The Art Director

It was late in the day, the light tinny and waxen, a final push of sunshine before darkness. But morning or midnight, the time mattered little to a broody art director named Simon; every molecule of air around the Sour Milk Gallery had been curdled with failure for weeks.

He lit a cigarette and shuffled across the floor then shuffled back again, watching his reflection move against the colorless gallery windows. Simon studied his image with a detached reverence, wondering how anyone could fall from such a sky-scraping height as he’d been standing at months before, newly arrived into the smoggy, palm-treed pageantry of Los Angeles, ready to begin his Sour Milk job with the kind of cocky confidence found only in the true and total idiot.

Now his cockiness had waned to a pitiable murmur; the short strands of hair beneath his baseball cap seemed duller, less impressively buzzed. His beard, weeks ago fashionably untamed, today appeared stringy, like the inside of a spaghetti squash that had been sitting out for too long, its strands an unappetizing shade of brown. Defeat had also played games on his mouth, hidden by a gauzy mustache and pointed to by a set of deep wrinkles carving thick lines down his cheeks. Even the tattoos that squiggled with skulls and spider webs and once-poignant messages from his arms to his fingertips lacked the bad ass luster they long ago possessed.

Or was it really that long ago when he shook hands with a man in a finely pressed suit and signed the papers, claiming the Sour Milk Gallery as his own? It must have only been last Monday or the Monday before that when he flew to LAX on an early morning shuttle from Seattle and followed the tick-tick-ticks of the suited man’s heels as Simon was shown the white-washed walls of the gallery, given a glossy brochure declaring the space to be “the freshest spot in Los Angeles for art of any kind.”

“I’m looking for an open, clean space to display modern pieces that have a gritty, street-style twist,” Simon explained to the suit and the suit nodded as most suits do, reiterating how perfectly built the Sour Milk Gallery was for that very sort of thing.

Simon shrugged off the acrimonious memory and rolled the cigarette between his tattooed thumb and middle finger then let it drop to the floor, smashing it with the rubber bottom of his high-top sneaker. He was already dead inside on this December afternoon, no need to mutilate his lungs with smoke today.

But yesterday, yesterday he had finished almost all of his afternoon cigarette, even rubbing the stubby butt on the blank wall behind him, making an ashen outline of something that looked sort of like a rhinoceros if you squinted hard enough. The cigarette ash was brandished into the exact same place once occupied by Pierre Jourdanine’s “The Taming of the Brew,” a splotchy but masterful watercolor-on-canvas depiction of a small craft beer hall in Oslo. After word got out that Sour Milk had run dry, Pierre stormed in—nervous agent in tow—and yanked the painting right off the wall, leaving an ugly hole in the plaster. Simon could still cringe remembering those few choice French curse words echoed inside the capacious gallery as Pierre slammed the glass doors shut with a final “au revoir.”

The black-and-white digital clock on the wall made a sudden bleeping sound, jolting Simon from the cigarette stains on the walls and signaling that only thirty minutes remained until the Sour Milk Gallery would close. Today marked the gallery’s seventeenth consecutive day with not a single tread of visitors’ feet upon the woefully un-scuffed floors.

Simon tugged the doors open wider, convinced this might entice someone to step inside in the next minute or two. Ah yes, open the doors wide and find the very thing missing from his failing West Hollywood art gallery! Wide doors, you say? Why yes we have those aplenty and welcome, my fine patrons, to the trendiest—and wide door-iest—modern art gallery on Sunset Boulevard!

The art director folded his tattooed arms against his chest and waited against the glass frame. Of course, even with doors so widely open, nothing stirred beyond except three tiny birds flying together low along the pavement, and one homeless man dragging a scribbled sign along the sidewalk that read, “Wizdom for sale. $5 a nugget.”

The homeless man happened to be one of the many street characters Simon had come to recognize; the man with the sign had, over days and days of observance, joined the ranks of the familiarly unfamiliar visages that marched past Sour Milk. Workday commuters, club promoters advertising “the hottest tickets in town for booze and bad news,” old women perambulating along the street, these were the faces of Los Angeles he knew from his window seat in the gallery, though he couldn’t list any one of their names.

Late-day sun warmed Simon’s face as he continued to lean against the front door, listening to the sounds coming from the patio of the Italian restaurant next door where a group of waiters gathered around one table, singing happy birthday to a blushing man sitting in the corner, most of the waiters grossly off-key.

“Happy baaaarthdaaay to Christopher! Happy baaaarthday to yeeeew!”

Against these abrasive sounds, a phone rang somewhere nearby and Simon was surprised to realize it was his own.

“Hello?”

“Hello.”

“Hello,” Simon repeated to the caller, annoyed but intrigued.

“May I please speak with Simon Vimby?” The voice who asked sounded, from the vibrant naïveté sloshing through her intonations, like it belonged to a young woman in her early 20s.

“This is Simon Vimby.”

“And you’re the same Simon Vimby who I’m told is the art director at Sour Milk Gallery on Sunset, correct?”

“That’s right,” Simon replied shortly. Vibrant, naive women in their twenties were hardly his specialty.

“Great!” She chimed. “Are you there right now?”

“You called me at the gallery, so yes.”

“Ah, well then by the time I say ‘I’ll be inside,’ I’ll be inside.”

Sure enough, she was.

The woman who stood before him was not quite as young as Simon imagined during their brief phone conversation but from her dark black jeans tucked neatly into a dark black, long-sleeve shirt, Simon guessed her to be a woman in her late thirties and one of the no-nonsensical variety, (in his opinion, the best kind of woman any woman could be).

“Thanks for having me on such short notice, Simon.” She smiled. He smiled back without realizing why.

“Of course,” Simon said, grinning.

“So, I actually passed by your gallery yesterday, in a rush because I was late for an appointment—I run one of the biggest modern art magazines in this entire plastic-nose excuse for a city—and when I caught a glimpse of an incredible work through the window, I knew I had to come back for a closer look.”

“Which incredible work do you mean?”

“The one over there. I’d love to get in contact with the artist. It reminds me of a famous quote by Pierre Jourdanine from his interview with Artist’s Way Magazine, September 2003. ‘People float in and out of your consciousness,’ he said. ‘Only their art remains.’”

Simon rearranged a few hairs at the right-most edge of his mustache. “I do kind of like that sentiment even if Pierre is and always will be an epic bastard. But I still don’t understand. What piece of art are you talking about?”

And, to the art director of the Sour Milk Gallery’s surprise, the woman pointed to the vaguely rhinoceros-shaped smudge of cigarette ash Simon had left on the wall the day before.

[This tiny tale was inspired by Mark Liam Smith’s painting, “The Art Director.” View more of his work here.]