Caldwell always got his best ideas on the toilet. He sketched them on magazine subscription cards and soap wrappers: his watercolor gourds; his "Kitchen Goddess"—appliances and utensils welded into a 6-foot woman; his oil series on obese children. "Caldwell's work," a perceptive critic once wrote, "is, unfortunately, more often excremental than experimental." Once, when he was constipated for four days, he had spiraled into a deep depression that left him on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
His last series of oils were months old, and not very successful in his opinion, and he'd begun to feel hungry for new subject matter. He was hoping that he had one more exhibition left in him before he moved out of the house. For months he'd been chewing on a theory of domestic chaos, but he was still searching for the one profound image that would ignite his brushes.
Caldwell was startled from his concentration first by the bathroom light dimming to half its power and then by Sarah's grating voice: "Oh! This house," she stomped her foot. "Why don't you do it, John! You said you'd work on the house this weekend."
"I said I'd work on it when you got the loan," John sedately stated. "I can't do it unless you've covered me for workman's comp. It's illegal. I've told you that several times."
"How pathetic," Caldwell mumbled. They'd been at each other for months. Why she didn't kick him out, or why he didn't leave on his own, Caldwell could not fathom. The house was rotting around them. It saddened him. John broke a window or a door every time he got plastered. Caldwell wished that he could help him, give him something that showed he cared and was grateful for all that John had given him.
"Money, money, money! Nothing but money here, no spirit, no giving," Sarah lamented. John opened the refrigerator and got a beer.
Caldwell could see the kitchen in his mind. Two ancient white Frigidaire's with horizontal handles and a modern, olive-green two-door model in corners of the kitchen equidistant from one another. Caldwell and John had spent many late-night hours standing beside the olive-green refrigerator talking about religion, philosophy, literature, film, women, calling each other "brother." The refrigerator was the sacred meeting ground, halfway between their bedrooms, a gently humming talisman for quality thought, and the keeper of John's beer.
"How the hell do you know so much?" Caldwell asked John on one of their first nights in front of the refrigerator over a three years ago.
"I don't know anything," John countered. "I'm just a court jester juggling words, and gravity usually gets the best of me. When I was twelve I tried, unsuccessfully, to make love to an elm while reading Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil"—embracing the refrigerator he recited affectedly:
Ascend beyond the sickly atmosphere
to a higher plane, and purify yourself
by drinking as if it were ambrosia
the fire that fills and fuels Emptiness.
"Brother," Caldwell laughed, "I should paint that. And you should be a writer."
John's hearty laughter bounced off the walls. "Now you sound like Sarah—and my mother."
"Do you write?" Caldwell asked.
"I started a novel three years ago about an earthquake retrofitter named Wisman who crawls around under the homes of Berkeley professors, unearthing relics and dead cats. I'm on page ten." They both laughed.
Caldwell revered John, looked to him for intellectual and spiritual guidance.
"The middle class and its mores and clean lawns and spoiled kids is of no use to me," John once said. "That's my parents' life. My father has sold insurance his whole life. That's not me. The idea of marriage is inconceivable to me. I must have gametophobia, fear of marriage," he sighed. "But I do love Sarah. She fills my hole, and I fill hers. That's my other phobia, kenophobia, fear of the void."
"Yes," Caldwell reflected, "fear of the hole, and the fear of not knowing myself."
The refrigerator stood like an olive-fatigued war veteran in rigid awe of a passing parade. From the outside it carried the same stoic dignity; but open its doors and behold the thousand psychic wounds of domestic warfare: green and gray fungi and thick aromas, a smorgasbord of chaos. The original white of the inner paneling, that which was visible, had long since turned to a queer shade of yellow ochre. Any leftover food was either loosely wrapped in abused foil, put in on the plate it was partially eaten from, or stuffed in naked where space allowed.
Caldwell felt a spasm in his bowels.
Of course! The vision was startling—thick, gooey oils generously splattered on with spoons and forks; packages and wrappers and foil glued on in the middle of it all; a mixed-media masterpiece using the original decaying food from the refrigerator as the secret ingredient. Not only would the colors on the painting change as time wore on, but it would reek within a 40-foot radius, giving the work a real aura which might even keep the critics away.
He flushed the toilet and strode back into his bedroom, ecstatic, in a frenzy to begin.
He made his sketches at night. When the rest of the house was asleep he would steal out into the hollow blackness of the kitchen, open the refrigerator and shine his flashlight in. The sallow cream light illuminated new surprises and challenges each night—a lasagna construction deferred, its disconcerted components piled in where space would allow; a frightened cantaloupe rudely shoved into the carcass of a turkey; impotent batteries afflicting the pimento and cheese bologna; the smoky blue-gray eyes of a shocked trout staring out from the egg shelf. Caldwell was delighted every evening by the shifting hues, the asymmetry, the capricious vanishing points, the schizophrenic line paths, and the mutating patterns of surrealistic imagery.
He made notes during the day: "the color is not locally true to life in a naturalistic manner but suggests some kind of ardent emotion. I'm trying to suggest a scene of debauchery and madness, and yet a scene of serendipitous, velveeta-yellow gaiety. By contrasting the red of blood and wine dregs with mellow collard-greens, cackling lime, and stubborn blue-cheese, in a hellish, frigid atmosphere of pale azure, I aim to portray the powers of darkness fueling a drinker's den, lurking under the surface of Nietzchean cosmic absurdity."
He felt more certain as the nights passed that his brushes were beginning to comprehend John, seeking out the path of their strokes independently of his ego and will. He now saw John and Sarah (and the beer) as one.
It was at these times, late in the evening, when the refrigerator had had time to rest and contemplate the meaning of its own existence that Caldwell felt that he understood the peculiar nature of its abuse and began to think of it as a sentient being itself, as perhaps John's alter ego—a sordid and pitiful mass of throbbing mush.
His first sketches were in charcoal, and he found that the thick chalk simulated the fuzziness of some of the more robust fungi quite well; but the colors screaming out at him by D-cell light could not be ignored for long, and he quickly upgraded to watercolor markers. Picante crimson, chicken artery blue, dollar-bill green, banana ochre, raw sienna—fantastic mixtures he'd never imagined possible flowed from his head as he sat on the dirty floor before the refrigerator, feet freezing. These are no academic pats of butter, he reflected, this is the knife's edge of passion and control. He found that this method of nightly visitations inspired his creativity during the day when he would make his more formal studies in oil.
By the second week, the theme of lust was condensing in his paintings. He now felt, from three years of living with them, that a malnourished lust—not love—was the one strand of hair keeping John and Sarah together, for he couldn't fathom any other force strong enough to sustain their incongruent relationship for so long. He felt that all vestiges of their relationship—including the food they shared—must exhibit this extract of lust, like all cells in a body hosting the precious DNA.
His palette shifted toward red and his strokes became quicker and more assured. He sensed that he was beginning to understand the moods of John and Sarah by examining their appetites and the way they treated certain foods. This was a significant step toward his now clearly defined goal: to feel what it felt like to be John.
It happened that one Saturday afternoon, a month into Caldwell's work, he and John were taking a stroll up to Peet's Coffee.
"You know those power fluctuations we've been getting for a while?" John said.
Caldwell nodded, remembering the one he'd experienced in the bathroom.
"I'm in my room this morning watching Deep Throat," John went on, "and just as she's swallowing the sword the TV dims down to half its luminance, like there's a dip in the voltage. I turn down the volume and listen to the room, but all I hear is the refrigerator buzzing in the kitchen. I think there might be a connection, so I open the door to the kitchen, keeping one eye on the TV, one ear on the refrigerator. When the refrigerator stops buzzing, the lights go back up. So I knew it was the refrigerator. I went over and got Jim next door and he brought over his voltage meter. He found a solenoid that was defunct, causing the refrigerator to suck up extra voltage when it kicked on. So we got that problem solved."
"What did you do?" Caldwell quivered.
"I unplugged it."
Caldwell felt something just beneath his sternum grow heavier, the dread a mother feels when her child is in danger.
"You're going to get it fixed, right?" Caldwell prodded.
"You can't very well live without a refrigerator can you?" John cheerfully replied.
When they got back John went into his room to watch TV and Caldwell opened the refrigerator door. The food was already beginning to warm up. He went into his room and looked at all of the paintings and sketches he'd produced, how revolutionary yet incomplete they still were. He needed more time. He felt sick the rest of the day, waiting for John to make a move.
That night he went out to the refrigerator, and when he opened it, the absence of its familiar coolness felt like the death of a friend. He was greeted only by a languid breeze, like the breath of a sleeping dog. Caldwell's usual enthusiasm was replaced by a sense of despair. They're not even going to rescue the food, he thought. He closed the door and sulked back to his room. He wondered what to do next. If he interfered then the purity of his subject would be destroyed. If he didn't, everything was going to rot to a neutral gray.
Caldwell decided that it wasn't his place to interfere. To hell with them, he thought, I just rent a room. He would simply watch and see what they did. He rationalized that perhaps he could work in this new development somehow, that maybe this was a portent of the end of John and Sarah's relationship, or some other equally compelling occurrence. But deep down he felt afraid.
Each day he checked on the refrigerator, but nothing had changed. By the end of the week, the fungal colonies had invaded in full force and the stench was already unbearable.
Caldwell grew depressed. For weeks he hardly spoke to anyone, especially John. With each passing day his hatred for John grew more ferocious, as did his contempt for the house and himself for living in it. The house rotted as if struck by a horrible disease. The foundation was crumbling over a fault line. The plaster of the walls was cracked in a thousand places. Beams were crooked, floors were slanted, the carpets gray with filth. The shower stall was covered in John's oil and dirt.
Caldwell found it incredible and disgusting the amounts the man could drink in one night—dozens of beers. A hole is right, Caldwell thought. Getting drunk was the coward's way of dealing with pain. Art was far more heroic, and pleasant to behold.
One afternoon, over a month after the death of the refrigerator, Caldwell found himself in the kitchen with John and Sarah, both in repulsively good moods. Caldwell could not bear it. He had to show them that people could not live like this and be happy. He walked casually to their refrigerator, grabbed the handle and opened the door. For a moment he looked at both of them, a satisfying, bone white shard of terror glimmering in their eyes—then he smiled.
Sarah screamed when she saw the heavy gray vapor wafting out of the refrigerator. The smell of black death invaded the kitchen as she and John lunged for the refrigerator door.
Afterwards they all laughed, John and Sarah the good-natured laugh of being caught off guard, Caldwell the maniacal laugh of someone who has partially relieved his urge to become an arsonist.
"What're you going to do with it?" he asked them. "You know that stuff inside is toxic."
John disappeared into his room and returned with a thick roll of gaffer's tape.
"This should do the trick." He tore off long strips and sealed the refrigerator door shut.
Caldwell donned a defeated grin and returned to his room.
The paintings made him queasy. Twelve futile gropings for order within the din of chaos. They were all wrong. They were screaming at him like deformed babies, a raw, malnourished dissonance.
They have to be burned, he decided. He gathered them all into a pile, wrapped them in butcher paper, and taped it up.
He needed a lighter. He went back out to the kitchen and knocked on John's door. A cloud of incense wafted over Caldwell as John opened the door.
John's room was like his mind. Hundreds of books lie at a thousand angles, settled on every planar surface, suffocated in dust, precariously stacked on top of each other in columns reaching to the ceiling. Competing with them for altitude were mountains of empty bottles and cans of beer. In the middle of it all was an enormous banquet table buried in junk. On the floor beside the table was his wardrobe, heaped in garbage bags, spilling onto the floor and leaving a trail to the piano, home to a dying cactus garden. A red washrag draped over the shadeless floor lamp bathed the room in a fiery orange glow.
"I was wondering if I could borrow a lighter," Caldwell stated sedately.
"Sure, come on in."
Caldwell cautiously stepped into the dark lair.
John strapped on his headlamp and began rummaging through the rubble. "I just had it. Take a seat, it'll just be a second."
Caldwell watched him, livid. Damned idiot, he thought, he's not worth my effort.
"Like a beer while you're waiting?" John cheerfully offered.
Caldwell looked around at the piles of evacuated cans and bottles and felt the bile rise in his throat. He thought how glorious it would be to bulldoze this whole room. The thought of drinking a beer sickened him. Then he figured maybe he could use a buzz for his bonfire.
"Okay," he yielded.
John brought him a dark German beer in a sienna bottle. The first sip was cold and delicious. Caldwell felt his anger subside a little as his body absorbed the liquid.
"This is good," he said.
"Yes," John agreed as he sipped his own and continued his search.
"Don't worry about the lighter," Caldwell said. "Relax, take a seat for a minute."
Caldwell went through the first bottle like water, and he wanted another one. John got them more.
Caldwell stared at the rubbish of John's room, feeling miles away from him, and uncomfortably close.
They sat there and watched someone sink a putt on TV. Caldwell picked up a book called Canticle for Leibowitz and leafed through its pages. He went to sip his beer and found it empty. John got up and got some more.
"John," Caldwell slurred, "what're you gonna do about the fridge?"
John took a very long swig of beer. "Sarah wants to get a new used one," he said, exhaling loudly.
"A-ha," Caldwell said, nodding, "but what're you gonna do about this one? We can't just leave it there forever, rotting away until the end of time, can we? Maybe we can, I don't know. Can we?"
"Time is relative," John observed.
They drank some more. Caldwell found himself drinking more than he ever had, and he grew thirstier with each passing beer, as if it were all just evaporating and leaving a bigger hole. He felt driven to see it to the end.
"I've got an idea," he dribbled, "let's do Sarah a big favor and take it to the dump."
John cocked his head and looked at him. "Right now?"
Miraculously, they'd managed to get the refrigerator down the wooden steps with a rusty dolly, navigate it through the obstacle course of junk in the backyard, and hoist it into the back of John's Grapes-of-Wrath pickup without killing themselves in the process. Before they left, Caldwell threw his bundle of paintings into the back of the pickup beside the drunkenly crooked refrigerator criss-crossed with rope. John threw a 12-pack of beer in the back.
The 25-mile journey was bumpy, and Caldwell kept envisioning the truck flipping over, the refrigerator and his paintings flying out, causing a natural disaster, their bodies sprawled in the middle of it all. This amused him, and he drank some more.
As they pulled up to the fee shack at the dump, a wiry black man with a wet cigar in the corner of his mouth looked at the refrigerator and back at them.
"You know you got to take them doors off, don't you?" he said.
John and Caldwell looked at each other, half afraid, half thrilled. John looked back.
"No problem," he said, "I've got tools."
They drove slowly through the valleys of garbage, into the shadows of the trashy peaks.
Caldwell was quiet as he stared at the range of aborted consumption before him, intoxicated by the variations in color, texture, asymmetry and rhythm he was seeing. The rolling hills of garbage stretched all the way to the slab of steel-blue horizon, like something out of a Dalí brain hemorrhage, as etched and palette-knifed as any of Van Gogh's more deranged visions. The hills vibrated with allegro brushstrokes, with chiaroscuro, with a symphony of reds, indigos, greens, blues, yellows—spontaneous, effusive, undisciplined. Caldwell imagined rendering their animated yet serene rhythms, amplifying the more rugged cadences, exposing the strain and paroxysm and impulsive lyrical passion beneath the cries of seagulls drifting on the warm breeze. He sucked in great draughts of it and felt exhilarated.
"Do you come here often?" he asked John.
"Maybe once a week, when we get a heavy load of sheet rock rubble or rusty pipes."
Caldwell stuck his head out the window and looked up at the sky. An undulating cloud of gulls shifted west, blocking the sun. He thought of Hitchcock.
A monstrous yellow machine three times the size of a bulldozer, with a massive, spiked roller for a front wheel, was chewing on a slope. Its diesel engine roared and shot black smoke into the sky.
"You find some incredible stuff out here," John said. "But they watch you. They don't want you taking anything."
"TV's, stereos, sinks, tricycles, microwaves, you name it, it's out here, and probably still working."
Out of the corner of his eye Caldwell spotted something that seemed at odds with the trash pasture around them. At first it seemed too bright, but as he looked on he realized it wasn't bright at all, but rather, more organized.
"Look at that," he declared.
"Pull up over there," he said pointing toward the vision.
As they pulled off, the image took shape.
It was a living room. A couch, a lazy-boy, a floor lamp, a cabinet TV, all laid out on a mottled shag carpet, everything torn and shattered.
"What do you make of it?" Caldwell marveled as they pulled up to it.
"It's the marriage of a sick soul and self-consciousness," John declared.
They stopped the truck and got out. They stood there looking at the rusty springs sticking out of the couch and the imploded TV screen, wondering who could have done this.
"What do you think, John?" Caldwell asked, looking back at the refrigerator. "Shall we contribute?"
"Why not," John replied.
They climbed up onto the truck, untied the rope, and hooked up the dolly. They heaved it down, squeezing and grunting, then rolled it beside the couch. Caldwell was having a hard time standing. John did most of the work.
"We'll get the doors off before we leave," John said, wiping sweat from his temples. "Let's have a beer first." John walked up to the back of the pickup and grabbed the 12-pack. Caldwell grabbed his paintings.
"What's in the package?" John asked.
"Just some garbage, some aborted paintings."
"Let's see," John said, plopping down on the couch and opening up a beer.
Caldwell balanced before him holding his package. He pointed a finger at John.
"You are the only person who will ever see these," he announced dramatically. "You should feel honored. A one man show for a one man audience. Open me a beer."
Caldwell laid out his exhibition, propping them up on boxes and heaps all around the living room; he was careful to arrange them in an evolutionary order that told the story of the refrigerator's life as he'd seen it. His last work, still showing the white of the canvas in places, he propped in front of the refrigerator.
John watched him. "That's the refrigerator," he said, surprised and delighted. "That's the insides of our refrigerator. Damn, that's good. You can't leave these here."
Caldwell sat down next to him and took a long sip of beer. "It's crap," he said. "Absolute crap." And as he said this he felt a big hole open up inside him, a cavern of fear and sorrow and humility.
They stared at the paintings, subdued, drinking beer, saying nothing. The cloud of seagulls passed low over them, enshrouding them in the cool, invisible air of their silent wings. The last rays of the setting sun bathed them in a fiery orange glow and caressed the top of the olive-green monolith.