February 24, 2006

The Museum of the Obscure Local Artist

Two girls chased each other around the fat deep-shading oaks on the grounds of the museum of the obscure local artist. They almost ran into the tall, straight–backed woman with the flowing white hair and floor-length green dress, whom they hadn’t noticed enter the gate.

“Oops, sorry!” They giggled and drew back as if she were an obstacle in the game, like one of the trees.

Her smile, as she looked around at the bright-bladed hilly lawn and the small tan stucco building, had a radiance in it that seemed to pull her head higher, as if she were aiming herself upward into the sky. “Such a joy to come back here. Isn’t this the loveliest place in town?”

“Yeah, as long as you don’t look at the art.”

She blanched—straightened even more. “Surely she was a gifted, accomplished—?”

“No one’s ever heard of her, so what’s the museum for?”

“Yet she taught students?”

More laughter. “Yeah, we saw their stuff too.”

“But surely “—she was beginning to stammer out the syllables—“surely the community feels enriched by this temple to the muses. A place to introduce the young to the wholesome pursuit of art—to cultivate a taste for beauty, a sense of the sublime… “ The voice shaking. “Surely her name deserves to live?”

The girls were rolling their eyes at each other, and having to remind themselves that they were well brought up. The older one approached confidingly. “The guard in there was telling us how she got to have a museum? ‘Cause she came from a rich family and she was the mayor’s girlfriend. When she died she left all this money to the city for a museum just for her.”

The woman’s hand was on her heart, her chest heaving, her eyes wet and pink. “The guard told you that? This is what we pay for? I shall speak with him this minute.”

And she rushed up the hilly lawn with gliding steps that never revealed her feet under the long green dress.

When she was gone, the two girls laughed hilariously, and when they chased each other again, they imitated the lady’s voice: “I shall tag you this minute! Surely you shall not escape my tag!” Panting from running and giggling at the same time, they dropped and rolled on the grass, still calling out, “What a lovely place, what a joy!”

After a minute they got curious and sneaked up to the wood-framed glass door of the museum. Inside, the gray-mustached guard was sitting alone at the little table with its small rack of dusty brochures. The girls burst in: “Wha’d she say? Did she yell at you? Do you know her? Who is she?”

Wide-eyed, the guard looked at them. The muscles of his mouth moved but his mouth did not open. His cheeks were the color of his mustache. He stared hard down the corridor where the exhibit began: no one was there.

The girls laughed and ran out: grownups were so weird.

That night the museum burned to the ground.