His birth name was Brandon Karlsson, but he went by Strom, this was his grandmother’s surname. People imagined that it was part of his work, his rejection of masculinity. His longing for the female. The mother. The grandmother. The womb. He painted a lot of small, oval-shaped doorways. Exotic street foods, Cuban empanadas, cut down the center, the crab meat settled in, a long squirt of Tabasco glowing on top, yet to be tasted, deep red and spicy. The empanada paintings are what put him on the map. They were exactly the kind of familiar-yet-exotic subjects that excited the Art Basel crowds.
It should be noted that Strom was wonk-eyed handsome. His thinness making up for the lack of a strong jaw. His good teeth making up for a sunken chest. His thick golden-biscuit colored hair, while bristly, was a crown he wore magnificently.
“Strom, come meet Ann Hildebrand. She loves your work and is on the board…,” his manager, Opie Saxon, whispered heavily. Opie was a family man, by art world standards. His two children, boys, seven and eleven, went to Public School 33 in Chelsea. His wife was a biology professor at Suffolk Community. Opie was not so much excited by but resigned to his home life.
His professional life, on the other hand, was the life he loved. The life he would totally absorb himself in if only he had the courage? The means? As it stood, he had Strom. That was his ticket.
Opie mingled with the upper-crust society. Penthouses filled with expensive art and surnames worth not only billions, but historical currency, as well. They were legends of the Western World, if the Western World were shrunken to a few square miles on the island of Manhattan – and, by extension, Palm Beach and Newport. He regularly ate at restaurants that boasted three-year waiting lists and menu items like Pineapple Quince, Pistachio Dacquoise, Jujube, Kumquat. This was a life Mrs. Saxon had no role in. She attended one annual gala and the rest of Opie’s calendar was shrouded in a fog. A fog that left clues by way of bodega receipts, matchbooks, oddly shaped business cards and flyers.
Strom figured, by Opie’s breathing, he had five to seven years left. They’d find him face-down in a plate of bone marrow and porcini.
“This is Ann. Ann, this is Strom. Ann is on the board…”
Of course, citing someone’s membership on a board was shorthand for rich. Not only rich, but generous – and to artists. Strom knew what would happen to him if he accepted great sums of money; it’s actually the thing most artists fail to identify until they’re very old – too old for cocaine and women and egotistical urgency: to become beholden. Beholden to praise. To patrons. To the ego. This is not only a killer of art, but of life itself.
No longer can the artist have a conversation with someone; an honest dialogue. Because they become l’objet, so dialogue becomes monologue. In the small confines of gallery walls, Strom had become something of a popular figure. Conversations always led back to him. He answered the same questions over and over. When did you know you wanted to be an artist? Why did you paint the empanadas? Is it Freudian? Did you have a good relationship with your mother?
He didn’t want to meet fans.
He wanted to meet people living with fifty cats who secretly ate the cat food. He wanted to meet cab drivers from Venezuela. Old lesbian nuns. People who made wine in their apartments. He wanted rooftop kisses – and not because he was Strom, but because a conversation naturally led to the rooftop, to a bra being removed, to the question of what if? When you’re art celebrity, there is no what if. Only yes. Always yes. Yes. Yes. And more yes. He couldn’t think of anything more tiresome. More grotesque.
Ann extended her hand, the skin was thin as rice paper. Soft blue veins pushed gently against the rice paper, undulating over puffy knuckles and leading to thick fingernails painted peach. She smelled of bergamot.
“What an honor. I’m a great fan of your work. I know you don’t sell… is that right? You don’t sell your work?” Ann asked, excited by the question itself.
- What a novelty.
- What could it all mean.
- Did Strom have the secret to the universe.
- Was she in the presence of the next Andy Warhol.
Her heart raced.
“That’s right. I don’t. And what do you do?” Strom asked.
Ann chuckled. What? What did she do besides lunch? Besides shop? Besides look online at best-dressed lists?, she asked herself, knowing that “board member” would not impress him. For god’s sake the man doesn’t even sell his work, why the fuck would he care about boards. Her mind lurched to an unexpected point in her life; a time she rarely thought about actually.
“I was a lifeguard. In Santa Barbara, California. I did that for six years while I was in college and grad school. I studied art history,” Ann said.
Opie almost spit his scotch on her blouse.
“You must be… athletic,” Strom asked, a quick glance at her figure. She was thin. But so was every other woman in the New York elite.
“I have not swum in ages,” Ann giggled, feeling ridiculous.
“You should get back in the water!” Opie blurted, his chubby finger flying in the air.
“Who should get back in the water? Strom? Oh yes, a little exercise would be good for those bones!” A man by the name of Henrik Laszlo entered the conversation, he was two heads taller than Opie and a few inches taller than Strom. He was a loud, bullish man with a bad temper that, he thought, was tolerated because of his good humor when drunk. The truth was he was tolerated out of fear.
Strom knew who he was and he didn’t like the type. So he began to slink away. But Henrik grabbed his arm.
“No, no. No, no, no, no, no,” Henrik laughed.
“Oh? No?” Strom replied.
“I just got here. And I want to meet you.”
“That’s sensational!” Opie said, swirling his glass of scotch.
“What if I don’t want to meet you?” Strom asked, his head cocked sideways, a look of curiosity.
“Fuck you then,” Henrik replied, his face turning bright red.
“You misunderstand me…”
“He didn’t mean it…,” Opie interjected, fear emanating from every pore.
“It was just a for instance. That’s all,” Strom replied, hand-feeding the wolf a bit of flesh.
“Fuck you anyway. You’re a goon. You think you’re big shit in here, in this fuckin’ gallery with a bunch of bullshit. Out there…,” Henrik pointed to the open door, just beyond was a bouncer dressed in a cornflower blue suit and beyond him was a darkened street; after that a labyrinth of streets where hookers and dealers and lost tourists and goons made their way.
“…you’re a fuckin’ loser. You ain’t gonna get laid. You ain’t gonna hand out beat downs to nobody. As a matter of fact, you gonna be the one taking them. Skinny fuck pussy mama’s boy. You still breast feed?”
People began gathering. They crowded around Strom and Henrik and Opie and Ann. What a prize. The gangster from Romania; the rich wife on the board at the Whitney; the mysterious artist and Opie, the Ringo of the group.
Opie, as manager and, also, with the most to lose, felt immediately responsible for jibing the boat through the wind and into peaceful, smooth waters.
“Henrik, no ifs or buts, Strom did not mean…”
Ann interrupted Opie as if he were a fly she was shooing away. She opened her mouth wide when she spoke.
“Henrik, get over yourself. I can tell you’re zozzy. You’ve had too many gins and not enough of those soft poached eggs they’re peddling. Now give me a little kiss and get me a gin, too. A double, too, and a soft poached egg. You’re at an art show, darling, not a poker party.”
She was lightly caressing his bicep as she spoke, as if to let him know how strong he was. How in charge. Henrik stared at her for a few moments, his ego wrestling with reason. She was a tall woman, in the bodybuilding world people might refer to her as a high test woman; high testosterone. She was giving Henrik an out. Blaming his outburst on the gin. She was saving his pride and Strom’s face. Henrik backed down. He put out his arms as if to say “I’m sorry. I’m an idiot.” It was a vulnerable stance, his entire torso exposed. His head slanted downwards. The bulge of his belly pushing through his navy button down. The hairs on his face pointing toward Strom. His eyes half open.
But while Henrik might’ve needed saving, Strom didn’t.
Strom punched him on the nose, sending his brain backwards against his skull, like a nut rattling inside a shell. Henrik was a burly man, with bowling ball biceps and thick, soccer player legs, but he had a weak neck – springy like a reflex bag.
Strom didn’t wait to see what was going to happen next. The moment Henrik flew backwards, hitting a table, scattering canapes and empty glasses all over the place, he strode out. Shrieks following him like streamers.
Sixteen blocks later and Strom was ready for a drink or a fuck or something stimulating. It was a hot, midsummer night. It was a good night for ice-cold vodka and music and laughing. A bar called Fritz and Red was exactly what he needed. It was a dank, shotgun-style bar on 25th. Embarrassingly, you needed a password to get in, but unlike most of the gimmicky bars that require passwords – and foolishly brand themselves as speakeasies, the password situation at Fritz and Red’s worked well.
Jerals Fritz instated the password rule because he was illegally operating a bar in a residential building. The neighbors okayed the bar as long as the noise was kept down, the cops stayed away, and they got a sweet little discount when it wasn’t too crowded.
Strom met Jerals through a mutual friend, Zoe. Zoe collected cool people. That was obvious. She, herself, was not very entertaining, but the menagerie of characters she surrounded herself with most definitely were. Zoe, like all people who don’t fit the middle-class model of work, was trained in many things: manicurist, Uta Hagen style actress, DJ, 200h yoga instructor, real estate agent and Etsy shop owner. She wrote a poem about American angst which was published in a now-defunct anthology called Pliable. This byline added “poet” to her resume.
CONSUMER by Zoe Wiśniewski
buy a house, work more, vacation once a year,
work, work, work at a job you can barely tolerate,
save, save, save, for a future that is not guaranteed,
hope, hope, hope for a good retirement that affords you
time, time, time to watch The Price is Right all day.
Strom met Zoe at his art show, she promised him the best bar in New York if he would draw something on her upper thigh. Zoe was not his type, but neither were the people at his art shows. He drew a meadow with a castle in the background. She took him to Fritz and Red. That was two years ago. And she was right, it was the best bar in New York.
The guy sitting on a stool by the door was reading a book. He glanced at Strom. Strom said “happy birthday,” the guy nodded and Strom walked in. Adriano Celantano was bopping in the background. The place was full.
It was Kookie Johnson, the Greenwich Village psychic. He didn’t charge for his readings, but somehow always had money.
“Take a seat, we got one for you. What’re you having? A Tommy Collins with Splenda?”
Kookie laughed hard.
“I’m kidding that’s my old lady’s drink. She puts Splenda in her Splenda. She loves that stuff. Hey Mario, can we get another round of bacon rinds? Also that caraway vodka?”
Kookie grabbed Strom by the shoulders.
“Shit. You look like shit. What the fuck is happening?”
“None of your psychic stuff. No offense. I just… yeah, I had a shit night.”
“Mario, bring two vodkas, two bacon rinds and toast?”
“Why the fuck do you stay here anyway? The whole world is out there. Take coach to Mohéli, the water is blue as ice and warm as fire. You’ll have fresh shrimps coming out of your ears. One painting. Stop living with roaches, coming here, picking up artfuckers. And you know what I mean. No disrespect…”
Mario slid three baskets of bacon rinds across the bar. He walked over with two carafes of caraway vodka. Five slices of toast. One jar of pepper jam.
“Now leave me alone for five minutes, Kookie. I got shit to do back here. There’s an extra basket of rinds,” and then turning to Strom, “Hey Strom. He’s already eaten a basket by himself. There’s three now. And vodka. You need some beers or are you good? Also…” back to Kookie, “Stop making me lie to your lady. She calls up here looking for you. I think she’s the psychic…”
“I’ll take a Coors Light.”
“We don’t sell that here, Strom. You know that.”
“Whatever then. No sludge.”
“It’s summer. We want something icy, Mario,” Kooky said, not making eye contact. He was annoyed.
“See what I mean?” Kookie said, motioning to Mario. “You can’t lose yourself in New York City. You gotta go somewhere where they barely understand what you’re saying. The problem is globalization, the whole fucking world is gonna be the same. Stupid fucking liberals. I’m one. I’m not dissin’ ‘em. But goddamn… do you want everyone to speak English? Do you want fucking Applebees in Samoa? Fucking craft beer.”
“I’m okay with New York. I don’t have an itch so…”
Strom poured a tumbler of vodka and then poured that down this throat. It was ice cold. He immediately repeated that two more times.
“Let’s go have a smoke,” Strom said.
They stepped outside. The sidewalk was busy, even for a Saturday night. It was the perfect kind of hot, like a hug from a lover wearing a fleece blanket. A cozy warm. Strom felt a nice buzz from the vodka. He pulled out two American Spirits, lit them both and handed one to Kookie.
A group of women walked by, all ages, from 20 to 40. They were wearing thin dresses and sandals, no makeup, expensive, label-less bags. They were New York women. Strom already knew what a night out with them would be like. Brand name alcohol. Brand name clubs. Name dropping. Label making. Quick fucks in bathrooms. Texts all night. Just imagining it was enough to nearly kill his buzz.
And then, in the dense moisture, that humidity that rises from the concrete, appeared a little round figure, in a suit, ill-placed, and sad enough to break a hard heart.
“Opie!” Strom shouted.
“Ain’t that your manager?” Kookie asked, squinting to make out Opie’s shape.
Opie tottered toward them. His face empty of any joy.
“What are you doing here?” Strom asked.
“Looking for you.”
“Uh huh. You found me. Want a drink?”
Strom and Kookie finished their smokes.
Say “happy birthday” to the bouncer, Strom told Opie.
“Because you have to.”
“Happy birthday,” Opie said to the guy on the stool.
The guy nodded.
Strom poured three tumblers of vodka.
“Got any juice for this?”
“Sure there’s juice,” Kookie said ebulliently. “But I can’t ask for it. Mario’s done with me… for a few hours anyway. Strom, you’re still good.”
“What kind of juice do you want?”
“Pineapple, orange, grapefruit.”
Strom asked for juice. Mario brought over some orange juice. Opie drank. He cleared his throat.
“I love you, Strom. You know I do. Like a brother. As a matter of truth, I more than love you, I really admire you. But what you did tonight…,” Opie began.
“What happened tonight?” Kookie interrupted.
“We owe the gallery four grand for damages. Henrik is probably gonna sue. And, to be frank, I can barely afford my mortgage. And now, who the hell knows if you still have… have… the ability to sell at the amount we coulda sold for yesterday…”
Opie drank the last bit in his glass. He grabbed a handful of rinds and crunched.
“I don’t care about money or lawsuits or lawyers or sycophants. I care about this. This bar. This drink. This city. My friends. Experience. I keep tryin’ to tell you that, Opie. I want you to feel that way. What’s money gonna get us? More expensive food? There’s a fuckin’ incredible Puerto Rican restaurant near my apartment. I can get a plate of mofongo and gandules for less than seven dollars. I can walk the bridge and look out and imagine a million things. I don’t need to have my ass wiped by some PhD to feel something. I feel, man.”
“You’re living in a dream world. You’re young. But wait until you’re older…” Opie started.
“No, man. Don’t hand me that curse. That wait until you’re older. That’s middle-class America, man. That’s cholesterol medicine and dick pills and suburbs and bad-knees America. You can have that. I seen it. Kookie, you know what I mean…”
The night lumbered on. Opie didn’t want to stay, but he didn’t have a better place to be either. He could’ve gone home. A warm home with a full fridge, all the cable channels, a freshly washed down comforter, surround sound, slippers that fit his feet perfectly, a wife who loved him. Opie would not realize his unhappiness until many years later. What Opie wanted was right at Strom’s fingertips. Strom could grab it anytime he wanted. But he didn’t. He let it bob around there in the ocean as he paddled by, never getting within arm’s reach.
Strom would always be the closest Opie got to that life. After Strom disappeared, Opie stopped getting the fancy invites, the phone calls from museums, the cases of wine on Christmas, until one day – out of the clear blue – he got a call from a warehouse.
There was something in one of the bays for him. Opie drove out to Long Island, through an industrial park that was mostly warehouses with a few sandwich shops and strip clubs scattered between.
Strom left two paintings to Opie, tied up in black bows, sitting in the middle of an empty bay. The paintings were portraits of Opie. There was a little card that read, “To Opie, love what matters and fuck the rest. Your friend, S.”
Opie sold both paintings, without a moment of hesitation. This is what he had been waiting for. He made $930,000. He paid off his mortgage. He took the wife to Cabo. He got hair transplants. He started a string of affairs, women he met at restaurants, shitty gallery openings, on planes. They all had one thing in common: Botox. Lots of Botox. He ate sirloin. He partied in Vegas. He found a couple artists to rep, but they never took off. Opie wasn’t sure if he lost his eye or if it was Strom who found him. He couldn’t remember. Then, one day, while he was driving through St. Paul to meet a woman he met online, he had a heart attack. His car swerved into a tree. It was a bright, sunny summer afternoon.
After Opie died, the paintings increased. The myths began to form. The weird life of Strom.
Once in a while, an eager freelance reporter would call one of the galleries or where Strom used to live; one even showed up at both Fritz and Red’s and the Puerto Rican gandules place. One even called Zoe. One even called Henrik.
Nobody knew where he went. Nobody knew what happened to the rest of his paintings. Except for Kookie. He knew. But he never told, even when he had nothing left to lose. The cancer spread. Friends disappear, as they do when death transforms from the poetic to the logistic. Kookie died in a hospital, listening to Yes, We Have No Bananas. You can guess the version. That was many years after the night Strom punched Henrik.
The two paintings Opie sold were re-sold twice more. They made the cover of ArtNews, the headline read: VANISHED: STROM PAINTINGS SELL FOR $2.8 M EACH, ARTIST NEVER FOUND.
Eight thousand miles away. Four miles down a warm dirt road. A place where mongoose lemurs feed on grubs as they dance from tree to tree. Oh, and the trees. The baobab trees. These are the high spirits, the glorious kings of the island, they are works of art. More beautiful than anything you could find in a museum. In the cloudy distance: a thatched roof, blue shutters, a wood porch, an ocean purring softly on the sand.
Three friends arrive. They bring food and instruments. A man, towing a handmade canoe behind him with one hand and holding a jug of trembo in the other, bellows loudly to someone in the distance: Habari, Brandon!
The man turns, waves with both hands and smiles.
Los Angeles-based writer and journalist, Natalie Campisi, is originally from Tampa, Florida. She grew up in a family of Cuban and Sicilian descent, where there was a lot of food, loud talking, and colorful characters. She’s married to artist Gordon Tarpley and has a son, Miles Nelson.