The Contract

She’d never seen Ben so angry. It was the only decision, but she dreaded what it meant to their prospects. Ben had quit his job and hers was just part-time. They had to pay rent and owed money to her father. 

Ben held her all night like they were each other’s lifeline, one unit, one entity more powerful together than apart. Celeste lay awake most of the night listening to Ben’s steady breathing. Since signing the lease on the loft, their lives had been one endless bone-numbing cycle of work. Neither had been able to produce much artwork of their own. She was willing to do whatever was required to get the business started and to build a future with Ben, but she needed to make art too. Ben had promised.

All day Monday they repaired what they could and packed Tzvi’s materials, barely speaking. Celeste wondered if Ben was as anxious about the meeting with Tzvi and Harold as she was. She hoped they wouldn’t back down, too scared about their future reputation to break the contract and send Tzvi on his way.

*

“I still don’t understand why I couldn’t come to the studio yesterday,” said Tzvi when he strode into the loft with Harold following. “I’m behind schedule.”

“You broke your promise, Tzvi,” said Ben, his face turning red. “You snuck in and worked over the weekend when we were gone and spiked the acid again. All the metal in the loft rusted. We could’ve been poisoned, or you might’ve caused an explosion.”

“No, no. That would not happen.” Tzvi lit a cigarette and wandered around the loft looking up at the rust on the light fixtures.

“Harold, we’re putting an end to this,” said Ben. “No discussion. We can’t continue the project.”

“But we have a contract,” said Harold pulling some folded papers from his jacket pocket.

“We’re breaking it. Tzvi can take the copper plates we bought and work somewhere else. After deducting the cost of materials he’s used, we’re in a deficit against the deposit you paid. Celeste has all the receipts.”

“But you’re breaching the contract. I can sue.”

Ben started pacing back and forth in front of Harold. His voice rose to a high pitch that echoed in the space, “We refuse to work with Tzvi any longer. He won’t follow normal safety procedures. He smokes like a chimney. He lies; he wastes materials, and is destroying our studio. We came home from the weekend to a loft saturated with lethal acid fumes because he’s too impatient. He thinks the rules don’t apply to him. We’ve packed up his copper plates. Take them and leave.”

Harold retreated.

Ben appeared like a bantam rooster striding around his barnyard telling the chickens to watch their step. Celeste suspected Ben had an inner strength, but this was the first time she’d seen it. She loved him more than ever. His rage was intimidating Harold, but she could see Ben’s hands trembling behind his back.

Harold was taciturn, staring first at Ben then at Tzvi as if expecting one of them to say something to deescalate the tension. Tzvi avoided his gaze. Celeste stood next to Ben barely breathing. The car horns blaring on the Manhattan Bridge were the only sounds. 

After a couple of minutes, Tzvi pounded his fist on a worktable making everyone jump.

“Come Harold. We leave. These people have no idea how art is made,” said Tzvi. “This is a hostile environment.”

Celeste held the door open while Ben handed Tzvi and Harold each a bundle of the heavy copperplate. He followed them out carrying Tzvi’s backpack and apron.

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