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The Installation

A horrifying, dystopian science fiction short that imagines the future of big pharma.

by Terence Hannum
Aug 8 2019, 8:13pm

Nothing highlights the egregious growth of inequality in the nation quite like pharmaceutical executives becoming vastly wealthy by selling addictive drugs to the poor. What if this repulsive ongoing travesty took on a physical dimension, that we could see, feel, *smell*? That's what writer, artist, and acclaimed experimental musician Terence Hannum imagines in today's horrifying Terraform dispatch. Enjoy. -the Ed.

i.

The outer light of the descending sun transforms the evening inwards as it sinks below the overlapping crests of hills, casting the affluent landscape in a dull blue. I’m driving away from the city, and the sky above me is highlighted with a thin smear of pale orange, like dirty blood toward the horizon. I pass the beltway and traverse old pastures converted to large plots for oversize mansions, private schools, small horse barns and large garages full of upscale cars that overlap each other from behind the hills. I follow the smear, past the large maintained yards of athletes, old money, and new bankers.

The company van follows the curves on the winding two-lane road. NPR plays economic news on the radio when my boss calls me on the Bluetooth.

“How was the last job?” Larry inquires.

“Easy, just a few pictures, an arrangement in the family room. They seemed happy. Did you get the picture?” I ask and follow the GPS right up a tree lined street and towards an open iron gate.

“Yeah. They have another project we’ll be on soon,” He says, eating something.

“Ok, and this one is just an uncrate and install?”

“Yep, it’s a famous piece though, so get pics.”

“Is this the Chuck Close?” I ask watching the evenly planted trees that line the windy drive up to the large, earthtone, starter castle.

“Yep, it’s Chuck from the auction news. Brett is a guy in venture capital, you’ve been here before.”

“Those large Frank Stella pieces?”

“Yep.”

“Yeah he has a great collection,” I say thinking of the epic paper collages we installed in the hallway to his son’s room.

“If it comes up you should thank him for me, I made a nice mint on a stock tip in pharmaceuticals he gave me a bit ago.”

“Really?”

“Yep, just on a small recommendation. He must’ve made a killing.”

“Congrats.”

“I should have some champagne sent or something. But what do you send a guy like that?”

I pull up the black drive and swing around the curve circling a modern fountain of hard minimal cement. The doors to the garage are open displaying the hoods of a black Tesla, red Porsche, two large SUVs, and in the last bay a crumpled hulk of a vehicle. Behind the wreck a large wooden crate looms.

“Was he in an accident?” I ask.

“I don’t know, his assistant rescheduled a bit ago. There was a death in the family, or something.”

I put the van in park and stare at the bronze paint and buckled fenders in the garage light like broken gold.

“Yeah, it’s like a whole car, hope he’s ok.”

“Well, go knock and see what he needs. If he wants us to reschedule we can.”

“Ok.”

We hang up and I turn the ignition, then go in the back of the Sprinter to grab my pack, two large moving blankets, and my ladder.

Outside the van, it smells like fire and the landscape is eerily quiet. I watch the brake lights of fleeing traffic through the trees down below. A whinnying cry pierces the silence. Setting down the ladder I walk across the slate patio to the side of the large home to peer over the metal fence. Through the black gazebo and beyond the large built-in stainless steel grill, three black horses silhouetted in the dusk run at top speed, bucking in the cold dark field as if hunted. They neigh, buck, turn, and speed to the edge of their enclosure, and then repeat.

“Hello,” I say inside the large glass walled atrium of the foyer. A curving reclaimed wood staircase twists in front of me up into the second floor of the home where a Chihuly glass sculpture fills the atrium with its bright orange and yellow blown glass tendrils.

“Hello,” I say a second time stepping inside the home. It smells of something pungent like trash left in the can too long. It fills the house. A stack of Amazon boxes rest by the door, piled to my waist. I slip off my shoes by the door and, laying down a blanket, set the ladder on it so as not to scratch the ash colored hardwood floors that cross the space with wide beams.

Bass seeps up from the basement through the house. Perhaps Brett is downstairs watching a movie on the home theatre system. I pick up my phone to call his number.

“I didn’t hear you,” He says startling me and crossing the large living area to the front room. His black Under Armor track suit is open as he clasps a lit cigar in his pale hand. His large head is even more alien, shaved bald and glistening with sweat. A dark colored wine bottle protrudes from the oversized pocket of his jacket.

“Hey, Brett, I’m here to install the painting,” I say watching his shaved head shine under the lights. He has put on weight since I was last here.

“That’s today?” He stops and stares at me, puffs on the cigar between his wan lips. He has no shirt on underneath the zip-up and his chest is pale and skeletal.

“Yes, but I can call Gwendolyn and we can reschedule, if it is a bad time,” I say. His black eyes dart around the room, back outside at my truck as if anticipating something. A cloud of cologne hits me; wood, some musk of amber – expensive but it does not hide the stench of the home and his body odor.

“No, no, no, no, no. She doesn’t work for me anymore. She left. Like everyone,” He says gripping the wine bottle from his pocket and tossing it back with a large swig. He smacks his lips and says, “I lost them.”

“Well, where would you like the piece?” I ask. He extends the bottle to me and stares at the walls, “No thank you.”

“Here,” He states and slides the bottle back into his pocket wiping his arms wide on the large blank wall of the front room.

“And the piece is in the garage now?”

“Yes,” he says and puffs on the Padron cigar releasing a gray plume into the home. “Just in from Christie’s.”

“Ok, I can go uncrate it—”

“Or Sotheby’s. Maybe it’s Christie’s.”

“I can get some dimensions and then tape it off for your approval,” I say and pull the straps on my pack.

“This way.” He says and walks across the gray boards to the large wide opening of the dark kitchen where dishes, dirty pots, and bags of trash are piled. Flies alight into the air as we pass by, disturbed by our movement through the fetid atmosphere. Even in the dark light, I can see the surfaces squirm with living creatures. I turn to him to ask a question but in the dim shadow his skin has the look of something flayed, wet, and slick like he is not himself.

He stops in the mud room and turns toward me. In the light of the mud room, the designer Edison light bulbs surging orange light around us. The stacks of bills lean on the granite desk top built in like a contemporary sculpture. His face looks normal, haggard, but normal.

“Do you want some cigars?” He points to an open box of Padron cigars on top of other plastic wrapped boxes of cigars.

“No. Maybe later. Thank you.”

“Ok,” He opens the door into the garage and unholstering his wine from his pocket he takes another swig and walks past me, “I’ll be out back.”

“Were you in an accident?” I ask. He stops and doesn’t turn to me.

“Yes.” He answers but does not turn to face me, then vanishes, leaving me with smoke and decay.

ii.

Every art crate is different, some follow around each piece through every sale and transaction accruing markings which show their trajectory through time. From collector to museum, from collector to auction house, from gallery to collector. Some are reused from other works. All are different on the inside; with wooden supports, foam protection barriers, hexacomb dividers, lined with luxurious felt. This crate opened like a freshly laid crypt. I barely had to pry with the crowbar. The well-constructed plywood gave way in a clean pull.

I take the cover off and lay it against the crate. Within, I can see the Close painting behind the layers of plastic, suspended in the crate between foam lined barriers, displaying a large blurry face. Then I remove the screws holding it in place from behind and gently excise the piece from the crate, one corner at a time.

I look over the wrecked vehicle as it stands in a shallow pool of its mechanical viscera. I can see it was once a regal Maserati painted a deep bronze, now buckled and cleaved. Its inside now outside, eviscerated in a collision, resting in its own waste. A light breeze moves the trees outside like an erratic invisible hand.

I slide the wrapped piece on linen blankets through the mudroom before standing it up in the dark kitchen. Grabbing both sides, I hold my breath and make my way to the bright front room ignoring the piles of rotten food, insects, and detritus.

Once in the front room, the stairway curves and disappears into the dark hallways above. I set the painting against the wall with some fabric to keep it from marring the ash gray paint job, set up the ladder, climb a few steps where I measure the center of the wall, and raise the median height a bit to compensate for the console table hugging the wall between the unlit sconces. The floor still vibrates from the bass below, shaking a glass somewhere in the house.

It always amazes me how an oil painting, no matter its age, can smell fresh. I peel away the thick plastic allowing the waft of deep oil paint to emerge from the enclosure taking over the smell of rot in the house. Then, climbing the ladder, I tape off the edges; top, bottom, left, and right. The wall feels strange and warm beneath my hands. I climb down and step back to look at the blue tape outline balanced between the modern sconces. The blue outline looks perfectly centered.

“Brett?” I call out through the large living area but I don’t see him in the dimly lit room full of empty shelves. I walk to the back doors out to the large sweeping patio where a raging fire burns in the fire pit of severe unfinished concrete. I open the door.

“Do you want to take a look?” I say to him not stepping outside in my socks. Brett faces away from me, towards the fire and beyond, the large yard where the final impressions of the horse’s silhouettes race around their enclosure. He tosses an armload of clothing into the fire sending towering traces of embers up and over the patio.

“Brett?” I say again opening the door. He hoists a lacrosse stick into the blaze.

“What?”

“Do you want to see where the piece will be?”

The fire which again spits out loose burning orange sparks that flicker out.

“I trust you,” He says not turning to me.

“Ok, I just centered it on the sconces and above the console table, ok?” He doesn’t answer but empties the dark bottle into his upturned face and lets it fall to the ground. It bounces once before shattering across the slick flagstones.

“I’ll be in the wine cellar,” Brett says stomping into the house as I watch the unbridled mares chase ghosts behind the pyre.

“Oh, I almost forgot, Larry wanted to thank you,” he stops at the door and turns to me. “The stock tip?”

“Oh,” Brett pauses, he wipes his face, “That is great for him. I’m glad he did well,” he says continuing inside the home while the fire burns.

iii.

I climb the ladder and check my marks with the laser level. Then go to hammer the hooks in. With each hammer-stroke the wall gives opening a wide aperture into the interior wall of the home.

“Shit,” I say to myself and I touch the crumpled drywall as maggots fall from the hole. I stumble down the ladder and stare at the opening. More larvae crawl from the maw and tumble down the wall onto the floor in a continuous stream.

“Brett,” I call down the dark stairs into the large basement. I take step down feeling the bass move the floor. I descend into the space. I call out again into the red tinted basement.

The walls breathe as a sinew of the interior, broken only by collections of flies that hold fast to the dead surface. I cover my face to avoid the stench. A large flat-screen is on the financial news but muted, emitting bass frequencies like a car passing a house late at night. I walk towards the glass wall of the modern wine cellar where Brett sits in the dim darkness surrounded by deep red bottles backlit in the shadow of fleshy light.

“Brett, we have a problem,” I say opening the crypt and lowering my shirt from my face, it smells like fermentation and decay. He says nothing but finishes a bottle of wine, discarding the glass into a pile of other empty bottles.

“I’m not a monster, you know?” Brett says to me with his voice deep.

“No, of course not,” I say holding myself close to the glass door afraid to offend him.

“You want this Pomerol?” He asks, not looking at me.

“No, thank you. I’ll be ok.”

“Take a bottle—”

“I’m concerned about the structure of the home.”

“You should take some. It’s the best.”, he says uncorking another bottle from his vintage.

“I don’t drink on the job.”

“Have you ever lost something?”, he asks me. I can feel his eyes on me even though all I see of his eyes are black sockets.

“Of course—”

“Something you cannot get back?”, he asks me while taking a long pull on the bottle. “I can’t end. No matter what I try. I am destined to suffer.”

“I don’t think I get what—”

He holds up his hand to me to stop my reply and wipes his mouth on the sleeve of his crusty jacket.

“I sold it all and lost him,” He says to me.

“That wall up there is compromised,” I say pulling back my hair from my face. “I don’t think I can hang it. It’s full of—”

“I killed him.”

“I’m sorry?” I ask. “Who? Killed who?”

“My son,” Brett stands and runs his hands over the wall of bottles as if saying farewell. A swarm of flies lift off of him and obstruct the light, “Glad Larry made some money. Glad something good came out of it. He’s a good guy.”

I open the door behind me feeling the bass and the stench rise up within me.

“I am not a monster,” He pleads to me, or maybe himself, coming closer to me and revealing his flayed face in the red light; a rotten visage of vermin and decay barely concealing the blood congealed face and skull beneath. “It was an opportunity of a lifetime.”

I turn away toward the putrid staircase and faintly hear his plea as the walls leak a putrescent wake, “Help me.”

iv.

I left it all behind; the ladder, the fabric cloths, the tools, everything. I left it all in the house. My shoes. The famous Chuck Close resting against the wall. Everything.

Speeding down the drive in the van the mansion recedes in the darkness of night which each estate fights off by lighting every tree and every façade, every gate lit beautifully like the exteriors of luxurious abattoirs designed to ward off an outer dark within themselves as much as the world.

NPR plays quietly on the radio, stuck in a financial show reciting the massive acquisition of a pharmaceutical company and its new owners halting productions and adjusting prices.

The phone rings interrupting the broadcast.

“I spoke to Gwendolyn,” Larry says annoyed. I turn on to the main road away from the house. There is no traffic at this hour.

“I’m going to have to go back another time.”

“She was fired. It was his son?”

“What?”

“So, you didn’t get a picture?” He asks.

“No. I didn’t get a picture,” the home gets smaller in my mirrors. “I didn’t get the piece up.”

Larry sighs.

“His son was the death. Complications with his illness. Brett blames himself, the company stopped production of some medication, kind of sent him on this spiral. Anyway, I’ll reschedule,” Larry says disappointed. “It’s a mess.”

I don’t answer. I drive into the outer dark, pressing the gas through my socks, determined that I will never return to these false lights.