In this short story, an old composer teaches a peculiar young artist how to drive herself out of the doldrums.
Tourists often asked her which paintings in the museum cost the most money.
She thought they missed the point and would simply shrug.
She had a bachelor’s in art history, but the same loans that enabled a ShopRite cashier to study Florentine quattrocento paintings had become a burden. When she went to the museum to look for work, dreading a possible return to ringing up groceries upstate, the only job openings were for security guards in the galleries. Spurned on by Sallie Mae’s frequent notifications, she accepted.
The museum announced a budget crisis only a few months after she started, followed by a hiring freeze. She had just starting asking about transitioning to various curatorial departments.
After three years on the job, she began panicking. Tourists continued to do things like point at the paintings with the wet umbrellas they brought inside on rainy days. She would run over, yelling, to make sure that wet plastic never made contact with the artwork. Rather than shrink back in embarrassment or apologize, the tourists laughed at the frantic young woman in the too-large uniform. Many thought the paintings were all copies, anyway.
Luckily the museum welcomed a slew of regular visitors, locals who knew the quietest times to visit and not to buy the overpriced coffee in the cafeteria. There was the old photographer, the retired chiropractor, the policeman and his waiter boyfriend, and Martin, an autistic man who sat in the galleries, making tiny sketches on even tinier pieces of paper, and remembered the name of every single guard.
There was also the man passing in front of her now. She always knew when he visited because of the smell. He was tall and thin, but the openings of his jeans barely fit over his swollen lower legs and ankles and massive feet, purple and straining in their ratty Converses. He looked woebegone, but not enough to be homeless. He always carried a plastic grocery bag with folded-up newspapers and his eyes were watery.
Yet he looked at the paintings eruditely, studied them as would a conservator, no eyeglasses necessary, focused on their compositions as the visitors next to him looked confused by the smell and moved a few pieces over. There was something shrewd about his expression, though he never spoke to her as the other regulars did. But the stench was both overpowering and pathetic, a reminder of mortality and unpreventable decay.
She smelled something funny walking back to the bus one evening after her shift. She looked up to see him entering a parked car nearby, which she quickly identified as a 1998 Ford Taurus. She wondered how he could flex his lower legs enough to control the gas and break pedals. She boarded and flexed her own ankles in her sneakers, staring at other young women on the bus, dressed in prim pencil skirts and heeled leather shoes. She did not covet their ensembles, but the museum security guards stood on their feet all day, and so she coveted how their ensembles implied jobs with chairs.
She talked a lot to the kindly old chiropractor over the following months. The guards joked that he did a lot of pro-bono work as he stretched them out and pinched their limbs right in the galleries. She asked him if he knew of any offices in the city that needed a receptionist.
Another visitor ambled in, and she recognized the swish of the plastic bag. He was back, but where was the smell? The bottoms of his jeans were loose and he wore new, white Converses tied snug. She took a chance.
“Nice to see you back,” she said to him as he inspected a Rubens.
He smiled at her, the mulish face twisting and contracting itself, eyebrows like white rabbit fur above crinkling, reddish eyes.
That was the first time she spoke to Charlie.
“I used to compose a lot of music. Well, I still do. I never ‘retired’ from being a composer,” he volunteered, his voice weather-beaten like a tin metal roof. “Composing music is setting up a story. It’s a story in sound, perhaps like synesthesia for an invented narrative. I’d think you’d have the best job in the world. When no one’s around, you can just look at the paintings and come up with stories.”
“I enjoy art history,” she said, watching a school group out of the corner of her eye, “because you learn the stories behind the paintings. But I’m passionate about it when you start connecting the dots within one single piece of work, or maybe between several, that no one’s connected before.”
“Like notes on a staff. You discover and rearrange, but I like to make up the stories entirely. You could invent, too. Just — look at that Van Dyck. Look at those noodle fingers. Let’s pretend that silly pompous man sat inside spinning his globe all day with those ridiculously idealized noodle fingers. Why would he spin a globe? Where would he like to go? And judging by the noodle fingers, he certainly never did anything strenuous enough to travel the world during a time such as that. Was he perhaps ill? See, there’s a whole story. I’d set some bassoons to it.”
“You seem so heavy. Unlike Jonie, you know, who’s always in Section C,” he said. “She’s on her feet all day, but I’ve still seen her jogging in the park.”
“I don’t think I’m that bad,” she interjected. “My uniform’s just really baggy.”
“No, I didn’t mean heavy heavy,” Charlie said. “You’re headspace heavy. You know, we’re a bit like Harold and Maude.”
She arced her neck.
“Nothing romantic,” he said quickly. “But I’m rather near my ending and have been given a second shot. An extension, if you will. And so I feel very light and full of life. And you are very young and yet much heavier.”
“It’s because I have to spend all my time telling people not to touch the damn paintings.”
“No, it’s because you’re in some doldrums. Did you ever read The Phantom Tollbooth growing up? Milo, and the Kingdom of Wisdom, and the Doldrums?”
“Yeah, I did. I … I suppose I’ve driven off into some doldrums. And — Charlie — how do you know Chief Warren’s first name? And that the guards call the Ancient Near Eastern galleries ‘Section C’? I’ve never seen you speak to anyone else here before.”
“It’s because I’ve probably been coming here since before you were born.”
“Why did you study art history, rather than art?”
She colored a little bit. Charlie thought she looked genuinely embarrassed, almost sheepish.
“I really loved my studio art classes, but I’m not great at art.”
“Well, did you ever stick with them? Practice and commitment helps. The greatest orchestras still play scales.”
“It wasn’t the technical aspect that gave me trouble,” she said. “It was always the out-of-class assignments. When we had to choose our own subjects.”
He looked at her quizzically.
“I don’t think I have a ton of original ideas,” she explained. “I didn’t have problems with how to draw. It was what to draw that really challenged me.”
He didn’t speak. She thought he looked genuinely confused, almost bewildered.
After a moment, he opened his mouth. He then closed it, his lips pursing not from fullness, as they were so thin, but rather from compression, creating a flat ridge. He folded his hands together, the plastic bag he carried swishing.
“God, Charlie, I didn’t mean to throw you for such a loop,” she said.
“It’s not that I’ve been thrown for a loop,” he answered quickly after a smack of his lips. “I’ve just heard that line too many times before and I don’t believe it at all.”
“From music students?” she asked tentatively.
“Yes, and others. I’ve never believed it. It’s just so lazy.”
“I’m trying to be honest, not lazy.”
“I don’t believe that, either. Not only is it lazy, but it’s a defensive laziness: ‘I’m good at the former part, but can’t bother with the latter.’ You know both parts are equally important. And I know you aren’t so boring that you couldn’t possibly think of something you’d like to depict yourself. If you were truly boring, you would’ve studied something like one of those horrible cubicle-filling majors.”
“That’s what my mother wanted me to do. Something like accounting.”
“And what does she think of your art history degree?”
She paused. “I’m not sure.”
“I remember when you first started working here.”
“Oh, yes. You stood out because your uniform is far too big. Why don’t you get a new one?”
“Well, we aren’t allowed to have bags here in the galleries with us, so I like how the pockets are proportional in size. I can fit all my stuff in them. So I just never bothered.”
“Now, Charlie, let me ask you a question.”
He raised his eyebrows, which only slightly tugged his wrinkled eyelids barely enough to look bemused.
“You mentioned The Phantom Tollbooth the other week. I always thought it was funny how that book revolved around those two kings and their cities. What were they? Digitopolis and Dictionopolis?”
“Well, it focuses on the balance between numbers and words, right? Maybe between both sides of your brain?”
“Ah, if you say so.”
“And there are the Princesses Rhyme and Reason, whom Milo and Tock have to rescue, in their — as you would say — marvelous little car, in order to restore that balance.”
“Quite correct again.”
“Now, as a composer, do you think that Rhyme and Reason symbolize music?”
His head tilted, his large ears akimbo, and the wiry white hair emerging from them almost seemed to crackle like wires attuned to a new radio signal.
“You claimed that you invent totally. But what if you’re more like a bridge between two kingdoms?”
He then tilted his head in the opposite direction.
“These paintings are bridges, too,” she continued. “Maybe you and these painters don’t always purely invent, but you always build bridges.”
“And you don’t include yourself amongst us?”
“I think I rediscover the bridges,” she said carefully. “I’m not the engineer who first constructed them. But I’m Milo, discovering a new route over them.”
His eyes raked over some nearby placards but he didn’t read them. She hoped that her carefully-formulated explanation, which she considered very clever and lofty and of which she felt rather proud, would earn her some respect and a bit more understanding. Instead, Charlie suddenly looked sad.
“You did it,” he said. “You finally made me feel old.”
She’d noticed the change for weeks but procrastinated asking, dreading the potential answer.
“Charlie,” she asked hesitantly, “how are you feeling lately?”
“Fine,” he answered. “Why do you ask?”
She knew that there was no avoiding the baited question. Usually her arms swung at her sides, but she folded them and picked at her uniform.
“Your … your shoes are looking a little tight again, that’s all.”
He smiled slowly. “I’m not worried. Believe me when I say that my greatest worry is finding parking near here. I used to be able to walk from my apartment. But, unfortunately, not anymore.”
“Do you know how Milo escaped the Doldrums?”
“Tock the Watchdog saved him?”
“No,” said Charlie. “He thought. His thinking warded off the Lethargians.”
“Are you saying,” she asked, a little taken aback, “that I don’t think enough?”
“No,” he said. “You just mull heavy things over. You think like some people like to turn rocks over in their hands. You’re stationary, not empty.”
“Wow,” she said. “That sure makes me confident in my own potential.”
“You’re replaying stories in your head rather than telling your own. It’s the truth, despite that cliché of ‘telling your own story.’ You deny your own originality. That’s why you struggled with art assignments — ”
“You once described clichés as ‘dastardly.’”
“ — And just claimed you weren’t good at making art, because that was easier than accepting what’s in your own head. And you know, you really, really know, that when one creates these bridges you claim to traverse — whether one paints or one composes music — that they do have to pull their material from their imagination.”
“That’s a cliché, too.”
“Not necessarily, and even if it resolutely were, that doesn’t mean it would be untrue,” he insisted. “You’re afraid of constructing the bridge and that’s why you’re just stationary. In The Phantom Tollbooth, Milo travels by car. In Harold and Maude, Maude steals cars. The point is, they’re moving. In fact, they’re doing anything to move. You’re still. You’re not empty, but you are stationary.”
“I’m not a big fan of cars,” she said shortly. “Whether metaphorical or real ones.”
He peered down at her face, which had grown flinty.
“You — don’t — need — a — car — to — keep — moving,” he said, jabbing his gnarled finger into the folds of her uniform with each word.
She took a detour one morning as she walked to her post. “Chief Warren,” she said. “Hi. I have a funny question.”
A woman looked down from where she stood at the entrance of the Ancient Near Eastern Galleries. “Morning. Shoot.”
“There’s a visitor who’s been coming in for ages. He’s really old, wears Converses, always carries a plastic bag. Very untidy hair. Have you seen him lately?”
Jonie brightened. “I know who you’re talking about!” she beamed. “I’ve been meaning to ask you what he’s like. He’s been coming here for decades and you’re the only guard he’s ever talked to.”
“Well, he’s a composer, and he’s pretty damn remarkable,” she said. “Kind of an institution himself. But he doesn’t seem the healthiest and I’ve never gotten his phone number, so I can’t check in on him.”
“Do you have his email address?”
“He refuses to own a computer, and only uses the postal service and his land line.”
“Huh. Do you know his full name? Maybe check with the Membership Desk and see if he’s a museum member?”
“Yeah, I do know his name. And I checked with both Membership and Admissions. He’s not a member, just pays a dollar every time he comes in.”
“Did you look him up online?”
“That was the first thing I did. He was actually pretty famous, so there are tons of articles about him, but no personal information at all.”
“Really? No Wikipedia? No White Pages?”
“Wikipedia yes, White Pages no.”
“Huh,” Jonie said. “No, I haven’t seen him for a while. Poor guy. His smell came back.”
She liked walking across the Queensboro Bridge. She liked watching the jagged shards and dusty bricks of Manhattan move closer to eye level as the cycling and pedestrian ramp met the intersection of East 60th Street and 1st Avenue. No matter the monogrammed panache of the Upper East Side, that corner sat just low enough for some inerasable grubbiness to survive.
On this particular morning, she marveled at all the children. The neighborhood was full of them, accompanied by women who were unmistakably their nannies and not their mothers. Nannies plugged into headphones as they steered strollers and the children held screens as they rode in them, both the pusher and the pushed numb not only to the world around them but also to each other. It seemed regrettable.
She remembered when their Ford Taurus finally stopped rolling. She looked over at her mother, her vision snapping into focus as the seatbelts had snapped their ribs. She knew that no paramedic could help. Her mother was numb to the world around her, numb to her fellow passenger. Her mother was numb forever.
She squinted a little in the haze and turned around. She waited for the crosswalk to clear, then began walking back up the bridge’s ramp towards Queens.
She didn’t look at her phone until she returned to her apartment near the Steinway stop an hour later. She noticed a voicemail from a law firm with a Manhattan area code. Frowning, she held the phone up to her ear. She listened to the voicemail, frowning deeper. Maybe it was a prank.
She called the number, spoke with a receptionist, then spoke with an attorney who kept mentioning an estate. She agreed to a paperwork-filled meeting and hung up.
A Mr. Charles Dubaker of 319 East 105th Street willed her an apartment and a small amount of money, but under very strict conditions. She was granted access to those resources for exactly one year after signing the requisite paperwork, nothing more. She also was not permitted to hold a job during that year. Lastly, the attorney chortled, she must produce ten drawings and ten paintings by the end of said year, with sufficient proof that the artwork was completed during that timeframe.
“You didn’t,” she whispered, and walked back through her door to find a bar.
A few years later, a security guard walked over to a Rubens painting and picked up an envelope he noticed sitting underneath. It had been a slow day with few visitors, including the old chiropractor who cracked his back right there in the galleries, and a young woman in a fitted jacket.
“ ‘To Charlie,’” he muttered, reading the cursive scrawled on the envelope.
It’s been five years since you’ve passed away and that feels like a bittersweet milestone. Another milestone happened, and you can find out about it by looking at the press release I included with this letter (hint: it has everything to do with you, but it’s a little happier as it’s somebody’s first solo show announcement).
I hate writing letters but it’s to you, and it’s for milestones, so here I am.
It’s been four years since your cousin in Iowa sold your apartment and I got to survey my first crop of very rusty but very earnest drawings and paintings. You know how overly familiar I am with the word “survey.” Survey of Western Art, Survey of Pre-Colombian Art, Survey of Modern Art, yadda yadda. Art History 101. But you read me like a book and knew that surveying my own artwork would be most necessary and satisfying of all.
I make what a few curators call “contemporary memento mori.” Funny how my art history degree focused on bright, linear Renaissance-era Florentine paintings, but the works that really riveted me were these gloomy, opulent, seventeenth-century Dutch still lifes. The placards at the museum call them memento mori or vanitas paintings, reminders of life’s fleetingness and of our own mortality. They include a lot of fruit and crystal table settings (I guess that’s what they considered the height of earthly goods) punctuated by symbols like broken glass, half-finished food, flies or even skulls. They sound cliché, but you know that they aren’t. You looked at these paintings but weren’t too interested, because you already were at peace with the lessons they try to impart.
I pluck symbols and arrangements from the depths of my own head to create my own memento mori. And as you said, I’m not empty or unoriginal at all. Actually, I’m frighteningly full. And what fills me once terrified me. But oddly enough, making my artwork is what drove me out of the Doldrums. Thanks to you, my hands and my head are moving again.
Charlie, you got me building bridges. I used to envision myself as the traveler crossing them, but I realized that, like memento mori, maybe I, too, am a bridge between life and death. I’m young but have seen life end up close. I feel like one of my feet straddles a world of unfettered youth, and the other straddles a world of profound grief. So that’s what my drawings and paintings symbolize. I build bridges with my artwork, and my artwork is autobiographical.
You never knew me well enough to know what I’d depict in my artwork, but you read me well enough to know that I needed to make it. I needed to build bridges, not just cross them. Thank you, Charlie. May you have stacks of freshly-printed newspapers nestled in plastic bags wherever you are.
PS. I convinced your cousin to sell your car for scrap. Not worth the risk.