He was a tall sheepish gentleman in his late fifties. His eyes were gentle, his chin was weak, his shoulders were starting to stoop. His legs were thin and wobbly, his hair was thinning and gray. And he walked with the hesitant stride of a crane, his head bobbing forward with every step. Watching him amble along the street, one would never guess him to be an artist. A servant, perhaps, a beggar more likely, but not an artist: a soul unencumbered by earthly snares and committed to only the Muse. But an artist he was, and no mere artist at that. He was an artist in the most gallant of mediums: the daring realm of street performance.
He did not suffer dullards well, and so he performed in the Mission District. The Mission was always full of tourists: inquisitive sorts who could better appreciate his craft than flint-eyed drug dealers or self-absorbed commuters. It was the tourists who gasped breathlessly, riveted their eyes upon him, and laughed with something other than derision. It was the tourists who lifted their cameras, snapped his photo, and hailed his display as a charming motif of San Francisco. And so he honed his skill for the tourists, determined to reward such generosity of spirit. He wore only the best of London Fog raincoats, the most stylish of Panama hats. He timed to perfection the nuances of his pitch: the wiggle of his eyebrows, the teasing flicker of his tongue, the preliminary flaps of his raincoat. And his Monty could best be described as heroic: a godly embrace of liberty and life. An eagle soaring above the Grand Canyon was no more stately in its wingspread.
Considering the quality of his work, it was regrettable that he preferred select audiences. But it is nobler to touch a few profoundly than to court the vulgarities of the masses. And with this charitable philosophy, the good man plied his trade, exposing himself to just one or two spectators before making a discreet exit. He was adept at exits, having committed to memory every alley in the Mission, and so he was rarely accosted. But on those occasions when the police did nab him, the consequences were pedestrian. Otherwise, he might have become a martyr to his gift, a trailblazer whom adversity had lifted to fame. But, sadly, this was not to be. “Ah,” scoffed the jailers whenever the cops marched him into booking. “It’s Sylvester again. How’s it hanging, Sylvest?” He would spend one night in jail, no more, and receive a sheriff’s release the next morning. Never was he afforded the spectacle of courtroom drama—the opportunity to suffer for his cause.
Despite the fickleness of fortune, he remained a purist. He loathed those thespians who bastardized their scripts: the rapists, the pedophiles—those who gave flashing a bad name. He did achieve an erection on occasion, but never for the sake of seduction. His erections were merely to complete the aesthetic, much like the painter’s signature scrawled at the bottom of a portrait. And being a perfectionist, he worked meticulously on style, bringing to each performance a new measure of affect. He learned new ways to flutter his raincoat, new ways to tilt his hat, new ways to smile seductively as he allowed the flaps to drift. Who could doubt that he might one day produce a masterpiece?
But time had stolen his confidence and his dream was starting to fade. And so he worked harder to catch it, willing to risk it all for an indelible blaze of glory. And should he fall like Icarus, his wings torched by the sun, this would not be too great a price to pay for the culmination of a vision. He believed implicitly in the stoutest of clichés: the age-old truism that one who never gives up is one who will never be conquered. And so, with each passing year, he struggled for the perfect pose.
He achieved a masterstroke on his sixtieth birthday—a late flowering, perhaps, but a bloom nonetheless. It was a practice performance, a casual warm-up, that provided him with the impetus of genius. The catalyst, Mabel Albright, was a coltish young lady from Iowa enjoying her first day in the city. As he watched her stroll along Folsom Street, he knew she would be an ideal foil. Her skin was parlor pale, her gait was halting, and she glanced about with the doe-eyed wonder of a debutante attending her first ball. Was she too easy a target? he wondered, a thought he was quick to dismiss. Compassion should never destroy inspiration—not when a dream is at stake. That is the anarchy of art.
He nodded politely as she approached him. Conversation was unnecessary, but good manners were still important. And so he waited until she returned his gaze, until her eyes lit shyly upon his, before giving the Muse her rein. Ever so slowly, he fluttered his raincoat; ever so teasingly, he smiled. Botticelli’s Venus, awakening from a nap, could not have moved more sensuously. And when he let the flaps of his raincoat part, his boner was lively and full, like a plump and mischievous puppy that romped with the joy of life.
Her shriek was piercing but vital. Her eyes were terrified yet awed. And when she swooned, it was not from terror but an overabundance of excitement. Such is the nature of sheltered souls: they can stand just a glimpse of the sun.
As he made his retreat, he could feel his heart pound. What a reception! What a performance! And yet her response seemed excessive: a validation he had not truly earned. He knew he could do even better; he knew he could rise to much more. Today would surely be the day of his masterpiece.
He waited an hour at the corner of Folsom and 23d Street. The area was filled with druggies, and so he did not feel conspicuous. They were sure to alert him with cries of “Five-o” if a cop car should appear. But the sidewalks lacked worthy spectators: he saw only crackheads, day laborers, and insular youths with gang tattoos on their arms. It was almost by consolation that he chose his next target: a hefty woman of fifty by the name of Wanda Polanski. She worked in a local sausage factory and smelled of beer and sweat. Little did she know she was about to witness an opus. And little did she care.
Retrieving an iPhone from his raincoat pocket, he harvested a tune. What else but the opening of Also Sprach Zarathustra—that epic movement from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey? As he stepped in front of her, smiling pleasantly, the orchestra droned to its crescendo. Uummm, uummm, UUMMMM, AH-AAH!!! Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. When he spread his raincoat, his eyes were aglow, his grin was as bright as a headlight. And his Willie was straighter than a baton as it nodded in perfect time with the drum beats. This was his moment. This was his statement. This was his stroll with the gods.
She stared without expression. It was the gaze of a cretin—a creature more animal than human. A beast that feasted on carrion and never pondered the stars. Never had a face looked more churlish. Never had eyes looked more dead.
“Buster,” she slurred in a voice coarse as sand. “Yer mama know watcha doin’?”
Sadly, an eagle needs wind drafts to soar; a rose needs water to blush. And a cheeky cock robin cannot hold its trill if the sun does not peek through the clouds.
He slapped his chest theatrically, but his spark had already been doused. “Madam, surely you jest,” he joked.
Snorting, she folded her ham hock arms. “It looks like a prick only smaller, mister.”
“Madam, you truly jest,” he repeated. He was not adept at repartee; body language was his gift. So in the face of this cold, imperious attack, it was all he could think of to say.
She snorted again. “Perve,” she muttered. It was just one word, one trite little word, but a word that for her said it all. It takes only one’s pinkie, held close to the eye, to blot out the brightest of dawns.
She left him hanging alone on the street; she would think of him no more. She had errands to run, beer to belch, and sausages to stuff.
Is the Muse as dismissive as Wanda, an incurious, beery frump? Visit any bar and you will find scads of local prodigies. They will talk of their projects to any who listen: books they will never write, portraits they will never paint, songs they will never compose. For what can these dabblers accomplish without sturdy, hermitic souls? Without blinders to see their tasks through to completion though all else may tumble to ruin? Geniuses lacking this coldness of mind will wither away on the vine. And journeymen will thrive in their place, their works praised as stark and brilliant by hordes of reviewing hacks.
And so the Muse is a slattern, no more, a callous, teasing witch. Her eye wanders too quickly, her favors don’t last, her heart is fickle and mean. She knows from bitter experience that few will pick up her chant, that for every brave soul that might march to her hymn, a thousand will die in the dust. To only the brashest of suitors, to only the boldest of swains, will she sing her full-throated song.
Was Sylvester too fine for his mission? Was his soul too inclusive, his spirit too noble, his heart too tender and large? How else to explain the power of chance: that a rude and despicable creature, a woman more common than dirt, had broken his mighty spirit. “Ay, ‘tis a scratch,” cried Mercutio, but he perished from Romeo’s blade. And so fell Sylvester, his heart slashed to pulp by that shallow, illiterate tongue. Oh courage, courage, why did you flee him? Why did you yield to a sow?
He returned to the Mission a few more times, his raincoat yet cocked, his eyes yet alert, his iPhone yet blasting a tune. But his dramas were meek, uninspired affairs, mere parodies of art. His arms were so stiff, his face so bland, that he better resembled a scarecrow than conduit to the gods. So what was left for this talented man but hang up his raincoat for good?
He took to travel to bury his sorrow, but travel could not free his soul. What traveler does not carry with him the things he is destined to find? So like Byron in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, he only pondered ruins: the Parthenon, the Coliseum, the temples of ancient Rome. Only these glorious relics could stir his failing heart.
And when travel proved too exhausting for him, he found quicker escape in booze. In booze he could blur his debasement, in booze he could soften his shame, in booze he could glimpse the specter of what he might have become.
He died in Athens, his liver worn out, his spirit a windblown husk.
He was buried in a pauper’s grave.
Banner Image:By rafael-castillo (Flickr: ) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
12 thoughts on “Exposed by James Hanna”
James, a joyous read with early coffee, your humor spilleth over and out, the walls shaken loose. Will go back to it with a second coffee, finding a repeater.Tom
Glad you enjoyed ol’ Sylvester. I still remember your piece, “The Duke’s Black Bag,” which we published in The Sand Hill Review. Let me know if you’d like a copy of the anthology in which this story appears. I’ll be happy to send one your way.
I enjoyed reading this and applaud the idea of art for art’s sake. There are not many people who can argue the merits of their ‘perversion’ as a performance worthy of a wider audience. (even if it stands up in court!) The story reminded me of Stephen Gough, an ex UK Marine, who for his own reasons wander the length and breath of the UK rambling and hiking in the nude. He was frequently arrested for indecency, and spent spells (6 years) in prison but was never deterred from his determination of self expression.
Great writing and valued reading.
Glad you enjoyed the story. I wish Sylvester had had Stephen Gough’s dauntless sense of commitment. Who knows what he might have achieved.
Well, James, now I’ve read everthing and it was good. Keep it up! June
Glad you enjoyed the story. There are plenty more where that came from.
I’m guessing that even in liberal SF that he would spend more than a day at a time in lockup, artist or no.
Maybe a week.
Never did I think I would feel so sorry for a fictional flasher. Fantastic short story.
It’s hard not to weep for Sylvester. He might have been one of the greats.
I smiled all the way through your story.
We were delighted to give it some exposure! (I’m so sorry!!!)
I’m glad ol’ Sylvester rose to the occasion.