Mastodon Love, a short story by Mike DeCapite

I went to St. Louis and stayed with Ted and Kit for the weekend. They’d been there a couple of years, I guess. Ted had bottomed out in Brooklyn and they’d moved home to St. Louis for him to get straightened out. Their son was only about a year old when I went. Kit was painting, getting press, and Ted was clean, busy in the darkroom. He was printing ten years of negatives from New York.

One afternoon Ted brought out the boxes of these black-and-white prints. There were street scenes and bar scenes, people in kitchens and bedrooms, burned-out cars and waterfront shots, parties and performances, public moments and private ones, moments I didn’t remember even while looking at them, even though I’d been there, even though I was in them, because they’d been seen by someone else. I wasn’t in most of them, of course, and Ted wasn’t in any of them. But turning through them was like watching a movie of our past lives played out by others.

I’d always felt a strong connection to Ted’s work, but one photograph hit me differently from the rest. It was just a doorway in Brooklyn: a door and front step. I’d never seen the doorway, but I recognized something about it immediately, before I could name it. It was mysterious, like love at first sight. You know before you know. Somehow the picture said everything I wanted to say about the world.

Doorway photograph Ted Barron
Doorway, photo by Ted Barron (click to enlarge)

Ted gave me a print of it to take home. When I got back to San Francisco I taped it to the window above my typewriter. I needed to write about that doorway. I felt it contained some answer about me or my life. I wanted to put down only what was there, detail by detail. My hope was that by doing so, I might capture something more. This hope was based on a painting by Albrecht Durer, a painting of a cowslip plant which I’d pulled out of an Old Masters calendar. I’d been staring at it for a couple of years for inspiration. It was psychedelic, without being anything more than it was. Durer had painted this cowslip plant in such loving detail that the plant came to life. It was a painting of life, and of Durer’s feeling for life. I had this idea that if I could describe the doorway with the same care, I could redeem myself.

Right away I found I didn’t have the vocabulary for it. So I got an architectural dictionary and a visual dictionary and a Webster’s and a thesaurus and set them on the steps of a stepladder by my desk for easy reference. For two weeks I worked every night, starting with the left edge of the picture and describing it by the centimeter, flapping through the reference books and typing and revising and studying the picture in its every silvered detail. I got lost in it. The effort took me up against the limitations of the medium, or anyway my limitations with it, and the finished piece of writing made no sense to anyone but me. It was more a description of my obsession than a description of the doorway. As I worked, though, I began to feel that underneath my circumstances and even my personality, underneath all my misery and self-disgust and despair, my feeling about the world was love. I’d twice made a bad job of marriage, and I was none too crazy about myself, but I loved the world in all its details, and in the names of those details. My true self was love. And this doorway and my reaction to it were examples of that love. And this was such a relief to me that it felt like rapture.

My true self was love. And this doorway and my reaction to it were examples of that love. And this was such a relief to me that it felt like rapture.

One night I came to a place where some graffiti was hidden deep in the shadow between two columns. I asked Kitty if she could make it out. She brought her photographer’s loupe. I waited while she squinted through the lens. After a minute she turned the picture sideways and squinted again.

She said “You’re not going to believe this.”

What it said was MIKELOVE.


The building is, oh, say an Edwardian tenement of red brick and white stone trim, with an arched carriage gate and a courtyard and a sham turret and various annexes and alcoves. We’re not concerned, here, with any of that. We are concerned with the building’s doorway, which is of molded concrete, and its doors of glass and black wood and incidental iron openwork of narrow-gauge protective bars.

At left, a black iron handrail leads down a short stoop. The rail is supported, near the wall, by a square iron post. The post is topped with a small iron capital and an iron finial ball. The ball is daubed with a dot and curlicue of white paint.

Behind this post is a tall plinth which supports a beveled stone block, to which the post is fixed. This block supports the beveled base of a pilaster, where driblets of white paint have trickled down the fillets and dried. And on this base stands a damaged pilaster. Inset, first, is a patch where the concrete surface has fallen away to expose layers of the concrete underneath. Above that is a faint ladder of chalked numerals. Two vertical scores cancel them. And go twining up toward an impress of concentric diamonds.

Inside the entrance, the pilaster falls through a clatter of chalked numerals 4




7, ending in a confusion of loops and alphabetical amendments and redactions and the word love in script.

There’s a pause.

After which, the chalked equation 81


16.20 overlies a black-crayoned scribble.

The inside surface of the pilaster base is halfway smeared with the ghost of white spraypaint. Below it, the flat inner slab of the supporting block bears a big white Superman S. A crack in the stone winds through it. And below this, on the inner face of the plinth, in chalk, an eyebrow curve presides over a smaller curl and a vertical stroke which is crossed, near its apogee, by a waving welcoming line.

The lower entablature is dark, and is sealed to the stone of the inner entryway by a thin white seam of caulk.

At a right angle to the entablature, resting squarely on the building’s top step, is a broken pedestal. Its forward surface is eroded and raw. Its dark perpendicular side is dribbled with an old rain of white paint. The pedestal supports a flat-topped head——Greek? Incan? Iroquois?——its face disfigured, eyes blind, nose gone, cheeks pitted and worn.

Rising from this Greco-Indian muse——describing the corner where it meets the doorway——is a stand of organ-pipe columns and declivities. Throughout this columniation——throughout the whole construction——there is darkness where one surface meets another, each pillar and plane enfolding a trail of grime or black spraypaint like the black radiance of old silent film stock.

Once incurvature is scrawled with a long phallic chalk figure enclosing the numerals 6


Below it, the equation 4


6 overrides vertical black graffiti——a name?——followed by 4



Opposite is a long chalked line bracketing the numbers 1


The foot of the cavity is dark and sooty.

Between the last column and the doorjamb is a black strip fading to grey above. On steady inspection the black, halfway up, barely releases a string of numbers.

No, they’re hieroglyphic graffiti.

No. They’re letters, written sideways down the narrow black strip.

They spell MIKE/LOVE.

The foot of the doorjamb is scraped like the scraped surface of wood, and although the concrete underneath is pitted and sooty it looks fresh by comparison to the outer surface, which is dirtier and softly mottled. And then a white chalk fuse ignites a display of graffiti. The graffiti sputters upward, through wraiths and traceries of faint chalk figurings, toward black carbon billows of paint and crayon and grime with symbols and arrows rocketing through them: emerging, entwined, expiring, swallowed, coughed back, and escaping free of the smoke to a final tall climbing helical embloomation of graffiti recent and previous and old: chalked equations and tags and nicknames and quotation marks and initials——loopy, fanciful, and hanging there for a moment . . .

Near the top, in black marker, are two illegible names in droopy arabesque.

At the top of the doorjamb a nipple protrudes. Remnant of a lamp fixture, electric, gas, now severed. An impulse to spray it black has left a black patch on the jamb.

The doorframe and the wood of the doors are painted glossy black, as is the slender iron openwork protecting the glass. Each of the doors is reinforced with a metal kickplate, also black, and dappled with dents where the paint has chipped off to the metal underneath. There’s a grey dust along every upward surface——molding and ogive and crossbar, no matter how narrow.

The black molding which secures the glass and the black horizontal stiles separating the panes are chipped and fretted, in places, to the white grained wood.

At the top of each door, iron ribs converge in a lancet arch. The arches are traversed by opposing curves. All of it repeated sharply in the glass.

At every intersection, the openwork is bossed with a minuscule iron daisy.

From where I sit, I’m not apparent in the glass. The doors’ upper panes shine like tarnished pewter. Emptily reflecting a March light.

Below, the reflection sags into dream. A mid-afternoon’s reverie . . . something is captured there . . . something that isn’t there . . . the slur of a chain-link fence . . . a derelict fairground . . . a perfect world, graduating to darkness.

To live is to love.

–Mike DeCapite


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