At long last, the first round of the Title Writing Prompt Challenge. For them not familiar with the challenge, you can read about it HERE and HERE. For them interested, the title voting results are found HERE.
As a quick summary, we solicited titles, readers voted on a favorite, we each wrote a story using that title.
The winning title was The Great Metaphysician.
The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the G and PG rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Those ratings are guidelines but they are subjective. If you find a story disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, stop reading and move on to the next one. It may seem like obvious advice, but these days many people go out of their way to experience outrage (and then complain about it).
This, then, is Gary’s submission.
The Great Metaphysician
Copyright 2022 — R. G. Broxson
(2,780 words – approx. reading time: about 11 minutes based on 265 WPM)
“…and when I was in third grade, I brought home my masterpiece; a Crayola creation that exhibited the full breadth of my youthful talents. With all my pride and my baby-tooth smile, I presented it to my father. He examined my rendering, glanced at the refrigerator, already festooned with ‘weight watchers’ warnings and big nose ‘Ziggy’ cartoons, and then he said,” the young man teared up as he relived this painful pivotal moment, “I’ll put your bunny drawing up on top of the fridge for safe keeping. He inconspicuously tucked it under an old Yellow Pages phone book.”
“I cried for days. It wasn’t a bunny; it was a kangaroo. I drew it for my father because he had loved Steve Irwin, the Crikey guy, and I wanted to assuage the pain of his untimely death.” The young man pulled out a handkerchief and trumpeted violently into it and then he pinched and tugged his stylish ‘Starry Night’ Covid mask back into place.
“To be honest,” the museum curator said, sliding his spectacles down each bump of his attenuated nose, “you had the job the minute you sat down. I haven’t had any other live applicants for this position; there were, however, several so-called Zoomers who just wanted to work from home. I understand that the government is doling out dollars for those who wish to sequester themselves in front of Oprah or Ellen or Judge Judy. And those grand gals, I’m afraid, are difficult to compete with.”
The young man brightened. The discarded kangaroo forgotten. “This is my dream job. I know every painting, every sculpture, every artist…” he flapped his hands in front of his face.
“Take a breath,” the curator cautioned, a little worried about losing his best prospect.
“When I realized I would never become an artist,” the young man confessed, “I decided it would be enough just being around great art works.”
“I might surmise that this is your first job interview, so I’ll extend to you a bit of real-world advice.” The lean man leaned in and whispered conspiratorially to the young man. “If you ever go to another interview, for another job, and the interviewer asks you to chat a bit about yourself, for the love of God, don’t start with your third-grade trauma. And for the love of fashion, don’t wear that gawdawful Orville Redenbacher bow tie.”
The phone rang to the relief of the young man. The curator scowled, his theatric moment stolen. He picked up. He listened intently and then his eyes began to dart quickly east and west. Sweat beads formed on his formidable forehead.
“My Yorkie!” the curator exclaimed like a battle cry. “I must go,” he announced, slamming the phone into its cradle. Without further explanation he walked the young man through a brief checklist even as he made his way toward the exit. As the glass doors slid open, the young man heard the curator declare, “I stand relieved. I trust you will maintain, young sir, with all due diligence. But if you do have any problems, issues, questions or concerns,” the curator looked around for a scapegoat. Finding none he declared, “You should call… I don’t know…911.” The door closed behind him, leaving the museum to the bewildered young man wearing a red bow tie.
The museum of modern art, or MOMA, renown for the glass-paneled sphinx that guarded it’s entrance designed by I. M. Pei, the creator of the pyramid outside the Louvre. It housed the works of many creative and credentialed artists and the young man was at first daunted, but then instantly enamored by the treasures adorning its walls. After all, he had studied them with great enthusiasm and they were as familiar as old friends.
Although not an artist himself (the young man had never fully recovered from the refrigerator incident), he was passionate about art. He quickly found that he was a natural for the job. He would walk up to visitors as they admired certain pieces and he would regale them with intriguing trivia regarding the work or the artist. Both would walk away feeling better.
At 10 PM, the young man marveled at how quickly the evening had passed as he followed the curator’s checklist for closing up. He had found his niche and was reveling in the euphoria of youth and the creative energy that emanated from the museum and its inquisitive visitors.
As the last of these stragglers exited the museum, the young man saw an older gentleman he had not noticed before. The man was sitting like a stone in front of a particularly large and elongated canvas. He wore a beige peasant cap that matched his elbow-patched jacket and worn trousers. The visitor was so still he really could have been a statue, perhaps played out on a touristy city street as a beret-capped mime or a tinfoiled Elvis.
He titled the frozen tableau in his mind; The Old Man and the Tweed. He laughed to himself as he approached. “Sir, … sir?” he said, in a librarian hush. The old man suddenly stood, his quickness belied his advanced age. He did not look at the young man, but instead approached the monolithic painting.
The old man stabilized himself with a sturdy cane in his left hand and then lifted his gnarled right hand to the painting. He held an invisible paint brush and pantomimed the strokes of a virtuoso. He whipped and lashed boldly like an orchestra conductor, confident of each grand gesticulation.
“Sir… sir?” The young man tried again, this time with bass. The old man snapped out of his reverie; he instantly aged 20 years in that 2 seconds. His back bent like a question mark, his shoulders stooped and drooped, and he sat back on the bench, deflated.
“Are you okay?” the young man asked, thinking he might have to call 911 after all. The old man’s milky eyes never left the painting, but he grunted out, that’s fair, isn’t it? The young man looked around for another visitor but found none.
He sat down beside the old man, not sure if this was part of his brief job description, and followed his gaze to the painting—not just any painting. This was the Chirico, and the young man knew it well.
“It’s a marvelous painting, don’t you agree?” the young man asked, not really expecting an answer.
The old man cleared his throat, and mumbled something else. The young man thought he heard him say again to himself, it’s fair enough.
“I’m afraid it’s closing time, sir. Would you like me to call a cab or Uber for you?”
The old man grasped the young man’s hand. His air-painting hand was surprisingly strong, the young man thought, and fabulous. Each fingernail of the old man’s hand was painted uniquely. His nails covered the full spectrum of the rainbow and beyond and exhibited strange runes and symbols the young man could not decipher.
The old man wielded a mahogany cane in his left hand. He took pains to lift it and leveled it like a rifle barrel at the expansive painting before them. “You see that, there?” He jabbed the cane careful not to touch the canvas, aiming at the bottom right side of the painting. “That’s where it all started.” The young man leaned in and looked closely at the exhibit titled, The Great Metaphysician, and noted a miniature figure.
“That’s me,” the old man sighed, almost stabbing the canvas with the silver tip of his cane.
The young man glanced back and forth from portrait to patron and realized the clothing was nearly identical—the peasant hat, the beige jacket and matching bland pants.
“Chirico?” he queried.
The old man groaned. “I am…. I am nobody.” He pointed at the painting again, “If I must have a name, allow me that one moment of greatness and make it the name attributed to my tormented soul—The Great Metaphysician; the name the desert winds gave me.”
“I don’t understand,” the young man said. “This is one of the museum’s most popular exhibits. There were two gentlemen, just earlier this evening, arguing its merits and mysteries for nearly an hour.”
“The critics know nothing!” the old man punctuated the statement with the click of his cane on the glossy tile. His Italian accent was noticeable.
“So, what should we know, mister…can I call you Chirico?”
“My friends call me Chico. But now my circle of friends is small, very small.” He made an okay sign with thumb and forefinger, peering through the tiny sphincter it created with a glassy eye. “You can call me whatever you like, as we become entangled associates in this metaphysical matter.”
“This is your painting,” the young man stated. He stood and bowed slightly as he acknowledged the master painter. “I’m ready and happy to become entangled in a true artist’s genius. My talent is in appreciating art, not creating it.” He saddened slightly, perhaps thinking of the bunny…kangaroo.
Bow tie rebounded. “I’ll help you get started. I know that you were…are, a painter that veered from the surrealists in favor of a more,” he thought for a moment, “more austere style of art. This painting for instance…” they both looked up—the young man still in anxious awe. “You used a combination of cubism and your new technique of two-dimensional architectural design to create a flat tower…a manufactured monolith. Yet you gave it depth and substance by juxtaposing abstract shadows around it.” The young man’s jaw loosened, he just shook his head and stared deeper into the painting. “Frankly, it leaves me a bit dizzy.”
“Please enlighten me as to how and why you created this particular masterpiece.” The young man regained his composure, smiled with all his teeth and waited like a kid on Christmas morning.
Still holding tightly to the young man’s hand, the old man began again. “This is not a painting. It is my soul.” He clenched his jaw for dramatic effect. All artists love this pregnant pause just before birthing a biography of their piece de resistance.
The young man acknowledged the old man’s introduction as pure drama and awaited appropriately for the refrain.
The old man stood. He raised his cane and slashed the painting like an ancient swashbuckler, keeping an arrogant hand on his hip. “This,” he growled in a low, hateful voice, “is my foundation. My life is not built upon bedrock or concrete. No, as you can see, it wavers and wobbles atop a pallet of balsam wood. Perfect for a shipment of cross-country cabbage but this…this is my life! A life cobbled together with plywood and bailing wire.” his voice rides higher with each syllable.
The young man immediately reached for the folded checklist the curator had left him. He scanned it and realized that there were no contingency plans for such an assault. He briefly thought about dialing 911, but left his cell sleeping in his pocket.
“Look closely, my friend. The black obelisk at the base; the one that many critics compare to the great Egyptian black marble sculptures; it is an outhouse.” The old man laughed too loud at this revelation. And then he bent and cried into his hat. “This is how I symbolize my life, my shitty life,” he sobbed.
“But your artwork?” the young man countered. “It was…is, revolutionary.”
The old man found new strength and raised his cane again. “Everything you see here, in this painting…they are scraps and bits of a fragmented lifetime—none of them finished. Everything I attempted to build, my life, my career, my fam…family,” here he broke down again. “Nothing here is complete. As you can see, I became desperate at one point and evoked Christ Almighty to salvage my miserable junkyard of a life. The Cross, it looms like a gallows at the center of my unstable and uncertain structure.” He brought the cane down and shredded the cross.
“Do you know the cost for something…revolutionary, as you say?”
The young man shook his head left and right, his bright red bow tie remained in the middle. He thought about the word ‘cost’ for a second and prayed he wouldn’t have to pay for the damaged priceless painting.
“I crossed the desert searching for inspiration. I had the talent, but I needed a muse to focus my passion and my painting. I found an alchemist in the barren wasteland, living in a tent. He went by many names; Mephistopheles, Graymalkin, and Monty. I asked his help and he laughed at me. He said turning lead into gold is easy, turning a cynical critic into an avant-garde artist is almost impossible. But he agreed to try. He just needed a few items to make the magic. He gave me a short list and told me to return with my wife’s wedding band, my son’s tears, and my daughter’s heart.”
The young man winced, confused, but he said nothing. The old man was purging.
“I folded the list and returned to my family. I told my wife that I was in love with another and she threw her wedding band at me. I did not explain that the other was my insane desire to create something extraordinary and everlasting. On my way out, I wiped my son’s tears with an old handkerchief as he clung to my pants leg. My daughter, just a just a toddler,” the old man sighed at the memory,” she handed me a red plastic heart that she wore in her golden hair. I took it with my own tears.
These things I carried with me back across the burning sands to the alchemist. When I got to the tent, he was no longer there. But a pot was boiling over a blazing fire. I listened to the desert winds and knew what to do. I dropped the charms into the pot, then waited. I listened again and obeyed the winds. I plunged my hand into the unholy broth that bubbled with the remnants of my broken family.”
The look on the old man’s face revealed the remembered pain. He held his clawed hand up to the young man to inspect. The brilliantly colored fingernails blazed with an inner light all their own.
“Then I saw it. Like Macbeth’s visions at the weird witches’ cauldron, I saw my reflection. First it was me,” he pointed to his chest, “me; my face. Then my face faded. It washed away, boiled off. It was the face of a mannequin; a soulless facsimile of myself.”
“That’s your thing…your gimmick,” the young man squealed. “I remember now. You topped all your constructions with mannequin heads. The art world went ballistic.”
“It worked,” the old man brightened for a moment. “I created an entirely new outlook and technique to painting. My works were marveled and argued in Paris, London, New York. But the more praise and prestige I received, the more critical I became of my work and the works of my compatriots. I became bitter; painting and creating could no longer redeem me.”
“Is there anything I can do?” The young man put his arm around the bone-sharp shoulders of the old man.
“Yes, you can.” The old man clutched the young man’s hand and they both sat silent for minutes, hours, days… time was timeless as they stared into the vast wasteland of The Great Metaphysician.
The old man boarded a train. His heart was full again. His obsession and his unique talents purged. He was heading west. His son and daughter, and his great grandchildren, lived in California. He would find a way to earn back their love. His wife had long since died, and he would carry that grave grief and great regret like an ever-seeking lodestone in his heart. But he had a second chance. He was no longer The Great Metaphysician, he was Giorgio de Chirico; Chico to his friends.
The young man awoke, startled out of a strange dream. He was alone on a bench. In front of him a blank canvas towered enticingly. No, not entirely blank. Down in the lower right-hand corner a miniature figure stood. It appeared to be a young man, a young man with dreams of creating art, a young man with a red bow tie.
A pallet with glossy daubs of paint had been left in front of the canvas. Camel-hair brushes sprouted out of a mason jar like a spray of brown bristling flowers. They seemed to await direction. The young man, his eyes sparkling, decided to start with a kangaroo.
If you’ve already read the other two stories and are ready to vote, click HERE<<<Link and you’ll be taken to the voting poll.
If you’ve not read the other two stories, they can be found at the following links:
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