Don’t worry, I didn’t take all the soaps.
I didn’t think you did, the older man says, searching.
Someone else might call the look the older man shoots his young comrade almost comical. In some version of later, the young man will tell his friends: Hey, but you should’ve seen his face. God I nailed him with the line about soap.
And much later the young man will say: It was a great ride, like the guy thought he was adopting me.
The message being that spirit will always trump vessel, art patron, and most stingingly, youth age. The artist had played lapdog to the rich and almost famous for a whirl, but now he’d say that period had ended, because he was to stay eminently unadoptable, untainted, meant for larger theft. This is what his listeners were meant to understand. The soap comment would nail coffins previously thought unnailable for the older man, whose name was Lew not Lou, because Lew retained a defunct era’s reserve about Jewishness.
In the hotel room, the younger man shoulders his pack which may as well be a rock star’s guitar, so great is the swagger.
A changing of shifts: the younger man has been put up here, at no little expense, by Lew, who sees him as either a version of what might have been or what might yet be attained. A splashy party having taken place the night before, not at a gallery but at a club filled with shiny coatgirls and dark alcoves, dark coatgirls and shiny alcoves, all the orchestration of the young man’s career Lew has been design- ing, maid service still to come to this one trashed room—but the younger man has to head out. Head out, because the jostle of outside streets will reward him more than shared breathing space with an older man whose possessiveness starts to rub him wrong. The word parasite, nebulously attaching itself to either of them, forms some- where toward the back of the young man’s cranium.
The younger man has made a career of kleptomania, which is why the art world has celebrated him. You enter a show as a viewer and don’t notice when or how your pocket is picked. To achieve his ends, the artist hires accomplices and distracting devices. Strobe lights, sirens, smooth young talkers. At the end of the show you are always free to swing by the front desk and pick up anything stolen from you, though you’re also free to choose signing the items over as a contribution to the artist. Such potlatch has proven titillating enough. Lew adopted the artist after having the German gold watch he bought for himself at retirement, forever kept inside his vest pocket, lifted. Lew chose to sign it over to the young artist, not guessing it would end up forgotten in the top drawer of a bedside table inside some girl’s house. A person could be freed by such magic.
When the artist, whose self-given name is Maxx, was growing up in one of those bar-flanked strips ninety minutes away from New York City, as a child thinking the name of his town was Ninety Minutes North, he used to justify his own high school acts of theft as the work of a latter-day Robin Hood. He’d steal from one cloth- ing store which had a corporate head famed for masturbation at board meetings and attacking models. If kleptomania covered over Maxx’s mixed ability in paint, sculpture, or even doodling, well, it took him a while to come to his schtick but once he did, age seventeen, he dropped out. As he said on his blog: Manet couldn’t have predicted today but Manet—or was it Monet?—was blind, the younger man not just making a joke for Lew when he had stumbled over the names.
Maxx does have an endearing stutter that comes out under stress. Also a sister who still lives upstate and though it has been a long while since he had any real abode—last fixed place was boarding school, later were admired in the press as a friend’s sofa, apartment, villa—he has told Lew he still belongs in some higher tree-flocked sphere, still feeling meant to be another boy in a white shirt racing into Grand Central to catch the 4:20 so he won’t be the last in his dorm. A coed boarding school—had any scene ever been riper for contentment? He the black-cloaked outsider, the full-scholarship boy, there for artistic promise, while the older man relishes this part of the boy’s upbringing because it didn’t unrelate to his own boarding school experience, single-sex because that’s all that was around in Lew’s time, the Jew thing back then suppressible.
In his own version of later, Lew imagines telling his mayflower wife, because he still has a wife with whom he reads the paper, attends outings, shares a house: The boy doesn’t know a thing about gratitude, who can blame him, it’s his generation.
And his wife, suppressing irritation with this latest project, another quest for meaning by a man with too much money for his own good, a man seeking the grime of an artist who uses exotic materials to make his work, because human feces and urine were already so done, will harrumph, because she knows more than anyone about Lew’s portraits on canvas, the nude figures and abstract slashes, dust-covered and languishing in the unused drawing room the way that Lew, who’d had something of a beginning, there in the height of things, coming right at the end of the Cedar Bar but before the hippies, is looking for something unworkable as a seahorse who could live eternally, though all he gets is more like an insignia on someone else’s cloth napkin.
And despite his advanced age—or perhaps because of it—Lew keeps himself together, is still quite groomed, shaves every morning, naturally tall, hunkering over others in a leather bomber jacket that in all eras had the impeccable attribute of looking out-of-date.
It means something to him, the jacket, a steal on Bleecker Street before he’d come into his fund, back when he’d been young and play- ing poor, like kids of today, eating restaurant scraps thrown out the back door, affecting touches of poverty, living in the village and burning to depict the world they see. Back then he’d thought you could flame hot strokes across a canvas and others’ understanding of the noumenal world would shift merely because he had lived. Later he would take lysergic acid and feel he conspired with nature to become the channel for all that was visionary, connected, and true.
And now here he was, living an outtake from a life he hadn’t chosen, and at such moments he could feel the greatest self-contempt, following this youngster out of a hotel room, saying, Wait! You forgot your other bag, which was of course true, the younger man having thought he needed only one bag to achieve the effect of walking out on someone with disdain though after all the artist was no longer an adolescent, though he too would one day seek ways to be closer to re, or might kill himself in the union of principles, reality with pleasure, after the puncture of his skin by one too many needles, the artist pushing twenty- five already—
—and from the bag the older man holds while chasing him down, hundreds of tiny soaps are already falling, one calligraphy-covered soap after another, you would almost call it the loveliest of tumbles there onto a faded argyle patch of hotel carpet in a city where even pigeons shriek in a pitch gone desperate.