Et in Arcadia Ego

Poetry is an art of imitation... that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth--to speak metaphorically,
a speaking picture...
--Sir Philip Sidney, The Defence of Poesie




—I fear that old line about Vegas has finally seeped into this event, said Jack as he popped another piece of Nicorette gum in his mouth.

—What’s that? asked Ray as he watched a desultory parade of what passed for hipsters wend its way past them.

—Las Vegas is the only place where you can have a good time without actually enjoying yourself, said Jack. He smiled without mirth, his eyes doubtless rimmed in red behind his smoky-dark prescription sunglasses.

—Attributed to Jack Carter, I believe, said Ray.

­—Well, it’s Jack Samson’s now, replied Jack with a smack.

They were standing on the corner, just down the block from the Sugar Shack antique store. The sun was going down, and the light glinted off Jack’s glasses while Ray shielded his eyes and looked up the street. It was the monthly gallery crawl, which more or less functioned as the monthly see and be seen, drink free wine while ignoring the art, wander in and out of the bars, get drunk by the time the bands go on, wake with a hangover crawl as well. Vendors had set up booths of various kinds up and down the streets, but the scattered clots of crawlers didn’t stop at most of them long enough to register whatever (beaded purses, scrap-metal sculptures, self-published thrillers) was for sale. In other words, not much had changed since the last time Ray had been in town, except for new names on the galleries, new studios in place of those who’d given up the art ghost and moved on, new bands reconfigured from old ones, now playing in the same dozen bars (only the DJs seemed eternal).

Still, Ray felt obliged to check in whenever he was here, if for no other reason than to say hello to old friends (well, old acquaintances, mostly). Jack, who by now had nothing but scorn for the ‘farts district,’ would only indulge him for so long before pulling him away for drinks at the Chimera (the only bar downtown that steadfastly refused both video poker and live music, thus endearing it to Jack, who reviewed concerts for a living and didn’t need, as he put it, to watch shitheads stumble around four chords on his nights off). Then again, Jack still lived here. Ray was just a visitor these days.

—Can you believe somebody put hours and hours of their time into that?

Ray knew it was a rhetorical question, but he turned to look anyway and followed Jack’s gaze through the windows of a little storefront gallery where huge abstract canvases slathered in paint simultaneously drew the eye in and spit it out. Jack shook his head.

—At least a mediocre guitar player in a bar band might get laid for his troubles, said Jack.

—You’d be surprised how easily painters get laid, said Ray.

—That’s only because you used to sleep with one.

—True, said Ray. But it wasn’t exactly easy.

Jack looked up the avenue, where the galleries were mixed with Mexican furniture stores; a giant, plaster head of David sat out on the sidewalk, glancing back at Ray and Jack with a what looked like a look of desperate, befuddled hope and dawning resignation.

—Is that replica of David still inside Caesars? asked Ray.

—Christ, who knows. I haven’t been inside that part of Caesars in years. I wouldn’t even have been in the Forum addition yet if I hadn’t been lingerie shopping for Delia.

—One more round, Delia’s gone, one more round, sang Ray in a low voice.

—She’ll be back, said Jack with a shrug. And wearing the lingerie, too.

Ray very much doubted that Delia would be back, but if she did reappear in Jack’s life it was likely to be without a dime and on the run from somebody; she likely wouldn’t have anything left but the fancy lingerie. But that was Jack’s way of keeping himself intact—he dated crazy and used crazy as an excuse not to get too close. That much hadn’t changed.

—Listen, said Ray, we should just go over to the Bomb and see what Nadia has up on the walls and then we can go hit the Chimera.

—Ah, said Jack with a smile, I forgot to tell you: the Bomb is gone.

—What? Really? How is that possible? When did it close?

—Oh, it didn’t close—just moved. Nadia moved it to LA. Said the market had gone from soft to melted here. Jack jerked his thumb at a crowd of teenagers making noise in front of one of the booths. Can you blame her? Look at who shows up now—the same, tired, hundred art mavens and a ton of broke-ass kids who just want to have something to do.

­—Well, sure, said Ray. If this had existed when we were in high school, we would have been hanging out here. But Jack wasn’t listening; he’d launched into an air guitar version of “I Just Want to Have Something to Do,” his arms slung low like Dee Dee Ramone as he fingered imaginary bass frets.

—Toooo night... to-oo-night... well, all riiiiiiiiiiiiight....

—Hey, Ray! called a voice. In the setting sun, a t-shirted mass approached. Ray looked up into the bug eyes of The Mann. Inevitably, he saw The Mann whenever he was in town; inevitably, the conversation went like this:

­—How’s tricks, Ray?

—Well, you know, I gotta get a bigger hat.

­—Hah! Again? But that trick never works! Hah!

­­—That joke isn’t funny anymore, sang Jack under his breath.

­—You still with the station, Mann?

­—You know it, somebody has to teach the children about rock n’ roll. Hey, I want you to meet someone. Someone stepped out of the bulk that was Nicholas Mann; a tiny woman about their age, with a black pixie cut and trendy glasses.

—This is Angelica, my girl, said Mann. You won’t believe this, but she went to Western same time as me, and we didn’t know each other at all—not at all! And then we met here!

—Here? said Jack. On the corner? I thought the girls worked farther east.

—Hah hah! Hey, this is Ray Sands, the magician.

Angelica gave out a little squeal. —I used to take my kids to that afternoon show you had, years and years ago!

Ray smiled and assumed the face he was long used to assuming, but Jack gave a short little laugh. —That was almost twenty years ago. Pop out a couple with your high school sweetheart, did you?

—Hah! Angie, this is Jack Samson.

—No way! Of Samson’s Army?

Jack winced a little. —No, no. Different Samson. Completely different Samson.

—I loved Samson’s Army! burbled Angelica. I’m older than I look, hah?

—You look perfect to me! said Mann, giving her a squeeze. Jack used to be a DJ with me, back in the day.

—I was never ‘with’ you, Mann, said Jack. I only orbited you. Whenever I got to the far side, I played a few records before gravity shot me back around.

Mann laughed in the way of someone so used to being big it barely registers. But Ray remembered Mann at nineteen, crying over an empty bottle of vodka at a party, his thick legs somehow stuffed through the bars of an apartment balcony, after a good half-hour of jokes at his expense. Mann didn’t lose his virginity until years later, when his impeccable geek credentials at long last outweighed his literal weight during the improbable rise of geek chic in the 1990s. Mann found his groove and had worked it, Ray thought to himself, into a nice, deep, comfortable trench from which he could laugh off anything.

­—Hey, you guys should come to the show, said Mann, completing the encounter in the only way an encounter with him could end, with a flier in your hand. These guys are from Portland, and they’re really awesome, like Yo La Tengo meets Animal Collective.

—Sorry, Mann, said Jack, but we’re going to have a really awesome evening where bourbon meets my tongue.

They exchanged good-byes, nice to meet you’s, nothing up my sleeve, prestos. As they disappeared into the milling crowd, Jack cackled.

—There goes a Mann, he said. How does he manage to push forty and still be like that?

­—He’s happy, said Ray, simply, staring after Mann’s bulk, his girlfriend like a toy poodle under his arm. Jack snorted.

—Everything changes, nothing changes. Two steps forward, five steps back. All these artsy bars and attempts at galleries, and the Shangri-La Telegraph Office is still an empty lot, a bulldozed fucking lot. And Mann’s happy as a big, loud, clueless clam.

Ray smiled without looking at Jack. —And you’re still here, he said.

Jack didn’t look at him either. —And you still keep coming back, even though you’ll never work this town again.

—Well, said Ray, as he turned and began walking down the sidewalk, toward David’s empty, bewildered eyes (bewildered at their emptiness? Or empty because bewildered?) You can only disappear so many times.

­—Or just the once, said Jack, spitting out his gum.


Reader Comments (1)

I very much enjoyed this, Mr. Crosby. My favorite line would have to be about the abstract painting,"...simultaneously drew the eye and spit it out.". Wonderful.

June 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMontana Black

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