THE FIGURES

by J. David Stevens


For three years I’d been holed up in a downtown warehouse working on THE FIGURES.  Every night I fell asleep believing I’d affixed my last towel rod or casaba melon, but every morning I rose to find THE FIGURES somehow incomplete.  My only companion was a retired circus chimp named Claude, rescued from a petting zoo on a rare day I’d ventured beyond the city.  He ate nothing but Korn Nuts and lay on the couch watching infomercials: spiritual energy bracelets, food dehydrators, exercise machines run on rubber bands.  Sometimes he threw feces out the window, and I think now the most incredible thing about that time was how Claude threw feces out the window—hitting passersby—but no one complained.  It confirmed the cultural malaise, the reason I had undertaken THE FIGURES initially.  On Thursdays, we played contract bridge with Girts and Olgerts, the warehouse owners.  A pair of Latvian refugees who once worked for the KGB to conceal their forbidden relationship, they used the warehouse to store cases of liquor stolen from the airlines.  Whenever we played bridge, we drank vodka from tiny bottles liberated from their supply.  They played a mean bridge game, aided by Claude’s overbidding.  Sometimes the conversation turned philosophical.  Slightly drunk, they’d consider THE FIGURES.  “This one looks like a constipated tax man drowned in his bathtub,” Girts would say.  “That one looks like a dowdy schoolteacher unzipping her chest,” Olgerts would reply.  “More pathos,” Girts would advise.  “More golfballs,” Olgerts would insist.  When they questioned my inspiration, I said only that THE FIGURES had occurred to me one morning before I left for my former job as a commodities broker.  I showed them my wife’s letter, sent the previous year, saying, “For the sake of getting on with things, I’ll presume you’re dead.”  I asked if they regretted stealing the liquor, and Girts said they were hurting fewer people now than when they were “law-abiding” citizens.  He made the quotation marks with two fingers on either hand.  “What makes you angry?” Olgerts continued, and I said it was the public radio announcer who gave the story behind every jazz composition rather than letting the music speak for itself.  To this day, I don’t know why they rented me the warehouse space.  I wish they could have been there to see THE FIGURES unveiled—to see how I stopped the police cruiser with my mock-panic, screaming “They’re robbing the Payless.”  When the police turned the corner, a crowd had already gathered.  Traffic locked.  THE FIGURES jammed the sidewalk.  Claude swung from the building, releasing a banner above the Payless that read Free to All.  By then, the police were out of their car.  “Must be that time of year,” the first one declared.  The second spoke into his radio.  “We got one of those again,” he said.  I imagined Claude ambling over rooftops, heading for maybe the bus terminal, maybe the river.  “One of those,” I repeated softly from my hiding place.  “Indeed, one of those.”


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