An Undergraduate Literary Journal from UW-Milwaukee

Flying Art

Fiction by Clarisa Marlene Scott

My brother doesn’t work. At least not conventionally. He is Cooper the Peculiar Spectacle on stage, and I am Grace. Besides the two of us, I can count my friends on one hand, like this: one, two? I don’t know.

I’d have to dig back heartily to tell you how we got here: to a feeling of appreciation, an understanding. I suppose it began years ago, with the day Cooper introduced me to his character. I noticed that he was quite unusual and ahead of his time—maybe in a good way, maybe in a dangerous way—but he and I were not so unalike.

“Sit, sit sit!” Cooper lured me toward the couch that he’d covered in oriental fabrics. The entire living room was transformed into what I imagined as the inside of the genie’s bottle. Rich colors draped from something he’d fashioned from a hula-hoop, and all six boxes of Christmas lights drizzled the makeshift curtain. More fabulous than this ornate tent was his stage.

“Do you like it?” He was eager.

“It’s marvelous.” Honest-to-god was how I said it, and meant it.

“I nabbed the lights from Goodwill, brand new, all of them.” Cooper grinned at his creation and I sat, watching. He was wearing a velvet bowler hat with a sunflower, a vest with no shirt, and striped pants.

He scampered onto the stage, knees bent, and turned away from me. With a snap of his finger, a spout of fiery light crackled before him, and he turned round to reveal a long mustache and a morning glory.

“Fire and Ice, ladies and gentlemen! Take this, take this.” He threw a fur coat to me, then pulled out a weathered kerchief. Once it was unfolded, he pinched inside and blew a bit of glitter from his palm. A gust of cool air tussled my hair.

It was a remarkable new trick, I told him, but the sparklers caught a bit of material and started a small fire. That was the day our mother’s house got turned over to Uncle Walt, because someone was afraid we’d depreciate its value and historic charm if we stayed. Could have been Mrs. Uncle Walt who said it, though only the curtains were charred.

Cooper and I collected our scraps and found an apartment in the city. I was nineteen then, and he was sixteen. Some days are still as lost as those and I’ve aged seven years.

*

A couple of months ago, I started “talking to someone” who could “help me.” I tried very hard.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” I said. “He’s losing it,” or “I don’t know how to talk to people,” “He thinks he’s magical,” “I feel so stuck,” “Am I losing it?” and “That’s odd, I thought I’d lost weight.”

After a few months, I realized I was paying $120 per visit for what I might have realized by keeping a journal. My problem was stress. The doctor never said much, but offered me teas and a couch overlooking a grand, black lot.

I left her office one day and called the secretary from my car. I told her that Dr. Bennett didn’t need me back. It was a lie, but she erased me from the calendar and I blocked the number. Sometimes, lying is the best thing you can do for yourself.

*

My friend Myra met me for taco night at Fiend, and we ordered mango margaritas for the wait. I called Cooper to tell him he should dig for a Hot Pocket or something. I didn’t want to go home.

“But the circus is in town,” he told me, “I’ve got some things to sell.”

“What things now?”

“Well, knock on wood, Grace. Someone could be listening. Do you remember the things that I showed you? The Easter-y things with the color changing? I can’t say too much on the phone, you know.”

“No, I don’t remember, Cooper,” I lied again.

“Well, maybe you don’t remember but I’ve got them and you always come with me on Fridays. And I looked, we only have the cheeseburger Lean Pockets.”

“Well then go to the store!”

“What are you doing?”

“I’m just… I was at the library and I ran into Myra. I haven’t seen her in a while so we’re grabbing something to eat and shit.”

“I would have grabbed something. Where are you?”

“Jesus, Cooper. I’m on the East Side. I was already like…halfway here. Look, there’s a couple bucks in the Vader helmet and Tito’s has that meal deal on Fridays.”

The other end of the phone was quiet, except a light tapping.

“Fine,” he said, and hung up on me.

I looked down at the colorful cloth placemat and finished my margarita sludge. Myra was already seated in a festive booth. A waitress in bells and scarves tinkled past us and offered a toy wand to a child behind us.

“Everything okay, hun?” Myra asked.

“Yeah, sorry. Just figuring shit out with Cooper. What was I saying?”

“You lied to the secretary.”

“Yes! I did. They’re gonna call a billion times.”

“Grace, you could have just told her you were done.”

“I could have, but I don’t like telling people that I don’t want to see them, you know? It’s like… talking to your boss before quitting a job, or cancelling your gym membership.”

“Or like telling Josie you’re not going to any of her fucking candle parties. But, she will always ask. I should douse her apartment in something flammable. Light up a candle now, bitch!”

It was morbid, but the two of us laughed at her joke until I felt abs forming. It reminded me of my brother’s Cooper the Peculiar Spectacle and his accidental fire show. Our server approached the table and smiled as we finished giggling. He had gorgeous, long lashes and tattoos. The margaritas warmed my belly.

“Hey there, can I get you ladies another drink? All tequila shots still a dollar off for a while during happy hour.”

“Yes.” Myra eyed him, grinning. I did the same and he laughed.

“Okay, well all our tequilas are on this list,” he said as he reached to pick up a small menu and brushed my boob with his knuckles. “Excuse me…” He blushed.

“It’s fine,” I laughed through my nose. That made him blush more and he looked down and chuckled.

“So did you two want a minute to decide?”

His nametag said “Tony.” Tony who works at Fiend, I thought, this is your night.

“Tony,” I said, looking at his nametag and touching his hand. “Can I buy you a shot to take with us?”

“Absolutely.” He cocked his head at me, still grinning. “Thank you.”

I nodded.

“Do you know what you want?” He looked at me mostly, but then Myra peered at the menu and let out a humming sigh.

“Why don’t you pick something for us to try, honey?” She spoke to him like a child.

He nodded and left to fix up some mystery shots, and Myra said that he looked like Andrew Keegan.

“I don’t know him,” I said.

“From 7th Heaven, and that crappy Julia Stiles movie,” she continued.

The shots were smoky, but Tony paired them expertly with orange juice. He asked where we were headed and told us that his shift was done at eight o’clock. I suggested McGregor’s; he said he loved McGregor’s. I said they made “one hell of a Caucasian”; he said he loved The Big Lebowski. I picked at my food and awaited the end of his shift, watching him zip through the other tables.

“Grace.” Myra looked at me and lowered her head. “Be careful, he’s a puppy.”

*

I don’t remember when Myra left, or where she went, but I was enchanted by the night, and I had a great buzz. Tony and I were running down the sidewalk, holding hands like sixth graders, and stopping only to laugh out all the air from our bellies. I was lost but he knew the way and he twirled me beneath a young honey locust.

“Pick a hand,” he said, holding out two fists.

“That one.” I pointed to his right.

He opened his palm and inside was a translucent stone.

“It’s a moonstone,” he said, “and it’s a full moon out. Do you like it?”

“It’s lovely.”

“Here, it’s yours. I got it from a whacky lady who comes into work once in a while. She said it’s got a bunch of uses. I don’t remember them all, but she’s interesting.”

“You’re interesting.”

We kissed. I don’t remember who started what, but I squeezed the moonstone and looked at the sky and he led me into his apartment. I was drunk enough not to realize it was three a.m. because he was kissing my neck and massaging my body.

I climbed on top of him as he sat on his futon, but from what I recall it was without grace—no pun intended. He took off his belt and I unzipped his pants and sobered up when I heard my phone shaking my purse. I ignored it to look at Tony’s body, but the call insisted, and insisted again.

“Sorry,” I said, but he was pulling at my zipper, so I let him. He kissed my stomach and lifted his head.

“Why don’t you take that and then come back here?”

It was still vibrating, and I saw it was Cooper calling. My body pulsed with anger and worry.

“I think I have to go, Tony,” I said, re-zipping my jeans. “I’m so sorry.”

“Are you okay?” He stood up.

“It’s my brother. I was supposed to… I mean, usually I stay with him on Fridays. He’s kind of… Well, he lives with me. Um.” The phone kept ringing. “I have to take this.

“Hello?” I picked up.

“Grace? Grace, are you alright?”

“I’m fine.”

“Why didn’t you answer? I have to call the cops.”

“No, don’t call them, they’ll come to the house.”

“I should, I’ve been up all night. That tapping is there again and you’re not answering my calls.”

“I’m here now, don’t call the police.”

“No, you’re not here. Where are you? That tapping!”

“Cooper, calm down, please. I’m at a friend’s house.”

The line was quiet, and I assumed he’d set the phone on the arm of the sofa, but then I heard a loud crash.

“Cooper?” Nothing. “Hello?” Still nothing. “Cooper!”

I hung up and forgot I was still at Tony’s house, in my bra and jeans. I didn’t know what to tell him.

“I hope everything is okay?” he said, and handed me my shirt. I felt very cold and naked in a bad way.

“I’m not sure. My brother’s going through some things. Well, he kind of always has just been different. I just want to make sure he’s still there.”

“Yeah, definitely.” He looked so alarmed.

“Thank you, Tony.” I didn’t kiss him, though I wanted to, but I wasn’t sure what it all meant. He hugged me and walked me to his door, but I shivered through the lobby and sidewalks alone.

I got home and every light in the apartment was on. Cooper sat in my studio corner, disheveled, but calm. I tripped over a mess of pans on the floor and started to yell.

“Why, Cooper? Why when I’m having a great time does this always happen? I immediately get shit on by life.”

“Life won’t always impress you, Grace. Sometimes you have to impress life.”

Cooper said this to me, but I didn’t catch the value in any of it until much later. The reason for this was because he gripped a multi-colored, live pigeon in one hand and a wet paintbrush in the other. The great window over the balcony was propped open with a wooden chair, and my art supplies were scattered amongst plumes and bird feces. The chill sweat of spring whirled sketches round the floor, and I found muddy twigs as I knelt to pick up my work.

“God damn it!” I held my breath. “My stuff, this is my work!” I slowed down my speech as well as I could, but it took me a great many shaky breaths. “Birds can’t be painted, Cooper… He’s scared shitless. Literally, he went all over the floor… Aw, Cooper…” My chin pulled the muscles of my face into a quivering frown and my forehead pulsed with adrenaline while I tried not to cry.

“Well, Grace, they’ll see this pigeon and they’ll all wonder what happened to him. People will see it and his pigeon friends will see it. They’ll think he’s been enlightened, and I am like God, Grace. I’m letting them live. Colorfully.” He continued to grasp the bird and dab spots of paint onto the top of its head. Then he swirled his brush in a Gerber jar of murky water.

The bird was gorgeous. He’d created a pattern of orange dots around its eyes that continued down its neck and erupted into a rainbow of tribal shapes on its tail feathers. A tropical pigeon. Even though my head was pounding and my eyes were swollen with tears, I knew not to yell.

“Is it done?” I asked.

“Almost.” He dipped the very tip of his brush into a turd of fuchsia and then made a circle on its back.

“And you’re going to let him…back outside?”

“Of course, Grace.”

I turned to set my shoes in the closet, and then he told me, “This isn’t something malicious, you know. It’s like street art, only this will fly through the air. Flying art. Does that exist? I’m sure someone’s done something like flying art, but not like this.”

“Cooper, it’s a very interesting idea. Pigeons can’t live indoors.”

“Of course not.” Cooper made an insulting face, as if to mock me. “Grace, I wouldn’t go to all this effort to not let him back into the wild. This art has a purpose.”

The pigeon would be alone. As beautiful as I saw it and as purposeful as Cooper wanted it to be, it would remain alone, because what pigeon would understand? Cooper did change its destiny.

I saw that the last of the loaf of bread sat on the counter because Cooper and I don’t eat the ends, and I thought I could crumble the pieces on the balcony for the bird. It wasn’t dead yet.