A Popcorn Fiction selection. An art dealer makes the bargain of his life in this riveting tale from screenwriter Mark Bomback.
Hi there and welcome to the 21st century!
The year that it happened began auspiciously enough: a festive New Year’s party at the Beverly Hills mansion of a movie star client, a ski weekend in Telluride, and the sale of a $1.2 million oil painting by an obscure 16th century Flemish artist named Bose to a Taiwanese financier looking to decorate new office space. The piece—a self-portrait—wasn’t itself particularly magnificent, but the artist was apparently something of an eccentric who had, in an attempt to block the local gentry from owning any of his paintings, destroyed nearly all of them. In doing so he had unwittingly allowed for the gross overvaluation of this, his one surviving but otherwise unremarkable work.
I had never been much of an art fan or even a critic, and my “eye” was admittedly mediocre. The accepted thinking in my line of work was that one needed to possess significantly above-average taste to make any sort of living at it. I don’t take issue with this, but I would add that if one hoped to become wealthy via the dealing of fine art, a good memory was of much greater necessity.
And I had an astounding memory. There was a game I used to play often as a child in which cards with pictures were placed face down. Each picture was printed twice, and the object was to pick one up, commit it to memory, and then over the course of the game, when stumbling upon its twin, remember which of the concealed cards you had flipped earlier and pick it up again to make a pair. He who possessed the most pairs at the end of the round was the winner. When it was time for me to choose a vocation, I discovered that the art trade was a game played by nearly identical rules. Simply put, the moment a trend was declared en vogue, I would immediately recall works that were clearly of this same ilk—works I had spotted months, sometimes even years earlier—and snatch them up for resale. I was merciless in my transactions, cared nothing for loyalty or propriety, and in a short time had transformed the modest sum left me upon my father’s death into an extraordinarily lucrative career.
I don’t think this sort of success would have been possible if greed had not been the primary motivating factor behind every decision I made. I was a want-er, and never knew greater joy than in that moment when the coveted became the possessed. I was, of course, extravagantly discerning in my tastes, because I could afford to be. I ate strictly at overpriced restaurants, drank only the most expensive wine, and dated exclusively gorgeous women. I never married because I never loved, and I never loved because I could never see anything to be gained in it. Sex was a pleasure, not unlike driving. Anything peripheral to the act was a banality to be endured.
It was on the second Friday in April of that same year that I attended a reception at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. As an “Angel” (a term that denoted the extent to which you supported the museum, a term that I believe was selected to intentionally play into the afterlife insecurities of the rich) I was invited to attend a private exhibition of Hideo Nakamura’s new collection of photographs.
I arrived at the museum at seven in the evening. Nakamura’s photographs were nothing spectacular, and the crowd was equally underwhelming. Making a great deal of money had always been easy in L.A., and this latest batch of the newly arrived had just figured out that contributing to art museums was equally as important as designer undershirts when it came to affirmations of one’s wealth. So to the museums they would flock to be fitted for their haloes. Of the 300+, I’d say I knew about a third, and of them, desired to speak with only five or six. In less than an hour I was back at the valet stand on Wilshire Boulevard, impatiently handing my stub to a young Mexican in the requisite red jacket and black bow tie.
While I waited for my Mercedes, my gaze happened upon a bum standing, or rather slouching, directly across the street. I surmised that he was dead drunk, as he was bobbing and swaying with a pitiful lack of self-awareness. He glanced up and, noticing me, flashed me a brief, stupefied grin. I experienced an odd sensation of having met him before, however I immediately chalked this up to the inherent familiarity suggested by his greeting. Apparently mistaking my awkward and momentarily confused smile for some sort of encouragement, the bum started to wave at me, and then proceeded, much to my queasiness, to approach me—or at least attempt to approach, he began by practically falling the six inches off the sidewalk to the street. Nevertheless, with his eyes fixed on me, he stumbled forward, determined to lumber his way across Wilshire’s four lanes.
Of course I immediately averted my gaze, and observed his clumsy traversal only from the corner of my eye. His slouched figure had made it to the double-yellow lines when, some fifty yards past him, I glimpsed the approaching headlights of my Mercedes, the Mexican valet behind the wheel. In my mind’s eye I could instantly envision what the next three seconds would bring: the bum’s stupid gaze still fixed on me, the Mexican’s focused on the demanding crowd of patrons amassing by his valet stand, the grill of my Mercedes colliding with the bum’s pelvis, his filthy face smashing into my previously immaculate windshield—
With no thought other than an intense desire not to witness this, I suddenly acted. Using the bum’s dopey leer to my advantage, I immediately resumed eye contact with him and yelled “Look out!” making for him with arms raised. My Mercedes was within feet of the bum when the valet spotted me emerging from the crowd and instinctively stomped my vehicle’s anti-lock brakes. The car screeched to a halt, its spotless bumper trembling no more than 7 inches from the bum’s crooked knees.
The shaken valet opened the driver’s side door, apologizing fearfully in rapid-fire Spanish first to me, then to the bum, then hurried back to the waiting crowd of stub-holders.
By force of habit I started for my car, when I heard a hoarse rasp of a voice behind me: “Jesus. Doesn’t get much closer, huh?”
It was, of course, the bum who uttered this, and it was, of course, me he was addressing. Glancing up, I found him to be—miraculously, considering his prior state—seemingly sobered by the experience.
“You saved my life, man,” he exclaimed, and extended his hand in gratitude. Although he himself was Caucasian, I swear to you that his race could not have been determined by examination of his hand alone, as it was literally black.
With great reluctance I took his hand and shook it tersely. It simply seemed too absurd to do otherwise. After all, as the bum was at this moment incessantly repeating, I had saved his life.
I quickly withdrew my hand, however and, my thoughts on the handkerchief I kept in my glove compartment, assured him that it was no big deal.
“No big deal?!” he sputtered, “Wasn’t for you I’d be flat on my back right now, my guts spilled out all over the goddamn pavement! No big deal?”
“I’m glad you’re okay,” I added, and made for my car door.
“Wait a second,” the bum called after me.
“Sorry,” I called back, “I’m running late for an appointment.”
“No, listen—wait—I want to repay you.”
“Totally unnecessary. Really.”
“Of course it’s necessary. Listen, don’t go—really, I got something.” His voice lowered to a whisper as he said these last three words.
“Really,” he went on, “I owe it to you. Shit, I want to repay you. I need to repay you. And what I got to offer, it’s equal, man. Equal to what you just did for me, I swear. Just—just trust me. Look, you’ve got to believe me, you walk away from this and you’re gonna regret it the rest of your life.”
There was something in the way he said this, something beyond sincerity, something that ate through every instinct I had to turn my back on him. What could he possibly have that I would want?
That was precisely what I asked him. He refused to say, however; instead, he insisted that I follow him. “What—you mean in my car?” I asked.
“Oh yeah, your car…” he thought about it for a moment, “Just park it somewhere for now.”
I didn’t run when the bum, grunting and sweating, managed to slide an iron manhole-cover from its place. I simply stood there, staring incredulously into the stinking hollow, the swish of waste echoing off the unseen walls.
“It’s all right,” he persuaded. “Really, it’s all right, man. Come on.”
I’d heard or read about the homeless living underground. Mole People, I think they were called. But they were supposed to set up camp in the cavernous depths of abandoned subway stations. Not in the very sewers themselves. I briefly wondered if I was going to be murdered.
Yet something—something—was telling me this would be worth it. Call it an art dealer’s instinct, some sixth sense alerting me to the presence of a genuine bargain.
It took me a minute, but I went in after him.
Finally arriving rung by rung at some sort of bottom, I was surprised by how low the water level actually was, and by how inoffensive the odor down here proved to be. Whether my olfactory senses had been gradually numbed over the course of my descent I couldn’t say, but the putrid whiff that had hit me when the bum removed the rusted manhole cover was now all but gone.
It was remarkably black down there, and I was instructed to follow his voice. I don’t know how long we had walked—a half hour, three hours—when I noticed the scooped floor beneath me making a marked decline. I kept my footing by placing my open palms against either side of what I realized was the interior of some enormous pipeline. The voice of the bum was echoing more and more, distorting to an awful jumble. I was all but sure that he would at any moment become completely inaudible, and that I would be left here alone, stuck in the bowels of the city forever.
My first worry proved founded—his words became the audio equivalent of a blur, growing fainter. However, just when I feared I had lost him altogether, I glimpsed his distant silhouette. Somewhere up ahead there was a light source—an amber glow, like that of fire, only greener. Or was that just the color of the walls reflected? I couldn’t tell.
I could make out the bum fairly well now, and realized that the faint light that allowed me to do so was emanating from the cracks of a door now in front of us. The bum knocked hard on the door, and I discovered it was fashioned of the same iron as the manhole, only larger and square. In a moment, the door swung open to reveal a circular space, no more than 12 feet in diameter, and no more than 9 feet high. I immediately discovered the source of the green glow—a strip of neon, bent in a circle that circumferenced the space just below the ceiling.
My eyes traveled down water-stained, cement grey walls, to the floor, along which I found, to my surprise, the bodies of three men and four women. I say surprise because of how absolutely noiseless it was in there. The men and women were also bums, and were all stretched out, apparently asleep, on what was easily the most unsanitary-looking mattresses I had ever encountered. One of the women lazily glanced up just long enough to acknowledge my guide with narrowed, suspicious eyes—this despite the fact that they obviously knew each other.
The bum said nothing to her. Instead he turned to me.
“Here we are,” he said, just the hint of a smirk forming on his cracked, dirty lips.
I followed his eager eyes to the center of the room, the floor of which held, of all things, another manhole. This manhole, however, was easier to lift with the aid of a nearby crowbar. I hesitantly edged closer and peered over his shoulder to get a glimpse of what was down there…
It was water. Black and murky, and of a stench worse than any sewage I had ever encountered.
I looked back up at the bum, to find that his smirk had blossomed to a very unsettling grin.
“This is it, man.”
“‘It?'” I repeated.
“Payback,” he replied, “for what you did.”
“This—this sewer water?”
The bum shook his head. “Oh, it’s not water. I mean, maybe it is. But it’s not.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” I said, instinctively taking a few steps back from the open manhole and its mucky liquid.
“I mean it could be water, but it’s also a whole lot more,” he said. Someone behind me laughed. I spun around, but the seven stray vagabonds were all seemingly asleep on their ratty mattresses.
“Go on, man,” the bum said, “Drink it.”
“I know it seems disgusting. But I can’t tell you much more than this: if you don‘t drink it, you’ll never have the opportunity again.”
“Why the hell would I want it?”
The bum smiled at me. “Because you would,” he calmly replied. “It’s like this. There are certain pools, see? Pools like this one here. Just a few, really, and they’re scattered around the world.”
“So?” I demanded.
“So you don’t want to pass one by.” He looked frustrated with me. “Trust me, okay? It’s got…” he hunted for the word, “…powers.”
“‘Powers’—as in restorative powers?” I asked.
“Restorative powers…” The bum thought about this a moment. “Sure, you could say that.”
I stared back down at the black liquid.
“Have you…?” I asked.
The bum’s eyes seemed to glisten as he nodded.
“Them too?” I asked, glancing around at the snoozers.
“Uh huh,” the bum said.
“Then why do you all look like—well, shit?” I asked.
“You shoulda seen us before,” I heard a woman mutter. The bum laughed, as did a few of the others.
“Look,” the bum went on, “I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, ‘This guy is insane.’ And maybe you’re right. But what if I’m not? Besides, what do you have to lose, really? Your lunch? A little face when you try explaining why you drank sewer water to some nurse at the emergency room? What’s that?”
As I child I’d never possessed much of an imagination; I had always accepted the world and its rules as immutable. I wonder what an incurable daydreamer would have done in my shoes. Perhaps he wouldn’t have hesitated to drink. Or maybe he would have run for the hills, like some chronic masturbator suddenly confronted with the touch and smell of a flesh and blood woman.
But my imagination had been for 36 years a flat-line. Now suddenly it had registered a spike. I looked back at the bum. When he’d spoken earlier, he’d employed the same tone of sheer earnestness that had earlier convinced me to follow him. Of course he was now asking for even more faith on my part. And yet, for some reason, I knew this man wasn’t lying. I’m not saying I believed the pool was capable of bestowing any special powers. But I wholly believed that he believed it did.
I knelt down by the manhole, brought the insides of my palms together, my fingers completing a shallow, corrugated bowl, and dipped both hands into the liquid. It was neither hot nor cold, but perfectly lukewarm. Its texture resembled that of water, however I sensed a sort of film between it and my skin—not slime per say, but a barrier of some sort. It was gritty too, but a grit caused by particles that must have been finer than sand, because I couldn’t quite make out any floating as I raised my cupped hands. As for its smell, I wish I could say that I was inured to it at this point, but in fact its putrid odor only intensified as I brought it to my lips.
The last thing I saw before I closed my eyes was the face of the bum, eyeing me with anticipation. He nodded.
I shut my eyes, and I drank. To my surprise, it had no taste whatsoever.
And that was it. The bum slid the manhole cover shut once more, then shook my hand, thanking me again for saving his life and wishing me luck in the future. I asked him how to get out of there, and he assured me that returning the way we had come was simply a matter of heading forward and upward wherever the pipes allowed for it. Sure enough, I re-emerged at street level in what seemed like far less time than it took to descend.
In a few minutes I was back in my Mercedes, fairly certain that it was all absolute crap.
From the car I called a young actress whom I had seen but not spoken with at the museum benefit, apologized for failing to do so, and suggested she swing by my place in an hour for a drink. She agreed, and when she arrived, we drank and had sex. When it was over, I felt no stronger or weaker than when the evening began, took a hot shower and emerged to find she had already tactfully departed. I got into bed, watched a few minutes of television, and drifted off to sleep.
The next day, still nothing.
In a week’s time I was no longer fairly certain it was absolute crap—I was absolutely certain.
In a month’s time I only thought about the experience in those last waking moments of the day, and in a year’s time I had filed the experience away in the recesses of my memory.
In five years’ time my doctor was praising what he termed my “admirable maintenance of near perfect health.”
In ten years’ time, this same doctor insisted that I was easily the most fit 46 year-old he had ever known.
In twenty years’ time, he was dead. And I was not a day older than 36.
Discovering you’re immortal isn’t something that hits you all at once. It gradually creeps up on you, year after year, so that by the time you consciously consider it, you realize that you’ve already been aware of it for quite some time.
I was, of course, thrilled to no end. I had amassed an impressive fortune by this time, having been able to maintain the same rigorous schedule I always had. I was ludicrously wealthy, had all the time in the world to become even more so, and would remain young enough to enjoy every minute of its perks.
And yet, even in my mid-70’s, I began to experience a faint discontent. For one thing, I was becoming more acutely aware of the stares I’d garner when encountering people who’d known me for any length of time. I still recall my forties and fifties, beautifully clueless days when my vanity was never more pleasurably stoked. Now those same people were not only harboring resentment of my physical good fortune, they were actually becoming suspicious. Not that they could possibly have guessed its true source, but my youthful good looks were the subject of frequent gossip, mostly involving charges of plastic surgery, with the occasional Dorian Gray joke thrown in.
It wasn’t the gossip that drove me away, however. It was the boredom. Looking back I realized that I had never really known true boredom before. I was far too busy acquiring and selling things. But as I entered my 80’s, I found the thrill of money-making starting to fade. I took greater risks, gambled on more obscure artists, but the joys of each sale were considerably muted. I took chances in my personal life as well, trying for the first time sex with prostitutes, some that were fabulously expensive, others that could be had for less than the cost of a tank of gasoline. I took up all sorts of hobbies that had never before interested me, only to find that they still didn’t.
So I decided to move away from Los Angeles, to relocate to a place where no one knew me, where I could live as a 36 year old and ideally recapture the pleasure I knew when I was indeed that young. And when the gossip began, I would simply move on. I started out in San Francisco, then moved up to Seattle.
Then to Boston. Miami. London. Prague. Beijing.
I thought I’d experienced boredom before. I’d had no idea what true boredom was.
Athens.Tel Aviv. Sao Paolo. Paris. Sydney. Tangiers—
It was unbearable. Take away death, and every minute is an interminable void. Every task you even bother to complete takes ten times as long because there is no urge to finish. My body remained a constant thing, but my soul was decomposing daily, pieces of me falling away: ambition, lust, anger.
The desire to live. The desire to die.
Finally even greed deserted me. I sold less and less art because I needed less and less money. I needed less and less money because I found less and less to spend it on. I found less and less to spend it on because I had less and less patience for frivolities. And everything—everything—is frivolous when you know that you can live forever.
The world into which I was born had become so drastically different that to elaborate even slightly upon this would prove a labor beyond even my patience. Suffice it to say, it was a world to which I no longer wanted to belong. My style of dress, my habits of speech, my body language—all of these things were constantly requiring adjustment and adaptation. It was all becoming too much.
And so, sometime around the turn of the 24th century, I began to live as a transient.
I took to living in the UnderLinks, disturbed only by the Rapids, and that’s not much of a disturbance. They’d whip by so fast, no sooner would you see them approach than they’d be gone.
More and more frequently, I found myself thinking back on that fateful evening when with a single sip I ceased to age. I’d sit in the dark of an UnderLink, picturing that moment of decision, the way that black water felt in my hands. The way the green neon danced off its surface. How rotten it had smelled.
In all my travels, I’d never once encountered the bum or any of his companions, but I now understood all too well the reasons behind their mode of living. What I still couldn’t fathom, however, despite countless meditations on the question, was why that bum had selected me of all people for such a punishment. I hadn’t, of course, “saved his life” as he had claimed. But then again, I hadn’t done anything to harm him either, had I? Was he motivated by some sadistic wish to spread his misery, or did he truly believe I might be capable of enjoying such a twisted gift?
You can imagine my surprise when one morning—or was it evening—while trudging through the UnderLinks, I stumbled upon that room again.
What first caught my eye was the neon’s green. Never had I seen illumination so perfectly captured. And neon no less! For a brief moment, I stood gaping, enthralled. For the first time in my long, long life, I experienced a true and profound appreciation for the art of painting.
It was far and away the most stunning mural I had ever seen, rendered in a style that might best be described as hyper-realistic. You felt as if you had actually entered the portrayed space itself, and yet you were simultaneously conscious of the skill and effort of its every brush stroke.
However, when I stepped back to take in the painting entire, a profound feeling of dread set in. The mural, it turned out, was not simply a perfect representation of that room in the sewer—it was that room exactly as it was on that fateful evening. In the foreground was hunched the Bum, and beside him, me, my hands cupped to my lips. Behind us, the seven others lay sprawled submissively on filthy mattresses.
My thoughts began to reel out of control, and I struggled to arrange them in some kind of order. I reminded myself that this passage in which I stood was one I had traveled many times before, and yet I’d never once seen this mural. How did it get here? Was it painted overnight? Was it created for my benefit alone?
I was just catching my breath when a long discarded instinct returned: I looked down to the lower left-hand corner for a signature. Sure enough, there was one; it was hard to decipher at first, as it was black on black, but peering closely, I could read a name: “Bose.”
Bose? Drawing upon my keen memory, I shuffled through eons of data, until at last I remembered: Hansel Bose, 16th century Flemish painter of only moderate importance whose self-portrait—the one work he had forgotten to destroy—I had managed to sell to a Taiwanese investor for the then weighty price of $1.2 million.
What on Earth was going on here? I tried to call up anything more I knew about the painter—when that self-portrait of his jostled forward in my mind.
I had no difficulty recalling the painting in exacting detail. It was a simple work really, done in the style of the school of his day (nothing like what I was seeing before me), the artist’s visage cropped close against a black background. The subject was in his early 30’s, pale skin, high cheekbones, a hard jawline, and large, dark eyes resting beneath a thick, black brow.
Suddenly I looked back at the mural. At the face of the Bum. And all at once the answer I had been searching for—why me?—became crystal clear. Never had I come so close to feeling death’s grip on my heart.
That jaw, that brow—the man I had “saved” was unmistakably the same artist from whose work I had profited. As I stared at this painted face, tiny details in its rendering struck me as undeniably the work of the same artist. Centuries had obviously brought immense changes in style and form, but the more I stared, the more the face from that 16th century portrait and the one in this 24th century mural became one. The bum was Bose. There was really one marked difference, and that was in the detail of the mouth.
The bum was smiling.
* * *
I awoke in a care facility. I must have passed out, although I still question this. In my delirium I admitted to a physician the nature of my existence and, over the course of subsequent interrogations, was made to furnish the finer details.
a hairdryer…a tennis racket…I used to, but not very well
Why had I let it slip? The answer is tragically simple: emotions I’d long since shed—emotions such as fear, loneliness, despair—had, upon seeing that mural, suddenly come back to temporarily cripple me.
I say temporarily, because after a few weeks I found myself returning to my old inertial mindset. Those feelings started to recede, one by one. I was all set to depart—back to the UnderLinks most likely—when an elderly man came to see me.
“Ready to go?” he asked.
“Go where?” I demanded, not liking his tone.
a porcelain vase…a pheloron…a washing machine…
“You should know,” the man replied quizzically. “You brokered the deal yourself.”
“Brokered what deal? I have no idea what you’re—”
“You came to see me a few years ago,” he explained, “and, after swearing me to secrecy, told me of your—condition. I made what I thought was a generous offer, you countered, and we at last negotiated a price and a delivery date. 23 April 2476. Today.”
a soup bowl…a shaving vac…a cigarette…
“No,” I protested, “No, you must have dealt with someone else. I would never have—”
“Someone else?” The elderly man hesitated, studying my face, clearly less than 100% certain that it was, in fact, me who’d come to see him. After all, a bum was a bum.
“Look,” I said, “I’m sorry if you were deceived by someone—”
“No,” the old man quickly shook his head, frowning. “It had to have been you. Who else could have—”
“Bose,” I replied.
a miner‘s cap…a leather wallet…no, it is not
He showed no recognition of the name.
“Listen,” I went on, “there are others, you see—others like—wait, where are you?”
The old man had by now exited. No sooner did I leap to my feet than a younger man entered. And I use the term “man” loosely, what with his genetic alterations and machine parts.
Clearly I was faced with a choice. Accept the terms of the deal that had been brokered, or suffer a brutal death at the hands of this monster.
Yes, death. You see, immortality doesn’t mean you are incapable of dying, it just means you are capable of living indefinitely. At least that’s what I believe. It’s a theory you can’t exactly test—that is, not unless you wholeheartedly desire its proof.
If ever I felt the urge to see that theory proven, it was then.
an electrical outlet…toilet paper…a photograph
And yet I couldn’t go through with it.
I had no choice but to close the deal.
* * *
Of course, it can be unbearable here at times. The endless visitors, the interminable questions, these detestable conditions
a compact disc player…no, only compact discs…a snow shovel
here in this room, if you can call it that, behind the thick pane. A long, long time ago, children would make these crafts out of shoeboxes. “Dioramas,” they’d call them. I suppose that’s what it most resembles. A diorama.
a telephone answering machine…a ten dollar bill
I was a wise purchase, I’ll grant them that. From what I can gather, I’ve practically tripled their revenue.
any other questions I can
I’ve been assured, however, that I am disposable, and that the curator will not hesitate to terminate me should I protest my situation. Only one thing prevents me from goading them into carrying out this threat.
you for stopping, now if you would please proceed to the
I now understand all too well how it must have kept him going. Given him something to live for.
and enjoy the rest of your visit to the Museum of Natural History…Hi there and welcome to the 21st century! My name is
No matter. I can wait.
Mark Bomback is a screenwriter whose credits include Live Free or Die Hard and Race to Witch Mountain. His latest film, Unstoppable, directed by Tony Scott and starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, will be released by 20th Century Fox in November 2010. Mark lives in New York with his wife and four children.