She had smiled and said, “No, probably not. There are too many stories like it.” She found it interesting that that could finally crushed him.
After their last evening together, when she tried to kiss him and he wasn’t interested, she didn’t want to see him again. But she had to go to his party, he had said. He was getting together all the best people, a whole collection of interesting types….
She picks up her pen to begin again.
Walking down the street a tall, gawky man wearing a tuxedo and top hat and carrying a cane (the Mad Inquisitor to be exact) observes a hat, a bowler, on the sidewalk under a ladder. Fearing for his life, he breaks the sacred triangle-Father, Son, and Holy Ghost-and walks under the ladder, hat held before him.
He carries it inside the brownstone building it was lying in front of, up the flight of stairs, curious to find the owner. He finds a door, knocks, and is welcomed in, hat first, to The People’s Art Museum. Here all the people are art. They stand in frozen classical positions, webs of pink spun fiberglass.
“Every quarter hour they change positions,” the Hostess, in a white Grecian robe, explains. “On the hour, tea and cookies are served to all, and you may interact with the art.”
She takes the bowler and places it on the head of a nineteenth-century man.
“Thank you,” she says. “He must have set it on the window ledge, and it blew off.”
The Mad Inquisitor nods.
The Hostess takes his top hat and cane and has him sign the register. All the great people who have ever lived have been here, he notices right away, and penning his name, assumes his rightful place in history by being a patron of The People’s Art Museum. It is just as he has been telling the young woman, Ms. Deliberate, all along. One must get out and do things, one must take one’s place in the celebration that is life. Ms. Deliberate, with her long face and condescending, introspective ways, will get nowhere. She will never be allowed inside The People’s Art Museum, he concludes, putting down the pen and straightening himself smugly.
The Mad Inquisitor introduces himself to the Defining Cook and the Harpy Teacher, two of the most agreeable statues in the twentieth-century room. If only Ms. Deliberate were here, he thinks, she could see how real women behave. Whenever someone tedious approaches, the Harpy Teacher bares her hidden beak tooth and thin-skinned, pink mouth with a raspy, throaty hiss. Pink talons appear from the sleeves of her shiny, blue-green dress. She covers her whiteboard with multi-colored responses as questions punctuate the air.
At every turn in the conversation, the Defining Cook assists. She reads from a diet book held by her pink hands in front of her round face, the rest of her wrapped tightly in a white apron like a package of meat.
“Water,” she says. “For good health it is necessary to have eight full glasses of water a day. Carrots. Carrots are one of the most affordable sources of vitamin A.”
Meanwhile, Ms. Deliberate sits at her desk, glad to be away from the Mad Inquisitor, at least temporarily. As she searches for something to write about, a little neighbor boy appears outside her window. She puts him into a story. He is floating, face down, in an enormous indoor swimming pool. It is early morning and barely light inside the vaulted sea-like cave. He floats easily, lungs stopped full of air, fingers waving gently through the water like two persistent schools of tiny white fish. Beneath him he sees a drifting forest of giant seaweed decorated with other bright, darting fish-gold, black, lavender, fluorescent green. He flexes his body for a surface dive and swims for a conch attached to a nest of kelp twenty feet down.
Surfacing with the silvery pink shell, he spies the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria sailing into the New World. They arch over the brief horizon of the chlorinated sea so close they nearly suck him under. He waves the conch toward their dark bows. His greeting is returned with happy shouts from sailors anchored to the decks by the flared legs of their white pants. Pulling the meat from the conch with his hand, he blows to them, a vibrating moan, the first sound they have heard from an inhabitant of the future. The sailors continue waving as the three ships slide on. The boy is only five and has not yet learned to read. The names of the ships escape him.
Ms. Deliberate is interrupted by a knock at the door. She opens it. The Mad Inquisitor has come to visit, full of his adventures.
“You should meet the Harpy Teacher,” he begins, stepping in and removing his top hat without being asked. “Just met her myself. Wonderful woman. From England originally, I believe. Speaks the king’s English properly anyway. Not some Philistine. You should meet the Defining Cook, though you probably wouldn’t get along. Not important really. I often get along by not getting along at all. What’s important is that she studied in France. All the best cooks do, you know. Never been there myself. Often thought of going. Have you tried that marvelous French restaurant? Can’t think of the name, but you know the way there, don’t you?”
“What way?” she asks, hanging his things on the rack beside the door.
“What way to France? Well, flying is the best way. What way to England? Nice to take a boat. Nice if you have time. Nice if you can afford it. You should get out. Do something nice for yourself. Doesn’t matter what. Try that restaurant I was speaking of.”
“What restaurant? I’m not hungry. I’m busy. I’m writing.”
“Busy? Writing? You’re always too busy, too busy for life. Why, I wrote myself this morning. I wasn’t too busy. I wrote myself a little note. It was brilliant, I believe. Can’t remember it now. Good thing I wrote it down. Important to be able to balance things: life and art, business and pleasure, reality and dreams. This is precisely where you fall short. Never a dream. Never a positive thought in your head. Always writing, writing, writing. I suppose if I were to say I had a black cat you would say that you had one that was blacker. That is just where your sort of thinking leads.”
“Where did you meet these people?” she asks, making tea. It is the only remedy for this sort of thing. Then she realizes it is not a remedy, it is only a habit. The remedy would be to hand the Mad Inquisitor back his top hat and cane and show him a generous opening of the door, but that is only another sort of habit. She dislikes how her thinking deteriorates around him just in proportion to the amount of spontaneity he encourages.
“Met them at the museum. Lovely cultural experience. You ought to go sometime. Nothing much happening here.”
She sets the tea things on the low table in the living room then lights incense and puts her prayer beads back in their cedar box. She turns on her music-from-outer-space tape, hoping to calm the Mad Inquisitor. They sit on cushions, and she tells him about her story.
“I think the fish represent hope. They often do.”
“Hope? Not much hope here. If you really wanted to be inspired, you’d come with me to The People’s Art Museum.”
“But I have a lot to do. I’ve left the boy floating in the water.”
“The boy can wait. This museum is a really special thing. Seems to have been around forever but might not last too much longer. Never say no to an adventure.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Cats got your tongue? Rats make you run? Pick any topic. Someone’s bound to be fluent on it. Come on, finish up that spot of tea.”
She puts on a striped Indian madras skirt, a Javanese batik top, a Navajo turquoise necklace, and Mexican huaraches. The Mad Inquisitor fails to notice the appropriateness of her outfit for The People’s Art Museum.
They head out of her neighborhood. The red brick buildings are crumbling. Dry weeds and garbage are everywhere. She strains to see any sign of life. Occasionally she spots a tiny dog or a cat in a window, but when she gets closer she usually discovers they are ceramic or cloth.
She complains, “It isn’t right, the way people have to live here.”
“Wrong, right-who’s to judge?” the Mad Inquisitor says, twirling his cane. “Make no assumptions. That’s my rule. You’ll never be disappointed.”
“That’s a little pessimistic, isn’t it?”
“No, of course not. Can’t think of a better philosophy to live by.”
She continues to peer into the buildings, falling behind. She hears a splash. Behind the iron bars of a row of basement windows she discovers the boy swimming in a beautifully tiled natatorium. Gold and green seaweed and fish are glazed on the walls. He looks up and waves. She waves back. She calls to the Mad Inquisitor, but he is too far ahead to hear. Other children float in the blue water. She is sure she will not be believed if she explains what she saw, so she moves on.
When they reach the museum, a maroon feather boa is draped on the ladder under the window.
“Obviously they’re expecting us,” the Mad Inquisitor says. “The red carpet’s out and everything.”
He flings the boa over his shoulder, climbs the ladder to the museum, and slips through the open window. She follows him.
The twenty-first-century gallery is closed for restructuring, so she trails him into the twentieth-century room. It is filled to capacity. The figures can barely move. This represents overpopulation, she assumes. Assume nothing, she reminds herself, but she can see that across the way in the nineteenth-century room there is more space. She is pushed this way and that, her bare arms stinging from the fiberglass art.
She wonders what to do about the boy and the other children she has left without a lifeguard. Is someone looking for them? Is she responsible for them? She can’t go around creating characters and abandoning them recklessly. It defeats the purpose of starting at all.
Finally she sees the Mad Inquisitor coming toward her, parting the pink gauzy crowd with his cane and his elbows. She recognizes the Harpy Teacher who accompanies him.
When they reach her, the Harpy Teacher bares her talons and hisses.
“Oh no,” he says. “This is the young woman I’ve been telling you about, the one I wanted you to meet.”
The Harpy Teacher pauses in mid-hiss, her beak tooth bared and a rasping cry stuck in her throat. She looks toward the Mad Inquisitor. He nods, and she extends her curled talons toward Ms. Deliberate in a gesture of hesitant greeting, the cawing sound dissipating from her lips in short bursts.
Two statues-men in dark blue business suits-one with a cowboy hat and boots, one with a top coat and fedora-walk up to them, connected by a telephone cord tied between their wrists.
The man with the cowboy hat tips it toward Ms. Deliberate and smiles. “Make any money at it?” he says in greeting.
The man in the fedora touches his hat and asks with enthusiasm, “What’s the bottom line?”
They introduce themselves as the West Coast Man and the East Coast Man. The Harpy Teacher, still trying to get at Ms. Deliberate, becomes entangled in the telephone cord, and the three statues wrap around each other.
“There’s the Ingenue!” the Mad Inquisitor shouts, taking Ms. Deliberate’s hand and dragging her toward a statue of a beautiful young woman, about nineteen, with dark, wavy hair parted on the side in a classical cut, a salmon-colored wool sweater, and a matching salmon-and-black plaid skirt. Her face curves up toward the corner of the room to expose her long neck and the delicate, straight line of her nose.
“Isn’t she perfect!” he says, walking around the Ingenue. “Bright, too. Talked to her earlier. Knows her ABC’s forward and backward in English and French. Quite an accomplishment for a college student these days. Shows initiative. An interest in life. Might take some tips from this one.”
“Parlez-vous frangais?” Ms. Deliberate says, hoping to impress him, but he is inspecting the rich texture of the Ingenue’s wool skirt.
There are not many visitors at the museum, so the statues they have met gather around them, proud to be seen talking to guests. The Ingenue is the Harpy Teacher’s protege, Ms. Deliberate gathers from the way they support each other.
“Communication lines are growing,” the Mad Inquisitor comments.
“Faulty prepositions are still a problem,” the Harpy Teacher says.
“Faulty propositions are an even larger one,” the Ingenue adds.
“Faulty preparation can spoil the soup,” the Cook contributes.
The East Coast Man and the West Coast Man say in unison, “You’ve got your bottom line and your top line. You’ve got your red line and your black line. You’ve got your assembly line and your fault line.”
Ms. Deliberate wants say something, to join in, but the Mad Inquisitor bends toward the group in such a way that they all move forward, and she is left out. Still anxious to prove herself, she reaches for the nearest museum pieces, the Ingenue and the Cook, and, fixing her hands upon their shoulders, pushes them apart.
The Harpy Teacher hisses.
“Don’t you know the rules!” the Ingenue shouts. “Everyone else was playing very politely!”
An alarm sounds. The Hostess rushes over with an armed guard.
“You mustn’t touch the art!” the Hostess says.
Ms. Deliberate clamps on tighter and pushes more, trying to include herself by jostling the whole group. They are all shouting and complaining now. The guard grabs one of her arms and the Hostess grabs the other. Her hands come away with fluffy chunks of art. As the sculptures push and pull at each other, the air fills with pink webs. Ms. Deliberate looks at the Mad Inquisitor in horror as she is dragged away. Perhaps now he will understand why she doesn’t like to leave her apartment.
As she is escorted out, she sees the gold and white guest book on its stand in the marble foyer. She longs to have written her name in it. Instead, she finds herself stumbling along the cracked sidewalk, crying, worried about the damage she has done to the art, and wondering what to do with the fiberglass she holds in her hands. She is sorry she could not get along with the museum pieces the way the Mad Inquisitor does.
She is sorry she cannot be this thing and that, that she cannot make herself up every day. She, too, is bored by her own limitations.
Finally she stops crying, knowing it does no good, deposits the prickly fiberglass remains in the trash, and heads toward her favorite hideaway, an abandoned outdoor stadium with fractured stone seats. She hopes the sculptures can be patted and smoothed back into shape and that the attention they receive will be worth the trouble she has caused them. She hopes the Mad Inquisitor will talk about her in a way that amuses him and the others. She decides to send the boy and his friends in the pool home to warm suppers. One by one she removes the splinters of glass in her arms until she feels comfortable in her own skin again.
Cassandra puts her pen down. Across the rubble-covered field, she sees Ms. Deliberate coming toward her and goes to meet her. They huddle together, heads bowed down, arms clasped around each other, as the wind comes up, and it grows cold and dim. Will they put us in The People’s Art Museum? Cassandra wonders. Probably not, she decides. In this broken neighborhood of shadow people, we will be their statue, their cultural memorial of hope, she thinks, though the dark-clothed masses going by do not seem to appreciate their pose either. We are as foreign here as anywhere else, she reluctantly concludes.
It is time to go home. The wind beats their long skirts as they watch their peasant sandals move over rocks and shattered bricks. They know the way, so they don’t look up often. They walk for a long time then from the streets the Mad Inquisitor joins them. Wrapping his arms around them, he insinuates himself between them. The wind whips aside his chatter, and they are glad they can no longer hear him.