November 13, 2021
Below is an excerpt from Adam Soldofsky’s forthcoming novella, Telepaphone, which includes illustrations by Axel Wilhite. Preorder your copy here.
Before we were friends I used to watch him, half-lovesick, from a distance in art school. The low formation of academic buildings came together in a pavilion with large grassy flights descending onto a shady lawn. Axel would sit near the top only somewhat out of the sun, legs crossed in conversation with a classmate, listening with his chin raised and lips slightly pursed or pulling earnestly from the little vape pen he was never without. He was handsome, dressed cool, was smart and unpretentious and his work was excellent. The faculty knew he was going to be great and we all did too and there was no reason to begrudge him for it though that didn’t stop some. He’d already had a few paintings in a serious group show and it was known that a well-regarded gallerist was awaiting his final portfolio. I loved his work from the first time I encountered it. It was ravishing and self-evident. You knew it was the real thing, and by implication you knew your own work was not, which stung but what could you do? You could still have a career, maybe just not a memorable one.
We didn’t have a class together until our final semester. The professor was a rather important Conceptualist. She would only allow for “description” during crits and under that principle said a lot of cruel and unflattering things without seeming to realize just how cruel and unflattering, which could be funny if you weren’t too far up your own ass, which most of us were, so we suffered when we could have had a laugh. At the end of it we installed our supposed best work in the graduation show hoping for some interest beyond family and friends. I hadn’t said much to Axel all semester except to praise what he brought to crits. I tried not to but sometimes I would look at him across the circle of students where he sat and wonder about him. Every once in a while he would catch me and smile in a friendly way that made me ashamed to have been born. Something was definitely wrong with me. It’s not that I wasn’t liked by my peers. I’ve always had friends and gotten along. I usually gelled with my teammates. I had loved and been loved in return, at least as far as I could tell. It was mainly that, for as long as I could remember, I’d harbored a suspicion that I was basically, at my core, full of shit, and nothing that had transpired in my life thus far had convinced me otherwise.
The day when we were supposed to be clearing out our campus studios, I heard a knock at my door and there was Axel Wilhite, leaning in the threshold.
“What’s the score?” he said.
I had the Dodgers game on my little radio but I hadn’t been paying attention to it.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I think they’re losing.”
He gestured at the stool by my drafting table and I motioned him in.
He sat down and we listened to the game for a minute. There was a box of my sketches open on the desk and he picked up a few and looked them over. He put them back without saying anything while I watched him.
“You all packed up?” I asked and he shrugged. Then he said:
“Didn’t you used to play for the Dodgers or something?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“But you were a pro, I heard.”
I had given this bit of information about myself so many times, and because every retelling still wounded me, I had it down to the bare minimum of language. I explained that I was drafted out of high school by the Minnesota Twins organization, and spent three years in their farm system without much success before losing my desire to compete and calling it quits.
“So who did you play for then?”
“The Fort Myers Miracle and the Chattanooga Lookouts.”
“From the Chattanooga Lookouts to the CalArts Weirdos.”
“Ha, I guess so.”
He laughed and pointed to the radio.
“Hey they’re playing the Cardinals again tomorrow.”
“Yeah, they have them back to back.”
He scratched his head and wrinkled up his nose saying:
“This is kind of random but are you at all interested in going?”
“What, to the ballgame?”
“Yeah,” he said. “My buddy flaked and I have an extra ticket. It’s yours if you’d be down to drive.”
“You sure? You could probably sell it.”
“No, I don’t feel like sitting with some rando. Are you busy tomorrow?”
I had plans to sit around my apartment and drink beer alone. Maybe do some laundry.
“Not really,” I said.
“My buddy was supposed to drive,” he said. “I don’t have a car right now.”
“I can drive us.”
“Yeah, you don’t mind?”
“I mean, you’re taking care of my ticket.”
“One hundred percent.”
He wrote down his address and phone number on a scrap of paper and handed it over.
“You’re not going to bail on me too are you?”
“No, I’m looking forward to it.”
Back then I drove an old Volvo 240 station wagon. It was big and ugly and in LA traffic felt like a bulwark on wheels. The address he gave was in North Hollywood. I buzzed the apartment and a woman answered. I asked for Axel and she sighed in exasperation and said nothing more. I waited a minute at the intercom. Then I went and leaned against my car where I’d parked outside the building and messaged Axel.
“Don’t leave,” he responded.
After a while he came down carrying a suitcase, smiling with his eyes.
“Nice boat,” he said.
I opened the trunk and he deposited his belongings.
“Haha,” he said and slid into the front seat.
From the moment he appeared with his suitcase a part of me must have understood that we weren’t going to end up at the game. He asked me if we could make a couple stops on our way to Elysian Park. I didn’t mind. We chatted while his phone buzzed in his hand as he fielded a battery of text messages. He wanted to know what my post-art school plans were. I told him about the job I’d recently started with a set designer, which I hoped would leave me with enough juice to still do my own work (it mostly didn’t). I put the question to him and he spoke vaguely about getting ready for his “little show,” which of course turned out to be not little at all and was exactly what certain reviewers later called it, namely “triumphant” and “a major debut.”
Axel wanted to know what it was like growing up in San Jose. I told him I didn’t like it very much so maybe I wasn’t the right person to ask. Growing up in the Silicon Valley before the rise of the big internet companies was like growing up in a miniature Los Angeles, but one devoid of any mystique whatsoever. All I wanted to do then was draw and play baseball and someday be beyond the reproach of my parents or at least out of their range. I was a pretty good ballplayer but not good enough to make it a career. Now I was hoping that wouldn’t be the story of my time in the “capricious, cutthroat world of contemporary art,” as my father called it in all our phone conversations of that time, having read exactly one article about it in Newsweek.
“How’s the capricious, cutthroat world of contemporary art treating you?” he’d say.
Bless him. He wasn’t wrong.
Axel grew up a dreamy unsupervised skater kid in Tarzana, at least that was what I took away from his limited description. Tarzana was “cool,” his parents were “pretty chill,” school was mostly “good times” ect. Before I got to know him better I used to think it was a schtick when he talked like that. He didn’t speak a lot in class but when he did he always made useful observations and spoke with real intelligence and sensitivity. Later in our friendship it became clear that the “valley-boy routine,” which is what my wife dubbed it, was reserved for topics he didn’t care to discuss. In addition to his childhood, such areas of conversation on that day included what section our seats were in, how he met his gallerist and what had become of his car.
Our first stop was a dispensary not far away from the apartment. Axel had a regular order there and the guy behind the counter knew him by name.
“You want anything?” said Axel. “My treat.”
I admitted I was a novice and a bit of a lightweight to boot. Axel conferred with the counter guy and decided on some mints. At the register, Axel pulled out a few bills from an unruly wad and straightened them on the counter. Then he told the guy to pause his order saying he wouldn’t be around for a while.
Back in the car we both ate a mint and I tuned the radio to the pregame broadcast.
“Am I going to be okay to drive?” I asked.
“For sure,” said Axel, rooting in his goodie bag.
“Those are super mello,” he added, “and besides, they take a while to hit you.”
“Do you think we could swing by my studio? It’s sort of on the way.”
“Sure. No problem.”
Traffic was stop and go on the 5 but not so bad that we couldn’t have made it in time for the first pitch had this not been a total farce. It was a hot bright day with enough breeze in it to stir the big trees hovering along Griffith Park. Axel’s studio was in Los Feliz off Hyperion Boulevard above a flooring showroom. When we arrived he grabbed his suitcase from the trunk and I followed him up the backstairs into the space which his gallerist had furnished him with while he completed the rest of the work for his debut. Inside he had a few things in progress and a few others that looked ready to go. The space got good light and the paintings and mixed media pieces leapt from the walls. Looking around at all the new work I felt a sob climbing up my throat and I stopped it.
Oh no you don’t you big fucking baby.
Axel moved a few items from the suitcase into a duffle bag and eyed me, smiling.
“Feeling good?” he asked.
“These are incredible.”
“I told you, a super mellow high.”
“No, I mean your new stuff. It’s really great.”
He smiled and glanced around the studio. Then he zipped the duffle bag and stood up.
“You’re going to hate me,” he said.
Axel wanted to know if we could make another stop. This one was a bit of a detour but I’d be doing him a big favor because he was in a “bit of a situation.”
“Is it cool if we miss the first couple of innings?” he said.
I didn’t mind.
“Sure you’re good?”
“I’m good,” I said.
I felt great actually, light in my soul.
He smiled and we got back on the road.
On our way to Fairfax we listened to the broadcast of the game and broke in a new cartridge on his vape pen. He navigated us to an old apartment building off Melrose. When we had found parking he said:
“This will either be super quick or kind of long.”
“You won’t take off on me?”
“No, I’ll be here.”
I watched him cross the street and skip up the steps to the entrance. A lady with a few grocery bags was there punching in. She recognized him and he picked up a couple of her bags and carried them in behind her. A few minutes passed. I sucked one of the mints and listened as the Dodgers put two runners on base with no outs and proceeded to strand them there. I ate another mint and thought about Axel’s new work and tried to recall each piece in as much detail as I could but my brain wasn’t cooperating. I saw instead the clean geometries of the ballfield, the players going through their motions like figures on a clock, their shadows coupled to them underlining every movement, spontaneous or endlessly rehearsed. Innings passed and I began to experience a melting sensation starting at the base of my skull that ran like a syrup down each of my limbs. I couldn’t determine if this was a pleasant feeling, it kept switching on me. I was in bliss one moment and a vague terror the next. My arms and legs would not obey instructions. A throbbing radiation started up in the middle of me, growing in intensity to the point of torture and then moving outward in a paroxism of relief. It went on like this for who knows how long, with the sounds of the broadcast broken here and there by an exhaust pipe or voices out in the street. Finally, I heard my name called and there was Axel bent over in the open passenger side window and behind him, a woman with a face I knew.
“Adam,” he said. “Have you met Bianca?”
He stepped to the side and now she was there alone in the frame. I knew that I knew exactly who she was. She looked bored or even slightly irritated but there was something friendly about her eyes.
“Is he okay?” she said.
Axel stepped back in view and looked me over.
“What’s up, bud?”
“I think, like, I’m fine, but maybe…”
“Did you overdo it?”
“Yeah. Maybe I did.”
They glanced at each other and then Bianca said:
“Do you want to come upstairs for a bit?”
I shook my head.
“Maybe you want to go home?”
“No, no I’m fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“You want to come somewhere with us?” said Axel.
Bianca shot him a confused look. Axel laughed.
“No, not the ballgame. A party. You want to come to a party with us?”
“Okay,” I said.
“I’m going to drive,” said Axel.
They helped me out of the driver’s seat and into the back and then Axel and Bianca got in up front.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” said Bianca as we started off.
Axel’s eyes found me in the rear view mirror.
“By the time we get there he’ll be perfect.”
Now it was midday and the sun made heat miasmas on the dull highway and blasted apart against the polished paint and glass of the surrounding motorists. Axel and Bianca talked above the din of the air conditioning. I remembered her now. She had been a year ahead of us at school and she had left abruptly before finishing. I didn’t know anything about it or her for that matter, other than a few whispers regarding a relationship with one of the faculty. I had no recollection of her work. She and Axel seemed very close. A thought crossed my mind and I snorted and shook my head.
Bianca and Axel turned and looked at me in the backseat. I laughed and they smiled.
“What’s so funny?” said Axel.
I shook my head.
“Come on Mr. Giggles,” said Bianca. “Share.”
“It’s just that you guys are like my parents up there. And I’m like your baby.”
They looked at each other and laughed.
“I mean I feel like a baby. Sort of helpless and taken care of.”
“We’re your mom and dad,” said Axel.
“Yeah, but cool.”
“We’re your cool young parents,” said Bianca.
“And you’re taking me somewhere fun.”
Somewhere turned out to be an enormous concrete house in Venice overlooking the canals. By the time we got there I felt a lot better. In fact, I was stoned out of my mind but in a pleasant way which deadened the anxiety that would have otherwise racked me in this kind of environment. We found parking a couple blocks away and followed the water towards the sounds of the party. At the house some party guests stood chatting and smoking cigarettes outside the open sidegate. They parted for us and we squeezed through under their smoke. I felt the low thud of subwoofers knock beneath the competing voices of the guests and there was a wonderful smell of grilled food in the air. Axel led us around back. The number of partygoers was smaller than I had surmised, which made our entrance more conspicuous. Guests were spread here and there in small groups around the beautiful swimming pool or up above on a terraced deck or looking down on the backyard from a balcony that led out from the rooms on the second floor. Servers in black with trays of hors d’oeuvres went among the guests like polennators, emerging from and returning to the house. Faces turned to acknowledge us. The people were so attractive it made me laugh.
A woman sitting with her feet in the shallows of the swimming pool waved in our direction. Then she excused herself from those she was with and came to us barefoot across the patio.
“Hi guys! Hi Bianca, how are you? It’s been a while.”
She kissed Bianca and then Axel on the cheek.
“Desiree,” said Axel. “Meet Adam Soldofsky.
“Desiree Popa,” she said and we shook hands.
“You have a lovely home,” I said.
“It is lovely,” she laughed. “But it’s not mine.”
“Adam is also graduating from CalArts this year,” said Axel, smiling.
“Oh, I look forward to seeing your work! I’ll introduce you to Stanley and Deb, they own this place. They have a great collection.”
She turned to Axel.
“You are going to meet Jamir Matthews and then you are going to meet Shane and Cessily Roth, okay? Oh, and let’s say hello to Sarah Lin if we see her. You remember Sarah.”
“Is Tony Press here by any chance?” said Bianca.
“Tony, yeah. I saw him a minute ago. On the terrace maybe?”
“I’ll be right back,” said Bianca and she strode off across the patio.
“Are you guys hungry?” The food is amazing.”
It was Desiree who was giving Axel his first show and providing him his studio and stipend and who later, after his first string of success, had Axel poached from under her by an international behemoth. She struck me as a sort of demigod of competency and charm. We followed her to the grill and stood in the small order line. Then Desiree spotted someone across the pool and signaled to them.
“Do you mind if I steal him for a moment?”
“Take your time,” I said and they left me there.
The food was genuinely delicious and I was still utterly smacked. I feel sorry for anyone who caught sight of me eating it. After scraping the plate I went to the bar for a drink. I drank half my beer in one pull and wandered into the house. Inside, guests were mingling in the vast open living space in ones and twos about the periphery or clustered around the expensive furniture. Glancing at the walls I saw a weaving by Anni Albers, a good-size drawing by Martin Ramirez, and a pair of photographs by Fan Ho. Over the staircase leading to the second floor were a series of little drawings. I climbed the stairs to the first landing and stood for a closer inspection.
“Jim Dine,” said a voice at my shoulder.
I turned my eyes upon the tall woman holding a glass of wine.
“Do you like them?”
“Not really,” I said before realizing who I was speaking with.
“I mean… I just meant they’re not really my cup of tea.”
She waved her hand.
“They haven’t been doing it for me lately either.”
She introduced herself as Deb Maynard and I said who I was and explained to her that Axel was the reason I was in her house forming judgements about her taste.
“I’m glad you could come,” she said. “Did you want to see more? Let me show you what’s upstairs.”
Deb and Arnold did indeed have a fine collection, with some especially nice works on paper. In the main corridor upstairs they had displayed an eclectic group of smaller pieces, including a terrific oil sketch by Joaquín Sorolla and a funny little Ray Johnson collage. When I mentioned my fondness for Ray Johnson she smiled and said:
“Do you want to see something extremely cool?”
She led me into a little office that looked out over the canal. She removed an archival box from a shelf and opened it over the desk. She took a pair of conservators gloves from the drawer and pulled one of Ray Johnson’s letters from the box.
“Arnold and I are just starting to collect some artist writings and correspondence,” she said.
She held up the letter, which was composed on the backside of a take out menu from the China Pear Restaurant. I leaned over the desk and read:
Dear Marianne Moore,
I was on the beach in Coney Island last summer reading playboy magazine.
I decided when I got home that I would do a drawing of Jean Seberg’s shoe.
“Isn’t that great?”
I nodded and smiled. Johnson had drawn two little bird-heads at the bottom, one for Seberg and one for Moore.
Deb returned the letter carefully to the box. She took down another box from the shelf, lifted off the lid and removed a small glass frame. The frame held a letter dated 26 Mai, 1956, was addressed to Ida and signed ‘Picasso.’ Deb explained that the letter was drafted in the south of France where the artist had moved the previous year and mailed to the caretaker of his Paris apartment. The letter provided some instructions as to the upkeep of the place and the storage of the artwork there. On the backside of the letter there was a drawing in black crayon of two men dressed in what appeared to be naval uniforms, their arms entwined, their legs kicking and their heads upturned. At their feet sat another man in a coat and hat atop a vegetable crate cradling an accordion and smiling jovially. Above the picture was the greeting Pour Armand and beneath it the lines:
Au tournant d’une rue je vis des matelots
Qui dansaient le cou nu au son d’un accordéon
J’ai tout donné au soleil
Tout sauf mon ombre
The hair stood up on my arms. I don’t care much for Picasso generally but this was one of the best little drawings I’d ever seen in person. Deb explained that Armand was the caretaker’s son, a young boy at the time of the letter, and that Picasso would often draw things for the child’s amusement.
“What does it say?”
I pointed to the verses. Deb closed her eyes and recited:
“At the corner I saw some sailors. Who danced with bared throats to an accordion. I gave everything to the sun. Everything but my shadow…”
The sob was there in my throat again. We were quiet a moment. A thought came into my head and I just blurted it out.
“Does it feel strange owning something like that?”
“Strange? Why should it feel strange?”
“I don’t know. It’s very intimate.”
“Granted, the intimacy is part of its charm.”
“It must have really meant something to the boy…”
“You’re a sweetheart,” said Deb. “Really, who do you suppose put it up for auction?”
I glanced at Deb and then looked away out the window. Down by the canal I saw Bianca standing with a man about our age. They appeared to be arguing. Bianca leaned forward and stuck her finger in his face. He tried to move past her back towards the house but she stepped in front of him. He nudged her off and she blocked him again. Finally, he threw up his hands, turned on his heel and left in the other direction. Bianca stood there cursing him with her hands on her hips. I thanked Deb and excused myself.
Outside I found Bianca standing against the railing looking west down the canal.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
She looked up at me.
“Who was that?”
“A thieving little snake, that’s who.”
We stood a moment at the railing. It was late afternoon and though it was still hot, I could feel the evening coming on with the sky dimming over the green-gray water. I asked her if she’d rather be alone. Bianca sighed.
“Wanna go back and get a drink?” she said.
“I’m going to stick my feet in that fucking pool.”
We sat at the shallow end with our feet on the steps in the warm saltwater and drank cold beer. Bianca pointed out some of the more famous guests. I was feeling a lot more like myself and I wished I wasn’t. After a while, Axel came and found us. He addressed Bianca:
“Shane and Cessily invited me out on their boat to watch the sunset. Desiree thinks I should go. I’m gonna go.”
“Fine,” said Bianca.
Axel turned to me and smiled.
“Sure,” I said.
“I’m sorry we didn’t make it to the ballgame.”
“Don’t be like that.”
Axel leaned down and kissed her cheek.
“I’ll see you later.”
She rolled her eyes.
“Next time,” said Axel.
He squeezed my shoulder and left to join the Roths.
On the drive back to Fairfax Bianca was quiet at first. I turned on the radio and switched stations for a minute but nothing felt right. I turned off the radio and we drove in silence away from the setting sun. Finally she lifted up her hair and let it fall down over her shoulders saying:
“I don’t know why you let him use you like that.”
“Use me? Who, Axel?”
“You know exactly what I mean,” she said and of course, I did.
“There was never going to be any baseball game. He doesn’t give a fuck about baseball. He just needed a ride around town.”
“It’s fine,” I said.
“Are you sure about that?”
“I mean, I had a feeling. And anyway, I like him and I had fun and I got to meet you.”
“What an honor.”
“I mean it.”
“I just want you to know that’s who he is. He’s sweet and funny and he’s incredibly talented and he’s also manipulative as hell and he uses people.”
“Well, that’s okay.”
“No it’s not. Don’t you have any pride, any respect for yourself?”
“No, not really.”
She laughed again and I knew we could be friends if that’s what she wanted.
“Yeah, me neither,” she said.
“Can I ask you something?”
“It’s kind of personal…”
“Go,” she said. “Spit it out.”
“Why did you leave school?”
“Why do people say I left?”
“People say, well, that you had a thing with Eliot Saroyan that went sour…”
“Right, except Eliot is a non-romantic A-sexual, which is what a lot of his work is about by the way. And he’s also an unbelievably generous and kind person and probably the only reason I didn’t go crazy when my mother got sick. I went home to be with my mother.”
“And after I went home, that dickhead started stealing my ideas and making versions of my work and nobody said anything. They just let him get away with it.”
“Tony Harris Press, whose show at Amor Fati is basically my final portfolio.”
“Jesus. I didn’t recognize him.”
“He used to have long hair.”
“And he got all those stupid tattoos.”
“Anyway, fuck him.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry about all of that.”
“That’s not what I want, you know. People feeling sorry for me.”
“You want to be taken seriously.”
“Fuckin-A. Everyone acts like it’s all a coincidence. And if I show any anger about it I’m just the unstable girl who had to leave school because she couldn’t keep her shit together. I’ll give Axel credit though. He’s always supported me on this and tried to help. And he basically convinced me to come back to LA and to start making art again so I’m grateful to him. But I’m also really mad at him right now. He’s always pulling shit like this.”
I dropped Bianca at her building and watched her in. I didn’t know if I’d see her again. Axel I expected to see at the opening for the graduation show but when the day arrived he didn’t turn up. On to bigger and better things I figured. My parents had come to town for the opening and were rather charmed by it and asked the other students lots of questions about their work. I had already told them about my new job which I think helped. They are middle class creatures, my mom and dad. They did not like my decision to skip college and enter the draft. They did not understand my choice to go to art school instead of “real school” when baseball didn’t pan out, a possibility they had stressed often before the fact. But the new job was practical and made use of my education and was in an industry they afforded some prestige. Nevermind that I was someone’s task boy and would need to refrain from having my own ideas in order to stay employed. We made it through dinner and breakfast without any major incidents and I returned them to the airport.
Then as I was leaving the terminal I received a text from Axel saying he and Bianca were going to a couple galleries and maybe to MOCA and wanted to know if I was free. I joined them and we spent the day together and from that point forward we were in each other’s lives. I worked diligently at my job through the summer feeling legitimate and frustrated and saw Axel and Bianca whenever I could, together or separately. In the Fall, Axel opened his show and began to sort of rise off the ground into the air above our heads. It was strange and a bit jarring to witness, not because Axel behaved in any way differently. In fact, he continued on with his manipulations and interpersonal scams despite the observable reality that he could now simply ask for whatever he needed and have it given. The way people began to treat him, the near universal solicitousness, the sheer amount of smiling in his face, was uncanny. He found it all amusing. “Absurd and not unpleasant,” I think he called it. I envied him. I told myself it was for his unique vision and technical abilities as an artist but I’m sure that the acclaim had something to do with it. The positive attention, all that validation, I envied to be sure. But perhaps more than anything else it was the indomitable selfhood he possessed in the face of it all that I coveted. It was something to wish for. And with the understanding that the wishing would be fruitless.