The mansion was painted a painful shade of Swedish flag blue, including the windows. Cleo, an arts blogger from Miami drove up the meandering driveway in her black Ford Galaxie Skyliner, a classic car bequeathed to her on her sixteenth birthday by her grandfather. The mileage was hideous but it had style that suited her--dark and gleaming and irreverent. Cleo wore dark sunglasses, copious sunscreen, and a sheen of white powder makeup that intensified the effect of her bottle red hair. Lounging unseatbelted on the passenger side was her boyfriend of eight years, Aureliano. His hair was longish and ruffled and he wore the same pair of black jeans he'd worn all week, along with a fresh gray t-shirt with the image of a stabbed and prostrate teddybear on the front drawn in white.
Cleo finally reached the end of the driveway, and parked next to several other cars.
"Didn't this use to be a nice neighborhood?" asked Cleo in a deadpan monotone.
"I don't think any neighborhood in Orlando could be called nice, exactly," Aureliano snickered. He cleared his throat and inserted an unlit cigarette between his lips. The gesture was purely an affectation--he'd never smoked in his life; he just liked to have a cigarette in his mouth whenever he went someplace where smoking was frowned up or illegal, just to see the sour looks on people's faces.
"Hush dear," said Cleo. "I grew up a few miles from here."
"I'm very sorry."
"Now," said Cleo, turning to her boyfriend with mock seriousness, "be on your best behavior. Mummy has to work."
Aureliano rolled his eyes.
"Unpaid blogging is not working, honey."
"Don't be tedious. I still support you."
"I'm not ungrateful for your family's money. Shall we?"
"Why yes," said Cleo. They emerged from the Skyliner in practiced synchrony, two graceful figures exuding silky, refined confidence. The doors slammed in unison and they strode up the rest of the driveway with a quick, measured swagger. They were greeted at the entrance to blue mansion by a pair of women dressed in shiny green leotards who pirouetted towards them and offered them frosty glasses of lemonade. Aureliano looked at them with disdain. Cleo waved them away with her hand. A man in a green leotard, who looked visibly put out by the getup, emerged from the door.
"Your invitations?" he asked with a sigh.
Cleo pulled a shiny green invitation from her pocket. It was embossed with her name and the address of the mansion. She passed it to the man in green.
"This is my plus one," said Cleo, nodding towards Aureliano. The man took the invitation and nodded to both of them.
"There's no smoking inside," said the man in green. Aureliano smiled. The man sighed again and showed them inside. "Please wander the exhibition space freely. The artist is in the courtyard, which is just through that way."
"What is his name exactly?" asked Cleo.
"I really have no idea. He told me to say he's just known as 'the artist'." The man employed air quotes.
"Tell me," said Cleo, sidling a little closer to the man, "what do you think of his work?"
"Fucking bonkers. But he must sell stuff, I guess. Some people will buy anything, won't they?"
"That's true," said Cleo, laughing lightly. "And do you know where he's actually from?"
"I really have no idea, lady. I just got hired for a few days."
"Oh of course." Cleo smiled warmly. "Thanks for your time."
She patted him on the arm then she and Aureliano walked into the foyer of the mansion. It had clearly recently been a gaudy neo-Georgian affair, but was transformed with matte blue paint into a dark, oppressive cave. A large neon yellow jellyfish suspended from the ceiling dominated the foyer. The walls were lined with plaster sculptures of people in clown costumes, all painted the same uniform shade of blue.
"Please don't make me stay more than an hour," said Aureliano, "or my eyes might start bleeding."
"Hush now. We don't know what his artistic statement is yet."
"Artistic statement? I can tell you what his artistic statement is; it's the under-the-sea themed nightmare of a mentally troubled five-year-old."
Cleo half-suppressed a chuckle.
"Nothing in art is wrong," said Cleo, "and frankly I've seen far worse."
"Clowns are wrong," said Aureliano under his breath.
They passed through the foyer and into another room with an intermittent strobe light that left them in long snatches of darkness. They progressed through the room slowly, moving only when the light allowed them to see their path. There were hip high columns, a foot wide and a foot long, each topped with a glass pitcher filled what looked blood. Broadly smiling women dressed in pink leotards gamely navigated the columns with wide plates of appetizers. Aureliano took a selection and bit in, then quickly spit it out into his hand.
"Plasticene! That's plasticene! Eughhhhya!" He deposited the lump on a nearby column and brushed his hands.
"Ew," said Cleo. "Clearly he wants to make the guests feel uncomfortable."
"Can we just go?" asked Aureliano.
"I think the courtyard is this way," said Cleo, steering Aureliano to the left. "I have to talk to him."
"No you don't."
"Aren't you a little intrigued?"
"This guy is probably passing off bleach as champagne, so no. Not really."
"Fine. As soon as we talk to him, we'll go."
They made it through the forest of columns without incident and emerged into a rather standard Floridian garden, complete with a kidney-shaped swimming pool circa 1973. It was filled with pink-dyed water. The artist was holding court on the other side of the pool, surrounded by a small throng of socialites, upper-seaboard art world luminaries, and the blonde aspirant housewives of local real estate barons, day traders, and perhaps even crime bosses. As Cleo and Aureliano approached, there was a wave of nervous laughing, and the crowd parted to reveal a clear view of the artist.
He was tall and skinny, and something about the length of his arms was off--the elbows were an inch or so lower than his waist. His fingers were long and bony, the skin a papery white, and he used his hands to expressively accompany his speech. His face in contrast was too fleshy for the rest of his frame--like an older Truman Capote stuffed into a turtleneck three sizes too small. His hair was long and bleach blond. It was puffed up in the front into a grand pompadour, then slicked back into a dagger shape that descended halfway down his back. He wore a plain black suit, a black dress shirt, with a wide baby blue silk tie. He also wore black wayfarer shades.
"Have we found the vampire known as Andy Warhol?" whispered Aureliano. Cleo glanced at him with a raised eyebrow.
"Manners dear," said Cleo with her mouth twitching. "Let's get closer."
They pressed into the crowd, making token apologies for bumping into the various siliconed women and dazzled bon vivants.
"Isn't art just, nnnnnnn, groovy," said the artist. He nasally slurred the last syllable, then chuckled for a few seconds. The crowd mirrored his laughter. Cleo started to laugh, then covered her mouth.
"Wow," said Aureliano, "I don't know why but that just seemed--"
"--hilarious?" asked Cleo. "That's so odd."
"Oh, a writer," said the artist, slurring again, and holding a long arm out towards Cleo. He turned his head to face her a half-second after speaking. "I do like writers," spittle collected at the slides of his thin lips. "One needs such good press." The crowd laughed.
Cleo held her hand out to shake his, but he retracted it, scratching at his fingers with his other hand. She dropped her hand gracefully.
"It's a pleasure to finally meet you," said Cleo, turning on the charm. "Could I borrow you for a few minutes for an interview?"
"Mmmmmm," slurred the artist. "Yes. Nnnnnn. Why not."
The crowd parted and together they walked to a patio set with a glass tabletop and two cushioned chairs. The artist sat with his legs crossed and his long fingers steepled. Cleo slid into the other chair and pressing her palms down on the tabletop, she leaned forward slightly. At this distance she noticed a sweet, slightly alkaline smell emanating from the artist. His skin on closer inspection looked like rice paper--slightly transparent. A weird spread of tiny veins spidered his face and neck, in splotches radiating from several distinct and non-symmetrical points. This was masked slightly with a powdery dusting of makeup.
"Thanks for taking the time to talk to me," said Cleo.
"Mmmmm. Of course."
"Can you tell me, what's the purpose of this party?"
"It's not a party, it's an exhibition," said the artist. "And the purpose is to sell art."
"It seems to be more of an installation, rather than distinct pieces."
"What, the rooms in the mansion? Nnnnnnn."
"Well, yes. Isn't that what you're exhibiting?"
The artist let out a choked and raspy chortle.
"Nnnn-nnnn. Mere decoration," he said, leaning back. "In the ocean, in the deep ocean, there are fish. And these fish have an organ that glows," he gestured with his hands, looping them down from his forehead. "And the is glow, while pretty, draws in little fish. Nnnnnnnn." He returned his hands to a steepled position and sat very still.
Cleo sat up with her back rigid. Her skin prickled and she furrowed her brow.
"Is that--I mean--that's a little cryptic," she said finally.
"Uh, well what are you trying to say with this exhibition? What ties all of it together?"
The artist shifted in his chair and looked at the throng of people. Cleo looked too, and noticed Aureliano watching her back, nodding robotically in response to a woman in a shiny dress, someone who had obviously made too many visits to the offices of a plastic surgeon, trying valiantly to engage him in conversation.
"Look at them. Nnnnn. Tell me what you see."
Cleo shifted focus to the other people in the crowd.
"I don't know. The usual suspects at these sorts of things. People with too much time on their hands maybe. A little insular. Judging status by the acquisition of objects. Jockeying amongst their perceived peers. Caring about their status."
"You wouldn't describe them as buyers? Nmmmm."
Cleo turned to look at the artist. The wrinkles around his eyes showed that he was smiling, but there was no smile across his lips.
"Oddly, no. They're not here to buy. They're here to be seen."
"Mmmmm. Then where are the buyers?"
"I...uh," Cleo pulled her arms towards her body, and folded her hands into her lap, pressing her knuckles nervously into her thighs. "Who are you?" she whispered.
The artist let a smile spread from his mouth. He tipped his chin downward, letting his wayfarers slip down his nose. His eyes were penetrating, with dark gray irises that spiraled instead of radiated from the pupil. In an instant, a nictating membrane slid across his left eye, wetting it, then slid back. He did not blink with his eyelids. Cleo felt suddenly cold, but broke out into a sweat.
"Nnnnn." The artist flicked his sunglasses back up the bridge of his nose and leaned back in his chair. Cleo looked back at the throng, a sick pit forming in her stomach.
"They're the artwork, aren't they," she said. The artist didn't respond, but he started swaying his crossed-over foot.
"I'm not...please tell me I'm not for sale."
"You grew up in wealth, nnnnn."
"How do you know that?" asked Cleo, her voice tremulous.
"You grew up in wealth and yet you ignore its trappings, for the most part. Nnnn. You look at them with pity."
"I, uh..." she glanced again at Aureliano, who started to walk towards them.
"Nnnnnn. Don't pity them for who they are," said the artist. "They don't even know they're art."
"B-but who...who are the buyers?" asked Cleo.
The artist smiled and tilted his face to the sky. Then he laughed lightly, got up, and walked back to the crowd, passing Aureliano.
"Are you okay?" asked Aureliano.
"Let's go," said Cleo. She stood shakily, bumping the table so that it scraped against the cement. Aureliano took her arm and steadied her.
"What did he say?"
"He's nuts. He's just nuts. Pulling a prank."
They quickly walked towards the door back into the mansion, but Cleo stopped, pressing her fingers into Aureliano's arms, then kneading them.
"Sorry. I...I have to say something to them. Just in case."
Cleo swung around. The artist was in the center of the crowd again, making small talk, somehow drawing the people in, but he was watching her.
"Caveat fucking emptor!" she screamed in a deep voice. All the faces turned towards her and the crowd went silent. "Don't you ever, ever, think we're unaware!" She let go of Aureliano's arm, blood welling up in her face in a warm, fortifying rush. "You don't have any idea what you're inviting. Every person, every human, has the capacity to understand just what you are, and just what you're selling. It is primal within us! And we will not tolerate it. So I suggest you leave before you have anything to regret."
The crowd looked at her blankly. The artist chuckled, but no one else joined in. Instead the crowd broke apart slowly, dispersing, making awkward little blurts of subdued conversation.
"What...was that?" asked Aureliano, grinning.
"I just panned his work," said Cleo. "And maybe saved the human race. Come on." The strode through the mansion, and back out to the Skyliner.