Saul was nervous, more nervous than usual. He'd done this several times before, but for some reason this time felt different. Inhaling deeply, he shook his arms and shoulders, trying to relieve some of the tension.
"Next," the frail woman at the window called. A woman stood up from her seat in line, holding a large vase wrapped in a blanket. She clutched at it like a child. Saul supposed such a thing might not be too far from the truth.
Tipping his head, Saul looked down at the large, leather portfolio that rested between his feet. The handle was worn, the seam frayed. It would probably have to be replaced soon. While not officially a seamstress, Saul believed that he could probably manage to sew a new one on without causing too much damage to himself or those around him. Such a slight act would not really be a violation; more a repair than an expression of any kind of artistic merit, really. Was a seamstress really an artist, though? Saul didn't think so.
Saul was not really an artist either, not on the books anyway. These days, it was unwise to make such a claim. While art and artistry had not been banned outright, to say that it was "frowned upon" would not properly express the BWO's view on the subject.
Ever since the Better World Orgainzation had been established in the US, they’d slowly been chipping away at everything that was made, said or seen. Their stated mission wasn’t to fix the world, but to let the world fix itself through a precise and cohesive representation of purity… of normality. It had started several years ago, with the censorship of television shows, rules about what movies could play in theatres, or be released on DVD. Somewhere in there, it had moved from the public spectrum to the private, and before anybody realized it, their control stretched beyond what could be shown or sold, to what could be said – what could be written, painted, sung or drawn, to the very act of human creation itself… it had all happened so subtly, almost nobody noticed the transition, but everybody felt the effects.
Effects like this, sitting here in a cramped waiting room, his butt resting painfully on a tiny seat, surrounded by a dozen other citizens, all hoping, worrying, waiting for each of their numbers to be called, so they could have their time with the critic.
Careful not to attract any undue attention, Saul unwound the thin leather cord wrapped around the top of his portfolio.
"A Summer's Day".
Looking down into the old case's depths, Saul marveled at his own work. "A Summer's Day" was the greatest painting he’d created. The texture of the water, the glint of the sun as it shone off the lake's wavy surface; the boy, the girl. Saul didn't know the boy's name, but her name was Tina. Tina the beautiful, Tina the girl with acceptance in her eyes, Tina the innocent. No little care had gone into her creation.
The loud slamming of the critic’s door at the front of the waiting room pulled Saul's attention from the lake and the girl. The woman from a few moments ago came towards him, her empty blanket held up to her face. She walked quickly, not looking at anybody.
"Not much for pottery of late. Too archaic, I hear they say," the old man to Saul's left said, his eyes following the woman with her blanket all the way to the door. In his hands rested a small wooden box. It looked to have been constructed from a pallid, brittle wood that had been stained a much darker color than its ancestry would have granted it. The sides were plain, lacquered to a shine, but without any distinctive markings. The hinges that connected its lid to its body were made of finely crafted, polished brass. The lid itself, though, was its creator's obvious cause for celebration.
"It's called burning," the old man offered, noticing Saul's attention to his work. "Wood burning, sort of painting with the elements onto the elements, if you will. Not officially an art until recently; never had to do this before." His aged eyes scanned the room, his displeasure evident.
"May I?" Saul asked. The old man nodded in the affirmative. Gently placing his fingers on the surface of the wood, Saul allowed them to glide over the picture of the old log cabin the man had "painted." It had an expansive porch in the front, and a large window by the door. There were curtains inside, and a large tree off in the distance.
"It's a form of history; that's the cabin my grandfather grew up in. History captured in such a distinctive manner will be much more apt to receive attention in the faces of other records of the past."
Saul smiled; the old man's justification for his work was both well-written and well thought-out. He stood a good chance of earning a certificate from the BWO.
"Nice explanation for your first try," Saul said. The old man looked pleased.
The door to the waiting room opened, and a man stepped through it. He looked dirty; the knees from his faded blue jeans were missing, his long hair shaggy and unkempt. The sleeves had been cut away from his stained T-shirt, and his left bicep bore a tattoo of a skull with fire in its eyes and a blade held between its clenched teeth. In his hand he gripped an unmarked CD, and his face wore a look of grim determination. He headed straight for the receptionist.
"Chad, not again," she said, abandoning her place behind the counter. She walked over to him and placed a hand on his shoulder. It was obvious that they had been through this before.
"Just give me a number Margie; I have a good feeling today." Margie shot a quick glance back towards her station.
"Now Chad, you know that the BWO hasn't approved a piece of rock music in over three years."
A red light began flashing over the receptionist's empty desk. Several people waiting in line looked as if they had been suddenly drawn from their own personal stupors.
"I think I'm next," whispered the old man. He sounded nervous, and Saul found himself silently wishing the old guy good luck.
Margie had noticed the light and hurried back to her post. Chad plopped down in a chair at the far end of the room.
"Next please," Margie said, motioning towards the man with the wooden box. Gripping his possession tightly to his chest, the old man walked across the room and disappeared behind the door.
Saul looked over at Margie; he knew that he would be next. Catching his glance, she gave him a quick smile, and went back to whatever it was she was doing. She was pretty and had a kindly face. Saul liked girls with innocent faces.
"So, what is that, a painting?" the woman two seats down asked. Saul nodded.
"I hope it stays that way too," he said. The woman giggled nervously.
"Don't we all," she said. Bundled in her lap was a massive pile of yarn, sewn together in an extreme of loud colors. Saul leaned over to get a better look.
"What is that you have there?" he asked. The woman looked down at her work, giggling all the while.
"Well, this, it isn't much really." Unraveling the pile, she held up what was apparently a very large blanket, the image of a crudely designed chirping bird shining from its center. Saul squinted at the bizarre piece.
"That's neat; croquette is it called?"
"Crochet, it's called crochet," she said, folding the blanket back up. "Sort of a lost art really. Not many people bother to make such things themselves anymore. But you know, I just don't feel right wrapping my baby up in something I didn't have a part in making myself."
Saul smiled, nodding even though he in no way connected with the woman's concerns.
"I don't get it. It's a blanket. I didn't think that would be considered clothing; more like a towel or something." Saul laughed, realizing that he was probably insulting the woman's chosen hobby. "Not to mean any disrespect of course, but I just didn't think the BWO considered it art, at least in a legal sense."
"Oh, usually they don't, but what most people don't know is that while linens don't fall directly under that category as a rule, there are restrictions that can come into play." Her face had taken on an air of seriousness, and Saul could tell this was something on which she had read up at great length.
"You see, the mixture of color and picture, and the choice of fabric, in this case yarn. Yarn is not a recognized "logical textile," and its use is usually considered to have a meaning above and beyond the warming of your body. Yarn is considered to have connections to the past. That and the bird, which I crocheted using more than three colors, bring it under the category of an art form."
The room grew hot; too many people all crammed in the same space, all awaiting a verdict. Saul looked from face to face, followed the arms down to each pair of hands, and at every turn he saw the same thing. Eyes hopeful, fingers clinging to some little, insignificant object. Some slight proof of the individuality of its creator. Saul wondered if his eyes held the same look.
The door opened and the old man came rushing through, a smile stamped across his face.
"I got it, approval with only slight display restrictions." The man pushed a certificate, printed on parchment with a gold foil trim, into Saul's hands. Affixed with a paper clip were several pages of legal documents, outlining the various restrictions for the use and display of such an object, as well as the limitations on future works now that this one was in the "public possession."
"Congratulations, I'm glad," Saul said, handing the man back his papers and shaking his hand. From the side of his vision, the flashing light caught Saul's attention.
"Next," Margie said, motioning to Saul.
"Well, looks like it's time to face the music," he said, patting the old man on the shoulder as he picked up his portfolio and walked across the room and through the door.
Better World Organization: Critic of Public Artistic Creations.
Saul read the brass-plated plaque on the man's desk before him. Steward Henderson. He found himself wondering what kind of an artist's soul would be found in the heart of a man named Steward.
"If you'll excuse me just one moment, we will begin shortly," the man said, his voice low and unconcerned. It sounded every bit as humorless as his appearance would lead one to believe. He did not look up from the papers he shuffled, seemingly at random, about his desk.
Saul looked around the large, dark office. Tall bookshelves lined both walls. In the failing light Saul couldn't read any of the titles, but the spines all carried a uniform appearance, each placed the exact same distance from the edge of their shelf, each standing at a perfect 90 degree angle; none of them distinct, not a one out of place, except for a tiny hole. Squinting a little and leaning towards the shelf, Saul confirmed that one volume was missing.
"Well now, let us begin," Steward said.
Saul sat down in the seat on the opposite side of the desk and offered his hand to the critic. Steward looked at Saul's hand a moment, then reached across the desk and shook it. Saul felt as if he were forcing the man into some sort of primitive tribal custom. Off to the side of the desk he spied the missing text. It was an older edition encyclopaedia, letter J. There was a bookmark inside; it appeared that Steward was about halfway through.
"Well, Mr. Jennings is it? Yes, well now, what have you brought here for us today?"
Jumping right into It, Saul thought.
Untying the cord on his portfolio, he pulled out the canvas and lifted it over the table, handing it to the critic. Steward rolled his chair back from the desk a short distance to allow the picture to stand up in his lap for inspection. Saul could feel his pulse beating in the temple just above his right eye.
"Does it have a name, I wonder? I don't see one printed on it," Steward said, flipping the piece over and examining the backside.
"'A Summer's Day'. It's called 'A Summer's Day'," Saul said, trying to make the name sound final, like a title rather than a suggestion.
"Hmm, a summer's day. You know that's supposed to be printed on the piece somewhere." Steward looked up and met Saul's eyes squarely for the first time. "Guesswork isn't good."
"I know," Saul said; he could feel his heartbeat in the palm of his left hand now as well. "To be completely honest with you, I only finished the piece yesterday, and I only named it this morning. I just forgot in all my hurry and excitement." Steward's eyes remained unfazed, unreadable. "I believe it is my best piece to date."
"It's not that big a deal," the critic finally said, breaking the cornea-straining gaze he had Saul locked into. "I must say, we appreciate your expediency in bringing this piece to us for certification. Some people let their work sit for weeks before bringing it before the board." Steward turned his attention back to the painting without waiting for a response.
Saul sat in silence for several minutes while the critic continued to go over every inch of his work.
"And what, Mr. Jennings, would you say the significance of this work is?" Steward asked.
"Well, it is sort of a throwback to my childhood. The girl, her name is Tina, she is sort of a composite of different young women I knew-"
"Not to you, Mr. Jennings," the critic interrupted.
Stopped in mid-sentence, Saul stared at the man. This was the fourth time he had brought a finished piece before the board, and never before had such a thing been said to him.
"I'm sorry, I don't believe I understand."
"Not the significance to you, Mr. Jennings, but to us. The rest of us."
Now he was really confused. It was true, he had never brought a piece to this branch, and he supposed they could have different criteria, but he doubted it. In fact, he had only come here because he believed that after the certification of his last three pieces at the office closest to his home, he might be pushing his luck turning up there yet again. The BWO frowned upon artists with such prodigious output.
The critic let out a low, restrained laugh, his eyes never leaving Saul.
"You see Mr. Jennings, I'm a bit of a reformer. While some of my colleagues have taken a more relaxed stand with the. . .artistic community. . .I happen to believe in the principles this office was founded on. That being the idea of public creations."
Saul rubbed his wet palms against his pants. Steward noticed, and a smirk found its way onto his lips.
"How is my piece against the greater good?" Saul asked, figuring that if he didn't pipe up soon he might as well pull out a lighter and do the honors himself.
"Not against us so much. More like, not specifically for us." Steward reached down and placed the painting on the floor, then pulled a thick manila folder from a drawer in his desk. He tossed it onto the desk between the two of them. Saul's name was printed on the tab at the top. Not quite believing what he was seeing, Saul's gaze bounced between the folder and Steward.
"Go ahead and look through it, Mr. Jennings; it is your file," the critic said, leaning back in his chair and laying his hands across his stomach. Saul picked up the folder and opened it. Steward's smirk grew into a smile as Saul gasped.
Saul flipped through the pages, his mind not quite grasping what his eyes were seeing. The first pages were transcripts of his previous three hearings with the other critics, each one followed with a copy of the certificate he had been granted for his paintings. After this were pages and pages of copied receipts for art supplies. Credit card stubs with his signature on them. Cash receipts for brushes and paints of various colors and brands. Even a hand written receipt for an antique paint holder he had purchased from a man at a garage sale.
"As you see Mr. Jennings, your situation is quite disturbing. I know that you only finished this piece yesterday, and as I have already stated, we appreciate the speed with which you have brought it to us for review. But still, the question remains." Steward removed his hands from his lap and leaned in closer to Saul. "How many more do you have, Mr. Jennings?"
A chill ran across the tops of Saul's arms, his stomach tightening in such a manner that only through the force of his will did he keep from embarrassing himself right in Steward's office.
"That's alright, you don't have to answer. Truth be told, we'll know exactly how many you've been keeping soon enough. The police should be going through your apartment as we speak."
Saul's mouth was completely dry. He opened it, his mind trying to come up with some protest for his lips to voice, but neither were functioning in such a fashion as to make that possible.
The thickness of the air broke as the door to the office opened and a large man in a gray BWO uniform entered. The man closed the door and stood behind Saul's chair, his arms crossed over his chest.
"You don't have to worry, Mr. Jennings, you're not in any real trouble," Steward said. "There are just a few precautionary measures we are going to have to take to keep you from repeating such offenses in the future. Your buying privileges were revoked this morning, and for the next six months you'll only be able to purchase items other than food and toiletries with the written consent of this office."
Steward reached over the desk and took the folder from Saul's hands. He pulled from it a copy of the certificate for a painting entitled, 'As the Wind Blows'. Saul had completed it several months prior.
"We have reconsidered on this piece, in view of the recent events, and find it to no longer to be fit for public viewing, given your current circumstances. Its certificate has also been revoked, and it will be brought to us for disposal along with whatever unlicensed pieces the police find on your property. The other two pieces already licensed, you are still allowed to keep in accordance with whatever restrictions their certificates may hold."
Saul looked down at his feet; he felt beaten and sick. He couldn't even bring himself to look at the man across the desk. All he could do was imagine the group of men in gray taking his work, his art.
"Of course, we will have to reject your request for this piece." Steward's words burned in Saul's head -- not just their implications, but the words themselves.
"No," Saul said. His voice was quiet, without strength, but something in it gave it an authority that, by every right, it should not have had.
"Excuse me, Mr. Jennings?" Steward said, arching one eyebrow.
"I said, NO." Saul grabbed the folder from Steward's hands and threw it at him as hard as he could. Caught off guard, the critic let out a shriek as the folder bounced off his nose and landed on the floor at his feet.
The officer's motions were instantaneous. Saul fell to the floor, his bladder letting go as the shock from the stun gun raged through his system, both constricting and relaxing all his muscles at once. Spittle foamed from the right corner of his mouth.
Steward walked around the desk and stood over Saul's crumpled form. From his angle on the floor, the critic looked gigantic.
"I understand that all of this must be very rough on you, Mr. Jennings, so given my knowledge of that, I'm going to forgive you your lapse in manners."
Tears bit at Saul's eyes, blurring his vision, as he watched Steward hand 'A Summer's Day' to the officer.
"Please take this to disposal. I don't believe I'll have any further problems with Mr. Jennings," Steward said to the man. The officer nodded and picked up the painting.
Steward leaned down and lifted Saul back into the chair. Saul turned his head towards the door in time to see the officer leave with 'A Summer's Day' tucked under his arm.
"Don't pay that thing any more mind. It will be in the incinerator within the next twenty minutes, and then it will trouble you no longer."
Steward offered a small paper cup of water to Saul. He wasn't sure where the critic had gotten it from, but at the moment, he didn't care. Saul took the cup, wrapped both hands around it, and drank from it like a child.
"I'm sorry that had to happen Mr. Jennings," Steward said. "Please just try to remember that this is necessary. We have to keep the peace. We have to keep people's minds at ease."
Saul's muscles burned with the effort of holding the cup to his lips, but he kept drinking. The water made him feel better, somehow.
"Remember Saul," Steward said. "This is all for your own good."
copyright © 2005, Nicholas Ehst