Roger Zelazny. A Museum Piece
Forced to admit that his art was going unnoticed in a frivolous world, Jay Smith decided to get out of that world. The four dollars and ninety-eight cents he spent for a mail order course entitled Yoga—the Path to Freedom did not, however, help to free him. Rather, it served to accentuate his humanity, in that it reduced his ability to purchase food by four dollars and ninety-eight cents.
Seated in a padmasana, Smith contemplated little but the fact that his navel drew slightly closer to his backbone with each day that passed. While nirvana is a reasonably esthetic concept, suicide assuredly is not, particularly if you haven’t the stomach for it. So he dismissed the fatalistic notion quite reasonably.
“How simply one could take one’s own life in ideal surroundings!” he sighed, (tossing his golden locks which, for obvious reasons, had achieved classically impressive lengths). “The fat stoic in his bath, fanned by slave girls and sipping his wine, as a faithful Greek leech opens his veins, eyes downcast! One delicate Circassian,” he sighed again, “there perhaps, plucking upon a lyre as he dictates his funeral oration—the latter to be read by a faithful countryman, eyes all a-blink. How easily he might do it! But the fallen artist—say! Born yesterday and scorned today he goes, like the elephant to his graveyard, alone and secret!”
He rose to his full height of six feet, one and a half inches, and swung to face the mirror. Regarding his skin, pallid as marble, and his straight nose, broad forehead, and wide-spaced eyes, he decided that if one could not live by creating art, then one might do worse that turn the thing the other way about, so to speak.
He flexed those thews which had earned him half-tuition as a halfback for the four years in which he had stoked the stithy of his soul to the forging out of a movement all his own: two-dimensional painted sculpture.
“Viewed in the round,” one crabbed critic had noted, “Mister Smith’s offerings are either frescoes without walls or vertical lines. The Etruscans excelled in the former form because they knew where it belonged; kindergartens inculcate a mastery of the latter in all five-year-olds.”
Cleverness! More cleverness! Bah! He was sick of those Johnsons who laid down the law at someone else’s dinner table!
He noted with satisfaction that his month-long ascetic regime had reduced his weight by thirty pounds to a mere two twenty-five. He decided that he could pass as a Beaten Gladiator, post-Hellenic.
“It is settled,” he pronounced. “I’ll be art.” Later that afternoon a lone figure entered the Museum of Art, a bundle beneath his arm.
Spiritually haggard (although clean-shaven to the armpits), Smith loitered about the Greek Period until it was emptied of all but himself and marble.
He selected a dark corner and unwrapped his pedestal. He secreted the various personal things necessary for a showcase existence, including most of his clothing, in its hollow bottom.
“Good-bye, world,” he renounced, “you should treat your artists better,” and mounted the pedestal.
His food money had not been completely wasted, for the techniques he had mastered for four ninety-eight while on the Path to Freedom, had given him a muscular control such as allowed him perfect, motionless statuity whenever the wispy, middle-aged woman followed by forty-four children under age nine, left her chartered bus at the curb and passed through the Greek Period, as she did every Tuesday and Thursday between 9:35 and 9:40 in the morning. Fortunately, he had selected a seated posture.
Before the week passed he had also timed the watchman’s movements to an alternate tick of the huge clock in the adjacent gallery (a delicate Eighteenth Century timepiece, all of gold leaf, enamel, and small angels who chased one another around in circles). He should have hated being reported stolen during the first week of his career, with nothing to face then but the prospect of second-rate galleries or an uneasy role in the cheerless private collections of cheerless and private collectors. Therefore, he moved judiciously when raiding staples from the stores in the downstairs lunch room, and strove to work out a sympathetic bond with the racing angels. The directors had never seen fit to secure the refrigerator or pantry from depredations by the exhibits, and he applauded their lack of imagination. He nibbled at boiled ham and pumpernickel (light), and munched ice cream bars by the dozen. After a month he was forced to take calisthenics (heavy) in the Bronze Age.
“Oh, lost!” he reflected amidst the Neos, surveying the kingdom he had once staked out as his own. He wept over the statue of Achilles Fallen as though it were his own. It was.
As in a mirror, he regarded himself in a handy collage of bolts and nutshells. “If you had not sold out,” he accused, “if you had hung on a little longer—like these, the simplest of Art’s creatures…But no! It could not be!
“Could it?” he addressed a particularly symmetrical mobile overhead. “Could it?”
“Perhaps,” came an answer from nowhere, which sent him flying back to his pedestal.
But little came of it. The watchman had been taking guilty delight in a buxom Rubens on the other side of the building and had not overheard the colloquy. Smith decided that the reply signified his accidental nearing of Dharana. He returned to the Path, redoubling his efforts toward negation and looking Beaten. In the days that followed he heard occasional chuckling and whispering, which he at first dismissed as the chortlings of the children of Mara and Maya, intent upon his distractions. Later, he was less certain, but by then he had decided upon a classical attitude of passive inquisitiveness.
And one spring day, as green and golden as a poem by Dylan Thomas, a girl entered the Greek Period and looked about, furtively. He found it difficult to maintain his marbly placidity, for lo! she began to disrobe!
And a square parcel on the floor, in a plain wrapper. It could only mean…
He coughed politely, softly, classically…
She jerked to an amazing attention, reminding him of a women’s underwear ad having to do with Thermopylae. Her hair was the correct color for the undertaking—that palest shade of Parian manageable—and her gray eyes glittered with the icy-orbed intentness of Athene.
She surveyed the room minutely, guiltily, attractively…
“Surely stone is not susceptible to virus infections,” she decided. “‘Tis but my guilty conscience that cleared its throat. Conscience, thus do I cast thee off!”
And she proceeded to become Hecuba Lamenting, diagonally across from the Beaten Gladiator and fortunately, not facing in his direction. She handled it pretty well, too, he grudgingly admitted. Soon she achieved an esthetic immobility. After a period of appraisal he decided that Athens was indeed mother of all the arts; she simply could not have carried it as Renaissance nor Romanesque. This made him feel rather good.
When the great doors finally swung shut and the alarms had been set she heaved a sigh and sprang to the floor.
“Not yet,” he cautioned, “the watchman will pass through in ninety-three seconds.”
She had presence of mind sufficient to stifle her scream, a delicate hand with which to do it, and eighty-seven seconds in which to become Hecuba Lamenting once more. This she did, and he admired her delicate hand and her presence of mind for the next eighty-seven seconds. The watch man came, was nigh, was gone, flashlight and beard bobbing in musty will o’ the-wispfulness through the gloom.
“Goodness!” she expelled her breath. “I had thought I was alone!”
“And correctly so,” he replied. “‘Naked and alone we come into exile…Among bright stars on this most weary unbright cinder, lost…Oh, lost—’”
“Thomas Wolfe,” she stated.
“Yes,” he sulked. “Let’s go have supper.”
“Supper?” she inquired, arching her eyebrows. “Where? I had brought some K-Rations, which I purchased at an Army Surplus Store—”
“Obviously,” he retorted, “you have a short-timer’s attitude. I believe that chicken figured prominently on the menu for today. Follow me!”
They made their way through the Tang Dynasty, to the stairs.
“Others might find it chilly in here after hours,” he began, “but I daresay you have thoroughly mastered the techniques of breath control?”
“Indeed,” she replied, “my fiancee was no mere Zen faddist. He followed the more rugged path of Lhasa. Once he wrote a modern version of the Ramayana, full of topical allusions and advice to modern society.”
“And what did modern society think of it?”
“Alas! Modern society never saw it. My parents bought him a one-way ticket to Rome, first-class, and several hundred dollars worth of Travelers’ Checks. He has been gone ever since. That is why I have retired from the world.”
“I take it your parents do not approve of Art?”
“No, and I believe they must have threatened him also.”
“Such is the way of society with genius. I, too, in my small way, have worked for its betterment and received but scorn for my labors.”
“Yes. If we stop in the Modern Period on the way back, you can see my Achilles Fallen.”
A very dry chuckle halted them.
“Who is there?” he inquired, cautiously.
No reply. They stood in the Glory of Rome, and the stone senators were still.
“Someone laughed,” she observed.
“We are not alone,” he stated, shrugging. “There’ve been other indications of such, but whoever they are, they’re as talkative as Trappists—which is good.
Remember, though art but stone,” he called gaily, and they continued on to the cafeteria. One night they sat together at dinner in the Modern Period.
“Had you a name, in life?” he asked.
“Gloria,” she whispered. “And yours?”
“What prompted you to become a statue, Smith—if it is not too bold of me to ask?”
“Not at all,” he smiled, invisibly. “Some are born to obscurity and others only achieve it through diligent effort. I am one of the latter. Being an artistic failure, and broke, I decided to become my own monument. It’s warm in here, and there’s food below. The environment is congenial, and I’ll never be found out because no one ever looks at anything standing around museums.”
“Not a soul, as you must have noticed. Children come here against their wills, young people come to flirt with one another, and when one develops sufficient sensibility to look at anything,” he lectured bitterly, “he is either myopic or subject to hallucinations. In the former case he would not notice, in the latter he would not talk. The parade passes.”
“Then what good are museums?”
“My dear girl! That the former affianced of a true artist should speak in such a manner indicates that your relationship was but brief—”
“Really!” she interrupted. “The proper word is ‘companionship’.”
“Very well,” he amended, “‘companionship’. But museums mirror the past, which is dead, the present, which never notices, and transmit the race’s cultural heritage to the future, which is not yet born. In this, they are near to being temples of religion.”
“I never thought of it that way,” she mused. “Rather a beautiful thought, too. You should really be a teacher.”
“It doesn’t pay well enough, but the thought consoles me. Come, let us raid the icebox again.”
They nibbled their final ice cream bars and discussed Achilles Fallen, seated beneath the great mobile which resembled a starved octopus. He told her of his other great projects and of the nasty reviewers, crabbed and bloodless, who lurked in Sunday editions and hated life. She, in turn, told him of her parents, who knew Art and also knew why she shouldn’t like him, and of her parents’ vast fortunes, equally distributed in timber, real estate, and petroleum. He, in turn, patted her arm and she, in turn, blinked heavily and smiled Hellenically.
“You know,” he said, finally, “as I sat upon my pedestal, day after day, I often thought to myself: Perhaps I should return and make one more effort to pierce the cataract in the eye of the public—perhaps if I were as secure and at ease in all things material—perhaps if I could find the proper woman—but nay! There is no such a one!”
“Continue! Pray continue!” cried she. “I, too, have, over the past days, thought that, perhaps, another artist could remove the sting. Perhaps the poison of loneliness could be drawn by a creator of beauty—If we—” At this point a small and ugly man in a toga cleared his throat.
“It is as I feared,” he announced.
Lean, wrinkled, and grubby was he; a man of ulcerous bowel and much spleen. He pointed an accusing finger.
“It is as I feared,” he repeated.
“Wh-who are you?” asked Gloria.
“Cassius,” he replied, “Cassius Fitzmullen—art critic, retired, for the Dalton Times. You are planning to defect.”
“And what concern is it of yours if we leave?” asked Smith, flexing his Beaten Gladiator halfback muscles.
Cassius shook his head.
“Concern? It would threaten a way of life for you to leave now. If you go, you will doubtless become an artist or a teacher of art—and sooner or later, by word or by gesture, by sign of by unconscious indication, you will communicate what you have suspected all along. I have listened to your conversations over the past weeks. You know, for certain now, that this is where all art critics finally come, to spend their remaining days mocking the things they have hated. It accounts for the increase of Roman Senators in recent years.”
“I have often suspected it, but never was certain.”
“The suspicion is enough. It is lethal. You must be judged.”
He clapped his hands.
“Judgment!” he called.
Other ancient Romans entered slowly, a procession of bent candles. They encircled the two lovers. Smelling of dust and yellow newsprint and bile and time, the old reviewers hovered.
“They wish to return to humanity,” announced Cassius. “They wish to leave and take their knowledge with them.”
“We would not tell,” said Gloria, tearfully.
“It is too late,” replied one dark figure. “You are already entered into the Catalog. See here!” He produced a copy and read: “‘Number 28, Hecuba Lamenting. Number 32, The Beaten Gladiator.’ No! It is too late. There would be an investigation.”
“Judgment!” repeated Cassius.
Slowly, the Senators turned their thumbs down.
“You cannot leave.”
Smith chuckled and seized Cassius’ tunic in a powerful sculptor’s grip.
“Little man,” he said, “how do you propose stopping us? One scream by Gloria would bring the watchman, who would sound an alarm. One blow by me would render you unconscious for a week.”
“We shut off the guard’s hearing aid as he slept,” smiled Cassius. “Critics are not without imagination, I assure you. Release me, or you will suffer.”
Smith tightened his grip.
“Judgment,” smiled Cassius.
“He is modern,” said one.
“Therefore, his tastes are catholic,” said another.
“To the lions with the Christians!” announced a third, clapping his hands.
And Smith sprang back in panic at what he thought he saw moving in the shadows. Cassius pulled free.
“You cannot do this!” cried Gloria, covering her face. “We are from the Greek Period!”
“When in Greece, do as the Romans do,” chuckled Cassius.
The odor of cats came to their nostrils.
“How could you—here…? A lion?” asked Smith.
“A form of hypnosis privy to the profession,” observed Cassius. “We keep the beast paralyzed most of the time. Have you not wondered why there has never been a theft from this museum? Oh, it has been tried, all right! We protect our interests.”
The lean, albino lion which generally slept beside the main entrance padded slowly from the shadows and growled—once, and loudly.
Smith pushed Gloria behind him as the cat began its stalking. He glanced towards the Forum, which proved to be vacant. A sound, like the flapping of wings by a flock of leather pigeons, diminished in the distance.
“We are alone,” noted Gloria.
“Run,” ordered Smith, “and I’ll try to delay him. Get out, if you can.”
“And desert you? Never, my dear! Together! Now, and always!”
At that moment the beast conceived the notion to launch into a spring, which it promptly did.
“Good-bye, my lovely.”
“Farewell. One kiss before dying, pray.”
The lion was high in the air, uttering healthy coughs, eyes greenly aglow.
Moon hacked in the shape of cat, that palest of beasts hung overhead—hung high, hung menacingly, hung long…
It began to writhe and claw about wildly in that middle space between floor and ceiling for which architecture possesses no specific noun.
“Mm! Another kiss?”
“Why not? Life is sweet.”
A minute ran by on noiseless feet; another pursued it.
“I say, what’s holding up that lion?”
“I am,” answered the mobile. “You humans aren’t the only ones to seek umbrage amidst the relics of your dead past.”
The voice was thin, fragile, like that of a particularly busy Aeolian Harp.
“I do not wish to seem inquisitive,” said Smith, “but who are you?”
“I am an alien life form,” it tinkled back, digesting the lion. “My ship suffered an accident on the way to Arcturus. I soon discovered that my appearance was against me on your planet, except in the museums, where I am greatly admired. Being a member of a rather delicate and, if I do say it, somewhat narcissistic race—” He paused to belch daintily, and continued, “—I rather enjoy it here—‘among bright stars on this most weary unbright cinder [belch], lost’”
“I see,” said Smith. “Thanks for eating the lion.”
“Don’t mention it—but it wasn’t wholly advisable. You see, I’m going to have to divide now. Can the other me go with you?”
“Of course. You saved our lives, and we’re going to need something to hang in the living room, when we have one.”
He divided, in a flurry of hemidemisemiquavers, and dropped to the floor beside them.
“Good-bye, me,” he called upward.
“Good-bye,” from above.
They walked proudly from the Modern, through the Greek, and past the Roman Period, with much hauteur and a wholly quiet dignity. Beaten Gladiator, Hecuba Lamenting, and Xena ex Machina no longer, they lifted the sleeping watchman’s key and walked out the door, down the stairs, and into the night, on youthful legs and drop-lines.