Don Bauder 4:30 p.m., Dec. 9
I was slumped on the white leather couch, muscles shrinking under my own weight. The workday had kicked my ass. To add insult to injury, the apartment was like a sauna because of our broken a/c. I bet being naked on this couch would be a lot more comfortable, I thought to myself. Damn roommates. As if on cue, steps hopped up the wooden stairs outside and Pete shuffled backward through the door. “Hey buddy” he said, in his usual half-acknowledging tone. He struggled to get through the door with all the stuff he was carrying. Guitar stuff, work stuff, mail stuff, grocery stuff. He was using every limb that he possibly could to manage this stuff, leaving only body force and nudging available to unlatch the door. The fact that the door itself was designed exclusively for that most human of features – the opposable thumb – seems to dissipate when faced with the risk of rapidly defrosting mini-pizzas.
“Hey” I said, weakly. Pete’s arrival had disturbed the little atmosphere I had set up in the living room to recuperate from the injustices of the day. David Byrne’s melodic chorus (which had been drifting from the stereo across the room) now had to compete with his barely-there Chicago-Italian accent, which was barking at band mates, managers, and co-workers over his cell phone in the connected kitchen. “I know he’s too loud! You think I wasn’t there? What am I supposed to do, the guy’s got fifty years on me! Oh, whatever. You tell him I said ‘Fk you’. You got that? ‘FK YOU’! Yeah, that’s right. Okay, okay, see you then”. I enjoyed listening to Pete's conversations because, like all people, his conversations follow the classic plot line. There is the introduction, the suspense of build-up, the ferocity of the climax, and finally, the trailing dialogue and salutations. But his conversations had a different tone from everyone else; it was your intense conversation, multiplied a thousand in both volume and passion. His conversations compared to mine were like comparing an action movie to a dramatic period piece: whatever your preference, you know one is gonna be a hell of a lot more entertaining to watch.
“Sushi Ono day!” he clamored, interrupting my inner monologue. “Happy hour with half price rolls. Let’s go!”. I declined at first, pointing out the food wrapper that had contributed to this vegetative state. “No man, I’ll fall asleep in that roll, probably. And then you would have to tell the person next to you ‘Hey, avoid the fugu’”. But he was already set to go. As usual, he knew what everyone was doing, it was just up to everyone else to catch up with his decisions. He put all his eggs in the basket that would tip to his decision; stray from that, and risk the wrath of Pete’s broken eggs. “C’mon now, I’ll drive and pay for your beers” he pleaded. Wait, what? This sounded way too generous to be Pete. I might not be very capable right now, but sitting around drinking beer? That I could handle. “Alright then, dude” I said, slowly rising. “Let’s go see what happens.”
At the time, a hay fever/allergy coughing fit was weighing on me like a ton of bricks. I don’t mind getting stuffy and miserable as much in the winter, because most likely the weather is shitty and I don’t feel like going out anyway. But in the summer? Or even worse, during the first heat wave of the year? What the hell, man? I thought I had a serious illness and fever until I realized that everyone else was sweating just as much to get to sleep. All the allergy medicine does is make you disoriented, so there was no use taking that and walking around work like a gibbering idiot. Unfortunately, my sickness didn’t block out the horrible stench we would encounter in the shopping center parking lot. Walking up through a back alley, we were hit in the face with the acid-bile death stench of puke. Not just a whiff, either; it followed us like a specter as we walked a few more feet. And even more. It must have been at least a hundred feet of puke stench, and how it had got there was left up to your sick imagination.
As were directed to the bar by a shapely attendant, I ordered a Heineken and continued to think about the puke alley. How had that much surface area been coated in the stuff? I pictured a wedding party coming here the night before, so hopeful and excited for their big night out. Then, through either improper food handling or too much sake, puked their guts out en masse in the same general area. It was strange to picture all the leather shoes and high-heeled feet splashed with half-digested Toro, staggering with gooshy footsteps all the way back to the rented limo. Maybe it was only one person? A lone ranger? I imagined the comatose individual would be carried to the car as they dispensed piles of vomit on the sidewalk every few feet like a hammered pez dispenser. Or maybe it was one guy who was running to get to the alley and avoid embarrassment. He thought he could sneak out and none of his friends would be the wiser, but he was unable to hold it and left an uncontrollable jet stream of puke in his wake. In a world where mystery was fading, bodily functions always offered endless possibilities.
It was my hope that people would take the awful look on my face as a warning. This is how my sinuses feel…stay away. This man is marked for death. We stood at the bar and shot the shit, slightly interested in the weird football trials ESPN played above us. “Is there Monday Night Football tonight?” I wondered out loud. “Yeah man, Tennessee playing at Arizona” came a response from a few feet away. It was a skinny light-skinned Filipino dude, done up all Ed Hardy style: well-edged buzz cut, single diamond earring, sleeve tattoos of koi. I looked over and acknowledged him with a nod of thanks, then quickly turned back to the TV. I did this to avoid getting trapped into a conversation, which would only require a small inquiry or question about football to reveal I knew jack about it. His girl pawed thoughtfully at the wontons in front of her. It seemed like she was about as interested in eating as I was in football. Maybe she was pondering to break it to the Ed Hardy guy that she was seeing someone else.
Trying to avoid eye contact with our neighbors, I checked out the rest of the bar. The happy hour special had attracted a diverse crowd. Preppy couples crowded the booths, haggling with each other over the tip, their triangular white plates smeared with soy sauce and sriracha. Some butch girls leaned against the bar sipping Kirin’s, gossiping and making fun of a taller one’s new fauxhawk. A cheer sounded from the back of the restaurant as a bachelorette party downed yet another shot. Pretty typical for a Monday night happy hour crowd in Hillcrest.
"Ready?" Pete had interrupted my inner monologue again. I finished my beer, and we walked out of the restaurant, as we received a half-hearted "thank you" from the hostess. I made sure to give her a little bit of a smile in return, which was met by her with an "Oh please, this again?" glance in my direction.
We bypassed puke alley and drove back up University, taking our time in the late afternoon mugginess. At this point, I have to mention that on the way to the Sushi place, Pete had pointed out the thrift/furniture store, Pat’s, across the street from the Bluefoot. "I'm gonna stop there real quick. I want to see if they have a cool vintage suitcase to put my guitar stuff in." And we would have, had I not pointed out the quickly diminishing time for happy hour. "Okay then, if it's still open when we come back, we'll stop by." Sure enough, on our way back we saw the bright neon 'open' sign cutting into the dark glass around the store. "Alright, let's go check it out" I said, feeling slightly tipsy and feeling less stuffy. Little did I know that by the time we walked out of that store, our lives would be changed forever by the most unlikely of objects.
Do you really need me to describe a thrift store to you? Just walk in one, and that's what Pat's is; the mothball smell, the souvenir shot glasses, the one creepy old guy in the back pretending to look at sweaters when he's really doing God knows what. Pete quickly entered the store and didn't take time to browse. He knew what he wanted - a suitcase - and bypassed through the thin aisle of stuff towards the back of the store. Conversely, I took my time to look at the old Life magazines and Mickey Mouse thermoses' and the like, slowly following the path he had left. Not too much in this place, a used coloring book here, and old stool there, a wrinkled -
What. Was. That.
I quickly backtracked a step to make sure I wasn't dreaming. This couldn't be happening. How could I have missed it before? "Pete" I whispered, trying to get his attention. "Pete. Pete. Pete! PETE!" "WHAT, man? I'm busy!" I simply motioned him to come over to where I was. He walked over, looked down at what I saw, and understood. We were basking in the glory, the magic, the mystery, the majesty of what would come to be known as Golden Wings.
It was an 18 x 24 frame, made of a cheap lacquered wood that had been notched and angled down on the sides, to simulate the effect of carving a frame out of an actual piece of wood. The top had a 10 inch chain attached at both ends to hang with; not an extravagant chain that would add to its mysterious allure, but rather something like a dog chain. The intent seemed to be to make the picture more manly, but really, it didn’t help at all. The only thing the dog chain lead you to believe was that some pit bull in a dusty side yard in North Park was 10 inches further away from freedom. And then the glorious centerpiece: A Flash Gordon-esque background of space, with several planets and shooting stars filling the landscape. The foreground held a closer vision of some nondescript, dusky planet (Mars, maybe?) and in its orbit, a Grecian-era Goddess. She was draped in a gold and white tunic, riding a wild flailing Pegasus and lifting a She-Ra like sword towards some invisible enemy of space who had dared enter her realm. Her man-like sinewy thighs imparted just as much strength as her cold gaze, just off to the side of whoever was looking at the painting dead on. And there, in the right lower corner, the proud signature of the man who had brought it into the world: Boris.
I felt like Howard Carter discovering King Tut's tomb. This thing was...perfect. It was beyond perfect. It transcended perfection. It was something that the creator of Dungeons and Dragons would keep in his basement. It was something that even Kevin Smith would be embarrassed to be associated with. If they give out trophies for winning LARP tournaments, this would be first prize for the World Cup. This thing had more nerd power in it than every person in the Comic-Con convention hall combined. "We need to get this" Pete said. "What would we do with it? It's awesome, but I don't know if I would want to look at it every day" I said. We thought for a minute, then Pete said "Oh! Geoff isn't coming home until late tonight. Why don't we get it and hang it up in his room?"
I picked up the painting carefully - which didn't matter, because it was extremely lightweight - and walked over toward the register. A joke's a joke, I thought, but if this thing is more than $30, I don't think it would be worth it. The 'register' of this place was really more of an open desk with a chair in it. Near the partition, a black and white cat laid on the ground licking itself lazily. Directly across from it was a wood carving of a cat that look exactly the same. The source of this voodoo might have come from the proprietor, an old woman dressed in a sparkling shawl and covered with jewelry. As she reached for my credit card with her ancient hand, filled with elaborately carved and welded rings, I couldn't help but think of the gypsy who sold the magic monkey's paw to its first unsuspecting victim. Had she, possibly a descendant of those same Bedouins and dharma bums, also opened a shop filled with cursed but irresistible items? I got my answer after a quick swipe and her smoker's lung response of "10 dollars". The price was too good to be true; my real payment will come later, when the curse will surely take effect. Like the poor rube of that other story, I will return to find the shop is nothing but a swirling dust devil, the gypsy woman's cackle taunting me from some unseen dimension.
We rushed out of the store like we had just committed a murder. Actually, we were trying so hard not to laugh, it was more like we had committed some brilliant act of vandalism. With Golden Wings safely loaded in the car, we rushed back home, giggling gleefully over our prize. As we pulled up to the complex, we saw our downstairs neighbors light on. "We have got to show this to the neighbors!" exclaimed Pete, and I agreed while trying to hold back the tears of laughter. We knocked and entered to find Casey on the couch closer to the door, while Alex was on the other side of the room. "What do you guys think of the present we got for Geoff?" I asked. At first, no response from either of them. Then, Alex said "Well, I like the unicorn on it" rather plainly. "It's a Pegasus" I corrected him, the smile quickly fading from my face. What is wrong with these people? Don't they know brilliance when they see it? "Yeah, that's pretty good. Are you going to hang it up in his room?" Casey asked, barely interested. "Obviously" Pete responded, with the same growing disdain I had. "Well we're going to go put it up. See you later!" I said. It was best to end this situation now, before things got ugly. What was going on here? Had the painting put a spell on us, appearing as a blank space to all others?
After an argument over which nails to use, we hammered the chain into the wall and stepped back to take a look at our work. I fell to the ground laughing. It was too much to bear, seeing this marvelous travesty against the bare white wall. The fact that Geoff didn't have any other wall decorations - making it look like this horrible piece had passed the test above all else - made it even better. All we could do now was turn out the light, close the door, and wait for the trap to be sprung. I watched TV in the living room and Pete used his computer at the kitchen table, both of us fighting back the anticipation of waiting for Geoff to get home. When he did, it was like everything was happening as normal: Geoff walked in and greeted us with a "Sup, boss" and proceeded quickly to his room. Pete scrambled around the corner, grinning manically and waiting for the reaction. And then....
A minute later Geoff quickly exited his room and hurriedly left with a "later, guys". No reaction. No outburst. No laughter. No nothing. "What the hell?" I said. "How could he have missed that?". Pete was just as mystified. "Maybe he saw it, but is waiting for us to ask about it. Like, trying to fake us out". "Yeah, maybe, but how could he not have even laughed when he initially saw it? You and I couldn't contain ourselves. No one has that much self-control." He nodded in agreement. What the hell was this? Trying to ignore the painting in that room was like trying to ignore the sun in the sky. Absolutely impossible. Unless..."He must be mad at us" I said. "What? That thing is the shit! Why would he be mad?" Pete said, scratching his head. "It's because we invaded his space. He probably had a bad day, the way he hurried out of here, and when he saw that all he saw was a nail in his wall. We're on his list now". He seemed to understand what I was saying: Geoff was pissed, and now the curse of Golden Wings would be upon us.
When Geoff got home, tension seemed to hang in the air like an awkward Pegasus. Pete and I were still in our respective spots, unsure of what to say or how to approach this. Geoff eventually sat down on the other couch with a beer to silently watch a movie, and now Pete had walked over to the couch as well. He broke the ice, asked him about the day, which (strangely enough) had went pretty well for him. Well, what was going on here then? I thought. "Well, I gotta address the 800 pound gorilla in the room here: what do you think of your new painting?" he said. Geoff looked confused. "What painting?" he asked, so genuinely innocent that I knew I had been wrong. Somehow, he had missed a giant faux-woodcut painting of a Greek goddess on a Pegasus (in space, no less) hung up by a dog chain. In his own room. Pete and I couldn't hold it in any longer and burst out laughing as Geoff rushed to see what he had missed. "Oh my God!" he called out from the other room. "This is amazing!" Apparently he had been in such a hurry to drop stuff off and go have dinner with his girlfriend that he had missed it completely. "I thought it was strange when I got home, I was like, 'Did I close my door this morning?'" he laughed.
Now that the situation had been resolved, one mystery remained. "Who's 'Boris'?" Geoff asked us. Honestly, we hadn't even considered it: I just pictured some tortured nerd in a spider web-filled attic painting away the fantasies that lurked in his head, before going out and collecting piano wire and blow up dolls for the rest of the night. But the question was posed, and know the man behind the myth had to be found, if simply to satisfy a sick curiosity. A search that, in the past, might have required backtracking to the store, hours of library research, and performing unnatural acts in soundproof basements now only required a vague Google search. Thank God for the internets. Wikipedia revealed that Boris had been a famous fantasy painter in the 70's and 80's. He has painted for all sorts of commission projects, including but not limited to the over-the-top movie poster for the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie. Huh! Who would have guessed? One particularly ridiculous painting, entitled "The Power of Christ", featured a steroid-inflated version of Jesus breaking the arms of the wooden cross he was nailed to. Boris was probably well off though: that painting alone was being sold for $20,000.
While scrolling through some of Boris's other works, I couldn't help but feel accomplished. Geoff enjoyed his new decoration, and despite talks of moving it into the living room (which Pete wouldn't stand for) everything seemed to have worked out. After all the mystery, creepiness, concern, and strangeness of the painting had faded, the laughs remained. I can't help but stifle myself every time I walk by Geoff's door and catch a glimpse of it. The curse, if it had existed at all, had been lifted, and now the painting would only spread joy and smiles where ever it went. People would see the man-thighs, the dog-chain, and the chipped wooden veneer and this time, only see it as a force for good. Just, I'm sure, as Boris had intended.