Listen to Night Rush:
Charlie Pepper ate in silence with his wife Cynthia and her best friend Portia, his most recent employer. She had invited the Peppers over for dinner to celebrate the opening of her art gallery, the latest in a string of unsuccessful projects that had yet to make a dent in her trust fund.
“I can’t believe we open in three days,” she squealed. “I mean, I believe it, because it’s been a shitload of hard work, let me tell you. My god. So busy. Well you know, Cyn, I’ve hardly seen you.”
Cynthia forced a smile and cut her meat into smaller pieces. Charlie shifted in his seat, never looking up from his plate. Portia watched the couple, neither of whom would meet her eye.
“What are you two so morose about? Charlie, you should be more excited. You’re a part of this, you know.”
Portia had offered him the night security shift at the gallery because she knew he wouldn’t find a job before winter, and even if he screwed it up, it was only temporary.
“Have you seen the exhibit?” Charlie tried to sound casual.
“Bits and pieces. I’m letting him have his creative freedom. He’s so private. Well, surely you remember…” Portia trailed off.
Cynthia cleared her throat. Charlie tried to think of something to say to change the subject.
“I must say, you’re handling all of this very well, Charlie. I know you didn’t particularly like Tobyn.” Portia was never one for social cues.
Charlie stiffened and tried not to show it, but he was already pissed about spending his night off with her overcooked duck confit. His eyes felt sunken and he had a headache. It had been five weeks since he slept through the night.
“I haven’t thought about him in years,” he lied.
“That whole thing was blown way out of proportion,” Cynthia said quickly.
Tobyn Samuels was a local artist who had made a small name for himself on the east coast the year earlier, when he recreated the street of Mussolini’s headquarters using antique dollhouses. He graduated the same year as Charlie and left town shortly after.
“Some people aren’t going to get his work, but I, for one, am thrilled. This town needs a bit of fire up its vagina,” Portia said. “He would fit in well back home, or New York. Not L.A., of course. It will be interesting to see how his work is interpreted by less ambitious minds. Well, you know what I mean.”
Portia brought up her San Franciscan roots as often as she could, even though her family had moved to the Pennsylvanian hamlet during her childhood, and Charlie thought that her valley-of-the-malls hairstyle was telling enough.
“I heard they have a lead on the vandals,” she said, her voice taking on a serious tone.
A week earlier, someone had tagged MAKE METH NOT ART over the gallery’s exterior walls. This incident prompted Portia to hire round-the-clock security while she waited for the surveillance system to be installed the following week.
“Little shits. I feel sorry for them,” she said. “They’ll never make it out of this place.”
Cynthia’s eye twitched and Charlie wondered how much pressure it would take for his fork to puncture Portia’s skin. Instead, he kicked her under the table. “Sorry. Foot’s asleep.”
For the rest of dinner, all that could be heard was the scrape of cutlery on plates.
After dessert (peach cobbler – too crumby), Charlie and Cynthia drove home in silence. Her round, brown eyes went wider than usual whenever she glanced at the speedometer. She was worried that he had too much to drink. Charlie felt her gaze and pushed harder on the gas pedal.
“I can’t believe how dry that meat was. How did you eat so much of it?” Cynthia asked.
“Years of practice,” he replied. “Not sure why you’re surprised. She’s never been very domestic.”
Portia’s inheritance had grown exponentially after her grandfather’s quinoa conglomerate invested in the manufacturing of organic tampons.
“She’s been good to us. I don’t know why you always have to shit on her.”
“I’m not shitting on her. I just think she’s a lousy cook. Jesus.”
“Well you’re right, you certainly don’t need to know how to cook when you’re that rich. You have time for other things,” she answered in a cold voice.
“What other things?” He looked from the road to her and back again. “You’re jealous of her? Seriously?”
“Everybody is jealous of her, Charlie. She’s a goddamn heiress.”
“What the fuck does that mean?”
Charlie ignored her and kept his eyes on the faded lines that ran between the lanes—how he knew every turn, every dip in the road. After ten years of marriage, he realized he would never know his wife as well as he knew which potholes to avoid.
“What do you want to do for our anniversary?” he asked.
She opened her mouth to respond, but let the silence hang on them until their black Ford Explorer pulled into the driveway of their duplex. The time on the dashboard read 9:53 p.m. Friday nights didn’t last as long as they used to. They ran out of things to talk about earlier than they did before.
“You left all the lights on again,” she said.
Their house felt smaller on the inside than it looked on the outside. Cynthia went straight up to bed and closed the bedroom door. She worked six days a week as a nurse and rose systematically at 4:30 every morning. She liked to go swimming but rarely went. She wanted a vacation by herself. As she drifted off, she dreamt of South Pacific beaches but woke up with the taste of sand in her mouth and couldn’t get back to sleep. Downstairs, her husband wasn’t sleeping either, but he was used to it. The images on the television flickered as his eyes tightened and slacked. The tiny blue planets within them constricted. He was drinking more than usual. When his eyes readjusted to his surroundings, he thought he saw Cynthia staring at him, but it was just the woman on the television.
Charlie pretended to be asleep when his wife left for work, then made eight cups of coffee and a club sandwich. From the kitchen, he heard a familiar voice on the TV and spilt the hot liquid on the area rug on his way to investigate. The interview was from the day before. It was time-stamped and had a tagline running the bottom that said: PUG SAVES GRANDMOTHER FROM ASPHYXIATION.
“I’m here with artist Tobyn Samuel, a local celebrity here in Pine Ridge. Can you tell me what we can expect going into your show this weekend?”
Charlie thought the camera made him better looking than he was. Or maybe he just remembered him uglier. His dark skin had taken on a noticeable glow. His face had lost its baby fat and cleared up; he had grown into his nose. His seaweed-colored eyes looked the same, though. Crocodiles in a pond at night.
“It’s all relative to the viewer, but it’s about materiality and the human condition, specifically the transition from child to adult. My experiences as a teen in Pine Ridge were instrumental to this project, which is why I wanted to open the exhibit here.”
Charlie wanted to throw his mug at the television but instead gripped the handle harder. Not only was Tobyn Samuel more successful than he was, he had grown up to be more handsome.
In his last year of high school, Tobyn made the rugby team. During an evening practice, Charlie tackled him hard, elbowing his kidney and sending him facedown on the field. It was intended as an act of camaraderie, a welcome-to-the-team tap that turned aggressive in the process. He didn’t know what it was within him that switched—he had just done it to do it. After practice, the coach gave Charlie a half-hearted lecture about team unity. When the other boys were out of earshot he said: “Good job today, Pepper.” By the time Charlie reached the showers, they were empty except for Tobyn, who had his head low under the hot water, his hands massaging his lower back where he had been hit. The water was running down his spine onto his ass, plastering his leg hair against the skin, turning it darker. Charlie tried to think of something else. He thought about Cynthia and how her breasts looked in the moonlight. He thought about the way his cock looked inside her mouth. But this moment was stronger. Without meaning to, Charlie started touching himself, first slowly, then faster. The sound of water and wet skin echoed off the ceramic walls. Through the curtain of steam, Tobyn turned his head to watch. Their eyes locked in that small moment of intimacy. When he finished, Charlie turned around and let his eyes focus on the grout between the tiles. He stayed there a long time. When he turned the shower off, Tobyn was gone. Charlie quit the team the next day.
The second hour of his shift was Charlie’s favorite time of day, when the lights flashed on and off and the employees started leaving. The ceilings got higher, the walls farther apart. Sometimes he felt like he was in one of the displays, or at least a work in progress. The overhead lights switched off for the night, leaving the space half-illuminated by a dull, apricot glow from the backlit corners. Charlie didn’t particularly like art or galleries, but enjoyed the way he felt when he was inside this one, alone at night. Like he was something prehistoric.
The gallery was oval-shaped with a domed skylight made from seventeenth-century restored stained glass. At night, the moon would shine through and bathe the room in patriotic hues of red, white and blue. Charlie liked to walk in circles with his head back staring at the dome. His hip was bothering him more than usual, making his limp more noticeable as he made his rounds. Six months earlier, he’d gotten drunk and fallen off the roof hanging Christmas lights.
The atrium was a large, circular room that connected two separate areas: the permanent collection and, at the opposite end of the hall, a sectioned-off room that was hidden behind thick, black curtains. Above the doorway was the title: REACHAROUND by Tobyn Samuel. Charlie had tried to steal a glimpse of the exhibit a couple times, but the artist was always present, huddled or crouched in front of one of his mutations. The last time he snuck a peek, Tobyn caught his eye, and then Charlie got a bad stomachache and had to leave work early.
It was another two days before the exhibit opened to press. Tobyn was in New York for an interview and wouldn’t be returning until the weekend. Charlie felt his curiosity get the best of him and removed the Velcro curtains from the wall just enough so he could slip inside.
The exhibit was made mostly from children’s toys, which made it more unsettling: badly-burned Barbies and broken Kens with their hair singed off, stuffed animals with piercings and tattoos, Tonka trucks with rubber eyeballs for wheels. There were displays made from PlayStations and GigaPets, melted down and twisted into contortionist shapes. One sculpture was a mannequin with Japanese knives for limbs. The installations differed in material from plastic to bone to old IBM screens. Towards the back of the room there was a glass display of small animal skulls with giant googly eyes over their sockets. In the center of the exhibit was a six-foot penis made out of clay, complete with two enormous testicles that were covered in the artist’s own pubic hair, as detailed in the description beside the sculpture. Charlie wondered how much fucking time it would take to grow and remove that much pubic hair. He toured the room, his irritation bubbling into anger. Depending on how the light hit them, the installations took on lives of their own. Charlie thought he saw them move when his back was turned. The burn-victim Barbies had their arms in more lurid positions than before. The stuffed animals traded appendages. His eyes hurt. He thought he saw a man trapped behind the glass pane but it was just his reflection. As he wandered the room, his resentment turned into something else. The beginnings of a plan sparked inside him, and he felt fire down his throat. It snapped his senses into full alert, and before Charlie had time to doubt himself, he ran out of the gallery, locking it behind him. He took all the shortcuts he knew to get to his place. He drank whisky from his flask with the windows down. The colors of the night were more textured as he drove, so that he was sure he could reach out and grab them. When he arrived home, he quietly went searching for supplies, careful not to wake Cynthia. Everything he needed was in the shed and basement—things that every house has but rarely needs, pieces of the American dream. He put the supplies in the backseat of his truck before speeding back to the gallery, eager to make his first move.
Charlie’s eyes fluttered from the lack of sleep, straining his eyesight and punching a steady rhythm into the back of his head. He took another swig and rubbed his skull as he walked around the installations, wondering what to do first. He ripped off the teddy-bear heads and put them on the furry torsos backwards. He removed the paintings and flipped them upside down, turned them so they faced the wall. Up the shaft of the prosthetic dick he wrote: FUCKED YOU FOR YOUR MONEY. Opening the gallon of red paint, he scrawled FOOD NOT FRIENDS over the glass displays, with arrows pointing to the animal skulls. When he was finished, he took a step back and admired his work. There was a brief moment where fear took over as the reality of losing his job swelled up inside him like a thick red cloud. And then he’d never hear the end of it from Cynthia. He took another drink of whisky and pushed the feeling down. No one had even seen the exhibit yet. For all anybody knew, it was Tobyn who designed the monstrosity, and by the time he returned for the opening, the damage would be done. The rest he couldn’t think about. Satisfied, he put back the black curtain.
Soon it was morning, and he hadn’t thought about his insomnia or the reasons why his wife hadn’t slept with him for over a month, and how maybe he didn’t even mind at all. Charlie heard the day guard enter the building to relieve him and was comforted by the old man’s reaction to Tobyn’s showcase.
“Sickening. I always knew there was something wrong with that kid. He never looked you in the eyes. And he was always reading.”
Gordon took his job as seriously as any retired cop would, and liked to talk of the local baseball team and little else. Charlie traded pleasantries with him and then got into his truck and drove home. By the time he arrived, Cynthia had already left for the hospital. He rolled a joint and settled on the couch, pulling down the blinds to block out the light. He closed his eyes but his thoughts wouldn’t let them stay shut. There was something larger at work within Charlie Pepper, and he didn’t have the language to know what it meant.
Tobyn quit the rugby team the day after Charlie. He rarely showed up to class and became more of a ghost than he already was. A month before graduation, he held his first exhibit at the local community centre. Charlie’s art teacher was giving extra credit to students who attended, and since he was failing, Charlie had little choice in the matter. The majority of Tobyn’s expo was underwhelming, even for the art teacher who reveled in mediocrity. But there was one piece that attracted a lot of attention. It was a medium-sized oil painting, featuring two naked men in a shower, one looking longingly at the other, cock in hand. Charlie stared at it for a long time, immediately recognizing the shape and lines of the man with the blue eyes. The painting sold that night (courtesy of Portia’s occasionally Republican parents), thrusting Tobyn into a local spotlight that earned him a ten thousand dollar scholarship to a private arts school in Philadelphia. The artwork became a point of discussion in town, since its content was somewhat controversial in a community with a video store that didn’t even have a back room. Rumors came and went about the familiarity of the man with the blue eyes. On prom night, a small flyer with a photocopy of the portrait made its way through the school gymnasium, with the words CHARLIE PECKER scrawled over the image. After seeing it, Charlie left Cynthia in the bathroom and got drunk in his parents’ backyard listening to Guns N’ Roses. He felt ashamed and angry, but deep within his rage was a sliver of satisfaction that if he never escaped his small-town life, Charlie Pepper might live another one, as an object on a wall, where strangers saw him as something interesting.
When he showed up to work, Charlie saw a group of well-dressed men talking to Portia. They smelled like the city, chemical and cold. The intensity of their dialogue increased the longer they spoke. Charlie noticed the suits gesturing wildly towards the exhibit, but he couldn’t hear what they were saying. They were still deep in conversation as they left the building with Portia at their side, without so much as an acknowledgement in his direction. His throat got tight. They hadn’t removed any of the pieces. The muscles in his neck tensed and made it hard to swallow. He felt the anger rising in his throat and kept it down with whisky. Something inside him was stirring, an animal he was meeting for the first time. It was hard for him to remember that he wasn’t dreaming. That he wasn’t sleeping. The drink had taken hold and Charlie knew better than to let go. Consequences were like hangovers in that you know they’ll happen but it doesn’t stop you from having four more shots.
He waited for deep night before going out to his truck to unload the supplies he’d left there, and began working shortly after midnight.
He opened the can of paint, dunked a brush into it, painted the dick red, and caved in the pee hole with a hammer. He smeared his handprints on the oil canvases and their frames. He toppled over the GigaPet sculpture. He drew a sad face on the mannequin’s stomach and painted GOT MILK? over the breasts. With his flask in one hand and a brush in the other, he worked himself into a spell as the late hours bled into the early ones.
Charlie Pepper was somewhere between hungover and still drunk when he got home.
Cynthia smelled the whisky on him.
“You wonder why you can’t get me pregnant, it’s all that fucking booze and weed. You’re annihilating your sperm. I’m thirty-one for chrissakes. It’s nearly a wasteland in here,” Cynthia said, with a hand on her stomach. “I can’t handle this, Charlie. I swear to God, if you lose this job, it’s over.”
She never told him that their doctor had discovered that her ovaries were semi-hostile and it wasn’t just his semen (though his sperm mobility was one third slower than the average male in his age bracket). It was easier to blame him because he was lazy and could barely get it up. And she wanted a way out. She had lost a lot of her life to Charlie Pepper, and she had some living to do.
The hangover grew as the day progressed. No matter how many Advil he popped or how much water he chugged, his head felt like it was being cranked in a carpenter vice. He drank a beer to see if that would help but it just made him miserable. He put on a film that that had more explosions than plot and put a pillow over his head. The more he tried to sleep, the farther his mind took him down roads he didn’t want to travel—heading places he wanted to forget. He dozed off for a few minutes and woke up to a missed call from Portia. She didn’t leave a message. Charlie took one of his wife’s painkillers and washed it down with another beer and a joint. The hangover was gone. He flipped through the channels and stopped when he saw a reporter in front of the gallery on the local news.
“The exhibit is now open to the public and everyone is raving about it. It’s already being hailed a great success. We’re all very excited to see what great things are in store for Tobyn Samuels, who has yet to comment on this critical acclaim. Live from—”
Charlie felt the blood pushing up his throat. There was still another four hours before his shift, but he hopped in the truck and drove down the roads he had spent his life on, his hands gripping the wheel so tight that they became a part of it. He pulled up to the gallery and cut the engine. The parking lot was full. There was a lineup.
There was a lineup in Pine Ridge.
He walked through the maze of parked cars, trying not to feel the force in the air but it was undeniable. There was a hum, a buzz of new electricity.
In front of the gallery, photographers and journalists snapped photos and barked out questions at Portia, who was standing too straight, with a smile that threatened to break the surface of her skin. Portia saw Charlie approach and ushered him in for one of her fast, tappy hugs.
“Isn’t this insane? What are you even doing here? You’re not on until eight. Wait until you see it, Charlie. The kid’s a genius. Oh, there’s Mayor Thompson!”
“You called. Didn’t you?”
She wasn’t listening, too busy butt-grazing the mayor. Charlie slipped through the doors behind them. Inside, there was a silence like he had never heard before. The room was full but no one spoke. Some people didn’t know what to look at and others were on their phones; but except for the smack of gum or camera shutter or stifled cough, the room was silent. Charlie got as close as he could, elbowing a college couple out of the way. The exhibit was just as he’d left it.
Canvases pillaged, sculptures askew, dolls on the floor, animal heads on backwards. The black tiled floor was covered in paint drippings. No one had fixed it. He looked up at the faces of the spectators and wanted to scream. Instead, he went outside and drank in his truck behind the Arby’s.
He showed up late for his shift but no one noticed. The gallery was mostly empty except for Portia and a few employees who looked more drunk than he was. They exchanged goodbyes from across the room and stumbled out into the night. The space was his again. He drank from his flask and tried to keep the anger at bay, but it flooded his eyes and coated his mouth. In a moment of rage, he knocked down the six-foot penis, smashing it into as many pieces as he could. He removed a lighter from his pocket and lit the Barbies on fire, stomping them out once they were nearly charred. He got the paint from his truck and wrote EYES DISGUISE all over the walls and floor. He smashed the IBM screens and decapitated the mannequin. He placed the head on the glass case with the animal skulls inside. When he was done, a calm fear spilled over him. Not the slow-climbing one that rises from your stomach, but the one that’s like a wave, where suddenly it’s there and you’re just a part of it. He felt that one. And it felt good.
Charlie woke up in his truck around six a.m., covered in piss and paint. He was still in the gallery parking lot. He wasn’t completely sober, but sober enough to realize he was in trouble. There was another two hours before the shift change. Two hours before he lost his job, his wife and most likely his freedom. He wondered how many laws he’d broken. The bottle of Bulleit was under his foot, blocking the gas pedal. He picked it up and put it to his lips, but only a few drops came out. Opening his window, he dropped it and drove the direction of the Shaded Lane, the only motel with a liquor store across the street. He rented a room on Cynthia’s credit card and bought another bottle. He sat on the thread-bare comforter, wondering how much time would pass before he got the call. He played a drinking game with himself—every time he saw a stain in the room, he took a sip. He passed out after twenty-five minutes.
Charlie dreamt of Tobyn and Cynthia. In the dream, they were married with two chestnut-haired, green-eyed girls who were named after foliage. He awoke in a cold sweat. The room reeked of alcohol and urine. He checked his phone but there were no missed calls. It was almost five o’clock in the evening. He grabbed the remote from the bedside table and turned on the television. The TV had only four channels, all locally programmed. As his eyes settled on the moving images, he felt the familiar rush up his throat. Portia was being interviewed by a reporter Charlie had never seen before. She wasn’t from the area. Portia’s eyes gleamed on-camera. Even the pixels of the screen couldn’t hide their sparkle. Behind her was the biggest crowd of people Charlie had ever seen.
“I’m here with the curator of the Sky Gallery in Pine Ridge, Pennsylvania. As you can see behind me, the scene here is quite the spectacle. It’s been an exhilarating morning in this sleepy community, probably the most commotion this place has ever seen. People have come from as far as New York and Toronto. Can you talk to us a bit about what’s happening?”
Portia guided the microphone closer towards her. “It’s been crazy. When I showed up this morning to open the gallery, the exhibit was destroyed. For a second I thought it might be vandals, some of these country kids with too much spare time.” She paused, intentionally and for too long. “Then I started looking harder. There was an eloquence to the destruction that I refused to believe was accidental. I realized at that moment that Tobyn Samuel was so much more than anybody could have expected. Though he refuses to admit it. It’s so rare to meet an artist who is so grounded, so humble.”
In the background, two middle-aged women fought for a place in line.
“For those of you just tuning in, multimedia artist Tobyn Samuel, whose exhibit opened here just yesterday to rave reviews, has transitioned overnight from contemporary provocateur to guerrilla genius. In one of the most daring social commentaries of recent memory, Mr. Samuel demolished his exposition, reconstructing the perception of his work through its own destruction. People are hailing him as the next enfant terrible of the art circuit.”
Charlie threw up onto the carpet. The room was moving and he was moving with it. The only thing that stayed still was the television screen, though the sound was now inaudible. He tried to grab the nightstand for support, but his hand slipped and he fell. With his face an inch from the pool of vomit, Charlie looked for a pattern inside it. If the reporter was there, she would have called it art.
A familiar voice came through the static of Charlie’s thoughts. He lifted his head to see Tobyn on the screen, his mouth curved in a smirk. Charlie didn’t hear what the reporter asked him and didn’t care to.
“The work speaks for itself. It’s been an… interesting response,” Tobyn said slowly.
“Is it true that you were approached by the MoMA to feature some of your work there?”
“I’ll be relocating to New York next week to start discussing negotiations.”
“Any hints as to what we can expect?” the reporter asked.
Tobyn looked like he was about to burst out laughing. “My focal point will be the way we eat and process our food. The mediums and mindsets that affect the production and distribution, as well as the social stigmas associated with the American diet.”
“Is there a title to the work?”
Tobyn looked to the camera instead of the reporter. He let his gaze settle on the lens, calling out the man behind his fame. “Charlie and the Farming Factory.”
He went home before sundown. Cynthia was waiting for him, her awkward position on the couch betrayed something inside her. Her eyes looked full. Full of what he wasn’t sure.
“You better sit down.”
Charlie did as he was told.
It was a strange thing getting what you wanted when you were about to let it go.
Cynthia knew she should feel grateful, but she didn’t. Charlie knew they didn’t have enough money for a baby, but he thought she wanted one more than anything.
They hugged and cried and felt the water run between them.
Caolan Leander is a fiction writer from Montréal, Quebec. His work has been featured in The Void, and he is currently completing his first novel and a collection of short stories. He enjoys googling dog breeds and swimming at night.