Archimedes' Lever

Fiction by REYoung
Mo Reclined, by June Gutman. Copyright the artist. Courtesy the artist.

Archimedes posited that, given a lever long enough and a place to stand, he could move the earth. While simple in form, the lever entails several elements: the fulcrum, the point upon which the lever is balanced; the distance of the fulcrum from the object to be moved; the mass of the object to be moved; the force applied to the lever; and, finally, the lever itself.

* * *

The building was a dilapidated, three-story brownstone walk-up, each floor a replica of the floor above or below it. The same dimly lit, black and white-tiled hallways. The same scratched and gouged blood-red door to each apartment. Possibly even, with minor variations, the same occupants behind each door. Of these occupants this document is concerned with three.

* * *

The first was a skinny, barely post-adolescent kid with lank black hair and a pale, pimply face who lived on the first floor in a room the size of a wash closet, sparsely appointed with a toilet, sink, hotplate, and a mattress on the concrete floor spotted with multiple stains of dubious origin. For the privilege of this space, the kid provided the building manager, a middle-aged man who schlepped around in a hair net, faded purple velour robe and a pair of pink bunny slippers, with his choice of illegal drugs, which seemed to be the kid’s only source of income, despite the fact that he came from a wealthy family. His mother and father apparently had disowned him due to his incorrigible anti-social behavior, which, in a more sentient state of mind, he would have defended as a rejection of materialism, bankrupt moral values, etc.

Somewhere during his truncated academic career he had read that excess was the path to wisdom and he practiced this theory with resolve. So that one day he woke on his mattress, the dirty, wrinkled sheet pulled up to his chin, his clothes neatly folded in a pile on the floor next to him, on top of that a coil of electrical cord that he vaguely recalled having clumsily tied around his own wrists. Strangest of all, and this initially caused him a moment of heart-pounding panic, the various porn magazines, bottles of pills, powders and bags of pot he distinctly (indistinctly?) remembered having passed out among seemed to be missing, until he discovered them discreetly stashed in the space between the wall and his mattress. Perplexed, he pulled on a pair of unwashed boxers, staggered to the door and peered out just in time to see the slender, black-clad form of the new tenant ascending the stairs at the end of the hall. The one time they had crossed paths, the new tenant seemed completely oblivious to his presence, his face expressionless, his eyelids half-closed, like those of an iguana the kid had seen sunning itself on a rock during a hazily recalled trip to Mexico in the middle of his first and only semester of college. He pictured the dry, lizard-like hands undoing the electrical cord, then moving over his naked body, touching and appraising him in the disinterested, professional manner of a mortician.

* * *

He could have been anywhere from his mid-thirties to his late forties. His slender, even boyish, build gave him a youthful appearance although his short, neatly trimmed hair was graying at the temples. That, and his erect posture, lent him a military air. His preference for black in his wardrobe called to mind a priest. Between the narrow slits of his eyelids, a milky translucence suggested the premature beginning of cataracts, although he may have been wearing contact lenses. One could imagine that, when compelled to interact with people—perhaps one should say other people—he exerted only the most minimal effort necessary, answered yes or no if the occasion called for it, sometimes emitted a dry, rasping laugh that immediately evaporated.

He put the key in the lock and entered his apartment, which was empty except for a bed, nightstand and the chair by the window. He sat down on the chair and stared through the grimy window, his gaze traveling the length of the dark alley where, at different times of day or night, he noted the presence of stray cats, pigeons, staggering drunks, nodding drug addicts and overflowing or emptied garbage cans. At the end of this alley he could see a bright rectangle of daylight where an occasional car or truck passed. And then another dark alley that ended in a fainter rectangle of light where, at that distance, he could just make out the blur of traffic on the busy boulevard. The apartment manager had made an unctuous, half-hearted apology for the view. The new tenant said nothing, handed him a packet of bills, easily enough to cover the next three months’ rent. The apartment manager shrugged, stuffed the cash into the pocket of his purple velour robe, inquired if anything else was needed—a lamp, additional furniture, recreational services? The milky gleam between the new tenant’s eyelids said no, none of that, and the apartment manager mumbled something about a hotdog casserole in the toaster oven and shuffled out the door in his pink bunny slippers, leaving the tenant alone. On the floor next to the chair sat a rectangular black case, something like one would use to carry a disassembled wind instrument. An explosion of sound occasionally erupted from the apartment above his, a TV newscaster’s carefully modulated voice amplified into an unintentional shout, THE MILITARY TODAY REPORTED SEVEN MORE TROOPS KILLED IN INSURGENT ATTACKS, followed by distinctly female laughter.

* * *

She was an ex-art student. Before moving into this apartment she had lived in a loft full of pretensions, found objets d’art carefully arranged in the corners, mobiles made of street detritus dangling from the ceiling, chrome racks of “previously owned” fashionwear prominently displayed about the room. She had painted according to the latest trends while denouncing conformism, sought approbation from professors and fellow students while affecting an air of casual indifference. She dyed her hair red or purple depending on the day of the week, wore diamond and pearl studs in her nose, eyebrows, ears, tongue, dressed in outrageous outfits. No matter the occasion, she entered late, exited early. In other words, she was a perfect diva. In a brief, dissolute phase, she fucked anyone who wanted her, male or female, did every kind of drug that presented itself.

That was before she realized it was all a pose and from now on she was only going to live according to her most basic needs and paint only when and how and what she wanted. Sometimes she didn’t paint at all. Sometimes she exhausted herself in impulsive bursts of labor that went on for hours, days, a week without sleep, existing on cigarettes, coffee, over-ripe bananas, dill pickles, catsup and mustard sandwiches, whatever remained in her larder, until the painting was finished or everything that provided her with the energy for her work depleted. An old black and white TV crackled in the background, tuned to a twenty-four-hour news channel, the volume out of her control, usually mute, sometimes, inexplicably, the newscaster’s voice erupting in that carefully modulated shout: IN THE CAPITAL, POLICE REPORT THIRTY BODIES DISCOVERED IN A GARBAGE DUMP, SIGNS OF TORTURE.

One time, returning from a trip to the corner store for provisions, she passed a room on the first floor where, as she had noticed on previous occasions, the door stood slightly ajar, almost as if the occupant were extending an invitation for someone to come in. On a whim, she did. Anyone else might have been shocked at what she found, a young man, barely more than a boy, lying naked and unconscious on a filthy mattress among an assortment of porn magazines, bottles of pills and powders and bags of pot, his wrists loosely bound with an electrical cord. The crumpled sheet at his feet bore what appeared to be semen stains. His soft, skinny body was covered with scars and burn marks.

* * *

He had occasionally noticed the young woman passing his open door, always in the same outfit, red high-top tennis shoes, black jeans, a red t-shirt or loose brown sweater depending on the weather. Once he caught a glimpse of her face, pale from the cold, the lack of sun, her features, in his appraisal, angelic, if tormented, and he was overcome with a dumb, inarticulate schoolboy crush. He tried to imagine her naked but nothing came to mind except images from his porn magazines. He pondered how he might approach her. Hi, how are you. Hey, I see you all the time. Christ you're so fucking beautiful I’d like to tear off your clothes and lick you all over even your asshole.

That, of course, was impossible. Nothing was possible. When he was in elementary school, a teacher had told his parents that he was “terribly smart” and he had held onto those words like a tiny little savings account that gradually diminished into penury. So what if he was supposed to be so damn smart. So what if the surrogate moon of the streetlight outside his narrow dirty window filled his mind with the image of a pale angelic face when he lay on his mattress at night. So what if all the life and all the yearning of everyone and everything in the universe roared through his head and his heart swelled with poetry and God and all he had to do was take up a pencil or a pen and place the point to a blank sheet of paper and eternal truth would flow forth like all the gushing streams and rivers of the earth. So what if the only thing that really mattered was the truth, even though the truth was that he was a complete loser with absolutely no reason to be alive or even the slightest hope that someone might notice he was alive.

He didn’t know what he took this time. He only knew that at first it speeded everything up, then slowed it down, made it distant, little more than an idle experiment as he laid the straight razor across his wrist at an acute angle and slowly drew forth the deep channel of warm red blood. They’d see, all of them. His mother and father, the disappointed relatives and teachers, his loser classmates, that girl who—he remembered a dazed glimpse of red, high-top tennis shoes seen through the gluey stitching of his closed eyelashes, but he couldn’t remember now—what had she done? It didn’t matter. They’d all feel so bad. It thrilled him to think how bad they’d feel. It was like a private joke. It made him snicker and giggle and hide his face in the mattress. He couldn’t wait to see the looks on their faces, to hear all the why why whys. Oh yeah, except that he’d be dead. He wouldn’t see or hear any of that. It didn’t matter.

* * *

She, too, had wondered about the new tenant in the apartment below hers, maybe that he was a little like her, his apparent need for solitude, his focus. He never seemed to be aware of anything around him when he passed her in the hall, and yet she had the sense that he saw everything.

The TV screen flickered—fuzzy images of soldiers, military vehicles, screaming women and children, a man she recognized as the president. Without bothering to clean or change her brushes, she continued to apply paint to the canvas, the lurid pink, red and orange sludge constantly mutating in front of her. At first it was a gloved fist unfolding into the red velvet petals of a rose, then a slab of raw meat in the process of putrefaction, then a ragged gash, a gaping wound, it was a screaming mouth, a bloody vagina, a prolapsed womb. She mixed her menstrual blood with the paint, she used the tampon as a brush. She was a flailing dervish of arms, hands. Sometimes she laughed inexplicably, at others, she began to sob. When she caught herself staring at the canvas with something like pride and maybe even love, for the painting, for herself, she slashed at it with a palette knife. She didn’t want that, she repudiated that: love, adulation. She wanted to put an enormous black hole in the world that compelled its inhabitants to stare into it despite their horror and revulsion. She wanted to engulf the world in unbearable waves of sorrow and compassion. She wanted to destroy the world, give birth to the world, protect it. She wanted too much.

* * *

From behind, it might seem that he was rather indifferently masturbating in front of the open window. However, if one approached stealthily and looked over his shoulder, one could see that in his hand he held a chamois cloth with which he was methodically polishing a metal barrel. He reached into the case on the floor, removed a black plastic stock and trigger mechanism, attached it to the barrel, then affixed the high-powered scope. He inserted a single bullet in the chamber, fastened the rifle into a clamp on the windowsill, placed his right eye to the lens and focused on the bright spot of daylight at the end of the alley. A yellow sunflower, which someone had drawn in chalk and over which someone else had spray-painted in black the word fuck, appeared in his crosshairs. He moved the barrel ten millimeters to the left and adjusted his scope. A busy thoroughfare came into view where, among flashes of chrome, flapping flags and police officers on motorcycles, a line of large black cars slowly passed.

Later they would attribute it to a voice in his head, an order given by a distant hand, an impossible chain of events. The sound of the TV exploded in the apartment above his. AN UNPRECEDENTED ACT OF VIOLENCE, THOUSANDS FEARED DEAD. He exerted pressure on the trigger, itself a tiny lever that, when moved beyond a certain inexorable point on its fulcrum, caused a controlled explosion that, in turn, discharged an insignificant mass of copper and lead on a trajectory that, in a precise point in time, would intercept his target riding in the back seat of the car now entering his field of vision. Even at a distance of one hundred meters, he could clearly see the handsome face and noble head held high like an emperor’s, those sad, wise eyes and the sardonic smile soon to be apotheosized in every TV screen around the world. And then all the repercussions that would follow.


REYoung was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and currently resides in a limestone cave deep beneath the city of Austin, Texas. He is the author of six novels, UnbabblingMargarito and the Snowman, InflationThe IronsmithZol and Daaa … SnowBiz!

June Gutman

June Gutman is a Jewish, self-taught artist living in Montreal, Canada. Gutman’s artwork ranges in style, media, and subject matter becoming a vibrant forum for her to explore ideas about psychology, art history, self knowledge, and the ways “mental illness” - as defined by mainstream psychiatry - has caused her personal harm.

Gutman is an unbelievably prolific artist whose work may be best defined by its focus on “The Terror” - a haunting psychological state that can produce a nightmarish sensation akin to psychedelia or mystical transcendentalism. Through her work, she attempts to relieve the pain of this “Unreality” while also exploring the opaque nature of thought and the human mind.

Intuitive yet focused, horrible yet humorous, Gutman ventures into the deep recesses of the psyche finding delicate connections wedged in its corners like an archeologist dusting through the layers of a palimpsest. References run through art history with ventures into pop culture and even extraterrestrial beings. Works give the uncanny sensation of being anachronistic, complex, and radically unique.

Written by Kishka Gallery