“the tarnish beneath the gold” By Sam Kaspar

The table was the size of a majestic west-coast hardwood trunk, and for £110,000 it was all the more intriguing, what powerful consequential people must have dined at such a massive table historically, or now if some wealthy person bought it as a trophy for a near-vacant mansion. It was my first and only time in Harrod’s, and I was feeling glad to have stayed the extra few days in London to see stuff like this. I wandered to the food area for some tea and jam to bring home, enjoying fragrances of cakes baking before being perfectly iced. My eyes opened wide when I saw their two separate cash register drawers, one for dirty money and one for very shiny polished money, from which they provided your change. I had enough cash to use instead of paying with a card because I wanted some of the shiny coins.

The smells of the street differed. Walking out, the aromas of warm almond paste in croissants buttered with raspberry-walnut jam and clotted cream, gave way to steaming sewers and bicyclists wearing gas masks in thick traffic. A crowd gathered around three (and I’d later realize there were probably four) twenty-somethings dressed in black, frantically opening massive hard-sided suitcases. A skinny drug-thinned dye-blonde man in leather and chains started shouting: Hot, hot, hot! Get them before the police arrive! Only twenty pounds per set, and he waved around golden jewelry sets wrapped in cheap tissue paper. After the first wave of people pigeoned around, the buying frenzy stopped, with only a quarter of the suitcase emptied.

A girl in a short brown dress and black leather jacket ran over from the edge of the crowd toward its center, wearing some of the jewelry and waving the remainder. She shouted: I just went into Harrod’s, they told me this bracelet was worth seventy pounds, two hundred for the set! I’m buying two, get outta me way! She moved to the epicenter, past watchers, and past buyers admiring their shrewd purchases.

Spend it.

When the suitcases were sold out, they ran off. I felt like I was the only one noticing that the brown-dressed girl was also running off with the three, empty-handed except for the £60 she had obtained for her two sets of jewelry. I could see the robbed look on that buyer’s face, a pale straw-hat and red-dotted scarf lady, seeming unsettled that she’d paid extra for the last two packs of the same ‘stolen’ merchandise. The police chased alright, but for fraud rather than theft I presumed.

After this mini busker festival, I walked toward Soho for cappuccino, hoping for a better fix than the previous coffees I’d tried here, their coffee not being as good as their elaborate and delicious breakfasts or the lemon lasagne Alfredo I had at the art gallery two days ago. A saucy middle-aged woman dressed in Sunday’s finest was quizzing an impoverished-looking fine arts student on his creation: an Earth room filled with stars and small cubicles each done up as a diorama with chairs on their walls, ceilings, floors, empty little tables. The rooms are in the stars, she began, so why are there tables, and why are they not on the floors? He was worn down by her many questions, and kind of stopped answering much, fearing that the many passers-by were contacts he was missing because of this purse-carrying lady who soaked up his energy at this, his first major exhibit. His silence though made it look like he was accepting a scolding for bad work. Her shopping bags and lack of a British accent belied her attempt to look like a professor, but the crowd was enthralled with her cross-examination and looked at the artist skeptically. He awkwardly nodded and half-smiled at passersby while his self-esteem sunk with his face into his downward gaze of avoidance and shame. You should put the tables on the floors.

“But then there would be no motion,” I interjected. Aghast, shocked, she stared daggers at me, challenging my interruption. Nonchalant tourists perked up and smiled to see somebody entering the monologue. I felt vulnerable as the large crowd stared while I engaged this self-important critic right in front of the struggling artist (he was struggling with her at least). He smiled at me with jovial hope and nodded encouragement.

Motion? she retorted. What…

“Yes, the whole exhibit would only be static if all the tables were on the floors in each cubicle. Since each miniature room can’t change, the variations are what give motion to the piece. I kind of like the different states of life shown here.” The artist grinned and got enlivened along with the crowd, perhaps less due to my analysis and more so to see the lady rebutted.

The lady started to get red in the face and embarrassed. So what else would she do but speak with her nose in the air. Why is that so important? Those sideways tables are not useful to anyone.

“Yeah, they can’t be used, but there are no humans there anyways so what’s the difference? They’re defunct because nobody’s there to eat anyways, they’re artefacts floating through space, alternative histories of Earth maybe.”

The artist found his voice: And the empty tables, starvation alongside plenty, humanity in space’s vastness but excluded from the feast, the absence of individual existence, a document of the human condition. The artist’s curly black locks danced with his newly animated head, pencil-lips smiled against his pensive index finger perched on his chin. He’d found words that gave meaning and value to his creation, even if he hadn’t intended all that at the outset. Ah, what the heck, even if there was a bit of phoniness to it all, it was really nice to see him with a small win and I felt glad for him. People from the crowd approached to congratulate him and ask more questions. He smiled at me before I left, and mouthed the words: Thanks, bravo.

As I strolled through the rest of the gallery, I looked at my feet and realized how cool it was that I was on the other side of the world from Canada and I was technically upside down to them, like the upside-down chairs in that exhibit. And the Earth spins too…what a greater concept it was, to add angular momentum to the upside-downness—me rotating on the British Earth, same speed as the Canadian Earth, gravity sucking us down to the center regardless, opposite yet on the same ride, earth and lava betwixt, spinning like the two ends of a majorette’s baton but different…a physics frenzy.

The Soho pizza places served small slices from narrow grease-sprayed windows that opened onto money-waving fingers attached to bodies staunchly held to littered interlocked brick sidewalks by massive hockey golfer’s calves connected to brand-name-sneaker feet. Then it was my turn. I got two slices (two pounds each, paid with dirty change), never having seen firespit  corn and candied red peppers on pizza before. I walked past endless shops and explored until I was just shy of a residential area.

Spend it.

At a small stony outdoor café, I bought a cappuccino, sat at one of the two small tables outdoors, then looked inside my shopping bags to examine the two pastries from Harrod’s. I would eat the poppy seed cream cheese one with my coffee, and save the giant cheesy bun for later at the dormitory, especially since the last two nights of supper had been so poor, and I was skinny enough already.

Bin ta Harrod’s, have ye? A big burly postal carrier with red hair and moustache was at the other table sipping tea. He said they had everything from the affordable to the spectacular. And speaking of spectacles, those jewelry fiends have bin workin’ that neighbourhood too. See, they find corners with the tourists buying, then you give it to a girl or somethin’, and find it’s greenin’ her skin and was only dipped in a pot of golden colour. They’ll dip a few hundred or so at a time, and it’s nothin’ but worthless junk! Ah yes, that’s exactly what they do! I eventually thanked him for the fine conversation and parted company.

The evening descended rapidly as I passed Soho on my way back to campus, lingering in a dimmed but not quite darkened state that almost threatened rain rather than night. It seemed a different place, despite the similar crowd of pizza buyers, giant garbage pails filled with half-eaten slices, pigeons beaking olives and crust on the ground.

I suddenly noticed a man, sitting on the sidewalk against a stairwell.

He must have been there before, maybe hidden by his immobility, decaying bag of bones, pale and sickly, entirely weak and stricken with stillness, grey confused wiry beard, opaque unholy looking cataracts, sun-wrinkled dry lips, moaning, whimpering, wavering his head with periodic jerks maybe looking for hope. I figured he had a facility somewhere, so I walked. But I froze, my strong legs slowed by the weakness I could feel just by looking at his image I could not unsee. I could feel myself unexpectedly magnetizing to him, suctioned into his invisibility as if he were not worlds away—why, who was he, could I really assume he was okay and live in my own little bubble? I could peripherally see that nobody around us even cared or noticed (save for one fat-bellied man in a ballcap and red golf shirt as he flung away half a slice of pizza; he looked for only a moment at me, and not at the old man, and it was the distant look given to somebody raising funds, glancing at those other people doing things. I could imagine what he might say at tea: Yes, they’ve been feedin’ those old bony street people down at Soho—the pizza tourists, that’s exactly what they do.) It’s as if we were in a bubble, hiding us, connecting us but separate from the bubbles of others doing their own thing, a collection clustered but distant. I felt invisible.

Spend it.

On his hand I placed it, the plastic bag containing the cheese bun, and in his lap new bottles of juice and water: Would you like to have this to eat, mister? I think it would have been possible to walk away without heaviness if he’d not blindly looked at my face with personality and life. He started to cry as his hands examined the bag and kept looking, praying up to the sky, even as I walked away. He was at that moment so overwhelmed, that for about two minutes he looked too hungry to eat. But soon he ate, as I caught the last glimpse of him before I could not look any longer at the block corner. I walked away from his invisibility as easily as I’d entered, leaving that situation for another, but never forgetting this trip across the globe, us foot-rooted yet bubble-floating upon it in equal immutable measure, spending our days differently but in the same gravity, pulled where we’re going sometimes subconsciously and sometimes without choice, even if standing still and heading only to the one gravitational center of a world turned upside down like artsy seats, inversions on a cosmic trip of understanding.

Born in Ontario Canada, Sam now lives, works, rows, and hikes in Iowa. He enjoys crafting around a hopefully memorable core which formed the initial reason it was felt to be worth writing in the first place. Ultimately, even brilliant ideas will have their beauty obscured, if they can’t be expressed with intelligent eloquence—hence literature. His studies have taken him to the east coast of Canada and the US. He’s traveled to England, Australia, and Lebanon—all of which have produced great story material. His poems and photographs have appeared in Vallum, Tiny Seed Literary Journal, Wingless Dreamer, Tower, and others. This is his first publication of creative nonfiction. He can be followed at https://www.facebook.com/MightySamster

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