Dee sat on a mid-century sofa, sweating through an itchy designer dress into the tweed upholstery. She tried to appear unfazed before Damien Kersd, a renowned art broker she’d persuaded to visit her middle-of-nowhere gallery and browse the collection before next week’s grand opening.
The sofa was the only furniture. Dee had replicated the interior and the architecture of the Copenhagen gallery profiled in W magazine. The sprawling rectangular building was made entirely of glass enfolded by a concrete ceiling and floor. The gallery sat on a former steel-mill site perched on a cliff above a muddy river. Across the river lay a rusty industrial plant with tall, smoking chimneys. The smoke was white, which Dee found whimsical—an elegant complement to the interior display walls lined up side-to-side like white dominos.
Dee luxuriated in the bare space. She was in recovery from her last enterprise selling porcelain figurines on cable TV, and the clean minimalism was an antidote. She smirked at the thought of Charlene, the presenter she’d hired to sell the figurines on QVC, who would’ve broken out in hives at the sight of this uncluttered space. Charlene would have dashed to the nearest Home Depot to get brocade wallpaper or chintzy drapes within minutes of setting foot in here. Good thing she had no idea where here was.
Outside the front glass wall was a vast gravel lot where the tractor trailer—Damien’s ride—was parked. The driver was asleep, head thrown back and mouth agape.
“I have to admit, the tractor trailer was a refreshing touch,” Damien said, flipping through an oversized black portfolio with photos of Dee’s acquisitions, tapping on the gold pirate hoop that adorned his ear.
“Aren’t private jets passé?” Dee said, chuckling a little, pleased with herself. Her inventiveness had once again found a way to appeal to someone’s vanity—a weakness for all things large-scale in Damien’s case—without burning through loads of cash. Not that she didn’t have any. She’d made serious dough selling the figurines she’d imported for cheap from China. A fictitious “ancient glazing technique” the Chinese had revived “just for Glossy Guardians!” had justified a hefty markup, and money flowed like wine. Had she given it a few more years, Dee herself would have been private jetting.
But she didn’t care about obscene wealth. She’d watched the relentless shipments of porcelain garbage roll in for years. Each time Charlene swooned over the tacky glaze, Dee’s stomach grew ulcerous over her own complicity in the world’s tastelessness. To redeem herself and the masses she’d misguided, Dee had directed her riches from the figurines into fine art. As soon as she’d made enough to open a gallery, Dee set Charlene up with a generous severance, and shut down the deplorable foil.
“Okay if I look around?” Damien frowned, his eyes scrutinizing the photos in the portfolio.
“Please,” Dee said, hoping he didn’t catch her spring eagerly off the sofa.
Damien propped his carved silver cane against the glass wall and started to walk, his gait unaffected by the cane’s absence. Dee had read that he’d gotten the signature accessory from a Berber artisan in Marrakech. She’d always assumed it was a modish way to deal with a disability and not, as it turned out, a brazen tactic to repurpose handicap as style. So much to learn.
He scanned the empty walls and the artworks leaned against them, peeking behind the protective linens shrouding paintings, sculptures, and photographs: all of Dee’s treasures. His sparsely bearded chin tilted up. “Cute little assemblage you’ve got here,” he said. “And yet I’ve never heard of you.” He squinted at her through thick matte-bronze frames, then looked out the glass wall toward the plumes of white smoke in the distance. “Guess I’m losing my mojo.”
Dee sipped air in tiny gulps lest a big inhale reveal her shameless pride. Ever since she’d moved from the Balkans, she’d wanted to pursue a life as diametrically opposed as possible to the one she’d led there. Back then, she’d worked in her family’s souvenir shop selling religious tchotchkes in a small town where the Virgin Mary appeared daily on a rocky hill above the church. Pilgrims climbed barefoot, bled, eager to bathe in the Virgin’s healing aura. All the locals were quick to inform the faithful that the Virgin’s curative energy weakened right past the last souvenir stall. Dee’s top seller had been the 100ml Holy-Mother-of-God-shaped bottle in waxy white plastic with a red heart nestled in its concave chest. At first, she filled them with blessed water she got at the church, but when the shop was busy, Dee found that the tap water from the backroom looked, smelled, and tasted just as holy.
But it was a gigantic rosary with beads as big as unshelled walnuts that changed Dee’s life. An American woman thought the eyesore would bless her family room. Six months later, Dee got a letter from the grateful pilgrim—Trisha—crediting the rosary for curing her chronic rheumatoid arthritis, and insisted Dee name her reward. A year later, Dee was enrolled in a community college in central Pennsylvania. She studied marketing because it sounded important, but aside from escaping the sham her hometown ran on, she had no vision for her future. Until one night she discovered W magazine in Barnes & Noble, and in its pages, Damien, wearing a washed-out denim romper inside a Copenhagen gallery. The clean space and the art—all spare lines and subdued colors—were a balm, a spiritual sustenance Dee hadn’t known she’d needed, a glimpse into a nobler life she’d hungered for. Within a month, her plan crystalized. When she needed an early investor for Glossy Guardians—imagine how many more people they’d heal!—Trisha, by now a formidable tennis spar, had funded the launch. No one, Trisha least of all, had to know about Dee’s endgame: that she’d set out to wage a crusade on kitsch and be part of the world where art was fine and its devotees wore shoes.
Damien’s shoes, though, confounded her. They were barely-there slip-ons made of a transparent textured rubber that displayed the forest of hair on top of his feet in squished patches.
“3D printed,” he said.
“Excuse me?” Dee replied.
“The shoes.” He strolled back to where the portfolio slouched unzipped at the other end of the space. “Don’t blush. Everyone stares at them.” His weight rested on one foot while the other skated on the heel, toes lifted. His eyes and the tip of his finger lingered on a Tiff Anglikur piece. He tugged on his pirate hoop, nearly tearing it off his earlobe, and Dee almost second-guessed her taste and the soundness of her plan.
Dee didn’t offer the booze; Damien would give some kind of signal if he was game. She told Damien that the cookies were imported from the Balkans, which was one way to put it since she’d whipped them up last night from her grandmother’s recipe.
“Your background, again?” Damien asked, walking to the cookie bowl. His fingers tweezered one of the snail houses between his thumb and middle finger.
“Karadjordjevic, the last royal dynasty of Yugoslavia,” Dee said. “Ninth in line.” She smiled, arms wide and fingers pinching a phantom crinoline as she curtsied. “Should our South Slav tribes ever forgo that democracy nonsense, of course.”
Damien cracked a smile.
Dee had debated the risk in assuming a fraudulent identity, but figured she was safe since Wikipedia confirmed the dynasty’s existence yet tabloids overlooked its obsolete nobility. She had told Damien in an email that her self-effacing family had been exiled after the World Wars and their art collection confiscated and scattered across the globe. The few nostalgic, hopelessly homesick offshoots, Dee’s grandparents among them, returned to the old country and kept a low profile under a new name. The lie was more practical and stylish than the truth. Also, cheaper than paying her vocal coach ad infinitum to erase her accent. Dee had accepted she’d never be able to pronounce TH any other way but as a hard D, or V as anything but W no matter how many times the coach made her say Venus Williams, his lips contorted to highlight the obvious difference, lost on Dee.
“Poor little aristocrat, you,” Damien said.
Dee released a theatrical sigh. “Why dwell on misfortune if you can start from scratch,” she said, her flat tone, she hoped, simultaneously serious and blithe. “So many fantastic young artists out there looking for a break.” At this, she opened her arms, less to emphasize the sea of undiscovered talent hungry for her patronage than to air out her damp armpits.
Damien turned to the view of the chimneys across the river. “Interesting locale.”
“I was going for ironic,” Dee said, making sure there was no amusement in her voice. She didn’t have to work hard to achieve the effect. To her, there was nothing funny about how she got to this point. The devious path that made this possible—the gallery, Damien’s visit, the collection—made her sick. Every time she’d watched Glossy Guardians sell like hotcakes and Charlene giggle like a mad cockatoo in her dragonfly clip-ons and teal zebra suit, Dee felt nauseous. The market’s gluttony for poor taste and Charlene’s ability to steer the infatuated flock to the Glossy Guardians with the fervor of a mega church preacher had exceeded Dee’s wildest predictions. And made her rich.
Dee smoothed her skimpy dress and flipped her hair to the side. The nightmare was over. She had survived, had risen.
“And all on your own.” Damien looked at her, his fists bulging in tight seersucker pants pockets.
Dee shrugged and looked away, her smile shaky. None of this would have ever worked had it not been for the Virgin Mary and Trisha.
Dee had first seen Charlene in Marketing Management 101. The girl that curled her ginger hair and wore too much eye shadow. She giggled a lot, regardless of what had been said, as if she was on a timer. Dee had noticed Charlene because it was impossible not to and because she reminded her of the inventory at her souvenir shop back home. Charlene didn’t look like any specific piece, more like the totality of the store’s interior, busy and crass. At the end of their second year, Dee received the confirmation that QVC had greenlit Glossy Guardians. She sat staring at the email on her laptop, quietly panicking as other students took their seats around her. What was she thinking? No QVC shopper would buy anything from an immigrant with a thwacking Slavic accent. Just then, Charlene walked in the classroom wearing hot pants in hot pink, cinched in with a rhinestone belt, a ruffled tube top, and a strata of foundation caked around her giggling mouth—an epiphany in bubblegum aura, a drifting neon sign begging to inhabit a home shopping studio.
“I prefer teamwork,” Dee said to Damien. She looked out the glass wall at the chimney tops flickering against nightfall, like lighthouses. “I plan to collaborate with artists, have them create pieces just for this space.” She looked at Damien and he raised his eyebrows. It seemed to Dee he did so less out of curiosity and more to conceal a creeping yawn.
Dee turned to the sound of gravel crackling. The truck she was expecting the following day faded in from the dusk and attempted to park next to the tractor trailer.
“Speak of the devil,” she said, “here comes the material for the first installation.”
Once, after a record sales day, Dee had gone to the warehouse and crashed two boxes of Glossies against the brick wall. The sight of dismembered angels soothed her, but as she cleaned up the mess, she realized that tossing them in a trashcan, even though that’s where they belonged, wouldn’t bring closure. Instead, she’d bought an old UPS truck on the black market and stored the broken angels there, the ones with manufacturing flaws and transit-sustained damage, and the ones she broke herself. The growing jumble put her at ease, like contrition.
“Who’s the artist?” Damien said.
“A surprise. All will be revealed at the opening.” Dee squinted at the UPS truck as it fishtailed on the parking lot as if it were a frozen lake. The driver was a dark silhouette behind blinding headlights. Dee frowned and turned away from the ungainly sight with a chuckle. “All I can say is that it’ll be quite a statement.”
Dee had dreamed up the installation months ago, when she first saw this site perched on the edge of a cliff and imagined unloading the defunct Glossy Guardians into the gorge. When she thought of all that shiny porcelain shattering down the slope, angels’ limbs mangled and plump cheeks drowned in the muddy river, her body quivered in an almost religious ecstasy. She’d title the piece Death to Kitsch. It would be her penance.
“I’ll take suspense any way I can get it,” Damien said, yawning. He glanced at his watch. “It’s time I go.”
Dee jerked open the massive glass door with both hands. With a decisive toss of her head, she tried to whip her scattered tresses off her face along with the acrid whiff of the factory smoke. When she succeeded at neither, she shook her head like a sneezing dog. “See you at the opening?” she yelled to Damien’s back over the noise of popping gravel. The UPS truck still struggled to park, lifting an impressive cloud of dust. Damien shielded his eyes and mouth and scurried to the tractor trailer. Dee watched the giant vehicle exit the lot in an elegant loop around the dwarfed UPS truck, which finally gave up and parked at an awkward diagonal, one of its front corners dangerously close to the glass wall. Dee recoiled a little where she stood holding the entrance door ajar with an arm and a leg, waiting for the driver to come out. It was hard to see clearly in the darkness, but when the driver’s door opened, a patent stiletto emerged. Then a hiked-up boucle skirt and a rustle of bangles and finally, a big head of curls.
“Charlene?” Dee gaped.
Charlene landed on the gravel and nearly rolled her ankle. Dee stifled a gasp, but Charlene steadied herself and pulled down her skirt. She glanced at the delivery slip she held in one hand and her phone in the other, a snakeskin purse dangling from one forearm. “Says I’m at the right place.”
“I was expecting one of the delivery guys.” Dee gulped. “Didn’t you get my letter?”
Charlene walked toward Dee. The light from the gallery bounced off Charlene’s gold rhomboid earrings. She opened her purse, pulled out a sheet of paper and read aloud, “Thanks, couldn’t have done it without you… time to move onto new ventures, part ways, surprise ourselves… best of luck… onward.” She waved the paper at Dee. “That it? Cause, I don’t get it.”
“There was,” Dee halted, “another sheet.”
“Oh, the severance? That sausage of zeros? Yeah, I got that,” Charlene said. Dee thought she sounded irritated, but then she tilted her head, her eyes supplicant. “What’s going on, Daliborka? You’ve been absentminded for a while but I thought it was just the business-growing jitters.”
“Let’s go inside,” Dee said.
The click-clack of Charlene’s pumps echoed as she looked around. “What is this cold, empty brick? A private studio?” She looked at Dee, her eyes shiny with hope. “For Glossy Guardians?”
Dee poured two shots of slivovitz and held one out to Charlene. “I felt it was time to move on.”
“At the peak of our sales?” Charlene said, taking the drink. “You were always a little weird, but I mean…” She traced her hand around the space, spilling slivovitz on the concrete floor. She walked to the bowl of cookies and stuffed one in her mouth, then snatched a handful more. “You’re up to something, aren’t you?” She wagged her finger at Dee. “Like back in school, the way you’d sit in the corner, never raise your hand, then blow everyone out of the water with As.” She walked to Damien’s cane where it leaned on the glass wall. She grabbed the handle and slashed the air in figure-eight motion.
Dee swallowed, the drink burning her throat. “Put that down,” she said. As soon as Charlene left, as soon as this was over, she’d text Damien. “Look—we had a good run with the Guardians. I just wanted to try something different. I don’t expect you to understand.”
“Oh, no?” Charlene lifted the cane high then dropped it on the concrete. It clattered hollowly. “Why not?” She gestured up and down Dee’s outfit. “I’m not classy enough for your slip and your orthopedic clogs, that it?” She extended her tumbler and Dee automatically poured her another. “And what the hell is going on with your hair? I saw you put on a show for that weird guy, flipping back and forth. Who is he? A flood victim? I mean, why else would anyone roll up their pants that high.”
Dee poured herself more slivovitz and sat on the sofa. She sighed and looked out the glass wall. Black everywhere, the flickering chimneys and a gauzy smoke in the distance softening the darkness. “People change, Cee,” she said.
“Sure, but this much?” Charlene pointed to Dee again. “What happened to ‘a power suit and fuchsia lipstick is what you need to succeed’?” She sat next to Dee, pulling up the dress strap that had fallen off Dee’s shoulder, her hands cold and moist. “We’ve made more than money. Our angels bring people joy. The fierce Daliborka I know wouldn’t ruin that,” Charlene said, tucking a strand of Dee’s hair behind her ear. “You don’t look like yourself, Daliborka.”
“Actually, I do,” Dee turned to face Charlene, her voice firm. “The person you knew was someone else. This is me. And the name is Dee.”
Charlene pulled away a little. She rested her tumbler on top of an Agnes Martin monograph and grabbed the carafe instead. “Do you remember our first shipment of Guardians?” She smiled as if recalling the birth of a firstborn. “I can still feel that smooth sheen on my fingertips, those angelic curls and double chins, chubby thighs—so delicate. Ours to take care of. Find them good homes.” She swigged out of the carafe and grimaced as if she’d chugged gasoline.
Dee put her feet on the sofa and pulled her knees to her chest, hugging her arms around her shins. Charlene went on.
“I still remember when I put on my first suit, the electric blue one you’d sent me for good luck. I remember the sound of my brand new pumps when they hit the shiny floor of the QVC studio. I knew I would sell out the first batch under time.” She paused to close her eyes and breathe in deeply through her nose. “And I did it again the next time, and again, and again. It felt so good, so on top I’d almost forgotten all about where I came from, the trailer park with the stray dogs roaming around.” She looked at Dee. “Because you believed in me. You gave me the chance to spread cheer, live my life’s purpose.” She swigged out of the carafe. “And now you’ve pulled the plug.” She stuffed two cookies in her mouth and chewed with her mouth open, crumbs getting stuck on the enormous brocade buttons on her jacket.
“The severance is more than generous,” Dee said. “Move on.”
Charlene grabbed Dee’s upper arm. “It’s not about that, Daliborka. Dee,” she said, lowering the carafe on the floor with a clang. “I don’t want to move on. I’ve arrived.”
Dee yanked her arm out of Charlene’s grip. “I couldn’t let those hideous fakes keep on going. They suffocated me and now I can finally breathe.” She straightened up against the sofa. “Guardians are a cheap, shallow thrill. Angels don’t exist, Cee.”
“The name is Charlene,” Charlene shouted, jumping up off the sofa. “You will not reduce my good name to a letter. Dee. You’re a fake, Daliborka. And I’ll make sure the whole world knows about it if you don’t call China and let me take over.”
Dee stood up. “No.” She closed her eyes and said quietly, “Kitsch seduces then traps and ruins, Charlene. I will not be its accomplice."
Charlene looked at her as if at an alien. “You used me,” she said. “You betrayed me.”
“Now, now. No need for harsh words. Change is hard, Charlene. But it’s for your own good,” Dee said. “Here.” She pulled an Agnes Martin print from the monograph. The print featured a grid, lines in faint gray against a blank backdrop, titled On a Clear Day. “I know this is not your aesthetic. Yet. But, if you keep looking, you’ll see.”
Charlene looked at the print, her hand shaking. She turned to the UPS truck parked outside. “What are you going to do to them?”
“Don’t worry. I have big plans for our angels,” Dee said. “A tribute. For all they’ve done.”
Charlene swayed, her eyes wet.
Dee picked up her phone. “I’ll call you an Uber.”
Charlene looked at the print in her hands. “You call this art?” She lifted it up. “I see blank label stickers I could get at Staples.” She tore the print and wrenched the door open, stumbling to the van.
The print was just a replica—mass produced as a party favor to be handed out at the opening—but Dee had to calm her breath, agitated by Charlene’s blasphemous act. “Charlene, wait.” Dee went after her, the chunky mules she wore impeding her step.
Charlene took off her pumps, got in the UPS truck, and started the engine. She backed up abruptly and the gravel beneath the tires exploded and scattered, hitting the glass wall. Dee ran back inside, wishing the wall were brick and mortar. She stood behind the sofa as if for protection, willing the truck and Charlene to stop. Instead, the truck headed toward the road. But before Dee could curse Charlene for hijacking the figurines, the truck abruptly reversed, accelerating toward the gallery. Dee ducked behind one of the display walls and covered her head as the vehicle crashed through the glass, shards raining on the concrete floor. The chimney lights flashed red on Dee’s dress while the orange of the truck’s blinkers flickered by her feet like an erratic pulse. The horn blared long and hard and then went silent.
Dee peeked from behind the wall to find the UPS truck was lodged in the glass where the door used to be. The floor was covered with broken glass that shone like minerals. Dee stutter-stepped to the truck, scratching her neck, pulling up her dress straps, breathing fast. She’d almost reached it when the truck’s back door growled open and an avalanche of Glossy Guardians rushed out. Dee ran into it, arms outstretched, desperate to stop the tide from flooding the gallery.
“Move away!” Charlene yelled from the flatbed.
But Dee was already swamped by the rolling quicksand of porcelain shards. All she could do was cower, surrender, her dress and skin raked by broken edges, her cries smothered.
And then it was quiet and dark. Dee couldn’t move. She heard muffled clanking of the porcelain around her sliding and cracking until the load on her head lightened and she gulped air. Charlene frantically removed the shards from her neck. She cupped Dee’s cheeks in her hands.
“What were you thinking, Daliborka?” Charlene said, her voice alarmed. She pulled Dee closer and breathed in her hair. “It’s alright. It’s a good thing. I always wanted you to really feel the Guardians. Let them guard you from yourself.” She gestured to the gallery. “From this abominable plainness.” She started to arrange the angel remains around Dee’s head, like a kid on a beach burying a friend in sand.
“Did I ever tell you about those stray dogs in the trailer park?” Charlene asked.
Dee stared at the ceiling. Yes.
“Had to be five or six of them,” Charlene went on. “Fighting over a bone. They barked so loud, and their teeth looked so sharp and shiny. Mom was sitting in her lawn chair and had just cracked an egg into her Iron City, and I ran right past her and hid inside the trailer. I covered my ears and waited by the sink for the dogs to go away.”
Charlene lay on the broken angels, her body prostrate on the heap, her head next to a trickle of blood that dripped down Dee’s chin.
“Next thing I knew, that bone flew into the kitchen and thumped on the linoleum,” Charlene said. “All those dogs rushed in after it and my mom locked the door behind them. She was coughing and laughing the whole time, and I begged her to open the door in this whiney voice I’d never heard myself make before. It was so whiny.” Charlene bent her head and brushed a strand of hair off Dee’s face. “I didn’t want to be whiney. So I stopped.”
Dee breathed spasmodically; she wanted to break out but could only whimper. Charlene kept talking.
“The dogs wrestled with the bone for a while but soon they calmed down and stopped barking. They walked all around me; they brushed off my bare legs like cats do. I was deep in dogs like in bath water; I remember their fur was soft and prickly all at once. And I let all that tension go, ’cause I wasn’t afraid anymore. It became clear to me that I just had to see them. Feel them.”
Charlene dabbed her boucle sleeve on Dee’s forehead and brow. “Just a few scratches,” she said propping herself on hands and knees.
“Please, Charlene, help me,” Dee said, her voice a thin whine.
“I am,” Charlene said, running her palm against Dee’s cheek. “You enjoy your angel bath and I’ll be right back.” She slid down the slope of the angel mound. When she stood, rivulets of blood sprang from her knees and soaked her torn stockings.
Charlene disappeared from Dee’s field of vision and Dee could hear her pour slivovitz into a glass. She couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. If she opened her mouth, her scream would be as silent as Munch’s. Pink saliva oozed over her lower lip and glazed the mutilated angels around her. She squeezed her eyes shut and shivered, her teeth rattling. When she opened them, she saw Damien peeking around the side of the UPS truck, looking at the scene inside the gallery, his eyes wide. Dee looked to the side. Charlene stood next to the heap with a filled tumbler looking at Damien like an apparition.
“Let him in, Charlene,” Dee said. “Please. He likes this stuff.”
Charlene’s eyebrows twitched.
“Through the truck,” she yelled to Damien.
Damien climbed up and, a moment later, materialized at the mouth of the UPS truck’s rear door, his face stumped. “I… need my cane,” he said.
“Of course,” Dee said, her voice eager. “Charlene, please get Damien’s cane.”
In slow motion, Damien lifted his hand in greeting. Charlene slid on panty-hosed feet and fetched the cane, handing it up to Damien. He crouched on the truck’s platform to grab it.
“Doesn’t look like you need that,” Charlene said.
“Since when does self-expression have to do with utility?” Damien said.
Charlene snickered. Then they both looked at Dee.
“There goes my surprise,” Dee said, trying hard to chuckle. She cleared her throat. “Damien, Charlene is a groundbreaking installation artist. She’s demonstrating the custom project for the gallery I’d mentioned. She wanted me to feel it.”
Damien swallowed. “I thought I’d seen it all,” he said. “Savage.” He leaned on the cane, his other hand tugging on the pirate hoop in his ear. “By the way, savage is a word I use for why the hell not,” he said. “See you at the opening.” He pivoted and walked back into the darkness of the UPS truck. He reappeared beyond the destroyed glass wall and ducked into a yellow cab.
“What’s an installation artist?” Charlene asked, gaping into the hollow night.
Dee wanted to push her off the cliff, bury her in broken Guardians. The urge felt like a summons from the art gods to evolve the installation into a performance piece. The red flicker of the security camera caught Dee’s eye. It beat steadily, red like the heart on the Mother-of-God bottle in the souvenir shop. Dee smirked at it. Let it watch; nothing can stop art. Dee would see to it as soon as she broke free of the shrapnel dune.
She tried to wiggle out of the wreckage, every move a cut deeper.
Bergita Bugarija was born and grew up in Zagreb, Croatia and now lives in Pittsburgh. Her fiction appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Salamander, PANK Daily, Flash Fiction America anthology, and elsewhere. She recently completed a collection of stories and is at work on a novel set in Dalmatian Hinterland.
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