American Objects

It’s been a very long road.’
‘Of course,’ I told her. I squatted and obtained milk from the mini fridge. ‘I did have the boxes around here somewhere.’
I hastened to reassure her that she did not need to go to the trouble. It was always like this. She sat up again, arranging herself. It was Ozen, the conservator, with a tale of sorrow. Bonnie appeared at the moment to be nodding. At the moment, I didn’t really have other plans, in fact.  
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. I smiled at Ozen. 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. 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. 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. It gasped forth its last quantities of steam. On this particular day, two five-inch ivory anatomical Venuses were displayed beside their respective tiny wooden storage coffins. She writes mildly dissimulated thank-you notes over email each morning, and on paper, more formally, probably a few times a week. The coffee, in its solitude, had exploded. 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. 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. In truth, I should probably describe myself as a ‘nineteenth-century generalist’. There was of course my greeter and benefactor, Bonnie Mangold, illustrious departmental chair, celebrated by art historians on three continents. an obese nincompoop covered in leeches who is supposed to symbolize the empire of Britannia), but here my expertise begins or ends. Photograph   ©   Lorenzo I don’t entirely dislike Ozen, but neither am I an avid fan. ‘They’re copies,’ she noted, ‘of course. I find this freakishly inefficient. This at least was good. She informed me that this was partly what she had meant, though not entirely unkindly. ‘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. A needlepoint of a bald eagle, wings spread, was stretched across the seat, secured by brass tacks. She looked, if anything, amused. She made no move to integrate me into the ongoing confab, so I left. Bonnie smiled. Removable stomachs and other detailed organic bits and pieces sat in a small white dish between them. She is creating a database that will be of use to her as she ages. ‘Forget what I just said! This is to say, Frederick Lu was not just aware of his own privilege; he had understood it, like, aggressively. Ozen did not smile in turn. 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 rewarded Ozen’s acquiescence with a brilliant grin that migrated alchemically across the space between them and reappeared on the girl’s own face. ‘I really don’t know her,’ I replied. I looked astonished. 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. She is a fan of social networking in all its protean forms and not in an ironic way. 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. ‘Actually,’ she was saying, ‘I may be in need of your expertise.’
I seated myself with legs crossed. It’s yellow, a dark blond without very much brunette in it. She blinked at me over the rim of the teacup. She yawned and patted her mouth. 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. You will drop what you are doing for the day today and complete the checklist for the show.’ She considered my face. ‘Good,’ Bonnie was already saying. The sparkle fled Bonnie’s eye. However, this is not to say that I understand either geography or schematics in any deep or intuitive way. 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. She had opened a drawer in her desk and was now ignoring me, indicating that it was time for me to leave. We need the text by four. Bonnie turned. 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. 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. I ordered them from Munich a few months ago, but they took forever. You have to be like this, somehow. 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. I nudged it in hopes of additional volume. I informed those assembled that coffee would be another two minutes. She is not the one who told me this story, so it is possibly apocryphal, certainly part of the lore that surrounds her. I began to thank her. 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. 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. At this moment there was a knock on the door. But Fred was thirty-eight and unmarried, and he was already a full curator, holding an endowed post (the Thurston J. and 6:30 p.m. 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. The ‘girl’ who works at the museum is very pretty and exceedingly neat. It faced out onto an air shaft, so despite its windows was ever dim, even on days of unmitigated sun. From what I understand, Bonnie lost her hand when she was an adolescent, maybe eleven years of age. I liked having a job and wanted to continue having one for some time. 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. 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 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. 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. But it would pass, I reminded myself. ‘I had the techie people reset his password first thing. Bonnie rose and for some reason silently made motions indicating I should dissimulate the paper displaying Paul’s CeMID and brand new password, ‘password’. I am drawing a certain distinction here. I directed my steps toward the mini kitchen. 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. This afforded me a few seconds in which to make a catalog of his wardrobe. It is not worth nothing to have had an early loss like this, to have thought unflinchingly through it. 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. My mouth was crooked. 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. I procured a clean enough mug for myself and poured. This was likely Bonnie’s error. and Jeanne A. In other words, how to appear enthusiastic but also completely and very politely disinterested. It was just, as with all relatively forceful individuals, one had to expend a certain amount of energy getting out of her way. In the study room, there were two people. At the moment, Fred was standing with his back to me. 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. 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. I would not say that Fred, or Frederick, Lu was liked within the museum. The strange thing, actually, was how little bearing his beauty had. My hair is cut short and, because it is thick and has waves, forms a triangular frame for my features. She gestured like a smoker with the right arm, tapping the tips of her fingers together for emphasis. You should enjoy shaving your face every day and be gone from your residence between the hours of 8:30 a.m. She also knows an obscene amount about camerae obscurae and other mechanical drawing devices and their early employ in the British colonies. Bonnie’s first love is anatomical drawings and engravings. Ozen should have sent you images by now.’
It’s not that I disliked Bonnie, by the way. A perfectly pressed blue Oxford, sharp as knives, was sheathed within an impeccable dove-gray merino V-neck. But Frederick Lu was known mostly for his early success. Which occurred to me as its own kind of problem, but more on this later. ‘It’s not done. The door was nudged a crack. I hazarded a cough. 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. Paul.. The other person there was Fred. Showing signs of elation, Ozen bid us adieu and went off to reapply herself to Preview. My eyebrows had migrated up my head and seemed unwilling to return to their normal place of pasture. I gazed covetously at Bonnie’s coffee.  
‘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. He behaves so strangely it’s difficult to ask him for advice. 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. She was lounging in the tall leather chair that abutted her marble-topped desk. ‘Stella, your coat.’
Frederick Lu raised his face and acknowledged me without effecting eye contact. You simply cannot be self-sufficient and have this job. ‘Come in,’ Bonnie trilled. In the kitchenette, meanwhile, coffee had successfully precipitated. ‘Coffee?’ She meant, where was it. .’ she trailed off. Bonnie leaned across her desk to pass me a violet Post-it. He was imitating the way Bonnie held her arms, standing beside her, looking down at something in front of them both, on the table. One is for my niece. Breeding sat about his person in the manner of an auratic glow, a protective coating. Prentiss Curator of American Decorative Arts) in American Objects, so apparently he had other stuff going on. It does not work like that. And Frederick Lu was not ashamed of liking them. I wordlessly implored distance, against all odds, to maintain itself. at a minimum of six days per week. They appeared, if this is possible, independently scandalized. ‘Great.’
I took the note. 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. He must have been thirty-six or so when he got his current slot. The problem was that I didn’t say anything. It was a hunting accident. It was the late fifties. She noted my wandering eye. ‘Look,’ she said, ‘let me keep this brief. Of course, the very fact of Frederick’s heir apparency suggests that money was a consideration. ‘You already know what I mean. ‘Paul would have attended to this, at least, I’m sure. She was dressed, as usual, in layers and did not look angry. I corrected my oversight. Bookshelves were recessed into all available wall space and contained leather-spined volumes and beribboned folios in varying states of decay. ‘We’re attempting to be respectful. 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. She is beautiful and thirty-two, engaged to the tune of what appear to be four carats, earnest in the extreme. 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. Ozen nodded. You should have access to anything associated with his account. 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. I knew he was at least nominally unavailable on account of some other long-standing romantic allegiance. 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. ‘She’s so lovely,’ Bonnie told me. ‘I really don’t know about Fred sometimes. Usually she is in an internship and on her way to a master’s. ‘Great,’ said Bonnie.  

This is an extract from Impossible Views of the World   by Lucy Ives, published by Penguin Press. I was still holding the teacup wrapped in both hands. This office was always a cave. 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. 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. And indeed the girls did like Fred. I transferred the beverage to an ancient beaker-shaped thermos. Of course, the bigger problem at this point was digging up a plausible referent for her incredibly brief disquisition on the fortunes of Paul. ‘I’m so sorry to bother you, Bonnie, but I think I’m having some trouble with those pictures you so kindly sent? I tapped it at its edges, along the bottom, tap tap tap. My hands were, as usual, trembling slightly. She set her cup down. My pulse had quickened annoyingly and I could taste turmoil rising. Then I made my way to my rightful domain, a closetlike office next to the miniature bathroom. 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. 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. ‘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 couldn’t see much of his shoes, except that they were clean and black. Or, we may have a small need at the moment.’ Here she had some more coffee. ‘No,’ I swore, unsure what ‘this’ was. My eyes were way too large. I, well, I’d say go get on his computer and see what you can do. When she nods, her head moves fully down and then up again, so that the crown of her hair is visible. The figurines, probably of eighteenth-century origin and almost certainly valuable, lay with their bellies open. 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. As I was setting my coffee down, the landline rang. She pointed with her prosthesis to a high-backed chair to my right. I walked slowly back to the study room. 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. ‘Oh, good,’ I repeated. She was somewhere remote with her father, northern California or Washington State. 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. This was before I began working at the museum. We may have a very small emergency. ‘Unless, of course, this doesn’t interest   you.’ She blinked. I admired her. 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. 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. ‘It’s warm.’ I nodded. She was imperious and overweight. 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. Bonnie accepted with her right, immediately sipping. ‘Thank you, Bonnie,’ I repeated. It is from this strange event, as I have perhaps already suggested, that all of Bonnie’s power comes. For a costume encourages comparison. It’s practically comical. 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. 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. I mean, I have no way of knowing where or in what state it is. I’ve done a few analyses of cartographic personifications (e.g. The legend is that he would take Bonnie out with him into the country, and they would live off the land. He was some kind of heir/environmentalist. Paul Gettys. Plastic. Our mutual derision pleased Bonnie, and she chuckled, shaking her head. I answered and Bonnie said, ‘Could you step into my office, please?’ I asked did she want a coffee. And here is the other thing one must be aware of, as far as the institution is concerned. Her features slackened into an expression of fealty and obvious relief. I, actually’ – she performed this lopsided smile – ‘well, I was looking for a birthday present for you. Her prosthetic hand was visible, the color of Silly Putty. She interrupted. 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. I now recall being told that once in Lu’s earlier days he had dressed up as the Kryptonian American one Halloween. ‘Sit,’ she said. I think, at any rate, on this point he and I are finally agreed.