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Fiction

Viewer, Violator

Welcome to this last stage of the exhibit. You’ve been a very attentive group and I’ve enjoyed our time together. If you wish to use the restroom, it’s down this hall on the left; if you’re using the ladies’ room, they’ve asked us to remind you to knock before you open the stall door as some of the locks in there are faulty. Are we all back now?

Good. This is the final piece we will discuss today. Take a long look. It does indeed resemble things we all have drawn as children; we are not claiming this to be the strongest piece in the collection. We hung it up because of its extraordinary way of coming into being. Yes, I do realize your grandson could do just as well, indeed we have children who take classes here that are much more astute already. I should show you the deer-in-the-meadow painting done by our prodigy, Isabelle, who is ten now; it is really a thrill, the way the spots on the deer relate to the sunspots on the meadow. She has an excellent sense of composition. But this one came to us by uncommon means, which is why we hang it last.

I will tell you, of course. Please stop whispering back there.

It was the third or so week since the museum had re-opened, for as you may know, we had to close down for several months last fall due to a problem with people touching the work. We had an influx of visitors who liked to feel the texture of the paint or the slopes of the sculptures and we were not equipped to deal with them. I myself was shocked it was a problem at all but believe it or not, one man actually licked the Degas bronze replica of the ballerina with her arms behind her back. Left a tongue mark right on her left breast. Embarrassing for everybody, if you ask me, but suddenly it seemed dire that we implement some sort of security system to protect ourselves, which took months to install. The museum head—who I will tell more about in a minute—she was at the frontlines of museum security, and she thought we could affix automatic cans of mace inside the walls next to the paintings. That seemed legally problematic but we modified her idea for safety and now, if you move up into the ten-inch range, the art will sound a small alarm. The ringing? Yes. In each room. I’ve grown to like it, it sounds to me like tossing rocks in a pond. You folks have been quite well-behaved and putting your hands in your pockets is a fine way to temper any urges. As I often say, art is for looking! Your ears get music, your nose gets perfume, your mouth gets food, and if you really want to touch things, for goodness’ sake, you may purchase some six-dollar clay in the gift shop.

We’d been back open going on three weeks when the museum head got a notice for a large package arriving in her upstairs office. The museum head is a very busy woman and she couldn’t be bothered while the men from the delivery company lugged it in to her. It was wrapped in brown paper and they said it was from a wealthy benefactor, all the way from Georgia, who’d heard “what was happening” and wanted to offer up a gift. Now, the museum owner had many phone calls to return, and she was puzzled by the delivery because who was this benefactor from Georgia anyway? And really it is sensible in this day and age to consider the possibility of bombs. So she signed the package away and listened for ticking and then made her phone calls. She is not a very curious woman by nature, and she was at that time going through a divorce, so she clearly had other things on her mind as she did not open the large package all day long. It was hard to overlook, I tell you, being over three feet tall and four feet wide, but she did not even peek until nearly the end of the day.

The museum was clearing out by then, and she told me she could hear, even from her office, the little ringing pings coming from the near-touching of the paintings downstairs, alerting security, and this made her feel that her expensive renovation had been worth it. Do you folks know what fingertip oil does to a painting? Erodes like mercury! Destroys those brush strokes! It’s some kind of miracle that we don’t rot each other merely by shaking hands.

The museum was slowly clearing out. It was getting dark early, a night of a new moon, and she decided she would now open up the packaging of the mysterious gift. And so she, being a meticulous person, as you have to be if you are going to run a museum, took her pearl-handled letter-opener and gently sliced open the brown wrap. And underneath it was a very large canvas, and on the canvas was . . . what? Can you guess?

No.

Not what you see here, no.

It was a simple painting, though, a simple black-and-white line work, appealing for a small measure of time, but like we’ve said, something you’ve often seen done better I’m sure by your gifted grandchild.

She read the attached note.

I hope this will address the problem, it said, in typed writing, signed by an unreadable scribble.

Now. There are certainly many kind benefactors of this museum, perhaps some of you are some of them, but we get our share of pranksters as well. Once, one of our leading donors sent a penny in an envelope with a letter that said it was art, and that it cost a thousand dollars. He laughed like a maniac on the phone when she called him to ask. So when the museum head read this typed note, she wasn’t sure what to do with it. Was it real? What problem? she thought, vaguely insulted. Then she remembered the people touching the paintings and thought perhaps it was a mock painting, meant to be touched. But she didn’t believe in those either. There are children’s museums, she sniffed to herself, and there are adult museums. If she had her way completely, perhaps the gallery would be like a planetarium and you’d look at the ceiling through a telescope to observe the paintings hung up as if they were stars.

She lugged the painting into the hallway, called custodial services to come pick it up, and left the office for a while. She tended to work late those days—it’s difficult to go home when your home is newly emptied. Or so I imagine. She was gone for about an hour, perhaps to go cry in the restroom. This is a recent divorce. I met him once before at the holiday museum party, and he seemed perfectly pleasant. Conservative. Ordinary. He had one of those jowly faces that seem difficult to shave, like skin-water under the rudder of the razor blade. They weren’t rude to each other but very rarely did they act like a couple, if you want to know my opinion. You could always see the space between them. Anyway, he was the one who asked for divorce, which came, apparently, completely out of the blue. She confided in me that she’s dismayed at how many people have accidentally burst in on her in the restroom stall, and found her squatted on the toilet seat, crying.

So off she went, and came back, perhaps with a tissue in hand, an hour or so later, and she was irritated to see that the painting was still in the hall. She went in to call janitorial again, but as she angled toward her office, she passed the painting and thought to herself that she didn’t recall there being a circle in the top lefthand corner before. Just an hour or so ago, she had remembered it as a square. Certainly she wouldn’t confuse a square with a circle, she thought—it’s the difference between the window and the moon—but now, sure as anything, there was a circle of black paint smack in the left hand corner. She admonished herself because for a museum director, as with a geometer or carpenter, to confuse the two is to degrade your job. Plus, she is not an unobservant person. She can recite the accessories that other women wear to parties years after the fact. Marie Snaper? Red coral earrings, which was environmentally wrong. Elaine Fitzgerald? Fake sapphire on the wedding finger implying, she said, a fake marriage. I must add that she has told me some of this in confidence, so I would not suggest asking her about it. But mainly, the circle she saw now had really seemed to be a square before, and she wondered if this was the psychological effect of weeping—it softened the corners of the world.

Settling back at her desk, she continued her list of objects she would keep and objects her husband would take. Downstairs she could still hear that faint ringing of bells, like sitting atop a church. She put down a few books on her husband’s side, and then felt exhausted. On her way to the balcony to smoke a cigarette, she glanced at the painting again. The circle was still a circle, which pleased her, and she was about to step away when she noticed that there seemed now to be darker wavy lines at the bottom of the canvas. She stared at them for a minute. She really did not recall seeing these darker lines before. True, she had spent most of her time looking at the upper half of the painting, but regardless. Was someone actually drawing on the canvas? And if so, who? This was absolutely unacceptable; drawing on a painting went along the lines of standing in the middle of a recital hall during a concert pianist’s concerto, and screaming. Who would ever want to do a thing like that? Even if this was no worthy piece of art! The principle! Or was she going insane? Was her mind going wavy, making wavy lines where previously they were straight, or where previously there had been none? She waited for a janitor to turn the corner, sheepish, with a paintbrush in hand, all set to be fired, but the hall was empty.

She went home that night, which she said was a normal evening. She came back the next morning and said it was a normal morning, except for the fact that the painting was still in the hallway and therefore janitorial services had still not come by. It was only when she went for her daily trip to the bathroom that she returned, tissue in hand, to find the painting, still in the hall, now covered with bold lines, striped, as if the former painting of the circle and wavy lines had been put in jail.

This chilled her to the core, but she is a woman of quick recovery, and she sucked in her breath, stormed into her office and called custodial services.

“Right this instant!” She yelled into the phone. “All of you! Now!”

There was steam, I’m sure, billowing in her lungs.

She stared at the painting, at the thickness of the stripes, which were well defined and expertly done. It was hard to imagine who could’ve done that so quickly and still made such a fine job of it. Despite herself, she felt a glimmer of admiration which she pushed right down as she stood outside her door, toe tapping. The elevator opened and the custodial staff walked down the carpet. There were seven of them, and just as a side note, it’s interesting to know that they all happen to be related.

She walked a bit to meet them, and had them line up right there in the hall. I have now heard eight different versions of this story, but here’s the best I can do to recreate it for you.

Her jaw was set.

“First off,” she said, “I ASKED YOU TO MOVE THIS YESTERDAY!”

A bold young man with sideburns raised his hand.

“We came up yesterday,” he said. “Right when you called. But there was nothing here.”

There was a murmur of agreement from all except the museum head.

“Then you ALL need to get your EYES examined,” she said. “My next question is this. Which one of you arrogant people thinks it is okay to draw on ANYTHING in this museum? You can’t draw on AN-Y-THING. Because even if it is a bad painting. No Drawing. Never. Is that clear? We will wait here until someone confesses. We will wait here all day. We will wait here until you die of dehydration if we have to.”

The seven janitors looked puzzled. They all looked puzzled in a similar way, due to their genetic coding for the word puzzled. The head, the patriarch, who had been taking care of the museum building now for nearly fifty years, raised his hand.

“Ma’am,” he said. “When you say drawing on something,” he said, “what exactly do you mean?”

“On the canvas of course,” she said.

“Someone may draw on it?”

“Someone DID draw on it,” she said. “Someone put that painting in jail. As of yesterday, the canvas had no stripes at all.”

“Ma’am, which canvas are you talking about?” he asked again. Behind him, his nephew tittered.

The museum head blew air through her teeth. “The ONE,” she said, turning around, “the ONE that is RIGHT BEHIND ME.”

And as she turned around, ready to stomp her feet, ready to raise her voice to the roof, she looked at the canvas again, and fainted dead away into the waiting arms of the seven attending janitors.

They caught her long before the floor did. Carefully they laid her on the carpet.

“Is she sick?” asked the nephew.

“She’s crazy,” said the cousin.

The patriarch thought no, and he was relieved when she fluttered her eyes open and straightened her skirt.

“Ma’am?” he asked.

She waved her hand weakly at the painting, and the janitors all looked but they did not know what it was she wanted them to see.

For the canvas, now, was blank. Not covered with white paint, not painted over, just blank, as if no one had ever painted anything on it at all. No sign of the stripes or the circle or the wavy lines. Nothing. The museum head put her head down on the carpet, and asked each of the janitors if, when they walked down the hall, there had been anything on that canvas. They said, all seven at once, No. They said it was the first they’d seen of this canvas and it had nothing on it any more than a baby’s bottom might. She said she did not understand. Did they see anyone walking by with paint remover? she asked. And they said no, they would’ve smelled that a mile away. One sniffed the canvas and said it was as sweet-smellingly fresh as a rose. They said drawing on a canvas was certainly a bad idea, and they would’ve moved it yesterday had it been there. Seven heads hovered above her, with seven similar looks of concern and barely-detectable impatience. They helped her up and locked the canvas in her office at her request and she took her purse on her shoulder and they sent her home early and went back to tending and keeping the lines and corners of the building.

She claims she slept all night that night. As soon as she got home, slept and slept. But several of us got messages on our machines from her at around two a.m., quiet sleepy messages all about the painting and this sad bewilderment. I erased mine, it was too embarrassing, but some of the less kind employees who have wanted a raise for years have kept theirs for possible later blackmail.

That night at the museum, someone touched the little Degas ballerina again. No licking this time; instead, someone stroked her curved bronze neck with fingers coated in peanut oil. The bells rang and rang but the guard was in the bathroom at the time and missed it. By the time the guard was back, the Degas was already covered in sliding sweeping tracks of oil and the gallery was empty. You could only hear the swing of the back door.

Creepy, I know.

The museum head returned the next day and found the canvas leaning against the file cabinets in her office. It was still blank. She dragged her desk to the side and sat directly across from the canvas and stared at it. She stared at it the entire day. From nine in the morning until two or so in the afternoon, she was glued to that chair; I walked by and I saw it. Her phone would ring and she’d answer and write down notes but her eyes did not leave that painting.

But for all her good watching, nothing happened. It was only after she went off to the bathroom, not even to cry this time, just to use it, when she returned and saw the new pattern through her office window. She ran inside, dashed in to see the new box and arc and little dancing lines, the precise pattern you see now. Yes. Exactly.

And she fell to her knees, asking it to change in front of her. She was desperate to see it happen. She talked to the painting so long that anyone who wanted to hear her could’ve just walked by. I happened to, yes. It was disturbing to see, someone pleading like that is always disturbing to see, and of course especially disturbing if they are pleading with things inanimate. The security guard, Lola, went upstairs, shaken, all set to confess that she had missed the Degas-touching, but the museum head waved her off and said it was fine, fine, whatever. She said clean off the oil with a damp rag and some soap. The bells were ringing and you could hear another security guard talking loudly downstairs, but the museum head didn’t seem to notice or care. All her energy was focused on the painting and asking it to shift that box into a circle, to make a tiny line—anything, AN-Y-THING. She sat there the whole day, ordered food on the phone without moving her eyes, and stayed there the entire night. She spent about three days staring at that painting. Alarming; we were all distressed by it. Her hair was falling out, or maybe it was just unbrushed. Her husband delivered the divorce papers in person and tried to talk to her but she wouldn’t even look at him. She held out her hand and he placed the papers in them, and she nodded to the painting and he left. Downstairs, someone actually lifted the Degas ballerina off her platform to the loud ringing of many bells and was halfway out the parking lot with it when the youngest janitor screamed “THIEF!” and the thief dropped the ballerina and ran. We didn’t catch him. The ballerina was face down in the grass and has a small dent on her toeshoe from the fall. The reason you didn’t see her up today is because we thought it’d be best to keep her in storage for a while until this whole thing blows over.

On day three of her observation, on who knows how many energy pills, the museum head called all us staff up on the phone and said we had better clear a space for the painting, the most important space in the gallery. Last on the tour line. Here. “Do it today please,” she said, slurring her words from exhaustion. This certainly did not match our carefully discussed plans to put our best Vasily Kandinsky last, since it is such a sizzle of a grand finale, but we made the space and painted the wall ecru behind it, and then she called up the electronics store and installed a video camera directly across. Up more. Yes, the glint? There. She kept her eye on the canvas until the camera was up and rolling. It goes to one of those security TVs in the basement, and if you want to check on it, it’s on twenty-four hours. With help from three of the janitors, she moved the painting downstairs and hung it up and then went home to sleep and sleep.

It hasn’t changed once.

She wants to catch it on film, but it hasn’t even changed a centimeter and I don’t think it will ever again. Would you? The whole thing makes me tense. Whenever she dies or if she quits, if I am still alive, I think I will snap off the camera right away and give the poor painting a break, but until then, she has us all under oath that we will leave it on all the time and if we were to violate that oath and turn the camera off, not only are we fired, which might not be so bad, but there’s some city policy that requires a huge fine. And let me tell you people, a museum salary does not leave room for huge fines. And since it’s a camera, you’re sure to get caught if you do it because she has bolted it in there with titanium cords.

I do sit up sometimes at night feeling bad for the painting; one wonders about the health of us docents sometimes, spending all day with all of this art. But it does not seem like a good life for a painting. Worse than a zoo, in a way.

The Degas ballerina’s toe is being restored and you’ll be able to see it on Level Two in about a month. We’ll have our burliest guard watching it. And good question, we did call the Atlanta benefactor, but he just babbled on about guns and defense funding. He had no memory of sending the package at all. And yes, the museum head’s divorce did come through. I saw them on the last day they saw each other, maybe forever. He went up to her office again, I assume to collect those papers, or maybe just to say goodbye. I happened to be up there at the drinking fountain—it was a very warm day and I was very thirsty and the best drinking fountain happens to be right next to her office. So I happened to overhear. He said “Goodbye,” and she just smiled at him. They didn’t hug. He said, “I know it’ll take time,” and she just smiled at him. He said something else then that I didn’t hear because in a gigantic ding-dong, all the bells went off down below, louder than ever, all at once, and I had to run downstairs. It was craziness, when I arrived. Pandemonium. On the first floor, a whole team of rebels—four people, grown adults, three men, one woman—had taken off their clothes and were making love with the Jackson Pollack. I ran in and the security guards were securing three of the people, all nude, and the last one was still wriggling on the painting, humping it, eyes closed, kissing the dribbles of paint. A security guard seized this last one, called the police, and the art experts ran in from their offices and began looking closely at the painting with magnifying glasses to see if it was stained. The male rebels were still erect so it appeared likely that no one had reached a climactic point yet, which was very good news, though as they perused the painting, in the lower right quadrant one expert located a possible foreign blob of gray-white material. He blew his whistle. “Violation!” he yelled, pointing. “Press charges!” he said. The guards pulled the delinquents away, in handcuffs, down the hall. They were yelling back, all the way down the hall. “But it inspired me that way!” one nude guy was yelling. “It aroused me! You’re telling me I’m just supposed to LOOK at that thing?”

The museum head did not come down. We handled that one on our own. We are considering building a glass case, but the board is waffling.

So, yes, it has been quite a year. Very eventful. I appreciate your attentive listening. I highly recommend the gift shop, on the left, for the end phase of your visit. There are silkscreened t-shirts, and high quality mugs and umbrellas. We also have an unusually fine selection of magnets. They are tiny and detailed and they will stick nicely to your refrigerator and hold up photos of your loved ones. Bring art into your homes, people. Thank you, again, for your interest and continued support of our museum.

Aimee Bender

Aimee Bender is the author of five books, including the bestseller The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and the NY Times Notable Book The Color Master. Her work has been translated into sixteen languages.