In the study room, there were two people. There was of course my greeter and benefactor, Bonnie Mangold, illustrious departmental chair, celebrated by art historians on three continents. She was dressed, as usual, in layers and did not look angry. She looked, if anything, amused. She yawned and patted her mouth.
Bonnie had a habit of standing with her prosthetic left hand cradled in the nook of her right arm, by which I mean, with the hand tucked into the interior of her bent elbow. She gestured like a smoker with the right arm, tapping the tips of her fingers together for emphasis. She was imperious and overweight.
‘Stella, honey,’ she said, because she is informal on all occasions, linguistically at least, ‘go have a look at the coffee.’
I did not delay. I directed my steps toward the mini kitchen. The coffee, in its solitude, had exploded. It gasped forth its last quantities of steam. There was a long wretched drip of grounds and black water trailing from the machine’s basket, and the counter was supporting a spreading puddle.
This was likely Bonnie’s error. The Kofféman was mechanically finicky as well as physically unbalanced and had to be propped up under one corner with a folded MetroCard I kept in our basket of orphan cutlery for this express purpose.
I walked slowly back to the study room. I wordlessly implored distance, against all odds, to maintain itself. The other person there was Fred.
At the moment, Fred was standing with his back to me. This afforded me a few seconds in which to make a catalog of his wardrobe. A perfectly pressed blue Oxford, sharp as knives, was sheathed within an impeccable dove-gray merino V-neck. The wool slacks were charcoal, of a vaguely metrosexual but still classic enough cut and of such a quality material that though they sat rather revealingly across Fred’s well set-up ass, the effect was of dissembled authority rather than promiscuity. I couldn’t see much of his shoes, except that they were clean and black. He was imitating the way Bonnie held her arms, standing beside her, looking down at something in front of them both, on the table.
I would not say that Fred, or Frederick, Lu was liked within the museum. Yet although he does not possess the Adonis good looks of someone like Marco, he was still widely considered the most handsome of our male associates. The strange thing, actually, was how little bearing his beauty had.
This is to say, Frederick Lu was not just aware of his own privilege; he had understood it, like, aggressively. Breeding sat about his person in the manner of an auratic glow, a protective coating. He was the unique product of a union between two of the wealthiest families in the city, the Lus (retail, imports, telecommunications) and the Weynmaarens (shipping, an array of ‘natural resources’), and truly one had to wonder what he was doing working at all. Indeed, in this sense Fred possessed quite a number of admirable qualities, especially from the point of view of that relatively plentiful museum-employee type, the eligible, educated girl.
I am drawing a certain distinction here. It’s not that I myself was a total dog, as the expression goes, it’s just that I had middling interest in sexual congress with any member [sic] of the institution. Though I know that carefully placed flirtation is often essential to one’s professional progress, I did not come to the Central Museum in order to escape the workforce. I liked having a job and wanted to continue having one for some time. At the moment, I didn’t really have other plans, in fact. Which occurred to me as its own kind of problem, but more on this later.
The ‘girl’ who works at the museum is very pretty and exceedingly neat. She is a fan of social networking in all its protean forms and not in an ironic way. She writes mildly dissimulated thank-you notes over email each morning, and on paper, more formally, probably a few times a week. She is creating a database that will be of use to her as she ages. Actually, she is so hypermotivated to create occasions for festive, conservative behavior that if this is the type of spouse you, cissexual male, seek, you really cannot go very far wrong with the genre you will encounter at the museum, as ours have exquisite taste, visually speaking, and your house will be an institution. I should also mention, in case this was not sufficiently clear, that she is most traditional in that she will like you to support her, so please have (preferably), or have the ability to get, a lot of cash. You should enjoy shaving your face every day and be gone from your residence between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. at a minimum of six days per week. Bonuses: your family is international; you own a ranch, farm or series of cottages in a nonurban locale; you participate at an expert level in a sport that involves either the education of large animals or the execution of small ones; you are tall.
Usually she is in an internship and on her way to a master’s. Occasionally, if she has not found a suitable mate within the window of two or three years that this method allows, she will begin her doctorate, but such cases, though tragic and actual, are happily quite rare. There is some overlap, I should note, between the museum and auction houses in this sense, though we like to believe we receive the choicer examples of this interesting, aspirational class.
And indeed the girls did like Fred. And Frederick Lu was not ashamed of liking them. But Fred was thirty-eight and unmarried, and he was already a full curator, holding an endowed post (the Thurston J. and Jeanne A. Prentiss Curator of American Decorative Arts) in American Objects, so apparently he had other stuff going on. I knew he was at least nominally unavailable on account of some other long-standing romantic allegiance. He had a fastidiously maintained patrician fade, a narrow white shock near his right ear, and his face looked a lot like Superman’s, only more classically voluptuous. I now recall being told that once in Lu’s earlier days he had dressed up as the Kryptonian American one Halloween. For a costume encourages comparison.
But Frederick Lu was known mostly for his early success. He must have been thirty-six or so when he got his current slot. This was before I began working at the museum. The rumor was that now he was being groomed for directorship of the entire place, the first promotion only a kind of necessary formality, as it were. I know this pissed Bonnie off, since she felt that if Nicola di Carboncino, the museum’s long-suffering director, were to put his weight behind what she termed ‘a slightly more serious successor’, the museum would have a real chance at keeping corporate inveighers at bay; in other words, we might stop serving as a kind of multipurpose banquet hall and conference center for our far too numerous J. Paul Gettys. Of course, the very fact of Frederick’s heir apparency suggests that money was a consideration. I’m not sure if it hurt Bonnie’s sense of her own importance, being so summarily passed over for the job, or if she disliked Fred for other, more personal reasons, since in any case it was well worth asking if the museum’s director was not just a figurehead, a nominally empowered bureaucratic scapegoat onto whose shoulders blame might, as necessary, always be offloaded.
Bonnie appeared at the moment to be nodding. I hazarded a cough.
Bonnie turned. ‘Stella, your coat.’
Frederick Lu raised his face and acknowledged me without effecting eye contact.
I informed those assembled that coffee would be another two minutes. ‘Great,’ said Bonnie. She made no move to integrate me into the ongoing confab, so I left. I went and slung my coat around a hanger in the still mostly empty hall closet, carefully brushing any remaining wetness from it not so much out of concern for the garment but in order to distract myself. My hands were, as usual, trembling slightly. My pulse had quickened annoyingly and I could taste turmoil rising. But it would pass, I reminded myself. I took in several deep breaths through the nose then folded myself into the department’s tiny bathroom and spent a few minutes patting down my hair and examining my face. My hair is cut short and, because it is thick and has waves, forms a triangular frame for my features. It’s yellow, a dark blond without very much brunette in it. I tapped it at its edges, along the bottom, tap tap tap. I nudged it in hopes of additional volume.
I looked astonished. My eyebrows had migrated up my head and seemed unwilling to return to their normal place of pasture. My eyes were way too large. They appeared, if this is possible, independently scandalized. My mouth was crooked. It was always like this.
In the kitchenette, meanwhile, coffee had successfully precipitated. This at least was good. I transferred the beverage to an ancient beaker-shaped thermos. I procured a clean enough mug for myself and poured. I squatted and obtained milk from the mini fridge. Then I made my way to my rightful domain, a closetlike office next to the miniature bathroom.
As I was setting my coffee down, the landline rang. I answered and Bonnie said, ‘Could you step into my office, please?’ I asked did she want a coffee. She informed me that this was partly what she had meant, though not entirely unkindly.
I hung up and froze, wondering, for what was by then approaching the eight- or nine-hundredth time, whether or not Bonnie Mangold was aware that Frederick Lu and I had slept together.
‘So,’ Bonnie said, ‘how goes it?’
It was as if she had just undergone some long cosmetic ordeal, a highly irritating but non-life-threatening procedure. She was lounging in the tall leather chair that abutted her marble-topped desk.
This office was always a cave. It faced out onto an air shaft, so despite its windows was ever dim, even on days of unmitigated sun. Bookshelves were recessed into all available wall space and contained leather-spined volumes and beribboned folios in varying states of decay. Bonnie’s own prolific output was stacked and gathering dust at one end of a caged radiator that otherwise at all times supported several examples of her personal collection of bioephemera. On this particular day, two five-inch ivory anatomical Venuses were displayed beside their respective tiny wooden storage coffins. The figurines, probably of eighteenth-century origin and almost certainly valuable, lay with their bellies open. Removable stomachs and other detailed organic bits and pieces sat in a small white dish between them.
Bonnie’s first love is anatomical drawings and engravings. She is good because although she really focuses on the Enlightenment, she has plenty to say concerning the transatlantic furniture trade and the importation of luxury goods into American interiors. She also knows an obscene amount about camerae obscurae and other mechanical drawing devices and their early employ in the British colonies.
She noted my wandering eye.
‘They’re copies,’ she noted, ‘of course. Plastic. One is for my niece. I ordered them from Munich a few months ago, but they took forever. I, actually’ – she performed this lopsided smile – ‘well, I was looking for a birthday present for you. I hope you don’t mind my playing with them.’ Bonnie laughed and reached down with her good hand to open a drawer in her desk not visible to me. ‘I did have the boxes around here somewhere.’
I hastened to reassure her that she did not need to go to the trouble. She sat up again, arranging herself. Her prosthetic hand was visible, the color of Silly Putty. I began to thank her.
She interrupted. ‘Coffee?’ She meant, where was it.
I was still holding the teacup wrapped in both hands. I corrected my oversight.
Bonnie accepted with her right, immediately sipping. ‘It’s warm.’ I nodded.
‘Sit,’ she said. She pointed with her prosthesis to a high-backed chair to my right. A needlepoint of a bald eagle, wings spread, was stretched across the seat, secured by brass tacks.
‘Thank you, Bonnie,’ I repeated.
She blinked at me over the rim of the teacup. ‘Actually,’ she was saying, ‘I may be in need of your expertise.’
I seated myself with legs crossed. I gazed covetously at Bonnie’s coffee. ‘Look,’ she said, ‘let me keep this brief. We may have a very small emergency. Or, we may have a small need at the moment.’ Here she had some more coffee. ‘I really don’t know about Fred sometimes. He behaves so strangely it’s difficult to ask him for advice. He’s the most considerate being who ever walked the planet one moment, and then the next you’re not sure whether he remembers your name.’
She studied me, and I nodded.
Bonnie smiled. ‘Forget what I just said! I think, at any rate, on this point he and I are finally agreed. You will drop what you are doing for the day today and complete the checklist for the show.’ She considered my face. ‘It’s not done. I mean, I have no way of knowing where or in what state it is. It’s practically comical. Paul . . .’ she trailed off. ‘Paul would have attended to this, at least, I’m sure. I, well, I’d say go get on his computer and see what you can do. We need the text by four. Ozen should have sent you images by now.’
It’s not that I disliked Bonnie, by the way. I admired her. It was just, as with all relatively forceful individuals, one had to expend a certain amount of energy getting out of her way. I desperately wanted better intel regarding Paul, but I couldn’t determine whether this was the time to bring up the matter of his personal fate, which here seemed to be regarded mainly as a logistical inconvenience.
The problem was that I didn’t say anything.
The sparkle fled Bonnie’s eye. ‘Unless, of course, this doesn’t interest you.’ She blinked.
‘No,’ I swore, unsure what ‘this’ was. Though, for example, the anatomical Venus was not what I would have chosen for myself, a weird gift was still a gift, and I needed to make sure she knew that I understood that. Of course, the bigger problem at this point was digging up a plausible referent for her incredibly brief disquisition on the fortunes of Paul. In other words, how to appear enthusiastic but also completely and very politely disinterested.
‘Good,’ Bonnie was already saying. She set her cup down.
‘Oh, good,’ I repeated.
Bonnie leaned across her desk to pass me a violet Post-it. ‘I had the techie people reset his password first thing. You should have access to anything associated with his account. I don’t know how forensic this is going to get, but again’ – here implementing strong eye contact – ‘it’s an emergency.’
‘Right,’ I said.
‘We’re attempting to be respectful. It’s been a very long road.’
‘Of course,’ I told her.
‘You already know what I mean. And I think you, Stella, with your strong sense for spatial, uh, discontinuities, with your knack for research, can just kind of plow through this pronto, if my instincts are correct, and it will be behind us.’
‘Sure,’ I said.
I took the note.
At this moment there was a knock on the door. Bonnie rose and for some reason silently made motions indicating I should dissimulate the paper displaying Paul’s CeMID and brand new password, ‘password’.
‘Come in,’ Bonnie trilled. The door was nudged a crack.
It was Ozen, the conservator, with a tale of sorrow. ‘I’m so sorry to bother you, Bonnie, but I think I’m having some trouble with those pictures you so kindly sent? Because I am not sure what you mean by D-I-M-S, which I had looked up online, and though I know it’s certainly related, we are of course short on time, and so I wanted to check in with you as soon as possible.’
‘Uh, how soon is soon?’ Bonnie said/asked, attempting to gauge remotely the level of Ozen’s distress and/or incompetence.
I smiled at Ozen. Ozen did not smile in turn.
‘I think by, like, middle of the day?’
‘Well, all right!’ Bonnie was making a sort of hand-washing gesture in midair above the surface of her desk.
Ozen nodded. Her features slackened into an expression of fealty and obvious relief. Ozen is Turkish and willowy, a specialist in the restoration of tempera, mixed oil and tempera, as well as strategies around natural resin and glair glazing. She was originally a student of the Byzantine icon, and her international status seems like someone’s muffled admission of American Objects’ baleful inability to staff itself at all diversely – specializing, as it does, in the possessions of very dead and very rich white individuals of mostly British descent. I don’t entirely dislike Ozen, but neither am I an avid fan. When she nods, her head moves fully down and then up again, so that the crown of her hair is visible. I find this freakishly inefficient. She is beautiful and thirty-two, engaged to the tune of what appear to be four carats, earnest in the extreme.
Bonnie rewarded Ozen’s acquiescence with a brilliant grin that migrated alchemically across the space between them and reappeared on the girl’s own face.
Showing signs of elation, Ozen bid us adieu and went off to reapply herself to Preview.
‘She’s so lovely,’ Bonnie told me.
‘I really don’t know her,’ I replied.
Our mutual derision pleased Bonnie, and she chuckled, shaking her head. She had opened a drawer in her desk and was now ignoring me, indicating that it was time for me to leave.
I should note that I am what is termed a cartographic specialist in the art history world – and a dilettante in the world of cartographers. In truth, I should probably describe myself as a ‘nineteenth-century generalist’. My dissertation was on late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth- century political cartoons in America and France, and I therefore have some familiarity with contemporary maps, because of their frequent use to satirical ends. However, this is not to say that I understand either geography or schematics in any deep or intuitive way. I’ve done a few analyses of cartographic personifications (e.g. an obese nincompoop covered in leeches who is supposed to symbolize the empire of Britannia), but here my expertise begins or ends.
All the effort I put in during the course of my doctorate is mostly of avail to me these days in that it has made me hyperliterate in Microsoft Office and empowered me to compose a reasonably polite email in under three minutes. Every month or so I’ll go back and reread my one published article, ‘Importing “The Curious Zebra”: Some Notes on Meaning and Ambiguity in Satiric Depictions of America, 1780–1800’, hoping to revive some of my former critical rigor.
This was, at any rate, what Bonnie had been referring to, re: ‘spatial’ skillz, re: what it was I was meant to be doing, re: patching up Land of the Limner’s nonexistent checklist of works to be exhibited. Her vague language points up not just my junior status but a more general uncertainty regarding what it is that can be done with me professionally, not to mention what it is that I should be leaning in, or whatever, toward. For due to funding constraints as well as certain conventions of departmental hierarchy, it will be impossible for me to obtain a promotion at my current place of employ for at least another eight years, barring (in)voluntary exoduses or unforeseen tragedy.
And here is the other thing one must be aware of, as far as the institution is concerned. Persons with authority are always looking for ways to increase the utility of their own command: What they would most like you to do at all times is to be an additional and, what is more important, ideally obedient pair of hands. Along with this nonoptional fealty comes the demand that your passivity in relation to them be a display that, while heartfelt, is at base just that. Once they are safely retired, you are expected to come into your own as an intransigent and scruple-free beast, at which point you may select your own toadies.
For Bonnie, there is a kind of extra truth to the hands metaphor, which point I won’t belabor, except to say that her need of others was probably, in the end, what made her such a star. You have to be like this, somehow. You simply cannot be self-sufficient and have this job. It does not work like that.
From what I understand, Bonnie lost her hand when she was an adolescent, maybe eleven years of age. She is not the one who told me this story, so it is possibly apocryphal, certainly part of the lore that surrounds her. It was a hunting accident. She was somewhere remote with her father, northern California or Washington State. He was some kind of heir/environmentalist. I had never heard of him, Konrad Mangold, but I guess he had written an early essay on pop ecology that showed up in Playboy and was a big deal at the time. It was the late fifties. The legend is that he would take Bonnie out with him into the country, and they would live off the land. You’re supposed to imagine that they had a Land Rover and a smartly kitted cabin that used to belong to a senator, that Konrad took field notes in watercolor, killed and cured his own venison, read the stars. But, to make a long story short, Konrad shot off four of the fingers on Bonnie’s left hand one blazing July noon, and because they were at such a remove from modern medicine, Konrad decided on a genre of field dressing he claimed had been engineered in the Black Forest in the first weeks of spring 1945, a glorified tourniquet no doubt, since when they were at last able to access a professional, the whole hand had to go.
It is from this strange event, as I have perhaps already suggested, that all of Bonnie’s power comes. The guilt of a wealthy, virile dad was subsequently manipulated by young Bonnie, and I do not think that she has stopped getting what she wants since. It is not worth nothing to have had an early loss like this, to have thought unflinchingly through it.
Photograph © Lorenzo
This is an extract from Impossible Views of the World by Lucy Ives, forthcoming from Penguin Press.