Bridge & Tunnel Books

A Night at the Pump House

Fairytale by Arlan Hess

Robby was gone and, for all Helen knew, he wasn’t coming back. He didn’t even look over his shoulder as he thundered through the doorway and disappeared into the unforgiving street. She’d never seen him so out of control. The shattered lamp. The overturned desk. In the thirteen years since they met, he’d never shown signs of violence or aggression, especially toward her. Even at the most overwhelming moments in their marriage, he’d shrug and say “Well, if that’s the worst thing that happens to us today, Princess, we’re doing all right.” That optimism was a quaint memory now, as naïve as the fairy tales her father read to her as a child before bed. The depth of Robby’s hostility surprised her and, for the moment, that cold shock prevented her from succumbing to grief.

At breakfast, Helen had felt happier than she had in months; she and Robby had been planning their future. After her contract was up with Xander and co., they’d have enough money to trade up to a place with a garden and room for a dog. Robby would hire someone to work with him in the studio; Helen could finally get her MFA. Things were falling into place. When Xander’s people first approached her with their proposition, Robby only expressed concern about the length of the contract and how long Helen would need to take a leave of absence from teaching. He never raised an eyebrow about his wife going to work for her ex-boyfriend’s company. Xander was a ghost now anyway. But, all this time, Robby had been secreting old resentments against his college rival. She never knew.

For a while, Helen and Robby and Alex, as he was still known in college, had shared the same definition of success: Art careers that consisted of glamorous openings; high-profile gallery representation in New York, London, and Sydney; international exhibitions in Basel and Venice; celebrity clients around the globe. But after graduation, the bubble burst. It was only Alex who risked the move to Brooklyn. He turned his back on his family and friends--even himself by changing his name, creating a new identity for a burgeoning career. It was inevitable that once Alex abandoned Pittsburgh, Helen and Robby would get together. At Carnegie Mellon, almost everyone in the Art department traded partners in a fog of creativity and desperation, but for the most part Robby remained solo, a talented sculptor always in the studio and at parties waiting offstage for his breakthrough role. After grad school, he returned to Pittsburgh and carved out a niche for himself designing bespoke furniture for the country club set. He moved from Stanton Heights to Brighton Heights. He won awards. Helen obsessed over imported fabric and skeins of yarn; a compulsive textile artist, she knitted mostly to keep calm. She taught visual art to middle-schoolers. Her goals had changed.

Xander’s foundation had made Helen and Robby an offer they couldn’t refuse. Last February, their old classmate died in a massive fire that took the lives of thirty-six people. The fire started in Xander’s London studio, a former piano factory on the Eade Road in the Harringay section of town. The 10,000-square-foot warehouse was part of a larger artist collective encompassing 300 units spread over 40 locations. Before the blaze was extinguished, four buildings crumbled to ashes. The loss of life was tragic; the value of lost artwork was overwhelming. Besides the few works that had made their way into museums and private collections, only the earliest pieces Alex had created remained in the possession of his former friends--their worth appreciating by the month. The art world lost “the next Keith Haring,” but Helen lost someone she once loved. Her full-sleeve tattoo was the earliest example of Xander’s signed artwork. When his estate pressured her into joining a posthumous traveling retrospective, she reprised her role as human canvas. Only this time, she was getting paid.

When Helen told Robby the Foundation needed to lengthen her obligation, he stared at the floor like a scolded child. The lawyers had convinced her she had no choice; the wording of the legal agreement explicitly stated “for the duration of the exhibitions” and the final exhibition was being extended through January. Helen worried the couple might have to give back the money if she didn’t comply with the Foundation’s demands. Her explanation lapsed into begging, as much for Robby’s understanding as for her own contractual release. Her best figure modeling was a decade behind her and now the eight-hour days she was posing in the gallery was a physical and emotion strain. So much for being on a pedestal. Robby nodded, not like he was listening to Helen but to another softer voice inside his head, something intuitive and distant. She was midsentence when he exploded.

“You belong to him. You always have. I can’t live on table scraps. I won’t.”

Robby batted the antique lamp off the nightstand and the bulb popped. When he knelt to pick up the pieces, he cut his hand. He bellowed as he stumbled backward onto his feet, then lunged toward the door kicking over the writing desk on his way out. Paper fluttered to the floor.

Helen wondered how she was going to explain Robby’s abrupt departure to her handlers. She tiptoed to the window to open the curtains for a better look at the room damage but closed them again to protect her eyes from the glare. She stood barefoot in the darkness with her arms frozen at her sides. She glanced around the room for her shoes. A thin ray of sunlight pushed through the gap in the curtains and grazed her deltoid at the point where her tattoo began. Even the light heat inflamed her sunburned shoulders. Helen looked at her arm then into the mirror. She loved so little about herself. She was trapped in the body of a submissive co-ed, emotionally bound to the opportunist who put her there. And just when she was relaxing into a life with a man who loved her, she chose the unrelenting gaze of strangers over Robby. She couldn’t explain it to herself let alone anyone else.

Alex had insinuated himself into Helen’s life again after all this time. She reached for the base of the lamp and threw it at the mirror.

“Why won’t you die?”

 

A Pittsburgh native, ARLAN HESS is experienced in food, music, and travel writing. Her work has appeared in Connotation Press, The Literary Bohemian, LOCAL Arts, Pittsburgh Quarterly, USA Today, and U2 Above, Across and Beyond: Interdisciplinary Assessments (Lexington Books, 2014). After teaching literature and creative writing for seventeen years, she purchased City Books, Pittsburgh’s oldest used bookstore founded in 1987. She lives in the South Hills with her husband and two dogs.

 

Heather McAdams