The Cleanest Gas Station Bathroom in all of Georgia

The Cleanest in Georgia

The SARDINE gallery was filled with the right blend of glitterati taste-makers and upstart scene-snobs — each desperate to mix in with NYC’s old guard of art elite. Stephen noticed a sly smile from his agent. Julia’s meticulous plan to invite the perfect guest list had been a smashing success. While Stephen didn’t recognize everyone, a few notable attendees caught his eye. In the far corner of the gallery where his centerpiece hung stood none other than Blue Herring and Tricky Lix — two artists that “got him through college,” as he would later be quoted in an article for Juxtapoz magazine.

Stephen Grant thought about striking up a conversation with his former heroes, himself vying to join their elusive club — but that felt thirsty. “Let them come to me, or not at all,” he muttered between sips of alembic brandy, “it’s my goddamned moment.” Scanning the room, Stephen noticed more than a few eager faces he assumed had burning questions or designs for climbing the social ladder. Wishing to remain mysterious and elusive, he rushed into conversation with his agent in the opposite corner.

“How’s your champagne, Julia?” He asked.

“Chilled and bubbly, how else would it be?” She replied. “Have you been making the rounds? I have two interviews scheduled before we head to the afterparty.”

“Let me polish off another brandy before you unleash the bloggers.”

“Drink fast, before they grow fickle, but don’t drink too fast and then shoot your mouth off like last time,” she scolded, recalling his last, unfortunately controversial, interview. “If all goes well, by this time tomorrow, there should be enough think-pieces published to put your book on every Eames coffee table in Manhattan.”

“I eagerly await my place in haut monde. Remind me again, what’s your percentage of the sales?” Stephen rhetorically quizzed.

“Not what I’m worth, I assure you. Don’t look, but I believe Blue Herring is headed this way.”

“Who?” Stephen joked. The expression on Julia’s face was not one of amusement.

“Be nice. He still has clout.”

“Yes, but for how long?” He asked, then turned, ready for anything Blue might dish out. Art was a war of pettiness, after all.

Up close, Blue Herring appeared weathered and used up, his trademark Manic-Panic Blue mane thinning away while his middle thickened. The familiar black overalls didn’t do enough to disguise this. Blue’s outward aesthetic had been described as a clash of Goth and redneck, or “Blackneck,” as Rolling Stone coined it in an early profile. Stephen did, in fact, admire him while in college, but Blue hadn’t exhibited anything of interest in at least three years, which may as well have been three decades. The art world he inhabited was nothing if not cruel, and it always asked: “What have you done for me lately?”

Although Blue had posted up directly in front of Stephen, he continued fingering at his phone in silence. The way he used only his index finger was the clearest indicator of his age. Just as Stephen’s curiosity began to wane, Blue locked eyes with him, then gestured toward the photo hanging behind him.

“On behalf of my dear friend, Tricky — who rightfully felt the need to excuse herself from your party — I must ask you a question concerning this photograph.”

“Ask away, Mr. Herring, but if you’re looking to purchase, I’m afraid that print has been sold,” Stephen said.

“To a tasteless dolt, I’d imagine. I’m afraid I won’t be financially supporting your thievery,” Blue replied hastily. “Rather, I’m here to offer a critique.”

“Come again? Thievery?”

“Observe this photograph, Mr. Grant, taken by one Tricky Lix in June of ’76.” Blue held his phone inches from Stephen’s reddening face.

“Surely you see the similarities in composition and subject matter, yes? Two bathroom stalls are captured, both covered in graffiti and expletives, complete with phone numbers and seedy invitations for affairs of the flesh. Tricky’s series on the underground was the original, rooted in the sordid clubs that resided mere blocks from here in the not so distant past. So, I ask the supposed artist responsible for this particular photo — what makes yours unique, and not just an insulting carbon-copy?”

Stephen took a step backward from Blue’s screen. A small crowd of curious onlookers gathered, pining for drama. Herring’s thick drawl added a bothersome sharpness to his accusations, but Stephen refused to let that rattle him. He simply turned from Herring, facing his piece head-on, and let his hands rest on his hips. Blue Herring had no idea who he had just fucked with.

“To call this picture a copy suggests you aren’t looking closely enough, Blue. I need you to really pay attention, examine the picture for the story I’m telling.” Stephen draped an arm over Blue’s shoulder, pulling him closer to the photograph. The pressure on Blue’s neck lit up the veins in his forehead and was most assuredly intentional.

“The geography is crucial to unlocking the message of my piece. You see, this particular bathroom stall is located on the backside of the Save-A-Stop, off of I-23 outside of Waycross, Georgia. The illicit messages seen in this stall are primarily homosexual in nature, scribbled in secret for the most part. Secondarily, these invitations were written in desperation, not desire — all to fund the next fix. The community in which this photo and all the others were taken is overrun with opioid addiction, after all.”

Blue squirmed beneath Stephen’s arm, but he held him there, saying, “When venturing that far south, you also notice the climate as it relates to homosexuals. Didn’t you grow up in some podunk town in Kentucky? ‘Pinecone’ or something? Surely you can relate?”

“I did, and can, but can you?” Blue replied shortly.

Stephen flatly ignored his question. “Consider Tricky’s portrait — the location being the cultural Mecca of the free world, at the height of sexual exploration no less. Yes, the punk club is dirty, but by design. The Save-A-Stop isn’t just dirty, it’s dilapidated, and much like the community it resides in, it’s on the brink of collapse. Both of our photographs contain offers of gratuitous sex acts, but what I’ve captured on film tells a story altogether different from Ms. Lix. It’s freedom of the exploratory kind, versus desperate slavery to addiction, don’t you see?” he concluded at last.

Blue forcefully removed himself from Stephen’s aggressive embrace, then took a step back. He regarded his foe for a moment before declaring, “Perhaps, but it’s not your story to tell, now is it?”

With his criticisms spoken, Blue Herring exited the gallery. Stephen regained his sense of the room, noticing the curious stares. He looked to Julia, who disrupted the awkwardness with an afterparty announcement — which wisely included the last-minute addition of an open bar.

The gamble worked, as nothing silences schadenfreude like free alcohol. Two potent party pills and seven cocktails later, Stephen had flushed his former idol’s critique from his mind. As he lay in bed the next morning, he considered his first big opening a success. And in reality it would’ve been — if not for Blue Herring.

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