Chapter 1: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5

the  pursemonger  of  fugu


greg  kramer

chapter one (8K)


Even the rain has not put them off. The gallery is packed: jacket to boot, wet, dank, plastered hair against the cheek, puddles on the floor, the smell of dog. A hundred thousand soggy dribbles of anticipated compliments crawling shoulder to shoulder around the mildewed, blistered basement of a warehouse. They come for the sake of Art, in couples, groups, in plastic raincoats, in hats, and even by themselves they come. Barnacle jewels of the café milieu; a spray of diamonds in a sinking city.

The rain has not deterred them. No one cares about the rain. It's too hot. Hot enough that the front door is propped open with a cinder block to let in air. Rain. People. With each fresh downpour yet another batch of newcomers is washed up to the gallery porch. Shipwrecks of drenched, breathless laughter; shirts humped over heads like tortoise shells; tented newspapers; handbags; any protection that can be grabbed. An orange tarpaulin, navigated by a trio of boys, sails through the storm, the loose corner flapping in the breeze. They're all laughing with a glow that comes from more than simply finding refuge from the rain. They tumble down those stairs; a gulp of air and thump, thump, thump. Out of the darkness of the wet streets, down the slippery steps and into the bubble of humanity. Pay two dollars to the guy at the door and step into the glow of candles and the cruel, purple halogen spotlamps focused on the fish tank, where the light flashes off the fins and spines of the infamous, poisonous globefish that swims in the tank lined with Astroturf.

The fugu gallery is named after this fish. It is the mascot of the fugu. Fugu: the Japanese poison with a forty per cent survival rate, considered to be a delicacy. To taste it is to share a secret with the logic of madness. To survive the experience is to continue the legend, to kindle the flames of desire in the uninitiated.

Unaware of its toxic attraction, the mascot of the fugu stares through the glass at the crowd. An ancient, piscean wisdom of inevitability, its power is a strong one. Faces press against the glass, curious, enchanted. If it wasn't for the chicken wire fastened over the tank there would be fingers dabbling in the water. A red and yellow sign declares the fish to be deadly poisonous, that there is no known antidote, that please do not tap on the glass to make it puff up, that this fish embodies the singular name of Death. A skull and crossbones drives the warning home for the international visitor.

It is midnight and the gallery shifts into high gear. At midnight there is to be a performance by Casa Loma, a much-publicized performance to kick off the opening of a new group show at the fugu gallery. Nine artists of differing disciplines and talents have been brought together on a single theme: bathrooms. Eight of the nine artists live in studio spaces distributed around the edges of the gallery. One is an outsider, Adelaide Simcoe, currently sailing around the lobby, kimono to the wind, in search of the Lost Drink.

Adelaide Simcoe, feeling every inch the alien, is having her first brush with the avant-garde. Fifty-two years old and living in an affluent part of town, her exposure to the molten delights of Warehouse Artland encompasses a mere two weeks. Up until then she had thought that art galleries were bright, spacious, churchlike places, filled with overly educated frauds discussing the Perils of Creativity over complimentary glasses of acetic grape juice. Up until two weeks ago she would never have thought a place such as the fugu could exist.

Then again, up until three years ago, her contact with Art was non-existent. Her father, her husband, and her son quite simply would not have allowed it. Art to them was an immoral Dobermann at the throat of the nation. But Daddy and Wellington had both died. Daddy first, then Wellington more recently - three years gone. And Richmond? Richmond had turned into a merchant banker on the other side of the world, so Adelaide was free to divert her anger in any way she saw fit.

At first she hadn't known what to do. During all those wasted years she had been unable to identify the Voice of Art that slumbered in her belly. It surfaced only in dreams and arguments and those auxiliary activities deemed socially acceptable by the men in her life; activities like choosing wallpaper and sewing coloured patches onto cushions.

Activities like campaigning for a crosswalk outside the local high school, though her success with that one hadn't helped poor Wellington any on that fateful Friday morning when the baker's delivery truck had knocked him down right there on the crosswalk without so much as a squealing of tires; just a bump and a lurch, a paper bag of fresh-baked Wonderloaf bouncing at her feet, and everything over and done with.

Adelaide took to widowhood with enough complimentary baked goods foisted on her to dissuade her from pursuing the case in court and, from the insurance company, a rather pleasant convalescing trip to Greece, where she discovered Art.

Art, in the form of mosaics. Greece was a plethora of fragmentation. Everywhere she looked, a bit of this, a bit of that. The ancient and the very ancient. And the modern. In Mykonos: Early Grecian Disco and Modern American Homosexuality. All in one place.

One afternoon, while transfixed by the beauty of graffiti sprayed on the remnants of a Dionysian temple, Adelaide came to a shattering conclusion: if dichotomy could flourish in such profusion then she, Adelaide Simcoe, could do whatever the hell she wanted. Whatever that was. She felt, instinctively, that the answer lay in Greece. Or in whatever pieces of Greece she could manage to drag back over the Atlantic Ocean with her.

She stuffed her luggage with smuggled artefacts, postcards, vases, stones, coins, feathers, everything she could lay her hands on. She had to buy an extra large raffia purse affair to help carry her rapidly expanding collection. These were no mere souvenirs; these were research materials. Adelaide had found her muse.

Within a week of her return, she had enrolled in a night class at art school where, last year, she met one of the curators of the fugu gallery, young D'Arcy McCaul. She met him sorting through the Miscellaneous Mosaicery box in the back of the clay room by the kiln (the Miscellaneous Mosaicery box being where bad pottery ends up). That particular day there had been an explosion in the kiln and the pickings were plentiful. Adelaide and D'Arcy were the only ones who had turned up to scavenge through the abandoned remnants of art. Friendship was instantaneous.

From there it took D'Arcy only a year to persuade her to submit her work to the gallery. After the year of avoidance, she finally gave in and submitted - diving headlong into an unknown world. This was two weeks ago. Little did she realize what that world held: alien languages, hostile natives, erupting volcanoes over artistic principles, and major rifts over who was going to front the money for the beer. But now those clouds are all behind her and Adelaide Simcoe is finally a Real-Artist-with-a-Show-to-Prove-It-Yes. She bought herself a new pair of Hush Puppies to commemorate the event. They don't exactly go with the kimono and purse, but the green kimono with the gold embroidered dragon has emotional ties, and the Grecian raffia purse is, well, sacred, especially on a night like this. Never mind the rules of fashion. Adelaide has created her own, Nostalgic Functionalism.

The lobby is not a place to leave an unattended drink, not even for a second. The lobby is where the line-up for drink tickets happens, and those who tire of waiting in line are apt to opt for the ease of picking up that which is not theirs, but which is certainly three dollars cheaper. And twenty minutes faster. For once you have your ticket, you have to push your way through the masses right to the other side of the warehouse if you want to exchange it for your drink. Bon Voyage.

The line-up is at least fifteen deep and shuffles to the right and to the left and to the right again; every so often it moves forward, necks craning either backwards to where friends are waiting, or forwards to the office where tickets, in lieu of alcohol, are being sold by the ever-smiling Madam Phoebe Spadina (in a see-thru vinyl raincoat). Tickets tonight are cheap plastic toothbrushes (the Bathroom motif), costing three dollars a pop. Tonight, and for the next two weeks, the Bathroom is Everything. For most, the memory of the taste of beer from plastic toothmugs will be enough.

Adelaide was not prepared for such a crowd. It had been difficult enough dealing with everyone connected with the opening, what with Beverley's multiple personalities and Leonard's infantile tantrums . . . it is truly a miracle that the gallery has managed to withstand the barrage of egos and accelerating nerves. The old walls have proven sound, however, and all those egos are now on dramatically lit display, sparkling examples of mutually destructive competition, as inspired by the Bathroom. The night has finally arrived and Adelaide has now lost one of her three free drinks. Three lousy toothbrushes in compensation for two weeks of Hell. She has learned the first lesson in opening night protocol at the fugu: hold onto your drink.

There are other lessons, not least of which is that no matter how well you know the layout of the gallery during the light of day, once filled for an opening you can get lost within three square yards. The people shift, the music changes, and if she hadn't been involved in nailing the art to the walls she would swear that was moving as well. She abandons the search for the Lost Drink. Somewhere in the mysterious depths of her purse she has two more toothbrushes. She rummages for them as she goes through the archway that leads from the lobby to the gallery proper. The bar is a million miles away.

She passes D'Arcy who is frantically working on something electrical, taping cable to the catwalk, his dreadlocks falling continually into his eyes. Adelaide gives him a friendly pat on the back as she squeezes through the leather jackets. He looks up, confused, pained for a moment before he recognizes her. His face transforms into a smile as he tears off a strip of electrical tape with his teeth. Adelaide waves toothbrush number two merrily at him. D'Arcy needs all the support he can get, poor boy. He's been through a lot.

On through the crowd, on past the central Installation, the Installation all the fuss was made over, the bane of the preparations, the curse of the fugu for the past two weeks: Beverley's Folly. It stands at least eight feet high and is built around five office desks, three risers and twelve hundred pounds of purloined scaffolding arranged in a giant wading pool that is - finally - waterproof. None of the skeletal support can be seen now, having been completely covered with black rubber caulking, pre-formed extruded plastic, chicken wire and Godknowswhatelse. Beverley's Folly is a tangle of spouting seraphim and malignant mermaids, of gargoyles and humpback whales and Byzantine turtles. Electrical pumps wheeze asthmatically, spewing water from cherubic orifices, sluicing down the backs of maybe dolphins. Rubber tubing keeps the wiring away from the water, as does the large pink rubber mat on which the whole thing stands. This mat had been the crux of much heated debate between Beverley Dundas (on the side of Artistic Freedom) and everybody else (on the side of Freedom from Electrocution). Art lost.

The crowning cherry on this monstrous confection is a glass bathtub, salvaged, at great risk to life and limb, from a nearby abandoned chemical factory. At the head of this tub is a small table overflowing with coloured plastic bottles, jars and dilapidated containers full of oils, salts, crystals and other noxious substances that will be sprinkled into the waters at the appropriate moment in tonight's performance by Casa Loma, Beverley's alter ego. God help us all. Adelaide wonders how Beverley is going to so much as get to the bathtub-cum-altar, since there seems to be no way to get across the moat without getting wet. Yes, the moat. With real water. Four feet across and three feet deep, it separates the Installation from the common folk.

Adelaide pushes through a bottleneck corridor, the embroidered sleeves of her kimono catching in the crowd. The bulk of bodies thickens. And now she's stuck. A motley abandonment of baggy suits, scuffed shoes and battered hats very cleverly blocks the way; a group of boys dressed as old men seems determined to make the narrow channel impassable. They shift from foot to foot, sideways, backwards, a solemn dance that occasionally reveals a safe passageway. Leonard is the leader and the trendiest by a stubble of at least two hours.

Adelaide snaps her teeth twice, focuses her aim on the candlelit lounge beyond the hazing line, gathers her foliage about her and ploughs through.

"What's the password?"

"Charlton Heston, Leonard, and you'll be the Red Sea. Please move."

Leonard rubs his nose. "Who?"

She brandishes the toothbrush. "Aren't you supposed to be running the door?"

"Fraser's taken over. I had to get a drink."

"So let me do likewise," says Adelaide, "before I knock your teeth into a glass by your bed."

"Well, excuse me . . . ma'am." He lifts his hat in mockery, revealing a freshly shaven head, and steps out of the way.

"I'll think about it."

Not much is she going to think about it. Not much at all. Thanks Leonard.

Thanks for being predictably obnoxious. Thanks for your pathological muckraking for which you will get your just desserts, if not in this life then, please God, let it be in the next. Thanks for all the arguments and provocations, and for throwing such a scene this afternoon that everybody had to leave so you could install your Art in Peace, throwing everyone else three hours off schedule. Thanks a million, Leonard Nassau.


Read more from chapter one . . .

Chapter 1: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5

... Screed Was Here ... Books ... Kramer ... In Memoriam ...

Copyright 1995 by Greg Kramer

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