Fiction: Point Zero by John Barry

He was out of the gate: suddenly up to 70 mph. The skis were rattling against the hard ice, a fail away. Severe compression. He had to go right, round the bend, left, then straight. The skis were flat now. The gates had names. Karusell. The Steilhong. The Bruckenschuss. Alte Schien. Seilampsprung. Next, the Zielsprung. Then, turning right, he caught the mountain. The right knee dead against the ice. That was where it was supposed to be. The left ski, not, it was catching a groove, and started to slide towards the right one.

At Shilpol Airport, Phoebe Fox stood at the counter bearing her Danish Pancakes on her ceramic blue platter while looking at the flat screen television. She checked her watch, added the eight hours for the time change, and ate one of the thin pancakes. Then she ate another one. She clutched next to her a large folder of drawings. She looked at her phone. She ate a third pancake, her eyes fixed on the screen, the figure in tights, who was now going very fast.

He shifted weight. The essential idea at this point: to keep the skis parallel. He was not doing that. The grooves in the ice were not allowing that. Now there were other issues. He was in the air, for a little longer than necessary. One lower leg was rattling against the ice below, while the top ski was heading in a direction it should not have been.

Her familiarity with the lingo of downhill races was limited. Anyway, the progress of the race was being narrated by Austria, which is where the race was, apparently. She knew nothing about skiing. She knew nothing about German. But the person up there – on the TV – looked like he was in trouble.

There was a wooden fence. He was moving toward that fence. Each slat was held in place by twisted wire. The left turn, which he had to negotiate around a stand of trees, wasn’t catching. The left ski was headed down, and now the right one was flying upward. He was up to about 82 miles an hour, on the Jumbo Tron.

There was a word now in vogue, Phoebe reflected, describing predicaments like this person on TV was getting into. Gnarly. She poured more syrup on the last paper-thin pancake. She was, infact, supposed to be at the boarding gate. But this was catching her attention.

The skier’s destiny was now officially out of his control. That was the consensus. At this point, however, that was neither here nor there. He had hit the ground. His upper back hit the ice, then the body corkscrewed towards the wooden slats. He slammed against the gates, which sprang back into position, hurling him back at the course, now continuing a sudden and steep descent. He was looking up at the mountain now, upside down from this angle, and moving away from him at 70 miles per hour. The helmet had been left behind, stuck between the wooden slats. He had no helmet. One ski had left his boot. The other one still on, but already half-snapped. Arms were spread wide.

Mein Gott, Mein Gott, Mein Gott… The man next to her, also eating Danish pancakes. There was a word for that, too. Schadenfreude. On the screen, they were slowing it down, pointing with red arrows and explaining how the right leg started to move up to the left side of the picture. She stood with the small group of travelers, watching the second and third versions of the crash in slow motion.

Then she heard the final call for her Balkan Airlines flight to Sofia.

Jesus fuck! She swore under her breath, and started to walk quickly. Then she stopped. She looked down. She returned in full panic. Grabbed the blueprints for the installation. She raced back in the direction of her gate. Veering around passengers. On another TV, the Dow was plummeting. The gate was closing and the ticket taker was packing up. Please, she said, please. I have to make this flight. He shook his head. This is my installation, she said, I need to do this. I have to get on the flight. Bored, he spoke into the walkie-talkie. He opened the door to the chute without speaking to her. She ran down the corridor, her large sheaf of papers flailing behind her. Thank you, thank you, she said. The attendant rolled her eyes slightly.


In the Sofia terminal, three hours later, her high heels clickety-clacked through the scrubby off white terminal, cobbled together in imitation of 60’s modernism. Large and spacious, he windows were of translucent plastic, and the building looked like it would collapse in a strong breeze. She looked at her watch as she waited in line at the arrival gate. The plane was late. There will be people trying to get you to let them take you to the city, PD had said, in his office at Southern Illinois, pulling at his puffy white emeritus beard, as though he was squeezing worldly advice. Don’t accept their offer. His way of saying that grated on her. As if at 45 she had no idea. Fine, he said, shrugging. Just saying, I’ve done a lot of these. Yes, she knew that. And she knew that he had arranged this for her, a tribute to their now-defunct relationship, her first foreign show. Ah, you’ll have a great time. You’re a big fish in a small pond. Fuck you, she thought, as he pressed his beard against her, for one tiny final peck.

But she had nothing to worry about.


She entered the baggage claim and her name was out there in cardboard: Phoebe Fox, the signage held by a young gentleman, whose character she had already assembled visually: a growth of beard, wide open baby blue eyes, and jaded naiveté. The Balkan accent endearing, especially when he was stumbling to make his point known. It reminded her of when her daughter was a toddler. Who was now a witch from hell. But that was another subject entirely. He introduced himself as Volodya, shepherded her into an airport bar, where there was another youngish fellow, whose name she missed, who had something to do with an arts journal indirectly related to the art school that was sponsoring her. He had a digital tape recorder between them, a beautiful silver slug, as she tried to figure out what she wanted to say about her upcoming installation.

Her upcoming installation… The journalist was writing intently, even as every word was already being recorded, and she was trying to articulate the difference between being a precursor (who shapes a new civilization) and a rebel (who defines the degrees of a disintegrating one). The conversation kept going, and she was describing one of her earliest memories, or a memory that she thought was one of her earliest – the physicality of finding herself as a body in a universe that was recreating her as a stranger to herself — she couldn’t tell whether he was listening or comprehending, no matter. He was cute, though; they were both not so bad looking. Volodya spoke haltingly.

So, Miss Fox, we have 5 days until show starts. How about we take you to hotel? And tonight we party like 1999?

And that pretty much defined the agenda. By ten O’clock, they were somewhere closer to the center of Sofia in a restaurant which looked like the basement of a Russian castle: they lowered a huge platter of sausages and what looked like – she was seeing slightly double now – a boar’s head with a chopped off sausage in its mouth. You Bulgarians, she said, you know how to throw an opening party. She typed it into Google Translate: Sie wissen, wie man eine Party zu geben. But she couldn’t find the Bulgarian version. Don’t worry, said Volodya. He was spending most of his time with his arm around an orange-haired girl in a leather dress.

She whispered that in the ear of Lindson who, in addition to being the appointed personal assistant for the installation, was also apparently her publicity agent, because he had this friend with a porkpie hat and long beard, who kept peppering her with questions about process. Whether he was actually a journalist, she was unsure; she had never had so many people waiting to see what she would say next. What was worrying a little bit, not a lot, was that when she had been asked to come up with a visual description of the actual installation, she drew blank. There were the blueprints, but they were back at the hotel; anyway, it was hard to talk because they were playing what was identified as Rammstein over the speakers, and the upper ranges of the speakers had blown out, or her ears, who was to tell.


A few hours later they were in another bar that seemed almost the same, but dingier. The Jägermeister and the white wine did not go well together; neither did the celebratory champagne, and she was vomiting at regular intervals in the bathroom, thinking about Kitzbuhel, and Jesus Christ, she was beginning to feel like a senior citizen blitzed at a wedding and doing a conga line to Brick House. She had to get out of here, but of course, all the street names were in Cyrillic, and they were all engaged some very engaged, and seemed to have no problem talking across the crushingly heavy metal, suddenly, she realized she had been asleep, with the wooden bench a hard pillow; it was now 3 am, and she was taking the blessed hand of Volodya, as he guided her through the streets, hopefully not taking the fact that she was leaning against him as drunkenness, which she was definitely NOT, it was food poisoning, and had to make that clear.


The next day, of course, down the tubes: the combo of shots and white wine, and jet lag to go with it weren’t working well, which meant that she had four more days left to install. She went downstairs to look for fizzy water. Volodya, in his own quiet poodle-like fashion was waiting for further instruction, now he was in the hotel lobby, hanging around, drinking coffee. I have been waiting for you, Ms. Phoebe, he said.

Have you been prepping the materials for installation? Excuse me, he said, the materials. You mean the fan? No, she said, NOT the fan. The fan is one thing. I mean the needles. Needles? He looked at her with his faun eyes. Suddenly, the edge returned. My piece, she said, in case you haven’t read the description, is entitled overunder. She felt the juices of clarity returning. He seemed not to understand. There is a lower level and an upper level, which you must be aware of. He responded with dead, cute eyes. I have an opening in four days, no, three days, given the preview. He nodded. The task at hand, she said. Are you listening? He nodded, rhythmically.  It involves threading three thousand gold tipped needles and hanging them from the ceiling at one centimeter intervals. Did you get the German version? Or did they leave out a zero? How many have you actually threaded?

He seemed a little nonplussed, but only in a Balkan sense; there was no sense of desperation: Mrs. Phoebe, that is right, I understand, but –

Okay, she slipped in sharply. Then you tell me this. How many have you threaded. Can you tell me that? That’s all I want to know. Nothing else is relevant. You give me the number.

I have thread nothing.

She was feeling the full throttle of her youth returning–and a certain exuberant nastiness that she associated with the prime of life—but you are not being paid to NO—think! You are being paid by university to YES—think. That means, and forgive me, I don’t want to harp on this, if something needs to be done, you need to do it, understood? And if something doesn’t need to be done, you don’t need to do it. If you choose No it is not understood. She paused. Please, let me talk to… what’s his name. The person in charge.

Ubliakov, chief curator, was leaning back in his chair, hands meditatively folded, wearing a suit and thick necktie, straight out of the New Class of the communist era, she thought. A work of art in his own right. He seemed relatively empathetic so she stated her case. She still had 2896 needles to thread, once that happened, and not until then the installation of a gigantic fan embedded in the floor could begin. Fine, Ubliakov said, the fan, we take care of that. He offered her a cigarette. She did not smoke. Instead, she tried to explain: the needles! Without the needles, the fan means nothing! Yes, Ubliakov responded in a measured tone: the actual needles obviously were the understood responsibility of someone else/ He apologized for the misunderstanding. But he did not sound apologetic. She tried to communicate the urgency of the situation. According to the terms of the grant, she said sharply. The terms of the grant, he mulled. Yes, she said, according to the terms… it says here ‘including necessary support for installation.’ She dropped the legal document on the table. Ubliakov did not seem impressed. He looked at his watch. He got up and prepared to leave.

Excuse me, Ubliakov said. I think I have a way out of this road bump. There are wonderful graduate students who would consider it a great honor to thread your needle.


So then things started to get a little more on spot. There was a delineation of responsibilities and a discussion of material. A timeline was actually developed. And she had apparently acquired a small army of needle-threaders, under the circumstances, better than nothing, so, yes, there was light, so to speak, at the end of the tunnel. She initiated the process, and, feeling suddenly organized, decided to go to a wine bar with Volodya. That evening progressed. There, she wound up in bed with a Bulgarian poet/singer.


She returned to the essential point the next morning. From a distance, it appeared that a great deal had been accomplished. But closer up, that illusion was thrown to the wind. They were using the wrong thread. She retreated to the hallway and banged her head against the wall, twice. This was too much, she said, beneath gritted teeth, to herself. Soon she would die. It was clear thread that was supposed to be technically invisible. She started to cry, and then, returned. She spoke in measured tone.

The essential point of the exhibit, the context, she said, was one of reverse weightlessness. Thick black thread, she said, which was the thread they had used, would actually create the opposite effect: it would create weightfull-ness. Without the clear thread –which she had actually specified – the entire installation would be a self-parody. The three graduate students looked at her with eyes that indicated what they would be saying to her the moment she stepped out of the room. Fine, she said, take the night off. They looked as though they had already decided to do that.


She found herself once again under the huge revolving chandelier in the dark and haunting bar of the Bulgarian cultural center. She was drinking shots of Shlivovitz, supplied by her new Bulgarian catbird. She was officially, by her own standards, which involved a certain bar, drunk and making up reviews in German. Eet vood nein be funkengruven. Zee puschbutton idea ees nein supported by technologischen freundshaft. Her poet abandoned her. She was dancing with a blond-haired musician, growth of beard, sauntering in floor-licking jeans, rubbing his chin for show, on his fourth plastic glass of Pinot Grigio, his baby carrot dipped in her humus, so to speak. That would be it. She was somewhere where she was not supposed to be, doing something she was not supposed to do. She was not even an artist.  The needles, now on threads from both ends, her spirit, her aspirations in the waffle iron. The image kept coming back to her.


They were smoking in a concrete block-house, built in the Khrushchev era. An old style boom box was playing Pantera. She had a vision. It was of a floating ceiling, with a gigantic rotating fan at curious intervals blowing itself against the gold tips of the needles. An invisible and casual observer would enter, stand there held in peace, sort of in the way someone might stand outside in a forest as stars spill out, crazily, into the night spittoon. That person would swim upside down in the gold-tipped needle sea—each gold tipped needle would create a star, a point of light, in her feeling house, and she, the anonymous observer, would walk away with a late in life desire to build her own feeling house, to let it ooze forth, out of whatever materials she been given to work with, or think with, or read, or suck the puss from, without feeling ashamed of lack of credentials or degrees, appropriate experience, or even talent. And that would be in its own way worth it, this was her honest thought. Yes! She thought.


It was evening when she woke up in Volodya’s room. There were about 20 hours left. That wasn’t going to happen. It was hard to explain. Something strange was happening to her, that had never really happened before, at least not in a long time. But in her head, this is difficult to articulate, she was actually disassembling the entire conceit that had enabled the project. The piece itself, it seemed to be deconstructing, no that wasn’t the right word. There had been a reason for it. It had made sense. I mean, if it didn’t make… this wasn’t the night. She had to do something to clear her mind. She needed to.

She would walk the streets. Maybe call PD. No. No. Maybe call her daughter. No. Her daughter, graceless resentful viper that she was. Those were harsh terms. But she was – ever since arriving in Santa Fe, using her as an ATM, she had sucked her creative juices and rewarded her with what? With love-junk. The junk of love.

She tried to think back on her… the thing she had written up. The explanation. She called it zero point fungus. There was…my aim is to dispense of all timeworn parameters. Yes. She looked at the word on paper. Timeworn Parameters. What is a timeworn parameter? She took another slug out of Volodya’s Jagermeister. She looked at her watch. Okay. In the work of Phoebe Fox, art seems to be transformed into a primeval moment of creativity, into a dynamic core of space and timelessness, into the zero point of a new beginning. Volodya! she said. He was in the kitchen talking to the girl in leather. He looked back. Volodya, we need to go to Ubliakov. I have an idea. I have a plan b.


Ubliakov was sitting in the back of his office, backed up by what looked like a banana plant. He had changed the color of his tie, but the jacket was the same, sprinkled with what looked like dandruff. He swiveled back and forth, letting her talk. Okay, this needle thing. It’s obviously not going to work. Ubliakov putting his hands together across his stomach nodded. I don’t know, she said, but I was thinking, she said, a tape loop of a ski crash, you know. In the empty room. Or with the fan. The ski crash would be played on the….He nodded with slightly narrowed eyes, the expression of someone who is making an attempt at looking like he is deeply interested.

I know, he said, this is an interesting idea, I would suggest that you return home and send us a pitch for it, you know, with the diagrams. You like it, she said. Yes, he said. It has possibilities. So we can schedule something, she said, let’s do that, I’m not growing. He put his hand on hers. You have had a stressful week. That happens. Then we can consider it, and, maybe think of a future show. Next year, she said, I am completely free, understand. Thank you, he said. But the room… Wait she said, I’ve got it. A few hours, I think I can, I can set something up. I’m really into this idea. You know, the tape-loop. I think, he said, we have a plan b. Another artist? Yes, he said, your Volodya. He has something prepared for the space. Oh, she said, good, excellent, he’s a good boy.


She spent the evening walking the cobble-stoned streets of center city. These were alleys she thought she had seen in a dream. There was a certain cold waft, the air of summer. She had a feeling. It was as though this was a dream, which she was polluting with each forward step. She wasn’t sure what that feeling meant.

She spent the night writing in her room. It was not warm. She went across the street to a bar. Increasingly drunk, she looked at his testimonial. Is there space before or after space? Is there time beneath shaped time?. Her seamless sequence of no-longer and not-yet moments….stems from a premonition of a chasm of nothingness. That was in the context of a compliment. It was a good thing. Chasm of nothingness…chasm of nothingness…chasm of nothingness…

It was 1 am, in the bar. It was 5 pm in Illinois. She called, and somehow it went through. So how’s the show? Asked PD. She imagined him there, in the bar next to her as she described the debacle. His flushed cheeks peeking out from the edges of the white beard, eyes tender and relentlessly oppressive. He was speaking to her. She could hear his voice, spoken to her as if he was speaking to a class of graduate students.

Well, Phoebe, the fact that you have no idea why you came here, or what you’re going to do next, is your perfect starting point.

For the ten years of their relationship, that inflection had never left.

Telling you to fuck yourself, that was my starting point, she said, aloud, in the dark.

She slammed her flip phone on the table and ordered a wine.


She didn’t sleep well. She woke up to the alarm, and realized that she had to make it to the airport soon. She mixed the instant coffee in the room and put the extra pack in the suitcase, and, on her way out the door, left a tip on the counter. Downstairs, Volodya was waiting with his backpack, holding the keys to the car. He was shuffling, and when she arrived, wordless, he took her down to the car in the elevator. She asked him, suddenly what his plans were for graduation. What do you do after all this? she asked. He did not seem to understand the question. You will figure that one out, she said suddenly, as they moved to the highway towards the airport. He still didn’t seem to understand the reference.

What I did, she said. And sighed. He was focused on negotiating the traffic, which was a little slow. She checked the purse for her ticket, in a sudden burst of panic, not unlike her. She felt a slight prick. Jesus Christ, she said. The needles. Six hundred of them approximately. She laughed. Look here, she said, the fucking needles. He laughed shortly as if it was a joke to which he already knew the punch line. The car kept rattling. She imagined it in a crash. They were nearing the airport. Thank you so much, Volodya, she said. He nodded. No problem. Ubliakov said you will be installing in the space. He nodded. I remember my first installation, she said, in college. The air conditioning. It started leaking on opening night. He nodded. Plan b, she said, you always need that. Yes, he said in a louder tone, serious and measured, that would be useful. He spoke as if it was all he needed to say. The car continued toward the large, looming airport. So I let you off at Delta? he asked. She felt like screaming suddenly, and instead of that, pressed the remaining needle into the tip of her index finger, deep enough to hurt. Then squeezed. The slow spot, growing. The red bulb. Your perfect starting point. The car continued into the front gates of the terminal. The signs directing her to the departure gates: in German, in Bulgarian, and in English.


John Barry is a teacher, writer, who lives in Baltimore, MD.  He has written for many publications in the region. He lives in Hampden.



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