The gathered early morning beach crowd seemed excited yet strangely aghast. The thought occurred to me that perhaps a street artist had left another four–letter graffiti epistle on the exterior of Brice’s studio. The last one had been extremely insulting to him and you could still see a ghost image of it under the gray paint which had been hastily slapped over it. As I got closer, no new graffiti was in sight so I scanned the swarm of joggers, strollers, and assorted exercise enthusiasts and spotted old Mac sitting on the curb near the front. He’s the unofficial street gleaner around the hood and lives in the alley beneath some stairs. Gesturing for Duie to stay by my side, I approached the old man.
“Kind of early for you, isn’t it Mac?”
His right hand rose slowly to mop his leathery face. He lifted his head, strained to focus his watery blood-shot eyes and spoke in a low, sadly earnest manner.
“He was always good to me. You know, one of the few who would share like you do.”
Even with the more than usual layers of dirt on his face, it was obvious he was distraught. He had spoken more words in one sentence than I had ever heard him utter before.
“Do you mean Brice? Did something happen?” I said.
Apprehensively I sat down beside him on the awkward concrete. Mac dropped his hand and looked directly at me. Perhaps for the first time I noticed how aged he really was.
“I was passing by, you know, working the street, looking for little favors people leave for me. You know. Like you do.”
His voice was more somber as he fondled the buttons of his multi-stained khaki shirt.
Embarrassment rushed across my face. The most I had ever given him was the tattered Macintosh he had worn for the past two years. He is never seen without it. In fact, that’s why everyone calls him Mac. None of us ever bothered to ask him his real name. It was a way to be friendly without causing discomfort or getting too involved.
Shamed, I stood up. A strange brew of anxiety and curiosity led me through the small group near the door and straight into Brice’s studio. Duie rushed in behind me as my olfactory receptors signaled something peculiar wafting from inside. It was a bizarre mixture of paint fumes and a grotesque unrecognizable spice. Duie even sneezed.
Brice was never a tidy artist, but a quick glance revealed the normal casualness of his studio was now in complete chaos. A strong feeling that I was intruding crawled up my back.
“Who does he think he is?” someone behind me said. I wanted to answer, but somehow I knew my voice was not the one I wanted to hear.
Paintings were thrown everywhere. Many had broken stretcher bars and holes clobbered through them. The scene looked as though a small tornado had come through the open skylight, had a kick-boxer fit, and left without disturbing anything else in the neighborhood. Every quart–sized canister of paint Brice owned had been opened and its contents generously distributed into a Pollock-like camouflage that covered everything.
“Surely Mac didn’t do this?” I whispered to Duie as he instinctively leaned against my leg. “No, Brice maybe, but not Mac.”
Every artist goes a little wacko once in a while. Maybe Brice was dueling with a yellow scalene and things got out of hand. My notion was answered before I could exhale.
Beyond the turned over easel, sticking out from behind more broken paintings were two aged Teva sandals dappled with a rainbow of paint splatters. The heels were together, the toes akimbo. I froze in place as Duie tiptoed toward them with his neck stretched and nostrils flared.
As I stepped carefully around the disquieting pile, trying not to disturb even the smallest fallen brush or blob of paint I saw a mass of oozing gunk. It was Brice, on his back. His arms were at his side and his face was covered in thick, gooey globs of Hooker’s Green.
He looked exhausted, as though he’d copulated with every painting he ever sired. Even though the pile of canvases, paint canisters, and brushes covering him was a mess, for one sharp yet fleeting moment it impacted my visual cortex as if the scene was an intentional edifice.
My eyes focused on his contorted mouth. It was open and overflowing with an ugly mixture of green paint and dark red blood. In the middle, where his tongue should be, was a smidgen of gold. It’s very familiar blunted form was instantly recognizable. I bent down for a closer look. I was right. It was the handle end of a number 15 size brush. You could still read the manufacturer’s code number peeking through a smear of green paint.
Hoping Brice might take a big gasp of air if I removed it, I reached my hand forward and instantly felt a stout vise grip my shoulder.
“Don’t,” a voice of authority said.
It was Cisco. I stood straight up, perhaps a little too quickly for I felt a brief twinge of vertigo. I call him Cisco. His real name is Francisco Rivas, police Detective Rivas.
“You know better than that,” he said.
I suddenly felt weary as the colors surrounding us swirled like the merry-go-round at the pier and the vise moved to grip my arm. I could even hear the faint tinny sound of mechanical music as if it were far off in the distance or at least buried deep within my memory.
Cisco’s focused stare at my anesthetized face caused the illusory music to quickly fade and the circling kaleidoscope to resume its previous resting place. I began to feel lucid again, but my frame of vision felt shaken and quirky.
“Go outside, Sketchy,” he said in an almost inaudible voice. “And take Duie with you.”
With faded breath, I uttered, “He may still have a chance.” Cisco glowered at me again, gestured toward the door and put his hands on his hips, revealing his badge and gun. The move was an obvious signal for me to leave. I did.