HomeArchivesSubmissionsCorpse MallOur GangHot SitesSearch
Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life

The Art of History
by Willie Smith ||
Author's Links

The autumn I turned thirteen, I went through, for about a day, an aborted stage of trying to be egalitarian. All my life I'd been squishing it to pictures of women. So this one afternoon I decided to give fair play to the men.
     I sat down with the encyclopedia's reproduction of Rodin's The Thinker. He was nude. Intellectually, this sex stuff concerned getting nude with other nudes. Both participants dropped pants, danced about, rubbed around, mutually discovered a state of wicked innocence; and ecstasy was achieved.
Thus far I'd been achieving it strictly with half the population. Taking as representative of that half such convenient springboards as Venus de Milo, Venus on the Half Shell, Peter Paul Reubens, Renoir, Goya and/or whatever Life, Look and The Saturday Evening Post sneaked in by way of photos of more or less naked females.
     Recently, for instance, I'd spent a month of afternoons stroking to a Look special on Nude Descending a Staircase -- not only featuring the blurry painting, but a black & white stroboscopic of an actual starkers young woman obligingly stepping down the risers. Science demonstrating art. What a scene! I hadn't for that whole month experienced a single thought of de Milo's armless harlot. No need to. In fact, it was largely to get outta mind this ghostly slut descending through her self-images that prompted the idea of hey -- suppose I'm missing something by ignoring the two billion nude men in the world? I mean, I was thirteen -- fully aware of the hazards of obsession; how too much of the same good thing can narrow the mind to the capacity of a sardine can.
     Down in the rec room I lay on my side under the ping pong table. Volume 10 of The World Book opened before me to page 214. I had, out of the cage, in my hand, the rednecked canary. But in vain, I hunched on the wall-to-wall, fist pumping as if conducting a Sousa march. The bird wouldn't sing.
     This Thinker guy wasn't much. He had muscles -- granted. Kinda romantic grimace. Good legs. Maybe it was the low penis visibility...
     OK. I zipped, swinging out from under the table. I'd go fetch the Cistine Chapel. Lotsa balls and wieners dangling up there. Exited rec room. Dashed upstairs.
     Mom was vacuuming. Dragging that tiny jet engine around at her heels. A slave to the demon's lust for dust, be it ever so microscopic. She wore a scrubbed faded white-polka-dotted gray cotton dress. Wore it the way a castoff covers a scarecrow. She looked unhappy; but her usual determined self, Mom was nothing, if not stubborn. She never wanted anything to happen. In particular, she desired all those around her to stay alive. House dust might kill. Especially the invisible bits.
     I walked in front of her elephantine progress, arcing the attachment back and forth tightly over the shag. Combing the nap for atomic rays. Or bubonic plague spores. Or maybe next week's flu she could prevent us from getting. I reached into the bookcase. Withdrew Volume 7.
     Mom was pushing fifty. They'd started late. I was the baby of the family. She yelled something, not looking up from frowning at the rug, words drowned in Hoover roar.
     I nodded impatiently at her scrawny, short frame. Even at thirteen I stood two inches taller.
     She was probably telling me what time dinner was. On weekdays, dinner fell between five-thirty and six. It didn't seem to much matter, but she always announced what time it was going to be.
     It was like four; I couldn't tell; didn't have time to consult a watch or the grandfather beside the shelf (after the rug, she'd change to the brush attachment, de rigueur vacuum shelf); I hadda get back downstairs, finish business.
     I winced. Loped the two flights below into the (slamming door behind) rec. Scurried back under the ping pong table. Threw open Volume 7 to page 86...
     No. That was David. Well, he had a peachy unit, it's true; pertly displayed... I flipped to page 89. Yes: loosely-attired God finger-zapping Adam -- huge torso, itty bitty string weenie; mouse nuts. Well... I flipped back... actually David's gear at the moment looked groovier. I rolled the cocoon of my jeans down to my ankles. Returned to the experiment with the grimness of a physicist searching atom-smasher pix for new particles.
     Down went the boxers. Out came the bliss ticket -- good for minimum one free ride every twenty-four hours. But ...
     Still zilch. Chaff, dross. Not a grain, not a glint. Droopy sloth bags. Some dumb cluck head. One-eyed sausage gone stale. Worse'n straining on the pot.
     Maybe tits. David did -- when you thought about it -- possess pretty nifty nipples. Unimaginably exquisite chiselwork.
     Examined results of steel on stone. Goose-bumpy bee stings above taut chest. Contour map to an Olympic gold medal no doubt. But...
     Ah, nuts!
     Suspended experiment. Got out. Got decent. Double-timed back up carpeted stairs. Hell with this chickenfeed. I'd fetch the staircase nude.
     Sure enough, Mom now had attached the brush. Was doing the bookcase. Working over the encyclopedias, as if helping the vacuum select its favorite literature.
     I hopped over the cylindrical body of the machine. Squatted beside the brass-plated log holder -- a relic from the old house, in another development, where we'd had an actual fireplace. These days used as a shiny receptacle for neatly stacking magazines recently received in the mail.
     I delved into the couple dozen slicks piled chronologically. Searched for the Look; or was it a Life, or the Post? I'd recognize the cover. Although, at the moment, couldn't recall exact appearance. Whatever, know it on sight...
     At my back, a click, coupled to a descending whine. Fluff of hose flopped to floor, Over my shoulde, Mom's worried voice, "Honey, do you need to find something?"
     "Schoolwork," I muttered. "For history."
     "History?" she repeated, as if -- aimed in the wrong direction -- the word might explode.
     "History of art," I gritted, not needing this annoyance, retracing several issues, realizing I had failed to register the cover images; too much in my head to see.
     "Oh..." she sighed, intuiting this alien discipline might someday make me rich, famous, happy -- she whom the Great Depression had denied a secondary education, forced to become a shopgirl at fourteen.
     "Are you okay by yourself down In the rec room?"
     "Yes. Fine." Again I doubled back. Still failing to concentrate on the matter at hand.
     "Your father will be home late tonight. What I was trying to say before when you came up."
     She had married Dad the month Hitler overran Poland. Housewife ever since. He, too, poor; education incomplete. Nose to the grindstone twenty-five years government job. Nosed his family squarely into the middle class.
     "He's going bowling with friends from the office. Sis has a date. It's just us two. What time would you like to eat?"
     "Whenever," I stared at an especially stupid Norman Rockwell on the July Post, "you want."
     "Six okay?"
     "Fine." I scrutinized a blown-up Eisenhower on an August Look; even the guy's smile looked bald, flanked by faded freckles -- or were those age spots?
     "Liver sound good? With french fries, canned peas, apple sauce dessert?"
     I grunted. Stopped at a new Buick Special plastered across the September Life.
     "Because we could have hot dogs instead. I know you're not always in the mood for liver. Liver is your father's favorite. We could eat liver some other night, Also in the freezer, I have that hamburger."
     Bowling. Meaning Dad would come home around ten schnockered. His hamburger-liver-hotdog-nose hallucinated across the powderblue specimen of the newest Buick. The fins were reduced. The portholes more pronounced. Rocket exhaust belched from Dad's nostrils. His bulbous schnozz sleek with vodka sweat. He was a closet alcoholic. We were not allowed to say it. Not allowed to say we were not allowed. Forbidden by frowns, conversation gaps and subject changes to so much as bring up why it couldn't be brought up. The office exhausted Dad. He came home tired and angry and clumsy and violent. It was all a big secret. Just like next year's cars.
     "So all this time you're down there studying the art of history. Honey -- why don't you ever come up here to study?"
     Wait -- I grasped the Life in both hands; this ish featured the beginning of a woman's ass crack! Dad's satanic pâté melted into a Vaselined photo I remembered was the focus (for me) of the spread inside:
     A fleshtone-and-cream 4-door Belair Chevy parked in the bayou, under a Spanish-moss-draped cypress alongside a pond. A gorgeous automobile. Anybody would gladly trade 3,000 hours in a government office to possess such a treasure.
     In the foreground, obscured in rising vapor stood nude -- spine to us -- barely hip-deep in the water -- a statuesque brunette. One shapely alabaster arm held coiled to her head of raven locks. To keep them dry. She was saving the hair for you. Who had driven her here.
     The Chevy had so pleased her, her dress had vanished. She had taken a little dip. And now was wading ashore. Eager -- in the backseat to explore ecstasy. Or why not on the hood? on the roof? in the dirt? nobody around...
     "I need to do homework alone. You know that."
     She chuckled nervously. "You don't hafta snap, Honey!"
     I'd not yet tested the Chevrolet nymph. (Glad at the moment I couldn't see Mom's hair; just sense its steelwool hovering over my shoulder). Issue only arrived other day. Still scoring with the staircase nude; figured another handful of thrills there. Just then I spotted in the Buick's portholes the alternating views of the stair gall's wobbled-into-one-another nipples. Such treats: thick and plump, dark. Put to shame David's teeny zits; all the failure a man's would ever amount to...
     "So how about if I thaw that burger? Save the liver for some night your father can eat with us?"
     Orgasm functions like poison ivy. You get the itch. You try to ignore the itch. The itch builds.
     "Hamburger is fine."
     Learned orgasm over the summer. Got a Greek root. Comes to us through the French. Still preferred my pet name: Peewee Squish.
     "Are you sure?"
     The way to soothe poison ivy is to hold your blistered wrist under the faucet; turn on the hot. As the water runs hotter, the affected area itches with increasing fury. But when the stream reaches about 120 degrees...
     "Yes I'm sure. I hate liver. Besides..."
     ...the torture bursts into euphoria.
     "...when he sits at the table with eyes closed, sweating profusely, head bowed, hair falling in his face -- I doubt it matters what he eats."
     When steam clouds from the sink and you're pushing maybe 145 degrees, it feels fabulous. Sheets of raw pleasure envelope the arms. Echo in the spine. Give ya goose scalp. The blood skips like piano wire rope. An extremely pleasurable experience. Lasts about three seconds. Then the water hits 160...
     I stood up from the log holder. Still beholding -- held in both hands a foot from my face - the Life, doggedly ignoring my mother. Out of the corner of an eye glimpsed her wrinkled face gray with anger.
     "Don't say that about your father!" she hissed in church tones. Mom didn't go to church. The family -- her church...
     A spinal reflex yanks from the near-boiling water the hand the instant agony explodes.
     The scenes dissolved through one another into an anonymous car on slick paper. Poison ivy choking the bayou, the last fading fancy...
     "Hamburger will be fine. I like hamburger. I'll let you know when I'm through studying, you can come down vacuum the rec, you want."
     The affected area then ceases to complain for up to two hours. Feels at peace. Sometimes a trifle scalded; especially if you strive to override the reflex, reaching for some novelty beyond agony.
     "Quiet dinner be nice... for a change."
     As if itch accelerated through euphoria -- savaged into a wall of excruciation -- temporarily kills the nerves. Not exactly stopping beating your head against the wall; but rather hammering your skull into the plaster till consciousness enters a simpler, more primitive space. This treatment -- like the Squish itself -- my very own discovery.
     I descended the stairs, at each step imagining adorning myself one article of clothing less.
     "Honey! What does Life," she hollered over the railing, "have to do with the art of history?"
     Maybe if I didn't live in a poison ivy patch I wouldn't so often hafta scratch.
     "It has an article in here," I babbled, kept going, in my mind removing underpants, "on the Old Masters. Assignment concerns that era. I need to find a date."
     I envisioned her snarling: "Don't huff off like that -- your father works hard to buy those magazines." But no. Just the silent stew.
     I didn't care. I worked hard, laying in bed awake in the dark, putting up with midnight alcoholic rages. If I slept better, maybe I wouldn't need to masturbate.
     A Latin word. Another dead language.
     "I worry about some of those pictures!" she yelped at the top of my skull (now obviously leaning over the railing (she on to me...?
     (Nah -- she didn't have anything on me...
     (Glanced down, to make sure still had on clothes,belt buckled, zipper zipped, buttons buttoned, laces snarled in double knots ... ))
     "You don't look at the wrong art -- do you?"
     (How did she (did she) know?)
     "Because some of it is... dirty!"
     Tilted head back. Trapped her crow's-feet eyes -- for the first time that afternoon -- in my own. "No, Mom. Strictly the classics. Graeco-Roman landscapes, Dutch interiors. Say... could I have a slice of provolone on my burger? Melted like you always do just right?"
     Three seconds lumbered by. An interval long and wide and heavy as a Mack truck. The better to let it pass, my mind switched lanes. The grandfather ticked stickily.
     (Sis the only family member went to church. A nice good clean place to meet dates. Everybody glad Sis attended -- Oh, Dad made the occasional drunken snipe; but you could hardly decipher the wording; then he would start screaming and swearing. Sis would leave for choir practice (she the organist). Mom fall angrily to polishing silverware, putting away dishes, scouring whatever; and I would creep off with a book...)
     Against the background of the popcorn ceiling, Mom slowly brightened, The wrinkles smoothed. The thin lips upturned. Her eyes softened. "Sure, Hon. I know how you love cheeseburgers. And they're better for you."
     My small smile died, as my head again slumped and I hurried down the rest of the stairs, muttering, "Yeah."
     "Just be careful," her afterthought trailed off, "with that Life. "
     No response required. Showdown headed off. Situation renormalized. All clammed up.
     Or why not Venus on the Half Shell? Volume 2, page 48? Well... mean another trip up. Risk further hassle. Nah -- go with the bayou babe.
     Slammed rec door shut. Crawled back under table. Shoved aside encyclopedias. Flung open the Life. Flipped to section on next year's autos.
     Realized -- stripping to feel at one with the skinny dipper -- I'd had a belly fulla equality. No sense in being too logical. This sex stuff rooted in the insane.
     Clutched the ticket.
     From now on -- turned her mentally around to smile my way -- I'd just stick to my own stinking instincts.

Image by Andrew

HomeArchivesSubmissionsCorpse MallOur GangHot SitesSearch
Exquisite Corpse Mailing List: Subscribe | Unsubscribe
©1999-2002 Exquisite Corpse - If you experience difficulties with this site, please contact the webmistress.