The tour groups seem to be getting smaller and smaller. Nobody cares anymore. The elderly men wear moustaches and Hawaiian shirts, have slow-moving grey-haired women at their sides. They follow me through the wide hallways.
“Now we’re getting to the newer stuff,” I tell the Old People through my widest smile. My hand extends toward a wall of paintings that were completed in the 1950s. “We’ve gotten through pointillism all right, but now we’re on to what I like to call the Squiggle Period.” I smile. They laugh. It’s easy.
I pause in front of a wide canvas splashed with messy color and bright dribblings. “Jackson Pollock,” I say, as if introducing them to an old friend. “I know. I don’t like it either.” Laughter. “Of course, everyone knows about the ear thing, but I’ve got some other interesting facts. Pollock was born in California and actually married his second cousin. He died young, probably of consumption. He was found dead in a gutter in New York City. Those artists sure can party.”
The Old People laugh their Old People laughs and follow me to the end of the hallway. It has gotten to the point where I stay up late trying to think of new, untrue information to give out. It actually has begun taking up my personal time. Working at the Frederick Oppenheim Museum of Art used to be a summer job. It will be three years next week.
I smile and shake their hands as they walk out the front door. Once it shuts behind them, I lean back against the wall and rest my eyes.
“Arthur!” I hear from across the empty, echoing lobby. Victor makes his way toward me from wherever he goes when he does whatever it is he does. I stand back up before he can tell me to.
“Come on man,” he says. “Take a little pride in yourself. Would it kill you to shave before work? To keep your shirt tucked in? Pretend like you care, even if it’s just when I’m looking? ‘Cause, whether or not you deserve to be here, your job depends on me. I don’t like being the boss, and I don’t want to be one of those guys coming down on you. I’m not your dad. You’re doing your own thing, and I think that’s great. But, man, you’ve got to play ball with me here. This is work. Okay?”
I’ve given up using my fake-smile routine on him. “Can I have a smoke break, boss?”
“Just don’t come back smelling like it. And next time wear a white shirt under that.” He points at the buttons down the middle of my chest. “The fabric is too thin and I can see Aquaman.”
I wait until he turns away to look down. Sure enough, through the white polyester I can see a green blob below an orange, muscly blob resting on my t-shirt.
* * *
The Oppenheim is small for a museum, insignificant to the metropolitan crowd. It is one story, with needlessly high arched ceilings trying to imitate grandeur. Everything is wood-paneled and covered in ornate carvings. There is only one drinking fountain. The building is U-shaped, with a thick, unimpressive lobby leading to two long hallways. Along the walls of the hallways is a small collection of minor paintings, most of them only reproductions. Alongside each painting is a tiny placard giving the name, painter, and date. The collection has not been updated since the mid-80s. There are only a handful of windows in the lobby, so the place stays dark and musty. If there ever was a custodian, he is long gone. Employees do their best to knock down the cobwebs between tours and lunch breaks. Entire weeks go by and it seems as if the world has forgotten about the Oppenheim.
I used to tell people it was haunted.
* * *
It’s a short bus ride home. After high school, I moved in with Maria and started working full time. She hates my job more than I do, which is strange considering that she never visits me and I never talk about it. She works a few hours after her college classes at a coffee shop. She comes home smelling of exotic beans and frustrated poets. Her parents pay her tuition and invited her over for another home-cooked meal tonight. Just her, not me. I open the apartment door to a black silence.
The light switch doesn’t make things much friendlier. The living room is filled with thrift store couches and an old coffee that table old friends had glued pennies to. Maria’s textbooks and notebooks are here, both with margins full of doodles. The cable was shut off weeks ago. Huddled in the corner are my things: discount canvases, acrylics, India Ink, pencils, pens, and brushes. Maybe I’ll find something in there to work on later.
It seems like forever since I’ve done any painting of my own. Last year I would race home and get as much done as possible before Maria came in to make dinner. Paint stained my favorite clothes. I finished a painting not too long ago. Well, nearly finished. Something like that doesn’t just end. Long brown and off-brown rectangles, most of them oblong, raced up and down the length of the small canvas. Very faux-geometrical. And at the top, a zigzag of green so that it almost looked like a forest canopy. I dug it out and added a small green triangle near the bottom left corner, like a falling leaf. I loved that painting until I couldn’t stand to look at it anymore.
I’m already in bed when Maria comes home. She tries to stay quiet, turning on a small lamp to undress. I barely see her dim silhouette moving slowly, carefully. Hairs stray from her tight ponytail. As I adjust to the light I can see more. Her shoulder blades gently shifting beneath her skin. The tired lines beneath her eyes. For a moment I can see what she’s really made of. She is a sphere with an overlapping oval for her face. Circles and squares, even a triangle or two. Thin strokes meet each other, shape after shape. She is constructed of the simple lines of an art guidebook. I could sit up and sketch her like that, then paint her form complete with soft, tan flesh. I could make her a work of art.
I roll over and close my eyes. She climbs into bed beside me, and our bodies never touch during the night.
* * *
Their eyes go wide. Some laugh nervously. But they always believe. How couldn’t they? The museum is a dead thing slowly rotting away, so it’s only natural. And looking over it all is that fake-bronze bust on the front counter. Frederick Oppenheim does not look like a happy man. He was an old philanthropist who didn’t even live here. For his love of art and all the money he had, he never picked up a brush in his life. He had never created something with his own hands. That’s what I remind old friends or neighborhood kids. I lead them down each hallway slowly, pretending I am expecting to see him. I tell them he wandered the hallways at night, looking at the modern art and howling in confusion and sadness. They believe every word.
I saw him one time.
* * *
“Want to try a circular logic problem?” Victor asks, leaning over the front desk. We haven’t had a visitor all day. He’s wearing blue jeans. He began doing so every Friday a month or two ago. Not as part of any official “casual day,” but to show he was one of the gang. A piece of white masking tape covers part of his nametag so it now reads “Vic.”
“They’re like really difficult riddles.” He holds up a thin paperback full of college words. “They’re hard, but they’re fun. Want to try, man?”
I make sure to not lean over the counter as much as he is. I am wearing a white undershirt today.
“Okay, here’s one,” he says, flipping through pages. “It’s one of the easier ones to start out with since you’re new to this and all. ‘A ballerina was strangled to death in her apartment one night, but the police decide it’s not homicide. Why would that be?'” Vic looks up, eager. “Here’s a hint: ‘She wasn’t dancing at the time.'”
When was the last time I had even talked to Maria? She was still sleeping when I left for work. If she’s around tonight, I might get a question about where she left one of her books, but that’ll be about it. We used to talk about everything. We would whisper and shout. We would share secrets and we would spread rumors. We would cry and laugh.
“Yeah, I know. They’re hard. Want another hint, man?”
I start walking away. “I’m going to go study up on the artists,” I say over my shoulder.
I walk the hallways aimlessly for what feels like forever. I know these paintings by heart. I used to like a couple of them in this wing. After so long, I’m starting to think I hate the wall behind them as well. The last piece before the corner is a reproduction of a crude woman-shape the Old People tell me looks like their grandchildren’s crayon doodles. Willem de Kooning. I can tell them he’s Scottish, but spent most of his childhood in Australia. He lived next door to a penal colony until he was twenty, which greatly influenced his art. His greatest love died in his arms. I should stop thinking about work.
I wish I could think about painting again. There are always the unfinished canvases hiding behind the ratty couch back home, and the one that looked like a forest. Would I ever put enough paint on it that it looked finished to me? I’m sure Kooning would crawl out of his grave and add a few more brushstrokes to his works today if he could. When can an artist simply be satisfied with what he has done and move on?
* * *
Frederick Oppenheim hangs over his museum like a burial shroud. He has carved the symbols in the old wooden frames. He lets the light in through the windows when he feels like it. He is as tall as the vaulted ceilings and thin enough to hide below the floorboards. I’ve been walking around inside of him for years and never realized it.
The night I saw him, Vic had already left. I walked slowly through each wing, out of boredom. The sky had darkened, and the moon had come out early. It was silent enough that I couldn’t hear my footsteps. I turned a corner, and there he was. There was no phantom glow, no chilling breeze, no cemetery whisperings. Oppenheim stood in front of the Pollock section, peering at the canvases. His face betrayed no expression. I don’t know long I stood there before he turned. His stern face stared me down. His expression was the same as when he looked at the paintings. Guarded and unimpressed.
Something about him looked familiar.
* * *
Maria works for a big, soulless conglomerate coffee shop, so sometimes she likes to go out to a small, struggling coffee shop. Tonight I feel obligated to tag along. It is after nine when we walk in and are greeted by a dozen different conversations. A college student plays the piano for an open mic night. The brick walls must’ve been constructed before anyone’s parents were born. They’ve begun to chip and crumble. In the corner, a tall dreadlocked woman argues with a tall dreadlocked man. People speak of war, politics, death, and taxes. Drinks are given out in wide, shallow, handmade ceramic mugs. A pregnant midget takes our order.
We sit at a table as far away from the open mic as possible. Piano Guy finishes to hushed clapping. I try not to spill espresso on my fingers as I glance across the overpriced local artwork adorning the walls. Maria sits across from me and looks at nothing.
“I’m thinking about painting again,” I offer into the silence. She tries not to look surprised by my voice.
“Yeah,” I continue, “maybe finish one of the older ones. Like that forest one.”
She takes a sip. “I thought you were sick of it?”
“I was,” I set my cup down and feel the hot liquid slosh onto my hand. “I’m not anymore.”
“So, you just needed a break?” she asks.
“Yeah, I guess so. I’ve always thought that with some things you need to, you know, push them aside sometimes. And when you’ve almost forgotten about it, you can look at it and see it for the first time all over again.”
She takes another sip and looks at me.
I ask her about her day.
* * *
I know what I am going to do tonight.
Tonight, I will wait until Maria is asleep and dig behind the couch until I can find that canvas again. I’m going to look it over, inspect it closely. I’ll fix some things, add some things, cover some things up. I’ll make it perfect. I’ll be content with it. Then, I’ll sneak out and walk to the Oppenheim. There is a window that never latches all the way. I’ll slide through the hallways and sneak around corners. I’ll move so silently you would never know a living person was there. I’ll float through the paintings and bemoan modern art. I’ll live it up, because it will be the last time I’ll ever go in there.
Before I go, I’ll hang my painting, the forest one, in the small space between our Dali prints and the Avery. I’ll become a part of this place. And then I’ll leave. Tomorrow I’ll start looking for a new job, and I’ll wonder what the new tour guides are going to say about the man who painted that little brown and green piece.