Soup Can

by Brian McVety

Blake Gopnik, Artnet

“Why the hell would you want to see a painting of a soup can?”

My father’s words dripped from his mouth like he had actually taken a spoonful of soup, spilling across his chin before splashing across my boots. I stood there with my head down, aware that he wasn’t finished.

“Don’t your mother have a whole cupboard of ‘em in the pantry? Can’t you just look at those?” 

I kept my eyes to the floor, plucking the edges of my cap while he spoke. 

“And how much are they charging to get see this soup can?”

The cap had been my grandfather’s when he was about my age, made of brown twill that had subtle traces of his ink-stained fingerprints from his work at the newspaper factory, back in the twenties. My folks wouldn’t let me work yet. Not until I was sixteen. They reasoned that college was to be the wave of the future, and studies were much more important.

“You listening to me son?”

My fingernails dug into the rough fabric of the cap, searching for the most appropriate response.

“I’m not asking for any money, Pop.”

I wasn’t sure if that was the right answer, but it was a start. It always seemed to be this question. The minute he opened his mouth, I knew where this conversation was going. It’s where every diatribe went. 

My father studied me, running his fingers along his black suspenders that were attached to his trousers.

“’Cause you know we ain’t got any money, not for nothing frivlus, like seeing a damn painting of a soup can.”

I cringed over the way he hurried the word. I bit my tongue so as not to correct him. It was a habit of mine I was I trying to break. He just always had a way of shortening the word, like the proper annunciation was frivolous in its own right. I’m not sure why this bothered me so much, but I just couldn’t stand to see him abuse such a fine word.

“Yes sir, I know we don’t have any money for anything frivolous.”

I did my best to pronounce it as normal as possible, but I still felt I exaggerated the ‘o’ a bit too much. I hoped he didn’t notice.

“You’re damn right we don’t.”

He leaned back in his chair, its heather green upholstery fraying at the edges, smelling of cigarette smoke and sweat. He would be in that chair the entire night, sipping from bottles of Budweiser while my mother wore a path between our new icebox, also heather green, and my father. He leaned back and took a long swig, his parted black hair glistening under the incandescence that radiated from the sienna-colored lampshade to his left. He placed his beer on the wooden table he kept next to the chair. Three others were already there, along with his ashtray and his Pall Malls. I felt like my father was sizing me up, despite his eyes not moving from the black and white images on the tube. I turned to see what he was watching.

A mustachioed man was talking about the funeral service for Eleanor Roosevelt. I didn’t know the man’s name, but his baritone voice caused me to stiffen. He was the same man that I had been hearing a lot of recently. Cronkite. He sounded the way a man should sound, attentive, clear, precise. My eyes followed my father’s and watched as the man was replaced by footage of the funeral service featuring some of America’s most dignified men, President Kennedy, looking sorrowful but restless, Truman, who just looked old, and Eisenhower, who appeared the most earnest of the three. Vice President Johnson was sitting in the row behind them. I thought it odd how close he was sitting to President Kennedy, and how much older he seemed, a role reversal of sorts. The camera held a little longer on Kennedy.

“Goddamn Catholics.” My father interrupted, his voice also deep, but not nearly as serious. “Next we’ll all be forced to bow down to the Pope,” my father stated, more towards the television than to me.

Cronkite returned and seemed to respond directly to my father. “Well, that’s the way it is,” he said in a condoling but authoritative timbre.

Of course that’s the way it is, what other way could it be? I thought as I waited out my father’s bigotry.

He swigged again from his beer, holding up the empty bottle in the direction of the kitchen, not wasting words on my mother.

“If you want to spend your time with those dirty beatniks looking at stuff you can buy in the market, be my guest. But don’t you start calling that art though. No siree. Call it what it is: propaganda. And if McCarthy comes knocking on that door, don’t expect me to cover for you. Just don’t do nothing to ruin your future, and give your mother a kiss on the way out.”

My father’s fear of the Commies was not irrational, but if I wanted to spend my Saturday evening staring at a bunch of painted cans, why shouldn’t I? Wasn’t he the one always touting that this was the land of the free, home of the brave? Wasn’t this the land where a man could make an honest day’s wage, buy a home, raise some kids, and sit at home and drink himself stupid if he wanted to? How many times have I heard that speech before? If anything, he should understand more than anyone that consumerism is an art form, naked and real. His consumption was endless.

I had been wondering how we were even related when my English teacher made us read a poem called “Song of Myself.” He made us keep quiet about it though, didn’t want anyone knowing he was teaching us about Walt Whitman. There was this part in it, where Whitman goes on and on about all these different types of people, and how all of them are essentially the same person, and that Whitman was all of them, too. Mr. Stevens had said that Whitman was talking about something called the democratic ideal. It sounded more like the human ideal too me. I didn’t know what democracy had to do with it, since democracy made me think of my father, and he had never said anything like that before. I had never heard anything truer or more frightening than that before in my life. But when I started thinking about it, I started to notice how alike we all could be, how my father always left just a little in the bottom of his beer bottles, the same way I do with a bottle of pop, or the way my mother tilts her head when she doesn’t understand a question someone is asking her, although she will never admit it. I found my head titled the same way when Jane asked me if I had heard about this new artist who was painting pictures of everyday things, Andy something or other.

Jane was in my English class, sat to the side of me. Jane was smart, always raising her hand in class. I think Mr. Stevens liked her for that. I never raised my hand, despite how much I wanted to.

“Of course I have,” I lied in response to her question. “It really expresses the democratic ideal, don’t you think?” 

Jane smiled and nodded politely. I couldn’t tell if she was buying it.

“I mean I think so…” my voice trailed and thankfully Jane rescued me. 

“We gotta get into that exhibit my sister was telling me about. It’s at this new gallery, in Manhattan. I think the name of the place is the Stable Gallery. It used to be a real stable before in the 1950s. Now it just stables art.”

Jane pulled out a folded up copy of The Village Voice

“My sister brought this home last weekend when she came to do her laundry from NYU. It has the article in here somewhere.”

Jane flipped through the pages. They were a faded yellow despite the date in the corner reading November 4th, 1962, less than a week old. I had heard of the paper before. Mr. Stevens had said an army buddy of his and a couple of friends founded it out of their apartment in Greenwich Village in the 50s. I had started making a habit of picking up copies each Tuesday on my way to school, even going so far as to submit a couple of pieces about the state of Brooklyn and its symbol of the democratic ideal. I figured I should start writing if I was Whitman and Whitman was I. They never wrote me back, though.

Jane turned to the second to last page, and showed me a picture of a man with who had what looked like ironed bleached-blond hair, severely parted towards the left, with dark, square-framed sunglasses hiding his eyes. The photograph stopped at the man’s midriff, only showing his tight short-sleeve shirt with hypnotic horizontal stripes making him appear like a mirage. Although his eyes were hidden, the expression on his face suggested he was revolted his picture was being taken, yet he almost appeared to be posing at the same time. I had never seen a man like him before in my life.

“Warhol’s Exhibit Transforms Art into Something that Pops,” Jane said, reading the headline aloud.  

Behind the photograph were some paintings of what appeared to be bottles of Coca Cola and another one of hundreds of different cans of Campbell’s soup.

“My sister is going to take me on Saturday night. It was the only way my mother said I could go. I’m not sure if we would even be able to get in. Do you want to go?”

I had not even finished processing the question when I found my head tilting slightly sideways, the vision of Warhol replaced by a vision of my father, both mysterious in their own way.

“Of course, we have to. No problem,” I responded, knowing gaining my father’s permission would be much more of a chore.

As I rode on the subway, my grandfather’s cap atop my head, burying my mass of brown curls so they poked out the back and sides, I kept buttoning and unbuttoning my brown tweed jacket. It was snug around my waist and rode up my back when I raised my arms above my shoulders, but I thought it would fit right in at an exhibition.

I kept a pen and notebook inside the front pocket of the jacket. I had recently started jotting down various observations and ideas, thinking it would be good to have some background notes to weave into the context of conversations. I wrote down names I had seen in The Voice: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Pollock. I started to think of myself as one of them, Whitman showing me that I too had their freedom, their spirit, their ability to say damn it all to the man, to conformity. I just couldn’t let my father know that I thought this.

I wanted to tell Jane more about the democratic ideal, I thought it might impress her, but I still hadn’t quite figured out why she might care. I figured it would be more useful to use the notepad to jot down some notes about Warhol’s art. It would paint me both as a serious critic and an intellectual. I think both of those qualities are important in a person. I thought about writing this down while on the train, but the sharp turns and sudden stops would have rendered my penmanship indecipherable. Besides, no one was worth watching or watching me anyways.

I was to meet Jane at the corner of 74th and Madison. I didn’t get the chance to come to Manhattan often by myself, sometimes during the week my mother would send me to see my great aunt who lived on the Upper West Side, not far from where my grandfather used to work, the train from Brooklyn taking over an hour to only go a couple of miles. I didn’t mind, as Manhattan always seemed to offer some type of quest. I loved the preciseness that the island offered. It felt to me that nowhere else in America could one feel so exact and final despite the city’s immensity. I liked knowing that I could be lost in the multitudes, just a benign being who could be swallowed alive, but I still always had the sense that I could be found somewhere on that grid of streets and avenues, missing but never lost.

I walked from the subway station on 77th and Lexington, past the bourgeois apartments on Madison, their drivers idling in long, back Cadillacs. I took out my notebook and jotted down fictional names for the drivers. Arthur Wellington Jr. Milo Medividich. Jeeves Jeeves.

I arrived at the corner before Jane and her sister. I leaned back against a cast iron fence. The neighborhood didn’t seem to fit a gathering of such avant-garde art. The neighborhood was too neat, too clean, too Manhattan. I felt the need to differentiate myself. I didn’t know if I wanted to be a part of this type of neighborhood.

My father’s Pall Malls would have been something that would separate me. I wished I had taken one. I thought it might impress Jane, but everyone seemed to be smoking these days. What would I really be proving? As I waited, an older man in a leather jacket, hair slicked back, white t-shirt, as if he was James Dean’s understudy, walked by. I felt that he would recognize my need for a cigarette, the desperate need to look cool. He breezed past me without so much as looking.

I looked down at the gold Longine watch on my wrist. It was also my grandfather’s. He had left it to my father when he past, but like the hat, my father said he had no need for any of his old man’s damn charity, and let me have any of Grandpop’s possessions I wanted. The watch was the only other thing besides the hat that truly reminded me of my grandfather. And the only things I wanted. He had been wearing both when I had found him, slumped over in his chair, hat on his head, watch ironically still ticking on his wrist. I just closed my grandfather’s journal he had been writing in, and left his apartment. I went home and straight to my room. They didn’t find him for another two days.

The watch showed that Jane was fifteen minutes late. I felt like leaving. I had a thing for people being on time. It really isn’t that hard. I moved from fence to street lamp, under its ugly orange light, watching the sea of taxis float by me. They seemed like boats, anonymous vessels. It struck me as something Whitman might say. I jotted down that as well.

c/o John Whitehouse

I looked down again at my wrist and saw that Jane was twenty-two minutes late. I thought about hailing one of the cabs, just for the sake of something to do, getting out at a red light and not paying. I threw my hand up, mocking the idea. Before it was even fully raised though, a cab with what seemed like a knot of people pulled up. Limbs were hanging out of windows, heads were everywhere, smoke streaming from the windows. Bearded men started to emerge from the knot, their eyes glossy and slick, their facial hair as wild as the hair on their heads. They were all talking excitedly.

The idea is to hide the idea, submerge it in the fauna, like a deer waiting to be mounted.”

“The man has got me down, man, watching, waiting, wondering what will win and what will use.”

“Pop. Pop. Pop. Goes the weasel.”

These curious statements surrounded me like a dream. The chatter dissipated into the nothingness of the air, both engulfing and ignoring me, until a man with a nasally voice and large, bushy brown hair, emerged from the center of the throng. He was skinny, a blue scarf draped around his neck, as if it was keeping his head attached to his neck.

“Hey, which way to the stable man?” His voice was shrill yet had a sort of raspy death. I looked at him, not sure how to respond. I had seen this man before, a review of one of his albums appearing several weeks before in The Voice.

“You’re Robert Zimmerman, aren’t you?” I asked, trying to stand up straight.

“Don’t know what you been hearing, pal. The name’s Dylan.” 

That’s right, he had changed his name with the release of his first album. I looked at my feet, wanting to pull the cap a bit lower, embarrassed. I looked to his left, thinking that Jane would be coming from downtown. I wanted her to see me talking to these guys.

“Oh sorry,” I mustered, “Man.”

He looked around, his eyes calculating, not cold but with a sense of disdain towards me, but also towards everyone around him. He could have only been six or seven years older than me, but his attitude conveyed a lifetime of difference between us.

Another man with a wispy goatee and yellow teeth came over to Dylan.

“Bobby man, what’s that tune you been humming this afternoon?”

Dylan looked at the man like he had sinned.

“Oh c’mon, you know, with all those minor notes. Something about the war masters?”

The man pulled out two Marlboros. He placed them in his mouth, his yellow teeth holding them steady while he lit them. 

“I ain’t got a name for that one yet. What do you think?” Dylan answered.

He looked at me, but I thought he didn’t want an answer. The man with yellow teeth laughed, a sort of maniacal laughter as if he was the only one who had gotten a joke.

A woman interrupted this absurd laughter, coming over to Dylan, pulling on his scarf, wrapping it around her broad shoulders. She whispered something in his ear, and Dylan smiled that sort of sideways smile, interrupting it to take a drag on his cigarette. I felt foolish standing there empty handed. I looked around me, searching for Whitman, for the connection that I belonged to these people, this group. It only made me feel more like an outsider. I looked at my feet, my jacket feeling too snug, my pen and notebook pressed against my breast. Maybe my father was right.

It was then I heard the animated greeting from three doors down. It was a voice full of life and expectation, a voice that understood something that I didn’t. It was a deep voice, not quite like the mustachioed man on TV, but had the same sort of certainty. “In fifteen minutes, I might not be famous anymore. So, you might as well come and enjoy the limelight.”

All eyes seemed to turn that way as well, even Dylan’s. It was a voice that didn’t match the effeminate man that was producing it.  

Andy Warhol stood with his arms crossed, black and square sunglasses buried under long, whitish blond strands of straightened hair. He had a blazer without a shirt underneath, his frame pale, making him seem a skeleton of sorts. His voice seemed too deep for his body.

He strode towards us, kissing everyone on the face. He saw me, his lips moving towards mine for an instant of connection, before he was on to the next bearded hipster. 

I stood dazed, frozen, wondering what I should do. Before I could make that decision, though, they moved together in a herd, up the street, towards the gallery, away from me, as if I was a vagrant, no one looking back to see if I had moved.

Dylan was the last to go, the woman was still draping herself around him. He had only taken a couple of drags on the Marlboro. He flicked the cigarette to the ground as he followed the cacophony of ideas and animation.

I waited until they were gone and into the gallery, their existence now questionable. I moved to pick up the cigarette.

The smoke smelt differently than my father’s. I picked up the smoldering tobacco, my hand shaking, moving it to my lips. I blew on it, the ashes dancing under my breath, before inhaling. I choked and coughed, my eyes watering, thinking I might vomit.

“Vinny?”

The voice was tentative, unsure if that was the right word to use.

“Vinny are you okay?”

I looked up, seeing Jane wearing a dress with a floral pattern, her lips emblazoned with lipstick, deep rouge caking her cheeks. I choked down a cough, holding the cigarette between my fingers. Her sister was standing a few paces away, looking bored, like I was an unneeded detour.

I brought the cigarette again to my lips, fighting back the urge to cough as the smoke entered my lungs. I exhaled, a cloud lingering above our heads.

“Hey Jane, what’s shaking.”

She looked at me, uncertain, like she was afraid, for her or me I couldn’t tell.

“You made it. I didn’t know if your father would let you. We practically had to sneak out to get down here. My mother was having second thoughts.”

 “It was nothing,” I said, keeping my cool.

She looked at me, a subtle smile broaching her lips.

“Let’s go Jane,” her sister called. “If we have got any shot of getting in, I gotta find Barry. He knows Joan, who is Eleanor Ward’s niece or something. He said he can get us in. I don’t want them to leave without us even trying to get in.”

Jane mouthed something in her sister’s direction, her back towards me. I took another drag, more smoothly this time. She turned back around.

“You ready, Vinny?” 

She smiled warmly, as if to will the right answer out of me.

“You know what Jane? I feel like I would rather prefer to see art of Manhattan. The streets, Jane, there’s more art on this corner than in any soup can. Don’t you think?”

My father flashed through my mind. I took another drag from the cigarette.

She giggled, looking back at her sister then back towards me.

“Vinny, aren’t you something. My sister really wants to go, so . . .” her voice trailed.

“I’ll see you in fifteen minutes,” I responded, lifting my cap and meeting her eye in the first time. I threw the cigarette down, stomping it under my boot.

“It’ll be longer than that Vinny!” she said, forcing a laugh before turning and catching up with her sister who started up the sidewalk.

“It never is,” I said, taking out my notebook, and heading south, down Lexington, smiling.

XXXXXXX 

Brian McVety lives in western Massachusetts with his wife and three daughters. His fiction has appeared in Little Old Lady Comedy, Apeiron Review, and Blue Lake Review. 


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