• A Painting for the Temple

    Justin Taylor

    Spring 2023

    Spencer Silver could scarcely believe his eyes. While whole swaths of Soho, the Village, and even Chinatown had been razed and replaced—or his impression was that they had been—here on East Eighty-Sixth and Lexington, where the wild light of the January day had so dazzled him upon emergence from the subway that he’d stumbled on the stairs and now stood gathering himself by the window of a CVS, it seemed as though everything remained as he remembered it.

    He had lived in this neighborhood for only one year, and not on purpose. It was not a place to which he felt bound by nostalgia; nor was he nostalgic in general. Had he been, he’d be in Bushwick, rending his garments on the steps of the old Spanish church that was now (he’d heard) a prada store. He had come to the Upper East Side this brisk morning to see the Hilma af Klint show at the Guggenheim. It was a Monday, and he figured if he got there when the doors opened, he’d have the place mostly to himself. Later he was meeting his old friend Helen for lunch downtown. After that, he’d have to grab his bag from the hotel in Chelsea and head for JFK.

    It was a quick trip, barely a long weekend. He had come for the opening of a group show at his gallery in which some of his recent sculpture-work appeared. He’d built a dozen small boxes out of freight pallet scraps, slathered their outsides in cyanotype, and painted their interiors black. Into each empty box he had dropped a handful of half-dollars he’d painted gold, then he’d filled the box to its brim with clear resin that dried into something that looked like a block of glass or unusually pure ice. The coins gleamed and drew the eye, little sunken treasures in the lucent, impenetrable gloom, while the cyanotype on the boxes’ exteriors made them look like fallen bricks of sky. He called the series Portable Impossible Oceans. They were selling okay.

    Spencer had invited Helen to the opening, but she’d said she couldn’t (or had she in fact said wouldn’t?) leave the baby for that long. She’d suggested Monday lunch instead, if he didn’t already have plans and didn’t mind being “chaperoned,” her way of letting him know that she’d be bringing the baby and perhaps, too, a sly acknowledgement of the fact that they had, for a stretch—indeed for two separate stretches—been lovers.

    Now he was walking west on Eighty-Seventh Street, passing by the Morton Williams where he’d always done his grocery shopping. Across from the market was the Park Avenue Synagogue, which he had never had occasion to enter. This brought to mind his grandmother, with whom he and his sister, Dana, had lived after their mother died in a car wreck when Spencer was ten and Dana fourteen. He did not think of his grandmother at this moment because she was Jewish, though she was (as were Spencer and Dana, officially) but because the last time he’d visited her in Boynton Beach, Florida, it had been the weekend after the shooting at Squirrel Hill made national headlines. That had been three, almost four months ago. He remembered the scene outside the synagogue across the street from his grandmother’s nursing home: a row of police cars with lights on, a fire engine with a huge American flag flapping from the top of its fully extended white ladder. Grandma had still been in independent living then. He hadn’t known whether his grandmother took notice of the hubbub and, if so, what sense she made of it. He hadn’t asked.

    Dana was in Florida now, helping Grandma get resettled in an assisted living unit, which had lately become available. Her new room, like her old one, was furnished. What little there was to pack and move was being handled by the staff at the facility. Dana was perfectly capable of dealing with Louisa, the residency coordinator, who was a paragon of competence and earnest, if officious, compassion. Dana would read or knit while Grandma napped, then wheel her down to the dining room at five o’clock. “I’ll be back in my hotel by seven,” his sister had texted, “facetime with the kids then watch a bad movie with ? ?. If you were here we’d have to like hang out.” Fair enough. And though he and his sister were missing each other in the city, he could call on Richard and his nieces. Could but wouldn’t, it being such a quick trip and him always feeling a little strange when he had to spend one-on-one time with his financier brother-in-law. Better to prioritize the af Klint paintings, which had been hidden away for nearly a hundred years and who knew when they’d be showing here—or anywhere—again.

    Dana was the one who’d told Spencer to see the show. She said she’d been twice and would probably go a third time. It had been her apartment—hers and Richard’s—that he’d lived in when he’d lived up here.

    Enormous forms
    Narrow almost secret always stressful passages of green—green dominates “primordial chaos” series, some of these small paintings anticipate the enormous forms of the Ten Longest [Stupid autocorrect, Spencer thought; that should say Largest, but he left it as-is and continued, not wanting to break the train of thought] a poetics of admixture, becoming rather than being, possibility over presence, “paintings for the future” after all intended for the unbuilt temple, eternal because unfinished (completion = death etc) and what lies beyond the spiritual but return to the real now supersaturated with meaning bestowed by the profound encounter
    To see the sacred as inherent in the mundane
    ideal forms are not necessarily perfect forms
    If the temple had been built who would pray there and to What

    Spencer closed the Notes app, put his phone in his jacket pocket. He was sitting on a bench, near the midpoint of the spiral, weeping a little. It was approaching noon. A docent led some schoolchildren to the first of the Altarpiece paintings. A boy, maybe eight, stuck his hand in the air. His fingers waggled with such urgency that Spencer—who recognized that he, a grown man with tears on his face, alone in a public place, ought not to be staring at a group of children—assumed that the kid must need to use the bathroom, but when called on by the teacher (“Henry, yes?”) it turned out that the boy was only moved by the art and had felt the need, perhaps the same need felt by Spencer, to express the feelings and ideas that these grand bafflements had drawn up from his—from their—innermost depths.

    “It looks like the planet Saturn got pushed on an ice-cream cone,” the boy named Henry said.

    No argument there, Spencer thought, standing. He texted Dana a photo he’d taken of the Ten Largest, a panorama-mode sweep of the room where they hung. He headed for the exit. If he didn’t hurry, he’d be late for lunch.

    There had been a concert, if you could call it that, at the nursing home when Spencer visited. For many of the residents, this would constitute the high point of the weekend. When they first moved their grandmother in, Louisa had told him and Dana that the residents who “continued to thrive” the longest tended to be the ones who found reasons other than mealtime to leave their rooms. Recalling this, Spencer had all but insisted that they attend the concert, taking care to not let scare quotes sneak into his tone when he said that word. His grandmother said she thought it was a fine idea, and thanked him for suggesting it, though her own tone made clear who was obliging whom.

    Still, as soon as the show began she got into the spirit and sang along—as all the audience was encouraged to do—to songs he never would have guessed she knew: “Country Roads,” “Tennessee Waltz,” “Sweet Caroline,” “King of the Road.” The singer was a man in his mid-sixties, tall but stooped, wearing a denim jacket with blue jeans and an off-brand Stetson. He looked like someone you’d find at the dollar ante blackjack tables at Seminole Classic just outside of Davie, which for all Spencer knew was where he had come from, or was headed when he finished his set, flush with the seventy bucks (a guess) that the nursing home was paying him to haul his PA in here and do karaoke. Because he didn’t actually play an instrument. He was singing along with backing tracks queued up on his laptop.

    Now he was performing Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” and it was costing him his audience, though an hour of attention was a big ask for these people, and he—the singer—had been up there for about that long, so perhaps song selection was not the issue.

    His big finish was “You Are My Sunshine,” performed unaccompanied. This won the crowd back. The whole room swelled (slightly, like a curtain in a draft) as thirty or forty warm, rasping voices joined in song, in prayer almost, while Spencer (who was not singing) goggled at the profundity of these simple words and unabashedly naïve tune; this song had carried these people through eight or nine decades of life and still retained every drop of its elemental potency. Grandma, singing, took Spencer’s hands in hers and they looked at each other and he blinked back tears—and come to think of it, those were the last tears he’d cried until this morning, at the Hilma af Klint exhibition.

    He was telling this story to Helen because she had her ten-month old son in her arms and was singing “You Are My Sunshine” to him in an attempt to lull him to sleep. She was listening to Spencer (he could tell) with genuine interest, but only half an ear.

    They left the lunch place and walked down to Washington Square. Helen’s son was asleep in his bjorn now, soothed by the movement and so well bundled against the cold that Helen didn’t appear worried at all. Motherhood suited her. She had always been thin, at times too thin, but only ever to the point where Spencer noticed, never to the point where he said something. She was still fine-boned, probably always would be. Now, however, there was a fullness to her, a presence, perhaps emotional as much as physical. Spencer no longer worried, as he often had when they were younger, that a high wind might blow her away.

    The first time they’d dated was during college, though terms like dating hadn’t meant much then. Lovers was the word they used, and even then sparingly, only when they found themselves obliged to discuss what they were doing with someone else or, more rarely still, with each other. Whatever it was had fizzled with no hard feelings after five heady months. Among the few surviving relics of that era was a photograph of Spencer, nude in Helen’s bathtub, curled up in the fetal position and sleeping as soundly as her son slept now.

    They had been out at a party in Bushwick, back then still an aspirational—and affordable—neighborhood. (Helen would move there after graduation, which was how Spencer would come to spend enough time there to consider being nostalgic for it now.) They’d come back to her dorm, wasted and inspired, intending to have sex immediately and then make art till dawn, go for breakfast at Veselka, then back to the dorm to sleep away the day. After successful execution of the first step of the plan, Spencer’s exhaustion caught up with him. The bathtub may have been a matter of convenience, or he may have thought it was Helen’s bed. It couldn’t have been fifteen minutes later that she, who had not succumbed to the lateness of the hour or the booze in her blood, found him, and—after establishing that he was breathing comfortably, was not bleeding, did not seem to have fallen down—took the photograph. Spencer, when he saw it the next day, told her it had come out beautifully. She titled the portrait Amnion and put it in her thesis show, by which time they’d been broken up for over a year and were sleeping together only very occasionally, and strictly as friends.

    The second time they’d dated was six years after that, eleven years ago now, Spencer noted, as they stepped through the door of their old favorite coffee shop, which was a different coffee shop now but still, at least, a coffee shop rather than a bank kiosk. The old coffee shop had been the last vestige of a certain strain of nineties counterculture, itself almost a historical footnote by the time they’d arrived here and discovered it in the middle aughts. They patronized it religiously all through school and after, and when it went out of business the very same week as their second breakup (on a bench in the park, which they’d walked past a moment ago, though neither of them said anything) the coincidence had struck Spencer as serendipitous, though he couldn’t have said in what way.

    In its current incarnation, the coffee shop was gallery-white inside and did most of its business in cold-pressed juice, though why people wanted to walk around holding cold juice in January was something neither Helen nor Spencer could figure. There were displays of soap, jewelry, and birthstones where the ratty couches used to be. The new shop offered no seating at all.

    Helen was attempting to plumb the depths of her purse in search of her wallet without disturbing her sleeping child. Spencer, who had been standing behind her in line, stepped forward with his Amex in hand. “Allow me,” he said, “for the auld lang syne.”

    “Platinum,” she said as they waited for their drinks. “Don’t think I didn’t notice. Or was my noticing the point?” She smiled beneath her white wool beanie and he thought of the night, back in undergrad, when she’d shaved her head, and how her hair had grown back darker than before, almost black, so it matched the circles that formed under her eyes when she stayed up for days finishing a project. She’d emerge from her studio or bedroom to scrounge up a mug of tea and a handful of almonds, and he’d sometimes find her this way, hunched over her spoils—he had once told her, or maybe he’d only thought to tell her—like the world’s sexiest raccoon.

    Justin Taylor’s next novel, Reboot, is forthcoming from Pantheon in 2024. He is also the author of the memoir Riding with the Ghost, the novel The Gospel of Anarchy, and the story collections Flings and Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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