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Bikers in Cadmium Red




Bikers in Cadmium Red      

 
           

            As Emil rinsed out a one-inch flat brush, two motorcycles rolled in, hacking and spitting, the riders in black leather and black helmets with tinted visors, as menacing and murderous and violent as any summer movie.

            He'd read about the Hells Angels and Pagans and other lowlifes who kill for joy bordering on coital, and here they were, torturing him by sitting on their bikes and lusting for blood and laughing as they cut him to bits.

            He'd been worrying about death, cancer, strokes, heart attacks, head-on car crashes, planes exploding or crashing into his house, lunatics shooting up malls, his house catching fire, break-ins, and how he'd react in an emergency.

            He was also preoccupied with leaving the world something besides a closet full of old clothes, namely his art. Still, even though he had more time these days, his painting remained clunky and ordinary, even sadly fussy, and here he was out on a dull Puget Sound afternoon, colors muted into soft grays, browns and forest green. He was plunked down on a stretch of Dogfish Island shoreline between the rocky beach facing Seattle and a one-lane road ending at a wooden pier topped by an ancient two-story general store now an artist's studio and digs. He was doing another landscape. He'd drawn the store and was filling in one of the large windows facing the road.

            A month earlier, he’d stood in front of his easel in his studio -- his daughter’s room before she went off to college and moved to San Diego -- and thought the sunlight playing on the pink clouds of Heaven and their shadowy undersides were coming off reasonably well. The Pearly Gates looked pearly enough, but his rendition of himself in wings looked like bad Photoshop, and his naked cherubs came uncomfortably close to kiddie porn. He'd been thinking more about Heaven, while not really buying it, and Hell which he saw as Yemen with Cheez-Its.

            "Life," he told his wife Joyce, is happenstance, even if I do paint cherubs.”

            It was his third attempt at artistic immortality.

            His first was a celestial picnic with Jesus, Ann Boleyn, Mao, Ray Charles, Osama bin Laden, Janis Joplin, Pablo Picasso, John Lennon, JFK, Jackie O and Marilyn Monroe sharing a jug of merlot. He'd ditched Number Two, a stretch of land by the River Styx, cluttered with birds, Laz-E-Boys and Cheez-Its.

            "Pearly Gates" was his nod to the Renaissance and the frescoes he and Joyce saw when doing Italy two years earlier. He said, I need a patron like Michelangelo had, some Medici roaming around over here. Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos ... ” Joyce said, Chisel another David.”        

             But real artists escape their studios and paint en plein air so today here he was, grappling with a balky easel and wind gusts that had twice tipped over his water dish.

            The bikers revved their hogs loud the way bikers do when muscling up on car-driving wimps, then killed their engines. He tried to focus on the store as he heard square-toed boots crunching the gravel behind him. He thought: They're going to murder me and scrawl KILL ART on my masterpiece, then piss on it and toss it onto the beach before heading off to rob the mom-and-pop up from the ferry dock. He won't even have the chance to kiss Joyce farewell.

            He saw the headline in the morning rag:

 

            LOCAL MAN KILLED BY BIKER GANG

            Body found lying by easel

 

            Bikers.

            One afternoon several years earlier, while driving with his family along a state highway back in Pennsylvania, of all places, traffic slowed to a crawl then stopped. The Klan. Six men in hooded sheets passed out “information fliers.” No burning crosses, but it was close enough for discomfort. A few Hells Angels watched from a field off to the side, out of curiosity or providing security like at Altamont for the Rolling Stones.

            Last year on a plane to Chicago, he became convinced the scruffy guys in 17D, E and F were terrorists. They were not wearing kafiyas, but they were definitely Yemeni or Somali or some offshoot of ISIS. They fiddled with their jackets and iPhones and looked around, laughing nervously.

            Emil thought, We’re always fighting the last war.

            The guys on the plane have swallowed the explosives, like mules with balloons of cocaine. They make a move he'll jump 17D and call for backup. No he wouldn't. He rang for the flight attendant who was sympathetic because that’s part of the job description. She knelt briefly at 17D then came back and patted his arm and moved on. The pilot announced: "We'd like to welcome three members of the Bolivian national soccer team ... ”

            Emil heard the squork of leather jackets.

            Bikers.

            Emil had toyed with buying a gun to take along when painting outdoors, and here's the Aryan Brotherhood fresh out of prison. They took off their helmets and came up to his side. After shaking their hair loose, two women peered at his painting as if browsing through a craft fair.

            The taller one leaned over his shoulder, brushing his cheek -- Emil thought deliberately sensually -- while peering at his store. She was Penny, and would be a knockout if she had seen an orthodontist in middle school. The shorter one was Marla, a looker with dark crimson nails and hard Willie Nelson eyes. Emil put them around forty.

            Pretty good,” said Penny as Emil dabbed Payne’s grey on a window. He’d never liked performing, either on stage or on a road. Unexpected company provided the best reason to snap a few photos with his point-and-shoot and get out of there.

            Marla said, Paint me.”

            Like the Draw Me” ads for mail-order art courses in Emil's childhood comic books, a pencil sketch of the head of a dog. Emil said he stuck to landscapes. He didn’t want to try to show Marla on 140-pound watercolor paper how he'd captured her inner soul. Marla said, "You don't paint people? You’re an artist, aren’t you?"

            "Of course he is," said Penny.

            Emil said, "A lot of artists don’t paint people. Abstract-art was about mood and space and color and emotion. How many portraits did Jackson Pollock paint?” Marla wasn’t into Jackson Pollock, but she was sure he could have painted portraits if he’d wanted to.

            Penny said, Emil’s out here on a Wednesday, which means he’s not a Sunday painter. You’re a real artist, right, Emil?" Emil ran a dark line under the window ledge and she said, “I love you’re using Payne’s grey. I’ve never been a big fan of Davy’s grey and black deadens a painting big time.”

            Marla wondered how come he was out here on a weekday. Emil said, "I have some time." He started to add "between jobs" but that was none of their concern.

            Penny picked up a skinny detail brush, dipped it in lemon yellow and dabbed it on the latch of the front door, and said, Aw, we all get fired. Anymore it’s part of the drill.”

            Emil didn’t want to hear about any drill. He thanked her for the help figuring they'd take the hint and leave, and he'd cover it over after they blasted off, which he hoped was soon.

            She said, "The human figure is hardest thing to draw, right, Emil? Draw it you can draw the universe.

            Emil said, Whatever primes your pump.”

            "Primes your pump? That doesn’t sound like you, Emil, and I don’t even know you."

            Floats your boat." Emil was losing patience.

            Marla said, "Makes you hard." Is this a test? Speaking of pumps, are you going to stick in one of those old gas pumps with a glass top?” Emil said probably. He hadn’t thought about one, but he would not be one-upped by a biker. Marla said, "I think artists that paint just landscapes and barren streets and vases of flowers can’t be very good.”

            Penny said, "Your pilings need some cadmium red."

            Go away.

            Emil said, "Some artists don't want to paint people."

            Marla wasn’t through. People make paintings more alive. Hopper painted some of the most melancholy shit in history and he put in people. Some of his women were kind of mannish, but still. Look at ‘Nighthawks’ and ‘Gas’ -- I love 'Gas'.” She walked over to her saddlebag and pulled out a beer. Want one?"

            Emil did, but said, Thanks, no. Too early.”

            “‘Thanks, no.’ I like that. 'Thanks, no.' What’s your favorite color?”

            It sounded like a Facebook survey. "Violet."

            Wow.”

            Unless it’s a clutch of retired women taking workshops from an enterprising painter in Maine (summer) or Curacao (winter), watching someone paint is not like watching magicians or concert violinists or even street cartoonists doing goofy caricatures. These two however joined right in. Penny daubed some cadmium red along the edge of the dock's railing, just to bring it out, loosen it up.”

            Marla said, The roofline's off and your values are two contrasty.”

            Penny said, Why don’t you tone it down or paint this in black and white? I mean, look at the weather.”

            Emil said, What’s wrong with color?”

            It’s overdone. Black and white is starker. Like Richard Avedon or Ansel Adams.”

            Or Matthew Brady, except maybe they didn’t have color film then.”

            Or the French guy who took those old photos of Paris.”

            Emil said, Eugène Atget?

            Something like that. Or Diane Arbus.”

            Emil saw the headline:

 

            BIKER STABBED WITH BRUSH

            Local Artist Pleads Temporary Insanity

 

            It would probably read Local Would-Be Artist." Or "Amateur  Artist." He said, “Obviously you two paint.”

            Marla said, Not really.”

            Penny said, We have a gallery in The City. That’s San Francisco. Well, really Oakland. Across the bay from San Fran.” Emil assured them he knew where Oakland was. Oakland's edgier. We show a lot of West Coast art. Do you like pointillism?”

            Sometimes.”

            We’ve got a chick down there who’s a killer, just as good  as Seurat. I bet your favorite artist is Andrew Wyeth”. Emil said Jasper Johns. Penny said, Cool, the flag guy.” He thought about asking Penny if they’d show some of his work, and told them about his Heaven canvases, but he was not as pushy as artists who make gallery owners gush, "Stig, let us see more!" That’s how it works, that’s why some get into galleries and others paint alongside a beach or out in a field. Plus he'd face the ignominy of hearing, "We'd love to but ... "

            Penny liked his including himself in his painting.

            He said, Alfred Hitchcock or Cindy Sherman.”

            "So?" she said. "It could be a splashy case of death imitating art." He said he'd considered doing a triptych with an airplane taxiing above the clouds. Or people who were alive now but painting them dead, really dead, or one of himself taking a selfie while lying in a casket.

            "That's pretty weird," said Marla.

            "I'm finishing 'Heaven With Selfie'," he lied. "Just a few more cherubs. You can’t have too many cherubs. And angels. And Jesus and St. Peter and harps and halos and, to make sure, a white-bread, white-bearded, white-robed God holding a cat."

            Marla said, "Cats have been done to death. Make it a penguin."

            Penny said, "The trick is keep it from becoming a cartoon."

            Emil said, "You ever wonder if Michelangelo and his friends really believed or just trying to convince themselves and the unwashed while grabbing some Vatican cash?" No, they hadn't. "Anytime artists get big bucks it’s a miracle."

            Marla said, "We're checking out a painter in Seattle -- she paints huge canvases of lingerie -- bras, panties, corsets, the whole deal." Emil said he could paint those. Marla said, "Yeah, but you didn't."

            Penny said, "People'd think you have a fetish. This girl is real edgy. We show edgier stuff. That's why we're in Oakland. We want people to react, to think, to get offended, get a rash."

            Marla said, "Like two guys kissing.

            Emil grabbed a conté crayon and drew the Grim Reaper leaving the old store/studio and carrying an AK-47. Penny said, Aw, Emil, you just stuck him in for shock value.”

            Emil said, How does ‘Piss Christ’ work for you? Or that painting with elephant poop?”

            Marla said, Emil, you weren’t going to do that if Penny hadn’t said anything.”

            Emil said, She’s my muse.”

            The two thought that over, as if considering what constituted a muse. Penny said, Your death guy, that’s pretty bleak.

            "Death is pretty bleak.

            Marla said, So why did you stick in the old GR?”

            Emil started filling in the robe with gray and thalo blue and burnt umber. He didn’t want to, but he couldn’t just sit there as if unsure of himself. He could also change that when they left, assuming they didn’t murder him. He said, Why not put him there? Or in Oakland? Or anywhere? You think he’s a city person who hates the beach? Maybe he lives in the studio.”

            Penny said, "You're flirting with satire. You're saying he's killed off a fellow artist or his muse?"

            Emil said, "Satire would be my neighbor as the Grim Reaper with a wife and kids all in hooded robes, and we're having a chat over the fence and I say, 'Don’t think me a boor if I don’t invite you over for a glass of wine'."

            Marla figured the Grim Reaper lived in Malibu.

            Emil asked if they sold much.

            Marla said, Do you?”

            "Three." That was true, although one was to a neighbor who had commissioned a painting of his sailboat. He should have said, Yes, every painting I do.” especially cherubs making out." You want edgy?

            Marla said, "You know what? If you were bolder your work would get noticed."

            Penny said, "Bold lands artists in galleries and museums and Art in America, not those mags for amateurs." Emil said he knew Art in America and he didn't want to paint concentric circles or portraits of walleyed women in shackles, or hack out blocks of spruce to go marching across a gallery floor.

            Penny nodded. "So here you are."

            "Yes, even though it's not Oakland."

            Marla said, "So go ahead, paint me.

            Penny cut in and told Emil they didn't have time. She handed him a card and said it was excellent meeting him and keep up the good work but they had to fly. As they left, Marla said, Your windows need some cadmium red.”

            They rolled out as boisterously as they had arrived, with even more exhaust. Do bikers have to do that?

            Yeah, OK, cadmium red.

            Cadmium red lingerie. Bold.

            Emil rummaged through his paint box. He'll tell Joyce that one more time he'd stared down death then start a painting of the Grim Reaper wearing a cadmium red boxer's robe with his name on the back. Add God in drag.

            And a cherub.

            And two women bikers in cadmium red.

            Melania Trump in a bullet bra. Mary in a bullet bra. Jesus on a hog. Jesus in a bullet bra. Edgy. Oakland.

            Black and white with John Lennon's Gibson in cadmium red. George Washington wearing a huge red coat. George Washington playing John Lennon’s Gibson. George Washington and John Lennon playing cadmium red Gibsons.

            Emil flung his painting like a Frisbee onto the beach.

            Penny and Marla in bright cadmium red bras and corsets.

            That'd work. Bold.

            Bold and edgy and dark.

            Give people a rash.

            He walked down to the beach and retrieved it, now with a scar over the front window.

            Really dark. That's him.

            Really, really dark.

 

 Tim Menees

 

Tim Menees drew political cartoons for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 30 years.  His cartoons appeared in The New York Times and other national newspapers. Today he draws, and occasionally writes, for The Pittsburgh Quarterly. At the newspaper he wrote and illustrated a weekly column, and feature stories on a 24-hour visit inside a state penitentiary, a week aboard a Great Lakes freighter and the arts behind bars. In 2010, one of his paintings was part of a show at the Carnegie Museum of Art. 

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2 Comments

  1. A new take on an old topic.

    Enjoyable read.

    Ged &
    Juliann Smith

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  2. I've just finished binge-reading all of Tim Menees' (recently published) short fiction---with and without accompanying art---and must tell the world that, in my humble opinion,"Bikers in Cadmium Red" is his most stunningly eccentric and intellectually delightful. Actually, neither I nor my opinion am/is humble: Get MORE of this guy's stuff in "Ariel Chart" ASAP.

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