His skin glowed the color of mocha cappuccino, his muscles tapered into drawn bows and steely arrows, and his long, flowing locks took flight and landed in rhythmic accompaniment to his pounding legs and buttocks.
“Fergus Falls,” he whispered.
The woman, a strawberry blonde, writhed somewhere underneath him. She was visible only in splotches of feet, hair, and hands, the latter clasped against the middle of his lower back, her sharp, chartreuse fingernails digging into his flesh.
“Fergus Falls!” she repeated in muffled yelps.
The man’s back arched higher and higher, the moans of the woman increased in volume and desperation. Yet just as the pair seemed poised to levitate, the pounding and arching stopped, the fingernails relaxed, the tower toppled, the ocean wave crashed on the waiting shore.
“I have arrived,” croaked the man, his voice as resonant as a British secret agent’s. Rolling like a bowling pin, unwinding like a Chinese yo-yo, he flipped his body to face the ceiling, revealing his hairy chest, stoic countenance, and piqued manhood.
“In Fergus Falls!” gasped the blonde, who rolled on top of her companion and kissed him again and again and again.
A pillow toss away from the pair of them, Moira insisted that she was not at all curious, not in the slightest. She insisted that she dearly wanted to leave the hotel room as soon as possible. Instead she retreated into the closet, miserably hugging the brown cardboard artist’s case to her chest.
Moira, an ex-college student, had been following the heels of Ngomo Stemelewski, the renowned artist, almost since sun-up. Never in that time, not once, was he in the company of any woman beyond his professional entourage, let alone a woman who sported strawberry blond hair, puffy lips, a glowing face, and breasts that pointed with promise into unending tomorrows. Yet here he was having intercourse with just such a creature at nearly a quarter past five o’clock in the evening.
How did he conjure her up? Just who the hell is she?
Moira prayed and prayed that the couple would take a shower. Moira prayed that the man, who was Ngomo Stemelewski, the famous artist and one of Moira’s personal idols, and the strawberry blonde, whom Moira had never seen before and did not care to see again, would together step into a hot and steamy shower—above all, a noisy shower—thus providing the necessary cover for a simple getaway.
People take showers after sex, don’t they? Moira decided that they must.
She held some lagging doubt, however. Grudgingly, she considered if the lagging doubt was because she was still a virgin.
It’s not that big of a deal.
Her companion in the closet, a tuxedo jacket wrapped professionally in clear plastic, neither agreed nor disagreed.
“That was wonderful,” cooed the blonde.
“Hrrrrmmm,” agreed Ngomo Stemelewski, the creator of sculptures that graced plazas in New York City and Washington, paintings that hung in the Louvre in Paris and the Peggy Guggenheim in Venice, a mobile that loomed over international arrivals at the airport in Miami, and a large, quixotic electric sign that dominated downtown Fergus Falls, Minnesota.
Moira shrank unhappily into the rear corner of her prison.
I am not a voyeur, Moira repeated.
This is simply an accident.
Really, really, really it is.
Not too long before, Moira had been Moira Netman of Minot, North Dakota, a grade school girl turned gawky adolescent, turned gawky high school senior. Somewhere in those years she played clarinet in the band, edited the Minowan school yearbook, and drew charcoal sketches of shoes, bowls, and other unexciting objects in art class. Later, at Central Minnesota State University in Fergus Falls, Moira began experimenting with her name. The first name was fine. “Moira” sounded professional, mysterious, even artistic—the exact qualities she wished to cultivate. But “Netman” was terrible. Netman implied someone who made nets, which were good for what exactly? Circus acts? Fishing? Tennis? No Netman ever painted gothic cathedrals, or sculpted angels or goddesses, or built mobiles, or created electric message signs that never repeated themselves. Thus Moira invented new names for herself, each of which she considered, occasionally adopted, but ultimately discarded in a daisy chain of dissatisfaction.
Moira Nyman Flannery O’Moira
Moira Nissan Moira Kane Brookman
Moira Nestlé Moira Booker Sebastian
Moira Hershey Moira Jane Sebastian
Barbara Hershey Moira Van Clyburn
Barbara Flannagan Cleasta Morrison
Moira Flannagan Moira Paderewski
Moira O’Flannery Moira Stemelewski
Ngomo Stemelewski was in town for one day and one night, into which he was cramming a ninety minute speech at Central Minnesota State University, at which the public was welcome; a book signing session, at which the public was very welcome; and a black-tie dinner reception at the Emerald Hotel, hosted by the inestimable Mrs. Euphemia Roof-Tischinski, by invitation only.
It was at the speech at the university that Moira had planned to announce herself. She had arrived at the auditorium a full two hours in advance in order to claim the ideal seat for establishing eye contact, which she determined was in the fifth row, podium side near the center. When Ngomo Stemelewski finally ascended the stage, Moira fixed her most appealing gaze and smile upon him, and she kept on gazing and smiling throughout the ninety minute presentation, including the half hour slide show, when the house lights were their dimmest. Snuggled safely against her legs was the brown cardboard case that housed her portfolio.
The portfolio may be modest, Moira had admitted while Stemelewski was reminiscing over his boyhood in Krakow and Nairobi. But I have completed some wondrous, phenomenal work, such as “Aluminum Pigeon in Repose.” This was a room-sized kinetic sculpture of a pigeon built entirely of soft drink cans.
“Wonderfully wacky,” commented Moira’s art instructor.
“A grand statement on the superficiality of our times,” offered a critic in the student newspaper.
“Looks like Waldo,” said Moira’s non-boyfriend of the time, a slack-jawed Liverpudlian who was slumming the year in America.
“Who is Waldo, darling?” asked Moira. For the occasion she had adopted a chipper, cheery, and very phony English accent.
“Mate o’ mine, back ‘ome,” he said. “Bleedin’ useless ugly crock o’ shite, he is. Just like this thing.”
Quickly thereafter Moira dropped the non-boyfriend, although she maintained the accent for several months.
“Maybe I’m wrong,” said the non-boyfriend when he slumped out of Moira’s life for the last time. “Maybe it looks more like Waldo’s mum.”
Despite all the praise and acclaim, the sculpture eventually was disassembled and recycled. But Moira had drawn blueprints and taken photographs.
Moira’s plan was to enlist Ngomo Stemelewski in an effort to promote herself to a larger audience. In her most optimistic scenario, Stemelewski would sponsor her best work, probably the aluminum pigeon, which would be reassembled and installed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, or the Louvre in Paris, or the Hirshhorn in Washington, or even just the Hosken Tischinski Art Museum in Fergus Falls.
“I am a struggling artist,” Moira had planned to proclaim coquettishly when Ngomo Stemelewski called on her at the auditorium. “Would you mind taking a look at my portfolio before you leave?”
“Why, of course,” Ngomo Stemelewski would reply. “I would be delighted.”
But the famous artist accepted only three questions during the question and answer session. And despite the prominently-raised hand of the youthful, reasonably attractive woman near the center of the fifth row, as well as her jumping up and down and her songbird calls of over here, over here, over here, Ngomo Stemelewski instead selected a middle-aged woman with a port wine stain over her mouth (“Why have you completed only one work in an electronic medium?”), a teenage boy whose tee-shirt promoted a rock and roll band (“Do you think you are best described as a dadaist, op-artist, or post-modernist?”), and a college professor-type with a scratchy beard and leather elbow patches (“Does the Fergus Falls sign really never repeat itself?”)
Who gives a damn about post modernism?
So Moira had tried the book signing session, only to discover a huge line of book-buyers and well-wishers and autograph seekers. According to the security guard, the first in line had arrived even before Moira had camped out in the fifth row of the auditorium.
Damn! thought Moira. Autograph seekers—how pointless! How juvenile! They should go home and let me meet Stemelewski instead. I, at least, am a fellow artist. I need something more from him than his signature!
And double damn, triple damn, and a few stronger expletives, Ngomo Stemelewski left the bookstore with Moira having advanced to fifth in line—FIFTH!—but out he walked, smiling and waving at the disappointed line members as he passed them, apparently not seeing the brown cardboard artist’s case brandished at him by the youthful, reasonably attractive woman with the soul if not the name of an artist, nor apparently hearing her impassioned cry of “Wouldyoumindlookingatmyworkitwouldonlytakeaminute!”
So it was only reasonable to follow him to his hotel room.
“Where do you go next?” the strawberry blonde asked, still draped over Stemelewski like a tablecloth.
“Tel Aviv; Cos Cob, Connecticut; St. Joseph, Missouri; and Rio De Janeiro,” he replied. “In that order.”
Moira told herself that she would stay exactly where she was—the far corner of the closet—to minimize her chances of discovery, as well as to maintain some semblance of dignity as a human being.
“Where did the trip begin?” the blonde asked.
“Gilroy, California,” said Stemelewski. “Then Bangkok, then a small fishing village in Kenya, then Singapore, then Fergus Falls.”
“A mixture,” replied the blonde, “of the exotic and the mundane.”
I am a young woman doing anything I can to get ahead in the art world, Moira insisted. I am not a spy or a voyeur or a stalker.
Two moments later, she inched toward the closet door to get a better look.
“They are all exotic,” said Stemelewski, one arm collected around the blonde’s middle, the other plucking a cigarette from a silver case, “because they all have my art displayed there.”
Hoo-boy. What an ego!
“Let’s take in the sunset,” suggested Stemelewski.
With minimal fuss, the couple lifted themselves out of bed, their nudity eliciting no alarm in one another but hollowing a cherry pit in Moira’s stomach. The muscular brown man guided his companion to the picture window, the drapes already flung open to the perfectly ordinary sky above and the perfectly ordinary city below.
The naked couple stood admiring the view.
Moira did her best to admire it with them, but failed. The sky that evening, as per the norm for January in Minnesota, was cloudy, distant, and very gray.
There’s a reason, thought Moira, why no one rhapsodizes about sunsets in winter on the prairie.
“Isn’t it amazing,” said the blonde, “how the Sun rises and sets, rises and sets, over and over again?”
“Hmmm,” responded Stemelewski thoughtfully. “Probably just a coincidence.”
Why are they looking at the sky? It’s the dullest sky over the dullest land on Earth?
“What do you think of my home town?” asked the blonde.
“You mean Fergus Falls?” Stemelewski peered down out the window, as if noticing the city below for the first time. “To me it appears a great, exotic city. I already told you that.”
“Don’t be silly!” The blonde nudged Stemelewski in the ribs.
Moira had lived long enough in Fergus Falls to know what it looked like, even from twenty floors high on a January evening. The bright lights of downtown; the meandering, inky emptiness of the C-shaped Fergus River; the airplanes descending onto the runway at the airport; the street lamps and stop lights reflecting snow-covered ground pretty much every place else—it was attractive in an All-American kind of way, possibly enchanting if you were in the right frame of mind.
But great and exotic?
Stemelewski raised one arm to the sky as he placed the other around the blonde, pulling her closer to his side.
“What I think,” he began, “is that Fergus Falls is your home. It also is my home, in a manner of speaking. It also is home to hundreds of thousands of other people.”
Big deal, thought Moira.
“So what?” asked the blonde.
“So you should respect and cherish it,” he continued quietly. “Look down, and you will see men and women and children. Some of them will live to tomorrow, some will die. Some will be alone tonight, some will find companionship. Some might even make love to each other, as we have, perhaps even in this hotel. A few, a precious few, might even create works of art.”
“Ah, so you think that artists live here?” asked the blonde.
“A few artists, yes,” said Stemelewski. “But mind you, art cannot be created casually or easily. You cannot glue aluminum cans into the shape of a pigeon or something and call it art.”
Dear God! Dear Lord shit!
“No, art requires imagination. And hard work. And above all, suffering. That is why Fergus Falls is an enticing, wonderful city. Because you suffer here. You suffer the weather, you suffer the boredom. You suffer the flatness, you suffer the confusion, and you suffer each other. Your city is dirty, crowded, poorly run, and full of people who would never live anywhere else. Thus great art can be made here.”
Does he know about the pigeon? It must be a coincidence. Does he know I’m hiding in the closet? Dear God Lord shit!
The blonde turned her pale body front to front with Ngomo Stemelewski’s dark one. She held him tightly, burying her head in his neck, and swaying him slightly to and fro.
“I think you’re full of bull,” she said.
“Well, I’d hate to think you were one of my worshipful groupies.”
I’ve got to get out of here. I don’t care if they see me, I don’t care if I’m caught, I don’t care if I’m embarrassed. I’m going to go home and burn everything I ever created and get very, very drunk, and maybe even—
“I suppose I should get dressed for dinner,” announced Stemelewski.
Moira’s heart pole-vaulted into her throat.
“But first, a shower. Would you care to join me?”
Oh yes! Thank you, thank you, thank you.
The blonde ambled slowly to the bathroom, the artist with the cappuccino skin following a step or two behind. A few moments subsequently, Moira heard the familiar sound of water hitting tile and glass, followed by laughing and giggling. With a giddy clumsiness, tangling and untangling herself from coat hangers and loose shoes, Moira escaped the closet, her awful brown cardboard case fluttering at her side. She beelined to the front door. After a quick fumble with the doorknob, the noises from the shower reassuringly loud and friendly, Moira found herself safely in the hotel hallway, where to her complete surprise she almost instantly ran straight into the wet body of Ngomo Stemelewski, clothed in a green bath towel.
“Aaach!” screamed Moira.
“Hello,” replied the great artist calmly. “What can I do for you?”
It clearly was Ngomo Stemelewski, too. Not an imitation, not an identical twin, but the same man Moira had seen enter a bathroom with a naked strawberry blonde practically one instant previously.
“How did you get here?” blubbered Moira. “I saw you walk into the shower!”
“Answer my question first,” he replied in the voice of the British secret agent. “What can I do for you? Would you like me to look at that portfolio you’re carrying?”
“No! No thank you!”
“Then why have you been following me?”
For the first time all day, Moira looked directly at the face of the man whose support, ideas, and patronage she had so valued. What she saw were deep eyes over a mischievous grin. She relaxed, at least a little, for the man clearly meant no harm. Not to her nor anyone else. ‘Whatever I am doing,’ his smile seemed to suggest, ‘I’m doing mainly to have a good time.’
“I….I….I’d like your autograph,” Moira sputtered.
Stemelewski’s grin did not change, not for a second.
“Of course,” he replied.
He pulled a pen from above his left ear, a pen that Moira had not previously noticed and wondered how it had arrived. She fumbled in her pocketbook for a piece of scrap paper, eventually producing the program from the speech at the college, which conveniently featured the famous artist’s picture. Moira thrust the program at the wet brown man clad in the bath towel, who scribbled something and handed it back to her.
“Good-bye, then,” he said, tipping an imaginary hat. Opening the door from which Moira had just exited, he returned to his suite. Moira suppressed the urge to follow him. She wondered if the door locked automatically.
There must be another exit from that room, Moira mumbled to herself.
Obviously, there is a second exit.
The pigeon reference was just a coincidence, too.
It was not until the elevator had deposited her in the lobby that she looked at what Ngomo Stemelewski—if that was indeed who it was—had written on the program she had handed to him.
“Beware the giant mushrooms,” the message read.