Callahan, Joyce. American (1954-). From where he stood he could see the hearse, or the reflection of the streetlamps off the hearse’s black exterior, as it submerged slowly beneath the parking lot behind the six-storey, art deco, Gardner Building across the street and disappeared into the subterranean parking garage of the Kirby Brothers funeral parlor. He took a tentative sip of his coffee, hot but weak because it was so late, and listened to the sound of raindrops hitting the ivy leaves that covered the old building’s walls. On every floor the lights of tenants shone faintly, in some the blue flicker of television screens, save for the ground floor where the Kirby Brothers laid out the dead. He wondered how they all must reconcile it, living on top of so much death, so much sadness.
“At least the neighbors are quiet,” he said, to himself. It was an old joke, so he didn’t laugh, but brought the hot coffee to his lips again and drank. He listened to the rain. From the darkness behind him the telephone began to ring its chirping, plastic-sounding ring. He didn’t go inside, or turn, but continued to stand in the shelter of the doorway, drinking his coffee until after nearly twenty rings the phone was silent once more. A minute passed, then two. Across the street the windows were beginning to go dark, one by one until only a handful of them, insomniac and solitary, remained illuminated. He finished his coffee and slung the dregs onto the wet sidewalk. The phone began to ring once more, echoing with a kind of urgency through the wide open spaces of the gallery behind him.
Inside, he wove his way through the half-walls and movable partitions, hung with the paintings of the gallery’s only artist, her work uniform in both size—each of her canvases were four feet tall by three feet in width—and quality—each of them was atrocious. In the dark the vibrant neons she used in her “geometrical compositions,” as she called them, were mercifully muted, faded into neutral gray-tones. He tried not to look at them too closely as he made his way to the small reception desk, where he sat for five and a half hours a day, six days a week. On the seventh ring, he picked up.
“Joyce Callahan Gallery,” he said.
At first he could hear only breathing on the other end, then a voice said, “Don’t fuck with me.”
“I’m sorry?” he said.
“Don’t fuck with me, you motherfucker. If you fuck with me, if you fuck me over on this I swear to God I will pound roofing tacks into your testicles, I will kick your fucking teeth in, I will break every bone in your arms and legs and feed you to the fucking dogs. Those Mexicans across the street? I will feed you to their fucking pit bulls. You think I’m kidding you motherfucker, you just try me. Go right the fuck ahead and you try me.”
He swallowed. “I think you might have the wrong number,” he said, weakly, quietly.
There was silence at the other end. He thought he heard a dog bark. A television set. A radio playing an opera. “Who is this?” the caller said.
“Bertrand,” he said. He cleared his throat again. “Bertrand Godfrey,” he said.
“Bertrand? What the fuck kind of name is Bertrand?”
“It’s just a name, I suppose.”
“What number is this?”
Bertrand told him.
There was another pause. “Okay, well. It seems like maybe we have a case of wires being crossed or something here, Bertrand. The language I used with you earlier, that was meant for someone else. I’m sorry.”
“Okay.” Already, the icy feeling in his chest, the squeezing feeling that had made its presence known at the first sound of the caller’s voice, was beginning to melt away.
The caller chuckled, and at the sound of his laughter that icy feeling threatened a return. “You must have been shitting Legos,” the voice said.
“Yeah,” Bertrand said. “You. You gave me a real scare.”
“Mix yourself a drink,” the caller told him. “You won’t be able to sleep for a while. Have a drink and listen to something on the radio. This feeling will pass.”
“Thanks for the advice,” Bertrand said, but by that point there was no longer anyone on the line. He hung up the phone and stood next to the desk. Everything around him had become almost imperceptibly brighter, shifting from a dark-gray to a slightly-less-dark gray. He could hear the heavy churning of his heart in his ears. He thought whether there was anything to drink in this place. In his head he ticked through the contents of the little dorm-room fridge in the galley, which served both as his break room and his kitchen. There wasn’t a lot. Condiments mostly. A Tupperware pitcher with Nestea sweetened iced tea in it. A half a package of Smart Dogs. No beer. No wine. Certainly no booze.
He took a step away from the desk. His legs were watery, unstable. He looked around at the empty gallery. Through the front windows he could see that one light still burned in the Gardner Building, on the third floor. At last his gaze rested on one of Joyce Callahan’s paintings, and all at once it seemed to make sense. The lines, the composition, the way that triangle intruded ever-so-slightly on the rectangle next to it. The play of gray tones—this, of course was a trick of the light, a deception brought on by the nighttime—seemed to trigger in him a kind of serenity. He stared at the painting and his heart slowed and grew less forceful in its beating, so that he could no longer hear it, or the echoes of the caller’s voice, those sounds replaced by quiet, and a high pitched tone, which could have been coming from the gallery’s alarm system, or could have been nothing at all, a trick his inner ear was playing on his senses. He stood in front of the painting for a long time, and then, with a willowy sigh, he left the gallery and went to bed.