Masterpiece – Hank Kirton

        “Thar she is!” says Erskine. “Look up, you bozo!” And he smacks the back of Hal’s head. Gently, like a brother or a friend. Hal is sick to death of hanging around with Erskine but his mother insists. Hal believes she could do a lot better. He thinks Erskine is a putz. He slid into their lives like a laxative.
        Hal looks straight up at the ceiling and is confronted by a soft, unpronounceable feeling as he absorbs the remarkable masterpiece oozing like a slow, soundless mudslide across the fifteen-foot high ceiling. His neck is seized with a toothache-like pain but he keeps looking up at the vast canvas desecrated by artist Joey B. Gunt’s foul, pissed-off aesthetic. Gunt painted with his fists. With roars. And now he was dead. He’d slammed down his final ugly flourish like a sarcophagus lid.
        “It’s really nice,” Hal says to Erskine, truthfully. “Incredible.”
        “My boy.” Erskine says. “It’s reaching for you.”
        Joey B. Gunt (R.I.P.) has just violated his last canvas with controlled explosions of dirty motor oil, paint, mud, meat and various bodily fluids. The work will make him eligible for the death penalty. He stands beneath it, face splattered with a mask of various noxious media. A metal hook hangs from a sturdy wooden beam. The hellish landscape above him is populated with perversions inspired by Joey B. Gunt’s incessantly sordid dreams and fears. It is his finest work. It is PURE. A soaking explosion of his foul libido. The quintessential Joey B. Gunt atrocity. Now it just needs a final coup de grace, so he hangs a white nylon rope from the hook, standing on a wobbling kitchen stool. He tightens the noose. The rope is frayed and the sharp fibers rub against his neck with an itch that stings like pain.
        He takes the last/first step of his final stroll, knocking over the supporting stool. Joey B. Gunt hangs there, twitching and slobbering until life dribbles away like watery gray paint easing down a drain. He is part of the art now. He is the LAST WORD. He hangs there in that quiet studio. His shadow slides its way across the floor and up the wall behind him. A housefly alights on his forehead. They don’t waste any time, flies. They exist under tremendous pressure to feed and fuck as often as possible before the quick clap of death or the slow suffocating torment contained in a spray of Raid.
        It would take four days for inquisitive authorities to discover the body of Joey B. Gunt. By then the maggots had overtaken the corpse. As well as the thin puddle of liquid shit under the deceased. If Joey B. Gunt were suddenly resurrected, he’d want to incorporate the excrement and maggots into his masterpiece. But he lacked that capacity. Alas, his last masterpiece would remain unfinished.

        Hal Hindley (18) first noticed that his fingerprints had been tampered with following Joey B. Gunt’s infamous suicide. He was sure it started the day he’d seen and admired Gunt’s last painting. The brown mass of anger on the ceiling. Joey B. Gunt had taken a cosmic, upside down shit on his whole creative career. Full stop.
        And then Hal’s hands began to change. The phenomenon was subtle. Hal stared at his mitts through a large magnifying glass. Like Sherlock Holmes on acid, scrutinizing the faint, incremental morphing of his fingertip designs. The pores were gravity-grabbing sinkholes. Everything he looked at was bright and burned, as if someone had sneaked bleach into his Visine.
        Hal hiccupped and then returned to his hands. The whorls and arches had switched positions again. They were upside down now and flowing in different directions. The triaradius on his thumb looked like a gray galaxy toppling toward a black hole. The gravity of a singularity could squish you into Prince Spaghetti Day and suck you through the cavernous gaps between your own teeth.
        Hal’s mother, Grace, was in the kitchen, standing at the sink. Hal sat at the gray kidney-shaped table, slouching in his green vinyl seat. There was a tear in the cushion and Hal fingered it, thinking about black holes again. His mother placed a glass of milk in front of him. “Thanks,” he told her.
        “My fingerprints are changing.”
        “What’s changed?” she asked, squeezing Palmolive on her hands. She had just finished scrubbing the tubs and pots. Now was her “me” time. She slathered both hands seductively, increasing the volume of the lather. Rubbing her hands together, making squishy sounds brought her a vague sense of satisfaction. The act felt sexual. Her fingers were erotic. She felt a twinge of guilt over the warm tactile pleasure. Her indulgence.
        “My fingerprints. They’re rearranging themselves somehow,” said Hal. The way his mother rubbed her hands together reminded him of flies. He wondered if there was some cosmic significance to the behavior. It looked like praying. Or an evil landlord plotting a greedy scheme.
        His mother rinsed the soap off her hands under cold water. “What are you talking about?”
        “The swoops and swirls keep moving. It’s weird. Look…” Hal extended his hands to her, palms up.
        Grace looked down at her son’s hands. “They look the same to me.”
        “No, they look different now. See?’” He pushed his hands toward her with desperate emphasis.
        “Hal, do you really think I memorized your fucking fingerprints? I don’t even have my own fingerprints memorized. I mean, who would do such a thing? Now finish your milk so I can sweep the crumbs off the table.”
        “Gee whizz. I’m going through a drastic change and you don’t even care.”
        “True, true…” Grace pulled yellow Playtex gloves over her hands and then began to sweep the table with a small purple sponge. She hummed as she worked, a Baroque concerto she’d composed on the toilet that morning. Hal retreated to his bedroom to masturbate.

        Erskine Crowder sat at his desk doing math. The figures didn’t figure and he added them again with the criminal ferocity of a Spanish Conquistador. He’d received several offers for Joey B. Gunt’s final work of art. The ceiling painting. What the Sistine Chapel would have looked like if Michelangelo had just smeared shit all over everything. Now that would have been a statement! Someone should do it now!
        But all the offers for Gunt’s last painting were paltry. Mere chickenfeed. Joey B. Gunt was an important artist, damn it. He made tangible things that chilled people to their bowels. Erskine thought that the final painting would make him a millionaire. Joey B. Gunt even did him a favor by signing off with suicide. It should have made him a legend. Instead he was fading away like a curl of vapor on a bloodsoaked battlefield. Erskine cursed his bad luck and then bent over his digits again. He was aware of his stomach.

        Grace sprayed Pledge over the kitchen table. And kept spraying. The chemical lemon scent filled the room like Agent Orange. The table looked like the aftermath of a cartoon snow storm. When her finger got tired on the button, she switched hands and continued to cover the table with poison foam.
        And then the can was empty. She threw it into the sink, savoring the quick metallic clank and the silence that followed.
        She sat at the table wondering what she was going to do about her son. Poor Hal. She slid her hands into the thick creamy ocean of furniture polish. She knew Erskine would call. They’d been “dating” for three months now and they were approaching the crucial point in the courtship that always made her nervous. It happened with every male/female experiment she’d ever conducted.
        Except for Hal’s father. But that situation was different. It happened under a greasy fist.
        She leaned forward, burying her face in the lemony foam. She made swirly patterns with her hands. She thought of Hal again. His fingerprints were changing? Maybe she’d been too rough with him, dismissing his concerns so callously. She owed him an apology. It wasn’t his fault he was stupid and crazy. She lifted her face out of the lemon Pledge and wiped her eyes clear. Then she stood up and walked upstairs to apologize.
        “Hal?” she said and rapped on his door. “Hal? You in there?”
        No response.
        She knocked more forcefully and said, “Hal! I’m coming in.” She turned the knob and stepped into his room. He kept his room so tidy, it made her feel sacrilegious.
        And then she saw him. “Hal? What are you doing?” and then the shocking tableau crystallized and her vision burst with head-confetti. She felt like falling into outer space.
        Hal was dead, hanging naked from the closet rod with his hand around his waning erection. She wondered if his fingertips would continue changing now that he was dead. There was an open glossy magazine at his knees. Pictures of naked men and women defecating on each other.
        Damn kid, always experimenting. No wonder his fingerprints were restless. She called Erskine instead of the police. Maybe they could do something with this that would benefit them all. The “crime scene” might generate salable ideas.
        The creation of art is a messy business. It takes no prisoners.