Happier Lives

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

William Webber swiveled in his office chair, sucking on a cough drop. Leo Shea, the woman, perched on a less vital chair. It was a cold room. Carpet. Gray walls. Ceiling of exposed plumbing. Webber hadn’t yet responded to Leo’s request. “I would spend every day with you,” she said for the third time. “Documenting your life. It would be good for the agency. Free exposure. You won’t even notice me.”

Leo’s words hovered and dispersed in the air with the effect of dying smoke rings. Webber pivoted back, lifted his thinker’s nose to the ceiling in a worried gaze, unwrapped a second cough drop. Sucked, considering. He stayed quiet long enough for Leo to worry, had she been too friendly? Did her new thinness broadcast discipline—or indigence? Was her hair cunning enough in its nest of tangles? Finally, the man crunched through his lozenge, swallowed, reached for Leo’s hand, and smiled. Leo squeaked her thanks in off-notes, not like a jazz piece, more like a broken piano. On that day, with fingertips cold as nickels, Leonora Shea trounced the ad industry; Webber had agreed to star in her video tour de force. Nobody could blame her for duplicity.


Back in the roaring oughts, William Webber had set up his advertising agency on a dry hill of downtown Austin, renaming the entire block “Idea City” in homage to the creative class. During the holidays, interns built nativity scenes on the slope of the lawn so Dell-Austin wives could feel seasonal when melting home from sweaty shopping so common to Decembers in Texas. An 80-foot Styrofoam snowman would wave at kids in mechanical glee, and the kids waved back through hot car windows. This Christmas, though (and the last, and the one before that), mall crowds were down. Those who did shop peered through gasoline fumes, imagining the watered lawns and lap pools of happier lives.

The noon sun jerkied bat dung into buckshot under Congress Bridge. Leo’s lip sweat, but her nose felt cold. The walk home should thaw her, she thought, after the tyranny of office-building air conditioning. She pulled at her shirt, rank with cologne—she’d wanted Webber to consider her aura mannishly competent, at least. The more guy-like she seemed, the less hard she’d have to work to be liked, a second-wave feminism tic she knew she’d have to overcome. Her toe stung from impossible pumps, a costume, camouflage. She was not an ad agency dolt, no. She was a “filmmaker”—in her mind, air quotes always accompanied the word. Say it often enough and it’ll start to feel true, say it with a vampire voice: film, letter i resting in a bourgeois bowl on the middle of the tongue, alluring l and m joining in a hum at the lips: film. She couldn’t resist the allure of artistic snobbery. She’d name the project “Ruin” or something vaguely Camus.

Her road, Industrial Avenue, originally vacant but then repurposed with the boom, formerly full of whooshing cars. Now, traffic was slowing. Her apartment—only two hundred a month, unheard-of rent between mall and highway in Austin’s improved utility district—sat at the end of a former Wonder Bread distribution center. Her red door comforted. Concrete floors cooled her feet. The warehouse was frugal enough. Leonora Shea, caught in a spider’s web, a fly with a human head. Leonora Shea, the human who used to be human. Hoary prodigy, mushrooming genius. More logical voices, keep quiet. Pictures flamed in her clammy head. Sundance. Herself in fuzzy knee-length boots. “Who are your influences?” reporters would ask. She’d respond with something like, “Desperation is the greatest motivator.”


Today’s footage: We see Webber knocking an atomic-age alarm clock off a nightstand. He hides under his pillow, no shirt on, his bold, bare shoulders vulnerable somehow. We’re there with him in the sun-dust of morning. His wife touches her toe to his. “Sugar, get up.” He tosses his blankets in a fan and looks at the camera. At us. “I forgot you were here,” Webber says.

“Go on,” we hear Leo say, off-camera. “Don’t see me.”

Webber looks away, stretches. “Boy. Am. I. Tired.”  He looks again at the camera. “Does that feel natural enough?”

William and Gerta Webber lived in a mid-century limestone ranch house among the undulant hills of west Austin. Five bedrooms. One media room. Oil paintings in firm, sophisticated blues. Couches in lady-made drapery chic. Twin four-year olds, curly-haired and gingered-haired boys. That first shooting day, Gerta Webber—the mother, the wife—floated behind Leo, a hairdo of beige cumulous clouds hugging her shoulders. She drank cognac-fumed coffee, slid from vintage industrial living room to wine-country kitchen. “We’ll just pretend you’re not here,” she said in a deep twang, waving a gleamy-nailed hand in front of the lens (we see nothing but the dragonfly wings of her fast-moving fingers). Gerta smelled of her well-endowed bank account—ethyl, geranium, cigar ash. Leo’s own financial situation—Citibank $200, rent $750, mole removed from collarbone $1000, Panasonic heavy in her hands $7,000, overwrought editing bay $5,000, 401k zero, and the broken-elevator awareness that she’ll have to quit her real job in order to get anything done with this intractably dull William Webber—sent epic arachnids of worry scuttling through Leo’s insides.


On Leo’s last day, her boss, Vogelsang, sat fingering an old KLRU-TV pencil holder, eyelids frozen on Leo like he was both hoping for and dreading her announcement.

“I appreciate the health insurance,” Leo admitted. “But I have another opportunity.” Then, hotly, she revealed the Idea City project, aware that she sounded jihadist in her enthusiasm. Vogelsang offered a fatherly “Now’s not the time to take on the world.” He spun the empty pencil holder like a bottle, waiting for it to stop, before he said, “Story or no story?”

“No story so far. Just . . .  a situation.”

Vogelsang sniffed, pulled a drawer that popped open with black and white wires, raised the two blond wings of his eyebrows, and tried to stuff a coiled phone charger into the pencil holder. “You’re quitting for a situation?”

“More than that,” Leo lied, indicating with stubborn eye contact that there was a deeper story she was keeping a secret, lest she compromise the trust of her subject.

 “We’ll fill your position,” Vogelsang said. “There’s plenty who’ll take it.” Then he rolled another adapter cord into the pencil holder, seeming excited that he had both repurposed and reorganized. “You crazy motherfucker,” he said, and shook Leo’s hand with congratulations and condolences.

Leo felt invigorated. It had been coming. At some point in life, we have to either fold, relax into the mechanics of vocational surrender, of fluorescent-lit mediocrity, lie enough to get by with the knowledge that we’re not living up to our best pancake—or clear the brush, drive out, jump off, build our own fire, make our own more true way.


After quitting her job, from dark until light of morning, 50 feet in the air, with a lamp clipped atop a wide expanse of wood, six buckets of ATX exterior gloss, the punch of acrylic in her nose, and the shushing sound of faraway traffic, Leonora Shea painted billboards for money. Outdoor marketing, the irony was not lost on her. Every night she climbed under the moon, rolled out glossy proclamations, let her watery eyes fill and empty, ascended, stacked her basket with empty buckets, drove home on the black streets, still paint-pungent, to sleep for four hours before rising again to tell the story of Idea City’s fall. They had many ideas there, about how to make money. Leo had noticed with the collapse that something was happening to the ad industry, and she wanted to document it. She conducted possible scenarios in her head: Webber clearly on edge. With nothing left. No more tricks. He would eventually cave—his authentic selfhood rising to clomp gauchely around, knocking over those triple-joint goose-necked lamps in his living room—and Idea City would become something it wasn’t before, going to neonatal intensive-care lengths to reach its audience, installing screens in incubators, hypnotizing babies at birth. Then revolt, people would favor knitting again, throw away money and trade shells and rocks for food—ha, ha, tangles and knots. Alone in front of a billboard at night. Look at the grain in the wood.


Mr. Webber had agreed to meet at Guero’s. Leo had ordered one fish taco, without sauce, Webber a stuffed green chile pepper. They wore napkins under their chins. Webber had placed a half-sucked Ricola on the edge of his plate. Salt crystals stood erect on Leo’s avocado margarita. The smell of grilling fajita beef swelled in her nose. They discussed a possible shoot, following a 7-Eleven commercial shoot, and then Leo described a new element. “Weekly video diaries,” she continued, with one nod, hopefully broadcasting wisdom and talent.

“Of my private thoughts?” Webber held Leo’s archaic consumer Sony—an older camera bought when she was still properly employed, her first digital video camera actually, using tiny blue mini-DV tapes a person could stack. He held it with the inelegance of an older media type familiar with technology but too senior-management to operate actual equipment. “People always forget what they say,” he said with a bend in his eye.

“I won’t make you look bad,” Leo’s voice broke into clunky notes again. She offered a clip-on microphone, and Webber stiffened. “I’ve worn a microphone before,” he said. He had never worn a microphone before, Leo could tell. The area near his neck was covered with a raunchy nest of moist hair that might rub against the microphone and create noise. It’s strange to share another person’s space.


Today’s footage: We see the Webbers’ bedroom. Putty-colored walls and a mattress with turgid mall pillows. Mr. Webber sits on the edge of the bed, stares into the camera. Gerta is not in the room. Sounds of the twins in roughhouse mode from down the hall. The microphone on Webber’s collar is awkwardly threaded around itself in an attempt to hide the wires, but instead evokes a fat spider. His breathing sounds like the ocean. He waits for the Sony to ask questions. Of course it does not. It never will. The tripod is as high as a five-year-old. The lens and its dumb refusal to respond can be spooky, but eventually Webber bends to the patience of silence. Everybody wants to be heard.

 “My name is Will Webber . . . and I’m . . . really upset.”

Watching the footage, a click sounded in Leo’s inner ear. Something about Webber’s delivery felt performative, but she ignored his ambitious throat clearing, lip moistening, swallowing, sighing. She fast-forwards to the spot where Webber starts to talk. Webber’s eyes, with the kind of bags you’d find on an insomniac or an addict or a poet, slide to the flip-out monitor. “This looks like hell.” He adjusts. Quick panning colors, zipping flashes of blue and white. He settles the camera. “I guess I need to reveal something.” Nobody answers. And he doesn’t continue. Looks as if he’s changed his mind. Turns off the camera.


In her concrete hovel, mouthing black beans and screening footage, Leo worried. Was she one of those people so desperate for a vision she conjured a mirage? A self-dubbed “artist” who continued to fail, even as she fell near thirty, then obsessively told stories to recast herself as too obscure for public understanding? A daily tingling in her sternum said that she did teeter on the edge of genius. The other side of genius was insanity, obviously, but more immediately, failure—a department of motor vehicles full of haunted superegos explaining over and over again why they were never known for anything.

Webber’s diaries were supposed to give a portrait of this exact vulnerability, in fact. People can’t stop talking about their disappointments, their abandoned dreams, when given a chance. Leo decided not to respond to Webber’s diaries, or acknowledge the intimacy they could so cruelly simulate. Here, on the screen, she could properly examine the man, control the relationship with a button. Here, an L-shaped scar curls near Webber’s right eye; something sharp must’ve caught him in his childhood. Webber’s hair, the color of concrete, sits atop his head in a cemented block. He touches it, lifting, fussing with the shellacked flap. A shiny scalp gleams underneath. He’s a tucker as well—a tucker with a braided belt. White-collar grooming. Coiffed wage earners.


Home life footage: We see Webber staring across the dinner table at Gerta. Both adults in profile. Wide shot. One twin under the dinner table. The other with a rubber mask entirely over his head, his face in a toothy dinosaur mouth. Close-up on Gerta now. Her neck skin is dewy and soft-looking but loose, the inside of a marsupial pouch. She is as old as Leo, or older and unable to seem younger. She leans in with her elbows on the table, the flicker of candlelight deforming her face into someone her husband obviously doesn’t recognize.

The dino says, muffled, “Pretend I’m your pet.”

A voice from under the table, “No, I’m in the castle, and I’m protecting the princess. From you. You’re the dragon.”

Webber lifts his eyebrows and says nothing. Chews.

“Samantha Wasserman got eight hundred for their house,” Gerta says. “No appraisal.”

Webber nods.

A curly head pops up from the table and a fly-swatter-as-sword waves in front of Webber’s face. He makes no indication that he is bothered or aware.

“But they remodeled their kitchen, and her husband’s a contractor, so you know they got their dishwasher on wholesale.”

“En garde. I will grant thee a key to the dungeon.”

Webber nods again.

“My book club is this Friday.”

Off-camera: “I don’t know how to dino-roar. Daddy, can you show me how to dino-roar?”

“And every time I take a shower, I get a little squirt on my ass like a bidet, the faucet’s broken.”

Still more silent nodding from Webber, in response to his wife, his children.

Gerta turns to shout. “Boys. Go to the patio. GO to the patio. I said calm, kind, and cooperative. This is not calm, kind, and cooperative.” The boys stand side by side and look wide-eyed at their mother.

Watching this, Leo remembered how she felt at their age. She admired this woman for her mothering skills; the ritual of family dinner and punishment and love pulled a string of grief that had no end for Leo.

We suddenly see nothing but the floor. The image returns to frame Gerta turning to Webber, who appears to be rooting in his spaghetti for a meatball. “Is this video about you, or your work?” Gerta says.

Webber twirls noodles slowly onto his fork, opens his mouth wide. We are being watched by the woman with the camera, he says with eyes sliding and head tilting in Leo’s direction.

Gerta sits back in her chair. “Am I messing up? I told the boys this was not a movie.”

Webber squeezes his baggy eyes shut, exhales loudly, as if meditating. Leo, watching, wished she had two cameras, one on Webber’s face, one on Gerta’s. But she had had to stay wide, to keep them both in the frame.

“Is it you, or is it Idea City?” Gerta says again, pouring herself another glass of wine, brackish red, from a bottle with teal metallic label. “Or is it our family?”

Webber stiffens. “We are being watched by the woman with the camera,” he says.

From the patio, barely audible: “Stop it! Trevor kicked me.” “Arlo pushed me.”

Gerta picks and peels tiny slivers of paper from the label on the bottle. “This is your project, not mine.” A small wince from her husband as he fits a forkful of noodles in his mouth. “And I have waited. And waited. For my project.”

We have waited, Gerta,” Webber says through his food.

“I’m thirty-FIVE. Should we talk about the reproductive physiology?” Gerta Webber slaps the air around her husband with her eyes, waits, and when her husband doesn’t answer, lifts her plate and glides into the kitchen, the ragged organza ruffle of her robe orbiting her ankles like a lap dog. Webber stands, knocks over the bottle of wine. A kid-scream from off-camera. The frame zooms down, catches liquid glugging and unraveling onto the label-flaked kitchen floor in a flow of red. Now two screams and high-pitched crying. Webber heaves a sigh, and we barely see him rubbing the skin of his cheeks. Gerta stands frozen in the distance by the refrigerator. “I’m taking a bath,” she says, muffled, and zips upstairs to the bathroom.

“She wants another baby,” Mr. Webber said out loud after the air returned to normal breathing volume. “We can’t afford it. And you have to go.” Leo attached a lens cap. Webber crouched down, crawled on his knees across the tile, breathing heavily, mopping merlot from the kitchen floor, and Leo wished she hadn’t turned off the camera. Sweat bled into the corners of Will’s custard dress shirt, withering the cotton into the semblance of an extra layer of flesh. He sat up, socks damp with red, and said, “I cannot afford another kid.

“It’s not true unless it’s on camera,” Leo said, reminding this media man.

“Conflict is good for you, isn’t it?” Will said. “Do you want my family life or my work life?”

“The two are inseparable,” she said, with a slight nod, as if she had to remind him of this great truth. It was time to leave. Leo moved toward the hallway. Webber blocked her path. She eased to the side, because it would have been inappropriate otherwise. Leo hoped Webber would lose everything, family and job. Leo couldn’t imagine a more perfect scenario, even more drastic than what she was expecting, and then she felt guilty for wanting to cause pain. She reached for the door, trembling and charged as if she had touched an open socket.


Webber called the next day and instructed Leo to meet him on the red-lip couch in the middle of the lobby. The skylights bore down. “Do not ever come to my house again,” he said. “Not ever.” Leo stared at her thumbs. She knew she should be careful and tactical, not too full of emotion. When her husband Simon had left without even taking his concert tee shirts, she’d felt her smarter side evaporate, did stupid things like spend a week with her nose pressed against the armpit of each of his tee shirts, even the ones she hated (U2?). In fact, she despised her emotions, emotions in general, for the way they could wash away logic. “You don’t want my life anyway,” Webber said, softer now, out of air.

“I love your life,” Leo said, ostensibly as an excuse for her obsession, but more to gain Webber’s sympathy. Then she found an unexpected landmine in his face. She knew what he wanted, suddenly: he didn’t want a family, or even a wife. He wanted to do something else entirely, something other than work, other than love, other than father. Slowly, Leo said, “I have a lot of time to obsess.” Time is what Webber had zero of, it’s what we all need, what Leo herself ran away from when she was single again. If you lose the love of your life, and never had children to begin with, this world is too wide open with time.

“Happiness is impossible,” Webber said, with a pushing kind of urgency that showed he had said it many times before.

“At least you have a family.” The two shared a silent minute. But Leo’s minute was heavier—clunk, two, three, four—going downstairs in the tummy. Webber did have Gerta. And Leo had nobody. What the fig was she doing, anyway? She gave a cheery smile. Closed the conversation. Webber looked ashamed, but then stood, nodded. Leo, now covered in skin and grief, had trouble standing. She looked at her shorn nails, her camera, wondered exactly what she possessed. Webber handed her a blue tape. She scoured his face, looking for evidence of a man who has just spilled a secret, but he walked away, pigeon-toed, and too fast, the way people do when they’ve left a mysterious package nobody should notice.


Diary footage: Frame opens. Mr. Webber blinks, stares, silent. He swallows. They’ve just had the argument with the spilled wine. From the background, we hear Gerta splashing around in the master bath. Webber breathes deeply, like he’s just run upstairs. “What a night.” He plays with his neck, slides his hand under the collar of his custard shirt, then stands up, takes hold of the tripod, and lugs the whole bendy thing out to the patio. We see the frame shake, shadows zip past, then finally the frame stills.

“From here you can see the lights of the city,” he whispers, like he’s about to share something of himself. His composition is abysmal. The white balance is off. “But they’re far enough away not to interfere with the stars.” He takes a deep breath. “When I was in college I thought I could be a really good artist . . .”

He’s looking at the lens. Not blinking.

“I used to say that I’d have my abstracts in galleries by the time I was forty.”

He gazes out on the hills, perfect clip for intro. “How do I make the time?”

Nobody answers. Webber stares into the lens again. A safe place to disappear.

“Sugar . . . ” Gerta calls sweetly from the bathroom, a small voice intruding like a memory. “Now the shower head won’t work. I just need to rinse my hair.”

“Daaaaad. We did Brush-teeth. We’re ready for Story and Tuck-in.”

Webber leans against the railing of the patio and shivers. He puts his palms on his cheeks like he probably did when he was eight, squeezes his eyes shut, sings the alphabet song to himself. He spits off the balcony, watching a white blob disappear into the darkness beyond the frame. We can’t tell if it lands.

Leo didn’t really want to know this man, but it was happening anyway; this was possibly why the project was not working. Leo used to want to know people. Then she started making video, interviewing each friend as they moved away. Age does this. So does intimacy. When you find the person you want to spend the rest of your life with—Simon was hers—everyone else annoys you. Knowing anybody else takes too much time. When you commit yourself to somebody, the world shrinks, and that person contains your history, carries you into the future. It’s a two-person car. Nobody else fits. Friends gradually disappear. It becomes effortful to expand the circle. And then that somebody, her Simon, alights, and then you’re alone in the car, dying to drive it off a cliff.


Downtown crawled with famine-thin freshmen. Leo felt ashamed of her quotidian jeans, too light, too wide at the ankle. She stood softly tap-dancing in front of the Art Barn, the store they’d agreed on for the hand-off, scrambling in her head for a solution. Webber was quitting the project. He arrived with equipment under his arm. Leo’s gut was hard as a frozen pea. Webber sighed, handed over his diary camera, the cords, the whole package. Leo hugged her long-lost Sony close to her body. But she regained herself, stuffed the thing into its bag. “I want to show you one last thing,” Leo said and beckoned Will into the Barn, the paint warehouse supporting her night work. Exterior, interior, flat brushes, thin brushes, oil, acrylic, gloss, matte, linseed oil, gesso. Webber touched tubes of paint. “That smell,” he said, and reached into his pocket, unwrapped a lozenge.

“I use the exterior,” Leo said flatly. “But they also have oils.” She thumped a wide scrim of canvas.

Will smirked and started to walk away. “I don’t have the time.”

Leo grabbed him by the elbow and noticed the fat there, and felt comforted; they were both spoiling. “You don’t have time? Everyone has time,” she said gently, an inspirational poster. She would get him to quit his job, too. “You just have to make it. You’re a creative.” She lowered her voice in rote words, like those of an airline hostess or an insurance salesman, but managed to keep it in an honest register, somewhere under her throat: “You of all people can’t worry about running the grind. Do what you want.” Hadn’t he heard this before? She checked his eyes, were they fluttering back in annoyance? Yes, he had heard these words before, but the idea was new to him again. He needed to hear it now. In person, Webber’s cheeks were dehydrated, reminding Leo of people who smoke for their entire life, or damage themselves with hate. His face looked puttied-up in the light of the art store, like someone used the wrong color foundation on him. A flag from inside told Leo to stop, but she ignored it. “You just need to make something,” she said, and let herself imagine his childhood. Maybe a gentle kid, with skinny arms and allergies, stuffy nose, with nowhere to go after school but the television, two missing parents, one self, no brothers or sisters, carrying a key on a piece of purple yarn hanging from his neck, his father an out-of-work illustrator who beats his mother, he hears them in the hallway from his bedroom at night and worries that he’ll end up homeless in the gutter, a criminal possibly, kicking dogs and young people, not even mature enough to walk away or to do something with himself. Leo knocked a few tubes of paint into Webber’s basket, looking at him the way she imagined his crush from high school would, bitch-face popular girl, condescending. Dreams: they’re so destructive. “You’re not much of a man unless you can make something.”

“I can’t conjure extra hours,” Webber said, rolling his lozenge around his mouth, letting it clink against his teeth as he traced with his fingers the shape of an imaginary woman, an outward line of a curved hip, bee-stinging Leo’s insides with heat, an old addiction she’d recovered from, a sudden flare-up of a jones she doused with a swallow. Webber’s body seemed building-like.

A loathsome bleep at the register. Bleep. Bleep. Bleep. Trixie, the cashier, calculated ninety-eight dollars. Leo doubted the veracity of the cashier’s nametag. Her name was probably Jennifer. “Ninety-eight,” Trixie said again. Leo didn’t care. They were getting somewhere. She paid for the supplies.

Trixie tugged at her rubber skirt. “Um. It’s declining you.”

Leo gulped and stepped backward, her skin prickling.

Webber offered a curt “Here” and groped in his pocket.

“No way.” Road-kill moment. Leo exposed like an armadillo with a cracked shell.

“It’s fine,” said Webber.

“I’m fine,” Leo lied.

Webber signed the receipt. He walked toward the exit with wide steps and without his paints. He touched hand to door and breathed hard on the glass. Then turned around. “Give it back. The diary camera,” he said with a finality that comes from either surrender or victory.

Leo stared at her feet. “I need to stop. I need a job.”

“Give it to me.” Webber inched the camera from her arms. “Let me give you something worthwhile.” Leo let him take the camera, but sucked her inside cheek and blinked and blinked. It’s okay. It’s okay. Say it often enough and it’ll feel true.


The bar at Sauces was made for singles. Families would head straight for the restaurant, faces down, avoiding the wood and Tiffany lamps and beverage napkins of single adulthood. Leo ordered a local pear cider and picked paint from her jeans before realizing Webber was already there, having watched her for a long time, as she was so used to watching him. In real life, even from far away, those poofs under Webber’s eyes made him seem thoughtful. He sat holding on to his glass, not drinking, just staring.

“Middle-aged regrets?” Leo said when she settled in next to him.  

Webber laughed in the way of someone losing a battle, but winning the war. He held a fist of media, already obsolete in the six-month life of the project. His hands shook. “Here’s my deepest.” Fingers quivering, leaf-like. “In a year we’ll send everything on brain waves.” There was something comforting about tangible objects, like memory disks, or even tapes, or reels of film. The two media professionals preferred old-school platforms, they admitted to each other.

“Now it’s just think and the thought is sent,” Leo said. “To a million heads at once.”

Will seemed genuinely concerned and said, “You’re not allowed to come to the shoot. 7-Eleven nixed it.”

Leo stitched scenes together in her head, clambering to salvage a story from the footage she’d collected.

“But you got what you needed?”

Leo pocketed the media. “Not at all.”

“Let me—”

“I’ve got it.” She plunked twelve of her last laundry quarters onto the table.


The project died. Ambition turned into a need for other things. Today, Leo still paints road signs for food, shuddering against the dark, gusts of wind up her neck, an expanse of lumber stretching wide and bold in front her nose, her cameras now obsolete, victims of media platform advancement. What actually lasts? She plays Webber’s diaries every morning over and over again, trying to make it work.

You’re a creative,” Webber says in a whisper, parroting Leo Shea. It looks like a Sunday morning. He’s taken the camera off its tripod and brought it to bed with him. Gerta’s chewing on his shoulder, creamy light surrounds them, reflecting six hundred threads per inch of Egyptian cotton. They nuzzle deep into each other; it’s almost too intimate. “But, if I stop this life only to paint . . . ” And here Webber curls up his nose and turns away from Gerta. “I’m not much of a man if I can’t make something.”

“Oh, sugar,” Gerta says.

Now, here, the 7-Eleven spot, on screens, multiple screens, Leo’s phone, Leo’s eyes, the film of her cornea, a virus of the mind, invading anything she watches or reads. She blinks to wash it away, but it remains through darkness and swirling, a light print negative fizzle burn of phosphenes, phantom stimuli of nerves into fingers. Leo watches, unbelieving, over and over, unable to blink it away, a parent witnessing her child fall into an injury. Here an actor, of Leo Shea, but maybe twenty. She’s wearing dark jeans. She’s walking up and down paint store aisles too much like the Art Barn. “You just need to make something.” Fixated. Switched. The actor exits 7-Eleven, squirting condiments on a canvas, like Jackson Pollock at a picnic, stomping on mustard, catsup, spraying splatters of red, yellow, Leo’s own self, distraught.

"You’re a creative. You of all people can’t worry about running the grind. Do what you want,” the actor of Leo says. “You don’t have time? Everyone has time. Seven-Eleven.”

Thirty seconds and her dream. There on all the screens. Inside of her. In front of everyone. “That was my idea,” she says out loud. Nobody answers.

Leo walks outside and sits down on the steps in front of her warehouse. She pulls at tangles of grass that manage to grow near the front door. Weeds smell like rot. Cars hurry past. Again she lives on a busy road.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017