Eric D. Goodman is author of Setting the Family Free (Apprentice House Press, 2019), Womb: a novel in utero (Merge Publishing, 2017), Tracks: A Novel in Stories (Atticus, 2011), and Flightless Goose (Writer's Lair, 2008) as well as the forthcoming adventure thriller, The Color of Jadeite. A past literary contributor to Baltimore’s NPR station, WYPR, Eric is curator of Baltimore’s popular Lit & Art Reading Series and a regular reader at book festivals, book stores, and events. Eric lives and writes in Baltimore, Maryland. Learn more about Eric and his writing at www.EricDGoodman.com.
Until last summer, Artscape always meant one thing to me, and one thing only: humidity. Every year I’d hit the sweltering streets of downtown Baltimore to proclaim my dedication to art. And every year, after a couple hours, I cursed my sunburned hide for damning myself to another regiment of Noxzema and Solarcain. I’d get a couple crab cakes and listen to a band play, duck into the church for an organ concert (and air conditioning), buy some artsy trinkets. But each year, I felt as though I was showing my support as I hit the streets more than I was actually having fun. I’d rather be in the Walters or BMA or American Visionary Art Museum. Last year was different. As I walked along North Street, hunting for shade while I ventured from artist to artistic vendor, it caught my eye, hooked my heart, snatched my soul. It being a work of art like none I had ever seen. On the surface, it was just a piece of garbage. But can’t one say that of many works of art? This sculpture was not beautiful, was not intricate. But it said something to my subconscious. What it said, I wasn’t sure. But I couldn’t shake it. I tried to shake it. But within minutes, I retreated from the shade to return to her tent. “Kamikaze Arts,” the sign above the tent read. I looked at the sculpture again. Amidst the tent full of wares—paintings on old fence posts, mosaics on garbage can lids, car-part sculptures surrounded by barbed-wire—was it. It was marvelous, wonderful, and moved me in a way few items outside old master works can. It was a rusty tin can with a sunflower painted right over the rust on one side, and a tampon hot-glued to the other side. What the hell it was supposed to mean didn’t even matter. Something about it tugged at me. It brought me back to a time when I understood things without understanding them. At the time I was a teenager living in Japan and having meaningful relationships with natives there. I couldn’t understand their words and they couldn’t understand mine. But this uncanny emotion existed between us—something about the benevolent feeling of wanting to understand one another. To this day, I believe wanting to understand one another can be a stronger thing than actually understanding one another. A simple smile, a nod, a bow, an involuntary laugh falling from your chest. That. It was that. “Like it?” “Huh?” I looked into the shadowed corner of the tent, where I made out a woman was sitting on a rock. I took off my shades. Thick in the middle, she wore a camouflage tank top. Jet-black hair. A tattoo of a ballerina donning a pink tutu danced on her shoulder blade. A thousand glass eyes were staring at her and me from the walls of the tent. “You like it? It’s one of a kind.” “Oh.” I picked up the can. “Not my usual cup of tea. But there’s something about it.” “I call it Rusted Coyote.” I nodded at the can as much as at her. “Why?” “There’s no need to explain. It’s as natural as the weather.” I felt comfort in her vagueness. “What does it mean?” I was strangely drawn to the can. As she stood and approached me, it occurred to me that she was strangely drawn to me. “Art doesn’t have to mean anything. What does a tree mean? What does a panting of a tree mean? It just is.” “But a tampon glued to a rusty can must mean something.” “Stop searching, man. Like it?” “I guess.” “Then that’s all that matters.” I looked from the can to her firm, tanned skin. Deep brown eyes. She must have been about my age, in her thirties. Looked like she’d lived a hard life, but like she anticipated years of good living ahead. Another customer entered the tent and pointed to a slab of wood with glass eyes glued to it. Behind that customer, another asked about a painted panel of a farmhouse burning down in the country. She turned to help them, and I noticed the way her tank hugged the valley running down her back from the crest of her neck. The ballerina on her shoulder frowned at me. I refocused on the rusty can as she finished up with the customer. “Made my third sale of the day,” she confided. “I can relax now.” “Nice. So you can give me a good deal on this.” “Nope.” She snorted. “That’s my best work ever. It’s not for sale. Just to draw cheapskates in. Like you” I threw her a disgusted look. “Lighten up, Buster. Let’s smoke a joint and I’ll let you oogle my stuff some more.” I wanted to be pissed, but something about what she said sounded familiar. A memory that wasn’t quite mine; a scene from a movie or a song lyric that I couldn’t put my finger on. I put my finger on her joint instead. An emptied clove cigarette filled with half pot and half clove, covered further with the incense she burned in her tent. Everyone would suspect, no one would know. She took the joint back looked me over, holding her breath. As she released, she asked, “Come here often?” Lungs full, unable to speak, I nodded my head. “You look familiar.” She closed her eyes and seemed to go into a trance. “So what’s the story with the rusty can?” I asked. Eyes closed, she didn’t answer. She slipped off her pumps and I noticed her painted toes. Military green nails. But what stood out to me was just how far her third toe on her left foot jutted out. “Kai!” Her eyes opened to shoot me a surprised look. I nodded and stared into her brown eyes. “Jessie Kai.” I put the sculpture down on a log display stump. The memory came floating in, like a humid haze of smoke. This wasn’t our first meeting. Wasn’t even our first time smoking together. We’d met before, smoked before, in Sasebo. Jessie and I had been Navy brats together, both living off-base in Sasebo, Japan. Those crazy eighties at E. J. King High School, located on base in the remains of an old hospital and morgue. We’d spent hours together telling ghost stories, feeling one another up, kissing, and smoking. First cigarettes. Then “marifana.” “Oh shit!” She looked deep into my blue eyes and seemed to see me for the first time. “No way!” Way. She and I had been in the same boat as Navy brats. Every couple years we had to leave all of our friends and our entire social network. We had to stalk in the high grasses of emotional cover as we entered our new home, looking for possible friends and relationships, learning to strike when potential prey was alone, avoiding the crowds; attacking with a friendly word or proposition when possibility was at its highest, and the chance of humiliation was at its lowest. She moved to Sasebo about two months after I did, so she was making her moves, stalking her prey, finding her way. “Know where to get some grass?” she’d asked me on the mini-bus one day. “Sure,” I’d lied. But she motivated me to turn it to truth. We’d made out, had gotten high, had all but deflowered one another on the benches outside the shopping arcade. But when it had mattered, she’d broken my heart. The end-of-year dance was coming up. E.J. King was a small school—there were only fifty of us in sixth through twelfth—so the Senior Prom was open to all of us in order to make it feel a little more like a prom. Now, looking back, I’m surprised they didn’t bus in girls and boys from local schools. But it was just the fifty of us. Choice was limited. I’d made mine. We sat under a cherry blossom tree. Cliché, but true. “Would you like to go with me to the dance?” “Uh,” she exhaled the smoke, nearly choking on it. “I’m … just … going to go with the other girls, as friends.” “Oh.” I looked at my lap and wished I was out to sea, deployed with our fathers on the St. Louis or San Bernardino. “But we can dance.” She rubbed her bare foot against my bare leg, her long third toenail scratching me. “Sure.” The next morning, when I went to my locker to get my books, I overheard her talking with the new clique of girls she’d gotten in with. “He actually asked you out?!” Jackie projected with an exaggerated gasp. “Shhh,” Jessie hushed. “He’s right there.” I took my books, went to class, and never asked another girl out again.
Now, in the smoke-hazed tent, I stared at her military green toenails and her camouflage tank top, those lukewarm brown eyes. I wanted to say to her what I should have said to her back then at the lockers. “Hey, I’m interested, not deaf. I can hear you, you know. Yes, I asked you out. I wanted you. But you know what? I wouldn’t want you now. You latched onto me out of desperation when you were new and didn’t have any friends, then used me as a stepping stone to get up to the next level of coolness. Well you know what? Go giggle with your gaggle of new coolies. I’ve got better things to do with my time.” Now, in the humidity of August in Baltimore, Jessie Kai’s face melted into understanding as she looked into my icy eyes and seemed to know what I was thinking, seemed to sense my imagined conversation from decades ago on the other side of the world. She offered me the red-tipped roach. I refused. She offered me her hand. I refused. I stood up, and turned to walk out. “Wait!” She darted after me and grabbed my arm. She seemed as spitfire and irrational now as she had been as a teen. But with perhaps the touch of a conscious. I turned to face her, and she looked confused. She looked like she wanted to bite off my face and hug me into submission all at once. She let go of my arm, picked up the sculpture from the log stump, and handed it to me. “It’s not for sale, but you can have it. No charge.” I took the rusty tin can, a sunflower painted on one side, a tampon hot-glued on the other. The sunflower was painted right over the rust, no effort made to sand or even rub the corrosion away. Just slopped some quick sunshine over the corroded surface and slapped a sanitary napkin on the other side to conceal the mess. “No thanks.” I gently pushed the sculpture back to her side of the space between us. “It’s just a hollow, rusted shell panted to look pretty.” I walked out of the hazy tent and back into the sweltering heat of Artscape. Someday in the future, I knew I’d replay the conversation and say, “Like you.” But like that teenager on the other side of the world so many years ago, I pretended I had nothing more to say.