An Uncertain Smile
Updated: Sep 27, 2021
By Mike Lee -
Feeling like an empty vessel filled with dirt, Maeve slept badly, waking up every hour from two o’clock on. Finally, she got up, made coffee on the old ceramic stove, brushing off a solitary cockroach to the cracked linoleum at her feet.
Maeve was indifferent while the roach scurried under the cabinets. There was a time she would have freaked out, but after five years living in south Williamsburg, she’d become unperturbed by their presence. She believed every creature has a right to breathe, feeling rather breathless at times herself.
She stared through the window as the coffee pot boiled bodega-bought Café Bustelo. Her eyes could not avoid seeing the weariness in the reflection.
Holding her breath, her hand cupped over her left breast. Maeve was confident no one could see her. The tenement window was too filthy from years of grime caused by the traffic traveling over the Williamsburg Bridge.
The bridge was once in such decay that clouds of rust would fall from the beams. She had heard the projects near the Manhattan side had the highest incidents of asthma in children. But Maeve was never sure if the stories she heard were true. By the time she stumbled to being thirty years old, Maeve concluded she lived in a world of liars and spent half her efforts in conversations parsing the monochromatic shades of truth to discern if what she was told was complete bullshit.
Brooklyn was as good a place to start for any of that. Fourteen years of never being able to afford living in Manhattan, and now she was facing being gentrified out of the city entirely. The nearby neighborhoods were also getting too expensive, leaving Bay Ridge, far to the south near the Narrows as the last line of defense for the single person who never quite achieved, being that there is a price to be paid for not making it in New York City. This cost arrives on the first of the month like feathers from a fallen angel who shared with her a sour taste for retribution.
Peering through the window, Maeve watched the new hotel under construction across the street, the yellow-helmeted workers moving around the site. This was the future: property values skyrocketing each year in the last five. Even the crash in 2008 slowed the increases only temporarily. There was plenty of money to be made by the landlords of the buildings in the neighborhood, hers especially.
Since she moved to South Williamsburg, the rent doubled, then tripled. Maeve will likely be priced out when the lease comes up for renewal in two months. She doesn’t have a rent stabilized apartment, thus was at the mercy of her landlord. The landlord is an aging but charming Italian widow with stories of stickball in the streets, and all that what once was when she grew up in Bay Ridge in the 1950s. She was considering having her youngest son take over managing the building. Maeve only met him once, and got a bad vibe from him. He gave off the sentiment of big money ahead, perhaps by converting to condos, or selling the property off for a tourist hotel.
Her landlord was of the first generation of stakeholders who bought up properties in the early 1990s, when Williamsburg was divided by the bridge into poverty and more poverty. Back then only language differentiated the struggles of those who lived there, mostly immigrants from the Dominican Republic and Jewish Orthodox.
As they struggled to survive, the declining property values attracted other artists no longer able to afford the Lower East Side and SoHo. Soon there were galleries and studios sprouting, with their attendant rooftop parties and endless expressions of angst.
She had missed out on all that, since she arrived in the city after 9/11. Then the neighborhood was still cheap. After a year living in a dorm finishing her MFA at Pratt, she set out in the middle of the night to hang out by the newsstand by the Astor Place downtown subway station to get the latest copy of the Village Voice. People sometimes lined up for a block to get the latest issue just for the updated apartment listings before running to the telephone to leave messages for potential landlords.
Maeve was one of those people, so she landed this place by the bridge, initially for 700 a month. Now, she was paying 1,800 for a one bedroom, kitchen and bath, with a windowless, narrow space that served as a living room and contained her futon and a coffee table. She usually slept there because the bedroom served as her studio, crowded with a long work desk that was a set of planks on top of cinder blocks where she kept her papers and computer. The room also held her racks of canvas, mostly completed work, always unsold, and occasionally shown once.
Maeve had yet to have a solo exhibit, and it had been several years since her last legitimate group show, but she did have paintings hanging at the Brooklyn Bowl and a couple of other Williamsburg cafes.
She stopped coming by those cafes to visit. The thrill of work shown had long since faded. Rather sad, actually, but after a while an artist accepts their lot, and yet some continue to hope for that big break. Whether it happens, it shall ever be. This sentiment kept her going, but in what direction, she had no idea.
When she arrived in Brooklyn, everyone seemed to be doing art, some working as far back as the 1970s. There were painters and sculptors, mixed media and video artists, musicians, writers, poets, spoken word performers and those who claimed they were doing something but never did anything, the latter being professional drinkers and bullshit artists, Maeve fell for one several years ago, and she lost her rent money to him that month.
She chose solitude after that experience.
Alternatives in the job market were poor. Highly regarded MFAs worked as museum guards or underpaid gallery assistants; several dropped out entirely to teach in charter schools or run impromptu workshops in adult education programs. By the time the decade of the terrible 2010s arrived, everyone seemed to stop discussing the dream of creation.
Instead, they complained about how they had to scrape to survive, with an unmitigated snarky tone about anyone they saw climbing higher on the ladder. Those disappointed ones were like lobsters thoughtlessly clawing each other in a pot, unaware that success gained like this meant living in a universe of emotional desolation.
That’s what Maeve fought against.
Especially the night she had the epiphany that she was not going to make it in New York. Not ever. Not in any way.
That was in June. It was during a solstice party on the rooftop bar at the William Vale, one of the new hotels spreading like a disease in the warehouse and factory district on the northern boundary of Williamsburg and Greenpoint. This recent development of boutique and luxury high rise hotels marked a grave cast to the neighborhood. When the previous waves of creeping gentrification caused so-called old timers like Maeve to feel their way of life slipping away; the fact that hotels were suddenly sprouting like tumors portended the opening of a yawning abyss.
Maeve was in a bad mood. Between lipstick and tears Mom had called to subtly ask if she had considered moving back home to Pennsylvania. In Maeve’s view, these calls were an opportunity for Mom to negotiate her oblivion. Talking her into leaving, even as difficult as the situation was in Brooklyn, was painful and annoying. It took everything that balled up inside her for Maeve to defer a decision, sometimes by crafting complex prevarications that Mom did not believe.
After they spoke, Maeve went to work on her latest painting. The canvas loomed like an unwanted guest. She completed the underpainting three days ago, and spent time making multiple sketches before finally changing back to her original concept. Or close to it, she thought. Maeve was influenced by minimalism, and wanted a single black line, with red crosshatches at equidistant angles. A painting that would be appropriate at a restaurant in one of the new hotels, like the William Vale, near McCarren Park. She had three completed; one hung at the haunted bar in Bushwick. She had it priced at $1,500. Someone was interested. That would pay the rent.
“The first rule of being an artist is to always pay the rent,” she whispered, thinking of the advice given to her at her graduate show. Mom, again. She excused herself and vomited in the bathroom. Ruined the evening and had migraines for a week.
Maeve sat on her stool, clutching her open sketchbook and stared at the canvas before her. Though simple, this really isn’t. It is all about precision. The line must stand out, anchoring the composition, and the crosshatches had to have the right tenor of red in order for the viewer to read what they will. That she learned from studying Rothko. Sometimes the simplest of forms can reflect back deeply into the soul.
Maeve looked down at the sketchbook, studying the various forms, calculating what would make the width of the horizontal line stand out without looking out of balance. She put the sketchbook on the floor and began to measure out tape.
Her cell phone buzzed on the table. Maeve answered and was told the painting at the haunted bar was sold. Check waiting. She made the rent. That might be enough for Mom to leave her alone for a while. Maybe hold off on Pennsylvania suburbia through the lease. Maybe she will get lucky again, and the rent won’t go up too high.
With an uncertain smile, she placed the cell phone in her pocket and turned back to stare at the blank canvas, considering calling the bar manager to see if they needed another waitress.
Mike Lee is a writer and editor for a trade union in New York City. His work appears, and is forthcoming inPigeon Review,Drunk Monkeys,Blue Lake Review, Lunate, Ghost Parachute and many others. His short story collection,The Northern Line is available on Amazon and other online booksellers. You can find him on Twitter @lml1962 and on his website mleephotoart.com.