The Broken Frame
[What follows is the third of about 75 chapters of a rather contrived, three-part saga that is entirely fiction, meaning that all of the events and characters indicated therein are only coincidentally related to anything that may or may not have actually happened. That is my story and my legal team is sticking to it. And copyrighted it is, lest ye sinners start taking up with the wrong line of questioning.]
With Pepo functioning as an advanced scout, Vic guided me past the small crowd of concerned faculty that had gathered around Willow, who at that moment was off of the floor and slouching in a chair. We were headed toward the freight elevator that was located at the other end of the long hall, which meant that we had to sneak past several of the studio cubicles consigned to the MFA students. Black faux-velvet curtains blocked the doorways to most of these, and I wondered if our earlier proceedings could have been overheard by prying ears, and if so, how might they be translated into the viral language of institutional gossip.
We paused while Pepo summoned the freight elevator, and I peeked inside one of the cubicles to notice Kathy Penngrove, clad in a paint-splattered jumpsuit, energetically sponging blue acrylic paint on a large canvas while humming along with whatever music that was leaking out of the earphones that she was wearing. Even though my light-headedness had started to subside, I decided to not interrupt her with the news that I would happily accept her as my TA. Too much else was on my mind, and I was not yet thinking clearly. And then the elevator arrived. When the door opened, Vic pushed back the safety gate and proclaimed “this way to the faculty lounge.”
Of course, there was no such thing as “the faculty lounge.” Vic was referring to a bar called The Broken Frame, which was up on Brannan Street, a few blocks from the school. Its location was perfect. It was just far enough away to discourage students from making it a hang out, but still close enough to be a convenient stop for anybody who was driving toward the east or southbound freeway on-ramps. It wasn’t exactly a dive bar, but it certainly wasn’t the kind of fancy establishment in which Danika would order a martini. In other words, it was a real old-timey drinker’s saloon, the longtime haunt of the printers and drivers who worked at the Hort-Dispatch printing and distribution center. In recent years, that clientele had been augmented by others who worked in what was then called “multi-media gulch,” that being a neighborhood populated by internet start-ups located up the street and around the corner. This recently arrived cohort was made up of the young movers and shakers of the new cyber-economy, and they logged long hours putting exorbitant sums of venture capital to something that resembled work. This meant that their typical cocktail hour started at around 7pm, which was the exact time that Vic, Pepo and I walked into the bar.
Vic was friendly with the bar’s owner, one Vladimer Ostavany, who was reputed to be the ne’er-do-well offspring of a family associated with the Russian Mafia. In fact, It was my own mispronunciation of Vlad’s surname that gave the bar its current name—I thought it to be ostranienie, which, in the parlance of antique Russian literary theories, means “making strange” or “breaking the frame of convention.” When he took over the bar a year earlier, Vlad was casting about for a way to give the bar an identity, and my little bout of phonetic confusion sufficed to accomplish his goal. By the time that the Memorial Day holiday was over, close to four hundred empty picture frames were dangling from the bar’s ceiling, each one quite different from the others except for the fact that one of its four sides was obviously fractured, and then splinted, bound or sutured back together in some uniquely imaginative fashion. During that long weekend, Vic put in many long hours helping Vlad execute this decorating project, and for this effort, he was awarded his own special key marked “in-kind” on the cash register. In other words, Vic was allowed to drink for free, so long as he didn’t abuse the privilege.
With three fingers pointed toward the ceiling, Vic greeted the bartender, who I remembered from my pre-sabbatical visits to the place. Her name was Amy (or Aimless, as Vic would sometimes call her), and even though she was slow and inattentive, she managed to make everyone feel at home. She was already pouring martinis into three long-stemmed glasses, shouting “just a minute” to the portion of her congregation huddled at the end of the bar furthest from the door. Amy had long curly brown hair and was wearing a black T-shirt with its neckband torn out, its waist tied into a jaunty knot that bared her midriff well above the descending waistline marked by her denim pants. Those were of the so-called “low rider” variety that was in fashion during those years, and they conveyed the illusion that they were about to slide off at any minute. This illusion provided a source of fascination for many of the bar’s clients, as did the fact that every time Amy reached over to wipe the bar off, her unholstered breasts would pop out into plain view from beneath her torn neckline. Even on slow nights, these regular displays managed to fill her tip jar to the brim.
Amy was one of the world’s slowest bartenders, but no one seemed to mind because she complimented her exhibitionistic tendencies with the instincts and timing of a great comedienne. Often times, her humor was far too subtle for most of her clientele, but she appreciated the fact that Vic, Pepo and I were able to catch up with many of her more subtle gags. For example, that night’s version of the torn T-shirt ensemble featured a graphic knock-off of one of Paul Frank’s wide-mouth monkey designs, with the poor beast’s eyes described by morbid Xs rather than oblong circles, proposing a rise in the mortality rate of cartoon simians. It was clear that this image was intended to stare back at the alcohol-addled gawkers that Amy encouraged, showing them how they appeared to her when they stared at “The Entertainment,” which was the nickname Amy had given to her cleavage. The funniest part of the gesture was that the joke flew right past almost everybody, thereby proving the truth of its point.
I quickly made my way to the men’s washroom to relieve myself of the day’s overconsumption of coffee and tea while Vic claimed three stools at the center of the long bar. Upon entering the restroom, I noticed that Vlad had spent some money refurbishing it, adding new plumbing fixtures, lights, and spiffy red tiling. This expense left at least one of the bar’s customers unimpressed, owing to the witticisms that were inscribed upon the grout tracks between the new tile. Upon one such track was written “Groutful Dead,” while nearby the phrase, “it’s a far, far grouter than that I do,” was followed by “grout expectations.”
Grout expectations indeed. While I relieved myself, my mind wandered toward a consideration of just what I may have gotten myself into when I agreed to be the new faculty representative to the Board of Trustees. The minus column of my musing had me shivering in fear over an endless dance ticket fleshed out with pointless meetings about pointless things, all shared with pointless people shamelessly reveling in their abject pointlessness. So much for any further work on the book-that-would-never-be-finished, but even before that recent setback, I already had doubts about its potential for completion. Then I started to think that this was too fearful a premonition; after all, Tony managed to get the job of academic senate president done without having to attend too many meetings, and his own book-never-to-be-finished had been in the works for over two decades, brooking no complaints from any quarter.
The plus column was a cynic’s potpourri. It pointed to a major changing of the administrative guard and the need to find defensible turf if a bloodbath were in the cards. While most faculty members interpreted the idea of defensible turf as someplace to duck-and-cover, I knew that it would be much better to up my profile of being “involved” so that I might see what was coming sooner than the others. Clearly, this was Photobitch’s strategy, and I suspected that, despite his many gruff dismissals of academic ritual, Vic was also inclined in that direction. Pepo was harder to figure out, as he was perpetually along for whatever ride was on the menu, but in a funny way that also counted as being involved. Since Danika could afford to retire at any time, I expected that she would just continue on as always, right up to the time when she could gracefully decamp for more genteel surroundings. Then I thought of Ben, Mule, Ayalet and some of the others. As I zipped-up and walked over to the sink, I whispered aloud the words, “dead meat,” only to be stunned by my own visage in the large mirror. A slightly bulging mid-section was only partially concealed by an oxford cloth shirt and tweed sport coat, and my eyes looked sunken into their sockets, producing a morbid effect that was exacerbated by a slightly receding hairline. In my deepest baritone, I spoke the words, “pure benignsdale.” There was something about being alone in the men’s room of the Broken Frame that made talking to myself seem like normal behavior.
Benignsdale was a term of Vic’s coinage, part of an imaginative social typology that he had developed over a period of many years. It referred to a suburban white male in his mid-forties, one who had cynically capitulated to the failure of achieving his youthful dreams. His most telling behavior would be to show up at a liquor store minutes after it had opened to acquire large quantities of cheap beer. According to the Thorsness sociological cheat sheet, if a “Eugene Benignsdale” could hold on until retirement age, he would morph into a shodybotz, and soon thereafter, a gonif, and then finally a cadaver, those being the chief waypoints on a pilgrim’s progress leading up to well-fed worms.
Suddenly, the door opened, and in walked one of the newspaper workers, an ink setter judging from the stains on his blue jumpsuit and the grime in his fingernails. He was older than most, slight in build and crowned with an odd-shaped “printer’s devil” hat made of freshly folded newspaper. Despite his obvious state of employment, he clearly was a shodybotz, and a truly fine specimen at that. Our eyes met in recognition, as I remembered seeing him at the bar months earlier during a broadcast of Monday Night Football. During lulls in the game, he would editorialize on the proceedings by addressing his small group of co-workers as “fellow Guelleners” in advance of whatever remark he would then make about the state of the game. For some reason, I assumed that the term Guellener was an arcane synonym for “shit dweller,” but I had no real basis for making the association.
As he stepped toward the urinal, he looked over at me and asked, “what knowest thou?”
Suddenly, the spirit of perfect comic timing possessed me. In a voice that reeked with matter-of-fact confidence, I said: “if thou shakest it thrice, thou art playing with it.” The shodybotz said nothing, but gave a solemn nod, turning his gaze toward the grout-codexed wall. I looked back at the mirror over the sink and noticed the smile that was newly planted on my sullen face. Suddenly, and no doubt prompted by my sudden mastery of the etiquette of bathroom humor, I remembered two of the bell ringers that had slipped my mind during the earlier copy room conversation with Vic and Danika. One was a mislabeling of a painting by Nicolas Poussin as Orifice and Eurydice, a hilarious malapropism spawned by an over-reliance on computerized spell checking. A similar over-reliance vexed a term paper written by another student who was deep in the grips of Marxist indignation over the ravages of Capitalism, and for that reason, it sported a strident epigraph that read, “A sphincter is haunting Europe, the sphincter of Communism!” Chortling at the deep philosophical significance of these misplaced terms, I stepped back into the bar.
The jukebox was playing a song by Sade, who was singing about having her feelings hurt. Vic was standing next to it, manically shoving quarters into the coin slot, no doubt hoping to preempt or at least delay any further episode of objectionable music. Although the men’s restroom had been nicely redone, the rest of the bar was very close to how I remembered it from earlier visits. Its walls were the color of tomato juice, and the large mirror behind the bar was still contained in a frame that would have been considered excessively ornate anywhere outside of Vatican City. Opposite the door, there was a pool table that was being used by a quartet of beer drinkers who no doubt worked at the Hort-Dispatch distribution center. They cajoled one other in a friendly way, suggesting that none of them were very good at, or serious about, the game in which they were engaged. Above the right side of the bar was a large television set that was usually tuned into sporting events, but as none were being broadcast that particular evening, it was showing a movie that featured garish-looking clowns drinking and playing pool in a bar that looked very much like an alternative universe version of The Broken Frame. An older shodybotz was sitting at the far right of the bar, using the light of the overhead television set to read a slim volume of Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories. On the wall next to him was a chalkboard that advertised the musical act slated to perform at the bar during the upcoming weekend. In Amy’s crudely looping script, all were apprised of the fact that a musical ensemble called The Raunch Blovidians would be performing after Saturday’s NFL playoff games were concluded.
Pepo was chatting with Amy, who seemed to be sufficiently interested in his Bread> Circus T-shirt to lean over far enough to put The Entertainment on full display. At the end furthest from the door were about six of the beer-drinking Guelleners from the printing plant, while under the television nearest the door sat a sextet of laughing gulch dwellers, two of whom were women who were obviously competing for the attention of their four male companions. One of them had thrown a thick wad of cash next to a pile of cell phones and car keys on the bar. They were all well dressed in casual business attire, and they laughed and talked much louder than was necessary.
As Vic sat down next to his martini, I couldn’t help but note how much the scene resembled Gustave Courbet’s Artist’s Studio, with Vic occupying the center of the composition, Amy and Pepo standing in the position of nearby muses, and the Guelleners hunkered together on the left to take the position of the displaced proletariat. The gulch dwellers were positioned on the right to take the positions of the ascendant bourgeoisie. Occasionally, they would sing Reelin’ in the Years followed by a fit of loud laughter. I wondered how I might infiltrate their seemingly insular culture so that I could engage their interest in supporting or collaborating with an art school in the midst of an overdue makeover, but I saw no way of doing so.
I sat down on the empty barstool between Pepo and Vic and gazed at the double martini that was ceremoniously set before me. I noticed that Vic and Pepo had already imbibed much of theirs, and so I took a hearty sip. Pepo turned toward Vic and I and pretended that Amy couldn’t hear him. “It looks like our bartender has made a change in her love life, or so the rumor goes.”
Amy chimed in, flashing a toothy smile: “that’s right, I’m a hasbein!” There was much enthusiasm in her voice as she announced, “I found a boi!”
Vic asked, “Does Alice know about this…boi?” Alice was Amy’s lover and roommate for the past year, a well-heeled intellectual property lawyer who worked long hours for big money. Amy’s smile suddenly disappeared, indicating an answer to Vic’s query.
The jukebox suddenly started to play Shotgun, by Junior Walker and the Allstars, and the room suddenly grew more animated. Pepo tried to lighten the mood by quipping, “so you are a defector from Lezbollah!” Cheer returned to Amy’s face as quickly as it disappeared. She was completely comfortable with barroom conversation about her seemingly flamboyant sex life. Although she celebrated her bisexuality by shaving only one of her armpits, she much preferred the term metrosexual, which she claimed to have coined. She also liked to refer to herself as a trisexual, which meant that she would try anything. Alice represented her most recent attempt to sustain a committed relationship, proving only that she was willing to try that as seriously as anything else.
After looking down both ends of the bar, Amy leaned over and spoke to the three of us as if we were close confidants. “You know, Alice has changed a lot. She used to love to stay home and watch gay porn—she always used to say that they liked the way that those guys got in on. But lately, on the nights that I work late, she has been taking these workshops called Citadel Lyceum. When she started, she said that they were for one of her clients who insisted she attend, but she keeps going back, and has been “doing lyceum” for a couple of months, including two weekend retreats. Lately, she has been bugging me to go and told me that if I did, she would pay. I met some of the other people in it, and they all creep me out. And I mean every single one of them. But the main thing is that Alice has started to tell me how to run my life, saying that if I want to make my life truly work for me, I had to work harder to make my life take place in a world that works for everyone. I have no idea what that means or any of the other Lyceum bullshit she brings home. She keeps talking about getting ‘it,’ and says things like ‘it’ is ‘what is, and not what is not.'” She stood up and pointed from one side of the bar to the other and said, “Of course, she doesn’t consider any of this work, but it pays the bills, so it works for me. She also said that my resistance to going was a symptom of my investment in my own path to failure. But maybe I like my path to failure! One thing is for sure, there’s no getting around the fact that I am on a different path than Alice, because Alice is on a different path than she was when we first met. And so, when I met my new boi, I decided that I needed to make a move.”
She looked over at Pepo, who was in a momentary trance induced by The Entertainment. But Vic continued to listen carefully as if he were making detailed mental notes about Amy’s confession. There was something that resembled fear in the tone of her voice, and this was far out of character. Amy prided herself on being a free spirit, so much so that she spent many of her free hours making her own candles and composing poems in the “riding bareback on the cosmic unicorn” school of pretentious doggerel, all consigned to chapbooks that received minimal circulation among a very narrow audience. But suddenly, she was acting very self-conscious, almost as if someone had just asked her to play a game of leapfrog with one of her unicorns.
Pepo chimed in again. “It sounds like you are making some positive changes—I‘m sure it will all work out.” Then, rather suddenly, Amy darted down the bar to provide a round of drinks to the gulch dwellers that were loudly beckoning for her attention.
After a moment of silence, Vic remarked, “Aimless isn’t the only one getting a divorce. Bwutz and I are also calling it quits.” Bwutz Benmoloch was the owner of the gallery where Vic showed his work, and he was infamous for his long delays in paying his artists. “I finally got tired of being Bwutzed, so I asked Camilla Ruthvern if she would take me on. To my astonishment, she said yes. Only problem is that I will never see the fifteen grand that Bwutz owes me. But I doubt that I would ever see it anyhow.”
“Maybe you can take him to court?” I knew that I was being naïve.
“Do you know what happens to artists who sue galleries in the town? Besides, it would take two years and cost me half of the settlement in lawyer’s fees. Better that I should just charge it off to the IRS as “uncollectible debt.” After a short pause, he added, “You know what the answer is when people ask why divorce costs so much? Because it’s worth it, so I am just going to eat the loss. Camilla thinks that she can generate some real sales, the kind where I actually get paid.”
I wondered if there was any connection between Vic’s new gallery and the fact that both he and Camilla Ruthvern were members of the school’s Board of Trustees. I didn’t ask.
Then Pepo turned to me and, in a desperate attempt to change an awkward subject, asked, “What do you think of Craig’s little tantrum at the meeting?”
“He has always been a mystery to me, so I really can’t say. Dean Alfred sure made it clear what he thought.” I paused, contemplating the bad grammar of my remark. Then I added, “The main question is, what did the new president think? We must have looked like a bunch of idiots.”
Vic laughed out loud. The jukebox started to play Workin’ in a Coal Mine by Lee Dorsey. “I think we will know soon enough after the police report gets filed.”
In unison, Pepo and I gasped: “wu-wu-what?”
“Didn’t you see? When we pulled out of the parking area behind the freight elevator, Craig was being put in the back of a police car. It happened right in front of us.”
Pepo seemed agitated when he proclaimed, “You’ve got to be pulling our chains. She wouldn’t have him arrested for losing his temper.”
“No, No! Honest, it happened right in front of us! They were treating him like a serious criminal—I think that they had him in handcuffs. Right in the parking lot, right in front of us.”
A long silence followed as we pretended to listen to the song’s refrain of “when Friday night rolls around, I’m too tired for havin’ fun!” I wondered if my new position as a reluctant faculty trustee would obligate me to act in Craig’s defense. My stomach registered a vague wave of nausea as I thought about whatever it might be that Craig might have done to invite police arrest. Maybe he was caught selling marijuana to a student: that would make sense.
I looked up at the clock and subtracted the ten minutes that it was set ahead of the rest of the world’s time. I calculated that I had sixteen minutes to complete the twelve-minute walk to the Caltrain station, so I slurped the last of my martini, pointed at the clock, and said, “Gotta go!” Vic nodded, and I bolted out the door.
The night air was cool and misty. As I started my brisk walk toward the train station, I noticed a figure emerging from a car just ahead of me. She chirp-locked her car door and started walking in my direction. As she came closer, I could tell that even though she wore bright red lipstick and an off-brand pantsuit cut from dark fabric, she bore a startling resemblance to John Denver. Because her body language was hurried and angrily emphatic, I surmised her to be the aforementioned Alice, headed back to the bar to confront Amy. As she passed, I turned to get a better look, and for a brief moment I considered making a return to the bar to witness the fireworks. But time was wasting, and I had a train to catch, so I turned again toward the train station. But before I made my full pivot, something strange caught my eye in the misty darkness. I looked again and saw that Alice was wearing bright yellow shoes made of a very shiny, and very fake looking patent leather.