Mary Taugher’s fiction has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Narrative Magazine, Redivider, Potomac Review, and other literary journals. A graduate of San Francisco State University’s M.F.A. Creative Writing Program, she lives in San Francisco where she is working on a collection of short stories.
At the public lecture the night Eddie Mueller started stalking me, we learned that to be a truly great artist, you’ve got to be scarred by life’s brutality or banality, consumed by desperation or wild euphoria. In other words, a bit unhinged. Or so Dr. Sharon Frankel, a visiting professor in the arts department at UCLA, informed us. She quoted Marcel Proust: Everything great in the world has come from neurotics. The woman in front of me scratched down the pithy quote on her notepad while the hall filled with what sounded like burbling water as people murmured their agreement. I sat stiffly with my arms crossed in agitated silence.
Dr. Frankel was giving a lecture about an 18th century German sculptor, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, whose eccentric work was on loan at the Hammer Museum from a major gallery in Vienna. I admired his work because I, too, was a sculptor specializing in quirky busts, at least when I wasn’t slogging away at my nine-to-five job as a paralegal. Messerschmidt worked by standing in front of a mirror contorting his face into all sorts of bizarre expressions, often pinching himself to evoke grimaces of wide-mouthed pain, demented laughter or purse-lipped disapproval. That I’d known about him. What I didn’t know was that he communed nightly with spirits.
When Dr. Frankel opened for questions, I shot up my hand and said, You sound like you’re condemning the more so-called “normal” artists among us to a life of obscurity. What would you tell someone who considers herself fairly stable, aside from your run-of-the-mill depression and anxiety?
Well, I can’t suggest that you take a hallucinogenic, Dr. Frankel said with a smirk that signaled the opposite. She was in her early thirties, a bit older than me, but she looked like she’d sworn allegiance to goth, a stage I’d cycled through in high school, with her hair black as an un-starry night, ghostly white foundation, and mauve lipstick.
But, seriously, think about taking more risks, she added as she flung her oversized black glasses from her nose and waved them above her head, a path or an activity you find challenging, even terrifying. You need to rewire your synapses, open yourself to new experiences. Talent is a flame; genius is a fire.
What the hell do you know? I thought to myself bitterly. Standing up there with your dated goth persona quoting a trite aphorism you lifted from the Internet. I hadn’t sculpted anything decent in months. Several of Dr. Frankel’s sculptures were exhibited in prestigious museums.
Beside me, my friend Anika, a painter of seascapes, shifted in her seat and sat up straighter, smug with the knowledge that she might one day achieve greatness. Anika was bipolar and proud of it. The hypomanic highs, she would brag to me, were thrilling, mind-bending experiences in which she produced her most creative work. Not that I‘d seen that borne out in her sloppy watercolors, but I didn’t tell her that. She was my best friend, actually one of my few friends since I’d moved to Los Angeles a year earlier.
Anika and I parted after the lecture. She wanted to go clubbing. I wanted to go sleep. Insomnia had plagued me since my recent breakup with Keith, the man I’d moved to Los Angeles to live with in what I’d stupidly imagined might soon be wedded harmony.
Back at my apartment, in a fit of twisted anger, I carted the battered cardboard box containing my sculptures out to the backyard and took a meat mallet to them. I smashed Stingy, the bust of my stepfather with puckered lips and those bushy eyebrows he’d fuse together as he calculated how much money I owed him for rent after college; I smashed Flighty and Vain, the bust of my thrice-married aunt with pouty lips, vacant gaze, and hairstyle redolent of Marilyn Monroe; I smashed almost everything. Then I hurriedly shoveled a pit near a palm tree and buried the remains.
I went to bed thinking about Messerschmidt and other moonstruck people blessed with exceptional creativity. Van Gogh and Gauguin and Munch, Beethoven and Mozart, Plath and Sexton. I could have gone on counting other mad geniuses, but I knew the mental exercise wasn’t helping me sleep. I tried soothing myself by staring intently at the moving lozenges of light on my ceiling, a mirage formed by tree branches outside my window swaying in the moonlight. It didn’t work.
Then a strong gust of hot wind blasted through my open window and ushered in a disembodied voice: Franny Beck, you’ve got to help yourself relax. I recommend downloading a recording of Greek Orthodox monks chanting Byzantine prayers. That used to put me to sleep in five minutes flat.
The voice was low and raspy, so close it was if someone was purring in my ear. My heart leapt and bounced like a kid on a trampoline with a sugar high. I bolted upright and turned on the light on my nightstand. It was five minutes past three.
A tiny man, bald-headed, blue-shirted and wearing creased khakis, was standing below the lamp waving at me. Sure this was some sort of lucid dream inspired by the maddening lecture, I shut off the light and rolled over.
Franny, are you listening to me?
Confused and alarmed, I buried my head under my pillow. But I kept hearing my name. I turned the light back on, and the little guy waved at me. I yanked open my nightstand drawer to check that I’d taken Ambien and not one of the Xanax my new physician had prescribed for anxiety. When I drank I didn’t take Xanax, and I’d fixed myself a strong vodka tonic when I’d gotten home.
A single prescription bottle rattled in the drawer, and I remembered swallowing a whole sleeping pill, more than my usual chewed-off smidgen. More than I should have what with the vodka. I grabbed the prescription bottle to double-check it was Ambien then plunked it down beside the little man. He was the same height as the bottle.
You could also listen to Weightless by Marconi Union, he said. It’s supposed to be the most stress-reducing song in the world.
Who are you? How do you know my name?
The little guy chuckled and said, My name’s Eddie Mueller. Believe me, I endured plenty of sleepless nights back in the day.
Reaching into his pocket, Eddie Mueller pulled out a marking pen and began drawing on the label of my Ambien bottle, tiny stars and triangles and odd scribbling that resembled Chinese script.
It was then that I realized I’d seen him last weekend at the Orange County Museum of Art, at an exhibit by a multimedia artist who created video illusions of miniaturized people embedded in life-sized objects. The artist had projected videos of people onto a coffee cup, cereal bowl, and dictionary. In one, a man floated facedown, drowned perhaps, in a cup of coffee, the din of a café in the background. In another, a dark-haired woman drifted in a bowl of milk, her face and knees and occasionally her perfectly rounded breasts, peeking through the white liquid, which lapped like lake water at a shoreline.
Eddie Mueller was the miniature man I watched climb out of the crack of an open dictionary, crawling back and forth between its two pages as he scrawled words with a squeaky black marker. He used capital letters and multiple exclamation points, circling and underlining words that amused or annoyed him, whistling and mumbling while he defaced the dictionary with BEEN DONE ** WHERE’S THE FUN? LOL! CHECH SPELLING.
Absorbed by the art installation, I forgot about Keith, forgot about my lousy job and lost dream of becoming a working sculptor.
Instead, I lost myself in the exhibit, marveling at the artist’s creativity, pondering what point he intended to make about language with the marked-up dictionary, imagining what it would be like to live as a tiny person in an outsized world that posed so many added permutations of danger. The heavy boot of a construction worker crushing you. A raven clamping its beak around your hip and sweeping you away. Or a pothole swallowing you into the final abyss.
On the other hand, I mused, navigating life as a little person might be a kick. The perspective I’d gain as an artist would be amazing. Experiencing the folds in my blue silk blouse as ocean waves, the beige office carpeting as desert sand, a human leg as the trunk of a sequoia. I remembered how time sped like whitewater when I got in the zone at the studio, how good clay felt in my hands as I pounded it before I began to shape and carve, how the wet clay caked my hands like a second skin, the earthy smell of the dried residue flaking off the inside of my fingernails days later.
I leaned over Eddie Mueller to take a closer look at him as he scribbled on my pill bottle. Sixtyish, with a cleft chin, handsome in that lean, craggy way of some older men. He must have sensed me towering over him because he stopped scribbling, pushed himself up from his knees, and turned to gaze at me. His eyes were a startling cornflower blue.
No longer muttering, he said, Has anyone talked to you about personal space? You’re crowding me.
For such a tiny guy, he had a surprisingly loud voice.
You broke into my house, I said.
He kicked the Ambien bottle, which barely shook, and said, This stuff gives you cognitive issues. Are you trying to forget something?
Jesus Christ, I whisper-sighed. You cannot be real.
Reaching to the floor, I picked up a pair of crumpled jeans and swatted him. There was a thump against the wall. But when I got down on my knees to check under the nightstand, I saw only dust balls and darkness.
The next day, work dragged by as it often did. I managed to escape without misfiling a deposition or making a spelling error in correspondence. Already I was skating on thin ice; I’d gotten a warning notice from HR.
On the bus home, I tried not to think about Keith. I’d loved everything about him, his odd habits like eating the same lunch every day or clipping labels off his Patagonia coats, his large hands always ready to reach affectionately for mine, his love of art no matter how outré, the faint air of tragedy that surrounded him like mist. We’d both lost our fathers at a young age, and I suppose that’s how we first bonded.
But it turned out that Keith was a compulsive liar, a trait fueled by his addictive gambling and need to hide it from me. At first, I’d rationalized that I could deal with the gambling problem, get him in a program; then Keith admitted his father was alive. This betrayal I had the sense to walk away from, but our breakup left me feeling numb and damaged, like I’d just crawled out of an overturned car. I hadn’t felt such pain, such sorrow since my father died when I was six.
At home, I turned on the kitchen lights and discovered Eddie skipping across my table, kicking breadcrumbs like soccer balls.
I headed for the cupboard under the sink and got out the flyswatter. Quick as a cockroach, Eddie skittered down the leg of the table and disappeared. He could flatten himself and crawl through tiny spaces just as he had through the spine of the dictionary.
Over the next few days, I threw out the Ambien and Xanax, cut way back on the vodka. Still, Eddie visited me every night, whispering over and over: Now Franny, now Franny, now Franny.
Steadfastly, I ignored him until one night he said, Franny, your breakup with Keith was for the best. You know that, don’t you? It’s time to get back to work.
I despise my job, I said, lips pressed to my pillow. Go away.
Franny, don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.
I turned on the light and there he was—hands on hips, a bald patch flashing like Morse code—real as any man, though a little man. This time he looked like a game-show host, wearing a cheesy checked sport coat similar to one my stepfather once owned.
I’m just a poser, I said. With no real talent. Or genius.
Stop with the feeling sorry for yourself. Your art is what sustains you, Franny. Get yourself back down to the studio. You haven’t stepped inside Gone to Pot for five months.
How would you know anything about art? You’re just part of an installation. You don’t make art.
Eddie told me I was wrong. He’d been an artist all his life, though he’d cobbled together a living with odd jobs like plumbing, driving for UPS, and working in an art supply store. He was a Vietnam vet who came home from the war after a two-year tour during which part of his job was to count bodies. The experience forever changed him, he said, and through art he’d worked to patch the pieces of himself and the lost soldiers back together.
Online I looked up Eddie’s art. Abstract. Shards and fragments. Geometric shapes and brilliant colors. Dizzying if you stared at his paintings too long. His work was fascinating and I envied the titles he’d chosen: Garden for the Chu Hoi. Passage Thru Hades. Midnight on the Mekong.
Within a few weeks, Eddie’s presence no longer felt surreal, and he and I eventually became friends, although Eddie could be a pain in the ass. He liked to pull immature tricks like hiding my keys in the refrigerator, flicking on my clock radio alarm in the middle of the night, and turning up the oven temperature so that dinners ended up a shriveled mess.
Eddie said the artist who created the exhibit he’d been part of was a friend, at least until the accident. Otherworldly debacle is what Eddie called it, his friend shrinking him some sort of art-science experiment gone wrong.
I asked him what it was like, being little.
Not so bad, Schatzi, he said, using the German word of endearment he’d taken to calling me. I don’t miss hustling to pay bills and make the rent. And it’s kind of exciting moving incognito in the world, even though that’s shrunk, too. I can’t cover a lot of distance at this size. Once in a while I’ll leap into a taxi or Uber, but that’s difficult and dangerous.
Danger and risk, I said. That’s what is missing from my life.
That Dr. Frankel was full of shit. Anyone who says creativity is inextricably linked to craziness is flat out wrong. When are you going to show me your work?
It’s gone. But you already know that, right?
You must have something left, Eddie said.
It was three in the morning, but I got up from bed and lumbered to my front hall closet. There I retrieved my single remaining bust, Dreamer in Repose, wrapped in newspaper. I ripped off the paper. A woman, her hair cropped and spiky, her ears studded with moons and stars and lightning bolts, her eyes closed, her lips curled into a pensive smile, her chin tilted with confidence at an exaggerated, almost outlandish angle.
Eddie lit up when he saw it. Who’s that?
What? You don’t know? Maybe it’s the hair. I let it grow out.
I lifted the bust even with my face, closed my eyes, smiled.
Hmm, you’ve changed. It’s something intangible I can’t put my finger on.
Age, I joked. Aware of what I’d lost. My drive, my confidence, my dream.
Eddie told me to put Dreamer on the coffee table, where he stood. Careful, he said, don’t crush me.
The bust dwarfed him. Eddie jumped on to it, grabbed a hold of my lips, dug his heels into my chin. He scaled me like a climber ascending Mt. Rushmore. Along the way, he rubbed his tiny hands across my clay cheeks, and weirdly, I felt a tingling, skittering sensation on my face.
When he got to the top of my head, he said, Schatzi, this is magnificent.
Right, I said. Now you’re full of it.
Eddie suddenly leapt off Dreamer, tucked and rolled as if landing with a parachute. He stood up and pointed to my work. Take a hard look. What do you see?
Hands shaking, I picked up Dreamer and studied it. I remembered my younger self, some days happy, some days not, sometimes reckless, sometimes too self-absorbed, but always inspired and filled with the possibility of art. I remembered how I worked feverishly into the night sculpting, using pictures or friends as live models, hoping I might dive into the essence of their character, hoping I might summon an ineffable quality of compassion or pain, joy or hunger or melancholy, by zeroing in on and amplifying certain facial features, the lift of a brow, furrows in a forehead, set of a mouth.
Who is this woman holding her now, I wondered. Who is this woman I’ve become, a woman racked by insomnia, a woman stuck in a suffocating job, a woman who has abandoned what she most loved?
When I looked down at Eddie, he was graffitiing a magazine cover, and I got a sense simultaneously of déjà vu and longing. I wondered how much longer Eddie would stick around, whether I wanted him to.
Without thinking, I picked up my cell phone and called Anika. I asked her if I could buy a few of her watercolors to hang on my bare walls. She was thrilled and asked me if I wanted to visit an art museum with her that weekend. I told her sure, any museum except the contemporary museum in Orange County; I suggested that she go to Gone to Pot with me afterward and check out sculpting.
Sculpting is just not my thing, she said. But why don’t you go afterward?
Yeah, I said, my throat choking up, why don’t I?
I carried Dreamer off to bed with me. Eddie had vanished. He liked to crawl in between my couch pillows, but I purposely didn’t look for him.
I closed my eyes and wove a fantasy. I imagined I was working in the back of a gallery. My gallery. The light poured in like honey through open French doors that overlooked a small garden bursting with bright succulents and milkweed nourishing a kaleidoscope of butterflies, a babbling water fountain filled with yellow-flowering lily pads, and a chaise lounge where I took breaks to dream, and dream some more, interrupted occasionally by the sound of my assistant’s voice chatting with potential customers.
With my other beside me, I traced my fingertips along my clay eye sockets, cheekbones, and jawline, and remembered how I used my hands as long possible when I started a new project, kneading and rolling the clay with my knuckles and the heels of my palms instead of a wooden roller, shaping the broad outline of the facial bone structure with the outside edges of my hands, pinching on a new clump of clay for a nose with all five fingers of my left hand, digging out eye sockets with my thumbs.
Only when I’d gotten the essence of the bust would I wield my pallet knife and rake and loop and needle tools to carve the finer details: the eyes, nostrils, lips, pores, wrinkles, and facial hair. My hands would tingle with pain and pleasure at the end of a session.
Turning on to my back, I saw the tree branches outside my window were doing their thing in the moonlight. Blocks of watery light on my ceiling began to mesmerize me, and I coaxed myself on to some sort of astral plane where wind chimes jingled while monks chanted devotions.
Sleep was mercifully about to overtake me as I rubbed my palms in gentle circular movements on my mattress. It was clay. I smoothed its surface until I felt it conforming to my shape, the wings of my scapula, the knobs of my spine, the heels of my feet, nestling me like a womb. Which is it, Franny? a tiny voice asked me. You going to float forever in the warmth of amniotic fluid, or come out and face the harsh light of the world kicking and screaming?