Saturday, October 30, 1999

High Art

This story originally appeared on the Secret Garden website and is archived here at the request of author Doug Rogers. 

In Memory of Mac -
Long-time supporter, friend of the Garden, and the best reader an author could have hoped for!
'Nuff said.

The paint flowed smoothly, spread by broad fluid strokes that suggested both depth and texture to the draped cloth. The tightly stretched canvas accepted the pigments as a lover embracing his beloved, the two joining in union creating a more perfect whole.
Before the artist was Jesus. The tortured man was kneeling beneath the weight of the heavy wooden cross where he had fallen in the streets of Jerusalem. He was looking upward, imploring someone... anyone... to help. It was the moment before Simon of Cyrenea would lift his burden and carry it for a ways, thus assuring himself a place in the history of man as well as the eternal favor of the Almighty.
Of course, any artist other than the one wielding the brush would have noticed the flaw in the tableau immediately: the real Jesus had possessed no artificial leg.
The model had the long dark hair and rugged, handsome, chiseled features that have always been the traditional look given by artists to represent the Prince of Peace. His shoulders were strong and well-muscled under the torn cloak in which he was clad. His bent left leg supported his weight, the foot extended behind him in its single sandal. His right leg was bent as well, the mechanical knee making a better than ninety degree angle. The artificial foot, anatomically correct in all details was bare against the seamless paper, making the bright yellow of the metal pylon almost absurd. The bucket that encased the remains of his right leg was clearly visible, including the release button that he would use later in the day to free his stump from its Fiberglas bondage.
This was not, of course, what the acrylics and linen before the artist depicted. Not only was the man whole and robust, but he was amid a throng of strangers, most jeering, his image being immortalized in one of the familiar series of paintings known as "The Stations of the Cross." The artist knew anatomy, and had no trouble replacing on canvas what had been torn away in reality.
Tommy Takeda knew all about things being torn away in reality. His delicate Asian features smiled. Putting down his brush, he raised the stump of his right arm and used the nub to scratch the tip of his nose. "That's it for today, Bob," he called toward Jesus' direction. "We'll finish this up tomorrow."
The model dropped the papier-mâché cross, letting it land with a soft, airy thump. He shifted his weight a bit for better leverage and stood up. "Can I see?" he asked, walking smoothly toward the place on the floor where the artwork lay.
"Sure," Tommy answered. He was not shy about people seeing his work before he declared it 'finished.' Sometimes an off-hand comment would be the spark for further inspiration. He rolled both his shoulders forward until the twin eight inch stumps of his arms just met.
"I don't see how you do it," Bob said with a shake of the head and a smile.
"Do what?"
"Paint!" he answered. "You paint one hell of a picture for a guy with no hands!"
Tommy smiled crookedly. "Well, you're not a bad Jesus for a boy with one leg either," he countered good-naturedly.

Bob Swindler's eyes caressed the image on the canvas. "It's a shame you can't do the 'Picture of Dorian Gray' thing and make me like that for real," he said softly.
"Yeah, just think of what I could charge for those portraits," the painter returned. Both men smiled; they had both long ago come to terms with their respective handicaps. Tommy had been only nine when he'd awakened from a car crash to find huge masses of bandages hanging from his shoulders where his arms had been only hours before. He could scarcely remember ever having had hands. Twelve years on one leg after a bout with staph had given Bob more than enough time to be pleased that it had been only one leg that the disease had eaten away.
Without a knock the front door to the apartment studio opened. The men turned to look at the newcomer.
"Jack! You're home!" Tommy exclaimed.
"The gallery closed early," he said, crossing the distance to hug Tommy and give him a warm kiss. "How's it going, Bob?" he asked the now half-dressed model.
"Great," he answered. "Tommy's keeping my light bill paid with this series he's doing for that St. Louis church." He tapped his leg. "Who'd have ever thought I'd grow up to be a model of all things!"
Jack Halloran laughed. "I remember when I met Tommy at college." Tommy grinned at the shared experience. "We were in the student union and I saw this guy at a table eating a hamburger using these really wicked looking hooks for hands! I thought, 'this I gotta find out more about!' Imagine how I felt when we started talking and he informed me that he was an art major, for God's sake!"
Tommy gave his lover a salacious look, then smiled at Bob. "Yeah, almost as big a shock as when he discovered two days later that we were both gay." He wiggled a conical nub. "And that he really gets off on us crips!"
Jack blushed. He had lived with Tommy for nearly ten years, and it still embarrassed him slightly when Tommy made reference to his devoteeism. Tommy stepped closer and placed the tips of both stumps on either side of Jack's chin. "You make it worth being me, baby," he whispered, pursing his full lips.
"Um, I think I'll be on my way," Bob said as he headed toward the door. "I sense marital passion rising." He giggled. "See ya tomorrow, Tom!"
"Do you want to eat at Sergei's this evening?" Jack asked as he gently toweled Tommy dry. The shared shower had been deeply passionate as well as cleansing.
"Sounds good to me," the armless man answered.
"You not too tired?"
"Naw, I haven't worn the arms any today. Bob and I started painting at 8:30 this morning. I had Ensure for lunch, so yeah, we can hit black bread and borsch if that's what you want."
The pair made their way into the bedroom where Jack almost without thinking pulled two pair of briefs from the underwear drawer. The first was quickly pulled to his own waist, the second lovingly slipped over the long legs of his partner. Equally without thinking, he reached for twin stump socks and covered each of the rounded cones of flesh at Tommy's shoulders with the snug elastic garments. He was always careful to be as casual as possible doing this, as it was the moment when Tommy told him he felt the most helpless.
"Okay," Jack announced, "raise 'em!"
Tommy pointed the abbreviated limbs upward and Jack slipped the double prosthetic shells and their crisscrossed harnesses in place. The amputee flexed a couple of times to let the control cables settle into place. He tested one arm for flexion, then the other. "Let's get ready to go," he announced merrily.
Jack was always amazed at his lover. Tommy could dress himself very effectively, either with or without the mechanical arms. It was only in putting the arms themselves on that he had problems managing on his own. Even after spending two-thirds of his life as an amputee, Tommy still preferred to use the devices when they went out in public. Yes, people stared at the metal hooks, but they stared less than at the sight of Tommy being fed or, worse yet for stares, feeding himself with his bare feet!
Sergei's is a Russian eatery not far from the pair's apartment in Manhattan. It caters more to Americans with exotic tastes than to Russian immigrants, but on any given night you always catch a guttural snatch of conversation somewhere in the place. This evening was no exception. Two balding men were seated at a near table, muttering to each other with stern faces. They looked up as Tommy and Jack were seated, the fatter nudging the balder and gesturing toward the new arrivals.
"And good evening to you!" Tommy called in Japanese, waving a hook back and forth. Both men quickly looked back at their plates and didn't look up again.
"Asshole," Jack giggled.
"Ah-so," Tommy quipped back.
"Did the delivery people bother you when they brought those crates by earlier today?" Jack asked.
"Not really. I think they were more bothered by Bob and me then we were by them." He paused as the waiter came and took their orders. When the swarthy man was out of earshot Tommy continued. "What in the world are all those paintings? They look like trash from the forties, but the frames are too good."
Jack looked around. "Old man Gotchell wanted them somewhere safe," he whispered. "He was afraid that the Gallery would be burglarized, and those are pictures that we can't afford to lose."
"They're crap."
Jack looked around again. "What would you say if I told you they were actually Picassos?"
Tommy fitted a hook to the stem of his water glass and deftly took a sip. "I'd say you were nuts. That shit is Southern Europe pop school, late 1940's. The old man never painted anything like that."
Jack whispered very faintly, "Yeah, that's what's on top."
Tommy's eyes grew wide. "Overpaints?"
"Exactly. A southern French collector had twelve early period Picassos in his collection. He knew when Paris fell it was only a matter of time until the Germans were at his door, and he knew what would happen then."
"So he hid them!"
"Yes. In plain sight."
"After this long it's going to be a bitch to restore those things!"
Jack nodded. "Except that the paint used in the over-painting was thinned out as lightly as possible. It's also in very contrasting pigments. Ought to be a snap for a good restorer who knows his business."
Tommy rolled his eyes. "Look, I appreciate the work, but I've got that 'Stations' commission I'm behind on. I can't stop to do something that tedious right now."
"No one says you have to stop. No one will think to look for those paintings at an artist's studio."
"Who knows about them?" Tommy mimicked Jack's furtive glances about the room for the first time.
"No one that we know of, but one never knows," the art dealer answered.
The Black bread and Borsch arrived.
Tommy knew immediately that something was wrong when Jack unlocked the door of the loft. The lights were on and none should have been! Without thinking, both men entered the room, looking around. Tommy saw an arm raise and begin a trajectory toward Jack's head from behind the door. He opened his mouth to yell a warning, but then his own mind was plunged into darkness, and he knew nothing.
"My patience is not endless, Mr. Halloran," the well-dressed thin man warned from behind his thick spectacles. "I have it on the best authority that you have hidden the paintings at your home, and I assure you that neither you nor your broken toy boyfriend will survive unless you turn them over to me!"
Jack struggled at his own bonds, but his hands were tied together tightly with plastic tie-wraps. He looked over at Tommy. The young man was now naked from the waist up, his shirt having been ripped away at the same time his prosthetic limbs had been jerked off. Both were seated in high back leather chairs facing the almost laughably insignificant man behind the huge oak desk.
"One last time: where are the paintings?"
The silence hung like a dust mote in the air.
"Very well." He turned to one of the four beefy men flanking the prisoners. "Ox, Take them into the blue room. We'll search the loft one more time. If the paintings aren't there, call me. They get one more chance and then I'm going to kill this little armless Chink freak and let Halloran think about that for a while!"
"I'm Japanese-American," Tommy corrected sourly.
"You're about to be dead," Ox menaced back. Making the traditional decision, Tommy opted for discretion. "Up, both of you," the tough nodded, gesturing with a piece of shiny metal by Smith and Wesson at the end of his own right arm. Both men got to their feet.
The walk took them through a large atrium that Tommy took to be typical of refurbished lofts in mid-town. He wondered absently where they were until his eyes happened to catch the decor of the huge room. Everywhere the eye could see were paintings, most by the impressionistic and expressionistic masters of the last hundred and a half years. So much for the motive of the break-in. The thin man apparently collected and didn't much care how he came by his treasures. The artist wondered how much blood as well as money was represented on these walls.
"In here," the brawny man said, again gesturing with his gun.
The room was a bedroom clearly enough. The huge bed appeared to be far larger than a conventional king size. Tommy wondered idly if the sheets on it were silk. An array of bedside tables, a dressing table at the foot of the bed and even an ornate writing desk filled other parts of the room. Both Jack and Tommy were shoved unceremoniously onto the gigantic bed.
"Put some ties on his feet and then hook 'em to the ones on the hands," the head thug told a minion.
"What about the crip?" he asked.
The tough laughed. "Yeah, we really need to tie him up," he nodded. "I feel real sure he's gonna go right over and untie his buddy! You moron, the schnook ain't got no arms! He's fine just like he is! Tie this one up and let's get back to that place of theirs where we can take a nice long look for the stuff!"
And they were gone.
"I'm sorry I got you into all of this," Jack said sadly after the door had closed. "When the old man asked me to hide those paintings..."
"Stop. It made perfect sense," his lover answered. "Who in the world could have imagined these people?"
"The old man," Jack answered darkly.
Tommy said nothing. His thoughts were turning to what lay ahead. It was a pretty good bet that both he and Jack were going to be dead men even if they gave up the treasure. They knew who their captors were... there was no getting around that. He looked at Jack. It was clear that the same thoughts were slipping through his mind.
Tommy got up and looked at Jack's bindings. The man was totally immobilized. The plastic tie-wraps were tightly drawn both hand and foot. The white bands, originally designed as bindings for bundles of electrical and signal wire had been modified by law enforcement to become single use handcuffs. There was no way Jack could slip them or work them loose.
With powerful, long-used abdominal muscles the armless man sat up straight. He pulled himself to the edge of the bed and got up.
"Where are you going?" Jack asked.
"To see if I can get us loose," he answered. "Not that I think it's going to help a lot. We've got to be at least ten stories up."
Jack said nothing as Tommy began to survey the room. There was almost nothing out in the open. He would have to explore. He deftly used the toe of one shoe to remove the slip-on loafer that was his choice of foot ware. He smiled. When your feet have to double for your hands, you learn quickly how to get ready access to them!
Barefoot he began to examine the various pieces of furniture. His first target, the ornate desk, proved to be what he was looking for. He pulled the center drawer open and surveyed the contents. The metal fingernail file there immediately caught his eye. "We're almost loose now," he called softly. Tommy raised his right foot high and grasped the long flat piece of textured metal with all his toes. He placed the ball of his foot back on the floor, but kept the toes and their precious cargo slightly elevated.
Jack had been watching this performance with an unwavering eye. Aside from his excitement at the prospect of changing their fortunes, he was always fascinated to see how "un-handicapped" Tommy was by his lack of arms. He understood what his partner was about to do and wriggled into position near the edge of the bed where Tommy could get to the bindings on his hands.
Tommy sat down, his own rear pressing against the back of Jack's knees. He easily swung his feet next to the man's hands. Passing the nail file back and forth from foot to foot a couple of times he finally got the length of it lined up across the flat of one side of the wrap. With infinite patience he began to draw the rough surface across the smooth plastic one. Molecule by molecule, shard by shard the plastic began to fleck off under the assault.
They were about half done when the sound of a key slipping into the tumblers of the lock on the door surprised him. At first Tommy couldn't think of what to do, how to hide his attempts at escape! As the knob turned and the door began its inexorable swing open he did the only thing he could do: He fell forward, pressing himself against Jack's back. He said a silent prayer that the observer would think them asleep.
"Ox" Bradley, revolver in hand, maneuvered his considerable bulk into the high-fashion bedchamber. The thug walked over to the sleeping pair and spent all of three seconds looking at the prone figures, then, satisfied that nothing was amiss, shook his head in disgust and left the room. "Queers!" he muttered under his breath, and was gone, the lock slipping back into place behind him.
Tommy lay still for another minute. His heart was in his throat. "You okay?" Jack whispered.
"Fine," the armless man answered. "Just waiting to make sure that guy doesn't come back."
As he sat up, unfolding like the blade of a knife from its handle, Tommy was horrified that the file had completely disappeared! "Shit! Where is it?" he whispered.
Jack rolled a bit away from him and Tommy saw the shiny metal. With careful toes he retrieved it and got the tool back in working position.
It took another seven minutes before Jack was able to give one final tug and his hands were free. He rubbed his wrists for a few moments, then turned to face his liberator. "I guess you know you've saved us both you inscrutable oriental!" Both men smiled and allowed the time to share a loving kiss.
Tommy extended his right foot to hand Jack the file. It took only a couple of minutes to cut through the ankle restraints, and Jack was free.
Of course, as it turned out, getting the run of the room did not amount to being able to leave. Jack walked immediately to the room's sliding glass panels that created the outer wall and tried one. It was not locked. Tommy followed him out onto the balcony. The city lay before them, a flickering jewel that belied none of the danger they still faced. They were at least ten floors up!
"Where from here?" Tommy asked softly. "We'll never be able to jump it."
Jack's mind was racing. To their right was nothing but more of the concrete decks like the one on which they stood. To the left, darkness. He shook his head.
That head shake was one of the most fortuitous of his life. He saw a set of the distant lights blink on and off as he did. "Tommy," he whispered loudly, "look over to the left. What do you see?"
The artist peered into the darkness, his deep brown eyes straining for detail. Finally, he saw it. The black painted girders that made up a fire escape were nestled there against the wall of the building. He surveyed the distances. "It's no good," he whispered back. The access window for the escape is between it and us." He shrugged both stumps for emphasis. "I'll never make it!"
Jack thought for a moment. They appeared to be no better off than they were. He visually measured the distance... it was no more than six or seven feet, yet it could have been a thousand for all the good it was doing them. Then it hit him. "Tommy, it's so simple!" he exclaimed. "We can make it! All we have to do is help each other."
Tommy shrugged again, not comprehending.
Jack quickly ran back into the bedroom and returned with both sheets from the double bed. "It's just like mountain climbers do it," he explained. "We tie these two sheets together, corner to corner. I then tie a far corner around my chest and the other end around yours."
Tommy was incredulous. "You're actually going to try to swing across to that escape?"
"Do you have a better idea?"
"God, I wish I did!"
"This is gonna work, Tom," he said excitedly. "All you have to do is wrap your legs around one of these concrete posts here on the railing. I can climb over the edge and start swinging back and forth until I can reach the escape. I'll go up a story and tie my end of the sheets off, then come back and be ready to catch you!"
Tommy's eyes become wide and fearful. "No way."
Jack looked deeply into his lover's eyes. "Tommy, you don't have a choice. There's no other way, and time is running out! That big ox could come back any minute. It's now or never!"
Tommy looked gingerly over the edge. Yes, it was a long way down. Before he had any more time to think, he felt Jack pass the corner of one sheet around his chest, securing the binding under his stumps. "Be sure you tie that several times," he whispered.
"Don't worry about that," Jack whispered back. Both our lives depend on it!"
It took Jack another minute to tie the second sheet into a harness for himself, and less than half a minute to join the free ends together to make a twelve foot long connection between the two of them.
Tommy took his seat on the floor of the balcony, slipping one leg around each side of one of the concrete posts that supported the railing. He rotated his legs at the hip and wrapped the strong calves around the far side of the cast piling. Jack leaned down and kissed his cheek. "Don't drop me," he whispered. Tommy simply rubbed his cheek with his own in return.
The armless man could not see what followed, not that he would have cared to. Jack checked all his knots once more and then tossed the slack portion of the sheets over the edge of the balcony. Taking hold of the wadded cloth a few feet above Tommy's shoulders he eased himself over the edge and began, hand over hand, to let himself down to the end.
The weight was more than Tommy had expected it to be. The pressure on the binding became intense the moment Jack had gone over the edge. While he knew the loop was not going to slip past his shoulders, he instinctively spread his twin nubs straight out, making the shoulder area as wide as possible.
At first, Jack had planned to keep hold of the sheeting with his hands, but as he began to shift his weight and make the pendulum swings that he hoped would carry him to the fire escape, he realized he was going to have to let go in order to grasp the escape when it came near enough. Intellectually, he realized that his life already depended on the knots tied it the top end. If they loosened, Tommy could do nothing to tighten them, or even try to catch them. He had either done his work well enough, or he was about to die. Emotionally, waves of fear swept over him like surf at the beach.
He lost count of the number of swings back and forth there in the air. Finally, he felt hard, cold metal brush the ends of his fingertips! He was almost there. With one more forceful shift of his weight, he started the penultimate swing. He reached the end of the arc and gravity reversed his motion. He saw the black girders coming closer and closer.
Jack simply reached out and put his arms around the railing. For a moment, he thought 'How easy!', then his momentum tried to reverse, and he realized that it would take all of his strength to hang on. With almost superhuman effort, he clambered over the guard rails and realized that he stood on the fire escape!
"Tommy! I'm here!" he called softly.
Tommy took a deep breath and almost began to cry. The sudden release of weight could only have meant one of two things, either Jack had made it or he was no longer at the end of the sheet 'rope.'
"Stand up," Jack called. "I'm going to take the sheet up a couple of floors so that you don't have to hang in the air. It'll be just like in a 'Tarzan' movie. I'll catch you as you just swing over!"
Of course, getting that sheet up the two floors on the escape proved to be more than a bit of a trick. The metal stairway was constructed in such a way that there were platforms at each level with openings through which the steps descended. The sheet was not long enough to thread through the openings, so twice Jack was forced to tie the free end to one of the floor members, then untie it to take it to the next level. He realized that if the breeze caught the cloth and jerked it from his hands, there was no way to rescue Tommy.
After what was less than five minutes but what seemed like an hour, Jack had all in readiness. He had pulled the sheet as tightly as he could before tying it off. There was no slack. All Tommy would have to do would be lean forward and roll over the railing. The momentum would bring him to Jack's waiting arms.
"I can't do this," Tommy called.
"You have to, baby," Jack returned. "We can't stay out here all night. They'll be coming to check on us any time!"
"You won't be able to catch me," he returned.
"Yes, I will. All you have to do is put your feet out to break your momentum here. The sheet'll hold you. It held me, and I weigh more than you do. Come on, Tom! Now!"
Jack's words did little to bolster Tommy's confidence, and he might have faltered had he not heard voices in the bedroom behind him. Jack was right. It was now or never. He closed his eyes and bent over the railing. A roll at the hips and he felt the coil around his chest tighten.
"Put your feet out!" Jack called.
The sound forced Tommy to open his eyes. The darkness was disorienting as much as the speed at which he felt himself traveling. As commanded, he put out his feet and felt them touch the side rail of the escape. He performed a gentle squat and realized he was resting just a couple of feet from Jack's waiting arms.
Behind him, rough voices were yelling. The noise sounded as though it were coming nearer.
Tommy realized he was over the top of the rail on the fire escape, and that Jack was working at untying the multiple knots that he'd used to secure the end when he saw the flash of the revolver's discharge. Jack winced. "Are you okay?" Tommy asked.
"It grazed me. I'm fine," the man whispered. "You're loose. Come on, get behind the steps here. They'll shield us."
Across the space, two voices could be heard. "Are they there?" the first asked.
"I cain't tell," the second answered. Tommy recognized the second as belonging to 'The Ox.' "There's some white shit over to the left, but I can't tell what it is. Fired over there... don't know if I hit anything."
"We better go tell the boss," the first voice asserted, and the noise was gone.
It had taken about ten minutes for the captives to negotiate the fire escape. Tommy had worried that the thugs would think of the escape route and cut them off, but it hadn't played out that way.
They had found a policeman nosing around, trying to decide where he'd heard that gunshot, and the rest was history.
The 'Boss' had turned out to be Charles Le Vous, a gentleman with whom Interpol had been wishing to visit for some years.
The paintings had not been found.
Tommy reached his stumps out and placed one on each of Jack's cheeks as they lay warm in their bed after the police had left. Jack turned his face to kiss first one, then the other. He hugged the artist tight to him, enjoying every nuance of body to body contact.
"You know that I'd be dead if it weren't for you," Tommy whispered. "You saved me. I don't know when I've ever felt more helpless than out there on that concrete ten floors up."
Jack kissed the full lips. "I didn't save you any more than you saved me, Baby. I'd have never gotten loose if you hadn't found that nail file and cut my bindings." He kissed the nearest of the short nubs, and laughed.
"What's funny?"
Oh, nothing," Jack answered, giggle again. "It's funny how one little miscalculation can bring everything down."
"What was that?" Tommy asked innocently.
"You," Jack answered. "I guess that's what those crooks get for thinking you were disabled."

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