"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 left out; I wanted to belong.
"Judge for yourself if I am dangerous," he said. "I was a Harvard student, too."
"In the fifties. The uptight, boring fifties. I was in love with the daughter of an art history professor. The beautiful daughter, it goes without saying. A painting had been acquired; they were having an evening for the museum's supporters; the professor was speaking."
"They still have those evenings," I said. "They're called 'Friends of the Fogg.'"
"Yes. Well, I stormed the gates in the hopes of seeing the daughter. When they asked me for my invitation, I said I was the professor's student, which I was, and that he had invited me, which he hadn't. But they didn't give me any trouble; I just signed a list, and went in."
"Was she at Radcliffe?" Lucy asked.
"Oh no, she was too young. She was in high school. She had blond hair," and in his non-sequitur, I heard, still, unmistakably, a note of wistfulness. Then I heard it turn to bitterness. "She spurned me. She avoided me at the reception; she wouldn't speak to me. I wandered through the galleries; my heart was breaking. I found myself in front of a bronze sculpture, the bust of a woman. I felt her sightless gaze on me; it was uncanny. No one else was in the gallery. I touched her--and she moved. She wasn't even fastened down, just placed on the pedestal. I don't know what possessed me. 'At least you'll be faithful to me!' I exclaimed, and I took her. I was wearing a baggy raincoat. I simply put her under the coat and secured her under my arm. I went through the museum and walked out. No one even looked at me. It was incredibly easy."
"What happened after that?" asked Lucy.
"I took her back to my room in Adams House. I put her on the mantel. I stayed with her constantly, only leaving for meals. After three days, the campus police came to search my room."
"How did they find you?" I asked.
"They went down the sign-in list and matched the names against the list of invitations. My name didn't match. I'm surprised it took them as long as it did." He shrugged his shoulders.
"What did they do?" I asked.
"I had to leave Harvard."
"So you didn't graduate," Lucy said.
"No, I'm only half-educated."
There was a pause in which we stood as if still listening. All the while Piero had been talking, I had been holding on to his daughter. Now she pulled at me, and I let go.
"Eleanora." He almost sang the syllables. "Go to your mother."
She said not a word, but shook her head. He looked exasperated. "Mona, Mona," He appeared to call into the air, or so it seemed to us, for neither of us had noticed until now that there was a woman standing, waiting, just out of the range of conversation. But when Piero turned to her, it was as if he'd been aware all the time that she was there, and so she must belong with him. "Will you take the child, Mona?"
Lucy and I followed his glance. Here, between us and the entrance to the museum, was evidently still another chapter from Piero's life, a later one. At first glance, she looked plain, faded, tired, colorless, where he was none of these things. Her thin, straight hair was pulled back in an elastic. She had an upturned nose, almost pug, pale blue eyes, no make-up. She was wearing a denim jumper with a sweater over it, heavy long socks, and earth shoes. She was quite clearly pregnant.
She sighed so audibly I could hear it. "She'll run away from me again, and you know I can't go after her."
After Piero's intriguing disclosures, Mona was reality. But both my preference and Lucy's was for the more fantastic past.
Mona's protest was but the prelude to her acquiescence. Resignation was in all the downsloping curves of her body, in the attitude, which I, seeing her, realized she must have been waiting, without any move to affect either husband or child, while he entertained us, and I held the daughter, almost forgotten, in my grasp. Mona's unstated presence, now recognized though hardly welcomed, seemed to lend to the charm that Piero had turned on us an even more theatrical character.
Because Piero had overlooked Mona, we had, too. Now he appealed to her. "I'm busy now. I'm talking to these two girls. Can't you watch her?"
We ought to have left then. I excused ourselves by thinking that in this case we'd been granted a special license by our most vocal critic, Cecil himself. Piero entertained us, and we encouraged him, without thinking ahead to wonder at the reasons.
"All right." Mona capitulated, clearly reluctant. She spoke to the child, who had been standing with her arms folded across her chest, swishing one leg back and forth. "Eleanora, you have to stay where I can watch you. Don't run away this time."
"I want a card," said Eleanora.
"Just one." She turned to me. "How much are they?" She fumbled in her jacket pocket and withdrew a worn change purse, and the gesture pained me. "It's all right. I'll buy it for her," I said. I turned away so I would not have to see the look of gratitude that crossed Mona's face. "Which one do you want?" I asked Eleanora.
"This one," she said, reaching blindly for the rack without deliberating. In her small hand, she held the photograph of Meleager. "That's a nice one," I said, and paid for it with loose change in my pocket. The little girl looked pleased with it, though she didn't thank me.
Because Mona had given in, Piero would observe the niceties. "This is Mona, my wife. But I don't know your names."
"We're both Lucy," said Lucy.
"Ah, the two Lucies of the Fogg. Did you hear that, Mona?"
But Mona didn't look amused. Eleanora had begun to tear the edges of the card. No one stopped her.
"Do you live in Boston?" I asked.
I was standing midway between husband and wife, and it wasn't clear to whom I'd addressed my question. Mona answered.
"We're temporarily staying with my parents in Connecticut. He wanted to come up for a visit."
"Do you know the Crimson building on Plympton Street?" Piero asked us.
"They might put us up there, in the back room. I think it might work out. I've been talking to some people there about it."
He implied that this was a coup. Neither Lucy nor I spoke, and I wondered if she was thinking, as I was, of that back room, with its two scarred, threadbare couches, scratched desks, and general disarray, which had seen who knows how many budding journalists through all-night deadlines. I doubted there was much privacy there and even less comfort.
"He's looking for a job," Mona announced as if we ought to know, but she didn't sound as if she believed it.
"At the Crimson?" Lucy asked incredulously. "That's a student paper."
"No, not here. In Connecticut," Mona began, and then looked at Piero, and stopped.
"I'm a poet," he said. It was as if it were an absolution.
"Really? I write poetry, too." But Piero didn't want to hear it; his interest was for his own writing.
"I have a book of my poems with me," he said. "Would you like to see it?"
What he meant, I realized, was would we like to buy it. "Sure," said Lucy, "we love poetry."
"What's the title?" I asked conversationally, almost professionally.
"It's called Verdun."
"It was the name of a battle in the First World War," he said.
"Yeah, I know that," I said. "Is that what your poems are about?"
"My poems are about peace and war and love and hate. They address the human condition."
"Oh, how meaningful," I said sarcastically.
But my irony was lost on Piero. "They are," he said, not meeting my gaze but looking away as if he addressed an unseen audience. "They're meaningful because they can't help but be, because of my inspiration when I wrote them."
"So you're a Romantic," said Lucy.
"You're saying that if you're inspired, your poetry will be inspired, too?" I asked, pursuing the topic out for my own edification, with the seriousness that I usually brought to such matters. "And if the poem is inspired, does that mean that it is meaningful? And must the reader be inspired, too, in the same way, in order to understand it?"
"Hea--vy. I just go with the flow." With a wave of his hand, Piero dismissed my concerns. Again he did not face me, but was looking at Lucy.
"I bet you do," she said, and made me laugh.
"I have an idea," Piero said. "Why don't I give a reading? I could arrange it for tonight. I brought a box of my books with me. I don't have it with me now, but I can get to it in about an hour. I'm sure you know plenty of people who could come."
"What? A poetry reading tonight? It's rather short notice. And it's Saturday. People already have plans."
"Well, I'll make it a short reading. And then people can go out and do their thing. I think it's a great idea. I'll tell you what, I'll come back with the books when the museum closes. In fact, how about going out for a drink? I like to celebrate beforehand."
Who laughed now? It wasn't I or Lucy or even Piero, but Mona, and it wasn't true amusement. Piero went on as if he had not heard it.
"Where do you live? In one of the river Houses? We'll have the reading there." Piero made his suggestion sound like a fait accompli though neither of us had agreed to anything.
"No," said Lucy, and then she surprised me. "No, we don't. We live at Radcliffe."
"That's okay. All I need is a room and some people to fill it."
I don't know what I would have said if Cecil had not come up then and banished us. We'd evidently lingered longer than he'd meant us to. "You're needed upstairs," he said. He didn't know he had delivered us, or how much I wanted to talk alone to Lucy. And I couldn't help noticing that, as he observed us being sent away, Piero's smile was surprisingly beautiful, as if he were a young man wooing a girl and opposed by her father, temporarily thwarted, but confident of his success at the end. In such a scenario, the compliance of the girl is taken for granted. And so Piero assumed it of us. "I'm leaving now, but I&