party, which reminded him of the beaten up VW Super Beetle that he had inherited from his old man. The floorboard on the passenger side had a rust hole that he covered with a piece of plywood. The heater no longer worked, the radio kept blowing fuses, the back bumper was attached by picture frame wire, and the thirsty engine drank a quart of oil every week. He still needed to get around so he kept the clunker, and he still needed to party because he didn’t have any other social life.

His buddies finally convinced him to call the radio dating show on Saturday morning. Hey man, you have nothing to lose. No one will recognize your voice

He gave in, spent the week scribbling some notes, scrupulously eliminating any geek implications. The day of the call he banished Mingo and Toons to the upstairs guest room where they could listen without distracting him. Benny made the call to the station, was put on hold for ten minutes while he was forced to listen to ABBA’s “Take a Chance on Me,” then he was on the air. Benny was prepared and seemed to automatically answer the standard questions asked by the host, whose real job was selling timeshares in Florida. Knowing what the last question always is: Give a short phrase describing yourself, he could hear his buddies whoop when he answered:

  I am an explorer of serendipity.

The call lasted only a few minutes and after he hung up his buddies ran downstairs, assuring him that he sounded pretty cool. Their enthusiasm was validated. Before he could grab a beer from the fridge the phone rang. The woman on the other end spoke slowly in a voice like Ava Gardner in “The Killers,” which intrigued Benny. They made plans to meet at a coffee shop that evening.

Darryl was 28 years old, which was the bulls eye of Benny’s kill zone. She was thin, medium height, and wore tight black jeans and a white, form-fitting Velvet Underground & Nico tee shirt. She wrapped her short blonde Joan of Arc hair in a delicately crocheted tawny scarf of intricate design, which generated a cautious yet exotic vibe. She sported red high top sneakers that made her feet seem big. Benny looked into her eyes, which were such a shade of brown they seemed almost black, and he thought that she might have some witch in her. His intrigue blossomed into infatuation. They found a table away from the music, ordered very large cappuccinos, and began to talk. Well, actually Benny began to talk, answering the unusual questions with which Darryl barraged him. They were not the standard assessment kind that you asked someone you were looking to invest your heart in. No, they were off-kilter, but, well, intriguing. She gently grabbing his hand, looked directly into his eyes and and began.

In what ways are you an explorer of serendipity? 

If your mind were limited to only one song, one poem, one memory, one thought, what would they be?

Choose one scar you would be proud of, and explain how you would have gotten it.

If your brain were a boat, what kind would it be? What would you name it? What would be the country of registry?

If you were executed, what would you have been found guilty of? How would you be executed?

Benny answered these questions with a good natured panache, but he also attempted to bounce the questions back to Darryl.  She brushed them off and continued her interrogation, sometimes nodding, sometimes smiling, but never quite tipping her hand.

When she asked him, Who would you save from a sinking ship, your parents or your two best friends? he automatically answered Mingo and Toons. He pulled his hand away from her and commanded: Stop! 

She did, though she seemed unfazed, and Benny continued: I’ve been doing all the talking. I want to find out about you, but you won’t answer any of my questions.

I’m sorry, she replied, does that make you uncomfortable?

There you go again, answering a question with a question. Are you a lawyer?

No, replied Darryl,  I work for myself as a graphic artist.

There now. I’ve finally found something out about you. I’d love to know more.

Before he could ask a follow up question she reached for his hand again, and said: To know me you would have to see my life’s work. Is that something you would you like to do?

Sure, Benny impulsively answered.

Then let’s go to my place. It’s only about 15 minutes out of town.

He bussed their half-finished coffees and they headed out to their cars. Benny was relieved that her rose quartz Saab wasn’t in much better shape than his VW. He followed her as she drove quickly though town toward the country, where she said she lived in a rented farmhouse.

They arrived at her place in 15 minutes, drove through a narrow bumpy dirt road, and parked in a clearing near a wooden structure that looked like a barn. Darryl grabbed his hand and led him to a large wooden door. Benny liked how she grabbed his hand and he did not resist. They entered a space that smelled of hay, horses and rotten apples. She turned on lights. There was a canvas about four feet by eight, mounted flat against a wall, the lights throwing into relief the dazzle of the work leaving the remainder of the room dark. The colors shimmered and swirled, and Benny’s eyes swayed with the rapid flustered movement of a dog chasing its tail. For a few minutes he was unable to focus on specific images, his mind vertiginous from the energy emanating from the colors and forms. Darryl gently squeezed his hand and whispered:  Just breathe, don’t force anything; the work will reveal itself to you in time.

Benny breathed slowly then noticed the pitch black cave toward the middle of the piece, detailed with cracks and crannies like a macadam highway, a small milky rip towards the center, an outlet from some earlier attempt at making the painting. Cutaneous folds of moist crimson skin outlined the cave. A procession of animal figures exited from the outlet and headed towards the left. A purple unicorn draped in chainmail, its horn bejeweled, was leading an orange plush horse, two red-flowered ceramic dogs, a cigar-smoking gorilla wearing a derby, several reptiles, a hyena dressed as a fool, birds of prey flying overhead. This inexplicable parade was moving toward a snowcapped mountain where a building outlined in apricot, lime, cherry, and pineapple neon stood illuminating the indigo background. Gold musical notes sailed from the building, while tucked in the left hand corner and barely perceptible, a pair of scarlet eyes oversaw the revelry.

Benny’s focus moved right, across the top of the painting from the scarlet eyes to the center, through wine skies and navy clouds, past a crudely painted airplane with JEFFERSON written in magenta script, stick figure faces looking out the windows. Yellow thunderbolts shot from the clouds, a rain of daffodils blessing the marching animals. Witches flew every which way on brooms. Constellations of planets and stars flecked the outer layer of paint like excess crumbs from a shaken tablecloth. Mounted at the center of the painting above the red-rimmed cave was an ebony throne, thick with seaweed vines and gems – rubies, turquoise and amethyst. Ensconced on the throne was an androgynous figure dressed in black leather adorned with silver spikes, studs, and zippers. The figure had the same blonde pageboy as Darryl. A sickly pewter starfish tattoo was inked on her face. Mounted to the point of the dagger that she held upright in her rightfist was a human brain that looked like an oversized macaroon. Her other hand was extended forward revealing a nest of featherless hatchlings, x’s substituting for eyes. Her bare feet rested on a stack of books with the titles embossed on the spines: Frankenstein, The Awakening, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Bell Jar, The House of Spirits, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Yellow Wallpaper.

A chartreuse river emerged from the volumes, running to the right, cascading through an oval construction of silver railroad tracks. The falls transformed into a thick mist and landed violently atop a city of steel and glass buildings. Benny examined the city, and could see minuscule stick figures frenetically dancing to some feverish melody. Cameos caromed from the splashes, and the portraits resembled figures that were familiar to him, though they were too small to identify. Darryl saw him squint and whispered, Don’t worry; they are portraits of real people.

Who? Benny asked.

Later, my dear, She smiled.

The train that circled the falls was unusual; the seven cars were, once again, animals. The engine was a powerful scarlet lion, thick flames and smoke billowing from its ears, followed by a mikado yellow metallic toad covered with warts that looked like tiny mirrors. An unctuous pale blue snail, mucus body extending from a walnut grained spiral shell like a gramophone horn, leads a bloated apricot pig, its body extended beyond the rails, scraped and scarred by the trespass of overabundance. The last three cars consisted of a violet peacock with plumage of mauve and heather, an elongated green mamba with bright yellow scales, and an enormous lapis goat bringing up the rear, its hindquarters constructed of glowing red lights.

The bottom of the work was an uneven border, like an uncared for set of teeth. This consisted of cigarette brand logos: the Camel dromedary and pyramid, Kool penguins, Lucky Strike target, Old Gold coins, Fatima’s veiled courtesan. These were interspersed with facsimiles of trading cards and gasoline logos. With great detail in the rendering, the trading cards included Elvis Presley serenading a basset hound sitting on a stool wearing a small top hat; Davey Crocket “Face To Face With Death” fighting a bare chested Indian along a cobalt blue river; Ray Chapman 1912 Cleveland Indians; Tony Conigliaro Boston Red Sox 1967; Darryl Stingley New England Patriots 1978; and 1961 silver Borgward Isabella convertible. The gasoline logos included a yellow shell; a green dinosaur; a red, white and blue chevron; Texaco T and Amoco torch.

Benny was feeling his head spinning. There was so much more. Appearing throughout the painting, like images behind gauzy veils, were dog faces with statements in dialog balloons: a benevolent retriever “You’re either on the bus or off the bus;” a Sheepdog with slightly crossed eyes “My soul’s been psychedelicized;” a frizzy Poodle “Plucked her eyebrows on the way, shaved her legs and then he was a she;” a punch drunk Boxer “Up against the wall motherfucker;” and a perplexed Chihuahua “Cancel my subscription to the Resurrection, por favor.”  Seen only from a distant viewpoint, faint but perceptible, like a warning from the underworld, was the statement: I CAN’T CONTROL THIS SHIT.

No mas! Benny thought. I can’t take in anything else! I need a break! Too intense! I give up!

He needed to sit down, to sort out this assault of weirdness, maybe take off, flee, run away, just go and get a drink somewhere else. Instead he looked at the white space at either edge of the canvas where the painting had ended. There will be more, she said, my life’s work is far from over. Maybe there’s space for you in that corner over there

She waited for Benny to reply, but his mind was scrambled, he was disoriented, floating in an atmosphere of unfamiliar sensation, his cognition mix-mastered into a sticky, undifferentiated goo. He didn’t know what to say. Sure, she was attractive, enticing, sexy in her own weird way, with an overwhelming power. But her Life’s Work scared the shit out of him, and she just might be crazy. He was torn between I’ve-made-this-mistake-before and this-is-too-interesting-to-let-go. He has been thrust into a tornado of struggle and whimsy, danger and longing, passion and detachment.

He waited a long time before saying, This is the most unusual meet-up that I have ever had

She replied, That’s what they all say. Would you like to come into my house?

No, he wasn’t ready for any more surprises. His chest tightened as he looked for a graceful way out. Attempting to hide his intimidation and confusion, he said, I need to get up early for work tomorrow.

He was relieved when she replied: Fine. I’ll walk you to your car.

She hooked her arm around Benny’s and they headed out of the barn together into the dark. He liked the feel of her next to him and tried to imagine her as if the painting didn’t exist. Almost got there, then she asked him, So, what do you think?

Of what?

Of me, silly.

I think you’re unusual.


Yes. You’re attractive and smart and quiet and independent and strong. You’re not like the other women I’ve seen.

Is that good or bad?

Oh it’s good, it’s really good, but…

But what? she asked playfully.

But you said that the painting is you and there’s so much stuff in the painting but they’re all images, and no words that tell your story.

There are the quotes.

Yes, the quotes, but…

They got to his car and she said to him, Well Benny, I’d like to see you again, but it seems that you aren’t sure about me. That’s ok. Take your time. I can wait.

As Benny opened the door to his car she turned him toward her with an assertiveness that penetrated any resistance that Benny might possess. She said Here’s something else to think about, put her arms around his neck and gave him a long, hard kiss. Benny felt as if he were falling into a bottomless cavern of moist, velvet lust. Her tongue, serpent-like at first, mutated into a succulent strawberry. Benny did not pull away, but surrendered to her sweltering assertion.

Yes was all Benny could say when the kiss finally ended. A breathless Yes, I definitely will.

He fumbled with his keys, got the VW started, made a K turn in the yard, and drove away from the barn toward the road leading home. The images in the painting faded as the moist resonance of the kiss dominated his mind. Hell, he had never been kissed like that, nor had he ever seen such a painting. Time with Darryl felt like a dream, unreal; he was engulfed with the seismic throb of passion and dread. As he headed home, Benny felt that if he didn’t see Darryl again, he might miss out on something very special. If he did see her again he just might be getting his ass in a shitload of trouble. Either way a whole lot of surrender was in his future.