The Escape Artist

Ernie Blick wanted to die. On an otherwise normal evening in October, under the glow of an Ikea desk lamp in his 400-square-foot Brooklyn apartment, he typed a suicide note.

At 27, I’ve cracked beneath the psychological pressure of being an artist. I’ve won plenty of literary awards: a Feathertale, a couple of Golden Quills, a Wordsworth. But despite my success, in the admittedly niche world of serious literature, I continue to live slightly above the poverty line, without any commercial success to elevate my status in mainstream society. At first, I enjoyed the responsibility of artistry. The pleasure of using language alone to articulate my personal experience. Recently, however, that responsibility morphed into a hideous burden. I waste my days seeing the world through a prism of critique. Simple colours, structures, phrases, all taking on overwhelming importance. They must be recorded, inspected for meaning, then hammered onto the page in prose. While some enjoy their lives in pleasure-filled sips, I’m tasked with devouring buffet servings of experience, regurgitating them, then rearranging them on a platter in a unique way. This process contributes to endless physical and mental exhaustion, all for very little recognition. Au revoir.

Ernie wrote that note, exited his apartment, walked past his favourite bike shop (which also happened to serve beer), sat solemnly over his pint, left a bitter tip, skulked out while offering some parting words to the repairman-cum-barkeep, then headed toward the Williamsburg Bridge.

Nearly a week later, after Ernie failed to respond to his editor’s countless calls and emails, the police busted into his apartment and found the note. In a statement, Billy Allen, the owner of Billy… fix my bike, an independent repair shop and “gentleman’s tavern,” said that Ernie had acted quite normally on the evening of his disappearance. “He left a pretty shitty tip. I asked where he was going. Then Ernie said something like, ‘Oh nothing, might just go jump off a fucking bridge.’ But that’s totally something Ernie would say.”

Various family members—none particularly fond of Ernie, an unlikable character who wrote long, convoluted, often self-referential birthday cards—were saddened but not particularly surprised by his suicide. Ernie lived in perpetual isolation, alone inside his head, where others could not impede his creative process—or offer any sort of emotional kinship. His aptitude for writing astounding, near perfect short fiction rivalled only his selfishness and grandiose sense of self importance.

Ernie’s family arranged a small memorial ceremony at a bowling alley near Ernie’s apartment, as per his will and testament, which had been scribbled on the back of a napkin at Billy… fix my bike. On most Friday nights, at the bowling alley, Ernie played 10-pin by himself, quite poorly, actually, given that he could barely grip the ball with his delicate, writerly fingers. He enjoyed entering wacky names into the scoring system, like “Fuckrod, Hairy Bowls, Gutter Plug,” hoping to trigger a response from bowlers in nearby lanes. Ernie left his modest savings—a mere $8,700—to his cat, Grimsby, who would fall under the care of Ernie’s older sister, Ellen. All of Ernie’s writing awards were gifted to the estate of David Foster Wallace, a fellow American writer who died by suicide, whom Ernie adored and claimed had been unfairly posthumously caricatured by the media.

The New York Times ran a flattering obituary, titled: Ernie Blick, literary upstart who defied convention, dead at 27. The New Yorker also eulogized him: Ernie Blick and the Plight of Young Geniuses. There was only one problem with all of the media coverage—Ernie was still alive.

For the next few weeks, Ernie slept on a raggedy mattress at the Bushwick studio of Arturo Arnes, a Spanish painter with whom Ernie had previously discussed his piece of “performance art.” Arturo thought the whole thing was hilarious and let Ernie stay in his paint-splattered garage, free of charge.

Ernie explained that he wanted to expose the media’s fascination with young artists committing suicide, along with how an early demise unfailingly gives their work increased importance. Ernie thought it would be cool to join the 27 Club, a group of artists who died at the age of 27 and achieved a special place in the zeitgeist—Hendrix, Joplin, Cobain, Winehouse. In order to achieve the public adulation commensurate with his talent, Ernie had to die.

The media devoured Ernie’s death. Suddenly, obscure short stories that he’d written during college were being published in important magazines. The New York Review of Books described him as a “literary heavyweight, taken from us far too early, like everything else good in the world.” Harper’s described Ernie as “the only millennial with the intellectual stamina to grapple with his own generation’s vapidity.” A24, the hip, boutique-y entertainment company, purchased the rights to his life story, with Shia LaBeouf set to play the leading role. In an interview with The Breakfast Club, a radio show with a predominantly urban listenership, Shia expressed his regret at never having met Ernie, but promised to “work fucking hard” to portray the bygone writer accurately in the film.

Ernie watched all of this with delight, on one of Arturo’s spare iPads, laying on that Rorschach-stained mattress, which sat on the cold concrete floor. After a few months, he lost about 30 pounds, subsisting on tuna. His pathetic beard had grown wiry and unruly. Ernie felt slightly empty, every time that Arturo arrived at the garage accompanied by a woman he recently met at a gallery. Arturo then poked his head into the door, implying that Ernie should leave, allowing the art-crossed lovers to get acquainted on the mattress.

This routine grew tired. Ernie woke most mornings, entered his name into Google, agitated himself to his fawning Times obituary; rung open a can of albacore, which he had previously joked was the “punk rocker of tuna”; drifted into an afternoon nap, with tuna juice spotting his beard; then woke up and repeated the process. Eventually, Arturo gave Ernie 30-days notice, claiming that Ernie had really “fucked up his creative vibes and made it nearly impossible for him to get laid.” Ernie, too, had started to resent the arrangement, wondering what it would be like to enjoy his fame.

After getting evicted, Ernie re-entered society in the most delicate way he could imagine, by standing in the middle of Times Square and declaring his rebirth to thousands of unwitting tourists. When that tact failed miserably, Ernie hopped on the train to visit his parents in Park Slope. He climbed the steps to their brownstone, gave the door a delicate knock, then took in their expression—a mix of genuine horror, confusion, excitement—upon seeing their dead son very much alive. And, of course, marginal disappointment, knowing that all of the money they had received from Ernie’s books and movie deals would be funnelled elsewhere. His sister, Ellen, seemed saddened by the prospect of giving up Grimsby.

As part of his revival tour, Ernie returned to Billy…fix my bike, where the walls were now adorned with black and white photos of himself, clearly an attempt by management to impress upon patrons that a famous author had once haunted the establishment. The news coverage following Ernie’s death gave the place a lot of good publicity, boosting the sale of bike helmets and Pabst Blue Ribbon exponentially. Then Ernie went to the bowling alley, doing the same old schtick, entering strange names into the data base: “Crusty Alley, Thick Pin, 10-Finger Freddy.”

In the beginning, the media loved the suicide charade. Some considered it the all-time greatest piece of performance art. The Guardian’s art critic wrote about the “astonishing feat” in an article titled, “Vanishing Act: The Death and Rebirth of a Modern Houdini.” The gambit effectively turned Ernie into one of the most famous people in the world, beloved in equal parts for his genius and devilish sense of mischief. Money followed the fame. Before long, Ernie purchased a $7 million Greenwich Village apartment, where he hosted bawdy, cocaine-filled parties.

One night, during a particularly wild romp, which featured a cameo from a rummy Johnny Depp, Ernie glanced at his cellphone noticed that he was trending on Twitter. Delighted, he snuck away from the festivities to drink in the news.

Then he saw a new headline in the New York Times, “Ernie Blick, famous author who returned from the dead, accused of sexual impropriety by seven women.” Upon reading that, he closed his laptop and walked east across the island of Manhattan toward the Williamsburg Bridge, from which he planned to swan dive into the East River and out of existence.

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