“The Spectator Takes a Journey” by David M. Rubin

Looking back what seemed a stray puppy was actually an old little dog and coordinator of an incident that was still raw like the scrapes on his elbows and knees. He had no idea what to make of the even earlier incident with the crows but sensed all was connected.

Archer Fennis woke up that morning, reciting his mantra of “no humming”. Humming was a signal to his nervous system that there was something to be worried about, maybe everything. Then sweating. Then cold hands. Then pacing. Then anticipatory moaning. Then the full-fledged Munch-like scream. No humming, no humming, no humming.

The white living room walls were devoid of paintings or posters. The emptiness was unendurable, a continual incitement for Archer to Jackson Pollack his carefully curated red ceramic bowl of granola, almonds, blueberries, and soy milk against the wall. He had no coffee table and wondered what if one wanted to display art books, but had only one folding-table placed constitutively in front of the TV. He placed the cereal bowl gently on the blonde wood and consciously struck a pose of one intent on terraforming.

Archer laced up his Merrills, grabbed a baseball cap (orange with a Jayavarman II face), black pandemic mask, and a credit card. He would buy eight art books. Eight. He would keep them on a stack on the floor next to the folding table and each Sunday he would ritually rotate up a new one.

He raced out to the wooded path behind the always empty back porches of the huge houses and meandered down the steep hill and skirted past the New Hope Police Station. He hit Main Street where it crossed over the creek, turned left, and then ducked into the Galleria Mall, using the bottom of his shirt to grab the door handle and swing open the enormous glass and steel door. The woman from Sky Roast slid across the counter a medium-sized cold brew and a chocolate biscotti, which she assured him if tried them enough times he would come to understand why they were so popular.

Before the steps leading up to the Delaware River overlook behind the re-modeled Ghost Light Inn, Archer stopped alongside Martine’s River House where a murder of crows convened over a plastic bag filled with fresh rolls. Two birds swooped down and began tearing at the plastic while eight sat on the railing, some cawing their support, others keeping watch. Surprisingly to Archer and all of the birds the plastic held. He wondered why the crows were gingerly taking turns with their beaks vs adding a foot for leverage or just tug-of-warring open the bag. He raised his hand like a druid to calm the situation, tip-toing over with the intention of freeing the rolls. He would make sure all the crows got some, maybe pocket a half for himself as he had already written off the biscotti. But the murder flew off at full caw when Martine’s back door opened and a women emerged, “why are you feeding the birds our bread?”

“Crows. I’m not. I just got here. Now that I see you have boxes from the bakery, I know what must have happened. An adventurous crow pulled free a bag of rolls.”

The woman scrunched a “yeah sure” face.

“You should keep the deliveries in a safer place,” and added a joke, “or place a scarecrow.”

“We gonna play shudda? You shudda put the bag back in the box.”

“Many tourists feed ducks here, so at first, I figured someone left a bag of bread for the next family. I was just going to help the crows open the bag. They are very smart and sensitive.”

“Are you serious? They are boutique rolls from Factory Girl Bake Shop.”

“What would you have had me do? Place the crow-pecked rolls back in the box?”

“Yes! Then we wouldn’t wrongly blame the bakery if we were a bag short.”

Archer didn’t touch a single roll yet felt guilty like he was Longinus brutalizing Jesus on the cross. Archer bowed an apology, “I meant well.”

The roll fiasco would be relived and reimagined in thousands of future perseverations. In the here and now he failed to notice the two black and two turkey vultures, watching from across the way on the fence around the garbage bins of The Salt House. The Salt House, Martine’s River House, Logan’s Inn, Stellas. So many micro-environments carefully crafted for couples, whole societies that didn’t register Archer’s solo existence. Dazed as he never expected to have to speak to anyone from that world, let alone be chastised out on their streets, Archer jettisoned the plan to relax with his coffee by the river. He flipped the biscotti into a garbage, and with a vestigial shudder like the shake of a dog, he reset and headed off towards South Main Street and his main reason for having left home.

Farley’s Bookshop had one whole shelf plus a dedicated spinner of Taschen hardcover art books; impressive yet only a fraction of the multiple series, each with dozens of individual artist monographs and genre summations. Archer, a completist, loved collecting whole series, though that was massively cost prohibitive in this case. If there were 40 then buying 20% of them would meet his arbitrary target of eight. He didn’t like to argue with subconscious processes honed over decades, which if it said eight must have had solid reasons, but perhaps pegging to a percentage made more sense. He took three deep breaths and carefully counted 23 on the shelf and 48 in the spinner and thus 71 in total. Jesus, 20% of 71 would commit him to buying 14 books, which at $20 each, that would be $280, with a combined weight of perhaps fifteen pounds. So be it, he would buy 14; that would allow for about a monthly switch of the featured book on the folding table.

The next even higher hurdle was selecting the set of 14, a filtering with no defined parameters, based on what he preferred at that given moment. Better would be portfolio mathematics and a clear strategy to avoid fooling oneself based on trivial factors like an attractive cover or a Madeleine-like childhood association like his parents having a Berthe Morisot print and his mother copying Monets, or the random recommendation of another bookstore browser, and then he would load up too heavily on one genre or another and could wind up with 14 books of impressionists that all bleed together. Though even that was uncertain as even Morisot and Monet were worlds apart.

He thought about postponing the project to chart a safer and saner course, as they say in chess; he could click a photo and analyze it in the comfort of his bed with a notebook and colored pencils to chart it all out, maybe make an Excel spreadsheet. He took a very deep breath and decided to step outside the Bookshop to call in a dinner order from Jaffar. “Hello, Archer Fennis to place an order for take-out… Papdi chat but with no onion. Mutter paneer but please add more peas… I’ll pay extra… It’s better when not soupy and that will keep our karma solid… … well yes the karma and the dish… Yes, the number of paneer cubes is always perfect… One shrimp tandoori, one bhindi masala, one daal, two garlic naans, raita… Yes, and mixed pickles. They call it achar in Bangladesh too, right?” Like selecting art books, the food order was fraught with peril but here Archer had a few set patterns that usually worked well. Today’s order was working out perfectly, though maybe too much so as quantum physics suggested anything too certain was not possible and thus he started back in. “Something feels wrong. Maybe substitute channa masala for shrimp tandoori… No, no keep both and add an aloo gobi as will be more for the week… Yes, fine… Yes, I suppose… Please have it ready in exactly 75 minutes.” In 75 minutes, he would arrive at Jaffar holding fourteen gorgeous hardcover art books in a stack. No bags. A small parade for the citizens of New Hope to gape in awe at a traveling tower of art books.

He popped back inside Farley’s, said hello to the manager and a student working the cash register, who was some sort of genius as she claimed to have read Germinal in one sitting. He would spend exactly 30 minutes considering the Taschen collection, but likely needed only 20 as the task was almost a third complete as El Greco, Bosch, Klimt, Rothko, and Schiele were definites. Three expressionists were a lot to be sure, but the gap between them was as vast as El Greco’s heaven to Bosch’s hell. He might soothe the wild passions and nubile nipples on the cover of the Klimt book with linearity and abstract shape, maybe Johns or Mondrian. Mathematical and patterned. Pourquoi pas blatantly add the historical musings of an Ingres or David, maybe a Gericault. He fantasized about regaling guests with tales of the “Raft of the Medusa”.

A glance at his phone showed 4:23, so there were 32 minutes before the food was ready and he needed eight to walk to Jaffron. Book check out was five minutes max, leaving 19 minutes to pick out the remaining books. He lost track of the detailed plan and engaged the first of several jazz-like improvisations. He would browse biography for seven minutes and essays for another seven and then head back to choose the final Taschen books, which he now decided would definitely include Mondrian and O’Keefe, as she was absolutely unique, and maybe Malevich. Of all the genres he knew the least about futurism and vaguely remembered that Malevich was a Pole working mostly out of Ukraine and then maybe Italy. He looked but found no Berthe Morisot or Fantin-Latour, a minor tragedy.

Fourteen minutes later he was back at the art section holding four books, Mark Lanegan’s Read Backwards and Weep, Joseph Brodsky’s Less Than One, and two different versions of the Tao Te Ching. He added them to the waiting pile of El Greco, Bosch, Klimt, Rothko, and Schiele. He then very deliberately pulled from the carousel and added Mondrian, O’Keefe and Malevich, and then added six seemingly at random from the shelf. Had Archer stuck to a structured plan he would have not later have gotten distracted walking while trying to discern a pattern in the books he actually bought, and he would have been more cognizant of the stairs, the ball and the dog.

Archer checked out uneventfully though $394 seemed well more than he had planned to spend. He got the club points added to his account, stepped outside and removed his mask. He was ahead of schedule so paused to clear his mind on the grey stone bridge crossing over Aquetong Creek. He would collect his thoughts before heading four blocks to the light turn, left and head the two blocks to Jaffron.

What the bejeezus just happened? It seemed six Taschens were added in a Monet blur. He vaguely remembered seeing Velazquez and Vermeer, and he was sure Escher and Rothko made the cut, but did he make an event-nullifying mistake and add Renoir? How could he rush and ruin this? The event was fraught with uncertainty as to what happened and what ifs and should haves. No way the Imp of the Perverse added Renoir not even as a joke. He stopped and placed the pile on the stone ledge below which the creek ran to the river, heavy from last night’s rain. Klimt, Rothko, El Greco, Bosch, Schiele, Mondrian, O’Keefe, Malevich, Velazquez, Vermeer, Kahlo, Escher, Ingres, David. Fourteen. Oh yeah, then he had grabbed these two surveys, one on Cubism and one on something called The Blaue Reiter. What kind of joke was that? He gently pulled the Blaue Reiter book free from the bottom, playing a very dangerous game of Jenga. Dear Lord, something involving Kandinsky and a Blue Rider emerging from a Kuntstlervereingung.

Eight had been added in a blur! Now there were 16 total. $394 did seem expensive, but he was not one to add up a receipt under the public gaze. Before he crossed back over the bridge to Jaffron he re-sorted the books alphabetically so there would be a semblance of order till he could conceptualize something more meaningful. The Blaue Reiter, Bosch, Cubism, David, El Greco, Escher, Ingres, Kahlo, Klimt, Malevich, Mondrian, O’Keefe, Rothko, Schiele, Velazquez, Vermeer. He had two extra now and wondered what was missed. Hard to fathom a set of art books for a coffee table without an impressionist. His right hip hurt as did his left heel. He took a series of deep breaths. Got books. Get food. Get home. Get home. When one is safe at home there is always time to think.

The door opened into a dark warm space. A physical bell attached to the door alerted Jaffar’s owner to an arriving guest. Door closed. Credit card. Waited. Pleasantries and blessings all around for everyone surviving the pandemic. Signature. Grabbed two bags. Door closed. Bell dopplered into background.

Archer would take the easier climb home on the hill at the end of the creek. He turned left, head down the stairs to walk along the tow path by the creek. The tower of art books topped with four other books was impossibly balanced. His palm supported it like a pizza delivery man; one of the Jaffar bags, attached to that wrist, swung underneath. His other hand, with a much heavier allocation of food, was held away to balance out his center of gravity.

A tennis ball rested on the steps. It was certainly at rest. When he started his descent, the ball began to roll. Maybe it was attached to a string; he couldn’t be sure. The ball accelerated, bouncing down the steps towards the brackish creek. A small white puppy ran from out of the bushes on his right and snatched the ball. Archer stutter-stepped to avoid the puppy and stumbled down the steps. He landed on his knees and grabbed the edge of the tow path to prevent his plummet over the edge and into the creek. The tower of books paused in mid-air like in a cartoon and then fell four feet into the water with a complex splash. From under the bridge four or five assorted shaped and sized dogs lead by the small white one grabbed the two sacks of food and raced north up the tow path and scrambled into a break in the bramble. The crows above raced after the dogs.

Empty-handed Archer walked home slowly. He was close to home and could hum without fear. He thought of Fritz Wunderlich, plugged in his ear buds and played Das Lied von der Erde. The vultures high in the overcast tracked him back to the apartment. They may as well have been singing Wunderlich’s part. “Seht dort hinab! Im Mondschein auf den Gräbern. Hockt eine wild-gespenstische Gestalt; Ein Aff ist’s! Hört ihr, wie sein Heulen.”

Archer raised his fist without looking up, “Indeed I crouch like an ape, but you will not hear me shriek.”

David M. Rubin has a Ph.D. in biology. His stories, poems, and essays appear in After Dinner Conversations, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Café Irreal, ffraid, Last Stanza, Maudlin House, Moss Piglet, The Nabokovian, and The Smart Set. Links and connections to be found @Six18sFoundry.