2024-05-31 03:42:537144
Fiction Claudia Ross , June 25, 2021


Short fiction by Claudia Ross Austin MacDonald
Fiction F

There was no wind on the day I sold my most prized possession. I had owned the small toy company for twenty-odd years before I got the call from Shannon, the artist’s assistant. I didn’t field many calls from people like her: the factory was too big and structurally unsound, its buildings sloped off in variously arrested states of lean. The property backed up into a hot dog company’s food processing plant, which made the air smell like a mixture of warm pork, sewage, and grain alcohol. My employees referred to the smell simply as “it,” an unpredictable source of fascination and repulsion. The day Shannon called, it was particularly putrid, filtering in through the slivers of space between doorway and ground, window and screen.

The artist is very interested in purchasing your factory, Shannon told me. He has four kids, three girls, and they like the crowns you make. The silver ones with beads at the corners.


Great, I said to her. Does he need any more?

I made it clear to the artist that this was a place for good and not evil. American workers, I told him.

She laughed her small laugh and told me they could come by next week to look at everything.

When I met the artist, the odor receded to a dull throb, almost out of respect. He wasn’t a big man, but he wasn’t small—I was surprised to find him disarming, even sweet. Shannon flocked around him asking logistical questions.

He looked around, pausing at the tall, vacant buildings in the back of the property. I had them cleared out when our toy soldier sales declined. The molds were repurposed into children’s nursing equipment—small stethoscopes, reflex hammers, syringes. Those didn’t sell too well either. But the artist seemed charmed, touching the bare cement walls with his short fingernails. Not a single crest of dirt on any of them. I put my hands in my pockets.

Bauhaus, he told me, stroking the wall. All this concrete.

Fine, I said.


It didn’t take me long to reach a decision—I was seeing more red numbers every month. My employees, though loyal, had started to dwindle, leaving for jobs at retail factories or technology warehouses. It wasn’t personal, they told me. It was just business.

When we shook hands, final sale, the artist said he saw amazing potential in the landscape. He loved all our old knickknacks, especially the broken ones, the small ponies without hooves or dull manes. There was a small Toyota that burned up in a gas leak in October of that year and he went crazy for it. The insides of it were blackened like barbecued meat, melted down to spare metal ribs.

Take it, I told the artist. You know better than me what it’s really worth.

No, no, he said. And then he laughed.

I still cared about what happened to the warehouse even though it technically wasn’t mine anymore. It was almost the length of a full city block. I had been a foreman previously and I knew the kind of personality required—I wanted to leave my estate in good hands. I never liked risk. I knew how to make my workers feel special and inferior at the same time, just enough to inspire a Protestant commitment to the end product. So I knew the artist had the qualities of a foreman, even if it wasn’t my type of foreman.

I made it clear to the artist that this was a place for good and not evil. American workers, I told him.

Of course, he said. He wore a knit hat that was folded over so many times its edge formed a small brim.

Listen, he said. Come back anytime.

I could barely look him in the eye. I knew he was wealthy, and a new kind of wealthy, not golf courses or tennis but small hotels and taco stands.

I told him sure, it would be nice to visit, and thanks for the offer. One boss to another.

One boss to another, he said, laughing again.

I always assumed it would take enormous effort to get rid of the factory. Its poor location meant that large trucks rolled by at all hours, shaking the old buildings of the facility. The fact that I expended little to no energy—that the collection of warehouses appealed to the artist without trying to—made the offer difficult to refuse.

My mood soured when I left the factory that night. I lived in an upper unit, a small studio with a view of the mountains and my neighbor’s overripe lemon tree. The window frame made it resemble a painting, one cut all the way through by telephone lines. It eased the noise of the horrible things happening downstairs, events I preferred to absent from memory. An Armenian man and his wife lived in the one-bedroom apartment below me. The older couple got into screaming matches often, cursing in a language I had yet to understand.

But the place wasn’t without its comforts. At night, if I left the window open, I could smell the cigarette smoke coming from the teenagers talking on the curb. They spoke a Mexican dialect that eluded me even after many years in the factory with all manner of Oaxacans. I felt enveloped, soothed. My father was Uruguayan while he was alive, though every trace of his past had vanished in the time it took him to go from mostly unemployed to president of a small logistics company near the sea.

He told me that American work demanded something extreme of the body and mind, the likes of which he hadn’t experienced in the other hemisphere. As a kid, he fantasized about being adopted by a small nuclear family in a suburb. He bought new shoes each year and spoke careful English, even just around my family. So I enjoyed my lodgings and their limited connection to my history, even though the neighbors left something to be desired. The sounds reminded me of a childhood that I did not, in reality, have.

I heard the man in the apartment below me start shouting first. His voice was a deep, harsh baritone. He liked to punctuate his English with exclamations in Armenian, the incomprehensibility of which seemed to increase their hostility.

The baby started crying. I couldn’t discern much of what was being said, but the frustration seemed palpable. A couple neighbors came out, telling him to be quiet, it’s dinnertime. The kids have school in the morning.

Everyone spoke English even though it didn’t come naturally to any of us, not even me, as my awkwardness often trumped my fluency. The resulting interactions were strange and stilted, like we all learned different scripts and spoke them to each other with no concern for how they connected.

The noise downstairs went on. People joined in—I heard voices I didn’t recognize. The longer it went on, the more interested I became. When I got up, I went straight to the window that looked down on the street. I cracked it open so I could hear what came next.

It was the ice cream man, a source of local ire. His siren was loud and relentless, a song that played on loop on our street every afternoon. It provoked a contempt that glazed the neighborhood’s adult sector, prompting parents to discuss trans fats and glucose with fervor. The ice cream man was short, with a stomach that hung out an inch or so over his jeans. He always wore a button-down shirt and a clip-on tie, an eccentricity out of step with his profession.

The ice cream man had done something unexpected. He parked his truck in the Armenians’ driveway and was sitting on their stoop with a popsicle. I could see the yellow head of Tweety Bird from where I stood. Her eyes made of pink gumdrops. Some of the neighbors across the street saw me silhouetted in the window and waved.

He won’t leave, one of them called. He’s been there an hour at least.

At least he turned off the song, my neighbor Marcos said. That goddamn song.

Everyone nodded in agreement.

He’s probably not selling any ice cream, Marcos said. It’s been cold since November.

They should ask him what’s wrong, I thought. I wouldn’t be the one to ask but someone else could.

I don’t give a rat’s ass what kind of ice cream he isn’t selling, the Armenian man said. He said give a rat’s asswith the staccato of someone who had only read the phrase on paper.

If he’s a real businessman, he found the wrong block, he said.

What has he said for himself? I asked. My voice was too quiet and no one heard me.

WHAT HAS HE SAID FOR HIMSELF? I asked again. They all looked up at me, surprised.

Nothing, said the Armenian woman. He hasn’t said a word since he sat down. She followed that with something indistinct and dismissive, a tone I had never heard her use before.

WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU? I asked the ice cream man. This neighborhood turns everyone’s volume up eventually.

He looked up at me, the first movement that I’d seen.

No one is buying any ice cream anymore, he said.

His voice was higher than I thought, almost boyish.


I don’t have anywhere else to go, he said. And this block has lots of familiar faces on it.

PLEASE GO HOME, said another, newer neighbor wearing overalls and nice leather shoes.

No one is buying any ice cream anymore, he said. I think I might have to stay a while.

There was an uproar. One of the neighbors down the street tried to pull the ice cream man’s arms up over his head. The ice cream man let his body sink. I saw Marcos tentatively raise his hand in a fist, then the sharp sound of skin on skin. Below me, the man lay curled at the bottom of the stair like a boiled shrimp.

Part of me felt for the ice cream driver and his lack of purpose. He sold my princess crowns to the kids for a couple years before business slowed for the both of us. Everyone turned off plastics around the same time they turned off high fructose corn syrup. Still, he should know better than to stick himself on someone else’s property. It would make the owners angry. Or the tenants, at least.

Every day after that was the same. The ice cream man stayed put. I stopped going outside except to water my hydrangea. I didn’t want to see him: every posture of my own contained the horizontal alignment of the ice cream man, hunchbacked and helpless. I looked at old photographs of the factory and felt nostalgic for its smooth design, its monumentality.

I found out that the artist was making new work: he took the time clock from the break room and dipped it in some kind of silver mold. It was still functional, interactive for visitors, and sold for a high price at a prestigious gallery. He coated the Toyota too, covered it in metal and sprayed it with yellow paint.

I was happy to see use being made of the place. The good news dulled the drama of the neighborhood and made me feel helpful, even if it was only in the kind of trash my business had produced. When periodic screaming erupted below me, I bought earplugs and sleeping masks. I focused on the now, like watching the ice cream man’s hair grow past his shoulders. His tie lay next to him, its silver clip glinting in the sun.

Sometimes I caught what looked like a smile flash across his face, looking up toward the sky. He seemed to be deep in the throes of himself, washed up on the shore of his favorite and most familiar block. Our lives produced tastes and pleasures that sustained him—he had stocked the marzipan De La Rosas just for us. I could still see the candies in the window of his truck, even though no one had bought them in years. So I turned away, embarrassed, whenever I saw the flicker of a grin in his eyes.

In the middle of March, six months after the sale, there was a knock on the door. I saw through the keyhole that it was Shannon, the artist’s assistant. She had dyed her hair a musty color, an orange-red that resembled the inside of a crater. I didn’t think she knew my address, or the artist either, and felt ashamed for the yellow stucco and the wrought iron gate. I stepped back from the door. I couldn’t let her see the mildewed carpet, the cottage cheese ceiling. Her skirt was silk and clung to her hips, moving around her legs like water from a faucet.

One second, I called. I put on pants and my last clean shirt. My stomach had grown since I stopped working, bulging over the edge of my belt.

It’s Shannon, she said.

I opened the door. Hi, Shannon.

You can call me Shan.

Sham? I asked.

Shan, she said. For short.

I felt stupid.

We want to talk to you about an idea, she said. We’d love to get your feedback.

She told me to pack a few things and come in her car to the factory. I looked at the ice cream man on the way out. His head was down and he appeared to be sleeping, even though it was the middle of the afternoon. I stood up straight for the first time in months. That was the last time I saw him.

Part of me felt for the ice cream driver and his lack of purpose.

The artist had put in a new gate, around twenty feet high and rimmed with barbed wire. The smell was conspicuously absent. I didn’t know what to expect when we sat down in what Shannon called the conference room, but what I knew was the room where I kept the time clock. The space where the clock had been was outlined in a dull brown, from dust. I could tell there was a new aura that hung over the place, a real glow.

Shannon said that the artist was running late and that we would start the meeting just us two. She got me a bad coffee from the kitchen in a small mug that looked like the kind my mother had growing up. Square handle.

I guess it’s back in style, I said to Shannon.

Aren’t they great? she replied. Well, let’s get started.

Shannon told me that a well-known sportswear manufacturer had customized a metal specially made for the human body. It was composed of silicon fibers that loosened in high temperatures and tightened in the cold—a kind of self-sufficient, regulatory cocoon. It was just an experiment, she said. And compensation would be provided in a quantity previously foreign to me.

The artist came by when Shannon was showing me what he had been working on, samples for the metal they wanted to put me in. One of the assistants, she said, had graciously offered her hand. There was a short video of a smiling young woman holding up her golden palm. She moved her fingers around like they were inside a very special, permanent glove.

We’re really excited to have you as the first full-body subject, the artist said. This factory has changed the trajectory of my entire practice. The neighborhood, the people—it’s very inspiring.

I didn’t know if I was supposed say thank you.

Thank you, I said. I am flattered.

Shannon flicked through images while we talked: toes in metal, moving easily. Fists, elbows, tongues.

No, thank you, said the artist.

He looked at me and I realized for the first time that his eyes were bright green. He was more handsome than he had been when I saw him last. His hair was cropped around his ears, elongating his face. No one told me artists could be this charming.

I owe you everything, the artist told me. He gestured at the contract on the table. This is the least I can do for you. Really.

I wish I could say that I protested and asked for more details, but the truth was that I agreed without hesitation.

They set me up in the back corner of one of our warehouses, one that was previously home to our unsold merchandise. The artist never got rid of any of it—my view consisted of small rubber dolls and tangled blonde manes. Then I stripped naked, covering myself with a thick towel Shannon gave me. She averted her eyes as I changed, turning back to me only to put a pair of plastic goggles over my eyes. She handed me a sleeve for my groin that would allow me to relieve myself throughout the process.

I hadn’t even considered my bodily functions. Shannon thought of everything. I got into a pair of metal stirrups hung from a tall orange crane. These the production manager, Jeremy, attached to my arms, along with a larger cylinder that fit snugly around my midsection. The metal vises were cold but not unpleasant.

They suspended me right side up over a large vat of something silver and viscous, lowering me carefully. I held my breath. The first coat felt like icing going on. I was told that each coat required a couple weeks to dry, requiring a stillness previously executed only by the seriously injured.

I was hard as a rock by May. The intervening period of time was peaceful, even interesting. I had not spent this much time focusing on the condition of my legs and arms since I was a teenager. When Shannon brushed my teeth, the sound of the bristles hitting my outer lip resonated like a series of bells.

The assistant and the artist came by most days in the beginning, reading me stories and telling me things that were happening in the news. On bad days, they brought me my bank statements. The rising numbers soothed my nerves.

The artist stopped coming after a while. I forget which month. Soon my only companions were the spiders that crawled in and out of my suspended mouth. In the beginning, everyone at the office and factory was interested in the project, and in me as its subject. They asked me questions about books and my adolescence. Then, slowly, I started to resemble the massive sculptures that adorned the outdoor warehouse space. The artist took the stuff I left in the back of the property: old crowns and molds for dollhouses. He asked me if he could start dipping those in my athletic metal too. So we all started dunking in it together each afternoon. You could hardly tell us apart. One time, in fact, I caught Shannon calling a large toy horse by my name.

Lots of my problems faded, though of course there were new ones. It felt like the metal wasn’t so breathable after all. Like a legging, Shannon told me. I found I could hardly move. My ability to speak decreased as the metal hardened around my mouth. Certain letters and linguistic combinations presented challenges that were better left alone. Language formed around difficulty level—words like churlishand regurgitateleft my world entirely. I wandered into a new vocabulary defined by ease over expression. Elaborate insults were literally unspeakable. I realized that I was, all in all, a kinder, more attentive human being. I felt freer than I had when speaking to bank tellers, neighbors, or grocery baggers—this new development was mine alone, an expression that felt unique and fitting to my personality.

The only problems my new language posed were logistical. The frustrations of infancy plagued my life. I got caught in ridiculous circular entanglements with Shannon, who could not distinguish my need for food with my desperation for a bathroom. Consonants built most words and were my greatest hardship, the avoidance of which resulted in elongated, poetic descriptions of my desires. Over time, I developed a clicking system for my most frequent wants. This eliminated most of the reasons to speak with anyone. I didn’t mind. When silence fell over the warehouse at night, the only sounds were the low, constant hum of my breathing, the steady thump of my heart. I felt a slow calm steal over me.

The artist came by just once that whole summer. I was wheeled upright to a vacant administrative area, which was air-conditioned. The occasion of our meeting was to discuss a potential gallery show, an exhibition that would require me getting titled. The artist arrived late and apologized profusely. I attempted to soften my gaze in lieu of the phonetically difficult phrase don’t worry about it.

I’ve been thinking about your title for a long time, the artist said. It’s important to me that it adequately encompasses the experience we’ve had together as people—as collaborators, really.

I nodded. Yes, I said. Nice of you.

I have one idea, he said. But you go first.

I tried to shake my head no. I didn’t have any ideas for my name besides the obvious one.

Are you sure? he asked. I really want to work with you on this.

No, I said. Go ahead.

It sounded more like o-ead, but he understood.

I think, he said, that I will title you CAR TWO.

Soon my only companions were the spiders that crawled in and out of my suspended mouth.

I looked at him, nodding slightly. Lots of his work involved machinery and industry. Most of the paintings involved long series of numbers, meant to correspond to an internal database.

What do you think, he said. CAR TWO? All capital letters.

Ar, I said. The C was impossible, as was the T, but the idea carried through for me. And I liked the simplicity of the name: CAR TWO. The burned Toyota was the first of the series—CAR ONE—but the artist told me I would be the last.

A diptych, he said.

Ip-igh, I said. Yes.

The artist looked happy to know that he had my approval. He had a call to make but was very glad that I was on board.

With the artist satisfied, I dove deeper into my internal worlds. I read religious texts and learned about Renaissance art, books that Shannon gave me because the artist wouldn’t notice they were missing. We developed a system that only required me blowing into a small metal straw to flip the pages. 

I ordered a new biblical translation that Shannon had read a review of in the paper. As a young man, I had been interested in certain Christian traditions that focused on the struggles of the poor. I even thought of becoming a preacher. My father was Catholic before he began his career in transportation, and moments of clarity occasionally surfaced within him.

I surrendered most of that knowledge for the pursuit of a financial position that might lift me from the annals of the middle class. In rare instances at the peak of my career, I felt swells of emotion akin to encounters with religious faith. They didn’t last. I cauterized my interests as one does an open wound, adopting preferences for contemporary television, restaurants, and beach vacations. In my sleeve of metal, the calming voice of my more radical thinking returned. 

But I regret to admit that, more than anything, I was possessed with sex. I traipsed through the alleys of my youth, searching for memories that might stir pleasure within me. My capacity to recall the details of intimate encounters was unparalleled. I found that the smallest things could trigger my recollection: an interaction between two assistants, a nice breeze. The tilt of an art handler’s neck. I reached an oasis of such intense mental recall that I felt I no longer had a desire that formed in the present. Instead, like a vivid nostalgia, my sexual yearnings were satisfied purely through inner exploration. The artist gave me many gifts. I was free from responsibility, I owed no debts and had no debtors. But the greatest gift may have been this: that as my capacity to speak and move diminished, my ability to feel growled within me like a sleeping bear.

It was February of the following year when Shannon informed me that I would be moved to London for a retrospective. Relief washed over me. I could tell that the artist felt guilty about me and my lack of communication—he purchased me a writing tablet. I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was useless, as my arms were the first to freeze. I told him I had always wanted to see Big Ben, which was true. He laughed and looked away from me. His shame could have been one reason I was included in the museum exhibition, though he assured me that CAR TWO was an integral part of the show, the crown jewel of his artistic practice.

The artist approached me the afternoon before my departure. He looked at the floor while he told me he had deposited the money he owed me into my bank account.

I am, I started to say. I realized halfway through the verb that gratefulwould not be possible.

I am obliged, I said.

He seemed confused.

I am indebted, I tried again.

That seemed to make him feel even worse. I felt a perverse desire to soothe him. I had heard from one of the managers that the artist had a suicidal bent. His wife often found him in overflowing bathtubs plugging his nose.

He said he would miss having me around.

Soon you will lose memory, I said.

Soft consonants required some effort, but it was manageable.

I am old, the artist said. You’re right.

I shook my head. Nothing seemed to be going out as I planned.

Of me, I said. Soon you will lose memory of me.

I wanted to tell him not to worry about it. He hunched his back. The artist looked ten years older than he did when I met him, even though he operated at the pace of a much younger person. He produced new art at a speed and quantity matched only by offshore industrial factories. When work slowed in the summer, with fewer gallery openings, I could see his hands twitching uncontrollably, playing a kind of mental pinball.

I wish you the best, he said. He blinked one eye involuntarily.

Au revoir, I said. French was all in the throat. The language rolled off my tongue: it was perfect for happy people like me.