The Painting of Porcupine City

 

THE PAINTING

OF PORCUPINE CITY

 

a novel

 

Ben Monopoli

 

Copyright © 2011 by Ben Monopoli. All rights reserved.

 

No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means without the express written permission of the author.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

Cover photography and design by the author.

 

Excerpt from
The Cranberry Hush: A Novel
copyright © 2011 by Ben Monopoli. All rights reserved.

 

 

ALSO BY BEN MONOPOLI

 

The Cranberry Hush: A Novel

 

 

THE PAINTING

OF PORCUPINE CITY

 

 

For Chris

 

 

 

*

 

“Clearly the story is true even though invented....”

 

—Clarice Lispector,
The Hour of the Star

 

 

 

P A R T

O N E

 

The Maker of Arrows

 

 

Now the new guy held

 

out his hand. On top of his natural olivish complexion was a blast of neon green that went from the tips of his close-cut nails, over the first joints and fuzz of hairs to the second joints, finally fading to a mist along the back of his hand. His olive skin continued over his wrist and up underneath the sleeve of his neatly-ironed shirt. The paint might’ve made another person look grubby but this guy was cute enough to get away with it. Wavy, unruly hair, dark as a typewriter ribbon. Green eyes that made you want to put the pedal to the metal.

My heart went pitter-patter. “Welcome aboard,” I told him, jumping up to shake the neon hand he was offering, my chair spinning behind me.
Welcome aboard
had somehow become my standard greeting for new coworkers—turnover was high at Cook Medical Publishing—and over the years it’d taken on a more and more piratey tone. I was only a few new people away from adding a
Yaarrrr
. “I’m Fletcher Bradford.”

He told me his name was Mateo Amaral. He had a nice smile—or probably would if he were truly smiling; his face was pasted with that overwhelmed grin you typically see on these introductory tours. He also wore a tie, and this broke my heart a little, struck me as precious.
Awh.
A tie.
New people always wore ties or power pantsuits their first day, probably expecting/hoping the job they showed up for was as glamorous as it sounded in the interview.
You poor stud
, I thought, me in my khakis and iron-scorched button-down.
You poor fuck-stallion with the weird painty hand.

“Nice to meet you,” he told me. His handshake was mediocre but his skin was surprisingly cool, with none of that typical first-day clamminess—mysteriously confident, as though the limp grip was all act. After pumping a couple times his painty hand released mine and returned to his pocket.

At the request of his tour-guide (i.e., the head I.T. guy, his supervisor) I made brief chatter about my own job, about the office in general, blah blah, while the new guy glanced around my cube looking uninterested. Then they left my cube to move on to the next—and as they left I amended my appraisal of New Guy’s hair and eyes to include his killer ass. That ass and those pants were perhaps the most successful pairing since Lennon and McCartney.

I sat back down (the chair was practically still rotating, that’s how brief that first encounter was) already nursing the seeds of an office crush.

That was a few days ago, and during that time the new guy wiped off the grin, ditched the tie, and otherwise blended into the maze of cubes with a skillfulness rarely seen at Cook, and which I found intriguing but ultimately disappointing. You hope for shirtless back-flips down the hallway, and what you get, if you’re lucky, is a glimpse of him around the bend of a corner once or twice a day. He seemed not to talk to anyone except when it directly involved work, he arrived very early (or so I heard, not exactly being an early riser myself), and, on the Friday of his first week, I learned that he took his lunch standing in the doorway of the break room. Just standing there, as though he were afraid to enter a space with only one exit.

I wondered what color his hand would be today. Each day the color changed. Sliding past him to get at the fridge, I stole a glance. Purple. And today it went all the way to his knuckles, leaving across the back of his hand a drip that seemed to illustrate a tendon. The sloppiness was so odd in contrast to his clothes, which looked Banana Republic all the way. They were sharp and new, the pants as crisp as the shirt—you could slice open your finger on the creases of his shirtsleeves. Even without the tie he looked too dressed up for Cook. And yet, this guy who somehow got through the morning without catching a wrinkle apparently couldn’t be bothered to wash his hands. It was like he was two different people.

I smirked. Yes, I wanted both of him. Preferably at the same time. It was good to have a crush at work—made the day pass quicker—but it was rare. The execs who did the hiring usually had lousy taste.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hey.”

He was an inch or so shorter than me, slim but not skinny. His hair hung in loose waves against his collar and against his eyebrows, the kind of hair you have to restrain yourself from grabbing to twirl with your fingers. The kind you want to find strands of on your pillow.

I opened the freezer and took out a box of Eggos with my name on it (literally), dropped two frozen discs into the toaster and pushed them down. I imagined grabbing the sink hose and soaking his hair and that crisp shirt—he probably had the perfect amount of chest hair under there. Instead I looked up at the TV suspended from the ceiling in the corner. ESPN was on but the volume was muted.

“Like baseball?” I asked.

“More of a soccer guy.”

“Me too,” I said, though I didn’t add that it was because the guys in soccer are better looking.

When the TV faded to black right before a commercial I could see him in the reflection. He looked out of place in the harsh fluorescent light. In this light his face looked somehow naked, too vulnerable and exposed, his eyes not quite nervous, but alert. His eyebrows were thick and dark, the same color as his hair and his longish sideburns. It was the kind of face that needed a make-up of shadows to really come alive. To pop. New Guy was a night owl, I could tell.

The toaster popped-up my waffles and I squirted syrup across them and sat down at the little round table in the center of the room.

I thought I saw him glance at my brunch, but I wasn’t sure, but I said anyway, by way of explanation (and small talk), “I never get up early enough for breakfast.”

He nodded and took a bite of his sandwich, which looked like turkey or chicken. An open Tupperware sat on the counter by his elbow.

“Friday at last,” I said, trying again at conversation. “Any big plans for the weekend? Weather looks to be a total scorcher.”

He was still standing in the doorway and it was making me uncomfortable. His shoulder was against the wall, his legs were crossed casually at the ankles—the heel of his shiny wing-tips was on the hallway carpet, the toe on the lunch-room tile. He lifted his sandwich to his mouth and took another bite. Yes, purple today. Yesterday they’d been red, looking alarmingly like he’d been bleeding. Red yesterday, purple today—whatever New Guy did in the space between work hours, I guessed last night he did it with blue. Wednesday I hadn’t seen him at all, but Tuesday they’d been orange. And then, of course, the famous neon green of his first day. He was a walking art project.

“No? No plans?”

“Huh? Oh. Not really, nope.” He looked from the TV to me and back again. I decided he was either lying or playing coy. “Just, you know, being breezy.”

“Breezy.” I repeated it to see if there was meaning in the sound. “You mean like blowing on the breeze?”

“Sure,” he said, with an ambiguous curve of the mouth that you might call a smirk if you were feeling generous. He had an accent, too, slight and nearly lost amid the intrigue of his hand, but undeniable nonetheless. South American, maybe. Venezuela or one of those. It could even be some kind of Mediterranean. Sicily? I’d already perused a map for country names, but the zilch I could glean from an accent and a simple outline of national borders wasn’t the point. It wasn’t about geography, it was an imagination exercise. I was building his character. I had a lot of free time at work.

“Blowin’ on the
breeeeze
,” I warbled, as though it were a chorus to an indie rock song. I looked up at the TV for a minute. Chewed some waffle. Looked over at him and nodded at one of the empty chairs. “Sit down if you want.” I wished he would because frankly he was making me nervous standing there.

“S’OK,” he said, but it was, judging by the quick shrug of his shoulders, a no. He continued to lean in the doorway eating his sandwich, watching the muted TV. When he was done he clapped crumbs off his painty hands, wiped his mouth with a napkin, squeezed the cover back onto his Tupperware, and turned around. As he was leaving he said, “Enjoy your breakfast.” It sounded like
brefess
—like how kids say it.

As I watched him go I felt my face pop like a spring with pent-up curiosity.

Nothing had happened and yet when he left the lights seemed harsher, the air staler, as though his presence had charged the atmosphere, made it seem less like work and more like possibility. But any office crush of mine would have to do better than possibility. I wanted action.

So nice of you to ask
, I thought, filling in for him.
Actually I’m hanging out with a friend this weekend. But I’d gladly blow him off if you’d rather spend it with
me
.

I scraped up the last bit of syrup and licked the fork, watching the silent TV.

What was with the finger paints? Did it have anything to—

“Fletcher— Oop, didn’t mean to startle you.” It was Janice, my boss, knockers straining the fabric of a powder-blue blouse. Her cheeks were flushed. At lunch, weather permitting, she sat in the parking lot sunning herself like a blond-haired iguana. “Can you have chapter twenty-three of
HMOs
copyedited by the end of today? Author wants a final review.”

“Sure.”

She smiled, disappeared.

After rinsing my plate I went back to my desk. No sign of New Guy for the rest of the day. And then (a mixed-blessing this week) it was the weekend.

The blazing-hot morning

 

made the T a stuffy nightmare. Too many passengers were crammed on, sweaty and cursing the feeble a.c. Arms stuck off the handrail in front of my seat like branches ending in melting people. An old guy standing in the stairwell held a paper bag of groceries with the silver rim of a can pushing its way through the bottom. A BU jock had skin the color of cocoa; his friend sported shiny blond-haired legs curtained with swooshy basketball shorts. A sleeping baby’s face screamed with heat-rash.


Woooh
,” breathed the oldster through a waxy mustache. He hiked up his groceries in his thin, papery arms. I would’ve offered him my seat but no way were either of us getting around the rotund woman sitting beside me.

I stopped looking at everyone, abandoning even the jock’s cocoa legs. I watched out the scratched window while the T jack-rabbited along the aboveground Green Line track. Outside pedestrians were moseying. Cars idled in late morning traffic, the air drunk over their hot hoods. The T car rounded a bend in the track and sun lashed my face. I squinted and turned away. The plastic seat vibrated beneath me. The rotund woman shifted, knocking my elbow with hers and leaving in her wake the cool evaporation of transferred sweat. I shuddered and looked down at my shoes. A bead of sweat made its slick, ticklish way down the bridge of my nose and plopped onto the backpack that lay on the floor between my feet. The backpack contained two days worth of supplies for avoiding my apartment on Cara and Jamar’s anniversary weekend. My roommate Cara’s boyfriend was something like seven feet tall and the apartment was crowded enough with just Cara and me. That and they were still all lovey-dovey, even after six or whatever years. Most of the time it didn’t bother me—they were cute together, and I should add that Jamar was my best friend—but every once in a while when the kisses and the
honey
s start flying a guy needs to get away, especially a single guy like me. It was an open question, though, whether I was going to Alex’s because they bothered me, or whether they bothered me because all I had was Alex.

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