Adam Sturtevant is the third place winner in the 2009 SFWP Literary Awards program. We’re excerpting a story from his winning collection, Ease Chest Tuck Hid Debt Art.
Our new existence took on a life of its own after that first week. Matthew called and said he could arrange a meeting with the curator of the gallery he had mentioned and I told him to give me a month, that I was working on a new series and that it would be great. Shelly continued to yell at me for everything that I did or did not do, and I goaded her on. I left the sink full of dishes. I left the clothes unwashed and the cat unfed, the litter box unchanged. I didn’t buy any groceries or anything else we needed. She came home and yelled and I yelled back. Our lovemaking became more urgent and difficult. Her pleasure was exponentially increased, and so was mine. I did push-ups in the middle of the night, her sweat still mingling with mine, thinking of all the imagery in my mind waiting to be free.
I would stay in bed while she ate breakfast and she would shout my chores to me from the kitchen before slamming the door and going to work. I went straight to the studio and painted all day, swigging whiskey from the bottle. I didn’t bathe for days. At night she would tell me that I stunk and that I disgusted her, and sometimes I would go back to the studio to paint when she went to bed. I finished a painting every few days. I painted all the filth that I saw around me: the empty cereal boxes spilling crumbs on the counter, the pebbles of cat litter on the carpet, the empty toilet paper roll and the unflushed toilet. I took all the filth in the house and on my body and soaked in my clothes and portrayed it as somehow existing within me. While I worked it felt like I was exorcising my soul of all the cleanliness and routine of the past four years in that house. I put paint on my body and rubbed myself up against the canvas and on the walls and furniture. And this was all before I called up my little brother and asked him if he knew where I could score some coke. Are you sure, he asked. I told him it was for a friend. A sick friend. He needed it to get better.
I barely saw Shelly for a while, because I was up all night painting while she slept, and I slept on the chair in my studio during the day. My only contact with her was the screaming in the morning when she woke me up and threw things at me. Around noon I would get up, snort a few lines off the bureau, pour myself a drink, and get right back to work. I painted all day and most of the night. Shelly stopped yelling at me in the morning and kept quiet while I was home. I could feel her though, outside the studio door, stewing, wanting me, hating me, perhaps in awe of what I was doing. I was afraid to leave the studio so I urinated in an empty milk jug I kept in the corner. I began experimenting with mixing my piss in with the paint, and then my blood. I began talking to Harold Lankins while I worked. I eventually lit candles and imagined I was summoning his spirit to ask his critique of what I did. He always approved but egged me on to go furthur, deeper. Be honest, he said. Hold nothing back. This is your life we are working on here. This is your soul. This is the most important thing in the world. Sometimes his voice would morph into Shelly’s and she would tell me how proud she was of me, how beautiful my work was, and how much she loved me. I imagined that when the month was over I would collapse and die, sinking beneath the floorboards and all that would be left of me would be these painting and her bottomless love. This went on for days. As soon as I finished one canvas I would start up another.
I was woken up in the middle of the night by the sound of the front door closing. It was pitch black in the studio, and I was lying naked on the floor. My head was swimming and throbbing. The floor was sticky and the room smelled of candle smoke and vomit. Harold whispered something in my ear which I couldn’t quite make out, because somehow his voice was muffled by the dead flame. I felt around the floor for a lighter to relight the candle and make out his words. I heard voices and footsteps in the hall. Two voices, a man and a woman, made their way down the hall to the bedroom. They were a mile away, in another time, like family photographs. I found the lighter and lit the candle and its flame illuminated the canvas above my head like a shrine. It was Harold, his arms outspread and crucified on the canvas in the gallery, which was dripping with tears and blood and semen and excrement and he was dead, and his cancerous tumors peaked out of his chest. Every gesture of his limbs and face were perfect, spoke of timelessness, of care taken and sacrifices made, of dreams accomplished, of promises kept. I heard his voice, and he said one word to me: beautiful.
I managed to lift myself to my feet and find the door. When I opened it I heard the sounds from the bedroom getting louder, squeaky, wet sounds and moaning. I floated in the darkness towards the sound, opened the bedroom door and stepped inside. There was movement there in the darkness, under the bedsheets, the sounds of urgency and uncertainty. The woman’s voice moaned and moaned, then gasped, and was silent for a moment. Then it spoke. She said, Is this what you wanted? and the moans became whimpers, and then sobs. Is this what you wanted? she asked again, and the man grunted yes, and she sobbed some more. She asked again, and the man grunted again, yes, and I whispered with him in unison, yes, yes, yes.
The doorbell rang and I greeted the man at the door. The sunlight stung my eyes. He laughed nervously when I shook his hand. I showed him inside and down the hall. Rubble crunched under our feet. He looked under his shoes and around the house. I showed him into the studio, at the eleven paintings leaning up against the walls. He covered his nose with the back of his hand and he paced around the room, examining each one slowly and thoughtfully, and then turned and examined me. He reached for my hand and shook it, and shook his head in disbelief. Beautiful, he said.
Adam Sturtevant is a 26-year-old writer and musician living in Brooklyn, New York. As a drummer, he has performed with many different indie artists, most notably St. Vincent, Via Audio, and Sufjan Stevens. His fiction has appeared in Decomp Magazine, Two Hawks Quarterly, and is upcoming in The Evening Street Review.