Burns

Moisture beaded on the cold pane of the window. The moisture on the window was condensed breath, plus vapor from the pot of water that Burns kept on top of the oven. They were silent, the two of them, struggling on the mattress under the window. They were silent except for their rapid and shallow and start-and-stop breaths. There was no moan of pleasure or calling out of nonsense, but Burns was humping Pandora so relentlessly that she had to bite her lower lip. She had to bite her lower lip to keep from laughing. It had just suddenly struck her as comical. To distract herself she looked at the window and noticed that under the patch of steam on the window was a word that someone had scrawled before with a fingertip.

The word was still nearly visible under the new layer of condensation. Pandora tried to make the word out but it was difficult. She was seeing it upside down and her head was bouncing. It was difficult to concentrate because she was trying to read it upside down as she lay there on her back with Burns pounding away between her legs, her head bouncing under his slamming push-ups. Her legs were up in the air around him, up like she was giving birth to a full-grown coal-black heavyweight boxer.

It was like he was trying to knock the wind out of her. She concentrated on figuring out the word on the window. She felt that it was a message. A word some other woman had scrawled on the window while she also lay helpless on her back while Burns filleted her; knocked the wind out of her; a message from the sweet sorority of the badly fucked. Pandora knew it would bother her if she didn’t decode the message. She thought When Burns gets off I’ll get a better look at it. The message appeared to consist of several scrawled letters and one of them was clearly an “o”.

Burns ejaculated with a rude word and a death rattle and rolled over, out of bed, and left the room. He wanted to work more on his painting. On his way out of the bedroom he brushed a hand over the soft shoulders of the suits that hung on a chrome rack by the doorway. She sat up as he left, facing a jagged-edged mirror that lay on its side along the bed.

The room was very dark: she couldn’t see herself in the mirror and she had to feel the floor along the mattress to find her little purse. Burns had absolutely forbidden her from smoking, to protect his suits from soaking up the odor, but she lit a filtered Camel anyway. She blew smoke towards the window. The window was open a few inches and the smoke flowed out in a stream. The cigarette’s tip cast a dim light on her thumb tip and finger and she sucked on it. She just sat there puffing quietly, her bone-white legs flattening her breasts, her chin on her knees, her straight blonde hair spilling over her toes. She looked in the mirror, barely able to make out the shaft of the cigarette where it stuck in the bruised seam of her lips and she listened. She could hear Burns through the wall.

He paced the room and grunted and talked to himself while he slashed at the painting. The huge canvas was nailed to the wall, so she could hear every impact of his violent brush; the strokes dragged and punched at the canvas. Burns had explained to her that making a picture beautiful was just the first step. To finish a picture he had to find a way of purifying it, of torturing the beauty mercilessly out of it until all that was left was the evidence of violation which became the testament to beauty that real art should be and that’s what he was doing. Now she winced every time his brush stabbed the canvas.

Before, in bed, she had tried to kiss him; she had tried to twice; and each time he’d caught her face in his big hand and stopped her, pushing her down, and the second time he’d lost his temper hissing How many times do I have to tell you stay offa my mouth, girl? and he had pinned her and angled her face away from his and bore down with all of his furious humping weight. Pandora touched herself there absently while recalling it.

She listened to the sound of Burns paint as his brush slashed and poked at the wall. She could see now that the word on the window began with an S. First S, then o. The other letters were too faint to make out so what she could make out was So.

She crushed the cigarette out on the windowsill and dressed quickly, leaving her watch on a chair by the bed, and slipped between the heavy curtains that draped the bedroom doorway. Tip-toeing across the dimly lit kitchen, she saw on the kitchen table two untouched cups of coffee, separated clouds of cream like thunderheads floating in each, and a fat poetry book, spread open on its face. She retrieved the book and carefully turned the key in the front door lock. She eased the door open and felt her way slowly down three flights of littered stairs in the moonlit stairwell. The building was like a War ruin. Was it a War ruin? Out on the street, a chilly March wind shouldered her towardsthe U-Bahn at Schlesisches Tor but she couldn’t help looking back. Burns’ shadow stained the curtains and she gloated to think of him missing her.

He stood naked in the bathwater light from a hodgepodge of candles. His calloused hands were clasped over the smooth dark solid of his skull and he stood there like that, like facing a firing squad. The studio was a vast empty room with tall front windows and rotten floor boards and there was a table in one corner covered with crushed tubes of oil and stiff rags and tin cans full of brushes, some with fine sharp tips and others bushy like tails, everything stinking of turpentine and the buttery poisons of oil paint. The canvas of the painting was nailed over the whole huge wall and the painting was dark and wild and ugly and Burns could almost step up into it and drown in the swirl.

He was tall and coal-black muscular. His broad shoulders tapered to a narrow waist. His legs were graceful and powerful. Despite the stitched scar along the tender panel of his left forearm, his body was sculpturally beautiful and in every detail and proportion perfect. But his face was crippled by a cleft palate. A hare lip. The bridge of his nose was fine but the nostrils were bent and seemed to melt into the flat snarl of the hyphenated upper lip. His soft black muzzle was also discolored: white in patches.

But he dressed well and attractive women were fascinated when he approached them arrogantly, unapologetically ugly, with his cocky east-London accent, in an impeccably tailored suit. He’d perfected a method of bringing otherwise haughty women under his control and the illusion, from his dress and bearing, that he had money was only a fraction of it. It was in part his knowledge of how much contempt beautiful women had for the sexual power that men granted them: they found the experience of submitting to Burns an ironic and obscene delight, but the affairs often ended in protracted bedroom silences, or mean-spirited remarks just after climax, but only when Burns himself had decided he was finished. He could always tell the ones that might fall the hardest: they were, inevitably, the ones who had the most to lose. Unattractive women were immune to his ugliness.

Once, a rich man’s wife had asked him, before finally agreeing to leave his bed one night, How do you decide when you’re finished with somebody? and he’d said that he was finished with a woman when her pride was gone; self-esteem fascinated him. It fascinated him that people with no accomplishments could nevertheless feel good about themselves…proud even. Self-esteem fascinated him. It was almost tangible; a substance, that could be added to or subtracted from the measurable qualities of a soul. Where did this substance come from? It was magical stuff. You could take it from someone, but taking it, you couldn’t have it. It was only at the exact moment of taking a woman’s self-esteem from her that Burns experienced a sensation close to that of having it.

He paced in front of the wet canvas and days-old candles melted to guttery pools, huffing for air, and a coven of shadows, proportionate to each candle, pranced and jiggled on the walls. He felt the magnificent presence, pacing the studio with him, of something heartless.

The phone rang and he let it ring. He could hear it through the bedroom wall. The phone persisted so he grudgingly went to the other room to answer it but whoever had called and let it ring with such irritating persistence simply stood on the other end breathing and then hung up after he said Hallo.

Burns put the phone down by the chair by the mattress and discovered the antique gold watch that Pandora had left on the chair. It was heavy in his hand. He scooped it up and held it against the luminous blue dial of the clock radio on the floor so he could read the worn inscription on its soft backplate. The inscription read Beloved Pearl. He slipped the glittering watch on his black arm.

So on Monday Burns woke early and dressed in a light gray suit to celebrate the advent of spring and stood in the drizzle-light by the open bedroom window and rifled the yellow pages for a Ku’damm Jeweler, his long black finger with spatulate pink-nailed tip dragging down column after column until it stopped by the bold face of Steinmann Goldschmied. He figured he could get at least a hundred deutschmarks for Pandora’s watch. That was a hundred kilos of coal bricks to heat his flat with or half a month’s rent.

When Burns stepped out the flat he lifted his trousers and stooped and hid the key under a cardboard box full of old paperback books that he kept in the hallway. People might look under potted plants, or welcome mats, or even on the dusty sill of the door, but it wouldn’t occur to anyone to look under a heavy box full of trash for the front door key.

Riding the U-Bahn into town was always a chore. A year ago Burns had taken the taxi everywhere but now he was running out of money and reduced to riding the Underground without a ticket: riding it schwarz or “black”, as the Berliners called it. Along this section of the line in Kreuzberg, from Gleisdreieck to the end of the line at Schlesisches Tor, the U-Bahn was actually above-ground. The above-ground stations were drafty and pigeon-fraught in spring and unbearably cold in winter. The passengers at this end of the line were variously afflicted: green-haired punks and heroin addicts and gangs of Turkish teenagers with their pit bull terriers: he’d change wagons to avoid standing near one of those dogs. The fact that the beasts were notorious for killing children didn’t seem to deter people from wanting to own them.

The train snaked over the gray vista of Kreuzberg, stuttering over the rusted chinks in the well-worn tracks, twisting left and then right again over the busy streets and the paralleling canal, upsetting whirlwinds of pigeons at certain junctures, and passing close by living rooms and kitchens full of people so used to it that they seemed to have forgotten that they were being watched. Once, Burns had been on that train late at night and at a slow part of the track he’d looked into a window and seen a fat, middle-aged man fucking a tall, beautiful Turkish girl, her wild hair bouncing.

He stared out the window. He felt the eyes of the people on him, as usual, as much on his suit as on his deformity. He knew he was being watched and enjoyed it because he felt powerful. In fact, he couldn’t dream of being seen in anything other than one of his beautifully tailored suits. In jeans and a tee shirt they would have mistaken him for a wretch. But in one of his suits it was clear that he was greater than all those grubby people.

After Möckenbrucke the wagon emptied, leaving Burns alone with a pretty girl who stepped into the middle of the wagon with a lost look on her face. She was tiny and blue-veined pale, with long thick sable-shiny hair. Her bright-green eyes were wide-set and huge and when she blinked she blinked so slowly she looked like a doll doing it, her gaze trained upwards on the map posted on the curving ceiling of the wagon. She had come straight into the car staring at it. She was wearing a dark blue velvet jacket and a sweater under it… a dark brocaded skirt…the kind of outfit that seems colorfully ethnic to Americans but simply means Slavic poverty.

She tilted a few degrees forward against the weight of a bulging back-pack. Her full red lips separated into a whistling pucker. Burns looked her carefully up and down and noticed her boots. They were brand new red-brown leather, ankle-high, pointed-toed, with fur cuffs. She had obviously purchased them especially for this trip. Out here in the wild west.

Because the girl appeared to be so lost, Burns seized the opportunity and crossed over to her and asked, in German, if she needed a little help. With a helpless smile she said Please, do you speak English?

-Of course.

She looked back up at the overhead U-Bahn map and said It seems that I am in the opposite direction.

She was Russian, visiting a friend who now had permission to stay in Berlin and her friend, she said, was the smartest man she’d ever known but that he couldn’t get anywhere because he was poor and people consider the poor to be stupid, though he had studied architecture in Moscow and could make very beautiful, useful things for the world if given a chance. Yet, he cleaned toilets at a nightclub instead. S

She touched the cuff of Burn’s beautiful silk suit and said it was magnificent.

She said I am Irina and Burns reached out and said Len Burns. They shook hands, Burns’ big black hand engulfing hers and the contact lingered pleasantly until a jolt from the rickety train bounced them apart. They stood rocking over the tracks and Burns noticed her eyes wandering again and again to his lip and he felt himself getting angry over it but suddenly she remarked, innocently, Without that you would be ordinary.

Burns said, People are usually too polite to mention it. Children do point now and then, mind you. He smiled and the lip showed its seared flaws dramatically. She was perfectly beautiful and could never have been other than glamorized by the world’s gaze. She was beautiful in the face and beautifully shaped and petite: how could she ever have been anything other than wanted?

The train lurched into the Zoo Station. He said Can I buy you lunch at my place? And one thing lead to the invariable other.

Burns was groggy. He realized it was the phone. Ringing. The phone was ringing and he’d been dreaming so he reached out. Hallo? He scowled around the gloomy bedroom. What time is it? He looked at his arm but remembered the watch was gone.

Irina had admired it, laying beside him in bed. He’d let her try it on and she’d admired herself in the mirror with it. She’d said Who’s Pearl? and Burns had said My mother and shocked himself by feeling guilty about having lied to her. Then he’d said I want you to have this. It would mean a lot to me. And now it was Pandora herself on the phone, calling about the very watch.

Pandora said Hi, Burns. It’s me.

She said I think I left my watch at your place the other night and the sentence sounded so polished in her mouth, so artificial and well-rehearsed, that Burns relished the game that would follow, during which he would pretend no knowledge of it and Pandora unable to assert her certainty that the watch had been there because of course she’d left it on purpose. Her only chance of having the watch back was to admit what she’d done and that therefore she knew, for a fact, that it had to be there where she’d left it…otherwise it was impossible. Burns pretended to be distracted by something. He said I’m sorry what did you just ask me? She repeated herself. He savored the pause before she answered, then fed on the hint of panic that rose into her voice when she finally spoke.

He told her that he was afraid he hadn’t seen it and that if it would make her happy he’d tear his place apart looking for it, first thing in the morning, but he doubted it that there was much chance of it turning up.

Can’t you just check the place now? My grandmother gave me that watch.

But Burns hung up. The phone rang a dozen times. Then it stopped and resumed ringing. He stretched out on the bed with a muscular arm folded under the back of his head and played with himself, thinking of Irina, while it rang. He moaned to think that at first he had almost lost interest in fucking her at all because getting her into his flat, and then into his bedroom, had been too easy. It wasn’t until she’d had a few drinks and slipped her top off and he saw her magnificent affliction that he wanted her.

She’d been sitting there on the edge of his mattress, babbling on and on about art and morality and sacrifice, how ordinary moral rules could be broken to serve higher ideals, her English softening and then crumbling in the booze she was guzzling, when suddenly she’d crossed her arms down to the bottom of her sweater and hooked her thumbs into it and inverted the sweater over her head, lifting her hair and her breasts with it. Her hair poured down again over the pale breasts and her belly. It wasn’t until after she’d swept the curtain of her hair back over a shoulder that Burns had seen clearly what he was staring so avidly at.

It was as wide, across the middle, as a fancy silk scarf. Embossed in her opalescent flesh like a signet. A huge purple welt, spiraling her torso, screwing around from the lower left side of her belly, slashing across her middle and casting a raised shadow on the base of her right breast. A tremendous birth defect. A delicious hidden deformity. It magnificently ruined her otherwise perfect nakedness. She’d looked down at it herself, as if seeing it for the first time. Or as though she’d been hoping that it might have disappeared since she’d dressed that morning. When she looked down, her hair cascaded over it, Burns got on his knees and parted the sable scrim and traced the raised silhouette of the thick scar with a finger and her tears burned his arm. He made love to her on the scar, jerking on it with sad noises.

He lay there on her for quite awhile until Irina complained about his weight on her and asked him to get off, so he rolled over and they talked quietly. He was talking about art. He drifted to sleep beside her with his head on her breast while she sang softly. When he’d been awakened by Pandora’s phone call, Irina had been gone already for hours. He lay in the dark, savoring the memory of Irina’s secret body, and then he rolled over in bed towards the window and reached up and wrote the number fifty-one, in the steam on the glass with his fingertip. But damn if he didn’t feel a twinge of guilt doing it. What was happening to him? Was he falling in love?

He stood from the bed, putting the telephone aside and went into the kitchen and found a note from Irina on the table. It said Thank you so much for wonderful gift. I know it means so much to you. Why you give it to me? We must talk. I’m curious of how a man gives a mother’s gift to a stranger. Can we meet tonight at same U-Bahn stop at eleven? Please if you want to. She had signed it Beloved, but not Pearl.

He walked into the studio and examined his monstrous painting where it writhed on the wall. It was so vast and hideous that it demanded respect. Irina had said that she’d hated it, and Burns had enjoyed her honesty, thinking, at the time, how much sweeter it would be to bring her down from her high horse by seducing and then denying her later. But that was before he’d had her under him on the bed, her scar under his penis as if he’d ejaculated it, purple across her stomach and breast.

He looked at the painting. It stared back with its million crushed black eyes. He had an impulse. It came to him what an effort it had been to keep this life going that way, to support the self he had invented in Berlin. These paintings, after all, were just shields, or blinds, that he’d used to protect himself from the world’s pity. He felt no real pleasure in the making of art. Did anyone, other than mediocrities who puttered at crafts? Art was just what rich people decided that it was, anyway. If the rich were unaware of what you were doing, then it wasn’t art. And you didn’t exist. Wasn’t it true that Burns had fabricated Burns The Artist from out of thin air with the money he’d gotten from the settlement? If that architect’s pit bull hadn’t bitten him in Green Park that day those years ago, where would he be?

Well, now he was in Berlin, and his money was running out, and, truth be told, he didn’t give a rat’s ass for painting. The turpentine gave him headaches. But now he would find the courage to begin again, forget about painting, get a real job, change his ways. With Irina beside him he could be a person. He’d return to London with her…she’d jump at the chance of getting out of Russia.

He ripped the painting down from the wall. The canvas was so vast that he exhausted himself grappling with it. He went and got a large pair of shears from a tool box under the table and began ripping it and he never felt freer in his life.

Later, he chose his favorite suit to meet Irina in, a beautiful beige three piece. He wore it with a blue silk shirt. He stood and waited for her at the U-Bahn station where they’d first met. Women would come marching up the metal stairs to the platform and, every time, he’d be relieved, then disappointed, as their fair heads crested the stairs.

After twenty minutes of hoping, he worried that Irina had gotten the stations wrong, or gotten lost on the way. Or perhaps she’d been robbed or assaulted: she was tiny, beautiful and foreign and this was a bad neighborhood, full of junkies and anarchists. But such thoughts were melodramatic. She had probably overslept. She had his number, in any case, so he decided to wait another ten or fifteen minutes and then return home and simply wait for her call.

He got home an hour later, feeling disappointed, intending to check his machine for messages, when he discovered the front door key missing from its spot under the crate in the dark hallway. He felt around the dirty floor on his hands and knees in the vicinity of the box but he knew it should be exactly there, where he always hid it. Just beneath the front right corner of the box. Had his neighbors spied on him and seen where he kept the key and taken it? Turkish riff raff. Had he just unwittingly spoiled a future robbery? Over the door was a transom he always kept open…too narrow for him to get through himself. He went downstairs and outside to a payphone on the corner. He got out his little black book. He dialed and waited.

-Pandora? he said.

-Burns? She sounded shocked. Hi.

-Listen, I need you to get right over here. I think someone’s nicked the key to my flat and I need help getting in.

She sighed heavily and just said Burns. You only call when you want something.

-I want two things, actually, he said. Just come over, and you can decide if it was a mistake to afterwards. Fair enough?

Burns was standing in the dark of his hallway, standing guard, when Pandora got there. The dim lights of her face and hands and her clean white tee shirt, framed by her dark leather jacket, ascended the stairs like bits of a ghost. He saw her before she could see him and she was startled when he moved towards her, removing his suit jacket. He pressed against her, and a blond gallon of hair spilled in his face as she looked down as he stooped to bite a breast through her tee-shirt.

Pandora pushed away from him and Burns chuckled, undoing his pants, and guided her hand by her wrist. He ran the rill of small bones in the back of her hand over a smooth snake. He laid his massive hands on her shoulder and weighed her down to her knees to receive communion, leaning back on the banister and to ease his hips to her face and he swelled and shoved in her mouth.

Afterwards, he carefully removed his jacket and hung it over the banister and gave her a foot up to the transom. He felt the usual grateful emptiness…he felt drained…casual about existence after coming. He was glad she was there to do all this. She wiggled through the transom and he heard her drop lightly to the tile on the other side of the door.

He remembered the thank you note that Irina had left him, on the kitchen table, and hoped Pandora wouldn’t see the damn thing it after switching the lights on. He tried to think of a lie that would cover the situation, but his kitchen light went on and Pandora yelled I think you’ve been robbed and opened the door and Burns pushed past her. He went straight to the bedroom and found all of his suits gone. He made a sound like an animal.

Pandora just stood in the kitchen, where things were a bit of a mess, listening to Burns cursing and kicking things and sounding insane. His precious suits. All gone. His life was over and so forth. The bastards had taken his suits and so forth. Without those suits, he couldn’t even leave the house. But his face burned from the inside out as the truth came clearer to him. His seared lip curled up over his teeth as it came to him. Irina had seen where Burns kept the door key. She’d watched him. Irina had known where the key was.

Burns pushed by Pandora into the studio and found his masterpiece, the most important painting he’d ever done; in shreds all over the floor. His heart sank when he saw it, strewn about in ripped piles, as though he himself had not destroyed it.

But there was still hope: he was dithering madly as he gathered the scraps and tatters and began arranging them around himself on the studio floor, trying to reconstruct it and he was saying I can start over. I can still fix the painting and I have one suit left and I’ll look good and I can start over. He was on his hands and knees, shuttling around from scrap to scrap and some of the scraps of canvas were yards long and others were smaller than quilting squares, stiff with bumpy layers of paint. The slaughtered painting sprawled like black skin in heaps on the floor around him.

Pandora followed him into the studio. She had fetched the suit jacket from the banister. She stood there with it draped over her skinny white arms which were crossed over her chest. She was fascinated. She watched Burns scurry about on the floor: he looked like a wretch in an asylum.

She said to him, calmly, You’re going to ruin your pants like that. It’s the last suit you’ve got. If you ruin this suit it’s over for you. Are you crazy? You better change into some jeans before you ruin those pants.

Burns looked up and said You’re right. That’s a girl. Quick thinking. His words took on a pathetic hare-lipped sibilance in the stress of the moment. He jumped up and ran into the bedroom and slipped out of the suit pants and carefully hung them on the empty rack. He refused to look at the bed because he could still see Irina there wearing that purple stain. He’d been a fool and he’d paid the price. That simple. But fate had mercifully left him with one suit.

If he stuck to it he could work the galleries and become a success…he could still make an impression and when, one day, he started to sell paintings he’d buy more fine suits and then he’d be Burns again…fully Burns. As for now, he’d learned his lesson. He’d very nearly forgotten how cozy an affliction discontent really was when compared to abject, irremediable misery.

Pandora was just standing around with nothing to do when Burns came out of the bedroom in jeans, his magnificent black chest glistening with sweat. He grabbed her ass and said Wait for me in there while I fix this painting. When I come out, we’re gonna have a party. He turned and looked at her but failed to make eye contact and he covered his mouth and said, You wanted to be my woman, didn’t you?

Then he went to work. There were a thousand shredded pieces to deal with, but it wasn’t impossible. He could do it, he told himself. He could fix it. He could glue it to another canvas. First, he would find all the fragments and lay them out in proper order, like a puzzle. He hummed while he worked.

Pandora, also humming, was in the bedroom with the heavy shears, ripping his last suit to shreds.

-July 1992

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