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The Maggot Man


Emoji summary: 🪱🪓🔥

I was thinking about that nursery rhyme, the one that goes: ‘there was an old lady who swallowed a fly. I don’t know why she swallowed a fly — perhaps she’ll die.’ I used to read it to the kids before bed and I remember how I’d joke that raisins were dead flies, try to scare them, and these idiots believed me. My wife is still pissed about that one, even though it’s been years. She had to throw out multipacks of lunch-box raisins because the girls would no longer go near them. Even when they were older and school would have taught them otherwise, they turned their noses up at scones and oatmeal cookies, trail mix, granola. The story tasted stronger on their tongues than the truth. Raisins were dead flies, and maybe the old lady just didn’t realise what she was getting herself into.

I was thinking about that nursery rhyme because I was sat in my studio looking down at a canvas full of maggots. Real maggots, not ones I had painted. Tell a lie, I had applied a thin coating of white oil paint over their wriggling, insistent bodies. Fly larvae for a new artex texture. Kinetic. I thought, it’s probably a good measure for how long it takes paint to dry; when the maggots stop moving, I’ll know I can move forward with the next layer. I’m clever like that. I’m a genius. This is the kind of shit da Vinci probably came up with. Corral a maggot into one dark corner of the Mona Lisa and when it stops begging for its life, paint her eyes and her hands and the high neck of her dress. Maybe I should paint the Mona Lisa next, do it in my style. I like to paint people but I put my own spin on painting; I add drips and scratches and brave crosses across the picture once I’m done. And it’s like shaving a line through an eyebrow, or doing a wheelie on a bike; it’s very edgy of me. It’s very individual.

Yeah, I’ll paint the Mona Lisa next. I’ll add drips and scratches and brave crosses over her when I’m done. But only after I’ve dealt with Miss Cardi B.

I found a good picture of the rapper looking off to one side. Belcalis Marlenis Almánzar Cephus. Beautiful name. Sounds like she could have been one of da Vinci’s apprentices. And this picture just spoke to me. Lips parted, fake eyelashes, bright pink hair with blonde money pieces — I only know the hair-specific terminology because I had a wife once, and she followed Cardi’s style. She loved her. Loves, I mean. We might not be on speaking terms anymore but she’s still alive. I can hear her hoovering the carpets above me; I live in the garage now, with the car, the cold and the maggots. It’s where I make all my art. And I just thought, if I left a portrait of Cardi B outside for my wife — you know, I could lean it against her windscreen, and that way, she could collect her special gift before the school run — because the kids are up there with her, I hear them dancing and laughing and I know they must just be putting on a brave face for Momma — and well, maybe she’d knock longingly on the garage door and I’d press the button and the door would pull up and she’d walk towards me holding the painting with full eye contact from both my wife and Cardi, lips parted, fake eyelashes, bright pink hair with blonde money pieces, and the kids would cheer and —

I’m going to have to wipe the maggots off. I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking. Good texture? Good for the video, maybe, but bad for my wife. She’s so fucking squeamish, that’s partly why she hated the raisin skit. But man, what the fuck was I thinking? I punched the wall before I really knew what I was doing, and I heard the girls go quiet upstairs. They must be able to hear me too. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Listen, it’s not like I went out of my way to put the maggots all over the painting. The thing is, I only actually have one canvas to work with. ‘One canvas and anger issues,’ that’s what my wife used to say. But one is fine! I am a very disciplined man. My aim in life is to create the perfect painting, and so I got this canvas from Target. I used it to paint John Lennon to begin with. I worked hard to create a likeness, and soon he loomed out from under his bangs. But it wasn’t the perfect painting, so I wiped over John Lennon’s face and painted Jordan Peterson’s instead. He’s my hero. I showed my wife what I’d done and she pulled a face so again, I knew it wasn’t quite right. The perfect painting would stop everybody in the tracks. It would be universally liked. That’s when I painted Anthony Bourdain. The wife liked that better but she wasn’t ecstatic, so I half-heartedly tried Emma Stone. Then Ariana Grande. Al Pacino. Amy Winehouse. Kobe died around that time so I painted him. The layers of paint were getting a little thick at this point so I dug through the shelves in the garage for thinners and scrubbed everything back to the start; the Target canvas was looking a little worse for wear but when I set my mind to something!

I painted Michael Jordan, Justin Timberlake, Mac Miller, Prince, Kendrick Lamar, Freddie Mercury, Kurt Cobain, Michael Jackson, Lionel Messi, Pete Davison, Drake and — yeah, that’s when she filed for separation. I’d gotten obsessive apparently. (I’m not the one dressed like Cardi B…). She complained I was spending all my time in the garage alone. She said I didn’t touch her anymore! She said I was up all night and that I wasn’t going to work or to the girls’ recitals or family dinner, and that I reeked of turpentine, and I wasn’t shaving or eating and — I honestly thought she was joking. I just call that passion. I took a beer down to the studio thinking that everything would be okay in the morning but it’s been months and I think she might have meant it.

I don’t know why I paint celebrities. Devil’s advocate: I don’t know why I wouldn’t. I’m worthy of the same glory. If I can take a feature-less man like Justin Timberlake and make him recognisable by simply pushing paint around a flat surface, I must be doing something right. And artists do become celebrities sometimes. The kids, back when I was allowed in the house, used to film really bad dances for this app called TikTok. I would hold the camera and, you know, I did my due diligence. I checked the app to make sure it was safe for children. But later, I’d go back on it for something to do, and I’d find these artists who filmed themselves making paintings and these people had millions of followers, and views, and comments of pure adoration. I could film myself painting, easy. I realised the end-product didn’t even matter that much in these videos people were posting, because audiences just enjoyed watching paint get manipulated. (I think the viewers must have missed the way it felt to do that themselves; they must be people who think painting is something only kids and professionals are allowed to do. Their view is their touch). But I cared about the end-product because I knew I was good at painting, and by painting to completion, that would make me stand out like a good boy and then maybe I’d be adored too.

I chose celebrities because I thought if Billie Eilish — whoever that is — if they saw the painting, maybe they’d comment on it to thank me, or they might even buy the picture — and that would mean we knew each other. I’d be one of them. And not to be crude, but I also discovered that if you paint a celebrity, not only are their fans immediately on your side, but others will come through to request you paint their favourite person next; and that means comments, and tags, and engagement, and numbers going up and up and up. I like the way that feels.

I watched a maggot twirl bang in the centre of the white plane. I should film these things before I clear them off and paint Cardi B in their stead. I got my tripod out of the cabinet and I kicked the metal while I was there because kicking felt good also. I turned the camera on, spat on the floor, zoomed in on the creatures and shot for 20 seconds. I might use 5 seconds of footage at most, quick clip sandwiched between sped-up process shots of me painting. I put the gear away and sat back down in silence. I could hear dishes clashing above me. They were making dinner and all I had was 370 thousand followers on my children’s favourite app. I hoped my wife had shown them how much my page had grown. I hope they knew how famous their Daddy was. You know, she called me an addict once, said I was gambling my life away. She said I was too old to be a clout chaser, and I didn’t know what that meant. She showed me the news one day, had this smug look on her face, when Montana became the first state to ban TikTok. She said we could be next; she wished it. Said she wished I might be free.

I already was! I was following the American dream. Although, I suppose I almost gave my wife a picture in a foundation of encrusted maggots, and I don’t think those kinds of mistakes exist inside dreams. There was a pressure to keep delivering content. To ping something out there so that notifications would come back. Rows of them. Felt good. Comments. First. You hella underrated. Epic. Way to [sic] good for human eye to see. you are absolutely amazing ❤️I’d so buy your art. So much talent, kind spirit and just know we appreciate all your hard work ❤️ Bro I want to be famous enough to have someone paint me but that will never happen😪. Omg are you from Omaha. How I wish I can like this 100 times. Most of the comments were from people asking me to paint their idol, but I thought, the more requests I get, the more likely I am to farm praise. So, I had an idea. I added voiceovers to my videos. I challenged whoever I was painting to respond. Yeah, I wanted them to see me. I wanted to see others seeing them seeing me. But I also knew I was giving fans purpose. They could come together to tag Kim Kardashian five hundred times on my painting of her. I told you. I’m a genius. I know exactly how to win this thing.

The only problem was, the celebrities were the only ones who wouldn’t acknowledge my hard work, and when these fuckers didn’t respond, I felt the anger rising, and I’d grab the canvas and paint over their face and start anew. Painting over them felt like justice. Felt like a slap. Like I’d told them they were invisible, too. It’s just, I’d spent all this time and effort honouring Eminem; I had sacrificed my place at the head of the family to pay tribute to Mr Beast, and for what?

I told these people in my voiceovers, I said, you better respond to my painting or else. An empty threat, that’s all. Flies and raisins. Fun and games. In practice, it just meant that when Drake didn’t shower me with praise, I set his portrait on fire. I burnt Kid Cudi too. There was a molotov cocktail involved at one point, and a chainsaw when I cut Kanye up. I fed Pete Davidson into a lawnmower. The picture! Not the person, silly. God, people believe anything they read on the Internet. Anything their fathers tell them. And that is why I had to film the maggots! People like that shit. The fire, the blades. Once I introduced violence into the mix, my views increased tenfold. The celebrities might not have responded but audiences did and those were the people I needed most because those were the numbers after all. Turns out the audience for watching the world burn is far bigger than the one logging on for oddly satisfying painting. The amount of times I set the fire alarm off may well have been a contributing factor in my separation, but it’s for the cause. My wife did mention something about how I was exposing the children to negative behaviour patterns but I told her, I was just messing around. That comes through in my videos, right? I don’t really mean any ill-will towards these people. I thought that was obvious? Like, when I say:

‘Man, I did this beautiful painting of Joe Budden and he didn’t even reply. So, I did what any pissed off artist would do and I painted a juice box on his face. That’ll teach him. And then over top of this juice box, I’m painting the all-time most requested person I have ever had. You already know who it is. It gives me great pleasure to think that whoever owns this painting one day will never know that there’s a painting of a juice box underneath and a painting of Joe Budden underneath that. Well, I painted Joe Budden and he never replied so I painted Juicewrld over top of it. Hopefully he replies.’

I’m just messing around! It’s like I said, I do my due diligence. I Google these people well in advance so I know full well that Juicewrld is dead, but that’s exactly why I painted him. Seeing him canonised in my beautiful art style tugs on the heartstrings of his dear mourning fans; it also baits them into commenting because they can’t help but explain to me gently why I should not expect a response from this Juice kid. I see the ‘who gonna tell him,’ the ‘bro,’ the ‘fly high,’ the ‘Juice world wish he could reply,’ and I know my plan is working. It’s not all violence all the time. Sometimes I’m just a troll. I painted the Notorious B.I.G. and when he didn’t respond, I painted Tupac over him and said hopefully he replies. I even painted Technoblade, the Minecraft streamer who died from cancer because I read he had legions of fans. Hopefully he replies though! Hopefully Marilyn Monroe replies! Hopefully Elvis pulls his finger out! Hopefully Andy Warhol comes back from the dead! Hopefully my fucking wife replies when I present Cardi B to her on my fucking knees! Just got to get rid of these maggots first.

And those are her fault, by the way, the maggots. Last month, I was eavesdropping on the girls singing along to Britney Spears’ early hits, so naturally, I painted Miss Britney Spears. Nothing. No response from her or my own children. And they were listening to something else after that — I wasn’t familiar, had to Shazam it. That’s another app. And it was from a Miss Ice Spice. I painted this Ice Spice figure on top of Britney but Ice Spice didn’t fucking bother with me either so I threw an axe at the canvas. I really need to send these petulant celebs an invoice for the materials I’ve used suturing this one frame back to life. But hey, I’ll tell you one thing, I’m glad there are no snowflakes in the comments berating me for being a white man who clearly gets off on doing these things to women, and men, who tend not to be white like I am. Moving on: once I’d sewed Ice Spice back up, it was Nicki Minaj’s turn and — I don’t know. I don’t think I was very conscious of my actions by that point. I’m not actually sure how long I’ve been in such a state for… I couldn’t tell you where I got the axe from, for instance. At least I know where I got the hot dogs.

You see, I’ve never been very good at the whole woman-side of life. The side where you have to go to the store to buy food, come home, cook up a meal, and really think about those things. No, my wife has always taken care of that, and my mother before her. After I moved into the garage, my wife would leave me food out. Good, I thought. She respects that I am very much locked into my dream. At first, she was leaving full plates of hot food. Whatever they were eating upstairs, I assumed. But over time, I noticed her slacking. Eventually, there were days she clearly forgot. I am a very disciplined man, however — we’ve been over this — and I simply bested the pangs of hunger because I had faith she’d resume her duty. It was during one of these spells when I came to accept that Nicki Minaj was not going to comment on my TikTok video of me painting her. Fine. She’s busy. I can take it. I can handle anything. I was sat refreshing my notifications waiting for Miss Nicki to see sense when I heard a noise outside the garage door and when I checked, there was a single can of hot dogs on the drive. Just for me.

The hot dogs were the cheap, wet kind that stand vertically in discoloured water and knock about like sunken limbs. The kind you’d throw away because they’ve been in the back of the cupboard for so long that the expiration date has evaporated off the side of the can. Fuck this woman. I’d left her a note recently tucked under her windscreen wipers that said, ‘I only want steak, water and salt for the next 2 months as per the Jordan Peterson elimination diet, also known as the Lion Diet. I am a lion. You will accept this.’ When I pulled the slippy plastic meat out of the can, it crumbled in my hands. Meat isn’t supposed to do that; wives aren’t supposed to leave cold hot dogs without buns for dinner. The rubber consistency of reconstituted meat has always reminded me of erasers, and so I walked towards Nicki Minaj with hot dogs flaking in my open palms and I rubbed the meat into her face in an attempt to erase her from the canvas. I rubbed the meat for god knows how long, but after the hot dogs had completely disintegrated, Nicki was still clinging on. Laughing at me.

I stormed out of the garage and it was dark now. I threw the canvas into the back yard. The kids don’t play out there anymore. I’m not sure they play at all. Just TikTok and school. I tried to sleep but I was seething so I refreshed my notifications for the rest of the waking night. And the next day. The day after. The week after that. I cooled down enough that I skulked into the yard to retrieve Nicki’s portrait. No hard feelings between us. She was just busy, wasn’t she? Of course she was. And so was I. I still had a job to do, to make the perfect painting, and the week apart had made me realise that it was a portrait of Cardi B that was going to get me there. Except, when I leant down to pick Nicki back up, I jumped away. The hot dogs I’d smeared into the picture must have attracted some attention from the local flies. The entire thing was covered in thick brown maggots. I got closer. God, this was going to make for some good content — I ran to get my camera.

In the nursery rhyme about the old lady, she eats so much more than a single fly. Things really escalate for that woman. Yes, she swallows a fly as a starter, but she also swallows a spider. She swallows the spider to catch the fly, and then she swallows a bird to catch that spider, the one she swallowed to catch the fly. She chases it with a cat for the bird, and then a dog for the cat, and later, she swallows a whole cow to get the dog. She swallowed a cow to catch the dog, she swallowed a dog to catch the cat, she swallowed the cat to catch the bird, she swallowed the bird to catch the spider, she swallowed the spider to catch the fly, and I don’t know why she swallowed a fly. But that’s forgetting the ending. Once the cow is down her gullet, this same old lady attempts a horse — the most angular fucking mammal. She dies, of course.

And I was so hungry, abandoned, alone, that once I had brought the canvas back into my studio bachelor pad, and after I’d painted the maggots with a base layer, and then changed my mind about leaving them there because I remembered the limits of my wife’s vanilla tastes — and after I was done collecting my content, and singing the nursery rhyme over and over again, and thinking about where I might have found an axe to throw at a painting of a young woman I’d never know — I wiped every single maggot off the picture with my left hand and caught them as they fell over the side and into my right. I made a fist and felt every maggot stop. If before, with their white paint veneer, they had looked like motorised rice, now they were white, pink and beige, like fresh cat sick. We don’t have a cat. I wouldn’t allow it, no matter how much my kids begged. Couldn’t think about how toxic oil paint was to a middle-aged man’s stomach lining; I threw them back and I chewed at least once, because, I am brave like a lion. A brave and talented man. And I am quite hungry. Finally, it’s time to paint Cardi B. She better fucking thank me.

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For legal reasons, THIS IS FAN FICTION. The artist it is inspired by is Cody Senn. You can see the axe to hot dog to maggot pipeline in the following video on his YouTube and TikTok. But if you don’t want to click through, here are the key screenshots below:

screenshots from Cody Senn's video showing maggots over a painting of Nicki Minaj, the artist handling them, and also painting over top of them in white

Cody Senn throwing an axe, an axe going through a painting of Ice Spice which is being tossed so it's midair, and the artist rubbing hot dogs into a painting of Nicki Minaj

Cody Senn holding a painting of Cardi B, a close-up that shoes dead maggots under the paint, and a clean shot of the painting which is described in the text