0-1: “STEPS ALONG THE MURDER MILE”


0-1: “STEPS ALONG THE MURDER MILE”
by Gregory Hernandez


The Hooded Man half-crouched over the grave, while the Lady of Flowers stood away to his left, looking away from the grave at the storm-cloud filled sky. What fascinated me about me most about the painting, was an illusion the artist had managed to pull off: giving the impression of their being a third figure in between the two of them. It was either a tombstone or a third mourner, obscured by a flurry of grey leaves.

I was admiring it in the Spring Street Gallery, when I was slightly startled to get a tap on the shoulder and have the artist introduce himself.  He was a little man, Western European in accent and manner; he had short-cropped white hair, a Van Dyke beard and a trim mustache. He rolled his r’s like a Belgian but clipped his consonants in a German manner. It was, all in all, hard to tell where he was from.”

That is the first in a series,” the little European man said. He indicated three other paintings.

“They certainly seem dissimilar.” I conducted a closer scrutiny of the indicated paintings. I wouldn’t have guessed that they were by the same painter. “The first one looks a lot like Wrightson,” I observed, “but the others are kind of like Seurat crossed with Lichtenstein. What’s the series called?”

(“Explore my trust: brilliant…open…warm… never down.”)

The older man considered. “That’s a very interesting comparison,” he offered. “I have to say, I haven’t heard that one before…. But to answer your question, the first painting is called In The Shadow Of The Towers, the other three comprise the series I call The Banality Of Evil.”

“They’re portraits, right?” The first portrait was of course very recognizable. The 20th Century’s most overused icon of evil. “That’s Adolph Hitler – but who are all those faces in the background?”

(“A forest of smoke.”)

“Oh, they’re all real people as well,” the artist replied. “They are the bankers and private financiers and heads of state and major businesses that allowed the German death machine to trample thru history with it bloody jackboots.”

The gallery had a number of other people in it. A tall lanky African man was talking to a mousy-haired bookish-looking woman in her mid-forties. The man had a big booming voice and a seemingly poor command of the language. He was interjecting these non-sequitors that kept jarring me out of the conversation I was having.

I forced myself to be polite, and focus. “So like I say, I recognize the first one,” I reiterated, “But who are the others?”

(“The universe bleeds away questions like ferocious liquid.”)

Cerebration #1: life with the turbans

(“We always think we’re above.”)

“Celebrate – eat, bleed, think – beauty is ethereal, sublime – and transient.”

cerebration #2: life with the lions

“Are these pictures for sale?”

“Certainly not,” the man said, at first defensively, before softening up almost immediately. “They are an indulgence of mine. You see, I am the gallery owner as well as the artist.”

“The best of both worlds,” I said good-humoredly, and he agreed. We both laughed, whatever tension there was disappeared as easily as it had cropped up.

“Madness was my garment, crazed chaos was the fuel which made my devices run. We had no myths where I came from, no bigger-than-life legends, no stories. The commodity was rare and precious. Lies were unknown, politics nonexistent. So was idealism, poetic aspirations, and despair. All of these existed in abundance in this great land I’d adopted.”

I excused myself gently, but firmly, from the artist’s grasp. Between his droning voice and the African’s booming doggerel he felt almost hypnotized. I had the odd sensory experience of seeming to have the painting overlap with my surroundings. The painting and the painting in the gallery seemed to superimpose. I hadn’t had an experience like that since when I was a kid. Some mild form of epileptic episode, never to be repeated, until the gallery.

Awash in unreality, the Hooded Man seemed to come alive, and he spoke with the African’s voice: “Explore streams, explore your poisons; make the universe remember you.”

I was; it would. I swam the stream, waiting to see where the current would take me next.

“Questions from change may blow like smoke.”

I had to get out of there. Leaving the ghosts and the gallery behind, I made my way out into the late summer air of SoHo in the afternoon. All the rest of the day I kept overhearing people; somehow their odd snatches of conversation would seem to come to me in the African’s deep voice.

“Time is delicious when savored with close friends,” I would hear someone say in his voice. And their companion might answer, impossibly in the same voice: “Be open and brilliant as a tree.”

I took the train home to Brooklyn, still with that sense of unreality. Time felt heavy, but the day felt light. It was the kind of day where evening seemed a long way off.

I found myself dozing on the train.

In my state of half-sleep, I heard somebody say “Sacred warm moments breed brilliant cold magic.” It got my attention. But when I opened my eyes, there was no one nearby. It didn’t seem like the other auditory hallucinations I’d been having. The words had come from someone close-by, I could have sworn it. I shrugged my shoulders and rubbed my eyes. Next was my stop.

I made my way home and got ready for the shortened work week ahead.

I didn’t always sleep well, but the dream state seemed to carry me through the night. I had forgotten to set my alarm, so the next day I awoke later than usual. Labor day weekend was over and it was time to start the work week. Groggily, I turned on the radio. I noticed the date on the calendar. My birthday was the 18th; a week away. I listened to the news…

“Sacred warm moments breed brilliant cold magic,” the voice had said. A city’s softly spoken whisper of a prayer? For the day ahead? The dead and the soon to be dead?

Sacred warm moments breed brilliant cold magic.

Amen.

Yesterday is a question which drinks perfume from the air. Tomorrow the answers would rise like smoke. “A forest of smoke.”

Two days later, I was in a freefalling panic; my funds had vanished, my identity had disappeared, and the world had changed. The gallery had burned down… and I was on the run from the government. I had taken my first steps along the murder mile.

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