S. Tremaine Nelson
With a glance over my shoulder, before the door swooped shut, I watched the guards cut off in each direction—left and right—with two more following up the main steps. I would be encircled in less than four minutes, if not from behind, then certainly from the side. There were innumerable entrances. Time was short. Clearly, I had been allowed to enter the Gallery, but for what reason I could not fathom. They needed me alive, it seemed. I wondered if they feared my suicide, and I admitted to myself that their fears were not entirely unfounded.
Inside the Gallery, the air was cool and moist like a grave. No—an asylum. Were art and madness not one and the same? [redacted] Yes. The white walls and high ceilings fostered deep breathing and a medicated stupor. A fountain splashed amidst tropical flowers, potted and beautiful.
"Are you with the Society Patrons?" the guard asked.
"Yes." I removed the forged invitation from my pocket.
"Please step through," the guard said.
I wiped the sweat off my lip and stepped through the metal detectors. Not a sound. The obsidian knife hugged my stomach and belt. The guard waved me forward into the cavernous rotunda. A small woman in a grey suit—a Mexicana, from the South, judging by her accent—studied my face. Her badge described her as a tour-guide, but I did not trust her.
"Another member of the Society?" she said, with not a small air of annoyance.
"Yes," I replied.
"The tour's about ready to start," she said. "We were supposed to start at five."
Beyond the Mexicana, a well-dressed coterie of men and women disappeared into the East Wing. The phone booths were directly across from me.
"Forgive me," I said. "But I must make a quick phone call before the tour."
She motioned past the bubbling fountain. "You can join us in the Catlin room."
"Thank you," I replied, but as I passed her my body tensed. Catlin was a well-known American artist and bigot. He had painted several of the native Great Plains tribes in the early nineteenth century. That the tour should include his work did not bode well for me. The urge to flee entered my mind, but it was too late. A few more patrons pulled open the door behind me—the women in cocktail attire and the men in suits no finer than my own. Behind them, the two Park Police entered, but I ducked before they saw me.
Around the fountain, beyond the rotunda, I caught sight of another green police uniform, conspicuously out of place amidst the beautiful paintings and marble decor. I hurried across the hallway and slid along the edge of the wall. The apprentice's message could not have been more enigmatic. And yet I was certain of its meaning. The Chief was waiting for a phone call, and it seemed now that the message would be passed from me to the apprentice in person, that he would call the Chief himself—Senator Reid is speaking at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
I reached for the golden handle of the sound-proof phone booth, but as I squeezed the handle a chill ran down my spine. The din of the cocktail party echoed through the halls. There was no one in sight, but I realized I had trapped myself. There was no exit from the hall. Had the apprentice been with them all along? Impossible. I was a fool. I looked back, and no one had followed me. Something was wrong. My destination and intentions could not have been more obvious. And yet the sounds of the party whispered through the empty halls as though nothing had happened.
I pulled open the door to the booth. The apprentice had been murdered.
A cry of fear leapt out from my mouth. I stifled it. No one had heard me. There were two precise bullet holes in the heart of the apprentice's thin white shirt—now a crimson red, still warm. I pushed his body back into the phone booth. My hands were shaking and—I realized too late—covered in his blood. His dark eyes stared past me. His small red mouth hung loose in shock. The apprentice had been murdered in the sound-proof booth, waiting for me. Someone had known I was coming. In the darkness of the booth, I could see the phone-cord—sliced in half. I quietly shut the phone booth with the apprentice's corpse inside. I removed my overcoat and wiped the apprentice's blood off my hands. Now useless to me, I left the jacket in the booth. It seemed I would be arrested for his murder any minute. They had thought of everything in advance. Forces beyond my control had brought me to this moment, and it seemed I would soon die here. The Chief was still waiting, and without the apprentice I was his only hope. The movement would fail unless I could reach him—as the final minutes ticked by—and it suddenly occurred to me there was one option left. It was sheer madness. I had to rejoin the tour. It was the only way to avoid arrest. It was insane, and yet it could work. The police could not afford a scene—not with a history of violence—and yet it was that history I hoped the newspapers would exploit in their headlines the following morning. Bold print. Choice words. His name. It had to work. I had to reach the tour before they reached me.
When I slipped back into the rotunda, I kept my fingers near the handle of the knife. Without a jacket, now, I seemed out of place, but then again I was a Native and so it didn't matter. I crept towards the rotunda through the fountain and flowers. I could see that the Park Police had locked the main entrance. So be it. I would either die or get my message to the Chief—perhaps both, with a little luck. I had to reach the tour. Skirting around the edge of the rotunda, I sidled into the East Wing. With a glance through the mist, I could see one of them point at me. It no longer mattered. They could not make a scene with so many patrons, or possible victims, present. They could not afford my suicide and would have to take me quietly. I leveraged my own life against their success and slipped into the Catlin room, which, as the Mexicana had promised, was where the tour had stopped. In that feverish moment I prayed to a God in whom I did not believe that the tour would continue into the Stuart room next, where I would find my salvation.
"As with the previous work," the Mexicana's voice seemed to echo beyond the edges of the crowd in which I had hidden myself. "Natives at Play also illustrates Catlin's fascinating use of pastoral symmetry—focusing less on the Natives than the physical setting in which they lived."
Beyond the Jewess, in the Gilbert Stuart room, a Park Policeman whispered into a walkie-talkie. He glanced at me, then quietly disappeared, no doubt circling the room in which the tour had stopped. Across the hallway, another Park Policemen briefly appeared, then continued out of sight. I was running out of time.
In a loud voice, I spoke: "Isn't their nakedness part of Catlin's genius and yet simultaneously the hallmark of his bigotry?"
The crowd hushed. It seemed I had spoken. They stared at me, curious, as I strode forward. A few women whispered. The men watched. I grinned at them as if to show I meant no harm—like a dumb beast. The Mexicana had lost her composure.
"I'm—I'm not sure what you mean."
"Surely you, ma'am—of all people—resent the injurious juxtaposition of Catlin's room with the Gilbert Stuart portraits next door. It's an outrage."
I glanced next door, and it appeared empty. I briefly considered running through the crowd and delivering my message into the unseen forces and feelings that lay waiting. But if I distanced myself from the herd too quickly I could be captured without any hope or remorse. My safety lay in their numbers, as it would be unacceptable to take me in a crowd—lest I murder myself and everyone around me.
"Perhaps we should move into the Stuart room to address your question."
I nodded. "I'm sorry for being so frank. Catlin—of course—affects me."
A murmur of consent rippled through the crowd. That I was a Native and without a jacket seemed to add authority to my words and presence. It was undoubted that an expert on Catlin—and Stuart for that matter—should be part of the tour. The Mexicana was wise to forgive my antics because—as she knew—there was no way to predict the eccentricities of artistic creation—or destruction—in those who sought it.
We entered the room. The painting was across the room on the wall where I had expected it. The others lined the hexagonal gallery, equally distanced and proportioned, watching the tour as the tour watched them. I wondered if the Founding Fathers had ever expected themselves to be adorned in such a restricted and momentous setting—with the Park Police casually whispering over walkie-talkies at each entrance, so that the patrons had quietly noticed and were uncomfortably whispering amongst each other that, perhaps, I was a criminal and they were my hostages. Their inference, true or untrue, surprised me—as I suddenly realized the apprentice's blood had stained the side of my shirt as well, and it became clear that I would not escape and that my imminent actions had to be recorded by more than just those witnesses in whose presence I was trapped.
"An act of destruction is an act of creation. Does anyone reject my assertion?"
"Well, I don't know—" the Mexicana stammered, as the patrons quietly distanced themselves from me. "Perhaps you could elaborate."
I licked my lips and removed the sweat. My hands were shaking. I was insane, it seemed. The Park Police stepped towards me, as if realizing their cue had been called. With the distance between myself and the crowd growing. I stepped towards the wall—past Stuart's infamous portrait of Washington, smug and toothless, past Jefferson, nobly eyeing the future and his own sinister past.
"Sometimes we must destroy that which is beautiful to render that which is holy."
"Art for art's sake is not a call to arms, and we as the rebels against this democratic crown of thorns can still reap power from the unheard voice."
I stepped past Monroe and Adams and removed the obsidian knife from my belt. The patrons froze. The Mexicana yelled at the Police, who quickly advanced. I held the knife to my own throat, briefly, to stem their movement. They stopped, and the sounds of the garbled requests echoed past me into history like the failed attempts of the apprentice and others who had died to deliver messages like the one I was about to impart. I knew my freedom would be taken no matter what I did. I knew I had served my nation and my people in no greater way than any man could ever dream.
"Sic semper tyrannis," I heard myself screaming as they lunged.
I knew that as I turned and slashed the face of our former president and father of the Constitution—James Madison—that newspapers around the nation would condemn my actions in lurid detail. That Stephen Crow, a former patient at the Fort McNair psychiatric ward, had allegedly murdered a longtime friend and colleague in the National Gallery and had inexplicably desecrated a priceless work of art—the portrait of President Madison—in a vain gesture of madness. I knew that the Chief's own men—who knew to read the papers—would quietly call in the bomb threat the following night that would cancel the Senator's speech in the town of that same name, so that the Chief himself would instead be named to the taskforce after locating and arresting those same terrorists who had threatened the Senator's life.
With such demonstrable talent and foresight, the Chief's anti-terrorism efforts would go unquestioned for several weeks until the FAA would remain silent under the specific threats in September aimed at the Towers in Manhattan where two planes would give voice to the oppression of a nation and people against whom there had been grievances since the beginning of time. I had executed it all with the quick stroke of the knife, which, like a paintbrush, had rendered beauty in a world utterly devoid of it.
S. Tremaine Nelson was born and raised in Portland, Oregon. In 2004, he graduated from Vanderbilt University. His writing has appeared in the Oregonian, the Nashville Scene, and the Northwest Review. He lives with his wife in New York City, where is writing a novel about the former mayor of Washington, D.C. Marion Barry.
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