Gallery by George McLoone

 

 

Gallery

by George McLoone

 

    

               

 

 

Their affair had ended badly, and Clement thought Nina had nothing more to say to him.  But months later, in December, she phoned to tell him the worst of it.  He knew something about her tailspin, enough to let her have her say.

   “I lost an earring in the emergency room.  They take off all your jewelry as well as all your clothes, and one earring got lost on the floor, one of the pair you gave me, the black pearl earrings to go with the coat.  That’s why I called.  It’s all I want really-- a new pair of earrings as close to the old pair as you can find.  I can’t just go looking for them store to store like a madwoman.  Mail them to me in a box, but it doesn’t have to be a special box.  I still have the old box.  Don’t call me.”

   “How will I know you receive them?”  

   She did not answer his question and hung up.

   He purchased the new earrings, sent them Fed Ex, and she called him again the following Friday.  She thanked him and added she had something she wanted to give him, “something in turn, one last thing.”  She would meet him at a place they knew well, on the Washington Mall in front of the National Gallery East Wing.  She did not tell him what this last thing was, and he did not ask her.  If he did, he thought, she would hang up again and never show up.

   Sunday afternoon, he parked his car near the Virginia terminus of the Metro Blue Line, put on his hat, found a fare card that that had just enough credit to get downtown, and picked up the old topcoat and frayed muffler he kept in the trunk of his car but hardly ever wore.  The train was at the platform, and he hurried to get on. 

   The train was crowded, but he did not mind standing, not today, and in the press he would not have to worry about any extended conversation should he bump into someone who knew him.  For most of the ride he stared blankly at a white-haired man’s turned up coat collar and tried to imagine what Nina might be bringing him-- something in turn-- cufflinks, a tie clasp, or something in kind to be replaced, or perhaps something of his to be returned.  Had he lost anything, left anything of his in her condo off Maine Avenue?  Anything problematic?  Anything more substantial than the residue she would not tolerate beyond an afternoon?  He thought not, and she would not be returning more of the letters.  He was sure of that.  There had been emails too, of course, but these had never been a passionate medium for either of them, and in any case one simply deleted them, eventually. 

   True, years ago he had tried to get her attention with a business email about a contract with the Commerce Department and included a personal question about having coffee somewhere after work, or possibly a drink at the Willard--They had met once before, he wrote, at a horse race in Virginia.  She emailed back a yes right away, which excited him.  But coffee and chat for an hour or two after work one night a week was all it was for months, until one evening she handed him an expensive fountain pen in a gift box.  He was pleased with the old-fashioned-girl present and said so in a handwritten thank you note in a stamped envelope he mailed to her office.  She replied to this with a declaration of affection in kind, adding a PS telling him to get a post office box in order to avoid unpleasantness at his office or at his home address in Clifton.  He took this to mean something substantial and profound with her was now possible, something that would last a good while if not forever.       

   But Nina had returned all the letters months before the ER and the lost earring.  They had arrived in a bulging USPS envelope forwarded from his PO address, which he had canceled, to his office address, a software contracting firm with an office near the federal triangle. The envelope had been opened in the firm’s mailroom, and the red ribbon—what else?-- on one of the bundles had been untied before everything got to his desk.   Worrisome, but nothing he was going to complain about with the company vice president he reported to, or bring to the attention—the further attention--of the mailroom manager.  He had not kept her letters to him, and he was not about to sit down and read his own letters to her.  Nor was he about to ponder any finer significance of the bundle.  If such there were, it was plain enough she did not want the letters, and he stuffed the bundles into a stray plastic grocery bag, took an early lunch hour, and dropped them into a waste bin outside the Starbucks down the street from his building.  Surely she had sent all the letters.  If she were a romantic and at times histrionic, she was also thorough and tidy, good at finishing any task, good at packing a suitcase, tidy to a fault, making the bed as soon as they were out of it, picking up crumbs as soon as they fell on the carpet.  Would she be returning any of the other jewelry or any of the clothes?  Certainly not—and they had discussed this months ago-- anymore than she would be accepting more gifts of any kind from him.  She had made this clear well before sending the letters. 

   Still, there would be the one odd earring she now had.  What would she do with that?  Perhaps that was it—not an exact match with the new ones, not a spare, and therefore useless if also something hard for her to throw away.  But she could have mailed an earring as easily as the letters.  Maybe she had mailed it with the letters.  No, the ER loss was long after the bundles and the red ribbons, and he reflected how red could mean a number of other things, unpleasant things-- Maybe what she really wanted to give him was his just deserts.  She might well want to pump a bullet into his heart. 

He did smile at the vagary, but he could not let go of it-- Maybe not into the heart, not at first.  She had never fired a gun before.  She would aim in his direction, miss once, hit a leg, graze his head, and linger over the sight, reveling in the messy results, letting the crumbs fall where they may, hitting everything but the heart-- a new-found joy beyond her tidy imagining.  And today she would be able to spare the living room carpet.  Her performance would be outside, on the National Mall no less, her audience Sunday strollers, joggers, kite flyers dashing for cover as she emptied the chamber and watched him bleed to death, a loathsome, foolish creature writhing in agony on the ground.  She would find herself redeemed by it, her tears and her laughter a catharsis.  But her next audience would be the world—the episode caught and replayed on a hundred cell phones, then You Tube, network news.  She would be locked away for a long time.     

   He stopped smiling at this last image of her, and his heart was racing when he stepped off the train at Smithsonian Station.  He tried to slow his breathing, and he told himself he was merely overreacting, and he probably looked it--bundled up not only in defense against a drop in December temperature but also to ward off an attack of some kind—wool slacks, heavy sweater, a muffler, the old topcoat, gloves.  His headgear, though, he remembered, was a gesture to their sunnier times--a Panama hat he had worn at their first meeting so long ago, long before anything had happened between them, or maybe it was the day something did.  Either way, the hat and a brisk walk across the Mall on a cool, sunny day would calm him down-- 

   It had been that horse race in Virginia, an afternoon of point to point races and picnicking in The Plains on a warm Saturday in May.  She had come with a younger man from her office, someone in a green riding jacket who was closer to her age, and Clement had brought his wife.  They were all in the hospitality tent, drinking champagne in plastic cups shaped like champagne glasses.  The man in the riding jacket was standing next to him and explaining to Nina how real glassware was ecologically benign and therefore cheaper in the long run than plastic.

   “Except when encountered by bare feet in the dark,” Nina said with a smile to Clement’s wife, not to the man or to him.     

   The four of them left the tent together, and when Clement’s wife and the man got ahead of her, Nina turned to Clement.

    “My father had one like that,” she said, reaching up and touching the hat.  “He wore it so much the brim lost its shape and the crown caved in.  He began to look like a character, but he wouldn’t get a new one.”

   “So I’m a potential character.”

  “Of course you are.  Who isn’t?  But you don’t wear it too often, and that’s a good thing.”

   Yes, something had happened.  It had been good, and when Clement reached the top of the Smithsonian Station escalator and saw the Mall, he felt more confident about the present possibility--perhaps a friendship, if nothing more.  He could live with that, he told himself, and on some level Nina must want to see him alive—and maybe they would talk as they used to, just connect in a civilized manner, laughing at other people and their mimicries of life.  Partly sunny, The Post had predicted, with a chance of light showers possibly turning to sleet late afternoon or early evening, when everyone would be safe at home after their various tours and outings.  Even now, hundreds of other people were ambling happily enough along the gravel pathways and across the Mall’s white-brown winter grass, many of them young couples with their children skipping ahead of them, away from the Gallery and toward the Air and Space Museum.  But one of the young couples looked too familiar, and he turned up the collar of his topcoat and pulled the brim of his Panama all the way down. 

   He picked up his pace and started toward the Gallery with his head down and his hands in his coat pockets, bent over, as though he were leaning into a stiff wind and not a slight breeze from the northwest.  Soon he fell in behind the men and women walking toward the West Wing, where he could see streamers and gonfalons on the portico and pediment proclaiming “Monet at Giverny” in blue and yellow lettering.  Far to the right, the East Wing-- “Permanent Collection: 12-3 PM” on a sign by the door-- was attracting fewer, though the building itself—its modernist triangular and trapezoidal shapes, wedges sidling against boxes—was slowing passersby, some of them stopping to touch the building.   

   He angled across the courtyard separating the two wings, straightened up as he approached the East Wing entrance, and regarded their special place-- that lofty south wall, that vast and windowless wedge of gleaming white stone next to a narrow walkway.  When the walkway cleared, he too paused at the cutting edge where you could press your nose against the stone and see two sides of a monumental triangle, small sections of the wedge worn away by the thousands upon thousands who had stopped, the white stone stained from hands, noses, fingers, laughter.  He ran his gloved fingers along the slight indentations and stain as if for luck, then turned around to look for Nina at the entrance.  She was not there.

   He turned away and looked down the narrow walkway, then out toward the Mall.

Nina might be wearing her Burberry coat with the black buttons, he thought, the one he had given her some Christmas past, and a hat, perhaps the red cloche hat she could pull down over her ears.  But the sun was still out, partly sunny, so she might not be wearing a hat, just a scarf around her throat, her hair probably up—No, that was work days-- probably down, unless she had been to her great aunt’s house in Glover Park earlier in the day and accompanied her to church, after which it might still be up.   He looked at his watch—two-thirty five, five minutes past the appointed time, and again at the entrance.  She was never late.  An elderly woman stood on the steps in front of the glass doors and waved at two other women, one of them with a cane, who seemed on their way across the courtyard from the West Wing.  But neither looked anything like Nina.

   He went inside the building and by a guard who had a silver counting device in his hand clicking off each visitor.  He heard the guard click for him and began to survey the atrium and mezzanine.  He looked left and right, and was about to search for her downstairs in the lower-level collection rooms—“Visions of Pompeii—Fin de Siecle Watercolors”-- but turned around and went back outside to wait for her as the simpler, more rational course.

   He reassured himself he was following her instructions to the letter, but after another five minutes he began to feel anxious again and flush.  He unbuttoned his coat, and tried to think about a few pertinent, calming truisms, and images of great stone edifices wearing over time, and of course Pompeii itself, where they had spent two days one November experiencing its blue skies, its ancient, narrow streets, and off the beaten path so many of the dead-- fleshless, boneless, yet there, their hollow, plaster casts so human in their fallen attitudes.  He touched the wedge again.  The elderly woman who had waved from the steps and one, just one, of the other two women, the one with the cane, walked past him.  It had clouded over and was starting to drizzle, and the woman with the cane took the elderly woman’s arm as they turned toward the Bistro Cafeteria just off the sculpture garden.  He gazed after them and down the expanse of the Mall into the gray mist now shrouding the Washington Monument.  Two red beacons high in the top of the obelisk began to blink, and he turned around and went back inside the atrium. 

   He found an empty stone bench against the mezzanine staircase not far from the entrance, leaned back against the marble balustrade, and told himself to wait, to relax and wait.  He tilted his hat over his face, closed his eyes and tried to picture other places they had seen together, pleasanter, more pastoral places, but under the hat he began to feel oddly thinner, smaller.  Then he tried concentrating on where he actually was without removing the hat and opening his eyes-- the Mall. the East Wing, the weather changing, and whether he was hungry.  Images of fire—Vesuvius—tried to intervene, but his face felt cooler, not warmer.  He opened his eyes and realized he had nodded off and his hat had fallen to the floor.  The guard at the door had stopped clicking people coming into the Gallery and was walking toward him.  He picked up the hat before the guard could say anything, went outside yet again to look down the empty walkway, and dialed Nina’s number on his cell phone.  She did not answer, and he left a message on her voice mail--

    “It’s hell waiting for you like this,” he said, “and I don’t see how you could have missed me.  It’s almost three and they’re starting to close the place down.  If you show up, I’ll be in the West Wing, not the East Wing, and looking at the Monets.  I don’t know how long I’ll be there, maybe fifteen minutes.”                                  

   He looked one last time at the East Wing, turned around and started across the gallery courtyard toward Giverny.  But after a few steps he lost some feeling in his legs and had trouble putting one foot in front of the other.  It was more than the cold breeze and damp.  It was something else, a floating feeling, a strange lightness in the legs as though his feet might not be touching the pavement.  He thought it might be the stones in the pavement-- rounded, embedded stones that made him wobble-- but soon he could not feel anything against the soles of his shoes, and he had to slow down, raising each foot in a high, slow motion before bringing each foot down just as slow, as if he were turning into a lost, spectral being denied the sense of touch as well as of direction, a creature of mists and shadow subject to the whims of rain and wind.  He managed to cry out, “I’m trying to walk on air,” before sitting down on the pavement in the rain, more like a derelict than a ghost, unable to go on. 

   The woman with the cane, now alone, shuffled over to him, jostled his shoulder and told him what to do.

   “You take my cane,” she said, “and pull yourself up with it while I hold on to your other arm.  That makes a five-legged creature, an unstoppable creature if we take our time.”

   “I think I’m having a stroke,” he said.  “A stroke or something.  I can’t walk.  I don’t think I can walk.  Please, help me.”   

   “Don’t you like Monet?” she said, getting him on his feet.  “Are you actually thinking you don’t want to see the Monets?”

   “Please get me inside someplace, anyplace.  Maybe your friend could help too, or the guard inside the gallery.  The friend might be better.  Where is she?”

   “Damned if I know.  I’ll need the cane back when we get inside the West Wing—it’s still open-- but you can get another one at the cloakroom desk.  It’s also the lost and found desk.  The cane is free, but you have to bring it back to lost and found.  Well, you don’t really.  They don’t arrest you if you forget, if you get my drift.  They have wheelchairs too, but that’s another matter.”

   She got him inside the West Wing lobby, took back her cane, and left him leaning against the cloakroom counter.  A plump young lady in an electric blue blouse and heavy white cardigan stood behind the counter and smiled at him.  He began to feel better.

   “Would you like to check your hat and coat?’ she asked.

   “I was wondering if I might rent a cane.  I seem to have lost mine, and I’ve twisted something around in my legs, a bad nerve or something.”

   “I’m afraid we don’t rent canes,” she said. 

   “Would you sell me one?”

   “We don’t sell canes, sir.  This is the National Gallery.  Might you have lost your cane?”

   “Could you check your lost and found?”

   “What kind of a cane is it?”

   “I don’t remember exactly.  I had a fall outside just now, and I’m a little dizzy.  An umbrella might do.  I lost an umbrella once.  I have to get across the Mall to Smithsonian Station, then down the escalator before the bad weather hits.  I have to get back to Virginia as soon as possible, before the ice.  I don’t mind the rain, a light rain, and I could use the furled umbrella as a cane just for that distance, for balance mostly.  I wouldn’t put my whole weight on it, and I would get it back to you Monday or Tuesday as good as new, or as good as whatever it was.  I can leave a deposit.”

   “I had five umbrellas this morning,” she said, “some of them in the bin since October, but they were all claimed half an hour ago.  Not surprising, but you’d think the men would at least offer some kind of explanation when they come up to you for the umbrella, something more than ‘I think it was black,’ at least say something that takes other possibilities into account in case all the black ones were already gone, something like, ‘I think it was black, unless it was my wife’s’—they’re usually men and certainly dressed well enough--  ‘so it could be hers and red or plaid, or maybe the collapsible kind that fits in a tote bag or in a purse.’   But no, not the men.  For them it’s just ‘black, I think it was black.’  I don’t know why I let them get away with it, and someday I just won’t.  If you check your hat and coat, I suppose I could let you look in the bin.  It’s free for the hat and coat, but I give you a slip with a number on it.  Two slips if it’s a hat and coat.  At least you have a hat, such as it is, and as you can see, there are no hats on the shelf.  They went along with the umbrellas.”

   He had his topcoat off quickly and watched her hang it up and place the hat on the empty shelf.  She pulled the bin from behind the coat rack.

    “Let me guess,” she said, and lifted up a long aluminum cane with a hand grip in the middle of the pole and an arm support cuff farther up.  “I have three of these, so you wouldn’t be breaking up a pair.  With these, most people need two of them.”

   “No, that is not my cane,” he said.  “That could not possibly be my cane.”

   “How about this one?”  She held up a plain wooden cane, polished oak with a curved handle and a pink rubber tip.

   “Let me see that other one that was next to it, the dark one with the straight handle.  That looks like my cane.”

   “I don’t think so, sir.  It’s from New Zealand, a Maori cane.”

   “How in the world could you know that?”

   “This is the National Gallery.”

   “It looks like my cane.  I can tell from the carving.” 

   He reached over and pulled it from the bin. 

   “This is mine all right, and thank you for keeping it.  I picked it up in Auckland when I was in the Navy sailing around the world on an aircraft carrier, the Enterprise, the Big E.  It’s a nuclear carrier.  And this is for you.”

   He put a twenty-dollar bill on the counter.

   “I couldn’t possibly take that,” she said.  “Besides, this is a chief’s cane, an artifact.  I can’t let you have it.  You don’t look like a Maori chief to me, and I’ll have to call the guard over.”

   ”But I’m a chief’s son, an honorary son.  I was adopted by a Maori chief when I was in the Navy.  It’s a religious ceremony that lasts about hour, followed by a feast on the beach that goes on all night.  Five courses.  Mostly seafood, swordfish steaks on an open fire, fresh vegetables they grow themselves—it’s the British influence—and then—would you believe it—plum pudding and hard sauce, one whole pudding doused in brandy and flaming for each person.  And the dancing—rather indecorous if you know what I mean, but great fun-- the native outfits, the masks, the drums, a primal, bang up carnival.  And the singing—like cathedral choirs turned inside out-- that beautiful choral singing of the Maoris.  You’ve never heard anything so gorgeous.  I goes on all night, and as dawn breaks over the waves, they walk along the beach and sing aubades—songs to one’s beloved—before retiring to several long huts on a hill for story telling.  They have Maori drinks, of course, but for the guests, they pass around coffee and cream along with trays of liqueurs—Amaretto, Chartreuse, Kahlua, you name it—something that started in the early nineteenth century when a French merchantman shipwrecked off the village coast.”

   “Sure, and serve up roast kiwi as well, I presume.”          

   “Oh no, never.  Kiwis are protected by New Zealand law, as well they should be, and sacred to the very Maoris I am sworn to protect-- part of the ceremony, an oath, now that I remember it, an oath right before the village priest hands you your cane.  Several officers got them.  It’s not valuable as an artifact.  They sell them in Auckland for ten dollars each, but it’s priceless to me.”

   “Ten dollars.  I doubt that, sir.”

   “But this one, I can see from the carving, might go for a hundred.”  He put four more twenties on the counter.  “It’s all I have, really, except for this five to get back on the Metro.  I have to walk across the Mall and get on at the Smithsonian.  I have to get back to Virginia as soon as possible.  My wife is recently home from the hospital and expecting me, and our daughter will be there too.  She’s about your age, flying in from overseas.  She’s in the service, drives a truck, gets shot at all the time, two tours now, and she has three days leave.  That’s all they give her.  Can you believe it?  And tonight there will be ice.”    

   She smiled at him again, took the money, and fetched his coat off the rack.

   “This is better,” she said, helping him on with the coat, “better for both of us.”

   With the cane, he got back to the courtyard and all the way across the Mall to the station.  Riding down the escalator, he realized he had forgotten his hat on the West Wing shelf, but he was glad of it.  When he stepped off the escalator, he could feel the station pavement under his feet and the vibration of the next train as it drew to a stop.  The doors opened, and he stepped into the car without using the cane.

   By now there were plenty of empty seats, but he decided to stand in the luggage corner for the first few stops and through the Potomac tunnel.  A young man wearing gym clothes and running shoes in the seat across the aisle looked up from a small, plum -colored device he held in the palm of his hand. 

   “Nice cane,” the young man said.

   “I just got it today.  I don’t really need it, but it’s an artifact worth having.”

   “I can see that,” the young man said, and went back to his device, prodding it repeatedly with his thumbs.

   Clement rested the cane on his shoulder and held on to the steel car pole in front of him.  As the train lurched forward, he leaned toward the young man.

   “Some days, though, I would be a three-legged creature without any walking stick,” he said, thinking of the elder lady who had helped him stand up.  Then he realized he had just made an obscene joke at his own expense, that he had in fact become something he fully deserved to be, and someone Nina, whom he still loved, could not help but ridicule. 

   But the young man did not seem to hear him, and the three-legged creature thought he might as well sit down.  The train, he remembered, would stop several times before crossing under the river, and a number of times above ground before reaching its terminus.  From there, he would have more walking to do before getting to his car, and once behind the wheel he faced yet more time on the road before reaching home.  It would be slow going because of the rain, possible sleet, but at least it was Sunday night, he told himself, and the traffic would be light.

 

 

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George McLoone grew up in Arizona but has lived mainly in Northern Virginia and worked there as an academic and writer. He is a graduate of Georgetown University, married, and has three daughters. His recent publications include fiction in Pulse Literary Journal, Northwind, Alfie Dog, and The Northern Virginia Review.


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Photo by and adapted from Kevin Dooley

 

                                                                                                                                 

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