Fine Art FINAL Cover 4.15I am sitting behind my desk watching the downpour when I catch the scent of bacon.

Dunbar is in the building again, despite the restraining order.
 I close my eyes as if that might enhance my sense of smell and wonder if Ramona can detect the bacon back in her office. No doubt she’s sitting in her Herman Miller Aeron chair, tucked behind her computer screen, sneakered feet barely reaching the floor, her compact runner’s body folded in half at the waist, not in an attempt to hide or be secretive, but trying to physically burrow into A Beat of the Heart or Under the Sheets or whatever other period-specific, euphemistically risqué bodice-ripper she has open in her lap. I know what’s going on back there. Fantasizing. Role playing. Vicarious pleasure seeking. Page after page of cream-whipped breasts pressing up against bulging pectorals and arrowhead pelts of silky chest hair, heaving women impaling themselves on the swollen brawn of lust-crazed men, “shattering” in any number of adventurous positions and locales.

Ramona used to be competent. She used to be organized, precise, militantly efficient, the tireless director of the School of Visual Arts—my boss—and the sort of woman who wouldn’t bother to scoff at paperback love. Now, under the screen name FlexibleTigress, she’s the most frequent commenter at RomancingTheBlog.com.

Early this past fall, before she was so far afield, Ramona and I faced difficulty trying to legally bar a tenured professor from his place of employ, even a pathological agitator like Bert Dunbar. The man considers himself an edgy New York City artist- provocateur and lives in constant struggle against the geographical and circumstantial facts that he is something else, namely, a Midwestern drawing teacher. In his screwball mind he affirms his artistic relevance (to peers, students, the voices in his head) with his action art, elaborate schemes designed to upend the administration. When ignored, he cries creative censorship and then, when that backward reasoning doesn’t get anyone’s attention, he insists it’s meta-censorship—censorship of the censorship.

Dunbar’s oeuvre includes hatching ticks in the school’s main gallery as a statement against the blood-sucking School of Visual Arts management and assigning his Performance Art II class to assemble a twelve-person Viking battleship—“my ketch, my schooner, my clinker-built knarr,” Dunbar said—then take it on the river to fire what were called in the incident report, “human waste cannonballs,” at the SVA building. He requires artistically and motivationally substandard students, permitted to enroll in his courses by yours truly, to wear straightjackets for the duration of one or more class periods, depending on the degree of their unimaginativeness. He once erected a watchtower (a repurposed children’s playhouse) just off campus and lived in it for a week of “anti-art reconnaissance.” He kept logs and diaries detailing not only the movements of various deans and ombudspersons but also his own food and sleep-deprived delirium (page after page of anthropomorphic bananas, entire banana families, bananas in tuxedos and sportswear, and, toward the end, bananas engaged in sex acts with more tiny bananas for genitalia), all of which he made available for public viewing at the year-end faculty show.

One might think these escapades would be sufficient for restraint, but Dunbar has been at it for decades and drapes himself in the protective cloak of detailed, amended, indexed, claused, and infuriatingly air-tight consent and release forms, signed by each student in each of his courses on the first day of each semester, well before they know they’re handing over their mental, emotional, and at times, physical liberties to a complete and total whack job.

What we finally busted him for was peeping on a nude model in an evening drawing class. Dunbar claimed he was on the ladder to change a lightbulb but Brandon Nichols, a generally disgruntled and once straight-jacketed undergraduate, said he saw Dunbar leering over the classroom divider, “practically slobbering on that naked chick.” It wasn’t a strong enough case to fire him (he did, in fact, have a lightbulb in his possession), but when a young person suggests sexual misconduct, municipal civil judges are quick with powers of injunction. We take what we can get.
I stalk out of my office, licking my lips, on the hunt. Catching Dunbar in violation

of the restraining order is one of my professional charges as administrative coordinator of the School of Visual Arts. He is allowed to enter the facility only when he is teaching and under no circumstances may he communicate—verbally, electronically, culinarily—with faculty, staff, or students not registered for one of his courses. Since issuance of the restraining order, he has been sneaking into the building and firing up a hot plate in a corner, closet, or unused office and frying bacon. The scent overtakes the building, letting us all know he does not intend to go quietly. Or rather, nonodorously.

In person, Dunbar is a befuddled, incoherent, untucked goon of a man, the consent and release forms, prepared at his behest by a pricey and commensurately skilled attorney, the only indication of productive brain function. That he can do anything remotely elusive, let alone repeatedly, is astounding to me. And yet we haven’t caught him in the act. I haven’t caught him in the act. But after he vacates the building, I know where he’s been; he leaves calling cards, green gourds grown into molds of his own making, carved with his initials. The first was in the shape of a painter’s palette, but they’ve become more antagonistic, the most recent a remarkable replica of a dove making a crude gesture with its feathered wing. The time and effort it must take to prepare the intricate molds then tenderly grow gourds into those molds indicates to me the depth of his depravity. What kind of man does that to a vegetable?

I’ve collected the eleven gourds we’ve found so far and arranged them on a bookshelf in my office as motivation to catch Dunbar red-handed, something general counsel says we must do before we can take further legal action. Even if we do catch him, we’re not certain it will be considered a fire-able offense, so we’re working on a plan to claim the gourds and bacon constitute communication and are therefore transgressive of the restraining order—another strategy Ramona laid out before veering off into fantasy land.

Out in the atrium, the scent of prey in my nose, I walk toward the stairs and inhale, sniffing like a bloodhound on the trail, my olfactory nerve—not to mention adrenal glands—alert. I look around the atrium for any indication of where Dunbar might be. Smokey air. A trail of grease perhaps. Gourd shavings. I am out for blood.

Ethan, my husband, is constantly telling me I shouldn’t let Dunbar get to me, that it’s useless to reprehend the motivations and behaviors of others, especially certifiable, tenured art faculty. “Everyone’s doing their best, Nina, and you can’t expect more than that.” This is his mantra. Everyone’s doing their best. Everyone’s doing their best. Everyone’s doing their best, Nina. Like he truly doesn’t believe in personal malice. Like there’s no such thing as gratuitous incivility. He tells me, “Dunbar is out of his gourd.”

Ethan makes this little joke frequently, always looking at me like maybe this time you’ll get it, and I tell him, first of all, I do get it, it’s just not funny. And second, he can laugh only because he doesn’t have to deal with Dunbar day in and day out. That’s not true, though. Ethan would laugh even if he was in my position. He’d love it. He is another infuriating kind of human being, the incessantly optimistic type who actually lives his own mantra and would never be ruffled, certainly not provoked, by a man so mentally defective, so completely ridiculous as Bert Dunbar. I accept that Ethan’s perverse optimism and good cheer are likely the reasons he loves me but, the fact is, hearing his voice in my head telling me to give Dunbar a break, to have fun with him

(“How can you resist pranking him back? I have some ideas…”), only invigorates my bloodlust.

I take a deep bacon-laced breath and wonder about Ethan’s agenda. This morning he said, “I was hoping we could meet for lunch today, at noon at the Red Herring?” We do occasionally have lunch together, but not like this, not premeditated, like an appointment. Ethan prefers spontaneity to actual plans, showing up unannounced, dragging me to the new Indian restaurant in a neighboring town. I spent much of my morning distracted by speculation. Maybe they’ve asked him to be chairman of the Physics Department, and, though it’ll be good for his career, it’ll mean a lot more time at the office. Perhaps he finally bought the Triumph motorcycle he’s been eyeing and wants me to trade in the Subaru and thinks this will be problematic for me, which it will. Maybe he slept with one of his grad students.

In my imagination, I followed this last scenario all the way to the moment of confession and then on through the ensuing outrage and break-up. I’m not sure if it was the train-wreck appeal of the storyline, but I had a hard time ignoring the sparkle of energy that coursed my shoulder blades as I pictured myself bawling over Ethan’s infidelity, telling him that his remorse, no matter how sincere, couldn’t undo the betrayal. It was too late, the damage was done. It was over.

Standing in the School of Visual Arts atrium—a three-story-tall open cylinder with a Jackson Pollock adorning its putty-colored façade, stairs corkscrewing up along the wall—I close my eyes and take a more measured breath, trying to gauge from which direction the bacon scent is coming. Rain pounds the building’s corrugated steel roof, and it’s like the noise is interfering with my sense of smell. If only it was silent I’d be able to sniff out exactly where Dunbar is hiding. I think of the noise-canceling headphones sitting on my desk, the ones Ethan gave me for Christmas last year—the best present I’ve ever received—but I wore them all yesterday and the batteries are dead. I sniff again and head for the stairs.

When I reach the second story, I turn left down a wide glassed-in hallway that is cantilevered out over the river, sticking off the side of the silo-shaped building like a tree branch. Maybe Dunbar is in the Art Library.

As I do every time I walk this corridor, I look out at the Pollock—acknowledge it, revere it—hanging high above the atrium, dead even with the second-story mezzanine. It’s one of his lesser-known works, a smaller abstract, supposedly a portrait, though there’s disagreement regarding commission and subject. Completed in 1947, it precedes his famous “drip stage,” all those large-scale paint-flung masterpieces, though this one is by no means diminutive: fifty-five inches high, sixty-seven inches across, nearly four- and-a-half feet tall by five-and-a-half-feet wide, facts I’ve recounted to inattentive prospective students on countless building tours. I can’t look at it without thinking of Pollock’s own description. A stampede, he called it. Everything barreling across that goddamn surface.

The library doors come into view, up ahead on the right. I spent an afternoon last week mapping and categorizing the building’s electrical outlets, rating them one through five—five being best, one being worst —based on their potential for clandestine bacon frying. I know there are two somewhat hidden but still accessible plugs amid the library’s stacks that I rated “fours” and another one behind the graduate carrels I gave a “three.” The pounding rain is amplified by the hallway’s thick aquarium-glass walls, and it sound sas if the drops are falling in unison, like an enormous electric drill turning against an immovable screw. It distracts me for a half a second but when I walk farther down the hall toward the library, the smell of bacon intensifies, fueling my pursuit.

I reach for the library doors, sensing Dunbar’s presence, certain I’m closing in on him, when Suzanne Betts, professor of sculpture and faculty advisor of my MFA graduation committee ten years ago, turns the corner at the end of the hall and marches toward me, purple suede clogs pigeon-toed and clomping, red sundress aflutter, canvas messenger bag yanked across her body, flopped open and practically animate, spewing papers, folders, books, some kind of miniature orange traffic cone, and what looks like a two-by-four. Suzanne and I became close when I was a grad student and are like family now. She often takes shameless advantage of our personal friendship for professional profit and I can see by her expression of pre-apology and the scraggly looking boy ambling behind her that this morning will be no exception. The boy is wearing tight tapered jeans that look like they belong on his thirteen-year-old sister, a too-small t-shirt adorned with the artificially faded graphic of some band or another, laceless red converse all-stars, an asymmetrically hacked mullet, and some kind of scummy kerchief around his neck.

“We were just coming to find you,” Suzanne says. She points to the arty ragamuffin. “Nina Lanning, this is Mathias Daman, my absolute most promising undergraduate student.” Suzanne says this about nearly every student at one point or another, not because she has that teacherly yearning to be adored but because, like Ethan, she is perilously optimistic and needs, simply needs, to believe in the talent of young artists.

“Nice to meet you, Mathias.” There was a time when I knew most of the undergrads by name. These days I’m lucky if I recognize a face.

“What’s up.” He looks at me like I don’t get it, whatever it might be. I have never been a hateful person so I’m surprised by an impulse to take him by the kerchief and bark, “cut your hair you little mutt.” I clasp my hands behind my back.

“There’s been a robbery in the third floor gallery,” Suzanne says.

“Ok, well, can we deal with it a little later? I’m right in the middle of something.” Suzanne looks at me like I’ve just said Damien Hirst is a nincompoop. Her sense of smell is perfectly intact, she knows exactly what “something” I’m right in the middle of, and evidently does not agree it supersedes a burgled student.

“Come on,” she says.

“Why don’t you call campus police? They’ll probably be happy to have something to do. Tell them a work of fine art has been stolen. A real caper.” I don’t mean to sound sarcastic, that’s just how it comes out.

“Nina.” She glances at Mathias and I note that he is the one getting her look of apology now.

“Alright,” I say. “Let’s go see what happened.”

___________________

Cate Dicharry_Print Ready_Michael KreiserCATE DICHARRY graduated from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, OR with a BA in Political Science in 2003. Cate moved to China to teach English at Dalian Nationalities University and discovered a love for creative writing. Cate went on to earn an MFA in Creative Writing from the Low Residency Program at the University of California, Riverside. Cate lives in Iowa City with her husband and two small sons. The Fine Art of Fucking Up is her first novel.

Adapted from The Fine Art of Fucking Up, by Cate Dicharry, Copyright © 2015 by Cate Dicharry. With the permission of the publisher, Unnamed Press.

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One response to “Excerpt of The Fine Art of Fucking Up, by Cate Dicharry”

  1. Nancey says:

    ‘Culinarily’!! love that, love this.. can’t wait to read. thank you.

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