All the Noise Is on the Outside

Issue 40 by Michael Peppergrass

All the Noise Is on the Outside

PETER

Peter stands in front of the entrance to the Museum of Modern Art in the middle of a terrazzo plaza that is hit full-on by the Californian summer sun. Behind him cars rumble past, taxis honk and construction workers are operating a power drill. It is sweltering hot and he is sweating in direct proportion. He admonishes himself, silently, lips barely moving. Leaving the protection of his house exposed him to this unpleasant brightness and heat. But home is not the best place to be right now.

He enters through the generously transparent glass doors into the inner atrium of the museum. As they slide shut behind him with a barely audible swish, the constant drone of L.A. traffic disappears. Inside, it is cool. Expensive, industrial-issue air conditioners hum softly.

The floor is made of dark stone. The sky through the glass ceiling above is reflected back from below. He is here on the ground looking down at the freedom of the open air. His twin looks up at him, disdainfully. As he takes a step, the sound of his heel ticking on the stone echoes across the vast space of the atrium with its hard surfaces.

Even though it is unnaturally even, the traces of milky marbling reveal that the polished squares that make up the immaculate plane, do come from nature, originally. They were not created by humans, only tempered by them and smoothed to perfection. What is hidden under the artificiality of its surface?

Peter looks up, realizing how pertinent that question was, given his current location. Not only that but especially considering his own state of mind.

The ticket counter contrasts prominently in its off-white and brushed aluminum construction. It seems heavy, as if showing how important it is to this whole area. In the sky above a cloud momentarily passes and covers the sun, darkening the floor and Peter's mood at the same time. He feels alone. A moment ago, it seemed pleasant, but now the huge, imposing space is chilly and his arms produce goosebumps, sticking out of the sleeves of his like indicator sticks that deliver you the happy news that your life as a free man is over, definitively.

Peter stops walking. He touches his arm. The palm of his right hand is warm and still slightly moist. As he lifts it up, he notices the hairs on his left arm's skin are flattened in its place. Exposing and covering. Discovery and shelter. Words that mean something to him, now more than ever.

A streak of sunlight escapes the cloud's cover and hits the ticket counter. The shimmering diffusion from the metal and stone blinds Peter. He raises his arm to protect his eyes. Clack. Another step and the brightness dims a little. In fact, it seems to strangely beckon him now.

High up on the walls to either side he notices the air vents that blow in the coolness that separates this room from the oppressive atmosphere outside. Whoever designed this must have had experience with this kind of climate. Everything is placed so well, so intentional. Or, is it really? Sometimes situations emerge without prior design, just from the elements that are already there. Peter thinks about his own life, how devoid of plans it has been, how sudden circumstances have developed, overwhelmingly quick. His younger self's eagerness and drive have dissolved in the pressure cooker of freshly gained responsibilities.

Not wanting to fret about it at this very moment, Peter shrugs his shoulders, hoping that helps shake it off. He makes an effort to stroll casually to the desk to buy his entry ticket. After a quick exchange, the woman prints his receipts. A sharp crackle dominates the space.

Peter looks at the name tag: Danielle. She looks indisputably malnourished. Her uniform is hanging loosely around her shape. The fingers of her right hand are fidgeting with the leaflet that every visitor receives. No doubt it is full of uninteresting factoids about each of the pieces of art: dimensions and what type of material it is made of. Why bother?

"Peter," she says. He looks her in the eye. "My god, you look exactly the same as always."

"I'm sorry," he says, "have we met?"

He looks at her reddish eyes, dark eyeliner hiding trouble.

"Dany. It's Dany. From high school. Remember?"

Embarrassment flushes his cheeks.

"Yeah, sure I do. How have you been?"

"Are you here for Gary's exhibit?"

Gary, he realizes, did become the artist he wanted to be, after all. That dreamer. An image comes to him of Gary lying on a cheap mattress. The morning sun reveals the tiny hairs on his naked body. They bristle in their fluffiness, as he passes his hand over them like a cloud over the fields, nearly touching the warm skin but never really.

Peter hesitates, swallows, then says: "I did not realize he was here."

"He's not here himself, of course. But his work is."

Peter looks at her again, this time with a slow onset of recognition. The Dany he knew had rosy cheeks and a serious demeanor. Best grades in class. Bright future ahead of her. Now, Peter determined, she seemed off the drugs only a few hours ago.

"I heard you got married," Danielle says.

"We have a kid, who's now two. And a new one on the way." Peter thinks about his wife back home. That last part just before they get born is hard. Everyone's on edge. It was good to get out of the house for a few hours.

Danielle giggles. "Who'd have known?"

DANY

It was nice sitting here in the cool interior of the museum. This morning on her bike ride here she almost ran over this vagrant that came out of nowhere. The air had already been so humid, unbearably hot and she was late. Yesterday's opening had turned into drinks late into the night. Gary was so happy. It had been such a hard year for him, but finally his work had been recognized and now, a special solo exhibition.

She narrowly hit the homeless guy with the edge of her peddle. The stench had been overpowering. Looking back over her shoulder, she imagined she saw flies buzzing around him, as if an overripe bag of bananas was hiding beneath these brownish lumps.

The light on her desk went on. A visitor. The first one of the day. She immediately recognized Peter by his scruffy beard and greenish eyes. Confused, she saw him approaching, not giving any hint that he knew who she was. Closer by, he did seem older now. Small wrinkles in his face, mouth taut.

She called his attention, gently saying his name. Another prod, then he remembered. She didn't know what to say next, feeling strange to bother this stranger who was not a stranger but acted like one. Fingering the leaflet gave her some comfort.

He told her he was married now, nearly two kids. Who'd have thought Peter would become a regular Joe, living in the suburbs. She had to giggle, suddenly, uncontrollably.

PETER

Still unnerved by his run-in with Dany, Peter walks into the first hall of the exhibition. It is completely empty, which calms him down a little. He went out from his home to escape the consuming intensity of human contact. Even though he had to bear the temporary insanity of traffic and heat. Running into someone that also expects something of him, was not what he was looking for.

The first piece is completely on its own in the large room. It is an installation, composed of a primary-colored red and blue, plastic swimming pool for kids. Its bottom has a graphic depicting the earth. He reads the plaque, because Dany had forgotten to give him the leaflet. What appears to be a translucent liquid that is definitely more viscous than water turns out to be dishwash detergent, pure, quite a lot of it.

Not oblivious to the multiple layers of meaning, Peter chuckles to himself. His heart has stopped pounding and is now giving off a peaceful rhythm. The sweat has dried up in the air-conditioned crispness. His steps feel lighter. He almost tricks himself into thinking he floats into the next room. The light flickers. Peter looks up, expecting a fluorescent tube that shows its age. But they are regular spotlights. A few are blinking on and off. Now there are more malfunctioning. And then all the lights go off.

There is that sound when a heavy rotor is spinning, and suddenly the power is interrupted. The gradual descent in the trajectory of its frequency until it is too low to hear. Peter turns around to see the room he came from. Completely dark as well, except the door to the ticket desk atrium throws a rectangle of natural light inside. As if by design, it puts the swimming pool, with its Lego-like colors in full display.

Peter feels warm again, displeasingly so. He walks back to the first hall, noticing how the fabric of his shirt rubs annoyingly with his skin. Except for his own footsteps, it is utterly silent. Not even the soothing breath of the cooling system. His face feels hot and wet. The temperature is rising fast, as the outside world starts to make its presence felt. A droplet of sweat falls from his beard. He hears its tiny drip as it hits the floor.

The next moment a loud siren spins up, freezing him on the spot with its unavoidable urgency. Overhead the sprinkler system activates, engulfing each room in an abundance of water. He looks at the swimming pool. Oh shit.

Danielle appears in the entrance as a shadow: "Peter?"

He says nothing, mesmerized by the ever-larger bubbles that come out of the red and blue plastic circle. They flow over the rim onto the floor and within moments they reach to the edges of the room. Peter just stands there. The spray from the sprinklers leave a cooling film on his face. He closes his eyes. This, he thinks, is only on the outside. The noise, the world, the pressure, they cannot touch him. Not inside. Not where it matters.

DANY

Slouching back in the seat, she was flipping through the photos on her phone from the previous night. Here was Gary, Mimosa in one hand, arm around the shoulder of his latest boyfriend. White teeth, browned skin, Piotr or something. She forgot. The rotation of men at his side seemed to blend together for Danielle. They never stuck around very long.

Still, Gary radiated happiness, clear as day. The dimples in his cheeks almost touched his ears. She felt her own lips curl into a smile, savoring the memory. Her feet rested on top of the counter, as she moved further into a reclining position. The wheels of the chair she was sitting on lifted away from the ground on one side.

The imposing blare of the alarm shook her from her reverie. Her phone slipped out of her hand. As she lunged to grab it, the chair swung away from under her. At the moment she smacked onto the ground, she saw her phone landing next to her on the hard floor with a sickening crack.

PETER

"Here," he shouts. So much for the relaxing stroll through the cooled museum he had envisioned, when he left the turmoil of his home. He walks towards Danielle, noticing as he comes closer, that she has tears rolling down her cheeks.

"What's the matter?" he asks. Her face snaps towards him, eyes angry. That's unexpected, he thinks, for a moment, then his mistake dawns on him. He searches for words, ends up saying nothing, looks at the mess then back at her.

But she is not there anymore. He hears her talk to someone on the phone, back in the atrium hall. She is pacing back and forth. Her rubber soles squeak echolocating waves through the massive space.

"You need to get over here right now," he hears her say several times, with increasing insistence.

With his back against the wall, Peter shuffles past the bubbling water mass that appears to have no limits to its growth potential. He can't help but chuckle at the image that the words evoke. Performance art with an audience of one.

"Do you find this funny, Peter?" The way she pronounces his name is both mocking and aggressive at the same time.

"Is someone coming to fix this?"

"They better be." She takes out her cracked phone, films the still-expanding froth and sends it off with that swoosh sound pealing out of the little speaker on the side.

"It could be too late," he says.

"Damn it." She puts the phone to her ear. "Gary? Yes, the whole thing is a mess. Get down here now, man, or there will be nothing left."

Now the floor in the atrium is becoming covered with a film of oily water. The alarm has stopped, but the sprinklers definitely have not. Probably because of the heat, a bit of mist seems to come off the rippling surface.

"This is going to fuck up the electrical systems," Dany gasps.

"And then what?"

She doesn't answer.

They just stand there for a while. Water rises to their ankles.

Peter thinks he would enjoy becoming submerged in the cold water. He almost can't wait until the level is high enough to pull his entire body, head included, down under. Hold his breath, waiting for the calmness, the consolation. Muffled sound, blurry vision. Away from the real world. Submerged in an art piece gone mad.

DANY

Peter simply stood there. She thought he had even shut his eyes, as if he was enjoying the situation like feeling the sun on your face when you get up in the morning and have your coffee outside. She had to do something. The museum's technical staff would take at least an hour to get here through the traffic. Gary lived nearby, but she knew he would not be able to do anything more than herself.

On her phone she searched the internet for information. Salt could help stop the bubbles from forming. That was something at least. She had to stop the sprinklers, as well, though.

"Peter?"

He looked up as if he woke from a very pleasant dream.

"Can you try to find a way to turn off the sprinkler system? Here is the key to the back room, go through, over there."

Slowly he took the key from her, turned and walked towards where she had been pointing. Meanwhile, she was going to run outside across the street to the supermarket and get some big bags of salt.

PETER

Once in front of the control panel, he glances over the buttons and dials. The descriptions are shorter than those on the plaques in the museum. Single words in fact. Now that is minimalism for you.

There is a lever that flips when the fire alarm system goes off. Peter puts a thumb and index finger on either side. There is nobody else here. What happens next is his own decision. He waits.

If he does not act, the water will continue to rise and destroy perhaps a large portion of the art pieces on exhibit. He doesn't resent Gary for being successful, but he realizes how he feels of his own existence, now with a clarity he never had before. His choice is change.

DANY

Unbelievably heavy were the bags of salt. On top of that, they were packaged in a way that it made more sense to transport them by truck than to carry them, like she was doing at the moment. Everything was slippery.

Back in the atrium, it seemed the water level was still rising. She tried to see where Peter was but couldn't. Without any help she struggled into the first room with her bags of salt. She ripped them open and started hurling the salt on top of the seething bubbles. It seemed to work.

Gradually they receded into foam, smaller froth, then tiny creamy fizz. This revealed a shape inside the plastic pool. Confused, she stepped forward.

There lay a man without clothes. It was Peter. He was curled up inside the circle of the artificial world.

About the Author

Michael Peppergrass

Back in the early 1990s, I studied Mathematics and Computer Science. The world wide web was still largely text-based and mostly empty. Since then, I have traveled all over the world for more than a decade, visiting just over 140 countries. Japan is my favorite.