In academia, as in dating, we strive to make good first impressions. And where do we do this? At faculty holiday parties? Possibly. But mostly, we do this in the course catalog. We do this when we spell out our classes—Accounting, Economics, or, in this case, Art History—and try to convey that in our classrooms we’ll engage not only in study, but in the sensual passion of study we feel inside us, the sensual passion that drove us to become scholars. So then, is art history just a study of the history of art? Or is it a swelling in the, er, corduroys? That’s a great question, and one that Marc Sheehan tries to shed light on here, in this, the first installment of his Introductions To series, in which we rediscover the passion behind course listings.
Wearing a double-breasted wool overcoat, a pince-nez and bowler hat, I walk on my knees into a bar called the Moulin Rouge. I’m exhausted from looking for a bar with this very name. Hoping to be recognized, I order an absinthe.
As the bartender pours ice water through a sugar cube balanced on a slotted spoon and into the absinthe, a biker with the word “Cacafogo” stitched to the back of his dirty denim vest looks down at me, recognition blossoming behind his bloodshot eyes.
“Hey, I know you,” he says.
“Yes,” I say modestly, reaching up for my absinthe.
“Yeah, that actor. Jose Ferrer. Love that movie about that French painter.”
“No, no. I’m Toulouse Lautrec, the painter himself. Anyway, Jose Ferrer died almost twenty years ago,” I point out.
“Ain’t you dead too?” the biker asks, raising his glass of beer.
I sip the absinthe. It’s not as good as I remember it being in Paris. “Art is eternal,” I say. “Ergo, the artist is eternal.”
The biker slams his glass down, suds spilling across the scarred bar. “You sayin’ Jose Ferrer ain’t an artist?”
I try to stand, hoping to make my excuses and leave, but I am standing already even though I have to reach up to retrieve my empty glass. I adjust my spectacles and order another absinthe.
“Forgive me. It’s my brain. I am alcoholic and syphilitic,” I say, gulping down my absinthe.
“Who isn’t?” the biker retorts.
“How about a round of absinthe for everybody?” I ask.
“We’re the only ones here,” the biker points out.
I shove my hands into the pockets of my striped pants. “Just as well,” I say. “I seem to be low on francs.”
The biker snorts. “I bet Jose Ferrer would never be short of cash and anyway, it’s Euros now, not francs.”
“What’s a Euro?” I ask.
“The official currency of most of Europe, including France,” the biker says.
I order another absinthe, wishing I had some of these Euros.
“That’ll be eighteen dollars,” says the bartender, sliding the absinthe toward me.
I reach down further into my pockets. “How much is that in francs… or Euros?”
The biker shakes his head. “Here,” he says to the bartender, “tossing the bartender some American money he takes from a wallet attached to a huge chrome chain. “Can I give you a lift somewhere?” he asks me.
I drain my absinthe. The world looks beautiful. At least, the bar, the bartender, and the biker look beautiful—ergo, the world must look beautiful.
“I should get back to the brothel,” I say. “I feel ready to transform the women there into angels.”
“Okay, I know where that is,” the biker says.
Then I am sitting in the sidecar of a motorcycle, my bowler hat in my lap, the wind howling through my hair. The biker looks down at me and smiles evilly. Oh god, I realize too late, I should have been Winslow Homer!
Marc J. Sheehan is the author of two poetry collections—Greatest Hits and Vengeful Hymns. His flash fiction story “Objet du Desir” won the Stella Kupferberg Memorial Short Story Contest sponsored by the public radio program Selected Shorts and was read on stage in New York by David Rakoff. His flash fiction story “The Dauphin” was broadcast on Weekend All Things Considered as part of its Three-Minute Fiction series. Other pieces of his short fiction have recently appeared in Passages North, Pithead Chapel and The Museum of Americana.