(Grayscale) Chapter 1
The turned the corner onto a narrow, unlit street. It was a shortcut home, and his favorite place to walk at night because of its emptiness like a forgotten path, and the way it was lined with the backs of buildings so nothing could disturb the moment as he dissected the darkness.
Not true darkness of course. Not like those places far away from manufactured illumination like along a country road or in the middle of the woods, or in a bedroom at night with the lights off and drapes closed and head submerged in a sea of blankets. It was city dark. The kind that happens on the back streets well past midnight where stores are closed, seldom a car passing by, and broken street lights or none at all. The manufactured illumination still bleeds in because in the city, light is inescapable. But it is dark enough to allow the grayscale to find the extreme edges of its range in corners of walkways, in alleys and behind trashcans.
Quinton often defined his surroundings in terms of the grayscale, the artist's tool for making subtle variation or deep contrast between objects in a frame. Night was his favorite canvas. Outside along the cityscape, especially the back streets to track down the illusive city dark, and in bars and clubs where darkness was celebrated.
His eyes darted around the canvas looking for dark corners as he strolled along the wet sidewalk. Those journeys down the side street, the shortcut home, were exercises in how the cityscape interacted with itself – the shading, the curves and sharp edges, the objects blending into each other to emphasize the claustrophobic nature of a crowded and cluttered city.
On that street, he could hear the smaller sounds of Philly that were only audible when it was late and the bigger sounds shut off. The rustling of trash in the wind. Water flowing into the gutter. The back door of a refrigerator truck opening to unload the day's delivery to the market more than a block away. His own boots against the pavement. The sounds accompanied the imagery, as did the rank smell of urine and trash. But that was all they were to be, an accompaniment. The listening was passive, the visual observation a more conscious effort. Quinton always seemed to be drawing what he saw, even if only in his head, fixated on the surrounding visual stimulation.
The subtle movement of the street gradually muffled under the sounds his mind orchestrated as the volume was turned up slightly, the change barely noticeable until it filled the space. Quinton was caught up in searching through the shadows, the outlines of the architecture and other objects that compromised the street, and the perceived apparitions that the eyes conceived from interpreting the black spaces, that he didn’t realize the sounds of the city were being replaced by yet another apparition. That song. That undeniable sequence of notes. The one that evoked the most lucid of memories. The smells of places left behind. The vivid mental image capturing excitement and movement, and faces. The sensations of heat and breeze, and touch. Memories so real they could be felt at the fingertips, and deep in the pit of the stomach. It emerged in the brain and gradually escaped the frontal cortex as a hum. First a musical sound under the breath and growing in volume until it became noticeable, part of the consciousness, in the now, aware of the recollection as the notes left closed lips. Quinton was humming that song, the one he hadn’t listened to intentionally in years; the one that was to be avoided no matter if it came through on the radio or played in a crowded bar. That song, never to be forgotten but never to be heard, was there – why?
It could be heard, as clearly as if it were actually expelling from speakers within auditory range, but the experience was merely the fractured remembrances actualized unwillingly. Quinton pushed the song to the back of his mind, as far back as it would go so that it followed rather than led as he stepped in from the rain-soaked street and climbed the stairs. He chalked it up to the frame of mind that anniversaries induced. Anniversaries were times to reflect and so the soul was bound to be more vulnerable to infiltration from the most sacred of memories, like that song.
He unlocked the door to the loft apartment and found the light switch for the kitchen that was a few feet in front of him. The shadows were left to escape into the large room to his right. He opened the top cabinet over the compact refrigerator. Navigating the various items that filled the space, his fingers found a familiar shape, and he caressed the contours before gently removing it from the resting place. Cradled in one hand, he pushed a few loose strands of hair from his face and stared intently at the black label.
Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Aged 25 Years
There were four marks cut into the label, lined up next to each other, just below the lettering. He ran his fingers across the small marks, touching each one and feeling the precise and deliberate incisions, surgical. The bottle was half full, or half empty. The amber color of the contents resembled honey and glistened under the crisp kitchen lighting. He placed the bottle on the counter and pulled the cork, brought it to his nose and inhaled the smokiness. Grabbing a glass from the sink, he poured two fingers and carried the glass and bottle to the couch.
The room next to the kitchen was dark, city dark. Faint light bled in through a bare window. Quinton was on the third floor and the building across the street was an old warehouse that sat dark against a back drop of lighted activity. Fishtown was filled with unused and neglected areas when he first moved in. He got a bargain on a completely renovated loft that would soon join a wave of gentrification and become more and more filled with activity that he knew would eventually drive him to look for another neglected and anonymous space in the city.
Quinton leaned forward, coat still on and huddled tightly around his lean torso, and he scratched the stubble on his face, staring at the glass and bottle.
“History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
Quinton quoted James Joyce, eyes fixed on the amber liquid. It was the same quote he would say, to himself, to others, or inside his own head, before the first drink of the day, when those days existed not too long ago. And he said it on each year anniversary of his sobriety.
He leaned back and reached into the pocket of his jeans, retrieving a small knife. Opening the blade, he held it firm and steady as the tip penetrated the label on the bottle, next to the four marks. The blade cut into the label until the new mark was the same length as the other four. A smirk appeared on his face as if there were a humorous passage written within those five carved lines, a knife-drawn joke about what was represented on the scarred label.
His eyes looked up from the bottle and focused on the work that hung against the brick wall, all framed in black. The cover of his second graphic novel. The drawings he created for The New Yorker, Playboy, Harper’s and Rolling Stone. They were all gifts from his agent, Troy, when it was discovered the apartment was bare of décor except for a broken liquor bottle on the fireplace mantel that he carried to the hospital and home after someone smashed it over his head in one of his drunken stupors, and an unframed sketch of a young woman. He felt obligated to hang the uniform black framed gifts. He left the bottle from the squabble six years ago and the sketch from an even more distant time.
His eyes lingered on the sketch for a moment longer than the framed distractions. Quinton rarely looked at the objects on the wall no more than he looked at the rough corners of brick or the mortar in between, images that simply blurred into the brick. The sketch, however, would occasionally emerge from the blur on days when sentimentality filled the room. The glance would end with a commitment to finally take it down, but he never did.
Back to the kitchen, he dumped the untouched contents of the glass into the sink, corked the bottle and returned it to the resting place in the top cabinet. Feeling a vibration in his pocket, he reached in and pulled out his most reviled tool. Few had the number to ensure few would reach out. Those few individuals knew the connection should be used wisely or risk no longer being one of the few. A text.
Hey Quint: Got an interesting proposition today.
Not usually up your alley but you should consider this one anyway.
Just call me as soon as you can. Free all night.
Troy’s texts were always long, side effects from a profession that is built on constant convincing. Troy had been the agent of record since publishing the first graphic novel and had been reliable as much as Quinton allowed him to be. Still, every sentence from Troy reeked of a sales pitch. He dialed his agent’s number and left it on speaker while he washed the glass in the sink.
“Quint. Past midnight, the only time I seem to be able to get your attention. You are like a vampire, man.”
“What’s up Troy?”
“Listen – I have an interesting collaboration for you.”
Quinton turned off the faucet and grabbed a towel with a look that was trapped between boredom and annoyance. The very best thing about his chosen profession was the fact that it was a solitary pursuit. Aside from Troy, who interacted with the publishers, the editors, the promoters, Quinton was free of…
“I know, by Quint’s rules,” Troy responded. “You stubborn shit. This is different.”
He tossed the towel on the counter and headed down the short, narrow hallway to the bedroom carrying Troy. The last several conversations about work began in a similar way. Therefore, Quinton was only interested in doing work that excited him.
“It’s Jonathon Thomas, the novelist, another Philly guy,” Troy chimed in after radio silence. “He wrote – ”
“I know who he is.”
“Of course you do. Listen, I have been talking with him and his agent for a few weeks now. He is fixated on a disappearance that took place near a college. A professor and his wife. He has spent the last year neck deep in this thing.”
Quinton threw Troy on the bed as his own head collapsed on the pillow, coat still on, old leather boots hanging off the edge. The song was still faintly heard, calling him from a great distance, barely discernible. He tried to ignore it.
“True Crime? Seriously?”
“I know, but you have to listen to him talk about how he wants to approach it. And for fuck’s sake, it’s Jonathon Thomas. He is not interested in delving into a genre, he wants to write a story he is passionate about like every other story he has done. This one just happens to be true.”
Quinton was a reader. There were times he would be reading three books at once piled on his nightstand with dog-eared pages. He read everything – art history, politics, science, novels. He had only read one book from Jonathon Thomas and that was several years ago. But the story stuck with him. He was a really good writer.
“Quint, listen up. He wants you to illustrate it. Go figure. He is a fan, Quint. He has kept a photo of that piece you did for the Fringe next to his computer because he, I don’t know, envisions it or something in the manuscript.”
“He wants me to draw pictures for his book? Why are we talking about this Troy?”
“Do you do any screening?”
Troy’s voice elevated in both volume and pitch and it cracked at the high note like he just started puberty. Quinton smiled. He often caused this frustrated reaction from his agent.
“Am I screening? Are you kidding me? Is that a half-ass joke? You have turned down so many opportunities the phone has stopped ringing, Quint, I am bringing you what you want, something that is different, that could excite you.”
“To draw pictures for his book?”
“To collaborate on a vision in a medium you understand, a visual narrative.”
“I don’t collaborate.”
“Quint, you give me an ulcer. He wants to tell you the story, give you the manuscript, and give you complete freedom to interpret as you see it. Complete creative freedom. This guy talked about a creative experiment, see what happens when two minds come together without looking at each other’s work or providing input. Complete creative freedom. You won’t even talk until it’s done.”
He pushed his hair back and exhaled, looking at the ceiling and picked up the phone.
“What is the story about?”
“You’ll find out when you meet him on Thursday, 10 A.M.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Thursday, Quint. Don’t make me have to choke a client. I like you.”
Troy hung up, leaving more questions of his vague pitch than answers.
Quinton didn't need to work for a while, perhaps never if he continued the bare bones and solitary existence into old age. The loft was paid for. Other than eating out every night, albeit modest dining, and the occasional date, and not to forget art supplies, there were no extravagant excursions. When the monthly expenses for basic necessities were paid every month, most of his earnings from the second graphic novel and miscellaneous projects just sat in the bank. For over a year, no new income was generated. He lived off past accomplishments while spending the free time exploring whatever subject matter excited him in the moment.
But he kept it safe when it came to personal exploration. Quinton looked out, not in, unlike his first work, the one that took him down the darkest of tunnels inside him. All of his demons spilling onto the page in striking black and white.
That kind of honesty would be too much to expose if anyone other than a trusted few actually knew it was him. Because of Troy, he was an anonymous artist. No matter how hard journalists and fans tried to discover his identity, for now Troy managed to keep it under wraps.
Quinton threw the phone on the bed. Its screen created a green haze that dissipated in the dark bedroom. More city dark. He pulled his old boots off and stared out the window at renovated housing from old warehouses interspersed with dilapidated structures. He walked over to the window and leaned against the glass. Everything was wet, when the city was at its cleanest. Things were still, except for a police car that moved slowly down the street. The phone on the bed went black. The room was quiet - except for that song.