From the author: There's no reason for aliens to invade Earth...except one.
I woke up and counted seven canvases, all finally complete. The aliens hadn't taken them. The aliens always get what they want. And they want pretty much everyone but me. I blew on the steam over my cup of coffee and then threw it at Nude Ascending A Spaceship (I had even left it by the window, but the hoity-toity bug-eyed monsters weren't interested).
It started only months ago. There was a flash of blinding light (The Beam, we call it now) and then the Louvre was empty. MOMA was ransacked by another silent orange flash, leaving nothing behind but nails, blank squares of bright white on the wall, and most of the Photography Department. The aliens are fickle in their taste. A four-year-old in Sweden had his fingerpainting snatched the moment he completed it, but Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold is still on earth, though now buried deep underground and guarded by a battalion of useless Marines.
"Hey, that's business" my agent told me that afternoon at lunch. "Sometimes you're hot, sometimes you're not. We're still making money, we're getting a lot of good reviews." Rhonda was a five-foot tall bundle of energy wrapped in a bright pink business suit. Her makeup was troweled on (as usual) and she peered at me over the sunglasses she wore to hide her crows' feet (from men, not The Beam).
"I don't care about the goddamn galleries. Nobody is buying anyway. I can show wherever I want, because there isn't any competition anymore," I lied. I had plenty of competition, and they were all kicking my ass.
Rhonda frowned. "Dave, you know how it is." (Like most people with little to say, Rhonda liked to say the same things over and over. An advanced alien civilization, one capable of flinging itself across the galaxy, wouldn't come to Earth for water or gold or slaves. Their technology could handle all that. Only something uniquely human, something not found on their hyper-advanced world, could tempt them to come to Earth. And it wasn't.)
"Sex!" she shouted, loud enough to get my attention, and slammed her hand against the table. The entire café turned around. "I tell you, Dave, why couldn't it have been sex instead of art?" She stood up and flung her hands towards the sky (well, towards the painted tin roof of Café Reggio). "Take me! Take me, bend me over the Vietnam Memorial," (the aliens had taken that too, leaving the President to wonder what was wrong with all the nice statues of Lincoln and Washington he had), "and screw my brains out! Just leave Van Gogh alone! Warhol! Anyone!" People went back to concentrating on their coffee and pastry. These outbursts happened hourly in the Village, though it was usually me committing them, not my agent.
"Of course," Rhonda said, repeating what she had heard on tv, "the aliens wouldn't come here for sex anymore than you would fly to Africa to stick your dick into a warthog or wildebeest, but still, they seem to have some kind of aesthetic sense."
I drifted off again, into the memories of my career.
For the first few weeks, my friends and I had worried. Phipps had called me up to his loft (well, his garret with a window) to tell me something. "I know how to save our work for the human race," he whispered to me, while glancing out the window, watching for The Beam. "Look." With a dramatic little flick of his wrist, he yanked a dirty tablecloth off his milk-crate-and-chicken-wire pedestal and unveiled a sculpture. Abstract, just finished and gleaming. It was okay. It curved in on itself, like a crazy eight trying to leap off the pedestal. At least it wasn't an alien head, a spaceship or a raised middle finger in plaster, like most of Phipps' stuff had been since the aliens ripped off his entire show. They had taken that stuff too.
I turned to Phipps and shrugged. He smiled. "Look," he said, and covered one of the curves of the sculpture with his thick fingers. "Envision this sculpture without this line." I did, and it definitely would have improved the sculpture had that bit not been there. "You see. Damage your work. Make it unacceptable. But don't forget. Never forget." He tapped his temple and smiled at me, showing off his yellow rat bastard teeth (cloves, we all smoked them). "Never forget what you dream of. Art is in the mind."
"So I do something wrong, and tell people just to ignore what I put in?"
"Yes, exactly." We smiled and high-fived one another and spent the rest of the night drinking gin from Phipps' flask (he hanged himself a week later).
I had been in the middle of a dry spell, but Phipps inspired me that day. I went home, dusted off a canvas I was keeping under my bed (it was too terrible to look at, I thought, and I couldn't finish it with the aliens watching me) and worked on the piece all night. It was abstract, and busy, about my stomach condition and my latest breakup and about just feeling trapped in my skull. I finished it, and added a yellow stripe diagonally across the whole piece, to ruin it.
I woke up at noon (hating myself) and spent five more hours cleaning off every bit of yellow from the piece. I even got my lenses and scraped out bits of dried yellow (they were no more than a single horsehair thick) from the cracks in the canvas. The aliens didn't take it (oh how I waited for The Beam). They hadn't taken anything of mine, nothing at all. All my friends' work was being spirited away. All the paintings I had admired were gone. My stuff was stuck on this planet, along with every velvet Elvis and a busload of blood-and-chocolate-drenched performance artists. They hated me. They loved everything (we thought - maybe they were taking everything up there to shred, or eat, I sometimes reminded myself) Earth had. Everything but me. I sucked.
"You don't suck," Rhonda said, "You're getting two pages in Artpapers in June."
"Alan?" (Jacobson, a friendly critic and good lay).
"No." Rhonda's face deflated like all her plastic surgery just gave out.
"Shit." (I didn't have to ask. Some art critics had taken to blasting the aliens in print, claiming that their confiscations demonstrated a pedestrian taste. Most of these critics ended up being greeted by The Beam, which removed their intestines from their bodies, usually right as the articles went to press).
"Not Alan. Linda Poulos. We want you to do a painting. Two weeks."
"I hate doing paintings, Rhonda. The Beam never comes. The Beam won't be coming for me." My skin tingled under my sweater from the heat. Painting was one thing, doing a goddamn painting was another. Doing a painting meant being a trained ape for The Beam, or for the culture vultures who loved it. Doing a painting meant spending weeks on a piece, and then inviting every yuppie grazer and venture capitalist in town to watch you clean it up, make a few marks with the knife, and put the finish on it. Then (according to theory) The Beam would come and take the painting away, and the crowd would applaud (like they had just sat through Cats or something). "I don't do paintings."
"You'll do this one, okay?" Rhonda said. "You know, I found you when you had just gotten off the bus from Wheeling. I knew you when." (She was repeating herself again. She knew me when I was sketching the tall ships down at the Fulton Street Seaport, back when I would go home with anything in a muscle shirt for a free meal and a night on a mattress, back when I was a week from hustling on the streets and don't you know, you dance with who brung yuh, and goddamn it, she had brung me and I was going to waltz my cute little nuts off).
"Fine. Just could you, you know, shut the hell up for the rest of lunch. I've got a headache."
Rhonda smiled. "Try declaring it art. Maybe The Beam will take it away, the aliens will all get headaches and leave us alone." I had to grin at that. Three days into the crisis, the President had Christo wrap a warhead in pink cellophane, to tempt the aliens. They took it up to their ship(s), but even that didn't stop The Beam (the aliens also took Mr. President's Jack Daniels belt buckle, apparently in a fit of pique).
I couldn't paint for the rest of the day. I walked around the neighborhood. Most of the galleries were boarded up, or had been rented out to art forgers (The Beam never took a copy, which is how the world found out that Michelangelo's David was fake), or back to warehouse firms. The streets seemed wider now that there were no street artists hawking their crap to people. There was only me.
I did some sketches. I read the paper. Schnabel had killed himself too (drank a quart of paint), the day before yesterday. Parsons School Of Design announced that it was shutting down its Fine Arts division, because the freshmen just kept painting aliens and spaceships and screaming college students being sucked out of dorm room windows. The commercial art department was still going strong, though, the article said. (I think I spotted a shoe store ad with a line drawing by Chuck Close on the opposite page.) I decided to puke up the cannoli I had for lunch and take a nap.
Rhonda called me twelve times a day. She would never come out and ask how it was going (she would instead ask "Are you busy?" and hope the answer was yes) but the pressure was on. I spent whole days on the computer, looking at scans of the stuff the aliens had taken. I missed Monet most of all (even though I couldn't stand him back when I was in school). I checked my email compulsively (every ten seconds, I think). My sister wrote me:
Fina-fucking-ly! Davey, The Beam grabbed one of my prints! I had just finished it, and blew some of the graphite off my signature, and they took it away! It rocked. The beam was like staring into the sun, like dancing with static electricity. And you never liked my shit, nobody ever did. HA! I knew I was ahead of my time. I guess you have to be an alien to understand my work. :o).
Stacey was 17 years old and a moron. But The Beam had blessed her. She still lived in Wheeling, for God's sake. That night my bed sheet was tight around my neck, but I couldn't keep from kicking. The plaster around the eyehook I drilled into the ceiling gave way. I hit the floor hard (and twisted my ankle) but that was all.
The work went slowly. I sat on my windowsill and threw paint tube caps at the pigeons. I didn't change my underwear or brush my hair (or look in the mirror). I shaved blind, cutting myself too many times to care about. At night I clutched my pillow and screamed, "Why doesn't anybody love me!" at the light bulb in the bare fixture over my bed.
I would turn to the window, hoping to see The Beam descend, bright streaking yellow across the blue-black night, and spirit something away. I never caught it, but I knew the aliens were still collecting pieces. When I'd go out in the morning for coffee, my old friends would be all smiles. They were happy, they laughed with one another over the theft of their work. Poseurs. Bastards. I was ignored, like a ghost, or litter, or the sounds of traffic. I started calling in for coffee in the mornings again (the Mexican who would trot up six flights of steps with a sopping paper brown bag every day didn't care for art. It was his pleasure to serve me. Even the coffee cup said so).
Six days later, I thought I had something. It would be representational (the aliens preferred pictures they could easily identify, scuttlebutt said), and I would sketch and then paint it on the spot. Rhonda and the other bastards would just have to sit up all night with me while I worked, instead of popping in to ooh an aah at The Beam. I filled my notebook with sketches, though. I wasn't going to be doing any spaceships, but something celestial. Maybe a crescent moon; the idea of absence was important (a little ham-fisted maybe, but think of my audience). A crescent moon over a half-empty city. Half-empty because someone had sold off all the beauty to the highest bidder. A lot of black, a lot of work with the knife, to keep the party happy. Then, at about three in the morning, I would start painting in little dabs of light, one for each office window dotting the shadowed cityscape. I hoped Rhonda wouldn't start counting each one (under her breath), but she was probably gauche enough to do exactly that (with enough champagne in her). I practiced air kissing in front of the mirror, brushed my teeth and went to bed.
The maid (hired by Rhonda) came by the next day to do the dishes (they had piled up in the tub), and swept out the place. The caterers came by with three loaves of bread, two bunches of grapes, three kinds of cheese, a case of wine, a case of champagne and a case of the hard stuff (priorities). Rhonda showed up just after dusk.
"Put the easel by the window," she said, brightly.
She just frowned at me and went to answer the doorbell.
It was dark by the time everyone had shown up. Linda Poulos took my hand with both of hers and pumped my arms like she was trying to jack up a van. I air kissed the other women and a few of the men. They were a slightly older crowd, all in ties or business skirts and sneakers (nobody who has to get to my six-story walkup wears heels). One guy even had a headseat on, and did a few trades while in the john. (Get me twenty-five shares of Cisco - flush!) What was he even here for? My mouth was drier than ten glasses of White Zinfandel. We drank for a few hours, and I did my best to hold off the time with round after round of drinks, and slice after thin slice of cheese. It was midnight when Rhonda's eyes narrowed at me. By 12:30 her jaw had locked shut. She marched up to me and sang "Get. On. With. Iiit!" into my ear, as cheerful as Dachau.
Everyone took their seats, and I moved to the easel. I took the tarp off the canvas and said (over my shoulder) "Hope everyone has already used the facilities, it is going to be a long night." I crossed my arms and smiled at the blank canvas, and squinted to see the grain of the sheet. My pencil was tucked behind my ear. Someone poured a drink. A cell phone rang, but was quickly clicked off (thank God). Rhonda cleared her throat meaningfully (it meant "I'm going to kill you, Dave, if you don't get on with it").
I took the pencil from my ear and put it to the canvas.
I took it away, turned to the small audience, snapped the pencil in half and let both pieces fall out of my hands to the floor.
The Beam washed over my eyes like a wave of translucent orange juice. Every pore was alive, every hair on my body decided to pull away (and in opposite directions, too). Through the haze I could see Rhonda drop her glass and ten pairs of hands slap together like seals' flippers. I couldn't hear the applause, though, not through the low grind of The Beam (like ten million cinder blocks being dragged across asphalt). I let go and my bladder gave way. I think Linda smiled.
Then there was nothing but the sound of a curtain flapping and a smoggy breeze. When I woke up, my vision still swam in an orange light, like I was inside the sun looking out. Linda's hair was perfect. The crooked front teeth of the Cisco guy were perfect. The symmetry of the lines on Rhonda's face was astonishing. I cried in her lap.
"They like blank canvas pieces," she whispered to me. Her lips smiled against my ear.
Things are looking better now. The world is bathed in light, like an impression at sunrise, like a painting I used to admire.
This story originally appeared in Speculon.