Ponder, “How long can I do this until I believe that it is possible?”
Salt on a Slug
A play that is mainly stage directions. The main character remains unnamed. She reads the stage directions from an armchair placed downstage left. Kurt, Gemma, Jordan, Joanna, and Eileen (in order of appearance) chime in occasionally for a few choice lines (the italics)—walking on stage to do so and promptly then retreating. These sparse lines might be dialogue or subconscious thought. A tortoise remains on stage throughout, standing still beside the armchair. However, it is, of course, a tortoise and therefore we run the chance that it will wander about the stage. Perhaps into the audience. Perhaps no one is watching at all.
Stroking a tortoise shell, he decides that tonight for dinner they will serve steak and that the guests must be advised immediately. Kurt sits at the table in a garden with the tortoise, deep in thought. One need not know if the tortoise is alive or dead.
My guests, they must be advised immediately.
In the kitchen, pots clamor over the sound of the radio announcer, playing merely as background noise and certainly not to announce the news. Gemma, the cook, realizes with a burst of anxiety that it must be time to announce dinner to the guests. It is a quick walk from the kitchen through the warm light of the window that leads out into the garden. Halfway down the path, she and Kurt meet. The evening delivery from the butcher arrives, the van screeching into the driveway. The scent of exhaust fumes. It is perfect timing.
Steak will be served tonight for dinner.
He hadn’t eaten red meat in many months. His teeth gnaw aggressively at the steak in a quest for much-needed iron. The taste is of a familiar unfamiliarity that Jordan had sought in coming to the house. Outside the window, the garden is empty now, and the tulips retreat their petals as they meet the evening chill. Jordan had spent all afternoon attempting to sketch their likeness, feeling as though it was the charcoal, the damned, dried out charcoal and that he’d surely have done much better had he brought with him his pen and inkwell. That was it. At dinner, from his seat at the table, he counts the tulips in their garden beds, gazing out the window as his teeth tear into this rare serving of meat, surmising his day’s work. A quiet getaway for the artist, bountiful landscapes, large open spaces, dinner served at 6:00 p.m.—he recalls from the pamphlet. The salt is passed from him to a woman at the far end of the table. The ridged edges of the salt shaker feel strange in her hands. Joanna has a rounded salt shaker at home. She has come here for exactly these kinds of new experiences—to leave her comfort zone, to alter the settings around her. Maybe then that last chapter of Joanna’s book will be written. Ridged salt shakers and country roads. Large open spaces, manicured grounds, the company of like-minded artistic individuals, rest and creative relaxation.
Tortoises can live up to 120 years. Time is like the back of a turtle shell . . . And I am just sitting here, stroking it. A statement typical of Jordan. It is after dinner and mosquitoes buzz up against the screen lining the dimly lit porch. They bother Joanna, and that frustrates her—she has come to the house specifically for these types of novelty natural distractions. Itches, buzzes and thumps of a certain sensual quality. The things that in the city one would complain to a landlord about but in the country are considered kitsch. If you really believed that to be true of time, your paintings would be much less structured than they are. She immediately regrets the rebuff and lights up a cigarette as a distraction from her voicing of it. Joanna thus far has remained one of the quietest guests at the house. She had introduced herself as a writer in hopes it would excuse her from any expectation of wasting frivolous words on other guests. I beg your pardon. After years of reporting on the art beat she knows better than to ask a painter like Jordan to connect his abstract philosophy to any concrete application on the canvas. What I mean is, if you’re so irreverent to time, then why be so beholden to a style as you are? Why, even, participate in a movement? The tortoise’s shell swirls into unrecognizable patterns and tones that brush Jordan’s palms, its texture unpredictably smooth or rough, smooth or rough. He strokes the shell and grows angrier. The tulips in their beds out in the darkened garden taunt him. An artist’s style is the divot he makes into the flat mass of time. He is clearly drunk. Joanna slaps a bug dead on her elbow and gets up to leave the porch with one final thought. Through the smoke of her cigarette, Then how would your tulips look so much like these tulips?
Eileen and Kurt sit at the computer. “A quiet getaway for the artist.” Is this the proper text box Eileen?. . . “Retreat to the tranquil countryside to work away from home” . . . or better . . . “Retreat to the tranquil countryside to a ‘studio away from home.’” “Open spaces . . .” No wait. “Green landscapes, space for you thoughts, and intimate company . . .” That sounds queer, “. . . inspiring company. Hearty meals by our dedicated staff, bountiful landscapes, large open spaces, dinner served at 6:00 p.m.” Now how’s that? She is shuffling stacks of pamphlets—folds of newsprint that now feel antiquated between her fingers, relegated to the place of a gestural object. They print just twenty copies a year to distribute to the local shops and in galleries in the city, saving a few to keep in stacks much like their stacks of family photos from the days when the girls still came to visit. The girls would have been helpful in setting up these online ads. Artists don’t want “hearty” meals, Kurt—too heavy for creative types. We can’t make it sound like they’ll have indigestion the whole time. On the leaflet’s centerfold is an illustration of the house drawn by Eileen back when the place still symbolized creative space for her. These days, she is more caretaker than curator—at the disposal of the drunks, narcissists, and silent types they carefully select from a competitive pool of applicants each year. Kurt, logically, is the face of the Kurt Shobeck Residency in the Valley, where young artists came to emulate the reclusive working conditions and irreverent style of the famed master—the champion of a movement. He commands the press and the after-dinner debates at the house. Eileen fetches canvases, switches saw blades, collects seventy-five exactly irregular tree trunks from the riverbank—anything and everything to enable the guests to create what they presumably came there to create. It was a work in and of itself. She stands up suddenly. I must go water the tulips. Jordan says they wilt by mid-afternoon otherwise. She exits to the porch through Joanna’s still fresh cigarette smoke and into the moonlit garden.
Gemma follows a carefully handwritten recipe, readjusting her glasses as if by improving her sight she would improve her understanding of the esoteric writing on the page. A RECIPE FOR RICE PUDDING THAT SUPERSEDES THERMODYNAMICS. It is the product of a previous guest’s residency at the house. An artist turned writer, turned postmodern chef known in art publishing circles for her eccentric poetry and taste for pills. The recipe was meant to be printed in large format, scanned to give it an aged quality, and then printed again and installed in the house gallery alongside several kinetic sculptures in wood and metal. It was not meant, as was the case, to have ended up in Gemma’s stack of inventory papers and magazine recipe cutouts. Earlier, Gemma had caught a waft of summer heat meeting the spelt plants in the garden and thought she ought to prepare a dessert for the next night’s meal. She champions a specific genre of creativity that declines to acknowledge itself. Her meals attest to this. Miraculous stacks, shards, and drizzles of whatever is fresh in whatever form has come to mind to be served, eaten and hopefully left out of the guests’ after-dinner conversations. This recipe agitates her natural sensibilities, asking her to behave absurdly with the simple ingredients it lists. What the original author had once attributed to a feminist bastardization of ’60s instruction-based art Gemma attributes to a poor translation from French or maybe some Scandinavian tongue. She prepares the dish nonetheless.
SIMULTANEOUSLY HEAT AND COOL THE INDIVIDUAL GRAINS OF RICE
AS YOU DO, REMIND YOURSELF THAT THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE
WHEN FINISHED WITH THE FINAL GRAIN, SUBMERGE THE RICE IN BOILING,
SWEETENED MILK AND STIR IN A COUNTERCLOCKWISE MOTION UNTIL THE RICE COOKS TO A BURN
NOTE THE TEMPERATURE OF THE ROOM
WHAT IS OUTSIDE THE WINDOW?
ARE YOU EMBARRASSED? ARE YOU HUNGRY?
WHO SAID SO?
SWITCH THE HAND YOU ARE STIRRING WITH AND CONTINUE THE COUNTER-CLOCKWISE MOTION UNTIL THE RICE RETURNS TOO ITS ORIGINAL UNCOOKED STATE
AS YOU DO SO PONDER, HOW LONG CAN I DO THIS UNTIL I BELIEVE THAT IT IS POSSIBLE?
Orange is the scent in the garden. Smooth or rough is how Eileen’s shovel feels as the earth meets it, pushing through webs and nodes and roots. Tending to the sprouts and seedlings is only bearable at night, when the wet heat has subsided, conversations are quieted, and the scent of lilies is strong. My hands grow hard and dry. She will harvest the largest, healthiest buds to leave in Jordan’s studio the next morning. He is fascinated by how they wilt folding in upon their own aesthetic logic, a compounding of figuration and abstraction—but needs a constant abundance of the fresh flowers to make the comparison. This means a harsh regimen of weeding and pruning, pulling at the root but not breaking it. Death held up to life under a work lamp. She wonders if we grow beautiful things just so that we can watch them die. And I have swapped my paints for garden hoes.
Dull green light hums at Jordan as he watches over the garden beds from his work desk. He has been in the studio since he left the porch and drinking since before dinner. He drinks more to mimic the acetone musk of his home studio in the city than to reach any bodily stupor. The ripping up and throwing out of papers has become more of a choreographed habit than an artistic need. Bristol paper chafing his finger pads and compressing under his strength, then the release and the toss to the wastebasket. The smooth turns to rough and on and on. The reverb of the charcoal is the only real indication to him of his work as his eyes are tired and barely distinguish one tulip sketch from another. Known for the fast and furious success of his highly stylized and graphic floral prints that gained him gallery representation directly out of undergrad, the now mid-career artist has yet to take his strict visual language to another level. He repeats the refrain from memory, and often. The melodic trance is interrupted as he notices movement in the garden. The petals are the smoothest at the point right before the wilt begins, drying seeks suppleness, overtaking the softest parts first. The deconstruction of the figurative towards something somehow more original—a roughness. A wave passed through the flower beds as buds disappeared and popped back up again. Out of the edge of the plot the head of the tortoise emerges buffered by the greens and blues of the garden’s nighttime light. Jordan’s mechanical movement stops short, the memory of the actions pulsing through his body as he witnesses the creature peek its head out and proceed, one by one, to chomp away at the freshly weeded and fertilized bed of bloomed tulips. His subject matter. The tortoise bites bud by bud and Jordan—no time for mourning or panic—grabs the blunt charcoal and began to draw rapidly. The tortoise beheads the tulips one by one. With each fleeing tulip his motions grow faster and the images larger. He revels in the act of consumption—of disappearance. To not wilt at all—to be not smooth nor rough. The image is there and then gone and on and on. The garden bed is now barren and Jordan’s sketch-boards full. The drawings look much the same as those populating the wastebasket.
Hardwood against soft knuckles, a rippling through the forearm. Joanna knocks on Jordan’s bedroom door, looking to apologize for her harsh tone earlier. The knock is answered with silence. She lays her apology aside for another day, or, perhaps, never at all. She is prone to offering apologies to male artists who’s egos simply do not necessitate them. She finds her way back to the porch, tracing the path of her forgotten cigarette smoke and taking a seat on the steps overlooking the garden. There is a light coming out of the studio building and a hum in the garden. One hum meets another. She thinks of the remaining chapter of her book—the reason she came to the house. It is rare that the residency accepts writers without a visual arts practice. Her works are known for their strong visual character though over the course of the month here, she has often considered that, perhaps, she had been invited as a way of adding a new critical edge to the group of residents. The quiet writer woman as someone to juxtapose their practices against—at the service of the painters and sculptors in their stylistic development. A tribute. Near her right hand she notices a baby slug—recently fed, engorged—trailing swirls of slime in its wake. She remembers growing up by the bay: the backyard and the intense humidity. Of her brother teaching her to kill slugs and reveling in the spectacle. She looks closely at the slug and thinks of how much she would like to pour salt over it—to watch its fizzle and dissolve and transform and disappear. What a beautiful image that would be to watch under the dense, green summer night air around her. We are in the service of images. Though she simultaneously is struck with a pang of panic and grief at the thought of it. To kill this creature for her own visual pleasure? To take a life just for the look of it. She wonders if we make beautiful things just so that we can watch them die.
It is morning now. Everyone is tired. It was a long night and that is made very clear as the residents, Eileen, and Kurt all assemble for breakfast. Kurt’s strong bravado. Fuel for the day’s work. Shall we!? He strokes the tortoise which he holds at his breast. The procession reaches the kitchen where they find Gemma over the stove, still stirring a pot of RICE PUDDING THAT . . . A devoted chef! An artist in the kitchen! Kurt announces. Gemma is startled. She comes to quickly and performs her duty, humbly spooning bowls of rice pudding into china saucers. The pudding has been burnt to a deep, dark brown. A saccharine and heavy scent abounds. We make beautiful things so we can watch them burn!! The residents are unphased by Gemma’s morning revelation. They eat the pudding; it is exquisitely delicious.