Here is the thirty-sixth in a series of fifty-two weekly one-page stories I’m publishing on this site. This one is inspired by a slide show created by the artist Ad Reinhardt and shown recently at a gallery in New York, though Mr. Reinhardt should not be held responsible for the story. Thanks for reading.
It was quite a slideshow. First there were faces, then just eyes, then feet, then buttocks, followed by triangular things, round things, stripes, archways, turrets, rows of windows, crucifixions, etcetera. “I wish this guy had designed our city, which is so ugly,” a man said to Tim when the lights came up. On the elevator ride to street level from the sub-basement where the slideshow had taken place, the man said, “I’m Benny.” “Tim.” “Wait, are you the Tim who’s friends with Chris?” Tim’s heart beat faster and he said, “Yes.” “Oh, man.” The elevator doors opened. The two men walked down a dark tunnel, through a metal door with a rusted exit sign above it, and out onto the dark street. “Look at this,” Benny said, “it’s hideous, this whole neighborhood, the cheap materials, the uninspired shapes, the hasty construction, a festival of expediency and greed.” “I agree,” Tim said, “and yet people are planting gardens, making murals, having parades and parties in the streets, organizing slideshows. People are resourceful and resilient.” Benny said, “So are cockroaches. These buildings make me crazy. And it’s no better elsewhere, even in the so-called Golden Acres area of town, what an atrocity that is.” “Well,” Tim said, “I don’t know, some real innovations were attempted there.” “Yeah, yeah, it’s all ‘green’ and ‘flowing’ and ‘mixed use,’ with ‘indigenous plants’ and ‘lots of sunlight.’ The architects are a bunch of self-serving show-offs, if you ask me.” “I’m one of the architects,” Tim said. Benny said, “Yes, Tim Tonglen, designer of the Mucker Building. You might as well have designed and built a giant asshole. What kind of a name is Tonglen, anyway?” “It’s the name of a Tibetan meditation practice where you breathe in the suffering of others and breathe out happiness for all sentient beings.” “What about the happiness of our friend Chris?” Benny asked. “Ah, Chris,” Tim said, and felt a familiar leaden weight descend on his heart. Benny said, “What good is ‘Ah, Chris’ going to do him now? You could have awarded his company the contract for the Mucker Building but you didn’t, even though you guys were childhood friends.” “His bid was too high, he employed non-union workers, and his safety record was abysmal, so no, I couldn’t have awarded him that contract.” “But did you have to turn him in to the police?” “After he showed up at my house with a gun and threatened my family, yes, I did.” “Do you visit him in prison?” “No,” Tim said, and had the familiar wish that the earth would open and devour him. Benny said, “Prisons are the worst spaces of all. I don’t have to tell you what’s happening to Chris in there. I’m going to give you a beating now.” Tim looked around the dark street at the terrible buildings that would be the audience for the beating he was moments away from receiving. “These buildings want to watch you beat me,” Tim said as Benny walked toward him, hands balled into fists. “Don’t let them. Don’t let your surroundings make you a monster.” “Tell that to the guys who are raping Chris.” Tim couldn’t hold it any longer. He cried like a baby. Benny screamed. They stood there, one crying, the other screaming. Tim backed away, then turned and ran down the dark street. Benny remained motionless, as if held in place by invisible walls.