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The Rat in Abstract
by J. (Channing) Wells and Feech
J. (Channing) Wells and Feech -- all rights reserved
 

A sense of order is a very important thing.

Most people wouldn't necessarily think so, when it comes to art. "Modern" art, that is. God, how I hate that word. "Modern" art. Gives me the willies, it does.

Anyway. What was the old joke? You see it in the cartoons. Paint gets accidentally splashed on a canvas during one of those omnipresent cat-chases-mouse scenes and ludicrously over-done art gallery patrons laud it and offer to buy it. If only it really were that simple. I wish I could be satisfied with three or four water-balloons full of watercolors tossed idly against a flat surface. Then... well, then perhaps it wouldn't hurt so much.

I don't work with paint, as such, although paint frequently finds its way into my work. I am a sculptor. I build things. What do I build?

You tell me.


Evening over Hayden Heath. Jax is here. Jax enjoys working late in the design labs. Jax enjoys working late in the design labs because this place, this Performing Arts Center Type Sort of Thing is populated by perhaps the most diverse and sundry collection of weird and strange people that the Western Hemisphere has ever seen. And, well, during the evening there are, sometimes, fewer of them hanging around. (Hardly a certain thing with the strange hours these people keep...) And no, it's not because, like me, they are SCAB's. It's because they're Theatre People. And Theatre People would be weird enough even without the Martian Flu. This building alone houses, as regulars, the following: two snakes (one little, one huge), a half-man half-wildebeest, a female wolf wearing the skin of an ordinary human male, an Octopoid Technical Director, a Lepidopteran Dramaturg and a shithead set-painter by the name of Feech (who appears 'normal') who I will always believe, until proven otherwise, has been given the brains and/or staying power of some kind of domestic terrier by a particularly subtle bout with the M.F.V. But I swear to you that had these individuals been normal I would still find them to be an unusual lot. Oh yes. And Calico, too. Only here would you find people who, while appearing relatively normal and sweet, have this thing for keeping uncertainly-tamed better-off-left-in-the-wild huge black leopards around as pets. And to think that I thought Hayden Heath would somehow be more "realistic" than Iowa City was. Brr. Shudder, shudder, shudder.

Anyway. Jax is here. And Jax is me.

Resting. Thinking.

In front of me is the sculpture. I'm quite fond of it, actually. It's of modest size and vaguely pyramidal shape, founded of welded metal and solder and enamel and... Dare I say.... something of myself. There always is. Even if I don't realize it. Sometimes, during certain rare shifts of perception, I am able to distance myself from myself and see my work as someone else might see it. Someone who knows about me.

Regard the sharp edges. The points where the weld is crooked and jagged. Teeth. Nasty pointy ones, summoned from the deep recesses and fears of Jax's Rat-ness. What's with the color? Red. Red sort of jolly-like? In one blink, the slightly bulging sides of the irregular pyramid traverse the symbological distance all the way from some jolly fat man dressed in a holiday Santa Suit to the bloated, stinking corpse of some small woodland creature, little more than raw skin and maggots... Also visions from within Jax's mind? Probably. They're not there intentionally. But they are there.

That's what I was going to say about art, here, before I get started on the night's project. Art is like a tree. A tree made of thought. Way, way out there on the branches are the concrete images. The specifics. Once you're at the end of a branch, there are no further options. Everything is defined. That's what the ancient Greeks tried to do. They tried to get as close to the tip of that branch as was humanly possible, seeking to create the idealized, typified standard, reality perfectly represented in art. Like little children, trying to see how far they could climb.

For a moment, let's be adventurous, though... and go backwards. Shimmy back downwards, passing the points where the limbs branch off, where the possibilities begin opening up. Is this a duck, or is it a rabbit? It depends. An old woman or a young? It depends. Two vases or four faces? You get the picture. With every branch you pass on the way down, there is one more option available to you on the way up. Until you're at the base...

And you can see the whole damn tree. And you can see every possible way to climb. You are free to go anywhere, and where you choose to go can tell you as much or more about yourself than it can about the art itself. That's what most people refer to as Modern Art. And that's what I do.

All right. Philosophies of the Sculptor 101 is dismissed for the day. Make sure you read chapters one and two for Monday. Me... I've got work to do.

Wandering in haphazard curves, working my way around the room and trying to get a feel for it, I eventually pluck my sculpture off the table and, with a little more wending, place it nearby the drafting table. They do have computers here, for this sort of thing. But this is Art. And true Art requires, at the very least, something you can hold in your hands besides a computer mouse. Scootching my way before the broad, flat surface, I click on the overhead lamp; then I pluck a sheet of onion-skin paper from the stack, tape it quietly down to the table, place the square upon its sheer blank whiteness, and pause. I reach for one of the drafting pencils, soft lead for dark marks at the moment. I stir it around in the sharpener for a moment, and then, cautiously, hesitantly, filled with the magic that characterizes all these sorts of occasions, apply it to the page.

And it begins.


"Aaaaand... you did this." Says the grizzle-haired young man with the unusual eyes, regarding my pyramid piece thoughtfully.

I nod to him, trying to keep out of his way as he examines my blood-child. What, I want to say, do you like it? Ah ha. Yes, I'm very proud of that one. Then, I'd be self-deprecating, very subtly, trying to drag a denial of my own self-criticism out of him. It's a kind of underhanded way to fish for compliments, but we artists take it where we can get it...

"I like it." Says Kent Dryer. And I instantly like him. He makes me nervous, of course. There's a smell about him that I can't quite place but which makes me very uneasy. I try to control the little nose-twitches that are part and parcel of being about fifty or more percent Everyday Common Rat.

"You do?" I say, very nearly batting my eyes coquettishly.

"I do." He says. And then he goes on to tell me all the ways that he likes it. Sure, he's obviously not a professional exhibitor. But it's still nice to get a glowing review, regardless.

And then, of course, he goes on to say the lines which will, ultimately, drag me into the single strangest department on campus. "I want to use it. As a sort of set design."

"A set design." I say, blinking at him.

"Yes." He says, charismatically. "Dancescape. Going up later this Fall. Sort of a conceptual dance and theatrical piece, dealing with a whole big variety of different themes and moods. Luce-- you might not know her-- has some of her students doing a piece on AIDS, and they asked me to do the design."

"And you want help."

"Jacob, between the two of us, I have no doubt who's the better designer." He smiles... just a bit too broadly... hum. "I was wondering... if you could... hm... do a bigger version of this."

"A bigger version?"

"Yes. I'm looking at this and I'm seeing it as a big mobile set piece... a space for the actors to move in and out of. Do you think you can do that?"

"No." I say.

"Oh." He looks disappointed. I quickly step in so as not to give him the wrong impression.

"What I mean, is, I can't just remake this thing five times scale. Well. I could. But I'm not going to."

He still looks confused. I gesture futilely.

"Kent. Can I call you that? Good. Kent. This piece is how it wants to be. It doesn't want to be any bigger. If it had wanted to be any bigger, I would have made it bigger in the first place. See?"

He nods, then. Good. He's not a Philistine. "Can you do something similar that... hm... wants to be bigger?" He asks.

I think for a moment, regarding my creation. I can see another pyramid, now, the vision of it swirling and coalescing around in my brains. Mister Dryer has got me thinking...

Useful art, eh? Art that's meant to be entered... moved through... the human bodies moving in and out and swirling and twisting and becoming part and parcel of the sculpture...

...I recall the maggots... pale white shapes stuffing the body of a red, bloated woodland creature... a vole, a mouse, a rat...

Ooh. And with that, Inspiration Hits. Hurrah.

I smile at Kent Dryer and extend my hand. "I believe so, Mister Dryer."

"Great." He says. And we shake.


The design is beginning to take shape on paper. It's an odd sensation, knowing that you yourself are not going to be responsible for the actual building and construction of your own brainchild. It gives me a strange, somewhat distant feeling. However. I have their word that the thing will be constructed exactly per my specs, so that's a relief at least. Still, when I will finally look upon my Wonderful Set Piece on the opening night of this laughably complex theatrical production, I sense that I will feel somewhat.... disembodied. Somehow. It's hard to explain in person and even harder to put down in the written word.

Another stroke of the drafting pencil. Another shift of the square. My body settles into the rhythm of creation. Perhaps my tail is bobbing slightly in idle motion, its dry scales rasping against the wood of the stool. Perhaps not. I'm really not conscious of it.

Two more lines, and then another dip in the sharpener. Some treacherous part of my brain suggests that I could just chew more lead free of its wooden sheath, and I promptly stifle that part with extreme prejudice. That's the last thing I need right now.

Instincts.


Feech purports to know a lot about instincts. She purports to know a lot about a lot of things. She is, as I have mentioned before, a shithead who just won't quit. In addition to this fact, she has a laser-guided computer-driven sensor array hooked up to her brain that lets her know Exactly when someone is feeling a bit 'Off'. When this happens, she goes into this psychotic wisdom-dispenser advice-giver mode that doesn't shut off. Ever.

I learned this fact rather quickly, myself.


Feech laughs at me. "Jax, since when are rats afraid of wolves?"

"All rats are afraid of 'em!" I reply, indignantly. "Barring the rare suicidal rodent. What are you talking about?"

"You. You're silly."

"Ah-ha." I say. "Listen... Feech?"

"Yep!" She says, proudly.

"Strange name." I note.

"Tell me about it." She says.

"Yes. Well. Feech. When Kent came to me yesterday, I thought there was something strange about him. I couldn't quite put my finger on it. But now... I talked to Gabe Carter. Everything makes sense. Just goes to show you can't be sure of anyone anymore. I should have known..."

"Jaxie!" She says, shaking her head. "Why on Earth do you keep thinking that everybody with a set of teeth in their head is out to get you?"

"Look, for all I know, they might be! Feech, I have plenty of good reasons to be scared. This is a prey animal you're looking at! An edible! A rat!"

She just sets her jaw. "Jax, rats are extremely social and bold little critters. I have known a number of rats in my life, and not one of them in my memory has ever been afraid to check out a new situation, up to and including certain strange dogs that they've met. And here you are, claiming that it's your rat half that's making you all upset. Tell me, Jax. Did you like dogs before you had... this form?"

"Hated 'em." I grumble.

"And now?" She says.

"I'm scared of them! Look, is that so wrong?"

"Nothing wrong with being scared sometimes, Jax. But let me tell you, getting to know Kent is just scratching the surface in this department. I know-- I used to think he was intimidating... And I think you're selling yourself short if you're blaming this on letting your rat side 'take over.' You're a stronger fella than that, Jax."

I smirk at her. "You're relentless, you know that?"

"Look." She says. "I'll prove it to you. Can we meet at the Library sometime? I've got a book I want to show you. I think you'll like it."

"Wha?" I say.

"You assume a lot about yourself, and that's not a good thing, in my opinion of course."

"Of course." I say.

"So... you got a time you're free?" She says, whipping a small spiralbound planner out of a teal-colored grip.

She's quick.

Ah, hell, why not. "Friday. We can grab lunch, how'bouts, and then you can show me whatever you're going to show me at the Library."

"Deal." She says. "You know, Jax... Being a rat is like... like... being a normal. Only better. You don't know what you're missing in that form you have, there."

I turn from her then, not caring to hear more at the time.

"And you don't know what it's like." I say.


Lines on paper. It's amazing how quickly this thing takes shape. Or perhaps, not. Perhaps it's taking me an eternity, and the time is simply flowing away from me like a free river. I haven't even looked at the clock, so I can't be the judge of that, nor do I particularly care. The outer surface of the pyramid is done, and now I'm working at what I'm terming the "underbelly"... the broken, hollow part that will only be exposed, or so I hear tell, during the dance's final chilling scene. I can't wait to see one of my sculptures "in action." I occasionally glance at the parent sculpture, sitting on the table nearby, but as the drafting progresses these checks become more and more infrequent as the work in front of me takes on more and more of a life of its own. Three more careful lines. Outline the internal supports. Above all, it must work...

The rhythm of creation gives my mind free reign to wander again. Sometimes, one cannot help it. Sometimes, one shouldn't even try.

"You're a stronger fella than that, Jax."

Instincts.


I recall the day Feech had agreed to show me around the Scene Shop, to give me sort of an idea of the facilities wherein my design would be realized. I had been bantering around with Feech regarding the practical concerns about keeping a big black leopard around. Juliet is wonderful in a nigh-indescribable way, very well-mannered and almost literally radiant; but that damn leopard gives me the willies. Two meals a day of Zuperfect Big Cat Chow notwithstanding, I can't help but get the feeling that every time I pass by him, Calico is eyeing me with very serious consideration of how nice one hundred and sixty pounds of corn-fed rat-thing might taste right about now.

Anyway. Feech, as always, had taken the exact polar opposite view of the topic, and we were just getting warmed up and set in our ways for yet another pointless debate which would change neither of ours' opinions one iota when we first stepped into the great open workspace that the Theatre folks called the "Scene Shop." To someone not experienced in the specifics of the Theatre, the first glimpse of the scene shop can be something strange and surreal... It seems somehow... incongruous... that simple scant feet away from the stage itself-- upon which dancers and actors and performers will, someday, glory in their performance and gracefully challenge the limits of the human form-- is this high, vaulting place of uncertain shapes of wood and the willful imposition of power tools.

But that wasn't what I noticed.


"Feech... what... what is that smell?"

She sniffs, slightly. "Sorry?" She says. Pointless to ask her, of course. Feech wouldn't notice. But I do.

I feel chilly-hot prickles running across the back of my skull, and I am conscious that my hackles... for lack of a better word... are slowly raising...

I shift my weight from one foot to the other. "Never mind." I say, overly casually. My lip twitches. Feech is not fooled.

"Jax?" She says.

danger. danger. danger. danger. danger.

I gnash my teeth together. "Sorry." I say. "Let's just get on with it, okay?" I feel my palms beginning to sweat. What the hell is that smell? Soap. Sour soap-almond. Something...

Bad...

My eyes dart around from spot to spot. Feech is explaining something about the layout of the shop to me, but the words are passing me by like wind. The smell is overwhelming to me... I can't... concentrate...

The jitters begin. Feech notices again and questions me about what the heck is going on... I figure that she must be doing so, but I can't make out the words. Something here. Something bad. Danger. Danger. danger danger danger danger danger

An image is floating in my brain... tenuous... dreamlike... an association for the horror that this smell evokes...

And then...

It's there.

Flowing over the pine boards along the wall to my left, coming towards me.

I could flee right back out the door I came in by. But I don't. Instead, I leap for the approaching creature's throat and latch on, despite his swift drawing-back of the neck in an attempt to evade me. For three seconds, I become a thing mindless, a creature possessed, a vicious growl made incarnate. For three seconds, I am a deadly force, a beast of locked jaws and swishing tail and frozen hackles.

This lasts for, as noted, all of three seconds. At the end of those three seconds, the snake's body manages to wrap around and apply just enough pressure that I have to gasp for breath. I do so. My jaws relax. And at that moment, the huge serpent casts me aside like a broken toy and gets out of my way. I am aware of others... holding me down... back...

Simultaneously, I am aware that the snake himself retires to the far corners of the scene shop where he is himself surrounded by small crowds of concerned friends...

And they continue to hold me down and back and slowly stroke the fur of my head and speak to me soothing words although I can sense that they themselves are on a razor's edge...

Feech is among those tending to Alan.


Friday.

Lunch with Feech.

Things are rather quieter today than I would have originally suspected they would be. The greater part of the meal has passed in silence, broken only by the rustle of fast-food papers and the slurp of iced soda. I finish the last dregs of my own drink with a wet rattling noise. Then I sit.

"So." I say, at last.

"Well." Says Feech.

There is another pause.

"So. Jax."

"Yep." I say.

Another pause.

Feech toys with a solitary French fry.

More vaguely uncomfortable silence passes.

"Look." I say, finally, "I'd... understand if you didn't feel like going to the Library today..."

"No." She says. "No. I'd... like to."

I nod, silently. I get the sense that she's happy I'm still willing to go through with it, at least.

"More soda?" She asks. "Free refills."

I ponder. "Maybe. Get some for the road and such."

Another pause.

"Ready?" She says.

"Yep." I say.

And we go. I stop in at the soda fountain on the way out-- a few more calories can never hurt, after all. From thence, we make our way to the Hayden Heath University Library, up some steep and strange stairs to the Biology Reference shelves and to a spot in the stacks that Feech seems to know rather well.

Studies and Experiments in the Physiological and Behavioral Characteristics of Laboratory Rats.

We look at it together, rather soberly for a moment.

And then, I cannot resist a quick, stifled giggle. Feech smiles too, her tension today needing an easy outlet, and soon, she is chuckling as well. That's as far as it gets; no fade-to-blacks as we collapse in hysterics or any such thing. Just a matched set of two quiet chuckles in the solemn near-darkness of the arcane stacks of the Hayden Heath University Library.

I begin reading.


Done. The finished design sits on the drafting table, and I dare say, I'm damn proud of it. It's similar enough to the parent work to satisfy Kent's needs, and yet different enough to my eye to feel like something... new. Something exciting. Something never-before-seen-on-this-planet. I think that they're going to like it. Yes, it's still red, and it's still pyramidal. Knock that symbology around until the cows come home if you like. And, yes, the sharp edges are still there. I don't know whose teeth they are this time. Theirs or mine. I suspect that they very well might be both, simultaneously. That's the wonderful thing about this profession.

There is a little bit of me in everything I create. And so, yes, this one is different than the last one that so inspired Kent to recruit me into this house of lunatics. It can't help but be different. I'm different. I am, and will always be, different.

I can't wait to see it.

Carefully, I remove the paper containing the plans for my newest creation from the drafting table, roll it gently into a cylinder, and place it in a carrying tube. Rest there, mine art.

Then, I neatly arrange the pencils back in their tray, return the square to its bottommost position, and, with just a hint of jauntiness, flick off the light.

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