I met Meredith in the museum one disastrous Saturday afternoon, after an accident in the emerging artists wing during the carnival show. You must have read about it. The museum had commissioned some recent graduates to resituate the nineteenth-century notion of the carnival (not the carnivalesque, which is an entirely different thing) within our post-wonder era. I’m not too clear on the details, but I can dig up the call for entries if you’re interested.
Anyway, it was one of those relational aesthetics things. One artist constructed a funhouse with distorted mirrors that was supposed to make a rather obvious point about eating disorders. Another built a “Dunk the Mayor” booth to protest the mayor’s pledge to cut funding for the museum, I think over those penis-nosed child mannequins. Some luckless sap had to sit on a perch in the booth, half-filled with water, wearing an Easter Island-size paper-maché mayor-mask, waiting for someone to throw a ball at the target with enough force to flush him into the drink. There was a flea circus in a sealed fish tank outfitted with tiny trapezes and trampolines. Circles of magnifying glass were affixed to the sides of the tank like portholes for close-ups of the acrobatics, but the fleas just buzzed around. A large terrarium held what purported to be a secret glimpse of an alien civilization, but it was really just an ant farm. At the center of all this was a small Ferris wheel — one passenger at a time, please, you must be under 5’5″ and 120 pounds to enjoy this ride — made entirely of recycled metal, with a seat of Coke cans that crunched when you sat on them. Every afternoon at two there was a freak show, in which heavily tattooed musicians hammered nails into uncomfortable places.
I don’t think you’ll be surprised when I tell you what happened. It was about a quarter-past two, the freaks were halfway through their show. Metal Man, so called for the hunks of metal poking through his face and chest as well as, one assumes, less visible parts of his body, was to lift a set of fifty-pound barbells hooked to the two-foot-long metal rod that bisected his nostrils. This required an impressive backbend, and the gallery was so quiet you could hear the ants farming. The barbells went up in the air. The room held its breath.
It was at this moment that some kid thought it would be hilarious to take the ball from the mayor-dunker and toss it at Metal Man, in what were presumed to be his heavily armed nether regions. What followed was a chain of reactions worthy of Rube Goldberg. The ball hit the balls. Metal Man doubled over as the barbells fell, along with the two-foot-long rod and attached bits of nose, all of which rolled into the funhouse mirrors so fast that they shattered, a shard of mirror flying into the dunking booth and the exposed eye of the mayor, who plummeted straight into the water, banging his head so hard on the glass that the booth smashed, flooding the gallery and nearly electrocuting the woman sitting on the stalled Ferris wheel, who was propelled with the force of the shock smack into the ant farm. Only the fleas remained unscathed.
It was my job to recover the ants, at least the ones that hadn’t drowned.
“Okay if I hit the power?”
I had been watching her towel off her Ferris wheel, as if the afternoon’s calamity had been no big deal. She walked past me, sodden on the floor, almost imperious. I marveled at the way her jeans fit, like a boy’s, low on her hips, tight against her thighs. I wanted to touch those thighs. No, I wanted to have those thighs. On my body. I buried that familiar intermingling of envy and lust. She would not see me coveting her thighs.
She was speaking to me. She of the perfect thighs. Thighs that would pass the Eileen Ford Leg Test — I may seem to be above such things, but I will not pretend that I have never opened a fashion magazine, and so I not only know who Eileen Ford was but the substance of her famous Leg Test. It’s like a Leonardo diagram defining the correct proportions. The legs, when pressed together, must form three diamonds — between the thighs, between the knee and upper calf muscle, and between the upper calf muscle and ankle. And I found myself possessed with the alarming desire to perform the Eileen Ford Test on the legs before me, to measure the width of the diamond between her thighs, the diamond that I knew was there, obscured by those jeans that I would unbutton so that I could rest my cheek against that pale diamond, unbuttoned right there, sopping wet on the floor among the dead ants and fish and broken glass. The temptation was too great. I couldn’t bear to look up above her paint-speckled Converse hi-tops. “No, I just work here,” I said. “Animal Wrangler.”
“You must be busy these days.”
“We’re doing an all-animal show in the spring.”
“You take care of the dead ones too?”
“Sometimes. Not much to wrangle, though.”
“I was thinking of doing something with road kill. I use recycled materials, mostly metal, and there are a lot of dead animals out there on the highway, just decomposing. No one buries them. They just lie there, waiting to be eaten by other animals. And how do they get to be road kill? By unlucky collisions with big hunks of metal. And I’ve been using a lot of auto parts lately….”
I nodded, still on the floor, coaxing the ants into a glass jar. She never looked down at me as she talked. She was used to being listened to by strangers, to being found fascinating. But then a business card fluttered down to me. “I’m having a party tomorrow night. You should come.”
Her storefront was near the university, right on the park — this was when nobody went into the park, before the gentry moved in and renovated the brownstones, before those free-range bistros and wooden toy stores and single-origin coffee joints, and the neighborhood held that eerie nighttime quiet engendered by fear. But her lights were on — Christmas lights, framing the windows of a store that sold nothing.
Branches had been set up in the windows, and birds flew from perch to perch. The room was dense with people from somewhere else who all seemed to know each other. People and their smoke. No one noticed me. Ban smoking all you want, but it will always be the lingua franca of the people who matter. Without a cigarette between your fingers you disappear.
I wandered invisible through the crowd. Some of the freaks were there. Metal Man had a large bandage on his stitched-up nose that made him sound like he had a cold.
On one wall were large-format black-and-white photographs of a naked woman of indeterminable ethnicity, impossibly glamorous, impeccably formed. Beneath them was a battered yellow sofa with an undulating, carved wooden back, the kind of Salvation Army special people like Meredith always have; beside it a mannequin’s head impaled on a metal frame a little taller than my own, breast implants hanging at chest level. I had never seen breast implants up close, and summoned the nerve to poke them. They felt like sacks of oil.
“You like Meredith’s work?” A man was standing beside me, older than most of the people there. He introduced himself as Meredith’s roommate, the photographer of those pictures on the wall.
I kept poking.
“They used to be inside her,” he said, nodding at the model in the photographs. I shuddered and withdrew my hand, looking for something to wipe it on.
I leaned against a wall sipping a room-temperature beer and observing, like an anthropologist. On the rare occasion that someone invites me to a party I always end up playing Margaret Mead. I don’t enter the bush that way, it’s just that once I’m there it’s like they’re all speaking Swahili. I fall back on old habits, observing the mating rituals of this foreign, blithely self-confident race. Will Red Polka Dot Dress and Bettie Page Hairdo go home with Greasy Hair Holey T-shirt and Plumber’s Ass or Thinks He’s the Millionth Coming of Jim Morrison but is Closer to Jesus in a Community Theater Production of Godspell?
This usually keeps me occupied for hours, but that night I was overcome with a more pressing desire: I wanted to figure out how to stay in this storefront on the park with its orange wall-to-wall carpet and uncaged birds. How to not leave the party.
More About Still Life With Meredith
Behind the glass windows of a storefront-turned-apartment, an art handler at a contemporary art museum sits among dead birds awaiting the return of her roommate, an emerging artist of growing notoriety. While she waits, she ransacks her past while discoursing on Dutch still life painting, the mating habits of her species and others, and the extreme measures taken by the French psychoanalyst Marie Bonaparte to achieve sexual fulfillment.
This audacious burning match of a novella marks the debut of a writer of uncommon insight, boundless curiosity and mordant wit, whose jaundiced eye takes on the comic excesses of contemporary art and the multifariousness of bad sex in equal measure. Masterful in its breadth—at once funny, shocking and erudite—Still Life with Meredith contemplates the thin line that separates sanity from madness in a world that has a hard time telling the difference.
About the Author
Ann Lewinson’s fiction has appeared in Agni, Hayden’s Ferry Review, MoMA PS1’s Special Projects Writers’ Series and other places. A 2014 fellow at the Edward F. Albee Foundation, she is also a playwright, journalist and film critic who has reviewed movies for ARTnews, The Boston Phoenix, The Hartford Advocate and The Kansas City Star. She lives in New York.
This excerpt appears with permission of Outpost19. Copyright 2020 Ann Lewinson.