In the Cathedral
“WHO'S IN CHARGE HERE?”
First words out of her mouth and I damn sure wasn't going to tell her I was, me, I'm in charge here, because when I looked around at the others—the women, all over thirty but under forty, the men, all over fifty but in better shape than I—the case might be made, though I don’t guess I’m the one to make it, that we had no business being here. For one thing, the paint hadn't even been paid for. Nor the ladders upon which we had planned to climb and to whose rungs our feet would cling while we painted the walls and ceilings in the styles of Uccello, Tintoretto, Serlio, Pozzo, Palladio, Pacheco, Masaccio, Lanfranco, Donatello, El Greco, Tamayo, Ionesco, Baciccio, Bartolommeo, Averlino, Verrocchio, Trissino, among others.
I had hired them, by the way, the girls and boys, older, more experienced boys, fifty to sixty-five if they were a day and all of them basically unbelievers, i.e., they grumbled a lot, ate cheeseburgers, hovered like disgruntled husbands in conspiratorial clumps around the paint cans. The paint cans were six feet tall, so they were more barrels than cans and more giant cylinders than barrels and on them the boys, so to speak, left their marks of discontent in the forms of hieroglyphs cartoons, and misattributions.
"Such a double image is obtained by virtue of the paranoiac thought which cunningly feints, I mean faints, I mean feigns a function of each one's paranoiac capacity."—Rembrandt.
Still, though I had hired them and signed off on the paint basins and brushes and other equipment necessary for us to complete the job, I wouldn't exactly say I was in charge. Yes, no organization or charity had contracted me to paint the walls and ceiling of this mosque or synagogue or whatever the hell this gutted interior once was. Yes, I had selected reputable brands (Magellan, Oceanic, Neptune), but I was not about to tell this woman, who bore a distinct resemblance to my ex-wife, I was responsible for what was and would be going on in this cathedral, though if the project-in-progress proved a success I was prepared to take the majority of the credit.
So instead of telling her I was in charge, I watched her from behind three outsourced housewives, who, I noticed, weren't pleased by the interruption in their work (sloshing paint on the walls straight from the bucket), but also who weren't about to elect themselves as team leaders and who—as I stared in, I confess, awe at the woman (black pants, black earrings, black pumps, black purse, black bra over her alabaster breasts, black bauble in her navel)—began to part from each other and form a mise en scene of directed gazes and fingers, or rather undipped paint brushes, whose active line terminated at me.
“You in charge, little fellow?” she asked.
At six-three, one eighty-five, I wouldn't call myself what she just had, but I was humble and humbled enough by her voice, which came from a dark, breathy region of the south near her thumb-shaped bauble, to say, “Who, me?”
She approached, her movements liquid, to about six paces. Yes, she was all kinds of ways pretty, though the burr-cut was kind of eerie, each black hair atop her round head alert, and one eye kind of drooped, making you wonder if she was really interested in you or just kind of faking it. But why would she? Her other eye looked directly at me as if to say: Don't fuck with me, fucker, or maybe it said: Down on your luck, little brother? or something entirely different from what I thought it said.
No, never saw her before, to my knowledge or memory, complete stranger, what right had she . . ., despite the traces of similarity to the ex—the dart frog earrings, bauble in her navel, dental structure, shanks.
The boys around the paint containers moved forward muttering, “Hey, boss, why not introduce us,” but I withered them with a look of I-will-not-pay-you-for-your-so-called-labors-if-you-do-not-this-instant-vanish, which they did, into the shadows.
Their younger counterparts, the three former homemakers—that's what they told me they were, I didn't ask for references—took up places in the North, East, and West corners of the church, whatever the denomination, stood there as stiff as night statues.
We were then, my interrogator and I, in a sense alone.
“Well,” I said, “in a word, though perhaps not mine, I …”
She lowered her purse, and that's when I saw what I thought was her purse was in fact an AK-47, the fill lights I'd placed around the church unable to illuminate the weapon's deeper angles and niches, until she brought it up a bit, its barrel glistening in the light and pointed at my right knee.
“Give me your plans,” she said.
I pulled them out of my jeans pocket, spread them on the flimsy card table I'd kept with me since I was four, that is I plucked it from the garage of my late parents, the only item of theirs I own. Used to watch them drink scotch with friends and clack their dominos and cards and loose change all around this table, loved to slip my finger through the hole at one of the corners, wiggle the flap of cardboard while I hid out beneath it and wondered about the nature of time and existence and the universe. And even now, its dark green lacquer long ago chipped and rubbed off, its top a chaos of wine and paint stains and Exacto knife wounds, my fondness for the table, like the viewer's gaze into a landscape by Friedrich, knew no bounds.
I spread out the plans on the table, smoothed down the wrinkles, admired for a moment their clarity, their deviousness and complexity, the way the wind tunnels, for example, shaded into large, colorful Apostle figures over the waning of the Middle Ages; Ann of Burgundy's mad ride through Paris bathing volumes in pure tonality; the flickering shadows of Mannerism I'd hope would catch the eye at a slant, just enough to let wonder slip the latch on consciousness's gate …
God, the plans were impressive there on the old green cardboard in this abandoned cathedral, the light through the cratered roof alive with dust motes.
Then she poured a bucket of paint thinner over the plans and torched them and the table.
“No, non, nein!” I wailed, raising my arms in distress like a damsel.
She tapped me on the chest, pointed her AK at my forehead, said, “Now, tell them to me from memory.”
“My plans,” I said, “are concerned, natürlich, with space and time, problems of. Where to put what when, what to put when where. Shadings, too, and the rhythm of the gaze. That was the easy part. Then I had to take up the body again, always the body, no matter how much we wish to leave it or forget it, the body, body, mind, and death,” I said.
She smiled, clenching her left hand tucked deep in the pocket of her black leather jacket. Or not a smile, more a smirk that said, Get on with it, fuck face.
Then I said, “The difference that exists between the living body and the dead one—above all, this is what concerns the plans, whether pictorial or narrative. I'm not sure, but I believe that by entangling the plans with the manner and matter of noted artists primarily of the Italian Renaissance [see above] I could reveal, you know, the secret marriage of heaven and earth, mind and body, spirit and non-spirit, and, like, you know, I mean …”
And as my words dwindled away, the church seemed to swirl up and around me, like the dresses and drapery in a Parmigianino.
“You got about a second, puppy,” she said, or I think she said as her weapon genuflected in tight short lines before my face.
“Descartes' comedy of the machine,” I said, forcing a laugh that rang hollow in the capacious room. “He and his little soul …”
In their corners the three statues shifted their weight from one leg to another, clasped their hands behind their backs, bowed their heads. Suddenly the project, or what we had completed of it so far, hardly more than a beginning, looked alien in this light, ridiculous, pathetic. What was I doing here? Why did I think that this work would make a difference to me or them or the world?
The woman in black tapped my forehead with the tip of the barrel.
“Art,” I hurried on—I didn't know what I was saying now (had I ever?), but knew I had to say something because whoever she was, she was in some sense I had no way of knowing connected to the plans—“is emotion collapsed into form. The weaving of light through the dress, the flesh. The staining of the whole fabric of the thing with form. Do you know your Pater?”
She smiled a (I think) genuine smile, and I believe had she not caught me staring at her knee twitching beneath her black silk pants she might even have laughed. Beneath her open leather jacket and black bra, her breasts were white, almost bloodless, yet of the radiant texture of, say, Giorgione's Venus.
“First I searched in Cádiz,” I said, “white ibis rising off the salt marshes, then in Torres, Tarragona, Tortosa, Tarazona, Barbastro, Teruel. Certain rooms in the Infantado offered possibilities, but only when I came here to Leipzig and found this abandoned cathedral off Goldschmidtstrasse did I feel that, yes, this is the room, the space, the enclosure to bring to fruition my plans. But now I'm not sure, I have my doubts …”
I looked around me. My assistants were no longer in sight, not even the statues, only the ladders that led nowhere, the paint drying in their cylinders, the skylight darkening the cathedral with night.
“I meant the plans more as outline,” I said. Was I talking only to myself? Was she was even listening? “I didn't know where the plans might lead,” I said, “so I bought, rather signed off on, a lease on this place, in the hope that, because I had to ...”
She raised the gun’s barrel higher. I stared into its black hole. “Had to what?” she said.
I didn’t know why I started this project or what I wanted it to be, just that, having begun it, I didn’t want it to end. But what alternative did I have?
“You tell me,” I said.
Then she let off a few rounds at the ceiling (I figured we could work around the holes, the damage wasn’t extensive), and asked if she could join us.
Tom Whalen is a novelist, short story writer, poet and critic who has written for Agni, Asymptote, Bookforum, Chicago Review, Fiction International, Film Quarterly, the Washington Post and other publications. His books include Dolls, Elongated Figures, The Birth of Death and Other Comedies: The Novels of Russell H. Greenan, and the novels The Straw That Broke, The President in Her Towers, and Roithamer's Universe. He lives in Stuttgart, Germany, where he teaches film at the State Academy of Art and Design.