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James Robison

THE LATE STYLE

Our Competition: Build a monument to the Cold War. You get four hundred grand. The Cold War being so imperative to our lives, growing up. (Not that we have in any sense grown or evolved or flowered or matured, but we have actively decayed.) Condition: Monument must be in Death Valley, somewhere near China Lake, where you should achieve a profound plastic immensity, and we've raised a mint for your use-McKinley funds, Governor's Council on National Parks Grant, Assurance Associates funds, other munificent donors.

The winner: P. Ronsard.

Ronsard won with his model and sketch-dossier, and because colossal things are his stock-in-trade and that's the kind of fearless sculptor he is-one who knows no vertigo. He proposed an erection of dazzling verticality. The Work is well underway like this: a twenty-five-story silo of eye-blasting white. "Silo" referring to both rockets, the arrows of the Cold War, and the underground quivers that contain them. Out there in the unlimited ocean of nothing it'll stand. The whole kind of Assyrian since Ronsard had the idea of sticking thirty black asparagus-stalk palms in two files leading to the silo. Like The Wall, this thing is guileless and definitive. Where it is, nobody will see it. From the nearest highway it'll look like a slender, distant cigarette, stubbed down into an ashtray of desert sand.

__________

Saltflat lagoon. A full moon night. Ronsard's driving a Ford 4WD, dragging a long cloud home from the site. He disembarks in dusty white fatigues and blue hard hat and goes inside the trailer that is his workshop/studio/sleeper on the cracked shoals of the Mojave. There's butane-fed kitchenette stuff where Ronsard cranks a can opener, but it's old, its bite tenuous, it cannot make a continuous wound. He would like some roast beef hash to go with his chocolate cola. He fetches from his thigh pocket a Swiss Army knife and splinters a thumbnail gouging out the right blade and attacks. The can hiccoughs. Ronsard punches a circuit. Cylinders, circles, entry.

Christy, a sort of prostitute from an escort service, comes through a sliding glass wall, letting in herself and a heated gust of desert air. Shank is an Irish setter who unscrambles from sleep and pogos on her hind legs and stretches her long body full out, as if trying to embrace and kiss Christy.

"Just push her down," Ronsard says.

"Never, she's an angel."

"I was talking to Shank."

"Pretty girl," Christy says and sits on her knees and roughs up the dog's spine fur.

He pours coffee from a chugging percolator. Christy costs him two hundred bucks a visit. She's thirty-three years younger than he is. In life, he's ahead, fifty-six to twenty-three.

"Why would you pay me to visit you?"

He goes, "Just people who live alone become die-cast in their opinions and need a counter balance. And you, I don't know, have ears."

"Yeah, when I argue with me I always win," she says. She's sprawled on her stomach, shins swinging like windscreen wipers in time to the advanced and difficult music off his CD box; a concerto for mouth organ and mallets.

In this jumbo trailer it is like a commercial airliner with everything compacted and rounded to tiny-ness and function.

He says, "I just need a leavening influence."

"You need to wake up."

The music contributes a phrase of breakage and violence.

__________

She goes, "You need a wake-up call. You're rich and semi-famous. I mean, you know, I mean, fuckin' A, I found a book on you in the library. But you got Ell Ess See. Low self-concept."

His old setter, Shank, trails Ronsard everywhere, loping like an exhausted pony, as she is so creaky. Shank crumples on the trailer floors and watches Ronsard do junk. Sketch out his solutions in worried line and leaping color. But Shank is bungling into things of late, bumping into walls, into Ronsard's legs. She was so kinetically fluid, her moves so spontaneous and all unfettered inspiration, but now she is clumsy enough to terrify and sadden Ronsard. There are deeper shadows everywhere. He's blocked. A perfidious impetigo has put thin red marks on half his face, cat-scratch welts and stripes.

The music clunks to a stop. He's also a trace deaf.

So Christy uses a raised voice to ask if she might use Ronsard's little machines for laundry tomorrow.

"Fine by me!" he bellows.

"Make fun, but you do miss a lot of what I say."

"Ya ya ya. Four eyes," Ronsard says.

She looks back at him through a big pair of glasses and through big gray eyes. He wants her to be the tormentor of his desire and this isn't happening.

He pays her to visit him and does not ask her to disrobe or any of the other stuff with the vibrator or anything. He hopes she'll leave the escort business and get work as a baker or night shift astronomer at an observatory no one knows about. He would make her an assistant on the project but can't afford her.

He's parked on his technical chair, which is complicated by hydraulic levers and a chrome ring footrest. On the drawing board are pencil sketchings of building-sized flowers. It looks as if he's doing a field guide to Jupiter flora. White blossoms burst off photo-gray grounding. It's a proposed monument for Dole Pineapple on Maui.

"That one's like Meadow Foam," Christy says and scrapes a sheet of acetate out of its tablet and breathes a mist shape on the sheet. "Sometimes I think how I get paid to have thrusting breasts. Right? I used to get paid to staple boxes. It makes you want to bomb the mall," she says.

"There are jobs between breast stuff and staple stuff," Ronsard says.

"Oh, look, I've read all the books. I'm sorry, but O.K.? Don't get knowing on me." Christy mashes the acetate.

Ronsard nods. "I'm not knowing. Sorry."

His responsibility with her is a plus/negative: Don't touch her ever, of course, but learn again to want to.

He is moss and loss of mass and muscle make his clothes drape in slack furrows. He has really itchy jaws and neck.

Christy holds up the hash can. "Paul, did you eat this or did Shank? Because one of you's going to die of sodium and poor judgement."

__________

As I shaved I saw through my stockade-style window an empire of dust and clouds. Fifty-five thousand dollars in all and I have half-tracks, a crane, a video team, site organizers, a dozen kids from L.A. Modern School of Design, but I'm the one who buys the paint. The silo's whole frisson depends upon its eye-blasting whiteness which depends upon a particular recipe of a polymer-strand-paint in combination with an acrylic emulsion permanent enamel (all over sandable primer), the stew battered together with micah scintillas so it'll winkle like an igloo in the high dry heat, and the purling must be ground so fine it doesn't clog the compressors and runs free through the hoses and nozzles and this UV resistant lotion they mix for me over at the Glurex paint factory in Bauxite City and these skills I learned working at a West Hollywood paint and body shop where I was a car artist to support myself between the time I was an installation artist, before, and later when I started throwing up colossal things in Chicago, Albany, Hamburg, and Dayton, Ohio, and Lyons, France. Outside longitudinal dunes flow away, away, huge ribs, with the wind scraping off dust. I drove the flat-bed Mack over the state line and two hundred miles on, to the factory, a cinder block warehouse with kegs and kegs of my white Glurex-Pro out on the loading dock. Hector went with me, and he chews Skoal, and other guys there chew tobacco, so we all stood around after I'd tested the paint and we'd loaded the paint, big wads and folds of tobacco in jaws. Hector settled and re-settled his white paper hat, going, "Well, I don't know."

"No, I don't know either," the factory guys said. They spit.

"I'll tell you the truth," we all said. "I don't know."

__________

Ronsard's week-ending at home, in Palm Springs. Asleep at nine at night. Shank's roaring bark brings him right up. He limps to the sun porch door where his grown kids, Christian and Anita, gaze bright gazes at his interior.

"We'll go away," Christian says.

Ronsard runs a hand over his face and says, "What?"

"Didn't want to wake you. We'll just slink off."

"It's fine, just slink in," Ronsard says, swinging the door. He hugs them lightly and then his kids do a lot of passionate scrubbing of Shank; her ears, back, tail.

He brews coffee in the emptied-out kitchen with their audience.

"Mom took the stove and refrigerator?" Christian asks.

"She took the pliers. She tried to take the track lighting. She took the curtains."

"Well, it's a great view," Christian says.

"If it had fit in her van, that'd be gone."

The view is of dull yuccas and moon shade, of bendy shape and edgy rock.

"It's really sad," Anita says.

Ronsard's kids look not concrete, black and white negatives come to being. They're perversely pale and in tight black clothes with tight black hair. His daughter, at thirty, is getting crow's feet.

__________

The interviewer comes. "12.8.94-21:02," she writes in her log book and snips on a micro-corder that's like an electric shaver. She's a pop-eyed girl in wrinkled linen. This is the nameless room of his house, white, with brick floors and giant-eared plants and Spanish tiles. There's a conversation pit big as a lifeboat, and they plunk down in, on the sofa, down inside.

"We should start with jazz," she says. "Did you like jazz?"

"Back when I was alive?"

"You know how I meant, jazz and drip paintings?"

"Oh, yeah, yes. We played the bongos all night long."

"And did you see a bunch of films in theaters? In theaters ?" she asks.

"It so happens," Ronsard says.

"Every film, like we watch TV, now?"

"Every film that came to town, so, you know, yes, I saw the complete Eddie Bracken, for example, now that I consider."

"You're teasing. I know it. I don't care," she says.

"I'm not actually. My girlfriend for a month liked West Coast jazz. I don't know exactly what that is, but it was her big case. She played the saxophone herself. That's true."

"Aha."

"She did." And she was weird in bed, he remembers. "I believe she favored sort of breezy music, drowsy, with syncopation."

"O.K., yeah," the interviewer says.

A bug, flying clumsily, navigates over to bump her temple. She wipes her palms on her upper arms. She fastens her boot buckle.

Ronsard is saying, "I liked drummers where the drums went freewheelingly, if that's a word. I got a lift from that. Not swing drummers, but weird guys."

"You know who, for instance?"

"More how Tony Williams plays," Ronsard says.

"Who is he?"

"This drum guy. Or whoever used to play with Theolonius Monk. I got a lift from that. Kenny Clarke."

She extracts a pencil from behind her ear. She logs in: "The Loneliest Monk."

"No," Ronsard says.

"What are you laughing? Am I being an idiot or something?"

"It's me. I talk too fast. Where is this going?"

She says, "Isn't it true that the deployment by this country, on a civilian population, of a weapon so barbaric and terminal that its own creator named himself death, isn't it true that this act brought about a mass collective anxiety which manifested itself in personal neuroses so debilitating that fear, guilt, and ignorance have blighted our cultural mental-scape ever since?"

"Absolutely," Ronsard says.

"That's where I'm going with this."

__________

Returned, he steps back into the trailer for lunch and a nap and in the laundry section he sees Christy with linen, with a white load of wash cradled in her arms like a parachute gathered. The linen has a cutting scent; bleach and soap. She pushes the armload of whites at her face, nuzzles. He looks at her a long time, holding the whites just so. He pitches in, folding down a half ironing board.

He's ironing a Christy shirt so things smell of spritzed starch, hot cotton, colognes in her blouse fabric. He props the iron on end. "Oh, boy," he says and sighs with the desire for desire, the end to this fucking objectivity.

She says: "Don't look at me, I just got up."

She does look dry around the eyes. He feels stirrings.

__________

The silo is one thousand feet of mesh latticery, half frosted with primer so far. The site is flatness and off over there, a jaggedy blow-up of mountains.

__________

For his fifty-seventh birthday, Ronsard buys himself a Tool-Master set of ratchet-drive screwdrivers.

__________

Ronsard misses Hector's last sentence and Ronsard says, "Let's go look at your rocket," as if the idea had occurred to him independently.

They go to Hector's rental house to the open garage, where the temperature is dizzying: one hundred ten and going up.

"I think it's the distributor, but I don't know beans," Hector says. He kneels to untie the knots on a silver motorcycle cover and unpackages the bike with a sweeping pull.

"Fan-tastic," Ronsard says. Hector hurls spit fifteen yards and nods while Ronsard circles the bike.

"Sixty-five Competition Model Triumph Bonneville? Twin carbs."

"Reet," Hector says.

"With a customized BSA frame?"

"Thirty pounds lighter than factory."

Ronsard tosses over a leg and settles into the saddle.

The machine has an aluminum gas tank and raked handlebars and no front fender. Its exhaust pipes wind in a snake-like crossover.

"You can get so quickly deceased," Hector says and Ronsard uses his calf to fold out a rubber pedal, then notches it under the right heel of his sandal.

"You know the compression ratio's eleven to one? You really want to be kicking it over in thongs? The recoil could break your femur." Hector snaps fingers for punctuation.

"I've started 'em barefoot," Ronsard says. He switches the ignition key and ducks low to tickle some gas into the carburetors.

"Foreplay. Makin' her wet," Hector says. Ronsard sits up straight. He frowns. A savage blush is burning his neck. His welts stand out.

"You all right? I embarrass you?"

Ronsard ignores the questions, jumps high off the bike, keeping his hands on grips, drives his weight down through his right leg, jams the kick-start shaft. The engine explodes and fills the garage with close thunder. He twists the throttle and revs up angry snarls.

"You can hear that it's fast," Hector shouts, "but do you hear a problem? That jangle?"

Ronsard tips his head and mimes bewilderment.

He says, "Only problem is, this is yours and not mine!"

__________

Christy's sitting on her knees in short-grass sod and plunging her hands through Shank's soaped and foamy coat. Beside her is a chunk of sponge and a plastic pail. As she's kneading the sopped pelt she's singing "You Can't Hurry Love."

Ronsard comes down the slope and hears this and sees her with her hair six ways to Sunday, in her torn T-shirt, torn bathing suit, cowboy boots. Rocking back, Christy has gloves of bubbles and she squints baring her front teeth and wrinkling her nose, very nearsighted without glasses. She recognizes him finally and stands and nooses him in a moist hug. He thinks she's nothing to hold at all, with balloon-ish breasts but a little almost pretend rib cage and a small tired heart in there, tired already.

"My dog have fleas?"

"Not anymore."

Christy has a towel and twists it to dry her wrists. "You help with my laundry, I do Shank."

Being shampooed and sung to, Shank has a shocked look on her pointy face, eyes as on a polar bear rug's, head slung low, dripping like a mop.

"Sort of taxidermied," Ronsard says.

"Why is she standing so still?"

"You know?" Ronsard says. "She's seventeen and doesn't have many moves left."

Of a sudden, Shank shakes her loose coat so hard her gums and ears flap and she tosses up a blizzard. Ronsard gazes up at some power lines which stripe the blue sky. Christy pinches the bridge of her nose, calculating. There's a soap bubble on his cheek. Trailers sit around on pie-crust earth.

He says, "See, I've been inactive, or dysfunctional I guess, now for a while, I don't want to count, you know what I'm talking about?"

"No. Speak English."

"I get hard only when I'm dreaming-"

"Oh, that."

"-and when I'm awake, nothing works how I need it to."

There's a pause and then she goes, "So, Paul? What makes you hard in your dreams?"

Last night's dream was where Ronsard was at a Sea World place on bleachers throwing fish to a great pool of dolphins which turned into women-or mermaids by day-wake logic-and he jumped in with them, equipped for engagement.

__________

He uses his key to let himself into his mother's Pasadena house. Shank falters along behind him. Mom's mammoth in her bed and perfectly handsome, her hair in notched curls, her jaw firmed. She draws herself up to brace her wide shoulders against the diamond quilted headboard; satin with buttons.

"Mom, I'm home," he says. He gives her from a grocery sack a bag of Hershey's Kisses, and she paws out one, and one for him. She crackles the wrapper, and growls for a while, just putting out a chesty threat, old and low.

"I'm sorry I missed your birthday," she says in the dark room.

"Fifty-seven," he says.

"You're not allowed to get any older. Anyway where's the puppy?"

Shank pokes aside the door, her extended face split like scissors' blades by her toy. Tee-ed between canines and incisors is a Rawlings baseball with popped stitches.

"She's so clean! Are you seeing somebody, Pauly?"

"Seeing is the extent and limit of what I'm doing."

Mom goes, "Well good, hand me the dog, honey."

__________

Ronsard's ex-wife, Beth, is in the hospital-for tennis knee rebuilding-in Thousand Palms, and this hospital has a decorative theme of rainforest and the wallpaper in her room suggests vine and flower, palm and parrot.

"Hey, kid," she says.

"Beth," he says and slides in beside her. While they're talking the nurse comes and chases Ronsard off the bed and into a visitor's chair and announces lunch.

"Cobb salad and a Gibson," Beth says.

Paul explores the pockets of his denim jacket and comes up with a chisel-tip marker and sets to doodling on the bed linen. The cloth soaks and softens his border.

"I've reached a place where I want more of a sense of agency in my life," she says.

He draws Beth's jawline first, a tipped-over shallow "U," then flattens the pen-tip for the shadow part, where her jaw is subsumed by a plume of curls.

"You moved us out here, and I got trapped and just wandered off the page. Sort of a meaning leak. And you know why?"

He shakes his head as he scrubs in more curls.

"There is no sequence here. No sequence, no consequence. I think I need four seasons and without them, I just stray."

He marks in her cheekbone, strokes down an eyebrow, working quickly, thinking how fresco artists, Giotto, had to get it down while the plaster was still wet, making two short stripes for her nose. She's an even fifty.

The Food Services deliverer arrives and Beth straightens her place in bed, and Ronsard draws the stubborn, nearly straight line of her lips.

He has the barrel of the pen in his mouth, like a cigar, and is scowling at his sketch. The food guy looks as well.

"You oughta be an artist," he says and rests down Beth's tray of chicken and rice and juice.

"Anyway," Beth says, "the desert just makes bedlam of the soul."

"I agree."

"So I want you to sell that house and give me the dough, which is all I'll ask, and I'm moving home to the East somewhere."

Ronsard had designed the house over a decade before. He meant it to be simple and straightforward and to have reference to no other time or any influence. But to Beth and others the place had turned out looking needy and under-financed, institutional; ". . . like the annex of a motor vehicle bureau," Beth had said.

For Ronsard, the home's whiteness and flatness were right, as was its modesty.

"Sorry to hit you with this now, but Gray insisted."

Paul says, "Maybe we could talk about this later."

"I want everything straight. You're a big boy and play rough when I'm hurting, and I'm just giving it back to you."

He's come to think of the house, the way you do, as "Home." Its aloneness, its clarity, its quality of mirage.

__________

Hector on the phone says, "She was just sleeping in the sun. That was how she went, god bless her."

Back at the trailer, Hector's there with dog leash and collar. Ronsard's gummy and dazed from all the driving. He asks, "Have you seen Christy?"

"No. I'm just back from the site," Hector says. "But I think Christy's off with a customer."

"I hope not."

"Love has many faces," Hector says. He's poking a finger into his face, getting a cud settled. Ronsard peels off his sunglasses.

"Thank you for doing all-the everything."

"Shank was a cool dog. I mean I hated it." He doesn't spit.

Ronsard says, "I was taking her with me everywhere but the one time, you know?"

"Call me," says Hector. He hands Ronsard the leash and fumbles off. Ronsard envies him his motorcycle and is terrified for him. He takes the leash and collar inside and fills Shank's water bowl and a big tumbler of ice water for himself, and then he remembers, and he cries a while for his dog, twisting a fist in his eye socket, sniffling, nose running.

__________

The silo's nearly finished but winter comes. A startled morning, cold, with all new colors: fresh and temporary tints, northern ones, desert winter. From the trailer porch deck, Ronsard sees how something cold and strong is feeding the creek, which is normally a dry bed. Its water is iron colored. White flecks. Shooting like mad through rock banks. He sees these red grouse teetering along in file. The sky is clay.

He asks Christy to go for a truck ride. Slung from the seat of his 4WD is an elaborate bwana jacket with shell loops and cartridge pockets, pointed flaps and dangling C-clips. Thunder rumbles.

She frisks the pockets for his matches and cigarettes.

"Well, but see it's a working day," she says and pops a match.

"I'll pay you. I understand professionalism."

On the road, he can't stop driving and talking.

"When I worked in a Street/FX Graphics shop as an artist, guys would come in with their muscle cars. Nineteen sixty-seven Impala SS 427's, or '62 Mustangs, say, and they'd want a pin stripe or murals. But nobody wanted flames. I tried to talk them into flames. Red and yellow. I was deft with quarter-inch masking tape or two-inch brushes and I shot paint. But I was best with those sort of scimitar red and yellow flames."

She asks, "What did your car look like?"

"I drove a pig cart."

He can't stop driving and talking. "These guys would have thirty coats of cured enamel in garnet, maybe, or indigo, and pearled or flaked. These guys would keep their cars locked in their garages."

Distant mountains. All day. Stars now. Power lines. A squat building of ceramic brick, surrounded by a razor wire fence. An Indian office. Christy needs a restroom. Inside, strip lighting, green linoleum, Formica tables. Coffee, candy, cigarette machines. Three Indians, skinny kids in their twenties, sit at a table. Lucky, Yellow Horse, Don Eagle.

He checks into a Travel-Lodge in Hillcrest. Two rooms.

"You know what I'm costing you?" Christy asks. "For this amount, I should be triplets. I feel guilty."

"It's all right."

"Also, Paul, you're getting a little frightening. Older guys go nuts fast."

After dawn, he drives east some more.

The sun's putting dawn glare on her glasses; two moons. Her face in the scribble-line glasses of wire is dark with fear, but a small wonderful face with two moons on it.

She asks if she's being kidnapped, and No, he says, It's just a long long drive.

He says, "Change of seasons, that's all. Hasn't happened to me for a while. S'pretty."

"It is not pretty, everything is screaming. It's saying 'I'm dying, help me, help me.'"

"It's sad but good, I think," he says.

"I'd rather be a rock on a snake in the hot sun--or I mean, you know, the other way round. I'm freezing already."

"There's a time for snakes on rocks and a time for rocks on snakes."

"Knock it fuckin' off. I'm freaked."

__________

Paul says, "Just be calm and look around at stuff. Like look, a lot of dead airplanes on the ground."

But Christy is panicky. "Don't say it, please, and ruin it all. We're both pros. Don't be a jerk."

He says, "The big bang is, all I want to talk about or think about is you. Freckles all the time. It's happened before. I've never won, I can't, but I can't stop, it is a landslide on me."

"Where are we?"

"Oklahoma, I think," he says and sends the car down an exit ramp.

Ash flakes drift from the incinerator plant like tree blossoms, and steam shapes are down over the tan river, and all the tall fields flow in warm wind like long drowned hair in currents. Those rows of blowing sheets swell, white on a backyard clothesline. Today in the sky, platinum clouds and crisscrossing skid marks left by Tomcat jetfighters.

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