Winter/Spring 2001Volume II Issue I

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Greg Ames was born in Buffalo in 1971. His stories have appeared in numerous literary journals and web sites, including McSweeney’s and B&A: New Fiction.

He lives in Brooklyn and teaches at Brooklyn College. To find out more, visit his website.

 


Biographers

Greg Ames

 

1.

The biographer must be a sort of bifurcated animal, digger and dreamer; for biography is an impossible amalgam: half rainbow, half stone.

-PAUL MURRAY KENDALL, The Art of Biography

She was born in Pittsburgh in 1971. As a child she played alone in a dirt lot behind her family’s wooden farmhouse, hacking the synthetic hair off her dolls with left-handed scissors. "Naughty!" she scolded, roughly swinging a new doll in her fist. "You are bad bad bad!" She’d dig a grave, carefully pouring kerosene into the hole before dumping in the plastic or cloth body, then she’d drop a lit match on it and run inside for supper. From a distance, standing behind the wooden fence, picking our noses, we watched her.

We began to call her The Artist. We were all a few years older than she was, Clive was the elder statesman at eleven, but we recognized genius when we saw it. Judging by the confident way she leaned against that wooden fence, picking her scabs and spitting into the dust, we knew that she’d be famous someday. And each one of us wanted to be first to write her unauthorized biography.

When she was nine, metal braces were clamped on her teeth to correct a slight overbite. She did not open her mouth anywhere near her school for an entire month. I attempted to write a chapter about this pain and alienation, entitled Her Angry Silence, but there really wasn’t enough there to hold a potential reader’s interest. In 1981, her left leg was broken in a bloody accident. We were immensely encouraged. She crashed her cousin Darryl’s go-kart into a tree. Breathlessly that evening I scrawled in my journal: "Her tibia snapped like a breadstick." I thought I might use that line later on. I was thirteen and had just invented similes. I liked them a whole lot.

But many years passed without any further notable incidents. The Artist attended Harry Truman middle school in Pittsburgh, played a passable clarinet in the band, even auditioned for the lead in Anything Goes, losing a close battle to Traci Lynn Baxter, a spirited soprano. Her collected homeworks from this period (1982-1984) revealed little originality or depth of thought. The letters written to her Grandmother in Sarasota were marred by insipid meanderings. Again we became discouraged. "She’s destined to be a nobody!" Don said, sipping his espresso at Mo’s. As always, Don did have a point. He was wise beyond his sixteen years. "After such a promising beginning," Celia sighed. Her acne-speckled face flared with indignation. "I have to say . . . I’m disheartened."

The nights were long. I would like to add that I cried a great deal, but I do not know that to be true. Strangely, I do not really remember my own childhood.

No matter.

In 1987, The Boon Years is how I like to think of them, her father was relocated to Buffalo. Packing our bags, we rejoiced and laughed. "It’s a new beginning!" Celia gushed, filling her suitcase with stuffed giraffes. Even Clive cracked a thin grin. In short time, just as we had hoped, The Artist – alienated, lonely, anxious for acceptance – fell in with "the wrong crowd" in the densely populated Buffalo public school system. We were thrilled, of course. Boozing, pot smoking, unprotected sex . . . We sharpened our pencils. We prayed for an unplanned pregnancy or venereal disease. "The clinic looms like a citadel over our dreams," I wrote one chilly November morning. "Dark days barrel towards us like a DeLorean at dusk." Alliteration abounded in late 1987. I applied it liberally to every paragraph in my journal like a salve.

We snapped covert photos of The Artist walking through the city of Buffalo: her spiky red hair, ripped jeans and combat boots, that delightful bullring through her septum. Her image was perfect, right down to her torn black Dead Kennedys T-shirt. She was on a freight train to the correctional facility and I’d be there to record it. "I’m getting goose pimples," I cried, scribbling possible chapter titles in my journals. Unfortunately, her rebellion manifested itself only in her attire – she was still rather boring and conservative, alas – but we hoped her dissident garb would lead directly to more subversive, innovative expressions.

We waited.

Wet snow clumped down on our heads like spitballs from God, winter after unrelenting Buffalo winter. We huddled outside her favorite lesbian coffeehouse, Kibbles-n-Bits. She never read any poetry, only listened and clapped politely. Did she know how disappointed we were? The frigid cold only intensified our dissatisfaction with her and with ourselves. Each morning we trudged out of our small apartment on Grant Street; and every evening we returned, demoralized. We had sacrificed everything to document her life. Our families could not contact us. The apartment we squatted in had no phone, no electricity. We began to resent The Artist. It was misleading to appear rebellious and creative, and yet be bland as homogenized milk. Couldn’t she at least break something? For months we followed her to skinhead bars and VFW Halls, to punk shows in musty basements. We saw a great deal in these places. Piercings. Tattoos. Drunken teenagers. But it was all so much cosmetic angst, the lowest form of defiance.

"Dammit, I’m going to find a new Artist," I threatened one night at the Old Pink Flamingo. "One who produces! She is not giving me what I need." The others ignored me. Clive angrily ordered another round of Rolling Rocks. We were in too deep to turn back – of course I knew that! – it was too late to choose another artist. We were stuck with her, as she was stuck with us. I went home and stared at my stacks of notebooks, filled with nothingness.

And then, one morning when all seemed lost and my existence an utter waste and ruin, The Artist and I exchanged words for the first time. In my journal, I refer to this as The Turning Point.

"Hey man, that’s my bike!" she shouted at me, bursting out of the Lexington Co-op with two recycled plastic bags swinging from her fists. "Get off!"

"Oh, sorry," I murmured, dismounting from the ramshackle yellow bike she had leaned against a lamppost, "sorry." I had simply wanted to feel what it was like to sit on her seat. She glared at me as she pedaled away. "I’ll call the cops!" she threatened over her shoulder. It was the one and only time we ever spoke to each other. The experience transformed me. I burned all my journals. I called the other biographers to an emergency meeting at the Flamingo. "Look," I said, "what we’re doing is not fair to The Artist. Let’s be honest. We started with good intentions, but this has become more about us than it is about her."

The others fell silent. Benoit whistled low and turned his head. Don grumbled into his pint of beer. Suddenly Clive lunged off his stool and jabbed his index finger into my solar plexus. "Ridiculous!" he shouted. He branded me a hack journalist, a charlatan, a poseur. "The weak link," he spat.

"Biographies require patience," Celia sighed, setting fire to a Winston and crossing her black-stockinged legs. She exhaled twin blasts of smoke through her nostrils. "Maybe you don’t have what it takes, Chaz. Maybe you aren’t really a biographer after all."

I panicked.

"Hey, I was just testing you guys," I lied. "To see if you were up to the challenge." I laughed nervously. Then I related the bicycle incident to them, embellishing it with strong emotional conflicts, mythological references, good vs. evil, innocence vs. experience, all that. "I tried to steal her bike," I laughed, shaking my head. "I had hoped it might fuel her creative juices, you know, inspire her. I did it for us, for the Cause, yet she has produced nothing, despite my efforts."

The others watched me closely. I was trembling. Were they plotting against me? I stood up, then I sat back down. I reached for a handful of stale pretzels. "What?" I shouted, finally. "What?"

In one motion they all looked away from me.

 

2.

On the trail of another man, the biographer must put up with finding himself at every turn: any biography uneasily shelters an autobiography within it.

-PAUL MURRAY KENDALL, The Art of Biography

The Artist is now twenty-eight. She works at a bagel shop on Elmwood Avenue. I have been battling depression, though I am against taking medication to alleviate my woes. The best Art is borne (they say) by struggle. This biography I am writing will be the Boswell of its class, or at least the Diana: Her True Story. The others have lost faith in me, but I don’t care. Proust went into his cork-lined study and nobody knew what he was doing. What am I saying? They don’t know what I’m doing. Or do they know what I’m doing? What if they are watching me? What if this interest in The Artist is merely a front for a more insidious surveillance of me? They are diabolical, fiendish, they are plotting to kill me, and they must be stopped! That’s absurd. They are my friends, my closest allies in the fight against lies and misrepresentations. I will continue on, as normal, for now.

Each morning we huddle together, waiting, watching The Artist through the bagel shop’s front window. The red and brown leaves swirl around our knit-capped heads. We hug ourselves for warmth.

"She’s spreading the chive cream cheese!" Evelyn shrieks.

"Masterful!" Clive nods his approval.

But these moments of enthusiasm are rare. We have become despondent, and many of us have turned to the insidious pleasures of drink. "We’re all going to hell anyway!" Don grumbles, sipping Scotch and soda from his thermos. But the sun is out today for the first time in months, burning carrot orange in a hazy white sky, and despite the chill there is a spirit of rebirth in the air. Behind me, the others are scribbling notes into their pads or are whispering excitedly into tiny tape recorders. I cannot help but think they are talking about me.

The Artist takes out the bagel shop’s garbage, and we scramble for cover. "Leave me alone!" she shouts at us. "God! Stop following me." I hate to see her so agitated, but I know no other way to write her biography. Rifling through the trash bags, I search for clues. Her work does not move me deeply, but I believe close scrutiny of the material might reveal something enlightening. I shove a sodden tea bag into my coat pocket, then hurry back to the window. I don’t want to miss anything. We would all like to be present for what we’ll later call Her Early Days.

A breakthrough: The Artist is visiting the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. We mailed her a free pass last week. Strolling with a floor plan in her hand, she shows little interest in contemporary art – the bulk of the gallery’s collection – but the Impressionism hall seems to pique her interest. We tiptoe behind her, scribbling notes, murmuring into tape recorders, darting behind sculptures when she turns suddenly. Not without reason, I imagine that she will go home and start sketching in a large pad, her fingers blackened with charcoal. I close my eyes and consider the possibilities. But she meets a young man in the café at the Albright-Knox, and they chat for well over an hour, laughing, sipping their lattés. When The Artist hands him her phone number, we nearly leap up shrieking "NO!" from our corner table. This is not at all what we had planned for her. A casual romance artificially assuages a young artist’s hunger to create. She will become preoccupied, lazy, and will lapse into gross sentimentality. We must drive a wedge between them.

Her apartment is tiny, just one room. She lives alone. Hardwood floor. Futon, stereo. Lamps, candles, incense. Sometimes Dave, the guy she met at the gallery café, comes over with a twelve-pack and spends the night, but mostly she sits around in her bathrobe, reading the newspaper, drinking coffee or watching TV.

"She’s watching television again!" Benoit whispers to us. He’s standing on our shoulders, his nose pressed to the glass. The Artist lives in an attic apartment. It is 10:30 at night.

"What’s she watching?" Eduardo asks, pen perched over his notepad. A coal miner’s lamp affixed to his forehead shines down on the page.

"I think it is . . . Well, it looks like . . . Oh. Just a commercial."

We sigh collectively. "Damn." As far as I can tell, she does not even have a favorite program. There is no consistency to her interests.

"Is she creating any fucking art?" Gunnar inquires hotly.

Gunnar has been living off a grant from the Swedish Coalition for Contemporary Art for fourteen years now. His patrons are demanding to see a product soon.

"Non," sighs Benoit, shaking his head. "But now she’s . . . she’s clipping her toenails."

"Moving from the largest toe to the smallest?" I ask, shivering. "A gradual recession in size, a sophisticated system that might suggest—"

Benoit shakes his head. "Pas du tout. She’s clipping one of the middle toes."

"Describe it to us!" Celia looks up suddenly from her notepad. "What is her method?"

This could lead to something.

"Well, she’s got one foot up on the coffee table," whispers Benoit, "and she’s kind of hunched over. Wait. This is interesting. There is a bowl of ice cream on the table."

"Flavor!" Don shouts. "What’s the goddamn flavor we’re dealing with here?"

"Shhh, Don," we hiss at him. "Relax."

Nights pass like this. We lose parts of ourselves out here beneath this brilliant white moon. I remember my early childhood vaguely, sometimes it comes to me like light exploding from a Kodak flash. Oh, how I loved to crouch behind trees and car bumpers. And I relished peeping through a keyhole as my parents attempted to create my sister. I always knew, somehow, that I would be an unauthorized biographer. I would write about somebody else’s life even if it killed me, or them.

A few weeks ago, The Artist flung open her bedroom window and shouted: "What the hell do you people want from me?" Her eyes were wet with tears. "Why do you hate me? I don’t understand."

What could we say? We were shocked. We love, revere, adore her. And yet, the truth is our job would be much easier if she were dead. Well, she wouldn’t be in the way so much. Her presence often complicates matters; it makes it difficult for us to determine who she really is. A tragic accident, I hate to say it, would increase her appeal. But she is so damned careful. . . .

As The Artist undresses for bed, Benoit narrates the action for us. "Ah, putain, what a body!" he spits, rubbing his palms on his thighs. He swirls his hips, clockwise. But we have seen it all before, and a good night’s sleep has become more valuable to us than pornography. I am thirty-two now (where have the years gone?) and I’m beginning to question my own artistry, though I never admit this to the others. They would not understand. Anyway, I’ve come too far to quit now. Watching others gives my life meaning. It teaches me how to live.

We drift off to sleep on The Artist’s fire escape, our legs and arms entwined, a many-headed animal of biography. At three a.m., Jim Sheehan, a popular local novelist, rides his rickety ten-speed bicycle on the street below. Sheehan’s well known in Buffalo for his so-called "realism": spare, minimalist narratives about earnest blue-collar workers. Realists annoy us. They are too concerned with appearances to be truthful.

We carry rocks in our pockets expressly for minor writers like Jim Sheehan. Gunnar heaves a sharp one. Jim ducks, pedaling much faster now. Celia hurls a large stone directly into his spokes and Jim is now flying over the handlebars. The bicycle clatters on the pavement. Jim looks hurt. "Ambulance," he moans, holding his palm to his bloody forehead. "Ambulance!"

Don laughs. "How you like that for realism, bright boy?" He climbs down the creaking iron steps of the fire escape. "Come on," he calls up to us. We run down after him and pounce on Sheehan like snarling jackals, pulling his hair and kicking him in the face, ripping his clothes and pummeling him until he says no more, until his eyes close, until nothing remains in the night but silence and the sounds of us, only us, breathing hard.

© 2001 by Greg Ames

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