Flower of Our Age
By Robert David Stetten
Published in ART TIMES January 2013
Flower was held fast by the huge, glistening spider web in the rain forest. She was captivated by the fluttering, brightly colored parrots. The one of the dirty boys playing kick-the-can in front of the pock-marked wall slathered over by a propaganda poster she thought was well-composed, but perhaps teetering on the edge between overly dramatic and saccharine cute. Albert though seemed quite convinced that it was his finest photograph, so of course she too said she loved it.
On her own work her husband’s words of praise were as buttery as the curls of soft wood peeling away under her mallet and chisel. He insisted that her sculptures reminded him oh so much of those gigantic monoliths staring out at the open sea on Easter Island. Mysterious and brooding he said. Yes, yes, but Albert always had a strong streak of sarcasm in him, so one never really knew. Like when this one critic called her “The Flower of Our Age,” and Albert wondered aloud if the man had meant she had wilted. Her! Wilted!
The show had been a terrific success for them both. The gallery had sold every piece. Yes, every single piece! Though she stupidly told Albert she secretly mourned she would never see those “children” of hers ever again in the studio. He bluntly said it was silly for her to think that way and she nodded that he was right again as usual.
The crowd had consumed all of the cheese like a hoard of hungry little mice, but there was still half a bottle of wine left on the linen-draped sideboard provided by the gallery. So while the workers cleared up, Albert poured for both of them and raised his glass in a toast. “To us, dear Flower! To art and to us!” They already had drunk quite enough while mingling during the long, anxiety-filled evening. However, my heavens, here they finally sold everything. Yes, every single blessed work!
On leaving the gallery, Flower said she felt lightheaded and dear Albert chuckled and admitted the same. And just two blocks from the safety of their house and her precious studio, by golly, that gaudily painted fire hydrant appeared from nowhere. Yes, from nowhere! She was sure that the neighbors at first didn’t know what to make of the racket.
Albert twirled and twirled around in his wheelchair, making Flower dizzy and somewhat nauseous. Worse, she was afraid he was going to plough into one of her finished sculptures. And Lordy, she needed it. How she needed every one of them for her upcoming exhibit!
He was upset with her because it was ten or fifteen minutes since his painkiller injection was due and here she was desperately attempting to carve the eyebrows just right on “Albert in Guyana.” But he was always upset with her. If it wasn’t the painkiller he demanded, it was hot tea. If not tea, it was the knitted afghan to cover his knees. If not the afghan, his slippers. If not slippers...well, always something. Just how often did she have to put down her mallet and chisel to play fetch? And all because the steering wheel she was holding onto suddenly seemed to direct itself as the car smashed into the fire hydrant those three impossibly long years ago.
Flower almost gleefully picked up the Arts Section of the Sunday newspaper, which she had carefully placed on her workbench. She eagerly pointed to an article with a large color photo of herself, mallet and chisel in hand, seeming to carve a finishing touch on a statue. “Isn’t this nice, Albert honey? That wonderful critic who first called me The Flower of Our Age now saying he can’t wait for my rebirth next month at the Galleria?
Twirling about in his wheelchair, Albert snorted. “Yeah, you get wonderful critics, and I get... nothing. In that same Section, there was a long piece, with scads of full color pictures. “The Best Photographers of the Decade.” Best photographers, hell! I wasn’t in there at all. Not a paragraph, not even my name! And they should’ve at least had the sense to put in my shot of those boys playing kick-the-can in front of the propaganda poster. At least that one, for god’s sake!”
What could Flower do to placate the man? She quickly walked over to her husband and kissed him on the cheek. “Maybe they only wanted to consider photographers who were still actively working out in the field, sweetie? Yes, yes, that must be it, of course.”
He snorted again. “Hah. I know one died six, seven years ago and two others within the last year. Try another explanation. A much easier one, Flower. They’re just rotten, stupid bastards over there at the paper. It’s really that damn simple!”
Albert held out his empty tea mug. Once again! Lordy, she’s become his servant, his caretaker, and Geisha girl to boot. Why did he have to follow her into the studio every day anyway? Couldn’t he stay back in the parlor to read a book, play some fine music, take a nap? And he made her so nervous, hovering over her, carping about how slow, how ridiculously slow she was in her carving. The man didn’t seem to comprehend that she had to be painstakingly careful. One slip of her chisel and...ruination! She remembered how she watched him at work when she accompanied him once on a trip to Costa Rica. Why, he snapped dozens and dozens and dozens of shots of a bird, a waterfall, whatever, from different angles, locations, lighting, focus, and on and on, just to get the one photo he thought was “perfect”. Well, why didn’t he understand that she had no such luxury with her sculpting? Why indeed?
There! The eyebrows were finally carved just right. Another work ready for sanding, staining, and shellacking. She looked at her husband triumphantly. But he only twirled in his wheelchair and shouted, “You know, Flower. Your damn sister Susan can churn out five pieces for every one you fiddle over.”
“Maybe you should’ve married her instead then, Albert dear.” Ah, one stab deserves another.
“Maybe I should’ve. At least I’m sure she’d have been too responsible to drive drunk and put me in a damn wheelchair like this, my pet.”
Laughing, he twirled about several more times, then backed up without looking. The finished “Beloved Couple” was right behind him. This was one of Flower’s favorites, a sculpture of herself and Albert, arms entwined, in middle age, just as they were before the dreaded accident. Albert thought it disgustingly maudlin and sugary, that critics would dub it something like “The Piece to Induce Vomiting.” Flower of course thought no such thing.
The rear of the wheelchair struck against the sculpture’s base with such force that the work began to wobble somewhat. At first that seemed the extent of the problem, that all would settle down and be fine. But then the wobbling increased and as Flower watched in horror, the sculpture toppled over, crashing onto the floor of the studio with a prolonged thud she would long remember. The wheelchair meanwhile fell on its side and Albert slid in slow motion onto the floor to lie sprawled next to the work he so despised.
Flower shrieked as she ran over to inspect the damage. Albert appeared relatively intact and unharmed, but the same could not be said for the sculpture. The carved noses of both her and Albert were broken off. The piece destroyed! She cried as she caressed the fragments.
Her husband directed her to right his wheelchair and with her help, managed to lift himself back into its safety. “Well, Flower,” he said, “at least that miserable piece won’t be in your precious show for the critics to poke fun at.”
She could only stare at him. For a very long moment she could only stare at him.
Flower lovingly rubbed her special polish onto the already glowing surface of “Young Albert Holding an Eaglet” while Albert, afghan wrapped around his legs, glowered at her from the wheelchair.
“You’re rubbing the thing to death, Flower. And didn’t you say the art transit truck would be here in less than an hour to pick up all of your wondrous sculptures? God, you’ll still be picking at the damn things while the workers are trying to wrap them up to take to the gallery.”
Flower didn’t want to get the poor man even more agitated, so she just kept to her rubbing, saying nothing. To herself though, she couldn’t help but happily repeat the thoughts, “Tomorrow night, the opening. And my rebirth. Yes, yes, my rebirth!” She hummed very softly, hoping not to aggravate her poor husband any further.
Albert took a long slurp of tea. As he lowered his arm, his hand suddenly went into a spasm and the mug slipped and clattered to the floor. Staring with growing frustration at the spreading puddle, he shouted, “Dammit! If you’d just stop hitting fire hydrants, my lovely wife! Damn, damn, damn!
“If I remember, you grabbed at the steering wheel, Albert honey. You did.”
“Long before the car went out of control, Flower. Long, long before. Don’t you use that silly excuse on me again. I forbid it. Yes, forbid it!”
Flower started to sob. Soon however the sobs turned to crying. And the crying to wailing. And then the wailing to screaming. If neighboring houses had been closer, then neighbors would have certainly heard. But the houses were not closer.
She picked up her sturdy wooden mallet from the workbench. She looked about at the small forest of her beautiful, patiently created work. And then it happened. Mallet in hand, she danced from one statue to the next, cleanly decapitating each in turn. Thud and a head rolled. Another thud and yet another head. On and on and on until she was exhausted and there were no more heads to roll. She sank into a chair, dropped the deadly mallet, and wept.
Albert slumped down in his wheelchair and said not a word. Until they heard the art transit truck rumbling into their driveway, neither said a word.
(Robert David Stetten lives in Dallas, PA.)