“Hmm,” said Dex appreciatively. “Interesting technique. You clearly studied the likes of Ortho Cambhutar and Elijah Hess, am I right?”
“Er, um, yes!” the artist agreed, bobbing his head up and down energetically. He looked like a cross between a neckbearded geek who thought friend was a word invented by Facebook and an oily car salesman who was trying to convince us an old covered wagon was a lightly used Corvette. “I’ve always been inspired by their work! Hearing you compare me to them is—”
“And your use of color is, if you’ll excuse me for being overdramatic, simply outstanding! The way they refuse to cooperate. Bold! The yellow on top of the brown! And, oh, that lovely pink background. Bold, sir! Miss Pace, what do you make of it?”
Dex turned to give me a thoughtful look, stroking the stubble on his chin. We were at the fancy art show that he had mentioned, but it had only taken me a minute to realize that fancy wasn’t the right word for it. Garbage would have described it better. Everything here had been made by the guy rubbing his hands greedily next to us, a creepy little man who insisted he was named Antoine Le Merde. Tonight, he was trying to pawn it all off on gullible suckers.
A role that Dex and I were only too happy to play.
The messy painting, if it even deserved to be called that, looked like Le Merde had gargled paint in all the colors that poop could come in, and then spat it out on the canvas. There were no discernable patterns, no color scheme that I could detect, and obviously no thought behind any of it. Still, I made myself look intrigued. I stepped forward, looked at it from the right, then the left. I made a frame with my fingers and squinted at it, humming in my throat.
Then I laid down on my back and looked at it upside down.
“Aha!” I declared, pointing excitedly. “Mr. Lagans, take a look at it from this angle!”
Dex—or “Mr. Lagans” as we’d decided to call him tonight—joined me on the floor, beneath the obviously confused but still hopeful Le Merde. As soon as he was lying beside me, his face lit up with an awestruck smile.
“By God!” he whispered. “You were right! From down here, it looks…why, it looks just like…”
“You see it too?” I asked.
“Of course I do! Marvelous! A daring new style!”
“What do you see?” Le Merde practically squealed.
“Mr. Le Merde,” Dex said without getting up, “we have traveled all over the world to see the greatest works of art by the greatest of artists, both alive and dead. But let me tell you, my friend, that it is rare for even people like us to see a work of…no, a divine creation of such skill, imagination, and bravery!”
Le Merde waved nonchalantly, but I could see the dollar signs flashing in his eyes. “Oh, it’s nothing, I assure you! One of my worst works, in fact!”
I highly doubt that, I thought.
“But if you’ll come with me, I’ll show you something truly amazing!”
He walked away—and then came back when he realized we hadn’t moved from our spots on the floor.
“No, no, that’s all right,” Dex said, folding his hands behind his head. “We’d appreciate the chance to take in the majesty of this one for a while longer.”
“O- Oh! Yes, of course! Take all the time you need!”
“And now,” Dex whispered so that Le Merde couldn’t hear, “we wait.”
It took almost five minutes of lying there, fighting not to fall asleep while Le Merde shifted anxiously from foot to foot like he had to pee and didn’t know where the restrooms were, but eventually he took the bait.
“So, um, sir and madame,” he said nervously, “I was wondering…what was it that you saw when you looked at it from that angle?”
“Why, Mr. Le Merde!” Dex exclaimed, feigning shock from the floor. “You mean to tell me that you, obviously the greatest artist I have ever met, don’t even understand your own—”
“NO!” He stopped and cleared his throat. “No, no, I just mean that…um, well, you know that art is very, uh…subjective, yes? What one customer—I mean, appreciator—sees might not be what another sees.”
“Ahh, yes indeed,” Dex agreed. “You can learn much about somebody by finding out what they see in someone else’s art.”
“Yes!” Le Merde laughed. “Exactly! So, um…”
“Even so,” I put in, “the image here is so crystal clear that I have a hard time believing it wasn’t intentional. Only a god among men could create something so breathtaking!”
“I, um, well…”
“It was quite cunning of you to hide the true meaning of your masterpiece like this,” Dex agreed. “I can’t even begin to imagine what kind of world changing statement you’re trying to make.”
“Trying?” I asked. “I’d say he’s already succeeded!”
“Right you are, Miss Pace, right you are!”
“So, what is it?” Le Merde pressed us.
“Well,” Dex explained, “when you look at this exquisite piece of art from down here, it is quite obviously…”
“A butt!” I declared.
I swear, Le Merde couldn’t have looked more horrified if we’d slapped him across the face. “A…A b…I’m sorry, could you repeat that please?”
“Look!” I pointed with both hands, following imaginary lines. “That is the right cheek, this is the left, and that…that must be the most beautifully artistic butt crack I have ever seen!”
“A true testament to your vision, Mr. Le Merde! You should be proud.”
I looked up at the con artist, and nearly laughed out loud. In less than a minute, he’d started sweating bullets so hard that the collar of his shirt was already soaked.
“Ah, um, y- yes, I am v- very proud,” Le Merde stammered. “The, uh, wonders of the human, uh…buttocks…has always fascinated me. A wonder of biology. If there is a god, then s- surely he shares my, uh, fascination.”
“And why shouldn’t he?” Dex asked reflectively. “After all, it could be argued that our butts are the most important parts of our bodies.”
“Our mouths take food in,” I agreed, “but without our butts it would never come out.”
“And our farts would probably come out of our noses.”
“And,” I gave Le Merde a sly wink, “some people’s butts are just nice to look at.”
Le Merde’s face turned as red as a tomato.
“I’ve made up my mind!” Dex shouted, springing to his feet in an impressive display of agility. “This one will do marvelously!”
The “artist’s” face immediately lit up. “You want to buy it?”
“Not quite,” Dex admitted. He put a friendly arm around Le Merde’s shoulders and took a step closer to the painting. I had to roll out of their way to keep from getting stepped on. “You see, I don’t just collect art. I’m somewhat of an artist myself, and seeing your masterpiece here has inspired me. My friend, I would like to propose a partnership between the two of us!”
I got up and backed away while the two of them chatted, getting ready for part two of our date night.
Why am I having so much fun? I wondered, reaching up and taking one of the other paintings off the wall without being noticed. And why don’t I feel the least bit bad about any of it?
Maybe Hendricks’ sadistic nature was rubbing off on me more than I’d realized. Maybe I’d always been a cruel person, but hadn’t had the chance to realize it till now. Or maybe…
I glanced at Dex, who was waving his hand in front of himself, like he was painting a picture of all the fame and money Le Merde would gain from their partnership.
…Or maybe I’d just found somebody I could enjoy being with, no matter what we were doing.
Anyway, I continued my work, taking crappy painting after crappy painting off the wall as Dex continued to blabber on and on. Most of them were incomprehensible messes like the first one, but others had somewhat coherent pictures painted on them. If it was possible, those were actually worse. One had a crying clown slashing his wrists in the bathtub, simply titled Politics. Another, called True Love, showed a woman pulling a man’s mouth open freakishly wide and trying to slide down his throat headfirst. And those were the nicer ones. Some of them, despite everything I’d seen in my life, made me shudder and feel sick to my stomach. This Le Merde dude was freaking messed up! That, more than anything else, made me want to go along with Dex’s plan.
“…will put your name in history books a hundred years from now!” Dex was saying as I stacked the last of the paintings on top of each other in the center of the room, making a nearly five foot tower. Now all that remained on the walls was the butt painting. “All you have to do, you genius, you, is say yes!”
“Yes!” Le Merde exclaimed without any hesitation. “Yes, yes, a million times yes! When do we start?”
“Right now!” Dex spun him around, and Le Merde jumped a little when he saw the stack of paintings. “Are you ready to help us make some art, my friend?”
“I, uh, yes, I suppose. But what are you…”
“Excellent! Let’s begin immediately!”
Without another word, Dex stepped forward—and pulled a cigarette lighter from his pocket. Flicking it on, he turned back toward Le Merde.
“Now, for tonight and tonight only,” he said dramatically, “I present to the city of Chicago…”
Le Merde’s eyes widened. “What are you going to do with that?”
“…the greatest art show the world has ever seen…”
“You- You’re not going to—”
“THE DUMPSTER FIRE!”
With that, Dex dropped the lighter onto the stack of paintings. They caught fire so quickly you’d have thought they’d been doused in gasoline, and within seconds the empty gallery was filled with the flickering light of a turd fueled bonfire.
A ragged scream tore from Le Merde’s throat “NOOOOO! What have you done? Why would you—”
“Art, my friend,” said Dex, physically restraining him so that he didn’t jump into the fire, “is all about sacrifices. You spent, what, five minutes on each of those paintings? And all so that we could burn them in a statement that, the more I think of it, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But your name will forever go down in history! Probably not as a great artist, but I’m sure you’ll do something impressive, stupid, or impressively stupid enough to be remembered for someday.”
Le Merde just whimpered.
“And we even left you this,” I said, taking down the first painting and handing it to him. Le Merde took it with shaking hands and a numb look on his face. “So, no matter what anyone tells you, remember one thing: nobody can paint a butt like you can!”
“It wasn’t supposed to be a butt.”
Dex and I exchanged looks.
“Well,” Dex said angrily, “I’m afraid I’ve misjudged you. And here I thought you were an artist of some skill! I’m disappointed, Mr. Le Merde. Very disappointed.”
We turned and left, leaving a stunned and stupefied Le Merde behind. As soon as we stepped through the door, the fire alarms began to ring, and the sprinklers activated. I looked back at the scam artist, who didn’t even seem to notice that he was getting drenched. He just watched us go with the wide, helpless eyes of someone who had just been airdropped into their worst nightmare. Dex and I took a few steps down the sidewalk…
Then we burst out laughing.
“Did you see the look on his face?” Dex asked, his voice wheezy from laughing so hard.
“Did you see those paintings?” I shot back. “I could do better by taking a dump on a piece of canvas!”
“And it would probably smell better than he did. Seriously, does that guy bathe in salad dressing?”
Before I could finish, Le Merde burst out of the gallery, dripping wet and still clutching his ruined painting.
“Th- Thieves!” he screeched. “Art thieves! Someone stop them!”
Dex grinned at me. “Shall we continue this conversation elsewhere? Say, at the top of the Centennial Wheel?”
I nodded primly. “Yes, let’s.”
And we took off running, with Le Merde’s screams echoing in the streets behind us.