Previously published in Exhuming Alexandria
The Cat had been Calico
Previously published in Exhuming Alexandria
Lamb stood at the intersection of Farm to Market roads 1008 and 24, chain-smoking Pall Malls and repeatedly whistling the one-note guitar solo from ‘Cinnamon Girl.’ She stood motionless on the northeast corner of the crossroad, three empty cigarette packs, and 63 smashed butts scattered about her feet. Lamb had been waiting a while.
She had spent the last forty-two days walking the three hundred and ninety-six miles from her apartment in Fort Worth to the desolate intersection fifteen miles northwest of Muleshoe. For five full weeks, Lamb walked sundown to sunup partially because it was cooler, but mainly, by traveling after dark and sticking to the shadows she could avoid the meth-fueled truckers who almost always tugged their air horns as they passed and sometimes pulled over to offer unwanted and unsolicited rides. Most of the time the assholes were not talking about a lift to the next town.
Two days west of Sweetwater and two hundred and sixteen miles into the trip, Lamb quit removing her boots in the mornings. Her feet were so swollen she knew she would never get them back on if she ever took them off. At times she thought she would never make it to Muleshoe, but she did. Lamb had seen only one vehicle since turning onto FM 1008 for the final leg of her journey. A beat-up white Econoline van with midnight black tinted windows had come within inches of running her down only five miles from her destination. The van had come barreling along, half on the shoulder, at a high rate of speed, and almost clipped her before she jumped, tucked, and rolled off the asphalt and down to the bar ditch. Lamb never heard the van approaching. She only became aware she was about to be roadkill when the Econoline’s headlights bathed her in that eerie blue halogen light and threw her own shadow before her.
The air was so still that the gray haze of the cigarette smoke hung around Lamb like tension at Thanksgiving when drunk uncle Ed starts talking politics at the table. At the stroke of midnight, Lamb bent down and rummaged through her backpack. Pulling out a sack of salt she struggled to get it open because her fingernails were trimmed past the quick. Once open, Lamb began wildly shaking the bag in all directions, spraying salt like confetti. Now empty, she bent down and rifled through the backpack again. One by one she pulled out three black cat bones, two femurs, and a rib. The bones were black, the cat had been calico. She tossed one femur over her left shoulder, dropped the other at her feet, then closed her eyes and tossed the rib straight up in the air. When the rib failed to fall back to earth, Lamb relaxed, opened her eyes, pulled the Pall Malls from her jacket pocket, withdrew one, lit it, inhaled deeply, and went back to waiting.
The still air grew heavy. The stars overhead did not twinkle, they shone steadily. The bats, flying high above Lamb feasting on mosquitoes, and occasionally dodging the odd flying cat rib, heard the slow approach of the Lincoln Continental nine minutes before Lamb. Slowly the sound of whitewall tires rolling on asphalt could be heard by Lamb’s frail human ears. She did not turn or in any way acknowledge the approach of the coal-black 1964 Lincoln Continental as it slowly rolled to a halt eighteen feet away from where she stood.
The back passenger suicide door opened and a tall, thin man stepped out of the Lincoln. He had no outstanding features save a pencil-thin mustache. His clothes were black and for a splash of color, he wore a lavender beret rakishly tilted atop his head. If the man had theme music, it would have been written and performed by ZZ Top circa 1978, but he did not have theme music because this was life, not a movie, so the night remained awkwardly silent.
Leaving open the suicide door the man made his way to the front of the Lincoln, planted himself firmly, feet shoulder-width apart, with his hands clasped at his waist.
The man and Lamb stood in silence for three minutes.
You called me? His words sounded thin and danced through the heavy air.
Lamb turned to face him but did not look him in the eyes. “I’m here to strike a bargain if the price is right and the return is fair weighted.”
The price is non-negotiable, and I always deliver as promised.
“As I understand the transaction, you grant me wealth and fame in exchange for my soul.” Her voice was steady, but Lamb was not metaphorically shaking in her boots.
Before we jump to the nitty-gritty, tell me just who am I dealing with?
“You don’t know who I am?”
Oddly enough, I do not know who you are. When I am summoned, there’s no caller I.D.
Fair enough, Lamb. You may call me Hoof.
Hoof smiled and nodded.
“Fine. Whatever. We’re not here for niceties, we’re here to strike a bargain.”
But niceties make it so much more pleasant.
“Can we please cut to the chase? I give you my soul and in return, my paintings will sell, for a lot of money, and I will gain a worldwide reputation as an artist. That is the bargain. Correct?”
“What the hell, Hoof, if that is your name, why would I sell my soul except for wealth and fame?”
No reason. Absolutely no reason at all to sell your soul except for wealth and fame, and many would argue even at that price it’s a sucker’s play.
“You really aren’t a good salesman.”
Don’t need to be.
“So, spill it. What’s the catch?”
No catch, but there are rules.
Sure. Let me pose a question to you, Lamb. Can you paint my portrait, right here and now?
“If I had a canvas, brushes, and a palette I could.”
So, you can’t make your art without tools?
“Of course not.”
Well, same holds true for old Hoof. I can’t do what I do, which is make you famous and successful, without certain tools. One of those tools being the subject, in this case, you, have to have at least a modicum of talent.
“I have talent. I just can’t catch a break.”
Of course. Happens every time and that’s where I come in. I provide the breaks. I can make it so the right people become aware of your work. I can even make it so they are inclined to view your work favorably, but, and this is a big but, I can’t make them say, let alone, think your work is great, timeless, or groundbreaking, if, in truth, your work is shit.
“Then what good are you? I may as well keep knocking on doors myself.”
You could do that, but the doors would never open.
“Artists get discovered all the time.”
My artists get discovered. No one gets a break except through me.
“I’m calling bullshit.”
It’s true. Every artist, in any discipline, that has ever, in the history of humankind, broken through to any modicum of success, has first made a bargain with old Hoof.
“Every single one.”
You heard right.
A dreamlike countenance came across Hoof’s face as he fondly harkened to Michelangelo.
Little known fact; Michelangelo was an extremely picky eater. Imagine, living in Italy, and only eating boiled meat and potatoes. Crazy, right?
Lamb is not interested in Michelangelo’s eating habits. “It’s just… I have trouble believing that every single artist ever…”
Hoof shrugged his shoulders.
“What about God? Surely, God has exalted artists who create great works in his name?”
Let me stop you down for a second and then I will address your question. Get this straight, God does not like it when people use pronouns in referring to God. God just likes to be called God. God is neither he nor she nor it. God is God. And as to your question, God doesn’t work that way. I will repeat myself one last time. Every successful artist, even those praising God, became successful by signing on the dotted line with me. Every. Single. One. Ever.
“I still find that hard to believe.”
Don’t give a hoot what you believe. I know. And here’s another tidbit. I’m not talking only painters, such as yourself, or writers, musicians, and the like. I once bargained for the soul of a guy who could fold pizza boxes like nobody’s business. He was the best pizza box folder who ever lived. Before coming to me he was just toiling away, getting by, known as a really good employee who could fold boxes really fast, but, you know the drill, he was only making a living, nothing more. But man, could he fold pizza boxes. Developed his own method. Well, we struck a bargain and after that, he won a world championship in pizza box folding.
“There is such a thing?”
There is. He set the world record for folding pizza boxes, and now he owns his own pizza franchises, he was given a patent for his pizza box folding method and was even featured in a national television commercial. People know his name. He has money. He’s living the good life.
“And he folds pizza boxes… And you made him rich and famous.”
He did things no one had ever done before. He was a creator. He had a skill and honed it to an art. That makes him an artist in my book.
“So, getting back to God. Are you telling me God could not make me successful?”
Oh, hell no. Listen to me, I said God doesn’t work that way. Of course, God could make you wealthy and famous with a mere thought. Wildly, crazy successful, God is God. God can do anything God wishes. God simply chooses not to. God is more concerned with a person’s unity and inner peace and one on one relationship with God and the universe.
“That doesn’t make sense to me.”
Do not waste your time cyphering out God’s reasoning. It will get you nowhere, believe me.
“So, can you…”
“But I didn’t ask you my question.”
But I know what’s coming, it always comes, and the answer is no, I cannot tell how much talent you have or how much fame and success you will achieve if you make a bargain with me.
“Cannot tell or will not tell.”
Cannot. Truthfully, I cannot. I just met you sugar, how in blazes do I know how talented you are?
“I have some pictures of my work on my phone, or if you have a hotspot in your Lincoln, I can show you my website. There’s no damn service out here.”
Hoof waves her off.
I am no judge of human artistic abilities. Hell, I thought Picasso was a no-talent poser and George Clacker was going to set the world afire.
“Who’s George Clacker?”
Sometimes people are piss poor judges of their own talent. They are either imitators, not creators, or they are simply, atrociously, horribly bad at their chosen endeavor. If that is indeed the case with you, well…
“So, it is possible I could sell my soul and nothing changes. Nothing happens. I get nothing in return for my soul. I just continue to rot in obscurity, painting my paintings that no one sees, let alone buys.”
Is it rotting? Really?
“It is rotting, really. I’ve been rotting my whole life.”
How do you feel when you visualize the painting on a blank canvas.
“Like I have to pull it out. I have to fill the canvas with what I see in my head.”
How do you feel when you finish a painting?
“That is the only time I feel complete. Like I have a purpose. Like I’m worth more than a littler shit.”
And the painting exists, right? It is in the universe. It is a part of…
Hoof motions all around him and gazes up at the Milky Way.
“I’ve heard all that art for art’s sake crap, and I ain’t buying it. If a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound?”
Oh, yes, it definitely makes a sound.
“But if nobody hears it, what’s the point?”
The other trees hear it. The dirt hears it and feels it. The sky hears it. It is part of the universe and the universe knows the tree and that it has fallen.
“You are so full of shit.”
I get that a lot.
“What’s to stop you from taking my soul, doing nothing at all to help me, then, when I complain, you just say, (mocking Hoof’s speech pattern) ‘Sorry, sugar, I guess you’re just a no-talent piece of shit.’”
First of all, I told you I am no judge of talent, so I would never call you a ‘no talent’, and second of all, I told you, there are rules. That is not how this works, I always keep my end of the bargain. Always.
Lamb stares at Hoof but still does not look him in the eye. She’s mulling him over.
Let me ask you this. What do you really want? Do you want fame and fortune? A stack of money, yea high.
Hoof raises his hand far above his head, thirty feet above his head, to be precise.
And do you want your work to hang in high toned galleries and important museums? Because if that is what you want, I’m your guy.”
Or, do you want to have your name listed and counted as one of the great artists of your generation, or hell, maybe even all time?
“I don’t know. Maybe both.”
Fair enough. But let me tell you this, you cannot imagine the art created in what you call obscurity, that no one, save the creators themselves, God, and the universe, have seen. Some of this art is so beautiful God wept when it was created.
“That sounds a little hyperbolic.”
I have it on good account as true.
“So, if I understand this, what you are trying to tell me is, God and the universe see my paintings and my paintings become part of the universe, whether anyone else ever sees them or not.”
God and the universe see all creation.
“But neither God nor the universe will pay my bills.”
They will not. Neither God or the universe gives a whit about bills. Bills go away. Everything goes away, except that which is created.
“OK, I don’t think that makes any sense at all, but I guess it is something to think about.” Lamb pondered and pondered some more. She paced and smoked two more cigarettes, lighting the second directly from the cherry of the first.
Hoof stood patiently in front of his black, 1964 Lincoln Continental. The engine had idled through a gallon of gas in the time Hoof and Lamb had been bargaining.
Finally, Lamb turned, faced Hoof, and looked him straight in the eyes. “You got a pen?”
Hold up the index finger of your writing hand.
Lamb held up the index finger of her right hand.
Hoof’s pupils turned smoldering coal red.
Your signature is writ with fire.