Excerpt from Still Life with Razorby Tom Helleberg
In November 1996, Toronto art student Jubal Brown vomited blueberry yogurt, blue Jell-O, and blue icing onto Piet Mondrian’s Composition in Red, White and Blue at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Under interrogation in the MoMA basement, Brown told police detectives and museum officers that his act was the second installment in a three-part protest against “oppressively trite and painfully banal art.” He confessed that he had previously vomited tomato sauce on a Dufy in Ontario and that he planned to do it again, soon as he found a work that would take a splash of banana baby food and tapioca pudding. Brown claimed he was so nauseated by the Mondrian that he didn’t have to induce vomiting, for example, “by sticking his finger down his throat.”
That was 1996. Eight years later, on a Tuesday afternoon, I met Claire Rossi in the Brooklyn Museum. I’d gone to the museum alone and planned to spend the afternoon in the Egyptian collection. That’s come out wrong, like some half-baked alibi, but it’s true. I spend a lot of time in museums, even if there’s nobody around to vouch for my story. Part of it is that I’ve got time to kill, but it’s also because I enjoy it, because it makes that time’s passing more peaceful. I like the shady arcades of the Cloisters or an empty Met hallway at noon on a Tuesday in February. I like to hear a foot scuff the fine corrugations of the chiseled floorstones and, after, the echo resonant to three repetitions in the institutional quiet. I like the museum light, like an echo itself, falling soft and indirect on every surface. You rarely see a sunbeam or the shimmer of airborne dust, but there’s always that light, filling the corridors up, tangible as liquid in a pitcher. I like the possibility of finding a student at work, an amateur anatomist with a charcoal scalpel and a sketchbook thick with studies. Sometimes, I even like the feel of the MoMA or the Guggenheim, but the sound of feet falling on their short carpet or thin linoleum doesn’t really grab me the same way. Usually I go sliding right over their overpolished surfaces like fluorescent light dribbling off a cuibicle wall. I like rough edges: wood and stone and surfaces that will snag a sweater or put a run in a stocking.
But atmosphere only goes so far. If I went to museums only for their sleek or musty charms, the novelty would have worn off years ago. There’s the work, but there’s also this other thing that happens, an action and reaction, between me and the work. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens often enough. I’ll find a piece like Sanford Schwartz, and I’ll be taken. Just like an asprin or a chessman. Taken. Swallowed up. Removed from the world.
A painting will do this, a sculpture in the round, even a 1963 Jaguar XKE parked on a giant turntable in the center of an exhibition on industrial design. Anything can trigger an episode. I’ll pass a piece, half-looking, and some detail will impose itself on me. With the Jag, it was the oval chrome fitting around the right headlamp. With Tansey’s Bricoleur’s Daughter, it was the short skirt and that point of transition where the girl’s thigh just begins to become buttock. I know. Repulsive. She’s probably not even fourteen. But it isn’t like I have a say in the matter. Some detail will hook me. I’ll get caught on a headlamp or a skirt and then I won’t be able to help myself. I’ll notice the vents notched like gills into the soap-smooth hood. I’ll notice the girl’s sneakers, maybe Nikes, and that she wears no socks. If the episode has progressed this far, it will run its course. If I were an epileptic, this is the point where some considerate person would call an ambulance and maybe try to stuff my wallet between my teeth.
This particular Tuesday, I didn’t go in looking for an episode. Like I said, I went in for the Egyptian collection. Instead, I got Sanford Schwartz and Claire and that’s what happened to the day.
It was Schwartz first. I live in Manhattan, but I’m at the Brooklyn enough to know the regulars and that this guy, standing in a corner just off the Cantor Gallery, wasn’t one of them. There was no special exhibition, and I think he belonged in the Katz collection up at Colby College. It was as though he too had a free afternoon, had snuck away from wherever he was supposed to be, and we’d run into each other like a couple of old friends meeting on the street, on the train, or in a quiet corner of a weekday museum.
Schwartz was a life-size portrait, done up on heavy-gauge sheet aluminum and then cut out and propped upright on a stand. Katz has done a few similar, you’ve seen them, but there are none quite like this character Schwartz. When Katz cut the figure out, he didn’t cut along the perimeter of the man. He went one further and sliced Sanford from ankles to deltoids on both sides. The result, the object that stood before me on a plexiglas base, was a six-foot paper doll who’d given both arms and most of his right leg to the tin snips. A man about my height who, but for a fractional inch of metal, was entirely two-dimensional and broad across the shoulders as a six-year-old girl. Insubstantial though he was, Schwartz was architectural. He stood in his corner of the gallery like a skyscraper, like Cleopatra’s Needle in aluminum.
There was no single detail about Sanford that drew me in. No headlamp, no skirt. It was instead the general impression of looking at a close relative. We stood the same, for one thing. Neither of us had the flatfooted warrior’s stance or the contrapposto of the athlete at rest. We were nowhere near so solid. We were both of us half leaning, half falling. Me, because I would angle in close to Sanford to take in the details, then pull back for a wider perspective. Sanford because that was how he’d been made. Regardless, we weren’t clumsy. Sanford stood like a slightly nerdy Bogart, loitering in a doorway to light a cigarette and look for the leading lady across a crowded hall. He had the poise of an animal in motion or a model in a casual clothing catalog. He was in the middle of something, telling a story or studying a piece in a gallery. I liked that about him.
Also, his eyes. The real-life Schwartz wrote for the Review of Books and you could see this in the eyes of his portrait. They were leveled through his wire-framed glasses, appraising. I liked the way the oversized frames cut neat lines through his eyebrows. I liked the cut of his hair, the impenetrability of his expression, and the hand in his pocket. But most of all his critical eyes, the way they cut across the room and the way he scrutinized you back.
Sanford was interesting because he was interested.
I looked and looked. Little clusters of museum-goers came and went as I tried to figure out how Sanford had been made, how the paint had been layered and the metal cut. We were not on the Audiotour route, so most moved expediently past to the next destination. Some, interested in my interest, paused. They’d take a look at the two of us—Sanford first, then me—but there was no narrator, no one to carve the meaning out and serve it up in a few concise sentences. So they’d press play and move along, the recording buzzing on like an insect cupped under their headphones.
I’ve heard that stroke victims describe their attacks like god-blinded converts. There’s a flash of light, an illumination, and a blow like a hammer at the top of the spine. But you see it happen from the outside, there’s no hint of anything more profound than a little facial droop and a string of drool. Now, I’m no full-time rock-and-slobber case, but the way these Audiotourists stopped and stared, it must have been hard to tell whether I needed a gallery catalog or a doctor.
I don’t plan to fall into these states, but I do it or anyhow it happens. There are forces at work beyond my control. When I sink into fugue, it’s something like falling in love at age fourteen or ill at any age. Maybe, if the metaphors about love and fever are on the money, it is some kind of love. I forget things, like where I am or whether there’s someone I’m supposed to meet in the evening. At closing time, I have walked out out on a checked coat and into a January snow. I can participate in conversations during these fits, only I have no idea what I might be saying. It’s like I’ve shunted everything—not just breathing and digesting, but speech and gesture—down to some basal, lizard part of my brain so that all the higher-level processing power can be applied to my appreciation of the Bricoleur’s Daughter or my good friend Sanford. It’s the opposite of a fight-or-flight response. The essentials shut down not for survival but leisure. I trade my sense of pain for a sense of beauty.
It’s all I can do to preserve my moment with the painting and build a little pocket of silence, apart from the world, where we can talk.
Sanford, I’ll say, it’s been a dog’s age. Let’s catch up.
If it isn’t love, it must be something medical. Some art-induced ischemia or maybe just a simple chemical imbalance. Nothing quite as debilitating as Asberger’s or as self-serving as the tubercular raptures of the Romantics. Though an urn might occasionally push me over the edge, I’m no Keats. For all I think of Mondrian, I’m not even an O’Hara. Poetry just isn’t among my symptoms. My problem is mostly an inconvenience, more like narcolepsy or a lazy eye. The opposite of attention deficit disorder. A surplus of attention, a willingness to engage, to be swept up. The criteria for my diagnosis could probably be found, clearly cataloged and cross-referenced, as a footnote to some other entry in the enormous handbook of things that can go wrong with you, filed generously under “disorders of the eye, innocence.”
It can get so bad that I’ll need something to knock me out of an episode. A tour guide can ask me a question and bring me back suddenly, but it can also take time. Once, a guard rattled me out of a Stenberg-induced parasomnia and the next thing I know, I’m twenty blocks away, smoking a Camel Wide at the Lucky Deli salad bar.
But this Tuesday, it wasn’t a guard who took me away from Sanford.
It was a girl, and she wasn’t at all gentle about it. She stepped between me and Sanford like she was cutting in line. But she wasn’t looking at the aluminum figure. She was looking at me. Since she’d stepped directly in front of Sanford, I found myself looking at her the same way I’d been looking at him. Her head was thrust a little forward, two or three degrees askance. She had eyes like Sanford’s. Better. Slowly, she circled me, pausing behind my shoulder to gaze along my line of sight. Then she looped again, this time around both Sanford and me. I had no idea how long she’d been there before she stepped in, but I was getting a very good idea of her hair, bobbed not long ago, but now like an untended lawn, parted roughly near the middle. Not a lawn. A rock garden of igneous black points. She wore plastic tortoise-shell glasses, the kind fashionable with schoolteachers forty years ago, now fashionable with everybody except schoolteachers. There were long-lashed eyes behind and her high cheeks angled out into a pentagon of face that was long along the jawline.
She reached out and put two fingers, the first two, ever so gently on Sanford’s cheek, right at the corner of his acrylic eye. Her nails were painted a deep red, chipped away in places to reveal the contrasting pink of nailbed skin. She drew her hand down the face and into the hollow of neck and collar, the knuckles of her ring and pinky fingers hovering just above contact. Those long fingers turned and traced the top of the cut-out, her wrist gimbaling and her thumb running along the collarbone as she followed the line of his shoulder with the entire mechanism of her arm. Then she pinched her thumb and forefinger together and slid them along the hard edge where the aluminum had been shorn, clear from his armpit and down his ribcage and pantleg to the half heel of a brown loafer. It was like she was testing the edge of a long blade.
There was so much certainty to her touch that, even if they had seen her, there was little any guard would have done. It was gentle and caring, almost a caress.
Our eyes met, slightly and briefly, over her shoulder. She let go of Sanford and walked away, out into the Rodins of the Cantor Gallery. Her heels made a gentle tapping as she went, a dark lively figure against the dark contorted bronze. I went after her.
A dozen steps behind, I followed her into American Art. The collection ran a leisurely course around the outside of the Beaux-Arts Court, beginning with “From Colony to Nation” and ending somewhere “Beyond Modern Art.” I paused where she paused. When she would examine a piece, I would examine her. When she stopped at Handerson Thayer’s Sisters, I picked out the waveform of her ribs not just through the fabric of her white blouse, but through the tight cloth of her skin. Her vertebrae jutted like the socketed pins of her earrings. I followed them up to her head, constantly in motion as she took in all the angles.
Yes, she was a beautiful girl. She had legs and an ass, high hard breasts and all the usual things beautiful girls have. She had them, and I saw them. But though details like those had gotten me tangled up with the Bricoleur’s Daughter, I wasn’t following Claire for the rock-step sway of her hips. If there was any one thing I was following, it might have been the tips of her fingers, their delicacy and chipped nail polish and the way that they moved over the Katz. Her breasts; the small oval belly rising from the sinewy frame of pelvis and ribs; the movement of muscle in her legs, these details all came later.
I followed this girl around the floor not for her ass but her eye. We paused a moment together at Saint-Gaudens’s Lincoln and when we arrived at Luks’s Hester Street, it was her shoulder in the foreground. I trailed her into “Nonobjective Art” and watched as she strolled right up to Mark Rothko’s Vessels of Magic and punched a nail file in so far it hit the plaster behind.
But it wasn’t that sudden. She stood for a moment first, looking at the watercolor and waiting for the guard to round the corner. Then there was this Kem Weber vanity table on display in front of the Vessels, so she had to step over the ankle-high warning rope and carefully slide that off to one side. And just like that, I was watching this dark-haired girl redecorate the Brooklyn Museum.
For a moment I thought she was staff, a curator or collections assistant. But then she reached casually into her purse and came up with a plastic-handled file. There was no searching, no rummaging. Her hand went in and brought the file out neat as a revolver from a holster. Thirty witnesses, two guards, families, kids, God, Lincoln, and everybody and she drove it right into the watercolor. There was no cry. Just the tok of the blade against the wall and the tearing sound when she pulled the handle towards the floor. The blade scraped the drywall as it went, parting paper and a thin wash of paint behind it.
The Rothko bled on out through the widening wound. Each vessel deflated like a ruptured wineskin and, far as I could tell, they did not bleed magic. They did not even let go, like so many punctured lungs, a soft Bronx cheer of escaping air. The mistake here would be to suspect that a painting would die anything like a person. It does not. Aside from the brief flurry of activity surrounding the cutting edge of the file, it was a quiet, peaceful expiration. Like milk.
There was so much happening and more about to happen, but during the act, I watched only her hands. Her right had fallen so surely into her purse that the movement caught my eye. When she brought it up again, what could I do but follow her fist, wrapped delicate around the file, her fingers folded casually as legs crossed and tucked under thighs on a couch? What could I do, when she dragged the file down, but notice the way the blood moved out of her knuckles, casting them slightly paler than the rest of her hand? At the end of it, as she stepped back to survey the painting, I watched the file drop from her relaxed grip, a tool that had served its purpose.
After the file had clattered to the floor and the scraps had settled, in those ten undisturbed seconds before security fell on her, it was as though nothing had changed. It was almost as though the Rothko had been made cleft, a lovely ragged diptych that she was now seeing for the first time. I’d say that she stood there just like any other museum-goer, but she didn’t. She couldn’t have been less like them. She stood still as Sanford Schwartz for ten full seconds. She didn’t blink, didn’t turn her head. She just looked. Right up until the guards wrestled her unresisting to the floor and cleared the rest of us out of the hall like it was a nightclub at closing.
I fought, but I couldn’t get traction on the polished wood floor. The guards were solid as an offensive line in blue blazers. I planted a straight arm in somebody’s chest and craned my neck for another glimpse of the painting or of the girl, now pinned prone on the gallery floor. Instead I got an elbow on the cheek which turned me halfway around. I tried to turn back against the crowd, but it was no good. I was carried by the crush and deposited outside just as a wave of police crashed on the steps of the Brooklyn.
I stumbled out toward the parkway and caught myself on the hood of a police cruiser that was parked across the sidewalk. Officers had closed down Eastern and were doing their best to keep the intersection clear, but the refugee population kept growing as people trickled out of the museum and pooled in the street. In the colored cruiser lights, their faces were an equal mix of confusion, fear, and irritation. It was probably the irritation that kept the situation from boiling over, since whatever else might be happening, inconvenience at least was a known quantity. A latin guy in a corduroy coat pushed through the crowd from Washington Avenue with the authority of a plainclothes cop. He made it about halfway up the museum steps and turned, badge in one hand, the other cupped like an improvised megaphone. He shouted over the chorus of sirens that there was no cause for alarm. This wasn’t terrorists, nobody was in any danger, and officers already had a suspect in custody.
I pushed off the hood and went along Eastern towards Grand Army Plaza. I thought of the girl—her long fingers, her pale knuckles, and her quick, sure hand—long after the sirens faded behind me, after the police had taken her to the precinct or to the museum basement and then to the precinct. I thought of the surprise on her face in those ten seconds of stillness. I don’t know what she saw when she parted the painting like a curtain, but I am familiar with wide-eyed awe.
I was in love immediately, but it was close to six hours before I could post her bail.
The next afternoon, I sat down to lunch with big Leo Callahan, my lawyer and de facto father figure. Leo’s idea of lunch hadn’t changed since 1960, and while I’ve never been the type of guy to put away a porterhouse at twelve thirty, he’d never been the type to settle for anything less. You could forget about sandwiches: Far as Leo was concerned, it wasn’t a meal unless bracketed by a cup of soup and a snifter of brandy. Lucky for me, he was willing to make concessions if oysters were involved, so we met at the raw bar in Grand Central near two o’clock. I beat him there by a few minutes and was still working my way toward the hostess when he arrived. He stepped in behind me, imposing himself gently on the line by placing a hand on my shoulder. I turned to meet his handshake and say good afternoon, and I was submerged in a wave of Clubman or Old Spice or some other stodgy stuff.
Leo looked the way he always looked, the way I remembered him in my grandfather’s office, at my parents’ summer barbeques, and at the dispositions of their wills. He was put together in an understated, old school manner, with carefully policed silver hair and a gray tailored suit fastened together with well-worn silver hardware, his tiepin and cufflinks plain and functional as rivets in a girder. Leo never wore gold. My grandfather also wore silver and all of his pieces that had come down to me had achieved that warm white glow that came with a few decades of reliable service, which is exactly the look you want out of silver. Leo took this appreciation a step further, elevating a preference into a rule. It was one of the bylaws of being Leo. I’d once heard him claim that he divorced his wife because the ring didn’t match his wardrobe. I didn’t believe it, although I suspect that he asked his dentist for silver fillings because they did.
The closest Leo came to wearing gold, and also the least dignified thing about him, was his pronounced suntan. It was suspiciously consistent all year round, never mind that it was a suntan that had no business on an Irishman in any season. When pressed about it, Leo would claim that he’d just returned from a vacation in St. Thomas or Palm Beach or some other place that might explain such a tan in February. A decade ago, it had been standard procedure for me and my sister to give him a hard time about it. Now it was his opportunity to return the favor.
“That’s a nice little mouse,” he said, squinting at the deep purple knot on my cheek.
“You should have seen the hickey I had before that. Funny story. Kind of related.”
“I can’t help but think that somewhere along the line, I must have failed to teach you some crucial life lesson.”
“You always were a disappointment, Leo.”
We arrived at the front of the line and the hostess asked if we were two. She started to lead us left, into the dining room with the vaulted tile ceiling and the cozy ambience of a well-lit catacombs, but Leo stopped her with a touch on the elbow.
“Would you mind putting us in the saloon? I like to pretend I’m eating at a train station instead of on a subway platform.”
“Certainly sir.” She brought us into the wood-paneled barroom, to a narrow table with a good view of the action behind the counter. Leo nodded in approval.
“If you could stand one more inconvenience, please get the barman started on a dozen Wellfleets. We only have an hour and it could be minutes before the waiter gets over.”
“Certainly,” she said and we settled in at the table. Behind me I heard the crunch as the barman dug the oysters out of the shaved ice followed by the chiseling chip of the blade against the shells.
“You also got a haircut,” Leo said. “How about a job? You get a job?”
“What am I going to do with a job?”
“I haven’t the slightest. It’s one of those things I’m supposed to ask. How have you been keeping yourself busy?”
“This Thursday Sotheby’s has a lecture on folk art.”
“I guess that’s better than selling drugs. And Amanda? How’s she been?”
“You know her. Solid. The real estate thing’s been working out.”
The waiter hustled over with an urgency more appropriate for an ER doctor on a code. He dealt menus onto the checkered cloth, but Leo waved his away.
“No need for that. I’m ordering off the board. But do bring a pint of Bass with the first dozen.”
I ordered a cup of chowder and a bottle of Amstel. Leo couldn’t believe it. He held up a finger to hold the waiter while we worked this out.
“You’re a growing boy, Bill. Don’t tell me you’re going to make it through to dinner on one lousy cup of soup.”
“It’s not soup, it’s chowder.”
“Manhattan clam is soup.”
“Really. I had breakfast an hour ago.”
“Suit yourself.” He let the waiter go and picked up the thread. “Now what’s this with Amanda?”
“She and Cal redid their kitchen. I haven’t been out to see it yet, but it’s all she talks about on the phone. It’s a theater kitchen.”
“A theater kitchen? What, so they can watch television while they eat?”
“You know Amanda wouldn’t go for that. I think it’s designed to make a show out of the cooking.”
“Like one of those Japanese steakhouses?”
“I don’t know. I guess so.”
“But who watches?”
“I guess Cal and Yvette watch Amanda cook and Amanda and Yvette watch Cal cook.”
“What about Yvette? Doesn’t she ever cook?”
“Leo, she’s only eleven.”
“Huh. How about that? I always thought she was older.”
“It runs in the family.”
The beer and Wellfleets arrived. Leo made a show out of spritzing lemon over the platter of convulsing animals. I’d never seen him in court, but I could see how he’d take real pleasure out of it, like an actor on a stage. He had the right sort of dramatic bent.
“First time I met Amanda,” he said, “she was only about a week old. Your grandfather was so proud of her. He wanted everybody to meet her, from plant foremen right on up to the board. Back then, I used to be more involved with the family. Back when there was more family to be involved with. Anyway, at one week of age, Amanda had this full head of dark hair. That really impressed me. The girl was precocious from the moment she was born.”
“Old enough for both of us,” I said.
“Cheers to that.” We raised our beers and drank a couple inches off the top.
My chowder arrived and Leo tipped back a few oysters while the waiter arranged and rearranged the cup, spoon, and a packet of crackers, trying to make the presentation look a little more substantial. Leo watched with a grin and before I could even dip my spoon he said, “Now that we’ve gotten the ceremonial refreshment out of the way, you want to talk about this girl?”
“The timing’s right: I’m just about out of pleasantries.”
“Really, Bill. I like that you’re reaching out to help this girl. If she got hit by a car and needed some money for hospital bills or, I don’t know, she was having some trouble with her landlord, there wouldn’t be anything to discuss. Whatever else he may have been, your grand-dad understood philanthropy. He might have haggled over the price, but he’d never argue against altruistic motives. But this is different.”
“I know it might not look like—”
“Hold on a second. Let me finish my thought before you tell me why I’m wrong. I get enough of that from my ex and my kids.” He slurped an oyster and then paused to pluck a fragment of shell from his tongue. “I didn’t argue when you asked me to post bail because most of that money’s coming back. Also, I don’t believe in sending first-time offenders or the mentally ill to Riker’s.”
“She isn’t crazy.”
“That’s why I gave you an either-or. We can meet in the middle, since there’s no question she’s a first timer. But whatever she might be, I’m not sure what she did is defensible. That means any money you spend not only isn’t coming back, but it won’t get you anything. Part of my job is to remind you that money has value. That’s what makes poker interesting. Also, I’m supposed to say no when you want squander some of your grandfather’s hard-earned dividends defending a girl who’s probably completely off her rocker.”
“She’s not crazy, Leo.”
“Fine. You don’t think she’s crazy. Which means that when I do say no, you’re probably going to do your best, your very soft-hearted and soft-headed best, to help her out yourself. You’ll spend some of your lunch money to hire the sort of shyster who advertises on the subway and has one of those eight hundred numbers that’s easy for drunks to remember. The ‘Law-King’ or somesuch. He’ll probably charge more than I do and even if he doesn’t, you’ll still pay more than he’s worth. In the end, it will be your grand-dad’s money paying the bill, even if I do get to take a little consolation in seeing your standard of living decline.
“So when I say no, the only sure bet is that you’re going to wind up pissed at old Leo, never mind that these many years he’s been nothing but a dedicated and underpaid servant with your interests in his heart. When this girl goes to jail—and she will—it’s going to be because I didn’t help you find a decent lawyer. If she somehow manages to wrangle an acquittal—and she won’t—it just goes to show that I should have had a little more faith in you. Either way, you’ll be reduced to eating canned beans and tap water, with or without your girlfriend, and you’ll be remembering me kindly at every mealtime.
“It’s a little humbling,” he finished the last of the first dozen and spoke with his mouth full of oyster, “to realize that it just doesn’t matter what I say. If you’ve got your mind made up on this, it’s going to cost the trust. My opinion, no matter how well-informed or long-considered, won’t save you any money you’re determined to spend.
“The only real question here is whether you’re willing to miss a few lunches for this girl.”
“Leo,” I began, but he put up a hand.
“I’m telling you not to do this. But I know you, Bill, I know how you Radixes work.” He said the name and it came out sounding a lot like radishes. “I’m going to the john. You think it over.” He stood up, pushing his chair back with his knees, and crossed slowly to the bar, where he watched the counterman shuck quickly and efficiently with hands that looked about as deft as bear claws. I watched Leo ask a few questions, order his next platter, and then continue, slow and deliberate, through the swinging doors in the back. I would have plenty of time to think it over. He hid it well with his English suits and his deep lamp tan, but Leo was an old man. He was still sharp—vicious as a mother lion when his clients were threatened—but there was no getting around the fact that for Leo, taking a piss was like a part-time job.
But what did it matter how long I had to think? What could I have told him?
I tried to tell him on the phone what had happened in the museum. Not just about the Rothko, but the whole thing, the way she’d looked at the Katz and the places she’d paused in the American collection. Leo wasn’t interested in the gallery tour. He just wanted the specifics of the attack. I told him everything I could remember, from the color of her fingernails to the way she’d been stunned by the remade Rothko, like she was seeing it with an innocent eye. He’d laughed and said there wasn’t anything innocent about this girl.
This was a little after sundown. I was on a payphone at a pizzeria on Bergen, just across from the seventy-eighth precinct. This was the second station I’d been to since the evacuation of the Brooklyn Museum. The museum sits on the corner of Washington and Eastern, and it shares the intersection with three police precincts. You can change jurisdiction by crossing the street, which explained why every cop in the borough turned out when the alarm sounded. It also meant that to find out that Claire had been taken to the seventy-eighth, I first had to go down Washington to Empire and find out they didn’t have her at the seventy-first.
Half an hour later, I was on the other side of Prospect Heights, talking to the desk sergeant at the right station. He directed me to a clerk behind a heavy plate of security glass. There was a little Visa/Mastercard sticker in the corner of the window, not that it mattered in Claire’s case. I would have had to split the charge over three or four cards. I asked the clerk if they took American Express. She informed me that this was a police department, not a sushi restaurant, and that Claire wasn’t going anywhere until she was arraigned. So I crossed the street to the pizzeria and tried Leo at home.
I told him what had happened, and he laughed at the idea of her innocent eye, but he agreed to send somebody down to the seventy-eighth before Claire could be transferred to Riker’s or the Brooklyn House of Detention. He would push for the arraignment and secure a bond not because he could appreciate or even sympathize with what Claire did, but because he didn’t think she deserved to go to real prison. After that, we’d talk. I could take him out for lunch, and we’d figure out what the next step would be. As though we could come to some compromise about Claire.
We hung up and I went into the pizzeria for a slice and a soda. Leo worked and I loitered and three hours later, she was released. I was waiting inside the station when they let her out of holding. She was beautiful and defiant and as she walked past the desk sergeant, she glanced down at him like he was a doorman. Then she looked at me, directly, like she knew that it would be me who would come for her. I must have looked more like the prisoner, sprawled out in the institutional plastic chair, my hands folded behind my neck and a dark bruise developing across my cheek like a merit badge for obstruction of justice. The very first thing she did, before either of us said anything, was to reach out and run her finger lightly over that bruise.
Details like these wouldn’t convince Leo. If I couldn’t explain what had happened in the museum, there was no point explaining what happened after. Leo hadn’t seen Claire touch Sanford Schwartz, so it was meaningless to tell him that she touched me the same way.
I could have told him about our long walk around Prospect Park after we left the precinct, how it led first to a four train at Grand Army Plaza and then to a late diner dinner off the Bowery. I could have told him that we drank cup after cup of coffee refills and that we didn’t talk about the Rothko or any other painting that might look better in pieces. Instead, we stuck to the usual topics people go for when they’re just getting to know each other. We were clumsy and a little shy, and we talked about where we were from, what kind of music we liked, and what painters we loved, like Malcolm Morley and Mark Tansey and Alex Katz. I could have told him what happened after that, although that only would have confirmed his worst suspicions.
The problem was that I’d known Claire for maybe a dozen hours. I had only a small collection of details and impressions, orbiting like electrons around the general idea of her. Of course I couldn’t explain her to him. I was still trying to figure her out myself. But I wasn’t lost in these details. For all the attention that I paid them, I wasn’t really interested in what Claire had done with her hands. I was interested in what she had done with her eyes. Her hands were just evidence, just as the slashing itself was evidence, of the motives behind. For Leo, the scene in the museum could be reduced to a simple series of material facts. He saw no nucleus of meaning behind the crime scene details.
This is why I couldn’t explain it to him. The details meant different things to us. When I told him how she moved the dresser out of her way before she drew the nail file out of her purse, he didn’t recognize the care in that gesture or the specific focus of her rage. Instead, he zeroed in on the file and how it showed a lack of premeditation. But the file itself was just a tool, like a prop in an Agatha Christie novel. It was evidence of something greater than simple guilt or innocence, but if I could explain that over a couple dozen oysters, then Claire didn’t need my help.
In the end, when Leo came back and sat down to a fresh dozen of oysters, when he looked across the table with his palms upturned and his eyebrows raised, there was only one thing to say.
“Leo, she’s a real looker.”
“Ain’t love grand? I’ll make some phone calls and get things started this very afternoon. But let the record show that I tried to talk sense and you weren’t having it.”
We raised our drinks again and put them together. “Thanks.”
“Thanks nothing. It’s your money. And, speaking of your money, when you come up light this month, remember how I enjoyed our lunch.”
Tom Helleberg was born in Boston, got an M.F.A. from the University of Alaska, and lives in Greenpoint. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.