Steve Almond and Melissa Pritchard, our judges for the 10th annual Boston Review Short-Story Contest, had the difficult task of choosing one winner from the more than 700 entries we received last year. Although we ultimately chose Gale Renee Walden’s “Men I Don’t Talk to Anymore,” (December/January 2003), we felt that the stories presented here deserved winner status as well. The judges admired Eben Wood’s “The River Come Down” for its nightmarish lyricism and for evoking the themes of displacement and identity. We thought Weston Cutter’s “Model for a Square” was exceptionally sophisticated for a very young writer whose first accepted story this is, and we enjoyed its postmodern playfulness.
—Jodi Daynard


It is a drawing by the artist G——, the paper aged to a winter morning’s gray, the ink’s once-vivid blue washed like octogenarian eyes cut by decades of sun and watching. It’s an 11"x14" piece of paper, and has only ever been folded the same way, in half and in half and in half, to 3.5"x5.5", small enough to be breast pocketed, tucked. The folds have worn translucent lines into the rough drawing paper.

The drawing is surely from before G—— had taken, as a model, his mistress A——, and spent the next five years documenting everything he felt her flesh may rescind, all that her body might steal through atrophy and age. Clavicles and ankles; also wrists, hips, necks and the napes of necks; so too the tendons behind kneecaps, and the hollows of the lower back. She later wrote a book and died in a car crash, long after her body and lover had betrayed her.

The drawing is from when G—— still worked with congruencies, still practiced collusion. His most famous work from the period, of course, being $1088, the 20×30 cm piece of plywood covered with UPC codes from a French retail establishment. He covered the plywood with several layers of the stickers, the total value of which was, supposedly, $1,088. On top of that, he lacquered a gaudy and bright red heart, longer than it was wide. The red of the heart dripped and ran some, on application. On top of that, starting at the top left corner and descending like a musical triad, perfectly spaced, G—— wrote Veni at the top, Vidi directly across the center of the heart, and Vici in the lower right corner.

The drawing, as the few art historians who’ve touched it with their own unpracticed fingers have estimated, is most certainly 24 years old, perhaps slightly older. Certainly crafted before $1088, but after High Price of Darkness, the piece that catapulted, to use the tired phrase, G—— into the stratospheric twinkling of the art world. Surely the reader is familiar with Darkness: A heavily gessoed canvas, so thick that the texture of the knife is evident. A blank background and a bright black ring in the center, the ring so shining that one senses, on first impression, that something more than oil paint is at luminous work. Whatever room has housed the work has always been darkened, only a twelve-watt halogen lamp illuminating one corner, as stipulated in G——’s sometimes obtuse demands. The light from the painting, then: the brightness must be manufactured from more than paint, the viewer thinks. And is correct. With a triplicity of light, G—— created a work that offers at bare minimum one, at most six, discrete witnessings. Regardless of what is taken from the work, though, what is left is always the same: a perfect, bright black circle. The six possible witnessings are:

—Fingers around the barrel of what is, presumably, the flashlight into which beam the viewer looks; 
—Same fingers rendered “dark” (some ethnicity, posited by Bayer in his biography of G——); 
—A series of four faces in the background, some distance from the black ring, three of the faces smiling widely; 
—The fourth face, unsmiling and anxious looking, suddenly the only one visible; 
—A red spot at the center of the ring. 
—A red circle at the center of the ring.

When all three of the lights of the painting are lit, or when they are all unlit, the painting is simply a shining ring.

The drawing is titled, scrawled in G——’s unmistakably hopeful and discerning hand, Model For a Square. Twenty-six years ago, indeed, until 16 years ago, G—— lived on Corsica, some believed Mallorca. In Eastern Corsica—Castagnicia—among resettled Algerian refugees. In Bayer’s biography of G——, he merely summed the argument on the total impact on G——’s work by the Algerians by citing the fact that the young American artist, whose work before his move could most aptly be described as American Ironic, spent most of his efforts since on work with, a subtle at very least, voice of social equality, Darkness as the cornerstone.

Model For a Square has been appraised as a quick drawing, something G—— tossed off, perhaps at one of the festivals he was so fond of Corsica for. In the artist notes for his first show at the MoMA, he wrote (of):

. . . the man Gigi who sometimes claps to the music, but never rises from the table he sits at. On the table are dozens of thank you cards, to friends that have never burdened him with anything more than friendship, and on them he works all night. There is Paolo, usually sitting opposite Gigi, who claims to hate Gigi, yet who weeps as Gigi authors card after card, somehow writing, ever clearly, well into the darkened night. And as Paolo weeps he lists the friends who will never receive another mortal letter, thank you or otherwise . . . there is the principessa duo, Isabella and Anya, one blindfolded and carrying a basket of rose petals, scattering them wherever the other tells her to, the entire act for the invisible ghost of the prince their mother has told them wanders down from the mountains in the north for the walnut harvests. Whoever is in charge of where the petals are scattered claims to see the prince, claims to be the only one to be able to see the prince . . .

The drawing is comprised of four separate images. There is a roughhewn hand dominating the left edge, cautious steps toward the anatomic mastery he’d realize in his time with and study of A——. The hand is a left hand, nearly in profile, slightly bent at the fingers toward the rest of the drawing, a bend neither pronounced enough to imply much (a wave, a grasp) nor natural enough to let go without note. The lines at the knuckles and bends of the hand are deep, but the veins are drawn flush with the flesh, so that the age implied is something mysterious. A young hand worked hard, perhaps. The bottom of the hand stretches tenuously away in two lines, the wrist left imagined.

In the most profound show of genius exampled in the drawing, there is, next to the hand on the paper but seemingly miles beyond the hand in perspective, a parabola, a U. The parabola rests almost exactly on the center of one of the many creases in the picture, so that whether there was once a light Cartesian x, ysystem is now a matter of tepidity and speculation. The parabola, though, imparts a sense of expanse and girth, which is the agreed-upon feat of the drawing: as deep in perspective as it is, the figure could have just as easily become shadow, memory, the anorexia of longing; yet it still retains a feel of dimensionality, stays quite solid.

Without the usual cacophonic academic whirring surrounding a popular artist’s work (the silence more pronounced, in this case, because of the trim number of critics versed enough in basic algebra to comment), G——’s parabola has gone mathematically without note. Baylor’s insistence throughout the biography that G——’s emphasis on symmetry and balance was strictly limited to his love of human form and shape may or may not bear out. The drawing has become un-lost only too recently for any posit to be confirmed. One can be sure, though, that G—— was aware not only of the equation (x=y2), but was familiar with it in pragmatic terms, the quickest example being his annual participation in the walnut throwing contest, held every October 16th in Castagnicia.

After the parabola there are several gray, blank inches. Straight lines marking bends, the fragile thinness at the creases a result of the paper’s passage and handle, but no ink.

Balancing the left side of the drawing, the right side also has two figures, their configuration and placement neatly mirroring the opposite half. Of course this fact brings more weight to the problem of the parabola.

In a type so refined and unlike that used on the drawing’s title that nearly everyone who’s seen it doubts whether G—— was the author, ΣΑΡΔΟΝΙΑ (Greek letters translated, letter for letter, assardonia) is to the right half what the parabola was to the left half. Great conjecture has already been spent on what significance the figure-as-text bears within the work. Of course the Italian island of Sardinia is immediately to the south of Corsica, which is the quickest, geographically and contextually, connection the drawing could take.

But sardonia, taken in its literal Greek context, demands its own strange unpacking. The word in Attic Greek is actually σαρδανιοσ(sardanios), defined as bitter or scornful, most commonly modifying laughter, from which the English takes sardonic, its meaning retained and the laughter smuggled. So the problem of the misspelling begs redressing, given G——’s perfectionism.

There is, also, etymological debate surrounding the word. While a majority claims the word de facto Greek, its genesis buried in the Attic, a vocal paucity of scholars (descriptivists) cite the far older Italian Sardinia, the name of the plant whose leaves, on consumption, were said to cause one’s face to become screwed up, the meaning modified until the plant was whisperingly rumored as fatal and the cause of death being death by laughter.

Again, G——’s knowledge of all these details seems irrelevantly inevitable. Of course he knew. The unpacking, then, of the figure in the drawing must include generous consideration of a) the debated etymology of the word, b) the geographical connotation (including the sociopolitical background of the two islands), and c) the meaning of the word itself.

That A—— was Italian seems preposterous to leave unmentioned. That she was the primary reason for G——’s eventual fleeing of Corsica, that she disrupted his up-to-that-point locally integrated life, that she was fearless of her own beauty (a fact G—— initially praised her for and which, axiomatically, became the primary factor for his subsequent dismissal of her)—these facts, yes, must judiciously be regarded when considering not only the word ΣΑΡΔΟΝΙΑin the drawing, but in considering the meaning of the drawing as a whole.

The fourth figure in the drawing pulls the work, if taken as a left-to-right progression, back to the tactile world. The image is that of a low candle, three snakes of wax streaming down the front of its curved face. The flame lilts toward the left, mirroring the hand at the opposite edge of the drawing. A breeze implied.

In the upper left and lower right corners of the paper are rub marks, G—— having added something and, later, erased it. Speculation abounds, what with no indent extant on either side of the paper after so long, and the erasure so complete that any trace of ink was gone the moment G—— removed it. Perhaps the rubbing is simply where the drawing was fastened to whatever wall it has hung secretly from, all these years. Perhaps nothing? The fact is included here strictly for encyclopedic purposes.

Was it Matisse or Cezanne who, aged and infirm, incapable of clutching a brush, demanded that one be tied to his hand so as to continue his work? Whichever, it was G—— who titled the (only) two abstract series from his Anatomic (as they’re commonly regarded) years “Embrace” and “Unbrace.” In both series, he would arrange A—— in front of a canvas (of which Bayer wrote later: “The frames were loose for G—— and A—— in their moments, tightened afterward as the taste of a kiss or a touch is strung through the mind to endure while one doesn’t see one’s lover.”) Upon her person he would apply amounts large and small of paint and, with brushes tied to his wrists and forearms, would hold her, easing her—and himself—into the arms of the canvas.

The form of A——, then, was monumentalized in the only way G—— was capable of solidifying anything. The works from both series bespoke a level of intimacy rarely offered by artists of any genre, from any time period, in any medium. Both series were richly sensual, the equivalent of a sheet’s-eye view of beauty meeting beauty. There is, however, a vicious sadness underlying every work in “Unbrace,” as the differences between the series bear out.

Of course, as the reader keenly knows, “Unbrace” was rife with a lack of contact, a weighty reach gone ungrabbed. What lurks menacingly in the first pieces of the series (dark slashes at certain edges, oozing spots marking where G—— must’ve kept his arms rigid and unholding) comes startlingly articulated in #6. Whereas#6 in “Embrace” had an olive background and two arching swooshes of red, starting from the upper corners and diagonaling in, stopping suddenly and joining as a vinculum over a nebulous patch of ochre, “Unbrace”’s #6 has the same olive background, the same slashes of red, but instead of stopping, they continue the length of the canvas, terminating at the lower edges of the frame, forming a huge red X. As is usually the case, X marks the spot, but in this example, the spot marked is one of sorrow: the ochre smear from the first series was where A—— had reclined into the canvas with G——, the red lines marking his arms’ gradual encircling of her. Without A—— there was no ochre smear for G—— to stop his exuberant red lines upon. Nothing to keep his arms from falling.

“Embrace” preceded “Un” by only three years, but after those 1,095 days, those more than 26,000 hours, Bayer writes, “. . . the machinery (of their romance) had begun to shred upon itself, pieces once flush and dovetailing began to rip and clog the cogs. A metal on metal show of sparks and conflagration.” Bayer didn’t postulate or explain why this was so.

In his artist statement for “Unbrace”’s show at the Bilbao, G——wrote:

There are moments when I touch her still, yes, and find the whole of an unnamable continent in the microns between the smooth acreage of her back. 

There are moments when I touch her and find nothing but jagged finality, her skin like concrete, something not only designed but already poured: set and ready for use, only for use. 

There are moments when I touch her. When my hands, arms and wrists find nothing but her. And the futility of searching for an undiluted essence that doesn’t end, for something without end, leads one, inevitably, however slowly, away from people, toward oceans and circles. Toward disaster.

There is a hostility in his phrasing, in his blunt refusal to admit more than that there are moments I touch her, as if fearful of any implication that he longs, perhaps loses sleep in hope of touching her. And what of the unnamable continent in the microns of her back? The concrete of her skin?

A circle is defined as a fixed point with a radius (r) stretched to every point possible from the fixed point. A square, though, is drastically more complex. Four right angles and four sides of equal length, two sets of two parallel lines, the entire geometry a compoundation made either of never-touching lines or lines perfectly angular and perpendicular.

It is G——’s comment in the artist statement regarding oceans and circles that casts the most curious light on this newly un-lost work. The presumption that anything cyclic leads one to disaster intimates unspeakable volumes about someone for whom a hand, a parabola, σαρδανιοσ, and a candle are the elements one would choose to model a square. Disaster being defined as anything cyclic, he made a design for a square, for something limited, something safe. Yet humans, despite corners or parallel lines, have their own limits, carry their own disaster.

A—— and G—— finished each other only one year after “Unbrace” was hung in a well-lit and airy display on the northern blue shores of Spain.

The questions—of G——’s intent, of any possible prescience, of result—of course go unanswered. An entire arc of G——’s development, however, might now be considered as beginning with a circle, a design of infinity, and ending with this drawing, this design of solidity and corners, boundaries and limits set. For a moment, with this new addition to his work, one can perhaps see G——, paused with the sunset, perhaps among a crowd in October, a festival swarming about him, a rough sheet of paper set on the table before him. But then—

—then there were refugees with their transported culture, he himself a citizen of another land, everyone slouching toward a reestablished life, in their forgetting and remembering, seeing ghosts and spreading rose petals for their ghosts, the horoscopic Mediterranean sunrises ushering nothing but lushness and promise, G—— at a table, maybe, at dusk and within a crowd, the air everywhere loud with jostle and fragrant with bloomings and woods and the sea’s salt, the heaven slicing peaks to the north distant but visible, and suddenly A——, the emotional ornithology of G——’s guts lofty in instant swoop, his vision cropped about A——, her elegant length and raven hair, his view through the swarming crowd a frame he would tighten upon knowing her and loving her, a pen in his hand, the hand capable of reach and grasp, of reflexive clutching. His smile is dismal even as it hits lips; he is aware of how all that arrives brings its own ghost of departure, like fire or light or even darkness. And suddenly everything is a matter of what will burn and how quickly, a matter of what stays resistant to a conflagration’s licking, the endlessness of desire, like the sun, silent and unmistakably readying all darkening land and sea for a new glow, for the always oncoming night, and A——, one can perhaps see A——, perhaps see why G—— —

Why on a night slick with rain, as glare hid the bridge’s abutment from me, the small limousine I drove became the last box that would hold a living A——. There was a small fire, were red lines on her that converged as X’s, as swirls, mostly non-converging, then the psychotic whine of emergency, then she was gone. There was, along with nothing more than lint, this picture in her breast pocket: what she carried of him and herself, what she kept past betrayal, and what I now keep beyond that. I try to keep it mostly hidden, this paper.