Almost Nothing

From New York Arts Magazine, Jan.-Feb. 2007

By Daniel Kingery

“Wer ist da, bitte?”
“Uhh… English?”
It was Stephen. I’d suspected this is what he’d do. I hadn’t heard anything from him for over a month. The day before I’d said to Janna, “We’ll come home one day and he’ll be standing in front of the door.”
That summer I got an email from him, “ I quit my job, coming to Europe.” Between long periods of silence I’d convinced him to come to Berlin for my exhibition.
“Where are you now?”
“I’m at your show. Nice paintings. I like your girlfriend’s ass.”
The night before had been the opening and I was exhausted and relieved. I’d spent seven months working on a painting and finished it the day before the opening after working round the clock for weeks. It was of Janna in the North Sea, beautiful and proud, looking off towards a slanted horizon, awash in the mystic waters around her, arms outstretched, commanding the waves that rose to her fingertips.
In those weeks I practically broke down a number of times trying to finish it. I wanted to go as far as possible. I even found myself praying,“please, God, help me finish this painting.” Angels as if painted by Carravaggio floated around me and guided my hand. In a trance I painted and time passed around me with the ghosts of everyone I knew.
When I opened the door we laughed and hugged. He was tan and thin from walking across the entire north of Spain on a medieval pilgrimage. He was growing a beard and losing his hair and had a big smile on his face. He put his backpack down in the studio, which would be his home for the next eleven days. He was already a millionaire, yet everything he owned was in that bag.
“What’s up, motherfucker,” he said, his voice always on the verge of cracking in an eternal puberty. In our mid-20s, it was hard to think of us as men.
The last time I’d seen him he was depressed, had no friends and his girlfriend was far off in Buffalo, a miserable town. Chicago wasn’t much better, a barren and depressing place drawn by Chris Ware with lonely three-flat brownstones next to an empty lot filled with trash, changing with the seasons from a hot to a frigid hell.
He spent most of his time working and the rest gambling. He worked for a hedge fund, which he explained is also gambling. The rest of the time he spent in casinos in Indiana or, more likely, in private poker games with his former NBA player friend or in back rooms on the near Westside populated by lowlifes and mobsters. The drugs of choice were ritalin, aderol, speed and cocaine, although if you did too many lines of the latter you were likely to have a good time, but not a very good game. Stephen was a fair hand, and did all right.
Around this time he stopped working. He still went to work everyday, he just didn’t do any work. He was a modern day Bartelby, a man who wasn’t there. He read his friends’ blogs, the New York Times, even Pat Buchanan’s magazine which he found wasn’t that crazy after all.
The day he quit he hadn’t planned to. His boss asked him where the report was that was months late. Stephen looked at him.
“I can’t do this anymore.”
He was jealous of me, poor in Berlin doing what I wanted.
For the next week and a half we did nothing. We got drunk, slept late, ate, played music badly, made a mess and annoyed my girlfriend. She left for work and the few times I worked I did, too, and came back to find everything on the breakfast table just where he’d left it hours ago, the milk sour, the cheese curling up to say hello. He walked through the hall and knocked over the toilet bowl brush, looked at it, and kept walking as Janna, disgusted, cleaned the bathroom. He played Neil Young and Prince songs on my guitar, screaming out “Kiss” in a painfully out-of-tune voice as Janna tried to study.
“She hates me, doesn’t she?”
“She doesn’t hate you!”
Soon I realized that he thought everyone hated him. He was like a wounded dog, too fragile to do anything on his own. He never left the apartment except in the evenings to drink. He talked loudly, belched, farted, ate soft-boiled eggs with his raw hands and sank further into the abyss. The vitality from his Spanish journey was rapidly fading along with his tan, and I felt myself being dragged down with him.
“You know Stephen, there’s a lot to do in Berlin.”
“I know, man.”
We went to the Hamburger Bahnhof. It was the Flick Collection’s minimalism exhibit. I was excited to see some Judds or Reinhardts, Mardens or Stellas, but what greeted us was room after room of lazy imitations, tedious and uninspired. At first it was boring, then it became funny. We were confronted with ourselves, with our existence that week, and it outraged us. It was a mirror, the culmination of sloth and meaninglessness. Was it all a cruel joke? Was the only thing left to do to show how empty everything is and propagate that in a nihilistic act of self-immolation?
“Oh man, after seeing that exhibit, I just want to die,” Stephen said.

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