By Josiah Hesse
I didn’t care about the painting, but I sure pretended to.
Still blinded after biking through a March blizzard, my eyes strained to focus on the painting as I entered the living room. I’d been out working as a dog walker all day, fighting through the snow drifts with expensive purebreds, and was exhausted by the time I got home that night. While I was out one of my roommates had taken it upon themselves to graffiti a painting of mine in the living room.
There were twelve of us living together in that giant house, trading in basic necessities for the freedom of only paying a hundred bucks each in rent. There was no heat or hot water and a metropolis of mice lived behind the walls, but it afforded most of the residents the luxury of not having to work. They’d figured out how to make rent on their art, but I couldn’t lean into that kind of madness the way they could. I was a writer, and making money off of my sentences felt beyond me at the time. My bones craved the security of employment, which lead me to walking dogs in a blizzard.
Several of my roommates never left the house, consuming pots of coffee and spliffs until dawn each night; painting, sculpting or writing themselves into a coma. Often their creative juices sprayed onto the walls, floors and ceiling, carving penis sculptures out of stairway banisters and drawing self portraits in their own blood on kitchen cabinets. This was all fine considering the landlord had no intention of ever setting foot in the house. But when someone drew the on my painting, I became hysterical.
It wasn’t anything I cherished, just a cheap a portrait of young debutant titled “The Favorite.” The girl was poised and elegant, her hair pulled back into a clean bun while resting one arm on the iron railing of a bed. One of my ambitious roommates apparently thought that arm would look better as a big red lobster claw, and took it upon themselves to make the necessary changes.
No one would confess to doing it, but I simply wouldn’t let it go.
I brought it up at every house meeting, the twelve of us circled around the fireplace for warmth, tossing in phone books stolen from the neighbor’s porch. I told them the painting was a birthday present from my ex-girlfriend, that she’d painted it as a self-portrait, and it was the only possession I truly cherished. Which was all bullshit, but they didn’t know that. Most of these people I’d met on Craigslist, and had only known them a few weeks.
It was true that I’d recently gone through a breakup, hence my living with a dozen strangers in a drafty mansion that was only an electric bill away from being considered a squat house. So I was probably just trolling for sympathy.
I honestly couldn’t even remember how I came about the painting.
More than that, I actually really loved what had been done to it.
It went from being a hotel-hallway dud to a piece of comic surrealism.
But I would never let any of my roommates know that.
I refused to lean into their madness.
They never seemed to worry about money and, like an Al Qaeda soldier in the mind of George W. Bush, I hated them for their freedom. They seemed to just absently float through existence on a cloud of inspiration, while I was riding my bike around Denver every winter’s day from 9 to 9 so I could walk dogs sporting collars worth more than my life for eight dollars an hour.
After that, I could only squeeze in an hour or two of writing each night, with a space heater between my legs and a quickly drained box of Franzia on my desk, before I collapsed in a pile on my mouse-shit speckled floor. Their lives were a blank slate, an empty highway, or at least that’s the way I saw it. While I was the Horatio Alger go-getter with a heart of gold. All that Republican Party, Ayn Rand bullshit from my childhood was playing out in a passive aggressive roommate squabble, mostly of which only existed in my head.
My resentment only solidified one frigid morning when I came downstairs to find Tina Turner smeared with blood. It was a 1969 photo of Turner performing on stage, shaking with preternatural madness as sequins shot out from her dress like exclamation points. I’d bought the poster in Omaha years earlier and had it framed.
And now the frame was smashed.
At some point the night before someone had gotten drunk and punched Ms. Turner. The glass was sprayed out from her face, the poster smeared with blood underneath.
Again, I shamed the group at house meetings over the vandalism, but secretly adored the look of the thing. The blood and spider-webbed glass only intensified Tina’s explosive energy, not to mention the violent imagery being a provocative commentary on the domestic abuse she was enduring at the hands of Ike Turner when the photo was taken.
But still I fabricated stories about my mother singing me Tina Turner songs as a child, and that this framed poster was a gift from her at my going away party when I left Iowa. Ever since Mom died from pancreatic cancer last Easter, I said during one house meeting, the only thing that brought me comfort was looking at this picture of Tina Turner.
So whoever punched Tina essentially punched my dead mother, I told my roommates.
After that, I had to quickly leave the room whenever my Mom would call.
Our landlord eventually had the property foreclosed on him, and we were given the boot by the bank. The Tina Turner painting had been sacrificed in the fireplace weeks earlier, after one roommate had consumed a pint of Morning Glory seed tea, covered himself in Papua New Guinea tribal paint designs, and sang “What’s Love Got To Do With It” while wiggling his fingers above the smoldering poster.
But I managed to keep the lobster claw painting.
Eight years later it still hangs in my living room.
I keep it as a reminder to try and lean into the madness.
A ghostly memo from the past, bringing me comfort in the knowledge that life’s chaos will often bring pain and the need for sympathy, but if you can just manage to keep your mouth shut and ride out that pain, there may be a badass lobster claw painting waiting for you on the other side.
Author of psychological horror novel Carnality: Dancing on Red Lake, and regular contributor to VICE and The Guardian, Hesse aims to blend journalism and the arts within the pages of Suspect Press, making it both a reflection of our time and an innovative force of creativity. He will be releasing the second book in his series, Carnality: Sebastian Phoenix and the Dark Star, in August 2018.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org, josiahhesse.com & @JosiahMHesse