SPOTLIGHT: Economic Despair by Taylor Napolsky

If Deg could have any superpower, he would choose to be able to know what book someone in public is reading just by fixing his eyes on said person, or their book. This way he wouldn’t have to deal with getting close enough to the stranger to discreetly catch a glimpse of the cover (there is no hope of being able to tell by looking at the spine—the print is never large enough), and he definitely wouldn’t have to deliberate whether or not to ask the person outright, tapping them on the shoulder or cringing and going all in—“Excuse me, I was just curious as to what you’re reading.” An annoying, not to mention intrusive practice, that was guaranteed to make Deg feel like a pest. So with this superpower, if he could somehow obtain it, Deg would be able to avoid all that and he’d just know, with the title and author uploaded to his brain, popping into his consciousness in a fast literary phenomenon.

But no, that wasn’t quite it…. Really if Deg could have a superpower it’d be something more simple and far, far more superficial: he’d take a sum of money. A nice, fat sum of money like a million dollars, or probably more than that. Like twenty million or so. There—not as creative as the “reading sight,” but a whole lot more practical. He would keep it under twenty million because sure, he could keep going and going if he wanted—forty million…a hundred mil…a billion—but it’d be better (Deg thought) to keep it at a reasonable sum, which was still more than he really needed. He’d be good with twenty million. Hell, he’d be good with a single million, if he was honest with himself—he could make the money stretch, and as far as figuring out what that random woman on the bus was reading, he’d just have to go about it the typical mortal human way, or actually with that sum in his bank account he wouldn’t be taking the bus in the first place; he’d do a rideshare no matter where he had to go. But what is the point of dreaming? A superpower isn’t going to insert itself in a person, the same way lots of zeros don’t just materialize in a person’s checking account. It doesn’t work that way and once you accept that, you can get accustomed to the drudgery, and the stress, though for Deg it could’ve been a lot worse than his current position, he recognized. That was his position of being flanked by white walls in the exhibit, observing what he took to be the focal point—a gray sheet of aluminum with screws around the perimeter, and a fissure dividing the top of the panel from the bottom, splitting it unequally. He found it neat to look at, and in the corner, where the walls intersected were layers of plaster peeling down, falling to a chalky, clumpy mess pooled on the hardwood floor. It moved him…some. He could look at it and digest it and get excited, but it wasn’t the same as reading. Nothing got Deg so riled up, so stimulated, which was why he didn’t spend as much time at the exhibit as he had expected, and as soon as he turned to leave he began anticipating getting away, leaving behind the clean, sanitized smell of the gallery and coming into the crisp air. He knew it would be revitalizing. It was almost as though he were sick from being inside for so long, which made Deg feel a tiny bit guilty, because he wanted to enjoy it! He wanted to feel a rush of endorphins while he stood in place with his lanky arms crossed over his chest, assessing the work and putting his intellect to full use, discovering whatever meaning in the piece was hidden beneath the surface and in turn learning about himself in the process to result in one soaring accumulative epiphany. Blissful.

It’s these kinds of expectations that are unhealthy, Deg knew. A true rush from art doesn’t come easy. A rush from TV, or a rush from the internet, from social media—these things are accessible—though it isn’t producing revelations so much as frying the brain, destructive and deceptive like being high before the comedown: the high is cool, romantic almost, but it’s artificial; it isn’t getting you anywhere, but it’s incredible how even in an indolent state, running your finger along the screen of your phone, swiping, swiping, double tapping, the neurons fire for the most vapid surges of glee. He exited the gallery and as he pushed the glass door open beams of sunlight stabbed down into his eyes. It was blinding a little bit, February sun that dazzled irrepressibly and, with the chilly temperature, made the day feel fragile: as if the stretching horizon dense with the shapes of buildings could shatter, and clusters of pedestrians and traffic were just as brittle…might deconstruct as well. The bus was one choice, but Deg was feeling lazy and, dispelling the worries about the funds he could be saving, he had called for a ride to pick him up. He got in without many thoughts in his head except that it’d be nice to sit in the back of the car for a while, not having to talk to anyone, and that on his agenda was to stop by Jiménez’s (which he’d be showing up to early since he hadn’t spent as much time at the gallery as he’d anticipated), and dinner after that.

He was supposed to have dinner with Asger and his friend Lauren, though knowing Asger she probably wouldn’t be eating—she’d just have drinks—not because she was trying to stay thin (though she was trying to stay thin), but she just wasn’t too fond of going out to eat.

With his phone resting on his lap he looked into the screen, considering the things happening on the internet compared to whatever was happening outside, the traffic and loping pedestrians, the multitudes of stores working to move merchandise, the people going about their normal workdays until they come to the inevitable break/interval when they get to relax and look at their phones, exactly like Deg was doing. But it was like he didn’t need to raise his eyes to outdoors…rather, he innately understood everything going on out there, because it was where he lived and the culture he was accustomed to. But what if my phone stopped working? Deg thought. Like if it went out of batteries or something…. Then he really would have to find some other outlet for his attention. That’s what happens when your internet goes out and you’re forced to get to know your surroundings. But either way it was fine, he could find entertainment in the scenery or the various apps on his phone—it didn’t matter—and anyway sometimes it made him carsick to look at his phone too much in the backseat of a moving vehicle. He liked to walk as well; he got good thinking done when he walked, some of his best, maybe because his blood would pump so the exercise helped his brain. He was a walker. He wasn’t a bike rider. It felt a little stuffy inside so Deg put his phone away so as not to get nauseous. He wished the weather was warmer so he could roll the windows down, to get a draft going, and hear the typical noise, whatever sounds were rattling and music was playing.

In about a week was one show he’d be in: Vanessa Jiménez’s. The others he had walked in already, during the men’s side of fashion week, but Vanessa was doing a coed lineup, so she didn’t bother to participate in that. She liked to mix in men amongst the women, with clothes that often looked like they could go either way, putting men in oversized pinstriped shirts…hoodies with (lately) gigantic boxy shoulder lines. They rolled past a coffee shop and watching it Deg had the urge for a cup, something comforting that would also give him a boost; he didn’t take anything special, just drip coffee with a little room so he could put some cream in it, and if he had time (he rarely did though) he liked to sit in the shop and read while he drank his coffee slow until it was time for a refill. That was one of his favorite activities, and a good way to separate himself from the hectic commotion that so often wanted to intrude on him, on everything he was required to do to make a living for himself and survive…just plow his way through life and survive, while at the same time trying to appreciate it, trying to make it enjoyable or turn it into a game almost. Making life into a game was a good way to get by and avoid stress, Deg found. But sometimes he needed a reprieve from the game. For some people that meant meditating—thinking of nothing but empty space or whatever meditating people consoled themselves by thinking about in trying to find transcendence—but for Deg meditating was no good, and he preferred to escape with a book in paperback and a cup of coffee, and his phone set to silent so it couldn’t vibrate him out of the fantasy playing in his imagination as he fell transfixed with the words.

Unfortunately there wasn’t time to stop at the coffee place and drop everything, as nice as that would be. Vanessa Jiménez’s lair was a bit down at the heels—a raw industrial space on the fourth floor of a redbrick warehouse close enough to the harbor that the view peeked out over the gray and turbid water. Upon arrival Deg tipped, told the driver thank you and climbed out to the sound of a fairly loud stereo banging from a car parked on the street nearby which, while he couldn’t place what the make was, he knew enough to recognize it was nothing luxurious—not a Mercedes or Porsche or that kind of thing—but something uglier and standard, though the sound system was demonstrably nice. Whoever was in the driver’s seat was playing a song Deg hadn’t heard, but he liked it well enough going by what he could make out. It was a slow, soulful sample (which was nothing special in itself (though that didn’t make it bad, either. Just quality and up to par. The type of beat that isn’t going to make or break a song, but what matters most is whatever gets layered over it)) and some vocals with a good flow that Deg could only catch a snippet of—or not enough to hardly qualify as a snippet: the few lyrics he heard were stated in a question, and were something about how you gonna treat one man like less than another?, before the song moved on and Deg did the same, buzzing up to Vanessa’s studio.


“Hey, it’s Deg.”

It clicked open and he moved out of the cold, the music completely cut off now that he was inside.

Upstairs, up on the fourth floor, Vanessa Jiménez gave him a quick hug, her lips turned into a smirking expression over her wide and flat face, chin raised slightly. This was a common look for her: as if she liked and somewhat appreciated the person she was speaking to, but even more than that she was looking into the future, concerned about whatever was to happen in the years ahead and eager to fight the battles that would come her way, take on all antagonists and obstacles, and drive her way forward toward destiny. Deg used to find this attitude—(which was evident in her dark brown eyes, in her posture, and the way she held her arms at her side like she was braced for impact…)—a bit intimidating, but that had transitioned to his being inspired.

Vanessa would size a person up and there was nothing that could be done about it. She would make a determination about a person, but not make that determination known. Then possibly she’d forget that conclusion minutes later because it wasn’t any use to her.

It was a studio that used to be a furniture salesroom, stripped to concrete walls and furnished with steel tables and chairs, and plain black benches…everything modest and humble and a little severe. Vanessa kept it super simple, with a few pretty things thrown in on top of that, like bouquets of lilies and roses in a rainbow of colors.


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