"Child of Unreason" by Anne Whitehouse
Dreary and dull is late autumn in New England. In cold billows and gusts of wind, winter arrives ahead of its official entrance, in drenching rainstorms where every living thing scatters for cover. The oaks, which have held their leaves longest, relinquish them at last, and now all the world is shorn and exposed. Dusk falls early; by mid-afternoon, the sun is already sinking towards the edges of the sky.
On such a Saturday afternoon in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the early seventies, I stood at a window in one of the back galleries of the Fogg Art Museum. I was a part-time security guard, hired on the weekends to watch the visitors and safeguard the museum's treasures. I wore a blue jacket, was kept on my feet, and told people not to touch. But sometimes when the museum was closing, after I had cleared the galleries and extinguished the lights, I would linger behind in the darkness of the Greek and Roman sculpture gallery and lightly bring my fingertip to the flaring, proud shoulder of Meleager. A Roman copy in marble of a fourth-century Greek original, Meleager was a model of male beauty, a head, and torso just over life-size. It gave me a thrill to touch him, against prohibition, in secret and in darkness.
No one caught me. I dashed out of the room.
There are as many ways of looking as reasons to look. As I spent more time with the paintings and sculptures, there were some I came to love more and some less. My perceptions intrigued me as a record of what lasted for me.
If most precious to me were my moments of quiet musing, the museum served me also as a theatre of life, where I observed the passing visitors as they observed the works of art.
There was another aspect to my afternoons as well, which was my interactions with the other guards, who were almost all Harvard retirees now living on a pension and picking up a few dollars, just as I was, by looking after the Fogg on the weekends. Their different personalities provided me with a kind of theatre, too. They often tried to create an impression for my benefit--or rather, for our benefit.
For I had a friend on the job with me. She was a classicist and a Medieval and Renaissance scholar. I was a history student and a poet. We were both similar and dissimilar. We had the same name but spelled it differently; she was Lucy and I was Lucie. Many of the same things delighted us. George, a guard, made us laugh when he told us that an Italian work entitled "Construction of the Temple of Jerusalem," depicting men at work on a masonry wall, was really about styles in skirt lengths--"Mini, midi, and maxi," he explained, indicating the tunics and robes of the men. He had a dry wit, and we were an appreciative audience, who responded in the right places and repeated this iconography for our own pleasure to visiting friends.
Frank's humor was racier. He was an Irishman of around seventy, with a pink, seamless face and inscrutable blue eyes, who regularly carried a pack of playing cards and a counterfeit bill, both ornamented with pictures of naked ladies, which he liked to try to shock us with. He gestured to us to come with him to an unobserved corner. While he stared at his pictures in undisguised wonderment, Lucy and I smothered laughs. We thought Frank assumed we were more innocent than we were.
We were naturally not allowed to read while on duty, but sometimes we carried folded sheets of paper with copied-out poems of Baudelaire in our pockets, which, in the course of the afternoon, we would commit to memory. "I'Idéal" was one of Lucy's favorites:
...Ce qu'il faut à ce coeur profond comme un abîme,
c'est vous, Lady Macbeth, âme puissante au crime...
She recited it to me in a low, thrilling voice, while we were on our break. We took tea together in the Naumberg Room, a chamber closed off to the public, with an adjoining kitchen that was used for conferences and receptions. It was the living room of Aaron and Nettie Naumberg's New York apartment, which had been bequeathed to Harvard and installed in the Fogg--walls of dark heavy wood paneling hung with Italian and Spanish paintings, each surmounted with a display light. George, with his usual, understated flourish, had demonstrated to us the secret panel under the stairs to the landing. The dusty alcove behind it yielded nothing exciting--a few folding chairs and extra dishes in a cardboard box.
We sipped our tea in the worn and gloomy grandeur of the Naumberg Room and luxuriated in the feeling that we were hiding out from the world. Lady Macbeth, recast in Baudelaire's French, was a myth of evil and very far away. Our own innocence had been registered to us earlier that very afternoon by Frank's latest installment of show-and-tell. He had ushered us into a broom closet with him and opened a case he had smuggled in there. Lying on the plush was a pair of pistols. Excitedly he told us--it was hard to understand him--that these were the weapons he'd carried years back in Ireland when he was a provo in the I.R.A. He'd had to flee to Boston. His voice lowered to a whisper, his brogue thickened to near incoherency, Frank had been too caught up in his past to register our shock and dismay. All my weeks as a security guard, it had never occurred to me to wonder what I would do if confronted with danger. Or Lucy either. Our feeling about Frank had changed. He was not a quaint "dirty old man" with rather pedestrian pornography, but a fugitive, a criminal, and possibly a murderer.
He must have noticed our reaction. "It could be worse, it could be worse," he said drolly. "I could've been born twins and then there'd be two of me." It worked, because Lucy and I laughed, and later we mimicked his speech to us to each other. Still, I couldn't quite forget about the guns.
But I had managed to put them to the back of my mind, while I stared out of the gallery window. Then Cecil came in to tell me to change posts with Lucy upstairs. He was the guard in charge, whether self-proclaimed or officially, I didn't know. He wore an obvious toupée, had a stiff gait, and loved giving orders. "Cecil walks like he's got a poker sticking up his ass," was how Frank put it.
When I climbed the stairs to the second floor, I passed a picture of a Renaissance angel that a visiting friend had said resembled me. I looked at her: oval face, smooth forehead, and regular features. There was a similarity: it was as if I were seeing my face translated in a painting whose conventions were five hundred years old.
Lucy was on the narrow drawing balcony, looking down at the effigy of Don Diego (medieval, Spanish) encased in plexiglass in Warburg Hall. "Cecil wants us to switch," I told her.
We didn't mind changing; it gave us a diversion. She went downstairs. I walked through a couple of galleries, where there was a boring exhibit--I thought--of Chinese jades. Then a loud cry summoned me to the wide balcony that surrounded and overlooked the courtyard on all four sides. Down one length of that beautiful space, a small child was running and yelling, with no sign of an adult in attendance. She was a little girl, with silky, black hair. "You mustn't run in the museum. Where's your mother?"
She stopped, but looked away from me, not listening. She was staring at Maillol's large, bronze statue of a female nude heroically titled "Ile de France." "Mama!" she cried.
I laughed and took her by the hand. She squirmed. Tom, the most elderly guard, had come to see what was the matter. "I'm bringing her downstairs to try to find out who she belongs to."
"I was looking down through the courtyard and saw a man walk in," said Tom. "Be careful, he's suspicious."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean he's known here."
The child was pulling on my arm. "What does he look like?"
"They'll point him out to you."
"Come on," I said to the girl. I am firm with children and kept an iron grip on her as we descended the stairs. Her clothes--pants and a sweater--were not quite clean. She was pretty, though, with olive skin and snapping black eyes; she had an otherworldly, gamine look. Why had she called the statue "Mama"? When I asked her her name, she refused to answer.
George was passing by at the foot of the stairs. "She was running around on the second floor," I explained. "She won't tell me who she is. I'm trying to find her parents."
George's concern was elsewhere. "That man your friend is talking to," he said, "he stole something from here once. He's crazy. It was a long time ago, but he might still be crazy."
I was torn between wanting to hear more, wanting to glimpse the man in question, and doing my duty by my charge. Duty came first, and so I walked on. The next person I came to was Lucy herself, who was standing with her back to me, tall and imposing. Speaking to her was the man I'd been warned against.
"Daddy." The call came from the child at my side, and instantly, without thinking, I let her go. She raced from under me and hugged the man's thigh, while Lucy and I watched.
"Eleanora." He patted her head, confirming she was his.
"She was running wild." The disapproval sounded sharp in my voice. But he, like his daughter before him, did not appear affected by it.
"She's just like me. I was uncontrollable." He sounded happy as if this were a fact to be proud of, and as he spoke, we met each other's eyes. He was not much taller than I, and shorter far than Lucy. The resemblance to his daughter was apparent. Here again were the dark, mischievous good looks, and, although I didn't see it at first, here also was the defiant sadness.
Did I think, He looks like an artist? His dark eyes fixed me with an appeal beyond his words. I forced myself to look away. Lucy was quite clearly charmed by him. She stood in a characteristic pose, a hand on her hip, a half-smile on her lips--Lucy was beautiful. I could see it was up to me to play the heavy. "Children aren't allowed in the museum unaccompanied. You'll have to keep her with you."
As I spoke, Cecil approached us with all his rigid authority. "What's the problem here?" I thought he glared at us, and his pompousness took mine away and made me defensive.
"Nothing's wrong," said Lucy, but as she spoke, Eleanora bolted and began flipping around the card tree in the sales area at the entrance. I went after her as I had before, but this time she was docile.
"We know who you are," Cecil said to the man, "so take care. And watch the child." He turned to me, who was delivering her, and I was surprised to see in his glance a flicker of amusement.
"You recognize me?" asked the man, in a kind of pleased wonder. "After all this time?"
"What do you mean?" asked Lucy. "What are you talking about?"
I was as curious as she. The man and Cecil looked at each other. Then George came up to tell Cecil they were calling him downstairs on the museum phone. "You can tell them," said Cecil to our visitor. This was a rare and generous gesture for him, since he frequently separated Lucy and me, like a teacher in a classroom, to keep us from talking.
"Watch him, girls," Cecil said as he went away. There was a queer kind of gurgle in this throat, and I realized Cecil was smothering a laugh.
"This is Piero," said Lucy by way of introduction. "He was a Jewish child star in Fascist films."
"Really?" I said. "Is that what you were talking about? Where was this?"
"In Italy. R-r-roma," he said, rolling the "r".
"You look too young," I said.
Piero smiled and looked younger. "I'm like a cat. I have many lives."
"His nurse secretly entered him in a contest for the most Italian-looking child," Lucy explained, "and he won. Though he wasn't Italian.
"Well, Italian by birth. My parents were from Germany and Hungary."
"Were you in a lot of films?"
"Moderately. My career was tragically shortened by persecution and war." He delivered the line in mock solemnity as if it were out of a bad film.
"I escaped, but my parents died in concentration camps."
The inescapable note of tragedy gave us pause. We didn't know what to say. I felt ashamed somehow and changed the subject. "Were the films good?"
"He was the Italian Shirley Temple," said Lucy. "But now let's hear this other story about you and the Fogg."
I reflected on Lucy's talent, here again, demonstrated, for extracting bizarre histories. Piero had certainly found the immediate way to attract Lucy's interest. And mine, too, for that matter.
"That's another chapter from my life," he said, teasing her.
"All the guards know you," I told him, "not just Cecil. They've warned me against you." Why had I confessed this, if not to breach the confidence I sensed already between Piero and Lucy and establish myself there, too? I was flirting, insinuating to Piero that I did not take him seriously. Was this true? I didn't want to be