ArtThis is the title story from Art's Place: Stories & Diversions, which will be published, Sept. 10, 2020. What happens when customers in a working class bar discuss art and literature instead of football and auto racing.
After completing his shift at the Co-op Creamery, Ed Stodhill repaired to Art's Place, where he ordered a Pernod and a pack of Wrigley's Spearmint. Then he located a booth near the pool table, beneath prints by Jackson Pollock and Paul Klee, and removed his denim jacket. He scanned the room for his friend, Emil Slepka.
Ed placed his lunch bucket on the table before him and hailed Arthur Fykes, the proprietor, who was putting bottles of Evian water into the cooler. "Admit it, Artie," Ed said, insinuating a wry smile. "Marcel Duchamp could paint rings around Mark Rothko."
Arthur, who never tried to hide his pronounced preference for Abstract Expressionists over the Dadaists, wouldn't take the bait. Instead he just nodded and said, "You may be right, Ed."
Not satisfied, Ed pressed on. "You damn betcha. That Rothko couldn't hold Duchamp's palette, Arthur. He couldn't even stretch his canvas." He chortled and looked over at the bartender who merely sighed and strode to the jukebox and punched up a golden oldie—Robert Frost reading Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening. That quieted Ed, who grunted and stared at his Pernod. Finally, he spoke again. "The thing about you, Artie, is you won't recognize Duchamp for what he did. I mean look at this." Ed stood and picked his way through the jungle of potted ferns, stopping before a print of Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase. "Thing is, Artie old man, is what Duchamp did here. Lookie. You got successive phases of movement superimposed on each other."
"So?" said Arthur, now joining Ed by the print. He was holding a glass of Diet Coke in his hand, and a lighted, curve-stemmed calabash between his teeth.
"You've got to respect the fact, Arthur, that old Duchamp initiated a dynamic version of facet Cubism."
The bartender nodded and allowed his hand to rest on Ed's shoulder. "I agree, Ed," he said. "But between you and me. . .," he started, about to expand on the definition of the word "Dada," when he was interrupted by Emil Slepka's arrival.
"Hey Eddie," Emil shouted. "Howsa boy?" Emil hadn't bothered to change his coveralls with MARTIN'S CHEVROLET in block letters on the back. He'd just finished a lube job on a school bus at the garage where he worked. "Lookin' at the Duchamp?" he said. "Forget him. I mean the guy was what—a flash in the pan? Now let's get serious here," he said. "Take George Bellows. There was a real artist, know what I mean? Looka this." He stood before one of Bellow's famous fight scenes, the one with Louis Firpo standing over Jack Dempsey after the champ had been knocked out of the ring. "Say, Arthur," he said without looking at the bartender. "I'd kinda like something sweet. I don't suppose you got any chocolate-chip cookies? Geez, bring me a couple of them and a Calvados."
"You got no taste, Emil. Your taste is down at the bottom of your shoes." The speaker, Irma Novocella, was sitting alone at the bar sipping a Grand Marnier and smoking an unfiltered cigarette. "I useta be married to Barney 'The Kid' Campesi," she went on. "'Member him, Arthur? Ed, you remember The Kid. Terrific fighter in his day. But you seen what happened to him—ended up scrambled." She made circles around her ear with her forefinger. "If he walked in here today, he wouldn't recognize a one of us, and that includes me."
"So—what're ya sayin', Irma?" Emil said.
"That boxing ain't art, Emil. I don't care what nobody says; it ain't art."
"I'll agree with you on that, Irma," Ed said. "Boxing isn't art; it's a science. They call it the sweet science. But this ain't the Science Saloon, is it? I don't think Arthur should have the Bellows in here neither. What I'd like is for there to be some Hans Arp or Max Ernst. And if need be, even a Joan Miro." He shrugged. "Miro ain't too bad. He done what they called the biomorphic abstractions. Now there's a word for you Arthur. Biomorphics. Some night we ought to have a discussion on biomorphics, know what I mean? Anyhow, them designs of his were curvilinear, fluid. Hey, he knew what to do with his brush, that guy."
Robert Frost was still having miles to go before he slept, and Emil didn't want to hear any more. He said he was going to play some selections from Allen Ginsburg's Howl.
"Oh, come off it, Emil," Irma said. "Not that baldy, Ginsburg. Gimme some Dylan Thomas."
"When it's your coins you can have a say, Irma. Till then, just butt out, lady."
"Arthur," Ed Stodhill was saying, "getting back to this Bellows thing. I have to wonder if it really belongs anymore. I mean the thing is if art ain't political, what is it? It's gotta mean something."
"That's telling him, Ed," Irma said.
Arthur sighed and lighted Irma's fresh cigarette. "Everybody's entitled to an opinion," he said quietly. "But at the very least, it represents history, if not art. I mean Hemingway boxed, Ezra Pound boxed, A. J. Liebling boxed and wrote some sensational stuff about boxing. For all I know. Picasso may have boxed. The Bellows stays."
"I know it's your place, Art, but I'm gonna level with you," Ed said. "You got your Bellows here, you might just as well get yourself a collection of them Norman Rockwell baseball pictures. And then, Arthur, once you start bringin' in Norman Rockwell, what's to stop you from hangin' some Walter Keane?" He guffawed. "How 'bout one of them cutesy little kittens with great big eyes, and maybe the kitty could be wearin' a baseball cap. Hey, that would be first class."
Emil stiffened. "Nobody said nothin' about Rockwell or Keane," he said, adding somewhat belligerently, "You impugnin' my good taste, Ed?"
"Hell, yes," Ed said, his inhibitions loosened by Pernod, his face crimsoning. "You're nothing but a closet Keane freak." He laughed.
Emil, who was shorter than Ed, stepped toward him with a cocked fist. "You better take that back, Ed. You and me been friends a lotta years, but nobody calls me a Keane freak. Includin' you."
Irma exhaled smoke through her nostrils. "It's none of my business, boys," she said, "but if you ask me, old Eddie's dead right."
"Well, nobody asked you, Irma," Emil retorted. "So you just feel free to mind your own business because this has got nothin' to do with you."
At that moment, Stan Armbrister came through the door with his cronies from the sanitation department, located down the block. Stan has had a thing for Irma for quite a while. "This Edna Ferber groupie givin' you a hard time, Irma?" Stan said, dropping his lunch bucket on the bar.
"Hey, Edna Ferber was a beautiful writer," Emil said. "So Big was a helluva movie. You don't see 'em making lotsa films out of James Joyce, do you? 'Course not. How you gonna get all that interior crap on the screen?"
Stan snorted. "You think great literature is measured by how many movies get made out of somebody's novels?" He laughed and nudged Irma, who smiled coyly.
Arthur Fykes, meanwhile, uneasy with the disquieting tension in his establishment, stepped forward. "Hey, everybody," he called. "Let's not let our passion for art and literature overrun our good senses. Look, I got some new stuff for the jukebox. What say we listen to some vintage John Berryman doing his rendition of a few Dream Songs? Now Berryman was our kind of a guy, right? Hell of a drinker and hell of a poet. What do you say we give him a listen?"
"He's a creep, a misogynist," Irma hollered.
"I say, let's hear him," Emil shouted.
"How would you like it if someone rearranged your proboscis, Emil?" Stan said.
"Go ahead, Stan," Emil said. "You've been wanting to for a long time now. Go ahead, be a big shot." He jutted his jaw into Stan's face.
Stan calmly lifted Irma's drink, put it to his lips, and took it in his mouth. Then he turned back toward Emil and spit Grand Marnier into his face. Stan cleared his throat, while Emil groped for a handkerchief. "If Emil chooses, he may retaliate," Stan began. "However, I have considered what I did for a long time now. I am familiar with the need for artists to process their work. When I spit on Emil, it was part of a process. I mean, it was more to make an artistic statement than it was to hurt Emil, though I admit if Emil didn't like it, so much the better."
Arthur handed Emil a clean towel, and Emil mopped his face. "Waste of good liquor, Stan," he said evenly.
"I liked it, Stan," Ed said. "Think of it, Emil; Stan may have resurrected the Dada movement. Look at it this way, Stanley. In the old days when you and the boys would go down to Rockland Castle and pick fights with those hairballs from Crosier County, you'd end up in jail for disturbing the peace. You could go down there now and just mop the floor with them and tell the cops you wasn't fightin' at all, just doin' Dada art. I love it."
"It ain't so bad, I suppose," said Emil somewhat glumly. "If you ain't on the receivin' end of a kick."
Everyone laughed then. Bonhomie returned to Art's Place, and Arthur set up drinks all around, on the house. He inserted several quarters into the old Wurlitzer, and hoisted his own Pimm's cup cocktail. "To peaceful, passionate discourse," he said. "To Rimbaud, Rauschenberg and Man Ray."
"Hear, hear," chorused the patrons, glasses raised, arms around each other's shoulders, Ezra Pound's inscrutable Cantos playing on the jukebox.