Lenny Grodin wandered slowly from one storefront to the next, pausing briefly before each as he admired and criticized the asthetics of the displays. It was, after all, his field -- and he was one of the best. He had designed window displays for nearly all of the respected department and specialty stores in the city. No one else enjoyed his degree of success from working freelance. His growing list of clients provided him with a roomy downtown studio, a nice apartment on the South Hill, and most importantly, the freedom to stroll through these avenues on a weekday afternoon, searching for ideas and inspiration.
And he needed an idea -- a good one. He was being offered the kind of job in which he usually excelled: the client , pushing some new perfume, said only that she wanted something mysterious, perhaps forbidden, and above all, sexy. Until now, this was all he needed for the seed of an idea to appear, one that would germinate in his mind and on his notepad, finally blossoming wonderously behind an enormous pane of glass, before thousands of eyes, street-level, center stage.
But Lenny had no seed. His sketches seemed either pedestrian or pornographic. Perhaps he was just tired. Still, deadline loomed.
He looked up and realized that he was in a part of town unfamiliar to him: boarded-up shops and littered alleyways, second-hand stores with the usual collection of rusted tools, ancient magazines, frayed clothing. He would find little of interest to him here.
It was then that he noticed a shop across the street with its window covered over with yellowed newspapers on which were drawn strange petroglyph-like symbols. Above the door was a huge sign that read merely DECRY. He wandered over.
The front door was ajar, and w hen he stepped inside, it took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the lack of light. It was a gift shop of sorts, the mostly empty shelves featuring a few poorly-constructed knick-knacks, cheap pottery, and a rack of postcards of artwork which artists of ten offer at gallery openings for free, never intending that they should be sold. \par \par In the corner, standing behind a counter, was a heavy-set man in a yellow tee-shirt with the word NO printed boldly on the front. Lenny nodded and smiled but the man only eyed him with suspicion.
Lenny thumbed through a rack of old paperbacks. He then noticed a small white door at the rear of the store. On the door someone had scratched a quote in charcoal: "Art is the child of suffering and rejection." -- Picasso
Lenny looked to the man behind the counter who was already pointing to the door and nodding. "It's the gallery," he said in a coarse voice. "Push."
Lenny pushed. He ducked and stepped inside and was immediate ly struck with an overpowering sense of vertigo: the ceiling, the walls, and the floor were bright white, brilliantly illuminated from some unobvious source. There was no art hanging on the walls, but there was something in the middle of the room, which he did not see at first, and could only now focus on when he squinted his eyes and tilted his head just so.
It was a large, rectangular, clear plastic box, held up horizonally at chest-level by four plastic posts -- and there was something inside. At first, Lenny thought it was a collection of manikin limbs, but as he stepped closer, he saw that it was a complete human form, a young female, a life-size doll perhaps, dressed in what must have once been expensive white lingerie, but now soiled and torn. It was curled up in a fetal position, facing away from him.
How extraordinary, he thought, but how much better if it wasn't a doll, but actually --
And then, to Lenny's amazement, the doll flinched, straightened a leg and rolled over on its back, exposing a sad, dirty, but beautiful face, with very real, but totally unfocused, deep blue eyes, staring upward. Her breasts were nearly exposed, the frayed gown barely clinging to her nipples. One leg was bent with her knee pointed upward, fully revealing her slender legs.
"Alive," Lenny muttered.
The girl struggled to lift her head an inch or so, but it dropped straightaway with a thud. Mumbled sounds came from her lips. Lenny noticed several small holes cut in the side of the box. He leaned over, then quic kly drew away from the stench of perspiration and urine, and something else that he couldn't quite place.
"Um, let me guess," he said, forcing a smile. "Performance art? I hope they pay you well."
"I'm very sorry about the smell, sir," the girl said suddenly, in a clear but weak voice. "My masters do not allow me to bathe."
"Aaah, I see," Lenny said, pulling his gaze from her just long enough to glance about the room. He was careful not to allow himself to be drawn into the game too much. Certainly someone was watching. Perhaps the encounter was being videotaped. "Your masters?" he asked, suspiciously.
"The gallery owner and his wife," she said. "They feed me dog food and give me vinegar to drink. The man forces me to perform fellatio on him and the woman violates me with kitchen utensils. They photograph the encounters and distribute them to others like themselves."
"How very unusual," Lenny said, speaking to himself. He was, in fact, becoming quite impressed with the whole exhibit -- the biz arre subject matter, the construction of the box, the strange lighting, and the girl's very believable costume and make-up. "Who is the artist?" he asked. "It's not you, is it?"
"The artist, sir?" she said. "The last I remember of my other life was working as a maid for a cleaning service to support my child and finish college. I was hired to straighten up the storage area behind the gallery. They tell me my child is enslaved, as well."
"Brilliant," Lenny whispered, shaking his head. He had found his inspiration. Mysterious. Forbidden. Sexy. There was just one thing -- "The light," he said, "where does the light come from?"
"I see no light, sir"
"Brilliant," he said again. He looked at his watch. He was anxious to get back to the studio and begin sketching. "Listen," he said. "I can't tell you what you've done for me. I really think that --"
"Sir, please," she interrupted. "I'm not allowed to ask you for help, but if you were to --" Suddenly there was a loud knock on the wall. The girl said nothing more.
"W-well," Lenny said, finally. "Thanks again." He walked backwards a few steps, then turned and quickly exited the gallery, leaving the door open. The man in the yellow T-shirt was not in the gift shop. As he stepped out the front door and softly clos ed it behind him, he heard the young woman in the plastic box begin to whimper like a frightened little puppy.