From outside, the gallery’s innocuous facade made the building appear abandoned. Brown butcher paper pasted over the windows blocked anyone from seeing in. Empty pocks where mortar had crumbled and cracks in the worn red bricks gave the impression of a structure near collapse. The door was uninviting and heavy. Solid metal painted black. There were no signs.
The gallery was called Itchy Hovel. My cousin Billie was showing work there. Ceramic fortune cookies. Some the size of a nickel, others bigger than your head. They were mounted all over the walls, interspersed amongst a hodgepodge of pieces by different artists. Portraits of toilets. Mixed media collages depicting wounded matadors battling newborn guinea pigs amidst a neon sea of semiconductors. A massive oil painting of a pinhead copulating with a bearded woman. Looped footage of a scarecrow smashing commemorative presidential plates and rolling around in the shards.
The basement was a black box theater. Fifty seats—five rows of ten threadbare folding chairs stacked on an incline. A ladder led to the light booth, affixed into the ceiling behind the seating. The small stage had two wings connected to an even smaller dressing room, where bare bulbs lined a smudgy mirror attached to a long rickety countertop stained with makeup.
A troupe by the name of Spiral Stair Players was presenting an original production entitled The Brain of a Night Monkey. The synopsis described it as a phantasmagoric exploration of hypernormality within a shifting landscape of mass desensitization and callous misappraisal of erotic justice. The poster was black splatter with scratchy lettering. Title, venue, price of admission, showtimes barely legible. At the bottom was a warning: Not suitable for children.
Billie had a pair of free tickets. We arrived early to get decent seats. Billie explained her process for making the fortune cookies. She was having casual sex with a ceramics professor. He let Billie use the college’s studio. It was in the lower level of an asbestos laden arts building. There was an annex with an atmospheric kiln. Billie would throw clay in the studio at night, shaping hollow little crescents and firing them under the bemused eyes of a decrepit watchman who she bought off with small talk and gas station coffee.
I don’t like to hear about security guards on account of Gladys used to be one. The last time I saw her was at a mutual friend’s New Year’s Eve party. My friend assured me Gladys wouldn’t be there. When I came through the back door the first person I spotted was Gladys leaning against the mint green fridge, a half drank glass of beer in one hand, the other tickling a stocky red head’s unkempt beard. She glanced at me, waved, and returned her pointer to the stranger’s wiry strands. I slipped past, elbowed my way across the crowded hallway, and exited out the front door without speaking a word to anyone.
I met Gladys at the mall where she worked at the time. I’d been caught shoplifting a lava lamp from Bradley’s Novelties. Gladys arrived on the scene brandishing a walkie talkie. She pushed me through a set of double doors marked STAFF ONLY and escorted me to a back room. There were stacks of small monitors displaying grainy black and white surveillance footage.
I sat at a card table while Gladys recorded my name in a ledger. She asked for my contact info. I obliged. She made me stand against the cinderblock wall and then photographed me with a polaroid camera. She tacked the portrait to a bulletin board flush with similar mugshots, wrote my name and my crime and the date on the white strip with a magic marker. She let me off with a warning and threatened to call the police if I ever so much as set foot in the mall again.
Gladys called the next day. Verifying my phone number, she said. I told her I might be a thief but I’d never lie to a lady. We got to talking, her asking what the hell I wanted with a lava lamp anyway, me wondering how she got into the business of being a security guard. Before hanging up, Gladys invited me to play darts at the Pelican and I accepted.
We were an odd pair. We were happy. Maybe our asymmetry balanced us out. Gladys was taller than me and much more fit. She had a subtle limp, her left leg being shorter than the right, but this didn’t stop her from staying active. Until I met Gladys, I’d never exercised. It was fun trying to keep up on our long walks around town. Every weekend she’d drive us to a different state park and we’d hike trails.
It wasn’t hard getting to the top of Sugarbun Mountain, only about four hundred meters. The meandering path wasn’t steep or rocky, but the woods were dense until you reached the summit. We could see the whole town laid out before us in the valley below. Church steeples, the water tower, the asphalt refinery. Stink bugs skittered across glittering boulders. Gladys spat over the ledge.
A man with a buzz cut appeared beside us. He made remarks about the sprawling vista and complimented Gladys’ boots and inquired if we’d spotted any kestrels on our ascent. We made empty small talk and offered a polite farewell before turning back to the trail. Buzz cut said he was heading down and offered to accompany.
You had to be careful, buzz cut said, not to stray from the path. Easy to get lost in these woods. Buzz cut plucked a bushy sprig of grass and stuck it between his teeth. Saw a waxwing here, he pointed. Right in that tree. Their eggs are speckled. Buzz cut kept looking over his shoulder.
Gladys pretended to take a call. We told buzz cut to go ahead. I’ll wait, he said. We stepped off the trail and walked deep into the brush. When buzz cut was out of sight, we hid behind some rocks. Fifteen minutes passed. He called out. We could hear crunching leaves, rustling branches. He was looking for us. Finally we saw buzz cut doubling back up the mountain. We started down again. He spotted us. He pursued. When we got to the trailhead, Gladys had the keys to her jeep ready. As we rolled away, buzz cut emerged from the trees and stood in the gravel lot watching until we disappeared around a curve.
We sped a few miles toward town then pulled off the highway to stop at the Red Barn for a bite. We laughed about our run-in with buzz cut, but truth be told, the encounter left us spooked. I ordered a hot dog with an unsweetened iced tea and Gladys got herself a peanut butter milkshake. She was a fine sight, limping away from the counter, nervous sweat on her brow, the white styrofoam cup in her hand, plucking the neon cherry from atop its pillow of whipped cream and popping the morsel in her mouth, puckering her lips to latch onto the clear plastic straw, cheeks taut, sigh of delight escaping as the tan ice cream mixture made contact with her tongue. We both felt better after we ate and later retired to the Pelican for BOGO night where we sang karaoke with a pack of bikers and debated the nuances of extreme body modification.
A month before we split, Gladys showed me an article in the Gazette about a young woman being found dead on Sugarbun, her face bludgeoned, ligature marks on her ankles, wrists, neck. We called the sheriff’s department and gave a description of buzz cut. They put out a police sketch, fairly accurate based on what we remembered. Leads came in, other people who had seen buzz cut creeping around parks and watersheds. He remains at large.
The Brain of a Night Monkey was difficult to follow. Hidden projectors washed the stage with kaleidoscopic patterns. Like a lava lamp. The actors climbed ropes that dropped from the ceiling and swung about. The dialogue—a mixture of English, Spanish, and what I assumed was Mandarin—frequently overlapped, creating an incoherent cacophony. One fellow got wrapped up in bandages, after which his castmates used fingerpaint to write cryptic slogans on the gauze. House fires forfeit desire. Your soul for a peach pit. Neither Alligator Nor Jupiter!
Not long after the troupe removed their clothes, the house lights snapped on and a garrison of riot police stormed the theater. A canister rattled across the stage, yellow gas hissing, filling the space. I lost sight of Billie. A voice crackled through a bullhorn instructing us to lie on the ground, hands behind our heads.
I stumbled out of my row and almost tripped over one of the actors, supine and bloody. From the lacrimator haze an officer emerged, their face hidden behind a gas mask. Baton at the ready, the trooper hesitated before charging. I recognized the familiar limp.
As the slick black club met the top of my skull, I saw myself reflected in the mask’s shining eyes.