Ben had always considered himself a pretty good judge of character. His technique was simple: he listened to what people told him about themselves. From jokes about shortcomings to rants about nightmare coworkers and impassioned discussions about television shows, people who you didn’t know told you every day, in public, what they lusted after, what drove them crazy, what they hated and loved, what they didn’t understand, what they didn’t care to understand, and what they feared.
His first impression of Marin had been that she was a reasonable, fun, and happy person who had a complex attitude towards authority figures. He had been proven, more or less, correct over the following six years. Marin had her daddy issues, of course, and her child abandonment issues that stemmed from losing her mother to cancer when she was fifteen. She’d actively worked through a lot of this baggage in college, but she still ran into trouble (Ben believed) when it came to boundaries in non-lateral relationships.
During spring break of their last year of college they had rented a beach house in Venice Beach with the gang. Late one night, Marin and Ben had stayed up talking in the kitchen, and Marin had told Ben that her biggest regret in life was that she and her mother had never gotten to be friends. Around the time that her mother had become seriously sick, Marin had discovered good music and alternative culture for the first time. This being the nineties, and Marin being fourteen, following through on this discovery had involved taking public buses to some unsavory Chicago neighborhoods to buy CDs and listen to live music. There had been fights until Marin had become better at lying. The upshot was that she’d kept a lot of things from her dying mother.
“I’m afraid I’m still pretty self-involved,” a twenty-one-year-old Marin had said to Ben, balancing a tequila bottle upside-down on its cap. She had broken up with her boyfriend right before they’d left for Venice Beach.
Marin’s fear of not letting other people in enough, Ben thought, had made her vulnerable in recent years to a series of codependent relationships with offbeat but charismatic mentor figures: Ray Marcos, that primatologist in Borneo, Ray Marcos again, and now Gil Garcia.
Garcia was understandably skittish about all the new attention. He was okay with Ben and Phillip, but awkward around and, upon occasion, outright hostile to everyone else from Mud23. There had been grumbling about the “ghetto diva” initially, but then people like Agnes Mayhew (only the hottest director in indie film at the moment) and the CEO of a certain internet search engine company started RSVPing “yes” to “Gil Garcia: G x G.” Everyone understood the stakes and took any abuse from Garcia silently from then on.
Garcia unequivocally adored Marin. Marin had stopped by Mud23 after work a few nights in September, and she and Garcia had developed a strange connection. Garcia called Marin “Harriet,” and Marin called Garcia “Mel.” They were both obsessed with the sandwiches at a visibly unsanitary deli down the street. They had long and involved discussions about tattoo culture. By October, Marin was coming to Mud23 three or four times a week. She usually stayed until midnight or one in the morning, helping Garcia with his sculpture or doing research on materials, techniques, and visual references for him.
At home, Judith expressed worries about Marin and Garcia getting close. “It’s a conflict of interest,” she told Ben one night. “She’s buying what he’s selling—a personal relationship is a bad idea.”
“Phillip and I are watching her back,” Ben said. “And Charlie is too. He’s done all this research and analysis about the contemporary art market. He might be more excited about Garcia than any of us.”
“Well—and don’t take this to mean that I don’t think that you know what you’re doing, I believe you’re totally brilliant, you know that—but what if Phillip and you are the ones whose backs need to be watched? Marin is your friend, and you trust her, but people change when the stakes change. It’s very easy to say, ‘that guy was just a college friend,’ when serious money or success or whatever is on the line. What if the party that you and Mud23 are lending your time, resources, and names to for free sets up Garcia as a big new artist, and then Marin and he and Charlie go off to sell the work on their own?”
“That just wouldn’t happen,” Ben said. “Not just because Marin wouldn’t screw people over like that, but she wouldn’t have any buyers. Art people... it’s a different culture than politics.”
“Then why doesn’t Garcia sign a contract with Mud23?” Judith said.
“Well, we haven’t really given him an ultimatum—sign with us or no launch event—so if you’re not being forced to, would you sign a contract?” Ben said. “Especially if you’re a paranoid, semi-orphaned, HIV-positive skater punk from the ghetto?”
“I love you,” Judith said, and kissed his cheek.
She looked exhausted. Ben told her that he would talk to Phillip about a contract so that she wouldn’t worry.
On Friday, October 15, Ben had gone into MBAD’s offices during the day to file his two November stories, freeing him for the rest of the month to work on the Garcia party and his other Mud23 projects full-time. When he got to the gallery at five-thirty-five, there was a crowd around the open workroom door: Phillip, Marin, and Ben’s coworkers Angela, Christine, and Martha. They were talking all at once.
“Benjamin!” Phillip said when he saw him. “You have to come see what our young Mr. Garcia has done.”
Marin and Angela moved aside so that Ben could walk inside the room, where Garcia was squatted beside a large round red wax altar table with a rimmed top. Skulls had been carved into the outer edge of the tabletop rim. The altar’s base had been molded into an Aztec-style Ouroboros carving: a snake god, tricky and powerful, drawn in sinister ancient geometries, eating its own tail. It was creepy and beautiful and would tie everything together perfectly. Ben had to stamp down a vision of himself (such visions were getting much too frequent these days) talking to an Artforum reporter about this moment as the moment that he’d known that “Garcia had something very special to say.”
“Usually there are offerings of marigold flowers, wreaths, food, and pan de muertos,” Garcia said. “I want to have tiny TVs with images of these things inside and around the base.”
“I love the Ouroboros,” Martha said.
“Is it an anachronism, though?” Phillip asked. “Or maybe a comment on Catholicism? That it has been its own downfall?”
“The Day of the Dead is about the living celebrating the dead,” Garcia said. “The Ouroboros is the only thing that makes sense, but I think it informs my other themes, yes.”
Ben noticed a bunch of jar candles in the trash by the door. “What’s going on with the candles?”
“Oh, I had to throw out the first three batches,” Garcia said. “Once I started designing the altar, I knew that I was raising the bar and that stupid Wizard of Oz shit wasn’t going to cut it anymore. It’s not about desire anymore. It’s about entropy. The new candles will all be covered with different artists’ tags (by Rocco and two other kids I know), one over the other, and then scratched out with a key. A progression towards meaningless ugliness.”
“I think I know where we can get you tiny TVs,” Christine said. “I’ll make some calls.” She left.
“Okay, see you guys Monday,” Angela said. “I have a date with a five-year-old and a cartoon shark.”
“I’m out too,” Martha said. “Exciting stuff, ya’ll.”
“Ta-ta, ladies,” Garcia said, in a nasal falsetto. “Too-da-loo!”
As Angela and Martha went to their desks and quickly gathered their things and put their computers to sleep, Marin walked inside the workroom and climbed backwards onto one of the folding tables. Sitting on its edge, her feet were one inch off the ground and she kicked her legs up, together and parallel, once. There was a scattered pile of CDs next to her, and she picked through them.
“So, Ben can set up the third floor studio for you when you need to shoot the offering photos,” Phillip said to Garcia. “And I’ll leave a hundred dollars petty cash for you in your mail slot. I’m in L.A. Sunday to Thursday to look at some Beecrofts and do this MOCA thing, but email me if you need anything.”
Phillip then turned and followed an exiting Angela out into the hallway. The front door shut behind them, and they paused outside the door together, talking. Ben could hear the occasional out-of-context consonant and low hum of Phillip’s baritone, but he and Angela were purposefully talking at a low volume.
“Mel, why do you have a Kelly Clarkson CD?” Marin said. She held up the plastic magazine case, with the photo of the young reality TV star on the cover.
“Entropy, Harriet, entropy,” Garcia said, with a flickering smile. He moved the altar from the center of the room to the corner and covered it with a white bed sheet. “I feel like a double ham and white cheese all of a sudden.”
“Good, I’m starving,” Marin said. She slid off the table.
Garcia picked his jacket up from off the floor, shook it once, and slid into it.
“How’d dinner go last night?” Ben asked Marin.
“Weirdly,” Marin said, sliding her hands into her jacket pockets. “I think I may have over-instructed Charlie on how to deal with my father. However, things could have gone much worse. I think everyone survived the evening not scarred-for-life, so there’s that.”
“Are you going to see your dad again before he leaves?” Ben asked.
“I’m driving him to the airport Sunday,” Marin said. “He’s so busy with the Dipentra launch right now though.”
Garcia whistled three notes slowly—three, blind, mice—a Garcian sign of impatience that Ben had already heard several times in the past two months.
“Are you coming with us to deli?” Marin asked.
“No, I have leftovers from last night in the fridge,” Ben said.
“Okay then, we’ll be back,” Marin said.
Marin and Garcia left. Phillip and Angela were no longer in the hallway. The former had probably gone downstairs for a smoke.
Ben still saw Marin as his college buddy, but, as the day of the launch party approached, he increasingly saw her also as “the money.” As a junior gallery assistant, he was usually a little bit afraid of the money, and now, sometimes, Ben found that he was a little bit afraid of Marin.
After Phillip’s initial visit to Garcia’s studio two months ago, Phillip and Ben had taken Marin back with them to Mud23, empty on a Saturday evening, to speak privately about Garcia and explain the sales process to her. Nothing had been promised explicitly, but part of the purpose of the meeting had been to gauge Marin’s seriousness so that Phillip could decide how involved Mud23 should be. Marin had made it clear that she was prepared to buy the entire show for $200,000 if she was not outbid by any other buyers: she had that much faith in Garcia already. Phillip had then decided a full-blown launch party was appropriate, but the gallery only made money if there was a sale. Mud23’s cut was the standard 40%, and Ben was pretty sure that he was finished at Mud23 if the gallery didn’t get its eighty grand.
Maybe Judith had been right. Maybe Garcia had decided that he didn’t want to give up 40% to The Man anymore. Maybe that’s what all of these private trips to the yucky deli were about. Sure, Garcia couldn’t sell to Marcus Holland (one of the Mud23 shortlist collectors that Ben had put on the invitation list) on his own, but he could sell it all to Marin and leave Mud23 and Ben with nothing.
Or maybe Marin was the one working Garcia in the deli. Maybe Charlie, in the course of all of his “research,” had drummed up some East Coast interest in the hot young artist with the made-for-Vanity-Fair backstory, and Charlie had convinced Marin that she’d be much better off taking half of a 40% cut of some amount much higher than $200,000.
None of this sounded right, but Judith was the brilliant strategist, not Ben. Ben had grown up in Martha’s Vineyard, a place where the only time people screwed each other over was the occasional jerky Scrabble move, and even that was only after a few drinks.
Ben could see the top right corner of Christine’s blonde head from his cubicle. She was typing an email in her work email account. She disliked Garcia’s style, so her decision to stay late on a Friday night to help Garcia with his sculpture was suspect.
Phillip came in with nicotine-glazed eyes, unlocked the safe, and counted out five twenties of petty cash. He placed them in Garcia’s box and then went inside his office and shut the door. What had Phillip’s conversation with Angela in the hallway been about? Perhaps everyone suspected Ben of collusion with Marin and Garcia about something. After all, Ben had set up his first meeting with Garcia with Marin, not anyone from Mud23.
This kind of second-guessing was exhausting and getting Ben nowhere. He didn’t know how Judith did it. Perhaps he was his parents’ son after all: just too nice and too decent to swim with sharks.
Ben pulled up the guest list spreadsheet. Twenty-eight out of thirty-five people had already RSVP’d “yes,” including thirteen collectors new to Mud23. He was being silly with all this obsessing about behind-the-scenes machinations. They were all a team. He should enjoy this part now, the meaningful working part, before luck and chance—whichever way the pendulum swung—took over.
Ten minutes later, Garcia and Marin came back, and Garcia went into the workroom alone clutching a paper bag by its rolled-down top. Marin came over to the cubicle next to Ben’s and sat in his coworker Brian’s seat.
“So apparently there were a bunch of ‘YES on Prop 66A’ people outside my dad’s drug launch today,” Marin said. She didn’t have food, just a plastic bottle of water which she screwed open and drank a few gulps of.
“Sorry,” Ben said. “I’m sure there were BAARC people there, but Judith’s actually out of town until Thursday. She’s doing some grassroots campaigning for Prop 66A downstate.”
Ben had always been under the impression that Marin despised her father’s work, and Ben had been surprised when, about a month ago, Marin had started making mean little passive-aggressive jokes about Prop 66A.
“It’s just weird,” Marin said. “I had dinner with him last night, and I didn’t tell him that I’m friends with one of the leaders of this thing that’s trying to undermine his life’s work.”
“Well, your father’s a really smart guy,” Ben said. He closed the guest list spreadsheet and spun around in his chair to face her, leaning back and crossing his left foot to his right knee. “I’m sure he’s got Plan A, B, C, and D all figured out.”
“You’re right. Why am I worried about Walter Choo?” Marin said. “I’m sure he’s found a way to single-handedly sabotage all five bills by now.”
“Did you tell him about...?” Ben asked, pointing in the direction of the workroom.
“No. No, way. Are you kidding?”
“Bye Ben! Bye Marin! Have a good weekend!” Christine called out.
“Bye!” Ben and Marin said.
Phillip emerged from his office suddenly, half-waved in their direction without looking, said “Ciao!” and followed Christine out.
A few seconds passed in silence. Ben wanted to tell Marin that it wasn’t appropriate for her to stay if she wasn’t helping/appeasing Garcia, but he was afraid of offending her.
“Garcia thinks that those two are having extramarital relations,” Marin said.
“No, Phillip’s a happily married man with two kids,” Ben said.
“Oh, Ben, surely they have infidelity in Martha’s Vineyard,” Marin said.
“You’re talking to a happily married man. I know another one when I see one,” Ben said. “Where’s your deli food?”
“Oh my god, the first sandwich I picked up had mold on it!” Marin said. “Like serious white and green fuzz covering the entire bottom slice of bread. Kind of lost my appetite after that.”
“Do you want to go out to eat somewhere? I’m not really feeling leftovers tonight,” Ben said.
Marin whispered, “Can we leave Garcia alone here?”
“No, but we can make him think it’s his idea to leave,” Ben whispered.
“Oh brother, not you too with the mind games. Why does every man in my life have to play mind games?” Marin said.
“It’s not a mind game. We’ll just remind him what he’s missing being stuck here with us on a Friday night,” Ben said. “Laugh really loudly like I just said the funniest thing.”
“Make me,” Marin said.
“What are you, four years old?” Ben said, before standing, reaching over quickly, and tickling her belly with both hands. “Goochie goochie goochie goo!”
“Oh my god, you’re such a freak!” Marin said, swatting him away but laughing.
“You asked for it,” Ben said. He sat back down in his own chair. “Like, literally.”
“Shhh...” Marin said. She whispered, “Garcia’s going to think we’re having extramarital relations.”
Ben raised his finger to his lips, mimed typing, and pointed to his computer screen. They both started fiddling with their computers and pretending to look intently into the monitors. Not five seconds later, the door to the workroom burst open, banging the outside wall, and Garcia came out with his jacket on and an Oakland A’s cap hermetically sluiced onto his head.
“See you Monday, kids!” Garcia called out without looking, giving a little half-wave, just like Phillip.
“Bye, Mel!” Marin said.
“Bye, Garcia,” Ben said. He waited for the weighted gallery door to slam shut. “Let’s eat,” he said.
Thirty minutes later, Marin was driving Ben over the Bay Bridge to meet Jorge and possibly Nazneen and Max for deep dish pizza in downtown Berkeley. Ben had called Jorge first; Jorge was free and said he’d call Nazneen, whom none of them had seen since Ben’s wedding. Ben and Marin had called Max on speakerphone and left a voice message.
“This is exciting,” Ben said. “You, me, and The George, just like old times.”
“I’m nervous about the Garcia party,” Marin said.
“I know,” Ben said. “I am too.”
That was the last thing that either of them said until they pulled into an empty parking spot in front of the pizzeria. Jorge was sitting at a table in the corner with a huge stack of huge menus. When Ben and Marin sat down with him, both of their phones buzzed with texts at the same time.
Ben pulled out his phone and opened the message:
Gng well down here. Miss u, love u, xxx J
“It’s Judith,” he said, thumbing out his response:
Things good here 2. GXG sculpture coming 2gther. Be safe, love B
“Mine’s Charlie,” Marin said, clicking through the message and smiling as she put away her phone. “He says ‘hi.’”
“You guys are both, just, ew,” Jorge said.
“What’s that? I thought that you wouldn’t want to live in a world where Judith and I and our love for each other didn’t exist,” Ben said. He had kind of memorized both Jorge’s and Anastasia’s reception toasts.
“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean that I enjoy being the only text-free party at the table,” Jorge said.
Ben still had his thumbs in texting position, so he pulled up Jorge’s most recent text to him and replied:
Jorge ur so sexxxxy. OMG ur like the half-Mexican Brad Pitt!
Jorge’s phone buzzed.
“I am so not opening whatever obscene message you just sent me,” Jorge said. “Nazneen can’t make it, by the way. She has a date with a guy that she met in Tahoe.”
“Oh yeah, that’s right. I knew that,” Marin said. “I don’t think Max is coming either.”
“Where is Charles in Charge anyway?” Jorge asked.
“Oh, he has a pitch meeting next Monday so he wants to do as much prep as he can for that tonight so that he doesn’t have to worry about it over the weekend,” Marin said.
Their waitress came, and they ordered what they always ordered at this pizzeria: a large deep dish pizza with sausage, onions, and peppers and a pitcher of beer.
To know exactly the good thing that you were going to be getting, and to be able to attune your anticipation with incredible specification and without the threat of disappointment: this was one of life’s most underrated pleasures.
Marin put her head on Jorge’s shoulder, and he patted it tenderly.
“Ben, who do you think has weirder taste in men: me or Jorge?” Marin asked.
“You guys have equally interesting romantic lives in different ways,” Ben said.
“That is the triangulation of a consummate professional. Ben, you should really consider going to law school,” Jorge said.
“Especially since you could fart on your application and get into Harvard,” Marin said.
They laughed at this—“fart” and “Harvard” in the same sentence was never not funny.
The night, all this, felt small, but in a good way, like a stretched-out sweater washed and dried back into its original springy and snug shape.
Ben was on the verge of so much unfamiliar territory in his career, and it was natural that being at an old hangout with old friends should feel good to him right now. The momentum of his life was still directed forward; he still wanted his grown-up apartment and life with Judith at the end of the day.
Ben had meant what he’d said to Jorge in the Mandala Center conference room on his wedding day, but his sentimental little speech had also been goodbye, in a way. He had tacitly given Jorge and himself permission to grow apart. Meanwhile, the Garcia party would forever change Ben’s relationship with Marin, and possibly not for good. That they were both comfortable with this happening showed how far apart he and Marin had already grown.
Judith’s cellphone rang at five-forty the morning of November 2—she had switched it to the most annoying of her phone’s preloaded ringtones about two weeks ago, after she’d missed an important call from her community outreach manager, Fred, while in a loud restaurant with Ben.
BEE-be-BEE-BEE-dee-DEE-dee-DEE-DEEDYDEEDY-BEE-be-DEEDYDEEDY-be-BEE-BEE, the tiny machine bleeped out psychotically, before starting over again at the top.
“Yeth on sichthy-sichth ehgg,” Judith croaked.
Without sitting up, she picked up the phone and pressed answer. “Nhith is Judith,” she said. She fumbled for the box of tissues on her bedside table, pulled out two, and blew her histamine-flooded nose into them. Judith’s allergies acted up when she didn’t get her seven hours of sleep a night.
Ben slowly regained consciousness as Judith talked to Fred about strategies for deploying their army of “YES on 66A” election day volunteers. As he did, Ben started remembering some of the three hundred things that he needed to do before the Garcia party that night. He had been dreaming about something slow and pleasant and sweet and wanted to go back there. If he got up, he would have to start doing some of the things that he needed to do, and he would not be able to do any of them fast enough. He rolled over and placed his hand on Judith’s knee (she was now sitting cross-legged on top of the duvet and talking very fast and commandingly to Fred). That made Ben feel better. It was a nice knee: soft and smooth.
Judith covered the mouthpiece of the phone. “Babe,” she said to Ben. “I’m going to be on with Fred for awhile so you can hop in the shower if you want.”
This shouldn’t have hurt Ben’s feelings, but it did. However, the experience of feeling hurt pinched Ben awake into full consciousness, and he got up, went into the bathroom, and turned on the shower water. The hot water started to steam, and Ben undressed and stepped into the tub, sliding the door closed behind him. As he turned a bar of soap in the lines of water streaming from the shower head, wetting it and producing a creamy lather, Ben began to mentally delegate parts of his to-do list away to the other Mud23 staffers, to Phillip and Garcia even, and found a confidence and a readiness that were much better than the pleasant, slow feeling of his dream.
The rest of the day ran unreasonably smoothly, like warm grease rolling down the tipped bottom of a pan. Ben’s coworkers, in particular, really came through. They did everything he asked them to without fuss, and took care of small problems brilliantly and without bothering him. On most Mud23 shows, everyone tended to keep score about the amount of work that everyone else was putting in relative to their own, but the run up to “Gil Garcia: G x G” felt like a real team effort. From small things that they said and did, Ben got the feeling that everyone else seemed to believe, with not inconsiderable excitement, that they could be making history.
At three o’clock, a teenager wearing a Kerry-Edwards shirt came to the gallery with an In-n-Out bag that had Ben’s name written across the top in permanent marker. Inside was a cheeseburger, two bags of Ben’s favorite tea, and a note from Judith that said:
Wish I could have brought this myself. Hope things go well, and I know that whatever happens you’ve done me proud. I love you (and MISS you!) and can’t wait to see you and hear all about it tonight.
P.S.—You don’t have to vote if you don’t have time... really. (One time exception only, though!)
Ben ate the cheeseburger in five bites. He rinsed out his coffee mug, opened both bags of tea, dropped both into the mug, filled the mug with hot water, brought it to his desk, and let the tea steep while he made some final changes to the bio of Garcia that they were going to hand out to the guests. He printed the new version:
Gil Garcia was born Gilbert Xavier Garcia on February 8, 1975 in San Francisco, California. He was raised by his mother, Imelda Garcia, an office cleaner and waitress. They lived in a one bedroom apartment on Mission Street, where Imelda was active in the local mural painting community. (She contributed anonymously to the iconic Clarion Alley mural, El Diario de Las Chicanas.)
In 1994, during a prolonged manic episode, Imelda spent her life’s savings to buy a house, in cash, in Bayview-Hunters Point, where Garcia lives today. Three months later, she disappeared. She is presumed to be living homeless in the East Bay.
Garcia dropped out of high school one year later, eight credits shy of his high school diploma. He worked a series of odd jobs, including: copy boy, concession salesman at Giants Stadium, dish washer, and bike messenger. He was diagnosed with HIV in 1997.
In 1998, Garcia picked up his first can of spray paint and tagged his initials onto an abandoned building in South San Francisco. He taught himself oil painting from books and images that his mother had left behind.
Bay Area street artist Rocco Morris has called Garcia “the future of California street art” due to Garcia’s strong point of view incorporating both of San Francisco’s two great street art traditions: graffiti art and muralismo. Mud23 is pleased to present the first-ever public viewing of Garcia’s work, “Gil Garcia: G x G.”
“Where’s Ben?” someone called out in the other room.
Angela came into the office a few seconds later and said, “Ben, Christine, Brian, come out to the gallery, you have to see.”
The three of them got up and followed Angela back out to the gallery. Light tarps had been hanging over Garcia’s paintings (returned from the framers and hung last night) all day while their contract engineer had constructed a small dais for Garcia’s sculpture in the middle of the floor. Garcia had spent since noon installing the altar sculpture on the dais and working out technical kinks. He had finished, finally, and the tarps had been removed from the paintings.
Ben had seen many, many art exhibits in his time and over twenty in this exact same space. His person feelings towards Garcia over the past few months had included curiosity, amusement, irritation, ambivalence, mild fear, and (very occasionally) disgust. However, there was no arguing at this moment that the man was a genius.
On the white walls hung sixteen colorful, evocative paintings in the child-savant-like style of California muralismo, depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe, the resurrection of Christ, John the Baptist, village life in Mexico, and Mexican laborers on California farms: in each painting, where the sun or blast of holy water or light should have been was a painstakingly detailed image of a bottle of HIV medication. Equal parts sardonic and hopeful, funny and sorrowful, Garcia’s work erased the artificial lines between. In the center of the room was the blood-red wax altar with thirty jar candles fitted into the rimmed, skull-studded top. The candle jars’ original images had been carefully bleached by Garcia, leaving only a quarter-inch outline of the Virgin, or Jesus, or whomever, and then tagged in succession by three famous local graffiti artists in black. “GXG” had been tagged in red on top. The completed effect was dense with glittery damning. Small security TVs with five-inch screens were piled into the empty circle inside the ring of the self-mocking, diamond-eyed Ouroboros. The TV screens were lit up with black-and-white digital photos of typical Día de los Muertos offerings to the dead—a single marigold blossom with its mandala of teardrop-sized petals, a round loaf of pan de muertos—as well as color photos of pills arranged in mosaic-ed images of these objects. Garcia had photographed the items against a black backdrop with a 50-millimeter macro lens to emphasize the picturesque inadequacy of each object. In seventeen works, Garcia had condensed the major currents of San Francisco’s Mexican-American community and his own life with remarkable precision and finesse.
“It’s very important work,” Angela said, brushing the length of her own collarbone with her fingertips, like a harpist strumming the same chord over and over.
“He’s Warhol meets Gonzalez-Torres,” said Brian. “No, Frieda Kahlo meets Banksy.”
“Call Rocco,” said Phillip. “He’ll want to see this right away.”
Agnes Mayhew looked every part the It Girl filmmaker in a vintage Dior cocktail dress and cowboy boots. She had brought her brother Rick Mayhew, the poet/L.A. nightclub owner, with her, and they walked around the gallery with their arms linked. At every painting, they stopped, and Agnes stood on her tiptoes and whispered in her brother’s ear. He nodded, smiled, and laughed, but never seemed to say anything in response.
The internet search company CEO had brought his wife, his former employee. They were both extremely prepared, asking Ben all the right questions about Garcia’s influences and process. Despite having a higher net worth than anyone else in the room (and 99% of the world) they had succumbed to a latent physical awkwardness early in the night, often getting stuck with a sideways view of the work, unable or unwilling to ask their fellow guests to give them the center spot for a few seconds.
One of Mud23’s regular collectors, Sammy Frampton, the founder-owner of a ubiquitous West Coast smoothie franchise, had come alone. According to Mud23’s dossier on him, Frampton had built himself a futuristic, gadget-filled cliff-side mansion in Santa Cruz in 2000, including a hidden room where he kept a few bottles of expensive scotch, Cuban cigars, and some Hockneys and Ruschas. Ben’s coworker Christine had been tasked with keeping Frampton away from Agnes Mayhew, but he seemed more interested in updating the room on the election results that his personal assistant emailed him every few minutes on his handheld communication device.
“Spread the word,” he’d whisper to a group next to him. “Virginia just went to Bush.”
Pretty soon the other suits had gathered around Frampton in one corner of the gallery, whispering their predictions for the presidential race. There were no hard numbers to crunch on Garcia or his work, so Ben doubted that any of them would buy tonight. They’d probably just come for the free tequila.
The director of SFMoMA, Marianna Rioja, was always invited to Mud23’s openings and events, and she and Phillip saw each other frequently at art parties and SFMoMA events, but the Garcia party was apparently the first time that Rioja had set foot inside Mud23. Born and raised in Madrid and educated at the Sorbonne, tonight Rioja was ageless in a white shirt dress and brown snakeskin pumps. Three sterling silver rungs of a necklace hung just above her freckled cleavage. She clutched at the bottom two with her tiny turquoise-hooded fingers as she squinted unemotively at Garcia’s paintings behind Prada reading glasses.
Rioja made one efficient round of the work and spent the rest of the evening talking to Mud23’s sole top-shelf collector, Alastair Gray. Gray was the debonair scion of perfume and cosmetics mogul and sixties style icon Juliet Gray and financier Robert Razhagi. Fifty-eight, Alastair was semi-retired from his role as CFO of his mother’s company, and split his time between Montauk, New York and Monterrey, California. He had sizable modern and contemporary art collections in both estates. Gray had been one of the earliest champions of Rocco Morris at the start of his career, even though, charmingly, he seemed to understand Rocco’s aesthetic on a purely intellectual level. About one of Rocco’s most controversial works—Sambo Smurf, a graffiti painting of a Smurf with the exaggerated minstrel features of a blackface Sambo caricature—Gray had once launched into a seven-minute deconstruction of the work that had included references to Jungian analytical psychology and Schopenhauer’s theory of art as a conduit for the transcendence of individual egoism, and had ended with the sentence: “the unreal blue and the unreal blackface, the children’s fantasia and the systematic dehumanization of an entire race of people are fused together in a darkly comic commentary on the role of visual media in American society through the ages.”
If Ben wasn’t mistaken, the thirty-eight-year-old Rioja was flirting with the recently divorced Gray. It wasn’t lost on Ben that Gray was four years older than Ben’s father and Rioja was two years older than Judith. However, that was hardly the most surreal detail in a room that increasingly embodied that old joke about art parties: you know you’re at a good one when it reminds you of high school.
Phillip came over to Ben with a pastel tres leches box in each hand, the handle of a tiny plastic spoon sticking out of each. “These are so fabulous, Ben,” Phillip said. “Even Garcia had three. Come on, let’s see if we can loosen Ms. Rioja’s tongue with one of these.”
Ben followed Phillip to the corner where Rioja and Gray were standing and each holding a glass tumbler whose bottom slicked with a swallow of gold liquor.
“Marianna, Alastair, have you tried these delicious cakes from Lisbeth Rose Bakehouse yet?” Phillip said.
Gray followed Rioja’s lead, and they both drank their tequila and handed their glasses to Ben. He took them, and Gray and Rioja each took one of the boxes of cake that Phillip held out.
Rioja took a small bite, and raised her eyebrows, nodding once in approbation. She swallowed. “I was just telling Alastair how important this work is,” she said.
“Well, it’s the modern Sistine Chapel, isn’t it?” Phillip said.
“Yes!” Rioja said. “I was just saying that. Antiretroviral drugs as the Creation of Man.”
“Adam touching God,” Phillip said, “except with a Situationist detournement ‘poof!’”
Gray nodded gravely. “Very bizarre what happened with his mother,” he said.
Ben left quietly and slid through the crowd to the (closed) back office. He put the glasses in empty slots in a plastic dishwashing crate on a table in Christine’s cubicle.
Ben went back out to the gallery and surveyed the room. Marin and Charlie were talking to Marcus Holland, Charlie’s family friend. Rocco was nearby them talking to the two other local street artists who had tagged Garcia’s candles—Stephan Lee and Merritt Jordan. Rocco, Stephan, and Merritt had collaborated on a street art installation for a special presentation at the Venice Biennale two years ago.
Ben approached their group—he’d actually never met Lee or Jordan, who were both based in New York now. Rocco introduced Ben to them. They both already seemed to be familiar with his name and his role in the Garcia project.
“You know, ordinarily I feel a little bit grouchy at these kinds of ‘rising star’ bullshit events,” Lee said, “but Garcia really deserves the attention.”
“The place where his art comes from is so real,” Jordan said. “That’s so rare these days. Even with street art.”
Ben’s coworker Angela came over and pulled Ben aside.
“Agnes Mayhew wants to buy Untítlede #4 for twenty-two k,” she said.
“Are you serious? I’m pretty sure that’s you-know-who’s favorite too,” Ben said.
Angela immediately turned and sidestepped Sammy Frampton’s group and headed towards Phillip at the other end of the room. Ben, uncharacteristically slow to realize what was going on, stepped around the Frampton group as well, but Phillip and Angela were already headed back over together as Ben started crossing the room.
The three of them went into the back, into Phillip’s office, and closed the door.
“Agnes will get the painting for twenty-two,” Phillip said. “We’ll cut our fee to thirty for anything else the Search King and his wife want to buy. I guess we’ll need some of these.” Phillip opened his desk drawer and took out two sheets of red dot stickers.
When Ben, Phillip, and Angela returned to the gallery, Garcia was talking to Merritt Jordan and Rocco. His eyes followed Angela as she walked briskly to Untítlede #4 and put a red dot under its title card.
Thirty minutes later, Ben put three more red dots under Untítlede #1, Untítlede #9, and Untítlede #17 (the sculpture). Garcia watched him, looked suspicious, looked sick, looked like he was taking in a big, slow, calming yoga breath, but instead began hyperventilating. He ran out into the hall, his right palm starfish-flat against his chest. The gallery door wound closed behind him, and the room broke out into a confused clamor of speculation.
Ben looked over at Phillip and saw him mouth the words, Go out there with Marin, please. Phillip had to have been the best-bred college drop-out in the world; even his panicked orders were polite.
Ben looked at Marin, and he saw her understand him. She extracted herself from a conversation with Charlie, Stephan Lee, and a collector and followed Ben out into the hall.
Garcia was sitting very still on the floor, holding his legs to his chest with both arms. His head was down, and his forehead was pressed against his knees.
“Mel, dear,” Marin said, crouching down beside Garcia and putting a hand on his bony shoulder. “Everything’s going awesome. What’s wrong?”
Garcia lifted his head and looked at her. “It’s too much, Harriet,” he said. “I-I need the money. I deserve the money, I know, but it’s too much.”
“What if Marin buys everything from you?” Ben said. “You know her. It’s not like selling it to a complete stranger. She’ll buy everything and worry about the next step. You trust Marin, right?” Ben squatted, put his hands on his own knees.
“Ben, I don’t—” Marin started.
“But you’ve already sold stuff to other people, right?” Garcia said. “I saw you put the red dots.”
“Just oral agreements,” Ben said. “Nothing is sold until the insurance companies go over everything three hundred times, believe me. Phillip can get them to wait a little longer. Marin can buy everything for two hundred k, Mud23 will take a 40% cut, and you can take home your $120,000 as early as next week. Or, you can play the game and make a lot more than that. It’s your work, and it’s tough to see it sold like this, like it’s meat or something. I get that. A lot of artists feel like they’re selling themselves at these things, but it’s just money and it’s up to you. You have the power here, Garcia.”
“Is that weird though? If after all of this I sell it all to Harriet?” Garcia asked.
“Phillip is the master at making the weird seem totally natural,” Ben said. “Believe me. Is that what you want to do? Sell everything to Marin?”
The sentience in Garcia’s eyes seemed to flutter on and off, like a flickering light bulb.
“If she wants it still,” he said. “Do you?”
They both looked at Marin. She smiled.
“Hell, yeah,” she said.
Ben called a cab for Garcia, and Marin walked him out. Ben went back into the gallery, and let Phillip know what Garcia had decided. Together they smoothed over the incident citing “pulmonary side effects from new medication.” They quietly retracted the sales that had been made while promising Agnes Mayhew and the search engine company CEO that they would get their paintings and sculpture, but that the “purchasing structure” would have to be “amended” due to “special considerations for the artist’s schedule.” If anything, Garcia’s sudden fit and exit, and Mud23’s consequent vague backtracking only served to bolster Garcia’s mystique as an authentic artistic soul too sensitive for the gauche selling of his work to the highest bidder.
And this mystique made everyone want it more. Agnes Mayhew suddenly knew Ben’s full name, and he had to reassure her three times that he had her number on file and would give her a call as soon as they were ready to send something to her lawyer.
It took another hour for everyone to take their final stock of the work and clear out for the night, but the party still finished one hour earlier than scheduled, at nine o’clock.
Packing up for the night with his coworkers in their darkened office, Ben felt heavy with data as he buttoned his jacket and lifted the shoulder strap of his bag over his head. However, he went over the evening’s unexpected turn of events and found much to be pleased with himself about. He’d kept his head about him. And Agnes Mayhew knew his name!
Ben’s newly-leased hybrid was where he’d left it that morning, parked in a spot down the street. As he got into the driver’s seat and pressed the power button, the realization dawned on him that he would get to be with Judith when the results on Prop 66A came in. Ben could anticipate this moment of sybaritic marital unity as precisely as he could the taste of a piece of sausage, onion, and pepper deep dish pizza on his tongue: the weighted look in her eyes, the fierce indomitableness of her public persona dropping for one second to either the vulnerability of relief or the vulnerability of disappointment, and the immediate subsequent delight of realizing what Ben had just realized as he’d gotten into his car, that they finally had each other to themselves again.
On the drive home, Ben remembered that Judith had invited her activist friend Phyl (Phyl managed communications for a national labor union) and Phyl’s husband Dave, a legal aid attorney, over to watch the election results come in. Dave’s car was parked across the street from Ben and Judith’s building when Ben pulled up and parked in an empty spot in front of it.
As he climbed the stairs, Ben could hear the television on in his apartment, and three live humans talking over it and laughing. He opened the door on Judith lying down on one couch, her blue-and-yellow Bruins fleece blanket thrown over her legs by someone else. Phyl was sitting at one end of the other couch, with an also-prone Dave’s head in her lap. Dave, too tall for the couch, had his ankles propped on the ottoman from the armchair in Judith and Ben’s bedroom. Two bottles of wine were open on the living room table, along with three empty wine glasses smudged with fingerprints and dried streaks of cabernet, and the remnants of an enormous order of Indian takeout. There was a cold piece of naan bread, notably, balanced precariously on the head of a Dick Cheney bobblehead figurine at the center of the table. The television was set to PBS’s live election coverage.
“...and I swear, if I hear the word ‘mandate’ in anyone’s victory speech tonight I’m going to scream,” Judith was saying. “Oh my god, is that really my husband walking through the door? Is it—it’s nine twenty?” She sat up and retied her ponytail. “Do you need food? Alcohol? Tea? A shower?”
“I think I need couch,” Ben said, putting his bag down on the floor and taking his shoes off.
“From someone who is currently enjoying couch,” Dave said, “couch is an excellent choice. I thoroughly commend your choice of couch.”
“Couch is good,” Phyl agreed.
“So things went well tonight,” Ben said. “The artist had a little freak-out, but I think in the end nobody cared because the work itself was so good.”
“Is Garcia going to be okay?” Judith asked as Ben sat down beside her and put his hand on her knee.
“He’s just a drama queen,” Ben said.
“Oh, wait, sorry Ben,” Dave said. “They’re calling Florida.”
There was a wordless moan of disappointment as PBS showed the big checkmark next to President Bush’s headshot.
“The other big story tonight is the surprise passage of the West Virginia, Maryland, Minnesota, and Iowa state bills restricting drug companies’ access to physicians’ prescription-writing data,” the male pundit said.
Ben looked at his wife. She smiled and nodded.
“Yes, that’s right Jared, and these bills will also make unlawful the in-kind gifts to doctors—everything from pens and certain drug samples to expensive trips and tickets to entertainment events—which have been industry practice for years,” the female pundit said.
“There is one more similar proposition, Proposition 66A, which California voters voted on today,” Jared said. “Polls just closed there, but this is now widely expected to pass based on the results in the other four states.”
“Yes, and one of the stories that’s starting to come out now is that this was not a true blue contingent of 100% liberal voters who passed these propositions,” the woman said.
“There’s going to be a story in Slate about this tomorrow, right?” Jared said.
“Yes, Slate has sent us an email previewing their story about the large number of evangelical and Catholic voters who voted for the D.A.R.E. bills as a reaction to what they see as drug companies’ aggressive marketing to doctors of birth control pills, especially the morning after pill, which many evangelicals and Catholics regard as a form of abortion.”
“Holy shit, Judith, did you know about this?” Phyl said.
“Fred only called me at five-thirty this morning about it,” Judith said.
“Was Slate going to run it this morning?” asked Phyl.
“Well, it wasn’t going to be a good story unless it actually worked, right?” Judith said, with a smirk.
“Can we get rid of the Democrats and start a new party with just you and Barack Obama?” Dave said.
“I remember when we talked about the evangelical thing at your wedding,” Phyl said. “I thought you were nuts, frankly. But now I bow down to the master.”
“You are married to a bona fide genius, Ben,” Dave said.
“Judith, you’re like the Karl Rove of the Democratic party,” Phyl said. “Except you’re not a sociopath,” she added quickly.
Ben, Judith, and Dave laughed.
“I’m serious though. At least who Karl Rove used to be for Bush. Nobody knows your name outside of San Francisco, but you’ve just changed health care policy in five states forever. You started that whole D.A.R.E. bills meme, and look even PBS is using it for shorthand. And you coordinated a successful grassroots campaign reaching out to the base of the opposing party through their religious organizations (and you’re an atheist). Most importantly, you win things.”
Ben was still holding on to Judith’s knee. What evangelical thing? What D.A.R.E. bills meme? That was what Judith had been doing downstate? It was one too many stumpers for Ben’s comfort.
Ben had been preoccupied with Garcia, and, yes, a certain amount of Judith’s work world would always be white noise to Ben, but he hadn’t not been there for her. He hadn’t not been listening. Ben was especially annoyed that he could not now be certain whether he was upset at not knowing about Judith’s hardball Prop 66A tactics, or the nature and content of these tactics. Was it his pride that was offended or his WASPy sense of decorum? And, whichever it was, who wanted to be that person, in that argument?
“Well, it’s California residents who are the winners if Prop 66A passes,” Judith said.
Judith was the queen of this kind of conversational wu shu—taking someone else’s words and twisting them back at the person to correct or one-up him or her while making it seem that she was making a benign statement. Ben had always found it charming: he’d loved that she was so consistent in her competitiveness; she couldn’t even curb it in casual conversation. However, now Ben was overcome with a blinding, irrational need for inconsistency from his wife, even though he knew that that was the most unfair thing that he could have wanted, the most unwinnable marital fight that he could have picked.