Bellingham threw another spent canvas, this one rudded with a viscous and droopy green, into the corner of his spacious studio and put on his moccasins. He padded down the staircase and crossed the Avenue of Dead Kings to the little grocer on the corner where they sold those bottled tea drinks he liked. Standing in the store, to Bellingham's shock, terror and delight, with his head practically in the milk refrigerator, was Ferreni, the art critic.
"Victor?" Bellingham said cautiously. Ferrini's head jolted back and a pint of nonfat milk fell to the tiles, arousing the attention of the shopkeeper.
"Bellingham," Ferrini said, almost if he had expected to see Bellingham in the little grocery in his moccasins with paint on his hands. Then a big smile crossed Ferrini's face—a smile Bellingham found unsettling and coercive. Bellingham rocked back and forth, remembering that smile from the night before Ferrrini wrote what came to be the first of many scathing reviews of Bellingham's work. "Bellingham," he said soberly, placing the milk back in the freezer as if he'd given up, "they're trying to kill me." Ferrini closed the refrigerator door and Bellingham saw the shadow of a pistol in his waistband.
"They should get in line," Bellingham said, and congratulated himself on his wit. Ferrini looked to Bellingham like the very caricature of an art critic on the run. He was too fat and jowly to consider concealing himself from even the most novice of assassins, yet his eyes remained pools of cool judgment, as if he would be ready to critique his own assassination for efficiency and artistry.
"Do you have a home?" Ferrini asked. Bellingham picked up the faint trace of panic in his voice.
"Yes. Yes, I do," Bellingham replied.
"Can you take me there?"
Bellingham remembered the last time he had welcomed Ferrini into his home for an interview with Ferrini's magazine, The Art of the People. Bellingham had his girlfriend at the time, a video artist named Reyna, make up a plate of hors'devours which Ferrini ate with relish. They drank vodka martinis and laughed and smiled all the way through the interview. But the article that followed only further condemned Bellingham as an aloof aristocrat whose art remained, in Ferrini's own words, "absurdly personal and irrelevant."
In addition to his downtown studio, Bellingham kept a one bedroom apartment uptown, just off The Avenue of Forgotten Souls with a view over The Long River. Support from his family, along with generous donations from sympathizers, allowed Bellingham to live as well as he had back home. Of course he no longer enjoyed the status or commanded the attention he was accustomed to, nor would it be prudent to attract such attention. And he now had an insufferable lack of notoriety and a suffocating amount of free time with which to further his art.
Ferrini talked on and on about the new administration in their home country, how it was full of hotheads who refused to change with the times and how it was corrupt and no longer reflected the will of the people, nor cared to. "They've even started going after loyal citizens, like myself." Bellingham never considered himself much of a loyal citizen but Ferrini's lack of remorse for his role in Bellingham's current situation made him angry. Bellingham hadn't even slipped in a word when the taxi pulled up to the apartment building and Bellingham paid the driver (the art critic never so much as offered to pay the fare). Ferrini appraised the building from floor to roof. "A tad oversized, isn't it? I mean, for the location."
Bellingham took a cursory look up and down the block. Ferrini was right, although Bellingham had never noticed before, his building was a monolith on what was otherwise a quaint street. "You can only stay here one day Ferrini," Bellingham said.
Ferrini's eyes appraised Bellingham. "Such hospitality for a countryman? I would have expected as much from Corzo, but not from you." Bellingham winced at the mention of his deceased rival.
"You're lucky I don't strangle you myself." Bellingham felt his cheeks go hot, he didn't like standing in the open in front of his building, least of all in his moccasins talking to, of all people, an art critic. "You know the police here aren't nearly as thorough as they are back home. What's one dead foreigner to them?"
"Not much," Ferrini said and followed a muttering, belligerent Bellingham under the awning and into the building.
After Ferrini published his article in The Call declaring that Bellingham and Frederick Corzo, among others, were enemies of "The Great Movement," Bellingham began to feel the heat build up around him. It was Corzo, however, not himself, who set off the blaze when he commented in The Call, "the artist should set himself up as a counter-weight to the status quo." After that came the pictures of Corzo with the American film star.
Corzo was from a lowly background which had made him a favorite of The Call and its readership base. But Ferrini accused Corzo of spitting on his roots like so many other successful young people and that the time had come for a purging of the national character. Bellingham knew the trouble he was in when he saw his name mentioned in the sixth paragraph of the article. Everybody listened to Ferrini. It didn't matter that Bellingham was the son of landed gentry who had managed to remain upper middle-class before, during and after the revolution. Bellingham's only grievance with the poor was that they were becoming greedier than the rich. It was no secret that Bellingham found Corzo's art, hailed as 'the art of the common man,' to be pedantic and overwrought. But Corzo was louder, handsomer and more controversial and everybody loved him. Bellingham, on the other hand, cared little for politics or for the swirling masses of humanity on the farms and in the factories.
Soon after Ferrini's article a stone-faced teenager in a military uniform delivered the charges against him in a pale blue envelope. Bellingham had 28 days to mail a request for a trial, which he did on the second day. By the 27th day he had heard no reply and on the 28th day officers arrived at his door to escort him to the border. Bellingham didn't fight the officers. He waited politely in the parlor of his town house with a packed suitcase. He had transferred all of his money into traveler's cheques which he hid in the sole of his brown wingtips. When the officers went through his bag at the border, taking his camera, his leather jacket and his socks, they left the shoes, calling them "sissy shoes."
On his second day in the border town, Bellingham read in the newspaper that Corzo had drowned mysteriously and he knew, as anyone would have, that he had been assassinated. The article praised Corzo for his talent and bravery and predicted that the international art community would remember his struggle for generations. Bellingham found no mention of his own name in the article.
While Bellingham soaked in the tub he considered the politest way to remove Ferrini from his immediate future. He had pointed Ferrini in the direction of the market and was distantly glad to have someone cook for him. Bellingham never mastered the art of cooking. He had most of his meals brought in these days, preferring for safety's sake to stay indoors as much as possible. He ate most of his meals in the styrofoam boxes they came in. Back home there was a live-in maid, paid for by his mother, who took care to feed him. Her name was Aurora and she was from the slums near the refineries. Every so often Bellingham made love to her in the laundry room with a deep and furious passion.
He would let Ferrini stay the night, he decided, but by tomorrow he would have to leave. Bellingham allowed his head to sink just under the water when an image of Corzo's bloated body floating in the harbor jolted Bellingham out of the bath. "I should toss him into the street naked like the dog he is," he thought. By the time he sat down at the counter in his bathrobe, peeling away the last bits of green paint from around his cuticles, Ferrini was dishing an aromatic stew onto two separate piles of rice.
"I know you don't believe me," Ferrini said, pulling the armchair to the edge of the table, "but I was really sorry about what happened to Corzo, and to you, too."
At that moment Bellingham knew that he would kill Ferrini in his sleep. It was the first time since he had read the news that Ferrini had been appointed to a prestigious government post that he thought about killing the art critic.
"This is good," Bellingham said, gesturing to his plate and feeling more open to conversation now that he had a plan. "What's in this?"
"Just some herbs and spices. It is impossible to get good vegetables around here, isn't it?"
"I guess so," Bellingham said, not sure of the difference between good vegetables and bad vegetables.
"A nice, mild red would go beautifully with our dinner," Ferrini said in not too off-handed a fashion. "Do you have anything suitable. I didn't have enough cash to buy a bottle."
Bellingham remembered that a certain bottle of wine, given to him as a welcoming gift by his neighbor was still tucked underneath the sink. He never drank it, preferring the strong vodka and whisky he could purchase for a few dollars down the street. He uncorked the bottle and filled two water glasses halfway, placing one glass in front of Ferrini who looked on with mild disgust.
Ferrini took a cautious sip and swished the wine around in his mouth. "Not bad at all," he said. "Subtle hints of fruit and currants but with enough acidity to hold its own against any sort of flavorful dish. Delightful enough to accommodate even the most, ahem, modest of glassware. Nice work, Bellingham."
What made Bellingham's cheeks flush and made the sweat bead up on his forehead and made his stomach tie itself in knots was not the food or the wine but the way that Ferrini seemed to relish critiquing everything. His face took on a whole new light when he was able to judge the fruits of somebody else's labor. Silence, for Ferrini, would be a much graver punishment than death.
There was a period in Bellingham's life, if ten days can be called a period in one's life, when he swore off all material possessions except for his paints and canvasses. He hired two poor people off the street to move all of his stuff into the cellar of his townhouse and he put a lock on the door and threw the key into the sewer. In this minimalist state, Bellingham found it impossible to concentrate on his painting. He paced his bare floors and masturbated frequently. Ever since his exile he had felt similarly. Although he filled more canvasses— he was going through jars of paint by the day— each painting he had done recently felt like a form of either masturbation or floor-pacing. As if Ferrini could hear him thinking this, he asked, "So what have you been doing with yourself these past few years?"
"Planning my triumphant return," Bellingham said, which was untrue.
"Yeah," Ferrini said sarcastically, "I wouldn't plan too much if I were you."
Bellingham forked the last bits of food into his mouth and marveled at Ferrini's ability to get under his skin. "I'm sure you must be exhausted. The couch in the parlor folds out."
"Yes. Yes. Thank you." Ferrini smiled as if Bellingham's attempt at hospitality was nothing but an amusement. "I think we should finish this bottle before toddling off to bed, don't you. Unless, of course, you were planning on saving it to cook with." Belligham didn't need to know much about wine to know that Ferrini was insulting him again.
He poured himself an extra large glass to make the bottle disappear faster and settled in as Ferrini held forth on governments and artists and the tenuous relationship between the two. Ferrini looked at the harsh and unflinching overhead light and reminded himself, perhaps for the hundredth time, to buy one of those standing lamps that cast their light gently upwards. He didn't need one for his downtown studio, he was only there during the day when the sunlight flooded the room like water.
"It's a complete fallacy, don't you think?" Ferrini implored.
"Government of the people. Not only is it impossible, if it were possible would you even want it? Look at this place," he made a gesture which encompassed the apartment, the city block outside and the entire country surrounding it. "They have no real say and they don't seem to care and everybody gets along just fine."
The expression on Ferrini's face when Bellingham would wake him up tonight with his own gun in his face would be priceless. It would be an omnipresent vision that was bound to change the way he painted forever. "I don't know," he said. "I hadn't noticed." Bellingham, his hands shaking slightly, hastily downed the last of his glass. "Let me get you set up for tonight."
Bellingham laid the spare sheet over the couch and placed throw pillow on the arm. Then he peeled a blanket from his own bed and tossed it on the side opposite the pillow. Ferrini rose from his chair, "I thought you said this turned into a bed?" he asked, sounding more tired than angry.
"It does," Bellingham answered. "You put your head here and your feet up right there, put the blanket over you and its just like lying in a small bed." Ferrini rolled his eyes but protested no further. It was important to Bellingham that Ferrini fall asleep knowing that they were not friends.
As Bellingham shuffled down the short hallway to his bedroom he turned just in time to see what he wanted to see: Ferrini putting the snub-nose pistol in the folds of his shirt and placing it gingerly on the lamp stand.
Bellingham lay in bed, imagining the contours of horror that would mark Ferrini's face in the instant before his death and the black copper look the blood might have in the moonlight. He lay awake for three hours until he could make out the definitive noise of Ferrini's snoring. Then he swung his legs over the edge of the bed and methodically cracked each one of his joints. He decided he would not feel carefully for the weapon when he reached the lamp stand, hoping to make up for in speed and resolve what he lacked in stealth.
He slipped one foot into a moccasin and nearly leaped off the bed in fright when he heard a loud crash at the front door. The crash was followed by another more clamorous noise that Bellingham recognized, without the benefit of prior experience, as the sound of his front door being torn off its hinges. Bellingham scurried into the hallway to see two large men in black pouring through the doorway. Ferrini was crouched in front of the couch and scrambled towards the lamp stand as the two men hurried towards him. He fumbled with his pants and Bellingham heard the gun clatter to the floor. Before he could move to retrieve it the two large men were upon him. One dropped his knee hard of Ferrini's back causing the fat man to whimper. "Bellingham, help me," Ferrini cried. The two large men looked up and saw Bellingham standing in his boxers with one moccasin.
"This don't involve you, sir." One of the men said, pointing at Bellingham with a gun that was much larger than Ferrini's. The man stared at him and Bellingham thought he would be recognized and carried off to die alongside Ferrini but he wasn't. One of the men picked up Ferrini by the arms and began shoving him towards the door. When Ferrini began to scream one more time, he grasped him around the head and began dragging him by the neck. The other man gave Bellingham a warning sneer and followed his companion out the door.
After they left, Bellingham went to inspect the damage to his door. The hinges had been ripped clean off and parts of the doorjamb were in splinters. He hefted the door off the ground and propped it up in the doorway, blocking out most of the light in the hallway. Then he went back to his bed and finally drifted off to sleep as the sun came up.
Bellingham woke up before noon feeling refreshed. He poured himself some cereal and left a message with the super about his door. Then he caught a cab to his studio downtown and began painting. He painted until almost midnight without ever stopping to question his choices of color or line.
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