Requiem for a Found Object Artist

Requiem for a Found Object Artist
by Joe Manning

Matt was a fight in a rabbit-fur coat. He was punk rock dressed up in drag, barreling through the screen door of a mobile home, a fifth of Wild Turkey curled in a tight, sick fist with one glitter pink nail polish finger pointed at us—all of us—daring anybody to name an American muscle car more badass than the ’76 Chevelle. He was the blind spot between the East and South Ends of Louisville Kentucky baring its teeth—gleeful, gaping gap in the middle—begging, absolutely fucking begging, for somebody to take a swing.

Just now, I thought to call him an agent provocateur but his laugh, like a sheet of corrugated tin peeling off a pole barn in a thunderstorm, his laugh erupted painfully in my ear, then calmed to a smile-whisper I could nearly feel on my neck.

Fag," he would have said.

I objected to Matt because he was objectionable. This, of course, was the point, and it pleased him to no end. In my prudish disapproval, some morality was isolated, one that needed to be scrutinized and probably demolished. Matt was objectionable as a protest against all moralizing everywhere. When I tell you, “don’t think of a dead dog right now,” and when you do, important questions about the limits of free will are towed behind a distaste for my methods. That was his bag, and I’m sure he did not know it.

We may have been friends once, briefly, in the spring of a year. But friendship is not what was cast in the forge of our interactions, was not the material poured from the crucible. Friendship was a byproduct, like slag, of a process that sifted the essential materials of creativity from a wheelbarrow full of dirt.

In the Civil War military warehouse where he lived and worked, Do What Thou Wilt was the whole of the law, and Matt was the Revelator of this doctrine. The place was frequently filled with joy, and we all realized a type of communion that cannot be assembled, but instead develops by necessity. Similarly, the found junk that gravitated there by some discrete force was sorted into the neat taxonomy of association, like moving toward and away from like: bones alongside wings of course, and wire next to blade, angel trophies and crucifixes, yes, but pistols go with silk flowers. Should you need a box of concert bells, find them filed here with the candles, and clockworks, and pornography. When it is time to make music, walk through the doorway marked with a sign that says, simply, “The Female Orgasm.”

How could we know anything of association, physical form, language, and sound if we were unwilling to drive fast, take hands off the wheel, and say, “how far do you dare to go, really?” These days I wonder, may we ever do this again?

But making something new from what has been discarded is uncomfortable. The White Light is the White Heat, and alchemy leaves a mark. I was burned by Matt—the sunburn you get from a day of welding if you don’t cover your arms.

He took a heart attack and died on Halloween—his own birthday—though it may have been the morning of All Saints Day: there’s this space between last call and sunrise that stands out of time on it’s own; the only door that could accept the gravity of his form, both coming and going.

I was late to the graveside. Hoards of people filled his casket with things, gifts I guess. It’s curious, our motivation to give a corpse something to hold on to for keeps, but it is not without precedent. Objects are drawn together by a force. I learned that from Matt, who may have been my friend.

I walked up and put a rose on his chest along with one live 9mm round I’d found on the street somewhere, bent to his ear which was covered in wavy dishwater curls, and cribbed a lyric from Nick Cave. “It’s all down hill with a bullet, Matty, ” I whispered. It was a rare moment of one-way communication between us. I felt like a mad little kid who’s finally equipped with something powerful and apt to say, something that will tell an older boy into silence. Just for once.

I went to visit his grave the next week. The headstone had a ridiculous little guitar etched in the marble. I think he would have hated it. Matt haunted me that day. He was pissed at me when he died; there was a woman, you see. As I drove out of the cemetery, my car radio turned on under its own power just long enough for a disembodied voice to say, “a phantom.” Then it was gone.

I nodded my head. “I know Matty. I hear you,” I said.

I’m sorry that was the last time I spoke with him. Rather, the last time he spoke back.

Joe Manning is an essayist, songwriter, and co-founding editor/instructor for the non-profit Louisville Story Program. In 2015, he received his MFA from Hollins University where he was a Jackson Fellow of Creative Writing and a Teaching Fellow. Joe has published award-winning essays, columns and features for The Louisville Eccentric Observer and The Louisville Paper, has written for, and Fjords, and recently completed his first collection of essays entitled Certain Relevant Passages. Manning is legally blind in one eye but stands his watch with unflinching bravery, surveying both the cultural landscape of the 21st century, and the punch bowl.