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By Paul Di Filippo
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2008 Paul Di Filippo
All rights reserved.
Through the Crimson Portal
"WILL YOU EVER PAINT again?"
Dense November Pennsylvania sunlight, molten white and descending through lofty windows, impasto'd the large modern room that held an old man and a young woman.
The woman had issued the query, in a tone both sincere and aggressive.
Frank Lazorg lifted his rheumy eyes to the tall walls of his home, hung with framed canvases and matted works on paper. Hardly any of the nubbly ivory plaster showed, twelve feet from hardwood floor to beamed ceiling, so thickly sown were his paintings and drawings.
Every phase of Lazorg's career was represented. He had always been a canny businessman, sharper than Eisner even, retaining as much of his original art as possible, given the predatory practices of pulp and paperback publishers. His foresight and artistic implacability had eventually made him a very rich man.
But fifty years ago, striving amidst poverty—
There had been only inner fire, the brush, and the women.
The full head of hair, the head full of visions, the muscular crook'd arms strong enough to serve as perches for bathing beauties hoisted skyward.
Lazorg dismissed the comparison irritably, with a trace of fear, fear that grew larger and crept closer daily.
Instead of contemplating spectres, his gaze circumnavigated the two-dimensional archipelago of his career.
His early work for comics, from the 1950s: penciled and inked pages of original art rescued from company dumpsters, now safely under glass. Funny animals, noir molls, hillbillies, car-racing jocks.
His hyper-real yet fantastical book covers for paperback-original novels of the 1960s and 1970s: a gallery of demons and brawny warriors, luscious-bottomed maidens and brawling barbarians, aliens and otherworldly explorers.
His fine art from the 1980s and 1990s: portraits, and abstract representations of mental landscapes, surreal collages, visions of dimensions beyond.
Lazorg dropped his watery grey eyes back to his interviewer.
The young woman's complexion was blanched, like the cloistered meat of shellfish. Dressed all in sharply cut black clothing, with raven-dyed hair and multiple piercings, she pinned her artist subject with her own intense dark gaze. Between them, atop a low table, her small recorder digitized their dialogue.
She had given him her name an hour ago, but he had forgotten it already.
"Seeing what hangs here," said Lazorg slowly, "you can still ask such a question? Isn't it plain that I breathe my art—bleed my art?"
"But the stroke you suffered. You haven't finished a painting since you left rehab. And that was over a year ago."
Ah, brutal youth. Had he ever been so mercilessly direct with his elders? He flinched as he recalled some long-gone encounters, lost now past wisdom's revisions.
Lazorg sighed wearily. "Suppose I never paint again? Haven't I done enough? Can't I coast or even rocket down that mortal slope, riding the runaway train of my old successes?"
"I can't say. That's up to you. From the outside, from my perspective, your accomplishments are tremendous. The whole world knows your work. You've spawned tons of imitators. Your name is an adjective for a certain style."
These words of praise soothed Lazorg with a hollow touch. But the woman's next words robbed him of even that ghostly solace.
"But did you ever get to the heart of your artistic quest? Are you done experimenting or pursuing old lines of inquiry? Is there no new place left for you to explore? Do you have any strength or desire left to go there? I can't answer these things, only you can."
Lazorg contemplated these painful questions for a few moments, attempting to formulate answers fit for an audience seeking happy endings. (Under whose auspices had this woman said she was conducting this interview?) But in the end, he couldn't prevaricate.
"Right at this moment, I'm afraid, I can't quite summon up my old energies. No subject appeals, no technique calls out to me, no unfinished business feels urgent. Just prior to my, ah, cerebral assault, I had a canvas underway. But now—well, we'll see what the future brings, I suppose...."
Lazorg's husky, quavering voice trailed off.
The woman sitting across from him seemed untroubled by the old man's pitiful despair and defeat. She did not express any overt sympathy, but neither did she goad him with his abject surrender to mortality. Instead, she merely displayed a small, enigmatic, witchy smile, and continued the interview along less fatalistic lines.
Lazorg found it within himself somewhere to continue to respond with intelligent albeit halfhearted answers to her questions, although he felt creeping over him a weariness typical of this hour of the day under his new stroke-imposed regimen.
But then a question triggered from the old man a burst of indignation.
"What do you think of the latest work by Rokesby Marrs?"
Lazorg had been a short, compact but burly man in his prime, crowned with a thick shock of auburn hair. His frame, now attenuated by age and illness, still faintly echoed that impressive physicality. And upon hearing the name of his younger rival, Rokesby Marrs, Lazorg seemed to bulk out to his old dominance. Even the few remaining threads of color in his sparse bleached coiffure seemed to glow with renewed brilliance.
"Is that cheap hack still foisting his poisoned eye-candy on the hapless public?"
"But Mr. Lazorg, how can you speak so harshly of a man who calls himself your worshipful first disciple?"
"He's no disciple I would ever care to acknowledge. Judas was a better disciple! There has never been any substantial contact between us. Certainly, Marrs never studied directly with me. He simply learned to copy my most superficial mannerisms and themes imperfectly, like a trained ape, or one of those elephants that paints with a broomstick grasped clumsily in its trunk. He's debased everything he's ever touched. But he's never touched me."
"But his popularity—"
"The masses have no taste, Miss—Miss—"
"Hemphill. Nia Hemphill."
"Well, Miss Hemphill, if you're going to adduce Marrs's inflated sales and outrageous fees as a testament of his talent, then you're going to have to class him with artistic travesties like Thomas Kinkade. Or perhaps that British woman who put forward her unmade bed as art."
Nia Hemphill offered another wry smile. "I can see the topic's toxic, so we'll skip on to my final question—"
At that moment, however, Frank Lazorg's housekeeper intruded. A stout, plain, middleaged woman named Anna Compton, she stood in the doorway, be-aproned and drying her hands on a dishcloth.
"Mr. Lazorg, your dinner will be ready in an hour. But you've got therapy scheduled before then. In fact, Mr. Kenton is already waiting."
Lazorg turned his attention back to Nia Hemphill, and found her already standing, pocketing her small recorder.
"I won't intrude on your time any longer," said the young woman. "Thank you so much for this opportunity. I've admired your work for so long, and it was a pleasure to finally meet the creator behind it."
Using his cane, Lazorg struggled to his feet. When had his favorite chair developed into such a deep ditch?
Now that Nia Hemphill stood on the point of departure, all the annoyances she and her questions had brought seemed negligible, and Lazorg suddenly felt that he wanted to prolong her stay. He got so little company these days. All his contemporaries were dead or distant, and his family equally so.
"You won't stay to share dinner?"
"I'm afraid I can't."
"But what about your last question?"
Nia Hemphill ventured another smile insusceptible to interpretation. "Oh, it can wait. I've got quite enough material otherwise."
Teetering, Lazorg managed a handshake with the woman, and then watched her leave.
Anna Compton lent her employer an arm to escort him to the room where a massage table and other equipment had been installed shortly after his return from the Rowanthorn rehab facility.
Dean Kenton, a young man with sand-colored hair and a crooked nose, possessed a supple physique honed by yoga. He greeted Lazorg heartily, and then put his client through an excruciating set of exercises alleviated only by a canny and caring massage at the end of the ordeal.
Kenton accompanied Lazorg to the big, green-tiled, brightly lit bathroom on the ground level, where the therapist stood watch while Lazorg showered the sweat of pain and exertion off his elderly frame, then reclined in a whirlpool bath to ease his aches. Once out and dressed, Lazorg dismissed the man with sincere thanks, and made his way unaccompanied to dinner table.
Mrs. Compton had everything arranged and waiting. Lazorg sat down to a perfect if bland repast, composed by his non-resident chef and nutritionist, Brian Foss, who, having cooked, had gone home for the night. Lean turkey breast sauced deliciously, several sides of steamed vegetables, a single glass of a light red wine. Fruit and cheese, decaffeinated coffee for dessert.
But despite the sensible acceptability of the meal, Lazorg could not resist thinking about repasts of his youth. Giant lobsters and steaks, washed down by quarts of beer. Whole loaves of bread smeared with brie and pâté. Champagne and zinfandel, hard liquor by the many jiggers. And always, it seemed in retrospect, in the company of women, beautiful women.
Lazorg sighed. The table cleared, his shrunken stomach filled and his debilitated frame supplied with more energy for another fruitless span of hours, he made slowly to rise. Perhaps he would pass the evening watching a DVD. He didn't sleep well, and so postponed bedtime until as late as possible.
Mrs. Compton had her coat on, ready to go. "You're wearing your medic-alert gadget, aren't you?"
Lazorg snaked a necklace'd lanyard partway out from under his sweater. Mrs. Compton came over and tugged it out all the way, revealing the ugly and bulky remote signaler attached to the cord.
"Leave it outside! How will you get at it if you need it?"
Lazorg smiled ruefully. "Yes, mother."
Mrs. Compton snorted. "You should be so lucky." She headed for the door, but stopped and turned while still in the dining room.
"The mail came during your interview. All the usual junk. I sent the bank statement over to your accountant, and the fan letters on to Roy."
Roy Isham had performed secretarial duties for Lazorg for the past decade.
Mrs. Compton's face grew a frown more expressive of puzzlement than displeasure. "But there was one thing—"
"A rather exotic foreign package with—an odd smell—Anyway, it's on the hall table."
The empty house echoed to the closing of the door behind the housekeeper, and waves of loneliness seemed to pulse through the residence, as if radiating from a central well of unsought black implacable solitude.
Lazorg fought off the sensations of being left bereft. Mildly intrigued by the thought of the delivery of something unexpected, he shuffled out to the hall.
There on a glass-topped table sat the package.
Wrapped in creased and crumpled craft paper, secured fore and aft with antique twine, grimed with the dirt of its passage and the oils of many hands, the package bore a plethora of garish foreign postage, the stamps illustrative of alien monuments, men and myths.
Big and solid as a brick, the package implied a similar weight. But when Lazorg hefted it—necessarily one-handedly, due to reliance on his cane—the package proved surprisingly light.
There was no return address; Lazorg's own information had been indicted in smearable pencil with a bold hand. A scribbled Customs form pasted to the wrapper indicated legal passage across the borders.
It was a miracle the package had even reached him.
There came a scent to Lazorg's nostrils: a dry odor akin to sun-baked rock, sterile yet somewhat organic, like formic acid. This must have been what Mrs. Compton had whiffed.
For some reason, Lazorg felt impelled to carry the package to his studio, of all rooms: a place he had visited very infrequently in the past year.
The capacious studio's glass ceiling with its adjustable shades revealed only night sky prinked with stars. Lazorg flicked on a light. A chaise lounge draped with a silk sheet spoke of past living models, the creases of the sheet almost calling forth the impress of the flesh that had molded them. In the middle of the room stood an easel bearing a large framed canvas, shrouded now with a paint-spattered cloth. Lazorg's eyes darted to the easel, then quickly away. A broad, waist-high worktable offered room for spreading out sketches, and assembling frames. He moved to a tall messy workbench where he was wont to mix his own paints: pigments, oil binders full of dopants (linseed, hemp, poppy, calendula), thinners—The colorful panoply released mingled heady scents that spoke to Lazorg of all he had once had, all he had since lost.
Lazorg rested his butt on a high stool, able thus to dispense momentarily with his cane. Irritably, his joy at receiving a surprise now diffusing, Lazorg swept aside some clutter and set the package down. He retrieved a magnifying glass from across the room and studied the postmark. The name "Santa Lucia" leaped into focus.
Santa Lucia. That visit had occurred ten years or more ago, when he had been fixated on the disturbingly lush and overripe tropical landscapes of Martin Johnson Heade. He had gone to that Central American country seeking similar founts of inspiration. But the visit had devolved to a perpetual bacchanal, native women, potent rum. And then there had been the baffling incident with the curandero and the thugs ...
Lazorg tried to summon up the details, but found them hazy at this remove, blurred by his constant drunkenness at the time.
Could this package possibly be from the old sorcerer? What had his name been ...?
Wielding scissors, Lazorg snipped the binding strings. White paste of the kind used by children sealed the seams of the craft paper. Lazorg slit along those lines. The paper came away.
Now he confronted a brick sealed with aluminum foil, inside clear plastic wrap. The aroma from the brick was more powerful, now that a layer of wrapping had been removed. It mingled with the familiar odors of the workbench in intriguing ways.
Taped to the exterior of the brick was a folded square of coarse paper.
Lazorg removed the note, opened it, and saw Spanish.
But the next moment the words resolved themselves as English. Lazorg rubbed his eyes with the backs of both hands—must be getting tired—then read the note.
You will perhaps recall how our paths crossed some years ago, and you were instrumental in saving my life. I swore then that I would repay you somehow, some day, and now I can finally make good on my debt.
You have now at your command the powder obtained from ten thousand vision scarabs, the escarabajo psicodélico, a beetle unique to Santa Lucia. It has taken me all this time to collect and prepare this number of bugs, but I did not want to deliver to you any less than this fair amount. With what you now have, you may mix up the most beautiful crimson paint you have ever used—paint of a living sanguine hue—to paint the most wonderful scenes imaginable, and you will have enough for the rest of your life, which, Jesus and Yemaja willing, may be long indeed.
Please accept this humble gift, the smallest repayment for the immeasurable one you gave me.
Go with God,
Lazorg sat quietly for a few moments, contemplating fate and chance. Then, using the scissors, he opened up a small slit in the top of the package.
As if he had sliced into the veins of his own wrist, a seam of crimson leapt up into his vision against the surrounding dull silver of the foil, accompanied by a burst of the characteristic scent. The fine-grained powder, compacted for transit, seemed almost epidermal in its composition, the cosmetic-dusted porous skin of some exotic maiden.
Not cinnabar, nor alizarin nor vermilion, but some shade hitherto unknown.
Feeling slightly dizzy, Lazorg next did something spontaneously and almost without volition.
He dug up a few grains of the ruby powder with the tip of the scissors and placed it upon his tongue.
Excerpted from Cosmocopia by Paul Di Filippo. Copyright © 2008 Paul Di Filippo. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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