I literally bumped into Billy Keening on my way back from Starbucks the next morning.
“Scuse me, scuse me,” he said, recovering from the accident.
Billy held a crumpled paper bag his hand exactly like the kind The General left on my desk the day before. Only Billy’s bag had Harry’s written on the side in jet black elephant font, the word a set of tragic wrinkles around those stubby fingers.
His sack looked more empty than full. Then his face lit up.
“You gotta watch where you’ve been to,” he said.
We made small talk. How was my gallery? How was his painting? About fifty, Billy had a shock of sharp white hair shooting out above his forehead.
He was that Norwegian Nordic blonde, a waning toe head, his command of the language inspired by the movies and TV shows on air when he stowed away on a cruise liner bound for America way back when.
“Could be better,” we both agreed about our individual work. Except I’m pretty sure Billy said “Could be bester.”
Billy was best friends with this Russian guy, Adolphe Gurkus, who I already mentioned bought two meals the night I became his fairy godmother. Gurkus, everyone knew, could paint anything he wanted to.
He had riffs and copies of everything from Degas to Cézanne; Picasso to O’Keefe in his studio in SoHo.
“Gurkus beated me again,” Billy said. He held up his pitifully empty paper bag. “You know Harry’s paint shop? The dynamite?”
I nodded. Billy shook the empty bag with each pattern from his own brand of word-music.
“I go in and Harry has the sale. Everything on clearing out. I say to him ‘wait,’ and go gotten my stashes in the studio. Oh the brushes, the brushes!”
Billy scanned off to a purple pigeon perched up on a windowsill, smiled. “This creamy white oil, like thinking of a cable cooking show,” he said.
“The more better, the more the butter. Everything delicious.”
Lunch hour and the street was awash with clumps of people.
They pushed to and fro over the black painted canvas that was Manhattan. Impressionist blobs of red scarves and fleshy blurred faces took their cues from the Walk and Don’t Walk signs and swirled around Billy and me.
“I bump into Gurkus, like this,” he said and motioned as if they had also literally bumped into one another. This picture in my mind was like seeing a yin and yang symbol come to life—Gurkus with his black hair and mustache, his six and a half foot stature wrapped around Bill’s sea of white.
The image brought me back to Jade the night before and the money, the bills sticking to her curvy back, a yin and yang tattoo in circles at the base of her spine, the sheets half-covering her liquid skin.
“After I return to Harry’s?” he said. “Nothing left. Not a gosh-darned thing. I got the three brushes Adolphe left me out of pity.” Billy pulled them from the bag.
Any disgust or disappointment vanished as he ran his fingers up and down the long stem of the largest brush of the three, admiring the product.
“Beautiful, beautiful brushes,” he said.
More than anything I think I took his empty paper bag as a sign, Billy holding three brushes in his hand on the crowded street was a white-haired Statue of Liberty with paintbrushes instead of a torch, his eyes on fire.
If I could claim any genius in my selection of Billy Keening, it was in my wondering—given the chance, could he do the same to color as he had to the English language?
I said, “Can you keep a secret Billy?”
I remember walking with Billy under my arm.
We passed a wino on 74th, a guy with an empty bottle in a paper bag. Maybe part of it was the idea that with his wacky accent and immigrant vocabulary The General would flip at Billy Keening’s un-Americaness in whatever special operation I’d been signed up for without my permission.
I had under my shoulder a cultural nuclear armament whose only mistake was in telling his buddy of an art sale and getting beat to the punch. Gurkus was always an asshole.
But Billy, Billy was a painter. He stared at the brushes he did have, happy to imagine the world in streams of paint.
Later in the decade, after Billy Keening was a multi-millionaire, he said he switched his paint palette to thirty-one flavors like Baskin-Robins. His canvases became sherbet dreams.
I stuffed a dollar in the homeless guy’s empty sack as we walked. While my upcoming Gurkus show would prove less than successful commercially, New York was about to go crazy for the pre-sherbet dreams of Billy Keening.
Between Gurkus and the ultimate feast, and Bill Keening, me, and the homeless guy on 74th, I feel some sense of forgiveness now for the fiasco I brought to American art. When I look back, I realize all of us were starving.
Meanwhile, all of us were well fed in Facility D.
The top secret wing of America’s most notorious prison had lots of food. Maybe the Patriot Act had some provision for nutrition.
The combination of canned pasta against a backdrop of military might was a perfect representation of the ambiance found at Spaghetti Night at Guantanamo Bay. While the food wasn’t very good, there certainly was a lot of it.
My jailhouse confidant and sponsor Rusty Pete went wild for the macaroni and cheese. He couldn’t make it through a meal without leaving a big glob of orange-yellow in his beard. One of these gelatinous sculptures jiggled as he spoke to me across the table.
He couldn’t make it through a meal without leaving a big glob of orange-yellow in his beard. One of these gelatinous sculptures jiggled as he spoke to me across the table.
“Everybody’s a Monday Morning Quarterback here,” he said. “What does this guy Billy Keening have to do with your so-called perfect defense plea?”
I motioned to the side of my mouth, not wanting to offend my only friend in jail. He didn’t get the hint.
“You say you were some sort of artistic mastermind in a plot to save the U.S.A. I say you’re crazy as a shithouse rat, no offense,” he said.“None
“None taken,” I said.
“I mean, Arthur. You say you got money from some guy and then gave it to someone else? That isn’t a defense argument against terrorism—that’s capitalism, brother.”
Rusty Pete laughed so hard at this statement the goo fell from his beard. Watching him put away two plates of the stuff, I understood why he needed the Overeaters Anonymous meetings on Tuesdays.
He pressed a finger into the remnant that had hit the table and placed the last morsel in his mouth.
I said “It wasn’t just Billy Keening, Gurkus, or Fletcher Flynn. There were things like Eva Keening and her legs.”
At least Rusty Pete pretended to listen between his chews. He was right, everyone was a Monday morning quarterback here and a Monday Night Macaroni addict. We ate dinner every night in a cafeteria filled with regret.
The other day at the 2pm AA discussion meeting Rusty Pete summed up my state of being. His 350 pounds were impossible for the chairperson to ignore for long when he shot his hand up.
Most of the tattoos that swarmed his arms—the spider and the web, the fire, a set of praying hands—were done right there in jail by his cellmate Jose with ink from black Bic pens.
Little Jose turned each of Rusty’s arms into an undulating Thomas Hart Benton in stark black against skin tones with his lines. I stared at one of these mini-masterpieces on Rusty’s flesh as he waited for the chairperson to call on him.
I don’t even remember what the topic was. I was just happy to be out of my cell.
Rusty Pete said, “I know so very little, about so very much.” I nodded my head in silent recognition. That was me.
I nodded my head in silent recognition. That was me.