:: Article

The Tatter Prize

By Daniel Scott Buck.

The man stood facing a wall, a behavior not uncommon on opening night.

The featured event was called Subverted Molehills, and as conceptualized by Peter Boston, said molehills had been carefully arranged to dominate the visual space. He had dumped five heaps of dirt on the concrete floor. The walls were freshly painted white, and a faint scent of paint primer and fertilizer filled the air.

“I really do like it,” Mona told Peter. “Thanks for inviting me.”

“You’re welcome,” Peter leaned closer. She could feel his potbelly rub against her. “I’m excited that you are here.”

She was distracted by the man staring at the wall.

“Who is that person?” Mona asked.

“Oh, that is Silsby,” Peter said. “Do you want me to get you another cocktail? Do you need anything?”

“What is he doing? There’s nothing on the wall.”

“Silsby is an artist, too.” Peter tilted his drink. “And my housemate.”

“You never mentioned him,” Mona said.

“He lives in the garden room. He doesn’t get out much.”

“Probably spends all of his time online – like everybody else.”

“No. He doesn’t own a computer. Or a phone. Or a car. I put the TV in his room because I don’t watch it, but I think he uses it as a candelabra. He spends all of his time working on his art. That’s the idea, anyway.” And then he said, sadly: “He doesn’t even have a day job.”

“Have you seen it?” Mona asked.

“What?”

“His art?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Wouldn’t you know?”

“Not in theory.”

“Strange.”

“Not really. Did you finish reading the book I gave you?”

“I think I’ll go ask him what he’s doing.”

Mona approached the man named Silsby. He was thin with large hands and a long jaw with thick sideburns. Messy brown hair, about shoulder length, and a dark brown suit fit nicely on his tall, lanky body.

“Hello.”

Silsby stepped away and stared at a different section of the bare wall.

“Excuse me, what are you looking at?”

He did not reply.

She tried again.

“My name is Mona. What do you think of the Subverted Molehills? I don’t know what to think, really. I’m not an artist myself. But I love art, in fact. I’ll probably understand it eventually, the kind of thing you have to take home with you, sit on it for awhile.” He’s not listening, she paused to consider a different approach. “We share a mutual acquaintance. Peter Boston tells me you’re an artist, too. I would love to see your work sometime. He speaks very highly of you.”

Silsby moved farther away, silently staring at nothing. Mona dropped her head, hoping her body language would make an impression. It didn’t. She walked back over to Peter.

“How frustrating,” she threw a last glance behind her to see if he was looking. “And sexy.”

Peter was flustered.

“We’re having a party tonight at my place after the show. Why don’t you come over. Maybe we can talk him into joining us.”

*

The living room was aglow with shimmering dresses and martini glasses. Mona searched the sofa with her eyes, looked over the chattering crowd to the kitchen beyond the living room, for the tall, handsome figure. He was nowhere. There were other men, of course, but they were lost in the cushions of the furniture, a blur across the muted colors of the wallpaper, stone-like as they leaned against the hearth of the fire-less fireplace. And then, of course, there was Peter standing right in front of her.

“He’s in the garden room,” Peter smiled disappointedly. “I saw him creep around back a few minutes ago.”

“Should I just walk back there alone? It’s dark out.”

“I’ll walk you.” Peter took her arm and walked her around the house to the backyard, where he tried to slow her down. Why is she in such a hurry? He pulled on her arm to try and reduce the speed to a slow stroll. “Mona, I want to tell you something. Right here, where we are standing right now, the Subverted…”

Mona wouldn’t stop, and before he could warn her, she lost her footing in a hole in the ground.

He helped her stand up.

“I was trying to tell you about the holes. The art project.”

It was silent for a few moments as they both recomposed.

The garden room was lit up nicely and visible from the outside through its large glass windows and the door, made entirely of window panes, was cracked open a little.

Silsby sat hunched over the table.

“He’s conceptualizing,” Peter said. “You see nothing but a man and a hole in the ground, or an empty table, that will one day open like a flower. The artistic equivalent of a Cherry Blossom or a Columbine, a man-made Canna or Begonia.”

They both stood silently in the dark, peeping into the room unbeknownst to its occupant, when suddenly Silsby rocked back in his chair and lifted his head toward the ceiling.

It was as if Peter could see the sound form in the pit of Silsby’s stomach, clamor through his throat and out of his mouth: a low, lofty laugh. It sent a chill over Peter’s skin, as it seemed directed at the party above, maybe even directed at himself, had he not been standing in the backyard trying to seduce his muse, the woman who inspired him.

“Someone is in a good mood this evening.” Mona smiled. “That’s my calling. Thanks, Peter. You’re a sweetheart.”

She side-stepped a deep hole and walked to the door.

“I think it’s beautiful that you are so passionate about your art.”

Silsby finally turned and acknowledged her. She stood in the doorway, her dress stroked by a summer wind as she tottered out of place in high heels.

“I’ve been working on it for months,” he said.

His voice was low, as the laugh had indicated, and serious. He picked up a rag and wiped the surface of the empty table so that it was clear of lint and dust.

“Maybe you need a break.”

Mona let the white rayon scarf sway from her neck to the floor as she walked toward the bed. The garden room was small, a short distance, but she made the best of it. There was a slit in the back of her dress. In stride, the fabric parted wide, showing the baby white skin of the back of her thighs. There were two shoulder straps running down her back. She turned and leaned back on the bed, arched up by her elbows.

“Months?” Mona said.

Silsby walked over and sat beside her.

“Maybe longer.”

“What’s it supposed to be? I mean, when it’s finished.”

“Is a work of art ever really finished?” Silsby said. “I don’t care for the crude limitations of beginnings and endings.”

They both looked at the empty table.

“Who are your influences?”

“Klaus Von Popper. 19th Century. Austrian.”

“I’ve never heard of him. What has he done?”

“I don’t know,” Silsby said. “Nobody really knows. Maybe nothing. Nothing and everything.”

Mona sprung sitting up, nearly doubling over with laughter, but was now brought face to face with Silsby, inches from his lips. She smiled widely, and blushed.

“My name is Mona.”

“I know. You told me at the gallery.”

He pressed his hand on her bare back and brought her closer until they kissed.

The next morning, as Mona thread a g-string up her leg, she said: “I shouldn’t get involved with another artist. But you seem different than the rest. Very different.”

The next few weeks were beautiful. Silsby worked on his art project everyday, sitting at the empty table, and Mona went to work at the delicatessen, bringing home fresh meats and cheeses and wines every evening. They would make love, eat and drink, make love again. He looked at the empty table and saw her handprints imprinted on it. She was the only one allowed to touch it. She did this by bending over with Silsby pressed against her back, the sheer fabric of her dress pulled up around her neck.

His thoughts were interrupted by Peter, who was in the backyard putting the Subverted Molehills back in the ground.

“How’s the Artist in Residence?” Peter asked.

It was that time of the month, and he didn’t have rent again. Silsby hadn’t paid anything for the past two. The garden room was the size of a small shed, and about as comfortable. They weren’t going to lose the house because of him. But at the moment, for some reason, Peter was in an awfully good mood.

“I ran into Mona at the market,” Peter said. “She’s going to bring over some fish for dinner.”

Silsby had been looking forward to another evening alone with her. But he couldn’t decline, not when rent was due and he couldn’t pay it. Peter walked over to his door.

“Listen, Silsby, I know you are having a hard time paying rent, so I made a little list of things that you can do around the house so that you don’t feel like a freeloader. There’s plenty to be done. The gutters need cleaned, the car washed, the garden weeded, the lawn mowed, basic things.” He handed Silsby the piece of paper, swatted him on the shoulder. “Artist in Residence!”

Peter turned and walked back to the wheelbarrow. Silsby crumpled the paper in his fist and walked around the house to wait for Mona to get there.

There was an awkward silence at the table. Sasha, Peter’s partner of five years, was in the kitchen preparing the food, leaving Peter, Mona, and Silsby to entertain themselves. Mona had told Silsby about how Peter came on to her in the backyard. Peter had stopped by the delicatessen everyday the week of the opening to remind her of the event, as well as providing stacks of postcards showing piles of dirt to hand out to the customers. And he had given her a book on Modern Art, saying it would sharpen the tools needed to fully cultivate an appreciation of today’s Art World. Peter’s world.

Peter leered across the table at Mona. Her hair was short and black, a jaw-length bob cut, and her presence reminded him of a Jazz Age showgirl. Her thin, cream-colored arm was stretched out toward a glass of red wine, which she rotated by its stem with her fingers. On her wrist, one thin silver bracelet. She occasionally batted her eyelashes at Silsby and smiled.

Sasha whisked into the room and sat another bottle of wine on the table. She had a way of doing things that looked like a Martial Art no matter what; the way she opened and closed cupboards, the way she chopped vegetables. She looked like one of those taller-than-life, toothpick-thin female figures you see bouncing off walls in Japanese anime. She went back to the kitchen and returned with a platter of grilled sole, wild rice, and asparagus.

“Dinner is served.”

Sasha walked around the table with the platter, placing servings onto each plate, before sitting down herself. She held up a glass and offered a toast.

“To the Subverted Molehills. Congratulations on the show, Peter.”

Mona lifted her glass and added: “It really was interesting. Did you sell any of them? Or was that not your intention?”

“The idea is to destroy the work after it is finished.”

“Henry Munsey mentioned that someone from the Tatter Committee stopped by the gallery before closing,” Sasha said. “The woman took a postcard. Lilly Goodrow, he said.”

“The Tatter…”

“Prize!” Peter finished Mona’s sentence. He held out a toast for himself. “The Tatter Committee was still accepting nominations, so I sent them an invitation. They’ll select the top four or five innovative artists this summer. The winner is announced in December.”

Peter looked at Mona, who was looking at Silsby.

“You really need to show your work,” Mona said. “Imagine winning the Tatter Prize and suddenly having forty thousand dollars! We could go to Tahiti!”

“I could quit my job,” Peter said, suddenly discouraged.

“Well listen to that, Silsby,” Sasha said. “You should do what your Muse tells you.”

A silence fell over the table as Mona looked in Silsby’s direction.

“I want to take him home with me,” she pouted. “And never give him back.”

Silsby lifted the glass of wine with an affectionate look in his eyes. “To Mona.” Then he turned to Peter. “And the Tatter Prize.”

*

Mona’s apartment was a windowless affair. A long, narrow rectangular-shape with two skylights, grainy hardwood floors, and soft white walls. It had a small kitchenette hidden behind a French door. It was a stark contrast to the garden room, but Silsby adjusted quickly. Mona worked long hours the first week he was there, so he had a lot of time to himself. He found the room to be a sound place for meditation, spending hours on his back staring up at the blue or grey sky, depending on the time of day. He experimented by positioning himself beneath the Northern skylight for an hour, and then he would move and rest beneath the Southern skylight. He was certain that each offered a different experience. That each skylight looked out at a different sky.

He had brought with him the table and chair, which Peter let him have as a gift for leaving, and a suitcase full of clothes. It wasn’t a laborious move. It felt quite natural for him to be here. Mona had promised him a special surprise at the end of the week, and was in the dressing room changing.

She walked out dressed in a gown held together by a single button located between her navel and her cleavage. Her breasts were partly exposed, tangled in the lace straps; she wasn’t wearing a bra, or anything else for that matter. She held a bluish glass bottle in her hand as she walked toward him. Her breasts shifted behind a shapely contour of silk, and her legs kicked out with each step showing the polished porcelain white of her thighs. She fiddled with the button, and pulled her arms out of the straps so that the gown merely draped over her like a sheet covering a statue.

Silsby got up to meet her. She took the chair, turned it around, and knelt both knees on the seat. She leaned forward across the table.

“Are you ready?” she asked.

Silsby moved closer behind her. The seductive curves down her sides and around her hips were smooth and luxurious. He took hold of the gown and flung it into the air.

There was a tattoo on her lower back. In thick, bold letters: KLAUS VON PAUPER.

“Pauper?” Silsby said quietly.

PAUPER

“It needs to be massaged with oil. Be sure to get all of the letters and around the edges.”

Mona placed the bottle of ointment in the curvature of her back where it dipped like a soap dish.

“Pauper,” he said again.

It seemed so permanent. The massive block letters looked like a Bauhaus structure made of concrete and iron. Something indestructible.

He twisted the lid off the bottle and poured oil over KLAUS and VON. Tiny bumps prickled across Mona’s skin. Her muscles flexed sharply around her shoulders and down her back. Silsby started at the beginning. He lightly massaged KLAUS, then he rubbed oil into VON. Mona rocked back and forth, enjoying both the pain and the pleasure, the stinging sensation of a raw blister, and the ticklish touch of her lover. Silsby took a step back.

“Are you finished?” Mona said.

“Almost.”

He walked over to the nightstand and picked up the Light Remote, and then walked back to where she was hung over the chair and spread out across the table. He placed his thumb on the red button and turned the lights out.

*

“Mona! Telephone call. It’s Silsby!”

It seemed like the only time they talked anymore was when he called her at work to tell her what he wanted for dinner.

“No, it’s not vegan,” she snapped at a customer. “Can’t you read the label? Lamb is not a vegetable.”

They had not had sex for a month, since the first week Silsby moved in with her.

“Tell him I’m busy. I’ll call him back on my break.”

The old lady who ordered a bowl of soup changed her mind at the register. She couldn’t decide between Chicken Noodle or Tomato Bisque with Basil. And the man standing behind her had a complaint about his Reuben Sandwich. It wasn’t hot enough.

“Mona, he says it’s urgent. He needs to talk to you right now.”

“In a sec. Put him on hold.”

She finally got the old lady out of the deli. But by this time another customer showed up who wanted to sample the cheeses and olives.

“Mona, it’s Silsby again. He called back.”

“Just tell him I can’t talk. I’m working. I’ll call him after my shift.”

The Rueben Sandwich. She forgot about it in the oven.

“Hey, can I try the pecorino cheese with a little slice of that salami?”

The customer pointed his finger at the glass case, but she couldn’t tell where. Mona reached her hand down there.

“This one?”

“No, over a bit.”

“This?”

“Too far. The other one. Back a little.”

“Mona, Silsby is on Line 3 and he says it’s an emergency.”

Her coworker offered to cover the front counter so that Mona could take the important phone call.

“What is it, Silsby? I’m really busy.”

“What time do you get off of work?”

“I have to close tonight. I’ll be home around nineish.”

“Can we have dinner together when you get home? It’s a special occasion.”

“What’s special about it?”

“I don’t want to spoil it. Let’s have Chinese or Japanese food. Zen cuisine. With Saki.”

Mona’s head filled with memories of the garden room, how every evening after work she would show up at his door. She would barely have time to put the groceries down before she was folded over the empty table with her dress up around her shoulders.

“Okay, Silsby. I’ll see you at nine.”

*

When Mona got home, Silsby did not get up and take her in his arms. He did not pull her dress up over her head, nor did he spread her out on the empty table. Instead he sat quietly in his bathrobe on a mat in the center of the room. His legs were crossed in a Yoga position. He suggested she put on a gown and sit on the mat facing him, where he had placed a pad of paper and a pen. She changed her clothes and brought out some plates and chopsticks, and the Chinese food in cartons.

“Do you want me to write something?”

“Yes,” Silsby said.

“Okay. Are you going to tell me what to write? Or should I just write anything? My feelings, maybe?”

“I like to do as little as possible,” Silsby said.

“I know that.”

He nodded at the pad of paper in her hand.

“You want me to write that down?”

He shook his head yes.

“What is this for?” she asked.

“The Statement of Purpose.” He filled two cups with Saki and handed one to her. “I’m going to have an art show.”

Mona looked around the room. There was nothing on the table. There wasn’t a piece of art anywhere. She took a sip of the Saki and put the cup down on the floor. And with the pen she wrote at the top of the first sheet of paper: Statement of Purpose.

And below that, she wrote: I like to do as little as possible.

“There is purity in doing nothing,” Silsby continued. “My existence is about that purity.”

Mona wrote it down.

“Stillness is pure. A space is perfect only when nothing happens. It is only when something happens that we suffer. The purity of nothing has these qualities: No sound; no movement; no objects. In such an environment, it doesn’t matter if it is light or dark. But in a world of unpleasant sights, it matters that you can turn out the lights, when one wishes, however momentarily, to experience the afterlife. To take a break from this one.”

Silsby was silent.

“So that’s it?” Mona asked.

He nodded his head and said:

“Thank you.”

He opened the Chinese carton and poured rice onto his plate.

*

Mona had the weekend free. She asked Silsby if he would like to go to the coast. The weather was nice; they could get out of the apartment and lay on the beach with some Coronas. But he had too much work to do, he said.

He sat at the empty table in silence. Mona poured herself a glass of white wine and leaned back on the bed. There was no point in getting out of her pajamas.

She picked up the book from the nightstand. She hadn’t read a word from it in how long?

Since she had met Silsby. It was an unsettling realization. That she hadn’t turned a page in two months. So much had happened in her life since then, and so much hadn’t. She had a vivid memory of Peter walking up to her when she was sitting at an outdoor table in front of the delicatessen, reading the book he had given her earlier in the week. He made her promise to go to his opening and handed her a stack of postcards. The bookmarker in the book marked that moment. Peter talked about piles of dirt for an hour, until her lunch was over. She went to the gallery and fell in love with Silsby. He seemed like a man with artistic vision, full of passion. But what was that vision?

She removed the bookmarker and opened the book to that moment.

The lights went out.

“I think the circuit breaker flipped,” Mona said.

She got up out of bed. Suddenly the lights came back on.

“It’s back on,” she said, crawling back into bed.

She opened the book again.

The lights went out.

“Damn it,” she said.

She waited for the lights to turn back on. When they did, she looked down at the book and saw the title of the new chapter: Klaus Von Popper.

There was a black and white photo, dating from the eighteen-sixties. It showed a close-up of a bald man who looked stoned on hallucinogens. The short chapter read: Klaus Von Popper is considered the grandfather of Conceptual Art. His work was visualized mentally, the substance of which was never revealed to the outside world, resulting in much speculation and controversy, the defining characteristics of the medium to this day.

The lights went out.

“I am an idiot,” Mona said in the dark.

When the lights turned back on, she looked over at Silsby. He was holding the Light Remote in his hand. A permanent blackout was all she could hope for. She waited.

When the lights went out again, she got up and slammed her body against his. For a moment there was a struggle as she wrestled for the light controller. The room was dark and silent. She felt for the button on the remote and turned the lights on. Silsby was sprawled out on the table, on his stomach, facedown. There was something off about his right arm; it looked turned around, backwards. She tried to shake and wake him. Then she called Peter.

“There’s something wrong with Silsby,” was all she would tell him. “Please come help me.”

By the time Peter got to the apartment, Silsby was sitting in the chair, moaning. His right arm dangled at his side.

“It looks like a dislocated shoulder,” Peter said. “We need to get you to the hospital.”

*

He drove them to the hospital. The doctor confirmed that it was a dislocated shoulder, “a backward dislocation.” He would have to wear a brace for six weeks, but this type of injury required an elaborate apparatus that supported his back, his neck, and his arm, which would have to be supported horizontally.

“Someone is here to interview you. It’s customary for all domestic disputes that end in violence.”

“This was an accident,” Mona protested.

The doctor walked out as a policeman walked in.

“I’m Officer LeRoy.”

Mona repeated what she had told the doctor. Silsby tried to sit up, but a pain shot through his arm and he moaned.

El loco attacked me in the dark,” Silsby said.

“The doctor gave him morphine. He doesn’t know what he’s saying. La loca!”

“I’m going to have to ask you to leave the room while I speak to the victim.”

“Stop calling him a victim. I’m the victim.”

Peter put his arm around Mona and walked her out of the room. Officer Leroy questioned Silsby for a few minutes and then walked out to the hall.

“He wants to press charges,” he said. “The good news is that I’m not going to book you, as long as you agree not to return to the apartment until noon tomorrow. At that time you can get whatever stuff you need until the case is resolved. It is required by law that a couple be separated in cases of domestic violence. I will be there tomorrow to keep the peace during your transition. Any questions?”

*

Peter offered to let Mona stay in the garden room, and took the next day off from work to help her move her things. Silsby stood in the center of the room. His arm, supported by the brace, extended out horizontally like a limb on one of the Undead. Officer Leroy waited outside in the hallway. Mona didn’t say a word until she packed the last box.

“I want you to know that you are a bum, and you will always be a bum. You’ll be out on the street where you belong soon enough. You’ll be crouched under a piece of cardboard somewhere and I’ll get to move back in here. And I’m getting this stupid tattoo removed. What was I thinking? Klaus Von Popper?”

Mona and Peter turned to walk out the door as Officer LeRoy walked in, escorting a middle-aged woman into the room. She was wearing a black business suit. She had white bracelets on her wrists, pearl necklaces around her neck, and a white band around her head that sprayed out a fountain of bluish-gray hair.

“Police security? Controversy? Who is Silsby?”

Mona pointed at him.

“Over there.”

The woman took a step toward him.

“Hello. My name is Lilly Goodrow.”

*

The garden room was cold and damp in December. Mona bundled herself in a blanket and sat in front of the TV set, which was now placed on the table that Peter took back from Silsby.

Peter and Sasha were wearing winter coats and stocking caps. The three of them sat huddled together watching the broadcasting of the Tatter Prize announcement. It was being filmed live at the Tat.

Peter got up and walked outside to the backyard. The trees had lost their leaves. The five patches of dirt could still be seen in the lawn. They made Peter think of a graveyard.

“They’re making the announcement!” Sasha called after him.

Peter walked back into the garden room. It had been a mystery to all of them. What on earth could justify selecting Silsby as a finalist?

“The winner of this year’s Tatter Prize is Now You See, Now You Don’t by Silsby Saint-Germain!”

The room fell silent for several seconds until Peter finally said: “That’s your apartment, Mona.”

Mona looked with disbelief.

“They took her apartment?” Sasha said.

Peter rolled his eyes.

It was Mona’s apartment on the TV screen. The same shape, the same skylights, the same four walls with nothing on them. It looked exactly as she had left it, empty. She had not seen it since that day, nor had she seen Silsby. And there he was in a black tuxedo, the size of a glass of wine on the television screen, appearing at the table for a final toast.

“I would like to thank the Tatter Committee for their gracious support. Most of all, I would like to say thank you to someone special. I dedicate this work to Mona. I couldn’t have done it without you.”

The television screen turned black.

danielscottbuck

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Daniel Scott Buck is the author of The Greatest Show on Earth and The Kissing Bug. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010.