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Graf

by Geoff Hart

Taggart sipped at his espresso, thick and bitter and tasting of courage, and gazed morosely around him at the crowded bistro. As audiences went, it wasn't—but then it wasn't entirely about audience, was it?

It had started inauspiciously enough less than a decade earlier. Frosh night, University of Toronto, and his dare had been to climb the fire escape at the northwest corner of the Queen's Park provincial assembly and leave his mark. The September air had still carried much of the humidity of the fading summer, but the black iron had been chill under his hands as he and two new friends, names long since forgotten, moved up the steps, letting the each footfall come slowly to rest before taking the next step. They'd made it halfway up—high enough to look down into the guardroom—before his two companions bolted and ran, the stairs vibrating beneath him in that uniquely iron way as they descended.

He'd been sure they'd all be caught, but he'd reckoned without the Ontario public service. The bored guard making the rounds below never looked up. The half-dozen guards smoking and drinking coffee were too busy watching the security monitors and some talk show to look out into the night, the vibration of the stairs evidently not nearly as loud to them as it had been to him. Still, it had been some time before the vibrations had faded away beneath his sweating hands, and it hadn't been clear how much of the final tremors had been the iron. The hastily daubed tag, liquid paper trickling over pink sandstone, had barely been recognizable as a T, but it had been his first tag. Even if it had been far too small for anyone to ever see it from ground level.

It had escalated from there, of course, literally and figuratively. There was something delicious about heights that made it far too pedestrian to simply scrawl his mark at eye-level on an alley wall. That was for amateurs and dilettantes. Within a year, he'd tagged several of the larger office towers with his signature T, and the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto's St. George campus—making it, as he bragged to his confidantes, "truly the U of T". By the time he'd eked out enough GPA to earn his BFA, he'd reached his crowning achievement: an elegant three-metre T on the northern swell of the CN Tower's observation deck. That made his rep and earned him (anonymously, of course), a page-long "retrospective" in Now; the mysterious "T" had arrived.

Taggart's attention returned to the present. The room was as murky as the coffee, the haze of conventional smoke overlain with the faintly sweet tang of the local hydroponic marijuana and other, less recognizable smells. He drained his drink to the dregs and then, for good measure, swallowed those too, the layer of half-melted sugar and bitter grounds slithering down his throat. Coffee grounds lay gritty on his tongue and acid-heavy in his stomach, as heavy as the two old-fashioned cans of spraypaint that tugged his oh-so-retro phat pants dangerously low on his hips whenever he stood. Unnoticed, his hands darted beneath the table and patted each of these tools the way an Old West gunfighter preparing for a shootout might have brushed the butts of twin revolvers. Ars longa, he whispered at his unheeding audience.

"Hey, Tagger... you stoned, or you always look that way?"

He looked up from where his eyes had fallen to the scarred wooden surface of the table, drawn there by the half-seen patterns that lurked just beyond sight within the wood, the natural grain given form by the hand of man, by burns from long-extinguished cigarettes, by the careless thump of heavy ceramic mugs. Plus the tags, of course, the work of amateurs with ballpoint pens, butter knives, or even forks, desperate for even the limited immortality their scratchings could achieve in a tabletop.

"Yo..." His brain reached for a label, caught it. "Neutron?"

"That's right, the bomber who takes no prisoners and leaves the real estate standing. Hey, you remembered! Guess you just look that way naturally, then." The younger man flung himself bonelessly into the chair across from Taggart, coming to rest with an affected, self-conscious grace that belied the move's intended casualness. His skintight coverall—good, late-model mimetics—flickered a moment before blending him in with the chair and most of the crowd behind him. Only his head remained clearly visible, floating Cheshire-catlike above the table. Though the night was cold as only a damp Montreal winter can be, there was a faint sheen of sweat on his face, limning the mahagony skin with refracted light from the holos above the bar.

"So what's your story, then?" Taggart clasped his hands together on the tabletop, reluctant to let the young tagger see how they were trembling. It was the caffeine—almost certainly the caffeine—but he didn't want to have to explain it to anyone, least of all a young up-and-comer like Neutron.

Neutron glanced around ostentatiously, then leaned across the table with a conspiratorial wink. "Tagged the Hydro building tonight, man. Right up near the roof, where you can't miss it even if you're blind as a National Gallery curator."

Taggart sagged in his chair. "You tagged Hydro?"

Early in his increasingly unremarkable academic career at U of T, Taggart had briefly hung with an engineer grrl. When he'd revealed his secret career, looking to stir some interest, she'd asked to do a tag with him as one of those couple things women always seemed to want to do. He'd been young enough and sufficiently desperate to get into her pants that he'd agreed—he'd even gone along with her insistence that paint was desperately passé and that they should try something less creakily old-fashioned. So he'd shown her how to get on top of St. Michael's College, and together they'd climbed out onto the roof to affix the tiny solar-powered laser she'd kludged together in the lab. Beamed across University Avenue at Hydro Place, whose mirror-polished windows and parabolic arc made a near-perfect reflector, it fuzzily projected his trademark T onto the parliament buildings in glowing green as soon as the sun set. The climb down had been the best part of the whole exercise. The tag had been ephemeral, a victim of the hundreds of clumsy pigeons that infested downtown Toronto, and had been even less inspired than the victory sex. He'd long since lost her name to the years, but the memory of that climb was still as bright as it'd been at the time. Too bright. The first electronic tagging of the new century had started a trend that made old-style tagging seem too retro even for artistes.

He'd been trying to figure out how to crack Quebec's "national" power utility ever since he'd returned to Montreal nearly six years ago to teach at Concordia, and give the devil his due, Neutron had beaten him to it. The disappointment must have shown on his face. Neutron's eyes widened and he preened; the holy grail of tagging had just been brought home by Perceval, and an aging Arthur had acknowledged the coup. "Damn' straight!" The youth mopped at his brow, waited for the inevitable 'how?', and seeing it wasn't coming—but missing the why—took the question as a given.

"Delivered a pizza to the executive suite, some badass top-gun meeting going on there and in I walk looking like this—" An expansive wave of his hands brought them out of his pockets and out from under the table, pale palms briefly visible like doves escaping a magician's sleeves "—and I handed it to them with a nice, anonymous little note saying 'on the house'. Social engineering's always the easy part. Them guilty liberal French folk tip real well too, y'know. So anyway, when I'd done collecting, I let myself into the executive crapper while no one was looking, put an 'out of order' on one of the stalls, locked myself in, and propped myself up on the seat to wait 'em out. Hell, I could've just slept right out on the floor; them guys're so anal not a one of 'em came in all afternoon to take a dump."

Despite himself, Taggart smiled at the image. "Do tell."

"I'm tellin' you, man... easy street. So I dozed off there, and when the lights went out, that woke me up. Must've been about 8 by then"—he glanced at his street Rolex briefly before disappearing it back under a sleeve—"and not even the cleaning crew was there anymore. So I let myself out, hacked the display room 'puter—what kind of idjit uses Levesque as a password?—and the rest is tagging history."

"Yeah. History."

Neutron frowned, puzzled at the defeated tone in the older man's voice, then pasted a shy smile back on his face. "Wanna come see it?"

Taggart winced at the childlike need in that plea. "Yeah, sure. Let me get one more coffee."

"Good plan. It's cold enough out there to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. Hey, Tagger—you ever seen a brass monkey? Do they really have balls?"

Taggart ignored him and signaled for the waiter. Without seeming to notice him, the waiter glided past the table and deposited the check, moving on to more promising customers. You'd think a mech wouldn't acquire that skill, but maybe they went to the same schools as human waiters and learned the same eye-avoidance techniques. Taggart sighed, abandoning the comforting notion of more coffee, and flipped the stained paper over. Then he reached for his wallet. A warm, sweaty hand fell across his arm. "No way, man. You're like, royalty. It's on me."

Taggart withdrew his hand, slowly enough to not give offense, though the touch of someone else's hand had lately started making his skin crawl. "Thanks. You've got the makings of the heir apparent, kid... balls, brains, and noblesse obligé out the wazoo."

"What obligé?" He dropped a torn fiver on the table, slid Taggart's empty cup across to pin it and the check to the table, and bounced to his feet so fast he might have been on springs. "C'mon, man... you've got to be the first of us to see it."

Taggart pushed his chair back noiselessly, the wooden legs sliding smoothly over the greasy floor, his knees creaking as his legs straightened, and gathered his long, grey woolen trenchcoat around thin shoulders. The style had been so popular three seasons ago; now, it just made him look as past his prime as the younger taggers insinuated—though never to his face, not even now. He rose more sedately than gracefully, knees complaining all the while, buttoning the oversized buttons with one hand, the other reaching for the belt. By the time he'd managed to squeeze through the crowd and reach the door, Neutron had already escaped into the street. Pausing for a moment before entering the night, Taggart cinched the belt around him and tangled it into a clumsy knot. He pulled his tuque from a bulging pocket, tugged it down over his ears, stuck his bare hands into his pockets, and pushed the door open with his shoulder.

The damp cold hit him like a bucket of icewater, and he shivered. A few extra pounds would have been nice on a night like tonight, but that had never been in the metabolic cards his parents dealt him. Neutron danced there in the spotlight from a street lamp, arms and hands and Nike sneakers fluttering in and out of visibility like the snowflakes that might soon be falling, the mimetics trying nobly—and failing—to keep up. "C'mon, man, what you waitin' for... spring?"

Movement compensated somewhat for the left-behind heat of the bistro, and eased the pain in his joints. Even so, it was a struggle keeping up with the young Black man, all elasticity and exuberant energy. But the effort warmed him, and a touch of the old thrill managed to sneak past his despair; this, after all, was classic tagging, something he'd pretty much defined for this city when he'd turned the tower on the Olympic stadium into a pleasingly literal phallic symbol. That was a long time back, though—at least four years, and one of his few excursions outside tagging and into real graf. Tonight... They moved south a block, then east on René Levesque, entirely alone because it wasn't the right kind of street for a weekend night. Neutron's head floated ghostly in the air, black on black, almost two metres above the pavement. Up ahead, the Hydro tower swung into view. Energy shortage or no, it was illuminated like a beacon, only the large HQ logo of Hydro Québec on the side of the building standing out against the bright background. The lightning bolt that formed the stem and soul of the Q strobed on and off as if it were repeatedly impaling the round bowl of the letter.

"There, man, you see it?"

"Can hardly miss it, can I? Like you said, even the mundanes'll stand up and take notice."

And it was true. Neutron had counted coup in epic fashion, one that would live on in the annals of tagging long after Taggart was a footnote in the art history books. And the damned kid was probably still too young for university—something he hadn't been able to say with a straight face for nearly two decades now. Taggart gazed up at it fondly, savoring the round-buttocked Q that had somehow grown from the corporate logo, the lightning-bolt stem inserted someplace improbable and likely quite painful. The accompanying H had been neatly reshaped into the head and arms of the figure bending over and being symbolically buggered. Beneath it, just barely readable at this distance, was the exploding N that told the world who'd done it. It was art of the finest kind, even if the medium wasn't paint, and Taggart shook his head in respect.

"Damn, that's fine graf. Something to be proud of, Neutron."

"Really? You're not just sayin' that?" The youngster's face lit up with an almost holy light, and his hands, which had emerged again from his pockets, were now visibly trembling.

"Neutron, I'd be proud to have claimed it as mine. Congrats, man."

The young man's eyes rolled up in his head like he'd just had an orgasm, and he smiled, teeth flashing suddenly white. Without opening his eyes, he spun in a circle, laughing his elation, and fled off into the night. From the darkness, his voice called out. "You take care, Tagger. Damn, it's a fine night!"

Taggart waited for the echos of the running footsteps to fade, then without removing his hands from his pockets, caressed the bulges of his own tools, each as obsolete as he himself now felt. He half started towards the Hydro building, then took hold of himself. Ruining the kid's night by trumping him was professionally suspect, even assuming he had it in him to dig up a sufficiently good trump and get inside the building himself. So instead of doing something that petty—even assuming he suddenly caught a clue and figured out how to get in and what to do in the first place—he watched the display a while. When the cold had sunk its teeth deeper into his bones, he shook himself, muttered ars brevis without half the scorn he'd tried for, then turned and headed north a few streets to where he could hail a cab.

Something happened to time, then; the city slid past him in a kind of haze, isolated pools of light escaping the windows of the bars and restos amidst the half-light of the streetlamps, the cold, winter dark lapping at their edges. He felt enervated, cut off from the energy that had made him his names—the one he painted on buildings, and the one that had got him tenure before the fires began burning too low. The cab glided through darkness, relieved only by its lights until he found himself standing on the shore by the ice that had accreted beneath the Pont Jacques Cartier, watching the St. Lawrence river rush past a short distance out from the shore, scarcely visible in the dull urban glow the clouds cast back down on the city, an uncertain benison.

The ice was tumbled here, thick chunks thrown up where the river had broken them and heaved them atop each other in a messy pile. Atop the ice, it was cold enough that Taggart's hands jittered from more than the fading caffeine jag as he fumbled with the spray cans, shaking them to build pressure, then swirling them in the familiar patterns, almost like tai chi. When he'd done, the first can was empty, and he tossed it into the river, repressing a momentary twinge of conscience; he'd outlived the green '90s and the considerably less green 'naughties, and worrying about such things was no longer fashionable. But the second can was still half full, and he set it aside on the shore, hoping that whoever found it would know what it was and would use it to take up the cause. That done, he turned and set out for the long sweeping approach to the bridge.

The old pedestrian walkway hadn't been plowed in weeks, so he kept to the street itself, smiling distractedly as the cars swerved around him, proximity alarms sounding and horns blaring. He didn't even give them the finger, lost in nihilistic thoughts and shivering in the slipstream from their passage. When he reached the right point, he climbed onto the walkway, boots crunching into old snow, and leaned out as far over the edge as he could, the numbingly cold steel rail cutting through his thick coat. Seen from this height and in the weakly reflected light from the city, his graf was disappointingly small and faint, but the design remained recognizable despite the distorting effect of the uneven icy canvas; he was particularly proud of the stylized T, the intricate, in-your-face swash combined with a painfully conventional vertical. Very pomo. Beside his canvas, the black rush of the river swept past, a low rushing noise in his ears that danced with the sussurus flowing out from the bright lights of the city and gradually merging with its voice.

Looking down on his art, he felt nothing of the old thrill. If even he didn't appreciate the work, what was the point of it all? No lover, no future beyond teaching artist wannabes who endlessly reminded him of what he used to be, and no friends who'd understand if he tried to explain.

Taggart took off his coat, and draped it over the guardrail that kept the cars off the sidewalk those rare times an autopilot failed. The rail had begun rotting from the salt the city spread with such abandon each winter, and flakes of rust rubbed off on his coat. Before he could think the better of it, he climbed out over the outer rail, the round, surprised O of a passenger's face flashing subliminally before his eyes as the car's speed carried it past him. Hands too numbed to feel whether his grip was secure, he had to look at his fingers to be sure they really were clenched tightly around the rail; it wouldn't do to mess up now. His heart was pounding hard enough that his head throbbed, and when he leaned back, feet braced against the edge and his torso cantilevered out over the void, he was able to sight between his legs and confirm that he was directly over his tag.

Vita brevis, he thought. Then Taggart closed his eyes, savoring the clarity of the adrenaline rush that had long since replaced caffeine as his driving force, the sensation of height coiling in the pit of his stomach and his groin, just like in the old days. In that darkness, he felt his grip on the rail slipping, felt that brief moment of dislocation as the grip failed and he hung, suspended over the abyss like Wile E. Coyote, before gravity gently teased him away from his perch, coaxing him irresistably downwards with ever-increasing eagerness until he smashed into the tag, partially obliterating it with his own special mix of red paint. He felt the chill of the ice seeping into his bones, vying with the chill of blood loss and shock to see which would claim him first. His final statement, a last, ephemeral piece of art, gone before spring, for the other taggers and grafists to shake their heads over, a last attempt to reclaim his crown. Hell, he'd probably even make the home page of the Gazette tomorrow.

Then, almost reluctantly, he opened his eyes again, and with a shudder that nearly made the artistic statement real, pulled himself carefully back onto the bridge. The tremors that wracked his half-frozen body as he clambered back over the rail were no longer even remotely due to caffeine, but the adrenaline heat that burned through his veins and made his pulse pound in his temples warmed him and burned away the last of his fugue.

Taggart looked back at the lights of his city, smiled fondly, and retrieved his coat and his muse.

Author's notes

That really was me on the fire escape. No, really! <g> But I don't tag or commit graf—my art lies elsewhere. If you're an old-fashioned word guy like me, you know the feeling that nobody appreciates your style of art anymore, and sometimes you get a bit down on yourself. I've never resorted to such drastic measures to restore my faith in my art, but after collecting decades of rejection letters from markets publishing an unconscionable amount of crap just because someone is a name-brand author, I can certainly empathize with Taggart. (I suspect there's also a strong William Gibson influence in this story.) I have no idea whether taggers refer to themselves as "grafists"; it seems unlikely, but the pun on the Québec French "graphiste" (graphic artist) was too good to pass up.

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