The Docent strode into the exhibit hall on soft-soled clogs. She had finished the last museum tour of the morning but had heard a stirring in this room earlier and returned to stand before La Confidence by Bouguereau.
The composition portrayed two young girls with bare feet and a sensuality that held itself in their coloured lips, thin necks, and full hair. There was a painted whisper between them, and the Docent stepped forward to hear. The hall quieted; her shoulders relaxed.
“Je vais t’attendre.”
Wait for you? Had she heard correctly?
There it was again.
The Docent stepped closer still. A kiss to the ear. First a whisper and then a kiss.
It wasn’t the only time the Docent witnessed the movements of paintings. The fluff of a skirt. The rustling of arms in starched sleeves. A cur chewing his paw or scratching behind an ear before relaxing again by his master’s side. She’d grown used to them and their restlessness. It’s what invited her to look more closely, more deeply, more devoutly.
The Docent hadn’t heard the patron enter the hall or the question she asked. But she felt her now at the south entrance. “Did you find a scarf?” The Docent kept her position with her hands holding one another, listening to the parting of the girl’s stained lips, the wetness in the kiss, the whisper. She didn’t turn from the painting. “No,” she said, and the woman clomped away. How many times would this flushed girl be kissed? How many times would she be told the other would wait for her? The curve of her lips, the calm of her face—she’d heard it a thousand times and would hear it a thousand more. Never would she tire.
At home, the Docent’s own young daughter waited for her. Waited and itched her scabbed arms, wanting the allowance her mother stopped giving when she’d dropped out of college, and it became clear the allowance went to drugs. Meth or heroin. The mother wasn’t clear about what drugs her beautiful daughter had been taking. Only that by taking them, she’d spoiled her looks and ruined the education she was so lucky to have been offered. The father wouldn’t give her another chance.
The daughter rose from the kitchen table when the mother came in. “Mom,” she said, “I still have my key.”
The daughter didn’t know where to put her hands. They hopped uneasily at her sides and waist.
“Are you high right now?”
“No. A little, yeah.”
The mother’s heart pushed at her ribcage. A swelling that would break bones. “Look what’s happened to you—.” The mother pointed at her daughter’s sweet arms. Her arms had been flushed and puffy as a baby and slender white when she was a teen, reaching to play the piano.
“Not until you stop.” The mother had been reading on the internet. She knew about the ice bugs and the endless scratching.
“I want to stop,” the daughter whispered. “I want to move back in with you and daddy.” She came around the table and touched the back of a chair. The mother recognized something familiar in that voice, the gesture. The child she knew occupied that body alongside the chemicals, underneath this portrait of an addict, the daughter sketched of herself.
The mother put her purse on a chair and her jacket behind it. She noticed her daughter’s gaze fall on the purse. “We’ve tried that before,” the mother said.
“I want to try again,” the daughter said, more desperate than before. “Please let me try.”
“I need to talk to your father. Where are you staying now?”
“You’ll talk to Dad?”
“Yes,” said the mother. She told her daughter there were apples in the bowl and yogurt in the fridge to eat something healthy, for Christ’s sake. She went to her bedroom to change from her museum clothes.
When she returned, her daughter –and the cash from her wallet—were gone.
“Je vais t’attendre,” the mother said.
The museum the next day echoed with shouts and the scuffling noise children’s sneakers made on the polished floor. They sped walked from hall to hall, barely noticing what hung on the walls. The paintings held their breath until the whirl of activity left, school bus after school bus.
The Docent found herself before a Hopper painting, Table for Ladies. How bright and ripe the fruit, the gold of the waitress’ hair, her delicate nose, her attention to the arrangement on the table. Beyond her, a man and woman sat together, comforted by the wood panelling, the crisp white table cloths. The Docent imagined herself stepping in. The hostess at the register looked up, which was a surprise since her downcast face had not until now revealed the largeness of her brown eyes when they gave one their full attention. Nor how they sparkled.
She gave a brief look over the Docent’s shoulder. “One?” she asked.
The Docent hesitated. It was only three-thirty, past lunch and far from dinner. But she could take a little something. Cut fruit, a glass of champagne. “Yes,” she said and took another step forward.
The wooden chair creaked as the Docent sat, causing the man with the mustache to glance her way. She avoided his eyes and instead spread her hands across the smooth white cloth. She placed her purse on the floor beside her chair and remembered her daughter had taken all her cash the day before. Would she be able to use her debit card here? It was an old wooden cash register. A flush rose from her throat to her cheeks. She couldn’t order and then be embarrassed for having no way to pay. She’d never be able to return.
“Oh dear,” she said, lifting her finger to the hostess who had just turned from the table.
“I’ve completely lost my head.” The Docent reached for her purse and pushed her chair back with a scrape. “I told my daughter we’d go to the museum this afternoon. How silly of me to forget.”
The hostess smiled pleasantly enough.
“I look forward to coming back soon,” the Docent said, standing. “I’ve been meaning to dine here for some time.”
The Docent’s husband phoned early evening at home. “I’m still at the office,” he said.
“Guess who just called?”
She could guess. “What did she want?”
“Bail?” The mother stumbled backward to the arm of a living room chair, let her legs buckle.
“She was caught stealing again. Arrested.”
“What are we going to do?” the mother asked.
Her husband huffed. “Leave her in jail.”
“She needs rehab, not jail.”
“Well, this will be a lesson.”
“She needs rehab.” This was a conversation they’d had before many times. The mother could say her lines and her husband’s. He’d say they tried it already, and she’d say it sometimes takes several tries, and he’d say he didn’t have money for several tries. Eventually, she’d conjure an image of the daughter as a youth, and the husband would be willing to try once more.
“I’ll go to court,” the mother said, “I’ll ask to get her into rehab.”
The husband huffed again and said he’d bring pizza home for dinner. The mother knew he’d get pepperoni, and the mother didn’t like pepperoni. He and the daughter did. The mother liked plain cheese.
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Seeing the daughter in court had been difficult. The daughter cried. The judge agreed to treatment, but the lockdown kind: one step removed from jail. Conditions. The mother and father wouldn’t be able to visit often.
There had been days and weeks when the mother hadn’t heard from the daughter and thought the worst. In bed at night, anticipating a knock on the door, the police holding out an article of clothing. “Is this your daughter’s?” Eventually, the daughter surfaced. The mother struggled between wanting to slap her face or place her hands on the daughter’s cheeks and kiss her forehead over and over.
The Docent arrived late. She hadn’t told her boss she’d been to court, only that she had family business. Several tours led by other Docents snaked through the museum. She wiped her eyes with a tissue and reapplied liner with the pencil she kept in her purse. She’d worried off her lipstick and redid that as well. Her hair looked fine. It always did—her best asset. Curly without being unruly or coarse, she wore it below her shoulders, a little girlish for her age, but why cut away a feature just because of one’s age?
She was to meet with the head of security about the upcoming fundraiser and then a tour at three-thirty. She had a little time to herself to gather her thoughts from the morning. The painting that called to her—Corot’s Rocks in the Forest at Fountainblue—hung on the second floor, so she stood quietly in the elevator with several chatty patrons.
She loved to say the name aloud: Fountainblue with the accent she thought sounded sophisticated. The way a Docent should sound, not like some mother who allowed her daughter to become a drug addict and slip further and further away.
Rarely did she sit at the museum. But the rocks in the painting looked as if they’d been sun-warmed; through the trees, it would be cool and shady at this time of day. The bank inclined. She felt the pull in her thighs as she climbed to the rocks and sat on the one that made the most pleasant-looking seat. After some repositioning, she found the right spot, leaned back on her hands, and closed her eyes. The sun shone in blue flecks between the green leaves. A breeze ran its fingers through her hair at the base of her neck. Birds called and changed branches.
She let herself relax.
In the quiet, she heard the distant bubble of river water. She checked her watch—ten minutes before her meeting. She rose and crested a small hill, then followed a deer trail to the source. The mossy banks snuggled right up close to the water, looking like velvet cushions in the light. How nice the water would feel on her bare feet. Regardless of the time, she removed her stockings and waded in, her sheer hose a ball in her hand. She steadied herself with the bough of a thin tree and then let go.
The water came up to her calves, slow-moving, and while the larger rocks were mossed and slippery, the river bottom was finely broken stone. She lifted her skirt and walked downstream. The whistle of a red-tailed hawk turned her gaze up up up to where the river entered a wide canyon with tall smudged walls.
Someone called her name.
The water just outside the canyon rose to her knees; she lifted her skirt in her hands. There is was again, the calling. Oh God, the head of security. Her meeting.
The trek upstream kept her off balance; her ankles ached with the effort.
When she returned to the bank where she’d stepped in, and to the rocks at the forefront of the painting, and out of the painting itself, she’d lost her breath. Her stockings had twisted, they were heavy and wet, and she’d caught her fingernail at the back of the knee getting them on, causing a wide run down to her foot. It split again as she pulled at the waist to straighten them. Her clogs clung to moss and hummus from the forest floor, and the edges of her skirt darkened in a damp rim.
She found the head of security in the exhibit hall off the lobby and watched his angry face change to shock at the look of her. “My word,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” the Docent said, “Rarely am I late for a meeting.”
“Where have you come from?”
Her shoes, the pantyhose. She ran her hand through her hair and caught a piece of pine between her fingers. “The Corot,” she said.
He shook his head, “I was just there,” he said, “Calling for you.”
“Yes,” the Docent replied.
The walls tightened in colourful Steve McCurry photographs. Faces splashed with paint, finely dotted and decorated, bejewelled or smudged with the dirt and grime of poverty. The Docent heard the ripple of a Sri Lankan woman’s shift. Shells clank on a Nigerian man’s neck. A small child splashed in a washing bucket and cried from the chill.
The Docent deepened her breath. There had always been such movement in this exhibit, such clattering and chaos. Hush, she wanted to tell them. Hush.
“Where are we meeting?” she asked the head of security and slid her shoulders down her back, tilted up her chin to keep his gaze from the wreck of her shoes and stockings. (But ah! The cool of that river. The blue and white splattered sky. The tree leaves sponged by the broken bristles of Corot’s thoughtful brush!)
“The faculty office,” he said. She followed him there, tasting the wet of the canyon walls on her lips. Her feet stung from the nips the rocks took. She had almost gone too far. She had almost lost her way.
At home that night, she sat at the table with her husband and described the painting to him, best she could.
Her husband poked his rice pilaf with the tips of his fork, meaning to fluff it, to give it rise, maybe. Meaning. “I don’t know that painting,” he told her.
“It’s in the new exhibit,” she said, “That’s why I’m describing it to you.”
“You get too much time,” he said.
“I must know the art,” she sniffed, “Or I wouldn’t be a good docent.”
They continued through dinner without much to say. As she cleaned the dishes, she said, “I called the treatment facility and arranged for a visit this weekend.”
The husband said, “Humm.”
“Don’t you want to go?”
Her husband drank his wine and didn’t offer to help load the dishwasher like he used to. When had he stopped? “You enable her. Giving her money, letting her walk all over you.”
She ignored him, too tired to argue, and eventually, he left the kitchen and turned on the TV news.
Her daughter’s skin had pinkened, the cheeks plump. A light back in her eyes.
“Mom.” Her daughter ran to her in the visiting room. They embraced hard and clinging. The mother rubbed the daughter’s hair and her small back. A month before, the daughter would have shrugged her away.
They sat at a small table under a crooked frame of the serenity prayer etched in purple thread.
“It’s not bad,” the daughter answered the question the mother wanted to ask. “Food’s okay. I can’t have any caffeine.”
The daughter laughed. “Nope.”
The mother took her daughter’s hand, rubbed her thumb along the chipped and bitten fingernails.
The daughter said, “Sometimes I just want to escape. To disappear from everything.” There were tears on her cheeks.
“I know,” said the mother, “Me too.”
“What if I screw up again?” The daughter pulled her hand away.
The mother thought of the girls in the Bouguereau. The whisper. “If not this time, next time,” she said. “I’ll wait for you.”
The daughter nodded and wiped her tears with thin fingers.
The museum would close in a half-hour, and the husband texted that he hadn’t been feeling well. He’d gone home early and would lay down. The thought of him being home when she got home— of not having that counted one hour without him—angered the Docent. She shouldn’t be angry at someone sick, but she was.
She finished her paperwork, took her sweater from the break room, and headed straight for the Hopper. Once inside, she greeted the hostess. “Hello again.” Maybe too excitedly.
“Hello,” said the hostess pulling the hand-printed menu from beside the register. She smiled at the Docent and led her to the same table as before, where the chair moaned at her weight, and the same mustached man looked up at her as she adjusted herself.
The hostess brought a glass of water and left the Docent to herself at the white-clothed table. When the blond-haired waitress arrived, the Docent said, “I’d love a champagne.”
The waitress nodded. “To eat?” she asked. The Docent detected an accent. Dutch perhaps.
“Bread and butter.” The Docent pointed at her menu for reference, “And what is the soup?” Before the waitress could answer, she waved her hand through the air. “No matter. I’m sure it will be wonderful.”
When her champagne arrived, she sipped and watched the comings and goings of the brightly painted patrons. The Dutch waitress and the big-eyed hostess. How many years had she spent with them already in this familiar scene?
With her soup finished—a lovely clam chowder—the Docent checked her watch. The museum closed ten minutes ago. Security would walk through one last time. If she left now, she’d raise questions. If she waited until security left, she’d trip the alarm.
“Anything else?” The waitress cleared the table of the empty bowl. The couple remained at their table, and the hostess showed no signs of breaking down her station. In fact, the restaurant remained in its mid-afternoon cheeriness.
“Another champagne,” the Docent ordered. “And the cup of fresh fruit.”
The Docent finished her fruit, her champagne. She placed her money and a nice tip on the table and stood, collecting her belongings. This time, the mustached man nodded at the Docent, and she nodded in return. She looked out into the museum, but it was difficult to distinguish much with the lights shut off. She turned from the emptiness of the museum and entered the brush-stroked world beyond the painting’s yellow door.
Jennifer Springsteen is a seminary student at Starr King School for the Ministry in Oakland. She is the co-founder of PDX Writers. Her writing has won several awards, including Regional Arts and Culture Council grants, an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, and two Pushcart Prize nominations. She is represented by Joanna MacKenzie of Nelson Literary Agency. She writes, teaches, and studies in Portland, OR.