The Midwest |


by Jeff Waxman

They stand in doorways and in corners, leaning against walls in practiced poses of authoritative nonchalance. Their hands are crossed at the wrist behind their backs or across their buttoned blazers. Their jaws flex rhythmically and their closed mouths stretch and strain as they roll flavorless rubber around their hot mouths. There’s no noise in the museum except for the arcing of electricity in the decades-old track lighting and constant even footsteps across warped wooden floors. Dale bobs into sight, short and squinting, moving fast. Pete glances at him and sniffs disdainfully. He stands at attention, his eyes on the door and his hand on the gleaming chrome counter that he clicks each time someone enters the museum. It reads 0004; there are four guards. In the break room, Leslie leans back in his chair, his red eyes on the black-and-white security monitor where Herb practices his solitary waltz in a basement gallery. The old man seems almost to float, his tiny blazer loose on his sagging narrow shoulders and a stray wisp of hair swirling about his head. Leslie watches him whirl and twirl and his eyes start to close. Before they do, they fix for a moment on the green digital display on the microwave. He only has ten minutes before he has to go back out into the empty galleries. He sinks lower in his chair and shuts his eyes. Pete glares at the counter for a moment before returning his gaze to the entrance. Pete’s neat beard is gray and there’s something military in his bearing. His voice, like his countenance, is rough and dry, gravelly and grave; everything about him rasps. Dale bobs into sight again, completing another of his constant laps of the museum. His blue blazer swings freely in front of his flowered tie and green shirt. His lank ponytail is high, tight in a small purple scrunchie. “H’lo Pete, h’lo, what’s the . . . uh, what’s the count s’far t’day? How many we got?” Dale’s talent for abbreviating words, slurring them, mispronouncing them, and repeating them is profound. When he’s not walking his endless circuits, he vibrates and sways in place, his eyes beady behind greasy lenses and nervously twisting his fingers. Pete holds the counter out to him and Dale stops rocking to read it. “Four? I haven’t seen any four. I haven’t seen nobody in the middle galleries where I been.” Pete shrugs and says nothing. Pete looks away before he speaks in his deep dry whisper. “Maybe you’d of seen someone if you didn’t spend your entire shift in the washroom.” “Y’ know that I don’t spend my whole shift in the bathroom and that I walk the galleries and I know y’know that. I know y’know that. And y’know that I work as hard as anyone here and sometimes durin’ my shift I just gotta, you know, I just gotta go. There’s no rule against that and y’know that. Y’know that I do my job.” Pete says nothing because he has nothing to say. Instead, he sniffs, then hacks and brings up a thick wad of mucous. He swallows it. Leslie’s break is over and he is still asleep. His legs stretch across the floor and his dark ponytail dangles heavily over the back of his chair. In his breast pocket, a pack of cigarettes rises and falls with each laborious, shuddering breath. Suddenly he sits up and looks at the time. Cussing under his breath, he heaves himself to his feet, his head rising just over seven feet and his pained scowl blanketed by his dark beard. He lumbers out of the office, staggering slightly to the left as he pulls his blazer back on and straightens his tie. He clears his throat with a wet ragged cough, and then lets himself back into the galleries. As he passes Pete, he drops him a deep nod, and replaces him at the front. In the adjacent gallery, he can hear Dale making his rounds, his footsteps echoing in the emptiness. Leslie looks at the counter. It reads 0004. Dale comes around the corner and nods to Leslie. Leslie leans back against the cracking paneling of the walls and Dale passes, headed for the bathroom in the basement. In the basement, Herb could hear voices above him. Dale’s oddly high-pitched drone, humming and hovering like a weed whacker and then, quieter, Pete’s rough grumble. Herb looks down at his shoes. They are black and no one had noticed in ten years that they didn’t match, that one was a size smaller than the other and that they were different brands. No one knew that the toes were stuffed with newspaper, but anyone could see that his blue pants were three or more sizes too big. There is a distinct lump at the small of his back where he’d folded the waist over on itself and strapped it in place with a cracked black belt. His tie is a child’s clip-on that he’d painted with fabric paints until it resembled the canvases in the modern gallery upstairs. He is proud of his ties and always hoped that someone would compliment him on them. No one ever had. Herb hears Dale’s footsteps on the stairs and he steps lightly back into the Mediterranean Art gallery. Dale comes down the stairs and without even a glance toward Herb’s gallery he walks into the bathroom and shuts the door. Herb listens carefully and hears Dale’s belt buckle hit the tile floor. He listens harder and moments later Herb hears a soft grunt, then a sigh. Turning his head, he catches a glimpse of his reflection in a glass case holding an ancient amphora. Herb moves forward for a closer look. His skin is soft and slack and pale. His halo of feathery hair dances and waves in the slight draft coming from the air duct overhead. He looks into the bright eyes set in that old face and smiles roguishly, toothlessly. “You’re a handsome devil,” he whispers to his reflection. “What’s your name?” There are four guards. Pete, Dale, Herb, and Leslie. The museum is empty. Outside, it rains and they stand at their posts watching the endless drizzle as it falls on the empty flowerbeds outside. There used to be a reflecting pool out there too, but it was too hard to keep clean so it had been filled in with gravel. There is nothing outside the museum but wet dirt and gravel. The misting rain cannot wet the dirt enough to even become mud. It is beginning to clump, but the individual grains of soil are still distinguishable from one another and Leslie knows that if he looks close enough he would be able to see the beads of water gathering on each grain of dirt. Gathering but not soaking. At the front entrance, Leslie cannot remember the last visitor. That’s stupid, he chastises himself. There must have been others, before him and since him. Otherwise, why us? Why have people guard an empty museum every day? Why have men stand in silence in empty rooms for hours on end, all for the sake of the pictures on the walls, pictures no one comes to see? There must have been others at some point. People who came to take in the beauty of ancient pottery and wild modern paintings. People who came to study the severe expressions of the fifteenth-century Dutch portraits and Murillo’s huge Spanish Christ. There had to have been some, right? But Leslie cannot remember any and Pete comes back from break to stand again by the front desk, his arms crossed over his blazer and his hand curled around the chrome counter that read 0004. They nod to each other and Leslie retreats back into the museum, back into the deeper galleries that are hung with Rembrandts and Copleys and God-knows-who-else. A wire snaps and a painting falls off the wall. It hits the floor with a crash and lies face down. Leslie doesn’t flinch at the noise and he knows without looking that it is the Rothko. It’s worth more than he will make in a month, a year, his career. It’s ugly and orange and looks like hell without purpose. Hell without purpose. How is it worth more than his time? he wonders, letting his red-rimmed eyes rest on the thin wooden frame. How is one painting worth more than a man’s life? He walks over and looks down at the nearly flat, framed canvas lying on the floor. Leslie picks it up and leans it against the wall. Hell without purpose; it was called “Orange #19.” Probably because it was Orange. Leslie assumes that there were at least eighteen other ugly orange paintings hanging in empty galleries all over the world. He looks at it until his eyes burn. Hell without purpose. Dale flushes the toilet and leaves his stall. He feels distinctly lighter for all of his efforts and there is an extra bounce in his step as he walks to the sink. He passes his hairy hands briefly under the water, smoothes back his ponytail with his dripping fingers, and bobs out the door. Passing a gallery, he glances in. Herb is strutting through the Mediterranean Gallery, his delicate cloud of hair streaming behind him and a beatific smile on his face. “Sayhey, Herb, HERB!” Herb disappears around the corner without answering. Crazybastard, Dale thinks. He is already moving again, bouncing up the stairs and giving a small smile to Pete at the front desk. “I’m going to, uh, start the lock-up. I’mjest lettin’ y’know sothat youdon’t think I’m doin’ somethin’ else oranything. What’s the count fer’t’day?” Pete looks at the counter as though he hasn’t been holding it for eight hours, as though he didn’t already know what it said. As though he hasn’t memorized the three zeros and the number four. He glances up at Dale and holds up four fingers. “Jus’four? Jus’ us? All day?” “Just us,” Pete rumbles. “Just four.” “Huh, how’s about that—jus’ four…” Dale is still mumbling to himself as he bobs off into the galleries. “Jus’ four.” Pete twists the little knob on the side to turn it back to zero. It clicks, but the tiny tumblers inside still read 0004. He shrugs and puts it down on the front desk. All day there had been four people in the museum, four guards. The day before, there had been four people in the museum (four guards) and every day before that that Pete could remember. Pete drops the counter into the trash beneath the desk. He opens a drawer and removes a small cardboard box. From it, he takes a new chrome counter. For tomorrow.