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“Cabinetry Design?”, the Man in Charge at the Catacombs asks me.
“Yes, I say”, Cabinetry Design.
“Let me see what I have. Yes. Starts tomorrow at 10 sharp.”
“Good. I’ll take it.”
“Pick up your work robes at the door. Do you have your own tools or do we provide?”
“I have my own tools.”
I hold up one foot. The Man in Charge looks.
“We sell a top-flight sandal here in the Carpathian Hinterlands. Made with 100% yak leather, 100% cotton sisal and 100% guaranteed for only $79.99. We take grownup plastic: American Express. No adolescent Visa and MasterCard.”
“These’ll do,” I double-nod, once to each foot.
“How do you expect the Boss to stay in business if you don’t buy our sandals?”
“I understand. Let’s see how tomorrow goes.”
“Good,” the Man in Charge says settling back in his rocking throne relieved he’d done his job. “How about bracelets or T-shirts?”, he perks up again and leans forward.
“I’m good there”, I say. I hold up my wrist and show a silver bracelet.
“Coo”l, says the Man in Charge. “Maybe we could market it. Who’s the silversmith?”
I sigh inwardly because it’s Paul Revere and I always hate to say it. The reaction gets on my nerves
“Paul Revere? Man, that guy rocks.” He settles back, shaking his head in amazement. Then asks, “How about an insignia mug?”
“How do you expect the Boss to stay in business?”
“I’ll consider it tomorrow.”
“Okay,” he says, lacing his ring-covered fingers. Ringo Starr’s got nothing on this guy.
“How much is the hourly wage in Cabinetry Design?”, I ask.
“Twelve dollars an hour.”
“And if I decide on sandals?”
“Then you start a tab at the company store. I can set you up right now if you like.”, says the Man in Charge.
“Ok, set it up.”, I say.
“Great,” he says. Settles back. Fills out some forms. Catches a wave from his secretary, pulls a new file toward him.
Back in the Catacombs outer office, I ask his secretary where I can get a room for the night. She points vaguely out the window without looking up, her long red nails busy stabbing the buttons on her Blackberry. In the streets of Carpathia, Romans and Greeks fight while Venus de Milo intervenes. I come to the Hinterlands with knowledge of the future so I know the Roman Republic wins. I watch Venus de Milo’s fruitless attempts, then slip into a winery.
“You in the Catacombs tomorrow?”, the woman on the stone stool next to me at the bar asks.
“I’m in Cabinetry.” I say.
“What style do you work in?”
“I work in both Ionic and Doric.”
“It gives me a broader resume.”, I say.
“I love Corinthian. But Ionic? I can’t manage ram’s horns.”
“If you can manage acanthus leaves you should be able to manage ram’s horns.”
“That’s what my art teacher at Yale told me, too,” she says. “But alas, ram’s horns evade me.”
“Where do you head from Carpathia?”
“Troy,” she says. “To work with Enyo, the Greek Goddess of War. I haven’t been with her for a couple of years. She paints combat helmets and hangs out with Zeus.”
“I’m on my way to Istanbul from the Catacombs.”, I say. Weaving rugs for a week.
“The merchants there are cutthroat.” says the woman. “They want to make big money off what we ruin our eyes to produce. What do you have to buy on the side?”
“Part of the loom. If you don’t buy the part, you can’t weave. They’re worse than the Man in Charge. He gives you options. I hope the cutthroat merchants in Istanbul don’t text the Man in Charge, teaching him bad habits. And I hope they don’t instant message Rembrandt’s studio.”
“That’s on my itinerary.”
“It’s a good gig.”, the woman next to me says, “but only after you’ve ground the pigments and added burnt plate oil and readied your palette. Then you begin as a student to the great man himself. His studio is dark with a flickering oil lamp in each corner, casting those great shadows he’s known for. Rembrandt’ll be at his easel. He’ll turn to you, his eyes weary from painting in the semi-dark, but they dance in the flames of the oil lamps. He’ll point out an easel with a canvas for you prepared by his assistant. You say Yo to the model and start painting. I forgot to turn off my cell phone once. They confiscated it and put it in the tray outside the studio door along with the model’s cell and Rembrandt’s own.” She leans into me. “He has an iPhone,” she says. She leans in closer. “He uses paint apps.” she says. “Actually did some studies for the famous portrait Bathsheba at Her Bath while sitting with the model having a beer in a corner pub in Amsterdam. I saw it with my own eyes. The model and Rembrandt, him with his iPhone and sketching away with his index finger. It was breathtaking, I tell you.” she says. “So you’re going to Istanbul, then Rembrandt’s studio. Then where?”
“Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.”
“I have never been to his studio.”
“Not his studio. The bathes.” I lean toward the woman and lower my voice. She pulls her drink close enough to hear me. “What I really want to do is learn more about the romantic tendencies in his classical paintings.”
“You know it’s against the rules,” she says under her breath looking quickly over her shoulder.
“I know, but the urge is strong to learn why he paints elongated arms. How that tendency crept in. He’s working on his most famous painting that shows that tendency right now, The Valpincon Bather.”
“I’d say back off. You know we’re not in these Hinterlands to learn, but to put in our time. If we even appear to be learning, we’ll be sent back to the Paleolithic Age and there we stay. Look what happened to Paul Revere.”
“He’s been banished?”, I ask. I hold out my arm out and show her the bracelet. “Made by Revere in 1783”, I say, then, “When did you find out?”
“An hour ago. Text message from his associate. I had become friendly with him.” She raises her eyebrows and gives a Mona Lisa smile, then says, “Revere had begun to covet Brunelleschi’s techniques. The formula was kept in the House of Medici, in a wall safe behind a da Vinci in the master bedroom. Revere got sudsed up one night, broke in and was found hammering happily away on gold, the Brunelleschi formula on the bench beside him. The Anti-Learning Team was called in and he was zapped to Paleo. At least he’s in good company. Da Vinci is there. And Frank Lloyd Wright. They sit around rubbing sticks together to build a fire and hunt for mammoths.”, the woman says.
“But they can still talk about art.”, I heard. Imagine the conversations. My cell vibrates. I take it out of my robe’s pocket. I see it’s the Man in Charge.
“About the Paul Revere bracelet,” he says. “It’s gone up in value. We have an anonymous buyer. As soon as Paul Revere was sent to Paleo, an alert went out over the Internet for silver items credited to him. Since you’re probably not going to buy sandals and a T-shirt, the Boss thought we could make money off you this way.”
The woman next to me detects something’s up by the look on my face. She leans in and listens.
“$10,000 for the bracelet,” says the Man in Charge. “That will give you ten years of freedom before you have to return again to the Hinterlands. Before you have to push print to get an itinerary that rules your life.”
“It’s not for sale.”
“I’m not selling.”
“Take it! Take the money.”
“I don’t want to go back.” I say. I want the bracelet. That’s all I need.
“Another!” I raise my glass to the bartender, this big bear of a man. The woman says make it two. She gets an extra cherry in her drink. The big bear of a man grins. I turn back to the woman, who has one eye fixed on the big bear of a man. Then she looks at me. “$30,000”, she says, breathing carefully, her hand at her throat. “I heard when da Vinci was sent to Paleo, Adoration of the Magi, went for $20,000.”
“Paul Revere beat out da Vinci?”
“And Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater House near Pittsburgh? Went for a pittance.”
“I want to learn about Ingres.”
“Even though you know Revere was caught learning and sent to Paleo?”
“It’s worth it for me. I don’t want to go back to my real life. That’s why I’m here. That’s why you’re here.”
“You know the penalty.”, she says. “You can never come back to the Hinterlands or go back where you came from once you’re in Paleo. Da Vinci can never go back to Florence, to inventing, to sleeping with young boys, to picking up his brush and creating another last supper. And Revere can never go back to hammering out bold metal designs, adding to his already lucrative business and Wright can never go back to his drawing board, to working with a bevy of electricians, designers, builders, window installers, beautiful secretaries and eating bountiful lunches.”
“I’m going to ask Ingres the question. Why the elongated forms.”
“He’ll turn you in.”, she says.
“He suffered rejection at the hands of the Salon in Paris.” I say. I think he’ll have compassion.
“And he plays Beethoven quartets on his violin.”, says the woman. “A musician and a painter,” she muses. “Maybe he’ll let you ask the question.”
My cell vibrates.
“$40,000”, says the Man in Charge.
“You hung up on him.”, the woman says as the big bear of a man pours her another drink with a flourish and a wink.
“Let’s get out of here.”, I say to the woman.
“No,” she says. “You have learning up your robe’s sleeve and I play by the rules.” The woman turns as I leave and bats her eyes at the big bear of a man.
Back in the street, Venus de Milo is with a tall man dressed head to toe in black and they come toward me.
“Let’s see the bracelet.” says the man, the Boss.
I hold my arm out.
He examines it carefully as you would expect the Boss to do. He places a call on his iPhone, then taps the screen and slides it into his robe. The anonymous buyer, the Boss says, upped his offer to $50,000. But word just came down he wears horns and carries a pitchfork. “I don’t do business with those who carry pitchforks, unless it’s Bryon McKeeby in Grant Wood’s American Gothic,” the Boss says, then, Venus, this way and they cut down a side street, hand-in-hand. I turn a corner. See the woman from the bar and the big bear of a man. They slip into a narrow doorway together, the big bear of a man grinning, his hand on the woman’s back. I turn away and walk through the streets of Carpathia, seeking a room for the night.
Atwater’s fiction is forthcoming or published in Blood Tree Literature, Gargoyle, Gravel, Green Mountains Review, PANK, Vestal Review, The Gravity of the Thing, Cowboy Jamboree: Harry Crews Tribute Issue and others.