The smell of roasted pork fills the studio as the sculptor carefully turns the pole in his hand, gently tilting a rough, blackened ceramic crucible. A stream of bright silver molten metal falls gracefully over the lip of the crucible and drops silently into the hole the sculptor has left in the top of the sand. Steam rises from the vent-hole at the other end of the bed of sand.
The hole is shaped like an ant hole for ants the size of whiteboard pens. It is perfectly round, with a rampart of sand built up all around it to catch splashes and mis-pours, a funnel for bright, liquid metal.
The sculptor watches as the silver line of metal disappears down the hole, expertly turning the pole, tilting the crucible, just so, making the stream wider and narrower, increasing or decreasing the volume of the flow, as he imagines the liquid metal under the sand, making its way through a series of chambers and bottlenecks, burning and then vaporizing the tender organic matter it encounters. The sculptor’s goal is to keep the pour even, to not allow it to clot or to back up, cooling too early and creating voids where there should be metal in the finished product.
The steam is still coming out of the vent, though it is decreasing in its intensity. The steam is the residue of the sacrificial item buried under the sand, the tiny piece of organic material, laid out just so and packed closely but gently in clay-rich sand which creates a form; as the hot, silver metal burns away the sacrificial piece, it fills its place, creating a perfect, hard, shining replica of the sacrificial piece.
A replica in its shape, but in function superior: Hard, resilient, resistant to the vagaries of time and weather.
Weather: the sculptor looks up at the ceiling of his studio, blue tarp carefully stretched on a welded frame around a chimney. It was perfectly waterproof, but when it rained the change in barometric pressure and the wetness of the air would effect the casting process, would interfere slightly with the sand and the melting point and…
The sculptor believes that it will rain, later, and so is anxious to complete the pour now. He reminds himself to be gentle, precise, intent. Just because he’s worried does not mean that the molten metal will forgive him.
Finally, the metal backs up into the ant-hill funnel. It happens with a suddenness that makes the sculptor’s breath catch, suddenly rushing up the little chimney. His nerves do not fail him, however, and he gives the pole attached to the crucible the little turn that cuts off the stream of bright, silver metal, allowing it to form a pool on the surface of the sand but not to overrun its banks.
The crucible is held in a welded steel rack which is in turn supported by four castor wheels. The cart straddles the casting sand until the sculptor carefully wheels the cart away, over to a corner where the remaining metal in the crucible can cool in anticipation of the next heating and pour.
He sits on his high stool, staring at the sand, at the little metal pool resting on top of it. He won’t be able to relax until the metal has cooled and he’s able to dig the sand aside and verify that the casting has been successful.
The sculptor is very, very good at this, has done this many times, but he has never used this medium before, and he is obsessed, transfixed with the possibilities of it. So far, every pour in this process has been perfect, exquisitely perfect. Of course, the further along in the process he gets, the higher the anxiety: The more investment he has in his process, the more he has to lose with each successive pour, the higher the risk that he will be unable to complete…
The sculptor stares at the table where the partially-assembled sculpture rests, its outline now unmistakable: The form of a young woman, nude, reclined on the table, shining dully in the blueish light of the studio. Her skin is not yet in place, so the individually formed pieces of her silver and bronze anatomy are visible, if only loosely assembled.
The sculptor glances, furtively, at the pedestal on his work bench where the young woman’s head sits, eyes half-open, lips parted almost sensuously.
He hasn’t decided what to do about the head, yet.
There was an array of doorbell-type buttons at the front door. It wasn’t a panel of buttons, all in neat rows, it was a piece of plywood, about four foot by two foot, which someone had painted white and screwed to the wall next to the front door; there were several dozen individual doorbells each affixed to the board, many but not all labeled with a number or a name, all clearly purchased and added at a different time. There was a different wire for each button which led to one or another edge of the board; three major bundles of wires led different directions away from the board, each bundle tacked in place at a different time with a different medium of nail or staple.
Lauren stared at the panel for a long time, pondering the implications of its existence. There was one marked “Harlan Whyte,” which she found eventually. She pressed the button; nothing happened. She paced around the porch of the big house, what used to be called a McMansion, arms folded across her chest.
The cul-de-sac that this McMansion sat at the end of was a wasteland: old broken furniture and dumped trash in the street, yards that were just masses of escaped jungle. A couple of them looked like they’d been briefly farmed before being abandoned. Up on the corner, a big, crappy house had been transformed into an all-night strip club, with big, cheap lighted signs — nothing so classy as neon, just brightly colored boxes with lights inside and logos and words on them, along with a couple of huge compound LCDs scrolling obscenities.
Government services didn’t reach out here anymore; she wondered what would happen if she called 911.
She turned back to the porch. The big front door had a huge metal frame around the door which looked like it had housed a steel security door at one time; there were bends in the frame and torn screw holes that seemed to indicate that it’d been torn off, at some point, and not replaced.
There were some stairs that landed on the porch which seemed to have been made out of big plastic shipping palettes, cut in half and screwed and bonded together. There was an actual security door mounted at the base of the stairs; it would be hard to go up them without permission.
After a few minutes, the intercom beside the door, which looked like it had been professionally installed as part of the original build, crackled to life.
“Hey girl,” it said. “You want a brownie?”
She stared at the intercom, the hairs on the back of her neck — the ones that had already risen as she drove into the neighborhood — starting to vibrate and do tricks to indicate a new level of alarm. If being roofied had a voice, it was the voice coming from the intercom.
Steeling herself, telling those hairs on her neck to stand down, or at least stop making noise so she could think, she leaned toward the intercom, which didn’t have a button or anything, and said, “Hi, I’m looking for Harlan Whyte?”
“Hey girl,” said the intercom again. “Harlan isn’t here, why don’t you come inside and we’ll wait for him together? I’ve got brownies, and…” There was the sound of rustling, as though someone was hunting through a pile of stuff. “… Almond milk,” said the smooth, scary voice from the intercom.
“It’s OK,” said Lauren, “I’ll wait out on the porch.”
“That’s fine, that’s cool,” said the voice on the intercom, “But why don’t you come in and get a brownie? They’re good. We just baked them this morning.”
“Uh…” Lauren leaned forward toward the intercom again, her arms now folded across her belly. “That’s okay, I’m trying to watch my figure…”
Which was pretty a pretty funny rejoinder, Lauren thought, because she was fat, or at least thought of herself as fat, and “watching her figure” would be something someone who wasn’t Lauren did. Which she thought would be obvious, if they could see her, as well as being just a voice on the intercom.
“I like your figure.” A different voice, from… Lauren looked up, startled.
There was someone standing behind the security gate on the stairs. Somehow, something in the way he stood, even obscured by the grate of the door, made the leering tone of his comment into a light-hearted joke.
He opened the security door and stood aside, inviting her up. As the grate moved aside, his face became clearly visible: It was Harlan Whyte, all right. She’d seen enough pictures to know him on sight; everybody who was involved in art had seen enough pictures of him to make them sick of seeing him, this past year.
She walked past him up the stairs. At the top, they let out onto a balcony that wrapped around the back of the McMansion, and allowed her to get her first view of The Yard.
Spread out over several acres of crazy, The Yard was what had once been the very generous back yards of a large block of generic luxury houses, which had all faced out from a large oblong shape at the heart of a huge sprawl of gated community, most of which was now abandoned.
A farming collective — they’d wanted to start an organic dairy farm — had managed to buy all the houses on this oblong, a decade and more ago, in the wake of one of the financial collapses; they’d taken all the fences down, but had then made the crucial error of being a membership organization, allowing new members in by a simple majority vote, with each member exercising equal authority over the holdings…
The result was The Yard: a sprawl of sheds, shanties, tents, homemade ferroconcrete accretions, insane towers made of… something she couldn’t really identify. There didn’t seem to be any sort of system of streets, just… ad-hoc agreements on right-of-way, gradually accreted into a system of alleyways…
“Sorry about that,” Whyte was saying, “They’re not actually allowed to open the door and talk to people directly, there was a community meeting about it, but they do live in the great room of the Front Door house, so it’s easy for them to spot people, and they’ve got a very prosteletyz-ey sort of philosophy. They’re actually quite nice, for a doomsday cult…”
Whyte stopped at the top of the stairs, watching her taking in the view. He smiled a little at whatever he saw on her face. Lauren, mortified, could feel herself blush a little.
“Besides,” said Whyte, “The brownies are actually delicious.”
She followed Whyte down another set of stairs and through a shoulder-wide ganglion of alleyways, finally arriving at what looked like a low blue tent created out of blue tarp stretched across a welded steel frame. There was a hatch at one end, which Whyte opened; a steep staircase — or a handily tilted ladder — led down.
The inside of the studio was light and airy and actually quite spacious, the blue ceiling much higher overhead than she expected. The smooth, hard, white floor sloped up at the far end, to a spot where curtains separated off some other section — the floor would be much higher there, she thought, so the ceiling much lower, just the place to put a cozy bedroom…
Suddenly it clicked where she was.
“Is this a swimming pool?” She turned to face Whyte, who’d followed her down the stairs. He gave her a little grin. “Used to be,” he said. He gestured to a squat forge sitting in the middle of the room. “It’s good for the fire stuff I do,” he said. “Makes it less likely that I’ll catch the entire rabbit warren on fire if I accidentally knock it over.
She nodded, and reached for her recorder. She had about a dozen questions she wanted to ask about The Yard, but he’d only agreed on half an hour.
The walls — what did you call the sides of a pool? Walls, she imagined — they were lined with pieces of metal, twisted into various shapes; each curve was suggestive, drew the eye, made you want to look at it more and discover meaning from the way it… she shook her head. A single one of those practice pieces would have paid her rent for the rest of the year.
“You’ve been really reclusive, since the thing with Gerald Epstein,” she said, clicking “record.” “What made you agree to an interview now?”
Whyte sagged into a welded-steel chair that didn’t look as comfortable as he was using it to be. “The thing with Jerry was… I won’t say a misunderstanding, because he intentionally kept the details of the piece from me, but it was certainly his piece, and he had the right to…”
Whyte looked away, the expression on his face telling her that he’d rehearsed saying the words but that it was still a sore subject.
Why they paid her the big bucks. “You’re the best sculptor in the world.”
Whyte looked back at her like he was trying to figure out what she was selling.
“According to Gerald Epstein,” she continued. “And he commissioned you to create the greatest sculpture ever made, a masterpiece… gave you, in his words, a year and a million dollars…”
Whyte was nodding, bored.
“…And at the end of it, according to Gerald Epstein, you did it, you produced the best sculpture ever made, certainly the best sculpture to come out of the, the modern…”
“We call it the Welding Shit Together school,” said Whyte, helpfully.
“…Right, anyway, he took this alleged masterpiece and he stuck it in an asbestos bag and he allowed three of the most respected art critics to write reviews of it, letting everyone know that it was the most beautiful thing they’d ever seen, and then he melted it down without letting anyone else look at it.”
Whyte was nodding again. “The bag’s on display at the Met,” he said.
“I know, I was there yesterday,” she said. “So I have to ask you, was that really the best sculpture ever produced?”
Whyte sighed heavily. “It was the best thing I ever produced,” he said. “It was… good.”
They sat in silence for a while, and then she continued.
“So the obvious question… can’t you just make another one? I mean… you made it, right? You can fire up the forge and get to banging, and in a year you’ll have…”
Whyte smiled wryly, then looked away. It was at least a minute before he spoke, still facing away from her.
“Have you ever talked to Jerry Epstein?” He was incredibly still.
“No,” she said. “I sent requests for an interview, he hasn’t responded.
“When you’re in the room with him,” said Whyte, “He snaps to the foreground. It’s like he’s the only person in the room, and everybody else is just… decoration for him. You listen to him talk and you remind yourself that he’s selling you, that he’s using his superpower on you, but you still end up nodding and grinning and…”
Whyte shook his head.
“Convincing you that the fact that he’s selling you isn’t that important, compared to whatever it is he’s selling you, is his best trick. It’s incredible.”
They sat there for a while, in silence.
“Anyway,” said Whyte, crossing his knees, “Jerry Epstein sold me on the idea that I was the greatest sculptor in the world, and then he broke me after I’d produced the greatest sculpture, so… for that, Jerry deserves full credit for the creation of that bag of melted metal that’s on display in the Met.”
She sat very still. Owning this stillness was what she considered her biggest talent: The ability to spot these pregnant pauses and capture them, refrain from releasing the tension until her subject finally burst forth with whatever it was he was thinking about.
He stood up suddenly and walked over to a small sink.
“Can I make you some tea?”
“Sure,” she said. “Whatever you have is fine.” She stood up as well and walked over to the forge, examining the various sculptures and test-pieces.
Some of them had dust on them.
“When you say you give Jerry Epstein full credit… what would you say the work of art was, exactly?”
The sounds of clinking and sloshing and general tea-making was coming from behind her; she listened to the artist contemplate the question while he made tea.
“Ephemerality,” he said, finally. “All art is about ephemerality, isn’t it? It’s about taking something fleeting — a moment, a look, a, a time in someone’s life… even just an idea, an imagining, and capturing it on paper, in paint, in steel, it’s about making something that might have been over in a second and turning it into something that can survive the end of civilization and the species and still be hanging around after all of us are gone.”
“Huh,” she said. Not, in her opinion, a very original answer, but it at least sounded honest. “So Jerry talked you into creating something timeless, something permanent, and then by destroying it, making it so that no one else could see it…”
“It’s even better than that,” said Whyte. He was suddenly right behind her. “The million dollars he gave me, it didn’t come out of his pocket, it came from investors, people he’d talked into putting up cash money against my ability to produce a masterpiece. So he traded on his own charm — the ultimate in intangible, ephemeral assets — to generate the money to pay me, the belief that I could do the work, the… he made it all out of nothing, a winning smile and a firm handshake. I argued that that should be listed on the display card as the materials the sculpture is made from, but the Met is conservative that way.”
She let that digest for a second, then: “So where does it stop? I mean, the curator of the museum surely uses artifice and skill to put the display together, is she a part of the art being created?”
Whyte sipped his tea, grinned around the lip. “That’s the point, in a way, isn’t it?” Long slurp. “Listen, you’ve seen found art, right? The thing where an art student finds a piece of beat-up cardboard at the warehouse where he works for his paycheck job, and it looks like a bird, so he frames it and ads it to his gallery show?”
“Sure,” she said, “But surely the point there is that he art student is demonstrating, you know, aesthetic taste. Whatever forklift driver who ran over the piece of cardboard and tore and folded it to make it look like a bird, he’s not the artist, the kid who recognized that it looked like a bird…”
Whyte grinned. “If it’s the ability to recognize art that makes one an artist, then what does that say about the patrons of the art museum? Are they artists, creating the art on the walls through the act of looking at it? After all, if they didn’t care about the art, the art wouldn’t be made — or at least, it wouldn’t be shown.”
She snorted impatiently. “This is the kind of argument I’d expect to have in a sophomore art history class,” she said.
“That’s fair,” said Whyte. “You should take that up with Jerry Epstein. I, personally, believe that art is in the practice of art, in the making of things…” he stepped over to her and took her empty tea cup.
She went back to examining the statues. “You’ve been traditionally associated with welding and shaping,” she said, “But it looks like you’re getting into casting, can you tell me anything about what you’re up to?”
Whyte laughed. “Well,” he said, “It’s mostly just fucking around, I’m not really ready to get back in the saddle again, not really, but you have to keep busy. It’s a sort of follow-up piece to the thing with Jerry.” He set the tea cups in the sink and then walked back to where she was looking at his art.
“Oh,” she said, “That’s interesting, what are you casting?”
He hit her right at the base of the skull with a piece of short, heavy iron bar; it was, he hoped, the right spot to kill her instantly without damaging the physiology of her neck too badly.
The cement floor rang as he dropped the steel bar and caught the dead weight of the falling reporter.
The last pour was completed earlier today, and the sculptor has been hard at work assembling the last pieces. The skin is on; the head, separately assembled and attached this morning, lolls, gazing at the sky through the blue tarp. The sculptor wonders whether there is life there, in any sense.
He’s worked hard to capture the soul of the woman, to imprison her essence in his work, to take the ephemeral and make it permanent, but something… in the past, when a piece is just right, he can see that it has a soul, can see the animating spirit within the piece, though the piece itself is fixed and motionless; something glows from within.
The girl had had that glow; he’d been able to see it, that animating spirit, radiating from her, had hoped to capture that and hold it. But although this piece is beautiful, it has failed to capture whatever it was that animated its subject.
This moment, as he realizes that he’s failed, the sculptor stops, drops bonelessly into one of his chairs. He’s spent, his very soul feels empty, as though he’s spent it in trying to bind the girl’s soul. He stares dully around his workspace, realizing that it is a gory mess, that there’s blood and unidentifiable pieces of flesh and burned pieces of horror speckling everything inside his workspace.
There’s a moment of clarity, when he realizes what he’s sacrificed, and what this failure has cost, and panic wells up inside him, but thank God the calm sense of purpose which possessed him before rises to push the panic back, to tamp it down and keep it under control.
After all, that cool and rational and inspired part of him knows, there’s nothing he can do, now, to undo what’s happened.
He’s suddenly wracked with grief, grief for the girl, grief for the piece of his soul that he’s spent on this project — not that there was much left, after Jerry Epstein had used it as the raw material for his piece of post-modern horror — grief for the piece in front of him, which would never be lit from within by whatever it was that he was able to imbue certain previous pieces with.
Sobbing can only last for so long, and finally it’s over, and he’s even more wrung out, fully catharsized. He sits sprawled in the chair and looks around. His eye falls on his phone and remembers the long list of people who’ve called, over the past year or so, looking for interviews.
And then he smiles, because he remembers that it’s the process that matters, not the product; that the soul of art is practice. That the balm for a failed work is more work.
He scrolls through the list of voicemails, saved so that he could use them to torture himself with them, finds one whose voice he likes and hits, “redial.”
“Hi, this is Harlan Whyte,” he says. “You called a while ago and asked for an interview.”