The Norman Rockwell of Mars

“The message of my art is belief in humankind. Belief in humanity and all that we can do. Belief that somehow, someway, somewhere we can all come together and bring out the best in each other. That our existence is worth it, that the universe is better for us, and that we can do wonderful things. I paint that destiny with humankind among the stars,” said Ford.

Ford stepped aside and let the other students take in his painting, his smile welcoming and bright. Silence followed as his painting was inspected. When Ford noticed glares, he stepped even further aside thinking the other students still couldn’t see his painting, and when the glaring continued his smile faltered the slightest bit.

“That is the most bigoted shit-fuck worldview I’ve ever heard,” muttered a short girl with blue hair. Ford thought her name was Apple or something, but he couldn’t quite remember. She routinely condemned the work of everyone outside of her small circle of friends, so he tried not to let her comment bother him too much.

“Class, wait for turns please. Constructive, socially conscious criticism only. Victoria, what is your feedback for Ford?” asked the professor.

Victoria, whose hair was pink and who had one side of her head shaved in retro ump-teens fashion, put down her phone and somehow conveyed enormous disgust by crinkling her nose. Her head gyrated around like a dashboard bobble figurine as she spoke. Ford felt ice in his stomach. He’d seen her head gyrate like that before. Victoria was far more invective than her blue-haired friend.

“Ummm, how am I supposed to describe… this? So many thoughts. At first glance I’d call it Wishful White-Washing War Propaganda or maybe Manifest Destiny Murder Porn, and uh… yeah… of course, problematic. I mean, wow. Just wow.”

Ford didn’t know what to say, or what to think for that matter, so he tried not to say or think anything. He just stood next to his painting with the same wide smile as before, and accepted he didn’t quite understand art school. Especially the other students. For one, they were all ridiculously rich and went to great lengths to pretend otherwise. Their parents were present and functional but they were all deeply ashamed of this. Many of them were also incredibly talented, and did everything they could not to conceal this beneath apparent lunacy. Rich people had always confused Ford and he was starting to believe they always would.

“Ford, how would you respond?” asked the professor.

“Thanks, Victoria!” said Ford.

The blue-haired girl -maybe her name was Fuji?- threw her hands up in the air and made a weird nose that sounded like a horse when it sneezed. A sound with which Ford was intimately familiar from living on his aunt’s farm. He’d mucked enough stalls in his youth to never forget the sounds a horse made. Or the way a horse smelled. Or the way a horse pooped. Ford believed that the sound was meant to convey exasperation. The knowledge didn’t help much. He still had no idea what had exasperated her.

Excuse me?” said Victoria.

A resigned peace settled over Ford. He hadn’t understood painting when he’d picked up a brush three years ago, and he hadn’t understood computer graphics until he’d gotten access to the library computers six months ago. But they’d made sense after a while. They had felt right. He knew art school was where he needed to be in the same way he’d known he was meant to be a painter. He’d figured out all of the other obstacles. Given enough time he would figure out the other students.

“Ford, do you understand Victoria’s critique?” the professor asked from beneath a truly impressive and owlish set of eyebrows. The eyebrows appeared well-groomed and well-kept. They even came to little horns at the outsides.

“No?” ventured Ford.

Victoria rolled her eyes. Nearer to Ford, the short girl with the blue hair -Honeycrisp?- walked up and planted herself only a few inches away from him, with both of her hands placed on her hips.

“What do you think it says that you’ve blatantly changed an entire planet to suit your imagination? And that you’ve done so without apology, remorse, or thought to what the planet’s feelings are? What gives you the right?” the blue-haired girl demanded.

-Braeburn?-

“Oh! Oh, I understand! You see, there’s no life on Mars. I forgot not everyone is as into astronomy as I am. The planet’s completely duh-dead. So…”

This information did not seem to change anyone’s mind and Ford’s smile broke.

If anything, the other students looked angrier. The same way they’d looked on his first day when Ford had stupidly tried to help them make their paintings look more like actual things. Instead of splotches of paint or toilet seat covers they’d found in a dumpster and hung on their easel, or a can of soup they’d bought at the grocery store and glued to the canvas. Ever since that day Ford hadn’t been able to do anything right in their eyes.

“I juh-just don’t, underst-stand.”

He continued, stuttering so bad his whole jaw shook. He kept trying to smile through the stutter and felt that the effect was horrifying. There was a feedback loop with stuttering. The more he did it, the more self-conscious he got, and the more he stuttered.

“Th-there’s no one there to huh-hurt. If we change th-things. Like in my puh-painting. It doesn’t huh-hurt anybody. Be-because nuh-nobody’s there. To buh-be h-hurt.”

Scowls deepened. Piercings glittered, arming the facial expressions they accompanied like knives. Art school sure wasn’t like anything he’d ever experienced before. Not like Chicago. Not like his aunt’s farm. Not like the high school art class he was increasingly coming to realize had been a personal heaven. And one which he would probably never find again.

Here, weakness was strength. Hard work was universally seen as an unwillingness to listen to your true self. Talent was only useful in the expression of mediocrity.

Several of the students sighed and buried their faces in their hands. As if they couldn’t even stand to look at him. Life was all about new experiences and new points of view, wasn’t it?

The blue-haired girl -Gala?- growled.

Literally growled.

Wasn’t it?

“So what, Ford? Check your privilege! You think it’s okay to just go up there and trash another planet like we’ve trashed our planet?” Victoria shrieked.

The blue-haired girl -Idared, Winesap, Elstar?- pointed her finger directly at Ford’s nose, for some reason he couldn’t quite determine. It was both intimidating and smelled slightly of onions. He stumbled backward a step.

“But… but… it’s duh-dead. I don’t uh-under-st-stand. If we put a guh-garbage dump on muh-Mars, it would be the buh-best thing to ever huh-happen th-there. There’s nuh-nothing on Mars for us to huh-hurt. Even if we went up th-there and tuh-tried to make things worse, we could only puh-possibly make it buh-better!”

Several students threw brushes to the ground in exasperation. Others threw textbooks. Some threw up political hand gestures he didn’t understand. Some threw middle finger gestures he did understand.

“Do you think a planet is dead just because there’s no life on it? Who the fuck are you to decide what is better and what is worse for a planet? I don’t understand how you can stand there, and just ignore the history of all the indigenous peoples who have been murdered by Western civilization. I mean, think about Martians for a fucking second!” Victoria spat.

“There’s no puh-people on muh-Mars. Uh-other than the ones we’ve suh-sent there… they’re the ruh-real muh-Martians” said Ford.

“Oh, so now you get to decide what’s real and what isn’t?” said Victoria.

Ford blinked, trying to fight back tears. He hadn’t felt this horrible since the last time he’d met with his mother. At the custody hearing when he was a little boy. And that… better not to think about it if he didn’t want to cry.

Ford looked at his painting, trying to look with fresh eyes to see what the others saw. It was a painting of the planet Mars, as it would appear in a few thousand years time, with blue oceans and shining silver cities. A Martian in a spacesuit floated in the lower foreground, racially ambiguous, with an expression of awe when looking up at the planet.

The piece was titled “Look Up.”

“But… but… but who else are the muh-Martians going to buh-be if we don’t be-become th-them?” he said.

It was the sincerest, truest thing he knew to say. The beautiful dream that filled him when he picked up his paintbrush. The one he’d had since childhood, watching Neil deGrasse Tyson explain the Cosmos on a tiny television in his mother’s one bedroom apartment. The Spirit of Apollo, resurrected and resurgent. A dream of mankind united, brave and noble.

“You mean the people the white patriarchy sent there? And you just gave a big stamp of approval to the whole fucking mess! Look at this astronaut? You tried to destroy his racial identity, like you always do. And you know what a destroyed racial identity defaults to? Whiteness! It’s like… like you want people to just continue on forever, fucking up everything!” Victoria was standing up and shouting now, and her blue-haired friend -he could no longer thing of any apple names- inched even closer.

Ford stumbled back another step.

“Yuh. I mean, yuh-yes. I wuh-want people to go on fuh-forever. The astronaut isn’t whu-white… why wh-would ethnic di-dist-st-inctions exist in th-thousands of yuh-years? Muh-Mars is our guh-greatest opport-tuh-tunity to buh-be wuh-wonderful,” said Ford, but he stuttered too badly to be understood at the end and the blue-haired girl pushed forward so closely, she almost shoved him over.

“Ford, you’re being very insensitive,” said the professor, making sure to look only at Ford and not the student who had been physically assaulting him for the last few minutes.

“I duh-don’t uh-underst-st-stand,” said Ford.

“Humans are a cancer on this Earth! Do you fucking get it? I mean, do you? Humans are a fucking disease!” shouted the blue-haired girl.

Ford stumbled back again and he felt so awkward, quivering and upset, that it was like his whole body was stuttering too.

“I wish there was something more I could do to instruct you. Everything you paint looks like some kind of Sci-Fi… bluntly, Norman Rockwell. Who was garbage. A jingoistic, patriotic, sentimental fraud. I’m sorry. Why is everything so… clean? It’s the same in all of your works. Where are all the minorities? You have to be socially conscious. There aren’t any minorities represented in any of your works and the world doesn’t have any room for a whole new ethnicity. I think what Victoria is trying to say is that we all expected more after the Map of True Names,” the professor was very intently looking at the painting and not the blue-haired girl with the apple-name, who was still pushing Ford backward.

The Map of True Names had been his first project, the one that had got him into art school. A simple map where every nation was labeled with its own native name. España instead of Spain. Deutschland instead of Germany. Nippon instead of Japan. And on and on and on. His high school art teacher had put it online and it had gone viral. Critics had hailed it as a work of genius, both a critique of Western cultural hegemony and a way of undoing the damage done by Western domination.

Ford had just thought it made sense and was good manners to call people by the names they called themselves and had not understood why all maps were not made this way.

“I just… I buh-believe in puh-people and I believe in the fuh-future,” said Ford.

“Dude, that is so fucked!” said Victoria.

“I agree with Victoria. That is an incredibly immature mindset. I’m afraid I’m going to have to fail this project,” said the professor.

The blue-haired girl -Cortland! Her name was Cortland!- stepped forward to grab the painting. She shoved Ford aside and reached forward. He stumbled to the ground, landing hard on his elbows. Both of his arms tingled, like they’d been plunged into a river of ice.

“I’m putting your garbage future in the garbage where it belongs,” said Cortland.

“I rather like the idea that the future will be about itself. So many problems now, why should they all continue? This future feels… liberating,” said a voice.

The voice was deep, ponderous, buzzing somehow. Like bees. The accent impossible to place.

Without warning or explanation, another person stood between the painting and Cortland. A youth, black-haired and tan, standing with a casual menace that laughed at the danger presented by a pampered twenty year old girl. The youth did not raise his hands, did not do seem to do anything at all, except there was a shifting of his feet and posture. An imperceptible change in the way he stood. However small the motion, it firmed the boy’s body, and Cortland fell to the ground when she barrelled into his chest.

The youth peered at the painting, unmoved and unperturbed.

Cortland moaned on the floor.

“How dare you-” began Victoria, but the youth cut her off.

“I like this painting,” said the boy, decisive in his opinion, obviously uncaring of what the others thought.

He stood above Cortland and smiled like Ford had been only a moment ago. His green eyes flashed like emeralds.

“Also, am I the only one who has noticed that Ford is black? And that the rest of you are white? And that you are all absurd caricatures of art students professing belief in an absurd caricature of liberal values? Ah yes, I thought you knew. Everyone knows almost everything at some level. How sad. We all must work to bring that knowledge to the surface, but you must never hurt someone who hasn’t hurt you. Not ever. Do you understand?”

None of the words made any sense to Ford…

But for some reason, that made all the other art students, and especially the professor, turn away in shame.

*****

“Thank you. I mean… I duh-didn’t even know whu-what to do. It was all just so struh-strange. How duh-did you nuh-know to huh-help?”

Ford observed, distantly, that his hands were trembling. Ali Cohen -he had given his name after leaving the classroom- for his part seemed almost bored. In fact, Ali turned to the side to hide a yawn. He held Ford’s painting in one hand, having taken it from the art room in the calm following his defense of it. After picking up the painting, Ali had paused only to pick up Ford from his place on the floor next to Cortland, and then again to write an “A+” in the professor’s ridiculous old-fashioned paper grade book.

“I cannot abide people who choose to look like Jesus Christ,” said Ali Cohen in the most appropriate tone possible.

“I’m suh-sorry. Wuh-what did you say?” said Ford. His knee twitched and he found it hard to stand. He often felt that disconnect, given the life he’d led. Like the world was far away and he was floating over the top of it and anything could happen but it would be okay as long as he wasn’t inside of himself.

“Jesus Christ. Of Nazareth. In case you know of another one. It is so easy to look like him. In fact, I would say resembling Jesus Christ require only a lack of effort to look like anything else. Follow me.”

Ford realized he had been marveling at Ali Cohen’s resemblance to Abraham Lincoln in that dazed way people wonder things to distract themselves from shock, and was taken aback by the the other boy’s statement. It was as if they had been subconsciously preparing to have a light conversation about resembling historical icons, which they would arrive at after calming each other down for a few hours. Except Ali Cohen, like an overeager actor, had jumped ahead a few pages to give his lines without bothering with the build up.

Ali lit a cigarette and walked forward, his long legs eating the distance in colossal bites. Ford struggled to keep up.

“Looking like Jesus Christ is a willful choice. An obstinate decision. Any man, of any ethnicity, build, or demeanor can simply grow his hair and beard and resemble Jesus Christ. A shave, a haircut, and it is undone in moments.

“I say this, of course, because you have been quietly remarking on my resemblance to Abraham Lincoln.” Ali didn’t wait for Ford to nod, “Looking like Abraham Lincoln is not a choice. It is an undeniable part of my identity. I once shaved my hair into a Mohawk. I looked like Abraham Lincoln with a Mohawk. I once pierced my nose. I looked like Abraham Lincoln with a pierced nose. My resemblance to Abraham Lincoln is not easily undone. Do you know why I do not have tattoos all over my face?”

Ali Cohen turned wistfully toward the horizon, facing the silhouettes of the several buildings that made up the art school. Even when looking at one thing, the green eyes took in everything. Ripping the world apart and putting it back together.

“Because you would still look like Abraham Lincoln with tattoos all over his face?” guessed Ford.

“Correct,” said Ali Cohen.

“What… what are you talking about?” asked Ford. He was no longer trembling and somehow that brought his stutter under control. Barely.

“I am asking if you are real person,” said Ali.

Ali Cohen’s long legs started forward again, and their rapid pace quickly put Ford behind. A pause of a few moments, taken only to process his immediate surroundings, and Ford found himself short of breath just trying to stay in line of sight. Ali Cohen proceeded down the ave, a busy road bordering the college environs, thick with people coming in and out of stores and restaurants.

Ford struggled to press his way ahead fighting against the crowd for every foot.

Ali Cohen, as if to punctuate his physical superiority, lit another cigarette and proceeded unimpeded. Whenever he disappeared in the crowd, Ford located him by the cloud of cigarette smoke looming above his head. None of the rude looks shot Ali’s way seemed to bother him at all.

“I don’t know what that means,” said Ford, through a throng of a dozen teenagers trying to enter a VR laser tag arena. They were all already syncing up their headsets and barely even registered Ford brushing by them.

“Your art. The sunshiny optimism. Hold on, I’m trying to articulate.” Ali stopped abruptly, holding Ford’s painting in front of him. Ali’s long arms seemed to set the painting at infinity. The crowd moved around either side of Ali and the painting, like a river around a stone. Ford ran into the opening in the crowd and panted to catch his breath. Which ended in a coughing fit when he ran into a cloud of Ali’s cigarette smoke.

“I believe I have it now. What is only on the surface is easily erased. Easily undone. It’s all veneer. The top does not match the bottom. When I see simple happy things, I suspect deception. It’s a surface over something else. Only the bottom is durable. You seem to be the same underneath. Like my face is not undone easily, so too it seems that your personality cannot be undone. So, are you real?”

Ali Cohen turned the painting this way and that, his eyes deep-set and digging.

“I believe in people and I try to do the best I can… if that’s what you’re asking,” Ford’s jaw shivered again but he didn’t stutter this time.

The tall boy nodded decisively and handed Ford’s painting back to him. Only when Ford held it, and the painting was free from the proportions of Ali, did he remember how large it was. It covered his whole chest and holding it made it hard to see.

“I thought so,” said Ali. He resumed his rapid walk. “Your mother was a drug-addicted prostitute. You had to be mister sunshine to survive. The stutter speaks to a rapid mind. So many thoughts about the future to take you out of the present. You internalized the defense mechanism. It is part of you.”

“Eh-Exc-cuh-use muh-me?” said Ford.

He hadn’t told anyone. Not a soul. Even his aunt had only suspected. His mother hadn’t always been that way, after all. He’d seen pictures of her when she was young.

“I do not mean to be abrupt. I was not born here, where to speak of such things is rude. Or rather, where to speak of such things is to speak of the impossible. These people… the students and the professors, they look at this as if this is all of the world. Even when they profess to try to change the world, they do not imagine it is their world they are changing. As if to think of the outside world is to think of another universe. I am not this way.

“I do not care, or judge, or believe it is impossible to be born in such a place. I was a slave, once. If it helps you to know, please know it. I do not speak of it because such things are not common here and it sounds a joke. I have seen horror. The students who yelled at you today are not real. They have seen no horror. They do not even know what it is they object to.

“Their surfaces are so thick they cannot see what is at their bottoms. The tragedy is what they are on top doesn’t match what’s down below. It is nice to be told it is righteous to attack someone and it is easy if you do not know what is beneath your surface. I know much of this. There are people who look at great things and wonder ‘How was it done?’ and there’s people who look at great things and wonder ‘How much trouble would I be in if I broke this?’ Or perhaps, with the last, ‘How great will I be for breaking this?’ It is very hard to rip away what is on top and see what is down below. To understand the greatness and terribleness inside of your own soul? Do you understand?”

“You’re out of your goddamn mind,” said Ford.

“Exactly,” said Ali, “Now, let us discuss the genre of Positive Crime. I am its founder. I would like you to be my student. The light is almost right now.”

Ali climbed on top of a bike rack and turned back to look at the art school. He held a hand over his eyes, a visor to protect them from the sun.

“Are you even a student? I haven’t seen you around before,” said Ford.

“No. Of course not. I learned my art in Paris, China, Indonesia and a thousand other places. The world is the only true teacher. The world taught me what I know. I came here for you, Ford. I came here because though we have only just met we are true and good friends and I would risk my life to save yours,” said Ali.

“Can I have a few moments to think? Please, I’m very tired. I need… to sit somewhere.”

Ali shook his head sadly and brought some kind of remote control out of his pocket.

“I would not be a very good friend if I were to let you miss this opportunity. And trust me, I am your friend. Truly and deeply. Right now you are open. Wonderful things could be brought to you in this state. Things that could shine light on the darkness your childhood put in you. To perceive true beauty we must lower our defenses. Now, in this moment, you are open. I have waited for this day.

“Please, turn back to the art school. The political display in the middle. The one that got all the students worked up. That made them all feel so important. Silly works, but we live in a frivolous age. I was going to use the binoculars hidden in the shrub to your left to observe what I am about to do, but as I am your friend I would like to share this with you. When I saw your works online. I knew you must be protected from this kind of place. Though we have no near ancestor, I am your brother and loyal to you in the extreme.”

Ford started shaking again. Oh God, he was in the presence of a lunatic. He should scream. He should warn someone. Except, for some reason, he laughed. It was impossible when seeing the earnest excitement on Ali’s face not to laugh. His hand found the binoculars hidden in the shrub.

“What are you?” Ford whispered.

“A difficult question. I am the son of an Arab mother and a Jewish father, who dared love each other against custom. My existence was offensive to the world from the moment I was born. Even my name was a joke. For seven years after monsters murdered my parents, I was a slave, a dancing boy used as a piece of meat by those very monsters. For seven years, I lived thus until I rose up and slew my oppressors. I saw men engage in destruction against all laws of nature and man, for no reason but to bring carnage to the innocent and break beautiful things they could never have made. I have seen the very worst of humankind and have chosen to reach toward the best.”

“I don’t think people slay their oppressors anymore. Of if they do they call it something else. I think… I think I might be passing out. Sorry about what happened to you. It’s all just a bit… much,” Ford’s head rocked.

Somehow, though, Ford found the strength to bring the binoculars to his eyes. Here, in this one place, the crowd was thin enough to make the vision clear. He saw the art school, the central quadrangle where the political display was featured. Ford had walked by it once and found it rather… uninspiring.

“Never mind, you will see me in my art, soon enough. The central thesis of the genre of Positive Crime is to do something beautiful and wonderful, and sincerely considerate, without permission or apology. To commit crimes of wonder. It is the opposite of terrorism. This morning, I pick-pocketed a poor man and put a hundred dollars in his wallet. I replaced his wallet before he had a chance to know. Last week, I broke into a single-mother’s house and stocked her pantry with food. I have made dresses for young girls with more virtue than money and delivered them magically. I have staged street dramas before young boys who doubted their courage, so that they were forced to intervene and find bravery in the face of what they believed was danger. I have fixed fifteen pot-holes without permit since my arrival in this city. Today, I have found a true artist of noble soul and am about to show him he is right in his assessment of humankind. Now… look up!”

Ali pointed his remote control at the center of the art school and pressed a button.

Smoke, great pillars of smoke rose up from the center of the art school. Explosive except that the smoke was white as snow. White as a sheet. White as ghosts. The throngs on the ave turned to stare. Murmurs of horror rose up. Panic, all of them fearing the worst. Someone shrieked…

And then the shrieks stopped.

Ford looked through the binoculars at the smoke.

Lasers shot into the smoke from neighboring builds, dozens, hundreds projecting an image of Mars. Ford’s breath caught. He’d never seen someone do something this vivid with lasers. Even in the holographic display in Fleet cars, created with the latest technology, no image had ever seemed so rich. The planet turned, real and alive displaying a rusty crimson surface with tiny white caps.

The white caps exploded and… there was sound! Thunderous sound from everywhere, as if he stood on the planet with the exploding caps. The image on the smoke turned and the planet grew in size and definition. The perspective was changing. The image was animated!

A hush fell over the crowd.

Water ran in great rivers from the poles of the planet to the equator, forming oceans, blue and clean. Clouds, white and puffy, turned around the planet. And green grew in splotches. Forests! Trees! Verdant life, everywhere and abundant!

The image zoomed in until the display was from the point of view of a bird flying high over the Martian landscape. Two moons shot across the daylight sky. Herds of animals loped in low gravity, jumping at impossible heights over rivers full of fish. And there were cities! The cities of Ford’s own paintings! Then people! The people who bore no touch save that of Mars, the ones Ford had imagined, and they were… beautiful.

It was Ford’s own painting!

He put down the binoculars because his hands were shaking too much to hold them.

There was no need for the binoculars anymore. The smoke had spread further still and the display was massive. The perspective had returned to space and the planet was new-made and Earth-like. A Martian regarded the planet in the lower foreground. Ford held up his painting of the Martian planet and looked to the display and saw the images matched perfectly.

Ford didn’t realize he was crying until he felt his tears wetting his shirt.

The display now showed a magnificent Martian tower, high and unyielding, breaking through the clouds and daring to reach greater heights still. At the base was a plaque, golden and proud.

It said:

WHOEVER YOU ARE
WHEREVER YOU WERE BORN
WHATEVER YOU HAVE DONE
YOU ARE A PIECE OF THE UNIVERSE
THAT WALKS AND BREATHES
YOU ARE STARDUST COME ALIVE
AND YOU CAN DO ANYTHING
LOOK UP

“Thank you,” said Ford.

He had never really known before what those words were for. Never dared to dream that he could know. But he did now. The image reset and played from the beginning.

Ford closed his eyes and listened to Ali Cohen laugh.

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