Alligator Pear in White Dish
If Alice were to do it, she would have to do it tonight.
Sitting at her desk, sifting through emails and paperwork, Alice let the clock run out on her workday. She walked silently through the art museum offices until the gray industrial carpet gave way to the marble floors of the modest entry hall. No school children waited to be taken through the exhibitions, no staff whizzed by, their photo I.D.’s swinging from blue lanyards. The two guards had finished their shifts. Only the sound of her footsteps filled the atrium lobby.
The museum’s trustees were safely locked inside their big houses with their big art. Their names were cut into the burnished stone of the donor wall where Alice stood in her Cole Haan flats, her reflection broken by lines of Helvetica Bold typeface. She smoothed her graying bob, then brushed away the white flecks that fell to the shoulders of her shapeless, black Jersey dress. She looked to herself more like an aging nun than an art museum director.
Alice traced the carved names with her fingertips, the sharp edges of each letter digging into her skin. In an effort to reduce expenses, the trustees had forced her to fire half of her fifteen staff members. Now, when she passed their empty offices, her chest ached, tightened. She had nurtured them, growing the interns to professionals, trusting the eyes and knowledge of her curators. She thought of them as her little family.
Although the recent economy had been bad, she blamed herself. On a conference room bulletin board, secured by clear plastic pushpins, hung a discoloured rendering for a new collections gallery that was to be Alice’s legacy, the promise of her ambitions for the museum realized in steel and glass. Fundraising for the project stalled and the plan was abandoned, but she could not bring herself to take the drawing down. The bright lines of the schematic faded and disappeared as day followed day.
The nights offered her no escape. In sleep, her jaw clenched automatically, her teeth grinding so violently that she had cracked a molar. Her dentist recommended that she wear a plastic mouth-guard to bed. The device was thick and rubbery. She couldn’t help but bite into it, hard and ceaselessly, through the long nights.
She had to do something, or she would implode.
At this hour, the museum galleries were lit only by the acid green of electric Exit signs, but Alice could have walked the spaces blindfolded. She made her way through the exhibitions, sensing each work of art—the thickly applied reds, washes of blue, dappled yellows—as a person can feel, without seeing, an open window. Her body filled the empty spaces between ceramic vessels encased in Plexiglas, a massive stoneware “X,” and constructions of reclaimed wood.
Alice arrived at the modest theatre toward the rear of the building, where rows of folding chairs had been placed in hopeful anticipation of people who would come to see this experimental film or hear that artist talk. She walked up the centre aisle to the side of the stage and unlocked the doors to three consecutive passageways. The hallway was lined with power tools and stacks of empty wooden crates. Overhead, orange electrical cords dangled, defeated. Faded banners installed near the ceiling announced past exhibitions, the graphic designs sadly out of date.
Calmly, she made her way, closing and locking each door behind her until she came upon a final set of heavy double doors. Alice flipped open the white plastic cover of an alarm pad and punched in four numbers. The year of her birth, 1953, appeared immediately in the digital display.
A burst of frigid air enveloped her when she unlocked and opened the doors. She flipped a switch, flooding the concrete room with a harsh, clinical light. Metal sculptures flashed and glinted, while oil paintings gave up their luscious surfaces. Hands clasped behind her back as she paced through an array of stretched canvases hung salon-style from steel grids, Alice silently surveyed the stored collection. The very last section held the white elephants—the “X” category—bland florals, sentimental landscapes, and amateurish figure studies. Aesthetic failures were buried in this quadrant of storage, alongside undistinguished works acquired early in the museum’s life and now forgotten.
Grabbing the edge of one rack, Alice slid a nine-foot wall of paintings toward her. The casters set in a track on the floor gave a rolling whine, which ricocheted off the hard surfaces. Between an awkwardly painted portrait of the museum’s founder and a mawkish seascape hung a small, unframed canvas the size of an ordinary letter. Alice came upon the work years before, retreating from her office in the wake of a since-forgotten frustration to the solitary consolations of refrigerated art. She spent time in the vault perusing not only the great works but also the neglected ones. Surrounding herself with things that demanded nothing of her was her form of meditation.
Something about the painting—an image of a brown-green avocado, resting in a white pedestal bowl, set in an ivory ground—had struck Alice as familiar. She recognized the lack of artifice, the confident hand, and the halo-like glow that emanated from the elemental forms.
Alice spent hours at research confirming her intuition. Trained as an art historian, she welcomed the chance to use her skill after years managing budgets and boards. She kept her discovery a secret, hoping to premiere the work as the centrepiece of the aborted collections gallery - a hidden jewel buried in the museum’s holdings.
Although the painting was not hers, she owned its discovery. Months passed. Years. The painting had taken root in her mind, burrowed into her subconscious, the last image before sleep, and the first upon waking.
Alice pulled a pair of thin, white cotton gloves from a box that dispensed them like Kleenex. Tugging on one, then the other, she flexed her fingers until they filled the flimsy tips. Gently, she steadied one edge of the painting with her left hand while releasing the hanging wire on from a single, S-shaped metal hook with her right.
Lying face up on the metal table, the painting looked naked, vulnerable. Alice gazed at the soft circles, one resting in the other. Her heart began to beat faster, and goose flesh rose on her forearms. For a second, she saw the face of a man she once loved, felt his breath, held his hand in hers. Yes, she remembered. Art could still do this to her.
Alice found a shallow box under the worktable, lined it with crinkled glassine, and placed the painting in the waxy paper nest. She shot a glance to the corners of the ceiling then remembered there were no security cameras. She told herself that something invisible could never really be missed.
Moving quickly, Alice slid the painting rack back in its place, then removed her gloves and threw them in the trash. She locked the doors and traced her steps back through the passageways to a side exit. She waited while the alarm system ran through its paces. Cradling the white box in her arms, she paused for a moment to look at the museum. The building looked flat, lifeless, common.
She turned, walked to her car, and drove away.
In the safety of her apartment, Alice removed the painting from its container and propped it against the wall atop a chest of drawers. She lay in bed, staring at the round forms within round forms, until she fell asleep on top of the covers.
That night she slept soundly. She dreamed about him. In her dream she held their unborn child in her arms, then in her palm.
Simple. Complete. Perfect.
Georgianna de la Torre
Georgianna de la Torre writes fiction and nonfiction, and divides her time between San Francisco and rural Oahu. She has also had a career as a museum director and consultant.
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