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“People only want McDonald’s.”
Dappled light broke over the table, refracting in crystalline glasses with thumbprints on their bowls and lipstick kisses along their rims. Miniature wooden parrots strung up like wind chimes wavered overhead, hung from curled iron rods shaped like leafy tendrils of kudzu, minute twinkle lights snaked over them. A balmy draft ruffled the tablecloth and the clouds moved above in turreted furrows, soft shadows undulating over their faces. Patrons around them sipped pulpy mimosas and talked sailing upstate. It was a beautiful day.
“Seriously, they want Big Macs and Whoppers and curly fries. They’ll accept a meatball parm bake from Subway as some kind of ‘healthy’ deviation every once in a while. But the formula’s pretty simple.”
He said all of this while flicking his thumb up on his phone, scrolling through photographs and tweets and posts with little enthusiasm. She looked down at her own phone. Her Instagram account was open. Page after page of filtered little squares, each capturing a snippet of her work for online perusal. Some oil-paint faces, cracked and ageing in saturated hues. Deep watercolours of alleys and broken buildings. A variegated digital plane of her life’s work on display for any troll’s like or dislike or nasty comment to absorb. And not one of them had seen a gallery. 123 followers. 0 likes. She looked up. He continued his flipping. She put her phone on the table.
“Here let me see.”
He took her phone, flipped through a few pictures.
“Don’t you have any of you making art? These are all just of your pieces.”
She shook her head.
“Yeah well, these are beautiful, but no one knows what to do with them.”
“McDonald’s. Seriously. Do you see what I mean?”
She took her phone back.
Nearby a child cried, its doting mother failing to comfort. Finches gathered in a birch tree not far from where they sat, hopping playfully about its branches. The child continued his wailing. A heady, pancake smell surrounded them. It was a mean, sour cry with no pain or suffering behind it. She glanced over. The child was unhappy because he was unhappy.
“I have to go,” she said.
“But we haven’t ordered.”
“I know, I’m sorry. I’ll make it up.”
“Here, wait,” he said. He reached into his pocket. “I wrote you a poem.”
He held out a square fold of paper. She took it as if she didn’t even see it.
“You know, let me know what you think. Or whatever.”
And with her jacket and bag hugged to her chest, she was gone.
Her apartment was mostly studio, draped floor to stuccoed ceiling with drop cloths and plastics to protect the walls, furniture. Barefoot, she circled the floor, tarps crackling underheel. Light fell in ugly shafts through soiled windows, the dust motes illuminated around her. An easel stood propped in the center of what should be a living room, tarnished and clean canvases piled everywhere, stacked against chairs, drying on racks. She looked at them all, and hated them.
“What good are you?” she cried.
She began to dismantle the place. She stuffed skewed portraits in bags, warped landscapes down the garbage chute, and chucked paper airplane drafts out the window. She felt nothing for them now. Soon she had rid the place of every last painting, sketch, doodle on a post-it. A stack of clean canvases leaned against the wall to her left and she took one, placed it on the easel, and lined colours on a tray. Raw Umber. Vandyke Brown. Ivory Black. Sienna. Brown Ochre. Payne’s Grey. Midnight. Titanium White. A sundry rainbow of lusterless colours. She painted a black-grey rectangle. She painted another next to it, slightly lighter. And then another and another. Each lighter than the last, moving across the plane in three rows of seven. The rectangles took on their own personalities of grey, their surfaces knotted swirls of black and white. She piled one by one with gesso and paint, thick brushstrokes like silt on the surface, so thick you could swim it. When she finally finished, she stood back and frowned. They were rectangles of grey, but without awareness she had splashed streaks of ochre in the black, a smatter of navy in the white. Had she mixed her blues and blacks? What remained was something like a bruise staring back at her. She took a picture. 1 like. She took the canvas down. Replaced it. Started over. This time a Russian nesting doll of rectangles, one inside the other, getting larger and larger, moving from light to dark. And no vagrant reds or yellows had train-hopped in, but the rectangles were hardly that, more like sloppy ovals or misshapen eyes. She’d focused so hard on the colours, she’d lost sight of framework. 0 likes.
“Shit,” she said.
She grabbed her jacket.
With paint-streaked cheeks and hands, dustings of grey and white in her hair, she ordered. Cheeseburger. Filet-o-fish. Chocolate sundae. Chicken McNuggets. Cola. Large fries. In grease-spotted bags, she toted the haul back to her studio and spread them out on a drop cloth like paints and brushes. The smell was overwhelming, but something in their shape made her think of the Play-Doh patties she used to sculpt as a kid, forcing her cousins into pretend dinners with purple spaghetti and lime-green meatballs. She picked the fish and bit. Tartar and crispy skin. She ate and washed it down with soda. She took her paints, then put them down again. The sundae had melted into a bog of brown and she took her ochres and the dark sienna and mixed them until they mirrored one another. She drank the sundae and painted, matching swigs of chocolate with strokes on the canvas. She ate the cheeseburger, pausing between bites of pickle to dip nuggets in thick honey mustard. The fries she put between her knuckles and made like Wolverine on the canvas, ruts of grease left in the umber. She sucked grease and salt and bits of paint from her fingertips and felt sick.
She lay fetus-like on the floor for hours.
Sometime later, when a crepuscular haze crept in, she stood and painted a coat hanger. Two thin coat hangers side by side, both different shades of grey, no shadows or three-dimensional give. Just two flat coat hangers slightly upturned at the ends. She stood back and smiled. She took a picture. Her stomach growled.
She ran down to the bodega on the corner. Taquito. Pay Day. Hot Takis.
A grey pencil. A Cup.
Bakery. Cupcake. Red Velvet. Tres Leches.
A black key. Flat. No shadows. White background.
Dollar slices. Pepperoni. Ham and pineapple. Hot dog and mac ’n’ cheese.
Silhouette of an angelfish.
Days and weeks.
Chinese. Dumplings. Fried rice. General Tso’s.
A solitary teacup.
And she ate more and more. Whopper. Apple turnover. Backyard burger. Shoestring fries. McFlurries. Hot Pockets. French dip. Jr. Bacon cheeseburger. Quarter pounder. Chicken bucket. Shrimp poppers. Coney Island. Bloomin’ onion. Nacho burrito. Personal pan pizzas. McRib. Chicken wings. Tater tots. Fro-yo. 77 Likes. And she ate and ate and ate and stuffed a wedge of Big Mac in her mouth and she choked and choked and choked and died.