Rothstein Before the Fall This story appeared in the July 2010 Issue of the Front Porch Review
Rothstein was at the Art Institute listening on a headset to a description of The Child’s Bath by Mary Cassatt, when there was some static and a woman’s voice said: “Charlie, come over here.” He looked around the gallery. There was a museum guard and two plump, gray-haired women in the gallery. But the voice was a young woman’s voice. “Where?” Rothstein whispered. “I’m in the next room. The Rodin.” He moved into the next gallery. There, standing between two Monet’s was a marble sculpture of a nude woman less than three feet tall, Rodin’s Eve After the Fall. “Over here, Charlie.” There it was again, that voice. He walked to the sculpted woman and stood facing her. She looked ashamed of herself, vulnerable, her arms shielding her breasts, one hand held as if imploring God not to strike her down. But her voice was anything but vulnerable. “Put your hand on my ass,” it told Rothstein. He looked around at the other people in the gallery, but they seemed not to hear what he was hearing. “My ass, Charlie,” the statue repeated stonily. “You know you want to.” He drew closer to the woman. She was all marble and completely naked. A practical joke, he thought. Or maybe sting operation—as soon as he touched the statue’s behind, uniformed police would swoop down and arrest him. Of the two, the joke hypothesis worried him more. He did not like being made fun of. It’s not that he lacked a sense of humor. On the contrary, he felt his sense of humor was keen. But he detested being the butt of practical jokes. He noticed a small video camera high in a corner of the gallery. Those are in every gallery, he told himself, part of the security system. A museum employee would risk losing his job if he used that system to play jokes on patrons. And was he the only one who heard the sculpture’s voice? Was everyone but him in on the joke? And how did the voice know his name? He was beginning to sweat. As he turned and walked toward the modern wing of the museum, he heard: “Don’t leave, Charlie. Please. My hips—please—caress my hips.” He pretended to smile. If people were watching, he wanted them to know he was in on the joke. “Very funny,” he murmured, removing his headphones. There was silence. But in a few seconds, he could hear the small crackle of static in the phones. It was just loud enough that he could hear his name being called through the tiny speakers. He walked through the gallery of some post-Impressionist painters: Vuillard, Signac, Rousseau. He put one of the earphones next to his ear. A man’s voice was describing Toulouse-Lautrec’s lithograph, Adolphe--The Sad Young Man. He slipped the earphones over his head and tried to concentrate on the man’s voice. But it was no good; he was thinking about the Rodin, about Eve and her lewd entreaties. As he was about to enter the modern wing, there was another crackle of static and the woman’s voice: “Rothstein, come back. I need you.” “Enough,” he shouted, ripping off the headset. People turned to look; a guard, startled, stood up and moved toward him. Rothstein dropped off the headset and hurriedly left the museum. The joke, if that’s what it was, rankled him. On the El train back to his Albany Park apartment, he ruminated on the failure of a day that had started in such a pleasant way. He’d set his alarm for eight, a luxury only a Sunday could offer. The attractive young woman from the night before was long gone. He showered, skimmed the morning paper, and made breakfast for himself. Cora, if that was her name—it was loud at the party—was a good sport. He knew she was just as sure as he was that they’d end up in the sack by the end of the evening. After breakfast he had walked over to the park for the regular Sunday morning game of touch football. They called him the Old Man, but, at forty, he was tall and still athletic. Maybe he no longer had the legs to be a receiver or a running back, but he remained a formidable quarterback. He had thrown four touchdown passes in a losing effort. It was a good workout nonetheless and the brisk autumn air was exhilarating. He had planned to leave the entire afternoon for the Art Institute. Rothstein loved to roam the galleries on his own. He could sit when he wanted to spend time with a painting and not feel the pressure of someone waiting for him. He might wander past the large Caillebotte one Sunday, paying no attention to it, and the next stand in front of it for twenty minutes. Meandering through the galleries, Rothstein often lost his sense of time. During the week, he was busy trolling for clients for his investment business. Saturday he cleaned up his apartment and did the shopping for the week. He saved Sunday afternoon for the Art Institute. But now, as the train approached Kimball Avenue, he was angry about the woman’s voice that had driven him from his Sunday sanctuary. Stepping from the train to the platform, Rothstein noticed a tall, familiar looking brunette ahead of him. “Mary?” The woman turned. “Charlie! How nice to see you.” Her smile was genuine. The two had dated for a couple of months several years ago. They had parted ways amicably and although they live in the same neighborhood, Rothstein couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen her. “I’m getting an early dinner,” he said. “Care to join me?” Mary hesitated and then smiled. “Sure. Just don’t get me home too late.” There was pleasant chit-chat at a little Italian place not far from her apartment. Rothstein felt a slight dizziness from the red wine he was drinking. Mary was talking at length about something, but he wasn’t paying attention. She was the only woman he’d ever met with green eyes and this particular evening, her eyes looked greener than he remembered. Going to bed with Mary, he thought, would make up for the unpleasant visit to the Art Institute. During the ensuing week, he didn’t think about the voice. But after the Sunday touch football game, on the El ride downtown, he began to worry. He decided to dispense with the headset this time. There were two special exhibits and the museum was more crowded than usual. He’d stick with the Asian galleries where it was less likely to be jam-packed. Eishi’s A courtesan reading a letter struck his fancy and he sat on the wooden bench in the center of the gallery admiring it. As he sat, he heard a voice call out his name. It was the same voice! He stiffened and looked quickly around. There was the guard, of course, and three teen-aged girls who seemed to be passing through to some other part of the museum. “My ass, Charlie. I’ve been waiting.” The voice reverberated in the indoor ether, but was it only for him to hear? This worried Rothstein. He feared he might be losing his mind. But why this voice, why only in the Art Institute? “I miss you,” it said more softly. “Leave me alone,” he said. The guard walked over and asked Rothstein if anything was wrong. “No. No nothing,” Rothstein said. He left the museum without stopping at the Rodin. When he got home, he called Mary to see if she’d have dinner with him. He needed to talk with someone about the “voice,” someone who could assure him he wasn’t going mad. At dinner he explained what had happened earlier that day and the week before. Mary laughed. “You’re not the kind who hears voices, Charlie. At least I don’t think so. Must be some kind of idiotic joke. Do yourself a favor: Stay away from the Art Institute for a few weeks. See what happens.” Rothstein agreed. He made plans with Mary to have a picnic the following Sunday at Foster Avenue beach. It was a nippy early Fall day and they spread their blanket far from the sand and water. Mary had made sandwiches and Rothstein brought the wine. It should have been a pleasant outing, but he couldn’t get the Rodin out of his mind. “Grab my ass,” she had said. When Mary took his hand and said, “Penny for your thoughts,” he was startled. They were there, he knew, only because he was staying away from the Art Institute. It felt more like therapy to him than a date. “I’m okay,” he said. “Guess I’ve got a lot on my mind.” The following week, he skipped touch football and arrived at the Art Institute a few minutes before it opened. It was raining hard and he joined a young woman in an archway. “You’re a regular here,” the woman said. “I recognize you.” “Yeah, I usually come on Sundays.” “You missed last week.” This unnerved him. “You’re checking attendance?” The woman laughed. “Hardly. There are just some people I notice. I watch out for them. I came early today to avoid the crowd. I see you did too.” “Yes.” Rothstein admired the woman’s brazenness. Unusual, but not, in his experience, unique. He knew he was good looking. He kept himself in good shape and he liked fashionable clothes. He understood from an early age that women found him attractive. He heard the doors of the museum click open. “Shall we?” he said. The woman smiled and went in ahead of him. Together they climbed the wide marble stairs to the second floor. Rothstein wondered if she was following him or he her. They both stopped momentarily before the Caillebotte. “Cheers,” she said, turning to the gallery on her left. “See ya.” Rothstein waved and then moved around the Caillebotte and on to Eve. He’d decided to confront the sculpture first thing. She was in the same spot, between two of Monet’s watery landscapes. He sat on the wood bench and stared at her with an intensity he usually reserved for stock tables. He could feel his heart beat and he realized he was waiting for her to speak. But there was only silence. He took several deep breaths and tried to see this Rodin simply as a work of art. His eyes wandered to the familiar Monet on her right. “Hi, again.” It was a woman’s voice. Rothstein tightened and turned around. It was the young woman he’d just left. She was standing next to the headless, armless Walking Man, another of Rodin’s masterpieces. Rothstein didn’t know why he hadn’t noticed it before. There was the headless man in mid-stride, facing Eve. So was she turning away from God or from him? Rothstein wasn’t sure. “You are following me,” he said with a broad smile. He was relieved that the voice belonged to a real, live person. “I love this Walking Man,” she said. “For some reason it speaks to me.” “It talks to you?” “Just about,” she said, returning his smile. “I find it exhilarating. I must see it every time I’m here. I see you’re a fan of Eve, over there.” “Yeah, I guess she speaks to me.” He was amazed he could make a joke of it. “Don’t you wish you could touch her?” the woman asked. Rothstein must have looked startled, because the woman immediately apologized. “Sorry. I didn’t mean you should actually touch her. It’s just that Eve seems so human. To me, at least.” Rothstein relaxed. “I understand,” he told her. Early thirties, he estimated by the freshness of her skin, the way she dressed. “Care to have lunch?” She smiled. “Sure.” He took her arm and guided her toward the staircase. Once outside, he wondered briefly what he was doing. She’s not your type, he told himself. Too short. Too young. But her auburn hair looked silky. And when she looked up at him, he knew they would share a bed before nightfall. They were sharing a sandwich when Rothstein heard the voice. “Charlie, my ass is nicer than hers. Come to me.” He looked quickly at the young woman, but it was clear she had heard nothing. No one in the cafeteria was looking at him. “Charlie?” It was driving him mad. The voice had adopted the tone of a command. Staying away was not an option. She wanted him. He fumbled for his wallet, gave the waitress a twenty and told the woman he had to go. “An emergency,” he said. “Stay and finish.” He hurried back to the Art Institute, ran up the stairs and back to gallery 243. He moved close to Eve After the Fall, and waited. “So,” he whispered, looking directly at the sculpted woman on her pedestal. There was no response. The gallery was filled with a minacious silence. Rothstein eased closer. He bit his lower lip and leaned in. Ever so slowly he reached around to the back of the statue.