Blake Purcell had led a successful campaign to force the municipal government of Sydney to cut off all funding for the arts. Now he was campaigning hard for a libertarian who might well be Australia’s next prime minister. On a bright afternoon in May, Blake climbed out of a metro station in King’s Cross and walked three blocks up Darlinghurst Road in the direction of a restaurant where he planned to have lunch with one of the attorneys for Angela Henderson, the ultra-rich mining magnate who felt rather ambivalent about the campaign. He saw himself, with some justification, as a slick front man for the campaign who might just win over the in-house counsel from Henderson Mines.

This little day trip wasn’t quite what he’d had in mind. Public transportation wasn’t congenial for Blake, but he didn’t like to drive his Acura NSX within the city, for he’d have to park it where strangers might key the prized vehicle or do even worse. So it was buses, trains, and walking. Today, the clouds had vanished and lucid warm air hung over everything like a question mark. Perhaps it was a bit too nice out, for Blake had to dart and weave his way through a frieze of skateboarders with orange or purple hair, dopers, slackers, tattooed punks, runaways, prostitutes, and beggars, nodding at the odd businessmen or cop passing in the other direction.

As he stood at an intersection waiting for a walk signal, Blake could not help noticing a tall bearded man in a green cotton shirt and a pair of dark gray trunks lolling in the doorway of a record store, gazing at him with a sullen cross look. He mused about the number of freaks out in public today, dismissed the weirdo from his mind, and continued up Darlinghurst until he reached the Thai restaurant where the attorney was waiting. An hour and a half later, when Blake stepped out of the restaurant and began looking for a cab, he noticed the tall angry man, lingering under the awning of a butcher shop across the street, unmistakably making eye contact with him again.

The tall man’s hairy hands were at his side, his fingers splayed, his arms a bit arched as if infused with an energy the man didn’t wish to squander. The stranger did not appear to be in the middle of anything except gazing intently at the young campaign official in a pink and white shirt. Blake walked a block and a half in the direction from which he’d come before he was finally able to flag down a taxi. For the remainder of the day, he thought about his meeting with the attorney, about how much he craved Angela Henderson’s backing, about how that support, if and when he obtained it, could make other people within the campaign as relevant as old telegraph machines in the Twitter age.

The next day, Blake was walking up an avenue in Paddington, this time on his way to an elegant wine bar where he was due to meet with John Chance, one of the wealthiest men in Oxford Street. The potential donor had multiplied his own wealth by lending support to numerous P3 infrastructural projects, dams or highways mostly, in Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria. Here, the blue above contrasted exquisitely with the cream-hued façade of a house’s upper story or the black thatches of a church tower’s roof, the sidewalks were spacious and clean, and most of the people Blake passed wore Brooks Brothers or Giorgio Armani suits. The near-absence of pedestrians made it all the easier to notice the bearded stranger peering through the front window of a little ceramic arts gallery on the far side of the street.

Yes, there was the tall, sullen fellow whose arms could neither rest nor receive any instructions from their owner, so they kind of dangled at his sides, fingers wide apart, twitching. Blake walked two blocks north, turned west, and shut the bearded man out of his thoughts as he rehearsed his pitch to the investor in his head. When he stepped out of the wine bar an hour later, he hurriedly looked up and down the empty street for ninety seconds before setting off again. Blake thought, That must NEVER happen again. No potential donor can ever see me acting like a shifty-eyed bunny right after I’ve spent two hours touting this campaign.

Hours later, Blake was jubilant when he received a note from John Chance pledging a huge donation to the campaign. He immediately sent out a self-congratulatory letter from the campaign headquarters to everyone involved. Blake wasn’t brooding about the bearded man when he got home that evening. When he set off to meet with the CEO of a tech company at an office in Glebe the following morning, Blake drew confidence from a shift in the polls indicating that the campaign’s message was beginning to catch on in what had been pockets of stiff resistance. The shift wasn’t more than the typical margin of error in any opinion poll, but when you’ve been so desperate for so long it hardly matters.

Any jump in the polls was due to Blake’s acumen, and any drop was the result of all the factors that a local journalist had analyzed in his reports for the SydneyHerald. Blake climbed out of a cab at the corner of Campbell and Norton Streets and took six steps before he paused and turned around, looking down Norton. A maintenance crew in olive green outfits was making its way up the street toward Campbell, and behind the workers, a bearded man, caught off guard by Blake’s vigilance, tried too late to avert his gaze from Blake and plod up the street in the most innocuous fashion, as if doing what he did every day. In a second Blake was pressing his cell phone to his ear. As it turned out, a squad car had been idling two blocks away, and the cops got there in seconds, before the bearded man could proceed far up Norton.

The precinct was blocks away. Within minutes, officers stood around the bearded man in a drab blue room, alternately threatening him and trying to make sense out of his talk about the status of art, about Caliban casting out Ariel. This weirdo was named Mark Sinclair. In the cops’ minds, he was the worst kind of radical artist, unstable, semi-employed, and full of loathing.

Blake thought that at last an obstacle to raising funds and winning converts was gone forever. Then he received a call from John Chance, one of the wealthiest men in Oxford Street. Blake had just sent out that highly self-congratulatory letter to everyone involved with the campaign, trumpeting the $2 million pledged by the eminent Mr. Chance.

The presumptive donor wanted Blake to know what Briony Chance, John’s daughter, had done following the arrest of Mark Sinclair. Blake was a practical person, and idealistic in his crass, blinkered way. He could not understand severe depression. In order for him to make sense of what John Chance told him, Blake had to read a note Briony had left for her father.

Dear Father,
It was with a growing malice toward myself that I set nine canvases aflame. The colors had refused for so long to do my bidding. Or, to be more accurate, the colors did exactly as I bid, they fell into all the arrangements I had envisioned.

Having lived in this town for quite a few years, you knew well enough about my interest in art, but not about my attempts to make art of my own. Well, no one questioned my need for some kind of diversion. For so many months, I had followed or preceded my aging parents all around Paddington, up and down Oxford Street, never failing to note the reactions of waiters at the upscale cafés when our troupe made an appearance. How quickly they grew obsequious at the sight of my father, a gray-haired man with a sunburned face whose gut was in constant rebellion against the confines of his dark blue suit, walking hand in hand with my mother, a coquettish 46-year-old in a frumpy purple dress, behind a girl who had once considered it an imperative to point out the fashionable new places in the neighborhood to them and now did so as a reflex. The gallery owners in the neighborhood grew just as obsequious as the waiters, pretending to take an interest in the work of a girl whose ingenuity consisted of using blue to convey sadness or red to convey the intensity of desire. Let’s face it: My abstract paintings were little more than concentric rings distinguishable by the shades of color within, and my landscape paintings had an indistinct quality that my parents tried to dignify as representing a skewed, stoned perspective on the world. (If only!) Like most artists, I’d much rather face scornful rejection than phony enthusiasm, but these rituals went on, and on, and on, and on.

It was with a supreme malice toward myself that I locked the door in my room on the upper floor of the house on Oxford Street, took a seat at the rear window, and watched the soil in the yard outside turn to mulch on an ugly afternoon. A low whisper came through the knotty clouds as the air turned more somber. I let my hands roam a bit, not out of any erotic desire, oh no, but from a kind of curiosity and wonder. The skin on my wrists and at the base of my neck felt so soft, so tender. Hours passed. The rain seemed to grow thicker in tandem with my caresses of my bare flesh. I lingered there by the window for a few minutes, touching myself with more and more avidity, until one of the maids on the ground floor called up to me and made me aware of a presence in the courtyard on the other side of the house. At first I did not believe her. I did not get up. My fingers kept exploring. She called again and I knew this was no joke. I knew he was standing patiently out there, getting soaked, grinning in spite of the clouds’ alignment, but I didn’t want to see anyone just now. I let him get wetter.

A week later, I was at the house in Balmain where you and I met in person on an evening when pinot noir had bereft me of the maturity to behave like a proper hostess. (In truth, father, I wanted very much to humiliate you. How’d I do?) On this occasion, the house was nearly empty. My footsteps resounded dully on the dustless wooden stairs as memories came, none of them welcome, of those who had filled the spaces around me on that evening and others. I secluded myself in my room, located in this house, as at the other one, in a nook at the rear of the top floor, and gazed out onto the scene below where I had stood for so many hours in front of a canvas. The drizzle outside was not nearly strong enough to quench flames if I set a canvas afire, but in spite of all the building frustration, I didn’t really feel tempted just now. At that moment I just wanted to get the memories right.

I relished those images of flames curling the edges of canvases the shape and thickness of coffin lids, little islands of blackness that gained mass and branched outward into dozens of crags and promontories and multiplied into archipelagos, of angry aggressive crackling, an acrid odor, plumes, cascades of rising smoke, of all the purples, grays, blues, and yellows subsumed into rushing black. Flames leapt and sprang with agility within the neat rectangle of a wealthy girl’s porch. I told myself that rather than despair at the fate of the art I’d tried for so long to sell, I should feel elation at the end of false constrictive forms, joy at possibility in the face of such heat as you’d have encountered in the first hours of the world. But, of course, when I peered through the window of my room on the third floor on this dreary afternoon, I witnessed nothing at all to match my memories. Here was drizzle on barren grass. It was so dank and lonely here I felt tempted to explore the slittable parts of my body once again, to flesh out the current possibilities, until I happened to scan the eastern edge of the yard, and I saw him again. Yes, I made him out clearly. He stood there stoically under the drizzle, letting me take my time.

I went downstairs and moved out onto the porch. He came to me. Mark Sinclair, who had admired and written to me from a distance and had only once before committed the indiscretion of inviting himself onto my family’s property. He must have plenty to say, I thought. Mark expressed his opinion of the canvases of mine he’d seen, and he said it’s quite true, all artists worthy of the name are struggling, waging a battle against despair and suicide, that one might measure the value of a canvas by the number of buyers who’ve turned it down. He added, “May I tell you why, when it comes to suffering, a failed artist has nothing on a cancer patient?”

We talked for six hours, father. He told me about the cancer lodges, and about going through his late teens and twenties as a monorchid. Here was, essentially, a stranger, and I knew the most personal and private facts of his existence. From a certain point of view, he was the bravest person I had met. I’d still be able to meet with him and receive his affection if not for you, father. Now there’s nothing in this world to keep me around.

Today it is my humble wish that my family’s immense resources might do something useful for art.

Sincerely yours,

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer with a B.A. in English from Grinnell College.