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The Armory Show

a short story

by Nick Mamatas

Microrecorder, check. Contact lens camera with image reproduction licensing protocol, check. Tickets to the exhibit, check. Mace, check. Shiv, check. Tube sock, check. Can of Diet Coke, check. Good to go. The last two are an old trick of my mother's. Back when she was a social worker -- back when there was such a thing -- she'd occasionally end up cornered by a red-eyed rat, some crackbaby gone nuts or one of her own clients who boiled with rage when she came to tell them that there would be no more government cheese. Soda cans were usually waved past the metal detectors by the lobby guards and when it hit the fan, she'd just slide her can into the sock and start swinging till the fabric was scarlet with blood. She retired with four justifiable homicides and a full pension.

These days I need that kind of protection too. After all, I'm an art critic. I plan on surviving this night.

Tonight, the armory show opens. Yes, like the famous one of 1913, 175 years ago, back when Duchamp, Dasburg and the Cubist "Chamber Of Horrors" shocked the world by exhibiting paintings and sculptures depicting subjects other than Jesus, Napoleon, fat women or bowls of fruit. The Institute even rented out the old 69th Regiment Armory for maximum derivative impact. The streets around Lexington Avenue have been cleared. The mainstream press is covering the opening, so I'm wearing a nice pants suit, but with flats in case I need to run.

The cab drops me off a few blocks away, right into a calm but murmuring crowd. Mostly human cows: ladies who lunch. Eurotrash with fifty-mile-an-hour hairdos and white plasteeth slabs jammed into their gums. Hungry-looking culture vultures in threadbare cardigans and women with miniskirts so tight their buttocks look like canned hams wrapped in tarps. I push my way up Lex, poking asses with my shiv and occasionally throwing an elbow into the bridge of a nose or a bobbing patrician Adam's apple. I make it to the base of the steps just as a head cracks open on them and splatters my knees with blood.

She's black, nude, meaty, and still alive. A few belly rolls, thick brown nipples and half a face. The crowd cheers. I can't smell the blood over the cologne or the nasty underarm smell of the Euros on either side of me. I glance up and see another black woman tumbling down the steps. Her thighs bounce, but her arm cracks right away. She crumples only halfway down the stairs and screeches. A few hisses from the peanut gallery. I wink a few snapshots and run up the steps, shiv in my left hand, pepper spray in right.

"Lorraine Madison, Art Round Table," I say, punctuating my sentence with a knee to the balls of Vinshon Vins, who has another black woman ready to go, his fist in her nappy hair. She scampers off as I put the point of my shiv under the flesh of his chin, "Comment on race relations and the indentured subject, yes?"

Vinshon can't talk very well with his scrotum shoved into his pelvic bone but chokes out a "Yes...I want...you know, to decolonize the nude as text... interrogate the prurient gaze of..."

"Yeah yeah, volunteers?"

"What?"

"The women!" I have to get loud because the audience is picking their way over the bodies and blood-slicked steps behind me. The clicking of strappy heels is near-deafening.

"Nah, we own 'em. The Guggenheim bought me twenty for the show." Vins says. He frowns, and glances over my shoulder. "There goes my canvas." And people brush past my shoulders and make their way past the checkpoint to get into the exhibit proper. "What did you think?" he asks, like we're friends now.

I plan it perfectly. "Ham-fisted," I say and blink, taking a pic just as every trace of hope on Vins' face collapses into despair. "I couldn't think of a more obvious reference to Nude Descending A Staircase Number Two if I tried. Are we making art here Vins, or just working out our white supremacist Midwestern angst? So you finally touched a black woman, I'm sure mom and dad back in Ypsilanti are scandalized." He opens his mouth to speak again, so I pump it full of mace and duck inside.

The exhibit proper is a bit overwhelming at first. The smell is anyway, combination slaughterhouse and that vague antiseptic smell of too much jism. A huge canvas predominates, it is tilted so Lauren Newman's intestines can slide down. Action painting, but too tentative as the life support equipment Newman is connected to is plainly visible on the scaffold above the work. Some strands of viscera twist gracefully enough down the canvas, but I'm not touched by the piece. Dissatisfied, I follow the screams to one of the side rooms.

Exhibit Room F is Blue Feud. A portly woman has volunteered. Her husband holds her coat, a mink in lavender, furs sliced thin and stitched to resemble corduroy. She squeals through a series of shots, long syringes puncture her arms and thighs. Excited and trembling, she can barely keep her skirt hiked up through the series. Her hips are bright white under the spotlight, the rest of the room is blacked out. Then a blast of fire from the corner (glimpses of men in the corners, lit by the flickering red moment) and the slugs hit her hard, like a boxer punching the heavy bag a hundred times a second. She falls and bleeds a rich azure. Her man stares on, not ready to weep yet. It's compelling. I video the blood, still blue and thick as ink, as it puddles near my shoes. Four assistants in military khakis, lightly dusted in flour, enter from the corners, grab her wrists and ankles and hoist her up and away.

"Her name was..." her husband begins, but a digitally deepened "No" from the corner interrupts him. "No name. No fame. No voice. She's a statistic now." Her husband sighs dramatically and rolls his eyes like a little girl, an odd juxtaposition to his salt-and-pepper hair and smartly knotted tie. He drops the coat onto the bloodied floor and stomps off, muttering into his lapel buttonphone for a lawyer.

Exhibit Room G is nearly another ruined moment. More volunteers. A hugely muscled black man is sodomizing from behind a young blonde just off the sorority corral. Bald of course, his pate is key lit through a light purple gel, to bring out the bronze in his skin. Americana hangs from the hastily constructed walls: a moose head, a rusted Route 66 sign, Ted Williams shilling Moxie Cola in orange and black tin. Muzak plays lightly in the background as the woman screams, "Oh god! God! My ass...it HURTS! Fuck me! Rape me! Fuck me you huge black motherfucking mandingo!" I bite the inside of my cheek, but the other onlookers aren't so forgiving. They laugh audibly. I smile. My eyes meet the would-be rapist's. He mouths the word silently between the huffs of sweaty fucking, "Man. DING. Go?" disgusted. I wink at him and we share a quick smile.

I'm followed out of that room, but the stalker doesn't know that I know. Much of the rest of the work elicits little more than a shrug. Phipps is in Exhibit Room K, skinning an indentured servant alive in a mock up of a doctor's office, in too obvious a nod to George Grosz. Beaten Child would have been more interesting had the subject been a volunteer rather than a purchase, but most freeborn kids aren't sophisticated enough to offer up their lives for art's sake. Not enough guilt to exorcise. Back in the armory's grand hall, a dozen exhibition goers at a time are locked into the gas chamber and killed. One makes a show of taking off his watch and throwing it to one of the artists before being shoved in. The great metal doors slam behind him, and the shower begins. The walls are thick though and so much else is going on that it is hard to make out the screams, or the futile second-thought fueled fists against the interior. I can only think Good riddance, and the chamber takes too long to shovel clean anyway. The crowd grows restless and disperses. My secret admirer walks off, following someone else.

I wander to an unobstrusive corner of the sculpture wing, nod to a heavily modified volunteer who now resembles Dasburg's lumpy Lucifer and take out my microrecorder. A lede comes to mind easily enough, but I see my stalker again. He's naked, revving a chainsaw over his head and coming straight at me. I manage to say "Banal but deadly!" drop the box, whip out my shiv again and duck his first pass. The little poseur is already breathing heavy. Too many cloves and too much crank, I bet. He whirls sloppily on his heel and turns to face me again.

"So, did I pan you a few months ago, or do you want me to make you famous now?" I ask him. He stands bowlegged, sweating. Black hair's all matted. He's meeting my eyes with that fake tough-guy stare. Me, I'm staring at his legs. His calves flex and spring. I duck and roll, then jab him in the thigh as the chainsaw chews the air over my head.

He yowls and that yowl becomes a typical artiste whine, "Art is dead! We herd our volunteers, or filthy lumpen chattel, into our deathwork! But where is the true freedom to explore!" He turns to the little crowd that gathered. "The critics have stolen it!" A few titters. I can hear them licking their lips. The crowd hungry for some spilled blood, blood that means something more than status or slavery.

They want the blood of someone who cares whether they lose it. That'd be a new thing to see at least.

Happy to oblige. I dart forward, ready to stab the little fucker right in the kidney. He spins around, swinging the chainsaw crazily. I fall back as he loses his grip on it. The saw whirls into the crowd, tearing through a few onlookers, its shrieking buzz crumbling into a strained rumble as the blade eats flesh and bone. Then the screams, real screams from pain unexpected and unpurchased, not the practiced affectations of the rich. Provocative!

The kid is faster than I thought. He's on me, sloppily avoiding the knee I put up to meet his balls. I turn him over and get into the mount position, ready to punch his teeth down his throat with the heel of my palm, but he has something. Shit! A Manolo Blahnik, heel-first and too fast, he gets my eye.

For a long moment I'm lost in the red haze of pain. He's not finishing me, but pontificating to the audience. I catch a snippet, some tortured babble about symbolic irony and putting out the eye of the critic. I can only think how heavy my face feels; the stump of the foot is still in the shoe. The world ripples in and out in throbbing waves, like a pleasant dream had under fiery sheets. I'm pretty clever when I'm in agony I think, then I hear this distant tea-kettle whistle over the noise of the show. It's me screaming.

I breathe deep and remember my editor's training. Monet's Water Lillies is my trigger. It's a simple post-hypnotic suggestion. There is no horror, no pain, no fear. Only beauty. Only truth. Only the dance of light on water. Muted pinks and greens, a serene jumble of leaves. Put my pain away in the tiniest, darkest corner of my mind. I am a critic. Critics stand above, always. I pull the heel out of my eye and take to my feet.

They're all against me now. The women shuffle their feet under their gowns. One man's double chin bobs lustily. Fascination with gore is just so base.

I have a fifty-seven hundred dollar shoe in my hand, a cheek slick with eye jelly and an MA in Art History from a state university. They have three dozen well-toned, gym-trained limbs, a variety of weapons and jagged edges plucked from the other exhibits, a crazed and naked poseur goading them on.

It's hardly fair, really. "Jejune," I say, just over a whisper. To tantalize.

Murmur murmur, they murmur.

"Jejune!"

A collective gasp. I take a step forward.

"Trite."

The stalker's erection begins to wilt.

There is no pain. There is no fear. Only beauty. Only truth. I test the wall of flesh with another step forward. They step back as one. I take a picture of it with my good eye.

"An adolescent pandering to the tribal," I tell them, my face stern. Someone in the back titters nervously, like a hyena. But they're not even scavengers, these scum, they're herd beasts. Here's proof.

"BOURGEOIS!"

And the crowd breaks. My boy sinks to his knees. I don't even bother to plant the heel of the shoe into the base of his neck, a kindness I won't be offering again. I walk tall. The cows back up, squeeze tight to give me room to leave. Not one can meet my eye. I cross the length of the armory and walk down the steps. They're sticky with blood. Good thing I wore these cheap flats.

A slave on the corner is trying to hail a cab. I step in front of him and score one immediately.

Coda: It's been a week. Maiming is an occupational hazard, so my HMO hasn't come through. I'm public art now, in the lobby of St. Vincent's downtown. I have a bed, and treatment, but I have to hang the Manolo Blahnik from what's left of my eye socket during business hours to make good on the bill. Mostly it is only the children who stare, and the few provincials who got themselves a broken arm or a bullet wound while touring the big city, and both groups stare with kindness. I actually miss them at night, when the lobby empties out except for a single desk worker. Most of the lights are off after hours, but the Pelecanos installation Tire Fire is burning across the street on 7th Avenue's little traffic island. I like the way the reflections of flame and smoke play against the glass of the lobby's exterior wall.

Less interesting is the horrid bronze bust of some dead cardinal by the entrance. A Portrait In Wrinkles my intern named it when she came by to drop off some page proofs. She thinks she's clever, but I have to say she isn't far from wrong this time.

I think it's staring at me. After I file this month's column, I guarantee the hospital will melt the cardinal down.


© Nick Mamatas 2002, 2003.
This story was first published in Razor.

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