L. Shapley Bassen's "Portrait of a Giant Squid"

The First Place winner in the 2015 Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest


Illustration by Jason Stout

It would be an understatement to say that in April, Ray was surprised to be his first cousin Donna's heir. In his mother's photo albums from the postwar 1940s, Ray appeared as a toddler, and this older cousin had stood over him in that summertime, casting a shadow. His mother had died at 69 in 1987, younger than he was in this August of 2014. Donna's parents had moved from New York to Los Angeles in the early Fifties. In the past decade of social media, Donna had located more distant members of their scattered family, discovering they were a clan of only children. After Donna friended Ray on Facebook, there had been posts and messages and some emails, never Skype. He'd kept his distance, having no inclination to travel to California. Four decades of international business travel had extinguished wanderlust. Also, he agreed with John Updike: "The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding."

The legal document said that his cousin Donna's estate included a painting by a major 20th century artist. Ruth Riesenkalmar's work had finally emerged from eclipseby her husband's, and the museum site of their house and shared studios on Long Island had been renamed, hyphenated to include her. After learning about the pain ing, Ray visited three Manhattan museums exhibiting Riesenkalmars. MOMA displayed two from her cephalopod series. A photo the lawyers sent showed Ray that his newly inherited Portrait of a Giant Squid was as color-saturated and indecipherably abstract as MOMA's except for its dominant circular center entangled in wavy, sucker-circled lines suggesting a squid's giant eye and tentacles. He could see from its dimensions it would be an ordeal to install in his apartment.

Ray's spacious 10th-floor condo had been decorated decades earlier by his wife who after the divorce had moved to the East Hampton house. He knew the two empty nest bedrooms converted to library and flat-screen TV sanctum wouldn't do, and he certainly didn't want that squid in the master. The living room's 9-foot ceilings and 20-foot-long wall behind the couch would just accommodate the painting, if he removed the baby grand piano.

When it arrived before Hallowe'en, the huge canvas overwhelmed his space. Its red/orange was overpowered by thick black daubs. He had to stand in the farthest dining room corner away from the picture for anything representational to arise out of the abstract shapes. Then, a giant squid rose out of dark water. Its cyclopean circle eyed him. Its tentacles reached towards him. Then it spoke to him.

Ray fled his apartment, across the street from his building into Carl Schurz Park. This was where he walked every morning and evening in decent weather, the traffic pulsing on the East River Drive below. The rhythm of walking calmed him. Walking had crystallized the law and the facts. By the time Ray walked down the steps at 81st, his heartbeat was normal. Little else was, but he reversed his steps. A boat horn bellowed. He wondered about cephalopods.

Back in his apartment library, his laptop revealed that the giant squid hid in clouds of ink. They were brainy mollusks. The females were larger than the males. They grew to possibly 60 feet in length. Giant squids each had eight arms and two longer tooth-suckered tentacles for grasping prey. Invertebrates, they had no structural bones. But unlike gelatinous clams and snails, giant squids did possess a paddle-shaped internal support, called a gladius, that retained their form. The gladius was formed of chitin, a material also found in insect exoskeletons. He imagined the squid as an inverted insect.

Ray returned to digital reading. The giant squid's toothed tentacles warded off deep-diving sperm whales. Those whales often had scars that matched the cookie-cutter-shaped suckers on a giant squid's tentacles, evidence of a struggle between predator and prey. Ray was familiar with the competition in Time between lex talionis and the rule of human law, the latter often subsuming rather than superseding the former. He closed the laptop and shut his eyes. In October, it was getting dark so early again.

The next day, he visited the Museum of Natural History's first-floor exhibit. School groups of children craned their necks up at the 94-foot-long, 21,000-pound model of a blue whale suspended from the ceiling. Ray located the diorama of a sperm whale battling its doomed prey, a giant squid. He left the museum and walked to Zabar's, then back to the crosstown bus to the East Side. He presented the shopping bag as a trophy to the painting.

"Look what's for dinner, Ruth."

"Ruth? Okay. Now you're talking."

"Aged Piave, smoked trout, and halvah for dessert."

"Why would anyone smoke a trout?" Ruth said.

"I gave up cigarettes decades ago."

Hallowe'en came and went. Conversations with the painting continued in a similar whimsical vein, and Ray became accustomed to her presence though not to her complaints about space that by Spring resulted in the sale of the condo and Ray's move to a floor-through loft downtown. The return of the grand piano was welcome. He began every morning and ended every night with a piano transcription of Barber's Adagio for Strings.

He was invited to a Memorial Day party on the building's top floor. The crowd spread onto the roof with a view of the red, white, and blue-lighted Freedom Tower. Utterly foreign to Ray's lifelong Upper East Side isolation, new interactions with people downtown verified his belief that, like a grand piano or Walt Whitman, New York City contained the world.

Then Ray gave a party. The Riesenkalmar canvas aroused even more reaction from the new people in his life. They voiced opinions about the ownership of such valuable art.

"It belongs in a museum."

"Don't sell it to the highest bidder."

"In his will, Jefferson freed five of his slaves, probably his children with Sally Hemings. The rest were sold against a $107,000 debt, orders of magnitude dollars in today's money. In his will, George Washington, who was probably sterile, freed all his slaves and their children. You should free the Riesenkalmar."

"But Ray inherited it from his cousin. She wanted him to have it."

"Are you going to 'Ask the Ethicist' in the Times?"

"I used to like that better when one person answered. This ethics by inexpert committee isn't worth the digital space it appears on."

"We used to say 'the paper it's printed on.' Ou sont les neiges d'antan?"

"Ou, indeed!"

When the party was over, Ray discussed the matter with Ruth. She was far across the loft space from him as he sat at the grand playing quietly since it was close to dawn.

"What do you know about your provenance?" Ray asked.

"What do you know about yours?"

"You never blink."

"How do you know it's my eye you're looking at? It could be a close-up of one of my tentacles' suckers. Or anything else."

"It lacks teeth," Ray said.

"I'm as much an abstraction as you are."

"I deal in facts."

"Once upon a time, you did."

"How, I wonder, did my cousin acquire you? Before her parents moved from Manhattan, did they wander into a bohemian studio and buy you from the then unknown artist for a pittance?"

"Yes, misogyny and philistinism explains so much," Ruth agreed. "Why did you and your wife divorce?"

Ray's hands moved over the piano keys. "I suppose I knew no more about her gathering than she did my hunting. We both knew only what we brought home, which was less and less of ourselves. We had a son and a daughter. Wife was very good with growing things. Did something with the Central Park Conservancy. Developed pocket parks I never knew where. Maybe she was on the High Line advisory board."

"What about the Sixties? Sex, drugs, and rock & roll?"

Ray played a Beatles' melody. "We may have occasionally dropped in, but we never dropped out. Fear of heights. Too far to fall. Well, at least our boy was gay. Well-placed by the State Department in Asia. Daughter a California billionaire's BFF in college. Now Heather owns six restaurants in San Francisco and Marin counties."

Ruth made an odd sound. Ray thought of whalesong and wondered if giant squid also communicated underwater.

"Is that the daughter you saw at the Club Inside the Club?"

The light changed in the open space. It was dawn, and suddenly Ray was utterly fatigued. He closed the piano and shut his eyes.

"I can still see you, you know," Ruth said. "Giant squid live only five years and reproduce only once. The males' penis is seven feet long and penetrates the females' arms, where our ovaries produce the eggs we expel as fertilized jellied egg masses mostly eaten by predators. While still flawed, human design is far more balletic and efficient. So your East Side sex club doesn't shock me in the least. The young women freely chose to attend, and the only payment by the older men was the added membership fee. You could honestly tell wives you were congressing with classmates at your college club."

"I never went back after I saw Heather."

"But she told your wife."

The whole horrible scene reappeared as if superimposed, roiling on the giant painting.

"It was explicable but indefensible," Ray admitted.

"You're asleep," Ruth soothed. "When you wake, you won't remember any of this. You'll feel much better."

Ray gave another party for Independence Day. One of the guests was a professional copyist. In her late 50s, Rachel worked for interior designers, collectors, and museums. A contact at MOMA had wangled an invitation for her precisely in hopes of gaining a replica of Ray's Riesenkalmar for the museum. A week later when she approached Ray, he watched her examine the Portrait. Then he not only agreed to the commission but also invited her out. At dinner, she talked about the artist, and he talked about cephalopods.

"She was raised an orthodox Jew but lapsed," Rachel said. "Fled the tribe because Hebrew had no word for vagina. Loathed the men's daily prayer thankful for being created in Divine image. Women say, 'Thank You, O Lord, for creating me as You saw fit.' Sounds to me as if the latter gives the Lord more artistic freedom, but I guess believing is as much hearing as seeing. Why are you looking at me like that? You have very big eyes."

"The giant squid had the largest eyes of any living creature except its colossal cousin. Only the extinct ichthyosaurs had such large eyes."

"Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands ..."

"What?" Ray said.

"E.E. Cummings."

Ray poured more wine. "Large eyes can better detect even bioluminescent light, which is rare in deep water. But the giant squid probably cannot see color."

"Your ex-wife is also colorblind," Rachel said.

"How do you know that?"

"We were classmates at college. I took Mary to the Insiders Club in '78 when we were sophomores. She only joined a few of us that once. Seven Sisters women from 18 to 30. Invitations all by word-of-mouth. Is that when she met you?"

"Lord, no."

"I thought not. It's a big city but a small world. I don't remember you, either. I don't remember a good deal of the Seventies and Eighties. But poor Mary was victimized by my adolescent iconoclasting. Before AIDS, I thought of the Club as free love and drinks, dinner, and fair game. Hard to tell who was predator, who was prey. I always knew I could make a living – and did – with brush not bush, and at 20, I couldn't see I was as self-righteous as the Establishment. No surprise she married uptown, and I headed down when the Towers were young. All these decades later, when I heard about you and your Riesenkalmar, I figured it was karma, beshert."

"Beshert?"

"You've lived your entire life in Manhattan, and you don't know beshert? 'Ordained.' But you will let MOMA buy the copy I'll create?"

"Don't you do any original work?"

"At times, but a copy isn't a forgery. Its dimensions must be changed, and the canvas is carefully marked. Like a tattoo."

Rachel lifted her sleeve to display the inside of her forearm where small twining letters, AEON SOPHIA, were colorfully inked.

"Like an identical twin, a copy is unique," she said. "I've worked with Riesenkalmars before. MOMA knows that the commissions I accept, the paintings speak to me. When the voice stops, so do I. Sometimes heartbreak, sometimes relief, usually both." She shrugged. "Like life."

"Are any of your rings a wedding band? Do you have any children?"

"Ray, you and I don't have to be friends."

"What did the Riesenkalmars say to you?"

Rachel nodded. "All right. Well, one quoted Ecclesiastes about the seasons. Another was obsessed with the words 'sublime' and 'sublimation.' One lectured me about the hypersexualization of American culture. It kept repeating Agape v. Eros."

"Like a court case. The contract is signed. I'm donating the original to MOMA. She spoke to me, too. I'm keeping the copy they pay you for."

Rachel emptied her glass of wine and inclined it for a refill. Ray obliged.

Startled by the feminine pronoun he had used, Rachel asked, "What did the Portrait say to you?"

They both drank. Their waiter served dinner and brought another bottle of wine. "I don't remember," Ray finally answered. He frowned. "I hope yours will be mute."

"The rest is silence," Rachel said.

Ray nodded at Hamlet's dying double entendre. He felt mildly nauseated, full, and drunk. He wished for the evening to be over. His hands already wanted the piano. Nothing more to be said in words that music and images would more eloquently express. He felt no wander or lust of any kind, but curiosity survived. One way or another, it killed the cat.

Over a year later, Ray remembered that thought when he visited the Riesenkalmar exhibit at MOMA. He kept his distance from the paintings but observed their observers. In front of the Giant Squid was a young mother with a toddler in a stroller. Ray was close enough to hear her naughtily joke with her boy, "No damn cat, no damn cradle," and the child delightedly echo, "Damn!"

Then, just as suddenly, the young mother stiffened, stared, and cried out at the huge canvas. "What?!"

The little boy screamed and burst into loud tears.

The crowd in the exhibit space instantly shifted like schooling fish threatened by a predator. Led by a uniformed guard, the young mother quickly pushed her stroller away.

Better than most, Ray understood. The museum-goers resumed their more placid shoaling at a safer distance from the art, and he, too, returned downtown to his quiet copy.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest, L. Shapley Bassen, Portrait of a Giant Squid

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