Someone here to see you, an intern had said, raising his eyebrows and lifting his arms to make a shark mouth, biting. Now that they’re “interns,” instead of apprentices, they do what they want—like children, Giorgio thought, shrugging and moving from the bench toward the door suddenly filled with a shadow. Il grande squalo bianco.
A green and white ambulance filled the Venetian alley behind the shadow, two other thick men standing beside it in dark suits without ties. No siren but the lights still flashed; an odd thing, the mixed signals. The vehicle squatted heavily on its tires: armored, Giorgio noted, his heart beating harder for a few seconds. This big man introduced himself, and asked if there was a place to talk. Giorgio raised his hands and looked around at the big space, shrugged, made a face. A place more private, the man said. Others kept doing what they were doing but followed the two with their eyes as Giorgio and the big man moved toward the tiny room with a desk, a couch, and a door, Giorgio with his sailor’s wobble and the other as if on rails.
That meeting is why Giorgio now stares out over Abu Dhabi from the wall of windows, watching, the night and the lights in it equally vague, unsettled. Maybe the tall pricking spikes of buildings made the night restless, he thinks, as if talking to one of his grandchildren. He sighs.
In response to Giorgio’s first question, the big man had said: I often travel by ambulance. It saves time. The big man had laughed: I also can lie down when I need to.
The big man continued with a slight shrug, his black silk suit shiny and wet looking.
I am here in search of true blue.
True blue, Giorgio repeated, frowning.
I want a stable, consistent, indisputably blue, blue firework. More specifically, a blue firework in the shape of a rose. A group of acquaintances and I have made a wager concerning who will produce one first. It is a race. I would like to bet on you. Are you interested in participating.
Giorgio laughed. He gestured at his office, his apron, using his dirty hands, and shrugged again.
The man smiled.
I will pay you whatever you like. I will pay it twice. Once for the work leading up to it, and an equivalent amount if we win. This is your chance to—here the man also gestured, smiling, with one hand—buy new furniture.
Giorgio kept his face as still as he could, but: blue. It always evaded him, and everyone else. Everyone.
If you agree, there is a condition.
Solitary confinement, the big man said laughing, and shrugged. I want your undivided attention, and so, no family or friends, no contact with the rest of the world, and nothing but work until the game is over, one way or another.
Giorgio frowned, and stood behind the desk.
You are serious.
As the Americans say, serious as a heart attack. No joke. True that. Feel me. I want total devotion for the length of the project, remembering, of course, that you’ll be—well, well paid sounds insultingly unspecific.
Giorgio raised his eyebrows—a blue rose.
Giorgio watched the big man not moving, the big face smooth, well cared for, healthy, his teeth white, tongue in glimpses pearlescent like the best veal, the whole package the best of genes and money. The eternal kinds of power.
You will be comfortable, and have everything you need, but you will spend your time solely devoted to this project. That’s my requirement. In return, I pay you for the inconvenience. I must regretfully also say that I will need your answer now and if you say yes, you will leave straight from here to the facility I have set up for you.
I can’t do the work in my own studio.
No. The big man’s flat impassive face became even stonier, but in an odd, neutral way, simply an effect, chosen—he half smiled: in order to ensure focus and to control at least most of the possible variables, I will require you to work in my space, certainly with your input for modifications, should you agree to the discomfiture.
Big word. Giorgio half-smiled.
The big man laughed, moved each gimbaled shoulder in an athlete’s absent-minded testing and stretching of parts, abstract and automatic. The man wasn’t a shark, but a cat.
Giorgio’s eyes wandered from the man to the room and to the window through which his cavernous studio was visible, those in it lazily moving from station to station, working on standard municipal programs for feast days, holidays, the biggest weddings, corporate parties, football matches.
I’m afraid I must say no. Con respetto, Giorgio added.
The big man slipped a phone from his pocket, looked down and tapped it, held it out for Giorgio to see. It was a shot from the foot of Giorgio’s bed, with moon through the window on the two hills of himself and Giulia.
Scratching his nose and pursing his lips, the man aimed his eyes and smiled. I am not dangerous. But—here he raised his chin and pursed his lips—I am persistent. And I hate to lose.
Giorgio had thought, looking back at the big man, that sin might be not something you did, but something that happened to you.
Now Giorgio leans his forehead against the high cool glass, closing his eyes on the spikes of weird city around and below, stretching to the pewter of the night sea. Whatever ocean it is. He’s forgotten. He is old.
He strains to look back into the new dark studio provided by the big man; he might finally need to get glasses. He’d refused for twenty years, seeing double unless he squinted, relying on memory, habit, and cues from others. But blurry is just blurry, no longer tiredness or bad light or small print. Smears of color are what he sees in his work. But no blue.
Since leaving Venice, Giorgio is unsure of the day. It has been possibly a week.
The big man’s voice on the phone Giorgio’d been given. A blue phone. Giorgio laughed when the handler gave him the phone. The workspace itself was blue in every shade.
Do you know the French artist Yves Klein. That’s the blue. I want a Klein blue rose. That is your quest. The man’s laugh strained out of the small thing in Giorgio’s palm. Giorgio thought the man might be drunk.
Yes, I am drunk. Yves Klein blue. Ciao.
Light. Blue light. The emitters are copper compounds, plus a chlorine producer; copper acetoarsenite; copper chloride. There’s light produced by heat, and cold light. Materials and skill, money, intuition, a feel for the finicky, temperamental copper, which becomes a gas, which burns too hot or too cold, pale, gone, another color, unstable at higher temperatures.
Weak blue, lilac, purple, pale blue and turned to green. Purity and purity—any traces of salts or other contaminants ruined colors. The purest coppers.
In the milky night outside the glass, from his high nest, Giorgio watches the bright blinking reds in the air, all around the city—aircraft warning lights. He remembered the night Giulia and he, still dating, climbed the thick brick villa wall of a Venetian businessman away in Russia or America, according to the friend who had discovered the place. Giorgio fell in love when he watched the way Giulia took her shoes off and aligned them next to the garden wall as if in a closet, then lifted her summer dress up to climb, to pull and cling to the vines you had to use to scale the stucco. Once in the other side’s dark, they bent under trees and pressed through hedges toward an old pool, a tiled rectangle with grass at its edge, a place for bathing only in the old way. They stripped, and Giorgio remembered the red flares of her nipples in the black and white night, signals to the world. And he understood lipstick for the first time.
Red was easy, orange and red, yellow; flame colors, chemically simple.
Giorgio notices the new space smells like combat and lunch. Olive oil and accelerants, emitters. Meat. He walks from the long glass walls and wanders among the work tables, the little cities of glass and tubing, the pots and heat shields, and thinks about what money can do, and cannot do. When do they fade, the explosions of money, the patterns they burn in walls, faces, names.
Giorgio stands now in front of the black tablet computer with which he’s been provided, but which he has not used since he arrived. He knows what he needs already, and he can’t do anything else on the thing—it is monitored, and the rules require no distractions. He figures a younger person might find a way to send and receive messages, but possibly not. Giorgio imagines the dauntingly talented fill every level of the big man’s operation or business or whatever the word was.
Giorgio doesn’t need much sleep anymore, and since he’s been in this place he catnaps, sleeping an hour or two and getting up as if simply interrupted, continuing a conversation or a thought. Controlling the burn is the problem and has been for the millennia that the Chinese and everyone have wrestled with blue.
Sapphire, blueberry, mold, cadaver. Blue in the world. The color of water, serenity, death. Giorgio has been burning and burning, using things he’d only heard of, dreamed of, and couldn’t before afford. But nothing: nothing.
Pale blue, like ghosts: a few feet away the shade dissipates into the air. Giorgio has an assistant available, on the floor below this one. Assistants if necessary. Everything he could want: equipment banned for export, regulated, rare, for military use only. He has access to computing power so massive, so hungry and hot, the servers are above the Arctic Circle to remain feasibly cool, according to the big man, who calls once a day. And it is almost time.
Do you like art, the big man says when Giorgio picks up the phone and says pronto, as he does each time, an offering of formality, the maintenance of a diplomatic distance: one thing he can control, although he never thinks this, just does it.
Do you ever think of your work that way, the man asks.
Giorgio clears his throat: no.
What do you think art is.
Art is pictures.
You mean paintings.
The big man’s large laugh forces itself through the tiny holes of the speaker, pinpricks in plastic. Force the world through a sieve because you can. That’s what we do now. Bully things. Like children.
Giorgio feels sunken, pressed down. Why, he says, are you asking me these questions. Con respetto, I need to get back to work.
I am fascinated by expertise.
Giorgio snorts. It’s just work. You do it until you get good. Whatever, playing the violin, painting, making a business. Making shoes.
Giorgio shrugs in the dark. I go to a work place every day, and I work. I have lunch. I work. I go home and have dinner. I have a glass of wine. I go to sleep. If you are a writer, you sit at a desk and write.
The big man laughs: that is like a concert violinist saying, to play, you pick up the violin and place it under your chin, then move the bow across the strings. Is that really the story.
Giorgio pauses. In a way, yes. It is in the doing. Everything else is just talking.
The call ends.
How does anyone ever do anything, Giorgio thinks. Colorants, Giorgio says in his head, trying to think of this as just work. A job. Color producer, oxygen producer, binder, fuel.
Giorgio wakes: the phone. Giorgio’s heart stops, then starts. Stops, then starts.
Sorry for the surprise. How are things going.
Giorgio cannot decide: lie still and talk, or sit up, which is less humiliating. He decides to not move.
I have no news for you.
Ah. Do you know the Latin name for copper.
Cuprum. Shortened from Cyprium, which means metal of Cyprus. During the Roman era it was principally mined there, and the Roman name is what stuck. But it has been mined around the world for thousands of years. In most European languages the name is a cognate of copper. In Italy you call it rame. Do you know where that comes from.
It also comes from Latin, from the root aes. Which meant money.
The call ends.
Giorgio thinks of alchemy, art from charcoal and muddy oxides. Marble, a dull rock. But split, there is, maybe, fire. And fairy tales. Maybe magic. Tremotino, save me. He makes a face.
Where is the fire. Giorgio’s hands shake as he holds a measuring spoon; he uses kitchen tools, which made the big man laugh. Just don’t tell me you’re superstitious, too, the man said.
Giorgio touches wood, makes offerings routinely and absentmindedly: you never know. Giorgio remembers seeing television about Africans who went to mass, then left to make sacrifices and dance in masks, just to make sure. Giulia watched programs like that. She liked reading about traveling, liked meeting people, liked parties. He didn’t. She called him her snail, slow moving and happy in his shell.
Something spills. Giorgio curses, softly, powder scattered over the worktable. It’s harder and harder to keep his hands from betraying him. The phone.
In Egypt, there have been two weeks of rioting.
I would not know. Why.
Protests, unhappiness, sectarian violence. Some say outside agitators. Some even say a mysterious single person is behind it, a foreigner. And today, a coup. So tonight there is a big celebration. The streets are packed. And there are fires. The world is watching, cameras are everywhere. And over the square, higher than everything, there was a blue rose. A deep true blue. A rose. A rose. A rose.
Giorgio remembers trees after rain, dust washed away, blinking and glittering in sun, slowly, the earth speaking, every day.
Now, at the edge of his hearing he hears, pulsing like a heart, a siren. Slowly swelling, the sound, louder and louder, waves that keep coming as they do in the sea, they just keep coming. And ninety stories below on the street, as he stands now at the windows, he sees an ambulance.
I lost. The big man stares at him, in the ambulance, with doors like wings.
Giorgio said, I’m sorry. Inside hollowed, then words came.
Where am I going, Giorgio asked.
To meet your wife, the big man said, finally.
Ed Taylor is the author of the novel Theo, the poetry collection Idiogest, and the chapbook The Rubaiyat of Hazmat. His work is forthcoming in St Petersburg Review, Stone Canoe, The Literary Review, and Southern Poetry Review.