Not complete, and sorry about the crappy format. Let me know what you think.
“I don’t want anything too abstract.”
That was the first thing he said, before he even introduced himself. Not that there was any need to introduce himself—in the two weeks since the exhibit opened, he’d been there nearly every day, wandering through the large halls and staring at the canvases as if they owed him money.
“Mr. Herring?” Jackson Herring turned, annoyed, to see Carson Heals. “Can I help you with something? Justine said you seemed upset.”
“Not upset,” he said. “Frustrated. This museum is the only one within 2 hours. I’m tired of looking at these painting. They are… well, pardon my saying so, but they are minor. There’s not a single important painting in this entire gallery. A true connoisseur wouldn’t cross the street for this paltry display.”
“Well,” said Carson, “I’m sorry to hear that. As one of our most loyal patrons, is there anything we can do to make your experience here more enjoyable?”
Herring hardly acknowledged the other speaker. He had built up momentum, and did not intend to stop until he crashed.
“I, Mr. Heals, have seen it all. I’ve been around the world, seen the best this little planet has to offer—and make no mistake, it is small, so small that a man of good means such as myself can truly see it all.” He cleared his throat. “Not really all, of course, but everything that matters. I’ve seen the works of the Masters, and I’ve seen masterpieces painted on bedroom walls, created by waiters between paychecks. Imagine Gregor here,”—with this, he gestured toward Gregor the janitor, walking briskly past—“as a savant… if he were, I would know it.”
He stopped, as if collecting his thoughts, and then looked directly at Carson.
“No, I don’t imagine there’s anything you could do.”
He turned, spinning on his heel like a weather vane, and left the gallery. Carson, slightly befuddled but glad to be unoccupied, returned to his podium, from whence he attempted to sort out the less savory, watching for twitching wrists, bulky overcoats, irregular camera angles.
It was two days later when Mr. Herring returned. The weather was poor, and his grey overcoat was spattered like a Pollock. Carson caught his eye as he entered the gallery, but Herring gave no indication that his eye had been caught. Instead, he selected the work in the furthest corner, nearest the emergency exit, and, sitting on the bench before it, removed a pad of paper and from his coat and began recording something in his jittery way. Had it been anyone but Herring, Carson would have been suspicious; as it was Herring, however, he felt only relief.
Herring sat in the spot for over an hour, his hands barely slowing. Carson could see, every so often, a flicker of white as a page was turned, and he imagined he could hear the pencil scratching its way across the paper. It looked like a sketchpad, not a notepad, and Carson allowed for a moment the thought of Mr. Herring as an art forger, making copies of paintings easily found in order that he might steal them and sell the copies many times over to less scrupulous men who would be glad to own but not display them. Perhaps, he thought, these were the real art appreciators, the ones who would purchase a work that could not share simply to enjoy its pleasures, absorb its essence, deed to another who would love it as well. Or maybe, he thought, they just like to own things.
Mr. Herring, in his corner, thought of Carson not once. His lack of notice upon entering the gallery had not been put on—he was a man with much on his mind. His hand moved frantic, sketching out rough copies of the floorplan, locations of the paintings, and, unable to help himself, beneath each poorly reproduced piece of art, he would inscribe the vital information of the work—artist, title, era—along with some personal observations. Beneath Christina’s World, he had written, “Trite.”
Had another patron asked what he was doing, he could scarcely have answered. He felt as though his mind was moving independently of his spirit, if the two could be separated. In his spirit, he felt sure, he wished only to look upon greatness, to soak in the textures and vision of truly beautiful things, but his brain was having none of it. His brain, dastardly organ, wished for ownership. It wanted not to absorb the refracted glow of genius but to ingest it, live in, be surrounded by it on all sides, the irony of which was that it didn’t care about the beauty at all, and its inability to love such things was demonstrated in Mr. Herring’s inability to articulate why he was doing what he was doing.
“I heard,” said a male voice behind him, “that something new is coming here.”
“Something new?” replied another voice, female. “What is it?”
“No one knows.” said the male. “It might not even be true. I’ve heard though, that it’s actually something new—like, this would be its first exhibition anywhere. Which could mean it’s awful, I suppose.”
The female laughed and the voices moved further away. Herring swiveled his head as if possessed, but saw only two pastel backs exiting the gallery. He stood as if to follow them, sliding his sketchpad back into his coat as he did so, but instead of pursuing, he moved toward the podium where Carson stood.
Carson, feeling as though he’d been caught spying, pretended to read the pamphlet on the podium, but if Mr. Herring was aware of his observation, he gave no indication. He sidled up, and Carson, expecting another slow drip of vitriol followed by a callow, dramatic exit, was taken aback when Mr. Herring almost smiled at him.
“Mr. Heals, I’ve heard some news, possibly good, and thus have decided to take you up on your offer of two days previous.”
Carson stuttered an affirmation, unsure what Mr. Herring meant.
“I mean, of course, that I may have found a way to make my experience more enjoyable. Or, at least, to warm my feelings toward the staff.”
“How is that, Mr. Herring?” said Carson.
“It has come to my attention that a new exhibit is to open here soon. As you know, I’ve been most irritated at the lack of, shall we say, novelty here, but what little information I have on this new exhibit has piqued my interest.”
“Mr. Herring, I’m sorry to say, I don’t know anything about a new exhibit. Where did you hear about it?”
Mr. Herring’s face flushed slightly, and Carson couldn’t help but feel that this was Mr. Herring’s version of a swearing fit.
“I realize that you may not be allowed to share this information, even with your most loyal patron; however,” he said, reaching into his coat and withdrawing a well-worn checkbook, “if there’s some, er, hint you could share, I’d be grateful.”
Carson looked at the checkbook and then at Mr. Herring.
“I’m sorry sir. If there was any information I could give you, I would. Unfortunately, you currently seem to know more about it than I do. Perhaps you should talk to Mr. Yago? He’s a little higher on the ladder than I am. He might know more.”
Mr. Herring gave Carson a look to melt mountaintops and stalked away, checkbox impotently in hand. Carson watched the back of his head until it was no longer visible, tilted his face back toward the pamphlet on the podium, then settled back into sentry duty.
Mr. Herring, now angry and more distracted than before, didn’t notice Gregor until he ran into him. There was a clatter as Gregor’s mop and bucket fell to the floor, along with the janitor himself. When his buttocks met the floor, there was a loud jingle, as if his tailbone was composed of loose change, and Mr. Herring, who had miraculously avoided collapsing himself by tapping some previously virgin well of gyroscopic balance, was startled. The harsh “chink” impacted him more than the impact itself; he extended a hand to Gregor, whose face wore the same blank expression as always—one might think, thought Mr. Herring, that he didn’t have a brain in his head.
“Pardon me.” said Mr. Herring, as Gregor grasped his hand. The janitor’s weight was more than expected—he was a small but dense man, composed of more stuff than it at first appeared. He looked at Mr. Herring and his expression changed, from blank to bewildered and back, and he said, in English thick-dipped in foreign tones, “It is no problem.”
“Are you hurt?” asked Mr. Herring.
“I am ok.” said Gregor, taking a step and wincing very slightly.
“Are you certain? Your equipment, is it undamaged?”
Gregor cracked a smile at this. “My equipment is good. It could handle… much collision. Much more bad. Is only a mop.” And he laughed, making Mr. Herring more uncomfortable than the collision itself.
“Still,” he said, “let me walk with you back to your office. Not for you—for me.”
Gregor, again flickering with confusion but, this time, mixed with amusement, nodded, and he and Mr. Herring walked back toward the gallery.
Unaware of where Gregor’s office, if he had one, was likely to be, he hoped only that it didn’t require another walk through the gallery he had so recently, and unhappily, exited. Carson, that haughty bookkeeper, might try to engage him, might even prevent him from walking with Gregor. He found that, now, when he thought of Gregor, he thought of him in more friendly terms, like an old acquaintance with whom he had recently reconnected than as a lowly maintenance worker of whom he hoped to take advantage. He might even have been offended to hear it suggested—he had not run into Gregor on purpose, had not offered to accompany him cynically, had not felt guilt illegitimately; upon reflection, however, he would find that he had felt no guilt at all.
At first, it appeared that Gregor’s path cut straight through the gallery, but, at the last moment, Gregor turned, sharp as a spindle, and headed down a hallway that Mr. Herring would have sworn had never before existed. If indeed were newly carved out, however, the excavators had been ambitious—it appeared to Mr. Herring to run throughout the entirety of the building, a miniature underground for workers whose presence of the floor was less desirable. There were doors with arcane, smoothed-out symbols and meaningless numbers, and Mr. Herring had a moment’s panic when he thought, rather illogically, that he might be trapped within them for weeks, like a babe in a cornfield waiting for the first frost. Then, it occurred to him, the museum would own him, and, by extension, he would be owned by the paintings. After all, wasn’t the museum made up of the works displayed in it? Without them, it was an empty shell. He imagined himself being subservient to the Monets, the Picassos, the lesser canvasses, without ever again seeing them, and then Gregor arrived at his destination.
To call it an office was a kind thing; to call it a closet, a bit too uncharitable. There sat, in the corner, a desk, like grade school children used, covered in bottles of cleaning supplies and an old mop head, and, in the opposite corner—which was no more than six feet away—sulked two folding chairs. In between, what in-between there was, was empty space. The walls were not walls at all, but shelves, covered with the same manner of items as the desk. A calendar, still showing June of two years ago, hung from the wall, Waterlillies watching over the heavily annotated days.
“We are here.” said Gregor, “I am safe. Thank you much.”
“I apologize again,” said Mr. Herring.
Gregor moved to the desk and began rummaging through the miscellanea, and Herring, turning toward the door, intended to leave. Behind him, something fell to the floor, and, turning again, he saw Gregor bending over to retrieve a bottle that had slipped from the desk. Hanging from his belt, dangling like a bunch of carrots, were keys, so many keys, and Mr. Herring, once again suffering a schism between his spirit and his brain, picked up a large, metal can of floor wax and brought it down hard on Gregor’s exposed neck. Gregor, disoriented, tried to turn, and the second blow caught him in the temple, cutting a little gash just beside his graying sideburn. His face, still blank; his body, falling; his keys, tinkling, made Mr. Herring think, just for a moment, that Gregor had been made of glass, and he had broken him.
There was a moment of confusion, but Mr. Herring, still not entirely in control, knelt beside the body and, stretching out two trembling fingers, searched for a pulse. His other hand, acting independently, fiddled with the keys, twisting and picking at them with its nails, until its index finger blindly hit a release, and the keys slipped to the floor. Mr. Herring snatched up the keys and, first locking the door from the inside, pulled it shut behind him as he exited the room. He glanced down at his watch: 1:23 p.m. Gregor would not likely be missed for an hour or two at least.
Halfway down the first hallway, Mr. Herring started shaking, first his hands, fingers still pulsating, then his legs, still bending at the knee. The cold metal keys in his grip felt like the cool aluminum of the can with which he’d… but he pushed the thought from his mind, afraid that to dwell on it was to invite his limbs to give out entirely.
“Shouldn’t have done it,” he thought, “but now that it’s started, I should finish it.” Half-coalesced thoughts about the comparative value of spending the next decade in jail for doing something as opposed to doing nothing died as they were conceived. Nothing so reasonable had a place here, now.
Carson, still gazing out at the milling menagerie, was getting hungry. Nearly 2 o’clock and he’d had nothing more substantial to eat than his fingernails. He looked at them, their jagged remains, and, looking up, saw Jules passing by.
“Jules!” he called out. She stopped and smiled.
“Carson! What’s up?”
“Hey Jules, I was wondering if you’d be willing to watch my post for thirty. I’m getting a little hungry… just need time to run down the street, grab a quick bite, and get back here. You busy?”
“Just tallying up some accounts. Many art thieves today?”
“No more than usual.”
“I’ll do it. Go get some food.”
Carson stepped from behind the podium and walked toward the door. He reached it just as a mother and her son, who had somehow evaded security and still sucked on a thick, strawberry shake. He feinted left to avoid the child, but the boy, suddenly distracted by a video depicting an animated life of Andrew Wyeth, turned his head and body at the same time. Carson then tried to stop; he succeeded but the boy had no such intentions, not slowing, and ran into Carson, a rush of breath escaping his body as his stomach met Carson’s stationary knee. This unexpected altercation loosed the boy’s fingers, and the shake, already wet with condensation, slipped from his hand and arced through the air in slow motion. Carson could almost hear a pop as the plastic lid separated from the cup, and the pink goop inside seemed to hang in the air before splattering all over the floor abstractly.
“Ma’am, I am so sorry!” Carson said.
“It wasn’t your fault,” she responded, kneeling beside her son who was now sitting spread-eagled on the floor, lower lip quivering. “Are you ok?”
“My drink!” said the boy, his voice quavering but not quite breaking. Carson turned to Jules. “Can you buzz Gregor? He needs to take care of this mess.” By the time he turned back, the mother and the boy were out of sight, having turned down a side hall in search of a washroom.
“I can handle this from here.” Jules said. “Go eat. This isn’t the first mess that’s ever been on this floor.”
“Thanks!” said Carson, and he left.