The Norton Simon Museum of Art
by John Brantingham
Theresa studied the bronze Degas ballerinas, craning her neck to get a view of one of the girls’ faces, and Hart watched her absently. Susan said something, and the two women laughed together in a chuckle that included them but not Hart.
“They look happy enough,” one of the paintings said. It was Van Gogh’s green portrait of his mother. She had the straining smile of a woman who worked hard to see only the things she wanted to see.
“Do they?” Hart asked. He supposed really that they did — from the outside anyway. Both women were smiling and talking to each other. Both in their middle forties and successful in their way, married, professional. Susan had three children which was a blessing, and Theresa and Hart had none, which was possibly a greater blessing. Maybe Van Gogh’s mother was right. This could, after all, be the picture of friendship and happiness. Maybe it was only Hart’s world that was off.
“She’s your wife, yes?”
“Oh, it’s nice to be married, isn’t it?”
“And the other woman, where is her husband?”
“Over there,” Hart said. “Admiring some of your son’s work.”
Van Gogh’s mother strained her neck to see Kevin. Her “Oh” was one of contentment and happiness. Mostly that’s how people reacted to Kevin, a man who wore suit jackets to museums and could explain the wine list. He was the type that mothers liked. “He’s a good one, isn’t he?”
“Yes, he is.”
In a moment, Theresa was standing next to Hart. She nodded toward the statues. “They remind me of me.”
“Oh my yes, those little girls are awfully sweet,” Van Gogh’s mother whispered.
“Do they?” Hart asked Theresa. “Degas sculpted them because he felt sorry for them. They were working out ten hours a day so they could go to the ballet where they were displayed and used as child prostitutes. Their parents pushed them into that life because it was either become a whore or starve.”
“Oh,” Van Gogh’s mother said, but it was a different “oh” than she’d made when she’d seen Kevin.
“I thought you were looking at their faces. Didn’t you see anything there?” Hart asked. “There’s pain there.”
Theresa scowled. “Jesus, Hart. I’m going into the next gallery.”
When she moved away, Hart asked Van Gogh’s mother, “Nothing more from you? No? Nothing rosy to say?” But the woman was staring out into the gallery, smiling blankly and ignoring him.
Kevin and Hart moved together into the next room following their wives.
“Whores? Really?” Kevin asked.
“Maybe ‘prostitute’ is the right word if you feel sorry for the person.”
Kevin nodded and laughed and shook his head at some private joke. In and amongst the Picassos, Kevin got a phone call.
“You don’t like him, do you?”
Hart looked around for the voice and found it coming from the brochure in his hand. There was Van Gogh’s mother on the cover. “No, actually, I do like him, and I admire him too.”
“Isn’t that nice?”
“Sure, he retired last year at forty, and he’s helping runaway kids full time. That’s his job, and he works fifty hours a week generally.”
“Isn’t that nice?”
“Sure, he’s the best.”
She cleared her throat. “But you don’t like him. You should be nice to a man like that.”
Kevin was laughing on the phone. He was probably directing an underling to bail a kid out of jail or counseling someone to stay off drugs. He was almost certainly doing the one thing that would help that person fight the good fight and change his or her entire life. After talking to Kevin, that person would become a priest or a lawyer who fought for the downtrodden. Hart said, “He a good enough guy. The problem is that he’s having sex with my wife.”
Van Gogh’s mother was silent for a moment. Hart assumed she was trying to locate the correct platitude. When she did, she said, “Oh, I can’t believe that.”
“Yeah, neither could I for a month or so. Then I actually saw them at it. They didn’t see me, but I saw them.” Trying to block the memory out of his head, Hart stared at the Picasso, a figure with some kind of instrument.
“I always found this kind of talk distasteful.”
Hart cocked one eyebrow and looked at the woman in his left hand. “So do I. Frankly, I think I find it a little more distasteful than you do.”
The green on her face went a little pink, and she bit her lip. But then she brightened a little and said, “Do you know what I find distasteful? These Picasso paintings. They’re always about people being killed or bad women. Why not haystacks or a starry night or something nice?”
Jesus, Hart thought, maybe he would have cut his ear off too, so he wouldn’t have to hear this woman any longer.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Hart pivoted on his heel to see Kevin.
“Sure, everyone loves Picasso.”
A noise came from his hand, something between a grunt and a cough.
“What was the call about?”
“Oh,” Kevin looked at his phone as though it might contain some information still. “It was an old client of mine.” He smiled shyly and blushed.
“He offered you money to get back into the game, didn’t he? He did it because you were so good at the game, didn’t he?”
Kevin’s eyes found the ground. God, Hart thought, you’re willing to save kids, to bring them off the street, but not if someone offers you a lot of money to go back to work.
“Yes,” Kevin said. “They offered me more than double what I used to make. I couldn’t believe it. I mean financially, it flat out makes no sense, and I told him so.”
“But you were the best, right? They needed you to be there with them, right?”
He shrugged modestly.
“And now you’re torn, but it’s become clear to you that you’d have to be a fool not to work with them for another couple of years at least. You know, that way you could really make sure that you’re comfortable.”
“I mean it’s no big deal. The kids are always going to be there, and you can come back to them in another couple of years.”
“No,” Kevin said again. “I’m not going to go back. I mean, there’s the temptation, but exactly how rich do I need to be, you know? How many steak dinners can I force feed myself? How many trinkets do Susan and the kids need?”
“You said, ‘No’?”
Kevin stepped back, surprised that Hart would even ask. “Of course, I did. I keep telling you, you need to come down and see what we’re doing at the center. When you see these kids change, I swear to you, it changes you. You think to yourself that you’re going to dedicate yourself to them forever.”
“I mean, I know you’ve done that sort of thing for years now yourself. You can’t be a teacher and be a bad person, right?”
Hart shrugged. “Professor, and I don’t do that kind of work.”
“It’s changed me. I’m never going back to that life.”
Later, in front of a Klee, Mrs. Van Gogh said, “You know, maybe the best bet would be just to ignore the whole thing. They’re good people. They’ll see the error of their ways.”
Hart shrugged. He liked Klee the best. Why couldn’t a Klee figure have been the one to give him advice? At least he hadn’t lingered in front of a painting of Jesus.
“I have been ignoring them. I’ve been hoping things would just get better.”
“Oh, you’re not so bad are you? You pretend to be cynical, but deep down, you’re a good boy, aren’t you?”
“And it will turn out all right. Take my word for it. There are so many things that seem like problems, but if you just ignore them, they go away.” She sighed. “In the mean time, you should take up a hobby. Something outdoors and healthy. Get away from all those books you read.”
“Well, I have taken up bourbon as a sort of hobby. Sometimes I branch out into gin or vodka.”
There was a beat or two and then, “Oh. You don’t want anyone to like you. That’s it you know. You don’t want Theresa to like you.” And then she was silent.
The two couples congregated in front of a Kandinsky and listened to Hart who told them about the Blue Rider period. He didn’t know much, but he knew more than they did. They talked about art and wine and books until they stopped looking at art and were just sitting on benches. Eventually, they were hungry and left for dinner. On the way out, while passing Van Gogh’s mother, she called Hart over. “You’re a mean man, you know that? But I think it’s the alcohol, and not you. It isn’t healthy. Promise me that you won’t drink tonight.”
Hart smiled at the woman. She was so much like his own mother. Hell, she was everyone’s mother. “Tonight,” he said, “I’m going to kill Theresa, kill myself, or kill a bottle of bourbon. You choose.”
The woman’s eyes became misty with tears, and Hart took a step back, surprised at how touched he was. It actually felt good to have someone care. “Be safe,” she said.
“Thank you, ma’am.”
Hart followed his wife out of the museum. He followed her to dinner. He followed her home where he drank far too much. That night he followed her into his bed, and the two fell asleep touching each other.