Christopher T. Werkman

Artifice

 

Torrence backed his sports car into a parking space. He wasn’t certain how close to the edge of the blacktop his rear tires were so he opened the door, leaned out, and twisted around to see. His foot slipped off the clutch, the car lurched, and Torrence lost his grip on the polished wood steering wheel. His shoulder slammed the pavement, legs still in the foot well. As the grit on the pavement raked at his dress shirt, the image of a cowboy dragging with one foot caught in a stirrup flashed through his mind. Stunned, it took a moment for Torrence to comprehend his situation. When he did, he realized he was in the path of his car’s front tire. The tread rolled ever closer.

A loud thump startled Gordon from his slumber. His book slipped from his grasp when he dozed off and crashed flat onto the floor. He bent to retrieve it, thinking of how dropping the book saved his life. Well, not his life per se, but Torrence’s, the character in the short story Gordon was reading. He rubbed the shoulder that pancaked on the blacktop. Of course, Gordon’s shoulder wasn’t bruised or sore.  Episodes like this one happened quite often when he read at night, especially since the cancer. He’d nod off in mid-sentence, and become a character in the story. Many times, what Gordon did was more exciting and creative than the author’s plotline.

He sighed, lifted the book back onto his lap, and paused to sip his Shiraz. He swallowed most of it, but let some gather in the shallow bowl he formed with his tongue, letting his taste buds steep in the cool liquid an extra few seconds before he swallowed. Yes, ending the chemo was the right choice. He was stage four. Why spend the last months of his life nauseous and drowsy? Now he could enjoy a few of the simple pleasures he had to forego during the course of his treatments. He took another swig, swished and swallowed. Yes, his sense of taste was finally returning to normal. The Shiraz held its familiar tart sparkle once again.

Gordon’s custom was to give stories a few hundred words or so and if they didn’t grab him, on to the next. He wasn’t certain he was staying with this one. Torrence was a twenty-eight-year-old photographer. At an outdoor art fair, he met an older painter who invited him to be a guest at a club comprised exclusively of visual artists. Torrence was wary. The painter joked he was one of the younger members, but they had a few in their forties and fifties. Christ, Torrence thought, a night spent with grandfathers.

On the upside, the painter explained that most of the well-known and revered local artists were, or had been members. They met for drinks, dinner, and conversation. Sometimes they painted or drew from models. Torrence was noncommittal at the fair, but took the painter’s card and said he’d call him.

After Googling the club later in the evening, Torrence became convinced it would be worth a visit. The club was founded in 1895, and its organizers were also the founders of the Toledo Museum of Art, one of the finest in the Midwest. And true to the old painter’s word, many well-known local painters, and even a few photographers, were members. Or were until they died. This was near where Gordon drifted off. He settled back in his recliner and began to read.

Torrence called and left a voicemail accepting the artist’s invitation. Some guy named Sommerfield. When he backed his car into a spot in the parking lot, Torrence was nervous. This Sommerfield guy, Torrence couldn’t remember his first name, said to arrive anytime after 5:00. Torrence shut down the engine and checked the dashboard clock. 5:03. Damn, he didn’t want to seem too eager. Additionally, the idea of knocking on a door as a total stranger, not knowing who might answer other than the painter whose first name he couldn’t recall, was unsettling.

Torrence got out of his car, cinched his tie, and finger-combed his hair. He thought about getting back into his car to use a mirror, but the door to the club opened, and the old painter poked his head out.

“Hey, there you are,” he boomed. He came out onto the porch and looked down at Torrence, smiling broadly. “Glad you made it, Terrance.”

Torrence grinned back, relieved he was off the hook about not remembering the painter’s name. “Actually, it’s Torrence. But we’re all good, Mr. Sommerfield because I can’t remember your first name either,” he said, turning for the steps leading to the porch.

Sommerfield’s face caved into a grimace, and he clutched at his chest with both hands. His eyes popped open so wide, white surrounded each of his blue irises. His mouth gaped as though he was trying to dislodge something from his throat, and the sounds he croaked were guttural zombie-like grunts.

Torrence vaulted the steps but failed to reach Sommerfield before he dropped, his head slamming the plank floor.

Gordon woke up again. Sure enough, his book slipped from his fingers once more. He chuckled. Maybe I should just go to bed, he thought, checking his watch. It was 10:30, and since the damned time change dictated all clocks be moved back an hour, Gordon would in effect be going to bed at 9:30 if he turned in now. Fuck, I’d wind up eating breakfast at 6:00.

Gordon laid the book aside and picked up the remote. After minutes of surfing, he turned the flat screen off. What was the country song? Something about a hundred stations and nothing on.

He walked to the bay window that overlooked his back acreage. The moon spread its buttery light across the contours of his trees. Some men collected stamps, or cars, or guns. Gordon’s passion was trees. Every year, since he and Marissa bought this property thirty years previous, he planted trees. Birch. Maple. Beech. Pine. Willow. There were so many varieties and sub-varieties. He researched to allow ample room for each tree’s circumference when it reached full growth. He transformed his ten acres of empty rolling fields into a well-plotted forest. This is what he would leave the world when he exited.  He and Marissa never had children before she left. The trees were his legacy.

Gordon took another sip of wine, turned and walked to where the book lay on his chair. He opened to the table of contents. The story he was reading, Artifice, by J. B. Harrington, already put him to sleep twice. He looked at the next one. Jesus, it was over forty pages long. He paged through it, looking for keywords which would give him an idea of where that short would take him. Nothing jumped out, and Harrington’s stories were almost always rip-roaring. This one unfolded slowly, but he owed the author another shot. He sat in his chair and located the sentence where he nodded off.

“Lucas,” the old painter said, extending his hand when Torrence stepped up onto the porch. “Just Luke is good. Really happy you made it, Torrence,” he added, emphasizing the first syllable. They shook hands, and Sommerfield opened the door, ushering Torrence inside.

The light in the club barely rose above cave-like. The ornate woodwork was dark chocolate brown. The aging linoleum was a shadowy shade of ochre. The twelve-foot ceiling, no doubt once white, presided for decades over whatever took place below, and was yellowed and darkened for its trouble. The accumulated murk of the decor swallowed much of the several light fixtures issued. Sommerfield guided Torrence into the parlor, the walls of which were lined with portraits of, Torrence guessed, past and present members. Several men, each of whom held cocktails in their left hands, stood and offered their free hands in greeting.

“Ben Black,” a squat, nattily dressed, a white-haired man said. “Welcome to the Canvas Club.”

“Torrence Mayfield,” he said, shaking Black’s hand.

Another man stepped forward to introduce himself, but an ear-ringing shriek cut the stuffy quiet of the club’s main room. Torrence whirled toward the source and saw a squirrel standing in the midst of a cloud of soot on the floor of the fireplace, its shiny wide eyes reflecting the ambient light.

“Green Jesus,” Sommerfield yelped.

“What the fuck?” Black croaked.

The terrified squirrel didn’t stay in the fireplace a moment longer. It leaped to an unoccupied chair, scampered across the smallish room’s floor to vault onto a shelf before commandeering a spot on top of an upright piano, a looming mahogany fortress in a corner of the room.

“Aw, horsepucky,” another man shouted. “The little shit’s peeing on our Steinway.” Shouldering his way through the small crowd, Black pulled on a pair of elbow-length gloves Torrence noticed hanging by the hearth when he first gave the room a once around. Black lunged, pinned the squirrel against the wall, and captured it in his grasp.

It was all Gordon could do to breathe. What was going on? His mind took a spin. Jesus, I must be asleep again. I need to drop my book. He had the sensation of flying, but still caught in a vice-like grip; he fought to breathe. Gordon realized his eyes were closed, or not seeing. Now he focused. He was still in the dim club, but there was light, and he was being thrust in its direction. The crushing pressure went away, and Gordon soared through the air until he landed hard on the ground. The grass cushioned his fall somewhat, but Gordon emitted an unintended squeak and tumbled.

When he fell asleep earlier in the evening, he dropped into the story as Torrence, and neither time did he have any idea he was dreaming until he awakened. Lying in the grass, trying to figure out how to make a squirrel’s body work, he understood this was a dream. He was not a squirrel; he was Gordon. Asleep in his chair next to the fireplace in his study. Come on, drop the fucking book or something so I can wake the hell out of this. It didn’t happen. Gordon saw Torrance standing on the porch with Sommerfield and the others.

“Damn, Ben, I think you hurt the little shit,” Sommerfield said.

Several of the men bolted and clattered down the stairs. Gordon decided he better run away, which turned out be difficult. He tried to stand, but when he did, he lost his balance and toppled. Christ, squirrels run on all fours. Gordon tried. He was certain he had to appear spastic, forcing unfamiliar short legs to propel his long body. A squirrel’s body felt nothing akin to a human’s, and all the actions he was familiar with felt foreign. His tail, whipping back and forth without Gordon’s input, threw him off balance while he staggered toward a nearby bush for cover.

Gordon glanced back, not needing to turn his head much to see. The men were closing on him. He was relieved because neither of the two closest had the gloves on, so he was certain they wouldn’t try to pick him up. But would they try to kill him? Put him out of his misery? He wasn’t in any misery. The painful feeble body cancer and chemo left him with felt young and strong, but his strange un-squirrel-like gait could make them think he was suffering.

Gordon tottered into the safety of the large bush. He watched dress shoes mill around the perimeter. The men muttered and laughed. Finally, one said, “Ah, I think it’s going to be okay. Let’s go clean up the piano.”

“And find our drinks,” another said, chuckling.

Gordon wished he had his Shiraz. It was there. It was right next to him. But he couldn’t sip it until he woke up from this crazy dream. From out of this Harrington story, he should have quit reading when he could. Now he was stuck. Fuck. And not even a human character this time, sitting under a goddamned bush waiting for whatever would wake him.

The door to the club slammed, stilling the sound of the members’ laughter and chat. Gordon had no idea when he would awaken. He even wondered if he would. A leaf poked his nose, and he reached to brush it away. God, moving every part of his body felt so strange. A human mind trying to control the body of a squirrel. This awareness of his situation was fascinating. In every other dream he ever had, events occurred unquestioned, naturally and easily. There was nothing natural or easy about being a squirrel. He was on a boundary between reality and fiction. Would he be able to find the side where his chair sat next to the fireplace? Did that border still exist?

Gordon smelled the ground. He didn’t have to lower his nose. Earth’s smells, more than he ever imagined could exist, overloaded him. When he inhaled, the sensations of smell were so overpowering, his vision shattered into strange kaleidoscopic bits, like when a storm caused his satellite dish to pixelate the image on his TV screen. Weird.

And sounds. Sure, Gordon could hear car horns and even a far-off siren, but he could hear chatter he sensed came from insects, birds, and other creatures. He manipulated his legs to carry him to the edge of the shrub and looked out. Two squirrels, like furry Wallendas, darted across an overhead wire. Gordon wondered if he could learn to do that as tucked back into the bush.

Gordon had no idea how much time passed before he heard men’s voices. Through an opening in the foliage, he could see the door to the club was open, and the members were leaving in the twilight. He saw Torrence. He saw Sommerfield and Black. They were talking, but Gordon couldn’t make out what they were saying. Blather and gibberish. Were they drunk? The shrub burst into light, and a car’s engine roared. It backed away, and soon all the cars were gone. Silence and darkness.

Gordon was tired. If I fall asleep, will I awaken into my study, in my chair next to the fire? With my wine on the table? God, he wanted a sip. At first, he lay on the ground, but the earth didn’t feel right. He scampered, aware of how well he could make his body work, up into the branches of the shrub and found a comfortable spot with a wide fork where he could lie. Falling asleep in a dream, he thought. How strange.

~*~

He awakened and looked around. He was in the bush and experienced an overpowering urge to move. He was too close to the ground, a frightening place. He didn’t know why, but he knew he needed to get as far from it as he could.

He ventured out for the first time since he fell and hid. He couldn’t remember how he fell, but he landed hard on the grass. He needed to get off of the ground.

He ran. He was good at it, and he was fast. He came to where the grass stopped. A dim memory. Where big things move. He saw trees in the distance. He needed to reach those trees. He ran a few steps toward them. Light struck him, and he skittered back onto the grass. When the big thing passed, he looked for more. There were none.

Again, he ran for the trees. He came to another place for big things, but he didn’t look this time. He never broke stride. He ran to the closest tree and climbed until the branches bent and swayed. He looked to the moon and eased.

***

chwerkmanChristopher T. Werkman completed a thirty-year career as a high school art teacher in 2000. He still paints, but his primary passion is writing fiction. He lives on a few acres outside Haskins, Ohio, with is partner, Karen and too many cats. Mr. Werkman’s first novel, Difficult Lies, was published by Rogue Phoenix Press in September of 2015. His short story collection, s, will be published by RPP August 1, 2017.

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