by Marian Exall
The Walker Museum Board Meeting had exceeded its ninety-minute allotment of time, and still no resolution had been reached on the single item on the agenda: the museum’s dire financial situation.
Archibald McNair raised his eyes to heaven and steepled his hands as if in prayer. But his silent entreaty was addressed to another place. Why the devil did I accept the position as Board President? He knew the answer: as Professor Emeritus of History at the University he had felt obliged to step in and provide a historian’s perspective. He’d imagined spirited debates on Principles of Preservation, not endless wrangles over money, which he found vaguely sordid. He would serve out his three-year term and then retire; he had the excuse of age, eighty-four next birthday. He attempted to refocus on what Lindsay DeMan, the young museum director, was saying. Lindsay attended the meeting ex officio. She didn’t have a vote, but she did have a powerful voice. And she knew exactly how bad things were.
“A capital campaign is necessary, but it’s not enough! We have to think of the future. If we’re able to save the museum—” There was a sigh of protest around the table, rapid intakes of breath and a whispered no!—“Yes, I said if—we need to re-brand it.” Lindsay instantly regretted her use of the word. She saw the professor wince at the marketing-speak. Luckily, Ted Davis intervened in a strident tone.
“No shit, Sherlock!” Another hum of disapproval but Ted never apologized for profanity. “The collection’s a hodge-podge of mediocrity. Collections, plural, I should say. We’ve got Victorian dolls next to a display of stuffed seabirds; my aunt does better watercolors than the ones in the gallery; and the Native American section is a complete disgrace!”
Lindsay bridled but bit back on voicing a defense. She had tried her best to clean up and add context to the exhibits accumulated over decades, mainly gifts from the town’s wealthier residents when they cleared out their attics or died. She agreed with Ted about the Native American display. She had reached out to the local tribe for help but it was slow going overcoming the suspicion built up between the reservation and the town.
Ted glowered—his normal expression. He had run for town council in the guise of working-class hero, lost badly, and was on the Board to polish up his civic credentials before making another attempt at elected office. He wore a bushy beard, Carhartts and a motorcycle jacket. His fingernails were rimmed in black. Lindsay knew he had a degree in environmental policy, and one-on-one he could be quite engaging, but at meetings it was always Ted against the world or, rather, the elitist world he thought the Board represented.
Jefferson Hansen, a banker, broke the ensuing silence. He placed his hands on the table and levered his portly frame to upright.
“Well, I’m afraid I have to leave. My wife’s not well,” —a lie– “and I promised her I’d be back by eight.” Another lie; he intended to visit his mistress. “It’s half-past now, so I’ll say good evening.”
He was walking toward the door when the realtor spoke. Antonia (“Toni”) Masters wore tailored pants suits with stiletto heels. Her expensively balayaged blonde hair curved in generous waves around her face and over her shoulders. Her lipstick always matched her nail color; on this evening, a dark blood red.
“We could sell the building. Use the money to build something smaller and more appropriate. Developers are looking for historic buildings to repurpose as condos or hotels. Marriott did that with a former bank building in Chicago. And look at the Trump Hotel in the Old Post Office in DC.”
Hansen stopped and turned. “But this is not Chicago or DC.” He left, leaving the click of the closing door to punctuate his sentence. The remaining members shuffled their papers, hoping that Hansen’s departure signaled the meeting was over.
“We-ell, I suppose it’s time to…” murmured Catherine Walker, the Board secretary.
“Motion to adjourn seconded!” Ted announced. “All those in favor?”
A show of hands and buzz of assent overwhelmed Lindsay’s faint protest. Catherine was the first to leave; she faced a long drive home and the roads were poorly lit. She had been reluctant to serve on the Board, but she helped out as a museum docent and one Board position was traditionally reserved for a volunteer. Also, Josiah Walker, the logging baron who had constructed the building as his private home a hundred and fifty years ago, then promptly moved to Seattle to swim with bigger fish, was a distant relative. Catherine accepted on the condition she could be secretary, thinking that the duty of taking notes would allow her to avoid participating in discussion. She was shy and hated talking in public. It was fortunate that there were so few visitors to the museum these days that her docent duties rarely required her to talk to anyone.
Mother’s probably already in bed, she thought, peering over the steering wheel into the cone of light provided by the Prius’ headlamps. The home they shared was thirty minutes outside town, surrounded by woodland. A delightful place on a summer’s day, but threatening on a stormy November night. The house had been in the family for years. She’d grown up there, but her childhood had not been happy, and she longed to move away. When Mother goes, she promised herself as she quietly opened the front door. The cats slid out from their hiding places and wound themselves around her legs. She fondled them.
“Did the old bitch forget to feed you again, my loves?”
Ted unlocked his bike and pedaled away hard, taking his frustration out in physical effort. Committee work irritated him. He was a man of action. There was so much injustice in the world, even in his own town, and he ached to do something about it. He was more Malcolm X than Martin Luther King. The museum Board was not a good fit for him, but he saw it as a start. Every revolution starts with a single spark, he thought. Was that Lenin? He had a few ideas about rejuvenating the museum, making it a center for social and environmental justice, but he knew he had to bide his time. Only when things got really bad would a chink open up in the wall of bourgeois complacency. And things weren’t that bad…yet.
Jeff Hansen had his own key to the apartment a five-minute walk from the museum. As he hoped, Carmen was waiting for him in the dimly-lit bedroom. She was wearing a lacy camisole and matching undies. Her honey-colored skin glowed, and his pulse quickened. She indicated the bottle of prosecco and two glasses on the nightstand.
“Let’s have a drink first.”
Hansen swallowed his disappointment. He’d been thinking about sex with Carmen all day, but he knew better than to show his impatience. That might drive her into a huff that would spoil the whole night.
“I’m going to need something stronger than that after the evening I’ve had. Do you have any scotch?”
“Of course, darling.” Carmen sashayed past him and returned in a minute with a tumbler containing whiskey. Jeff had shed his jacket and tie and was sitting on the bed. She didn’t join him there, but wandered around the room, ending up at the window, where she pulled back the side of the blind to look out.
“Miserable evening. Has it started raining?” She avoided his eye.
“Carmen, what’s this about?” He began to feel uneasy. She knew he didn’t have much time. Usually, they were naked and going at it within seconds of his arrival. She turned then, but didn’t approach. Her arms were crossed tightly under her breasts.
“I have to tell you something,” Carmen said.
Toni stood looking out over the bay through the floor-to-ceiling window of her penthouse condo. Her husband Pete brought her a glass of merlot that perfectly matched her lips and nails, then retreated to the black leather sofa with his own glass.
She murmured her thanks and sipped, while clicking through her mental rolodex for the names of developers who might be intrigued with the challenge of converting an historic building to a twenty-first century purpose.
“How was the meeting?” Pete asked.
He sighed but did not repeat his question. He appreciated that his wife’s career and the wealth it earned enabled their luxurious accommodation, his Porsche in the underground garage, the country club membership and so much more. Her success depended on relentless hard work and a keen focus. If that left him feeling lonely from time to time, he accepted that it was no more than any spouse of a high achiever felt. Lonely and bored. He needed to find something he could be passionate about, something meaningful, something that would impress Toni, and, just maybe, pull her attention away from her work and back toward him.
Lindsay was the last to leave the museum. She set the alarm, locked the heavy oak doors behind her and descended the ADA non-compliant steps to the sidewalk. She was surprised to find Andrew Stein waiting there. He was the newest Board member and she didn’t know much about him, other than he had appeared at a crucial moment when membership had dipped below the minimum mandated by the By Laws for a quorum. He was a planning consultant—whatever that meant—and had moved to town recently from the East Coast—Boston or Philadelphia, she couldn’t remember which. He had said little during the meeting; it was his first since taking a seat on the Board.
“Hi, Lindsay. Have you eaten? I thought of strolling down to the Brewery. They do great yam enchiladas. Care to join me?”
Lindsay realized she was starving. She’d been going all day on coffee and a small bag of salted almonds she found in the bottom of her purse. She hadn’t even been able to snag one of the cookies she’d purchased for the meeting before they were all eaten.
“Yes, that sounds great,” she responded.
As they walked, she snuck a glance sideways. Hmm, not bad looking. Average height and build, a thin face with a hawkish nose surmounted by fashionably-framed glasses. Mid-thirties, she thought. She wondered if he was married; it was too dark to see his ring finger, if that was even a clue these days. He had thick dark hair cut close to his scalp that made Lindsay itch to stroke it like a cat’s fur. Stop it! She told herself as she felt her cheeks grow warm. It had been a while since she’d been in a relationship. Keeping the museum open used up all her energy, and she hadn’t even hung out with her friends for weeks.
“I totally agree with you, by the way,” he said. “A capital campaign can’t succeed until we make people care about the museum.”
Had she said that? She didn’t remember, but it sounded good.
Andrew continued. “And to make people care, you have to make them notice—”
“Please don’t say social media,” Lindsay interrupted. “I’ve done everything I can think of short of an Instagram photo of me standing on my head naked, and we still get the same six ‘likes’.”
He laughed, seeming to enjoy the mental picture she had created.
“No, not social media. I’m thinking of something more…interactive, unique, experiential.” He saw her skeptical frown. “Well, I haven’t really worked out the details; it’s just a vague idea at the moment.”
“Go on,” Lindsay urged, but he just laughed again.
“Believe me, you’ll be the first person to know when I have something. Now let’s talk about something else. How did you get a job as museum director at your young age?”
“My superior qualifications, I guess. And the fact no one else applied.”
They reached the pub. He held the door open for her, and they entered the noisy, hop-flavored warmth of the tap-room. After the business of finding a table and placing their orders, conversation veered cheerfully away from the museum and its problems.
As the last footsteps faded away, the Walker Museum settled with an almost audible sigh. The building had served many uses since it had been abandoned by its first owner a century and a half before: a jail, a house of worship, even a bordello during Prohibition. With each reincarnation, a room, a floor, or a wing had been added, so that now the exterior resembled a gothic wedding cake, a patchwork of grey stone and red brick, with turrets, porticos, and useless little juliet balconies tacked on randomly. Inside was a rabbit warren of oddly shaped rooms, winding corridors, and staircases, some imposing and some no better than a ship’s ladders. The edifice was impossible to heat or clean effectively.
Now, dust motes danced and shadows shifted in the dim emergency lighting. A floorboard creaked. A draft from nowhere ruffled the balance sheets and profit and loss statements Lindsay had left on her desk when she hurried to greet the arriving Board members. In the picture gallery, portraits of long-dead town worthies with stiff collars and luxuriant moustaches eyed each other with suspicion. The stuffed Great Auk in the natural history diorama on the second floor dropped another feather, while the Victorian dolls in the adjacent display case maintained their prim, close-mouthed smiles.
And the hairline crack in the dome over the Grand Staircase grew another two inches.