Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
The tour’s route never varies. Twice a day the caretaker of the Morgan Foundation must retrace his steps with a new eclectic band of strangers in tow. Whether he takes the lead or—as he has chosen to do on this occasion—assumes a position at the rear, he will be obliged once more to revisit the scene of what he privately refers to, even in the language of his dreams, as the “incident”—a euphemism all the more potent for its imprecision—which permanently scarred the first year of his employment and has continued to haunt him ever since. The site is memorialized by a vacant shiny black plinth, somber as a tombstone, that occupies a darkened corner of the second-floor landing with a label affixed to its front identifying the particulars of that which is no longer there and never will be.
Even now, the caretaker remains incapable of passing the spot without a small, but visible involuntary shudder, to which he has long since grown accustomed but not inured. It is as if each shameful act he had committed in his life—each petty humiliation, indignity, disgrace he’d ever suffered—had chosen this location as its burial plot, which now exuded a collective psychic stench that he alone was privy to. Blood had been spilled here upon the wide plank floor. Stitches had been required. Permanent scars had formed as a reminder.
The culprit was a woman. (“Naturally,” is what the caretaker catches himself murmuring sometimes, to his immediate chagrin, when he happens to recall the incident while shuffling through the empty rooms late at night— but he has his prejudices, no point pretending otherwise.) She had been one among a group of possibly six or seven people he was leading through the house on a miserable, snowy afternoon during that first winter when, still very much a novice, he was feeling his way into the new role. His memory of her—for he had practiced remembering, hoping an accumulation of precise detail would help assuage his guilt—was that she had come late, arriving moments after he had locked the door to start the tour. She had been forced to ring the bell to gain admittance, and he, torn between conflicting obligations, had halted the proceedings to answer the summons, and without even considering the alternative, let her in.
Her face was flushed. Her wooly cap sparkled with melting snow. She was already fumbling with the buttons of her coat and apologizing before she was halfway through the door. “You wouldn’t believe what it’s like out there,” she announced triumphantly, implicitly congratulating herself for having come at all. Her excuses consisted of an uninterrupted litany of the tribulations she’d been subjected to by the weather, the traffic, a subway train that pulled away the very moment she reached the platform, all of which had conspired to thwart her best efforts to be on time. She was obviously elated by the experience. A series of exaggerated gestures and facial expressions accompanied her monologue, as if this were a choreographed routine intended above all to entertain. Whether she was habitually tardy by nature, or merely a frequent victim of circumstantial impediments, the situation she now found herself in was obviously not unprecedented. She managed it with the practiced gaiety and confidence of someone who had been obliged to excuse herself many times before and who had been reassured by past experience that she would inevitably, without much effort on her part, achieve forgiveness.
At last, having successfully exonerated herself, at least to her own satisfaction, she finished extricating her body from the complex wrappings of her coat and—refusing to entrust it to the unattended rack in the vestibule (a temporary substitute for the as yet unrealized convenience of an official checkroom)—draped the garment over her arm, gathered up the rest of her belongings, completed the obligatory transactions, and joined the other members of the tour who had been left waiting with undisguised impatience near the museum entrance. In the twenty-three years since, the caretaker’s memory of the incident had somehow attached itself inseparably to the woman’s dark, voluminous coat, the exact nature of which had, with the passage of time, undergone several subtle mental transformations. The mohair fabric of his original early recollection currently exists in his mind, after several intermediate metamorphoses, as some kind of glossy imitation fur.
Once the tour commenced, the woman continued, deliberately or not, to draw attention to herself. “How absolutely fascinating,” she would proclaim periodically, as if the phrase amounted to a considered opinion. Every now and then, someone who happened to be standing nearby would be enlisted in support: “Perfectly marvelous, wouldn’t you agree?” she’d say, turning to the closest stranger. Or, “Have you ever seen anything like it in your life?” The caretaker conducted the visitors from one room to the next and up the staircase to the second floor, pausing here and there along the way to point out objects of special interest or to introduce an underlying principle of the collection that may not have been self-evident to the uninitiated. His style at the time was diffident rather than effusive, subject to hesitations, even the occasional stutter. From time to time, in the course of a brief monologue on the theory behind a certain installation, one that relied heavily on quotations memorized from Stuff, the late Dr. Charles Morgan’s seminal work about his collection and the art of accumulation, he would lose his train of thought midsentence and be forced to change the subject to save face.
The little group climbed the stairs in his wake and assembled on the landing in front of the black plinth and its offering: a glittering, pale green, leafy cabbage-like affair some five inches in diameter, standing unprotected upon the smooth rectangular surface. Instinctively, everyone kept their distance, intimidated by the intricate formation and obvious fragility of the object before them, apparently as hard and translucent as glass and as prone to shatter. From where each had chosen to stand, the label on the front of the plinth, with its careful, tight, handwritten lettering, proved all but impossible to read. The caretaker was obliged to intercede on behalf of his visitors, from memory. He knew the legend well.
In spite of its symmetry and ornamental appearance, the object was believed to have been created without any human intervention solely by an act of Nature. “Or, if you prefer, given the celestial element involved,” the caretaker added soberly, with no trace of irony, “an act of God.” According to the generally accepted theory of its origin, it had been forged some fifteen million years ago in Bohemia, a remote region of Czechoslovakia, by the impact of a meteorite colliding with the surface of the Earth. While experts had identified other examples of the same species, none had come to light to rival this particular specimen: its impressive size, lightness, and clarity, and its singular absence of any of the visible flaws—occlusions, cracks, chips, pitting, intermittent streaks of opacity, or broken fragments—characteristic of all the rest. Dr. Morgan had acquired his specimen in the late 1960s from an amateur geologist of his acquaintance in payment of an old debt and—due to its age, rarity, unusual chemical composition, and multifaceted hard translucent beauty—had assigned it a place of honor in his collection. Since that moment it had occupied its distinguished position at the head of the stairs, confronting everyone who arrived at the second-floor landing with the imponderable fact of its existence.
Following his rendition of the object’s provenance and history and its role in Dr. Morgan’s philosophy of the museum, the caretaker permitted his audience a few moments to gape and murmur in contemplation of it before urging them to follow him down the narrow hall to the next display. With the superficial docility of children on a school outing, they formed themselves into a line, leaving the late arrival trailing along in last place. They never reached their intended destination. Almost at once, a sound, abrupt and jagged as lightning, stopped them, signaling catastrophe. They froze like strobe-lit figures caught in mid-motion, listening while a cascade of minor repercussions spawned by the initial crash grew progressively fainter and gradually died away. This all took a matter of seconds. In the subsequent hush, each member of the group, as if stung by the irrational suspicion of his own guilt, seemed bent on simulating innocence. No one wanted to look. “What happened?” a solitary voice asked plaintively.
The caretaker turned and began making his way back along the phalanx of visitors to investigate, edging by them one by one as they moved aside, pressing themselves up against the wall to let him pass, brought suddenly back to life by his action. “Stay where you are, all of you,” he said. “Please. Nobody move.”
The woman at the end of the line held her position a fraction longer than the others, blocking his path and obscuring for a moment his view of the plinth standing empty a yard or two behind her. She faced him, pale and wide-eyed, her mouth slightly ajar, looking simultaneously bewildered and defiant. As he attempted to get past her, his glance—at least from her perspective—amounted to a wordless accusation. “I didn’t do anything,” she protested. “I was nowhere near it.” Her face had assumed the injured expression of a victim unjustly singled out for blame when an entire community, an entire social order, perhaps the intractable nature of humanity itself was actually at fault. Although her proximity to the scene of the accident and the fact that the coat she had been carrying over her arm now lay draped around her shoulders might have aroused suspicion, there had been no witnesses. It had all happened while everyone’s back was turned. Who could be certain that the artifact, having exhausted its preordained finite time on earth, had not suffered some sort of internal chemical breakdown and spontaneously exploded from within—its destruction as inexplicable as its creation.
The caretaker stopped to survey the aftermath, stretching wide his arms to keep his visitors at bay—the curious, the impatient, and the indifferent alike, now temporarily his prisoners looking to escape—while he contemplated the spectacle that lay before him and made an assessment of how to cope. The sound alone had so vividly evoked catastrophe that the actual scene, appalling as it was, looked almost anticlimactic compared with the devastation he had already envisioned a moment earlier. Dr. Morgan’s precious artifact had been reduced—or multiplied, or at any rate, transformed—into innumerable fragments, some the size of a peach pit or the butt end of a pencil, others only visible as tiny glints of light. They carpeted the bare wooden floor surrounding the plinth and lay scattered haphazardly over the descending stairs.
Maintaining a safe distance from the outskirts of the disaster to avoid doing any further damage by a careless movement or misstep and using his body to block the people now clustering at his back, he took a deep breath, undid the buttons of his woolen shirt and took it off to serve as an impromptu receptacle for whatever he might succeed in retrieving. Leaving the scene unguarded, abandoning it to the whims of these indifferent strangers for any reason—whether to go in search of a flashlight or a vacuum or a more appropriate vessel for the salvaged particles—would clearly have been the height of folly. Instead, obliged to use his ingenuity and make do with what he had, he stripped down to the pale indecency of a thermal undershirt with its patches of discoloration at the armpits and a few old food stains that no amount of vigorous washing had managed to eradicate—a state of undress so much more unseemly in this company than if he had actually been naked to the waist—and squatted down, spreading the discarded shirt upon the floor by his side and smoothing out the creases. He could feel the assembled audience watching. He could feel them studying the exposed tuft of hair at the nape of his neck or counting the bony ridges of his spine pressed against the fabric of his undershirt.
His hands became his broom and dustpan. In wide sweeping gestures, they set about skimming lightly over the uneven surface of the floor, gathering together the shattered fragments and scooping them up to deposit into his waiting sacrificial shirt. Given the inadequacy of the lighting, a great deal depended on feel alone; anything sharp he encountered, whether he could see it or not, was presumed to be something he needed to retrieve. In the process, stray bits of each handful’s contents that he attempted to relinquish would remain behind, clinging stubbornly to his damp palms where they glimmered like distant lighthouses in the whorls and creases (the same creases that encouraged certain women he once knew to insist that they could read his fate). When he tried to brush the remnants free by rubbing his hands together, he had to use the utmost delicacy: exerting a fraction too much pressure wound up embedding invisible crystal splinters into his skin, which would eventually have to be plucked out one by one.
As he worked, clearing a path through the wreckage just wide enough to allow his trapped visitors to exit single file without doing any further damage, he kept inching his way forward toward the staircase, gradually reaching deeper into the thick of what lay strewn before him. “I’m very sorry,” he said, addressing them at last, but without permitting himself a glance in their direction or the slightest pause in his progress. “This is going to take a few minutes. I’m afraid you’re all going to have to wait.” His announcement was met with disgruntled protest from various quarters. Several people reminded him they had responsibilities of their own, prior engagements that could not be postponed, pressing needs beckoning to them from the outside world, lives that required living. They’d had enough of Dr. Morgan’s museum for one day.
The mounting pressure at his back, both psychological and physical, threatened to become an avalanche, making his task increasingly urgent. Getting rid of them was now his sole objective. For the sake of efficiency, he temporarily abandoned the salvage aspect of his mission—resolving to return to it as soon as he was alone and could attend to it in peace—and concentrated his efforts exclusively on creating a safe passage for the group. He had almost reached the staircase—having successfully carved out a narrow immaculate valley of dark wooden floor that stretched out invitingly behind him between mounds of glittering debris swept off to either side—when he caught sight of a pale green stalagmite about the size of his thumb nestled among some smaller shards that lay just beyond reach, near the base of the empty plinth. It looked to be the jagged broken tip of one of the artifact’s outer cabbage leaves, the largest, the most intact—and therefore by far the most desirable—fragment he had yet encountered. Postponing its rescue for even a moment would have been intolerable.
Still crouched on his haunches, still wary of accidentally crush-ing something salvageable underfoot, he swiveled around a few degrees to face his prize, and, extending his long limber torso to its full length, stretched out his right arm to retrieve it. He almost had the thing—it lay waiting directly beneath his hand—when an uncharacteristic moment of carelessness, probably brought on (as he suspected later) by a premature savoring of his triumph, cost him his balance and his instinctive attempt to break the fall impaled his palm onto the gleaming upturned spike with the full weight of his body behind it. The shock tightened his grip.
Judging by his subsequent recollection—which was soon all he had to go by—the initial sensation had nothing to do with pain. He had known pain before; like anybody his age, he had experienced it to varying degrees on multiple prior occasions. This was something altogether different. This had as little in common with pain as with pleasure. The flesh, as if anticipating the intrusion, had offered no resistance. It parted willingly, embracing the invading foreign object like a preordained wound welcoming the weapon it had been destined for. The jagged point entered the center of his palm at the intersection of two deep creases, which those women from his past, the heavy-lidded would-be oracles brimming with ominous interpretations, would have called the head and fate lines. It penetrated his entire hand, its tip emerging on the dorsal side between the tendons of the middle and index fingers where the veins made arcane crisscross patterns of their own that looked like writing.
After a momentary pause, blood began to flow and once started was disinclined to cease. With its lethal treasure still intact, the caretaker gingerly cradled the injured extremity against his body as if it were a trapped bird he had foolishly volunteered to nurse, and got to his feet. A stain was seeping into the fabric of his undershirt, turning it a peculiarly vibrant shade of red and making it look as if he’d been stabbed in the belly. He stared down at himself, mesmerized by the enigma.
His visitors seized the opportunity to take charge. The emergency must have invigorated them. Heedless of the broken stuff beneath their feet, they pressed in around him, full of unwanted offers of assistance, creating a general hubbub of suggestions and advice: ordering one another to call 911, to fetch a towel, to get the victim to a seat, to help him down the stairs. Although the reluctant beneficiary of their attentions kept shaking his head and saying no, insisting he was okay, really, and perfectly capable of managing on his own, they ignored his protests. Someone got hold of him by the elbow and refused to set him free.
As to whatever may have happened after that, he could no longer be certain, having since confused memory with hallucination and fantasy with fact, each—at least in retrospect—as plausible as the other. Had the guilty woman, his eternal nemesis, really offered him her white linen handkerchief to stop the bleeding or was that ironic detail purely his invention? Had he really grabbed her by the shoulder from behind with his one good hand while she was preceding him down the stairs and demanded she submit to an immediate examination of her coat on which he thought he had detected tiny remnants of Dr. Morgan’s artifact about to be smuggled off the premises?—although, in all fairness, he had to admit that whatever he’d seen glittering there also bore a striking resemblance to scattered droplets of melted snow.
He wasn’t sure how he wound up at the hospital, whether one of the departing visitors had forcibly accompanied him or whether he had somehow made it there on his own. He thought he remembered waiting his turn in the company of fellow sufferers in a remorselessly well-lit room with plastic chairs and a green-flecked linoleum floor, where competing injuries and ailments acted as status symbols; where the overdoses, the moaning, the gunshot and stab wounds, the bleeding, the maimed, the semiconscious vied with one another for the best, most urgent claim to attention in the pecking order. He thought he remembered watching someone write deep puncture wound on his emergency admission form, as if it had become his new identity.
What he knew for sure was that his right hand and the precious fragment embedded in it—which by that time he had come to regard as a single inseparable entity—were eventually subjected to some artful form of surgical intervention that succeeded, without too much additional damage, in detaching them from one another. What he knew for sure was that he had received six stitches in his palm and two on the back of his hand. What he knew for sure was that his attempt to reclaim the thing that had caused his injury—“the dangerous piece of broken glass” as they called it—was passed off by hospital personnel as an eccentric whim until his outburst over the matter reached such a pitch that they resolved to indulge him, retrieving it from the trash so as to finally be rid of him.
It must have been later that afternoon, or possibly the next, that he had resumed his salvage activities at the museum, eventually recovering two hundred and forty-seven individual pieces of the shattered artifact—yes, he counted them, every fragment, every shard. The exactness of the tally comforted him, solidifying his grasp on the event. The broken bits, shrouded in a blue sheet, were tucked away where guilty secrets like to hide, at the back of a closet shelf. Keeping them was a way of clinging to the hope of resurrection, the possibility that he just might, in some inconceivable future, manage to put things right again.
Doon Arbus is an American writer and journalist. The Caretaker is her first novel. Courtesy of New Directions Publishing.
Originally published in
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Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.