ary had screwed me again. Despite all the hours of research, countless drafts just to fine-tune the artistic analysis, and hectic, message-trading phone calls to triple-check and nail down obscure details, not to mention the incorporation of original, well-written perspective into each and every sentence, Mary was not going to include my placards or introductory comments in the Bedfalls Museum’s biggest ever fall show.
“This just isn’t what I’m looking for, Spencer,” she said.
Her seemingly offhanded comment was not unexpected. I pretty much knew that Mary, the museum’s executive director, would consider the kind of writing I had done for the exhibit as too harsh, too esoteric, too art journal obscure. I had heard it all before.
But I was better prepared to argue my case this time around. Mary, who considers someone worldly if he goes on a two-week packaged tour to Paris every year, likes to invoke the needs of “society-at-large” into her arguments. I knew exactly how I was going to respond to that comment this time.
“But Mary,” I pleaded, “Will you just let me explain my thinking, because if you hear what I have to say, I think you will reconsider.”
Mary frowned while flipping through the placards, shaking her head from side to side.
“Spencer, look, I think you are forgetting, you know, society-at-large. We’re here for everyone—society-at-large. Your writings, and this is not a new thing—they’re too esoteric. I think you are missing the point, and so the things you write, if we used them, would make our visitors and patrons miss the point. And Spencer, it’s not just me here—all of us here at the museum have a responsibility to get this stuff right.”
“For society-at-large?” I asked, doing my best to sound respectful.
“Exactly,” said Mary, giving me the smile she probably displays when she feels like she’s actually getting through to her teenage daughter.
“But Mary, I totally agree with you,” I said, ready to pounce on her argument. “We do have a responsibility, and that’s why it’s important that we educate beyond the standard, that we introduce new arguments and different viewpoints into the readily accepted understanding of the art and the context...”
“Spencer...,” she interrupted me as she looked at her watch. “I have a lunch appointment, so I have to go, and you know, now that I have to handle the placards, not to mention the introductory commentary, I am really pressed for time. We’ll save this talk for another time.”
She handed me back the sample placards—I hadn’t just turned in the writing on regular old paper, but went so far as to mock them up, properly formatted, just as they would appear on the museum walls—and briskly walked out of her office, leaving me to stare into the framed Norman Rockwell print on her wall—the only piece of art hanging in her office. I was just about to leave when I noticed some paperwork that had been hurriedly thrown into a file folder, lying precariously on the corner of her desk. I turned to see that Mary had indeed left, and then took a peek at the papers.
Inside the folder was unmistakably copy for the work she had assigned to me—apparently under false pretenses—and that I had just labored over for weeks. Flipping each page more violently to the back of the stack, it was all too clear that Mary had already done the work, all of it featuring her signature lack of originality, not to mention her pathetic, amateurish, blasé, run-of-the-fucking-mill variation of curator-speak that might as well have said, “This painting is neato, double neat, cool. What pretty colors, which are used so very, very effectively! And boy it sure had impact on the art of the day!” This shit was definitely for society-at-large. Not a single fucking original thought. It was the Encyclopedia Britannica version of exhibit text.
I tossed the papers onto her desk. It would be obvious that I had read them, but I didn’t care. I walked out of her office, slamming the door shut, and walked down the hall, roof leak stains in every corner, the cracks in the walls hidden by posters from past exhibits. I put my fist to the wall near the poster for “The Summer Flowers of Bedfalls” exhibit.
I threw open the doors which connected the back offices to the museum’s gallery. The museum, which in its earlier life had been the Bedfalls Senior Citizens Community Center, featured a one room gallery space the size of banquet hall, with fold-out windows just below the ceiling running the length of all four walls. Those windows forced the art pieces to be hung noticeably lower to the ground, and they also made it impossible to control the light. There was always talk of walling them up, but due to budget issues, it never really went past the complaining phase. The museum was not sophisticated enough to worry about environmental controls, so that issue was never brought up, despite the strong salty presence of the ocean in the air.
As the assistant curator, my duties included hanging the actual art, something that assistant curators in bigger museums in bigger cities delegated to the person who oversees the crew who hangs the art. Getting my hands dirty used to make me feel like I was really getting to the bare bones of the art world, learning everything from the ground up. But it’s just lackey work. I am just a lackey in a nothing museum in a nowhere town.
Bedfalls isn’t much more than a coastal town people pass through on their way between LA and San Francisco, that is, if they make the mistake of taking the longer, supposedly scenic route between the two major California hubs. Lacking spacious beaches, Bedfalls never took off as a summer destination spot, and became best known for the nudist colonies that popped up in the late 50s. Several of the colonies are still going strong, but because they cater to older, retired folks, there’s zero titillation involved. There’s more of a cringe factor when the colonies come up. Most locals pretend like they don’t exist, even though they know exactly where they are located.
The museum once tried to showcase an exhibit of photographs documenting the history and current status of the nudist colonies, but that got shot down in the development phase. Mayor Buster, who was on the board of the Museum, not to mention one of the museum’s major benefactors, said an exhibit like that could bring the whole town down. Buster was his first name, which he demanded that people call him, as long as they also preceded it by his title of Mayor. During his talk about bringing the town down, you would have thought the museum was trying to mount a show featuring nude shots of underage teens. He went on for almost two hours, so long in fact, that there wasn’t time for anyone to mount a counter argument. Not that anyone would have said anything anyway. It would have fallen to Mary, and she knew that the number one priority of her job was to keep Mayor Buster happy.
Mary’s lapse in judgment in proposing a nudist colony exhibit at a board meeting is the one positive thing that I’ve always clung to when I just didn’t think I could tolerate working for her anymore. Yes, she had the painted on smile of political fund raiser, a salesman’s gift for getting everything she wants while making you think you are getting the better end of the deal, and nothing more in the way of art education than what she picked up designing the interiors of her husband’s car dealerships, but God damnit, she wanted to do an exhibit on the nudist colonies—an absolutely terrific idea, full of possibilities. This little historical bit about Mary wasn’t much, but since teaching arts and crafts at either the new senior citizen facility or the various day care centers located throughout the town were the only other art-related jobs available in Bedfalls, it was good enough for me. Or at least it had been, up until this point.
The new exhibit—a series of Andy Warhol silk-screened self-portraits that hadn’t been seen since the Factory days—was a very big deal for the Bedfalls Museum, and, obviously, for Mary as well. Granted, the Warhol self-portraits were not rare “lost paintings”—they were clearly cataloged and had never left storage because no one had ever wanted to show them. The pieces in the series were unremarkable—copies of copies of his own copied work, which Warhol most likely only touched when he blessed them with his signature. Nonetheless, Mary had to work hard to bring them to Bedfalls. For years, the Warhol people just ignored her. She persisted, however, despite the minor humiliations along the way—At one point she was told that Warhol’s work showed better in the warehouse than it ever would in the Bedfalls Museum. But the rejection just made Mary try even harder, until she was finally able to land some Warhol works for an exhibit—she didn’t care what the works were, just that they were signed by Warhol. I don’t think she even liked Warhol’s art, or even thought about it much. She just always dreamed of mounting a Warhol exhibit, the seeds of which were probably laid years ago when she first started seeing magazine photos of the parties at The Factory and Studio 54.
For four years I had worked under Mary. During most of that time, my main concern was making sure she actually got the exact sandwich that she ordered for lunch. But eventually I began to take on more responsibility, or at least tried to, anyway. The focus became turning in work that Mary would like, only to be told, time and time again, “This just isn’t what I’m looking for, Spencer.” I tried so hard to attain Mary’s approval that I started to lose touch with my own sensibilities—I didn’t formulate opinions based on anything other than the whimsical calibration of what Mary might want.
The work I did for the Warhol exhibit was in response to the realization that I had completely set aside my own instincts. It was about one thing: to find within myself that which I had lost: to look at art and write it all down, every thought and feeling; to fully explain it without providing all the answers; to reveal intricacies without destroying the mystery; to critique without passing an ultimate judgement; and to guide without leading to a final destination. The Warhol exhibit was my shot to get all that back. In the end, of course, it just wasn’t what Mary was looking for, and so I was right back where I started, again. Finding myself in this place had become a regular occurrence, no matter how hard I worked to get ahead. But the time it took to unclench my jaw and loosen my fingers out of tightly balled up fists, to ease my shoulders back and let out a long, deep breath—that was different. It just didn’t happen this time.
Six years out of school, $43,000 in debt for an MFA in art history that I needed to get and never truly believed in, and I’m still doing the work I did as an art gallery intern. All my ass-kissing and brown-nosing and extra efforts have been for nothing. For God’s sake, I thought to myself, Something has to change.
I look out on the space, so overwhelming when the walls are mostly bare and no one else is around. Several of the pieces are already up for the big exhibit, but there’s still lots of work that needs to get done. I think of the placards that I will have to hang, the placards that won’t contain my writing. The hard work of stenciling the exhibit commentary onto the entrance wall that will not include a single word that I wrote. I want to leave right now, but instead, I go pick up the hammer and get back to work. I pound the nails harder than necessary, but God damnit, everything will be even. The pieces may look like they’re too close to the ground, but they will be perfectly aligned and absolutely, positively, perfectly straight.
* * *
I smelled the billowing aroma of Indian food the second I opened the front door to the apartment building. By the time I reached the third floor and was standing in front of our apartment, I was practically overpowered by the scent of piping hot cumin.
I put my key in, jerked the knob to the right and shoved the door forward. “Fucking Dal again?” I threw the door back, slamming it shut. “Fuck!”
Meena spun around just enough so that I could see her evil eyes zero in on me, then pointed out, with a violent hand thrust, that she was on the phone.
I threw my bag down, and Meena started writing on a bright pink Post-it note. Always with the God damn Post-it notes. The fucking pink ones.
She held up the pad and I saw the word “Mother” in all caps.
Meena’s also always on the phone with her mother, or so it seems, anyway.
“Okay Mom,” she says. “Okay. Okay. Okay Mom.”
“Holy fuckin’ Christ,” I say, not quite under my breath, secretly hoping her mother can hear me. I go into the bedroom and slam the door shut. The papers on my desk, notes and drafts for the exhibit, go flying all over. On the wall are postcards of Warhol prints that I had recently been collecting. I walk over and start yanking them down. The thumbtacks are flying everywhere.
Meena throws open the door and shouts “What the fuck is your problem?”
“Jesus, nothing, get the fuck out of here,” I seethed back, crouched over, looking for stray thumbtacks. “Can’t you see that I’m working?”
She just stood there at the door, arms folded over. She was wearing her gray sweats, the same ones she always wore around the house. They made her look doughy, heavier than she really was. She had to know that. I hated how she always threw the sweats on the second she got home.
“And why were you on the phone with your mother, huh?”
“For your information, I was inviting her to the opening of your fall show.”
On all fours, I just stared down at one of the thumbtacks, its point facing straight up. I wanted to slam my hand right down on top of it.
“Well that’s just fuckin’ great,” I shouted.
Meena walked back into the kitchen. She went back to stirring the dal, swirling the wooden spoon with too much velocity. Food was getting splashed all over the stove.
I knew why she had turned and walked away. She didn’t want to have the same conversation we’ve been having for years. There wasn’t really anything more to say, nothing that we haven’t said before in these all too typical fights over nothing. The fact that the same things kept coming up just made us angrier. She was better about walking away. I always walked right into it.
“Did you hear me?” I shouted as I walked towards the kitchen. “Cause that’s just fuckin’ great!”
“Listen, Spencer, forget it, okay? We won’t go.”
“I don’t think I’ll be going either.”
“We were just trying to support you—I know how hard you’ve been working on the exhibit.”
“See!” I said, raising my voice again. “See, you just don’t listen.”
She went back to stirring the dal. It was burbling and splattering all over the place. I could see it on the sleeve of her sweatshirt. She never washed that thing. I’d be seeing those stains for weeks on end now.
“I’m going to quit… This time I really am.”
She used to ask me, “What happened? Are you okay?” Now it was a disinterested, dismissive, “What happened this time?”
“Nothing… Nothing happened. That’s the problem. Nothing ever happens. I’m seeing my God damn life pass before my eyes and nothing is happening. I wake up, go to work, suck it up with Mary all day long, come home, listen to you blather on with your idiot mother, try to shovel more dal down my throat, and then, at the end of it all, you’re standing there in your fucking sweat pants asking me, What happened this time? So that’s what happened—what always happens—Totally fucking nothing.”
* * *
Crawling into bed, later that night, I stepped on one of the thumbtacks. I didn’t even yell, just threw my back towards the bed, foot in the air.
“Fucking thumbtack,” I hissed, as I pulled it out and tried to squeeze the pain away. Little droplets of blood fell onto the bed, streaking into jagged lines as I tried to wipe them away. I knew we should have gotten a darker colored comforter cover, but Meena wanted white. She always got her way.
“Serves you right,” whispered Meena, a hint of pity in her tone, as she tucked the comforter under her shoulder and turned away from me.
* * *
The night before the opening, I stayed at the museum late—nothing out of the ordinary there. But on this particular night, aside from having to take care of all the last minute details—clearing out a closet so we could use it as the coat room, for example, I was making a point of being the last one to leave. I had a plan.
It came to me while working on the placards—That’s right—I didn’t get to write them, but I still had to do the dirty work—format them to size, go through a series of edits made by Mary (who had absolutely no qualms about sending back her own work, stained in red ink, five, six, even ten times), and at the end of it all, place them next to the art, carefully spaced and perfectly straight. But it wasn’t the work that got to me. It was having to read her horrible words over and over again. As I bare-knuckled my way through the clichés and total lack of original thought, alternating between totally spacing out and blazing red hot fury, the plan unfolded itself in my mind as if it was supposed to happen that way all along.
So when I was sure that everyone had left, I put my plan into action. Being there so late, all alone, I could hear quite clearly the orchestral creaks and groans of the old building at rest. I thought of it as a secretive applause, one that couldn’t be too loud in fear that others might hear.
I carefully hung the placards, making sure they were perfectly straight and exactly 4.75 inches from the art. Except instead of using the placards with Mary’s text, I hung a second set which brandished the words I had written and Mary had rejected. That would be enough to get me fired, but I sealed the deal with one particular placard, a newly inspired statement that I believed perfectly captured both the Warhol series and the spirit of the Bedfalls exhibit. I hung that placard next to the Warhol painting on the center wall—which by default of its positioning made it the exhibit’s showcase piece.
It read, simply: “Andy Warhol was a pussy.”
* * *
I was on my third glass of champagne by the time word finally got to Mary. From across the room I saw a well-dressed, older gentleman tap Mary on the shoulder and then point towards the showcase Warhol piece. Mary’s winning, toothy grin shined up her own face, shadows cresting in the cavernous regions of her endless, rigid cheekbones. She was clearly basking in the glow of her accomplishment—bringing 10 Andy Warhol silk-screened self-portraits to the Bedfalls Museum. Flashes of light glimmered off her swinging, oversized silver earrings.
It would be a long, quiet ride home. I seemed to hit every red light, and never before had I paid such close attention to the colors of the lights clicking their way from green to yellow to red, as if the preceding color was folding its hued glow into the next. I had never noticed how bright that red light shined itself into the darkness, how natural it was to just hit the brakes and wait until the light turned green, without even looking up. I took this in at every intersection, looking deeper into the lights at each stop. My God, it was taking forever, I said to myself. These red lights are going to keep me from ever getting home.
Then the man, who had a deep red, silk handkerchief in his pocket, leaned in close and whispered in her ear. Mary’s smile collapsed. Her lips pursed themselves together so tight that if any blood was left, there would be bruising for sure. The tension in her neck must have locked her head in place, but her squinting eyes began to scan the room, already filled up with Bedfalls’ most fabulous, most of the women dressed in low-cut black cocktail dresses—the kind you’d find in the sales racks of big city department stores, and simple gray suits, some older than me—for the men. Mary’s earrings had stopped swinging, but the dance of light revealed a slight quaking.
As soon as our eyes met, Mary headed directly towards me. Her knees hardly broke into angles, and her arms were firmly at her sides. Her clenched fists were the only thing to give off a hint of her fury, but it was enough. If she had been a man, I would have made a run for it.
She stopped herself squarely in front of me, just inside the normal amount of space two people keep between each other when conversing. I certainly wasn’t going to congratulate her on the exhibit, but I had to say something.
“Nice earrings, Mary.”
She just stood there. My wife was looking at me, and her mother was looking at her daughter. It was obvious that something wasn’t right, and in moments like that, you look to the person you know best for answers. I was looking down.
Finally, Mary spoke.
I slowly brought my head up and looked directly into her eyes.
“Okay Mary,” I said. “Okay.”
She turned and walked over to her assistant, who immediately bee-lined over to the “Andy Warhol was a pussy” placard and eased it off the wall. No one even noticed. They were too busy looking at the art. Mary was already smiling again, laughing on cue to the group that had quickly gathered around her.
Meena was still starting at me, but I couldn’t bear to meet her gaze. I could see that her mother was caressing her shoulder with her hand, gently pushing her in the direction of the exit. Her mother spoke in gestures, something that Meena had definitely inherited. It occurred to me as I walked out that no hand had reached out for mine, that no one was guiding me.