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At the Museum


ISSUE:  Autumn 1977

The telephone was ringing, but Louise Reeves had her girdle only halfway on. Billows of white flesh were foaming at the waistband. She couldn’t stop now. No matter who that was.

“Will you get it, Essie?” she shouted toward the hall. “And tell them I’ll call back?” She glanced at her watch. “No. Better say I’ve left. Gone to the airport to meet the Governor. After that, I’ll be at the Museum.”

At the Museum. I like the sound of that, she thought as she flicked her hip and yanked the girdle higher. After all that I’ve been through with that mousy little pedant, I still like the sound of that: Mrs. Reeves is—at the Museum. Not,—on the golf course. Not,—in the garden. But more often than not,— at the Museum.

Tenderly she tucked the final fold of flesh into her girdle, then leaned down and yanked her stockings straight. Still damned good-looking legs, she thought, holding one leg out and rotating the foot. And well-turned ankles. That Elcock girl, poor thing, has dreadful ankles. She may have a beautiful mind, but she’s got perfectly dreadful ankles. That’s probably one reason she went through all that hell to get a Ph. D. She was certain she’d have nothing else to do.

When I think how I’ve had to fight to keep a little umphf in this exhibition, to make it just a tiny bit different from the 14 other exhibitions of the 14 other museums that signed up for the same set of paintings from Art Express. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” That’s what that Elcock creature said about my driftwood. And about my sound effects. And even about my title. My harmless little title: “Winslow Homer, Painter of the Sea.” And what was that monstrosity she suggested? “Winslow Homer Retrospective.” Now how many people in this county ever heard of “retrospective?” For that matter, how many ever heard of Winslow Homer?

“You’ve got to make allowances.” If I said it to her once, I said it a hundred times. “These people don’t have Ph. Ds. They’re just small-town people. And half of them have never even laid eyes on the ocean. That’s why it’s so important that we give them a feeling of the sea,” And what did she say then: “Couldn’t we leave that to the artist? He was fairly good at it.”

Louise yanked open a dresser drawer, pulled out a lace encrusted slip and wriggled into it. A partnership, the mayor called it. The perfect partnership to head up Surrey’s Art Museum. The partnership of a sorceress and a scholar.

Those were the words he used. A sorceress and a scholar. Why would he call me a sorceress, I wonder? “Because you can work magic.” That’s what Harry says. “Because you can write checks.”

And maybe Harry’s right. But did the Mayor really think that I would be content to sit back on my duff and sign all of those checks? And let Jean Elcock nail her 20 little hooks in a neat little row—and hang the 20 paintings on them—and call the thing an exhibition? Our premiere exhibition? If the Mayor thought that, he’s got another thought coming.

Louise sat down at the dressing table, leaned up to the mirror, and began to brush her lashes with mascara. Yes sirree, he’s got another thought coming. Because I’ve worked to make my name stand for something in this town. Sophistication, maybe. Creativity. For twelve long years I’ve slaved as Garden Week Coordinator. Salad Chief at the Lenten Luncheons. Creative Ideas Chairman for the Children’s In firmary Ball. When I could just as well have stuck my nose up in the air and ignored their hicky little projects. Plenty of women with my background would have done just that. But I said to myself when we moved to Surrey, “If you don’t like it, change it.” And that’s been my motto all along.

Sure there have been times when I felt like giving up. Last week, for example, when I got seven phone calls asking what does “Black Tie” mean on the Preview invitation. But I kept on fighting. Out of habit mainly. And if I do say so myself, I’ve built up quite a reputation. And I’ll be damned if I will blow it now just to please that prude, Jean Elcock.

A partnership, the Mayor called it. Partnership, hell. It’s been a goddam war. But at least, Louise thought as she rubbed eyeshadow on her eyelid, at least I think I’ve won it. If I can just keep her from sticking her nose into that Gallery on her way home from the college. And tossing out my seashells. And messing up my information panels with her timid little circas. If I’ve told her once, I’ve told her a hundred times. Nobody cares about your circas. If you think a painting was painted in 1890, go ahead. Be brave. Say 1890. That’s what you think now, isn’t it? And if 50 years from now somebody digs up a letter, some moth-eaten letter, that proves that it was painted on New Year’s Day of 1891, then we’ll simply say we made an honest error. Louise picked up a deodorant pad and slapped it at her armpit. Nobody minds an honest error. Personally, I think an honest error isn’t half as offensive as a circa.

And there’s something else, she thought as she raised the other arm. Something I could not explain to her because she was born without literary feeling. And that is that her circas were breaking up the rhythm of my prose. Absolutely no point in explaining that to her. Better to let her go ahead and botch up my copy with her pussyfooting circas. It was easy enough to take them out this morning.

Louise snapped the gold cap back on the eyeshadow stick and jabbed it in a bud vase that was already sprouting eyebrow pencils, lipstick brushes, and tweezers. But I know Jean Elcock well enough to know that she won’t hesitate to put those circas back in. If she gets inside that Gallery before the crowd gets there, she’ll whip out a ballpoint pen and write them all back in.

Louise jumped up from the dressing table, pattered over to the Princess telephone beside her bed and dialed the Muscum’s number. “Hello? May I please speak to Mr. Barnes? . . . Mr. Barnes, Louise Reeves. Just checking to be sure you’ve got all of my instructions. No one is allowed in the Gallery, right? Till the Governor cuts the ribbon . . . . That’s right, absolutely no one. Not even Miss Elcock. . . . Well, of course the men from Art Express will have to come in. But you won’t even see them, Mr. Briggs will bring them in through the back. . . . I’d say any minute now. The truck left Louisville at noon. But that’s Mr. Briggs’s problem. It’s not your problem, Mr. Barnes. And it’s not Miss Elcock’s.

“I spent the whole morning getting that Gallery in shape. The hooks are up. The labels up. The spotlights adjusted to the dimensions of each frame. So you see, Mr. Barnes, we’re as ready as we can be . . . . No, they can’t use any of our men. Because of the insurance. Our policy doesn’t go into effect until Art Express’s paintings are actually hanging on our walls.

“Now if anything comes up, you get in touch with me, you hear? Nobody else but me. I’m driving to the Hopkinsville Airport now. You can page me there, if you need me.”

Two hours later, swaying on the arm of the Governor, Louise waited for her husband to open the door of their Mercedes. She was wearing her new dress, an extravagance from Bergdorf’s custom cut to her plumpness from a gold-threaded Oriental fabric.

“I’ll sit in the back,” she said. “Beside the Governor.”

“Suits me,” Harry said. And stretching his neck to avoid the starch on his tuxedo shirt, he jerked open the back door.

“We’ll let Harry be the chauffeur,” Louise said as she swung her hips into the car, then gently lifted in her legs, pointing her toes to show her ankles to advantage.

The Governor, a hefty, wheezing man of 60, fell in after her.

“Watch your hands,” Harry shouted as he slammed the door behind them. Then he walked around to the driver’s seat, tossing his keys in the air.

A moment later the diesel engine roared and the Mercedes leapt forward just as a loud speaker crackled and coughed up a voice: “Paging Mrs. Reeves. Mrs. Harry Reeves. A message for Mrs. Reeves at the Information Desk.”

By the time the speaker had crackled back to silence, the Mercedes had diminished to a small metallic speck passing through the gate of the airport parking lot.

At five minutes after six the Mercedes slid to a stop in front of a windowless brick building surrounded by a lawn of freshly seeded topsoil roped off from a flagstone path and terrace.

A crowd had already gathered on the terrace: ladies in long dresses and men in dinner jackets, laughing, chatting, and sipping champagne from long-stemmed glasses while a canopy of cigarette smoke undulated lazily above their heads.

What a perfectly beautiful crowd, Louise thought to herself as she walked toward the terrace on the arm of the Governor. Hard as I have worked for it, I never really thought I’d see it here in Surrey,

Suddenly, from the blurred scene on the terrace, a single figure leapt out like a typographical error. Oh my Lord, Jean Elcock! In a drab little print, with a V neckline. Nobody that flat-chested should ever wear that neckline.

“I’ve got to talk to you, Mrs. Reeves.” Behind her contact lenses, which gave her a rather startled expression, Jean Elcock’s ash-gray eyes were smouldering with anger. “Mr. Barnes won’t let me into the Gallery. He says you gave him orders not to let me in.”

“I’ll explain it. . . . Later,” Louise whispered from the corner of her mouth as she flashed a wide smile at the President of Surrey Gravel and Granite. “Right now you’ve got to meet the Governor.”

“Governor,” Louise said, pressing his arm gently. “There’s someone here I want you to meet. My cochairman, Jean Elcock. Jean, may I present the Governor.”

“Pleased to meet you, Miss Elcock,” the Governor said as he squeezed the limp hand that was offered to him.

Before Jean Elcock could reply, Louise interrupted: “The Mayor’s signalling! It’s time to start.”

For five long minutes, in front of a slab of driftwood into which the words “Winslow Homer, Painter of the Sea” had been irregularly burnt, the Governor spoke about the Cultural Explosion, It had started in the urban centers of the East, he said. Then it had crossed the Alleghenies. Like the pioneers, it had rushed across the Alleghenies into the great cities of Louisville and Lexington. And now it was appearing in smaller towns, like Surrey. But no city, large or small, can have a cultural explosion unless there is a special someone to ignite it. And we should all be thankful that Surrey had that someone. That necessary spark of creativity. Without further ado he would like to recognize that someone, that very charming someone, the creative spark of Surrey, Mrs. Harry Reeves.

Louise stepped forward then, carrying a pair of scissors adorned with a large red satin bow. “Thank you,” she said, nodding to the speaker with the poise of a woman who is used to compliments, “Thank you,” she said, nodding to the crowd. “And especially I want to thank my cochairman, Professor Jean Elcock from Surrey Community College. She has been an enormous help to me in preparing this exhibition. Our premiere exhibition: “Winslow Homer, Painter of the Sea.” Now that all the work is done, I must confess to you that if I had not had Miss Elcock’s help I would have been at sea myself.”

As soon as the ripple of laughter subsided, Louise handed the shears to the Governor, who pried them open over a red ribbon that was stretched across the entrance to the Gallery. Then he snapped the shears together, and the ribbon fluttered, in two pieces, to the floor.

Instantly the crowd surged forward, let by Miss Elcock, through a threshold of bleached boards that were meant to suggest a humble fisherman’s hut.

Louise and the Governor stopped at the threshold to shake hands. Here comes Justice Stone, Louise thought, clenching her teeth to contain a sudden rush of satisfaction. Two years ago he told me he wouldn’t be caught dead inside an art museum. . . . And the Methodist minister’s wife. I wonder if she drank champagne . . . . And old Mrs. Pritchett who never deigns to come to the Children’s Infirmary Ball. . . .

Suddenly, a shrill voice severed her contentment. A familiar voice. Oh my Lord, she thought. That’s Jean Elcock’s voice.

“They’re not here!” Jean Elcock shrieked. “You’ve got to stop this right away. They’re not here!”

Louise took a deep breath and then exhaled her words, one by one. “Who is not here?” she said.

“The paintings, you idiot. The Winslow Homer paintings. The truck broke down in Putney. The paintings haven’t come!”

Louise felt something break loose, then fall inside her rib cage. As if her heart had dropped through a trap door. Numbly she released whatever hand she had been shaking and pushed her way into the Gallery, elbowing through the forest of tuxedos that was blocking her view.

At one point her shin struck a piece of barnacled driftwood. And then she almost tripped over a lobster pot. But finally she managed to reach a fishnet room divider which she pulled aside to get a view of the Gallery wall. What she saw there was a starkly simple pattern—a pattern of sea-green labels alternating with empty rectangles of light.

Louise turned around then and looked at the faces. She felt a little better when she looked at the faces, for they were flushed from the champagne and apparently contented. In fact, it crossed her mind that a photograph of the faces with the fish nets behind them would do very well on a brochure of the Museum. Some were reading the information panels; others were studying the seashells; and still others were smiling from the simple pleasure of being part of such a crowd. Now and then there was a face that registered a question, a slight hint of anticipation not yet satisfied, but on the whole there was no sign of deep distress except that every 30 seconds the fog horn—which Louise had traveled to Maine to record on the finest tape recorder that money could buy—let out a long and desperately lonely moan.

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