Fiction by Ira Sukrungruang

The Longevity of Art

Ira Sukrungruang

Lynette and I explore abandoned houses. We’re collectors. Whatever we find, we keep and store in my unused garage. Most of the time, we uncover lost letters, old receipts, forgotten kitchen utensils, or an occasional doll. If it’s cool, we keep it. If it’s not, we still keep it.

Lynette is a wild-haired redhead who sees the world a little differently than other people. She’s twenty-something and wants to be the premier photographer of junk. It’s an increasingly popular genre of photography, she tells me. She always has a small digital camera with her. Often, on our journeys, she stops and takes a picture of random items. I’ll ask what she saw in that couch on the curb or the rusted spray-paint can, and she’ll simply say, “Art, Monty, Art,” even though my name isn’t Monty, but a nickname she just decided to give me. When she prints her pictures, they don’t look like junk. They transcend what they truly are and become a living, breathing piece of life, a snapshot of America’s decay and wastefulness. I don’t usually talk like that, but that’s how I imagine art critics will talk about her work.

When we’re not in abandoned houses, Lynette and I work at a fancy restaurant. She’s a busboy, but doesn’t like the title. She prefers to be called the-person-who-takes-care-of the shit-the-rich-people-don’t-eat. Sometimes, she whips out the camera and takes a picture of the leftovers. She often wonders why she hasn’t been promoted to wait staff or hostess, but we both know she’s not a people person. At staff parties, she usually stands by herself and nods to some song in her head. When someone tries to engage her in conversation, she shoots him or her a look that says: why are you talking to me? I often save her, not because I’m as antisocial as she is, but because I know I’m her only friend and because we share this love for the things people have lost.

Lynette always finds me when she’s on break. Sometimes she goes with me to park the cars, sitting in the passenger seat, chatting about houses we should hit next or rambling on about the latest artist who has a gallery showing in NYC and who, in her expert and non-judgmental opinion, is a complete hack. Our conversations never get deeper than art and abandoned homes. For example, Lynette doesn’t know I’m thirty-five today. She doesn’t know about Martha and that I’ve been thinking about her because I found a black hair band, and in that band were a few strands of Martha’s hair. I shoved the band in my pocket and have been playing with it the entire day, twining it around my fingers, plucking it like a banjo. But Lynette and I, we don’t talk about this. We talk about junk.

Once I found vintage sketches of naked women in a house on Livingston Drive. Livingston used to be on the rich side of Chicago before the Great Fire in 1871. Now it’s part of a rundown neighborhood. The house was tucked away in the shade of the El, crumbling and slanted, as if it would topple over from a mighty gust of wind. But it hadn’t. It was standing there, seemingly unnoticed for over a century. When we entered the house, I began coughing because of the dust. Lynette always carried an extra surgical mask and she handed me one.

We weren’t the first to enter the house on Livingston. There were gang signs spray-painted on the walls, beer cans and bottles on the floor, a few syringes scattered here and there. Rats scurried away at the sound of our steps. We were used to these things. Abandoned houses were sites for sin, for recklessness, for human beings to do inhuman things, but Lynette and I were there to find something of its original nature, something that made us imagine the lives of those who used to live there.

I went into what I assumed was the master bedroom. Against one wall was a broken dresser. On another wall was a shattered vanity mirror. It would’ve been worth something if it weren’t broken. I was willing to bet that under all that dust and tarnish, the frame of the mirror was silver.

I was about to see if I could take the mirror down, when something caught my eye. A loose floorboard. Paper sticking through the cracks. I went to the corner and yanked the board out of the floor. Under there, I found a stack of sketches, about half an inch thick. I sifted through them. I started laughing. Naked women. There must have been twenty of them. Some were brittle and yellow to the point you couldn’t make anything out, but others weren’t. Others were perfectly fine and there was no denying that on these sketches were breasts and butts of voluptuous women, not anorexic models in magazines nowadays, but ones with curves and heft.

Lynette came into the room to see what I found. I told her it was the greatest discovery yet. I showed her the sketches. “Revolting,” she said, handing them back to me. She seemed to hug herself against an invisible chill, even though it was in the middle of the hottest summer to date, even though the house was like a moldy, dusty oven.

I told her she was nuts. These were sketches probably drawn by a man over a hundred years ago, and it was refreshing to know that people then were as horny as they are now. That made me feel good, like what I had found was a connection with another time, and the person who drew these had an appreciation of the body and understood the pleasures of sex. I told Lynette all of this and she turned to leave the room, but then stopped and took off her surgical mask.

“Sex is an overrated concept, Monty, meant to turn people into savage animals. As an up-and-coming artist I want to delve beyond sex, see it for its true nature, a diabolical way to reproduce more of us, people who really have nothing to do and no place to go. Do you really want more us-es in the world? Because really, there are us-es everywhere and it’s sad. Sad to the deepest darkest bone and it’s a problem not just affecting me and you and everyone in this stupid city, but the world. And it’s because of sex, Monty. Sex. Think about that.”

I thought about it and decided that my friendship with Lynette would go no further than our adventures into abandoned houses. Lynette and I, we were elementally different people, from different worlds, and it would take a lot to reconcile the distance and time, light years really.

It’s about eight and I’ve parked six cars—two Hondas, one a stick, a BMW, a Chrysler and three Toyotas. Lynette walks over, her hair bunned-up, a cigarette smoking in her fingers. She has a brown-sauce stain on her white uniform.

“It’s nice out,” I say. “Maybe we can go to that house in the suburbs after work.”

She shrugs and flicks an ash, staring at me in a way that begins to freak me out.

“It’s slow out here,” I say. “Is it slow in there?”

She doesn’t shift her gaze.

“What is it, Lynette?”

“Monty,” she says, “how many houses have we gone through together?”

I tell her twenty houses, maybe thirty.

“Thirty-eight,” she says. “Thirty-eight houses, Monty.” Her voice rises. The other valets—Tommy and Robby—look in our direction. They think I’m sleeping with Lynette. I’ve tried to set them straight, tried to tell them we’re friends and there’s nothing between us. But they’re twenty-five and always thinking with their dicks.

I tell Lynette to settle down. “Please.” But telling her this makes her even louder, more frantic. A Honda pulls in and I jump up to open the passenger door for a blonde and take the keys from her husband, hoping the sight of me doing work will quiet Lynette.

It doesn’t.

As I jot down the license plate number and make of the car on a valet ticket and then give one half of the slip to the man, Lynette tells me I shouldn’t tell her to settle down. I shouldn’t silence her. “Women have been silenced for far too long, Monty, and if I would’ve known that you were like other men then I’d never take you to all these houses.”

I look at the couple apologetically. They rush into the restaurant. I shake my head and play with Martha’s hair band in my pocket. Lynette looks like she’s ready to give me another barrage of words, but I point into the car and she gets in, slamming the door a little too hard.

“Easy,” I say.

“Easy, Monty? Am I your horse? Do you want me to neigh for you?”

I pull the car out into the street and then take a quick right into the parking garage.

“I thought you were different, Monty. What a disappointment you turned out to be.” I slam on the brakes. I blare on the horn and scream shut up so loud my voice cracks. I breathe hard. I breathe and breathe.

Lynette looks as if she’s about to bolt out of the door. She looks as if she thinks I’ll hit her or something.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m too old to be talked to like that. I’m thirty-five today and I don’t want to be talked to like I’m a high schooler.”

Lynette turns to look at me. I feel she is counting all the cracks and wrinkles on my face, as if, for the first time, she has registered that I am older. “You don’t look thirty-five,” she says.

“Thank you,” I tell her and smile.

“You look a lot older. I was thinking fifty.” She isn’t joking. Lynette doesn’t joke.

I shake my head. In my pocket, my fingers stretch out the hair band. I stare at the steering wheel. It has a fuzzy cover on it, like the fur of a calico cat.

“Monty,” she says. “Do you like having sex?”

How do you answer that? How do you tell her that sex is a natural human instinct? How do you tell her the greatest sex you’ve ever had was with Martha, third date, and it was clumsy and wonderful all at once?

“It’s OK,” I say.

Lynette says oh and goes silent. She appears younger now, no more than eighteen and for a second, she has the same look Martha has when she’s thinking deeply, her eyes adrift, her mouth tightly shut. And for a second, I think she is Martha, and I have the urge to close my hand over hers. I have an urge to apologize for all the wrong things I’ve done in our relationship. I have the urge to tell her I love her and need her and in the two years she has been gone I’ve been in this deep dark funk and to pass the time, I enter abandoned houses and find and keep things with a red-haired girl I’m not sure I like. I want to tell Martha this right now. In this Honda Accord where a bobble head dog is bobbing on the dash. But I know she isn’t here, my Martha. I know the girl beside me is Lynette.

“I’m sorry,” I say, pressing the gas on the car and slowly maneuvering it around a corner.

“Monty,” Lynette looks through her bangs, “do you find me to be an odd person?”

I park. “Yes,” I say. “But aren’t all artists?”

“I don’t want to be a stereotype,” says Lynette. “Do you really think I’m like other artists?”

I shake my head. “I think you give strangeness a new meaning.”

“That’s nice of you to say, Monty. That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.”

Then Lynette leans in and kisses me. I don’t push her away. My eyes are open. Her eyes are open. We kiss and stare at each other. Staring like those staring contest kids play on the playground. Who can outlast the other? No blinking. We kiss and stare. We kiss and stare. To look away is to give in, to lose, to be thrust into the world we know: the lost and found. The old and discarded. We are traveling another path right now, a path neither of us is sure we want to be on. After a minute, Lynette closes her eyes and sighs into me. She whispers, “I need you, Monty.”

“OK,” I say.

She climbs into the back seat and takes off her busboy outfit. I look away.

“Do you want to be with me, Monty?”

“OK,” I say.

“That’s not an answer to my question,” she says. “Do you, Monty? Do you want to be with me?”

I nod.

Lynette covers her arms over her breasts. She’s in her underwear, plain and white.

“Come here,” she says.

“OK,” I say and climb into the back seat, my feet stumbling over the center counsel, tripping onto her naked body. She lets out a grunt when I fall on her, but I roll off quickly and we stare at each other again.

“Promise me this won’t get weird, Monty. Promise me you won’t do every cliché in the book. Promise me that what we are doing is for art. For the longevity of art.”

“OK,” I say.

“Oh, Monty,” says Lynette, “Oh, Monty.”

This is wrong. Everything in my brain and body says so. But it has ceased to be about right or wrong. It is about need. I need to do this, need to get it out my system, this energy, this guilt, this weight that I feel has been gathering in my chest for the past two years. When I look at Lynette, her freckled shoulder, her pale torso, her small nipples, it’s not her anymore. It’s Martha naked in the Honda Accord. Martha telling me this is our world and she needs me and loves me and all the things that happened between us are forgotten and lost. We are a “we” again. I take her hair band and put it in my right hand. My pants slide down around my ankles and I’m between her legs, cramped and clumsy, my left hand cupping her bottom, Martha’s bottom. And when I enter her, her fingers dig into my skin. She responds to my movement, which is slow and fast, and jerky because I don’t have room, because the car is too small to hold the both of us. I am in and I am out. In and out. Out and out and out. She doesn’t mind my ineptitude, but holds on tight, holds on to my shirt, my hair, my back. She’s saying Monty. She’s saying it in a breathy whisper. Over and over again.

My back begins to cramp.

My head hits the top of the car.

It doesn’t take long.

When it’s over, we both stare at the ceiling of the car.

“We don’t talk of this, Monty,” Lynette says. “We don’t talk of this to anyone.”

“OK,” I say.

“We don’t talk about this to each other, too, Monty. We don’t. We can’t.”

“OK,” I say.

“I have to get back,” she says.

“OK,” I say.

“Is that all you have to say, Monty? OK? For fuck’s sake. Is that it?”

I stare at the car and the bobbing head dog and the condensation that has crept up the window and Martha’s hair band wound around my wrist and then at Lynette, snapping on her bra, pulling up her pants. Before she moves out the door, I cup her face. I kiss her cheek. And when she tries to talk, tries to tell me what a weird cliché I am, I shush her with my finger on her lips, and I tell her my name. I tell her from now on to use my name. I need to hear it. I need her to know.


Ira Sukrungruang is the author of the memoir Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy. His work has appeared many literary journals, including Post Road, The Sun, and Creative Nonfiction. He is the editor of Sweet: A Literary Confection, and teaches in the MFA program at University of South Florida. For more information about him, please visit

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