TWENTY-SEVEN YEARS earlier, James Thrub and his best friend, Charlie Dubbins, had been conducting routine elevator maintenance when the elevator fell down the shaft, bringing Charlie down with it. In what television reporters that night described as a brave, split-second decision, James jumped into the shaft after Charlie, shimmying down a cable until he reached a wheezing Charlie, arms and legs splayed. Blinded by dust and debris, James grabbed Charlie below the shoulders and shimmied back up to the third floor, where he called the police. The doctor told James and Charlie’s wife, Lisbeth—together, as if they were family: she’d asked for them both—that Charlie would live, but that he would be paralyzed below the neck for the rest of his life. The day after the elevator shaft incident, James was the subject of front-page articles in the New York Daily News and the New York Post, both of which called him a hero. The New York Times mentioned the incident in a two-hundred-word news brief; it didn’t explicitly come down on either side of the hero question, but James could tell the reporter approved. The elevator repair company gave him the week off, but when he returned he experienced the first attack of what a mental health professional would diagnose as post-traumatic stress disorder. “Like the soldiers in Afghanistan have,” the mental health professional explained. Lisbeth and Charlie divorced three months after the incident. The toll of caring for him, she explained to the judge, led her to thoughts of suicide; she added that their children were afraid of Charlie and would cry when she told them to kiss him goodnight. The last time James saw Charlie, a week after the divorce, Charlie said, “You should’ve let me die, you prick.” James’ insurance wouldn’t pay for his therapy, but a tremendous outpouring of support from people he’d never met contributed to a fund sponsored by Heroes Have Brains Too, an organization dedicated to providing mental health coverage for New York–area small-time heroes. James cried every night thinking about the kindness of strangers, and by the end of his therapy visits, a little over a year later, their sessions had begun to focus less on the guilt he felt about saving Charlie’s life and more on the guilt he felt about using other people’s money to see a therapist. “I’m not a hero,” James had said in a follow-up article in the Post, although he had then proudly suspected otherwise. By the end of his therapy sessions this pride had long since ceased, and he was troubled by the memory that, before making his brave, split-second decision, he had felt angry at how pitiful and weak Charlie always was.
Two of the paintings in James’ Hoboken show had sold in the first week after its opening. In a short video in the cabin of New York City taxicabs, a television reporter said, “You may remember James Thrub as the heroic elevator repairman who saved his best friend’s life twenty-five years ago in a horrific elevator accident. But get used to hearing a brand new set of words to describe him: famous artist.” The taxicab video was the only significant coverage his Hoboken show received, but it was enough to bring more people to the gallery than had ever been there before, if only for the show’s opening week. The first painting that sold featured two arabesque rivulets, one black and the other a dark blood red, trickling across a large yellow canvas. It was called To Charlie. The other had a similar aesthetic, except the canvas was the blood red and the rivulets were the bright yellow and the black. It was first called Autumn Rising, but the buyer asked if he could rename it This One’s For Charlie. The vinyl lettering at the front of the gallery described James as an “elevator repairman/hero–turned–gravedigger/painter.” James asked the gallery owner to take down all references to the elevator shaft incident, but the gallery owner explained that, without them, they wouldn’t have a show. James was mad at himself for pursuing his interest in painting too late in life. Now none of his paintings would be viewed on their own merits. Everyone got the chronology of his interests all backwards: he wasn’t an elevator repairman who became a painter; he was a painter who became an elevator repairman.
He learned shortly after starting his job as a gravedigger that fall that one of Marina Abramović’s three coffins would be buried at his cemetery. He remembered one of Abramović’s performances decades ago; she was sitting at a table in a museum and visitors would sit across from her and stare into her eyes. When James sat down in front of her he saw an open and wearied face; he remembered reading that hers was a sympathetic gaze, but to him it looked disinterested. He imagined she was disappointed in having to look at him, this little nobody. He began to cry, full of self-loathing. Then she began to cry, in what seemed to him insincere showmanship. What does she know about crying? He stood up, angered, and left. The audience was whipped to attention by Abramović’s tears; on his way out James could feel them trying to parse the interaction, and overheard several people asking who he was. The next day the Post ran a headline reading, “MYSTERY MAN LEAVES ‘BRAMO A BLUBBERING MESS.” He was excited that the viewers assumed that something existed between Abramović and him, that they had been privy to an inscrutably personal moment in Abramović’s life, one that only he and Abramović could truly understand.
Marina Abramović was to have three coffins, one in Belgrade, one in Amsterdam, and one at his place. One would have her real body, and the other two would have fake ones. Nobody would ever know where the real Abramović was buried—or perhaps the real Abramović was buried in all three, in a kind of Schrödinger’s cat scenario?
The cemetarian, himself near death, told James he wanted him to take the lead on Abramović’s burial. It was something of a test run to help him decide on a successor, a once-obvious decision that had been complicated by his son’s recent weaseliness. The cemeterian told James he was putting his trust in him; he told him it was an important event for the visibility of the cemetery, which had once been held in high esteem but had been suffering ever since the incident. James imagined that some of the attendees would remember him: “You’re the man she cried with!” they would say. “It’s been the biggest mystery of the art world for the past twenty-seven years!” When he told fellow gravedigger Herb that Abramović once cried because she looked in his eyes, Herb said, “Big whoop, she cried when she looked in my eyes too. I think she cried whenever anyone looked in her eyes.”
When the hearse and the funeral assembly arrived, and her crying friends and family and co-workers came out of their cars, he felt angry, the same kind of anger he felt during the Abramović performance. What did any of them know about losing someone? he thought. What did they know about trauma? The coffin was removed from the hearse and brought to the plot he and several other gravediggers had prepared for her. It was placed on wooden boards above the open plot and, as the other gravediggers prepared to lower the coffin in, James lifted its lid and looked inside.
“Not in here!” he yelled. “She’s not in this one, assholes!”