Flesh Tones

Issue 23 by William Schillaci

When I caught up with Jhonelle, she was steering the wheelchair, trailing the girl and the man through the 15th Century, Northern Europe. The man had an angry grip on the girl’s wrist, pulling her along. She kept up with him with neither resistance nor any apparent interest, mechanically advancing her legs, the rest of her limp and lifeless. On the seat of the wheelchair were the remains of the girl’s artist’s pad, the pages with her drawings ripped from the spine, some torn to pieces. When I saw this, her work destroyed, I uttered some kind of cry and began to charge them. Jhonelle grabbed the tail of my jacket to hold me back.

“He’s her brother,” she said.

“Her brother?”

The girl and her brother were bumping and pushing through annoyed patrons to the grand staircase.

I scooped the violated drawings from the chair and held them near Jhonelle’s face.

“We’re supposed to stop this,” I said.

“Stop what?”

“Destruction of art.”

She pressed her lips together, looking thoughtful and classic Nubian.

“Okay,” she said and let go of my jacket.

In the museum when something different happens, it vibrates the air and bounds through the linked galleries one after the other. It doesn’t have to be much, just a decibel or two above the standard drone of human conversation, but even that is so out of the ordinary it may as well be a siren rending a midnight silence or the unmistakable pop of a pistol shot. Even before Jhonelle’s electrified alert arrived on the radio, I had stepped into the middle of the floor and peered through the doorway in the direction of the vibration. Patrons in the next gallery were doing the same, and the longer we looked, the more I knew it was the girl in the hijab.

“Conflict in eight twelve,” Jhonelle’s silver Caribbean voice warned.

I was guarding the Tiepolos, bright, busy paintings the size of foresails on a schooner. One docent likened the Tiepolos to Pixar for PhDs, the museum’s version of the digital screens aloft over Times Square. They ran up the wall, across the ceiling, and down again. Half a dozen patrons drifted through the room, gazing upward, their mouths agape. We may not leave our posts, unless dispatch tells us to. The museum preferred to hire guards with some background in art; it made protection personal. Two art history courses at Pace—one required—and a summer working in the gift shop at the Whitney won me the job. The training is simultaneously vague and crystal clear. It went something like this. Certain works of art offend the sensibilities of certain peoples or individuals. The reasons can be religious or cultural or buried in murderous ethnic feuds going back a millennium or just the product of twisted dreams and madness. Whatever the reason, it happens suddenly. The offended party withdraws a concealed bottle of paint, uncorks it and flings the contents or unsheathes an Exacto knife and gashes a large X through a priceless masterpiece. The training makes no mention of any particular nationality or dogma or what the appearance of the offended party may be or which of thousands works of art may be the target of outrage, and all of that is the point. It can be any work of art and it can be anyone in the unbroken river of patrons holding phones and museum maps and looking dazzled or exhausted and bored to death arriving from all corners of the globe and strolling through the hundred and ninety galleries on the museum’s second floor.

The training came to mind when I first saw her. The hijab was pink, with a black border incised with gold leaf Arabic script. I thought she was in high school because she looked the age, although no hair in the picture can create the illusion of youth, and she entered the gallery behind a solemnly well-behaved high school group led by one of our docents, Valerian, an older gentleman who grew up in Batumi on the eastern coast of the Black Sea where his father was a fisherman.

“The sea is dead,” he told me in the staff lounge when we were both on breaks. “Garbage, oil, shit. Everything dead.”

When the group left, the girl in the lovely hijab remained, standing before the nude in the corner, Courbet’s The Woman in the Waves. Despite its small size and inconspicuous location, the painting is popular, so there is nothing uncommon about someone parking herself in front of it for minutes on end. But a teenager in a hijab? That was uncommon, that was memorable, and the longer she watched, the more memorable it became.

After a time, she turned away, appearing confused, as if she had been shaken from slumber and couldn’t remember where she was. I didn’t look at her directly, but I held her in my peripheral vision. Museum guards know how to do that, see every part of a gallery at once. She found me and approached.

“Excuse me, Madam,” she said.

“Yes?”

“May I bring in a chair?”

“A chair?”

“A folding chair, so I can sit and copy.”

“Ah, no, I’m afraid not. Sorry.”

“I would like to copy a painting, a Courbet.”

“Which one?” I said disingenuously.

She pointed to the corner.

“Aphrodite,” I said. “Good choice.”

“The skin tones. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“She’s very realistic. Some people take a photo.”

“A photo?”

“Yes, you can copy from a photo.”

“That makes no sense. Why would anyone do that when the originals are right here?”

The hijab was above a black hooded sweat shirt and blue jeans. She had obsidian eyes and cheeks of polished copper so luminous they seemed to be projecting light more than reflecting it. Above her shoulders, she was right out of one of Delacroix’s harem paintings, a vile thought, but that’s what happens when your working life is spent surrounded by the erotic fantasies of long-dead white men.

“Some of the galleries have benches,” I said. “You can sit and copy there.”

Those deep eyes, which initially seemed incapable of irony, were suddenly drenched with it. But her voice stayed calm and respectful, fluid, not accented exactly, but rich with distant places and times.

“That would be perfect if I wanted to copy another painting.”

She murmured a thank you, returned to the Courbet and pulled a wire-bound drawing pad and a thick black pencil from her backpack. Cradling the pad in one arm and against her stomach, she resumed her examination of the painting. After a time, she began to sketch.

“Trish,” Jhonelle’s voice confirmed over the radio. “It’s her.”

The training says never leave your post unless the radio tells you to. What has happened, not in my experience, but what I’ve heard, is that vandals will work in pairs. One partner will start acting up, screaming that she’s been groped, and the guards will swarm in while in another room her partner pisses on one of Caravaggio’s pouting boys. Management tries to make it easier for the guards, shifts no longer than forty-five minutes in any one place, something to break the monotony, prompt coverage for bathroom emergencies and no prohibition on talking to the patrons as long as you keep your eyes on the inventory. All of it reasonable and compassionate, but not enough, apparently, not enough for me. With Apollo and the Continents gazing down with cool indifference, I marched out, through doorway after doorway, to find her.

Next day, she was back, right after the museum opened. I wasn’t scheduled for the Courbet room but when I walked past the doorway on my way to musical instruments, the hijab was there, a small pink beacon among the dusky hues of the French realists. The mornings, before the public shows up, are mystical. The masterpieces, unobserved, at rest, existing for no one but themselves, and each other perhaps, in subdued conversation, a community unsullied by human presence. But she was there, trying to find a way to hold the same pad and looking more uncomfortable than the day before, shifting her weight from hip to hip, her head canted as if she had asked the painting a question and was waiting for an answer. She ventured a few deliberate strokes with her pencil and then resumed watching, listening. Save for her, the room was empty. I took one step toward her, then hurried down the staircase to coat check.

“Hi,” I said, returning and coming up beside her.

“Good morning, Madam,” she said. Her great orbed eyes were hooded and rimmed with red. The hijab, so impeccable the day before, was wrinkled and bore a tiny black smudge.

“May I?” I said, nodding at the pad.

She tilted it toward me, Aphrodite’s breast, the right one, pointing impudently out of the page, just as Courbet had composed it.

“It is impossible,” she said. “The color of flesh cannot be captured with a pencil.”

“But the form is correct.”

She smiled slightly. “Thank you,” she said.

I asked to see more and she turned the pages. Each had a different detail, Aphrodite’s right arm lifted high above her wild tresses, tapered fingers caressing her powerful bicep, her right eye peering with newborn innocence into the churning sea and the figment of an eyebrow above it, the other youthful breast, and of course the divot of underarm hair, which, I overheard from one docent, was particularly offensive to the French Academy. Her drawings were rudimentary, no more than a collection of lines, what Courbet himself might have drawn when the image, a young goddess rising from ocean foam, was taking shape on the edge of his imagination, waiting to be brought to life.

“This is for you,” I said.

She looked at the wheelchair I had removed from coat check.

“But you said no chairs.”

“It’s allowed, for people who need it.”

I expected resistance, but she simply smiled again and murmured another thank you. I showed her how to lock the brakes. She sat and sighed. Flipping to a blank page, she resumed her conversation with the Courbet.

On my way to musical instruments, I passed Jhonelle. Six foot two and three quarters with blonde micro braids draped over her shoulders, Jhonelle had placed second with Kansas State in the NCAA high jump championship ten years ago, entered and dropped out of law school and was now working toward an accounting degree when her statuesque physique wasn’t attracting as much attention from the patrons as Ruebens and Vermeer. Talking fast, I told her about the girl and how I was breaking the rules by giving a wheelchair to someone who didn’t need it.

“How you know that, darlin’? What about she collapse from exhaustion? Then the museum be liable. Maybe you too. She asked to bring in a chair, yes?”

“You still reading those law books?”

Jhonelle’s laugh boomed musically.

“I keep an eye on your girl,” she said.

And she did, along with the other guards scheduled for the Courbet room. The story of the girl spread through the pipeline, wider each day of the next week she returned to the museum and the small painting in the corner. I wasn’t scheduled for the room, but I switched with a few guards who viewed her as my project. She accepted the chair whenever I brought it but made me promise to turn it over to anyone who really needed it. The chair didn’t seem to be helping her appearance, which was getting rattier by the day.

I asked her to join me in the cafeteria.

“Why?” she said suspiciously.

“For a snack. You should eat, you’ll draw better.”

“I can’t afford snacks in the cafeteria.”

“Not a problem. I get free snacks.”

“Really?”

“No,” I laughed. “I get a discount. Come on.”

We stowed the wheelchair in the staff lounge and rode the elevator to the basement. The cafeteria is the only eating venue in the museum that seems to have been actually designed for eating and not posing for pictures on a tiny chair of twisted wrought iron at a tiny table and picking at a twelve dollar wedge of clafoutis the size of a piece of play food for preschoolers. She trailed me at a distance down the serving counter. I placed a fruit bowl and a V8 on the tray and she joined me empty-handed at the cash register.

“Do you like rice pudding?” I said.

“I don’t know what that is.”

“Ah.”

We found a table near a wall with no one near. I peeled the lid off the rice pudding and pushed it across to her.

“What’s the red powder?”

“Cinnamon.”

“Why are you being nice to me?”

“I don’t know.”

“Is it because I’m Muslim?”

“Muslim?”

“You didn’t notice?”

“I did, but so what?”

“Because Muslim women aren’t artists.”

“Of course they are.”

“Then why isn’t there a single work by a Muslim woman in this museum.”

“That can’t be true.”

“Find me one, one that is signed.”

“I will,” I said. “It’s just that…”

“Tell me, please.”

“You seem to be suffering.”

Her eyes drifted around the cafeteria, the same searching look she directed at the Woman in the Waves. She scooped up half a spoonful of rice pudding and placed it in her mouth.

“Oh,” she said.

“I’m Tricia,” I said.

“Kamilah.”

She told me she was entirely self-taught, no classes, no teacher, no manuals of her own. What she knew, she acquired from library books and of course many trips to the museum, which she said consumed every penny her family gave her. They had an apartment in Bay Ridge, all seven of them, and she practiced at the Brooklyn Museum, no particular epoch, just the human form, which, she said, was not in abundance in the Brooklyn. That brought her to Manhattan and Courbet. She said she knew about nude models, but how could she find such an opportunity? The Courbet, she said, was as close to life as anything she had ever seen.

“Do you work with oils?” I said.

“I have no oils,” she whispered, looking down.

“There are classes, here at the museum, and the Art Students League. They give scholarships. With your skill, you would have no difficulty.”

She was silent, then said, “I have to be careful.”

“About what?”

She shrugged and then dug into the rice pudding with purpose. She closed her eyes and hummed.

“I have to tell you something, Tricia.”

“Yes?”

“I’m not suffering now.”

They were midway down the grand staircase when I caught them, cut in front and blocked their progress. The man, the brother, whatever, was tall and had some kind of proto-facial hair, but up close, looked to be about nineteen. At the sight of me, Kamilah stood up straighter and made a minor twisting gesture in an unsuccessful attempt to break out of his grasp.

“You forgot this,” I said and pushed the wreckage of Kamilah’s notebook against his chest. To capture the pages, both his hands snapped upward. Kamilah was freed.

“Come on,” I said, locking my arm around her shoulders and reversing course back to the second floor. On the way up we passed Jhonelle.

“Keep him busy,” I said.

“What thing you getting me into, darlin’?” she said, but she continued down the steps and before she even reached him announced to the brother that there would be no manhandling of museum patrons, family members or not.

Kamilah’s shoulders and back were taut and strong under my arm. We regained the second floor and paused.

“Where are we going?” she said.

“Where do you want to go?”

“Back.”

Down the staircase, Jhonelle and the brother were in an animated discussion, hands waving, heads bobbing ferally as if looking for an opening to attack. More security was heading up the stairs. Soon the brother would be surrounded.

“Are you going to be in trouble?” I said or started to say, turning to Kamilah, but she was gone.

I skipped down the stairs to where Jhonelle was informing the brother that she has had others arrested for actions that were not as severe as his assault on Kamilah.

“Assault? That is my sister. She is seventeen years old. I’m her guardian, not her assaulter. Where are you taking her?”

“This here is a museum. It’s a safe place. We do not tolerate violence.”

“Really? I have never seen so much violence in one building. Do you ever look at what’s hanging on the walls?”

Jhonelle dismissed this with an officious smirk and took out her phone.

“What’s your name?”

Jamil Hadi.” He still held the pages of his sister’s notebook, which, it seemed, he was trying to squeeze into as small a ball as possible.

Jhonelle was tapping at her phone when I touched her forearm.

“Take him to information,” I said. “I’ll bring her down.”

She kept tapping, refused to look at me and then nodded, wearily.

As I hurried through the galleries, I felt it again, the same rogue energy, the voices of patrons rising from hushed to aroused, and then the physical manifestation itself as the patrons shifted en masse in the same direction. My radio crackled and I shut it off. It was a Saturday afternoon in May and attendance was heavy. With each obstacle I had to maneuver around, I felt that I was failing her, that I was in the wrong place, that I was too late, that I could have done more, that I was surrounded by the most famous paintings on the planet and yet knew nothing about art or artists.

The Courbet room was packed. I squeezed through the crowd toward the corner. Cameras were out in abundance, held high, and as I push forward, repeating “Security” in a hard voice, I caught glimpses of what was ahead. The crowd had given her room, a roundish opening a dozen feet across. She stood before the painting, duplicating the tilt of Aphrodite’s head and the outward angle of the right breast, imagining below her the waves from which she was created. Near her feet, she had placed her sweatshirt and a plain white undergarment, both folded neatly. Her shoulders and stomach and breasts, which likely had never seen the sun, were yet darker than the tones in the painting. Her arms, raised and identical in every detail to the form she copied were crossed above her hijab, which was still firmly in place. She was still as a statue.

“Trish, what should we do?” the guard stationed in the room whispered at my side.

“Wait, just wait. Let them take pictures.”

Everyone had a phone out, snapping, but otherwise there was a silence. Minutes passed and she began to waver, elbows and chin bobbing and dipping. I approached, not getting too close.

“Enough?” I said.

“Yes, enough,” Kamilah said.

She bent for her clothing, but I took off my museum jacket and held it toward her. She nodded and I wrapped it around her and buttoned up the front. The crowd parted for us as we headed back together to the grand staircase. Before we descended, she stopped and turned to me. The Triumph of Marius, the Tiepolo at the top of the stairs, watched, listened.

“For now,” she said.

About the Author

William Schillaci

Bill Schillaci is freelance writer who covers the environment and worker safety. He was born in the Bronx, attended New York University and now lives in Ridgewood, New Jersey.