by John Symons

So . . . Gilbert, you’re a painter,” said Gina Valeri, over a bottle of acqua minerale gasata at Amanda’s bistro cafe. She and Gilbert Penty sat at a table outside on the plaza. The sun in this noon hour languidly cast sparkles in their drinks; sympathetic breezes swayed their umbrella gently and blew Gina’s black hair into arabesques; the world’s workings, Gilbert supposed, were pointing to favorable outcomes.

“I heard about it from” — waving her hand — “someone you don’t know. You aren’t trying to keep secrets?”

“Me?” said Penty. “Ordinary things are all pretty much secrets to me. I mean, even when you know what’s what, you can’t really know what you want to.”

To know what he really wanted to, Penty had followed Gina around the plaza, stopping at storefronts, sidling up to office towers; in his scheme, these actions betrayed no intent: he merely was pulled along in her wake, from the moment he spotted her skipping out of their building, her sudden appearance a revelation, her movements at large a warrant for his own.

She said, “But you can tell me your secrets. And then perhaps I’ll tell you some of mine. Then we’ll learn something, Gilbert, and there’ll be less frustration and incomprehension going about.”

“Right, that sounds reasonable. So now you know I’m a painter, it’s your turn.”

“No; we’re not finished with you yet. I make you out to be a house painter. You paint for a little extra, to feed bad habits.”

“No, and there’s not really much painting to speak of; and I don’t think you’ll really want to hear about what there is.”

“But I do! Tell me what it is you paint so restrainedly.”

“I paint pictures. And now —”

“I never doubted that you did! And do you paint beautiful pictures? It’s so difficult to get an answer out of you, Gilbert.”

“What are beautiful pictures?”

“You see? I should have expected that question. You’re holding out on me, Gilbert; you want to say something, but you don’t trust me. A day like today, for example, might inspire you. Stick your eye out.”

Gilbert did — but there was no telling what his eye might report; the windows of the surrounding towers the goggling lenses of hierarchies, pollarded trees disposable pushpins, flowerbeds discarded slide pitches, sleepy-shy noonday shadows the dark antecedents of our ultimate nothingness.

“Thing is — I don’t say this to just anybody — my paintings are not meant to be beautiful.”

“Oh, why not?”

“You see” (and now it would all have to come out), “it’s because that would just lull viewers into reconciling with the present reality.” He swept his arm about him, and then upward in a gesture of dismissal.

“No, I’m sure you wouldn’t find them beautiful. They’re useful. Willdinger tells me I mustn’t make my paintings beautiful, only useful.”

“And what do you do with them — hide cracks?”

“I am prepared to deal with the world’s incomprehension, you know. I have to be.”

“Yes, I think you do. What sort of a creature is a Willdinger?”

“Willdinger’s my friend . . . and my mentor . . . since college — the two years we’ve been out, having studied together under Porter-Kenning, eminent in these matters. ‘The sky might as well be puke, the rain pus’ — have you heard anything like that? — ‘so long as we are determined to accept it as beautiful.’ Porter-Kenning says this, Willdinger says this. I have no trouble believing it. He wants me to paint such a picture — Willdinger does, I mean. I have even begun work on it. I don’t like to discuss it till it’s complete.”

“I don’t think that stuff’s what you observe, Gilbert, is it? — what you said — when you open your eyes — as I do now?”

She smiled and Gilbert suppressed a disconcerting feeling of disjunction.

Then the waiter came stealthy, looking at Gina, and they ordered another bottle and asked for more time with the menus.

When he had gone, Penty said, “It’s something about overturning reality, purging the world’s imperfection with blood. He’s quite serious about this, Willdinger is; he’s willing to give his own blood and seems disappointed that no one has asked him for it.”

“That kind of reality.”

“I’m baring my soul here, so to speak,” Penty said, a bit miffed. “You asked me and I’m trying to explain. It’s like Willdinger says, in a perfected society this wouldn’t be happening to me. My work would be seen to be exactly fitted for the age. I would even be given commissions; I would know who I am truly as a painter. Even so, over time, my works will become classics; History will vindicate me. That is because we are following History, even helping it along. Nothing anyone says can change that. So if you want to laugh, laugh. And if your senses recoil, remember that History in this antithetical stage demands certain things of us all. But it does not ask more than we can give. So that is why one day my work will be recognized for what it is.”

“I’d think twice about that, Gilbert.”

“About what?”

“What you said — recognition.”

“I’m prepared even for that. So far, I don’t get angry like Willdinger does. Willdinger’s always angry, it seems. Don’t get me wrong here, but History marks out some for resistance. I can’t blame you because you can’t help yourself. I must be patient, even tolerant. There’s really no choice. Willdinger says that nothing is ever chosen. And knowing this should be helpful in coming to real self-knowledge.

“Actually, I don’t think I’m very happy about things just at the moment myself, the way they’re going.”

“Gilbert?”

“Well, I guess you’ve heard enough. I thought I might win your sympathy — actually, I mean your understanding. It gets lonely on the frontier.”

“If it’s about choice —”

“Yes, choice; you see, it’s just that we have no choice. Choice is illusory. We can’t choose because what seems like choice really is causation and so on.” (He mimed helplessness with his hands.) “Willdinger says —”

“Gilbert!” Gina said, suddenly.

“What?”

“You’ve fallen in with bad company. And as for Willdinger, he’s an ass.”

“Is he? Do you really think he is? I’d sort of wondered. But I mean, how do you know?”

“Think about it. I suppose you can tell yourself what to think about?”

“I guess I should, if you feel that strongly about it. But I know he reads a lot, Willdinger does, and keeps up with things, goes to the professor’s house for the latest — such a huge house, too!”

“I don’t doubt it, Gilbert. History has given the professor such a lot of coinage. But now the waiter’s come, and it will be my turn to instruct you.”

“It will? Oh, good. I’m feeling a bit fatigued.”

The waiter, too, seemed fatigued.

“He’s going to want us to make choices. And as you’re insecure in that department, at least when your mind’s in a philosophical cast, I’ll lead the way.”

The waiter stared, first at Penty, then at Gina, his pen poised for action.

“No, really,” Penty said; “this isn’t necessary.”

“Ignore him, till it’s time to pay. Waiter, would you mind just pointing a finger at something? I’m afraid I can’t make up my mind. No? You don’t want to? OK, then get me una bruschettina di pane integrale con pomodori.”

The waiter inclined to see where Gina was pointing: “The which?”

“Your name is Salvatore, isn’t it? Anyway, it doesn’t matter, I’ve changed my mind. Do you see, Gilbert? Actually, I’ll take the petto di pollo al Marsala. The other wasn’t on the menu anyway. And now my friend will choose something. You will, won’t you Gilbert.”

The waiter let out a little hiss; then Gilbert, after dithering, placed his order (without any philosophical-historical considerations), and the waiter ran off at a gallop.

Gilbert started laughing softly. “Pretty funny,” he said. “But don’t you think you were rude?”

“Oh, yes; but you can give him a bigger tip, since it was for your benefit. And anyway, it was History made me do it.”

“But . . . I mean, it really was History made you do it, wasn’t it? You don’t have to think so. I mean, you wouldn’t.”

“No. I wouldn’t. Or I would. Or I would and I wouldn’t. But you wouldn’t say it was meaningless, would you, Gilbert?”

“We haven’t gotten into meaning yet, Willdinger and I — okay, I know, I know, he’s an ass and all. But —”

“If you have any inclination — is that the right word? — to join me again at my table, Gilbert, you will have to show me that you can stand on your own two feet. Choose other authorities. I can’t date a man in thrall to Willdinger.”

That evening Penty arrived home feeling that his mind was suspended between a number of contradictory propositions; which, however, he was too indolent to formulate with profitable clarity. He moped, he sighed, he threw himself into upholstered chairs. His place looked squalid, his work a pitiable failure. He kicked his puke-and-pus composition along the base of the wall. He called Willdinger on his landline, whom he knew he might look to for advice and solace.

“Hello, Gilbert, what’s the reason for your call?”

Penty knew this was a trick question. “No reason,” he said; “right?”

“No, not quite. There’s a reason for your call, only you don’t know what it is.”

“I see.”

“It’s about a girl, isn’t it? I can hear it in your voice.”

Penty told about Gina.

“What’s she like?”

“She’s like —” but Penty couldn’t say.

“Doesn’t matter what she’s like. Probably has a low, reptilian brain function.”

“Has she? Then why do I feel the way I do?

“She’s blandishing you; my advice is, fight it with all your heart — and all that.”

“I can’t.”

“Try to keep her on topic; use the terms you think suit her and the moment; that way you can get what you want.”

“She wouldn’t hear of it.”

“Make sure she hears these.” Willdinger uttered a string of terms, most to do with various determinisms and future contingents.

“Or you could mention the block universe,” he added learnedly.

“No I couldn’t. Maybe you could; myself, I’d feel like a fool. I don’t even understand anything you just said. I explained to her as much as I thought I did, and now I don’t understand that either.”

Light laughter and snorting came from Willdinger’s end of the wire.

“Then I’ll have to do it,” he said; “if you’re too etiolated.”

“Too what? Go ahead. Noon tomorrow. The plaza. See where it gets you!”

Next day, Penty sat in his office unable to work. When lunchtime came, he gagged down a sandwich and thought of Gina. He thought of Willdinger. He regretted arranging for their imminent association, and wondered how it would all work out. (He forgot that History had worked it out already.)

Had he been up for extended metaphors, he might have pictured Willdinger, outfitted in compendious rectitude journeying under a naked sun into mission territory, where a solitary unbeliever idled unaware in her ignorance, Willdinger fortified for the work with precepts he and Porter-Kenning held as indubitably true. In his mind’s ear, he could hear Willdinger’s prophetic voice, in his mind’s eye, could glimpse him standing amid the luncheon crowd, a digit raised in admonition.

Certainly Willdinger would find Gina attractive — he would give her that — a bright, beautiful, commonsensical girl (these were Penty’s words, emerging at last); Gina would be equanimous (this was not Penty’s word) and politely amused. And Willdinger. . . .

But Penty could stand it no longer. He bolted out of his office and down the staircase, and into the midday sun.

Across the plaza he caught sight of Willdinger bending toward him, the sun scarcely illuminating his scowl.

By then Penty, was running at top speed the opposite way along the crowded concourse, his face contorted with the effort.

As he approached, Willdinger tried to slow him. “Whoa! Hold on there! Hey, hold up! It’s no good!”

Penty wheezed past. “Look out! I’m not stopping! Outta my way! Step aside!”

Red and winded, he arrived at Amanda’s bistro cafe; Gina was beginning a penne primavera.

“Why Gilbert, this is so abrupt,” she said; “I’ve just seen your doppelganger. Not so prepossessing as you, but he talks of the same incomprehensible things. He’s certainly a gloomy man for all his certitudes.”

“Yes?” said Penty. “Have you? I see you’ve decided on the . . .” (he tried to think of the dishes she’d named the day before) “the

. . . petty pollo . . . whatever.”

“Good word, decided. There’s still time to order — if it’s not too strenuous for you.”

“I can handle it,” he said, in a bit of a pique.

“Then sit and order something, before life passes you by.”

“Okay; I will; and where’s the waiter? Does he still work here? I have to decide something?”

“You do.”

John Symons is one of the readers of submissions to the Summer Fiction issue. He lives in Pennington and also is a deliverer for U.S. 1 and helps compile the annual business directory.

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