Fiction: Bud, Bloom, Seed

Kirk tried to appear casual after following the Spaniard into the hardware store. As the Spaniard asked a clerk about sandpaper, Kirk sauntered past toward the paint section where he’d seen him the last two times. Kirk bided his time by the color wheel, flipping patiently through swatches to study the gradations between the two hundred variations of white ranging from Artic Thaw to Zinc Shimmer as he waited for the Spaniard to exhaust his sandpaper possibilities and return to paint.

A slight fellow with thin lips, full eyebrows, and a noble nose, the Spaniard was an exquisite representative of Old World charm. His fleshy ears were rounded on the tops, and the jaunty angle at which they emerged from the sides of his head made him look wise and cheerful at the same time. But it was his coloring, the dark hair and eyes against the pale skin that set the wings flapping inside Kirk. They’d been going on like this for weeks, sort of ignoring one another, sort of not, ever since Kirk first caught sight of him on Greenwich Avenue and followed him into the hardware store.

The Spaniard seemed to have gotten stuck in the sandpaper aisle. As an opening line, Kirk had planned to ask the Spaniard’s color opinion. He flipped the thick book of swatches to the blues, pretending for anyone who might be watching to be torn between Sapphire Ice and Highland Breeze, sincerely doubting that there were more than three thousand colors of latex interior house paint. Five minutes had passed since he’d entered the store, and he worried that perhaps the Spaniard had gotten his sandpaper and left. It stood to reason that since he’d visited the paint section last time he may have gotten what he needed and had no reason to return. Kirk waited another minute, then gave up; he abandoned the color chart, and headed for the door, taking the long way for a final scan.

At the corkboard festooned with several dozen varieties of wall hooks, the Spaniard turned the corner. They looked at one another. The Spaniard smiled, nodded.

Kirk stopped for a second, nodded back, then rushed out.

Kirk knew that his fantasies were a thousand times more satisfying than reality would admit. He feared pressing the point with his crush and coming up disappointed again. The Spaniard was probably just another guy whose jagged edges of ego, insecurities, and interests fit the jigsaw specificities of personality in an infinitesimally small number of men. Kirk reasoned that if he cradled his fantasy a little longer, perhaps the burning joy that flared every time he saw the Spaniard would fade of its own accord.

Actual encounters with men he thought he might like to date were often clouded with mundane exchanges of information meant to impress. Questions like “do you rent or own?” or “where did you go to school?” or political statements meant to elicit a certain response left him clammy with annoyance. Far too often the first question was, “What do you do for a living?” which everyone knew was just a transparent attempt to calculate net worth, date-a-bility, and general worthiness as a person. He never answered, “I’m a pornographer,” unless he strongly disliked the guy and wanted to put him off. Even then, it sometimes backfired. Mostly, he said he did “graphics,” which wasn’t a complete lie. It was what Kirk liked to call a truth to distinguish it from the truth. If he told people he “did porn,” then that confused them even more. Most accurately, he drew porn. Although “drew” was a bit of a stretch too, as most of it was computer generated 3D animation.

The trashy explicitness of the product bothered him only slightly. He was an artist. Animating huge cocks and geysers of cum came easily. The tricky part was trying to make it interesting beyond suck, fuck, and squirt. When he expressed this concern to Björn, the founder of the animation company and the signer of Kirk’s paycheck, Björn said, “Yes, interesting is good, but most people click off after the squirt. So…” Björn’s attractive and unsettling Norwegian stare ended the conversation.

Björn called the internet site Fungay and the company Fungay Animation Group, and Kirk had to admit it was pretty fun. The office sat in a large loft in Chelsea’s gallery district, and the entire company consisted of Björn, Kirk and three other animators: Yoshi Tanaka, Fred Smith, and Juan O’Reilly. Björn wanted to become the Walt Disney of gay porn. He wasn’t satisfied with the still cells and voice-overs of Hentai, he wanted full motion animation to go with a complex cast of “stars,” with their own personalities. In service of this, they had weekly storyboard meetings pitching ideas for new adventures. In the end, though, there were really only so many situations that led to suck, fuck and squirt. Predictability was built in.

Björn favored new scenarios with original characters, but the businessman in him recognized the importance of providing audiences with a certain amount of familiarity, so fully half of Fungay productions involved reanimating myths and fairy tales, mining them for chances to make them gay and put the horn into them: heroes waving pleasure wands, villainous redemption by orgasm—that sort of thing. Of course Robin Hood and his Merry Men proved an endless goldmine of material. One of Kirk’s first features—Little Red Tranny Hood—turned out to be a surprise hit, garnering a record number of site visits and winning a Woodie—the Oscar equivalent for gay porn animation at the AVN Awards. Kirk’s other idea featuring Jesus and his Apostles didn’t fare so well, less because of the sacrilege, and more because New Testament stories just didn’t lend themselves as well to titillation.

The bonus from the Woodie, and the fact that the site had hit a sweet spot of exposure and profitability on the internet, had helped pay for Kirk’s two-bedroom condo in Chelsea. According to Yoshi Tanaka this made Kirk “a catch,” even with what Yoshi called in Kirk’s dating profile his “interestingly strong” Armenian features.

While Yoshi was purportedly mining Japanese and American culture and myth to find possible new story lines for Fungay, it seemed to Kirk that he spent more time drafting new dating profiles for Kirk on Go-Gay, OK Cupid, Match.com, and even J-Date, not bothering to mention that Armenian Atheist Kirk was nowhere near Jewish.

Their cubicles, elegantly constructed Fortresses of Solitude, stood side-by-side at the back of the loft, each animator’s preferences met in regard to equipment and lighting so they could create the masterpieces Björn expected. House rules, which they’d all drafted and agreed upon, dictated strict silence in the cubicles, cell phones off, and no e-mails that weren’t absolutely necessary to finish a project. Conversations were restricted to the spacious meeting area at the front of the loft around an enormous, roughly hewn Norwegian maple table, or by balloon messenger tipped into cubicles over the top of the cubicle walls, which stopped about a foot below the ceiling.

Just before returning to their cubicles after the Monday morning meeting, Yoshi told Kirk, “We got a total of thirty-seven responses to the ad I placed for you on Gay Date. I narrowed them down to three. Let me know when you’re ready to evaluate.”

“Never is good for me.”

“No, Kirk. That it is not good. Normally, I’d say we’d discuss it at lunch, but we all know you’re more receptive after a drink or two. O’Reilly wants to go to Sueños for Hump Day dinner.”

“Fine.”

“We’ll consider your options then.”

“I’d really rather not highjack our weekly dinner with this stupid dating thing.”

“Well, maybe if you were more aggressive with the “stupid dating thing” you could be having quiet romantic dinners at home rather than with your work friends.”

“I like our dinners, and so do you. And you’re all free to bring your boyfriends.”

“We all have boyfriends. Except you.”

“I thought Japanese people were supposed to be polite.”

“I’m fourth generation American. That polite thing was scrubbed out three generations ago in the internment camps.”

“If I’m okay with my boyfriend-less state, why aren’t you?”

“Are you though?”

“I just said.”

“I heard what you said. We’ll decide Wednesday. You can’t sit on responses too long. Two days, maybe three. Four’s really pushing it. People move on. I put a bookmark on your profile saying you’re unavailable until Wednesday so people will know you’re not purposely being a dick.”

“I’m so tired,” Kirk said.

“You certainly are,” agreed Yoshi.

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“Thinking about sex all day long is much less fun than it sounds,” Kirk tells the Spaniard, who Kirk has decided is named Juan Carlos Quixote Cáceres Castillo de Sevilla el Cuarto.

“I love your accent,” says Juan Carlos Quixote Cáceres Castillo de Sevilla el Cuarto. “Tell me more.”

“Mostly it’s the art of it that I end up thinking about all day.”

“The art of desire. I like this idea.”

“Only initially,” Kirk clarifies. “After the story is written, it’s the art that takes over: line, color, movement, composition. But because it’s a commercial product, there needs to be consistency, which can lead to a certain mechanical quality.”

“Oh, no,” says Juan Carlos Quixote Cáceres Castillo de Sevilla el Cuarto, “I confess, I watch Fungay. I did not know you were the artist responsible for the Jesus cartoon. This is my favorite, despite the obvious drawback involving the inherent lack of titillation in New Testament stories. You are a genius. Do you make other art outside of Fungay? I would love to see.”

Juan Carlos Quixote Cáceres Castillo de Sevilla el Cuarto leans in for a kiss, but just then a large yellow balloon drifted over Kirk’s cubicle wall and dropped onto his desk. In blue magic marker was written sushi @ 1:00? followed by the fancy cursive F of Fred’s signature. Underneath was a red circled plus sign and Juan’s signature J. Kirk found a green sharpie and drew another plus sign, his signature K, and plopped the balloon over the other wall into Yoshi’s cubicle.  Shortly, Yoshi bounced the balloon over the wall and onto Kirk’s desk with a black plus and Y, and Kirk plopped it over to Juan so he could send it back to Fred.

It was 11:30. Kirk had another hour and a half to get some work done.

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As long as they met all their deadlines and were present at the twice weekly staff meetings, they were free to spend Tuesdays working at home. Kirk usually worked late Monday nights envisioning a new look for Cinderfella’s Prince, or drafting a fresh version of the Prick that induces Sleeping Booty’s slumber, so he could devote Tuesdays to his own painting. He’d gone to art school specifically to paint, but a well-meaning professor pushed him to be more practical and go into animation. “You could actually get a job,” he’d said. “And, you have a gift.”

Kirk had to wonder how many people in the history of the world had been derailed because they had a “gift” for practicality. He bemoaned this compromise for a few years until he saw how lucky he’d been. Although other friends had shows in some of the galleries among which he worked, that kind of success remained elusive to Kirk. When he looked at his life from this angle he saw himself as a failure. But when he could spend his time painting all day three days each week, and still afford to live alone, have money to travel and buy some nice clothes, he felt that maybe he was okay after all. And yet, he’d have liked to have had his own gallery show, a more satisfying emblem of accomplishment than a new pair of shoes provided.

He had to concede that perhaps it was his subject matter that held him back: he painted flowers. He couldn’t help it. Sometimes on postcard-sized ceramic blocks, sometimes on three foot by four foot canvases, but always flowers. He loved them. If he could connect a line through all the flower painters in the history of art it might begin with that tulip from Judith Leyster’s tulip book, run up through a hundred other painters like Delacroix, Chardin, and Henri Fantin-Latour, pass through a hundred more, through Georgia O’Keefe, circle back twice around exemplary colorists like van Gogh, Bonnard, and later even Joan Mitchell, whose abstract colors were like flowers themselves in their intricacy, nervous energy and beauty, and finally lead all the way to Kirk.

But flowers had been done to death. Oil paintings of flowers were sold at farmers’ markets in Union Square, in self-proclaimed “art shops” in sea-side villages, on the sidewalk along Broadway on the Upper West Side; they weren’t exhibited in fine galleries in Chelsea or on 57th Street. No serious painter paints flowers in the twenty-first century, and this was what that encouraging teacher had been more than hinting. At his friends’ gallery shows, Kirk kept his envy subsumed behind a toothy smile and told people that Georgia O’Keefe had killed the flower for modern painters.

His painter friends had been more than generous with their advice. Generous to a fault, Kirk would have said. He listened and experimented: he veered toward abstraction with the flowers; sexualized them; sought the beauty in blur; even added a little decoupage here and there. He diligently tried all of these ideas and acquired some interesting and useful techniques, but in the end his friends’ suggestions to make his art “more marketable” had nothing to do with his true project. He not only loved strict representation of flowers, he wanted to get at what he saw, to show others what was there, and in order to do that he eschewed flourish, embraced exactitude. He wanted to get at the anxiety he felt in the presence of flowers. With each new painting he strove for something technically unique, stylistically clear, something the world had never seen before because these flowers traveled from the specific attention of his eye, through the chambers of his peculiar heart, then onto the canvas.

He had a hard time putting into words the jangle that played through him in the presence of flowers. Everything changed so quickly: bud, bloom, seed. One couldn’t pay enough attention before it was all gone. The closest verbal approximation he could find was at the beginning of Eliot’s The Waste Land, but whenever he started quoting “April is the cruelest month…,” his friends clammed up, their pity unconcealed as they endured his sad attempt to rise above the hoi palloi.

And yet, he couldn’t stop himself. Nothing made him feel more alive and awake than spending hour upon hour filling a canvas with the intricacies of shape, line, and color he found in one morning glory, the complicated depths of the blues and yellows of an iris, the fragile frisson of a dandelion going to seed. He wanted to convey the agitation, the perturbation, the turbulence inherent in beauty. He wanted to capture the shifting joy and sadness of being alive, all of it, the before, the during, and the after of bloom; the effulgence and the deliquescence. A fantasy of flowers wasn’t part of his project; he wanted the brutal, cold reality of their ephemeral beauty.

Spring was torture for Kirk; no matter how much he looked there was always more to pay attention to. He had a similar feeling whenever he saw the Spaniard.

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“Sí, sí, sí. Yearning is troublesome,” Juan Carlos Quixote Cáceres Castillo de Sevilla el Cuarto says. “Is true, as you say: to satisfy a desire erases the desire.”

“And the desire part is often the better part,” Kirk says. “The most fun part.”

“Perhaps. But constant yearning with no hope for satisfaction can drive a person crazy.”

“Do you think I’m crazy, Juan Carlos Quixote Cáceres Castillo de Sevilla el Cuarto?”

“You are not crazy. Your job is important. For the annoying itch of lust that comes when we are alone, you provide a vehicle for satisfaction.”

“Usually in ten minutes or less.”

“Ha! Sí, sí, sí. Then the distraction is banished, and the world goes back to work.”

Are you almost done? Hello!! Are you almost done there?

A skinny woman with enormous headphones wrapped around her neck waved her hands in front of the elliptical machine Kirk was on at the gym.

“Are you almost done there? I mean, there’s a thirty minute limit and you’ve been on for forty-five.”

“Seriously?” Kirk puffed. “You’ve been timing me?”

The guy two ellipticals over stepped off his machine. The skinny girl flicked her ponytail, huffed off, and hopped onto the newly vacant elliptical. Even though he was exhausted, Kirk resolved to stay on for another fifteen minutes, just to spite the skinny little busybody. He resumed staring at the chink in the concrete wall opposite him that looked like some exotically finned fish and tried to summon back the Spaniard, but he was gone.

At their weekly dinner, Fred said, “I like the ex-seminarian.”

“No way,” said Juan. Juan O’Reilly had his mother’s dark Cuban looks and his father’s Irish accent, which made Kirk pay unusual attention to everything he said.

“At least he’d be smart,” Fred said. “And have some sort of moral compass. Fewer chances he’ll scatter your head and limbs miles apart on a beach in Long Island.”

“Creepy,” said Juan.  “And, ex-seminarian? He’s ten times more likely to be a nutter.”

“Whatever you do,” Fred said, “make sure you meet in public and text us intermittently so we know you’re okay.”

Kirk said, “Jesus, what is it with you, Fred?”

Juan snorted. “He met his boyfriend trolling for sex online.”

“I was one of the lucky ones, is all. Nothing bad ever happened to me. I just read a lot. Don’t you people ever watch the news?”

“He says he’s funny in his profile,” said Yoshi.

Juan sighed. “If he says he’s funny but his profile isn’t funny, then he’s the opposite of funny.” Juan leaned in to look at the ex-seminarian’s profile on Yoshi’s phone. “Thinks quite highly of himself I should say.”

“It’s a dating profile, Juan. How’s he going to attract a mate?  By saying: Big loser. Dumb and ugly. Call me?”

Juan leaned in again to look at Yoshi’s phone and said, “Might as well.”

“Who would you pick, Juan?” Fred wanted to know.

“I like the Jewish looking one.” He took Yoshi’s phone from him to read the profile: Square peg looking for a circle to teach me something new. Triangles need not apply. “Sort of funny. Looks fit. I love funny-faced men who look like they’re packing.”

“No,” Kirk said. “He’s a doctor. All they talk about is work because they think they’re so great and valuable and interesting.”

“That’s so unfair and superficial,” said Fred.

“Right,” said Kirk. “Because there’s nothing unfair or superficial about online dating in general or gay men in particular. Anyway, isn’t it supposed to be who I like?”

Yoshi said, “You never like anyone. This is why you have friends, so we can decide who you like. Now, nobody has said anything about suitor number three.”

They all leaned in to look at suitor number three on Yoshi’s phone for a moment. They all leaned back.

“Right,” said Yoshi. “Ex-seminarian or funny doctor.”

“No doctors,” said Kirk.

“Good. It’s settled.” Yoshi typed rapidly on his phone. “I’ll suggest an after work coffee date on Friday. That way if it goes well…”

“Oh, god,” said Kirk.

With one last tap Yoshi smiled, put his phone down and said, “Sent.”

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The week prior, they were pitching characters for a feature Fred had written. The story involved a chef/restaurateur and an evil real estate mogul who was trying to acquire the restaurant property to re-sell it to a bank for mega profits. The two adversaries get accidentally locked together in a meat locker, and to keep warm… well, you know. Kirk was working on the villain. As they all sat at the big table reviewing preliminary sketches, Kirk was horrified to realize that in an attempt to make the real estate mogul sexier he’d given him the Spaniard’s ears. This was exactly what he’d been fearing—a bleeding of the borders between his real art, his private obsessions, and his job. Back in his cubicle he scanned his past work, only to discover that his cumshots were becoming progressively more florid—not that a hero would squirt daisies (although he did do that once in a psychedelic Woodstock feature), but sometimes the seminal curves took on delicate arcs he saw only on petals or stalks. He immediately vowed to change his ways. Then, at the end of the week, Björn called them all together to announce that a feature Yoshi had written and managed had just been nominated for this year’s Woodie, and that Kirk had also been nominated for Best Cumshot in an Animated Feature. For a few hours after the announcement he forgot about his vow to reform, and he was proud. But at home that night he steamed with shame. He’d polluted his talent, his vision, his mission. The art world thought nothing of him. As an artist, he could only rise as high as porn.

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Kirk walks into the room. Juan Carlos Quixote Cáceres Castillo de Sevilla el Cuarto has collected all of Kirk’s flower paintings and hung them like a gallery show over all four walls. Juan Carlos Quixote Cáceres Castillo de Sevilla el Cuarto stands at the center of the room, misty-eyed. He sees Kirk, and says, “I now understand what you say about yearning,” while turning a slow revolution, “about paying attention.” He can’t keep his eyes off the paintings. He reaches for Kirk’s hand to hold, quietly weeping. “I see,” Juan Carlos Quixote Cáceres Castillo de Sevilla el Cuarto says. “I see.”

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Kirk had had an idea about how Rosencrantz and Guildenstern might have spent their time in the castle playroom before meeting their old friend, Hamlet. On Thursday, he spent the whole day at the office trying to concoct believable, randy-looking figures to pitch to Björn and the team the next week, but he left disappointed in his progress.

He took the long walk home from work, strolling down past the hardware store “just to see,” and there was the Spaniard, half a block ahead entering the hardware store. He headed down the hammer aisle, so Kirk quickly ducked into the bathroom mirror aisle to check his hair before the Spaniard saw him.

Kirk’s forelock had grown to an in-between state, undecided which way to lay. He crouched low to get a better view in a lighted mirror on the bottom row, tugged the forelock right and left, playing with the possibilities when the Spaniard suddenly appeared beside him and said, “You prepare for your Paparazzi?”

“Ha!” Kirk said. “Ha!” He’d straightened up too quickly, and all the blood briefly drained from his head. He held fast to an aluminum towel rack above the mirrors to keep from passing out. After a silence that Kirk finally realized was his, he said, “You buy a lot of paint. I mean, it seems. I mean, you left once with two cans. I noticed.”

“I decorate my new home. You are here also often. I think you work here, and then I see you pay, so then I think, no.”

“Here? Me? No. I don’t work here. I’m here because… spring cleaning.”

“But is now October.”

“Right, right. I’m a little late.”

“Or early.”

“No, I don’t work here.”

The Spaniard smiled into the silence.

“I do graphics. Mostly. I work at home sometimes. In my studio. My studio in my apartment, not a studio apartment. I have a bedroom. A second bedroom. Which I’m cleaning and fixing up. The studio.”

“For spring.” The Spaniard pronounced spring with a little breath before it so it sounded like eh-spring.

The word hung between them as Kirk slowly calmed down. Eh-spring: The constant rev of his heart slowed to a steady hum.

“I use my studio to paint flowers,” Kirk confessed. “Big oil paintings of flowers. My friends all think I’m silly.”

“Your friends, they are silly. Everyone loves flowers.”

Eh-silly.

“Do you think…” Kirk started, but the Spaniard had also started to speak.

“My new home is a work in progress. I love to do it, but a second opinion can help also. Perhaps you would be kind to look at it, and then I take you to dinner.”

“I’d love to,” Kirk said. “When?”

“Here is my card.’ The Spaniard turned the card over and wrote his address and cell phone number on the back. The card said Rodrigo Rodríguez J.D. Assistant Professor of International Intellectual Property Law, NYU School of Law. “Saturday? Six PM?”

“Perfect.”

Rodrigo quietly assessed Kirk for a moment, then reached up, twisted and fluffed Kirk’s forelock into the most fetching position. “Do not be late.” He stood back, gave Kirk a thumbs up, and walked to the register to pay for two boxes of nails.

Kirk stood, frozen in place. He hadn’t consciously been waiting for him, but when Rodrigo had paid and turned, there stood Kirk, and they walked out together.  In the time between leaving the hardware store and reaching the corner of Jane Street and Greenwich Avenue, where Rodrigo had to turn to go home, they learned that Kirk had grown up on what he called “the West Coast of Michigan,” that Michigan is the only U.S. state you can distinguish clearly from space, and that Rodrigo had grown up in Córdoba, where on the last Saturday of April they have La Battalla de las Flores, which involves a parade where people on florally bedecked floats throw hundreds of thousands of carnations into the streets. At the corner of Jane and Greenwich, Rodrigo leaned in, planted a light, feathery, coffee and sugar tasting kiss on Kirk’s mouth, waved goodbye and walked slowly home.

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On Yoshi’s and Juan’s urging, Kirk kept the date they’d worked so hard to make for him on Friday with the former seminarian. “Just in case,” said Yoshi.

“You never know,” said Juan.

“Your Spaniard could turn out to be some sort of fugitive from justice,” said Fred. “The leader of a terrorist cell.”

Kirk stopped at home before his coffee date, rejected the idea of a shower or even a change of clothes to prepare. Instead, he lay down and read for half an hour. On previous evenings preparing for a date Kirk understood how some people get addicted to dating. The agitation before the date seemed similar to what he’d heard about cocaine. It gave you a big rushing bump, but when it was over you found yourself more drained and desolate than ever. […]


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Joseph O’Malley’s collection of short stories, Great Escapes From Detroit, was published by Cornerstone Press in 2019. His fiction has appeared in dozens of journals, most recently in Colorado Review, Glimmer Train, A Public Space, Sequestrum, and Crazyhorse. He was born and raised in Detroit, earned his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and currently lives in Manhattan.