A Short Story by E. M. Issam
“It was three winters ago when the artist declared their war against excuses,” Hamil started. “And it was hot. Real hot. The hottest winter in a decade. All the winters are hot now, but this one you could see the air above the road all shimmering in waves that made you thirsty to look at them. The artists were sick of being hungry. They were sick of five years of excuses from their NRAP caseworkers (Nutrition Replication Assistance Program) not giving them enough food stamps, sick to death of not being able to feed themselves.
“The ones without family or money, True Artists they called themselves, lived in that deserted neighborhood behind the Rose Garden. Thirdi, that’s right. The True Artists still live there now. Why do people call it ThirDi? On account of the neighborhood being shaped like a Thirsty Dinosaur chugging the Willamette. No bullshit. You gotta look on a map to get it. So then don’t believe me. Just, look, the point is the neighborhood is called Thirdi, alright? Who cares why? And I bet your mom told you not to go there. ‘The scary people live there,’ she told you. Even though Thirdi is ‘where the real Portlanders lived when Canada ended at the Great Lakes.’ Or so people used to say. She’s right about one thing though, your mom. Thirdi is a slum.
“After the war, but before unification, the Canadian Army used to cage Americans in the Rose Garden. They locked up everyone who wouldn’t pledge allegiance to queen and Canada, including American soldiers. And when anybody died, Nucks used to dig open graves for them back in Thirdi. Yea, Nucks. You don’t know Nucks? It’s what our guys called the Canadian fighters. Like Charlie in Vietnam or Haji in Iraq. Jesus, but then this seems to be the night I find out you’re not so street smart. Okay see, you know how when the east winds start going, the whole west side of Portland smells like sewer? That’s because of all the bodies that Nucks dumped in mass graves. Hundreds of Oregon soldiers are buried under Thirdi. People say it could be up to half of Portland’s World War III vets. Nobody knows, maybe it’s more.
“And so, the artists say all that history and horror gives the Thirdi neighborhood a special kind of magic, nestled back there behind the Rose Garden. In Thirdi, whole walls are known to collapse at bad hours of the night. In Thirdi, everything is dangerous and streaked with howlite veins of soot. In Thirdi, an artist can live rent free.
“Rent free means they don’t have to pay to sleep there. Because artists don’t have any money. Yea, maybe they could get jobs, but they don’t want to get jobs. You’ll understand when it’s your turn to slave for a living. No, nobody likes their job. Then your mom is lying to you because she doesn’t. Hey, why don’t you be like your brother? See how he sits there and doesn’t ask so many questions? That’s why we like him so much. That’s why we let him bring you over.
“Still, it’s difficult to fight a war against excuses, for the artists I mean. Because if you remember, that’s what this whole story is all about. And all True Artists get are excuses. Like why can’t they grow their own crops? Everybody says it’s too hot to grow crops anymore. They say replicated food is perfect, that the bugs in real food will kill you if you eat it, but the artists just want to try. And who can blame them? A good replicator costs as much as a house. And you see what a pound of amino acids costs? Of course, you don’t. But trust me, it’s more than you want to pay. And nobody will fix old replicators anymore either. So, people are forced to buy new ones. And no one can afford that. And you might as well just eat your handfuls of long sugar and fatty acids rather than stuff them into one of those Canadian knockoffs. If you ask me, my dad is right. This continent has gone to the wolves.
“So, but why not let the artists try? Let them grow a few stalks of corn and see if they don’t end up just fine. Excuses, that’s why. Lies. All of the NRAP bullshit. And so the artists call it their war against excuses, but it’s really a war against a government that demands I.D. for food stamps, and a unified North America that won’t let them grow corn, and all the other million little evils that bureaucrats do to put off calamity for one more day. But the artists, they know a secret. If the people only came together as one, if they only resisted the forces which oppress them as one people, then the magic of that alone would be bread enough to eat. Sounds crazy, right?
“No one remembers which artist first came up with the idea to throw a party. But once people heard about it, the idea spread like wildfire. The way it was said to me, the True Artist’s plan was to bring everyone from all over Portland to Thirdi and get them drunk enough to love each other. A communion of that kind of collective spirit would force new crops into existence. That’s what the artists said anyway. Sounded good too. I went.
“On a lucky Tuesday, a truck full of hydrocarbons and long sugars crashed going past the Rose Garden. Its tires popped, just like that. By the time help arrived, three hundred pounds of cargo were missing, and the driver had an extra concussion. No one was ever arrested and with a good replicator, hydrocarbons and long sugar are all you need for some quality booze. The Friday after the accident, the artists threw their party. It was magic. A never-ending supply of drinks for anyone who wanted, totally free. Hmmm, that’s a good question. I don’t know how they managed to replicate alcohol. They must have stolen a replicator too. Well if they had a replicator the whole time, it doesn’t really make sense they’d be angry about the food stamps thing does it? Just shut up, let me finish.
“By Saturday, there wasn’t a person in Portland who hadn’t heard the stories. On and on the party went. Sunday, Monday, into Tuesday too. Starved, hairy men and women. Handsewn clothes in bright colors that hurt your eyes to look at them. Lime skirts, vermillion blouses, pinstripe trousers, orchid jackets. I learned all these colors from the artists. You can too. Big lights and loud music. No shoes to be seen anywhere. The smell, you can’t even imagine. But everyone was happy, everyone was coming together. And then guess who showed up? I bet you know. That’s right. Police battered down the door to this flophouse where we were all dancing like angels. One by one, those jackals in blue killed all the plants of goodwill we’d manifested into life. They took everyone to jail. Everyone they could catch that is. I escaped by pushing a poor boy into a riot shield. He couldn’t have been no older than you, fifteen at most. Not a day goes by I don’t remember the look on his face. I think he peed himself. I was smelling ammonia all the way to Loring Street.
“But, so, after the heat died down, the artist returned. In protest of getting their asses kicked, a sculptor named Misery Van Sant hung a lantern above their party house. Turning to the stumbling bodies around her–those drunkards still had plenty of alcohol left, you see–Misery proclaimed, ‘From now until forever, my sculpture of Lantern on a Hook will mourn the moment the artist dream died.’
“The following sober day, no one, not even Misery Van Sant, could remember her speech nor why she gave it, but the artists found the hanging lantern so useful that she got praised for showing a True Artist’s practicality. Misery lanterns are still hung above Thirdi houses today, lighting the way to the next big party.
“Yes, obviously someone remembered her speech or no one could repeat what Misery said. Listen, Alex was it? It’s real simple, Alex. They say the artists still have a hundred pounds or more of their stock. Drinks are always cheap and easy. But this would not be one of your freshman parties, okay? These are grown up people, doing grown up things. Now, I know your replicator has a parent lock, so you’ve never tried a drop before have you? That’s what I thought. Your brother, he says you’re cool. For my part, I don’t know. You keep bothering me with all these questions. Well now it’s my turn to ask something. And it’s really the only question that’s going to matter tonight. Pay attention. The True Artists, I hear they’re going to hang a Misery lantern tomorrow. So, you wanna come or what?”
E. M. Issam is a breakout writer of the Northwest’s exploding creative writing movement. If there was ever any doubt that the resurgent Northwest style is ready to make its mark, read “True Artists Light a Misery Lantern.”