“The Root of Everything Arty” – Fiction by Jenean McBrearty

The Truth at the bottom of a Well Jean-Leon Gerome, 1895
The Truth at the bottom of a Well
Jean-Leon Gerome, 1895

The truth about ourselves is at the bottom of a well, says Donnie Babcock in “The Root of Everything Arty.” Jenean McBrearty‘s story is a droll, twisted riff on art, violence, vanity, and the subconscious, co-starring Gala Dali. Read it alongside other exciting lit in our Spring 2014 Issue (FLAPPERHOUSE #1), now on sale for just $3.

{ X }

“AN APPOINTMENT IS IMPOSSIBLE, and Salvador wouldn’t keep it anyway,” Gala told Mrs. Green, the crinkled-lipped woman who had roused her at ten. It was too early to juggle American dilettantes. The Dali Ball had been tiresome after the first half hour. Dali’s glass case and brassiere, worn on his chest to shock the fawners, would work well with the press, but would soon be followed by a what’s next? from the American public.

“I spoke to him about my nephew. Donald. Bunny Babcock’s son. He’s an artist.”

“I know my husband’s an artist, Madame.” Gala was at the phone about to order breakfast.

“No, Donald’s an artist.” Although just sixteen, he was also a high school graduate and his Uncle Marion’s protégé.  “Senor Dali will remember, I’m sure…”

It’s clear why time melts under the persistence of memory. Americans seemed to have infinite recall capabilities no matter how much gin they consumed, and their persistence jellied the nerves. “Could you bring tres huevos and toast?” she said into the phone, and gave Mrs. Green a nod. “Perhaps this afternoon.”

Mrs. Green hoisted a brown leather portfolio case in front of her. “Donald gave me this. He’s says they’re his best portraits. You could tell me if Dali would be interested in them.”

The woman in the crepe dress and open-toed shoes was giving her a way out. She’d take a quick look and deliver a swift dissuasion. “All right.” Gala removed the white porcelain vase stuffed with orange and yellow gladiolas from the table and set the case on it, untied the laces and peeled back one side. She turned the separators slowly, as though reading a manuscript, feeling Mrs. Green’s expectation at her back.  “Have you seen your nephew’s portraits, Madame? They’re all pudenda.”

“What?” Mrs. Green peeked over Gala’s shoulder, the two women staring at one vagina after another, some thick-lipped and bushy, others narrow slits crowned with porcupine quills.  Some with half legs, ending at the knee. Others between the gaping legs of cranes, as though the essence of the female human and wild animals were deconstructed and reassembled with surgical precision.  One pair of labia wore a halo between legs that were feathered wings, the gold ring-line slicing through black curls.

“Oh, my. This one’s titled Bunny Babcock. What do you make of that?” Mrs. Green said quietly, dismayed. Her wilting body molded itself into an egg-shaped chair, becoming a mass of color pierced with geometric appendages.

Did the golden wire thread represent homage or torture? Gala folded the case and retied the laces. Dali was right about surrealism’s appeal to the subconscious. Mrs. Green had transformed into transparent gelatin. “It looks like your Donald has perfected his genre, Madame. The portrait of Bunny looks just like her.”

{ X }

That was the closest Donnie Babcock came to meeting Dali—lunching at the Plaza Hotel with his Aunt Rebecca Green, who had more gumption than any of the Babcock-Green bankers he worked with. He’d wanted to loan Wilson Mier five thousand dollars to start a restaurant, but the loan executives turned Mier down with a curt, “Not enough…” of some nebulous thing that translated into “because he’s a Jew”.

“I’m already an artist,” he confided to his Aunt Becky. “I want to be a famous one to prove to the bankers that Narcissus can be what he sees in the pool.”

“If Narcissus’d had a decent mother, she’d have dragged him away from the water and cemented his behind to a school desk chair,” Becky said over a Plaza Hotel lunch of watercress and cucumber sandwiches and iced tea.

“Myths weren’t written by Horatio Alger—thank God,” Donnie said. “What did Gala say about my drawings?”

“She was very upbeat about your work. You’ve got a great technique. But the subject matter…”

Donnie  watched her dab her mouth at the corners with a linen napkin. “Gala wasn’t shocked. I know that.” The waiter brought vichyssoise. Nothing warm before two o’clock, Aunt Becky said. “Was she?”

“Was she what?”

“Shocked?”

“No. No,” Becky said. “She went on about the essences of the sexes. Freud understanding the essential core or irrationality and the surrealists letting us see the unseeable… I don’t know what she was talking about, but she sounded like you and your friends. If people have real talent, why do they need alcohol or drugs to display it? That’s what I want to know.”

He smiled and patted her hand. “Look at it this way, Auntie. Everybody has a deep, deep well inside. At the bottom of that well is all the best and worst, God and the Devil, ugliness and beauty, but we can’t get to any of it—the truth about ourselves—because of this.” He waved his hands in the air.

“Because of uncontrolled body movements?” Donnie had once dragged her to an awful marathon where exhausted people would dance frenetically then shuffle around the floor as one person tried to sleep.  Donnie called one of the dances the Lindy Hop. It reminded her of the Dervishes she’d seen in Calcutta.

“No, Auntie. Because of all the crap around us. Noise. The need to eat and sleep. Other people. Distractions.”

She grabbed his hands. “You haven’t left the Church to be a Buddhist, have you, Donnie? Oh, God…”

“I haven’t been in the Church since I was twelve.”

“Reverend Butcher said he hasn’t seen you in a while.” In fact, Reverend Butcher had called Donnie’s name in church and asked everyone to pray for the wayward youth who took part in dance marathons. “Do you know people are praying for you?”

“I just know that the well is in a locked room in our minds, and for some people, alcohol or medication or meditation or running very fast unlocks the door so they can jump into the well. We artists climb back out and say, ‘See, this is what I found!’ Does that make sense?”

“My brother was crazy to have children after getting gassed in the war, God bless his soul. That Gala…I hear she’s Russian. Is she a Communist, do you think? Stay away from those people, Donnie. They’re dangerous.”

“I’ll have to stay away from everybody for a while. A week at least. The bank’s sending me to a rural banking conference in Indiana—Merchant’s National Bank—my uncle’s way of teaching me the business.”

“Good! Nothing avant-garde about the midwest.” They’d put too much lemon in the tea and she’d have to add two more sugar cubes to make it palatable. The restaurant obviously wanted customers to drink wine rather than tea. She blamed the French.

{ X }

Something ancient accosted Donnie Babcock at a bank in South Bend. Call it bloodlust. Call it sin. Call it adventurism. He looked first into the eyes of John Dillinger and then down the barrel of his pistol, and saw… what? Mortality? Depravity? The Devil peeping over Dillinger’s shoulder and grinning in recognition? “Fancy meeting you here,” the Devil might have whispered in those first few seconds when women screamed and Dillinger shouted orders that everyone stay calm. Everyone froze, but Donnie could hear the blood pumping adrenaline to their collective hearts.

“I was there. I was there,” Donnie would tell anyone who would listen. “Standing as close to Dillinger as I am to you. He’s German, you know. As steely-eyed as Hitler. Steady-handed. Not a second of hesitation in his soul.” It was the way of things heroic. He’d obeyed Dillinger and lived, lived to fall in love.

Four months after the Merchants National robbery, Dillinger was gunned down outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago. Donnie wept for three days, holding his father’s Smith & Wesson close to his heart. In September, the Nazis held a rally in Nuremberg. In October the Chinese Communists began their Long March. And in December, Donnie Babcock was sentenced to life in prison for the rape and murder of his cousin Selena, after the Spring Cotillion at the Parkside Country Club. They’d won a trophy for a finely executed fox-trot.

“Really,” Gala told Mrs. Green over martinis at Sardi’s, “You’ve got to tell Donnie to stop sending Salvador letters. “It’s becoming… uncomfortable. Painful.”

Donnie had changed his genre. His portrait sketches were lingams with faces drawn on the tips, some melting over rocks, some lunging out from between cue balls, and bowling balls, and tennis balls. Some dangling from the Capitol Building, from St. Peter’s, from the Brandenburg Gate. One had a funny moustache. Rebecca found them curiously amusing. “I do apologize, Mrs. Dali. They do seem obscene.”

“It’s not the pictures, for God’s sake,” Gala said, “It’s his begging. His constant begging for someone to pull him out of a well. Look here, twelve lines of nothing but ‘Please pull me out of the well.’

“I don’t know what he’s talking about. We don’t see him much. Prisons are so dismal.”

“You have to help him,” Gala said.

“How? He’s dangerous and prison is exactly where he belongs. We can’t have murderers running about the world killing innocent people. That would be insane.” It seemed odd that someone like Gala could be so out of touch with reality, but Rebecca Green was flattered that someone famous had invited her for lunch at the Astor.  “I was sitting as close to her as I am to you,” she told Donnie’s Uncle Marion.

It was September, a year after pieces of  Selena’s pink formal were found bloodied and shredded in the Country Club boathouse. The Nuremberg Laws were being enforced all over Germany, and in Columbia, Mississippi, Earl and Weldon Bascom produced the first night outdoor rodeo thanks to electric lighting.

 { X }

1 Jenean McBrearty by Pepper Jones
photo by Pepper Jones

JENEAN McBREARTY is a graduate of San Diego State University, and a former community college instructor of Political Science and Sociology. She received the EKU English Department’s Award for Graduate Non-fiction in 2011. Her fiction, photographs and poetry have been published in many journals and anthologies. Her novels Raphael Redcloak and Retrolands are serialized on Jukepop. Her mystery novel, The 9th Circle, was published by Barbarian Books.

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