Room from the Hotel Druout-Clausceswiz
Wall and ceiling moulding, various furniture
The rooms are a jungle of gold vines: growing up and down the walls in neat lines, around all the furniture in sinuous curves, blossoming from the ceiling into enormous chandeliers. Soft yellow light seeps in through the false windows: a warm, late afternoon light. The guard hurries over to the Plexiglas barrier, unlocks it and waves her inside. May steps onto an elaborate blue-gold carpet, not quite sure where to go. She stops by a little velvet-lined box with a gilt-framed opening: it's a doghouse that once belonged to Marie Antoinette. May leans down to look at it. It's a strange, captivating little thing.
The guard nods his chin as he locks the barrier behind them. “Quick, get in there.”
She looks skeptically at the doghouse.
He shakes his head. “No. There. Hurry.” He grabs her hand and rushes her to the back of the room, behind a tapestry screen. There’s a hidden nook arranged like a tiny living room. A brown armchair with slashed armrests, a folding chair, old newspapers on the floor. The guard flops down onto the folding chair and offers May the brown armchair.
“Dua—” she begins, and he shushes her again, leaning across, his hand almost touching her face. He cranes his neck and listens, eyes anxious and unfocused. Nothing. Then he asks, “You hungry?”
From under a splayed copy of the New York Post he pulls a foil-wrapped plate and uncovers it to reveal some cheese puffs and a few shrimp canapes. He pulls another foil package from his jacket. “Got some breadsticks, too.”
The food looks even worse than it did when May saw it earlier that evening, but she's starving. The young guard whispers and gestures nervously as he sets out the leftovers, and May cracks a breadstick between her teeth as quietly as she can. They share a half-empty bottle of Pellegrino.
“Bit of a stingy party, really,” the guard observes, chewing. “Cheese puffs are alright, but.”
Assyrian...says a voice on the walkie-talkie...Babylonian...
The guard picks up his walkie-talkie. “Ahm…Northern Renaissance...” he mumbles. He reaches for a shrimp canape. “So you, ah, work for them or’d they just invited you?”
“I work for FranzBank,” May says in a low voice. “But I’m not really a banker. I’m in art advisory. We advise collectors what to buy, when to sell, how to establish themselves. We also collect for the Bank and sponsor prizes and exhibits.”
The young guard looks at her her suspiciously. He has the nervous eyes of a nocturnal animal. They’re gray or light green or light blue—eyes that can’t quite decide what color they are. His face is pale, his hands also—in the half-light his skin has a faint translucence. A glowworm, she thinks.
“I’m an, um, artist.” He says quietly.
May’s not surprised: the scruffy hair, the vague eyes. “Really? What sort of work do you do?”
“Ah, lots of stuff.” The guard pulls at his lip and looks down at the scattered newspapers. “I'm sort of interested in fragmenting narrative and, ahm, insinuating a space for skewed memory, drawing on entropy and dissonant, um, discourses. At the same time I operate on tensions between technique and representation that remain, you know, open-ended? Never, ah, totalizing. It's about interrogating decline and ah...”
He’s so sincere and insecure that May’s embarrassed for him. Something tells her he won’t get far. He’s too soft for success. He already has the whiff of failure about him. He finishes his discourse with a little unhappy smile. She sees the first shadows of disappointment in his eyes.
May nods and musters some fake enthusiasm. “I’d love to see your work sometime.” She reaches for a cheese puff. “And you’re…Australian?”
She waits. But he never asks her where she’s from.
Instead he picks up his walkie-talkie and mumbles, “…Ahm, Early Florentine…”
They chat in a low whisper as they finish the hors d’oeuvres.
Finally he stands. “Um, I gotta go, yeah? My shift’s over. So, ah, tomorrow, maybe just after nine-thirty or so—that's when the museum opens. First make sure no one's around.” He shows her how to peer out through the embroidered screen without being seen, through a gap by the hinges. “And then just, um, run out, jump over, you're tall enough to manage. Once you're out in the galleries just act like you’ve been here all along.” She nods sleepily. He hunts behind the armchair and pulls out a faded navy jacket, smelling of dust, which he says May can use as a blanket. “It gets cold at night,” he says. He pulls out another foil packet. “There's more breadsticks as well.”
Alone, May sinks deeper into the brown armchair. She rearranges herself several times, never quite comfortable. She tries not to think about rats. The guard said nothing about them, and he should know. She tries to picture his face for a second but there was something formless and unemphatic about him, and all she can recall is a vague presence slouching in a blue uniform. The room’s silence unsettles her. She feels the city, and her life in it, fading from her mind. She picks up a New York Post to reassure herself and turns its pages absent-mindedly...Cops busted two thugs fleeing on Belt Parkway Sunday after witnesses...Crazed deli customer threw bagel, pulled out pistol…Someone's already torn out some of the photos and articles...World Can’t Wait for Weasels, Sez Prez…Ex-con in Queens stabbing spree...But this must be happening in another universe, not in the low golden light, the empty silence, the giant chandeliers…Brad spotted in Paris, leaving a restaurant, looking upset...May nods forward as her eyes flit to another snippet, this time about Paris Hilton, but her brain is slowing down, and Paris the rich girl and Paris the city Brad was seen looking sad in have gotten mixed up in her mind with the beautiful room she's in, which she imagines also comes from Paris, and everything blends together in the dim yellow light that streams through the fake windows and gauze curtains, and although all she's doing is giving into exhaustion May feels like she's dissolving, not just into sleep but out of time. It is after midnight in New York, but it's still late afternoon in the Eighteenth century, in Paris, and the French Revolution hasn't happened, and the King and Queen still have their heads and their gilt side tables, and Marie Antoinette's little dog, with its bright wet eyes and droopy ears, emerges from its gold and velvet doghouse and comes to lick her cold fingers…