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A Life Without Shoelaces

by Ron Van Sweringen

At last Ker Benfield knew what it felt like, standing on top of the world looking down on everything and everyone. It was AMAZING! He’d never dreamed how amazing it could be until the voice said goodbye, and the telephone slid out of his hand.

“Oh, my GOD!” The blood pounded against his temples, and for a moment he forgot to breathe. Swallowing a gulp of air, he put his hand over his pounding heart. “Don’t die now, asshole,” he grimaced, “not now.”

The wind in Central Park was brisk and pockmarked with autumn leaves. Ker reached up, trying to catch them, and even skipped a few times on the sidewalk. No one paid attention to a 24-year old man attempting to catch leaves while skipping down the sidewalk. If they had, it wouldn’t have mattered to Ker; he wasn’t in their world anymore. Nothing they thought or said made any difference to him now.

Lacey Jones saw him coming and threw the last handful of popcorn to the pigeons gathered around her park bench. The birds scattered at Ker’s sudden approach.

“Wow!” she said, smiling, “you look like you’re about to explode.”

“I am,” he answered breathlessly, throwing himself down beside her and pushing his knee hard against hers.

“Well, whatever it is, share it!” she burst out, leaning toward him and wrinkling up her nose in anticipation. Her blue eyes took him in, every part of him. The soft auburn hair that fell to one side of his face, the strong nose that could have graced a Greek coin, and most of all the dark brown eyes that she got lost in each time he looked at her.

“The Walter Mansfield Gallery is giving me a one-man show!” The words rang out with the same force as the bells in St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Sunday morning.

“Oh, my God,” Lacey screamed, unable to control herself. “We need to tell everyone!”

“No,” Ker replied sharply, “not yet. It’s still six months away, and I have a lot of work to do. The blue canvas is only half-finished, and I need at least three more large canvases to fill the space. No one can know yet.”

Suddenly it was quiet, as if all of the air had gone out of a balloon. Lacey looked into Ker’s face. “I can’t see you from now on,” he said slowly, “ I have to concentrate on the show, I’ve worked my whole life for this.”

Why is it such a surprise? Lacy thought. You knew this might come someday. But not so soon. “Of course,” she said softly. “This is your big chance. Nothing can stand in your way.”

“Thanks!” Ker answered quickly. “I knew you’d understand.”

She watched him walk away. It was painful when he disappeared without turning back. Lacey felt used, and she hated it. In self-defense her mind warped back to a more pleasant time; the day he had walked into King’s Art Supply Shop, a year earlier. Many of the young and struggling artists frequented the shop, and Lacey had waited on most of them. Ker was handsome, that was a given, with a touch of arrogance thrown in.

“What can I help you with?” she said.

“I need a large tube of Yellow Oxide oil,” he replied. “ Do you have any on sale?” He added, “I only have six dollars.”

Lacey looked at the exasperated expression on his face. “I think we can manage one on sale.” She smiled, picking up a tube of Yellow Oxide and running a magic marker across the label. “Six dollars even,” she said.

“I’ll pay you back when I’m rich and famous,” Ker replied with a quick wink.

“I doubt I can wait that long,” Lacey laughed. “How about a cup of coffee now? My treat.” That’s how it began, and now Lacey knew how it would end.

* * *

The fourth-story loft near Third Avenue was dingy, but it had two advantages. It was cheap, and luckily it had good natural light. The landlord also didn’t care that Ker lived there, even though with only a half-bath, it was not zoned for residential use. “Just keep a low profile and pay the rent on time,” he said when handing Ker the keys.

That was almost three long, hard years ago. Years of working any kind of job he could find to pay the rent and buy the art supplies he needed. Years of struggling to develop his own artistic style in a world that could care less about Ker Benfield and whether he succeeded or not.

When you’re nineteen years old and arrive in New York City from Wilkins, Kentucky on a Greyhound bus, you pretty much don’t exist. Ker found that out the hard way. He could have given up after a year or so and gone back to plow the fields on his father’s farm, but something in his guts held on tight. Given a choice, he would rather have a life without shoelaces in New York City than go back to his father’s farm. “Whatever it takes, no matter what,” he said to himself, gritting his teeth.

Margo Parker probably would have agreed, except for the part about the shoelaces. Ker had seen her closet once and the more than fifty pairs of shoes ensconced there like expensive jewels. Shoelaces were definitely not on her worry list, but Thursday afternoons were. That’s when she arrived at Ker’s loft, usually with an expensive bottle of French wine.

The supposed purpose of her visit each week was to view his new work, which usually took less than half an hour. The next two hours were spent in bed, allowing her fifty-year old body to pretend it was twenty-five again.

Ker took advantage of the arrangement, enjoying the benefits it afforded him. First there was the sex, which was a necessity for him, as it was with many artists, in order to be creatively productive.

Secondly, there were the art-world connections that Margo Parker had cultivated as a very wealthy woman. A word to the right gallery owner or collector at a dinner party could open doors that were closed to him. Nothing too obvious, just a mention now and then, enough to insure that the name of Ker Benfield was becoming known in the right circles.

For her part, Margo Parker received the satisfaction of advancing what she truly felt was a major talent. She was not generally in the habit of sleeping with her discoveries, but Ker Benfield was different. Aside from being a superb sexual performer, there was a charisma about him, something hard to put your finger on, but there nonetheless.

Even with the almost thirty-year difference in their ages, the thought of marriage had crossed her mind more than once. For the time being having his strong body in hers every Thursday afternoon was enough, as long as she remained in control.

Margo was surprised when she opened the loft door and found Ker sitting nude on his unmade bed. His hands and right arm were smeared with traces of blue paint. Margo suspected he had been drinking.

“I’ve finished it.” He smiled at her and stood up. “Blue over White #2.”

Margo followed his outstretched arm, pointing to a large canvas standing against the wall.. “It’s magnificent,” she said.

“It is, isn’t it?” he replied, looking down at the beginning of an erection. “Absolutely magnificent.”

The sex was unbelievable that afternoon, resulting in Margo’s body being covered with blue paint smudges. She was sure Ker hadn’t missed any part of her. He was always good in bed, but when he had completed a major painting, he was fantastic.

Ker finished his glass of wine with a burp, followed by a hearty laugh. He was proud of himself, there were two things he was a master at; painting and screwing. Margo had dressed and was writing out a check when he made a remark that caused her to blink.

“Congratulate me! Walter Mansfield is giving me a one-man show.” Margo finished writing the check and, without acknowledging his announcement, opened the door and left.

“Son of a bitch,” she said to herself on the way down the grimy staircase. “Walter Mansfield, out of every gallery in town, it would be him.”

* * *

The Walter Mansfield Gallery of Modern Art was prestigious to say the least. A uniformed doorman smiled at passers-by in front of its bronze-mounted doors. Once inside, silence was golden. Rumor had it that a millionaire Texan about to make a large purchase had once been escorted out because he was too loud. No one in the fine art business doubted the authenticity of the rumor in the least.

Walter Mansfield himself was a perfect reflection of the kingdom he ruled over at 444 Park Avenue. He was of medium height with an elegantly slim profile, topped by a full head of immaculately combed and parted silver hair. Black, brown and white were the colors of his expensive wardrobe, picked purposely to accent his pale blue eyes and perfect skin. He had two great passions in life: the business of purveying fine art and the business of seducing handsome young men. He was hugely successful at both.

Ker was nervous when he exited the cab in front of 444 Park Avenue on Friday morning. A cold rain on his face felt like pinpricks as he made his way toward the Mansfield Gallery entrance. He was well aware of Walter Mansfield’s fascination with handsome young men, and he had taken extra pains that morning to be sure he fit that category. “Whatever it takes,” he whispered to himself as a tall woman dressed in black approached him in the foyer.

Five minutes later a pair of doors in a wall of mahogany paneling were thrown open and Ker found himself standing in Walter Mansfield’s private sanctuary. The subdued colors of rich wood and strategically placed crystal vases of white roses set the stage for several French Impressionist paintings filling the walls. The effect was stunning, in fact breathtaking, as Ker tried to take it in.

“Do you like French pictures?” a voice asked, bringing Ker out of his daze.

“Yes,” he answered quickly, “when I see paintings like these, I feel I was born a hundred and fifty years too late.”

“Not at all,” the voice replied. “You were born at exactly the right time. Your paintings are the progression of this work, the future so to speak, and there cannot be a future without a past.” The voice was mesmerizing in its soft monotone, and Ker’s eyes desperately searched the large room to find its owner.

“I’m over here lying on the sofa,” Walter Mansfield said. “ Visitors often mistake me for a swatch of ivory-colored damask.”

The first thing Ker noticed were the black patent leather slippers with the red embroidered “M” monogram as they gently touched the floor in front of the sofa. Walter Mansfield was sitting up now, dressed in an ivory-colored lounging suit. It was hard to tell his age behind the drop-dead smile that was now aimed at Ker.

“Sit down and tell me about yourself,” Walter said, motioning him to come closer. “I decided to represent you when I saw your work, The Red Circle at Doctor Marsh’s home. I had the gallery director call you instantly with my offer of a show. Now I would like to find out what I bargained for.”

Ker sat down across from Walter and made every effort he could to appear relaxed. The truth was his heart was pounding, and he was having a hard time concentrating. “For Chrissake, this is what you worked your ass off for; pull yourself together,” he said to himself. The admonishment helped, but Ker could not escape the ominous feeling that made his throat feel dry. His life was about to change, and it scared the hell out of him.

* * *

Margo Parker was agitated and gave no reply to her chauffeur as he opened the limousine door with “Good morning Ma’am.” The day was gray and raining, which reflected her mood perfectly.

“You know where to take me, Robert,” she directed, pulling her chinchilla coat close around her.

* * *

The conversation between Ker Benfield and Walter Mansfield continued for almost an hour, until Walter, glancing at his watch, suddenly announced, “Lunch time. Give me a moment to change and we’re off to La Manon for a bite.”

Ker breathed a sigh of relief when Walter went into another room. He felt he’d aged a hundred years, although a glance in the mirror told him he’d never looked better. In fact he had already gathered that from the casual hand-squeeze on his knee that Walter had given him once or twice. Nothing terribly overt, just a red flag of what Ker assumed was the letting down of the drawbridge.

He was prepared to have sex with Walter. It was a small price to pay for the fame and financial success that could follow a major showing of his work. Actually, although he kept it quiet, Ker had been down that path a few times before when he needed money; until he discovered the generous checkbook of Margo Parker.

As Ker admired the French paintings while waiting for Walter, he considered the difference between having sex with a man or a woman. He wasn’t surprised when he came to the conclusion that it made very little difference to him as long as he reached a strong climax. Women required more effort, he conceded; men, on the other hand seemed satisfied by simply having the opportunity to worship his penis. Yes, no question about it, he thought. Men are definitely easier.

The booth they were shown to at La Manon was the best. Ker felt eyes from all over the room staring at them as they made their way through the crowded space. La Manon was frequented by artists, art dealers and their wealthy clients. Everyone in the room recognized Walter Mansfield.

Halfway through lunch and a second glass of wine, the woman in black who had greeted Ker at the gallery that morning appeared at the table. She seemed nervous and hesitant when she spoke. “I’m terribly sorry to disturb you, sir,” she began, “but something has happened I think you should know about.”

Walter replied calmly, “Sit down, Catherine. What is it?”

Her words came so quickly that it was stunning. “George... George Marks committed suicide this morning.”

The name struck Ker instantly. George Marks was a young painter represented by the Walter Mansfield Gallery. His reputation was growing, and he was considered to be a major talent. Ker had seen and even talked to him at several show openings. He was also purported to have been Walter Mansfield’s lover.

It was as if everyone else in the room had suddenly disappeared, and they were the only three people in the world. Ker felt it difficult to move as he watched the color drain from Walter’s face, and his hands begin to shake.

“Oh God,” Walter gasped, looking at Ker. “I took his show away and gave it to you because he was being a bitch. I wanted to teach him a lesson. Now it doesn’t matter. He’s gone.”

“I’m sorry,” Ker replied, unsure of what else to say.

“It’s not your fault,” Walter continued. “I chose you because your ability is limited. I wanted to hurt him by giving his show to someone like you.”

* * *

The rain was cold on the walk back to his loft, but Ker didn’t feel it or the people who pushed by him on the sidewalk. He opened his overcoat and lifted his face toward the sky. Soot-colored clouds hung overhead reflecting in his dark eyes. As Ker unlocked the door to his loft building someone called his name, softly at first and then with conviction.

“Ker, how are you?” He knew the voice without turning, and the smiling girl under a red umbrella didn’t surprise him when she appeared.

“Hi, Lacey,” he mumbled as if in a fog. “My show is off. I’m not painting anymore.” His words hung in the air between the two of them, precluding any other conversation.

The rear passenger door of a black limousine that had been parked at the curb, opened at that moment, and Margo Parker stepped out into the rain. Without turning or saying goodbye to Lacey, Ker got into the limousine with her, and the automobile slowly drove away.

“Wouldn’t you think I’d have learned my lesson the first time,” Lacey sighed, not noticing the deep puddle she was standing in.

Copyright © 2014 by Ron Van Sweringen

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