In ones and twos they entered. Most came with the alertness of the carnival-goer, necks craned to take in all the art, hoping to catch whatever strange goings-on they could before they faded away. Some descended with the coiled defensiveness of the first-timer, as if the paintings would leap from their frames and attack them at a moment's notice. Micah smiled at their naivety; attack art was so passe. However, their fear was endearing in a way; it showed that post-real art could still have a kick. He reserved his contempt for those who sauntered down the staircase, full of ostentatiously bored experience, because dear, Kemp or Denneman or Sabourin had already said as much, and while your tribute is marvelous, it simply can't compare to the spark of the original. As if reading third-hand accounts of A Jackal Un-Devours or musing over photographs of Baroch's pre-raid work somehow meant understanding. Judith seemed to know every last one of the loathsomely sleepy-eyed patrons, giving a quick peck on each cheek.
His people-watching was interrupted as he noticed Judith attempting to hustle casually towards him, her face white. In a moment, she was next to him, whispering in his ear. "Khouri is coming." In a second, she was gone again. As he processed the words, he felt his stomach drop. Maria Khouri would be here. A writer for the most important, hell, the only, anart magazine, would be here. And their only piece in the gallery, entitled Purity of Essence #4 was a mildly clever geegaw, made as a playful "fuck you" to a mutual friend. They probably wouldn't even be noticed; Thomas, the insufferable ass, with his "mournful attack drone" bullshit would be the star of the show. Micah sighed. Tonight was not his night.
A semi-circle of people had gathered around his and Judith's work, a marble pedestal with a plastic basket of books by its side. Micah approached them cautiously, attempting to notice any reaction to the piece as he did. Just because it was a one-off joke didn't mean he couldn't be neurotic about it. He saw several appreciative nods, even one from one of the sleepy-eyed viewers. Judith was among the crowd, trying to look unconcerned as she scanned the reactions of the crowd. An olive-skinned woman looked over the piece dispassionately as she scribbled something on a notepad. Shit, he thought, that was Khouri. He stood next to Judith.
"So, what does it do?" It took several seconds for the question to even register. One of the newbies, having uncoiled herself, had asked it, not looking at anyone in particular. The appreciative murmurs halted, leaving the area dead silent. Several glares fixed themselves upon her. The murmurs began. What does it do? What a crass question! How gauche. Who let in this idiot? What does she expect, fireworks? He felt a pang of sympathy for the newly-shunned girl. He stepped out from the semi-circle and picked up a book, a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, from the basket.
A half-dozen scenes of bullshitting the crowd with incomprehensible double-speak ran through his head. Its effect was the creation of community against the Other. Its effect was the destruction of the ozone layer directly above it. Its effect was turning your intestines magenta. He was about to open his mouth when a scene of Judith decking him for trolling the critic from Realität Kunstform passed through his head. He decided to go with the truth. "It gives the essence of books. There's no time in this modern world for reading. Why take hours when you can take seconds?" he said as he placed the book on the pedestal. After a tense second of silence, it sprang to life.
"Are… We… Cool… Yet?" asked a voice from nowhere in particular. Micah smiled triumphantly as a murmur of approval ran through the crowd. Khouri wrote furiously in her notepad. Judith did her best to suppress a grin. The uncoiled newbie gave a sigh of relief as the attention of the crowd was no longer upon her. He took Tom Sawyer from the pedestal and replaced it with a copy of USWeekly. "Are we cool yet?" a silky voice, asked. Micah held his smile, despite himself. Another book, this one a self-help book about using crystals and stars to activate chakras, went up. "Are we cool yet?" asked a gruff voice. Someone in the crowd chuckled. Judith was glaring daggers at him. The Bible, Eragon, and an anthology of Surrealist writings all elicited the same response. Several muffled guffaws emanated from the group.
"But yeah, that is what it does" Micah said, trying to give a confident smile despite the pit in his stomach. He moved back into the crowd as discreetly as possible. Before he could try to find her, Judith grabbed him by the arm and hauled him to the coatroom, attempting to look as nonchalant as possible.
"One job," she hissed after shutting the door, "You had exactly one job and you fucked it up. You were supposed to build the damn thing and give it a voice. It just had to jumble some words together from the book! That was literally all that it had to do. And you couldn't even do that right! I don't know why I thought it would be a good idea to work with you." She paced back and forth in the small room.
"Okay, first of all? That's two jobs," he shot back, "And B, it's not my fault. I followed the instructions, you know, the instructions that you gave me? to the letter! So if anyone fucked up, it's you!"
Judith ran her hands over her face and moaned. "We are fucked! 'Are we cool yet?' What the fuck is that supposed to mean? I'm going to be the laughing stock of the art world! And all because of you" She jabbed a finger at him. Micah decided against saying anything. After a moment, Judith stopped pacing. "Wait, Khouri is here. Jesus Christ, I'm going to be featured in RK as the biggest fuckup since Todd Hannah." She resumed pacing with a renewed vigor.
After several seconds, Micah spoke again. "So, what do you want to do? Do you want to leave or stay or…" He trailed off.
"No, we're not leaving with our tails between our legs. We are going to stay the whole night, just to spite those fucks," Judith said without looking up. She stood very still for a moment. As she opened the door, her face lit up with a smile that seemed effortless, almost natural. "When this is over, I am going to kill you. In your sleep," she said through clenched teeth before she left the room. Alone in the coatroom, Micah sighed. Tonight was not his night.
In ones and twos, they left. Some stumbled out, slightly drunk. Others left in a daze, their retinas still recovering from "Death of a Star" piece. Judith and Micah were among the last to leave. As they got their coats, Micah turned to her.
"It didn't seem too bad, honestly. Not too many people seemed to be laughing, really," he said.
"In your sleep," she said before walking away. He hustled to catch up with her.
"So, what if I just wait tonight. With, like, a shotgun or whatever?"
"Who said anything about tonight? I'll do it, but no man shall know the day or the hour," she said without looking at him. She opened the door, letting it close on him. Outside, Khouri was standing with her back to them, smoking a cigarette. They attempted to pass without attracting her attention. She turned around and waved them down.
"You're the Essence people, right?" she asked as she flicked the cigarette butt away.
"Yeah, b-" Judith began.
"I. Loved it. Fucking brilliant subversion. The hipsters standing around, asking wondering how cool they were, then they get asked the question and they scoff? Then there's, like, 'do we understand each other?' I have to say, for a first time piece, this was pretty spectacular. Nothing like that shit-ass drone." There was silence for a moment.
"Well, t-thanks" Judith said, rubbing the back of her neck. Silence for a few moments more.
"It's late, but if you have the time later, I'd like to maybe ask you a few questions? Just see what you were thinking and such," Khouri nodded.
"Y-yeah. Sure! Definitely," Micah exclaimed.
"Thank you. Thank you so much," Judith said.
"No, thank you. That was seriously great," Khouri said. After a moment, she took her leave and walked off into the dark.
"Well, that was certainly unexpected," Judith said when they were out of earshot.
Micah smiled. Tonight was a pretty good night.