1. LIFE'S A BITCH AND THEN YOU DIE
On the freeway of life, Lisa Watson was stuck at the entrance ramp, trapped behind a cautious old lady in a Buick.
Other people whizzed past her, heading toward success and happiness, while she remained at a dead stop. Nothing to do but sit there and stare at the incessant blinking of the Buick's right turn signal.
At least that's how it all seemed this particular moment at the end of a day that could not have sucked more if it tried.
Lisa was thirty-two years old, had a Master of Fine Arts degree from Miami University (the one in Ohio, not Florida) and was valiantly struggling to make a living as freelance photographer in Cincinnati. She was as-yet undiscovered and supported herself with temporary office work, along with ad agency photography jobs now and again.
Most of the time she did all right. She managed to pay the rent on her large two-room apartment/studio, located in a beautiful but somewhat decrepit old building on north Main Street. It was the other essentials that gave her trouble--food, electricity, her various student loans and the minimum payments on several maxxed-out credit cards.
This morning, she woke up thinking she was on solid financial ground--at least as solid as it ever got for her. But as soon as she arrived at her temp job, the economic earthquakes began. Her supervisor promptly informed her she'd done such a great job with data entry that now there was no more data left to enter. She was sent home early, with the company's sincere thanks and the promise that they would definitely keep her in mind if something else came up.
Knowing she had done just super-fantastic did not make losing the job any easier. There were still bills due and she'd been counting on a full week's pay. The small amount she'd made in three-and-a-half days was not enough.
Arriving home, there was a message on the machine from Dennis, one of the lower downs at the Campbell-Meyers Advertising Agency. Good, she thought as she dialed his extension. Maybe they're finally getting around to paying me for that tampon shoot.
"Yes, Lisa, good to hear from you," he said cheerfully when he came on the line. "Thanks for getting back to me so quickly. Look, I need to talk to you about your photos for Ariel Tampons. You've done a great job, but we feel your work lacks that ethereal quality, that essence of femininity we're trying to capture. We want to appeal to the caring, nurturing side of our customers. You know--the universality of women, the cycles that are part of the rhythm of life, the very fabric of existence, that whole female thing. Your pictures don't get that, Lisa."
"Um...I'd be willing to re-shoot. I can do ethereal," she said unsteadily. She was trying hard not to sound as desperate as she felt.
How do you make a box of tampons look ethereal anyway?
Lisa had been menstruating for the better part of twenty years, and she'd always found it to be messy and uncomfortable. Not even remotely close to ethereal, no matter what brand of tampons she used.
"Sorry, Lisa, we all agreed that it's just not there. But, hey, we'll keep you in mind if something else comes up," he said and hung up hastily.
Where the hell are all these somethings and why can't they come up now?
She hung up the phone and headed over to the little alcove off the main room of her apartment, which served as her kitchen. She opened the ancient white Westinghouse refrigerator and looked for something to eat besides yogurt.
Damn, she was going to have to go grocery shopping soon and there was barely twelve dollars in her checking account. Wait, didn't the Visa card have thirty or forty bucks available on it? Or did she cancel that one in some futile attempt to slow down her ever-increasing credit card debt?
The phone rang again. Please, she prayed, let this be good news. Let it be another job, anything, just get me some money.
It was Elana, the curator of the Main Street gallery where Lisa finally had gotten a show of her photographs.
"I'm so sorry, Lisa," she said in her usual cigarette-clogged voice. "We're going to have to postpone your show. Cameron Jericho from Columbus just became available, and of course, you know I had to jump at the chance to have him here."
"Cameron Jericho? Who's he?" Lisa asked curtly. She was still reeling from the disappointing blow of losing her show.
"My God, don't you know? He does the most gorgeous art glass you ever saw. Absolutely fabulous. You really should come by tomorrow night and take a look."
"Art glass? You bumped my show for a bunch of glorified paperweights? Elana, how could you?"
"Money, Lisa. The root of all evil and what makes my world go round, " she replied bluntly, and not in the least offended. "People buy art glass, especially this guy's art glass. There's a big demand for it and I intend to cash in on it when I can. You do beautiful work, but the photographs in your show are just too damned depressing, People see them and want to throw themselves in front of trucks. But don't worry, I'll set you up on my very next open date."
"Which is when exactly?"
"Well, I would have to check the calendar, but I believe the next opening is fairly soon, probably some time in June."
"Some time in June? That's two months from now!"
"And the time will just fly by, I'm sure. Tell you what, Lisa. I've still got all your photos from the show right here. I'll set a few out on display whenever there's a space. Fair enough?"
"No, it's not fair at all, but I'll take what I can get."
"That's the spirit, Lisa, Listen, I gotta go. Talk to you later."
"Yeah, keep me in mind if anything comes up," she said dismally.
That does it. I'm not answering the phone any more, she told herself as she yanked the phone jack out of the wall and threw the phone across the living room. Then she flopped herself on the ratty couch and buried her face in
to the pillows, tears of frustration streaming down her face.
Elana was right about one thing. Lisa's photographs were depressing, although Lisa preferred to think of them as gritty and realistic. Her portfolio consisted of stark black-and-white studies of winter landscapes with bare trees against gray skies; discarded shoes on the sidewalks; and the worn, desperate faces of the homeless people outside her building. Even the nude shots of her ex-boyfriend were on the somber side.
Lisa did not trust color. It was too flashy and made promises it couldn't keep. For this reason, she preferred the cold gray Ohio winters over its garish springtime.
Her apartment reflected the style of her photographs, everything was in black, white and of course, the varying shades of gray. The grubby white walls of her large main room were covered with matted photographs (mostly her own), along with a few posters, and a white on black wall hanging of an Aztec calendar. In the smaller bedroom, she had more photographs and a double bed covered by a black comforter. Even the cat was black.
The only exceptions to her black-and-white rule were the purple flowered couch she'd rescued from a dumpster in an upscale apartment complex and a red and gold lava lamp on a sideboard by the bedroom door.
Deciding that two minutes of crying was enough, Lisa got up from the couch and pulled a tissue from the box on her coffee table. Blowing her nose, she looked around the room and observed her life's work around her. She wondered dismally if any of these pictures would find an audience outside of her apartment.
Her eyes fell on the nude self-portrait, tucked behind the lava lamp and she walked over to take a closer look, even though it was so familiar she'd memorized every square centimeter. Her appearance had scarcely changed at all since shed done that photo ten years ago. She stared defiantly at the camera, her long blond hair framing her oval face, her large breasts hidden by her crossed arms. The printing technique shed used made her fair skin appear an eerie shade of white against the black background, and she cringed whenever she look at it. She could always see the small layer of fat around her belly and she thought her lips were too full.
She only kept it out because her Advanced Photography professor had told her it was the best work she'd ever done. Personally, she thought her studies of old shoes on the street were more aesthetically pleasing.
She set the photo down then moved the lamp so it completely obscured the print. She was too depressed to look at it. Might as well cover up my best work, she thought, since no one wants to see it anyway.
Junk food and a good movie--that's what she needed. And her longtime friend Debbie could supply both. Deb had a Real Job, making good money. She was always willing to spring for a video and she was sure to have some kind of high-sugar, high-carbohydrate, completely-lacking-in-nutritional-value food available for consumption in mass quantities.
Debbie was the also the one person willing to listen to Lisa bitch and moan about how hard it was to make it in the arts, which was another definite plus, as she intended to do a whole lot of bitching and moaning tonight.
Yes, an evening with Debbie would be just the ticket out of the doldrums. Debbie was so damn cheerful; some of it would have to rub off on her.
Lisa got up from the couch, wiped her tear-stained face with a paper towel, then looked around for her phone. She spotted it in the bathroom doorway. Quickly, she scooped it up, inserted the phone jack into its little hole in the wall, and hit the speed dial marked Debbie Pratt.
"You have reached 723-1374..." Debbie's recorded voice came on the line, followed by Debbie's idea of a cute message. Lisa cringed and hoped Deb would change it soon.
"Debbie, it's Lisa. Give me a call while the phone's still connected--it's been a terrible day. Hell, it's been many terrible days. Anyway, if you're so inclined, maybe tonight we could get a video and some junk food and forget about how cruel the world can be to artists."
She hung up the phone, feeling a little bit better thinking about suffocating her troubles with a large bag of Doritos. But not much.
Twenty minutes later, the phone rang. Hoping it wasn't any more bad news, she picked it up and tentatively said, "Hello?"
"Hello," Debbie said. "So sorry to hear of your misfortunes. A video sounds simply grand."
"Yeah, I figured it was better than sitting in the dark waiting for the repo men to come take my studio."
"Ohhh, it's not that bad. Let's put on a happy face."
"Let's not. Do you think I could get a cash advance on the Shell card? Maybe I could buy a few hundred gallons of gas and sell it."
"Lisa, you shouldve gotten rid of that Shell card a long time ago. You don't have a car anymore! Oh, I know you still use it to buy beer and chips when you're out of money and I wish you could see how fiscally irresponsible that is."
"Call me fiscally irresponsible..." Lisa sang, trying not to laugh.
"It's not funny, Lisa. It's costing you a lot of money."
"Yeah, I know--buy now, pay forever. I plan on leaving astronomical debts behind for my little nephew to deal with. Right now, I'd give anything for a two thousand-dollar line. Oh, hell, why not five thousand? Where are those pre-approved applications when you need them?"
"Those pre-approved credit cards are a rip-off. Don't you ever read the fine print? The finance charges are outrageous, like twenty percent. They can ruin your credit report."
"Worse than it already is?"
"All I can say is that when I get those things I rip them into tiny bits and throw them away."
"Why go to the trouble of ripping them to bits? I would think the people who sent them don't care what you do with their paper."
"So someone else doesn't send it in and charge up a fortune. Even though you don't have to pay the bills, it still can take years to straighten out your credit rating."
"Now that's an idea. Let's get someone else's credit card and charge up a fortune. Why should I be the only one with a lousy credit rating?"
"That's called fraud, and you can go to jail."
Deb, I know you never go near the edge, but just once wouldn't you like to get within spitting distance? Just once wouldn't you like to try something that might get you into some trouble?"
"You get into enough trouble for both of us."
"I'm tired of getting into trouble for both of us. Why don't you take on your share of the burden?"
"So you'll be here when? Half an hour?"
"Or thereabouts. Depends on if the bus is running on time."
"Do you have enough change for the bus? Because I can come down and pick you up. It's no trouble."
Feeling like she'd imposed too much already, Lisa prayed thered be enough change in her errant coin stash to cover a one-way bus ride to Oakley, where Deb lived. She took the lid off of the coffee can sitting on the shelf by the phone and heaved a sigh of relief. It held seven quarters, five nickels and a couple of dimes.
"The gods are smiling on me tonight. I've got enough for bus fare plus a candy bar and a newspaper. I'm rolling in it."
"Good, see you soon."
"Yep, I'm looking forward to it."
Scary as it seemed, Lisa actually was looking forward to the evening with Debbie.
One of these days, she told herself, she would have to get a life.