"Who are all these people?" asked Hodge.
"People with money," whispered Gillian. The two were each nursing glass of wine in the corner of a packed gallery.
"I'm not sure I like the looks of them," said Hodge.
"Everyone needs money. Don't turn you're nose up at them. Besides, they're perfectly respectable people, if you got to know them," said Gillian. "You should be mingling. Look, here's Mr. Utz. Let me introduce you. Jim!" Gillian gently shoved Hodge in the direction of a tall thin man dressed in a black suit with a dark blue turtleneck.
"Ah, Gillian, hello!" said Mr. Utz.
"Jim, I'd like to introduce you to the artist, the infamous, unparalleled Hodge," said Gillian. Mr. Utz extended his hand, and Gillian pulled Hodge's elbow up to meet it.
"I'm delighted to meet you!" said Mr. Utz.
"Likewise," said Hodge, trying to force a smile.
"I'm always impressed with anyone who can go by just one name, harhar!" laughed Mr. Utz.
"Actually I don't; that was the gallery's decision," said Hodge. Gillian glared at Hodge, then turned and smiled obsequiously at Mr. Utz.
"I would have been happier if you said you were impressed with my art rather than my name," continued Hodge.
"Yes!" said Mr. Utz, eager to smile. "Actually I am. I've never seen such skilled use of photo-receptive pigments," he motioned towards a nearby painting, "it really gets one interested in this sort of art again--mixing a traditional form with new media."
"That's nice," said Hodge flatly.
"Uh, Jim is actually the director of corporate art at E.C.U.," said Gillian.
"Yes, yes I am," said Mr. Utz. "Normally I buy in bulk to distribute to all our facilities, but I see on your artist statement here that you never make prints."
"I don't see the point," said Hodge, sipping from his glass, "we are everyday inundated with copies of this--it's a self-same avalanche of products that are constantly shoved down our throats--"
"Hodge! Really. Jim, you'll have to forgive him his eccentricities. He is an artist, you understand," said Gillian.
"Well..." Mr. Utz looked around the room, shying away from the conversation.
"So, Jim, what is E.C.U.?" asked Hodge.
"Surely you know?" said Gillian.
"I work for Exxon-ConAgra-Universal, where we make an avalanche of self-same products," Mr. Utz was starting to blush.
"I'm very sorry," said Hodge. Gillian glared at him again.
"You do realize that the reason why everything is self-same is because of quality control," Mr. Utz was speaking very low and fast. "We design something excellent, then sell it to a willing market at a price they can afford!"
"Yes, whether they need it or not--"
"Of course they need--"
"Without any regard to overflowing landfills that receive these products when they've outlived their lifespans in a year or two!"
"You are on thin ice!" hissed Mr. Utz.
"Why? Do you deny that it's true?"
"Hodge--" interrupted Gillian.
"It's just your opinion of the truth!" shouted Mr. Utz. People nearby stopped their conversations and started looking over at the three of them.
"Hodge this is no time for politices! Jim, I'm so--" said Gillian.
"It's not opinion, it's fact." said Hodge. "You should really open your eyes. You were about to buy a painting that depicts just such a landfill!" Mr. Utz briefly squinted at the painting, then looked at Hodge with a glare of lofty derision.
"You will be watched. I guarantee that." Mr. Utz turned up his nose and pushed his way through the crowd and towards the door.
"I'm pretty sure I already am!" shouted Hodge. "And you know what? I don't really care!" The gallery fell silent, with all eyes darting between Hodge and Mr. Utz.
"Hodge--" said Gillian.
"I know, I know, be nice," said Hodge. "And I know you've done a lot of work to get people here for the opening. I just wish there was another way."
"The world is bigger than just you Hodge. You can't force your ideas on it," said Gillian, stroking Hodge's arm. The crowd started murmuring again. Several people left after Mr. Utz, but most stayed, secretly hoping for more drama. "Either your ideas will be accepted or they won't."
"I just wish I was a better salesman for them," said Hodge.
An elderly woman sidled up to Hodge. She was short, stooped over somewhat, and smelled strongly of baby powder, lavender, and prescription-strength dandruff shampoo.
"You know young man," said the woman, surreptitiously, "I agree with you." She briefly held up a clenched fist, perpendicular to the floor, then touched the side of her nose with her index finger and nodded once slowly.
"Oh, hello..." said Gillian.
"Don't worry, I have a lot of money," said the woman to Gillian. "And I didn't make it by being a worker bee at a multi-hyphenate conglomerate."
"That's refreshing," said Hodge, smiling.
"And I do intend to buy," said the woman.
"And which one do you like?" asked Gillian.
"I'll have them all," said the woman, "if they haven't been purchased already."
"I take it that you're not really interested in the art for art's sake," said Hodge.
"Does that disappoint you?" asked the woman. Gillian wore an expression of confusion.
"I guess it depends on what your real reason is," said Hodge.
"The blunt way of putting it is 'price-fixing'," said the woman. "Selling out a showing on the first night will boost your name into the stratosphere, especially combined with that little show you just gave. People are going to consider you dangerous to know."
"He's already dangerous to know," said Gillian suppressing a chuckle. The woman chuckled as well. Hodge looked at them both darkly.
"And then I can sell your work at a huge profit," said the woman.
"So is that how you became wealthy? Speculation in art?" asked Hodge.
"Among the many ways--I'm pretty creative," said the woman. "Although I'd prefer to use the term 'social engineering'. It's a bit of a game really."
"Ma'am, you're beginning to fascinate me," said Hodge, cracking a broad smile. "I am a bit insulted that you don't actually admire the artwork."
"Don't let your ego get the best of you, young man," said the woman. "I'll credit you with being innovative in some respects, but it's not to my taste. That's not an insult to your talent at all. There are just bigger considerations at play here."
"I see," said Hodge. "I won't take offense, as long as you don't consider yourself my patron. I far past those days already, and I work for no one."
"Of course!" said the woman. "I admire your courage. You have no qualms about being out in the open. Oh, and I wanted to say, you shouldn't be threatened by what that odious man said to you."
"That I'm being watched?"
"More than likely, yes. But they too are being watched."
"Who?" asked Gillian.
"They," said the woman.
"But, who's watching them, I meant?" asked Gillian.
"Us," said the woman. She smiled and raised her eyebrows. "Au revoir; I must go mingle and talk you up, get the crowd into a froth over your spectacular vision and legendary talent!" She bounced off into the crowd.
"I'm not sure what just happened," said Gillian.
"I don't have any idea who the hell she is," said Hodge. "She might have just been bullshitting us."
"Well, if it helps get your art, your ideas out there, what does it matter?"
"But it does matter," said Hodge. "If people just like it because everyone else does, then they won't understand what it actually means. They have to come to it on their own."
"Okay," said Gillian. "I think you're over-thinking this." They looked out over the crowd, as the old woman waved back to them, and chatted with great animation towards a young fashionable couple who suddenly looked very impressed.
"Maybe," said Hodge. He turned to look at the painting of the landfill, and tried to imagine it on the wall in the expansive hallway of a corporate building, then shivered with the thought. He reached into his jacket and took out his favorite marker, and then signed his first name next to his last. Then he smiled.