The Artist and the Con Man This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

August 24, 2016
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In the distant suburbs surrounding Boston, Michael Angelo was completely engrossed by his homework.  His ironic name, inspired by the famous painter himself, was a parting gift from his delightful sperm donor of a father, who disappeared before the pregnancy test had turned pink.  Michael was totally focused on his last minute economy homework, displayed on his monstrous laptop he loaned from his high school.  Intently staring at the screen and stabbing the faded keys aggressively, his head suddenly snapped up at the sound of a familiar voice.
“Michael!  Your gallery opening is in fifteen minutes.  Rapidamente,” his mother screeched from downstairs in a mixture of English and rudimentary Spanish she botched with her Boston accent, something she probably learned in her preppy high school; she was trying to teach Michael the Spanish language through “integration into the culture.”  Despite her appearance on an episode of Sixteen and Pregnant, Michael appreciated how she tried to fill the role of both parents. In his humble opinion, she had done a wonderful job raising her child.
“I’m almost ready, one minute,” Michael replied smoothly, faking calmness, before hurling himself off the faded bedspread.  Tearing through the hallway, his white socks slid on the wood floor like a world-class ice skater as he muttered a rapid fire string of profanities.  He quickly slid out of the faded-from-overuse maroon lacrosse shorts and into freshly ironed khakis, courtesy of his mother, and stumbled into the dimly lit bathroom.  “Come on,” He griped as he dug through grimy shampoo-coated wooden cabinets.  After a minute of intense searching, Michael's hand grasped the cheap Crayola paint set, designed for the budding four to six year old artist, and a gritty plastic paint brush.  He dunked the brush in red paint and lined a few of his nails with it.  Then, grabbing the plasticy blue, he splattered a drop on the side of his neck, almost hidden by shadow, just enough to make it look like an accident.  Waving his hands around like a psychopath swatting a swarm of invisible flies, Michael slid down the banner, flung open the sun-beaten white door, and raced down the dying lawn to the 1999 Toyota where his mother was waiting, impatience written on her face.  She mashed the gas pedal into the dusty floor before Michael even had the chance to shut the car door and the vehicle with chipping green paint sped away.
Fifteen minutes and five jostling potholes later, Michael and his mother arrived at their destination.  The gallery opening was set in across the city, in a chrome and white building surrounded by newly paved sidewalks and streetlights that contrasted with the faded dusk sky.  Inside, the bare hardwood floor contrasted with the monotone walls and metallic fixtures, strangely giving the place an expensive yet minimal atmosphere.  Expressionless waiters in suits balanced silver platters of bubbly champagne, taken by stiff upper class socialites, shiny shoes glittering in the spotlights on each piece.  The expensive fabrics of their evening wear completed the setting, almost as if it was from a movie.  To Michael, the scene seemed unreal, despite the many months he spent preparing for this night.  How had he upgraded from cracked sidewalks to an elite gallery?
“Micheal!  What a success!  I knew I wouldn’t regret showing your collection!” Alan, the gallery owner, boomed, shaking Michael’s hand vigorously.  Michael coughed slightly in the cloud of expensive cologne.  Noticing his paint-stained hands, Alan nodded approvingly, saying, “always the artist, I see.  Go, look around.”  He pushed Michael over to one of his paintings before strutting over to a fancily-dressed, makeup-coated woman who was young enough to be his daughter. 
Michael was staring at his art, rubbing his beardless face in what he hoped appeared to be a thoughtful or pondering manner, when a voice from behind startled him into dropping the flute of nonalcoholic sparkling cider.
“Beautiful work, isn’t it?” murmured an older woman, eyeliner-coated eyes drooping as if she might cry at any moment.  She ignored the waiter who immediately appeared to clean the mess, as if she was accustomed to the presence of servants in a way Michael was not.  The waiter deftly swept up the shards before disappearing just as quickly, making Michael doubt if the mess had ever existed. 
Scrambling for an appropriate response to the woman’s question, Michael replied, “I hope so.  It’s my piece.”
She glanced quizzically at his face, doubting a scrawny but calculating teenager could find his way into a gallery, before nodding thoughtfully in apathetic acceptance as if she was too exhausted to care if he was telling the truth.  She turned to gaze at the artwork, giving Michael a chance to study her.  She was middle aged, but wore a dramatic, floor-length gown in green silk.  Emerald and gold jewelry hung from her dainty wrists, untainted by work.  Her dirty blonde hair was swept to the side in an artful low bun.  From his close view, Michael could see the scaffolding; black bobby pins stabbed through, a thick layer of hairspray gave her hair the appearance of straw, and a thin elastic poked through.  Her piercing green eyes studied the art, as if searching for an explanation for her troubles.  “Well, if you’re the artist,” she mused, “then what does it mean?”
Michael had prepared for this question.  Lying awake in scratchy sheets over the past few weeks, he spent time imaging every possible scenario.  Insomnia was benefitting him now. 
“I can’t tell you the answer,” he lied, trying to use enough steady eye contact to be believable, “Art, life, everything, depends on your perspective.”
Mysteriously, Michael slinked away, not wanting to see any more of his work.  Perhaps she found an answer in the random geometric shapes, a design he had copied from his three year old cousin’s toys, or maybe she saw the same thing he did: random psychedelic shapes with no purpose. He hoped she found whatever answers she was looking for in that gallery, but he was fairly certain there were no answers to be found in his collection, which included a cracked piggy bank oozing ketchup, a chain of paper clips constricting around a rotting tomato, and a palm tree covered in Spider Man bandages and strips of tinfoil.  Alan’s favorite piece was a white dollhouse that had spaghetti and dry erase markers on the floors and microphone and baseball hanging from the roof.
People always looked at modern art and said, “I could make that piece.  Why is that considered art?”  Michael did just that.  It would allow him to go to college and obtain his true love: money.  Michael was a businessman playing the part of an artist and he had acted flawlessly.  This gallery was a chance to take a bow and look at his success, but he did not feel successful or deserving.  Money had always soothed his worries before, but this money felt dirty and stolen.  The sight of rich geezers buying his work in pursuit of some meaning in life could not wash his guilt away, not enough to end the sleepless nights.  Michael hoped the problem would improve given time, but the better pillow or sleeping pills he bought with his newly created bank account did not give him rest like he had when he was penniless.

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