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Today's Story by Mark Mizrahi

It was a secret pleasure. One taken to after abandoning an afternoon gin and tonic.

The Poison Apple

Queen: Slave in the magic mirror, come from the farthest space, through wind and darkness I summon thee. Speak! Let me see thy face.

Magic Mirror: What wouldst thou know, my Queen?

Queen: Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?

Magic Mirror: Famed is thy beauty, Majesty. But hold, a lovely maid I see. Rags cannot hide her gentle grace. Alas, she is more fair than thee.

–Snow White

The echoes of my hard-bottomed shoe hitting the marble floor filled the dark room with a tangible emptiness. The revelry of the other guests struck me as light and hollow now. I sighed and took a seat on a regal-looking cushioned board with legs, what the museum insisted was a restful couch. If the lights had been on, I would have been observing the determined absurdity of the surrealists. That they were off was okay. I had enough of the surreal, regardless of its form. In fact, the glass of fine champagne in my hands seemed otherworldly enough. I swore, in that moment, and maybe each moment after, that I could see infinity in the dance of alcoholic carbonation, though I couldn’t decide if it was sinister or beautiful.

Seeing the never-ending in such a banality was likely the result of being consumed by that intolerably difficult question of why? Even the museum’s invitation had seemed symbolic of the infinite, its crisp sheen, its brash proclamations of greatness to come. Greatness always beckoning on the horizon.

I received the invitation as the result of my five-year-long, high-level membership to that vast, wondrous space known as the New York Museum of Modern Art. I wasn’t what you would call a lover of art. I was familiar with it. My membership was about something much simpler than the prestige of being both benefactor and connoisseur of creative expression. I joined because I liked walking around in the building. I found comfort in the wide halls, inspiration in the feigned, real, and obtuse interest that other museum-goers wore on their quaint faces. As I roamed the rooms I imagined myself a man, generally defined by very grounded principles and perspectives, as a delicate spirit devoid of form or function.

It was a secret pleasure. One taken to after abandoning an afternoon gin and tonic. Parting with the ritual left me without a way to banish, even momentarily, the droll demands imbedded in the world of law. And so it was with the nervous tension from not drinking, but also the extra energy, that I found myself stumbling into the museum on a particularly cold winter day. I was revived that day, like a born-again returning to the fold to embrace his savior. But unlike a born again I chose not to proselytize my newfound faith. Even if I’d wanted to, I doubt the words would be much of an inducement.

My awakening came as a surprise. I had been to museums. Often. But in a social context, driven by my ex-wife’s desire to be visible in her exalted world of class. A pretentious woman, she wore her snobbery with the same delicate touch as the seasons fashion. She was seventeen years younger than I. We had never had a true bond, only mutual material lust. I wanted her youthful body, she wanted the financial decadence I could provide. Once our two children had moved out, we could find little common ground, let alone love.

The divorce was natural and simple enough. She took money. Lots of it. But little else. As for our kids, they took the news with the deterministic cynicism that seemed to be a specialty of their self referential generation. The legal agreement was to my liking, for what it’s worth.

It was after the divorce that I took up afternoon drinking. I also began seeing a psychiatrist. She came with high recommendations from a colleague who had been depressed for years after working a particularly gruesome case. Her office was a spartan room, stripped bare, and guarded by a desk that resembled a fortification. The desk claimed 29 drawers, all of varying sizes. During our sessions I would stare at that desk, tracing the wood grain with my eyes, trying to divine a purpose for those receptacles. Other than the psychiatrist’s skeletal fingers endlessly drumming the desktop I can not recall her. Nor can I recall the unadorned and unabridged talk that was meant to save me from myself. It was at her gentle suggestions that I had stopped my lunch cocktail.

After one visit to the museum’s bright, twisting hallways I discontinued her services. There was order and sanctity and whimsy in the carefully designed pathways of that museum. Everything unfolded neatly. I even returned to a normal sleeping pattern. It was only natural, then, the money I had donated to my old listening post would begin going to my newfound doctor. It was a substantial sum, hence, the perfunctory invitation.

I had received these types of invitations numerous times, at least eight each year. The events were often nothing more than veiled fundraisers, filled with those people who made it a point to be seen. I normally gave the invitations no more than a cursory glance.

For some reason, though, the last museum’s invite stood apart from the stagnation of others. Maybe it had to do with my eldest daughter, who, with her youth-knows-best attitude, was pestering me to get out there and start seeing other women. Maybe discover love, she beamed, though I doubted if there was anything more than cheese plates, wine and the one-sided erudite ramblings of the educated class.

The event promised to unveil a new exhibition that would bully its way into the annals of art history and change forever our meager perceptions. I didn’t believe the slick claims; they seemed like cheap words thrown together by a recent college graduate with a thesaurus. But there was something about the invitation itself. Maybe the artist’s name or the name of the exhibition—I’m not sure which of the mundane details drew me in.

The evening was well-planned and well-managed. The catering company was excellent. My own firm had used it when courting the business of a large oil conglomerate. Champagne and hors d’oeuvres floated through the elegantly dressed crowd as if of their own volition, the help materializing from an ether to silently snatch the detritus left in the wake of our consumption, only to replace it once more with a barely a twitter of realization.

Through the night I heard responses to the centerpiece of the collection. The sentiment varied, but I was surprised that not a single person remained indifferent to “The Work”, as the patrons had come to call it. The tone of the responses never failed to enter the borderlands of violence, whether they were praising or degrading it. In the ensuing arguments I heard marriages dissolve, new loves blossom, old loves rekindle.

I was intrigued by the uncompromising positions it inspired. Yet I could not bring myself to see it. As I was sitting there on the shitty, over priced, modern couch, I tried to pinpoint what I feared. I reasoned that I might not be ready to see such a provocative piece in my delicate condition — seeing infinity in the minutia.

I don’t know how long I sat in the home of the surrealists, long enough to feel the boundaries of space-time melt like Dali’s clock. I lost all sensation in my body except for a soft buzzing that years ago might have disturbed me. I wondered if this was the end before a security guard found me and politely asked me to return to the party. We walked in silence together.

While walking I resolved to see it. Wasting no time contemplating the few remaining party-goers I gathered myself and, as if boarding a plane with a one way ticket, marched in. As expected, the other works were expertly done, and some were great, but none inspiring. I lingered anyway, biding my time, perhaps still afraid, before collecting my courage and stepping forward to “The Work.”

The subject was simple, a thin aging man in a grey overcoat with speckled hair, worn eyes, and a calculated look that told me he was capable of managing intrigue. A chess player, perhaps. His nose was royal, sharp and angular, his face weathered by stress, drinking, and life. I identified with the model. He had a quiet grace I respected but also a sinister quality that I feared. He was a mediocre villain, a man for whom life came and went in the day-to-day of telephones, arguments, and business. I could see the infinite in him, as well. He was a part of everything a small, insignificant part, no better or worse than any other part.

Despite the subject’s seemingly innocuous appearance—he could be anyone, after all— I was disturbed by the sense of intimate familiarity that began to gnaw at my conscience. I kept telling myself it was impossible, that this was a work of an artist I never met, that no one I knew ever posed for artists. Still, the sense of recognition grew. I’d seen this person. Worse, I’d known him intimately at some point in my life. As I looked closer, the subject’s soul was on display. I don’t know if soul is the right word – subconscious, maybe. Nevertheless the subject was open, his interior life set out like innards on a dissecting table for a classroom of eager and scared medical students. Every fault, every evil, every happiness, every positive attribute, no more or less worthy of attention than an appendix, a liver, a set of lungs, a small intestine.

I left bewildered. The man continued to haunt me. Those sunken eyes, the slightly slumped shoulders, each idiosyncratic trait becoming a part of my shadow. I could no longer wear my favorite grey overcoat, I changed glasses frames, though I don’t recall the subject wearing glasses. Had he? I took a week off work, which soon became another and another before I was offered medical leave. Every morning in the mirror I contemplated shaving my head because our hair had been too similar. In public I frantically sought out his face in crowds. Not knowing what I would say to him, not knowing if I wanted to see him. Each corner was enough to induce vertigo. This was better than home. There, I chewed my finger nails bloody between heavy pacing. Searching the labyrinth of my memory, fixating on an old friends habit of gently tapping a cigarette to relieve it of its ashes, or the hollow cough of my first law professor which sounded like a dog’s bark. Nothing.

I returned to the museum the day of its public debut to stare deeply at the piece, to try to absorb its mystery. Never before had my mind felt so feeble. I returned every day afterward; forgetting food, water, and sleep for three months until the piece moved to London. I took to arriving at the museum’s opening and remaining fixed in front of it, like an accompanying piece till closing. The security guards left me alone, perhaps frightened of me, perhaps sorry for me. I became thin and skeletal. Questions from my daughter about my health were endless, and increasing. The one item that could save me, buttress this flailing life was uncooperative, refusing me its inner depth. The title told me nothing. It was simply named: “Snow White’s Nemesis.”


Mark Mizrahi is once a soup opera, a scientist, a poet, a cook, and a conversationalist. He knows about sharks, ecology, and can wield a metaphor on a good days.


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