The Useless

(For Derek McCormack)

Summer, 2002 / No. 8
Art by Ian Phillips
Ian Phillips

I was nominated for an award.

I didn’t win.

Where are the artists?! the Mayor bellowed. He opened his arms.

The Mayor wore a bright shirt splattered with tropical flowers. His chest hair billowed from between his open collars.

We are the artists, I said.

Keep on painting those fabulous pictures! the Mayor roared.

He was very tan.

We live in peculiar times. I haven’t given up on understanding them. There are elections, but nobody votes. There are political parties, but they all promise the same thing. Why not? We are simple people. We want what they promise us.

After the ceremonies, I began receiving invitations for receptions in honour of art openings, special guests, and foreign dignitaries.

Of course, in our country, we are free to go where we like.

Nobody was watching me, but I felt watched.

At the time, I was painting. I painted fluently, speaking the language of colour and form. Dreaming of places I could take myself to, I was travelling to that space we all envision, talking foreign tongues that, of course, do not exist.

I applied for, and received, several credit cards.

We are permitted our dreams.

My life was different in many imperceptible ways.

The party was an annual event put on by an important gallery.

I chose from several invitations that I received, basing my decision on the fineness of the calligraphy and the thickness of the card stock. If necessary, I reasoned, I could pretend to be someone else.

I stood at the top of the landing looking down at the bustling squalor of glittering people. I wore a name tag. A red rose had been pinned to my lapel. Eventually, gripped by a growing unease, I allowed myself to fall into the congregation.

Oblivious to the silence that engulfed them, the revellers talked, shook hands, drank red wine and, all the while, flicked canapés into their mouths—remarkable organs that could chew, swallow, and regurgitate appropriate utterances without losing so much as a single flake of pastry.

I thought of a series of paintings I would do. Here Is My Family? I would call it.

There are no boundaries to free expression. Where we live, everything is permitted except those few things forbidden by law.

Nothing is holding us back.

I accepted a drink, said thank you to the server who looked behind her with soft, startled brown eyes as she hurried away.

Thank you, I whispered.

We do not create. We find it more than difficult to create.

Soon, I felt the wine drying on my lips, and, in my stomach, a burning like crushed glass.

But my suit was appropriate for the occasion.

Oh, there you are, the Director said. The Director was short and stout. She wore a shimmering dress and no cosmetics. Some said she was the most powerful person in the arts in our country.

The Director took my arm and led me around. It seems my appearance was considered a great delight, not to mention something of a novelty. Everyone was very kind.

What are you working on? they asked.

A series, I replied. A series of portraits to be called Here Is My Family?

Of course, they murmured. They slipped me their cards. Call me, they whispered.

He’s mine, the Director joked, digging her sharp glittering elbow into my burning belly. I licked my lips.

Late that night, drunk and giddy with possibility, I heard voices in my head.

I closed my eyes to see the picture.

Where we live, we have many shows on television that we are invited to enjoy and even contribute our opinion to.

We are a people of opinions.

The talking picture, inescapable, munificent, in my head.

Though our classic works of arts and letters remain the same, our video games, films, and television shows continue to improve.

We are permitted our individuality. We are permitted to attend the parties of friends. We are not obligated to have friends, but are encouraged to. We are, nevertheless, cherished for our particular accomplishments.

My sweatpants are the same sweat-pants anyone might wear casually on a day off or on a weekend.

The TV show was a talk show, an interview with the Leader of the Opposition. In my mind, I could see him, a shrill, angry man making a concerted effort to remain pleasant.

We shall not permit it, the Leader of the Opposition was saying between the lips of a thin smile. The people of this country will not permit it. The Useless must not be allowed to disrupt society. The Useless have no respect for our great country’s accomplishments. They drag us down. They hold us back. They claim our resources and deny us the right to a return claim on theirs. We shall not permit the Useless to eat freely from the apple cart unless they are willing to push it and fill it.

I nodded, transfixed, recognizing a truth like a bruise on a burnished fruit.

Let’s assume I will be the next Leader, the Opposition Leader beamed.

Let’s! the talk show host and I agreed.

The picture, clearer than anything I had ever seen before.

And then a kind of static in my mind, late-night fuzz, off the air, this clarity, this clear thinking. The Useless were new to me. I knew nothing of them. And yet I saw them perfectly.

I hated them.

I could not complete the paintings, because I had spoken them aloud.

We are permitted our say in this country, though we say nothing.

What I felt was paralysis of the private regions. I had been seen for what I was. I had become afraid.

Instead, I commenced an affair with the soft-eyed server.

There are no class or racial boundaries now. We are not obliged to stick to our own in the pursuit of love.

I felt a great shame and we kissed passionately, her dark skin blushing.

We do not love.

She had come to my door with a brochure and a clipboard. She asked me if I had ever considered the Opposition as my party, the Opposition candidate as my candidate. Did I know the election was coming? Was I registered for the vote? Was I prepared to face the future?

What do you do? she asked, her pen poised.

Nothing would change, and yet everything would change. I trembled, telling her that she was an artist and offering her the use of my studio.

She demurred.

I got down on my knees and locked her bare thighs with my pale arms and begged her to paint for me.

She did. She was magnificent.

We are all artists here. Where we live, we are all given the opportunity, silent constituents to a recreation of the passion.

It was like a flood, the way my sperm shot out of me.

A representative of the Director asked me to meet him in the food court in the centre of the city.

We are a country celebrated for its natural beauty.

I ate with a white fork that tasted of the thin cellophane wrapping it arrived encased in. The tines bent as I scraped my polystyrene plate.

The Director, began the Representative, has become…not impatient…but…disappointed.

I nodded.

The tremendous opportunity, said the Representative.

You will be obligated to repay the funds, continued the Representative.

Unless, said the Representative.

The Representative carefully showed me the papers I had signed, the grants I had received through the National Council for the Arts, the Federal Department of Heritage and History, the Provincial Division of Parks and Culture, the Municipal Bureau of Entertainment and Leisure.

Once, I drove a van, moved objects from place to place.

At night, I danced with an aerosol of spray paint in my hand.

The situation, I began to explain to the Representative.

He shrunk away.

I followed his gaze, the plastic fork in my fist.

My laughter disturbed the other diners. The Representative quickly gathered the papers I had signed once upon a time, and swept them into a briefcase.

The election came, and the Opposition Leader became the Leader. We are all encouraged to take part. We can choose, and then we can get up in the morning and begin our day.

We watched the new Leader on television, his beaming congenial smile and big voice stirring us.

She took my hand, squeezed it between her legs.

Under my mandate from the people, the Leader boomed, the Useless will be made to work just like the rest of the good citizens of this country. The Useless will be shown the value of an honest day’s labour, they will be educated and trained and then they will be free to make a productive contribution to society.

And supposing, the talk show host interrupted, supposing the so-called Useless don’t want to make a contribution?

But isn’t that just the point, laughed the new Leader. Isn’t that free-ride mentality what got us into this mess in the first place?

The people of this country can see that! They know that if we have to knock over the apple cart to stop a few worms from fouling the bushel, then we will be the government to take on that responsibility!

So, you’re proposing—

That night, I was exultant. I did not sleep. I painted a canvas that would have made anyone famous, let alone someone who had been given every opportunity the state afforded. I imagined myself on television—the host’s smiling generosity.

We have not given up our love of beautiful things. Beautiful things are for sale, and we are permitted purchase of any object save those barred by law.

My lover begged me not to, but, of course, I set fire to the work in question, a masterpiece of intricate swirls—the unconscious shared hubris of our collective solitude.

Graffiti, I said.

The apartment stunk of smoke and curling colours drying to a rainbow vapour.

She packed her bags, but, instead of leaving, collapsed around me and cried on the bones of my chest.

My dark beauty, I said. We are permitted this. We are permitted everything.

A fist pounded on the locked door.

I called the Director’s office. I pronounced my name. I asked to speak to the Director.

There was a long pause.

Again, I asked to speak to the Director.

Who is calling? the secretary said.

In our country, we select names for our children according to our particular traditions and beliefs. If we do not have traditions and beliefs, we name our children anyway.

We have certificates, documents, passports, bank statements, and all reasonable freedoms.

We have fifty-three public museums devoted to the spectacle of the arts.

Can you hear me? I said into the phone.

Can you hold? the secretary said.

I reported myself to the police.

Crime? the stenographer inquired.

I have become Useless.

Useless, the stenographer typed into the computer.

The stenographer swivelled the screen so I could see that my crime had been denoted and she had accurately recorded details such as my current address and my mother’s maiden name. Profession was left blank.

They cuffed me and led me to a cell.