The Art Teacher

Evelyn Hampton



When she took her students to see the trash heap at the museum, they did not come to any conclusions. Nothing seemed locked to its meaning the way the things they were used to were used to seeming. An old armchair crawled across the dainty fading of its upholstery and fainted. A love seat just sort of floated above some sneakers that seemed to be in charge of their own bright insignias and soles, ordering them to grow a flashy green mold in retaliation against the museum’s dull white walls. Nobody knew what was the artist’s goal; not even the artist did, according to a pamphlet. It seemed, perhaps, that visitors were meant to steal from the heap’s proliferating images, and so she told her students to steal, which they did, gleefully, from the museum.

She abandoned them to their theft and found a bench in the Baroque wing; there the meaning of things was clear and easy to see: she was tired of teaching and policing; she wanted to escape through the seams of her identity into a dream of something else, or somebody. Once she had dreamed that she was a plant owned by a widow who kept her in a tiny pot that she would water from a cracked teacup each morning; the teacup leaked all its water before it could reach her pot, yet she found an internal way to survive, growing a toughened stalk. Another time, she had been a man who, to maintain the integrity of his identity, had found a way to make more of himself without sex, which demanded a fusion he found terrifying and cold. She had liked the feeling of being contained by the tiny pot — it was exactly the same feeling she’d had when she had been the man. She longed to return to that feeling now, when she felt her identity perforated, like a wall for windows, or no, like a wall of a museum, a different framed rendering for each child she was supposed to oversee.

One, an undersized child who had been renamed Lawrence to help him grow, began crying through his nose. Clear water flowed from his nostrils down to his clothes and continued to flow, seeking paths of less resistance toward more of its own, finally emptying its identity — by now it had been named the Lawrence River — into the ocean.

Or no, Lawrence just had a runny nose. She apologized to the child for having called him a river.

*

At night, she went home, where there weren’t any students, and felt cold. She had a small instrument for sensing things; she would lay herself across it without any goal. She did not know how to play the instrument or even whether it could be played. By then it would be very late, so late it would be the next day, and she would rise from her life and go to school.

It was a body, she thought, or it was a tool.

*

Sometimes it was difficult to find the school — it disguised itself to evade its own authority, which was crippling it from the inside out, she was told in a memo delivered to her by a man she recognized as the school’s vice-principal.

He arrived at her door one morning. “Hal?” she said.

But the man only tipped a hat that he wasn’t even wearing — he hadn’t tipped a thing, yet he acted so corny, as if he imagined himself an actual renegade, as if any change could come of imagining a renegade.

Less and less, she trusted the imagination.
One morning, wandering the periphery of a trash-strewn man, she recognized the man as one of her students, the one who had been Lawrence, and she resolved not to waste any more time, which was passing faster than ever.

She decided to buy a bicycle. She had seen people riding upon the look they got in their eyes when they talked about their bikes — on their pupils these people would float up and up until they were enveloped in the shiny white cloud of their mind as they tried to fit a feeling of freedom into words.

“You know, it’s like, green?” they would say, and they would say “vvvrrrroooooooom” to indicate the dealing of wind with the convolutions of the ear canal.

From such conversations she managed to enact a sense of what riding a bicycle was like once she had one of her own. She decided that riding it was like being her own home. She looked out of her own face at the way things disappeared as she zoomed past, felt with her own wind the porousness of her skin. But this was just the beginning of freedom; soon she needed a way to make money because riding a bicycle made her very hungry.

*

She decided to acquire students. This time, though, she would not trouble herself with confusing institutions. She would not try to pass herself off as proficient. She would not shower, or put on a shirt that revealed her. She would not rub her armpits against a deodorant trinket. She would not develop tension in her neck by trying to smile with her eyes. Instead she would just ride.

In the streets, an animal like a tiny deer had for years been shedding its antlers into the spaces that were widening between everything and its meaning. They weren’t even antlers anymore — proprietors were selling them as trinkets; others were selling them as floss. She didn’t know how to account for the loss of the antlers as antlers; didn’t people hear the tiny deer that clicked past? She heard them bounding with tinkling purpose, like broken glass being gathered by its smashed vessels, slowly taking back its shapes.

Yet once their antlers-as-antlers had disappeared, the deer were denied — they had never been alive.

Meanwhile, the widening was accepted as fact: when pavement cracked or a lot got vacant, spaces pushed in to take their place among the city’s edifices, as if emptiness were also constructed. In these spaces there soon grew plants and trees with lavish leaves and possibly medicinal properties, so people put snacks into backpacks and wandered off into new wildernesses, hoping to find beauty, mystery, and to get high. It was said that breakthroughs in understanding the human psyche were on their way, but mostly people just got lost until they found their way back onto a map of the city’s commercial districts.

The city had begun calling these inexplicable gaps in its carefully planned surfaces green spaces, for spaces they obviously were, and green they could sometimes be, though it was obvious that green was being used as a metaphor for wildness and unpredictability and everything else that threatened the business of the city.

But her business was now separate from the city’s; having nearly no money, she did not feel she had to hurry. She rode her bicycle slowly, letting her legs be a ladder that supported the weight of others, should any others care for a ride. She connected a carriage to her rear axle and this added considerably to the work she had to do to propel her entire life forward, but nobody seemed to find this annoying, especially not her. Soon the extra weight was added to by bodies — two women who did not wear shoes and who entwined themselves madly in each other’s charms.

She wondered what new aspects of herself she might see while she towed these women through the city. What she found was that she had a habit of looking for approval to the surfaces of the city that gleamed maniacally at the skyline. Yet she herself was perfectly capable of being her own home. She knew this.

“I’m tired of whatever it is I’m looking for,” she said to the women one day when she had stopped for a pistachio-coconut shake. The women were positioned in the carriage so that they appeared to be a single woman with an extra shake.

“Come in here with us,” they said, bobbing their embrasured head.

“Do you mean that metaphorically?” she asked. Yet it was obvious that their togetherness was a tunnel for them, a real recess away from the day of the world of the city, and within it they were happy and shady.

“Yes,” they said.

*

She slept especially well after long rides — she barely even felt her instrument as she drifted into it, across it. Whatever the instrument was — lovers had tried to discover her memory of its name — she couldn’t say. She felt it was a physical thing. She actually felt ill when she tried to decide what the instrument was, or wasn’t. It had its own softness, its own lost context that gave it, in the context of her bedroom, its opacity. Who knew where the instrument was from, where it was going? Certainly it seemed to be on its way somewhere, for when she lay across it in her underwear, she could feel where it had begun to disappear into the grayness of the underlying carpet.

She did have a few memories that perhaps pertained to the origin of the instrument. For instance, there was the man who carried a land shape. A peninsula, most likely, since it seemed to be connected to his body, though she had always liked the idea that it was an island and that he, like the tide, was simply overlapping it.

And there was the woman who had a drumbeat. She had a rhythm in her skin, and a rhyme besides. The woman was someone she had once been inside; she had lived with the woman in her skin. Eventually, as with all rhythms, there had been an end. She had left the woman, yet something of her rhythm remained as in the way a day fades into a day.

And so the instrument remained, and now it too had begun to fade.

*

Each day was a true consequence of her decision to live. There were plenty of ways to lie; after we close our eyes, she read in a science magazine, an illusion persists for sometimes our whole life.

With respect to her eyes, she could often see the yellow slide in the park across the street from her apartment; children would tumble from one end of it, having come from somewhere different. She could not see where they came from; it was a long slide, its origins concealed in the leaves of trees above it and to either side.

And so the children came from somewhere beyond her control or permission and landed at the bottom of the slide, within her sight; once there, each child unknowingly became her student. Her lesson was that she was there to see them, whoever they may be.

Sometimes she was surprised by what came out of the slide; sometimes, things weren’t alive.

*

Watching the slide, she would stand in her window and drink coffee; this was how she taught. Then she would get onto her bike.

She biked along a continuum from doom to seven: doom was starting out sore and early; by seven in the evening, she could decide to feel alright. By then she would be carrying the sun in her skin; it made her happy to feel the sun evaporating from her back, returning to the air where it could darken the sky. She was fine with night. It steamed off her back after a ride, when her skin would glisten with the moon already beginning to rise. And if there was to be no moon that night? She would still feel her skin tightening around the vastness she had traveled that day. In the same way, the stars tightened in their shine, as the dark around them knew, and became harder, too.

*

She became strong. Day after day she rode slowly through the latitudes of the city. One begins as a student but becomes a friend of clouds, she thought. Mine is an art that is inseparable from the search for reality.

When she needed rest, she would bike into a green space and lie back on the unsanctioned grass. It grew with illicit speed, according to the city; it could not be made to look cute or tame, like something one would want to name or fuck — it grew wildly and unpredictably, each tuft aswirl with its own microclimate. No one had designed this strategy of the grass’s to grow wherever and however it wanted, and so it was seen as a menace to the patented genetic identities of subsidized crops. Corporate corn growers were quick to elect a wall to the borderlands of the city; through the wall’s oversight, the city became an ancient citadel that languished at all hours but those few each evening when, revived by a shared memory of the coming night, people of the city would quickly leave their domiciles to acquire rough cuts of meat and to fill their bottles with mead, or something — they didn’t really know what the brown sludge was. Some people called it mead and so other people, not knowing what mead was, called it mead, too.

On certain holidays, a person was allowed to walk the promenade atop the city’s wall, and to marvel at the unendingness of sight — how it found so many examples of the same species to pack into a glance. There was corn upon corn, stretched to the horizon and growing on the horizon — it wasn’t any trouble after all to graft corn to the illusory line made by the limit of the eye’s might.

The fact that all limits had been surpassed was the occasion for a holiday. Wasn’t it golden, that fact? Didn’t it possess measurable mass, wasn’t it the being one could see through the windows of the black, bulletproof sedan that rolled up and down the rows of corn, crushing them? Wasn’t destruction, when done by fact, simply a fact, and therefore beyond command?

She did not answer any of these questions that weren’t questions but holes being shrugged casually into language. She did not want to make any of them seem deep.

*

Lately she felt herself to be on the verge of a monument, nearing the center of being found. Here I am, she wanted to say to everybody, as if to reassure them that a terrible contagion had been contained.

When there wasn’t much left of the instrument, she bought a potted plant to replace it. The plant grew into a room where she could sit to admire it. She liked the way its flower followed noon, finding it in the morning on one side of the sky and following it all the way to another day. What would happen if another day never came? The flower would find a way, she imagined, to drag it out of the sky.

Also, she couldn’t not imagine the utter hiss of final darkness.

*

One night, from the vantage of her continuum, she could see an end to it.

She had walked her bike onto the promenade at the top of the wall, violating a sign.

Someone was sitting there, and she knew it was him: Hal, the vice-principal.

What a strange way to return to a place I’ve never been, she thought as she approached him, not quite sure what this meant.

He sat with a cowboy on his lap. No, the cowboy was his hat, but in the shadow it cast below the wall, she saw its boots.

“I’m going over the side,” he said. “Other than that, I don’t know who I’ll shoot.” When he leaped, Hal would land in the boots of his hat.