Special thanks go to Beth for awesome, insightful beta work. Thanks, hon!
"What the hell kind of a place is this, Chris?" Tim asked as he parked the car outside the American Visionary Arts Museum. He turned off the ignition and peered myopically at the gaudily painted windmill twirling lazily outside a nondescript brick building next to Federal Hill.
"C'mon Tim, this is the first Saturday afternoon I've had off in ages, and I'm not going to waste it laying around in our underwear eating gum-bleeding cereal and watching cartoons all morning. I heard about this exhibit in the City Paper and I thought it would do us good to get a dose of culture for a change." Chris Rawls explained to his recalcitrant partner.
"But I thought you liked watching cartoons while being licked to within in inch of your life," Tim said in a rough tease, his hand stealing across the hand brake to caress a tight inner thigh.
Chris chuckled and reached down for Tim's hand, running a thumb lightly across the knuckles. "You're adorable, Tim, but no way are you getting off that easy. Besides, if you behave yourself reasonably well today, there might be something in it for you later."
"More like Fritz the Cat."
Tim's expression came alive with enthusiasm. "Oh, well why didn't you say so? Lead on to the palace of cultural wisdom, Mr. Rawls." Tim said, opening the car door and stepping out into a gray, drizzling Baltimore afternoon.
Across the parking spaces and to the right of the windmill there was a brick warehouse that didn't look like part of the museum to Tim and Chris until they peered into it.
"Hey Chris, check this out! Pretty cool, huh?" Tim looked around to see if there was anyone taking tickets. The room was empty. "I guess we can go in." Tim and Chris stepped into the high-ceilinged room and saw a huge chessboard adorned with three feet tall robot chess pieces; the golden robots faced off against the aluminum bugs in a match that never got started. Behind that was a car festooned with forks twisted into crazy curlicues and screwed into every available surface of the automobile. A crystal ball set in a clawed talon served as a hood ornament.
"I wonder if the pieces move," Chris said, nudging one with his foot to see if they were bolted to the ground. A brass pawn with a headlight for an eye shifted an inch. "Wow, that's really inventive! Bet it's hard to play a game of chess with this thing."
"That mean you'd be even slower than you are
Chris made a face. Tim looked around at the car, the chessboard, and the wooden treehouse set in a flower garden outside the back window of the warehouse. It had the right amount of quirkiness about it. True, it wouldn't replace sugary breakfast food or Tiny Toons, but it definitely had its merits. "Alright, you've convinced me. Let's go see the rest of the place."
Entering the building proper, Tim and Chris stopped at the desk.
"Are you students?" the fresh-faced young man with experimental hair and an eyebrow ring asked.
"Um, no." Chris said with a smile, a little surprised by the question. "Students come in all shapes and sizes, I suppose."
"And ages," grinned the man at the counter. "Six dollars each, please."
"Now, Chris, I know you," Tim said, placing his membership sticker on his sweatshirt, "I know you're going to want to spend ten minutes on eachof art and study every painting, sculpture and drawing for hidden meaning-"
Chris turned around quickly and put his hand lightly onto Tim's chest. "The divide and conquer approach?" Chris asked, making it sound like Tim hadn't suggested anything of the kind. "Sounds fine to me. I'll find you in a corner and wake you up when I'm done, ok?"
"Hey, I was just- oh, wow. That's pretty cool." A robot family waved to them in the foyer. Sun, Sis-Star, Mom and Dad, and a crawling baby with a row of sharp teeth and a vacuum cleaner tail. Tim couldn't help grinning at the sheer bizarreness of the mind that brought this into being. "A whole museum of kooky art."
"Art by kooks, Tim." Chris read from the museum pamphlet. "' 'Angels and Aliens', 'art brut', art in its essential primal state, drawn by men and women on the creative edge. All the art in this museum is done by men and women who are closely connected to their intense creative drives, perhaps because most of the artists had suffered from some sort of mental illness or dementia'-"
"Oh no, I should've known." Tim quickly shook his head. "Remember when I told you about Emma taking me to that crazy museum? This is what you drag me out here for?" Tim stepped closer into his lover's personal space, his tone becoming angrier. "These people are exploiting the mentally ill to try to sell tickets. If they were normal no one would bother to come."
"But if they were 'normal' they wouldn't have made it in the first place. These people are our modern day Van Gogh's, Tim. Artists unsung in their own lifetimes with their own original vision of the world. It's..raw. Visceral. Well, anyway, that's what my new server Audrey told me. And it sounded like fun.
"So come and find me later, Tim. Have fun, and you might learn something. But don't worry, I'll bet it'll be nearly painless. And something tells me that you're in a different place than you were when you went with Emma."
"Thank you, I think."
"You're welcome." A tiny wink, a slight touch on the elbow, and Chris was wandering into a room that held a gigantic model of a Titanic-like boat and ground glass murals depicting angels and soldiers. Accepting defeat, or at the bare minimum, compromise, Tim climbed the stairs to the second floor.
"Angels, Devils, and Haints" the silver lettering read on the sky blue walls. The first thing Tim saw as he entered the room was a red and blue pencil drawing of happy little creatures with fangs and horns dancing merrily around each other.
Maybe just one caption. Frank Jones, in and out of jail most of his life, art entered in a prison art show as a joke, won the competition. Way to show them up, bunk, Tim thought with a grin. No matter what he said to Chris downstairs, it was satisfying to see a man who could catch people off guard.
There were so many captions, entire lives summed up in only a paragraph or two. It became impossible not to read them all, to see what kind of lives each artist led.
As Tim continued to read, he saw a pattern in most of their stories. Most of them lived uneventful lives, their works only found after their deaths. Pages and pages of writings, stacks of moldering paintings, drawings made on the backs of found bits of paper, on farm tools, on bolts of cloth, on reams of paper. Drawn with charcoal, and ballpoint pens. Held together with flour paste and spit. Blueprints for space ships, Martian alphabets, spirit photographs, scale models of UFOs complete with blinking lights- it was all a little much.
'How many ordinary people have I passed on the street, or at the checkout line in the grocery store, have had lives like this?' thought Tim. They lead normal lives on the outside, go home, shut the door, and work into the night. Tim wondered how many people like this he'd locked up- who looked after their art then? Was it thrown out? Or did landing in jail give them the jumpstart they needed to become artists?
Yeah, I can see it now, Tim thought. Knock some poor guy off, and we'll send you to art school courtesy of the state of Maryland. Hell, it might be nice to relax and do whatever you want to all day.
Except that it doesn't look relaxing, Tim realized. Most of it looked forced and desperate, like they were trying to cram as much as they could into as little space as possible. Like there was too much that needed to be said and to get out of their heads, filling up and spilling over onto the paper and canvas. Tim stopped in front of a drawing filled with hundreds of faces and eyes staring out from every surface of the paper. Accusing him of some misdeed, making him feel pinned like a deer in headlights. Madge Gill, the caption read. Credited all her drawings to a spirit called Myrinerest, who didn't start showing up until Madge suffered from severe depression and a miscarriage.
Florence Berryman, a diplomat's wife, drew a series of sixteen pictures, only ten of which were shown here. Caption read that after Florence died, most of her art was thrown out. The Nymph and the Mermaid. The Nymph sits naked on the wall brushing her hair when a Mermaid comes out of the water for a visit. They fall in love, the Nymph gives the Mermaid her crown of beads, and they're happily swimming together until a man comes and takes them away in a wooden cart to a museum. Nymph and Mermaid try swimming in a glass enclosed pool, but it's not the same. Last panel shows the Mermaid turned away, leaving the Nymph in tears.
Jealous husband, angry by what he found, hurt? Your wife loved someone else and you slowly strangled her by forcing her into a cage.
Tim wonders what'll happen to him when he dies and Mom comes to sort through his stuff and finds Chris's letters. Into the garbage can, can't have people thinking her son's a fag, right? Have to leave the world with the impression of what she wants her son to be, instead of what he is. Loose ends tied up, inconvenient threads snipped. Corners shaved into smooth circles, that's what'll happen to him, and he can't stop it. Tim's life as he knows it will disappear, and the dutiful cop will rest in its place.
There were spirit photographs made by hucksters to bilk grieving families from their money; Photos of spirits leaving the body, with dead sisters looking over their living ones' shoulders. Around the corner from the spirits were misshapen dolls made of shiny string with sagging button eyes. Across the hall were a janitor's obsessive paintings of doll eyed girls being strangled and burned by men in blue double-breasted suits.
With a sense of relief, Tim found the only bit of art that made him smile since seeing the robot family downstairs: a handsaw, painted Pepto-Bismol pink, and inscribed in red handpainted letters were the words 'Heartheeputurbraininmotionbeforeuputurmouthingear'.
That's good advice, Mr. Mertz, too bad not enough people saw your artwork in your lifetime. And a pity that too many of the people I see every day have, Tim thought sardonically. It could read 'don'tputtheebraininmotion' and we could hang it outside the Box.
It was like he could see the people making these pictures in his head. Hunched over their chairs, working in dim light, intense looks on their faces while they were meticulously working into the night on a project that wouldn't let their brains rest. Tim could feel them in the room with him. People working feverishly and obliviously in mental institutions, in cramped apartments, in prisons, in churches. There was an energy that emanated from the pictures on the walls; they competed with each other for space in an area that was slowly becoming more crowded by the minute with the cumulative effect of reading one more caption, of catching one more glimpse into another person's mind.
This place is full of ghosts, Tim realized, and then on the heels of that thought another stronger thought hit him 'I do not want to be stuck in here after closing time.'
Maybe the third floor would be better.
"Holy Fire", the matchstick art of Gerald Hawkes, the sign read. An exhibit within an exhibit. 'Matchstick' and 'art' weren't two words that Tim would have put together before, but considering what some of the other artists had used as material, this seemed downright ordinary now. And Tim had to admit that it was pretty impressive. Two small dresser drawers with handles, one with a mirror, were the first things he found. The caption said that there was a handwritten message on each of them, so he spent a minute carefully looking over each individual matchstick, and another minute roaming over the entire object before deciding Gerald was playing a practical joke on everyone.
There were matchstick Christmas tree ornaments. A matchstick hand mirror. A matchstick camera with an old-fashioned flash. An "Electric Shaver Healing Device". A mural of a bare-leafed tree at sunrise with a rainbow reaching across the branches. A huge round table with a tree , as thick as it was tall.
And then there were the heads. There was a matchstick head of Hawkes's mother, of Beck-ee, Woman of the Year, and a self portrait. A black man with blue eyes and a purple jewel in the center of his forehead, and the creepiest one, a head of Hillary Clinton called "Beauty is only skin deep." Mr. Hawkes saw fit to give Ms. Clinton black hollow triangular eyes and a sharp empty mouth. Tim lifted his eyebrows and whistled almost inaudibly as he ambled by. Not a Democrat, apparently.
The last head, and Hawkes's last work, didn't have a face like the others. It was a mannequin head, found in a fire where several small children had died, the caption read. Hawkes had gone there to pray for the children that had been killed.
The face was grotesquely melted and misshapen, the left eye melted shut, the right eye open and hollow, the mouth scorched into a lopsided prim expression. Melted wax dripped from the left ear, almost seared away by the heat, towards the back of the head, suggesting to Tim that Hawkes had found the head staring up at him.
Must've scared the crap out of him to see it there, Tim thought. Not knowing at first what it was that he'd found, then thinking it might be one of the dead children.
Tim couldn't help it. The image unlodged a torrent of memories. The only thing holding them in check was the fact that he hadn't been thinking of her in quite some time.
Now he felt dizzy, disoriented, like his head was floating somewhere up above his body. He knew his feet were still there, but he couldn't feel them holding him upright anymore, so he looked down to try to reaffirm his connection to the ground and then he was staring down into Adena Watson's face, oddly peaceful at the end of unspeakably violent death, rain pelting her bloody nose, red raincoat draped across her lifeless body. Used up and thrown out.
There wasn't enough oxygen in the room. He felt
the same way he did when he was a kid and he and
Jim had sneaked a cigarette from Jim's father and
had gotten a headrush from the inhalation of
thick noxious smoke. No anchors, just a slide
into the past and he was right there in the alley
again. He felt the sense of failure he did then,
that he didn't do enough to protect her, that she
The least he could've done was to have kept her picture on his desk as a physical reminder that she ever existed.
Tim felt his presence behind him before Chris spoke.
Chris touched his shoulder, followed Tim's unwavering gaze, and put two and two together.
"Tim, it's over. It's in the past. You did the best you could."
"It's not just her, Chris." Tim shook his head. "Ok, so it's mostly her, but it's a lot of things. I wish I could go back seven years to be the person I was before I joined Homicide." Tim sighed. "But then I want to have all the good stuff too, all the good memories. But lately it seems that every time I look into the past it's all the bad stuff. I wish I could reverse time and take some things back. I miss the way things used to be."
Tim turned around and smiled ruefully at Chris. "You know how hard it is to meditate and clear your head when your mind won't let you shut up?"
"I can guess. I know how it feels, Tim. There's so much clutter, everything feels so complicated sometimes. But I've reached the point in my life where I don't want things simple. Simple is almost always a lie."
Tim's mouth was moving before he realized he wanting to say anything. "I miss him."
"Why don't you call him?" Chris suggested.
"Did that already. I…I felt like I was bothering him." Tim's expression tightened, the skin between his eyebrows creased. "I can't blame him really, he's at a different stage in his life. His time being a detective is long gone, and he wants to move on."
"That was weird, Tim, I thought we'd left the robots downstairs."
"You know, the ones we first saw in the lobby."
"Which one am I? Sun or Sis-Star?" Tim said the last word with a DJ-like flourish.
"I was thinking that you were more like the Dad." Suddenly Chris looked off into space and lost all inflection in his voice. "If this light is on then DANGER I am thinking."
"So you don't need to ask who's your daddy anymore?"
Chris cocked his head back, wrinkled his nose, and waved at the area in front of Tim's body. "You know, this whole humor thing you've got going on, it's cute, the kids are going to go crazy for it in Japan." Chris's expression turned serious. "You know, it's acceptable to feel upset about what's happened between you two."
"I'm just sad that he feels he has to leave me behind to get on with his life." Tim broke eye contact to study a fascinating scuff on the floor, sniffed, took a deep breath, and looked into Chris's eyes with a brighter look on his face.
"Alright, next subject. I'm starting to get bored with my own voice. And you," Tim said, furtively glancing around the room before lightly squeezing Chris's hand, "should start charging therapist's hours."
"I'm saving it all up for a rainy day, Tim. One day I'll tie you down and make you listen to my neuroses for hours."
Tim grinned. "Too many jokes are just falling by the wayside on that one. Hey, check this out." Tim pointed, black mood forgotten, at a life sized matchstick man carrying a violin case. A large red matchstick heart hung suspended from a chain in the center of the empty chest. "What does the caption say?"
"It's a sculpture of Isaac Stern," Chris read. "During the Gulf War, Stern was playing a concert in Israel when the air raid sirens went off, and instead of ending the concert and running for shelter, the audience donned gas masks while Stern kept playing. Hawkes was profoundly inspired by the audience's behavior, which to him marked the first time in memory of the triumph of art over fear. From that moment on, Isaac Stern became one of Hawkes's heroes."
Chris smiled. "Would've loved to get a picture of the audience, everyone looking like Brendan Fraser in 'Gods and Monsters'."
"Except the smart money says that everyone in the audience was wearing clothes, but I'm just being trivial, I suppose." Tim said, the corner of his mouth turned up in a grin. "You had your fill of culture, Mr. Rawls? Because I'm starving. Wanna go over to the café and grab something to eat?"
"Sounds good. You buying?"
"Only if you promise not to be a snob about every single bite."
Chris clucked his tongue "I don't know, for a promise of that magnitude I'm going to have to take you to the Museum of Industry on the next Saturday off."
"Not a chance in hell."
"Ice skating at the Inner Harbor?"
"You ever seen a six foot four man do an involuntary split?"
"Ouch. Well, I'm sure we can think of something constructive on our free days. Something that doesn't involve too much wear and tear on your tender ligaments." Chris gave him a broad wink.
On the way out, Tim looked back at the figure of Isaac Stern and saw a mirror behind its head. Shifting around to get a better look, Tim saw that Hawkes had sculpted a matchstick clock without hands on the back of Stern's head.
He didn't know why exactly, but the thought made him smile.