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Throw Forever to the Fleas

By
October 15, 2012

This was Clyde’s third Ramadan but his first alone.

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Image courtesy Brittany Greene

Clyde had painted all morning without once thinking about his stomach until now. It was Ramadan, and today was the sixth day. Which meant there were twenty-three to go. He knew he couldn’t last. Or wasn’t meant to. Rabyah had always said, eyes widening, that fate is nothing but the mind itself. That saying never struck Clyde as particularly profound.

The midday clouds in Manhattan were beginning to disperse. Clyde stood up and walked toward his newest painting, which rested against his window. He lay it flat so that it would catch the greatest amount of sunlight. Commissioned by the Heye Foundation, it depicted a fallen Navajo warrior. The warrior lay slain as his paint dried, his confused eyes bulging toward the ceiling.

Clyde decided to look at his refrigerator: inside was a package of mixed greens, some beer, a bottle of kefir, and a pitcher of water—all forbidden until sundown. True fundos, an unaffectionate term for Muslim fundamentalists, didn’t even brush their teeth after dawn broke.

Above him, a billboard depicted a rugged, bearded man laughing in a boardroom. Beneath him, a package of peppermint gum and a single word: Fresh.

This was Clyde’s third Ramadan, but his first alone. Religion aside, his ex-girlfriend Rabyah had modern reasons for observing the fast. She sent him many articles in well-designed health blogs about caloric restriction or fasting rebranded. The blog posts all summarized University studies that proved that eating less food led to a longer life. Those who ate more traveled faster to death. As if we were all given a finite number of meals to eat and then whoosh.

Clyde was starving. He put on his coat and a pair of sunglasses and locked the door behind him. As he walked across Green Street, he looked both ways two times. Above him, a billboard depicted a rugged, bearded man laughing in a boardroom. Beneath him, a package of peppermint gum and a single word: Fresh. He knew that a team of visual artists and data scientists had collaborated and presented this concept to a room of experts who’d deliberated over this in somber tones. And then at some point it was decided. This was the way to go with the gum.

A homeless man held open the door to the convenience store, and Clyde looked at him with a strain in his eyes because he had change in his pocket that he did not want to give him. He cupped a hand on his thigh as he walked inside and used the other to wave to the store’s cheery god-fearing proprietor.

Clyde chose this store and not the chain convenience store on the corner because of the shrine behind this store’s counter. It was full of copper figurines of the owner’s Hindu gods in various acts of leisure, fucking, and revolution. They reminded him of a college class he’d taken, in which he’d studied devotional Hindu graphic novels. The comics were intended to educate Indian children in the ’80s and featured cartoon gods playing pranks on the villagers then teaching the villagers about morality and how to be good to each other. But the figures in the convenience store were meaner, dirtier. The shrine, bathed in fluorescent light, occupied an entire shelf behind the cash register, sandwiched under a row of cigarettes and above the massage oils, a stick of incense burning on both ends. Clyde had once appropriated the arrogant smile of the large copper Shiva dancing atop a severed head for a Sioux chief he’d painted.

Standing on his building’s shared roof access space, Clyde stared at the chocolate bar. He shielded his eyes from the sky and looked up. There was still time.
He had not yet broken his fast.

Clyde slid a chocolate bar toward the owner and handed him two crisp dollar bills, waving off the change. The owner dropped the change into the proper partitions and nudged the candy bar back. Clyde tucked the bar into his front pocket and nodded. As he headed to the exit, the homeless man held the door open with a smile and a flourish of the hand. Clyde hurried past. The man cracked his knuckles and let the door close.

Standing on his building’s shared roof access space, Clyde stared at the chocolate bar. He shielded his eyes from the sky and looked up. There was still time. He had not yet broken his fast. The sun wouldn’t set for seven hours. Carefully, he stepped over the railing and sat down, putting his feet up in front him. He traced his journey to the convenience store. The homeless man was still outside but he was sitting now, content with a cigarette. Clyde held the candy bar up and focused on the man until the bar became blurry, then switched perspectives until he saw the slick sheen of the brown packaging and the mush of the city beneath him. His stomach grumbled. He knew he was fasting to feel closer to Rabyah, as if his devotion could travel all the way across the river and to the Upper East Side to her apartment. As if she would feel a tug and move to the window and stare at the sky and feel that tingly sensation of the Divine. As if that mattered.

The smooth dark chocolate was filled with the same peanuts and caramel that he’d eaten for years, but the wrapper on the side of the bar was altogether different. Strange. There were no nutritional facts or even a nonsensical password to plug into a website to win more candy bars. The wrapper was adorned with the silhouette of a young woman’s face. He carefully peeled the top of the wrapping. The young woman’s forehead was partially covered by brushstrokes of hair. She was looking up, her lips slightly parted. Clyde closed his eyes and took a large bite.

Five Months Before The Chocolate Bar

When no one was looking, Clyde liked to leave a certain amount of water in his glass, lick his fingers, and revolve his ring finger around the rim. When the water level was just so, he could make the glass hum. Clyde sat upright when a surly teenage server—who had seen him—walked over and filled the glass to the top.

The restaurant, their old favorite, was empty. Their table still bore the smudges of a recent soap water rub down. Rabyah walked toward him from the restroom. She took a seat and slid her arms through her cardigan, delicately fastening four buttons starting from the bottom. With each button, her smile grew smaller. She stared as he drank his water.

Clyde looked at her through a tuft of blond hair in his eye. He pictured the best photograph of himself, taken on a gallery rooftop at dusk, and approximated his then expression. “I do,” he said. But he didn’t.

“You know we can do this,” she’d said for the third time that hour.

Clyde looked at her through a tuft of blond hair in his eye. He pictured the best photograph of himself, taken on a gallery rooftop at dusk, and approximated his then expression. “I do,” he said. But he didn’t.

The phone rang. Rabyah put up a finger and raised her cellphone to her ears and immediately laughed, widening her huge brown eyes. She’d recently cropped her dark, thick hair and punctuated it with a single blond streak.

Clyde, like any painter, knew the difference between women who men loved and women who men wished to fuck. The difference was in the way the girl carried her face. When he’d met Rabyah at a friend’s party, she complained, smiling, that she only met boys who wanted one thing. Clyde wanted to tell her why. They had exchanged numbers, and it was months before they finally fucked. They had waited until it meant something.

The waiter arrived with menus when she put her phone down. He wore a solid army green T-shirt punctuated by a gray silhouette of a young woman just slightly off-center. The woman’s face was in between expressions. Rabyah ordered two halal chicken sandwiches; hers grilled with extra Pepper Jack cheese, his fried with no dressing. They always shared the nachos.

“We always share the nachos,” Rabyah said. “Right honey?”

“What is that,” Clyde asked, staring at the waiter’s shirt.

“That’s it for now,” Rabyah said to the waiter.

The waiter clicked his pen three times and walked away. “Those are new,” she said.

“Yes.”

“They were only supposed to have a limited distribution,” Rabyah said.

“What?”

“The T-shirts were designed for a 40-inch chest and 32-inch waist,” she said. “It’s supposed to make the symbol’s forehead bulge over the left pec. Almost like in contemplation, it’s quite lovely. But our waiter is a little too scrawny.” Rabyah laughed. “She looked like an old lady.”

Clyde’s face was still.

The waiter returned. Clyde noticed, for the first time, that he had a piercing in his nose and one of his earlobes drooped because of the ball bearing that had been jammed into it.

“Honey,” Rabyah said, grabbing his hand. “This is how artists make money. This is how you live in New York.”

The waiter returned. Clyde noticed, for the first time, that he had a piercing in his nose and one of his earlobes drooped because of the ball bearing that had been jammed into it. He placed two large glasses of pink liquid in front of them.

“My manager wanted to extend a couple of free margaritas for you guys,” the waiter said. “He recognizes you.” He pointed toward a table at the back where a woman with thick glasses sat. She waved her coffee mug in the air.

“I don’t drink,” Rabyah said, pushing the glass toward Clyde.

“Are you in school?” Clyde asked the waiter.

“One hundred percent in school,” the waiter said. “This gig is just to keep me busy at night. I’m saving up for a new drum set.”

“You’re in a band,” Clyde said.

“Sort of,” the waiter grinned. “My buddy plays these ridiculously old songs on his laptop and together we interpret how the song would have sounded if it was written today. Does that like any make sense?”

“Totally,” Rabyah jumped in, “so creative.”

“He is creating nothing,” Clyde said.

“Honey,” Rabyah said, shaking her head.

The waiter followed Clyde’s eyes to his T-shirt then looked at Rabyah. He introduced himself, because it was the only thing he could think to do. He turned from Rabyah to Clyde.

“Killer shirt,” Clyde said.

Seven Months Before The Chocolate Bar

Rabyah marched into the conference room. She placed her laptop by the projector. The door opened behind her, and the group entered. The last man to enter, with a palm on the client’s back, was Terry Ferraro, her boss. He winked and took the swivel seat directly across from her. He crossed his legs. Rabyah shot a smile at each of her colleagues in succession and then the client. The sole intern raised a remote, and the projector behind her came to life.

Everybody clapped.

The young woman’s silhouette appeared. Her face, now in its third iteration, had been softened to make her ethnicity and expression indeterminate. Her eyes stared not at but beyond the viewer. Below her face, in a devastating sans serif popularized by the Internet, was the slogan: Fire Up. The design was to be the face of a giant food and beverage corp.’s new wireless device brand called Apnea.

“The Fire Up concept was tested against six older designs and assigned to a variety of creative samples, matched with Apnea’s telecommunication products. Compared to the first-round tests, Fire Up yielded a 57 percent increase in desirability. In all age and ethnicity groups, the men’s prompted recall and brand linkage percentage curves usually exceeded the test group. All of this is charted out in the report you hold in your hands; I must point out that the 12 to 25-ers went ballistic.”

The client nodded.

“Mass art at once reaffirms a sense of belonging in a group and, simultaneously, rebellion from the same group. At the same time. Everyone is unique.”

Rabyah looked at her notes and charted the silhouette throughout pop culture and corresponding subcultures, emphasizing hacktivism and various waves of street art in the latter part of the Twentieth Century. She skipped the Wikipedia excerpt about Andy Warhol but included it in the client’s glossy take-home report.

Rabyah powered her laser pointer as the image slowly morphed into the source painting and then back to its Fire Up form. Rabyah nodded at the client, at Terry, and then turned to face the face.

“Mass art at once reaffirms a sense of belonging in a group and, simultaneously, rebellion from the same group. At the same time. Everyone is unique.”

Rabyah took her BlackBerry out of her pocket and put it on the table, facing the client. “Quite literally, our target markets believe that their lives should be captured and shared”—she picked it up and raised it in the air—“that the power to share is in their pocket. Instantly. Powerfully.”

The client nodded.

Rabyah put her phone down and motioned to the woman’s face on the projector. “Fire Up will market Apnea as world-conscious but transparent. This will strategically position the brand’s next move into mobile application development.”

The client scribbled something onto his report copy.

The intern turned on the lights. Everybody clapped.

“This is a home run,” Terry said stroking his jaw and stylish day’s growth. “This is a home run, Rabyah.”

“Thank you,” Rabyah said. She was perspiring.

She shook the client’s hands.

“We should bring in the artist some time. He’s very close to Rabyah,” Terry said to the client. Rabyah shot him a smile and opened her mouth to speak. The group stood and discussed travel arrangements for dinner, and she heard the drone of a string section tuning up. The museum across the street was having their weekly rooftop concert. Rabyah pressed her project into a sleeve labeled “Clyde.”

Eight Months, 2 Weeks Before The Chocolate Bar

Clyde wore his favorite Warhol shades. He held a lighter in his hands.

A diminutive man in the audience pressed his palms together. He looked at the people around him and parted his hands again, this time joining them together with a bit more force, creating a muffled sound. The third iteration was a definite clap, and the waves of applause engulfed the gallery from Clyde to the opposite wall. The ground vibrated, and he felt an arm around his shoulder.

People who sounded like they had money were poised in some predestined synchronization. Clyde also recognized several arts critics. The Times was having a cigarette with the Voice, and the Post was at the bar waving at him.

“This young artist is more than talented,” the gallery’s curator said. “His art is diffused with a political conscience well beyond his years. He is a New Yorker and a global citizen and like many of us, he was affected by this woman’s bravery and beauty. Ladies and gentlemen, tonight’s proceeds will go to the Iranian resistance. Their cause is, indeed, the cause of all subjugated peoples fighting for freedom.”

Everybody clapped.

Clyde pushed through the crowded gallery. He’d named the series 15 Minutes Until She Spills and had wanted a single candle on the floor in front of each painting, but was informed it was logistical no-go.

People who sounded like they had money were poised in some predestined synchronization. Clyde also recognized several arts critics. The Times was having a cigarette with the Voice, and the Post was at the bar waving at him.

As cameras flashed, a punk band from Iran in slim-fitting suits took to their instruments on a raised platform to the right. The band members began a soaring acoustic exposition of their latest EP with a local string quartet. The drummer of the band ran his finger across a wind chime, and the singer slowly flapped a single arm as if it were a wing.

Clyde watched as the blazers and shawls paused at each of the dozen large canvasses arranged on the walls. The cigarette smoke rose in waves, and he grabbed a glass from a passing waiter. Clyde didn’t like to drink. But he downed it and raised the glass in the air and handed it back to the waiter. He recoiled and found himself face-to-decaying teeth with a man who handed him a business card. William “Billy” Rutherford, MoMA board. Clyde pocketed the card and tipped his sunglasses as if it were a cowboy hat.

He finally found Rabyah as she walked toward him with an older man in her arm. She was beaming with pride, and Clyde found himself smiling.

“Terry, this is my boyfriend Clyde.”

Clyde knew who Terry was. She invited him to the opening because Terry had expressed a definite interest in art and it would be a good move for her professionally. Terry gestured to the walls before offering his hand. “This is incredible. How did you paint these so quickly? I feel like this just happened,” he exclaimed.

“I haven’t seen him all week,” Rabyah gushed, shaking her head at Clyde.

Terry grinned. “I don’t have a creative bone in my body but my man I must tell you, this is amazing.”

Terry took Rabyah’s elbow and motioned to the next painting, but she broke away. “I wish I could be your arm candy tonight.”

“Right,” Clyde said.

She gave him a long kiss. As their faces parted, she smiled and mouthed Be Back in a Few. He watched them, the way Terry smiled at her, feigning interest in her thoughts, watching the way her eyes moved, guiding her with his hand on the small of her back.

Clyde walked to the far wall and absently sparked his lighter, staring at the piece in front of him. Like the other eleven paintings on display, it measured 12 feet tall and 8 feet across. It was a two-toned screen print called green + blue that he had painted by hand to dramatize the woman’s features. There were streaks of red covering more than half of her face. Her eyes peered just to the side of the viewer. She was hailed as a casualty and a martyr. Foundations had been established in her name. She was beautiful. And that was why she was here.

“Why don’t she ever she look at us?”

Clyde saw that it was “Billy” Rutherford. The old man put an arm on Clyde’s shoulder and raised the other, as if brushing her hair aside. “I mean, she never did. But I guess that isn’t the matter. Because we all saw through her eyes.”

“No one saw through her eyes,” Clyde said, turning to him.

“She was hot,” Billy whispered. “What is she looking at?”

Clyde and Billy both turned around, following her eyes to the entrance of the gallery. An Exit sign hung overhead. A voice on the microphone announced that the paintings had sold out. Clyde pushed in his sunglasses, an unconscious gesture shared by myopics to make things clearer.

Eight Months, Three Weeks, Six Days Before The Chocolate Bar

Protestors marched in place underneath the overcast sky. Tanks swerved into and out of the crowd of students, fundos, activists, grandmothers. A woman wearing a hijab winked at the video camera as blood dripped from her left eye. Her eyes locked to the lens, eyebrows raised, verging on a demand. Rocks flew through the air, and the crowd served as its own shield. Grown men swung at statues with baseball bats, storefronts were adorned with flowers, pamphlets, stickers and verses inscribed by cans of spray-paint. A man kneeled next to a beautiful girl in a floral shawl, pushing down on her sternum with both palms, eyes closed.

Rabyah put her book down and moved closer to Clyde on the couch. He moved the cursor when the screen darkened.

The answer is in the eyes of the receding. She did not look at Clyde. Not once. The girl released a cloud of dust when she coughed, clutching her chest. Perspiration pooled around both armpits, her green T-shirt had a slight rip. She exposed two rows of brilliant white teeth. Her nose was so elegantly carved. Her forehead was damp and smooth, covered by a floral shawl, sticking to the gash on the side of her head, fluttering as she kept a determined vigil. One eye floated into her skull, the other toward the camera.

Clyde refreshed the screen. This is real, he breathed. He pressed Play. A man stared down from behind a fence with splotches of green paint at his knees, his right arm bent across his chest and holding his heart in place. His expression couldn’t make its mind up. He howled as the woman staggered to the ground. Her blood-soaked T-shirt was torn, a quarter-sized hole in the middle of her heaving chest. Her ring finger lay awkwardly bent backwards toward its knuckle. It was bare.

The camera shook.

The woman started to speak.

She held her mouth open in surprise, her lips were cut at both sides, the sunken eyes unrelenting, her chest-hole beating slower and harder and flowering into the past, into evidence. She lay on her back, cross-eyed. The others kept blocking the view. They watched as her eyes receded. Her quivering lungs fought to exist. The veins in her neck bulged outwards, turning white and then soft. She started to speak. Her right eye rolled up and out of sight, the left hesitated, moving toward the lens. The blood left her orifices, covering her face like an assassin’s mask. She said she was on fire.

The video played again. The video played again. There were two people watching. And thirty million. She staggered to the ground and they rushed toward her. The blood left her mouth as she stared cross-eyed, and the people murmured in crescendo, like at the fistful of seconds before a rollercoaster’s peak.

G

Author Image

Ankur Thakkar was a writer until he found the Internet. He is working on his first novel and in pursuit of an MFA from Northwestern University.

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