By Matthew Wallenstein
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Last month my friend, the artist Max Kuhn, had his second show at the Webb Gallery in Waxahachie, Texas. The gallery specializes in folk and outsider art. I saw the pieces for it a few weeks prior to the opening as he was finishing them up in his studio in Richmond, Virginia.
A little over two years ago I flew to Dallas where Max picked me up from the airport and we headed to Waxahachie for the opening of his first show there. He was successfully beginning an expansion from tattooing to being a gallery artist.
I first met him when he was living in a leaky shack he was too tall to stand up in. It was in the backyard of a house a mutual friend of ours was renting. He was a nineteen-year-old dishwasher and my bandmates and I convinced him to quit his job and tour the country with us.
My personal life was more or less a mess two years ago when he convinced me to come to Texas to the show and go on a road trip to see another friend of ours in New Orleans, the photographer Chris Berntson.
Chris was living in a house with a few roommates. Max and I stayed with him. A couple nights after arriving he explained we had to make a drive across town.
The three of us crammed into Max’s truck and started driving over to the leather bar where Chris worked. He bartended there a few nights a week. We laughed at each other, watched the lights of the city through the windshield. Max had to reach between Chris’ legs to shift. We were supposed to meet up with Will there.
Chris had asked around and gotten an asthma inhaler from a friend to give to Will, who said every time he smoked crack he had trouble breathing. Chris wanted to help, to make easier what he could for those he cared for. On the way he told us he knew there wasn’t much longer, he knew Will would die soon. He was getting closer every time he saw him.
We opened our doors and got out, crossed the street.
“These guys are going to love you,” Chris said.
It was dark inside, not very crowded, two older men sat at the bar. They saw Chris, they smiled and said hello, the three of them bantered back and forth while Chris leaned on one of their shoulders with his hand. Chris introduced us then went behind the bar and started talking to someone else.
“You have a lot of tattoos,” the one with the leather vest said.
“Yeah, I guess,” I said.
“Is your whole body tattooed? Like what about, you know, your whole body.”
“Oh leave him alone,” the other one said playfully.
“What about you, cutie?” He turned to Max.
This went on for a while, the two older guys sitting at the bar and taking turns hitting on us with the good-cop bad-cop thing they had going. There was a sort of sweetness to them, to their rehearsed bickering and flattery.
Eventually Will came in. He was large, slow moving, his hair shaggy. He sort dragged his body from one step to the next. Chris came out from behind the bar and gave him a hug.
“I’ll be right back,” Chris said. “Hang out with them, I’ll go get the inhaler.”
“Okay Chris, man, thanks,” Will said.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey man, I’m Will.”
He shook my hand, shook Max’s hand. He didn’t remember me, that was alright. I had met him a few times. He stayed a couple times at the apartment I lived in when I was in New York. I had been sleeping on the couch for a few months, it was Chris’ apartment. Will had hopped a train up to New York or hitchhiked, I don’t remember, but he was selling Christmas trees from this shack in Manhattan from some time after thanksgiving up till Christmas. We had talked a little, I watched him dance in the kitchen and fry some food on the stove.
“Do you live down here now?”
“Yeah I’m squatting in an abandoned funeral home,” he said.
“How is it?”
Chris came back and we followed Will outside. We walked down the sidewalk to where his bike was leaning against a sign post. It was small, I think it was a kid’s bike. He took the inhaler from Chris. He said his goodbyes and shook some hair out of his face. He turned around and started off.
On the ride back Chris talked a lot about him, his adventures and creativity, his problems and where they were leading. He fleshed out a character remarkable and complicated, there was a whole person there, enormous in the love Chris had for him.
The next morning Chris flew out to New York to interview for grad school. Max and I stayed on for a week in Chris’ house without him, drawing, picking each other apart, talking; He kept trying to get me to tell him about what was going on in my life and I kept trying to change the subject. I got ringworm on my face from the mattress pad I was sleeping on.
Chris flew back to New Orleans. We spent a day at a cruising spot where he wanted to take pictures of us. Neither Max nor I are gay but we had fun with the pictures.
The next time the three of us got together was in New Hampshire the following summer. Chris told us about Will’s memorial.
Matthew Wallenstein is the author of the recently released short story collection Buckteeth (March 2020) as well as Tiny Alms, book of poetry published by Permanent Sleep Press (2017). His work has previously been published by the University of Maine Farmington, Albany Poets, the University of Chicago, Easy Village, Ryerson University, and others. He lives in Braddock, Pennsylvania.