The Rorschach Painting

Alain Bontemps    |    Alan’s Extra Room    |    The Rorschach Painting    |    Goodtime Voice-O-Matic    |    The Siege of Calais    |    I Owe My Life to Alan Goodtime    |    The Alton Arsenal    |    The Death of Alan Goodtime    (other stories in the arc)

 

For my high school graduation, the yearbook club sent a couple lower classmen around with a video camera asking everyone what their immediate and five year plans post-graduation were. The footage was quickly edited together and played at the close of the grad night festivities, annoyingly set to Green Day’s Good Riddance. I remember my answer; I said I was going to take one year off from school, enroll in college, and in five years be starting my career as a graphic designer. That was the serious answer. I had a couple joke answers: drug lord, clown, midget pimp. Looking back, I find it funny that my joke answers were tamer and less obscure than what I actually ended up doing five years later. Not once in any dream did I imagine myself as an art thief.

 

I guess I should explain a little. I initially stuck to my plan on the grad night video; I took a year off from school. I moved in with a group of friends and we all got jobs downtown. My year off bled into two, and then began to look like three. Ruben was my best friend’s older brother. He was kind of a perpetual fuck up. One night he came home in a mood so drunkenly angry, it seemed only fitting for a Greek god. He broke our dead bolt trying to get in, smashed a few glasses pouring himself a drink, and finally passed out in the living room. The next morning, he told us he had been fired from the Italian restaurant he worked at. He wouldn’t accept our condolences, though, he just wanted revenge. And he already had a plan. Apparently, Vertuccio’s got its alcohol delivery every Tuesday night and it sat unattended until 9 AM the next morning. Ruben wanted to steal the whole load.

 

At first, I declined. Why would I want to help the house idiot pull off his stupidest plan yet? And then I remembered a talk we’d had in our first year, about Ruben wanting to take a year to work between high school and college, where he wanted to study to be a veterinarian. I was following his path. Maybe I needed something crazy and dangerous to kick me out of my rut and into a different path. Once I agreed, it was no trouble to bring in Danny. Philip just sort of did what everyone else did, so he was a given.

 

Philip surprised us all with his knowledge of lock picking, which was supposedly the product of one of his step-dads. Ruben, the perennial fuck wit, came in handy with his knowledge of the restaurant’s alarm system and camera placement. Danny and I were mostly just lookouts and human forklifts loading case after case of Pinnacle vodka, Perroni beer, fernet, and at least five different kinds of wine.

 

It was easy. Sinfully easy. We drank like kings for three days until we started to get paranoid. Most of our living room was filled with alcohol cases. If the police came over just on a whim to check out the most recently fired employee’s alibi, we were toast. We needed to move the drink.

 

Ruben said he might have a friend who had a friend that could buy it from us; a guy he had bought some questionable subwoofers from a few months earlier. Sure enough, Ruben’s guy offered us half the bulk rate for the booze and we ended up with a nice stack of cash to split four ways. We blew it and then tried to forget about how we got it until Ruben’s guy called a week and a half later. He wanted to know if we could help out his cousin by breaking into his house, making it look like his house was looted, and taking everything to a storage facility. The cousin had gotten tired of fighting with his wife and decided to proceed with a divorce, but was afraid to lose his entertainment system and tool collection. At least, that’s what we were told. We didn’t ask any more about it.

 

From then on, Ruben’s friend started calling us with cheap shit jobs that we could pull with little to no planning; a shipment of Persian rugs here, a palette of Kobe beef there. A year at our new job had made us all happy. We weren’t millionaires or anything, but we had money to go out and freedom that a comparable 9 to 5 wouldn’t give us. It was nice. Ruben moved into his own place – he played a little more fast and loose with his money than the rest of us – while the rest of us upgraded to a nicer neighborhood and an apartment with a couch that girls didn’t shy away from.

 

Around that time, we got the call. The call that turned us into art thieves. I like thinking of myself in the same league as Thomas Crowne and Danny Ocean, but this theft was from a relatively unprotected personal collection. The house didn’t even have an alarm system. We were still playing at the convenience store knock over level.

 

Over the year we had been working with him, Ruben’s guy had since taken up talking to Danny. Apparently Ruben’s guy had noticed, like the rest of us, that only one of the brothers got the brains. Sadly for Danny, only one of them got looks, too. Ruben’s guy told Danny we needed to break into a house in a suburb of Montpelier near Hubbard Park. Apparently the person who had placed the job was very particular that only one item was to be stolen: a five-inch tall figurine of a half-man half-jaguar carved from Mexican jade. Ruben’s guy forwarded some pictures to Danny of similar figures and then followed up all the details with the text: ONLY TAKE THE ONE FIGURE. IMPORTANT!!!

 

The neighborhood in Montpelier was a sleepy one; kids off the street by 7 PM, amorphous light from TVs trickling out between window blinds by 8, and lights out by 9 with few exceptions. We watched the house for a few nights from the cab of a rented U-Haul van until we hit a night when the lone occupant left – dressed in a fancy blue, floral printed shirt and coal slacks – in his Audi, probably heading for the nightlife in Burlington. Three of us hopped out and walked down the street in the direction of the service station from which we had been grabbing dinner the last three nights. We left Danny in the truck as a front-side lookout for the owner or – worse – the cops. Once we got far enough down the street that any nosy mothers-in-law on the street wouldn’t notice us, we made our way to the trash alley that ran behind the houses and headed back for our target.

 

“So is this supposed to be one of them big titty girls with the butts?” Ruben asked.

 

“What?” I had no idea what he was referring to or if he even remembered that we were stealing something and not taking candid photos of someone’s cheating wife. The perennial fuckup hard at work.

 

“The statue. Is it one of those African titty statues?”

 

“No. Those are fertility statues, we’re looking for a little jaguar figurine. Did you even look at the text Danny sent around?”

 

“I was about to,” Ruben said, looking around the street. “Fertility. For-tit-city. Right?”

 

I shook my head, but Philip chuckled a little. I wasn’t sure if it was genuine or just out of kindness.

 

Philip popped the back door in seconds, as usual. The door opened into a spacious, but cozy den filled with dark woods, flannel patterns, animal skins, and bronze. Several bookcases lined the walls, filled with almost as many trinkets as texts. The entire room had a museum library feel to it, as though the owner may have been a curator at one time. Or fancied himself one.

 

“I’ll start going through this room,” I said to Ruben and Philip. “You guys want to explore and see if there are any other rooms we need to be concerned with?”

 

They nodded and moved out. It wasn’t long before Philip shouted from down the hall, “This guy is a serious collector. This whole room is filled with restored antique technology from the 20s and 30s.”

 

“Room full of art down here. Stacks of paintings in the closet,” Ruben called from further down the hall.

 

It didn’t take long for me to realize that the cases were organized by type. One wall held fictional goods; first editions of classic tales, an old leather bound copy of Canterbury Tales in what looked like Old English, art prints of famous scenes from some of the books, pens, quills, typewriters. The opposite wall held more scholarly tomes on ancient civilizations, framed hieroglyphs carved into plaster, figurines, statues, teeth, and crowns. I focused on that wall, using the titles on the books to guide me toward Central America. Nestled between a shelf full of Aztec relics – some of which appeared to have fresh blood on them – and a shelf full of small gold pieces and books on the Incan Empire, was a model of an Olmec head, several texts on Mayan and Olmec civilizations, and a half-man, half-jaguar figurine made of flawless, candy-like jade.

 

“Got it!” I called. “Let’s get out of here!”

 

Philip rounded the corner immediately, clearly ready to leave, but it took a few seconds for Ruben to waltz into the den. When he did, he was carrying a medium-sized painting under his arm.

 

“Only one thing, remember?” I asked Ruben, pointing at his prize.

 

“Hey, man, that rule is just so the dude doesn’t know he was ripped off. This was buried in that closet. He’ll never know it was gone.”

 

“What is it? Is it worth much? Think your guy will buy it?” Philip asked.

 

Ruben lifted the painting for us to see. It was shitty modern art. Just some black vomit on a white canvas.

 

“Nah, it’s just for me. It’s nothing; the guy will never know. I wouldn’t even have been interested, but it kinda changes shape depending on how you look at it. Like those hologram basketball cards, you know?” Ruben said.

 

“Fine,” I agreed. “Let’s go.”

 

Back in the U-Haul truck, we headed south toward home. Danny dialed Ruben’s guy to let him know we had the figurine and put the call on speaker so we could all hear.

 

“Awesome. You guys are great, you know? Real professionals, you know that? I can always count on y’all to get shit done,” said the voice from the phone, not sounding one hundred percent sincere. It felt like smoke was being blown up my ass, especially since Ruben’s guy had never been one to praise our efforts before this. I waited for him to ask us a favor or something.

 

“So, look, here’s the thing, since you so professional, your buyer wants to pick up the goods directly from you. Leave me out of it. Be more direct and all.”

 

“No,” I said.

 

“Who that, Danny? How about you just let Dan talk, you know? Anyway, this guy’s real insistent and shit. Wants to meet you guys, you know?”

 

“No,” I said again.

 

“Who is that? Look, he’ll pay double to pick it up tonight. Double. Double for me, double for you. Thing is, if you don’t meet up with him, I’mma feel like you owe me that double. You know?”

 

I didn’t say anything.

 

“So how ‘bout it, Dan?”

 

“Alright.”

 

“Great. Cool. Professional, just like I said. I’mma give him your address, Ruben. Make sure you there at 1 AM. He’ll stop by.”

 

Ruben’s guy hung up without saying goodbye, like he thought he was in a movie. I didn’t like it. Who knew what this guy was planning? He could show up with a gun or a couple of body builders and leave without paying a single cent. He could be a cop and we’d all walk out of Ruben’s place with new bracelets and a new address. Still, double pay had a nice ring to it. We decided we’d all go over to Ruben’s to wait for the guy in case he was going to try any strong arm shit. If he was a cop, it wouldn’t matter where we were; we weren’t the kind of thieves capable of outsmarting a manhunt.

 

We ordered a pizza, put on a movie, and waited for the knock. It came around 1:15 AM.

 

Ruben opened his door to a single, empty-handed figure and we all breathed a sigh of relief. The man was tall, graying, older but sort of boyish in his grin, and dressed nicely. I immediately thought of Anderson Cooper wearing a gray suit instead of his usual black v-neck. We all stood at the open door, the buyer smiling, Danny and I smiling back, Philip looking stoned, and Ruben glaring. No one spoke.

 

Finally, the buyer nodded once and said, “I’m Mr. Goodtime; I’m here for the figurine.”

 

“What figurine?” Ruben asked as Danny pushed him backwards from the door, trying to put a hand over the larger brother’s stupid mouth.

 

“Come on in,” I said, and led the thin grey man into Ruben’s living room. He stood in the center of the room, his eyes calmly searching the surroundings. I couldn’t tell if he was amused or disgusted by Ruben’s bachelor pad, but I could tell that Mr. Goodtime felt out of place.

 

“I know it must be dreadfully unusual for me to insist I pick up the item tonight, but it really is important that I have it. I also typically use much less… conspicuous means of obtaining items like this but time is important.” He chuckled, to himself as much as to the rest of us. “It’s usually not, but it is right now. Time…,” he seemed to trail of, his eyes going slightly crossed as the focus of his attention moved inside his own mind.

 

I snatched the jaguar from cabinet in which we had hit it. “Here you are, Sir.”

 

The gray man stirred, “Ah, thank you.” He turned the figurine over in his hands, running long fingers over the smooth jade surface.

 

“They call it a were-juguar. The academics do. Like a werewolf on account of the half-human half-feline features. I guess it looks like a were-beast in mid-shift. It actually has nothing to do with shape shifting; the Olmecs didn’t believe that gods or men could shift between faces at will. No, the jaguar men were supposedly bred from female humans and male jaguars. It was ancient genetics. Evolution. Designer babies. Ha!” Goodtime looked at me. “I’m sure that doesn’t interest you.”

 

I simply laughed and shrugged.

 

Goodtime removed a fat wad of bills from the pocket of his blazer and tossed them down on the greasy pizza box that sat on the coffee table. “The spoils of your deed, gentlemen. I am in your debt.”

 

He turned to leave and then jerked to a stop, as if something caught his attention.

 

“You took only the figurine, correct?” He whirled around on his heels to look in my eyes after he asked the question.

 

“Yeah. Just the jaguar. That’s it.”

 

“Promise me.”

 

“Yeah. Promise.”

 

“Good. If you are lying and you did take something else, take my advice; burn it. Destroy it some other way if it cannot be burned. Whatever you do, rid yourself of it immediately. The artifacts in that house are not to be played with. The owner less so.” He held my gaze for a long moment before looking around the room, inspecting each member of the crew, staring into them as if trying to sense the truth. He turned again and walked for the door, calling to us over his shoulder, “Thank you, again. You do good work.”

 

And then he was gone.

 

Ruben shrugged off Goodtime’s warning and insulted the rest of us for buying to such a ‘baby story.’ He hung the painting in his living room while we all waited around to make sure Goodtime wasn’t going to come back and take his money by force. The picture was just as weird and stupid as I remembered it; black blobs of bullshit atop an otherwise unpainted white canvas. Ruben beamed at his new painting all night until we decided it was safe and left.

 

Over the next few months we pulled a couple more jobs, but Ruben’s presence was becoming progressively scarcer. I ended up having to read up on security systems online and at the library because we couldn’t rely on Ruben being part of the crew. He sometimes didn’t even go out to the clubs with us to spend our ill-gotten gains. His reasoning was that he wanted to go bigger; our brand of petty theft wasn’t enough. He started working out like crazy, practicing at the gun range, begging his guy to put him on more important jobs like boosting fancy cars or strong-arming people who weren’t paying their debts.

 

Ruben got his wish after a short time. He became insufferable. I’ve never heard more Scarface quotes in a half hour than when he was around – not even when I was watching fucking Scarface. He kept trying to tell us that we ‘wouldn’t understand the hard life’ and insisted on paying for our drinks.

 

We also worried he had gotten into hard drugs. Sometimes when he got tired or loose with a few beers, he would tell us about his painting and how it showed him things. He said the black splotches moved around a little bit each day and became pictures of different things. He was even convinced that the painting helped him decide to go into the hard life by showing him a gun one day and a stack of fifty dollar bills a few days later. We worried he was losing it.

 

And then Danny got a call from Ruben’s guy. Ruben had been shot when he and one other guy were stealing a Ford GT. The owner apparently had a wireless alarm that sent a notification directly to his iPhone that someone was fucking with his lock. He came out of his house with a fucking hand-cannon of a gun and started blasting the car, the garage, Ruben, and anything else that was in the way. Ruben’s partner sped him to a surgeon that took jobs from Ruben’s guy in exchange for an unlimited amount of coke. The doctor managed to get the bullet out, close the wound, and stop the bleeding, but Ruben had lost a lot of blood. Ruben’s guy told Danny that they were working on stealing some O negative for Ruben, but that Danny should go have some last words just in case.

 

We all went. We all stood by helplessly as Ruben fell into a coma and then died. The search for the O negative was called off. Ruben’s guy gave us each disgustingly huge sums of money and offered to cover Ruben’s funeral. He said he would spare no expense. He didn’t lie; it was a nice service.

 

Afterward, Danny, Philip, and I cleaned up Ruben’s pad. Danny’s parents were supposed to help, but – understandably – it was too painful for them. We boxed up a lot of Ruben’s belongings and took them to Danny’s parents’ garage. Other things we kept as mementos of our fallen crew member. Philip, for whatever reason, took the painting. He said it reminded him of a Rorschach ink blot picture and that, if you looked at it just right, you could imagine seeing Ruben smiling with a plastic Solo cup in his hand. I didn’t see it, but I figured we each grieved in our own ways.

 

I used my share of the money from Ruben’s guy to get back into school. I didn’t know what I wanted to major in, so I enrolled in some bullshit interdisciplinary science major until I could figure it out. Danny took a couple classes with me, but I got the feeling it was more for bro time than to further his education. He mostly focused on playing his guitar and drinking expensive Scotch. Philip tried to get into professional auto racing. He quickly found out that the level of skill required for that was far beyond what he learned from playing X-Box, so he called up Ruben’s guy to see if he could get into street racing.

 

It was surprising when it looked like Philip was going to be the one of the three of us who succeeded. He used the cash from Ruben’s guy to buy a fast car and offered to fund other drivers for a cut of their winnings. He was like the Don King of the underground racing scene for a time. It didn’t take long before he moved out on his own and bought a nice, big house with a legitimate home theater in the suburbs. He invited Danny and me over for beers in the pool all the time. Sometimes there were girls in bikinis, sometimes there weren’t. Sometimes there were girls and no bikinis.

 

One night, Philip got particularly lit. Too much Jaeger. He took Danny and me on a drunken tour of his place. We’d had the sober tour a few times, but the drunk tour focused on all the things sober Philip would be too embarrassed to admit. He showed us the nanny cam tissue box in his bedroom, the collection of first-run Kenner Star Wars action figures he was amassing in a second bedroom, his extensive collection of Battlestar Galactica and Firefly props. He showed us Ruben’s painting. Philip told us that he thought Ruben had been right; the blobs moved. He had checked the back of the painting for hidden projectors and found none. His current theory was that the canvas used some sort of e-ink like the cheaper versions of Kindles and Nooks. The way to know for sure, Philip said, was to cut open the canvas. He couldn’t bring himself to destroy such a “cool” work of art, though. Even I had to admit that moving ink made the pretentious bullshittery of the painting tolerable.

 

As the night went on and Philip’s blood-alcohol level increased, he told us that he thought he could make out a formula one race car in the painting when he decided to go into pro racing. When it didn’t pan out, the car in the painting seemed to morph into a BRZ. Sometimes when he looked at the painting, Philip whispered to us drunkenly from the couch he lay on in his living room, it looked like the streaky pattern of city streets and lights you could see when your speed got past 100 MPH. He thought it was taunting him to go faster.

 

We woke up the next morning and went our separate ways; me to school, Danny to work, and Philip to his office. I had too much homework to hang out the next night, so we each did our own thing. When I turned on the morning news the next day as I got dressed for another round of classes, the big story was of a horrific accident that had occurred in the very early hours of the morning. A small car had lost control and smashed head-on into a Mack truck. The aerial view of the accident was hard to make out. I could see the truck just fine – it looked only slightly damaged – but I couldn’t find the car anywhere. One of the reporters pointed out that a small rectangle of debris to the left of the truck was all that remained of the car. Another reporter commented that Highway Patrol estimated that amount of damage could only be the product of speeds upwards of 140 MPH. My stomach seemed to drop into my intestines at that last comment.

 

I stared intently at the screen until the news switched back to the accident scene from the helicopter camera. The tiny, crumpled tin can of the car was dark blue. At least it was in the few places I could make out a paint color and not twisted steel, wrinkled aluminum, and shattered plastic. My throat closed up. Philip’s BRZ was dark blue. I called his cell.

 

No answer. I tried to tell myself he had probably been up late with a bottle and girl and was still sleeping off the fun. Still, I called again. No answer.

 

No answer for the rest of the day. Around evening, I got a call from Ruben’s guy. It was Philip’s car. He died instantly, no suffering. When I hung up I laughed out loud at the fact that I had gotten the news from a criminal instead of the news of Philip’s own family. I laughed at the absurdity of two young friends dying within months of one another. I laughed until I realized I wasn’t laughing. Then I started drinking.

 

Late that night, I decided to break into Philip’s house and try to relive the good times we enjoyed between his death and Ruben’s. I rummaged through his fridge looking for beer and finding only Smirnoff Ice. Philip was always a pussy. I smiled and twisted off the cap of a peach flavored Ice. I meandered drunkenly through the house, sat in the hot tub and polished off an entire six pack, plopped down on Philip’s leather couch and sipped a few more while staring at that fucking painting. Ruben thought it was classy. Philip thought it looked like a Rorschach test. Both of them were convinced it moved. I stared at unblinking until my eyes began to water. No movement.

 

But then I started to wonder if a large blob on the right was beginning to streak down the side. I watched it intently, lining up the bottom edge of the blob with a distant shelf in Philip’s entertainment center I could see through the doorway. It did seem to be moving. Or was it me?

 

I decided to take another walk around the house and find some harder alcohol. When I got back, I sat back in the same spot, my previous position still marked by an indentation in the leather. The blob had definitely moved downward. I continued to watch it until I passed out on the couch.

 

When I woke, the pain of my full bladder and aching head from too much alcohol distracted me from the painting. As I exited the bathroom, however, I looked for the blob I had been watching the night before. It was gone. Or maybe it had stretched into a thin line. I stared at the individual black marks on the painting before blinking and taking in the image as a whole. It looked like a medication bottle on its side, pills spilling out toward me. I jumped. It hadn’t looked like that during the night. Had it?

 

My heart raced, which made the painful hangover headache throb even harder. I needed to figure this out. But first I needed something to take the edge off. Ibuprofen, definitely. Hair of the dog, maybe, if I had to. I looked through Philip’s medicine cabinet for something to get my head right. I couldn’t find a single over the counter pain reliever. But I did find a bottle of hydrocodone. That might do the trick.

 

I walked back toward Philip’s kitchen for some water, fingering the lid open and closed with my thumb and forefinger as I stumbled through the hallway. I shook two pills into my hand and looked at the painting. Pills. What was it Philip saw?

 

I nodded when I remembered. A Formula One car and then a BRZ. Ironic.

 

But then, hadn’t Ruben seen a gun and cash? Hallmarks of his “hard” life. The life that got him killed.

 

I looked at the pills in my hand and remembered Goodtime’s warning that anything we took from the house we robbed could be dangerous. A crazy thought ran through my mind. I pushed it away. But… what if the painting wanted me to take the pills? What if I would overdose or something? Did the painting show me how I would die?

 

I tossed the pills into Philip’s sink and pulled out my cell phone. I dialed Ruben’s guy who, as usual, didn’t answer. I left a message, knowing he would get back to me in less than 30 minutes after he had screened his voice messages.

 

“Hey. I need Goodtime’s number. When he came over to Ruben’s we talked about something that might be important.”

 

When Ruben’s guy called me back, he talked to me in a placative, condescending tone. He explained that he couldn’t just give out his client’s numbers or people would stop trusting him with their information. I had to understand that it was bad for business, he said. I responded with a bullshit story about the owner of the painting and trinket tracking me down and warning me that if I didn’t get the figurine back from Goodtime, we were both going to be killed. Ruben’s guy was silent for about two minutes, then he said he would call me back.

 

My phone rang five minutes later. Instead of Ruben’s guy, I was met with the surprising and oddly accented voice of Alan Goodtime when I picked up.

 

“What is this I hear about you needing my were-jaguar figurine?” Goodtime asked.

 

“Mr. Goodtime, I apologize. That’s not totally right. It’s not right at all, actually. No one tracked me down. I have a question to ask you, though. It’s important.”

 

“I can’t say I’m pleased with this ruse,” he said coldly, “but, since I’m on the line, go ahead.”

 

“We took a painting from the house. Well, Ruben did. Then he died. One of the other guys, I guess, adopted it, you could say. He died earlier this week. And, I mean, I know this sounds nuts… but I think I’m next. I think it wants me to be next.”

 

“You promised me you took only the figurine.”

 

“I know. I promised you *I* only took the figurine. And I did. Ruben took the painting,” I said. I could hear my tone start to slip into that of pleading child. I tried to keep it in check, but I felt like crying. Like throwing something. Like taking some pills.

 

“Well, from what you’re telling me, your liberal definition of the truth doesn’t seem to be serving you well. I shouldn’t help you with this. Tell me, why should I?”

 

I tried to sound forceful, professional. “Because if it wasn’t for me, the four of us wouldn’t have found your figurine. I figured out the guy arranged his library by geographic location. There was so much stuff in that house, we could still be there looking.”

 

On the other end of the line, Goodtime sighed. “Understand this, young man; I will help you. I do not often help others when they find themselves in such situations. I want you to understand – no, I want you to *acknowledge* that you are the one to blame for your plight. The task I needed carried out may have put you on the path to your current state, but you chose to walk along it. Explain to me that you understand this.”

 

“Yeah. You told us to take one thing. We took more and now I’m trouble. I get that. It’s not your fault.”

 

“Very well,” Goodtime sighed again. “Is this a black and white painting, perhaps reminiscent of a monochrome Pollock or Swarez?”

 

“Um,” I had no idea what he had just said, “it looks like a Rorschach test.”

 

“Hm. Indeed. And it slowly flows through several amorphous patterns before settling into something recognizable?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“I cannot be in the same room as this painting. In fact, this particular work of art is one of the reasons I was not able to find the figurine myself. One of many. But my earlier instructions to you still hold true: burn it. Burn the painting as soon as you are able. The canvas will resist the flames, almost as if it is a canvas made of Nomex material. Use an accelerant, such as lighter fluid or gasoline, to coax the flames higher and hotter. Use plenty of wood for fuel. In time, the painting will burn. Do you understand?”

 

I nodded, realizing after a moment that Goodtime couldn’t see my movement. “Yes. Got it.”

 

“Good. Do it now, and do not contact me again. I wish you luck.” He didn’t wait for my thanks before he hung up. After the click, I stood in Philip’s kitchen holding the phone to my ear and trying to process what Goodtime had said. I can’t say how long I stayed like that, but I know it was a while. What did he mean he couldn’t be in the same room as the painting? How did he know what painting it was?

 

My calves began to cramp and pulled me out of my own head. I had to burn the painting. I broke down Philip’s coffee table and one side table from next to his couch to use as fuel. I couldn’t find a hammer, so I had to kick the damn things apart. They were made well. Philip didn’t skimp on his purchases. I carried the wood out to Philip’s poolside fire pit in three loads and found some barbecue fluid in a storage space under one of the outdoor chairs.

 

Once I had the fire going in earnest, I pulled the bullshit blob painting off the wall and carried it outside. I tossed it in the fire. Just as Goodtime said, nothing happened for a long while. The canvas even threatened to snuff out my flame by keeping oxygen from the burning tables. I used a leg of the side table to prop up the painting and the doused the entire thing in lighter fluid. The flames seemed to hover above the painting, burning only the lighter fluid and leaving the “art” untouched. The blobs started moving faster. I no longer had to use an external cue to judge their direction.

 

As the blobs reached a speed that made them seem like fresh ink running back and forth on a raincoat, the canvas finally began to burn. Once one spot had burned through, it took mere seconds for the rest to catch fire and disappear. Before I knew exactly what was happening, I was standing in front of a burning frame. I sat in one of the patio chairs and watched the frame and tables char, glow, and turn into ash.

 

That was a few months ago. Since then, Danny and I seem to have finally escaped our ruts. My grades picked up almost without trying and Danny joined a classic rock cover band as lead guitarist. He also picked up a job as a line cook at the restaurant the band frequents for gigs. He doesn’t live the world’s most esteemed life, but he’s happy. Happier than I’ve seen him since before we decided to steal the cases of vodka. I also stopped drinking as heavily as I was. I haven’t cut it out entirely – some beer is just too good to throw away – but I don’t drink to complete inebriation every night. I also haven’t wanted anything stronger, anything like pills, since I burned the painting. It was like burning the damn thing released us from a horrible nightmare. I feel bad that Ruben and Philip never got to wake from that Hell, but I say a silent thanks to something every now and then that Danny and I got out.

 

Alain Bontemps    |    Alan’s Extra Room    |    The Rorschach Painting    |    Goodtime Voice-O-Matic    |    The Siege of Calais    |    I Owe My Life to Alan Goodtime    |    The Alton Arsenal    |    The Death of Alan Goodtime    (other stories in the arc)

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