“The Solo Show” by David Greenwood
A story about life outside of time
AN INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS
The first thing I noticed when corresponding with David Greenwood is that he signs all of his emails, “Immensely.” As in: “Immensely, David.” Or, when he’s feeling casual, “yrs immensely.” I’ve often thought, when reading this parting formula, that it’s an exceptionally clever flourish because he’s right. He is immensely. And now that I’ve had the pleasure of spending real time with his work, I have evidence to back up that conviction. Like him, David Greenwood’s writing is also immense: it contains an immensity of pathos, of language, of eccentricity, and of imagination.
Here, in “The Solo Show,” an aspiring artist named Bromley decides not to struggle in obscurity, but rather be frozen for it in a cryogenic unit kept in his landlord’s basement. He emerges once in a while to attend a wedding or art opening, or to recreate a favorite moment from childhood.
David Greenwood’s writing is also immense: it contains an immensity of pathos, of language, of eccentricity, and of imagination.
I told Greenwood, when I first read “The Solo Show,” that this is the loneliest story ever told. But it’s more than that. “The Solo Show” isn’t just innately lonely, the way life sometimes is; it uses language and depth of feeling to illuminate loneliness as a deceptively simple concept. He writes, “And it struck me, as it had before, but this time I believed, that our trouble comes from people — on the street, with phones, people in suits, in traffic, in first-floor apartments with the screens flickering — people, in other words, viewed from the outside, bearing so little resemblance to a person viewed from the inside, that is to our self, lost, profound, sentient.”
It has become my habit to read sentences like this one — and there are many more like it in “The Solo Show” — more than once. Read it again; I can assure you it’s worth it. There are always more ideas in Greenwood’s writing than you might initially notice. Because he is, after all, immense.
Editor-in-Chief, Recommended Reading
“The Solo Show” by David Greenwood
I thawed in time for Sarah’s wedding. I should have tanned, but it was winter and few would guess I hadn’t been out engaged in the sundry pleasures of life. I did want to live. I didn’t have to live every day though, and meanwhile I hardly spent anything. I had bought the home cryo unit with most of the money from my last job and didn’t particularly expect to make more. To have a job, another, all day, a life of that, it lacked proportion. It was like using a Mack truck to pull your kayak.
My mother had just been frozen, awaiting a cure for Alzheimer’s. I had bought the home unit originally for her, but at the last hour she got into a proper long-term facility. She asked to have one of my “so-called sculptures” frozen with her. My father died before the cryo age. Ours was a small family. I had no wife or girlfriend. I sometimes remembered how hugging myself in bed used to remind me how it felt to hug someone in bed. It didn’t anymore.
“Bromley, you look freakish,” said Sarah, meaning good.
The reception band rolled into another hip hop number, and the old folks’ dance-floor frenzy intensified. Sarah ducked, using me as a screen, as some unsavory uncle or other whirled by.
We knew each other from art school. Afterward we’d rented adjoining studios until the owner was frozen with asbestos-induced lung disease and the place turned into a brunch palace. I started commuting to my mom’s garage. Sarah found another space she turned into an underground gallery that became something real. She found Mark. I was proud of her. She had it right. I looked excellent. While our friends were falling to the first grey stubble and cheek slack of unconcealable adulthood, I still looked like someone who wouldn’t stand out in most parts of Brooklyn. In the freezer I didn’t eat sugars or stress or drink or laugh or frown.
“How’s the work going?” she asked. Work meaning art.
Another thing I didn’t do in the freezer was make art, yet I didn’t feel right, here at her feast of love, bringing up the abuse of home hospice technology for the avoidance of one’s essentially normal, blessed existence. Did other people do this? I had no idea. Let me explain that her hair was perfectly straight and had no volume to it. As long as I’d known her she wore it strategically heaped in a swizzle-stick-skewered mini-challah on top of her head, from which a strand was always slipping, as happened just then. She tucked it back adroitly, very adroitly, and I said:
“Sarah, would you believe it if right now a creature appeared before you, a grunt from the celestial statistics department, stammering something to the effect that you’re among the best at that hair tuck out of your generation, that to watch you do it makes the dull task of keeping these stats, especially in the routine hand movements and hair division of the greater celestial hygiene department, practically endurable?”
Sarah considered. “Would he mean the best in terms of speed and efficiency?”
And grace probably, I thought. “Yes,” I said.
She kissed me in the Linden Cogeneration Plant, once. That was back in our post-art-school simplicity, when we couldn’t joke about someday being famous without a spike of nerves, when we went to openings to impress ourselves on people, when you just had to introduce yourself to hear me propose sneaking into that extraterrestrial city along the New Jersey Turnpike, because I didn’t want to go alone and it made me sound interesting. I got some drunken enthusiasm, but to Sarah it sounded like something a person would actually do. On a Saturday we wandered, agreeably panicked, among towering orbs and white windowless monoliths. At sunset on a catwalk we ate our peanut butter sandwiches. Pale legs swinging in air, she pointed at one or another wire-bristled outbuilding, saying “That’s the whorehouse you don’t want to go to,” and I pointed at another, saying, “That’s your house.”
She eyed it wistfully — her roommate situation was terrible. I hoped she would start to bemoan herself, and she did. I watched the reddening clouds and breathed deeply. She had that feather-light bemoaning touch.
“You’re such a skilled kvetcher,” I said, moving a fallen hair from her face, away from the peanut butter, heart fibrillating. She held my stare, which meant we were going to kiss. In her eyes was a reckless, excited sympathy, like someone on a summer day about to jump into cool waters full of baby turtles.
Back home I maintained a growing document called “On the Extension of the Romantic Influence of the Linden Cogeneration Plant to Other Spheres, viz. My Life,” in which I elaborately pretended not to understand that only in that realm removed from life could we believe our petulance was no bigger than each other, that it was we two on that catwalk because we had exactly reciprocal and alike voids in our souls, or our maturity, rather than just equally huge ones. But in the end one snuck into power plants for the same reason one spent six months sculpting Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac with a semi-automatic assault weapon spattered with Louis Vuitton logos, or watched TV, went to museums, read: a bridling at having in all the world of possibility a single and particular life, and, worse still, this one. I thought love was the answer. Maybe it was. She had plenty of lovers, some of whom, I suspected, were charming, compassionate, talented, tall people with poise who could do accents and had a consistent access to their creative intelligence. I was almost certainly the only one with a car.
After the wedding, I took to emerging annually, on my birthday, walking the sand from Coney Island to Brighton Beach. The sea birds now were scarcer, the roving sanitation robots ever more adorable. The girls, down to the teens, were topless. A rollercoaster plunged. Just off the boardwalk, a stand where my parents once bought me a birthday hotdog quaintly persisted. I got one, as I did every time, despite the effect this initiation tended to have on a year-empty stomach. The hotdog purveyor was an aged Russian, possibly the same who’d served us that day my parents and I came in from the suburbs for the Coney Island experience, except the line at Nathan’s had been too long. As he handed me the dog I took a stealth glimpse through his eyes, across to my mother, freckle-armed, actually beautiful in her huge floppy hat, passing the dog down to me, and my father, on a health kick, eyeing that cylinder of mashed flesh and nitrites like an exiled earl his former rolling hillsides.
“Problem?” here in the future the old Russian asked in a voice I decided to recognize. “You give me twenty?”
“Keep it,” I said, lingering almost romantically on those eyes that didn’t guess what they’d seen, staying in them as I walked off, pretending to remember my mother’s back on my left, my father’s on my right. But really I did remember, at least the feeling: a warmth or ease settling down, exotic as the boardwalk itself to the difficult, inexpressible inner world of the sensitive child Bromley, like this was how it must feel to be a kid eating a hotdog at the beach. And when I of all people proposed the ride that sends you orbiting a hundred feet over the pavement on something like a playground swing, my parents looked from the contraption to each other with exactly the startled, tentative happiness I was going for.
High above them at the end of two thin chains, fingers numb from the clenching since long before liftoff, the screaming quieted. I mean mine. The world, chaotic, menacing, altogether uncouth as it was at close range, from this lofty remove was something more seemly. If you unclenched and looked, it slowed, drew out, color and plane, majestic, like one of those soundless heavenly dreams you know, even as you dream it, you’ll be boring people years later trying to tell.
When you ask when I knew I was an artist, that’s what you get. And indeed that night I created my first real work. I recall my mother admiring the palpable anguish, as she put it, in the dark pencil swirls which I had meant to denote my serene vision on the swing, and when my father stuck it on the fridge, instead of joking as he did with my class portraits that it might at least help with his diet, he bet my mother a bottle of something that sounded like a shampoo but could have been a champagne it would someday be worth money. In fact, they never threw it out. I learned only much later they also never knew the still figures at the whorl’s center, if they’d seen them at all, were themselves.
I concluded my inner memorial without putting myself through a climactic swing ride, looking down at strangers looking up. Absently I tossed bits of bun between contesting gulls and sani-bots. I would refreeze myself before I got really hungry. A homeowner in outer Brooklyn had agreed to keep the cryo unit in his unfinished basement by the laundry machines for a trivial sum. When I ran into him in his undershirt a year after move-in, he saluted me like a soldier. The next year I didn’t see him at all.
I thought of gathering my old friends for my fiftieth, but by then lacked the wherewithal, the gear. This didn’t really feel tragic. It felt like ten days, albeit ten birthdays, since the wedding where I had seen most of them, and the good ones I rarely saw anyway. I understood of course it had been more than ten days for them, that their lives were developing, passing. That had been going on even pre-cryo. I would emerge from my latest studio project — to a certain extent of course I was also a person — and here were the couplings, the apartments, the babies, the almost hidden happiness, these people who had liked me because I was like them, who made the same bombastic speeches in their heads. Then they smelled good and I had made a half-scale Mercedes that gave a gorgeous polychrome shudder each time a news source announced a rape or murder. I had been a time traveler before I got the machine. Now I was just, as they say, owning it. One might suppose, and maybe it was in part: I’ll show you time traveler you living, thriving bastards. Or something. Of course, it wasn’t really a time machine. You couldn’t go backward.
“Bromley!” Sarah cried.
It was another nine birthdays and change later, a few months shy of my sixtieth. After the initial heart-shriveling second — once I had excavated her from the ground of middle age — there she was. And in that crowd of young, glamorous people flowing around her like she were a chair, I felt I held a splendid secret. I too looked different than when she’d last seen me twenty years before, if only because my unit was past warranty and I didn’t want to spend funds I might eventually need for rent on minor repairs. Patches of necrosis were visible on my neck. Smaller ones on my face I had covered with makeup. They smelled medium-bad. I looked passably dignified, though, more like a young man with a disease than an old man recovering from plastic surgery.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
Although I no longer kept a studio, I had made arrangements with my so-called gallerist to store my work in her crawlspace and keep me in mind if anything came up. My landlord was to search my name whenever he pleased and if the results warranted a thaw I would pay him ten-fold rent for the month. It was he who had got me out for this opening, having ambitiously mistaken my name for that of a legendary ceramicist. But, reading the announcement, I found the show included work of an old friend who made reproductions of sexist children’s dolls from his boyfriend’s bodily emissions. It was across one of these, a turd in a wig entitled The Transit of Venus, that Sarah now gazed at me. I hoped she would take my scent for that of the art.
“I thought I’d find you,” I said.
There was a pause in which she decided not to say What have you been doing to yourself? It was, it seemed, beyond frank questioning, like crisscross scars up the arm, the province of sincere eye contact.
“My landlord thawed me out by accident.”
“Oh. Oh,” she said sharply, like someone had tapped a sore on her back.
The inference was that I was terminally ill. Still, it pained me to see her so moved, so unguarded. She had lost some of her subtlety, her cool. She tucked a wisp of grey into the mini-challah. At this I was glad to feel my ducts flinch, but only a little, and not at the grey, nor at the revelation that life had, after all, irremediably passed me by, but at the calm with which I could watch her do it. I was really becoming a time traveler.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Nothing. I’m perfectly healthy.”
Concern massed on her forehead.
“I have melanoma,” I enlarged.
This was better. She would remember that we never had insurance, that we only went to the doctor when it was too late. It also explained the patches on my neck, the makeup. It was what my father had died of.
“How’s the future?” I asked.
“You have no idea what you’re missing.” She pointed down at The Transit of Venus, and when I laughed she darted a hand to my powdered cheek, as though to catch something. She left it there, cradling the cheek with unfamiliar tenderness. The old eyes drank me in, and I felt pleasingly like one of those dear, bygone people we don’t bring up to date in our dreams, who might vanish at any moment. I felt like my own father, wavering into reality in his dark beard and big glasses and the elated expression he wore that time I landed an accidental zinger at the expense of a kindly, insufferable friend of my mother’s. I touched the hand on my cheek. Where was Mark? He would be almost an old man now. There was a fundraiser for his charity tonight, she said. He couldn’t squirm out of it.
So he was still alive.
I started going out less, beach romps dropping off from annual to decennial. Somewhere between the second and third of these, I found myself blinking up at my landlord. My landlord had died, this person said, leaving no provision for my care. He, the son, had no recourse but to thaw me. Was I a relative? I explained. He checked my email for me, mirthfully approving of its quaintness. I was really keeping it old-school. There was nothing from my mother or the facility, still no cure for Alzheimer’s. There was something from a curator about a show, five years ago, and something from a filmmaker hoping to interview me for a documentary about the underground New York art scene of fifty years before.
I had lived thirty-six continuous years, plus, all told, a month here and there. I felt good, much better than I had decades earlier when Sarah thought I was dying. The necrotic patches were gone. I hardly looked my biological thirty-six, hardly looked thirty. My landlord, it proved from a sticker on the hatch, had got the unit serviced. It must have cost more than all my rent together. The most unpromising of us could turn out to have secretly been a person.
And it struck me, as it had before, but this time I believed, that our trouble comes from people — on the street, with phones, people in suits, in traffic, in first-floor apartments with the screens flickering — people, in other words, viewed from the outside, bearing so little resemblance to a person viewed from the inside, that is to our self, lost, profound, sentient. One could be forgiven for mistaking them for non-people. And maybe evidence of the interior, any, just that there is one, was obligatory. I would try again. I was young yet and there was interest in my work.
First, I went to Coney Island. It was early spring and desolate. The hotdog stand was gone, the old man who had possibly laid eyes on my parents and me that day likewise. I turned back. I had very little money and nowhere to go. It would be all right. Someone would help me.
She was a grandmother. Not that she had grandchildren, which she did, grown, but the very image of a grandmother. I didn’t even try to find her in that skin, not in the doorway. I had braced myself and trained all my mind on looking pleased. She waited for me to explain what petition I wanted her to sign or which apartment I was looking for. Then a gasp shook her, and I wanted to run.
“You’re better,” she whispered. “You got better.”
“They found a cure,” I said. It was what I had planned to say.
Shakily, she led me in. She was a small, thin, white-haired lady at home. The place was tidy, yet somehow recognizable as a hermitage, all the furniture and art under a layer of quiet. In the living room, dustless sunlight fell onto a green carpet with the figure of an elephant. You could see one eye and he seemed to smile, because he was a kind, simple soul and here his old chum, Sarah, had come back into the room. I started to cry.
She held me until I stopped. Then she stepped back and smiled. The teeth I knew.
“Jesus Christ, you’re just a boy,” she said.
“You’re just a girl.”
I liked that on more than one level, but somehow she didn’t. The smile wavered.
“Bromley, you know I can’t think of a single word you ever said. I remember I liked what you said. You were so good at being miserable.”
“You don’t have to remember. I’m right here.”
She rolled her eyes. I focused on the color of them, the irises.
“I used to imagine this,” I said. “I mean us old, I mean après-Mark, if you’ll forgive me. Can you take off your glasses for a second?”
I took her glasses. She didn’t stop me, but made a serious face, and I could tell she couldn’t see me.
“Those eyes,” I marveled, lying. They weren’t entirely clouded, but I remembered another blue.
I started talking. Things I had long ago said to her ghost or written in that Linden Cogeneration Plant document. New things. How all the time I only wanted to find one other person in whom I took such pure and unfrivolous delight, and never did. How I never much thought of her on the physical plane anyway, so what was the difference now. How we were together, and I would remind her of all the things we said and knew. I started on my moments, a couple of which she in fact remembered with a clap of startled pleasure. Well, she was an old lady whose friends were dead or frozen talking to an avatar of her youth, to whom she was possibly not an old lady, who would fill the empty hours and rooms with the very best of time and space. What person who had lived even half her years under reality, what sane person could resist this cheat, this enchantment? I took the wrinkled face in my hands. She held my wrists, unseeing, like a child about to be spun around.
I kissed the forehead. A cough-like sigh came out of her. God knows when last she had been touched, when last I had. I kissed the cheek. Then I kissed the mouth. The third time, like I had tripped a program lying dormant in her nerves, the lips responded. Gradually, grimly she gave herself to it, this loophole, leaving the world for the one gasping open around her.
I closed my eyes. I wouldn’t see either. I got off the blouse and the bra, felt and pulled back, felt again. This was Sarah. We sank to the green carpet. She grasped at my hair, my ears, whatever came in reach as I got rid of the rest of the clothes. She didn’t make a sound. But now I could feel the years sag, drop off, as she moved over me. And the flesh, the bone. Her bones. The bones of Sarah’s hand.
She tried patiently for a while, but didn’t try her mouth. Finally she gave up and rolled aside. I opened my eyes and closed them in horror.
“You old men,” she sighed. “You know we have drugs for this now.”
I laughed. To begin with, at her joke. Then it went on, so exorbitantly she had to join in, or it’s possible she was crying, and I was wheezing my apologies between waves. This had been my dream. I really hadn’t once guessed it wasn’t. Stretching out on the soft rug, subsiding, I thought of my cryo unit out on a Brooklyn curb, the lonesome look of it, already antiquated, and if I could possibly get Sarah to lend me money for a truck, for a hundred years.
I caught myself starting to get up and turned it into a rummage through my cast-off pants pocket before remembering she couldn’t see.
“Hey,” I said, “aren’t we near that stupendous sewage treatment plant that looks like a nest of alien eggs?”
“It’s condos now.”
“Do you want to go anyway?”
“Why don’t you go, Bromley.”
I lay back beside her. “Are you sure?” I asked, stroking her side.
She halted the stroking hand with an affectionate, grandmotherly pat.
“Run along, dear.”
She rolled over. I would be back, I said. She didn’t ask when.
It was dark. I had walked hours from Sarah, blankly, bivouacked up in my retinas for all I was worth — the new facades and fashions, the cars, the new lights. I was in a possibly hip neighborhood. Here was a gallery packed with the young and glamorous. I went in, eager to see the art of the day. I could remember back in the 2030s wondering what Rauschenberg would be making if he were still around then. If, as it seemed, unsung art from my time was starting to interest people, I could be one of the first known unfrozen artists, a new thing altogether.
Wine in hand, I walked the room. It was the opening of a solo show. The work was all beautifully flowing holograms, each like thousands of meticulous paintings enfolding and disgorging one another, like the snails that mate, suspended from a bough, in a helix of their combined bodies. It was completely beyond me, my ability to make of course, but also my ability to absorb. Yet in theory I was among my peers again, and I could almost feel it. Two genuine older people eventually arrived, cutting a path from the door. Beaming, they approached a young man in a suit and tie. He was the only one dressed so formally. It was his show, his first solo show, and his mom and dad were there.